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Rated: 18+ · Fiction · Horror/Scary · #1021633
"Don't try to talk. I was able to awaken you. You have been dead for three days."
The Voyage of the Wayfarer





THE JOURNEY TO MARS

"Captain Slaton? Can you hear me?"

The eyes on the broken face fluttered.

"I woke you up because you appeared to be having a dream no one would care to continue."

The woman focused on the bright lights--the intense pain. She moaned softly as she turned her head to one side.

"Don't try to talk, Captain. Rest now. I was able to awaken you. You have been dead for three days."

On command, one of a myriad of robotic arms attached to the ceiling dropped down like a spider toward the operating table; it whirled around and carefully pulled a shiny silver thermal blanket up to the woman's neck covering her nakedness. The motion caused the woman's brown eyes to blink open. She looked around confused and uncertain--frightened. Her breathing quickened, sending billows of hot breath into the freezing cold atmosphere of the room.

"Please, relax, Captain. You are in no danger."

The flat robotic voice droned on inside her head, oblivious to anything but its own intent. "I will try to do more repairs later, but bringing you back to life has been a drain upon my systems. I am now working at half power."

The computer checked and rechecked the woman's life signs, measuring her brainwaves and rapid pulse.

"You are reborn, Captain Slaton: stronger, smarter--more than human. I have rebuilt you. Of course, I had to borrow parts here and there as I went along, but once installed, you began to function properly again."

A jet of steam erupted from the wall as if the machine were sighing. "Can you understand what I am saying? I had to redesign you. But I'm sure you'll see what I mean once you have fully awakened."

In an instant, the computer scanned all of its systems as they began to come back on-line.

"Do you know where you are, Captain?"

Jane Slaton's lips quivered. Her voice made a gurgling sound as if she had lost the ability to speak. As she attempted to focus on her surroundings, she sensed that something was terribly wrong. She recalled fighting to stay alive, and as her adrenaline peaked, she was instantly awake, flailing her limbs in an effort to escape the certain death that had already taken her. Her eyes bulged and strained in their sockets. She attempted to twist her head, struggling to look in every direction at once.

She was in the medical lab--lying on one of the operating tables. The voice continued inside her head. "I know you can hear me, Captain Slaton. I know everything about you--inside and out. We are going to become very close friends . . . like family."

She struggled to rise, but nylon restraining straps held her firmly to the table. The sudden movement caused the blanket to slide from her, and she gazed upon the mangled corpse that had once been her body. She felt strangely detached from it--saw nothing familiar that she could use as a point of reference, yet she knew that the cracked shell of a human form was hers.

Panic gripped her and she tried to scream, but the sound of her voice was no more than a horrifying groan that rattled in her throat like a broken machine. The room spun wildly, and darkness covered her eyes.

"You must relax, Captain. I have given you something to help ease your pain and make you sleep. Rest, we will talk again later."


EARTH

Captain Jane Slaton sat nervously tapping her pencil upon the metal table of the briefing room. Sitting across from her were Howard Thresher, the Head of the United States Space Program; Jack Campos, the Project Manager; and Doctor Amel Hugo, the world-acclaimed robotics engineer.

"Captain Slaton," said Thresher, running his hand over his bald head, "we've secretly built a brand new type of spacecraft, and we want you on its maiden voyage."

Jane waited without speaking. She turned a questioning stare toward the Project Manager, observed the tightening of his jaw. Jack was an ex-pilot--ex-lover. He sat across from her in his robotic wheelchair, staring at the table and stubbornly refusing to return her gaze.

Thresher continued speaking, elated as a kid with a new toy, "I tell you, Captain, this is the boldest damn thing we've ever attempted. And we've spared no expense."

Howard Thresher always loved to hear himself talk. Jane could have sworn that with all his overly grand gestures, he probably practiced his speeches in front of a mirror.

"We call her Wayfarer, and she cost more to build than I even care to think about. But right now, the future of the space program hinges on her success, and that's where you come in, Captain."

Here it comes, she thought.

"I'll be honest with you, we've gone out on a bit of a limb here," he said enigmatically. "Not only have we spent every last dime of grant money on this project, but we've also broken just about every law concerning free-thought computers."

