Chapter 33:

Ghost in the Machine

Red Storm Over Ganymede


The trick to not losing your rations on spacewalk was all about perspective. Whatever way you were oriented, that was up and down. It was a simple matter to lock my orientation ratio to the vertical up and down that I saw, but for the human officers it was not such an easy matter. The slowness of moving in the locking magnetic boots gave their brains far too much time to look around.

And when they looked around, they could see the streaking laser fire and feel the concussive blasts from the missiles being exchanged between the Regina One and the Shakti. It was enough to have any of us shaking in our boots. The crew of the Shakti were trying to buy us time to get to the platform, but their appearance had alerted the rest of the Ganymede fleet toward us.

My ocular sensors could pick up the four heavy cruisers moving to intercept and surround the Shakti, and several of the faster outriders streaking toward our position. “We need to move faster,” I radioed to Grace.

“We’re going as fast as humanly possible,” she retorted. We had reached the the spot where the nose of the Scheherezade had buried inside the orbital platform, and Grace had shot a cable across the chasm. I was anxious for her to go first and begin getting us inside, but she was insistent on getting her crew safely across the gap.

Finally, when all the skeleton crew had crossed, she pushed me onto the cable. I zipped across on the hand anchor, then sent it back to her. Grace grabbed hold and began to move across when a laser bolt hit the Scheherezade. The ship shuddered as a web of cracks appeared in the plasteel hull, then snapped in half. The jolt sent Grace reeling back along the cable as her anchor was ripped away.

For a moment I thought she had lost her grip on the handle, but soon I could see the Captain floating back into view, looking shaken. The servomotors in my arms whirred as I reeled Grace in by hand before pulling her into my arms.

“T-thanks Isul,” she whispered, her face ashen with shock.

“Come on, Grace. We’re almost there,” I encouraged her.

She nodded slowly as the crew helped their commanding officer along. The sensors in my remaining antler located the porthole, and after several frustrating minutes running my codebreaking program I had the hatch open, and the crew was safely inside the airlock. The airlock repressurized, flooding the compartment with the correct breathable mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide to sustain human life.

Grace and the others removed their helmets with the hiss of escaping gases, and I removed my own as well. Though it had no oxygen generator built in, I didn’t fancy my remaining synth-flesh being exposed to the vacuum of space.

“All right everyone,” Grace began, drawing everyone into a tight circle. “I know a lot of you are a bit green, that this situation probably looks hopeless, and right now you’re thinking we’re all going to die. Our ship is destroyed, and we’re probably walking to a storm of laser fire from security Centurions. But we’ve come this far, and now gaining command of this facility is the only way any of us are getting out of this alive.” She looked around the circle, meeting the eight pairs of eyes in turn. “But remember, we’re fighting to restore truth to the Empire, and fighting to restore the true Emperor to his throne. Remember, we all swore an oath when we joined these ranks and got our stars, to uphold justice in the Empire. I ask you now to remember that oath.”

Solemn nods greeted Grace’s speech, and I felt honored that these soldiers - many whom had never even met Tristan - would put themselves on the line for him. It was true loyalty.

I passed a map of the defense platform to the tactical officer’s plascreen. He and Grace began strategizing the best possible route to the command center. But I didn’t have time to listen in. The inner workings of the defense platform’s mainframe were … old. Surprisingly so, considering they were the final line of defense around Ganymede. But while they were lovingly maintained, the technology used in their construction seemed to be at least as old as the Bio-droid uprising. Perhaps the memory of these, then, was stored in the Collective’s central database. Perhaps they had fought these defenses before, and lost. Perhaps the orbital defense platforms were the very things that sent the nascent Collective scurrying to the cold outer reaches of the solar system.

If so, today would be a victory for them. For all of my kind.

Finally, my codebreaker program got me through the last line of defense, and the doorway opened into a dark corridor.

“No welcoming party?” Grace asked, as she swept across our line of sight with her laser pistol.

“Don’t count on our luck holding out,” I replied. “The command center is definitely alerted to our presence.”

