War erupts in the depths of space. . . Battle-ready factions converge above Darien, all with the same objective: to control this newly discovered planet and access the powerful weapons at its heart. Despotic Hegemony forces dominate much of known space and they want this world too, but Darien's inhabitants are determined to fight for their future. However, key players in this conflict aren't fully in control. Hostile AIs have infiltrated key minds and have an agenda, requiring nothing less than the destruction or subversion of all organic life. And they are near to unleashing their cohorts, a host of twisted machine intelligences caged beneath Darien. Fighting to contain them are Darien's hidden guardians, and their ancient ally the Construct, on a millennia-long mission to protect sentient species. As the war reaches its peak, the AI army is roaring to the surface, to freedom and an orgy of destruction.Darien is first in line in a machine vs. human war -- for life or the sterile dusts of space.
Release date: November 20, 2012
Print pages: 496
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The Ascendant Stars
On Darien, archaeologist Greg Cameron’s work at the ancient Uvovo temple site on Giant’s Shoulder is disrupted, first by an assassination attempt and later when his uncle, Major Theo Karlsson, appears with Robert Horst, the Earthsphere ambassador. Horst is framed for the murder of the Brolturan ambassador and Karlsson and Horst subsequently take refuge in a newly discovered chamber beneath the Uvovo temple. This wakes an ancient guardian who seizes Robert and transports him away.
On the forest-moon Nivyesta, Catriona Macreadie finds herself forming a telepathic link with Segrana, a vast and millennia-old entity which inhabits the interwoven ecosystem of the continent-wide forest. She comes to identify with the forest, strengthening the bond with Segrana, and helping the humanoid Uvovo natives when several Hegemony mercenaries try to infiltrate the depths of the forest.
Chel, or Cheluvahar, is a scholar of the Uvovo and a good friend to both Greg and Catriona. He undergoes a ritual whereby Segrana gives him strange new abilities and tells him to prepare the Uvovo for war. From ancient myths he learns that the Giant’s Shoulder temple houses a ‘warpwell’, an ancient Forerunner weapon which defeated a savage enemy many millenia ago. The warpwell would provide access to the lower levels of hyperspace and much faster travel between the stars, an advantage that would make the Hegemony’s already formidable warfleets invincible.
While events unfold on Darien, Kao Chih begins his journey to Darien. Kao Chih’s people are the descendants of another of the three original ships launched from Earth 150 years before. Their world, Pyre, was seized by a Sendrukan Hegemony corporate monoclan which ruthlessly mined and stripped it of its resources. A few hundred colonists fled in a handful of ramshackle ships, eventually finding refuge in a star system home to a race called the Roug. When news of the discovery of Darien reached the Roug’s orbital city, Agmedra’a, the Roug hosting these Human descendants also decide to send emissaries. And soon Kao Chih and a Roug called Tumakri are on their way.
During their twisting quest Tumakri tragically dies in an ambush and Kao Chih joins forces with a sentient droid called Drazuma-Ha*. Evading a group of combat drones seemingly trying to kill them, they are instead captured by a Human smuggler-terrorist called Corazon Talavera. With Drazuma-Ha*’s aid they manage to escape in a terrorist shuttle, leaving Corazon marooned on a semi-hospitable planet. But she has a vital and terrifying role yet to play.
Back on Darien the colony is in uproar over the actions of the authoritarian Brolturans, usually at the behest of Kuros, now Hegemony ambassador. After the bizarre disappearance of Robert Horst at Giant’s Shoulder, Theo Karlsson returns to Hammergard and encounters Donny Barbour. Both are then witness to the missile attack on the Assembly halls which kills the colony’s president and nearly all of his cabinet. A deep crisis ensues, with Brolturan troops on the streets and flying security patrols, an unsubtle show of strength.
