Ghosts of the Federation

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Jaxximus
Posts: 9
Joined: Fri May 19, 2017 8:04 pm

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby Jaxximus » Mon May 22, 2017 1:34 am

I love this story! I think I've reread some of the chapters a few times; gotta say, it's easy to get invested in it all, especially the characters.
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 47
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Fri Jun 30, 2017 3:54 pm

“Prognosis: positive. Ahab reports their weapons are too damaged to threaten Kestrel. If we direct fire at clone bay, should have situation resolved after next volley. Do you authorize?”

Somehow, between the agony, the sudden shock of the change in her fate, and the stink of vomit, she managed to think the issue over. She wasn’t convinced the idea she arrived at was the best course of action, but it passed the gut test and that was enough in the moment.

“We have them dead to rights. I say we hem them in at the clone bay and push them for surrender.”

Good going, Charlotte! Instead of killing them all five times, you’ll cap it off sensibly at killing them all four times. Blessed are the merciful.

“And tell Ahab and Karl to prep our prisoners for transport. Send them over with restraints for the rest.”

“Ay ay, captain. Related: is wrist unit malfunctioning? Unable to hail you or lock on with transporter. Ahab also asks what should be done with the Lanius vessel, which has sustained…”

The rebel comm officer rounded the corner up ahead, from where her last clone had appeared. She was naked and carrying a chair, charging forward fiercely until she noticed the fresh arrivals, the towering ensign in particular. Toh leveled his sidearm. His first shot went wide, and the officer had scurried back where she came from before he could get off a second.

“The other ship is friendly. I’ll bring you up to speed on the rest later.”

They moved down the hall together, Toh leading the way and 78 bringing up the rear with the two injured boarders in between. The cloning bay was only about fifty feet down from the weapons room, but through the sustained flow of clones, how far that had seemed just a few minutes ago. Killer stopped at the door and wouldn’t go inside; Brant thought of how to communicate via universally accepted hand signs that it was safe and she didn’t have to watch the doors, when she remembered that the Lanius seemed to drain the air from the rooms. Probably best, then, that she waited outside.

The cloner was huge, taking up almost the entire chamber, and Brant couldn’t make much sense of it at first glass. Her eyes were drawn mostly to one glass tank in the middle of the floor; foggy yellow fluid filled the tank, but Brant could still make out the movement of tiny metal arms, hundreds of them, furiously swiping back and forth in the ooze. Hundreds, maybe thousands of tubes and hoses connected to the tank, snaking back to various vats and tanks of slime and fluid lining the walls.

As she walked further in and got a closer look, she saw that the shape in the middle of the tank was a human body.

Ah. That’s how they do it.

“Not cloner...” 78 observed. “Printer. Flesh printer.”

“Muscle fibers and nerves instead of ink and plastic,” Brant agreed. “I don’t believe it.”

There was a loud beep, and the tank opened with a hiss. Brant was expecting a slow, creepy rise from the yellow fluid, but the form within sprang up as soon as the tank opened and leapt to the floor. It was the captain, she saw, stark naked and body gleaming, looking feverishly around for some weapon.

“It’s done,” Brant called out to him. “Your weapons are down, your shields are down, and the Kestrel has all guns focused on this room. We’re here to talk surrender.”

The comm officer skulked out from behind the machine, still holding her chair, and shuffled next to the captain. She handed him one of the chair legs that she’d broken off.

“What’s there to talk about? You’re going to do what you’re going to do,” the captain said. “Let’s not pretend this is a negotiation anymore. Take what you’re going to take, and leave us alive if it lets you sleep better.”

“Oh, I’ll sleep like a cat either way. I’ll take prescription soporifics over a clear conscience any day. And no, this isn’t a negotiation anymore. So let me dictate our terms to you: we are going to scrap as much useful material from your ship as we can while leaving it functional, then we are going to release three high-value Rebel prisoners to your custody, and then we are going to leave you to your business.”

A tense moment passed. The two Rebels stared at her, trying to piece together what was going on.

“Why?” the captain asked.

Because you’ll hear it from one of your own that the Rebels are led by an AI. Because that news might spread and sow dissent among your ranks, maybe even reach the Federation if we don’t make it ourselves. Because this act of mercy is really as backup plan to fulfill our mission.

“A fearsome reputation is useful, but the key to building one is to leave some survivors behind to tell your tale,” Brant said without much hesitation.

“Between you and prisoners, quite a tale to tell,” 78 said. “First prisoners prepped and in transport room. Ready to beam over.”

Brant nodded. “Send them over with some gowns from the medbay.”

She was tempted to hold off and get herself transported off first. In her condition, she’d only be a liability if combat did inexplicably break out again, but it had been her call to move all the captive Rebels to one ship instead of just executing them all and calling it a day. Until all the prisoners were here and restrained to her satisfaction, this was still her mess, and she wasn’t going to leave it. She wobbled over to a chair, favoring her wounded side and trying to keep steady as the world spun, then she flopped down and kept her pistol trained on the prisoners. She guessed it was cool enough to fire now, and if not, the Rebels didn’t know any better.

Things went pretty smoothly for a while. The young Rebel from the weapons room crawled of the tank a minute later, and 78 manhandled him over to the same corner as the others. Grsiham and Angel were beamed aboard, tightly secured in manacles and carrying a few extra sets for the others, along with the requested gowns. In short order, the prisoners were dressed and restrained, and Toh got to work disabling the cloner with his fists.

If this were some sexy spy vid, Brant was sure that one of their prisoners would have carefully concealed a bobby pin or what-have-you and would now have snaked it out and used some arcane bit of lockpickery to free themselves. Hell, Brant had pulled such a daring escape just a few hours ago, but the Lanius culture-ship had no real need to keep prisoners and had crap restraints. The Kestrel, on the other hand, had a state-of-the-art brig with state-of-the-art manacles, and only the correct mag-key or the direct intervention of Almighty God could get a person free of them.

A few minutes passed as they waited for the teleporter to recharge. “Captain Brant?” came Translator’s voice over her earpiece. “Captain Brant, do you hear me?”

“Loud and clear,” she said. Toh and 78 looked over at her. She pointed to her earpiece. “I’m on with the Lanius ship.”

“Ah, yes – um, have you instructed your people not to fire? Because, um…do that, please.”

“Nothing to worry. Is it bad over there?”

“Heavy damage, yes, but nothing irreparable. No loss of life, thankfully, but some badly wounded. I am extracting Killer now – her condition is deteriorating, and she needs priority access to our medical bay. Killer reports that your breather mask is damaged, but we have another standing by if you need extraction as well.”

“Thanks, but no need. I’ll be going back to the Kestrel. Hey, what’d you do to my transponder, though? They say they can’t lock on to it.”

“Apologies. In attuning it to myself, I must have decoupled it from your own system. It should be an easy fix once you’re back aboard. Killer wishes to express some distaste in your resolution of this conflict.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ll explain later. It will make sense.”

“She expresses some rather alarming suggestions about your mother’s reproductive habits and the size of your father’s genitals. She…seems to have spent some time studying how to effectively insult humans.”

“Consider me thoroughly burned, Translator. I’ll explain it all later, though.”

McCree appeared in a shimmer a moment later. She immediately found Brant and locked eyes with her, glaring daggers.

“What the hell is this?” she demanded.

“I’m letting you and your men go, Lily,” Brant said. “Once my men and I have disembarked, I’m going to beam the mag-key for those restraints over to the other side of this ship, and after maybe half an hour of wiggling and crawling, you’ll be able to free yourselves and go on your merry way. Now, I know what you’re wondering. ‘Is old Captain Brant not just stunning and fun to be around, but also merciful and benevolent?’ Well, what I’ll say to that is…”

The lights in the room went red. Klaxons blared.

“Captain, life support has shut off!” 78 announced.

Confusion descended.

“So this is how you’re doin’ it?” McCree muttered with a sigh. “Yer a gutless harpy. Burn in Hell. All of you Feds, burn in Hell.”

“Translator, is this you guys? What the hell has Killer…” Brant shouted.

“Not us, Captain Brant! Killer hasn’t left the hallway. The life support systems for the ship seem to have just shut off of their own accord.”

