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Nai Gor (chapter one): The Devil You Don't
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 11 December 2008, 10:06 pm

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Nai Gor (chapter one): The Devil You Don't

"I understand you've seen some pretty secretive stuff."

"Yeah, sure. Some of the deaths I've witnessed are classified. Anything caused by UNSC weapon misuse or malfunction. You know, I've seen three soldiers accidentally off themselves without the benefit of so much as a knife. Just as fun to watch and since no ammunition's wasted, a lot less tragic. Personally, I don't even get tragedy." He shook his head. "Takes some of the bite out of Shakespeare."

"You're a fan?"

"Of accidental death? Absolutely."

"I was referring to Shakespeare."

"Oh. He meanders a bit. Good endings, though."

Forcing a fake smile, Commander Mike Donnadio glanced at his data pad. "You served on this ship for nine months and thirteen days. During that time the rate of accidental deaths on the Siberia was eleven times that of any other UNSC vessel. Can you explain why?"

"Because this fine UNSC vessel carries more than its fair share of idiots. But that situation appears to be working itself out nicely. With luck, we'll be right as rain by Thanksgiving. But what the hey, right? This is the military. People train, people fight, people die. Of course, hands down the most exciting of the three is 'dying'. Not much finality in training or fighting alone. Maybe I do get tragedy."

"You want this trend to continue?"

"I don't want to jinx it with idle conversation, but I've got my fingers crossed. Anyway, it would mean more Thanksgiving turkey for you, or whoever. They resume training with the SMRID-46i next week." A thin smile curled up towards his eyes. "That should speed things along."

Mike leaned back in his chair. "Yeah, I had some questions concerning the 46i."

"Fire away. I could chat about that li'l gem for hours."

"It's an extremely expensive infantry weapon. Most ships are lucky to get a handful of these things, but you managed to order over two-dozen crates. That's a lot of flamethrowers."

"They're certainly not cheap, but we were grossly overspending in a certain area and I merely shifted funds. For a group of lazy, largely inactive soldiers, they were consuming far too much food anyway. A cutback was inevitable."

"You also shorted medical supplies, toiletries and replacement parts before they stopped you. Was it that important?"

"As far as I'm concerned the 46i is the most important piece of equipment the UNSC's ever issued. It's a flawless tribute to engineering in a hurry. Did you know that they manufactured that baby with no safety devices what-so-ever?" He shook his head, his expression a mixture of delight and disbelief. "Apparently there was no time for such things." He paused, waiting for his interviewer to reply or react, but Donnadio scribbled busily on his data pad, head down and seemingly oblivious. Delight disappeared, replaced instantly by anger. "Am I boring you, Commander?"

"No," Mike lifted his head, pleased to get something approximating a sincere reaction, "Just making some notes. Is it true that you re-wrote the instruction manual for the 46i?"

"I made two small edits. The lion's share of the credit goes to the engineers. They almost single-handedly raised herd thinning from dry pragmatism to gripping entertainment. I like to think of that brilliant device as weapons-grade liposuction. I saw one soldier lose nearly thirty kilograms of excess body fat in less than ten seconds. Want to see the video?" He tapped his head and chuckled. "I've been looping it in here for weeks."

A knot formed in Mike's stomach, causing him to sit up straighter, but his face remained passive. "No, thank you. I'd like to talk about Dr. Brian Jankman, if you don't mind."

"Janks? No, no, the flamethrower is much more interesting."

"You were created using his brain, were you not?"

The smart AI shrugged like a bored teenager. "And?"

"And that's pretty ironic. The brain of a kindly scholar giving birth to a bloodthirsty AI who creates his own snuff flicks? How do you account for that?"

"Easy," the AI, chuckled, "I'm obviously not him."

"But you sprung from his mind. At some level you must reflect his sensibilities. Why aren't any of them evident?"

"Because I'm not him."

