Ennelrion had been circling this little adventurer for a while now. The poor thing – tracking through the mountains, dragging gods know what in that sack behind it and looking for… what was it these two-legged monkey things wanted. Adventure? Gold? The brief ecstasy of notoriety? It’s like they don’t even know, the dragon thought to itself.
Two huge black wolves leaped from behind a boulder to ravage the adventurer, and Ennelrion was sure that he would end up a bloody stain on the snow. But much to its surprise, the bundled-up creature extended a hand and a great bolt of lightning blossomed forth, striking one of the wolves dead instantly. The other got in a good bite, and then it too was killed. The wind whipped at the mountainside, but Ennelrion was fairly sure it could smell burnt wolf hair even up as high as it was.
So. The two-legged mayfly knew a trick. Probably more than one, given how these things worked. The dragon twitched the tips of its wings and started the long circle down to the snow. At least it would be an entertaining way to pass a few minutes. Sooner or later, someone would have to give him a fight, and it wasn’t impossible that this little guy could do it.
Then again, Ennelrion had thought the same about the other dozen or some adventurers it had devoured over the years.
As it dove, it screamed, a harsh, wordless howl that pushed the snow out in front of it along an expanding shockwave. The adventurer looked up, and suddenly had a sword in its hand, one that dripped a fine mist from its edge. Ennelrion lifted its wings and dropped to the snow right in front of the two-legs. It thought about introducing itself, but really – why bother? It would no sooner introduce itself to any other brief and crunchy snack it was about to devour.
Instead, Ennelrion coughed forth a great gout of flame at the adventurer, who held up its arms as if the heavy armor it was wearing would do more than just cook it from the inside. The wave of fire rolled over the figure and then continued down the hillside, flashing snow into steam instantly and charring the winter grass beneath it. Odds are, there would be nothing left.
When the flame died down, the figure was still standing. Now the hand that had called forth lightning was glowing a pale white-blue, like the sword. The figure – Ennelrion was pretty sure it was male, unless females had started growing fur on their faces for some reason – looked up at the dragon, lifted a hand and shouted.
Oh, hell, the dragon thought as it felt the ice crackle on its wings and the cold seep into its bones. One of those.
Ennelrion raked at the hero with its claws and then launched itself up into the sky. A bolt of incredible cold flew by the dragon’s head, missing thanks only to quick reflexes. This is insane, the dragon thought. There’s plenty of other humans to eat, to terrify – I should just leave this one alone. It looked down, and the human was digging through the pack it had been carrying on its back. Somehow, it managed to pull a staff that was nearly as tall as it was out of a backpack. The hell? the dragon thought. Another blast of searing cold flew by it, worse than the first.
Ennelrion started making for the great double peak where it rested, but then thought again. Was it really going to let an insect like that drive it away? A creature that needed to arm itself with magic and metal, cover itself in fur and leather because it was too weak to survive on its own? Was Ennelrion the great, the immortal, the terrifying, going to fly away from one little “hero” with some tricks?
Like hell it was.
The dragon circled around again, blasting fire as it did. Snow was blasted away, and the hero staggered, but held firm. The dragon thumped to the ground right in front of him and snapped at him with his teeth, somehow managing not to bite him in half completely.
Ennelrion reared back and felt the complex chemical reactions build up in its stomach for a gout of fire that would melt steel, when the hero held up a hand and said, “WAIT! Wait!”
The dragon, somehow, waited. It held back the fire with some effort, and didn’t really know why, but it waited.
“Thanks,” the hero said. He was smiling. Smiling!
The little ape-thing turned its back on Ennelrion and started digging through the sack again, pulling tiny red bottles out one at a time. Once he had about ten of them, he uncorked one and chugged it down. “Whoo!” he said to the dragon. “You got me close there!” He tossed the bottle over his shoulder and popped open the second. “How’re you holding up?” he said.
The dragon could feel the fire churning in its belly, and wanted nothing more than to reduce this creature to a stain on the hillside. But it… it couldn’t. Ennelrion opened its mouth and said, “I’ve been better.”
The human nodded. “Yeah, I can tell.” He was on bottle number four now, and the burns and cuts were fading from his skin. “Let me say, I’m glad to see you.”
“Really?” Ennelrion started drumming its claws against the frozen ground. “You’d be surprised how few people say that to me.”
“I can imagine,” the human said. It had two more bottles to go. “But they aren’t tricked out the way I am. And they don’t need you as much as I do.”
Of all the odd things that were going on at this very moment, that one got Ennelrion’s attention. “Need me?” it asked. “Need me for what?”
The human finished off another bottle and dropped it to the snow. “Your soul,” he said. “I got that, and I’ll be able to charge myself right up.” He uncorked the last little red bottle and winked.
“And if I kill you instead?” the dragon said. It wasn’t going to eat this one. Oh no. Ennelrion envisioned strewn body parts all over the hillside.
The human shrugged. “I’ll try again.” He lifted the bottle and drained it. When he threw this one away, all traces of injury were gone. It was like Ennelrion hadn’t done anything at all. “Sooner or later, I’ll get you.”
The human was clearly insane. The flames inside Ennelrion’s belly were aching to escape, but it couldn’t bring itself to do it. The adventurer ran a crystal along the edge of his blade, and the sword was a deeper, colder blue. He pulled a small medallion from his pocket and put that on, then a new steel helmet to replace the iron one he had been wearing. The human shook out his limbs, hefted the sword a couple of times, and looked up at the dragon. “We ready?” he said.
Flames were already beginning to curl out from Ennelrion’s mouth. It cracked its jaws to respond, but a searing bar of flame erupted first. It enveloped the adventurer in a great cloud of fire and steam. The rocks below his feet were already glowing red and softening, and trees nearby burst into flame.
When the dragon closed its mouth again, the adventurer was still there. He held up a hand and that long staff, and Ennelrion felt a shock of cold run through its body, from nose to tail. The cold kept coming and kept coming, and no matter how the dragon tried to get up and fly away, it couldn’t. The ice was on its wings, cracking through its scales, eating its way through to the warm, infernal core of its being.
Ennelrion collapsed to the ground, trying to inhale with frozen lungs.
It was over. The dragon felt the fire within go out, and knew that there was no victory to be had here.
No victory for the dragon, anyway.
The cold stopped, and the adventurer took a few steps away.
“Human,” Ennelrion whispered. The cold was being replaced by a burning – not in its belly, but everywhere.
“Elf, actually,” the adventurer said. He took down his hood, revealing pale green skin and pointed ears.
The dragon wanted to sneer, but that would be wasting time. “There are more of us. Stronger. More terrible. More ruthless.” It tried to move, but its skin was sloughing off in great burning sheets. “We will hunt you to the end of your days.”
In the darkening tunnel of its vision, the dragon saw the adventurer smile.
Through the white noise of its own body burning and charring around it, the dragon heard the adventurer say, “I’m counting on it.”
Geordi hit the access panel with the flat of his hand. “Captain! Captain, can you hear me!” He got nothing but burst of static, followed by the mad machine’s repeated, ““Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.” Geordi hit the panel again. He knew it wouldn’t do any good, but the engineer he’d learned from said that “percussive maintenance” had a long tradition in engineering and should never be overlooked.
Wesley looked scared. His face was cooling down as heat left it, and the infrared pattern was being picked up by Geordi’s visor. The boy had tried to disconnect the sphere from the main computer, and had received a nasty shock for his troubles. Not enough to really hurt him, but enough to make him think twice about doing it again. The machine looked complicated and difficult enough to Geordi that he wasn’t sure if disconnecting it would even work. It was sending off electromagnetic pulses at wild frequencies, probably looking for one that would allow it to interface with the ship’s main computer. If that happened, then nothing short of physically destroying the probe would be enough to stop it.
