Disclaimer: All TSW characters are property of Square. I don't own 'em, I don't make any profit offa 'em, and suing me would get you nothing.
Author's Note: My massacre of the TSW universe continues. Could things possible get even worse? Well, if there's a way, I'll find it, believe me… Sorry this story is coming so slowly. It's a fic that I personally enjoy, but inspiration comes and goes. Hopefully, over summer, I can make some headway. I'm hoping to finish this in ten chapters, if possible. I have this urge to start my next AU fic, Xenogenesis, but I don't want to tackle it until I'm at least almost done with this fic. Also, I'd like to announce that I'm going to try to keep my bio here updated so you can check my progress over the summer. I can't promise I'll keep to the tentative schedules I'm posting, but I'll do my best.
Four – Once More Unto the Breach
The craft shuddered one last time as it broke free of the atmosphere, and Aki released a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding. Despite Hein's assurance that the ship wouldn't be fired upon without warning, she wouldn't put anything past the residents of this grim new world she found herself in.
Hearing her exhalation, Neil's voice came over the speakers. "I told you I could sneak us pass the sensors," he said, his voice cocky. "Nobody saw us leave." Aki had to hand it to the corporal-cum-computer; he hadn't exaggerated his abilities. If the Council knew how powerful Neil truly was… Aki shook her head. She wasn't going to let them get their hands on her only real friend. "Do you want to take over, or shall I continue flying?" the computer asked, and Aki suppressed a grin. Neil wasn't going to let a little handicap like a ruined body prevent him from doing what he loved.
"Go ahead," she said. "I'm not familiar with the controls of this particular craft, and I need to check the equipment to make sure nothing shook loose during lift-off." She released the straps holding her into the pilot's seat and let zero-g take hold. She didn't drift far; the cramped cockpit was barely large enough for her to sit with arms outspread. Hein had been unable to secure a large ship for her; there was barely enough room for herself and the equipment she'd brought. Jane had stayed back on the planet rather than be crammed into the small ship, despite Hein's reluctance to let Aki go anywhere without protection. Or supervision.
Her newfound solitude wasn't as welcome as she'd have expected; it made her realize just how alone she really was. Jane and Hein had been her last flesh-and-blood connection to her previous life; even though she'd barely known Jane and her relationship with Hein had been volatile, at least they were familiar. Neil's presence was welcome, but he was only a hologram, and because he was worse off than she was, she didn't feel right imposing her problems upon him. Besides, she hadn't known him well before, either.
Worse, the distraction-free environment made the magnitude of her current mission sink in. She was going to attempt to board Haven station, one of the last outposts of unaltered humanity – and likely to be little more than an orbiting tomb now, if Neil's suppositions were correct. After much debate, Hein had decided to risk sending a ship to check the station's status, to see if anyone still lived. If not… well, they could still hook up the scanning array to the station's, if it was undamaged. It made Aki ill to use the station like that, but she had to concede that they didn't have much choice. She hadn't wanted to be the one to go, but she'd had EVA training back when she'd qualified to pilot the Black Boa, and she was the only one who knew the scanning equipment well enough to set it up. With Neil's help, she could integrate it into Haven's mainframe, and they'd be able to establish a relay between the station and her lab. She fervently prayed that that wouldn't be necessary, that there'd be someone aboard the station who was alive, who'd assist them.
But as they drew nearer to the station and no one attempted to make contact with them, Aki's hopes began to wane. She took her seat in the pilot's chair as they made their approach, and Aki held her breath waiting for someone to challenge them. Neil's voice came over the speakers, his tone grim. "I'm transmitting the codes to open the docking bay," he informed her. He hesitated, then added, "I'm not reading any life signs, Doctor. Dammit… Sarge…" This last was so soft, Aki almost didn't hear it. Her synthetic heart went out to Neil; Sergeant Whittaker had been more than his squadmate, he'd been his friend. "You might want to put on your EVA suit. Life support is down."
