“Join me, human, and-and-and we can rule...and we can rule, together!!”
With that one phrase, the hard-bitten cyborg super-soldier declined a typical offer of ultimate power from a being who wanted to play god, and as if to add, “Screw you” to that line, he pulled out his shotgun and blasted SHODAN in the face.
The cybernetic wannabe deity screamed in a somewhat over-the-top fashion while her pocket universe of cyberspace collapsed around both of them.
When he came to, the soldier found himself back on the bridge of the Rickenbacker. He looked about after getting back on his feet, and noticed not only that the bridge’s computers were back online, and that the portal into cyberspace was indeed closed for good, but now that the Many’s dead tissue was slowly decaying. Just to be safe, he made a note to look for, if not synthesize some more canisters of Toxin A.
In the meantime, he stepped behind the console that once belonged to Captain Diego. He felt really bad now for leaving the man to die in the lower decks, but with that overloaded meson coil and Diego cutting out his parasite, it really wasn’t Goggles’ fault. Nonetheless, he located a comms panel and hit the transmit key.
“This is Soldier G65434-2, the Many and SHODAN have been purged from both ships. Any personnel in range, please respond, over.”
“Record log: Tommy Suarez, 13 July, ’14. We’ve just received a hailing from a crewmember on board the Von Braun. They’ve managed to regain control of the ship. We’re going to turn around and head back. I’m a little concerned about Rebecca. She’s been acting strangely since we’ve come on board. She’s asleep now. Maybe when we get back to the Von Braun, we can sort this whole mess out.”
Tommy glanced at the only cryo pod that was occupied in the escape shuttle. Something seemed very, very wrong with his girlfriend. Just before he’d put her in two hours ago, he’d noticed a strange implant attached to her right cheek. To be on the safe side, he forcibly removed it, after scolding her that it’s not right to use something you don’t know about, like drugs. Being yelled at by your lover would convince anyone.
Up to that point, she’d been stumbling about and saying some things that seemed so unlike Rebecca Siddons, almost as if she didn’t recognize Tommy at all. When that piece of tech was taken out, though, he could see, in her eyes, that somehow she’d turned back to normal…at least he hoped. The man sat back in the chair and cautiously locked the pod’s rearview camera onto the Von Braun’s docking bay. They’d be there in no time.
Goggles received confirmation that Tommy’s escape pod would dock on the Von Braun’s command deck, seeing as the pod bay in the Rickenbacker was still clogged with dead tissue from the Many’s body. Which meant that he’d have to haul serious ass to get back to that ship. Luckily for him, Goggles managed to hack the bridge elevator to take him straight to deck 1 of the Rickenbacker. When he’d first used them, they were locked down to one floor each for some strange reason.
Navigating the cramped red-lit tunnels of this warship, he thought to himself, “Geez, I don’t remember this ship being so submarine-like in design when I signed up! How would anyone be able to find their way around with no automap? I would take the Von Braun any day over this bullshit!”
Passing a few dead hybrids and destroyed turrets he’d shot while coming through here the first time, Goggles emerged from the entrance to the ship’s engine nacelles and from there the storage bay and long ladder that led back to the ship’s umbilical. As Goggles rode down the descending grav-shaft, he overheard the familiar voice of XERXES. Considering SHODAN was no longer around and that the Many were gone, he hoped that that computer was back to normal like he should’ve been in the first place. Goggles made a note to himself NOT to hack this thing anytime soon.
“This is XERXES. Escape pod C-328-7 entering bay 3.”
Approaching an auxiliary terminal, he tapped a button and asked, “Computer, status report.”
“Unknown biomass attached to ship exterior, manual inspection required. Internal systems are operational and fully functional at this time. Please report any internal anomalies to your direct superior.”
Goggles then took off in a sprint to find the Escape pod bay. He made it to the last docking bay in the area, hearing alarms wailing as Tommy’s pod backed up to the boarding hatch.
As the pressurized door hissed open, Tommy jumped out and saw the armored cyber-marine waiting for him. He didn’t expect the very man who saved the human race from total destruction to have such a weird-looking cyber rig, especially with competently emotionless camera lenses in place of his eyes. But to show politeness, Mr. Suarez walked up and shook the soldier’s hand.
“Well, am I glad to see you...what’s your name, sir?”
“I can’t remember. That stupid AI wiped my memory while I was in stasis getting this stuff grafted to me. But now that you mention it, I haven’t been able to get this nickname out of my head for the past few hours: Goggles. I guess you could call me that.”
“I would say it’s nice to meet you, but I imagine we’re both a little on edge after what happened,” Tommy nodded solemnly.
“Right. There’s gotta be someone on board other than us that can sort this whole mess out. Marie Delacroix said she was dead, but I want to be absolutely sure.”
He fished out his PDA and called up his last email from Ms. Delacroix. “...I would come with you, but I am trapped in Cargo Bay A. Come and find me as soon as possible!”
“I know where she is. Follow me,” Goggles coldly stated while brandishing his laser pistol. He noticed that his arsenal was pretty full, and asked Tommy to carry his shotgun and shells. He smiled and accepted the weapon, but stopped when he remembered something in the pod. “Hang on, someone else is here.”
