Saturday, 17 November 2012

And here we have: 16


"So, any idea how we get in? What kind of security is this running?" asked Chen as the three of them stood clipped in to the dock surface next to the probe, a gentle heat still radiating from it. 
"Er, it isn't, I can just pop that hatch with a simple entry request" transmitted Lloyd.
"Well go on then" urged Kell, who was again excitedly fidgeting.
"Hang on. That isn't like the congloms" Chen was speaking from experience, the congloms were precious about protecting their assets. 
"The security is there, it's a little out of date by today's standards, but it is there. It's just turned off" Lloyd tended to sound more serious when he was nervous. His tone caused Kel to stop fidgeting. 
"When was it turned off?" Chen had turned towards Lloyd.
“According to the logs I'm in, at the same time the AI went on the wonk near Jupiter"
“So could just be part of the technical difficulties it got in to?" Kel was trying to be positive. 
"Could also be a trap" muttered Chen "Any hidden scripts running?" this to Lloyd.
"One step ahead of you, dude. Can't see anything obvious. Gonna run a bit deeper"
A couple of minutes passed with the three in silence. The probe, once a beacon of hope to them now took on more of an ominous looming. Kel was no longer fidgeted, he was shivering. 
"There's nothing else there" Lloyd broke the silence "We're good to go. If we want" he sounded unsure.
"So we can get in, have a look round, get out, all undetected?" Chen wanted to be sure. 
"Yup. Unless the aliens get us"
"Open the hatch" Chen instructed.
"Ok man"
Nothing happened for a second or two. Then the hatch clunked, and hinged outwards to form a small ramp to the surface. The opening was close to the floor to enable a scientific rover drone to drive in and out on caterpillar treads. The three of them had to stoop low to get inside. Chen led the way. 
It was dark, the only light filtering in was from the dock strobes outside. There was no light inside in the unmanned probe, nor any blinking lights or computer readout displays to shed even some slight illumination. After all, no one was supposed to be around to read them. The spaces inside were cramped, designed for the various small exploratory drones that hung lifelessly on racks near to the hatchway. 
"You get any electronic readouts from this thing, and I mean any, we turn and leave. Ok?" Chen still felt uneasy, but his curiosity was outweighing his caution. 
"Will do" Lloyd's answer was quick, the man nervous. 
"Can't see a flipping thing" moaned Kel at the rear of the three explorers "We good to turn suit lights on?" The basic vac-suits on the loop had no sophisticated alternative visual spectrum apparatus. Chen had infra-red and heat vision augments added to his iris, but the residual radiation from the probe was screwing with them. 
"Any reason not to, Lloyd?" Chen wanted to be sure.
"Can't see why not"
Chen flicked his suit lights on, followed by Kel and Lloyd. They wandered deeper into the probe. 
"We looking for anything in particular?" asked Kel after a little while, the companion starting to realise that the probe wasn't going to be as interesting as he had imagined. No wall pictures of alien landscapes, or perhaps a novelty hat purchased from another galaxy. 
"There must be some kind of data core" replied Chen "Somewhere I can run Nita's intrusion script to download the scientific data"
“That safe?" Kel was worried again.
"The script it good, after all, I helped Nita build it" Lloyd jumped in to answer "but it needs a hard data connection. First line of defence 'gainst people like me infiltrating remotely is not to emit any wireless data traffic that I can get my hooks into"
"Yeah, but won't the hard connection trigger some kind of electronic security?" Kel was a novice in such matters.
"It would if it weren't me that designed it" Lloyd swelled a little with pride. Chen bridled a little at that pride seemingly being based on mainly Nita's hard work, but he kept quiet. "Ah-ha" Lloyd proclaimed, exaggeratedly indicating a small hub the way a model on a e-cast quiz-show might present the jet bike that the contestant could have won. Accept this prize was much more exciting. 
"The central node?" although Chen already knew the answer.
