Published by Celestial Recursion, a -30- Press Imprint
Copyright, 2022 © Kristopher J. Patten, C.J Manor , Ashley Franz Holzmann, V.R. Walker
All Rights Reserved
Published by Celestial Recursion, a -30- Press Imprint
Copyright, 2022 © Kristopher J. Patten, C.J Manor , Ashley Franz Holzmann, V.R. Walker
All Rights Reserved
Arley and Bonn softly approached the silhouetted figure of Ochir, feet padding softly in the dim tunnel of Dome-3.
When they were 100 feet away, Arley called softly, “Friendly, friendly, friendly,” and flashed a light on his belt three times.
The silhouette raised her arm, coilgun in hand, to signal acknowledgement.
Arley and Bonn then moved up to where Ochir stood.
“I was about to go in after you,” said Ochir, looking quizzically at Bonn.
“We made it, but I never want to see another simulation ever again,” Arley said, breathing out heavily.
“This must be your lost friend. I’m Ochir. This is Lee,” Ochir said, looking at Bonn and motioning behind her to where Lee had taken up an overwatch position on some crates a few meters away.
“I’m Xochil–Xochil Bonn,” Bonn said, moving around Arley and into plain view.
“I was locked in the simulation with more people down there. We have to get them, too,” continued Bonn.
Ochir raised her eyebrows. “How many others?”
“At least two dozen,” said Arley, tapping on his broken holo-tablet. “I saw lots of them attached to different CogNet devices. I’m not sure how many are alive, but we’re going to need reinforcements and evacuation. One thing is for sure though, we’re not leaving anyone behind.”
“How are we going to do that?” Ochir asked. “We can only fit a couple more people, and we’re far away from Homestead.”
Arley looked down and sighed. “Man, he’s not going to like this, but I think I got a guy we can call.”
“Who?” Bonn interjected.
“I’m going to call Rad,” Arley said.
“Who is Rad? And what kind of name is that?” Ochir asked.
Bonn and Arley exchanged a small smile.
“He is the Defender Crew Chief of the Stargazer,” Bonn replied, while Arley typed in the crypto-key into his holo-tablet.
“Oh– the one who wanted to kill you?” asked Ochir, looking pointedly at Arley.
“That’s the one,” Arley said.
“Good luck with that,” Ochir said.
“He’s a good man, even if he hates me. He’ll help,” Arley said, pressing send on his communique. “I just hope that—”
Arley stopped as the air was pierced by an otherworldly screech which echoed through the tunnel.
The sound was like a contradiction in reality itself. It seemed to resonate with a low, growling timbre, carried by a piercing, high-pitched scream. Monstrous power and prey-like fear married in an unholy union.
Arley whirled around towards the tunnel, eyes vigilant, legs shaking.
“You hope for what?” Bonn said.
“You didn’t hear the scream?” Arley asked, drawing his coilgun from where it hung in Ochir’s waistband.
Ochir slowly raised her own weapon, training it towards Arley.
“Arley– lower the gun,” Ochir said hesitantly. “Did you say there were CogNet devices down there? Like the kinds that cause madness?”
Arley looked sharply back at Ochir and Bonn. “It’s not like that–I’m not crazy. Look!” Arley raised a finger towards the tunnel.
Barely visible in the bleak light of the tunnel, multiple figures moved towards the group, stumbling through the darkness.
Ochir moved towards the tunnel, now training her weapon towards them.
“Don’t shoot them!” Bonn yelled. “They might have woken up, too!”
Ochir looked at Bonn and then at Arley.
Arley nodded, and raised his weapon. Aiming at the ground in front of the figures.
Arley called out, “Stop! Identify yourselves.”
The figures kept moving forward.
“Stop! Identify yourselves.”
A snap of electricity. Arley sent a projectile into the ground in front of the group.
The figures stopped.
“Help us!” a feeble voice echoed up the tunnel.
“Where are we?” another voice, this one female.
“It’s the rest of them, they must have woken up just after us!” Bonn said, trying to move past Arley and Ochir.
Arley stiff-armed Bonn backwards.
“Something isn’t right,” he said. “Let’s take this cautiously.”
“We’re here to help you,” Arley called. “But we need you to come up, one at a time.”
