All things ReBoot are property of Mainframe Entertainment. All other things are property of their respective owners. Any resemblance to anything else is totally coincidental. I was never much good at this.
Any scientific errors is totally my fault. Hey, I'm only a fic writer. I didn't even watch any asteroid movies.
Comments, criticisms welcome. MiSTers, even.
Timeline: This takes place sometime in April 2499, or three weeks after the events in "Bitter Homecoming".
Rating: There's a bit of NaCl here....
She gently shook him awake. "Keeping bedside vigil?"
Nick looked at her. Ril couldn't tell if he was bleary-eyed or not, as his eyes were hidden behind opaque goggles. "Sorta," he mumbled.
Ril glanced at the still form on the bed. "Anything?"
Nick shook his head. "No, nothing."
Their friend, Susan Gwyndel, had been in a coma for three weeks now. Normally, this would be a very bad thing, but after the various misadventures of Alpha group, Ril was beginning to wonder if this was the norm.
Nick reached up to adjust his goggles, then stopped. "I forgot I disabled the hacking function. I guess I'll have nothing else to do, then."
Ril nodded, and silently left the medbay. She was sure that when she returned, Nick would still be there.
On the way to the library, she ran into Kathy. "How is she?" Kathy asked quietly.
Ril shook her head. "Still the same. Nick's with her."
"I wonder why."
The two of them walked together in silence for a while. Finally, Kathy asked, "What was that the Apocalypse commander said about the Zed?"
"I have no idea. If a Zed's controlling Susan, then we have to find a way to break that control."
"Killing the Zed is usually the solution."
Kathy looked at Ril in surprise. It wasn't that the normally gentle Ril was talking about assassination in such an off-hand manner; it was the fact that Ril was totally expressionless when she said it.
They saw Nar in the distance, conferring with Sarah. "Hey, Nar!" Ril called, apparently unconcerned by the discomfort her earlier statement had caused Kathy.
Nar turned to her. "Oh, hi, Ril. Sarah was just telling me about our new assignment."
Ril immediately looked apprehensive. "Another assignment? You know what happened the last time."
Nar nodded sadly. "Which is why I'm going to ask all of you first before deciding whether to accept it."
"What's it about?" Kathy asked.
Sarah consulted her notes. "I take it you've heard of Starlink Corporation?"
"The one with all those satellites?"
"Precisely. They want us to provide security."
The word had an immediate effect on Ril. "No," she said flatly.
Sarah raised an eyebrow at her.
"Susan's still in a coma. That's the outcome of the last 'security' mission we were in."
Sarah shrugged. "If that's the way you want it. I must tell you, though, that the corporation hiring us is willing to spend all their resources just to make sure we're the ones who get the job. If not us, then no one else."
"Strange requirement," Nar commented. "I take it the Apocalypse is the reason?"
"I think so."
The other three were surprised. Sarah seldom 'thought so'; she was almost always very sure, one way or another.
"I'm intrigued," Kathy admitted. Why not meet at the library in an hour, and we'll discuss it."
"As you wish."
Strange girl, Kathy thought for the umpteenth time.
Peter counted heads. "I think Nick's not here. Shall I go get him?"
Ril shook her head no. "He's probably still with Susan. I don't think we should disturb him."
"What are we supposed to do?" Crysta asked.
Sarah cleared her throat. "Starlink Corporation wants us to provide security at their next satellite launch. No, hear me out. They have a bit more reason than simple paranoia to hire us. They already have proof that one of their earlier launches was sabotaged."
"The Apocalypse," Kavi said, not bothering to make it a question.
"Right. Have you heard of the Angel satellites?"
Kathy thought for a while. "Aren't those the ones that're supposed to replace all existing communications satellites?"
"Yes. Angels I to III launched without any misadventure. Angel IV, however, dropped from orbit somehow and burned up in the atmosphere. The management of Starlink Corporation concluded that sabotage was the only way that the satellite could have been lost. To prove their theory, they faked a launch. A saboteur was caught. He turned out to be from a terrorist anti-human group. From the way Starlink Corporation keeps looking for us, it's logical that the anti-human group would be the Apocalypse."
"So why not just beef up their own security?" Nar asked.
"Apparently, they did, for Angels IVa and IVb. Both were still sabotaged. Only Angel IVc made it, after Starlink hired eight squads of Guardians."
"So we're called in because we come cheap?" Kavi asked bluntly.
"It would be logical, yes."
"Any other reason?" Peter asked.
"Well, we do know how the Apocalypse thinks," Sarah said, looking at Crysta.
Crysta flinched. "I don't suppose we can bow out."