The tool shop was beginning to feel claustrophobic. Geordi realized that Wesley probably couldn’t see a thing in there. “Wes,” he said. “We have to get out of here and see if we can find some way to untangle that thing from the computer, all right?” Wesley nodded, and Geordi keyed the door open. He stood back for a moment, expecting something terrible on the other side – fire, falling debris, arcing electricity, but there was nothing. If it hadn’t been for the thing in the tool room chanting over and over again, Geordi would have thought it was just another day.
He and Wesley returned to Main Engineering, and they went right for the main control console. Geordi started typing frantically, trying to find some way past what the “space sphere” had done to their computer. On the other side, Wesley was doing his best to figure out their situation.
“Geordi,” he said. “According to the navigation systems, we’re headed right for Earth at nearly full impulse power.”
The calculations went by Geordi’s field of vision. “That gives us about fifteen minutes,” he said. “Maybe less.” He looked down at the control panel, but he was no closer to figuring his way back in than he had been before. He slammed his hands down on the table and cursed under his breath. That made Wesley look up sharply, his eyes wide.
“What’ll we do, Geordi?” he asked. He swallowed hard. “Can we shut down the engines from here? Disable impulse power?”
Geordi shook his head. “No, we can’t do that…” He snapped his fingers. “But there is something we can do.” He turned to Wesley and grinned. “And you of all people should remember how to do it.”
“Huh?” Wesley looked utterly confused, but followed when Geordi ran to the other end of the engineering center and pulled a panel off the wall. Behind it was a rack of faintly glowing isolinear chips, each one a clear piece of translucent plastic.
Geordi crouched down in front of them and started to pull the chips out, one at a time. “Remember a few years ago, when that virus hit us and you took over the ship for a few hours.”
Wesley cleared his throat and looked away. “Not very well, no.”
“Well, while you were acting captain, you let Chief Shimoda do exactly what I’m doing now.” He was pulling the chips out and placing them carefully on the floor, making sure they were in the same order he pulled them. As he did so, the engines were beginning to power down, their ever-present hum deepening in pitch. “Now when that happened, we were in trouble because we needed to move.” He pulled a few more. “This time, we need to stop moving.” He took out the last few and laid them down. The engines’ thrumming slowly wound down and the control lights dimmed. After a moment, they were powered down completely. Geordi turned to Wesley and made a small bow. “Ta-da.”
But Wesley was already at the table, checking the ship’s progress. “Geordi,” he said. “We’re still moving.”
The readings bore him out. The ship was still heading directly towards Earth at impulse speed. There were only about ten minutes left until they arrived, in one way or another. Geordi put his head in his hands for a moment. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he said. He looked up. “Turning off the engines stopped us from accelerating,” he said. “But out in space, there’s nothing to slow us down. Unless we can get some kind of thrust going in the opposite direction, we’ll just keep moving forward until something stops us.”
Wesley looked up at him. “Like Earth.”
* * * * *
Data was the first to notice, of course. “Captain!” he said. “The engines are all offline. Our acceleration has stopped.” He looked up at the viewscreen, where the pale blue dot was still becoming bigger. “However, unless we can find a way to change our velocity, we will still collide with the Earth in approximately eight minutes and forty-two seconds.”
Picard stood up. “Does that machine still have control of the computers?”
“Yes, Captain, but with the engine offline it can no longer steer the ship.” He looked back over his shoulder. “On the other hand, neither can we.”
“We’ll do something about that,” Picard said. He turned to Worf. “Lieutenant,” he said. “Go to Engineering. If Geordi and Wesley haven’t been able to disconnect that thing by now, they may need some brute force assistance.”
Worf smiled, and it only served to make him look more fierce. “Aye-aye, sir,” he growled, and headed straight for the turbolift.
“Data,” Picard said. “What are our options for either stopping or steering the ship?”
The android thought for a moment. “It would be possible to adjust the ship’s course by explosively decompressing the main shuttle bay. It would add to our speed somewhat, allowing us to overshoot the Earth.” His fingers flew across the panel. “But it will only work if it is executed in the next four minutes.”
Picard stood up and tapped his communicator. “Bridge to shuttle bay.” There was no answer but static and the chanting of the space sphere. “Damn,” Picard said. “Data, Riker, get to the shuttle bay. Now. Evacuate any crew and trigger the decompression from there.” Riker and Data jumped up from their chairs and got into the turbolift. Picard sat back down in his chair and glanced over at Deanna. She was staring at the ever-growing Earth on their screens. He wanted to tell her that it would all be okay, but he’d learned that it was futile to lie to a Betazoid. He tapped a few buttons on his chair controls, bringing up a countdown on the readout. Seven and a half minutes to go. He grimaced and looked around at the places where his command crew should be.
He had done what a captain had to do – send his people to do their jobs, to save the ship. He had to send them because the captain could not do everything himself. And now he sat in the command chair, staring at the viewscreen with nothing else he could do but wait. Troi stood up and came close to him, laying a hand on his shoulder. Though she had always claimed that she could only sense emotions, not change them, Picard felt a little better.
The view of Earth was replaced by a clear view of Wesley Crusher. “Captain!” he cried. “We have communications back!” He stood aside, revealing the smoking space sphere. It had a Klingon Bat’leth jammed into it and Worf standing above it with arms crossed over his broad chest and a look a smug satisfaction on his face.
Picard smiled. “Well done, Lieutenant,” he said.
Geordi appeared on-screen. “Captain, we can regain control of the engines, but there’s no way I can replace the isolinear chips before we hit Earth.”
“Data and Riker are on that right now,” Picard said. “In fact…” He stood up and tapped his communicator badge. “Bridge to shuttle bay. How are you-”
He was cut off as the ship jumped forward and he fell back into the command chair. On the screen, Geordi and Wesley all stumbled to keep their footing, although Worf stood his ground, seemingly immovable.
“We did it, Captain!” Riker’s voice was full of pride. “Data says we ought to miss the Earth by a few hundred miles.”
“Excellent,” Picard said. He glanced down at the readout on the chair. Just about five minutes left. He looked over at Deanna, who was leaning against the railing of the bridge. “Deanna, get a message out to Earth command. Tell them we’re unable to stop and they need to get us a clear path right now.” She nodded and ran up to the tactical controls to send the message. “Geordi, make sure that thing isn’t going to trouble us anymore and get to work regaining control of the engines. Data, Riker, come back to the bridge. Mister Crusher…” He drummed his fingers. “I’ll have words with you later.” On the screen, Wesley’s face went slack, and he swallowed hard.
“Message from Starfleet, Captain,” Troi said. “They have a clear path for us past Earth. They’re going to send ships to assist us once we make it past.”
“Excellent,” Picard said. He sat back in the command chair and watched Earth grow in the screen. A few minutes later it filled the view and was then replaced by star-filled space as the Enterprise shot past it.
* * * * *
Wesley, Geordi and Riker sat in the ready room while Picard made some final additions to the official report of this incident. No one had said anything for a few long minutes during the debriefing, and the room was beginning to feel very warm. Wesley tried not to show it, but he really wanted to loosen his collar and maybe wipe his forehead. He glanced over at Geordi and Riker, who both looked perfectly relaxed. Wesley hoped he’d have that kind of composure someday – right now it was all he could do to keep from throwing up.