"The very same" Lloyd pulled out a hand terminal from within the folds of his three sizes too big vac-suit. "May I?" he asked in exaggerated tones.
"Be my guest" Chen replied, playing along with the exaggeration. 
"Anyone else feel that?" asked Kel, drifting a little way behind them.
"What?" Chen turned round, although Lloyd was fully absorbed with the node. 
"Felt like a vibration"
"I didn't feel anything" Chen replied. While he assumed Kel had got overexcited and imagined it, he pulled up a couple of his ship's captain augments. They used sensors attached to the highly sensitive inner-ear bones to check for the changes in pressure or weird vibrations that were early indicators of problems on board. 
The augments read as off-line. 
"Hey, Lloyd, are any of your augments playing up?" Chen was cycling through his other augments. Aside from communications and ship's captain augments, there were a few others reporting being in an error state. But not all of them. Geo-positioning was out, but his link to the loop culinary facility was ok. He couldn't precisely locate himself, but he could order a chicken flavour protein bar to be warmed up for him. 
"I got a few glitches, nothing major" Lloyd sounded irritated at the interruption. 
"What about you Kel?"
"Er, communication still down, as is remote data stack access, geo-sync and a few others. Down to the radiation, isn't it?"
"Maybe. Do one other thing for me"
"Order me a sandwich"
"What? Can't you wait till we get back on the loop?" asked Kel, but Chen just stared at him, vac-suit lighting picking out a steely glint in his eyes. "Er, what flavour?"
"Cheese and cucumber"
"Wouldn't bother with the cucumber" added Lloyd, although his head remained buried in a nest of wires coming out of the node. 
"Ok, er, done" said Kel after a few seconds. "Culinary drone will have it waiting for you in, er, two minutes and forty seven seconds"
"Fuck" exclaimed Chen.
"What? Want me to ping a hurry up to the culinary drone?" Kel asked tentatively, unsure how to act round the increasingly erratic pirate captain. 
"How can you order a sandwich but not directly communicate with anyone on the drone?"
"Er, isn't..."
"If you say radiation, I'll kick you in the balls. Radiation doesn't selectively knock out one sort of communication, but not another" Chen grabbed a pipe hanging from the ceiling to swing round to face Lloyd in the zero g. "Lloyd, disconnect, we're leaving"
"Now what would I do that when, ah, bingo!" he looked from the hand terminal to Chen. Smiled.
"It took a little longer than usual, but I give you the research results" Lloyd turned the terminal screen to Chen, compact text and pictures was rapidly scrolling up it. "Say hello to Gliese 667 Cc". 
"For real?" Chen asked, worry temporarily forgotten. 
"Gentleman" Lloyd said proudly "We have found a habitable planet"
"I feel sick" said Kel, leaning against a side panel.
"I know, how frickin' cool is this?" Lloyd was excitedly staring at the screen. 
"No, really sick. Like when you mess around with the loop spin speed and fuck up gravity"
"My plants sometimes prefer a little lower gravity" replied Lloyd haughtily. 
Chen checked an augment, gravity was still reading zero g. But something was wrong. He looked around. 
"Kel! What are you doing?!" he demanded.
"What? Why? I'm just tryin’ to catch my breath" Kel was bent over, balancing against the panel, trying to fight the sickness.
"How comes you're leaning against that panel?"
"Just needed somewhere to rest. Didn't see any harm. There weren't any buttons on it for me to accidentally press or anything" Kel replied defensively.
"That isn't the point. Idiot!" but this was more to himself than Kel. "You're leaning up against a panel because there is low level gravity. Shit!". Chen pushed off from the node, somewhere between a leap and a stride in the low g, heading back towards the entrance hatch. 
Lloyd and Kel looked at one another uncertainly. 
"He always this highly strung?" said Lloyd.
"FUCK" the yell came from Chen, although his voice took on a ghostly quality amid the static interference of him straying more than a couple of metres from the other two. 
"What is it?" Kel was feeling ever more sick. 