The last remaining government official asks Major Karlsson and Donny to get a group of Enhancee scientists offworld. (The Enhancees are genetically engineered sci-tech specialists; Catriona Macreadie was part of that programme but failed the stringent tests in her teens.) At the Port Gagarin launch field they hijack an Earthsphere shuttle and manage to get into orbit. But interceptors from the Brolturan battleship Purifier are heading their way so the Enhancees are transferred to the Earthsphere ship Heracles. Donny Barbour tricks Theo Karlsson into leaving the escape pod to save his life, then leads the Brolturan interceptors on a bravura chase through the skies of the forest moon. After an agile and defiant evasion, a hostile missile sends the shuttle down in flames over one of the big seas.
After vanishing from the warpwell chamber on Giant’s Shoulder, Robert Horst appears in a bizarre complex of tunnels, escorted by a trio of small intelligent mechs. They tell him that he is down in hyperspace, which consists of many levels. After a series of perilous encounters he arrives at another deeper level, at a place called the Garden of the Machines, an AI metropolis watched over by a mysterious being called the Construct. After rejuvenating Robert’s physical age (and turning a holosim of his daughter into an android simulacrum), the Construct persuades Robert to return the favour by venturing into the depths of hyperspace in search of an ancient entity called the Godhead. Hostile forces arising from another region of the depths have been attacking allies of the Construct, who thinks that the Godhead might possess vital information on the attacks.
Meanwhile, Kao Chih and Drazuma-Ha*, still pursued by the mysterious combat droids, seek sanctuary aboard a cloud-harvester. Drazuma-Ha* tricks Kao Chih into remaining on the bridge, seizes the cloud-harvester’s shuttle and leaves for Darien. The pursuing robots reveal to Kao Chih that Drazuma-Ha* is in fact an agent of the Legion of Avatars, a cyborg that was horde the Forerunners’ last and deadliest enemy. If it gains control of the warpwell gate down on Darien, it could open it to release the Legion of Avatars’ surviving from their prison deep in the abyss of hyperspace. The chase after Drazuma-Ha* is on. When they reach Darien they use the cloud-harvester’s escape pod and Kao Chih’s shuttle to continue the hunt down within Giant’s Shoulder on Darien. Then in the warpwell chamber, Kao Chih and the surviving droid manage to kill the Legion mech Drazuma-Ha*. As Kao Chih falls unconsciousness, the well guardian transports him away to safety.
Seeds of Earth ends with the Hegemony’s Ambassador Kuros and the Brolturans in control of the colony and the temple site on Giant’s Shoulder. Theo Karlsson and Catriona Macreadie are in hiding up on the forest-moon Nivyesta, guarding a captured Hegemony mercenary who turns out to be human. On Darien, Greg is escorting Kao Chih and others to a temporary camp deep in the mountains. Plans for the insurgency are being hastily formed, and the Enhancees are safely on their way to Earth.
And on a planet far from Darien, a cyborg knight of the Legion of Avatars rests on a cold sea bed, considering the failure of its droid agent. It decides that it will have to take action itself and, after repairing its damaged biomechanisms, the Knight engages its engines and blasts up out of the depths of the sea–heading for the stars.
The Orphaned Worlds begins a few weeks after the end of Seeds of Earth.
Brolturan forces, directed by the Hegemony ambassador, Kuros, are now in de facto control of the Darien colony. Colonial politicians form an interim government that is clearly subservient to the Brolturans, who increasingly come to resemble occupiers.
Greg Cameron has been organising the resistance, which has set up a more permanent camp in an ancient Uvovo stronghold inside Tusk Mountain, in the mountains to the north.
Robert Horst, at the behest of the Construct, is on a mission into the depths of hyperspace in search of the Godhead, hoping it will help them negotiate an alliance against the Legion of Avatars and its agents. Accompanied by a simulacrum of his daughter, Rosa, their AI ship takes them down through the strange, bizarre, dangerous or scarcely comprehensible levels of hyperspace. The Rosa-sim dies tragically in a fight with a lone Legion cyborg, after which Robert meets the Intercessor, an emissary from the Godhead. It sends him onwards to a pocket universe, supposedly the final stage before meeting the Godhead, but it turns out to be a deadly one-way trap.
