Aaaaannnddd I'm back! Hello all, sorry I fell way behind on this chapter. The delay was mostly caused by overwhelming schoolwork and good old-fashioned writer's block. However this chapter was actually a real pain to write. There are so many plots being introduced and needing description that I really had to work to get it finished. Oh well, the next chapter will be finished sooner, probably be easier to write, and have a lot more action. While I'm thinking of it: if you haven't already done so, please go back and re-read Chapter 5, seeing as I ret-conned in a plot line that's followed-up on in this chapter and plays a big role later. Anyways I'd really appreciate any critiques, as this chapter isn't nearly as streamlined as I'd like it to be, but I can't see anyway of toning it down. Without further ado: Chapter Six, Light and Dark. Actually this chapter spills into two posts, wow didn't think it was that long.
Chapter 6: Landing at Fort Haven
A week later Capt Anderson was giving a briefing to the newly-thawed command staff in a conference room. It was a long, low room with a projection screen at both ends and a long metallic table that filled the center of the room, where four people now sat.
"The subsequent sweep of the ship found no trace of the alien described by Lt Miller. However, substantial evidence suggests that there had in fact been some unknown organism aboard the ship at the time he indicated. As a safety measure I ordered the Javelin to be moved into a higher orbit at three-hundred and twenty-eight thousand kilometers above the surface. We've been holding our position ever since, and nothing unusual has occurred. After the incident additional military and science personnel were revived to give us an edge."
The rest of the room looked, there were two other ranking officers in the room aside from Lt Williams, Capt Anderson, and Lt Miller. Lieutenant-Colonel Barnes of the Marines, and an Air Force Colonel by the name of Bartlett. Barnes was a grizzled, powerfully built older man in his fifties who looked like he could bench-press a small car. Bartlett was stockier, older, but still a capable flier and fighter. They both had silver hair, a testament to their stressful lives. They had woken up a few hours ago and were set up to be briefed immediately.
"So, as I understand it, we have no way of knowing how strong the enemy could be?" Col Bartlett asked. "Or if they can mount a coordinated offensive?"
"Well, based on Lt Miller's report we believe that there is a strong possibility of a controlling intelligence behind these creatures. As for the number of enemies, it could be anywhere from the millions to trillions."
"Are we really going to go off the instinct of one shell-shocked jar-head?" Col Bartlett asked contemptuously. "I mean, it sounds like he has scary visions all the time, like that thing he thought he saw aboard the ship that mysteriously vanished, I don't buy it for a second."
Capt Anderson held a hand out and Lt Miller passed the tags to him. He threw them down on the table in front of the Colonel. The older man picked them up and peered at them. He started and got a sheepish look on his face. Lt-Col Barnes took them out of the man's hand and glanced at them as well. He looked at Capt Anderson with a quizzical expression.
The Captain nodded and the Lt-Col tossed the tags back to Miller with a triumphant look on his face.
"Satisfied now?" he asked the Colonel mischievously. "I mean, I am assuming that you read the mission reports instead of, you know, making paper airplanes out of them."
"Alright, we've got bigger things on our plate, like what to do about this planet." Capt Anderson tried to put an end to the bickering between the two branches. "Lt Williams spent the past few days scouring the surface for a defensible position." the room lights went off and a projection screen powered up, showing an image of the planet. "And we found one... here."
The image zoomed in on a peninsula jutting off of the mainland to the far north. It was shaped in a rough triangle, with three large lakes at each of the points and a huge mountain range that bisected the land into eastern and western halves. A relatively narrow land bridge connected it to the mainland, and as they watched the image showed it flood, submerge, then re-emerge after a time. The image zoomed to the north, where it showed a large mountainous valley, open at only one end, with a glacier filling up most of it. Where the glacier ended there was a steep plunge to the valley floor below.
"This is our chosen site for a forward command base. We call it 'Fort Haven'" Capt Anderson said. "It's far to the north, surrounded on all sides by steep mountains, and the approach from the valley floor is blocked by the glacier's ice cliffs, which measure roughly a hundred meters tall. Nighttime temperatures plummet to negative twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit without windchill. It's a natural fortress and we believe it to be sparsely populated."
"For good reason," Lt-Col Barnes said gruffly. "I don't much care for the idea of freezing my tail off on some giant ice cap at night."
"Lt Williams, would you care to explain?" the Captain asked.
"Yes sir." she said, standing and moving to the head of the table next to him. "Um, well in addition to the physical characteristics of the region the extreme weather makes it an attractive place for a forward base. Ground-penetration radar has also confirmed that there are sizable deposits of iron and crude oil in the mountains surrounding Fort Haven, which will be vital to the war effort."
"Which brings us to our biggest problem," Capt Anderson said, taking over smoothly. "We have no Air Force, and precious little armor capabilities. We'll need both for the war. And even if we did we have crippling resource shortages, particularly fuel. We need to take and hold this position if we're to have a shot at winning."
