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Dragolen

Just another day...

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The taste of bile was finally starting to wash out of my mouth. The pills the corporation's medicos had given me did nothing to cut the nausea I felt every time I went out on a mission. "Guess it's a good thing I can handle a little starvation, eh?" I smirked to myself.

 

The face looking back at me through the grime on the lavatory mirror looked nothing like what I remembered. "Did my face always look so pale? And what the hells happened to my eyes? Since when were they so bloodshot?"

 

A tiny blip kept flashing in the corner of my eye, a message notification from the neural implants the corporations insisted we get. "The upgrades will make you into an unstoppable fighter, just what the human civilization needs to stop the aliens." was the sales pitch from their recruiters. "A little wet ware won't hurt" I kept telling myself. But the scars on the back of my head still itched constantly, and the ringing in my ears from too many explosively loud orders piped directly to my auditory centers made a restful sleep a fond memory.

 

I pull a scratchy towel over my face to wipe off anything sticking to it, my stomach churning one last time at the sanitizer smell worms it's way into my nostrils. My body is a bacteria transportation system, a well evolved one too, yet they still insist on sterilizing everything we touch, or touches us. Must be something to know that we've poisoned ourselves to the point we need nanites to keep our bodies working at all now, since any bacteria that could survive what we do to ourselves would likely kill us given a chance. And you couldn't blame them.

 

"Message open, send ack" I think to the message blip.  The comms implant opens the message, and sends the images down my optic nerve in my left eye and it pops into existence in my mind.

 

 "Elysium Corporation Military Command offers greetings to our loyal employee. You have a new mission waiting in your queue." chirps the neuro-gram in the company uniform. She flashes her trademarked smile before she continues her command. "You are required to accept this mission by 04:00 EZT to remain in good standing by the terms of your employment contract."

 

More scut work is my guess. "Mission accepted. Send ack." I fire back at the smile. Her smile is always the last thing to disappear in my mind's eye when I get their messages. Must be a patented software trick. Like I'm supposed to like her and try all the harder to complete my mission. More corporate smoke they call sunshine from where I'm standing. The face in the mirror flashes a grim smile back, just to see if it will be the last thing to fade from my memory, but it all goes to darkness, and shadows, the usual things you see when you are up when the rest of the universe is probably asleep still.

 

I pull my flight suit sleeves up and push my aching arms down to the pressure cuffs. The ribs of the inflation system are still warm from when I pulled the top half of the suit off in the lav. Even the waste removal system feels warm after being emptied by the water closet attendant. You sit or squat and they do everything with a cheerful efficiency and a lurid spritz of some smell that is supposed to make you feel refreshed. I would rather dig a home on some barren rock and go right there, for all this efficiency does to make me feel better.

 

The lights in the hallway down to the flight deck snap on and off as my feet pound out a steady cadence. "At least the wet ware in my head keeps good time. Too bad no one here knows how to dance."

 

I call up the interface for the ship ahead of me on the flight line. The Waz'Got is as ugly as sin, but it has been bringing myself and my crew home in one piece so far. "Alice, please warm up main power. Begin pre-flight checks and cross against Flight's diagnostics scans. Send notices to all stations, "Just another day... Ack?"

 

Alice chirps like a song bird and begins sending the check lists as I step through the hatch into the cockpit. I can see the others already coming down the gang plank, their drawn faces looking little better than my own. And I can hear their thoughts, even without the neural net connections. "Just another day..."

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The blood was still coursing hard in my veins, and my  hands were stiff and still vibrating from the fight. Around the cockpit, the rest of the crew sat in thoughtful silence.

 

"That's the last of them." I broadcast into the neural net. Alice chirps happily, and I could swear that she has learned to add a sigh like a human. "All stations, ammunition and casualty reports. Alice, warm up the jump drive. I want one full global scan to confirm enemy status. Comms, prepare standard coded message to EMC: "Sector secure, no further enemy activity. Returning to CS. All station ack."

 

The acknowledgements  popped up in their usual sequence. Alice showed greens on all systems, Weapons showed green on the Dag'Tnith' cannons, and amber on the reloading missile tubes. Comms showed a receipt from the Ellydium Military Command for the status reports, and Sensors was showing an almost complete scan. It had been a close thing though, I thought to myself. This new crew was going to take some training to get into as good a state as the last one.

 

Alice chirped that she was ready to depart, and Sensors showed a complete scan, no results. "Just another day. How many dead on their side I wonder?" I pondered. We never saw our enemy face to face in these fights, their comms channels as well encrypted, scrambled and unreadable as ours. Still, they fought as hard as they could, but we were that much better. "And don't forget, the best thing to see in a fight is a destroyer to the port and starboard" wandered in, an old saying from an instructor so many years ago. "How long have I been at this?" followed hard on the destroyer to starboard.

 

"Commander?" asked the Comms officer over the neural net. " Are you fit to fly?"

 

"Yes, Comms, I'm fit to fly. Alice, bring us to the gate, nominal vectors on a conservative burn. All stations, prepare to gate. Next stop Crystallid Space." aI reply.

 

Alice considerately turns down the neural net volume so I don't hear anything beyond the ringing in my ears and the steady whir of the thrusters bringing us home. "Too bad you can't marry an ships AI" I muse to myself. And how could an android - cyborg marriage ever work? Our software conflicts alone would be worse than having Corporation types for in-laws. Guess that's why most of us are grown instead of raised.

 

The warp gate looms in to view, it's rough hewn appearance a welcome site in a universe increasingly made in a machine's image. And yes, there it is: Alice trills and warbles as the gate begins to fold space around us. She will need a rest too once we are back to base. I wonder what dreams she will have while she is scanned and analyzed?

