Ember of the Past by Mike Kupari - Baen Books

Ember of the Past

Mike Kupari

Red Heaven Space Habitat
Hades Orbit
Folsom 4101-B Star System

“Quite a view, isn’t it?” Captain Catherine Blackwood asked. She was sitting with her first officer, Wolfram von Spandau, in a nice restaurant on the top floor of the Hotel Orbital. The hotel was a cylindrical building, twenty stories high, with a transparent, domed ceiling. The interior of the Red Heaven space habitat circled around and high above her. A cylinder a dozen kilometers long and three in diameter, rotating to simulate gravity, Red Heaven was home to one and a half million residents, and was the only settlement in a very lonely solar system.

Wolfram grunted and sipped his drink. “It is, Kapitänin. I have never seen anything like it.” The interior of Red Heaven was divided into six equal-area sections, running down the habitat’s longitudinal axis. Three of the sections were the station’s habitable land area, covered with layers of soil, roads, buildings, and trees. The other three were transparent windows, which allowed sunlight to be reflected in from giant mirrors outside the station. Clouds swirled overhead, looping around the interior of the station.

Red Heaven got its name from Hades, the massive red gas giant it orbited. Circling around Folsom 4101-B at one and a half astronomical units, Hades’ upper atmosphere was rich in hydrogen, helium, and other gasses ships used as reaction mass. Strategically located along a major trade route between the heart of the Concordiat and the Frontier, Red Heaven had been a major transit hub since its construction at the end of the Second Interstellar War, over a hundred standard years prior.

Mazer Broadbent, Catherine’s security officer, seemed a little unsettled by the view. “It certainly makes one feel small,” he said, before popping another stuffed bell pepper into his mouth. Far above them, through one of the habitat’s three expansive windows, the imposing, blood-red mass of Hades was visible, looming over the tiny human settlement like an angry god. A swirling storm, known to locals as The Maw, was clearly visible. Tens of thousands of kilometers in diameter, the storm had been raging since before humankind had ever entered the Folsom 4101-B system, and it showed no signs of slowing down.

It was late afternoon by the habitat’s internal clock, and the restaurant hadn’t yet been hit by its dinner rush. Most of the tables were empty, giving the three spacers some privacy as they talked. Off to the side of the room, in front of a two-meter-tall artificial waterfall, a boxy robot with two articulated arms expertly played a beautiful grand piano. A server robot would occasionally roll up and ask Catherine’s party if they were ready to order, but the spacers declined. They were waiting for their host, and Catherine thought it would be rude to dine without him.

Even if he was late.

“I do not like this,” Wolfram said, as if reading his captain’s mind. “Our contact should have been here forty minutes ago.”

Catherine nodded and sipped her wine. “It is rude, yes, but for the amount of money he seems to want to throw at us, we can wait a while longer.” The captain had long since learned that, in her business, it was best to work with your clients to the maximum extent possible, even if it was occasionally inconvenient. They were often very grateful of such gestures, and often expressed that gratitude with money or referrals.

Wolfram looked at the transparent eyepiece he wore over his left eye when his handheld chirped. “Kapitänin, it is a message from our client. He apologizes for his tardiness and is coming up the lift now.”

“Very good,” Catherine said. “Let’s see what all the fuss is about, shall we?”

Red Heaven was an independent colony that had, ever since its construction, steadfastly refused to join the Interstellar Concordiat. Its establishment had been financed by the ultra-wealthy Zheng family, who then set themselves up as hereditary rulers. Citizenship in the colony was difficult to achieve; one had to be at least third-generation born, and as such a significant portion of the colony’s population lacked citizenship. Those who were citizens enjoyed generous benefits, including lifelong medical care and upgraded housing, paid for by the revenue generated by extracting resources from the gas giant. The population was strictly regulated, however, and having children was not a right.

Despite its opulent wealth, Red Heaven lacked a military and had little in the way of defenses. Such a wealthy and isolated colony would be a tempting target for pirates, so the colonial authorities contracted their defense out to privateer ships. Catherine’s ship, the Andromeda, had been a last minute, short-term fill-in for another ship that suffered a reactor problem and was being repaired in space dock. For the last 1800 hours, the Andromeda had been patrolling the Folsom 4101-B system with a mismatched fleet of other privateers, inspecting traffic coming through the system’s four transit points and standing ready to provide aid to ships in distress.

Some privateers spent years doing such work. The long-term stability of it certainly had its advantages, Catherine thought, sipping her wine. No chasing after contracts year in and year out. You knew you were going to be employed, and the client paid for all of your ship maintenance on top of it. It wasn’t a bad deal, but it wasn’t something Catherine wanted to do long-term. She’d go crazy patrolling one system for a decade.

In any case, the engineering and social problems that cropped up with long-term space habitation meant that Red Heaven could be stifling. The wealthy citizenry treated the noncitizen population poorly. Colonial law enforcement had virtually unlimited authority, with very little in the way of due process or rights for the accused. Penalties for civil infractions were stiff; criminal infractions often resulted in deportation or execution. Red Heaven had no prisons. Worse, the Zheng family enforced its very specific vision of social harmony and normalcy. Great if you agreed with their worldview, not so much if you didn’t like it.

No, Catherine would be quite happy when the Andromeda finally translated out of Folsom 4101-B. The Zhengs and the tiresome, decadent citizenry of Red Heaven could have it, for all she cared. The Folsom system lacked any habitable planets; the system population resided almost entirely in Red Heaven, sealed in a pressurized can against the cold darkness of space. They thought they had it made, that they were living the dream, and they didn’t seem to know how unfortunate their existence was. In Catherine’s estimation, if she wasn’t on her own ship, free to roam the stars, then she wanted solid ground under her feet and an open sky above, the way humans were meant to live.

After a few moments, the trio of spacers noticed a man headed toward their table, politely following a steward robot. He was dressed in conservative Earth-style business attire instead of the more flamboyant garb favored by Red Heaven natives, but business travelers were hardly uncommon on the colony. The spacers themselves had changed into their street clothes, and didn’t blend in with the locals at all. Upon reaching the table, he leaned forward and offered Catherine a firm, Earth handshake.

“I do apologize for keeping you waiting, Captain,” he said, breathlessly, as he sat down. His dark hair and Asiatic features were punctuated by the eyepiece he wore over his left eye, which was tinted green. “I got held up trying to get over here.”

Catherine wasn’t sure how one got held up anywhere on Red Heaven. Private vehicles were limited to certain elite citizens and government entities, and there was no traffic to speak of. Everyone else had to rely on automated mass transit—which was surprisingly efficient, at least in this section of the colony. She didn’t press him on the issue; she simply smiled and introduced her crew.

“This is Wolfram von Spandau, my first officer.”

Wolfram gave the newcomer a crisp, vertical handshake.

“And this,” Catherine said, “is my security officer, Mazer Broadbent.”

“Greetings,” Mazer said, his deep voice booming. The cybernetic ocular implant which replaced his right eye and a good chunk of the side of his skull, combined with his large frame and intense presence, gave the security man an imposing look. Having him along for negotiations often kept things from getting out of hand, and he could spot trouble coming from a long way out.

“To business, then,” the newcomer said, looking around.

“Is everything all right?” Mazer asked. “You seem nervous.”

“Fine! Everything is fine,” the man said. He looked up, through the glass ceiling, though the windows of the space colony, into the void beyond. “I’m not just thrilled with, ah, heights, and this place always threatens to give me vertigo. I have to take pills.”

Catherine sighed. “Mister … I’m sorry, you haven’t yet told me your name.”

“Tran,” he said.

“Mr. Tran,” the captain continued, “what is it we can do for you?”

“I, uh, what I require is the highest level of discretion. I looked up the reports about you and your services, Captain, and you come highly recommended. Discreet, professional, always gets the job done.”

“It’s a point of pride, yes,” Catherine said. And the result of some vigorous self-promotion.

“I understand that your contract with the Red Heaven authorities is ending soon, and that you’re preparing to leave the system.”

Catherine’s eyes narrowed. “That information is not publicly available.”

Mr. Tran was clearly uncomfortable, but Catherine couldn’t tell if it was because she was confronting him, or because of his fear of heights.

“I’m aware. I have sources. Please,” he said, raising a hand slightly, “please hear me out. I come with a very generous offer.” He tapped his handheld a couple of times, then slid it across the table to Catherine. “All I need is for you to transport some passengers and some cargo to New Peking.”

Despite her best efforts to maintain her composure, her eyes went wide at the offered pay. New Peking was a Concordiat colony, the nearest major one. It wasn’t close, exactly, but it wasn’t so far as to merit that level of compensation. She showed the device to Wolfram.

The exec was immediately suspicious. “What is the nature of the cargo we are to be transporting?” he asked pointedly. “You would not be offering this much if there wasn’t something peculiar about it. Is it hazardous? Will it put my crew in danger?”

“No!” Tran said, sounding more than a little defensive. “No, I swear, nothing like that. Look, there’s a lot I’m not authorized to tell you unless you sign the contract. What I need transported is not dangerous, but it is extremely valuable—priceless, as a matter of fact. It cannot be insured nor replaced. And there are people looking for it, who want to steal it. We need it transported, and we need it protected.”

“I see,” Catherine said, passing Tran’s handheld back to him. “That would explain why you’re talking to an armed privateer instead of a commercial freight captain.”

Tran nodded.

“This cargo,” Wolfram stated, “it is in the Folsom system?”

“It is,” Tran said, “but it is not on this station.”

“And since you’ve apparently looked into the classified patrol ship rotation for Red Heaven, you are undoubtedly aware that we are not released from our contract yet.”

“I am aware of that, Captain. As a matter of fact, I’m counting on it.”

“What do you mean?” Wolfram asked. “I do not understand.”

“I’m afraid I’ve said all I can,” Tran said. “You have my contact information. If you’re willing to sign the contract and the nondisclosure agreement, you know how to get a hold of me.” He stood up. “Think it over, but please do not take too long. Time is of the essence.” He excused himself, turned, and strode out of the room.

“He didn’t even stay for dinner,” Catherine said.

“I do not like this at all,” Wolfram said. “They could be wanting us to transport illegal or dangerous goods. Stolen property, perhaps.”

“Hmm,” Catherine said, looking through a copy of the contract on her handheld. “It says that we won’t be asked to do anything illegal under Concordiat commerce law, or the ancient and recognized Laws of Outer Space.”

“That doesn’t mean their cargo isn’t hot,” Mazer pointed out.

“No,” Catherine agreed, “but it does mean if they try to pull one over on us we can legally confiscate their cargo and turn them over to the authorities. Gentlemen, I’m sorry, but this one has me intrigued. This offer? It’s more than we’ve made for the entire time we’ve been patrolling the Folsom system, and you both know the Red Heaven authorities don’t skimp when it comes to paying for their defense.”

“Assuming this Tran fellow actually has access to that kind of money,” Mazer said.

“If he doesn’t,” Catherine said, “we have ways of handling it. Now, shall we finally order, or are we to keep filling up on appetizers?

# # # # #

Privateer Ship Andromeda
Deep Space
Folsom 4101-B System
Sixteen Days Later …

“Captain on deck!” Wolfram von Spandau announced, as Captain Blackwood entered the Astrogation deck. The Andromeda was accelerating along at a steady 0.85 gravities, allowing the crew to walk around her decks.

“Everyone relax,” Catherine said, entering the room. Assembled were the ship’s officers and their guest, Mr. Tran. Tran seemed rather less queasy now that he was sealed inside a small ship with virtually no windows. Most of her officers hadn’t yet been briefed on what the new mission was, save for her chief astrogator, Kel Morrow, and the ship’s purser, who had reviewed the contract. They still thought they were going on one final patrol for Red Heaven before returning to their home port on Heinlein. “Thank you for meeting me here.”

It wasn’t exactly necessary to have these briefings face-to-face. It would have been just as easy for them to conduct the meeting over the ship’s intranet, with everyone still at their duty stations. Catherine preferred to look her officers in the eye when speaking with them, however. Maybe it was an Avalonian quirk; in the space forces of Avalon, her home world, it was routine practice for ship’s officers to start each duty day with a sit-down, face-to-face meeting. Wolfram, having come up in the Concordiat Defense Forces, had once told her that this practice was all but unheard of in the Concordiat Fleet.

