The Forgotten

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jun 12, 2011.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The dream was always the same, every night.

    She was running through a maze of grey corridors. There were no signs or directions, just endless featureless corridors – and she was lost. Shadows dogged her path, but she didn't know if they were pursuers or just figments of her imagination. Scared, although she could not have said what had scared her, she ran, heedlessly following the twisting corridors in hopes of escape...

    ...And then she was standing in a massive chamber. Brilliant light surrounded her, so bright that she had to stop and cover her eyes. Suddenly, somehow, she became aware of a figure standing against the light. She could not see anything beyond a shadow, but she was convinced that the figure was looking back at her. And she couldn't move. Her entire body was frozen...

    ...An endless bombardment of images rushed through her mind. The figure standing against the light; names and faces she barely remembered, yet somehow she knew that they were pregnant with meaning; something moving in the darkness, heading right towards her. She screamed...

    ...And snapped awake.

    The lights in her small cubbyhole came up as she threw herself out of the bed and crashed onto the hard floor. She was covered in sweat, pooling around her naked body, yet she felt cold. Her entire body began to shiver as she slowly became aware of her surroundings. The dream was gone. It was already nothing more than a fading memory. Soon, it was hard to tell what had so bothered her at night. She pulled her legs up against her chest and hugged herself, wondering why she dreamed. The System rarely approved of dreamers.

    A bleeping sound alerted her that it was nearly time to get up. Snorting at the irony, she pulled herself to her feet and scowled at the sweat over her body. Cursing her mind, she stepped into the fresher and allowed warm water to cascade over her body. The shower was the only real luxury in her life, costing more System Credits than she cared to contemplate, but it was a necessary for her. She had long ago lost count of the number of times she had awoken from a nightmare screaming for help that would never come, only to forget the nightmare as her waking life reasserted itself.

    Naked, she stepped out of the shower and studied herself in the reflecting surface. Long auburn hair framed her face, highlighting her green eyes and perfect mouth. Her body was freakishly tall for one of her class, although an outside observer would probably have called her perfect. She rarely cared for what others thought of her appearance; she had never taken a lover, or engaged in the momentary dalliances of others of her class. She had certainly never applied for permission to breed. The other women of her age and class chatted constantly about breeding, about finding an approvable partner and having his children, but the subject had never interested her. It seemed to be meaningless to her life.

    The tiny cubbyhole was smaller than the average dwelling, but she had never been claustrophobic. She stepped over to the bed and pulled out the tray from underneath the covers, finding a shapeless tunic, the approved wear for her position in data-entry. She’d been told that she had great prospects to rise within the department, under the System of course, but that too was meaningless to her. She simply was. A faint memory of her nightmare flickered through her mind, only to be lost before she was fully aware of its existence. Her mind refused to look too closely at what had disturbed her sleep.

    Dressed, she looked at the reflecting surface again, seeing only the grey tunic and the badge on her shoulder, marking her out as one of the worker class. Some of her fellow workers decorated their uniforms, cutting away to daringly show a little more flesh than the average worker, or tightening it to show off their curves, yet it was something else she had never been inclined to consider. Her shapeless tunic hid everything that might have marked her out as an individual, but then the System would have disapproved. Individuality was just as often a curse as a blessing. So said the System.

    She tied up her hair into a neat ponytail, knowing that she wouldn't have to work on it again until she returned to her cubbyhole after work, and then reached for her badge. It carried her name – Jennifer – and her number, the identification code that allowed the System to identify her at any moment. The tiny photograph attached to the badge bore a slight resemblance to her, if only a version of Jennifer who looked bad, mad or dead – or all three at once – yet she didn't care. There was no room in her life for vanity.

    There were times when she felt disconnected from the world around her, as if a dark shadow hung over her mind. The other workers might be involved in their lives, daringly pushing the limits of acceptable dress and conduct as far as they dared, but she was untouched by everything. No emotion passed through her mind. She took no pleasure in accomplishing her daily tasks – as mandated by the System – nor was she nervous when confronted by the Peacekeepers, the men who enforced the System’s laws. None of her fellows ever elicited an emotional response from her, not the ones who tried to lure her into a relationship or the ones who mocked her and called her the ice queen behind her back. They were meaningless to her.

