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Thursday, 27 August 2015

Where it all started... Episode 8

Episode 8 from The Eden Paradox. Still inside the Ulysses, Blake and the others take on the Ghoster.

Code Red (continued)
Inside the compartment, Pierre spoke, his voice unsteady. "Zack, why doesn’t it have eyes?"
Zack lodged his flashlight on the floor, not taking his eyes off the grey-skinned scaly head and neck. He grimaced as he met the dark sockets where its eyes should have been. His mouth felt dry as sandpaper, but he tried to reassure Pierre. "It has eyes; they’re permanently open underneath a protective membrane. They have no weak spots. Makes people hesitate, too, because it looks blind – got many a soldier killed in the War – not to mention the scream when they attack. If – when it moves, just aim for its trunk – don’t look at the face."
            "What’s it waiting for?"
            He felt sorry for Pierre – his first real battle experience, and encountering a ghoster was a supernova of a baptism. He knew Pierre’s instincts would be playing push-me-pull-you between fight and flight; waiting wasn’t instinctive at all. But if they moved now, they’d have little chance. He tried to appeal to Pierre’s intellectual side, to help him keep his nerve.
"Its higher cortical functions are suppressed; you can’t negotiate with it, and it’ll never question its instructions. A ghoster’s reptile-brain fighting instincts have been heightened. But it still has basic tactical abilities. It has a mission, a goal, and is fucking adaptable. Its goal is to destroy the Ulysses, probably by activating the ND. But it knows if it tries now, it might fail, because we’ll have clear line of fire. But if we move first, it’ll strike in fast random attacks. We’ve got weapons trained on it, so it’s waiting for an advantage."
            "Waiting for us to blink?"
            "Yeah, you could say that." But a chill ran down hid spine as he recalled what he’d said earlier – a ghoster’s eyes were always open behind the membrane – they never, ever blinked.

*          *          *

Blake primed the mine. Him and the ghoster. That’s how it was always going to be. Now he’d accepted it he felt calmer, the tremors had vanished.
Kat defied protocol. "Not exactly regulation issue." 
            He glanced toward the camera and offered a bare smile. He picked up two pulse rifles and shook them into readiness. "You’re in charge of the ship now, Kat. Auto-lock the hatch when I’ve gone through. If I fail…"
            "Don’t you worry about me, I have my pistol." She tried to laugh.
For a moment he wished he’d gotten to know his crew better. Like all captains, he’d been trained to keep a distance.
"Okay, Zack, Pierre, get ready. I’m coming in. When the inner hatch opens on your side, the ghoster will see it as an advantage or a threat. Either way it will attack. Each of you break to your respective sides and open fire. Leave a pathway open between it and me. No discussion. I have a little surprise for our guest."
He spun the wheel.

*          *          *

Through the comms system, Kat heard the hiss of air as the outer hatch opened. Sitting alone in the cockpit, she pulled up her knees and locked her wrists around them, the pistol resting on her console. They’d all probably be dead in the next few minutes, and no one would even know what happened to them. Silently, she saluted Blake. But even as she did so, the Minotaur virus reached environmental system control. Lights all over the ship started to fade.


Decompression

The outer airlock door hissed closed and clunked into its locked position. Blake peered through the porthole into the fourth compartment. In the dimming light he could just make out the helmeted outlines of Zack and Pierre. Even in the near darkness, he could tell both men were stressed, shoulders tensed inside their suits. They were immobile, like statues from the New Smithsonian. He secured his lanyard to the airlock eyebolt, and strained to see the ghoster.
"Pierre, very slowly, lower your flashlight to the floor, point it to the ceiling like an uplighter – it has good night vision, we don’t."
As Pierre obeyed, Blake caught his first glimpse of the creature – still basically human in shape. It crouched behind the neutralino detonator. The last time he had seen one… he skipped over the memory. He glanced down through his visor to check the self-rigged short-range land-mine lashed onto his chest. The push-button actuator protruded two centimeters. It would kill him and the ghoster, but the others should survive.
He circled his tongue inside his mouth a few times to generate some saliva, and then swallowed, angling his two pulse rifles forwards at rib height. "Okay, everyone listen up. This is what’ll happen. I’ll count down in one second intervals from five to one. On 'Two', Zack go short to the left, Pierre, go three meters to the right, so you don’t shoot each other in crossfire. On 'One' I’ll open the door, and that creature will do one of two things – it’ll either come straight at me, or go for you, Pierre. I know you have the pulse rifle, but at close quarters Zack is a better shot. Reel out your lanyards so they don’t auto-stop when you jump. Kat – stay sharp and speak only if urgent. Any questions?"
"Just one, Skip," Zack said. "What’s the surprise you have in store?"
"Then it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?" He couldn’t tell Zack, or else he’d try to save him, and they’d all end up dead.
Blake took the silence that followed as assent. He drew in a breath.