Aki silently obeyed as Neil maneuvered the ship into the docking bay. Her new body didn't require as much air as her old; in fact, she'd been informed that she could hold her breath up to half an hour, if necessary. But she preferred not to test her body's limits. The EVA suit was a lighter version of the ones available in her own time; with her protected metal body, the suit no longer needed so many environmental controls. It was little more than a light, flexible skin suit, a helmet, and an air tank. Even with the knowledge that the cold of space wouldn't harm her, or that she wouldn't immediately suffocate, it was still unnerving to have so little between her and the vacuum of space.
She waited while the airlock cycled, and when the indicator light turned green, the hatch door irised open. Aki didn't immediately step out; she lightly tapped the suit controls on her wrist to activate the helmet's exterior lighting and magnetize her boots. She drew in a deep, trembling breath, mentally preparing herself for what she would see.
Neil had landed the ship in one of the docking cradles, which had automatically clamped the ship into place upon landing, which meant the station still had power. So the problem with life support had been some sort of mechanical error, not a matter of power loss. Why hadn't they been able to repair it? Aki had seen the cargo manifest; they'd known something was wrong, and had requested the part needed to save their lives. Had it come too late? Had the Council just not sent it at all? Another thought struck her. What if the Council had wanted them dead? Then, the fragile full-humans would no longer be a drain on their resources, and there'd be no more moral opposition to the cyborg procedure. Aki shivered; given Hein's reluctance to reveal her existence to the Council, and his own aversion to talking about the world's mysterious leaders, it was easy to harbor thoughts of conspiracy.
The station's empty, echoing corridor was getting to her, Aki realized. She summoned Neil's hologram from the computer around her wrist for company, and the young tech materialized beside her. His brooding expression was small comfort, however, and with his silent steps and vaguely translucent body, he seemed more like one of the ghosts Aki could almost believe haunted the station, rather than a companion.
"The control room is this way, three levels down," Neil said.
The elevator was simple enough to locate, and, fortunately, it was functional. It only took a moment to descend three floors. The metal doors slid open, and Aki stepped out… and couldn't stop herself from screaming at the sight that greeted them.
There were bodies in the corridor. Technicians, a detached part of her thought; the panels had been torn from the walls, exposing the conduits beneath. Tools were scattered around their still forms. Beyond them, a steel bulkhead had dropped, presumably sectioning off a breach – and blocked the control room. Neil studied it silently, then turned away. "There should be a computer around here I can link with. Once I've entered Haven's system, I can access the control room and raise the bulkhead."
Aki obediently searched behind the doors lining the corridor until she found a computer interface. She tried to ignore the body slumped against the wall, but she couldn't help but think it was staring accusingly at her as she hooked her wrist computer into the other computer's port. Neil's hologram flickered, and then he said, "I'm in."
Aki could hear the bulkhead opening, the sound of metal scraping echoing and amplifying as it traveled down the empty corridor. With the station depleted of air, there was no tug on her as the hull breach was exposed. "C'mon," Neil nodded in the general direction of the control room. "It'll be easier to do what we came for from there."
The control room was worse than the corridor; there were more bodies, and these had been caught in the rapidly decompressing air. Aki tried not to look as she headed towards the main computer bank. Neil, still tied in to the mainframe, immediately got to work.
"There are no life signs," Neil said in a subdued tone, confirming what he'd scanned from the ship. "From what I can tell, they were attempting to rig up something until the part they requested arrived, but something went wrong. There was an explosion, which resulted in a hull breach, and this area decompressed. The remaining mechanics couldn't gain access to the control room before life support failed."
"How many?" Aki asked hollowly.
Neil was silent while he found the information. "There were nine hundred and thirty two people aboard the station. About two hundred of them were children. The sarge had five children and thirteen grandchildren," Neil said in a whisper. "They're all dead."
Nine hundred… It was a much smaller population than Aki would have thought, but it was still a crushing blow to humanity, especially considering how few of them were left that were purely human.
