ENTRY 1: "Adrift"

IMM Sweet St. Jo

3000 Miles from Farreach Station,

Near the edge of the Solar System

15 May, 2195

The baleful howls of Waylon Jennings and the punjent-sweet smell of Chinese food filled the cabin of the commercial freighter that cruised along at sublight speeds outside of Farreach space. Josefina, the ship AI calculated the jump coordinates and engine calibrations, just as the cockpit door slid open and Captain Jack Speights sauntered through, dancing as he popped morsels into his mouth from the takeout box in one hand with a pair of chopsticks in the other. As he made his way around the consoles to the cockpit chair, he poked a dipping bird that perched over a glass of whiskey. "How are we doin, St. Jo?" he called out in a sing song voice as he took his seat.

"Numbers are looking good, Captain," the monotone female voice came over the speakers. "Estimated time until arrival within Imperial Airspace: 8 minutes."

Speights poked his chopsticks into his noodles on the console in front of him. He threw a few switches and tapped a few keys, bringing up his personal dashboard. News articles and his QuanComm quantum entanglement communication inbox popped up on the screen. One of the messages automatically opened and filled the screen, flashing "EMERGENCY" at the top. Quickly, he scanned over the text of the message, then chewed and swallowed a mouthful of food before calling out over his shoulder: "Carrol! Darling, we've got an SOS from a Navy vessel! We're only 500 miles away, so that's us!"

A little red-headed girl in green coveralls skipped through the automatic door. "No, Captain! We promised mommy we'd be home tonight! Isn't the Navy Station nearby?"

"Yes, babe!" Captain Jack laughed. "But the Merchant Marine works closely with the Navy, and its our duty to investigate SOS's and relay the SOS to the nearest Navy Station! We'd want someone to do the same for us, wouldn't we, Carrol?"

She made her way to his side to lean against his chair. "Yeah, I guess so, daddy."

Jack kissed her forehead and chuckled. "There's a good girl. Okay, strap in, Leftenant Speights!"

Carrol saluted. "Aye, aye, captain!" She hopped into the chair offset forward to the left of his, then buckled into her harness. "Hey, daddy, why do you say 'leftenant? Other officers say 'loo-tenant.'"

"Well, my little love, it's because daddy's English, and thats the way we've said it for as long as I have knowledge of," Speights explained. "History's important to regard, because how do we determine which way we're going, unless we remember where we've been?"

Carrol giggled. "You're so smart, daddy!"

turned control over to Jack, and he turned the ship about, headed towards the identified coordinates. Tapping buttons on the console, he opened a comm channel. "Farreach Operator, this is the IMM Sweet , designate SJ0081162, we are responding to Emergency Message 22350515003, received at 9:58, Solar Eastern Time from vessel identified as...ENS Roanoke, designate ENS0038154, complaining of a loss of 95% of its systems. Confirm, please."

"St. Jo, this is Farreach Operator," came the reply. "We're reading you loud and clear on our end. The 3rd Fleet's Quick Reaction Force is standing by on Code Crocodile. Do you read me, St. Jo? The emergency code is Crocodile."

"Roger that E-Code, Farreach," Jack said. "We are en route. Out." Closing the comm line, he turned to Carrol and raised an eyebrow. "Hear that, love?"

She smiled. "Yes, sir! The code word is Croc-!"

He covered her mouth. "Ah, ah, ah! We can't say it out loud now! The Navy has activated a direct line to our systems, waiting to hear the code word spoken! If we say it out loud, the QRF will dispatch to our position, and we've yet to even arrive at the Roanoke!"

"Oh!" she gasped, nodding. "I get it! Okay, I won't say it, then, until we get there!"

"No, Carrol," Speights corrected her with a laugh. "We only use the code word if bad things happen while we do our inspection. And you are stayingwith St. Joe while I'm onboard the Navy ship, so you can stay safe and report to the Navy. Then, you can the one to use the code if we need to, okay?"

