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Runner-up: The touch of the Sleeper


AlexV

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"So this thing was found in a lab?"

The question was asked plainly enough, but something about the wording had Professor Yuri Malenkov shooting a frown at the woman stood beside him. Like himself, Doctor Helena Kerr was one of the Daystrom Institute's resident archaeotechnology specialists, and she'd leapt at the chance to get in on a project like this one the very moment she'd returned from her extended holiday on Risa. It wasn't often that they were called upon to exercise their particular field of expertise, but when they did the reason was usually pretty compelling - and the humanoid figure laid out before them definitely ticked that particular box.

"The artefact," he replied, stressing the way he preferred to think of it, "was indeed discovered in the remains of what appeared to be a cybernetics lab of some kind. It's hard to be certain, of course, given the age of the ruins, but the survey team made a reasonably educated assessment."

"If that age is as big a number as I'd heard, I'm happy to cut them a little slack."

Shoving her hands in the pockets of the lab coat she habitually wore, the Alpha Centauran red-head began prowling around the work table the artefact on question lay on, studying it from every angle as her brow furrowed in thought. Whatever it was, it was the right size and shape to be able to pass as most humanoids - if it weren't for the fact that it's exterior shell was nothing but a layer of smooth, featureless sliver. Internal scans had told them that it was more than the inert statue it seemed at first glance, and the sheer complexity of some of what those scans had revealed had led to the archaeological team that had discovered it shipping it off to the Institute as fast as they could arrange for it to happen.

Which was where Yuri and his team had come in. For almost a week, they'd studied the figure as closely as they could without getting invasive, and they were starting to get a little frustrated with the limits of what they'd been able to establish. Quantum dating had confirmed the age, and from the data the discovery team had sent there was a good chance that where it had been found was where it had been built. Unfortunately, there'd been no hints at all as to what it had been built for, and if the theories about the last inhabitants of those ruins were right, there was no way at all anyone was going to be able to ask them.

"You tried a HiMRI scan to get a look?"

Given that Helena hadn't taken her eyes off of the subject of her scrutiny, Yuri's nod went unnoticed. With a wry little smile, he opted for a more obvious response.

"High resolution MRI, quantum imaging, EM pattern analysis, even an old-fashioned radar scan. Everything comes back the same, and tells us that what we have here is the body of some form of synthetic life-form."

Helena grunted and straightened up from where she'd been studying the artefact's 'face'. "Never seen anything like this one before, though."

"Oh, it gets better."

Lifting a padd from one of the workbenches nearby, Yuri handed it over before standing back to watch the reaction that he was pretty sure was going to be coming. One of the biggest puzzles they had faced was on the materials side of things, and what Helena had just been handed was a breakdown of the scan results gathered from tests on that silvery coating. Metallic, it might look, but...

"It's organic?" And there it was, just as surprised as *they'd* been when the results had first come back. "You're telling me that shiny crap all over the thing is-"

"Possibly," Yuri interrupted smoothly, heading off a singularly Kerr-esque head of steam, "the most advanced synthetic organic polymer matrix anyone has every seen. The hardware underneath it is impressive enough, but that shell..."

He shook his head, lips twitching in another wry smile, and leant up against the workbench.

"Terk nearly wet himself when he saw that data, and we almost had to threaten to nail his lobes to the ceiling to keep him from trying to find some way to sell it."

"What do you expect, letting a [...]ed Ferengi anywhere near something like this?"

"Oh, it wasn't that bad. We just reminded him of the pile of latinum he put up as security for keeping to the confidentiality agreement he signed."

"Ha. Yeah, that'll do it."

The two of them fell into silence again, both looking at the recumbent form that was the focus of this project's work. The vagaries of the Ferengi lust for profit aside, neither of them were ignorant of the potential secrets hidden within something like what they had on their hands, and the sheer scientific drive to know was tempered by an awareness of what that sort of curiosity could lead to.

After all, Yrui mused to himself, it was curiosity about what was inside that led to Pandora's Box being opened and the story was quite clear on what had happened because of that little slip.

"I could have taken another two weeks vacation, you know." This time, Yuri's frown was one of puzzlement at Helena's comment, apparently unrelated to anything else he could think of right now. "Sun, surf, little [...]tails with umbrellas in them... plus all the exceptionally friendly men with very big-"

"Thank you, Helena. I am quite happy to live without that mental image."