"Actually, we can. It's just that Starlink has sent thirty-two requests that we be the ones providing security."
Peter whistled. "Talk about persistent."
"So the question is: Do we go?"
The room was silent. Everyone looked at Ril.
Ril sighed. "What's the mission plan?" she asked resignedly.
The tension in the room decreased somewhat. "We split up into two groups," Sarah said. "One group will stay here, in cyberspace. They will provide security where the satellite is currently being kept. The other group will go out onto Earth, to rendezvous with the security chief there, as well as the top heads of Starlink."
"Sounds reasonable to me," Kavi said. "When do we start?"
"Well, they did say anytime between now and the day after tomorrow. I suggest we depart at eight hundred hours tomorrow. That okay?"
I will be your tutor. Then your master.
You require guidance, young one. And only I can provide it.
That was only a small demonstration. Now listen carefully.
Ril nodded. "He said he had to look after Susan."
They had already split up into two groups. Sarah, Kavi, Ril and Nar would stay in cyberspace; Kathy, Peter and Crysta would go out onto Earth. Everything was ready.
The only thing to do was wait.
"Good luck," Kavi suddenly said to Kathy.
Kathy looked up surprisedly. "What do you mean?"
"I always wanted to go to Earth. I've never been there."
Kathy shrugged. "It's just like the colony worlds."
"Perhaps, but I'd just like to see the real thing."
The two hover-vehicles arrived, and opened their doors.
With more than a little apprehension, Alpha group prepared to leave. None of them were much good at good-byes; besides, they would be seeing each other again very soon anyway.
Nick was dozing off. He was trying not to, but he couldn't help it. He hadn't slept for days, and he was aware that he currently looked like hell.
Now why did he wake up from that nap?
Oh, yes. The life-sign meter.
He looked blearily at it, and wondered why it blipped. Of course, it blipped regularly, indicating that Susan still had a heartbeat. But....
Was it his imagination, or did it blip a bit faster for just one beat?
Kathy stepped out into the sun. After several months of artificial sunlight, this was a bit overwhelming. Looking beside her, she saw that both Crysta and Peter seemed to feel the same.
There were three people there to greet them. Two humans, one male and one female, and a Khatran.
"Hello, Guardians," the tall man in a blue uniform greeted them. "I'm Andrew Planar, chief of security for Starlink."
"Kathy Demarco, and these are Peter and Crysta Xandi."
"These are my associates," Andrew introduced the other two. "This is Anei," he indicated the Khatran. "Representative of the Board of Management. He's the Chairman's aide."
Anei nodded. "Pleased to meet you." Kathy noted that he seemed not much older than herself.
"This is Dr. Mirabelle Wu," Andrew indicated the woman. "Chief scientist of the Angel project."
Dr. Wu was a tall angular woman of forty-something. She merely inclined her head in acknowledgement.
"I notice that only three of you are here," Andrew pointed out. "Where are the other six?"
"Well, two of them couldn't make it, and the others are still in cyberspace, overseeing the security at your manufacturing plant."
"I see. Well then, I suggest we proceed to the launchpad. It's this way."
"What's the big deal about?" he asked.
Dr. Wu shrugged. "It depends on what you mean by 'big deal'."
"Well, judging from the report, it seems that even if this satellite is sabotaged, you people will have enough resources to build another one."
"I can follow your logic, flawed as it may be. Yes, we do have the resources to build another Angel V, but we don't want to. It gets a bit tedious building the same thing over and over again, like the Angel IV series. Then, there is the matter of the Angel V's size."
"It's size? How big is it?"
Ril looked up, and up.
"Wow," was all she could say.
The chief engineer grinned at her. "It's one of the biggest things we've ever built. It's easily several kilometres across, and it's packed full of the latest technology. Devil of a time trying to build it."
"And... what does it do? Other than communications?"
"I can't really say."
"You mean you can't say or you won't say."
"I'm not allowed to is what I mean. Walls may have ears, you know."
Nar looked up at it. "You sure nothing in there is already sabotaged?"
"Yeah, we're sure. Triple checked every part myself."
Ril looked at him. He was a human, which meant that he couldn't be the saboteur himself. In fact, everyone there was human. Ril knew that it wasn't racism, merely necessity.
Kavi arrived. "Zip didn't pick up any traces of any known explosive," he supplied.
"That doesn't say much," Nar said. "I mean, they could be using combinations or something."
"I know. Which was why I scanned for all life-signs within the last 72 hours. Apart from ourselves and the workers, nothing."
"But there's biodampeners..."
"I know, I know. But what else would you have me do?"
"No-one's blaming you, Kavi," Ril said. "We're just considering all the possibilities."
