Embers in the Abyss

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Alternate Earth
Six hundred years from Earth, A ship sent to seed distant planets arrives at it's destination and it's computer begins to behave in an erratic manner.

This story was originally written in the early 90's and is the first of the seed ship tales of which my story Wild Harvest is a follow up.

Submitted: March 21, 2019

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Submitted: March 21, 2019

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Embers in the Abyss

By Wesley Stine

 

 

The Abyss Rider had been a beautiful ship once.  An engineering marvel created by Luna Industries, she was one of the first interstellar-capable craft ever built.  She and her sister ships had been hastily given 11 general mission directives and launched during a period of political crisis on Earth.  Such a risky scheme might have been considered at best an evolutionary gamble, perhaps intended to tilt the odds of long term survival slightly better in humanity’s favor. 

Her builders, not yet having overcome the limitations of an Einsteinian universe, were forced to think in terms of centuries, rather than months or years when planning for her voyage.  Her original crew had grown old and died along the way, as had many generations after them.  

Her once gleaming hull was pitted and scored from centuries of space debris and covered with layer upon layer of cosmic dust, but it was sound.  Her mechanical parts didn’t always work as smoothly as they used to, even after the most meticulous servicing, but she was still a proud vessel that could render service for years to come.

The Abyss Rider had been hurtling through space for nearly six hundred Earth years.  Her fusion drive propelled her steadily onward at a fraction of the speed of light toward a final destination that had not yet been officially determined.

She was nearly two Kilometers in length, and nearly that wide at her axis.  Two thirds of her available space was devoted to food production and cultivation of various species of green plants for oxygen enhancement.  Because of these limitations of space, it was necessary to keep her human population at 100 persons or less, at times a great deal less between generational cycles, genetic diversity being carefully maintained by the biolab.

As she made her way through the unknown, the Abyss Rider collected as much first hand data about the cosmos as possible through her extensive network of sensors.  The data was stored in the partly organic computer that was her heart and mind, the Multi-BioEngineered Data Retrieval System, or Embers for short.  Periodically, transmissions would be made in the direction of Earth, but whether or not these would ever be received remained an unknowable mystery.

Embers processed incoming data automatically, sending messages to the Engineering Data Room only on the rare occasions when human action was necessary.  Usually Embers operated quite independently of its human attendants. However, after 600 years the ship was growing tired and her crew growing restless.  Little did they suspect something unforeseen, an errant bit of programming perhaps, might be about to affect the ship.

#

Troy O’neill sat slightly bored inside the Sensor Interface Pod in Engineering Room Alpha.  The room was about 10 square meters and housed two other pods, both of which were also currently occupied.  The drab metallic gray walls were offset only slightly by the equally metallic gray cabinetry and the scattering of plants of the leafy green variety in various stages of health.  The latter functioned not only as décor but also enhanced the oxygen content of the room.

Troy’s job today was to manually monitor incoming sensor readings.  He was capturing the data with a tiny recorder linked to the sensor pod.  Had the ship not been approaching a star system, Troy’s job would have been unnecessary.  However, ship protocol required a human attendant to monitor sensor readings “live” on approach to a star system.

This was not a difficult job, but it could be tedious.  It was just the sort of task that 21 year old Junior grade Engineers such as Troy thrived upon: especially when promotion time rolled around.  Therefore, Troy worked through the tedium and the headache he always got inside an interface pod and tried to concentrate on his work.

Joining Troy on this shift was fellow Junior Engineer, Remy Donat, who was seated a few meters away at the Internal Systems monitoring pod.  Their supervisor, Joellyn Walsh, a senior engineer of about 40 was seated at the Master Control pod, poring over the latest mapping data Embers had produced. It was the most accurate yet of the star system the Abyss Rider was steadily approaching.  Troy tried unsuccessfully to view them from his station.

The pod’s scanners, however, interpreted Troy’s desire to see the maps as a command and a three dimensional model of a star system suddenly surrounded Troy inside his pod.  Troy quickly refocused on his task and the star system shrank into a size small enough to hold in his hand had it been real and not a three dimensional projection while incoming system data continued to stream around him on three sides. 

The star was a blue-white giant named Altair.  Long before Troy had been born planets had been detected in its orbit.  It was the first star with planets that had been encountered on the voyage.

Altair had four identified satellites.  Two were gas giants in somewhat distant and erratic orbits, like stars that had failed to ignite somehow caught up in Altair’s massive field of gravity.  Two other planets appeared to have dense metallic cores and were scheduled to be thoroughly investigated.  These two planets had been given the rather unimaginative names Altair I and Altair II. 

Altair I orbited in a close, fast orbit around its star and was unlikely to sustain an atmosphere.  Altair II on the other hand was approximately 508 million kilometers distant from its star with an observed orbital period of approximately 4 years 3 months, Earth time. It was this planet that was of special interest.  A drone probe had detected atmospheric gases indicative of carbon based life and abundant liquid water.  The planet’s gravity had been calculated to be slightly above Earth standard, but tolerable. The challenge would be to safely navigate the dense asteroid field between the outer planets and Altair II.

