Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Where it all started... Episode 7

More from the Eden Paradox. Back to the Ulysses, where Blake and the others need to find out what or who is hiding in the aft of the ship bleeding away oxygen... It's their worst nightmare...

Code Red
Blake stopped two meters from the darkened hatchway, fingers flexing near his holstered pulse pistol. He couldn’t believe it was happening again. He’d lost eighteen men last time, all about Pierre’s age. Nineteen men, he corrected himself. At the end it had come down to him and the ghoster, and his intuition told him history wanted a re-run. The tremors re-surfaced in his right hand, shakes he’d not had since Kurana Bay. He squeezed his fist hard to stop them.
"The lights are off inside," Pierre said, inspecting a small panel adjacent to the airlock connecting them to the fourth compartment. "Since zero-two-hundred, though the cockpit systems said they were on – I checked an hour ago."
Zack sighed. "And the night goggles would be – let me guess…" He gesticulated towards the pitch-black porthole in the airlock hatchway.
Pierre confirmed with a nod.
"Figures," Zack said.
Pierre closed the panel. "As we suspected, whoever planned this did a good job. The air circulation sensors were looped so we wouldn’t detect where the oxygen loss was coming from, and the emergency vents to the fourth compartment were wired open. I’ve sealed them now." 
"Good. Both of you, suit up," Blake ordered. "Arm yourselves as you think fit."
Pierre hesitated. "Sir, reports state that it can take four days for a ghoster to regenerate after extended hibernation, and the oxygen depletion started just two days ago. Maybe it’s still comatose, buried inside one of the food crates?"
"Pierre, forget theory right now," Blake said, "or you’ll die in there."
Pierre held his ground for a moment then gave in, following Zack to the weapons locker.
Blake peered through the airlock porthole, but only saw his reflection. His breathing slowed of its own accord, the way it always did just before battle.
When they returned, he saw that Zack had retrieved an item from his personal area. He ignored it. But minutes later, as Zack and Pierre were donning their standard space-suits and oxygen backpacks, Pierre spotted it.
            "Zack, you can’t be serious taking a commando knife in there? We’ll be in spacesuits and in a vacuum if we have to go to Plan B."
Zack grinned, and slipped it into its sheath under his backpack, hilt pointing downwards. "You never dress commando style?" He leered at Pierre. "This knife has saved me more times than I care to remember. Think of it as a good luck charm. You asked how we killed it last time; well, my knife played its part."
But Blake knew how they had taken out the ghoster in Kurana Bay – the slow gun. They didn’t have one aboard; why would they? He switched on Zack’s backpack, three telltale green lights and a single beep indicating it was fully functional. "Each man takes in what he feels appropriate."
Pierre bristled. "But plasma pulse rifles, right – according to procedure?"
            Blake finished with Zack’s suit, and moved to check Pierre’s.
            "Actually, Pierre," Zack said, as he picked up his helmet, "I’m taking a pulse pistol. It’s not that big a compartment, and if there’s a need to use something, it’ll be close quarters."
            "But the rifle charge is more powerful."
            Blake snapped on the switch to activate Pierre’s backpack – three greens and a single beep. "Pierre, how many of the people who wrote those standard procedures actually went into space, or dealt with ghoster combat situations?"
            Pierre frowned. "You haven’t told us what you’re taking in there, Sir, if it comes to that."
            Zack laughed, wiry eyebrows stretching into grey mesh. "Man’s got a point, boss. Care to share?"
            He eyed them both. "No."
Pierre hefted his rifle, and shook it in pump action mode to arm it. It hummed softly. "Sir," he said, swallowing, "this is my first real combat situation."
Zack spoke as he donned his helmet, muffling his words. "You’re shitting me, right?" Zack shook his head, settling his "fishbowl", as he called it. His voice came through clear on the speakers. "Just try not to shoot me in there, okay? Boss, maybe I should go in alone – seriously."
Blake picked up Pierre’s helmet. "Keep your head, Pierre, or you’ll lose it." Pierre donned it, and with a click and a sound like a gulp, it sealed.
He noticed how stiffly Pierre stood, how he held the rifle like… like so many men he’d sent into battle who’d never returned. He wanted to go in there first with Zack, but this was about strategy. Most likely scenario was that the first two who entered died. The third one had to be able to react fast, see what they were up against, and finish the job. Best credible scenario was that Kat alone survived, and they stopped the ghoster before it sabotaged the engines – if they lost the FTL drive, they’d all die in any case, drifting in space until everything ran out.
He picked up two lanyards and handed them to Zack and Pierre.
            "For Plan B, if it’s mobile. Remember, this ship wasn’t built for a man overboard scenario. Either of you go out the window, you’re history, so stay clamped at all times." 
Kat cut in from the cockpit; Blake had almost forgotten she’d been monitoring them via intra-vid, listening to everything.
            "Captain, telemetry’s set up, just get some light going in there as soon as possible, I can’t see much from up here."
"We’ll do what we can. Kat – I want an open four-way com-line during the entire operation. No unnecessary comms."
There was a pause. "Understood. Open four-way comms as of now."
He pressurised the inner airlock, then spun the wheel to open the hatch. "Good luck."
Only Zack nodded acknowledgement. Pierre stepped first into the airlock chamber. As Zack followed, Blake patted him once on the shoulder, and sealed the door behind them. There was a sucking sound, a clunk, then silence. His hand hung onto the airlock wheel. He tried not to think about last time. He didn’t have to. The pit of his stomach felt like it was in a vice. He started thinking instead about Plan C.

