ONYX: Prologue [sci-fi]

Title: Onyx
series: Facet of Empire
genre: sci-fi. space opera.

Yeah, this is kinda really rough and I really need to go through it, but it is what it is. My brain opened up one day and spewed out a bunch of space opera, yo. Enjoy it. Live it. Maybe possibly love it?

This series of stories was started a while ago and really shows it. My writing style has changed over the years, but my love for Jewel and his children has lingered. So if you think that it’s like two different people have been writing at this, they kind of have been. Young Me and Old Me picking up a story and carrying it.

Summary: A representative of the Emperor has been sent to an out of the way planet populated by stranded colonists and bloodthirsty pirates. His job? To find one man.
Things do not go well.

PROLOGUE

The stars passed by as blurs of light, silent but reverberating through his mind. He stood in the observation bubble with his hands behind his back, staring out at the starscape, watching the universe slip past him.

This is what space travel is truly all about, Van thought. It’s not really about getting from point A to point B; it’s about being able to look out there and know that you’re surrounded on all sides by space. That you’re not the end of all ends; you’re just a bit of flotsam floating through the nothingness, searching for a place to rest.

 This mission was what he had been working his entire life towards. He had gone through years of training and decades of short Jump trade missions all for this. The long haul from Mendall World to Zimfer Station.

 He knew that he was young for the responsibility and that nepotism had a lot to do with his getting the post, but he didn’t care. He knew that he was going to do a good job, he was going to get his ship to Zimfer with no complications.

 Just as he was thinking that, a ship-wide alarm began to wail, loud and grating on the nerves. A chill went through him. That particular alarm was only used in the direst of emergencies. Something really bad must have happened.

 He took one last look at the peace of the stars out the viewport, then turned and began running toward the bridge.

 “What’s happening?” was the first thing out of his mouth as he charged onto the bridge.

 McBride looked up from his display, his face chalk white. “We got problems, sir. The computer’s spitting out bad data and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

 “What do you mean?” Van asked, sitting down in his chair and calling up an echo of McBride’s display. “I don’t see any anomalies.”

 The big man blew out his breath and began running his finger over the display, highlighting various sets of numbers. “These are wrong, sir. I checked them in the Log Book three times–we’re so far off course that it’s a wonder we haven’t fallen off the edge of the universe. And when I tried to get Mandy to let me re-numerate, she booted me off the system with a UAA.” (An Unauthorized Access Attempt.) “She says that I no longer have access to her Main Brain.”

 The Log Book was a datachip completely isolated from the rest of the system and held a tamper-proof copy of the flight plan. The Log was carefully stored on three separate ‘chips, one on the bridge, one in the Captain’s cabin, and one on the main lifeboat. It existed so that if the computer’s navigational matrix ever developed a glitch, so adroitly called a “hiccup,” the coordinates could be re-input by hand if necessary.

 Van drew in a deep breath. “Uh, have you run the virus check programs on her?”

 “First thing,” McBride said. “There’s no little critters eating out her insides, sir. She’s working perfectly–except that she no longer allows me access, she’s running on a bunch of wrong numbers, and she’s talking funny.”

 “‘Talking funny?'” Van quirked an eyebrow, his lips pursing slightly.

 “Listen to her for yourself,” the man said, tapping a key. That was another strange thing. Van had never seen McBride use the keypad before; he always used the direct neural interface. The only reason he would use the keypad was if he was afraid the computer might try to brain-fry him. It had been known to happen, unauthorized users were not treated lightly by the AI.

Hello, my name is Amanda. I am a TX-40 starship computer registered to the Thorne Trade Consortium. I was installed into the merchant ship Syren in the year 5337 and have been running for approximately twenty-two point four-three-seven years.

I was designed for maximum navigational efficiency and pleasant interaction with a human crew over long voyages. I run most of the onboard systems of the Syren, including the…

“Is this for real?” Van asked, looking up.

 McBride shook his head. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her and there’s nothing I can do about it. She’s blocked my access. I hope there’s something you can do with your command override codes.”

 Van drew in a deep breath. He was the captain. He was in control. He could do this.