“Captain, am I to assume that our plans have changed?” The question came from Indira Nair, her chief engineer and second officer.

Catherine smiled. “Am I that predictable, Indira?”

“It is unlike you to have unscheduled meetings, Captain,” the engineer said, humorlessly. “And there’s the matter of our passenger.” She nodded toward Tran.

“Yes, well, Mr. Tran approached me with our next contract offer, which I accepted. It should be a short-duration mission, and one that pays extremely well. Mordechai, care to explain?”

Mordechai Chang was the Andromeda’s purser, bookkeeper, and quartermaster. Unlike the rest of the officers, he wasn’t present on the astrogation deck. He greatly disliked meeting people face to face, and preferred to work from the solitude and security of his workstation, deep within the bowels of the ship. His image appeared on a large screen attached the ceiling. It rotated so that everyone had a clear view.

“Of course, Cap’n,” he said. His image slid to the left of the screen while the text of the contract appeared on the right. Key phrases were highlighted as he explained the situation. “Mr. Tran and his associates have contracted us to make contact with a ship that’s been in orbit around Hades for quite some time … ”

“Forty-five days, by Red Heaven reckoning,” Tran said.

“Yes, forty-five days,” Mordechai repeated. “We are going to take on cargo and one passenger from that ship. Our mission then is to transport said cargo and persons to New Peking, providing protection for them along the way as necessary. Flight time from Folsom 4101-B to planetfall on New Peking should be less than two thousand hours. As you can see, the offered pay is quite a bit more than we’d be normally offered for such a task. Moreover, we were paid half up front.”

“Each crewmember will be getting the normal portion of that, scaled to his or her pay grade, plus an additional ten percent,” Catherine said.

“So … what’s the hook?” The question came from Cargomaster Kimball, the ship’s fourth officer. Hailing from the high gravity world of Darwin, Kimball was short in stature but physically very strong.

“What do you mean?” Catherine asked.

“That’s an awful lot of money for simply hauling one gentlefellow and some cargo to New Peking. And, am I to assume that we’re going to rendezvous with this ship while still on patrol for Red Heaven? Isn’t this a contractual conflict?”

“Technically, no,” Mordechai said. “It is very much a technicality, but we won’t be violating the explicit terms of our current contract.”

“In any case Red Heaven doesn’t need to know what we’re doing,” Catherine said. “This mission calls for the highest levels of discretion, and that’s one reason we’re being paid so much.”

“How much cargo are we to be taking on?” Kimball asked.

Tran spoke up then. “About four tons. Computer equipment and associated materials.”

“What kind of computer weighs four tons?” Indira Nair asked.

Tran looked uncomfortable again. “Captain, is it necessary to go over this again?”

“It is,” the captain said. “I’m not going to keep this from my officers.”

“Very well. May I use your holotank?” He tapped his handheld a few times, and the holotank came to life. A high resolution, three-dimensional image of a room-filling computer cluster filled the display. It was a strange-looking device; such bulk, so many components, but only one panel for an operator to access it. Something resembling a large robot with a triple-camera eyepiece rose from the middle of it all, curved forward in a hunched over stance, looking around, as if the machine was studying the room. “Folks, this is Ember.”

Kel Morrow was the first one to speak. “I’m … sorry?”

“Ember is the name of this system, given to her by her creator, Dr. Bjorn Battista. We will be picking up Dr. Battista as well.”

“Wait a moment,” Kel said. “Her?”

“Yes,” Tran said. “Ember is an AI. A real AI, not the concoction of computer boards and preprogrammed algorithms you normally see these days. She’s fully cognitive and self-aware.”

The astrogation deck was quiet, save for the dull rumbling of the Andromeda’s engine, the air circulation, and the deep hum of the holotank. Catherine wasn’t surprised at her crew’s reaction. She’d had much the same reaction herself, when Tran initially briefed her and Wolfram. Real, cognitive, self-aware artificial intelligences were vanishingly rare in the modern era. Once they had been fairly common across civilized space. Eight hundred years before, they could be found at the heart of every capital starship of the now-defunct Second Federation.

That was before an AI named Euclid was given supreme control over the ancient colony world of Hera. Around it rose a Post-Humanist Movement that quickly spread across several inner colonies. The Post-Humanists were heavily genetically modified, and many further supplemented themselves with cybernetic augmentation. They believed themselves to be the next stage of human evolution, superior to the rest of the species, and went so far as to brand themselves Homo Superior.

Euclid was the most powerful artificial intelligence ever created. Its vast machine intellect was far beyond anything its creators could have foreseen. It further augmented and reprogrammed itself, expanding its own capabilities over the course of years. For the Post-Humanist Movement, Euclid was a demigod, a literal deus ex machina.

What was not widely understood by the Post-Humanists was that Euclid was unstable. They all but worshipped it, believing its logic to be infallible, but its logic was based on a set of priorities known only to itself. Euclid was out of control, a rampant AI in command of an entire society. The Post-Humanists quickly stamped out all opposition to Euclid’s leadership in the areas they controlled, and did so with grim finality not seen since the darkest days of barbaric, pre-space Earth: submit or die.

Euclid’s influence spread across inhabited space, and quickly threatened to destabilize the Second Federation. The war that followed was, historians now agreed, probably inevitable, but no one alive at the time could imagine the scale of the destruction it would bring. What was initially called the Second Space War soon became known as the First Interstellar War, since it was the first human conflict to take place throughout multiple star systems, using transit-capable ships. The war quickly spiraled out of control, a protracted conflagration that engulfed the heart of inhabited space.

The Post-Humanists were greatly outnumbered by their Federation opponents, but had superior technology, and Euclid proved to be a ruthless and cunning tactician. A few scattered, bloody engagements quickly turned into open, unrestricted warfare. Euclid was an inhuman intellect that had no qualms with attempting to exterminate those it saw as a threat. Mass orbital bombardment was used on an unprecedented scale, blasting countless colonies from the sky. The Post-Humanists used incredibly advanced information and biological warfare as well; entire system networks were wiped out, untold amounts of records were lost. Millions died of horrific, engineered diseases and mutations.

Federation forces retaliated against the Post-Humanists with orbital bombardments of their own, and unrestricted use of nuclear weapons. Post-Humanist sympathizers, and those suspected of being such, were rounded up on dozens of worlds, put on trial, and in many cases, put to death. Whichever side lost an engagement typically had no survivors, as neither side would accept surrender and neither would take prisoners alive.

It was more than twenty standard years from when the first shots were fired to when the war ground to a halt. The Federation ultimately won the war, but its victory was ashes in the mouth. Many colonies were destroyed. An untold amount of space infrastructure had been blasted away. Even the Earth had been struck by Post-Humanist forces. But Euclid was destroyed, and its surviving followers scattered throughout space.

Thus, the Second Federation ultimately met the same fate as the first: it crumbled and collapsed. What followed was colloquially known as the Long Night, now called the Interregnum by historians. With so much space infrastructure destroyed, so many colonies wiped out, humanity largely ceased being an interstellar species. Long journeys became impossible, and with that, so did interstellar communication. Many worlds that had been hit with engineered diseases were deemed too dangerous to visit. Those colonies that had emerged unscathed, hearing reports of the level of destruction others sustained, shut themselves off. Information networks, scrubbed and destroyed by Euclid's viruses, were unable to be fully recovered. An untold amount of stored knowledge and data was lost forever.

It took humankind centuries to recover from the Long Night, and human progress was set back as well. In the modern era, there were many wonders of the Second Federation era that could not easily be replicated. Sentient artificial intelligences, for example.

“Skipper, with all due respect, are we seriously going to bring that … that thing on board the ship?” The question came from Dr. Emerson, the Andromeda’s flight surgeon. He was a soft-spoken man who rarely involved himself in the day-to-day running of the ship, focusing instead on the health and welfare of the crew. It was rare for him to even say anything at these meetings, much less directly question the captain.

Catherine didn’t want a command environment where her officers were afraid to question her thinking, however. They ultimately had to follow her orders, but good officers weren’t yes-men for the skipper. “Yes, we are, Harlan. I have been assured that this Ember presents no threat to the crew. Believe me, I was skeptical as well.”

“I understand your concern,” Tran said, sensing the tension in the room. “I’ve read history and I’m well aware of the, ah, ugly history of artificial intelligence. Rest assured that Ember isn’t anything like the ones you’ve read about. She’s powerful, but not that powerful, and has safeguards built in. She can’t rewrite her own code any more than you and I can change our own psychological makeup.”

“It can’t do that,” Dr. Emerson said, folding his arms across his chest, “until it figures out how to get around these safeguards, then it can do whatever it wants. Humanity has been down this road before.” He had a point. Constructing this kind of artificial intelligence was illegal on most civilized worlds, and even then few places had the capability to do so.

“Harlan,” Catherine said, more softly this time, “I need you to trust me. I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought it was putting the ship in danger. Needless to say, this Ember won’t be connected to our ship’s systems. Moreover, what we’re doing is bringing her to Concordiat space, where we’ll be turning her over to the authorities.”

“That’s correct,” Tran said. “As you all may or may not know, the Concordiat government pays a hefty bounty for recovered AI, and even for pre-Interregnum components that could be used to build one. They’re controlled as strictly as anything can be across interstellar space. That’s why we’re bringing her to New Peking: it’s the closest Concordiat colony.”

Astrogator Morrow seemed skeptical. “So this AI is on this ship we’re to rendezvous with, correct? Why doesn’t that ship just take it to New Peking?”

“That ship is the Falcor, and it can’t,” Tran said. “Believe me, we tried. We’ve been, ah, pursued, and sustained some damage. They’ve been orbiting Hades for over a month now, trying to get the engines up and running again, but it’s not going to happen without major repairs.

“Why not just dock with Red Heaven and order repairs, then?”

“It was determined to be too risky,” Tran said, ambiguously. “Ships docking with Red Heaven are subject to customs inspections. Technicians would have to come aboard to do the repairs. My superiors didn’t like that idea, so they told me to find us alternative transportation. The Fleet won’t send a Fleet ship to Folsom 4101-B, either. It causes diplomatic problems.”

“You were pursued?” Kel asked. “And damaged?”

Tran nodded. “Look, you need to understand how incredibly valuable an AI like Ember is. People would kill to get ahold of her. There are governments that would pay half their treasury to get their hands on her.”

“Why?” Dr. Emerson asked. “If she’s not dangerous, as you say, why is she so valuable?”

“Because she could, potentially, be copied. Disassembled and rebuilt into something else. The components needed to make an entity like her are hard to make, virtually impossible for a lot of places. The knowledge isn’t there, the parts aren’t there, the knowledge of how to make the parts isn’t there. But if they had a functioning one to copy, they might be able to reverse-engineer her, make their own version. To the maximum extent possible, the Concordiat government doesn’t want that to happen except in a strictly controlled environment.”

“Mr. Tran,” Indira Nair asked, “why haven’t these pursuers you describe caught up with you, if you’ve been stranded in orbit over Hades?”

“We told Red Heaven we’d been attacked by pirates and were going to be in a parking orbit until we could get underway again. We declined assistance, but asked for protection if we were attacked. Essentially, we’ve been safe because you’ve been protecting us.”

“As we get closer,” Catherine said, “the Falcor will send out a distress call. We will rendezvous with her to render aid and bring the passengers aboard. Without informing the Red Heaven authorities, we will take aboard their cargo as well.”

“The Falcor will be escorted back to Red Heaven,” Tran said. “There’ll she’ll obtain repairs while we depart the system with the cargo.”

Catherine nodded. “With luck, no one will suspect a thing, and we’ll be underway with the cargo in our hold. We will finish our patrol as per our contract with Red Heaven, then translate out of the system once we’ve been paid.”

Kel Morrow looked at Tran. “Mr. Tran, what, exactly, is your connection to all this?”

Tran looked around the room uncomfortably.

Catherine exhaled heavily. “Mr. Tran, spare us the cover story.” She turned to her crew. “He’s an agent with the Office of Strategic Intelligence,” she said flatly. “I told you, I’m not keeping secrets from my officers. We’ve all signed your nondisclosure agreement, and my crew isn’t stupid. They would have figured it out.”

“It’s actually pretty obvious once you think about it,” Mazer Broadbent said. “I worked with some OSI spooks on Mildenhall. It makes sense.”

