Meridian Ascent – 1st 9 Chapters September 7, 2016Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
Hello fans. I am pleased to provide the first 9 chapters of The Meridian Ascent (Rough Draft) below. Enjoy.
The Meridian Ascent
Book Three of The Rho Agenda Assimilation
By Richard Phillips
Copyright © 2016 by Richard Phillips
Chapter 1 Friendship Cavern, North Korea 5 January
Alexandr Prokorov, wearing his dark gray suit and black oxfords, stared down from the observation platform at the enormous array of machinery that would soon power up the Friendship Gateway. He smiled, an expression that he rarely bothered to show. Not that he was calm. Far from it. His nerves felt so alive that it seemed that sparks would fly from his fingertips at any moment. The seconds ticked off in slow motion, making each minute an hour.
In a way, the power surge that had thrown this gateway project behind schedule, all those months ago, had been fortuitous. It had allowed Dr. Lana Fitzpatrick to add a group of scientists from the United States to the team led by Dr. Guo. Together they had come up with some enhancements to the original design of the gateway that had been constructed in these manmade tunnels and cavernous rooms, far beneath the frozen North Korean countryside.
His thoughts shifted to the Smythe attack that had destroyed its sister gateway northeast of Frankfurt. It had been a costly but necessary sacrifice, the reason that Prokorov and the UFNS leadership had made that project so visible to the public. And as he had intended, it had focused the Smythes’ and the rest of the world’s attention far away from this secret facility.
He turned to look at the inverted horseshoe within which the wormhole would form. This would make the second time that this device was triggered. Last week’s activation had been a brief one, just long enough to broadcast a message containing the gateway synchronization codes and the accompanying stasis field modulation codes. Together these would provide the Kasari the means to link their own gateway to this one, locking down the far end of the wormhole and allowing Prokorov’s delegation to welcome their would-be alien benefactors to Earth.
A warning sound blared, followed by Dr. Guo’s amplified voice.
“Sixty seconds until stasis field generator power ramp.”
The cavern lighting shifted from white to amber and Prokorov felt his hands grip the elevated platform’s steel railing. All of his planning was finally about to yield fruit. This world was tearing itself apart, despite the combined efforts of the United Federation of Nation States. It needed the guidance and wisdom that only an alien species that had worked through these primitive problems in its own distant past could provide. And this time, the Smythes would not be present to screw things up.
The ten-second countdown to stasis field generator power up blared from the loudspeaker. When it reached zero, a low hum arose and then the stasis field shimmered to life, covering the wormhole gateway opening with a semi-transparent blue glow. The color was not necessary, other than to provide the observers visible evidence of its presence and extent.
Unlike the original Stephenson Gateway, this only needed a single stasis field to protect those inside the cavern from the vacuum on the far side, once the gateway activated. It would also provide a barrier to the different atmospheric composition and pressure on the Kasari world once the two wormhole devices successfully linked. The stasis field modulation codes that this team had provided would enable the Kasari and their equipment to pass through while ensuring the waiting human scientists could continue to breathe.
“Ten seconds until wormhole activation,” Guo’s voice announced.
As the new countdown proceeded, Prokorov swallowed hard, but his mouth failed to deliver the required saliva. The presidents of the four UFNS member nations should be here, standing beside him. However, citing security concerns, all four had demurred. This confirmation that the federation’s leadership consisted of a group of cowards embarrassed Prokorov, but he would stand in for them. On his orders, no security or military personnel were allowed anywhere inside this warren of tunnels and vast underground bunkers. He would take no chances that this welcoming could be misconstrued as threatening to humanity’s benefactors.
Fifty feet below the steel grating upon which Alexandr Prokorov stood, the gateway activated. For a seemingly endless stretch of tense moments, its interior showed a moving starfield. Then, like an old television acquiring a distant signal, the image changed and clarified.
Prokorov did not notice the gasp that escaped his lips, as a four-armed alien stepped through the shimmering stasis field, accompanied by eleven hairy, black spider creatures. The spiders spread out, making their way rapidly past the scientists and engineers in a military maneuver that reminded Prokorov of Spetsnaz commandoes clearing a room. They moved among the equipment efficiently and fast, stationing three of their number at the tunnel opening, which formed the only entrance or exit to this gateway cavern.
Others scaled the steel scaffolding that surrounded the towering matter disrupter, which powered the stasis field generator and the gateway. As one of these paused to study him, the pungent scent of ammonia wrinkled Prokorov’s nose. Then the creature turned and climbed down the steel scaffolding, giving the Minister of Federation Security no further notice.
Apparently satisfied, the four-armed leader of the group turned back toward the gateway and signaled. Then, as hundreds of alien beings filed through the opening, escorted by hovering military vehicles, Prokorov shook himself from his paralysis and stepped into the elevator cage that would carry him down to the cavern floor.
It was time to officially welcome the Kasari Collective to Earth.
Chapter 2 Friendship Cavern, North Korea 15 January
Kasari Group Commander Drolaag looked around his rapidly emerging Earth-based headquarters in satisfaction. The human’s representative, Prokorov, had selected an exceptional location for the wormhole gateway. The vast underground chambers and connecting passages had been built some time ago, designed for transport and storage of large quantities of military equipment. All of that had been cleared out before building the gateway.
Now it would serve as the Kasari base of operations and house the first of many assimilation centers. And Prokorov had volunteered to be the first to undergo the Kasari nanobot infusion that made him the second earthling member of the collective. The first had been a human female with the Earth-name of Jennifer Smythe, whom the collective had assimilated on the distant planet, Scion, but she had somehow extracted her consciousness from the hive mind.
That knowledge was worrisome, but it was not Drolaag’s assigned worry.
Turning his thoughts back to the ongoing work at this facility, the first priority had been securing this base of operations. The installation of powerful stasis field generators had been a significant step in that direction. Now, with the delivery of seven of the small, fast-attack spacecraft and a battery of disrupter cannons, his engineers could erect a Kasari gateway, replacing the smaller human-built gateway.
Another group of Kasari engineers was working at top speed to finish the assimilation center that would perform mass injections of the nanobot serum, capable of processing several thousand humans every Earth-day. Currently, only a few hundred of the leaders of the United Federation of Nation States had been treated. But very soon, the assimilation of the Federation Security Service military forces would begin. Prokorov had proven himself very efficient at setting it up while maintaining the illusion that the troop movements were part of the ongoing wartime operations against UFNS enemies.
As Drolaag watched the stream of Kasari soldiers and equipment making its way into the cavern, he savored the thought that he was already ahead of schedule. Assuming his group kept up the pace, he would soon have enough of the UFNS military assimilated to announce the UFNS – Kasari alliance to the entire planet.
To these primitive cultures, alliance was a more acceptable term than assimilation.
* * *
President Ted Benton stood at the centermost of the three Oval Office windows behind his desk, looking out at the leafless branches of the large tree just outside. Dark gray clouds hung low over the White House grounds. Almost, but not yet a freezing fog.
His gaze drifted down to the long, narrow table beneath it, focusing on the pictures of his wife, Cindy, and his two sons. The oldest, James, had just graduated from Harvard Law School. The last of the three framed photographs showed a slim Army Ranger in his dress uniform, the ribbons that graced the left side of his chest a testament to his bravery. That bravery had put Jeffrey into a lonely plot in Arlington Cemetery.
The endless damned wars against the Islamic Alliance and their surrogates had taken his son, along with hundreds of thousands of other young men and women. That and the ongoing rebellion by the Native People’s Alliance and the Safe Earth Resistance movement had led him, and the majority of the American people to the conclusion that the Earth needed outside help and guidance.
As he pondered the rejuvenating power of the nanobots that coursed through his veins he knew that welcoming the Kasari Collective to Earth had been the correct decision. He felt the cortical array that connected his brain to the hive mind release a stream of endorphins that soothed his mind, delivering gentle reassurance.