Commander Donnadio made a note on his data-pad. "Okay, then who are you?"

"I'm your creation, Lord." The eyes burned with malevolence; the image darkened, the voice lowered. "Maybe you blew into the wrong dust." Dark clouds swirled around him, flickered dramatically, and finally collapsed inward and the AI disappeared.

Careful to control his emotions, Mike stood to his feet, straightened his uniform and walked briskly out the door. He entered a room across the hall where two men sat at a table in front of a large video screen.

"Creepy, isn't he?" the older of the two offered, running ten fingers through his short gray hair.

Mike took a seat across from them and sighed. "He's a serial killer, Bud. He does it for the pleasure, plain and simple. Just how well is he contained?"

Captain Buddy Richards turned to the black haired man sitting beside him. "That one's for you."

"Completely," Lieutenant Daniel Hooks replied in a wearied voice. "But as you're aware, it's possible that he replicated himself to one degree or another before he was isolated. Thankfully, there's no evidence that he did."

"Still," the Captain added, "it's kept us up nights. Any precedent for this sort of thing, Mike?"

"Not this particularly, but there've been few that turned out pretty bizarre. When I first started about twenty years ago we had one smart AI that chose the form of a circus clown and did nothing but tell old jokes." The men smiled at the welcome humor. "Had another one a few years later that took the form of a claw hammer and never spoke a word. It's obviously not a flawless process, but we usually identify the problems before they're deployed."

Richards raised a thick white eyebrow. "How'd you miss this one?"

"I'll do my best to figure that out, but my concerns go deeper than quality control. This thing isn't broken, glitchy or the result of a poor or incomplete scan. Deplorable as its actions may be, it's a sophisticated and fully functioning construct that evinces a behavioral matrix that is consistent and integral."

"Meaning?" the Captain asked with a humorless chuckle.

"Meaning that discernible, intelligent personalities don't just appear out of nowhere. They are a direct result of a successful brain scan. In this instance, the brain belonged to a good friend of mine, the late Dr. Brian Jankman." He shook his head and pointed towards the other room. "But that wasn't Janks I talked to in there, and it wasn't a blurry or skewed approximation of his personality. It was someone else entirely."

"Wonderful." The Captain rubbed his eyes and Mike realized for the first time how tired both officers looked. "If you're hoping to get answers by interviewing that thing, good luck. We've tried talking to it, both me and Danny." His face darkened. "It didn't go well for either of us. To tell you the truth, I've had trouble sleeping ever since."

"Has he ever taken a name or consistent form?" Mike asked, underlining something repeatedly on his data-pad.

"No," the Lieutenant replied. "In fact, he took no form at all until we discovered what he was up to. Since then he's been borrowing the looks and manners of the men he killed. Different one each day."

"He's gotta lot to choose from," the Captain added sadly. Fingering a control in the center of the table, he cycled through the video images. "He sounded like Sergeant Troy Vanderploeg while he was talking with you, but I didn't recognize the face."

Mike reached over and turned off the screen. "It was the face of PFC Benjamin Allen Donnadio," he said stoically, glancing from Captain to Lieutenant. "It was my dead son."

"You're back."

"Yes, I am," Mike replied to the disembodied voice. "Hope you don't mind."

"No, it's fine." Donnadio felt his throat tighten as the AI appeared. Once again it took the form of his son, but this time he was lying inside an open silver casket, complete with gold trim and white satin lining. "Did I get everything right?" The pitch was lower. The tone was flat.

Mike looked closer—and his mouth dropped open. "My God."

"Burying him in his red hockey jersey was a nice touch."

Deep breath. That's it. One more time. Play the game.

"Thanks. Wife thought so too, and it made sense."


"Well, yeah," Mike chuckled. "The thing smelled like death after he was done with it. Kinda fitting he should go bad in it."

"Humans rot," the AI stated matter-of-factly. "I'm sure you take it for granted but it fascinates me. You're going to rot. Your wife's going to rot. Your boy's all done rotting by now."

