“Hop complete,” reported the navbot formerly known as PNR-74189. It now bore the moniker “Cottontail”; the name was now crudely daubed on its chassis in yellow paint. Renaming the three navbots had been one of “Captain Keigh’s” first orders. “Mopsy” stood on one side of the bridge, powered down, a green light on its torso blinking as it recharged. “Flopsy” was tending to the Navcore.
Jessa shifted her weight as the Kingfisher decelerated. She could feel servos whirring inside her as they strove to keep her organs stable through the shift in dimensions. Despite their efforts, she still felt nauseous. It was once a common symptom for interstellar travellers; breaking and entering into a parallel universe with similar but by no means identical physical laws was bound to upset your physiology a bit. Right now, though, she suspected her current condition had little to do with the hop.
“There she is,” stated Ryugi unnecessarily. The second moon of Helioshea 4 filled the viewscreen, a jagged ball of mountains and canyons, all fashioned from green-tinted ice. The parent planet was little more than an ochre penny stuck to the picture.
“Jam any transmissions,” Keigh said from her chair, “We don’t want any visitors dropping by.”
“Aye, Captain,” replied Sugarbaker from Comms. “Captain, we’re picking up a transmission from the colony.”
I’ll bet, Jessa thought. The R’Dokken in the research installation would be screaming for an explanation. An alien warship arriving unannounced would cause panic on a defence platform. For a more-or-less civilian colony, it was liable to be closer to full blown terror.
“So what now, Captain?” asked Jaime carefully, putting the slightest stress on the final word.
Keigh smiled, but it seemed to Jessa there was strain behind it. Maybe more than strain. For an instant, it almost looked like fear.
But then it was gone.
“What else? We attack, Mr Dale.”
Jaime’s face darkened. His fingers tightened on the arms of his chair. Jessa could feel what was coming; she imagined the entire bridge crew could.
“Captain,” Jaime began, “I’m afraid I must ask you for an explanation.”
Another smile. She can’t see, Jessa realised, she can’t see what’s coming.
“Certainly, Mr Dale. The objective of our mission here is to ensure that by the time we depart, not one R’Dokken remains alive in the system.”
“No, Captain, I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand,” Jaime said, a note of pleading in his tone, desperately searching for a reasonable justification, anything that would give him a reason not to do what by now he must have realised had to be done. “Why this research base? What makes it so special?”
“We’ve got to start somewhere.”
“I’m truly sorry, Captain Merriman. I really had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but as of this moment, I am relieving you of command, and confining you to-“
“No,” said Keigh simply. She didn’t sound angry, or afraid, simply determined.
“I’m afraid I’m not offering you any option, Keigh,” Jaime said firmly, but not unkindly. “Vaber, Bannerman; please escort Miss Merriman to the Captain’s Quarters. And make sure she stays there.”
The two black-clad security guards nodded, and moved forward slowly, perhaps unsure of exactly how to proceed.
It didn’t matter. Suddenly Keigh leapt to her feet.
“Cottontail!” she called, “Defend your captain!”
Cottontail responded with a rev of its engine, and began to roll inexorably forwards.
The guards span to face this new threat, each drawing and aiming their Gorgons almost simultaneously.
“Stand down, navbot!” Jaime ordered.
Cottontail ignored him.
“That’s an order, “Cottontail”,” Jaime said, his voice riddled with concern, “Stop moving now!”
Jessa felt her blood run cold. Keigh must have altered the voice-print files. Or be operating them by remote somehow, or something.
The beleaguered security guards must have reached the same conclusion, because both of them opened fire. Not at what might be considered the robot’s “vitals”, navbots were far too precious to risk under any circumstances, since they were the only way to travel interstellar and have any clue as to your eventual destination.
Instead, they concentrated on Cottontail’s tracks.
Streaks of yellow-white energy flung themselves against their target. Thin smoke clouded the air, and Cottontail’s tracks began to blacken, but that was all. Both guards leapt in different directions as the errant robot bore down on them.
Vaber’s jump took him to safety beside the conn. He rolled, rose on one knee, and continued to fire at Cottontail.