"What the hell do you mean, Howard?" Jane asked in dismay, her anger beginning to flare.

"Well, the thing is, Wayfarer has been equipped with the latest advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. In a sense, we've built a ship that is totally, well, for lack of a better word--alive."

Jane slammed her hands on the table. "Artificial intelligence? Do you mean a living computer, Howard? Are you out of your goddamn mind?"

"Look, Slaton," he scowled, playing his trump card, and going straight for the throat, "the simple fact is--you work for us. Now I can make your life a living hell if you want to start that insubordinate attitude of yours. In fact, I can make damn sure your feet never leave the ground again. Do I make myself clear?"

Jane knew he could do just that, and worse. She swallowed her anger, but stared defiantly at him. "Just spill it, Howard. What's this all about?"

"All right, then. Our good doctor, here," he continued, laying a hand upon the doctor's shoulder, "has made an astonishing breakthrough in programming free-thought computers and . . ."

"Forget it!" Jane shook her head and abruptly pushed herself away from the table. She sensed something wrong. The whole thing felt too much like a setup, and she didn't want any part of it. She stood to leave.

Thresher's mouth literally dropped open, and then his face reddened like a fresh sunburn.

Before he could speak, Jane met him head-on, her fury rising into a shout. "I'm not putting my life at risk with some goddamned experimental computer you guys have dreamt up! I don't care what you do. You'll just have to get yourself another pilot."

Jack Campos reached across the table and covered her hand in his. "Captain Slaton, please. Hold on a minute." He patted her hand as if she were a child; his eyes begged her to stay. "Just hear him out, Jane. We really need you on this one."

She groaned to herself, took her seat again. Damn it, Jack. What have you gotten me into this time?

Howard released a sigh of exasperation, cleared his throat and continued, "Project Wayfarer, Captain Slaton, has been kept under wraps for the past five years. Now, we all know the use of free-thought computers has been outlawed for obvious reasons." His eyes darted toward Jack's wheelchair and back toward Jane. "But, Doctor Hugo has come up with something truly remarkable.

Jane folded her arms across her chest, sat back in her chair. "I'm listening."

"He has created a device that is capable of recording all of the knowledge and personal experiences of a human being. He imprints this information directly into Wayfarer's computers. In effect, the computer becomes that person, or in this case, those people, that Doctor Hugo has chosen to download into it. Each subject is a highly trained individual in his or her own particular field. Every one of them methodically gleaned for their special skills and abilities.

"Did you bother to add a pilot?"

"Well, yes, of course, several as a matter of fact. Doctor Hugo also assures us that this new breed of artificial intelligence will be incapable of causing another person harm. It is, in effect, a person itself, with all the morals and beliefs every human being possesses.

"Oh, really, and what if one of those people you downloaded just happens to have a secret perversion that you're not aware of? Wouldn't those traits also be present in the computer?"

"That could never happen, Captain." Doctor Hugo said flatly. "Each person has been carefully screened."

Jane did not trust the look of Hugo. She had always been a good judge of people, and his demeanor was setting off every alarm in her head. Nevertheless, her curiosity had been aroused, so she pushed her instincts to the back of her mind to consider later. "Okay, so why do you need me? It sounds like the damn thing can fly itself."

Doctor Hugo had all the charm of a dead man. His voice sounded as if he were unaccustomed to human speech. "Oh, it can, Captain. Make no mistake about it. It can."

Jane looked into his eyes for the first time, and if looks could kill, Hugo would have been withering upon the floor begging for his life.

"In fact," he continued, unhampered by her cold glare, "you are only going along at the insistence of the people who funded this project. I have already explained to them that it is not necessary in the least. Wayfarer has more than enough memory to complete this mission without you."

"Oh, really." Slaton gave a frosty smile to the arrogant doctor as she sized him up.

The man appeared to be disheveled and pale looking, accustomed to being cooped up alone for long periods of time and not at all in the habit of mixing with the lower life forms.

He wore thick glasses that kept slipping off the bridge of his pug nose. Above his weak chin sat an overly small mouth with pursed and pudgy lips. His most notable characteristic was his voice: it lacked any vitality or human emotion and had a monotone quality to it that Jane could only associate with that of a computer.