"LLOYD, GET YOUR ARSE DOWN HERE" Chen demanded. Lloyd shrugged his shoulders and walked back towards the hatch. Gravity was increasing. 
"Woah, the hatch closed" said Lloyd as he moved to stand next to Chen. 
"Really?" remarked Chen, "I hadn't noticed" his look hardened, "Get it open". 
"Yes sir. Oh"
"What is 'oh'? I don't like 'oh'" Kel had joined the other two.
"My infiltration augments are down. But they were up when we needed to get in. They aren't supposed to go down" Lloyd sounded almost forlorn in his bafflement. 
"Ok. Shit." Chen went to run a hand through his hair, but the helmet got in the way. "Right, here's the plan; I'll try and find some kind of manual door control. Lloyd, you get your augments back on line. Work from that basis that it isn't the radiation. Assume it is a hostile action"
"H..hostile, but by who?" Lloyd asked. Kel, figuring best to keep out of the way, just silently headed deeper back into the probe where the node was located. 
"Doesn't matter for now. Just make the assumption and react accordingly. Someone, somewhere thinks they can get one over the mighty Lloyd" Chen held Lloyd's shoulders as he made eye contact through their helmet visors. 
"But what if it's the aliens?" eyes wide
"Then welcome them to our solar system with an electronic kick up the arse"


Kel was alone in the node room. It was actually quite spacious compared to the rest of the science section in the probe; enough room around the node for the science drones to manoeuvre in order to upload their data directly to the central ship storage stack. He headed to the node, terminal resting on the floor still connected by the data ribbon.
 The static was preventing him from understanding, but he could vaguely hear Chen and Lloyd in animated conversation. Chen still scared him - having a man stick a gun in your face wasn't the sort of memory that went away with time - so he wasn't in a massive rush to get back to them. 
There was time to have a look round. 
The space was obviously not designed for human occupation, the lack of any lighting was just one clue to this. Kel wasn't tall, but his helmet was brushing against the ceiling, Chen and Lloyd would have to stoop were they here in positive g rather than drifting as they were in the room previously.
 Kel thought about the drones they'd seen on the way into the probe, few were more than about waste height, the rover units even shorter. So if they were going to deliver some sort of sample from an alien world, where would they deposit it? Kel scanned around the room close to floor level. Just uniform grey panelling, no noticeable depositories. Apart from, was that a notch in the wall?
Kel was on his knees prying at the wall before he knew what he was doing. The tone in Lloyd's voice over the link was getting ever more panicky. They were probably doomed, so why not go for broke at try and get this thing to reveal some of its secrets?
That was totally justification for ramming a small screwdriver that he'd found in the arm case of his vac-suit into the notch and franticly trying to jemmy it open. 


"This is bad man, bad" Lloyd hands whirled in the air like a conductor, while his eyes flashed up, down, left or right in jerky movements as his attempted to manipulate his augments into some kind of co-operation. 
"What's happening?" Chen had gone through anger and was now in that oddly calm place he went to when he was running a mission, whether that be a crucial scientific test, or infiltrating a conglom transporter. Currently he was on hands and knees at the base of the hatch, searching for some kind of manual (or drone-ual he corrected himself) override on the hatch controls. 
“You're right, it ain't the radiation. I'm tracking multiple incursions. No idea how it got through my firewall. They've got to be good."
"Can you trace the incursions back to source? Fight it that way?"
"Trying to, man. Trying to" right hand jerked outwards, fingers plucking some invisible strings "I'd been assuming that it was the probe AI, that maybe I'd missed something coming in"
"And?" a hint of strain in Chen's voice, but only because he had an arm stuck deep down a wall cavity close to the hatch, searching for some kind of switch. 
"I didn't miss anything. Couldn't have if you think 'bout it. The AI in this thing is close to twenty years old when it was first launched. You know how much tech's moved on since then? No way it could get past my defences. Makes no sense" Lloyd spoke quickly, panic rising. 