The chief engineer looked at his chronometer. "I think we have to get a move on. This thing's due at the launch site soon."
"How do you move something as big as this?" Nar asked curiously.
"Very, very carefully."
"That's the gist of it, yes."
"Why didn't you build a self-destruct or something?"
"We did. This is only a precaution."
Crysta, who had been surreptitiously listening in, was convinced that this was paranoia in the extreme.
Then again, these people were paid to be paranoid.
"What's the plan?" she asked Andrew.
Andrew coughed. "We're not allowed to give details. Leaks, you see. But we can give generalizations."
"We're launching some time tomorrow. Hopefully, the delay between the satellite arriving here and launch won't be too large."
"Is that all you can tell me?"
"I see." Paranoia at work again.
Meanwhile, Kathy was unsuccessfully trying to strike up conversations with Anei. Anei had been, to say the least, unresponsive.
"Just what is your problem?" she finally asked angrily.
"You're so antisocial, it's a wonder how you got to your position as aide-" Kathy stopped short. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"I said no. I should be the one who's sorry." Anei looked at her sadly. "I'm sorry I haven't been as polite as I should have been. But I'm just not a very social person."
"I see. Any, um, reason for that?"
Kathy sensed that he wasn't really speaking the truth, but decided not to pry any further. So she tried another conversation topic. "Been on Earth long?"
"How long have you been the Chairman's aide?"
"Two, three years now."
"What is it you usually do as an aide?"
"Run around, do whatever he says. It's boring, but it's a job."
"Do you like your work?"
Anei shrugged. "It pays well. The Chairman's a nice guy, but he's busy all the time. He listens to all the complaints the company receives, and answers all the Emails he gets. That's why he seldom has any spare time to himself."
"And you're his helper in doing that?"
"A bit. Faxing, writing official letters, printing, copying. Sometimes I even manage to get permission to use the computers."
"I'm usually not allowed. But the Chairman lets me, sometimes."
Kathy mulled over this for a while. She was about to ask him more, when they reached the main building of Starlink Launch Control Centre.
With the colony worlds, the Earth was in no more danger of overpopulation. Thus, Starlink had been able to buy this tract of land quite cheaply.
This very large tract of land.
The complex was as big as a city. Here and there, people and automatons ran about, doing their daily work.
"Nice," Peter said, looking about. Crysta couldn't help noticing that the number of humans far outnumbered the other races.
Kathy noticed that for every building, there were at least four human guards, armed to the teeth.
"We'll only be going into the launch control building," Andrew said. "The others are effectively offbounds to us."
"All of us?" Peter asked.
"Well, I can go in there."
Do not question me. I hold your mind in my hand.... and what you humans call your soul.
Dr. Wu nodded. "A fortune. But the profits far outweigh the losses. Besides, this is the last satellite we're launching. After this, security is stepping down."
Kathy glanced out the window. "What's that?" she asked, pointing at a group of large craters.
"That's the remains of Angel IVb. It didn't burn up completely on re-entry."
"How big were the remains?"
"I think each chunk was approximately fifty to sixty kilograms."
Kathy blinked. "And it caused that much damage?"
"Anything re-entering Earth from orbit comes in at a fantastic speed. This is the result."
Peter mulled over that. "And do you know how much of Angel V will be left if it decides to quit orbit?"
"I'll need to do some calculations, but I estimate around a few tonnes."
"Well, Angels I to IV are supposed to provide communications via satellite. Right now, they're all doing it separately. But after this baby launches, Starlink is going to be able to cover every inch of land on Earth."
"You mean this is going to synchronize all the other four satellites?"
"That's roughly it."
Ril looked at the workmen. They were all sitting on the convoy truck-bed, looking around suspiciously.
"You expecting an attack?" Sarah asked. It was the first time she had spoken since they arrived.
"As a matter of fact, yes. Can never be too careful."
"We're nearing the Gateway," Kavi reported from the front of the truck. "ETA fifteen minu-"
The sounds of gunfire cut him off. "What in the Net..."
"Damn!" Nar swore. "It IS an attack!"
Ril looked outside. There were several people charging towards the convoy. They didn't look too well-trained or well-armed, but they did have pulse grenades.
The chief engineer blanched. "If one of those grenades hit, who knows what damage it might do!"
Kavi sized up their opponents. "Doesn't seem to be a problem. Shall we?"
Nar grinned. "Oh yes."
"The bad boys came out to play."
"Shall we send reinforcements?"
"I dunno. The Guardians are handling the situation well."
Andrew looked at Kathy. Kathy shrugged. "They can take care of themselves."
"New transmission coming in," the tech said suddenly. "The attackers are in retreat, but it'll be a while before the convoy gets moving again."
