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.
Everything was different. The information traffic on the ship was hectic, but there was nowhere near the volume of service programs, or security as before. Nothing felt the same, and it certainly didn’t feel right, either.
Erik found a seemingly safe, isolated spot, and reached up to hit a switch on his headset in real space, talking to Hargrove. “This is strange, sir. I don’t even think I’m on the same ship this time.”
Hargrove grunted. “That would explain why your computer link-up jumped on me. It’s not even pointed in the flagship’s direction anymore.”
“It was pointed the right way when I started this hack, sir. I wonder why it moved. It would be impressive if this Amoeboid thought to shut me out. I’ll explore the ship I’ve been sent into, and see what I can find.”
Erik shut off the mic on the headset and went back to work, observing and navigating his new surroundings, hoping to gain any insights he could from this ship. Even if it wasn’t the flagship, the Information Control Center should still be useful. Erik donned his service disguise again and walked toward the ICC. Unlike the flagship, this one only had cursory security; he passed through with ease, finding himself in the ICC in moments.
Erik had more difficulty finding out-of-the-way servers on this ship. Apparently only the flagship got most of the upgrades, so there weren’t empty spaces for him to hide in. On the plus side, he didn’t need them as much to begin with, since there was far less traffic. Erik knocked out the head clerk in the ICC with another spam bomb and jumped the desk to start checking orders, trying to discover which ship he was on.
Ever since the mission started he’d considered punching out one of the programs, but he wasn’t sure what that would accomplish. If he killed a program, the computer might go on high alert. Otherwise, if the punch did nothing, he might give himself away without having time to leave. He decided to stick with spam-bombing the computer for the time being.
He quickly learned that the ship he was logged into was named Haskal’s Mercy Kill and copied its order sheets into his bag so he could learn where it was headed. He saw a secluded corner and sat down in it to process what he was learning. He watched for anything suspicious as his computer went to work reading the files. So far no one was coming into the ICC, which was weird in itself. Erik kept a wary eye open and let his computer finish its task.
In half a minute he knew where the Mercy Kill was and where it was headed. He drafted new orders, slipped them quietly into the ship’s database, and silently walked to the door. Not knowing what to expect, he slid a hand into his pocket, fingering a pistol that really would kill a computer program, and walked out. There was traffic in the street, programs marching with purpose as the ship followed orders.
Erik marched with the current of the crowd, being as inconspicuous as possible while leaving the ICC. He had almost made it back to the entry street when he heard a click behind him. A voice said, “Don’t move.”
Erik stopped, standing stock-still, waiting for the enemy to shoot. Instead, it spoke in an oily voice, saying, “Hands on your head, human.”
Erik pulled his hand out of his pocket and made to raise both arms, before spinning quickly, ducking sideways, and putting two “bullets” through the enemy’s skull. Or what would have been its skull, if it had had one. Instead the bullets passed through the translucent green person standing behind Erik, leaving two holes that quickly filled in. The instant he saw the monster, Erik whispered to himself, “Amoeboid.”
Amoeboids didn’t have skeletons, but they hardly needed them. Their cells acted as a sort of muscle, allowing them to maintain any shape they wanted for a limited time. They tended to taunt enemies by appearing as whatever species they were at war with. After the first contact, every time a human saw one of the slimy green bastards, it was in human form.
This one was wearing a military uniform like the security guards protecting the ICC and it was wielding a machine pistol. Erik knew he would be outgunned if all he had was his pistol, but he suddenly looked down and realized his free hand had snaked into another pocket. His hand was firmly wrapped around a recall device that would instantly yank him out of the system without losing his avatar.
Just as the Amoeboid was about to shoot, Erik hit the button on top of the device and shot himself out of the enemy computer, figuring his jaunt was now a waste, since the enemy would surely find his counterfeit orders and disregard them.
Erik had recorded all his hacking sessions. He ran back through the last one, looking for anything he might have missed during the heat of the fight.
