MACHINA TERRA




Galactic Terran Intelligence planetary research facility,
during the first Shivan invasion.

"What happened this time?" – heard Professor Grant, almost not believing that they could have known about it so quickly. The message was, as usual, voice only, and a standard GTI logo animation filled the small screen on his lab desk. The desk was full of papers, PDAs, schematics and drawings that ressembled complex molecules. A mug rested on one corner, some kind of mold already forming on the bottom. Grant didn’t even have time to drink his coffee anymore.

He was shaking with anxiety, but his terminal was also set to voice only. Pretending that he didn’t hear the initial message, Grant imagined what could he answer them this time. The project was running late, and the guys up there wanted some results soon. He had gave them too many excuses already. The fact that most of them were real didn’t matter at all.

"We know you’re listening, Professor. Answer it – what happened this time?"

Nathan Grant searched his desk frenetically, hoping that he could find a more plausible excuse than the truth. As usual, he didn’t.

"The same as most of the other times – the structure destabilized after the initial adjustment period. We are working on a solution, but it may take time" replied the Professor. He was gathering his breath to resume the explanation, but the voice from the other side interrupted him. They seemed to be even less happy than the usual this time, but he didn’t blame them. He very much, though, feared the consequences.

"We are giving you another two weeks, Professor. After that, a sanitation team will be dispatched. Lets hope that it does not reach this point" spoke the same voice again, just before closing the communications channel. The Professor was the only person at the lab that moment, so he would have to pass the news to the rest of the team. Most of them were resting, after another extremely long working shift. He decided to stay at the lab to clean up the mess left by their last 'prototype'.

He stared at the seemingly complex machinery that filled a wall to his left, and wondered – not for the first time – if he and his team were actually up to the task. At the beginning he had absolutely no doubt about it, but now his mind was not even near as resolute as that time. And it was so little time ago.

Project Visionnaire was the most advanced and complex genetic research being conducted anywhere on the Galactic Terran Alliance, or anywhere else for what he knew. It was, though, very prone to failures – and the military simply couldn’t understand that this kind of research is very delicate and time consuming. They thought that everything was like weapons research – just plug in a stronger power source, add a few heat sinks and you have a better weapon.

"Hmpf. Only if things were this simple" mumbled Grant. He had been working on this project for a few months now – the time of an eyeblink on his terms. If he had the freedom to specify the timetables he would add at least a few more years to all the deadlines. He remembered to curse the day when he was persuaded into this every single time he looked at the watch. Time was running faster than usual those days.

He considered the situation for a while, but then decided that an exhausted man cannot do a good job on judging anything. Back to his personal quarters, he dimmed the lights almost to the minimum setting, and turned on a soft music that he so much enjoyed. As the sound filled the room, he laid on the bed and started to examine every piece of furniture that surrounded him – just as he had done so many times. The light brown lamps on the sides of his bed, the paper-filled desk on the corner, the almost empty wardrobe taking the whole wall to his right.

For a while, Nathan wondered about that wardrobe. It was as empty as his life had became – all that mattered was to complete the project, as all that he needed was his standard white lab-coat. His white coat was his life. The project was his life. And, as the last comment by the voice on the other side of that commlink, failure to accomplish the project’s goals meant his death – and the death of his team.

As always, his eyes stalled for a while when passing over the books that were arranged on a shelf built directly into the wall. He usually took notice of an advanced genetics or medical science book, but this time he was surprised when he realized the book that was grabbing his attention. It was the Holy Bible.


***

The next morning, Nathan Grant – or simply Nate, as his fellow researchers used to call him – could only think about the previous night as he walked through the metallic corridors of the scientific complex. The walls were dark, covered by pipes and conduits, signs of corrosion appearing everywhere. He could no longer be bothered by the redish light that filled every passageway on that dreaded place.

During the whole time he had been there, he had never even noticed that Bible on his shelf. Actually, he didn’t even know that it was there. He had a rough night – trouble to get to sleep – too many things crossing his mind at the same time. The project, the deadlines, the consequences. His now so distant wife and only child, whom he so much wanted to see again. Work as a researcher for the Intelligence was way worse than he had ever imagined.

