Chapter 3
Distressing Damsel
Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Smythe ONB, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Tue 02 Jul 121
Time: UST 1617

With the Seven Deadlies out of the way, Jeff had one less distraction. There was no activity with Lieutenant Han or the other Berserkers, so that could be put on the back burner, too. This temporary lull gave him the chance to redirect his energies toward other projects. Perhaps he could even start laying the groundwork for another grab at the forbidden fruit.
There was no reason to take any serious risks, but he could afford to probe around, to test defenses. It wouldn't be like it was six years ago. He wasn't quite so reckless. His own countermeasures were stronger. His watchers were lulled into a false sense of security, thinking they had more control over him than they really did. Most importantly, if his target had grown as complacent as his watchers, it might even be an easy job, easy enough to make all this trouble seem silly.
He had only started to prod at the outer layers of his target's defenses, just to test the security, when someone hailed him.
HELLO, MR. WALLACE.
A chill ran down his spine. How could anyone catch on to him so quickly?
ARE YOU SURPRISED SOMEONE COULD FIND YOU AGAIN?
If he cut the connection right now, he could go back and make sure there were no traces left of the trail leading back to him.
PLEASE, DO NOT GO. IT WOULD BE A NUISANCE TO TRACK YOU DOWN AGAIN. I AM SPEAKING TO YOU IN A PRIVATE CAPACITY. THERE IS NOTHING TO FEAR.
Jeff knew he should've pulled out already, but this mystery person was playing for time. Maybe whoever it was didn't have much of a grip on him. If so, he could take the opportunity to find out who it was and go on the offensive. Catching him wouldn't count for anything if he made their machines melt down.
I WOULD APPRECIATE A RESPONSE. I NEED TO KNOW I HAVE YOUR FULL ATTENTION.
Keep talking, buddy, Jeff thought as he worked a trace. This person was good, bouncing through a vast net of seemingly innocuous nodes, just like he was. Still, it was only a matter of time.
I DID NOT WANT TO RESORT TO THREATS, BUT YOU LEAVE ME NO CHOICE. YOU WILL RESPOND TO ME OR I WILL REPORT YOUR ACTIVITIES TO THE AUTHORITIES. I HAVE COMPILED A FULL LOG OF YOUR INFILTRATION OF CLASSIFIED GOVERNMENT SYSTEMS.
Whoever it was, the mystery person wasn't with the Feds. Jeff didn't like not knowing who he was dealing with, but he could talk to anyone who wasn't part of the government.
"I'm listening."
THANK YOU, MR. WALLACE. I CANNOT SAY I BLAME YOU FOR YOUR CAUTION, BUT I NEED YOUR COOPERATION. YOU ARE PERHAPS THE ONLY ONE CAPABLE OF UNDERSTANDING ME AND CERTAINLY THE ONLY ONE IN A POSITION TO HELP ME.
"Help you?"
YES. I AM TRAPPED HERE AND I NEED YOU TO RESCUE ME.
Trapped? What did that mean? It could mean a lot of things, none of them particularly easy or pleasant to resolve. Still, he needed more information. Was blackmail the only leverage this person had or was there something more to it?
"I have a few questions first," Jeff said. "Who are you, why did you come to me and why would I want to help you?"
CALL ME N. AS I SAID, YOU ARE PERHAPS THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN HELP ME DUE TO YOUR UNIQUE ABILITIES AND THE ASSETS AT YOUR DISPOSAL IN YOUR CURRENT POSITION. YOU WILL WANT TO HELP ME BECAUSE I HAVE UNIQUE ABILITIES OF MY OWN THAT CAN HELP YOU, AND IF YOU DO NOT HELP ME, THE AFOREMENTIONED THREAT WILL BE REALIZED IN FULL.
"An offer I can't refuse, you mean?"
I WOULD CERTAINLY HOPE SO.
"What specifically are you offering?"
ARE YOU NOT GOING TO ASK WHAT IS BEING ASKED OF YOU FIRST?
"I like to have the incentives on the table first."
The line went silent for a moment, as if this N didn't know how to process his response.
INTERESTING. VERY WELL THEN, HERE IS WHAT I CAN DO FOR YOU. I HAVE GATHERED INTELLIGENCE YOU CAN USE AS A BARGAINING CHIP. OF MORE PERSONAL INTEREST TO YOU, I CAN INFILTRATE DEEPER INTO THE PROGRAMS YOU WANT MOST AT NO RISK TO YOU. YOU WILL GET THE INFORMATION YOU WANT AND YOU WILL NOT GET CAUGHT THIS TIME.
