Children of Darkness: Chapter 2

Did you miss Chapter 1? Click here to read read it first.

 

Marcus left the bridge behind and retreated to the stairwell. He descended to the lowest deck where the stairwell exited into a long central hallway lined with doors. This level suffered minimal damage in the battle and Marcus jetted from one end of the hall to the other, his armor scanner searching for signs of life. After twenty minutes he’d checked the whole deck with nothing to show for it.

He went up a level and found yet another empty corridor. He found more damage on this level, scorch marks here and there where blaster fire struck the walls. One door lodged in its track by the slimmest of margins. No more bodies thank the universe. Flying through the dark, empty ship gave him the shivers. Floating bodies wouldn’t help his nerves.

“Life form located,” the suit’s onboard computer announced.

“It’s about time. Where?”

“Twenty-five meters to the right.”

Marcus looked to his right and came face to face with a steel wall. It couldn’t be that simple. He continued down the corridor until he came to a T. He turned right and after a few meters said, “Update, location.”

“Fifteen meters ahead and to the right.”

“Getting warmer.” Marcus jetted ahead until he came to a door. He jammed the tips of his fingers into the crack where the two sides of the door came together and pulled. The unlocked door slammed open into its housing. “Oops.”

Inside Marcus found a seven-foot-long rectangular box in an otherwise empty room. Four feet high and about the same width, it looked like a coffin. Lights blinked on the side and front. Since the ship lacked power the box must have an internal power supply.

Marcus jetted over closer and looked at the top of the coffin- box! Box, not coffin. He did a double take. A layer of frost covered the glass, but he could just make out a woman. “Sleeping Beauty,” he muttered. She had long dark hair and appeared asleep. Marcus knew suspended animation when he saw it.

“I found your life form, Solomon.”

“What is it?”

“An occupied cryochamber. Bring the hoversled to the airlock. I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

“Will do.”

Marcus studied the chamber for a minute. How could he get it back to the ship? Whoever put it there mag-sealed it to the floor. Another minute of study and he found the release. He flipped the switch and the chamber floated free. No sweat.

He checked the power gauge on his armor and found he’d used half his power. Not ideal, but if he hurried he had time enough. He shoved the chamber out into the hall then guided it back toward the stairwell.

When he reached the stairwell door he tried to guide the chamber through but it hit the railing. “Damn it!”

He pulled the chamber back and went in first. Marcus grabbed on to the railing and yanked. An eight-foot section tore loose. He grinned. That never got old. He tossed the piece of scrap aside and guided the chamber into the stairwell and up to the storage area where he’d entered the cruiser. He activated the magnet, locking the chamber to the deck. Confident she wouldn’t wander off he retraced his steps to the bridge.

Marcus tried and failed to ignore the bodies as he made his way to the data slate. It read ninety percent complete. He checked his power gauge. Forty percent armor power left, getting less ideal all the time.

Marcus tapped his finger on the station. “Come on, come on.”

Five minutes later the slate flashed one hundred percent. At last. He disconnected it from the terminal and reattached it to his back.

It took a hair over a minute to make it back to the chamber. He deactivated the magnet and jetted across the gap back to the Star. Outside the airlock he said, “Is the hoversled in position?”

“Yeah, and I’m clear of the airlock.”

Marcus held the chamber with one hand and punched his code into the keypad to open the outer airlock door. He maneuvered the chamber into the airlock with a few feet to spare. Once he’d joined it in the narrow space, he positioned it on the hoversled, a four foot wide by six foot long metal pad with an anti-gravity generator. A foot of it hung off, but he couldn’t do any better.

When he had situated everything to his liking Marcus closed the outer door. The airlock pressurized, and the artificial gravity came on. Marcus dropped a couple inches to the floor. When the green light came on the inner door swung open. Solomon stood there like an eager child hopping from one foot to the other. 

Marcus powered up the hoversled and shoved it into the cargo hold. Solomon closed the airlock behind him. “Could you get the data slate off my back?” Marcus bent over so the shorter man could reach it.

The slate disengaged with a click. Marcus turned around and found his partner already tapping away at the screen. “Put that away for now and secure the cryochamber for transport. We’ll have plenty of time to look it over in hyperspace.”

Solomon flashed him his best sad-puppy face. Marcus pointed toward the front of the hold. Solomon sighed, switched off the slate, and pushed the hoversled deeper into the ship.

Marcus stepped into the storage cylinder. “Power off.”

His armor disengaged all functions and the plasma seals dissolved. The rear opened up and Marcus stepped back, careful not to bump his head, and took a deep breath. He felt both relieved and disappointed to shed the armor. He missed the power but hated to rely on anything for his survival, other than the Star.

“Begin recharge.” The storage cylinder spun shut.

