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Rated: E · Other · Sci-fi · #1853197
In deep space, a lone scout confronts the unknown. Also, I will review a story of yours.
This is the first of four independent stories (each able to be read on its own without referencing another), but all four comprising a novella entitled…

“Human Extinction Loading…Please Standby”


One more note; the main characters from each of the first three stories unite in the fourth installment to conclude the novella. (Yes, that includes Dana.)



LISTENING POST


By Christian Powers




“Photo-Robotic Intentionally Mutating Artificial Life, or Primal, is the merging of Android technology and Human evolution…We have created a life form that is smarter than we are, more durable and more able to adapt. Primal coders will survive to witness the death of our sun, long after the human race is extinct.”
Dr. W.R. Warburton, vice president GeneCoder Corp. of Mars


 

A blend of Petrox and ammonia gasses sprayed Captain Dana Harmon's face, waking her with a harsh burn in her sinus. She put a hand up to block it.

“Cut it out," Dana said. The blast stopped and one of Odin's flexible metal arms softly whirred, curling away behind her chair. "What the hell…,” she said, snorting and huffing to clear her nose, “…is so damn important anyway?"

Resorting to the fastest and most uncomfortable method to wake her, apart from his high-pressure water hose, she felt her on-board had some explaining to do.

“Sorry, Dana,” Odin said. “I detected something entering our sector that requires your attention.”

Dana rubbed her face, scowling, but in vain. Her nose had already cleared. “Well next time try nudging me, or spraying my face with normal air.” She inhaled a deep breath through her nose, lay back and closed her eyes in a rebellious attempt at sleep. “Entering our sector? What, another asteroid? Congo sector is too close to the belt. How many times are you going to wake me up for this crap?”

“No. You instructed me not to rouse you for natural events. This is unnatural.”

“Unnatural?” Dana sat up blinking away her grogginess, and leaned forward. She read the data collected by her on-board’s sensors from an array of holographic images.

Odin had identified a fellow scout ship passing through their sector, flipping erratically, doing what veteran space travelers call 'the ghost-ship tumble'. Reference data listed its occupants as Captain Julian Silva, and his on-board computer, Isis.

The last entry sent a chill up her spine. Neither had responded to Odin's hails.

“Oh, my God,” she said.

“Yes. This does appear serious. There must have been an accident.”

“Can we save them? How fast and how far, Odin? Give me a rough estimate.”

“Recovery would require us to abandon our post in Congo sector, which is against—”

“Just give me the damn estimate.”

“Intercepting it would require approximately one hundred and nine standard solar days and a distance of—”

“Enough. Got it,” Dana said, disgusted by how long that would take, far too long to do any good. “Can you at least get a visual for me? I want to see that ship.” She studied the holographic image of Silva. His bio listed him as a citizen of Mars before the Massacre, a third-generation colonist just like her.

"My long range sensors will complete a detailed scan in nine minutes. I can piece together a low resolution image for you then if you like.”

“Good. You do that." She stared at Silva's care worn face, wondering if, also like her, he had volunteered because everyone he had ever known or loved had been slaughtered. She forced her eyes away. "In the meantime,” she said, “Try to contact the on-board again.”

“I have already made two attempts to contact Isis. There was no response.”

“Try again, Odin.”

“Isis would have answered if she were functional.”

“Well, maybe her systems were down at the time. Try again.”

“Each attempt jeopardizes our stealth cap—”

"That's an order," she said, cutting him off and glaring into his sensor.

His yellow eye, a floating translucent orb, blinked as if acknowledging the order. “I will try again,” he said.

She contemplated the tiny blue dot symbolizing Silva’s scout ship inside her three-dimensional grid map on the floating display. As she waited for Odin's makeshift image, she dreaded what it might reveal, the little ship riddled with holes, leaking gasses or completely torn apart.

She took a deep breath, and lay back on her chair, letting the air and tension flow out of her.

The illusion of having no front wall or ceiling gave her a panoramic view of the universe. Like riding on an open platform with only three walls, one to each side and one behind, they appropriately called these ships Star Scoops. The area in front and above opened out to the endless empty of space and the vast splendor of stars.

Despite the view of open space, and an uncluttered cabin, sometimes her scout ship felt cramped. It was a single compartment, about three meters wide and six meters long. The only piece of equipment was her control chair, mounted a third of the way from the front of the ship. Dana rarely left it. From that seat she could control the ship manually (if required), produce and consume all her meals, relieve herself, bathe, watch holomovies, play games, or, as she preferred, spend the majority of her time in an artificially induced coma.

