Episode 9: Death At Airlock Two

The blast doors had been designed to withstand the best siege that a Morcalan war band could muster, but it only lasted seven minutes against the Empyrean Ray. Captain Andrew Ortega holstered the beam weapon over his back, feeling his space suit’s robotic receptacle stow it for quick retrieval later. With Doctor Silas Rogers lurking somewhere ahead, he knew he’d need it before the mission was over.

An explosion outside rocked the station beyond the capacity of the kinetic dampeners. The Dyson Wars, as they were coming to be known, were nearing the major trade routes at the edges of the Angelor Expanse, home of the Angelor Republic. Captain Ortega took a moment to right himself before staring down the red and green emergency lights that kept the hallway beyond the blast door visible even in dire situations.

“You’re a tenacious fellow, Captain,” said a harsh, metallic voice through the hallway’s communications unit. “I was certain that you would perish down on Morcala when the volcano erupted. In a cage, with a ravenous Morcalan Deathbird, suspended over the caldera minutes before eruption, none of your fancy gadgets or weapons left on your person… and yet here you are, thirty minutes later, fully armored and stealthily piloting one of my own emergency back-up rockets. The rocket’s sensors would have allowed you to detect my Invisible Star Base and pass through my shields, I know that much… but how did you ever manage everything else?”

“Don’t do this, Rogers!” shouted Captain Ortega. “The Morcalan people are barely fighting off the Dyson forces as it is! They’re the first major defensive stronghold that’s been able to hold out against this new so-called Empire! They can’t waste their efforts on whatever you’re planning!”

“Fine, don’t tell me,” said the voice. “I’ll learn about it later, once you file your report and it becomes a standard technique shown to the cadets at the Astroguard. And don’t call me Rogers, Captain. You know what my name is now.”

Andrew heard a buzz behind him and swore, recognizing the sound of a force field activating. It was a fear tactic, of course. Now that Rogers knew he couldn’t stop him from continuing, he wanted to shake him by removing any chance of escape. Andrew continued down the hallway until he reached a regular door. He tapped the control pad at its side, but it was predictably locked.

“I won’t humor your delusions, Doctor,” he said as he unholstered his Empyrean Ray Rifle, knowing that if he could open a blast door with its beam then a regular door wouldn’t pose any problem.

“You know what happened to me, Captain,” said Rogers’ voice. “I am no longer welcomed in the land of the living. My life ended when I became the sole survivor of that expedition, and so a new life had to begin.”

Just before Ortega could activate his weapon, the door chimed and slid to the side revealing a spindly, skeletal robot, its too-thin legs and arms supporting a nearly hollow frame. The skull-like head of the robot fixed Ortega with a red glare that grew brighter with every moment. He only had a second to leap to the side and avoid the eye-blasts. He returned fire and watched the purple lance of the Empyrean Ray slice into the robot, destroying it quickly.

“One of your Mindroids?” asked Ortega as he shakily stood. “I haven’t seen one of those in two years, and they were emergency backup units even then. Their mind-tracking feature is useless when I’m not trying to hide, Doctor Rogers. You’re really operating on a shoestring budget this time, aren’t you?”

Captain Ortega stepped into the light of the next room. The bridge of the Morcalan space station that Doctor Rogers had converted into his latest base was a wide, open space with a mostly transparent ceiling. The circular chamber was ringed by control stations and terminals that rose up the side of the walls, a ladder and two hydraulic lifts allowing access to the second and third levels, with a fourth level suspended in the center above the other three. Ortega couldn’t see the fourth level, but knew that Control Station Prime was sitting there. Whatever Rogers was up to could only happen on that level.

“A great mind uses all that he has available,” said Rogers. His voice was still broadcasting over the communications systems, but Ortega could hear it up above as well. He knew that the Doctor was capable of communicating solely through the ship’s systems if he so desired, but also knew that Rogers couldn’t resist the personal touch, either as an act of defiance against mortality or through a sentimental attachment to his former life as a scientist.

Ortega activated his suit’s flight pack and gracefully rose from the ground, obviating the ladders and lifts as he rose to the fourth landing. He touched down on the disc of floor that, if lowered, could functionally become the center of the second or third levels below as it descended through the ring of catwalks and operating stations, and saw what was left of Doctor Silas Rogers.

