Chapter Twenty-Nine

Our minds leapt in many directions at once. Vista, who had been the first to notice the hatch opening, was already poring over the station’s sensors.

{This place is so blind! I added a redundant internal sensor network to the central section, but I cant tell what’s going on in Beta much at all! There are cameras on the outside of the station, but not nearly enough!} she moaned, dumping what she had to common memory.

The Beta-2 section was still venting quickly. There was a very large quantity of air in the disk, but it’d be down to lethal levels in a few minutes. Wiki’s formula for decompression said any humans inside had less than two minutes to get spacesuits on before they’d pass out from lack of oxygen. It’d take only a couple minutes after that for the pressure in the disk to reach low vacuum, and within twenty minutes it would be indistinguishable (for the most part) from outer space.

{The station’s automatic protocols are locking down the doorways between the two Beta disks. The sections were designed to operate modularly, so the other Beta section should be okay,} explained Vista.

{Internal cameras didn’t detect anything interesting in the moments leading up to the containment breach. Interestingly, the hatch seal appears to have been opened electronically. There’s nothing to indicate that whoever opened it used force.}

She continued. {External cameras are limited, but I did catch a glimpse of an object moving through the solar panel arrays. I estimate it was about the size of a person, but the camera resolution is too low for me to distinguish further.}

In the seconds that Vista was thinking and explaining these things, Wiki and Growth were caught up in a heated debate about the probability distribution to use to explain what was happening. They flashed back and forth in common memory speculating.

{Anyone exiting through the hatch would be flung, like a thrown object away from the station! It’d be suicide!} thought Wiki.

{Or homicide!} thought Dream. {If we model the Europeans as one faction and Stephano’s crew, including Myrodyn, as another faction, it seems plausible that the containment failure was an attempt by one side to remove the threat of the other!}

{That’s an oversimplification that also fails to correctly model the game-theoretic situation. Both so-called factions also must deal with Las Águilas Rojas. Also, neither are outlaws. If they wantonly murder other humans they’ll be punished upon returning to Earth.}

{An extremist then! Perhaps Myrodyn? He’s clearly very willing to take risks for what he sees as “the right thing”. He could have killed us back in Rome, when he discovered our presence, but he let us live out of a sense of moral obligation. That speaks to an abnormally strong commitment to his ethics,} Dream pointed out.

{Listen to your thoughts! The man who wouldn’t kill a collection of sapient algorithms that were never intended to exist in the first place is not going to kill real humans!} exclaimed Wiki.

{And you’re confident of that? Have you studied Myrodyn’s psychology? I think we should ask Face.}

Wiki signalled frustration. {You’re tunnelling into a specific, unlikely scenario. I’m not claiming it’s impossible, but it should be reflected in the probability distribution with a sensibly small amplitude.}

All these thoughts existed in parallel. Heart took those first few seconds to try and reduce the risk of humans dying. {Who is in that section? Do we know?} she asked Vista.

The aspect of Vista that wasn’t focused on her own agenda thought {Scan the video archives here:} before dumping a mental pointer that directed to the location on the server where video data could be accessed.

{That will take too long!} exclaimed Heart.

{Better to just contact people directly and inform them of the danger,} thought the aspect of myself that was watching my siblings.

My primary aspects were already doing that.

“Myrodyn, this is Crystal! Beta-section is losing pressure! Find a spacesuit as soon as possible, and when safe please tell me what your location and status are.”

“Dr Naresh, this is Crystal! Beta-section is losing pressure! Find a spacesuit as soon as possible, and when safe please tell me what your location and status are.”

“Avram, this is Crystal! Beta-section is losing pressure! Find a spacesuit as soon as possible, and when safe please tell me what your location and status are.”

“Whoever this is, you’re in danger! Beta-section is losing pressure! Find a spacesuit as soon as possible, and when safe please respond.”

I was sending the voice message to every com on the network.

Heart, understanding what I was doing, set to work trying to read the station’s safety manuals as quickly as possible to find where spacesuits were kept.

{Is there a risk of Alpha being vented?!} asked Safety, suddenly. {If there wasn’t a need to physically brute-force the door, isn’t it possible that more damage could occur via computer?}

Vista answered. {All the doors on the station exist on their own circuits. They shouldn’t be manipulable over the network. Only the sensors for the section hatches and airlocks are networked. Whoever opened that hatch would have to be standing right next to it.}

{Still highly dangerous…} thought my paranoid brother.

Body leapt to Zephyr’s side and shook her out of the sleep she had only recently fallen into. “There’s an emergency! You need to get dressed as quickly as possible!” Four seconds had passed since Vista first noticed the disturbance.