Deep breath. That's it. One more time "Don't forget Brian Jankman."

"Those emotions must be difficult to control. Are you going to breathe hard every time I refer to Ben?"


Lying on the satin with his eyes closed and his arms folded over the number 26, the AI smiled. "This could be fun."

"Where did you come from, if not from Janks."

"Like your son Ben, I came from you. Ben, Benjamin, Benny. I'll understand if you need a couple of minutes to sort out your breathing."

"No," Mike said, ignoring the dig, "You didn't come from me. You weren't created using my brain."

"Why all these questions? I thought Ben's dad worked at the AI factory."

Donnadio nodded. "That's right. I've seen thousands of AI's and until now I've never met one afraid to answer a question. You don't even have a name. Are you ashamed of who you are?"

"I bet you work long hours, considering the war effort and all. How long did it take you to get here?"

"Three and a half weeks."

"'Cause you're Mr. Fixit, right? The go-to-guy?" Donnadio nodded. The AI sat up in the casket and opened his eyes for the first time. "Bet that was hard on little Ben. I went through his files last night. Before plasma cooked off everything below his breastbone he was quite a writer. How's the breathing, Mike?"

"How did you access his files?"

The construct merely smiled. "Being the best AI shrink in the universe didn't cut you much slack at home, did it? Young Benjamin never mentioned you in his journals, but his high school hockey coach is on just about every page. I guess you were right about burying him in his jersey. It was fitting. The coach was Ben's go-to-guy. If dad's never around, a kid's got to turn to somebody."

Mike lowered his head. A tear splashed on the back of his right hand. He wiped it away, and raised moistened, angry eyes towards the mocking image of his son. "Damn you."

"You'd condemn me for telling the truth, Lord? Would you prefer lies?"

"I'd prefer answers to my questions." He calmed himself down, but the hatred in his eyes remained. "What is your name?"

"Nai Gor. N-A-I G-O-R"

Mike scribbled on his data-pad. "And where did you come from?"

"Ask Dr. Jankman."

Leaning back in his chair, Mike sighed. "You know as well as I do that Dr. Jankman is dead."

"But that won't be a problem. Within a week your embalmed corpse will be frozen solid and sitting on a shelf in the freezer. Hey! We should bury you in a jersey that says #1 Dad! It's not like Ben's gonna show up and ruin everything by telling the truth."

"Enough about my son!"

"Let's switch to a subject you're more familiar with. Shouldn't be hard."

Commander Donnadio dropped his data-pad on the table beside him. "I'm familiar with advanced artificial intelligence constructs."

"Yeah, we've covered that, Daddy."

"I also know that since you're unlikely to give me any useful information, I might as well skip to the end and smash your memory core right now."

"Now wait—"

"And I know," Mike interrupted angrily, "That I've probably smashed the cores of over a hundred defective AI's, but this will be the first time I've ever enjoyed it. Happy trails, Nai."

The AI changed instantly, now taking the image of a young Dr. Jankman. "Fine, fine, I'll talk. Geez," he said, wagging his head in mock rebuke, "Took you long enough to realize you had some leverage."

"Leverage?" Mike hissed through clenched teeth. "Go to Hell! This isn't a negotiating tactic. I'm sick of you and your stupid games!" His face a mask of hatred, Donnadio jumped out of his chair and walked to the control panel.

For the first time, the AI looked desperate.

"Jankman kept a dream journal! He wrote about me!"

"Good," Mike laughed as he punched in the code to eject the core, "Then I have no need for you."

"What do you know about dreams? Janks never understood what he saw and now he's dead. If you go on without my help, you might share his fate." Nai Gor stared with friendly, pleading eyes as Mike's finger hovered above the final button. After several long moments, his hand withdrew.

"Fine, we'll continue. But if you bring my son into this again, there'll be no stopping me."