The mechanical hull of the robotic body was superficially similar to a standard space suit, but Ortega knew that the red, whirring form was solid, filled with pipes, wires, gears and drives, just like any other robot. Where the head should be, a dome-topped cylinder of glass had been reinforced and screwed into place, empty except for the gently bubbling water. It was a true miracle of science, Doctor Rogers’ mind somehow being fully transferred into this mechanical husk. Some researchers had claimed that minds and memories could be electronically copied and stored, but Captain Ortega had met enough of those to know that those artificially intelligent copies of biological minds were pale imitations of the original. Doctor Rogers, somehow, was the real thing.

“Again you face me at my moment of triumph,” said the voice synthesizer located at the base of the jar where Rogers’ head should have been.  “Again you seek to deny me my prize. You don’t even know what my purpose is today, and you oppose me still!”

“You violently escaped from prison, wounding five Astroguard officers in the process,” said Captain Ortega as he lowered his Empyrean Rifle. “Earlier today, you attacked me personally, leaving me to die. You stole this base, a significant theft of resources and technology that belongs to the Morcalan people. Even if you had no prior record, that would be more than enough for me to say: I hereby place you under arrest by the authority of the Astroguard for crimes against the Angelor Republic. Surrender peacefully. I’m certain you know by now that I have been approved to use force if you do not cooperate.”

Another explosion from the war outside the station exceeded the limits of the inertial dampeners before Doctor Rogers could reply. Captain Ortega rolled gently to the side to compensate for the change in orientation, his flight pack designed for contingencies of this sort. Doctor Rogers had more difficulty while being thrown toward the edge of his platform, but the servos in the suit’s arms activated faster than a human would, compelling him to grab a railing and right himself.

“I suggest that you take the offer of surrender,” said Ortega, smirking. “I don’t know how much longer your base can avoid those blasts.”

“You’re more right than you know,” said Doctor Rogers, turning to aim his bubbling jar at a screen. Captain Ortega again wondered why Rogers would physically turn to look at things since he lacked eyes and the bubbling fluid in the jar didn’t, as far as other scientists could tell, bestow any sensory input beyond what the suit’s regular optics could provide, and Rogers never told anyone when asked. Ortega assumed it was a habit left over from when he had a physical body. As usual, however, the situation demanded that those sorts of questions be put on hold.

“What do you mean?”

“The computer says that nothing was attacked,” said Rogers. “A missile launched toward our vicinity, and the Dyson vessel that launched it traveled in a wide arc away after launching. The ship and missile almost charted a semicircle around us.”

“Why would they attack empty space?” asked Ortega.

“Think, you cretin! You never think!” shouted Rogers, his synthesized voice causing the speakers to crackle. “Missile detonations produce incredible amounts of energy! The visible light produced by such an explosion is a fraction of the full amount of power that they create! And while my Invisibility Generator is immune to visible light and can compensate for the background radiation of the universe on any given day…”

“…you don’t have the technology to compensate for a military-grade explosion without sacrificing shield integrity,” said Ortega. “That ship wasn’t attacking anything, it was creating a flash of light! Setting up a candle to see where the shadow gets cast!”

“And sensors actively scanning for that shadow could figure out where we were, what our size and shape is, and probably other relevant details depending on what they were looking for and how smart they are. Even you can see the facts once I spell it out, and they went into this knowing what they were doing. I can only assume that when you borrowed my vessel and travelled to this station, someone saw it and deduced that I was here. I expect the Dyson Empire will be contacting us momentarily.”

“That doesn’t change anything,” said Ortega, ignoring the jabs at his intelligence. “You’re still under arrest and coming with me, Rogers. One way or another.”

The mechanical remains of Doctor Rogers turned toward Ortega, somehow managing to glare at him even without eyes. The bubbling in the jar intensified.

“I told you, that isn’t my name anymore,” said Rogers. “My life ended when I lost my body, and only my soul remained, tethered to this world by my own mechanical ingenuity!”

“Your mind transferred into a machine,” said Ortega. “You didn’t die. It was miraculous, but you aren’t just a soul.”

“Oh, but I am,” said Rogers. “My soul lives on, even when everyone else died. And so I remain christened… The Soul Survivor!”

“I’m still not calling you that,” said Ortega. “No matter how many times you insist that I should. It sounds ridiculous.”

You’re ridiculous!”

Their argument was prevented from going any further by a beep from the computer. A holographic screen appeared at the edge of the platform, displaying the information that a call was incoming. The call’s identification data was simply the logo of the Dyson Empire. Rogers reached for the control panel but stopped when Ortega aimed his Empyrean Ray at the scientist.

“Don’t touch that panel,” said Ortega.