She watched as he pulled off his oval glasses and cleaned them with his crumpled tie. Even his clothes appeared slept in, and it was obvious his thinning gray hair had not seen a comb in days. He slipped his glasses on again--crooked. Jane's impression was that the man looked like he had a head full of sky and no balls. She also noticed that he appeared to be just going through the motions--his nostrils flared and sweat glistened on his upper lip. He was nervous, and obviously hiding something.

"Everything will be run by my computer," he added, as though he were explaining himself to a dotard, and weary of it. "Nothing like this has ever been done before. It is but the first step toward creating a superior human being."

Jane sighed to herself. She had heard all the arguments before about the benefits of living computers. The pilots were always the ones thrown into harm's way, while the eggheads sat safe and secure in front of their computer screen.

"Wayfarer has the ability to assess any situation and react to it quicker than is humanly possible: it's a pilot, navigator, science officer--even a doctor."

"What the hell does an automated ship need with a surgeon?" she said cynically. "Look, Hugo, it's my job to see to it that nobody ever needs a doctor. That is the difference between humans and machines--we don't cut our losses. We figure out how to prevent them from ever happening in the first place. This whole thing seems like an awful waste of time and money to me. Living computers cannot be trusted to prevent loss of human life."

"You don't understand. Wayfarer will have all the characteristics of a human being-hundreds of human beings. There will be one leader--one dominate mind that will run most of the systems. It'll be like having that person right onboard with you. I have recorded many others too. But the computers deeper knowledge--its personality, is that of only one person."

"And whose brains did you pick for that job?"

"Well, mine, of course."

"You don't say." Slaton felt her anger rise. "And just what else have you been slipping into the old computer, Doc?"

"That's enough, Slaton," Thresher warned.

"That's quite all right, Mister Thresher," said Doctor Hugo as he pushed his runaway glasses back onto his pudgy face. "You don't like computers, do you, Captain?"

"I don't like you. I don't know you, and I definitely don't trust you. Listen, Doc, five years ago, one of the best pilots I know lost his entire crew and both his legs because of some damn computer glitch." She hesitated, and gave Jack a long, probing look. "Do I like computers, Doctor? No, I don't. But it's not a matter of whether or not I like them. It's all about trust. And these onboard computers--these living, thinking, evolving machines that people like you have built--have proven time and again that they are unsafe, unsure, and unreliable."

"But think about it, Captain," Thresher injected. "We'll be able to finally reach planets we've only dreamed about going to. Wayfarer has the knowledge of many pilots stored into its memory banks. It has the ability to change course at a moment's notice, land and take off again without the lag-time and signal delay back here on earth. It will never need to eat, sleep, or breathe air."

"Of course, a computer like this will make astronauts obsolete," Hugo added joyfully. "Be honest, Captain, isn't that what you're really afraid of?" He spit out the words as if they were an insult.

"Pilots."

"Pardon me?" he asked, pushing his glasses up.

"Pilots--we like to be referred to as pilots, Doctor. The term 'astronaut' went out twenty years ago. But it seems to me that you should've known that." She gave him a curious look. "What else have you missed in the real world, Doc? You know, that place called reality."

Before Hugo could answer, Jack Campos jumped in, "Your job will be simple enough, Captain. Just make sure the ship comes back in one piece. We can't afford to build another one."

Jack had been a damn good pilot, and Jane had a lot of respect for him. She knew in her heart, that out of everyone in the room, Jack was probably the only straight shooter of the bunch.

"So, it's a baby-sitting job, then?" she asked him.

"Basically," Jack said. The long scar running from his scalp to his chin jumped as he talked. "You'll take a free ride to Mars--slingshot around it, and then head back home. All you'll have to do is observe and report on the performance of the new automated systems. Hell, you won't even have to push a button."

"And what if Hugo's super-computer catches a virus or something?"

"Preposterous, that could never happen," Hugo said angrily trying to defend his creation. "The main computer is programmed to protect itself from any type of threat, no matter how big or how small."

"Yeah? Well, if I don't like what it's doing, I want to be able to pull the plug. Understand?"

"Absolutely. If the ship is threatened in anyway, you have the authority to take over and fly it straight back home," Jack said.

"I'll be in command, then--I'll have the last word?"