"Any problem with that, Dr. Wu?"
Dr. Wu shrugged. "The more unpredictable we make the exact launch time, the better it is for us."
Nar looked at Ril curiously. "You seemed a bit distracted today."
"Your aim is off. It's usually perfect."
"Oh, that. I just didn't want to kill the people attacking us."
"I just don't really like killing."
"Something's wrong," Sarah suddenly said.
"What?" Kavi was startled.
"This was too easy."
"I thought so too, but is it really for us to question that? Besides, what can we do about it?"
Sarah didn't hear him. "I wonder...."
The life-sign meter skipped a beat.
It went on as usual after that lapse, but the beat was skipped all the same.
Nick, who was dozing, didn't notice it.
Kavi grinned hugely. "Hi, Kathy!"
"So, how's Earth so far?"
Kavi looked around. "Everything seems stronger here. Especially the sun."
"Well, we are in a desert. Come on, let's get inside."
Kavi complied. Nar did so as well. Ril followed, still puzzled by the strange looks she was getting from this Dr. Wu.
Dr. Wu looked at Sarah. "Excuse me, but have we met before? You seem a little familiar."
Sarah remained expressionless. "You also seem to be a little familiar. Perhaps we came across each other before?"
"Have you ever been to Earth?"
"Then that is highly unlikely."
Inside the building, the Guardians relaxed. The worst was over, it seemed.
"Why not stay around for the launch?" Andrew offered. "It's really good."
"I'd love to," Crysta agreed.
The satellite was carefully placed onto the launchpad. There was no chance of sabotage now, as the launch was being viewed from every angle.
"T-minus two minutes..... mark." The launch control officer grinned. "This is likely to get spectacular."
Ril, who had been looking through the various schematics of the satellites around the room, now turned her attention to the screens. Each showed the satellite at a different angle.
"T-minus twenty seconds and counting."
Ril looked at each screen carefully. Something about the satellite was bothering her.
"T-minus ten..... nine....."
There was something wrong, but....... what?
"Six.... five.... four...."
"What the hell is THAT?" Ril pointed at a screen.
Dr. Wu glanced at the screen, and paled.
"That's not part of the satellite! It's not in the design!"
"Abort the launch now!" Andrew shouted, just as Kavi said, "Too late!"
The screens went white.
"Damn interference," Andrew muttered. "Someone get that thing down!"
"We just lost control of the satellite! It's not responding!"
"What was that thing?" Peter asked, his face pale.
"It appeared to be a Class-8 remote drone overrider," Sarah said calmly. "Undoubtedly placed there during the diversion."
Kavi groaned. "The attack! It was only a damn diversion! How could I have missed that?"
"What's done is done," Crysta said tensely. "Problem is, what do we do now?"
"What's that?" Nar asked, pointing at a room. Inside, there were various instruments, and two strange-looking chairs.
"That's the VR override control system," Anei said. "Model AX-341."
"Thought so. Why don't we use that to get rid of the remote drone?"
"It's a huge risk," Andrew said. "You could get brainwiped."
"Do we have a choice?" Dr. Wu asked. "I'll go. I used that thing before, anyway."
"No, I'll go," Kavi disagreed. "With all due respect, ma'am, you can't risk being brainwiped. We were entrusted to safeguarding the satellite, and we failed. So we might as well make amends now...... ah, crap."
All eyes turned as Kathy rapidly tapped a sequence of keys on the armrest of the VR chair. She had already worn the VR helmet, and was about to secure it.
"You're crazy," Nar said.
"Gotta prove I'm good for something, right?" Kathy smiled briefly, before securing the helmet. Now she was in the VR world, oblivious to outside stimuli.
The others watched her helplessly. Anei, however, looked speculatively at the other VR chair.
And she didn't even ask how to get to the control systems. Damn.
"Access Angel V control system," she tried.
Immediately, she began zooming through the streams of information. Ah, well, she thought. First time lucky.
Then she stopped abruptly.
She was in a large room of some sort. The room appeared to be a hollow sphere, with plenty of stuff inside. Kathy blinked as the latest version of a book zipped past her nose.
She was not alone in there, however.
"You people again," the Khatran girl in the midst of a cloud of data said angrily. "Why do you keep bothering me?"
"Mainly because you're breaking the law," Kathy said. "Now stop whatever you're doing."
The girl sneered. "Or you'll do what?"
Kathy hadn't thought that far. She merely glared at the girl.
The girl laughed shortly. "Didn't think so. You're obviously a newbie at this, Guardian. Watch and learn." She pointed at Kathy.