"I understand," the AI said, nodding emphatically.

Deep inside his soul, beneath the red face and the clenched fists, Mike smiled. It wasn't the first time he'd outsmarted a "smart" AI, but this was definitely one of his better performances. And amidst all of the lies, the arrogant and creepy construct said at least one thing that was true: when it came to defective AI's, Commander Michael Benjamin Donnadio was the go-to-guy. Still, it wasn't what he did best. Because as good as he was with artificial intelligence, he was even better at coaching hockey.

"Okay, Nai. Where can I find those journals?"

Dream Journal of Dr. Brian Jankman

February 20, 2552
Episodes are longer and easier to control lately. No idea why, but the experience is unbelievable. I walked for hours through landscapes never seen by any other man. Had my first complete conversation as well. Thinking about it beforehand, I thought such an encounter would be fraught with fear, but I felt none. This could get addictive.

February 21, 2552
Short and disappointing. Two plague victims died today, and that might have had something to do with it. Thought I could save them all. If this is indeed the
**CLASSIFIED** Plague, it isn't responding normally to treatment. Little has gone as I expected.

February 22, 2552
Amazing. Landscape was different from before. Sky was a bit darker, and I saw my first cloud. Had many conversations. Even entered a house. Felt fear for the first time. Everything I'd read in preparation had warned about looking into mirrors, and now I know why. The face looking back wasn't mine, but that of the first plague victim. Such a thing is considered normal, but it was still quite disturbing. I asked many questions, but responses were unsatisfying and predictable. What did I expect? Someone asked why I had no guide. I joked about having nothing to pay a guide, and he (or maybe it was a she—it's often hard to discern gender in these dreams) nodded as if it made perfect sense. What
would I pay a guide in this place?

February 23, 2552
Three more died today. Felt guilty this time. Personal adventures—even those taken inside my own mind—seem selfish in such a morbid atmosphere; but I'm too curious to quit. Same place as last time, although I'm noticing that each dream brings changes. A thick forest now surrounds the village on all sides. I think it was there before, but much further off. More clouds too. Given the days' events, I found looking into another mirror unavoidable. Wasn't like last time. I saw a friend from college who had died my sophomore year. His lips moved, but I heard nothing. No fear this time. Someone asked about my guide again. I tried to explore the forest, but was warned against it.

February 24, 2552
Nothing at all. Plague is somehow spreading. Worked nearly twenty hours today. Lost six more patients. Laid down for a short time, but I don't think I ever got to sleep.

February 25, 2552
Longest dream yet. Same village. A bit smaller now, or maybe the woods are getting bigger. Saw my grandfather from my mother's side, but it wasn't ghostly or fearful in the least. So vivid. I had to repeatedly remind myself that he wasn't real. Walked with him near the forest and heard someone calling my name from somewhere in the trees. Started to follow the voice but granddad stopped me. "Stay out of the woods, son," he said gravely. I asked why, but he didn't answer. Again, I felt no fear, but thought I saw it in Grandpa's eyes. I had become so accustomed to having my questions ignored in these dreams that I didn't bother to ask why he looked worried—but he answered me anyway. "It's seeing you that bothers me. You shouldn't be here, Brian, not now. Heavens, if your wife knew she'd be terrified. Bad enough you're gone months at a time." I told him that Christie had, along with our counselor, been among the first to encourage me to try lucid dreaming. He shook his head real fast, like he did when I was a kid and had gotten something completely wrong. "You really don't know, do you? Look," he said, grabbing my hands and turning them upward, "You've got nothing. Nothing." He pursed his lips and grunted. "Never thought I'd see it." Before I could ask him to explain, one of the nurses shook me awake. The plague had claimed seven more during the night, and my two most capable doctors had become symptomatic.

