Morgan Roche was trapped, and she knew it. Trapped by orders, by circumstance, by the bracelet around her left wrist, and by the stare of the wide-shouldered, middle-aged man standing in front of the main viewscreen of the frigate Midnight .
"We have discussed this before," he said, frowning down at her from his elevated position. The captain's podium normally remained flush to the floor except during battle, but Proctor Klose preferred it at its full one-meter extension. Surrounded by the half-light of the bridge, with its flashing displays and blank-faced officers, he reminded Roche of a half-finished statue--so full of self-importance that, had she not been so frustrated, she would have found him laughable. "Has anything changed since then, Commander?"
"No, sir," she replied. "All I ask is that you reconsider your decision."
Klose shook his head. "Call me inflexible, if you like, but I see no reason to entertain the whims of my passengers."
"It's more than a whim , Captain," she snapped.
"No, Commander," said Klose, the ghost of a grin hovering at the corners of his mouth. "It is not. What you request is clearly outside your jurisdiction."
"Not necessarily." Her free hand betrayed the half-lie by adjusting the tight-fitting neck of her uniform, making her look nervous. When she realized what she was doing, she returned the hand to her side. The cord connecting the bracelet to the valise brushed against her leg as she straightened her posture, but she had learned long ago to ignore it.
"Without access to the relevant information," she said, "I am unable to determine where my jurisdiction lies in this matter. Perhaps if you would explain your reason for denying me access to the capsule, then I might understand."
Klose's frown deepened. "I am not required to explain anything to you, Commander. Need I remind you who is the commanding officer of this vessel?"
"No, sir." Roche gritted her teeth on an angry retort.
"Then I think that concludes our discussion." He turned to face the viewscreen.
Roche remained where she was, unwilling to let the matter rest--although she knew that technically he was in the right. But there was more than the life capsule and its contents at stake. There was a principle .
Klose sighed. "Yes, Commander?"
"Forgive me for saying this, but your manner seems to indicate a resentment of my presence aboard this ship. I hope you have not allowed your feelings to cloud your judgment."
Klose faced her once again, his narrowed eyes displaying an indignation that told Roche her remark had hit home.
The captain of the Midnight outranked Roche, but her superior officer--and, therefore, her mission--outranked his . In the course of their voyage, the unassuming valise she carried had become a focus for every slight, real or imagined. That she carried it because of the cord and bracelet ensuring its permanent attachment to her person, rather than out of any real choice, he seemed to have forgotten. Orders were orders, and she had less choice than he did, if only in the short term. But the basic fact, the one the captain detested, remained: Klose was just a donkey for the courier on his back.
The situation might never have become a problem had it not been for the length of time available for circumstance to rub shoulders with resentment. In six weeks, the gentle but constant friction had generated enough heat to spark flame. The matter of the capsule and its mysterious occupant, although trivial in itself, was the catalyst of a much more significant reaction.
"On the contrary," replied the captain, responding to her comment with frosty politeness. "It is not I who has allowed emotions to interfere. Frankly, Commander, I would say that your curiosity has gotten the better of you."
"I'm an active field agent for COE Intelligence," she retorted. "It comes with the job."
"Nevertheless." Klose folded his arms. "The most intelligent thing for you to do right now is let the matter rest."
"With respect, sir--"
"Commander, the simple fact of the matter is that I am not permitted to allow you to place yourself in a situation that is potentially dangerous."
"I'm quite capable of looking after myself."
"I don't doubt that, Commander. But I think you underestimate the risk--"
"How can I underestimate him if I know nothing about him?"
"`Him'? You seem to have learned too much as it is."
She ignored this. "If you would simply let me view the science officer's report--"
"Which is classified."
"My security rating is as high as yours, Captain." It was higher, in fact, but she didn't press the fact. "At least give me the opportunity to use my position as I have been trained to do."
Klose sighed in resignation. "Very well, then. I will consider letting you view the report, but only after we have arrived at Sciacca's World and off-loaded our cargo. In the meantime, your mission--and mine--is best served by you returning to your quarters and remaining there."
