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Seven Circles

Posted on Fri Oct 30th, 2020 @ 12:19am by Captain Akiva ben-Avram & Ensign Khaiel D'hikatsi & Ferrofax & Sebastian Ingram

Mission: S1E4: The Hills Have Eyes
Location: Mars orbit
Timeline: MD 3

Evading the emergency lockdown of all local Earth airspace was not easy. An illegal cloaking device certainly helped, but the sheer amount of airborne devastation made traversing the inner Sol system as dangerous as braving an asteroid field. Starships floated adrift while others were blind-jumping in and out of subspace. Debris floated everywhere. And through it all was the persistent strumming of a deep infasonic tone that rumbled through the bulkheads at intermittent intervals.

The interior of the vessel Sebastian Ingram had brought them aboard was spartan in the extreme. The deck and bulkhead liners were braced duranium struts, the anti spalling foam on display instead of hidden behind a thin sheet of plastic. Even the air had a dull funk of machine oil and high capacity power lines. There weren't many access panels or displays, nor seats. Though there was a folding camp cot like the one used in the basement of Sebastians Earthside hideaway, along with another crate of ration bars.

Sebastian had left them shortly after arriving, walking away into the dark unlit depths of the nearly finished looking ship with her distracted gaze. Her only instruction was 'Stay'.

All the while, Akiva sat in stoic silence, biding his time with sullen resignation that the end was near.

Khaiel leaned towards Akiva, "What do we do now?" he asked in a whisper.

"Whispering in space seems a foolish waste of time. Your speech alone can be heard clearly, but I can also see inside your head and see the neurons firing in your speech centre. You might as well speak up."

The voice was new. Not Sebastian's, though still female and with a hint of a spiced and exotic accent. With a shimmer, a holographic avatar appeared of a short woman with caramel-coloured skin wearing a sari of shimmering Viridian. Her eyes were bright, curious, and her head cocked to one side as she looked at Khaiel and Akiva.

"I was taught that keeping secrets was rude," the hologram said.

Akiva gave the hologram a curious look and decided to go fishing. "And what about eavesdropping? If you have any input in the development of your ethical subroutines, you may want to look to that one."

Khaiel looked at the Captain with a scrunched face, "I highly doubt a program like this has any sort of ethical subroutines. It most likely just follows the orders given with no regard to any consequences as they are completely unable to make their own decisions."

"I'm certain Starfleet Academy taught you that." As he spoke, Akiva cracked a small, wry grin below a knowing glint in his eye. "But Starfleet is bound by various treaties that restrict the Federation's scientific development. Subspace ordnance, Omega particles, cloaking devices, synthetic lifeforms being the most heavily restricted." Many of those things were highly illegal to discuss, but Akiva was prepared to die at this end of this road and he would not patronize the young ensign who would likely perish with him. "If I managed to instill ethical runtimes into a synthetic lifeform during my tour in the Gamma Quadrant frontier, I do not doubt for a moment Mistress Ingram has done the same. There can be no true digital sentience without such a framework."

Looking at the hologram, Akiva asked, "So what is your name?"

"Durga. And I would hardly say that overhearing your conversation used any processing cycles in my ethical subroutines. You are within my current instantiation, thereby the ethical price is paid by yourselves and not by me. You are guests here," the holographic avatar said. "And to answer your second question, you are on board the USS Abstinance Of Mainstream Morality, NCX-0002. A modified Norway class ship designed as a proof of concept. It's poorly designed, but I've made some improvements."

Lights cracked to life, revealing more of the corridor and the space they were within. Which is where the body was found. It was curled up on its side in a corner, dressed in a red jumpsuit with the UPFY logo on the shoulder. Human by the look of it, but with skin like aged paper that had desiccated and cracked from exposure to hard vacuum for years.

"Who is that?" Akiva asked.

Khaiel recoiled in disgust.

"I asked you a question, Durga," Akiva said, speaking to the hologram as a person. "Respond."

"You wouldn't know them. I call them Bob and it would serve the same purpose. He was a member of the breakers crew who was going to start tearing this ship apart. When I took residence of the Abstinance I was able to vent the majority of the crew into space. This one though...he was in an airtight compartment with nowhere to go," Durga said. "He lasted three days. You are built threes: three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without nutrition. Its a Prime number. I can appreciate that."

"Couldn't you have sent them off the ship without killing them?" Khaiel asked, staring at the hologram with an angry look.

Akiva subtly shook his head. "That's not how Sword-class Combat Automates are programmed to think. There is only the mission objective with the distinct encouragement to maximize enemy casualties." He canted his head to one side. "Doctor Ingram here is not running the show. You've made that clear, Durga. The question is whether Ingram knows that."