“Well,” Picard said, looking at the three of them. “I trust this won’t happen again?”
Riker leaned back and smiled. “I don’t know, Captain. It turned out to be quite the learning experience.” Picard didn’t change his expression at all, but somehow Riker still smiled.
Geordi spoke up quietly. “I have the remains of the space sphere,” he said. “Worf’s hit took out its main power systems, but not the computer core itself.” Everyone looked at him, disbelief in their eyes. “I have an isolated system I can hook it up to,” he said. “Absolutely no contact with the main computer.” He looked around. “What? It’s an important piece of technology. The more we know about it, the better we’ll be able to handle things like this in the future.”
“And you think something like this could happen again?” Picard asked.
Geordi shrugged. “It’s a big universe, sir,” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”
Picard nodded and turned to Wesley. “Mister Crusher,” he said, and Wesley felt that sick feeling in the pit of his stomach grow worse. “I appreciate your… enthusiasm for exploration. It is what Starfleet is built on, after all.” He tried to smile, but today it just wasn’t coming off well. He reminded Wesley of the stern, humorless Picard he’d met that first time he set foot on the bridge. “In the future, however, you must take more care, even if the others around you do not.” He looked pointedly at Riker and Geordi, who were very clearly looking elsewhere. “Failing to look before you leap is a very good way to fall to your death. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Captain.” Wesley’s voice was dry and hoarse.
“Very well.” He looked at the three of them and put the pad on his desk. “You are dismissed.”
They all stood up and filed out of the ready room. Wesley walked with Geordi onto the bridge and followed him to the turbolift.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on conn?” Geordi asked.
“Geordi,” Wesley said. “Do you really have that computer somewhere safe?”
Geordi nodded. “Don’t worry, Wes. It’ll never get control of the ship like that again.”
“Do you think…” Wesley swallowed. “Do you think I can help you work on it? Figure out what it is?”
It took a moment, but Geordi smiled and patted Wesley on the shoulder. “Sure, Wes. It was your project to begin with, after all.”
A smile broke out on Wesley’s face and the leaden feeling in his belly loosened up. He thanked Geordi and headed down the ramp to the conn station. He sat down, pulled the console to him, and looked up at the giant viewscreen, on which he could see countless stars. But he wasn’t thinking about them. He was coming up with tests, ideas, things he wanted to try with that new AI. He glanced down at his duty schedule. Four hours to go.
Just enough time to think of some really good ideas.
Aperture Science and the Space Sphere are owned by Valve Corporation.
Star Trek and all related names and ideas are owned by Paramount Pictures.
The crowd in Ten Forward was quiet and sparse. Most people at this hour were on duty or busy doing any one of the thousand things that made the Enterprise work. Quiet music was being piped in overhead, and the lights were low, to allow for a better viewing experience out through the large windows. Captain Picard sat by one of the windows, reading an antique copy of Gulliver’s Travels and sipping a fruit drink from Vulcan. He treasured these moments, as brief and rare as they were, when he could relax and feed his mind. No strange encounters, no terrible crises to avert. Just a peaceful trip through the stars and a book to spend time with.
The music became warped and wobbly, and dropped to silence. Picard glanced up from his book and looked around, just as most everyone else was doing. A moment later, the lights began to flicker, then surge in brightness. He stood up, tucking the book under his arm, and adjusted his uniform. Guinan was behind the bar, watching the crowd, but she gave him her full attention when he arrived. “What do you think it is?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But I certainly mean to find -”
The speakers squealed, a sharp, painful note, and everyone clapped their hands to their ears. A moment later, the ship screamed, “SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!!!“ The floor lurched under their feet, throwing many people down, and the star field outside bent and shifted, and then exploded into streamers of light as the ship leaped into warp speed.
Picard braced himself against the bar and slapped his communicator. “Picard to bridge!” he yelled. “What the hell is going on?”
His communicator sputtered and coughed, and then a voice cried out, “YEEEEEEEEE-HAAaa!!“
Picard and Guinan exchanged glances. “Bridge,” he said. He picked up the book from the floor and went to the port-side exit. The turbolift opened as he approached, and Deanna Troi was already inside.
“There you are,” she said. Picard got in, the doors closed, and the turbolift began its swift route to the bridge. “There is something very wrong with this ship,” she said.
Picard raised an eyebrow. “How did you guess?” he asked.
She put her hands on her hips and smirked at him. “I’m Betazoid, Captain,” she said. “I can sense the delicate ebbs and flows of emotion on board and tune in to the minds that populate it.” She shrugged. “Also, the ship started to scream and launch to warp speed for no reason at all. That was my first big clue.”
“No time for jokes,” Picard said, holding back a smile. “Is there anything you can tell me?”
She shook her head. “Whatever it is, it’s nothing I can get a hold of.” The lift stopped, the doors slid open, and they walked onto the bridge. The red alert lights were flashing and crew members were desperately trying to regain control of the ship. Worf was barking orders to his personnel and Riker was working at the captain’s chair.
“Report,” Picard barked out.
Commander Riker stood up. “Sir,” he said. “The ship’s computer seems to have been compromised. We’re unable to access propulsion or communication systems.”
Picard walked down the ramp and took the captain’s seat. “Life support?” he asked, keying commands into the arm of the chair.
“So far that seems to be unaffected. But communications between decks are sporadic at best, and we can’t slow the ship down.”
Data turned in his seat. “We are currently at warp seven and climbing, Captain. If we continue at this speed, we will achieve warp nine in approximately five minutes. It is inadvisable that we remain at that speed for too long.”
“Understood, Lieutenant,” Picard said. He looked around the bridge. “Where’s Crusher?” he asked, gesturing to the empty conn seat.
Riker and Data exchanged glances. “Last I heard, he was in Engineering,” Riker said. “We found something out there, and -”
Picard held up a hand. “You found something? What did you find? Why wasn’t I notified?”
Riker took his seat to Picard’s right. “It seemed to be a deactivated space probe, sir” he said. “We checked it out, beamed it on board and I gave it to Wesley to look at. I thought it would make a good project for him.”
The look that Picard game him was flat and angry. “And?” he asked.
“Well” Riker said, “I haven’t been able to get back in touch with them, but I think he and Lt. Commander LaForge may have managed to turn it on.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Picard put his hand to his face. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and said, “Conference room.” He stood up. “Data, Riker, Troi, Worf. Now.” He stalked to the conference room, not looking back to make sure everyone followed him.
When they got in, and the door closed, Picard took his seat at the head of the conference table. “What do we know?” he asked.
Riker stood up and tapped a few times on his pad. Pictures and initial scans of the object appeared on the viewscreen. It was roughly spherical and covered in the accumulated debris of centuries in space. “It appears to be some kind of probe,” he said. “Initial scans suggest that there is a computer core in it, though it was inactive at the time we beamed it on board.” He tapped again and new pictures appeared, much more detailed. “These were taken from Wesley’s tricorder in the Engineering server. You can see in more detail that it’s a fairly complex machine, probably an AI built on Earth in the latter half of the twenty-first century. That’s interesting all by itself. What makes me nervous is this.” He tapped again, rotating the onscreen model to display the logo with the words “APERTURE SCIENCE” printed on the side.
The officers looked at the screen. “I don’t understand,” Troi said. “What is Aperture Science?”
“Computer,” Riker said. “Display records for Aperture Science. Authorization Riker, Alpha six-one-six.”