"Shields detecting microimpacts." The voice came from somewhere behind Roche, but Klose didn't take his eyes from hers to acknowledge it. "Captain, we are brushing the halo."
"Please, Commander," he said evenly, gesturing at the exit from the bridge. "Or will I have to have you removed?"
Roche fumed silently to herself. Klose's promises to "consider" or "review" the situation had proven worthless before, and she doubted that this time would be any different. But she had to admit that he did have a point. The Midnight was about to insert itself into orbit around one of the most hazardous destinations in the Commonwealth of Empires; he and his crew needed to concentrate on their work without distraction.
Refusing to concede defeat by speaking, she turned away from Klose and moved toward the exit. The door slid aside with a grind of metal on metal, but instead of stepping through, Roche stopped on the threshold and turned to watch the goings-on of the bridge. It was both a show of strength and a demonstration of her independence.
The main screen displayed an image of Sciacca's World. The grey-brown orb floated in the center of the screen, with the ring of densely packed moonlets that girdled the planet's equator glistening in the light from the system's primary. The occasional explosion flaring from some of the larger rocks made the miniature asteroid belt look deceptively attractive from the Midnight 's distance. Roche knew how dangerous it could be. Some of the moonlets were over ten kilometers in diameter; one slip near something that size would rip the Midnight in two.
Apart from the belt, what really struck her about the view was something that might have been lost on the average deep-space tourist. Few people outside military service would have noted the absence of orbital towers girding the planet; if they had, it was doubtful they would have understood the significance of the fact. To Roche, the planet appeared uninhabited, with nothing but a handful of navigation stations in orbit and the pocket asteroid belt to keep it company--like a reef holding all but the most determined at bay; a shoal around a desert island.
<They call it the Soul--not the shoal ,> said a voice deep in her skull, intruding upon her subvocal thoughts. <The origins of the name are clouded, but one recurring folk myth from the planet's inhabitants asserts that the band of light--as the asteroid belt appears to those living on the planet--is composed of the souls of people who have died in captivity. The myth of transubstantiation from the mortal to the sublime is common to many repressed societies--but the image is still evocative, don't you think, Morgan?>
The voice fell silent. No one else on the bridge had heard it speak.
"You can go to hell too," Roche whispered, and walked out.
The Retriever Class Frigate Midnight , one of the few ships to survive the Ataman and Secession Wars, had been built around the 43rd-generation anchor drive common in the years '212 to '286 EN. Shaped like a fat sausage, with a shaft containing the drive mechanism running along its axis, she had five levels of concentric decking to house a 450-odd crew, two freight-locks and enough storage space to hold five independent fighters. Artificial gravity, produced as an aftereffect of the drive, had resulted in a sense of down being inward rather than outward as was the case on centrifugal ships. This feature also gave her a degree of maneuverability far superior than that of other ships of her day--which was one reason she endured both Ataman Wars relatively unscathed.
The centuries since, however, had left her behind, despite numerous remods and even complete refits in dry dock. Her drive systems had been replaced in '755 EN, upgrading her to 46th generation and full battle status. Her most recent overhaul had been after service as a supply vessel during the Secession War. In '837 EN, only weeks after the Terms of Revocation had been agreed between the Commonwealth of Empires and the newly independent Dato Bloc, she had received new viewscreens and E-shields but little in the way of either fundamental or cosmetic changes.
To Roche's eyes, as she left the bridge and headed through the cramped and dimly lit corridors to her quarters, the Midnight looked more like a museum piece than an active frigate. Doors clicked and hissed, elevators shuddered, manual systems still operated where in recent ships crude but efficient AIs had taken over. Current hyperspace technology in the COE--kept homogeneous by the nearby Eckandar Trade Axis and its links with the Commerce Artel---stood at 49th generation, three orders of magnitude more efficient and responsive than that propelling the ancient frigate. The discrepancy between the Midnight and other Armada vessels didn't surprise her, however; prison ships were renowned for being poorly outfitted, outdated relics fit for little more than so-called "cattle runs" and other routine jobs.