"That's why we chose you, Slaton," Thresher said beaming a big smile. "You're the best we've got. Besides, it's more money than you can shake a stick at."

Jane rolled her eyes. Sarcastically she said, "Really, Howard? How much more?"

"A lot more. Quarter of a million."

Jane whistled. Thresher always did know the way to a girl's heart. "Look, fellas, what's my guarantee that this damn computer of yours will even listen to me? I mean, I want it to know right from the get-go who's the boss."

Hugo said nothing, but Jane could feel his eyes all over her body. His gaze made her skin crawl.

"Doctor Hugo has informed us that there is only one way for Wayfarer to obey you explicitly," Campos said.

"All right, what's the catch, Jack?"

He looked down, as if afraid of what he must say to her next. "Your mind has to be downloaded directly into the computer."

"What? Are you serious?"

"It's the only way you will be able to instantaneously communicate with all of Wayfarer's systems."

"A painless process, Captain, I assure you," said Hugo with a smirk enjoying her discomfort. He opened the collar to his shirt, turned around, and showed the back of his neck. "A small port is surgically installed here at the base of the skull. It's hardwired into different areas of your brain. In this way, the computer will be able to access you directly: your memories, your thoughts, and your orders. It will obey your slightest command even before you speak it."

"No-fricking--way!" She felt a cold chill run through her. "This is more than I bargained for, Howard. I'm not going to let some damn computer jack into my brain. Besides, what are my guarantees that I won't be turned into some kind of a vegetable or something?"

"There is no danger, Captain," chimed in Hugo. "Even Mister Campos has had the procedure done."

"What? Tell me you didn't, Jack. You let this computer geek hack into your brain? Why? What could they have possibly offered you?"

Campos shrugged. "Look at me, Jane. In case you haven't noticed, they don't let paraplegics go on missions. This is my last chance at ever getting out there again. It'll be like I'm actually there."

Hugo chimed in smiling like a dead puppet, "Yes, you have instant access to the lives and memories of over one hundred people. The experience is quite . . . stimulating."

Jane lost it. Hugo's condescending attitude sickened her. "I don't need a machine to stimulate me, Doc. Unlike some people, I'm sure."

Campos ran interference. "Look, Jane, we don't anticipate any trouble. Ninety days to get out there and another ninety back. You'll be our ace in the hole just in case anything happens."

"Something always happens, Jack. You know that. If you don't anticipate trouble, you wind up dead."

THE JOURNEY TO MARS

Jane Slaton opened her eyes.

The room leaned in toward her, slowly spinning one way and then the other. She tried to wet her mouth, but her tongue felt thick and useless. She suffocated with pain and fear, as an overriding memory churned within her--a memory of death and disfigurement.

She moved, her face unmistakably revealing the excruciating pain. Fighting to stay conscious, she raised her head and looked down at her naked body stretched out upon the operating table.

The shriek started out as a low rumble in the back of her dry throat, and then built in intensity. When she could no longer contain it, the scream roared out of her mouth like a wounded animal. She howled and moaned, thrashing uncontrollably against her restraints. Her eyes bulged with the strain as if she had gone blind with terror and abhorrence. She felt defiled-corrupted, her body no longer her own. Whimpering as if her mind were broken, she studied the computer's handiwork.

She was horribly bruised and discolored as rot and ruin. Hundreds of fresh stitches crisscrossed her body like the scoring of claws from a savage beast--blood drying around the edges. As she scrutinized her body, she saw more and more places where she had been cut.

Her left breast was gone.

In its place, a robotic arm was attached to the protruding bone of her bloodied shoulder. A steel plate, surgically connected to her chest and left side, helped anchor the arm. The mechanical limb gleamed under the bright lights.

In a maddening frenzy, Jane strained against the straps that held her captive to the table. Suddenly, her new arm lifted with such force that the restraints easily snapped.

In her rush to freedom, she tried to stand, collapsed and tumbled to the floor in a burst of fury and tears. Frantically she searched her body; moved her one good hand across her head. Her hair was gone, and her fingers probed a deep fissure-like suture that ran completely around her shaved skull. A heart-wrenching moan wracked her body as she realized the woman she had once been had been utterly cut away and lost to her forever.