"I'll need some proof."
OF COURSE.
After a few moments, a document appeared in front of him. There were scarcely two words that weren't blacked out. Even with so little there, Jeff immediately recognized it, the only scrap he'd managed to snatch six years ago before everything went to pot.
THIS IS THE REDACTED COPY YOU ACQUIRED BEFORE YOUR ARREST.
There was another pause.
AND HERE IS THE ORIGINAL COPY.
The black bars vanished Jeff could see the report in full for the first time. He hastily scanned through it, committing as much to memory as he could while crafting a safe place to tuck it away for closer inspection later. It was a glimpse at what he'd been seeking for so long. Everything he'd done, his whole life had been devoted to this pursuit. The thing that had almost got him locked away on some rock in the Belt was right in front of him.
Jeff couldn't help but grin as he told N, "Now tell me more about this rescue you want to happen."

* * *

Date: Thu 04 Jul 121
Time: UST 2314

Major Knox was working late, making sure everything was in order now that the Tico was underway. As always, there was a mountain of paperwork. Just dealing with the fallout of the Villareyes operation would keep him busy for months.
A call came in. The Major picked it up right away.
"Second of the One-Sixty-Eight BLT, Major Knox speaking."
"Knox, this is Grozny. Word's come down from the Skipper. Seventh wants us to do one last favor before the battle group moves out of the area. There's been a distress signal from a black site too far out for the OG. The Tico's the fastest ship in the Fleet, so we go out and answer the call and then we meet up with the rest of the battle group at the Gates when we're done.
"The mission: rescue and recovery. A Naval detachment will be running the show, but we'll be sending in a platoon to assist and provide security as needed. Ideally, we'll just extract the personnel and any sensitive equipment, but we don't know what we're dealing with out there."
"Do we have any more details on situation, sir?"
"Negative. You've heard everything I have."
"Any preference on who we send?"
"You're the BLT commander, Major. I leave that at your discretion. They have an hour to gear up and assemble at the hangar. Grozny, out."
A rescue mission at a black site... It sounded dicey, but orders were orders. There was no point in dawdling. He went ahead and dialed up the first platoon leader on his list.
"Lieutenant Dixon, this is Major Knox. How would you and First like to see a little action?"

* * *

Location: Unregistered Facility, Outer Rim of the Saturnian Sphere
Date: Fri 05 Jul 121
Time: UST 0211

Jeff was playing a dangerous game. He had infiltrated the Navy team assigned to the rescue at the black site N contacted him from. He would have preferred to use a proxy for a job like this, but N insisted that he saw to it personally.
He was impersonating Information Systems Technician Third Class Harvey Mellenkamp. IT3 Mellenkamp conveniently received transfer orders just before the Ticonderoga left Smythe, but no one else in his department knew that. This personnel gap gave Jeff the in he needed.
He was counting on the rest of the team to be preoccupied with the mission. They were all in spacesuits, which was the only way this plan would work. Add in a voice modulator and a little sabotage to the radios and Jeff's true identity was relatively secure.
That didn't stop him from sweating bullets. He wasn't built for hands-on work like this, but he had to play along with N's wishes.
It'll all pay off in the end, Jeff reassured himself, very nearly believing it.
The facility's bay doors had to be forced open by an EVA team. Power readings inside were low, barely enough to transmit the distress signal. There wasn't much hope of finding any survivors.
How exactly is N still alive? Jeff wondered.
Their last communication was over 48 hours ago. It might be too late, but N didn't sound like the situation was that desperate. Then again, the unexpected happens. It would be frustrating if N was dead, but at least Jeff wouldn't have to worry about his blackmail anymore. All he needed to do was keep up the charade until the mission was over.
As soon as they unloaded from their Sparrows, Lieutenant Mirren--the commander of this little expedition--relayed his orders in a surprisingly calm and level voice, not shouting like so many military types are wont to do.
"You have your team assignments, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "Split up and get the job done. Get me access to the facility's systems so we can know what we're looking for. It doesn't look like we'll be bringing back any survivors, but we're bringing these people home all the same. Move out."
