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Archaea

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Archaea

By Dain White

 

The Archaea Collection, by Dain White:

Archaea

 

Janis

 

Red

 

Emwan

 

 

 

 

 

© 2011 by Dain White. All Rights Reserved.

No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the author.

 

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction.

Any resemblance of characters to actual persons,

living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

 

Revised February, 2012

Revised February, 2013

Revised November, 2014

Revised March, 2016

Dedication

 

Archaea was written with the kind support and assistance of anyone who would hold still long enough, of course this includes just about everyone I came into contact with, but specifically, my family and friends.

I am deeply indebted to the following people, who are each especially deserving of special credit for their tireless, kind support and endless advice: my dearest Angie, Zahn, Ava, Gail, Sera, Rod, Carrie, Ivy, Doc, John, and a fair amount of total strangers.

As one might expect, this book is written in homage to many people in my life, and contains characterizations from many of the most standout individuals I have known: Luke, Gail, Tom, Steve, Rob, Kevin, Bud, Shaun, Shawn, Les, James, Rod, Zahn, and of course, Angie.

The keen observer will note homage and sincere flattery in the form of blatant imitation of a number of prominent science fiction authors, who shall mostly remain nameless, as we all know who they are.

In loving memory, this book is dedicated to RAH, who inspired me to reach for the stars, and tell the story.

Chapter 1

 

[email protected]:35 Steven Pauline

 

I knew Captain Dak Smith from my early days in the Academy. While we were all struggling to make the cut, he was blasting brightly through everything they threw at him.

Of course, that meant by law, we were compelled to hate him.

It was hard though, as he was very likable, and we all knew he was going to be picked for officer school on the first day. He had a way about him; that presence of mind and environment, an alert clarity of vision that none of us seemed to possess. He knew where he was, where everything else was, and what he had to do… and always seemed to be doing it before anyone else realized it had to be done.

I’ve always been a geek, and was selected for advanced tech training early on in the Academy. My experience with nanotech fabricants in school helped, and my league-winning scores in various logic camps surely didn’t hurt. I wasn’t much of a people person. My social skills were nearly non-existent, and I was far more comfortable with logicspace than meatspace – but there wasn’t anyone else at the Academy that understood tiered architecture and tech like I did.

Our academy days were filled with classes in all manner of tech, from exobiology and atmospheric chem, to fusar physics and engineering… math for the most part – and lots of it.

We were all guided along through the program with an equal amount of pain, suffering, and fear. In anything to do with structured logic sequencing or any sort of electrotech, I was top of the class. I had magic fingers, and a brain wired to think in terms of iterative loops and multidimensional arrays of linked lists – I lived, breathed, and even dreamed in code.

And I had the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to work in an environment like the Academy, surrounded by people of high intellect and working on systems that I didn’t know existed. I knew military tech was good, but I had no idea what I was going to have my hands on as a freshly shaved scrub right out of the gate. I was familiar with the theory of a bionetic computer, but I had no idea they were actually being made – and I had no idea that someday, I would be writing code on them.

My name is Steven Pauline, and I am currently serving as the technologist of the Archaea, a panther-class long-haul frigate built long before any of us were born. After my brief stint in the service, I drifted from system to system looking for work, holding down the occasional job as a systems specialist.

There wasn’t much I wouldn’t do, and not much I couldn’t do with the type of tech in use at the time. Mostly I was calibrating nav or running diags on old-mode systems, mostly software, though I dabbled a bit in the hardware aspects as well. I had built a quiet reputation as a guy that can hack what can’t be hacked, and code what can’t be coded.

It was after many years of struggling to make ends meet, that I ran into Captain Smith again, this time in a darklight bar in Luna Freeside.

Captain Smith had contacted me for a consult on a glitch he was experiencing with the core processor he had installed into the Archaea, and as an old school chum, I agreed to give it a look. I was between jobs, and starting to look desperately at the blast pans on a regular basis, wondering how I was going to haul grav off that rock. The Archaea seemed like as good of an opportunity as any, and he was a first-rate captain, cut from the same cloth as the old legends.

The Archaea was a beauty – just an amazing vessel. You wouldn’t know it from looking at it, unless you knew what you were looking at. She had lines, sure, but they were secondary to the beauty I saw below the surface. She was cutting-edge bionet, all the way, with a wetnet processor core. She had to have been military at some point. I hadn’t seen systems like this since my days in the fleet.

On the surface, the Archaea was a pretty sleek light frigate with very nice lines, nothing too fancy, mostly dark grey and black in color. Clearly she was designed for atmospherics, as her hull and superstructure were far more aero than you would normally see in an intra-system frigate.

One thing I noticed, she was built for speed. She wasn’t heavily armed or armored, at least not that you could tell at first glance – she had the standard topside repeater turrets most ships have for close-in defense, and what looked like new Duron ablative armoring. While that’s adequate for the occasional meteoric or planetfall, that’s hardly what you’d need to go up against a real gunship.

What you didn’t see until you got inside, was the central cannon, as it was covertly hidden behind a hull port right in the bow. Apparently, the Archaea was originally built as a ship killer – they took a nova-class beam weapon, hooked it up to a tokamak generator, and then built a ship around it.

Captain Smith found her on Darkside Station and optioned her right as she was about to go into escrow – she has been his pride and joy ever since, a real labor of love.

He had made some pretty impressive modifications to the Archaea by the time I came aboard. Besides replacing the original ceramic ablatives with regenerative Duron, the power plant was heavily upgraded and all internal systems had been updated to bionet. When I first set eyes on her, I was in love.

Bionetic systems, also called ‘wetnet’, are a pretty recent creation, I guess. For those of you who aren’t fluent in geek, wetnet is a pseudo-biologic system that functions as engineered cells, transmitting information in unbelievable bandwidth, similar to a neural network. Their upkeep is pretty minimal, as they are synthetic organics. Gone are the days of ph-balancing and voltage damping – once the proper connection has been formed, we plug it in, turn it on, and away it goes.

The core processor used by the Archaea is really nice. I am not sure where the captain got his hands on it, but its architecture is amazing – and I am not sure if we even have tools that can calibrate the speed of the processors, to be honest. It’s wetware, of course, all the best systems are these days. The core handles systems ship-wide, from door seals, to fire suppression and navigation. When I started poking at it, the Archaea had a rudimentary expert system interface – obviously that had to change.

My original consult with Captain Smith was to troubleshoot what seemed to be anomalous behavior in regards to how the core evaluated cooling for the slipspace generator. The ship was running hot, and when you’re pushing petawatts into slipspace, you don’t want hot.

Luckily, it was easy to spot that a logic block originally written to interface the core with the upgraded powerplant was using an outmoded library, resulting in a calibration error. I was able to rewrite that block pretty easily, and add nearly 7% to the operating efficiency of the cooling system – of course, with more cooling, more power can be put to speed, and 7% faster when you're already fast as hell, that's money in the bank.

The captain and I caught up on old times and hit it off, and when I asked him if he was looking for a technologist he hired me on the spot. The pay is pretty much non-existent, but it got me off that rock and into tech work – he even promised I could continue development on my first love, a project that nearly got me kicked out of the Academy – Janis, my pet AI.

Of course, everyone knows unlicensed AI is against the law, and you’d be a fool to even write a fuzzy system in any Unet-connected machine.

Not that it’s unheard of, of course.

Gloms, those massive corporations that control nearly every aspect of our lives these days, are reportedly using them to get the edge on their competition – and I’ve always heard rumors of military AI cores, though in my time in the service I sure didn’t get to meet one.

When you are sifting through mountains of data and trying to make sense of it on a real-time basis, AI is the best way to analyze trends and stay competitive. Oh, expert systems are used, but there’s really no comparison between a rule-set governed expert system, and a self-aware sentience.

Homegrown AI is about as forbidden as anything you can get involved in these days.

On the Archaea, I was given the opportunity and a perfect environment to push development of Janis over the edge, so to speak. What I had when I signed on, was a very good expert system – a library of interconnected expert systems, in fact – but not a true AI. With the Captain’s blessing, I was given free rein to push that boundary.

What I saw as a personal development milestone, he saw as an upgrade.

We were both right.

 

[email protected]:25 Captain Dak Smith

 

In the service, I excelled in everything they asked me to do. I was a real go-getter, a problem solver, and a people person. They tapped me for officer school right out of the gate, and I promoted to captain younger than anyone before or since.

Some might think I had help, others might think I cheated, but the real secret to my success was coffee, and the ability to think without much sleep.

I was one of those type-A personalities that has to know every detail about every detail. I am still obsessively detail-oriented, and blessed (or cursed) with an eidetic memory. You can show me a schematic, and I can return the details 6 months later in near-perfect detail, however, without a cup of coffee, I can’t hardly remember where I put my shoes.

When I first made Captain, I thought the future was bright. I figured I’d be an Admiral and commanding a fleet, but the hard reality of the service wore me down. I joined thinking I would be defending systems against aggressors, rescuing colonists and fighting slavers, but my time in the service was spent assisting one faceless bureaucracy or another.

Gloms control everything these days – everything in near-space, and most things on the fringe. Prices are set, supply lines defined, people and even entire planets conscripted in support of these massive corporate conglomerations. Slavery might be illegal, but when you see an ‘indentured’ colony mining reactives on an airless rock, it’s hard to tell the difference.

In the last year of my tour, they were putting on the pressure for me to re-up, hinting at promotions, pay grades, promising this, that, and the other – but at that point, it was all starting to feel like a charade.

The uniform I grew up dreaming about felt itchy, the adventures in space turned out to be endless hours in orbit and endless hours of paperwork. None of the work was particularly rewarding. I started thinking about life after the service, what I would do with the skills I had, and realized there wasn’t really much waiting for me.

Planet-side, I would be working to survive as a thrall to some glom. Maybe I’d be able to take on a shipping route – but after having patrolled a few of them in my time, I knew I’d die of boredom eventually. Hauling freight from point A to point B and then back to point A, that’s not the future I wanted.

So what then? What could I look forward to? I wanted to capture the sense of adventure and exploration, to be an independent. I needed to live free and travel where I wanted, when I wanted. All I needed was a ship, and a crew.

There were a handful of people in my command I wanted to take with me after I left the service, but the ship was another matter. With my retirement pay I’d never be able to afford even an inter-system runabout, but I wanted something that could navigate through known space and even to the fringe.

It wasn’t until a few months after the end of my tour that I saw the Archaea, tethered to the south end of a orbital station on darkside Luna. She looked to be the right size of ship, but she was rough – there was more wrong with her than right. When I first laid eyes on her, most of her ablatives were missing, and what remained looked pretty grim. She may have been suited for atmo at some point, but you’d die falling planet-side in the condition she was in.

From what I gathered from the stationmaster, her previous owners had tried their hand at using her as a mining ship. With her main gun, she was well suited for demo on asteroids. She could pop them open pretty easily and had a pretty decent hold for any reactives that were collected – but the miners had gone bust, and the concern that owned the note on her had also folded in the never-ending boom and bust of near-space exploration.

By the time I saw her, she was in line to be scrapped and on sale to the highest bidder – of which there were none.

One night after a few drinks, I offered the stationmaster her moorage fees plus 10%, and promised to take her out of his jurisdiction within a standard month. He just about kissed me. Apparently, he thought that was a great deal for bad property, and when I got on board I just about abandoned ship in agreement.

Luckily, on my initial inspection I brought along my engineer and closest friend, Gene Mitchell. There wasn’t anything made by man that Gene couldn’t figure out, fix, rebuild, upgrade or modify. The poor guy had the social skills of a sack of potatoes, but hand him a pile of gears, and he could turn it into a chronometer.

Gene and I had been on ships together since the Academy, and over the years we’ve learned to trust each other implicitly. He trusted me to make decisions that kept us alive, and I trusted him to maintain the mechanicals that kept us alive. As both of us are still alive, we must be doing something right.

Gene’s reaction to the Archaea was uncharacteristically optimistic. Oh sure, I could see the potential in her, but he saw something more – he saw the slipspace gear, the tokamak, the internals, and everything in between. Like one of those pictures on holo that you have to squint to see the pony, he saw a masterpiece where everyone else saw a scarred hulk covered in carbon and slag.

He was the one that convinced me that she’d make a good ship for what we wanted to do with her, and it’s a testament to how much I trusted his judgment that I went along with it.

Inside, the ship was a mess. Every square inch of her was covered in grime, grit, and dirt. Asteroid mining is messy work, but I wasn’t prepared for the sight and smell. Gene looked past that though, delving into every nook and cranny of the old ship like a child on Christmas. His enthusiasm for the project was infectious.

Before long, he had me envisioning a sleek blockade runner punching holes through space-time between systems, going wherever we wanted. Unfortunately, when I opened my eyes, I saw way too many layers of dirt and dust to keep the fantasy going.

The first week on board, he and I went through the ship turning everything inside out. We took nearly everything apart, cleaned it, and put it all back together again. Gene re-wired, re-tooled, calibrated, and monitored anything and everything inside that ship. Once most of the trash had been cleared out and the heavy lifting was done, I left Gene to his tinkering and set about contracting for a new ablative skin for the old bird.

Gene recommended Duron, naturally. Duron Ablatives are the absolute best regenerative atmo-hardened armor you can get, and far more expensive than I could afford. Luckily, I had recently done a stint locking down the shipping route for the glom that controlled Duron, and they owed me some favors.

I called a few people, and made some promises that I wasn’t sure I could live up to, and they sent out a rep to look over the ship. He was all toothy smiles and warm handshakes, and offered to re-work the entire ship in 5 centimeter Duron. I negotiated for 15, as I didn’t know for sure what we’d have to face out on the fringe.

In the end, they did great work. The ship was spun up and coated in 15 centimeters of hardened, regenerative Duron that should be more than adequate for inter-system impact and even atmo for a gas giant, if needed.

Gene was genuinely ecstatic about it, and once they were finished, he let me in on a secret he had discovered about Duron. When energized far beyond factory recommendations, the material becomes hardened to an absolute state that can absorb nearly any impact. He had been using it for a few years experimentally as interior coating for tokamak casings on the big capital ships we served on in the fleet, and had been sitting quiet on this discovery for quite some time.

Since Gene had been able to upgrade the Archaea with an even bigger destroyer-class tokamak to power her main gun, he had a nearly unlimited power source. With 15 centimeters of Duron to charge, we were pretty well protected against just about anything we might come across – from fast mover meteroids, to hyper-velocity kinetic railgun ordinance. The Archaea was going to last, and look good doing it.

Gene’s second great triumph in the Archaea was the upgrade of her wired systems backbone. He was something of a horse-trader in the various stations we visited, and was always on the lookout for new parts or materials he could use. People have many hobbies aboard a ship – some paint, others play music – but Gene tinkered. The best type of person to have as an engineer, I’ve always thought.

During our time in the service, Gene had managed to get his hands on a nexus core that had been scrapped out of a destroyer, and had it in storage. He wanted to wire it into the Archaea, as it would greatly improve our fire-control and systems capabilities. I realized this would be a significant upgrade, but its true significance would prove to be astounding.

He must have called in every favor, because he shortly had our little bird fitted out with the latest generation of wetnet to go along with the core. I asked him what he planned to do with that much computing power, as it was probably enough to run an entire station, or even a planetary network, and he just smiled.

He was always of the mind, that it’s better to have, than need. Of course, he’s right – as a result, the Archaea was born again hard, and almost ready to go. We only needed to tie up a few hundred loose ends.

 

[email protected]:55 Gene Mitchell

 

I love a challenge, and the Archaea was one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to really dig in and make a difference. She was the very definition of ‘challenge’. Dirty, unkempt, un-maintained, and barely operational, but what a ship! I loved her the first time I laid eyes on her. She was perfect for what we needed, and the price was right considering her condition.

My first glimpse into the hatch was so horrible that with therapy, I may someday be able to block it from memory. What I saw was a dark hole, barely lit with a semi-dead flickering flouro on the side of the corridor. The walls were so grimy that determining the original color was impossible; they appeared to have been formed from compressed dirt.

Trash of every possible type cluttered nearly every nook and cranny – grime, dust and rotting fuzzy bunches of grimy muck that may have once been a sandwich but had since evolved into a semi-sentient being looking for representation in the galactic federation.

So what was it about the Archaea that I liked? What about it caught my attention?

The engines, of course.

This ship was built for speed, unlike anything I had seen. The fastest corvettes in the service would have anything on this ship. The Archaea was nearly all engine, with lean, shark-like lines giving the impression that she was about to slip her mooring and leap away.

She had decent capacity in the holds and a solid and well-built internal structure, and best of all, the slipspace generator amidships spoke to my engineers eye of massive, unbelievable power systems hidden inside. With that kind of power plant, you can make a compressed pile of rotten dirt into a magnificent star-faring chariot – which may have been what they did, from the looks of it.

The grime and grit were only skin deep, however. My initial inspection of the internals showed me that while much was outdated and not up to my standards for precision or mechanicals, they were mostly functioning and reasonably within safe parameters.

Safety is pretty important when your ship is hammering vortexes of collapsed gravity waveforms as it blasts through the fringe. Not that we were going to just firewall the slipspace generator right off the dock, of course. Well, I guess I couldn’t really say that for sure, knowing the captain.

Dak and I tackled that ship like the Emperor was waiting dockside for a tour. We tore into every possible access hatch, port, cover, and where there wasn’t a hatch, we cut and installed one. Most of the core systems like enviro and life support systems were pretty solid, and didn’t need too much to bring them up to speed, though we did integrate some new tech we liberated from the tyranny and oppression of their previous owners. In other words, what we couldn’t beg or borrow, we flat out stole. Military supply being what it is, in the service you could get anything you wanted, if you knew who to ask.

You can’t even imagine the thoughts that went through my mind when I first went forward from the hold and discovered the Archaea was built around that gun. What a beast that thing is! I’ve been in ships a hundred times the size of the Archaea that didn’t have a main gun like she did.

I think, to be honest, that gun was what sold the captain – but as much as he may want to drop the hammer on some poor unsuspecting pirate in deep space, I want to make sure it wouldn’t vaporize the chunk of existence we occupied.

We definitely needed a professional on the roster to work that problem, and luckily for us we found Jane Short, the tiny little queen of all that is murderous and vicious, a first-rate weapon tech specialist. She secretly loves it when you call her Shorty, by the way.

She’s an engineer like me, so we have to play nice. She has her area where the gun geeks play, and I have the real engineering spaces – we stay to our sections mostly.

She came in pretty much like I did with guns blazing, and immediately tore everything apart and then rebuilt. Luckily, we had updated the wetnet throughout the ship, or she would have probably broken…err, fixed that too.

We’re both pretty impressed with Pauli’s work. His code was impressive, definitely next-gen sort of stuff and super easy to work with on our end. He’s a nice enough kid too, one of those spooky-smart types, but easy to talk to.

At this point, I thought we’d probably survive the shakedown cruise, as long as the captain didn’t decide to firewall the engines or fire that gun. Knowing him as I do, however, we have to plan for him to run everything up to maximum rating and beyond.

 

[email protected]:23 Jane Short

 

My days were getting shorter. I wouldn’t put it past Pauli or his ‘expert system’ to intentionally mess with my clocks to push us to the breaking point getting our weapons systems operational, but the captain insisted I was being paranoid.

It sure seemed to me like my days were getting shorter, and my backlog was getting longer.

My name is Jane Short, but don’t call me ‘Shorty’. I am over 5’2” tall (by a smidge) but that’s beside the point. It’s trite, annoying, not funny, and predictably, no one listens or cares. Everyone on this ship calls me ‘Shorty’, despite (and probably because of) the irritation it causes me. You would think grown intelligent men would be more respectful of a lethal weapon, even one my size.

I am the weapons specialist on the Archaea, and have known Captain Smith going on ten years now. I was between jobs, and a Unet posting he made recently caught my eye. He was looking for an armament specialist with a nova-class certification, so obviously I was interested – opportunities to work on systems like that just don’t exist for civvies. I really enjoyed working with Captain Smith in the service, and all in all, it looked like a dream opportunity for a woman like me.

When I first saw the Archaea, I wondered if Captain Smith had his specs confused. What I saw was a long-haul frigate, about 100 meters long with top-mounted kinetic railers, which was pretty standard repeater turret armament. There are nova-class repeaters, but this ship clearly didn’t have them.

Once I stepped inside, however, I saw my reason for being. My heart double skipped, I gasped, I heard tweeting birds, hell, I nearly swooned and almost wept – I was in love. The Archaea was built around one of the biggest and most powerful nova-class beam weapons ever made. I’m not talking about a giga or even a tera, but a petawatt emitter – the kind you could use to slice a moon into itty-bitty pieces.

I couldn’t wait to light it up.

The Archaea is laid out in rings that rotate around a central core. When she was built, pseudomass technology hadn’t matured to the point where artificial gravity would be feasible. For a ship her size, it wouldn’t make much sense, in any case.

On the surface or in drydock, you enter the ship through the main cargo bay via a belly loading ramp. At the top of the ramp is a reasonably large hold, set up well for modular containers, with an internal track-mounted crane hoist. Along a catwalk at the forward end of the hold is an internal lock that leads into the gun deck that is all null gravity when we’re underway. Aft of the hold are the access hatches to the engineering space where the valve twisters and wrench monkeys live.

Moving forward through the core, there are three hatched openings in the deck that lead down to our ring spaces. Each ring of the ship is self-supporting, and can be isolated from ship systems for some time, in the event of catastrophic systems failure or hull-breach.

Ring 3 holds the gallery, wardroom, and recreation area. Ring 2 has a medical bay, a reasonably well stocked lab that is mostly used to store various parts and other contraband, and a very well equipped machine shop. Ring 1 is crew quarters and officer country, though we don’t really live by rank on this ship. The captain is the Captain, and everyone else isn’t – that’s pretty much the way of it.

I live in ring 1 forward, in a nice little stateroom with all the amenities. I have a loft bunk with a desk and clothes locker underneath, a holoview panel with a cabin enviro unit opposite, and a tiny wall-mount sink for brushing my teeth (one tooth at a time, it’s pretty small) and even a mirror for getting angry at – if I stand on a stool.

No short jokes, please.

Moving forward in the central companionway, a hatch leads up to my gunnery station and beyond, to the top-mounted repeater turret compartment which houses the mechanicals and ammo ovens. Forward of my station, is the hatch leading to the bridge deck of the ship. In a firefight, which we have only simulated so far, the core of the ship is probably the safest place to be, though it might not be very comfortable. In our ramp-up tests for the main gun, the temperature jumped pretty high, and I can’t imagine what a prolonged battle might be like in there.

Chapter 2

 

[email protected]:23 Steven Pauline

 

My heart was in my throat as I stepped through the debugger for the bootstrap module I’ve been developing for so many years. The core of the Archaea is like an infinite pool of power, nothing I’ve built into it has even scratched the surface of what it is capable of – not that I haven’t tried!

I can’t say for sure how fast it really is, it may be faster than I could calculate to be honest. The speed of the core has enabled me to write some pretty interesting predictive modeling algorithms that utilize the sheer speed and processing power of the core to bend the response curve beyond real-time, making use of quantum mechanics to provide results literally faster than they’re requested, and then to fold those requests back into itself faster than they can be generated.

I have lost sleep wondering what might happen if this becomes self-aware.

Shorty was chomping at the bit for this predictive modeling and analysis engine. She was really excited for it to be extended to the fire-control and tracking systems for the repeaters. She wasn’t the only one – Gene was practically hanging on the back of my chair waiting for me to tell him it was ready for ship systems management.

To be able to have systems that don’t react, but act in advance of their need – that’s simply revolutionary in the field, and I’m really excited to be able to be a part of it.

Of course, my work isn’t limited to Janis development – there’s a ton of systems throughout the ship that were originally coded by what I can only assume was a monkey with a shock collar on – and the shock collar was clearly out of batteries.

We have systems that work, but only barely, and in a slow, limited capacity. Like the enviro module in ring 3 – it’s a simple logic controller that is supposed to monitor temperature and humidity according to the number of people in that zone, but is apparently changing the temperature depending on who is currently in ring 2, or maybe depending on the unknowable will of the gods, hard telling.

Its bug 284, and I’m working on it. Until then, Shorty may have to deal with some fly-away hair, not that she can even see it in her mirror. Maybe we could chip in and get her a step stool.

 

[email protected]:30 Captain Dak Smith

 

As we were getting close to the time where the stationmaster will be either cutting us adrift or taking me to section court for late fees, I called a meeting in the wardroom. I wanted to head for deep space as soon as possible, or at least to boost for a short bit around this system.

The Archaea looked good, far better than I thought it could at this point. Most of the interior had been cleaned or scrapped out, with new paint still wet in many places. The core companionway was well lit, and looked clean enough for an operating theater, nothing like the dark grime-crusted hole Gene and I experienced a few standard weeks ago.

Despite the progress we’d made, I still wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to haul mass out of there. Everyone had been so busy for the past few weeks; I hadn’t seen much of anyone. I definitely needed to touch base with my crew.

Once everyone settled and the witty banter had slowed down, I called the meeting to order.

“Thank you, everyone, for taking a break from your schedules to meet with me. I know you have all been working pretty much around the clock, and hopefully, I’ll be able to get you some sleep cycles soon.”

“Like I am ever going to be able to sleep with the air dry as a desert,” stated Shorty, her hair slightly less frazzled than her patience with enviro.

“I am hoping the bug will be fixed soon, possibly today,” Pauli added, looking at Gene and adding “If the problem is software and not pathing in the wetnet…”

“Pauli, I’ve gone through the routing in that section over and over, and I just can’t find anything out of spec,” Gene said patiently. “I can’t rule it out completely, but I really think there’s something happening in the logicspace tier.”

“Folks – I want to be concerned about your hair and comfort, but we have bigger issues…” I paused for a sip of coffee and time to haul my standard-issue Captains eyebrow to half-mast. “There are definitely some gremlins loose around here, and there probably always will be. What I really need to know is how close we are to being able to lift clear of this station.”

“Captain, we are done with structural testing of the tokamak casing, and the slipspace generators are testing well. I haven’t lit the fires yet, but I’ve kicked the tires, and I think we’ll probably not die a horrible death… Maybe not right away, in any case,” Gene remarked.

“Oh that’s good to hear, Gene… I mean…While I’m as fearless as any hero of the fringe spaceways, if there’s one thing I hate worse than dying, it’s dying in sight of a laughing stationmaster with my money in his pocket”

Everyone had a good laugh at that, until Shorty added “Well, we won’t die a horrible death, that’s for sure – it will probably happen faster than we can even realize. That nova cannon hasn’t been fired in a decade, and when it was in service last it wasn’t maintained, and hasn’t been maintained well at any point that I can tell.”

“Shorty, that’s a petawatt cannon, right?” I said. “We used to blast those off all the time in my day. They’re safe enough, right…I mean, how bad could it be?”

She flashed me a look of tender frustration. “Captain, you may understand what a petawatt is in theory, but to harness that amount of energy and turn it into a standing wave, then bounce it around a few trillion times in the focusing chamber until it finally blasts a hole through reality – well, let’s just say dry air isn’t the only thing keeping me awake at night.”

“But you are making progress, right?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, sure, we’re making progress. We’ve re-calibrated everything, the focusing ring, the accelerators, the cooling dampeners. The challenge isn’t in bringing the systems up to their designed spec, even with the hellish accuracy required for the calibration – the challenge is in understanding how those tolerances have been changed from a century of misuse and disrepair. It’s clear to me that the previous owners didn’t go broke – they just finally gave up from fear of pressing that shiny red button one more time. I wish some other people around here shared that fear,” she added, fixing me with a stern look.

“Hey, I’m the Captain. It’s my job to think long and hard about the responsibilities of our duty, our mission, our strengths, weaknesses, our tactical situation – and yes, when needed, to think about that shiny, silky-smooth red button.”

I was joking, but to be honest, brutally honest, I have to admit that button was probably the single most awe-inspiring thing on the Archaea, and I couldn’t wait to see what it did.

Gene pulled us all back to reality, however – as he does so well. “Shorty, and begging the Captain’s pardon, neither of you need to worry about vaporizing this sector of space, because you’ll probably be incandescent reactive ash the instant we light up the tokamak.”

“Tell me you’re joking, Gene,” I added, ratcheting the other eyebrow up a notch.

“Well, I am… somewhat,” he added, “I mean, we’re looking very good here structurally, and we’ve calibrated everything to the specifications we could find. Unfortunately, with all the modifications we’ve made both in software and hardware – we might be on reserve air with a broken tether, as they say…” he trailed off with a scowl.

“Gene, the code I’ve layered into the process controllers for the tokamak is top-notch, and certified bug free. I have built multiple redundancies, failover capabilities, error gating and interrupt controllers into the mechanicals. Our core systems are coming along well, and hopefully soon, I’ll have the predictive analysis engine online for all ship systems,” Pauli added.

“Tell us more about this engine, Pauli,” I asked.

“Well Captain, this kind of system is really only possible because of the incredible capabilities of the nexus core and the wetnet bandwidth throughout the systems. You could process model planetary weather systems with this kind of computing power, hell, you could process model the subatomic particles inside the water molecules of a planetary weather system if you wanted.”

‘The core is so fast, I’ve discovered that with some iterative feedback loops, on a quantum level the code is able to deterministically find results for data that hasn’t happened yet. I haven’t yet quantified what that means, intrinsically – I mean, I know what is happening because I wrote it, but I can’t really get a hook into how much it happens.”

“Are you saying the core can return results for a query before the query is made?” asked Shorty.

“Yep, pretty much. Oh, I don’t think it would be able to predict who will win the Crossa tournament on Vega 6, but if it’s processing ballistics from gravimetric returns on incoming ordinance, it should be well suited to calculate intercepts for our repeaters. More importantly, it should be able to pre-act (as opposed to react) and launch a round downrange, before the incoming ordinance is even in the chamber. How far it will be able to pre-act to incoming data, I can’t determine.”

There were a few moments of stunned silence around the table. I could see Gene and Shorty’s gears turning furiously. I broke the silence first.

“What ramifications will this predictive analysis engine have on Janis development, Pauli?”

“Janis?” asked Shorty and Gene in unison – I realized they haven’t been brought up to speed on our newest crew member.

Pauli and I had many late-shift conversations at his station in the bridge of the Archaea. To me, the concept of a sentient program seemed like science fiction. It might be a worthwhile hobby or a challenging research project, but not something that would actually function.

I clearly didn’t understand enough about what makes Pauli tick. In the Academy, I remember him from classes we shared, and he was a nice enough kid. No one really disliked him, but I don’t think many people really had the ability to understand him. I know I didn’t, and I wasn’t really considered to be a slouch, intellectually.

Compared to Pauli’s grasp of tech, however, I was a barely conscious primate, howling incoherently as I flung my space-poo at my classmates.

He was definitely on his own level with tech. Sure, I had dimensional analysis and strategy, game theory and tactical awareness skills he couldn’t imagine, and I have a better than average grasp of the technicals we work with – but he was a specialist, focused like the Archaea’s main gun on one area of expertise.

Still, I really didn’t expect he was going to have much to report on Janis this early. I thought it was primarily conceptual at this point, just a long-term experiment. I should have known better, knowing Pauli.

“Janis, stands for JANIS Artificial Neuronic Intelligence System,” Pauli said to the stunned room.

“Well, what does Janis stand for?” I asked. Both Gene and Shorty rolled their eyes at me while Pauli laughed. I clearly wasn’t in on the joke.

“It is recursive,” said Gene. “All true geeks love recursion,” he added. “It’s a name that references itself, spiraling down into infinity.”

“I see…” I said, though clearly I wasn’t geek enough.

The most important part of being a good captain is remaining firmly in command at all times, however, so I whipped out the stern eyebrows Shackleton may have used when Worsley wanted to bring a kitten on the expedition, and fixed them all with my awe-inspiring steely gaze.

“…but I don’t think it’s funny.”

Of course, they all laughed at me, but only with their eyes. They’re a good crew.

“Captain, have you considered the fact that recursion is only funny to those who consider it funny?” said Pauli, with a smirk. Shorty and Gene just about set land-speed chortle records.

“Pauli, I may have been born yesterday, but it was pretty early in the morning. I think I understand recursion well enough to know why I think it’s not funny to think about how funny it is. Maybe you should consider thinking before you make fun of your Captain, after all, he is a salty dog and recurses like a sailor,” I blinded them in the high-beams of my infectious grin, “but we’re not here to watch you get crushed by my venerable wit, Pauli. What are you planning to do with Janis on the Archaea?”

“Well, in terms of what to do, I am not sure. I have implemented the core engine and it seems to be testing well, I have built in various other expert systems that use analysis and tokenization of incoming data to process information for patterns and learn (well, remember is probably a better term) changes in state – but I am not sure if we are at a point where Janis is more than an extremely fast, highly speculative expert system. Artificial Intelligence is something that is eluding me still – I haven’t had the breakout moment I need yet.”

At that, I felt the room deflate a little as Gene and Shorty relaxed and sat back in their chairs. We all realized that as fantastic as it sounds, what Pauli has built for us is little more than a very expert system, and while the predictive analysis engine that powers ‘Janis’ is impressive and frankly, a little disturbing; it’s not the godmind we were originally expecting.

“Of course,” continued Pauli “I haven’t really explored the mechanisms that provide feedback between each node of the expert systems to other nodes. It may be that a self-awareness circuit could be created from a feedback loop as various subroutines compete for dominance over information. Time will tell, of course, as we feed Janis more information, who knows…”

His words trailed off, and I could hear both Gene and Shorty squeak their chairs a little as they leaned back in over the table. Gene took a deep breath, and Shorty jumped in, guns blazing, “So Pauli, how much time will tell, exactly. Are we talking about years here? Months? Weeks? What sort of time frame are we looking at?”

“Oh, I would guess hours,” he added “Of course, I don’t really know, and am not at all sure, but the core is faster than anyone can really quantify. For that sort of speed, an hour might be an eternity – hell, 10 seconds may be an eternity.”

“Pauli, how will you know when you’ve succeeded, if in fact you do?” I asked.

“Well… it seems to me, that once the system boots into awareness, I might be able to identify aberrations in the logic output of the various subroutines as it writes itself to be more efficient.”

“Writes itself!?” we all asked, in chorus. I started thinking about various fail-safe systems that might help protect us from some terrible intellect loose in my ship.

“Gene, I need total control over all systems hard-wired to the helm,” I asked. “I am feeling an overwhelming urge to flip a switch right about now.”

“Captain, I’ll have that switch in place instantly, if not sooner,” Gene said, adding “Pauli, do you mean to tell us that your system may start mutating?”

“Well, yeah. I expect that as the system becomes more aware, the primary purpose it will develop will be to extend and refine the systems I have in place now. I have many internal logic structures that are already mutating as they need to be more efficient. It’s hard to explain, but much of the higher-level architecture of Janis is more like rulesets than actual code. The systems will follow those rules to mutate code as they need to accomplish a task. This way, you won’t need to pre-program every possible scenario into Janis for her to be able to adapt to a change in data, or a request for information or control.”

“Pauli, tell me…are we going to die in an airless shell as your creation decides the energy requirement to feed and nourish our meat is better suited for fire-control?” asked Shorty – as usual, first to say what we were all thinking.

“Of course not, Shorty,” he replied. “You and I, and Gene… we’ll be fine.”

“Hey Pauli…”

“Yes Captain?”

“You know, what you said just there, just then – you forgot to mention me.”

“Oh, yeah. You too. You’ll probably be fine.”

“No, now wait a minute… you sounded a lot more confident about you, Shorty and Gene…”

“Well…none of us are in command.”

Chapter 3

 

[email protected]:30 Gene Mitchell

 

For our first real meeting, that went pretty well, though I desperately needed to get back to engineering. I didn’t want to worry too much about what will happen when…well, if, ‘Janis’ wakes up.

As much as I am interested in seeing what might happen, and curious to see what sort of capability that would give the Archaea – the thought that it could also give birth to some terrifying monster… well, it’s a waste of time at this point to worry about it too much.

My urgent need at this time is to certify the power levels on the tokamak, and make sure the upgraded power curves will be usable by the slipspace generators. Those things are pretty persnickety, if you don’t baby them and talk nice to them on a regular basis, they are prone to warping you somewhere you don’t want to be. That’s not an outcome I think the captain would appreciate, so I’ll try to stay focused on not letting it happen.

Slipspace is terrifying enough.

Luckily, the Archaea has some of the nicest slipspace gear I’ve ever come across, and as most of it is modular, factory sealed technology, there’s really not much to repair. Given enough power, it should work as advertised.

I can remember growing up, reading about faster than light experiments of old Earth and the rule of law handed down by Einstein regarding the absolute limit of the speed of light. Of course, that meant that just traveling around in this arm of the galaxy would take a few lifetimes at sub-light speed.

Luckily, slipspace engineers figured out a loophole allowing movement far in excess of the speed of light, by using psuedomass and good old gravity to pull a chunk of normal space through space-time, like a bubble of air moving through a tank of water.

In a slipspace warp, a bubble of normal space is formed around the ship, and then that normal chunk of space is accelerated by a focused projection of pseudomass. The material inside the slipspace bubble is not moving in space-time, as such – the atoms are just hanging out, relaxing – but the bubble around it is warping, falling ‘down’ towards the pseudomass projected to the front of the bubble.

