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[2009: SEP-OCT] *WINNER* The Darkness Within


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It had spread through the air filtration system like wildfire. She knew it had been a mistake to bring it aboard.

The doctors had been the first victims, as after all, they had been the ones analysing it. How had there been any way to know what effect it would have had on them? It had seemed as though the analysis should have been straight forward, but this could not have been farther from the truth. Quickly, the crew had succumbed, one after another. After the doctors and medical personnel, the captain had quickly become affected, followed by most of the rest of the senior command staff. Perhaps it had been the briefing that he had called to try to solve the problem.

They had already been fighting a losing battle. In the absence of medical personnel it had fallen to the scientists to take over. Despite one or two botanists or exobiologists amongst them, the science teams were ill-equipped to deal with a dilemma that involved such a degree of medical specialism. They had managed to arrive at the revelation that whatever it was had reached the air recycling systems only in time to realise that just one deck remained free of its control. Just one deck, out of eight. Teams had sealed off the area and begun to reroute the ship’s command functions to Main Engineering, which was at least a small mercy. That was cold comfort however in the knowledge that Life Support had to be taken offline as there was no quicker way to ensure that the crew’s final safe haven would not be corrupted.

Lex Menar had not seen any of the Affected, as they had come to be known, firsthand, but she was spending her time in Main Engineering acting as the Senior Security Officer. The other security officers had been killed at the hands of the Affected or joined their ranks. All that was known of the results of succumbing to the agent that had infected the ship was that those who fell under its grip became irrational. It was as though their ability to function as rational human beings had somehow been compromised. It was clear from Lex’s survey of the rest of the ship that at least some of the Affected still retained a part of their previous personality, as she had seen one of them access a computer panel and begin to work at a frantic speed. The woman, if that was still the correct term, had quickly begun to access the environmental controls to bring them back online, and Lex had spent the two most panic-stricken minutes of her life laying down a detailed encryption pattern to lock her out. Whatever it was that had the crew in its grip wanted the rest of them, and she couldn’t help but think it was going to find a way to get them before they could do anything about it.

The chill atmosphere of Main Engineering wrapped around its inhabitants like an icy veil. The acting captain, Lex’s old friend Derren Collins, had initially ordered that the crew don environment suits, until it was pointed out that there were not enough to go around those who remained. Of the eighty people who had been assigned to the ship, only seventeen had been sealed onto deck seven, and there were only six on the deck. After a protracted and heated debate over who should be allowed to wear them, Lex herself had pointed out that each had only four hours of breathable air, and so they should only be deployed in an emergency.

“What about flooding the other decks with a neural agent?”, Crewman Wilkes, an engineering technician, volunteered to the ongoing struggle to rid themselves of the unknown contagion.

Lieutenant Collins sighed heavily. “There’s no way to do that without bringing Life Support back online. I’m not prepared to risk it.”

Wilkes looked deflated. “It could be our only shot to retake full control of the ship, sir.”

“Yes, Crewman, and it also may have no effect on the Affected. In which case, we would be exposing ourselves to the contagion for nothing.”

It was difficult for Lex to keep her spirits up. There was no escaping the fact that she was, along with the other sixteen people sealed into this chilling, claustrophobic prison, essentially doomed. Yet Collins seemed to lighten things a little. Knowing she had such a reliable friend nearby kept her moving, searching for a solution to the problem. She was no scientist, but she was intelligent enough to find some way for them to escape, or so she hoped.

The debate in Engineering was silenced by the sound of phaser fire. Picking up her side-arm, Lex sprinted out into the corridor, heading towards its source. It took her seconds to arrive, but she was already too late. A dark-haired human male lay dead at the feet of a Vulcan engineer, who still held his phaser loosely in his hand, which lolled limply by his side. Lex pointed her own weapon directly at his head.

“Drop it,” she said authoritatively, and the Vulcan did as he was told. More armed officers arrived behind her, including Lieutenant Collins. “Scan him,” she demanded of Wilkes, who quickly opened his tricorder to take readings.

“Why in the hell did you do that?” Her voice was laced with despair and disbelief, as she questioned the dispassionate Ensign in front of her. “Why?”

The Vulcan remained calm. “I do not have to answer that, Ensign. You are neither the Chief of Security aboard this vessel, neither do you outrank me.” The lack of emotion in his response infuriated Lex even more than his refusal to co-operate. Collins stepped forward.

“That may be the case, but she is the acting Security Chief, and I do outrank you. You will answer the question, Ensign.”

“Crewman Lazlo was about to open the panel to deck six, despite my insistence that exposing us to its atmosphere would be a dangerously illogical course of action.” He looked Collins directly in the eye as he spoke.

“He’s affected,” sighed Wilkes.

The words were no sooner out of his mouth than the Vulcan lunged forward, knocking Lex and Lieutenant Collins off their feet. His hands wrapped around Wilkes’s throat like a steel vice, and he began to crush with unstoppable strength. Two members of the security detail seized his arms and attempted to prize him off, but to no avail. Wilkes’s eyes rolled into the back of his head, and his lifeless body went limp as a discarded rag doll. Regaining her footing, Lex aimed her phaser and fired, striking the Vulcan squarely in the back. He slumped out of the security team’s hands and fell on top of Wilkes in an awkward mound of smoking flesh.