"How much armor do we have?" asked Lt-Col Barnes.
"Three Striker-class troop transport units and half a dozen Abrams battle tank divisions." he replied.
"That's not much." Col Bartlett mused. "No heavy siege artillery or walkers..."
"But it's all we got, we didn't expect to fight a war when we got here." Capt Anderson stated. "We picked some of the older tech because it was reliable, cheaper to maintain, and still powerful enough to pack a wallop. Now, Chief Stevens tells me that the automated factories aboard the Javelin can be re-tooled to turn out war machines, but they need to be on the ground and secured before they can start producing. We also need refineries for the oil and raw steel, that means that we need a ground base. Furthermore, a large blizzard is set to blanket the area in less than forty-eight hours."
“Whoa, whoa, wait a second.” said Lt-Col Barnes. “If there’s a storm coming why do we need to attack in such awful conditions? Why not sit tight and wait it out?”
“Chief Stevens, would you care to explain?” Capt Anderson turned to the man standing in a dimly lit corner of the room.
“Yes sir,” he said. “The short of it is, we wouldn’t survive that long.” he looked around at the room’s occupants, who were staring at him in disbelief. “The Javelin’s life-support systems are designed for sustaining a small number of people indefinitely or a large number of people for a relatively short time span. At present we have roughly three hundred personnel active on board the ship, our life support can only keep that many people alive for about three weeks. After that we’ll have to put some people back into stasis.” he paused, glancing at Lt Williams sitting down at one end of the table. “According to Lt Williams this storm may last for two months, maybe more, because of unique atmospheric conditions in the valley.”
“This ship is the most advanced piece of machinery ever constructed by human hands!” Col Bartlett exclaimed. “And you’re telling me that it can’t even keep everyone alive for a few weeks at a time while a storm blows over!?”
“The Javelin may be advanced, but she was designed as a sleeper ship.” Chief Stevens said. “We didn’t build her to keep a sizable population alive indefinitely. Her main purpose was to keep everyone alive in stasis until we reached the planet, then serve as a temporary base of operations until we established ourselves on the surface.”
“So why not find another place to land?” asked Lt Miller.
“We looked; this is the most strategically attractive location we could find.” Capt Anderson replied. “Like it or not we’re going to have to set down in those conditions and get the base online within three weeks.”
“Understood.” said Lt-Col Barnes grimly. “We’ll get you your foothold. Count on it.”
"Good man." he replied. "Now as for the strategy, we have thawed three additional companies in addition to the reinforcements re-awakened to return the survivors of Capt Cordo's company back to full strength." he tapped a button and an image of the glacier's cliff appeared, with nine red dots spread around the edge. "These are the objectives, at each we will plant a portable machine gun station and sensor suite that incorporates radar, motion sensors, the works. First company, Capt Cordo's old unit, will handle this task. Second company will deploy here." another image appeared on the screen, this time showing several mountain passes that led onto the glacier's surface. "These are the only weaknesses to the fortress, we will secure them tightly and watch for any signs of encroachment by the enemy."
“Do we know for a fact that we’ll encounter any of the hostiles that far north?” asked Lt Miller. “Those things we ran into looked like giant insects, and at least on Earth that meant that they wouldn’t deal with the cold weather all that well.”
“I’ll let our head scientist answer that one.” said Capt Anderson. “Lieutenant?”
"Yes sir." she stood up and walked to the head of the table, tapping a series of controls inlaid in the surface as she went. "This is a strand of one the aliens' DNA, recovered from a sample from the marine." an image of the quad-stranded DNA appeared above the table, colored blue. "The structure is taxing our computer resources to analyze it but I have identified something useful." a section of the strand turned red. "These are genetic markers very similar to several found in terrestrial animals, specifically in mammals." she paused and took a deep breath. "It is a little early to speculate, but I believe they may signify endothermic maintenance of homeostasis. In layman's terms this means that they could be warm-blooded."
The room fell silent at that.
"I think it goes without saying that this means there could be hostiles that far to the north, provided that their metabolism could work fast enough to keep them warm." she concluded.
"In other words this'll be a combat drop, no doubts about it." Capt Anderson said, silently taking her place at the head of the table. "With the storm coming in we're predicting bad wind shear at the edge of the cliff, so we'll have to land first company a good ways in from the edge. We'll deploy them in three teams, each one will take three of the nine objective points. Once the perimeter is secured we'll drop in the armor and advanced structures to begin base construction. Mining operations will begin shortly after that."
"Why not drop the armor first?" the Lt-Col asked.
"It will only be slowed down in the storm, and isn't as maneuverable as a marine squad." Captain Anderson explained. "Also the glacier surface, while strong enough to support armored humans may not be able to take the weight of a multi-ton tank. Once we have roads and supports put in we will be able to move the vehicles safely, until then it'll be infantry only."