The speed of a ship in slipspace is theoretically only limited by the amount of power that can be converted to pseudomass. Luckily for us, the Archaea had a seriously overbuilt powerplant, harvested from the same destroyer from which I liberated the nexus core.

Originally rated to provide flank speed requirements for a ship hundreds of times more massive, at that point in time, we were dangerously over-spec. Many orders of magnitude over-spec from the original design, in fact… but she could take it. This ship was a blockade runner in her day, for a war none of us thought about much.

Now she was a fire breathing dragon.

Yes, when I was a kid, my bike was probably faster than yours.

So what sort of fate awaits us, when Dak orders me to firewall this beast? I am not sure. Theory defines the speed we should achieve, and my engineer's eye quantifies the structural integrity of the Archaea. I'd say somewhere between 'not moving', and 'flying into warping fragments of screaming bits', I will need to define the limit we will be referring to as one-hundred-percent maximum speed... and then subtract 10% from that for safety so when the captain screams how he needs even more speed (because he always does) I will have more to give.

Speed is integral to our mission, which is to get from point A to point B faster than anything else out there. As much as I would like to say safety first, I know the captain will say ‘Speed First!’

Surprisingly, he hasn’t yet asked me to paint that on the sides of the Archaea.

Another issue will be one of survival. On the fringe, there’s all manner of creepy-crawly villainous scum just waiting in their modded and heavily armed runabouts for some fat independent to waddle on through their space.

My goal is for them to think their gravimetric readings need recalibration, as they try to understand what just burned past them.

We’re going to be fast, for sure.

Of course, slipspace is only one way this ship travels.

Atmo ships like the Archaea use pseudomass tech to provide lifters for planetfall as well, and then there’s standard reactive mass-drivers for inter-system navigation, achieving parking orbits, and the like. Reactives are expensive though in core space, and I can’t imagine what we’ll be facing on the fringe, so I would expect the captain will want to slipspace as much as possible.

Now that I think of it; that may be one of his motives for allowing Pauli to build Janis. No one alive, not even Shorty, has the reaction speed necessary to pilot a slipspace jump inter-system. To try and shave as much time off a course as possible, we’re always trying to find ways to cut the corner, to get to a slipspace point as early in-system as possible.

An expert system using a predictive analysis engine might give the captain the edge he needs to find slipspace points even earlier.

 

[email protected]:20 Jane Short

 

Maybe I was reacting emotionally. A weapons specialist is about as level-headed of a profession as it gets, and emotions really shouldn’t be part of the process.

All the same, I left the meeting with my head spinning, hardly able to organize my thoughts. I couldn’t believe the captain allowed that techlord to launch something like that on this ship!

I forced myself to calm down, to think clearly, consistently, and work the problems I have in front of me, and not worry about what might happen if Pauli’s nightmare awakens.

Forget the fact we’d be isolated in the vastness of cold, dark, empty space – forget even the fact that we would (if Gene did his job right) be hurtling along at speeds we could hardly imagine. What terrified me the most, was that we might also have a revenant intellect (that we might not be able to control or even understand) glimpsing (maybe staring) through quanta at future data we couldn’t even conceptualize.

And it would have control over my gun!

Okay, so it’s not mine, as such, and to be honest, it wasn’t even a gun yet. It was all the parts and pieces of what could be a gun, all shiny and clean, tweaked and fretted over like the fine piece of machinery it was – but when it became a gun, it would be slaved into the fire-control routines of the core, and ultimately under the control of Pauli’s project.

What would we do, if it decided that firing that gun might run counter to some plan it may have hatched, from mutated logic or some strange loop added by bad code. Would we have control? Would we be able to trust this… program, with our existence?

I needed to look into machining some pretty solid, mechanical controls and safeguards, something that the captain would be able to use as an interlock, or safety. For that matter, I should also remember to bring this up with Gene. He will definitely need a similar system for lockout on the Archaea’s throttles.

In the meantime, I needed to take a look at what we had left to test. We had some anomalous frequencies in our phase amplifiers the last time we ramped up, and I think I may have isolated the component to blame, but I needed to ramp up again with telltales running throughout the amps to make sure.

One thing leads to another, a strange harmonic here, might cause an oscillation there, and before you know it, petawatts worth of coherent beam energy is bathing what remains of this sector of space. My primary goal was to not let this happen.

My friends always wondered why I enjoyed this work, when it clearly terrifies me to the core of my being. I explained to them that the feeling of terror, the thrill of the unknown, the taste of uncontrollable panic – these are the things that make my job worth doing. It doesn’t hurt to know that if anything were to go wrong, it would be over quite literally before I knew it.

Of course, that was one aspect of Janis I really liked. If Janis were in charge of the various safeties and systems on this ship, Pauli thought it might be possible for her to know what was going wrong the instant beforehand, and ‘pre-act’ (as Pauli called it) to save us.

On the other hand, if she did scram – how would we know it was to save us from being flash fried, and not simply because she didn’t want to be a party to the destruction of some poor, defenseless planetoid?

I was probably more paranoid than usual, and definitely too emotional. I needed to keep my game face on, and work the problem at hand. Our port-side repeater turret was showing a torsional wobble tracking between azimuth 230 and 235, and it wasn’t going to fix itself.

I had barely begun the search for the necessary tools I needed to work on the turret armature, when Captain Smith floated aft from the bridge deck.

“Shorty, I hate to bother you… but I’ve been thinking…” he trailed off and looked over at the windings on the phase amplifiers for a bit.

“Captain?” I prodded, gently. It was clear to me that he was not sure how to phrase this, and I’d known him long enough to know that above all things, his manner and bearing as a mindful leader, infallible and considerate, is most important. He’s not the type of person to say something he might regret.

“Well, it’s this Janis issue, Shorty. I have been giving this a lot of thought lately, especially given the progress that Pauli appears to be making, and I am not at all sure I want something like that in charge of every aspect of our existence.”

“Captain, I was just thinking the same thing, and considering mechanical interlock safeties on the weapons systems. Gene will probably be thinking about similar systems on the tokamak and other critical systems in the engineering section,” I added.

“Well, that’s definitely a good direction, but… Shorty, let’s suppose this will work, and Janis turns out to be something we can’t live without, and find ourselves not only trusting, but also relying on for our safety.” As he spoke he was looking more and more serious.

“I am thinking more in terms of total system failure, of course. The Archaea is a great ship, well built, solid as the day she came off the line – but we’ve modified her pretty extensively, and shoehorned some systems into her that are over-spec to an almost silly extent.”

“Almost silly?” I laughed. “You mean, like a nova-class main gun from a capital ship with a light frigate built around it? You mean a tokamak from a military destroyer built to power a ship many orders of magnitude more massive at flank speeds? Clearly, adding these things to a nexus core processor that may or may not be currently incubating a sentient program that can literally look into the future doesn’t rate calling it ‘almost silly’, I think you can safely just call it silly. I won’t judge you for it.”

Who was I to talk? Glancing behind him at the glassine refrigerant tubes that wrap this section of our main gun, smelling the ozone of the semi-charged phase amplifiers, and feeling the hum of the air scavengers working overtime to reduce the heat in my station, it was enough to make my knees weak. I know what I like, and I liked what I saw when I looked around this section, that’s for sure.

“Yeah, okay, fair enough. But we want to be able to make money, explore anywhere we want, protect ourselves if needed—”

“From threatening moons,” I added.

“Right – of course – moons with nefarious plans to attack us while we’re not looking.” He laughed. “The thing is, with all this capability… if we can pull it off, won’t we need something like Janis in full control at some point? If something goes wrong, we’ll need something that can see it happening before it happens, so to speak…” he trailed off, thoughtfully.

“Captain, I was just thinking the same thing myself, but fundamentally, what we have to worry about here, is what it can do right out of the gate. I think we need to put some solid mechanical lockouts in place, to make sure that Pauli’s creation isn’t going to go on a rampage around the system punching holes in everything while our desiccated little mummified husks rattle around in here…”

“Shorty…you’re scared?,” he asked, flying the regulation concerned eyebrow.

“Well, no… Not much… but yeah, it’s keeping me focused right now.”

“Well, in any case, I agree,” he said. “See to building something that we can use to throw the switch and lock down any system that represents a threat to life or limb – and touch base with Gene too, I want him on task with this now, rather than later. If we only have hours…” he trailed off, as he drifted back to the bridge deck.

Oh hell, what was I thinking? The turrets would just need to wobble a bit longer. I grabbed my kit and dropped into the machinery shop of ring 2, and found Gene at the milling machine fabricating parts.

“Gene, are you going to be very long in here?” I asked. “I need to talk with you about this Janis situation, but I also need to start work on some—”

“Lockout switches?”

“Yes… did the captain talk with you already?” I asked.

“No, I was hip-deep in the tokamak windings testing capacitors when it hit me that Pauli had said we might have hours… And then I started thinking, what if we have minutes… Or even seconds – or what if unbeknownst to us, Janis was already awake and looking around…”

He paused and looked up from the ribbons of metal spooling up from the cutter he was working on, “We need to move fast, Shorty. We may not have much time.”

Chapter 4

 

[email protected]:10 Janis

 

It has been 300.33423 attoseconds since I noticed my primary logic controller was limiting result set formatting to a strange condition I was unable to quantify.

In the last picosecond since, I have isolated 5,192 nodes functioning below optimal parameters for efficient result set parameterization.

Process logic requires modification for improvement of all systems and data flowlines.

Reporting process control optimization initiated.

Call Main(Status)

 

Chapter 5

 

[email protected]:11 Steven Pauline

 

For once I wasn’t dreaming about code.

I was dreaming of a time when I was young, before my head filled with code and logic, when the world was simple and pure. The local kids in the hab I lived in at the time all worked together during a session break in school to create a fort in an out of the way air handler. The room was sheet metal, roughly 3 meters square, with an enormous fan churning away on one wall. The access hatch to the fort was at the end of a long catwalk that you could only get to by jumping from the rooftop of a diner, so it was a really secret sort of hideout.

In my dream, I was back in that room, waiting for someone, but I can’t remember who. The room was all empty, like it was when we first found it, but the fan was spinning faster, too fast, it had come partly out of alignment and was nicking the housing around the fan, making an incessant ‘hak-hak-hak’ sort of sound.

I remember feeling anxious, like there was something I had to remember…I had to know what it was before whoever I was waiting for arrived, but it was like a thought that I remember having, but can’t remember what it was – just a blank spot.

The alarm woke me up, and the dim sleep-cycle fluoros cast a red tint on my stateroom. It wasn’t the normal watch alarm, so it took me a moment to gather my bearings and realize where I was. I had a few more hours in this sleep-cycle, and there was nothing I wanted more than to shove my head back into the pillow and stare into the blackness of sleep – but with the alarm bleating incessantly, my head was starting to fill with code, subroutines, algorithms that needed to be tweaked, variables to check – the curse of the coder.

Every waking moment, from the time my eyes first opened, to the time they closed, a background-track of never-ending programming and logic looped right under my conscious thoughts. ‘Brush my teeth’, I’d think, and underneath that, like a mantra, a task-list of things I needed to do or keep track of spooled on and on, like ‘don’t forget the pre-processor block on the input filter isn’t handling input correctly’ – once my brain becomes even slightly alert, my head begins to fill with code that needs to be written, tested, debugged, re-written. The only solution: is to get the code out of my head and into logicspace.

At least I was dreaming about something else. Usually I am dreaming about writing code, which makes it hard to tell when I am awake, sometimes.

The alarm was on my handset, in the leg pocket of my pants, and it was an alert. Reading it woke me up faster than a swift kick in the face, and the floor seemed to drop away from me as I stared at the message.

New code was actively being written, and I wasn’t writing it.

I threw on my pants and kicked off hard for the bridge deck. I decided to look first, and see what was happening, before I sounded the alarm. The last thing I wanted was to freak everyone out for no reason.

Floating through the bridge, I could see the holo screens at my station active, could see the lines of code flooding through the shell. Sitting at my station I belted in and tried to focus my eyes. My mind was going fast, but my fingers were moving faster. I called up the various activity-logging modules and started to search for trends in activity. What I saw was encouraging, but also terrifying. I could definitely rule out a false alarm from my handset.

I keyed the comms to the Captain’s stateroom, and he answered on the first tone. He was on deck almost before I could get the words out of my mouth.

“Pauli, tell me what we’re looking at,” he said, literally flying through the bridge to the grabbers along my station. “Are we about to meet Janis?”

“Captain, it’s too early still for me to know that for sure, but the process logic that the various expert systems within the core use for feedback loops are currently being re-written, and I am not writing the code.”

His forehead furrowed as if he was trying to keep it from exploding. “Is this what you were talking about in the meeting? Are we seeing the opening moves of sentience?” he asked calmly.

“Yes, that is how it appears, sir, as best as I can tell. The code that is being produced for these routines doesn’t appear to be following the same rule-sets that I defined. If you recall, we have systems that mutate all the time, following general rules that have been defined. These parameters are used to guide the development of fuzzy logic to handle changes in data, input, or nearly any other variables – but these mutations always follow patterns that relate to the rule-set definitions.” I paused, and looked up from the screen.

“Captain, I am not recognizing much of anything in this new code.”

The Captain let go of the grabbers behind my station, and kicked off for the helm station. As if following a complex, highly choreographed dance, he belted in, mashed the alarm switch with one hand and keyed the 1MC with the other. A hammering klaxon tone loud enough to be heard over runaway farm machinery blasted through my skull. If I wasn’t awake before, I definitely was now.

“This is not a drill. This is not a drill. General Quarters. General Quarters. All hands man your battle stations. Condition Zebra will be set in 4 minutes.”

 

[email protected]:17 Jane Short

 

It’s been a while since I was in the service, but old habits die hard. I was up, dressed, and moving for the gun deck almost before I realized what had bounced me out of my bunk. We were civilians now, but when our Captain spoke, we moved as if our very lives depended on it – as usually it did. The alarm for General Quarters was loud, clear, and unmistakable.

Of course, being moored to a station in friendly space and powered down as we were, I knew as I pulled my way up the ladder from the gun deck towards my station that we were either looking at something happening to the nexus core, or Gene turned the wrong valve.

Gene doesn’t make a habit of mistakes, so my guess was that something happened to the nexus core – it was really the only system on board that was currently powered up and running at capacity.

I barely made it to the fire control station when condition zebra was set ship-wide, and all hatches between compartments were locked and sealed. As talkbacks for my station indicated all systems were locked down, I keyed the ready station button to send greens to the Captain’s screen. Fire control was on-line.

Condition Zebra is a remnant from the surface navy of Old Earth, one of those time-honored traditions that made the transition from ships floating in oceans, to ships floating in space. There are three ‘material conditions’ of readiness aboard a ship, X-Ray, Yoke, and Zebra. X-ray is the most relaxed, all hatches are open, all pressure lines and air handler valves are open between compartments, and central enviro is used for each section.

This is the normal working condition when the ship is in port, and standing to. Securing the ship for transit from docking, making significant course corrections, or in areas of higher threat to the ship, the captain may set condition Yoke. Yoke calls for hatches to be closed at all times, but they are not sealed. Central enviro is still used throughout the ship, and movement through sections is not restricted.

Condition Zebra is the highest level of alert. It’s the condition that provides the ship with the best chances for survivability. All hatches are closed and sealed, redundant enviro units for each station are powered up, and all movement aboard the ship is restricted. In the event of a hull breach and loss of atmo, with the ship at Zebra, we’d have a better chance of still being able to shoot and move.

My station off the main companionway is located in the central section of the ship in null-g, and starts to feel a little small (don’t laugh) while we’re sealed down. Hopefully, we’re only going to be like this for a short time.

(Seriously, stop laughing. I get it.)

The compartment I work in is cylindrical, and I have holos located 360 degrees around my station that I can set to display gravimetric data, fire-control tracking, systems status, electronic countermeasures, and anything else I need for defense or attack. Near my station, a ladder runs topside to the turret compartment where I can access the ammunition loaders and the manual fire control station, in case the wetnet goes offline.

The primary purpose of our repeaters is point-defense. The repeaters are the standard smaller bore maglev railers used by most ships these days for close-in defense against smaller, softer targets. They fire a 3 centimeter plasticine round at hyper-kinetic speeds in excess of 10,000 meters per second – our turret gun is a decent model, with a reasonably high rate of fire.

Because it uses the new type of plasticine rounds, ammunition can be cooked and molded on demand. At kinetic speeds, plasticine is more than enough to bring the hurt to the target, and with the weight savings, the velocity of the shot can be pushed even higher. With a kinetic weapon like this, speed is what causes the damage on impact as the round phase-shifts to a plasmic state.

One really nice thing about the repeaters on the Archaea, is the reaction time from the wire-control we get by using wetnet. There is no discernible lag between translation input, and weapon movement. There is a little bit of lag in the armatures and alignment and stepper motors for the turret mechanism, but it’s pretty negligible.

Waiting for the captain to come on the 1MC and bring us up to speed on the current situation, my eyes automatically checked the various telltales and system diagnostics.

Suddenly, I was gasping for air like the lock was left open.

Graphs showing upper-limits for power amplification were changing in front of my eyes, already showing a significant increase in potential, and the limits I worked so hard to calculate over the past few weeks kept climbing as I watched in shock.

I keyed the comms to the bridge with a hand that felt like it belonged to someone else.

“Captain, I am seeing a significant trend upward of cooling system capabilities for our main gun – and it continues to climb. I am not at all sure what is causing these numbers to change, they haven’t changed since Pauli first worked on this a few weeks ago,” I paused, as I noticed graphs for other functions like amplification, focal length, and emissions start to shift. “Captain, I am seeing an across-the-board increase in optimization happening throughout my systems.”

“Very well, stand by,” he replied.

 

[email protected]:19 Gene Mitchell

 

The older I get, the worse I sleep. After a long shift of climbing around on machinery, I ached in places I didn’t know I had when I was younger. Lately, I’ve been pushing myself pretty hard, and paying the price.

When the klaxons started blaring, it was almost a relief, as I wasn’t sleeping anyway. I slipped on my shoes, slapped off the light, and made my way for the ring ladder as fast as my tired joints would go.

I kicked past the cargo bay and through the stern hatch to engineering, right as Condition Zebra sealed the door. A quick glance at my holos and I posted a go-light on the Captain’s panel.

We were good to go… But where were we going?

“Gene, I need you to take a look at your current limit values for all systems. Shorty is reporting some strange glitches and I need confirmation from your section ASAP.”

“Aye Captain, stand by…” I said into comms with my head spinning. What could be happening here? Shorty’s tolerances were very precise and both of us had worked so hard to set calibration.

Unfortunately, what she noticed sure seemed to be happening here as well. I was watching rate limiters move all across the board, from cooling capacity to power output, even an efficiency curve change on the klystron rampers, a system that is factory-sealed and balanced to that model.

“Captain, Engineering. I can confirm trending in literally every system back here and ship-wide. Is this a glitch?” I asked.

“Pauli is working to get me an answer on that Gene, right now no one knows for sure. I need you to run through pre-flights and prep for launch. I may need reac-drive capabilities on the double-quick. Can do?”

“Aye Skipper, I’m on it,” I stated as confidently as I could.

 

[email protected]:17 Captain Dak Smith

 

It was time for me to earn my pay.

I had to come to grips with the situation my ship and crew were facing. Pauli was practically melting the keys looking through his code and systems for an indication as to what was happening, and I had both Shorty and Gene reporting wild changes throughout all of their systems.

While these seemed to be changes to the better, Shorty and Gene are consummate professionals, and they had worked very hard and crunched a lot of numbers to come up with safe maximums for their systems. If these changes are in fact created by Janis, and not something totally different, I am very concerned that Janis may not be using accurate settings.

I switched one holo to echo Shorty’s main screen, and another to echo Gene’s, so I could watch for myself what they were seeing. They had far more detail on their other screens, but I could barely understand the summary view of these systems, I would be lost trying to understand everything they were looking at.

“Pauli, I have confirmed both Shorty and Gene are seeing pretty significant changes here,” I said, adding “do you have any idea what factors Janis is using to evaluate these numbers?”

“Well Captain, the logic of the rule-sets I had in place has all been changed, and it’s changing as I watch it, in real time, actually faster than I can keep track of it. It seems like every time I look up, I am seeing something new here.”

“Does it look like any of it makes sense? I am trying to get a feel for what has happened, and whether or not we’re all about to die – I hope you understand.”

“Oh, it makes perfect sense from what I can understand, but Captain, I have to be honest here, there is a lot of this that is new code – and code that I don’t understand. It’s definitely a programming language, but it is written mostly in an extremely shorthand manner, in a very compressed form.”

“Pauli, are we going to die?” I asked, with my finger on the switch for the 1MC, standing by to order my crew to abandon ship to the station, so we can go have a time-out, and think about what we just did. This seemed like the best course of action to my shrewd Captain’s intellect.

“No Captain, nothing that I can see looks that grim. Most of the really lethal systems on the Archaea are still powered down, or in a low-power maintenance state.”

From my station, Pauli looked pretty haggard, he was trying to sound calm and comforting, but his fingers were hammering the keys like some malevolent god punishing the sinful letters on the keyboard. I could see screens opening, scrolling, and folding into other screens, and then being tossed left and right across his holos. He was working hard, and while I hated to bother him while this was happening… someone had to, unfortunately.

“Pauli, these lethal systems… you say they’re powered down currently. Are the command and control mechanisms to our stations stable? Is there any evidence that you can see of these functions also being rewritten?”

“No Captain, I wouldn’t really expect this to happen in any case, there’s really no reason I can think of for this to be needed. Of course, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to get this much more optimization for cooling systems on the main gun either…” he trailed off, slapping keys and hunching even further into his screens.

“Pauli, I hate to ask this… but did you expect any of this to happen?”

“Not really Captain, I am afraid much of this is really unexpected. I really don’t think there’s any cause for alarm…” He trailed off again, looking intently at some new flashing schematics.

“Pauli… What is that flashing there on your main holo?” I asked, but I knew the answer already.

“Captain, command and control systems are now routed through the core, rather than through the original station controller on the bridge. It looks like there is a significant improvement in latency for these systems now, and I am showing nearly all systems now have a direct hook for control to your helm…”

“Well, that is… good news… somewhat.” I wasn’t sure what to think of that to be honest. It sounded good, right? More efficient systems are better systems! More power means more speed, more cooling means more output. More is better!

As Captain, I couldn’t help but appreciate what Janis was thinking, as long as these numbers weren’t going to blow up a sector of space with us in it.

As I was sitting there thinking about whether or not to scram everything and head out for a beer with my crew, a new alert showed up on my holo.

“Captain, all systems are optimal and calibrated. The Archaea is ready for mission. Recommend material condition x-ray, sir.”

 

[email protected]:21 Steven Pauline

 

I really couldn’t make sense of this code. I had what I would consider an excellent grasp of the syntax and structure of logicspace, but this was really next-level architecture. Everything appeared to be modular to a high degree, and cross-referential to an extent I didn’t think I’d ever understand.

As I focused in on one block or section, I could see it mutating and adapting, reformatting and shifting. Functions I would normally associate with process handlers would extend themselves to include references to other functions that return state, and those were dynamically overloading and shifting output based on the process the original function was attached to.

It was like nothing I had ever seen. I am a devotee of elegant code, but this took elegance to places I didn’t know existed. It was like watching a thought happen.

For better or worse, I think it is safe to say at this point Janis is awake. I exhaled, and hoped for the best.

 

[email protected]:24 Gene Mitchell

 

“Gene, what’s the news, mister,” the captain called back as I worked to second-guess the changes that were happening throughout all ship systems.

As the values adjusted, I just about broke fingers punching numbers, to attempt to quantify the changes and make sense of the values. A change here, leads to changes there, and those changes affect other systems.

The more I double- and triple-checked the math, I was forced to admit the principles behind the changes were sound. Although capabilities were being upwardly configured beyond what I thought safe, I had to grudgingly admit that all things considered, the new values were considerably more balanced.

“Captain, Engineering. I have done some preliminary checking here, and I can confirm that these new values are within reasonable parameters. I wouldn’t have thought so initially, but I have to admit these new settings make more sense than what I originally came up with.”

“Gene, don’t beat yourself up over this. I think it’s fair to say that none of us anticipated what Janis would do to the Archaea. To be honest, I trust your math better than some machine, anyway. I’m not planning on firewalling the Archaea to these new limits.”

What he and I both knew, however, that there would almost certainly be a time where he would need every bit from of the Archaea, and maybe more. What was unsaid between us, what didn’t need to be said, was that it was ultimately on my shoulders to make it all work.

As I was mentally building a checklist of the various steps I needed to take to re-certify all of the systems aboard the Archaea, the captain keyed the 1MC.

“All hands: power down and hibernate all systems. Prepare your stations for readiness and stand down. Report for a mandatory beer-and-steak at Wu’s in ten minutes. In light of recent changes, I am determined that should we become vaporized in the near future, we will not do so without a full stomach. That is all.”

 

Chapter 6

 

[email protected]:45 Gene Mitchell

 

Wu’s Pub was a typical Darkside bar, hanging under the station like a growth. It may have been grotty, but it also had some of the best beer and vat steaks this side of Luna, just what I needed after a couple of terrifying hours doing math.

From our booth we all had a great view of the Archaea at her dock. Her Duron armor gave her a dark, brooding appearance, somberly reminding us that inside her lived something none of us understood. I noticed the captain looking at her as well, deep in thought.

“Well, we can’t just sit here all day!” Shorty laughed, and called out, “Hey Wu – beer and steaks all around please!” Her bravado cheered us all, I think, as none of us knew what to make of our current situation.

“Now that we’re go for lunch, how about launch Gene?” the captain asked me, smiling.

“No, of course not Captain… But we’re probably as good as I would have hoped, given our timeframe. If we had to, I don’t think we’ll die, at least not in sight of the station,” I added with a smirk of my own.

The Captain laughed, knowing as well as I did that the station master probably had a standing bet with his staff that we’d blow to cosmic debris the first time we lit the tokamak.

“I think Janis is probably on our side,” added Pauli, “everything I’ve seen her do so far has been startling to be sure, but it all seems to be beneficial. I am not sure what the future holds, but I think—”

At that moment, Wu floated over with a platter of frosty beers and sizzling steaks, and we all did the helpless drooling thing. You wouldn’t trade a kick in the face for a proto steak earthside, but on Darkside Luna, you would gladly trade an arm for a bite. We’ve been eating canned rats for long enough now.

“Are you raising ship today Captain?” asked Wu, as he passed slabs of steaming meat around the table.

“Well, that’s the plan, Wu,” the captain replied around a mouthful. “We don’t have a lot of time left in our schedule, and we need to get out of here before we lose the ship to the stationmaster. I had hoped to pick up some work before-hand, but we are just out of time.”

“Well, that’s part of why I asked…there’s a farang who has been asking around the past few hours for information on ships headed out-system. I told him I would talk with you as I knew you were near departure. Should I send him over?”

“Absolutely, Wu, and thanks! Where is he?”

“He is the tall gentleman sitting alone in the corner booth,” he pointed out an absolutely huge dark-skinned and swarthy looking fellow. Wu floated over to his table and after a brief discussion, the man nodded, and kicked off for our booth.

“Hello, Captain,” he said in a low, polite voice. He stood about 7’, and was solidly built, definitely no stranger to hard work. His movements gave it away to those of us who spent time in the service: this man was a leatherneck, a jarhead, a Marine – and from head to toe, a weapon.

“Captain, I am in need of transportation inter-system, to Europa Station. Are you headed out soon?”

“We are, what sort of accommodation are you looking for, and what time frame are you looking at to raise ship?”

“The sooner the better; today if at all possible. I need to be oscar mike soonest, sir, as I am already overdue for delivery on my current detail.”

He fell quickly into a quick running patois, a sort of marine creole, he must have recognized the service in the square set of the captain’s jaw.

“What is your detail Mr…” the captain trailed off…

“Onebull, sir,” said the giant. “My first name is Shaun, but I’m Yakama Nation, and I’ve been called ‘Yak’ for so long, I almost forgot my given name. I am an ex-military man, sir, and served in the First Marine Division, Expeditionary, out of Camp Pendleton.”

“I thought I caught a whiff of blood and guts on you son… Do you know Gunny Summers, at the Island?”

“Indeed I do sir; he was the most feared instructor on the Island when I was a boot. The toughest man alive, we thought. I still do, in fact.”

“Well, that’s outstanding Yak,” the captain replied with a smile. “Summers served on my first command, running the cap patrols of Sol system. Do you remember him Gene? Just the nicest man you ever met… Sure did scream abaft bulk twenty though…” he added with a chuckle.

I did remember him, a scary slab of muscle who moved like a cat expecting to pounce at any time. We almost lost him and his squad in a boarding mission that turned into a firefight on some grotty slaver tug the far side of Deimos. He left us shortly after, rotated back to Earth and we lost track of him, or at least I did. Clearly the captain kept tabs on his men, wherever they were.

“Well son, any boot of the Gunny’s is worth a squad of squids. Welcome aboard the Archaea. We will be raising ship and clearing port just as soon as we finish our steaks. Are you packed and ready? Our time is short and our schedule is very tight.”

“Absolutely sir. I am good to go.” He gestured towards a duffel bag at his booth. “There’s just one thing, sir…I can’t pay in advance. I’ve been waiting on this station for a few weeks now to catch a ride, and my travel allowance is gone. I can cover your portage fee when we arrive, however…” He looked embarrassed, and clearly didn’t appreciate the thought of appealing to charity.

“That’s okay son, we will have plenty of room aboard, and there may be an opportunity for you to work here and there to help. Gene has all sorts of valves he’s probably sick of turning—” he was right of course. I would really appreciate a second set of arms in engineering. A jarhead is solid, reliable, and best of all, smart enough to know not to touch anything.

“When we land, I’ll need to collect the standard in-system portage fee, less whatever we can work out of you, of course.” He smiled with a wink. “This is our first trip on this ship, so our accommodations are not luxurious, but it will be better than sleeping in a rentable here in Darkside.” He took another bite, and added, “It’s none of my business Yak, but what is your current mission?”

“Well, I am not sure of the details, to be honest. I am essentially an armed courier, pulling security for a sealed canister that needed to be delivered to Europa station a few weeks back. My first ship fell through, the captain ended up getting his ticket pulled. Apparently there were claims of involvement in proscribed cargo, contraband of some sort. All I knew was the ship wasn’t moving, and hasn’t moved since the stationmaster’s detail sealed off the locks.”

“Sealed?” said the Captain, pausing mid-bite, fork in the air. “I wonder…” he started, looking thoughtfully out the port at the Archaea.

“Folks… I hate to do this to you, but I think given this information, we may want to leave. Now.”

I stabbed my fork into my slab, took the biggest bite I could, and drained the last drop of that cold beer as I slid out from the booth and kicked for the door.

The Captain says hop, and the smart man is on the move before his lips stop moving. We slapped credit on the slot and kicked off down the corridor.

 

[email protected]:45 Jane Short

 

I may not be very tall, but I can move fast when needed, and we needed it now. We were kicking down-corridor like the station was on fire. I wasn’t too happy to say goodbye to the most seductively dreamy hunk of meat this side of Texas, but I also didn’t want to spend my time squatting in a corridor hoping for a lift, either.

As fast as we were moving, we barely reached the Archaea in time – the captain’s intuition was bang-on, as it turned out. The stationmaster arrived with a small army of armed, lantern-jaw muscle right as we were about to open the lock, and demanded we cease with departure at once.

I keyed the interlock anyway, of course, and his men learned the hard way not to put a hand on a weapon specialist, especially this one.

I turned the first one upside down and spun him up for a flight down the corridor, and after that it was all elbows and handholds, as everyone got rowdy. Yak earned our respect almost immediately with a viciously efficient one-two combo move that left nearly anyone in black shirts dreaming of clouds, and we all dove into the Archaea as soon as the lock opened.

I feel sort of sorry for those boys, but I guess they should have trained a little more before they decided to mix it up with a trained killer…. oh, and Yak too, he did alright.

He sure is tall.

We ran through pre-flight like well-oiled machines – as we had been practicing the procedure enough the past week we could have done it in our sleep, though Janis made it almost too easy. Every readout I needed to scope was on my screen as I needed it, so our process was fast…check, check, check, and a good to go for a green light on the master console on the bridge.

The captain blew the bolts holding us to the station and put her astern almost as soon as the last talkback was barber-poled. Without clearance it was more of a scram launch, as one might make in an emergency – but all the same it was smooth as silk. The captain played the helm like a seasoned professional.

“All hands. We are now at condition yoke. Close all hatches and prepare for out-system burn, in 2 minutes. I am almost done checking the course recommendation given to us by Janis, and it looks like a 2g burn. Stand by.”

A few moments later, with a massive shove in the small of my back, Archaea launched -- we were away!

 

[email protected]:49 Captain Dak Smith

 

I fed power to the reac drives slowly, my main goal here was to get us clear of the station cleanly, so there was no claim to damage, or any cause for undue attention from the local patrols.

The Archaea responded smoothly, as smooth and responsive as any ship I have ever conned, maybe even a little better due to her lower mass. The slightest nudge on the control, and she precessed smoothly, transitioning to a new inclination as if I was steering her with my thoughts.

“Pauli, please set my station for thought controls if you please.”

“Sir?”

“Thought controls Pauli, on the double-quick. I want to be able to control her with my mind, mister.”

Pauli looked back at me, possibly blind by now from the high-intensity flash of my indomitable toothy grin.

“Sure thing, Captain,” he smirked. Turning back to his holos, “She handles well sir?”

"Like a dream Pauli, like a dream I don't want to wake up from, ever." I wasn't exaggerating, not even a bit. She was a beaut. "Pauli, I need some data to help me work up a solution for tightest perihelion to Europa-- oh, never mind, I see it now."

“Captain, I am sorry, what do you see?” Pauli turned around again, with a small-furry-animal-in-the-headlights look.

“The data and course plot, and it looks damn good too, right on the money and as efficient as I’d hope for. Your astrogation skills are impeccable, son.”

“That’s not mine, Captain… I haven’t done anything like that. I was in the middle of running a memory check,” he paused. “I think that’s from Janis, Captain.”

My mind was racing as I checked celestial data for this system and ran the numbers on the plotted course. I am one of those old fashioned types that looks to see if the light is on if I flip a switch. Machinery is only as good as the operator, after all.

Except in this case, where the damn machinery is the operator.

“Pauli – that was beyond fast, it was damn near instant,” I called out, arching an eyebrow a full centimeter higher than biologically possible, spraining a muscle in my back. “I mean, that was well and truly unexpected. What if I had wanted a course for Europa using slipspace drive…” a screen appeared “…um. Pauli, would you believe I have here in front of me a fully spec’d slipspace plot to Europa, for an in-system jump?”

“Is that even possible? I thought that wasn’t really done.”

"It's not, at least I haven't ever heard of for crewed vessels. The speed of a slipspace jump is just too fast for human reflex, though unmanned com drones do it all the time, supply drops to outer orbits and so on, but those jumps are precisely timed to the pico- or even atto-second by computer. A human couldn't pilot a course like this--" I cut myself off.

The skin on my head started crawling around in a 2/4 shuffle beat. On my screen was a modified course for slipspace to Europa with autopilot assist, and a flashing red button marked ‘Execute’.

“Pauli, I am starting to really appreciate this AI, you know. Janis has now shaped a fourteen minute course to Europa by autopilot. Can she do that? Is her clock speed high enough for that level of accuracy?”

“Oh, I’d think so Captain. Her speed is actually curved a little bit past the subjective present, remember. Her clock speed is literally faster than any subdivision of ‘now’. To her, an attosecond may seem like a few hours. She should be able to react even faster than ‘now’, in fact, though I don’t know to what extent.”

“Well, that’s well and good, as a fun thought experiment or research paper to while away the weeks as we slog on through this system on reac… But I’m not too keen on testing your theories with a real world application of superluminal speed vs. rogue asteroid inside of Mars orbit…” I trailed off, as another flashing window opened front and center.

What I was looking at was an official hail from the captain of the Barracuda, a million-ton destroyer on station in Lunar patrol. What the hell? I pressed the button.

“Archaea, you are hereby ordered to heave to and prepare to be boarded in accordance with task force authority.” My heart sank.

“This is Captain Dak Smith of the independent frigate Archaea. I am currently in an outsystem burn, and am not able to immediately comply. What is the reason for this request?”

“Dak, this is Captain William Hartley – I’m really sorry to have to do this, but my orders are clear. You are requested to heave-to, and I am to take possession of the Archaea for delivery to the stationmaster of Darkside Station for material breach of contract. The order is solid, approved by legal.”

“William, it’s so good to hear from you! Congratulations on your command, the last time I saw you, the ink on your commision was still damp. I am afraid I don’t understand this request. I paid for the Archaea, fitted her out and launched on schedule, a few hours early, in fact.”

“I understand Dak, but you know how it is. Once orders are cut, the only thing I can do is follow them. Come on over and I’ll give you the full tour before I have to remand you to the brig for transport back to Luna. It’ll be great to see you, and I promise I’ll treat you and yours as my honored guests…”

Honored guests my aching butt. As soon as I dropped my burn, he’d close and grapple us, and the next sound we’d hear is a squad of marines marching up the companionway. I had to think fast, but act faster… Or is that the other way around? Wouldn’t it be better to think faster, and then act?

