The Pretender – Teaser

Pretender_Sm

Pencils by Steven H. Wilson, Inks by Ethan H. Wilson

Okay, I’m a little self-conscious about this. Forty years ago this Fall, ten-year-old me fell in love with a new TV show called Space:1999. I started writing when I was 11, and, after my first “original” short story was complete, I began writing Space: 1999 fan fic. It was my passion and it launched me on the path to an addiction–I mean a career–albeit only a part-time career, in writing. So, near the end of the show’s 40th anniversary year, and, quite frankly, exhausted from almost two decades of building my own universes, I decided to return to my roots and honor the show by writing a “lost episode.” This is prose, but it’s built on the four-act structure that dramatic television used in the 1970s. I hope it feels like a novelization of an episode you never saw. 

And, as with all fan fic, the characters and world are not mine, aside from the guest star characters I created. I’m borrowing them without permission, not for profit of any kind, just to celebrate something I loved with other people who may have loved it too. I hope you’ll pardon an otherwise professional writer taking a detour. And I’d like to further point out that a lot of very talented people like John Kenneth Muir and Andrew E.C. Gaska have actually been licensed to write new Space: 1999 adventures, and I don’t mean to detract from their work in any way. 

Oh, and I’d like to thank my beta-readers: Sharon Van Blarcom, Russell Wooldridge, Susanna Reilly and Cheri Rosen, for encouragement and insight. 

The Pretender

Computers can go mad.

An ignorant man would say a computer was mad when it simply did what he asked it to do, but not what he expected it to do. The more sophisticated idiot knew this was folly, but assumed that the computer would always do exactly what it was told to do. David Kano knew better. He knew that, just like every other intelligent creature, an artificial intelligence could be touched by madness.

David had been given his first computer at the age of 13 and had fallen in love. But when the burgeoning personal computer industry had died a-borning, consumed by a devastating world war, David had taken up working on the massive, shared systems owned only by governments, universities and industrial giants.

Moonbase Alpha’s computer had been his employer’s masterpiece, and he had been her lead developer. She was the most sophisticated brain ever built, superior, in David’s eyes, to a human brain. When she was installed, David had come with her. For five years they’d been intimates, partners, practically a human/machine married couple. He knew her every habit and idiosyncrasy.

Today, he feared for her sanity.

IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY.

That was what was on her CRT readout on his desk. He asked out loud, “What’s going to be okay, Computer?”

None of his co-workers even looked up. They were used to these apparently informal conversations between Kano and his best friend. Some of them had even taken to addressing her directly themselves, calling her “Computer,” as though it were her name.

Well, it was her name. It’s not like there was another computer on the base. Even the Eagle guidance computers were instances of her own artificial identity. Disconnected from her, their processing power was laughable, and they could certainly make no decisions of their own.

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE JUST FINE.

At first, the vaguest smile played across his lips. Someone was playing a joke on him. It had to be his co-worker, Sandra Benes. No one else approached his ability with the A.I.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “And why do you feel the need to tell me that?”

BECAUSE HE SAYS YOU’RE GOING TO BE FRIGHTENED. AND I DON’T WANT YOU TO BE FRIGHTENED, DAVID.

Kano looked up and across from him at Sandra. She had her head down, fussing, no doubt, with a set of tactical maps the Commander had had her working on for weeks. “It’s not funny, Sandra,” he said to her.

Guileless eyes looked up at him. “What is not funny, David?”

He chuckled. “What did you do to Computer? You know messing around with her primary interface can have repercussions you don’t expect.”

Sandra shook her head. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Sandra was one of the most brilliant people David knew. On top of that, she was kind and empathetic. Her compassionate strength had been the heart of the team that had kept Moonbase Alpha alive for the past eleven months.

But Sandra Benes had no idea how to lie. When she tried, for the sake of a joke, her voice shook, and she burst into giggles that would have embarrassed the silliest school girl.

She was not giggling now.

“Well, if you didn’t do it–” David turned back to his console as Sandra, concerned, stood and came to join him. “Computer,” he asked, “please identify the person who is supplying you with the data set in question.”