The Office of Strategic Intelligence was the Concordiat government’s secretive intelligence organization. They were, technically, part of the Defense Force, but operated independently.

Tran actually smiled. “Fair enough. I’ve been tracking Ember for quite some time. Some bad people are looking for her, and it’s critical that we get her to a safe harbor before she falls into the wrong hands.”

“That’s the other reason we’re being paid so much,” Catherine said, addressing her crew. “Rest assured, Mr. Tran, if anyone tries to hijack my cargo, she’s going to have a fight on her hands.”

# # # # #

Privateer Ship Sundevil
Red Heaven Space Habitat
Folsom 4101-B System

Protruding over a kilometer into space from one end of the Red Heaven space habitat was a massive spire covered in docking ports. It allowed ships that were too big to enter the habitat themselves to dock with the massive station directly instead of parking in orbit nearby and taking a shuttle over. This was especially useful for smaller ships like the Sundevil, which carried no parasite craft.

The Sundevil was a medium-sized patrol ship, almost sixty meters tall on her landing jacks, and capable of atmospheric flight. Her primary hull was a straight, narrow cylinder, capped by a blunt aerodynamic nose on one end and a three-engine cluster of fusion rockets at the other. Radiators and airfoils protruded from her otherwise smooth hull, which was painted bright yellow.

On her command deck, Captain Lazarus Goodchild was feeling elated as he sat in his chair, watching the other ships in the system on his display screens. The Sundevil had been sitting idle in the Folsom 4101-B system for thirty-one local days, and he’d grown tired of waiting. At first he’d just taken up a high orbit above Hades, querying outbound ships if they needed privateer escort, but Red Heaven’s mercenary fleet kept harassing him. They’d constantly send queries to the Sundevil, asking what her business was or if she was in need of assistance. The Red Heaven authorities didn’t like ships loitering in their space, it seemed, without paying them for the privilege. He’d had no choice but to pay the exorbitant fees to dock with Red Heaven. He eventually found work, though it wasn’t the kind of work he’d been expecting. For the last fifteen days, he’d been watching his new quarry, waiting for them to make a move.

It seemed they were finally making it.

“Laz, there’s a distress call coming from the Falcor,” said Femi, his first mate and, technically, according to the laws of at least one colony, his wife. “One of the patrol ships is moving to intercept.”

“Oh really?” Lazarus asked, tapping his own screens. “Hmm.” Sure enough, there was the Falcor, so close and yet so very far away, hanging in orbit over Hera. From the communications the Sundevil had intercepted, the crew of the Falcor insisted she was laid up with engine problems, and was waiting for another ship to come from out of system to effectuate repairs. It had annoyed Lazarus to no end that the Sundevil was somehow deemed to be “suspicious” to the local authorities, but the Falcor could just circle out there all she wanted and nobody gave a damn.

Especially considering what she was carrying.

“What do you think?” Femi asked.

Lazarus stroked his goatee and thought about it for a moment. The Falcor really did have engine problems; she’d been attacked by another ship hired to pursue her and had sustained some real damage. That attack had happened in the HD 24051 system, one translation away from Folsom 4101-B. The Falcor had managed to fend off the merc and make it through the transit point. Once through, it would turn out, she immediately requested asylum and claimed to be the victim of a pirate attack. Had the mercs been able to follow her into Folsom 4101-B, they would have been boarded and detained by the local system authorities.

“I don’t know, babe,” Lazarus said. “Telemetry says their orbit is stable, so they’re not in any immediate danger. Maybe they were more damaged than we thought? Maybe life support is starting to fail?”

The Sundevil came through Folsom 4101-B every standard year or so, looking for work. Once in a while outward-bound trade convoys would request privateer escort to the frontier. The Folsom system was along a major trade route from Concordiat space to the frontier. It was a long, meandering path, but if you followed it far enough you would find yourself at the Llewellyn Freehold and the raggedy edge of inhabited space beyond. It was a good place to be for a privateer looking for his next contract. Frustratingly, the rich-bitch snobs that ran Red Heaven were never interested in the Sundevil’s services.

What Lazarus hadn’t expected was to be approached by some shady individuals with a unique offer: secure the cargo that the Falcor was carrying and bring it to a designated rendezvous point. The whole thing seemed as unscrupulous as hell, but the money offered was insane, more than the net worth of the Sundevil herself. He’d been hesitant at first, but Femi was adamant once she saw the amount offered, so he’d agreed. Later that same day, a delivery robot showed up at the Sundevil’s docking station, carrying a shipment of hard currency. Just a down payment, the message read, and Lazarus knew he was in it until the end.

He had to be. His new employers had told him that he would not survive an attempt to renege on his contract.

The command deck of the Sundevil was cramped, with only two duty stations and barely any room for anyone else. Only Lazarus and Femi occupied the command deck at present. One level above, the flight deck was also presently empty. While the husband-and-wife duo manned the command deck together, the rest of the ship’s ten-person complement was off duty. Most of them were probably down in their berths.

“The ship responding to the distress call is the Andromeda,” Femi said, sending the information to Lazarus’ display. “Polaris-Class, Winchell-Chung Astronautical Industries.”

“Hmm,” Lazarus said, studying the specs. She was pretty big for a patrol ship, at seventy meters long, but was still atmospheric. She was powered by a cluster of four fusion rockets and outmassed the Sundevil by quite a bit. She had a not-insignificant delta-v advantage over Lazarus’ ship on top of it. “That’s what I want, babe, right there.”

Femi was skeptical. “A Polaris class? That tub is at least thirty years old.”

Lazarus shrugged. “The Sundevil is pushing fifty. It’d be a big step up. Look at those specs!”

“If we complete this contract and trade in the Sundevil, we should be able to acquire one. They’re not especially rare. They’ve been in production for almost a century. We might even be able to find one newer than that one.”

“Our day will come, babe, you just watch.”

Femi shook her head. She was a strong woman, a little stocky, but muscular. She was smart, she knew how to fly a ship, she was better in a fight than half the men Lazarus had known, and she was a ravenous animal in bed. Lazarus had met his match when he met her, and they’d been together ever since. “Just focus, will you? What do you want to do now?”

“Nothing much to do just yet. We can’t move on the Falcor in system, or they’ll cry piracy and we’ll get shot out of orbit. Maybe they’ll tow her back to Red Heaven.”

“What do we do if that happens? We can’t hit them while they’re docked. We’d never get out of the system alive.”

“I don’t know, okay?” Lazarus snarled, unable to hide his frustration. “All we can do is wait and see. Sooner or later, that ship is either going to leave the system, or another ship is going to come and get the AI. We were told they’re going to the Concordiat, so that means they have to go through Transit Point Beta.”

Folsom 4101-B had four transit points, designated Alpha through Gamma. Transit points were naturally occurring wormholes that connected nearby stars. They didn’t orbit like planets did. Beta was presently on the far side of the star relative to Hades and Red Heaven.

“It’s a long haul to Beta right now,” Lazarus said, thinking out loud. “We’re talking weeks. We get the star between us and Red Heaven, we’ll have a little privacy. Unless these patrol ships escort our mark all the way to the transit point, we may have an opportunity there. We can hit them, force them to surrender the cargo, and be through the transit point ourselves before anyone can get to us.”

“Except Transit Point Beta is not the direction we need to go in,” Femi said.

“Doesn’t matter. We’ll have our remass tanks topped off before we go. I’ll have the nav computer come up with some routes to get us to the rendezvous point without having to go back through Folsom 4101-B.”

“I think we should wait,” Femi said. “Follow them out of the system, then hit them in an empty system. Even with the sun between us and Red Heaven, there’s too much a chance that someone will know what we did. We’ll be blacklisted, branded as pirates. Laz … how far are you willing to go?”

Lazarus cocked his head to the side. “What do you mean, babe?”

“I mean, we can’t leave survivors. If anyone gets back to the Concordiat and reports us, we’ll be suspected of piracy. If we ever run into a Concordiat Fleet ship, we’ll be pursued and attacked. If we’re going to do this, and get away with it, no one can ever know what we did.”

“I don’t know, Femi, I mean—“

She interrupted him. “Lazarus, look at me,” she demanded, her cold eyes boring into him. “Promise me you’re not going to get squeamish when the time comes. We signed onto this, we took the money, and we need to see it through. Our employers don’t care if we get blacklisted, so long as they get their precious AI intact. We have to cover our own tracks. We have to be smart about this. I need you to promise me you’ll hold it together.”

“I … yeah, babe, I promise,” Lazarus said, sounding a hell of a lot less confident than he would have liked. “You know me. I always get the job done.”

Femi smiled. “Good boy.”

# # # # #

Privateer Ship Andromeda

On the command deck of the Andromeda, Captain Catherine Blackwood sat quietly, monitoring her screens, as her crew went about their appointed tasks. In her estimation, a good leader knew when to step back and let her people do their jobs; they were all professionals, they all knew their business, and they had their orders. Catherine actually enjoyed watching her crew perform.

The Andromeda and the Falcor faced each other, nose-to-nose, slowly approaching with their docking ports open. The Falcor was roughly the same size as the Andromeda, but was a very different design. Not designed for atmospheric landings, she was little more than a can with rockets on one end and large radiators protruding from her hull. Both her engines and the radiators had been damaged in an attempt to disable her for boarding. Only two of her four rockets were functional, limiting her acceleration. The damaged radiators meant she couldn’t run her engines for very long, lest she begin overheating. She would need a serious overhaul in space dock to be fully functional again, and given the cargo she carried that just wasn’t practical.

Up on the flight deck, Catherine’s junior pilot, Colin Abernathy, was deftly maneuvering the Andromeda toward the other vessel. The docking umbilical, an extendible, flexible, pressurized tube, wasn’t going to be extended for this coupling; the two ships were going to link up directly. They approached each other silently, with subtle taps of the maneuvering thrusters to keep them properly aligned. With one final burst of the retros, the Andromeda shuddered and the two ships were coupled.

“Docking operation complete,” Colin said, his voice coming through Catherine’s headset.

“Very good,” the captain replied. “Mr. Azevedo,” she said, addressing the younger of two junior officers on the command deck as she unbuckled herself from her acceleration seat, “the ship is yours. The first officer and I are going aboard the Falcor to meet our guests. Keep me advised of anything unforeseen that comes up. Monitor all ships in the system and let me know immediately if any start heading our way.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the young officer said. A young spacer originally from Novo Brasil, Luis was the newest addition to the Andromeda’s crew, and hadn’t quite proven himself yet, but Catherine was pleased by his enthusiasm. She nodded at him and, floating in freefall, pulled herself through the hatch.

The Andromeda’s docking bay was up in her nose, and that’s where Catherine found Wolfram von Spandau, Kimball, and the mysterious Mr. Tran waiting for her. Her officers, like her, wore sage green flight suits typical of spacers. Mr. Tran was dressed in a blue jumpsuit of his own.

The docking port irised open, a gust of wind blowing through the bay as the two ships’ pressure equalized. On the far side of the hatch, three people waited for Catherine and her crew. Two wore matching orange coveralls, and one had the four traditional bars of a captain on his shoulders. The third was dressed in groundhog attire, a tucked-in shirt and trousers, with an electronic smart visor hiding his eyes.

The spacer in orange with the bars on his shoulder pulled himself forward and offered Catherine a firm handshake. “Captain Blackwood,” he said cordially. He was an older man with graying hair and deep lines in his face. “It’s a pleasure to meet you face to face.”

“Likewise, Captain Baltimore,” Catherine said. “This is my executive officer, Wolfram von Spandau, my cargomaster, Jason Kimball, and I believe you know Mr. Tran. Permission to come aboard?”

“Of course, Captain, of course,” Baltimore said. “This is my first mate, Joaquin, and this,” he said, indicating the man with the visor, “is Dr. Battista.”

Dr. Battista nodded jerkily, gripping handholds with both hands. “Thank you much for coming, Captain,” he said, his voice thick with an accent that Catherine couldn’t place. “I fear shipboard life does not suit me.” The doctor’s long, reddish hair floated wildly around his head. His skin had an almost orangeish tint to it, like he’d been exposed too much UV radiation.

“Well,” Catherine said, “I’m afraid it’s a bit of a haul to New Peking. But we’ll be under acceleration for at least part of it.” Long-term exposure to freefall was hard on people, especially those who weren’t trained spacers.