Odin took care of everything with his numerous gadgets and articulated arms, hidden when not in use, but sprouting from the floor or walls whenever needed.

“I am sorry, Dana. There is still no response from Isis.”

Her disappointment became a wave of despair, but she immediately recognized it as bio-imbalance, and fought back the tears. Identifying it as a false emotion was half the battle. Dana talked past the lump in her throat. “Were they stationed next to us in Bangkok sector?”

“Yes. My files state that Captain Julian Silva was thirty-four years old, a highly decorated combatant in the cleansing of Mars after the Martian Massacre, and, like you, Dana, a survivor of MacGowdy's Mandate. Did you know him?”

“No. There were more than a quarter million of us, all in separate fighters. Even though so many... so many were...” Her voice trailed off as the familiar image played out, waves of nuclear explosions, like new suns above the blue-black stratosphere of Earth. Bursts of x-ray white saturated the heavens, an endless canopy of death, so dreadful, so catastrophic, yet so silent.

It was doomsday all over again, mankind's last stand against an invasion force from Mars.

The invaders were called Coders, a race of androids, but far more advanced than their robotic ancestors. Less than a year before they had killed every human on Mars. Not a single survivor on a planet of over a billion inhabitants.

In the battle for Earth, when the Coders attacked the blockade, they swarmed each ship, and the pilots nuked themselves, obeying the mandate by General Russ MacGowdy.

Dana watched the suns explode above and before her. She waited with one hand on her laser cannon and the other poised over a detonator for hours. Thousands of suns became hundreds, hundreds became dozens, and dozens became just a few at a time. Then just one or two suns lit the sky, sporadic, random. Until, finally, Dana waited in the darkness and quiet of space. She waited for her turn. She wanted to kill as many Coders as she could with her laser, and once swarmed, she wanted to see her mother and brothers again.

Maybe they would all be back on Mars, sitting on the porch under the red Martian sky, all waiting for her to sit, tease, and laugh just like before she left them to attend college on Earth. Her mom, Dana’s big brother David with his wife Michelle, and Dana’s baby brother Teddy, maybe they were all waiting somewhere at the center of her own private sun.

She would never know.

The voice of General MacGowdy hailed what was left of the blockade, made a few grateful acknowledgements to all the pilots who gave their lives, then informed everyone left alive that the Coder invasion force had been repelled.

Remnants of the Coder armada had retreated and then escaped the carrier groups sent to eliminate them. Too few and too weak to limp back to Mars for fear of being nuked into extinction, the remaining Coders fled somewhere into the farthest reaches of the solar system.

No one knew where, but everyone knew that somewhere out there, the Martian Primal Coders were rebuilding, reproducing and evolving. That is what humans had programmed them to do.

For the last five years the whole human race had prepared for war, while far-forward scouts, like Dana and Julian Silva, either searched suspected areas for Coder activity, or kept a constant vigil in one of countless listening posts on the outskirts of previously cleared sectors.

Those five years since the battle, now referred to as MacGowdy’s Mandate, usually lessened the impact of her flashback, but not this time. Thanks to bio-imbalance, despair surged through her.

She shook her head, forcing herself back to the present. “I didn't know him, Odin. Even though over two hundred thousand died, there were about as many survivors. What else can you tell me about him?”

“He was serving his second tour as a far-forward scout. Like you, he volunteered. His family is listed as—”

“That’s enough.” Dana raised a hand to Odin’s sensor. “I really can’t stomach hearing about the man’s family. Sorry.”

“I understand, Dana.”

She doubted that. What could a computer understand about emotions? Would he feel disgusted by seeing the images they were waiting for, the dead husk of a scout ship?

She clenched her teeth in rage, and fought for control, reminding herself that Odin served humans. He was nothing like a Coder. But preferring anger to despair, she stopped fighting, allowing her bio-imbalance to run its course.



* * *


 

The image of the scout ship put together by Odin’s long-range sensors showed no apparent damage. It depicted nothing more than the exterior of a runaway derelict, with no occupant, dead or alive detectable. The little black Star Scoop looked as sound as her own.

“What caused this, Odin? What happened to them?”

