Episode 77: Dangerous Protocols

“Nothing in this panel either,” said Ensign Trell, examining the book-thin component. She pushed it back into the wall and it locked into place with a satisfying clunk.

Captain Ortega nodded, resisting the urge to ask if she was sure. He’d seen more than his share of ship circuitry, and even performed emergency repairs under duress, but his field experience couldn’t match Trell’s actual engineering training. When it came to identifying if something was unusual in the computer circuitry, Ortega wouldn’t be able to do much more than confirm that everything looked like the standard fare.

Unfortunately, Trell’s time examining the hardware meant that Ortega was left sifting through what information he could on the ship’s software. Thanks to the CryptoBrick analysis earlier he had a few insights on where to look inside the ship’s computers, but most of the data was information he’d already seen.

“You’re sure that it’s safe to pull those components out of the wall while we’re accessing the mainframe?”

“Absolutely,” said Trell. “The subsystems are designed to be removed on the fly. The worst case scenario is that you’ll be without some data while I’m looking over everything. I’m starting to think that there’s either no trace of the phoenix circuitry on this ship, or that Tan already destroyed it before we arrived.”

“Do you really think he wouldn’t have told your Captain by now?”

“She wouldn’t torture someone in a medbay.”

“Really?” said Ortega. “That seems like the ideal place.”

A look of confused disgust crossed Trell’s face.

“What kind of sick person uses medical equipment for torture?”

“The… kind of sick person who doesn’t want the torture to be lethal?”

“People in your culture must not understand torture if it gets lethal.”

“People in my culture really don’t,” said Ortega. “We have laws against it.”

“So do we,” said Trell.

“Either way, there’s no signs of systematic destruction, or any kind of intentional damage against the ship,” said Ortega. “This place is almost pristine.”

“I suppose you’d have the expertise to recognize that,” said Trell. “Have you looked up information on self-destruct procedures?”

“No,” said Ortega, tapping new information into the terminal interface. “Good idea, though.”

The computer had a basic user command structure, one that Ortega felt was almost a few years out of date for a relatively new military power like the Dyson Empire. It was simple enough to use, but felt important.

“Why would someone with access to last year’s hardware use software that would have been on its way out five years ago?”

“Familiarity, perhaps?” said Trell, reaching for the next maintenance panel.

“Would you do it for familiarity?”

“No,” said Trell. “I’d only do it if I wanted absolute certainty that anyone using it would be familiar with the software. It’s probably a good idea for a rapidly constructed militia. The Soul Survivor did suggest… and our own experiences with Tan suggests… that this so-called Emperor quickly assimilates anyone with a modicum of competence into his service. If there was no time for a custom operating system… by far the best approach, in my opinion… an older system that people would be familiar with might help things along.”

“You’d prefer to make a custom operating system, though?”

“I already have one,” said Trell. “I plan on retiring to a moon fortress after I leave the military, one stocked with the trophies of a great career, and I’ve already established a preliminary system that can be modified for most of the kinds of bases I might acquire.”

“Would you incorporate any older operating systems onto your custom system? Something seems off about this.”

He pulled up the selected data. Five data files tagged as relating to self destruct systems popped onto his screen.

“I might,” said Trell. “I could take the graphical parts, overlay it.”

“Why would you do that?” asked Ortega. He tapped one of the files, the one titled ‘Self Destruct Protocols: Operation Eclipse Procedure.’

“Again, familiarity for others,” said Trell. “Guests. Or enemies.”

“Catering to familiarity for enemies?”

The file opened, and a video file started to play.

“No, not catering to them,” said Trell. “I’d use it as a decoy, or a lure. Set it up to look like it was a standard file system, probably even make a few non-essential commands work as expected, but just make it a facade that covers a ruse or trap. Something designed to lead them on a wild goose chase, feed them false information or activate a trap.”

The lights darkened in the chamber. Trell and Ortega looked up, surprised. The video file began to play, and every terminal in the room switched to the video as well. A large, dark-skinned man appeared, wearing a uniform of the Dyson empire and a pair of bulky, mechanical gauntlets.

“What did you find?” asked Trell.

“The Emperor’s Herald, someone named Zamona,” said Ortega. “I’ve seen him once before. Right before Doctor Rogers and I had to make it to your ship.”

“Congratulations on securing one of the Dyson Empire’s vessels intact,” said Zamona. “We also appreciate your interest in the Operation Eclipse Protocols, especially as they pertain to self destruct sequences.”

“He’s gloating,” said Trell. “Gloating in a video that might never have been seen. I admire the dedication, but it means we’re in trouble.”

“As you know, self destruct sequences involve legitimate security concerns which you, alas, have now become. If this vessel is within range, it will transmit images of your facial features, voice prints, or any other identifying characteristics which may be useful in learning who you are and what may have brought you here. The good news is that, while you will only have sixty seconds to live, you will gain a firsthand look at the self destruct information you sought, an experience that no one else alive can appreciate. Enjoy your final minute of life, and make peace in whatever way you see fit.”

The video ended, and a timer began counting down from sixty seconds. The lights returned to their standard setting, and a dull, dangerous hum began resonating through the walls.


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