THAT WOULD BE TELLING. BUT DON’T BE AFRAID. HE’S GOING TO MAKE EVERYTHING BETTER.

Beside him now, Sandra raised an eyebrow. “Is Computer developing a sense of humor?”

David scanned an overall system health check, and reviewed the list of active nodes on the network. Nothing looked unusual. He tried to zero in on nodes which were receiving input now, or had been in the last few seconds.

DON’T BE SILLY, DAVID. HE THINKS TOO FAST TO USE ANY OLD KEYBOARD.

David took a deep breath and massaged his forehead with both hands. It’s fine, he told himself. It’s a bad board in an auxiliary system. Maybe it’s the one in hydroponic. The humidity isn’t good for Computer.

He jumped up and ran to the primary Main Mission interface complex on the West wall. He’d find a clue there. He could isolate the problem, and–

He stopped in his tracks before he even hit the steps leading up to the panels. They were flashing. All of them. They weren’t displaying the normal activity readouts and power indicators that David could have read like a children’s book, indicating that all was functioning normally. They were displaying, idiotically, in waves of color, the entire spectrum sweeping across the wall, as though a child were monkeying with test patterns on the LEDs. It was like a Christmas display on the roof of a house.

It could mean only one thing. Computer’s logic circuits were compromised.

“God,” he whispered to himself. “God, please don’t make me shut her down.”

* * *

“Mama!” cried Jackie Crawford. He was seated on the floor in their quarters, a huge, winning smile on his face. It was so like his father’s smile, so like Jack. One day, it would win hearts, and, no doubt, break them… If hearts there were to be won on Moonbase Alpha in about fifteen years. His tiny fingers held out the ball again.

“No, Baby, no more,” said Sue. “Mama’s tired now. Aren’t you tired?”

Jackie shook his head, outfitted now with a dense growth of black hair. She’d known his hair would look like that. She’d seen him grow up once.

The day Jackie was born, he’d aged five years. Sue had become hysterical at the sight of him. She’d died screaming in terror at the sight of him.

The next day he’d grown to adulthood.

It had been aliens, of course. That was their world now–living out in space, encountering extraterrestrials and unknown forces, being manipulated and changed in ways no one had imagined possible. A creature called Jarak had accelerated Jackie’s growth and taken over his body. Jarak’s wife had reanimated Sue’s dead body and taken her over.

In the end, Jarak’s own people had freed them and restored Jackie to infancy.

The memory still made her uneasy with her child.

Sue remembered everything. She remembered the horror of the oversized child, kicking in the incubator. She remembered the terror she felt as he had approached her. She remembered her breath catching, her throat closing up, pain…

As Jackie grew to look once again like that prematurely aged child, sometimes his smile, or those all-seeing eyes, brought back the memories of horror and pain. What a curse to be a mother, haunted by the face of her own child.

But she was working through it. Dr. Helena Russell, though she could be dismissive, cold, even calculating, was a compassionate healer and a damned good psychologist. She had helped Sue through the worst of it. And there was Alan Carter, too. The chief pilot’s easygoing nature and devotion to her tiny son helped ease the pain of being a single mother. She liked Alan, but, in some ways, he was just a kid himself. Hopes that they, someday, might actually be a mother and a father to Jackie had faded in recent weeks.

Still, she had support. Every now and then, though, the feeling of unease returned. It was with her now. Something was wrong. Ever since she’d finished her duty shift and reclaimed Jackie from the makeshift day nursery in Medical where Dr. Russell’s staff kept him while she worked, she’d felt watched. She’d felt like there were eyes in the shadows and the dark corners, watching her.

She was pretty sure that had nothing to do with Jackie.

No, what Jackie was causing now was frustration. “Ball,” he pleaded, and he gave it a throw. It was a pretty good throw, too. Thanks, Alan, she thought. The ball careened in the corner farthest from the door. Was that corner always that dark? Was something wrong with the power tonight?

“It can just stay there,” said Sue, not liking how brittle her tone was. She forced a smile. “You and I are going to settle down and watch a movie. Would you like that?”

“Ball!” said Jackie again.