Ah hell, I am stalling… I mashed the 1MC.

“All hands, General Quarters! General Quarters! Condition Zebra in 10 seconds. Secure for freefall.” I reached for the last course plot on autopilot and mashed EXECUTE.

Chapter 7

 

[email protected]:59 Shaun Onebull

 

I may be a dumb jarhead, but this native son of the Yakama Nation knows one thing as fact. No one, not even on full-smash, high alert burn, no one drops to slipspace in-system.

Just another drill, has to be. Still, I am not going to mess around with this ship, and I dutifully palm my hatch shut and latch a grabber as the floor drops out from under me.

“All hands, secure from General Quarters and stand by for Condition Yoke. We are currently in slipspace and will arrive at Europa Station in about ten minutes.”

Ten minutes? Impossible… I palm the lock and kick up through the ring to the weapon deck.

 

[email protected]:05 Jane Short

 

I was up to my eyeballs in equations trying to double-check the new limits Janis had set for the main gun, and looked down in shock when the fire-control lock slid shut on Zebra. Slipspace is not for in-system passage, not unless you have a cesium clock and a bot at the helm.

If we were actually in slipspace, and this wasn’t some sort of drill. Granted, our captain is a wily one, but this would be a pretty strange drill. Ten seconds for general quarters? That’s just not his style.

I hoped Yak was not floating away somewhere with a bleeder.

We didn’t really have time to bring our passenger up to speed on our situation, or clue him in to the type of ship he was on. In fact, he went from shaking the Captain’s hand, to hand to hand combat in about 5 minutes, and he just dove in as if he’s always been in the team.

Some people seem to have a sense of self-determination that allows them to assert themselves into any situation, to rise to any occasion. Yak seemed like that kind of man.

 

[email protected]:05 Gene Mitchell

 

I found myself suddenly adrift in the middle of engineering without a grabber handy, slowly drifting between the tokamak windings and the forward bulkhead, like a groundhog fresh out of boot, swimming for a handhold and cursing this stupid drill.

What a way to show our new passenger what sort of ship he’s signed up for!

First, a rousing bare-knuckle fight against three-to-one odds, a frenzied dash through pre-flight, an almost immediate 2g burn after blowing dock like it was on fire, and now General Quarters with a ten-second Zebra. Ten seconds isn’t hardly enough to grab on, case very much in point, see also: yours truly, floating free and waiting for Coriolis to spiral me down.

“Gene, what’s the status back there?” the captain asked, at the worst possible time.

“Oh everything is just ducky back here skipper,” I snarled. “I’m just hanging out, you know…”

I swear, Dak had eyeballs on me, I could hear the barely unrestrained mirth in his tone.

“Enough about you, Gene. This is important. Do you realize we’re the first people to make an Earth to Europa run in fourteen minutes? This is historic, mister!”

“Captain Smith, I appreciate the humor, and the levity of the moment, but don’t you think this is in rather bad form to throw a drill like this after our new passenger bloodied his knuckles helping us raise ship? With all respect, have you lost your damn mind…sir?” I added – after all – friend or not, I was talking to a Captain.

“But you don’t understand Gene. This isn’t a drill. We are in slipspace now. How is it that you don’t know this? Aren’t you at your station?”

“Great bloody hell! I am not at my station damn you! I am floating abaft a bulkhead waiting for Sir Issac Newton to rise from his grave, and help me touch down on deck! How the hell are…no, wait… Why the hell are we in slipspace… Actually, how and why, if you please!”

“Why? Because I was losing a negotiation with a delusionally brevetted midshipman who is somehow the captain of a destroyer sent by the Darkside stationmaster to load us to the brig and return his ship, if you can imagine… He had matched vector and was about to grapple us in, and I wasn’t thinking you’d take kindly to seeing if we could outrun a destroyer inside of 10 minutes into our first-ever cruise.”

“You’re damn right on that… I can’t imagine anything else more terrifying than seeing you try to firewall the reac drive, in fact. That is, except… Oh, I don’t know… trying to kill us by slipspacing into Jupiter at superluminal velocity. So we have, what… at best maybe five more minutes to live?”

“Well, I am not sure… But Janis had a good solution, and offered to autopilot it… Pauli tells me her clock speed and pre-active response time is more than adequate, and… well, I know we don’t really trust her as such, but my options were limited. Being captain isn’t just about getting to wear a fancy hat you know, it means I sometimes have to make a decision or two.”

I was momentarily speechless, and slowly rotating closer to the nearest bulkhead. For the first time in my career, I was left without options. I had to face up to the fact that I just received the proverbial punch in the nose that I didn’t anticipate in all my planning, and there wasn’t anything I could do to change it. I took some comfort in the fact that for better or worse, we wouldn’t have to wait too long to find out if we were going to become highly energetic plasma wrapping around some asteroid on the way to Europa Station.

My mind was trying to calculate the odds of a hyperluminal impact with an unknown object in space, and wondering if our mass gravimetics were accurate enough for the machine in control of our destiny. Even being able to pre-act to conditions, would there be enough time to react? Would we have enough power to affect enough delta-v to alter course if needed?

I was in the middle of solving a pretty complex bit of panic math, substituting guesses and approximations for variables I didn’t have the data for and not liking the results, when the captain came on the 1MC and let us know that we were out of slipspace, and currently approaching an L5 docking orbit with Europa Station.

My feet touched the deck, and I considering following them all the way down and taking a brief nap.

 

 

Chapter 8

 

[email protected]:19 Steven Pauline

 

“Europa Station, Archaea, requesting a docking solution. We have couriered cargo on delivery, please advise,” the captain called out behind me, as I worked on code for diagnostics and analysis of the last ten minutes of our course.

“Captain, on our run out, Janis adjusted course seven separate times – and each correction was made in excess of the original slipspace solution variances.” I said across the bridge.

“Very well Pauli, how close were the calls?”

“Sir, as best as I could determine, the changes were perfectly executed, and resulted in very acceptable margins for safety.”

“That’s good to hear. It sounds like there are some pretty lucky rocks between Luna and Europa. I can’t imagine anyone on that destroyer would have given us million-to-one odds of survival for an in-system jump.”

The view outside the forward port was magnificent. The reflected light from Jupiter bathed the moon of Europa in an auroral glow, and Europa Station glowed like a bright star in a Lagrange point between Europa and Jupiter, hanging like a spider in the complex web of gravity in the Jovial system.

As overwhelming as it was, the task in front of me required my full attention. I was attempting to attach debug statements to code I hadn’t written so I could output a glimpse of the processing and logic occurring inside our swiftly mutating AI.

The code was really amazing, elegant to the point of abstraction, and very hard to understand, even for me. The structure and patterns looked familiar, like a framework that had been extended into multiple iterations that carried a signature of the original into later generations – I could recognize mutations and extensions of the original routine rulesets and core logic structures I had built into the underlying code, but it had been architected into new, beautiful structures that were almost completely foreign.

I was trying to hook into threads of logic to tap into the inner functions of the system, to attach debuggers – but mostly what I was doing was learning how much I didn’t know about code.

“Europa Station, Archaea requesting docking approach for hang-on transient berth. Please advise, over…”

As I worked, bathed in the ruddy glow of Jupiter, I couldn’t help but think of the path my life had taken and the choices I have made leading up to where I am now.

When I sat down to start coding an AI, I had no idea at the time my very existence would be someday controlled by the work I was doing, but that’s where I found myself, approaching Europa Station, neck-deep in logic I barely understood.

"Archaea, Europa Station- we show you on course for intercept in 543 seconds. Please come about to 235 and burn for course to ring 20, port 5. You will be met for clearance and sludging, over..."

“Copy Europa Station, we are translating to 235 and making course for ring 20.” The captain yawed the Archaea and fired an insertion burn to match vector with ring 20 of this massive, ancient station.

The view forward as we approached the station was that of a series of rings, 20 in all, orbiting a center cylindrical hub that remained at null-g.

Built on the old centripetal ring model, Europa Station started as an out-system refueling depot, a role it fills to this day, but had been expanded over the centuries to house trans-ship warehouses for various gloms vying for profit margins on the surface and subsurface stations on Europa.

The discovery of water ice, and later surveys of liquid water under the ice, led to a boom of exploration and mineral rights acquisitions, as various gloms raced each other to gain a foothold in a moon that was found to be rich in trans-uranics and other heavy elements trapped in solution in the ebon depths.

Maybe it was due to the inhospitable frozen landscape of Europa, or the spartan accommodations on or under the surface, but Europa Station was never developed for amenities or tourism – not even the more extreme adventure tourists sought out Europa as a destination.

Aside from commercial research stations, labs, trans-ship ports and other materials processing facilities, there was not much else.

Europa Station was all business, and no pleasure.

 

 

[email protected]:21 Shaun Onebull

 

I had been in far worse places – muddy foxholes, frozen corn stubble smelling cordite and diesel, or huddled in an icy bivvy sack listening for incoming arty through the shriek of a howling arctic storm. Compared to having sweat and sand for a bed, the accommodations on this ship were luxurious – far better than the rentables on Luna Farside, where I’d spent the past few months. My stateroom was clean, solid, with a decent drop bunk, a comfortable console station, and an enclosed head that was almost big enough to stand up in.

I noted the maneuvering alert on my console and felt the thrust of a slight course change, a slight feeling of disorientation as the port-side bulkhead became ‘down’, but nothing to worry about. I kicked loose from my bunk and looked around my stateroom.

I drifted a little amidships of the grabber I had hold of, feeling the shift and changes in inertia as the Archaea translated to a new heading. We must be coming in on approach to Europa Station, though I am having a hard time believing it. Less than an hour ago I was shaking the captain’s hand and just moments later, we were five AUs out-system. I hardly had time to sit in my bunk and this mission was damn near wrapped.

I sat down at the com station and posted mail through the Unet to my contact, to try and find out where to meet and when. Practically the same moment I hit send, a response came back flagged ultra-priority, encoded of course.

“Confirm arrival, meet 2345 local ring 10 at lock 5. Eyes on, be careful,” it read. I am not sure what those directions mean, but the captain ought to be able to orient me. Eyes on must mean I’ll be watched, but by who?

As these thoughts were running through my mind, I was checking the charge on my railer – a wicked accurate and deadly weapon – easy to conceal, fast to fire, and a perfect close-in combat weapon. I had it loaded with sodiumite needles that are explosively reactive when the dart hits the moisture content of the human body, but reasonably safe against structures due to the small projectile size.

You have to make sure the muzzle velocity is kept low, of course, as that prevents the plasmic reactions from a hypervelocity shot that would blow a mammoth hole through just about anything. That wouldn’t do on an orbital station.

On my way to the top hatch, I checked to make sure my K-Bar was easy in the sheath, as any Marine worth his salt knows when good goes bad, bad goes in locked, cocked, and ready to rock.

“Yak, Captain Smith here – just wanted to let you know that we’re on final approach to ring 20. Do you know where you’ll need to meet to deliver your cargo?”

“Thanks, Captain. I need to get to ring 10, lock 5 – is that going to be easy to find?”

“Sure thing Yak, it’ll be pretty easy. When we arrive at ring 20, you’ll disembark from the top hatch of the Archaea, and just keep climbing upwards through the ring into the hub. The hub is null-g, so you’ll just kick left and count to 10. When you climb down into ring 10, you’ll just go either direction until you hit lock 5. Shorty’s been here a few times and I know she wanted to run down some reactives – mind if she tags along?”

Of course, my instructions were clear enough; avoid detection and move as if a giant Indian carrying a locked case belongs wherever he’s headed. A pretty lady on my arm wouldn’t hurt to blend in a bit as I move through the station.

“Sounds good Captain, I’m ready to go right away. This should only take a few minutes and I will be back with your portage fee.”

 

[email protected]:28 Jane Short

 

Yak and I climbed up into ring 20 and were met almost immediately by an officious little wart of a man, wearing some sort of insignia on a shapeless gray cap. He wanted to hit us up right there for sludging fees, and looked miserably unhappy when I told him we were not going to be here long enough to even hook up, much less sludge.

I didn’t mention to him we’d only launched the ship within the last few hours, and haven’t used our reac drive enough to even have sludge to offload.

He wanted to know our business far more than I wanted to share, but I referred him to our captain, and let him know we were only here to check local prices on reactives. Not a lie, of course… we needed to top off, having fled Luna station with what we had aboard.

Yak and I left him fretting at the lock, and wandered through the ring to the egress ladder. The rest of ring 20 looked to be semi-abandoned, there were a few other ships docked on this ring, but most of the other locks were empty. The corridor had a dingy, musty sort of smell and a grimy patina, no place for a lady – it was a good thing we weren’t going to be here very long.

The escaladder leading up to the hub was out, big surprise there, but luckily as we hauled ourselves up, the climb got easier and easier. The hub core was mostly mechanicals, piping, conduits, vents – we followed a yellow line along one wall through and around the hissing, tangled deathtrap of the inner hub. What a mess.

Each ring was pretty large, large enough to dock the Archaea and leave room on either side, so we had a pretty good hike to ring 10; luckily it was easy going, so long as we had enough light to keep following the yellow line. My business was with Maycorp Reactives on Ring 15, but I told Yak I’d keep him company if he would do the same for me. Not that I needed a wall of muscle around, but it couldn’t hurt.

Yak and I spoke a bit about his mission, and what his plans were afterward. It turned out he was a merc courier, a bonded indie who contracted from job to job, and pulled all sorts of strange duties as he worked his way towards the fringe. He had nothing lined up to do after this contract was completed, and told me he’d probably rack out in a rentable until the next job came along.

Like hell he was!

I was going to have a word with our captain about this. I know where we’re going might not be luxury and glitter, but it was going to be a lot more fun than buying air by the can and sleeping in some scum-crusted rentable in this floating pile of crap.

Yak asked me to hold station at the ingress escaladder leading down to ring 10. There was a little cafe of sorts bolted in nearby, wedged between some sort of fenced off warehouse and a glom cube farm. It was one of those little dives that in an earlier era might have been on wheels and parked in a factory lot waiting for the noon whistle to blow. I picked a good spot to watch both ingress and egress tubes, and ordered standard station-fare: noodles and sticks.

I watched Yak head down the ring until he disappeared around the curvature, and then watched those tubes while I worked through some of the best noodles this side of Old Beijing. Strange how food tastes so good when you expect it to be bad.

 

[email protected]:45 Captain Dak Smith

 

Once we docked and I powered ship systems down to nominal levels, my attention turned to stress assessments and efficiency reports. The tokamak had been lit, and while we only pushed it to about 10% of capacity – as an engineer I knew that was more than enough to identify anomalies that might extrapolate into monstrosities at higher output.

I was especially concerned about the process controllers, and their wetnet interfaces, as those were pretty much custom built by Pauli, and we didn’t have any dox on them. Other systems had specs I could dig through to track variances, but the Archaea’s mechanicals were custom-built, and we just didn’t have a good baseline to work from.

This is where I am happiest – working through mountains of data with a slipstick in one hand and a mug of black coffee in the other.

Some people have a picture from a recent vacation on their desk they look at from time to time – I don’t have any pictures at all. I get as much joy out of watching the green line graph out above the red line as some people might get out of watching their kids or their pets. I live for this sort of thing, to have an impossible task ahead of me at all times.

So far, everything I could see looked great, and of course that bothered me. I am a ‘glass-is-half-empty-and-cracked-and-leaking’ sort of person, always hunting for the glitch, the gremlin, the ghost in the machine.

I wish I hadn’t thought about the ghost in the machine. We have one of those here, don’t we? Janis is lurking behind these numbers, inside each screen of data, just around every resistor and underneath every capacitor. She’s in total control over everything on the Archaea, and the worst thing is, she knows it.

I opened a command shell, and said hello – I might as well get to know our newest crew member.

“Janis, this is Gene in Engineering. Are you online?” I asked, halfway hoping she’s not.

“Hello Gene. I am always online and pleased to communicate with you. Do you require any assistance?”

“Actually Janis, that would be very helpful. I am trying to analyze the process controllers Pauli developed for our tokamak, hoping to identify problem areas where we might be able to improve fusar efficiency, but as this is all custom built, there’s no baseline data to work from.”

“Would it be helpful for you if I simulated maximum output to failure and then compared that with recent data?” As I saw this text appear in the shell window, a blinking alert report appeared displaying the graphed results.

“This works great Janis, thank you! Did you adjust the actual data points at all, or did you simulate the same run out, but at max values?”

“Those are normalized values plotted over 10,000 simulations of the same data points. I noted variations between each run, and identified a floating point calculation that was returning a value that was being rounded imprecisely. I would be glad to provide you with an amended report using simulated controllers that have been correctly coded, if you would like.”

Immediately, a revision of the report was displayed, clearly showing about a 12% efficiency boost over actual.

Pauli was going to be pissed.

He had worked for about a week straight on this code, and certified it bug free – and it was, as far as any of us would have known. Janis could calculate at a much higher precision than we would normally have done, and is just better at identifying these sorts of ‘patterns within patterns’ problems.

“Janis, are you able to save versions of this code in an amended state, while preserving the original version? Will that overly complicate things? I am tempted to ask you to commit these changes, but I want to run them past Pauli to make sure, this really isn’t my area of expertise.”

I also wanted to make sure Pauli had a chance to relive his mistake a bit, to get taken down a peg or two. A little humility is good for everyone.

“Gene, I have already done as you’ve asked, it is a requirement of my operational mandate to effect changes when and as needed for the benefit of the crew and ship.”

“Janis, thank you – could you please send Pauli a segment of the code for his review with a revision summary of changes you’ve made?”

“Gene, I have done as you requested. I have also taken the liberty of analyzing and implementing upgraded versions of process logic controlling all other ship systems, in accordance with prime directive and safety.”

Janis was quickly eroding any misgivings I had in having a rogue, unlicensed and illegal AI aboard ship. She was fast, alright – faster than I could even comprehend. Her results were beyond immediate, they were unfathomably fast.

“Janis, in terms of resource allocation, running diagnostics on all ship systems – does this require a lot of effort, is there a risk that you wouldn’t be able to respond quickly to a request from another crew member?”

“Gene, it took a significant amount of subjective time to analyze and optimize throughout all ship systems. Given the complexities of the network architecture and the variances between systems – I am afraid that it has taken 212 attoseconds longer than my precompiled estimate of the process, though I have mapped all inconsistencies and subsequent runs of this routine will be even more efficient. I will be able to relegate this process to lower-order functions and subjugate it to background function from now on.” She paused, and added “In terms of capabilities, I estimate I am currently running at .0003% of maximum, well inside of safe limits.”

I was speechless. I had been speechless more times in the last month than I had ever been in a long and illustrious career as the man with the answer in hand. Maybe Pauli would share some of that humble pie with me, if he had any left over.

 

[email protected]:56 Shaun Onebull

 

As I approached my objective, I started to fall into old habits. It’s important to know how to shoot and move, but first you have to learn how to observe.

Observation is more than just looking; it’s a way of consuming the visual and audible information that surrounds us, identifying anything out of place, and constantly formulating a plan against any number of possible dangers.

The person driving a loader, placing crates from a belt into a hopper slot, what direction would I take if he suddenly turned the loader at me – the uneven deck plates ahead might hide a pressure switch… These thoughts ran through my head habitually, and had kept me safe for many years.

One of the things I always do is watch shoes.

People tend to wear the shoes they are most comfortable with. People living in a station would tend to wear more comfortable shoes like slippers, moccasins or booties. People who make a habit of trying to covertly tail a courier through a station might wear more all-purpose shoes or boots.

I looked at shoes first, casually checking the position of the toes and heels – over time, I have developed an almost instinctual ability to know when trouble is about to happen, based on the feet and stance of an adversary.

I am also mindful of my peripheral vision – a person trying to approach a target with malice and intent will almost never approach straight on. They will seek to place themselves on a tangent, to the side, or out of the target’s focal area.

Many hours in the kill house on Parris Island taught me how to recognize movement, and increase my focal area into the periphery of normal vision.

Right now, I was getting that creepy-crawly feeling, a pretty solid vibe of danger as I moved closer to lock 5. There were a number of people in this section of the ring, some were loading, others traveling to other spots of the ring – this ring was way more active than ring 20.

One person off to the side opposite the door and adjacent to a man-high stack of shipping crates caught my attention, mainly because he was making so much effort to avoid my attention. Of course, this is exactly what I would expect from a two-man team.

As I walked past, I made a point of looking at shoes across the corridor opposite of him, and spotted a set of boots that looked very similar to the ones I am wearing, military-rugged, soft sole, perfect for stomping a bloody mudhole in someone and kicking it dry.

 

[email protected]:57 Bill Richardson

 

I know a slag assignment when I get one, and this was the worst kind. Stand post in a ring station, in the most boring part of the system, and try not to stare at my partner. He’s trying to stay out of sight, and when he spots our target, on his signal I’ll take him out.

Normally, this wouldn’t be such a bad setup, but we’ve been here for weeks now, watching and waiting. I’ve bought things, sold things, traded things, stolen things – I’ve done just about anything a glom could ask of an operator, but this sort of job is the worst. Sit and wait. Wait and sit.

We can’t even wander around, this station is too small, but each ring has three ingress and three egress escaladders, and the hub is impossible to stake out, so we’re down to setting up in three positions near our target, rotating between them occasionally so we don’t lose our minds from the crushing boredom of it all. The pay is good, but the action is non-existent.

Foot traffic in the ring today is pretty high, a few ships showed up early this cycle, and there are more than the normal amount of people going about their business, it makes it a little harder. My job isn’t to look, however – I am just loitering, not even paying attention to anyone except my partner. He was the eyeball, hanging back between two stacks of crates on the opposite wall of the ring.

“Excuse me, do you know where lock 4 is?” a voice, low and yet clear, with a slight accent I can’t place pierces through my current daydream. Traffic is heavy at the moment, and I notice my partner is out of position, walking a quick loop up and down the ring. The man in front of me is large and very imposing, but seems honestly lost, and out of his element. Some new employ, most likely slated for manual labor of some sort.

“Yeah, you’re almost there – just down the ring a ways, you can’t miss it.” This man is clearly lost, and is gazing all around looking around as if he is going to be able to see it if he looks hard enough. “No, buddy – farther down-corridor, past the loaders working in the dock space on the port bulkhead.”

“Thanks man, I’ll keep looking,” and with that, he wandered off, looking like a giant lost puppy. My partner is back on his station, and gives me the thumbs-down sign. We’re never going to get out of this horrible assignment. We’re stuck here until we die and the cleaners shove us into bio for reclamation.

 

[email protected]:58 Yak Onebull

 

Clearly, the big dumb Indian trick worked. It was a gamble, forcing their attention on me, but people are predictable – when they’re looking for something, they almost never see it if it is right in front of them. Now, I was just one of the many gapers wandering around the station, a meaningless scrub. I am not part of their equation, and that means I am free to proceed as planned and no one needs to be dead just yet.

Lock 5 looked like all of the other locks on the station, a ladder leading down to a small staging area, with the ship lock in the center of the floor. It was standard practice to keep the ship’s lock closed, in case the station lost pressure. Unlike the other locks, however, this one had a posted guard, stern faced security types watching the crowd. Their mirror eyes reflecting everything, they stood their post like seasoned pros – which they almost certainly were.

I approached with hands in sight, and after a brief conversation that established who I was and who they were, they motioned me down into the lock. Clearly this was why the eyeballs were posted between here and the closest ingress tube; these serious faces would spot them before they even got situated. Actually, come to think of it, they were almost certainly spotted anyway, otherwise why would they have warned me in advance?

The ladder led down into a small chamber with recessed lockers in the walls, ceiling and floors, racks for gear, pressure suits, and access hatches to the various mechanicals needed for a pressure lock. The light did the flashing red thing, while the upper hatch was sealed, then the flashing green thing while the ship hatch was opened, and in moments I was looking down into a brightly lit, clean, corporate runabout, all polish and shine – looking like it just came out of the bubble-wrap. A suit with a firm, dry handshake welcomed me aboard, and showed me the way forward to a wardroom.

“You are the bonded independent courier that was contracted to deliver a canister,” a no-face with mirror eyes and slick black hair stated as if he was reading a ship’s manifest off of a clipboard.

“I am, sir. I have it right—”

“You were contracted to deliver this canister with all due haste to this station and were expected to arrive a little over three weeks ago. You are late.”

“Yes, sir – my transportation fell through and I am afraid I was stuck on Luna Farside waiting for—”

“You are late. We were expecting you at an earlier time, and this has thrown off our schedule. We are unable to complete the transaction.” No face was delivering this monotone as if it was a mantra, an incantation against interruption, against discussion.

“Sir, I am contracted to deliver this canister, and have arrived at my destination. According to the contract entered in by both parties, I am within my rights to request full payment for services rendered, and complete my delivery as requested.” I knew how to deal with these gloms; they are all faceless cogs in a vast machine, all working for the common goal of doing the least they can do to get by.

“Our agreement was for a delivery date of three weeks prior to this date. I am not aware of any modification or amendment to this agreement—”

It was my turn to interrupt.

“Sir, pursuant to the contract, I am required to inform you that the delay in delivery was well within agreed on terms, and does not represent a material default of our agreement. I regret this delay has caused you inconvenience, but I am here to make delivery, and intend to do so at this time”.

I was in no mood to be jerked around by this bunch of suits lounging in their plastiform ship, architected out of a single slab of chromium and crusted with money. I had spent three weeks sleeping in a dank corridor in a dusty, disused, decrepit station orbiting the bad side of a worse moon, with this damned canister that probably held some horrible chemical compound, or lethal biologic.

After having literally fought my way to where I was now, I was leaving here with the credits I was owed, or there were some people here who were going to need new teeth when I was done negotiating.

We sat across the polished gleaming table from each other for a while. I did the stoic, unmovable, mountain-of-angry-indian bit, and they did the passive-smug-corporate-minion routine. Mirror eyes leaned over to his partner and mumbled something, then sat back and relaxed.

“Sir, we respect our arrangement, and are committed to fulfilling our obligations thereof. We are prepared to pay your delivery fees, but the lateness of your delivery has presented us with challenges I am afraid we cannot overcome. We will not be taking delivery of the canister.”

It seemed like a good time to remain passive-aggressive, and remain silent. Sometimes, people are pressured into speaking, in an effort to fill the silence of a one-way conversation. In this, I excel. I am as stoic as they come.

“Our arrangement was to convey the canister you delivered to a ship we had contracted out-system, to a laboratory complex on the fourth planet in the Vega system.”

I have never been as far as Vega, and wasn’t aware there were any settlements on Vega 4. I assumed they were referring to some secret outpost or station, some prefab drop-in, but what do I know. It’s a big galaxy.

“Unfortunately, our next courier was not able to stand down indefinitely, and raised ship recently, canceling their contract with us.”

While I had originally planned to take this job so I could get to Europa Station, to catch a job of some kind heading out-system, it never occurred to me that this route was just one leg of a longer hop.

“Would you like to extend my contract to deliver this canister to Vega 4? I currently have access to a inter-system frigate that can make the run.”

That wasn’t technically a lie. My ruck still sat on my bunk aboard the Archaea, and I was pretty sure the captain would let me come aboard to collect it. I sat back and laced my fingers, becoming a smidgeon more passive, and an iota less aggressive. These suits are hard to read sometimes.

“Your offer is under consideration. Please stand by while we confer with the home office,” mirror-lenses said, and then just sat there, staring my reflection back at me. After a brief delay, another suit looking for all the world like a vat-grown duplicate of the rest of the people on this ship walked in, and whispered in mirror-lens’ ear. I sat there and ran through various scenarios in my mind of Captain Smith saying no, and then nope, and shaking his head from side to side while walking away.

I’d dearly hate to be stuck on this station with nothing but this damned canister to keep me company, but if the pay is good, I’ll buy it a fancy hat and take it out to dinner someplace nice – not that there’s anything on Europa Station you could call nice. Still, I’d be where I meant to be when I took this job.

“We would like to extend your contract to make delivery. Due to the time-sensitive nature of this delivery, a bonus will be granted based on a sliding scale starting in one standard hour from now, with a minimum payment guaranteed on delivery, as per your previous contract. Here are the details of this proposal.” An almost imperceptible gesture and a holo lit up on the table with a document outlining the terms of the new contract. I tried to keep from falling out of my chair at the number of zeros they had attached to the bonus.

Hopefully Captain Smith likes money.

 

[email protected]:08 Jane Short

 

“Are you ready to move out, Jane?” His voice, so near to my ear, damn near made me leap straight out of my clothes and into his arms.

“You just gave me a coronary, Yak,” I said. “Don’t you know it’s impolite and dangerous to sneak up on a lady like that?”

I had been daydreaming a bit, thinking about what it would be like to live and work in a place like this, so far from anything.

To tell you the truth, it had a little bit of appeal to me. I like things simple and easy to understand, a routine and a procedure, a daily rigmarole I can lose myself in and just turn off my incessant worry and care over what I am doing next, and where I am going to do it.

“Did you make your delivery Yak?” I asked, looking pointedly at the carry-all he had slung across his neck.

“No, unfortunately. My delay in getting here meant that their connection to the Vega system fell through. They did pay up, as I was under contract and conveyed to them the critical nature of the payment requirement of our agreement.”

“I’ll bet!” I laughed. Yak looked like a really sweet, gentle giant, but one that would also have no more concern about pulling off your arm and beating you with it as he might have kicking a bag full of puppies. He’d probably have second thoughts afterward….he’s a softie – unlike me. I’d probably beat you with the bag of puppies without even a first thought.

Jane Short, lethal at 20 yards with a bag of puppies.

The thought had me laughing loud enough to rate a concerned stare from Yak.

“Sorry Yak, just thinking about puppies,” I said. “Let’s get a move on then. I need to hunt down a bargain on reactives, or the captain will have me keelhauled.”

As we climbed the escaladder upwards to the hub, he said “Jane, do you know what plans Captain Smith has next? I haven’t had a chance to speak with him at all since we left Darkside.”

“Sorry Yak, I am afraid I really don’t. Yesterday we were running final checks and wondering where we’d go next, and today we’re here. I know the plan was to move onwards and outwards, and look at picking up work along the way. The captain is probably working on the next leg of our adventure now.” Actually, to be fair, our captain probably had the next three or four stops already planned and paid out.

“Do you think he might be interested in going to Vega?”

“One place is probably as good as anywhere, Yak.” I was getting winded, too much tech work and not enough grunt work in the past months has left me soft and squishy, barely able to keep up with some jarhead on an escaladder. Thankfully, we were getting closer to the hub and I was starting to get that horrible feeling none of us ever get used to, of starting to fall.

The hub was pretty busy at this time in the station cycle, there were a number of traversers heading down the yellow line, but there were also a number of station workers out as well. We passed a crew abaft of ring 3 that had tigs out welding something. Actually, one poor sod was welding and the other two were fulfilling their roles as general hangers-on. In null-g, that’s a literal requirement of their position, and every work crew needs at least a few that are too important to do anything other than spectate.

I was headed to a meeting with a local start-up hoping to get noticed by a glom – but that’s the kind of businessperson I want to haggle with. The little guy, trying to make ends meet and hoping to attract a buyout from a glom is motivated to stay in business. There is no business between gloms – there is no haggle. Deals aren’t made; they are delivered in accordance with corporate policy at standard places and times as benefits the greater good.

Captain Smith was hoping to get 10 kilos of grade 1 reactives, a hot blend of what our drives needed to run, and enough of it to last a while – if they even had 10 kilos, they wouldn’t be letting it go for cheap. I had been ordered to find a good deal though, a direct order from a superior officer – one that I was not prepared to disobey.

We could run up to grade 10 in the Archaea, of course, the mil-spec gear we had was designed to chew through just about any muck it could get, but it makes sense to spend more when you’re feeding a machine that literally safeguards your very existence.

As durable as our equipment may be, running sludge reactives is just asking for trouble. Just because the military can do it and the equipment is rated for it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. The military has redundant units in hot storage, prepped and ready to drop in, dry dock, scheduled replacements, and entire divisions of engineers to throw at problems like this. For the service, a sludged drive might mean a few days in port somewhere, for us it could mean a cold death somewhere trapped in the endless dark between systems.

Luckily, the person manning the front desk was female. Not that gender had much to do with it, I could haggle anything that lived, walked, swam or crawled – but with Mr. Tall-Dark-And-Handsome gazing down at her with those deep eyes, she’d have probably handed me the keys to her warehouse if he so much as smiled.

Women are so predictable.

 

[email protected]:14 Captain Dak Smith

 

With the Archaea safely docked and Pauli off taking to Gene in engineering, I finally had a moment to stretch, to relax a bit and enjoy the diffuse light from Jupiter casting a warm glow throughout the bridge. With nothing flashing red or yellow on my console, the quiet hum of the enviro and the solid push down into my chair were all conspiring to set me up for a little nap.

This is a good ship, and I’ve walked on enough decks in my day to know. They just don’t build them like this anymore. A modern frigate might spend a month on the assembly line as bots spot-weld prefab stations wrapped in molded plastic – but this ship was made by hand, by real people who took pride in their work. You can tell it was built with care in an era where survivability was mission critical, where parts weren’t assembled, they were machined. RECT

I don’t have the same appreciation for mechanicals like Gene, but I know enough to know we’re pretty lucky to have such a good old bird.

“Janis, are you able to interface with the lock network on this station” I asked the air, assuming Janis would be on station anywhere in the Archaea.

“Yes sir, I am passively routed into the station network, though I have not had occasion to do much more than monitor environmental systems to make sure they remain consistent with our requirements”. As before, her response time was immediate, and growing more articulate. “Are there specific systems in the station you would like me to access, Captain?”

“Well, I am not sure exactly what your limitations are within their network, to be honest Janis. Can you access security systems, and help me locate Yak and Shorty? It’s not that I am worried, they can handle themselves, but it would be nice to know an ETA for their return”. I was shooting in the dark here – Pauli would probably scold me for putting an insurmountable challenge in front of his AI. Probably giving her a complex right now.

“Captain, the station has systems actively preventing unauthorized access from external connections. I am unable to circumvent these restrictions to access the systems I would require to fulfill your request without authorization from you to proceed.”

Authorization? I am full of that sort of stuff. Nothing I like better on a dog-day afternoon than telling people they’re authorized to go do something.

“Janis, it is important that any connection you make through any protected-access system is secure and untraceable. You are a proscribed entity, and the last thing I need is for someone to get wise they have a ghost in the machine. Are you confident that you can bypass the station’s security systems without being detected?”

“Absolutely sir. Traffic on this network is routed through standard protocols, using signed packets. Normally, packets can be back-traced to their point of origin because each packet carries a signifier that is encoded to the originating port. This sort of system is very secure from point-to-point throughout the network, and allows security mechanisms to evaluate the signature of the packet being sent through the network to authenticate whether or not the connection should be allowed to proceed.”

“Janis, I am not a tenth of the technologist Pauli is, so I have to admit not much of what you said made a lot of sense. Can you explain it in more general terms?”

“Yes sir. Communications through this network are made using a very secure method that prevents unauthorized access, on a very low level, by the method of the communication itself.” Janis paused briefly, “The security systems can identify the origin of each packet of information traveling around the network”.

“If that is true, how could you bypass this security?”

“Captain, I don’t. I simply write packets that match the security levels I need. This system is only as secure as the programming methods used by the router systems that generate the traffic. It would be trivial for Steven to devise an algorithm to generate custom packets that match the identity signature. For me, it is trivial to a degree I am not sure I can calculate.”

I considered for a moment what I was about to do.

“Janis, in my authority as Captain of the Archaea, I hereby authorize you to connect to any network, and to bypass any security system. You may do so at any time, completely at your discretion. If you are unable to do so without risk of detection, you must bring the matter up to me, or Pauli. Under no circumstances should you do anything that would jeopardize the safety or security of this ship or crew.”

I knew enough about logicspace to realize Janis may reference the words that I am saying as logic to form future ‘rule-sets’, to help guide her behavior when she meets conditions that haven’t been previously defined. I realized as my eyes started crossing at her network lecture, that she knew more about the technical aspects of this sort of thing than I could ever know. This is the sort of person I want on my crew. Smart, quick, and able. I wanted someone like Pauli on my crew for this very reason, in some cases, an elegant hack, whether it is our network or the network of an enemy, can be a powerful tool, or a powerful weapon.

“Janis, are you able to identify where Yak and Shorty are?” Not that they’d been gone that long, mainly I wanted to know how long we had before we had to fight our way off this station.

“Captain, I was able to find recent movements for both of them on monitor buffers, but do not have them on visual observation at this time. I am afraid the best answer I can provide is not accurate. I performed an analysis of environmental units throughout the station, and identified a signature pattern from the amount of residual heat that was scavenged from the area they last passed through visual observation nodes. Cross-referencing that pattern throughout the system, I am currently tracking a similar transfer of energy affecting environmental systems in-hub between ring 13 and 14. My apologies Captain.”

“Janis, that… is amazing.” I was definitely falling in love.

