Dekker’s Dozen #005
The Verdant Seven stood stalwart under the gentle breeze of their foreign planet; six of the arbolean’s leaves rustled gently and in unison. The holdout, quiet now for several millennia, had been stripped bare. The council’s minions had ripped away both bark and leaf.
Gnarled branches reached toward the ruddy, glowing sky. Withered, skeletal fingers once proudly bore the bladed green fauna of the arbolean council. No more; it was the traitor—the dissident. Condemned. Silenced. Dead.
It is set in motion. Our will is set; the child awakens soon, and so our champion rises. The Left Hand seeks the apothecium; he will germinate an army while the Right Hand sets our stage. We’ve been patient, sisters. The Centauri system is fertile; it is time to spread our seed.
Under the rust-hued sky, leaves of the six trees rustled with excitement.
Unicorn Zombie Spores
He hung back in the shadows, watching flames lick the sky: tongues like thirsty dogs. Though he’d been garbed in a similar, yellow cloak, he was vastly different from the rest; every other member of the Dodona cult was female.
His eyes darted around the room which he exited to reach the yard. The room resembled an ancient crypt, or perhaps one the pharaoh’s treasure rooms. The archaeologist’s nature yearned to study everything within; each artifact looked entirely foreign to him—perhaps not even native to earth. That longing, however, had waned since his encounter with the ancient pithos he’d uncovered in his dig. He’d been warned of a curse—but the archaeologist did not believe in such things.
Still, ever since cracking the seal of that heavy, leaden container he’d felt another presence—another personality—wrestling control from him. He’d read the warning inscriptions written in six ancient languages, but his damnable curiosity demanded he open it. That was the Christmas Eve of 1902, nearly eighteen months ago. From that night on, he’d felt himself slowly disappear under this new personality.
Nearby, another elderly woman beckoned. The woman in the center of the cultic circle was long dead; her desiccated body had long ago petrified in a mummy-like state. Surrounding her, the frenzied women appeared quite alive by comparison, jumping and chanting. Suddenly, they stopped, fell quiet, and walked to the beech trees at the edge of the flame-light’s reach.
Standing below the leafy fauna, the head priestess listened intently to the way the trees rustled in the still, windless night. “It is confirmed.” Her tone carried authority. “The Verdant Seven will be whole again. The sister that we murdered will be allowed to reseed. May her trunk remain burnt and impotent; her embryo will implant within this… male… who stumbled into our world.” She spat the word as if levying an insult.
Drawing a serrated knife, she ripped the cadaver’s chest open and withdrew a gnarled, curved stake. “The seed is intact and ready for its new shell,” the head priestess stated. Two acolytes pushed the cadaverous husk into the blaze. “Step forward, man. Become the Left Hand of the Verdant Seven.”
No! This is so much more than I’d bargained for! Prognon Austicon stepped forward—no, not him—it was the demon within that controlled him—the archaeologist was powerless to stop it! That’s not even my name, it’s just an alias! Every shred of what he once was had begun to slip away—he’d known his face since the day he unsealed that otherworldly vessel.
Austicon ripped open his shirt and bared his chest. He watched as the priestess plunged the stake, an arbolean seed, below his sternum. Trapped inside his mind, the archeologist screamed; outwardly Austicon only grinned fiendishly. Centuries later, the trapped scientist would still scream, a constant background noise that ever brought a smile to the assassin’s lips.
The memory was warm and sweet, like foreign blood on his tongue; it came pouring back to him as he entered the Dodonic Inner Sanctum. Austicon faintly remembered that old curiosity, his need to know what artifacts lay buried within each container. He retrieved the small, latched cask and peered inside to ensure the apothecium remained alive. A twisted smile spread across his face. The deadly arbolean fungus signaled the beginning of the end for humanity.
* * *
Andrews breathed into his air mask. He still called himself Andrews in his mind despite his best efforts to convince his psyche to accept a new name. Several days had passed since the theft and he could do nothing with that time but stew in his anger and impotence. The only other option was to watch the MEA’s streaming broadcasts and cuss at the video feeds. He’d lived through revolutionary events, but the current state of things looked as bleak as ever.
A live video feed covered every detail of the political installation; the ceremony took place on Earth at the Mother Earth Aggregate headquarters in Neo Mesopotamia. The Grand Council of the MEA had chosen to fill the slot of Chief Magnate with the Krenzin leader: The Pheema. For the first time since its inception, a nonhuman controlled Earth politics.
