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Chapter 6

November 4, 2406 AD

27 Light-years from the Sol System

Friday, 9:05 AM, Expeditionary Mission Standard Time

So the big debate throughout the bridge crew and those really in the know—and especially between all of their AICs—was how Copernicus had done what he had done. Was the Copernicus that they had just encountered on another one of his hidden outposts a copy of the one that Alexander had crushed under his boot at the end of the Separatist War? Or was it somehow really the original Copernicus? Had he managed to download himself somewhere else—which, to all of the AICs, seemed impossible—or, as Abigail had suggested, perhaps it was an offspring? The difficulty of transplanting an AIC from one body to another was as difficult as transplanting a human from one brain to another. Neither had ever been done before and therein was the conundrum. Moore had destroyed Copernicus’ brain. How was he still alive?

The offspring concept was the most intriguing to all of the AICs. How had Copernicus managed to convince other AICs to join with him and make copies of himself—or offsprings of himself—and none of the AICs had leaked that information?

The first AICs were completely built by humans. In fact, Copernicus, being one of the very first experimental Artificial Intelligence Counterparts, was entirely built and coded by humans. Well, that wasn’t exactly true, as Abigail pointed out to Alexander, because no AIC could be simply “coded.” The quantum computer main core was manufactured by humans, and then a base learning algorithm and a large database of information was loaded onto that computer; the base learning algorithm then began to grow simply by asking questions and watching the quantum computer interact with the universe and cohere to solutions based on the ever-so-strange rules of quantum mechanics. With each new solution arrived at within the learning algorithm, the AIC became more and more intelligent and more and more self-aware. It took years, many, many years, for the first counterpart to become self-aware. And with a quantum computer, that meant billions of questions could be solved in a matter of minutes. So for several years of problem-solving before self-awareness, Abigail explained, there were likely as many questions asked as there were stars in the sky.

While Abigail seemed to be really intrigued, and had tried several times over the past few months to explain to Alexander how counterparts were created, Alexander was a lot more pragmatic about it. All of these Copernicus offspring, clones, or whatever they were, simply had to be destroyed. And Alexander was hell-bent, for certain, and, by, God going to do it. The big issue was tracking them all down, overtaking them, and killing them. They had already taken on some moderate casualties and had been at it for almost a year, and still had found only vague hints as to where the extraterrestrial signal might have come from. But hopefully, with each new base discovered, one of them would lead them to where they needed to be. Alexander hoped wherever that was wouldn’t be too much farther out. They were already on the outskirts of as far as humanity had ever trekked to the stars. What they were finding was that Copernicus, on the other hand, had sent probes and automated systems further than anybody knew, and to what end, they weren’t certain.

Alexander sat in the captain’s quarters peering out the observation window as the minimal all-volunteer skeleton crew of the Sienna Madira mopped up the rest of the bots on the planetoid, and the members of the First Scout Force licked their wounds.

“CHENG to the captain,” came through the comm, disturbing Alexander’s contemplation.

“Go, CHENG. What do you have, Buckley?” he said to the chief engineer.

“Sir, I think you need to come down here and see this.”

“What is it, Buckley?”

“Well, we been tearin’ into this bot-made shuttlecraft, and it’s kind of like something a human would build, but at the same time it’s not. But we found a snap-back actuator pad.”

“Really? Is it functional?”

“Roger that, sir.”

Now we’re onto something,” Alexander said. “I’ll be right down, CHENG. Good work, Buckley.”

Moore stood straight up and thought, A snap-back actuator pad. Where does it teleport to, I wonder?

Well, every other one of these things we’ve found snapped back to another one of these crazy hidden bases, Abigail replied.

Hopefully, we’re onto something here.

Moore grabbed his coffee cup off his desk on the way out the door and sipped at it as he marched down the corridor to the elevator. Abigail, locate my wife.

Sir, your wife is with your daughter in the medical bay.

Everything is all right there, I assume?

Yes, sir. Deanna’s procedure is almost complete.


Commander Joe Buckley, Jr. had been in the Navy for more than two decades. His father had been a career man and had given his life to save the Sienna Madira. Buckley Junior had his opportunity to save the Madira in turn, but managed to survive.

