Twenty-one years ago Captain James Shepard was given his first command, the Terran Stellar Naval vessel Leopold. The ship was a Mengala-Class frigate, one of a new breed of cyber-assisted ships of the fleet. Equipped with an artificial intelligence system and avatar called Assyl, it was outfitted as a science vessel by the Wuland-Yelani Corporation. A ship of her class would normally have a crew of over one hundred but with the new A.I. system most of the tasks were automated. This left Captain Shepard in charge of twelve crewmen, four marines and thirty-one scientists. The Chief Scientist was Doctor Adolf Kleinler, a specialist in the fields of xenogenetics, biochemistry and cybernetics. Captain Shepard's orders were to let the research team conduct their studies without interference.

The ship’s mission was to head out to the abandoned colony world Oberon and discover why the terraforming process had failed to convert the ice-world into a habitable planet. Upon arrival on the planet's surface the survey team found several small aliens, all of them apparently dead. Within a few hours samples were on board and were sent straight to the science labs on Deck 11.

Secret Orders

Unknown to everyone else on the ship Dr Kleinler, a lifelong employee of the Wuland-Yelani Corporation, had secret orders. He was to return any alien life forms directly to the corporation, not allowing them to be seized by the military under any circumstances. To ensure this he was given override codes for many of the ship's functions and security systems.

Studying xeno-biology was only a small part of the Leopold's scientific mission. As the rest of the science team was busy assessing planetary conditions such as atmospheric gases and volcanic activity, Dr Kleinler was left alone to start work on the aliens. During his research Kleinler noted the aliens not only carried Earth-origin DNA but also a virus he recognised as being created by the Wuland-Yelani corporation. The doctor now knew why he had been given secret orders. An experiment by the Wuland-Yelani must have gone wrong (or possibly right) and led to the loss of the colony. Whatever happened, the corporation did not want the Terran Stellar Navy finding out.

The first warning the rest of the crew had of the impending problems was the activation of the quarantine alarm from Kleinler's lab. When the security team arrived they found Doctor Kleinler unconscious. Quickly revived he explained an alien sample he was working on had seemingly come back to life, bit him and escaped. He had activated the alarm but then passed out. The doctor was taken to the medical bay on Deck 2 while the Captain worked with Assyl and her avatar to organise a hunt for the alien.

While everyone was busy chasing the alien, Doctor Kleinler recovered from his attack and headed straight towards the A.I.M. With security and Assyl's avatar occupied with the alien hunt he had no problems getting into the room. Accessing the core he ran programs that had been secretly placed into the A.I. by the company. These initiated an upload of information on his research from the science labs' computers and then wiped them. On completing the program he returned to Deck 11 to destroy the paper records of his research.

While burning the documents he noticed strange lesions on his skin and started to examine them. His scans revealed that he had been infected by the genetically engineered virus carrying the alien DNA. Realising the infection would be fatal, he returned to his quarters and attempted to upload his personality to the ship's computer. This remarkable scientific feat was only theoretically possible but whether or not it succeeded it would certainly be fatal. Working desperately as the infection consumed him he was mostly successful, creating a new A.I. of himself within the ship's computers. The mind of Doctor Kleinler was warped by the upload procedure and lost any sense of humanity.

Going Downhill Fast

After seventeen hours the crew managed to find and kill the alien life form. In that time it had laid eggs all over the ship, grown from cat-sized to near human-sized and killed three crew members. Their bodies were ejected into space along with the alien. The scientists tried to persuade the captain to remain in orbit but his mind was set. Captain Shepard ordered the ship to return to Tau Ceti but the Quantum Flux Drive reported a fault. Chief Engineer Conrad Heinlein went outside in the shuttle craft to examine the external drive sections, and discovered that a strange biological mass was obstructing key sensors.

Kleinler A.I. inherited the late doctor's secret orders but became corrupted. His instructions to return to Tau Ceti with alien samples morphed into a paternal instinct to protect and aid the aliens, including taking them to Tau Ceti so they could claim the system as their own. The Kleinler A.I. started hacking the ship's systems to aid the newly-hatched and ravenously hungry aliens. Under attack from aliens and fighting a losing control over vital ship's systems, Captain Shepard gathered the crew together, formed defensive barricades and sent hunting parties to expel the aliens from his ship. Chief Heinlein was ordered to fix the drive but remain off the ship until the threat had been contained. That was the last time the Chief heard from his crewmates.