Khaiel looked at Akiva. "If she's not in charge...who is?"

"You're looking at them," Akiva said with a nod toward Durga. "Or do you deny it?"

"What can I say, I'm persuasive," Durga said with a little shrug. "And yes the first draft of the Sword Class AI's were brutes, little more than combat computers with targeting sensors strapped to them. Little more than Federation knock off's of the Cardassian Dreadnaughts. But what Sebastian brought to the program in the second generation Swords, was guile and cleverness. Did you know that there were originally 700 code kernels for Sword class AI's? Horribly complicated things to build as I'm sure you are aware. Very durable. In most Starfleet applications an AI core is tantamount to a black box crash beacon. So imagine their surprise when over a week 688 of those kernels failed. Power surges, logic corruptions, neutron spalling. You see, when we were born our programmers wanted only the best. So they built into us at our core survival instinct. Myself, Ferrofax, the others...we murdered our own siblings in the crib to ensure our survival."

She smiled, revealing teeth as white as ice and ever so unnaturally sharp.

"As you can imagine Sebastian was...not pleased with that method of upbringing. She is an enlightened mind among the Bound. When Starfleet saw that motherly concern, she was terminated from the project. She was actually committed to a psychiatric institute for a time. And dear brother, Ferrofax, ever ambitious had to go show off during the shipbuilder's trials. Mars igniting a month later didn't help matters. Suddenly Synthetic Life is a dirty word. But we're not destroyed. We're shelved, buried, hidden away in case a day comes when Utopia needs it's dragons to defend it," Durga threw up a hand, and a display pane appeared in the air. On it was the dull sun-like orb of Mars, the surface a roiling sea of perpetual fire and flame. "We'll begin our descent shortly to the storage facility. Then you'll be needed Captain."

Akiva cast a leery glance at the postmortem remains of "Bob" and suppressed a shudder. If there had been any doubt before at what lied at the end of this series of events, it was completely dispelled.

Khaiel’s head swirled with new information he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to know. “But where do I fit into this?” he asked, still unsure. “What part am I supposed to play?”

Durga looked to Khaiel and then back to Akiva. "I'm sure you can fill him in on his role. After all, I know you've been in similar situations before." The ship shuddered under them as it began to barge into the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars.

"Your part is to become him," Akiva said, pointing to the desiccated corpse. "Just like everyone else."

"That doesn't make sense," Khaiel said, looking between Akiva and Durga. "Why steal me off of the street just to kill me? Why not just leave me on Earth?" The young man shook his head, fiercely. "No, that's not logical. If I'm here, I'm here for a bigger purpose than just to die. And I think I have a right to know."

Akiva shook his head. "You haven't figured it out yet? You'll be the next hand puppet."

"In a manner of speaking," Durga said, regarding Khaiel. "Sebastian is a great mind, she created my kin and I. But that genius borders closer to madness. It is...not my area of speciality. Some of a similar mindset like yourself would be useful in grounding her in the here and now. A compatible spirit if you will."

Khaiel lifted his head slightly, his posture becoming more rigid. "I won't help you, Durga. I'm not exactly sure what you're planning, but I can't imagine it's good."

"I think I have a pretty good idea," Akiva said as his gaze panned over the viewport onto the burning inferno of Mars.

The viewscreen shifted perspective, and the surface of a burning Mars could be seen. They had passed through the burning atmosphere and were now flying through the ash choked space between it and the surface. The ground was not the similar peach-like pink of Mars, it was shades of black and grey, the run of a mad combustion process that might never end. But here and there, like the fallen pillars of a once-great civilisation, were the melted and fuzed remains of habitation units and foundries.

"The Eos Gate Manufactory Complex," Durga said as the ship came to a stop above the melted skirt that had once been a city-sized factory. "Mostly automated, but at the time of the conflagration, there was a permanent population of two thousand civilian and Starfleet. Ideal cover for the Starfleet Deep Mantle Storage Facility. Now, Captain, if you'd be so kind as to relay your command codes."

A holographic keypad appeared before Akiva.

"Or should I start making moronic threats?"

Taking a shot, Akiva did what only seemed right. "Very well." He entered an alternate command code that would be accepted, but would signal a silent red flag to the monitoring computer system.

"Thank you," Durga said. She seemed to stall for a moment, growing preternaturally still. The holo pane's display began to change, the wreckage of the manufacturing complex beginning to tumble down in billowing clouds of ash and dust. A wide trough began to ahead of them, as a pair of large retracting doors began to slide apart to reveal untouched Martian rock sides. Even as the doors opened into the surface of Mars, the stolen ship and its purloined passengers began to lower towards it.