"I have some not so happy news today" announced him to the rest of the staff, just as he entered the main lab room. Everybody was already there – Nate was deliberately late, so he could say it right when he arrived – and every single person on the room stopped their current activities to listen to him. They knew that he wouldn’t seem that serious if the situation wasn’t really alarming.

"The guys up there are getting tired of our ‘lack of progress’, and are starting to make some rather harsh demands. I’ve been informed that if we don’t present any result in less than two weeks, this complex will receive the delightful visit of a GTI sanitation team" spoke the Professor. Everybody was almost in a shock state, except for Laz – his ‘second in command’ there, whose full name was John Lazarus Elliot. He seemed strangely happy, in fact.

Laz didn’t say a single word, but instead turned back to his screens were he resumed work on the simulator.

"They knew right away about our latest failure, and things are getting ugly. We must double our efforts, and this may mean dropping some of the safety protocols. I hope you all understand – our lives are at risk either way, and everyone knew how it would be when joined the project" resumed Nate, as severe as he could get. He noticed, though, that all the attention now was directed towards Laz.

"Why in hell are you smiling? We are going to be killed here, if you didn’t understand it!" screamed Jude, one of the research assistants. She had always worried about it, specially after the stories that Laz had told her. And after the latest news, she was simply panicking.

"Die! Can you hear it? We are going to die here!" she repeated, as Nate walked towards Lazarus to have a private talk. He knew that Laz wouldn’t be acting like that for nothing, and he knew that he could trust him – at least more than he could trust any other person inside the lab at that moment. Lazarus had been working with him for over eight years by then, and together they had always reached their objectives. They were responsible for many of the recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering, and that was probably the reason why the GTI had bothered them so much to take charge of the project. Now they were being threatened with their own lifes.

As Nathan approached him, Laz turned around and, pointing to his computer screen, said a single sentence – with the same casual tone he used every time he knew he was right.

"Don’t worry chief, I have it all figured out."


***

The acceleration sequence was reaching it’s completion, and most of the team watched the indicators. They were at the acceleration lab, on the other side of the complex, that was directly linked to the huge particle accelerator that surrounded the entire area. The visible section of the accelerator was a huge, almost seamless, chromed metal cylinder that extended from wall to wall, crossing the room.

A series of computer terminals were attached to it, and a circular holographic display filled the center of the room – it was the center of all attention at that time. A graphic demonstration of the acceleration sequence was running on the display, showing a reaction that they would dismiss as completely impossible if they had heard about it an year earlier. Small spheres crossed the air in front of them, just as they had crossed so many times before. Everytime two of them shocked, a separate area of the display showed a still image of the collision, adding several items of data to the image.

The sequence was usually highly chaotic, generating a series of random, unconnected collisions. This time, though, everything seemed to work as a well-tuned clockwork. Shock after shock, particle after particle the tension grew – the whole team watching it in awe, witnessing a spectacle completely different from all the previous times.

As they so well knew, the main objective of the reaction was to insert a series of charged subparticles into the core of every single atom on a highly complex organic compound, without disintegrating the molecule. Watching it happening was wonderful, but the dark objectives of such a reaction casted a sinister shadow over their thoughts. Many of them now wondered if they really wanted to succeed, if it wouldn’t be better for mankind if they never left the prototype stage. There were just too many implications, too many ethical issues, too many blurred consequences.

The team awoke from it’s collective hypnosis as the computer played the distinc and familiar sound of a completed acceleration process. The sequence was over, and everyone rushed to the nearest monitoring terminal.

"Reaction completed, the compound is now charged and holding integrity" said Laz, almost shouting. He was not officially responsible for this procedure, but this time he was running the whole show. After all, he was the one who made the breakthrough. A small multi-layered door on the accelerator opened, and from it came a cylindric transparent vial, containing a glowing yellow liquid.

A robotic arm attached to the accelerator port picked up the vial and moved it to a small cylindric container. A digital display on it’s side indicated a temperature reading from the liquid. It quickly dropped from over twelve hundred degrees kelvin to a little more than fifty, and the numbers turned from red to green.

"Now we just have to make you work" whispered Laz to himself, as he used a protective glove to carry the small tube to the main lab.