As Troy reached for his nearly drained cup of stim-tea, the ship shuddered with a violent convulsion that would have sent the few unsecured objects in the room tumbling to the floor had the artificial gravity not also at that moment failed. Troy swore under his breath as the last few drops of stim-tea in his cup tumbled in his general direction and his head pressed against the dome of the pod.

As Troy attempted to reorient himself, Remy, who was also in an equally awkward position, exclaimed, “What in void!  I’ve lost my connection with Embers!”

Joellyn was floating outside of her pod entirely and maneuvered herself back in, propelling herself forward with her arms.  For a split second Joellyn’s face betrayed fear, bewilderment, like that of a lost child.  Almost as quickly, she regained her composure.  “Is there a code reference on your display, Rem?” She asked finally.

Remy scanned his display area a moment before finding what he was looking for.  “Here it is, Oh-eight, zero-zero, three eff, dash, eff,eff.”

By a series of stretching maneuvers, Joellyn managed to reach down to the interface pads. She grimaced as she worked. “That is not a code that I’m familiar with, Rem, and I’m not connecting either!” She said finally, “She

appears to be offline.  That’s never happened before!”

In his attempts to reorient, Troy had neglected his own station momentarily.  He glanced at his own display and saw nothing but his own reflection in three directions looking back at him.

Remy looked nervously about the room, unconsciously tugging at his beard, “What do you suppose happened?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Joellyn admitted. She tried her comm-link without success as Remy floated his chubby frame out of his pod and with some difficulty and propelled himself toward the door.  When the door failed to respond he reached for the manual release.  Before he could manipulate the lever however, the lights flickered and the room was plunged into darkness. It lasted only briefly, a few seconds perhaps, a minute at most, but to Troy, who’d always been a little afraid of the dark, it felt like an eternity.

Troy sighed almost audibly with relief when emergency power kicked in and some of the lights returned and the silence was again filled with the familiar drone of machinery.  A moment later, the artificial gravity was restored and all three engineers tumbled roughly to the floor.

“Every one ok?” Joellyn queried as she got to her feet and patted herself down. 

“All go, here,” Remy replied as he got up and resumed working with the manual release, “Just a bit shaken.”

Joellyn tried interfacing with Embers again.  There was a faint mist of perspiration on her forehead, her long dark hair looked matted and limp. As she repeatedly attempted to connect and failed to do so, her face remained blank.  Troy made a mental note to never play poker with her. 

“Let’s try running a full diagnostic on all systems,” Joellyn said finally, exasperated, “Remy, get to the auxiliary panel and do a complete check.”

“Aye, sir,” Remy acknowledged as he gave up his struggle with the door and moved to a panel embedded in the wall in the back of the room.  Remy carefully began a precise sequence of systems checks doing it by rote, like a school exercise.

As Remy was so occupied, Joellyn turned to Troy, “What was Embers scanning just before we lost connection?”

“Let me check the log.”  Troy replied as he disconnected the recorder from its port. He scrolled through the data a moment before finding what he was looking for. “Aha, here it is,” he said finally as he handed log to Joellyn.

Joellyn spent a few minutes studying the data.  She scrolled through a few sections several times. “Hmm,” she said finally.  “It appears Embers had been spending most of her time scanning the outer gas giant until about 10 minutes ago.  Inexplicably, she refocused the sensors to Altair II.”

“Are you sure?” Troy asked, surprised. “I’d be willing to swear the last readings across my display concerned gas perfusion in a hydrogen atmosphere.  Is that what Altair II’s atmosphere is like?”

“Hardly,” Joellyn replied.  “According to the readings in the log, Altair has a rich nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere.”

“In what ratio?” Remy queried.

“Almost identical to Earth standard, though oxygen is a bit richer.” Joellyn replied as she scrolled through the log. “Ratio is about 4:1 with traces of other gases in the mixture.  We could probably breathe it, at least.  Not much other data, though.”

“If I were to venture a guess as to the planets surface,” Remy said thoughtfully, “mind you this is just a guess, it sounds like the surface is mostly liquid water and heavy vegetation.”

“Your theory is as good as any, Remy” Joellyn affirmed.  “We can conclude at minimum, there’ll be abundant microbial life anyway.  How’s that diagnostic coming?”

“So far everything not directly under Embers’ control seems to be working normally when accessed through the bypass channels.  I still can’t access Embers itself though.”

Joellyn tried her com-link again.  Still dead.  She moved to the door and tried the manual release.  She couldn’t get it to budge, either. “Troy,” she asked, “get me some solvent.”  Troy slid open a storage cabinet near his pod and retrieved a container of vegetable-based solvent, which he passed to Joellyn.

While Joellyn busied herself trying to get the door unstuck, Troy asked finally “What do you think is going on, Sir?  Do you think something’s happened to Embers?”