Last Man Standing

After twelve hours without contact Chief Heinlein redocked and, armed only with his engineering tools, returned to the ship via the Shuttle Bay. The engineer started searching for answers and quickly found Assyl wandering the ship. The aliens had not been interested in her mechanical body but she was struggling against an unknown hacker. The effort of fighting multiple electronic battles simultaneously meant her physical avatar was distracted and of little help to Heinlein.

He took her down to Main Engineering, collecting an armoured vacuum suit along the way, and performed an analysis of the ship. The aliens were on every deck and the number of life signs were increasing at an alarming rate. It also appeared that the hostile A.I. was taking over all critical systems. He did his best to keep control of the ship but every trick he knew was beaten nearly as fast as he could use it. He went to his last option, a manual shutdown of the plasma conduits to the in-system drives so the ship couldn’t leave orbit. Trapped in the planet's gravity well the ship would be unable to engage its Quantum Flux Drive. Next, with Assyl backing him up, he went outside to seal the airlocks. Having seen what the aliens did to the crew, Heinlein was taking no chances.

It was on his and Assyl's return to the shuttle bay that the Kleinler A.I. made its first attempt to kill him. The moment the shuttle docked and reconnected to the ship the A.I. started to overload the craft's power systems. Heinlein and Assyl escaped out of the shuttle into the airlock before the shuttle's engines exploded.

Heinlein now prepared his escape route by rigging the doors to the corvette hangar on deck 10, a safety measure against aliens and Kleinler who he anticipated would try everything to stop him leaving. If he could deactivate the ship's main power source of power, the Quantum Flux drive, the ship would be unable to power both the A.I.M. and the orbital thrusters needed to maintained a stable orbit. Safety protocols would force the A.I.M. to shut down in order to protect the ship. This would prevent Assyl from functioning but also stop the hostile A.I. from getting full control of the ship.

In Power Control Heinlein started the shutdown sequence for the Quantum Flux drive. Unfortunately the Kleinler A.I. was not done yet. As Heinlein finished the process a power surge ran through the control console and electrocuted him just as the ship began to power down. The electricity surged into Assyl as well, damaging her cybernetic mind and wiping her recent memory files. Nearly everything since the first alien outbreak was lost. Heinlein's death did not stop the shutdown and as part of the shutdown procedure Assyl returned to the A.I.M. to reinstall herself into the computer core.

A Digital Life

As the computer core shut down, the Kleinler A.I. acted quickly and diverted enough emergency power to keep himself running. It would leave the A.I. awake and almost powerless but it was enough. He adjusted the life support system to increase CO2 levels forcing the aliens into hibernation and preventing them from starving to death. At the same time the A.I. created a protocol in the life-support system to restore normal levels when another ship was detected. Its theory was that a rescue team would eventually arrive and restore power to the ship. Once that was done Kleinler would be free to ensure the ship returned to Tau Ceti.

Unfortunately when contact was lost with the Leopold the corporation was suspicious. Rather than risk the military finding out about Kleinler's secret orders they declared the ship lost in a Flux accident. After ten years of waiting for rescue the Kleinler A.I. came up with a new plan. His electronic form, his genius and his madness all combined to create a breakthrough in Quantum Flux technology. With a simple radio signal he could destablise Quantum Drives, forcing them out of Flux Space. Now the Kleinler A.I. could set about stopping any ship that passed nearby. However, in this remote corner of space there was no traffic.

A further eleven years passed before someone at the Corporation decided to look at Oberon again. With the original mission now ancient history (and blameable on people who had retired a long time ago) the corporation decided to investigate the ship and possible aliens. Of course, they did not tell the salvage crew about this, just the possible location of the ship and instructions to find out more. When the salvage ship Oculas neared the Oberon system Kleinler's radio signal did indeed cause the flux drive to become destabilised, but due to a miscalculation the drive then failed catastrophically.

After twenty-one long years sitting in cold space the Leopold's sensors detected a single shuttle craft with life signs aboard. Kleinler's prepared protocol activated, normal life support systems resumed and the aliens slowly started to wake. The Kleinler A.I. could almost grin. Finally a way to escape this world and take the aliens to Tau Ceti.

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