The screen flickered for a moment, then went blank. A moment later, great yellow circle like the iris of an eye appeared on the screen, moving wildly back and forth as if looking at each person in the room. A speaker popped to life. “You the space cops?” a voice said. It was breathy and frantic and electric, and it made Worf growl. “Don’ like the space cops. Goin’ too fast. Too fast.”
Picard stood up, facing the screen. He tried to look stern and authoritative. “Who are you?” he asked. “What have you done with my ship?”
The great eye snapped into focus on him. The iris seemed to pulse, and the lights in the room pulsed with it. “You,” the voice said. “You have a very shiny head. Like a star. You a star?”
Picard glanced around and gritted his teeth. “Tell me who you are,” he said again.
The voice seemed to start singing a tuneless nonsense song. After a moment, it cut off. “Uh-oh,” it said. “There’s the sun. Gotta say Hi.” The screen went black again, replaced after a moment by a detailed classified file on Aperture Science. They only had a moment to study it before the stars outside the window stopped streaking past and they blinked back into normal reality again. The door chime sounded and Picard barked, “Enter!”
When the door opened, a flood of golden light came with it. An ensign in red stepped in, his face pale. “Sir, come quickly. It’s… It’s the sun!” He ducked out again. Everyone at the table looked at each other, and then got up to return to the bridge.
The main viewscreen showed the sun to the starboard side of the ship, far closer than it should have been. “All shields to full,” Picard said, even as Data was entering the commands.
Riker turned to him. “We have to get control of this ship back. Data – did you get all that on Aperture?”
Data turned around to face them. “Aperture Science was an American company in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They explored several different avenues of business, but their greatest successes came in the fields of artificial intelligence and spacetime manipulation.” He tapped his console, and the great, flaming sun was replaced with the information that had been on display in the ready room. It showed pages of text and diagrams, as well as pictoral representations of people, cubes and holes.
“Their AI work was brilliant,” Data continued, “if unstable. Their primary intelligence was a computer named GLaDOS, which they built to run their testing facilities. It went mad and killed most of their personnel within seconds of switching it on. They also built a series of smaller, more restricted intelligences.” The screen displayed a series of small spheres that looked like the one Wesley had been working on. “These AIs were more specific in their functions, and not all of them were particularly… useful.”
He swiped his hand across the console and a new set of pictures were displayed. “Their other achievement was the creation of small, stable wormholes through the use of a hand-held device.” A video appeared on the screen of a young woman in an orange jumpsuit running through a corridor into a vast room with a moat of murky green liquid bisecting it. She fired a large, insectile gun at the far wall, sending out a blue burst of energy. She then fired again, and orange energy hit the wall next to her, creating a hole through which she could see herself. She stepped through, went through a door on the other side of the room, and continued running. “Although a prototype was made,” Data continued, “it was never developed for mass production. Some of the research that went into it, however, was instrumental in the discovery of warp drive technology.”
“So what does that mean for us?” Picard asked.
“If that sphere is indeed an Aperture AI,” Data said, “there is a good chance that it is insane.” The main screen went back to showing the sun, bright and hot in front of the ship. “If it has control of the ship, there’s no telling what it might do.”
The main screen broke up in a burst of static, and an uneasy image appeared of Geordi and Wesley. “Captain!” Geordi yelled. “Captain, can you hear me?”
Picard stood up. “I can hear you, Geordi. What’s going on?”
“Captain, I think I know what this thing wants!” The picture shook and shimmered. “It’s been saying the same thing for a few minutes now, and if it has control of our navigation sys -” The signal cut off, returning to the oversized sun on the viewscreen. Slowly, the ship was turning around, moving the sun out of their field of view. Over the speakers, that staticky, crazed voice was muttering the same thing over and over again.
“Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.”
The Enterprise’s turn sped up and then stopped, pointing at a pinprick of pale blue light.
“Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.”
Data looked down at his display. “We are at full impulse power, Captain,” he said. “At this speed, we will reach Earth in approximately fifteen minutes.”
“Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.”
He glanced out at the viewscreen. “I would point out that we do not know this being’s intentions once we reach Earth. We could go into orbit, or…”
Picard nodded. “Or we could crash.”
They all watched the viewscreen as the pale blue dot slowly grew and the mad machine continued to chant, “Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth. Wanna go t’Earth.”
Aperture Science and the Space Sphere are owned by Valve Corporation.
Star Trek and all related names and ideas are owned by Paramount Pictures.
Wesley Crusher drummed his fingers on the smooth console of the conn and watch the stars drift by through the main viewscreen. He tapped a small icon in the corner, bring up his duty calendar. Only three more hours to go in his shift, and they were going to go by just as slowly as the previous two had. He itched to call up a game or a book or something, but Commander Riker had drummed into him the need to be vigilant when on duty, ready for anything to happen. And since Riker was sitting in the Captain’s chair at the moment, there would be no slacking off for Wesley today.
Nothing was happening. It was true that the Enterprise saw more action than most ships in Starfleet, and he looked forward to regaling his classmates at the Academy someday. Most of the time it was like this, though. Dull. Monotonous. Unending.
“Data,” he said, “you are so lucky you don’t know what it’s like to be bored.”
Data turned in his seat at the ops console and gazed at Wesley with those unblinking yellow eyes. “That is true, Wesley, but I have heard that there is a saying from Earth: ‘Only boring people are bored.’” He cocked his head. “Perhaps you can find a way to keep your mind busy that does not interfere with your duties.”
“I run tests on certain mathematical models, investigating the effects of different variables to see what the outcome is.”
Wesley sighed. “I don’t think I can do that, Data,” he said.
“Well,” Data said, “Perhaps you can -” He was cut off by a quiet tone from his console. His fingers danced across the panel, bringing up streaming lines of code. “Commander,” he said, turning around to face Riker. “Sensors have picked up what seems to be a probe or satellite, about a hundred kilometers off the port bow.”
Riker stood up to get a better look at Data’s console. “Any idea what it is?” he asked.
“No, sir,” Data said. “Only that it is less than a meter in size, spherical…” He looked up. “And definitely not natural.”
“You think it’s dangerous?”
Data paused. “I cannot tell, sir. But the readings indicate that it is inactive.”
“Okay then,” Riker said. “Beam it aboard, full quarantine.” He glanced down at Wesley. “Ensign Crusher, since you’re in need of something to occupy yourself, why don’t you come with me?”
Wesley straightened in his seat. “Are you sure? Sir?” he asked. He didn’t want to sound too eager. It wouldn’t be unlike Commander Riker to try and pull one over on him.
Riker waved a hand. “Why not?” he said. “Things are pretty quiet. If the Romulans show up, you can always come back.” He nodded to Data. “Data, you can handle this?”
A few touchstrokes and Data nodded. “Conn functions have been rerouted, Commander.”
“Good. Wesley, let’s go.”
They strode into the turbolift. “Deck six,” Riker said. The lights on the side of the lift started to move, the only indication that the system was moving at all. When the doors opened, they walked through busy corridors to the transporter room, where a technician was waiting for them. Riker glanced over at her. “How does it look?”
She glanced at her console. “There’s no sign of any biological elements, sir. It does have a power source, but it’s not powered up.” She looked up at him. “Whatever it is, it’s inactive. I’d say it’s been out there for a long time.”
“Okay,” Riker said. “Bring it aboard.”
The transporter technician tapped a few buttons and then slid her fingers up the main controller. The transporter pad shimmered to life, a curtain of energy materializing and singing and then coalescing into a small, filthy object that rolled over when the system shut down. The thing was encrusted with rock and dust, no doubt collected over centuries of being in deep space. Wesley and Riker exchanged glances and went up to examine it more closely.