Bannerman was less fortunate. He never even landed; instead he was plucked from the air by Mopsy’s massive fist. Jessa hadn’t even seen it reactivate. Certainly there had been no visible signal from Keigh.
Holding Bannerman with its left hand, it slapped away Bannerman’s weapon with its right, before closing it around its captive’s throat. Bannerman started screaming as Mopsy began to pull, a scream that rose in pitch and was cut off as the guard’s windpipe was first pulled taut, and then ripped apart. Mopsy continued to pull until its victim was entirely decapitated, before throwing both pieces of Bannerman emotionlessly to the floor.
All of this had taken less than twenty seconds. All the bridge crew had managed until now was to watch in total disbelief at the unfolding events. The death of Bannerman galvanised them into action, however. Every crewmember leapt to their feet, a few fleeing for their lives, but most seemingly intent on helping out Vaber and Jaime.
Vaber was still firing, now splitting his fire between the two robots, without any noticeable effect. Jaime drew a weapon of his own from his jumpsuit, and aimed it at the captain.
“Everyone STOP!” he bellowed. The crew froze, and Mopsy and Cottontail ground to a halt.
“You won’t shoot a child.” Gabe might have meant that as a sneer, but Keigh’s terror was horribly obvious. She burst into tears, and a dark stain began to grow between the legs of her dungarees.
The look on Jaime’s face suggested that his heart was breaking, but he kept his pistol raised.
“For pity’s sake, Gabe; let it go. Leave the kid be. There’s no way in Hell I’ll let you open fire on the colony down there, or hurt anyone else on my crew. This has to stop, Gabe, you can’t-”
Jaime was interrupted by three staccato bursts of gunfire from beyond the bridge’s hatch. For the briefest instant, his concentration was torn, and his eyes flicked toward the noise.
It was all Keigh needed. She threw herself to one side, and by the time Jaime had returned his attention to her, she was using Mopsy’s considerable bulk to shield herself.
The hatch to the bridge slid open, and Flopsy rumbled through, swivelling its angular head from side to side. The navbot was drenched in blood and viscera, and peppered with burn holes, still glowing dully around the edges. Jessa had time for the briefest of glances past the advancing machine. Several bodies in thick, matt-black body armour lay in the corridor outside, some clutching rifles; all with limbs at impossible angles.
Then Flopsy grabbed the nearest crewman to the door, and lifted him from his feet.
“You bastard!” Jaime screamed, his pistol shaking from his fury, “You fucking monster!”
“It seems Flopsy ran into some potential gatecrashers,” called Keigh from behind her cover, “Your idea I presume, Mr Dale?”. Her voice was still shot through with fear, but less so; it seemed Gabe was reining in control of his daughter.
Jessa could surmise what had happened. Jaime must have known, or at least suspected, more than she had realised. He must have stationed the now-butchered security team outside the bridge, as a trump card in the event of a confrontation. Unfortunately, they failed to notice Flopsy’s arrival, or didn’t recognise its significance, until it was too late.
The scene on the bridge had become a tableau. The crew stood frozen, gaze oscillating between Jaime and Vaber, and Keigh and the robots.
“I suggest you put those down, Mr Dale, Mr Vaber,” now Keigh’s voice was cold and precise, although the expression on her face was still one of terror, “You can see I have sole control of the my navbots. The same is true of the computer, I promise you. I have already lost five crewmen in this confrontation; I would rather avoid losing more.”
Flopsy’s captive suddenly cried out in pain as the machine applied a fraction of its strength.
“Of course, I will have no hesitation in increasing the body count if you force me to. Put the guns down.”
Neither Jaime nor Vaber made a move.
“PUT THEM DOWN!” Keigh screamed; the terror that rode alongside it made it clear which Merriman was speaking.
Keigh was one hostage too many. Bitterly, Jaime tossed his Gorgon aside, and motioned for Vaber to the same.
“What happens now?” Vaber spat as he through away his weapon.
“Now we get back to normal,” said Keigh. “With some exceptions, of course. All crewmembers will turn in any firearms they may have squirreled away. We don’t want any more… disagreements. And all access to the crew quarters is now denied; they’re a breeding ground for mutiny.”