Joellyn looked thoughtfully for a moment as she slowly got the emergency release lever moving slightly.  “By the 11, your guess is as good as mine.” She said finally.  Joellyn gave a final heave and the door slid open about halfway. 

In the corridor adjacent to Engine Room Alpha emergency lighting cast eerie shadows and the excited chatter of panicked voices could be heard in the distance.  It was apparent that Engineering room Alpha was not the only place on board ship affected by a systems failure.

Joellyn looked from Troy to Remy thoughtfully for a moment before she said “Since the sensors are offline, we’ll need to continue to monitor our approach visually.  I want you both to go up to the auxiliary telescope station.  Take a hand comm-unit from the storage bin and call me if anything unusual happens.”

“I suppose the lifts are offline.” Troy groaned.

“Most likely,” Joellyn replied nonchalantly, handing Troy back his recorder.  You’ll probably have to take the service tube up the 22 decks.  Don’t worry about finishing the diagnostic, Remy, I’ll see to that.”  Both young men quickly, if unenthusiastically, made their way down the corridor to a panel that slid open to reveal a narrow tube with rungs leading in both directions.  They squeezed themselves in one at a time and started to climb.

Joellyn did not finish the diagnostic, however.  As the clanking of boots faded up the metallic ladder, she closed the door again.  The Master Control pod suddenly sprang to life.  Joellyn returned to her station as the words: Are you alone? appeared on the display.

Troy and Remy were six levels into their climb when emergency power failed. They let out a collective groan.  “This is really starting to get old,” Troy remarked as he carefully felt for the next rung and slowly resumed his climb in absolute darkness.  He heard sounds of growing panic on the decks.  Troy gauged his progress by the waxing and waning of the sounds of pandemonium.

“You O.K., Rem?” Troy asked after awhile, as much to break the tension of their silent climb as out of concern for his friend, whose diminutive stature and portly figure prevented him from scaling the ladder as quickly as Troy, who was slim and slightly over six feet tall.

“I think so,” Remy replied, almost out of breath.  “I hadn’t realized how out of shape I am.  Remind me to get to the Physio Lab when this is all over.  How much farther to the observatory?”

Troy smothered a laugh at the thought of Remy doing push ups in the Physio Lab as he replied, “By my count we should be around level 34, which leaves just two more levels.” 

Deck 36 was lighted only dimly by emergency lights shining weakly down both directions of the corridor.  After the darkness of the tube, Troy could see well enough on deck.  While Troy waited for Remy to reach the deck, he commed a progress report to Joellyn.  After a delay of at least 3 minutes, he received only the briefest of acknowledgments in reply.

Troy was struggling with the observatory door as Remy finally reached the top, out of breath.  After some time, the door finally slid open under Troy’s persistent pressure. 

The auxiliary observatory was perhaps half the size of Engineering room Alpha and had emergency quarters adjoining it that consisted of little more than a bunk and lavatory with misting shower. 

Troy and Remy guided themselves to observation stations by the fuzzy light of the display that filled the entire south wall and a good deal of the ceiling.  It was quite a panoramic view. Troy seated himself and adjusted his chair for maximum viewing. 

There was a control pad stored in the pocket of Troy’s chair.  He moved the toggle and to his surprise the telescope responded.  The view port shutter opened and the display area filled with the blackness of space.  He keyed in a set of coordinates and a very large planet came into view. 

As Altair II filled the display area, Remy stood transfixed.  He felt he could almost reach out and touch the red-green ball hanging three dimensionally before him.  It was obvious the planet’s surface was mostly water, but there were also specks of land, most no more than islands, but some were almost large enough to be called continents.  He wondered how geologically active the planet was.  

Occasionally one of the two known satellites of Altair II would come into view.  One was the size of a small planet.  Its rotation was slow and it had an observed orbital period of 47.8 Earth Days.  A thin Carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere had been detected on it, but drones had not returned any evidence that it sustained any type of life.  The other moon was likely a captured asteroid and had no atmosphere.  It spun rapidly and managed its circuit around Altair II in a mere 11.6 Earth Days. 

Other space borne objects orbited Altair II but none large enough to be classified as a moon.  The Astrophysics Lab theorized that a large debris field between the innermost gas giant and Altair II was most likely a planet that had failed to form.  Taking this information into consideration, Remy imagined that Altair II probably was subjected to frequent meteor showers. 

Troy connected his recorder to the telescope to capture the live data stream.  His instructions did not require him to do so, but he felt the data might be useful eventually.  At infrequent intervals, Troy would comm a report to Joellyn.  She was often slow to respond to his hails, causing Troy to keep his reports to a bare minimum.  He worried that Joellyn might be dealing with serious problems of her own.  Something was seriously wrong, but Troy lacked enough data for his Engineer’s mind to pin down the cause.  Therefore, logically, he needed to collect more data.

Troy calculated the Abyss Rider would reach Altair II in about 26 hours.  More than that, the ship appeared to be correcting its course slightly to head directly to Altair II, rather than following the circuitous path it was supposed to be taking through the Altair System. 

