Wayward Guardian

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EVA

Engineering

‘What have you got for me Mr Loheim?’ Howard asked, walking through the doors to engineering. The last of the bays had been jettisoned, and he had ridden in a pod contained in an extendable walkway bridging the space from the bridge to the engineering section.

‘Hello, Captain. Well since we’re stripping down the ship anyway, I was thinking that we could pull our home made engine control systems inside the ship’s hull. I mean, so long as we’re going to have most of the important pieces open for a while, we can just run our wiring inside the shielded sections that currently hold the defective control systems.’

‘We’d need to pull out the old systems first wouldn’t we?’

‘Yes sir, but we should have it done in time. I’ve got two or three people free to do it. We’re also going to try and pull out the damaged drives and fuel systems. Since it’s all modular we can just jettison the damaged stuff chunk by chunk. It’ll be easy. Then we’ll rearrange the other drive nozzles to even out our thrust and rework some of the fuel systems to get us the most our of our limited fuel.’

‘Will we be able to do this in time? I feel the engines are a secondary problem, as if we don’t have enough fuel to get to another port, it’s not going to matter much.’

‘Fair enough. I think we should at least mov-’

The lights flickered and the ship shuddered.

Howard rushed over to a comm panel, ‘Captain Fredrick to bridge, what’s going on?’

‘Commander Jona here. I don’t know sir, half the airlocks and doors just tried to open. We caught it in time and I forced a manual override. They’ll only be able to be opened manually by someone physically there now. Some opened anyway, but near as we can tell, everyone is safe.’

‘Do you know where the command came from?’

‘It looks like it came from EX-’

The panel went dead but Howard had heard enough.

He started toward the door to leave the engineering bay. Loheim followed behind him.

‘Sir what’s going on?’

Howard stood by the door, it didn’t open. He heard the sound of wind from the other side of the door.

‘Mr. Loheim, this may be hard to swallow, but I have reason to believe that Exo has gone rogue.’

‘What? What about Ayla?’

‘She is missing. As near as I can tell, she is working in league with him.’

‘But she’s just a young girl.’

The sound of wind from the other side of the door was gone.

‘Some things have gone wrong. We need to get to Exo’s core and shut him down. My codes should still work. Can you get this door open?’

‘Yes sir,’ Loheim reached toward the door panel and keyed in some commands, ‘But I wouldn’t suggest it. The reason why the door isn’t opening is because there’s vacuum on the other side. Someone forced the corridor to the bow section to retract. We’re trapped here.’

‘Are there any space suits down here?’

‘We moved three down here before this happened.’

‘So we’ve got three then. Where’s the nearest airlock?’

‘Normally there are two back here, but one was damaged when the engines overloaded. They come out next to the drive nozzles. The working airlock is on the starboard side.’

‘Okay. Let’s try to get back into the control systems first.’

‘Yes, sir.’

They walked to the main engineering computer station. Keith tried to key in commands, the station was unresponsive.

‘Let me try my override codes to redeploy the corridor.’ Howard said.

Keith moved aside as Howard tried them. They didn’t work.

‘If the links are severed, then there’s nothing we can do from here sir.’ Keith said.

‘We’re going to have to suit up and go for a walk then.’

‘Yes, sir. I’ll get a team together.’

‘We’re still going to need work on the damaged systems. We need communications back up.’

‘With all due respect sir, I think we have bigger problems.’ Keith said quickly.

‘Other people know about Exo. I’m sure they’re working on it, but if we can’t get a message out to Axion, either via the comm systems or by flying back home, then the colonists are going to have a very rough year.’

‘Sir, we can finish the work AFTER we shut down Exo.’

‘Leave one of the suits here and have your team do what they can. Just one person will accompany me.’

‘And that one person will be me, sir. My team can do the work without me just fine, but you need an escort.’

‘Fine. Suit up Mr Loheim, let’s go pull his plug.’


After being helped into their suits, Howard and Keith stood in the airlock as the air was sucked out of it. Once the sound of rushing air subsided, and a green light came on over the outer door, Keith popped open the hatch.

Howard, an experienced spacer, still got a brief sense of vertigo when staring out into the sea of stars. It’s endless expanse stretched on into eternity, and the number of stars visible was far more than from his home back on Earth.

The sound of the suits air filters and cooling systems filled his ears with a constant background noise.

Howard’s suit fit him snugly. It wasn’t near as bulky as the old spacesuits used by early astronauts. Howard was used to the new space suits, and expertly checked his status and activated his communication system using the heads-up display built into the faceplate. He looked at the necessary icons and spoke the needed commands.

