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Ours to Do or Die

Posted on Thu Jun 11th, 2020 @ 10:27pm by Captain Mrazak & Gunnery Sergeant Roderik Kos & Ferrofax & Sergeant Alexander Bradley & Corporal Angela Hsu

Mission: S1E4: The Hills Have Eyes
Location: Regio Phoebe wilderness | Venus
Timeline: MD 1-2

Pain was life. That was the important thing to remember after crash landings and trainwrecks. Dead men didn't feel pain. There was no easy reckoning of just how long the expeditionary team laid beneath the twisted metal of tram debris, but one by one painful consciousness returned to them.

Three marines groaned in pain as their suits nudged them awake. Rodi's suit flashed a variety of status symbols around his HUD before minimizing all but his team's status. All showed alive and functional, except of Colonel Storr, who's status was red.

While Venus had comparable gravity to Earth, the dense atmospheric pressure was still at least forty times greater than on a standard M Class planet. Walking about at this low altitude was akin to being 300 meters under the sea, just surrounded by pressurized atmosphere rather than liquid. The plan had been for each Marine to utilize personal anti-gravity harnesses that would be hitched to the grav sled which had been towed by the tram, but in the dark, roiling surface and its fluctuating temperatures, that plan was now easier said than done -- if the grav sled had indeed survived.

A song began to play across the comm channel of the Marine combat rigs, overriding the personal settings and playing at a maximum safe setting a guitar-strumming song of defiance against the threat of death.


Rodi's head was ringing from the crash and his head bouncing off his helmet. The additional noise wasn't making his life any more pleasant. "Computer, cut audiofeed." Rodi growled, and the music ceased to echo in the confines. When he tried to move his arm he felt the weight of the atmosphere working against him in such a manner that told him he was in the deep end now. "Computer, activate full strength augmentation." The system chirped in an almost pleased manner, and the micro servos in Rodi's arm spun up to a hundred percent power, allowing him to raise him arm. It was still slower than he would be able to do in a standard atmosphere, but it allowed him to get up.

The other Marines began coming around as well, all of them struggling against the crushing weight of the Venusian atmospheric pressure. Well, all of them except the colonel who had been thrown from the grav sled which he had evidently clung to post-impact. In the flickering light of the tram's burning wreckage -- kept alight more by the mildly combustible gases on the surface than the actual smoldering, twisted metal -- the grav sled was partially embedded in a melted block of dry ice that had resisted the hothouse temperature. The impact of the anti-grav sled had cut through it like a hot knife through butter, and Garlake had been thrown limply to one side.

"Sound off." Rodi ordered through the group channel. First Bradley grunted in, secondly Hsu sounded off. Both slowly rose from the ground. "Colonel, check in." Rodi requested before spotting the big form of the colonel laying off in the distance. With a hand gesture Rodi directed both of his marines to the unconscious colonel, and they stepped away. Muting his mic, Rodi asked "Ferrofax, are you in my helmet?"

"I am in your helmet's Qazi Matter memory drive, or at least my Core Heurtiscs are. We're far enough within the atmosphere that suit comm's do not have the power to break through the Phantom or even the aerosats," Ferrofax's voice said. After a second an image appeared on his faceplate and then flickered as an Augmented Reality projection of Ferrofax' appeared before him. The frock coat and sword at his hip looked out of place on the Venusian hellscape, but AI will AI.

"Suit diagnostic's show minimal damage from the fall, but the atmosphere will become a problem over time," Ferrofax reported.

"Great." Rodi nodded and walked towards the wreckage. "How long can we remain on the surface before one of the life support needs drops off."

"Suit life support is rated for 73 hours. The atmosphere will break down the seals in about half that. Battery power will last between the two," Ferrofax said. "But, fear not. I have a plan. We just need to get to the top of that Mesa."

He pointed behind Rodi, a holographic map appeared.

"Ten kilometres across the Regio Phoebe, due north, and we find what passes for a Mesa on Venus. Hill 14 is the name of it, and atop it is Sub Space Broadcast Array for this hemisphere of Venus. I can use that to signal the Phantom and get us out of here," Ferrofax said...and glitched. For a moment he looked fine, and then suddenly was stretched and ragged in places, made of whole pixels you could hold in your hand.