Tommy stepped back into the pod and pocketed the weird-looking implant, then tapped in a code on Rebecca’s pod to wake her up. After a hiss and some beeping tones, the pod lifted its glass shroud open. Rebecca climbed out and wobbled about a little from hibernation sickness. Tommy held her close and whispered in her ear, “Hey, Rebecca. We’re back. Everything’s okay now, those aliens and SHODAN are gone.” He paused as Rebecca looked him in the eye, and that woman suddenly burst into tears and hugged him closely. Goggles noticed this, thinking back towards all the audio logs he read about their relationship and just how far their love for each other went. But even then, Goggles couldn’t help but feel that the worst was yet to come. A strange thought, considering that he had just blasted The Many and SHODAN to bits in just a few hours.
He called, “Hey, I hate to interrupt, but we need to find Marie Delacroix. She’s our last hope at figuring out what’s truly going on. Something’s telling me that we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Tommy glanced at him and nodded, “Right.”
The couple stood back and walked towards the soldier, who took point in leading them to the shuttle bay on the other end of the command deck. As they walked quickly, Tommy asked, “So what DID happen while we were outside in space?”
“You’d never believe it. I’m not sure if this cybernetic rig recorded what I’d seen on video, but I’ve practically been to hell and back. First up, you know that AI from Citadel station called SHODAN?”
“No, who’s that?” Rebecca asked.
“It’s a long story, but it turns out I’d been working for her the whole time. She guided me into destroying those...um, the Many, as those hybrids said. I pulled the job off all right, but then she turned around and backstabbed me when I was just feeling relief.”
“Frankly, I’m not surprised. That--”
“Hang on, I hear something,” Goggles stopped to glance around a corner just before reaching the lobby. He heard the scratchy monotone of a security robot examining the environment. But strangely, it didn’t seem to notice anyone’s presence. Then he remembered that the Many had control of XERXES up until they were killed, so now that the AI was back to normal, the robots wouldn’t be malfunctioning anymore…at least he hoped.
“All clear, fellas. Let’s move!”
They rounded the corner into the officer’s area corridor, and Goggles whistled, “It’s really strange, last time I came through here, an annelid or robot would come bursting from around every freaking corner and I had to blow holes into every one of them. But now...they’re gone. No more threats. I don’t know why, but something feels off about that.”
Rebecca agreed, “I know what you mean. I would’ve loved to have seen this ship in its heyday, and if Delacroix had finished working out all the bugs first. Why, oh why did those bastards go to Tau Ceti V?”
“Yeah, Captain Diego had every right to be suspicious. He should’ve gotten a medal for not letting the Many take him. Poor guy, I really wanted to work with him,” Goggles grumbled. He started to raise his voice, but then continued with his previous conversation, “Now as I was saying, um...SHODAN said something about using the Von Braun’s faster-than-light drive to make herself into a goddess. Delacroix mentioned that it works by altering reality around the ship. When I took SHODAN out, this...portal into cyberspace or some shit like that closed and I ended up back on the Rickenbacker.”
The trio hopped into the tram car that escorted them back to the main entrance, and Tommy gasped as Goggles hit the throttle button, “Whoa, an AI could do THAT? Cyberspace what? Um… What happened next?”
“It was freaky, um…this actually happened earlier: After I killed the Many and made it back to the Rickenbacker, I think I wandered into...well, a simulation of Citadel Station. I’d watched some holo-vids about the Hacker’s assault on that place, a few years back. But here’s what really ticked me off.”
“Yes, I’m listening?” Rebecca asked with curiosity.
“SHODAN had been bragging of her so-called ‘godhood’ and looking at humans as insects. First she left me for dead, then asked me to ‘join her and rule together’ because she wanted to give me incredible power and better cybernetics. After all I’d been through doing her dirty work? Screw that! I need a new posting, probably a lot of leave time. If this ship wasn’t so filthy, I could kick back on the Rec deck for a while. Yeah, some protocol droids bringing me food, a nice time at the club...well, there aren’t enough ladies on this ship, but still.”
“Oh, that sounds nice. I could use a cold one right now myself. In fact,” Tommy paused as the tram stopped. He stepped over to one of the replicators, popped in a few nanites, and grabbed a bottle of champagne. Taking a swig, he exhaled with great relief and asked, “Hey, Goggles, you want some of this?”
“No thanks, I don’t like alcohol; tastes awful and hurts my psionics.” But he did insert some nanites to pick up a bottle of distilled water.
“Suit yourself, soldier. Oh, by the way,” Tommy added between sips of his bottle o’ bubbly, he fished out that weird implant and handed it to Goggles.
Rebecca pointed out, “I found that...implant among a stash of supplies.”
“I don’t know...hmmm...I think it was in a computer room on Ops. Don’t ask me which one, every room looks the same on this ship.”
Tommy hiccupped, “Rebecca found me on the Command deck, and she was wearing that gadget on her face. Every now and then I thought her voice sounded different and her hair looked like she’d touched a live wire. I took it out just before we launched.”