Kao Chih has left Darien with Silveira, an Earthsphere agent who wants to find out more about the lost human colony on Pyre and how the Suneye corporate monoclan took it over. They travel first to the Roug system, then on to Pyre, during which Silveira learns how Kao Chih’s forebears were a splinter group that escaped Pyre decades before. On Pyre they find out how the colonists struggle to exist under conditions of resource rationing, and the brutal oppression of offworld criminal gangs sanctioned by the Suneye Monoclan.
Ambassador Kuros now holds sway over most of the Darien colony, and the interim colonial administration follows his instructions to the letter. However, a senior adviser arrives from the Sendrukan Hegemony homeworld, the Clarified Teshak who is a Sendrukan wholly controlled by an AI. He exerts a harsh authority over Kuros while putting his own implacable plan into action.
Theo Karlsson was with Catriona on Nivyesta, looking after Malachi Ash, the captured ‘Ezgara’ mercenary who was found to be human, from a world called Tygra. And Tygra turns out to be the third lost Human colonyworld. Both Theo and Ash are snatched by a stealth team from Tygra, but are then freed by renegade Tygrans led by a Captain Gideon. Theo accompanies them to a rendezvous with a retired veteran Tygran officer who lives long enough to pass on information about a long-past conspiracy before tragically expiring. This knowledge further alienates the renegades from the leadership on Tygra, whose pro-Hegemony policies had already angered them.
When Kao Chih and the agent Silveira arrive back in the Roug system they find that several senior commanders and leaders of Kao Chih’s own people have been abducted by a mercenary assault ship. This is commanded by Marshall Becker, the Tygran’s overall military leader. The abduction was intended as a warning to Kao Chih’s human enclave to avoid involvement in wider affairs. The Roug, affronted by such a gross violation against their people, send one of their own vessels off in pursuit with Kao Chih aboard to assist. After a cunning and stealthy rescue carried out in hyperspace, the Roug ship continues to follow the Ezgara vessel to its destination, an Tygran base, to see who is behind it all.
Meanwhile, Theo accompanies Captain Gideon on an operation to liberate the rest of the captain’s men from a Tygran base. The raid is a success but, as they’re leaving, a hostile Tygran warship arrives, closely followed by the Roug craft bearing Kao Chih. After an exchange of weapons fire (and attempted data subversion of Gideon’s vessel) the Roug ship neutralises the aggressive Tygran craft, destroying its weapons and engines. Theo, Gideon and Kao Chih, representatives from the three lost Human colonies, briefly meet aboard the Roug vessel before they go their separate ways.
Julia Bryce and her fellow-Enhanced are on their way to Earth aboard a passenger liner when it is boarded by brigands led by the terrorist Corazon Talavera. Talavera takes them to a refugee planet, then coerces them into upgrading two thermonuclear missiles for one of the refugee leaders. Julia then finds out that the Covenant Order of the Spiral Prophecy, a fundamentalist religious faction, claims that the lost tomb of one of their ancient Father-Sages lies on Darien. A Spiralist armada is therefore gathering, and the missiles are part of a planned invasion of Darien to secure the supposedly sacred site. Julia and the Enhanced try to escape before the armada reaches Darien, but fail in the attempt. They are then forced to watch as the weapons they upgraded are used by the fanatics to destroy a Brolturan battleship and severely damage the Earthsphere vessel. Afterwards, Talavera puts the Enhanced into separate virtual reality tanks to coerce them into working on detailed course and hyperspace jump data for a large number of other missiles.
Down on Darien, Greg and Rory are engaged in delaying the advance of Brolturan forces towards the resistance’s stronghold. Greg is heading back there, when the Brolturan battleship Purifier launches a massive particle beam attack on Tusk Mountain from orbit. Greg and Rory are in the target zone of a second strike–then the Purifier is destroyed in orbit by the Spiral armada’s thermonuclear missile.