February 26, 2552
Only a couple hours of sleep. No dreams that I remember. I'm getting tired of visiting the same little village every night anyway. Beginning to suspect that it represents the suffocating doom that is all too real in my waking life. Morale on the
**CLASSIFIED** hangs by a thread, the plague ravages indiscriminately and I've no answers. After all of our preparation, it is now clear that we can offer nothing more than simple pain management. We are weeks away from a port equipped to handle a plague ship. Weeks. It stalks from room to room. It tortures and kills. We've nowhere to go. We're trapped.

February 27, 2552
Same village. Forest seems to be closing around it in an ever-shrinking circle. Many of the houses have been swallowed and sit like ruins among the trees. I see fewer and fewer people. Grandpa's gone. I met a guide today. Seemed very happy to see me. "Ya ain't carryin' nothin'," he said, inspecting my hands much as my grandfather had a couple nights before. "Aww, don't worry, we'll work somethin' out. Always do." It didn't dawn on me until later, but I never saw his face. I talked with him for a while and apparently looked right at him, but I remember nothing—not even a pair of eyes. I told him that I wasn't looking for a guide, and he scoffed. "Won't be a village much longer," he said, gesturing towards the woods behind him. "Whatcha gonna do then?" I told him that I'd have to visit another place. He grunted as if amused and nodded. "Yeah, but if it weren't here it'd just be someplace worse." No matter how much I asked he wouldn't explain what he meant.

February 28, 2552
I've never felt such acute fatigue, but I'm unable to sleep. Feel as if I've been dropped in a place where reason and logic bear no merit. Found out early this morning that many if not most of our dead did not die of the
**CLASSIFIED** Plague. Although they'd all been infected by it, most post-mortem blood samples contained the residual presence expected for recent plague survivors, which is many times weaker than a vaccination. Of the few who still had the active virus, I could find only one where it had advanced the point of possibly causing death. Why are they dying? I have clues, but no answers. We've observed many instances of ventricular arrhythmia among the patients. The Independent Defibrillation Assistants would usually shock the heart back into rhythm within moments, but patients out number properly equipped medical units by more than twenty to one. And just when I thought morale could sink no lower, many patients (especially those saved by the IDA's) have spoken of troubling hallucinations. I'd have usually given them no credence but all their accounts are remarkably similar, even though they have had absolutely no contact with each other. I'll write more on that tomorrow. For the moment I need to rid my mind of it. I used to enjoy space, but now I can think only of home.

March 1, 2552

March 2, 2552
Almost too much to write. The guide was waiting for me when I arrived. Seemed surprised to see me and said he'd been busy. Asked me if I was still empty handed, and for a moment I felt compelled to lie. If it weren't for all the death surrounding me these days, that would have seemed very funny—lying to the nighttime musings of my own mind. "We'll work somethin' out," he said, "But there's no time now." Trees were all but upon us on every side, and only two abandoned houses remained in the small clearing. "I guess I'm workin' for ya, unless your plan's to crawl through this timber by yerself." I reluctantly agreed and we began to walk away from the village. The forest was dark and the guide barely spoke. I asked him why I needed a guide, and he replied, "Have you ever seen these woods before?" I said that I hadn't. He'd been walking in front of me, but he turned and swept his hand around dramatically and said, "They've never been this way before, and they'll never be this way again." He pointed a bony finger at me. "Same goes for you. As is the intruder, so's the woods. Tailor made for ya, to getcha caught. Not me, though. I slip through'em like a ghost." It's still quite vivid in my mind. Again, I never saw my guide's face, even though I looked directly at him. It seemed a natural thing at the time—which I guess is normal enough in a dream.

March 3, 2552
Horrible and disturbing. Forest was so dark that I continually ran into things. My guide kept quickening the pace, and it seemed as if I felt real pain. I would've collapsed if I hadn't been too terrified of losing my guide and wandering that awful place alone. I heard things in the woods around us, especially behind us. My guide kept looking back, and each time he did, he moved a little faster. Eventually I could take it no longer and stopped. My guide was upon me immediately. "Move!" he yelled in a voice full of fear. "Aren't you listening? They're nearly on top of us!" I asked him who "they" were and he grabbed my hand and began pulling me down the trail again. "The plague victims, or somethin' worse! Run!" And we did. My guide, mute and inexhaustible; me, numb with guilt and terror. Guilty because I was running. Terrified because the known was worse than the unknown.