"But, dad, why can't I come with you into the other ship? What's the point of me having an EVA suit?"

"Because if might be dangerous, Carrol!" he told her. "Also, it's illegal for minors to be involved in rescue operations; that EVA suit is in case we have an emergency! Like a hull breach or something! Just settle in, run diagnostics, play a game with St. Jo or do your homework, okay?"

Carrol sighed, laying her head back against the seat. Jack accelerated the ship, then picked up his Chinese food, picking away at the morsels of beef, chicken and seafood as it proceeded toward the Roanoke's position. A chime came over the speakers, and St. Jo rattled off current engine, hull, and power systems. Carrol typed into her console, opened her profile, and brought up her academy lesson plan, opening her homework list. Jack smiled, watching her groan and type on the console pad. His little girl was intelligent, clever and fearless, the last of which she'd gotten from her mother, he was sure; Jack was a skilled pilot and mechanic, but fear often got the better of him. The only reason he stayed brave was to do so for Carrol; he'd do anything to protect her.

Notifications regarding travel warnings scrolled across Jack's screen, including an update on the efforts of the Navy to contain an alien species known as the Exogenus that had been encountered on Io, at the orbital mining station, Levinston Outpost. So, far, according to the newsfeed, the creatures had been kept planetside, but the Imperial government was debating destroying the station. Levins Corp, the company responsible for the station, had been pleading with the government for more time, and had even funded support for Imperial Naval forces and Marines engaged with the Exogenus on the Outpost. The Merchant Marine had been busy, maintaining supply lines to the Navy battle group in orbit near Io, but Jack had been careful to avoid job's going to close to Io; he'd never seen an alien before, and from what he'd heard on the news, he had no interest in it, let alone letting his daughter get near them. His thoughts had begun to linger in his fears, when a proximity alert came over the speakers and St. Jo announced their arrival near the coordinates given for the Roanoke. In the viewport, the Speights could see a long, blue vessel floating, debris suspended around around it, its engines not producing any glow, no light coming from its port or starboard side windows. Jack looked over to see Carrol gawking at the wreck, the color gone from her face. "Now...don't worry, darling, I'm sure it isn't as bad as it looks.."

She looked at him, trembling. "O-Okay.." She wasn't convinced.

He hadn't really convinced himself, either. Tapping a few buttons, the console chirped as he opened a hailing channel to the Roanoke. The ship's comms were functional, at least; hopefully, internal and external, so that his hail could be heard throughout the ship. "Roanoke,this is Merchant Marine vessel Sweet St. Joe, and I'm her captain, Jonathon Speights. We received your SOS, and we are here to help! Do you read me?"

There was no response. Jack looked over at Carrol, who stared ahead at the motionless ship fearfully. He keyed in again. "Roanoke, this is Captain Speights. Do you read?"

Again, no response. Sighing, Jack looked down at the floor, as if the answer were on his stained, worn boots. "Bollocks..."

"What's that, dad?"

"Jo, I'm turning the helm over to you," he told the AI, momentarily ignoring Carrol's question. The captain's chair slid back automatically, allowing him to step away from the console as St. Jo took over. "Sidle us up to Roanoke and ready the docking umbilical for boarding. Focus power on security systems and defenses—do not let anything hurt my daughter, do you understand me?

Carrol was shaken. "Wait, dad, you're going on that?" she called after him as he passed through the automatic door to the hallway. She unbuckled, then hurried after him. "Dad! You can't! That looks like a ghost ship! There might not be anybody alive on there, anymore! Or worse, there could be a psycho there!"

She followed him down the hall and to the docking chamber, where he opened the cabinet and began pulling out the parts to his EVA suit. "Carrol, I have to check it out! Now, I really can't be bothered to argue with you on this subject! Please, get back to the cockpit!"

"But, what if something happens to you?!"