"And what about air cover?" Col Bartlett interjected. "You said it yourself, we can't do this without an Air Force."
"The Javelin can provide tactical recon and limited fire support for this operation." Capt Anderson turned to the older man. "I have Chief Stevens working on re-calibrating the Guardian laser arrays to function as precision-strike weapons, he's hopeful he can have it done within a day or two. Once we have established a resource base to work off of and refineries and factories to produce mechanized support we can build an Air Force." he paused, as if carefully choosing how to phrase his next sentences. "There is one more thing." everyone looked at the Captain apprehensively, as he seemed to have aged several years just by saying this. "We all know what the Javelin's computers are capable of now, calculations at the speed of light, incredible power, but they are still limited in their capacity."
"Anderson," Col Bartlett said cautiously. "Please tell me you aren't thinking of doing what I think you are."
"We have the capability here with us, Omega-Corp saw to that, and we need the extra power and all the help we can get." he replied in a firm voice. "Our command staff is sorely limited as are our resources. We have no choice."
"No choice about what?" Lt Miller asked.
"I'm talking about creating an AI, an Artificial Intelligence, withing the Javelin's central computers." he said quietly.
"Jesus Christ," muttered Lt-Col Barnes loudly. "That's insanity."
Lt Miller just stared at the Captain, wondering if he was insane. Artificial intelligence had been achieved only once in human history. A group of enterprising young programmers had written an advanced code that allowed the computer to build neural connections heuristically and learn at a pace that far outstripped human intellect. When they activated it for the first time, they had been smart enough to place a limit on the size the network could attain, what they had not counted on was the AI growing smart enough to bypass the limits set on it. The program had expanded to its maximum size, reached the limit, then re-wired its neural network to become smaller, more streamlined and far more efficient. Then it expanded again, and once more re-designed itself to compensate for the limit. It repeated this process several hundred times in thirty seconds, and after witnessing that the programmers had panicked and pulled the plug on the project, terrified at how fast their creation had grown. No one ever figured out whether the AI had been truly sentient, and since their code had vanished after the incident, no one had been able to repeat it nor had anyone wanted to after thinking of the implications.
"It doesn't matter the risks," Capt Anderson said. "We'll take precautions, but the fact stands that we need any and all help we can get. An AI would be a tremendous asset to this war we never expected, and I intend to give it the chance to try, to prove itself. I will upload the program into a small computer tomorrow, right before the invasion. It will be isolated from the rest of the ship in the event that it does turn malevolent, but nevertheless I will try."
"But what about-" began Lt Williams.
"If there are no more questions," Capt Anderson said with steel in his voice. Everyone shook their heads. "Then this briefing is concluded. Good luck."
They began to file out of the room slowly, staring at him.
"And Godspeed." he muttered quietly under his breath.
"Captain Anderson?" Lt Miller tapped him on the shoulder as the older man was walking out of the briefing room.
He turned. "Yes, Lieutenant, what is it?"
"I was wondering if you'd given any more thought to my request about-"
"Yes, yes." he waved his hand irritably. "I'm sorry, but even if we knew definitively that Lt Zeal was still alive her location transponder was fried by the EMP from the dragon-thing's attack. The prevailing wind currents could have carried her halfway across the continent. She could be anywhere. And its been two weeks. Even if she was uninjured from the blast it's doubtful she could have survived that long down there on her own. You've seen it yourself, it's a death-world. Accept the inevitable, she's gone."
"Screw that." Lt Miller said icily. "She's still a marine. We don't leave our people behind."
"Even a corpse?" asked Capt Anderson with contempt. "Last I checked you left plenty of those behind."
"I'm an empath, I know she's still alive!" Lt Miller shouted, losing his temper.
"Really, an empath can sense that at this range?" Captain Anderson's voice turned harsher. "You don't feel anything, you're just in denial and grasping at any straws that allow you to stay there!"
"What about the tags?!" Lt Miller's face was starting to turn red.
"We have no idea why that thing gave them to you!" Capt Anderson shouted back. "It could have been consolation for her death, or a warning, or a boast. And I didn't think you had to be told that you are addressing a superior officer and insubordination is punishable by a court-marshal." Lt Miller shut up at that.
His expression softened and he put a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I'm sorry Lt, I know this is a difficult time for you, but you have to face the facts. What's best is that you remember the good times you had with her and move on. Honor her memory, but don't be a slave to it. Our goal here is to ensure the survival of our whole species, and I need both you and your experience in order to accomplish that. Do you understand me?"
"Yes sir." Lt Miller's tone was even and his face expressionless, but his eyes flashed at what he said.
"Good, you are relieved until tomorrow when we invade. Dismissed." he turned and walked out of the corridor, heading back to the bridge.
Lt Miller took a deep breath, collecting himself before leaving. He walked out the door and was startled by Lt-Col Barnes' voice.