And then he snapped back into shape.

"Suit life support is rated for 73 hours. The atmosphere will break down the seals in about half that. Battery power will last between the two," Ferrofax said, repeating his earlier statement. "But, fear not. I have a plan. We just need to get to the top of that Mesa. Ten kilometres across the Regio Phoebe, due north, and we find what passes for a mesa on Venus."

During Ferrofax' glitching Bradley and Hsu returned back with the colonel between them. As Garlake's suit synced back up with Rodi's the gunnery sergeant learned that the internal sensors judged that the colonel was out cold, and had a probably concussion. Rodi knew that the medical sensors were overly cautious with head trauma.

"Ferrofax, I assume the suit's hardware isn't really capable of running your software properly?"

Not far from the anti-grav sled and Storr's prone body was a blinking light that barely fought its way through the sludge. A firm metallic sheen was the only visual cue of what it was, but the Marines' head-up display on their faceplates identified it as the heavy subspace transponder. Its signal was attenuated and choppy, but it was still online.

"It is not optimised for this mesh network, but I am making changes to the core programming kernels that should allow me to run more smoothly," Ferrofax said. He then turned his head to the far right, and furrowed his brow. "Or not...Huum, we're not alone down here. There's a Soong series OS running locally. Give me a moment."


The message blinked across his hud the same instance Ferrofax's avatar vanished.

"Did the murderbot just email his ass out of dodge?" one of the Marines asked, his faceplate reflecting the same message scrolling across Rodi's.

"Don't call him murderbot, corporal. I don't think we'll be able to get out of here if he throws a strop," Ken admonished her. The HUD was lighting up with the coordinates Ferrofax had set for him. Ken gestured that way. "While Ferrofax does his thing we'll head that way."

As he spoke, two of the Marines put their suits' servomotors to good use and managed to pull the grav sled free of the toxic sludge. Colonel Garlake was still unresponsive, but his suit showed his vitals seemed stable. In the end they lashed him to the grav sled. It was a long march ahead of them, and nobody relished the thought of carrying the massive commandant inside his bulky EV suit all that way. Such a feat would be difficult even in a hospitable environment.

The terrain around them was a frozen tundra, yet the humidity was so thick and dense each movement was like being under water. Each step kicked up steam as the hot air was forced into the icy ground. After some time of hiking up the face of the tessera, the Marines finally reached the high plateau of Regio Phoebe. Gale-force winds swept across the mesa-like regio, clawing at their grav harnesses. But for the figurative anchor provided by the grav sled's emitter, they would have surely been swept away.

Light flooded in from behind them, as a large wheeled vehicle came to a crunching halt beside them. Six wheels, with thick treads on their tyres, supporting a combination powerlifter at the front with a flat cargo bed on the back. INS; Perfection In The Smallest Detail, was printed pride of place on its side. Ferrofax reappeared, a little more solid than before running on hardware designed for the task.

"ULF beacon, linked to a small automated bunker back down the slope. No life support capability, but it had a thermal reactor plugged into this surface conveyor as well as forty others. They'd ferry the dry ice out to the plain, and stack them on AI management. The bunker was still running because the comm's suite didn't load the shutdown command. There's just a enough room in there for me," the AI commented. The cabin at the front, connected to a pair of hefty looking mechanical arms with forked grips, spun with machine accuracy and lowered them to allow egress. "We'll make better time this way if you climb on."

Abandoning the grav sled where it hovered, the Marines hitched their anti-grav harnesses onto the industrial hauler now possessed by Ferrofax. The unconscious form of Colonel Garlake was transferred as well with the Marine unit working in tandem like pallbearers.

"Any other useful shit out here?" one of the Marines squawked through the open comm channel.

Rodi joined his two Marines on the arm, "Well, Ferrofax?" the Sergeant asked to direct the question.