“First they boot all religions from modern society, and then they want to convert us to an alien one! Absurd.” He vented to no one in particular. Andrews assumed he was the only human still alive in the whole sector. That was a logical assumption based on recent events.
Andrews hated being helpless—he’d done his best to prepare for hostile situations ever since the first assassination attempt on his life, years ago. The Krenzin philosophy that mandated peaceful nonresistance didn’t seem to eliminate those lethal threats he’d observed over the decades. Andrews was a Darwinian and passive submission made no sense to hard science. “Only the strong in mind or body survive!” He cussed out the entertainment console. Strength resisted rivals by its nature. “Now that bleeding-headed fool has control of Earth and can influence the planets allied with the MEA? Get your own stupid planet, you rotten felinoid!”
He held his breath and stuck a whiskey bottle under his breathing mask and took a pull. He’d meticulously sterilized it to avoid infections.
The feed crackled for a second from the interstellar interference. “I’m happy to accept this prestigious position, and I’m so excited that the vast majority of humanity endorses this move. It is a huge step forward. As a people, we are so grateful that you have welcomed us so whole-heartedly; since the loss of our kind’s planet, Earth has become our new home. I want to ensure you all that we will continue with current measures. I’m pleased to report that our disarmament protocols have remained on schedule. The only remaining, operational weapons facility under MEA control and funding is Darkside Station, on Earth’s moon and the capital we’ve saved by defunding the engines of war have been shifted over to benevolent missions of peace, such as new education and philosophic centers across the quadrant.”
Andrews bristled at The Pheema’s speech. He shook his head, thinking of a test subject he’d once seen that lost its immune system… defenseless.
“We need not fear the vile darkness of war. Through peace and love we are strong! The faithful know this as true enlightenment. The militant mind is an old way of thinking. There is no art of war; it possesses no aesthetics, only overwhelming ugliness. Military is moot when utter peace is achieved, and we are so close, my brothers and sisters.
“I know that there lingers pockets of resistance, but only because they do not understand. They would rather see an entire planet of soldiers than of lovers, and that is, in fact, exactly what I am offering! Each citizen will go through mandatory training classes. True citizenship means working for the corporate good of the planet and culture. The citizen’s army will include each and every one of you!”
The video screen didn’t respond to Andrew’s string of expletives. “Classes don’t make someone a soldier—what a joke.” His speech had slightly slurred. “There is no army, just bleeding pacifists if you train them in Krenzin philosophy. You just wait, planet Earth… wait for the other shoe to drop. Your army class’ll contain sensitivity training and cultural dynamics but no marksmanship courses.”
True, Andrews had a reputation as paranoid, but he saw the logical connections. He just couldn’t help feeling that this regime was somehow linked to the theft of his new tech: a potential doomsday super-weapon.
He looked around at the empty room he’d been stuck in for so many days now. His eyes scanned a stack of old books and then returned to The Pheema’s broadcast. “‘Something wicked this way comes,'” he quoted.
* * *
Dekker leaned into his ship’s violent bucking and braced himself against the shuddering bulkhead. “Corgan!” he shouted over his shoulder at his pilot, “I said evasive maneuvers!”
They’d been dumped out of FTL almost directly on top of a Shivan interdictor, quite possibly the same one that had attacked them previously; without a transponder signal they could never tell for certain. The newly upgraded shields on the Rickshaw Crusader held defiantly as Dekker spat a curse on Prognon Austicon.
“Guy!” Dekker shouted for his explosives expert. “Get ready to kick Bertha at these murks!”
Dekker stepped into the munitions room and yelled over the laser-cannons; they blared angrily at the interceptors that swarmed around them. The larger interdictor could belch more units at them any minute. “I ain’t fooling around with these guys, and I think we owe them one!” He pointed to Guy so his man could understand him over the loud guns, then he pointed to Bertha: the large cylindrical device strapped onto a rack near a loading hatch.
Guy’s eyes lit up. He dropped his sandwich and scrambled to meet Dekker at the massive bomb. They’d gotten it, unofficially, from a MEA munitions disposal facility. The current mission was funded very secretly and with a huge budget which allowed them certain privileges, like Big Bertha’s presence. She was a very-illegal prototype triple-stage nuclear fusion weapon acquired by their friends at Darkside Station.