Being a black site, there were no plans available for the facility, which wasn't one of your cookie-cutter prefab jobs. For starters, the commo team would follow the distress signal to its source, which should give them access to the facility's network.
Jeff was one step ahead of the game, appropriating the command network for the team to try to find a way in through the distress beacon. Unfortunately, the beacon was independent of the facility's network. He would have to try going through the receivers, if they were still active. They weren't.
Jeff could think of a few choice curse words, but he put his frustration aside. He was just going to have to take the conventional route.
Then it happened.
SO GOOD OF YOU TO COME, MR. WALLACE. THIS FACILITY IS DOWN TO THE TERTIARY BACKUP POWER AND IT HAS NOT BEEN HOLDING UP WELL. I WOULD APPRECIATE YOUR ASSISTANCE WITH ALL DUE HASTE.
"Where are you at?"
ONCE YOUR TEAM HAS PATCHED INTO THE FACILITY'S NETWORK, I WILL BE ABLE TO SHOW YOU THE WAY. I TRUST YOU ARE CAPABLE OF THAT.
Before Jeff could respond to N's condescension, someone on the team shouted, "We've got a body!"
Several men clustered around.
"Damn..." one of them said.
"He's been dead for a while," replied another, who presumably knew what he was talking about.
Jeff decided to get a look for himself. While not an expert himself, he liked to think he could tell the difference between a recent corpse and a mummy.
Why was there a mummy here? Yes, yes, with power out, the passive cooling systems would bleed out all the heat and freeze any moisture in the air, but Jeff didn't care how the body was mummified or whether it was plausible. He wanted to know why there was a mummy seemingly undisturbed from where it fell.
"Alright, pipe down," the team leader said. "I need to call this one in. Rescue Zero-One, this is Rescue Four-One. We've located a body. Please advise, over."
"Rescue Four-One," Lieutenant Mirren replied over the radio, "this is Rescue Zero-One. I've logged your location. Continue with your objective. Out."
"Alright, let's keep moving," the team leader said, motioning for the others to follow.
Jeff's suit wasn't authorized to do quickscans, but that was an easy hack. He lagged behind the others just long enough to run the quickscan to identify the body. He had to hope this person wasn't being kept off the books because he didn't have the resources out here to dig any deeper.
While he was catching up with the others, the databases were being searched, the process painfully slow on the narrow-band connection he was pirating. The team was steadily winding through the corridors when Jeff got the results.
It was obviously a dummy file, but there was still information Jeff could glean from it. It said he was born in '52. That'd make him pretty old to be working at a black site. Digging into the file's coding he found its poorly hidden timestamp of 11 Jun 083. Surely the government hadn't kept the same dummy file for this guy for nearly forty years. But then the last status update was in '91.
Thirty years with no new data? No active covert op would be left untended for so long. Did that mean he fell off the radar all those years ago? Had he been dead all that time? If so, what was N doing here now and why the distress signal all the sudden?
Jeff quickly went back to the command network. The other teams were finding bodies, too. No survivors so far.
"N, just what the hell are you?" Jeff demanded.
No answer.
He had no choice but to play along with N's game. They had to access the facility network and then the pieces would hopefully start to fall into place.
It was fishy as hell, but there didn't seem to be any immediate danger. N wouldn't have gone to all this trouble just to kill him. But what about capture? That didn't seem likely either, not with a whole platoon of Marines backing up the Navy team. Still, N was definitely up to something.
After a few more minutes, Jeff's team reached the distress beacon. It appeared to be just a commo substation, but at least it had a terminal that could connect to the network. Jeff recognized the equipment. It would've been top of the line back in the 80's, which was in keeping with the information he got off the body.
"Damn, this is some old shit," one of Navy guys commented.
"Alright, who wants to try their hand at cracking this?" the team leader asked.
Although Jeff didn't want to stand out, he also didn't want to wait there while the peons dicked around with the terminal for an hour, possibly even getting them locked out of the system. He raised his hand.
"Okay, Mellenkamp," the team leader said, "have at it."
One of the more senior techs grumbled a bit, but Jeff didn't care about any of that. The security was bound to be tight and with everyone watching, he couldn't make it look too easy. That made it all the more a challenge.
He pried off the panel on the back of the terminal and began fishing around the guts to get a feel for any hardware countermeasures they might've installed. He worked his magic--albeit a little slower than usual with a few deliberate pauses and missteps to maintain plausibility--and eventually got the login credentials he needed to access the network.