Down in hyperspace, Robert is rescued from the pocket-universe trap by the Construct, who then sends him and another Rosa-sim on their next mission. They must go to an Achorga nestworld to retrieve the Zyradin, an ancient Forerunner entity designed to bond with the Uvovo’s Segrana, thus augmenting its powers at this crucial juncture. They descend into the insectoid Achorga-dominated world, find and recover the Zyradin, and have to flee the pursuing Achorga via ancient Forerunner transfer platforms. The Rosa-sim stays back to fight off a horde of deadly silver creatures while Robert heads over to the Forerunner platform to escape. But they get to him just as the platform activates. When he arrives at the transfer platform in Tusk Mountain on Darien, still carrying the Zyradin canister, he is on the point of death.
Greg Cameron is at Tusk Mountain when a dying Robert Horst arrives with the Zyradin’s canister. The warpwell Sentinel and the Zyradin tell Greg that the Zyradin must be taken to the forest moon and given to Catriona. She is now Keeper of Segrana and through her the Zyradin can merge with the forest-wide sentience. Only the warpwell chamber inside Giant’s Shoulder can transport them to Nivyesta so, after evading an ambush during their zeplin journey, Greg and his team arrive there only to find that the Brolturans have pulled out. However, the humans now have to fight an advance squad of hostile Legion war droids, during which Greg finds himself betrayed by one of his companions. Without warning, the warpwell Sentinel transports him directly to the inner chamber and from there up to the forest moon. Greg gives the canister containing the Zyradin to Catriona and it permeates her, transforming her into a cloud of glowing motes that spread outwards and across the vast forest.
The book ends with the cyborg Legion Knight taking possession of Giant’s Shoulder and using two of its scion offshoots to unlock the Warpwell.
Chel and Rory are trapped inside the Legion Knight’s droid manufactory, under its pitiless control while the factory implants enslaving biotech within them both. They will soon be set against their own people.
Julia is trapped on a virtual beach controlled by Talavera, made to work on course data for lethal missiles, Talavera’s plans as yet unknown.
Theo Karlsson and the renegade Tygrans finally arrive at Darien and make contact with the anti-Brolturan resistance movement.
Back at the Garden of the Machines, the Construct is examining the dead body of Robert Horst. But when the real Robert comes to join him, we discover the expired corpse is that of a semiorganic simulacrum. The Construct now knows that the warpwell on Darien has been unlocked, and that the Godhead is behind most of the attacks coming from the depths of hyperspace. Once it has learned what Robert Horst has to say, direct action will have to be taken. For Darien, however, only hope and the uncertain power of fate can help the colonists now. The fleets and the stormclouds are gathering for the final showdown.
Greg Cameron–led the resistance against the Brolturan occupiers until the vital Zyradin mission took him to the forest moon, Nivyesta.
Catriona Macreadie–chosen by the biomass sentience Segrana as its Keeper, she received the Zyradin from Greg and was transformed by it.
Theo Karlsson–Greg’s uncle, former major in the Darien Volunteer Forces, became involved with renegade soldiers from another lost Human colony world, Tygra.
Cheluvahar, or Chel–a seer of the Uvovo and close friend of Greg Cameron.
Julia Bryce–she and her Enhanced team were coerced by Corazon Talavera into upgrading nuclear missiles for the Spiralist invasion. Now they are imprisoned in virtual prisons.
Kao Chih–after his time on Darien, he secretly went to Pyre then partnered a Roug in a rescue mission to retrieve the Human Sept elders captured by the Tygran’s pro-Hegemony military leader.
Franklyn Gideon–captain of the Stormlions commandery and protégé of veteran Tygran officer, Sam Rawlins. He and his men were persuaded by Theo Karlsson to throw in their lot with Darien.