The two investigators released the ratchets; within seconds they stumbled as the ship shook—the interceptors landed a few lucky blows. The lights flickered briefly as shields compensated and the Crusader‘s cannons rained hellfire on two interceptors, ripping them apart.
Guy kissed the hand scrawled lettering that read my nasty ex-girlfriend, and joined Dekker on the far wall. They strapped themselves into the safety harnesses and sealed the exits.
“Oh yeah. She’s mean, expensive, and makes a mess of things. She’s about to be someone else’s problem now,” Guy winked at Dekker who just shook his head. “I’m just saying… never date a girl named Bertha.”
The Crusader dove and twisted as it angled away from the interdictor. Taking a deep breath, Dekker slammed the release hatch and overrode the systems. The vacuum of space violently sucked out the hold’s contents; the void consumed Bertha, Guy’s sandwich, and a handful of miscellaneous items. Dekker and Guy shook and jerked to the furthest reaches of their harness and rattled about for two seconds until the hatch resealed and restored pressure.
Guy worked his jaw until his eardrums popped and adjusted to the recompression. He and Dekker darted to cockpit, swaying with the lurches as the Crusader rolled through loops not possible were they in an atmospheric environment.
Bertha floated like an inert piece of galactic detritus and went unnoticed by enemy scanners. The armament’s tractor beam locked onto the Interdictor and began reeling itself toward the ship with surprising speed.
“We may want to be further away,” Guy intoned as an afterthought, not taking his eyes off the cockpit’s readings.
Corgan kicked the speed up another notch, trading speed for manueverability. Their pursuit held fast, but their purpose was distance; they’d never outrun interceptors without FTL.
A flash of blue with red lightning wrapped itself around the Shivan Interdictor as Bertha’s second stage activated; a heavy EMP wave disabled its victim’s shields. The interceptors peeled around to return home and help fight whatever unforeseen threat had attacked their carrier. Seconds later: stage three. The nuclear explosion erupted like a fiery ball mushroom; the eradicating energy wave washed over the interceptors and dismantled the Interdictor micron by micron.
Guy cheered like a child on an amusement park ride. Vestiges of fusion fire licked at their shields before fading out of existence as the cold vacuum consumed it entirely.
“Well,” Dekker brushed himself off as if nothing serious had occurred, “Back to business. There’s the space station.” He pointed to their target on the long range scope. “I’m gonna have Vesuvius do a full sweep, so let’s not come in too hot, Corgan. Throttle back a bit, now.”
Dekker turned and exited the cockpit.
Guy turned to Corgan and motioned to where the Interdictor used to be. “You see that? How awesome was that?” He leaned back with a huge grin on his face.
* * *
Vesuvius said, “Scanners indicate no life signs in any of the other Shivan interceptors except that disabled one. Rock reeled it aboard and sealed it inside the cargo hold; it’s only minimally damaged, a child with a monkey wrench could get it running again if he had access to the engine compartment. The bay is depressurized, though, so he’s not going anywhere until we say so. We’ll deal with the pilot later,” Vesuvius delivered her report very matter-of-factly.
“There has been no communication from the science station as of yet.” She continued, glancing at the view panel; the station filled the screen and they floated very near. “Instruments show a full complement of living, breathing beings.” She phrased thusly not ruling out Mechnar body-hijackers like they’d discovered at Osix. They could still register as living on their instruments depending on how their condition, and the Dozen had recalibrated their sensor array after Osix so they could also detect them. “We weren’t given the exact number of persons to expect by the MEA, just the vital personnel—especially the doctor.”
She continued, “Also, a wide range scan found an anomaly. It’s probably nothing,” she shrugged, “But the scanners flagged it.”
Dekker raised an eyebrow. Vesuvius noticed and explained.
“There’s a small comet passing through the far reaches of the system. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it seemed to disappear for a moment, but only on the photon wave scanner… so, we know there’s nothing significant about it except that it went completely invisible for few seconds.”
Rubbing his chin for several prolonged moments Dekker growled, “I want to check it out.”
“We’re almost to the station already,” Guy interjected.
“And that’s where we’re going,” Dekker replied. “I don’t want any surprises. I want you, Matty, Corgan, and Britton to go.”
“But I want to blow stuff up,” Guy whined. “Can we blow up the comet?”