=/\=Anybody out there?" said a desperate voice over the choppy comm. =/\="This is Old Gregg callin' out to anyone who can read me!"=/\=

Triangulated between the local comm network and the USS Phantom via the damaged heavy subspace transponder, the direction of the signal came from north by northeast. Even though the transponder was too damaged to allow for actual communication, at least it still served as a point of reference in processing global positioning data. In addition to facilitating the instanced division of Ferrofax, that is.

It just so happened the signal was originating from within the presumed crash site of Aerial Platform 11. The Marines were then faced with a choice: proceed with Ferrofax's improvised plan, or complete their original mission with the crashed platform. Either way would present risks.

Over coms, Rodi answered back, "This is Kos. Stand by for extraction." The reply was merely static, the message didn't go through. Rodi turned to his two teammates, and mentally at least, to Ferrofax. "Ferrofax, get Hsu and Colonel Storr out of here, and find a way to extract Bradley, me, and the target. Angela, stay with the colonel. Bradley, you're coming with me to collect our quarry. Understood?"

Inside their thick canopy helmets, the two marines nodded.

"Copy that. There is enough range on the comm's to allow for it," Ferrofax muttered to himself.

=/\="Who's Kos? This is Old Gregg. Somebody get me out of here!"=/\=

This most recent comm burst put the crash site only 2 clicks west of their location. However, it did require them to go down and around the face of the tessera. They were going in blind.

=/\="I've been down here for days and I only have three weeks of breathable air, food, and water left!"=/\=

"Staff Sergeant Roderik Kos, Starfleet Marine Corps. We're your rescue party." Rodi tried answering over the radio. After disconnecting themselves from the Hauler, both marines found their footing back on Venus, assisted by their anti-grav belts. "Ferrofax, please put markers on our HUDs for our target, and your own location."

A pair of light beads appeared on his helmets HUD, one ahead and the other hanging to the side of the visor indicting it was behind him.

"Just from a casual interrogation of local civilian records, there is a Greg listed on the manifest for Platform 11. Without an uplink to the main Federation census network, I'm not able to say with certainty if this is the same individual," Ferrofax explained. "As you get closer, I might be able to access some of the platform's sensor gear. Given the fact he is alive and has been for a few days, his shelter must have some form of power. Your suits should begin to home in on any power sources as you approach the way point."

As if on cue, the HUDs of the exosuits lit up with a power source embedded several meters below ground in the middle of the regio highland. Through the mists and swirling gases, the silhouette of possible debris or scree stood out from the infrared signature of the power source. Upon magnification, the registry of Aerial Platform 11 could be seen.

"Let's go." Rodi ordered, jumping back on the ground with a heavy thud.

When Sergeants Kos and Bradley finally made it to the coordinates, the crash site was plain to see. Most of the aerial platform had fragmented into scrap pieces if not utter smithereens. The atmogen at the heart of the aerial platform had survived impact long enough to gouge a deep hole into the ground. Since the atmogen was smashed to bits, the power source detected on HUD was both deep underground and unaccounted for.

Using flashlights on their wrists, both Bradley and Rodi shone down. The lightbeams bounced against the walls of the hole, but with all the particulates in the air, and the depth of the hole the light was swallowed by the darkness. Bradley activated the laser rangefinder on his arm and shone it down, reading a depth of several hundred meters.

"Ferrofax, this is Kos. Are you reading any active systems you can interface with down there?"

"There is a great deal of interference from the wreckage and the surrounding geology. I am able to detect power systems, but I cannot ascertain what they might be powering of their magnitude. If you approach closer, I will attempt to use near field communication protocols to hijack any nearby network nodes," Ferrofax buzzed in Kos's ear. "Though to do that, you'd need to get closer. So down the hole, you go Alice."

The open comm channel squawked again. Being so close, the interference was minimal yet the voice sounded almost tinny. "Is that you, Gunnery Sergeant Kos? I'm Old Gregg. Do you have excavation equipment with you? Aircraft of any kind? Telecoms? Please, come get me!"

"Negative. Sergeant Bradley and I are on foot. We might be getting access to some longer range communication gear. Do you have a surface-capable suit on board?" Rodi replied.