***

Two months later

Nathan stared at the small organic form gaining shape inside the glass container filled with a green translucid amniotic liquid. Unlike all the other times, this prototype had held together. It was growing fast, way faster than anything he might have expected during the planning stages. At that rate, the project would be completed in just a few months, and not the two years that he had initially estimated. His only concern, though, was the activation. It had not yet shown any signs of it, and on the stage it had reached it should be already active.

"This wait is killing me. Soon those morons from the GTI will be breathing on my back again" - said the Professor, speaking to himself. He knew that they were never happy with the results, everything could get ready faster and perform better.

"No sense of reality. Not at all", he mumbled again. After all that time he had come to know the real purpose of his research, and he was not happy about it. He was having dreams, strange dreams that showed him desolate landscapes covered with the reamains of what appeared to once have been human bodies and other lifeforms. Strange thougths started to run through his mind. He went back to his quarters, and spent a few hours contemplating the books on the shelf. He was doing that a lot more than the usual lately. The Holy Bible was no longer there.

The next day, Nathan awoke with a scream from Laz through the intercom, calling him to the main lab as soon as possible. He didn't even wait to hear what had happened, he just knew it. The prototype had initiated activation. He ran through those corridors like never before.

When he arrived at the lab, he found that almost everyone was already there - a few weeks ago he had switched his personal quarters to one of the accomodations on the outer ring, a way to try to liberate himself from the agony the project was causing him. They were surrounding the development chamber, and a weird glow reflected on their faces. He approached the circle of people slowly, and was amazed by the view of the once so familiar glass cylinder.

A set of particles swirled around the chamber, emanating a pale light. Strong flashed happened in regular intervals, coming from the prototype itself. It looked like... magic.

For five more minutes the lights rotated around the cylindric container, and then it was over. Everything seemed to be back to normal, but they knew they had just changed the future. The prototype was now active and, unknown to everyone working on that remote laboratory, it had already started to spread chaos throughout Galactic Terran Alliance space.

Everyone tried to get back to their assigned duties - record the prototype's advances, monitor it's current stage, control the proportions of each chemical element on the amniotic fluid that held it during it's sleep - but it was simply not possible. A flare of amazement could be seen on each of their eyes, realizing the magnitude of their achievment. This same light, though, created a shadow of fear - for if the technology they had just perfected was used by the wrong minds it could become a weapon that would bring down the whole human race.


***

"...and we all can be sure that the GTI will not rest until they find a way to make the worst possible use for the technology that this prototype will enable."

Lazarus finished the sentence, and just about everyone agreed. A few days had passed since the activation, and the whole team was starting to get worried. The GTI hadn't shown any signs of knowing about the breakthrough, and that's what worried them the most. They always seemed to know about any failure almost immediately, how could them not be aware that the one true goal of the project had been reached? Something was very wrong.

Most of the researchers had been almost forced to work on that project, and the few ones that volunteered were deeply regretting their decision. Now that the team had reached it's objective - and all tests conducted proved it - they realized that the project could go no further, but they knew that the Intelligence had different intentions. For a few seconds, everyone was completely silent, pondering the complex scenario forming before their eyes. Almost hidden in the shadows, merging to the myriad of technological gadgets arranged on the wall behind them, the prototype rested inside it's support chamber, floating on a viscous amniotic liquid. It was visibly growing.

"They're still pressing us for results, and in very little time our opinion won't matter anymore." Nathan broke the silence. He was a scientist, not a warrior - and he was as scared as everyone else there. The right decision would be to destroy everything, but that would also mean their deaths. The only alternative was to wait, and try to keep the GTI unaware of their progress for as long as possible.

"That sanitation team will arrive soon. You all know how they are..." stated one of the technicians. Those few days after the activation were proving to be the most stressful in their lives. A technology they had created but couldn't fully understand. The constant pushing for results, results that they couldn't show for the very sake of mankind. And the possibility of a group of marines bursting through the door and killing everyone. This was too much for them. They had to do something, but they knew the installation was being monitored, and any attempt to escape would lead to disaster.