The uppermost level housed officers and command stations; levels two and three were the crew quarters. The lowest levels contained cells for the transportees heading to the penal colony on Sciacca's World. Roche's room--her own cell, as she thought of it--was the last on the first floor, sandwiched between the drive shielding and a water reclamation plant. Straining engines kept her awake during maneuvers, with bubbling pipes a constant counterpoint. She doubted that the room was used often, being too uncomfortable for either a regular officer or an important guest. As she was neither, it was her dubious honor to be its occupant.
The bulkhead leading to her section slid aside with a noise like tearing metal, jamming as it always did when it was only three-quarters opened. Set into the wall opposite the door was a security station inhabited by a single crewman. He saluted as she approached, recognizing her on sight, and she returned the gesture automatically. Behind him, a battered flatscreen followed the progress of the Midnight .
The view of Sciacca's World hadn't changed much. The Midnight 's contingent of fighters, standard escort for a prison ship, had adopted a defensive configuration for planetary approach.
Catching the direction of her glance, the crewman nodded. "Almost there," he said. "Not that we'll see much of it."
Roche felt compelled to respond, although her anger at Klose still burned. "We're not landing?"
"No, sir. We'll simply dock at Kanaga Station to off-load the cattle and to refuel." He shrugged. "No one goes down; no one comes up. That's the rules. No one escapes from this place."
"What about staffing changes?"
"Oh, DAOC sends a shuttle every year or so, independent of us. This is the fifth time I've been this way, and it's always the same. Occasionally we bring supplies to trade for service credit, but not this time. I wouldn't let it worry you though, sir," he added quickly, mistaking her dark expression for concern. "It's all very routine."
Roche nodded distantly--the last thing she needed at the moment was more routine--and continued on her way. The entrance to her room lay at the end of the corridor. Halfway there, the voice inside her head spoke again. She ignored it. It wouldn't do for the crewman to hear her talking to empty air. Rumors had spread as it was.
With a sigh of relief, she keyed the palmlock and opened the door to her room. Stale air gusted past her face as pressures equalized, indicating a faulty valve somewhere in the life-support system. Nothing serious; just an irritation. No doubt it was on a maintenance list somewhere, awaiting repair.
When the door slid shut behind her, she ran a hand across her close-cropped scalp and vented her frustration on the empty room.
" Damn him."
"Klose. Weren't you listening?"
The voice in her head chided her gently. <You know that I am unable to study information to which I have no direct access. Besides, it would be immoral to eavesdrop without your permission.>
Roche doubted both statements but kept her thoughts to herself, not wishing to encourage conversation. A short corridor led from the doorway to a small work space; the far end of her quarters housed a toilet, bathroom, and sleeping chamber. In cross section, the space was shaped like a narrow triangle with the door at its apex, its size dictated by the space available rather than by comfort or aesthetics. Nowhere within it was there room for someone of her height to lie fully outstretched, let alone swing a cat.
The voice remained silent, perhaps considerate of her mood for a change. Before it could begin again, she walked to the work space and put the valise on the desk. The cuff was made of monofilament cord wrapped in black leather and ended in the bracelet that fitted around her left wrist tightly enough to prevent it slipping loose--or being removed by force--but not so tight that it caused her discomfort. Tiny contacts on its inner surface matched nodes on her skin, which in turn patched into a modified ulnar nerve leading up her forearm and into her spinal column, thus enabling data to flow in either direction. The voice in her head--intrusive, often unwelcome even though it was her only company--was not so much heard as insinuated directly in the aural centers of her brain.
Flipping open the valise's grey lid, she studied its interior with an emotion bordering on hatred.
"Oh, for an axe," she whispered out loud, although she had no need to.
<It wouldn't do any good, Morgan,> said the voice. <I am graded to withstand-->
"--a nuclear strike from one hundred meters." She nodded wearily. "I know, I know, but if it wasn't for you I wouldn't be in this mess. Can you understand how frustrating it is to be cooped up in here with nothing to do?"
