Dann’s muscles were screaming at him as he slowly lifted and reset his mag-booted foot again, and again, and again. The cylinder was just ahead; another few steps and they’d be in position.
“Chambers?” Jackson’s voice came through his helmet’s audio system. “You guys about through yet? Pixton and I could really use a hand here,” she said. There was no extra noise in her broadcast this time; no gun fire or the clatter of furniture and metal flying and striking the bulkheads.
“Almost there … but then we have to get back. What’s the problem?” He found himself speaking softly to avoid making too much sound, though he probably didn’t have to bother.
“Pixton found a way to shut the maintenance bots down a while back, but that AI has found a way to get some of them back online. With only the two of us, we can’t hold out for long; they’ll wear us down! How fast can you get back?”
Dann frowned; another step, another step … “Another couple of minutes to reach the AI housing. Then Rose has to figure out what we’re going to able to do with it. Then we have to do it. How fast we return depends on what we do with the thing. Sorry Jackson, that’s the best I can give you right now. We’ll know more in a few minutes.”
“Worst case, I could throw you back to the airlock, Dann,” Rose offered. “I could keep your trajectory low enough that you could simply lower your feet and engage the mag-lock to stop yourself.”
“Um, yeah … let’s keep that as an emergency backup plan.” He broke out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.
Finally they reached the housing. It was such a little thing really, he thought, to be causing so much trouble. It was conical at one end with a rocket extending out the other, and otherwise featureless. “The sensor components are inside,” Rose said. “Are you ready to help me with this thing?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Dann said. He was just grateful to stop moving. He couldn’t believe how grueling it was to just walk across the ship. Every muscle in his body seemed to be knotting up; tension from trying not to move too fast in the airless weightlessness, he guessed.
“I’ll take the front; the nose looks like the part that I’ll be removing. I need you to grab it from the sides. If this thing is able to detect us tinkering with it, it may try to fire up that rocket. I’ll have the strength to hold it back, but you might not.”
“Would it even have any fuel left after getting to us?”
“It might have a little, but chances are it doesn’t have much,” Rose agreed. “I just want you to be prepared in case it does react. It has a limited number of possible reactions. Based on this design … Dann, you should know that another possible reaction is self-destruction.”
“Yeah … kinda figured that might be one. Got any others we can hope for?”
“I think its most likely response would be to redirect the maintenance robots to come after us instead of attacking the others.”
“Well, that’s good news. It’ll take them a while to get to us.”
“Yes, though not nearly as long as it took us to get here. They won’t have our restrictions.”
“Well.” He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. “There’s no time like the present.” He timed his grab with Rose’s; together they grabbed hold of the AI housing’s exterior shell. Dann squeezed his eyes tight. There was no reaction.
None that they could detect, anyway.
“Chambers? Rose? Whatever you did, thanks,” Jackson piped in. “They’re pulling away! What did you do?”
Dann opened his eyes back up again and breathed a sigh of relief. “I think we pulled them off of you and onto us,” he said. “Let’s just hope it takes them a while to get to us.”
Rose didn’t reply. Dann looked over at her and frowned. She looked strange; had she been human, he’d have said she looked strained.
“Dann …” she began. “Dann, we have a problem.” She maintained her grip on the housing, and began twisting. The nose cone turned easily, but the effort she was putting into turning it was herculean.
“What’s wrong? Do you need help with that?”
“No, stay back!” She heaved and the cone separated from the body of the housing. She hurled it, barely missing Dann, who staggered back in alarm.
“Rose? What was that?”
“It … it is taking advantage of proximity … faster signal time … response time … think I can keep its influence at bay …”
“Oh crap,” he whispered. He’d thought she was immune. She stood stock still, all of her attention and processing power bent on keeping her own processes from being hijacked.
“You’re going to have to disable it, Dann,” she said. “I’ll do what I can to help.” She took several staggering steps backward, leaving him clear to approach.
Inside he found a shockingly small compartment that housed what he assumed had to be the AI itself; it looked like nothing so much as a mass of tiny computer boards arranged in a cubic matrix of interconnections with connections leading to other components. Most of the interior of the cylinder had to be taken up by space for fuel, he reasoned. He followed the connections as best he could, though he had the sinking feeling he was out of his depth; he’d never learned much about how electronics actually worked. There were various small packages he assumed were sensors, buried in pits in the cylinder’s interior wall. His eyes lit up when he saw one large component a symbol he recognized; any conduit tech worth his salt would recognize a power supply when he saw one.
“Rose, I’ve found the power supply. What’ll happen if I yank the connection from this? It doesn’t look like there’s room for it to have a backup—”
A pair of arms like vice grips locked around him from behind. Rose’s left arm wrapped around the seal of his helmet and started constricting. “Rose! You’re going to break—”
“Sever … the … power,” she said. Her right arm was constricting his chest; his breathing went shallow. His helmet creaked alarmingly.
He shoved his gloved hand awkwardly into the housing where the power supply connection was, then had to grasp blindly as Rose awkwardly jerked him backwards. “It’s tapping into … my senses. Knows what you’re—”
Dann ripped his hand out of the AI case. A trail of broken wire came out with his glove; Rose’s arms slackened. He filled his lungs as the constriction eased; relief flooded through him. He stepped away; Rose stood motionless in front of him, eyes lit. She convulsed a bit, posture gradually relaxing.
“Dann, that was horrible. Remind me to ask if Pvt. Pixton can do anything to improve my internal firewalls when we get back in.”
“I’m just glad you’re okay, Rose. But, speaking of okay, I’ll be a lot closer to it once we get back inside. What do you say?”
“Yes. Yes, I think I’d like that too.” She hefted the now dead weight of the cylinder. “We should bring this in with us.”
“Is that really a good idea? What if it reactivates?”
Rose smiled. “Computer zombies are just as unlikely as biological ones, Dann. You destroyed the power connection; it’s harmless. Pixton and I will study it—after cutting its ability to transmit commands. Besides, if it does become a problem again, which would you prefer? To be able to take care of it inside or to have to come all the way out here again?”
“Right. You win, let’s bring it with us.”
“I knew you’d see it my way.”