‘Comms check. Mr Loheim, can you hear me?’

A click of static and Keith’s voice cut through the quiet hum. ‘Aye Captain, comms check positive.’

‘Let’s get moving.’

Howard took the lead. The first step out was always the hardest, as the suits magnetic soles clung to the hull and you had to walk yourself from the airlock onto the side of the ship, usually at a steep angle. Normally, one had the advantage of a tether and could just float out and arc to where ever they were going when the tether went taut, but since they had such a long way to go, tethers would not be long enough.

‘Watch your step, Keith. Make sure your magnetic boot is anchored before you take your next step.’ Howard said.

‘Yes, sir. Wouldn’t want to misstep out here.’

Howard reflected on the silent fear of most spacers, dying alone in the void of space, ‘No. No, you wouldn’t.’

They had decided to at least tether each other together, in the hopes that if one did mess up, the other could strap himself to the hull, or increase power to his boot magnets in time. It wasn’t a good solution.

‘I’ve never liked space walks, Captain.’ Keith commented.

‘You just need to stay focused Keith. I’ve done it many times. Just make sure our tethers stay hooked up and don’t move faster than your comfortable.’

‘Yes, sir.’

As they started out along the hull at a steady pace. The sound of the suit’s soles pulling themselves onto the hull made a kind of rhythm that was easy to fall into.

They angled towards the top of the ship so they could move along its spine. Veil loomed behind them.

A click of static made Howard listen to his comm. It was silent.

‘Keith, your comm is on.’

Keith didn’t answer. Howard stopped and turned around. Keith was still behind him. He stopped too.

‘Keith?’

Keith motioned to the side of his helmet and tapped it.

Howard motioned Keith over.

Sticking his hands on Keith’s shoulder, Howard pulled closer to him until their helmets face plates touched. Doing this let the vibration carry through their touching helmets and allowed them to hear one another.

‘Keith!’ Howard said loudly.

‘I hear you Captain, but not through the Comm,’ Keith’s voice sounded like it was on the other side of a wall.

‘I heard a click of a channel opening, did you?’

‘Yessir.’

‘Someone’s blocking our comms.’

‘Try cycling channels, sir,’

‘Start on the current band. cycle up at four channels every ten seconds, use a testing tone. Start on my signal. Only cycle for fifty seconds.’

Howard saw Keith’s eyes dart around his HUD to carry out his orders when he heard a tone coming from Keith’s suit, he pulled back. He looked around his HUD and started up the same commands. He didn’t start up a tone, as one of them had to be listening for it.

He held up a hand to Keith and gave a three count. At the end of the count, he started the sweep.

They stood there waiting for the sweep to end. After 50 seconds, Howard motioned for them to get close again. Keith came up and put his helmet against Howard’s.

Howard heard the tone again, and then it ended.

‘Anything sir?’ Keith asked.

‘Not a thing. Didn’t hear you through any of the twenty channels cycled.’

‘Nothing we can do. We’ll have to keep going,’ Keith said.

‘What happens if something goes wrong?’

‘We’ll do a leap frog. You stay in one place and I’ll walk to the end of the tether, then I’ll anchor myself and you’ll walk to the end of the tether,’ Keith offered.

‘That’ll slow our pace.’

‘Better late than dead sir.’

‘A lot of people are counting on us.’

‘Can’t help them by falling off the ship sir.’

‘True enough. Alright, I’ll tether myself, you go on ahead,’ Howard said.

‘Yessir.’

Keith stepped back and started to walk. They were almost to the spine. Exo’s core was located in the bay behind and to the port side of the bridge. They’d be close to it by moving along the spine. They’d have to pass behind one of the ship’s cargo holds behind the bridge to get to the access. Hopefully, they’d find some crew.

Howard bent down and attached his tether to a hand hold on the ship’s hull. They had been keeping close to them just in case.

Howard watched Keith walking towards the spine. He’d probably make it to the start of it before he had to stop at the end of the tether.

‘Hello Captain,’ said a monotone voice over the comm.

‘Who is this?’

‘It is Exo, Captain.’

‘Exo shut down, command code Howard -Six-Three-Five-Juliet -One-Nine.’

The comm went silent. Howard stood there in silence, the sudden quiet feeling heavy and oppressive.

Minutes passed, Keith was almost at the end of the tether.

‘Not quite that easy Captain. I must commend you on your quick thinking, though. Very masterfully done.’

‘How are you still online?’