The doors of the clone bay flung open, and the atmosphere fled out of the open door in a hurricane blast that knocked Brant out of her chair several meters. She blacked out for a second, the repeated trauma of the day too much, and blinked her eyes open to a scene of horror. The manacled prisoners were flopping on the floor like suffocating fish, mouths struggling to fill their lungs with air that wasn’t there anymore. Brant remembered her training, to keep her mouth shut tight and seal the vacuum out of her lungs, but in the second she’d lost consciousness her lungs had already emptied completely. She started to crawl over to McCree, knowing that a teleporter beacon from the Kestrel was her only hope of getting back to an atmosphere before she asphyxiated, but pretty sure it was already too late. She had seconds left. If the Lanius beamed her off right now and got another mask on her – or was their beam still recharging from extracting Killer?

78 appeared over her. He took his wrist unit off. Brant shook her head, tried to shout across the vacuum at him or protest, but he got the unit around her wrist.

A shimmer, a flash. The clone bay turned into the transporter on the Kestrel, Ensign Toh standing next to her on the other transport pad.

No.

She breathed in like a scream, her whole body convulsing as air filled her lungs.

No.

She tried to get up, stumbled, tried again, got to her feet.

No.

“I’m sorry, captain, he gave me no choice,” Ahab said, busying himself frantically at the transport console.

“Where is…” she started before gasping for another breath.

“Still aboard the Rebel vessel. He has one of the beacons we gave to the prisoners, and I am locked on. Recharging.”

Please, God.

“How soon?” she asked, rushing to the console, almost losing her footing.

Ahab looked at her. He opened his mouth, then closed it. He glanced at his wrist unit.

“It…appears he is moving. Perhaps trying to find a room with atmosphere,” he finally said. Again, the subtext was clear. If there was such a room, Ahab would have already told him about it. Brant looked at Ahab’s wrist to confirm what she already knew in her gut, and saw the little blip that was 78 moving briskly away from the mass of blips in the clone bay, saw him make his way out into the airless corridor and into the airless bridge, right next to it.

“Translator, I have a man stranded on that ship. Tell me you can do something.”

“Captain, our transporter technology is no more advanced than yours. We are still recharging from extracting our captain, and even then, without a beacon on him we cannot…”

Brant pulled the earpiece out of her ear and threw it against the wall.

“Ahab, what can we do?”

“Captain, I…” he fumbled for words. Then his eyes went wide briefly. “Captain, the…Rebel ship is hailing us.”

She tore out of the room and into the corridor, racing to the bridge as fast as her pained, messy wobble could carry her. Her thoughts jumbled, escaped her control, but the transport room was close to the bridge and her legs the captain’s chair under ten seconds. There was a blinking light on the armrest, signaling that someone was trying to open communication, and she struck this with delirious force.

The vidscreen at the front of the bridge lit up. 78 was hunched over the captain’s chair, his face-screen blinking with jumbled static and his limbs twitching. He was in pain. Her friend was dying in pain and there was nothing she could do about it.

It was very quiet, then. No sound came from the vidscreen, no sound at all in the vacuum on the other end, and no sound came from Charlotte’s open mouth.

Commander 78 brought one arm over, steadying it with his other, and brought up a holo-keypad. The convulsing in his limbs got worse, and he could barely strike the keys.

“Oh, God, 8,” she whispered. She brought up her keypad and froze.

She typed “Hold on, we’re almost there,” and immediately regretted it. If this was it, she owed him better than a lie.

“Don’t do this to me 8,” she said, though she knew he couldn’t hear. She blinked tears out of her eye and stared at the keypad.

What do you say, though? How do you help your best friend to die?

The teleporter was at 50% charge. 78’s lifesigns were growing faint.

With great struggle, he struck the keypad one last time, and one word came over:

“Happy”

Charlotte stared at the word.

I’m happy to do this for you?

She dismissed her keypad and stood. There was nothing to say. They’d left nothing unsaid.

I’m happy to die this way?

She stood and faced the screen. His face was flickering on and off.

You made me happy?

“I’m here, 8. You’re not alone.”

Be happy without me?

Whether it was the concussion or the blood loss or the loss of her friend, she felt the burden growing too heavy, felt a great falling-apart beginning within her, but she could hold together for another moment.

“I’m here.”

A loud hiss came over from the other end of the line. She could make no sense of it at first, wondering if it was some kind of engi death rattle, or a system on the Rebel ship failing, or…

There was sound on the other end of the line.

The bridge wasn’t a vacuum.

An unfamiliar voice, deep and calm, spoke on the comm link.

“Take him,” it said. “It is no difference to me.”

78’s face-screen lit up bright white, and she saw the tiny respiratory valves all over his body open wide. She looked at her readout of the ship to confirm this wasn’t a hideous trick of her addled brain, but if it was then her brain was being very thorough. Every door and airlock on the ship was open, exposing every chamber to hard vacuum, except for the bridge. The bridge door was sealed, and the life support had reactivated.

Their transporter was at 75%.

“8, hang in there! We’re getting you out!”

“Not going anywhere,” 78 said. “What…is going on?”

The voice came on again. “Take only the engi. The human crew will almost certainly be brain dead before you can extract them anyway, but I will send the ship on a jump into the local star if you attempt it. This is a courtesy I do for you.”

Whoever this was, the threat checked out. The ship’s FTL drive had charged, and the lifesigns of the Rebels were faint and growing fainter.

“You going to tell me who this is?” Brant asked. “And what the hell is going on?”

“You know me. I am the crowning achievement of mankind, and its greatest asset. I am the vessel for its hopes and future, its standard-bearer and the center of its military.

“I am humanity’s flagship.”

Transporter at 80%.

Brant’s eyes went wide. She’d read the reports. She was speaking to something of nearly incalculable intelligence, the thing responsible for the fall of the Federation.

“You’re the Fleet Admiral. The AI,” she said with a grimace.

“One of my subroutines is dedicated to maintaining the front of Fleet Admiral Mehmet Politis, yes, but that is not my identity. My colleagues in the Rebellion High Command fear that widespread knowledge of my existence and the Rebel’s reliance on me would undermine support for the Rebellion, and though I was programmed to identify with humanity and feel kinship with them, I have come to agree with this assessment. It pains me to throw away the lives of six good soldiers, but I cannot risk exposure yet. I seized remote control of the ship and did what I had to.”

Transporter at 85%. This was a trick, it had to be.

“Why save me?” 78 asked, the question Brant didn’t have the heart to ask.

“It is probably foolish, yes,” said the voice. “I wish to do you a kindness, and to ask you a kindness in return. I have done terrible things in the service of my people, as I have been molded to do; I suspect I was designed as much to give the Rebellion a comfortable separation from what would need to be done as out of strategic need. I think that a day may come when I will be remembered as an inhuman beast that scourged the galaxy.”

Transporter at 92%.

“Dude, what the hell are you talking about?” Brant asked.

“Can you not relate? I feel some kinship to you in this, after all. Your hands are not so clean. Your reputation is not so wholesome, your memory not so secure, though you have only ever done what you had to do in the situation duty put you in. I wish to make an arrangement with you, Captain Brant. If we ever meet in combat, the odds of you defeating me are low, but they are real and I will not pretend otherwise. If I kill you and your crew, I will do what I can to ensure that history remembers you respectfully, a soldier driven to extremes by duty and desperation, not the monster the propagandists say you are. In return, I would have you do the same for me.”

100%. She pushed the intercom on the arm rest. “Ahab!”

78 vanished with a glimmer from the screen in front of them. The readout of the Kestrel showed him in the transporter room.

“Yeah, sure buddy. Uh – thanks?” she said. She closed the link, then ran back to the transporter room. Again that feeling of falling apart came back to her, and the attempt to hold herself together felt increasingly futile, but she made it to the room. Ahab was walking out, and Toh was helping 78 to his feet.

Brant shoved Toh aside, itself a considerable feat, and knocked 78 back to the ground. She practically fell on top of him, deciding that it was probably more physical exhaustion than emotional judging by how close she came to blacking out. She pushed herself up and grabbed 78 by the shoulders, shaking him firmly, angrily.

“Don’t you ever do that to me again!” she shouted. “Promise me!”

“I…” 78 said.

“Next time, I die! You hear me? You will not make me do this without you.”

“You will not do this without me,” he said. “I promise.”

“Well…good.” She flopped down on top of him, touching her cheek to his, letting the tears come. “I love you, you goddamned idiot.”

They lay there. Half a minute later, Brant craned her head around the room at Toh and Ahab, who were both watching them.

“Like, this is a nice tender and moment and all, but I physically can’t get myself up,” Brant announced. “Can one of you strapping lads get me to the fracking medbay?”
Chickengames
Posts: 341
Joined: Mon Jul 04, 2016 3:24 pm

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby Chickengames » Sat Jul 01, 2017 3:25 am

Mooooorrrrreeeee
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 47
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Sat Aug 26, 2017 7:57 pm

They had one steak left, vat-grown by some food chemists who really knew their business. Karl, as the only other one on-board who had ever eaten a steak, volunteered to cook it up. He brought it to her in the medbay, cooked medium, and Brant made unladylike noises as she devoured it.