Jav, Grace’s tactical officer took point, with his lieutenant bringing up the rear, and Grace and I in the middle of the group. The corridors were eerily silent; we had come expecting a hail of laser fire.

All the orbital defense platforms shared a similar design structure. They were tall, diamond-shaped structures with cannon turrets at each point of the diamond, and a command center in the center of the outer shell. The Scheherezade had crashed into the lower half of the diamond, so I knew we would have to climb in order to reach the command station. Our troop reached the ladder that would carry us upward, and I gave the rusted metal a dubious stare as my antler scanned it for any structural damage.

“It appears secure, but I’ll keep a continuous scan going just in case,” I told the group.

Grace gave a low chuckled as she hopped onto the ladder. “No worse than my first command, Isul.”

Our Tactical officer eyed the ladder, and the shaft, with unease. “Don’t much like being confined to such a small space if fighting breaks out.”

The climb upward was slow and grueling. We passed ten levels, however, with relative ease, and were only five away from the command center before a laser blast came screaming down the shaft. It hit the officer behind me, and she screamed as she lost her grip on the ladder and plummeted out of sight, only to meet her end with a sickening thud on the landing three levels down.

“Everyone, get out of the shaft!” Grace commanded as we dropped to the level below and scurried for the protection of the thick steel floor above us.

Jav turned to me. “Can those scanners of yours’ get me any reading on the number of hostiles above us?”

I reached out with my scanning equipment, but readings five stories away were faint at best. “Perhaps five? With a Bio-droid, I think. But all the old tech here is scrambling any readings I can get.”

“Any Centurions?” Jav asked, his lips set in a grim line.

I reached out again, looking for the telltale ping of the Centurions, but came up empty. “I don’t detect anything, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any coming.”

Jav and Grace peeked up into the darkness above us, but were forced to pull back under cover a moment later as a storm of laser bolts sizzled down the shaft.

“The Centurions might be investigating the nose of the Scheherezade. I saw emergency doors closed up there. I need options, people,” Grace said.

Jav shook his head. “We’ll never make it up this way alive, Captain. They can pick us off one by one before we ever have a chance to make it up to the command center.”

My eyes swept the room, eventually landing on this level’s airlock. “We can go back outside,” I said.

Grace’s eyebrows nearly went to her hairline. “Back into space? Not something I’m dying to revisit.”

“Hear me out. Half our contingent can stay here, send a few laser bolts up at them, and make them think they’ve got us pinned down here. The other half can spacewalk again, and try to come out on the secured level, take them by surprise,” I offered.

Jav tapped his chin. “It just might work, Captain.”

Grace shook her head as she considered the idea. “I may not like it, but it’s the only workable plan we’ve got, so we’ll have to make it work.”

Jav gave a quick nod, then divided us into groups. He would lead the group to stay down here, while Grace would take me, the Comm officer, and Jav’s lieutenant with her on a second spacewalk.

The comfortable silence of space was broken by the bright explosions of the battle raging overhead, however. Two other Collective ships had decloaked, and were now engaged in a vicious battle with the other Imperial cruisers. The Collective ships had launched single-pilot fighters to fend off the quicker Imperial outriders, and wreckage from both sides spun through the battlefield.

“Don’t look, just keep moving,” Grace said, as her hand clamped down on my suit and pulled me along. But try as I might to follow her advice, my eyes kept sneaking glances up at the battle. When we finally reached the level below the command center, I ran my codebreaking program again, and relished the feeling of the lock opening and the platform granting us access. Perhaps I was beginning to understand the strange language of these computers after all.

Our airlock repressurized more quickly this time, and I felt a deep sense of relief.

“Set your weapons for stun only,” Grace ordered. “These are our colleagues and comrades, and to their knowledge they are simply doing their jobs.”

The humans decreased the power settings on their hand weapons, and then Grace drew open the airlock door and began firing. Time seemed to compress and lengthen all at once as her quick and efficient shots took out two of the station personnel. Across the landing, I could see the bulky blast door that had shut, presumably to stop the entire station from depressurizing after the Scheherezade had crashed into it.

However, more Jovian officers rushed in and we took shelter behind the support pillars that held the next level up. Jav’s lieutenant stunned two more, and finally even the comm officer managed to take out one of them as well.