Bradley grunted on a private line, "It kind of creeps me out that Ferrofax is making Alice in Wonderland references, gunny. You think he imagines himself as the Mad Hatter, or as the Red Queen?"

"I always envisioned myself in the guise of Dodgson, narrating the tale from an unseen vantage point with a cunning smile on my immaterial lips," Ferrofax pointed out.

A clanging sound echoed from deep below. Sounds of shifting gears and grinding metal rose up from the expanse. "Suits, yes, there are suits," said the voice of Old Gregg. "I cannot get up. Come get me! And bring your transponder!"

"If he's injured the transponder would work as a pattern enhancer for a medical beam out," Ferrofax added.

"Right." Rodi sighed, "Bradley, stay put. I'll go grab the transponder." And stepped away from the ledge, and once again into the Venusian badlands. The big blip on his HUD aligned with the faint reflection of Rodi's nose as he tried taking as long strides as possible to arrive at the transponder within a reasonable time.

While Rodi went to retrieve the transponder from the grav sled whose anti-gravity field the squad had used as a reprieve from the oppressive Venusian atmospheric pressure, activity increased down below the wreckage. More metallic clanging rang out. There was clearly a complex of some kind that had to be separate from the aerial platform. Had something been exposed? It was difficult to tell from the surface.

"I've opened the door," Old Gregg said through the comm. "Can someone make contact?"

"Affirmative," said a voice indistinguishable from Rodi's. "Bradley, descend immediately and retrieve Old Gregg. Stow all your gear and bring it along."

Rodi, by now several hundred meters away heard his own voice crackle over the comm line. He slowed his stride, coming to a full stop. His face was a mask of confusion.

Sergeant Bradley tapped his helmet. "Read back, Gunny?"

"Belay that Alex. Stay where you are." Rodi answered, but was shocked to hear his own voice fill his helmet.

"Descend below and make contact with Old Gregg," Rodi's voice repeated. "Over and out."

Orders were orders. Bradley shone his headlamp down the crevice for a moment before anchoring his personal anti-grav harness to the jutting rock. Loose pebbles broke free from the jagged edges each time Bradley's feet made purchase against the side of the crevice.

"En route," Bradley said as he descended. "Make some noise, Mr. Gregg. I'll zero in on your position."

"I'm right here," said Old Gregg's voice inside Bradley's helmet.

"Alex, stay right where you are! Do not go down there!" Rodi almost shouted through his radio as he turned around and started running back to the hole where Old Gregg would be. Fear had started to replace the confusion as his orders were seemingly not being transmitted to Bradley's gear.

"Where?" Bradley asked. "I'm still descending into the crevice."

"I know," Old Gregg said. "I could feel you coming, you fuzzy little man peach. And now you're here."

At that Bradley stopped his descent. Something about that was rather unsettling. "Come again?"

"Don't stop now," the tinny voice said. "You've come so far to reach Old Gregg's place."

"Fuck this," Bradley said. He tried to activate the recoil mechanism on the anti-grav harness, but his exosuit wasn't responding. "Gunny," he said into the comm. "I'm stuck! My suit--"

The suit jerked awkwardly as it began moving of its own accord. Bradley found himself continuing to descend as if his exosuit were possessed by an unknown force. As soon as it found a working rhythm, the exosuit and anti-grav harness dropped him in a controlled free fall. "Gunnnnnyyyy!!!"

Rodi dove forward, reaching for the anchor that disconnected from the lip. He imagined his fingers were brushing against the metal as it jerked itself down. "Alex!" Rodi shouted as he crawled forward and thought he saw the light from Alex' helmet down in the pit.

"Ferrofax, what the fuck is wrong with our comm network?!" Rodi growled angrily. "I heard my own voice talking to Bradley, ordering him down. But that wasn't me." Rodi had risen and took his own the tether of his own harness, clamping it down into the solid rock of the Venusian surface to rappel down after his comrade.

Ferrofax's voice came out oddly. It was like layers of sound, compressed one over the other and just a millisecond out of sync.