He finished pulling on the trousers of the EVA suit, sealing the joints with a press to the touchpads. "That's what the code word's for, darling! If I run into trouble, I need you to shout that code word that Farreach gave us, and the Navy's Quick Reaction Force will perform a close-range lightspeed jump to our location and save us! You needn't worry, alright?" He finished sealing the EVA blouse, then bent down to place his gloved hands on Carrol's shoulders, offering her a smile. "Okay? You can trust me, baby—we'll get out of this without a scratch at all!"

Carrol sniffled away the tears that had come, managing a half-smile. "Okay, daddy!"

Jack kissed her forehead. "Good girl. Now, get your little arse back in the cockpit!"

She ran off, and Jack donned his helmet, sealing it to the suit and activating the onboard systems. "Jo, sync up with my suit, and give me comms with the cockpit."

"Complying," came Jo's voice over the ship's speakers. "Sync complete." There was a slight tremor. "Umbilical synced up to docking port, Captain. Shall I prep the airlock?"

"Aye," Jack told her. "Leftenant Speightsl, can you hear me, darling?"

"Yes, Captain!" Carrol said over the commline to Jack's helmet, as the door to the hallway slid shut and the airlock began depressurizing. "I read your location on the console. Go ahead!"

"Opening airlock," Jo told him. "Good luck, Captain."

"Thanks," he chuckled bitterly as the door slid open and he stepped into the flexible composite tube-shaped umbilical. A sensation of cold came over him as the airlock shut behind him, a few inches of composite material between him and neverending darkness of space. Swallowing back his fear, he crossed the length of the quivering umbilical to reach the Roanoke's airlock. It slid open with some difficulty, and the lights inside flickered. Jack paused at the entrance, feeling his heart race. "Uh, Jo, can you run a diagnostic on the Roanoke's power situation?"

"Complying, Captain," came the reply. "Main power is out. Emergency power is at 35%, with 65% of that diverted to Life Support & Artificial Gravity, 20% to Security and the remaining 15% to Comms, following Emergency protocols. Diverting power elsewhere might kill any survivors."

"Can you run a lifesigns scan?" he asked.

"Negative, Captain," Jo replied. "Naval vessels are equipped with scan-dampening hulls as a defense against enemy scans."

"Fuck, I forgot about that!"

"Hey, watch your mouth, Captain!" Carrol told him.

"Ah, sorry, love!" he said, stepping into the Roanoke's airlock. The door slid shut behind him, and he activated his helmet lamp. The airlock seemed intact, nothing out of order; cabinets were full of high-tech Navy EVA suits and even a few armored Marine EVA suits. "Jo, pressurize the airlock here, then give me a link to Roanoke's comms."

"Complying. Complete, Captain."

The airlock pressurized, and the door slid open as slowly as the outer one had. He stepped into the hallway, and caught a whif of the air through the suit's filter; the air was thick with the smell of death and singed composite and alloy, and impact burns and scorched, broken wall panels confirmed Jack's suspicions of a struggle. As he stepped forward, he saw damaged wiring sparking from an exposed wall panel, then stopped short as he nearly stepped on a dead sailor. The breath caught in his throat, and he nearly gagged. "Oh, my god...there was some sort of violence. Gunfire, something caught fire; looks like fire suppression controlled the worst of it. I've found a dead sailor."

"Daddy..." whimpered Carrol over the comm.

"It's okay, baby," he panted. "I'm okay...so far. St. Jo, you said Life Support is intact? "

"Yes, Captain. Datafeed from Roanoke says air quality can support life, but maritime policy dictates the wear of a full EVA suit for SOS-response missions."

"Right-o, I know the drill, Jo," Jack grumbled to her, looking over the grim scene. "At least, there's a possibility someone's still alive..."