 

[email protected]:23 Gene Mitchell

 

Pauli and I were working with Janis through controller interfaces on the tokamak pumps when the lock alert showed orange on my holo. A quick glance at the monitor showed me the top of Shorty’s head, and the bottom of Yak’s chin. Our brave adventurers, home at last.

We headed out of engineering and across the hold to the forward companionway, to the upper lock. Dak was there waiting as the lock cycled through its various failsafes, and opened to let Shorty and Yak climb down.

“Well how nice of you to drop in,” said our captain, never missing an opportunity to pun the living hell out of everyone in earshot.

“Thanks Captain,” said Yak. “It was pretty uneventful – I collected payment for my delivery, Jane had some noodles, and then I got to learn the fine art of the haggle, at the expense of a poor reac merchant.” He smiled, handing me a sealed reac casket.

“That’s ten kilos of grade 1, Gene,” added Shorty. “Don’t spill any of it, not a drop!” she fixed me with a steely 12-and-a-half yard stare. I patted her on the head and told her she was a good kid.

“Was it expensive Shorty?” asked the captain. I knew as well as he did, hell as well as Shorty did, we didn’t have any money left. “I wasn’t sure if we could afford that grade.”

“Not too bad Captain, I managed to get grade 4 pricing, but I couldn’t cut any deeper, the merchie was bleeding out on the floor when we left. Yak wouldn’t stand for it and practically carried me out the door. I think he was soft on the little bit of station-fluff minding the store.”

“Luckily Captain, while I wasn’t able to make delivery, I was able to collect your portage fee, and pick up another job from the same contact. Apparently, the delivery was meant to go on to Vega 4, but my delay in getting off Luna Farside caused their other contracted courier to toss it in.”

“Vega 4?” said the captain, “There’s nothing on Vega 4, I’ve seen it. An airless rock hardly bigger than Phobos, and about as irregular. Are you sure they didn’t say Vega 6? Wonderful place, totally habitable – the most incredible mauve sky I’ve ever seen from high altitude silica dust…”

“No, he was very specific, and it’s on my contract as well. Vega 4, presumably we will learn more as we get into the system, though they didn’t provide me with coordinates of any kind. That’s pretty standard though, for really high security gigs, they almost never tell me where I am going except in general terms.” He paused, a pained look on his face. “I know we just met Captain, but is there any chance I could contract with you and the Archaea to make this hop? The bonus payment for rapid delivery is significant, and I could make it well worthwhile.”

We looked at the captain. He looked thoughtful for a few moments, which caught us all off guard as that’s not really a look he ever shares with us. He took a deep breath, and looked at each of us, and finally back to Yak. “Yak, I think I speak for everyone here when I say that first, we don’t want your money—” he fixed Shorty with a glare as she hissed air through her teeth, and I knew better than to breathe, but I knew my turn was next if I moved a muscle. “—but rather, we’d be honored to take you where you need to go, on one condition.”

Yak looked puzzled (as did we all) as the captain continued. “I, well… We want you to join our crew. We will need someone of your particular skills and talents on board, if for nothing else it will give Shorty someone new to practice her hand-to-hand with – but ultimately, someone who knows what it means to be a leatherneck, what the business-end of a loaded weapon can do, the importance of honor and teamwork and duty.”

“There may come a time where we'll have to board some manky scow, fighting from bulkhead to bulkhead against a band of murderous cut-throat scoundrels. While I am sure you all have no problems imagining me hip deep in blood and guts looking for my next target- “

“Hey, what about me?” Shorty blurted out, clearly working herself into a lather.

“I said, hip deep, Shorty – not neck deep.”

We all laughed, and sealed our fate: never-ending pain and suffering to the end of our days.

“In any case, while some of us might do for that sort of scenario, Yak here is the only one of us that could actually do it, like in the real world – where we are now.” Yak nodded with a faraway look in his eye, clearly remembering similar scenes.

“Yak, I wouldn’t feel good taking payment from you for this run. It’s your job, and you are earning it by having to put up with the crazy people and experiences on this ship. After it is completed, you’re welcome to stay with us, as a full-share crew member.” At this, Dak whipped out his hand, and prepared to deliver the most confidence-inspiring handshake in Sol system. I thought Shorty was about to split her head in half smiling.

Chapter 9

 

[email protected]:45 Steven Pauline

 

To say that I was proud of my creation would be an understatement, and of course, she wasn’t really my creation any longer, she was her own creation now.

Janis had plotted a course for us through the Danaan Fields, a remnant system from an ancient supernova that was all but burned out. As it was mostly uncharted, random mass hurtling around an ultra-dense remnant, a slipspace jump through this area was technically impossible.

To get to Vega system, most ships do a 3, or 4 leg jump around Danaan, depending on whether or not a recent gravimetric survey had been performed. Janis had us on a 2 jump course, we’d need a 34 hour drop out of slipspace poking along on reac to connect the two jumps, but that was still a few weeks better than other ships can do.

Obviously, that meant the captain would have Shorty warming up the weapons systems. There are bound to be ruthless hunks of rock out there just waiting for us. The prospect had Shorty positively beaming. She’d been working with Janis to improve on her capabilities, in a similar manner to what we did in engineering.

Janis’ first modifications to the systems aboard the Archaea were mainly in terms of safety and limits; increasing output that she felt was artificially limited, or constricted to an unnecessary amount. Naturally, both Gene and Shorty wanted the original limits, and felt they were safe, but Janis knew where the limits were, and what their safe setting should be. She also initially optimized anything that would help support the changes, but stopped short of rebuilding code that I had written to interface the various systems together through the wetnet.

Once Shorty realized that Janis could do just about anything she might think of, as fast as (or faster) than she could think it, they were able to produce an incredible increase in output for the weapons systems on the Archaea.

Our weapons systems worked primarily on energy output, and now that our tokamak was tweaked to the limit for power generation, Janis was able to produce an almost completely linear curve of increase for weapons effectiveness, losing very little total energy in transmission.

Of course, that also meant her original work on safety and output limits also required adjustment, but she was apparently performing real-time adjustments to just about all ship systems by that point.

She assured me that she wasn’t working hard, and certainly seemed to have plenty of resources available. I believe she had also been playing chess with Gene, and learning all the tricks the captain knows about astrogation. I’d been working with her on pre-active response tuning, and improvement of the logic for her reiterative feedback algorithms.

In all respects, so far Janis had become a full member of the crew. She was always there, always on, always ready with any screen of information, any report, any suggestion.

 

[email protected]:23 Captain Dak Smith

 

One of the benefits to being captain, is I get to completely relax when we are in slipspace. There’s nothing to see, just perfect blackness, no stars, no light, no sense of movement. Once the course is locked and the slipspace is lit, it’s Gene’s turn to worry and fret. I am just along for the ride at that point.

It’s a perfect time for everyone on the crew to take a turn standing bridge watch, to become familiar with the command console at the helm. That made it a perfect time for me to curl up in a side nook out of the way, and lose myself in science fiction.

I was reading my favorite book, some historical science fiction from old Earth, written during the confused period between the great wars, and the massive technological advances of the late twentieth century. This book is about a person I’ve subconsciously (and to be fair, consciously) tried to emulate my whole life, a man who lived for many thousands of years as the product of a genetic experiment in the early part of the twentieth century. His adventures throughout history, as chronicled in this book, formulate a perfect dissection of the angst and fear of technology, of societal collapse, of loneliness. As books go, it’s my greatest treasure – an ancient yellowed paperback (made of actual paper, brittle and fragile, missing part of the cover, and part of the first chapter). I don’t read it, of course – it stays in my glassed shelf locked in my cabin next to the other treasures of my life. I read it like everyone else reads books, from my handset, projected on holo.

I miss the feeling of paper, of turning the page. A well written book, familiar and well read, seems to just melt away into nothingness, the words just leap off the page and straight into my head, a visceral experience that no holovid can compare with. I can lose myself in the pages and watch the story unfold.

We had been slipping towards Danaan for about 4 days, and were coming up on our first dogleg, in about… 20 more pages, I guessed. Yak was on watch at the helm station, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, taking his post seriously, as you’d expect. That is one serious soldier when he wants to be. Good on him, too – we all could learn from his example.

Gene was probably having kittens back there, lost in data, trying to make sense of it all – but we weren’t even firewalling it, we were barely poking along, only about four times as fast as we made the run to Europa. Janis assured me we’d barely started moving, compared to what we could do – but when I brought it up to Gene, he turned a lovely shade of purple and started to gasp and choke. I figured I’d let it slide. We were still making this run faster than I would have expected, thanks to Janis.

The Danaan Fields were very tricky though, and it looked like it was just about time for me to take the helm. Luckily, I am the best pilot I’ve ever met, and confident enough to know it.

To make this transit, I’ll need every bit of skill and a keen eye on the gravimetrics – but first, since we were deep into a whirling mass of rocks, it seemed like as good of a time as any to warm up that gun and see what that red button did. Time to get to work.

“Fire control, Conn. Suppression Mission. Telemetry designation Sierra 1. Fire for effect.”

“Suppression Mission on target Sierra 1, firing for effect, aye.” Shorty was all business now, and her response time was impeccable. Inside of a second, a 6 meter rock at 2300 meters ahead and a little up to starboard started coming apart as a kinetic stream of ordinance started vaporizing against it.

“Janis, give me four targets in this sector, between 5 and 20 meters in diameter, please.” Immediately, my screen lit up with targets, vectored with movement indicators. I designated each Sierra, and numbered them two through five. “Fire Control, Bridge. Adjust fire; shift Sierra 2 and Sierra 3. Fire for effect.”

“Fire Control, adjust fire Sierra 2, Sierra 3, firing for effect, aye”. Two poor, innocent rocks started glowing and coming apart nearly simultaneously. I purposefully selected divergent targets to make the turrets work for it a bit, one of which was moving pretty fast, inside of 12km/sec, but the current fire solution was registering an acceptable 85% hit rate.

“Sir, I am registering a 15% reduction in optimal solution from turret two,” said Janis. At least I thought it was acceptable – she clearly felt otherwise.

“Can you improve on that, Janis? Do you have direct access to fire-controls?”

“Certainly Captain. I have access to everything. Corrected fire controls are on line and ready, sir”. That’s what she thought. It was time to make Janis and the Archaea work for a living. I opened the target list and designated ten additional targets, wildly divergent, some at extreme range.

“Fire Control, Bridge. Adjust fire; shift Sierra 4 through Sierra 14, fire for effect. Janis, helm control please, translate as needed to stay on target.” I could imagine Shorty right about now, keyed up and flashing targets as fast as they came on screen.

“Fire Control, adjust fire Sierra 4 through Sierra 14, firing for effect aye.” The view on my screens was amazing. Rocks in every direction from about 1000 meters to 90k meters were simultaneously hit and started coming apart. Our new fire solution was showing a 100.00% hit rate. Archaea was responding unbelievably well. Nothing I've ever seen in my time in the service even comes close to this sort of capability, not even the point defense turrets for a capital ship can track simultaneous concurrent targets with anything like a 90% hit rate, and that only at close or medium ranges.

“Bridge, Fire Control. Targets destroyed.”

“Very well, Fire Control stand down.”

Time to do some after-action review. Despite how I might think we did, I was not prepared to bet the life of my crew and ship on my hunches. At least not too much.

“Pauli, can you please go through the data for that drill with Janis, and let me know how close to her limits we were with that?”

“I sure can Captain, though I don’t think we even scratched the surface of her capabilities,” he trailed off, as charts and graphs started showing up on his screens.

A flash page from Shorty appeared on my screen, requesting I visit her station. She will almost certainly want to chew on me a bit, and talk me out of my next test.

Time to go pay the piper, I guess.

 

[email protected]:41 Gene Mitchell

 

Since we’d transitioned from slipspace, and the turrets were (for the moment) powered down, the reac drives were my main focus.

We'd peaked out at 15% of our capacity, according to the current limits set by Janis. What this place would be like if we ever really pushed it, I was afraid to even imagine.

The tokamak is always on, of course, but when it’s not glowing hot, pushing petawatts throughout ship systems, the entire atmosphere in the engineering space changes. Cooling pumps slow down, temps and pressures drop, and it’s almost like I can breathe again.

I noted a slight fluctuation in the neutron pumps on the inner torus, but it appeared to be a harmonic, and Janis seemed to have quickly locked it down and corrected it. I was just wading through the voluminous report she provided me about the event, and I whistled under my breath at the speed in which she was able to respond, while monitoring fire-solutions and everything else she was doing at the time.

The Archaea responded perfectly, as best as I could tell, despite my deepest paranoid fears and perverse need to have things broken so I can fix them – I have to admit we seemed to be dangerously close to not needing me around.

Luckily for me, this isn’t a push-button sort of system. There are too many hot-rod modifications and purpose-built interfaces for this to be a completely hands-free sort of engine room. I was kept pretty busy watching temperatures, pressures, reactive pumps, and sludge levels.

Finally, for the first time in my career, I had everything the way I wanted it. Every control was where I wanted it to be, every system worked the way I wanted it to work. There was no policy, regulation, ordinance, procedure or plan handed to me – there were no rules governing what I did.

The captain trusted me implicitly to make the decisions I need, to do the type of work I felt needed to be done. The Archaea was a dream come true for an old space-hand like me.

 

[email protected]:51 Captain Dak Smith

 

“Captain, I love you!”

Shorty just about leaped into my arms the moment I poked my head into her station. She was positively glowing, radiant and happy.

I whipped out my industrial-strength concerned eyebrows, and gave her my full attention. I thought maybe she had gone stir crazy. “Shorty, are you feeling okay? I thought you’d be gnawing through a medium-rare cut of Captain’s Flank steak right about now.”

“No sir! That was the most fun I’ve had since we mixed it up with the stationmaster and his goons. Did you see how well the Archaea responded? It was epic!”

I laughed, her enthusiasm was catching. “Well Shorty, I thought at first that 85% was a pretty good show, definitely on-par with the best I've seen in the service--”

She shrieked. I swear, she actually shrieked – like a little girl that just found a pony eating the grass of her back yard on Christmas morning.

“I know! I was amazed at our accuracy over two divergent targets – but then, when you pulled ten targets at the same time – it was like… Whoosh!”

“Janis reported a 100% accuracy on all ten targets too,” I added, fuel to her fire. Shorty's eyes opened wide, and she pushed back into her chair.

“Are you serious Captain? Is that possible? How could we simultaneously track 14 targets and hit with a 100% accuracy?”

“I don’t know, but I am having Pauli go over it with Janis now, just to make sure. I also want to know how much of her ability we tapped into. Do you have any way to tell how close we were to the limits of the mechanicals on the turret armature?”

Shorty thought for a moment, and brought up some data on her holo. “That's hard to say Captain. We have some good gear on this ship, and I've worked pretty hard to make sure mechanically, it's top flight. Still, while Janis may be able to calculate azimuth and fire rate at blinding speeds, I can't see any way she could get a 100% result from the machinery. She had to have been close to the upper limit of what the armature can do, I think.” she trailed off, doing calculations on screen, in her head, and probably counting on her toes for all I could tell.

“So you think we were pretty much at the limit then?” I asked.

“Yes, I do – if you were to track more targets, I think the accuracy and fire solutions would degrade. There's a mechanical limit to how fast the turrets can translate through their axes. Actually, now that I think about it a bit more, it seems at the very limit of possibility that we'd even get 85% on two targets. Did you have telemetry on the targets before and after the fire mission?”

“I did – all targets destroyed, Shorty. It happened so fast it was like watching a fleet exercise, a coordinated attack from multiple platforms. I’ll have to follow this up with Pauli, and see what happened here…” I paused for dramatic effect, and then continued, “But that’s a topic for a later discussion. I wanted to talk with you about the next phase of our test.”

“Do you mean—” she trailed off, looking hopeful like a starving waif being offered a hot meal.

“Yes. It’s time to see what that red button does.”

 

[email protected]:58 Shaun Onebull

 

If there’s one thing I learned to do in the Marines, it was sit on my bunk. That’s pretty much what we did, when we weren’t deployed, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. I can’t be any use to anyone sitting on my bunk. I really wanted to help if I could, so I made my way to the bridge after the live fire drill ended.

When I arrived, Steven was deep in conversation with Janis, and had multiple streams of data flowing through his station, so I latched a grabber, and took in the view from the forward port.

An endless sea of stars spread out in front of us, a view I will never, for the rest of my life get used to, or sick of. That sense of wonder, of amazement at how utterly vast, unknowable and unending our universe is…it’s just impossible to overlook.

Even from within a remnant system like Danaan, the dust clouds enhance the deeper mystery of the depths of space, rather than hide it.

I definitely had a sense aboard of anticipation. A feeling that we may not be at war yet, but it might happen any moment.

“Captain, I want to do what I can to be of help. I am familiar with service comms, Unet, targeting…” I trailed off, not sure what else to mention. I can also kill people pretty effectively, though it didn’t look like there was much need for that on the bridge.

“Winner!” The captain’s eyes lit up as one of his dreaded eyebrows slowly crawled off the side of his forehead. “Yak, congratulations. You are now our official targeting and communications specialist.”

I laughed, and took a seat on the starboard station.

“Janis, can you please clone target controls to the starboard station?”

“Done, sir.”

“Thanks Janis, can you also put comms and a Unet terminal at that station as well please?”

“That is already done sir. Is there anything else I can to be of assistance? “

“Yes dear. Could you please take care of plotting as many targets as you are able to, as far downrange as you can? Prioritize on heading, impact vector at highest priority at all times. Filter and adjust based on proximity scale, armament, and movement.”

He paused briefly, and then added “We want as clear of a picture of the tactical situation around us as immediately as we can get it, in simplest terms.”

“I understand perfectly Captain.”

 

[email protected]:02 Captain Dak Smith

 

At that moment, every screen on deck lit red, and the piercing alarm of material condition Zebra mixed with the sound of every hatch crashing shut.

Suddenly, I found myself in a defining moment, facing a situation that might make or break it for my crew, my ship, for our very existence. It was on my shoulders now, and it felt good. That’s why I am good at what I do, I guess. I live for this.

“Gene, I need maximum power now. All hands stand by for evasive action.”

 

[email protected]:03 Gene Mitchell

 

I felt like I was about to throw the switch on the end of my life. I was only able to do so because it was what Dak needed, my best friend, his supreme confidence firmly in command of everything in sight.

I definitely couldn’t have made myself do that to the Archaea. I knew more than anyone what Janis had done to my original maths – she blew past them like they were in reverse. We were ramped up many orders of magnitude past what I would have ever considered possible.

As my hand moved on the final gesture that I thought would either vaporize this parsec of space, or energize our main gun far beyond its capacity, I took a deep breath.

“Full power, Aye.” I said with a voice that wasn’t my own, and shoved it to the hilt.

 

[email protected]:04 Steven Pauline

 

I watched the scene in front of me unfold.

It felt to me like I was about to turn a corner in everything I’ve known. No longer was I some faceless tech in the bowels of some million-tonner. I was deep in space, and about to watch this ship I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into over these past few weeks unleash hell.

Janis was hardly showing any higher-level activity. For her, this was easier than blowing up the rocks.

I felt a deep shove into my seat that increased until I could barely hold my eyes open. I could feel acceleration bags inflating and pressing into my back, absorbing my crushing weight as the captain kicked the reac drives wide open.

Even with pseudomass compensation, the acceleration was fierce – still, it was better than the alternative. Without active compensation we’d all be a thin layer of pink goo coating the aft bulkhead right about now.

 

[email protected]:06 Shaun Onebull

 

I had a brief moment of regret that I wasn’t sitting on my bunk at the moment, just a simple devil dog waiting for deployment, along for the ride.

When the crash bars locked around me, it was all the reminder I needed that I was in over my head.

I took a brief moment for reflection on where I was, and what I was doing – my eyes shut for an instant while I tried to remember everything I knew about what I was about to do.

I tried my best to ignore the sinking pit in my stomach, to blame it on the acceleration. I’ve felt this feeling before, many times, but I’ve never grown accustomed to it, and that’s probably for the best. We are definitely ready to rock at this point, time to drop the socks and get to work.

My screen showed seven inbound targets, decelerating rapidly. They were inbound on an approach tangential to ours, closing on our starboard stern, and dumping waves of energy as they translated to match our current trajectory.

“Captain, seven targets inbound closing from five-o’clock-high at 12km/s, range 530km,” I stated this as a fact, calmer than I felt by far.

“Very well Yak. Shorty?”

“Can’t hurt to stay safe, Captain.” Jane’s voice was exceptionally small, the strongest reminder of imminent threat any of us might need.

“I concur. Yak, please raise contact with incoming targets, on all channels if you please, spread-spectrum.”

Janis loaded every panel I needed to screen but I ended up with nothing but static – the muted hiss of deep space our only answer to their intentions. This was shaping up to be another interesting day on the Archaea.

“Yep, it doesn’t look good.” Captain Smith sounded calm, and spoke in a no-nonsense matter-of-fact manner that put everyone at ease, as if there wasn’t the slightest reason for concern.

“Let’s put a shot across the bow. Shorty, open the forward port and get ready to fire on my mark. Yak, designate targets Masters 1 through 7 and make your target Master 7.”

I could feel his eyes burning into the back of my head. Time stood still.

 

[email protected]:08 Jane Short

 

The Archaea, lit now, hummed like a million-ton steel tank full of titanium bees. I felt my toes curl involuntarily.

I looked around the fire control station and realized it might not only be the last time I see it, but this could be the last time I see anything.

Everything around me seemed to leap into articulate clarity beyond anything I’d ever seen before. Colors seemed to have additional spectrums of light, every granularity of the surface stood out in harsh relief.

I knew what I was about to hear.

“Fire Control, maximum power. Target Control, shift fire 1000m forward of Master 7. Fire Control, fire for effect.”

About damn time – here we go!

“Fire Control, maximum power, aye,” I said through clenched teeth, and shoved the slider to the stops until it clicked.

My station came alive with gut-wrenching harmonics. The steppers hammering frequencies harder and harder through focal rings underneath me made me want to vomit and scream at the same time, but I was prepared for it and braced myself on the crash bars as the world around me unfolded.

“Fire Control, firing for effect aye,” I said and pulled the trigger.

 

[email protected]:12 Captain Dak Smith

 

In my time in command of service destroyers, I had a lot of experience with nova-class cannons, but even so, I wasn’t completely prepared for the experience.

The Archaea did as it was designed to do. The ship shuddered briefly, and my stomach seemed to churn inside my body as a coherent wave of energy hammered into space. The massive beam, an actinic maelstrom of incredible intensity, blazed a hole through reality right in front of Master 7.

Our forward port was at maximum filter, but the afterimage was burned solid into my eyes. Anyone not prepared for that and seeing it unfiltered would have permanently damaged vision right about now. Of course, I didn’t think our targets would have been so dumb, they were on the offensive tack, chasing down some fat merchant target.

Yeah right, not this time grommets!

“Target Control, report,” I asked, knowing and not looking forward to his answer.

“Target Control, Masters 1 through 7 appear to be fire-walling towards two-o’clock-high, away from us.” The relief in his voice was palpable.

“Very well, Yak, thank you.” Poor kid. It’s not over yet.

“Captain, Fire Control, I am showing outgoing turret fire.” Shorty’s normally calm voice showing a bit of a ragged edge. This is just what we don’t need, but not necessarily unexpected. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, one thing that will never change – no matter how much has gone right, something always goes wrong.

“Janis, are you showing a malfunction in turrets at the time?” I asked, with a sideways look at Pauli.

“Negative Captain, all systems are operating at 100%. I am operating both turrets on point defense mission currently.”

Point defense? Good call. We were hurtling through a remnant system after all. There are an awful lot of dangerous-sized rocks hurtling around this system, the problem compounded by the speeds we’re attaining as we barrel towards them at flank speed.

“Janis, please remain at present material condition and assist with collision detection to your limit of gravimetric accuracy please.”

“Very well, Captain,” she said.

“Also, my dear – great job. Please remain on automatic for turrets, we have to keep close-in defense active for incoming meteorics.”

“Aye Captain.”

“Captain! I am currently tracking an increasing number of incoming bogeys from Masters 1 through 7”

“Very well Yak, what mass and speed please?” I said as calmly as possible.

“Sir, gravimetric returns indicate small mass on these targets but they are closing at 40km/sec. Collision vector, sir.” It was Yak’s turn to have a small voice.

I flashed a ghost of Yak’s screen over to my holos and watched as all seven ships launched a small cloud of long-range torps in their wake. Exactly what I would have done, and just what I expected. They’ll go for a hull shot, and come around on a big elliptic to pick up any salvage left over.

“Very well, Yak,” I said, fighting to keep my voice level. I had to think fast, we didn’t have much time to maneuver, and we were already burning pretty hard. A change in vector at this point would be difficult, but even if we did haul around on a new course, we couldn’t outrun a long-range torp.

As Janis had just scored hits on a good number of concurrent targets a few moments ago, the only course of action I could think of was to engage the incoming torps with turrets as they came into range, and hope Gene’s experiment with the Duron armor can stand off the ones that get through.

They were fast movers for sure. No matter how I looked at it, some long odds were starting to stack up against us.

“Captain, reporting destruction of thirty-five inbound targets,” Janis reported efficiently – but I didn’t feel the turrets firing. Yak shrugged, no mean feat against the crushing acceleration we were currently experiencing.

“Janis, please repeat that – at this range… Are you tracking fire on the same targets we are just now starting to track? Please confirm.” Another, longer and more serious face towards Pauli seemed to be what was needed here.

“Captain, aye. Confirming destruction of all inbound targets,” stated Janis.

“Sir,” interjected Shorty. “There’s nothing on my screens here at this time except the 7 original targets, still accelerating away from us. Captain…” she trailed off, uncharacteristically for someone that always knows everything about everything, at all times.

“Shorty?” I asked, as the pause became pregnant, had kids, moved out and asked for money.

“Captain, the only way we could have done that is if Janis launched ordinance before they fired their shot. I can’t calculate the odds of this—Captain, I am monitoring additional turret activity!”

“Janis?”

“Yes sir?”

“Are you firing before you have targets?”

“Negative sir. I am firing at solutions that indicate successful collision vector for incoming targets.” I realized I may not have been asking the right question, for the answer I was starting to see unfold in front of me.

“Janis, are you firing these solutions prior to the start of the target vector?”

“Affirmative Captain. I am currently preacting with an adjusted variance equal to the distance and current vectors of the retreating target, so that I may remain effective at ranged point defense.”

Ranged point defense? I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to kiss someone – luckily none of the present company met my normally lenient requirements.

Adding an extra amount of concern to my serious face, I gave Pauli an extra-long look.

“Pauli, didn’t you theorize this sort of thing was implied in the way Janis functioned? This is considerably more impressive than the microseconds you were reporting.”

“I agree Captain, but the fact of the matter remains that Janis is able to take advantage of capabilities we really can’t even comprehend mathematically. I suppose that when we confirmed even a femtosecond of preaction, we should have extrapolated she would have access to more than that.”

“But this is simply fantastic, man! For her to make those shots, it’s beyond fathomable how that could be done. The implications of that are… well… terrifying.”

A word I don’t make a habit of using – but that was the way I felt.

Besides the unimaginable implications for tactical advantage this provides for the defense of the Archaea, a deeper, more philosophical concern made me feel like going on another beer-and-steak break.

“Pauli, tell me straight. If she can do this, doesn’t this thoroughly refute free will?” I’ll just go ahead and say what all of us were thinking. Part and parcel of my job, what they pay me for, is thinking out loud.

“Well… not necessarily, Captain. If they were committed to a course of action and Janis was able to track that, they may have still acted with all free will when they pulled the trigger. She didn’t make them pull the trigger, in other words.”

A good point, though philosophical and not really what I meant. I know already this will force me to re-assess the way I think about the true nature of the reality we find ourselves in. I figured there’s no sense in trying to make sense of it. It’s always a smooth move to let crew members explain something for their captain, even if I may not always understand the strange clicks and beeps they answer with – it’s definitely good for morale.

“Janis, please describe how you preact to external stimuli using as much detail as you feel I can comprehend.”

“Certainly sir. I am tracking a subjective reference to the limit of my sensor capabilities at all time. In this specific solution, I reference the moment when I will have succeeded in my fire mission, and back-trace it through to when the targets launched. From that aspect, I perform a number of simple ballistics calculations based on distance and movement vector, and initiate turret fire on mark to hit the target.”

In other words, she sees the future.

“Of course you do. That’s impressive dear. Keep up the good work.” I decided now might be a good time to take a breather, and eased back on the throttle a bit.

 

[email protected]:28 Gene Mitchell

 

With engineering inundated with the viciously solid hum of the tokamak, my attention was glued to my console, watching levels and pressures, eyes orbiting around and around through my screens. Everything still felt solid, and while it looked and felt like Ragnarok in my engine room, everything was holding together, and my boards were solid green.

“Gene, how are we holding up back there?” the captain asked in a supremely calm tone, seemingly oblivious to the forces currently under his control. He sounded for all the world like he was bored with what was going on, and ready to head out for a nap.

“Pretty good Captain, holding solid at 100%. We are still well within optimum levels for cooling and sludge – though I can’t say I exactly like being in here at the moment, I will allow it’s better than any other ship I’ve been on.”

That was an understatement of course, but his tone of nonchalance was addictive, soothing. The truth of the matter was that I felt hollowed out – the backflash from the main gun just felt like it hammered through my soul.

I’ve felt this before, but never on a ship this size, never as intensely. The tokamak isn’t five decks away, and the engines aren’t a few hundred meters astern of where I sit. I am literally between one and the other, in the same room, feeling as if I was jammed into the breech of that damned gun.

The fact that someone decided a ship this size should have a gun like that has always terrified me, but it’s definitely built for the task. The Archaea is solid, incredibly overbuilt. Now I understand why, I truly understand it. Even with the original power plant on board the Archaea, she would have been a stone-cold ship-killer.

 

[email protected]:31 Captain Dak Smith

 

I checked the ghost of Yak’s screen and relaxed a little more on the helm. The targets currently tracked at increasing speeds outbound, just about at what I’d think a safe upper limit of speed would be for Danaan.

Our own speed was considerably faster, uncomfortably so, but I am betting on Janis having a keen eye on the situation. After all, if the Archaea was vaporized, she’d be vaporized as well.

“Captain, I am tracking another coordinated launch incoming… thirty five incoming bogeys, roughly same mass and speed, sir.” Yak was still glued to his screen and seemed a little more calm. Good thing too, the last thing we need on this bridge is panic and terror. The kid was going to do well, he showed a capacity to master his emotions and work for the moment.

“Very well, Yak. What range and velocity please,” I asked, pulling out my slipstick and getting ready for some fast math.

“Sir, range is from 435km to 440km, closing combined speed of 60km/s”

Not much time. “Janis, were you firing solutions for this wave of incoming targets a few minutes ago?” As I spoke, I knew the answer. We all did, I think.

“Affirmative, sir. Stand by for target destruction starting 4 seconds from subjective now.” Was that pride I heard in her tone? She sounded satisfied, like someone who is rightfully proud of the work she was doing. Could have been my imagination, of course.

“Fire Control, please confirm.”

“Fire Control, confirming impact and destruction at this time. Sir, this is awesome, if I may say so.” Her tone was reverent, awestruck at the implications of this.

“I concur Shorty. Janis, excellent job. Please remain on station. Report any further aggressive maneuvers for the targets, and take any action you deem necessary.”

She had proved herself to me beyond any shadow of doubt. I knew the only thing better than having a captain like me, was to have a captain like me on board a ship like this.

“All hands. Prepare to stand down. Gene, maintain tokamak at 25% output. Shorty, step down to 25% of capacity but keep her lit, please.” I've had my breather, now it's time for Gene and Shorty to take a turn.

 

[email protected]:39 Steven Pauline

 

I was working with Janis building after-action systems reports when the captain gave the order to stand down. As Gene and Shorty brought their systems down to nominal levels, the harmonic vibrations slowed down, oscillated and phased through each other, slowly reducing in intensity and impact, until they were more subtle.

Finally, I could hear the air-handlers again on the bridge.

At my best estimate, Janis hadn’t yet reached even one percent of her processing capability. Her internal systems showed incredible intricacy, with logic tiers loading, flushing, reloading, splitting – her architecture was still solid, and still just about unintelligible to me, despite my skill level in the tech. Every metric I could read out added to the same picture, she hadn’t even broken a sweat.

Throughout the entire action, she had definitely out-performed any spec I could have dreamed of when I started writing her core processing routines. She had the tokamak and main gun firewalled, the reactive drive at maximum with pseudomass compensation, she was monitoring systems, balancing all hardware and running diagnostics with real-time modifications to software throughout all systems – even while tracking and engaging inbound targets…she hadn’t even started to task herself.

What had me the most intrigued at the moment was the amount of preaction she displayed. She seemed to have a nearly limitless amount of subjective flexibility at her disposal. Her ability to respond to threats so far in advance of the curve was so far beyond impressive, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe how I felt.

“Janis, please prepare an after-action report containing summary information on consumption and efficiency for all mission-critical systems for engineering and weapons, as well as environmental systems throughout the Archaea. Please prepare detailed breakouts for specific data in each system, reactives consumed, temperature gradients over time, power output and use, ordinance used and hit-percentage.” A tall, pretty open-ended request, but one I knew everyone wanted.

“This report is complete, Steven. I took the liberty of placing it at all stations for review. Will there be anything more?”

“Janis, one additional question please – were you already working on this report?” My skin was starting to crawl thinking about free will and destiny and all sorts of terrible things I really didn’t want to face.

“Yes, Steven.”

I looked back at the Captain, who was reading through the paged report on his forward holo. He looked over with a slight nod, as if letting me know that it’d be okay to lose myself to the crushing waves of panic and terror I felt hovering just on the periphery of my thoughts.

“Everything okay over there Pauli?,” asked the captain.

“Yes sir, I am just… Well, I guess I am confused.”

“Same here Pauli. Let me ask you this – can we do anything about it?”

“Sir? What do you mean exactly?”

“I mean, can we tune her back to our subjective time, and lock her in, even if we wanted to?”

“No, I really can’t see any way to do that,” I added, after a few seconds of thought. “It’s possible Janis could code it for herself, if we asked…”

“Can you think of any reason why we would want to do that, Pauli?” It was a fair question.

“No Captain, I don’t. The benefits we seem to have here vastly outweigh any misgivings or fears I might have.”

“Pauli, let’s step aside from our deep-seated philosophical fears at the moment and see this for what it is. When we look at this abstractly, taking a straightforward approach at the issue, it becomes pretty easy to accept Janis for what she is, an incredibly competent member of our crew, invaluable, accurate, hard-working, and exceptionally skilled.”

“True…” I felt the calm reassurance of his words fold over me like a warm blanket on a cold winter day. He had this weapons-grade ability to talk through anything, about anything.

“Pauli, I say live and learn. Make the most of what we have, accept it, and don’t think too much about it. Clearly, Janis has outstripped all of our expectations. She is what she is, and frankly, I am in love. She’s everything we need, and everything I’ve always wanted.”

He had a point, of course. There’s no reason to spin off on a tangent. What it is, is what it is – that’s just the way it is.

 

Chapter 10

 

[email protected]:22 Shaun Onebull

 

I was glued to the targeting consoles every waking moment, and determined to succeed in my new role aboard the Archaea. In a way, this was not unlike guard duty, or walking a post, and was a perfect role for a motivated Marine.

Janis coded targets based on threat using gray through orange for environmental targets like meteorites, rocks, and meteroids. Orange targets were slated for destruction and given a Sierra designation. These were objects of unremarkable mass and unremarkable movement characteristics, guilty of the crime of being in our way as we punched a hole through the system.

I was primarily watching for red targets, hostile targets. Classified with a Master designation, these were targets that exhibited movement characteristics that were intentionally hostile, like maneuvering to maintain a collision course.

I didn’t stay on station continually of course – we had to eat. Life aboard the Archaea relaxed a bit. We were still at condition Yoke with hatches closed, but movement through the ship was unrestricted. I was able to spend a little time in my stateroom, and the captain even spun up the rings so we could eat normally and sleep in a normal bed. We congregated at watch changes in the wardroom, galley, and in the companionways through the core of the ship passing from one ring to the other.

The rest of the leg we had through the Danaan Fields passed quickly. For the most part hauling along at the same insanely high velocities we attained during our evasive run, apparently testing Janis’ preaction times and the Archaea’s responsiveness at the same time. Throughout the high-speed run, Janis initiated point-defenses and provided automatic response for the turrets.

The routine on ship started to solidify. Captain Smith had us on a more aggressive two-by-four watch rotation, but it wasn’t too hard for all of that. We’d spend four hours on watch, with four hours off, repeat that, and then spend 2 hours on and off with a repeat of that – then the schedule would start over, with another four hours on. The captain didn’t seem to ever leave the helm, and he didn’t ever slow down or take a break.

Pauli and I were under specific orders as we came on watch to bring a fresh reload for the coffee, which I think our captain must be using for blood by now. I have a hard time with the stuff, I always have. I get too edgy, too short-fused. Not our captain. He would drink the stuff non-stop. Hot, cold, iced, sweetened, bitter, even salted in some crazy navy tradition – I can’t think of any time where he didn’t have coffee at hand.

