The Enemy Within – Part 1

Kuiper-belt

My apologies if anyone is waiting for an update on the story I started with my Prologue post.  I’ve realized that it’s a much bigger story and I need to plan it some more.  Here’s the first of a two part-er – I promise I will finish this in my next post and before I start anything else new.

 

 

“I tell you sir, there were 15 flasks in here when I secured the room,” yelled Jodi.  In the background wailing klaxons continued to blare.  The alarm had been triggered when the team forced entry to the facility and their constant drone was taking its toll.  Jodi was trying to keep calm, but needing to yell over the noise was not conducive to having a reasoned discussion and her nerves were getting frayed.  “Well I can only count 14,” countered Stephan, “and I graduated military academy so I know I can count.  Sometimes I wonder what they teach you academic types at college, it’s not difficult.  If you use both hands you only need to take off one more shoe to get to 15!  Or maybe you didn’t understand me when I said ‘secure the area’?  How can a flask go missing in a secured area?”

If anything, Stephan’s composure was fairing even worse than Jodi’s and that wasn’t good.  He was supposed to the leader of this expedition.  It seemed like everything was going wrong.  After being dropped onto the asteroid, they’d turned up to the facility that mission control has assured them would be open only to find it locked.  Three hours of searching for an override, unlocked door, or any signs of life and he’d had enough and ordered the door blown.  Now they were in, but 4 continuous hours of the alarm was just too much.

Something snapped.  Turning his wrath from Jodi, he spun, strode across to his Techie and hoisting him onto his feet by his collar yelled, “Dammit Levi, get that alarm silenced now or I’ll silence it with your face.”

“I’m doing my best”, he stammered, “but this scientist guy has changed the system.  He’s patched his own mods into the kernel and changed the alarm system itself.”

“So?”, demanded Stephan.

“Well I think he’s got the power system requiring a watchdog signal from the alarm system otherwise it will shut down too.  Sort of like a fail-safe in case someone wants to hack in.  Don’t turn off the alarm properly and the whole facility goes down.  I just need more …”

“Too late”, bawled Stephan yanking the power cable from the wall.

Silence blossomed over the trio.  It felt like a physical pressure had lifted and mild tinnitus rang in their ears as the assaulted ear drums tried to recover.  As one, the three sagged slightly tension draining from their frames.

“So what was this garbage you were going on about Whiz Kid?  Watchdog this!  It looks fine to me”, sneered Stephan.  With that the lights cut out plunging them into darkness.

—————

COMM LINK ESTABLISHED:

Stephan:  Stephan 13Zeta reporting in sir.

Commander:  Thank-you Zeta.  Why is it so dark there?

Stephan:  Slight problem with the power systems sir.  We’ll get it sorted.

Commander: (slight smile creasing his face)  I’m sure you have it in hand.  Proceed with your report.

Stephan:  We’ve now gained access to the facility and secured the area.  The entry protocols contained in the mission plan were inappropriate sir.  My goal now is to re-establish power and commence detailed reconnaissance of the facility.

Commander:  Good work.  As you know, we lost contact with the facility six months ago so there was always a chance that entry protocols were out of date.  I suspect that other aspects of the mission may require you to show similar initiative and lateral thinking.  Proceed with the mission as per the stated goals.

Stephan:  Thank-you sir.  Zeta out.

—————–

Behind Stephan’s back Jodi and Levi shared a glance, this wasn’t exactly the news they had been hoping for.  With a mission starting so appallingly as this one, the chance of meeting their stated goals seemed slim at best.  Neither of them were seasoned in military exercises, but it seemed that surely a commanding officer should be a little more competent that theirs.  Lurching from one bad judgment to the next, Stephan had seemed incapable of handling anything that departed from the pre-planning.  He covered his indecision with bravado, bad humor and insults and now it seemed that mission control had know up-front that it wasn’t going to be straight-forward.  Why had they chosen him, or maybe they just didn’t know their men?

“Better keep our heads down or we might cop a patella in the face”, said Levi.

“Huh?” asked Jodi.

“A patella in the face.  From his knee-jerk reactions”.  A broad smile lit Levi’s face as he glanced again at Jodi.  Sometimes you just needed some good humor in a bad situation.  He hoped it would make him appear suave and calm under pressure, a little something to raise her opinion of him.  She was gorgeous and he hoped he might be in with a shot.

She cracked a tiny grin and said, “I don’t know about that, but he might be copping my knee in another part of his anatomy soon if he doesn’t ease off a bit.”