The officers did not speak to each other as they returned to the command centre. Collins moved to the redesignated science station to conduct an atmospheric scan, and Lex ordered a nearby crewman to scan everyone individually for signs of succumbing to the engulfing darkness. Seconds later, a forcefield hummed into existence around the inside of Engineering, sealing its five inhabitants inside. Lex looked at her friend and commanding officer sadly.

“So that’s it? Just the five of us?”

Collins nodded, and walked towards her. He reached out and pulled her into a tight embrace. It was ironic that sealed away in the middle of such chaos, Lex had never felt so safe. Sobbing filled Lex’s ears, and she squeezed Derren tightly, hoping to provide some comfort. It wasn’t until she heard the first outraged scream and felt his grip relax that she realised that he had not been in the slightest bit upset.

The two of them whirled around, and after waiting long enough for Lex to signal a pincer approach around the warp core, slowly stalked into action. The noise of wailing and screaming grew and grew, and it attracted the attention of the other crewmen, who followed Lex carefully and quietly to a Jefferies tube access point at the back of Engineering.

The sight was both unexpected and distressing. A female Bolian was pounding on the panel with her fists, her face a river of tears, and her voice now beginning to crack. She screamed incoherently, producing a sound so guttural and primal that it made the hackles stand up on the back of Lex’s neck. She shivered coldly and gulped down the saliva that had begun to fill her mouth. Anticipation flooded her every fiber as she nodded to the technician who reached out with a tricorder and began to scan. Lex’s gaze was fixed on him as he completed his work, slowly closed the device, looked back at the security chief and shook his head sadly.

“She’s gone, sir.”

His colleague sighed. “This is ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with her. Don’t you know she has her family aboard? They’re sealed on a higher deck, she’s just trying to get to them.” He strode towards her before he could be restrained, squatted down next to her and began to offer her comfort. He reached out his arm and placed it around her shoulder.

The second he made contact, she twisted into action. Cold fury radiated from her eyes as she reared back her head and bit down on his forearm. The man screamed and recoiled in pain and horror, as the Bolian woman returned to trying to dig through six inches of solid metal, tearing her fingernails in her desperation to claw her way out of confinement. Lex’s phaser flashed once again across the deck, putting an end to the woman’s misery. A second beam flashed out from at her shoulder, striking down the wounded security officer, who had no doubt been contaminated as well. She nodded in approval to her last remaining security guard. He needed to know he had done the right thing. He just looked at her and grinned.

“I think you have the wrong idea, Ensign.”

“Oh?”, she was deeply troubled by his tone, but tried desperately to hide it. Her hand reached for her tricorder to perform a scan. He levelled his weapon directly at her head.

“I’ll save you the trouble. I’ve been affected too. It’s quite... liberating.”

Lex relaxed slightly as she saw Collins approach out of the corner of her eye. He aimed and fired quickly and accurately, leaving them as the last two survivors of a shipwide holocaust. Flustered, she took a few steps backward, and leaned against the rail that surrounded the warp core.

“It’s OK Lex, it’s all over.” Collins’s words wrapped around her like a comforting blanket. Her shallow, irregular breaths floated in front of her like wisps in the frosty air.

“We’ll make it,” she was trying to convince herself as much as aiming to reassure her old friend. A sudden flash of inspiration hit her. “We’ll use the transporter. It can beam us aboard a shuttlecraft and we can easily get to safety. You’d better set the ship to auto-destruct , we can’t let this spread any further.”

Collins nodded, and tapped away at the Main Engineering console for a few seconds. In turn, she began to work at Ops, setting up a site-to-site transport that would facilitate their escape.

“I’ve taken the plasma coolant injectors offline, the core will breach in two minutes.” Her friend’s words provided Lex with the necessary clue.

“Initiating transport.”

They materialised inside a shuttlecraft, and hurried to the two front seats, initiating the launch sequence. As soon as they cleared the shuttlebay, Lex brought up the countdown to the ship’s destruction on her console. One minute remained.

Suddenly, her console chirruped, indicating an incoming message from the ship. It was text only, and Lex scrolled through it at lightning speed. It seemed that not all of the crew had completely succumbed to the ravages of the infection. Her heart almost stopped when she read the last part of the message: it was a report from one of the ship’s exobiologists.

According to the final stages of my research, Ktarian physiology is in all likelihood immune to affectation, although the latest scans show that I am in the early stages of infection. I regret that I wil not have time to test my theory.

Lex breathed a sigh of relief. Collins turned to look at her and asked what was wrong.

“Nothing,” she replied. “Look at this... it looks like I’m safe.”

The countdown on her control panel reached zero, but there was no explosion.

“Far from it,” snarled Collins, his lips drawn back into a feral grin. Screaming, Lex leapt from her seat at the helm, phaser firing widly...

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