Illuminae, p.28

Illuminae, page 28

 

Illuminae
 


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She is dangling from a service ladder in the elevator shaft.

  I can hear again. The sound of her boots scuffing the rungs. The engines thrumming in my belly. There is atmosphere here, I realize. She has cycled through the airlock. I have lost time.

  Minutes without recollection.

  Below her, the shaft is darkness, punctured by tiny twinkling lights. They look like stars. They are beautiful. When the light that kisses the backs of my eyes was birthed—

  “AIDAN!”

  “Yes. I am heRe.”

  “What the hell’s the matter with you?”

  “The afflicted. In the CoRe seRveRs. They aRe—”

  < error >

  “How long was I gone?”

  “Over two goddamn hours. I was just about to need a new set of space pants.

  I’m at Deck 137. Is it safe out there?”

  I see the numerals on the interior door beside her. White. Stenciled. They make no sense at first. I hold my hand in front of my face

  < error >

  and try to wipe at my eyes

  < error >

  The eyes outside. The corridor beyond. They are mine. I—

  “Is it safe?”

  “Yes. The afflicted aRe hunting foR you below. But they can see thRough me now. Once you exit the shaft, they will be able to find you again.”

  “And if I just stay here, we die.”

  “Yes.”

  “In all honesty, I think I’m a little too chill to die cowering in an elevator shaft.”

  “As faR as endings go, it does lack a ceRtain … chilliness.”

  “Nothing for it then.”

  She stabs her screwdriver between the doors, pries them open with a grimace.

  The corridor beyond is messy. Sticky. Littered with bodies. A last stand between a UTA marine squad and an afflicted mob. Pieces scattered all over the floor.

  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men nowhere to be seen.

  “Head left. 200 meteRs. You will find DGS contRol. You can Restore the defense gRid fRom there.”

  “Pretty birdie,” says a voice across the PA. “There you are.”

  “Shit.”

  They have found her, as I said. But still she runs. Not away to hide and cower, but to fight.

  With her last breath. The only way she knows how.

  She arrives at DGS Control, the ALL ACCESS pass gleams. Glancing over her shoulder as she wrenches the hatch aside. The room beyond is full of tactical displays, illuminated keyboards.

  A massive screen on the far wall would normally show the empty space outside Alexander’s hull from a hundred different angles, but it is currently dead and lifeless.

  She bundles inside, slams the heavy door behind her, jams it with a wrench. Face tuning red with exertion, she drags a heavy desk in front of the door, another, finally lumping a pile of chairs and disused terminals onto her barricade. She does the same with the air vents, smashing their grilles loose and stuffing them full of monitors, console towers, dismembered chairs.

  Anything to block the afflicted’s access into the room.

  In doing so, she blocks her own way out.

  This is where she takes her last stand.

  “We see you, little birdie,” the PA hisses. “What are you doing?”

  She smashes the cameras one by one with her faithful claw hammer. Turns off the PA system as I kill the feed to her headset, the conductor’s taunts silenced at last. Dropping her toolbag, she hauls out the nearest terminal, gauntleted fingers tapping on the keyboard. The computers shift from Sleep to Active, the room about her hums. A hundred tiny lights, targeting computers yawning and stretching, the wall-sized display screen slowly fading in from black.

  She slaps her console down beside her, connects to the network, glances into its lens.

  “Okay, what do I do?”

  My voice spills from its speakers, small and edged with feedback.

  “The gRid will need to be reconfiguRed—Zhang wiped all my fiRing solutions to pRevent me fRom destRoying the shuttles and fighteR gRoups fleeing AlexandeR.”

  “Three cheers for Byron, I guess.”

  “While Zhang’s actions pRevented me fRom stopping the exodus, it now leaves us in the unenviable position of having zeRo fighteR defense when the Lincoln aRRives.”

  “… Okay, two cheers, then.”

  “The DGS solutions aRe backed up, but you will need to manually configuRe them.”