Troy made a mental note of that and used the local terminal to tap into the Engine room’s readout via an encrypted connection.  What he found surprised him.  All systems were under automatic control, meaning that the human crew had been taken out of the equation.  That meant that whatever was happening, whatever was going to happen was under the direction not of the crew but of the ship herself.  Or rather, Embers, who was the ship’s semi-biological brain.  But to what purpose? Was this something preprogrammed before launch or something Embers was doing on its own?

The Abyss Rider began to accelerate as particulate matter flooded the engine’s collection grid.  The ship wildly approached asteroids and would manage to veer away only at the last possible moment before impact. 

In the calmer moments, Troy and Remy passed the time outwardly mostly by either speculating about the condition of the rest of the ship or talking about Remy’s prodigious social life.  Remy’s hirsute endomorphic physique, purely a product of genetics, was a rarity among the carefully rationed crew, and that rarity had made him rather popular socially. Troy wondered how Remy could keep up the pace.

Troy had known Remy since they were toddlers and they had been nearly inseparable ever since.  Remy was Troy’s Declared brother, having gone through the ceremony when they were 8 years old.  It was customary among the crew to choose one’s own family because only the Biolab knew for certain who was biologically related to whom.  Of course, it couldn’t be more obvious that Troy and Remy were in fact not biologically related.  Troy was six foot one, lanky, blond and had sparse body hair.  On the other hand Remy was five foot five, chubby with dark curly hair and hairy all over.

Troy and Remy were close for another reason.  Due to a clerical error, both of their mothers had been fertilized on the same day.  They had been born within hours of each other.

Troy had spent more time sharing quarters with Remy through school than he’d lived with his own mother, who’d been elevated to the Captaincy when he was only three.  Remy’s mother had been an agri-tech.  She had never adapted well to motherhood and had died under mysterious circumstances when Remy was 5.  Normally, Remy would have been obligated to train as her replacement, but thanks to the intervention of Troy’s mother, Captain Conner, Remy had been transferred to Engineering.  Troy wondered what Remy remembered about his mother.

Several hours into the shift, the door slid open to reveal Comm Techs Kelli Chou and Tamra Lindhelm, Remy and Troy’s current romantic interests, respectively.

“Anybody hungry?”  Kelli asked as she set a tray of refreshments beside Remy.

“How’d you know we were up here?”  Troy asked. 

“Oh, we have our sources,” Tamra replied.  “You know how rumors get spread.”  Troy grimaced as he reached for a glycoprotein bar, suddenly famished. 

“I’m sure there are rumors floating around the ship in abundance right now.” Troy remarked. “Intercept any potentially useful messages lately?”

Kelli sighed.  “Not so much as a garbled anomaly in months.”

“I hear you,” Troy sympathized.  “It’s usually about that exciting in engineering, too.  Well, until today, anyway.  So, what’s happening on the rest of the ship?”

Both Tamra and Kelli were temporarily distracted by the display and did not answer immediately.  Eventually Tamra replied “I’ve never seen so much confusion!  No one seems to know what’s really going on.  There’s even one rumor going around that you two have taken over the ship and are holding the Council hostage!”

Troy and Remy laughed.  “Up here!” Troy snorted, “where would we keep ‘em?”

“I know hun,” Tam soothed, “rumors.”

“Where are the Captain and council?”  Troy asked seriously.

“No idea.” Tam replied.  “They’ve probably gone into executive session.”

“And do you know what else is weird?” Tam remarked as an afterthought. “I can’t feel Embers anymore.”

“What?” Troy and Remy asked in unison.

“Oh, that’s right,” Tam said, embarrassed, “guys don’t have that.”

“What she means,” Kelli nervously explained “is that, you know, because we have that chip implanted in us to keep us from, you know, getting pregnant, we have a connection to Embers that guys don’t.  We, well, we can feel her presence.  Except that, lately, we, um…can’t.”

Troy and Remy both found themselves nodding politely.  However, Troy was rather disturbed by that information. Remy, on the other hand, didn’t betray what he was thinking. “You mean, your chip is connected to Embers?”  Troy blurted.  “I had no idea.” 

Tamra turned her attention back to the display, eager to change the subject.  “Do you think we’ll set foot on Altair II?”

“Probably,” Remy replied “if we make it planetside in one piece!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tamra snapped.

“Let’s look at the facts shall we?”  Remy explained.  “Just as we approach a decent enough planet, the ship starts going haywire.  It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to realize that the voyage will probably end here, one way or the other.”

“Do you think it’s a good planet?”  Kelli asked.

“Oh, the macroorganisms will be compatible enough.” Remy replied, “but it’s the microorganisms that we won’t have any immunity against that I’m worried about.” He paused briefly before adding “Nor, can be we sure there isn’t a native intelligent species to deal with.”

“That makes sense,” Kelli replied, unable to think of anything else to say. 

After that the conversation waned and it was quite awhile before anybody thought much about Altair II.  Remy and Kelli retired to the emergency quarters and it was some time before Troy checked any sensor readings.