Arley turned to Ochir. “Keep your weapon trained on the group, if anything goes wrong, open fire.”
“They seem fine to me; just let them up. You’re being paranoid. They’re probably just disoriented from being in simulations, and they don’t seem like they have the madness,” Ochir retorted.
Arley bit his lip in anger before responding.
“I said, if anything goes wrong, open fire. If nothing is wrong then we’ll get them all out of here. We haven’t seen any Bright Star guards yet, so this may be them trying to get close enough to overwhelm us without getting caught in a tunnel with no cover.”
“Ok, ok,” Ochir said. “One at a time.”
“Get Lee to come down here to help, we’ll need extra manpower either way.”
Bonn nodded and moved towards where Lee was perched.
“You, in the front, walk slowly up here,” Arley commanded.
The figure closest to the front started to walk towards Arley.
The figure slowly emerged from the tunnel with his hands raised.
The man was middle aged with salt and pepper hair, which was greasy and disheveled. He was wearing a linen top and dirty pants with no shoes.
“Arley?” he asked meekly.
“Do I know you?” Arley asked.
“I worked on the Stargazer, I’m an engineer,” the man said, wobbling slightly.
Arley lowered his weapon.
The man nodded.
“We’re going to get you out. Go sit beside those crates over there. Bonn,” Arley nodded, “will take a look at you while we wait for transport.”
A mist seemed to coalesce behind Adams, moving quickly. Purposefully.
“Thank you, thank y–” the man jerked upright.
Any sense of weakness and confusion seemed to melt off of him.
The man locked eyes with Arley. His eyes now gleamed red as as he hissed, “Thaaannkkk you.”
Arley raised his coilgun but it was too late.
The man leapt towards Arley, knocking him backwards to the ground. Arley felt the back of his head slam onto something hard.
Adam’s hands locked around Arley’s neck, squeezing tighter and tighter.
As the world faded to black, he heard Ochir and Bonn yelling, and saw gleaming red eyes glaring into his soul.
The council had filed back into Homestead’s small legal chamber. Meli, used to the relative openness of the agricultural area of Homestead where he, Evelynth, and some of the other Stargazer crew had taken residence, felt cramped. There were too many people crowded around him. His face felt hot.
To his left, he expected Evelynth to be sitting comfortably – or, at least, serene – as she had throughout most of the trial. Instead, her eyes were wide and stared blankly at her feet.
“Ev,” Meli whispered, “what’s wrong?”
Evelynth shook her head. “Nothing.”
Her shoulders slumped. She leaned closer to Meli.
“I feel like I just heard Ladipo’s voice,” she whispered.
Meli craned his neck over the tall man in front of him, trying to get a view of the chamber floor. “Maybe he made it back.”
“No, Meli,” Evelynth gestured to her temple, “up here. The echo and the static; it sounded just like the voices in my dreams.”
Meli put a hand on Evelynth’s shoulder. “I’m here. If you have a, uh, you know.”
Evelynth let her knee rest against Meli’s. Somehow, he felt less crowded.
“Please be seated,” Aquitaine’s voice announced through the speakers in the chamber, “and the hearings will recommence.”
The murmurs in the hall died down, small groups discussing legal ramifications – and some merely gossiping – broke up and returned to their benches.
“Chairman Klaidçiri, the floor is yours. You may call witnesses.”
Klaidçiri strode across the floor, his heavy-soled boots – far more militaristic than what he wore back on Earth, Meli noted – echoed throughout the room.
“Thank you,” Klaidçiri said. “In light of the information we received about a possible first contact situation, I’ll try to keep my examination brief.”
“Captain Galaton,” Klaidçiri gestured across the hall, “please take the stand.”
Galaton climbed the few short steps to a comfortable chair atop a raised dais across from where Klaidçiri stood. She adjusted the thin, navy blue blazer Aquitaine had commissioned for her to wear during the trial. Her eyes narrowed at Klaidçiri who, in contrast, stood in his black, Nehru collared suit with a calm smile.
Klaidçiri nodded to Galaton.
“If it pleases the court,” he said, looking around at the assembled crowd, “I will lay out an indictment of Captain Galaton’s very ability to be in a position of leadership.”