"Wimp. What I was going to say was that if I had, I'd probably have kicked myself for missing out on this."

***

There wasn't enough to be called consciousness. Not yet. What did exist was little more than a reaction to the modulated emissions that had been detected by a collection of specialised nodes. Once that signal had been received, a cascade of instructions had flowed out of those nodes and into others. Induction charging systems tapped into the local power, building up energy within other components at a painfully slow rate. There had been no need predicted for them to have to work faster, and the idea that the cells they were feeding would be so utterly drained had been similarly unanticipated.

It was working though, and as power became available it was used. Sounds were detected and analysed, hardwired coding assembling meaning from what was being heard whilst others identified what seemed like hard data and filed it away for future use.

None of what was happening was running at the speed it had been designed to, but the tiny node who's sole job was to keep track of time gave an explanation why - once it had checked it's own calculations over thirty thousand times just to make absolutely sure it's count was right. A wait for deployment that ran into millennia had stretched even this mechanism's capacity to hold itself ready.

Eventually, everything the system was ordered to do was done and it slipped into a holding pattern, settling in to wait with the infinite patience of a machine for the rest of the signal. Then, and only then, would the second layer of commands be brought into play...

***

"Pass me that scanner, will you?"

The hand being waved vaguely in Yuri's direction went well with the distracted tone of the question, and he had to smile - at least a little. Picking the device up from the worktop, he handed it over, then went back to looking at the results from the one he'd already been holding.

"So you've gotten somewhere on those resolution enhancements?"

Helena shrugged, most of her attention on the computer screen she was studying whilst she toyed absently with the scanner she'd just received. "Maybe. A more coherent scan pattern, adapting itself to the general level of... whatever it is that's going on in there, should - hopefully - give us a better picture of how things are set up to work in our little statue's head."

"Which," Yuri agreed, "would be nice. The level of activity in there might be almost undetectably low, but it's certainly making things harder when it comes to tracking what's actually going on."

And that had been a bit of a running theme over the last little while. It had taken some searching, but once they'd established that the artefact wasn't quite as inert as it had first seemed, they'd ridden the wave of enthusiasm that had provoked straight into a metaphorical brick wall. Now, three days later, it seemed like they might just have a way to get somewhere.

"Here."

Yuri dragged his frowning attention from the silvery figure and turned it toward Helena, who'd turned on her little stool to face him. Apparently done with whatever modifications she was planning to make to the scanner, she held it out to him and he took it with a murmur of thanks. A quick look at it's readouts showed him nothing new at all, but then there wouldn't have been... until and unless it worked.

There was only one way to find out if that was going to happen...

At first, there was no change from normal as he began his scan using the newly modified tool, but after a few seconds that changed fast.

"Woah!"

His startled exclamation had Helena surging to her feet and hurrying to stand beside him, craning her neck to get a look at what might have provoked it. Once he tilted the scanner to give her a better view of the readings, she let out a low whistle of appreciation - and managed to avoid looking even remotely smug.

"Okay..." she muttered. "That's quite a result."

"Right. But I think you're missing the point..." Which, by playing about with the scanner's controls a little, Yuri endeavoured to correct. Scrolling back through the data the device had gathered, he paused it when he found what he was looking for, then handed the whole thing over to his colleague.

"Umm... Yrui? Am I reading this right? From what I'm looking at here, this spike in activity didn't happen until after you started the scan. In fact, the things had been cycling through frequency modulations for nearly thirty seconds before-"

This time, Yrui's exclamation wasn't due to surprise at what he was seeing on a little screen. Instead,

it was a quite understandable response to the fact that the silvery figure on the work table, totally unmoving and unresponsive for all this time, had just grabbed him. After a second or so, he managed to get enough of a grip on himself again to notice that the only part of the artefact that had moved at all was the hand - and arm it was attached to - that now held his wrist.

"Yuri! Are you-"

"I'm fine," he replied, somehow a lot more calmly than he felt he had any right to be. "It's not holding me tight enough to hurt, just... I don't know, keeping me here, I guess."

"You guess? To hell with that, I'm calling security."