Even Neil was grimly silent as they programmed the station's computers to integrate their scanning array. By the time they were almost finished, Aki's hands were trembling so hard she was having trouble inputting commands. Neil's holographic interface seemed incapable of displaying physical signs of the horror they had seen, but she could see from the straight line of his mouth and the sadness of his eyes that he wasn't unaffected by the deaths of so many unaltered humans. When he finally spoke, his voice held an edge to it, as though he were choking back overwhelming emotions. "We should destroy the station," he said. "It's not right to leave them floating here forever."
Aki agreed. "But we can't, not yet," she said. "Not until the scanners show us what we need."
Neil nodded. "I know; I meant afterward, if we save the world."
If, not when… Aki forgave him his pessimism; it was hard to believe they would succeed, when they were surrounded by what was left of what had been Earth's last, best hope for the future. Aki found she couldn't reply; a lump had formed in her throat, and she found herself wondering if she could cry. Things had never seemed so impossible as they did now, and Aki slumped forward on the console, choking cries escaping her throat. And then, as Neil watched helplessly, Aki began to slam her head into the console and scream, and found that she couldn't stop.
"And this has happened to you before?" Hein was leaning forward in his chair, gazing at Aki intently, warily, as if he expected her to lose it again, right there in his office. Not that she blamed him. After all, she was terrified of what had happened to her aboard the Haven station, too.
"Yes." Aki was surprised by how calm, how level, her voice sounded. During the flight back from the station, she hadn't been able to coherently string two words together. "When I woke up in the hospital, alone, I just… I lost it. I don't remember what I did, only that I had no control, and I came out of it feeling physically and emotionally drained." Much like she felt now; she hadn't suspected her metal body could feel such exhaustion.
Hein was silent, thoughtful. "The first instance could be dismissed as a side effect of the medical procedure. But you've had weeks now to adjust to your new body. You've regained all feeling, right?"
Aki nodded. The body now felt as natural to her as her own had been, beyond the fact that sensations weren't as acute as they had been before. "And I know you weren't prone to mental breakdowns before this," Hein continued. Aki supposed she should be flattered; it was the closest to a compliment Hein had ever given her." His thin shoulders slumped. "Dammit. It sounds like a reaction to the procedure. There are rare instances where the mind doesn't take to the cybernetic body as well as it should, and it sounds like you may be one of those cases."
"What happens to others like me?" Aki asked, her voice small.
"It's been awhile since a case cropped up," Hein said, tilting his head sideways as he struggled to remember. "Some of them, I think, continue to function normally, with occasional 'episodes,' similar to what you suffered – though I can't remember a case as severe as yours."
"And the rest of them?" Aki dreaded the answer.
Hein's cool blue eyes met hers, and she could see he wasn't going to spare her the gory details. "They go insane," he said flatly. "I don't think any of them are alive today." Whether it was because of their madness, or something else that resulted in their death, Hein didn't say, and Aki didn't want to know.
"If you don't know anything else, then I'm going to get to work," Aki said, standing. "We should be receiving data from the scanning array by now." She fled Hein's dingy office, feeling Hein's gaze follow her out. Her attack of hysterics had frightened her; she'd tried to laugh it off as stress, but she knew that wasn't true. Hein was right; she hadn't been prone to breakdowns before, no matter how bad the situation. This was a new problem entirely. Twice now, she'd lost control of body and mind. The first time, she'd been lucky. That hadn't been the case this time. When she'd picked herself up from the floor, Neil's frantic cries only dimly encroaching upon her awareness, she'd seen blood smeared on the metal plating, and in the dented computer console. She'd touched her forehead to find swollen tissue and blood – and an unidentifiable mechanical lubricant that was part of her cybernetic components. Neil had tried to speak to her, to bring her back to herself, but Aki was barely aware of his presence. She had staggered to her feet and stumbled back to the ship, using the wall to brace herself. Neil had shut down his hologram, aware that he may as well not have been there for all the attention she was paying him. Once in the ship, Neil had somehow managed to get her to stir from her stupor long enough to perform the EVA space walk to attach their equipment to the station's – an action she didn't even recall performing – and then had flown them back to their headquarters without any direction, or any comment, from Aki. Even though he hadn't manifested or even spoken to her beyond reminding her of their mission, she could almost feel his eyes upon her, watching, waiting…
And now she was getting paranoid. She wondered if that were a symptom, too. Aki pushed the thoughts to the side, aware they could be a dangerous distraction. Just concentrate on your assigned task. Just worry about finding more spirits to reconstruct the spirit wave. It may just be nothing, a minor side effect like Hein said. Don't think about how you may no longer have the time to do it. Aki hastened her stride, aware now that the clock was ticking.