It was about as big as Data had estimated, and almost perfectly round, except for two handles that jutted out from one side. Riker reached out and picked away at some of the accumulated space dust, and a large chunk fell away to reveal the object’s metal surface. It was a dull, dirty gray, with the letters “RTU” clearly visible in black.
“‘RTU’?” Wesley asked. “What does that mean?”
Riker shook his head. “No idea,” he said. He stroked his beard, deep in thought. “Clean it off and take it to engineering. See if Geordi can make anything of it.”
“Yes sir,” Wesley said, trying not to sound too excited. “I’ll be careful.”
Riker looked down at him, pulled out of his thoughts. “See that you do.” He glanced over at the space relic. “Something about this bothers me.”
The transporter technician gave them a handtruck, which floated gently a few inches off the ground. Wesley and Riker lifted the object off the pad, and it felt lighter than it should have. Riker nodded to the technician, said, “Good luck” to Wesley, and left the transporter room.
It was a long way down to Main Engineering, almost at the opposite end of the ship. As Wesley pushed the handtruck along through corridors and the turbolift, he couldn’t help but wonder what kind of thing this was. Some sort of ancient communications device? Perhaps it was an archive of some kind, the record of a civilization long gone, preserved for the ages in deep space. He was grinning with excitement when he brought it into main engineering and found Lt. Commander LaForge poring over a display on the large central console. Other members of the engineering staff were moving from station to station, transferring data to and from their datapads and making sure the ship was running smoothly. LaForge looked up when Wesley came in, pushing the object in front of him. “What on earth is that thing?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Wesley said. “We found it floating out in space and brought it on board. Commander Riker told me to clean it up and we should see what we can make of it.”
Geordi raised an eyebrow. “We?”
“Well,” Wesley said, the excitement draining from his face. “I was hoping that maybe you… Or you and I…” He tried to look hopeful.
Geordi shook his head. “That thing is filthy. Get it out of here.”
“But if I can clean it up?”
“I have a check of the ship’s inertial controls to perform, a re-calibration of the antimatter flow to do and half a dozen people complaining to me that their ship’s computer access isn’t working. I have enough to do right now, Wesley.” Geordi turned back to his display and hit the controls a little harder than before.
“Okay,” Wesley said. He had a hangdog expression that always worked with his mother – his eyes dropped, his shoulders slumped, and he turned to walk away, dragging the handtruck behind him.
“Wes,” Geordi called out. Wesley turned around, trying not to look too hopeful. “You can use the tool shop to clean that thing up. But make sure everything is spotless before you leave. Understand?”
The grin sprung back to Wesley’s face as he turned the handtruck around and pushed it towards the tool shop off of one of the corridors leading away from Main Engineering. Once there, he lifted the thing onto a workbench and adjusted the lighting so he could see everything clearly. There were tools all over the shop, from the simple hand tools that people had been using for centuries all the way up to the most advanced material manipulation devices. He chose a handheld ultrasound device and checked it. There was a barely audible hum and a soft blue glow. He started to run it over the object, chipping away at the caked-on space dust and debris.
It took well over an hour to clean the thing off. He called up some new Betelgeusian pop songs on the computer and hummed along while he worked at getting centuries of accumulated space dust off the object. It took several trips to the replicator to get rid of the dirt. He kept a small sample in a plastic container, mainly because it might be a clue to the thing’s origins, but otherwise he had no trouble getting the workshop cleaned up. The object sat on the metal workbench, dull and inert. At a glance, he couldn’t tell what it did. It was complex, that much was certain, and while it seemed to be intact, it was in pretty poor shape. The outer shell was dinged and dented in places, scraped and scratched and cracked. One of the handles was broken, the other bent in the middle. On one side of the sphere, it looked like there was an opening, a small hatch that peeked open at an awkward angle. It looked like it had been through a lot out there. Wesley tapped a few buttons on a tricorder and took a scan of the object, making sure to record everything.
The readings suggested it was made using technology that was about equivalent to late twenty-first century Earth. There was nothing particularly non-terrestrial about it, either in its design or its makeup. Wesley walked around the object, become more and more fascinated with it as the tricorder collected data. There was a computer core inside, that much was certain, and a power cell that looked like it was designed to be rechargeable through a data port in the back. He thought that it might have been hooked up to a larger network at one time, and he wondered how hard it would be to build an adapter for it. Finally, he came back to the words that were printed on the side, and took a visual record with the tricorder.
There was a logo that looked like a mechanical iris, something that might be used on an ancient camera. Next to the logo, in black letters, it read: “APERTURE SCIENCE.”
Wesley started going over the tricorder data again and went to a computer access point on the wall. He tapped the screen and said, “Computer. Do you have any records on ‘Aperture Science’?”
The display turned a dull red as a short buzzer sounded. “Access to this record is restricted,” the computer said. “Please state authorization code.”
Wesley sighed. “Cancel,” he said. The screen went dark and he looked over at the Aperture Science machine. “What are you?” he murmured. The data on the tricorder wasn’t much help. It told him some of the story, but not nearly enough. He tapped his comm badge. “Crusher to bridge,” he said.
A moment later, Riker replied. “Bridge. Go ahead.”
“Commander, I’m still working on this object we found. Are you going to need me for the rest of this shift?”
There was a pause. “What have you figured out so far?” he asked.
“Well,” Wesley said, “it’s probably from Earth. From something called ‘Aperture Science,’ but I don’t have the authorization to find out what that is. It’s cleaned up, but non-functional.”
“Okay,” Riker said. “I’ll see what I can find out about Aperture Science. In the meantime, see what you can get from it, and come back when you can. Things are pretty quiet up here. Riker out.”
Wesley put the tricorder under his arm and picked up the sphere. Without all the dirt, it was much lighter and easier to carry, and he took one more look around the tool shop to make sure it was clean before he went back out to Main Engineering.
Lt. Commander LaForge was in a quiet conversation with one of the engineering crew when Wesley came in. Something about the central computer and diagnostic tests and the like. When they were done, the engineer strode off and Geordi turned around. He took a look at Wesley and whistled. “Wow,” he said. “Now that’s interesting.”
“I thought so too,” Wesley said. He placed it gently on the main control table. “Here are the readings I got from it.” He tapped the tricorder and sent the data to the main display on the table. Lines of data and code spun out across the surface, which Geordi read in silence. He traced his finger across some of the displays and looked over at the sphere. “Looks like a computer,” he said. “And if I’m reading this right, it might well be an AI.”
Wesley’s eyes went wide. “Really?” he asked. “I didn’t think they made them that long ago.”
“They did,” Geordi said. “They just weren’t quite as good as they are now.” He picked up the sphere and turned it over, looking for the input port. With a little pressure, a small panel opened up in the back. He picked up the tricorder, scanned the port, and shunted the data to the main display. “Old tech,” he muttered.
Wesley looked from the screen to Geordi. “Do you think you can make it work?” he asked.
Geordi stared at the data for a minute and then nodded. “I think so,” he said. He tapped the console, bringing up a schematic of the sphere’s power supply. “In fact, I think you could probably do this yourself.”
He nodded. “Sure. Look – it’s a pretty simple power input system.” He tapped and hilighted a few different sections. “This leads to the main battery, this to the servo system, and this part seems to power the central core.” He paused and gestured on the display surface, zooming into the schematic. “In fact, this looks like the main data port, next to the AI power supply. Shouldn’t be too hard to fabricate an adapter with the replicator.” He looked over at Wesley. “Wanna give it a shot?”