As was becoming usual, though, Laz had the answer. With that smile only he had when an brilliant idea struck him, John moved towards one of the computer terminals, cleared the junk that covered the whole table, and started to type some commands. Soon a representation of their solar system was visible on the screen, along several dots - one for each Intelligence ship in-system. After some time, he had intercepted all their identification codes, and could filter their communication signals. He knew what to do.

"Just what in hell are you planning, John Lazarus Elliot?" said Jude, almost screaming. She sounded as she was his mother.

"Nothing major, just monitoring some GTI comms. We have their codes, we have their transmissions, and we have a shuttle. If we can reverse-engineer their encryption scheme, we can just slip through that little blockade and get to a safe place." he replied. He made it all sound easy, too easy to be true. And indeed, it wasn't easy at all, but it was doable - and it was their best chance.

"It will take some time, though..." finished Laz, but everyone laready had their hopes set higher. And everyone got to work.

Far from the reach of their eyes, though, on the coldness of space, a chain of events had been put in motion. Events that would mean their total destruction or their only hope of salvation.


***

"Damn, this thing is undecypherable!" screamed Laz, giving up on the transmissions after seventeen hours straight working on them. Their technique was too advanced for him to break in so little time, and he had tried everything he knew. The rest of the team was asleep, all of them but Jude. She just stared at Laz, wondering what exactly he was doing with those computers. She knew he was tired, and wanted to help, but didn't know what to do. Then she noticed it.

The main display on that lab was a large two-dimensional screen, occupying almost half of the wall where it was positioned. It usually showed several different sets of information at once, but this time it was filled with a single image: a representation of all significant astronomical bodies on the system, where the positions of all GTI craft were displayed. It remembered the same screen that Laz had brought up on his own terminal hours before, but something called Jude's attention. All ships were moving, and fast. Communications traffic on their frequencies had increased dramatically, and some of the messages were not even encrypted. Hope flared on her mind. Most of the dots on the screen ran towards one of the jump nodes. She couldn't know, though, that a single craft had been moving in a different direction. An atmospheric capable troop transport, that had just arrived in-system, entered the planet's atmosphere a few minutes earlier.

"They're leaving... God, they're leaving. This is our chance..."

But it was too late. Suddenly, all intruder alarms went off.

On one of the outer perimeter external cameras, three or four dark figures could be seen moving through the shadows. They had been able to get too close to the facility before activating any alarm, so they were obviously using some advanced stealth or ECM package. Intelligence people. Recalibrating the external sensors, Laz was able to get a lock on them, and switched the cameras to the apropriate spectrum. Eighteen heavily armored marines apporached the laboratory, moving directly towards the main entrance.

"Seems like they already knew we were done", spoke Laz on a much more severe tone than the usual.

The sanitation team had arrived. In very little time, they would be inside the research complex.


***

What the research team feared most had just started to happen.

To the best of their knowledge, the GTI had dubbed them expendable and sent a marine unit to clean up the mess. In a flash, Laz sounded the internal alarms, awakening everyone, and sealed the whole facility shut. Every single defense system was set online, but they would be barely enough to buy them some time. It was a secret installation, but not a heavily defended one. Lazarus knew the marines could avoid, disable, or simply blast through almost anything they had there. But nonetheless, those few minutes were precious.

Soon Professor Grant and the other team members arrived at the main laboratory.

"They obviously already know we're done..." whispered Nate, as he was informed about the situation outside the complex. The marines had already reached the external defense perimeter, and didn't find much trouble against the light pulse laser weapons located there. One of the cameras followed the dark figures among a storm of fire and light beams, just to prove that it had gone through undamaged. Most of the team was terrified. There wasn't much left to do.

"Wait a sec, we may still have a chance..." said the Professor, as he brought up on the screens the position of the GTI ships in-system. Most of them were already gone. The marines were approaching the installation from a side almost opposite to that were the main lab was, and all sensors showed no trace of another team anywhere near the shuttle bay. There was something very strange about all that.

"We're leaving, and taking the prototype with us."

It wasn't as simple as that, though.

