The Enemy Within – Conclusion

This is the second half of the story started in The Enemy Within – Part 1

 

COMM LINK ESTABLISHED:

Stephan:  Stephan 13Zeta reporting in sir.

NGC 7331 and Stephan's Quintet

Commander:  Thank-you Zeta.  I see you’ve got the lights back on.

Stephan:  Yes sir, Levi did a great job with that.  (Good, maybe that will do instead of an apology)

Commander:  Excellent.  Proceed with your report.

Stephan:  Sir, we have found the scientist alive and well.

Commander:  Yes, I rather thought you might.  Well done.  Now if you don’t mind I’d like a word with Frank.

Stephan:  Er Frank sir?

Commander:  Yes the scientist.  Frank’s not his real name of course but none of us here a very good at Japanese so we all agreed to call him Frank.

Frank:  (off camera) It’s not that hard Bob.  Sa-da-hi-ra.  Sadahira.  I would have thought even you could have mastered it by now.

Commander:  (rolling his eyes) Zeta, just put Frank on will you.

Frank:  (elbowing Stephan out of the way) I’m here, I’m here.

Commander:  So Frank, you’ve been a bit incommunicado for a while now haven’t you.  Tell me, did we really have to send a team out?

Frank:  You don’t know what it’s like out here.  I warned you that I needed more than just you meat heads sitting on the other end of a vid link.

Commander:  Yes we know, you’re lonely.  But you knew the risks when you signed up for the research grant.

Frank:  160 years is a long time Bob, a guy might change his mind in that time.

Commander:  So what’s your plan then?  We know you’re alive.  You know you can’t come back.  You know we need that research.

Frank:  Yes, but you realise these guys can’t come back either now.

(Off camera):  What?

Commander:  (big sigh) You haven’t done something rash have you Frank?

Frank:  Two words Bob.  Flask 15.  That’s all I’m going to say, I don’t have to paint you a picture.

Commander:  Indeed no.  Zeta?

Stephan:  (appearing back on camera) Yes sir.

Commander:  Frank’s in charge.  I need time to work out our next move.

Stephan:  But sir…

Commander:  I said Frank’s in charge.  Obey orders soldier!

COMM LINK LOST.

 

—————–

 

Levi sat down heavily in his chair.  Jodi glanced at him in shock, a slight blueish tinge seemed to colour her face as if her blood had suddenly drained out of it.  She felt light headed and quickly followed Levi to find a place to collapse into.  Stephan characteristically continued to stare at the vid screen, lost in some other world.  One thought dominated the room.  What did he mean by, “You realize these guys can’t come back either”?

“He he he”.  A scratchy giggle cut through the thick atmosphere of shock, totally incongruous to the moment.  Oblivious, beaming from ear to ear, Frank danced a little capering jig of joy chattering, “I’m the boss.  I’m the boss.  They sent out troopers, but that’s their loss.  Alone so long it’s not for me, this’ll teach them a lesson that I’m awesome.”  He paused for a second and mumbled, “Doesn’t rhyme – hmmm I’ll have to work on that.”  Then gaining momentum he started again, “Who’s the smart one now meat heads?”

Suddenly remembering himself, he stopped his dance and clapping his hands yelled, “Oi people, over here.”  As if waking from some deep sleep, three heads turned slowly to face him.  Amidst the stupor, a hint of hatred could now be seen in the eyes that glared in his direction.  “It’s time to start fixing up the mess you guys made getting into the place.  Silicon-brain, you got the power back up, congratulations.  But that ain’t gonna do for long while the hole this lump blew in the door keeps leaking air and heat into space.  I’ve seen the patch job you guys did and I’ve got a colander in the kitchen with less holes.  Now I need you guys to go and get it sorted properly.  I’ll send the maintenance bots down to give you a hand.  Off you go.”

Stephan wasn’t in any mental state to argue, and in lieu of any other direction, Levi figured Frank had a point.  He could deal with the little weasel once they were less likely to freeze to death.  They moved towards the door with Jodi trailing in their wake.  “Not you sweet cheeks.  You’re the real brains of this outfit right?  I need you to stay here with me.  We’ve got research to do.”  Jodi groaned and stopped.  Levi made a move to protest, but she signaled him with her eyes.  “Just go, he’s insane but he’s not going to harm me.  I’ll be fine.”