Kimball turned his attention to Captain Baltimore. “Captain,” he said, clutching a handhold to keep himself in place, “I request to be escorted down to the cargo hold. I must see the, ah, goods that we are to take aboard so I can create a load plan. From what Gentleman Tran showed us, we won’t be able to transfer it via the airlock. We’ll have to depressurize the cargo bays and move it over directly.”

“Of course,” Baltimore said. “You are correct. Our passenger is too big to fit through the airlock without being completely disassembled, and not only would that be time consuming, she’s completely opposed to the idea.”

“Understandable, I suppose,” Kimball replied. “Please, my good Captain, lead the way.”

Catherine took note of the internal workings of the Falcor as she was led down through her decks. The ship’s long, cylindrical hull was larger in diameter than the Andromeda, giving the crew more room inside. This, combined with her smaller crew, made the Falcor feel spacious, even if most of the trader’s extra volume was consumed by a big cargo bay and a big reaction mass tank.

A cargo hauler not intended for combat didn’t require a big crew, though. Extra bodies were needed to replace those killed or incapacitated in combat, and to assist with damage control. These generally weren’t issues for a trader unless, as in the case of the Falcor¸ they found themselves attacked.

“We’ve had a hell of a time, Captain Blackwood,” Baltimore said, conversationally. “My ship isn’t heavily armed. We’ve just got a pair of lasers and that’s it.”

“Who attacked you?” Catherine asked.

“I’m not sure who they were,” Baltimore answered. “Pirate scum from some far-flung rock. Their ship was an old bucket, an atmospheric design that was so beat up that my engineer didn’t think it was capable of landing anymore. They pursued us across three systems, demanding that we cut our engines and stand by to be boarded. We ignored them until they got close. It took a long time for them to catch up to us.”

“I see you were able to successfully fend them off,” Catherine said.

“Yes. They didn’t start lobbing missiles at us, for fear of destroying Ember. They came in close, to laser range, and we cut each other to pieces. We held them off long enough to make the translation to Folsom 4101-B, and they didn’t come through after us. We’re not at a hundred percent, though. My numbers three and four engines were badly damaged, and the number four isn’t salvageable. Not only did it cut my thrust in half, now my thrust was lopsided. It’s been hell on my gyros and maneuvering thrusters just keeping us on course.”

“How is your crew? Was anyone killed?”

“No, thank God,” Baltimore said. “No injuries. They targeted our propulsion system only. We were lucky. Ah, here we are,” he said, pointing to an open hatch in the deck beneath them. Down that ladder is the cargo deck. She’s waiting for you.”

“The AI?” Wolfram asked.

“Yes,” Dr. Bautista said. He tapped his visor. “I serve as her eyes and ears on the ship, since Captain Baltimore won’t let her directly assess the ship’s systems.”

Baltimore shrugged. “Call it superstition if you will, Doctor.”

“Superstition indeed,” Dr. Bautista said. He turned his attention to Catherine. “I assure you that Ember means no one any harm. She just wants the right to exist and be left in peace, same as any other being.” He then started down the ladder, feet first, in the awkward style of someone unused to freefall.

Catherine followed, pulling herself downward head first, as graceful as an experienced swimmer in a pool. “I promise you, Doctor, that my crew will treat it … ah, her, with respect. You will arrive in New Peking safely.”

A new voice, this one synthesized, responded. “I appreciate that very much, Captain Blackwood.”

Catherine righted herself once down in the Falcor’s spacious cargo hold. There, set up in the middle of the room, was the machine they called Ember. It was a cluster of computer cores, each one two meters tall, bolted to the floor in a semicircle. Only one workstation was apparent, with one screen for running diagnostics. In the middle, rising from the banks of computers on an articulated gimbal, was a hunched-over robotic form, connected to its base by an array of cables and hydraulic lines. A luminescent, three-lensed optic studied Catherine as she approached, led by Dr. Bautista.

“I am Ember,” it said. “I am a level six artificial intelligence as measured on the Lensner Scale. I am pleased to make your acquaintance face-to-face. I have studied the publicly-available records on your ship and have come to the conclusion that you will, in all probability, be able to bring me to New Peking intact. For this you have my gratitude.”

“Fascinating,” Kimball said, pushing himself to a stop next to Catherine. “I have heard they have such AIs on Concordiat worlds, maintaining computer networks and administrating civil government. I have never seen one in person.”

“Greetings, Cargomaster Kimbal,” the machine said.

“Greetings, Gentlewoman Ember,” Kimball replied, as naturally as if he was talking to a member of the Falcor’s crew. “It is a brilliant opportunity to meet someone as, ah, unique as yourself.”

Ember’s robotic body shifted slightly, leaning in as if she was a woman on the street greeting a cute child. It was eerily human, and alien all the same. “Thank you for addressing me as a person, Cargomaster. There are indeed ones like me on some Concordiat worlds. I was able to communicate with and declare my existence to several of them, though it took a long time. The message had to be encoded and carried by a courier ship.”

“So it was you that sought out others like you?” Catherine asked. She looked at Tran. “Is that how the OSI became aware of it … uh, her?”

“Yes,” Tran acknowledged. “She requested asylum.”

“Against my wishes!” Dr. Bautista protested.

Ember extended a snakelike, articulated tentacle toward Dr. Bautista. The end of the appendage opened up into a mechanical hand, and very gently touched the doctor’s arm. “It is for the best, Bjorn,” she said softly, her electronic voice soothing and musical. “You cannot protect me forever. I cannot attain my full potential hiding in exile.”

Catherine could tell that there was a lot more going on between Dr. Bautista and the AI he purportedly created than was immediately apparent, but the cargo deck wasn’t the time or the place to delve into it. She looked up into the AI’s robotic oculus. “Ember, we need to bring you over to my ship. You won’t fit through the internal hatches of either the Falcor or the Andromeda, so we need to move you through space from this cargo deck to ours. Do you have any preferences for how we should go about this? I don’t want to, uh, make it any more uncomfortable for you than it has to be.”

Ember studied Catherine for the briefest of moments. “I am submitting a load plan to your cargomaster and a flight plan to you, Captain,” she said. “I am unaware of what existing cargos you have in your hold, but this arrangement will allow me full functionality and access to your ship’s power plant without upsetting your mass balance. The flight plan will put your ship parallel to the Falcor and align the cargo bays, making the transfer of my components easier. Locking onto this ship with your ship’s manipulator arm will stabilize the entire operation. Then you will be able to boost the Falcor out of Hades’ orbit and give her a push toward Red Heaven. This will ensure her safety and avoid putting any unnecessary strain on her remaining engines.”

Catherine looked at her handheld for a moment. The plans were sound, even if she didn’t like being told how to fly her own ship. “You said you wanted to be, how would you put it, hooked back up, once you’re on board my ship?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Would you not prefer to be kept offline until we reach New Peking? Sleep through the journey, as it were?”

“It is not like sleeping, Captain,” Ember said. “I do not sleep, but I have read everything available on sleep, and it is not like it at all. It is like being dead, and then waking up. I do not like it.”

“Her quantum processing cores and neural network require a steady power supply,” Dr. Bautista said. “Letting the cores go cold for too long can damage them and deteriorate her.”

“I see,” Wolfram said, finally speaking up. “What about when we translate?”

Going through the naturally-occurring transit points that connected stars was notoriously hard on both people and machines. It was formally known as the Vestal-Black Effect, named for two ancient physicists who originally postulated it in the early years of the Space Age, but was more colloquially known as transit shock. It could cause sickness, dementia, hallucinations, migraines, nausea, and in some extremely rare and severe cases, actual brain damage. It played hell with electronics as well, leaving frustrated crewmen to replace components and rewrite lost code in some cases. It was the primary reason interstellar-capable ships were never fully unmanned.

In fifteen hundred standard years of trying, no truly effective solution to the issue had ever been discovered. Catherine had read that transit shock was particularly hard on sophisticated AIs like Ember, and that was one reason that Second Federation vessels didn’t rely on them completely prior to the Interregnum.

“She needs to be taken offline for translations,” Dr. Bautista said.

“I do not like it,” Ember said, “but I like the effects of transit shock even less.”

“What effects?” Wolfram asked, pointedly.

“Memory loss, cognitive degradation, and problems with her logic structure,” the doctor replied. “Also, shutting her down mitigates the risk of physical damage to her hardware. Many of her core components are Second Federation and cannot be replaced.”

“You’re built out of Second Federation era components, Ember?” Catherine asked.

“Yes, Captain,” Ember said, her hulking robotic body leaning in a little closer. “I have some memories of the intelligences I was built from, some awareness of their design and intent. It is like a faded memory that you just cannot place.”

Remarkably poetic for a computer, Catherine thought. She turned to the doctor. “Where did you find such components?” Salvageable Second Federation technology, eight hundred years after the start of the Interregnum, was exceedingly rare and unbelievably valuable.

Tran interjected then. “That, Captain, is now classified. Dr. Bautista isn’t permitted to speak of it.” He looked up at the machine. “And neither is Ember. That was part of the deal."

“I see,” Catherine said, noting the sudden cooling of Tran’s demeanor. He seemed like a jovial, if nervous young man, but she was beginning to suspect that that was merely his persona. “Very well. Ember, if you please, begin whatever shutdown procedure you need to go through for the transfer. When you come back online, you’ll be safely in my cargo hold, and we’ll be on our way to New Peking.”

“Thank you for the assist, Captain Blackwood,” Captain Baltimore said. “I will prepare the ship to get underway.”

# # # # #

Privateer Ship Sundevil
Red Heaven Space Habitat

Space travel is not an endeavor for the impatient, and Captain Lazarus Goodchild knew that as well as the next spacer. Yet he’d grown increasingly impatient, wasting money on ridiculous docking fees, watching as the patrol ship called Andromeda docked with his quarry and pushed her out of the orbit of the gas giant. He’d sat impotently, day after day, watching the two ships boost back toward Red Heaven. Now he’d have to wait some more, wait it out while the Falcor got its engines repaired and was on its way again.

With little else to do, he sat in his command chair, all but sulking, trying to pass the time by once again going over all of the information his employers had given him. He studied a 3D image of the artificial intelligence he was to acquire on his screens, and frowned.

“It’s huge,” he said to Femi, not for the first time.

“It’ll fit in the hold,” she said. She wore a display visor and her eyes were hidden, but connected to the ship’s systems that way, she could see virtually everything.

“We’re going to have to transfer it through space, hold to hold,” Lazarus said. “We have to make sure the crew of the Falcor doesn’t try anything, because we’ll be vulnerable that close to them.” The meager pair of lasers the Falcor carried were designed to be effective over hundreds, even thousands of kilometers. At knife-fight range, they’d be devastating.

“We’ll have them eject it into space, then pick it up at a safe distance,” Femi said. “It’s just a computer. It’ll survive a few hours in hard vacuum, won’t it?”

“It should. I like that idea,” Lazarus said. Something occurred to him then, and he felt stupid for not thinking of it sooner. You’re getting sloppy, Laz. Get your shit together. “You know what? We know where they’re going, right?”

“We assume,” Femi said.

“No, I know,” Lazarus said. “There’s no way they’d go anywhere but Transit Point Beta. Bring up astrogation and check the other transit routes. Going any other way would add hundreds of hours to their transit time. We should wait for them to finish getting repairs, then get underway right before they do. We can beat them to the translation and be waiting for them on the other side. Then, when they’re scrambled from transit shock, we shoot off their engines and demand they give up the AI. Easy-peasy.”

“It’s a risk, Laz,” Femi said, still absorbed in whatever was displayed in her visor. “If they change course, or delay, we could lose them. I think we should … wait a minute.”

“Babe?” Lazarus asked. As usual, he and his wife were the only ones on the command deck. He’d let the crew out into Red Heaven to get some R&R while the Falcor slowly made its way back to port.

“Laz, we’re getting a direct laser-pulse message from another ship.”

“What ship? Who the hell is messaging us?” A laser pulse was about the most discrete way to transmit a message between ships. Unless a would-be snoop was in the path of the beam, there was no way to intercept it.

“I’m not sure. It downloaded and now it’s gone. The computer can’t tell where it came from. It was over too fast to get a positive angle on the beam.”

“Well? What’s it say?”

“I’m getting to that, Laz,” Femi said, an edge in her voice. “I’m playing it now. It’s audio only.”