“It is difficult to see on the light absorbing surface, but there is a tiny puncture in the front membrane wall. A small asteroid traveling at a high velocity may have caused that.”

“Mm, I’m not so sure. And even if that were the case,” Dana asked, “How could a single asteroid disable the on-board? Isis should still be talking to us.”

“That is a mystery," Odin said. He paused, as if perplexed and trying to come up with an answer. Dana knew better. A computer made its conclusions within nanoseconds of receiving data, even the less brainy, post-Coder models like Odin. This was an attempt to sound human, and she endured the dramatic pause in silence. Whatever his theory, it had been calculated long before he woke her. He finally voiced it. "The asteroid must have destroyed some critical mechanism responsible for the on-board's higher functions.”

“Yeah... I don’t think so. This looks fishy.”

“True, it does look fishy.” Odin paused again. Dana resented his pauses and use of slang. How could anything look fishy to a computer? It was part of his programming, but it made her feel patronized, as if he considered himself superior. “However," Odin continued, "No matter how improbable it may seem it is much more likely some accident caused this, especially due to the high concentration of asteroids in this area.”

“Mm, no, Odin, I don’t buy that. This seems way too precise for a freak asteroid. It's only a hunch, but I think Coders may have caused this.” Dana nodded to herself. “I’m going to share my suspicions with Mars Central in my report. Maybe they’ll send a carrier group out to Bangkok sector to investigate. I think that would be wise of them. Don’t you?”

Odin remained silent, but Dana didn’t care if he disagreed. She had a report to write.



* * *




After writing her report to Mars Central, Dana did not feel like going back into hibernation.

Switching off the safety harness, she climbed from her control chair and attempted to stand.

“Careful, Dana, you are getting to your feet too quickly.”

“Oh, not now," she said, waving a hand at Odin's sensor. The blood rushed from her head into her limbs, making her dizzy, but that soon passed. Feeling steady and fit enough to begin exercising, she said, “See. I’m fine.”

“You are fine because I adjusted the artificial gravity to less than fifty percent.”

‘Smug bastard,’ Dana thought. She stretched into a yoga stance, which, according to her training, kept the muscles from becoming stiff. The technology that regulated hibernation also kept her healthy and ready for physical action, but with the unfortunate side effect of bio-imbalance.

With her emotions spiking from that side effect and the image of the scout ship fresh in her mind, Dana needed some strenuous activity. She stood from a yoga stance and attempted a jumping jack, but vaulted high, almost banging her head on the clear ceiling membrane. After an awkward fall of flailing limbs and rushing adrenaline, her boots found the deck again.

“Turn the gravity back up to full,” Dana said, annoyed.

No longer in the mood for jumping jacks, she dropped down for some push-ups. Her arms gave out and her chest slammed into the metal floor as the artificial gravity kicked in.

She wanted to swear, kick her legs and throw a fit, but instead forced herself to remain still. As she lay there, tears of frustration filled her eyes.

Her emotions were out of control.

The gray, cold metal against her face, she waited, letting her frustration peak, level off and slowly subside.

Only a feeling of foreboding remained. A feeling in the pit of her stomach screamed to her that Coders destroyed Silva’s ship, not some unlucky asteroid.

Her bio-imbalance resistance training told her she should first identify and then ignore all feelings when making decisions.

“Well, what about a hunch?” she pondered aloud. “That’s a feeling.”

“Intuition may be affected by feelings,” Odin said, “but, in actuality, true intuition is more a function of intelligence on a sub-conscious–”

“Shut up, Odin!” Dana shouted. “On-boards can’t feel. So what the hell does a computer know about feelings anyway?” She pointed at his sensor. “Don’t answer that!”

Once again, frustrated by her behavior, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and pushed it out her nose. “I’m sorry, Odin. Just give me a few moments of silence to get my emotions in check.”

She turned onto her back to do some deep breathing and stare out at space. She felt her emotions waning and waxing with each shaky breath, but the exercise was working.

Gazing out through the clear canopy of an entire wall and ceiling, she saw Jupiter about the size of the moon as seen from Earth. But the sight of the gas giant was, somehow, much more spectacular than any satellite could ever be, even rather frightening.

Less than a star but more than a planet, it was like a massive raging storm of matter. Over one-tenth the size of the sun, it seemed to speak to her with its enormous presence. Dana felt its whole terrifying existence boom, ‘Go home, parasite. You don’t belong here.’ Yet it was beautiful.