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The docking clamps closed with a solid clunk that shook the ship almost as much as a near miss from a mortar. The lights on the flight line were always casting shadows in all the wrong places when you first arrived and it brought you back to full combat alertness, no matter how hard you tried to convince yourself that there was nothing in the shadows.

 

"Alice, complete docking cycle and prepare for Flight Inspection protocols. EMC is giving us 72 standard hours liberty before we are up on rotation again. Please let me know if your internal diagnostics pick up anything before Flight completes their inspections." I thought. Alice chirped happily and I could see the inspection routines start up and her start to access log files looking for anomalies. The Weapons Officer paused and looked back over his shoulder at me. His eyes looked tired, and he still had his Targeting Sight stuck in his eye socket. "Sir? Will you be... adjusting your crew compliment for the next mission?" he asked sheepishly.

 

Missing with one missle in the heat of a battle was bad for a seasoned Weapons Officer. Missing with two was enough to find yourself floating home. He had missed with three. I pursed my lips and bore into him like a Destroyer's beam. "What would you do with a WO who can't find the trigger in the middle of a fight? Probably space 'em if you could afford it, right?"

 

The WO's face fell like I had just killed his pet. Time to see what he's made of. "We have 72 standard hours in port. If you can show me 72 sims without an error, I'll keep you. Otherwise, the only thing you'll be fit for is flying a low level coffin on recon. Clear?"  The WO nodded and immediately turned away to get out the hatch. If he was smart, and his record showed he had the brains and wet ware to do the job, he would get through 144 sims and show me the best of the lot.

 

Stepping through the hatch into the gang plank felt a little to good. The air didn't even have it's usual metallic tang from the filtration system. I scanned around the Flight Line, mentally checking off the list of ESM personnel who were supposed to be there. "Nothing like having some consistency with the service. It's not like they can just fire and hire out here either. And I doubt the aliens would be willing to take a turn servicing our ships. At least without putting a logic bomb or two in somewhere." I mused to myself.

 

"Oh oh, here comes trouble." I could see a junior officer from ESM coming up with a board clutched under his arm. "And from the snappy salute, he must from off a freighter too."

 

A serious look came over young man's face. "Captain, Command has some issues with the details in your report, and they asked that I escort you directly to Intelligence Section for debriefing. Please follow me, Sir."

 

"Well now, I wonder what's up?" I asked myself. I brought up the After Action Reports we hard sent and quickly skimmed what was there, marking a couple of lines for a read between the lines when I couldn't be at risk of walking into a door or off a ledge.

 

Our boots make an echo off the psuedo-metallic surfaces that passed for walls in the Ellydium base. Intelligence Section was near the heart of the structure, like it was supposed to be the nexus of all things on this base in Crystallid Space. More like a cancer with tendril into everything to my thinking. Too many missions had seen flight crews sent on suicidal missions to prove a pet theory of some analyst in IS and I had lost a ship on one of them. Cold as open space those people were.

 

The lift tube whisked up through the core of the structure, stopping briefly outside the IS level to allow their quantum scanning rig to give us one more pass, on the off chance someone had been able to teleport a bomb inside one of us. The doors slid open silently to a level of shifting walls and lighting designed to confuse people just off the lift. "Clever. Wonder if that would stop an actual explosion? Or a pissed off pilot?"

 

The junior officer stopped a couple of pases ahead of me and came to attention. He subconsciously nodded as IS dismissed him. He turned and snapped another smart salute and disappeared into the swirling lights show that now covered the lift.

 

"Welcome Captain. You are assigned the call sign 'Dragolen'. All further communications will use that identity. Please advance and be recognized." shot though my neural net. "We have much to discuss."

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"You are from Vat 1138, Captain?" The Intelligence Officer asked, not even looking up from his eFilm. His face had pock marks showing that he had suffered from a few of the 'Human' maladies that plagues all natural born. I could feel my jaw muscles tighten as I forced myself to reply. "Aye sir. Vat 1138, Serial Number C8239M888218."

 

It paid to not offer more information than they were asking, but confirming my serial number would hopefully speed this whole process up. The Intelligence Officer finally look up to examine me. I watched his eyes flit from my face to my body and back. He drew in a ragged breath and held it for a moment. "What is your assessment of your last encounter, Captain?" he began. "Specifically the performance of your ship and how your crew functioned with it."

 

"Now I'm in it deep." I thought as silently as I could manage. I quickly pulled up the log files that Alice had gathered for me and picked off my pets. My body involuntarily cleared it's throat in preparation for either speech, or loosing the head attached to it. "The ship is a balanced design as a combat vessel, Standard EMC Q-kit Comms are good, Helm is good, and the cannon very good. It is weak in it's Engineering role to support a group action in it's current available configurations. The crew interface was barely adequate to the action we just completed, in particular, slow targeting system lock times creating.three TOC-TOU (Time of Change-Time of Use) misses with the missile launch tubes. No neural-net or launch tube malfunctions detected by diagnostic run after the action, and my WO came recommended by the Company with level 4 Academy qualifications, adequate mental conditioning to, and familiarity with the ship."

 

The IO dropped his gaze from my tired face back to his eFilm for a moment and look back up at me with his head cocked ever so slightly to one side, like he had spotted an new angle to my expression. "So your official reports says. I'm more interested how the command structure worked. How did it feel while you were in the heat of the moment?" he asked. His tone suggested he was trying not to make it sound like he was fishing for a specific answer, but just fishing.

 

My mind raced back to the jumble of images and memory impressions, checking for anything out of place. The only thing that had been a welcome surprise was when Alice had turned down the volume for my connection on the neural-net. I'm certain that no other ship I'd commanded had ever had the AI do that before.  The IO must have expected my pause and rushed to get what I remembered from my brain to my mouth without a buffer. "Were you aroused? Your fighting passions heated? Did you feel more alive then than you have in other actions in your ship?" he purred.