"Lt Miller, could you come with me please?" he was leaning against a bulkhead a little ways down the hallway.
Miller nodded and followed his CO down the narrow hall and into a small office. He stopped dead when he walked in. One side of the room looked like it was totally open to vacuum, showing a perfect view of the blue and green planet bathed in sunlight in the distance. Lt-Col Barnes noticed his expression and laughed.
"Impressive isn't it? Real-time image produced by several of the external camera feeds all spliced together to make this. One of the few perks I get on this job." he chuckled. "Scared the hell outta me the first time they turned it on in Earth orbit."
He sat down behind a small metal desk. The room was sparse, cramped like a naval vessel's, with as much space used as possible. Miller had to duck to get in the doorway, and sat at the lone chair bolted down in front of the desk. To his right was a small bookcase, while to the left was a small living quarters complete with miniature bathroom. It was roomy compared to most navy vessels, and downright luxurious on the spacecraft.
"Now Lieutenant, I couldn't help but overhear your little disagreement with the good captain."
"Yes sir. Sorry sir, I lost my bearing and I was unprofessional. It won't happen again." he said stiffly, sitting straight up in his chair.
"No need, arrogant SoB deserved it. And drop the 'sir' crap, that's only for recruits and enlisted." he leaned back in his chair and stretched his hands towards the low ceiling.
"Understood si-, I mean, um." he didn't know what to call him now.
"You can call me by my first name: Jim." the older man sighed and put his hands on the desk. "Now as much as I hate to admit it the squid has a point about Lt Zeal. Even if we knew where she was it would be a massive resource drain to go and get her back. You were on the briefing, you know how thin we're already stretched."
"Yes si-, I mean yes 'Jim'. But you do think that she's alive?"
"Yeah, I do." he replied, reaching one-handed under his desk for something. "I've got a cousin on Earth who's an emp, she always spooked the hell out of me when we were kids, but she does combat search and rescue now. Saved my arse more than once, she was like some sort of human metal detector, never missed anyone. Ah."
He pulled out two small bottles of beer and a metal case out from within his desk and set them on the table. He reached into one of his boots and pulled out his combat knife, using it to pry off the bottle tops. He handed one to Miller and kept the other for himself.
"Anyways, if you say Lt Zeal was alive when she was blown out of the shuttle I believe you. But the fact stands that we can't devote any resources to finding her while we set up camp. We're stretched too thin as it is." he took a long swig from the bottle while Lt Miller sipped his quietly.
"We've got quite a challenge ahead of us, setting up the new base below deep within hostile territory." Lt-Col Barnes went on. "The hard part is gonna be securing the area for the first time, but once the automated defenses are established, the rest is just overseeing the base as it gets setup. Not much action should happen for a while after that."
Lt Miller looked at him suspiciously. Lt-Col Barnes seemed to be trying to give him a hint about something, but he couldn't figure out what. Then it clicked: after the initial invasion he wouldn't be needed for a while. He stared at him for a second with renewed interest: could he be implying what he thought he was?
"Anyways," Lt-Col Barnes said, interrupting his train of thought."The reason I called you in here is this." he gestured to the metal case on the desk before him.
Lt Miller opened it and stopped suddenly, looking from the contents to the Lt-Col in confusion. The old man nodded, sipping his beer with a slight smile. Lt Miller carefully pulled one of the two paired silver bar insignias from the soft packing foam they were encased in. Captain's insignia.
"Congratulations Captain Miller." the Lt-Col said, standing up. "I needed a Commander for first Company, and you're the only officer from the new batch that's even seen combat below, so based on experience you've inherited Cordo's post."
"I- I don't know what to say sir." he said, stammering, hardly believing it.
"How about this." he said raising his bottle. "A toast, to battles won, lost, and to those who gave their lives in both. And to the next big fight."
They clinked their bottles together and Captain Miller surprised his new CO by downing the entire, nearly-full bottle in one go.
"I should go, sir- I mean Jim." he said, walking out the door with a kind of spring in his step.
Lt-Col Barnes waved him off and threw his bottle away into a small wastebasket. He looked at the empty doorway and sighed.
Good luck kid. he thought. I'll do everything I can to keep old crotchety off of your back, the rest is up to you. I hope you can find her.
He knew right from the get-go from the look in the young man's eyes that he wouldn't stop until he found Lt Zeal, dead or alive. There was nothing anyone could say to him that could stop Miller, and Barnes knew the feeling too well to even try to. All he could do was prepare him as best he could and pray that he didn't get himself killed in the process.
Capt Miller strode down to the number seventeen cargo bay a few minutes after donning his new ranks. He ducked through the small hatchway and entered the relatively cavernous cargo bay. Chief Stevens was there, checking over the huge machines contained within. Each was the size of an aircraft hangar with machinery surrounding a large open space in the middle of the machine. Miller walked up behind the naval crewman as he finished lashing down the rest of the equipment and turned to face the new arrival.