“And the installation?” Jaime’s voice was leaden with defeat.
Keigh’s face twitched into an unwilling smile. The effect was monstrous.
“Battle stations, everyone. We have a species to exterminate. We’ll start with the infestation below, and then we’ll wait awhile, and see what turns up. If we have to wipe out these bastards one ship at a time, then that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
“You picking me up, bridge?” said Harlan. The mic of his suit gave his voice an air of disinterest.
“Yeah, we got you, Summers,” replied Hennis.
Rat-faced and spindly, Hennis was the current duty officer. Under Gabriel Merriman he had been the Third Officer, but with Jaime dead and Harlan out on the hull, he was the highest rank available for bridge duty. For now, Keigh was asleep, which is why they had chosen this moment to push their plan into motion.
“You see the problem?” Hennis asked from the captain’s chair. It was a little too big for him, his arse slid from side to side whenever he turned to bark an order. The whole thing looked ridiculous, but Hennis was one of a minority amongst the crew who saw the new order as an opportunity rather than a nightmare, and as such was a dangerous man.
“Yeah, I got it. Christ, I can see it from here; we’ve got atmosphere venting like hell.”
“Roger, that. Summers, best get to work.”
The viewscreen showed Harlan, enclosed in a lithe white spacesuit. Jessa hated the new suits, especially seeing her husband in one. They all seemed so thin and flimsy, surely no protection at all against the endless, unyielding cold of space. Harlan walked steadily, his limp a little less evident today, across the pitted grey surface of the Kingfisher; still stalked by the hulking navbot. The slightest sign of “betrayal” from Harlan, and Flopsy would tear open that protective suit like so much paper.
Unless Jessa could pull off her part of the plan; that was exactly what was about to happen to her husband.
Not yet, she reminded herself. She had to wait, worrying at her fingernails, until Harlan reached his destination.
Geiss had already fulfilled his role in the proceedings. The hole in the hull was his doing; a repeat of his previous trick with the nanobots, but on a far larger scale. It had taken the senseless deaths of dozens of the little robots to create a breach of sufficient size to make fixing it an immediate priority. The arrogant engineer had also managed to convincingly fake a failure in the nanobot network, leaving an EVA repair the only option. It had been a clever plan, but Jessa was still uncomfortable with so much of it in the hands of Geiss.
“OK, bridge; I’m at the breach. Ah; crap, Geiss was right, there’s a dataline torn in half here.”
That was her cue. Trying not to look like she was creeping, Jessa headed for the exit.
“Any idea what caused it, Summers?”
“Looks like an asteroid impact.”
“Again?” There was the faintest hint of suspicion in Hennis’ voice
Harlan shrugged on the viewscreen. “Never rains but it pours.”
“Fair enough, Summers. Nose to the grindstone, eh? Doctor?”
Jessa froze, hand halfway to the door pad. “Lieutenant-Commander?”
“Where are you scurrying off to?”
Shit. She couldn’t afford to arouse any suspicion, or they were both dead. She felt her brain begin to heat from pressure, felt each moment of silence slip by as it gave up waiting for her to answer. Then:
“I want to prep sickbay. If Harlan has an accident out there, I’ll need everything in place.”
Please, please don’t ask why I haven’t done it sooner.
“Fair enough,” Hennis smirked. “We wouldn’t want to split up the happy couple.”
Fighting the urge to sigh with relief, she slapped the pad, and escaped the bridge.
Once in the endless system of blank metal corridors, she ducked into a nearby storeroom. Surrounded by blankets and scratchy toilet paper, she fished one of Geiss’ pocket conversations from her coat. Placing it on the floor, she set it off. Thus masked by a forged monologue (Geiss had told her it ran a ferociously accurate imitation of her bringing herself to climax, but surely he was joking), Jessa raised her communicator to her mouth.
“Doctor Lambert to Flopsy.”
“Flopsy, give me a hop vector from here to… Achstein.”
Keigh might have made the robots into her puppets, but the conspirators were gambling that something as innocent as a calculation request wouldn’t be blocked. And given the enormous amount of processing power the navbots needed to put into figuring out vector, with luck it would slow down Flopsy’s processor just enough to give Harlan an opening to make his move.