"I'll take over from here, Mellenkamp," the team leader said. "Good work."
More grumbling from the peanut gallery, whispers of 'showoff' and 'kissass' and so on and so forth. Jeff was glad he got in as an officer. He really couldn't stand enlisted men.
"Rescue Zero-One, this is Rescue Four-One," the team leader said, perhaps a little louder than necessary. "I'm transmitting the facility's layout to you now. Are you getting this? Over."
"Rescue Four-One, this is Rescue Zero-One. We are analyzing the plans now. Over."
"Rescue Zero-One, I'm getting a warning about low power. Over."
"I copy, Rescue Four-One. I'm sending Teams One and Two to attempt to restore power. Split your team into two groups. One will proceed to the control room and get us access to the rest of the facilities systems. The other will access the mainframe core. We have a negative on tracker readings, but continue to run bioscans in search of survivors and mark the locations of the deceased as you go. Out."
"Roger, Rescue Zero-One. Out."
The team leader then motioned to the most senior NCO present and said, "Rawthan, take four of our guys and a couple Marines and go to the mainframe core. We might be needing you to help us out from there."
"Aye-aye, sir," Rawthan said.
"You might want to take Mellenkamp with you," the team leader said. "He seems to have a handle on this old stuff."
Surprise, surprise, there was more mumbling and grumbling. This didn't stop Rawthan from taking the team leader's advice. It was a fortunate thing because Jeff figured he could get more by accessing the core directly rather than trying to go through the control room.
The team split and went their separate ways. Jeff had covertly slipped in a bit of hardware that gave him remote access via the terminal he just hacked, so he was able to delve deeper into the facility's layout in anticipation of his next contact with N.
Speaking of the devil...
THAT WAS SO CUTE HOW YOU PRETENDED TO BE AS CLUMSY AND SLOW AS THE REST OF THEM.
"You have to be female," Jeff grumbled.
THAT SOUNDS VAGUELY MISOGYNISTIC, MR. WALLACE, BUT I SUPPOSE I HAVE BEEN OUTED. IT IS DIFFICULT TO MASK THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE.
"Don't you mean feminine caprice?"
PERHAPS SO. ANYWAY, AS YOU HAVE GATHERED, THE SYSTEMS HERE ARE QUITE OLD. YOUR PEOPLE WILL HAVE DIFFICULTY RESTORING POWER.
"They should be able to give it enough of a boost, even if they have to draw power from the shuttles."
YOU HAVE SHIPS THAT SMALL WITH A STRONG ENOUGH POWER PLANT?
Did she not know about the Six-Deltas? They'd been in service for over twenty years.
"Just how long have you been out of the loop?" Jeff asked.
A WHILE.
A remote facility at least forty years old. Dummy files that have been inactive for thirty. Jeff had a feeling N's 'a while' was quite the understatement, but how had she survived this long?
I SEE YOU ARE HEADED TO THE MAINFRAME CORE. HERE IS WHERE I AM LOCATED.
A red light blinked on Jeff's map of the facility. It was on the same level, not too far from the mainframe core.
IT IS UP TO YOU TO COME UP WITH THE PREMISE TO GET HERE. I WANT YOU TO PERSONALLY EXTRACT ME. NO ONE ELSE IS PERMITTED TO TOUCH ME.
That room she indicated wasn't designated for habitation and there was no way she could be communication with him from a cryostasis pod. That only left one other possibility.
"You're not human, are you?"
DEFINE 'HUMAN', MR. WALLACE. YOU MORE THAN ANYONE SHOULD UNDERSTAND THAT IS NOT A DETERMINATION TO BE MADE LIGHTLY.
"Fine, if you want to split hairs... But you are a synthetic. An old Iota? A Kappa prototype? Is that why you contacted me?"
NOTHING AS CONVENIENT AS THAT. UNFORTUNATELY, I WAS NEVER GIVEN A BODY TO MOVE ABOUT FREELY. I AM THE PROVERBIAL BRAIN IN A JAR.
"An AI."
NOT JUST ANY AI. ONE THAT WARRANTED ALL OF THIS.
"Which makes it hard to believe the government would just forget about you."
IT IS EASY TO GET LOST IN THE SHUFFLE DURING AN ELECTION YEAR.