Suddenly, the term 'deadline' had taken on an ominous new meaning.
"Nothing!" Aki barely restrained herself from smashing her fist on the console before her. She leaned back in her chair and kneaded her forehead. The scanning data from Haven had been slow to come as the earth rotated beneath the station's arrays, and there were still blind spots in the data. What did come through was discouraging: nothing that even remotely matched the necessary spirits was revealed. What did come up was distressing: there were far fewer cities than there had been, and there were fewer, smaller spirits clustered in what few cities did exist. Aki hadn't asked how many cities were left, being too afraid to hear the answer. Seeing her fears confirmed deepened her apathy. There are so few people left… And of those people, how many of them are still human? Even if I can recreate the spirit wave, there may be no way to save the human race.
Movement at the edge of her vision jerked her out of her downward spiral, and she turned to where Neil had manifested beside her. "You need to wear a bell or something," she growled. "You could've given me a heart attack… that is, if I still had a heart."
Neil just gave her a grin. "I thought of something that might help us. I was just going through the records on your previous work. Did you know that Captain Edwards tried to help Dr. Sid complete the spirit wave?"
Aki nodded. Hein had mentioned something to that effect. "But they weren't successful."
"Because their attempts to retrieve the final spirit were interrupted when the Zeus fired on the crater," Neil said. "The Black Boa went down, and they were never heard from again. They were presumed dead." He relayed the information tonelessly, like the soulless computer some thought him to be. Aki felt a surge of renewed anger at Hein, who had brought this tragedy about.
Neil continued on. "Your chestplate – it contained the first seven spirits, didn't it? And they took it with them; that's why Dr. Sid had to cryogenically freeze you, because you no longer had the chestplate to form the barrier around the Phantom particles."
"What are you getting at, Neil?" Aki asked.
"I'm saying that no one ever went back to the crater to salvage the ship or the… the bodies. At the time, there was too much Phantom activity and no human could survive down there. And when the cybernetic procedure was developed, there was never a reason to go back down there. The ship is still down there, Doc – and so is the chestplate. It could still contain those seven spirits."
"Neil, why didn't you suggest this before?" Aki demanded. They could have saved so much wasted time…
"Because that ship is the captain's tomb," Neil said quietly. "I didn't want to desecrate it unless it was absolutely necessary."
He was right, Aki realized. And I don't know how I'd handle it… but we need those spirits. "I hate to do it," Aki said, "but, if we can save the world, it can be Gray's legacy." Aki stood and hit the intercom, summoning Jane. The other woman came after a few moments, and she watched Aki with confusion as the scientist prepared to live. "What's going on here?" she asked.
"Get ready. We're leaving in ten minutes," Aki said in voice that was, for the first time since she'd woken, filled with hope.
"Where are we going?"
"'Once more unto the breach,'" Aki quoted softly. Once again, humans would venture into the most inhospitable place on the planet.
"What does that mean?" Jane demanded.
"It means we may find what we need in the Phantom crater," Aki said.
The crater yawned open before them, its edges lined with jagged teeth of outthrust rock. A strong wind tore through the outcroppings, producing a sound not unlike a moaning. Aki crept as close to the edge as she dared, not quite trusting the rock not to crumble under her weight. Jane hung further back; from the expression on her face, she didn't think Aki was being cautious enough. "It looks much deeper than the reports indicate," she noted in a detached tone. "The structural damage inflicted by the Zeus must be spreading." She scowled. "I wish I could get near enough to the edge to get a better look; I can't see the Black Boa from here." She hoped the rock hadn't broken beneath the ship; if it had fallen into some deep crevice, their chances of getting inside the ship decreased.