Robert Horst–Earthsphere’s ambassador to Darien, he was sent down into hyperspace to meet the Construct, who sent him on a mission to track down the Godhead.
The Construct–a machine intelligence created by the Forerunners more than a hundred millennia ago to help fight the Legion of Avatars. It uses the mind-state patterns of Robert Horst and his daughter Rosa to create new kinds of sentient simulacra.
Reen–Mandator of the High Index of the Roug, commander of the warvaunt vessel, the Vyrk-Zoshel.
A Knight of the Legion of Avatars–an armoured, cyborg creature, a survivor from the war against the Forerunners. It has come to Darien and through guile and subterfuge has finally attained its long-desired goal, the unlocking of the warpwell.
Utavess Kuros–the Sendrukan Hegemony’s ambassador to Darien. The Spiralist invasion destroyed the Brolturan battleship while Kuros was taken over by his AI companion.
The Clarified Teshak–a senior Sendrukan official whose AI is in sole control. Although he was sent to Darien to oversee Kuros’ performance, he also has the agenda of the Clarified to promote.
The Godhead–ancient sentience of unknown origin. Rumours abound about its nature, some suggesting that it was once a machine intelligence.
Humans–biped mammals, binocular vision, vestigial hair, restricted range in audio/visual senses, average height 1.7m
Sendruka–biped humanoid, binocular vision, minimal body hair, average height 2.8m
Bargalil–hexapedal, 20% body hair, average height 2m
Henkaya–biped with four arms, muscular upper body, average height 2.1m
Kiskashin–tailed, ornitho-reptilian biped, rough, pebbled skin, average height 1.8 m
Makhori–amphibious octoped, mutiple tentacles, large eyes, average body length 1.5m
Achorga–insectoid, hiver, aggressively territorial, only Queens and specialised drones display intelligence, average height 1.2m
Uvovo–small bipedal humanoid, 70% body hair, binocular vision, excellent hearing, average height 1.3m
Gomedra–upright biped, furred, vaguely dog/wolf-like, average height 1.4m
Vusark–pseudo-insectoid, decapedal, compound eyes, average height 1m when walking on majority of legs, 2.1m when raised up on back legs
Voth–biped mammal, long forearms, 75% body hair, cyborg implants common, fond of concealing garments, average height 1.4m
Piraseri–tripedal sophonts of aquatic descent, main body a tapering torso with a backswept head fringed by small tentacles, average height 1.6m
Roug–slender bipeds with thin limbs, possibly hairless, usually garbed head-to-toe in tightly-wound strips of dense material, averge height 1.9m
Naszbur–heavily armoured bipedal reptiloid, a chitin shell forms a hood over the head, aggressive traders, average height 1.5m
Hodralog–birdlike sophonts common in certain levels of hyperspace, frail physique, average height 0.8m
Keklir–short, muscular bipeds found in most of the upper tiers of hyperspace, have wide, tapering snouts with two mouthlike openings, average height 1m
Pozu–squat, brown-skinned species originating from high-gravity world, gloomy disposition, skilled plant technologists, average height 0.7m
The Clarified–former Sendrukans whose personal AI has gained full control of their body due to erasure of the original persona, usually by judicial sentence, occasionally by voluntary mind dissolution
Vor–a species of endosymbiotic parasite that rides inside a host’s brain, once upper intellect/persona functions have been removed. A very ancient race once thought extinct, it has reappeared, rejuvenated and aggressive
Shyntanil–also known as the Twiceborn, a race that employs drastic life-extension technologies requiring re-engineering of the respiratory and nervous systems, and a temporary cessation of brain functions. An ancient bipedal species that has returned from obscurity, working alongside former adversaries, the Vor
Earthsphere (157 star systems; 873 inhabited worlds and orbitals; population 5.3 trillion)–most numerous species are Henkayans, Vusark and Humans, although Humans have been politically dominant. Despite Sendrukan brutalities, Earthsphere has remained a committed if junior partner to the Hegemony.
