Foregoing the lift, Xander lead the group down the gridiron flights of stairs at a storming pace, running almost flat out down every flight and corridor. They descended down to the fourth level where the main airlock was situated, hurtling silently through the passages of the Gehanon like rats in a maze. When they rounded the final bend, however, he slowed to a jog at the sight of the airlock door, still closed and secure. Skidding to a halt he tapped his earpiece, casting a precautionary glance back down the empty corridor.
"Okay we're here, Jonas," he babbled breathlessly. "Have you finished that scan yet?"
"Just about, and it's pretty weird," the pilot replied. The hint of apprehension in his normally cheerful voice was enough to give Xander worry.
"I've got you four outside the airlock, but there's a large amount of foreign mass in the main cargo hold. I can't really make out what it is, it's just a blob."
"That's the best part, Cap," Jonas laughed nervously. "He's on the move, the mass scan caught a human shape on deck two heading for the nearest stairwell. He isn't reading as a life sign though, I'm sure of that."
"This just keeps getting better and better," Xander muttered. "Okay Jonas, open the airl-." Before he could finish the sentence, with the single massive equivalent to an electronic sigh, all the lights on the Gehanon went out, plunging the group into total darkness.
They stood there, frozen for almost a full minute waiting for the lights to come back on. The shallow sound of their breathing was the only discernible noise for what seemed like an eternity, before Jonas shattered the relative calm.
"Jonas," Xander hissed. "What just happened?"
"Power levels all across the Gehanon just dropped like a stone," the pilot blurted out. "And I've lost primary systems. I'm blind in here, Xander. And just to top things off, you guys are stuck there!"
"The airlock's depressurised and you don't have E.V.A gear. I'm trying to get around it but no luck yet."
"Just perfect," Redge grated, shortly followed by the thump of a fist against metal. "So now we're trapped on this floating graveyard?"
"Understood, Jonas," Xander continued, ignoring him. "Sit tight. Is the airlock door on our side still secure?"
"Yeah…that's all the good news I can give you."
"I'll take what I can get." He turned his eyes to the ceiling. "How long until our friends from the navy arrive?"
"Five hours at maximum speed."
"Alright, just stay put and do what you can. We'll work it from our end. Xander out."
are we gonna do?!" Cassie whimpered out of the blackness.
"Use a bit of common sense," he snapped back. "Who's got a flashlight?"
"I do," Isla interjected hoarsely.
"Okay, that's two. Redge?"
"Err...no, I've only got a snapstick. Sorry."
"Two between four," Xander sighed, pulling his flashlight free from his backpack after some deliberation. "I guess it could be worse." He flicked the on switch, causing a thin beam of light to cut into the blackness like a knife. The ray was soon joined by Isla's torch, illuminating most of the passage.
Swinging the beam of the torch left and right, Xander made sure the corridor ahead was empty while his mind raced. Behind him the group waited in silence.
"Okay…" he began quietly. "A big factory ship like this doesn't take all its power from the engines. If I remember right, there should be a central generator powering electrical systems like the lights, doors and elevators."
"All adds up," Redge agreed. "What are you thinking?"
"Well, I'm thinking we get to that generator and see what's what. There may not have been any problem with the furnace drive, but that's all we checked."
"Where is it?" Isla asked.
"Should be slap bang in the centre of this thing." He turned to face the group, his torchlight revealing their faces in the gloom. Cassie stared mutely back at him, gnawing on the cuff of her jacket. "Just keep your heads, we'll figure this one out. I'll go first. Isla, you hang back a little, keep the way lit."
"What about Brodie?" She shone her torch pointedly towards him.
Xander hung his head with a frustrated sigh. "Look, there are only so many different ways I can say ‘I don't know.' If you've got any brilliant, light bulb ideas then by all means, tell me. If not, shut up and move. We fix the ship first and find Brodie second." She opened her mouth to reply, but thought better of it, clenching her jaw and conceding a stiff nod.
The group set off once more through the silent, tomb-like halls of the Gehanon, the crushingly oppressive atmosphere compounded by the enveloping blackness. Cold sweat beaded on Xander's cheeks every time he rounded a corridor, his mind churning to make sure he led them in the right direction. With the lights on it had been easy enough to become turned around. Now it was almost inevitable.
Cursing quietly to himself he motioned the group to go back down the current corridor, realising that they'd taken a wrong turn. They stopped and waited for him to take the lead again before following. Isla had been virtually silent since they started moving again, and Cassie had barely spoken a word since they left the bridge. Redge, on the other hand, seemed remarkably sanguine about the current predicament. He wandered along in the middle of the group and even started whistling. The sound echoed strangely through the halls.
"That's possibly the weirdest thing I've ever heard," Xander muttered, shaking his head at Redge's antics. "Cut it out will you?"
"Sorry, just trying to relax a little. How close are we to the central generator?"
"I wouldn't hold your breath." He stopped briefly at another corridor junction. Looking left, then right, then left again, he nodded. "This way."
"If I ever get my hands on the sod who designed this thing…how'd the crew find their way around in the first place?"
Xander opened his mouth to reply, but a crackling over the com set cut him off. Stopping for a moment he opened the channel. "Jonas?"