"Then it must be from outside. There any other ships nearby? Maybe we can block their signal somehow. Configure the hand terminal do produce some kind of electronic chaff maybe?" the thought of the terminal made Chen think "KEL! BRING THE TERMINAL BACK HERE"
"Woah, what the...?" Lloyd had frozen.
"What?" Chen snapped back round to him, arm now extracted from the cavity with nothing to show for it apart from cramp. 
"It's gone"
"What's gone?"
"The incursions, they just blinked out of existence, dude"
"So you got rid of them? That's a good thing"
"Nah, you ain't following me. I didn't do nothing, they just turned off. This is freaking me the fuck out, man"
"Lloyd, clam down" Chen once again had him my the shoulders "All that matters for now is that it's gone. Get the hatch open and we'll figure this all out back on the loop"
Except the loop was gone too


Kel was working on the basis that as he hadn't been attacked by either irate drone security or aliens, then no-one had noticed that he'd now ripped open a load of panelling, spilling out ship innards like the guts of a perp that had tried to move in on Delilah's territory. No alien samples so far, though. Chen had started shouting over the link, words that Kel couldn't quite make out but were definitely angry, so he figured best to keep out the way.
More searching time. 
Also in the tool kit was a small plasma torch. Kel had never actually used a plasma torch before, but it couldn't be that hard. And he was sure that it was the next panel that all the alien goodies were stored behind.
The torch emitted no sound in the vacuum, but Kel imagined that it gave off an impressive whooshing noise when he eventually figured out how to turn it on. A blue-green flame erupted from the nozzle, melting some of the wiring that Kel had spilled from one of the other panels. Too late to worry about damaging it now he figured. With some more fiddling with the torch controls, the flame turned into a more narrow lance of light, like he'd seen engineering drones use. He tentatively moved the torch closer to the next panel, which bubbled and melted under the heat. Cool, thought Kel, and went to work.


Chen and Lloyd silently starred out of the now open hatch into the nothingness beyond. The probe must have taken off from the loop, which was now nowhere in sight. With augments back on line, Chen was hastily trying to triangulate their position. Lloyd meanwhile, was running his own checks. 
"Looks like we've gone into an accelerating orbit round Europa. The loop's back on the other side of the moon." said Chen after a few seconds of double checking the calculations. He also tried connecting to his ship, but the distance was too far for either his communications augment, or that carried in the vac-suit. 
“It must have come from the loop AI" muttered Lloyd.
"What must have?" Chen looked away from the hatch, to Lloyd. 
"The incursions, the blocking of communication. The loop AI was the only thing powerful enough to run it. That's why they turned off, cos we're now on the other side of Europa"
"But I, er, thought you were effectively the loop AI. Isn't that what you say?"
"I've fucked up somewhere" the colour had drained from Lloyd's face "Got complacent maybe" 
"We don't know that" Chen's mind was racing again "For now we need to get control of this thing and get back to the loop. How do we do that?"
"I don't know. Never flown something like this before" Lloyd's usually confident demeanour had vanished in the face of his fallibility. 
"None of us have, but there is a first time for everything. You get me control, I get us docked. Simple" the authority in Chen's voice awoke at least part of Llyod's spirit.
"Ok, so, we, er need a direct line in. Can't interrupt pilot scripts remotely"
"Via the hard link to the data node?"
"Maybe" replied Lloyd, but Chen was already headed back inside the drone. 


"What the FUCK are you doing?" Chen stood aghast at the opening to the data node room. The wall panelling from down one whole side was lying in tatters around Kel's feet. Wiring, pipes, and circuitry littered the floor.
The companion didn't even flinch in the face of Chen's outburst though. He was standing stock still, staring at something grasped tightly in a vac-suited hand. "What's that?" Chen's voice had lost some of its previous energy. 
"Life" said Kel simply "Alien life" he turned to present the glass vial he was holding towards Chen. The gruff scientist, come pirate, moved forward to look at it. To look at was inside. 
It was a leaf.