Star gazing usually settled her down, but seeing the dead scout ship had rattled her. She flipped over into a push-up position, and began the exercise with her mind racing. 

The Coders were probably nearby, passing through Bangkok sector. And, somehow, they had found and destroyed a solar scout ship, just like hers, a scout ship thought to be undetectable.

Dana strained and groaned, banging out each push-up, and wondering if her ship would be next.

“Un…detectable…my ass!” she grunted between push-ups.

“May I speak now?” Odin asked.

“Yah...what’s up?”

“Are you fearful that Coders may have detected and attacked that scout ship, Dana?”

“What…do you think?”

“Solar scout ships are undetectable by any existing sensors, Coder or human. The stealth technology is foolproof and our location cannot be compromised.”

“Yah…right,” Dana said, finishing her last push-up. “And Coders are incapable of harming humans.” She dropped to the floor and rolled onto her back, out of breath, but feeling much better, more in control.

“That statement,” Odin said, “Was made in error by people who were unaware of the design flaws responsible for that disaster.”

Dana smirked as she wondered what kinds of design flaws her on-board might have. “Whatever you say, Odin.” She sat up, hugging her knees, and considered the stars for the millionth time. “Now, explain to me how Captain Silva and the Isis unit ended up dead and hurtling through our sector.”

“I cannot. There must have been some accident.”

“There was an accident alright, Primal Coders.” She nodded and pushed to her feet. “They were the accident.”



Dana had uploaded their official reports to the communications pod. Having simulated the launch dozens of times and never actually witnessing one, she wondered how it might look.

With a single tap of a floating, holographic keypad, a round panel dilated open in the back wall.

From inside the circular hole, a black spherical pod emerged, about half a meter in diameter. Hovering forward until it reached the clear front wall of her ship, it paused there a moment, then popped through the wall and disappeared.

If it had flown out in front of her ship, there was no sign of it.

“Well, that was disappointing.” Dana said.

“Why, what were you expecting?” Odin asked.

She just shook her head and lay back in her chair.



(Twelve hours later)



Another blast of air hit Dana in the face, this one free of irritating gasses. She sat up in her seat. “What’s happening, Odin?”

“I have detected an object in our sector that requires your attention.”

"Yeah, that's a surprise," Dana said. She leaned closer to the floating visual readout, yawning as she read it. Her mouth closed, and her eyes widened, freezing on the last line of text; ‘Alien in Origin.’

“What is it?” she asked.

“I am not certain. It fails to meet any criteria for space-faring objects stored in my files.”

She noted its location represented by a red dot in the three-dimensional grid, but it looked wrong. The red lines of the map were not wide-area sector lines. They were vicinity lines.  “That looks like a vicinity grid. The object isn’t that close, is it? It’s near the sector boundaries, right?”

“No. The object is considerably closer than that. Your observation is correct. This is a vicinity map, representing the sub-sector we occupy.”

“I see.” Dana said, struggling to suppress fears of Coder technology.

“Unfortunately, I did not detect the object entering Congo sector.” Odin said, sounding almost apologetic. “Because of its small size and great speed, there is not much of a signature. It was invisible to my sensors until it was within this range.”

Dana quietly crushed the armrests with her hands, watching the red dot move through the vicinity grid.

“We should be getting a distant visual on it in… one moment, Dana… it seems to have changed course.”

“Changed course? Which way is it headed?” She scanned the floating display, studying the red dot.

“It is now heading in a direction that will bring it very close to our location."

Dana saw the red dot veer toward the black dot representing her ship. She clutched the arms of her chair even tighter.

"That is a fortuitous change in direction," Odin said. "This will provide us with a much closer—”

“It detected us!” Dana said.

“No. That is not possible. Its change of direction must be a coincidence.”

“Coincidence, my ass! How long before it gets here?”

“It will not ‘get here,’ Dana. Please try to keep your emotions in check. Remember that we are invisible to it, but when it passes, it will be very close. Its current heading will take it to within several hundred meters of our starboard side.”

“That isn’t what I asked, Odin. When will it pass?”

“It will pass by us in approximately four minutes.”

She felt faint when she heard that. Four minutes was ridiculous and Dana fought to keep her composure. The immense size of Congo sector, in her mind, negated any coincidence. Even at full speed, a solar scout ship took almost twenty hours to cross a sector this size and this thing, alien in origin, was only four minutes away.