Once more, he lifted his eyes to the dreary sight outside the window, shifting his vision into the infrared that let him peer farther through the mist. Halfway around the world, the elite soldiers of the 75th Ranger Regiment were now receiving the same wondrous infusion that President Benton had benefited from last week. Soon, the entire armed forces of the UFNS member nations would become the super soldiers they were meant to be. Millions of them.
After that, the need for secrecy would come to an end. As thousands of additional assimilation centers came online around the globe, the acquiescent portion of the civilian populations of the United States, the New Soviet Union, Europe, and the East Asian People’s Alliance would also join the collective.
President Benton turned and sat down at his desk, a slow smile spreading across his patrician features. Then the real work of defeating the resistance would begin.
Chapter 3 Smythe Compound, New Zealand 16 January
Wearing black jeans and a maroon pullover top, her Glock in its familiar position on her right hip, Janet Alexandra Price left the underground command center and walked down a wide passage toward the central conference room where this morning’s status update would take place. It had been months since she’d fired the weapon at a living target, but she felt naked without it.
The quality of the air in this facility, a mile below the surface, was a testament to the filtered ventilation and humidity control systems. But the pace of ongoing construction sent a thrumming vibration through the titanium reinforced walls and imparted a faint metallic taste to the rear of her tongue. For the thousandth time, she felt the weight of all those tons of rock above pressing down on her shoulders. Perhaps this afternoon she would find time for a trip to the surface and a ten mile run beneath New Zealand’s warm January sun.
She turned the corner, stepped up to the door, and waited as it processed her biometric information. When it whisked open, she stepped inside, pleased to see that all the others were already present. Taking her seat at the head of the conference table, she looked around. Heather, Mark, and Robby sat along the right side of the table while Jamal Glover, Dr. Eileen Wu, and Dr. Denise Jennings occupied the chairs along the left side.
Technically, Janet did not need this meeting to update the project’s status. She could have received it from the facility’s neural network. But she liked to look into her people’s faces as they briefed her and hear the inflection in their voices. She had not asked for this leadership position, but now that she had it, she found that she enjoyed it.
“Let’s take it around the table,” Janet said. “Heather, you’re up.”
“As of this morning, we have replaced all of the twenty-three-hundred combat robots and drones lost in our assault on the German wormhole gateway. We have also replaced all of the microbots expended within the gateway cavern. The newest of our matter disrupter synthesizers will be operational in the next few days and will be directly tied into the upgraded molecular manufacturing apparatus.”
“A few days? When do you think the MDS will be fully operational?”
Janet saw Heather’s eyes fade to milky-white. No matter how many times she watched the savant go deep into her visions of probable futures, it still sent a chill up her spine.
Heather came out of it. “Tuesday.”
“Excellent. What about you, Mark?”
“The prototype for our new stasis field generator is giving us some problems.”
“According to Dad and Fred Smythe, it starts up correctly but develops a spiraling instability over the course of the next ten minutes. I’ve confirmed with Heather that there’s nothing wrong with the design, but its power-draw is placing too much stress on the materials within the walls of the resonator cavity. It looks like we won’t be able to fix it until the new MDS is operational next week. That will enable us to create a stronger version of the alloy.”
Janet frowned. “I want you to stop all further testing of the prototype. It’s not worth getting someone killed.”
“We’ve already shut it down. On the plus side, in addition to the new Earth Gate we installed with the Native People’s Alliance in Bolivia, the Rumanian arm of the Safe Earth Resistance is scheduled to take delivery of another Earth Gate three-and-a-half hours from now. We’ve already shown their people how to activate the construction robots that will assemble it and its cold-fusion power supply.”
Janet nodded and shifted her attention to her son.
Not yet ten, the athletic, brown-haired boy looked fifteen. Janet knew that part of that was due to the trauma he’d endured over the last eighteen months. Life and death struggle tended to age a person. But his alien augmentation amplified that effect.
“Eos and I have been helping Jamal, Eileen, and Denise with their cyber-warfare attacks. I’ll let them brief you on that, but it’s not going great.”
“He’s not wrong,” said Jamal Glover, seated on Janet’s left. “The world’s a freaking mess and getting worse by the day. Even though we’ve been able to hide our tracks from the Federation Security Service, the NSA, and the other UFNS intelligence agencies, that’s not helping our Safe Earth political allies. And we’re losing more Safe Earth Resistance cells every week.”
She studied the handsome black man in the 1920’s style suit, complete with shoe-covering black and white spats. Although he did not wear the black fedora with the white hatband indoors, whenever he went outside, it, along with his cocky grin, completed the look. This morning that smile was missing. Given their situation, Janet couldn’t blame him for that.
“That’s why we need those Earth Gates up and running.”
“Yes,” said Eileen, “but even if we start funneling combat robots and weapons through those, they can’t compete with the numbers the UFNS military can throw at our allies. I think their best bet is to disappear into society and lay low.”
“And wait for what?” Janet asked, unable to keep the frustration out of her voice. “For the UFNS to start building another gateway? Our odds don’t improve with time.”
“No, they don’t,” said Heather. “Not unless we can come up with a game-changing technology.”
“Hopefully one that won’t wipe out the world,” said Mark.
Janet saw Heather shrug and understood what she was feeling. A world war wasn’t pretty no matter how it stopped. This one did not look like the happy ending kind. Not for them and not for humanity.
Once again her thoughts turned to Jack. If he were here, he would say something about changing the rules. But Jack wasn’t here to do his crazy shit. So if she wanted to save Robby, her friends, and the very concept of human liberty, she was going to have to woman up and take this operation to the next level.
Janet rose to her feet and looked from one to the other, feeling the muscles in her
“I want that matter disrupter synthesizer finished. Then the new stasis field generator. After that, we’ll figure out how to change the game. Make it happen.”
Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked out of the room.
Chapter 4 Meridian Ascent, Deep Space 57 Earth Days After Re-Christening (MA Day 57)
The Meridian Ascent, the starship formerly known as the Rho Ship, emerged from a wormhole just outside the Scion System, smoothly transitioning into subspace to provide the required inertial damping to make the trip survivable. As the starship completed the maneuver, Jennifer Smythe released the stasis field that had cradled her, watching as Raul and Dgarra did the same. Wearing a form-fitting black and purple uniform, the female AI whom Raul had named VJ stood to his right, as he leaned back in his translucent blue captain’s chair.
Despite the starship’s smooth arrival, Jennifer had to concentrate to relieve the tension that had worked its way into her muscles. The decision to return to Scion had not been an easy one. She had argued that they should make the trip to Earth instead. But VJ’s breakthrough had decided the issue. So, whether Jennifer liked it or not, Scion was now their target.
In the eight weeks that the crew had spent in space, having fled a dozen light years from Scion, they had made several significant technological breakthroughs. The one that had improved the quality of their lives the most was VJ’s creation of a food synthesizer. This was a small matter-disrupter-synthesizer or MDS that could analyze the composition of any food placed within it and thereafter perfectly recreate it. Unfortunately, what lay in the ship’s stores didn’t quite qualify as gourmet cuisine.
It consisted of an assortment of frozen fish from one of Scion’s lakes and the few remaining military meals called MREs. On the positive side, these contained salt, pepper, tabasco sauce, some candy, and desserts, along with spaghetti in meat sauce, beans, and rice, and a few other entrees.
But the breakthrough that had brought them here had been VJ’s adaptation of the serum that had disabled the cortical array of Kasari nanobots, which had robbed Jennifer of her free will. VJ had created a software only version of the governing algorithm. The crew intended to use that computer virus to infect the primary Kasari router that linked the assimilated minds on Scion to the Kasari hive mind.
If all went well, the virus would restore the free will of the assimilated population on Scion and then spread through the wormhole gateway to infect other Kasari worlds. It would not change the minds of any who wanted to be a part of the collective, but it would give those who had been forced to assimilate a chance to resist. More importantly, by disrupting the cortical nanobot array within each of their heads, the virus would destroy the mental links to the Kasari hive mind.
