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Pyrrhic Victory

by James Bright

part 10
section 2

“I kept in mind that it was temporary and took the extra restrictions as a challenge. Didn’t hurt that I figured I’d find advantages to it all. Weight loss was one. Shall I keep listing them off one by one?”

“Just like your time on the mission, every word here is being recorded.”

“That was obvious, all debriefings are recorded.”

“Ah, so you were paying attention to that much. Since we are being recorded, I would like you to list off those advantages, at the end of this debrief. I need to ask you more questions.”

Erik held up a finger. “Me first. What does my personality have to do with not turning criminals into weapons?”

“If we know the sort of people you and the other hackers are, we can identify potential recruits before they show up as criminals. Everyone wins that way, except for the criminals the new hackers would otherwise help. How did you handle the thought of someday being used to kill?”

“I assumed the military would only be using me against other weapons. I found it fair that I wouldn’t be killing anything harmless. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a hollow cover, I know it, but the thought lets me sleep at night. I’m a civilian in military service, what am I getting out of helping you ID new recruits?”

“A bigger paycheck. Not much of one, but still bigger than you had before. Capturing an enemy ship seems a tame form of revenge. What drove you to restrain yourself from killing everything aboard? It was a military ship, after all.”

“As I said, I know the thought that I’d only be used against military targets is a hollow cover. I figured the Conglomerate might be using soldiers like me for their work. I didn’t want to kill them. Besides, in the end it was beyond my control. My soldiers took the decision out of my hands. Is money the only thing I’m getting out of this?”

There was a loud knock on the door. The officer looked up exasperated. “I told them no interruptions. I’ll be right back.”

Erik watched as the officer ran to the door and opened it, sticking his head out. The man seemed to be exchanging heated words with someone. The shrink, Eric refused to think of this as a debriefing anymore, then slipped outside and closed the door. Erik silently got up and walked to the door, placing his ear to it. He could just barely hear the words being spoken.

Erik could hear his therapist/debriefing officer talking. “I know about that already, he explained what happened.”

“Sloppiness like that is not befitting of a soldier. He took a serious risk that could have given the enemy a significant advantage.” This last was said by a stranger. The voice held that arrogant quality Erik had noted was absent in his officer.

“That ‘sloppiness’ was beyond his control, the algorithms he was using grew smarter than he’d anticipated.”

“I thought hackers were supposed to know their equipment.”

“His fabricator was equipped with—”

“The standard learning program that was designed to improve anything he was using to match the mission. It was in his equipment manual, which he was supposed to be familiar with.”

Erik backed away from the door and eased into his seat. He’d read the manual, front to back. He actually had read everything they’d sent him. There was nothing in there about a learning program. He wondered who that officer was. The man reminded him of Sanderson. A man with Sanderson’s connections could probably dummy up a false manual with an extra chapter on learning programs.

Erik’s officer entered the room a few minutes later looking flustered. “I know you heard at least part of that. You’re too curious not to.”

Without saying a word, Erik reached into his pack and pulled out his equipment manual, tossing it onto the table. The officer picked it up and looked through it. “Nothing. What the hell is going on?”

“Aristocracy at its worst, Doc. That man is probably the one who got Sanderson pushed through for the mission, certainly the one who allowed him to install slave circuits into the other Cannon Sights without Captain Hargrove’s permission.”

“If there’s no learning circuit mentioned, then why was there one in your fabricator?”

“Because I don’t use military issue tools. Captain Hargrove bitched me out for that until one day I showed him just how much better my industrial algorithms were. I’m a tinkerer: give me something crappy and I’ll make it worth more than gold.

“What I didn’t count on was a virus transferring over a video game learning circuit into my fabricator and adding itself to every soldier that fabricator made. I’m definitely going to have to crack that thing open and figure out what it can do. I’d love to be able to control it next time.”

“Once we figure out what to do with that rogue officer, I think our leaders will have a field day finding all the different uses they could put you to.”

“Once my sentence is up, I’m going private. If the military wants me to continue working, I’m going to be doing it as a civilian contractor. Not a soldier they can order around.” Erik looked the debriefing officer in the eyes. “Do you know how to handle that rogue?”

“Yes. Keep this manual and come with me. We’ll fix this right away.”

The shrink ran to the intercom and called someone. Erik didn’t know who, all he knew was that his therapist thought this person would help. The shrink turned back to Erik when he finished talking. “I just called the protocol officer on board and explained the situation. She wants us to come up to her office. She’s also calling in officer Daniels, the man who was here a little while ago. We’ll solve this little mess before finishing our debriefing.”

Erik nodded and the two men left the room, traversing the narrow halls of the ship on the way to the protocol office. In front of the protocol office’s door, they bumped into a severe-looking soldier wearing a captain’s shark pin. Erik’s debriefing officer leaned in and whispered in Erik’s ear, “That’s Daniels.”

“Another captain? Exactly where does my rank fall in the service again?”

“Low enough for a captain’s ire to wreck your career, I’ll tell you that. The conscript program for convicts hasn’t been completely ironed out even in the two years it’s been active.”