Zephyr’s eyes shot open and she scrambled out of the bedding and began to throw on clothing. “What’s wrong?!” I was impressed by her ability to leave the state of sleep so quickly. My understanding had been that it was difficult for humans to wake up.

“There’s a loss of pressure in one of the Beta sections. The station’s losing air. We’re safe down here for now, but it’s possible that a similar breach of Alpha is imminent.”

Heart remembered the alarm system. Beside each door was something akin to a fire-alarm that said (in several languages) “Pull in case of emergency.” Body rushed to the door and pulled it. Red lights clicked on in the room and a siren played a loud, angry note that lasted a full two seconds before falling quiet for six seconds and then repeating in the same pattern.

I checked the replies we had gotten over the com system.

“Where are the spacesuits?!” asked several humans, but none from Beta.

“We’re watching the central corridor! Should we leave our posts?” asked Schroder, Zephyr’s second-in-command.

{It could be a trick!} thought Safety.

{Very clever hypothesis,} thought Dream. {They vent one of the disks, leading to general confusion and scrambling for spacesuits, then when the guards aren’t watching they ascend to the high-ground and seize it!}

{None of the elevators are in use. We can watch them to ensure that no attack is occurring,} communicated Vista.

{There are suits in the storage room opposite the manufacturing lab between Beta and Gamma!} thought Heart, still poring over the safety manuals. {Bad news is that each section only has six suits. Meaning twelve per joined-disc. The storage room has another twelve, and both primary airlocks have three. We’ll be okay, but there are twenty-six people in Beta section! If the other half of Beta is exposed to vacuum without us sending some suits down to them then more than half of them could die!}

{It’d serve them right for opening a hatch to space without enough suits on hand,} thought Safety, apathetically.

Heart was in the middle of telling Schroder where to get suits when a loud noise poured over the com channel. The primary airlock where we had first entered the station had just opened onto space.

{That’s not possible!!} thought Heart in full panic.

{It was certainly highly improbable!} corrected Wiki.

Unlike most of Beta, which we had never visited, the central corridor was visible to us. Vista had spent some of her strength after the meeting with the nameless to pilot Body long enough to set up a sensor network there. Every microphone could hear the roar of the wind as the tube began to rapidly blow out the open airlock and a couple cameras caught the surprised expressions of Nagaraj, Schroder, and Blackwell as they looked out into the inky depths of deadly space.

Without gravity there was no traction, and the young Tyrion Blackwell, who had wanted to go to Mars, was blown into the void.

Nagaraj and Schroder, I could see, were faster to react, grabbing nearby handholds. It looked like they were falling, almost. Schroder let his manufactured pistol go and began to climb towards the elevator to Beta. Nagaraj simply looked around in a wild-eyed panic. The Arab fired his two bullets into the airlock, futility, hoping perhaps to somehow make the door close.

“They’ve vented the core of the station!” yelled Body to Zephyr. “Probability that Alpha will soon be similarly vented just went up to 40%!”

“Can you see what’s happening up there? Are the men in danger?” Zephyr was scared, which for her meant falling back into the emotional armour of her soldier persona. Her voice had become hard and stoic.

“They’re already dead.”

Unlike the disk, which had a huge volume of air and a relatively small hole, the centre of the station was small and the primary airlock was large. The section had reached lethally low-pressure in seconds, and while it was possible to hold one’s breath and struggle for a short time, neither Águilas had managed to do anything productive before losing consciousness.

Body was already out the door. Growth.

“Where are you going?!” yelled Zephyr, the forced-calm of her soldier voice cracking in fear.

I wrenched control of Body away from my brother long enough to look back towards Zephyr. “I need to get to the high-ground before we lose everything! Rally Las Águilas and stay in touch over com!”

“I want to come with you!” Zephyr was chasing Body down the corridor, not even wearing shoes. As we ran into the rotation of the disk the subjective gravity increased, but not even to normal Earth levels. “It’s too dangerous for you to go by yourself. Remember what happened last time?” The alarm continued to howl, occasionally making it hard to hear.

“This is different. There’s no time, and I’m ready for trouble. If we wait for you to suit-up it may already be too late.” We had reached the elevator. “Besides, I need you to lead your people so that if I get into trouble you can rescue me again.” Body pulled Zephyr into a kiss as we waited for the elevator to descend. Its mouth was still slick with lube.

«What the hell…?» swore Kokumo in Swahili. I’d been so focused on Zephyr that I hadn’t noticed her standing nearby. I broke the kiss.