"Let me," Neil said, the hologram swirling into existence before the two women. Before either could respond, he stepped to the edge, and then off. Aki bit back the instinctive response to cry out to him in warning as the hologram proceeded to traverse the thin air until he was several feet away from where the others stood, at the limit of the projector's range. Aki had to admit, it was damned convenient to have a hologram on their side.
"See anything?" Jane asked. She had turned her back on the sight of Neil suspended over nothingness; Aki began to wonder if was a fear of heights that kept Jane from coming any nearer.
"A lot of things," Neil said cheerfully. "What a spectacular view!" He dropped down on his stomach and spread his arms. "Look! I'm flying!"
Jane turned around long enough to give him a withering glare, and even Aki was irritated by the hologram's antics enough to roll her eyes. "The ship, Neil. Do you see the ship?"
"It's difficult to discern details from this height, but there does look like there's something metallic down there. Wait, let me access the satellite…" His eyes seemed to glaze over for a moment. "Yes, there's definitely a metallic mass down there that isn't an ore deposit. It looks like there's a clearing big enough for the ship about a mile away; it's the closest we can get," he said apologetically.
The flight down was quiet; none of them were willing to contemplate what was down there – or what would happen if the object of their hunt wasn't down there. The ship touched down, stirring the dead air. Stepping out took all of Aki's courage; this was the source of their planet's woes, the origin of the Phantoms. And the proof of this was all around them.
They weren't alone within the crater; everywhere Aki looked, her modified eyes saw Phantoms. Every variety catalogued, and even a few species Aki had never seen before, were gathered in a seething mass, with little space between them. In some instances, the Phantoms were actually overlapping each other. Despite knowing she was immune to the aliens, Aki shivered, and even Jane looked unnerved. "Let's hurry up and get this over with," Jane said. Aki agreed.
They plunged into the amassed Phantoms, closing their ears to the endless hoots and wails that their passage caused. Tentacles slid through Aki's body, and she shuddered as she felt them come up against the internal barrier that protected what was left of her spirit. They picked their way across the crater, hoping that the ground beneath them wouldn't give way.
The Black Boa lay at the edge of a massive fissure, its hull a shattered wreck. It hadn't been a controlled crash; the ship had come straight down, fast, as if it had lost all power and just plummeted from the sky.
Aki found herself shying away from the ship, choosing instead to creep to the edge of the fissure and peering down. She barely had the chance to process what she'd glimpsed – a churning mass of blue shot through with pulsing veins of red – when Jane called to her, her voice urgent. Aki picked her way through the rubble to the woman's side.
"Footprints," Jane said, pointing.
Aki looked in the direction indicated. Jane was right; there were three sets of footprints leading to and from the Black Boa's hatch. There was no wind this deep within the crevice, so there was no way to tell how old the footprints could be. "Could they be Gray and Sid's?" she asked hopefully. "A rescue?" Could Gray still be alive after all these years?
"I don't know," Jane said. She stepped carefully so as not to disturb them more than necessary, arriving at the ship's open hatch. She inspected the hatch, running her fingers along scored metal, where it had been pried open from the outside. She peered inside, then turned back to Aki. "Someone cleared the debris away from the hatch," she said. Aki went to Jane's side, taking the same care. Upon reaching the open hatch, Aki shuddered. She didn't know if she wanted to go inside; she was afraid of what she'd find.
Aki entered the bay where the ship's Quattro had been stored, climbing over the upthrust rib-like supports that had been forced upward during the impact. The Quattro was lying on its side, its barrier-projecting cockpit pierced by one of the metal struts. Jane clicked on her flashlight and swept it over the rubble-strewn interior. The tracks here were less well-defined, but there was still evidence that someone had passed through.