"Captain, I'm at the airlock. Where are you?" It was Brodie. Redge cursed; Cassie stifled a terrified whimper. Isla removed her earpiece and shoved it into her trouser pocket.
"Can't tell you that, buddy," Xander replied warily, motioning the others to follow him. "You just stay there and we'll be back soon."
"Captain, we need to get back aboard the Lunchbox, that's what you said."
"I know that, but in case you hadn't noticed there's no atmosphere in the airlock right now," he grated.
"I can fix that, Captain, just come back, I know what the problem is."
By now Xander was more or less convinced that whoever was speaking wasn't his crewmate. It was his voice, true enough, but it sounded vacant, detached, and most importantly, respectful.
"Alright, whoever the fuck-,"
"Xander," Isla hissed, grabbing his arm. "Wait; keep hi-…it talking. Maybe we can get some answers." Turning he flashed the torch beam over her, revealing her face, tight with anxiety. "We need to know what's happening." Xander's jaw tightened, but he nodded, seeing the sense in his companion's advice.
"Alright, what's the deal with the airlock?" he said into the earpiece.
"I'll have to show you."
"Brodie, you were off com for a while there. Care to explain?"
"It must have been interference from the furnaces; they are in an unstable state. Captain, come back to the airlock, we need to leave."
"Can't do that...whoever you are."
"You've got a lot of explaining to do friend. I know I'm not talking to my crewmate. Who are you?"
"Captain, are you alright?"
Xander bit his lip, doing his utmost to keep his frustration buried. "I'm just peachy. You, on the other hand, have got some serious problems. Want to tell me what you've done to my crewman? Or for that matter, what you did to the people on this ship?"
There was a pause. "I'll see you soon." The com went dead.
Closing the channel, Xander lashed out and punched the nearest wall, the dull thud reverberating through the corridor like a muffled bell. Swearing under his breath he continued on, the others following uncertainly in his wake.
The com crackled several more times in the following minutes, but when he answered it only static fizzed through the earpiece. Burying the niggling apprehension in the back of his mind, he led the group on, walking as fast as he dared through the corridors of the Gehanon. After finally locating the stairway that ascended to the fifth floor he began to relax ever so slightly. His earpiece fell silent and he now had his bearings.
"Not long now," he informed the others. "Just a couple more corridors."
"Just a couple more," Redge laughed humourlessly. "This place is a head-bender, that's for sure."
"Isla, Cassie, you okay?"
"I've been better," Isla replied immediately, her voice low and quiet. Cassie said nothing, but he hadn't expected her to. Rolling his eyes, he pressed on. To his immense relief, his prediction turned out to be roughly accurate. A few minutes later they entered the broad, cylindrical chamber of the main power generator.
Xander shone his flashlight over the bulky pillar-like structure in the centre of the room. A quartet of large control consoles boxed in the core itself, reaching up to just below the central window of the machine. Inside the pillar he could see a faint but discernible blue glow. The flashing movement of Isla's torchlight caught his attention as it probed around the rest of the room, revealing more consoles, chairs and dead computer screens.
"Looks like it is still online," Redge commented. "So what do we do with it?"
"Bring it back to full power and turn the damned lights on," Xander replied bluntly.
"It would be," he returned. "If we had access to the computers, but I'll bet you these ones are locked out too." Stepping over to the nearest console he pressed a button. As he had feared, the screen came alive with a fizzling static screen. "That's going to complicate things."
"To say the least."
"Whatever we do," Isla cut in. "Let's do it quickly."
"I'll run a quick diagnostic of the computer." Xander unshouldered his backpack, placed it on the floor and opened it. Shining the torch inside, he shoved various tools aside until he found a small, palm-sized console. It sat easily in his hand with an antenna protruding from one side. The screen filled up the rest of the space. Punching in a quick sequence he initialised the device and stepped in close to the computer, plugging it in to the first free port. Staring at the pad he frowned in confusion.
"How's it looking?" Redge asked.
"Strange," he murmured. "Very, very strange."
The other man shuffled over alongside, looking over his shoulder at the readings. "Huh…I think that's an understatement."
"It looks like some kind of virus, but I've never seen one like this before."
"Are you saying the crew of this ship got wiped out by a computer virus?" Isla said incredulously.
"I'm pretty sure I didn't say that," he replied, exchanging an exasperated look with Redge. "I said I've never seen it before. Come take a look."
Taking Cassie by the arm, Isla pulled her over too before looking in on the data pad. "Wow, look at that pulsing!"
"Thing looks like a God damn heartbeat."
"Whatever it is," Redge cut in ruefully. "Looks like its got control of the whole computer system. Should've brought Jonas along; we could spend weeks trying to hack our way around it."
"I doubt we've got that kind of time," Xander muttered. "I guess we'll have to take a crack at it now and hope for the best. You guys got your pads?" The pair nodded. "Good, grab a computer and see what you can do." As they moved off Xander turned, illuminating Cassie's face with the beam of his flashlight. He stepped towards her, bringing his face close to hers. "You still with us, Cass?"
She gave a barely discernible nod.
"Did you bring a pad with you?"