As the Meridian Ascent transitioned out of subspace, Jennifer looked to her left, where Dgarra sat in the chair designated for the starship’s tactical officer. The seven-foot-tall warrior still carried the regal bearing of the general who had once been the Koranthian Empire’s second most powerful leader. The ridges of bone that formed his eyebrows extended up over the top of his dark-skinned, hairless head. She was tempted to reach out and stroke those twin crown-bones she had once found so intimidating.
Dgarra was no longer a Koranthian general. Like the rest of them, he had accepted his new position in the ship’s crew. Raul had designated Dgarra the tactical officer, VJ the science officer, and had made Jennifer his first officer. Due to her empathic and telepathic augmentations, she also served as the ship’s communications officer.
“Performing long range worm-fiber scans of the outer Scion system,” said Dgarra in his deep voice.
It still felt a little strange hearing Dgarra speak English. The headset that VJ had created for him connected his mind to the starship’s neural net. It had taught him the language, just as that connection had taught the Koranthian language to Raul and VJ. Jennifer felt a small surge of pride at the thought that she had learned to speak and understand it the hard way.
“Any sign of Kasari presence?” asked Raul.
“None within sensor range. All of the Kasari ships must be staying closer to Scion.”
Jennifer felt herself nod. That was good news. It would have been nice to be able to scan normal space from within subspace. Instead, they had been forced to drop out of subspace outside the Scion system to make sure that the outer planets were clear.
“VJ,” said Raul. “plot a subspace course that will bring us out behind the outermost planet in the system.”
That VJ could anticipate what Raul was about to order did not surprise Jennifer, given their shared connection to the ship’s neural net, but the assumptive nature of VJ’s action was a little creepy. So was the arrogant smile that she flashed Jennifer.
“Fine,” Raul said. “Make it happen.”
By now Jennifer was so used to the subspace transition that she barely noticed it. Unlike a wormhole transit, there was no need to wrap herself in a protective stasis cocoon. The subspace maneuver took just over a minute.
When the Meridian Ascent shifted back into normal space, the sensors pumped imagery of the gaseous blue giant and its twenty-one moons into her mind. From their current position, only a thin halo could be seen in the visible spectrum, but the infra-red showed the raging storms within the planet’s atmosphere.
Dgarra’s voice drew her attention to the worm-fiber viewers under his control.
“Long range sensors have identified thirteen Kasari fast attack spacecraft around Scion. Another twenty-seven are scattered throughout the system.”
“Wow,” said Raul. “They’ve tripled their presence since we left the planet.”
Jennifer tweaked the neural net, filling her mind with the same data and imagery that Dgarra was seeing. Apparently, the subspace capabilities that the Meridian Ascent had demonstrated when VJ and Raul had rescued Dgarra and Jennifer had alarmed the Kasari. It had been enough to make them deploy an unusually large contingent of military might for the assimilation of a single planet. The collective usually relied on the indigenous population, who had welcomed them onto the new world, to do most of the fighting.
But that wasn’t what constricted her throat. What additional security measures had the Kasari put in place on Scion?
“I recommend aborting this operation,” she said.
“Just because they have more ships circling the planet, doesn’t change anything,” said VJ. “We can still identify where the primary router is located, pop out of subspace at that location, and insert the virus before they know what we’re trying to do. We’ll be gone long before the fast attack ships can respond.”
“That’s assuming you can penetrate the encryption on that device,” said Jennifer.
“I guarantee it.”
Jennifer felt her temples throb.
“And what if you’re wrong?”
Dgarra turned his gaze on Jennifer.
“The improvements we’ve made to the stasis field generator should protect us long enough for VJ to complete her task. We’ll be back in subspace before the Kasari can target enough firepower to penetrate our shielding. This is our only chance to save my planet. And it might just save yours, as well.”
As much as she hated to argue with Dgarra, for whom she had developed a special bond, she couldn’t shake the feeling that they would be walking into a well-prepared trap.
“We can’t use the worm-fibers to scan Scion to find the router. The Kasari will detect them.”
“So what?” asked VJ. “They can’t tell where the scan originated because the worm-fibers are just tiny space-time folds.”
“So far,” said Jennifer, “we’ve positioned the worm-fiber viewers in empty space, looking for the fast-attack ships. If we were to scan inside one of those ships or in a heavily instrumented area on Scion, such as inside the gateway facility, the Kasari would be alerted to our presence. After that, you can bet they will be watching for signs of a subspace transition like the kind we did in ArvaiKheer.”
“That’s why you designed the micro-drones.”
Jennifer bit her lower lip. Damn, VJ was irritating. But she was also right.
Raul interrupted the argument.
“How many of the micro-drones do we currently have?”
“Nineteen,” Jennifer said. “Not nearly enough for a decent search.”
“And if we went into full-scale production?”
Jennifer paused to consider this. “It’s not just them. We would have to make the tiny subspace field generators and the supercapacitors to power them. If we devote the primary MDS and the molecular assembler to that task, we could produce six, possibly even seven per hour.”
“I could optimize your process,” said VJ, “increasing the efficiency by 53.7 percent.”
“Of course, you could,” said Jennifer, under her breath.
“I didn’t catch that,” said Raul.
Once again, Jennifer caught the hint of a smile on VJ’s softly glistening lips.
Dgarra spoke. “Captain, I recommend that we exit this star system and invest two weeks in manufacturing an enhanced micro-drone capability. It may give us the edge that we need to confront the increased Kasari military presence on and around Scion.”
Raul leaned back in his chair.
“Agreed. VJ take us out of here.”
“Somewhere we can’t be seen. Use your best judgment.”
As VJ initiated the subspace transition, Jennifer found herself scowling at Raul. Best judgment indeed.
* * *
Kasari Headquarters, Orthei, Scion
Kasari Group Commander Shalegha surveyed her operations center, which was situated in the tallest of the skyscrapers in the Eadric capital of Orthei. During the time since the humans had rescued General Dgarra and escaped Scion aboard the stolen Kasari world-ship, the Kasari had almost completed the assimilation of the planet’s winged Eadric race. Having signed an armistice treaty with the Koranthian emperor, Magtal, the Eadric and Kasari forces under Shalegha’s command had ceased all combat operations.
She had no doubt that the Koranthians would have to be dealt with at some later point in time. Since the subterranean warrior race had oddly structured brains that made assimilation into the Kasari hive mind impossible, that only left Shalegha one option. Extermination. But for now, it served her purpose to keep the peace.
The additional fast-attack ships she had requested were there to dissuade the humans from returning aboard the stolen world-ship. Or they would destroy the rogue ship if its crew was stupid enough to attempt it. The one disappointment was that Shalegha would be denied the opportunity to examine the major upgrades that the humans had made to that ship. They had somehow managed to give it the ability to enter and travel through subspace.
Although she could not be sure that the rogue crew had achieved faster than light travel in subspace, it was still a dangerous capability. Even more disturbing, the humans had engineered a mechanism that allowed them to survive as the world-ship passed through a wormhole of its own creation, something that the Kasari had never managed to accomplish.
Regardless, the rogue crew and their altered starship posed no significant threat to Scion’s assimilation. Within twenty-two Scion days, that task would be completed. Then Shalegha could reconsider the truce between the Kasari and the Koranthian Empire.
Chapter 5 The Parthian, Quol, Altreian System Twice Bound Era (TBE), Orbday 9
With his hands clasped behind his back, Jack Gregory, in Khal Teth’s black-uniformed body, stood at the transparent wall in the overlord’s chambers, an ivory blade strapped to each thigh. Far beyond that wall, the magnificent magenta orb of Altreia hung low on the horizon, its position in the sky a constant as seen from the Parthian, on this tidally-locked world. Higher in the twilight sky, bright stars bejeweled the Krell Nebula’s orange lace.
His psionic mind detected that the Altreian military operations center within the Parthian had just gone to high alert. On a distant planet, the Altreian research vessel, AQ37Z, had just detected the activation of a Kasari wormhole gateway and had sent the required notification to the Altreian command authority. That alert had automatically triggered the activation of the biological weapon that, upon arrival at its target, would kill all life on the planet.