Sendrukan Hegemony (112,000 star systems; 347,000 inhabited worlds and orbitals; population 815 trillion)–a vast and far-flung empire, the Hegemony maintains its cohesion through rigorous control of consensus, via doctrine and the omnipresent personal AIs. Many species come under its sway but the Sendruka are dominant.
Aranja Tesh (23,000 star systems; 88,000 inhabited worlds and orbitals; population 107 trillion)–a loose confederation of seventeen nations, including Buranj, Korjash, Gizeka and the Yamanon Domain, which was recently invaded by the Hegemony-Earthsphere coalition, thus toppling the tyrannical Dol-Das regime.
Indroma Solidarity (92,000 star systems, 482,000 inhabited worlds and orbitals; population 1,173 trillion)–six-limbed Bargalil are the Indroma’s most numerous sentient species. Their egalitarianism results in a suspicion of neighbouring civilisations, especially the Hegemony. They are reluctant to become involved in regional conflicts, but are perfectly capable of defending their territory.
Vox Humana (18 star systems; 27 inhabited worlds; population 7.9 billion)–breakaway Human colonies scattered along the Earthsphere–4th Modynel border; rebellion against Earthsphere control decades ago led to severe sanctions which are still in force.
Darien (population 3.25 million), Pyre (population 15,000), and Tygra (population 3.4 million)–the worlds settled 150 years ago by the colony ships Hyperion, Tenebrosa and Forrestal, respectively. Of the three, only Darien developed without external interference, resulting in a vibrant, heterogenous and at times fractious culture.
The Legion of Avatars (imprisoned survivors number approximately 1.1 million)–brutally expansionist, relentlessly authoritarian society focused on the doctrine of convergence, the merging of flesh and machine into a superior kind of sentience. Those who oppose convergence are to be erased.
Darien Institute Data Recovery Project: Colonyship Hyperion Abstract–Retrieval of data pertinent to the struggle between the crew of the Hyperion and the ship’s Command AI; includes excerpts from core system masterlog and excerpts from journal of Vasili Surov.
AI Hardmem Decryption Status–5th pass, 61 text files recovered
File 61–Daily masterlog of Command AI
Log Period–00:00:01 to 14:28:29, 3 November 2127
Commentary–Dr Sigurd Halvorsen
Commentary I–The foregoing is taken from the Hyperion’s masterlog, from the day of the crew’s final attempt to regain control of the ship, ten days after the emergency landing. In order to highlight the salient incidents of Captain Olssen’s attack and the AI’s ambush, 70-odd lines of system entries were excluded (see appendix A). For a more revealing account of events we turn to Vasili Surov’s journal, the unexpurgated version which was released into the public purview a few years ago. It includes several observations on the planning of the colonyship programme, some highly critical of senior government figures at the time of the Swarm War. For the purposes of this study, we shall focus on entries made by Surov directly before and after the assault.–S.H.
2 November 2127, 8.27 p.m.
This morning we buried the remains of our friend and colleague Andrei Sergeyevich Vychkov. He was one of the nearly two dozen crew and colonists which that damned machine trapped and operated on, turning them into agony-wracked slaves. Despite the inhumane violations inflicted upon him by the Command AI, despite the pain he must have felt, he sacrificed himself to give us the information we need to finally put to rest that damned machine. It has been barely two days since he carried out that abortive attack with the charges. When we recovered his body, we saw how he had been executed by one of those armed flyers, and found the crude map that he had inked into his own chest, showing the Hyperion’s Achilles heel.
We buried him on a gentle, grassy slope overlooking the sea. The sky was grey and a cold breeze blew but the rain stayed away (it is raining now–I can hear the hiss from beyond the cave mouth). Captain Olssen spoke from his Bible, Lorna, one of the Scottish women, sang something beautiful, and a few of Andrei’s close friends wept for him. I wept for him.