They turned back to their equipment.  In lieu of the facility’s built-in lighting that had been so tactfully shut off, it was now important to get their portable flood lights working.  The stands had already been assembled with high powered halogens and placed in a hexagonal shape surrounding the workspace.  This lab would be their base of operations and so they wanted good lighting.  It had the benches and equipment that Jodi would require for examining the specimens contained in the flasks.  Levi’s workload had just increased dramatically, but once he’d got the main computer back online, he too would need somewhere comfortable to get stuck into the records contained there-in.  Hauling a tiny radioactive generator out of its travel crate, he joined the thick cables to the lighting equipment and entered the startup password.  On cue, the lights powered up quickly flooding the area with that slightly unnatural blue-ish tinged light expected of halogen bulbs and left the pair squinting as their eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness.

From the corner of the room, the lights raised Stephan from the quiet reverie he had been in since closing off his communication with mission control.  He strode over to the pair, determination etched in the language of his stride and parked himself in front of them.  “Right.  About time, let’s get moving.  I want to know three things.  Firstly, who this guy is.”  He waved his arms to indicate at the layout of the room.  Research equipment, terminals, furniture and amenities all bore witness to a design obviously intended for a human occupant.  “Secondly, I want to know what he was up to.  Jodi start with those 14 specimen flasks …”.

“Sir, there were 15”, she protested.

Irritation flickered across his face, “Well I only see 14.  Just start with what you’ve got, we’ll work from there.  I want to know what those things are he’s been working with.  And thirdly, I want to know what’s happened to him.”

Inside the flasks, various alien forms hung suspended in cloudy liquid.  Their presence was a reminder that this lab was not a standard facility, a point compounded by the fact that it was built on an asteroid in the Kuiper belt.  Beyond the orbit of Neptune, it shared its orbit with other asteroids in a band extending out to approximately 50 AU from the sun, their most famous neighbour being Pluto.

Staring at the inert forms within the flasks, it was easy for the mind to wonder what dangers were being hidden so far out.  What was it about these specimens that required the safety of isolation?  They all looked dead, but something had happened to the scientist for contact to have been lost for the last 6 months.

A shiver passed through Stephan, not only because of his anxious mind.  This far out from heat from the sun was minimal and with no atmosphere to keep what little arrived in, the surface temperature was almost as low as it was possible to get.  With the power systems shut off, not only were they without light, they were without heating and it was becoming apparent.  A thin sheen of condensation was starting to form on visible metal surfaces as heat radiated from the outer shell of the facility into the near vacuum surrounding it.  If the systems didn’t get restarted, they would soon have to climb back into the added protection of their drop suits, a prospect that nobody was keen on.  They were too much of a hassle.

Stephan turned to walk out of the room, calling over his shoulder as he went.  “And Levi, get that power back up ASAP.  If you’d sorted that alarm out in the first place we wouldn’t be in this mess.  I’m going out on patrol.”

As he strode out the door into the dark corridor beyond, Levi gestured lewdly with his arm and then kicked the pile of gear by his foot.  Glancing surreptitiously at Jodi to see if she noticed, he went back to work on the main system.  “Stuff it”, he mumbled to himself, “I’m just going to find all the speakers and cut their wires and let the alarm keep going off.  ‘Couldn’t be bothered working out how this guy’s twisted mind had changed the system.”

—————–

As Stephan patrolled down the dark corridor, he could feel the panic rising.  Turning to ensure that he was out of sight of the main lab, he pressed his back against the cool metal of the wall allowing a trickle of condensation to run down his neck.  A physical sensation was helpful, something he could concentrate on that wasn’t this insistent anxiety hammering in his head.  Breathe, clear your head he reminded himself.

It was all going pear-shaped.  Again!  What did he expect?  Why would it be different this time?  Worse yet, he couldn’t see how things could get better.  No matter what decision he made, he was stuffed.  There was always a way for them to be wrong.  A wave of depression threatened to overwhelm him.

His Commanding Officer had ushered him into his office a month ago.  “We have decided to give you a reprieve”, he was informed.  “But there will be no more chances after this one.  You will not be recovering if this goes wrong”, he’d been warned.  The CO had looked at Stephan as if he expected thanks, but all he felt was another nail in the coffin of his career.  A sledgehammer to his heart, crushing him under a burden he knew he couldn’t bear.  Even Stephan could see he wasn’t suitable for the task, why was he being chosen?  “Thank-you sir, I won’t let you down”, he managed to get out.