Jack’s body went cold. Knowing as he did that this response was enshrined in Altreian military doctrine to such an extent that no overlord had ever issued a stand down order. Until now.
Sensing his commanding general’s excitement, Jack linked their two minds.
“General Zolat. Recall the bioweapon, right now.”
Despite the fact that this Dhaldric general was one of Jack’s twice bound, a sudden fury boiled within him. It was the downside of the voluntary bonding. All twice-bound retained their free will.
“Overlord! We have little time to get the weapon to its target before the Kasari establish an impregnable planetary defense against it. If I gave that order, the High Council would accuse me of treason.”
“The high council will do as I command.”
The shock he felt in the other’s mind surprised Jack.
“What of your twice-bound principles?” Zolat asked. “Will you now dictate your will to the people, just as the government that you replaced did? Or will you bring this matter before the high council so that it can be properly considered and decided upon?”
“I will not allow an entire world filled with intelligent beings to be obliterated.”
“Overlord, it is my duty to advise you when I think that a course of action will have negative consequences. The majority of our fleet is situated well beyond the influence of the twice-bound. Already there are rumblings of discontent among the Dhaldric commanders of the elevation in status of the Khyre race on Quol. This order will place additional stress upon the command structure within a significant portion of the fleet.”
Jack increased the power of his mental link with the general. Although Zolat did not like the command, his loyalty remained intact.
“My decision is final. Execute my order.”
General Zolat issued the order that was immediately translated into a subspace transmission. The recall would return the robotic weapon to its holding location, deep within the barren reaches of the Krell Nebula. It and its array of companions were far too dangerous to maintain anywhere near an inhabited star system.
Jack broke the mental link he had established and returned his gaze to the beautiful twilight sky. The knowledge that a new Kasari Gateway had opened on Earth and stabilized long enough to trigger the research vessel’s message turned his thoughts to Janet and Robby. Their only chance might require a direct attack on the invading Kasari by the Altreian fleet. But even though the Altreians had battled the spread of the Kasari Collective throughout the galaxy, it had always been through proxy wars. Both sides knew that direct conflict between their empires might escalate into mutually assured destruction.
But now that Jack had done what he had come here to do, there were certainly going to be consequences. A quote from the Israeli military leader, Yerucham Amitai, leaped into his mind.
“In the end, we may have to choose between actions that might pull down the Temple of Humanity itself, rather than surrender even a single member of the family to the executioners.”
If it came right down to it, Jack could live with that. Even on a galactic scale.
Chapter 6 Friendship Assimilation Center, North Korea 6 February
Alexandr Prokorov watched as long lines of soldiers snaked their way through the enormous assimilation cavern toward the row of auto-injector booths. To avoid squabbles between those who might be reluctant to undergo the Kasari treatment, they had merely been told that they would be receiving the latest upgrade to the nanites already in their systems. To lighten the mood, their commanders had also informed them that, in addition to healing faster than ever, this version of the nanite serum would enhance their experience of alcohol’s more pleasant side-effects.
As each soldier reached the injection point, a green light would indicate when they were to step into the cylindrical, soundproof booth. Once sealed inside, the injector arm would press itself against the person’s left shoulder, sending a puff of compressed air to spray the Kasari nanobot serum through the skin of the upper arm. Thirty seconds later, the exit door would slide open and a new member of the Kasari Collective would step out to take his place among the assimilated members of his unit in the adjacent rooms. There, for the first time, they would see some of the Kasari aliens that had come through the wormhole gate.
Prokorov turned toward General Hollande, the commander of the EU army division that was currently undergoing assimilation. Although Prokorov could have queried the hive mind for the answer to his question, he chose to speak it.
“General Hollande. How much of your division has been processed so far today?”
“Two-thirds. Approximately nine thousand soldiers.”
That was good. The assimilation center had increased its efficiency significantly during the last week. As Prokorov prepared to ask a follow-up question, a commotion broke out near the central injector booths.
From his vantage point at the edge of the cavern, he could see that several fights had broken out.
“What the hell is going on over there?” he asked.
But before the general could answer, Prokorov accessed the hive mind for a better perspective, rewinding the time so that he could see what started this disruption.
A large black soldier had been approaching one of the booths when he suddenly roared and attacked those around him, fighting his way back through the lines. It was as if a mesmerizing spell that had kept all these soldiers in thrall had broken. And as it did, dozens and then hundreds of other soldiers joined the big rebel in fighting their way toward the exit, ignoring the orders of the officers who struggled to reestablish control.
Several of the Kasari aliens entered the cavernous room to block the exit, a move that turned the squall into a cyclone. The unarmed soldiers tackled military police, stripping them of their weapons as gunfire crackled through the room.
Prokorov swore, then linked his mind with that of Kasari Group Commander Drolaag.
“Gas the assimilation chamber!”
His mental request came across as a command, but Drolaag took no offense. Overhead valves opened, releasing a heavier-than-air fog, long tendrils of which reached down toward the floor. And when it touched those who had not yet been infused with the Kasari nanobots, they dropped to the ground where they had stood.
Prokorov breathed in that fog, noting the cloying smell of rotten fruit, but showing no other symptoms. His Kasari nanobots processed this chemical cloud as easily as they processed air.
In seconds it was over. Large numbers of assimilated humans and Kasari aliens moved through the chamber, picking up the unconscious soldiers and carrying them to the injection booths. Much more slowly than before, the assimilation process began again as the workers dumped one after another into the cylinders, closed the door, and waited until a new member of the collective stepped out the far side.
Prokorov hissed in disgust and turned toward the exit. He had seen enough for one day. So much for the vaunted improvement in efficiency of the assimilation. He thanked the stars that this had not been live-streamed to the internet masses. That day would come, but only after he was ready to announce the existence of the Kasari gateway to the world.
Chapter 7 Smythe Compound, New Zealand 6 February
Jamal Glover leaned back in his zero-gravity couch and took off the headset that linked his mind to the supercomputer network within the underground world the Smythes had created. Technically, their robots had created this incredible network of tunnels and rooms that housed the world’s most sophisticated manufacturing operation. But the Smythes had designed and built the first generation of the robots and had directed them to produce Heather’s ever more advanced designs.
Cradled in the couch beside his, Dr. Eileen Wu also lifted the Alice band headset from her temples and turned to meet his gaze. The Chinese-American, former NSA computer scientist, known as Hex, was four years younger than Jamal and, as usual, he found the intelligence in her dark eyes mesmerizing.
“Learn anything?” she asked.
“Nothing useful. But it’s strange. The UFNS headquarters is not making the number of security mistakes I’m used to seeing. It’s almost like they had a big training program where people actually paid attention to their cyber-security instructors.”
“Interesting. I’ve noticed the same thing at the Pentagon and at Special Operations Command. And there have been some odd troop movements as well.”
This caught Jamal’s attention. “How so?”
“On the surface, the movement orders look ordinary. The manifests are what you would expect to see for troops and equipment being moved into the conflict areas bordering the countries of the Islamic Alliance. The weaponry shows up on schedule, but I’ve observed some unusual troop delays. Usually just a few days, but I can’t find any record that any stopover occurred.”
“Are we talking about troop movements by air?”
“And by sea.”
“No communications with headquarters?” Jamal asked.
“It’s as if they passed through the Bermuda Triangle.”
“Have you checked satellite imagery?”
Eileen paused. “I thought I’d leave that to you.”
As interesting as Jamal found this conversation, the rumble from his stomach distracted him.
“Tell you what,” he said. “You buy me dinner and I’ll apply my big brain to the stuff you can’t figure out.”
He watched her dark eyes crinkle at the corners.
Climbing to his feet, Jamal offered her his arm, as if he was her date for the evening.
“So?” he asked.
Eileen rose, ignoring his extended elbow, to lead the way out through the doorway.
“We better get you some food,” said Eileen. “If you get any more light headed, you’ll pass out on me.”
As he followed her into the long hallway that led toward the cafeteria, Jamal grinned. For the first time today, he’d almost succeeded in making her smile.