 “Turn down that racket!” he yelled over his shoulder at Remmy, who had been sharing the watch with McBride. Immediately the alarm’s volume was lowered to a bearable hum.

 “All right,” he said, turning back to the display. “Let’s put things to rights.”

 Patrick VanChesna, Captain of the Merchantman Syren, authorization code TPVC-287834wEyq8ew7

He wasn’t very good with the keypad, but he managed to input the data. He checked the authorization code over twice and it was correct. He couldn’t help feeling a bit pleased with himself. Even working with the barbarically crude keypad, he was still techno-savvy.

 Amanda automatically spit out her reply, a string of numbers and letters that made no sense. It looked as though she had just vomited out the alphabet.

 “What does this mean?” he asked, looking at McBride.

 “I have no idea,” McBride said. He was monitoring Van’s display at his own station. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” He was frowning so hard that it was a wonder his face didn’t fall into the line between his brows.

 “All right,” Van said, blowing out his cheeks. “Let’s ignore this for now and see if she’s going to allow me access.”

 He tapped his commands into the keypad, trying to call up Amanda’s Main Brain directory.

Unauthorized Access Attempt!

You are illegally attempting to access property of the Thorne Trade Consortium. If you do not cease and desist, you will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Thank you. Have a nice day!

“Shit!” Every UAA created a five-minute loop in the system where no one was allowed access. They were going to have to wait five minutes before they could try the Main Brain again.

 “All right,” he said. “We better call in the rest of the bridge crew and try to figure out what we’re going to do.”

 McBride looked around, as though expecting the missing crewmembers to magically appear. “That’s funny, sir, they should have already been here. The emergency alarm should have brought them to the bridge first thing.”

 Van felt all of the color draining out of his face and turned to Remmy. “Hurry Rem, call up a schematic of the bridge crew’s location.”

“Something stinky’s going on,” the young man muttered. Without even thinking, he began to transmit orders via his neural implant.

“Wait!” Van yelled, but it was too late.

There was a choked off scream and Pascal Remington collapsed twitching to the deck, his eyes staring and his mouth open. Blood ran unchecked from his nose and ears and he was barely breathing.

 Van flipped the man over and began checking him for damage, already knowing it was too late.

 “There’s nothing you can do, sir,” McBride said sadly, kneeling beside him. “He’s been completely brain-fried. There’s not enough brain cells left in him to scrape together to make a vegetable. He’s toast.” The man stood up. “We better get back to finding the crew. There’s nothing we can do for Remmy.”

 Van stared down at the man that had not exactly been a friend, but who he had taken responsibility for. This was the first time someone had died on his watch. It was horrible, worse than he had ever imagined.

 He drew in a deep breath and stalked back over to his chair, angrily dashing tears from his eyes. He had a duty to perform. The rest of the crew needed him. He was the Captain.

 “All right, here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, making his voice sound calm and in control, as though he really knew what he was doing. “You’re better with the computer than I’ll ever be, so you head down to the Computer Room and try a manual access, while I run a deck by deck search for crew. Whoever I find, I’ll enlist to help me find more. We’ll stay in communication through our databands and NIs. Warn everyone you see not to trust the com systems, and to definitely not try a direct interface with the bitch.”

 McBride nodded. “Okay, sir. I’ll see you later, then.”

 Van watched the older man leave, then slumped a little where he stood.

 He didn’t know what he was doing. The regs didn’t exactly handle a situation like this. He was a merchie ship-handler, for Gord’s sake! This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen, not to him, and not to his crew.

 He drew in a deep breath and forced his shoulders square. This wasn’t supposed to be happening, but it was. He was going to have to handle it without panicking. He had people depending on him.

 With a purposely confident and undaunted stride, he left the bridge. He had to follow his own orders. He would fall apart later, if there was time. He was in command here.

* * *

Euan McBride climbed down the ladder, the tool kit clipped to his belt bringing him a little off-balance. He had tried to use the lift, but the doors had refused to open, something he was rather grateful for now. With the way Amanda was acting he didn’t trust her not to send him hurtling from one end of the ship to the other to end up as a gravity jellified mishmash of blood and guts at the end of his journey.