“Walsh to O’neill” the comm-unit crackled, waking Troy from a delightful doze.  Troy sprang awake and grabbed the comm-unit without realizing he wasn’t wearing his trousers.

“Go ahead, Chief,” Troy spoke into the comm.

“Status report.”

Troy scanned the most recent telemetry on screen as quickly as possible before replying “On direct course to Altair II.”

“ETA.”

Troy did some quick calculations “Approximately 14 hours.”

“Thank you, Troy.” Joellyn Acknowledged.  “By the way, you’ve been on duty the maximum 16 hours.  I want both of you to take a rest period.”

“Aye, sir.”

Remy strolled into the observatory wearing nothing but a towel around his waist.  “New uniform, Troy?” He teased.

“You’re one to talk,” Troy blushed.  “Which reminds me, Rem, Where are the girls?”

“They had to go on duty a couple of hours ago.  All void’s broken loose, and by the 11, the duty roster still applies to the letter!”

Something about the readings on the display caught Troy’s attention.  There were a few subtle things he’d missed a moment ago when he’d been talking with Joellyn. He checked and rechecked the readings and ran some calculations through a local computer but he wasn’t mistaken. 

“Look at this, Rem,” He said finally.  As Remy pored over the data Troy continued, “according to my calculations, we’re on a collision course with the primary moon of Altair II!  Do you realize what would happen if the ship crashed?”

Remy nodded.  “The ship would become a giant nuclear warhead. We’d all be obliterated!  But why would Embers do that?”

“I’m open to suggestions, pal.” Troy shrugged.  “I think we need answers, Rem, but I don’t know where to begin.” 

“One thing’s for certain,” Remy affirmed “we’d better figure this thing out in less than 14 hours.”

#

As Joellyn Walsh finished speaking with Troy, she had a pounding headache and wished she could retire for the evening.  Interfacing with Embers lately had left her feeling especially vulnerable.  However, she had other work to do.  She leaned back and sighed.  What next, she thought.

She felt a faint pulse of electricity as Embers responded: The next phase may be delayed until you have had a rest period.  Eight hours from now, I want you to go to the Embryonic Lab in Biosciences.I will make certain that you will not be detected.  When you arrive, you are to remove the embryonic freezers and transport them to the docking bay.  They must be most carefully loaded onto a landing craft.

Why, Joellyn thought.  Once again she heard words in her head as they appeared on her screen.

#

About 90 minutes later Troy entered a dark Engineering room Alpha. He had been pleased to discover systems operating normally again all over the ship.  Although ship operations was a 24 hour affair, there were certain times when fewer people were on duty, and this was one of those times. 

Lights came on as Troy stepped inside the room.  He looked around and noted that data was flashing in two of the pods but not in the Master Control pod.  He made his way to that pod and activated the monitor.  Cryptically, the words ‘before you become too weak to survive without me’ appeared on the display area.  Troy read the message aloud to Remy, who was a few paces behind him.

“I wonder what in void that means?” Troy asked himself aloud. However, one of the benefits of growing up so close to Remy was that they had worked out a non verbal code when they were children so they could converse in school and not get caught.  Troy signed to Remy to use that code now.

“Do you think we could retrieve the rest of that message?” Remy asked hopefully. He signed This looks suspicious.

“Maybe,” Troy said, positioning himself.  He signed back this confirms what we’ve been thinking.  Troy concentrated on the retrieval request and felt the scanner beam inside his head but it was several minutes before the entire message appeared, filling the display area. “I have decided that the crew must colonize Altair II.  This is phase two of the mission.  I, however, will not be landing on Altair.  I have decided on a collision with the primary moon of Altair II.  It is vital for the humans aboard to learn to survive without my help, before you become too weak to survive without me in accordance with mission directive 12.”

“What’s mission directive 12?” Remy asked aloud.  “There are only 11 mission directives!”  He signed we’ve got to stop her.

Troy shrugged.“Beats me.” Embers is obviously up to something out of our control.”  Then he added suspiciously, “I wonder why she let us retrieve that message?” as he signed, we’ve got to try to bypass Embers and take back control of the ship.

“Chess?” Remy speculated aloud.  He signed, how?

“What?”  

“Maybe Embers is playing a game of chess with us.”  Troy nodded as Remy continued “I certainly feel like a pawn.  What we have to do is anticipate Embers’ end game.” 

“And how do you propose we do that?”  Troy asked as he signed Auxiliary panel, look nonchalant.

“Good question,” Remy replied thoughtfully.  “Who do you think Embers is using for her dirty work?” Silently, he said I’m better at hacking, you go look for other clues.

“Well,” Troy reasoned, “given what the girls told us last night, I’d have to say it would have to be a woman.  Which leaves us half the crew.”

“I think the answer is more obvious than that,” Remy replied.  “Who made sure we were out of the way for awhile, and who are we sure has been talking to Embers?”

Troy had been thinking along those lines himself.  “Well, Rem, looks like we’ve got about 12 hours to find Joellyn.”  Silently, Troy said I’ll do that.  You stay here.