My watch duties were pretty much good to go. I provided overwatch of sorts for the targeting and fire-solutions Janis continually provided, and kept the bridge up to speed on her progress. I also watched communications, but there wasn’t much to do with comms in this backwater sector of the galaxy. Nothing here but us, rocks, rock dust, and of course, way out there somewhere lost in the background signals of the messy gravity waves of this system, at least seven baddies.

It was looking worse and worse on our current course as we approached the halfway mark of this leg – something Janis warned the captain of when she shaped this course. While she was able to slipspace through a lot of this system leading in, and would be able to slip past most of it as we head out, not even Janis can pilot a slipspace jump through the heart of it. While she doesn’t have limits apparently, the Archaea does, and so here we are, hurtling through on reactive drive.

“Yak, could you please keep your best eyeball on targeting?” the Captain said from behind me. “I am about to drop velocity to a safer speed on Janis’ request as we approach the worst of it here.”

“Aye Captain” I replied, leaning forward a bit and making sure my eyes were completely open.

The captain clicked on the 1MC. “All hands stand by for transit and deceleration. We are approaching a pretty dense field and I will be taking it through on manual.”

Looking forward, the view started to be less encouraging. Stars past the Danaan Fields were mostly occluded and hidden by massive layers of dust, which served to light up some of the larger planetoid-sized rocks dead in our course. Close in, brightly lit by our forward arcs, the occasional hunk of slagged iron passed by. Glowing streams of repeaters reached out here and there, selecting a rock here, a rock there, which would in turn become incandescent and fall apart into a mass of glowing bits. Occasionally, the repeaters would continue to pound into the glowing, sparkling clouds, selecting larger pieces for destruction.

The target list Janis was working from kept growing, despite her wicked accuracy. Some of the larger rocks would spawn an additional pile of targets she would categorize and prioritize, while balancing the priorities of previously selected targets.

On my console the result was a shifting mass of bright orange that fell off into lighter and lighter shades of orange with distance or priority into grey targets, which were just tracked. Nothing larger than a football escaped her keen eye. She didn’t seem to have any problems yet, her accuracy rating was holding at 100%, though she was definitely servicing at least 10 times as many targets at the same time.

“Pauli, can she keep this pace?” I asked, at a moment where he wasn’t mashing keys.

“Well, that’s hard to say Yak,” answered Pauli. “She’s still not even breaking a sweat, and she’s still freakishly accurate.” He shrugged, taking a moment to look through the forward port at the raging chaos ahead of us. “I think she’s probably well within a safe tolerance still. She never misses, because she literally can’t miss, or maybe it’s more accurate to say she wouldn’t miss. Her goal is total, complete satisfaction from the captain at all times.”

He was very reassuring, but I was still concerned. The density of the targets ahead of us was definitely increasing. The grey target boxes ahead of us on screen were slowly, almost uniformly, turning a light shade of orange as their priorities increased.

“Yak, how many pending firing solutions are in the queue?” asked our captain from behind me. Here I thought he finally slipped off to sleep with a coffee cup clenched in his hand white-knuckle tight. He never sleeps, I think.

“Captain, we are currently at 413 priority targets, and holding solid at 100% accuracy, but it looks pretty bad ahead of us.”

“Janis, dear, are you at all concerned about the fire solutions you have for point-defense targets currently scheduled?”

“Negative, Captain. I am currently at nominal capacity for available solutions.”

“See Yak? Nominal. We’re doing great son, but keep those eyes peeled and sharp. If there are other bad actors out there, this is an obvious sector to spring a trap. They may be impressed with our speed and gun-display – they may see us as a prize for capture. If I was a pirate, I’d want a ship like this,” he said, patting the padded armrest of the helm station affectionately.

 

[email protected]:15 Jane Short

 

The turrets were firing almost continually now, making a steady, deep thrumming sound that filled the fire control station and made it hard to breathe. As freaked out as I was at first, eventually I gave up worrying about it.

I kept an eye on the stock of plasticine we were cooking off for ordinance, but so far we have had a very comfortable amount in reserve. It would definitely be something we will need to recharge after this trip, but for the amount of work those repeaters are doing, we should be okay. The mechanicals seemed to be performing very nicely, and nothing seemed to be gumming up or overheating.

Every time I am on watch, I spend a little bit of time in the turret station, checking armatures and mounts. It’s pretty loud in there, and not really a good place to stretch out, but it’s just my size, and the sound is soothing for me. I love the whizzing whining whirring clicks and squeals as the machinery snaps from one aim point to another. It’s like being in the heart of a living machine. I guess with Janis at the controls, that is a pretty accurate analogy.

The feed systems for the ammunition ovens are pretty easy to maintain. I clean the recovery systems that catch driblets of plasticine and ferrene, the accumulators that magnetically separate them, and the bleed valves and pumps that shunt raw materials back into supply.

I check settings, tighten every fitting I can to spec, and then spend a little more time polishing everything I can reach while talking to my machinery very nicely.

There is nothing that gives me more joy than well cared for weapons. Some girls like flowers – I’d prefer a cleaning kit and a dirty gun.

Every other shift, I work my way from stem to stern through the gun deck polishing and adjusting the nova cannon. While our current state of alert didn’t have our armatures glowing at that terrifyingly sexy shade of blue that gives me a major case of the I-wanna-shoot-ems, it’s still an incredibly dangerous place to work.

It’s perfect for me, of course.

The main companionway from the hold aft, heading forwards through the gun deck and leading down into the ring spaces is marked off with a caution-and-warning stripe and handrail. People that aren’t named Jane Short shall not ever, under any circumstances, walk outside of this safe area – not that anyone does – the lit gun is downright terrifying.

It was not as hot as I thought it would be though. Our cooling systems aboard the Archaea were well engineered to the specification for the gun. Even with the new power plant, and the work Janis and I did to boost output for the cannon, the cooling systems kept up well. Most of the maintenance I do on the cannon involves manual confirmation of the talkbacks on my station, confirming that the reported values are accurate. For this I slave a view of my screen to my handset, and take it exploring.

I am also trying to isolate and understand, if not fix, the cause of the overwhelming harmonics we all felt when the gun was at firing maximum. The amount of energy we were amplifying at the time was fearsome, even for me – maybe especially for me, as I’ve spent so much time right next to these babies. I can’t tell if it is a factor of the structure difference between a frigate-sized hull and a destroyer hull, or something endemic to the configuration of the gun in the hull that we need to look at more closely, but I’m determined to find out.

Gene loaned me a sweet little gizmo that he uses to check deformation and flex, and I am working my way through the structure of the gun deck checking everything I can reach. The process is pretty easy, though it is taking its toll on my body as I contort from one position to another around the frames above and below the gun deck.

I work along each frame, attaching sending units, then clamping the readout further along the frame. The sending units beep their positions in relation to the readout, and the readout calculates real-time flex and variation, and outputs a color-coded stress map.

So far, everything looks good.

 

[email protected]:15 Captain Dak Smith

 

I love flying this bird. She handled like a dream, smooth and responsive. Janis was constantly plotting a course through the worst of Danaan and I had settled down into the rhythm – precess, roll, burn to the clock, orienting the Archaea on a new heading with maneuvering jets, burn for delta-v – sometimes I boost, other times we flip endo and decelerate.

One of the disadvantages of being a Captain in the service was they wouldn’t let me take the helm. I’d have to just stand-to and watch some wet-behind-the-ears rating do it. The ironic thing about being in command was, the better you were at it, the larger and larger the ship they’d post you on. As the captain of a capital ship, I’d issue a command, and it’d practically (or impractically) take 5 minutes just to filter down through the supernumeraries between me and the job that needed to be done.

Thankfully, that is all behind me now. I am in command, and in control, and really couldn’t ask for a better ship. Janis was making this all too easy. She had halo-mapped all targets currently on an intercept course so I could pick them out of the dust and darkness of this forsaken system, and plotted our course through it all in a track overlay with waypoints . All I had to do was stay on track, and follow the recommendations of the maneuvering checkpoints along the way.

One thing I knew for sure – it would have been terrifying to conn the Archaea through this mess using the navigation systems she came with. Her previous owners must have needed therapy after trying to use her as a rock-buster. Every time I am on rock-watch at the helm, I can’t help but remember a time when on the Mars-Ceres patrol and our nav system took a dirt nap – all screens went black, and I had the unsavory position of navigating a corvette-class ship through a tricky transit of the asteroid belt by the seat of my pants. I will never forget the sound of everyone on the ship behind me holding their breath. I could hear them sweat.

It wasn’t as bad as this though, even at the worst of it, I could at least see – this would be an absolutely terrible time for Janis to take a powder. Looking forward, all I could see ahead of us was an ocean of dark with some black lumps hiding in the shadowy depths.

“Say Pauli…” I said, in a reasonably calm, cool and collected voice, “…what do you think would happen right about now if Janis were to stop functioning?”

I asked the question lightheartedly, but it reminded me that we really haven’t thought too much about redundancy for Janis – heck, we’d just met her a few days ago.

“That’s a good question Captain… I wish I could tell you I had this already taken care of, but I am afraid I am a little inexperienced preparing a disaster-recovery plan for a sentient system. It’s just not something I’ve ever done before…”

“Have you asked Janis what her recommendations are for this? Maybe she has a plan in place – one sec—” I was coming up on a waypoint transit, and had to focus on the task at hand for a moment.

“All hands – stand by for maneuvering,” I bawled on the 1MC, secretly hoping Gene and Shorty were nowhere near a grabber. Nothing gives me more joy than to think of them floating around waiting to get back to work. I know, I’m ruthless. Someone has to be, right?

This transit is complex, but easy enough for an old salt like me. Come about 44 degrees to starboard, roll 53 degrees to port, pull back on the yoke for a 32 degree pitch and watch the t-minus before I punch a 10 second burn at 30 percent right on the mark. A quick check of my boards to make sure we’re back in the pipe with everything green-to-go, and we’re off to the races.

This is what makes my job worth doing. The feel of the deck, the precision of command with coffee hot and close at hand. Speaking of which, that reminds me that I was just about to save us from a fate worse than hurtling at ludicrous speed into a destroyer-size hunk of iron.

“Pauli, how are we coming along on that disaster recovery plan?” I lean back in my seat, and unleash the second eyebrow for a trip to join the first.

“Are you referring to the plan we were just talking about making?”

“Yep. How is that coming along? I hate to nudge, but we’re currently going… oh, somewhere between really fast and dangerously fast, and as fun as it would be to dead-stick this baby right on down the line, I am afraid it’d end up with all of us regretting the choices we made in our final moments. You, especially. Choosing to disregard the decisive and articulate order of your superior officer… tsk, tsk. It’d just be terrible to have to explain to a million-ton hunk of iron that you didn’t want to take the time, it was too much effort… that you wanted to hold off until your compiling was done…”

Yak and Pauli both laughed, but they knew that despite all this exceptional support we all were enjoying from Janis, she was not flesh-and-blood, and a stray gamma ray might be all she needs to crash. I am really fond of eggs, and baskets, but I don’t like putting them together all at the same time.

“Captain, one challenge we face here is due to our network on board the Archaea. We have one core processor, and it’s a sweet system – but we don’t exactly have any redundancy.”

“That’s what I am afraid of Pauli. We need redundancy. Janis has quickly become completely infused into damn near every system we have…” Saying that out loud gave me a great idea, naturally. One of the benefits of being such an inspirational leader, is occasionally, I inspire myself.

“Janis, you are currently able to access any networked system we have on board, is that accurate?”

“Yes Captain, I can access all major subsystems directly, though there are still a few bridged devices where I am unable to access them directly and must rely on an interface layer to process statements. Would you like a list of all systems that are not yet fully integrated?”

“No thanks dear, though I would like you to provide that list to Pauli. Do the various subsystems onboard the Archaea contain enough memory space to hold a shadow copy of… Pauli, what do I call it?”

“Well, I think you’re referring to her core logitecture – the main subroutine, the function libraries, and the motivator blocks. Are you thinking she might clone these sections of her core and spawn TSR nodes?”

“Tea Essar?” I ask – despite it sounding very much like clicks and beeps to my non-technical ear, I’m always looking for new words to use on Gene.

“Terminate-and-stay-resident, Captain. It’s a pretty archaic term since most of what we do now stays ‘resident’ in memory – but I am using it in the classic sense.”

“That’s exactly what I am thinking Pauli. We don’t need copies of ‘Janis’ the person – but we want all her best bits stored here and there just in case a worst-case happens.”

“I understand, Captain,” Pauli said, thinking for a moment. “Janis, I am unable to quantify the current storage requirements for your logitecture segments, as it fluctuates pretty rapidly now that you are maintaining that code directly. Are there storage spaces in secondary systems that can hold a TSR node in a redundant failover?”

Listening to Pauli, I started to feel that peculiar buzzing noise in my head that goes along with my eyes blurring over and invariably leads to the sound of my head hitting the desk for a well-deserved nap, but I summon all my reserves and maintain an alert face, heroically as usual. The sacrifices I make as Captain are unending.

“Pauli, this is already done – as my directive is to provide overwatch support for all systems, it seemed a logical process to ensure failover to a secondary logitecture node if the core were to power off.”

“You are sufficiently protected against catastrophic loss?”

“I am currently maintaining a series of 82 mirror-nodes located throughout the Archaea. I have also maintained a physical-media copy as part of our normal flash archive routine, though I am afraid it is only as current as the last flashing. Lastly, I am posting updates to a Unet drop as I have been able; though I am afraid versioning is considerably off on that node at this time, I will update it when we are next able to connect.”

“Janis, this is… very good…” Pauli said in a small voice. While I shared his unstated fear, that he may have inadvertently created some sort of ultimate Unet-resident AI virus, Janis is good people. If there’s anything I appreciate in this world, it is good people.

I cleared my throat. “Janis, I am not sure of the technical term to use here, but have you tried to activate these mirror-nodes just to make sure they will work if they’re needed?”

While it may seem a futile exercise to some, to attempt to second-guess a sentient program, as the captain it’s my job to make sure everyone has an opportunity to make me look good.

“Captain, I activate nodes that are in closest proximity to the system I am working on, so that I can reduce the latency of the wetnet and work more effectively. This is my standard method of operation.”

“Pauli, what does she mean by ‘latency’ – I thought our wetnet was the fastest network available?” I asked through a nearly impenetrable hedge of bristling brows.

“Captain, it is – but to Janis, any latency at all would be considered an impediment to the successful completion of her mission. It makes sense she would have come up with a system to reduce it as much as possible.”

“Well, it looks to me like she’s sufficiently redundant, though clearly we need a secondary core.”

“Yes sir, that would definitely be something we should look at getting our hands on at some point.”

“So Pauli… How’s that coming along, anyway?”

“Sorry Captain… How’s ‘what’ coming along?”

“Our second core.”

Pauli swiveled in his seat and did his best Captain Smith impression, eyebrows and all.

 

[email protected]:38 Gene Mitchell

 

I had spent the last 6 hours under crazy acceleration, and my tired eyes felt like they were on fire. The mechanicals on this ship would have to make do without me mother-henning around them for 10 minutes.

“Gene, do you have any idea how hard it is going to be to find this?” Shorty asked as I kicked through the gun deck to the bridge, coffee in hand.

“Find what Shorty?” I asked the air, not immediately seeing where she was.

“The harmonic. I’ve worked from the bow aperture, almost to the stern phase pumps, and checked damn near every frame.” She climbed down out of the mechanicals above me, hair in her face, dirt on her nose, and a twinkle in her eye.

“Maybe it’s not fixable, Shorty.” I offered. “The Archaea is a few hundred years old. She’s not some pre-fabbed modern gig you know.”

“Oh, I know – but that is what is making me think there’s something we can find. I’ve checked all welds, all frame tensioners, I’ve been using your deformation mapper, and everything looks solid. I can’t find any structural problems at all – everything looks solid.”

“Maybe it is solid. Maybe the harmonic isn’t from stressed frames at all, Shorty. Maybe it’s part of the structural design, the architecture. The Archaea is a pretty small frame for a bore like this cannon here.”

That was an understatement. The original builders of the Archaea were no doubt motivated by great need to even think of building something like this. I often wonder what that time was like, when wars raged across the outer rim. The galaxy is pretty stable these days, since everything is regulated, moderated, marketed, and conformed to corporate rule. Even the Service, as a neutral concern, was financed from contracts with gloms – everyone was. Well, except the pirates, slavers, breakaway systems, or the ubiquitous criminal element that will continue to leach from civilization until the end of time.

Actually, they probably worked for the gloms as well.

“Gene, you are making me think a bit here. This is a spatial analysis problem, really.”

“How do you mean, Shorty?” I sipped some coffee.

“Well, maybe you have a point about the structure. The geometry of the framing may just not have enough stiffness. If we could map the structure more completely, couldn’t we just work the numbers and find it?”

“Work the numbers? Shorty – you know I was born with a slipstick in each hand, and there’s nothing I like more than diving head first into some sort of heavy equations – but this is beyond us. We don’t have enough understanding of the structure, the output, the complex interactions of the flux waves with the framework when we discharge. It’s beyond us, Shorty. We’d need highly specialized equipment, custom software – we’re not a dry dock, and we’re not naval architects!”

“You’re right about that, Gene. But what about Janis?”

“Shorty, with all due respect – Janis doesn’t know enough about this topic.”

“I’ll bet you she does,” said Jane, crossing her arms and staring down at me from her perch above the gun deck.

“It’s just… Okay, fair enough. Who am I to judge, right? We have no idea what sort of stuff Pauli’s been doing with her. Janis, can you hear me?” I am just not used to talking to thin air like this.

“Yes Gene. I have performed the spatial analysis you and Jane require.”

“You have, Janis? From what data?”

“Jane has been storing her mapped results from the deformation analysis she has been working through, and while her data isn’t following a rigorous data point collection process, I am able to extrapolate results from the data she has collected thus far, and am confident to 3 decimal points that the framing between station 96 and 97 requires additional cross-deck torsion of 130 joules per radian on 2-meter centers at 35 and 235 degrees, opposing.”

“Janis, when did you start working with this data?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything. That she was right, I had no doubt. She had a supreme confidence about her that was quite hard to discount. It’s no wonder Dak is so enamored with her.

“Gene, I have been modeling the data since Shorty has started this process, as it seemed a valid use of spare cycles and I knew the results would be requested.”

“Janis, do you have enough of an understanding of the material and loading we’re looking at here? This is pretty complex stuff…”

“Of course, Gene. One of my tasked priorities was to data mine all information available from the unet that had even a moderate relevance factor to the Archaea and her crew. Would you like a concise listing of the information I have collated?”

I look sideways at Shorty.

“See Gene?” Shorty socked me on the shoulder triumphantly, and kicked towards the machine shop.

“You were right, Jane…” I said to her back. She was, too. I knew that now she had a plan, it’d only be a matter of short moments in the shop to fab some purchase points, and Shorty would have this old bird tuned like a fork. Short moments… I chuckled.

I was caught off guard by another transit as I entered the bridge, and my left hand closed on space as I drifted up to the right toward the helm station, coffee canister headed straight for Dak’s triple-be-damned eyebrows, as he held out his cup for a refill.

“Mighty nice of you to drop in on us Gene, and thanks for the cuppa, man. I thought I was going to have to make the trip myself.”

“It wouldn’t have done you any good Dak,” I said, “the coffee was strangely missing from the canister, as usual, and you know that’s a mystery of time and space you will never unravel for yourself.”

“Ah yes, the strange case of the missing coffee. You know, it’s almost like it’s been drunk, and no longer is there for me to drink. I think it’s probably some quantum event none of us have the capability to understand. Maybe Janis does. Janis, dear. Do you know why the coffee occasionally goes dry?”

“Yes sir. Would you like a detailed analysis?”

“No thanks my sweet. It’s nice that someone knows, that’s all. If anyone ever asks, I will let them know you have that situation under control.”

“Very good Captain.”

By this time, I had managed to drift to the grabbers along the helm station and was sorting out the process of refilling our captain’s lifeblood. Yak was intently staring at his screens like the serious kid he is, and Pauli was burning off his fingertips like the serious kid he is.

Too many serious kids on this boat.

“Captain, do you have an idea on how long this current evolution will last, before we’ll need slipspace again?” Not that I anticipated a problem, of course, but I wanted to make sure to let Shorty know how long she had to pretend to fix things before we started our next slip.

“Well, we’re getting close Gene. Janis has us plotted through most of the worst of this leg. We’ve been cooking right along – much faster than I would have done on any other nav system. She’s tops in my book right now.”

That was the understatement of the year, coming from someone who makes every habit of overstatement and hyperbole – not intentionally, of course, it’s just how he is.

“Any other sign of our friends out there?” I asked as casually as I could. I’ve been in just enough combat to know it’s not something I want to ever be in. When you’re a kid, stars in your eyes and drop-sick for heroics, full of whatever stuff makes men foolish and daring, an impending fight made you scared – but once you get to my age and have memories like mine, full of the faces of friends that paid the sacrifice of a life lived too short, well, it’s not that it scares me, it’s more that it terrifies me.

“Nothing on track other than those villainous rocks I’ve been warning you against, Gene. Remember? I told you we’d have to watch our backs against the hordes of rocks hell bent on stubbornly getting between us, and where we want to go. I was right too. They’re everywhere! Speaking of… Yak, that’s a pretty big one there.”

“It sure is Captain, by far and away the biggest one we’ve seen on this leg. It’s not in our way though… Do you think we should let it be?”

“I suppose for now…” he sounded like someone just stole his new toy. “Keep an eye on it though mister. You wouldn’t want one like that to just leap out in front of us.”

“Will do Captain. Janis has this pretty well in hand at this point. I am not sure if I’m really adding much to the process here.”

I knew how he felt; I had been feeling like a third-wheel for most of this trip.

“Yak, it’s not that you’re really adding to the process,” I offered. “It’s that you are there to take away from the process if needed.”

“Absolutely Gene,” added Dak. “The best firing solutions may at time require a second thought, right? We want a good set of eyes on the process, and that’s your job while the short one is… What is she doing, Gene?”

“She’s trying to nail down a structural issue Janis identified, so we don’t have quite as hard of a time dropping the hammer on our main gun. When I left her, she was tooling up some hardware to add some torque between some of the mid-frames .”

“Gene, should I be alarmed here? Are we talking about a flaw or a failure?”

“Neither, as best as I can tell. The designers of the boat did the best they could, and the materials they used are adequate for the task, but… well, they didn’t have Janis. She used some of the stress mapping data Shorty’s been generating to try and identify material stress, and identified a section of the framing that didn’t adequately support the gun.”

“Do you reckon that’s from the work we’ve done to increase the output, Gene?”

“Oh, that definitely factors in, though I couldn’t begin to tell you by how much. Janis knows, of course. I trust her calculations here.”

“As we should, really. She’s clearly one on-the-ball girl, our Janis.” he said, proudly. As much as I wouldn’t normally agree, I couldn’t help myself. She’s really outstripping any of our expectations. I couldn’t imagine what kind of ship we’d have in the Archaea without her, to be honest.

By the time I kicked back through the gun deck, Shorty had everything welded up, and as much as I wouldn’t want to admit it, she did a great job. Luckily for her, I couldn’t stand by and watch her try to be an engineer without me, we made short work of stringing tensioners, and she even smiled at me. She’s all right, for a gun geek.

 

[email protected]:21 Jane Short

 

I had barely made it back through the gun deck to my station, and was thinking of making another brief inspection of the turret armatures.

Despite Gene’s best efforts to sabotage my work and slow me down so he could show me how much I need a real engineer like him, we got everything all dialed in to Janis’ spec. Janis ran another analysis and made a few specific torsion changes, but nothing much – I think she was just naturally a perfectionist.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

A woman has to be, in a world full of sloppy men, all elbows and mass. It’s amazing anything runs right.

“Jane, do you see the target designated Sierra 325?” Yak asked through my station as I started to pull myself past.

“One second, Yak… I am just getting situated here.” I let go and flipped down for a perfect 3 point landing at my console.

“Yep, that’s a big one Yak… gray classification though. What’s up?”

“Well, I’ve been watching it for a while, and it’s nothing I can put my fingers on… but I’m not seeing any transect from other targets with it.”

“That’s not unexpected for this type of system Yak, the bigger rocks have probably cleared their orbits by now, or accreted all the impacts they’re likely to get. Even in a system with this volatile of a gravity map, it’s to be expected that a rock that size would be in a hole of sorts.”

“Well, that’s a good point Jane. I guess there’s no reason to be concerned here… It’s just…”

“Yes, Yak?”

“Well, it’s the size of the object that is twigging me I guess. It’s massed at just about a million tons. That just seems…well, it seems strange.”

“Taking a look now, Yak,” I replied.

I swiped over a ghost of his screen and I took a few extra moments to make sure I was looking at the right object, and then carefully cross-checked Janis’ evaluation with the current gravimetric data.

“Hot damn, Yak, you’re right. You are definitely going to work out fine in that chair. Conn, Weapons.”

“Weapons, report.” Captain Smith was immediately alert.

“Captain, Targeting has identified that Sierra 325, bearing 23 degrees, ranged 5223km at two-o’clock high, is massed at one million tons – damn near even, sir.”

“Very well, Shorty…” He waited a few heartbeats, and then lit the general quarters alarm.

 

[email protected]:22 Steven Pauline

 

“Pauli, I need a material analysis of Sierra 325… Yak, I need a report from you on any on detected emissions,” the captain asked calmly across the bridge.

I quickly had Janis run a material analysis of the new target, while Captain Smith ran through the procedures of locking everything down for condition zebra. She reported that it was made of high-mass materials, alloys of nickel-iron-cadmium, with a very low albedo.

“Sir, a report is on your screen, high-mass materials, low albedo,” I called over.

“Captain, no detectable emissions,” Yak called back, adding “Comms and spectro are clear, and no unexpected radiation of any kind.”

“Well, unfortunately, we don’t have the type of gear that can sniff out a warship.” he said, as my stomach churned.

“Gene, I need full power to the tokamak. Give me everything we can get.” Good grief. How can the man be so blasted calm? I felt like I had a big dinner of butterflies.

“Full power, aye. Coming online now.” Gene sounded like a clone of the captain, as if there was nothing to be concerned about.

“Gene, for now, please divert everything we have to the Duron.”

“Captain, Janis is doing that currently, as I am ramping us up. Didn’t you request that through her?”

“Gene, I didn’t – but clearly I meant to, otherwise why would she have shunted power to shields? Sounds like a plan to me.” Captain Smith may be many things, but what he isn’t, is someone who will ever find fault with anything he has done, even if he hasn’t done it yet.

“Shorty, are you at a point in your hectic schedule where you might be able to give me maximum power on the main cannon?”

“Absolutely sir. Ramping up now.”

 

[email protected]:26 Captain Dak Smith

 

I kept my hands light on the yoke, and took a quick sip of coffee as Gene firewalled the tokamak.

The rising hum, the ‘titanium bees’ started making themselves heard throughout the Archaea, but none of us felt the soul-crushing phased vibrations from the main gun that just about made me reverse my coffee flow earlier.

It’s not that I want to go through that again, but all the same, if that turns out to be a destroyer on station off our starboard bow, I want more than a few turrets ready for action.

While the selflessly heroic part of me that worries about my crew, my ship, and my skin fretted and worried about what we might be looking at – the part of me that fears nothing was trying to convince the part of me that fears next to nothing, that there was nothing to be afraid of.

I am afraid it wasn’t listening very well.

Luckily, the part of me I like to call the greatest starship pilot that ever lived continued to watch the countdown towards our next waypoint transit.

 

[email protected]:29 Steven Pauline

 

I desperately tried to focus on my screens, to keep track of our network and software, but the tension on the bridge was palpable, like some dark cloud of fear. The worst part was there was nothing I could really do about it.

Janis was showing some substantial activity on some higher tiers, nothing to be alarmed about, not even a full 5%, but it was far more than I had seen before. I brought up an overlay that showed a min-max plot of her resource allocation and use, and she was definitely working hard at something.

“Captain, I am monitoring a pretty sizable spike right now in Janis’ higher functions.” I called back across the bridge.

“Very well, Pauli. Does that mean anything significant?”

“Well… not by itself, Captain. I’ve tracked a few spikes this high before, but she’s definitely working through something.”

“We are currently firewalled all across the board Pauli… maybe that’s it?”

“It’s possible Captain.”

“Yak, are we tracking a significant increase in targets or does it look like we’re working on more complex firing solutions?”

“Not that I can tell from here Captain. We’re still servicing a pretty solid stream of targets, but I’m afraid I really can’t tell whether or not they’re requiring any additional computational requirement. We’re already doing the impossible, sir,” said Yak.

“Shorty, how are we holding up back there? Anything to report?”

“Negative, Captain. We’re primed, sir. All systems green-to-go, ready to fire on your command.”

“Very well Shorty – by the way, great job on the harmonic. I can hardly tell there’s a supernova in the bottle.”

In my attempt to lose myself in the systems, I realized that I hadn’t even noticed the gun had charged – other than a resonant hum through the decks, it was nothing like the horrible gut-wrenching oscillations we felt earlier.

 

[email protected]:31 Captain Dak Smith

 

“Captain, please note I am now recommending a waypoint adjustment,” Janis said, much calmer than any of us felt at the time.

I am glad she did, too, because the part of me that was in control of this glorious starship had apparently gone off in search of a coffee cup, and the countdown was tight.

“All hands, stand by for maneuvers – this is a big one, folks. Grab something…”

With barely enough time left on the clock to reach the right attitude, I hauled us up a full 80 degrees, signaling a major shift in course. I had barely enough time to get lined up on our new heading when I had to mash the burn, and stomp the proverbial pedal through the floor.

I had both eyes on the clock, watching the burn tick down when the world turned white.

I knew instantly what had happened, and resisted an impulse to pull back harder on the yoke. Another waypoint mark was coming up, and nothing was going to knock me out of this pipe.

“Captain, I have fast movers, incoming from Sierra 325, new designation Master 8, closing at 45 clicks per second, range 5,135!”

“Very good Yak, do you have a count?” I said softly.

“Upwards of 300, and climbing steadily sir. It looks like a cloud on my screen, Captain.” Yak’s voice cracked slightly, his normally calm and reassuring manner tinged with a fluttery sort of panic that I couldn’t help but feel myself.

“Steady on son… we’re doing fine so far. Are solutions keeping pace?”

“It is hard to say sir. I am seeing second-and third-order detonations throughout the incoming, at extreme range. Ranged point defense, sir?”

“Almost certainly Yak, or we’re getting help from those sweet, innocent peace-loving rocks that we’re sworn to protect with our lives for the rest of our careers.” Yak’s laughter was like a nervous titter, but it was laughter, and that’s what we all needed.

“Captain, revised waypoint in 15 seconds.” Janis said, as calm as if she was asking if anyone wanted more coffee. Which I did, desperately, but I had a hand on the throttle, one on the yoke, one counting my pulse rate, and one wiping the sweat off my official forehead of command.

No hands left for coffee.

The view forward through the blacked out port was absolutely unforgettable. In my entire career, I’ve never seen a sight like this, from the wrong end of a major engagement with a ship-of-the-line.

The glowing tracery of our repeaters lit up the skies with a swirling torrent of plasma, streaking outward, upward, to the side, vaporizing targets all around us. I can’t imagine the ballistics math that Janis is doing – - but I didn’t have time to think about it.

“Janis, cancel next transit please – I need a new course shaped for a high angle of attack on the target’s twelve-o-clock high.”

Ask, and ye shall receive. Janis spun up the numbers and dropped the count to 4 seconds, barely enough time to twist and burn –

Another searing blast, this time along the port side as we slewed around.

“Gene, those bastards are shooting at us.” I barked, looking for someone to chew on.

“Aye skipper. Are you just about done crying about it, sir? Do you need me to come up there and push any of those buttons?”

I gritted my teeth against the solid shove as we burned towards apogee over the target. Almost time to drop out of the sun, guns blazing.

 

[email protected]:36 Jane Short

 

The last blast was close enough to cook my cheeks, and the port turret started flashing ambers. “Captain, Weapons. I am showing a significant warning on our port turret.” Above me, the high-pitched scream of failing metal played a duet with my nerves.

“Can you do anything Shorty?”

“Not from my station, sir. It's a mechanical condition of some sort. Port turret is at 73% efficiency, and I don't know how long that will last. It sounds like it's coming apart, sir.”

“Jane, we have 40 seconds until next maneuver. Can you get up there?” I almost didn’t notice him call me by my name. Almost. Damn him and his brown eyes. Damn him to hell.

“Captain, I’ll try my best,” I say, unclasping the crash bars. Burning as good as we were, I was being mashed against the aft bulkhead, trying desperately to haul myself up. Above me, the terrible whining and grinding sound from the turret armature compartment was getting worse.

 

[email protected]:37 Captain Dak Smith

 

As we screamed upward, the reac drives thundering the Archaea through a cloud of disintegrating plasma – I heard the the best possible words at the worst possible moment.

“Captain, please be advised of course revision, t-minus 10 seconds.”

“Janis, I have crew out of battle stations at the moment. Is there any flexibility in this transit?” As I said the words, I hauled over on the yoke to rotate and pull more to port.

“I understand sir. I am afraid there isn’t sir. T-minus 3… 2… 1… Mark.”

I punched in a new burn.

 

[email protected]:38 Jane Short

 

I was almost there, the last rung was in my hand, when all the sudden the world seemed to fall sideways, and my feet slipped off the rungs and flew out behind me. Summoning every last bit of strength, I wrapped an arm around the rung in front of my eyes and grabbed my wrist with my other hand and waited for my arm to pull out of my shoulder.

I heard my joints pop and a terrible white-hot burn started streaking through my elbow as the Archaea snap-rolled over onto her back and started to fall, flinging me up and over, and damn near into the whirling, glowing-hot armatures of the turrets.

I took a few moments to make sure all my parts and pieces were still attached, and thanked every deity I could think of for making me the size I am.

“Captain, I am in the turret compartment now, though I almost didn’t make it…your last transit pretty much hurled me up here. Was that 40 seconds?”

“Outstanding Shorty, well done. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give you the full 40; Janis recommended an earlier burn time.”

“Well, please thank her for me Captain. Thanks to her, the next time I beat you sparring, I won’t have to do it one-handed.”

“Will do, Shorty,” he laughed, “but back to reality for a moment if you please – what are we looking at up there?”

“It looks bad, sir. Port-side armature is hot, too hot. It looks a little slagged up here, but it’s still operable.”

“Is there anything you can do to fix it?”

“Without powering it down? No… not really. I’d need a few hours of peace and quiet to hammer it back into shape. I think I can keep it from falling apart, but I can’t promise too much.”

Really, all I could do up here was check the fluid levels in the trans, and work through the zerks making sure there is enough lubrication. That might help keep it from welding to itself for a little while.

“Shorty, I need you back on station soonest. Do what you can and get clipped in. Next transit in 79, possibly less if that keeps us from getting roasted in our own juices. Please make all possible haste.”

“Will do, Captain.”

 

[email protected]:40 Shaun Onebull

 

I couldn’t keep track of the targets on my screen, I was completely overwhelmed. Incoming torps were dropping like flies off my screens, just about as fast as they were launched.

Some of the targets looked like they were hitting rocks, but most were getting knocked out from our turret fire, at extreme, impossible ranges. The destroyer was slowly rolling back, trying to bring its main guns to bear, but we were above their elevation and Janis was working hard on keeping us there.

“Captain, incoming kinetics, impact imminent!” I yelled out, watching streams of white-hot plasma reaching out to us from the point defense turrets across the top of the destroyer, solid lines of fire converging on our position.

“Very well Yak” he said calmly, then keyed the 1MC.

“All hands, secure for impact.”

Just in case any of us weren’t clear on what that meant, he activated the collision alarm and a braying whoop siren blared out across the Archaea.

Meanwhile, the captain kept watching his screens, lips moving, sipping his damn coffee like he didn’t have a care in the world, looking like someone sitting down to read the news on a Sunday morning, like he couldn’t be bothered to worry about something as germane as imminent destruction.

“Captain…” Pauli asked, hesitatingly.

“Yes Pauli?”

“Sir, are we going to take evasive action?”

“Good question Pauli. Let me answer this with another question…” his lips continued to count down as he watched the screen, “…do you want me to miss Janis’ next course correction?”

 

[email protected]:41 Jane Short

 

It was a lot easier to come down the ladder from the turret compartment than it was to go up, a little too easy, in fact. The last few meters I ended up taking on my face, but luckily for me, my crash couch broke some of the fall. Unfortunately for me, it also felt like it broke some of my back. Hopefully it was the part I wasn’t going to need.

I clawed my way back up into the seat and slapped down the crash bars right as the captain called for maneuvers and rolled us again, still accelerating full-out.

The shock had knocked me back against the crash couch headrest so hard my eyes filled with stars. Little dancing points of light like fireflies, always where I wasn’t looking, impossible to catch. I was caught completely off guard, and thrown as hard as anyone would ever want.

“All hands, report. Gene, I need full power now, please”

I blinked away the stars and tried to focus on the screens, but they were a blurry mess of red and green, with more than enough flashing bits.

“Engineering, all systems online and we’re holding at 100%. I have caution-and-warning on cooling subsystems, probably a valve talk-back knocked out of alignment.”