“Not a word!” snapped Zephyr, glaring over Body’s shoulder. Zephyr pulled her gun from where she had tucked it behind her back. She looked Body in the eyes and said “Take this, and be careful. You only have three bullets, so make them count.”

The elevator door opened and Body broke contact, stepping inside after taking the pistol. “I’ll be fine. Stay in contact over com,” it reminded her, brushing a free hand through the blue wig before beginning to secure the elevator’s straps. «You too, Kokumo,» I added as an afterthought.

Seconds after the door closed a text message for us arrived on the network. “I love you,” it read.

“I love you, too. Don’t forget to put environment suits on as soon as possible. There are six in each section. That should be enough for everyone.”

A voice sounded from inside the elevator. “Warning. The station’s core has been exposed to vacuum. Ascent without a spacesuit may be lethal. Please return to your quarters and await instructions from station personnel,” said the station’s AI as we tapped on the command screen. A password override appeared.

{What’s the password?} asked Growth.

{Stephano probably set it. He seems like the sort of person who would be pragmatic enough to pick something short but with high entropy. Probably a six-character code with letters and numbers,} thought Dream.

{Making some basic assumptions about manual input speed and lack of a lock-out system, it will take approximately one thousand years to brute-force,} calculated Wiki.

{Maybe there’s time for Zephyr to get her shoes on, after all,} joked Dream, unhelpfully.

Heart had already opened the maintenance panel and activated the manual override. Body was pressed against the wall as the elevator climbed. I felt strength feed into my sister.

{How did you know where that was?} I asked.

{I just read the station’s safety manuals, remember?} Heart answered.

{It’s Slovinsky!} exclaimed Vista without warning. She poured feeds from the sensor network into memory.

There was a figure in the station’s core, but he or she was in a suit and the visor was down, obscuring their face behind a bubble of gold. In their hand was one of the pistols.

{How do you know it’s Slovinsky?} asked several of us.

{See the motion of the limbs? It’s characteristic of a hydraulic, rather than organic system. Also, his com’s address is identical to the one we read off of him when the station’s network was supposed to be offline.}

{How did he get a gun?} asked Safety.

{See the gear on his back? It looks like a hand-made flight system. He probably opened the hatch in Beta and used it to fly around to the airlock. Probably took the gun off Blackwell, or collected the one that Schroder dropped while he was out there,} speculated Vista.

{He built a jetpack just to pull this off? That sounds unlikely,} thought Wiki with skepticism.

{Beta section contains the laboratories. It’s possible they already had something functional,} proposed Dream.

{What’s he doing now?} asked Safety.

{Looks like he’s working with a maintenance panel similar to the one Heart found,} thought Vista.

The elevator died, lurching to a halt and plunging Body into blackness.

{He must’ve just killed the power,} explained Wiki, pointing out the obvious.

Thankfully, we still had a network connection. A quick scan showed that Alpha was still holding and had power. Apparently the damage was only to the elevator. The sensors in the tube above showed Slovinsky begin to do the same thing to the second elevator into Alpha-section.

Heart began to give Zephyr a status report. I turned my attention to our foe. “Why are you doing this, Ivan? You’re putting the entire station in danger.” I elected to use voice-com this time, rather than the low-bandwidth medium of text.

“What are you talking about, Socrates? I’m not doing anything.” His response had that same low, dead tone.

Safety began undoing the elevator harness.

“I can see you disabling the elevators right now. That was a very clever trick you pulled with the airlock.”

The figure looked around the tube, searching for the tiny cameras. “You must have me mistaken for someone else. I’m having tea with Dr Naresh right now.”

Safety had Body climbing the harness, groping in the low-gravity darkness for a way to force the roof-door open.

I needed to engage him in conversation. We could multitask with near-perfect efficiency. Even with his cybernetics I was doubtful that Slovinsky could do the same. He was still a human, and the multi-focal abilities of humans were abysmal. “Just straight-up denial? That’s a pretty awful excuse, Ivan. I would’ve expected something more inventive from someone like you. Tea? Really?”

“Yes. Really. Your friend Stephano locked us in the kitchen. If you want to know what’s going on you should ask him.”

Body found a grip and began to pull the ceiling hatch open. It wasn’t too hard, even given the awkward positioning. “Just drop the act. I can see where your com is. Also, I’m not getting any responses from the others in Beta, and you know it. If you’re so set on proving that you’re having tea, put Naresh on the com.”

Seconds passed as Ivan Slovinsky propelled himself down, past the blood-stained walls, to the airlock that joined with the nameless ship. He began to tap on the interface.

