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.
“So his suit froze up and you couldn’t get him out?”
Hargrove looked at the intercom and nodded. “Yes, after I ordered the unit to shoot the beast.”
“And you blame yourself. Once upon a time I blamed you too, for not bringing my brother back. You followed orders and did your job, just as we’re doing now, Rick.”
“I left him behind instead of staying with him and at least trying to bring him back, dead or alive.”
“Your suit couldn’t handle the extra weight and that pile of goo looked like it was going to unleash the explosion of a lifetime, which apparently it did.”
“I should have died with him. Or at least cut him out of that suit.”
Hargrove could hear Erik snort on the other end of the intercom. “And what would that have accomplished? Two isn’t always better than one, and two dead is worse than one dead. Your family didn’t need to lose you, and it was your sworn, patriotic duty to get out of there. Your death would have robbed the nation of yet another hero.”
Hargrove thought about that for a bit. For all he’d had to get close to Erik to handle him as his subordinate, he’d never realized how mature he was. Apparently everyone was full of surprises.
Hargrove’s reflections on the matter were cut short by a warning beep followed by his gravity wave sensors picking up dozens of miniature wave distortions. The second volley had arrived.
Hargrove turned off the warning beep and talked to Erik. “Looks like we’re about to see how well you can write their language. The second volley has arrived.”
Erik watched through his video screen. “Yes, Captain. I’m confident the flagship won’t be harmed. Soon as the first torpedoes make their landing I’ll go back into the flagship and wreak havoc.”
“Good. You and Sanderson’s hacker both mentioned me being a hero. If we pull this off, you can add yourself to the national hero roster. If we fail, though, it’ll go on our records for sure. I think we both want this to succeed.”
Erik nodded. “I’ll do my best. By this time tomorrow our scientists will have their very own Conglomerate warship to study.”
“That’s the attitude to have, just don’t take risks in there if you don’t have to. Accomplish the mission and wait for the third volley. I’ll make sure the carriers coming to pick us up know you’re a friend, not a foe.”
“Good to have you on my side, Captain. Erik Johansen out.” Erik turned off the intercom and watched as the torpedoes struck various warships, glad to see his target ship completely untouched and just begging for a takeover.
Erik kept track of the entry he’d need to use to get back into the flagship, and after sending a clone ahead of him to make sure they hadn’t closed his way in, he re-entered the enemy flagship.
Erik ran from alley to alley, rallying his hidden soldiers to follow discreetly. One after another each one made its way along his path, finding one another. They all gathered in the last out of the way place before the ICC security checkpoint.
Erik had the entire group walk back far enough into the alleyway that they couldn’t be seen or heard, and Erik marveled that there was so much unused space inside a Conglomerate computer. It was almost obscene to him.
After gathering his troops, Erik spoke up, talking to them as if they really were soldiers rather than figments of one computer’s imagination and the stuff of another’s nightmares. “Soldiers, we’re behind enemy lines now. Stay in costume until I give the signal, then give them everything you’ve got. I don’t want this computer in control of anything when we’re finished. Lock it all up.”
The soldier programs nodded. Erik’s translator had converted his words into computer algorithms, so nothing he said was wasted. Erik slipped on a virtual headset with a mic so he could lead his assault from a distance.
Looking around at the abandoned cityscape painted by his computer, he decided he’d probably need more than a simple raid and that there was plenty of room to build a force much larger than his current one.
He dismissed his soldiers and watched them leave, breaking up into squads of four and walking to their separate destinations. He set to work pulling out his fabricator and creating more clones, setting the program to use the space around it for deploying soldiers.
He had a bad feeling the Conglomerate had reasons for leaving such empty space, and considering they already knew he existed and was hacking into them, he was probably not alone in this old quarter of the city.
After the first few clones finished building, Erik told them to guard the fabricator with their lives, and unpacked a machine pistol of his own, walking out to plant booby traps. He went in a radial pattern outward, first covering the alleys and intersections close by, then going two blocks away, and three.
As he was finishing the third, he felt himself flicker and saw his hand disappear for an instant. That wasn’t supposed to happen unless... He flicked on his intercom with Hargrove and asked, “Trouble?”
Hargrove responded, “Only a little. Nothing for you to worry about, just getting some flight practice in avoiding their scouts. They’ve found us.”
“I just flickered. Are you sure there’s ‘nothing for me to worry about’?”
“Yes, I’m sure. You might do that from time to time, but I’ll keep you in sight of the flagship. Just go back to hacking and leave the flying to me. Hargrove out.”
The intercom cut out and Erik made his way carefully back to where his fabricator was still happily turning out soldier clones, who had all taken up defensive positions like the few Erik had told earlier.
Erik ran to the fabricator and looked down. The first few who actually had orders were supposed to do that, the rest shouldn’t have. He read the display on the fabricator and saw why they were guarding.
Apparently the Conglomerate had some skilled programmers after all. The service programs being cloned had a built-in learning circuit that Erik hadn’t noticed before. Probably because the original’s had been small, maybe a few lines, or tens of lines, of programming.
The fabricator had apparently caught that learning circuit as a virus and incorporated it, upgrading itself to listen to the orders Erik was giving. If he gave any more orders to soldiers while it was fabricating, he’d have to be careful about letting it hear them.
Just then Erik heard an explosion. He’d rigged all his booby traps to explode when an unfamiliar presence was in proximity, and to alert him through the headset. He could even track which one exploded on a view screen, so he looked up. It was three blocks away, the corner bomb farthest from the highway the service programs used. He was right, someone else was there.
“Fabricator, turn off.” The lights on the fabricator shut off and Erik continued speaking. “You four, squad one. You, squad two; and you, squad three.” Erik pointed out twelve clones and grouped them.
“Squad one, go north, squad two, go west. Squad three, you’re with me. Everyone else, stay in defensive position. Fabricator back on.” The fabricator beeped back on and began cloning more soldiers as Erik and his forces split up to find out what was up.
Keeping his voice low, Erik organized his frequencies so he could talk to each squad separately. He needed control over them if he was going to fight in group tactics. Two bombs went off, one south and one east of the original explosion. Erik wasn’t sure how much those bombs would slow the enemy down, but he wasn’t going to give them much of a chance to think.
“Squad one, leapfrog to two blocks west, three blocks north of base camp. Squad two, leapfrog to three blocks west, two blocks north of base camp.”
Erik heard, “Yes, sir,” over the headset and headed for the original explosion. He was sure if they’d split into three teams, he’d run into the enemy’s third group on the way to that trap.
* * *
Hargrove saw laser beams rushing past his wings and dived under an asteroid, trying his best to keep a clear path between Erik and the flagship. The enemies dove under to pursue, but Rick had already rounded the asteroid and was behind them. He fired off two precious shots of his own and nailed each enemy from behind. The Sights weren’t unarmed, but their weapons were severely underpowered to accommodate the hackers’ equipment.
In periodic glimpses of other ships, Hargrove could see the evidence of the other hackers’ raids. They’d apparently chosen a different track than Erik, because more than three ships were staggering about or standing still. They must have spammed those clones like crazy and unleashed waves of them on enemy ships with orders to damage everything.
Once Hargrove could swear he saw a ship’s lights blink, as if the electrical system was under attack too. Whatever they were doing, his talk with Captain Sanderson must have worked, because the Conglomerate fleet was being stung all over.
Hargrove pulled up to avoid the debris of the two enemies he’d burned holes through, and kept his eyes open for more scouts. Just before the raid they’d unleashed a wave that had just caught up to the Sights when Erik had called. To himself Hargrove whispered, “I hope Erik’s having as much fun as this.”
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by James Bright