"Five."
Pierre reeled out several meters of lanyard, not taking his eyes off the ghoster, nor lowering his weapon. He couldn’t help but wonder if he was being used as bait because of the friendship between Blake and Zack. But there was logic in the plan. Even though he had the rifle, he’d never been in a real battle, and might freeze up. Zack wouldn’t.

"Four."
A trickle of cold sweat rolled down Zack’s spine. He’d been in too many battles to worry anymore about whether he would survive. He just wanted to get as many shots into the ghoster as possible. He wasn’t too sure of the "surprise" – especially after Blake’s once-only hesitation to kill the last one in Kurana Bay. He flexed his knees, shifting his weight onto his thighs, ready to spring.

"Three."
Thirty meters away, Kat sat in the cockpit, wondering how long it would take after the others were dead for the ghoster to make it to her, if it bothered at all. The landmine was a noble gesture, but she’d heard how indestructible these genetically re-engineered soldiers were, having been morphed with reptile genomes to make them fast and very, very tough. She chewed on a knuckle as she watched the screens, oblivious of how hard she bit down.

"Two."
Blake watched Zack and Pierre dive to left and right, and open fire. The ghoster leapt faster and higher than seemed possible, ricocheting off the ceiling, heading straight towards Pierre. Its head bobbed lizard-like to left and right, making it a tempting but elusive target.    
"One!" He rammed the "open" button with the rifle muzzle. The airlock door stayed closed. Christ! Not now! "Kat! Power!" He smashed a glass panel with the butt of his rifle to gain access to the manual lever, knowing it could take thirty seconds to open the hatch by hand. He cursed again, as he had to put both weapons down to try and get the door open.
He watched helplessly as Pierre got five rounds off into its chest before the creature smashed the firearm out of his arms, almost dislocating Pierre’s shoulder, and lunged forward with a claw-like hand to break his neck. Zack fired successive shots into the creature’s knee, causing it to lose its balance. Pierre kicked hard at its left side, trying to knock it over, as he dived out of range. A swipe from the ghoster’s claw-like hand hammered onto the floor where Pierre’s head had been a split second earlier, denting the metal deck.  
The ghoster sprang backward off its good leg and spun in mid-air, hit the front of the neutralino detonator, and then rebounded off, colliding with Zack, knocking his pistol out of his gloved hand. Zack dodged the ghoster’s gnarled fist just in time as it pistoned into the hull, sending a deafening echo around the room.
"Got it!" shouted Kat, re-energizing the relays. "Captain, it’s armed the detonator! Fifty-seven seconds!"
The hatch slid open. Blake snatched up both rifles in one fluid motion and began firing, just as it stamped its good leg down on Zack’s knee. Zack yelled with pain, while Pierre got to his feet and loosened his lanyard, his shattered pulse rifle lying next to him. Six shots from Blake pounded into the ghoster’s right side, enough to make it turn. Zack, his faceplate close to the ghoster’s eyeless head, rammed his knife into its stomach, between ribs that criss-crossed its torso, twisting the serrated blade between the scales. The ghoster’s scream intensified as it leapt off Zack towards Blake.
He fired both weapons at the ghoster in synchrony. Each double-pulse shot shoved it back, but still it closed on him. The ghoster’s mottled scales glowed red where the pulse charges hit. It leapt forward and swept Blake’s arms aside, spinning his pulse rifles against the walls. Then it saw the landmine on his chest and recoiled. For a fraction of a second, Blake could discern the features of the human face that had once been there, and almost faltered, but then he seized the ghoster’s wrists and tugged it towards him, pushing his own chest outward.
With a strangled shriek, the ghoster was yanked backwards, breaking Blake’s grip. Pierre’s lanyard was taut around the ghoster’s neck, like a lasso. After a moment of disbelief that he wasn’t dead, Blake dived for one of his rifles, rolled and came up firing again, this time aiming at its head. It was losing strength, but it yanked Zack’s knife out from its ribs. With its double-jointed shoulders it slashed the lanyard behind its neck and once again went for Blake, raising the knife high.