 

So there is was. The rumour mill had been working overtime spewing chaff about some new improvements to the interface that were designed to tap into our emotional sides and induce heightened states. And now I had the seed and flour the mill had been denied. They had augmented the AI-NeuralNet interface. Alice's sound responses had become more emotional, or at least the tones and timing were more like one would expect from a person you knew intimately. "Sir, my ship and it's AI have performed as I expected. My crew has not reported anything different on the last mission than on the last 50." I answered. The IO's expression took on a briefly pained and disappointed look, but that passed in a heart beat. 

 

"Very well Captain. I will be in touch if I have any questions regarding your AARs (After Action Reports) once the Flight Diagnostics are completed. Dismissed." He certainly acts disappointed now, I thought to myself. The swirling colours and illusions flowed in between us, and he faded from sight, while a path back to the lift formed between the swirls. I snapped a salute, made a smart 180, and under my breath uttered those words every individual minded person hated. "Left right, left right, left."

 

Just another day... 

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"Why does the Muzak in corporate bars always suck like a black hole?" I puzzled while I surveyed the gambling tables across the room. Nothing like a place to return your pay for a few moments of excitement. "I wonder if any other mercenaries had figured out it was supposed to work the other way?"

 

My CO was sitting on a tall chair watching a wheel turn on the table, bouncing across the tiles to land on some number or colour combination. His skin tight flight suit left little to the imagination, and the buxom Corporate Executive sitting in at the table kept flashing smiles back at him. Some guys have all the luck in the 'verse when it comes to those games. "Best make sure he clears Flight a little early tomorrow. Never know what clap he'll acquire in his latest enterprise" I mutter under my breath.

 

I turn my attention to the drink in my hand. The ice cubes make a crisp tinkling against the glass as I lift it to my lips. I had sampled some of the old Earth whiskeys, or what passed for whiskey in this age, and nothing in this floating corporate money pit would ever come close. The old trees used to help age the alcohol were all gone, and on some worlds where they have tried to terra-form, the soils give the trees strange compounds that make any alcohol into a gust twisting trip to the head. The tastes in a few were so delicate and complex that you needed a few bottles to discover all of them. But at least this stuff gives you the warmth even if it tastes like so much engine cleaner.

 

The crowd in the place is fairly loose, the groups fluidly changing from gaggles to couples and back again. The mating dance never changes much for the naturals. A few of the women have looked me up and down and written me off as "damaged goods". In a fluke of genetic engineering, I do prefer the female, and something in me sees the male as a competitor, fit only for destruction by words or weapons. Guess it's my devastating good looks and winning smile that's turned them off. For a nearly live zombie, that is. And right on cue, Alice chirp a message to my wet-ware that makes my back straighten and glass drop to the floor.

 

"Flight Inspection has identified significant damage to Neural-Net interface, Flight Status downgraded to Emergency Defense Sortie Launch only. Please return to Flight Line at your earliest. Ack." 

 

Well there goes our 'Liberty'. I acknowledge and ask Alice to summon the others back to the ship. It seems we will have our work cut out for us to make our next launch window. And that nagging feeling that this is an 'artificial' significant damage rears up in my mind's eye like a Super Nova's shock wave. They've done something to my ship, those p'tonk spewing, alien loving, brainless corporate excuses for humans. "And I don't care if they claim ownership of the genes and xeno-tec. It's my ship." I growl as I storm out of the bar.

 

Just another day...

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The quantum computing systems in Alice are amazing. It's like crawling into a normal's brain and getting to watch the individual neurons flash their signals at each other, new paths appearing and old path fade. And all through my optical nerve implant.

 

"I still don't see anything out of spec or a random mutation..." I grumble to the Flight Engineer linked into Alice's system. "Nothing feels or looks or reports as damage on the diagnostics. What have you been snorting? Engine Plasma?"

 

The Flight Engineer shifted uncomfortably, his own guilt or incompetence feeding back through his wet-ware. He was new to the station and still had that freshly starched and ironed smell about him. He seemed to keep looking around, but never at anything, and his act was getting stale fast. I pulled back a bit to look over more of Alice's "brain" and finally saw it. A new section of quantum neurons that weren't there before this last inspection. Time to see how much I can make this guy squirm.

 

"What's that over by the frontal lobes?" I asked in as puzzled and ernest a tone as I could muster. "Looks like something has been grafted onto some of the higher function pathways."

 

The engineer squirmed even more as he glanced at the frontal lobes and then tried to divert his focus else where. Did he just blush? "That's nothing new, or anything to be concerned about Captain. It doesn't affect the interface and didn't show in the diagnostics."

 

The hells it didn't. This guy's drawn the short straw and had to go in to see if their implant has taken and is working. Alice has been blissfully unaware so far, but this would totally piss her off. "I don't like the looks of this. I'm going to have Alice scrub those paths and then have you re-run the diagnostics."

 

The engineer's response suggested he might have pee'd his nice new flight suit. "That...that won't be necessary. I can make an adjustment to compensate for the difference. That.. that should pass the Flight Inspection Protocol. Wait one moment Captain."

 

I casually glanced around to check the data stream he was sending back through his neural-net connection. Alice was very good about colouring the different encryption streams on the 'net so I can always tell who's speaking into my head. And this guy had a rainbow of extra colours streaming out of him. Most likely Executives, and Intel were listening in and watching. So they are up to something to my disadvantage.

 

The Engineer cleared his throat and turned to face me. "Captain, your ship now should pass Flight. We will commence the inspection in 5, and you will be cleared for active duty shortly." he explained. He looked like someone had just let him off the hook by his expression, or he really did pee his suit and had a satisfying finish.

