TIME:DATE RECORD ANOMALY
Estimated 0600 Hours, August 30, 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Uncharted region, aboard UNSC Trans-Slipstream research station Herodotus
With a near-silent ping, the monitor on the Lieutenant Commander's workstation flashed to life. Lazutkin's terminal became a vortex of spinning and cycling numbers, symbols and three-dimensional protruding holograms, each mapping out various nuances of the network. She spun to face the screen and plucked two of the floating icons out of thin air, crumpling them in her hands and tossing the resultant globules of incandescent data over her shoulder and into the designated trash zone where they faded away.
She carefully examined the remaining icons, spinning several of the 3D figures around on multiple axes, inverting lines of streaming code with a flick of a fingernail and removing individual intersections of the system's matrix from the main screen to isolate key regions of programming. All the while, Alejandra Lazutkin - Lieutenant Commander in the UNSC's naval detachment- peered into the bytes and looked for the offender that triggered the alarm. Stripping back a further layer of data, Alejandra resigned the task to the local smart AI, Kelvin.
"There." Kelvin replied less than a second later, and the melange on Lazutkin's screen dimmed as a single strand of code glowed red. The 'feeler' code, sent forward as a probe by the unsuccessful invader, was there on the screen before Kelvin and Lazutkin, symbols and digits representing the location of this unwanted presence; links to the questions it was asking Lazutkin's terminal. Kelvin erased the code effortlessly, tracing the pathways back along the fibre-optics, shattering firewalls and pithy defences that the intruding AI threw up in his face. Strangely, the presence bore the hallmark signs of already having encountered similar resistance recently.
"Gotcha." Kelvin's voice betrayed a hint of glee, and Lazutkin watched the streams of code and data on his terminal as Kelvin enveloped the other AI, surrounding it and engulfing it in his counter-intrusion subroutines, smothering the illegal intelligence with code far beyond its limitations. Kelvin applied the equivalent of a stranglehold over a quick few program cycles and the other AI dissolved, its programming stripped bare and catalogued before being permanently destroyed by Kelvin.
In the second that the last few symbols winked out on Lazutkin's screen, a metallic clatter hissed from the workstation; the death rattle of a defeated and redundant program.
Lazutkin's eyebrows rose slightly in approval as she reclined in her chair, "Impressive."
"One does try," Kelvin had materialised on the pedestal besides Lazutkin, his avatar the form of a middle aged man in a lab coat, writing tablet under his arm; a scientist like his namesake. "Ackerson's getting reckless."
Lazutkin grunted, distaste registering in her voice as she replied, "Reckless, yes. And impetuous, benignly inefficient and..."
"Ignoble?" Kelvin offered.
"I should rather have thought," Kelvin continued, "that he'd have lost interest with us by now, surely I never supposed he'd actually increase the rate of attempted penetrations."
Lazutkin kicked back in her chair and smiled slightly at the unintended innuendo, "Typical Ackerson." She rotated back and forth lightly, surveying the dim room and the equipment within it, "Typical male."
Kelvin's avatar remained on the pedestal, reanalysing the code from the dumb AI, the blunt instrument that Ackerson had used to attempt to pry open the beyond classified manifest of the Herodotus' Naval Special Warfare research contingent. Lazutkin's hour long shift as signals analyst was her daily obligation as a NavSpecWar officer-afloat assigned to Kelvin; the Navy's way of ensuring the AI was working above and beyond par and within its designated parameters.
Lazutkin had been with the Navy for eleven years come October, including her four at Luna, studying and researching into the most complex nuances of theoretical physics, non-Euclidean and non-Einsteinian space and the manipulation of twinned particles to transmit information, energy and matter across not only the void of space, but into the breaches and the gaps of the pan-universal plain. A year ago she was commissioned about the Herodotus, the UNSC's only station that travelled and operated almost exclusively within Slipspace, where she and Kelvin conducted practical applications of the theories outlined in her PhD dissertation.