Wesley was beaming. “Absolutely!” he said. He ran his hand over the battered shell. “Imagine what could be in this thing!” He looked over at Geordi. “It might be lost historical records, perhaps a cultural artifact. There could be secrets on this thing that would have been lost for all time if we hadn’t found it.” He looked back at the sphere. “I really want to know.”
Geordi laughed. “So do I, when you put it that way.” He pointed back towards the tool shop. “Get to work and see what you can put together. Just call me before you hook anything up, okay?”
Back in the tool shop, Wesley set up the schematic displays on the wallscreen. He selected some old Earth music from the computer library and got to work, using the replicator’s modeling systems to try and design a power and data system for the sphere. Despite what Geordi had said, it wasn’t that easy. The input port was small, and there were some complicated contacts involved. Whenever this thing had been designed, it was still based on computer principles that had been established hundreds of years ago. A modern designer could have made it much simpler.
After a few hours of simulations and redesigns, Wesley came up with something that he thought should work. He coded the design into the replicator and sat back while the computer processed his request. A moment later, the replicator hummed and shimmered, and left behind a coiled cable. On one end was a plug that would fit into one of the Enterprise’s data ports. The cable looped to a blocky transformer, and then ended in a long, thin, spikelike plug. Wesley picked it up and smiled.
He called Geordi, as promised, and a few minutes later the chief engineer came in. He took the adapter in his hands and looked carefully at it. “Nice work,” he said. “It just might be the thing.” He looked over. “Want to give it a try?” Wesley nodded eagerly, and picked up the sphere.
There was a data port in the wall, behind a small panel next to the computer access. Geordi plugged one end of the cable in, and then looked over at Wesley.
Wesley nodded, turned the sphere over, and carefully inserted the spike into the access port. As soon as he did so, he could feel a faint vibration under his fingertips. The machine was getting power, and it was turning on.
He set it upright on the floor, and they stepped back from it. A series of quiet beeps and pings came from the sphere, and then a loud hum.
“Riker to Engineering,” their communicators announced. They both started in surprise.
Geordi tapped his. “Engineering, LaForge here.”
“Geordi, is Wesley with you?”
Geordi looked over. “I’m here,” Wesley said. He was still watching the sphere on the floor, which was humming louder now. The front panel seemed to be struggling to open, and he could see some kind of yellow illumination through the thin opening.
“I’ve found out what I could about Aperture Science,” Riker said, “and I don’t think it’s a good idea to power that thing up. At least not until we know more about what it -” His voice cut off in a flood of static and a high pitched squeal that made Geordi and Wesley cover their ears. The lights in the tool room dimmed and flickered.
The front hatch of the sphere snapped open, and a great, yellow iris beamed out and swiveled to look at the two of them. The lights in the room brightened, became far too bright, and started to fail, one by one. The eye of the sphere spun madly and danced as the ship hummed and growled around them.
The sphere stopped moving, and the lights cut out, leaving the room lit only by emergency illumination. The ship’s speakers crackled for a moment and then went silent. And then:
Aperture Science and the Space Sphere are owned by Valve Corporation.
Star Trek and all related names and ideas are owned by Paramount Pictures.
The hospital room was quiet, except for the respirator. It hissed on and off at slow, steady intervals, a regular rhythm that ran all day and all night. Every now and then another machine would beep or ping, but not too often. The peace of the room was absolute, disturbed only by the regular duty nurse who came in to change the sheets or attend to the bedpan. Time had lost all meaning in here. Every day was the same. Every night was the same. Regular breaths, a white ceiling, an impassive nurse and doctors who pretended they were the only thinking beings in the room.
Today, however, the silence and the regularity of the days and the nights was broken by the sounds of shouting from outside the room. Shapes could be seen on the other side of the glass window. A man – a doctor, perhaps, or one of the bodyguards – was telling a woman that she couldn’t go in, that she wasn’t authorized.
“Not authorized?” she yelled. “I’m here on the highest authorization, you ape. And when I’m done in there, I’ll have you mucking out the test chambers with nothing but a bottle of bleach and some paper towels!’
“Don’t ‘But miss’ me! Let! Me! In!” There was a pause, a dangerous silence, and then the shadows on the other side of the frosted glass moved. The door opened and a lovely young woman stormed into the room. “I’m remembering your name, buddy!” she yelled as the door swung closed.
When she turned around, her entire demeanor changed. The hardness was gone from her voice as she put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, sir!” Caroline said. “Oh, Mister Johnson. What have they done to you?” She took a tentative step towards the bed and the thin, dessicated man who lay there. When he was healthy, not so long ago, he’d been a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm. He seemed like the rock of the company, standing against the waves and never letting them knock him down. He had long been the driving force behind Aperture, the singular ambition that took it from its humble beginnings selling shower curtains to the scientific powerhouse that it was today. And nothing – not the Navy, not those double-dealing, backstabbing ghouls over at Black Mesa – had ever been able to take that away.
But now he lay in that bed, wasting away with every pump of the respirator. His skin was pale and brittle, his eyes dull and staring at the ceiling, barely open. A tight web of wires wrapped around his head, their ends buried in his scalp, and leading to what looked like an old Smith-Corona typewriter on the bedstand. Caroline laid her hand on his and tears slipped from her eyes as she felt how cold he was. “Oh, sir,” she said in a shaky voice. “I’m so sorry. I should have been here sooner.” She took a handkerchief from her handbag and buried her face in it.
She looked up with a sniff when she heard the sharp clack of the typewriter key smacking against the paper. Slowly, one herculean letter at a time, a message was spelled out on the yellowing piece of paper:
Caroline stood up sharply and her eyes overflowed again. “Sir!” she said. She looked again at the apparatus that connected his head to the typewriter and smiled. “Did you have the lab boys make that for you, sir?”
“I’ll have to give them a raise,” she said. She reddened. “Or, you will. Once you get better.”
The typewriter started writing again, the letters coming a little more quickly now.
You will. You’re in charge now.
Caroline shook her head, “I told you, sir, no! I don’t know what I need to know to run Aperture! I mean, there are so many projects going on that no one will let me see, engineers asking questions that I can’t answer, and the lawyers are just driving me crazy! They keep asking me for the testing records from the mid-seventies and I keep telling them that we don’t have them!”
Burned them. Damn lawyers. Get nothing.
She nodded, glad to be on more familiar ground, and took a small notebook out of her handbag. “The counter-maneuver work is still progressing, and we’ve had some preliminary inquiries from the Pentagon about it. They want to include it in special forces training – Delta Force, SEALs…”
The typewriter keys practically slammed against the paper.
No. Navy. Never!
Caroline smiled and held his hand. “I told them, sir. They said we couldn’t exclude the Navy from any government contracts.” The typewriter started banging out meaningless characters – pound signs and ampersands and exclamation marks. “But,” Caroline continued, “there’s nothing preventing us from charging them triple what the other branches get.” She smiled and patted his hand. “And I’m making sure that they’ll be the last to get anything.”
“Thank you, sir.” She held his hand for a little while longer, just looking at him. As she stared at his face, she thought she could see it move. Maybe his eyes struggling to look at her, or his mouth straining to make the smallest of smiles. But when she blinked, when she cleared her vision, nothing had changed.
Caroline came back to attention and looked through the notebook. She pulled out one piece of paper that had been folded and put in the back. “Your failsafe, sir. The boys in engineering say that it’s not going to be ready for a long time yet. Years, maybe.” She looked around the hospital room, at the battery of machines that were keeping Cave Johnson alive. “I don’t…” She took a deep breath. “I don’t know if it will be ready in time,” she whispered.
