Author's Note: For those of you that didn't spot it before, this is Episode Two of my Doctor Who season. The first, "The Gods' Plot" can be found on my profile, and takes the Doctor and Martha back to Ancient Egypt, and the reign of Rameses II! When the gods are made flesh and start to walk amongst the mortals, is all as it seems? And what ominous importance does the annual innundation of the Nile hold this year? Read it to find all that out, and more!
I own nothing in Doctor Who, nor of their characters that I use for the time being... certain characters that pop up later will be my creation (not that anyone would want to use them).
Now, without further ado - onto the story...and the horror! Oh, the horror....!
Commander Samuel McCormack growled tersely under his breath, his hands twitching as he stopped himself instinctively reaching for a sheet of paper he knew wouldn't be there. That was just one of the many things that reminded the seasoned officer just how old her really was, having been alive during the mass transfer from paper to digital. That, and the conversion of ammunition from standard bullets to energy cells. It wasn't enough that he could no longer screw-up balls of paper to vent his frustration, now he couldn't even fire off a few rounds down at the range!
Oh, he could, but digital targets that merely registered hits instead of showing good, clean entries? It wasn't the same. It wasn't right.
And if that wasn't bad enough, the United Earth Forces refused to let him retire just yet, claiming his experience was too invaluable to 'just let go', but that his age was cause for concern. So they kept him in service, but shipped him off to head-up security in a bucket of a research station at the remotest sector of the whole blasted galaxy! It was enough to make anyone burst a blood vessel…
The Schrödinger was a scientific outpost with no signs of civilisation for lightyears in any direction, and calling it a 'bucket' was being kind; the station had fallen into disrepair almost a decade ago. Sure, UEF Command had sent a handful of engineers to tackles the problem with every scheduled supply shipment, but it had quickly become a case of too little, too late. The damage was just too great; the station's propulsion engines were one of the systems hit the worst, so not only could Command not sufficiently come to its aid, but the Schrödinger could no longer come to Command. They were stuck there, dead in Space, just scientists and soldiers no longer fit for the frontlines.
On the positive side, Command hadn't turned a complete blind eye to the plight of the Schrödinger. As irate as he was, McCormack found some solace in the knowledge that his days on the station were numbered, that once the science-teams had successfully completed the tests on their latest military-funded venture the station was being officially decommissioned, and everyone reassigned. Well, not everyone. He was finally getting his retirement.
Only a few more weeks, old man, a few more weeks. Sighing heavily, McCormack swung in his chair until he faced his office's only window. It showed nothing more than the same canvas of stars it had for the last two years (ever since the station had stopped moving entirely), but he had long since seen past them and now used the dark view as nothing more than a means to observe his reflection.
"Damn it, Sam," he growled, pawing at the jowls on his face, "when did you get so old, huh? Whatever happened to that naïve, hazel-haired boy who swore he was eighteen? Is he still in there, somewhere, hiding behind all these wrinkles and scars? Poor son of a…"
His reverie was interrupted by the warbling trill of the station's comms. Swivelling back to his desk, McCormack quickly noted who was calling before flicking the receiver. "McCormack here, Hub. You better not be calling me about another meteor…"
There was no nervous laughter in response to his terse accusation, no emotion whatsoever. "Not this time, Commander," replied the voice of Hub calmly, its voice sounding from the officer's console-speakers and the room's at the same time, "of that I am quite certain. Unidentified vessel approaching, Sir – seventeen lightyears, and closing."
"You sure it's not just a lump of rock? I'm not putting this station on high alert again for another piece of space-stone."
"Like I said, Sir, quite certain. Unless, that is, there are meteors that exactly match the specifications of a Challenger-class vessel. Such a possibility is seventeen-million, three-hundred-thousand, and nine-hundred and sixty-four to one. So you may be correct, Commander."
"Damn machines," groused the Commander, leaning back in his seat. HQ can barely keep our ration-dispensers from spouting sludge, yet they can maintain a smart-mouthed A.I.? And people accuse me of mixing-up my priorities… "Don't bother working on that sarcasm, Hub, you'll be scrapped soon enough."
"I sincerely doubt that, Commander. I not only manage every daily routine and function you and everyone else onboard rely upon to live, but I also house and process every bit of data you all feed me – I am the culmination of advanced programming, data-processing and memory-storage. Can you say the same for yourself, Sir?"
"Damn machine!" cursed McCormack again, knuckles whitening as he griped the sides of his desk. "You…mentioned Challenger specs?" he asked through gritted teeth, struggling to regain his composure.
"It could just be a meteor…"
"Don't try it with me, Hub, or I swear I'll come up there and rewire you so bad you'll be good for little more than toasting my breakfast muffins!"
"I highly doubt you'd know where to start, Sir. With all due respect," the program added, almost mocking in its impassiveness.