A shake of the head.
"Alright." Xander straightened up. "Just hang in there." He was about to turn away but an afterthought barged into his mind. He glanced back to her again. "And Cass, sorry about earlier. Didn't mean to bite your head off." Meeting her blank gaze for a moment Xander waited. She didn't reply, but a faint smile appeared on her face. Satisfied with at least some response, he returned to the pad and set to work.
After around ten minutes of trying vainly to break through the mysterious virus' system Xander blew out a long sigh, leaning on the control console and hanging his head. Staring at the data pad his eyes narrowed in annoyance. Numbers and figures filled the tiny screen, along with a diagnostic scan of the Gehanon's main systems. The virus, if that's what it was, seemed to have control of most systems save two: the engines and, thankfully, life support. Try as he might, however, he hadn't even made a dent in the entity's firewall.
"Aha!" Isla's triumphant cry made him look up.
"Tell me you've got something?"
"I think I've got something," she said. Her nimble fingers danced over the tiny data pad keyboard. "There's a back door into the power conduits that I may just have picked my way into." She paused for a moment, staring hard at the data pad. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "What the…?"
A high pitched, fizzling whine swelled in the room for a moment, before being replaced by a sudden, sharp bang. The screen of Isla's data pad exploded and she dropped the device with a shriek of pain, clutching her right arm. The small metallic box fell to the floor in a molten heap, lingering sparks snapping and crackling in the dark.
"Isla!" Redge darted over to her from his position at another console.
"Jesus Christ, what the fuck is that thing?" she shouted, before gritting her teeth and groaning in pain. Redge delicately took hold of her injured arm, supporting it with his hands. Xander shone his torch over, revealing a blackened smoking patch of her grey jacket, and the raw skin underneath.
"That…virus hurled a few thousand volts of feedback into the God damned data pad!" she exclaimed, wincing as Redge unfurled a field bandage and placed it over her burned forearm. "Straight through the computer, as soon as I got into the system."
"Good thing you let go when you did," Redge commented, squinting at the wound. "Or we'd be scraping you up with a shovel."
"Charming." She slapped him lightly with her good arm.
"Just saying…" he muttered before returning to bandaging the burn.
"So the thing was onto you?"
"I guess s- not too tight you idiot!" she berated Redge. Sheepishly, he loosened the bandage.
"Well excuse me…"
"It must have caught what I was doing," Isla continued. "But that doesn't explain how it can do that. I've never seen anything like it!"
"Well, whatever it is-" Xander glanced back to his own data pad. "It's no ordinary virus, but if we don't get it out of the computer system then we're up shit creek."
"Xander," a quiet voice interjected. Spinning he cast the beam of his torch over Cassie.
"Look who's back," Redge grunted.
"Cass, what's up?"
"I-," she hesitated a moment. "Do you remember that gig we had a coupla years back on that big ore freighter, you know, the Carthage?"
"Hang on," Isla cut in, looking up. "I remember that op."
"Their main systems were out, decaying in orbit, so we had to jump start them?"
"Yeah, I remember…" Xander murmured, frowning as he retraced his memories. "That was tricky business."
"We manually re-routed the power straight into the main engines to give them the boost they needed."
"Hey, I remember that one too y'know," Redge snapped. "I also remember that you two nearly wiped out their whole operating system with that little stunt!"
"Exactly." Cassie folded her arms and glared at him.
"Cass…" Xander breathed, his eyes lighting up as he pieced together the facts. "Oh my God! Cass, you're a genius!" He bounded over from his console and hugged her, before planting a kiss on her forehead. "We might get out of this yet!" He took her by the arm and virtually dragged her over to the main quartet of computers at the core of the generator. The pair dropped down beneath the consoles.
"Xander, what the hell are you thinking? It's a sheer miracle the ship could even move after that bypass. If this goes wrong you could blow out the entire system, life support, everything!"
"Don't you think I know that?" he snapped back. "This is still our best option. That thing is in the computer system. It's not in the power lines themselves. We should be able to patch power straight into all the doors and lighting circuitry and it won't be able to do a damn thing about it. Better still, we just might be able to throw out a controlled overload and blast that thing out of the systems entirely!" He held out a hand. "I think now would be a good time for that snapstick, Redge."
The man stared at him for a moment, his face lit up eerily by the torch light, before reluctantly pulling the item in question free from his pack and handing it over.
"That'll only last around ten minutes at most," he warned. "So you're gonna have to work real fast."
"We did it once, we can do it again," Xander returned. "You wanna give us a hand breaking this plate off?"
"Alright, alright." Redge retrieved his crowbar from his backpack and dropped down with the pair. "You hold this." He handed the bar to Xander, scuttled away, and then returned with his sledgehammer held in both hands. "Wedge that in at the joint. I'll give it a crack with this and it should pop straight off."
Doing as he was bidden, Xander jammed the flat edge of the bar into the top fissure of the generator's main plate. Redge moved back slightly then dealt the other end of the crowbar a sharp crack with his hammer. With a snap then a crash, the metal plate came free and clattered to the deck.
"And we are in…" Xander muttered. "Alright, Cass, let's do this."