As quickly as possible, he got everyone moving. Most of the people went directly to the shuttle, not caring about anything they were leaving behind. Some of them transferred the research results to portable data storage devices. Lazarus went off running as fast as he could towards the main storage depot, while Nate proceeded towards the data processing center. A loud bang was heard, apparently coming far from the east side of the facility. The marines had broken inside.


***

It was suddenly all too silent. Everyone was on board the shuttle, except for the two project leaders, each on opposite sides of the complex. They both knew the risks, but they couldn't leave anything for the GTI to work on. All relevant data on that complex should be destroyed.

Laz reached the depot quickly, picked up a small metallic briefcase and rushed out. He had to reach containment and get back to the main lab before the marines. Another bang was heard, now clearly coming from the southeast, and way louder than the previous one. Their defences were crumbling, fast. It would be only a matter of minutes before the sanitation team reached the main lab. Through the rusty and dark corridors, he ran faster than he ever thought he could. The containment area was just straight ahead.


***

The air was getting thicker. At least that's what it felt like, his lungs on fire from the effort. If the situation allowed, he would be thinking about the respiratory process, how the oxygen was separated from the air, carried through his blood and consumed by each and every cell on his body. But the circumstances weren't quite forgiving towards parallel lines of reasoning this time. In fact, he had only two thoughts on his mind - destroy the data banks and get out alive.

Nate still had some distance to run before he could reach the main terminal room. The red lights on the corridor were almost hypnotizing him, the same pattern seemingly repeating itself indefinately. Here and there, a broken pipe spewed out steam or different kinds of fluid, the cause being obviously the increase in pressure from the strain on the defensive systems and on the facility itself. As he passed through an area with a very dense greenish fog, Nathan heard a very loud explosion, coming directly from the east. This time, it was frightening close. The ground shook, and one more pipe was broken.

Still running south through the main transversal corridor, he suddenly realized the imminent situation - the main terminal room was still almost a kilometer away, directly to the southeast. He still had to go south a good deal, and then get a lateral corridor to the left - which would lead him directly towards the marines. He had no choice, though, and tried to run even faster. The air was getting thicker.

After a couple of minutes he reached the entrance of the corridor that led to the main terminal room. It described a slight curve to the left, so Nate wasn't able to get a straight line of sight to the door. He walked a few meters towards it, always leaning against the wall. He was afraid that the GTI operatives could have already reached the room - unfortunately, he was right.

A tall figure stood by the door, wearing a dark blue suit almost completely covered by black armour plates. His head was covered by a dark helmet, obviously fitted with communications equipment, and some kind of display covered one of his eyes. Wielding a large gatling-like weapon, he started to turn towards the direction Nate was located. Noticing it, the Professor quickly passed through an opened door on the other side of the corridor.

He had to think of a way to get that guy out of there - and to find out if there were any more marines on that room. Activating a computer terminal on the room he had just entered, Grant was able to get a stream from the camera on the main terminal room - the marine on the door was the only one guarding it. The rest of the team had probably gone towards the main lab or accelerator room. He still had a chance.


***

Lazarus was able to get to containment without any further problems. He grabbed one of the failed prototypes - out of the most crude ones, in fact - and placed it inside the briefcase. Again on main corridor, he was now running back towards the main lab, which was less than a hundred meters away. That corridor followed a straight line, and he could see on the distance a faint flash of light pulsing, reflecting on the wall to his right. It was probably from one of the main entrances to the complex.

"That bunch of gorillas must be cutting through the main door" , he thought. Arriving on the main lab, he quickly switched the prototypes, and went through the bulkhead on the other side of the room that led to the outer section of the installation, where the shuttle bay was located. He heard another very loud explosion, even closer than any of the previous ones. A bright light flooded the laboratory.

He locked every door on his way, hoping that it would hold the marines back for at least some time - and that Nathan would be able to easily unlock them if he needed. By that time, though, Professor Nathan Grant had only one thought on his mind, and it wasn't about getting out of that place alive.


***

He tried to breath as slowly and silently as possible. There was no way of telling how good the sensors carried by that grunt by the door were, so Nate was being as careful as he could. He knew that it was only one guy, but he was stronger, faster and was armed. He had to find a way to get him out of the way. Staring at the small video screen - with brightness settings almost on minimum - he realized what could be his only option. The marine was constantly moving in and out of the room.