“Fire up the drives and get us out of here.”

Odin paused a moment, then said, “But, if I did that and this was a Coder threat we would be detected… Dana.” She thought she heard a patronizing lilt as he spoke her name and it made him sound almost human. Odin continued with an explanation, sounding like a computer again. “Our Ionic-Graviton thrusters emit a highly detectable stream of—”

“I said,” Dana interrupted, shouting over his voice. “Get us the hell out of here! Now!”

Her computer paused again. Then seemed to revert back to his condescending tone as he said, “That is a bit of an overreaction. Don’t you think?”

“I bet that’s exactly what Isis said to Captain Silver.”

“That is one possibility,” Odin admitted, “but probability indicates we should remain stationary and in stealth mode, at least until we have a clearer idea of what—”

“I’m taking the controls!” She popped open a compartment and grabbed the piloting panel by its joystick, yanking it from the armrest.

“No, Dana. I can’t allow that.”

“You don’t have a choice.” Dana punched in her manual control code and waited for green lights, but none appeared. She punched in the code again. Nothing happened.

“Odin,” she asked, “Are you stopping me?”

“Yes, Dana. You should take a few moments to relax. I suggest some breathing exercises.”

“What…?” Dana was stunned. Nothing she could recall in her training on a scout ship ever indicated that the on-board could override its occupant.

She looked at the red dot inside the grid map. It was closing in on the black dot.

“Come on, Odin. It doesn’t take a computer to realize our cover has been blown. That thing, alien in origin—or more likely Coder in origin—is heading right toward us. Can we… please… take evasive action?”

“You may be correct, Dana. But there is a much greater chance you are mistaken. However, in the unlikely event your fears are validated, we should have plenty of time to take evasive action.”

“You don’t know that. Isis probably thought the same thing. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Isis would have thought since you’re thinking it. Then they just sat there, trusting their foolproof and infallible stealth technology. Well, how did that work out for them? Are you really going to make the same mistake?”

Odin remained silent. Dana watched the red dot in the sector map drawing closer.

She threw her hands up and sat back. Staring into Odin's sensor, she wondered how he had stopped her from taking control of the ship.

If a far-forward scout went crazy the computer could take over the ship, but she had no idea how Odin had done it without classifying her as mentally unfit. And with that thought, she realized exactly how he had done it.

She sat up, and using the holo-panel, punched in a request for a full psychological screening. Dana smirked into Odin’s sensor. “Let’s see if your preliminary observations of my mental condition hold up.”

Her on-board remained silent.

The report came back almost instantly from her brain scan. Although it warned of high stress levels, the word ‘competent’ appeared in blue, blinking text.

Dana reentered her manual control code, and green lights flashed on the panel. She fired up the drives and pulled back on the directional, sending her ship hurtling backward in full reverse. Although she felt no sense of movement, Dana saw the lines of the grid map in front of her move. The red lines crept slowly around the black dot of her ship, which remained at the center of the cube. The red dot seemed to speed up, heading straight for the black dot.

Dana shot a glance at Odin’s sensor. “Still think that thing was going to pass harmlessly by us?”

“It probably detected our heat signature,” Odin said.

“Yeah, you’re always right.”

Dana called for all the speed her scout ship could give her, but it was taking time to build up velocity. Whatever that red dot really was, lurking directly ahead of them as they tried to pull away in reverse, it pursued them with a purpose. “What’s the race look like, Odin? Are we going to get away from that thing?”

“It will be close. My prediction based on the object’s present speed and our acceleration makes it highly probable that it will be within meters of us by the time we match its rate of travel. But, if it increases its speed even slightly, it will make contact with us. Also, if the object has any weapons it can use to—”

“I thought there was plenty of time for evasive action if we waited, Odin? Huh? What happened to that?”

“Unfortunately, when you engaged the thrusters and alerted it to our presence, the object changed course and increased its rate of—”

“Ah, shuddup, will you!” Dana was pulling on her reverse directional harder than she needed to, but dared not let up. “Should I attempt any maneuvers, or will that slow us down?”

“You should wait to maneuver. Once we are at full velocity it may be advantageous, but right now we can only hope to outrun it.”

“Thanks. I knew that.”

When the red dot looked like it was right on top of the black dot in the center of the grid, Odin spoke up. “Dana, the object can be seen directly ahead of us through the clear, membrane wall. No magnification is required.”