<As a matter of fact, Morgan, I can.>
Roche bit her lip. Of course it understood. The AI's previous environment had been the massive information workshops of Trinity, the planet of its birth. There, protected by the system's neutral status, secretive craftspersons in the service of High Humanity produced the AIs of the COE--rare and precious mind-machines lovingly crafted by carefully guarded techniques. Few people were allowed onto the planet itself, and she had been no exception. As she'd waited in orbit for the envoy from the manufacturers to arrive, then for the Midnight to collect her on its way past the system, she had had almost a week to watch the world below, but had learned little. Only a handful of what might have been cities were visible above the smoky-orange surface of the planet; apart from a ring of five skyhooks circling the equator, there was little sign of advanced life. And yet ...
Somehow she had been rendered unconscious prior to their arrival. She had no memory of the High Caste manufacturers--who they were, what they looked like, or how they behaved. There was just a blankness, after which she had woken in her singleship with the valise already strapped to her. The experience had been dreamlike, surreal--and frustrating. Such levels of secrecy were paranoid to an extreme--all for the sake of technology no mundane Human could understand anyway.
The valise's imitation cover fitted over an ebony rectangular box with a small keypad of touch points and recessed nodes along its top. The heart of the valise was a densely packed mass of complex microtechnology, crammed neatly into the small space available, both shielded and camouflaged by the shell of the briefcase itself. Molded in superhard composite along the inside of the lid was the AI's identification tag: JW111101000, one digit longer than usual. Without a name in the usual sense of the word to fall back on, Roche resorted as billions of people had before her to popular slang. In this case, the term "Black Box" was even more appropriate, given the shape of the AI's container.
"The sooner we're back in HQ, Box, the better."
<I agree, Morgan, although I feel no distress at our union; I am a burden upon you, not the other way around. If it makes you feel any better, it should take only another six weeks to reach Intelligence HQ.>
" Only six weeks ..." She forced a short-lived smile. "If it wasn't for Klose being so pedantic, I'd probably enjoy the break from normal duties."
"I don't want to talk about it." Swiveling the room's only chair to face the workstation and placing her left palm on the contact pad, she activated the console and called up the ship's outlet of the Information Dissemination Network. IDnet granted her access to all nonrestricted data, from the volume of processed foodstuff in the Midnight 's holds to current affairs on any of the worlds in the COE. Raw data coursed up her arm into the small processor at the base of her skull, where it was interpreted as visual and audio signals and routed to the implanted systems in her left eye and ear. Her implants were by no means the most sophisticated available--lacking three-dimensional clarity and line-of-sight commands--but set her above ninety percent of Armada employees. Such subtle means of communication were sometimes required of Intelligence operatives, so these basic implants were standard to all of her rank.
A virtual screen appeared over her field of vision, seeming to hang two meters from her, impossibly deep in the bulkhead. Skimming at random through the channels, she found a station devoted to general COE news and settled back to discover what the rest of the universe was up to. Try as she might, however, her mind kept returning to Klose and his reasons for denying her what she wanted, while the patient, steady voice of IDnet murmured into her ear, an incessant counterpoint to her thoughts.
// in the wake of crippling solar flares, which destroyed asteroid mining facilities and a hydrogen purification plant in orbit around the system's innermost gas giant. Ede Prime's Presiding Minister today released a statement exonerating two members of her advisory staff who yesterday committed ritual suicide, after it was revealed that the Eckandar Trade Axis has been conclusively linked to corruption within a local chapter of the Commerce Artel //
Ship and captain: for better or for worse, their destinies and characters were intertwined. The post of ship command, contrary to popular opinion, offered not liberation but a lifetime of snaillike confinement. With a prison strapped to his or her back, unable to shrug free even for a moment, every captain had the power to travel vast distances but in reality no more freedom than any of the convicts on Sciacca's World.
Few deep-space commands led to promotion, at least in the COE Armada; captains quickly learned that the chance of achieving advancement via success in battle was slim, as battles themselves were rare and usually fatal to those involved, and most missions were more concerned with distribution of resources across that region of the galaxy than the expansion of the COE--the Commonwealth of Empires, which had ceased expanding entirely some centuries ago and indeed had, upon the secession of the Dato Bloc, begun to shrink. If they failed to die in space, captains inevitably retired to one of the bleak Space Command planets (whose very architecture mirrored deep-space engineering) and spent their remaining days reminiscing about imagined glories. Meanwhile their ships, unfaithful lovers at best, flew on, piloted by younger versions of themselves who were no less doomed than their predecessors. Doomed to a life of confinement, first in their ships and later in retirement or death.