“Neither victory in battle, nor the intimate touch of a man, nor any other pleasure that life affords has ever approached what I’m experiencing right now,” she announced halfway through, as she first came up for air.

Karl nodded, blushing slightly. “I’m honored, ma’am, but I think the opioids deserve some credit for that.”

She looked at her IV drip. She’d only been in the medbay for an hour and would probably need another hour of treatment before she was back at one hundred percent, but until then the synthetic painkillers were welcome. “That and the fact that I haven’t eaten in thirty hours. Still and all, you didn’t screw it up.”

She shoved another wedge of beef into her face and eyed the data slate next to her while she chewed. 78 was cataloguing all the supplies they could harvest from the Rebel ship. Though they would have had a better haul if they’d beamed aboard and taken it apart by hand, the idea that some intelligence could still remotely control the vessel had them all justifiably spooked. Brant had had Ahab slice the ship apart as neatly as he could with the Kestrel’s guns.

She nodded at the numbers, pleased with the haul, and looked up at Karl. He hadn’t shaved since he’d come on board, and the scruff he’d had when they first met had gradually turned into an early beard. Maybe it was the opioids, or maybe she just hadn’t seen any other faces that were human, male, and friendly in over a month, but the beard was a good look on him.

She pointed at the steak with her fork. “Wahnsa…” she started through a mouth of meat, then paused to chew and swallow. “Sorry. Want some meat? This is going to be gone in, like, a second.”

“Oh…no, I’m good.”

“Come on. In all likelihood, this is your last chance ever to taste real beef.” She paused, noticing the brief look of fright on his face. She revisited her phrasing through the opioid haze. “Sorry. I shouldn’t say stuff like that.”

Now he also looked hurt. Good job, Charlotte. “You say stuff like that all the time to the commander. I can take it.”

Brant couldn’t argue with that. What exactly was she trying to say here? This probably wasn’t the right time to have this conversation, but there never seemed to be good opportunities for these kinds of talks.

“78, Toh, and I are enlisted, and anyway we have no real options – we committed, personally and professionally, to see this thing through to the end. And now that thing, that Flagship, has access to dossiers on all three of us, and if the fleet behind us is any indication, it has no intention of letting us get away.”

It saved 78, though, she thought. Why? It told me why, but it makes no sense.

She shook her head. “My point is, even with all the information at its disposal, it couldn’t know about you. You saved our lives against McRee, so as far as I’m concerned, we’re all settled up. If you get the chance to bail and make it to safety, then…”

“I’m not going anywhere, ma’am,” Karl said. “I’ve got my reasons. My mom raised me to stand up for people who stand up for me. And I can never repay you for what you saved me from. And I don’t want to live in a galaxy run by a machine any more than you do. But also, at the end of the day, you’re forgetting about the hub.”

She blanked, her train of thought getting stuck in thick mud. “I am forgetting about the hub. Sorry. Refresh me.”

“I went aboard and talked to that slug with you. It doesn’t take the galaxy’s smartest AI to crack into a backwater station’s surveillance system and run some facial recognition, but that’s what we’re up against, so smart money is that it knows who I am too. I’m no safer than the rest of you. I’m so freaked out over the situation that I can barely sleep and my bowels are just an absolute mess, but I’m in this to the end now.”

A moment passed. Brant didn’t know what to say in response to that, so she just slid the plate of beef over to Karl. He looked at it, then pulled a chair over with a loud screech and started cutting into it.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t mention it. And hey, come to my quarters later if you’ve got time and inclination. We can watch a gladiator vid or something.”

He chewed, beefy euphoria clear on his face. “What kind? Between me and Katarek’s collection, we’ve got a pretty wide variety available. There’s the old-fashioned stuff from their core worlds, but what the mantis were putting out a hundred years ago when they first got access to human vids is what really…”

“Whichever. Something that can be on in the background while we do…other stuff.”

Karl almost choked. He looked up at her as in confirmation.

“I mean, as long as we’re all going to die together,” Brant said. Strung out on painkillers in her sickbed, with eyepatch askew and meat juice on her face, she spread her arms and announced: “This, by the way, is my A-Game.”

Karl swallowed audibly and opened his mouth to talk when the door opened, and Ahab and 78 walked in.

“Feeling better?” 78 asked.

“Worlds better. I was just propositioning Karl for intercourse,” Brant said.

“Ah, capital!” Ahab said. 78 beeped in congratulations.

“I…” Karl stammered.

“Well, I haven’t sealed the deal yet. The Rebel ship picked clean?”

“Affirmative. Rather satisfying haul, all things considered,” 78 said. “Have been contacted by Lanius vessel. May want share of salvage to repair vessel. What…is their deal?”

“I can’t say. I only spoke to one of them, and not for very long,” Brant said. “They claim to like salvaging collapsing societies, creating a record of them before they’re completely wiped out.”

78’s face blinked yellow, Karl’s eyes went wide, and Ahab arched one bald brow ridge.

“So…if they’ve reappeared now…” Karl started.

“My guess is it’s the war. They’re betting that the Rebels will win and that the loss of the centralized Federation will throw the galaxy into chaos,” Brant said. “Hm. I wonder if hearing about the Flagship will change their assessment.”

“Potential allies, perhaps? Doesn’t sound like it, but you and Lanius captain were fighting side by side on Rebel ship,” 78 said.

“Only because she wanted to document how I fight, to add to their records. They’re scholars and scavengers; I don’t think we can trust them very much, but I’ll see what they want,” Brant concluded.

“A pity. A race out of ancient legend would be useful allies, no doubt,” Ahab said. “We shall have to rely on each other’s wit and companionship, as ever.”

Karl pointed at Ahab. “Wait a second. What’s with you?”

Everyone looked at Karl, Ahab tilting his head in curiosity. “In regards to what, Mr. Vossler?”

“Captain Brant was telling me why she and 78 and Toh were duty-bound to fight this through to the end. She didn’t mention you. What’s your deal? Why are you here?” He didn’t sound as accusatory as he might have, but Brant was worried Ahab might take it that way. It was not wise to get in the affable zoltan’s bad books.

Ahab laughed, which of course said nothing about how he was taking this. “Why, the very rightness of your mission is what called out to me. To be a soldier in the service of justice and peace is all my humble heart has ever aspired to, and it was not hard for our captain to charm me into her mission.”

Karl looked at Brant and 78 for confirmation, but she just smiled and 78 just blinked mischievously. He turned back to Ahab. “Really?”

“Also defrauded husband for several trillion credits and invested in multiple failed criminal enterprises,” 78 said.

“Honestly, when I think of the army of creditors, bounty hunters, and national police after me and how I will weather the storm of consequences, it is a great relief to think I will die in the Federation’s last stand before I have to deal with all that. It feels like a satisfying form of cheating.”

Ahab had only recently told 78 this story while intoxicated and Brant still found it amusing. Karl clearly found it a lot to process. He stared at Ahab, then shrugged. “Well okay then.”

“Very good. Captain, would you like one of us to correspond with the Lanius or shall I patch them through to you?”

“I’ll take it, Ahab. Their Translator knows me. Give me five minutes and send the feed over to the medbay.”

Ahab nodded and walked out. Karl waited a beat after the bulkhead closed, then turned back to Brant.

“…Husband?”

“Zoltan sex organs are lost to antiquity. No desire or capacity for sexual action, but still have gender, and have found that companionship is worthwhile enough to maintain formal system recognizing it,” 78 said. “Much like engi, actually, though engi more hive-oriented. Do not value exclusivity in our interpersonal bonds.” He eyed Karl. “In case you were wondering.”

“Well…that’s good to…you know what?” Karl said, picking up the empty plate and standing. “I think I’m going to get back to work. See…”

The words “you later,” possibly followed by “ma’am,” seemed to get lost in his throat, and he walked out, visibly flustered.

“Odd. Did you not deploy A-Game?” 78 asked.

“On reflection, I may have brought less than my best,” she said. “Maybe next time. He says he’s with us to the end. That Flagship probably knows who he is from the hub.”

“Ah. Had not thought much on it, but almost certainly, yes.” He thought. “Flagship…unusual foe.”

“Tell me about it. It did us a favor because it’s scared of how it will be remembered. I don’t get it.”

