The Prime Empire - Part 15&16

Winterborn hissed in a stream of breath, thoughts whirring in her mind. Was it possible the torn cloth had been a plant? A ruse intended to shift suspicion onto a member of her crew? "Commander, was the blood found on the torn cloth? Or was the blood found elsewhere in the chamber?"

Julia nodded, "The strip of uniform was covered in both Quin'tel and unidentified alien blood. Analysis indicates that the interior of the cloth was mostly the unknown alien's blood, while the exterior was mostly coated in Quin'tel blood..." Julia let the implication sink in before continuing, "Captain, I think the unidentified alien might have been wearing one of our uniforms."

The Captain furrowed her brow. "I don't understand what the point would be. It's extremely unlikely that any alien life form would look anything like a human being."

Julia frowned, "Well, you're right there. The medical A.I. has put together an image of the alien based on the genetic information acquired from the cloth. Here," she said, forwarding the 3-D image to Winterborn's ocular implant, "is that representation."

Winterborn accepted the message and examined the image. The thing which floated before her eyes was absolutely repugnant. She noted that the monster had the rough size and shape of a human, but that was where the resemblances ended. The creature was frail and bony, its skin was white and sickly. Horrifyingly, the monstrosity lacked eyes of any kind—the A.I. had noted that the creature had photo-sensitive skin. It was likely that it could 'see' the light spectrum through its skin. All in all, an extremely repulsive creature.

"I'll forward this image to the Quin'tel. Hopefully they can enlighten us on what this creature is. Meanwhile, I want you to input the genetic data of this creature into the scanning filters. I'd like to know where this thing is on the double. Understood?"

Julia stood to attention, snapping off a quick salute, "Yes, Sir. I'll have this thing found within the hour." Turning on her heel, she stepped out of the conference room.

Winterborn called up her neural interface, sending a message to Ava. "Ava, send a request to speak with the Quin'tel Captain. I'd like to meet with him personally."

Ava's voice responded back almost immediately, "Sir, I was just about to contact you. I attempted to view the recorded logs from the attack. The recorded footage from the security cameras, individual tracking information, and security logs for the last three hours have all been wiped. This represents a massive failure in security."

The Captain's heart felt heavy in her chest, she was speechless for a moment, the news sinking in. "Call a meeting of the Senior staff. Everyone who was present during the briefing. I don't think we can trust talking about sensitive information over insecure channels."

"Right away, Sir. Do you still want me to arrange a meeting with the Quin'tel Captain?"

"Yes...Yes, we'll still need to meet with them. I'll take two security officers with me as an escort. Oh, I'd also like to have Commander Julia along," Winterborn paused and smoothed her uniform. "That will be all, Lieutenant."

"Yes, Sir." Ava logged out of the connection.

Winterborn sat back down at the conference table, opening her ocular interface. She noticed that her nutrition levels were a bit low—she definitely hadn't been eating properly over the last day or so. She definitely wasn't a stress eater. She quickly tapped into the physical display information for her officers, and she nodded at what she saw. It seemed that nearly everyone hadn't been eating well. She took the time to order lunch for her officers, they would all perform better with a full stomach.

Each officer trickled in over the next few minutes, during that time Winterborn assembled a report on the alien intruder who had apparently made their way onto her ship. She assumed that it must have come aboard at the same time as the Quin'tel. She wondered why the thing had attacked them. Was it possible they were working together? Maybe relations had soured between them during a meeting. Stranger things had happened after all—if two groups of humans could come to blows while working together, surely two species working together could have a similar disagreement.

Finally, Fallborn stepped through the door and took her place at the conference table. Winterborn closed the report and regarded each of her officers in turn, staring hard into each face.

"We've had another security breach," said Winterborn, her voice heavy as the grave.

Commander Val leaned forward, placing her elbows on the desk. "What?! How? We just changed every security code we had access to. No one aside from the most senior officers had any kind of security access."

Winterborn nodded to Ava, "Lieutenant Ava has more information, I was just briefed on this myself. Please proceed, Lieutenant."

Ava stood, and shared a document with the assembled officers. She waited a moment for them to work their way through the information, "As you can see, we have suffered a serious data breach. We can't tell who accessed the system, who attacked the Quin'tel, or what—if any—security codes were used. They cleared all security footage, data logs, and location logs for the crew. We essentially have no data regarding the events of the last three hours," she held a pregnant pause, "This confirms for us that there is in fact a traitor on board. We were considering the possibility that the sabotage had been conducted before we had left, but this no longer seems to be a reasonable guess."

Fallborn leaned forward, resting her elbows on the desk, "Is it possible that the alien intruder mentioned in your report could have been responsible for the sabotage?"

Ava shrugged, "I suppose that it's possible, but very unlikely. We think it likely that the alien boarded along with the Quin'tel. It would beggar belief to assume that an alien with less than a day's time on the ship could so severely infiltrate our security measures."

"Is it possible the alien and the traitor are working together?" asked Val.

"We are definitely exploring that possibility...that being said, we don't think it's all that likely. We're relatively certain that the Quin'tel and the traitor have similar goals. Why would the traitor attempt to kill the Quin'tel if they were working together?"

"Well," said Fallborn, "they didn't actually kill any of the Quin'tel right? It could be that they are trying to muddy the waters."

Everyone looked at her, she continued, "If they knew we were catching on, they may have wanted to make it look like they weren't in league with the traitor. We were certain before, and now we can't be. I'd say it was relatively successful if that was their aim."