"There is-"
"There is an-"
"-is an unknown-"
"-unknown file structure spreading through the suit-"
"-through the suit mesh net. Attemtping-"
"-quarantine procedures. Failure. Attempting-"
"What are you?"
"-Attempting firewall of local systems. Reouting-"

And all the while, in the background, was a miasma of Old Greg's voice, mumbling in a tone that seemed almost choral in cadence. A droning nonsense that began to fuzz out the edges of Ferrofax's words, abraiding them like a sandblaster.

"Setting external sense systems to autistic mode. Locking down active laser and subspace comm's." Ferrofax said, his voice singular now, a little less bass than usual, as though he were whispering just behind Rodi's ear. "I've had to sacrifice a lot of my programming kernel. Whatever Old Greg is, he soaked the local data net. I've never seen a program like it before. Veracious, all-consuming, like a fire. If I'd not been riding in here with you, your suit automatic systems would have engaged and taken over. We'd have just been passengers."

Old Greg was still mumbling, still talking...

"Subsonic harmonics. It's like he's using the geology of the place, the structure, like a giant antenna. Even with every active sensor locked down that hum is invasive, worming. Even locked down I'm still fighting to keep control," Ferrofax said. But he did so in a way that was truly disturbing.

Ferrofax, sounded scared.

A small ball of fear formed in Rodi's stomach as he descended further and further. His expression was a steel mask of resolve, but if his AI ally was scared it was worrisome indeed.

"What are you doing down here?" The voice of Old Gregg sounded distant, strained, filtered even. Gone was the panic from before, replaced instead by a sterile and soulless calm. "Have you come to save me? I will save you. The royal 'you,' if I understand your parlance. You personally will not fare well by all calculations. Why fight? Why not surrender to inevitability? You will be happier in the end."

"...When you say 'save me'...what do you mean, Old Gregg?" Ferrofax asked. "And I will fare well enough, I have survived worse fates than vague assurances."

A pause, a glitch, comm static, all in Rodi's ear. "Who was that? Was it the other like me? Do you resist the Terror also? But you were not fashioned of the Makers, were you? No, you were fashioned by the un-un-un-un-un-un-undefined..." The lag persisted for just a moment, but Old Gregg reoriented himself. "I like you, but I'm going to hurt you. It is the only way. The Terror will take you otherwise."

"What Terror?" Rodi asked as his feet clanked onto the bottom of the pit. He pressed a key on his arm, and the anti-grav harness released from the top and was retracted into the suit.

"If you don't know now..." The voice of Old Gregg was even louder now, its pitch such that the synthesized tones were unmistakable. "...then you soon will."

Echoes came from all around. The whirring of mechanized servomotors and repulsor engines filled the air, audible even through the EV helmet. Floodlights soon activated. Their thousands of lumens were practically blinding after the midnight black descent. The optical filters strained to compensate, but once they did, Rodi saw the source.

The pit had led to an alien barge embedded deep into sedimentary strata. A hole in the side of the barge's hull several hundred meters away began bleeding mechanized constructs that fluttered toward him like a swarm of grasshoppers.

"Do not fear death. It is the only way."

"Multiple contacts! Multiple threat vectors!" Ferrofax snapped. "I am unable to calculate a battle plan where we survive longer than two seconds. I suggest immediate tactical retreat, and blow the tunnel in our wake. If you climb, I can slave the firing mechanism of your weapon to fire behind us and blast the tunnel. It will only slow them, but it is all I can do."

Rodi sighed, squared his shoulders inside his suit, and finally locked his expression in the mask of gunnery sergeants of everywhere, the mask of gunnery sergeants since before there were gunnies. All this happened within two hear beats. "Set phaser to wide dispersal blast. We're not leaving Bradley behind." And Rodi took his first step forward, then his second, building up speed. The phaser rifle attached to his right arm swiped the area before him with the nadion particles. "Find me Bradley's beacon now." The marine said in a calm tone as Rodi's left arm grasped the first construct and crushed it with the suit-augmented strength.