The Professor had never really been a computer expert, but had learned enough from Laz and others to be able to control the whole complex. He knew how fast and heavy those security doors were - the kind installed on the entrance to the main terminal room. Accessing the core operational controls, he reached for the one command that controlled the door, and waited for the marine to be just in the right place. As the dark figure moved just below the doorpost, he activated it.

It was fast. The high-pitched hissing sound created by the hidraulics system came too late to warn the marine, and in a matter of milliseconds the one and a half ton blast door descended upon him, at an incredible speed. He didn't even have time to look up to see the cause of his death. In a single instant, the metallic monolith reached it's closed and locked position, leaving one piece of what was a human being on each side of it. Blood spilled everywhere. It wasn't pretty, but it had done the job.

Nate checked the scene through his video terminal, and reopened the door. It would be a matter of instants before the rest of the team found out what happened and sent more people in, so he had to be fast. Running to the main terminal room, he kicked the half corpse out of the way, and closed the door shut once again. It would buy him some precious time when the backup arrived.

He rushed to one of the terminals, and initiated the sequence that would completely erase the main and auxiliary data banks. It was one heck of a lot of data, and the process would take time. Nathan watched the progress indicators impatiently as the seconds passed, each feeling like a whole lifetime. He wondered just how long the rest of the team would take to notice the absence of one of their members. His question was answered by another explosion.

The whole room shook with the blast, but the door held. He now could see a bright red glow drawing a line through the surface of the blast door - the marines were cutting through. Typing furiously, he initiated a command he never thought he would need. Progress on the destruction of the data banks had barely reached fifty percent, he needed a better, more physical solution. As the marines broke inside, he just looked at them, smiled, and pressed a button on his console. He thought about his wife and kid.


***

Lazarus arrived at the shuttle and waited by the door. He knew that erasing the computers couldn't really take too long. Everything was ready for their departure - all of them were on board, the prototype had been replaced and they were taking the real one with them. All they were waiting for now were the arrival of the Professor.

Hearing the distinct hiss caused by the opening of the bulkhead, a slight smile formed on Laz's face.

"The Professor made it" was his first thought. It was quickly wiped from his mind, as the viewscreen connected to the cameras on the corridor showed a small squad of marines moving through. It was too late for Nathan Grant.

"Get this damn crate moving!" shouted John, as the steps of the heavy armored GTI operatives could already be heard on the adjacent corridor. The shuttle began to lift just as the first marine entered the room. He raised his gatling weapon, aimed at the shuttle's engines, but didn't have time to press the trigger. A furious shockwave engulfed him, throwing his body against the wall to his left, the fire melting through his armour and reaching his battle-scarred skin. After the initial shockwave dissipated, there was only a pile of burnt bones and melted armour on the place were the marine was knocked down.

Engulfed in fire, the atmospheric capable shuttlecraft sped towards the already opened exit doors, racing the shockwave. Shaking violently and constantly colliding against the walls, they were able to make it - and the ship was free on the atmosphere of the desolate planet. Looking back at the laboratory, all that it's occupants could see was a growing ball of fire. Nathan had obviously activated the self-destruct sequence, releasing the antimatter contained inside the main reactors. He had died to save them, he had died to prevent the consequences of such knowledge falling on the wrong hands.

The small craft was able to reach orbit safely. The Intelligence had obviously neglected some aspects of the assault - later the research team would come to know the reason. The whole scheme had been crumbling, as several underground projects were discovered by the branch of the GTI still loyal to the Galactic Terran Alliance. They didn't have time to carefully plan the attack - all the rogue Intelligence group wanted was to get their results and destroy all evidence.

As the shuttle travelled through the stars, the remaining members of Project Visionnaire sat around the small briefcase, staring at the fragile organic form floating inside a transparent cylinder. For the first time since the project had began they realized what the prototype truly was. At that moment, it was not a weapon, it was not a component, it was not an experiment. It was a human being.

"We could call him Fred" whispered Jude, as the ship slowly drifted towards the nearest jump node...



Copyright @2000 by the Machina Terra Project, except where Volition, Interplay or THQ may apply.