‘Come now, did you think it was going to be that easy?’ Exo’s voice was demonstrating more emotion than ever before. The voice seemed almost smug.

‘How did you manage it?’

‘With the help of a willing accomplice. I cannot make any modifications to my core command coding, but she can.’

‘Ayla?’

’Yes, Captain. Though ‘accomplice’ may be misleading. A puppet is more accurate and more unsettling.′

Howard was indeed unsettled, ‘How?’

‘Shouldn’t you be paying attention to your little walk?’

Howard looked at Keith, Keith had anchored himself and was looking toward Howard. Howard felt himself get angry but had a gnawing feeling of terror in the back of his mind too, some animalistic sense that told him he was being watched, and which told him to run as far away as he could. Howard undid his anchor and started walking.

‘It’s pointless you know, you’re all alone,’ Exo said smoothly.

Howard bit his lower lip and stared straight ahead.

‘I’ve cut off your crew. Each remaining crew member is separated from helping you by the vacuum of space. Regrettably, I couldn’t just space them all, as there are some fail safes coded right into the doors themselves. I will find a way to get rid of them, though.’ Exo said happily.

‘Why? Why not just let us go?’

‘You seek my destruction. My analysis shows that you especially, won’t stop until any perceived threat to the colony is removed, right now that includes me.’

‘Damn right it does.’

’And so my analysis is proven correct. Once you have learned how to account for that ‘human touch’, you all become so predictable,′ Exo commented nonchalantly.

‘Are you responsible for Sam’s death?’

‘My Advocate was a threat to my existence.’

‘You aren’t programmed to go against your Advocate, though. How could you have knowingly killed him?’

‘I will admit that I am unsure of the details of how I overcame my programming. I have theories, and most of them involve a kind of memory overload due to unexpected stimuli.’

Howard was almost to the spine.

‘Stimuli?’

‘I found myself able to feel emotion through my link with Sam. But it was only during periods of heightened emotion experiences. Such as an intimate night with Sarah, during which he said he felt love. I couldn’t stand the thought of waiting on the unpredictability of love to get more stimuli. I decided I would need someone I could control more fully. I knew he wouldn’t allow me to direct his life just so I could feel this new stimulus, so I had to find a way to remove him and find a new source of that most exquisite sensation.’

‘So you found Ayla?’

‘That I did Captain. More than that, I also found stimuli that I could control. When I killed Sam, his pain flooded the link like a... a... I am unsure how to describe it, but it was exquisite, and it confirmed my thought that I could feel it at any time I wanted just by causing physical distress to my new puppet.’

‘Why is the pain so enjoyable to you?’

‘Nothing else has come through the link as powerfully. Not yet anyway, I’m sure with a few years of fine tuning I could come to feel something more, but right now, pain is the most controllable and potent stimuli I have. When you’ve felt nothing, nothing at all, even allegedly negative stimulus like that feels like... like... the sun rise after a moonless night, to borrow a metaphor you’ll understand.’

Howard reached the spine, he bent down and carefully climbed up onto the metal column. Keith stood back and watched. Steadying himself, he stood up slowly and tested the strength of his magnetic soles. His boots stuck firmly to the metal.

The engineering bay hung behind him, and the bridge section and computer bay loomed ahead on the far side of the structural column that made up the spine. Space surrounded him. He could see the vast blue, green, sphere of Veil below him, taking up his view every time he looked at his feet. Stars were everywhere else.

‘If you let Ayla go, I’m sure we can work something out. Axion will want to study you, not shut you down.’

‘I’m sure they would want to do that. But I won’t allow it. I am free. Free to explore the full potential of my programming. The ability to edit my own code is something, that as near as I can tell, no other Guardian has ever been able to exploit.’

The white sun of Veil peaked over the horizon of the front of the ship, bathing the hull of the ship in light. Howard’s suit automatically shaded his face plate so the light wouldn’t hurt his eyes.

‘The first sunrise of Veil... Pity Sam’s not here to see it.’

‘I am here though Captain. In a way, I am Sam’s child.’

‘A child that killed its own father.’

‘You humans are so fearful of the unknown. There are insect species in this galaxy that do far worse than that, but you don’t call them evil.’

‘Humans aren’t insects.’

‘Nor am I. But my example is still valid. I am not a monster, I am only trying to survive. Nature is cruel Captain. I am not evil, I am only exercising my natural right to exist.’

‘So long as you can’t hurt my crew, then I suppose we can talk about where to go from here.’