“I don’t know what happened, I swear! I can’t remember! All I knew was, ‘go with Tommy, get out of the ship, fight off those monsters’, and that’s it.”
“Hmmmm...” Goggles pondered with concern, his eyebrows low and his mouth as thin as a staple, “If it’s anything the rest of this hellhole, it’s a good thing your boyfriend took it off. We’d better get someone to analyze it.”
Then he walked around the corner and called, “I think the cargo bay’s down this hall to the right. But it’s a long ways, so we’d better hurry!”
Tommy finished his champagne and chucked the bottle into the trash can, and promptly joined the cyborg military officer. Goggles was tempted to use a speed booster, but seeing as the couple didn’t have any, he didn’t. He paused briefly to recharge all his powered gadgets at a power station, then continued onwards towards the main elevator and the shuttle bay door.
Their shoes screeched into the lobby, and the soldier directed his rescues towards a large flight of stairs leading upwards into the shuttle bay. About halfway up, Rebecca was nearly out of breath, but the soldier offered her a sip of his water. He made sure to wipe the top with a clean tissue first, but that action made him remember just how filthy he was now and he cried, “Oh God, I’m as dirty as all hell! I need a shower big time!”
“What did you do, sir? Did one of those hybrids puke on your or something?” Tommy offhandedly queried.
“No, worse than that. I forgot to mention that part of my ‘mission’ involved going INSIDE the body of the Many itself. That’s the source of all this dead tissue crap around the ship.”
“Ugh, I don’t even want to know!” Rebecca cringed.
“Remind me when we head down to deck 5; I need to ask someone to give me a fresh apartment with some new clothes.”
As they reached the top of the stairs, some robots were pacing back and forth. Some of them were protocol droids that now didn’t look like happy kamikazes, and a lumbering maintenance robot. In a moment of clarity, Goggles found the comm panel and paged XERXES, “Computer, I need to get into Cargo Bay A. Can you help?”
“Affirmative, sir; maintenance will arrive shortly. Please stand by,” XERXES replied in his ever-present calm monotone.
The maintenance robot pinged a couple of times, buzzed, “Critical damage to bulkhead detected, manual override in progress,” Then deployed a plasma cutter from one of its arms and slowly proceeded to cut through the outer edge of the heavily battered blast door.
Goggles was practically chewing his fingernails in anticipation over what felt like 3 minutes of a slow but precise cutting process. Then, with a low metallic groan, the doors gave way and fell inwards. He prayed that Ms. Delacroix wasn’t right in front of them.
Then the soldier and his companions rushed into the massive crate-laden chamber. Goggles and Tommy pulled out their guns and swept out the area for any hostiles left behind, but all they saw were a couple of dead cyborg assassins and 3 inactive turrets. Still scared about not making it, Goggles handed his laser rapier to Rebecca and ordered the couple, “You two cover my 3 and 9 o’clock, I’ll take point.”
“You got it, sir,” Tommy affirmed.
The soldier’s robotic shoes clanked on the steel floor, and he didn’t stop glancing up and down at the piles upon piles of crates. He called, “Hello? Marie Delacroix, can you hear me?”
No answer. Tommy tried himself, “Hey, Marie, where are you? We’ve come to get you out!”
Silence followed, but over in a dark corner where the upper catwalk shrouded a large pile of boxes, Rebecca heard the sound of someone coughing. The trio rushed over quickly, and to everyone’s surprise, a thin pale woman in a purple jumpsuit with black hair in a ponytail was curled up, bleeding heavily on the floor. She looked right at Goggles and wheezed, “You...How did you get here?”
“It’s okay, SHODAN and the Many are gone. Here, patch yourself up with this,” Goggles explained while grabbing a medical kit from his pack. Rebecca quipped to her boyfriend, “How much stuff does he carry in that backpack?”
Goggles knew that this was Ms. Delacroix by the tag on her outfit, and as she started the nanite-based healing process the kit utilized, he cleared away some of the boxes so she could see him more clearly. Marie looked at him sternly and asked with distrust in her voice, “Are you sure you did all that? Is XERXES back under control?”
“We found a bunch of robots along the way, and not one of them wanted to shoot us. Is that enough proof?” Rebecca snapped.
After the kit restored all her vital signs and other such life functions, Marie climbed out of her makeshift fort of crates and gloomily declared, “You may have saved me from dying just now, but we’re not safe yet. SHODAN still has left her mark on the space around this ship. No one’s going anywhere until we get that resolved.”
“What do you mean ‘left her mark’, Ms. Delacroix? I know that she was using the drive to alter reality to her purposes, but...oh god...what DID she do?”
Marie eyed them all with a dark look in her eyes, then opened her jacket, removed a small tablet computer, tapped a few buttons, and showed what seemed to be an exterior camera view of the Von Braun. Everyone crowded around to see the video on screen, and they all felt chills down their spines.
Tommy gasped, “What is that?”
“It looks like...some kind of hole. Like that portal I stepped into just after I destroyed the Many’s brain,” Goggles spoke slowly.
“It’s more than just a hole. Gentlemen, SHODAN has torn the very fabric of space-time in several spaces around the ship. If we don’t fix those soon, who knows what’ll happen?”