“Apologies, Doctor. Achstein does not lie upon the approved destination list.”
Damn it, the captain had put up blocks after all.
But how many?”New calculation, Flopsy. Hop vector to Gateway Kappa.”
“Apologies, Doctor. Gateway Kappa does not lie upon the approved destination list.”
Jessa began to sweat with panic. Any moment now Harlan would make his move, and if Flopsy was still on full alert…
Choosing at random was never going to work. Keigh wouldn’t have blocked specific destinations; she would have listed those locations she might need, and denied any others.
Where would she need to go? Well, Helioshea, but that might not do; what if Flopsy could just reverse their current vector. Where else?
She could only think of one place.
“New calculation. Hop vector to Sken’Dokka.”
The R’Dokken homeworld, or so XI believed. Or claimed to believe.
Jessa bit her lip and held her breath.
“Stand by for vector,” Flopsy said tonelessly.
Yes! Jessa was so relieved she leapt in the air, almost landing on Geiss’ toy as she landed.
So what now? Originally she had planned to slip back onto the bridge, watch Harlan’s triumph, and maybe try to cover up any slips he made whilst on display (Geiss had offered to sabotage the viewscreen, but it had been decided that so many simultaneous malfunctions would stir up too much suspicion). Given what she had told Hennis, though, perhaps it would be better to-
“Doctor Lambert?” asked her communicator, in Hennis’ nasal, uneven tones.
“I need you on the bridge immediately.”
What was this about?”Can it wait, only-”
“Perhaps I made a mistake using the word “immediately”, Doctor. Would you prefer a shorter word? I understand “now” has much the same meaning.”
“No need for your rapier-sharp wit, Lieutenant; I’m on my way.”
Picking up and pocketing Geiss’ device (shit, it had been left on during the conversation with Hennis! Still, too late now.), she made for the bridge.
Hennis rounded on her the instant she arrived.
“That was quick, Doctor. Saving your husband lost its appeal, did it?”
“Exactly how far did you think I’d get before you called me back?” she responded, hoping to bluff her way out with anger, “I hurried here, Hennis, because you told me there was an emergency. Or is emergency too long a word? Perhaps “cock-up”?”
She broke off her assault. Hennis had an odd look on his face, a smile that promised someone a most unpleasant experience. Jessa had the horrible feeling the experience was reserved for her.
“What’s going on?” she asked nervously.
“Well, if that isn’t the question of the day,” Hennis said, pointing at the viewscreen.
Jessa followed his finger.
At first glance, she couldn’t work out what was being displayed, other than what was presumably the local starfield. Then she saw it. A white shape in the very centre, small and getting smaller. Not so small that she couldn’t recognise it, though.
It was a navbot.
Hennis’ evil grin grew wider. “I take it you recognise your handiwork?”
Jessa shook her head to clear it. It didn’t work. “My handiwork, what do you-?”
“Oh, please, Doctor. Once Flopsy lost her grip, I checked her log. You ordered a hop calculation to Sken’Dokka, didn’t you?”
Jessa didn’t know what to say.”I’ll take the pause and horrified expression as a yes. You knew the captain had disabled the navbots’ safety routines; you knew once she was happily boiling her circuits calculating she wouldn’t keep hold to the hull any more.”
She had known nothing of the sort, of course, but there was little value in pointing that out now. Instead, she glanced behind her, gauging the distance to the hatch.
“Forget it, Doctor,” crowed Hennis, “The captain’s already on her way.”
As if on cue, the door that led to Gabe’s quarters whispered open, and Mopsy rumbled out, followed by Keigh, rubbing her eyes and wearing her “horsy” pyjamas.
The hatch behind Jessa opened as well, and Cottontail’s massive form entered the bridge.
“What is it,” Keigh asked, running her small fingers through tussled brown hair.
“Sorry to wake you, Captain,” Hennis said, swivelling his chair to face her, “But I thought it best you were here for this.”
He turned back to face Jessa.
“It appears it’s time for another trial.”