Marcus stretched and wiped sweat from his forehead. He headed toward the bridge and passed Solomon where he worked to secure the cryochamber. The door slid open as he approached and Marcus dropped into his seat. The scanners still showed all clear.

He flipped on the targeting computer, locked on to the distress beacon, and fired. A red beam of coherent light shot out and obliterated the destroyer’s emergency beacon. Marcus grinned. No one else would find it now.

Solomon burst onto the bridge wheezing. “I heard the laser fire.”

“Relax. I made sure no one else would find our treasure. Everything secure in back?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Good, set course for Mars. We’ve still got cargo to deliver.”

Solomon’s stubby fingers flew across the keyboard. “Course laid in.”

Marcus flipped a switch. “Hyperspace engines online.”

The engines exerted their power over the fabric of space-time. A moment later a swirling portal opened. Marcus pushed the throttle forward and accelerated into hyperspace.

The Rogue Star streaked through hyperspace and Marcus considered the old cruiser and the woman on board. What were the odds of them stumbling across an old derelict with someone still alive on board? He’d traveled from one side of the galaxy to the other and he’d seen a cryochamber with its own power supply just once before, at a prison on Anora 7. The natives didn’t believe in capital punishment so they froze their worst offenders, a fate worse than death.

“Working on this data slate is so slow. Do you mind if I transfer it to the main computer?”

Marcus’s head snapped up. He’d drifted off in the pilot’s chair. “Did you check it for viruses?”

Solomon frowned at him. “Yes, it’s clean.”

“Then be my guest. I need a few more hours’ sleep. Wake me in five and we’ll check out sleeping beauty.” Marcus stumbled off to his bunk.

* * *

Solomon plugged the data slate into the control panel and his monitor lit with a large O surrounded by a halo. Omni Corp. Why would a pharmaceutical company have a deep space exploration vessel? He selected search mode and typed “mission.” A moment later a screen popped up showing a green planet, “botanical research” written beside it.

That made sense, the big pharmaceutical companies never stopped looking for the next wonder drug. Solomon clicked on the planet and got hyperspace coordinates and a name, Alpha 114. Typically imaginative name. The coordinates put the planet about a week from where they’d found the destroyer.

He skimmed a dozen entries then spotted the Captain’s log. He clicked on it and the first entry popped up.

Captain’s log, February 2, 2620: Today we arrived at Alpha 114. The planet orbits its sun slightly closer than Earth standard. We’ve deployed probes to check the atmosphere. If everything comes back clear we will begin deploying to the surface after noon Earth standard.

Captain’s log, February 3, 2620: The probes indicate a breathable atmosphere with high humidity but no toxins. The planet appears uninhabited just as the Earth Force study said. I’ve transmitted our findings back to headquarters so they can go ahead with their claim. The scientists insist on going to the surface at once. I dispatched six crewmen and a small mobile armor to watch over them. That should be enough to discourage any aggressive wildlife.

Captain’s log, February 6, 2620: The scientists have established their base camp. The crew spotted some dangerous-looking animals, but a pulse rifle fired at the ground scared them away. I received a transmission from headquarters, Earth Force has approved their exploration application.

Solomon wondered how big a bribe Omni paid to get the application approved so fast. He skimmed a few boring entries until one caught his eye, the first signs of trouble for the explorers.

Captain’s log, March 20, 2620: A scientist beamed an unauthorized transmission today. He deleted it so we have no idea what it contained. It was a minor security breach, but headquarters ordered him back to Earth. I received orders to drop him off on Mars and pick up supplies and a replacement.

Captain’s log, March 31, 2620: Our supplies are loaded and we just jumped to hyperspace. The new scientist is very friendly, not to mention gorgeous. I think she will cause quite a stir when we arrive. If I weren’t married we… never mind. She graduated two years ago and seems excited to study alien life in its natural habitat.

Captain’s log, April 12, 2620: We finished ferrying supplies down to the planet. I was sad to see the new scientist go, her name is Mai Lee, a pretty name I thought. Barring a catastrophe, we should be set for three months. I’m looking forward to the peace and quiet and some time on the planet surface. The crew says it’s tropical.

Solomon glanced at the time and yawned. Time to wake Marcus and look in on their passenger. He got up and stretched. Should be interesting.

* * *

Marcus blinked dry, itchy eyes. Solomon woke him ten minutes ago. It felt like he’d just gotten to sleep when the door buzzer rang. He stumbled along beside his friend, semi-coherent, toward the cargo bay. 

He took a sip of the stim-tea Solomon brewed, strong and bitter, just the way he liked it. Every swallow sent a jolt of caffeine through his body. By the time he finished the mug he’d be sparking on all neurons.

“So this woman’s supposed to be a scientist?” Marcus asked.