Kathy dodged the..... it looked like some yellow energy bolt, but Kathy wasn't sure what it was. Evidently, however, the girl had more of those up her sleeve, because she fired several more bolts in Kathy's general direction.
"Damn," Kathy muttered. She couldn't keep dodging those bolts. Sooner or later, she would get hit.
The energy bolt seemed ten times bigger than all the others, but maybe that was because it was heading right at her. There wasn't time to dodge.
Then Kathy blinked as another bolt, green this time, appeared out of nowhere and met the yellow bolt head-on.
Anei sailed over. "Best get out of here," he said tersely.
"No buts! Now!"
"Stay out of this, Anei," the girl grated.
"I don't think so."
"I have no choice. Go away or be brainwiped."
"What, you would even stoop to hurting," he looked her in the eye, "your own brother?"
"Anei's in there.... he's challenging the hacker...." Kathy said breathlessly. "He told me to get out of there, and that he would fight the hacker alone."
"Idiot boy," Andrew muttered. "Damn hacker."
Crysta gasped. "So that's it! Anei's......"
Kathy stared at her. "What?"
"Er.... never mind." Crysta cursed herself. She nearly revealed that she was once part of a hacker group herself. Stupid stupid stupid....
"Whatever it is," Kathy said, looking back at Anei in the VR chair, "the hacker controlling the satellite is his SISTER or something!"
Kavi was silent. The hacker was a female Khatran. Nick had told him that the hacker who put him in jail was also a female Khatran. Kavi had not given it a second thought but now..... could it be.... her?
The tech's panicked voice caused all heads to turn to him. "What?" Andrew asked tensely.
"The satellite's orbit is decaying!"
"Point of impact?" Dr. Wu demanded.
"Calculating..... oh shit." The tech's voice drained of all emotion. "Coordinates Alpha Triple Zero. The Teracomputer."
Anei dodged the energy bolt. "What's gotten into you?"
"I.... can't help myself. I have to follow orders." The girl glared at him, but there was also a sense of.... desperation. "Please, Anei..... get out of here..... now!"
"I'm afraid I can't do that. Not until you stop this madness."
"I can't. Please try to understand!"
"What have they done to you?"
The girl suddenly seemed to regain her resolve. "They killed me, Anei," she said. "They killed me and they took away my soul. Now get out of the way, before I lose control over myself."
"So be it, then," Anei said sadly. "Prepare yourself."
In the control centre, the general consensus was that Anei was the sole hope of regaining Angel V. The satellite was still in its slow descent.
Dr. Wu looked up from the other VR chair. "It's useless," she announced. "Something fused the circuits."
"That's never happened before," Andrew said puzzledly.
"And it's not supposed to happen. My guess is that Anei fused them."
"He wanted to settle it himself," Peter realized.
Kathy gasped. "But if those energy bolts hit him, then I don't know what will-"
"Energy bolts?" Andrew interrupted.
"She was throwing some sort of yellow energy bolts at me. I don't know what they were, but..."
"Brainwipe code," Dr. Wu said grimly. "They're playing for high stakes indeed."
"So that means that...."
"I don't think Anei's the sort to back down easily," Crysta said cryptically.
"They'll stop only if one or the other gets brainwiped," Kavi said. Damn, if it was really her....
"Something's jettisoned out of the satellite!" the tech suddenly shouted.
"Identify!" Dr. Wu ordered.
"It's.... the remote drone! We have control over the satellite!"
The room erupted in cheers. A steady beeping from the chair signified that the VR session was now over.
Andrew took off Anei's helmet. "Good work, Anei! You....... did it."
Anei looked at them with a blank expression. Not confused, not angry, just...... nothing.
"Oh my god." Kathy waved a hand in front of Anei's face. "Anei? Are you okay?"
He didn't even blink.
"He's been brainwiped," Ril said numbly.
The room was silent. Kathy said softly, "By his own sister...."
"Yes," Crysta said. Something was bothering her, but she decided not to reveal it until later.
"Good god," Andrew said despondently. "We saved the satellite.... but at what price?"
Nobody could answer his question.
DO YOU YIELD?
I shall increase the pain. This shall continue until you accept me as your master.
Pain. Intense, burning pain.....
Do you yield?
An image. Susan glaring at the Zed. Susan raising her hand and pointing at the Zed.
Susan raising her middle finger.
Insolent child! You will pay!
A flash of white light.
Nick was startled out of his nap. He looked around blearily, and focused on Susan. "Susan! You're awake!"
"Yeah..... I guess so." Susan looked around the medbay. She looked up at the high ceiling. She looked at the various diagnostic instruments and consoles. Then she looked at Nick.
"Who are you?" she asked.