It looked a little like a sort of fern, but was a reddish orange in colour. Or was it a bluish grey? The colours seemed to change and whirl. Chen went to touch the vial, but Kel pulled it away, eyes wide in wonder. 
"shit" the exclamation from Lloyd was muttered, meak even, but was enough to break the spell that had frozen Kel and Chen in silence. The systems analyst had entered the room while the other two were transfixed by the leaf and had begun fiddling with the hand terminal. 
"What is it?" but Chen's eyes remained locked on the vial.
"The flight path loaded in to this thing. It looks kinda bad"
"Bad how? Back to the conglom ship-yards?" wondered Chen. That would be pretty bad, but not disastrously so. Worst came to the worse, they could jump from the hatch, hit an emergency transponder and wait for Nita to come pick them up. 
"Take a look for yourself" Lloyd beamed the flight plan from the terminal to Chen and Kel. 
Kel wrinkled his nose in thought. The flight plan sort of looked familiar, arching around and down towards Europa. Like he'd seen somewhere else. 
"Fuck". It was even more familiar to Chen. After all, he'd spent months assembling the tech to first model it, until Kel and Lloyd came and messed things up.

They were on course to smash into the Europa water extraction and processing facility. 
"Can you alter it?" Chen sounded almost robotic, the words automatic while his mind raged at the unsaid question, how the fuck is my suicidal final act now guiding this probe?
"It's got a fuck of a lot of protection, and we've not got a lot of time" as if to emphasise Lloyd's point, the probe started to shake slightly as it began to descend into the moon's thin atmosphere.
"Can't the intrusion scripts crack it?" Chen turned to Lloyd, Kel using the opportunity to conceal the vial in a case on the front of his vac-suit. 
"Not really what they're designed for. I can maybe try and alter them"
"Get on to it, get me pilot access". 
The shaking was getting worse. Kel backed into a corner for stability. Lloyd was on his knees, quickly tapping at the terminal. Chen just stood there, like he couldn't feel the shaking. The years spent on spacecraft, Kel figured. 
"Ok, I got some of the manoeuvring thrusters. Sending you the link"
"Nice one" Chen's gaze lengthened as he focussed on his piloting iris augments, hands starting to move in lazy circles as he called up some of the thrust vectors now available to him. "Ok, shit, this isn't going to be pretty. Lloyd, I need the rear thrusters"
“Give me a second man. Fuck, they're re-routed through some of the Alcubierre drive processes. Not sure I can get it you, dude"
This time a violent shake caused Chen to wobble, he put a hand out to stabilise himself. Kel sank down into a crouch, wrapping his arms around his legs. 
"We aren't going to manage escape velocity on manoeuvring thrusters alone" Chen went to nervously run a hand through his hair, once again forgetting the helmet in the way. 
"C...can you land it?" Kel asked tentatively, fearing he already knew the answer. 
"This thing doesn't do landing" Chen confirmed Kel's fears "Best we can hope for is now is not too bad a crash"
"We're entering lower atmosphere at over three thousand clicks an hour" said Lloyd. "Best we can hope for is that they can identify us by our dental records rather than a DNA fragment smeared over fifty square clicks. Gonna be a hell of a firework"
"That doesn't help Lloyd" said Chen, hands and arms now more animatedly moving about. "But we do need to think about impact mitigation"
"Understatement of the century" added the increasingly fatalistic Lloyd. Chen snapped a dirty look at him before continuing.
"Kel, in your, er, search of the room, you come across a hull breach suppression system?" 
"What would that look like?" Kel was rocking back and forth a little. 
"Piping, 'bout maybe the diameter of your calf. Small valves poking out the side every half metre or so"
"Er, maybe, hell of a lot of stuff fell out of the walls"
"I need you to find it, trace it back to the compressor that would drive it"
"Er, ok" Kel got unsteadily to his feet, the shaking had subsided a little as they made it through the upper atmosphere. "What I do when I find it?"