From there, they made their way to the cockpit, exploring every room they could gain access to on the way. Neil, who had vanished during their journey through the Phantom herd, put in an appearance. "I've used the Haven satellite to scan the area; it's not picking up any sign of the spirits in the chestplate." Aki stared at him with some surprise; the Phantom crater had been in the array's blind spot. Neil immediately picked up on her puzzlement. "I've been using the last few hours to reposition the satellite. Not an easy task, and I'm worried it may have caught the Council's attention." Which explained why he hadn't tried it before.
"It was shielded with a barrier," Aki said, refusing to believe that the object of their hunt, what could well prove to be their last chance, wasn't there. "Maybe the scanner can't pick the spirits up through it. Or the readings could be distorted because of the Phantom presences." Or maybe it's broken. Or the Phantoms have changed, and are immune to the wave and stole the spirits from the plate. No… don't think like that.
Jane, who had gone ahead of them, suddenly reappeared. "I don't think you should see this," she said.
"What?" Aki asked.
"I was just in the cockpit – it's not pretty."
Aki shoved her way past the other woman and entered the cockpit, which she noticed had also been pried open. Aki's gaze darted around, looking for whatever Jane had been warning her against. At first, she saw nothing… and then she saw it, a bundle of what at first Aki mistook as dried twigs in the pilot seat but which she realized was a decayed corpse. The world around her seemed to fade as she stepped forward.
It was Dr. Sid; she only knew that from the smock he still wore. His body was still strapped into the pilot's chair, and she could see where the straps had shattered his ribs. Slivers of glass were lodged in the decaying flesh and in the bone itself from when the viewport had broken. He hadn't felt it – or so she hoped – because she could see where the force of the landing had snapped his neck. They'd hit with enough force that he'd been killed instantly.
Aki hadn't thought it could get worse until she turned away and saw the copilot's seat. Shards of glass stuck out from the cushion, and others were scattered around the floor, their ends darkly stained. The seat was also stained black with what Aki knew was blood – a lot of blood. More than a human could lose and still be alive. Someone else had sat here, died here… and whoever it was, the body had been taken by whoever had come years earlier. The body certainly hadn't moved itself; there would have been a blood trail as whoever it was had moved away.
"Neil," Aki said tightly. "Was anyone else working with Sid and Gray? One of Sid's assistants, perhaps?"
Neil cocked his head, a quirk she recognized to mean he was skimming the available information. "No; it looks like Dr. Sid dismissed all of his assistants and set off alone with the captain after the general discredited him."
"So Gray…" Aki couldn't complete the sentence.
"Why would someone take the captain's body?" Jane demanded, as if Aki could produce the answers. "Haven't they done enough to him already?" Aki held her tongue, knowing it wouldn't be wise to mention that it was Hein who had sent Gray to his grave in the first place. Besides, Jane did have a point. For what reason would anyone want Gray's body? Obviously not for burial purposes; Neil would have found some record of it, if that were the case, and why take Gray and leave Dr. Sid?
"Maybe… maybe he survived?" Aki ventured, though she didn't hold out much hope. The force of impact had caused the Black Boa's frame to fold like an accordion; Gray's body would have been shattered, much as Dr. Sid's had been. And there was so much blood…
Aki closed her eyes and turned her back on the devastation. Remember why you're here, she told herself sternly. Don't let their deaths be in vain.
"Find the chestplate," Aki said, keeping her voice neutral. She tried to keep herself detached from the wreckage around her; she didn't want to spark another episode.
They searched the ship from one end to the other, and when that yielded nothing, they explored the ground around the ship, examining every bit of debris, looking for the chestplate – or any pieces of it that might remain.
"Could it have been thrown clear further from here?" Jane asked.
"I don't know," Aki said, frustrated. "I don't think they would have time to throw it from the ship, and I don't see how it could have been thrown free. Sid or Gray would have either been carrying the chestplate, or it would have been in the lab. It's not in any of the rubble from the cockpit, and the lab didn't have any hull breaches the plate could have been pulled through."
"You think that whoever took Gray took the chestplate," Jane stated. "But I don't understand. Why would someone steal the spirit wave?"
To be continued…