“Yes, you’re right,” said Rogers. “If I respond to their call, then they might come up with a reason not to launch a few missiles at us, and we certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on that experience. What was I thinking?”

Ortega landed on the platform, his flight pack powering down as his feet touched the metal. He approached the control panel, and Doctor Rogers leaped back.

“If you think you can get close enough to me to deactivate my combat systems so easily-”

“I’m answering the call for you,” said Ortega. “I’m not letting you activate a trap or contingency plan that easily. Especially not after last time.”

Captain Ortega answered the hailing frequency and opened a channel. The Dyson Empire’s logo was replaced with a video feed of a large man sitting behind a table. The man smiled a dangerous smile.

“I was beginning to wonder if your communications array was damaged,” he said. “Greetings. I am Zamona, Herald of Emperor Dyson. Clearly you aren’t Morcalan, though your station is. Or was, at least, before it was heavily modified. What is your purpose in this region of space, why have you hidden yourself from us, and when will you swear allegiance to the Dyson Empire?”

“I am Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard,” said Ortega. “And my purpose was to come to this sector to recapture Doctor Silas Rogers.”

“My purpose in this sector is my own business,” said Rogers, shaking a metallic fist at the view screen. “I care not for your war, and shall swear allegiance to none! Not even the strength of the Iceberg will sway me.”

“Iceberg?” said Ortega.

“Oh, surely you recognize him,” said Rogers. “He’s even wearing the gauntlets.”

“I haven’t been known as Iceberg in quite a long time,” said Zamona.

“And now I represent Emperor Dyson. If this… Doctor Rogers speaks for you, Captain…”

“He does not,” said Ortega. “But I only serve the Astroguard. While I do not currently have any orders concerning you, this Morcalan conflict or your would-be Emperor, I do believe that the Astroguard will soon muster its forces for the sole purpose of stopping your war.”

“This is regrettable,” said Zamona. “If I wasn’t very busy organizing our final strike, I might simply order your capture so that we might discuss this further. But as it stands right now, your termination will be swift. It was a pleasure meeting you.”

The view screen went dark and an alarm began flashing. Doctor Rogers read the readout on a screen and the bubbling of the water in his jar briefly halted.

“What’s the situation?” asked Ortega.

“Four missiles coming our way,” said Rogers. “Since my sensors are always correct, I can tell you with absolute confidence that a single one of them is strong enough to destroy this base. An entity like myself might survive aboard, I suppose… however, with four of them coming the blast would be deadly even to me.”

“Can’t you shoot them down?” asked Ortega.

“Believe it or not, Morcalan science stations like this aren’t designed with weaponry, and I only began modifying it as a base last week,” said Rogers. “I felt that stealth was the more important consideration.”

“Your shields won’t stop them?”

“Not missiles like these,” said Rogers. “They’re highly advanced.”

“Let’s run back to the rocket that I used to get here,” said Ortega. “We might just be able to launch it before impact.”

“There’s no time for that,” said Rogers. “Idiot.”

“So what’s your plan?” asked Ortega, growing more concerned.

“Plan?” asked Rogers.

“Your getaway plan!” shouted Ortega. “You always have a secret exit or an extra spaceship or ingenious invention that lets you escape when your latest base is destroyed! Is there at least an escape pod?”

“My dear Captain Ortega,” said Doctor Rogers, condescension dripping from his voice, “you do me far too much credit to assume that I plan these things out in advance.”

***

The explosion was just one of many in Morcalan space, unnoticed by most among others that were closer and more immediately dangerous to the available observers. The Dyson vessel that launched the missiles sped away before the station was destroyed, receiving orders to pull back in preparation for the Sunspot Maneuver.

The nearest vessel after the Dyson ship sped away hadn’t even registered the explosion as a destruction, its computers instead registering it as a miss, possibly caused by faulty wiring or a programming error. The two crew members aboard the Morcalan Scuttler were more interested in the movement of the Dyson forces. The humans of Morcala were, as always, more interested in the battles of the present than the battles of the past.

“They’re pulling back, Captain,” said Ensign Trell from the helm. She marked the nearest three targets instinctively, but all the Dyson ships on their system map were clearly beginning to scatter.

“Not acceptable,” said Captain Calen, striking the arm of her warchair. “I said that we’d scuttle five of their ships before the rest of our forces drove them back. I’ll have another of their hulls to plate our ship when we take it in for repairs, or I’ll chase them from the system and pull them back! Hurry, find us one more target, a straggler if we need it!”

