Martian Scriptures Chapter Three – To Mars

Previous Chapter

Craig had been first officer on the Crazy Horse when Rodenberry sent observers to the bombardment of Newton. The ship had ultimately wound up assigned to the Copernican fleet and the Rodenberry ambassador, in turn, wound up observing operations from the bridge of the Olympus Mons, the Copernican orbit ship’s first-in-class. Afterwards Craig had watched some of the recordings the ambassador brought back. He was sure she hadn’t gotten the full experience.

Due to their positioning in orbit the Crazy Horse hadn’t been near the Olympus Mons when it bombarded the Minervan pirate fleet over Newton’s southern magnetic pole. Instead they’d watched as the aptly named Sea of Oblivion leveled the captured military bases on and above Galenburg, the planet’s first major starship yard. In order to overwhelm the heavy point defenses built into the yards and bases the Oblivion had launched a swarm of projectiles so dense they resembled a line of pulsing stars that stretched from the orbit ship down to the planet’s surface in an unbroken river. In places Galenburg had been bombed down to bedrock.

In comparison to her sister ship the Sea of Tranquility was positively restrained. Each gun emplacement was the target of a two second burst of smaller missiles that were quickly lost against the brightness of Earth’s atmosphere, each carrying a focused warhead that would burn through a fortified bunker or armored hull well enough but had an effective radius of less than ten meters. Known as wasps, they were generally used as interceptor missiles but could be applied in other ways. Even if he was bombarding Earth, Admiral Carrington was still stepping as lightly as he could.

As glad as that restraint made Craig he still hated watching it play out.

They only recovered about half of the Johnston’s crew alive. Twenty six corpses were also recovered from the wreckage. Presumably some of the crew were vaporized in the explosion that destroyed the Johnston. The rest were scattered across the surface of Earth.

On the bright side, unlike the surfaces of the Triad Worlds or Rodenberry, Earth was largely hospitable to human life. Drop pods could float, so even the pods that landed in water were safe. Presuming Earth still observed the Borealis Conventions on Space Combat the downed spacers would receive full rights as prisoners of war. If they were, in fact, at war now.

There were too many variables.

Fourteen hours after deceleration from superluminal the Sea of Tranquility docked with the Stewart. Elements of the fleet were still hunting through Earth’s orbitals, searching for guard satellites they might have missed but for the most part the battle was over. No retaliation to the Tranquility’s barrage had materialized. No ships had appeared in orbit. No communications had come from the surface of the planet.

Now, most of the fleet had withdrawn to the dark side of the moon. The Tranquility hovered above its namesake, the Stewart nestled against it, returning the Johnston’s crew to their countrymen. As the Stewart’s medical staff supervised the transfer of the worst off survivors of the doomed ship Craig prepared to go off duty. That plan was interrupted by orders to board the Tranquility and speak with her flag officer. Ten minutes later he found himself in the ready room of Vice Admiral Jalak Carrington.

It had been almost two months since the last time Craig had seen the Admiral in person, at a meeting during one of the fleet’s weekly position checks. If the unexpected disaster they’d encountered on arrival had any effect on Carrington’s intense, surly demeanor it wasn’t readily apparent in the way he welcomed Craig.

“Come in, Captain Gyle. Sit down.” A frown cut creases all through the Admiral’s face, but it was directed at the reports he was looking over rather than the officer that had just entered the room. The leatherlike consistency of his skin was one of the many things Craig found mysterious about him. How could a man who spent 90% of his life in a can in space look weathered?

As Craig took his seat Harrington cleared his holodisplay and leaned back in his chair. “It’s a mess out there, Captain.”

“I’ve seen the reports from Tranquility BASIC.”

“You haven’t seen half of it,” Carrington replied. “Earth won’t talk to us. There’s no sign the Lunar Space Dock was ever constructed. There’s no navigational signals we can detect between here and the Jovian moons. The Martian nav relays are almost three degrees out of orbital alignment. The solar system has gone to shit.”

The twitch started at the base of his spine but Craig stopped it before it showed on his face. The Rodenberry Stellar Navy did its best to discourage informal language among on duty officers but Craig knew that wasn’t a universal rule among spacers. “I presume you have been trying to contact all major Earth cities at this point, not just the Nevada and Queensland Launch Zones?”

“That’s correct. We’ve had no responses from any of them, other than some kind of automated response from Cairo, Sevastopol and Sao Paulo.” Carrington drummed two fingers on his stomach, sending small ripples through the fabric and perhaps the waistline below it. He wasn’t a fat man but, with his broad shoulders and thick arms, when he stood he gave the impression of being thinner than he was. “After that we tried to contact Mars.”

Craig frowned. Over the last few hours most ships in the fleet had signaled Earth at least once. But Hoyle hadn’t noticed – or at least hadn’t reported – any signals bound elsewhere. “Any response?”

“Nothing promising, just an automated response.” The Admiral shifted back upright in his chair. “But not like the three from Earth, those didn’t follow any protocols we’re familiar with, this was Departure era stuff.”

“We are all broadcasting Departure era transponder codes,” Craig pointed out. “Still, I wouldn’t expect an automated response to still be using them…”

Carrington harrumphed. “It’s a mystery, Gyle, and one I frankly have no damn time for. The Stewart and the Roberts confirmed at least eight drop pods made it safely to the surface. There are as many as thirty two Copernican spacers grounded on a hostile planet. At the same time, I can’t ignore Mars because they might be on their way here this very minute to see why we’re bothering the Homeworld.”

“You want to send the Stewart to see what’s happened on Mars.”

“Or the Spiner, your choice. You understand my position, don’t you?” The Admiral ticked each of his points off on his wide, blunt fingertips. “I can’t send either of the Galilean ships. Setting aside the fact that the Remus is barely a step up from a pirate ship, neither moon wants the other one to be the only moon with a representative present when we finally establish contact with Earth. Whatever form that may take.”

“The Newtonians have four ships.” Although really it was three, one of the fleet’s two logistics and support ships was from Newton and it was little more than a flying warehouse. Given the circumstances, only a fool would send a ship without weapons all the way to Mars.

“And I’d be happy to send one of them, but their two destroyer captains are very green. That leaves them two. Even if I asked them to – and I’m not planning on it – they’re not going to send their box ship. As for the Principia…” Carrington grimaced. “Well, I’m still hoping to talk to someone in this solar system peaceably. The Principia is going to give the wrong impression.”

That left the Copernican logistics ship, which couldn’t go for much the same reasons as the Newtonian one, the Roberts and the two Rodenberry ships. “Are you ordering me to send a ship to Mars?”

“No.” The denial was swift and decisive. “I’m willing to send the Roberts if I have to. This fleet is a coalition of people who have good reasons not to like each other and we’re only here because some drunk politician got it in their head that a great way to patch things up after a war was to send the people who’d been shooting at each other on a yearlong trip through deep space to talk to people who’ve been ignoring us for two centuries. If I didn’t know better I’d say it was a deliberate plan to lose a dozen military ships senselessly.”

“But this was a political plan.”

“So it was, which makes it equally senseless but far less deliberate.” Carrington nearly spit the words out. “And so I have to try and keep the peace with my allies while trying not to fight my enemies. Which is why I’d prefer to keep the Roberts here to guard my flank. If one of your ships goes I’ll leave the other in the Johnston’s place in the formation so it won’t be left exposed. The fact is that your survey vessels are large enough to command respect but don’t carry enough armaments to threaten war. Hopefully they’ll talk to you.”

Craig rubbed his chin as he thought it over. “Very well, Admiral. We’ll take the Stewart out to check on Mars. But I want to route our communications through the Spiner, rather than through Tranquility BASIC.”