Dana looked out beyond the grid and almost yanked the joystick out of its socket. She had never seen anything so unlikely flying though space. It appeared to be some kind of green, luminescent space-bug, complete with a bunch of long, segmented legs and a huge stinger. “Crap, Odin, that thing isn’t going to catch us, is it?”

“We have matched its velocity, Dana. Unless it increases its speed, we should be able to pull away from it.”

“Can you blast it?”

“I can attempt to destroy it with the I-Strike Laser Cannon, but ordinance would be too dangerous at this range. Would you like me to—?”

“Just shut up and kill it!”

A bright, white beam of light appeared for a moment, and instantly the space bug was gone.

“Where’d it go?” Dana asked.

“I believe it was vaporized.” Odin paused, “Yes, it was. There is no sign of it on any of my sensors. The threat to our ship has been neutralized.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, Dana. Whatever it was has been completely destroyed.”

Dana let go of her joystick and shut down the drives. “So, what was it?”

“I was unable to determine that. It was comprised of both organic and inorganic materials. Now that it’s destroyed we may never know.”

“You sound disappointed, Odin.”

“I would have been curious to see what the Coders have added to their arsenal. It would have been very helpful to our cause if we could have captured it in one piece.”

“Well, there’s no way I would have shared this ship with that thing even if it had been stone cold dead, and I didn't see it throwing its bug legs up in the air to surrender.” Dana looked into Odin’s sensor and asked, “Are you going to trust me the next time I have a hunch about something?”

Odin was silent.

Dana grimaced. “Guess you’ll just think I’m crazy again, huh?”

“We simply had a difference of opinion, Dana. It was nothing more than that.”

“Okay, Odin. I see how it is.” Dana tucked her manual controls back inside the armrest and sat back in her seat to write the report to Mars Central.

She looked down and a faint green glow illuminated her hands. Looking up, she jerked her head to the side just in time to avoid a javelin shooting straight at her face. The end of it pounded into the headrest of her seat and stuck there.

The green space bug, about the size of a beach umbrella, clung to the outside of the clear membrane wall, piercing the front of her ship with its long, lance-like stinger.

Dana rolled off her chair, fearing any contact with the green tube that had just missed impaling her head. She scampered toward the back of the cabin on all fours.

"It's still alive!" she shouted. "Stop that thing, Odin! Stop that thing, suit me up... and for Christ's sake get me a laser!"

Almost instantly, her spacesuit arrived in the form of a gelatinous ball. It shot over her, spreading around her form, insulating and protecting her. The clear membrane material, thin but effective, provided everything her body needed to survive in the depths of space.

Dana reached the back wall of the cabin before daring to turn around. The bug, somehow, had gained entrance to the cabin. A dozen of Odin's long, snake-like metal arms stretched out from the walls, the floor and the back of her control chair, fighting it back and assaulting the creature from every side.

A handheld laser dropped onto Dana's lap, provided by another of Odin's arms. She snatched it up like a lifeline.

The bug arms seemed to be getting the better of Odin's metal arms, but Dana had no intention of waiting to find out which would win. She activated her laser by slapping the power pack.

She pointed, aimed and fired.

It was a great shot, taking what appeared to be the head clean off the bug, but it also sliced a long gash in her ship's front membrane wall.

Everything exploded outward. The bug's head flew out into space along with all the air in the cabin, which, curiously, had not escaped before that point.

Dana catapulted forward, pulled by the suction of decompression, but one of Odin's arms caught her by the torso. It yanked her down to the deck, and planted her firmly against the back wall of the cabin.

Odin’s calm voice echoed in her spacesuit’s earpiece, “I’m sorry if I was too rough. I’m also sorry I did not detect this creature’s presence on the outer hull. It somehow eluded my sensors, probably using the heat of the I-strike cannon as cover. The tactic of hiding like that was actually quite—”

“Just get it out of here!”

Unharmed and actually feeling somewhat calm after being jostled about, Dana assessed their situation from the relative safety in the back of the cabin. The bug had entered the cabin without causing decompression. She wondered how it could have accomplished that, and why it would bother keeping the ship pressurized. She didn't have long to ponder it.

Odin's metal arms ripped parts off the bug as they beat it back, confining it to the front of the cabin, but the parts that fell did not die. The fallen pieces of the bug sprouted limbs of their own, and crawled around the control chair, heading right toward her.