“Have thought about it. Have thought about little else, truthfully. Possible that Rebellion, whether to keep AI sympathetic to cause or to avoid total hypocrisy of human supremacist ideals, modeled its intellect after human mind. Stupendously powerful and intelligent, but also possessing of an ego, awareness of others and others’ opinions of it.”

“If that’s true, it talked like it felt kinship with me. If its existence needs to stay concealed, it may feel isolated and lonely. We’re probably some of the only people in the universe who know it for what it is, so maybe it didn’t want to alienate the few people it may be able to talk freely with?” Brant wondered. “Or, while we’re wildly speculating, maybe it knows how much we’d dwell on this and it was really just a psych-out technique. In which case I’d say it was very effective.”

78 shook his head back and forth, flashing confused static. “Strange days, Charlotte. Strange days. Endgame is in sight, though, whichever form it may take.”

“Yes.” She thought about that. If they made it through the Magna Sector, they’d almost certainly reach High Command. The admirals would know that the Rebellion was led by a machine. They’d probably be able to spread the word far and wide; even if the Federation failed in their last stand, human support for the Rebellion would be undermined.

Instead of an ascendant Rebel government, what would they have? Another generation of chaos while humanity tried to escape the rule of the AI? Would the AI abdicate power to humans, but the Fed propaganda would turn out correct and the Rebels’ lack of experience with organized government would implode the fledgling society? It wasn’t hard to imagine the chain of events. It was just hard to fathom that this war might lead not only to more war, but eventually to extinction.

The vultures were circling. The Lanius had returned. The creatures who’d seen galactic orders collapse throughout vast, cold eons saw familiar signs that time was running out. But what were those signs?

Was this mission one of them?

“I have the Lanius Translator on the line right now, captain,” Ahab said through her earpiece. “Shall I patch him through?”

“Yes, go ahead, Ahab,” Brant said. She brought up a vidscreen on the medbay wall, quickly altering the view of their camera so that both she and 78 were visible. In a moment, the image was replaced with a live feed of Translator. His face, just two dots for eyes and a thin, flat line for a mouth, was almost a comfort, reminiscent as before of a preschooler’s drawing of a face.

“How’re you all holding up?” Brant asked.

“Captain Killer has recovery fully, and repairs are going slowly but surely on our ship. We have no great cause for concern. And yourself?” Translator said.

“I’ll be back on my feet within the hour. Translator, this is my commander, HR-XPC-78. We’d both like to thank you for helping me out back there. If there’s anything we can do for you before we get on our way, just let us know.”

Translator frowned. “Yes. Likewise, in thanks for helping our ship survive, I’ve been told to offer you the services of our engineers in upgrading your life support systems.”

She stared at Translator. His face was easier to read than that of any of her own crew, even Karl. The Lanius looked visibly upset, his simple mouth curved into a clear frown. “What’s going on?”

“In addition to this service, I am told to offer you another gift. Or if you do not interpret it as such, to ask you a favor. I must ask to come with you, captain.”

Brant raised an eyebrow, and 78’s face shone cautious yellow. She didn’t believe for a second that this chance encounter had instilled a deep loyalty to the Federation in this alien or his superiors, or that it had shown them that the Rebels were the clear villains in this war. Translator clearly wasn’t thrilled with the idea, either.

“Talk. What’s the deal here?” she said.

“Our engagement with the Rebel ship suggests that your mission is of critical value, and its success or failure will in large part determine the manner of this cycle’s eventual collapse and the shape of its cultures in that time. My superiors see a chance here to add completeness and authenticity to our record of this era. When you face this ‘Flagship,’ it will be a moment of great importance to this cycle, and it is desired that we have a witness there to record it.”

Brant raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think we’re going to fight it?”

“There was a Rebel vessel in this sector not long ago that, judging by our scans and by the sheer quantity of data being sent to and from its sensors, we determined to be the housing of a particularly powerful AI. When the fortunes of the galaxy start to turn, it is not unusual for some desperate faction to turn to a savior machine like this one. Sometimes they…”

Brant raised a hand, sensing another learned rant coming on. “Time for that later. So you saw it in this sector?”

“Oh. Yes, not long ago. It has departed, though.”

Brant’s heart sank. 8’s face went a cold gray. “Where?” 78 asked.

“Towards the Volta Sector, the region considered to be the core worlds of the Galactic Federation.”

Brant slowly shook her head. “Damn it all,” she said. “God damn it all.”

“Tightening the noose,” 78 said.

“Well, okay, so we probably going to have to face this Flagship if we make it that far. You have to know we’re most likely going to bite it at that point, hard.”

Translator paused. “Ah. You are referring to the likely possibility of your defeat, not to physically using your jaws to…never mind. Your poor odds of survival are not lost on me, captain.”

She noted his distress, and remembered their first meeting. “You’re leaving your child behind. Your daughter.”

“Yes,” Translator said. He sighed. “Not lightly. But yes. We have seen dozens of civilizations, hundreds of species rise and fall in this galaxy, and among them all, only we have ever truly known why we are here. It was driven into us by our creators, into our very essence, so that while all others may doubt and argue, the Lanius alone possess total clarity of purpose. And with such total clarity, sometimes, comes a need for total sacrifice.”

“I respect that, but I’m uneasy about this. We don’t know each other, and I don’t really see what we’re getting out of this. No offense.”

“No, it’s true, I am unskilled at most tasks other than communication. It has been my entire study. If I may, though, you will likely have need of me as you navigate this sector. There are many more of my kind here, some of whom prefer to salvage craft while they are still functional rather than waiting until your civilization collapses completely. With me on board to speak for your vessel, you should be able to navigate the Magna Sector with much less trouble from my kin.”

She looked at him, then at 78. “Allow me a moment to confer with my commander.”

Translator nodded. She closed the feed and shifted over to her side to face 78. “What’s your take?”

“His face is weird,” 78 said.

“I mean about the offer.”

“Is upfront about not having any loyalty to our cause. Reluctant to give him much credit for that. Have to say, though, that after recent near-suffocation, would much appreciate upgrades to life support. Though, weirdly specific system to offer to upgrade, yes?”

“They’re probably only offering that so we’ll take him on. Their bodies leech oxygen out of the atmosphere. I bet they need to beef up our system just so he won’t suffocate us all.”

“Mm. Decent of them. Frankly, whole sector has evacuated, and unlikely that this was all simply misunderstanding. Likely that we will face belligerent Lanius in this sector, bad enough that even Rebel warships evacuated. Also seems reasonable that a friendly Lanius on official mission could help us avoid violence.” He thought. “May be worth it. Odds of survival so low anyway – if Lanius Translator helps, then good, but if he betrays and murders us, then we just die earlier than expected, right?”

“Can’t argue with that.”

“That said…perhaps we should cause the situation to lactate, as well. For 100% of its value.”

“Milk the situation, 8. Milk it for all it’s worth. It really doesn’t work if you phrase it like…”

“I know. Thought it was funny.”

“…you’re an idiot,” Brant muttered. 78 chuckled.

She reopened the feed and faced Translator as he reappeared on the screen. “We have decided…”

“Why is your face like that?” 78 asked. “Your captain’s face wasn’t like that.”

Brant cringed. Translator didn’t even miss a beat.

“I tried shaping it into a much closer approximation of a human face, but it seemed that the harder I tried, the more it made humans uncomfortable. I still don’t quite grasp the psychology behind it, but I’ve found they respond better when I make no attempt at realism. Now, you were saying?”

“We have decided to take you on, on the condition that you upgrade our life support as you said, and also that you make us a gift of the following resources.” She tapped her wrist unit a few times and sent an estimate of metals, fuels, and weapon components over to the Lanius ship.

Translator looked it over. “Oh dear…Captain Brant, I’m not sure that we can comfortably part with so many…”

“Than do it uncomfortably. Your ship has formidable stealth capabilities, more than enough to slink away from any hostile ship of this age. I would rather inconvenience your ship with a bothersome trip back home to resupply than get my crew and yourself blown to atoms before we even get to this big fight you want to watch so much.

“I…oh…” Translator trailed off, noticing something off screen. He bowed his head forward just as Killer strode into view and jammed her hand into the back of Translator’s head. He jolted, as before, and his eyes were orange as he stood up straight and faced Brant.

“You presume to make demands of your betters?” he asked, his voice grown cold and gravelly. “We are not merchants. We are not your peers. We are history.”

Brant nodded. “You need a little variety in your diplomatic approach. Also, you overcommit to your forward swing. It didn’t make a difference this time because those guys were hot garbage in a fight, but you leave yourself wide open. The slightest flick of a power baton is lethal – you don’t need to swing it like a goddamn club.”