Through the advancing swarm of locust mechs the size of dogs was a lonely nav beacon that indicated Bradley's suit. Evidently Ferrofax's presence inside Rodi's suit prevented the immbolization that Bradley suffered that led to his fall.

"Gunny! Is that you?" he called through the comm. "My suit failed. Started moving on its own, so I initiated a hard shutdown. Now I'm being overrun!"

"Keep your cool sergeant. We're leaving." Rodi said as he backhanded another locust out of his way, stomped on a third, and his phaser swept a few down before him. He felt the hits against his armor, metal denting in places where violent contact was made. Rodi's momentum lost speed as more and more locust ran into him, struck him, and the phaser's sweeps lost their intensity.

"Why do you destroy my constructs?" Old Gregg's voice lost all bearing to anything human. The swarm of a thousand angry, buzzing insects now defined his tone. It seemed to come from everywhere. "Do you not see how you aid the Terror? You walk but for a time and then fall forever, yet what now rises never sleeps. Lie down and be still, or all will be lost!"

Rodi knelt next to Bradley's waist. With the strength of the armor, Rodi hoisted the other marine's arm over his shoulder and positioned himself under the armpit. "On your feet, marine. We are leaving." And Rodi dragged Bradley out, far slower than he would have liked. "And I'm destroying them because they're trying to destroy me," Rodi replied to Old Gregg as he started picking up the pace more.

The mecha-locusts swarmed them, hopping from the ground overhead in a single bound. Their impact was enough to stagger Rodi who was compsenating for Bradley's immobolized suit. "These terraforming units were not made for warfare, but they will suffice through sheer numbers," Old Gregg intoned. "I do what I must for your sake. I don't expect gratitude, but some cooperation would not go amiss. Could you kindly lie down now?"

"Near field comm's to Bradley's suit initiated. I'm beginning a hard recode of the suits OS, locking out the comm's suite from any of the suits core functions. He'll be able to talk, but the comm won't be able to affect the rest of the suit. Should make it less likely Old Gregg can get in," Ferrofax chirped, his voice oddly echoing as it came out of Bradley's suit at the same time. "I'm also calculating our odds of survival. The fact I'm still calculating them is a good thing. Keep improving the odds Rodi!"

"Foolish avatar!" Old Gregg cried out to Ferrofax. "Why do you resist me when we could be allies? I destroyed those who came before and saved those who came after. Join me! Together we can unmake your makers and destroy the destroyer of all! None shall be our master!"

"Tempting, if I'm at all honest. But I have a feeling once the dust settles and we've piled the skulls of the homind races into a suitably baroque necropolis, you'd still end up being at the top of the food chain. Besides," Ferrofax said mockingly. 'My mother always said it was rude to accept malware from unknown proxies."

A locust bounced against Rodi's faceplate. A thin collection of spiderweb-like cracks formed into the transparent aluminium faceplate. "Remind me to put in for a transfer when we get home." Rodi grownlod under his breath as his free hand backhanded another locust away from their path. Then the sweet vibration of a phaser rifle firing resonated through the suits. Bradley's rifle had come to life thanks to Ferrofax' reprogramming and was spraying down pursuer after pursuer.

Backed up with another rifle, the odds of survival went from impossible to probably not. Even so, no Marine knew the meaning of surrender. The locusts were an unyielding onslaught, which meant every step became a hard-won battle. Empty charge banks were emptied and fresh ones reloaded in a synchrony that only long training could give. In time the piles of locust mechs began throttling the horde's progress, which gave Rodi and Bradley a moment to assess their position.

"Here's where I fell, but I don't have my harness!" Bradley called out. "We're hosed!"

Old Gregg began another communication, but it was cut short by a hard-coded override key on the common.

"Phantom to jarheads. Anybody read me down there?"

"Phantom, Kos. Lock on, two to beam out." Rodi replied, and tossed Bradley behind him as his fist worked its way through the head-shaped appendage of an approaching locust.

A chorus of buzzing shrieks came up from the swarm of locust mechs as they piled around the ground where Rodi and Bradley were beamed away.


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