Sue went to pick him up and carry him to the sofa. As she knelt, though, something struck her in the shoulder. Jackie squealed with laughter and pointed at the corner where he’d thrown the ball–the ball that was now on the floor by her foot–the ball that had just flown through the air and struck her.

“Who’s there?” asked Sue, gathering up Jackie in her arms. He wiggled, trying to reach the ball. Absently, backing away from the shadows, she picked it up and handed it to him.

Jackie reared back, ball in hand.

“No, Baby, don’t–” Sue began.

But Jackie had already flung the ball back into the corner.

Sue tensed up and placed a hand on her commlock, ready to bolt at any moment.

Jackie pointed at the corner and said, “Boy!”

“What?” demanded Sue. “What do you mean?” She tried to smile and ruffled his hair. “You’re the only boy in this room, silly.”

Jackie pointed again. “Boy!”

There was a laugh. From the corner of the room, there was the clear, genuine laugh of a boy at play, a young teen, perhaps. In any other circumstance, it would be a beautiful sound, a welcoming sound. It caused Sue’s blood to chill. There were no other boys on Alpha.

When the ball flew back from the shadows again, under greater force this time, Sue gave a cry. She fumbled for her commlock, dropped it, then had the inspiration to use the reading lamp on the side table. Turning it on, she turned its head on its flexible neck and washed the corner in light.

No one was there.

Out in the hallway, she heard footsteps, and that same boyish laugh.

“Who are you?” she shouted, and Jackie began to cry. Shushing him, patting his back, she made for the door. She would not play the hysterical mother. She would confront this mystery and deal with it. She would make Jack and Jackie proud of her.

The door opened at her approach, as it was programmed to. She didn’t even think to scoop up the commlock. Carrying Jackie on one hip, she ran out into the bright corridor. Seeing no one, she ran toward the corner intersection. As she approached the comm post in its center, thinking to alert security, the lights went out.

The corridors outside her unit had no windows. There was not even starlight to light her way. And there was something in the shadows.

“Is someone there?” she called out.

Again, the boy laughed. She backed away from the sound and–no! There were footsteps behind her. She whirled, not knowing which direction she finally pointed herself, and ran. She collided with a body, arms grabbed her.

Sue screamed, and Jackie cried anew.

A light flipped on, the flashlight setting on a commlock. It struck her eyes and blinded her for a moment. As two hands held her firmly, a familiar voice said, “Sue, calm down!”

She looked up, the glare fading, and saw the familiar features of Michael Keel, the Eagle pilot who lived next door. “Oh, God,” she sobbed, and fell against his chest.

He wrapped a consoling arm around her, and she reveled in the feeling. To have someone reach out to her, not be afraid to touch her; to be treated as a human being, not as a widow, not as a victim of alien infestation–it was almost worth the terror.

Mike lifted her face and asked gently, “What did you see?”

“I didn’t see it,” said Sue, “I heard it. It was–”

Another boyish laugh sounded. Mike directed his commlock’s light in a circle around the intersection. Sue’s breath caught as she saw a flash of bare skin, and, for the briefest of moments, a face. It was a boy, a teen, with hair so dark it blended with the shadows, wearing white breeches and a cape–some minimalist approximation of a Flash Gordon costume. He smiled at her.

He disappeared.

Mike palmed his commlock and keyed the alarm button. “Security,” he said, “to residence area 17B.”

* * *

Victor Bergman swore quietly as the comm post behind him blared, demanding attention. He was neither an impatient nor a profane man, usually, but tonight he had set the “do not disturb” mode on his commlock and had been immersed in work, developing refinements to the protective force field he’d designed months ago. It was a pet project, a gift, he hoped, to help keep his friends alive in the years to come.

He did not look up. “Who is it?”

“Victor,” said the familiar voice of John Koenig. “I’m guessing I caught you in the middle of something.”

“You are guessing correctly,” said Victor, but he couldn’t help smiling. He turned around now. Koenig would not bypass a privacy setting without good cause.

“Sorry, but something’s up. Several reports of possible intruder activity, accompanied by power fluctuations. Kano’s so spooked he’s thinking of power-cycling Computer.”

Bergman pursed his lips. “Signs of the Apocalypse indeed. But John, I’ve seen no irregularities with Computer this evening.”