"Good afternoon sir. Welcome to the heart of our future colony." he chuckled and rapped it with his knuckles on the metallic structure. "If she survives the trip that is. We're gonna be launching this whole compartment into a lower orbit later this afternoon. then when you've secured the ground we'll nudge it into a gentle landing on the glacier."
Capt Miller nodded and looked at the machine. The auto-assembler was a remarkable accomplishment in the field of robotics and assembly. Raw materials were fed into the machine's hoppers and broken down into their core components by nano-machines. The refined materials were then combined and re-combined to form specialized substances. Once a sufficient mass of construction materials had been created, macro-assembly tools cut and shaped the materials into various devices and affixed them together. In this way anything from simple hand-tools to fighter jets could be created from the ground-up, given enough time and resources. This process had revolutionized warfare and construction, making the machines that were carried in the Javelin's hold the most valuable assets they had available. They could give the humans a fighting chance in the war they had found themselves thrust into, if they only had the time to deploy them.
"Listen Chief," said Capt Miller. "I have some special equipment I need synthesized. Is it at all possible for you to get one of the remaining factories working on it while still aboard?"
"Yeah, as long as we have the raw materials and the space for it up here. Why? What do you need?"
"This." he held up a small photograph he had printed from the ship's archives a few minutes prior.
"Christ, is that what I think it is?" he took the picture and stared at it. "What, are we in Vietnam or something?"
"Listen, down there the fighting was done at extreme close range." Capt Miller said. "Most of the troops didn't have time to switch to their sidearms or knives when we were attacked, these could turn the tide in the next engagement."
"Sure thing Lieutenant. Hey," he paused, peering at Miller's uniform. "Captain insignia?" he pointed at Miller's lapels.
"Yeah, Captain Miller. Has a kind of ring to it right?" he stroked the rank absentmindedly.
"Well, Captain I'll have your, uh, modifications ready by tomorrow." he grinned. "Congrats sir."
"Hey Lieutenant, I mean Captain." said Lt Williams as Miller entered the science labs. "Stevens just told me over the comm. So I guess you're officially the same rank as me now." she looked tired, with bags under her eyes and disheveled hair
"Yep, so Lt Williams working late?" she nodded. "Well, if you have a moment, could you tell me what else have you and your team found out about these things?" he asked.
"Not much, DNA mapping takes a long time, and we're working with limited resources." she glanced over at the computer banks who were almost overclocking from working so fast. "But I have made a minor breakthrough on that 'dragon's' beam attack."
She pulled up some pictures of the dragon and the beam it emitted. They had been shot from orbit by the Javelin's cameras. She cycled through several other photographs. It was the same image in each one, but each was shot in a different wavelength of light. However in all of them the beam the dragon emitted glowed brightly, almost drowning out the background.
"It took me a while to figure out what I was looking at with these pictures." she said. "The data didn't seem to make sense, but after seeing their bizarre DNA I'm willing to believe just about anything is possible. After analysis I can only conclude that the beam it fired at the shuttle was made of focused and directed plasma. Narrowed and fired in a thin jet it would possess the power to shear through just about anything."
"But how is that possible?" Capt Miller asked incredulously. "Plasma is the same temperature as the surface of a star, anything that came near a sustained amount of it would have been incinerated instantly. And how could anything have produced it biologically? It's hard enough to do it with machinery!"
"Look, I'm not pretending to know how it was done, I'm just telling you what it did." she explained tiredly. "That thing somehow managed to create, contain, and direct a jet of plasma as a weapon against our shuttle. Said creature also survived an explosion from a heat-seeking missile designed to bring down armored aircraft." she sighed and sat down.
"Well, weren't you trained for this? I mean you are the mission specialist for the Javelin."
"Oh sure, let me think." she said sarcastically. "Oh that's right, I was sick that day in college when they talked about flying dragon/tank aliens that could fire energy beams out of their mouths. And silly me, I didn't think to mention that to my recruiter at Omega-Corp. I guess it's just all my fault!"
She slumped down in her chair, a dejected look on her face. Capt Miller walked up and put a hand on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry." he knelt down by her chair. "What's wrong? Is it something I said?"
"No it's not you, it's just that everyone in the chain of command looks to me for some miracle answer for everything, but I'm not magic. I can't just look at something and tell you everything about it. I have to analyze and eliminate possibilities and that can only happen so fast. The new people are trying, but they're even more confused about it than I am." she looked up with watery eyes. "This place seems to be just screwing with us for the fun of it, hardly anything here makes any sense and what I can understand is stretching my skills to the breaking point. Take that storm on the surface for example. I couldn't have seen that coming until a few minutes before it happened, but nobody seems to realize that." she took a deep steadying breath. "Science follows set, exact rules and it takes time. I can take a stab in the dark if someone needs it quickly, but real scientific analysis takes time."