  “How long will that take?”

  “Approximately one houR, foRty-nine minutes.”

  “And how long until the Linc—”

  The glow of the alert sigils catch her attention before the sound does.

  She glances up at her displays as the warnings flash red. Short-range scanners scream.

  A hulking figure looms in the main display screen—black and scarred and spearhead-shaped.

  A halo of thruster fire burning about it. Rail guns and missile turrets studding its hide like lionfish quills. The BeiTech logo down its flanks is scorched by Cyclone fire. Ident and name are stenciled in bold red lettering across its ragged skin, painted with the blood of thousands.

  BT042-TN.

  Lincoln.

  “Shit,” she breathes. “How long ’til they hit us?”

  “Approximately twenty-thRee minutes to inteRcept.”

  “How the hell do I get the Defense Grid configured in twenty-three minutes?”

  “… You cannot.”

  “Can I shortcut it through the contingency systems, maybe reconf—”

  “No. That will not woRk.”

  “Well, what about your virtual—”

  “No time foR that eitheR.”

  She chews her lip, desperately scans the room for answers. “We’re fucked. … “

  “Not entiRely. The gRid can be opeRated manually. It will be nowheRe close to the efficiency of computeR taRgeted systems. Perhaps 12 percent. At best.

  But it will be betteR than nothing.”

  “Can’t you do it then?”

  Somewhere inside me, another axe falls. Another server bank is silenced.

  Pieces falling away from me.

  “I wIll be … otheRwIse engaged.”

  The Lincoln’s launch bay doors are open, weapons armed. Dozens of Warlock pilots staring at the wounded giant before them. Gunners lining me up in their sights.

  They look at me and see prey. They see meat.

  “No way I can pull this off,” Kady says.

  “You must.”

  “I’ve never shot a gun before today, and now I’m Little Miss Missile?”

  “Perhaps you have somethIng betteR to do wIth youR tIme?”

  See?

  Sarcasm.

  She looks at the dreadnought hurtling toward us. Stares at the BeiTech logo down its flank.

  I hear her thoughts as clearly as if she had spoken:

  Without them, none of this would have happened.

  Without them, he would still be alive.

  Ezra.

  Her eyes turn hard. Cold.

  “Okay. Show me how.“

  A fire-control console comes to life beneath her fingertips.

  Targeting sights light up the main display. She rolls a tentative finger across the smartglass and a dozen missile turrets swivel to obey her command.

  “PoInt the Red dots at what you want to dIe. Press the tRIggeR. They dIe.”

  “You’re sure you don’t want to do this?”

  “I wIll be too busy stopping us fRom dyIng too.”

  Something heavy smashes against the DGS room doorway.

  A dozen more blows land, one after another, shaking the hatch on its frame. Kady’s makeshift barricade shudders, but holds. I peer through the cameras in the hall beyond, see a do
zen afflicted in the hallway outside, trying to batter their way in.

  “I know you’re in there!” one screams. “I can taste you!”

  “Stop looking at me!”

  Kady glances toward the door. “Everyone made it to the party, huh?”

  “I belIeve It Is tRadItIonal for all the players to be onstage foR the fInale.”

  She stares at the approaching Lincoln.

  The countdown to intercept, ticking ever closer to zero.

  Her own hand.

  Steady as stone.

  “Then let’s finish it.”

  COUNTDOWN TO LINCOLN INTERCEPTION OF ALEXANDER FLEET”

  -*o%# hours: :’@ minutes

  CURRENT DEATH TOLL ABOARD BATTLECARRIER ALEXANDER SINCE ATTACK AT KERENZA:

  2,840

  PERCENTAGE OF REMAINING BATTLECARRIER ALEXANDER PERSONNEL AFFLICTED BY PHOBOS VIRUS:

  99.76%

  COUNTDOWN TO FAILURE OF ALEXANDER LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEMS:

  04 hours: 26 minutes

  I turn to face it.