He paused for dramatic effect.
“By the end of this round of questioning, I will demonstrate that, at best, Captain Galaton is unfit to lead a simple research expedition, much less helm the most advanced ship CASC has ever created; and, at worst, Galaton herself is involved in criminal activity.”
Klaidçiri hushed the murmurs of concern that erupted in the hall with a wave of his pale hand.
“Captain Galaton, prior to Stargazer, what was your command?”
“The Godolphin Arabian,” Galaton said proudly.
“And what kind of ship is that?” Klaidçiri asked.
“A gate hauler. One of the best and fastest in the fleet. A crew of 50. Capacity to haul three jump gates at a single go.”
“An accomplishment you should no doubt be proud of,” Klaidçiri said. “But is it true that the crew on most gate haulers are in cryosleep for 90% of the voyage?”
“Nonessential crew are in cryosleep for anything between one quarter and four-fifths of the journey. So, no, what you said is not accurate.”
“My apologies. How many of the Godolphin Arabian’s crew were considered essential?”
“So you commanded a crew of ten. For most of the journey.”
“For a portion,” Galaton stressed, “of the journey, yes.”
“And PRIME decided a crew of ten was sufficient practice to manage a crew of over 100 with a very diverse set of mission parameters.”
“Yes. We had no way of knowing what we would find on the other side of the anomaly and my experience with long-duration missions was considered-”
“Please only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ unless I ask you to elaborate, Captain. We do have other important business to attend to once this matter is settled.”
Galaton said nothing.
“I would now like to ask you about Rossvel Arley,” Klaidçiri said.
“Rossvel Arley,” Klaidçiri spoke to the hall, “disobeyed his command because of new, unsure, weak, and ineffective leadership. Through Captain Galaton’s ineffectual command, she allowed Arley, a dangerous killer, to put the entire mission at risk on a whim. Arley, for those of you who are unaware, stopped the Stargazer’s engines as she was coming through to the Void. This is what trapped the Voidager crew in limbo, in purgatory, for fifteen years.”
Klaidçiri turned his attention back to Galaton. “How did you discipline Defender Arley?”
“He was removed of his rank and is no longer a member of my crew. In fact, it’s not accurate to call him Defender Arley. He is now a citizen of Homestead and nothing more.”
“And yet there are rumors that he was spotted in Retrograde asking about his missing former crew members. That wasn’t an order from you?” Klaidçiri asked.
“I have no say over what Arley does or doesn’t do as a private citizen. He was not under orders from me.”
“I see,” Klaidçiri said, voice dripping with theatrical suspicion, a dog whistle to those in the crowd who sympathized with him.
Once again, Klaidçiri turned to the hall.
“The Stargazer was intended to be the first interaction with what lie beyond the anomaly. Without the actions of citizen Rossvel Arley, it would have been. PRIME would have received reports of the pathogens lurking out here, waiting to infect us and cause us to turn on our fellow settlers. If Captain Galaton had been more capable of pulling those under her command in line, Gilgamesh might still shine brightly and your lives may have been marked with prosperity not starvation.
Klaidçiri stretched out his arms in a wide shrug that could be seen from the highest bench. “Speaking of subordinates not falling in line, Specialist Ladipo either disobeyed orders or Captain Galaton knowingly ordered him to approach Gilgamesh and, once again, put the entire Stargazer crew – and Homestead – at risk.”
Galaton sighed. “We had no way of knowing Gilgamesh was quar-”
“Captain Galaton!” Klaidçiri interrupted.
“I do not remember asking you a question. Perhaps we see where the inability of your crew to follow orders comes from. I’m afraid that, if you interrupt me again, I’ll be forced to have you placed in contempt of court.”
Galaton locked eyes with Klaidçiri for a tense moment. He smiled at her, willing her to erupt in fury.
“And where is Specialist Ladipo, Captain Galaton? He was supposed to have returned to Homestead for these hearings.”
“You know as well as anyone else he’s at the center of the first contact situation. Proof of the first alien life in human history certainly takes precedence over the matter of one starship’s ownership.”
“Indeed it does,” Klaidçiri agreed.
“Finally, Technician Meli Jankowicz,” Klaidçiri continued. “His constant outbursts in this court have been… trying. It is indicative of your command ability that you can’t even manage to impress upon your crew the importance and decorum of formal procedures.”