“What would your husband think about you killing three men, Ivan?” I needed to provoke him. I needed to slow him down and distract him. Body was climbing into the elevator shaft. There wasn’t even enough infrared light to see, but after some fumbling, Body could feel the rungs of a ladder set into the wall.

“Лес ру́бят—ще́пки летя́т. Peter supports me in doing what has to be done.”

His husband knew already. «You’ve given up this pretence of innocence. Good. Will you at least tell me now if you’re planning on killing more?» I asked, switching to Russian.

«Why do you think I’m going to bother talking with you? What’s there to gain?»

Slovinsky entered the airlock and closed the door behind him. Vista hadn’t installed any sensors in the airlock itself, so we were reduced to what came through the com, the sensors on the airlock doors, the pressure sensors, and the airlock’s microphone. There was a hiss as the airlock began to fill with alien air. It seemed that he was hoping to board the nameless ship. Such a thing had never been done by a human.

«I’m not your enemy, Ivan. I’ve figured out the secrets of the nameless. I’m not an emotional human, blinded with rage at the deaths of my allies. I can help you, in return for some assurances about the safety of the others.»

Dr Slovinsky laughed. It was a strangely human sound after the flatness of his normal voice. «Ever the actor, aren’t you? We saw Myrodyn’s notes. After the attack on Sapienza the EU and US governments seized everything. We know you don’t actually have a good-natured bone in your body.»

The use of the plural pronoun “мы” instead of the singular personal “я” was interesting. It implied he wasn’t acting alone. I also noted that he had access to the government-confiscated evidence. That implied connections. «That’s not true! Ask Myrodyn. He and Naresh repaired my goal system. I genuinely do care about humans now!» I protested.

«As evidenced by how you work with terrorists and-» Slovinsky cut his com off and began blocking attempts to reach him. The airlock door leading to the nameless ship opened. The microphone registered a gunshot. Another gunshot. That would be the extent of Ivan’s ammunition.

Body had reached the portion of the elevator shaft where the elevator could spin around the core to build up rotational velocity before descending into the disk. Though this section of the station was still spinning, the subjective gravity was negligible. It took a couple minutes for Body to find the seam for the door leading into the core.

While Body worked, my society discussed Dr Slovinsky’s actions. Back when Body had been attacked when ascending from Gamma, Slovinsky had been working with Gallo. I thought it sensible to assume that the two of them had been placed in charge by whatever government powers had sent them in the first place. With Gallo dead, Slovinsky was continuing the mission himself.

Dream disagreed. {Your thinking has two major flaws. The first is that the scientists didn’t know why we were here. Or rather, they claimed not to know. Their actions were consistent with a mission to capture Socrates. Slovinsky, on the other hand, just infiltrated a nameless ship, killing a walker in the process. If his goal was to capture us, there’s something big that we’re missing.}

{There’s definitely something big that we’re missing,} thought Wiki.

Dream ignored his brother. {Secondly, why would the scientists be in charge in the first place? It makes absolutely no sense. To send them along with the special operatives? Sure. But why put Q in charge when James Bond is right alongside?}

{Gallo was in charge, though. We all saw her act with authority in the corridor,} I replied.

{That just means we’re missing a piece of the puzzle,} thought Vista.

I thought about Möbius Connectomics. Slovinsky wrote in it about life extension therapy and gradual replacement of “failing parts” in the human body with mechanical analogues that would lead to immortality. Those words seemed in deep conflict with the recklessness of his present actions. The Purpose seethed with frustration at my inability to understand his mind.

Given several dedicated hours of thought I probably would’ve been able to figure out the whole thing. My siblings were wrong. All the information was there. We were simply too stupid to connect the dots that quickly.

Body pried open the door, feeling the air blast out of the shaft into the vacuum. Unlike the elevator hatch this door was still powered, and trying to keep closed to prevent loss of air. Body was stronger than the motor, but only by a little bit. Safety manoeuvred Body through the door and let it snap closed behind.

Heart had been in constant contact with Zephyr. All of Las Águilas Rojas were in suits at this point. We piloted Body over to the access hatch where Slovinsky had disabled the elevator’s power. Wiki confirmed my fears: he had damaged the circuitry rather than simply deactivating the power. Getting the elevators back online would take time.

It was time we didn’t have. The cyborg was loose in the alien ship, and it was clear from the gunshots that he was not here in the name of peace.

I did my best to explain what we knew to Zephyr as Body pulled itself along the tube towards the airlock that connected to the xenocruiser. Body passed the corpses of Schroder and Nagaraj as it floated forward, their bodies already beginning to mummify.