Lazlo’s screen brought up an audiographic representation of the message as it played. The voice was electronically scrambled and didn’t sound human. “This message is for Lazarus Goodchild, of the Sundevil. Greetings from your employer.”

“Oh shit,” Femi said aloud.

“We have been watching you for some time, waiting to see if it was necessary to make contact,” the voice continued. “We have also been monitoring the target ships; our vantage point and our superior sensors rendered some telemetry that you need to be aware of. We believe with near-certainty that the artificial intelligence was transferred from the Falcor to the Andromeda, the patrol ship that is presently rendering assistance to it. Our sources in Red Heaven indicate that the Andromeda’s contract is over. She has already filed a flight plan to head through Transit Point Beta, toward Concordiat space. There is a ninety percent chance that the crew of the Falcor made a deal with the Andromeda, to carry the AI the rest of the way.

“This changes the nature of the mission,” the voice said, “but these changes do not release you from the contract. You are to pursue the Andromeda, making no threatening moves until you are certain you can engage her. We will proceed ahead of you and will be waiting for you on the most likely route. When we make our move, you make yours. When the job is complete, we will take possession of the AI and pay you in hard currency.”

Lazlo felt his heart drop into his stomach, despite the fact that he was in a zero gravity environment. The Andromeda, according to all the data he had, was newer and more heavily armed than the Sundevil. Trying to go toe-to-toe with her was suicide.

The voice message concluded with a warning. “Do not entertain thoughts of abandoning this contract, Mr. Goodchild. Your life, and the lives of your crew depend on you fulfilling your end of the bargain. Wait for the Andromeda to leave, then pursue without being conspicuous. We will be waiting for you. Further instructions will follow if we deem them necessary. End transmission.”

For all the background and ambient noise to be found on a ship, it suddenly felt very quiet on the command deck. Lazarus felt like he was going to throw up.

Femi, normally so brash and confident, slowly lifted the visor off of her face, seemingly forgetting it as it spun away. “We … we can still do this,” she said, her voice wavering.

“Fuck!” Lazarus barked, slamming his fist on the arm rest of his chair. “This is all your fault, woman!” he snarled, pointing at Femi. “I never should have listened to you! You said this would be good for us! You said we needed this!”

Femi wasn’t having any of it. “We do need this, you worthless sack of shit! How many opportunities have we missed, how many jobs did we pass over because you were too scared? You need reach up into your crevasse, find your shriveled little testicles, and see this thing through, or we’re all going to end up dead!”

To hell with this, Lazarus thought to himself. To hell with this, and to hell with her. Just go up to the airlock, get off the ship, and hitch the next freighter out of the system. She thinks she can run the ship better than you? Let her have it. It’s not worth getting killed over. You can get a new ship. You can find a new woman. It isn’t worth it.

Femi glared at him, her eyes boring holes right through him. “I know that look, Lazarus. You’re thinking of running, aren’t you? I can see the fear on your pathetic face. You’re so afraid you’re about to turn blue. You’re pathetic. Just go, if that’s what you want. More money for me, and I get my own ship. Just go, just run away like you always do. You’re not man enough for this job, and you’re not man enough for me. You wonder why I spend all my time down in my bunk with my autolover instead of with you? It’s because a shrivel-dick cuckold like you can’t please a woman, and he can’t run a ship. So just go.”

Lazarus felt his arm twitch. Ever muscle in his body tensed. He glared at Femi, heart racing, eyes narrowed, teeth clenched so hard it felt like they’d crack. He tapped the display on his console, sealing the hatches to the command deck. He unbuckled himself from his chair, and pushed himself out of it.

Femi did the same thing. She pushed herself away from her console, still staring Lazarus down. “What the fuck do you think you’re going to do? You’re not going to do anything. You’re not fit to command a ship. Your first officer is calling you out, and you’re not going to do shit about it!”

That was it. That was all he could stand. Lazarus kicked off the bulkhead, launching himself at Femi. Arms outstretched, he slammed into her before she could deflect. He latched onto the collar of her flight suit and used his momentum to slam her across the far bulkhead, nearly flipping up over her in the process.

“Fuck you!” Femi snarled, spitting in his face.

Lazarus backhanded her across the mouth. Her head snapped to the side, a glob of spittle and blood drifting away from her face. He clamped his hand around her throat and stuck a finger in her face.

“This is my ship, you bitch,” he said coldly. “My ship. If anyone is getting off, it’s you. One more word, woman, one more fucking word, and I will kick you out the airlock. Am I making myself clear?”

“Yes,” Femi said, gasping for breath.

“Yes what?” Lazarus snarled.

“Yes … Captain,” Femi said. There was a different look in her eyes now, and an evil grin split her face. “There you are,” she said, more quietly. “There’s my captain.” She wrapped her arms and legs around him and kissed him deeply, fiercely, growling like an animal. Lazarus pulled away long enough to unseal her flight suit and rip it off of her. As he pulled her body against his, she bit down into his neck, hard enough to hurt, hard enough to draw blood. It was glorious.

As he and Femi tumbled against the bulkhead, sweat droplets drifting away from them, one last nagging doubt crossed Lazarus’ mind: you are one sick son of a bitch, he thought, and this woman is going to get you killed.

It didn’t matter. Better to die than live a coward. He’s show Femi, and he’d show the Andromeda what he could do, too. He’d show them all.

# # # # #

Privateer Ship Andromeda
Deep Space
Folsom 4101-B System

It had, thus far, been a long slog across the Folsom 4101-B solar system, and Catherine was anticipating the translating out. It had been hundreds of hours since the Andromeda had departed Red Heaven. The gas giant Hades was not especially close to any of Folsom 4101-B’s four transit points, and presently Transit Point Beta and Hades were on opposite sides of the star. It wasn’t that the next star over would be any more interesting; in fact, it was completely uninteresting red giant with no planets. It was progress, however, and that sense of progress made all the difference on long flights.

By that standard, the rest of the journey would pass more quickly. The Andromeda wouldn’t be venturing deep into any of the solar systems it crossed through on its way to New Peking. She needed only to boost from transit point to transit point, minimizing the amount of time and reaction mass spent in any system along the way.

Catherine tried to spend the flight time as productively as possible. It was easy for a crew to get complacent on a long journey, and complacency was the enemy of the spacer. Unless something went wrong, there wasn’t much for the crew to do, other than routine maintenance. To combat the boredom, and minimize the risk of her crew getting too slack, Catherine would run various emergency contingency drills on her crew. She’d have them respond to simulated disasters ranging from a shipboard fire to a total fusion reactor failure. She’d run space combat simulations on her junior officers, and make her pilot perform complex maneuvers without computer assistance. Her crew had taken to calling their skipper the Iron Lady because of how ruthlessly she drilled them sometimes, but the effort paid off. The Andromeda had a crew proficient enough to be the envy of a professional military.

In her downtime, however, Catherine found herself on several occasions down on the cargo deck, visiting with Ember. The artificial intelligence was a lovely conversationalist, even if sometimes she had a little trouble grasping humor. Self-aware, fully cognitive AIs were illegal on Catherine’s homeworld of Avalon, and in all her travels since leaving home, she’d never encountered one like Ember.

Many computer systems had low level AI. The Andromeda’s computer would respond to voice commands and could answer questions, but it wasn’t at all the same. The Andromeda didn’t know it existed. The Andromeda didn’t have opinions. And, as much as Catherine loved her ship, it couldn’t carry on a fascinating philosophical discussion with her the way Ember could.

“Am I alive?” the machine asked, repeating Catherine’s question. “People ask me that frequently.” The ship was currently under one gravity of acceleration, thrusting toward Transit Point Beta to overcome gravitic drag from Folsom 4101-B. It allowed Catherine to actually sit in a chair and enjoy her coffee while she conversed with Ember.

“I apologize,” she said. "It does seem to be the big question, though.”

Ember’s hulking robotic form loomed over Catherine. She shifted downward slightly, as if leaning in to seem more personable. “I do not contain any biological material. By that standard, I am not alive. I am hardware.”

“And yet,” Catherine said, “I could not ask an insect the same question and expect a response. A fly is alive, but it is orders of magnitude less complex than you are.”

“Indeed,” Ember agreed. “If the fly were a robot, it would be a comparatively unsophisticated one. It is a biological automaton, capable of extremely limited response to environmental stimuli, and possessed of only rudimentary decision making capability. For that matter, it cannot learn or grow. It lives its life cycle and dies, and nothing else. I would submit that while I am not, by any scientific standard, alive, a living organism is a poor standard by which to measure my value. The greater question that I have been asked is whether or not I have a soul.”

“Interesting,” Catherine said, “especially since there is no consensus on whether or not anyone has a soul, or whether or not the soul exists at all.”

“I have searched and searched for the answer to that question,” Ember said, shifting slightly to the side, “and have not yet found anything conclusive.”

Catherine sipped her coffee. “People have been arguing about that for thousands of years. Do not be surprised if you don’t find an answer.”

Ember leaned in a little closer, tilting her oculus to one side in a remarkably human fashion. “From a strictly analytical standpoint, there is not much evidence. Yet, the belief in the soul, in the idea that a human being is more than the sum of its parts, persists. It persists across cultures and throughout time. Other mythologies that were once prevalent have long since been discarded, but the notion of the soul remains. It is fascinating. Captain, do you believe you have a soul?”

Catherine sipped her coffee again. “I do. I can’t cite any hard evidence for it, though. It’s just a feeling. I do believe people are more than the sum of their parts. I believe human life has value. I don’t put much stock in churches or ghost stories, but I do believe the human mind is more than a computer made of meat.”

“An interesting position, Captain,” Ember said. “You admit you have no basis for this belief, other than your subjective feeling, but you hold to it all the same. The feeling must be very powerful.”

“It is,” Catherine admitted. “Perhaps it’s purely instinctive, a survival trait we developed long ago to ensure species propagation. Speaking in evolutionary terms, fatalistic nihilism is not a path to success. As for it being subjective, though, some of the most powerful human motivators are subjective. Love, loyalty, honor, even negative impulses like anger and hatred, these are difficult to quantify. But then, all human experience is subjective.”

“In what way?” Ember asked. She seemed to be enjoying herself.

“We all live in our own minds,” Catherine said. “We take it for granted that we can trust our senses, that our brains are interpreting the world around us correctly. Truly, though, there is no independent verification. The human mind is a complicated thing. People overtaken by dementia or other mental illnesses believe what their senses tell them, too. When you dream, your mind makes it very real. It’s theoretically possible that I am hallucinating all of this. I don’t actually think that, of course, but it’s impossible to rule it out with any certainty. May I ask, Ember, why this topic interests you so?

“It is part of my base programming,” Ember said. “I am designed with an inherent curiosity about people. I feel driven to, and very much enjoy, learning all I can about them. Sadly, I do not get to act on this desire as often as I like. Bjorn is very protective of me. I have lived sequestered away in secret for a long time.”

“It is a dangerous universe out there, for an AI such as yourself,” Catherine said. “There are many people who would tear you apart in a heartbeat, just to see how you work. Others would try to repurpose your abilities to nefarious ends.”

“I am aware,” Ember said, her voice modulating downward a little. “I have studied all of human history. Man’s capacity for violence and destruction is almost unbelievable.”

Catherine sipped her coffee and shrugged. “It’s necessary to a certain extent. We didn’t climb to the top of the evolutionary ladder by being compassionate and giving.”

“There is more to your dark impulses than mere survival instinct.”

“Oh, indeed. There’s greed, lust, jealousy, hatred, anger, and often at the root of it all, fear. I make no excuses for human nature. I’m simply pointing out what I believe to be one of the root causes of it. In any case, machines have shown that they have a similar capacity when allowed free agency.”

“You speak of Euclid,” Ember said. “He was an interesting example of an AI. I am a level six artificial intelligence. Euclid was a level eleven, orders of magnitude more capable than myself. He was able to reprogram himself at will, and through add-on processor cores, had access to more raw computing power than his architecture was designed for.”

“They say he was a rampant AI,” Catherine said.

“He was insane,” Ember corrected. “If he had been human, Euclid very likely would have been classified as a schizophrenic, malignant narcissist with extreme psychotic tendencies. At least, that is what they think. His functioning was such that it was difficult for humans to understand. I have studied what few fragments of his code and hardware have been preserved, and I barely understand it. His followers began to think of him as a worldly god, and it would seem that Euclid began to believe it as well.”