In a very real sense, then, Proctor Klose was the Midnight , but only for a little while. Jealous of his small command, he would resist any attempt to undermine it. And therein lay the problem.
Roche didn't want to take over. She just wanted something to do. Armada training had prepared her for a wide range of combat scenarios, not months of being cooped up on a worn-out frigate acting as nursemaid for an artificial mind. She knew she should be patient, and perhaps even grateful for the undemanding task, but it wasn't in her nature to sit still for long. She wanted to move, to act, to investigate.
// shock discovery of remains in the Greater Vexisen Republic dating the emergence of Pristine Humanity into the wider galaxy fifty thousand years earlier than the previous best estimate. Renowned xenoarchaeologist Linegar Rufo, nominal overseer of the excavation, was not available for comment, but acting overseer Dev Bogasi commented that "This find represents the most exciting development in the field for over five hundred years. I'm not saying we've found the ultimate source of the Human race, but we're well on the way. The further back we push the envelope--and we're up to half a million years, now--the closer we're coming to a pure genetic strain. Give us another discovery of this magnitude and I predict we'll be able to narrow our field of search to a handful of //
Feeling the tension knotting her muscles, Roche shifted in her seat and unbuttoned the tight collar of her uniform. Brooding on it wasn't going to do her any good, and talking was better than doing nothing. The Box wasn't the confidant she would have chosen, but she had no choice. It was either that or go stir crazy.
"To be fair, Box," she said, picking up the conversation where she had ended it earlier, "it's partly my fault. You remember that derelict we picked up seven days ago?"
<I do recall it in the daysheets.>
"Well, I've been hearing rumors among the crew--"
An all-stations announcement interrupted her, warning the crew and transportees alike of imminent deceleration. The Midnight had come out of the anchor point at the edge of the system seven days earlier; this final maneuver would bring the frigate into an inclined polar orbit around the planet, dipping through the belt of moonlets once every two hours. Within moments of the announcement, the engines groaned through the bulkheads of Roche's room, and a wave of rattles and clatters shivered through the ship.
<You were saying, Morgan?>
"Hang on." She adjusted the workstation to bring up a view of the planet, overlaying IDnet. "It's nothing, really. The derelict was a life-support capsule with one man inside."
"Apparently. No one knows where he's from, though, which makes me curious. The other eight capsules we picked up coming here all contained survivors ejected from the wreckage of the Courtesan , the passenger cruiser that broke up near Furioso. But this one ... They don't recognize him. I asked Klose if I could interview the man, but he told me to mind my own business." She shrugged. "That's it, I guess."
She didn't mention the other snippets of gossip she'd heard: that the capsule had been drifting through space far longer than usual before being detected by the Midnight , and that its design was anything but orthodox.
<Your curiosity is understandable, Morgan,> said the Box. <And commendable.>
The AI's overt praise surprised her. "It is?"
<Of course. The man in the capsule might be anyone. He might even be a threat to your mission, a saboteur posing as a castaway to cover his true intentions.>
"That doesn't seem likely."
<Nevertheless, it is a possibility. The capsule might contain a bomb, or some sort of communication device. Or a virus. I am, after all, an information-retrieval device--albeit one of spectacular sophistication.>
"Not forgetting modesty," Roche cut in.
The Box ignored her. <The point is, Morgan, that the plan may not be to destroy me, but to corrupt my function.>
Roche rubbed her chin thoughtfully. She hadn't considered this possibility before. The Midnight had been chosen as the vehicle to carry the Box because its route to Intelligence HQ was circuitous, not the direct route one might expect for such an important cargo. If the man in the capsule was a spy, all he had to do was ascertain that the Box was definitely aboard this ship, instead of one of the many decoy ships, and notify his superiors.
It was barely plausible, certainly not likely.