“Wasn’t the interdictor enough for you?” Matty teased. “Don’t worry, we’ll find something to break.”
“Just make sure it isn’t my ship!” Dekker warned.
The station loomed even closer as they approached. The main ring rotated around the center nodule where vital mechanical devices and engines were stored; the ring’s movement assisted the gravity metrics—it’s where any survivors would be. Despite the life-signs, the com channels remained silent.
“There is one other thing to bear in mind,” Dekker addressed them all. “The primary reason we’ve got all these fancy new toys, a fistful of cash, and even an MEA fuel card is because of the Halabella incident. With Osix looking too much like the original Mechnar Contra, someone in MEA control has much decided we’re the experts on this kind of thing, now. Be prepared to face the same sort of thing again.
“You each have your assignments,” Dekker pointed to the photo of Dr. Abe MacAllistair that each Investigator wore on a wristband. Dekker didn’t need one; despite the passage of years, at least for MacAllistair, there was no way Dekker would forget him—were it not for “MacAllistair”, Dekker might have been able to save the lives of his wife and unborn child. Despite the anger in his gut, he barked the order, “Protect and retrieve this man at all cost. Let’s lock and load.”
* * *
Eight members of the Dozen stood at the pressure lock with weapons drawn and ready. Guy ran down the checklist on the airlock data display. “Pressure’s good, seal confirmed… wait a minute.”
Dekker’s face seemed to get more intense, if that were possible pre-mission. “What is it?”
“The pressure in the station is fine, but there’s no oxygen.”
“The life signs were strong,” Vesuvius reassured.
“So it can’t be Mechnars,” Dekker wondered aloud. “Original models had no life signs, the second gen we found at Osix require oxygen.”
“Should we reassess the situation?” Vesuvius asked.
“We’re not going to get any more information without going in,” Dekker spat, reaching for an air supply mask. He clipped the compressed air cylinder to his belt and clicked the air flow toggle.
Guy asked, “You want us all along, now? We don’t really have to go explore that comet—it’s probably nothing.”
“That’s the best case scenario,” Dekker remarked. “Just check it out and get back here as soon as feasible.”
* * *
Rock, stepped through the hold first. His air mask fit tightly over his nose and mouth and fogged as his breathing quickened slightly. He swung his massive gun upwards on its side-mount harness pivot. The heavy gunner spoke into his com, “All clear.”
The rest of the Investigators stepped inside the sterile hallway and took their positions. Everything looked normal, aside from the lack of oxygen; lights had been dimmed to twenty percent through the hall, but reacted to movement and lit to full as they detected the investigators.
Dekker walked like a cat, stealthily creeping down the hall. He signaled for Vesuvius, Shaw and Nibbs to join him. Nathan led Rock, Ahmed, and Jamba down the opposite corridor.
Peering around the first corner, Dekker noticed that the lights were already at full. He tightened the grip on his pistol and slid around the corner like a wraith. Shaw and Nibbs followed suit.
Vesuvius exhaled a grunt of frustration. She rolled her eyes and turned the corner, making no effort to soften the clacking of her heeled boots against the metallic floor.
Dekker shot her a sharp look. She returned a cutesy shrug as if she didn’t recognize the problem. Vesuvius simply walked beyond their position and incited a gurgling, mindless shriek.
An ill-kept humanoid in a tattered lab coat rushed towards Vesuvius. Except for the jerky, spastic movements and the elongated spike protruding from his forehead, he looked like a lab worker.
She swiftly drew her blades and severed every hand and foot in one fluid motion. The creature slipped off balance on his sick, slick stumps even as Vesuvius whirled around to heel-kick her opponent to the ground. Still spinning, she plunged her blades into the downed creature, severing spine and piercing heart.
“Still quieter than guns,” Vesuvius stated quietly and matter-of-factly to her comrades.
Shaw pursed his lips as if to silently whistle.
“You two used to date?” Nibbs whispered the question. “How did that relationship end, again?”
“In the infirmary,” Dekker said flatly as he moved to join her. “Make sure you review your first aid procedures when we get back.”
Dekker kicked the body over with his foot and examined it. The distinct, ridged cheekbones confirmed that he was a dipthnorian, a humanoid race very similar to earthlings. But the elongated horn protruding from his brow concerned him.
“His eyes were black,” Vesuvius shared, “like they were all pupil.”