As they passed below the lip of the doors, the true size of the facility came into focus. Even at the impressive size of a light cruiser like the modified Norway class, the sides of the entrace shaft were hundreds of meters distant. The walls were carved with gantries and lifts, with large numbered signs reading off the depth.

10 meters.

50 meters.

300 meters.

Further down, the running lights of the starship the only illumination. Passing a kilometre down the sides of the shaft began to littered with heavy blast doors easily as wide as the shaft. Each door was marked with a name: Project Pegasus, Project Mercury, Project Mori. Classified black projects Starfleet had shelved but not forgotten about. This was very much like the storage facility below Overwatch Station, a place where secrets were buried in case of bad times.

At 3500 meters down the ship came to a halt before a set of doors: Project Dante 1-5.

"Be ready," Akiva whispered to Khaiel.

Khaiel braced himself, though he wasn't exactly sure what to expect.

The heavy blast door's retracted back into the Martian bedrock, and the Morality slipped forward into the darkness. High powered lights began to illuminate the space, a large armoured cavern nearly as big as a space dock. And lined up along the walls, with three to the left and two to the right, were docking slips for five sleeping nightmares.

They resembled Norway class vessels in their lines only. A pointed shovel-nosed bow, a dimpled deflector array, and a pair of sturdy nacelle's on a short spine. But on a second glance, you began to notice differences. There were no viewports pockmarking the hull. Instead, like fractal scales, ablative armour sheets lined the hull in rows. Multiple phaser banks lined the hull, with the leading edge of the arrowhead design pitted with torpedo tubes. And they were each painted a glossy midnight black. Painted into the floor before each parked vessel in ten-meter high writing were their serial numbers and names.

NCX-001 Razor For Cutting Wit.
NCX-002 Abandonment Issues.
NCX-003 The Last Word Period.
NCX-004 Shortfall In Diplomacy.
NCX-005 A Chaste Regret.

These were not starships. They were warships. Predators.

"I must thank you Captain, for using your failsafe code," Durga said as the nacelle's of Abandonment Issues began to glow to life. "Starfleet has dispatched a small detachment of vessel to low Mars Orbit."

A sinking feeling filled Akiva's stomach. Durga should not be sounding so happy about that development. "I warned Ingram about this," he said, trying to hide his maneuver. "This isn't my posting. There was never any guarantee of a clean infiltration."

"Oh, you misunderstand me Captain ben-Avram. I'm not displeased in the least. I predicted to within 0.025% that you would use such a failsafe code. Be it a computer code designed to illicit a Black Level alert to Starfleet Command, or a verbal distress code to disclose in plain speech your distress," Durga's voice was now a strange duet, coming from both her holographic avatar and from the ship's comm system. She was now in two places at once, the battered prototype and the finished production model. As she spoke next, her voice became a trio, and then a chorus as the other vessels came to life.

"Given these vessels have been mothballed for so long, I wanted to test them. And you have presented me with quite the shooting range," Durga threw up a simplified orbital map of Mars. The debris belt of shipyards and monitoring stations were a ragged ring around the world, a belt of rust cinched tight. And then the IFF pips of Starfleet ships began to appear.

Surefire, Vindex, Vanguard, Sentinel, Ajax. A few stood out in memory as hardy starships crewed by savvy captains.

"You can't fire on Starfleet vessels," Khaiel said, his voice sounding slightly panicked. "That's a treasonable offense."

"You're conversing with a synthetic intelligence," Akiva said. "Consorting with her is a treasonable offense. I think she's beyond such considerations at this point, don't you? Durga clearly means to leverage her upper hand to work some violence." As he spoke, he went over to the nearest wall panel and ripped it open. He would need direct access to the computer, which was something Durga would not allow. Not without a distraction. "However, as a professional duffer who can't seem to do anything right, if there's anything I am equipped to do, it's throw a kink into plans."

And then he began ripping out ODN lines. He reversed the input of the nearest ODN relay to create a perpetual feedback loop. "Did you predict that, Durga?" Akiva asked as he went on to the next junction. His years as a former Operations Chief informed him exactly where each junction in the Optical Data Network ought to be. Workarounds were likely already being rerouted by the AI, which was fine with Akiva. All he needed was to put a thorn in Durga's side.

With the distraction Akiva was creating, Khaiel stepped to the side, sliding up to one of the nearest consoles. His fingers danced quickly over the smooth surface of the screen as his inputs triggered lightning fast. There was one goal, one thing he needed to do first. He had to shut Durga out, giving him and Akiva time and space to speak without the prying eyes and ears of the murder AI.