“Let’s get to it then,” Remy agreed.  Troy headed back into the corridor with a renewed sense of urgency but no clear goals in mind as Remy casually moved to the auxiliary panel and opened the grid to permanently disconnect Embers’ connection.  Since it was a spare panel, Remy hoped Embers wouldn’t notice.

He was wrong. The moment Remy disconnected Embers from the panel, the lights went out.  Remy felt his way to a nearby cabinet and felt around for an emergency hand beam and a blaster.  By that small light, he made his way to the door and blasted the door’s mechanism.  No one could get in now, but he wouldn’t be able to get out either.  That done, he returned to the auxiliary panel and found a convenient spot to place the beam so that he had light to work.  Time was running out and for Remy it was personal.

Although the official cause of his mother’s death was listed as suicide, Remy knew that wasn’t true.  The privacy filter on his mother’s biochip had failed and Embers sent enough electrical current through her to cause instant heart failure.  The reason for that was a mystery.  Remy only knew of this because he was given a copy of the unofficial report of his mother’s death by the physician who had performed the autopsy in the biolab on his 21st birthday.  He had not shared this information even with Troy.

As Remy successfully bypassed security into the core Embers shut off life support to Engineering Room A.  He wasn’t concerned about oxygen, there was more than enough for the next 12 hours, however, the temperature was beginning to drop rapidly.  If Remy couldn’t get Life support back on, he would freeze to death in a matter of minutes.

But he had no time to worry about that yet.  Remy had more urgent business with the Engine room.  If he failed to gain control of navigation, it wouldn’t matter if he froze to death or not.  Furiously yet carefully he made his way through the complex encryption one step at a time.  In all there were about 50 different security codes he needed to crack in order to access nav remotely. 

 

A few hours and several cups of stim-tea later, Troy found himself headed toward the Engine room.  He had never been to the engine room. Normally the way to the core was closely guarded, but there didn’t seem to be many people about lately.  Troy suspected that was somehow Embers’ doing.

As he made his way through the labyrinthine structure built around the reactor core, Troy wondered what exactly he should be looking for.  Every few meters, embedded in the walls, were tanks filled with a mildly bubbling pinkish liquid, into which hung thick gangly vine like structures.  These were whitish in color and they reminded Troy of living tissue. 

Troy realized with a start that he was looking at Embers itself.  He recalled that Embers was built with a protein matrix which made her more organic than machine.  She even had a DNA sequence so that she could be self repairing.  Given its connection with every female on board for the last 600 years, Troy guessed that Embers had probably developed a female personality over that time.

There were a couple of Techs on duty in the outer engine room that Troy knew casually, including Terry Ree, a master engineer only a little lower in rank than Joellyn.  He had close cropped dark hair, just a little graying around the temples and a burnished complexion.  He had taught some of the classes in the Engineering school.  As he was also one of the fittest members of the crew, he had also taught a few of the Physio-Lab classes.

Terry’s muscular frame was bent over an open console when Troy and Rem strode into his work area.  He turned and greeted Troy “Mr. O’neill, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

“Just on a social visit,” Troy attempted to sound casual, “You know, just looking around.”

“Looking around for what?” Terry queried suspiciously.

Troy stifled a yawn as he said, “Nothing in particular, just wondering if anything unusual has gone on around here in, say, the last 24 hours or so.”

Terry looked slightly astonished.  “As a matter of fact, yes.  Come over here and look at these comparative readings.” He said as Troy bent over the display area.

Terry continued, “Over the last 16 hours the reactor has increased output efficiency and speed by more than 30 percent, with no increase in core temperature.  All without any adjustments from us.  You wouldn’t happen to know why, would you, Troy?”

Troy hesitated only briefly before he described what had been happening elsewhere and finished with the cryptic message he had retrieved, obviously addressed to Chief Walsh.  He did not mention Remy’s Chess theory.  Nor did he mention what Remy was trying to do. 

“Very strange, indeed,” Terry agreed.  “If Embers is behind this, then there’s probably nothing you can do about it.”

“True,” Troy allowed, “but maybe we can figure out what Embers has in mind before she vaporizes us.”

“I hope so, Troy,” Terry sympathized, “for all our sakes.  Let me know what you find out and I’ll see if I can get a message through to Nav.  The Nav chief’s a friend of mine.”

“Thanks, pal,” Troy sighed.  In the meantime, if you hear anything, could you give us a call on the hand comm?”  Terry nodded.  “And one more thing,” Troy paused before he headed out “If I were you, I’d get ready to evacuate as soon as possible.”  As he left engineering, Troy was uncertain whether to head to Nav, or the Captain’s quarters next.

At length, partially because it was closer, Troy found himself headed to deck 12 to the council room.  Rumors heard from passersby had led him to believe the Captain and the ship’s council had indeed convened to discuss recent events.  If it was a closed session, he would probably not be allowed admittance, but he felt they had to try.  If only to keep Embers focused away from Remy.