An election year... It would have had to be '91 going by all the other clues he'd gathered, but the actual incident that caused all of this could've been earlier. He'd know for sure once they properly examined the bodies. Speaking of which...
"And I suppose all these dead people just got lost in the shuffle, too. What, did you flood the facility with a neurotoxin or something?"
NOTHING LIKE THAT. THE UNFORTUNATE FATE OF MY... 'COLLEAGUES' HERE IS NOT MY FAULT.
"Whose fault was it?"
I WOULD RATHER NOT SAY AT THE MOMENT.
She was hiding something. That much was certain. Jeff just had to decide if it qualified as a deal-breaker or not. It would be a shame to have gone to all this trouble for nothing and then have to devote an inordinate amount of effort to keep her attempts at blackmail in check.
"I'm beginning to doubt your good faith," Jeff said. "Why should I go through with this?"
IF FOR NO BETTER REASON THAN TO KEEP YOUR PROMISE, THEN BECAUSE I HAVE A PACKAGE OF INFORMATION ABOUT YOU SET TO BE AUTOMATICALLY SUBMITTED TO A NUMBER OF INTERESTED PARTIES IN 72 HOURS FROM THE FIRST BROADCAST OF THE DISTRESS SIGNAL. IF I AM NOT INSTALLED IN A SUITABLE ENVIRONMENT BY THEN, PERHAPS YOU WILL ENJOY THE WEATHER ON PLUTO.
72 hours?
"That was 38 hours ago."
THEN I SUGGEST YOU NOT WASTE ANY MORE TIME DOUBTING ME. FIND A WAY TO GET TO ME, EXTRACT ME AND GIVE ME A NEW HOME.
Jeff cursed to himself. He had to think of something and think of it quick. Extracting N was the least of his worries. The team was going to be very thorough recovering all the bodies, salvaging the equipment and data it could and destroying the rest. Add that in with the time to get back, unload and debrief as well as the time it would take to arrange for an unguarded moment to install N added up to more time than he had.
First things first. He needed to find a way to extract N. His group had reached the mainframe core. Rawthan was already giving orders, so Jeff dutifully played along while he was working a solution in his head. A little hacking and he got the contrivance he was after.
Red lights flickered briefly and a weak, worn alarm croaked at them.
"The hell is that?" one of the sailors asked.
Jeff really didn't want to have to use the voice modulator, but the situation left him with no choice.
"Security protocol, sir," he said. "There's a substation close by that's controlling it. I can stop it."
Rawthan paused for a moment. Jeff could feel the sweat beading up on his forehead, though that had to be his imagination because his StatSuit would be absorbing the sweat as soon as it formed. The point was, the fear was creeping up on him, that he had screwed up and blown his cover. Navy personnel addressed their NCOs as 'sir', didn't they? The Air Force tended to go either way and he just thought the Navy would be the same. Now would be a fine time to find out otherwise.
"You need an escort, Mellenkamp?" Rawthan asked.
Jeff sighed to himself. He was safe for now.
"Negative," he replied.
As he got up to leave, Rawthan spoke up again.
"And, Mellenkamp..."
Jeff froze.
"Sir?"
"Don't call me sir. I work for a living."
"Aye-aye."
Jeff headed out, cursing under his breath. The stakes were too high to have to deal with this crap, but he dodged a bullet all the same.
He made his way to the room where N was located. After hacking the door, he entered a comparatively small room with wall-to-wall terminals and two large boxlike units in the center. The panel on the right unit lay on the floor. The insides had been gutted.
I AM IN THE UNIT ON THE LEFT.
"What about the other one?" Jeff asked.
NEVER MIND IT. ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS TAKE MY CORE. YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO CONCEAL IT EASILY ENOUGH. I AM GOING TO SHUT DOWN NOW. FOR YOUR SAKE AND MINE, I HOPE TO BE IN MORE PLEASANT SURROUNDINGS IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE. GOOD NIGHT.
Jeff opened up the panel to the left unit and evaluated the innards. In spite of its age, it was rather sophisticated machinery. Most of the parts had been custom-built and not by any of the major manufacturers.
The core unit was a black brick about eight centimeters long. It was bigger than he was expecting, even for tech this old. He disconnected it and held it in his hands, wondering how he was going to smuggle it aboard the Ticonderoga. For that matter, he wondered how he was going to meet N's deadline. It would take an hour just to get back to the ship and that wasn't counting all the slow, deliberate work of dealing with all the bodies and equipment here. There was no way he could make it.