For my part, I attempted to remotely interface with the platform’s systems. Only select systems had remote access, however, and nothing that was critical enough to give us any help. Several more guards descended from the command center, and soon we were pinned behind our pillars.

Grace let out a frustrated growl. “I’m going to distract them,” she mouthed to me.

I shook my head vehemently. If this plan had any possibility of success, we needed Grace alive and kicking to register her voice imprint as the new commander of the station. Only with an element of truth like an actual Jovian military commander did my codebreaker program have any hope of bypassing the security protocols.

As Grace began to mouth something back to me, I caught a ghostly flicker out of the corner of my eye. A hologram? Here?

But as I looked again, assuredly, there stood a flickering, hazy hologram being emitted by the lone, ancient holo-projector.

A ghost in the machine.

The hologram of Winnie waved her arms, and for a moment the soldiers stopped firing and watched her as if transfixed. I knew I stood there with a dumbfounded look on my face for sure. But Grace was quick to take advantage of the situation, and in the moment they were distracted, she had neutralized the remaining troops.

I looked again, but the image had disappeared. Had I simply been seeing things? Was my system so damaged during the crash that I was having hallucinations?

“Stop standing there with your mouth open, Isul,” Grace commanded, and cocked her head toward the now-unguarded opening.

My mouth moved, but no words came out. Instead, I simply nodded and trotted after Grace and the two other soldiers until we had reached the entrance to the command center.

We stood at the outer edges of the doorway, while Grace, the lieutenant, and the comm officer got their laser pistols ready before they burst through the open doorway, into … nothing.

The command center was empty. Devoid of any personnel. Lights blinked on the consoles, and a steaming cup of caf even sat on one of the control boards. So there had been people here only minutes ago.

“We couldn’t possibly have neutralized them all,” the lieutenant said with a scoff.

Grace nodded as we fanned out across the room. “I concur, lieutenant. A station this size would have at least one Centurion platoon, in addition to at least twenty crew members to maintain it.

“Perhaps some of them are still in the upper section?” the Comm officer asked. As he said that, however, Commander Jav and his group raced into the command center with their laser pistols held in attack position.

He appeared as bewildered as we did. “Where did they all go?”

I looked at the weathered control boards with distaste as I ran my hands over the controls, but plugged in anyway. If Tristan could put his dick everywhere and not end up with several nasty venereal diseases, I could certainly plug into a dubious control board.

The data processing systems I encountered were less archaic than the ones I had plugged into earlier, this time appearing augmented with much more recent Imperial tech, including a connection to the Imperial DataNet that I was sure shouldn’t be there. And yet, something about the way the connection was set up struck me as familiar. The streamlined programming, perhaps.

I reported my findings to Captain Nichols, who tapped a finger on her chin as she considered the information.

The comm officer piped up as he settled at the communication controls. “The orbital defense platforms aren’t supposed to have that connection. Too easy for the hackers to gain access and hold us all hostage with our own weapons. Everything is supposed to move in hard data packets weekly.”

“No time to consider the mysteries, people,” Jav announced. “We have some gun turrets we need to point at the Regina One.”

With a scream of metal on metal, Centurions dropped from the ceiling and blocked both of the room’s exits. They hit Jav, and two of the other soldiers with stunner beams that sent them dropping to the floor with a clatter.

Their metallic voices echoed as one around the room, an eerie echo of the synergy of the Collective. “You will surrender your weapons, or face immediate execution.”

Grace caught my eye. I could tell she was ready to move, to fire into the Centurions even if it got us all killed. Almost imperceptibly, I shook my head. I was still plugged into the system. I began furiously hunting for the subroutine that would shut down the Centurions, but to no avail. Either it was housed in a different control unit, or the programming simply made it too difficult for me to find.

Either way, this part of the mission appeared to be over. The Centurions took our weapons and locked all the conscious members of our company to the support columns.

Only Grace and I were left to face the robots. One each stood behind us, and their cold claws roughly pulled our arms back to secure us.