His recall device was rigged into the ship’s alarms as well, and Hargrove knew he’d forced himself back to Sight Number One. There were good reasons for the pilot to know what happened during a hack, the main one being that a bad session could mean the victim knew the hacker’s location and the ship would have to relocate.
While Erik was going back over his previous hack, Hargrove’s voice came over the intercom. “So, Hacker, what the hell was that about?”
Erik kept his eyes on the screen, but talked with Hargrove, “I’m sure they’re onto us. I think, though I’m not certain, that I got shunted from the flagship onto that other ship, Haskal’s Mercy Kill. I probably did, because there was an Amoeboid on that ship using an avatar.”
“What did it do?”
“It tried to disable my avatar with a machine pistol, sir. I think they’re seriously starting to recover from being ruled over by one entity now. And their programming skills seem to be as good as ours, at least in some cases. That avatar acted just like an Amoeboid, right down to being able to absorb my bullets without any damage, sir.”
“Well, we were told to observe as well as annoy. We’ll have to see just how much they know. I want to send this new information home, but we obviously can’t do that if they can track us. We’d be giving our base’s location away.”
“I’m going to study what just happened and learn what I can, sir. I’m not going to just sit around doing nothing, they’ve hardly run into everything I have. They have no idea how much havoc I can wreak when I’m all revved up.”
“Take it easy, soldier. You’ll get your chance, just stay calm and do your studying. I’ll keep an eye open and see if they’re showing other signs of intelligence.”
“I have one last thing to say, sir.”
“If I’m recording, I bet they are too. I wouldn’t be surprised if your job gets a little more interesting from here on in, sir. They might have been slow on scout sweeps because of politics, but knowing I’m running around their computers might spur even the most stubborn and arrogant of them into action.”
“Agreed, Hacker. We’ll lay low, but on standby. The instant I see anything coming for us, I’ll run us out of here and shake them off our tail. Out.”
With that Hargrove shut off the intercom and Erik turned his full attention to the video record. His bullets needed to impact the enemy to have an effect, but they were math-based. It took actual skill with a computer to program an avatar to absorb rather than dodge what he was shooting. The more he looked at that machine pistol, the more he wanted to know what it could do, to better gauge his enemy’s skills. He also wouldn’t mind having one if it was anywhere near as strong as his own weapon.
He wasn’t about to risk his own avatar in the quest for that knowledge. He actually wanted whatever he threw out there to get hit. So he opened up the file folder containing his avatar and copied the skin — Erik’s own look — before making a copy of the enemy program he’d enslaved and pasting the skin on. With any luck he could synch the two files to make the clone look like him. Then he reprogrammed the clone to act as a remote controlled robot, and sent it into the Mercy Kill as a target dummy.
As far as he knew, the Conglomerate hadn’t gotten into Naval or Governmental personnel files; they wouldn’t know what kind of enemy they were dealing with in Erik Johansen. He hoped this Amoeboid would fall for the bait and show him what he was up against. He sent the clone into the ICC again, stood there long enough to fake planting more orders, then walked out.
He’d given the clone a better weapon than that pea-shooter of a pistol and he intended to use it. Sure enough, somewhere close to the guard post he heard the same click. This time the oil-slick voice said, “Came back for more, did you?” That was almost inaudible over the sound of the machine pistol going off, fully automatic. The clone was riddled with bullet holes just as Erik hit the recall button again, pulling his presumably dead clone out of the computer for study.
He stripped the gun from the clone and pulled it into programming view, looking at the code it was built of rather than a visual image. There were chunks of code missing. He counted the missing spaces and then switched his clone to avatar view to count the bullet holes. They matched. The machine pistol was about as effective as his original pistol, no more or less. Not worth stealing, since the only advantage it had seemed to be automatic fire, something he could build into his own weapon himself if he chose.
Erik built three more clones but didn’t give them his own face. He even stripped his face from his avatar, settling for a generic face for the enemy programs. He figured he’d let them think they had disabled him for the time being, and now he would wait. He intended to hit the enemies with an army the next chance he got, but he needed prep time.