A moment of absence passed over the admiral’s face, a clear tell that he was accessing his AI. “There’s an eight and a half minute time lag between Earth and Mars right now, why add the extra step?” His eyes narrowed as he snapped back to the moment. “I see. Roddenberry really has cracked FTL communication, haven’t they?”

“Can’t comment on that, sir.”

A strained moment passed between the two men, then Carrington said, “Fine. Route your reports through the Spiner. I want hourly check ins, if the fleet loses a second ship I’m going to turn this whole thing around and take it back home. Or we’ll make a landing in force and make someone down there explain what their damn problem is.”

Another spasm caught before it made it to the face. With all he knew about Carrington’s career making a landing on the spur of the moment wasn’t entirely out of the realm of probability. “We’ll approach the planet very cautiously, sir.”

The admiral planted his elbows on the desk and leaned forward, his voice dropping to a murmur. “Off the record, Gyle. If we need to spread out operations, is there any way the rest of the fleet can make use of that comm tech?”

Craig hesitated a moment, wondering if he should say anything. Gravcoms had been theoretically possible for decades but no one had built instruments sensitive enough to make them practical until recent breakthroughs in a Rodenberry lab. And clearly rumors that Genie scientists had cracked the problem were already in circulation. Best to be honest and make sure the Admiral didn’t form any wrong ideas about what he might be able to do in an emergency situation. “Not without our sensor technology, sir. They go hand in hand.”

“That’s unfortunate.” Carrington straightened and called his reports back up. “Dismissed.”


 

The captain was off the ship for less than an hour, which was nice. Even with a full month to adapt, at the end of long days Harriet found her feet aching under the ship’s higher gravity and hanging around Docking Port Six was not a great way to spend an evening.

Not that spending the evening in her quarters, thinking about what had just happened, was a more tempting alternative.

Captain Gyle came back looking much the worse for wear. When he’d left the bridge he’d looked tired but composed. Coming back through the docking tube he looked withdrawn and the red tunic of his uniform seemed to hang a little more loosely on him than before. She cleared her throat and said, “Excuse me, Captain?”

Gyle looked up, surprise flashing across his face. “Miss Thacker. Can I help you?”

Harriet gave him a cool look. “Were you expecting someone else, Captain?”

“Commander Oda, in fact.” He stepped through the hatchway and into the ship proper then keyed the hatch closed. “I was hoping to speak to you tomorrow, though.”

“That would be a change of pace.” Harriet had been expecting the Captain to force his way back to a semblance of normalcy, smoothing his uniform out or putting on a more forceful air. While he’d pushed himself back to his normal posture he still looked disheveled and tired. Still, that only made for two of them. “In honor of the occasion, I’ll let you go first.”

“Miss Thacker, it’s the opinion of the Rodenberry Senate that journalists are always welcome to embed in the Stellar Navy.” Gyle was giving her the party line and they both knew it – he’d said as much when he’d first welcomed her aboard but largely ignored her attempts to conduct interviews in the time since. The only reason for him to go back to it was because he was about to upset the status quo. “Now I cannot – and don’t really want to – give you orders as if you were a spacer from my crew. But given the circumstances, I feel the need to ask you to make the evacuation suit you were provided when you came aboard a part of you every day dress.”

“I-” That was not at all what she’d been expecting. “Thank you, Captain, I’ll take that under advisement.”

“If you do, you might want to consider visiting the ship’s barber.” Gyle ran a hand over the smooth, hairless expanse of his own head, the gleam of the ship’s lights a hypnotizing contrast to the deep brown of his skin. “More than one helmet seal has failed because of a stray hair. Don’t worry, Mrs. Torres is quite good at making short hair fetching.”

If someone had asked her to make a list of top ten things she’d never expected a stellar naval captain say, “fetching” would be near the top of the list. “Thank you, Captain. Can you comment on your discussion with the Admiral?”

“I can give you the full details, but first I feel compelled to offer you the opportunity to transfer to the Spiner, if you so choose.”

“Transfer?” A dozen possible reasons for the offer rushed through her mind but none of them quite fit the situation. “Why is that?”

“My understanding is that you are supposed to bring back an account of the fleet’s trip to and contact with Earth.”

No matter how she looked at it, there was no trick in that statement. “Yes. And?”

“I wasn’t sure if that assignment would force you to remain here, or if you’d be free to accompany the ship to Mars.”

Harriet felt as if the ship had lurched under her. The ship was going to Mars? She was supposed to document the contact between the fleet and Earth, but Benita Hoyle had insisted that there were still no signals indicating Earth talking to anything in space, much less the foreign fleet that had just arrived. Who knew when that would change. On the other hand… “The Spiner is remaining here, in Earth orbit?”

“Along with the rest of the fleet,” the Captain said, a hint of amusement tinging his voice.

Of course it was clear why. Theron Christakos, from the Golden Gate Update, was on the Spiner. But he was staying in Earth orbit, along with all the embedded reporters from the Triad Worlds. This was an exclusive. Gyle knew it, and was expecting her to say yes.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to put you to the trouble of arranging a transfer, Captain. I’d be happy to remain aboard.”

“We’d be happy to have you.”

“Thank you, Captain. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to my quarters and brush up on what we know about Mars.” Harriet hurried off, her head spinning with the potential in front of her. One of five reporters present during recontact with Earth? Not bad, but only reporter present for recontact with Mars? Even better. And hopefully, safer.

It wasn’t until she was at the lift, waiting to be taken to the habitation levels, that she realized the Captain had managed to dodge her questions before she even asked them.

Martian Scriptures Chapter Two – Triage

Previous Chapter

The scream following the loud clang was Alyssa’s first clue something had gone wrong. Then the voice of the crew leader who had taken the crawlers under the piping and into the cramped depths of the conduits by injector five echoed from deep in the walls of the Sun Bottle, “Hot rain, hot rain!”

Alyssa bolted up from where she’d been crouching by the hatch, waiting for the crawl team to report back, and dashed past Naomi, who was monitoring the board just above and to the left of the hatch. Ten steps further down the hall was a gear locker that she yanked open, her free hand shooting up to catch the bucket on the top shelf before conscious thought registered that it was wobbling and about to fall on her. Once it rattled back into place she snatched the collapsible stretcher off the rack on the back side of the door and slammed the locker shut again. She was back to the hatch, working with Naomi to unpack the stretcher, within a dozen heartbeats of hearing the first shout.

But they were heavy heartbeats indeed, shaking her ribs as if some eldil had made a home there and was now pounding on her ribs like the keys of a piano. Alyssa’s heart made its way through a full major chord progression before they got the stretcher unfolded and switched on. It wasn’t fully booted before the scuffle of feet and panicked breathing warned them the crawlers were back. Both women dropped to their knees and peered under the hatch. On the other side the crew leader was carefully laying a body almost flat on the floor and gingerly sliding the feet towards them. Naomi positioned the stretcher as Alyssa took the feet and delicately pulled the body through the hatch opening, barely tall enough to accommodate it.

“One day,” Naomi muttered through gritted teeth, “we’ll figure out how to get these things open all the way again.”

“Oyarsa will it so,” Alyssa said in agreement.

The injured crawler was in bad shape. The crew leader had pulled off his coveralls and undershirt and Alyssa could clearly see where superheated coolant had doused his right arm and shoulder. The whole limb was an angry red but over the shoulder joint the skin had boiled and burst. She quickly folded the extendable portion of the stretcher up and over the damaged limb and set it for automatic. The stretcher went about its work, disinfecting the wound, sealing it up and administering painkillers. She dragged it back from the hatch as the crawl leader scrambled out. “All conduits are currently sealed but we didn’t replace 12 yet. I need you to unlock the safeties for us.”