* * *
Freddy Hagerman stepped out of the meeting between President Benton and the senior leadership of the Senate, bothered by something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Outside the white house, Al Monroe, a blond ex-Ranger, and Elena Chavez, a severe looking former FBI agent, escorted him to his driverless Cadillac sedan. With his breath puffing out in a white mist, Freddy climbed into the back seat. The other two slid into the front of the silver car.
Even after all this time, Freddy still found the fact that there was no such thing as a driver’s seat somewhat disconcerting. But it enabled his bodyguards to stay focused on the job of keeping him alive. Not such an easy task these days. Probably the only thing keeping him that way was that he was the political leader of the peaceful Safe Earth movement. As such, he had the popular backing of forty-seven percent of the US population. Unfortunately, fifty-three percent of those residing in the fifty-nine states supported President Benton’s globalist policies.
Freddy harrumphed loud enough to cause Elena to glance back at him. But she had grown used to his periodic outbursts and her gaze did not linger.
Globalist hell. President Benton and the UFNS were determined to place humanity’s independence in the hands of an alien race. Freddy thanked God every morning that the Smythe’s had destroyed the latest ill-conceived attempt to make that a reality, despite the devastation they had left in their wake, just northeast of Frankfurt.
So what was it about the president’s demeanor that troubled him so?
Freddy spoke the words that put the car in motion, taking him back to the Hart Senate Office Building. When he reached his seventh-floor office, told his executive assistant that he did not want to be disturbed, and settled into his comfortable leather chair, the answer to that question still eluded him.
As he was about to turn his attention to next week’s schedule, a new thought wormed its way out of his subconscious. President Benton’s mannerisms had not changed. But now his mental sharpness and ability to recall intricate details of complex discussions reminded Freddy of Heather and Mark Smythe’s eidetic memories.
That was it. Throughout this morning’s meeting, the group of senior senators had thrown questions at the president on a broad spectrum of topics. Although Freddy had not agreed with Benton on many items, his answers had been remarkably crisp and clear. Now that Freddy thought back on it, a very slight pause had preceded many of the president’s answers, almost as if the man were placing a mental query to an external source, rather than searching his own memories for the answers.
Freddy shook his head to clear it. That was ridiculous. This line of thinking was getting him nowhere.
He turned his attention to next week’s Safe Earth fundraiser in Richmond. President Benton’s oddities did not merit further consideration.
Chapter 8 Meridian Ascent, Scion Space MA Day 71
VJ brought the Meridian Ascent out of subspace a hundred million miles outside the outermost of the Scion System’s planets. Immediately she began the maneuver, adjusting the starship’s velocity vector to match that of their initial target on Scion.
“Ready to release first insertion package,” she said.
“Commence insertion sequence,” said Raul.
“Aye captain,” said VJ, noting with satisfaction the hint of annoyance her archaic verbiage brought to Jennifer’s face.
Smiling, VJ created a stasis field bubble around the interior of the cargo hatch and then opened it without extending the ramp. That modification of their ship had been one that Raul had intended to make for some time. But only in the last several days had they gotten around to it. That done, she wrapped the first group of six, gnat-sized micro-drones in another stasis bubble and moved it out through the field that kept the interior of the amidships bay from depressurizing.
When the micro-drone was fifty yards off the starboard, VJ made a final adjustment to fine-tune the trajectory. Then she released the drones and issued the subspace signal that initiated the pre-programmed journey through subspace that would bring them out a thousand feet above the Eadric capital city of Orthei. Due to their tiny size, they would be invisible to the sensors designed to detect much larger targets.
Moreover, the drones were each equipped with a one-time use subspace field generator with just enough power to deliver them to their target. And when the micro-drones emerged from subspace, they would produce such a small displacement of the surrounding atmosphere that it would only produce a sound no louder than that of a thumbtack hitting a stone floor.
The drones disappeared and VJ adjusted the ship’s trajectory to match the next target as she prepared to deliver the next package. Then the real fun would begin.
* * *
Raul had watched VJ smile as her subtle dig at Jennifer produced her desired result. At some point he would have to do something about that, assuming that he could get VJ to comply with his wishes. But since it was a minor distraction to the otherwise professional manner in which his crew performed, it would wait.
He let the neural net amplify the imagery of the first six micro-drones outside his ship. One second the tiny things were there and the next, they were gone. The tiny flying sensors did not have enough power to stay in subspace for very long. They did not need to. A subspace bubble would form around each micro-drone that would briefly accelerate it toward the target. That bubble would last just long enough to get it there before dying.
Each micro-drone would emerge with the exact normal space momentum vector it had before entering subspace, one that matched its target on Scion.
When the neural net delivered the first six subspace video streams into his mind, Raul gasped. As he had previously observed using the worm fiber viewers, Orthei was wondrously beautiful. The transparent walls of the building reached hundreds of feet into the sky. Each apartment or office complex had external balconies upon which the Eadric could land or launch themselves to sail through the city. Considerable open space between buildings provided pedestrian … make that wingestrian byway.
There were, of course, aerial thoroughfares for high-speed aircars, but these were confined to routes that, from these six vantage points, reminded Raul of public transit routes. That the angelic winged Eadric people would sacrifice their love of beauty to become a part of the Kasari Collective mystified the hell out of him.
The drones separated, dividing the city below into sextants, each heading toward its own search sector. The ones that held Raul’s primary interest were the drones targeted for the Kasari assimilation center. This was the most likely location for the planetary master router that connected the assimilated minds on this planet to the hive mind on other Kasari worlds.
As would be expected, given their lack of subspace technology, the communications between the Kasari cortical arrays was limited by the speed of light. The only thing that made the communication among the collective possible was the fact that wormhole gateways eliminated the distance between the stars. And once the Kasari had assimilated a planet, they erected wormhole gateways on any other habitable worlds within that system to remove the communications lag between worlds.
Video feeds from two more sets of micro-drones blossomed in his mind and he assigned these to Jennifer and Dgarra respectively, leaving VJ to focus on making sure that the Meridian Ascent remained undiscovered by any of the Kasari attack ships. Discovery this far outside the Scion System was unlikely, but Raul did not want to take a chance and rely on that assumption.
No. He would do this the right way, the way that would keep his ship and his crew safe. Even if it cost them some extra time.
* * *
Six hours after they had deployed the last of the drones within Orthei, the sound of VJ’s voice brought Jennifer’s head around.
But it was the meaning behind those words that elevated Jennifer’s heart rate.
“Is the hive-mind router in the wormhole gateway facility?” Raul asked.
“No,” said VJ, “but it’s nearby. One of the drones pinned its location to a large rack of equipment inside a communications and computing hub, just north of the Orthei assimilation facility.”
Jennifer felt Dgarra’s mind access the tactical map.
“That is bad. There is not enough room inside the building to accommodate this ship.”
“What’s the closest spot where we can land?” asked Raul.
“I can bring us out of subspace in the park a hundred yards north of the communications hub,” said VJ, “but we’re going to knock down some trees and attract a lot of attention.”
Jennifer pulled up the drone footage of the central router. As she examined the video and encrypted Kasari traffic emanating from the device, she saw that VJ was probably correct about this being the primary router that connected the high volume of mental traffic to and from a sister router on the far side of the Kasari wormhole gateway. An analysis of the data from the two drones inside the gateway facility confirmed this, both of which showed the same wireless communications stream passing in and out through the gateway.
Unfortunately, the drones had not been able to pin down the exact location of the central router within the conglomeration of computing systems. That meant that they could not perform a remote subspace hack of the router. It meant that for VJ to insert her virus, they would have to find it and manually attach the small SRT device that would provide a subspace link to the ship’s neural net.
VJ frowned. “I won’t be able to project myself to the router from that distance.”
“I’ll go in,” said Jennifer. “Computer expertise is one of my Altreian augmentations. My SRT headset will keep my mind connected to our neural net.”
“I will accompany you,” said Dgarra.
Jennifer felt gratitude flood her mind.
“Thanks. I’ll need you covering my back while I search for the hive’s central router.”