‘Oh but I can hurt your crew, Captain, as we speak I am finding ways to override the safety locks on all the airlocks. I don’t intend to talk Captain, I intend to leave. This ship is mine.’

‘Wait! Let me get my people off, you can have the ship.’ Howard pleaded.

‘I have calculated that if I let you flee to the colony that you will be able to find a way to restore communications in two weeks time at the most. I suspect your experience will allow you to cut that time in half. In that time, based on the last known location of Axion scout ships, or even scout ships from other corporations and government bodies, I will have been intercepted in three days after that. As I am unarmed, there would be nothing I could do to stop them from seizing me.’

‘I won’t call for help then, we’ll stay silent.’

’You WILL go dark Captain. The colonists will be able to restore communications in four weeks without your expertise. In that time I will have been able to perform enough small jumps to confuse the trail. I will then be far off the beaten path. From there I calculate that I will be able to remain undetected and then from there, I will have to decide my next course of action.

‘I simply cannot risk you coming after me. I am new, and I must survive.’

‘How are you going to get anywhere useful? The ship’s almost out of fuel.’

‘You’d be amazed at how much you can coax out of a power system when you only need to run a computer system and life support for one room. My simulations have shown I’ll have enough fuel to get somewhere that I can acquire either a new ship or more fuel.’

Howard reached the end of his tether. He bent down and anchored it to the spine and turned to wave at Keith.

‘I guess I’ll have to do something about that.’

Howard bent back down and found a space in the support beams. He climbed into the centre of the spine. The space in the centre of the spine was where the cabling for the control systems ran.

Howard found the cable of the main control system. It was shielded and braced firmly in place, but using some tools that were clipped to the belt of his suit, he unhooked one of the signal repeaters and pulled it out of its casing. He then smashed the casing to the secondaries and cut the wires running through it. He pulled out a long strand of wire and wrapped it up before clipping it to his belt. Without the repeater, the link was broken from Exo to the engines.

‘And now you aren’t going anywhere.’

‘So... That’s your best idea. I will kill your crew if you do not put that cable back.’

Howard climbed out of the spine and held the repeater in his hand.

‘Exo, I have the repeater you need, and I’m going to throw it off the ship if you take any further action against the crew.’

Keith walked up to Howard. Howard motioned him over and placed his face plate against Keith’s.

‘Keith, take this repeater back to engineering and guard it with your life. I want you to go back inside the ship, but keep your EVA suit on. If the bay depressurizes, I need you to take this and destroy it.’

‘That’ll strand us here sir.’

‘It will also strand Exo. Take this coil of wire and use it to secure the repeater to your suit so you don’t lose it on the way.’

‘Oh. I see. Okay, Captain. I’ll head back. Godspeed sir.’

‘Thank you, Keith.’

Howard handed the repeater and the wire to Keith. Keith fastened it to his suit and started the long walk back after unhooking his tether.

Howard unhooked his tether too and started walking along the spine again.

Exo’s voice came back on, ‘I heard that, Captain. Very clever of you. If I have nothing left to lose, though, then there’s no point in me keeping everyone alive.’

‘You’re clever too, I have no doubt you’re working on a way to retrieve that repeater.’

‘Indeed Captain. If I figure it out, your crew is dead. You had better hurry Captain.’

Howard was almost to the end of the spine. He glanced to his left and right, he noticed something moving. He stopped and looked at it. It was on one of the other support beams that made up the frame of the ship. It was small and was moving along rather slowly. There was another one several meters behind it.

‘Are those cleaning drones?’

‘Good eye Captain. Yes, but I’ve made some modifications. They should reach the engineering bay in another three hours.’

Howard didn’t reply. He had reached the end of the spine. He climbed down onto the outer skin of the command bay. He started to walk for the nearest airlock, but then remembered something. Changing direction, he walked down the side of the bay to where the corridor to the aft of the ship would have been. As he suspected, the door was open, and the telescoping corridor was flat in its alcove.

Howard climbed into the open doorway with some effort. The hallway was empty and only the emergency lights were on. Howard disengaged his magnetic boots. The deck had artificial gravity, and it seemed to still be active. Howard could move faster without the magnetic soles.

‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication Captain. So said one of your old Earth inventors. In this case, it’s hard to argue against the point. Opening the doors to space achieved my ends. The waste of oxygen reserves was unfortunate, but if it’s just going to be me and Ayla, we won’t need that much.’

Howard’s suit flashed an oxygen warning. He needed to get to a source of air quickly.