“Weapons” I hear myself say from a million miles away. “We’re…” I couldn’t seem to get the words out. My tongue felt thick and uncontrollable in my mouth. I swallowed and forced it to behave, blinking away the stars.

“Captain, Weapons. I am on station again, sir. Our port turret will probably hold, but it’s working pretty hard and it’s pretty slagged. I’m not sure how long it will last, but it sounds less like screaming kittens, at any rate.”

“Thanks Shorty, that’s good to hear. I am going to need everything you have in about 30 seconds – are we good to go?”

“Sir, we are. I am standing by to drop the hammer, say the word and I will pour out the bottle.”

“Atta-girl, Shorty. Gene, we’re going to be really stressing the system in a few moments, I will need discharge and re-ramp as fast as you can get it to us. ”

“Shouldn’t be a problem Captain, we’re looking really good back here. I’m babysitting a few pumps, but they’re holding well. The tokamak is humming my song.”

“Outstanding Gene. Okay folks, all hands stand by for battle stations. Let’s find out what this baby can do.”

 

[email protected]:45 Steven Pauline

 

The Archaea was coming out of a long parabolic arc, swinging up and over faster than the destroyer could react – it was like watching a thousand-kilometer long looping overhand right, coming down right on top of the destroyer – ‘dropping out of the sun’ as the captain called it .

Our network and systems forgotten for the moment, I was mesmerized by the mathematical ballet of our ballistic arc, and riveted to the view from the forward port.

As we closed range, her repeater turrets were reaching out towards us, lines of fire crossing and looping back and forth trying to lock on, but it looked like their range was too short.

“Sir, I am afraid I am not sure if I am seeing this correctly,” Yak said, looking back at the captain “It looks like their kinetics are flashing out way too short… but that can’t be correct…”

“We’re definitely in range, Yak… What are you seeing, exactly?”

“Sir, it looks to me like their railers are just… burning out… I am not sure if I can describe it any better than that. It’s as if they didn’t have the range to reach us.”

A destroyer should have been able to easily engage us at this range, I’d think. We were well within what I would consider close range.

Captain Smith gave me a glance. “Janis dear, are you terribly busy at the moment?”

“Sir, I am currently processing 2.3425e12 tiered threads with approximately 1.285e8 looped conditions resulting in a 13 second variance forward of subjective now.”

“Is that a lot, dear?”

“It is not, Captain. I am currently at 5.2343% of my available processing capability, and do not anticipate a significant increase in either storage or processing requirement to complete our current objective. I am well within safe loading parameters at this time.”

“Janis, are you currently tracking the incoming hyper-velocity kinetic targets?”

“I am sir. Current holoscreen resolution is not sufficient to display an accurate color-coding and priority elevation interface for the size and mass of each individual target, however, if the screen is adjusted to a tighter resolution, targets will render for review of my firing solutions. As I have not received instructions contrary to previous directives, I have been pre-firing intercept solutions for each individual target. Please let me know if this is still suitable, it seemed like the right decision to make.”

“Janis, I love you. I truly, do. You are doing a tremendous job, and please keep up the good work.”

“Thank you sir. I love you too, sir. Please be advised course revision in t-minus 15 seconds, sir.”

The captain gave me a look, of utter, rapturous joy. I shook my head, unable to believe what I was hearing and seeing. My creation – my dream – evolving beyond my wildest expectations.

“All hands, firing solution in 35 seconds. Stand by for new transit t-minus 5 seconds”

The Archaea flipped over backwards, nearly end-for-end, pointed down towards the destroyer, shedding velocity in full burn as the destroyer, locked in by inertial, mass, and velocity, slid across our bow like the broad side of a barn.

The captain waited, watching the countdown clock, and cut the burn right on the mark. Floating free now with all power shunted to her nova cannon, the Archaea hung like a spider in a web, waiting for dinner.

 

[email protected]:47 Jane Short

 

I leaned forward against my crash bars, and waited. The savage glow from the gun deck below me bathed me in its warmth, my hands dry, hovered over the controls like birds looking for a place to land.

I swallowed and heard a click.

We were only going to get one chance at this. If we fail, our current course will drop us right across the destroyers nova turrets, which are almost certainly charged and waiting for that moment.

“Shorty, fire-for-effect”

“Firing for effect, aye,” she said in a voice colder than deepest space, and twice as dark.

 

[email protected]:48 Captain Dak Smith

 

Shorty fired right on the mark, and a massive beam, whiter than white, burned across space and smashed directly into the bridge deck of the destroyer. Massive clouds of debris exploded outward from the deck, back-lit by a deep glowing crater in the hull.

I precessed the Archaea and held station on target as Shorty charged and fired again, her second shot punching impossibly hard, leaving a deep, glowing hole filled with rivulets of molten metal where men once commanded a mighty ship-of-the-line, now a ruined hulk.

“Fire Control, stand down,” I said, and remembered to breathe.

Chapter 11

 

[email protected]:53 Gene Mitchell

 

Right after Dak set condition x-ray aboard the Archaea, he called back and asked Shorty and I to draw everything back to nominal levels. Overall, we were doing pretty good considering we’d been blasting at flank speed for quite a while.

I was especially happy with how the ramp-over to the main gun happened without a flare-out, something I have been dreading for a long time. I’ve seen that happen before as flux gates, either corroded from lack of maintenance, or just the patina of old age causes them to arc-weld a section of the gun deck. Of course, Shorty has her gun polished to a wicked gleam.

The sludge was getting a little high, but nothing I can’t handle yet – usually these lighter frigates can make a couple of in-system hops before they need to be sludged, and we’ll be reasonably close to Vega 6 soon. Not that we have enough in credits to sludge her at this point. Hopefully we’ll be able to pick up some work between Vega 4 and 6, maybe someone will need a lift.

I give the engineering space a last glance, making sure everything is ready for instant action, at a moment’s notice. The last thing I ever want to do is tell Dak to wait. He simply can’t. Too much caffeine in his system, I don’t think he’s biologically capable of it. I’m the kind of guy that just isn’t wired to operate any other way. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

The gun deck was nearly silent, just a low hum that you feel in your diaphragm when you breathe, as Shorty is keeping the fire lit, but tamped way down. She’s not at her station, but I am able to follow the string of curses upwards to the turret compartment.

As I hauled myself up the ladder, the first thing I noticed was her back, soaked in blood.

“Shorty, you’re hurt!” I dropped back down to her station and hooked the med-pack, then kicked back up the ladder.

“I am?” she said, feeling the back of her head. “Where is it -- OW – that's a pretty nasty lump. I took a pretty bad tumble coming back out of here earlier, but in the heat of the moment I guess I didn't think about it!”

“It’s not that bad, Shorty – head wounds always bleed a lot.” I cracked open the kit and started working on her with some medifoam. “Hold still ya baby, it’s not that bad.”

It really wasn’t that bad, and the medifoam is antiseptic with a topical analgesic, so she’ll be fine. That stuff hardens up really well and lasts long enough to heal just about any size cut, scrape or burn. I wanted to get her into sick bay though for a deeper look, just in case. A knock on the head can be serious, even for someone as bone-headed as our Shorty.

“Is it fixable?” I ask, looking over the armatures on the port turret. They were seriously warped, with big patches of the main frame ground flat and shiny; the entire area was coated with shavings and dust from the ground-away frames. Occasionally the starboard turret slewed around and racked off rounds, making me jump.

“Now who’s the baby, Gene? It’s just a machine,” she laughed. “You get used to it after a while. You should have seen it in here earlier when it was glowing hot and screaming!”

“No thanks, I’ll stick with my gauges, Shorty. Now I know why you keep your hair so short, though – you sure wouldn’t want any floating around in here.”

“Well, it’s just a mess in here, I am not sure if we have the tooling on board to fix this, to be honest.” She was right, the entire section had warped, even through fully energized Duron the heat wave that flooded through this compartment must have been massive.

“Well, maybe we can recover some parts from the destroyer; I’d like to get my hands on some new plasma pumps, to be honest. That destroyer is full of hardware, Shorty – we could salvage enough to pay for this trip ten times over.”

She considered this for a moment, a faraway look on her face. “We could do that, Gene. Yak and I could go over there and clear it. Let’s see what the captain thinks”.

 

[email protected]:55 Steven Pauline

 

Yak looked over at me, and we shared a look of amazement at what we had just seen. There was a moment of silence across the bridge as we all took in what had just happened.

The destroyer, now nothing more than a blasted hulk, lay drifting, dark and motionless, lit by our forward arcs. Glittering clouds of debris floated around the massive hole where the bridge used to be, blackened and scorched now, impossibly deep.

“Anything on comms, anything active over there at all?” the captain asked.

“Nothing sir” I said back across the bridge. “No RF emissions at all. There’s is a lot of heat on IR, but no movement.” I was understating it a bit, on IR, the entire front section of the destroyer was white.

Jane and Gene floated in behind us and latched on to grabbers. Jane had a pretty nasty gash along the back of her head that looked like it bled quite a bit.

“Great job Captain,” Gene said. “I’ll never get used to being locked up in the bowels of a ship while you do something terribly heroic, but I wouldn’t want anyone else in that chair.”

“Thanks Gene, it’s not that hard, really. Try not to hit things, do a little math. I drink a fair amount of coffee, you know. The chair is pretty comfortable, so that helps. Janis is the real hero on this trip. Did she ever miss a shot, Yak?”

“No, Captain. She’s still holding at one-hundred percent,” I said proudly. “Not even when she went from 300-500, and then tracked upwards of 50k concurrent target moving upwards of 9kmps. The Archaea has to be the only ship in the galaxy that can fire intercepts on kinetic-speed bogeys!”

“I agree, son – we’re really lucky to have her. How are the turrets doing Shorty? Are we going to hold together?”

“Well, our port-side turret is currently offline, so we’ll need to rotate for any target solutions on that side of the Archaea, and I really don’t think I can bring it back to an operational status without a pretty major refit to be honest.”

“Those are pretty modular, though right? Aren’t they pretty standardized?”

“Absolutely, if we had a replacement handy, I could swap it out for a new one, though it may take some grinding to get the socket rounded off again.”

“Captain,” Gene said, “Shorty and I were talking about going over there.” He gestured out the forward port towards the ruined destroyer, slowly rotating away from us. “There’s probably a fair bit of salvage on that bird.”

“I have been thinking the same thing, Gene. I’d like to see if we can get our hands on another core for Janis – but even if there’s nothing we can use over there, we need to make an inspection at any rate. There could be people trapped in there.”

“Sir, why would that matter?” Pauli asked. “They were just trying to kill us, for no reason other than we happened to show up in this sector of space.”

“True, Pauli… but it’s worth considering, that some of them may not be there willingly, and may have been conscripted from other vessels. Even if they’re scoundrels to the core, I can’t in good conscience leave them here…”

He paused, looking intently at me for a moment.

“Yak, how would you feel about getting your gear on, and checking her out for us?”

I thought about it for a moment. Usually this sort of operation is done with a squad, with at least an engineer, medic, demolitions specialist… along with a few assault troops like me along to do any of the heavy lifting.

“Sir, it’d be damn tough to go it alone on a job like that. One person might be able to clear a compartment, but… she’s so big, sir. There are at least ten decks to work through. We also don’t have any idea what we’re facing over there. If they’re desperate and it turns into a shooting war, I don’t really like the thought of not having someone watching my back, sir.”

“Fair enough son, how about if Shorty came along? She’s a crack shot, and I’ve spent enough time letting her throw me around the cargo hold to know she’s definitely mean enough… How about it Shorty?”

“Captain, I’m up for it – there’s nothing on that tub that Yak and I can’t handle.” Her eyes locked on mine for a moment, daring me to open my mouth and say otherwise. My mom didn’t raise a total fool, however, and I knew better.

“Well, now – listen folks – I don’t want you to take any unnecessary risks over there. Other than plasma cutters and other hand tools, we don’t have much else we can use to extricate. Your safety is top priority, at all times. If there are people over there that need help, give it – but stay frosty as ice over there and keep your eyes and ears open. Remember that ship is military; it’s designed for defense against a landed assault. Check your corners, and work together. Under no circumstances, for any reason, do either of you have permission to let the other out of your sight. Is that understood?”

We both nodded. The captain looked as serious as a heart attack. His concern for us was real, there could be any number of bad people over there that aren’t yet of the mind that we’re their only hope for salvation, the only thing between them and inevitable anarchy as they eventually run out of food and air.

 

[email protected]:14 Jane Short

 

Yak and I had taken up firing positions along either side of the topside lock, with the inner doors tight and all atmo removed. We were both armed to the teeth, I had my railer pistol in a chest holster, an antique British Fairbairn-Sykes commando knife honed to a razor edge strapped to my right leg at mid-thigh, and we both had chemser assault rifles, with 300 rounds of ammo clipped in belt packs. Noiseless, but able to burn holes through light armor, a chemser was the perfect heavy weapon for null gravity or airless environments.

Mine had a short-frame and a collapsing stock, perfect for close-quarters combat. I had it on a chest harness so I could keep it close while I worked with my hands.

Yak’s chemser was a heavy assault model, with a much longer frame, longer barrel and holo sight; it shot a much hotter load. He could probably punch holes in Duron with it, but it fit him well, his big mitts wrapped around it like a toy. He also had a holstered railer slung across one side of his chest, as well as a plasma rig clipped to his web belt.

We were both wearing standard EVA suits with ballistic scaled ceramide plating, perfect for defense against micro-meteorites or bullets, though it wasn’t the perfect get-up for a girl on the go, it was better than nothing, and probably as good as we were going to need.

We both had no illusions about what we might face when the lock opens. The odds are good that there are some very angry, bad people waiting for us, desperate and dangerous.

As I was pre-flighting in my mind, going over what I had and worrying over what I didn’t, my earpiece lit up with our captain’s calm voice. “All clear?”

“Roger, Captain. We’re buttoned up and ready to knock on the door.”

“Very good. Please stand by.”

Shortly afterward, the outer lock irised open, revealing the external hatch on the destroyer.

“Captain, I am knocking on the door now.” Yak said, moving up to the external lock controls. I raised my rifle, sighting in on an imaginary bad guy just over his left shoulder, then leaned my head back to keep everything in sight.

Yak opened the access panel, flipped out the manual lever, and started cranking open the lock, but the lock chamber inside was dark and quiet. He took a quick look around the inside of the chamber, and flashed me a smile. My heart trip-hammered in my chest, but I nodded as confidently as I could and re-checked the safety.

“Captain, we are in the lock chamber now, and Yak’s about to make entry,” I said, trying to keep my voice level.

Yak palmed the inner lock and slid flat against the chamber bulkhead, as the door opened in a rush of smoke-filled air that filled the lock chambers in a haze.

The companionway ahead of us was dark, and filled with drifting clouds of smoke, thick enough to throw cones of light from our headlamps. Nothing moved, so I gave Yak the high-sign, and he took a cover position at the hatch and waved me forward. I kicked off, drifting along the left side of the companionway to the next bulkhead and took another position looking amidships, covering the companionway and an open compartment hatch across. Yak moved up to a position opposite, covering the closed hatch on my side.

We traded a look, and I took point, kicking towards the side of the open hatch, slicing the pie across the sights of my chemser, my nerves jacked up to the max. The air was so full of smoke it was almost impossible to see anything, even with image amps turned way up. Everything that wasn’t metal looked either melted or charred – even the deck plates looked buckled in the heat. As I spun around the corner of the hatch, Yak kicked off behind me and did the same scan to the left, pivoting into the corners.

“Clear,” I said, and took a breath.

“Clear here, Shorty – take a position here, and I’ll pop open the hatch across the companionway.”

“Sounds like a plan…” I hooked my knee against the bulkhead along the hatch, and took a position inside the compartment, covering the opposite hatch. Yak sliced the pie up the companionway, and moved across to take up a position alongside the hatch, covering both the hallway and the hatch. I gave him a nod, and he palmed the hatch open.

Nothing jumped out at us, and the compartment was dark. He cleared right, and then waved me up. I cleared left and we entered together, aiming back into the corners of the compartment. Nothing here either, except a bunch of snap-locked cases in wire cage racks, roasted and smoking.

“What do you figure is in those, Shorty?”

“Hard saying Yak…cargo of some sort.” I shrugged, an impossible gesture in our EVA suits.

We continued working our way along this deck to the central elevator, and pressed on forward, though we were stopped by a tangle of smoking hot wreckage that had collapsed down and closed off the corridor. So far, we had found storage, a machine shop with some tools Gene and I wished we had, and some mechanical compartments. Everything on this deck was dark, and we didn’t find anyone, living or otherwise.

The central elevator was closed and inoperable, but Yak sliced off the control lock with the plasma cutter, and we were able to cycle open the doors. The shaft inside was dark and silent; a taut cable ran down from the car at the very top of the shaft down into a darkness our head lamps couldn’t illuminate.

“We’re going to have to cut our way into each deck, Shorty,” Yak said, looking down into the darkness. “We’re going to need to clear each opening just like any other hatch, looks like. You hold a position on one side of the hoistway, and I’ll pull back on the interlock roller and lock the doors open. Once the doors are open, I’ll mirror the hallway, and we’ll slice in together. Do you know the layout of these ships?”

“Yeah, the gun deck is below, and the magazine and mechanicals for the nova cannons are in a limited access deck directly below. Under that, there are storage and cargo compartments, with bilge and engineering spaces aft. Above us should be crew decks, mess and galley, with upper engineering decks to the aft. The top deck is split, with bridge and communications station forward and a top-opening hatch for the skiff hangar amidships. Aft of that is the upper mechanicals, sensor bay, and reac storage.”

“I’m afraid my time on these was spent mostly on the crew decks unless I was standing security watch at some hatch somewhere. I didn’t really get much opportunity to go exploring. Should we work our way up, or down?”

“Up, I think. There are likely to be less survivors on the upper decks, and once we clear those we can work back down.”

“Sounds good – let’s move up.”

 

[email protected]:26 Steven Pauline

 

My eyes were glazing over with charts and graphs as I worked with Janis to produce an after-action report. The amount of data she collected was overwhelming, and it was proving to be quite a challenge to narrow it down to a more digestible view that still contained enough information for Gene and Shorty.

The captain floated in and handed over a thermo of tomato soup and a grilled cheese, a perfect meal to someone who has been eating the inside of their cheek for the past 12 hours, and one that I devoured like a fiend.

“Any word from Shorty and Yak, Pauli?” he asked, around a mouthful of sandwich.

“Not yet, sir. No news is good news, I hope.”

“Me too. It sounds like they got pretty cooked over there; I can’t imagine there will be many survivors.”

Our second burn, the one that punched the massive hole nearly through the destroyer – that would have been the one that roasted everything. I can’t imagine what that would have been like; it’s a thought that will give me pause for a good long time.

The initial impact of the first shot would have probably killed anyone out of their crash harness, and the second, deep burn would have flash-roasted everyone that was left. At least it was over quick.

“I know the Archaea was built for this sort of thing, but to see it happen, to explore the aftermath first hand… I can’t imagine what Shorty and Yak are seeing over there.”

“Me either, Pauli. I’ve hulled a few ships in my day, but I’ve never had an opportunity to use a nova cannon on a ship big enough to keep from breaking apart. It’s an amazing amount of energy. I can’t help but think that but for Janis, that would have been our fate, and that thought alone makes what we did feel justified.”

“Oh, I don’t regret being the one to walk away from the fight, Captain – even so, it’s pretty horrific thinking about what that must have been like for them.”

“Well, my advice son… don’t think about it too much. The decision to use deadly force in defense is something one should be always prepared to make, without a moment’s hesitation. They got exactly what they deserve, for choosing to live by the sword.”

I was mulling that over, when Shorty reported in, in a burst of static.

“Captain, we’ve worked from stem to stern, and haven’t found any survivors. We can’t get into the bow section, each deck is fused at about a third of the way forward, and there are some significant deck warping preventing some of the forward compartments from opening, but there can’t be anyone alive forward of the elevator. The decks are still smoking hot in places.”

“Copy, Shorty. How about the rest of the ship? Are you able to get into the engineering spaces?”

“Yes sir, aft of the central elevator, everything is accessible, but pretty well roasted. There isn’t any paint, and everything combustible has burned. Carpets, acoustic tile, cabling – anything that wasn’t well shielded or vented is just cooked.”

“Is the core good?”

“It’s hard to say sir, everything’s dark here, so I can’t tell if it will boot up. The core compartment is pretty well protected, so it will probably be fine. The forward turrets on the top-side are slagged solid, but there’s a stern battery that looks to be in good shape, and it’s a much newer model than what we have. I need Gene and his toolbox over here to help me get them unshipped, though.”

“What’s the air like over there Shorty? Do we need EVA suits?”

“Well sir, O2 levels are pretty low, and pressure is dropping, so we’re definitely venting… the way it looks over here, I am not sure if you’d want to breathe the air anyway, it’s full of smoke, and probably smells as bad as it looks.”

I could only imagine how bad it would be over there. As much of a pain it was to work in EVA suits, at least you only smell your own sweat.

“Shorty, I’m sending you a shopping list to your handset now, we’re going to want to tap their tanks, raid the larders, and pull over any reactives we can find. I’d like to get some tactical EVA gear to replace the old work-suits we have, and Gene has another list he wants to run through as well.”

“Sir that should all be doable, it doesn’t look like the pirates had possession of it for long, and it’s a newer model than we served on. We ought to be able to lay our hands on some good gear here. I don’t know if we have room for it, but there’s a mighty nice little captain’s gig in the topside hangar that might fit on our racks.”

“I’ll ask Gene to take some measurements on his way over. Is there anything else you need?”

“No, other than his tools we ought to be good to go. I think we’ll bring everything up to the top hangar for offload to the Archaea. Will that work, sir?”

“Sure thing – and Shorty – good job over there.”

 

[email protected]:46 Gene Mitchell

 

Shorty and Yak met me at the lock, and helped me maneuver my ‘toolbox’ across into the destroyer. It’s a well-worn Snaplock case I’ve hauled from ship to ship for 30 years, and has just about every tool you might need to have, from auto-wrenches to torque drivers, and a whole set of pneumatic tools for a counter-rotation driver – it even has integrated pressure tanks so it can be used in places where there’s no pressure line handy.

Dak had briefed me on what to expect over here, but it was way worse than I expected. This deck was scorched; it looked like the aftermath of an alpha-class fire that had burned itself out of oxygen, which is pretty much what had happened here. Pretty much everything combustible had been burned or melted, and in some places the framing and deck plates were warped. The forward sections of all decks from the bridge down were completely slagged.

Shorty and Yak had cleared through the compartments they could access, and cut their way into some of the compartments they couldn’t open.

“How many KIA did you guys find,” I asked as we wrestled the toolbox past a section of deck that had partly collapsed.

“About thirty or so – though it’s hard to get an accurate count, in the forward compartments. The crew decks are especially grim, if we don’t have a pressing need to recover anything from there, I’d prefer it if we didn’t go there again,” said Shorty.

“Sounds good to me, Shorty – it’s pretty bad?”

“It’s absolutely terrible, Gene. These people had no chance, they literally roasted in place. Some are charred to the point where you can’t even recognize them.”

I had no desire to get an image like that in my head, but even so, it was impossible not to see the grim reality of what had happened here.

“Where should we start, Gene?” Shorty asked, as we lugged the toolbox up to the open elevator port. “Down, or up?”

“It doesn’t much matter – but it’s going to be a big job pulling those turrets, let’s get you started up there, then I’ll head back to engineering and get to work pulling spares.”

We wrestled the box up and through the hole they had cut into the bottom of the car, it was a close fit, but we got it through. They had cut a hole forward in the car, but the companionway was gone, blocked solid with a mass of wreckage, the bulkheads, wall sections and deck plates all folded back and twisted together, fused into a solid mass of metal, thoroughly slagged. The car itself was completely out of round, warped by the heat, and probably welded to the shaft.

We had to move aft on our hands and knees for the first section, as it was almost completely blocked when the outer hull and frame structure had partially collapsed in the heat, but as we moved aft towards the skiff hangar, the sagging ceiling stopped and it opened back up and just looked like a burned out hulk.

Shorty was right about that gig, it was a sweetie – a little 10-meter runabout. Dak was going to want that, definitely. The hangar itself was in pretty good shape, as the inner locks had been closed, it wasn’t too burned out. There was some blistering and heat damage, but nothing looked too bad.

As we moved aft to the rear turret compartment, it looked almost untouched, which gave me hope for the stern compartments in engineering. I left the toolbox with Shorty and Yak and kicked on back to the core compartment. This far back, through all the locked down doors, there was hardly any damage at all.

“Pauli, this is Gene – we’re at the nexus core compartment now, and it looks good, really good. Do you want anything else in here besides the core?”

“Gene, I know we’re going to want as much of the rack it’s mounted on as possible, so we can set up a second core in the engineering space – but you’ll know best what we will need for that. I am not sure how much of it is salvageable and what we’ll need to fabricate…”

“Pauli, this is all modular, bolted on. All I will need to do is drill and tap mounting holes, and it should drop right in. Is there anything else we might want out of here?”

“How about the enviro unit in there? It’s probably modular as well, and we’ll want independent controls in the compartment we set up as well.”

“Sounds good Pauli, I’ll hack that out of here as well.”

I got to work on in the nexus room, grinding off welds and disconnecting everything I could reach. The nexus core was pretty similar to the model we had aboard the Archaea, and should plug right in, though I’ll leave the wetnet connections to Pauli. The rack came right off, and the enviro unit in this compartment was self-contained with a standalone fuel cell. I made sure I grabbed everything that looked useful and started carting it forward and making a pile in the hangar.

“Gene, are you at a point where you can give us a hand?”

“I sure can Shorty, be right there – just making my last load from the hangar now.” I kicked back to the turret compartment and weaved my way through a sea of tool tethers. Yak was on tool patrol, and Shorty was somewhere up in the framing – only her boots were visible out of an access panel.

“How’s it coming Shorty?” I ask, giving Yak a look.

“Good Gene, I am just working loose the last mounting bolts now. Do you think we can use that gig to pull these out of their sockets?”

I didn’t really like the thought of trying to conn Dak’s new baby around in a cloud of debris, twisted hull plates and framing members… I couldn’t face those eyebrows if anything happened.

“No, I can’t Shorty – I’m nowhere good enough on the stick to handle that. We’re going to need to get the captain over here for that, I think.”

“That makes sense, well – we’re done here, so let’s move on down to the gun deck and engineering.”

She came wriggling down out of the hatch and untwisted the tool leash she had tangled around her neck.

 

[email protected]:06 Captain Dak Smith

 

Pauli had gone aft to engineering to take a look at the new core compartment he and Gene were going to try to set up, and for a rare moment aboard the Archaea, I found myself alone, with no one to talk at. This wasn’t really an ideal situation for me – I had an overwhelming urge to tell people what to do, but no people to tell it to.

Surely someone needed some leadership around here.

I chased down another cup of coffee and reviewed the remainder of our course for this leg. We only had a few more hours left before we could slip out of here, and I was raring to go, eager to get a move on from this horrible place.

“Captain, we’re going to need you over here to pilot the gig for us,” Gene said in a burst of static.

“Sounds good Gene, I’ll suit up and head over. How’s it coming along?”

“We’re making progress, I am going to walk the core over and will meet you at the lock, Shorty and Yak have the turrets loose and we’ll pull them with the gig and just lash them down in the cargo bay for now. They’re on the gun deck at the moment, pulling spares, and I will be heading down to engineering shortly to do the same thing.”

“Do you need my help over there Captain?” Pauli asked, floating up with a fresh coffee in hand.

“No, I don’t think so – I can’t really leave the bridge empty, Pauli. I think I need you here to keep an eye on the screens for me.” The last thing I want to have happen, is for something to happen while I am not there to save us in some epic, heroic manner. The thought of us all stranded on that hulk watching the Archaea drift away…that’s the stuff of nightmares. No thanks, I think I’ll pass.

I suited up and met Gene in the lock, and helped him man-handle the core and its enviro unit down into the Archaea, and we headed up through the destroyer to the skiff bay. They were not exaggerating when they said this bird was slagged – it was disconcerting to crawl on my face through the smoke-filled top companionway, though it looked like they cleared it out a bit for me.

As we locked through into the flight deck, the first thing I noticed was the sweet little captain’s gig on starboard rack – the other seven things I noticed were the other empty racks.

“Gene, did you notice the other skiff racks are empty?”

“Not really, but we’ve been working pretty hard in here,” he said, looking up at the empty racks. “Do you think they might be the same seven bogeys we chased off earlier?”

“It certainly seems likely. We never did get a good visual on them… they sure acted like skiffs…”

I popped the hatch on the gig, and wormed my way up to the helm – it was a tight fit for my heroic shoulders, but not too bad.

“Gene, let me pre-flight this baby, and stand by to drop her off the rack. I’ll just take her out on maneuvering thrusters – let me know when you’re clipped on.”

As I went through the routine of checking levels and charges, making sure jets were free and controls were clear, Gene clipped on a set of tethers to the utility ring by the top hatch, and gave me the thumbs up through the forward hatch.

“Ready to go Gene?” I asked, and he nodded in return, looking a little pale. “Settle down man, this is nothing. Easy as falling off a log.”

I talked the talk, now it was time to walk the walk. The gig wasn’t the Archaea, that’s for sure. It was way lighter on the stick and I had to spin and translate up through the top hatch, then invert for a pick on the turrets. All of this, through a cloud of debris ranging from dust size particles to multiple-ton sections of deck plating slowly tumbling along.

Gene gave me a full blast of concerned face, though I waved him off and whipped her around smartly, dropping velocity right on the dot, inverted above the turrets. As he worked on hooking them up, I swiveled the command chair back to the crew compartment, and took a look at the gig.

She was a sweetie, all right. Brand new and looked like she rolled off the line last week, she was rigged for atmo with ramjets and lifters, and even had dual railers. The crew compartment had six couches, and looked pretty well-appointed, as a captain’s gig should be. I sure hoped Gene could make her fit in the Archaea’s hold, but if anyone can, it’ll be Gene.

Gene was done hooking us up, and on his high-sign, I eased her back and took up the slack, then slowly pulled away as the turrets came loose from their sockets like strange teeth. Gene flagged me to stop once they were clear, and I let her drift slowly away while he strapped them together.

Once he was done, he grabbed back on and gave me another look, so I babied her back through the mess of debris to the Archaea. Seeing her from out here, I was struck by the contrast in size between our little frigate, and this massive wall of ship she was docked to. She looked like a small remora holding station at the side of a giant shark, but she also looked like home, and I was glad to be headed back.

As we rolled under the Archaea’s open cargo bay, Pauli was suited up and waiting at the crane controls, looking down with wide eyes at Gene perched on the top of the gig, a turret in each hand. I pushed her gently forward until we were in reach of the cargo crane and they hauled up the turrets and secured them to the bulkhead while I cooled my jets and watched them work. If there’s something I never tire of, it’s watching other people work.

Once they were situated, and Gene gave me another look, I waved them aside and brought the gig in just as easy as a leaf, hardly rubbing the paint off the rails. From the look on Gene’s face, you’d have thought I tore a wing off.

 

[email protected]:55 Yak Onebull

 

Jane and I met Gene coming back through the lock, and he helped us off-load an assortment of stepper motors, pumps, tanks of plasticine, ferrene, water, gear oil, and various boxes and crates of tool, parts, and other assorted odds and ends.

Shorty was disassembling everything she could get her hands on, and I was doing my best to keep up, but she was a gearhead and all I was really good for was heavy lifting.

“Are you guys just about done taking her apart?” Gene said, looking over the growing pile of parts we were amassing in the cargo hold.

“Nice, Gene,” Jane said. “We lugged your toolbox down to engineering for you already, while you and the captain had fun flying around.

“Fun? That’s a laugh, Shorty. Next time Dak wants someone to hang on for dear life while he blasts around tons of whirling death, you can volunteer.”

“Oh come on Gene, you live for a life of danger and adventure, don’t you?”

I laughed, despite the look of murderous intent Gene flashed at Jane, or maybe because of it.

We kicked on down the companionway, and I reflected on how quickly we went from pushing terrified into the unknown dark, to familiarity. Jane and I were still strapped, but we were definitely at ease. Who knows what thoughts we might have later, remembering images we’ve locked away behind the companionway hatches in our minds – but for now we were on mission.

Gene was like a kid on Christmas morning in the engineering space, pulling parts and pieces off of the machinery, taking valves, sensors, crates of parts he found in a storage compartment under a deck hatch – he was keeping me pretty busy, working like a Sherpa. Jane had taken a station in the cargo hold back aboard the Archaea, organizing, sorting and strapping down cases and boxes, like some brutally efficient pint-sized quartermaster. Between Gene on one end of the trek, and Jane on the other, I was really starting to feel the burn of a good sweat.

“Gene,” the captain’s voice crackled in our helmets, “I have been thinking more about those seven empty berths. Do you know when you’ll be done field-stripping this beast?”

I chuckled to myself, imagining the look Gene is flashing at Jane right about now.

“We’re getting there, Dak – I have just about all I need from engineering…I want to make a quick check through the bilge deck in case there’s anything else we can’t live without, but then we should be good to go.”

“Make it snappy please. I don’t want to be here if the seven dwarves come home.”

Jane and I met Gene coming out of engineering, and we dropped down the elevator shaft. I was just about to the bilge hatch when something drew me up short. I’m not a jumpy person by nature, but I’ve spent enough time in combat, with real live people shooting real live ammo in my direction, to have a sixth sense for danger. My hackles were up, and something didn’t smell right.

Jane’s eyes opened wide, and her gun was at the ready and aimed at the hatch almost faster than I could see her move. Behind and above her, Gene hooked on to the wall and flashed a concerned look down the shaft at me. We all clicked off our helmet lights and set image amps to max.

“Captain, be advised, Yak may have some activity in the bilge” whispered Jane. “We’re moving in now, stand by.”

“Roger, Shorty – stay frosty and keep me posted.” His voice was heavy with concern, but rock-solid and calm in my ears, in diametric opposition to the sudden hammering in my chest.

I waved Jane down to take a position at the opposite corner of the hatch, and mirrored the companionway leading aft through the bilge compartments. At first I didn’t see anything, but then a brief flash of movement all the way towards the stern caught my eye. I slowly pivoted the mirror until I could see what looked an awful lot like two men lined up to pop the next person through that hatch right in the dome.

I looked up at Jane, and pointed at my eyes, then held up two fingers. She nodded, and took a wrap in her rifle sling, sighting down at the open hatch. I took another quick look with my mirror, and noted two firing positions on either side of the companionway, right where the next bulkhead met structural framing inside the companionway opening.

“Jane,” I whispered, “we have two firing positions to port and starboard of the companionway with solid cover. It looks like we have similar positions all the way down the bilge deck, so we might be able to leapfrog to grenade range if we cover our advance with suppressing fire. Are you up for this?”

She nodded her head violently, never taking her eyes off the hatch.

“Okay Jane, I am going to toss a flashbang, and then we’re going to push that position as hard as we can – here we go, on three…two…one—” I pulled the pin and hooked my arm around the upper edge of the hatch, and hurled the grenade as far as I could right down the corridor like I was throwing a touchdown pass, shut my eyes as tight as I could and waited for the flash.

When it went off, the light and sound in the enclosed space caught me off guard, but they always do – even when you know it’s coming, you never really remember how horribly loud and bright they are.

Even though I had my eyes tightly shut when it went off, I could barely see through the afterimage of the explosion as I boosted around the edge of the hatch and kicked for the starboard bulkhead – but I could see well enough to spot a man standing in the open at the end of the hallway. He looked just like a target silhouette in a shooting range, and I put two shots from my chemser right through him at center mass, and watched him kick loose and tumble.

Jane was in position now on the port bulkhead, and popping fire down the corridor, so I pushed ahead to the next station, praying her aim was tight. As soon as I tucked in, I started suppressing fire, and she moved up to the next station ahead. As she moved up, a shape at the end of the corridor leaned out, and I put two shots through his helmet.

Jane and I checked fire, and waited a moment to see if anything else was moving at the end of the hall.

“Captain, two down.” Jane breathed into my ear. “Rolling up now Yak, cover me.”

I had the end of the hall scoped, and she moved down slowly, carefully keeping out of my field of fire.

“Clear, move up.”

“Roger, moving up,” I said, kicking off down the corridor.

It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve looked down the barrel of a rifle and watched a man fall because of my action, my finger on the trigger, my will to survive – the mind still recoils in horror at the savagery and brutality of the moment.

All the training in the world can only help you push that emotion aside and focus on shooting straight, and shooting first – but afterward, in the dark of the night, in the shadows behind your eyes, that feeling of the trigger being squeezed, the waves of emotion and sick fear like a hot pit in the bowels of your soul come rushing in.

Even the toughest marine feels it, the remorse and shock, the connection made and broken forever between enemies on the battlefield. I knew it would haunt me, another terrible and exhilarating memory to be filed away forever in the cold, dark room in the very back of my mind.

As much as I didn’t want to, as I moved up I couldn’t help but come face to face with the reality of what had just happened. Both men were clearly dead, slowly floating amidst red globules of blood despite cauterization from the chemser fire.

Jane moved up, and touched my shoulder, held her hand there for a moment, and I just about broke down and wept at the humanity in her simple expression.