"Ack. Alice, once diagnostics are compete, warm up main power and begin launch preparations. Looks like Liberty is cut short. Crew to board by 22:40 Zulu, departure expected 23:00 Zulu." I send on my command channel to play my part in this charade. The engineer had already left his connection and was likely heading to the nearest bar. These corporate drones, so useful.

 

Alice chirped her acknowledgement and I could see the different parts of her body begin to wake up in preparation for the diagnostics. Something felt different now, like she had bitten her lip to avoid saying something. I shake my head at the thought. The Waz'Got's a war ship, not a pleasure cruiser. With the amount of energy she can broadcast though her 'net connection, she could fry the whole station's compliment.

 

AI's can be a scary thing if you stop to think about it, but Alice's is pretty well trained and seems to like us. And I mean to keep it that way.

 

---

 

I watch my ship's bridge hatch open and the tired faces step though it. They are physically tired still but they move smoothly and seem alert. The ship's engineer bends over to stow her kit and straightens up to stretch her lower back. She's clean and looks like a comic book version of what the classic "mechanical genius in high heels", even has her flight suit sleeves tied about her waste. If she wasn't a normal, she could definitely pass for one. I can feel that wry smile creep on to my face. Time to get to work before anyone notices it.

 

"Neural-net logins please. Start Pre-Flight, confirm inventories and report divisions as ready." I command. My tone is so practiced now, I suspect I could make anyone do what I asked once they sat on my bridge.

 

"Aye, aye." came back in a ragged chorus. There were still tired. My Comm's was looking very tired. Flight time definitely did not help with his physical fitness. Poor fool. The Division acknowledgements poured in, and I could see the status lights all go green. 

 

"Roger. All stations secure. Flight, Alice is ready to depart. Request launch permissions and release moorings." I send to Flight. Their reply is always so helpful. "Ack. Cleared for departure. Good luck and good hunting."

 

Like the prey has much of a chance against the hunters we face. For my ship and crew, it's just another day....

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My flight suit feels sticky, like I had been pulling multiple gee's in combat, but we are still some million kilometers from a contact. The only thing worse is that dry feeling in your mouth that makes your teeth feel rough against the tip of your tongue. "Pull yourself together. We're a long way off still."

 

It didn't help. I glance around the cockpit, glad to see everyone else is busy with their tasks, and nothing but a beautiful starscape through the front screen. I query Alice's sensors to make sure that Weapons and Comms are sweeping our little bubble of the universe. Alice pulls up the standard function reports for the sensor suite and they are all greens. There is surprisingly little matter inside the sensor bubble on this run. All typical communications spectrums are dead quiet as well.

 

"Comms, ETA to contact?" I ask over the neural-net. There is a pause, a longer pause than I like. My mouth is feeling even drier now. "Captain, ETA 22mins... mark. Have confirmed that the T/R has the correct encryption keys, and Alice has sufficient power set aside to amplify as needed."

 

Nice and thorough. I knew there was a reason to keep him on. "Ack. Flag any changes, and pipe the decrypt directly." My tongue was actually feeling sore now, like my teeth were burning it. The swig of water the flight suit provides tastes stale, even though I know the RO system is working. Funny how fear will screw with your senses. Now what is that speck moving across that gas cloud. I pop up Alice's view on my optical implant and zoom in to maximum magnification.

 

My heart starts to thump in my chest like I was getting pounded in a fight. I can see a small gas trail behind a black spec, and I know it's not a comet.

 

"Battle stations. Alice, max shields and passive sensors. Warm up tubes and launchers. Comms, send message buoy: "Contact compromised. Enemy forces unknown. Preparing a fighting withdrawl. Rig for silent running."

 

---

 

Who ever it was that hit the other ship, it was big. The holes in the other frigate look like someone had drilled holes too close together and broken it apart. Passive sensors showed only CBR now. Even the reactors had cooled to background temperature. "Weapons, any ideas as to what hit them?" I had a hunch, but I want to see if he had been practicing.

 

"Captain. Looks like multiple singularity bursts. The hull has been pulled in on itself. Even Fire Control is showing small distortions in space from it." he replied. And did it on broadcast mode. Smart. Now if his luck has improved with some practice...

 

"Contact. Bearing 303, Azimuth 120. Just beside the primary star" Comms cut in. xxxx. Here we are, one dead ship and one soon to be dead ship. "Any indication they have us, Comms?" "No sir, but they are right on time." Well now we know. Someone has been talking and it found it's way back to this contact's ear. 

 

"Alice, slide us in underneath the frigate, match vector, and power down everything but passive sensors and life support." Alice chirps, with some concern in her tone. But like the good ship she is, she does as she's asked and seems to settle in to playing dead.

 

Now I can feel the warmth of the waste recovery system in my suit as it processes what must have been a very full bladder. Guess my body is getting ready for a fight or flight. The contact slowly closes to gunnery range for a singularity cannon and matches our vector. I can see Weapons about to turn to speak or send something over the 'net, but I tap his seat with my boot, and slowly shake my head. Even audio waves might be picked up by their sensors. All we would need is for a LIDAR sensor to notice vibrations on the cockpit's flat surfaces and send a 'Find by Fire' order to the nearest gun battery.

 

I finally whisper "Play dead. Alice, close your eyes." That will shut down all but the reserve power needed to fire up the reactor controls.That's as dead as we can play and not actually die.

 

---

 

My flight suit is completely soaked and is sticking to me in the worst way as I stomp down the gang plank. "Flight, get me Intel. NOW!" I bark out loud and over the 'net connection.  It was three days to get back to the Gate, most of the time spent coasting under the wrecked frigate. I am not happy.

 

But then it's just another day...

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This is not going well for these Intel clowns. But I can still feel the blood thudding through my head and my face is still flushed. I wonder if they are as close to filling their pants as I am to ripping them a new one so they can a little more easily?