When they were alone, Frank asked, “So you got any idea what we do here?”.

“We?  What do you mean we, blue man?”

“Ah you notice my color.  Fair point.”

“How could I not notice your color?  It’s you biggest feature, apart from your obvious insanity that is.”

“Insane?  No…  Well ok, maybe a bit.  But it’s because I’ve been here by myself for so long with this research.  It’s the research that’s also turned me blue, ironic how this passion has defined my two most prominent characteristics.  But you’re wrong about the ‘we’ bit.  You’re my new assistant.”

Radiating defiance she retorted, “And what if I don’t want to?”

“Easy there, I haven’t even made my pitch yet.  Bear with me.”

A solemnity not yet seen came over Frank.  “One hundred and sixty-three years ago an unidentified ship entered out solar system.  Initial attempts to make contact failed, so the United Nations Space Agency decided to put together a mission to investigate.  I was selected as the biological expert for the mission.  We rendezvoused with the craft as it passed the orbit of Jupiter in-bound on a path that would eventually take it through the solar system and out the other side.  By all outward appearances it didn’t seem to have any destination here.

On approach we scanned and attempted further contact with no result.  The scans revealed that the craft was obviously full of life although none of it was moving or otherwise active.  For two weeks we shadowed the craft seeking some method of communication or sign that we’d been noticed.  Everything remained exactly as we found it.  In all there were 3279 distinct life signatures registered.

The Space Agency council deliberated for a further three days about what to do.  With such an abundant diversity of species available to make contact with, the craft presented an exceptionally tantalizing prize for investigation.  I personally was pressing for further action.  I so badly wanted to study these creatures, but the problem was that we didn’t know how they would react unless we could get them to respond.  In the end the allure was too strong and with a 69% majority, the council voted for us to force entry into the craft.

We breached the hull and forced our way on board to find everything silent.  The systems were humming along nicely keeping alive a menagerie of creatures,” he waved his arm indicating the specimen jars, “all in stasis.  That explained the silence.  The ship was running on auto-pilot carrying its cargo asleep to their destination.

Various theories were put forward, proposing answers about its purpose.  Some said that it was this civilisation’s normal mode of transport.  These were simply space wayfarers making their way to a destination.  Others however countered that the diversity of species showed that there was more to it.  Why would such a large number and diversity of distinct species be present for a routine space journey?  The proportion of individuals was too homogenous to be a random distribution of passengers.  An arkship was their favourite theory.  Either a civilisation expanding to colonize other regions of space or seeking to survive a disaster on their homeworld.

A gestalt consciousness made from a conglomeration of species from across the galaxy was also theorised.  If the assumption was made that these creatures were all sentient, it seemed unlikely that they would all originate from the same location.  The ship therefore was a transport for an ever growing singularity of combined minds forming a new individual.  Its journey throughout the universe saw it collecting new species to add to the singular consciousness and improve its capability.

They were all theories however because no matter what we tried, we simply couldn’t make contact.  The big flaw in all theories was why such a sophisticated ship would have no capacity to communicate its purpose or wake an occupant to fill the role when encountering difficulties?  Something was wrong.  Again the council deliberated, what should be done?  Leave the ship to go on its way, or intervene more directly to find answers.  The debate was stronger and more prolonged this time.  After a further two weeks, the council passed by a majority of just 53% a motion to continue investigations.

I was thrilled.  I was going to get first access to research a vast cache of alien biology.  My role was to start taking specimen samples for study.  No decision had yet been reached about what to do with the long term direction of the ship and we wanted as many samples as possible in the event that we would let it continue on its way.  To this day, no-one quite knows what caused the disaster to occur.  I was busy collecting samples from the creatures in stasis.  Our technical crew was trying to interface to the ship’s systems and the military crew were attaching extra restraints to the hull so that we could harness our ship to redirect if necessary.  However within 29 hours of the council’s decision to continue investigations, the entire ship’s occupants were dead.