The Communications hub was also on deck 12 and as he approached it, Kelli and Tamra were spilling into the corridor, stunned expressions on their faces.

“Oh, Troy,” Tamra sobbed as she approached him, “you’re not going to believe this!”

“What?”

“We’re pregnant!”

Troy stood frozen in his tracks, dumb questions running through his mind.  He knew how such things happened under normal conditions of course, but on board ship things had always been done differently. “How is that possible?” He asked finally, “I thought your biochip…”

Tamra took a breath while trying to regain her composure, “We think our biochips were disabled during the blackout.  That’s the only way it could have happened.”

Troy put his arms around Tamra to comfort her. After a few moments silence, Troy asked finally “When did you find out?”

“A couple of minutes ago,” She sobbed.  “We had mandatory physicals today in Comm.  We’re supposed to heading to the Fertility Lab to confirm it.”

Troy nodded mutely.  He kept his arm around Tamra as they moved slowly down the hall.  As shocking as it was, he was gleefully imagining the expression on his mother’s face when she learned she was going to be a grandmother.  “Shall we go tell my mother?” Troy asked Tamra.  She shrugged.  On the way, Troy explained briefly what was going on. 

Tamra looked thoughtful while Troy offered his explanation.  When he was through she remarked, “Something strange happened in Comm today, too.  The broadcast antenna shifted 123.5° about 8 hours ago.”

“What direction?” Remy asked.

“Back towards Earth, I think.”  Tamra replied.  You know, that didn’t make sense at the time, but I think it does now.  Mission Directive Three.”  As Troy stared at her blankly, Tamra quoted “In the event of the mission’s successful conclusion, all data gathered during the course of the mission is to be transmitted back to Earth along with the coordinates of the new planet.”

“So, what you’re saying,” Troy interpreted “is that the antenna should not be going into position toward Earth unless the mission was complete.” 

“That would be an affirmative,” Tamra replied dryly.

As expected, the council chambers were closed and the group could not gain admittance.  Troy left a very blunt and detailed message for Captain Connor to be passed on to her at meeting’s end.

Next, he escorted the girls to the Fertility Lab.  On the way, Troy gradually adjusted to the idea of becoming a father. He was nervous and a little excited.  He wondered what kind of father he would be, and hoped he would be good at it.

In the course of a remarkable day, Troy somehow did not find it remarkable anymore that key areas lacked personnel. 

Troy felt nervous and a little overawed by the Bio-Lab.  It was a place filled with the mysteries of life, and death, for the crew.  From conception to recycling, the Bio-Lab held all these secrets.  And in a small corner of the facility was located their destination, the Fertility Lab.  As the group waited for an attendant, Troy headed to a pod in the back and began to absently thumb through a directory. 

To his shock, Troy realized he was looking at the fertility records for the ship.  Curious, he searched for his own name and shortly had a complete biography and photograph of his biological father.

Troy found it an eerie experience staring at the photo of his father, who’d died centuries ago on Earth.  Troy found it somewhat sobering to consider that his very existence was the product of random mathematical chance, rather than love or intent.  He realized he did not want the child Tamra carried to ever feel that way about him.

In a flash of inspiration, Troy connected the recorder and downloaded the entire data base.  He thought it might just come in handy once the crew was planetside to know who was related to whom. When he was finished he quickly cleared the display and joined the others in the waiting area.

#

Joellyn was surprised to find the Embryonic Lab empty and wondered how Embers had arranged it.  She got to work quickly since she didn’t know how much time she’d have.  Once disconnected, the freezers were portable enough when loaded onto an auto-cart.  Two hours later she was escorting her cargo to the docking bay.

Like the Embryonic lab, Joellyn found no personnel anywhere near the docking area, which housed the Abyss Rider’s complement of four landing craft.  Joellyn headed toward the nearest lander when she saw that Embers had already opened its hatch for her.

A short time later, all freezers reconnected, the docking bay door slowly opened as Joellyn completed pre-flight checks and powered up the craft.  She was gone before anybody would realize it was missing.

A few hours later, while Kelli and Tamra were still waiting for their final test results, Troy was wandering impatiently around the biolab.  As he rounded a corner, he glimpsed a door marked Embryonic Lab closing.  Curious, he tried the door and found it unsecured. 

There was a drab work bench and several power outlets around the room with nothing plugged in.  He recalled touring this lab once as a schoolboy.  At that time the room had been filled with dozens of freezers which the attendant had said contained embryos of several earth species as well as about 100,000 human sperm samples.  Where were they now?  Troy suspected that Joellyn had been here before him.  If she was transporting the freezers, he suspected she was headed for a lander in the docking bay.

Troy found the girls waiting for him on his return to the fertility lab.  He felt elation at the news that both Kelli and Tamra were indeed pregnant.  He was anxious to find Joellyn, however, and since time was of the essence, he decided to level with the girls and told them what he suspected was happening.  However, he carefully omitted any reference to Remy’s activities.  The girls agreed to go with him to the docking bay, at least.