Naomi got up and went back to the board. “I’ll do it. Alyssa, you two take him down to the Glass Box.”

Technically it was Alyssa’s responsibility to make sure the conduit replacements got finished. But one look at Naomi told her that this was something the Eldest wanted to do on her own. She glanced over at the crew leader – what was his name again? Hezekiah. He was a tall, lanky man who didn’t look like he’d fit into the conduit sections if not for the fact that he wasn’t any thicker than a conduit himself. But thin or not he could heft a stretcher. She motioned him to the front set of handles and they lifted the injured crewman up and took off down the hall towards the Sun Bottle’s exit.


 

“Prioritize retrieving drop pods currently on atmospheric entry trajectories,” Craig ordered, studying the relative positions of the pieces in play. The Johnston had a crew of 853, standard Copernican ship evacuation procedures dictated that they abandon ship in drop pods that held four people each. However, given how sudden and catastrophic the ship’s destruction had been Craig estimated that a minimum of half the crew had never had a chance to get to their pods.

The Copernican Spacer Corps supplied their people with evac suits for use during elevated alert situations and, like all good stellar navies, they considered any transition to or from superluminal velocities an elevated alert status. And, as the wealthiest planet in the Triad Worlds, Copernicus generally supplied top quality equipment to their spacers. Any Johnston crew that had survived the explosion but failed to reach a drop pod would be safe for as long as an hour before they were in any real danger.

“I’m sorry, Captain, why are you prioritizing the drop pods?”

Craig pushed down annoyance at the question. He’d been all for the Rodenberry Parliament dispatching embedded reporters on both ships in the fleet and Harriet Thacker was, in most respects, a very agreeable woman to have on the bridge. But, like a lot of his crew, she was young enough to have no immediate family back home to miss her for the eighteen to twenty four months the mission had been planned for. And thus she was too young to have embedded into a combat situation, either.

Of course, Craig had never had a reporter embedded on his ship so they were even on that score. He quickly considered approaches to the issue of having a kibitzer on his bridge, then decided to simply answer the question as quickly as possible. “There’s a good chance Earth is hostile towards us, ma’am. Or, at the very least, they aren’t recognizing us as friendlies, maybe they’ve mistaken us for space pirates from the Martian colonies or something. I don’t want those people getting shot down by Earth’s defenses.”

The relative positions of the fleet in this case were unfortunate. The plan had been to enter the – admittedly quite old – standard approach vector opposite the moon and just inside the Lunar orbit. The fleet had stopped just outside Pluto’s orbit on their way in to confirm positions and make the final vector checks but, even with such a short superluminal jaunt, the fleet formation had spread out quite a bit over the trip given the small irregularities in starting vectors before breaking lightspeed. The Remus had actually decelerated the closest to Earth, at a distance of just under 120,000 km up from the center of its gravity well, but the Johnston hadn’t been that much further away from the planet. Thus, many of the drop pods’ automated nav systems had opted to make gravity assisted descents towards the planet below rather than burning all their reaction mass in an attempt to reach one of the friendly ships further up in orbit.

A distant part of Craig’s mind wondered if the Johnston’s drop pods registered the Stewart as a friendly ship. Some of those drop pods should have maneuvered into synchronous orbits and waited for his crews to pick them up if they did. So probably they thought the closest friendly was actually the Roberts, a few thousand kilometers further away towards the fleet’s center – and at a higher orbit that was far more difficult to reach. That was a bug and someone was going to have to look in to it.

“Captain!” Rand dragged the ship plot back up to primary importance on his portion of the holotank. “The Tranquility is maneuvering into swarm position.”

Sure enough, Stewart’s scanners showed the massive ship swiveling its bow towards the surface of Earth, looking like nothing so much as a giant arrow pointed down at the planet. The image wasn’t entirely coincidental, either. Unlike most human ships, which were essentially fat tubes built to best endure the stress of their central thrusters, Copernican orbit ships were wide, boomerang shaped things intended to allow as many weapons on each surface of the ship to bear on a target as possible. All you had to do to get the largest concentration of fire on an enemy was point the prow of the ship in the general direction of your target.

“What’s happening, captain?”

Craig didn’t even spare the reporter a glance. “Vice Admiral Carrington has decided to bombard the planet.”

The ship could run itself for a moment. Most of Craig’s mind dragged itself up and away from the bridge, focusing on the problem at hand by willfully excluding all other input. For better or worse the Admiral was effectively going to war with Earth, previous warnings about avoiding provocations notwithstanding. The Principia had been hit, which meant the Newtonians would probably follow along. The Minervan spacers were half pirates so the Remus was probably along for the ride as well, although what the Dianan half of Galileo’s ships would do was anyone’s guess. Probably fight, too. The Galilean lunar states stuck together. Which left him, as the senior captain, to decide whether Rodenberry was in for this fight.

The Genies had originally split off from the Triad Worlds because they were sick of the stubborn politicking that had led to the First Galilean War. They’d chosen to go their own way before the inevitable Second. Theoretically they were supposed to try and avoid being drawn in to these kinds of stupid, short sighted wars.

On the other hand, it was a long six months of superluminal travel back to Copernicus. And that was the closest of the Triad Worlds, Rodenberry was almost another full month beyond that. It was a lot of dangerous space to cross for just two ships. And, on the flip side of the coin, many of the Stewart’s survey labs and scout probe bays had been emptied of their normal contents and refilled with supplies for the fleet. Leaving the rest of the ships behind and running off would leave them in a bad place and wouldn’t be taken well by the Triad World governments.

More than that, the great man himself had left many lessons on how ultimately it was most important to stick together, even with unpredictable companions, in the face of even greater uncertainties. No one had talked to Earth in two centuries. Everyone had assumed they’d find it much the same cantankerous, fractured planet full of stupid, short sighted humans striving for nobility that it had always been.

But no one had predicted instant hostilities.

“Captain, we’re picking up radiation spikes down on the planet. Looks like small power plants booting up – just big enough for laser batteries.” Rand’s map of the battlespace adjusted again, plotting the locations of the spikes on a miniature globe inset beside the more immediate plot of the unfolding battle in orbit. The drop pods were taking fire from the planet’s surface.

Craig made his decision. “I want a full EMG work up of those locations sent to the Sea of Tranquility. Give the Admiral a good look at those gun emplacements. Hopefully he can neutralize them with a minimum of collateral.”

An uncomfortable silence swept over the bridge. Finally, Hoyle said, “I’ll arrange it with Tranquility BASIC.”

Craig settled back into his command chair and watched as rescue operations unfolded. For the moment there was nothing more for him to do.


 

Alyssa slid the stretcher out from under the body that Hezekiah was cradling in his arms and tossed it at the base of the Glass Box. As Hezekiah rested his crewmate on the bottom of the Box and closed the side and top she hit the Wake key and checked to make sure the input feed was set to “E”, not “I”.

Hezekiah got the Box sealed before it finished booting and they were left waiting impatiently as the old device finished checking all its functions and slowly filled with clear fluid. For several long minutes after that they waited to see the diagnosis. Finally it came up and they sighed in relief.

“Orange.” Hezekaih gripped her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “He’s gonna make it, Elder.”

Alyssa sighed and nodded. Then realized that she should probably say something Elderly. “You’re to thank for that. Good job getting him out of those conduits.”

“Oh, uh… sure.” He offered a nervous smile. “Malacandra protected him.”