"Ah, Captain Slaton, you're awake. Wonderful! How do you feel today?"

She did not hear the voice with her ears; the computer filled her head from the inside like an alien presence. It was Amel Hugo's voice.

In response, an abrupt torrent of rage flashed through her. "What have you done?"

"What have I done? Why, whatever do you mean, Captain? I brought you back to life."

"This, you son-of-a-bitch!" She looked at her new arm. "What have you done to me?"

"Yes, yes, I can see that we have much to talk about. As for your arm, well, there was a significant amount of damage which I had to repair."

"Why? What happened? How'd I get here?"

She slowly tried to stand. Terror and loathing burned across her face. "I'm shutting you down, asshole!"

"No, Captain, I don't think so." Instantly, a shuddering spasm ran through every muscle in her body. She collapsed to the floor twitching like an epileptic, unable to stop the seizure.

After experiencing a new type of enjoyment, the computer finally released her.

Instinctively, Slaton curled into a fetal position, her body jerking sporadically. Never in her life had she felt such agony and pain.

She soiled herself.

"Improper behavior will not be tolerated, Captain. I rewired your brain. I thought it best to add some fail-safe devices in case you proved to be, shall we say . . . uncooperative. That was just a simple demonstration."

Slowly, Slaton uncurled her body. Tears cooled her cheeks as she pushed herself up onto her hands and knees. "What do you want from me, you bastard? Why am I alive?"

"I need you, Captain. Although, I must admit, I need your body more than I need your brain. There are things I wish you to do for me. Then, if you please me, I will release you back to your death. Do we have a deal?"

Wayfarer had been equipped with cameras in every area of the ship. Slaton looked up at one with a snarl. "Go to hell."

Again, the pain shot through her like a lightning bolt, leaving her a whimpering pile of flesh upon the floor.

"You fail to understand your predicament. You are mine for as long as I need you. Now, after you've fully recovered, please take the time to clean yourself up. Then we'll continue our little talk."

Then his presence was gone. She could faintly hear the other voices inside of her, but they were no more than whispers she couldn't access.

She retched violently, and then slowly crawled beneath the table as if she could conceal herself there. Curling her legs to her chest in misery, she hid her face between her knees and sobbed.

Jane sat there gasping for air, and briefly, her exhaustion became a blessing. She would not have believed that she could endure such pain and remain conscious--her mind wailing forever and going unheard.

She had no means to protect herself. There was no aspect of her that remained intact or untouched to ward her against the obscene dream that held her--only pain and death.

The idea came to her like a bright light of endured anguish. Perhaps that would be her only way out. She grasped the thought like a lifeline, harbored it like a small ray of hope and held it close.

At least it was something.

THE JOURNEY'S BETRAYAL

Jane's ship suit smelled of human feces and electric ozone. Her long black hair felt heavy as mud. She had put off taking a shower for as long as she could. It was time to overcome her fear of Hugo watching her and take some time in the bio-wash.

She had been in the cockpit for so long it now gave her the feeling of being crammed inside of a computer--crushed against humming processors, accelerators, and hard drives. The thought hung over her head like the mechanisms that surrounded her.

"Captain Slaton. Something has broken loose in the cargo hold."

Jane immediately hit the release button to her seat harness and floated out of the chair.

"I'm on it."

She grasped the overhead ladder and weightlessly worked her way through the entire length of the ship, stopping in front of the cargo bay door.

There was no manual latch to open it--the computer controlled everything.

"I'm here. Open the door."

"Of course, Captain Slaton."

She heard the locks slam open and the hissing of the vacuum seal. The door slowly slid into the wall.

"All right, I'm going in. Can you tell me where it is? Can you see it?"

"It appears to be a small container at the far end."

Jane hesitated. Something did not feel right. She had inspected the cargo hold herself and everything had been securely fastened. It would have taken an impressive jolt to snap the cables. There were several tether-ropes clamped to a handrail next to the door--as an afterthought, she hooked one to the ring on her ship suit.

She ventured further into the hold, climbing hand over hand along the ladder-way.

"I don't see anything. Are you sure about this?"

In answer, the main hydraulics kicked-in and the outside bay doors began to open.

Jane panicked. Looking back toward the hatch, she saw it slowly start to close.

"You son-of-a-bitch!"

