This story was sent to us by long-time SciFi Ideas acolyte Vincente Tellez. It was inspired by (and begins with) an original ‘story starting point’ written by Mark Ball, which we shared back in March.
The Starting Point
by Mark Ball
“Astute, this is Recon 4, come back.”
“Astute responding. Go ahead Recon 4.”
“We’ve got something. Sector 5 by 9. Looks like an old Reacher transport ship from before the war. She came down at the base of one of those fungal growths, I’m guessing that’s why we didn’t spot her from the sky.”
“Copy that Recon 4. Please advise as to the condition of the craft.”
“Astute, Recon 4. Err… She looks pretty intact. I wouldn’t say one piece, exactly, but they sure built these things to last. Jones and Farsi are about to make a sweep of the interior.”
“Copy Recon 4. Be careful down there, and be sure to check for ghosts.”
“Astute, say again. Did you say ghosts?”
“Roger Recon 4. Make sure your guys take every precaution. There’s a chance the core may still be active. Like you say, they built these things to last.”
“Astute, Recon 4. No kidding. But ghosts, after all these years?”
“Containment packs at the ready, Recon 4. It’s not unknown. There should also be an interface in every compartment, so have your guys monitor their systems periodically. If there’s anything left alive down there it’ll be highly corrupted and looking to switch to a new power source. Your atmo-suits would look like the Ritz to a fading Reacher remnant right now.”
“Astute, err, the guys left those packs in the rover, I’m just gonna run them over to them now.”
“Copy Recon 4.”
“Recon 4, Astute, come back.”
“Recon 4, Astute, come back.”
by Vincente Tellez
Lance Corporal Sherman Jones had always been the bravest on the team, so it was no surprise when he volunteered to scout out the Reacher ship first. But what was a surprise to the rest of the team was when Lance Corporal Tristan Farsi was the next to volunteer. Though every member of the Recon team was considered an elite corpsman, Farsi was the technical expert, and everyone knew he was a bit jumpy. The way he saw it though, it wasn’t as though they were expecting anything to happen. Things had been quiet since the war with the bugs had ended with the peace treaty in 2662 three years ago, and the whole team had been quite at ease since. The chance to explore an old Reacher ship wasn’t an opportunity he wanted to pass up.
“If I remember those schematics right, we should head down this hallway to reach the bridge. From there we should be able to restore some of the ship’s functionality.” Jones pointed down a hallway with a flickering light, and Farsi turned to look down it.
“Alright, I’ll take point. You just tell me where to go,” Farsi said as he began to take a step down the corridor. As he did, the lights suddenly blinked off, and he jumped out of startlement.
“Calm down, yellow belly. Ain’t no need to be scared of the dark,” Jones teased him.
“Ya, you’re laughing now, but I don’t want anything to sneak up on us.” Farsi gathered himself and fumbled with the flashlight on his rifle. Once it was on, he made a quick sweep of the hallway to make sure it was still clear. Once satisfied, he continued forward with Jones a few meters behind him, his own light casting a long shadow on the floor ahead of them.
“This ship’s probably three hundred years old, maybe older,” Jones responded. “There ain’t gonna be anything left to sneak up on us.”
Farsi just snorted in reply, not wanting to continue the argument. He instead turned his thoughts to the past, letting his training mindlessly guide him through the halls as he lost himself in his reflections. The Reachers, whose ship he had so eagerly wanted to explore, had left the Sol system in the early 22nd century, long before FTL travel had been invented. A group of fanatics who had desperately wanted to see humanity colonize the stars, they had frozen themselves in cryogenic sleep and launched themselves away in their massive colony ships. Seven of the behemoths had been built and launched, all towards different stars suspected of having habitable planets. Since FTL travel had been invented, only three of the ships had been found, all with missing crews. It was a mystery what had happened to them, and the team was hoping to find out through this ship’s remains. Farsi also thought he recalled some odd circumstances regarding the exploration of the previous ships, but he couldn’t quite remember what it was.
Farsi was pulled out of his thoughts by Jones. “What was that?” his partner asked as he swept his rifle down a conjoining hall.
Farsi snapped back to the situation at hand. “What was what?” he asked. He swept his own light over the region that Jones had been looking at, but he didn’t see anything which looked out of place. It was just the metal piping and conduits normal for any starship of the time.
