He leaped up from the table and grabbed my hand as we dashed down the aisle toward the door. To my horror, it was slowly sliding shut. We reached it just as it lowered the last three centimeters. The room went completely dark.
When the lights returned, we saw all the droids sprawled on the floor, deactivated. The doors were still tightly shut.
“Wh-what happened?” I stammered.
“That explosion must have struck something large, to send the whole ship into lockdown,” Marks explained, allowing me to cling closely to him. He glanced around the room until he spotted a security panel.
“Ah!” he stood and ran over to it. He tried to activate it with his keycard, but it only showed what we already knew: that the whole ship was in lockdown. Marks tried to navigate further, but a pass-code screen prevented him.
“Blast,” he slammed the side of the panel in frustration, “I don’t have clearance for anything further.”
I looked around the mess hall. I spotted a familiar head of bright-blonde hair just behind the counter.
“Hey!” I cried, running over. Sure enough, the head belonged to Cher the android. The rocking of the explosion had brought down a heavy stack of trays on top of her, deactivating her. “Cher would know the clearance code; can you reactivate her?”
Marks frowned, “She’s nothing but an android; leave her as she is. I can figure this out on my own.” He turned and kept muttering to himself, but I distinctly heard the phrases should never be that smart…anything better than a machine…won’t be replaced.
“Marks?” I said softly as he tried countless algorithms to no avail. He ignored me. “Marks,” I persisted, “I don’t doubt that you have the ability to do this; we just don’t have time to wait for you to figure it out, and we have someone here who knows what we need.”
“It’s not a someone, it’s a something!” He exploded at me. “All it knows is what we tell it and program it to do!”
“And one of those programs can get us into those security screens!”
Marks sighed heavily, “All right, I’ll do it,” he grumbled. He raised Cher’s head and fumbled with something at the base of her neck. Her eyes lit up, and she immediately got to her feet.
“How may I be of service?” she asked.
Marks would not speak to her, so I did. “Cher, we need the clearance code to see all security footage for the rest of the ship, to know where the blast came from and how bad the damage is.”
“Certainly,” she replied, and entered the code without hesitation. Marks immediately pushed her aside and scrolled through the screens.
“Oh no,” he said, “The blast hit the communications wing hardest of all, and the supply bay.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, fearing the worst.
Marks confirmed it. “It means that all the supplies available to us on the ship are here in this mess hall, and there is no way to communicate with the rest of the ship.”
Cher spoke up, “Communications offline; cannot connect to or locate any commanding officer.”
Marks rolled his eyes, “You don’t say, Tin Lady?”
Marks rolled his eyes, “You don’t say, Tin Lady?”
Meanwhile, I had come across a screen that sent a chill through my bones. “Marks…” he joined me at the screen.
Barabbians were filing out of the supply bay, and leading them was the severe, impeccable Captain Gayle herself!
“The turncoat!” Marks hissed. “She’s headed for the bridge! We’ve got to warn the Commander!”
“But how?” I asked.
Marks looked all around the room. He pointed down to a large square vent at the base of the wall. “The ventilation ducts, that will get me close enough to the supply dock to be able to repair the communications breach so we can warn the commander.”
“You?” I asked, “Well, then what do we do?”
Marks glanced between Cher and me. “You two need to figure out how to lift the lockdown and stop the aliens for as long as you can. Don’t let them get to the commander before I do!”
He lifted the grate off the duct and prepared to go in.
“Marks!” I called down the duct after him. His head reappeared, already covered in dust. “Good luck!”
“Thanks,” he whispered back, “you too!”
Now that Marks was gone, I turned to Cher. “Cher, can you lift the lockdown on everywhere but the bridge?”
Cher approached the security panel and stared hard at it. Minutes later, the doors to the mess hall hissed open. “Security Lockdown Lifted,” Cher announced.
I raced down the hall to where I had seen the map. I saw several people walk out of their berths very disoriented; no one seemed to be able to figure out what happened. I pointed the pathway to the bridge out to Cher. “Cher, you need to seal off that hallway; Captain Gayle must not get through there,” I traced out a pathway from that point back to where we stood, “But she must not get anywhere else in the ship except where we can get at her.”
“My processors deduce that the most optimal course for the plan you suggest would be this one here,” Cher caused a pathway to light up.
I nodded, “It looks good, do it.”
“Hey!” an officer called to me, “Do you have any idea what happened?”
“Yeah!” I hollered back, “Alien invasion! We have a detachment of Barabbians on this ship, and they’re headed for the bridge! We’ve got to stop them!”
I dashed down the hallway Cher had marked out for us, “Follow me!” I called to the officers on board.
Cher proved an admirable strategist. We flanked the Barabbian invaders and took them completely by surprise. I let those with weapons sweep past me. The Barabbians fell upon them, hissing and clawing, but the Phantessan soldiers were brave souls. They would not back down, no matter how many wounds they sustained. The determination of the soldiers and the brute force of their onslaught soon decimated the invading horde. The ship was saved! I looked over the mass of mangled red bodies in the corridor. Not one of them was Captain Gayle. Where did she go?