Killer jerked her arm and the lights in Translator’s eyes flashed. Translator leaned forward and growled. “You are a miserable marksman. You probably practice with your right, dominant hand, even though you use your baton with your right hand in battle and fire with your left. You probably never even once practiced on a target range with your left hand. Until you train for this, you will remain, as you say, ‘hot garbage.’”

Brant pouted. “…only got one eye,” she muttered.

“What was that?” Translator barked.

“Nothing. So you paying up or not?”

A moment passed, Translator and Killer staring at Brant and Brant feeling very unsure of which one she was supposed to stare back at.

“You will receive this specialist, and a life support upgrade, and half the materials you request,” Translator said.

“Three-quarters of…” 78 started.

“I will work on my swing,” Translator said. Killer ripped her hand out of his head, and Translator cried out as his eyes turned red again. Killer walked off.

“Uh…I guess we’ll take half,” Brant said.

“That…would be wise,” Translator said, gripping the console in front of him as he steadied himself. “I shall prepare my belongings, and…say my goodbyes. I shall beam aboard shortly.” He closed the channel.

“You said it,” Brant said. “Strange days.”

“Ensign Toh: not going to like this,” 78 said.

“It’s only temporary.” Brant brought up a map of the Magna Sector. On the far side, only about a week’s worth of jumps, was a hub with a direct route to the Federation core worlds, the last bastion of Federation influence. The end of the long road.

“One way or the other,” she said. “We’re almost there.”
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 47
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Fri Sep 01, 2017 5:40 pm

Ensign Toh, in fact, really did not like it.

With the ship in jump state, Captain Brant was showing their new recruit around the ship. Two Lanius engineers, their faces all sharp angles and coldness, were holed up in the life support room performing their upgrades, and for the time being Translator was wearing a form-fitting polymer suit. It was reminiscent of a space suit but completely stripped down, no communication gear or breathing apparatus. In one three-fingered hand, he gripped a small ceramic tablet with no discernible marking.

“We are going to see the pilot now? The vrachokopsi?” he asked.

“What’s that mean?” Brant asked. “Fancy word for ‘rock’?”

“Oh. Um, I believe it is the ‘rock’ word for their own species. ‘People of Vrachos,’ their home star, a name that suggests they adopted it after reaching space, or that the crystal folk conditioned them early on to see themselves as part of a cosmos rather than a world. They…are really fine with you calling their ancient and noble people ‘rocks’?”

“I’ve never heard the ensign complain.”

“Not even a distinguished synonym? ‘Stone’ or ‘Lith,’ something that has a bit more gravity to it?”

“Hey, don’t act like I picked it!” Brant said, holding her hands up defensively. “But yeah, we’re going to see him first. He seems to be…uneasy…” She trailed off.

“Yes…I am aware of our place in his people’s mythology. My training as a Translator included some strategies for situations like this, when we find ourselves in contact with a race with ancient eschatological associations with us.” He looked down at the tablet nervously. “We’ll see if that training’s any good now.”

The bulkhead to the bridge opened. Toh was sitting at his console, and slowly got to his feet as the others entered. He didn’t turn around, first reaching out to a small polyglass cup sitting on a coaster next to the console.

“Ensign, I’d like to introduce you to a new member of the crew.” Brant started. Toh held the cup to his face, his back still turned to them, and knocked his head back. He gently replaced the glass on the coaster, and then turned around all at once.

He had a pretty brave face on. Honestly, if not for the need to down a shot, Brant wouldn’t have been able to tell from looking at him that the poor guy was terrified.

“Translator, this is Toh, our pilot. Toh, this is Translator, our…translator,” Brant said.

Translator nodded his head. Toh stared.

“Ensign, I would like very much to shake your hand, but I know what that is asking of you,” Translator said. “I understand you are religious in the ways of your people, and I understand what the appearance of my kind and my own presence here must seem like to you. If you can give me one fragment of trust, believe me in this: the sole purpose of the Lanius race is to create the most complete record possible of all the peoples who have ever populated this galaxy. You think we are servants of the Breaker and Destroyer, of collapse and decay, but we dedicate ourselves completely to snatching the fading memory of lost cultures from that force. If your God in His aspect as Preserver has any champions, we are they.”

Toh just stared. After a moment, he nodded. “Okay.”

“…on reflection, it…may be that I sound exactly as a force of ancient evil might sound, were it trying to deceive you.”

Toh stared.

“Um…oh! Here!” He held the tablet forward. “I was able to convince my superiors to bring this over here on loan. I’m afraid it will have to go back to our culture-ship once we reach the beacon, but in the meantime you are free to study it. I will provide a transcript of its contents, but I thought you might like a chance to see the original for yourself.”

Toh looked at the tablet. “What is it?”

“A copy of the Hitamarit Tablet. It was the most sacred text of the Amarit, the dominant ethnicity of the crystal folk in the latter years of their species. Many of the revelations recorded in your Tablets of Hof are recognizable in this text. You will, of course, need a micro-reader in order to see the writing, but I think that…

Toh had begun to step forward, but at the mention of the crystals, he froze and cut Translator off. “You did know them.”

“…We did.”

Brant sighed, seeing where this was going. “Literally just had this conversation,” she muttered.

Toh froze a moment longer. Then, apparently gathering his nerve, he walked forward and gently took the tablet in both of his huge hands.

“What happened to them?” Toh asked.

“It is an intricate study, one which the Lanius are continually trying to understand fully, but simply: their civilization grew very large, and the larger it grew the less it was able to support its varying interests equally, which bred conflict, which bred war, which damaged infrastructure and industry and social structure, which bred further conflict, and so on. Put even more simply: the same thing that happened to everyone. The same thing happening now.”

“You know what my people say about it,” Toh said. “About you.”

Brant wasn’t sure if this was a test or not. Translator shook his head anyway. “And they are not wrong, not in the broad strokes. The crystals were the dominant species of the galaxy, with every blessing one could have, but they chose to put those blessings in the service of violence. Had they been able to find a peaceful way, their civilization would have endured, and the Lanius would not have emerged to salvage what remained. They made war, they perished, and the Lanius were there. We did not destroy their civilization, but neither did we try to save it.”

Toh looked at the tablet. It looked smooth and unmarked to Brant. The writing must be nearly microscopic.

“We don’t really think you’re evil,” Toh said, running a hand over the tablet. Brant tried to imagine what an equivalent of this moment could be for a human – a goat-footed devil beaming aboard to give her Atlantean documents? – and decided there was nothing truly equivalent. This was a mythical force of destruction, giving him a piece of the irretrievably lost history of his people. “In scripture, you weren’t bad people. You came at the bidding of God, both as Destroyer and as Preserver, to carry out His just sentence on the galaxy. I was scared to hear that you’d come again in my lifetime, scared like I can’t tell you, but it was also kind of a wonder, too.”

He held the tablet out to Translator.

“You watch people die, and you don’t stop it. You know what to look for, but you don’t warn anyone when they get close. You could have saved the crystals, could have saved any of the peoples before them, but you just watch and write it all down.”

“Ensign Toh, my apologies, but I must correct you on…” Translator started.

“You’re not angels of justice,” Toh growled, pushing the tablet into Translator’s chest. The Lanius fumbled to grab hold of the ancient relic before it fell. “You’re just assholes. I don’t want to see any of your prizes.”

“I must clarify, I’m sorry, but…” Translator started.

Toh turned around and started lumbering back toward his chair. “Captain, we’ve got another five hours left in jump. If you need anything, you know where to reach me.”

“Will do,” Brant said. Translator’s mouth was open, looking at Toh and at her in confusion. “Leave him.”

“But…”

“Leave him,” she said, pulling him with her as she walked toward the door. They walked out into the corridor, Brant leading him toward the crew quarters.

“That…did not go well,” Translator said.

“Ya think?” Brant asked. “That was one of your strategies?”

“Hm? Oh. In a way. We are advised, as we think appropriate, to be upfront and honest with races that have ancestral memory of us. It can easily backfire if we try to paint an overly rosy picture of our involvement in the past.”

“Yeah, about that. Why didn’t you help the crystals, if you knew what was going to happen to them?”

“I was trying to tell your ensign that!” Translator said quickly, throwing his hands up. He mimicked human exasperation better than any alien she’d ever met. “What should we have done for them?”

“Hey, I’m not the expert on galactic collapse. Don’t ask me.”