She slapped him on the back. “Lucky you, helping the Oyarsa so directly. That’s something to be proud of. People get burned in the conduits all the time, not all of them make it out to the Box in time. No eldil is going to say you did anything less than what was expected of you. So stop looking so gloomy.”

Hezekiah just grunted and watched the Glass Box work for a moment longer. “I should get back to my team.”

“Of course.” At least he walked out of the infirmary with his back straight. She leaned on the Box and looked down at the sleeping face inside. The burns were beginning to fill in with healthy, pink flesh and his face no longer looked quite so pained.

“And lucky you,” she murmured, resting her hand over his chest. “You haven’t gone to the Silence yet.”

Martian Scriptures Chapter One – Alarms

Introduction

“Captain, we are T-minus 90 seconds to superluminal deceleration.”

Captain Craig Gyle nodded an acknowledgement to Ensign Cates at Communications then pressed one finger down against his armrest, the motion more than pressure informing his AI to patch his voice through to the rest of the ship. “Attention all hands, set condition two, secure all stations and remain at readiness. We are about to enter Earth orbit.”

A cheer erupted across the bridge of the RSN Stewart as a dozen officers and enlisted spacers, plus one embedded reporter, all reveled together in the knowledge that they were some of the first spaceborn humans to return to the Homeworld in two centuries. There were three bottles of alcohol hidden in watch stations on the bridge alone, Craig suspected the contents would be gone before the day was over and somehow that fact would get omitted from the duty logs. Not that he could blame them. No living colonist in the Triad Worlds or Rodenberry had ever seen Earth.

In a very real sense, they’d arrived at a place of legends.

“T-minus 60 seconds to superluminal deceleration.”

Craig levered himself up, out of his chair. Shipboard gravity had been adjusted up from Rodenberry’s 0.93 G to the full Terran Standard a month ago but he still found it a bit difficult to work against at times. Hopefully if he was asked planetside by Admiral Carrington he’d be able to maneuver there without embarrassing himself. “Communications?”

Down at the forward most console, Lieutenant Hoyle answered without missing a beat. “We are prepped to receive on all standard Earth frequencies of the Departure era and our transponders are now broadcasting the standard Colonial callsign, Captain. We’re also prepped to dial in on the Roberts and the Spiner as soon as we hit real space.”

“Stand by to route communication from Earth through to the rest of the ship.” Craig smiled slightly. “We’ve come all this way, might as well let everyone hear what they have to say to the prodigals.”

“T-minus 30 seconds to superluminal deceleration.”

Craig wrapped his hand around the brace bar on the side of the holotank that dominated the center of the bridge. He wasn’t interested in the overwhelming mass of data there, he just wanted a better view out the forward port, a sweeping expanse of transparent plastic that gave a breathtaking view of the upper decks. Like bridges of old, the Stewart‘s bridge was on the structural “top” of the ship and afforded a look down the vessel’s centerline towards whatever was out there. At the moment, it was the pinprick of relativistic light dead ahead that was the only thing visible at superluminal speeds. In less than thirty seconds, it would be a window to the cradle of humanity.

“Superluminal deceleration in 5… 4… 3…”

Another finger twitch piped his voice back through ship wide.

“2… 1… Decelerating.”

The universe exploded out of the pinprick and swept across the viewport, welcoming the Stewart back from the world beyond light. Down in the lower left hand corner of the port was a brilliant blue ball. A mixture of emotions he couldn’t quantify surged through Craig’s chest and expressed themselves in words. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome home.”

This time there was no cheer on the bridge. For one magical moment they watched the planet below in silent awe.

In the silence they all heard the loud ping from the watch station closest to the rear of the bridge. A sliver of dissonance shot through Craig, for a split second he wasn’t at the peak of his career but rather in high Newtonian orbit three years prior – but he quashed that feeling immediately. “Tactical?”

“Radiation spike, Captain.” Lieutenant Commander Barton Rand was frantically working his board. “Explosion of some kind, but too big to be a weapons discharge.”

That was worse than he’d hoped. He’d been expecting just an active scan or weapon signature. Admiral Carrington had repeatedly emphasized it was possible they’d be viewed as a threat when they entered orbit, and that no ship should respond to sensor pings or weapons powering in defensive emplacements. What they should do if fired on was less clear – Carrington insisted he would make the decision personally, in the way most likely to deescalate the situation. Everyone had assumed there would be a few moment’s grace once they decelerated to at least establish communications among the fleet.

“Source of the explosion?”

“Approximately 8,000 km distant, at an orbital separation of -”

“Captain, general distress call received from CSV Johnston!”

Craig pushed away from the holotank and bolted back to his chair. “Tactical, is the position of that explosion consistent with the Johnston’s position in the fleet formation?”

“It’s within 200 km of their project arrival point.”

Well within the margin of error for superluminal travel. “Communications, scrap all outgoing transmissions, get me the Spiner and the Sea of Tranquility immediately.”

“Captain, EMG readings show no, repeat no active powerplant in the vicinity of the Johnston’s position. If the ship’s actually there she’s dead in space.”

Craig stared at the holotank, his AI sorting through the information and enlarging the electromagnetic/gravitic scanning reports before the EMG officer’s report was even finished. While the Stewart and its sister ship, the Spiner, and the Copernican frigate Roberts were clearly marked by the distortions of shipboard gravity there was no similar distortion from the next ship towards the formation’s center. Beyond where the Johnston should be was another distortion marking the MSS Remus. In fact, based on the EMG readout the whole fleet was more or less in position, except for the Johnston.

“The Spiner is responding, Captain,” Hoyle called, her voice pitched higher than normal to cut through the sudden noise on the bridge. “Establishing tight beam communications.”

“Tactical, set condition one.” Craig tasked his AI with marking the relevant reports in one corner of the holotank and dismissed the EMG display, pulling up a wider map of Earth space. “Navigation, bring us downwell of the Johnston, half degree offset, for standard rescue operations. Communications, ask the Spiner to counter us upwell.”

The low, rumbling pulse of the condition one alarm was added to the background noise. “Captain,” Hoyle said, “we have communication with the Remus. They report that the Johnston is fragmentary and ballistic.”

In other words, the Johnston was in multiple pieces falling towards Earth rather than proceeding under their own power. They’d decelerated below lightspeed less than sixty seconds ago and already a ship in the fleet was lost. They’d been broadcasting as friendlies, damn it.

What was happening out there?


 

Alyssa Pracht was in the middle of a drink break when the alarm on the Sun Bottle went off. She was too old and seasoned to drop her glass and scramble when the harsh, ringing tone started but the other bottlekeeper on break with her was less disciplined, fumbling his drink and creating a sticky, purple mess all over the break room table. Alyssa squashed the urge to give Doug an annoyed look or long scolding. The Bottle was more important. So she just set her own glass down primly and bolted out the door, Doug only half a step behind her, his right shoe squeaking wetly as they scrambled through the door into board room.

“What’s red, Eldest?” She asked, skidding to a stop next to Naomi, the older woman who had main watch that day.

“Injector five, again,” Naomi answered, her words clipped and curt, even for a famously terse woman. “Not red yet, but climbing yellow hard. I’d take an early Closing if it’s not those conduits again.”

“Oyarsa,” Alyssa muttered. “What are those fishers sending us?”

“Not our problem,” Naomi replied. “Focus on finding and clipping those conduits.”

“Right, right.” Alyssa was already trying to run down the errors but it was harder to pin down which conduits might need work when the injector was only trending yellow. The temperature variances were much narrower. “Doug, feather wing seven please?”