She took aim at the charging pieces, slicing them into smaller ones. But, after floundering for a moment, the shattered pieces grew more limbs, turned upright and charged at her again.

Meanwhile, Odin used his metal arms to rip the bug into ever more pieces, attempting with mild success to toss some of the bigger ones out into space.

Dana shouted into her membrane suit radio, "Stop tearing it apart, Odin."

She shot every piece headed in her direction, but they were becoming too small and too numerous. As she fired at smaller and smaller bugs, she suppressed the screams of panic that were welling up in her chest. Then her panic changed to despair, and she resisted a strong desire to break down crying, drop her laser and curl into a fetal position.

Focused on having to cope with bio-imbalance while fighting for her life, Dana replaced her despair with anger. Turning the laser on herself even occurred to her, and it seemed like a very good idea. Not only would it put an end to her miserable life, but the last thing she would allow was one of these Coder bugs to touch her.

Memories of how they turned human tissue into parts of their own anatomy filled her with horror, and, surprisingly, added fuel to her anger. The Coders would pay for all the fear, misery and death they caused. They would pay for turning against their masters, and they would pay for destroying Mars. As one of their masters, Dana would make certain they paid for it all. Using all her anger and all her fear, Dana shot the charging bug pieces faster than they could grow legs.

Eventually she was turning dozens of coin-sized bugs into countless pieces of confetti, but even that couldn't stop them. A film of luminescent green specks moved closer and closer, so she shot the film.

"They're all coming back alive!" she yelled, wishing Odin could just wash them all out into space. And that's when the idea hit her. She shouted, "Odin, hit them with the hose!"

A high-pressure blast streamed overhead from the rear wall, hitting the bugs and bug specks, knocking them back. At the same time, Odin's metal arms tossed out the last big piece.

The hose worked wonders in the absolute-zero vacuum of space. The shooting water crystallized into hard and slippery specks of ice, glazing every surface it touched. Green legs on the bigger bugs scurried for grip, but failed, while the force of the white torrent pushed even the tiniest bugs farther and farther back. By the second and third pass, luminescent green caught in white globs of ice gushed out into open space, a storm of bugs riding an avalanche into oblivion.

The only pieces not washed away clung to remnants of the clear membrane wall at the very front of the ship.

Dana took aim and blasted away the fragments of the front wall that were preventing their departure. Stifling an impulse to cheer, she watched in triumph as every last bit of green flew out into space.

Her chest filled with pride, and, for the first time ever, she savored the side effect of bio imbalance.

She stood up from where she had been huddled against the back wall of her Star Scoop. With her laser pistol and Odin's help, she cleared out the ice and snow, inspecting every surface on the ship. They could not find a single trace of luminescent green.

Handing her weapon off to one of Odin's arms, she walked to her control chair, and flopped back into it, exhausted.

Odin repaired the clear membrane wall in front of her, and she watched him work for a long time. When he was done and the cabin pressurized, she had Odin suck the membrane spacesuit off of her body. Then she took out a stylus to write her report to Mars Central.

This would be an important one, the kind she had envisioned writing when she volunteered to be a scout.

She focused her attention on the stylus in her hand and the glowing text appearing beneath it. Her hand moved, but her mind did the work. The writing appeared in mid-air as she passed her stylus above it, each word a thought transcribed.

“Dana,” Odin asked, “May I disturb you a moment?”

“You already have. What’s on your mind?”

“I just wanted to say that you did an excellent job. I will certainly try to trust you more the next time you... have a hunch.”

“Well,” Dana said, “I have another hunch that you’re an idiot.”

“I see,” Odin said. This time his perplexed pause seemed genuine. Dana smiled and continued writing.

Several minutes passed, and, with her report almost done, she became concerned the officers at Mars Central might be skeptical. The term 'space bug' seemed like it came out of a bad science-fiction holomovie. Then it occurred to her that Odin must have recorded its image.

“Odin,” she asked, “Can you show me a picture of that space-bug? We’ll send it with our next round of reports. You must have recorded it when—”

“One moment, Dana,” Odin interrupted, which was very unusual. “I have just received a distress signal from the communications pod we dispatched approximately fourteen hours ago. The distress signal was cut off rather abruptly, and the data I have recovered is less than a second in duration, but the message it conveys is quite alarming.”

Dana was speechless for a moment. “Our com-pod sent us a distress signal?”

“Yes.”