“Excellent work, Centurions,” came a snooty voice as a rodent-faced man descended a ladder from the upper levels. Judging by the rank bars on his shoulders, this man no doubt was the orbital defense platform’s commander.

Grace raised an eyebrow, obviously unimpressed. “So glad you had to courage to come down now that the fighting is over,” she said. “Commander Bowman.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose and laughed as if this were all a very amusing joke.

My processors whirred en masse, desperately trying one prospective solution after another, but none of the scenarios ended with any of us still alive and in control of the station. I turned a solemn face back to Grace, but stopped as a ghostly image floated at the edge of my consciousness.

I turned my scans inward, and found a familiar, warm presence waiting inside me.

“Winnie?” I queried, too stunned to ask anything more.

Though her presence was nothing more than bits of information stored in my neural processor, it was amazing how real she felt. And she was whole once more. No cybernetic limbs or attachments.

“Of course I’m real, you idiot,” Winnie snapped back.

“You heard that?” I asked.

She swatted my arm. “Of course I heard that. Right now I’m part of your magnificent little brain. It’s only natural I would be privy to your thoughts.”

“But … but how? How are you here?”

Winnie smiled, and I almost cried at the beautiful sight of it. “One of my more brilliant schemes, mind you. And I have you and your memory maps to thank for it.”

I shook my head. “But you died, Winnie.”

She nodded. “My physical body died, yes. But after seeing the success with your memory maps, I decided to make a memory map of my own brain. A genius like me doesn’t come along very often, you know.”

I smiled despite the tears stinging the corners of my eyes. “How well I know it.”

Commander Bowman raised his weapon. “This is a touching reunion, but kindly get this apparition off my station.” He took aim at the holoprojector and fired. A shower of sparks erupted from the broken machine as parts littered the floor.

A spectral, sarcastic voice echoed around the chamber. “Come now, Commander, did you think it would be that easy? You military types think you can solve everything with your guns.”

“Get that woman out of my mainframe,” Commander Bowman ordered. One of his technicians scurried to station, but drew back with a shock as the console short-circuited.

Winnie’s voice was smug. “You don’t have the password, I’m afraid. And I’m not inclined to give it you. Centurions, voice command Genius-One. Escort our dear Commander and his comrades to the storage locker and see they don’t get out.”

My mouth hung open as the Centurions turned on the station crew and activated their stunner beams, sending Commander Bowman and his fellows to the floor.

“What? How?” I asked, as the Centurions obeyed Winnie’s command, and began dragging the bodies out of the room.

Winnie’s face appeared on one of the monitors. “Oh my dear, I uploaded myself to all the military’s facilities ages ago. Mind you, these platforms were tricky, what with the data tapes-” she began.

“But how did you know we would be coming here?” I asked.

“You didn’t think I wouldn’t notice the slicing satellite feeds from the Collective, did you?” she asked.

I shook my head and grinned. “But that doesn’t explain all this.” I indicated the broken hologram projector. “Or how you’re on a heavily guarded facility.”

“When electrical activity in my biological brain ceased, it triggered the chip I had implanted, which transmitted the activation code to the memory map back in my lab to upload my complete memories to the DataNet. I thought they would just be files, though, viewable like a regular memory map. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I found I still possessed my sense of self.”

“You must have been extraordinarily pleased with yourself,” I added dryly.

Winnie was about to say something, but Grace interrupted. “Yes, yes, this is all amazing and a scientific achievement, but could you two perhaps get control of the platform?”

Duly chastised, with Winnie’s help I bypassed station controls and installed Grace as the new acting head of Orbital Defense Platform Six.

Her remaining officers took their seat at controls, and Grace took the firing controls herself. “Engineering, how is the power matrix?” she asked, as she looked through the firing scope.

The Engineering officer looked up from his station. “I’ve stabilized the power flow, Ma’am. But the ventral gun is on the fritz. I think the Scheherezade, um, crashing into the platform damaged the power supply network.”

“I’m rerouting power from the ventral gun to the remaining five cannons,” Winnie said.

Grace nodded as her hands folded around the controls. “All right, people, for Emperor and Empire, let’s light them up.”

Steward McOy
Miao Miao