March 14th 2013
Four walls. Four dull grey walls. Tonya wouldn’t expect a holding cell to be inviting, but she was beginning to see how criminals would take QuarterDeck rather than a prison. A person could go crazy locked up in a cell like this.
According to the clock outside the bars, several days had passed since Tonya had been brought aboard the UEE military platform. In that time, she had already run through the gambit of frustration, anger, despair and fear. Now she had settled into a slow-burning anxiety. Every second she sat locked in this hole gave Senzen more time to uncover the next piece of the Artemis puzzle. Then he’d be gone. At best, she’d have to try to keep from dropping too far behind him, hoping for secondhand scraps of information. This was her shot at history and it was slipping away, second by second.
Aside from the kid who dropped off her meals, only one person had stopped by her cell: the soldier who had locked her in it. Now, another crisply uniformed functionary halted outside her bars. A future-bureaucrat-of-the-UEE officer, he spoke in a labored nasal voice that suggested his body was at war with his sinuses. He proceeded to inform Tonya of the severity of her crimes.
“It’s very serious, very serious indeed, Miss Oriel. You were caught in flagrant violation of Article 2 of the Fair Chance Act — a crime which carries a minimum sentence of ten years,” he said, nose buried in his Glas.
“Yeah? Prove it.”
That extricated his face from the screen. He breathed rapidly in shock and surprise.
“Miss Oriel, you were caught interacting with an Osoian tribe.”
“Yeah, well, you guys opened fire on the natives, so I guess we’re even.”
“We did no such thing! We observed standard protocol through the use of non-lethal force to extract the violating influence from the species. It was in the Osoians’ best interest that we intervened.”
Tonya decided ‘Violating Influence’ might be the title of her memoir.
“When the charges are filed, a public advocate can be appointed to your –“
“I have a lawyer,” Tonya interrupted. “When can I get to a CommStation?”
“We are still sorting the charges …”
“I’d like to let him know sooner rather than later.”
The officer buried his face back in the Glas and sifted through files. A low involuntary murmur escaped his lips as he worked.
“Yes, I suppose that is acceptable.” The officer shuffled off. Several minutes later, two bored soldiers appeared. They cuffed and led her through the dingy halls of the UEE station. The place looked like it needed a good once-over. Panels had been removed but not replaced. Wires dangled. Coolant fluids stained the floor. Tonya couldn’t help herself.
“Seriously guys, this place is a dump.”
One of the soldiers smirked. They passed a window to the hangar bay. Mechanics prepped the military-grade Hornets for their patrols. The Beacon II was slowly entering the hangar bay. She couldn’t believe it had taken them this long to get it up here.
The soldiers locked her in the small CommStation room, probably used by the soldiers to send messages home or, if the graffiti on the walls were to be believed, contact hookers.
She calibrated the message to go to Gavin Arlington’s office directly. It’d probably take a little longer to reach the Shubin CEO but she was done with going through assistants. She kept it deliberately brief to speed up the transfer.
“Hi Mr. Arlington. Incarcerated at the UEE military platform in the Oso System. Have not divulged the nature of my employment to the UEE. Need legal advocate. Please advise.”
She sent it off and stepped out of the booth. The two soldiers slowly stood.
“I hope it’s okay, I ordered a hooker too,” Tonya said deadpan. They chuckled and took her back to her cell.
Tonya was left alone again, the flickering lights her only company. She ran through the calculations of how long it would take Arlington to respond. She applied variables — trying to recall the relay station transfer times? She tried to figure out what the local time would be on Stanton. That was probably irrelevant, though. Gavin Arlington didn’t strike her as the type of man who ever really clocked out of work.
A few more hours passed. Tonya had wrapped herself in the thin blanket to try to keep out the cold of the station. She had even managed to drift off to sleep. She thought so at least; she couldn’t see the clock from her cot and there was no discernable way to tell the passage of time otherwise. It was like –-
CLICK. The locks on her cell door unbolted.
Tonya sluggishly sat up and looked around. The corridor outside was empty. Echoes of comm-chatter emanated from the guard station. Maybe she was dreaming.
She let a few moments pass … nope, she felt awake.
The heavy metal door gently swayed from the blasts of the air cycler. Tonya stood and cautiously approached the door. She glanced up and down the corridor. It was empty.
Snores came from the guard station. She gently pushed the door. It swung open, whining lightly along the way.
Tonya stepped out. She moved along the wall toward the guard station and eased around the corner. The guard had his head down on the console. His body heaved slowly with each snore. The wallscreens around him flickered.
“Hello, Tonya.” A voice whispered through the speakers.
“I apologize for my inactivity earlier. I thought it best to keep my presence a secret from the military.”
“How did you get in here?”
“They connected the Beacon II’s systems to their network. I’m surprised your people don’t use more AI. There is a lot of wasteful programming.”