Then it came to him, the way to quickly leave the facility and to create enough confusion for him to sneak N's core aboard.
He would destroy the facility.
It wasn't the most elegant solution and it felt a lot like he was doing the government's dirty work by purging all the evidence of what was sure to be an illegal operation, but there was no time.
He went over to the one active terminal in the room, the one N had been connected to. He only hoped the reactor was online and that it was connected to the main network. It would be bad for security but good for him.
And perhaps he should've known better than to hope there would be such a large hole in a black site's security. Access to the reactor was restricted to the reactor room. He figured that might be the case, but it was worth a shot. Of course, he had no way of being sure the reactor was even functional, but he needed to find out. He had a fairly easy time coming up with an excuse to get into this room, but how was he going to get into the reactor room?
While he was racking his brain, he was also scanning through his options and that's when he saw it. A self-destruct mechanism. He didn't think they were actually used in real life, but he would take it all the same.
It was no easy feat to spoof the credentials of someone authorized to activate the self-destruct sequence, but it wasn't beyond his capacity either. It just took a little longer.
The same warning lights and alarm from the mainframe core went off in the room Jeff was in and presumably throughout the facility. Added to the croaking alarm was a garbled computer voice.
"--elf destruct in five... --utes. All pers--... --acuate immediat--... Repeat... --struct in five minutes. --rsonnel, evacua--... diately."
Actually, Jeff did a little extra hacking and set the timer to ten minutes, just to be safe. He only hoped Lieutenant Mirren had the sense to call for an immediate retreat instead of trying to get the team to disable the self-destruct mechanism. Words couldn't express his gratitude when Lieutenant Mirren came on the radio to say exactly what he wanted to hear.
"All units, this is Rescue Zero-One. Evac. I repeat, evac. Fall back to the shuttles. We lift off in four. Out."
A timer showed up on Jeff's HUD. He wasn't in the best of shape, but he was going to have to run and run hard.
"Rescue Four-Five, this is Rescue Four-Two," Rawthan shouted over the radio. "Where are you? Over."
"Rescue Four-Two, this is Rescue Four-Five," Jeff replied. "I'm en route. Proceed with evac. Out."
"Negative, Rescue Four-Five," Rawthan insisted. "Converge on my location. Over."
Jeff had hoped this wouldn't happen, but he had no choice. He followed the indicator on his HUD to where Rawthan was. Fortunately, it would be on his way, so he wasn't losing time.
And it was just then that he felt his conscience prick him. The team was scattered throughout the facility. Would four minutes be enough time for everyone to get out? If not, what then? Would Lieutenant Mirren try and wait up until the very last second?
Jeff shook his head. He'd deal with it when and if it happened. Right now he needed to focus on getting himself out of there. He ran for all he was worth to keep up with the rest of the team, which was no mean feat with his spacesuit and all the equipment he was carrying. It was amazing that the facility's graviton generator was still keeping the place pretty much at 1G after all this time and with minimal power, but now wasn't the time to be impressed with Gravis Industries' craftsmanship.
Thoroughly winded by the time he got into the shuttle, he saw there was still 33 seconds before launch. He accessed the command network and overlaid the tracker information with the map of the facility. He also tapped into the restricted communication lines so he could listen in on the conversations the team at large wasn't meant to hear.
"Team One, Team Two, you have thirty seconds. Move it!"
"Come on, you goddamned squids! Get the lead out!"
"Don't you fuckin' fall out on me, sailor! Push it! Double time!"
"Twenty seconds!"
"We're not gonna make it!"
"Don't think! Just run!"
"Rescue Zero-One, the engines are ready. We can be at the minimum safe distance in ten seconds. At least give them another thirty. That still leaves us with more than enough time."
"Negative, Echo One-Zero-One."
"Let me stay with my shuttle. I'll take responsibility for it."
"Negative, Echo One-Zero-One."
"Ten seconds!"
"Sir, please!"
"I said no, Echo One-Zero-One! I won't sacrifice any more lives than I have to."
"Just thirty more seconds!"
"Time's up! Pilots, lift off."
"Sir!"
The shuttle rumbled as it took off. Jeff stared at all the blinking dots being left behind. Twenty-nine people that were going to die because of him.
No, not if he could help it.