Nibbs bent down to help examine the body while Shaw took point, keeping watch. Nibbs pulled the victim’s eyelids back and observed the overly dilated eyes; they relaxed and slowly shrank to a more normal size.
Using the barrel of his pistol, Dekker tapped on the prominent head spike. The barrel made a knocking sound against it and a thin, red line, like the edge of a scabbed wound encircled the base of the horn. The spike appeared wood-like and sheathed in a velvet-like coating, similar to pre-rut deer from Earth; dust sloughed off it as Dekker rapped it.
“I think this thing popped out from inside his skull,” Vesuvius observed.
“At least he’s not our target,” Dekker muttered, “But this is getting weirder and weirder.”
Nibbs picked up a severed hand and turned it over. The fingers were worn raw and bloodied. “It looks like he’d been working with his hands or something?”
Vesuvius grimaced as she examined it. “Looks more like the hands of someone who was buried alive and tried clawing their way out.”
“Not clawing their way out… Maybe clawing their way in somewhere,” Dekker observed. “Let’s get to the operations center. Maybe we’ll find something there.” Dekker opened a channel to the other team, “Heads up. Local sentients are hostile; watch for our primary target, but exercise deadly force if needed on any others.”
“All right guys,” Dekker stood. “Let’s move.”
* * *
“We’re on C deck now, looking for the life support systems.” Nathan reported in. “We’ve killed four of them so far. No MacAllistair.”
“Good,” Dekker returned into his mouthpiece. “Scans showed the highest populations on level B. Keep me updated. We’re just outside the main operations hub in the central node, A deck.”
“Acknowledged. We’ll report again in fifteen.”
“Nibbs. You’re up,” Dekker nodded to his computer and electronics expert.
Nibbs dropped his backpack and grabbed the tools necessary to hack into the locked system, allowing him access the station’s primary control center. Within seconds he’d dug into a mechanical panel and exposed a nest of wires and chipboards.
The level in between the teams, B deck, was the primary living quarters for all crew and staff. A deck consisted mostly of research facilities. So far, all seemed mostly quiet, like the hostiles they’d encountered were random, unless they’d somehow retained enough foresight to post sentries. Perhaps the large population of mindless, slobbering beasts waited for something; maybe they had some sort of mission of their own—or maybe it had already been completed? An uneasy feeling grew in the pit of Dekker’s stomach. He never vocalized those intuitive warnings, but never ignored them, either.
“Almost there,” Nibbs stated, clamping two more alligator clips onto wires he’d pulled from the control panel. He punched in a few commands to the connected handset and pressed a button to execute. A soft clunk sounded as the door locks reset and the horizontal panels slid open, granting them access.
The team quickly scoped out the command room. It was empty; lights had dimmed like the rest of the dead space station. Dekker nodded and the foursome walked inside.
Obnoxious, loud klaxons suddenly blared all around them. Dekker shot an accusatory look to Nibbs.
Nibbs raised his hands. “It wasn’t me!” He stepped back and grabbed the handset he’d left dangle from the cords outside, scanning the readout. “It’s some sort of motion detector, and definitely not part of the normal security systems!” He had to shout over the siren. “It looks like someone else set it up—it’s a very simple system, just an alarm subroutine programmed into the main sensor banks.”
“Well,” Dekker sighed, gun drawn in anticipation, “turn it off. The noise is making my head hurt and I’m afraid we’ve woken up the kids.”
Nibbs nodded, not ignoring the fact that Dekker made a wisecrack, something he only tended to do prior to life-threatening situations. “I have to do it from inside. This only controls the door.” The lights came up as they entered the main sensor bay.
Sitting at the primary command console, Nibbs adjusted his air mask and keyed in a series of commands. Seconds later, the alarm stopped. A glance to the left-hand sensor screen showed half of the residents at B deck were scrambling, each one represented by a colored blip. The electronic dots scattered like a colony of ants in jeopardy.
“Crimony,” Vesuvius muttered. “It looks like someone kicked a hornet nest.”
Dekker clenched his jaw and then contacted the team on C deck. “That was us. Expect a little more traffic.”
“So much for stealth,” Nathan’s voice crackled whimsically through their earpieces.
“What have you got,” Dekker pushed Nibbs as he scanned the systems.