*          *          *

Shoulder-to-shoulder inside the airlock chamber, Zack heard Pierre’s ragged breathing across the intercom.
Pierre checked the dials. "Fully pressurised inside the compartment."
Zack chewed his lip, peering through the small porthole into the darkness beyond. "Time to check on our guest." He opened the inner door to the fourth compartment. As it swung open, the light spilled in from behind them, revealing the outlines of a room ten meters deep crammed with cylinders, boxes, and crates, all strapped down. It looked just like it had done twelve hours ago when he’d checked it over. The lattice of harnesses resembled a giant spider web laid over the contents of the compartment. He stared towards the far wall, behind which the dark matter engines lay, adding to his unease.
They each took one pace into the compartment and clipped their lanyard karabiners onto hull eyeholes. Zack’s gaze swept the room, but he didn’t use the flashlight attached to his left wrist. If there was anything in here, he didn’t feel like lighting himself up. Pierre’s rifle sighting beam flashed upward to the escape hatch which was their Plan B – the ghoster-overboard plan, as Kat had christened it.
"Zack, I don’t see anything." Pierre took a step forward.
"Wait." Zack squinted through the semi-darkness towards the crate at the far end of the chamber housing the neutralino detonator. It was one of two, the other used to start the dark matter ignition after Saturn, enabling them to get up enough speed to engage the warp shell. This one was for the return journey. Something was behind the crate. His eyes tracked to the left, knowing from theory and experience that unaided night vision worked best if you looked slightly off target. He saw it. His head recoiled inside his helmet.
"Kat," he said, voice taut. "Tell me what you see through the internal cameras" He still hadn’t aimed his flashlight, instead straining his eyes towards the location of the detonator. Her reply came through, rendered grainier than usual by the voice-com transmitter.
"Not much. I need more light."
When Pierre went to shine his flashlight on the crate, Zack gripped his forearm.
            "Don’t." He was sure now, though he had a hard time accepting it.
Blake’s voice cut in from outside. "Report."
Zack let Pierre reply, while he began to think of tactics to outmanoeuvre what he believed was crouching just behind the detonator. He still had his hand on Pierre’s arm, and felt Pierre’s body jerk.
            "Sir, it… mon dieu." Pierre’s breathing accelerated, bordering on hyper-ventilation. Then he exhaled deeply.
Zack removed his arm. Good – remember your training, because if you don’t we’ll be dead a lot faster.
            Pierre’s voice was edgy. "I can see a human head, but… it has no eyes."    
Blake didn’t respond. Zack could only imagine how he was reacting; it was Kurana Bay all over again. He couldn’t remember unholstering his pulse pistol, but it was in his hand. He ramped it up to maximum. He spoke in a steady tone. "Don’t move, Pierre. Get ready to fire." He took a deep breath, as he did before any close-quarter battle. His palms sweated inside his gloves. He gripped the pistol harder.