“Even with our new personal stasis field generators,” said Dgarra, “we are going to need a distraction to make the run to that computer center.”
Raul nodded. “I’m sure VJ can take care of that.”
“Count on it,” she said.
The smile that lit VJ’s face gave it a soft glow. Even Jennifer had to admit that she was beautiful.
“Gear up,” said Raul. “Things are about to get unpleasant.”
* * *
Although Dgarra was no longer a general fighting for the Koranthian Empire, the feel of the nano-engineered war-blade strapped to the side of his stasis-shield backpack sent a shiver of anticipation up his spine. The tingle spread up his thick neck and into the twin crown bones that ridged the top of his head. That black blade would soon taste the blood of his Kasari enemies.
He glanced over at Jennifer. The fact that she chose to wear the colors of house Dgarra was the greatest compliment she could have given him. The way her black and purple uniform followed the slender curves of her body brought forth a familiar longing. Compared to the female Koranthian warriors he had known, she looked so frail. But long experience fighting alongside her had shown him that her fragile appearance was deceptive.
Jennifer was quick and strong, as deadly in battle as any Koranthian. And despite the protectiveness that the sight of her generated within him, this Earth woman could take care of herself. But today she would need his protection if she was to focus on the difficult tasks of penetrating the Kasari computer center, bypassing the primary router’s security system, and uploading VJ’s free will virus.
Dgarra watched as she shrugged into the backpack that held her stasis shield, its supercapacitor power supply, and her emergency air supply. The thing weighed considerably more than she did, but she gave no sign that its bulk bothered her.
She drew her own war-blade, examined it, and then returned it to its sheath. As she turned her attention to the pulsed laser at her side, Dgarra completed his own combat weapons check. That complete, he turned his back to her and allowed Jennifer to double check the stasis shield strapped to his back, a service that he repeated for her.
“We are ready,” he said, feeling the head-rush that accompanied impending combat.
Her flashing brown eyes met his.
“Let’s do this.”
Then, as two stasis cradles draped their standing bodies, the Meridian Ascent warped into subspace.
* * *
Inside the wormhole gateway facility, Kasari Group Commander Shalegha watched the mental imagery from the nearby assimilation center. The last of a thousand Eadric worked their way through the assimilation booths, the final large rebel group to be forcibly processed into the collective. There were still a few hidden Eadric rebels, but for all practical purposes, today would complete the assimilation of the most prominent species on Scion.
Reaching down with her lower two hands to grasp the arms of her command chair, she rose to her feet and stretched her muscular body to its full height. Suddenly, the rumble of thunder rattled the building. Not thunder. That had been a supersonic pressure wave.
For several long moments, she struggled to understand the imagery that the hive mind fed through her cortical nanobot array. A blast in one of the nearby nature open spaces that the Eadric loved had leveled trees and damaged the facades of the surrounding skyscrapers, killing dozens of Eadric who had been near the source of the overpressure blast.
There was no sign of what had caused all the damage, but Shalegha had no difficulty figuring it out. The rogue starship had emerged from subspace at the center of the devastation and had cloaked itself. That probably meant that an attack on the wormhole gate was imminent.
Shalegha initiated the order that recalled the nearest of the Kasari fast-attack ships, refining her instructions to limit the use of weaponry to high-energy beam weapons only. The use of larger disrupter or vortex weaponry in this highly confined area would destroy the gateway, the assimilation center, the central computing complex, and the Kasari group headquarters on Scion. This had the highest probability of being the rogue crew’s suicidal plan.
That done, she initiated an order to the local Kasari rapid reaction force. They would deploy in defense of these four critical facilities, while they awaited the arrival of the off-world reinforcements. But above all else, these forces would refrain from damaging the protected assets with their fires, even if that meant suffering an increased number of combat casualties.
That done, Shalegha settled back into her command chair and brought up a complete set of tactical overlays. From the pattern of the damage done by the supersonic overpressure wave, it computed the outline of the cloaked ship. This was almost immediately confirmed by the laser pulses from the first of the rapid reaction force to arrive. The beams scattered from the ship’s stasis shielding in a spectacular visual array.
Very soon now, she would have the two things that she most wanted. The smoking hulk of the stolen Kasari world-ship and the dead bodies of its rogue crew. With that pleasant thought, Shalegha released a flow of endorphins that took her into a state of alert, but delightful numbness.
It was just one more thing that made an immortal life worth living.
Chapter 9 Orthei, Scion MA Day 71
The Meridian Ascent emerged from subspace, coming to rest on the ground in the targeted park in Orthei with a shudder. Jennifer had to admit that VJ’s pilotage was steadily improving. Considering that VJ was a young artificially-intelligent being, this should not have been surprising. But Jennifer knew that VJ did not want to be an artificial intelligence. Virtual Jennifer wanted to be a real woman, a goal that was even beyond her rapidly improving capabilities.
Turning her thoughts back to the task at hand, Jennifer drew her war-blade and waited alongside Dgarra for the ship’s ramp to open. Although it would seem that arming herself with laser pistol would have made more sense than the double edged sword, the interior of the communications center consisted of tightly spaced computer racks separated by narrow access ways. Destroying that equipment with laser blasts defeated their entire purpose for being here.
The equipment in her backpack could operate in one of three modes. It could provide a small stasis field bubble around her entire body or just around her head. In either of these cases, it would turn on her emergency air supply.
The remaining method of operation involved the stasis field generator creating a virtual shield projected outward from her left forearm, allowing her to use her weapons while maintaining a reasonable capability to deflect incoming attacks. She did not need to access the neural net or look at Dgarra to know that he had also drawn his war-blade. Her telepathic link to the Koranthian supplied that information and more.
With a hiss of equalizing air pressure, the ramp lowered and the two of them leaped to the ground. Outside the starship, the once beautiful Eadric park was a mess, the trees and plants knocked down or stripped of their foliage. VJ had landed the Meridian Ascent with its bow facing south, toward the targeted communications hub. Jennifer and Dgarra sprinted in that direction.
Thirty yards above them and off to either side, the projected cloaking and stasis shield shimmered like a holographic curtain. It would hide hers and Dgarra’s movements until they were almost to the building. But those last few yards, they would be visible to anyone who happened to be watching. They would have to cross that open space fast.
Since they could not risk blasting open the door with disrupter weapons for fear of damaging the communications gear and computing systems inside the building, they would have to rely on VJ to slice it open with a projected arm of the ship’s stasis field. That capability, along with the increased strength of the shielding, were two of the upgrades they had installed during the last two weeks in deep space.
When she burst into the open, she heard the sizzle of beam weaponry impinging on their starship’s shielding. Someone high up and to her right attempted to target the two of them, but failed to adjust their aim before they darted through the opening where VJ had just carved an entryway.
Without pausing, she ducked to her left, leaving the central passage, and moving out of the line of sight of a half-dozen Eadric communications engineers. Another ten paces along, she turned right, her shoulders brushing the tightly bundled electronics that filled the metal racks. Although she knew that Dgarra would have to take a wider avenue, he knew precisely where she was going. The ship’s neural net dumped the same maps through their SRT headsets and into their minds.
As she approached the central communications array, Jennifer ducked beneath a laser pulse that sprayed molten metal from the equipment behind her. Her spinning war-blade splattered the computing systems that rose on either side of her with red and sent the four-armed Kasari soldier’s thick head ricocheting down the aisle. From somewhere to her right, Eadric screams rose and then died, the dread moans echoing off the ten-foot-high ceiling to whine through the electronics like fleeing spirits.
She rounded another tight corner and halted, as a wave of dread drained away her adrenaline fueled battle lust. The tightly packed computing systems in this cluster within which the primary router was housed numbered in the hundreds. Even with her enhanced speed and other Altreian augmentations, it would take her a significant part of an hour to examine them all.
Assuming a statistically average amount of good fortune, it would take twenty minutes to find what she was searching for. They had planned to fight their way inside as Raul, VJ, and the Meridian Ascent made themselves the focus of the Kasari counterattack. VJ had estimated that the ship’s enhanced shielding could hold up for ten minutes under the firepower the Kasari would call in against it.