His eyes darted back and forth, skimming the data as it scrolled. “Long range communications are damaged—it looks intentional. Nothing else of significance, at least, nothing regarding the current condition of the crew.” He jammed a memory module into the connection port and downloaded all the data from the station logs. “But it does appear something is awry. All the positional coordinates are wrong—look at the data hardstamps on the records. See here, on the footer; it registers this stations location in the Heydessi system.”
“What? That’s not possible; it’s forever away. These stations don’t travel very well. It’d be cheaper to build a new outpost here than to move it from Heydessi.” He nodded to the center of the room, and the source of a gentle, whooshing hum. Below the grated floor, a giant vertical corridor ran the entire height of the station; a massive fan rotated constantly inside the shaft, circulating all the station’s air supply. “Transporting these stations is just not feasible.”
Guttural screeches echoed down the corridor. The agitated residents heavy footsteps clanked over the gates sounding like a stampede of shrieking bulls.
“I know.” Nibbs yanked the data storage unit from its dock and slid it into his pocket. He flipped the safety off his weapon and stood to face the intruders. “These things don’t even have FTL capabilities, it’s all orbital thrusters and sublight drives. It would have to be disassembled and transported in sections, but the coding says it’s the same exact unit—and there aren’t any refurbished parts—this space station moved.”
Shaw cursed. “Well, that’s government for you, right?” His pulse rifle echoed a loud, cracking boom as he drilled a smoking hole through the head of the first frenzied researcher. Its head jolted back; frothy spittle flung from his mouth and dust fell from the spike on his head. “Just making sure that our tax dollars get spent. They probably spent an entire expansion colony’s GDP in order to move it.”
Vesuvius double checked the photo on her wrist and then leveled a pistol at the next one. Her shot blasted the face and horn-like protrusion from its head, spinning him to the floor like a leaf.
Dekker followed suit. “Whatever’s going on here, these unicorn-zombie things are going to really ruin our day, especially if we aren’t able to locate MacAllistair. Or worse, yet, if he’s not even here.” Dekker unloaded two more shots into a charging zombie.
“You ever wonder… just how clean are the MEA’s hands in all the missions they hire us for?” Shaw questioned between shots. “Maybe there’s no such person as Doctor Abe MacAllistair. Maybe they knew about this; maybe they know all the details and we’re just here as a clean-up crew. You know: black-ops wet-work kind of stuff we don’t normally hire out for. Or maybe they’re trying to knock us off for what we saw at Osix.”
“Who cares,” Vesuvius riddled a small group of attackers with shots; she brimmed with excitement. “It all pays the same—but I ain’t dying here.”
“No.” Dekker stated. “MacAllistair is definitely real.” Something in the tone of his voice convinced the others.
The other group on C deck reported in. “Things are getting interesting here, guys. Spike headed zombies aside, the air recyclers are completely shot. There’s zero chance we can repair them.” Nathan’s voice broke off, overridden by the sound of blaster fire.
“Understood,” Dekker replied. He checked the level on his air tank: about two thirds left. They’d been here almost an hour so far. Dekker clicked his personal communicator to contact the Rickshaw Crusader. “Guy, Corgan. Report?”
“Rickshaw Crusader. Report. What is your status?”
Dekker ran his fingers through his hair. “Listen, Guy. If you can hear this, we have only a couple hours before our air tanks run out and we all die. Zombified scientists we can handle, but we’re going to need some air. Get back here ASAP.” He sighed with a loud, frustrated grunt that nearly unseated the air mask from the ridge of his nose.
The door to the far side of the central operations center suddenly slid opened.
A disheveled looking scientist stood in the doorway. Blaster in hand, he motioning for them to follow. He held up a finger to his own breathing mask and motioned for them to be quiet.
With her weapon trained on the surprise intruder Vesuvius checked her wrist again.
Dekker didn’t need to bother. “It’s MacAllistair, or should I call you Doctor Andrews?”
MacAllistair lowered his weapon and cocked his head. “Don’t say that name out loud. I’ve never told it to anybody. Who else knows that alias?”
Vesuvius gave Dekker a skewed look.
“Just me,” Dekker replied. He stepped closer so MacAllistair could see him better. “We met before.”
Any hardness on the Doctor’s face instantly melted. “It’s been years, at least for my part, and you haven’t aged a day. I should have known—it was all true. Quickly, come this way.”