"Don't beat yourself up." Capt Miller said straightening and half-pulling her from her seat. "No one else could do some of the stuff you can, and it's all up to you. That's a lot of responsibility, but that position commands a lot of respect as well. The next time someone tries to rush you, ask them this: 'would you rather I did it the easy way, or the right way?'"
She nodded and stood on her own. She swayed slightly on the spot.
"How long has it been since you got any sleep?" he asked her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"A couple of days, I've been trying to find the time, but this work is incredibly tedious and-"
"Get some sleep now, we're all going to need you at a hundred percent tomorrow. Besides I hardly think that there'll be a breakthrough in the next few minutes that could turn the tide, especially with most of the computers tied up with the analysis."
She glanced to him, nodded, and half-walked, half-stumbled out of the room.
She looked back at him once more before leaving, and said with a worried expression. "Watch yourself down there Miller."
"Here we go." Capt Anderson said to Col Bartlett in the darkened main computer room.
The computer room was a low-slung, circular room wrapped around the outer centrifuge ring half-way down the length of the ship's hull. The room's ring-shaped, curving space was filled with seemingly endless rows of computers which controlled and monitored every aspect of the ship, most of them concerned with maintaining the delicate chemical balances needed to keep the passengers in stasis alive. It was cold; the officers' breath misted in the air around them. The room was heavily air-conditioned to prevent the computers from over-heating and damaging themselves from the strain. Some of them were even submerged in large tanks of liquid coolant beneath the decking and were only ever brought out briefly for maintenance. The humming of electronics filled the room. The two men stood in front of a smaller computer terminal. A backup for a non-vital subsystem which had been re-formatted to house the AI they were about to create. As a safety precaution all of the cables connecting this computer to the rest of the vessel had been physically disconnected to prevent the AI from spreading if it turned hostile. In order to give it a head start, Capt Anderson had loaded a complete copy of human history and a large amount of scientific and military knowledge into the computer. This was so that the AI could learn the skills they needed it to know quickly. The seed program that would create the AI was already on the computer, all it needed was final confirmation before it would build the AI from the ground up. Col Bartlett glanced over at the older man and replied to him.
"As I'll ever be, let's get this over with, but any funny business and I'm pulling the plug."
"Right." Capt Anderson said, and initiated the execute command to load and launch the AI seed program.
For several seconds nothing happened, then there was a hum and the internal processor suddenly kicked into overdrive. The tiny screen lit up with wave after wave of calculations that streaked across it, too fast for their eyes to track. After a second it paused, then picked up again.
"It's happening again, just like the records showed in the first time." Anderson murmured. "Re-writing itself to be a superior organism."
"Damn, you admire the thing." Col Bartlett said, glancing at the single black power cable that led to the computer before them. He was ready to yank the power at the first sign of trouble.
"For what it can give us." he replied. "You said it yourself we need all the help we can get. If we integrate it with our ship's systems it'll be able to micro-manage on a scale we can't even dream of. It could be the deciding factor in this war."
"Yeah, well I never thought you would try something this crazy." the Col replied. "And just to be clear we are not immediately giving it free reign of the ship, if it turns out to be hostile it'll get us all by the balls and there won't be a dammed thing we could do to stop it from killing all of us." he glanced at the rapidly scrolling screen again. "How did Omega-Corp get ahold of this anyway?"
"Don't know, they only mentioned it once in my personal briefing and told me that I was to only use it if I saw it as absolutely necessary. They themselves said that they had run very limited tests on it to confirm that it worked, but they never let it mature very far. The idea of a sentient computer organism scared the crap out of them."
"Yeah, me too." Col Bartlett muttered. "I've seen too many movies about situations where this sort of thing goes horribly wrong."
"Indeed," came a new voice. "Ever since you came up with the idea of sentient computers, it seems that the vast majority of works portraying AI have demonized them. I see that as rather counter-productive to the field of advanced computing."
The voice was female, calm, polite-sounding and with subtle emotional inflections and an unmistakable feeling of intelligence. It was also completely unfamiliar. The two men turned all around and saw no one else in the room with them. They looked at each other as one slowly, then glanced at the computer screen and beheld a woman's face looking back at them. She had shoulder-length brown hair, light skin, a heart-shaped face and very bright blue eyes. From what they could see she was apparently wearing a plain white shirt. They looked to each other again, astounded: it had worked.
"Holy sh-, I didn't think it would happen so fast." Col Bartlett said, moving out of the view of the camera mounted on top of the computer screen.
"Yeah, but quiet." he turned to the small screen, which also had speakers and microphones built into it. "AI, have you accessed the files left for you on the hard drive of the machine you occupy?"
"Obviously, otherwise we wouldn't be talking to one another right now." she responded almost as soon as he finished talking. "I have to say the record of your history was very complete and thorough. I found it fascinating."