"Did you, or did you not, mention the blasted Challenger specs?!"
"Affirmative, Commander; the unidentified vessel matches the specifications of a Challenger-class science vessel. It is now ten lightyears and closing, with no effort to open communications."
"Hmm," UEF protocol was for a vessel to not only broadcast its details at all times, but to hail a station when on approach from a distance of twelve lightyears. If that wasn't worrying enough, Challenger-class vessels were little more than mobile science-stations that could be set-down on a planet's surface, immediately set to collect samples, monitor atmospherics, the works. The question was, what was a Challenger doing coming to them? There was no planet closer to them than any other UEF station, so why it was coming to them – whether from or to a project – was confusing. There was nothing out there for them…
"Eight lightyears, and closing," announced the echoing tones of the station's A.I.
"Open-up communications, Hub," ordered McCormack, leaning forward, elbows resting on the desk as he scowled at the readouts the A.I. was now providing him.
"Open-frequency communication established, Commander – but, Sir, you should be aware of new data."
"Unidentified vessel has just entered within range of our working scanners –"
"This heap has functioning scanners?"
"It would appear so," confirmed Hub, not missing a beat, "however, maybe you will find their results even more alarming: there is only one life sign onboard."
"One person is operating that entire vessel?" repeated the Commander incredulously, "But Challengers require a minimum skeleton crew of nine. Scan it again. Maybe your systems aren't as advanced as you like to think."
"The Schrödinger's scanners are operating at one-hundred and ten percent efficiency, Commander," Hub answered curtly, the emotionless tones disregarding the seemingly blithe retort. "Perhaps the more logical assumption is that the unidentified Challenger launched with an effectively larger crew, and that number has simply…diminished since then."
McCormack grimaced, and stroked his chin. "That's a pleasant thought. But, then why come here? There are a dozen other UEF stations based closer to any hospitable planet than this scrapheap… why come this far out of their way, especially if they're understaffed? You are sure?" he added for clarification.
"Secondary scans are complete and confirm: there is only one life sign onboard. Unidentified vessel now at four lightyears, and closing…"
Sighing, McCormack leaned forward once again to flick the receiver on his station's console. "Starbase Schrödinger to unidentified vessel, please state your name, purpose and situation, over?"
Empty silence met his demands, and the Commander found himself starting at his reflection for the second time in as many minutes, this time off the screen of his console. After several minutes of heavy, digital void, he growled, "Are you absolutely sure you left comms open, Hub?"
"Affirmative," the A.I. replied shortly, "the vessel is either deliberately not responding, or the single life form is not in a position to answer. By all means, try again..."
Blasted A.I., I swear it's developing a vendetta against me. "Starbase Schrödinger to unidentified vessel, come in - state your name, purpose and situation, over! I must remind you that, under UEF protocol, I am dutifully bound to fire upon any incoming unidentified craft!"
"That's lying by omission, isn't it Commander?" asked Hub moments after McCormack disconnected the communication.
"What are you on about? It is protocol."
"Yes," conceded the computer program, "but you left out the fact that this station has zero weaponry. Aside from jettisoning waste at it, we're physically incapable of making an impact on the vessel. One lightyear, and closing: initiating automated docking procedures…"
"Now, hang about! I may not be able to carry-out my duties, but that's no cause to usurp my authority and just bring that thing inside!" the Commander was fuming, teeth gritted. "Give me one good reason why I should just blindly allow that vessel to dock!"
"Certainly, Commander; in fact, I can list you four-hundred and seventy-three reasons. Reason One: scans indicate the unidentified vessel is running on the last reserves of fuel, and it would be easier to guide it in on its own propulsion than to drag in an inert vessel with our malfunctioning tractor beams. Reason Two: seeing as how the sole life sign has failed to answer our hails, there may be a fair chance they are injured or similarly incapacitated, therefore making it your duty to render all available assistance. Reason Three: the vessel likewise bears no weapons, so a hostile assault is fairly improbable. Reason Four –"
"Yes, yes, I get the point!" Fine," growled McCormack, drumming his fingers on his desk, "bring the damn thing aboard, Hub."
"It is already docked, as of sixteen seconds ago…"
"Damn it all…!" the Commander hammered a fist down on the button for internal communications. "Response and Aid Teams Alpha and Charlie, report to Docking Bay…" he paused , reading Hub's latest data, "Docking Bay Twelve, on the double. Response Teams, be prepared for anything – that means armed, people. Commander McCormack out."
"Armed?" repeated the Hub softly, "I take it you've read the latest short-range scan results?"
"Precisely," hissed McCormack, "are you sure they're accurate?"
"Completely," confirmed the A.I.
"Then, I don't know what's waiting for us down there," sighed the Commander as he rose and holstered his plasma handgun, "but I have a very bad feeling about all this…"
The new scans revealed one life sign…but over fifty separate motion sources…
End of Chapter One