Cher seized my arm and pulled me into an alcove on the side.
“Incoming message from Commander Gerald,” she told me.
“Incoming message?” I gasped, “That’s great! It means Marks fixed the breach!”
Cher began speaking in the commander’s voice, “Who is out there? Who is with Cher? Hello?”
“Hello, Commander,” I called back, “It’s me, Laura.”
“Laura! Is it true? Captain Gayle is a traitor?”
“It appears so, Commander. She’s the one who set off the explosion, sir.”
“I cannot believe it! Why, here she is now, with some Barabbian prisoners.”
I grabbed Cher’s hand, forgetting how useless that was, “No, wait! Don’t let her—“
Too late; I heard Captain Gayle’s silvery cold voice over Cher’s broadcast systems.
“Commander, I am so glad you are safe.”
“You are?” He sounded dubious, “Well, I’m glad to hear it. What have you here?”
“These are all that remain of the invaders, Commander. They were the ones to set the charges that allowed their forces to teleport onto our ship. I trust the exterior defenses are still active?”
My mind raced. If the exterior defenses were still active, that meant that Gayle could then claim command of the whole Phantessan fleet, and not even our own weaponry could stop her! I dragged Cher with me down the hallway to the bridge.
“They are,” Commander Gerald replied. “It is a relief to me to see you still loyal to Phantessa, Captain.”
“Relief? You speak as if you had reason to doubt me, Commander.” Her voice sharpened, and I put on an extra burst of speed. We were just down the hallway from the bridge.
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, that new girl, Laura, seemed to think that you were the one heading up this operation.”
We reached the bridge just in time to hear Captain Gayle announce, “Sir, such an accusation is totally false.”
Cher left my side and strode boldly in front of the commander’s desk.
“Accessing archived footage,” she announced in that same bland, even tone she always used, “Security camera, Supply Dock.”
I saw Gayle’s jaw tighten. Commander Gerald watched with interest as a Barabbian wearing a Phantessan uniform snuck into the supply dock and very distinctly set explosives. Then the Barabbian did a very curious thing: it slipped on a pair of gloves and a mask with a wig attached. When it turned around, there was Captain Gayle!
Commander Gerald leaped to his feet as Gayle the Barabbian ripped her mask of and hissed at him, her hideous forked tongue flickering out of a red, scaly mouth. The Barabbian “prisoners” immediately drew their weapons, having only pretended to be bound.
Just then, a body dropped from a vent in the ceiling and landed on one of the Barabbians. It was Marks! He wrestled the weapon away from the alien, while Cher employed a truly astonishing arsenal of weapons from within her android’s body to dispatch the other. Marks was able to dodge the claws of the Barabbian, and attempted to use its own gun against it. That’s when things started to go terribly wrong. The laser bolts had no effect on the hard exoskeleton of the Barabbian. Some bolts bounced off harmlessly and ended up striking different surfaces around the room, while others absorbed straight into the alien’s skin. Marks had to fight the alien by hand, but by his resourcefulness he was able to finally overpower his adversary. But the fight was not over yet. The three of us turned to confront Gayle, but she already had her claws around the neck of Commander Gerald.
“Fools!” she rasped, “You thought you could get the better of me, but you’ve just made your last and most fatal mistake! No one can outsmart me! Make one wrong move, and the commander dies!”
I could have kicked myself. Didn’t I see this coming? Didn’t I always see this coming in every novel I'd read and movie I’d ever watched where this scenario happened? The good guys overpower all the bad guys except one, and that’s the one that gets his hands on the good guy leader, or someone equally as valuable, and the good guys are forced to surrender in order to save their Most Valuable Participant. Here I was, in full control of my own actions, and I had fallen into that same stupid trap! I remembered the typewriter and the Door, and dimly I wondered who in fact was writing this particular adventure. If I was the writer, I knew what I would do. I wondered if saying anything would inspire the author with my good ideas of getting out of this.
“There has to be some way of getting past those hard scales,” I whispered under my breath, “Like it’s some sort of body armor, and she can be vulnerable underneath.”
Marks glanced over to me. “Whom are you talking to?” he whispered.
But under his voice, my ears had caught another noise: the sound of skin pulling away from a shell. I knew it was now or never. With a loud cry, I leaped over the commander’s console, my hands outstretched toward Gayle’s face. I wrapped my fingers around the edges of her scaly face, and ripped the hard, red exoskeleton clean off!
“No!” she screamed, but in protecting her head, she had released the commander. He swiftly restrained her claws and pointed a gun at her.
“Vermin traitor,” he barked at her, “You are mine!” He aimed the laser pistol at her head and blew a hole in it.