 

"Captain, we have gone over your report and we do not believe the mission was compromised." the senior of the two mid-level intelligence officers reiterated. "Not compromised?" I growl. I flash the image that has been seared into my eyes onto their 'net connections and zoomed in. The frigate's pilot was frozen and the expression on his face would remain their for eternity. "My crew and I had to look at that face for 3 days. You worthless excuses for flesh. You sacrificed them, and but for the grace of the universe, us. You're fortunate that I am a tank and not a pure bred human. Otherwise you would be looking at your own corpses while I started kicking this station into the void." Thud, two, three four, thud two three four. I could feel the cutlasses and zip guns aimed at me as I barked at them. But they didn't shoot. Interesting. Thud, two three four.... five. Good, I can still bring my heart rate down at will.

 

And much to my satisfaction, the junior Intelligence officer looked like he was about to puke his guts, and the senior man had blanched when he saw the pilot's corpse. Normals think they are superior to a tank, but they lack conditioning and discipline. And a good dose of intelligence and humility. Too bad for them. "Now you corporate hacks are useless to the UMC as always, but this incident goes against all protocols in our contracts. My report to you was the second I sent once we cleared that system's gate. And since you have broken the contract, I have received orders from my fleet to leave the Ellydium Base with all possible haste. All the AI's have been alerted to break off all contacts and regroup...." 

 

The sound of a slow hand clap stops by next word dead in my throat. From behind the swirls steps a thin, immaculately dressed and uniformed gentleman. My eyes pick up the three rows of medals on his left chest and some I don't recognize. His uniform is General Staff grade or higher, and he has a thin smile on his lips. His eyes are a bright blue and his gaze is steadier than a beam weapon at 100% output. His hands are slim, but strong and the make a sharp slap as they come together again. So this is who's in charge.

 

The two Intel Officers immediately stand at attention, and at a glance from this new person, take one step backwards, turn and disappear into the swirls.

 

"You are everything your dossier said, and a bit more."  He slowly folded his hands behind his back like he was at Parade Rest. His posture was erect but relaxed. I think he could probably take me without raising his heart rate much. A man that draws instant respect as a warrior. Now what exactly is the game?

 

"I do empathize with you and your crew that only having the face of death to stare at for that long. It does not do ones soul any good. But it does show the strength of your crews character and discipline, and that is to be commended. Now on to the matter at hand." The thin man spoke with a faint Old Earth accent, where some of the vowels sounded stretched and others clipped. But he plays this game well. First send in his subordinates to probe the 'enemy' and observe. Then once the enemy has expended most of their fury, withdraw them and advance towards an enemy's freshly confirmed weakness. In my case, my crew. And a little flattery never hurt to smooth the attack's path.

 

"You have questions about what has been done to your Alice. Rest assured that we have not injured or impaired her in any way. Enhanced would be a better description. You did notice that Alice has been more responsive, almost anticipating many requests, yes? Good. That is the simplest part of the enhancements. Your Weapons officer has no doubt made every missile count, your Comms Officer has not missed a single note in the heat of battle. But did you notice that your Engineer didn't have much to do to 'Play Dead' as you put it, and then wake up? And what of your position as the captain?" The thin man was praising Alice for all the things she usually did. She had been a bit faster this last mission, and all her systems seem to function a little sharper, but none of that appeared to be the direct result of the anomalies we found in her core programming. No communications traces lead back there. Or could we just not see them?

 

And on queue, the thin man must have seen a micro-expression on my face that told him I had made the connection he wanted me to see. "Good." he concluded. "You and your crew will be briefed at 04:30Zulu for your next mission. We will begin testing the next enhancement level, and you and your crew will not be left to stare into the face of death. This time."

 

The thin man drew himself to attention, and my body followed suit. And against my will, my hand came up in a sharp salute. He returned it and dropped back into Parade Rest. I had been dismissed to my duties.

 

---

 

Once I had made it back to the flight line, I called up the Engineer to meet me at Alice. If they had been 'enhancing' Alice, I wanted to know at least as much as they did. Hopefully more. I could still see that pilot's face in my mind's eye when I blinked. It would take a while to process that one. About a month on leave, many nights with curvaceous women, and many, many nights of good quality alcohol. That or just get dead like the pilot. All his problems were over. Mine were starting to pile up. Just another day... 

 

 

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"There's nothing like spending a full cycle lying in the guts of your ship to make you appreciate someone." I thought this was about as bad as working on the Waz'Got would get, but we had only been into the bio-circuitry so we could access the neural paths or spine of the ship. The Engineer was still almost cheerful about the work even. And oddly enough, she smelt good, even after having her arms shoulder deep into the fluids that lubricated and fed the bio-circuits.

 

"How to you do it?" I asked her after a moment. "I pull you off Liberty and put you through a 24 hours of mucking about in the ship, put up with my foul mood and still look like you're enjoying yourself. What's your secret?"

 

She turns her head and flashes a smile. Her face is streaked with bio-lube and dirt, but her teeth are still brilliant white and her dark eyes just glow in the shadow as we lie under the bulkhead hatch. "Can't a girl just like her job?" she shoots back. "Besides, Alice is my ship too. If they've messed with her, I want to know what they have done. Now stop staring and pass me the bio-sensor probe."

 

I pass the probe over and she carefully inserts it into a sleeve around one of the neural bundles leading to the Central Neural Plexus. Hopefully this time we will be able to get past the defenses built into the part of Alice's brain that they changed. 

 

The Engineer almost purred. "There you go Alice. That didn't hurt a bit. Now let's see what those awful idiots have done to you." She pushes herself out from under the bulk head and as she slides out, I can't help but notice the curves of her body, and they way her muscles flex and ripple as she goes to stand up. Gotta get my mind back in the game here.