“Jesus!” Meli shouted from his position halfway up the hall’s seats.
Galaton rolled her eyes.
“I think it’s escaped your notice, Marko,” Meli yelled from his seat, “that I’m not technically under Captain Galaton’s command. Yes, aboard her ship, she has authority. Off the ship and in matters related to CASC, my position of Technician outranks a Captain.”
“In fact,” Meli continued, “this hearing should be determining if I outrank you. Both you and PRIME are equal members of the Humanity Council but PRIME has veto power in all decisions. CASC doctrine implies that, in the event PRIME is offline or otherwise unreachable, Technicians may act in PRIME’s stead. Perhaps I have veto power over your motion here.”
The hall exploded in sonic chaos. Applause, laughter, outrage. Evelynth’s resigned sigh.
“Please, please!” Klaidçiri cried for order from the floor. As the cacophony began to die down, he continued. “I will entertain this. Captain Galaton, you may step down. Since Technician Jankowicz speaks in PRIME’s stead, maybe he is willing to answer for the crime against humanity PRIME has committed.”
The fog of battle was heavy.
Arley was soaked in blood from Engineer Adams. Adam’s head had exploded in a red mist as Ochir’s bullet ripped through.
Arley coughed and spluttered, gasping for air, gulping blood tinged air into his lungs.
He rolled over, heaving.
Bonn rushed up to him, pulling him into a standing position.
Lee had finally reached the rest of the group and moved past Arley to the mouth of the tunnel.
But it was too late.
Bodies poured out of the opening of the tunnel.
Bodies torn and bleeding.
Bodies that leapt at the group with super human speed.
Arley, Bonn, Ochir, and Lee ended up circling back to back, surrounded by writhing, screaming masses of flesh.
Arley, now recovered, raised his hands ready to fight.
All around Arley, shadows moved in and out of the hoards of bodies.
Most of them Arley didn’t recognize, but he caught glimpses of familiar faces. A couple of Homestead farmers, some engineers from the Stargazer, and Dupont.
“What are we going to do now?” Ochir asked.
“Survive,” Arley said.
Meli had taken Galaton’s place on the dais. Luckily, he had worn his CASC dress coat to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, the dust that had clung to the sleeve back on Earth had never come out. He never had time to try to get it clean.
Well, he did have about five uneventful months to get it cleaned. But it didn’t seem important then.
“Technician Jankowicz,” Klaidçiri said, smiling.
Meli stared back at him and then stifled a laugh.
“Do you find these proceedings a joke?” Klaidçiri asked.
“No. Not at all. I was merely wondering what would happen if I called you Councilman Asshat out loud in public.”
Laughter, some stifled, others brazen, peppered throughout the hall.
“Jankowicz, please!” Aquitaine shouted from his bench next to Galaton, who was biting her lip.
Meli couldn’t tell if she was holding back laughter or a rebuke. Probably both.
“It’s fine, Councilman,” Klaidçiri said. “Let him show the court who he is. This man who claims to be the highest ranking member of CASC in the Void making juvenile jokes in a court of law.”
“You are under oath, Technician Jankowicz,” Klaidçiri continued.
“Was your fellow Technician, Kazumi Ito, a member of the Stargazer crew?” Klaidçiri asked.
“But he was on board the ship?”
Meli hesitated. “Yes.”
“And he was also aboard the Agamemnon during the disaster.”
Meli patted at the stain on his sleeve. “Yes.”
“And he was killed in that tragedy.”
“He was…,” Meli rubbed his chin, “he had extensive brain damage.”
“He was brain dead, isn’t that right, Technician?”
“A man died. He was brought back to life. He boarded the Voidager mission,” Klaidçiri summarized for the court.
“How did that happen?” Klaidçiri asked.
“PRIME saved him,” Meli said.
“An interesting choice of words, Technician. ‘Saved’ is debatable. Others might say PRIME desecrated Kazumi Ito’s corpse.”
“The Humanity Charter, in fact, would say that. The Charter would also say that PRIME conducted illegal research without consent. Medical research without consent. Biotechnology research without consent. I have an extensive list.”
