Najiltrin’s legs trembled as she tiptoed back to her desk. The self-destruct code was hidden in a secure folder on her metadigital tablet. Once she entered the code.
“The end of everything,” she thought.
A series of coordinated explosions would topple the expedition’s temporary domes and workstations and destroy its starship. Najiltrin and her staff, including the starship crew, would be sacrificed for the greater good.
Survivors, if any, would be stranded on Yumelat without basic services until a ship could arrive from the homeworld. But at least, TahKedert would explode along with them as just another piece of expedition equipment.
It was a last-ditch failsafe that no one had believed would ever be necessary. Unfortunately, in case the newly upgraded TahKedert could detect even a coded communication, Najiltrin couldn’t risk warning any member of her expedition. Nor could she trust that anyone else had escaped TahKedert’s influence. Her eyes misted over.
“Can’t tip my hand,” she whispered.
By now, she’d reached her tablet, opened the thrice-encrypted file and was staring at the thirty-seven-character code that could end her life in a flash. What a time, then, to get an urgent encrypted call from Pothrejnon on her secure comlink.
Normally, her eyes rolled whenever his ID tag appeared on her comlink display. Now it was the most welcome sight in the known universe.
“What’s this nonsense we received from TahKedert?” he demanded.
Najiltrin gasped, then answered in a hoarse whisper.
“Don’t open that file,” she said. “It’s dangerous.”
“So I’m told,” said her superior. “But all I saw, at first, was a trickster babbling about nothing. Still, I figured it must be suspicious, because it didn’t come directly from you. I told my cyber team to treat it like a piece of malware and run an analysis of the video code only.”
“You you watched it?” Najiltrin asked. “Are you sure you’re OK? Everyone else who has seen the file is TahKedert’s slave.”
But as Pothrejnon’s cyber team had discovered, the video used intricate subliminal color patterns to program its victims’ mind. Once programmed, viewers responded only to the sound of Sedynilet’s voice.
With Umalunet’s help, TahKedert had forced Najiltrin’s entire staff to watch the ancient video. Then, by mimicking every nuance of Sedynilet’s voice, he’d become their master.
“Apparently, the video file accesses a viewer’s higher brain functions through the visual cortex,” said Pothrejnon. “Of course, that had no effect on me.”
“Why ‘of course’?” asked Najiltrin.
“Don’t you know I’m color blind?” said the fifty-something Director.
Najiltrin closed her eyes and breathed deep. If TahKedert had sent the file to anyone else on her homeworld, his control over Bythrahnin and its colonies would have been absolute.
“Director, I’m glad you’re safe,” she said. “But it won’t be long before TahKedert commandeers my star ship and well I was just about to use the self-destruct code when you called.”
“No!” Pothrejnon shouted. “Leave that malfunctioning android to me.”
Najiltrin’s comlink went dead. After five agonizing minutes, TahKedert’s voice boomed out through her tablet’s speakers.
“Chief!” he yelled. “You have to help me! Pothrejnon gave me a direct, Code 7 order to calculate the square root of two to the last decimal place! It’s impossible, but I can’t stop! My mind it’s over heating Help me! Help!”
The android’s desperate screams shattered the airwaves for a full minute before Najiltrin’s tablet went silent. Najiltrin swallowed hard, tiptoed over to her office door, opened it a crack and peeked out. Her young staff, usually bursting with energy, lay listlessly on the soft, deep pile carpet.
“Can anyone hear me?” she called out.
One by one, her team members picked themselves up from the carpet.
“Where where have we been?” one of them asked.
Once each member of the expedition had been accounted for, Umalunet was taken into custody and the severely damaged TahKedert was safely crated away, Najiltrin gave the evacuation order.
As she learned later, her staff was freed from TahKedert’s control within seconds of his system-wide burnout. That included Selvintyl, the first to go and the hardest hit.
“Still have a headache,” he said. “It’s amazing. For a little while, everything in the universe actually made sense.”
“That should have been the tip off,” she said.
“True,” said Selvintyl. “The universe is messy. That’s the only reason it works. But where to now, Chief? Your next dig?”
“Not yet,” said Najiltrin, “First I have to excavate my sanity.”
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