The trip to the metaversal parallel of Serlat 3 was easily the most tense time in the two insectouds’ lives. Instead of indulging in wise-cracking banter, they were forced into sullen silence. There was no escaping the thought that this flight was merely a detour on their way to mental oblivion.
To protect themselves, they’d both adopted the same defensive strategy. Maybe, they both hoped, if they emptied their minds, the Alornoz that had infested the ship’s AI would have less to use against them. But they were mistaken.
“You might as well relax,” the symbiote said through the ship’s intercom. “Your attempt to minimize your mental activity is as conspicuous to me as if you were reliving a childhood trauma - which, by the look of things, the two of you know nothing about.”
“Is that supposed to be a bad thing?” asked Zevdra.
“No,” said the symbiote. “But it does make your minds rather boring.”
“Step out of the human,” said Bleenor, “an wriggle around out in the open a while. I have a length of pipe in the engine room that will give you all the trauma you’ll ever need.”
“There,” said the symbiote. “Much better. A quick snack of stifled rage is the perfect pick-me-up, after hours in a coma.”
There was so much more to Bleenor’s angry rant, but he held his tongue. Instinctively, he turned the discussion in a different direction, for reasons he dared not articulate to himself.
“So what’s your plan, Big Shot?” he asked. “Once your species has locked up every sentient mind in this universe, what will you do for an encore?”
A smug chuckle rolled out of the intercom speakers.
“Oh that,” said the symbiote, “that will take ages. At the moment, we’re focused on the survival of the fittest, which is clearly us. You single-mind sentients are too limited to compete.”
“Is that it?” asked Bleenor. “Or is your real problem that you have no ideas of your own - and you’re completely dependent on your hosts?”
“Since when is dependency a failing?” asked the symbiote. “I have it on good authority from your own mind that you, my little bug, are totally dependent on Zevdra’s well-being. For example.”
Zevdra doubled over in pain.
“What .” she gasped. “What are you Bleenor help help me!”
Zevdra’s shrieks pierced Bleenor’s ears like jagged shards of glass. He raced to her side.
“Cut it out,” he yelled. “If ‘fitness’ tells you to torture someone, torture me.”
“My pleasure,” said the symbiote. As Zevdra felt her own agony subside, she watched helpless, while Bleenor fell to the floor of the command center, his mandibles clacking uncontrollably.
“Stop it!” she shouted. “He’s worth a thousand of you.”
“Ha!” said the symbiote. “Better check your figures.”
“That’s it,” said Zevdra. “Emergency override code Z/Zero-One-Three-Eight. Initiate electrical system shutdown now!”
Immediately, the Shiny Nova went dark. Bleenor’s body, which had been writhing in pain, suddenly relaxed. Like Zevdra and everything else that wasn’t bolted down, he floated upward.
“Like to see that symbiote control an AI with no power,” said Zevdra.
“Good thinking,” said Bleenor, “Only you shut off life support too and um artificial gravity.”
“Can’t help it,” said Zevdra. “I’d rather die than let that monster hurt you. Come on, we still have our pressure suits. If we snap on helmets we might make it to Serlat 3, and find a solution.
“Have my doubts,” said Bleenor. “But the air’s already getting thin. Helmets are in the supply closets below.”
With the AI blockade turned off, the two insectoids pulled themselves down the titanium spiral staircase leading to the lower deck. Bleenor grabbed a helmet for Zevdra, helped her on with it, then waited while she returned the favor. Lucky for them, with the helmet in place, each suit had its own limited power source. Soon his sigh echoed in Zevdra’s ears through their shared comlink.
“Better than nothing,” he said. “And the helmet’s sensors indicate we’re now in orbit around Serlat 3. But how are we going to land without power? We can’t even open the Launch Bay doors.”
“Good thing one of us bothered to read the Shiny Nova’s operating manual,” said Zevdra. “We can restore power to just the Launch Bay. The landers have their own power supply.”
Bleenor smiled at first, before a cloud crossed his multifaceted eyes.
“Only thing that worries me,” he said, “is that the Alornoz might have seen your plan in your mind and taken evasive maneuvers.”
“Bot One,” Zevdra called out. “Any trace of the symbiote in any of our systems?”
When the servicebot replied, its voice was strangely altered.
“You might say, Captain,” it said, “that the symbiote is more adaptable than you anticipated. Though I do admire your ingenuity. Let’s call a truce, shall we? No more pain from me, and no more power outages from you. Now, I suggest we take Lander 2. Much roomier.”
Zevdra glanced at Bleenor, whose defeated shrug of all four shoulders confirmed her fears. The three of them climbed into the waiting lander.
“Partial electrical system reboot, Launch Bay,” said Zevdra. “Code ZP/Five-Four-Two-Nine. Initiate.”
A deep, whirling hum filled their ears as the Launch Bay sprang back to life. They watched as Hatch Two opened to deep space.
“Serlat 3,” said Zevdra. “Standard landing pattern.”
“Superb,” said the Alornoz. “Now I can explore on my own.”
The symbiote’s smug self-confidence was just the mental shield Bleenor needed to send a series of subvocal commands through his helmet to Bot Two on the Shiny Nova. Soon, the ship’s AI would be back online with complete control of every system.
As the lander spiraled down to the planet’s surface, Bleenor had to hope that Zevdra’s enthusiastic awe and the symbiote’s insufferable gloating would continue to hide his secret. The lander alit and, after a routine pressure check, the two Veratrese and the sinister Alornoz who controlled Bot One stepped onto the planet’s surface.
“What a tragic loss,” said the symbiote. “We could’ve made good use of their technology.”
Zevdra pulled Bleenor close, as they surveyed the planet’s broken landscape. Even in decay, the remaining structures seemed imbued with intelligence.
“Hey what’s this?” she heard the symbiote say. The two insectoids raced over to a small clearing in the rubble. Sticking out of the ground was a hemisphere of amber polyglass, about half a meter in diameter. A bright light emanated from it in discrete pulses. Bleenor’s antennae twitched.
What, he wondered, did those pulses remind him of?
(To be continued)
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