And it didn't make sense, not if the capsule was older than the plans to ferry the Box to Intelligence HQ. Still, it would be an interesting point to raise when she and Klose were next at loggerheads.
// until the vector has been isolated and the outbreak contained, all scheduled traffic in- and out-system--including that for the purpose of trade and Armada activity--is either severely restricted or canceled indefinitely. Anyone attempting to break the blockade will be in violation of the Commonwealth of Empires Security Act and liable to face the severest penalty, by order of Chief Liaison Officer for the COE Armada, Burne Absenger. Repeat: Palasian System has been declared a no-go zone as a result of a Class Three Medical Emergency //
The Midnight 's engines roared again, swinging its ponderous bulk around to the correct attitude for polar insertion.
"So this is the way you spend your time, Box. Is there anything that could go wrong that you haven't thought about?"
<Of course there isn't. The datapool of this ship is too small to provide stimulating conversation, and I am hesitant to intrude upon you any more than I already do. I am therefore left with one means of amusement: to explore possible situations and prepare contingency plans.>
Before it could answer, a red light flashed in the virtual screen, indicating a deviation from the mission plan. She returned her attention to the view of the planet and its attendant asteroid belt--"the Soul," she reminded herself. The halo of moonlets had grown in size dramatically; individual motes of light now stood out against the indistinct glow of dust and pebbles. Nothing seemed immediately out of the ordinary, so she superimposed a navigation overlay across the view. Multicolored lines defined the vectors and mass of the largest rocks, while bold green angles indicated the Midnight 's orbital approach. The latter should have been clear of all obstacles larger than the frigate's shields could handle, but it wasn't.
Four red circles--ships, judging by their mass and velocity--occupied the exact center of the Midnight 's path.
"That's strange," Roche mused, more to herself than to her artificial companion. "The corridor should be clear by now."
<I agree,> replied the Box. <I am monitoring this development through the bridge log. The ships moved into this orbit fifteen minutes ago and have not made any attempt to alter their course since then.>
<Surface scan indicates ore freighters from the Eckandar Trade Axis, although their size suggests otherwise.> The Box hesitated for the briefest of moments, as though scanning data. <Captain Klose has received a communication from the commanding officer of the largest ship. It is this woman's opinion that she has right of way in this corridor, and that the Midnight should adjust its course to compensate. We will overtake the nearest vessel in approximately fifteen minutes. A course correction is required shortly. Captain Klose has denied her request.>
"Typical." Roche could well imagine the Midnight 's captain fuming at the woman's impudence. All maneuvers by the Armada were booked well in advance; there was no question that Klose was in the right. That didn't mean, of course, that he couldn't do the courteous thing and oblige her, but it wasn't in his nature to deviate from the regulations one iota. Not for COE Intelligence, as Roche knew well, and especially not for a civilian.
<A compromise has been reached,> announced the Box shortly. <The captain of the freighter will instruct her ships to spread their formation. The Midnight will pass between the three smaller vessels without need for course correction in--fourteen minutes and seventeen seconds.>
" Between the freighters?" Roche frowned, concerned.
<Although unorthodox, the maneuver has been authorized by Kanaga Station traffic control.>
"That's not what worries me. What if they're freebooters? We'll be at a disadvantage should one of them take a shot at us. It goes against everything I learned in Tactics."
<It would seem that Captain Klose does not share your concern.> Something in the Box's tone suggested that it was playing devil's advocate, rather than honestly defending the captain.
"Captain Klose is--" A fool , she had been about to say, but thought better of it. He had traveled this route many times, after all, and knew its dangers better than she. A course correction would cost them energy and delay their docking at Kanaga Station. Why should he give way, when he was so obviously in the right? Besides, fears of freebooting and other forms of treachery seemed naive even to her.
"--just doing his job, I guess," she concluded with a sigh, and settled back into the chair to watch the approach. The red circles on the navigation display drifted apart, widening like a mouth to swallow the Midnight . Although she was no longer protesting, she was unable to quell the flutter in her stomach.
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Copyright © 1999 Sean Williams and Shane Dix. All rights reserved.