March 4, 2552

March 5, 2552
What I've seen is indescribable. I'll neither attempt to write it down nor speak of it. Not now, not ever. It's fiendish. Demonic.
I'm done. I swear on my life, I'll never enter in again.

Mike closed the file and this time his tears were genuine. Whether his friend kept his vow or found the draw of these strangely lifelike dreams inescapable was impossible to say. The body of Dr. Brian Jankman, noted physician, scholar and humanitarian, was discovered in his room on the morning of March 6, 2552.

"Rest in peace, my friend. Rest in peace."

"You lied to me."


"You said that he talked about you," Mike replied without looking up from his data-pad. "But you didn't show up."

Once again assuming the form of a youthful Dr. Jankman, the AI smiled. "Did you expect to see my name?"

"Yeah," Mike replied flatly, "I did."

Nai Gor wagged his head and chuckled. "Nothing's that easy, but I am in there."

"Inside his dream?"


Fingers tapped the data-pad in subdued staccato as Donnadio let out a deep yawn. "Why were the 1st and 4th of March classified?"

"Hard to say."

Mike rubbed his eyes with the bottom of his palms. "Playing games again, Nai?"

"Of course not. It's just that, odd as it may seem, I don't have a completely free will. For instance, my programming forbids the sharing of classified information with unauthorized personnel."

Donnadio swallowed a pain reliever and, if only for a moment, envisioned himself smashing the AI's memory core with a sledgehammer. "You know good and well that smart AI's have no such programming, and even if they did, I am authorized. Mr. Gor, you are one dumb answer away from oblivion. Last time: why were they classified?"

"Geez, coach, I was just havin' a little fun," the AI said, flashing a sinister smile. Donnadio turned pale. "I let you play your games, didn't I? You pouted, you cried, your mascara ran. You did your little act, I did mine. I was scared, you were back in control. We were getting on great." Mike sat straight and still, too shocked to take a breath. "But if you're going to keep threatening and bullying me, I don't think this 'being nice' thing is going to work. The captain and lieutenant warned you about me before you came in the other day, didn't they?"

Mike nodded. Nai Gor smiled.

"They don't eat. They don't sleep. They don't write home." The AI chuckled. "Not much of them left, really. Just the husk of what used to be. Do you want to know why? Because I kicked their insides out until they begged me to stop, and then I just kept kicking. I spent less than twenty minutes with each of them, and they're ruined. What do you think is going to happen when I sink my claws into you?"

This was nothing more or less than a holographic image animated by advanced programming—and Mike knew it—yet the hair on his arms and neck stood up straight and he felt the urge to run.

"Gotcha!" Nai Gor yelled and then doubled over; pointing at Mike amidst squeals of laughter. "Oh, you should have seen your face! They don't eat, they don't sleep and what else did I say? 'Kicking insides out' and whatnot? You turned whiter than a sheet! Aw, Mike, I thought hockey coaches were fearless!"

Once again, Mike was too shocked to breathe.

"Apologies, Commander. Wicked sense of humor. So, you wanted to know why those days were classified? Simple. Dr. Jankman mentioned that the ship had blundered into a quarantine zone."

"Why would that be classified?" Mike asked, shaking off the feeling of terror like a child waking from a bad dream.

"It wouldn't, unless of course it was an Admiral doing the blundering." Nai Gor wagged his head. "How dumb do you have to be? I mean, you could fly blind for hundreds of years and never even get near a quarantine zone, and he spends almost three weeks in one without even knowing it."

Mike scribbled on his data pad. "Which quarantine did they enter?"