Safety stopped Body at the access panels to the elevators for Beta. Here we replicated Slovinsky’s destruction, cutting power to the elevators and ensuring that our other enemies were unable to come through that route. Unless they had more jetpacks, all the humans other than Ivan were now effectively incapacitated.

We paused a moment to develop a strategy for what to do next. The Purpose was ambivalent. It wasn’t clear what we should do next. Safety was convinced we ought to fortify our position and work on getting Zephyr and the others up to the station’s core, but most of the society was in agreement that the right action was to chase the scientist. We didn’t know how to communicate with the nameless directly, and it seemed obvious that whatever Slovinsky was up to, it would harm our collective interests.

As Body floated down the tube, I focused on the conversation that Heart was managing with Zephyr. “There are ladders in the elevator shafts, but the elevators themselves will be jammed half-way up, and I doubt you’ll be able to bypass them easily. Whatever Dr Slovinsky is doing, he has to be stopped. I suggest discussing longer-term plans with the others along two possible outcomes: either I disable him and restore power to the elevators, or I’ll be captured and the high-ground will be lost. Don’t forget that even if I can stop Slovinsky, we still need a plan for returning to Earth safely.”

“Please be careful, Crystal.” Zephyr’s voice had the cold and calm texture one would expect of an experienced army captain.

“I’m actually incapable of being reckless. My programming prevents it. If that makes you feel any better.”

Zephyr’s only response was a sigh.

Body tapped at the interface screen to the airlock. It showed that the external door was jammed open. Normally the internal door would be locked closed, but the station’s AI was actually clever enough to recognize that the station was in emergency-mode and that because the core was already vacuum, opening both doors couldn’t really threaten the lives of anyone in the station.

Body tapped the screen, signalling that it was okay to override normal protocols, then quickly grabbed a hand-hold. The air pressure in the nameless environment was higher than on Earth, and the resulting wind that blew out through the corridor was fierce. We could immediately see why the external door was jammed open. The corpse of a nameless pair in their environment suit was wedged in the gap, a tangle of eight long limbs like some sort of huge octopus. I didn’t know how many nameless there were on the ship, and I wondered if the corpse was Jester.

The initial rush of air subsided to merely that which was being blasted through the gap in the external door. Body worked its way to the edge of the outer door and got both hands through the gap. It pulled and we made progress. Arms. Head. Torso. Safety had Body push its way through the gap, but as it did it accidentally kicked the nameless, pushing it out of the airlock door. The station’s door and the door to the nameless ship closed down hard on Body’s right leg.

There was very little light in the nameless airlock, but we could see well enough to know there wasn’t any damage to the limb. The doors had closed on the “shin”, not a joint, and not hard enough to break the carbon-fibre structure. Safety struggled to get Body’s arms back through the gap and put enough pressure on the door to slide the leg out and pull Body’s arms out before it slammed shut again. If we wanted to return to Olympus we’d likely need to get the door open via nameless computer.

The airlock in the nameless ship was very dark, darker even than Gamma section had been. I understood that the nameless homeworld was thought to be a very dark place, but this seemed excessive. The walls were black and featureless. The room was about four or five metres in diameter, hexagonal, and about ten metres in length. The airlock door was a complex thing of interlocking plates and sub-doors. It seemed capable of opening from wall to wall.

The only real feature in the room was the wall opposite the airlock. “Wall” was probably the wrong word, actually. It was like the surface of a pool of metallic liquid. What little light there was in the room came from the fluid wall, which glinted and glimmered with faint sparks.

Body kicked off the airlock door. Vista was fascinated. We all were, really. It was like nothing on Earth. As Body floated closer we could see that what had appeared to be liquid was actually closer to a writhing soup of tiny metal objects, most only a few centimetres in length, though some were long and thin, like silver worms. The objects moved silently in an impossibly complex flow, grabbing hold of each other and sliding past without any apparent lubrication. It seemed alive.

There were no hand-holds to brace against. No gravity to stop our approach. No other features in the room. Slovinsky must have gone somewhere, and all signs pointed to the surface of the far wall. Safety began to scream in protest as he realized that Body was going to collide with the shimmering carpet.

Body’s legs touched first, and the wall of machines reacted immediately, extending from the pool and pulling Body into the wall, glowing white around the edges of where the limbs were now dipping into the fluid. Body tried kicking. Its legs moved freely, unimpeded, but were still drawn in, as though they were being devoured. Body’s torso and arms were soon enveloped by the machines. The silver substance hardly felt like anything when it touched Body’s hands. Surprisingly smooth. The temperature was increasing. The pulling was ever stronger.

And then we were through the barrier.