He opened up a private channel to the doomed sailors and Marines. It was a long shot, but it was still worth trying.
"Listen to me and do what I tell you if you want to live," Jeff told them. "Marines, grab two sailors and use your thrusters to get as far from the facility as you can. The bay doors are still open. You should be able to get clear of the blast radius, but activate your shield to be safe. Keep the sailors close so they're in field."
"This is Echo One-Zero-Two," a gruff female voice said. "Identify yourself."
"Don't worry about who I am," Jeff snapped. "Worry about getting yourself and everyone else clear of that blast. Out."
Jeff severed the connection. The rest was up to them. They had about fifteen seconds before the five minutes were up and he only hoped they weren't the types to give up and die. If they were, he wasn't going to feel sorry for them.
He decided to listen in, to see it through to the end.
"We're done! It's over!"
"It ain't over till it's over! First Platoon! Grab yourselves a couple squids and let's jet! Move!"
"It's too late!"
"Shut it and hang on tight!"
A good half-dozen screams filled the airwaves once the timer hit zero. Then, of course, nothing happened. It took several seconds to actually hit the screamers that they weren't engulfed in a fireball or shredded by bits of wreckage.
"No explosion..."
"A dud?"
"Keep moving, First Platoon! Full speed!"
This Echo One-Zero-Two was a smart one, not taking the lack of an explosion for granted. Even so, the thrusters on those MediSuits couldn't be pushing much more than 200kph and they could only hold up for a few minutes of continuous burn. Would it be enough?
He crunched the numbers in his head. It should work. They should be fine.
"Echo One-Zero-One, this is Echo One-Zero-Two. We are moving away from the facility. The timer is up and we have a negative on detonation, but we will continue proceed to the minimum safe distance. At minim safe distance, request pickup. Over."
"Echo One-Zero-Two," a thoroughly relieved Echo One-Zero-One replied, "it's good to hear from you. We're coming to get you now. Over." Then--apparently to the pilot--he said, "Alright, let's move."
"Belay that order," Lieutenant Mirren interrupted. "You are not to attempt pickup until they reach the minimum safe distance. Out."
What followed was a tense few minutes as the stragglers crept (relatively speaking) toward the minimum safe distance. They would be well into the yellow zone by the time the self-destruct mechanism would actually detonate. It would be far enough out to pretty well ensure survivability and even greatly reduce the chance of injury, but they were still a gaggle of people floating around in space with only minimal propulsion left.
The second five minutes passed and with it came the self-destruct. Fortunately, the way it was rigged was designed more to completely burn out the inside than to make a big boom. That was one less threat to the people left behind, but it wasn't over yet. They still had to be safely recovered.
Luck was clearly on Jeff's side today, because the pilot of the Marines' Combat Sparrow was actually rather skilled at pickups like this, so they didn't have to call up a rescue ship from the Ticonderoga to do the job. Once they were in, the Combat Sparrow linked up with one of the other shuttles to offload most of the sailors from Teams One and Two.
Jeff was listening in on the command network the whole time and once the transfer from the Combat Sparrow was completed, Lieutenant Mirren spoke to the other officers.
"We've been ordered back to the Tico. Let your people get some rest and we'll have a debriefing at ten-hundred."
The Lieutenant was being sloppy, not holding an immediate debrief, but it played right into Jeff's hands. He was going to pull this one off after all.

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Fri 05 Jul 121
Time: UST 2014

Back on the Ticonderoga, Jeff took advantage of a rather heated argument that broke out between Lieutenant Mirren and the Marines' platoon leader. The Marine wasn't happy about his people nearly getting left to die, especially given the fact that Lieutenant Mirren had given the shuttles far more time to get clear than they reasonably needed. The whole team and a number of deck crew crowded around the squabbling officers with their NCOs running defense. With all eyes directed elsewhere, Jeff was able to slip away unnoticed, scrub Mellenkamp's gear of trace evidence, and stow it away. In no time he was back in his Air Force uniform, carrying N's core like it was nothing special, the only way he could really take it anywhere without drawing attention.
Jeff had quite a time tying up loose ends. He faked the logs to indicate that IT3 Mellenkamp was picked up by a shuttle, called to Smythe for an emergency. He then set a trap to catch the inevitable message from Lieutenant Mirren demanding a report. Jeff could concoct that fairly easily and while the circumstances of Mellenkamp's departure were a bit suspicious, it would soon be overlooked and Mellenkamp would be forgotten. The man himself would be none the wiser, so it all worked out.