“I could have sworn I saw something move back behind that piping.” Jones slowly inched forward, rifle at the ready as he approached. Farsi watched him check around the piping just around the corner of the protruding hallway, then step back.
“Anything?” Farsi asked.
“No, but there was some sort of small shaft back there, maybe for ventilation or maintenance. It was probably just some local fauna that’s taken up residence. Let’s keep moving.”
“Astute, any chance you could get ahold of the guys inside? I can’t reach them with the interference from the ship.” Sergeant Danielle Garcia stood outside the looming Reacher ship with her radio in hand and the rover just off to the side. “Astute, Recon 4, do you read?” The radio only responded with the sound of static. “Tanj radio,” she muttered to herself.
Garcia hopped up into the rover to grab the containment packs. Sitting inside the rover’s crew compartment were two of the team’s riflemen, O’Kelly and Davis, playing a game of Vense with their deck of cards. Garcia saw they were doing nothing important and ordered them on their feet. “You two, stopping jacking around and grab a couple of containment packs. I need you to deliver ‘em to Jones and Farsi inside the ship.”
“Containment packs? What for?” Davis looked up from his hand as O’Kelly planned his next move.
“Astute just radioed in, warned their might be ghosts inside. Jones and Farsi left without the packs before we got the call. Now get off your ass and go deliver them.” She was a little harsh and abrupt, but she couldn’t afford to waste time.
“Ghosts?” O’Kelly inquired. “Why the tanj would Astute warn us ‘bout some fairytale monsters?”
“Not those kind of ghosts, idiot.” Davis jabbed him in the shoulder. “Some kind of AI remnant left by the Reachers, right Sarnt?”
“Right. Now I already told you, stop fooling around and get those packs down to the guys inside, or I’ll have you sweeping sunshine off the rover till the end of the day.”
Davis put his cards down and stood up to grab his gear off the rack. “Aye aye, Sarnt.” O’Kelly followed suit and grabbed four containment packs, two for themselves and one each for Jones and Farsi. Once they were ready, they stepped out of the rover and headed for the ship at a quick jog.
Farsi was racing down the hallway, stumbling over debris he couldn’t see in the dark. “Jones, you good?” he shouted over his shoulder.
“Right behind you man! Keep moving!” Jones stopped and turned around with his rifle at the ready. He couldn’t pick a target out of the franticly moving shadows, but he pulled the trigger anyway and sent a few rounds down the way they had just come. He heard the scramble of mechanical legs and a whirring buzz, but he didn’t stay to see if he got the kill. Instead, he turned around to catch back up to Farsi.
Farsi rounded the corner ahead and passed through a doorway where he paused for Jones to catch back up. As soon as he was through the threshold, Farsi slammed the door shut behind him. Just as it finished closing, the two heard several of their pursuers slam against the bulkhead.
As soon as he thought the coast was clear, Jones stooped over to catch his breath. “What the tanj were those? Sure weren’t any sort of thing I’ve seen before,” he asked. He paused to recall their appearance as he tried to remember anything similar he might have seen before. They were white, four-legged robots about half a meter tall. The legs were divided into several segments, giving them a very spider-like appearance. The central body ended on the front with a small head on which rested a single, large glowing eye and two small manipulation arms in place of a mouth. To Jones, the arms looked like pincers, which only served to cement the arachnid image in his head.
After Jones’ earlier encounter with the “local fauna,” the pair had continued onward toward the bridge and Farsi had gone back to thinking about the Reachers. After some time, he had finally remembered what had been bothering him about the previously discovered Reacher ships. Unfortunately, he had remembered only a moment too late. It was just at that time that the Reacher remnants had locked on to their armor’s power sources and decided they looked like a tasty snack. The mechanical repair bots had all rushed them at once from down the hallway, and the two Marines had high-tailed it out of there pretty quickly.
“They called ‘em Reacher remnants at the intel brief before we made landfall,” Farsi answered Jones’ question. “Some sort of repair bots that the Reachers brought with them to maintain the ships while they were frozen. They’re supposed to be remotely controlled by onboard AIs, which means we might be dealing with a rampant ghost.”
“You mean you knew about the little buggers before we walked in!?” exclaimed Jones.