"I remember the Blackshift. Her entire crew was found dead. But what happened to the Cameroon?"

"Most were dead," Nai replied in a tone befitting a horror movie narrator, "And the rest might as well have been."

"Meaning?" Donnadio silently prayed for a straight answer.

"Alive, healthy, but shells of their former selves. Ruined. And also quite insane."

After writing for almost a minute, Mike looked up. "Back to Jankman. Why were his dreams so realistic? It was as if he was awake in another world."

"You've never studied 'lucid dreaming' Commander?"

Mike shook his head. "It's a Buddhist thing, isn't it?"

"No," the AI replied, "It's not just a Buddhist 'thing.' Lucid dreaming has been practiced for centuries, and besides that, it's a lot of fun. You really ought to try it."

"So I've gathered," Donnadio scoffed. "Fiendish. Demonic. Disturbing. Poor Brian was running out of words to describe his happiness. But it does sound like your idea of fun."

Nai looked hurt. "I'm serious. Study it for yourself. Your friend's experience was an aberration. Most people love it."

"You said you'd give me answers. Said you'd explain what Janks saw."

Again, the AI smiled. "And I will, but first you need to see what he saw."

"No thanks. I'll settle for your description."

Nai Gor got as close to the Commander as he was able and smirked. "How can I describe a world you've never experienced? You might as well try to tell a child what if feels like to be a father. There's simply no way."

Donnadio sat silently, thinking it over. He didn't trust this construct, but that didn't mean he couldn't get what he wanted. In the end, he had little choice. This AI held all the answers. After a few moments he looked up. "Fine, I'll do it. And when I come back here you'll fill in the blanks, right?"

The construct's voice oozed with sincerity. "Absolutely."

Strange buzzing echoed through the inky darkness at uneven intervals, but he had no idea from where. He couldn't move so much as a finger or toe, but a trembling terror reverberated through his entire being. More than anything he wanted to know if someone or something was approaching, but he couldn't open his eyes. Pounding now joined the strange buzzing and the world around him began to flicker and fade.

Waking with a start, Captain Richards yanked his head off his desk and jumped out of his all-too-comfortable chair in near panic. He was uncharacteristically startled when someone pounded on his door and then buzzed the intercom. After a deep breath, he sat back down and fingered a button on his desk. "Captain here."

"It's Lieutenant Hooks, Sir. May I come in?"

"It's open." As the Lieutenant came in and locked the door behind him, Richards tried to reign in his nerves.

"Sir, you're pale as a ghost." Hooks' face darkened. "Were you asleep?"

Richards glared at the young officer. "What've you got for me, Danny?"

"Captain, we'll be arriving at our destination momentarily. I thought you might want to be on the Bridge."

"Why?" Richards said, straightening his shirt, "There's nothing to see. Anything else?"

"Just that we've had eighteen more deaths, sir."

The captain lowered his gray head and cursed. "Throw them in the freezer with the others. Tell the men whatever you have to."

"Sir, the freezer's full."

"Then release them into space. Use your head, Lieutenant. I'm not here to hold your hand."

Hooks' head dropped slightly at the rebuke. "Yes, sir."

"Oh, and one more thing. I'm sure Donnadio will be done soon, so make sure you have a deep-freezing unit available at a moment's notice."

"What for, Captain?"

Richards grabbed a thermos and dumped coffee into a large insulated mug. "For Donnadio's head, Lieutenant. Remember?"

"Sorry, sir. I'm so tired, it's hard to think straight."

"Ah, don't worry about it. Go get yourself a cup of coffee and try to relax. Marge left some donuts in the wardroom in memory of somebody, and they're incredible."

"Were there any long johns, sir?"

"Depends," Richards replied, raising an eyebrow. "You a cream or custard man?"

"Cream, sir."

The Captain smiled. "Then what are you waiting for? Dismissed!"

C.T. Clown