Procurator’s Journal

In-character Subject: Errands (Chapter 4)
Submitted: 2007-3-11 07.30

It took just over one and a half days before anything noteworthy happened on their trip. The reports they’d gathered on hovercraft activity along their intended route had proven to be accurate, save for a few anxious minutes when they thought a heavily armed battlecraft was following them at a distance. To everyone’s relief (and Procurator’s exasperation) it turned out to be a malfunction in the targeting relays caused by Jedi when he’d dropped cookie crumbs on the console several weeks ago. Selena was carefully monitoring the Aggregator’s progress, and when their destination was estimated to be an hour away she hollered to the captain.

Procurator came onto the bridge, nodded at Selena and Gookin and spoke into the intercom.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s about that time. Prepare for silent running. I want Camp to shut down the communications channels, Flare can cut our link to the Matrix if it’s still on, and Jedi can keep an eye on the core. And for God’s sake don’t eat anything in there.’ He sighed and sat down next to Gookin.

‘Nervous?’ he asked of his first mate.

‘Me? Hell no. It’s just a few squiddies gone rogue. What’s to worry about?’ He threw Proc a troubled glance.

‘Heh, no worries kid. They won’t so much as catch a glimpse of us, and we’ll be in and out of there in a jiffy.’

Over the next couple of minutes reports came in from around the ship informing the bridge that all systems were set for silent running. In this state the reactor produced enough power to keep the Aggregator airborne and generate an EM field large enough to negate its own energy signature. Coupled with the radar deflection technology, the ship was rendered practically invisible; unless you physically looked at it with human eyes, that is. Thankfully, they weren’t expecting there to be any humans in Stalingrad.

Selena looked round at her husband. ‘We should be nearly on top of the place, hun. Though I don’t know how big it’ll be. We should watch out for patrols.’

‘I’ll keep my eyes peeled,’ replied Gookin.

‘I wouldn’t be too worried about patrols.’ Procurator started tapping away at the radar screens in front of him. ‘Don’t rule them out, but they’re more likely to have placed sentries in strategic spots around the base proper. And don’t forget: they’ll be expecting Sentinels to make an approach, not hovercraft, so they’ll be scanning for normal Zero-One tech.’

‘We hope,’ said Gookin and Selena in unison.

The bridge settled into a tense silence, each person therein concentrating fully on their respective tasks. The prospect of waltzing into the headquarters of the Machines’ greatest enemy since the War was enough to scare anyone to tears, but every crewmember of the Aggregator had sworn to go trough hell and back to serve the greater good. A few minutes later and the radar still hadn’t picked anything up.

‘It is there, I assure you,’ exclaimed Proc when he noticed the others fidgeting. ‘They’re just doing a damned good job of keeping themselves hidden.’

Sure enough, an energy spike appeared on the forwards scanners, dead ahead. Moments later a structure was clearly visible on the horizon, some distance away but still stark against the backdrop of the war-torn wasteland. Gookin adjusted the ship’s speed, slowing it down so more detailed sweeps could be made of the area.

‘What sort of approach are we after?’ asked the pilot.

Procurator was focussed on the radar screens, but spoke to Selena. ‘That river a few klicks away, how far does it run?’

‘Looks like it goes right up to… well, to whatever their base is. It makes a nice channel too.’

‘Excellent,’ said the captain. ‘Gookers, head for that and follow the river as far as you can. If I know the Machine mind, they’ll send their Sentinels upwards to descend on Stalingrad, and the General will be prepared for that. So if he’s watching this channel at all, it won’t be very carefully.’

The Aggregator swept gracefully into the channel the river had formed along the Earth’s surface, featureless walls of dirt rising around the ship as it descended. The channel seemed to have dried up long ago, though whether this had happened naturally or as a result of the battles once waged on the surface was anyone’s guess. As the ship sunk lower the structure on the horizon vanished from view.

Procurator called his communications engineer onto the bridge. Campusanis entered a few seconds later and sat down at the empty seat towards the rear of the room.

‘Camp, listen out for Machine chatter. We want to see how the General’s minions communicate with each other.’

As expected, a few moments later, Campusanis’s instruments registered signals being transmitted from the channel’s steep sides. Looking out of the window small, dark specks could be seen every few hundred metres, each dotted with pinpricks of red. Scout robots, sweeping the channel for intruders.

‘Can they see us?’ whispered Gookin, as if his voice could be heard outside the ship.

‘Nah. We’d have had to leg it by now if they could. The Aggregator’s stealth tech is working.’

Despite this reassuring assertion, the atmosphere on the bridge still didn’t lighten. Selena was preparing for the next stage of their run.

‘What’s our course?’ she asked. ‘We sweeping round the area low or making a pass over it?’

The captain didn’t look round. ‘We’re not sweeping anywhere. We’re landing.’

‘What?!’ the other three occupants of the room shouted, snapping their heads round to stare at Procurator. Immediately they glanced back out of the window to make sure none of the robots outside had made a move in response to their voices.

‘Sure. This is intelligence gathering. Listening to these Machines talking to each other is one thing, but the General’s most precious data is going to be stored on some sort of computer system. We need to access it – manually.’

‘Christ,’ muttered Gookin, as he steered the ship round a bend in the river.

The channel opened a bit wider at this point, and a squadron of nine Sentinels was briefly visible many metres above them, shooting directly across their path at high speed.

‘That’s the patrol,’ said Campusanis. ‘They’re communicating regularly with their base. Looks like an all-clear signal.’

Procurator located them on the radar screen and observed their movements; regular as clockwork. If everything else went well, they’d at least be able to get out easily enough.

As the minutes passed by in silence, the largest spike on the radar screen became stronger and wider. As the Aggregator rounded another twist in the channel, what was once the river flattened out into a vast plain. At the centre of this was the main structure of Stalingrad, rising high above the wasteland. It seemed to be constructed of concrete and metal, though it was hard to tell. Its shape reminded the crew of some features of the old Zero-One construct attached to the Matrix: huge steps arranged in no discernible order, though here in the Real they were littered with machinery. Masts, dishes and towers, many adorned with lights flashing and static. All this effort to scan the horizon for the forces of the Machines, no thought given to detecting humans or the most advanced technology that Zero-One had achieved.

Dotted about the plain were smaller versions of the main structure, miniature Stalingrads with their own arrays of masts. And between these monoliths lay rubbish, scrap metal, remnants of what once stood here or technology that had been considered useless and discarded by the General’s forces. Besides the patrol, which was now moving on the other side of the base, the air was still and no Sentinels or other robots could be seen at all. It was amazing taking it all in.

Procurator broke the awed silence. ‘We need to set down as close to the central building as possible.’

Selena identified a large heap of discarded machines and metal just to the west of the building. It had formed an almost circular wall with a depression in the middle, large enough for their ship to land in. Gookin nodded in agreement when his wife pointed it out, and guided the vessel into the junk crater. The Aggregator came to a full stop, hovering just off the ground. The landing gear extended from all sides of its base and the ship lowered itself gently down until it was standing, a deathly hush descending over the area as the hoverpads flickered off.


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