            Zack, his voice choked in agony, shouted. "Pierre, hang on to something fast!" Zack fired his pistol at the escape hatch panel. Pierre threw himself towards two large crate straps and locked his arms around them. The ghoster saw where Zack was aiming and moved to grab a harness. At that moment, a shrill ghoster-like wailing erupted from the comms system, causing the ghoster to spin around to see where it was coming from. Blake fired twice hitting it straight in the face, knocking it off-balance. At Zack’s third shot, the hatch flew open.
The room depressurised with a thunderclap and a howling wind. Zack had already anchored himself. Pierre clung on for his life as his legs lifted off the ground.
Blake was whisked off his feet, suspended in mid-air by the decompression, tethered by his waist lanyard, but he kept firing at the creature. The ghoster hit the man-sized hole and almost passed through it, but clung on to the edges with its claws digging into the metal, trying to pull its body back inside the ship.
            Blake knew that if it hung on for a few seconds longer, the room would fully depressurise, and then it would enter the room and once again attack.
Kat shouted "No!" as he retrieved his own knife and in one smooth cut slashed through his lanyard. The suction propelled him head-first into the ghoster. He spread his arms wide and smashed into the ghoster full-on, head-butting its chest like a human cannonball. With one last gurgling scream, the creature lost its grip and reeled into space. Blake’s shoulders tore at him as he fought to prevent himself being dragged out too. With his head poking through the hull, he watched the ghoster flail wildly, spinning away from the ship. When it reached the invisible warp shell, it blazed bright as a meteorite for a second, then was gone. The depressurization ceased, and the artificial gravity pulled Blake back inside.
            Kat came on-line, desperate. "Pierre, the detonator!"
            Pierre sprang over to the ND console. For a moment he stared at it. He hit several keys, his left hand steadying his right wrist. The counter stopped at two seconds. He slumped down with his back to the ND, raised his knees, and rested his helmeted head on his knees.
            Blake had landed hard on the floor, where he crouched, panting, sweat streaming past his ears inside his helmet. He lifted his wrist console and checked the heart rate indicator: 192, descending.
Zack spoke first. "Sweet Jesus! I just aged … ten years. Nothin’ to do … with relativity. Kat. Trimorph. Please… Leg ..." The rest was mumbled expletives.
Blake helped Pierre upright while he flicked a few more ND switches. The counter reset to zero and three green lights glowed.
            "It’ll take 30 minutes to shutdown fully, Sir, but it’s safe now. I’ll come back later. I can seal the escape hole, but to save on air, I suggest we transfer the three remaining oxygen cylinders out of here and leave this room depressurised."
            Blake was still catching his own breath. "Agreed. And thanks Pierre, that was a pretty unorthodox move back there."
Pierre was visibly shaken, but a smile cracked across his face. "Just came to me. My mother once sent me to a ranch in the Pyrenees, to get me away from equations. I spent the summer working with wild horses. They usually broke me rather than the other way round, but I learned a few rope tricks."
Blake nodded, and then looked to one of the internal cameras. "I assume that was you, Kat, distracting the ghoster."
She laughed nervously. "Felt pretty helpless up here – had to do something. I figured the one thing it wouldn’t expect to hear was another ghoster. I recorded one of its screams and played it back over the speaker."
"Good work, Kat."
            Blake moved over to Zack, squatting next to him. "How are you, buddy?" He stared down at his mutilated leg. The word "ugly" didn’t cover it.
            "Shattered. Cracked rib, too. You gonna… take off… your surprise?"
            Blake tilted his head downward. The actuator had been pushed half-way in. Gingerly, he eased it back out, then twisted it clockwise, locking it into safe mode. He unhooked it and set it down on the floor.
            Zack tried to laugh, grimacing. "That was… your whole… fucking plan?"
            He shrugged. "Kat, meet us outside the hatch with the trimorph. He watched Zack’s face contort with pain. "Double-dose."  


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