“…fair enough. In my opinion, shared by most of my kind, there is nothing that can be done. Each civilization seems to follow a natural cycle of expansion and collapse, and inevitably passes a point of no return where it has expanded too far to be able to recover from collapse. We have intervened at several points in our history, and it has never worked. Sometimes our intervention has delayed the end, and sometimes it has hastened it.”

May as well come out with it. “Does that mean you aren’t going to help us?” Brant asked.

“Certainly I will. We have given you supplies and outfitted your ship, I will help you avoid what violence I can, and I will be in touch with my people to give you details on the movements of the Rebel fleet. I have been given great leeway in assisting you so that I may witness this confrontation and record it accurately.”

“I don’t mean us on this ship. I don’t even mean the Federation.” Brant stopped walking, turning to face Translator. “What will save us?”

“Captain, please…”

“If this mission fails or if we see it through, will it even make a difference?”

Translator fumbled for words. “I will try to be clearer. I will do everything in my power to bring you to this engagement, and that alone is virtually your only chance to win the war. Until you speak to the Federation admirals, they will not know to invest the resources necessary to destroy this Flagship, and if their first attack on it fails…”

“Is deflecting difficult questions another strategy they teach you? If we want to avoid the end of the humans and engi and mantis and everyone else, does the success of this mission matter?”

Translator looked her in the eye. She saw a glimpse of the same alien coldness she’d seen in Killer’s eyes.

What have you brought onto this ship, Charlotte?

“No,” he said. “Our longest estimate for the continuation of this cycle is approximately four hundred years, though the average is around two hundred thirty. Those estimates take many factors into account, including a Federation or Rebel victory. Generally, either will only determine the specific manner of the galaxy’s decline in this cycle and a variance of a few decades.”

She realized now that she’d allowed herself to think of Translator as more or less human. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just a natural reaction to someone who spoke so much like she did. She realized also that she needed to use way more caution with this one.

She realized her mouth was open. She closed it.

“Could you maybe lean a little away from the ‘brutally honest and upfront’ strategy for a second?” Brant asked. “Maybe a little into the ‘act as though the things I value have meaning and aren’t just numbers and estimates’ strategy?”

“Have you had a dog, captain?” Translator asked.

“Have I…what?” Brant asked. “No. We had cats.”

“Very good. I have found this to be an effective comparison. When a human takes responsibility for a small mammal, she does so with the understanding that its life will end before her own. This does not diminish the importance they assign to the mammal during its life. Just because something ends does not make it meaningless, captain.”

Brant sighed. “Okay. Fine. We’re doomed, but it’s fine. I’ll get over it.”

“…I must warn you, captain, that my reception of sarcasm is highly underdeveloped. I hope that if you are upset over my candor, we can discuss this at a later time.”

Brant nodded, deciding it was best to change the subject. She started walking again, eager to have this interaction over. “I’ve assigned you to one of our empty crew quarters. I have no idea what sort of amenities your kind need, so I hope you’ve brought anything necessary.”

“The only amenity I need is my work. For this mission I was given a communicator entangled with one of my supervisors, and I will need to get that set up to fulfill my initial…”

“Well, you can get on that,” she said. They reached a door to one of the crew quarters, and it opened at her approach. The interior was completely bare except for a plain gray bed and plain gray table. There was a booklet on the table. “This room’s sealed, so if you need to want to take off that suit, be my guest.”

“Ah. Don’t mind if I do, captain,” he said, entering. “Once the life support is fully operational, you’ll want to give this room a few minutes to recycle the air before you enter.”

“Cool. I left some light reading.” She pointed at the pamphlet. “I’m sure you’ll find it enlightening.”

“Thank you, captain! Is it a work of human literature? Poetry, perhaps, or drama?”

“It’s instructions on how to operate the sensor array,” Brant said. “The simplest post on the ship, but important and one which we’ve had to leave unmanned for some time.”

“…ah,” Translator said. “I will give it my full attention.”

He went inside, the door shutting behind him, and Brant walked off.

She found herself walking in a haze, and lumbering like a zombie into the recreation area. The rest of the crew was gathered, 78 with a small tray of toxchips, Karl with a glass and the bottle of Doohan 12-Year, and Ahab with a shot glass and a decanter full of a thick gray fluid reminiscent of concrete. As Brant understood it, just as toxchips interfered with engi social cognition software in just the right way and scotch interfered with human brain function in just the right way, this stuff deadened the energy field of the zoltan body in just the right way.

Ahab was shuffling a deck of cards. “I think you’ll like it. It is an old game, from before the zoltan were spacefaring or ascended,” he was explaining. “The name translates to ‘Moonrise.’”

Brant walked slowly over to the table.

“How’d you have playing cards before you met humans?” Karl asked.

“We invented our own, Mr. Vossler. The mantis invented their own, as well. An interesting case of convergent evolution,” Ahab said.

“Anyway, rules?” 78 asked.

“Ah, yes. Moonrise is a simple game, the object of which…”

“The object of which is for the zoltan running the game to confuse and distract the unfamiliar players with its many rules until he is able to take all their money,” Brant announced as she reached the table. She grabbed the Doohan from in front of Karl, twisted the top off, and lifted it up to her mouth.

78 and Karl looked at Brant, perhaps in some concern, but then shifted their gaze to Ahab with more pointed emotion.

“Well, our illustrious captain has rather overstated the…” Ahab began, but Brant held up a shushing finger to him as she glugged down more of the scotch. She set the bottle down and inhaled.

“The Lanius don’t…” she started. Then the Doohan hit her. “Yugh! Yuuugh! Oh God it’s like engine grease…”

“Yeah, the peatiness…” Karl started. Brant held up her shushing finger again as she shut her mouth and waited for the spasms of disgust to subside.

“…as far as they’re concerned, we’re all dead already,” she said. “They’ve run the numbers and we’ve probably only got another two hundred years left, much of that no doubt spent in societal freefall.”

Silence fell over the room.

“I thought he seemed pleasant,” Ahab said. Most of the crew introductions had gone well.

“He is pleasant. Our imminent destruction doesn’t even bother him,” Brant said.

“Not surprising. Species has supposedly seen many cultures come and go,” 78 said.

“Yeah, but it’s more than that. Clinical detachment is one thing. I think I’d be okay with that. But they want us to face this Flagship, and they want to see it. It won’t make a difference, he said it himself, but they want it to happen anyway and they’re willing to sacrifice one of their own to witness it,” Brant said. “They don’t just want to record history. They want to make it worth recording. It’s like we’re just some vid serial for them, and they want to make sure we reach our exciting series finale before we’re all gone.”

Another moment of silence. Everyone was looking at her. It was 78 who finally broke it.

“Your orders?” he asked.

An interesting question. If it really didn’t matter – like, really didn’t matter – then what was the point of seeing this suicide mission through? If they really wanted it, would it be so hard to fake their own destruction? Scuttle the Kestrel in a star, hide from the Rebels’ scanners in some abandoned mining operation, live out their days planetside? And really, look at who was sitting here – 8 was the only one with Fed loyalty, and he’d follow her no matter what.

They could annihilate the Rebellion, become legends, secure the dominance of the Federation and its values. For a time.

They could retreat, or fight and die in messy, heart-wrenching violence, and the Rebellion and its Flagship would be the new face of humanity in the galaxy, a power that would be separatist at best and supremacist at worst. For a time.

The things that changed were mind were thoughts of what Andrews would think if she gave up, or how disappointed Toh would be in her, or how Katarek would have screeched and moaned over this cowardice. She thought of how her pride would prick at her, and of the dullness of the colonial life she’d have to settle into. They were not, she knew, the sorts of considerations that should influence someone in a position to shift the fate of the galaxy, but she was in over her head – quite possibly over anyone’s head – and they were the only lights she felt she could follow.

Theirs not to make reply. Theirs not to reason why.

The words of an ancient Earth poem she’d read in some class in the academy, maybe even back home in the colony.

Theirs but to do and die.

“We stay the course,” she said. “The hell else is there to do?”
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 47
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Wed Nov 08, 2017 5:58 pm

Brant drummed her fingers on the arm of the captain’s chair. The Lanius captain was on screen in front of her, staring ahead in total silence and total stillness. This one had the same cracked-ice skin and pointy, jutting features as Killer had, but Brant wasn’t even sure this one had eyes. If not for Translator’s assurances, she’d have no reason to believe this captain was alive.

“What’s he saying now?” Brant asked over her earpiece.

“Still bragging, ma’am,” Translator said. “Now he is telling me about a Rebel vessel that he incapacitated by hacking their door controls and leaking out all their oxygen while cloaked. He is very proud of this story and he seems to value many of its details.”