But a let-down he was, it defined him.  For some reason the CO had been hiding something and pretended the mission was fine when they talked earlier on the vid phone.  It didn’t add up.

The corridor lights snapped back on and once Stephan was jolted out of his thoughts by a burst of brilliance.  “I guess that’s something”, he thought.  “Levi’s got the power back on.  No sirens either.  Perhaps I should apologize later, or would that make me look like a weak officer?  Sheesh I don’t know.”

Hoisting his rifle into his arms again, he moved off down the corridor.

—————–

Jodi laid down her scalpel, rolling her aching shoulders she tried to get some relief from uncomfortable position the isolation cell forced her to work in.  On the other side of the glass, the latest specimen was laid out on the table.  With her hands through circular holes with built-in gloves that ended inside the cell, she could stay outside without risk of exposure while still working.  She was reticent to do much with the specimens however because she knew so little about them.

There was no way that she could unravel in a few days, mysteries that someone had dedicated years to investigating.  The real trick she decided was to see what their missing scientist had been doing with them.  That might give her some clue about what he was up to.  So far she’d found little and understood even less.

Now up to specimen seven, she’d found that no discernable work had been done on any past number 3.  The first one had been extensively dissected.  What appeared from outward appearance to be a fibrous fraying tissue sample, had on closer inspection turned out to be an entire creature.  The skin was mostly gone, the individual muscles and ligaments laid bare and separated.  The frayed appearance came from the multitude of muscles that joined its petite skeleton.  Rather than having a few largish muscles, this thing seemed to consist of thousands of individual muscles attached in a complex arrangement to small multi-segmented bones.  It would take more time to work out how it fit together, but she was fairly sure that it would be extremely flexible whatever it was.

The second one she really couldn’t make head nor tail of, primarily because there didn’t appear to be anything resembling a head or a tail.  The third one definitely had a head, but only the crown had been removed to reveal the brain sitting inside.  What she really needed were some of this guy’s notes, then she might be able to put some context to the problem.

Levi had done well getting the power systems up.  He’d smirked about that and made sure that he caught her eye.  She’d just rolled hers and shaken her head with a laugh.  She supposed he was a little cute and obviously interested, but she wasn’t keen to start anything while out on a mission.

Since the power system success however, Levi hadn’t made great progress.  He kept muttering about patched kernels and non-standard shells, but she also wondered if the lingering glances he kept casting her direction stopped him from giving it his full attention.  She’d been very tempted to call him on it by saying, “Hey Levi, would it help if I sat over in front of your terminal so then you wouldn’t have to turn your head so much?”, but she’d bitten her lip.  They needed to keep things amiable.

They both heard footsteps from the corridor and turned expecting to see Stephan returning from his patrol, but nobody appeared.  Instead a strange wizened little voice echoed from the doorway.

“Hmmm.  Curious you are.”  They stared blankly into the empty corridor.  “Much you have to learn, the two of you.  Yes.  Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.”  With that a figure launched itself through the doorway landing in a pose, arms stretched wide as if ready to take a bow.  “Surprise”, he shouted, “I bet I wasn’t what you were expecting”.  In front of them stood a slightly bent Japanese man, totally blue and bald as a bowling ball.  Not a single hair could be seen anywhere on his body, eyebrows included.

Levi and Jodi just stood there rooted to the spot, jaws literally hanging open with shock.  “Come on”, the little man prompted, “I bet you were thinking, Yoda right?”.  A look of complete incomprehension remained clearly etched on their faces.  “Hello, Yoda?  Star Wars?  What about you nerd boy, surely you’ve heard of him?”  Levi managed to regain enough composure to shake his head slightly and the man slumped.  Strolling over to the terminal, he sat in the chair, opened a small drawer and proceeded to make himself a roll-up cigarette from the contents.  “What is the world coming to eh, don’t they teach the classics in college anymore?  Star Wars is one of the quintessential pieces of early science fiction cinematography.  It’s inspired millions and been the subject of countless doctoral dissertations.  There’s just no culture in today’s society.”

Despite their shock, something in the back of Jodi’s brain rang a bell.  “Are you …”, she began, “… are you the scientist who runs this facility?”.  “Bingo”, he said, winking and pointing a finger at her, “give the lady a prize.”

Just then a roar erupted from the corridor.  “WHAT … THE … HECK?!”  Stephan had returned.

To be continued …

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