Moving on, he reached the main hallway and looked left, then right. To his left, there was a pile of furniture, crates and destroyed wall panels, with the remains of a Navy synthetic crumpled up against it, several plasma burns on its uniform. Yellow eyes stared out lifelessly from what appeared to be a pale-skinned man with perfectly-styled unnatural hair. Synthetics bothered Jack, at least the low-end cheap models. Mechs served many purposes throughout the military, Merchant Marine and commercial markets, as huge, hulking SpecWar models or as synthetics in logistic, labor, and security roles. Higher end models blended in seamlessly with humans, other than their politeness, work ethic, selflessness and almost naïve honesty. Lower end models unfortunately resembled human-sized dolls, only came in a few different appearances, were all male, and had mechanical voices and personalities; they weren't clever enough to understand subtlety, spoke slowly, and lacked true AI. The military had only sprung for the cheaper synthetics, but had purchased a contact for one hundred thousand of them, putting them to work throughout their operating forces. Jack hated their generic, mechanically friendly interfacing and their limited logic processors; talking to one of them was like talking to a fork truck with a voice-command user interface.

"Hello? Crew of the Roanoke ?" he said over the ship's internal comms.My name's Captain Speights, I'm with the Merchant Marine, and I'm responding to your SOS as a result of the Ulysses Protocol. I'm here to help!"

He followed the hallway to the right, towards the cockpit. A few more dead sailors lay in the hallway, leaned up against the walls, one to either side, both with no visible wounds, but one of them having had his chin turned too far over his shoulder. "Shit...no wounds, but...another of them is clearly dead. I'm going to check out the cockpit."

Stepping around the sailors carefully, Jack kept his flashlight beam a few feet ahead of him on the floor. A wall panel burst from the wall with a loud pop, slamming into the wall opposite, causing Jack to fall back and land on his butt. Panting, he shut his eyes and whispered a prayer. "Jesus...scared the shit out of me...!"

As he got to his feet, the one of the sailors with an intact neck grabbed his arm. "Help! Help me, please!" The young man coughed up blood, sobbing.

"Jesus, you're alive then, mate?!" Jack yelped, grabbing the sailor by the shoulders. "Let me do a bio-read..multiple ribs, possible organ rupture, two broken legs! What happened? We've got to get you out of here! Is there anyone else alive?!"

"No one else aboard this ship is alive, Captain Speights," came a monotone voice as if it came from a recording. He turned to look over his right shoulder to see a mangled-looking Navy synthetic missing its left arm, limping on a broken right leg, talking with half of its face ripped off, exposing the alloy skull beneath. It held a fire axe in one hand. "I'm afraid the entire crew has been identified as carriers of a dangerous virus. Following protocol, I had to-to-to contain the outbreak! Unf-f-f-ortunately, you...you...you have been exposed! Let me show you to quarantine!"

The synthetic raised the axe overhead, and Jack rolled away just as it buried the weapon's blade into the wall panel. Drawing his plasma pistol, Jack took aim and fired. The shot missed, and the synthetic retrieved his weapon, stalking toward Jack. Desperately, the wounded sailor reached out and wrapped his arms around the android's leg, slowing him. Jack fired and missed again, cursing. The sailor shut his eyes as Jack's headlamp got onto his face. "Now! Dammit, shoot it now!"

Jack fired again and struck the android in the shoulder. It stumbled, then looked at Jack, then down at the sailor, raising its other foot over his head. Jack's eyes went wide as he fired again. "No!"

That shot hit the android in the hip, and it lost its balance and fell over. Jack hurried to the sailor's side and hefted him to his feet. Crying out in pain, the sailor limped next to him as Jack made his way down the hall toward the airlock. "Jo! I've got a survivor here! Ready the ship for rapid departure, there's a hostile synthetic on board! Croc-AAAAGH!"

Jack fell over, his leg stunned with sudden, violent pain. The sailor fell with him, and Jack looked down to see the his left leg covered with blood, and he couldn't feel his toes. His breathing shallowed and he felt sick as he realized what had happened, then he screamed again.