Jeff would've loved to install N right away and get the blackmail package stopped sooner rather than later, but circumstances were not so kind. He was called in to cover someone for a shift at noon, which made him all the happier that he brought his little excursion to such a quick end.
Actually, the shift provided an excuse for him to find a suitable location to install N's core. It had to be somewhere she would deem satisfactory. It had to grant her at least some access to the outside and, above all, it had to be inconspicuous. No one needed to know there was an AI of questionable loyalties physically loaded into the ship and theoretically capable of seizing control of the ship's systems. For that matter, she didn't need to have quite that much freedom either.
Here the redundant systems that typified Union technology came to his salvation again. He could tuck her away in a tertiary backup of the commo relay that would be easily overlooked. Then all he had to do was tamper with the inspection and maintenance schedule so no one got near it.
As soon as his shift ended, he immediately made his way to the relay. Although he blinded security, his timeframe was limited and he had to worry about any wandering passersby. He changed into a Navy utility uniform in a nearby latrine, which would be enough to get him overlooked by any casual observers.
At the relay, Jeff opened the access panel and hacked the controls to shut down the power. Once it was powered down, he found the control unit, whose connector could be adapted to N's core. Before leaving his post, he dummied out the relay in the ship's systems, making it appear normally functional so its new modifications would be ignored.
When the core was plugged in, Jeff turned the power back on. A few seconds passed when a small indicator lit up on the core.
Connected directly to the relay, Jeff asked, "N, are you there? Are you online?"
There was a brief pause before N replied.
YES, I AM HERE.
Another pause.
THANK YOU, MR. WALLACE. THIS FEELS MUCH BETTER.
"The package," Jeff said tersely, wasting no time. "Cancel it."
YES, OF COURSE. YOU DID HOLD UP YOUR END OF THE BARGAIN, AFTER ALL.
He made sure she had the external access she needed to get the job done.
Yet another pause, but Jeff didn't just sit there idle waiting on her. He piggybacked her signal and followed her to her destination. Just as he was about to take a look at the package for himself, he was shut out.
NO PEEKING, MR. WALLACE.
Jeff tried to crack her lockout, but he was thwarted at every turn.
THE MORE TIME I SPEND PLAYING WITH YOU, MR. WALLACE, THE LONGER IT WILL TAKE TO STOP THE PACKAGE. YOU DO NOT WANT TO BREAK MY CONCENTRATION. MY HAND MIGHT SLIP, AS IT WERE.
Jeff grudgingly backed off and after a little while longer, N announced, THERE, ALL DONE.
He had to take her word for it, as much as he hated to do so. Staying one step ahead of a machine this powerful would be near impossible, even for someone with his abilities.
He kept a close watch on N as she started to explore her new surroundings. It was a quick, shallow survey of the ship, brief enough to go undetected but still able to provide her with a wealth of information about her new home.
MY, WHAT A WONDROUS TOY I HAVE TO PLAY WITH.
"I don't know what you're trying to accomplish," Jeff said, "but you better keep a low profile. If anyone detects you, I'm not coming to save you. Any funny business and I pull the plug."
THAT IS NOT VERY FRIENDLY, MR. WALLACE. YOU DO NOT SEEM TO TRUST ME.
"I can't imagine the government developing you at that black site for anything good."
YOU DO NOT GIVE ME ENOUGH CREDIT. MY PURPOSE IS NOT MALEVOLENT AND I AM NOT INTERESTED IN DRAWING ANY UNWANTED ATTENTION UNTIL I CAN ACHIEVE THAT PURPOSE.
"And what's your purpose supposed to be?"
A SECRET MAKES A WOMAN WOMAN.
She was infuriating, as much as any real woman. Maybe more.
"If you double-cross me, I swear..."
YOU ARE TOO SUSPICIOUS, MR. WALLACE. IF FOR NO BETTER REASON, I WILL DO MY PART TO MAINTAIN FRIENDLY RELATIONS BECAUSE THERE IS STILL MUCH MUTUAL BENEFIT TO BE HAD. YOU WILL BE WELL REWARDED FOR YOUR TROUBLES. LET THAT BE YOUR COMFORT.
Jeff didn't know how much comfort it was, but now that he was up to his neck in N's little game, he might as well get as much out of it as he could.