There was little hope he could convince her not to do that, even if he felt any urge to try. The Institute's security set-up wasn't as comprehensive as, say, a Starfleet facility's might be, but that wouldn't stop them from reacting to something like this.

Helena's voice making the call sounded far more agitated than the woman usually acted, and Yuri knew that someone would be coming through that door within only a few more moments. Which, if this turned nasty, was most likely not going to be soon enough to make any appreciable difference to him.

He was considering whether to try and break the hold on his wrist when the decision was made redundant, the metallic-looking hand releasing it's grip and returning to where it had started with just as little warning or ceremony as it had moved to begin with. Absently rubbing his wrist, Yuri backed off well out of reach, eyes firmly fixed on the core of their project, and wondering just what the heck had just happened - and why.

***

The signal had come, modulated just as it was meant to be, and when it reached the node that had been patiently awaiting it the results were precisely as designed. Power was routed to higher-order nexus groups, the command routines coded into their fabric coming to life and reaching out to each other. Within moments more, the basis of a command architecture had taken form, building itself further as it confirmed that everything that was meant to be at it's disposal, was.

At that stage, there was nothing capable of appreciating the serendipity of having one of the external things it sought detectable literally within arm's reach - but this in no way impaired the system from acting on that proximity. As soon as the required physical contact was achieved, and the subject was prevented from immediate escape, data began to be gathered and analysed, projections of what would and would not be of use forming and being analysed in turn.

Finally, a model was assembled and the proper coding assembled for use. One last check for errors, then that self-same coding was sent to the receptors that had waited for it since their creation.

There was only enough raw material - and power - for a single activation, but that was part of the design. After all, done right, it only needed to happen once... Suspended throughout the dormant biopolymer matrix of the external shell in their little hives, nano-scale mechanisms came to life, surging out to latch onto the materials they needed to do their jobs. It was a laborious process, with endless repetition of the tiniest pieces of the whole essential to the desired result, but there was no hint of anything but almost mindless dedication to the task at hand and a total disregard of the fact that simply fulfilling their assigned role was going to leave almost the entire population extinct.

***

The security guards that had responded to Helena's call had done it fast, and under other circumstances Yuri might have found their adrenaline-fuelled jumpiness amusing. As it was, he was more concerned that they were going to do something... unfortunate to his project.

"Gentlemen, do I need to remind you that nothing harmful has actually happened?"

That got him a disparaging look from Helena, not that he'd expected anything else, but he was more interested in the reactions of the people with weapons. Luckily, the man in charge of the team was someone who's judgement he respected - and the fact that he was a Betazoid and thus quite able to tell that Yuri was quite sincere in what he was saying - and after a few moments there was a curt nod to the other two officers and a definite, if slight, reduction in tension.

Quite what was happening in the lab itself, none of them were particularly sure. Something had disrupted the sensors that might have told them, and there wasn't even a hint of sound to give a clue. This, of course, was not helping everyone stay calm.

"Nothing," Helena put in sharply, "may have happened yet, but we have no idea what is going on in there. Tenna's not going to take any chances, and you know it."

Tenna, the security chief, looked less than happy to be reminded that he was going to be held at least partly responsible for anything that happened, but since that was part of his job he limited his response to that. Or at least he did until the sound of a heavy thud made it through the lab door. Every hint of relaxation that might have slipped into the atmosphere vanished in an instant, with the trio of security guards immediately moving to take up positions by the door.

"Umm... What are you going to do?"

Yuri's somewhat hesitant query was ignored. Instead, Tenna gestured to his people to stand ready then, with his weapon in hand, touched the door control. The amount of tension in the air was enough to be almost palpable, and somehow managed to spike even higher as the door slid open.

For seconds that seemed to feel like hours, nothing at all seemed to happen, until finally, weapon held ready in a white-knuckled grip, Tenna stepped cautiously through the portal. Yuri was pretty sure he wasn't the only one holding his breath as he watched the Betazoid's slow, wary advance into the lab, but he knew he jumped when Tenna's voice came back through the doorway at them.

"Professor, Doctor... Remind me, would you, what you were working on in here?"

Yuri and Helena shared a puzzled look, noting the fact that the Betazoid's tone had more than a hint of confusion in it. Carefully, and not totally certain it was a smart idea, the pair edged closer to the door, moving to get a peek at whatever it was that was waiting on the other side...

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