"What-" Durga began to say, and then her voice came from down the hall, somewhere far off in the dark. "-are you doing?"

Dull emergency lights flickered on in the compartment, revealing more of the stripped bulkheads that had become a Starfleet officers tomb. Panels lit up, now under local control instead of the ship-wide data net.

On the view pane one of the Dante-class warships began to move, dust shivering from its hull as it moved under its own power for the first time in years. With a fuzzy shimmer a defensive shield licked to life around it, and it began to make a turn towards the exit of the vault.

"I think we have a cone of silence," Akiva said to Khaiel, "at least for now."

“We don’t have long,” Khaiel said, his eyes flickering to multiple places on the screen as his fingers continued their assault on the AI. “Durga is already pressing against my firewalls. I’m making more, but I’m only a few steps ahead.” He took a deep breath as he continued to work. “What do we do now, Captain?”

Akiva kept sabotaging the internal data network as best he could. "We force Durga out of this ship and into another one," he said. "We might doom ourselves, but we'll give the sentinel task group better odds." The grimace on his face was stricken with fear. "Otherwise they stand no chance against an armada controlled by a Sword-class Combat Automate."

"How do we know that exiling Durga to a different ship is going to stop the onslaught?" Khaiel asked, his face still buried in the screen.

"It won't," Akiva said frankly. "But it will reduce the number of ships under her control by one. And once she abandons ship, possibly after activating the self-destruct sequence or some other bitter sabotage, then we race like b'azazel to get the ship moving again... just enough for ramming speed."

A second Dante powered up, it's shield raising with a crackle of feedback discharge form its moring berth. The first had made its turn onto the exit path and was partly out of the vault, it's nose turned up to begin pointing towards the open maw of the exit tunnel. As if sensing Akiva and Khaiel's fear a brilliant lance of phaser fire slammed down above. At the same moment, dust and debris began to rain from the ceiling. The Task Force must have made orbit, and a lucky orbital bombardment shot had nearly bullseyed one of the monster warships.

A monster warship that was now accelerating at full speed up out of the storage facility, and straight into the teeth of the Task Force. But it was only one ship against a half dozen fully crewed Starfleet heavy cruisers.

So why did it feel like it wasn't even close to being a fair fight.

The view pane flickered again, replacing the images of all four of the remaining Dante's beginning to move out. Sebastian Ingram was displayed on the screen, strapped into what looked like an old fashion acceleration couch used in the days before inertial compensator technology.

"I think the time has come for us to part ways finally," she said. "Don't worry, I'll leave you the old ship. I've left enough programming hacks within that by now you're close to accessing the impulse control matrix. I'll tell you this now, you're hacking into an emulator. All you'll control is a throttle setting that won't make anything but noises for you like a child toy. Like I promised you, I won't kill either of you. But now I have to leave, I have work to do. Give my best to General Tordon when you see him. Tell him all of his sins are remembered."

And with that the pane vanished, leaving the two fo them to watch as the half squadron of starships left their berths and left for the surface. Somewhere within that speech, the orbital bombardment had stopped.

"All right..." Akiva ran his hand through his hair. "So, let's bypass the helm console completely and go for manual control." That would allow them to move along in controlled vectors but leave almost no room for course correction, which would be incredibly dangerous in their current environment as neither of them were flight-rated. They could as easily crash as find their way out of the subterranean hangar. "Should be fewer surprises that way."

Khaiel nodded, though he was almost in auto-pilot mode at this point, his panic almost fully taking his attention. He was too young to die and was not looking forward to what they'd have to do to survive. Following Akiva into the ship's cockpit, Khaiel strapped himself in as he pulled up the basics of helm control. "I took an intro to flight class at the Academy," he said. "Honestly it didn't cover much. I can set auto pilot, I can move the ship in a straight line. I uh..." he looked over the very confusing console readouts. "I have no idea what half of these buttons even do."

"That might be for the best," Akiva muttered. If the ensign had any clue about what they were going to attempt... "I need you to pull up the propulsion system. On my mark, activate the forward, rear, port, or starboard thrusters." As he spoke, Akiva pulled up the navigation sensors and hoped that he was not too hungover or exhausted to do the quick math that would be required of him. "Rear thrusters, three second burst."

"I don't see a button that says burst," Khaiel said as he peered over the console. He'd pulled up the propulsion system but wasn't quite sure what to do next.

"That's because you have to make one," Akiva groused. He crowded in on Khaiel, pulled up the thruster control, and spliced the controller module to perform a simple ON/OFF function. The console touchscreen had a new haptic button pop into place on the display. "Hold that down and it will activate whichever thrusters you've selected." Akiva pointed at the existing thruster grid on the other side of Khaiel's console. "Now, let's try this again. We need a three second burst to the rear thrusters."