The stasis fields had started to de-energize within hours but not in a controlled manner.  Rather than gradually bringing entire creatures back to reality, sections of the fields in each chamber would collapse without warning leaving them half frozen and half living.  Irreparable damage to their bodies occurred as cells started living again without the support systems needed to provide oxygen, nutrients and the components of life.  Then the collapse would invert leaving hearts, nervous systems and osmotic chambers seeking to push bodily fluids and signals into non-responsive inert tissues.

The technical crew worked feverishly to stabilise the fields, but in a foreign system they were experimenting at best and had no success.

I did the only thing reasonable in the situation and started preserving the specimens so that the journey would not be a complete disaster.  There would at least be generation’s worth of research that could be done on the alien cadavers.  It was my duty, and at the end of the day we would get away with it.  This unresponsive craft would simply be lost to its owners, if there was anything actually waiting for it in the first place.

Taking 15 specimens at a time, I would transfer them to research flasks to preserve them and then send them to our ship for storage back to Earth.  However time and again, the crew would report only 14 arrived at storage.  I knew that I’d sent 15 because that’s how many I could pack into the transport.  The crew knew that 14 arrived because they assured me that they could count.  Something strange was going on, and that was the time that I started turning blue.

Another mission council was called and it was concluded that I’d been infected with a virus.  Something alien in origin.  Something capable of altering my memories.  Something changing my physiology.  Something we wanted nowhere near the Earth.  Was this the key to the alien ship or just a coincidence of physiology?  To be honest, we still don’t know.  The council’s decision however, was that if we could quarantine the ship, there was still the potential for the research to continue.  That’s how it ended up being parked out here in the asteroid belt.

I was the only one to catch the virus.  We didn’t know its long term effects so the rest of the crew was kept away from the specimens.  No-one was allowed to return to Earth however, the risk of an unknown virus running rampant on the over-crowded planet was simply unconscionable.  My research continued and it’s made the sacrifice worthwhile.  Many of the pharmaceutical and genetic advances that you’ve taken for granted your whole life have started here in theories or data I’ve collected from the creatures.

Over time we learnt something else about the virus too, the rest of the crew eventually succumbed to old age and died.  160 odd years is a long time ago isn’t it?  Wondering why I’m still here?  I know I am, but it appears that the physiological changes of the virus have extended my lifespan.  It’s something I’m hoping we can learn more about, as are our bosses.”

A wicked little grin crossed his face and he wagged his eyebrows suggestively at Jodi.  “He he he.  You’re going to stay, I can see it in your face”, he said.

Jodi grimaced, “No I don’t want to.  You’re wrong.  I didn’t agree to this …”.

“I’m afraid you misunderstand me”, Frank replied.  “It’s not your desire I see in your face, it’s your infection.”

Jodi paused in shock for a second trying to grasp his meaning.  Then slowly, as if fearful of what she might see, she held up her hand to find the blueish hue growing on her skin.  She glanced at the specimens trying to gain some insight into the implications of her situation.  Seeking to suck some meaning from their lifeless corpses.  “I’ve been played”, she thought, “can I live this life?  Do I have a choice?”.

Frank bustled over to the console ignoring her pain.  “So about these crew mates of yours”, he asked, “how strongly would you object to their, shall we say, absence?  They are by the airlock at the moment, wouldn’t be hard to ensure they’re sealed outside and not able to distract our work …”

 

—————–

 

The Commander sighed and opened the mission file.  It had been neither easy nor rewarding choosing a squad for this mission.  Knowing that they’d probably never return both simplified and complicated the choices.

Stephan had been easy.  His total incompetency at leadership meant there was nothing to lose and it actually solved the problem of what to do with his future.

Jodi on the other hand had been tough.  He needed someone intelligent enough and with a similar field of expertise to keep Frank from going mad.  Yet it was a sacrificial assignment, no matter who he chose he’d be losing a good person.

Levi was essentially collateral damage.  The squad needed a techie and the short straw fell to him.

The biggest factor in all his choices had been that these people had no family or close friends who would come asking questions later.

 

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