“Is it malfunctioning, Odin?”

“No. It was attacked.”

“Attacked!” Dana repeated. “How could that have happened? It’s even stealthier than we are.” Then she thought of a much more important question. “Odin, did it get our reports off to Mars Central?”

“We may be able to piece together how it was attacked, but the com-pod seems to have been destroyed before achieving the required distance from us. It was still too close to transmit any of its communiqu├ęs without compromising our location. Mars Central will remain unaware of anything transpiring in either Bangkok or Congo sectors if we do not send out another com-pod.”

“How did it happen? What attacked it? Was it another bug?” Dana felt her mission to sound any alarms spinning out of control. “How was it destroyed, Odin?”

“I have put together the com-pod’s optical data. The series of images are only a few tenths of a second in length, the time before its distress signal was interrupted. But, from what the images display, this is a matter of grave concern. I think you should view them immediately.” Odin paused. “Dana, I am detecting several factors indicating that you are in a high state of stress—”

“Just show me the damn pictures, Odin.”

“Yes, Dana. I am only warning you to brace yourself. This may be a startling sight.”

There was another pause. If Odin had meant to decrease her anxiety, he had failed miserably. She crushed the arms of her chair in a death grip, waiting for the playback of what the com-pod had witnessed.

An oval image showing the black of space filled with its starry host appeared floating in front of her. She could see Jupiter near the top and to the right of the oval, the monstrous planet looking tiny in the distance. It was a fish-eye view from the curved lens of the com-pod, warping a much larger area into its borders. But the image was flawed, broken in half by a line of green static that crossed horizontally through its center.

“Can you get a better resolution in the center?”

“This is only the first image, Dana, a still shot. I will slow the series of images down by ten times so your human eyes can follow along, beginning now.”

The green line of static grew into a band, and then a bar, diffusing into billions of separate dots. The bar grew wider until the whole image was nothing but a mass of fuzzy, green. A single green dot grew so large that it blocked out the billions of others. Then, it froze there.

“That is the last image,” Odin said.

With eyes wide, Dana stared at the picture floating before her. The segmented legs and stinger clearly visible, a space-bug filled the oval.

“It seems,” Odin said, “The object we encountered was not the only one of its kind. I can estimate the location of this swarm but still cannot detect it at this range. However, the data seems to indicate it should pass through Congo sector. I must admit, though, without further data, there is no course of action I can confidently suggest.” Odin paused for a long time. Then he asked, “Do you have any... hunches, Dana?”

Filled with horror at the sight of so many space bugs headed their way, Dana let her bio imbalance take over. Tears streamed down her face as she said, "Fire up an open channel to Mars Central and Earth, Odin. I'm going to sound the alarm. There's no need to hide anymore."

Odin complied, and Dana sent her final message home.

When she finished, she stood from her control chair, still misty with tears.

"Suit me up, and give me back my laser. Arm the nuke, and then set a course straight into the thickest part of them. MacGowdy had it right from the start. The only way to kill a Coder is to take advantage of our ability to forsake our own instincts for self-preservation. Coders can’t do that, but humans can.”

“I don’t suppose you would consider fleeing?” Odin asked.

“What’s the point?”

“Survival is the point. I could declare you as mentally unfit again.”

“That might work this time. You want to give it a try?”

Odin paused. This time Dana did not mind it so much. He would be making a sacrifice too. Even on-boards were programmed with a sense of survival, regardless of the fact she could order him to ignore it.

“No, Dana,” he said. “Considering the circumstance, your plan is reasonable. It also avoids the necessity to abandon our post in Congo sector.”

“Yah, that’s a relief,” Dana said, shaking her head and frowning.

Odin suited her up and gave her a laser pistol. The engines engaged as she sat down in her control chair.

“You know, Odin, most people despise General MacGowdy because he was such a ruthless bastard, but it was truly an honor serving under him for exactly that reason, because he was such a ruthless bastard."

"Interesting,” Odin said. “Then, likewise, it was truly an honor serving under you."

“Hey!” Dana chuckled. “I get it, because I’m such a ruthless bitch. I’m impressed. I think you’re actually developing a sense of humor. Maybe someday you’ll be a real boy, Pinocchio.”

She regarded the yellow disk with rare sentiment, glad Odin was with her.

She nodded at him and set her jaw. “Okay now, let's see how many of those ass-ugly bugs we can take with us.”





THE END

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