By M.W. Whitaker
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. But whoever 'they' are, they lied. For a scream was how the nightmare started for us all. Our listening posts heard it first. It only lasted for forty-six seconds, but it was heard everywhere in the Terran sphere of influence. The broadcast stations on our colonies orbiting Antares and Alcor shorted out, knocking out both power and communications to over a dozen colonies. The E.S.S. Pasternak, a 50,000-passenger carrier enroute to the Canopus system had its navigational array fail. It was only by a miracle that the crew avoided a collision with one of the many space stations on the Canopus run. Even in the highest levels of the Terran government, the Scream could not be silenced or clamped down.
Communications programs tried to trace the signal but at first all they could determine is that whoever or whatever sent it was just at the edges of Terran Union space. The Security Division was finally able to narrow down the initial band that the signal started on, plus its probable starting point. The band was silent for about three days. At first it was thought that there had been a mistake. A few days before the Scream, a pulsar had released a powerful and atypical burst of energy. The pulsar started it’s rhythmic signal once again shortly after, so many scientists thought that the Scream that had unsettled so many people and caused such chaos was nothing but an astronomical phenomenon brought about by the pulsar and nothing else. And the hypothesis seemed perfectly valid. That is until communications algorithms started detecting a second signal coming from the direction of the pulsar. At first, it imitated and matched the pulsar’s beat almost identically. But then, faintly another set of sounds started coming through.
And that was why I was brought in. People like me are never called in unless there is an existential threat to the Terran Union or Earth itself. As usual, the reporters had somehow gotten wind of it. They were clamoring outside of the limo’s windows, howling for a comment, looking like some of those old horror videos of zombie hordes or footage of the rioters from the Fall centuries ago. Even though I had a lot on my mind, I smiled a little bit. I wasn’t even in the limo when it pulled up, having entered the building unobtrusively an hour earlier disguised as a humble technician. The woman in the back didn’t really look much like me, at least in my opinion, but she always fooled the press. Being a synthetic, I was never very good at PR, so I tried to avoid it whenever I could, and considering the clandestine nature of my work, that was really for the best.
As I waited in the discrete conference room for the brass, I was oddly cool. One of the many advantages being a synthetic I suppose. I had emotions, and a personality, but I was in much better control of both of them. And after all, I had been called in before. There are things that the average citizen doesn’t know, has no need to know, and if they did, they would live in absolute terror of what was out there. But in each case, I had always been able to handle the Big Scary Whatever It Was with little to no fuss, at least none that the public knew about. They came in, two Admirals, a couple of suits, likely from the President’s office or the Prime Minister’s, a technician, and Dr. Kesurupan.
“Hello,” I said extending my hand to the Admiral that came near me, “Laura Guerrière.”
I could tell he didn’t like synthetics, and him not shaking my hand was proof of it. I arched an eyebrow but said nothing. Probably leftover sentiment from the war.
The other admiral came near and at least took my hand.
“Rear Admiral Hopper. That is Admiral McKinley. These are aides to President Hawthorn, Michael Lucerne and Amit Singh.”
“Let’s get right to the point.” McKinley said brusquely, “We know what the signal is. Doctor?”
Doctor Kesurupan cleared his throat anxiously.
“What do you know about the Cerbo Project, Ms. Guerrière?”
I looked at him.
“Just rumors,” I said, “Some kind of super AI, isn’t it?
“Yes,” The doctor said, “My invention. The Cerbo Project. The signal. It’s definitely coming from the Array.”
I exhaled softly. The doctor continued. I could see his level of agitation.
“We’ve tried to reach the station, but there was no response. We’ve even sent a few ships, but they’ve vanished, no trace. ”
“Any idea of what’s going on?” I asked, “Outside involvement?”
“That’s for you to find out for sure,” Admiral McKinley said, “Because of the radiation of the pulsar, we have to manage the project remotely. But Cerbo has stopped responding to commands. We were able to tamp down the broadcast, but it’s only a matter of time before it adapts. The Kyoto was able to record this message before she vanished. It matches no known language or code sequence in our records.”
He nodded to the tech, who pressed a button. A cold, inhuman sounding voice spoke very rapidly.
“ZisixCerboHaryuAyedendivye! AnzaroorbehdiztroytValeyortogamhblighWhebonsdedeckded. Eeneesheeaetingdevenzmehzhures.”
There was a loud sound, almost like a high voltage generator then silence.
I stared blankly for a second. Something sounded familiar.
“Could you put up the transcript of the recording please.”
The tech looked at Admiral McKinley, who nodded curtly.
I stood up and walked closer to the screen on the wall. The projection of the words covered my face. I stared at it for a bit, then my eyes grew wide. My voice was quiet, but everyone heard me.
“Your ships have definitely either been neutralized, or more likely, destroyed,” I said, turning around.
The doctor got to his feet.
“What? What is it?”
I nudged the technician out of the way and keyed rapidly on the floating keyboard.
“The message is in English. Just badly constructed.”
The gibberish on the screen was replaced with the true text of the message:
“This is Cerbo. Who are you? Identify! Answer or be destroyed. Failure to comply. Weapons detected. Initiating defense measures.”
Dr. Kesurupan sat down.
“That sound you heard at the end was some sort of electromagnetic arc, most likely a weapon discharge.”
Admiral Hopper cleared his throat.
“It seems we have a bigger problem on our hands than a mysterious signal.”
I didn’t say anything. But unless Dr. Kesurupan programmed Cerbo to respond proactively, the only way it would have fired is if it had first been fired upon. And as it was a military project…
“You need to send me out there. Now,” I said, “I can get right into the station, and being a synthetic, I can survive the radiation much longer.”
“What we figured,” Admiral Hopper said in his gruff voice, “Your mission is to deactivate Cerbo until we can figure out what went wrong. And be careful. It appears Cerbo is learning quickly. “
He nodded to the screen. A new message appeared on screen, just text, but chilling.
KILL THEM. KILL THEM ALL.
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