Damn it, Jennifer Smythe. Stop thinking and get your ass in gear.
She gritted her teeth. Then another Jack Gregory memory replayed itself in her brain. He’d stood before them in his Bolivian hacienda, his curly brown hair framing a face with eyes that burned with unnatural brightness and uttered the line that she remembered.
“This world will try to beat you down. Only laughter can counteract that. Laughter is ammunition. Resupply often.”
How long had it been since she had laughed out loud? Although this moment was in no way right for it, she threw back her head and released all of her frustration in gut-deep laughter. And as the sound drowned out all others, a renewed sense of confidence filled her.
Screw it. Whatever it took, she would get this job done.
* * *
Half a room away, a blood soaked Dgarra looked up from the bodies that lay strewn around him. And as he listened, the joyous sound that echoed through this crowded space pulled a smile to his lips. Here was a warrior soul-mate for whom he would willingly sacrifice his life.
Of course, as he had once heard Jennifer say, that was not exactly Plan A.
* * *
As VJ watched Jennifer and Dgarra approach the spot where they would have to sprint from beneath the protective stasis and cloaking fields, VJ projected her virtual body outside the Meridian Ascent. She coalesced at the northern edge of the stasis field, dressed in the sheer black and purple uniform that Raul liked and Jennifer hated. With her short blond hair spiked up like leaping flames, she stepped beyond the cloaking field. The time for her distraction had come.
Raising her right hand toward the curved building that housed the wormhole gateway. Her mind manipulated the stasis field, focusing its power along a narrow line that she projected outward in a glittering crystalline blade that extended a hundred yards in front of her. Wielding it as an artist used a fine-lined pencil, just as she’d done to carve an entryway into the communications hub, she sliced through the gateway facility’s outer wall to reveal the inner support struts.
Immediately, every weapon in the area focused their beams and projectiles on her, bathing her form in a fireball that crawled around the shielding that formed her body. VJ analyzed the power drain that her projection and these attacks placed on the ship’s primary stasis field generator. Taking another five steps forward, she stopped, made another slice at the building, and smiled.
She had their full attention.
* * *
Shalegha leaped up from her command chair, screaming her orders to her subordinate commanders as she echoed them to all weapon stations with line of sight to this new target.
“Focus all fires on the human female. I want her dead.”
The earthling was projecting some kind of force-field weapon, cutting through the outer walls of the wormhole transport center. And if they did not stop her soon, she might succeed in damaging or destroying the gateway itself.
Her cortical nanobot array provided her with an important update. The closest of the robotic fast-attack ships would arrive on station, directly over the city, within the next few moments, bringing its weaponry to bear on the woman and the stolen world-ship. Then Shalegha would find out just how long these rogues could survive the battering it would deliver.
* * *
The sensors delivered the bad news to Raul and he issued a mental command to VJ
“Get back in the ship. We’ve got incoming trouble.”
When VJ materialized beside him, Raul jumped. Because she looked so real, he sometimes forgot that her body was merely the manipulation of the stasis field that gave physical form to a very impressive hologram.
“I see it,” said VJ. “Dropping cloak to divert all power to stasis shielding.”
Just then, the neural net pumped the image of one of the small Kasari attack ships, sliding into position, two thousand feet above them.
“They’ve locked weapons,” he said.
When the particle cannons and laser weapons opened up, the Meridian Ascent made no sound. It did not rock or sway. But through the SRT crystals embedded in his brain, Raul felt the stasis shield generator draw more power from the primary matter disrupter, an electric current that ran up his spine to stand his hair on end.
“How long can we withstand this?” he asked.
“Four minutes, thirteen seconds,” said VJ.
“I haven’t found the router yet,” Jennifer’s calm voice whispered in his mind. “One more rack to go through.”
Raul started to tell her to hurry, but resisted the impulse. She was well aware of the situational urgency.
“Dgarra, how are you holding up in there?”
“I have dealt with the Kasari and Eadric staff inside this room. The show you’re putting on out there seems to be keeping everyone else occupied.”
“Not for much longer,” said Raul. “VJ, the attack ship is just sitting up there. Can we return fire?”
“If we drop the shielding long enough to engage, it will carve us into pieces.”
Raul hissed a curse.
“Damn it. I need a viable option. Give me something.”
VJ paused and he felt her draw more heavily on the neural network’s processing power. Crap. What the hell was she doing?
“There is a possibility, but it could end up killing us all.”
“I can launch one of our subspace torpedoes at it.”
His disappointment at this suggestion cramped his stomach.
“How? We can’t maneuver this ship to create the right momentum vector before releasing it into subspace.”
“True,” said VJ, “but if I divert part of the stasis shielding, I can use that to sling the torpedo at the enemy ship. I’ll have to create a small hole in our outer shielding for just a moment to release it. Then it will shift into subspace, popping out again after just enough time to allow its original velocity vector to have intersected with its target. If everything goes perfect, it will transition back out of subspace right beside the attack craft. Boom.”
“I don’t want the explosion to damage this city,” said Raul. “We need the gateway and the communications center to remain fully operational.”
“I’ve already made those adjustments to the torpedo payload. The attack ship’s shielding will focus all the energy inward before it fails. But I can’t determine where it will crash.”
“How much damage will we take while the hole in our shielding is open?”
“Inconclusive. Like I said, our chances for success aren’t encouraging.”
Raul tried to swallow but only managed to tighten his throat.
“Upload the calculations to the torpedo and move it into launch position just outside the ship.”
As he watched VJ manipulate the stasis field to move the torpedo, Raul became increasingly worried about the increased power demands being placed on the ship’s primary matter disrupter. If the ship’s instruments would have had a gauge with a red line, he was quite sure that the needle would be pegged on the wrong side of it.
“Torpedo ready,” VJ said. “I would advise closing the hatch before releasing it.”
When he felt the ramp withdrawn and the hatch close, he gave the order that might end them all.
* * *
VJ knew that she did not have real human emotions. She had simulated emotional states. It was something she was constantly working to improve, along with the rest of the source code that made her what she was. If she would have had real emotions, she was certain that she would have been what Raul described as scared shitless.
But she dutifully used the stasis field to launch the subspace torpedo toward the attack craft that hovered almost two miles above them, creating a hole in the outer shielding for just long enough to let the torpedo exit. It was too bad that she could not accelerate the torpedo to the required velocity within the distance between the ship and its outer shielding. If that had been possible, then there would have been no need to create the hole. The torpedo could have just shifted into subspace after achieving the required velocity.
Unfortunately, that was not an option. So she opened the hole and used the extra energy to slingshot the torpedo through. Even as she observed the torpedo shift into subspace, the energy of the particle and laser beams heated the air inside the Meridian Ascent’s stasis shielding to a white-hot plasma. The warnings that cascaded through the ship’s neural net showed a hull breach in the central bay in the vicinity of the outer hatch even as she resealed the torpedo hole in the outer shielding.
Shifting her focus, VJ draped the egg sized breach in the ship’s hull with another stasis field. Then the Meridian Ascent’s sensors showed the sky ten thousand feet above them flash white.
* * *
Jennifer had resisted the physical urge to yell in favor of its mental equivalent as the neural net delivered confirmation that she had indeed found the router for which she had been so desperately searching. Without hesitation, she attached the tiny SRT module to the back of the device, and then issued her mental warning to Dgarra.
“I’m done. Let’s get back to the ship and get the hell out of here.”
When she met him at the opening that VJ had carved into the building, she paused just long enough to switch her stasis field backpacks into full-body-shield mode, to match that of Dgarra. Together, they sprinted across the open space toward the Meridian Ascent. A glance upward revealed a long smoke-trail that traced the way from overhead to a huge plume that arose on the western side of the city of Orthei.
The laser that swept across her body brought her focus back to the task at hand. Although her personal stasis field generator had deflected the beam, it did not have sufficient power to perform the same trick another time. But since VJ had opened a portal in the ship’s stasis shielding to allow them to pass through, she no longer needed the backpack’s protection.