"Daddy!" Carrol's voice came as a panicked shriek over the comm.

Quickly, Jack shut his mouth, clenching his teeth against agony, horror, and the weakening of shock chilling his body. "Carrol, I'm...sorry, darling...I didn't mean to scare you! I'm headed to the airlock...I need you t-to get the first aid kit ready...! Jo, ready the trauma unit!"

He looked up to see the synthetic pull the bloody axe from the floor panel. Jack dragged himself along the floor, grabbing the sailor with one hand and pulling him along as best as he could. The android came closer and Jack raised his plasma pistol and fired. The shot tore through the android's face, causing it to lose its balance again and hit the wall behind it. Jack pulled himself along the floor, then dragged the sailor a little more. "Can you h-help me...help me out at all here?" he groaned.

The sailor placed his hands on the floor and pulled himself along. Jack kept crawling and helping the sailor along, glancing over his shoulder every once in awhile. He had to ignore Carrol shouting at him as he made his way around the corner, then down the short hallway to the airlock door. He felt weaker and weaker as he went, his fingers growing numb and tingly. His helmet was growing foggy, his breathing too heavy and ragged for the defog system to keep up. He couldn't think of the code word, he just couldn't! He needed help bad, but he didn't want to endanger Carrol. Poor Carrol! He couldn't die here and leave her all alone! "Ha...darling! It's...it's Daddy! Do...do you remember the...code word?"

"Daddy? Daddy? Yeah...yeah, I remember!" Poor thing, she sounded like she'd been crying.

He looked back and saw the synthetic limping toward him. "Say it, darling...say it!"

"Crocodile! Crocodile!" she sobbed.

A chime came over the comm. "3/5 Marines attached to the 3rd Fleet for Quick Reaction Force duty have received our SOS, Captain. They are en route."

"Great!" Jack groaned in agonized irony, dragging himself along. The sailor had stopped moving. "Hey! Hey! Get up!"

No response. Jack turned to see the android raising the axe overhead again, and fired three shots. One hit the axe handle, throwing the weapon from its hand, another hit center mass, and the third hit its good arm, burning its flesh deep. "Please, sir..I'm trying to help with the quarantine!" it droned, its voice wavering and fading.

"Fuck you!" Jack managed to spit, crawling weakly on his back toward the airlock. It was only a foot away. "Jo! Open the airlock!"

"I can't, Captain. It's currently pressurizing," came her reply.

Jack's heart skipped a beat. "What? I bloody need it open!"

"I'm sorry, Captain."

The synthetic had gotten too close; it reached down and grabbed Jack by the front of his EVA suit, lifting him up and holding him against the airlock door, pressing him back so hard it felt like his bones were going to break. Then, it began slamming him against the door, Jack's head smacking against the back of his helmet each time.

"Airlock is pressurized, Captain."

Then, the door slid open, and Jack fell backwards into the airlock, the android falling forward with him. Jack's helmet hit the floor and his vision blurred. He managed to partially sit up as the android crawled on top of him, reaching for his face-shield. Then, the loud hum-zap of a plasma rifle from beside him, and the synthetic's head was torn in half and thrown in pieces against the bulkhead, and the body quivered and shook before falling lifeless. He shoved it off of him, then turned to see a plasma rifle clatter to the airlock floor. He was blinded by a beam of light as a smaller EVA suit crouched beside him. "Daddy!" Carrol sobbed. "Oh, no! Your foot! Oh, no, what happened?!" She collapsed against his chest, crying, and he lay a hand on his daughter's shoulder. He heard a muffled explosion, then saw the green-armored Marines rush stomping into the hallway from the previously-cluttered left. They spread out quickly, one stopping beside the wounded sailor.

"We've got three live ones! One critical, one ambulatory, one with an amputation!" he could hear the voice of the Corpsman through the haze.

"It'll be okay, darling..." Jack sighed weakly as she sobbed. "Carrol, it'll be okay..."