"You get to use your new found plasma torch skills" Chen smiled, just a little. A plan was forming. "Lloyd, how we doing with the rear thrusters?
"Can get you one, much good as that will be"
"Turn it on, full"
"What? We not going quite fast enough for you? The fiery death looming ahead not quite fiery enough?"
"Just do, the fuck, as I say" the icy venom in Chen's tone saw Lloyd quickly obey. Thrust gravity noticeably increased a notch. 
"Ok, think I found the compressor" Kel was over on the other side of the room, looking uncertainly at a grey box about half a metre square that two thick black pipes went in to. "What now?"
"Take the lid off it, quickly" 
"This where the plasma torch bit comes in?"
"Clever boy"
"Ok, ok" Lloyd chimed in "I can't get you the other rear thrusters, but I can re-route some of their power to the manoeuvring jets. That any good?"
"More like it, nice one Lloyd" Chen flashed him a quick smile, before his gaze lengthened again. "Ok guys, just over three minutes till impact" he sounded surprisingly calm, serene almost. 
Kel, on the other hand, did not.
"I, er, fuck, SHIT" in trying to torch the lid off he'd nicked some internal pipework, a jet of foamy liquid erupting from the compressor, coating his vac-suit in a slimy mess. 
"Perfect" announced Chen looking over "You need to open up the breech though if we're gonna get this place filled in time"
"WHAT?!" cried Kel, futilely attempting to stem the flow.
"We need this room full of the hull breach foam"
"WHY?!" Kel had to wipe a think sheen of foam off his helmet visor in order to be able to give Chen a questioning look
"Because my curious little friend, when we hit, we're going to hit hard. The more padding we have at that point, the better. Now get that thing pumping harder."
Kel took a second or two to see Chen's point, but realisation soon dawned. The foam currently spurting out all over him was designed to fill any hull breaches - a standard danger on a ship travelling at high speeds, micro meteorites become deadly projectiles. It would be pumped into any hole then solidify, protecting the inner workings of the ship. Pumped into this room, effectively burying themselves in it, would provide a robust extra layer of padding for the imminent impact. Their vac-suits provided oxygen, so drowning in it wasn't an issue. Getting out of it after might be, but that would be a welcome problem given that it would require them to survive the crash in the first place. 
Kel re-lit the torch and moved in towards the foam fountain. 
"Ok, coming up to a minute away from impact. Lloyd, I need a little extra rear thrust"
"Am on it. Mind me asking why?"
"Europa is pretty flat, but there's a ridge formation 'bout 200 clicks from the factory. I charted it myself when I was surface-side. Reckon if we can hit one of the peaks, we can scrub speed then glide down the other side" 
"So we're aiming to crash through a mountain"
"Essentially, yes"
"Er, guys, don't think the room's going to be full in time" Kel had been hacking away at the compressor with the net effect that the fountain had turned into a torrent. Even so, the level of foam in the room was only just above knee high. 
"Time for us to have a lie down I think" replied Chen, sitting in the solidifying foam, then lying back. Lloyd had remained knelt by the node, so gave a small shrug then lent forward into the foam.
For Kel, it was a little harder. Diving into a thick white viscous foam felt unnatural, he'd never had to go into a crash-vat before so had no close comparison. He wasn't also the best in confided spaces. The ship shuddered. Calculating the lesser of two evils, Kel submerged himself. 
"You guys ok?" Chen transmitted through the rapidly solidifying foam.
"It's like living in a cloud" declared Lloyd "Wish I'd brought some chill-tabs with me"
"Er, how are we doing on the crashing into a mountain side of things?" wondered Kell, trying to take his mind of the white coffin he'd buried himself in. 
"Twenty secs. Diverting thrust to the front jets, trying to get the angle right"
"I guess if I could chose how to end things, it would be in a intergalactic spacecraft with an example of alien life strapped to my chest" Kel reflected
"We ain't done yet, kid" Chen sounded almost manic "Just got to get this vector right. Come on. Nearly, nearly..."

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