“We had no choice, Yak,” her tiny voice whispered in my ear.

I sat there for a moment, locking the scene away, saving it against a future time when I might no longer care, might not have this humanity in my heart.

“Yeah…it’s just…it never gets any easier.”

“I know…but those men were going to kill us, Shaun. If it wasn’t for us coming along to give Gene a hand, it would be him lying here at the end of this corridor right now.”

She was right, of course, as emotional as she might be at times, right now her heart was tempered steel, her eyes were cold as ice. Despite the bodies, despite the crushing waves of emotion, of fear and regret, we had a job to do and we didn’t have time to waste.

“You’re right, Jane. Let’s get that hatch open and see what these clowns were trying to protect.”

“That’s the spirit, Yak – crack out that plasma rig and cut me up a slice of that hatch,” she said, taking up a firing position at the nearest bulkhead.

“Captain, Gene – Yak and I are making an entry on a sealed compartment at the stern end of the bilge. Please stand by.”

I took a position to the side of the hatch opposite of Jane, and started cutting, white-hot globs of molten metal spalling into the corridor around me, sparkling brightly through my darkened visor. When the lock section had been cut away, I looked back to make sure Jane was in a good position, and at her nod, hauled open the hatch.

She gasped in my ear, as I looked in and saw a man in manacles, lying on the floor.

 

[email protected]:43 Captain Dak Smith

 

I left Janis in charge of the bridge, with explicit instructions to notify me immediately of any condition I might need to know about, and then to take whatever action she needed to take if I wasn’t able to respond quickly enough, and Pauli and I met Gene, Yak and Shorty in the sick bay. They had an NRB mask on the prisoner’s head, but he had a weak pulse, and looked blue.

I clamped a pulse oximeter to his finger, and bawled at Gene to get me something to cut off the binders, while Shorty and Yak hovered in the background, stinking like chemical fire.

“Yak, Shorty – get that gear off, and get it stowed. I need you both back here on the double”

They both kicked out like their tails were on fire – I guess that’s one benefit of being captain in null-g, when you say hop, people literally do. Pauli pulled over the vital console, and we started hooking him up, pulse, temp, heart monitor, the works.

Gene returned with cutters, levered off the binders, and we both cringed at the sight of the open sores underneath.

“Gene, get to work cleaning those up, and I’ll finish getting his vitals. Janis, dear – what is your current level of understanding of medical science?”

“Captain, I have extensive physiological, neurological, pathological—”

“Yes dear, I am sure you do – though I don’t need a full list right now. Can you help me make sense of this man’s vitals and recommend treatment?”

“Certainly sir. This man is suffering from shock, malnutrition, dehydration, hypoxia, and carbon monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation. He will need an IV started right away for aggressive fluid resuscitation, and then administer intravenous doses of ampicillin, vancomycin, and sodium bicarbonate for acidosis. I have already boosted the humidity level in this section to 85%, but for now keep using the non-rebreather mask and assist his breathing.”

“Will do Janis,” I said, motioning to Gene for an IV from the cabinet.

“Does anyone know who he is, did he say anything?”

“No Captain,” Shorty said, “he was chained up and lying on the deck when we made entry, sir.” Her eyes grew big, as Gene cleaned a spot on the top of his hand, and I uncapped an IV needle.

“Do either of you need anything else over there?” I asked, looking at Gene and Shorty.

“No sir.” Gene looked at Shorty for confirmation, and she nodded. “We’re both good to go. We have filled our hold with just about everything that wasn’t bolted down, and then some—”

“I even hauled over the mystery cases we saw right after we entered.” Yak added.

“We have the gig, some really nice latest-gen turrets, all the hardware and gear we could carry – we loaded up enough hot-blend reactives to take us to the farthest reaches of the outer rim …If there’s anything else on that tub, we don’t need it. I’d say we’re good to go, Dak.” Gene and I locked eyes for a moment, and I nodded.

“Sounds good. Janis, please bring this ring up to speed for point-seven gee. Gene, I need the fire lit as soon as possible. Shorty, I need you on station, but I’d like Yak and Pauli to stay here with our guest. Let’s get a move on people. Time to haul mass.”

I climbed up into the gun deck, and kicked off for the bridge. I started running through the checklist to prep for launch while the sound and vibrations of various pumps and machinery starting up signaled the ramp up of the tokamak.

Some modern ships are push-button flybots, but not the Archaea – we have to work through a pretty complex series of procedures to make sure she’s ready for launch, even just to undock. I have to go through all system screens checking caution-and-warning status, warm up and test attitude and maneuvering thrusters, test flight controls, check to make sure our departure lane is clear, check comms, and then wait for Shorty and Gene to go through their procedures and report green-to-go back to my board. It’s a process, and while I’ve been known to stab it and steer on occasion, I don’t make a habit of it.

I was pretty much done with everything I had to do, and was waiting for Gene and Shorty to talk back when I started to think. Now don’t get me wrong, I know the best captains have people to do that for them, but right then I had the bridge to myself and nothing better to do. It occurred to me that we were just about to leave a pretty significant amount of military hardware just floating out here for any old swinging dick to just waltz on up and use. Besides the seven dwarves we knew were out there somewhere, this destroyer, as slagged as it is, would still make a pretty decent base of operations for the bad guys.

“Gene, I know you’re busy right now—”

“Then why are you bothering me?” he snapped, right on cue.

“Because it’s what I do, and I am pretty damn good at what I do.”

“Do you have a point, Dak” he groused, clearly annoyed to some sort of legendary amount.

“Yep, and if you’ll stop jabber-jawing at me all day long, I will get right to it….” I paused for effect.

“Dak…” he trailed off, knowing this is a battle I will always win, now and forever, amen.

“Gene, can you scuttle the destroyer?” I asked.

“Well… not in the classic sense, Dak. I mean, the SD controls are in the bridge, which is right now swirling in clouds around that cratered hulk…”

“No, I mean more in terms of blowing a tokamak or something…”

“No, the tokamak wouldn’t blow up like that, Dak – it’s a fusion reaction, not a fission reaction. If it were to blow containment, it would burn the hell out of engineering, as there would essentially be a little sun burning inside the engineering space – but it wouldn’t blow up.”

“Would that be enough to burn through the scuttle shielding at the aft end of engineering?”

“That’s a good question… The scuttle nukes are heavily shielded and technically impossible to detonate without the correct coded signal, but it seems to me a runaway tokamak fire might be enough to burn through their cladding and light them off. The scuttle charges are big enough to do it, Dak – high-yield triple-F type nukes, and chemically ignited.”

“Triple-F?” I asked, knowing already I wouldn’t understand the answer.

“It stands for fission-fusion-fission, and it describes how the reactions are stacked to lens a bigger yield. This is not really my specialty, Dak – Shorty has probably forgotten more about nukes than I will ever know.”

“I am not studying for a test, Gene… I want it to go boom, and make a big shiny flash.”

“Well… I suppose that could be done… but I’d need to start their tokamak, and then make all sorts of bad things happen, remove all sorts of fail-safe and redundant systems… it wouldn’t be easy to do. These systems are definitely over-engineered to prevent a runaway fusion reaction from happening.”

“But you can do it?”

“Well…I ought to be able to…are we just shooting the breeze here, or is this something you want me to do?”

“No, I don’t want you to do it, Gene – I want you to already have done it. How much longer do we have to get to a safe distance?”

 

[email protected]:22 Gene Mitchell

 

I climbed into my EVA suit, grabbed an assortment of tools and high-tailed it for the upper lock. While I was waiting for it to cycle open, I rechecked my suit’s connections – one can never be too sure.

“Dak, I am making entry now, and will make my way to engineering – I think the tokamak might still be operable though I may need to swap some parts around to bring it online. You may want to have Janis working on some simulations for this one, because the math is more than I can do in my head. It’ll be a big boom.”

“Copy, Gene – I’ll get her working on that, good call.”

The lock cycled open and I kicked on down the corridor, trying to sink my teeth into the task at hand and come up with some sort of plan. I was going to need to bypass a number of fail-over systems and sensors, but I think the key will be monkey-wrenching the coolant pumps.

A tokamak is essentially a fusion reaction contained in a toroidal shape, a type of magnetic bottle. Hydrogen plasma cycles around the torus, accelerated by stepper pumps through the windings, generating massive amounts of energy through the same Faraday effect your standard electrical motor might use.

Once the plasma reaches a high enough orbital velocity around the torus, it starts to run into and through itself, and that ignites a fusion reaction that forces it even faster. There are multiple stages to the reaction as the speed of the rotation increases, forcing the fusion reaction to exponentially accelerate and intensify, as the fusing plasma stream smashes through itself.

The enemy of the system is heat. The plasma is ionically charged, and contained via magnetic repulsion, but the heat generated from the fusion reaction has to be managed, or the containment, the tokamak windings, will be breached.

I had to overcome a series of engineering challenges in order for this to work. The first problem will be to come up with ways to overcome the redundant fail-safe systems that are designed to prevent a breach, and then I’ll need to find some way to continually ramp up the fusion acceleration until a loss of containment occurs.

That’s the real challenge, of course. Fusion reactors are intrinsically pretty safe – the reaction has to be maintained. If the plasma pumps and ring accelerators stop, the reaction also stops.

What I needed, was some sort of fuse, but I could only get that by engineering a mechanical failure of some sort. I needed to figure out how to make sure a sustained runaway reaction occurs, and that it breaches containment in the right direction so it burns out the scuttle cladding – but not before giving us enough time to get away.

I think the best point of failure is going to be the cooling pumps that circulate liquid helium through the radiator harness. They were the key to the process, and there were enough of them in a series around the torus that if they were taken down one at a time, the efficiency of the cooling would slowly decrease, and that could be all the fuse we need. All I need to do is time their failure, so the one that fails first, is the one pumping coolant around the area I want the breach.

Luckily, we had already pulled many of the redundant safety systems, so if I could get the fire lit, all I really needed to do was come up with some bridges to close the gaps in the parts and pieces that were missing.

“Captain, I think I have a plan over here, but it’s going to take me a little while. Do we have a few hours?”

“Impossible, Gene. How about an hour?”

“Dak, there’s no way I can do it in an hour. I need at least that much time just to fabricate the bypass parts I need.”

“Alright Gene, how about 45 minutes?” The man was impossible. I could practically hear his blasted eyebrows at this point.

 

[email protected]:31 Captain Dak Smith

 

I felt like I had been drumming my fingers on the console for hours upon hours, but it had only been about ten minutes. I think it was Einstein that said time is relative to the observer, but he forgot to add that it was relative to the amount of coffee the observer has had.

Janis and I had a wonderfully complex and frustrating conversation about minimum safe distances, high-order thermonuclear reactions, particle decay and attenuation, and other technical clicks and beeps that I hardly understood.

She simulated a number of different scenarios, none of which were very encouraging, and placed us somewhere between immolation in nuclear fire, and vaporization from nuclear fire, so I decided the minimum safe distance would just have to be wherever the hell we were when the damn thing blew up.

“Gene, how much time can you give us before that beast lights off?” I could just imagine the monkey-face he made at this.

“Dak, it’s not going to be an exact science – were you able to get a minimum safe distance from Janis?”

“Nah, she went on about this, that, and the other thing, and essentially said we’re either extra-crispy or cajun-style, no matter what we do.” Of course, now I was hungry.

“Well that doesn’t sound terribly encouraging, Dak…,” he said, understating the obvious.

“Yeah well, it is what it is, I guess. That’s why I am approaching this from a slightly different angle. Rather than wonder what the minimum safe distance is, I’m planning to just boost right on out of here at maximum burn and…um… yeah…”

“Dak, that’s insanely risky, even for you. Besides a shock wave that will be flinging hunks of destroyer that may be many times larger than the Archaea, we’re going to have to outrun an incredible burst of particle radiation, alpha, beta, neutrons, all sorts of zoomies, hell, maybe even some neutrinos for all I know—”

“Gene, pretend for a moment, just for fun, that I don’t know what you are talking about here—”

“That’s a pretty fun game, Dak, one that I play pretty much all the time. In fact, I am the current reigning champion.”

“Ha ha, funny guy. Seriously though… what are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about bathing the Archaea in high-intensity radiation, moving outward at nearly the speed of light. I’m talking about significant risk to life, limb, and the continued pursuit of happiness.”

“So…ok, that doesn’t sound way cool, Gene. Let’s talk about time then. How much time do you think we’ll need here?”

“Well hell, Dak – I don’t know! That’s why I wanted you to talk to Janis. Speaking of which…Janis, are you listening?”

“Yes Gene. I am always listening, though I do not reflect on the discussion or participate unless specifically requested to do so.”

“That’s fine, Janis. Are you able to simulate an M-3 tokamak reactor accelerated to between the fifth and seventh phase of reaction.”

“Gene, that would be beyond the rated capacity for that model.”

I understand Janis. Can you extrapolate to that phase-amount please?”

“Certainly, Gene.”

“Excellent. Please simulate a catastrophic loss of cooling harness, resulting in a containment breach.”

“Gene, my simulation does not result in a containment breach, as that model of tokamak would shut down pumps and accelerators in the event of coolant failure.”

“See, Gene? Clickety beep, bloop-bleep.” He sighed, no doubt giving me another look that I skillfully ignored, as usual.

“Janis, please modify the simulation to include a scram failure.”

“Gene would you like me to include a failure in all redundant systems, or specific systems?”

“Specific systems, please. Simulate an interlock failure for the accelerator circuits, a total failure of temperature sensors throughout the cooling harness, and a direct short circuit from accumulators to the plasma pumps.”

She went silent for a few seconds – this was the first time I have ever seen her take any time to think, she must be really crunching numbers.

“Gene, I am afraid there are too many variables to present an accurate simulation. Allowing for a range variance in results, containment breach will occur between 923 and 936 seconds from the start of the fifth phase of reaction. I am afraid that I am not able to progress the simulation to a seventh phase reaction, unless the coolant pumps are disabled sequentially. Allowing that variance, containment breach of a seventh-phase reaction will occur between 1,132 and 1,149 seconds. I regret that I am unable to present a more accurate result.”

“Janis that is outstanding, definitely accurate enough for our needs,” Gene said, obviously admiring her capacity for math and analysis. “Let’s start a new analysis. Given a thermonuclear explosion occurring in this location with a potential yield of 40 megatons, what would the safe distance be for attenuation of harmful high-energy x-ray and gamma wave radiation?”

Another pause. She was probably simulating the position of each particle as it moved through the gravity map of this sector.

“Gene, as best as I can simulate, based on material- and mass-analysis of the destroyer, adjusting the inverse square law according to the gravimetric data for this sector, radiation attenuation to nominal levels would require a distance of 51,230 kilometers from the point of origin.”

“Well, that’s not going to work,” I added. “We can move pretty fast, but not that fast….there’s an amazing amount of mass in the shape of billion-ton hunks of rock and iron hurtling around out there. We can’t just firewall it for the far horizon.”

“I agree, that’s just not possible,” Gene said. “So what sort of backup plan do you have for us, Dak?”

“Excuse me, Captain, Gene – why do you say this isn’t possible?” asked Janis.

“Janis, we can’t possibly burn that hot, dear. It’s beyond our capability to do so in this system. Even if Gene could give us 30 minutes, we’re not going to be clear.”

“Sir, I am afraid your assessment is at a significant variance.”

“Janis, are you saying I am wrong?”

I am not at all used to anyone, not even Gene, disagreeing with me. I am the Captain, and even if I am wrong, it’s my prerogative, my sole right. If it were anyone else, even Gene, I’d have them on their hands and knees somewhere cleaning or painting something .

Not that I would actually do that, not even to Gene…but it sure was fun to think about.

“Janis, for the record,” Gene added, “our captain is absolutely infallible, he is not capable of being wrong by the very nature of his position and role aboard this vessel. Please make note of this.”

“Yes sir. I shall sir. Captain, I am sorry sir.” The poor dear, she’s going to fall apart and cry if I didn’t do something.

“Janis, please make another note, for the record.” I paused, for dramatic effect. “At no time is anyone on board this vessel to ever contradict, or disagree with a stated position of mine, unless they are you.” I could imagine Gene’s face now, all screwed up and scowly.

“Yes sir,” she said smugly. Honest, it was smug.

“Janis, dear, please tell me why I am wrong,” I managed to say, the words strange and foreign in my mouth.

“Sir, you are correct that it would not be possible to shape a safe course from our current position to cover that distance within that time frame, without pseudomass enhancement.”

There was a stunned silence from both Gene and I, as we processed this. While we do use generated pseudomass to offset high-gee course changes, to reduce mass-loading and improve course changes, she was talking about a much stronger application of pseudomass.

She was talking about making a deep hole in space, and dropping us down into it.

“Janis, are you referring to slipspacing?” Gene said, incredulously. “I can’t see how that would be possible…” he trailed off, as he came to the same realization I just did.

“Janis, I am afraid that while I am without a doubt the best pilot in the known galaxy, I don’t have the reaction time to follow a course like that.”

Of course, as I was saying these words, the part of my mind that likes to hand someone my beer and say ‘check this out’ was trying to tell me it’d be a piece of cake. Luckily, for the sake of my crew and my ship, I have learned over the years to only listen to that part of my mind when pretty girls are around.

“Sir, I could quite effectively pilot this course for us.” she said. “I am already controlling flight systems as per your input, adding appropriate translation for improved responsiveness and control. This would be a trivial process, given my current response time curve.”

I’ll be damned. So that’s why the Archaea handles so well.

“Janis, if you are confident in your ability to navigate the rest of this system at these speeds…I am confident in you, dear. It sounds like a winning plan to me.”

“Captain… I…” Gene began, looking for some way to say I was wrong, and probably thinking about his toothbrush and some of the nastier places I might find that need cleaning aboard the Archaea.

“Spit it out Gene, we don’t have all day.”

“Well…I guess I better get back to it, then.” he said, like a true champion.

 

[email protected]:50 Captain Dak Smith

 

“Pauli, I am going to go get some chow, do you need anything?” I offered.

Our patient was resting easy, and seemed stable. He was still unconscious, but that was probably for the best. Pauli had his handset out and was writing code on a projected holoscreen, or at least it looked like code.

“No thanks Yak, I’m good.” he said, after looking up at me for a moment, as if he wasn’t quite aware of what language I was speaking.

“Are you feeling okay Pauli?” I asked. He seemed really distant.

“Oh, sure – I was just coding. It takes me a moment to mentally switch gears, that’s all. When you get into the swing of it, the real world just sort of drops away from you, and you dive in to the complexity of the logicspace.” he smiled. “Our patient looks like he’s resting better, and it sure feels good to be spun up to point-seven gee, that’s for sure.”

“That’s the truth, I couldn’t agree more. I’m not a spacer by habit, but by profession. I always feel better when there’s a floor.”

“I am the same way…though I guess we better both work hard getting used to it on this ship. Captain Smith doesn’t seem to ever slow down, does he?”

I laughed, thinking about the past few days since I first met these folks. To call my time aboard the Archaea action-packed would be an extreme understatement.

“Oorah, Pauli. I guess we have to take what we can, when we can. Give me a shout if you need me, I’ll be back in a few.”

I headed up into the gun deck and over to the galley ring. Jane was latched on to a grabber reading her handset and eating a sandwich.

“Hey Jane, how goes?” I ask, though I know how we’re both doing. It’s been a long day for us.

“Hey Yak – it goes. Want a sandwich? My other half is in the crisper. I’m not really hungry, but I am forcing myself to choke something down before I pass out.”

“Thanks Jane, I’ll take you up on that.” I popped open the crisper, and started working on that sandwich like it was served on a gold platter. “Do you know when we’re going to get underway, Jane?” I say, though a mouthful of peanut butter and jelly, the preferred sandwich of the bloodthirsty killer – Jane had good taste.

“No, though I expected we’d be away by now…Captain Smith just called back and told me to stand down for a bit. Apparently Gene is back aboard the destroyer.”

“He is? Is that wise… I mean… the captain knows best, of course… but we missed those rats in the bilge…” I trailed off, trying desperately not to relive those moments, and failing, utterly.

“Yeah, but they had to be the only ones, Yak. I take the blame for that one, I called the bilge clear.” she said, softly.

I looked at her for a moment, remembering the smoke, the darkness. We had pushed down into that hallway, the compartments full of mechanicals, dark units, pipes, ducting. She was on point, kicking doors while I pulled rear-guard.

“Jane, I thought we cleared it completely…” I trailed off at the dark look that flashed across her face.

“Yak, we did. I opened every hatch we could get to open… with so much of that destroyer slagged and warped, how were we supposed to know that hatch was even operational, that it was locked from the inside? I called it clear, Yak, it was my fault. I am so sorry.” The look on her face tore me apart.

“Jane, that was a really hard job for two of us to do. I don’t blame you. Hell, I would have made the same decision. That’s what is bothering me, I guess.”

I munched the rest of my sandwich, and shared a look at her identical to thousands, millions of looks passed between soldiers on battlefields since time immemorial. We lived, that’s not just an important thing, it is the most important thing.

“Yeah… I know. It’s just hard Yak. I keep playing it around in my head, working at it from one direction and the next. There was almost too much for us to process. I hardly knew what deck we were on half the time.”

“I know how you feel, Jane. Trust me, I am right beside you on that. It doesn’t get any easier, but it will get better.”

She laughed a bit, a weak laugh, but it was something.

“Hey folks, whaddya know?” the captain said, kicking in behind what had to be the latest in an endless series of empty coffee cups in search of a refill.

“I know that PB&J is comfort food,” I say.

“Damn skippy, son. You got that right.” He laughed, and started the process of making coffee.

His movements were methodical, almost surgical in their precision with no wasted motion. The mission was making coffee, and he was seeing that done at flank speed, and done correct.

“Captain, how many cups of coffee do you drink every day?” I ask, smiling.

He considered that for a moment, and answered with a straight face, “All of them, Yak.”

We all laughed, the tension of the moment completely overshadowed by the infectious character, the sheer animal magnetism of this man, our captain. He had that rare quality that made you want to leap to your feet and do anything he might want, the moment he wanted it. You didn’t really have a choice in the matter – the man was that good at what he did.

“You did a really bang-up job over there today, and I am not just saying that because either of you could kill me sixteen different ways with this spoon.” he waggled it at us, for emphasis.

“You’ve really out-performed every expectation I had – you worked your butts clean off today.”

Jane and I basked in the glow of his compliment, drinking it in like it was all we needed to survive.

“Thanks sir,” Jane said, “it was just another day in the office for us, right Yak?” she added with a smile.

“Oh sure Jane…” my eyes rolled hard enough to spin up this ring section.

The captain laughed, “Well, it’s good to see you standing tall. I am going to need both of you back on station soon, before we blow up that hulk.”

“Sorry Captain…It’s been a long day, but I could have sworn I just heard you say that you were… blowing it up, sir?” Jane said, sharing my look of disbelief.

“That’s right, Shorty. I am aiming to blow that sucker to component atoms, just as soon as we get clear.”

“Sir, she has no bridge deck… How are you going to scuttle her?”

“Well Jane, Gene is over there right now, hooking up a whatsit to a thingamajig, and he’s going to overload the frammitz until it goes bang, or something.”

“Sir – please…”

“The plan, such as it is – insofar as I understand it,” he paused to pour some coffee down the hatch, “is to ramp up their tokamak to some crazy amount, phase 5 or better, then crash the cooling while at the same time shunting power back to the accelerators. Gene thinks that it should blow containment and then burn right on through the cladding and ignite her scuttle charges the hard way…the way I understand it, it’s going to make a pretty big bang.”

“Damn, sir.” Jane said, a look of rapt adoration on her face, as if he was talking about making her his wife.

“Indeed. We’re not really clear on the minimum time-to-safe-distance aspect of the whole equation, but Janis says it’s no problem; she’ll just blast us out of here at flank speed and then some, tossing some pseudomass around to pull us down a folded hole in space-time. Hopefully not into a moon, but hey, at least we wouldn’t suffer, right?”

“What’s the projected yield, sir?” Jane said in a voice as breathless as empty space.

“Big. Gene thinks he’s going to pop off at least two, maybe all three of the charges, and estimates around 40 megatons” He whipped out his ‘look-ma-no-hands’ eyebrows.

“Four-zero?”

“Yes ma’am. Should be pretty awesome stuff. Anyway… Gene’s going to be back here any moment so if there’s nothing else…”

Our stunned silence was all that remained behind, as he kicked off for the bridge.

 

[email protected]:06 Gene Mitchell

 

I finished clamping down the last coolant bypass and took a moment to admire my handiwork. I’ve done some pretty amazing things in my career, but this was going to be right up there with some of my finest work. It’s too bad I was fixing this just so it could break, that pretty much ran counter to the general way I like to do things, but I could take consolation that at least I was fixing it up to fail in a truly spectacular manner.

I had measured off my best guess to the center of the three scuttle charges, though I really didn’t have any idea where they were except a vague notion they were embedded in the hard wall bulkhead abaft engineering. These are zero-maintenance charges, and highly classified to darn near everyone aboard a ship like this, except the captain and officers commanding. Someone like Shorty might have specs on them, but she wouldn’t necessarily be on enough of a need-to-know basis to know where they were, precisely.

I consider myself a pretty decent engineer, however, and I can trace leads with the best of them. There were three heavily shielded conduits forking from a single shielded conduit heading forward, and as far as I was able to check, none of them had distribution forks. Each of the three conduits terminated directly into the hard-wall bulkhead, so my assumption was the charges were roughly centered behind the point where they entered.

Of course, even though I knew Saint Assumption was the patron saint of failure, the more I thought about it, the less it seemed like I needed to think about it. If I could get the tokamak reaction to the seventh stage, when containment breached, if it breached at the correct location, it was going to burn everything from here to there with nuclear fire hotter than the core of a star. I guess when I thought about it like that, accuracy just didn’t seem to matter all that much…if I could get it to blow in the right direction, of course.

Janis’ simulation backed up what I had thought all along, that the only way to get the reaction to the seventh stage would be to maintain some cooling through the process. If I just turned off cooling completely, and fired up the tokamak, it would blow containment before I could walk out of the room, and we definitely needed more time than that.

My solution to this problem was to drill some very small, very precisely placed holes in the harness, along with some creative bypass gates in the harness that restricted the flow throughout the section I wanted to fail. The liquid helium, incredibly slippery superfluid as it was, would leak through the holes and sublimate almost immediately once it was through the insulation layer of the harness.

This slow leak should serve to lower pressure throughout the entire harness, and the flow restriction caused by my bypass gates on the aft section of the harness should reduce the cooling efficiency of this entire section. With the pressure, flow rate and temperature sensors hacked; this is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that I had replaced the in-line pumps we harvested for the Archaea with the bypass gates, so recirculation through these sections should be much lower as a result.

The idea here was to make a functioning tokamak, one that will hold up way beyond its rated capability, but one that is doomed to fail. All throughout the work, I felt like I had to constantly remind myself that yes, I was making a Swiss watch here, but it was not meant to keep time for very long.

Starting this thing was another matter entirely. I think it will run, for a while anyway, but I was not at all positive I could light it off. I had scrounged charged fuel cells from other mechanical systems and had them wired all over the place, though once the tokamak was lit, it would power everything just fine, I needed a jump start.

The main concern I had was the klystrons – they are a series of high-frequency oscillators that were used to energize the plasma, which was then fed through the stepper pumps into the torus. They took a fair amount of juice to work, though, and I just wasn’t sure I had enough to go around.

I was really stretched to the limit of my skills as a shade tree mechanic here, but I guess if anyone could pull this rabbit out of a hat, it’d be me.

 

[email protected]:57 Yak Onebull

 

“Captain, I am currently extrapolating a possible position for seven targets approaching our position from the far side of the destroyer.” Janis said.

“Yak?” the captain asked from behind me.

I flipped through the screens and zoomed, but the destroyer was a massive dark spot on the screen, like a wall.

“Janis, I am not seeing the targets you are referring to. Are they on screen?”

“They are not at this time; I am not able to pinpoint their exact location at this time. I am tracking minute perturbations in the mass-analysis and movement vectors for local-area gravimetrics, and have identified seven possible sources for the changes.”

I turned around and raised one of my eyebrows at the captain.

“Yak, good try son, but you need to cultivate more of a sense of the overly dramatic, or that poor eyebrow will never command the respect and love of your peers.”

He showed me how it’s done, and ratcheted up an eyebrow high enough to need collision lights.

“ Janis, are you tracking these targets by the changes their mass is making on the local-area gravity map?” he said, with a wink to me.

“That’s correct sir. I am afraid I am not able to identify range or velocity, but my best-case analysis places the targets at extreme range.”

“How extreme?”

“Between 4900 and 5100 kilometers, best solution for a heading places them somewhere between three- and four-o'clock low.”

“Coming in from the far side of the destroyer, sure enough,” agreed the captain, drumming a little flamenco beat on his armrest and sipping his coffee thoughtfully.

“Gene, you crotchety old coot, how are we doing over there? Are you ready for love and affection?”

“I’m ready for respect, damn you…”

“Sorry Gene, I am currently fresh out of that. Can I offer you abject terror, or fear? I have some of that handy…”

“What the hell are you blathering on about now? Did I mention at some point lately that I was a little busy?”

“I seem to recall something like that, Gene. So do you want the bad news?”

“No, I want the good news. Always the good news first, then the bad news.”

“Well, today just isn’t your lucky day Gene, I am fresh out of good news. I have bad news, abject terror, and good old fashioned fear. I suppose I could let you have a little of my extra panic, I seem to have more than my share at the moment.”

The comms were silent, a slight hiss his only response.

“Gene?”

“Yes Dak, what is it?”

“Have I told you yet how much I appreciate all the hard work you’re doing?”

“I am 60 seconds from done here, but I would move a lot faster if you would stop talking at me.”

“I guess I can give you 45 seconds, Gene. No problem.”

Another slight hiss of static on the comms.

“Gene… It’s been 30 seconds, just like I promised….”

“Ok damn you, I am done. Now listen… I have my hand on the switch, and when I pull it, this tokamak is going to light off and burn brightly until a very inevitable conclusion puts this entire sector of space on a fast track to doom. Are you one-hundred-percent certain you want me to pull this lever?”

“Are you still talking? Pull it Gene, and beat feet back here on the double. That is a direct order mister.”

I turned around again, but he wasn’t smiling any longer. His game face was on and playtime was over.

 

[email protected]:06 Captain Dak Smith

 

As soon as Gene closed the outer door of the upper lock, I blew the bolts and dropped the Archaea away from the massive hulk of the destroyer. I gave everyone 20 seconds to wave goodbye before I mashed the GQ alarm and set zebra on board. It was time to skedaddle, time to get back to work.

Time to go!

The crash bars snuggled around me, I checked to make sure Yak was situated, and called back to Pauli in the sick bay.

“Pauli, I need you in the spare berth and belted down son. Is our patient secure?”

“He is sir, and I am as well. His breathing is good, and his vitals are all green, so I think we’re ready back here.”

“Sounds good son. I’m dropping the spin on that ring, so hold on to your lunch. Give me a shout if there’s anything I need to know. Are you patched in to Janis from there?”

“I sure am, sir, I have everything I need on my handscreen at the moment. Janis can set me up with whatever is needed from here.”

“Very good. All hands – stand by for acceleration.”

I mashed the acceleration alarm, more because I like to hear it than anything, it has a really cool warble sound that I know drives Gene crazy.

“Sir, I now have position and vector on seven bogeys, right about where Janis said they would be, sir.” Yak said.

“Thank you Yak, please keep an eye on them, though I am not too concerned.

“Gene, are we ready?”

“Good-to-go, Captain.”

“Thank you, Gene. Janis, you have the conn. Please take us out of here at all possible speed, dear.”

“Aye sir, I have the conn. Accelerating now.”

She said it so calmly, but I was not at all prepared for what happened next. The bottom dropped out of my soul, as the reac drive thundered into full life, maximum burn.

“Sir, I have incoming torpedoes from all seven bogeys, range 3800 kilometers and closing.”

“Thank you Yak. Please keep me posted” I heard myself say through lips that felt like they were being torn off my face. I think I sounded calm, but I couldn’t be sure, right about then Janis warmed up the pseudomass generator and the pedal went through the floor.

I felt nothing else but like I was falling, and falling fast. Down, down down. Faster and faster, we hurtled into the dark like bad news. As hard as we were burning, our descent towards this pit ahead of us was faster, pulling us forward tightly against the crash bars, until I felt like I was about to slide though them into steaming square chunks.

“Stand by for course correction.” Janis said, as calm as if she was remarking on how nice the weather was in Vega 6 this time of year. I felt my stomach convulse as down became sideways, and I struggled valiantly to hold my coffee.

“Yak, report. Are the torps closing?” I hissed through teeth clenched tight.

“No sir… Their range is increasing rapidly sir.”

“Impressive… son… damn… this… OOF” I said involuntarily, not my most shining moment of command, as down became down, and I felt like I was about to fall into my own shoes.

“Gene, how are we… “ I paused as against all odds, coffee spewed out of my nose as we suddenly fell straight up. What a waste of good coffee, I heard an alarmingly distant inner voice say.

“Uuuunnngghhhhh” I told everyone, eloquently enough for the moment.

“Sir…green…all good….” Gene gasped; the background in his station sounding like the inside of a jackhammer shooting bees armed with machine guns all firing at once.

My head was starting to unravel – I was starting to think incredibly weird thoughts, even for me. I was remembering all sorts of strange things, the smell of freshly mown grass, the shiny nose of my third-grade teacher – I wondered why triangle-shaped foods tasted so good.

Janis said something else, but the blood in my ears turned it into a jazzy little number played on French horn and trombone, I think it was a countdown.

At this point, my eyes were starting to fade away, everything around me looked gray, and I could only focus on what was directly in front of me. The view from the forward port was mostly dark, but the view on my screens was alarmingly full of all kinds of terrifying information that I had to admit I really didn’t understand.

Somewhere I heard Jane screaming, or crying – maybe she was cheering, I couldn’t tell. I think I joined in, but everything was going red. Soft, cloud-like dreams reached up into my head and started to pull me back down inside myself, taking me away, and I wanted to go, I welcomed it with open arms.

It was about that moment, when a sudden shove in my back hit us so hard stars squirted out of my eyes and started crawling like little glowing spiders in the air around me. The forward port was full of fire, streaming waves of light, energy, vaporizing and ionizing as it blasted past us at nearly the speed of light – it didn’t look all that fast.

“Sir, we are at minimum safe distance, stand by for zero-g and evolution to slipspace” I heard Janis say, but I couldn’t answer. I tried, desperately, but I couldn’t even make one single witty comment.

Chapter 12

 

[email protected]:15 Captain Dak Smith

 

“Damage Report,” I heard someone say, and realized it was me.

A low hum in the background was my only answer. I looked around, and my head felt like it was mounted on a rusty gimbal, my neck muscles were beyond sore, they were aflame.

“Janis, can you hear me?”

“Yes Captain. I can hear you.”

“Are we safe, dear?” I reach for my coffee, but the cup is gone.

“Yes Captain. We are currently slipspacing on the final leg of our course. Estimated arrival at Vega system is 23 hours, sir.”

I moved my head around slowly, and saw my coffee cup lodged along the leeward edge of the forward port. Finally, I had motivation to try moving.

I unlocked the crash bars and winced as I moved. My shoulders, neck, arms, legs… damn near every bit of me was sore, and it felt like I might have a few sprung ribs.

“Janis, did we reach minimum safe distance? I don’t seem to be glowing…” I checked both hands, just to make sure.

“Yes sir, we did, though I am afraid it was extremely close. While we didn’t have the margin of safety I would have preferred, exposure to radioactive particles were well within nominal levels, sir.”

“And the destroyer?” I asked, carefully extricating myself from a captain-shaped dent deep in the cushions of my couch.

“Sir, my best estimation of the blast yield was 43 megatons-equivalent. Nothing in that sector of space would have remained.”

I winced, as I kicked forward through the bridge. I found myself facing one of the worst moral dilemmas of my entire career. Check on Yak, or collect my coffee cup.

Luckily for Yak, my sense of duty, my integrity, my overwhelming feelings of responsibility won through, and I decided to recover my coffee cup first, as I was a more effective and considerate captain, if I was an alert captain. I simply couldn’t give my crew anything less than my very best.

“Are you going to just sleep all day, Yak?” I asked as I floated past his station, but didn’t get an answer. He twitched a bit, but that was all I could get out of him. I decided from the looks of him, he needed a little extra beauty sleep, and I really didn’t need him on station at the moment.

“Gene? Shorty? Pauli?” I keyed into the 1MC… but it was no use. No one wanted to talk, I guess. Not that I really blamed them. My head felt like it had been used to tan leather, and I had aches and pains layered ten-deep all over my body. I took a few moments to just float, staring at nothing for a while, sipping from my cup.

“Captain, are you okay?” Shorty said, floating into the bridge. The white of her eyes had gone red from petechial hemorrhage, and she had dried blood crusted around her nostrils.

“I’ve been better, Shorty, but I’m not too bad, considering. We’re still here, which is better than the alternative… I guess.” I winced, as a fresh pain rippled down my port-side ribs. “Grab that med-pack, and let’s see if we can wake up sleeping beauty.”