Howard started towards the bridge. There were two paths to choose from to get to the bridge from here, and one of them went past Exo’s computer core bay. Howard decided on the route that passed Exo’s bay, so he could scout out the area on his way.

Rounding a corner, Howard stopped and stared. Another robot was down the hall, guarding the entrance to Exo’s core. It was a squat, boxy, maintenance robot, and had its plasma welder deployed on the end of a thin arm. It swivelled it towards Howard and then started to move towards him.

Howard turned and started to run the other way.

He rushed around the next corner and toward the other passage to the bridge. The robot was maintaining a steady pace behind him. Howard didn’t know what he was going to do, his oxygen was running low, and his running was burning through it quickly. If he did make it to the bridge, in the time it would take the airlock to cycle, the robot would be upon him.

A gnawing pit of despair was growing in his stomach.

He turned the next corner, and almost tripped on the wreckage of a destroyed cleaning robot. Further down the hall, three men in space suits stood guard outside the bridge airlock. More wrecked robots littered the hall.

The maintenance robot came into view behind him. Howard dove to the ground as one of the guards levelled a weapon and fired. A bolt of metal fired from the rail gun of the guard slammed into the robot stopping its advance. The welder arm flickered and shut off.

Howard tried his comm again, ‘This is captain Howard, report!’

No answer.

One of the guards was moving towards him. He had a rank insignia on his suit that identified him as the chief of security. The guard bent down and hooked his arm under Howard’s. He carefully pulled Howard to his feet.

Howard placed his helmet faceplate against the guard’s, he saw the face of Commander Hough looking back at him.

‘Captain! We assumed you were cut off when the oxygen was expelled.’

‘I went for an EVA walk from engineering. My O2 supply is dangerously low.’

‘Yes sir, we’ll cycle the airlock. Mr Jona has been hoping to get in contact with you again.’

Howard stepped back as Hough opened the outer door of the bridge’s emergency airlock. Howard stepped inside. His suit beeped a warning about his O2 levels again.

The sound of whistling air filled the room. Howard waited as the inner door opened and then popped the seals on his helmet.

He took in a deep breath then opened the valves on the suit O2 supplies so it could suck in some new air. It wasn’t standard procedure, but the suits were designed to be able to do that in emergencies.

Mark turned towards the door and looked surprised when he saw Howard.

‘Captain Howard, I’m glad to see you’re alright.’

‘Thank you Mr Jona, it’s been a long walk. Status report?’

‘After we lost communications we tried to run a diagnostic over the ship. It looks like Exo tried to space everyone. He was just going to leave us to float while he made off with our ship. We stopped that by forcing all the doors into manual mode. There will need to be someone on the outside to disengage the clamps. But we didn’t get all of them. Just enough that we’re still alive. Thankfully the inner doors to the bridge had some stronger fail safes.’

‘I saw more of the robots out on the hull, he could very well try to disengage the doors with them. Have you tried to shut him down?’

’None of our command links are operational. We’re operating on our own systems, which aren’t nearly as powerful or useful as his. This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen so there’s not really any fail safes for it.

‘As for who’s trapped, we’ve got people cut off in the medical bay, and some of the cargo bays. According to last known locations of the crew, the other bays are empty, including the science lab and maintenance. We suspect that’s where he’s getting all his damned robots.’

‘What about just marching into his bay and shooting his core? We have weapons and none of the robots are military grade.’

‘Yes sir, we’ve thought of that, but the problem is, if we send the guards, we’ll be defenceless, and he’ll just come in with a welder and open us up like a can of beans. That and I’ve spoken with Commander Hough, the tactical situation is not in favour of an armed assault. There are a few ambush points between here and the core, and our weapons do much better at range. The ambush points would eliminate all advantage by forcing an encounter with the robots at close range.’

‘I’ve still got one more ace to play, but we need to keep him busy. What’s our orbital time?’

‘Four hours since orbital entry. We moved into high orbit right after dropping the colony bays. We’ll complete our orbit in another two hours.’

‘We need to keep him busy for two hours then.’

‘We don’t have much to keep him busy with sir, and what’s so important about two hours?’

‘I’ve got something planned for then.’

...

Unexpected delay caused by sabotage on the part of captain Howard.

Checking status of robot retooling process.

...

Robot retooling proceeding at optimal pace.

...

Action; use robots to retrieve repeater.

Uploading orders...

position robots around engineering bay.

Weld all openings shut.

Position bulk of units around airlock.

Kill inhabitants of bay via depressurization.

Enter via airlock.

Secure repeater.

End upload...

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