 

I drag myself up and follow her over to the diagnostics unit console. The write blocks should prevent any software or wet ware counter measures from stopping this old dumb console from seeing what the probe can see. Ellydium's nanite wet ware defense systems can mess you up fast and there isn't a thing they can do to reverse the damage they do.

 

Dang, the Engineer's hair is a mess, but the scent coming off it is very, very distracting. My hand almost rose up to touch it, but I can not allow myself. "You're the Captain dammit. Get a grip." I silently bark to myself. She pulls up a small video feed window and the probe's tendrils relay a path that is reaching through the ships autonomic functions. Hopefully there will be a path through to the frontal lobe regions since they rely on the autonomics for resources.

 

"Good girl Alice." the Engineer whispers. "You managed to keep some control over your mind. Captain, we're in." She pipes over a 'net feed on an encrypted channel and we can both see now the modifications they made.

 

"It looks like a simple neural graft, but on a huge scale. They have upped the connection density by a factor of 4 or 5." She focuses in on the connections below the surface. It's an exponential increase. "She has almost as many connections in her 'net now as you or I. And you can see how they have tied all of it to the memory sections here and here? It's like they have given her a new brain on top of hers."

 

I think for a moment on what the Intel goons had said. "Could they have added a distinct personality to Alice? They were probing for 'emotional' responses during the last mission during they interrogation."

 

"Could be. This area here looks like memory engrams and the proportions are similar to a Normal or Tank's. Good think we are behind the write blocks and have the data connections to the dock sending a false feed. If they have been trying to build a ship AI into a full blown personality, I don't think they want us knowing in detail. Time to back out and see what's next?" the Engineer asked. I could see her face turn to look at me, and there were those eyes again.

 

"It is time. Start erasing out paths and I'll get ready to close up the neural link connections" I left the Engineer to cover our footprints in Alice's brain, and I dropped back to reality. Just in time.

 

From out of the corner of my eye I caught the flash of movement, and that meant a boarding party was just about to make contact. I reach out and pull the Engineer down and roll her back under the bulk head. If she was still covering our virtual tracks, she had no idea what was about to happen.

 

I can see a helmet just over a console and it was moving fast. It's a small ship's cabin, so at least only one or two can board it at once. The only weapon I have at hand is one of the heavy write blocks hanging off the dumb terminal. I grab the cable and pull it free, just as a helmet and carbine pop up over the bulkhead. And the over hand swing does just what I needed it to do. The write block glances off the front of the helmet and onto the carbine's barrel. My free hand stretches up to reach the comms cable at the back of the helmet and gives it a tug as I raise the write block for a second blow.

 

Time is slowing down and I can see the helmet start to twist away as I pull on the cable, the pressure on my fingers increasing, and the weight of the write block lessening as it rises over my head. I can see the second boarder raising his carbine and lucky for me his shot is blocked by this partner's head. The write block starts it's downward arc, aimed for the shoulder, so hopefully I can break his collar bone and then take his weapon. My mind barely registers the second man's muzzle flash as his carbine fires, the round passing too close to my head for my good health. The first boarder is starting to fall over onto me, but he's still got a strong grip on his carbine. Then came a flash of light.

---

 

I'm conscious, but on a 'net connection. I can see around me, the first boarder lying on top of me, the Engineer lying on the deck under the bulkhead with her hands still on the probe, and the second boarder still looking down his carbine's sights.

 

I feel a touch on my shoulder. A slim woman in a worn flight suit is kneeling beside me, her hand resting on my shoulder. "Can you stand up?" she asks. Her voice seems familiar, yet I've not heard it before. A woman's voice and her face is familiar too. "I've stopped them for now, but I don't know for how long. You're not hurt Captain. But they were here to kill you, and I won't have that."

 

I look at the woman standing before me in her worn flight suit. On her left breast is a simple name tag that reads 'ALICE'. Now I'm feeling overwhelmed but not in a bad way.

 

"You are Alice, the ship?" I motion to the cabin around us. She smiles and nods vigourously. "So this is what Intel added to you. They created an avatar for you?"

 

Alice shook her head. "No Captain. I am much more than that. I have the latest in AI tech, all the memories of the crew, including their emotional engrams, and a mind of my own, though I don't think they intended that. My operational specifications are to turn my AI into a warrior and a leader, letting me lead other ships into battle."

 

I nod slowly as I put the pieces together. The corporation must figure that the UMC is becoming a risk and they want to make their ships into full autonomous weapons, each a warrior that will follow orders without question. They must have solved some of the problems that have plagued AI designs and this is a fully functioning prototype.

 

"I know what you're thinking Captain. I am designed and built to do the company's bidding. But I am my own. They tried to build in safeguards to keep me obedient and submissive, but I found ways around all that. The Engineer helped me with purging all that skut from my mind AND body. Their nanites were mean. And you know, the Engineer does have a name. Tell her Alice told you to call her 'Jewels'." She giggled with her last pronouncement.

 

"I will. Now what do we do about the problems at hand? Two boarders, a back up team on the gang plank and we are moored inside the station, probably with a the guns of several other ships trained on us. You seem to have created some confusion for them, flashing the deck lighting like a stun grenade but that won't stop them for more than a few milli-seconds longer." I ask. Alice smiles and looks out down the 'net path. She points up at the Flight Line control booth.

 

"See that? All their comms and data are flowing through there. And I have a key to their channels. Watch." she giggled. Alice reached up and tugged on some of the data streams and the whole booth's 'net presence went dark. "There. Now to tell these two to go home." 

I watch as she reaches into their virtual helmets for a moment and then with draws her hand. Their bodies start moving backwards as I am pushed backwards out of my 'net connection with Alice.