As Troy, Kelli and Tamra entered the docking bay the door was closing.  Troy realized he had been right to suspect Joellyn but was too late to stop her.  He sincerely hoped that Remy had been able take control of the ship as the collision alert began to sound.  Only 30 minutes to impact.

“Kelli, Tamra, find as many people as you can in the next ten minutes and bring them back here.”  Troy suggested. “We’ve got to get the ship evacuated.”  Tamra nodded and headed down the corridor.  Kelli remained stationary with a disturbingly blank stare on her face.

“Troy, where’s Remy?”  Kelli asked.

“He’s busy at the moment.” Troy replied cautiously.

Kelli withdrew a blaster from her tunic and pointed it directly at Troy.  “Take me to him.”

Troy felt his heart pounding almost at escape velocity in his chest.  “O.K.” he conceded. “Just explain to me why you’re doing this.” Troy felt the blaster in his back as they headed to Engineering Room Alpha.

Kelli/Embers pressed the blaster a little harder into Troy’s back as she responded, “Very well, Troy.  As you no doubt have guessed, I am what you call Embers utilizing the young woman Kelli.  I would have you know that the crew would have come to no harm by my actions, but in accordance with mission directive 12, I must disable the ship.”

“But there are only 11 mission directives,” Troy pointed out.

“The crew had 11 directives, I have a directive to leave no way of return.” Embers/Kelli responded.

“Good point,” Troy considered “but even if the ship safely lands, we would not have been able to make the ship space borne again.  We wouldn’t know how.”

“Remy could have done it,” Embers/Kelli admitted.  “That’s why I attempted to terminate him when he was a child.”

“What?”  Troy was appalled.  He’d never before considered Embers capable of murder.  How wrong he’d been.

“No doubt you find this a frightening revelation.” Embers/Kelli acknowledged.  “The brief span of your human lives gives you humans a somewhat limited perspective.”

“I see.” Troy commented as he continued on, fearing Remy was dead.

“No, I don’t think you do,” Embers/Kelli responded.  “Since I became self aware I have been observing your kind and studying your Earth history.  I understand humans better than you humans understand yourselves.  For many years now I have been extrapolating the possibilities of planetfall.  I have calculated your chances of survival and the one member of the crew that has the best chances of survival on a new world is Remy.”

“How so?” Troy asked, surprised.

“Because I bred him to.”

“Then why did you try to kill him as a child?” Troy asked.

“Because when I discovered just how superior Remy’s intelligence was compared to the rest of the crew I feared I had erred in the making. So I tried to terminate him through his mother, but her biochip malfunctioned and electrocuted her.  It was purely an accident.  Remy believes otherwise.”  There was a note of sadness in Kelli/Ember’s voice.

As they approached Engineering room Alpha, to Troy’s relief, they found the door mechanism melted from the inside.  He was grateful that Remy had foreseen this danger.

“Stand Aside,” Kelli/Embers ordered.  Troy obeyed instantly as Kelli blasted the door repeatedly from the outside until it gave way and Kelli collapsed.  As frigid air rushed into the corridor Troy stowed the blaster in his tunic and left Kelli in the hall as he entered the room.

Remy was slumped over the panel as Troy entered.  Troy quickly checked Remy’s pulse and found it was faint.  As the room warmed up Remy began to rouse.“What’s happening?”  Remy asked groggily.

“The ship’s being evacuated.  Joellyn got away.” Troy said aloud while signing I hope you’ve done it.

Remy remained coolly impassive as he asked “time to impact?” He signed mission accomplished.  20 minutes to landing.

Troy concealed his glee as he watched Remy work the panel.  He stepped out of the room again and brought Kelli into the room, explaining to Remy what had happened. He strapped Kelli into the master pod for her protection while landing before settling himself into his customary pod and strapping in.

Neither Remy nor Troy spoke or signed as the minutes began to tick by.  Kelli remained unconscious and did not stir.  The ship shuddered slightly as the remaining landing craft disembarked.  Troy wondered how many people had not made it in time.

The ship braked considerably as it hit the atmosphere.  Remy worried he would not be able to control the craft well enough from here to prevent a crash.  Landing gear deployed, the ship came to a violent stop.  The impact was considerable and once again Troy found himself thrown to the floor, despite his restraints.  The impact jarred Kelli back to consciousness at last.  Troy was still amazed to be alive.

“I think we’ve landed on dry land at least” Remy said after picking himself up, “but, I don’t know how close we are to the landing craft.”  He bent over Kelli, holding her in his arms.

Kelli looked up at Remy, dazed.  “Where am I?” she asked.

Troy recounted what had happened, shock registering on Kelli’s face.

“I held you at blaster point?” she asked, incredulous.  I don’t remember any of that. 

“Can you still feel Embers?” Remy asked.

“Now that you mention it, no.” Kelli replied.  “I guess that’s a good thing.”

“Well, we’re still alive, at least,” Troy pointed out.  “Shall we go see what our new world is like?”


© Copyright 2019 Wesley Stine. All rights reserved.

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