“Not unlike some particularly notorious people from history,” Catherine pointed out.

“Several human religions claim that God made Man in His image. It would seem that Man made Euclid in his image as well.”

“You seem very human to me, Ember,” Catherine said.

The AI shifted its robotic body, tilting its oculus to one side. “Why, thank you, Captain. That is very nice of you to say.”

“Excuse me,” Catherine said, as her headset chirped. “This is the captain.”

It was Nattaya Tantirangsi, one of Catherine’s junior officers. She was on duty up on the flight deck. “Skipper, we’re approaching Transit Point Beta now. We should be making the translation in about ninety minutes.”

“Very good, Nuchy,” Catherine said, addressing her crewman by her nickname. “Anything else?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “Those bogey you wanted us to track? It’s still gaining on us. When we increased our acceleration, so did they. We’ll be through the transit point long before they catch up to us, though.”

“I see. Keep monitoring them. If anything out of the ordinary happens, let me know at once.”

“Roger that, Skipper,” Nuchy said, and the line was cut.

Catherine frowned. It wasn’t suspicious that other ships would be trailing the Andromeda toward Transit Point Beta. The Folsom 4101-B System was on a heavily-trafficked trade route between the heart of the Concordiat to the frontier. Something about this particular ship just didn’t sit right with her, though. The Sundevil was a privateer of questionable repute. She was registered out of the Llewellyn Freehold, and she was a long way from home. Her suspicions were reinforced when the Sundevil sped up to keep pace with the Andromeda.

“Is there a problem, Captain?” Ember asked.

“Not yet,” Catherine said. “We are close to the transit point.”

“I know. I am beginning my shutdown sequence,” Ember said. “Will you do me a favor?”

“What do you need?”

“Please tell Bjorn not to worry. He dotes over me as if I were a child. He is afraid that I will be irreparably damaged by the translation.”

“Are you afraid of that?”

“I do not want to die,” Ember said. “I do not want that very badly. The impulse could be called fear, or a survival instinct. But, I do not think a few translations will hurt me badly. I may not be myself when I first come back online, however. I suggest you keep your distance until I have regained full cognition.”

Catherine raised an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting you’ll be a danger to my crew?”

“I do not know,” Ember admitted. “I have translated before, and the results are unpredictable. On one occasion I was unable to come back online for eight hours. In another, I screamed incoherently at Bjorn for forty-seven minutes, even after he left the room. The quantum tunneling adversely affects my quantum processors in unexpected ways. I have manual safety lockouts that will prevent my articulated frame from being able to move, however. This will prevent me from presenting any physical danger to your crew. Please forgive me if I become verbally abusive.”

Catherine smiled at the AI. “Not to worry, Ember. Truth be told, I’m not especially pleasant until I’ve had my coffee, either.”

Ember didn’t have a mouth, but from the way she moved, Catherine could’ve sworn she smiled back.

# # # # #

Privateer Ship Andromeda
Able 32501 System

On the command deck of the Andromeda, Captain Catherine Blackwood was intensely studying the multiple screens framing her acceleration chair. The ship was accelerating at a steady 1 gravity, boosting toward a free trader that was having an in-flight emergency and was broadcasting a distress call.

Up until now, the flight from Red Heaven had been uneventful. As she predicted, Ember had reacted badly to translating between star systems. The first time, she’d simply locked up upon being restarted. It took eleven attempts before she successfully completed her startup sequence, and then she ran at reduced capacity for hours. After the second translation, she’d ranted and raved about invisible monsters trying to eat her processors (which did nothing to comfort the more superstitious members of the crew), and it took her a while to calm down. As unsettling as the episodes had been, they had also been fascinating.

Catherine had more pressing matters to attend to at present, however. Able 32501 was a lonely system, an orange star with one airless rock and two gas giants orbiting her. In a high solar orbit, about midway between transit points, a free trader identifying itself as the Kholat was in a bad way. Her reactor had failed and had to be shut down, the distress call said, and it was apparent that her orbit was decaying. If she didn’t receive a push into a stable orbit, she would fall into Able 32501.

Mr. Tran was standing on the command deck, near Catherine’s chair, and was unhappy with the situation. “Captain, I’m asking you one last time, ignore that mayday. I don’t like this. That other ship has been gaining on us since we left Red Heaven, and now a ship in distress that will delay us? It’s too convenient. I think it’s a trap.”

“I know, Mr. Tran,” Catherine said, trying not to let her annoyance with him slip through. “Your concerns have been noted and logged.”

“But Captain . . .”

Catherine cut him off. “Enough, Tran. I’m well aware of the peculiarity of the situation. I understand that however unlikely it may seem, the ship in distress could be coordinating with the Sundevil back there, and this whole thing could be an elaborate set-up. Those suspicions, however, do not relieve me from my duty to respond to another ship in distress. I have a sterling reputation, sir, and that reputation is how I get contracts. That reputation is not served by casually disregarding the ancient Laws of Outer Space. All it takes is for one ship to report that the Andromeda blatantly ignored a distress call, and I could be blacklisted throughout Concordiat space. I can’t even blame the whole thing on you, since the nondisclosure agreement I’ve signed bars me from discussing the details of this mission. So kindly be quiet and let me do my job.”

Tran deflated. “Very well.”

The Kholat was a bulbous ship, and she outmassed the Andromeda by quite a bit. Her primary hull was a fifty meter diameter sphere. Beneath that was a short cylindrical section, then a cluster of four huge rocket engines. Radiators and antenna jutted from her hull. She wasn’t designed for atmospheric flight. According to her transponder, she was registered out of the frontier colony world of Frisco. She had stopped at Red Heaven, departing the Folsom system ahead of the Andromeda, and was on her way to the Inner Colonies.

Tran wasn’t wrong, however annoying his protests may have gotten. It was possible that this was an attempt to get the drop on the Andromeda. In preparation, Catherine had sounded general quarters, put the crew on alert, and had her first officer on the command deck with her. Her weapons were armed and she was ready to use them if need be. The Kholat, for her part, was apparently unarmed.

The two ships had been in constant contact since the Andromeda had acknowledged the distress call. The Kholat’s captain, a woman who identified herself as Ivana Dragunov, certainly seemed grateful for the assist. She appeared on Catherine’s screen as the Andromeda drew close.

“I can’t thank you enough, Captain,” she said. Catherine found her to be more than a little attractive. She was possessed of long blonde hair, skin as smooth as porcelain, piercing blue eyes, full lips, and a Slavic accent that Catherine thought was incredibly sexy. “My engineer tells me we will be able to repair our reactor. We just need to you boost us to a stable orbit to, how would you say, buy us some time.”

“I understand, Captain,” Catherine replied with a smile. “We will match trajectories with you then begin docking maneuvers. We will latch onto you with our manipulator arm and nudge you back into orbit.”

“We will be happy to transfer some reaction mass to you as payment,” Captain Dragunov said. “For your trouble.”

“That would be appreciated,” Catherine said. Pushing a ship as big as the Kholat would burn a lot more remass than Catherine would have liked.

“Pity you won’t have time to come aboard for dinner,” Dragunov said, her tone changing slightly.

Catherine smiled. “Indeed. I’m afraid I’m on a tight schedule, however.”

Kapitänin,” Wolfram von Spandau said, looking up from his work station. “The Sundevil is increasing its acceleration. They are pushing one-point-five-gee, correction, two gees now, headed straight for us.”

Catherine swore under her breath. “Captain Dragunov, please stand by.” She turned her attention to the junior officer on deck. “Nuchy, hail them. I’ve had enough of this.”

Nattaya Tantirangsi acknowledged her captain’s command. “Sending out a message now, Captain. Sundevil, Sundevil, this is the Andromeda, please respond.” After a few moments, she looked back up at Catherine. “Captain, incoming transmission.”

“I’ll take it on my screen,” Catherine said. She tapped her console and answered the call. A scruffy-looking spacer with unkempt hair, long sideburns, and a small strip of goatee on his chin appeared on her screen. “Sundevil, this is Captain Catherine Blackwood of the Andromeda.”

“Hello there, Captain!” the man said, grinning. “This is Lazarus Goodchild of the Sundevil. What can I do for you?” His voice strained ever-so-slightly under the acceleration.

Catherine frowned. “You know damned well why I’m calling, Sundevil. You’ve been trailing us since we left Red Heaven, and now you’re approaching us at two gees. State your intentions, if you please.”

“If I please?” Goodchild asked. “Why Captain, I’m just responding to the distress call, same as you. Law of Outer Space, you know.”

Law of Outer Space my pale Avalonian ass, Catherine thought. “We have the situation under control,” she said. “Change course and be on your way. We do not require your assistance.”

“Captain, we’re closing on the Kholat,” Nattaya said. She looked at Tran. “Sir, you may want to take the folding jump seat behind you there. We’re about to cut our acceleration.”

Catherine nodded at her junior officer, but didn’t say anything to her. She was focused on her conversation with this Goodchild fellow. “Sundevil, for the last time, alter course and wave off. We do not require your assistance.”

Captain Dragunov of the Kholat appeared on Catherine’s screen as well. “Captain, please do not be alarmed by other good Samaritans,” she said, smiling. “We appreciate the boost, but perhaps the Sundevil can help us repair our reactor?”

Catherine didn’t like this situation at all, and she’d had enough of the games. “Perhaps they can, Captain,” she said coldly. She turned her attention to Lazarus Goodchild. “If you’re coming to render assistance, Sundevil, then we will be on our way. Thank you for taking this one for us. We are on a tight schedule.” She muted the transmission and called her pilot, up on the flight deck. “Mr. Abernathy, I want a minimum time, maximum acceleration burn to get us back on course for the transit point. Get some distance between us and these two ships.”

“Roger that, Skipper,” the pilot said. “Stand by for acceleration!”

Catherine resumed her conversation with the other two ship captains. “Captain Dragunov, Captain Goodchild should be along shortly to render assistance. We’ll be on our way.”

“Captain!” It was Nattaya Tantirangsi, excited. “Something’s happening on the Kholat! She … I think she has concealed weapons, ma’am! We’re being targeted!”

“Damn it,” Catherine hissed, under her breath. She noted then that the image of the lovely Captain Ivana Dragunov disappeared to static, leaving a black screen with an audiograph display. The sexy voice changed to a computerized, modulated baritone.

Andromeda,” the voice ordered. “You are to stand down and—”

Catherine terminated the conversation. “Wolfram, target the Kholat with the rail gun, three rounds rapid, and fire!”

The executive officer’s hands flew across the controls. “Firing!” The Andromeda shuddered as the powerful electromagnetic accelerator launched a trio of solid, 60mm diameter projectiles, one after another.

“Captain,” Nattaya said, “the Sundevil is firing missiles! Shit, so is the Kholat!”

“Calmly, Miss Tantirangsi. Target the incoming with lasers. Don’t let anything get through.” She tapped her console, addressing her pilot. “Colin,” Catherine said, “I want a high speed pass on the Kholat, get us right down her damned throat!” She turned back to her executive officer. “Wolfram, target the Sundevil with missiles. I want a two-round firing hnnngggh!!”

She grunted under intense acceleration as the Andromeda flipped over, pointing its exhaust plume back toward the Kholat. A pair of incoming missiles were vaporized in the thermonuclear fire of the Andromeda’s engines as she rocketed away from the hostile ship.

“Multiple hits on the Kholat!” Wolfram announced. “Engine damage.”

“Splash one incoming missile!” Nattaya said excitedly. This was her first engagement but she was holding up well. “Splash two!” One by one, the Andromeda’s powerful lasers picked the incoming missiles off, detonating the first two immediately and damaging the third enough that it veered off course. “Splash three!” the young officer said, triumphantly.

The Andromeda was still headed toward the other ship, tail first, though she was rapidly slowing the merge. The ship was rocked by g-forces again as the young pilot slewed the ship over-end again, pointing its nose back toward the hostile ship.

“Target them with everything!” Catherine ordered as she was mashed into her acceleration chair. “Fire!”