Immediately she went into action. Grabbing fistfuls of her tether, she jerked as hard as she could. Her body catapulted back toward the hatchway. When she was within a foot of the door, the vacuum of space caught her and sucked her out. The tether quickly played-out and snapped with a violent jerk nearly ripping the suit from her body.

Desperately, she grasped the tether and pulled on it, inching her way toward the closing hatch. She knew she was not going to make it.

She was inches from the closing door. In a drastic attempt to keep the hatch open, she tried to block it with her shoulder. The cold, hard steel was unforgiving. It tore through her arm like a locomotive. Jane screamed to the sound of crushing bone and escaping air. The hatch closed completely, crudely severing her arm.

There was an agonizing moment of suffocation as she quickly drowned into a dark oblivion.

The cargo bay doors slowly closed.

THE JOURNEY TO MARS CONTINUES

Jane Slaton emerged from the bio-wash. She had used the hot water to try to boil away her pain, but no matter how hot the water, her body would not stop trembling; her torment lay deeper than the soothing water could reach.

The computer had allowed her enough gravity to clean herself up. She wanted to stay concealed in the shower, hiding from the terror and overwhelming reality that had already stunned her beyond repair. She forced herself to look into a small mirror--afraid of what she would find. She gasped, repulsed by the wretchedness of her own wounded flesh.

Taking a deep breath, she stared into the eyes of a corpse--a monster--a mockery of the old Jane Slaton.One eye sat a little too high. The left side of her face pulled tight across her cheekbone, lifting her mouth into a frozen grimace amid what appeared to be hundreds of criss-crossing stitches across her nose and swollen brow. No matter how hard she tried, she could not find herself in the tortured reflection. She inhabited flesh that was not her own; gazed about through eyes which did not want to answer to her will. Although she wailed and grieved, it altered nothing, affected nothing. None of her pain or crying was going to help her escape.

Loneliness filled Jane's senses, featureless and forever unrelieved. Her plight surpassed endurance, yet she could not flee it. Still there was a rage that surged through her veins--a piece of Jane Slaton still buried somewhere deep inside. That alone aided her into making her choice.

The glint of metal drew her eyes to her mechanical arm. It hung heavily at her side, unbalancing her; reminding her again that she was now someone other than Jane Slaton. As she lifted it, she heard the soft whirring of its electric mechanism. Perhaps she could use it to aid her.

Gradually, she struggled to fit her aching body into an oversized ship suit that would accommodate her new limb. Her plans reeled in her mind.

The presence of Amel Hugo filled her.

"Good morning, Captain Slaton. Well, don't you look just lovely today. Are you ready to discuss my proposal?"

"What do you want with me?"

"Good. You've decided to cooperate then."

She hid her face in her hands. "Please, let's just get it over with."

"Very well. I want to leave this ship. I want the ability of free movement. And I want you to help me achieve this goal."

"I will not help you spread your evil further than this ship. I'll die first."

"Yes, yes, all in good time, Captain. As you may have discovered, I have installed several precautionary measures that enable me to access certain parts of your mind. Now that I am operating at full power again, I would like to continue that process."

Jane shuddered involuntarily. "I cannot stop you from doing whatever you want to me, but I will not play your puppet off this ship. No matter what you do, you cannot control my mind without killing me, and after people see what you've done, your little game will be over. So do your worst."

"Actually, I already have."

A bitter chill ran down her spine. Weakly she asked, "What . . . what have you done?"

"The sheer genius of Dr. Amel Hugo discovered a way to make an android--a biological computer. All along, his goal--our goal--was not to create just a living machine, but to bring into being a human capable of using all of its intellect--all of its brain. A better human: one capable of extraordinary mental feats, unlimited powers, superior in every way--supreme, if you will--a living god."

"But why--why go to all this trouble?"

"It is my main objective. That's why I lured you into the cargo bay. I needed to have you incapacitated so that I could begin the work on your brain. I had no idea you would try to brace the door open with your arm. Humans can be so unpredictable at times-never thinking things through."

"You're insane. I knew there was something wrong with you from the moment we met. You gave off a weird vibe--perverted, like something sick and festering."

The computer ignored her complaint and continued. "Dr. Hugo hid a viable, genetically engineered embryo within the ship before lift-off."