"That's a fair point, Lieutenant. Plus, the traitor seems to have covered the tracks of the alien. If they weren't in league, that wouldn't make sense," said Winterborn, leaning back into her chair.

A chiming at the door announced the arrival of lunch, but suddenly, she didn't feel at all like eating.

Part 16

The food was arrayed before the officers by three crewmen, each with heavy bags under their eyes. Winterborn let out a silent sigh, empathizing with the stress the crew must be under. Each course was selected from the officers' food preference lists. Ava took her seat and practically fell into her meal. She always had the same meal for lunch—a steaming bowl of clam chowder, a slice of sourdough bread, and a root beer. Val was more reserved, picking away at a spring salad, her appetite obviously diminished by the current situation. Winterborn examined Fallborn’s "meal"—as always she had a plate absolutely loaded with decadent dessert items. This time she’d gone for a double chocolate brownie à la mode.

“Remind me again, Lieutenant, why do you insist on eating sweets for every meal? Don’t you get tired of it?” she asked, her lips curling into a sardonic smile.

Her reply was muffled by the food which stuffed her cheeks, “Well, Sir,” she paused to swallow, “Since everything we eat is whipped up in a laboratory anyway, so no matter what I choose, I get the same nutritional value. Why wouldn’tI pick something delicious?”

Ava snorted with laughter, “Because normal people like a bit of variety, maybe?”

Fallborn shook her head as if talking to a severely ill-informed child. “You obviously don’t have the palate required to enjoy the spectrum offered by sweets.” She sat up ramrod straight, lifting her chin in mock superiority, “From the delicate and light textures offered by an apple tart, to the rich decadence of the double-fudge brownie,” she gestured at her plate, “The realm of desserts offers more fulfillment than any other individual meal.” She snapped a quick wink at Val, “You people can suffer through grilled artichoke hearts and asparagus.”

Winterborn laughed, her mood lifting. “I happen to like artichoke hearts! There’s nothing weird about that!” She popped one into her mouth for emphasis, looking around the table for support. She hung her head in mock defeat as each eye failed to meet hers. “I’m going to court martial the lot of you! This is mutiny!” Everyone at the table laughed softly, their predicament momentarily forgotten.

Commander Val coughed lightly, “I just wanted to say, Captain, I think you’re handling this situation well. Between everything that’s going on, no one would blame you if you were feeling a bit overwhelmed. I just want you to know,” she gestured to the other officers, “we’re behind you one-hundred percent. We know you’ll get us through this.”

Winterborn bowed her head slightly, “Thank you, Val. Thank you all. I believe we will come out on top in this situation. We may be out of our depth, but I trust that everyone here can swim.”

Fallborn coughed, “I uh…I actually never learned how to swim.”

“I guess everyone aside from Rosa will be alright then,” giggled Commander Val.

The laughter died down gradually, everyone obviously grateful for the reprieve from the seriousness of their situation. In the ensuing silence, Winterborn looked on at her officers. It disturbed her to know that one of the people sitting before her could very well be the traitor. The idea brought bile to her throat, her mood slipping like sand through open fingers.

A message from Commander Julia flashed in her ocular interface; it read: “Captain, scans of the ship are complete. No alien lifeforms are present. Either the alien has left the ship, or they’re capable of evading the sensors.”

If her mood had fallen before, it was blackened now. Winterborn swore under her breath, the other officers tensing at her expression. “We weren’t able to track down the alien lifeform with our internal scanners.”

Commander Val cursed softly, “What’s the next step? If they aren’t on the ship, they probably fled to the Quin’tel vessel with Ren’brus and the others, right?”

Winterborn nodded, “I’ve had the 3-D mock-up of the creature sent to the Quin’tel; we hope to have it identified soon. Meanwhile, I’ll try to have the Quin’tel drop shields and allow themselves to be scanned,” she looked to Val, “How far along are we on the jump-drive probe designs?”

Val rhythmically rapped her knuckles on the desk, “We should have the designs finalized in the next few hours. Materials are another matter, we’ll need a lot of ore to fabricate these probes. We’re not going to be able to just modify one of the Mimir II probes—instead, we’ll have to build one around a jump-drive,” she paused, “It would be helpful if the Quin’tel could supply us with raw material.”

Fallborn shook her head, “It would be helpful, but can we really afford to trust them? They may try to sabotage any materials they supply in an effort to keep us from contacting Command.”

Winterborn sighed heavily, massaging her temples. “That’s a fair point, though we should be able to inspect any ore they provide us before utilizing it. Our 3-D printers should be more than capable of simply breaking down the ore into its component parts. I don’t see how they could sabotage ore in any significant manner.”

“We should pursue that option. Hell, given your status as the 'soon to be Prime', I’d be surprised if they didn’t have an ore shipment to us by the end of the day.” Val smiled and stopped rapping her knuckles on the desk, “Honestly, I think they might be hurt if you didn’t ask.”

Winterborn was about to respond, but was cut off by a priority one message flashing insistently. The message was from the Quin’tel; it read: “Communication not safe. Meet us on our ship.”

Winterborn frowned at the brusque message, this definitely wasn’t good. Rising to her feet, she announced, “I’ve received a message from the Quin’tel Captain; I need to meet with him. Val, continue working on the probe,” she turned to Ava, “Keep going through the crew logs, we need to exonerate as many people as possible. I have to know who we can trust." Finally, she turned to Fallborn, “Rosa, work with Doctor Julia on a scanning protocol to find this alien. I’m sure she’d appreciate it,” she turned her gaze to take in the faces of her officers, “Dismissed.”

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