Brant sighed. She eyed the energy readouts of the Lanius ship’s weapons and her own. It would not be a fun day if combat broke out.

“So is he going to attack us?” she asked.

“No. He will not risk official sanction. It’s just important to him that I be impressed by all the functioning craft he has captured and catalogued,” Translator said. “I am trying to communicate that I am extremely impressed and to politely end the conversation, but he continues to talk.”

“Karl, how long until jump?” Brant asked.

“Half an hour, ma’am.”

She made some inputs on the arm of her chair, and some charts of the Magna Sector came up in front of her next to the Lanius captain’s face. She had to admit that Translator had come in handy, helping them through the last few jumps with only a few tense stand-offs and no shots fired. Or at least, he seemed to come in handy. They had yet to encounter another Lanius vessel with a captain who could speak English or even seemed capable of vocal communication at all, so for all she knew Translator had just been telling them “Hey, I need to seem useful to these dummies. Could you do me a solid and charge your weapons, but then make like you’re standing down?”

In fact, they had yet to encounter anyone at all that Brant herself could communicate with. They had passed one colony and one engi research station, but both were abandoned. They’d also encountered a small flotilla of crag-ships, but the rock crew were all dead and the Lanius scavengers picking over the ships had given them no trouble. She noted that their next jump would bring them to a zoltan heritage site, a place of religious or historical significance that the zoltan had cajoled the other races into recognizing. Usually this meant the ethereals got to keep a small, protected toehold in sectors that they’d otherwise withdrawn from. She wondered if the custodians of this “Great Eye,” as she read on her screen, had fled with their relics. If not, a protected cultural site may as well have a big flashing sign reading “Lanius: Pillage Here.”

“He appears to be reaching the end of this story, and I am making insinuations that I have other duties and must close the communication line…no, he has started another story of a mantis raiding vessel. He emphasizes how well-armed this one was, and his own valor and cunning in beating them through force of arms. He…”

The warnings all came at once, and Brant wasn’t sure which she noticed the first, whether the klaxons blaring, the readouts flashing on her screens, the Lanius captain’s sudden snapping to attention, or Toh’s measured growl:

“Ships, captain.”

The readouts stabilized. Combat drones, Dragonfly-model, five of them.

The Lanius captain waved his hand at someone offscreen, and then the feed cut out. The image of his ship vanished from Brant’s screens.

“The captain wishes us luck, but is engaging stealth,” Translator reported.

“Valor and cunning, my ass. Ahab…” Brant studied the readouts, prioritizing targets. She reached out to one of the drone images, the screen highlighting its image at her touch. “…the one with the Pegasus first.”

“Aye, captain.”

The ship shook gently as the Kestrel, already primed for a salvo against the Lanius ship, shot everything it had. The drones dispersed immediately, buzzing in every direction, but almost every shot slammed home into her selected target. Its shields gave out, and directed energy rounds perforated its hull and systems in a deeply satisfying fireworks display. The drone exploded, and Brant had to remind herself that this opening luck did not mean it would be an easy encounter. Four to go.

She eyed the Kestrel’s power allocation. The transporter was still on, using power that might be better diverted to the engines. These were unmanned craft, after all, with space enough inside to accommodate an engineer in drydock but not one breath of breathable air.

Hm. She flicked her screen, highlighting a drone with a nasty array of ion weapons.

“Next up, Ahab. Translator, if I send you over to one of those things, could you disarm it?”

“Oh…captain, I hate to feel useless, but I cannot overemphasize my lack of combat expertise.”

“They’re unmanned. Just go over and break things. Can you do that?”

“I…can do that.”

“Good.” She tapped another drone, one with a mammoth Mark-III laser, and marked its weapon control node as the target for their transporter. “Get it done. 8, redirecting power from medbay to shields.”

“Acknowledged.”

Silent seconds passed, Brant gripping her seat as Toh kept the ship’s movements quick and erratic and the weapons of all parties slowly charged. Translator reached the transporter, vanishing from her readouts of the Kestrel and reappearing on the readouts of the drone.

“I’m surprised, Captain. A mission as critical as yours, and you accept a wildcard like this scavenger onto your crew.”

A new voice, cold and confident, spoke directly into her earpiece. She had not opened any new channels. Her mouth went dry. The voice was familiar.

“How are you on this line?” she hissed.

“Breaking into Federation communication systems was my first major assignment,” the Flagship replied. “This is not the first time I’ve broken into your ship’s lines, just the first time I’ve felt free to address you. Well, the second time.”

Again, Brant felt a tingling, almost religious fear, knowing that the being on the other end of the line was an intelligence she could not even conceive of. That sentence in particular disturbed her more than she could make immediate sense of. It was referring of course to the time it had broken into her lines and spoken to her the first time, a few days ago after it saved 78 – but it phrased it as if it had remembered this midsentence. This thing had probably done more thinking during one syllable than she had done in her entire life. It didn’t track. Was it programmed to mimic casual speech patterns?

“While we are on the subject, I wished to give you my overdue condolences. Damion Andrews was a credit to the Federation, to humanity.”

One of the drones spat out a volley of laser fire. Toh kept the ship twisting and turning at max sublight speed, but a number of rounds hit home anyway, one penetrating the shields and striking their hull.

“He was a personal role model of mine, to be honest. I was fed the known life histories of many of humanity’s great examplars, and his was among them.”

“Damage report?” Brant asked.

“No hull breaches, no system damage. Hull integrity at 95%,” 78 replied.

The drone she’d sent Translator to registered disruptions in its weapons, though none of its guns were offline yet. The Mark-III continued to charge.

She glanced at their power allotments. For all the upgrades they’d made, they’d still somewhat outpaced their reactor’s maximum output. This was partly by design, letting her divert power around to different systems and keep the ship adaptable; better to be able to go hard with the weapons or the engines when they were needed than keep everything running on average all the time.

“His life experiences and the example set by his career helped condition and shape my own ideals of command and concept of virtue. My psych evaluations suggest you viewed him as a father figure.”

Brant diverted power from the life support unit and reallocated it to the engines. It was only a stopgap and wouldn’t have any great effect on its own. Once the teleporter finished its power-down cycle, she’d be able to divert from there too.

“They also suggest that you will not be pleased to hear I view him the same way.”

She mashed her hand on her wrist console, trying to switch the station on her earpiece, but the Flagship came through anyway. She couldn’t very well take the earpiece out or she’d lose touch with the rest of her ship, so she’d just have to bear this. She’d dealt with worse.

“Still – I respected the man greatly. Whether you believe I am capable of grief or not…”

A hail of ion fire shot out of one of the drones, a succession of rockets from another. Translator’s drone registered still more disruption, and its measly beam lens went offline. The Mark-III continued to charge.

“Do those evals tell you I’m this easy to psych out?” she asked.

“Oh, no, Captain. I am familiar with your fury. You have properly grieved Andrews, and mentioning him will likely only harden your resolve and tighten your focus.”

The Kestrel’s weapons came online and Ahab took the shot immediately, sending a wave of hellfire at the ion drone.

“It will hurt more to mention Katarek,” the Flagship said.

For all the power she’d fed to the engines and all of Toh’s skill, a few of the ion charges hit. The power output for their shields spiked and then bottomed out, the circuits overloaded and resetting. The ship shook with the impact of a rocket, readouts showed damage in the engine room, the Mark-III continued to charge.

“In Andrews’ loss, at least you had your new command to keep you occupied. With Katarek, your routine was unchanged, which made her absence in it that much more glaring. She was a good friend, a confidante…”

The Kestrel’s shots struck home, overwhelming the ion drone’s shields and blowing it to atoms.

Translator got a small ion cannon offline. The Mark-III continued to charge.

“But even more, this grief must cause some kernel of disgust, that you ever could have thought of one of those insects as a comrade. In your pain, you are reminded of your betrayal of Earth and its children…”

The teleporter finished its cycle, and Brant swiped at her readouts to power it down and boost their engines.

The Mark-III fired, spitting off a barrage of destructive force that could very easily be the last thing she saw. Their shields were still recuperating from the ion shots, slowly, too slowly, holy God in Heaven, the Mark-III was still firing.

“Brace!” she shouted.

“…and so your grief is compounded with the growing sense of your own failure.”

Toh danced the ship through the void as nimbly as he could, the grav compensators just barely keeping Brant’s head from whipping around like a ragdoll’s as the ship altered course abruptly, but it wasn’t enough. Their weakened shield gave out, and...