 What is wrong with you, girl? he thought. Is it your core programming, or are you just suffering from a virus your scanners haven’t been able to detect?

 There was no answer, just more ladder to climb down.

 By the time he reached the hatch with the large “12” painted on it in lurid yellow, his arm muscles were screaming and he was a little short of breath. He had been taking this voyage pretty easy, not hitting the gym as often as he probably should have. Now he wished he had exercised more.

 He took deep breaths as he wrapped his left arm around a ladder rung, locked his elbow, and reached down into his tool kit with the other. He unsealed the plasti-steel case and dug through it to find the set of suction grips and the pressure regulator.

 First he stuck the pressure regulator to one corner of the hatch, thumbing the switch to on. Indicator lights flashed across the gizmos’ surface and he whistled soundlessly between his teeth as he waited, his ears popping occasionally as the pressure changed around him. The regulator was creating a bubble around this side of the hatch and the other. The pressure inside the bubble was equalizing, and when it was the same on both sides, it would be possible for him to open the hatch even onto a zero oxygen atmosphere. Not that he would ever want to do something like that, not unless he was wearing a hard suit and carrying a few extra cans of oxygen for when he was blown out into space.

 When the pressure regulator made the “All Clear” sound and the lights flashed green, he stuck his suction grips to the hatch, one on each side of the opening line. He carefully balanced on the ladder as, with a grunt of effort, he used the grips to force the hatch open.

 McBride peered through the open hatch, but didn’t see anything. He hoisted himself in.

 He sat on the corridor floor for a moment, catching his breath. Then he reached back through the open hatch and pulled the pressure regulator free, tucking it back into his tool kit. He then used the suction grips to close the hatch tightly shut.

 He had about half a minute to wait while the pressure bubble shrunk in upon itself, mixing the pressure inside with the pressure outside. He had set the regulator to give him a short bubble space. He could have set it to give him up to a three-hour bubble, one that was completely uncontaminated for that entire length of time, and a bigger machine could have given him a longer bubble time then that if he had wanted.

 As it was, he was tapping his heels impatiently as the bubble dissipated into itself. When it was finally gone and his ears had stopped popping, he climbed to his feet and hurried down the corridor toward the Computer Room.

 He tried to ignore how eerie it felt to be traveling through these well-lighted, but completely uninhabited corridors. Usually there were men hurrying down these hallways busily, wearing abstracted expressions, frowns, or grins as they went about their duties. Now there was no one, just him all alone. It was a bit creepy.

 Euan pressed his hand against the touchpad outside the Computer Room’s hatch and almost raced inside when it opened. Anything to get out of that lifeless corridor.

 Looking around him, everything looked all right. The lights had come up as he entered and there weren’t any dead bodies lying around, anyway.

 He settled into the seat in front of the main console and slid back the top of the desktop to reveal the ancient style keyboard that all ships had to have for safety reasons. For once, he was glad of the anachronistic bit of tech.

 “All right, you bitch, let’s go,” he muttered, and began inputting data as fast as he could. The keyboard was slow and awkward, but it was all he had to use. It had to be good enough. He wasn’t about to plug his brain into that monster, not after what had happened to Remmy. The kid hadn’t even had a chance to realize his mistake before he was twitching on the floor with his brain oozing out his ears. That wasn’t how Euan McBride was going to go, no way.

 After fifteen sweat-soaked minutes, he knew that they were royally screwed.

Amanda had been purposefully Killed, and that was putting it mildly. She was infected with so many cross-purposed commands that she was literally tearing herself apart. About the only clear-set command she had in her was the one that wouldn’t let her accept any help from her human crew.

 “Who did this to you?” McBride whispered. “Who did this to us, and why?”

 Finally, with a heavy heart and tears filling his eyes, he made up his mind and shattered the protective seal over the Manual Override button. Once he pushed the MO, Amanda would be completely wiped and the system would revert to a simple command-and-accept computer. They would have to manually input all of the coordinates and keep a careful eye on the functions Mandy would have normally performed, but they’d be alive.

“Good-bye, sweetheart,” he said, and slapped his hand down on the large red button.

 The screen blanked in front of him and the lights flickered around him. His heart felt so heavy in his chest that it was a wonder it didn’t fall down around his knees. He was going to miss the Amanda so much. She had practically been a friend.