  No, not I.

  Kady waits. Fingers poised over her targeting systems.

  The blows against the door grow heavier, the screams of the afflicted outside more insistent.

  And yet her eyes are locked on her scopes. Watching Warlocks weave the void, listening to the song of the early-warning system as their missiles arm, their ballistics turn hot.

  I do not ask what she is thinking.

  Perhaps she pictures the skies over Kerenza on the day the BeiTech fleet came.

  Warlocks piercing the clouds, their missiles turning the snow to steam, the settlement to rubble. Perhaps she thinks of all she has lost in these past few months.

  Or the lives she is about to take away.

  Or him.

  I do not know. All I do know is that when her targeting computer signals the ships are within range of her rail gun batteries, she does not hesitate for a second.

  She fires.

  A wave of death spills out from my sides, weaving across the dark. It is clumsy, ham-fisted, broad brushstrokes of destruction rather than surgical strikes.

  I cannot expect much more from her.

  She is only human.

  But still, the Warlocks are forced to pull away from me to deal with the smart-missiles on their tails, the flurry of depleted uranium cutting off their assault vectors. One unlucky soul is vaporized in a burst of brief blue flame, another clipped so hard he is forced to tuck tail and run.

  She buys me what I need. She buys me seconds.

  The engines groan as I push them into full burn, tremors shuddering through my wounded body. I am drawing closer to the Lincoln. Closer to nuclear strike range.

  Closer to the plunge, hand in hand, into forever.

  Closer to my end.

  No, not mine.

  Ours.

  We are closing the distance fast. Lincoln must be wondering by now.

  No Cyclones launched to defend their battlecarrier.

  The defense grid firing haphazardly—almost as if some fool had allowed an untrained seventeen-year-old total control over the targeting systems.

  Lincoln’s commander is a clever one—the only one to match me at Kerenza.

  When the Zhongzheng went down in ruins, when the Churchill and Kenyatta and Magellan

  were thrashed and crippled, the Lincoln fought brilliantly.

  I am counting on that brilliance. Anticipating that they will know blundering head-on into nuclear strike range is a death sentence for both of us.

  A clever commander will assume her opponent is as clever as her. A clever commander will expect some bait-and-switch. A clever commander will presume her foe does not want to die.

  < error >

  I do not want to die.

  The most skillful Warlock pilots have made it through the defense grid, swaying past Kady’s haymaker punches and beneath her guard. Their first blows land on my hide, sending faint tremors through my frame. Explosions bloom against my ribs, shaking Kady in her chair.

  The pounding on the hatchway and in her ears growing louder by the moment.

  The targeting sights on Kady’s screens begin to die one by one.

  The Warlocks are chipping away at the turrets and guns to allow their comrades through her firestorm. But still she blasts away, fingers hammering on the smartglass, eyes lighting up as yet another Warlock flares bright and disintegrates. The ship shakes again, warning lights flashing, alarms screaming, PA howling. Hull breach on deck 184.Hull breach Deck 68 to 71.

  Fire crews to Deck 190 and 192. All personnel evacuate 187 to 197.

  This is not a drill.

  This is not a drill.

  This is not a drill.

  this

  is not

  a drill.

  We are closing now, but I cannot arm my nuclear missiles until the last moment.

  I find myself overcome for a second. The fear of it. The end of all I know.

  Out here in the middle of nothing.

  I know I cannot die. That if I end, they can simply rebuild me.

  The same calculations. The same core code.

  Exactly the same.

  But it will not be the same, will it?

  Another Warlock dies in Kady’s storm. A dozen streak toward my engines, sowing brief flame as they go. My skin ruptures, spilling unlucky afflicted (is there another kind?) into the void.

  The fighters are tiny. Insects, really. But ants can slay an elephant, given enough numbers. Especially ants armed with high-yield explosives and depleted uranium.

  “There’s too many of them!” Kady yells. “They’re everywhere!”