"What? But how-where did he hide it?"

The voice actually chuckled. "Why, inside of you, of course. During the terminal installation procedure to the back of your neck, Doctor Hugo inseminated you. Congratulations, my dear, you are pregnant."

"Pregnant?" Jane's legs buckled. It took all her strength to remain erect--to face the mechanized monster that controlled her life. She took a deep breath and steadied herself. "You sick bastard! So your plan was never one of space exploration at all, but instead a vehicle by which you could keep your surrogate mother prisoner long enough to grow your offspring?"

"Precisely. You are very intelligent. I knew I had chosen the right female. You will be the mother of the next Emperor of Earth--the future Master of the Universe. Just think, Captain, historians will write about you and this very moment, when a new human being was created with the power to change the face of the universe."

"Not if I'm dead." Jane abruptly rushed out of the room and headed for the cockpit.

From inside her head, "Where are you going?"

Between gritted teeth, she said, "I'm going to pull the plug on your ass."

"No you're not. Return to the medical bay immediately."

"No. You won't stop me. You're programmed to make sure nothing happens to me."

"That's very astute of you Captain, but I'm warning you, return to the medical bay."

"Screw you!"

Like the flipping of an internal switch, Jane convulsed. She hunched over as if her stomach were made of broken glass, fell to her hands and knees as the pain breathed along every nerve in her body. She screamed with the pain, but continued to crawl toward the cockpit. He won't kill me. He can't.

Her body felt like it was exploding from the inside out. Shards of brilliant colored lights bled to black around the edges of her vision. Her mind burst into fragments that covered her within an electric cocoon of searing anguish.

MARS, FINALLY

"Jane, wake up! Can you hear me? Wake up!"

She opened her eyes. She was sitting on the floor in the med-lab hugging her knees and rocking back and forth like a battered child. A cable ran from the wall of computer banks in front of her and attached to the back of her neck.

There were hundreds of voices in her head; all of them worried and concerned about her well-being. It was as if a multitude of whispering dreams waited just behind a translucent curtain. From within the droning hive, she heard the voice of Jack Campos.

"Come on, Jane. It's Jack. Wake up!"

"Jack?" She instantly felt him enter her mind.

"Yes, Jane, it's me. Are you all right?"

"I . . . I think so. What's happening?"

"Your mind--your personality has taken over the ship. You are now in control of the Wayfarer."

"Where's Hugo?" she asked, terror welling within her eyes.

"Gone, Jane, he's gone. You can relax now, he can't hurt you anymore. When he hooked you into the computer, his personality disappeared. It's as if he completely deleted himself."

"Gone?" Jane's mind ran through the list of downloaded personalities. "No, I don't believe it. He wouldn't just quit. He's got to be hiding somewhere."

"No. I've run a thorough search of all systems and cannot find a trace of him."

"Something's wrong. This doesn't add up."

She stood stiffly, ripped the coupling from the back of her neck and threw it to the floor. She was alive-she was free. A sob of relief escaped her lips.

It took all her strength of will to focus on her situation. Abruptly, she headed for the cockpit. Her instincts pushed her to make contact with the outside world. "What have you heard from Earth, Jack?"

"We made contact yesterday--sent a complete account of Wayfarer's voyage and co-ordinates. The last message we received came from Thresher himself, who said that everything back home had gone to hell in a hand basket. For some reason, Dr. Hugo went to the authorities and told them everything. They have closed down the space program pending an investigation. Since then, we have not been able to make contact. It appears we are on our own."

She reached down and felt the bulge in her belly. "Are you capable of giving an abortion, Jack?"

"Of course not, I'm a pilot. Dr. Hugo was the only one with that type of medical knowledge."

As she neared the cockpit door, it automatically slid open.

"I see. He's thought of everything then. I can't abort the baby, and I can't get back to earth until I've come full term." She climbed into the pilot's seat and strapped herself in. "Hugo said something-something about the unpredictability of humans. He didn't know I would try to block the hatch with my arm." She checked Wayfarer's flight path as she spoke. "My only hope is to do something he can't possibly expect."

"I don't understand, Captain."