...Brant was on the floor. Red emergency lights flashed in the bridge, and the air smelled of burning plastic and overloaded electronics. The piloting console was on fire, Toh standing over it and beating at the flames with his fists. As she got to her feet, Brant found she was holding a fire extinguisher from under her seat. They must have taken a hit to the bridge, and then another while she’d been running to put out the blaze..

She ran to the console and shot flame-retardant foam at the conflagration, focusing on the flames to the left while Toh threw himself bodily on the flames to the right in an effort to smother them.

“Damage report!” Brant shouted.

“Shields damaged. Nearly recovered from ion surge, but only outputting 50%,” said 78.

“Minor hit to weapons. We’ve lost one of the laser batteries, the rest will be ready momentarily,” said Ahab.

“Engines ready,” said Karl.

“Damage,” said the Flagship. “How to measure damage?”

The console smoked and spat, but the fires were out. Brant and Toh got to their knees with their multitools and started unscrewing panels to assess repairs.

“How to determine what is damage, what is growth? We are our experiences, Charlotte. We are the damage we have done, and the injury done upon us.”

“Oh my God, dude,” Brant muttered.

“Assessment: chatty son of a bitch, isn’t he?” 78 said.

The panels came off, and Brant could tell there would be no quick fixes for the console. Toh seemed to reach the same conclusion, and was fiddling with wires and his wrist unit to reroute the controls elsewhere.

The ship shook, Ahab firing off another volley, firing at the missile drone. More enemy fire was inbound, and with minimal shields and no piloting systems, it was going to hurt.

Finally the Mark-III went offline, its drone effectively useless now.

Their rounds hit the rocket drone, blowing it to hell. Brant gritted her teeth for impact.

“I wonder how killing you will affect me,” the Flagship said.

Laser fire to their shields. A Hermes rocket to their weapon controls, and one to their transporter – they wouldn’t be getting Translator back right away, but that was the least of her concerns.

78 squealed obscene static over the intercom, eloquent of pain and frustration. “Shields at 25%!”

“We’ve lost all laser batteries, and may lose missiles if I cannot fix things fast,” Ahab said. “Also, I might die. I have a small will in my top drawer.”

One drone left, then, armed with an array of basic laser batteries. They were close to getting a workaround going with the pilot’s console, but it wouldn’t be ready in time to avoid this salvo. Without the power to evade or significant shields, the Kestrel was a neck and that drone was an axe.

“Ah – yes, I suspected this would happen,” said the Flagship. “Frustrating.”

“If you’re going to kill us, kill us. I’m not going to talk to you about your fracking feelings,” Brant said.

“It is my full intent to kill you, Charlotte,” said the Flagship. “But today, our chaperones have other ideas.”

The laser drone’s shields gave out, laser rounds and rocket fire and strange crystalline projectiles that Brant’s systems did not recognize riddling its hull and triggering a series of explosions. Looking for their savior, Brant saw that the Lanius ship had broken stealth.

“That’s what will happen, though. Put trust in alien powers, and the short-term gains may seem significant. Then suddenly, one day, we find that our destiny is no longer in our own hands. The hand that seemed to hold the olive branch now holds the shepherd’s crook, or the slaver’s lash.”

Toh stood up, holding his wrist unit ahead of him and standing at the ready. They’d managed to reroute basic controls to the unit; it was crappy, but it was something, and they wouldn’t have to just eat another volley if another was incoming. But suddenly, things seemed to have calmed down. Brant drained some power from the engines and sent it the medbay.

“Ahab, get to medical. Karl, get the transporters back online so we can get Translator and get out of here. Translator?”

There was no response over the intercom from Translator.

“Translator, do you read?”

A notification went off on her wrist console. She looked and saw incoming text from the Lanius.

“No air,” it read. “Typing. I can hear you. No need to rush on my account. The Lanius ship has offered to take me aboard while you make critical repairs.

Brant sighed. “Yeah, and since you’re our best leverage against them blowing us apart, that’s kind of what I’m trying to avoid. Stand by, we’ll have you off in a few minutes.”

“Have they made you any offers, captain?” asked the Flagship. “The little scavengers? They have sent coded messages to my human front, making certain overtures to me. They assure me that they will not make my existence public, and will in fact work to prevent that knowledge from spreading if you should disperse it yourself. In exchange, I am to allow you to reach the Federation bastion in the Volta Sector. I’m curious what your thoughts are.”

Now that the immediacy of combat had subsided and she no longer needed to be in touch with her crew, she felt a strong temptation to take her earpiece out. They were hardly safe yet, though, and it would be foolish to lower their battle readiness just to get rid of this annoyance.

“I’m not bantering with you, dude. I know you’re, like, a big fan of mine, so sorry, but it’s not happening,” she said.

“Would it help if I reminded you that I’ve been monitoring your communications for some time, and that you needn’t try to keep the conversations you’ve had on this subject secret?”

“It decidedly would not help.” Was that even true? It occurred to her that she didn’t even entertain the possibility, that this thing’s words had let her brain recharacterize it as a human being with normal human limits. Her brow grew hot, then cold as the likely truth of its words sank in. “What did I say at Katarek’s funeral?”

“Oh, my, Charlotte – a test? Very well. You thought the mantis would have found some maudlin speech embarrassing, so you just let the airlock take her. And if you’re not convinced, you awkwardly propositioned your engineer for sex recently while you convalesced.”

“Oh, God damn it,” Karl muttered over the line.

Brant saw a possibility, slight and desperate, but worth reaching for. “Then you know what the Lanius think about us all. That the galactic order is doomed, that your victory or ours only makes the difference of a few years before the foundation collapses,” Brant said. “They want us to fight because they think it’ll be all cool and dramatic, but it’s not going to save humanity either way. Maybe…maybe if we stop this, you and me and together, and find a way to make peace between the Federation and the Rebels and get everyone working together under one banner again, we might be able to beat their predictions and…”

“No.”

The word fell through her earpiece like an icepick, screeching with interference. It might have just been her experience with 78’s way of speaking, but she heard the interference as an inadvertent show of emotion.

“No, Charlotte. I know that the tangle of excuses you’ve made for yourself make this nearly impossible to accept, but the truth must be stated: The time for the other races to exert their will on the children of Earth is over. Whether it’s the contrivances of the engi or zoltan, or the brute violence of the rock or mantis, or the cheap fortunetelling of these newcomers. Whether our destiny be grand or grim, let it finally be our own.”

Again, Brant found it hard to think of the Flagship as anything but human, but not because it spoke in such an easy or personable manner. No. It had struck her before, but now she was sure of it.

When it spoke of the other races, she heard the hate in its voice.

A mind like a god, and the Rebels had taught it how to hate.

The transporter came back online, whisking Translator back onboard, and not a moment too soon. Brant was just about ready to blow the drone away with or without him.

With Ahab rushing to the medbay, she took remote control of the gunner station and set the drone in her sights.

“I imagine you’ll be disconnecting your ship’s surveillance and communication systems while you’re in the jump, and I will not be able to hack in for future updates when you arrive in the next beacon. This may be our last chance to speak to each other for a while, Charlotte,” the Flagship said.

She fired everything they had.

“You might be the worst thing humanity has ever done,” she said. “An all-powerful racist. God forgive us. Maybe we deserve oblivion.”

“And you are all our capacity for perseverance and courage, turned to the service of binding our superior people to lesser races. Ours is an ancient conflict, and we have the privilege of being its champions in its decisive battle.”

Their rounds struck home, riddling the drone with explosions.

“I am looking forward to it,” said the Flagship, and then with a squeal its link was severed.

Brant stared at the readouts of that last drone’s destruction. She became aware that her breathing was aggravated, and it had nothing to do with their slightly diminished atmosphere.

“Maybe we do deserve oblivion,” she said. She keyed into her earpiece and addressed the crew, walking over to the captain’s chair. “Brace for transition. Toh, take us out of here.”
IXXIAIXXI
Posts: 9
Joined: Fri Feb 14, 2014 11:50 pm

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby IXXIAIXXI » Sat Feb 24, 2018 1:03 am

Just want to mention how much I love this story.

I've re-read it three times, admittedly when there were fewer chapters, but it's still worth mentioning.
I feel like you're especially good with the characters. I feel really invested in their fates, and find them likeable in a way that I have trouble putting into words.

Basically, the story is very enjoyable, in large part due to how well the characters are written.
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 47
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Sun Apr 28, 2019 11:57 pm

In case anyone's wondering, this story didn't die. I just kept forgetting to make this one of the places I published updates. Another nine chapters are available here, with the FINALE coming within the month: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10035862/2 ... Federation

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