“Captain, your bet with Admiral Cresh aside, we’ve all but won the day, and none of the other scuttlers have felled more than two of the Dyson vessels. Is there not more honor in allowing them to retreat with their lives, even if they be lives of cowardice?”

“No!” shouted Calen. “They nearly won the day during the first ten minutes of their assault. They were unprepared for Morcalan military tactics, and the severity of our fleet. But now they know. The fewer forces who live to fight another day, the less likely any future assault will be!”

Ensign Trell’s reply was interrupted by a warning from the computer. She scanned the information and began furiously typing.

“Captain, the exterior doors of one of the airlocks opened,” she said. “It received some sort of external signal that overrode our security measures.”

“What?” asked Calen. “Is this what Dyson’s forces resort to? I knew they were cowards and criminals, but I never took them for spies and saboteurs! By the Farthest Fleet, if we’re to die at our moment of triumph then our would-be murderer will see the fire in our eyes! Fetch my Maelstrom Ray, and arm yourself however you wish. Let us introduce this intruder to their death at airlock two!”

Trell jumped to the weapons locker, withdrawing a standard phase pistol and the Captain’s prize Maelstrom Ray. The weapon had been awarded to Calen shortly before she first joined the Scuttler fleet as a mark of recognition for her exploits. It was as much a work of art as a weapon, and Calen treasured it as both.

Trell barely had time to power her weapon after handing the Maelstrom Ray to the captain, Calen eagerly striding toward the door as soon as she was armed. A short walk through the port chamber later and they were already on the other side of the door that would let their intruders in. Morcalan Scuttlers were small and compact, the better for attaching themselves to enemy vessels for quick destruction.

“They appear to be inside the airlock already, Captain,” said Trell, examining the airlock door’s terminal. “Air is cycling in, and it looks like they’re already accessing the security protocols using whatever method they used to get in through the exterior door. It should open as soon as they have normal air pressure in there.”

“I’ve grown too accustomed to the captain’s chair, Trell,” said Calen as her Maelstrom Ray began to hum ominously. “It’s been far too long since I’ve felled an enemy at this close range. Let them come, and add their lives to those that we’ve already snuffed out this day!”

Trell nodded, aiming her weapon at the airlock door. Calen followed suit when the Maelstrom Ray finished powering up, just as the airlock’s terminal indicated that it had finished cycling the air. The dull thud and electronic click that accompanied the airlock unlocking signaled the arrival of the uninvited guests. Doctor Rogers came into view as the massive door rolled away, just long enough for a storm of plasma and electricity to issue forth from Calen’s weapon.

As the door finished opening, a second target wearing an armored space suit came into view, holding his hands up in the sign of surrender most common for humans. The red, smoking shell that housed Doctor Rogers spasmed for a moment and fell backwards.

“Captain, those aren’t Dyson forces,” said Trell.

“I can see that, Ensign, I’m not blind!” said Calen. “That’s an Astroguard uniform… Identify yourself, and explain why you and the robot were breaking into my ship!”

“I’m Captain Andrew Ortega,” he said, still not lowering his hands. “And he’s not a robot, he’s a criminal named Doctor Silas Rogers, a wanted fugitive from the Astroguard. I’d tracked him to a cloaked space station in your system and was arresting him when the Dyson forces figured out where his station was. They destroyed the ship, and we only had moments to leave. My space suit is designed for short-range trips through vacuum and Doctor Rogers’ body seems to be able to withstand a truly staggering array of situations. I’m sorry for breaking into your ship, but you were the only non-Dyson vessel that we had a prayer of reaching in time. And honestly, even the Dyson vessels stopped being an option once they all started getting out of our range in a hurry.”

“The cowards left before we could finish with them,” said Calen, still aiming her Maelstrom Ray into the airlock. “They chose retreat rather than death in battle or accepting surrender. Which do you choose?”

“What?” asked Ortega. He glanced at Ensign Trell who tilted her head toward Calen’s weapon. “Oh! Surrender, absolutely. Assuming, of course, that you plan on releasing me as soon as I can make arrangements to get back to where I belong with Doctor Rogers.”

“Agreed,” said Calen, finally lowering her weapon. “I’ve no issue with the Astroguard, as long as they remember their jurisdiction. And their place.”

“Is he okay?” asked Ensign Trell, nodding toward Doctor Rogers’ smoking robotic body.

“I’ve seen him like this before,” said Ortega. “He’s rebooting. If he hadn’t used so much power for the flight and force field required to get himself to your vessel, his shield would’ve protected him from your weapon. I think. That was an impressive round. I’m not lucky enough for it to have killed him off, so based on the green light near his helmet I’d say he’ll be fine.”