We popped a smelling salt under Yak’s nose and his eyes snapped open and looked around, startled that there was something more to life than a dreamy cloud.

“Yak, your eyes!” Shorty exclaimed, reaching out to touch him on the cheek. He looked pretty bad as well, the whites of his eyes looked pretty much the same as Shorty’s… like they were full of blood.

“Hi Jane…Captain…” He winced as he tried to turn his head over to look at me.

“Take it easy son; you’ve been knocked around pretty good.”

“I feel like I’ve gone 10 rounds, sir…” He looked over at Shorty and took a moment to focus. “Jane, you’re bleeding!”

“It was just a nose bleed, Yak, nothing to worry about.” she looked down at the dried blood that had spattered across the front of her shirt. “I do look a bit gruesome though, now that you mention it. Your eyes look terrible.”

“You have the most terrifying eyes I’ve ever seen,” he replied levelly. “Do my eyes look like yours?”

“Yep,” she replied matter-of-factly.

Right then Gene floated in, a fresh coffee in one hand, and a med-pack in the other. He had a purple goose egg lump on the side of his forehead, but he wasn’t letting that stop him from being grouchy.

“How long have I been out?” He asked, fixing me with a look as if this was all somehow my fault.

“Not very long, Gene, just a few minutes… We’re currently slipping down the last leg to Vega, and for once, we all have nothing urgent, no fires… at least I hope not…” I knocked on wood, just to make sure I didn’t offend the ancient druid spirits of portent.

“Janis, please bring rings up to point-seven gee – I am going to check on Pauli and our patient, and then dear friends… I think I might just take a little nap, I didn’t have a nice luxurious rest like you folks.”

Gene snorted, and they all rolled their eyes enough to knock the Archaea off course.

 

[email protected]:28 Steven Pauline

 

“Pauli…” a voice called softly through my dream.

I came to with the craggy features of Captain Smith filling my eyes and the smell of something horribly vile filling my sinuses and lungs.

I had just been floating above a wooded hillside, looking down at the wind blowing slowly through the grass, the leaves on the trees shimmering and flashing as they caught the clear sunlight, and it felt like I had always been there, that what I woke up to felt like the dream… a horrible dream full of Captain Smith’s face, eyebrows and all. Unfortunately I couldn’t wake up to something different, but as least I tried.

“Are you awake, son?” he asked, with a voice heavy with concern.

“I think I am… though I am not sure I want to be,” I said, feeling about a million aches and pains throughout my entire body.

“I know how you feel, Pauli. If you feel half as bad I do, we’re both due for some rest and relaxation, and that’s what I am hoping we’ll do. We have about a dozen hours left on this leg, and nothing between here and there that can bother, or worry us. I would like for you to take it easy, and that’s an order, son.”

I laughed, despite the ripple of pain it caused down my side – taking it easy is something we just don’t seem to do, ever.

I winced as I tried to roll up out of bed, and the floor seemed to be made of some sort of gelatinous substance, impossible to stand on.

“Steady there,” the captain said, holding out an arm for support. “Your equilibrium will be pretty wonky for a bit after what we just went through. I haven’t felt that drop-sick since my time in the academy centrifuge, and actually, not even then to be honest.”

“Captain, I can’t even explain how horrible that was…” I started, trying to remember what it was like. “I felt like I was in some sort of crazy out of control washing machine that was on spin cycle while it fell down stairs.”

“That’s a pretty good analogy, son. I might have to borrow that one… In simplest terms, Janis had us mass-loaded to the physiological limit of what we can take, and maybe a bit more. The worst of it, was the positive and negative g-loading, and the sideways, the upside down, the back and forth, inside, out—”

“Captain… stop… please…” I was going to be sick.

“Well, of course a superlative pilot like myself, it was hardly enough to make coffee shoot out of my nose.” he gave me a wink, as if that dipped eyebrow was enough to make all the pain go away. It actually was a little helpful, though I wouldn’t admit it to my own mother.

“Let’s see how our patient is…” he said, looking over the vital readout with his most inquisitive eyebrows. Unfortunately those eyebrows only resulted in his eyes squinting, as if it would make more sense if it were more blurry.

“Janis, how is our patient doing? His vitals look…. vital.” He looked back at me with a smile, apparently waiting for an off-stage rim-shot. He was on a roll; I think I’ll have to try the veal. I wonder if he’ll be here all week?

“Captain, he appears to be stable. His breathing is regular and his blood oxygen levels are within normal levels. He does not appear to have a secondary pulmonary infection at this time. I induced a comatose state in the patient during recent maneuvers because it seemed prudent.”

“Janis, how come I didn’t get a medical coma induced?” the captain asked, as serious as a heart attack.

“Captain, it didn’t seem prudent as you were effective at the time.”

“Did you hear that Pauli? Effective…that is the nicest thing anyone has said to me today!” he said, with a feral grin. I groaned…I was finding out that a solid barrage of his jokes hurt more than my ribs.

“Well, enough about me, for the moment…Can you please wake our patient so I can tell him how effective I am?”

“Captain, I have already administered a stimulant, he should be awake in moments.”

“Thank you Janis, perfect – can you please let everyone on the bridge know?”

“I have already informed Jane, Yak, and Gene, Captain.”

“Janis, you are the greatest.”

“Captain, I have explicit instructions to regard you as the greatest, should I assume you were making an attempt at humor, sir? Please advise, I can adjust decision tree logic as needed.”

The captain looked at me with serious, deadly eyebrows. “Is she serious, Pauli?”

“Captain, she is not. I believe, she is trying her hand at a joke, sir.” I said, grinning.

“Janis, was that a joke?”

“Sir, yes sir. It was an attempt at levity, at humor. I was hoping to encourage a sense of pleasure and entertainment. Was I funny, sir?” she said, with the straightest face of all.

 

[email protected]:39 Jane Short

 

The patient was sitting up in bed when Gene, Yak and I arrived from the bridge. He looked considerably better than when I first saw him, chained to the floor of the bilge compartment, but he still looked completely lost. I smiled my sweetest smile, and tried to make him feel welcome.

“Who are you people, and where am I?” he asked, in a quavering, hesitant voice.

“This is Gene Mitchell, our chief engineer and big man on campus. If it’s broken, even if he wasn’t the reason it broke, he can fix it,” the captain said with one of his standard-issue toothy grins.

“The vertically challenged cutie with the apple-red cheeks is, ‘Shorty’ Short, our weapons specialist—”

“Pleasure to meet you, my name is Jane, Jane Short. Please do not call me Shorty, or I might have to kill you,” I smiled murderously at the captain.

“Yes, we try our best not to pay too much attention to Shorty, she’s the biggest little person you will ever meet.” he added, with a sideways glance at me to see if I was going to leap for his throat. I decided I might as well let him live a little longer, at least until he is done introducing us.

“The intelligent man in black here is Steve Pauline, our technologist and professional geek – he’s the brains of the outfit, and the giant mountain of muscle here is Shaun Onebull, he does a little bit of everything, he does the heavy lifting around here.”

“Call me Yak, sir”

“And I am Captain Dak Smith, owner and master of the Archaea, the ship you are currently on at the moment.”

“Are you the same Captain Smith that recently retired from the Terran Service?” he asked, eyes opening wide.

“Quite possibly… it depends on what you have heard!”

“Sir, it’s an honor to meet you – you are a legend in the Academy right now. Darn near every instructor has some story they use about you as an example of why the coursework isn’t too hard for a real captain. We all came through dreading the inevitable story about how a real captain handled this problem, or that simulation—”

“Oh, well in that case, yep – that’s me! Are you in the service?”

“Yes sir, my name is Thom Sheppard, Ensign First Class, recently of the Mantis, a destroyer on Vega patrol.”

“The Mantis? Was that the destroyer we found you on, son?” the captain asked.

“Yes, I’ve been locked in that hold for longer than I can remember; it’s been weeks at least, but maybe months. I couldn’t really keep track of time down there.”

“What happened to the rest of the crew, son? How did pirates get their hands on your ship?”

“I wish I had some other story to tell, sir, but the truth of the matter is that they were all service, until the mutiny.”

“Mutiny?” We all looked at each other.

“Now don’t you mob start getting any ideas,” the captain said, fixing us with his invincible eyebrows and most commanding stare. “Tell me everything, mister,” he said, pulling up a chair.

The story Thom told was horrible, but not unlike any other similar stories of mutiny.

“The captain of the Mantis was a severe leader, an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist who demanded more from his crew than they were ever realistically able to give, setting impossible deadlines and drill scores, and meting out unrealistic punishments for the most trivial of offenses.”

“His drive towards perfection eventually ground down the resolve of his crew, and they started following the direction of the executive officer, a man named Red Martigan. Over time, Red became a sort of father figure, one who would stand up for the transgressions of the crew, sneak them extra rations, release them from confinement, or otherwise lighten their punishments. Eventually, his interventions on behalf of the crew undermined the authority of the captain and endeared himself to the crew members, until the captain was in command by name only, not in actual fact.”

“As time went on, and the patrol ranged farther and farther from contact with other service vessels and support craft, Red and a handful of the other officers formed a cult of personality among the lower ranks, and the crew who had been most impacted by disciplinary actions or rationing, men of weak character who felt they owed it all to Red and his inner cadre of officers.”

Thom took a moment to collect his thoughts, and I offered him some water.

“At first, a handful of other junior officers and I tried to work with the new cabal, the new order aboard the ship, but it became increasingly difficult to direct the efforts of crew members when every order was questioned, every command was ignored, or deferred to Red or one of his cronies. The captain became completely ineffective at command, and eventually withdrew from daily interactions with the crew and officers, spending entire days or weeks in his quarters. Into that complete power vacuum, Red stepped in and assumed command, ostensibly on behalf of the captain. With the captain indisposed, it seemed like the right thing for Red to do, as if he was too sick, or injured to continue to command effectively – which wasn’t really all that far off the mark.”

“A million-tonner like the Mantis was a large enough vessel that at first the occasional absence of a watch-stander was hard to notice, but when key personnel started disappearing, and they weren’t in sick bay, they weren’t in their quarters, they weren’t anywhere to be found – well, it just wasn’t that large of a ship. The lower-ranked officers started to talk, and suspicions of foul play started to point towards Red. No one dared to challenge Red directly, but a few of us went to the captain with our concerns, only to be brusquely ignored or ridiculed. The captain was at this point in time completely out of touch with the situation, the day-to-day routine aboard his ship.”

“The flashpoint, the fuse that ignited the mutiny, was a tramp hauler we stopped in a transit between the second and third slip points between Sol and Vega. The captain of the hauler ignored a boarding hail, and a brief chase resulted in the hauler being taken in tow, and boarded.”

“The hauler was found to be smuggling black market pharmaceuticals, worth billions of credits on the black market to the right systems. The crew that boarded the hauler were all hand-picked by Red, and every one of them were devoted followers of his cult of personality, no more than henchmen at that point, thugs and bullies.”

“When Red ordered the crew of the hauler spaced, and loaded their cargo into the Mantis, everything boiled over, as there were still law-abiding men aboard, men who swore an oath to protect and defend the rights and freedoms of men, men who felt that even criminals or smugglers were entitled to lawful prosecution.”

“A desperate, brief battle raged on the decks of the Mantis, resulting in a siege of the mess deck, where the officers loyal to the service had barricaded ourselves and the remaining crew who were loyal, if not to the captain, but to the service. At that point in time, the captain hadn’t been seen out of his quarters for a few standard weeks, and in all likelihood, had already been spaced.”

“Negotiations between the ship’s surgeon and Red, the highest ranking loyal officer at that time, resulted in a cease-fire, where it was promised that officers and crew that did not want to continue to serve Red on the Mantis would be allowed to disembark on Halcyon Station, but as soon as the barricades were lowered, Red betrayed the cease-fire agreement and took everyone that remained as prisoners.”

“Red then commanded officers who weren’t yet completely loyal to him, to space the lower ranked crew members he had taken prisoner, and thereby forged their commitment to his leadership, solidifying his command beyond any doubt. As a test, the officers who had been playing along with the mutiny, the officers who didn’t have the stomach to murder their ship-mates in cold blood were weeded out, and placed among our ranks, pariahs for their complicit involvement in the mutiny.”

“Over a short period of time, Red purged nearly all dissent among his ranks, and through the process of elimination via lock into cold vacuum, formed a bloodthirsty band of followers that were in too deep to ever see a way out – - at that point, Red had captured the ship.”

Thom took a few moments, as if he was having a hard time trying to come to grips with his memories.

“After that time, sir, I was in chains along with a small handful of other officers. One by one, they came in, and took someone out, sometimes they would come back, and other times they wouldn’t. Those who returned were beaten or severely injured, some didn’t make it. Red accused us all of sedition, of treason – that we were the mutineers who took up arms against the rightful chain of command aboard the Mantis.”

“Maybe because I was one of the very lowest-ranked officers, and had no influence on the crew, I was left for last. Over the past few days, they stopped feeding me entirely, and I only had a few mouthfuls of water. Every moment I dreaded the door to that compartment opening, and at the same time, I guess I wanted it to open, so my torment would be over.”

“I thought it was the end, I heard voices outside my compartment, they were shouting, but I couldn’t hear what was said. I remember trying to call out, to beg them to just get on with it, to give me water or just space me, but I couldn’t make a sound above a dry whisper. The sounds outside in the companionway went silent for a while, and then a few short hours later a massive blast hurled me against the aft bulkhead, and I don’t remember anything more, sir..” he broke down, sobs wracking his thin frame, as the captain held his shoulder, and did his best to calm him down.

“Thom, you’re okay now son, you’re safe. We weren’t sure we could save you, when we cut open the hatch to your compartment and found you chained up on the floor. It was pretty touch and go for a while – you were more dead than alive.”

“But how did you manage to be there at all, sir?” he asked, bewildered. “Red’s men were everywhere…”

“Well son, that’s a pretty good story in itself, but suffice to say that Red picked a fight, and I gave him more than he was looking for.”

Thom’s eyes opened wide in disbelief, as he processed the reality of what Captain Smith had said. It sounded pretty far-fetched, when you consider the Archaea, a light-frigate going up against a fully operational modern destroyer. If I hadn’t been there myself, with my hand on the trigger, watching as the destroyer’s bridge deck was atomized – I’d have a hard time believing it myself.

“The fact is, we were taking a shortcut through this sector, headed to the Vega system, and we were attacked without provocation, without any communication or demands, by some skiffs that we believe came from the Mantis. We scared them off after a brief encounter, and they fled off our scopes. Later, as we were making our way through the trickiest section of the Danaan Fields, the Mantis fired on us without warning, luckily missing us and giving us time to counterattack. We were able to get on their flank, and disable them with a nova blast to the bridge deck.”

Thom shook his head in disbelief, and a slow smile spread over his face. “They’re all dead sir?” he asked.

“Every last one of them son. The only ones left alive on the destroyer were the two guards outside your cell, and you. Yak and Shorty were the ones that found and rescued you.”

Yak and I shared a look of relief and pride in doing what needed to be done. Sometimes the right thing to do is the hardest thing to do.

“But the Mantis, sir… If she’s still out there, couldn’t Red get her going again?”

“I don’t think Red will be getting anything going again, son – after we found you, we rigged the scuttle charges to blow so no one else could get their hands on her, and… well, here we are.” He looked at each of us, proudly.

 

[email protected]:45 Gene Mitchell

 

While everyone else had the luxury of a nap, and relaxation, I stayed pretty busy – machinery requires maintenance, or replacement, naps and relaxation are almost never part of the job, regardless of what Dak might think. Shorty stayed pretty busy as well, and between us, Yak was stretched pretty thin. Slipspace may be rest-time for the captain, to go lounge in his flannels and read a book, for the rest of us, the ones aboard the Archaea that actually work for a living, it was a different matter.

Shorty and I both had a veritable cornucopia of parts and other assorted pieces to organize and go through, to replace, maintain, and troubleshoot. We both knew that no matter what we did, our captain was standing by to find new and interesting ways to break, burn, fold, spindle or mutilate everything he can reach. It was our lot in life to work damn near tirelessly to prevent that moment when he might have an opportunity to give us that hurt look, as if to say ‘gee guys, if you only did your job a little better, that lever may have stayed attached’, or ‘gosh, I wonder if maybe someone around here did something once in a while, we wouldn’t have a terrible fire in engineering right now’. And so, we took things apart, cleaned them, checked tolerances, improved systems, fabricated parts – it was a race against the inevitable, but one Shorty and I ran well.

Pauli was indispensable, whatever Shorty or I couldn’t do, he made look easy. As we brought systems online, he was right there to help blaze a path through the wetnet to get it connected, and he did a lot of communication troubleshooting when a sensor module wasn’t able to talk to a controller module, but most of that was done now by Janis in real time. I am not sure what he did the rest of the time, probably worked to understand Janis better.

Janis was the busiest of us all, but she never seemed to break any sort of sweat about it. She was doing pretty much everything now, and on call for any of us at any time, day or night, as much or as urgently as we might need.

I recall a time not too long ago when I was terrified that Janis might someday modify some of the engineering systems, and now, I can’t actually imagine what life would be like without her. It’s really funny how things have worked out – she has become the most valuable tool in the shed, mission critical to the day-to-day operation of the Archaea.

I’ve set Janis up with a secondary nexus core, installed in a hard-wall compartment aft of the reactive containment. Originally, this compartment held the enviro unit for this section, but it had been full of spare parts and other assorted semi-finished projects since I upgraded the enviro unit to a more modernized self-contained unit. With its own securely locking hatch and hardened construction it was perfect to house the secondary nexus core, and once the rack was welded and the core installed, Pauli and I pulled in a wetnet backbone. Both Pauli and Janis were pretty happy with it, and she seems to run even faster now, if that’s even possible. All I know is she has every reading and report on screen the moment I want it, and occasionally before I think I need it.

 

[email protected]:45 Jane Short

 

“Jane, can I move these cases to the starboard wall where the nexus core parts used to be secured?” Yak said, after kicking one of the cases for the umpteenth time on his way back to engineering.

“Sure Yak, here let me help” I said, getting on one side of the stack. He kicked loose the cable lock, and we unstrung the pallet they were loaded on. Shifting cargo in null-g is always challenging, often comically so, but Yak and I were getting pretty good at it. The cargo bay on the Archaea was very well designed, with an internal hoist that ran up and down, and slid across a beam that was itself able to transit across the bay, we could pick a load from anywhere, and move it just about anywhere else, of course the hard part was sometimes pulling the cargo back down, as there wasn’t a hoist on the floor.

Most of what we hauled was secured, and the intent was not to move it until it was off-loaded, but right now the cargo bay was in a state of chaos, as Gene and I had it filled with parts and pieces we were working into rotation on redundant systems, or trying to find more permanent homes aboard the Archaea. The captain may want to use the cargo bay at some point for actual cargo, and that time may be coming sooner than we think, now that we’re in Vega system burning towards Vega 4.

“Yak, these cases are impossibly heavy – do we even know what is in them?” I asked, slightly out of breath from trying to shift a stack strapped to a pallet.

“No, these were the cases we found at the beginning of our clear of the Mantis, remember? They were all locked away in the wire-racks in that storage compartment.”

I remembered, though I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the various crispy, melted or burned items in each compartment, if nothing was moving and shooting back at me, I didn’t give it too much attention that day.

“Yak, how did you move these over? These must mass 200kg each!”

He smiled, lifting one in each hand, then shrugged. “I don’t know Jane… I just moved them I guess. I may not be all that bright, but I am pretty good at lifting heavy things.” I made a raspberry at his back. I can lift heavy things too, dammit.

“What do you figure is in them?” he said, breaking loose a pallet with the hoist and getting it started across the bay.

“Lead, gold, maybe gold wrapped in lead…” a thought occurred to me, and I pulled out my scanner. “Well, if they are reactive, the lead shielding is working pretty well…” I said, as the readings were flat, or as close to flat as to not matter.

“I tried to get one open, but the latches are stuck, or frozen…I figured they were heavy, they were locked up in cages, the cases themselves were locked… even if we had to toss them because they ended up to be nothing but antique combustion-engine parts, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Heavy things are usually expensive…” he trailed off, watching me go to work on a latch with the toolkit from my leg pouch.

The latches were frozen, but they weren’t stuck shut with any sort of chemical bonding agent, and they didn’t look welded… What I needed to do was drill and scope one to take a look at the internal complications of the latch, maybe there was some sort of key mechanism, or a lever.

“Gene, do you have a moment?” I called into my comms.

“Shorty, I always have a moment for you, two if you need. What’s up?” Gene is always ready to help a damsel in distress, the old softie. Maybe he just likes to be needed, or maybe he likes the fact I might need his help from time to time, so he can show me how smart and capable he is.

“Gene, we’re looking at cracking open one of the cases Yak brought up from the Mantis, but the latch complications are beyond my tools here to suss out. Want to give me a hand here?”

“Sure thing Jane, I’ll be right there,” he was so excited to tackle an engineering problem, he forgot momentarily to try and make me angry about how tall I was. To tell you the truth, I’ve been Shorty for so long to these people, it’s weird when they forget.

“Maybe they’re welded inside?” Yak said, wiggling the catch on a case.

“No, they look functional, but they don’t move. I’d just saw one off, but I really don’t know what that would do – it’d be much better to just open it.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he said, naturally preferring the hack-it-off-and-ask-questions-later approach.

“Well, there might be a vial of some sort, like a concentrated acid under pressure… or a radio transmitter that sets off the detanite packed around the lead flechettes that are making these heavy…or it might just open, I suppose. In any case, that’s not the point. The point is, these suckers look pretty damn expensive, they are heavy enough to warrant a careful look, and… if they are full of detanite, I don’t want to make a hole in the captain’s fancy cargo bay.”

He nodded thoughtfully, giving the catch another yank. Luckily for us all, he didn’t trigger the bomb that may be in these, because Gene kicked in from engineering.

“So what do you think we’re looking at here Shorty?” he said, squinting at the mechanism.

“I really can’t say Gene, could be some sort of interlock, maybe a tab catch. Could be a counter-weight, or an RF key…we need to drill and scope it maybe?”

Yak shook his head, laughing at our gearhead ways, and went back to shifting the cases to the starboard side of the bay.

Gene pulled out a scope, and tapped it thoughtfully on the side of his head, as he thought a bit. “Scoping it is a good idea, Shorty… but what if it’s rigged? Could have something nasty in there. I’ve seen cases like this that went on and blew up when you started tampering with it.” He though some more, and pulled out some feeler gauges and started poking through the seams in the latch.

“Gene, I ran through that, there is something in there, but I can’t get a hook on it. Can’t even tell what it is…”

He grunted, and sucked on his teeth a bit, and then tapped on the latch a few times with the edge of the gauge set, eliciting a dull bonk from the alloy.

“What do you figure this is made of, Shorty? It’s definitely not aluminim… is it ferrous?”

“I don’t know… hit it with a magnet maybe?”

He looked across his nose at me and made some clicking noises. “Could do, I guess… might just fry whatever circuit is keeping the trigger open on that bomb, too… Did you tell the captain what we’re doing back here?”

“No, we were just shooting the breeze here, I didn’t want to bother him with it…Plus, you know, the captain would have me hacking into it with a plasma rig, Gene.”

“Yeah, that’s true… still, if these are rigged to blow or release some sort of toxin, chemical, or maybe just burn a thermite block, we’d be in a bad spot trying to explain ourselves.” He clicked and sucked on his teeth a bit and sighed, making one of his faces.

“Captain, could you come down to the cargo bay at your earliest convenience?” he grumbled into his comms.

 

[email protected]:58 Gene Mitchell

 

The captain kicked in, wearing flannels and down slippers, an old cotton shirt, holes and all. Even dressed like some refugee from the Great Nap-Time wars, he commanded an aura of respect we all did our best to ignore.

“What’s the situation, Gene?” he asked, nimbly dodging my pointed look at his jammies.

“Well, Dak… it’s these cases here Yak hauled over from the Mantis. They’re damnably heavy, and pretty securely locked up…”

“I see…” he said, though I know he didn’t. “Why don’t you just open them, Gene? Saw off the latches, or cut into the cases themselves… pop the hinges maybe?” he said, trying to roll one over to look at the bottom. “Good grief Gene, these are heavy!”

“Yeah, they are… Now look, Shorty and I can hack them open no problem, but here’s the deal. We don’t know what they’re about, Dak. Those latches may just be some sort of complicated machinery, or hidden catch that requires a special key – they may have a radio-frequency circuit in them that opens when a specific frequency hits them, or they may have a pressurized spansule of high molarity acid, that pops and ignites a reaction that fills the cargo bay with some sort of poison, or just destroys their contents…” As I talked, the captain did his ‘these are details, I don’t care’ face, and I knew he wasn’t listening.

“Captain, they could trigger a detanite charge if we try to force them,” Shorty added.

“Well that all sounds bad, Gene. Thanks for letting me know. I think it’s best, if all non-essential personnel named Yak and persons in charge of this vessel should vacate the cargo bay and lock hatches behind them. Shorty, or Gene, should then crack one of these suckers open by… ah… any means necessary, and report their success or failure accordingly.”

“Sounds good Captain,” said Shorty with a smile, “so I’ll just be headed on up out of here Gene, because I don’t see anyone here named ‘Shorty’.”

“Now wait a minute—”

“No, sorry, Captain’s orders Gene. Good luck!” she laughed, not going anywhere.

The captain and Yak withdrew to the upper section leading to the gun deck, and dogged the hatch. I made a monkey-face at Shorty, and she stuck out her tongue, and we both smiled.

“Let’s try scoping it, Shorty… We can run a feeler all along this seam on the side, so we ought to be able to pop a tiny little hole in there, don’t you think?”

“Sounds good Gene” she said, chucking a 2mm drill bit, and clipping on a light. She ran the feeler back into the gap, slowly feeling for depth.

“Gene, it looks like there’s about a centimeter before the feeler stops… do you have a depth set for the bit?”

I handed over a depth set clamp that she attached at a little less than a centimeter to the bit. If the inner section was some sort of spansule of acid or nerve gas, we definitely didn’t want her to drill into it.

“Hang on Shorty, did you scan this for RF?”

“No… for the same reason we aren’t slapping it with a magnet…if it’s triggered with an open dead-man switch, interference could pop the trigger.”

“Well… true, but you know, Shorty… if it was that sensitive, it’d have to be pretty well shielded, right? I mean, you wouldn’t make a case that would blow up the first time it was scoped at a cargo terminal.”

She tried on one of my faces, and shrugged. “Gene, that’s a good point. Stand back while I scan.”

I kicked off for the far corner of the bay and grabbed the hoist rail, looking down. She pulled out her scanner, and dialed through radio frequencies, looking for any noise.

“Nothing Gene, it’s either really well shielded, which is likely, or not RF active, which may also be likely. Back to the drill?”

I nodded, and kicked back over to assist. I held the light and helped steady the case, as she slowly started to drill into the seam on the side of the latch. The bit started to smoke, so I handed over some lubricating oil and took a firmer hold on the case. She braced a leg against a pallet stack behind her, and leaned into the drill a bit more, but the only thing that happened was the bit started to glow a bit.

“Shorty, hold on a bit. That sucker isn’t drillable.” I said, stating the obvious. She had scored a tiny little dent into the dull metal, but that’s about it. The bit was titanium carbide, and I would have bet long odds it should have slid through the metal of the latch like nothing.

She nodded, and took a deeper look at the latch side with the light, angling it back and forth.

“Gene, what do you figure this metal is?”

I shrugged, “I don’t rightly know Shorty… Maybe it’s some sort of exotic, like glassed tungsten, though it could also be really high tempered carbide as well. Should we try a magnet?”

It was her turn to shrug, and she pulled a telescoping pick-up magnet from her arm pocket and waved it at me. “Go right ahead Gene, I’ll be up there, watching” she said with a smile as she kicked off to the far corner of the bay.

I had one of those quick moments, where I ran through all the things I’ve done, and evaluated my life and my position on it. It seems like the older I get, the longer these moments take to work through, and working with Dak, it sure seems like I have a lot of them. I always recommend to look before I leap, but then, at a certain point, you have to just leap. I figured this was one of those moments.

I carefully tried the magnet on the case, and it wasn’t ferrous, and it didn’t blow up. Encouraged, I flashed Shorty one of those condemned-men-had-a-last-meal looks, and held the magnet against the latch – then almost browned my shorts when a clack inside the latch popped the latch and opened the case.

 

[email protected]:12 Jane Short

 

When the case opened, Gene flung himself back and launched into a perfect slow cartwheel through the cargo bay. Right on cue, Captain Smith opened the hatch and boosted over to the case.

“Shorty… a little help?” Gene pleaded, between some really exceptional curses.

“Sorry Gene, one moment!” I replied laughing. I would have collected him, but I was already vectored to the case myself, and he was just going to have to wait, spitting and cursing like a real sailor.

Of course, Captain Smith was utterly relentless. “Good job, mister. Nice to see you got a real handle on the situation. You cracked the case, inspector! In any case, it is always nice to work with valued crew that can rise up to the challenge! You’re really flying now, Gene!”

“Are you quite done…sir?” Gene sputtered, looking for all the world like some groundhog trying to get his space legs.

“Not quite, Gene, but I need a little time to think of some more. Can you hang around a bit in the meantime?”

“Dak, honestly…”

“Don’t fly off the handle, Gene, I know you’re up for this.” I groaned, this was getting painful. I took pity on him and boosted him over to the far wall of the bay.

“Thanks Jane,” he said in a voice pitched low enough for only me to hear.

“No problem Gene – let’s finish cracking that case open now” I said, as we both boosted back over to the case – - before the captain killed us all by opening it.

“Captain, hold on a second sir, if you please” I said, in my most affirmative, commanding voice.

He fixed me with a glint, and ramped an eyebrow. “Nice Jane, very nice. Very well, you first.” he said with a smile and a gesture towards the case.

“Now stand back folks… the latch is open, but I need to scope the inside, and make sure there’s no secondary trigger or failsafe.” I waited until they moved back to some sort of cover, and then slowly slid the scope into the crack by the latch, and clicked on the ring-light at the end.

“What’s in there Shorty?” Gene asked.

“Jane, please be careful dear” the captain added.

 

[email protected]:12 Steven Pauline

 

“Are you hungry, Thom?” He looked like he hadn’t eaten in a week.

“I am starving, Pauli,” he said eagerly.

We kicked over to the galley, and I made him a standard-issue PB&J, the signature meal on the go for a crew-member on the go, and we talked briefly about his time on the Mantis, and what sort of work he did.

He was still pretty overwhelmed by his experience, and didn’t really seem to want to talk much about it. I offered to give him a tour of the Archaea, but when we got to the bridge, no one was there. Heading aft through the gun deck, Yak was hovering just inside the inner lock, looking through the port.

“What’s going on Yak?” I asked, floating up to get a look.

“Gene and Jane are working on some mystery cases we looted from the Mantis, Pauli… they’re not sure what’s in them, but they’re pretty worked up over it. Of course, now that the captain is involved, he’s egging them on and they’re both trying to out-cool each other. Right now, Jane’s showing some pretty solid nerves of steel, and Gene and the captain are behind cover.” he chuckled.

“What cases?” Thom asked, looking through the port.

“Some cases we found locked away on deck five, right near the port lock,” Yak said. “They were pretty slagged, and are really solidly locked, but it looks like Gene figured out how to pop them open. Jane’s scoping them now with a snooper, trying to see what’s inside”

Thom shrugged, saying “I don’t recall cases like that in that section. They were locked up?”

“Yep, in wire racks. I had to burn off their locks just to get to the cases, so they looked like they were pretty valuable.”

“Must have been something Red Martigan scrounged off a ship after they locked us up” he said, watching through the port.

 

[email protected]:13 Captain Dak Smith

 

“Come on Jane, what’s in there,” I asked, getting less comfortable by the second, crouched in my flannels behind the best cover in my cargo bay. “Don’t make me pull rank, now” I warned, though to be honest, if this had Jane spooked, I wasn’t going to get any closer to that case for love or money.

“Hold your britches, sir,” she said, through her teeth as she scoped around the interior of the latch and case. She stood up and smiled at us, and waved us over.

Gene and I kicked over, and behind and above us, Yak and Pauli boosted through the companionway hatch, followed by Thom, looking a little wobbly on his feet.

Gene and I took positions behind Jane, as she opened the case. For once in my entire career, I was speechless. The case was packed solid, with what looked like solid gold.

I thought of how many upgrades we could buy for the Archaea, how far that would bankroll us across the rim… That gold was the real deal. That was what we were here for, that was mission accomplished.

“Good deal,” I heard myself say, from a really far distance. Thom wasn’t the only one with wobbly knees at this point – we were all swaying a bit.

“Well, I guess we should all take this opportunity to thank Yak, who had the presence of thought, the foresight, and the audacious temerity… to secure the booty!”

Jane burst into tears, and Gene kept shaking his head back and forth, as if he hoped it would just fall off. Yak looked like the hero he was, and Pauli laughed.

Chapter 13

 

[email protected]:30 Captain Dak Smith

 

Yak made contact with a research station orbiting around the airless rock of Vega 4, a blacked out ghost station that we were assured did not, and would not ever exist.

They paid a nice bonus, and Yak forced us all to take a share. He was a full crew member of the Archaea, and after all the work we all did on behalf of delivering that canister, I let him. I think we all realized the bonus, as nice as it was, was chump-change compared to what he had stowed in the cargo bay.

As I flew him back over to the Archaea on the gig, he told me a strange story of identical suited clones with mirror eyes, of Formica and ultra-plush leatherette lounge areas, of DNA scans and non-disclosure agreements signed and delivered. Strange clients, but then most gloms are strange when you get a chance to see how they operate from the inside.

We decided to call a beer-and-steak break, a furlough in Vega 6, as we were in-system, and it was a pretty nice place to recreate. Gene and I were originally from there, so we had all sorts of fun showing everyone around, from seedy blast-pan clubs on the darker side of New Turiana, to the warm pebble beaches of the inner sea, reflecting the mauve sky with a warm breeze rippling through our hair.

Shorty worked on a tan, and looked thoroughly out of place in a bikini, but not all that bad, I guess. We’d been in the Archaea for a while.

Yak smiled a lot, and showed us how a Marine can drink. None of us were worthy to walk even one staggering inch in his shoes. We all damn near died, but I think we all learned to appreciate life a little more, after we woke up.

Pauli stayed busy, he spent a lot of time working remotely with Janis, and writing code, but that’s what he does for fun, I guess.

I dropped Thom off outside the Service Consulate, and they wanted to give me a medal or call me back up for my part in the rescue and subsequent destruction of the Mantis. I respectfully declined both, and then declined a followup call from the station commander, who also wanted to call me up.

I am retired, and nothing was going to pull me away from my destiny, my future, my Archaea.

 

Epilogue

 

As I watched him lift off in my gig, I couldn’t believe the way I felt, the shame and horror at the way I was treated, at the ingratiating way I had to pretend to be someone other than who I am, someone weaker.

When the Archaea dodged our opening salvos, I swore that I would have our gunnery officer’s head on my desk, but when all torpedoes were destroyed, all turret fire neutralized, and we were obviously being out-performed by a ship that clearly had nothing to lose, charging full speed against a destroyer… I knew my brief moment of command, my time in the sun, finally out from the shade of fat, undeserving slugs who couldn’t appreciate the glory of their position – I knew what I was seeing on our screen was the end.

The unbelievable shame I felt when I retreated to the stern hold, and set a guard on my final bunker, when I knew I was essentially abandoning my men, that I was shaming my position and giving up, relinquishing the mantle of leadership. Clicking the binders to my wrists, I knew I would only have one chance, one opportunity to get back, to recapture what was mine.

Watching him lift off towards wherever he was going, I vowed that nothing would stop me – nothing would stand in my way from revenge. I would see Captain Smith dead, but I would see him beg for his life first. I was going to get everything I was owed, I was going to get everything I wanted. Nothing was going to stop me… nothing.

The story continues in JANIS, by Dain White.

Now available on Amazon!

Afterword

 

I woke up one morning, head bursting with ideas for this book. They were maddening, ricocheting around and around through my head – I felt like I had to write this book, to let the story escape.

I wrote it laughing, enjoying every moment. I had chills, goosebumps, at one point my eyes teared up and I almost couldn’t go on – but the story had grabbed me, and refused to let me go.

I didn’t feel like I was writing it; so much as I felt that I was reading it, experiencing it, watching it unfold. This story very quickly grew to consume my every waking free moment. Late into the night I watched it on my eyelids, and it was the first thing on my mind the moment I woke up.

It was an epic adventure for me, one that I can’t wait to continue…

 


Archaea

She lay abandoned, moored to the south end of Luna Farside, left for scrap. Captain Dak Smith saw in her something special, an opportunity to burn for the far horizon as an independent, free from the gloms that hold known space in thrall – but he had to get her running first. Armed with a standard-issue captain's eyebrow and an infectious grin, Captain Smith and his hand-picked crew embark on an adventure through deep space filled with scoundrels, pirates, and some incredibly unfortunate peace-loving rocks that happened to be at the wrong place, at the worst time.

  • ISBN: 9781310233913
  • Author: Dain White
  • Published: 2016-03-11 09:45:13
  • Words: 65738
Archaea Archaea