“Kano says it was speaking to him, calling him by name, and spouting nonsense. And Sue Crawford claims an imaginary boy was trying to play catch with Jackie.”

“I think Sue and Kano need to be prescribed an extra sleep shift.”

On the tiny screen, Koenig grinned. “You sound like Helena.”

“Sensible woman, Dr. Russell,” agreed Bergman. “All right, John, I’ll help Kano run a complete diagnostic. And have Joan Conway get me the logs from the generating area. But first, I’m going to write down what I still remember of tonight’s calculations.”

Koenig winced. He knew how frustrating it was to Bergman to be interrupted. “Sorry, Victor.”

“I imagine I’ll survive. And I’ll be in Main Mission directly.”

The monitor flashed back to the familiar Alpha wallpaper, and Bergman picked up a pad to make notes. He could have dictated to the commlock, and thus into Computer’s perms, but he let his assistants take care of that. Victor Bergman had been born as the Nazis were still bombing London, and technology, while he was no stranger to it, did not interface well with his personal habits.

“You think I’m not real.”

At first, Bergman thought the comm post had reactivated; but the voice was not Koenig’s. It was not the voice of anyone Bergman knew. It was the voice of a boy, just pubescent, from the sound of it. He turned to see its owner.

It was, indeed, a boy. Slightly shorter than Bergman, but gaining the height that came with adolescence. He wore a costume of sorts, white pants, a cape. His eyes were so clear and blue that they almost seemed to glow.

“Would you be our phantom ballplayer?” asked Bergman.

A smile played about the boy’s lips. Bergman recognized the set of the mouth, the twinkle in the eye, from many years of freshman intro classes. This was a mischievous one.

“Who are you?” he asked easily, taking a step forward. “How did you come to be here?”

The boy’s eyes widened, and he stiffened. “Everything’s about to change,” he said.

Then, as if he had never been there, he was gone.

* * *

John Koenig would have liked to have been in bed. It was past 2200, base time, and he was especially tired this evening. When Sandra had contacted him, however, and told him of Kano’s fears, he knew he would not be sleeping soon. He was in Main Mission now, reading through accounts of sightings, power outages, practical jokes.

“It’s like having a damned poltergeist on the base,” he muttered to himself. He tried not to think of Dan Mateo, dead now, and the very real ghost that had recently visited them.

Victor Bergman came into Main Mission, moving with purpose, calling out his name.

Koenig stood and came to meet him. Bergman had an artificial heart, and was not supposed to exert himself. “I didn’t tell you to run, Victor. Helena would have my head if you–”

The Professor seized Koenig’s extended hand with force. Taking a breath, he said, “I saw him, John. I saw the boy. Must be the one Sue Crawford saw. He appeared in my lab.”

Koenig’s initial impulse was disbelief, but this was Victor Bergman, his oldest, sanest friend. “Couldn’t it be some sort of trick?” Koenig asked.

Victor started to reply, but was interrupted by a bright flash from behind him. He turned toward his office. Standing by his desk was a figure that could only be the boy Bergman and Sue Crawford claimed to have seen. This could be no trick. There were no males this age on Alpha, and the state of dress precluded a girl playing a trick.

Koenig stalked forward. “Who are you?” he demanded.

The boy looked up at him, panic in his eyes. He could not answer before another voice called out, thunderous, ringing in Koenig’s ears and seeming to emanate from the very air.

“Pretender!” was the only word the voice spoke.

It cowed the boy. He crouched low, looking all around him, as if being attacked by a flock of birds of prey. In his frenzy, he made eye contact with Koenig again and croaked out a plea.

“Please. Hide me.”

Koenig reached out a steadying hand, but, before he could make contact with the frightened stranger, there was another flash of light, like ball lightning, centered on the boy. Within its brilliance, the new arrival crumpled.

As the light faded, Koenig sprang forward and knelt, gingerly touching the boy’s flesh with the back of his hand, in case any sort of charge remained from the blast. The skin which met his fingers was cold. Koenig pressed two fingers to the smooth throat and probed, but could find no pulse.

He looked up at Bergman in amazement. “I think he’s dead.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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