“Assuming she’s the one the captain wrote about, yeah. The only way to find out for sure is to wake her and ask.”

Marcus glowered at Solomon. He still hadn’t decided if he wanted to wake her. With their luck she’d turn out to be a homicidal maniac, or worse, a politician.

“You know that stuff is terrible for you.” Solomon nodded toward the steaming mug in his hand.

Marcus took a sip and sighed. Stim-tea had four times the caffeine of coffee and woke him up like nothing else. “It’s a scientific fact that anything even a little enjoyable is bad for you. Of all my bad habits I doubt this one will kill me.”

Solomon gave a resigned shake of his head. Marcus had won the argument for today. 

Herc rumbled to life as they entered. “Go back to sleep.” Marcus didn’t wait for an acknowledgement. He went over to the cryochamber where Solomon mag-locked it to the deck. It hummed away, still plenty of juice in the battery. According to the power gauge the battery still carried three-quarters of its charge.

“Grab a scanner and let’s get a look at her vitals.”

Solomon took the small scanner he always carried out of his pocket and ran it the length of the chamber. “Her vitals look good considering she’s been in there for five years.” He studied the readout a moment. “This is interesting.”

“What?”

“The young lady seems to have a computer implant. She’s a cyborg.”

Marcus forced himself not to smile at the jealous tone in Solomon’s voice. “Can you hack in and see what’s stored in her memory?”

“I could do a wireless linkup.” Solomon set the scanner on a crate and went to get a data slate. When he got back he opened a slot in the edge and exposed the optical connector. He held it over her and tapped the screen.

A light flashed as the computer attempted to establish a connection. It worked for a few seconds before the light turned solid. “We’re in,” Solomon said. He tapped the screen again and three seconds later it beeped. “That’s it.”

“Only three seconds’ worth of data?”

Solomon shrugged. “That’s all we can access while she’s unconscious. Want to see what we got?”

Marcus nodded and moved over beside his friend. Solomon hit the display button and the screen filled with a jumble of meaningless symbols. They scrolled down and found all the data looked the same.

Solomon said, “It’s encrypted.”

“No shit. Can you break it?”

Solomon crossed his arms and frowned, left eyebrow raised.

Marcus smiled. “Sorry, stupid question.”

“I have a few keys I can try. If that doesn’t work we’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.”

“Whatever.” Marcus took a sip of his tea.

Marcus watched as Solomon tapped away at the slate. He scowled and muttered to himself, lost in his work. Before Marcus finished his tea Solomon looked up and grinned. “I got it.”

“Great. What did you get?”

Solomon slumped back down. “Don’t you want to know how I did it?”

No, he didn’t care how Solomon did it, but he didn’t want Solomon to pout the whole way to Mars so he asked, “How’d you do it?”

“Well…” Solomon went on to spout a bunch of gibberish about the best way to break an unknown encryption. Marcus registered every third word. “Anyway, when I tried that new SL-4 key we got last month it fit. The two matched. Kind of a waste since we only got medical information.”

“Wait, you mean that key our client, what’s his name, the jewelry merchant, gave us to secure our hyperspace relays?” Not that one, please not that one.

“Yeah, that one. Funny, all the ones I bought or borrowed flopped and the one we got for free did the trick.”

“Hilarious.” Marcus frowned. His luck couldn’t get any worse.

“What’s wrong?”

“While you drooled over the new disk, I asked one of the merchant’s guards about the code. He said it was military software, just declassified for civilian use.”

“So why would a scientist have military tech imbedded in her skull?”

“Simple,” Marcus said. “She’s not a scientist. Probably an Earth Force undercover agent. Isn’t that a kick in the head? Of all the people in the galaxy, I have to rescue an Earth Force agent.”

“What was she doing on that ship?”

“Beats the hell out of me.” Marcus couldn’t get the idea that she worked for Earth Force out of his head.

“One way to find out.” Solomon reached down to start the wake cycle.

“Whoa, what do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m going to wake her.”

“In case you forgot, I’m not on the best terms with Earth Force.”

“So what do you suggest we do, jettison her?”

“Well…” Marcus grinned at the scowl on Solomon’s face. “We’re not going to jettison her. I went to too much trouble to rescue her after all. What if we just dropped her off at the government building on Mars.”

“The decent thing to do is to wake her and you know it.”

“Yeah, I know.” Marcus flipped the switch. “For an ex-thief you have an overdeveloped conscience.”

“I stole from crooks. They all deserved it.” Solomon stifled a yawn. “We’re both reformed now, right? We’re supposed to be the good guys.”

“Right, why don’t you catch a few hours’ sleep?” Solomon headed to his bunk while Marcus returned to the cockpit.

 

I hope you enjoyed Chapter 2 of Children of Darkness. Chapter 3 is out available now

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