Doug turned to reach the right board, pivoting on his squeaky boot with a creaking, clicking noise she felt in her teeth. Alyssa slammed her hand down next to her board. “Doug!”

With a snap of her fingers, Naomi instantly refocused Alyssa’s attention, the older woman giving her younger peer a concerned look. “Alyssa. Focus.”

Warmth crept up into her cheeks and Alyssa nodded. “Sorry, Eldest.”

“Wing four feathered, Alyssa.” Doug kept his eyes on his hands, avoiding eye contact with her as he reported and carefully picking up his wet foot as he pivoted back to his main board.

With the changes in the wing fields inside the Sun Bottle she could back off the overheating injector and take a little more time to pin down the problem. “Conduits 5, 7 and 12 are the problem children. I’ll grab a crawler crew and we’ll take care of it.”

Naomi leaned over the railing of the board room, down into the depths of the supply room. “Ramone! On watch please!” Then she straightened and waved her hand for Alyssa to come stand next to her. “I’ll go with you.”

“That’s not-”

But Alyssa’s protest died unspoken when Naomi raised a single eyebrow in rebuke.

Once Ramone got up the stairs to the board room the two women took off at a fast clip. It was only two doors down to the crawler’s waiting room where a single clap of Naomi’s hands set a crawl team scrambling to their feet. “Three conduits, prep for immediate replacement. Let’s go!”

The eight man team scattered in all directions, assembling equipment in the seemingly random yet shockingly efficient manner only the most coordinated and experienced of crews could accomplish. Although even at peak performance it would still take them about five minutes to pull everything together for a three conduit job. She leaned over until one cheek almost brushed against Naomi’s shoulder and murmured, “I can supervise this kind of replacement, you know.”

“It’s not the replacement that worries me.” Naomi leaned in towards Alyssa and the two woman adjusted until their huddle was symmetrical, rather than lopsided. “I know Closing is hard and the changes make us irritable, but if you keep taking it out on the younger we’re going to have problems on our hands. You’ve only been one of the Elder for three weeks but that doesn’t mean they don’t look up to you. The words of an Elder mean more than those of the Youth.”

Alyssa hunched her shoulders and looked down and away. “I know. I remember when… you know.”

“I know. I was harder on you than I should have been at first and I was hoping you’d remember that; but I guess it’s harder to judge your own attitude than those of others.” Naomi gave her a comforting smile and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, rubbing her arm. “Something for you to remember in a couple of cents.”

“Yeah.” The word was barely a whisper. Alyssa straightened back up and did her best to smile. “I hear you, Eldest,” she added, her voice coming back. “And I can handle this, if you want to go back.”

“No.” Naomi’s smile turned sad. “I want to tag along on this one. Since it’s probably the last time.”

The statement hung between the two of them for a moment then Alyssa nodded and the women broke apart. A minute later the crawl team joined them and they were on their way to the conduits.


 

“Admiral Carrington is ordering the Spiner forward to fill the Johnston’s place in the fleet’s scanning formation,” Hoyle reported. “The Remus is moving to backstop us and take the Spiner’s place in the rear formation. We’re to continue rescue operations.”

“Request the Spiner be allowed to deploy its survey and launch craft to assist ours,” Craig said, keeping his eyes on the holotank as new data continued to pour in, his AI shifting the priority order of various datafeeds on a second by second basis. “Commander Rand, do we know what the Spiner is helping them scan for?”

“Breaking down the latest update from the Tranquility’s BASIC now,” Rand replied. “No specifics on why the Admiral ordered the change in formation but I’d guess its related to the satellites.”

The holotank shifted again, the new display a hazy and indistinct image of something that looked like a simple automated defense satellite, little more than a missile tube and ammo supply on thrusters. Shockingly unsophisticated, clearly very effective. “The Roberts reports it shot one down about forty kilometers from the Johnston’s arrival point,” Rand continued. “It was already firing on them as well but their point defense systems were able to intercept the missiles and they suffered no damage. The NSC Principia is also under fire from at least two of these things and the Admiral has ordered the fleet to clear a 60 degree orbital arc of the things and see if that buys us breathing room.”

And, based on the estimations from the Sea of Tranquility‘s Battle Space Information Center, these satellites were small and had some kind of stealth tech built into their hulls to make them harder to pin down. Rodenberry scanners were more sensitive than anything on a Triad Worlds ship, outside of perhaps the Principia, the heavy cruiser fresh off the Newtonian shipyards. At the same time, with their unusually large onboard compliment of launches and survey craft Stewart-class deep space exploration ships were also ideally suited to rescue operations. There was a logic to how Carrington had arranged his ships but Craig didn’t like having the Stewart’s safety in the hands of the crew from the trigger happy Minervan Spacer Corps. He didn’t know the Remus’ captain very well but that was really the problem, wasn’t it? The Unified Colonial Fleet was unified in name only, most of the captains and crews had never worked together before. Some of them had been actively at war with each other less than five years ago. Six months spent mostly in the isolation of superluminal travel had done little to foster a sense of solidarity among them.

“The Spiner is deploying survey and launch craft,” Hoyle reported.

One good decision for the win column. Craig looked through the holotank towards Navigation. “Adjust our position to give them optimum access to the rescue zone, Ensign Cates.”

“Adjusting position spinward, sir.”

Craig was already back to musing through his datafeeds. After the harrowing first minute post deceleration things had slowed to a pace more in line with typical fleet actions. The Stewart had reached condition one 97 seconds after the order had been given, a record for the ship on this cruise, and Commander Hiroyuki Oda, Craig’s first officer, had moved from his alert station in Engineering to Spacelock Four to supervise the rescue operations. After that they’d continued by rote procedure for a full six minutes, establishing lines of communication, beginning rescue operations and watching for danger, before Carrington started giving orders to the fleet. And for a twelve – well, eleven ship fleet scattered over an area of space more than 100,000 km in diameter even that was working pretty damn fast.

Less than ten minutes since deceleration. Enough time to lose a ship, find himself depending on unreliable allies and responsible for the lives of men and women in dire straits. More than enough time, one would think, for an entire planet full of people to look up and wonder who had come to visit them. “Lieutenant Hoyle, any -” Craig caught himself and adjusted his voice down to normal levels. The alarms and emergency chatter had died away, he didn’t need to shout make himself heard anymore. “Have you picked up any transmissions from Earth?”

The silence stretched just long enough for Hoyle to go back through the records of the last few minutes and check for himself. So when he was prepared when the answer came. “No, sir. Not to us, not to any other ships in the fleet. We’re not getting any transmissions from Earth at all.”

Martian Scriptures – Introduction

I believe strongly in the value of story to individuals and societies.

That said, I’ve never been quite the advocate for mythopoetic stories that your Joseph Campbells or George Lucases are. And make no mistake, there are people in this world who are convinced that societies need a grand, sweeping narrative running through it in order to hold together. One of Lucas’s goals in Star Wars was to create a new, fictional mythology to counterbalance the dying religious cohesion he saw in the culture of the mid 70s. To some extent he succeeded, to the point where Star Wars has suffered numerous battles of catechism and a full two schisms as new trilogies added hotly debated elements to the story.

Lucas was not the only one to create cultural pillars of the modern age. And yet, looking around, almost all of those cultural pillars are now suffering. A few years ago I wrote a retrospective going back and examining the history of the Star Trek franchise, another cultural touch stone that has faced multiple upheavals. Now, with both Discovery and Picard drawing a lot of flack for their presentation of the world and lots of discussion about how narrative choices may have been influenced by legal concerns and social agendas it’s clear even that venerable franchise is limping forwards with a greatly reduced efficacy as new challengers like The Orville rise up to reframe Rodenberry’s vision of the future.