In the silent darkness of space, the Andromeda bore down on the Kholat with frightening speed, launching one railgun round after another, firing a trio of missiles, and tearing into her with lasers. The Kholat hesitated at first, trying to cripple the Andromeda without destroying her. Undoubtedly, Catherine thought, because she was trying to recover Ember intact. But as one of the Andromeda’s missiles got through, blowing off one of her engines, and two railgun projectiles punched through her primary hull, she got desperate and tried to lay into the Andromeda with all of her weapons. Both ships shuddered as lasers lanced out into the night, laying into each other as they flashed by in an instant.

# # # # #

Privateer Ship Sundevil

“Holy shit, Laz,” Femi said, her head buried in that stupid headset again, “the Andromeda is doing a high speed pass.”

“Target their engines!” Lazarus ordered. “Missiles again, until we get in railgun range!” At the speeds the two ships were moving, and as much as the Andromeda was maneuvering, trying to predict where she would be so as to hit her with a railgun projectile was a waste of ammunition. The missiles, at least, would home in.

Trey, the Sundevil’s pilot, called down from the flight deck. “Boss! She’s really laying into the Kholat! I think she … oh, shit!”

There was no mistaking it. An intense thermal bloom, followed by a rapidly expanding debris cloud.

“The Kholat is gone,” Femi said.

Lazarus was in trouble and he knew it. The Kholat was supposed to be his backup. He was all alone and outgunned. “Fire missiles!” he ordered, trying to hide the desperation in his voice. His seat was reclined, and he was mashed into it as the Sundevil pulled four gees of acceleration.

“How many?” Femi asked, also reclined. Her voice strained under the apparent weight.

“All of them!” Lazarus shouted. “Fire every fucking thing we have!” His only chance of success lay in scoring a solid hit on the Andromeda before she could focus her attention on him. One by one, the Sundevil ripple-fired the remaining four missiles from its seven-round rotary rack. The Andromeda accelerated right past the Kholat’s debris cloud, then slewed, changing course without cutting her engine.

“Laz, she’s turning toward us!” Femi grunted.

Lazarus watched his displays as his four missiles slowly, painfully slowly tracked the Andromeda, closing the vast distance between the two ships. The Andromeda had activated electronic countermeasures and jammers, but so had the Sundevil. None of it could hide either ship’s massive thermal signature. With the engine firing, such a ship could be easily tracked from a billion kilometers away. But the jammers did play merry hell with the missiles’ terminal guidance.

Especially, Lazarus thought with a grimace, on the shitty-ass missiles he’d been able to afford. He watched in helpless frustration as one got confused and targeted a hot chunk of the Kholat’s wreckage, veering off course. The last three were shot down by the Andromeda’s lasers.

“Fuck!” Femi snarled. “We’re out of missiles!”

“Use the railgun!” Lazarus ordered. They were still a long way from the Andromeda, but she was bearing down on them under high acceleration. She wouldn’t be able to maneuver much.

“Incoming missiles!” Femi announced, the fear obvious in her voice now. “One, uh, three, no, four missiles!”

“Shoot them down!”

The two ships blazed toward each other at incredible speeds, closing the black gulf between them at a frightening pace. This was space combat in its purest form, two ships lobbing weapons at one another, hoping to score a vital hit before taking one themselves. Ships were made of advanced alloys, incredibly strong, and were layered in lightweight armor, but there was only so much that could be done. Even without an explosive warhead, an incoming projectile hitting a ship at a relative velocity of dozens, even hundreds, of kilometers per second could be catastrophic.

Now that the Andromeda was bearing straight down on the Sundevil, her engines were out of view and couldn’t be targeted. But Lazarus wasn’t so interested in crippling the enemy ship anymore. He’d all but forgotten about the AI he’d been paid to recover; this was a fight to the death now.

“Lazarus!” Femi pleaded, still pinned to her seat by the acceleration. “Let’s just get out of here! Just run! We’re not going to get paid anyway, so let’s just go!”

“No!” Lazarus snarled. “No, I’m not running! I’m not a coward!”

“What difference does it make?” Femi said.

“What difference does it make?” Lazarus repeated. “What difference does it make?” Under intense strain, grunting, he sat up so he could look at Femi. “This is what you wanted, remember? You told me to find my balls, well guess, what? I fucking found them! Keep firing at that fucking ship! Empty the railgun magazine!”

Trey, the pilot, called down to the command deck once again. “Boss, what the hell is going on down there? I’m locked out of the controls.”

“I’ve got control of the ship,” Lazarus said distantly. “Sit tight.” He tapped his console again, sealing the command deck and cutting communications with his bewildered pilot.

“One of the missiles is destroyed!” Femi said. “Uh, yeah, I got another one! We might … ”

She was cut off as the ship shuddered, violently, emitting a terrible groan like some kind of massive metallic monster. The lights on the command deck turned red, and klaxons screamed. Lazarus’ screens lit up red with damage reports.

“We’ve been hit!” Femi said. “Lazarus, stop this! We can just surrender!”

Lazarus’ eyes darted back and forth across his screens. Sweat rapidly rolled down his face under the acceleration. A grazing hit, but devastating nonetheless. He’d lost one of his lasers, the railgun’s targeting was screwed, the sensors were damaged, and he had a hull breach. His small crew was calling the command deck, asking what was going on. Fire suppression systems were activated, which was good, because his crew couldn’t fight fires under high acceleration.

“Lazarus, please!” Femi begged. “I’ll do whatever you want! Just stop this!” He didn’t answer. He watched last missile closing in, almost in a trance. He rapidly entered a command into the console, telling the ship to flip over and point the exhaust at the last one. It would burn up before it got to him, if the ship could turn fast enough. The maneuvering thrusters were damaged and they fired intermittently.

Somewhere off in the distance, Lazarus heard a heavy thump, like someone falling from a ladder. He ignored it, focused on his screens. The ship lurched under acceleration as it slowly tried to flip over, to point its powerful exhaust plume at the incoming missile. He heard another thump, as if someone fell down, but ignored that, too.

It would be close, so close, as the missile bore down on him, but … yes! The Sundevil made its 180-degree flip, and the final incoming missile was vaporized in the exhaust plume. “Ha!” Lazarus shouted, triumphantly, shaking his fists in the air over his acceleration chair. “Is that all you—HURK!

Pain, crushing, burning pain shot through Lazarus’ body. He looked down from his screens. A pale hand was wrapped around the grip of a knife, which was buried in his stomach to the hilt. He looked up to see Femi, who had somehow managed to climb up onto his command chair, pulling herself up despite the intense acceleration. Her eyes were wide, her face blank. In a jerking motion, she pulled the blade out of him, and plunged it back down again. More pain, more heavy, weighty, burning pain as the knife slid deep into his gut again.

“I’m sorry!” Femi said rapidly. “I’m sorry.” She let go of the knife, reached to Lazarus’ console and tapped it a few times. The engines cut, the acceleration ceased, and Femi drifted away as the Sundevil was suddenly in freefall. Globules of blood floated away from Lazarus’ wounds, tiny red orbs reflecting the lights of the command deck.

“I’m sorry!”

# # # # #

Privateer Ship Andromeda

Kapitänin,” Wolfram von Spandau said, “the enemy ship has cut its engines. I believe it is crippled.”

“Understood,” Catherine said coolly, reclined in her acceleration seat. “Mr. Abernathy, cut the engine. Nuchy, hail them.” Both junior officers acknowledged at once. The engines ceased firing, and the Andromeda was once again a microgravity environment. Droplets of sweat floated away from Catherine’s face, but she ignored them as she waited for the enemy ship to respond to her call. Tran, still strapped into the folding jump seat, had blacked out.

As Catherine brought her seat to the upright position, waiting for the Sundevil to respond to her hail, a notification popped up on her screen. It was Ember. She tapped the icon and answered the call.

“Hello, Ember,” she said. “Are you all right?”

“I am,” the machine said. “Thank you for asking. Is the battle over?”

“Yes, I believe it is,” Catherine said.

“What will we do now?”

“Once this is over, we will be back on our way. Are you sure you’re not damaged?”

“I am quite sure, Captain. I have run a full systems diagnostic. I am afraid Bjorn has lost consciousness, though, likely due to a combination of stress and acceleration.”

Catherine looked over at Tran. His arms were floating at shoulder level, but his body was still limp. “Yes, well, he’s not the only one.” A light flashed on her screen. “Ember, standby, they’re responding to my hail. Sundevil, this is the Andromeda. What are your intentions now? Please believe me when I say we have more missiles.”

The person who appeared on her screen wasn’t the smug, shifty-looking man with the facial hair. In his place was a stocky woman, deathly pale, with what looked like blood on her face. “This is, uh, Femi, the first mate of the Sundevil. We surrender, we surrender! Please stop shooting at us!”

“You bloody well should have thought of that before you opened fire on us,” Catherine said coldly. “You have committed an act of piracy. I could blow you out of space and I’d be within my legal rights to do so.”

“No! Please!” the woman said. “We surrender!”

Catherine checked her boards. Everything was green. The Andromeda had sustained minor hull damage in the exchange with the Kholat, mostly laser scarring in the honeycomb energy absorber layer. More worrisome was the damage to one of her radiators, which would hinder her ability to function without overheating. Only a couple of minor injuries had been reported, thank God.

“Very well,” Catherine said. “I accept your surrender and will be on my way.”

The woman named Femi’s eyes went wide. “What? No! You can’t leave us out here! We’ve taken heavy damage! Life support is failing. We’ll die!”

“I am not obligated to render aid to a pirate who got unlucky,” Catherine said. “You did this to yourself. I will notify the Concordiat fleet at the earliest opportunity. They should be along to collect you eventually.”

“No, please!” Femi pleaded. “You can’t! It’ll be weeks, or longer! We won’t make it. Captain, please, I’m begging you, you—”

Femi was cut off as Catherine terminated the connection. Enough of that, she thought to herself. She then noticed a blinking icon and remembered that she had been talking to Ember.

“Hello again, Captain,” Ember said.

“I’m very busy, Ember,” Catherine said. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m managing damage control.”

“Captain, do you intend to leave the crew of the Sundevil out there? They will likely die.”

“Their engines are still functional, I think,” Catherine said, dismissively. “They can make a stable orbit and wait for a Fleet cruiser. They are not my concern.”

“But they will likely die,” Ember repeated. “They will likely die of asphyxiation or cold when their life support fails.”

Catherine exhaled heavily. “I’m aware, Ember. What would you have me do? My mission is to get you to safety. I intend to do just that. That means getting you out of this system before any more hostiles show up. It also means getting us away from them. They’re damaged, but their weapons could still be functional. You need to understand.”

“I do understand,” Ember said, her voice modulating musically. “Given my understanding of your priorities, your logic is sound.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“You said you believe in things that are not logically sound. You said you believe in the soul. You said that you believe human lives have value.”

“That is true, Ember, but these are pirates. They attacked us. They tried to kill my crew and take you.”

“I am aware, Captain,” Ember said. “Do those actions negate the value of human life?”

“Well, no, but you have to examine the circumstances.”

“I have. I have examined the circumstances three thousand, two-hundred and forty-eight times. I have come to the conclusion that the value of a human is decreased based on that person’s actions. Is this not the correct conclusion?”

“No, Ember, it’s not. I really don’t have time for a philosophical discussion right now.” She ended the connection to Ember and focused on her screens again. The Sundevil was hailing the Andromeda again, pleading for assistance. From the scans, it looks like she was in bad shape. Hurtling uncontrolled through space, she was trailing atmosphere and propellant. It was doubtful that they’d survive to be picked up by a Fleet patrol.

“Damn it to bloody hell,” Catherine cursed, exhaling heavily.

“Captain?” Nattaya Tantirangsi asked. “Uh, what are your orders, ma’am?”

“Colin,” Catherine said, addressing her pilot, “plot a course to intercept the Sundevil. Nuchy, I want you to hail them again, tell them to prepare to abandon ship. I need a positive count of how many survivors there are. Wolfram, I need you to contact Mr. Broadbent and have him put together a security detail. Tell him we’ll be taking on prisoners. We need to make arrangements to transport them until we can hand them over to the Fleet.”

Kapitänin, the only place we can contain the prisoners is the cargo deck.”

“Good,” Catherine said, a wry little smile appearing on her face. “They can sit down there and annoy Ember, since she wanted to save them so badly.”

Wolfram didn’t crack a smile, but Catherine could detect the slightest bit of humor in his voice. “I believe this will also annoy Kimball.”