* * *
Inside the scientist’s quarters MacAllistair cautioned them to keep their masks on. “I have a small fill station that, if we keep cycling tanks, could sustain a couple persons, but that’s it, I’m afraid. I disabled the oxygen, trying to kill those things—apparently they make their own oxygen; my research shows they still use it.”
Dekker had already called the other team to MacAllistair’s quarters and given them the access codes for the door lock. They expected to rendezvous within a few minutes. Dekker browsed the scientist’s quarters, urgently searching for some sort of communications equipment. “We’ve got to contact our ship; do you have any sort of long range broadcaster? There must be something nearby disrupting the signal between us and my pilot.”
“That’s unlikley,” MacAllistair stated. “We picked this location because of its incredibly low interference rate—it helped get more accurate sensor readings for our research.”
“What are you saying,” Vesuvius demanded, absentmindedly fidgeting with the handle of her favorite blade.
“I’m saying that your message was sent. It’s more likely that your ship and crew are either dead or gone.”
Dekker gave MacAllistair a stern, silent stare for a moment. “Then we’ve all got major problems.”
Nibbs started for the door when he heard noise outside.
“Wait,” Dekker ordered. “They’ve got the access code.”
A loud knock, then a banging and grisly scraping at the entry’s seams; it sounded like a possessed mongrel trying to dig through concrete. Finally came the loud, raspy screeching.
“What happened to them?” Nibbs asked.
“Some sort of disease, I think. Something infected our researchers shortly after the last supply ship arrived. It’s still docked on the airlock at the far side of the complex.”
“Maybe we can use that to escape?” Shaw offered.
Dekker shook his head negatively. “Only as a last resort. It’s a plague ship.”
“He’s right,” MacAllistair stated. “We have to assume it is the source of the contamination. I believe the infection is transmitted via some sort of fungal spore that’s absorbed through inhalation. It started first when the crew came down with terrible migraines the first day after contact; the pressure and photosensitivity got worse on the second day until the earliest victims passed out. Finally, on days three or four, their skulls burst—right through the frontal skull bone if you can imagine that. You probably noticed the horn-like protrusions; they seem to emit the airborne, infectious spores. After that, the crew became mindless monsters.
“I destroyed the air systems hoping it would incapacitate them, but they obviously adapted. I don’t know if it’s parasitic, symbiotic, or what, but the disease has made its host something completely new.”
“Like the living dead,” Shaw stated the obvious. “Infectious zombies.”
Nibbs asked, “And you weren’t infected because?”
“Well,” MacAllistair traded a look with Dekker, “ever since the first attempt on my life several years ago I tend to remain a bit… reclusive. Some have called me a paranoid, but I rarely leave my facilities unless I absolutely have to. I can accomplish most things from right here. That’s how I stayed safe, but frankly, zombies are a secondary concern for me. At the height of the infection, just after we instituted the quarantines, the DNIET device was stolen.”
An ear-piercing shriek interrupted them, followed by a quick succession of blaster fire. Seconds later the door slid open and Nathan’s team entered. “We’re all accounted for and intact,” he reported.
Dekker dialed up his outbound signal again and repeated a hail to the Rickshaw Crusader. They were running out of options and the clock was ticking. He hoped Guy and the crew hadn’t done anything foolish, like depressurize the cargo bay with the captured Shivan interceptor.
“The only thing we can do now is wait.” MacAllistair grunted. He flipped on the entertainment console and picked up the MEA news feed. “And you think we got it bad here, just watch. More bad news, every day. We’d be lucky to make the history books after what I think is coming.”
* * *
Long minutes of frustrating silence passed while Dekker’s outbound signals went unreturned. Vesuvius gently placed her hand on his shoulder. “I can’t stand the waiting,” she confessed quietly.
Dekker nodded. They had always been alike in that. He scanned the faces of the other six investigators; they each hid their agitation well, but it certainly existed. He checked his tank again; only half remained.
“So someone stole DNIET,” he questioned MacAllistair. “Tell me what it is, and why we’re here.”
“Officially,” MacAllistair explained, “Directed Near Infinite Energy Travel is a theoretical technology that allows instantaneous transmission from one point to any other: large-scale teleportation. Unofficially, I’ve perfected it.” He pointed out the cart of stacked research materials.
Dekker noticed a large mechanical device next to a pile of handwritten research notes and piles of journals. Integrated into it was a familiar looking item: the temporal phase-stabilizer he’d worn just days ago, at least in his time. He reached for it on impulse.