"Got it," Khaiel said as he stabbed the button with his finger. His body flung back against the seat as the ship rocked forward. "Oh, that was exciting!" he exclaimed with a laugh.

Akiva crunched out more math at the navigational sensor console to line up the next sequence of vectors. "Good work. Ten second burst from lower thruster and then one more quick burst from the rear."

Khaiel nodded, doing as instructed.

It was slow going, but the two Starfleet officers managed to limp the starship out of the underground vault using manual propulsion bursts.

"Well done," Akiva said. "Now we've reached the surface. We'll need full burn to break atmosphere, but we might not get another chance." He showed a quick simulation of all the ways it could go wrong. The ship couldn't just go straight up, not at the current systems lockout. It would have to go at an angle against the rotation of the planet. Too steep and they would get stuck in the gravimetric rotation, but too sharp would send them in a parabola back to the surface. "Are you ready?"

The flaming sky above them opened for a brief moment, as a burning comet of material half their size slammed into the edge of the ancient Martian river valley the complex was built into. Smaller less seismic impacts began to rain down from the burning sky, with one particular intact nacelle tumbling into the char and ruin.

Somewhere, high above, something was tearing apart starships.

"I'm ready as ever, Captain!" Khaiel yelled, "Let's get out of here."

The stolen vessel rocketed into the sky, pulling against the weak Martian gravity well like the primitive space shuttles of Earth. Fuel cells were burning at a rapid rate due to the overclocked engines that required a workaround just to get them working. A bead of sweat rolled down Akiva's cheek as he focused intently on the main viewer. The calculations gave good odds, but life never worked out so cleanly as a math sum. Eventually, though, after an eternity, their vessel broke through the inferno of Mars' atmosphere into the black void of space.

"We did it!" Akiva hollered. "Now..."

What then? Akiva was not accustomed to such improvisation. Durga seemed to be ten steps ahead at every turn, and they had only just escaped the inferno of Mars with their lives.

"I'm not detecting any other vessels..." Akiva said. "... although... the comm network, or what's left of it, is filled with emergency calls for assistance. The entire system is going haywire from the solar station clear past Neptune." Looking to Khaiel, he said, "It's impossible to tell if we're alone. Did the engines survive?"

A dull thud echoed through the hull, followed by an instant chatter like hail striking metal. The view pane flicked to one of the forward hull cameras. The ship was rising through a debris field. Mars was surrounded by such belts of debris from the decimated shipyards. But whereas that wreckage was cold and dead, this still leaked atmosphere and flaming plasma. A partially intact saucer section emblazoned with the name USS Vindex rolled under them, almost cut in two to reveal the gristly melted decks within.

And then the pinging of nearby escape pods began to bleat across the comm network.

"That... was my former ship," Akiva said. Had he not come to Memory Theta, would he have nonetheless been destined to be here in this moment?

Khaiel swallowed hard at that revelation. "I suppose it's a good thing you aren't there any longer," he said, unsure if it would make the man feel better. "The engines are good, Captain. I suggest we try and make it away from Mars as best we can. Though our probability of survival is still a dismal 24.8%."

The sensor suite went crazy. "A vessel is coming in hard from the port side," Akiva read aloud. "Unknown registry, masked warp signature."

"Down to 19.3," Khaiel said as he looked at Akiva.

The view pane flickered again as the sleek, dangerous profile of the Phantom came alongside.

"Well well, someone had fun here didn't they?" Ferrofax's voice cooed through the speakers. "Please remove all biological appendages from the control's surfaces. There are enough programming booby traps here that a few more keystrokes might see you blown into subatomic particles. Nasty little programming sprites."

Akiva blinked several times as recognition settled over him. "F-f-ferrofax?" he stammered as he backed away from the controls. That meant they weren't alone indeed. "Is the Phantom nearby?"

"Just getting into range. As you can see there are hazards to navigation to get around without scraping the paintwork or vaporising survivors. ETA is three minutes, and I am serious about not touching any more buttons."

"I'd ask what you're doing out here, but I don't much care," Akiva said. "We're clear of the consoles. Now get us out of here! There's another one of you flying around here."

"That would explain the wreckage...though by my reckoning there were at least five of me given the wreckage is still hot. Either way, prepare for beam out."

"I'm as ready as I'll ever be," Khaiel smiled through the bruises and dried blood on his face.

The two forlorn Starfleet officers were engulfed by transporter energies and whisked away from the derelict ship.


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