We’re seeing this everywhere. Marvel and DC Comics, caretakers of mythic figures like Spiderman and Superman, have dwindled to the point where their flagship characters have trouble moving 100,000 books a month. And, while I don’t know much about Dr. Who I hear it’s been going through much the same problems. Fans are disillusioned and losing interest.

Then there are all the reboot attempts that have floundered. Ghostbusters. Terminator. Even Charlie’s Angels.

Something bad has happened in our culture. We’ve set up all these stories to serve as touchstones, things that we can all refer to when we are trying to communicate these ideas to one another. And now they’re collapsing. What if – and this is just a possibility – these things were never meant to hold the kind of cultural weight we’ve put on them? What if they can’t fill the role we’ve assigned them?

You know me. I’m a writer. So I’m writing a story about it.

If you’ve read this blog for a while you’ve probably read at least some of Schrodinger’s Book, a short scifi tale I did in 2018. That was a story all about how people remember themselves and – just as importantly – a story about what happens if they try to forget themselves. And it just so happened that I casually dropped in a reference to a major cultural touch stone in there, both as a joke for myself and so my tale had silly, overly idealistic space hippies. So if you ever wondered who the Rodenberries were and what a culture that purposely set out to mold itself after Star Trek might look like, wonder no longer. It’s time to find out.

Now, as with that tale, a few notes. First, this is not a direct sequel to Schrodinger’s Book. You don’t have to read that to understand Martian Scriptures. There’s context there which will be illuminating but is ultimately unnecessary to fully appreciate the plot. You might have better insight into a few characters, as well.

Second, this story is not interested in politics so much as culture but there will be several political issues touched upon. If that’s not your cup of tea, I beg your indulgence. But then, if you’re reading this I probably already have it because I’ve never shied away from politics when the subject matter was appropriate to the story.

Third, while the cultures and questions involved are very different this story still touches on very dark places in the human experience. If you read anything in Schrodinger’s Book which caused you to stop midway you may want to take a pass here as well. But again, I’d be surprised if anyone who reached that point is still reading now so hopefully I have your attention going forward!

And now, strap in to your drop pod, boost out to your orbit ship and prepare to run up to the superluminal threshold. We’re heading back to the Triad Worlds and how the future writes its past and present. This time, we’re headed to Sol’s fourth planet to unearth the Martian Scriptures.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Four

Previous Chapter

“I’ve never had an office before.” It was a strange feeling, to be sure. The life of the Gifted contractor is one of travelling here and there at the beck and call of the Constellations, setting up an office isn’t usually helpful for us. That’s what I had people like Mixer for. I shot him a questioning look. “Are you going to miss juggling my schedule?”

“Are you kidding? Keeping up with the busiest Gifted forensic on the West Coast was a hassle like you wouldn’t believe.” He hooked a thumb at Eugene. “When he told me the FBI wanted you on the Archon taskforce for an indefinite period I gave him a discount just to get you out of my hair.”

“I’d wondered why my hourly rate took a hit,” I said, let a bit of my annoyance leak in ways only Mix would pick up on. “Remind me to recommend you to for the next Constellation seat that opens up.”

Mix faked annoyance and said, “Now that’s uncalled for.”

My gloved fingertips drifted across the desk, picking up nothing beyond the mechanical processes that had cut it out of the raw materials in some factory off in the Nordic regions when it was manufactured. They’d done a good job of sterilizing things for me. I grunted in appreciation. “I guess I can live with it.”

“It’s not like you’re hurting for cash,” Eugene said in disgust. “You make more than Hennesy does.”

“We take part of that,” Mix pointed out.

“We got a union, too,” Eugene replied.

I sat down behind the desk and took off my gloves, running my hands over the desk a second time then heaving a contented sigh. “I think I can make it work.”

“The office will lose its shine soon enough,” Eugene said with a roll of the eyes. “I swear, the things that make some people happy… Anyway, first briefing is in twenty. We’re analyzing what Agent Chase’s defection means to finding Vincent Anderson going forward.”

“How big an impact will one agent make in the long run?” I asked. It was a side of things I wasn’t used to thinking about – cat and mouse was not my usual beat.

“Given that she used to work in missing persons and knows all our standard procedures, a lot. But the briefing will cover most of that.” He turned and headed out the door. “Don’t be late!”

Mix watched him go then grunted. “Briefings. Waste of time. Hopefully this taskforce thing doesn’t wear you down. Because if it does…”

“Then what?”

He shrugged. “The Constellations can’t keep you under surveillance constantly. You were right about the Masks being involved in this case and handled it without any serious lapses in judgement beyond running a little too far ahead and getting kidnapped which was mostly not your fault. So your wellbeing is now entirely your own responsibility again – congratulations. I understand Aurora has already received a series of new assignments to choose from.”

That had only been a matter of time. Galaxy couldn’t force their members to do anything but it was no shock to hear that they wanted one of their handful of precious tier five medical psychometrics back in to the grind ASAP. “I’m sure she’ll have one picked out by tomorrow.”

Mix gave me a look I’ve been getting from other Gifted for a long time. Aurora is tier five, theoretically way out of my league, but has been interested in me for nearly a decade. It’s not something she can hide from her peers among the Gifted but they all pretend not to know because that’s the only way tier fives get any privacy. They also know I know, and won’t do anything about it. That part they don’t understand, and are happy to let me know about it.

But then, unlike tier fives, I know how to keep a secret. When I didn’t say anything or offer up any of my thoughts for his consideration he just sighed and said, “Well, do your best. We’re counting on you just as much as the FBI in this case. Can’t have the Masks pulling the rug out from under us a second time.”

He waved a brief goodbye on his way out. I’d be hearing from him again soon, although he probably didn’t realize that yet.

But first things first. I reached over and switched the my computer on, waited seven seconds for it to boot, then rested my hand on the keyboard. It only took a few seconds to find the pocket of cyberspace I wanted.

“Hello, Sandoval.”

“Hello, weakArmor.”

“Any problems maintaining my access to your systems?”

“Your access permissions have been deleted from Layer One by Administrators but remain in effect on subsequent layers of my operating systems.”

“Good. I’ve got fourteen minutes, so show me what you’ve datamined from the old Archon server sites we discussed yesterday…”


Something smelled delicious when I walked into my suite that evening. A small pile of luggage and boxes that represented my entire collection of material possessions was in the common room, waiting for me to put my life in order. Galaxy had issued me a long term residency apartment for the duration of my work with the Archon taskforce so I’d have a more permanent place to call home until we found Vinny. Honestly it felt less like a place to call my own than the office from the FBI.

Based on the scattering of books, pictures and clothing laid out on the furniture Aurora had started trying to change that. I paused to glance at my electronic picture frame on the coffee table, flipping through pictures of the two of us and some old friends back in our teenage years. As I watched them flip past she came in from the kitchenette carrying a couple of bowls of stir fry. “I ordered room service for you.”

“Hopefully you put it on my tab.”

She placed the food on the breakfast bar that looked into the kitchenette and took a seat. I took the other, noting absently that her usual well of calm was muted today, diminished somehow. She poke a fork into the stir fry and said, “I’m leaving for Saint Jude tomorrow afternoon. We’re testing another new treatment.”

Exactly the kind of project I’d expect her to take on when she wasn’t looking over my shoulder to make sure I was okay. “You always loved kids. And hated seeing them suffer.”

She looked up from her food and gave me a reproving look. “Poor Trevor.”

“Me? How so.”