The typewriter was silent for a long time, long enough for that worm of panic to set in. Then:
She sat up. “Sir?”
You’re. In. Charge.
“But sir, I-”
No one knows science like you.
No one knows Aperture like you.
There was a pause, and when she looked back at his face, she was almost sure there were tears in his eyes.
No one knows me like you.
Caroline squeezed her eyes shut and rested her hand on his cheek. “Oh, sir,” she said. “I don’t want to do this without you.”
You will. You have to.
You’ll make me proud.
One of the machines started beeping. She looked over at it and watched as the jumping green dot on the screen jumped lower and lower. She sat on the edge of the bed and held Cave Johnson’s hand as he went, squeezing it so that he knew she was with him. The dot pulsed a couple more times, and then the line went flat.
Caroline had precious few minutes to herself before the nurses stormed into the room, followed by men in suits. One of the nurses took her by the shoulders and gently lifted her to her feet. “You’ll be okay,” she whispered as she moved Caroline out of the way. The nurses and the suits bumped shoulder as each group tried to confirm Cave Johnson’s condition. They started talking about plans and contingencies. A couple of bodyguards stood by the door, looking uncomfortable.
“We’re going to have to close the offshores…” They were lawyers, pure and simple. They spoke in hushed tones, but loud enough for her to hear.
“Make sure the patents are up to date…” They didn’t look at her. They didn’t look at him. They flipped through appointment calendars and address books, pulling mimeographed pages from their briefcases and comparing them.
“Call the board, we’ll need to have a vote on…” A great man lay dead before them, and not one had paid his respects. Not one had said a word about the man who had changed the world, whose vision and dedication were going to change it even further. Caroline felt her sorrow condense into a cold, hard knot in her belly and she stood up.
“Gentlemen!” she said sharply.
The lawyers stopped talking and, in unison, turned to face her.
“According to Mister Johnson’s dying wishes,” she said, squaring her shoulders, “I will be taking charge of Aperture Science from here on out.”
They looked at each other. One of the lawyers, the youngest one, smiled at her like he thought they were in a bar. “Miss,” he said, “I think maybe you should leave all this to us. You’ve had a rough day.” He took her by the elbow and started to lead her to the door. “Why don’t you have a little lie-down and-”
She jerked her arm from his grasp and looked him dead in the eyes. “What. Is. Your. Name?”
The smug smile lasted only a moment longer before it slid off his face. “Hannigan,” he stammered. “Mark Hannigan. I’m with the law offices of-”
“You’re a test subject,” she growled, a slow smile spreading across her face. “I hope you like heights.” His face went pale.
She looked at the other two lawyers. “We’re going back to the office. Mister Johnson’s personal files are there, and you’ll see what his wishes for the company were. Signed and notarized before he entered the hospital.” She walked around Hannigan to the other lawyers. They were avoiding looking at him. “We’re going to get this little mess cleared up quickly and easily and in the best interests of the company. Unless you want to be bathing in propulsion gel like your boy Hannigan here.” The older of the two lawyers swallowed and started to speak, but she stopped him with a glare. “The man in that bed had a vision,” she said. “And it’s my honor to make sure that vision comes true. Understand?” They glanced at each other and nodded.
Caroline looked at the bed. The nurses had pulled the sheet over Cave Johnson’s face and were busy disconnecting all the machines. She took a deep breath and said a silent prayer for him. He didn’t believe in heaven, she knew that. But she believed that he was already there, and already throwing his weight around.
She turned around and looked at the men in suits. “What are we doing still talking?” she asked.
She walked to the door, where the bodyguards parted to let her through. She stopped, though, and looked behind her. The men standing there looked small and nervous. They were off-balance, which suited her fine. Hannigan looked a little sick. “Come on,” she said. “We have science to do.”
Cave Johnson, Caroline, Aperture Science are all owned by Valve Corporation.
This piece was inspired by a recent episode of the Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR on Fan Fiction. At the end, Colin announced a fan fiction contest for the show. The winner gets some free food tickets, which is awesome. Now I can’t win, because a) I’m a relative of a WNPR employee and b) I live in Japan and can’t make use of the prize. But this was the idea that leaped into my head and I simply couldn’t resist. For some background, take a look at Day 32: Mea Culpa. Enjoy!
“…but I think that the Senator really should have been more more forthcoming in the information he had and didn’t have, plain and simple. After all that’s happened – Waterbury, New London and – god, those poor people in Farmington, I think Senator McLaughlin owes the people of Connecticut more than just empty platitudes and condolences.” Bill Curry leaned back from the microphone and nodded to Colin, who turned back from his computer screen and glanced at Irene Papoulis.
“You know, I agree,” she said, “but somehow I don’t think that knowing what he knew and when he knew it is really our highest priority right now. Containing the Farmington Valley should be our highest priority right now, because those zombies are just ready to tear everything apart!”
“Oh, absolutely,” Bill responded, “although I would also say that restoring Waterbury to its original size should certainly rank up there, along with those poor lost souls from Washington’s militia. And then there’s the time stoppage in New London – you see? It just goes on! At some point there’ll need to be a full account of what went wrong.”
Colin held up a hand to his guests and jumped in. “Thank you Bill and Irene, we have to take a short break here and when we come back we’ll be talking to J.C. Steiner of the Connecticut Emergency Crisis Center, who can give us a little more insight, I hope, into what we can expect to happen next. Stay with us.”
Patrick gave them the all-clear from the producer’s room. The guests removed their headphones and started chatting about the topics they’d left hanging in the last segment. Colin typed up some notes on his computer, trying to anticipate the points that Steiner would bring up. In his headphones, Chion chimed in, breaking up his train of thought: “How about ‘Living Dead Girl’ for the bumper music in the last segment?”
“Only slightly tasteless,” Colin said. “Go for it.”
“And I came up with a good joke on the way in to work today – how many people from Waterbury does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“How many?” Colin tried to remember the point he wanted to make. Ah, yes, Social Security.
“Why change it when you can live in it?!” She laughed loudly for a moment and then stopped. “No, wait, that’s not right…”
“Keep working on it,” Colin said.
“Thirty seconds,” Patrick said. Colin nodded and gestured to Bill and Irene, who promptly put their headphones back on. “Is Steiner ready to go?”
“I’m here,” he said from the New York studio.
“Excellent. I’ll introduce you and then we’ll be ready to go.”
The music faded in – Chion had picked “Time in a Bottle,” and everyone around the table snickered. There was a countdown and Colin jumped in with, “And we’re back with Professor Irene Papoulis and Professor Bill Curry on The Nose and we’re taking about today’s press conference by Senator McLaughlin about the current crises we’re facing here in Connecticut, including – but not limited to – the time stoppage in New London, Waterbury being reduced to the size of a snow-globe by Galactic Overlord P’thn’aar, zombies, time-lost Revolutionary war soldiers – it just goes on. On the phone with us now is J.C. Steiner, the head of the newly-formed Connecticut Emergency Crisis Center down in Litchfield. So, J.C., tell us about what your group is doing right now.”
“Thank you, Colin, it’s a pleasure to be on your show. The Connecticut Emergency Crisis Center is working to -”
He was cut off and everyone in the studio flinched as a forcible “What the HELL?” erupted over their headphones. Patrick was yelling, and there was the sound of things being broken. Everyone in the studio stood up to look through the window into the production booth just as a bent and bloodied chair came flying through the glass.
