[09.12.99] » by Roger Ostrander

    "All of you, evacuate - Now."
    The captain's words repeated through her mind as she ran down the corridor.  How could this be happening?  Alia didn't know.  Something had gone wrong, however.  The weapon was out of control, for one thing.  For another, she was lagging behind in getting off of the ship.
    Alia's communicator chimed.  An image of Helmsman Murdoch appeared in her field of vision, staying three feet ahead of her at all times.  Alia didn't stop running, looking up only briefly to address the man who had called her.  "Sir Murdoch?"
    "Navigator Shevan, where are you?  Evac ship 0x3F5 is ready to leave, and you aren't on it!"
    "I'm sorry sir, it took us some time to get lifts operational.  The bridge was one of the areas hardest hit by the weapon."
    The transparent image of Murdoch nodded his understanding.  "So I've heard - I'm surprised anyone got out.   Have you seen the captain?"
    "He stayed on the bridge sir...." she trailed off.  She knew what the captain was likely to do next, and so did Murdoch.
    "I see.  Navigator, how long will it take you to get here?" The helmsman was looking worried now, and Alia could faintly hear reports coming in from Murdoch's end of the conversation.
    "A while sir.  I'm moving as quickly as possible, but eighty percent of the lifts are not functioning."  Alia stopped running as she saw the pained look on the helmsman's face.  "What's happening?"
    Murdoch hesitated.  "Navigator, we've received reports that some of the escape vessels are under fire from the main ship.  If this is true, then the captain will delay no longer."  He stopped speaking, looking nervous.
    "Go." Alia said.
    "Navigator, there is -"
    "I said go!" she repeated.  The captain was going to enter the self-destruct sequence, that was now beyond doubt.  If the cargo aboard their ship had control of their weapons - and judging from its actions on the bridge, such a feat would not be difficult for it - then there was no other choice.
    Helmsman Murdoch nodded.  "You are a braver human than I, Alia.  Farewell - I hope we meet again."  His image dissolved, and Alia's attention was returned to the seemingly endless corridor she had been running down.  It seemed pointless now, to keep running.  Better to simply stay here and await the end....
    Alia shook her head to clear it of such thoughts.  She was not about to give up.  She started running again, toward where she knew the nearest lift would be.  At the same time, she pulled up a display of the ship's status.  A miniature projection of the ship - now occupying the space where Murdoch had been - emerged and showed in great detail exactly how little of the ship was operational.  Including the lift she was now running toward.  She adjusted the display to show the operational lifts - all three of them.  The closest one was over three miles away from where she was, and she'd have to go through the engineering block to get there.  Engineering block was definitely not where she wanted to be.  The captain hadn't got an answer from them, and the only explanation for that was that they were dead.  So there had to be some other way.
    She started querying what was left of the ship's computer.  The computer, a Nearly Sentient Artificial Intelligence, had been one of the first things that had been corrupted by the weapon.  The NSAI was now little more than an ordinary computer, and liable to break down at any time.  Still, it was her only hope.
    Panting, she turned the corner and raced down a new corridor, this one just like the other.  If she didn't have access to the ship's map, she probably would be lost.  She was not altogether sure that the map was accurate any longer anyway - she could be on the other side of the ship, for all she knew.  She pushed that thought out of her head - there was no room for panic.
    The NSAI located the lift, and pinpointed where the node that transported people was.  Block 18:0xC02, near the refrigeration centers.  It was not running because, according to the NSAI, it had been shut down for maintenance.  NSAI also reported that the node was currently carrying 14 people, whose destination was evac ship 0x07A.
    The weapon's doing, no doubt - it was apparently trying to permit as few people to survive as possible.  After all, if someone survived, they might go back to the main planet and get a fleet together to shut the weapon down.
    Not that the main planet had that sort of firepower.  Nothing short of creating a black hole at the center of the weapon was even going to slow it down.
    Alia concentrated, and started changing the work logs - this was hard for her to do, as she was a Navigator and hadn't had to use the work logs before, but she had the authority.  Within moments, the node was moving again.  And just in time.
    As she turned the corner, she saw the outlines of the lift door and placed her hand to the screen.  The monitor lit up, indicating that the lift would arrive in less than fifteen seconds.  She closed her eyes, permitting herself to relax for a moment.
    When she reopened her eyes, she found that she could no longer see.  It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dark red emergency lights, and the realization had hit her - the power had been cut.  Accessing the NSAI once more, she found that a 'overheated reactor coil' had been detected, and power cut.  The weapon, again.  More carefully this time, she started tampering with the computer again.  The emergency lights flickered and went out, and the lift doors opened, revealing fourteen very frightened looking people.
    Alia practically dove into the node, pressing the button to resume the movement before she was even completely inside.  The node resumed movement, and Alia was surrounded by people who had recognized her officer's uniform.
    "What's happened?" was the main question, asked in at least three different languages at once.  Alia had to shout to be heard over their yelling.
    "There is nothing to worry about!  The situation is under control!  There was a slight malfunction, and our evacuation is continuing as we speak."
    That seemed to calm the people.  Alia was glad the power hadn't been cut to the lifts - that would have probably sent them into a panic.  She kept a careful watch on the movement of the node, making sure that the weapon would do nothing to shut it down again.  Alia felt her stomach turn as NSAI sent her data - the weapon was no longer focusing on the inside of the ship, having decidedly conquered it.  Instead, it was indeed, as Helmsman Murdoch had suspected, shooting down the evac ships.
    The lift slowed and then stopped, revealing a poorly lit hangar, and an evac ship.  She lead the people out of the lift, maintaining calm - the last thing she needed now was a stampede - and climbed into the pilot's chair of the evac ship.  It didn't technically need a pilot, as the ships were intended to automatically pilot themselves, but Alia didn't trust the automation any longer.  She changed her connection from the dying ship's NSAI to the evac ship's computer.  It was nowhere near as sophisticated as NSAI, but it was fully functional.  She keyed in the necessary commands to power up the engines and open the hangar doors.
    Nothing happened.
    Alia cursed herself for a fool - of course nothing happened!  The ship's reactor had stopped relaying power to the evac ships in an effort to keep them where they were.  She queried the evac computer - how long would it take to power up the backup generator?
    Twelve minutes, forty seconds, following correct protocol.
    "To hell with protocol" Alia murmured under her breath.  She overrode the safety features within the computer, and simultaneously simulated an attack from another vessel.  The reactor powered up immediately, the ship's defensive matrix materialized, and the weapons were online.  Her hands flying over the controls, she kicked the engines into life at the same time that she fired the forward Vahn turrets.  Some part of her mind noted that the red evacuation lights had changed shade to a slowly pulsating blue - the indication that the captain had triggered the self-destruct mechanism.  Before she could contemplate further, the evac ship had broken through the hull and was out into space.  She only hoped she hadn't irradiated them all by causing the reactor to come online so quickly.
    Alarms rang out over the ship - the display showed that twelve upper-class Vahn turrets had locked on, and thirty-four lower-class Vahn turrets were charging to fire.  The main ship was about to obliterate them.
    Alia instantly threw the ship into a complex evasive pattern, and at the same time linked to the main ship's NSAI to simulate a reactor overheating.  The tactic almost worked - all but three of the lower-class Vahn turrets missed their mark.
    Three lower-class Vahn turrets carry firepower equivalent to twenty atomic weapons.  The defensive matrix crumpled and disintegrated, and Alia nearly passed out as three quarters of the ship's systems went offline - including the link she had established with the evac computer.  Struggling for consciousness, Alia desperately tried to move the tiny vessel out of the path of the higher-class turrets that were now charging to fire.  Any one of the higher-class turrets was more than enough to turn an entire planet into black glass, and there were twelve currently pointing at her.  She managed a weak link to NSAI, intending to try to distract the weapon, when it seemed as though her entire world went white.