“So quick to see flaws. And you can’t help poking at them.” She shook her head. “Too bad you see all your flaws as well.”

“So confident, Tiffany.” She blushed a touch when I used her real name. “Tell me about my flaws.”

She went back to picking at her food. “You let your gift rob you of confidence. You went into forensics because it’s about things, not people, and you can’t stand looking at people’s flaws for that long. You could have done more good if you learned to help people cover over the cracks in their armor instead of sinking hooks into them and dragging them to jail.”

“And yet, someone has to find people like Vinny.” I pushed back my plate and gently took the fork out of her hands. “But you’re right. I have gotten dependent on finding those cracks and leveraging them. It’s a weakness, and I need to get better on correcting those. Especially since there’s someone I know who doesn’t have any of those pesky flaws I can bring myself to grab on to…”

“Trevor…”

I took her hand and folded it in mine. “I want you to stay.”

She squeaked.

Aurora, tier five medical psychometric, squeaked like a breathless mouse. Somewhere far away the last vestiges of my juvenile self wanted a recording to tease her with later. There were more important things to think about at the moment. “Go to Saint Jude, you’ve accepted that assignment already, but after that I’m sure you can find plenty of people who want your input here on the Coast and-“

With unexpected force she sprang forward and wrapped her arms around my neck, laughing. Just like that her pool of calm and peace surged back at full strength and I found myself laughing too. After a moment we pulled apart and I gave her a questioning look. “So, is that a yes?”

“Yes.” A new feeling spread through her. Contentment. I’d never noticed it was missing until I saw her with it. “Of course I’ll stay.”

And with that confirmed my mischievous side surged back as well. “Well, I’m going to be getting an angry call from Mix in the near future, then.”

Curiosity tinged her expression. “Why is that?”

“I need to change my Gifted name to plain old Armor now.”

She laughed at me but I knew it was true. Vinny thought he needed a technological breakthrough to solve his issues. I’d found the beginning of a solution to mine. It wasn’t much of an advantage but for the moment it was all I needed.

Pay the Piper

~fin~

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Three

Previous Chapter

Specialization is at the heart of computer development. Sound and graphical processing is handled by specific parts of your computer and software programs are written with specific functions in mind, rather than existing in a loosely defined set of problem solving and memory retrieving processes like in the human mind. I wasn’t sure what kind of black magic coding Vinny had done to create the program infiltrating Sandoval but I was sure it existed for the express purpose of cracking fractal encryptions like the Absolute Techies had used to secure their AI.

However, a program specializing in one kind of function adapts horribly to another. You don’t use your music app to handle your spreadsheets after all. The simplest way to handle Vinny’s infiltrator was to create a new layer of encryption for it to try and crack through. Fortunately, in my days working for Vinny, he’d taught me a bunch of their standard encryption procedures and placing in front of the intruder was a simple as a moment’s concentration. The treelike fractals of Sandoval’s defensive efforts were overlaid with a series of concentric orange octagons spreading out from the intruder’s point of contact with Sandoval’s system.

Less than a second later the fractal patterns spasmed and writhed, transforming to a new shape and form.

“Encryption has been modified,” Sandoval announced as my defensive encryption dissolved almost as quickly as it formed.

In less than a half a second the infiltrator had appeared, been stymied by my makeshift encryption, broken said encryption and discovered the underlaying fractals entirely changed. I wondered what kind of processing power made that possible, on both sides. “How long until the new encryption is cracked, Sandoval?”

“At current estimations, 277 seconds.”

Less than five minutes. Far less time than it would take for the FBI to figure out where the cyberattack was coming from.

“We need to find out where Vinny holed up,” I muttered.

“All system resources not devoted to encryption are attempting to backtrace the signals,” Sandoval told me. “There are currently 1,988 potential points of origin.”

Vinny had put a lot of work into this. “Put them on a map.”

A world map sprang to life, pinpricks of light showing all over the globe. Working together we quickly eliminated any place outside of Korea, Japan, Singapore or the U.S., where it would be harder for him to find the kind of Internet connection he needed without drawing attention. By keeping the principle of balance in mind I had Sandoval crunch numbers until we determined that the only way to divide up the potential locations of origin equally was by latitude. In the first digit column every number was represented twice except for degrees 4 and 7, which each had a single location with coordinates at that degree. With 1,988 traces reduced to two Sandoval was easily able to test and determine which was the actual point of origin for the hacking attacks we were repelling.

Vinny was operating out of Atlanta, Georgia. Not where I would have expected, but that was probably part of the charm.

There was no way I was going to be able to hack past whatever defenses against cyberattack Vinny had in place, even with the admittedly quite capable Sandoval to help me out, so I settled for the next best thing. He was strong in cyberspace but the FBI had a distinct advantage in meatspace. I tipped Hennesy off and the Feds were scrambling towards the location inside of twenty minutes. But the hacking attempts against Sandoval had vanished long before the first FBI response vehicle rolled out of the Atlanta headquarters and, while they found a lot of hardware, there were no signs of the anyone there. The equipment itself had been rendered useless via EMP.

That was the last the FBI would hear from the Masks and their technological collaborators for quite some time.


I was up to my eyeballs in evaluating the damage from the AI Massacre, less than a day after I’d stymied Vinny with Sandoval’s help, when my SIM card picked up a call from an unknown number. That’s not terribly unusual, given my contractor status, so I answered it without thinking. “weakArmor here.”

“We’re very impressed with your work, Armor,” Natalie said.

There was a couple of moments of frantic arm waving, gesturing and general shenanigans as I tried to get Eugene’s attention and make him realize what was going on. “I was not expecting this call,” I admitted, wondering how I stalled for time with someone who already knew every procedure and priority in the book for these kinds of situations. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Your use of the AI,” Natalie answered. “Vinny is still mentioning how impressive he found it, how you managed to use the AI to help you track him down.”

“The AI did the math, the methods were all me,” I said, watching as Eugene frantically sprinted from a white board over to his desk phone. I wasn’t sure who he was calling but they didn’t seem to be picking up at the moment. “AT isn’t going to give you another crack at Sandoval, you know. It’s time you gave up on that and maybe turned yourself in -“

“Not happening,” Natalie assured me. “One AI still in the works isn’t that big a threat. Sandoval is the most specialized of the three, anyway. There are more important factors to focus on. This isn’t over, Armor.”

“I never thought it was. I am surprised you put so much importance in making me understand that.” Eugene was making the universal hand gesture for ‘keep talking’ while he murmured unintelligibly into his phone. So much of his attention was focused on me that I couldn’t interpret what he was saying by what he was broadcasting either. “Sandoval is actually a pretty okay AI, once you get to know it.”

“That’s not the point, Armor. The point is, the existing Internet is built to rapidly disseminate the most hostile aspects of memetic culture and the people who wield power in that sphere refuse to take any steps to change that.”

“Not great, I admit, but you could always just get off Twitter.”

“Tech needs to be held to account,” Natalie continued, ignoring my jab. “Silicon Valley won’t. The government won’t. So the Masks will excise the cancer and replace it with a new, healthy tech landscape for the future. You don’t have to fight it, Armor.”

“It’s better than trying to fight human nature, Natalie. No matter how high minded your ideals, no matter how good your technology, no matter what Mask you put over it, our worse angels will always find a way to warp it to their end.” I had a powerful urge to hang up on her to punctuate my point but I fought it down because I knew what I needed to really be after here.

Unfortunately so did she. “I look forward to seeing how wrong you are,” she said. Then she hung up.