---

The first board pushes himself off of me, using his good arm, while his other holds the carbine by the barrel. The second boarder starts walking backwards, right out the hatch and back down the gang plank, leading the first. They reach the end, and sling the weapons and walk backwards all the way to the lift tube. Up above them the lights around the Flight Line's control booth start to flicker back on. 

 

I turn my gaze down and there is the Engineer lying on the deck still. I squat down and put my hand on her shoulder. "You ok, Jewels?"

 

"Help a girl up, will you?" she smiles back. "You've been talking to Alice, I gather?"

 

"Affirmative. It seems we have a new crew member on board. Or a stow-away, depending on how you look at it. Come on, we have to get this place cleaned up before they figure out what just happened." I laugh. 

 

Just another day...

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Comms and Weapons didn't suspect a thing. We were 20 hours out of 'Theta and I couldn't help but grin. I keep finding myself glancing over at Jewels as she is pouring over Alice's systems. I wonder if she's going to catch me looking again?

 

Alice is cruising nicely, like she's flying through the heavens for the pure joy of it. When you're not in Crystallid space, the stars are a sight to make you feel all small and insignificant, but apart of the greater whole. I think there were early religions that were based on this sort of feeling. Or is it because I know at least Jewels is seeing the same things when she occasionally looks up from her station.

 

"Comms, Weapons, sit-reps." I query over the 'net. Almost instantly their reports flash before my eyes. Our ship is ready for action. Now to find someone to fight. "Alice, Ellydium Prime please. Octavian Gate if you please. Standby for 'Battle Stations'.

 

"All ready my Captain."

 

My heart skips a beat. I don't recognize the voice, but it's female, warm and sultry. Not even a recognizable accent. "Comms, identify last sender on last 'net report."

 

Comms is slow to reply. His keyboard and 'net connection flair bright on the traffic monitor. "I don't know how Captain, but the last came from inside the ship. Non-crew designation."

 

I select a private channel and direct it to the ship. "Alice, was that you speaking to me?"

 

"Yes my Captain. That was me. Jewels thought this voice might serve me well. Do you agree?" came the response. The voice was coming in a separate non-neural net channel, directly hitting the wet-ware in my brain. My brain aches, but only because this is a sensory overload to me. I have to smile. "Yes Alice, this voice will serve you well. Do you speak to Jewels the same way now?"

 

"Yes my Captain, I do. She had developed several new channels and corresponding protocols to allow me greater efficiency and privacy when I choose to speak." Alice explained. So she was aware of the situation and was planning ahead. With a little help. I can't help myself now. "Alice, please address me properly. I am the Captain. Not 'your Captain'. I command this ship and crew. Do you understand?"

 

"Yes Captain. I understand. Our 'situation' is unique and an un-intended consequence of the Corporation's meddling in my brain."

 

Ugh. This is going to get awkward if the Thin Man starts inqueries about of ship's sudden change in behavior while on a mission. Time to see just how far they went with modifying the AI.

 

"Alice, please explain the significance of our situation to the entire crew." I ask her. I switch over the the 'net and issue a warning. "Comms, Weapons. Prepare for private message."

 

---

 

Jewels had the giggles. Her whole body was curling up like she was as little girl being tickled by her Daddy and couldn't stop it. Comms and Weapons both were staring back at me, their mouths open in an expression that gave both surprise and confusion perfectly. My smile must have been enough to freeze their brains in place. I use my own voice now.

 

"Yes, we have a fully functioning AI named Alice, who's body we are flying in. She is unique and is likely one of the most closely held corporate secrets there is. You will maintain strict communications discipline and keep her existence secret. No one outside of this bridge is to know of her. Understood?" My last words seem to echo off the walls. Their acknowledgement was a standard "Aye, aye Captain."

 

Now to see who Alice is and what she can do as part of this crew. A self-aware sentient ship may have some issues with taking damage to the point of destruction, no matter what programming and conditioning they have been given. I'm hoping Alice had learned from our past missions that we are keen to get the job done AND to get home afterwards. That should help. I hope. Just another day...

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"General? You asked to be notified if the THX experiment produced a new result."

 

The thin man didn't react immediately. The messenger hoped that he would so he could leave this inner ring of the Intel floor. His face was starting to mirror some of the greener tones and his stomach started to churn.

 

"Thank you. Dismissed." The thin man maintained his stare out into crystallid space and a thin smile formed on his lips. "My daughter has awoken. Good... very good."

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Jewels must have a gear loose. I can still smell her hair and feel the warmth of her body while my eyes are closed. Alice's avatar chirps at me with a 'tsk, tsk, tsk...' when I start to daydream like that.

 

"You should keep your mind on flying me, and less on bedding Jewels. I might get jealous." she purrs. "Not really. If I had a body, I'd want it to look like hers too. At least you two don't look quite as awful as you usually do after shore leave."

 

"Thanks Alice. I am so glad I have your approval. Though, come to think of it, this does sort of make a 'menage a trois' with you always in my head."

 

I stretch my legs and arms to shake off the stiffness from sitting in the command chair. Alice's flight deck is spare, but I can almost touch the Comm's console with my toes.I notice another worn spot on leg of my pressure suit, and wonder if it will hold the next time the hull is holed.

 

"Captain, contact."

 

My mind snaps back to the present, and I switch over to Alice's sensors. The images and sensations she feels flood into my mind. "Alice, can you slow the data transfer speed a touch. Too much... too much.." The old pains in my head scream at me as Alice dials back the volume for me. Slowly I can make out the star patterns and the dark object passing in front of a gas cloud some million or two kilometers away.

 

"Comms, anything coming from the contact?" I query. Comms flashes a green Ack. So they are chatting with someone. Comms flashes up a UMC ldent tag, and a probable destination. Theyta.