“Don’t touch that,” MacAllistair warned.
Dekker pulled his hand back. But the irony of the command didn’t go unnoticed.
“I’ve reverse-engineered some of the technology behind the temporal phase-stabilizer. This station used to be located halfway across the galaxy; DNIET moved the entire complex in the blink of an eye. This is the original, operational prototype.” He pointed to the crude looking contraption. “The one we used to move us here is the one that went missing.
“DNIET technology achieves physical transmission by harvesting the power of a star. Think of it, how awesome is it that solar rays fly off from a one source of energy and can travel in an infinite number of directions in a nearly nondegradable state? Despite the infinite and exponentially increasing vectors of its visible state, the speed of light remains constant! There is such incredible power in each star, and the nature of reality itself, in order to cast off that sort of expanding, cosmic radiation… replicating infinitely and exponentially with every light-nanosecond!
“Here’s the end result—in layman’s terms. The device generates an expandable bubble to encompass the DNIET device and its target. DNIET harnesses the energy of the nearby star and allows instant transmission to any chosen destination in which the current light of that star reaches. The full energy of the star is harvested in the process, retracting all that infinite energy and refocusing it within a quantum field of our choosing! We’ve rewritten the laws of Quantum Electrodynamics!”
His excitement didn’t exactly spread to the fidgety members of the Dozen. “So… you successfully drained an entire star and forced it to non-exist in order to move this space station?” Dekker clarified.
“Exactly.” He paused and let the weight of the device’s capabilities magnify. “You likely heard the news, months ago, about the change to FTL trade routes? That was because of us. We drained a small red dwarf when we teleported here. The MEA can’t let news of our project get out. I think that despite our best efforts and the perceived good intentions of the Krenzin, I think this is actually meant to be weaponized. It’s the ultimate weapon: a star killer that could leave inhabited planets devoid of light, heat, and energy. That could seal a system’s fate within minutes. Its existence is the ultimate compliance tool.
“This project was classified at an ultra-high-level. Truthfully, I’d hoped to breakthrough other barriers in quantum mechanics, even enable time travel.” MacAllistair and Dekker traded an uneasy glance. “It’s messy business, though, when you consider that each person’s option to make minute decisions could change the outcome of the universe—perhaps even spawn a multitude of new dimensions in which different outcomes result based on decisions made. Accessing those dimensions, creating a quantum leap, would grant access to whole new realities.”
MacAllistair picked up half a dozen filled journals. “The beginnings of my notation on the fundamental nature of the universe. At the core, to even consider those possibilities we have to arrive at the truth regarding an individual’s freedom of choice. Nature versus nurture. Fate. All that stuff. Truthfully, I’m still wondering how the science all fits. I know, it sounds like a philosophical debate: the power of choice. Is there such a thing as freewill or are the determinists and fatalists right?”
Dekker interjected “Classically, it’s more of a religious argument, but it’s not important right now.” He checked the gauge on his air tank again. “Where could the DNIET device be now?”
The scientist gave it a couple seconds of thought. “The supply frigate hasn’t left. I’m certainly suspicious of them; everyone else here was dedicated to the DNIET project. The supply crew succumbed to the infection, but nobody broke the quarantine. The device must either be on the station or on that ship.”
“Alright people. Here’s what we’re going to do,” Dekker took charge. “Our clock is ticking. You all heard exactly how devastating this thing can be in the wrong hands. Vees and I are going to go hard and fast and sneak aboard that supply frigate. I want to leave the rest of you with strength and firepower; I want you to hit B deck. Annihilate everything that moves. Let’s find this thing and pray that the Crusader gets back here before we run out of air.”
The investigators grunted an agreement to the plan.
“One final thing,” he mentioned. “If you have the DNIET in your possession and things look bleak, either circumstances are failing or your air won’t hold out, destroy that device. Go out on a high note. Everybody ready?”
“I think we have another problem,” Vesuvius interjected, pointing to the large window at the edge of MacAllistair’s quarters.
A massive warship approached. The gruesome wreck, marred by holes and discolored blast marks, didn’t wear the colors of any government. Exposed girders protruded at odd junctures, like bones of some gigantic monster’s skeletal remains. It closed the gap like some horrific ghost ship bent on dragging them all to hell.
MacAllistair’s voice barely rose above a whisper. “I think you all need bigger guns.”