“I thought you said he wasn’t a robot,” said Trell.

“Legally he isn’t,” said Ortega. “And he doesn’t believe he is. That’s enough for me.”

The lights in the ship suddenly dimmed and a siren began sounding off. Trell and Ortega looked up in surprise, but Captain Calen kept her gaze steady.

“The fleet alarm,” she said. “Something’s happening that we all need to know about. Something bad.”

She turned and ran the short distance to the small bridge, followed by Trell and Ortega. A voice was concluding an important message by saying that the message would repeat itself soon, and Trell jumped to her station to ready it for quick replay in case it didn’t repeat itself fast enough.

“That was Admiral Cresh on the photacyon receiver,” said Calen. “He wanted all of us to know something instantly, light speed wasn’t good enough for a regular message. He wasn’t concerned with security protocols either.”

“How far away is he?” asked Ortega. “The difference between photacyon and light speed communications shouldn’t make much difference.”

“About halfway between us and the Sun,” said Trell, pulling up the information on her terminal. “We wouldn’t have gotten the alarm for another thirty seconds or so. Here, let me replay his message for you.”

She accessed the file and the bridge’s communication system crackled to life.

“This is Admiral Cresh,” said a fierce, angry voice. “Our system is compromised… I don’t know how Dyson pulled it off, but we’ve just lost the Sun.”

As if on cue, the light outside the bridge viewscreen went dark. The sun at the center of the system, already dimmed by the ship’s sensors to below its normally blinding levels, suddenly went out, as if coated in shadow. Trell, Calen and Ortega stared through the viewscreen, stunned. A message beeped, and Trell’s terminal indicated that a new message was playing, and that it would begin playing after the current message ended.

“I don’t know why he did it,” said Cresh’s voice. “I don’t know how. Perhaps he means to freeze us off the planet before taking over. Perhaps this is the strange weapon that allowed him to steamroll through the other systems. But if his retreating ships are any indication, there’s more to this than we know. This message will repeat for any ships who haven’t yet heard it… good luck, and stay aware.”

“He can lay waste to a star?” said Calen in disbelief. “The fools don’t know a proper first strike if they hold this for when they retreat.”

“I’m not sure it’s gone,” said Ortega.

“What do you mean?” asked Trell.

“I think we’ve got a different angle on it than your Admiral had,” he said, gesturing to the edge of where the star used to be on the viewscreen. “It might just be my imagination, but I’d swear I can see a faint arc of light there… like a star’s edge.”

“Engines of History, he’s right!” shouted Calen. “It’s faint… but there it is. We’re a few radians further around the Sun than Cresh is, we might have a better view.”

“So if the Sun’s not gone, why can’t we see it?” asked Trell.

The computer clicked and whirred as the previous announcement loaded out and the new message began processing. As they watched the viewscreen, a tiny pinprick of light appeared in the center of the dark shadow that had replaced the star at the center of Morcalan space. This pinprick grew, becoming a circle of light, seeming to be brighter and more potent than the star’s light had appeared before. As the message began to play, Calen grumbled.

“Lightspeed messages… I detest seeing all this after the fact.”

“This is Admiral Cresh,” came the voice on the loudspeakers. “We’ve just witnessed… something horrible.”

The circle of light in the middle of the shadow intensified yet again, becoming more bright than should have been possible. Moments later, an unbelievably massive burst of light, energy and radiation shot from within the circle, coursing through the void of space like a titanic ray gun meant to destroy anything unfortunate enough to be in its way. The beam dissipated as it lanced through the void, but not quickly enough; alarms went off to signify the sudden loss of dozens of Morcalan ships. Calen’s Scuttler was not in the path of the beam weapon, but it was close enough to make the proximity alarm go off, warning of dire amounts of heat and solar radiation. As the beam of light vanished and the alarms began to cease, Admiral Cresh’s voice continued, clearly holding back great emotion.

“Morcalans do not surrender. Morcalans never turn from a fight. But… I have been contacted by Emperor Dyson’s herald. He… recommends surrender. I will discuss the matter with him.”

The message ended. A brief silence descended upon the bridge.

Captain Ortega stared through the window, still not coming to terms with what he had seen. Ensign Trell was similarly stunned for a moment, but quickly began readying the systems on the ship in preparation for the next order. Captain Calen clenched her fists, stared at the viewscreen and screamed, roaring with rage.

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