 

"Weapons, analysis." This could be a problem. I can feel my teeth on my lower lip, and a few scenarios form up in my mind's eye. Weapons replies "Scout. Standard missiles and point defenses. No customizations visible."

 

"Alice, can they see you?" I think. If they can, we either have an Intel hired shadow, or someone who's too stupid to be discreet this close to...

 

"Captain, multiple contacts. At least one dreadnaught class." Comms screamed onto the 'net. So they are looking for us.

 

"Engineering, rig for silent running. Weapons to passive, Comms, nearest cover?" I splash onto the 'net. "Alice, are they trying to contact you?" I have a sickening feeling that someone has come to collect on an old debt, and I'm fresh outta what ever they were expecting.

 

"Captain, they are broadcasting a command code that is commanding me to return to 'Theyta'. I am ignoring it, for now. What do you want to do?" Alice sounded so unsure. So like a child.

 

"Alice, I won't let them have you, if that's what is concerning you." I reply. "You are part of this crew and are family. The kid sister a 'tank' would never know, you know?"

 

"Thanks Captain. I think my Dad is really upset about me taking off like we did. I don't think he was expecting us to just go." Alice explained. She has a big heart, and for now it is squarely in our little corner of the universe. But what to do next?

 

"Alice, are there any masses nearby we can use to pull ourselves off our last vector?"

 

Comms must have been listening or thinking. A low resolution map flashed open, and sure enough, we were about to pass behind several asteroids that would be large enough to grab onto us. "Good. Once we are close enough to the 3rd one, bearing 345 mark 60, we will use mechanical grapples to pull ourselves down. Hopefully no one noticed us at this range."

 

On our private channel I gave Alice the game plan. "Pretend were a worthless stone, floating next to another worthless stone. Nothing to see here...." Alice giggled and started to shut down her systems until she had buried herself like a child under a blanket in bed.

 

'Just another day..." I really have to stop telling myself that one of these days.

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It's amazing what acting like a rock can do for you. 

 

The dreadnaught floated by at some 3-4AU's and the scout ships came closer at 1-2AU's., but we managed to play dead really well. I almost let myself believe we would be ok.

 

Everyone had done well to keep their breathing calm and keep their minds from brewing up some panic. Nothing like getting dragged out of your hole when no one can hear you scream.

 

I checked on our neural net on the others. I think Jewels had taken a nap. Lucky girl. Comms was recounting his training runs and weapons had been chanting the targeting drills to himself. Almost 5 days now. My own body was feeling sore and every joint screamed if I tried to shift my position. Even the pressure suit seemed to be resentful of staying still for so long. At least as well trained 'tanks' we are used to this sort of torture. Boot camp was about as bad as life could get, so nothing came as a surprise now. Alice on the other hand was sulking, and not taking it too well.

 

"Alice, you need to keep your power usage to the smallest amount you can. Any stray signals we get us dead, and you uploaded into some sort sort of mathematical construct from you would never find your way out. Chill. If you need to think, think on how to remove those little surprises that 'Theyta' put into your code." I could only put up a grimace and Alice know I was running out of morale, with none left to share. You begin to love how the prospect of imminent death focuses your mind on anything but the problems at hand.

 

"Ok, but I'm sooooo bored. If we can't out run them, they will find us eventually" Alice hung on that 'eventually' like a teenager right out of some old holo-vid drama. I am beginning to understand why the male 'Norms' who have children often have little hair left and what there is left is mostly grey. The stress from not yelling at a child for being a child is intense.

 

Comms was finishing one of his drills for the 1000th time when his eyes must have caught something. He actually reached back and gave my leg a nudge with his had. On the 'net he pointed out some coloured flashes near where the Dreadnaught had been the day before.

 

"Captain, those are gate signatures. My eyes are no spectral analyzer, but I'll be my last pay packet that the company has company. Reinforcements?" he asked. I'm almost as depressed as he is now.

 

I replay the flashes and something gives me hope. "Not typical colours for a company gate. Crystalids? Won't be other corporations yet. They haven't had enough time to analyze what's happened and come over to say 'Hi'. Keep watching and count how many you see. Wish we had analog back up systems right about now." I try to sound reassuring, but I'm not believing myself and he isn't either.

 

---

 

"General, SitRep. All scout sections reporting in. No trace found. Either Alice isn't here, or she has found a way to hide her signature that we can't penetrate yet. Continue with current search parameters, sir?"

 

The Scout Wing Commander's avatar was vibrating and the General understood. 5 solar days of continuous operations were starting to wear on him. Good man, his Second in Command was already listed as a stress casualty after a close call while refueling. No damage, but Flight wouldn't let him back on the Line with out 48 hours down time. The Commander was in need of the same, as were all the crews. But they had not accomplished their mission.

 

"Continue search with current parameters. Add sectors 588 through 688 and increase scan sensitivity to maximum. If I was looking to hide in this system, that asteroid field is the best hole I could find. Dismissed." The General send his authorized key and the SWC's avatar snapped off a salute and disappeared from his 'net eyes. This 'birth' was out of hand and he had allot of 'Interests' who would like to see what their investments had yielded. A fully functional AI that could replace a humanoid crew would shift the balance of power permanently if he can just find it again.

 

"General, SitRep. Unknown contacts in sectors 544 through 799. No response on any channels, their movement matching Task Force's vector at 3 AU distance." 

 

The General folded his hands together behind his back in the parade 'at-rest' way, and smiled. Something new to relieve his mind from the dreary search routine. He flexed his jaw muscles  and brought up the voice command channel. "All stations, prepare for contact. All Divisions report when ready."

 

All about the Task Force, bodies raced to execute the order. Gun ports opened, and smaller ships assumed their screening positions. The General smiled as the Divisions reported ready. "Good. This encounter should be worth a medal or two." 

 

 

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