Three minutes ago when the station had made a routine drop out of Slipspace to monitor COM traffic and receive the latest from Lazutkin's controllers, the foreign AI had burrowed into their array, piggybacking inside the frantic and numerous UNSC universal broadcasts that Lazutkin now poured over. Ackerson, it seemed, even as the mightiest inner world burned and millions were slaughtered, was intent on wrestling the secrets of the Navy away from their protectors and enforcers. Indeed, as Lazutkin read in abject horror the communiqués from Epsilon Eridani and the soon to be dead world of Reach, she wondered why Ackerson, arguably the UNSC's most Machiavellian player, was allowed to continually fret and strut the stage while his unseen hands pillaged and razed his colleagues. Because, she concluded with an air of disgust, Ackerson's hands numbered so many; the string-pullers, the devoted under-the-table dealers and the backstabbers, poised with knives to the hearts and throats of the UNSC, undermining individuals to bolster a collective, insidious persona in himself; one that might actually save us... at the cost of our innocence.
She shook the thought out of her head. She wasn't selling her soul to back Ackerson as the war horse to bring them to salvation; she had her own, more promising and more realistic favourites. The Spartans, for one. Her own research, another. No; Ackerson had burned his bridges with too many to be entrusted with their future, and Lazutkin, reading the last highly classified dossier on Reach, willed that the remaining hope in the universe could protect them without him.
"Hang on," Kelvin said suddenly, rematerialising full-size alongside Lazutkin, looking perfectly tangible, "There's... something else here." She raised her head as the incorporeal AI flicked a holographic page from his tablet onto her display and a curious kernel of information glowed on the screen.
"What in hell is that?"
0534 Hours, August 30, 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Sub-Basement IV Research Laboratory II, CASTLE Base, Reach
Chief Petty Officer Albert Mangum was the last soul occupying the three-hectare research facility twenty-six hundred metres below the surface of Reach, everyone else having elected to evacuate when the Covenant had suddenly jumped in-system only minutes ago. Catherine Halsey bunkered down several floors above him, but as far as she knew, she was the stalwart defender of CASTLE Base; the utter secrecy of Mangum's research called for the black-listing of his entire section. Alone, for all intents and purposes, Mangum worked fast. Standing before a large display screen he frantically compiled code and activated the carrier, an AI named Honoria, filling her primary buffer with the intrusion software necessary to facilitate the brute-force attack.
He stripped back the inner most layer of source code and packaged the attachment, wrapping it in sophisticated blankets of protective programming. Mangum finished the prepping and brought Honoria back fully on-line. "I have to say, Chief," she quipped, flickering into being on a pedestal at the far side of the room, "I never imagined it'd end like this." The lights overhead flashed off and on again as a tumultuous roar miles above heralded the wreckage of a Super MAC's chassis colliding with Menachite Mountain. Honoria skipped across three holo-platforms, her visage fading at the zenith of her arc and reappearing with a splash of light as she nimbly bounced closer to him. She stayed her ground ten metres away, casually lounging back and surveying the man before her.
"Rampancy: too complex for a dumb AI. A trade in for an upgrade: not really a possibility, what with all my knowledge. Deletion: Well," she straightened her figure; Mangum stood stoically, accessing his stolen records for the final essential sequence, "that was always how it was going to end. That or rotting away in this complex, abandoned. But no, it had to be deletion. I'd come to terms with it from the moment I was activated; the moment we met. The moment you tasked me with your calculations."
She paused, left foot hovering over the edge of the pedestal, poised to leap, but entirely unsure. She weighed her words as Mangum scrolled down the list, searching for an authorisation code that would give him the permissions he needed. They existed in silence a moment longer as Mangum found and entered the last line and looked up from the computer screen.
- landed on the pedestal a metre in front of Mangum, leaning over him.
"But why did it have to be like th-" Mangum hit ENTER.
Instantly the motes of light Honoria was constructed from split apart, spun chaotically and dispersed as the link between her and the local system was severed. The final access code, borrowed from high ranking UNSC officer, activated the base's most advanced communications relay, miraculously still intact at the far end of Research Laboratory II. Simultaneously, the command executed the transmission of a high intensity data cluster far into deep space, shielded by the thousands of layers of protective coding that Mangum had crafted.