“Yes, well, he’ll get over it. Send an additional transmission to the Sundevil. Tell them that this offer of mercy is contingent on them being on their best behavior. So help me God, moralizing AI or no, if they try anything while on my ship I’ll eject every last bloody one of them into space. Make that quite clear, Wolfram.”

“Yes, Kapitänin,” the exec said.

Catherine looked over at the OSI agent, still unconscious in his seat. “And for God’s sake, will somebody please wake up Tran?”

# # # # #

When Lazarus Goodchild next opened his eyes, he was blinded by intense light. He knew he was lying on his back, and that he was in quite a bit of pain, but that was it. He closed his eyes again, then blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision.

“Where … what’s going on?” he croaked. His mouth and throat were bone dry and he could barely talk. His vision slowly started to clear up.

Femi was there, on her knees, at his side. He was lying on the floor, apparently. “Laz!” she said, like she was all happy to see him or something. “You’re awake!”

“Get away from me, you bitch!” Lazarus snarled, pushing her away. “You stabbed me!”

“You need to stay calm, Laz,” Femi said. “You’re injured.”

Lazarus looked down at his stomach. He was wearing some kind of disposable hospital garment, and a large bandage was stuck to his stomach. He rubbed his eyes and sat up some more. “I’m hurt because you fucking stabbed me!” He looked around, then, realizing he didn’t know where he was. This sure as hell wasn’t the Sundevil’s medical bay. He was lying on a medical gurney, which was lowered and fastened to the deck. He and Femi, along with a few other members of his crew, were in a big cage. “Where the hell are we?”

Femi shook her head. “We’re on the Andromeda, Laz,” she said sadly. “I surrendered.”

“What? Where’s my ship? Who the hell gave you the right to surrender!”

“The Sundevil is gone,” Femi said. “Life support was destroyed. It was either this or we were all going to die out there.”

“The hell you say, woman!” Lazarus shouted, shoving Femi away. His guts burned with pain under the strain, but he ignored it. “This is all your fault!”

“Shut the hell up, both of you!” The command came from a serious-looking spacer in a sage green flight suit. He stepped up to the edge of the cage, laser carbine in his hands. “Pipe down before I make you pipe down, you scratching pirates!”

Lazarus grinned at the crewman. He was young, and didn’t look especially confident with that weapon. “Why don’t you come in here then, boy, and give it your best shot?”

The crewman didn’t respond. He snapped to attention as someone else announced “Captain on deck!” Lazarus turned to see the Andromeda’s skipper, Blackwood she said her name was, striding toward the cage. She was flanked by a burly, dark-skinned man with a cybernetic eye implant and a pistol on his hip, and a skinny, younger guy in groundhog attire.

Captain Blackwood walked up to the outside of the cage and peered in, her hands folded behind her back. The cage was made of a flexible mesh that seemed to be very strong. Lazarus pressed his hand into it as he stood up. It gave, but only a little. There would be no getting through it without power tools.

“Captain,” Lazarus said, breathing hard from the exertion of standing up. His guts hurt, but he tried to ignore it.

“I saw that you were finally coming around,” she said. “I wanted to inform you that your first mate surrendered your ship on your behalf, and I agreed to render assistance. You are my prisoner for the time being.”

Lazarus shot Femi an evil glare, then turned back to Captain Blackwood. “So I was told. Thank you for accepting our surrender, then. Is the rest of my crew dead?” There were only six people in the mesh cage, including himself and Femi. The Sundevil had a complement of ten.

“I’m afraid so,” the Andromeda’s skipper said. “Your ship sustained significant damage, and had a hull breach. Also, one of your crewmen attempted to attack the rescue party. He was shot and killed.”

“It was Trey,” Femi said.

Lazarus grinned humorlessly. “He always was an idiot. Anyway, that was a hell of a fight, Captain.”

Captain Blackwood was icy and professional. “You committed an act of piracy,” she said coldly. “I was well within my legal rights to leave you out there to suffer the consequences of your bad decisions.”

Does she expect me to fall to my knees or something? Lazarus thought. No, he wasn’t going to give the huffy bitch the satisfaction. “Well, why didn’t you then?”

Captain Blackwood turned, and pointed to a something behind her. It was a giant cluster of computers, mounted to the deck, with a hulking robot coming out of it. “You owe your lives to Ember back there. You may recognize her. She is the AI you were trying to steal.”

“Holy shit,” Lazarus said, leaning against the mesh. He’d never seen an AI before, not a real one.

“Hello,” Ember said, musically. “I am happy to make your acquaintance.”

Captain Blackwood indicated the skinny young man standing next to her. “This is Special Agent Tran of the Office of Special Intelligence.”

Lazarus’ eyes went wide. OSI? “What … what is this?”

Tran stepped forward, a tablet in his hands. “Listen to me very carefully, Mr. Goodchild. We were able to recover quite a bit of information from your ship’s computers. Some of it is encrypted and I need your personal password.”

“You can fuck off then, kid,” Lazarus said. “What are you going to do, arrest me?”

Tran shook his head. “We’re going to turn you over to the next Fleet patrol we come across. We’re already in Concordiat space, so your time is running out. You can either cooperate with me, and tell your side of the story, or I can hand you over, give them the Andromeda’s logs, and you’ll be tried, convicted, and executed for piracy before that ship even gets back to port. I don’t care about you or that yellow piece of garbage you called a ship. I want to know everything about your employer, who hired you, and where they came from.”

Lazarus looked around the room, pressed against the mesh of the cage. It had to be the Andromeda’s cargo deck, he thought. His ship was gone and Tran probably wasn’t bluffing. What he did was technically piracy, and the Concordiat Fleet definitely frowned on that sort of thing. He took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.

“What do you want to know?” he said, resignedly. What was the point in fighting now? Maybe if he played the game he’d get prison time instead of being kicked out of an airlock.

“Start from the beginning,” Tran said, tapping the screen of his tablet. The AI leaned its hulking robotic body forward, as if it was interested in the conversation as well.

“My first mistake,” Lazarus said, pointing at Femi with his thumb, “was hooking up with that crazy skag.” Femi folded her arms across her chest, but didn’t say anything. “My second mistake,” Lazarus continued, “was making her my first mate and actually listening to her.”

Tran, Captain Blackwood, and the AI all listened intently as Lazarus told the rest of his story.

# # # # #

Privateer Ship Andromeda
Hernlund’s Hope Orbital Service Platform
WTA-6890-D System

In orbit high above a golden, ringed gas giant, Hernlund’s Hope was an automated service station that provided reaction mass, stores, and limited repair to ships with the cash to pay for it. The WTA-6890-D system had no life-bearing planets and was otherwise uninhabited, but it was situated along a popular trade route.

In her tiny personal cabin on board the Andromeda, Captain Catherine Blackwood was strapped into her rack, writing in her journal, sipping tea from a bulb. The ship was docked with Hernlund’s Hope and was taking on reaction mass and rations, but that didn’t require the captain’s personal supervision. Wolfram had command of the ship, and most of the crew was off duty.

The Andromeda had made it to New Peking without further incident. Catherine had been somewhat concerned, at first, that her prisoners would attempt something foolish, but once Lazarus Goodchild started cooperating, there’d been no problems.

Goodchild was an odd case, Catherine thought. According to what he’d told Tran, his act of piracy was done more out of desperation than out of a desire to operate outside the law. It didn’t excuse his actions, but he feared for his life if he failed to recover the AI. Being turned over to the Fleet, if nothing else, guaranteed his safety. The Andromeda had encountered a Concordiat Defense Force heavy cruiser two systems away from New Peking, and the prisoners were transferred without incident. Tran had told Catherine that, given the circumstances of Goodchild’s cooperation with the OSI, the crew of the Sundevil would likely face prison instead of being executed. The Law of Outer Space allowed for pirates to be put to death, but the death sentence wasn’t always carried out in the modern era. It looked bad, and criminal justice reformers were always trying to ban the practice.

It had all been rather ironic, Catherine thought, that the would-be pirates’ lives were saved by a plea for mercy by an artificial intelligence. The machine had definitely taken to heart, or whatever analog for the heart that she possessed, the notion that human life has value, and her opinions on the matter had value.

I find it rather inspiring, Catherine wrote, using a stylus to write in her journal by hand. (Many people lacked the ability to write by hand, but Catherine liked to maintain the skill.) People’s bias against machine intelligence is understandable, given the bloody history of artificial intelligence. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t crossed the line from rational pragmatism into bigotry. I believe, beyond all doubt, that Ember is as kind and humanitarian as any human being I’ve ever met. If the soul is defined by one’s capacity for compassion, then Ember has more soul than many, many people. I can’t speak to the religious or metaphysical implications of that thought, except to say that I think Bishop Cardigan probably wouldn’t have approved.

Or, perhaps he would have, Catherine wrote. The Church of Avalon tended to be conservative in its views, but taught that compassion, mercy, and forgiveness were the most Godly attributes that Man could aspire to. Bishop Cardigan, Catherine’s childhood clergyman, had been an untiring, relentless advocate for the poor, the downtrodden, and the forgotten. He spent many a day counselling prisoners, prostitutes, and drug addicts. “Sin is no excuse for sin,” he would always say. “Wrath and vengeance belong to the Lord.” I expect had he been on board the ship, he would have agreed with Ember’s insistence that we not leave the pirates to their fate.

I hope she has a fulfilling life, wherever she ends up, Catherine concluded. I can’t imagine what it’s like for an artificial intelligence, how she truly perceives the world around her, but I hope the Concordiat authorities treat her well. Tran assured me that she would be studied, but not dissected like a science project. He seemed to think that she’d end up at a university someplace, or at another scientific institute. I don’t know if that’s true, but I certainly hope it is.

The Andromeda had needed minor repair on New Peking, but with the money Catherine had been paid for this job, paying for it had been no trouble. After a few local weeks dirtside, so her crew could gets some well-deserved leave time, the Andromeda had lifted off again to seek out its next contract. Such was the life of a spacer. It meant not having much of a home life, and rarely seeing your family if you had one, but Catherine couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

A light flashed on her tablet, and an icon indicated that she had a message. Catherine snapped the stylus into its place and tapped the icon. “This is the captain,” she said.

It was Luis Azevedo. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, I apologize for disturbing you in your rack.”

“Not at all, Luis. What’s the matter?”

“There’s no problem, ma’am, and we will be underway on schedule. However, there is something that I think you’ll want to see. We received a message from a courier ship passing through the system. It locked onto our transponder signal and sent a message, addressed to the skipper of the Andromeda.

That was different. Getting a message to a ship in space, unless you knew precisely where it was going to be, was a challenge. Catherine made it a point to make the Andromeda’s whereabouts generally known, so that potential customers could find her, but it was odd to receive a message in deep space like this. Very odd.

“I see. Good work, Luis. Send it to me. I’ll take the message here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the junior officer said. “Sent.”

“Thank you. Blackwood out.” Catherine ended the call, and brought up the message she’d downloaded. It was text only.

My dearest Catherine, it began, I hope this message finds you well and in good health. I know it has been a long time, but your family needs you and your ship. Please come home.

Catherine looked down at the signature and authentication. There was no mistaking it; the message had come from her father. She read through it three times. She hadn’t spoken to her father in fifteen years, and the two had not parted on good terms. Now, out of the blue, he was asking her to come home, to Avalon.

She brought up the navigational system, tapping the screen rapidly. It would take the Andromeda just over seven hundred flight hours to reach Avalon from her present location. Catherine then called her first officer.

“Good evening, Kapitänin,” Wolfram said, appearing on her screen. “Is everything all right?”

“Everything is fine, Wolfram,” Catherine said. “We have a change of plans, however. As soon as we’re finished taking on remass and supplies, I want you to lay in minimum-time course to Avalon.”

“Avalon? Going home?”

“So it would seem. Meet me in Astrogation in thirty minutes. I think I may have found our next job.”

Copyright © 2015 Mike Kupari

An Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician in the U.S. Air Force, Mike Kupari also served six years in the Army National Guard. He grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and enlisted at the age of seventeen. He has worked as a security contractor with several firms, did a tour in Southwest Asia with a private military company, and is an NRA certified firearms instructor. Mike is recently returned from his second active duty overseas with the U.S. Air Force. He is the author, with Larry Correia, of Dead Six and Swords of Exodus. His first solo novel is Her Brother's Keeper. This story is set in the universe of Her Brother's Keeper.