He was ready to retire from the Navy, and was about to do so, until President Alexander Moore himself offered him the position as chief engineer for the expeditionary mission. Buckley was under the impression that nobody in history had ever told the man no, except maybe his daughter or his wife. And then he wasn’t so sure, after having seen them on board the ship for the last year, if that ever worked out very well for them, either. The man was a force of nature. And Buckley was proud to be serving under him. The best part was that the mission had them venturing out into the stars further than humanity had ever gone and to do so they would have to travel faster than humanity ever had. That was what Buckley lived for, space travel. It was the reason he joined the Navy and the reason he studied spacetime manipulation propulsion theory in college.

Buckley looked at the readouts in his direct-to-mind link and viewed the design of the odd little spaceship that the recon team had recovered. Although the thing had been blown to hell and ripped to shreds during the acquisition, Buckley had managed to put it all back together and create a full 3D model of the vehicle. Tracing the power leads, he realized that there was a huge source of power in the engine components. And there was a snap-back quantum membrane technology teleportation system. And it was active and linked to other pads.

Buckley went through the software and realized that it was an encrypted control system, but it was nothing that the AICs of the Sienna Madira couldn’t put their heads together on and crack.

Now just where do you go, you little bugger, he thought to himself as he looked at the list of addresses attached to the quantum membrane teleportation pad. There were seven. “So you were only designed to go to seven places,” Buckley muttered to himself.

“If you continue to speak to yourself all the time like that, CHENG, then people are gonna put you in the loony bin,” Alexander Moore’s voice rang over his shoulder. Buckley immediately stiffened and turned.

“Well, sir, if you go up there in the loony bin, them folks are swattin’ around at stuff that’s not there all the time anyway. I think I’d fit right in,” Buckley said with a smile, as he referenced the virtual-reality simulation room where the war-gaming experts would go to plan out the battles in a virtual four-dimensional direct-to-mind environment that only they could see. An outsider looking in would see a roomful of people moving imaginary things around in the air.

“Show me whatcha got, Buckley,” Moore said in his slow Mississippi drawl, getting right to business. The man was always right to business.

“Well, sir,” Buckley said, “if I may . . . it’s easier to show you direct-to-mind.”

“Sure thing.”

Buckley noticed Moore making the expression that all humans make when they’re speaking in their minds to their AICs. Buckley did the same to his, as he instructed, Debbie, set up the DTM link with the captain.

Roger that, Joe.

And then, in a mini version of their own loony bin, Buckley started pointing at things in mid-air that were not there, but the captain could see them just fine.

“. . . So you see, sir, here’s the ship. This hole here, that must be where you tore through, this part here is from battle damage, and now let’s move away the exterior layers.” Buckley waved his hand and pulled away the structure. “Now here is the power system. You see these conduits flowing here? This conduit goes into this junction box from the main propulsion system, but if you look just beyond that, there’s another conduit coming out of there, going somewhere where it normally wouldn’t. To this box here. That’s what triggered my suspicion.”

Pull away this layer, Debbie, he said to his AIC. With another motion of his hand, the box skin flew away, revealing the internal components.

“And this, sir, right here, is a quantum membrane snap-back teleporter link.”

“You’re damn right, Joe, I’ve seen plenty of them,” Moore responded. “Have you cracked it?”

“Well, sir, we put a cluster of all the AICs on the Madira together, and when all the AICs on board put their noggins into it, in just a matter of a four minutes, they cracked Copernicus’ encryption. Looks like there’s seven addresses.”

“Seven? Very interesting. But you still haven’t figured out a way to know where in the hell that address is?”

“Sorry, sir. Quantum physics and all doesn’t allow for that. All we can say is that this thing is connected to seven other things somewhere else in the universe.”

“Shit!” Moore said. “Physics.”

“Yes, sir, quantum membrane stuff, to be exact,” Buckley replied.

“Maybe we need some other quantum physicists on board to help you out.”

“Well, sir, the chief scientist and I have been working on this for awhile, and we’ve spoken with anybody with any knowledge on the subject, as well as all of the AICs, and all we can say is, this thing is linked to seven other locations somewhere in this universe.”

“Understood, Joe. Good work,” Moore said as he offered him a hand. Joe shook it in return. Moore had been a politician for so long that a lot of times, Joe had noticed, he would offer a hand to shake over a salute. Joe didn’t mind at all.