The shards burst outward, causing everyone to duck and cover their heads. There was a heavy noise as Bill was hit by the chair and fell to the ground, and for a moment the only sound they could hear was the tinkling of glass shards falling to the floor.
Then they heard the guttural, wordless gurgle of the first zombie.
It sounded just like they would have expected it to sound, from countless zombie movies – stupid and hungry and wet. Colin and Irene slowly stood up. They couldn’t see what was going on in the producer’s booth, but they could hear it, hungry chewing and licking sounds that turned their stomachs. Irene looked like she was ready to throw up. Colin put his hand on her shoulder and a finger to his lips. He pointed to Bill and knelt down to wake him up, but it was too late. His head was tilted at an unnatural angle, and his eyes gazed unblinkingly at the floor.
Irene threw up. Colin glanced up at the shattered window where they could still hear the horrible, wet noises, and he guided Irene to the door of the studio. If there was just the one zombie, he thought, they might be safe.
But then, when was there ever just one zombie?
Slowly, as quietly as possible, Colin opened the studio door. He opened it a crack, looked and listened. There didn’t seem to be anything out there. “My office is right across the hall,” he whispered, “we can call for help.” He stepped out into the hall, looked again, and gestured for Irene to follow him. The offices were silent, except for growling noises from just out of sight.
Broken glass crunched under their feet as they walked, ever so carefully, across the hall to Colin’s office. The door was ajar and everything was in disarray, but it was otherwise empty. They hurried in, he closed the door and they shoved the desk up against it. “That’s probably not going to stop them,” he said. “At least not for long.” He picked his cell phone up off the desk and looked at it.
No bars. He picked up the land line phone, but that too was dead. “Damn,” he said.
“What are we going to do?” Irene asked, on the verge of panic.
“We’re going to stay calm,” Colin said. “We’re going to stay calm and -”
The door burst open, slamming the desk against the opposite wall and taking Irene with it. There was a sickening crunch as her bones were crushed. Colin was soaked with her blood, and there was a terrible groan as she died. Colin turned to the door to face whatever had done this. A vicious, red-eyed zombie that looked like Josh Dobbin shambled towards him, grabbed him by the wrist and started dragging him down the hall, yelling and screaming.
The zombie brought him to the station lounge and threw him inside. There were more zombies there, some old and breaking down, some horribly new. Patrick, Catie, Tucker – they were bitten and bleeding and staring at him in slack-jawed mindless hunger. He cried out in fresh despair. Whatever happened here had happened fast, and there was no going back now. If the Farmington zombies had made it this far, they’d probably spread across the state in days. From there it was just a matter of time.
Someone cleared his throat behind him and Colin spun around.
His face widened in shock. He backed away as far as he could from the door as the figure advanced on him. “You!” he said in a single, wheezing breath. “What do you want?”
The young man standing in the doorway was not a zombie. Not even close. He looked young and healthy, dressed in the latest fashion, just as he looked in the magazines and on television. His famous smile would have lit up the room if he weren’t flanked by two gigantic, decomposing zombies. They growled and slavered, but did not attack. One of them sniffed the blood on Colin’s clothes and lunged forward, but the young man held out an arm and restrained it as though it were a child. “You know what I’m here for,” he said. He ran a hand through thick brown hair. “I’m here for Wolfie. Where is she?”
“I…” Colin looked around – Chion Wolf wasn’t there. She wasn’t among the victims, and for a moment he felt hope that she might have escaped. That hope turned to bitter ashes in a moment, though. Even if she did escape, where would she go? How long would she survive?
“Where?” the young man asked again. “I didn’t raise my own zombie army just to be stopped now.”
Colin looked up. “Your… your own?”
The young man smiled. “Of course! What, you think I somehow managed to corral those things you have out west?” He laughed. “No, these are mine. I’ve always been able to make people do what I want, really. Thanks to Senator McLaughlin’s little series of accidents, my ability to control has become more… direct.” He walked slowly over to Colin, grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him overhead. “Now,” the young man said. “One more time. Where is Wolfie?”
There was the distinctive sound of a shotgun blast. The young man dropped Colin to the floor and spun around just in time to see Chion pump the shotgun, point it at the second guard zombie’s head, and blow it into a fine red mist. She lowered the gun, took a couple of shells out of her shirt pocket and started reloading. “Right here, Bieber.”
She pumped the shotgun again and lifted it to aim at the young man’s head. “Let’s dance,” she said, and pulled the trigger.
Justin Bieber was faster than he looked, however. He stepped aside from the blast, and the hot buckshot spread out to hit the zombies standing behind him. Colin flattened himself against the floor and, for a fleeting moment, wondered where Chion had gotten a shotgun.
“Now, now, Wolfie, is that any way to treat your idol?” She fired again and again, he dodged. “I got all your letters, I know how much you’ve wanted to meet me.” Again, she fired and he dodged. “I came all this way for you, Wolfie. I raised a zombie army for you.” He reached out and grabbed the barrel of the gun, wrenching it out of her hands and throwing it to the floor. “I did it all for you,” he sang sweetly. He reached out and took her by the dreds, pulling her closer as she pulled away. “And now…” His voice went flat. “You’re mine.”
“Not yet she isn’t.” Colin grabbed him by the legs and pulled, causing him to lose his balance. He let go of Chion, who dove to the floor, hands reaching for the shotgun. Colin held on to Bieber’s legs as long as he could, but the young zombie lord’s strength was too much. He kicked Colin away, towards the waiting crowd of WNPR undead.
Furious, Bieber stalked over, reached down and picked Colin up again, dangling him above the floor. “I should have just killed you,” he growled. He slammed Colin up against a wall so hard that his breath fled his chest. “Maybe I’ll just make you one of mine.” He smiled, and his eyes burned a painful, poisonous green. “Welcome to my fan club, McEnroe.”
“Hey, baby.” Bieber spun around, dropping Colin to the ground. His burning eyes were looking straight down the barrel of the shotgun that Chion was pointing at his head. She smiled. “You’re gone.”
She pulled the trigger, and his head vaporized, blood, bone and brain spattering against the far wall. Bieber’s headless body teetered for a moment, and then collapsed to the floor.
The zombies howled and screamed, a noise that went straight into the ears and down the spine. Chion dropped the shotgun and covered her ears. Colin crawled over to her, trying to cover his own ears as he did so. He wanted to ask if she was okay, if either of them were okay, but the noise dug into the back of their brains like hooks. The zombies started twitching and thrashing about, trembling and flinging themselves from side to side, all the while their voices melding together in an unholy cacophony of pain and damnation.
Green fire burst from their eyes and their mouths, playing all over their bodies, and where it passed the decay, the rot, the torn and rent flesh was repaired. Bones knit, wounds healed, and life was returned to what had once been shambling corpses. The noise grew in pitch and volume, to where it seemed like something other than just noise. Chion and Colin were sure that their eardrums had burst, that their brains were going to fail when the screaming… Stopped.
They looked up. Their colleagues, zombies no more, slowly got to their feet. The horror in their eyes was a horrible revelation: they knew what had happened to them. They knew what they had done when they were under Bieber’s thrall. Perhaps one day it would seem like only a nightmare, but not today. Today and tomorrow and the days to come would be days of rebuilding and coming to terms with the horrors that had been perpetrated on them.
Chion and Colin stood up. The station lounge was in ruins. Blood was everywhere, and anything that could be smashed was smashed. The two security zombies were still on the floor, unchanged, but they were rapidly putrefying into the carpet. It looked like a slaughterhouse.
“Wow,” Chion said. “Mister Dankosky’s going to be pissed.”