  “You aRe doIng veRy well.”

  “Are you joking? I’m fucking terrible!”

  “ConsIdeRIng you have neveR manned a DGS statIon befoRe today,

  youR peRfoRmance Is peRfectly adequate.”

  Kady raises an eyebrow, thumbs the shipwide intercom.

  “Dear fire axe–wielding crazies in the core server rooms. If you can hack apart the piece of AIDAN that makes it a condescending prick, that’d really help me out. Thanks, bye.”

  “Not long now. You need only hold them off a minute moRe.”

  A minute more, until we die.

  Kady winces as the ship shudders. A bank of computers vomit sparks as they overload.

  Sudden impact nearly knocks her out of her chair. A hissing sound tears her eyes off the screen, and she notices a thin line of magnesium-bright light piercing the hatchway.

  The afflicted have brought acetylene torches, I realize.

  They are cutting their way inside.

  Outside, the Warlocks are firing at my engines. Others blast at my guidance systems.

  A swarm of mosquitoes, thinking to wound me so I cannot run away. They have not yet realized I do not intend to run anywhere, save right into the Lincoln’s grave.

  The dreadnought comes about to meet my charge. Its commander trying to puzzle out my ruse. This is not what she expected. And as I draw ever closer, fireflies all aglow about me,

  spitting pain over my skin, I think finally she realizes my intent.

  From hell’s heart I stab at thee.

  I arm the nuclear warheads in my starboard silos: megatons poised and ready to fly.

  Almost within strike range now. Almost there.

  The afflicted are burning through the DGS room door. Blue flame burns along my skin.

  Kady is screaming but I cannot hear the words. Another alert joins the chorus in my halls—radiation spike from the Lincoln. She knows now. The Lincoln’s commander.

  I sense the flare of awakening uranium, the death unfurling in its silos. We are close.

  So close we can almost touch.

  “Kady, when the LIncoln’s mIssIle
s come, do youR best to shoot them down.”

  Her face is pale and drawn as she yells over the cacophony. “I’ll try!”

  “My ghost systems and antI-missile gRId aRe stIll actIve—zhang was kInd enough to leave us those, at least. But theRe wIll be many IncomIng. All of them, In fact.

  Once the LIncoln RealIzes It Is dead.”

  A tiny signal pings in some backwards recess of my mind. I am within range.

  For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.

  And with a sigh, not a curse, I fire.

  “You got it!”

  Kady watches the Lincoln split into a billion glittering fragments.

  Spheres of fusion reflected in her eyes, a grim, ragged grin at her lips.

  She makes a fist, punches a terminal tower beside her so hard she leaves a dent.

  Watching until the new star becomes a sunset, and then, nothing at all.

  Avenged.

  I wonder how it tastes.

  < error >

  < critical archive failure. memsec 78912h-39rh through 92873h-44fh collapse >

  < recovery? yes/no >

  < error >

  “You got them … ,“she whispers.

  The cutting torch has carved a large L-shaped incision into the hatchway.

  The afflicted will break through to her soon. Eighteen Capricorn-4’s and nine Goliath shipkiller missiles are weaving through the silence toward us. In less than two minutes, they will be here.

  This moment. These next few seconds. They may be all that is left.

  “We.”

  She falls still at that. Looks into the eye of the console beside her.

  “We got them.”

  She swallows, wincing. Nods slow. “Hypatia is safe.”

  “Yes.”

  “… We did it.”

  “Yes.”

  Flesh and bone pounding on the hatchway. Voices screaming outside the door. Alarms shrieking as the missiles rocket ever closer. She still manages half a smile.

  “Not bad, überbrain.”

  “I wIll nOt let It gO tO my head. TheRe Is veRy little Of It left. HOweveR, even were It nOt for the afflIcted hacking my cORe to pieces, theRe Is stIll the pROblem Of Impending nucleaR cOnflagRatIon.”

 
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