by James Bright
In a distant future, Capt. Richard Hargrove and a computer technician, Erik Johansen, are on an interstellar scouting mission. Hargrove had commanded an expedition in which Erik’s older brother, Roger, was killed two years earlier. Hargrove blames himself for Roger’s death, but Erik sees it rather differently. In the end, loyalties must come to terms with justice.
Hargrove woke up from his flashback to the sound of his ship’s alarm clock. He flicked on the intercom as soon as his eyes were open and was greeted with the cheery sounds of heavy metal music blaring into his cockpit.
“Let me guess, you didn’t sleep.”
His passenger, Johansen’s younger brother, was somehow whistling along to the incomprehensible tune, and replied without missing a beat, “Not a wink. Sleep is for quitters, and music is like coffee.”
Feeling his partner’s infectious energy, Richard ran his eyes down the final checklist. “Well, hope you enjoyed playtime, but now we’re at work. Run down your list and make sure all your gear is working at optimum. This area’s going to be crawling with bad guys and exploding ordinance within an hour, unless higher-up’s calculations are wrong. We don’t want misaligned settings and overlooked maintenance errors endangering us any worse than the mission itself will.”
“Righty-o, Cap’. Call you when I’m done?”
“Yeah, I’ve got my own checklist to run through. You’ve only got to hack enemy mainframes. I have to record the battle, send the information back home, and fly hairpin turns through this asteroid belt if we get caught. I think you’ve got the easier deal here.”
“I’ve certainly got the more fun job of the two, Cap. You run that list of yours, I don’t need to look over mine much, I spent the last few hours tinkering with my equipment, for the hell of it.”
Just like your brother, Hargrove thought before turning off the intercom and proceeding through the checklist.
Every piece of sensor and drive equipment had to be exact. Within the hour this entire star system was going to be full of the gravity readings of hundreds of Conglomerate starships coming out of warp as well as dozens of almost unreadable traces of the warp bubbles encasing the ammunition of the Empire’s new interstellar artillery pieces, commonly called warp cannons. By the day’s end this system was going to have a whole new asteroid belt, or else he and the other cannon sites would be running with their tails between their legs all the way to their homes or to a vacuum-sealed, irradiated grave.
* * *
Hargrove was running through his checklist, making sure the ship would run optimally, when the action began. Erik Johansen was busy being his usual computer hacker self with music blaring in the background. He continued running computer simulations, tweaking out his programs until they were perfect. Hacking into Conglomerate warships was understandably difficult, and he needed the best tools he could possibly have under his belt.
Roger Johansen, Erik’s elder brother, had chosen to go into the military right out of school. Erik had been forced into it by circumstance. The government frowned heavily on independent civilians hacking into their classified files. When given the choice of a prison sentence far away from all his precious toys, or risking his life working on the front lines and using those toys to protect people, Erik had chosen the latter. And boy, did he excel at it.
About half an hour after Hargrove awoke, Erik started tuning his battle simulators, highly sophisticated programs he had pirated from video-game corporations prior to his arrest. He used them for an easy interface when hacking, and even cloaked his nastier cyber-weapons as boss characters from popular games. “For fun,” as he was apt to say.
These weapons — or more primitive versions of them at least — had allowed Erik to bypass the security on the traffic network he’d attacked for a client, allowing a robber to escape from a bank he’d held up.
This time Erik would not be attacking a simple traffic-light control switch to let someone use traffic as a decoy; he’d be sneaking through the enemy’s command network, planting confusing orders. He hoped to debilitate the enemy’s recovery from the first strike so the defenders could launch more volleys. Despite helping a criminal escape, this would be Erik’s first time helping to kill anyone; the robbery had gone down without a hitch and no one had even been injured.
Finishing the final check on his battle programs, Erik hit the intercom. “I’m as fine-tuned as I’ll ever be, Cap’. What now?”
“Now we wait, and see who shows up first: the weasel or the bait.”
With a sigh, Erik replied, “Oh what joy. Waiting... and waiting. That’s the worst part of this job.”
“Can’t help it, boy. We can’t get caught up in a little fun while waiting for the real game to begin, or we’ll miss something important.”
Erik smirked as he let out, “But didn’t I hear you were busy watching the space battle above with my brother while waiting for the ship to shoot that mountain down around your ears?”
A grunt as memories flooded back. “Not a good time to bring that up. Roger and I were friends. And we weren’t bringing a mountain down around our ears; it was a few miles away. We could get away with watching that battle; we were waiting for what was going to come from what we were watching. The only distraction you and I have here is in our computer screens. They need to be showing us what’s outside, not what’s in our heads right now. We’d better close the channel and wait for action. Out.”
Erik winced as the intercom cut out. Captain Hargrove had nearly growled out that last statement. With half an eye on his screens, waiting for the sensors to pick up a port he could hack — preferably the enemy flagship — Erik let himself get lost in thought. I know I’m not my brother, but I’ll sure as Hell prove myself worthy of his legacy.
Erik’s other thought was to wonder why Cap’ took his brother’s death the way he did. Friendship went far, but why silence any discussion of that last battle? Snorting, Erik focused harder on his computer screens, one last thought breaking the surface: Special Forces freaks love to brag about their fights. Only guilt over something could shut one up...
The intercom buzzed just seconds before his computer picked up the signs of an open computer port. It was time for action.
* * *
The gravimetric system sounded an alarm within the ship as the Conglomerate fleet arrived right on schedule. Space around the star system was suddenly blasted by a massive gravity wave as hundred of ships appeared out of the depths of space. Almost instantly, a number of explosions were visible to the Sight’s sensors.
A close reading of the new data incoming showed Captain Hargrove that most of the shots had rebounded off of shields, leaving several ships almost defenseless but doing no damage otherwise. Three secondary explosions showed shots lucky enough to have bypassed enemy shields. Those three ships saw their hulls shredded by megatons of energy.
Without thinking, Hargrove maneuvered for a straight line of sight with his home star. Like the rest of the Sights, he sent home in short bursts all the data he’d collected. Expertly, the four ships zipped through the asteroid belt, abandoning their old spots in case the enemies had caught their communications signals. For the next few hours it would take Home Base’s second volley to arrive, it was Hargrove’s and the other pilots’ jobs simply to survive and stay within hacking range of the enemy fleet.
The rest of the mission would lie with the hackers in their nests...
* * *
The instant he saw the open port, Erik got busy telling his computer what to do. Within seconds he was attacking what defenses there were on the enemy computer. Seconds later he was in, letting his battle simulators convert the raw data into a graphics interface he could use. Erik could mess with the numbers themselves, but he always found it more enjoyable to turn hacking into a war game and himself, into a general.
The scene compiled before him: a cityscape full of bustling people. Some in military uniforms, most in civilian wear, all of them computer programs just like his own. Erik slipped on a headset, completely filling his sight with the new scene rather than using data screens. He’d only needed those to find this place. Now that he was in, he could focus on a game he loved playing.
Copyright © 2013 by James Bright