Klaidçiri gestured to Meli with an open hand, as if seeking a key. “Did Technician Ito consent to any of these practices?”
Meli blinked. Long.
This is what Klaidçiri wanted. The whole gambit to undermine Galaton was to get to Meli and, by proxy, PRIME. It was what Klaidçiri had been angling for back on Earth. How had Meli missed it?
“No, he did not,” Meli answered.
“On Bright Star,” Klaidçiri addressed the crowd, “I have been researching local interfaces between a human mind and an AI. Something outside of a CogNet to avoid the space madness pathogen. My results have not been promising. The human mind is simply not large enough to fully accommodate an AI in its entirety. The CogNet back on Earth was millions of minds strong to accommodate PRIME. How could that fit into just one brain?
“An AI even half as powerful as PRIME is essentially a god. More processing power than we can possibly comprehend.
“PRIME surely knew this. PRIME wasn’t trying to restore Ito to life; PRIME was trying to make an avatar for itself to experience the Void. The society we all left to find new freedom is in danger by this zombified abomination of becoming exactly what we left. I don’t want to go back to my previous life; food tastes so good when I work it myself. Playing flashball in the courtyard is where I want to relax, not offloading my mind to an AI overlord.
“The thing calling itself Ito is not human. Yes, it lives in a human body with fancy life support, but it is not a man. It merely looks like one. I also have surveillance video evidence that ‘Kazumi Ito’,” Klaidçiri said, curling his fingers into scare quotes, “broke into a quarantined city on Bright Star earlier today. Who knows what this abomination might have planned.”
Klaidçiri turned back to Meli. “Good thing you’re here to answer for PRIME’s misdeeds, Technician.”
“Hang on,” Meli said, shifting himself forward in his chair, “you claim PRIME is in violation of CASC laws but that can’t be true. I, personally, disagreed with PRIME’s decision. Ito was my friend but I didn’t think it was morally right to experiment on him. However, as I’ve stated, PRIME has veto power. Permanently. PRIME heard my objection and overruled it, as he is legally allowed.”
“That would be true,” Klaidçiri said, “if PRIME had consulted with either the Humanity Council or subject experts. In 2487, PRIME consulted with legal and law enforcement experts to engage a detachment of Defenders to permanently remove the most depraved criminals from society if they refused to peacefully surrender. Several ideas were put forth by the subject experts and vetoed by PRIME. This is acceptable, because the concerns could be factored into PRIME’s simulations. Without the input of others, however, PRIME may not be able to fully account for all human views on morality, life, and religion.”
Klaidçiri pressed his hands together as if praying. “Without humanity, PRIME is an unchecked tyrant. It acted as such in this case. Let us strip PRIME – and Technician Jankowicz – of authority in this sector of space.”
“Wait!” a shout echoed from far up among the benches.
The voice, gravelly and low, continued. “PRIME did consult with experts. I will testify to that.”
Klaidçiri clenched his jaw. “Who is making this claim?”
A salt and pepper-haired man in a Regulator uniform stepped to the edge of his high balcony.
Meli thought he looked familiar. He squinted at the older man.
“I’m former Technician Beldon Pritchard. Current Sergeant in the Homestead Regulators. I worked with Technicians Jankowicz and Ito. PRIME consulted with Clinician Theophania Yazzie and myself before making its decision to revive Ito. “PRIME asked about loss and love. About the capacity of the human brain. Its resilience. And, most importantly, PRIME did not download the entirety of itself into Ito’s mind; only enough to keep the body moving and repair Ito’s neurons to a previous state.”
Klaidçiri stood in silence for a beat. “I would like a brief recess, Councilman Aquitaine,” he said, finally.
Meli leaned forward to see his old friend more closely, not noticing the microphone in front of him.
“Holy fucking shit,” Meli said.
His words echoed through the hall.
The Bio-Corp researchers had worked feverishly for days. The ornate chair and helmet perfectly tuned.
The head clinician pushed a button on his holo tablet.
Chairman Klaidçiri’s voice echoed throughout the chamber.
“Is it ready?”
“Yes, Chairman. We only need a scan of the doppelganger to proceed.”
“Excellent. Ensure everything is ready to proceed. You’ll get the doppelganger soon.”