Hargrove had gotten the second recall notice, and Erik let him know what had happened. The captain was understandably pissed at Erik risking their location, but he was easily placated by the fact that sooner or later, the enemies would find them anyway. Erik even went as far as to tell Hargrove he may as well contact the other ships now, when they weren’t obviously found out, and to let them know that in an hour Erik planned a big raid and wanted their help in the act.
There was a sigh at that. Hargrove started subtly shifting the ship to make contact with the others. Hargrove made all three contacts himself, simply stating, “Hacker Johansen has a raid in the works and needs the help of your Hacker to get the job done. Build an army of program clones from the one service droid he gave you, and pick a good target. Strike begins in an hour. Hargrove out.”
Erik started building more clones, settling on twenty as a good number, the size of a standard platoon in the Imperial army. He’d played enough war games and heard enough stories from his brother to build a worthwhile army. He loaded his soldiers out with rocket launchers, light machine guns, and an assortment of sidearms that would make that Amoeboid’s machine pistol look like a cheap knockoff.
That took all of twenty focused minutes. The next five minutes were spent figuring out how to work around the enemy’s shunt. He didn’t want to take out the Mercy Kill. He was aiming for the big guns, the flagship. All of his hacking and Hargrove’s dodging had left them with an hour before the second volley was set to land, and Erik wanted to save that flagship for an Imperial war prize.
He knew it would take more than one run to capture the ship, but all he wanted this time was to keep it out of the line of fire. That much he could do without alerting the enemy, and he wanted his soldiers in position to strike once his companion Hackers had really gained the enemy’s notice. He didn’t want the flagship alerted until then.
He started logging his clone army into the flagship computer one at a time, rebounding them when they got shunted so that they didn’t actually touch any other ships. He shot them into different ports, looking for a way around the enemy tool, and on the fifth try, he managed to log into the flagship mainframe. Now it was time to get to work.
Erik logged himself into that port, keeping his avatar generic; he couldn’t be spotted easily. He then walked to the ICC, with legitimate orders copied from a program he had spam-bombed and tucked away. He set to work using false orders to safe-keep the flagship. Then he left and logged his platoon into the system, giving them orders to keep suspicion down as he left the computer.
He had half an hour before his friends started their raid. Erik settled down and watched the outside view from his own view screen and the enemy through the eyes of his clones.
Hargrove clicked on the intercom and spoke up. “What are you planning, Erik?”
Erik’s eyes flicked to the intercom. It was the first time on this mission that Hargrove had called him by his first name. “Just a little revenge for them killing my brother, Rick. If I may call you that, sir?”
Hargrove nodded, though Erik couldn’t see it. “You may, for now. I’m asking you this as a friend, not your commander.”
Erik’s eyes settled back on his screens as he replied. “Good to know you see me that way too. I’m a kleptomaniac, as I’m sure you’re well aware.” Erik laughed softly at his little joke as he continued. “The best revenge is to do your job and do it well. Can you think of any better way to do my job than to steal the enemy flagship and their leader from them?”
As he listened to Erik, Richard thought back on that mission two years ago. He knew deep down that what happened wasn’t his fault, and that Mike Johansen gave his life in the line of duty. Here was his brother seeking revenge for his death, not with some suicidal plunge into an enemy army or misplaced rage at his brother’s commander. but by doing his damn job. Taking a deep breath, Hargrove asked “You still want to know what really happened to your brother?”
The voice on the other end of the intercom sounded loud and clear, “You know I always will, Rick. And don’t worry, knowing this won’t affect the job. I got my grieving out two years ago; that’s why I turned criminal for a while. Grief. Now I’m here making up for that. So, if you’re ready to confess whatever it is that’s got you tied up in knots, now’s confession time.”
Hargrove swallowed and replied, “Alright, keep your eyes open for enemies in case I miss something. Here’s what happened.”
Copyright © 2013 by James Bright