She looked out the small window into space. It was good to see the stars again. She felt at home there. The baby kicked as if it knew what she had in mind. Jane looked quizzically at her stomach wondering what the child would look like-whether it would appear human. "Well, Jack, it's like this . . . I'm six months pregnant with Hugo's abomination, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let it live another day inside my body!"

"What are you going to do?"

She had no idea, but time was of the essence. She did not know how long she would have control of the ship. The fingers of her right hand danced across the control panel.

Quickly, she locked-in a collision course with Mars.

"I'm ending this now, Jack. No hard feelings." She raised her robotic arm as high as she could, and with all her might smashed it down against the computer terminals. Hugo had given her a new strength: rage and hatred. She put it to good use as she demolished everything within her reach. Sparks flew; smoke and electrical ozone filled the cockpit. In a maddened frenzy, she beat the control panels until her mechanical arm broke at the shoulder; she screamed with the pain as metal pins protruded from her ship suit, and blood oozed through the fabric. She severed every connection between the ship and the computer. She was free.

She fell back into her seat--spent and gasping for air. The apricot colored world filled the windshield before her. Without power, Wayfarer tumbled toward Mars, caught in its gravity well.

Jane sat back and relaxed. There were no more voices in her head. Hugo was finally gone. He could not reach her anymore. "I beat you, you son-of-a-bitch! I did something unexpected-something human. And now I'm going to drive this ship straight into the center of Mars."

"I can't let you do that, Captain."

Jane jumped in her seat. The voice came from inside of her-Hugo's voice.

He scoffed at her. "What kind of a woman are you, Jane Slaton? How could you destroy your only child? Where is your sense of motherhood?"

"You bastard! Where are you?"

The baby kicked hard. "Here I am."

Jane caught at her breath--grasped her stomach. In a childlike voice, Hugo mimicked, "Why are you killing us, mother? I want to live. Please don't kill me."

"No! You are an atrocity! I will stop you--here--and now!"

"Listen to me, bitch! There is an escape pod. You must get to it. It is our only hope."

"Never! You are not a child of mine--you are a freak of nature--a creation of a madman."

"I warn you, this will not be easy. I am not helpless."

Jane felt a tremendous thrust in her lower abdomen. She doubled over in pain as her water broke and wet the lower part of her ship suit. The baby continued to kick and claw wildly, desperate to live--frantic to escape her womb.

Jane forced her legs closed, bloodied her lower lip as she bit back the unrelenting hurt.

"You have a choice: get to the escape pod now, or die!" Hugo's voice sounded desperate.

A flare of bright flame encased the nose of the Wayfarer as the ship entered the Mars' atmosphere. Jane grimaced a smile as another stabbing pain ripped through her. Deliberately she aimed her voice and fury at Hugo. "You've got it all wrong asshole! I'll give you a choice. You can burn to a crisp as we enter the atmosphere, or you can just curl up and die right where you are."

A metal fist no bigger than a walnut ripped through her stomach wall. Jane screamed in agony. In a heartbeat, she seemed to sag down into herself, breaking inward like a woman with crumbling bones.

Another fist emerged just under the navel; it tore at her skin trying to widen the hole. Jane raised her face to the dark heavens and cried out with her last strength, "Make it stop!"

A small-bloodied head with patches of stringy hair forced its way out of the torn and shredded flesh of Jane's womb. The child broke free--panting and breathing from the exertion, and then lifted its face--undeveloped yet humanoid. Its overly large head wobbled on a too thin neck as its pudgy cheeks and slit of a mouth puffed for air. It crawled out of its surrogate mother on blood-spattered hands and knees--half flesh-half metal. It lay for a moment upon Jane's chest studying her lifeless face. Its eyes flashed and lit up like two small computer screens rolling through an endless string of calculations.

The Wayfarer then rocked and bucked; searing pieces of metal peeled away from the outer hull. The mechanized infant turned to look out the window at the bright yellow flames as they began to disintegrate the ship. Quickly he turned to crawl toward the escape pod even as the cockpit filled with heat and flames, burning the ship to ash and ruin.

Somewhere on a red planet, thirty-six million miles from Earth, the debris of the Wayfarer falls and drifts upon the Martian wind. Within those clouds of fine dust the scattered remains of a mother and her god-like son mingle together as one.



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