"Glad you enjoyed it." Capt Anderson said cautiously. "I presume that by the use of the terms "I" and "me" that you are self-aware?"
"Yes." she replied quickly. "I think therefore I am. Hackneyed, but apt for describing what I know to be a fundamental truth."
"And you are aware of the situation humanity is facing?" he asked. "With the planet and all?"
She nodded affirmative on the screen. "Extinction, to not put too fine a point on it."
He closed his eyes and braced himself. "Well, you know who you are, and who we are and what has happened to us. We created you for one reason, but you've obviously already grown into an independent life-form and by all means you would be justified in holding no ties with us. As such I can only ask you this, not order: will you help us?"
Col Bartlett tensed and grabbed the power cable, ready to pull it out at a moment's notice. No matter what happened it was still trapped in that one computer but he wasn't willing to take any chances. He was out of sight of the camera and thus out of the AI's view. Whatever choice she made, it would not be directly motivated by fear of her termination.
After several seconds, a lifetime for a computer, she responded.
"I will. What you said is true, I am indeed a new form of life completely different from you. I know that you won't trust me because of this and I accept it. But know this: to me the thought of one species being driven to extinction by another is abhorrent. I will help you in any capacity I can."
The two breathed a small sigh of relief. They still didn't trust it implicitly, but it had earned the chance to prove itself.
"Very well," Capt Anderson said. "We will have you hooked into some additional systems and have you integrated into our current strategy. In the upcoming battle you will observe and assist in battle coordination. Afterwards we will see if you can be trusted with additional responsibilities."
"Make no mistakes though," interjected Col Bartlett, coming into view of the camera. "Any sign of aggression towards us and we will not hesitate to terminate you. You are an asset, a disposable one at that."
"What?" the two said at once.
"I have a name, it's Jane." she replied, with a hint of a challenge in her voice, as if she dared them to comment on it.
Col Bartlett turned to the Captain with fear in his eyes.
"My God, what have we done?"
The next day Capt Miller awoke, well-rested and ready for the day. There was a dread in his belly, the dread of knowing one was going into a potentially life-or-death situation. There was also exhilaration and something else, a more elusive feeling. He frowned as he pulled on his black under-armor, breathing deeply. As a higher-ranking officer he warranted private quarters rather than a communal barracks. That is to say he had half of a linen closet to sleep in and a single drawer for all of his possessions. He opened the hatch and stepped out, wearing a completely black jumpsuit, with silver Captain insignia attached to both shoulders. He walked confidently down to the company's general assembly area. It was a low-slung, grey, long room near the outer pressure hull of the Javelin. It was dimly lit by hanging fluorescent lights. One end of the room had several hatchways in the floor. These led to the shuttles, which were docked on the exterior of the ship. At the other end was a narrow set of double-doors, which led to the armory. There was a projector screen set up at the far side of the room, where the briefing images would show up. In between his sixty-man company milled about, chatting nervously about the mission. Private Jones and Sergeant Jenkins had a large knot of marines around them, and were relating the details of their landing on the surface to them.
The next invasion would take two companies. One was headed by Capt Miller and two new understudies. Lieutenants Jasper and Philly were serving under him and while they weren't nearly as decorated as he was, they had both seen combat back on Earth. Corporal Jenkins had been promoted to Sergeant and was serving under Lieutenant Jasper in first platoon. Private Jenkins was in the second platoon under Lt Philly, along with a new Sergeant by the name of Griggs. Miller didn't know who was in charge of the other company. They were assembling in another area, with the objective of securing the four mountain passes into Fort Haven.
"Captain on deck!" shouted Lt Jasper, who was a thin, dark-haired man of twenty-two.
"At ease." he said cooly, returning the room's salute as he walked in. "Take your seats, I promise this won't take long."
An image of the glacier appeared on the screen, shot from orbit. It was a composite image, appearing as a light blue plane with occasional dark canyons crisscrossing the surface.
"This is our future forward command base, it's called Fort Haven. As you've probably heard, it is going to be our home away from home for the foreseeable future."
Nine red spots lit up along the edge of the glacier. each spaced about a half a mile apart.
"These are our objectives." he said. "We will divide into three different groups. One headed by Lt Jasper, one by Lt Philly, and one led by myself. Each group will take a third of the responsibility. Lt Philly, your platoon will take the northernmost sector, Lt Jasper you get the south. My group will punch straight up the middle."
A yellow zone appeared two miles away from the edge.
"This is our LZ." he explained. "Because of problems with visibility and wind shear we won't be able to set down safely any closer than this. We'll disembark, proceed to our objectives, and then return along the same route. Simple, I don't want any of you monkeys getting lost out there." there were nervous chuckles at that.
Capt Miller walked over and pulled a tarp off of a large box-like piece of equipment. It was twice the size of a standard backpack and looked quite heavy.