“I only just remembered before they rushed us. If I had known beforehand, I might have taken a few of the other guys with us. I also would have grabbed a containment pack. We’re going to need one before we can restore basic functions to the ship, otherwise our little trip to the bridge is useless.”
“Well tanj,” Jones took another deep breath as he regained his composure. “Looks like we got a problem. Any idea where we are?”
“Nah, but there should be some markings around here somewhere. We came in through Deck 9, Section Bravo.” Farsi looked around to see if he could find any labelling and finally spotted some writing on the wall farther down the corridor. He could barely make out the lettering in the dark. “Looks like Bravo is over this way.”
The two started to walk down the hallway, but as they did the door ahead of them slammed shut on its own. They froze and stared at the blocked pathway before them. “It’s on to us,” Farsi said. “It’s probably locked on to our armor’s power signature. They’d be a pretty appealing piece of machinery for making repairs to the ship. We might have to power down.”
“Power down?” Jones spoke up. “Farsi, if we power down, we ain’t gonna be going anywhere fast. These things weigh too much to operate without power assist.”
“Well, we can leave behind the heavier components, but I don’t see much else we can do. If we try to route around this blockade while it’s still tracking us, the ghost is just going to keep cutting us off.”
“If you say so, man. You’re the techie, I’m just along for the ride.”
Reluctant to part with their protection, the two men stripped their armor, only keeping the vital parts that they could carry under their own strength. The environment was hospitable enough that they knew they’d be fine for a few hours, but what was more concerning was the lack of protection against the bots that had been chasing them. They walked around to the other corridor which led to Section Charlie, and when they approached the door, nothing happened.
“Looks like we’re good to go.” Farsi said, and the pair stepped through.
Davis and O’Kelly were frantically stepping through the crowded hallways as they made their way forward. They hadn’t been in a hurry when they first entered the ship, but it wasn’t long before they heard gunfire echoing through the corridors. As soon as they heard it, they had started to rush towards what they assumed were their squad mates. As they did, they had begun to encounter the Reacher remnants, which were slowly zeroing in on the newcomers.
“’Nother contact!” Davis shouted as he sent a burst down the hallway. The well-placed shot disabled the piece of machinery at once, and it collapsed to the ground. Davis stepped over it and searched for more targets, but he saw none. “Clear!” he shouted back to O’Kelly. The pair immediately moved forward, taking care to keep their weapons downrange and ready to fire.
Like a well-oiled machine, the pair moved down the maze of corridors and bulkheads, taking down the remnants as they went. They eventually came to a hallway with a closed door at the other end, and they were just about to set up for a breech when it opened from the other side. To their surprise, out stepped Jones and Farsi with a distinct lack of armor.
“What the tanj? Jones, where’s your armor?” O’Kelly asked with a stunned expression.
Farsi answered instead. “Had to leave it behind. The ghost was tracking us, and he’s probably about to lock on to you guys soon too.” As if on command, the doors behind and ahead of the group suddenly slammed shut just as Farsi finished his sentence. Davis ran up to the nearest one and slammed on the release switch, but it didn’t budge.
“We’re trapped,” he said.
“You wouldn’t happen to have brought a containment pack with you, would you?” Farsi asked.
“Ya that’s the reason we’re down here. You know our motto, we deliver,” O’Kelly said with a smile.
“Great, let me see it. That may be what we need to get out of here. There was an interface back over here. If I can just set it up properly…” O’Kelly handed him one of the packs they had brought down, and Farsi brought it over to the interface.
“Whatever you’re about to do over there, you might want to make it fast,” Davis said. “I can hear those bots crawling around outside. If they find a way in, we’ll be toast.” He pointed over to a few crates which looked like they might provide some decent cover and signaled O’Kelly and Jones to take up defensive positions. “Farsi, how long’s that gonna take you?”
“If I can get it set up fast enough,” Farsi replied, “’bout five or ten minutes? Depends on how robust they made these AIs and how much they’ve corroded since. Can’t be sure.”
“Well make it snappy,” Davis commanded. “We’ve got incoming.” There were several of the repair bots breaking into the hallway through the maintenance tunnels, and the Marines opened fire as soon as they were within range.