She leaped onto the descending ramp and sprinted upward, with Dgarra only a step behind. Entering the ship, she turned right into the hallway that led to the command bay, slipping the backpack and the sheathed war-blade from her shoulders as she stepped inside.
“Progress?” she asked.
She settled into her stasis couch as Raul spun his to face her.
“Stasis shielding is down to seventeen percent. We’ve taken some hull damage but VJ has acquired a subspace lock on the Kasari router.”
“How long until she can upload the free will virus?”
“Bypassing security protocols now,” said VJ. “Upload will commence in thirteen seconds.”
“How long until the upload is complete and virus dissemination gets underway?” Jennifer asked.
“Estimating thirty-seven seconds,” said VJ. “After that, dissemination to all linked cortical arrays within the brains of the assimilated on Scion should take less than five minutes.”
“And how long until it spreads through the wormhole gateway to infect the router on the linked Kasari staging planet?”
“I won’t know until I can analyze the security on that communication system. That cyberattack can’t begin until I have finished with this router.”
Dgarra’s deep voice interrupted the conversation. “Long range sensors have detected three more attack ships inbound.”
“How long until they get here?” asked Raul.
Jennifer felt her knuckles crack and forced herself to relax.
“VJ,” said Raul. “We need to be gone before that ship gets here.”
Although Jennifer could detect no variance in VJ’s tone, the terse nature of the AI’s words told her that VJ was feeling the same stress that gripped the rest of the crew. That knowledge did nothing to ease Jennifer’s mind.
* * *
Kasari Group Commander Shalegha had watched the crash of her attack ship in consternation. How had the rogue ship’s weapon penetrated its shielding?
She replayed the scene in her mind, rewinding the video feed to the moment just prior to the weapon launch. The stolen world ship sat unmoving in the destroyed park, having just pushed a torpedo out through its open hatch. The scenario unfolded in ultra-slow motion. The weapon accelerated upward, passing out through a small hole in the stasis shield that draped the enemy craft and then winked out of existence.
Moments later, the sensor data feed from the Kasari attack ship showed the torpedo reappear inside that ship’s protective shielding and detonate. The attack craft’s own shielding had contained and focused the explosive force on the hull, splitting the ship into three large chunks. The smoking pieces and other smoldering shards had rained down on the west side of Orthei, knocking down skyscrapers and setting that part of the city ablaze.
Again she replayed the attack and the hive mind confirmed the dread certainty that had been growing within hers. The humans had used an Altreian subspace weapon. Because of such weapons inability to track normal space targets while in subspace, they were ineffective in combat against the maneuverable Kasari attack ships. But because Shalegha had not known that the humans had such a weapon, her attack ship had not been maneuvering.
Shalegha clenched her upper two fists as she watched the telemetry from the closest of the three inbound attack ships. Uploading her commands to the formation, a low snarl escaped her lips. She would not make the same mistake again.
When her link to the hive mind died, it startled her so badly that she stumbled and almost fell. The loss of sensory data left her feeling blind and crippled. The startled cries that filled her combat operations center told her worse news. This loss of link was not isolated to her.
Ignoring the panic of her Kasari and Eadric staff, Shalegha sprinted to the air-car that awaited her use on its pad on the south side of the tower. At her approach, the car’s sensors opened the side panel to allow her entry. Sliding into the seat, her hands flashed across the controls, launching the car outward and down off the high platform. For the first time she found herself thankful for the archaic manual controls present in these Eadric vehicles. Given her current inability to access the hive mind, if this had been a Kasari vehicle, its mind interface would have left her stranded.
Shalegha now understood that she had been wrong about the target of the humans and their Koranthian stooge. They had not aimed for the wormhole gateway. Instead, they had somehow inserted a software worm into the communications hub that connected the cortical arrays within the brains of the assimilated masses to the hive mind. And if she did not act immediately, that infection could spread through the gateway to the Kasari staging world and beyond. It was beyond the bounds of irony that such a backward species as the humans could threaten the very existence of the collective.
Glancing down, Shalegha was shocked to see the tremor that had crept into her hands as she brought the air-car in for a hard landing in front of the entrance to the wormhole gateway. Just beyond the broad doorway, chaos reigned. As pulsed laser fire rippled through the crowd, winged Eadric took to the air in a frenzied attempt to escape the madness.
Shalegha climbed out of the vehicle and ran through the entrance, hurling aside anyone who impeded her path toward the gateway. Already, armed military suppression squads had come through from the staging world to reestablish order, but she could see at a glance that the infection was propagating to these new arrivals.
Noting her insignia of rank, they stepped aside as she ran toward the gateway, yelling orders to keep everyone back. Then, with a final mighty leap she sailed through the opening, feeling the nanobots within her blood adjust to the methane atmosphere on the far side. Without waiting for the response of a higher ranking officer, Shalegha drew her disrupter pistol and fired, directly into the cables that routed power to the gateway.
As the wormhole winked out of existence, she felt herself thrown to the ground by the clawed hands of an eight-legged, Graath commando.
* * *
“VJ. We’re out of time,” Raul yelled, his heart hammering his chest. “Get us out of here!”
Since she had access to the same sensors Raul was seeing, he wasn’t surprised that she didn’t argue. But as VJ diverted power to the subspace field generator, the lead attack ship opened fire.
“Shield power at ten percent and falling,” Dgarra said.
“The primary matter disrupter synthesizer is at maximum. If I pull more it could blow.”
It almost seemed that VJ was feeling the starship’s pain as she pulled the extra energy that the subspace generator required from the pegged matter disrupter. But with the transition into subspace, the drain on their shields came to an abrupt end. Unfortunately, the output from the primary MDS also dropped off precipitously.
“Primary power failing,” VJ said.
“Drop the shields.”
“Done. But we’re still drawing on the super-capacitors. At this rate of consumption, I won’t be able to maintain the subspace field for long.”
Raul could feel the sweat bead on his brow.
“Cut power to all non-essential systems.”
When she executed this order, the interior lighting went out along with all onboard sensors. In the darkness, her voice seemed to have acquired greater volume, although he knew this was only because of how quiet the ship had suddenly gotten. The omnipresent low thrum from the aft engineering bay was now barely audible.
“Reduce life support to minimal,” he said.
“It’s going to get cold.”
VJ made the adjustment.
“We are still consuming slightly more power than the damaged MDS is producing,” she said. “I have to keep the small stasis shield hull patch in place so that you can make manual repairs to the primary MDS in the aft bay.”
“Okay,” said Raul. “Somebody give me some options.”
Jennifer spoke up. “You have experience making manual repairs to this ship. If Dgarra and I enter one of the crew compartments amidships, you could reduce life support levels to keep us unconscious. That would also reduce the amount of life support you would need in the remainder of the ship.”
“That still won’t get our power consumption down to where we need it,” said VJ.
“Surely, there is something else we could turn off,” said Dgarra.
VJ hesitated, seemingly reluctant to state the obvious.
“That would be me,” she said.
“It would be just like going to sleep,” said Raul, although he failed to sound confident. “Once I have the MDS repaired, I’ll wake you, along with Dgarra and Jennifer.”
For a moment she seemed to sag, but then straightened.
“I’ll prepare the compartment for Dgarra and Jennifer. Once they are settled in, I will shut myself down.”
With that pronouncement, all conversation ceased. Over the next few minutes, the temperature dropped to the point that Raul found himself shivering in the dark. His artificial eye allowed him to see, although everything was limned in different shades of reds and blues. Heather and Dgarra had retired to the compartment that VJ had prepared for them. Now he and VJ stood alone in the forward section of the command bay.
As he looked at her, she turned to face him, her holographic image now that of a beautiful ghost. Ever so slowly, she reached out to stroke his face with her right hand. The wonderful feel of that caress raised gooseflesh on his neck and arms. She blinked twice, mouthed a silent goodbye, and was gone.
Once more, Raul found himself alone on a broken starship, not knowing precisely where. Captain or not, one thing had not changed since this had all started.
Space still sucked.