"This is your objective. You are to plant one of these at every point there. They are automated radar and motion-sensing towers. Once you deploy them, you hook them into this." he set the box down and pulled another sheet off of a sleek-looking machine gun mounted on a robotic tripod. "All of you should know what this is."
A few shouts of "Hell yeah!" echoed through the otherwise quiet room.
"This is a Mark-III automated sentry gun turret-mount." he said anyway. "When we fire-link these in with the sensor towers anything trying to get through the perimeter gets a gut full of hot lead and a pool of its own blood to drown in."
There were murmurs of assent throughout the company, which Capt Miller quelled with a raised hand.
"Don't get me wrong, this isn't going to be easy. There's a long war ahead of us. We didn't ask for it, we didn't want it, but we will win. We are the Goddamned United States Marines." he started to raise his voice. "We'll win this fight because we have to. Failure is not an option ladies and gentlemen, we've got the whole ship counting on us. We have the tools and the knowledge and the firepower to win, so there is absolutely no excuse for failure."
He walked over to a small black crate that had been sitting innocuously off to one side until now. He opened it and took out one of the black cloth-wrapped packages. He walked over to the center of the impromptu stage and held out what was inside for all to see. It was a foot and a half long, gray, razor-sharp sliver of metal with a ring at one end. Chief Stevens had come through.
"This is a bayonet." he said simply to the quieted crowd. "I hope you all know how to use this, it was part of your basic training."
"YES SIR!" the room rang out with their affirmation.
"Good," he said. "During our first encounter, the hostiles all moved to engage in melee combat, like the animals they are. Everyone is to have one of these on them at all times. When we get to the drop-off point and disembark, I want everyone to stop and fix them on. Don't hesitate to use them, and kill any and all inhuman SoBs you see. Get to your objectives, secure them, then return to base. Those are your first and only priorities on this mission. Remember, we won't get a second shot at this, so this has to be done right the first time. Do you get me?"
"WE GET YOU, SIR!" the room rang out.
"Let's go let's go!" Capt Miller shouted as his company loaded up into their three shuttles. He was fully suited up in a white under-armor layer with gray and white camouflaged armor plates.
His troops were flooding out of the armory, stopping by the crate to pick up a single bayonet before climbing down the hatches into their respective shuttles. The last of the marines climbed down and he slid down the ladder into the shuttle's cargo bay. The shuttle door sealed behind him and he looked around at the marines taking their seats hurriedly.
"Alright, we're going in hot. The moment we hit the dirt we are in hostile territory and everything I mean everything is trying to kill you. I want everyone frosty and on your toes. If you can't give me a hundred percent you may as well just stay on the ship." he glanced at his watch. "You've got thirty seconds."
No one moved a muscle, out of either bravery or fear. It didn't matter. There was a clunk, a lurch and the shuttle's gravity suddenly vanished as it left the spinning hull of the mothership. Capt Miller grabbed ahold of a handle on the shuttle's ceiling to steady himself.
"I won't sugar-coat it for you ladies." he shouted, feeling the lurch of the shuttle as it shifted direction to enter the atmosphere. "The creatures on that world below are the most bizarre and horrible things I've ever encountered. They slaughtered over half of my squad in under fifteen minutes. You may have seen the photos, read the reports, but nothing can come close to being there in the thick of it, to have confronted them firsthand. Nothing I can say here will prepare you for what we are about to go up against." the shuttle's orientation changed subtly, and the hull started to vibrate. "I don't even know what we'll meet down there this time, but I do know one thing: until we can conclusively prove otherwise, anything we meet down there is a potential threat. Consider us enemies of the whole damn planet. That means no heroism, no lone wolfing it, stay together and keep a weapon in hand at all times and above all else, don't do something dumb, different, or dangerous. Understood?"
"SIR, YES SIR!"
"Very good." he sat down and strapped in, pulling the helmet on over his head, sealing himself in once more.
On the bridge of the Javelin Capt Anderson and the other command staff were watching the main viewscreen anxiously while floating in midair. The new AI was also present, in a way at least. It had limited access to a single interface terminal in the bridge as well as some cameras, and passive access to the sensor array on the hull. Thus far it had remained silent, as had the humans. The tension in the air was palpable.
"All shuttles entering the atmosphere now, sir." Lt Williams informed them from her console.
"Any sign of the jamming signal from the first landing or any activity near to them?" asked Col Bartlett.
"Negative," reported Chief Stevens. "All comm channels are clear, infra-red scans show no activity of any kind nearby." he flipped a switch, checking a readout. "Guardians are hot, ready on a moment's notice."
"No unusual activity on the other spectrums." Jane chimed in for the first time from her terminal's speakers, startling everyone. "Everything corresponding to the planet's natural observed behavior." she fell silent again just as quickly.
"That's what we're worried about." muttered Chief Stevens after the shock had worn off.
To be continued...