“Interface connection established. Working on the ghost now,” Farsi said as he finished connecting the containment pack to the panel before him. He tapped it once to be sure it was secure, then grabbed his rifle and spun around to help his comrades. Now that it was connected to the system, the pack would automatically search out and quarantine the ghost on its own. As he turned, he saw one of the remnants jump into the air towards O’Kelly, who was busy reloading his weapon. Farsi quickly raised his sights and pulled the trigger. The rounds connected, and their momentum nearly stopped the lightweight robot in mid-air. It quickly fell to the ground, the glow in its single eye fading as it did.
O’Kelly gave him a quick nod, but there was no time for a verbal thanks. He finished putting in a new magazine and turned his attention back down the hallway. Farsi did the same, and the four members of Recon 4 held their ground, downing wave after wave of Reacher remnants.
“These guys ain’t too bright. They just keep jumping into our line of fire,” O’Kelly noted. He sent another burst down the corridor and destroyed another of the machines.
“They’re not designed for combat, they’re meant for ship maintenance,” Farsi shot back. “They’re not even trying to kill us, they just want to cannibalize your armor for ship repairs.” The normally jumpy Marine was calm as he explained the details.
O’Kelly downed another of the spider-like robots as he responded. “Well they don’t have to be so aggressive ‘bout it. If we stop shooting, you think they’ll just take it and leave?” he asked.
“Hey, if you’re volunteering, be my guest,” Farsi said as he scored his own hit on one of the bots. “But that ghost in control of them has been down here so long, he’s probably not stable anymore. I wouldn’t take my chances. Might not have any regard for human life if he’s so focused on making repairs.”
“Right,” O’Kelly replied. “I think I’ll just keep shooting.”
“Regardless,” Davis interrupted the conversation, “we can’t hold out forever. I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve only got three more mags. How much longer we got on that pack, Farsi?”
“It should have finished by now,” the Marine said. “That ghost must have a lot of firewalls set up. Let me see if I can bypass door controls so we can fall back if the pack doesn’t work.” He turned around and ran back up to the door with the interface panel. He removed the cover from the door controls and pulled out his electrical tools. He started to play around with the circuitry when he heard two loud tones from the containment pack next to him. He turned and saw the screen flashing green.
“Hey guys!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Looks like it worked, we got the ghost!”
“We noticed,” Jones said. Farsi turned and looked back at his teammates. He saw them staring down the hallway with their weapons lowered. He followed their gaze and saw several Reacher remnants standing idle in the hallway, waiting for commands from a now disabled ghost.
“Tanj ya!” O’Kelly exclaimed. “I think we earned our pay for today, boys,” he said as he walked over to one of the inert bots and tried to knock it over with a light kick. It wobbled a bit before stumbling to the side and regaining its balance, but it otherwise didn’t respond.
Jones wiped the sweat from his forehead as he turned to Davis. “We left our armor a few corridors back. No sense leaving it behind now we’re done with these guys,” he pointed back to the sedentary remnants, “and I’d rather not have the Sarnt tear me a new one for abandoning it.”
“Roger,” Davis said. “You lead the way, and we’ll back you up if we run into anything else.”
“We shouldn’t,” Farsi spoke up as he was disconnecting the containment pack from the interface on the bulkhead. Davis and Jones turned to look at him. “Run into anything, I mean,” he said when he saw them staring at him. He held up the pack. “I’ve got the ghost trapped right in here, so it and any of its remnants shouldn’t be giving us anymore trouble.” He walked over to O’Kelly, who took that pack and stowed it away in his bag. “Once we start the data mining back at base, we should be able to find out how the ship got here and what happened to the crew. Might not even need to explore the rest of the ship if we can recover enough info.”
“Well, that settles it,” Davis said. “We’ll go grab the armor and RTB. I don’t want be walking through kilometers of ship if I don’t have to, and especially not low on ammo. Get that door open and let’s go.” Farsi finished fiddling with the circuitry he had opened up, and the door slid open with a hiss. The four Marines walked down the long hallway in silence, each looking forward to a set of rations and nice long nap when they got back, if Sergeant Garcia was kind enough. Perhaps after a quick debrief, if they explained what had happened she would concede. They had earned it, after all.
Written by Vincente Tellez.
Based on an original writing prompt by Mark Ball.
Artwork by Sung Choi.