Erik digested that piece of information silently as the three soldiers walked through the door and into the protocol officer’s station. The P.O. herself was a short, slim woman who seemed happy to be in her job, despite the unpleasantness of it.

“I heard about the troubles with you three. Erik, do you have your copy of the Hacker’s Manual on you?”

“Yes ma’am, it’s right here.”

“Let me see that.” Erik handed the manual over to the P.O., who spent several minutes examining it, looking at the table of contents and then going through the section on copy programs, before handing it back to Erik.

“There is nothing in this manual about a learning program, Daniels.” The P.O. pushed back from her desk and walked to a filing cabinet, where she pulled out another official copy of the manual, before sitting back down to examine it once again. “Nor in this one. Explain yourself.”

“The acquisition department is slow when it comes to manuals. I assure you, he got an upgraded fabricator before he got the manual to go with it. However, he should have gotten a document in his mail that explained the important features of the new program.”

Erik raised his hand at that moment. The P.O. looked annoyed at him, before saying, “Go ahead, Hacker Johansen. What do you have to say?”

“There was an improvement made to the standard fabricator, and I did get the message Captain Daniels is talking about, but a learning program wasn’t a part of that either. It was a speed upgrade, not intelligence, ma’am.”

“Can you prove this?”

“I don’t delete official mail from my account, ma’am. If you’ll let me use my password, I’ll guide you to that message yourself.”

“Yes, please do, Hacker Johansen.”

The P.O. logged off his computer and allowed Erik to input his own pass code. Looking in Erik’s mailbox, the P.O. realized she probably didn’t need Erik’s help to find the mail. “Is this mailbox organized as obviously as it looks?”

“Yes, ma’am. I just wasn’t sure if you’d need help.”

“Then I’ll find it on my own. I get more mail than you do, Hacker. If I can organize my own, I can find something in yours.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Erik settled in a seat as the P.O. quickly found and read the maintenance letter describing the upgrades that were installed in the latest model of military program fabricator. “Explain yourself, Daniels. You’ve told lie after lie, and every time I’ve found out.”

“The fact remains that he left behind critical tools that the enemy could have learned from.”

“Yes, and that will be dealt with.” The P.O. shot a glance at Erik, letting him know he wasn’t off the hook for that quite yet. “However, it’s not for you to make his actions appear worse, or even just different than they really are. Explain yourself.”

“I didn’t expect—”

Erik realized where Daniels was headed with this and quietly laughed. “Please excuse me, ma’am. You didn’t expect me to keep records that important? Because of my rank? Or maybe the type of person you took me to be?”

Daniels straightened up, “Why should I expect someone like you to be organized? You came here a criminal.”

“And the military cleaned me up, gave me some very nice tools too. Oh, not computer ones. I can build better equipment than standard issue. But mental tools, those they gave me plenty of: organization, self-control. I wasn’t given a short program, Captain. It’s been two years since I was nabbed. Two years of obeying the law, and learning.”

The P.O. interjected. “That’s enough from both of you. Daniels, get out of my sight. I’ll deal with you later.” Daniels saluted and stiffly walked out, the door slamming behind him. “Johansen, you’re going to be a challenge.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Always nice to help others practice their art.”

“I know you’ve explained the situation to Officer Stone, but now that Daniels is out of the way, please explain to me exactly why you left precious equipment behind that the enemy could have learned from and duplicated.”

“Well, ma’am, I created a virtual army to attack the enemy flagship, hoping to capture it. The enemy was trying to use trickery to make me drop my guard, and when that failed, they said they’d take us with them. I figured out they’d try turning off the power in an attempt to reset the computers, and switched from my headset to a computer screen, to avoid brain damage.

“Just as I took the headset off, the enemy ship powered down and stayed that way. My soldiers had turned them off, and apparently did enough damage that they couldn’t do much once the power came back on. I didn’t get a chance to retrieve anything.”

“And why didn’t you foresee that?”

“Because while I’m using equipment I made, I didn’t build the learning program into that copy machine.”

“Copy machine?”

“Fabricator. It’s what they do, build copies of programs they have.”

“Oh, right. Please continue. How did that learning program get into your fabricator?”

“I don’t exactly know. I think a virus got in and transferred the learning code from one of my weapons programs into the copy... fabricator, ma’am. Honestly, I really need to test that program and learn it front to back. If I could do that, I could add it to the standard military tools and write the manual for it myself.”

“Are you aware you have been breaking regulations by using nonstandard equipment, Hacker Johansen?”

“Yes, sir. I kept it secret because of that, but I couldn’t this time, obviously.”

“For breaking of regulations pertaining to equipment use, and the subsequent covering up of those activities, I hereby fine you three months’ pay, and you will be confined to your quarters for the trip home. Count yourself lucky, your improved equipment did something standard equipment might not have carried out. If you didn’t have a good reason for the break in regulations, I might have had you thrown in prison for endangering lives.”

“Three months’ pay, ma’am? Considering my options, I’ll accept that.”

“If I were you, I’d spend that time in my room looking that learning program over and learning every last thing I could about it. You’ll have a few days of free time now.”

“I guess I will, ma’am.”

Proceed to part 11...

Copyright © 2013 by James Bright

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