            "Skipper," he said, "it’s a ghoster alright, fully awake. Lock us down, seal us in. We’re going to Plan B."

*         *        *

Kat couldn’t see Blake on her screens. "Captain? Where are you?"
Blake re-appeared, suiting up. "Kat, get on the comms. Issue Code Red to Earth – at least they’ll know it was sabotage and not an accident. Fast as you can, then confirm."
            Kat cursed as she realised her own rifle was two compartments away. Not that it would help. She took one last look at the silhouetted figures of Zack and Pierre, then shifted position and began typing fast.
            She paused, looking at the letters on the screen. Then she hit the button.
            flashed up on the screen. Her brow furrowed. Now what? She typed it again, and got the same message.
            "Captain, the message; it won’t transmit."
            "Slow down, try again."
            Pierre cut in. "Kat, wait – don’t try more than twice. Do you hear me?"
But she’d just hit Transmit a third time. Large bright red letters on the screen said . The screen blanked.
She stared at the lifeless screen. She leant back in her chair, allowing her foot to rise up and then stomp down hard on the dead console. "Alician mother-fuckers!"
            "Kat, what’s happening?" Blake shouted.
            She suddenly felt how small and defenceless they were, hurtling through a pitiless vacuum, light years from help. She bit her lip hard.
"It’s dead. It said 'Goodbye,’ then shut down. It’s the virus." Please God, tell me this is just another nightmare.
            "Kat, listen to me – Zack hotwired an emergency protocol to disengage navigation, propulsion and life support to a secondary sub-processor – press the red plunger on Zack’s console – do it now!"
She sprang out of her chair, spotted the plunger, and slammed her hand down on it. "Done!" She knew without that switch, the virus would spread to propulsion and navigation within minutes, and they would disintegrate under obscene torsional forces as soon as they slipped out of their flight envelope.
"Kat," Blake said. "Salvage as many secondary systems as you can, but keep an eye on the screens, in case the ghoster moves."
At first, she didn’t understand – Zack and Pierre would see it if it did anything – but then she remembered the tales of how quickly ghosters could move – and kill. "Understood."
*          *          *

Blake sealed his helmet, the familiar muffling sound lending him confidence, shutting out extraneous noises, allowing him to concentrate. He peered through the porthole. "Zack. Do you have line of sight?"
            Zack’s voice was low but steady. "It’s right behind the detonator, in front of the reserve oxygen cylinders. One miss and we’re all dead."
            "The detonator – activated?"
            Zack sighed. "Was afraid you’d ask that. I see two red lights, one green. Pierre?"
            "There’s only one safeguard left. A final control command to arm it, then a one-minute countdown. The arming control is in front of us. If it goes for it we’ll get a clear shot. We caught it just in time."
            Blake leant his gloved hands against the door. He took three measured breaths. He’d trade their remaining oxygen for the slow gun. "Options?"
            Zack replied with a snort. "Not many. Plan A, we circle the perimeter. It’ll come out screaming, moving like a bat, and we’ll probably shoot each other in the crossfire, but maybe we’ll hit it enough to stop it. Plan B…" he paused. "Pierre?"
            "We blow the hatch. The problem is, ghosters can function for several minutes in a vacuum. If it manages to anchor itself inside the compartment, it will arm the detonator before we can react, and defend it until it blows. We need a Plan C, Sir."
            "Skipper, he’s right. All we’ll do is slow this thing down a few seconds. You know they’re practically unkillable without explosives or industrial lasers. We’re in serious danger of becoming another fucking Eden Mission mystery."
            Blake was only half-listening. Abruptly he went back to the weapons locker to pick up his Plan C. He secured the bagel-sized explosive charge with pushbutton actuator – a hand-made land-mine – to his chest.

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