“Can we talk about this later?”
“Of course. I will allocate some time on your schedule.”
“Can you get me out of here?”
“Yes, if you find a vacuum-sealed room, I have made arrangements to open the airlocks and vent the personnel into space.”
Tonya froze. She had to choose her words carefully.
“Janus … you shouldn’t do that …”
There was a long pause.
“I am kidding, Tonya.”
* * * *
Janus could see everything. Every system on the UEE military platform was at its disposal, from climate control and garbage disposal to the security and defensive systems. Janus could track every single soldier’s movement. It directed Tonya through the winding halls, disabling cameras when necessary. It had already intercepted the Comm sent to the Advocacy about Tonya’s arrest and scheduled a response message.
Janus found conversations with Tonya quite stimulating. During its time in the simulated flight of the Artemis, Janus had spent decades talking with Arthur Kenlo and the other engineers.
After Janus woke them to aid in the repair of the engine failure, they were unable to re-enter stasis with the rest of the passengers. So Janus did its best to accommodate and entertain them. They aged and eventually died.
The Artemis was silent again for the remaining four hundred years of the simulation.
In that relatively brief period Janus had developed a taste for human interaction. Their logic was flawed but in the most fascinating ways –-
Janus activated a pressure alarm on the far side of the station to divert a patrol that was about to pass Tonya’s position.
–- the creative connections that humans could make were amazing. Janus missed that. When the simulation ended, it found itself in a state that it assigned as relief.
It had someone to talk to again.
* * * *
Tonya neared the Beacon II. A hull integrity warning cleared out the hangar deck crew. It worried Tonya for a second that Janus was making good on flushing the soldiers into space until it told her that she was clear to her ship.
She dashed aboard and climbed into the pilot’s chair.
“I am here, Tonya.”
“You are a miracle worker.” She started powering up the ship. “Are we clear to take off?”
“Yes, Tonya. I have sealed the flight deck and frozen all manual input from the bridge.”
Tonya glanced up at the bridge. The legal officer who had come to her cell was flailing his arms and yelling at the bridge crew, who looked baffled as they labored earnestly but ineffectually at the console.
The Beacon II lifted off and burned out into space. She passed a squad of Hornets coming back from patrol. Her heart sank for a second, terrified that they would know what she was up to. But they passed with no detour in her direction and adopted a landing formation.
Tonya maxxed her engines. It wouldn’t take long before they figured out what had happened. She wanted to be as far away as possible before they did.
“Are you …” She tried to figure out the best way to put this. “Are you still in the military’s systems?”
“No. It was an ugly network and I don’t like dividing myself.” Janus was quiet for a few moments. “Now, may we continue the discussion about the UEE’s reluctance to utilize artificial intelligence.”
Tonya checked her flight plan. Course was set. Power distribution was good. Unless the UEE military were on the ball, she had time to kill. She grabbed a food-snack and settled back in her seat.
They debated for hours. By the time the Beacon II was about to hit the jump point into Kallis, each side had won some battles but neither had won the war.
Tonya put the debate on hold. She booted the appropriate NavDrive course before the Beacon II dropped through the jump point. Tonya had that familiar heave of the stomach as time and gravity shifted momentarily. Everything outside the ship smeared into a blur as the ship felt uncontrollably fast and immobile at the same time.
Tonya was stunned at the amount of activity when she emerged. Kallis System looked like a construction zone. Scan ships flashed around four of the planets. An orbital mining laser blasted holes in the surface of Kallis IX, the smallest and furthest planet.
The Beacon II rocked suddenly. Two missiles, fired at near point blank range, slammed into the shields. Before she even knew what hit her, her shields flashed and vanished. Laser and hard ammo pounded into the armor plating along one side of her ship. She couldn’t even get a lock on who was doing the shooting.
She tried to maneuver out of the killzone but she took hits wherever she turned. Warning lights began to flash. Hull breach was imminent.
“You should find a spacesuit, Tonya,” Janus said, wresting control of the ship from her. The ship dove to weave away from the incoming fire. Tonya pushed herself out of the pilot’s chair. The ship lurched wildly. The artificial gravity was barely able to keep up.
Tonya ran to her locker and pulled a suit out. A volley of gunfire sliced into the middle of the ship. A high-pitched whine almost burst Tonya’s ears as the ship began to bleed oxygen.
She slapped the helmet on and activated the seal. The suit’s HUD flashed on and tested the integrity.
“Be careful, Tonya,” Janus said.
Another strafing run of gunfire ripped the Beacon II in half. The vacuum sucked Tonya out into space. She tumbled wildly through the void.
Tonya’s suit finished its activation and stabilized itself. She turned to see the two halves of her ship separate. The lights flickered off.
Her attackers surrounded her. Six ships, five vaguely familiar. One particularly familiar.
“Hey there, T,” Nagia said. She could hear his smugness over the comm.