Afterwards, back here in the cave, Olssen singled out me and Keri McAllister for a private talk. He had decided to move against the machine tomorrow, using the information gleaned from Vychkov’s map. It seems that Olssen and McAllister will carry out a diversionary attack through the forward bays while my group infiltrates via an emergency venting hatch sited near the stern. And trust that Andrei was right.
3 November 2127, 11.35 a.m.
It is almost time. All eight of us–two teams of three plus me and Andy Ferguson–are attired for war, wearing scavenged scraps of body armour and carrying a variety of weapons. Olssen and McAllister’s people have the three handguns, the beam rifle and one of the gauss pistols while we have the other gauss pistol, the one with the 80% charge. Of course, we all have the usual selection of medieval deterrents, clubs, knives, hatchets and spikes, as well as water bombs to use against unprotected power assemblies. Like the ones controlling our former shipmates.
Olssen has just given the order–time to move out. Ferguson and I are waiting by the entrance, packs already shouldered, chatting and laughing as if we are about to go on our kanikuly, on a picnic or a vacation. Perhaps this is not such a bad frame of mind to adopt. Certainly it is better than going over old ground, speculating why the ship’s AI turned on us.
It is now 11.48 a.m. as I put away this journal. I hope to be back writing in it this evening.
4 November 2127
5 November 2127, 9.18 a.m.
The monster is dead, but at great cost.
Olssen and McAllister took their teams on ahead of us. The plan was for them to approach the Hyperion and use the beam rifle to destroy all the external cameras and sensors. This was achieved. From our hiding place in the woods east of the ship, we could just make out the beam rifle’s high-pitched rasp. Soon after came Olssen’s signal for us to advance. Shouldering our equipment, Ferguson and I broke cover and jogged across to the tilted immensity of the Hyperion. The ship is leaning to starboard by about 20 degrees and while the churned-up ground is still charred from the landing ten days ago, a few green shoots are visible.
Ferguson went first up the steep, 100-foot incline of the ship’s hull to where a large, asymmetric superstructure juts to port–this is the Hyperion’s hyperspace drive. Clambering onto the housing, we quickly found the emergency venting hatch just yards from the 30-foot-high hyperdrive stabiliser vane. Luck was with us–the vent was open, popped by system burnouts during the crash landing. With the equipment bags lashed to our waists we climbed into the vent shaft, Ferguson going first.
That vent is an emergency backup in the event of an overheat in the gas coolant system, and the shaft goes down to a valve manifold. Our real destination, however, was the main power coupling, which is in a part of the ship protected by armoured hatches controlled by the Command AI. Vychkov’s map shows where the vent shaft passes by a crawl space leading to an air duct which serves engineering deck 9 and the power coupling room.
We were about 20 metres down the shaft, using a laser cutter to slice through a side panel, when we heard a loud boom from somewhere in the ship. The shaft shook but we held on to our positions. When I turned off the cutter, we could just make out the sound of gunfire as well as the structural creaks and groans of the broken ship. Unable to risk radio comms, we had no way of knowing that Olssen and McAllister had just walked into a trap rigged to explode. After an uncertain pause we resumed cutting.
Minutes later the panel came loose and we were through to the crawl space. We squirmed along, over and past pipes and conduits, until we reached the air duct. Fortune was with us–it had a nice big inspection cover with twist-lock catches. Soon we were crawling torch-lit into the square-sided duct, hauling the equipment bags after us. It was difficult not to make any noise. The alloy panels bent and flexed audibly as we moved along and dragging the bags made a harsh scraping sound.
We could no longer hear any gunfire by the time we reached the grilled vent in the bulkhead of the power coupling room. It was dim in there, emergency lamps glowing among the shadows of the cabinets. Ferguson loosed the catches; then, still holding the vent cover, stealthily stepped down onto a console housing, then down onto the floor. It seemed that apart from a faint machinery hum all was quiet. As I followed with the bags I saw two motionless forms lying at the other end of the room. Directly to my right was the entrance, an a
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