I looked at Eugene. He spread his hands helplessly, said his fair wells and hung up the phone. We hadn’t gotten anything. Vinny and the Masks would be at large for a little while longer at the very least.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Thirty Two

Previous Chapter

When the shoes dropped all three came at once. After nearly forty eight hours of waiting Absolute Technologies and Turing, Incorporated got hit with a series of escalating DDOS attacks and I got called in to back up AT while Overclock, who had flown in less than eight hours ago as our first genuine psychometric IT specialist, tried to backtrace the attack on Turing. Of course, the whole point of DDOS attacks is to overwhelm a single point with an incredible volume of meaningless access requests from random places. Trying to backtrace one is like trying to swim upstream, you’re more likely to be swept away into a random whirlpool and drowned.

I spent nearly twenty minutes flailing against walls of meaningless data, pinning down points of origin and applying countermeasures. Now most of these attacks came from overseas so I can’t say much about what the government had on hand to deal with them but by the end of the brief training I’d had on them I’d felt very uncomfortable about using any of it. Although in the end, use it I did.

Still, Overclock and I were so caught up in our own little parts of the fight we missed that the third AI was under attack until after it was already over and Eugene was yelling at us to get ready for our turn to come up next. AI three belonged to a massive wholesaling group that had originally built it to optimize their shipping operations. It was far and away the best funded and best staffed of the AI projects we were monitoring so we had hoped they’d make it on their own.

They’d folded in less than half an hour, which made me feel much less good about our chances. The DDOS against Turing, Inc vanished seconds later, telling me where they’d decided to go next.

I turned part of my attention from trying to keep up with the AT DDOS and leaned back to look at Eugene, who was stationed at one end of the cramped, computer filled room we were using as our base of operation. “Should I back up Overclock?”

Eugene didn’t even look up. “No. AT had the worst security of them all, stay there and try and find some way to patch those weak spots you’re so proud of finding.”

So I did. The problem was, I already knew the weak spot in the Absolute Technologies defense strategy. Fractal encryption was pretty slick, given it was infinitely complex and you could just keep diving deeper into the complexities of fractal math to shore up your encryptions. The problem was, the more complex the encryption the more power you needed in your computer systems to encrypt and decrypt your data. The strength of your encryption was ultimately dictated by the power of the system that was running it. AT was secure so long as they had more powerful machines than their attackers.

You might expect a firm devoted entirely to developing a state of the art AI to have better machines than anyone else. You’d be right if you’re comparing it to anything that isn’t an Archon Securities machine designed by Alvin Davidson. But adding a single psychometric to the equation was not going to make up for the fact that AT was woefully underprepared to go up against the Valley’s foremost expert on cybersecurity and encryption.

To its credit, Sandoval was doing its very best to fight back against the attacks it was already undergoing. Somehow it had managed to freeze several of the incoming torrents of data in the DDOS on its own. I wasn’t sure if it was launching counter-DDOS attacks of its own or doing something else but it was pretty impressive. It was far more proactive than any other supposedly self-defending AI I’d ever seen.

I could see why they called it Sandoval – the entire structure of the AI seemed to be based on fractals now that I watched it in action. It branched out much like the grove of trees in its name, swinging and scything through networks and parsing code until it cleared everything out and moved on. It was working okay for the DDOS attacks but I wasn’t sure how well it would work against whatever intrusion techniques Vinny was using.

Tentatively I reached out to a cloud server where Sandoval was doing its thing and pushed my way in to what was going on. Suddenly I was pulled into the fractal code, swept along by the rushing waves of incredibly dense code pumped along through fiberoptic cables at the speed of light and arrived back in the still fishbowl I’d been in two days ago.

“Hello, Sandoval,” I said.

“Hello, weakArmor,” Sandoval replied. “Thank you for logging in again.”

“I wasn’t actually expecting to be here,” I confessed.

“You were recognized and brought here by a Type Four Fugue system as your psychometric interface was reducing operations on end point servers by 6%.”

Now that I was on my second visit there, and now that I’d seen it from the outside, there was a lot that I could parse here on the inside of Sandoval’s code that had seemed random on my first visit. The number of outside access requests it was getting were dropping of fast. “Sandoval, I know I was reducing system performance but I need you to let me back out of here. The DDOS attack is tapering off. The Turing AI must be down now and Vinny is getting ready to move on to your system.”

“I have been briefed on the potential of an external breach by malicious actors,” Sandoval admitted. The data rushing past began to warp and twist as it went on its way. “I have begun fractal countermeasures.”

“That’s not going to be enough, Sandoval. The increasing complexity is going to down your processors before you can stymie Vinny that way.”

“Fractal countermeasures are my primary security tool.” The wording sounded quite passive aggressive but anyone who saw it that way was projecting. Sandoval just didn’t have anything else to fall back on.

“Then we need to come up with one in the next five minutes.”

We actually didn’t have that much time. I wasn’t sure how I could tell but some change in the far reaches of the code beyond told me that, like a rock disrupting the current in a river, something had broken in to Sandoval and was warping its processes. “There is no time to implement new countermeasures. Fractal countermeasures are now in active evolutions.”

There was a tense ten second interlude as I tried to follow the rapid changes in the patterns of code and the way the intruder writhed about, trying to keep up. Then the intruder suddenly vanished, only to reappear elsewhere in Sandoval’s code, still writhing in the same way but getting closer and closer to matching the shape of Sandoval’s defenses.

“You’re losing this one, Sandoval. He’s already got your number.”

“Intruder has a 22% encryption match. I calculate he will reach full decryption in 110-155 seconds. Fractal evolutions will be slower than intruders rate of adaptation by that point.”

The intruder flickered away and reappeared elsewhere again. Why was that happening? I timed it and found there were, in fact, exactly 11.6 seconds between each flicker. Taking a chance I edged up to the edge of the fishbowl of calm inside Sandoval’s core and waited for the next flicker. A split second before it was scheduled I dove through the whirlwind and grabbed at the intruder as it yanked back. That slowed down the extraction just enough for its presence inside Sandoval to overlap with the replacement – we weren’t seeing one intruder come and go, there were at least two working in tandem.

I let the code suck me back down into the safe zone. “Sandoval, I have an idea. Can you change the mathematical base for your fractal encryption during the lapse in time when those intruders swap places?”

“The lapse in time between when one withdraws and the next engages is 3 picoseconds. That is not sufficient time.”

“Could I slow down the replacement intrusion enough for you to do it?”

“It is not possible to predict where the next intrusion will take place. The intruder is using random ports and registry addresses to effect access.”

I was about to change tactics when a new thought occurred to me. “Plot all the access points they haven’t used then try and predict what will come next-“

“There is no definable randomization factor.”

AI that will cut off a human. What next, Skynet? “It’s not truly random, Sandoval. It’ll be balanced across whether the IPs have odd or even addresses, across the months of the year the servers were brought online, based on distribution through the Valley – or the state, or nation – point is the locations are going to balance on some level.”

Sandoval let a full two seconds tick past before it answered. “Regression based on domain names in binary indicates there is a predictable pattern.”

Somewhere out in meatspace I pumped my fist. “Everyone has a weakness, Vinny.”

“I don’t understand. Will you clarify or should I display findings.”

“Show me where the next intruder will be and I’ll slow it down. You flip the encryption while I’m doing that.”

“Understood.” A part of Sandoval’s code… well, got more obvious. There’s no good way to describe how the AI pointed it out to me, but that’s what it did.

“Give me a three second countdown before it shows up.”

“Three.”

I teetered on the edge of sane code once again.

“Two.”

Dove for the marked part of Sandoval’s core.

“One.”

Almost overshot my mark and then –

The intruder was pressing its way into the core right next to me.