Honoria was buried inside the transmission, in a state of transience, to be reactivated for several few seconds to carry out her final duty; the delivery of the most important file in human history.
In the skies above Reach the burst soared upwards, instantly locked on to by the Covenant ships in system. Layers of counter-intrusion coding were sliced, ripped, hacked off by the hundreds as the aliens attempted to salvage Reach's last words, but the securely wrapped secrets soon burrowed too deep into space and the prize was lost to them. The warships instantly turned their full attention back to the siege of the planet.
Miles below the surface, Chief Petty Officer Albert Mangum listened to the staccato whump-whump-whump of MAC rounds being loosed and the steady, albeit elevated, beating of his own heart.
Once more he was resolutely alone.
It wasn't going for the manifest. The thought spun around Kelvin's processing centre as he analysed the code's 'trajectory' through the Herodotus' systems. As it turned out, he was right; the intruder was simply programmed to lock on to the most heavily fortified section of the ship's systems: its navigation drive. Ending up in the manifest list was a mistake of Lieutenant Commander Lazutkin's, having inadvertently shunted the foreign AI off its course and leaving it isolated in there while Kelvin rushed in to finish the job.
Kelvin poured over the intruder's code and ostensible destination parameters and drew quick conclusions: the AI had been transmitted via Ackerson's secure frequency on the Reach SATCOM network, but the routing codes, and the actual purpose of the intruder they displayed, showed that this AI was not attempting to steal their information but to deposit its core data within their Nav computer. Kelvin stripped back the final layers of protective code and accessed the little granule of information that had been so carefully wrapped and so carelessly flung into space.
Lines of code flowed through his processing matrix as the gift from CPO Mangum unravelled itself before Kelvin.
Mangum held his breath for a terse few seconds until he heard the calm tone of the console before him as it acknowledged transmission of the data packet. He closed his eyes and traced his finger across the podium where Honoria had displayed herself only seconds before, sliding his hand slowly back towards the console. He pressed the recessed red button and sensors across its surface scanned his fingerprint.
"WARNING," the speakers before him blared to life instantly. Cruelly it was the final remaining fragment of Honoria that pulsed through the electronic systems on his floor and it was the ghost of her presence that spoke to him now. "WARNING. Pursuant to United Nations Space Comm-"
For the second time in the space of a minute, CPO Mangum cut short Honoria's dialogue, speaking above the automated message. "Chief Petty Officer Albert Mangum, serial number 77453-90083-ES. Override retainment protocols and initiate purge in five." Instantly a three digit timer spun down before him, tracking the milliseconds as the minimum five second delay began. Mangum watched as, at the far end of the large enclosure, bulkheads crunched into place and panels all along the walls opened.
All of a sudden, and with the force of a thousand jet afterburners igniting at once, a wave of white-hot flame raced down the length of the facility towards him: the purge. Mangum looked up as the flames engulfed everything in their path, shattering and disintegrating the holo podiums in succession as if the ghost of Honoria was amongst it, leaping from platform to platform once more, rushing at him.
Chief Petty Officer Albert Mangum felt a wave of blistering heat and saw the tinges of colour within the wall of insatiable flame a split second before it devoured him and the equipment to his side.
The flash-fire was sucked out of the other end of the enclosure and the entire area left barren and charred. Mangum himself was strewn as ashes all over the walls and floor of Research Laboratory II, his crisp dress uniform and dozens of adornments now nothing more than fine particles of dust in the air. The relay system and its assortment of devices, including an object scanning and cataloguing chamber, was likewise incinerated, going up in smoke like everything else in the laboratory.
Everything except for the translucent purple-pink crystalline sliver, a series of minute iconographic etchings still visible down one of its three sides, wedged in a pile of metallic ash, its tip pointing up the heavens, its body pulsing with the faintest trace of light.