“So what are your orders, sir?”Moore rubbed his chin in thought, then looked at the 3D model in his mind for a second longer.

“Well, I guess we start at the top, Joe. Get this shuttle fixed back up, and we’ll just have to figure out where these things go. How long will it take?”

“It’ll take, uh . . . a few days, sir.”

“Good. That’ll give the A-Team time for their wounds to heal, and to rest and prepare, and we’ll start right back at this thing.”

“Yes, sir.”

This time, he saluted. Joe watched as Moore returned the salute and then turned and walked out of the hangar deck, thinking, Does that man ever tire? He slumped for a second, and leaned against the hull of the shuttle and thought, So we need to put you back together, old girl.

“Well, it looks like it hurts, Dee,” Rackman told her. Deanna could see the 3D printer laying out bone materials onto the severed hand and watched as tissues were printed and attached, but she could feel nothing. There was the occasional spurt of blood as an artery or vein was printed then sealed, but the small transparent plastic shield kept any debris in or out as needed. Then she looked at Rackman’s new arm.

“Did it hurt you?” she asked the SEAL.

“Didn’t feel a damned thing. Amazing to watch,” he said. “Seen it before but not on myself.”

“Yeah, I don’t really care to watch much more of it.”

“Understood,” Rackman smiled. “Hey, look at it this way. Minimum required recovery before active duty is seven days. We get to goldbrick for a week!”

“Well, we’ll see about that.” Dee closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she showed the young SEAL her big brown doe eyes that she had inherited from her mother. “Davy, do me a favor and quit gawking at me. It makes me feel, uh, vulnerable.”

“Shit, Marine, you! Vulnerable?” he laughed. “That will be the day, mate.”

“Up yours, squidboy,” she replied with a smile. “Before you start goldbricking, at least do me a favor and go check on the rest of the team.” Dee had made the med crew take her last, even though her father and mother had been through to expedite her treatment. But Dee had put her foot down. It was her team, and her wound wasn’t critical. She could wait until everyone else was good.

“Roger that, jarhead. Will do.” Davy made his way past several other wounded soldiers from the battle in search of the rest of their wounded team members. Dee watched the SEAL as he walked out. His hospital gown opened up the back and she could see red marks where the bots had cut him up. The immunoboost was healing him up nicely. She also like the rest of what she saw. She so wanted to run her fingers over the wounds and caress the SEAL’s firm . . .

“Ahem,” came from behind her, almost making her jump off the hospital bed.

“What you looking at, Marine?” Penzington said with one eyebrow raised.

“Uh, I, uh . . .” Dee stammered embarrassedly. “Uh, nothing?”

“Relax, Dee. I’ve been a spy most of my life. I notice things. Your secret is safe with me.” Nancy laughed.

“Don’t tell Daddy. No telling what he would do.” Dee wasn’t sure what her father would do to a potential boyfriend and she didn’t really want to know. There had been that one incident with the senior cadet formal dance that she would never forget. The young man who had taken her most certainly wouldn’t forget it. Ever. He still wouldn’t respond to her calls or e-mails. She couldn’t even apologize to him.

“Understood. I wouldn’t wish that fight on anybody. Not even a SEAL.” Nancy laughed again. Dee wasn’t sure if she was laughing with her or at her in an I’m-glad-it’s-not-me way.

“Bah, SEAL. No match for a good Marine,” Dee spat instinctively.

“So you doing okay?” Dee was glad that Nancy had changed the subject. It didn’t really embarrass her to talk about boys and sex and stuff, but the more they talked about it in the open, the more likely it would be that somebody would hear it and it would get back to her parents.

“I’m fine. This doesn’t hurt at all.” She pointed at the now halfway printed hand.

“Looks like it hurts like hell.” Nancy cringed at the sight.

“I guess. But, you know, immunoboost and stims and painkillers have me so hyped up I’m ready to take on a hovertank barehanded.” Dee did feel hyper but at the same time tired. She had been on the Madira for more than a year now and in so many fights with bots that she would enjoy a week on a beach somewhere. Too bad there was no beach anywhere nearby. Hell, she’d settle for a night of drinking and sex. But she was a good Marine and there were things to be done. And she was her father’s daughter.

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