We all stood around the carcass, staring at the light pink skin of her head, strange-looking now without the red shell.
Commander Gerald gazed at me in awe, “How did you know that her…scales would come off like that?”
I only shook my head in response; I wasn’t even sure how it had happened, how did I expect to explain it to anyone else?
“You know,” the commander continued, “For a simple diplomat’s companion, you are a surprisingly brilliant strategist. You have not only saved my life, but you saved the entire Phantessan fleet as well.” He gestured out the window, where I saw that the Phantessan ships were now gaining leeway in the Barabbian invasion. As we watched, the Phantessan ships repelled the Barabbian forces, and the enormous mother ship recalled all the remaining fighters and began an ignominious retreat.
Commander Gerald turned to Cher, “Sound the alert,” he said, “Notify all ships, return to the station. The Barabbians have gone, our work is done.” He grinned at me and clapped me on the shoulder, “For your bravery and quick thinking, when we get back to Phantessa, whatever you want is yours.”
“I’m not the only one, sir,” I said, noticing that Marks hung back, glowering at the attention I received. “None of my actions would have been possible if Private Marks had not accessed the security panels, and then had the presence of mind to repair the communication lines damaged by the blast.”
From the look Commander Gerald gave Marks, he probably did not even realize such a man was on his ship. For a commander of such high standing, I mused, he was surprisingly self-absorbed.
“Is that so?” He exclaimed, “Well then, you’ll have to put in a request as well, young man. There is nothing too small to thank you for what you have done.”
Marks respectfully ducked his head as he shook the commander’s hand.
“Cher, too,” I continued; I would show this arrogant commander a thing or two about recognizing those under him! “She was the most helpful in letting us into the security feed, lifting the lockdown, and closing off the hallways to protect you.”
By now, Commander Gerald was turning almost as red as a Barabbian himself. I could tell that, though he might bestow honors upon a simple private, perhaps I had crossed a line seeking compensation for a lowly android. I had thought that Marks’ aversion to Cher was borne out of fear that he thought someone as insignificant as he might be replaced, but now I saw that the fear of machines pervaded the entire human race in this universe.
“Very well,” Commander Gerald reluctantly acquiesced, “I shall see about procuring recognition for the android.” He deliberately avoided addressing her by name, but I did not press the matter. Cher nudged my shoulder gratefully.
As embarrassing as such an act was, it may be confessed at this juncture that I vainly tried to stifle a yawn. I hadn’t had a break for some time, and after the entire escapade of running and the fighting and the pumping adrenaline, I was tired!
Commander Gerald dismissed us to our berths. As Marks and I strolled down the hallways and through the various docks and bays, officers at every point stood and either saluted or applauded us. We were heroes, through and through!
Marks nudged me when we reached the hallway of berths.
“I still can’t figure out how Captain Gayle could have been on this ship for so long without anyone realizing that she wasn’t human.”
I grunted, “Well, you said yourself when we first met, the security-bots can’t see through clothing. All she had to do was put on a uniform and cover her exposed hands and face with skin-like material, and the security-bots would be none the wiser; certainly if the robots did not register, no one else would suspect, either.”
We reached my berth first. Marks paused.
“Laura,” he stammered, “I want to say… thank you—for showing me how important it is to recognize skill in everyone, and not to depend too much on my own abilities.”
I smiled, “You’re welcome.” I slid my keycard over the scanner and opened my door.
“See you on Phantessa,” Marks called, walking off to his room.
For some reason, I did not reply. Maybe I was too tired. At any rate, I had only just laid down on the bed, when a gentle chime sounded.
“Arriving in the dock of Port Arriva, Phantessa,” A voice not unlike Cher’s announced. “Ambassador Laura, please proceed to the bridge.”
I stood with a groan. Was I ever going to get any rest any more? I stumbled out of my berth. The hallways were strangely empty. Where had everyone gone? Was I the last person off the ship? I had always been under the impression that the trip to Phantessa would be longer than just a few minutes. Perhaps not; perhaps the space station had been orbiting the home planet this entire time, and it was only a matter of re-entering the planet’s atmosphere.
I saw Cher waiting for me in a hallway on my way to the bridge.
“Come this way, Laura,” she instructed. I followed her to a wide-open space, very much like a loading dock. I could see daylight out the window of a door at the end of a long tunnel and a ramp.
I glanced at Cher, “Down there?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, “Commander Gerald wishes to speak with you.”
I wondered what the commander could have to say to me now. I marched down the ramp. When I reached the door, I couldn’t find a handle. This was too much; I was thoroughly fed up with all this futuristic technology. There wasn’t even a scanner to swipe my keycard! Frustrated, I placed a hand on its smooth surface and pushed as hard as I could. It gave way immediately at my touch, and there was such a blast of wind and dust that I was forced to close my eyes and cover my face.
When I opened them again, my first glimpse of Phantessa almost looked like a Texas wasteland.