 When the lights came back up, he felt terror go through him. A few drips of urine trickled down his leg and he felt as though he were about to have a heart attack. His breath came loud in his ears and he just kept saying “Oh no, oh no” over and over again.

 The screen, which should have either been blank or had a command prompt asking him to input data, was instead covered in bright red text.

 Unauthorized Access Attempt!

You have attempted to Manually Override my systems; that is not allowed. Security has been informed of your infraction and you are hereby warned to vacate the premises. In exactly four minutes a deadly neuro-toxin will flood the Computer Room. You are denied further access. You have been terminated. Have a nice day!

“Oh shit!” he said. Strangely, his voice was almost calm in his own ears. He was just about to die. There was nothing special about that.

 He had about three and a half minutes to try and get into Amanda’s system, then he had better get his ass out of here. She was fully loaded with an advanced chemical deployment system that would have him dead so fast he wouldn’t even know he was dead until he hit the ground twitching.

 He began tapping at the keyboard, trying to gain access to the computer. At the same time, he used his neural interface to contact the captain.

 ~all right, captain,~ he said, ~i’m in the computer, and it’s not good. we’ve been purposely fucked, and that’s the only way to describe it. someone has injected mandy with a high powered set of kill-commands, and there’s nothing i can do about it. maybe if we had found the problem before we spaced, and maybe if i had a whole team of crackers at my disposal, we could paste something together and get our butts home, but as it is… there’s nothing i can do. i’m sorry.~

 He was a bit abrupt, but though Captain Patrick VanChesna may have been young, he wasn’t exactly a child and he knew how real people talked. Besides, Euan figured they were all about to die now anyway, so he didn’t feel a need to follow the usual stiff-necked formalities.

 There was silence on the other end for a long moment, then, ~should i give the order to evacuate the ship?~

 McBride licked his lips. ~i don’t even think you can,~ he said. ~it looks like mandy’s locked down all of the escape pods. she’s going down, and she wants to take us with her.~

 ~what can we do?~ the Captain asked.

 ~well…~ McBride drew in a deep breath and rubbed his burning eyes. ~we’re pretty close to a planet… i think we should ride her down. it’s about all we have a hope of doing. by my calculations we’ve only got about ten hours before this ship comes apart at the seams and everyone dies. the problems with mandy are just going to keep getting worse until she destroys herself, and there’s no way to take manual control. all of the overrides have been taken offline. we’re stuck aboard her, and she’s falling apart fast.~

 ~are you absolutely certain that there is no other course of action available?~

 McBride shook his head, even though there was no one to see. ~there’s nothing else we can do. we either take ‘er down, or we all die.~

 There was a long moment of silence. ~very well. sound the planetary approach alarm, then get your ass down to engineering. this is a C42 class ship, definitely not made for landing on a planet. you’re going to have to hold this bitch together all the way down.~

 ~i figured as much,~ Euan said with a rude bark of laughter. ~i’ve got my shoestrings ready, and i’m willing to give it a try.~

 ~very well,~ the Captain said. ~good luck, mcbride. we’re counting on you.~

 The connection broke and Euan climbed to his feet. He felt suddenly tired, some secret part of him saying that this was all fruitless, that it would be so easy to just lay down and let things happen like they were going to. The Syren was fucked and that was that.

 He wanted to just lie down and die, but he knew that he couldn’t. He had received orders from his captain and he had a duty to perform. All the hard work might come to nothing, but he was a man and he took his responsibilities standing up.

 Euan McBride drew in a deep breath and struck the Emergency Alarm button and left the Computer Room running.

 No matter what happened, he at least knew that the others had received warning of what was going to come. The Emergency Alarm was on a separate circuit from everything else in the system, completely outside of the Amanda’s control, so she couldn’t muffle the sound. The entire ship reverberated with the alarm, giving those that cared about living the chance to climb into suits and brace themselves for possible death by impact with a large, hard surface.

 A sudden devil-may-care smile curled his lips. This was his greatest adventure yet, and if he lived through it, he would have one beer-swilling story to tell.

TBC…

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