    Some time later, she came to.  Someone she didn't recognize, apparently a doctor, was hovering over her, looking apprehensive.  "Navigator Shevan?" he asked.
    She managed a nod.  "Do you know where you are?"  the doctor continued.
    "On an evac vessel... I hope." Alia managed a weak smile.
    The doctor looked relieved.  "Yes, you're still on your vessel.  I'm glad I managed to get here in time - you were linked up with the NSAI when the ship self-destructed... that can be pretty serious if not attended to promptly!"
    "The ship... self destructed?"
    The doctor nodded.  "Yes... I'm from another evac ship - there are about fourteen vessels that survived altogether.  Mostly early evacuees who managed to get out of range, and latecomers like yourself.  Oh - I'm Doctor Havens, by the way."
    Alia shuddered.  Fourteen evacuation vessels left?  There had been uncounted hundreds aboard that ship!  The weapon did all that... and nobody could stop it. Alia's efforts had hardly even slowed it down.
    "Where... are we going next?"
    The doctor seemed to consider.  "Many of the escape vessels are damaged.  We're trying to put together a working NSAI so we can navigate and get one of the extrasolar drives going, but it'll be a while."
    Alia paused to think.  "There was a habitable planet in this sector." she stated.  It would make a good enough refuge.  She could tell by the look on Haven's face that her idea wasn't going to work.  "What?" she demanded.
    "Look out the window."  was all the doctor offered.
    Alia sat up, and fought off an initial wave of dizziness.  She turned and glanced out of one of the few viewports.  Below her, she saw the planet - very much like her main planet, except this one had rings.  And something was happening in the upper atmosphere.  Sporadic lights blinked in and out of existence.  An enormous fireball slowly caromed across one of the hemispheres, and then vanished underneath the cloud cover.  No, that wasn't a very good planet, but it was better than staying afloat in space until someone got an NSAI working.
    Then she realized what the strange lights and fire meant - the main vessel had landed on that very planet.
    Alia looked away from the viewport.  It wouldn't be safe to go there - the weapon might have survived.  Judging from the size of some of the debris crashing into the planet, she supposed it was even possible that some of the passengers had survived.  She felt sorry for them.  The best she could hope for them was a painless end.
    Slowly, she got to her feet, noting the way Havens kept a close eye on her the entire time.  "I don't know very much about NSAI construction," she said to him," but I'm an experienced Navigator.  I can pilot a ship through Extrasolar without an NSAI, if needed.  So let's get one of those drives working."
    The doctor paused to think.  "You should be okay, just don't try to link up to any systems for a few hours or so.  But we needn't be in such a rush... there is plenty of energy - we won't run out of food, water, or breathable air for quite some time."
    Alia looked back at him, then at the viewport.
    "You probably don't know what happened to our ship.  I do.  And when I see that it's crashed into that planet that's not even 40 Trens away, I only think one thing.  I think we should get the hell out of here."
    Havens blinked, then nodded.  "Okay then.  I'll take you over to my ship, and we'll work on the Extrasolar."
    Alia followed the doctor out of the ship, not looking back.

-The End

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