    She walked out of the cubbyhole and down towards the transit shafts. The city never slept; all around her, the different classes were going to their workplaces, where they would relieve their fellows who had been on duty during the last period. She joined a crowd of fellow data-entry workers as she entered the shaft, dropping down the null-gravity tube and out into a throughway running through the city. Part of her mind observed, as coolly as anything, the presence of five black-suited Peacekeepers at the edge of the crowd. It seemed to her as if the Peacekeepers were aware of her presence, even though none of them looked at her directly. The very thought was absurd. She had done nothing to warrant their attention.

    “Jenny,” a voice called. “You should have come to the party last night!”

    Jennifer felt nothing as Victoria joined her. She was short and stunted compared to Jennifer, with short dark hair and a mischievous smile, but she had the most active social life in the department. Victoria would do her work – people who didn’t do their work were eventually taken away and disappeared – and then launch herself into the whirling circle of parties and casual sex that entertained the workers. Part of Jennifer’s mind noted that it also distracted the workers from considering their living conditions, but that thought too vanished before it had been fully considered. Deep inside, she knew that that was wrong, yet she could not even understand why it was wrong. The whole memory vanished from her mind within seconds.

    Victoria chattered happily as they passed through the grey doors into the data-entry department. It was, in fact, one of many data-entry departments, where workers would take the data from the System’s Galactic Hypercom Network and feed it into the System’s computers. The planners – located in another department, perhaps on another planet – would take the data and use it to steer the path of the System. Jennifer knew that she – and Victoria and the rest of her co-workers – were nothing more than tiny cogs in an organisation that ruled almost all of the galaxy. The System was supreme. It could not be challenged. They had learned that in their first day of socialisation and nothing she’d seen since had disproved it. The System would dominate their lives from the first breath they took to the final departure from life.

    As she sat down at her desk, hastily vacated by the previous shift’s worker, she caught sight of the Drone on the other side of the massive room. Dead eyes locked on hers, just for a split second, before the Drone looked away. No one knew who he’d been before he committed an offense against the System, but they knew his fate. His personality had been destroyed, leaving behind nothing apart from obedience and servitude to the System. Part of her mind noted that it was another object lesson in obeying the system, rather more blatant than the Peacekeepers, yet that too slipped out of her mind. She was unbothered by the cold unblinking gaze, even though others were repulsed and horrified by the Drones. Their endless servitude, all thoughts hollowed out of their heads, was a nightmare.

    She placed her hand against the computer screen and it lit up, displaying what promised to be the first of an endless series of statistics. Jennifer keyed a switch, activated the interface link and started to work, keying in the statistics and shooting them into the System’s network. The task was dull and boring, yet she took a kind of solace in entering the data, bit by bit. No troubling thoughts or hazy recollections of her nightmare could reach her mind while she lost herself in mundane work. She was dimly aware of hours slipping by, of her fellow workers contemplating the fun and games to come after their shift was finished, yet it hardly mattered. All that mattered was the data – and serving the System.

    The dull chime that marked the end of her shift caught her by surprise, as it always did. All around her, her fellow workers were getting to their feet and passing their consoles over to their successors. Nothing had happened that required thought from any of them. In the rare cases when initiative and actual thought was necessary, they knew to forward the datafiles to their superiors. They were not paid to think. Jennifer nodded to her successor, a young man who had tried without success to talk her into his bed, and left without a backwards glance. There was a fresher on the other side of the room, waiting for her to relieve herself before she left the department. She had been so wrapped up in her work that she had ignored her body’s increasingly urgent demands.

    She caught a glimpse of her own face as she washed herself and – for a brief moment – wondered at the absence of stress. The other workers looked tired and worn, even with the prospect of partying and relaxation coming up, yet her face could have been carved from ice. Shaking her head, she took a sip of water from the tap and headed out of the door, back into the city. Like so many other mysteries, it faded from her mind before she could fully consider it. Soon enough, she forget the matter entirely.

    There was a new feeling in the air as she walked towards the transit lanes that led up towards the flowered gardens at the top of the city. It was not something she could place, or identify; it was more of a vague unease than anything else. She ignored it as her feet carried her onwards, almost without conscious thought. Every cycle, she would feel the urge to go to the gardens, even though they meant nothing to her. From time to time, she tried to ignore the urge, to resist something that was so clearly irrational. Somehow, all of her strict instructions to her own body were ignored and she had to give in. Perhaps, she thought sometimes, it should have bothered her. It didn't. The curious disconnection she felt from the rest of the world insulated her from considering her mind. Besides, those who showed signs of mental disorder were often taken away and never seen again. No one wanted to vanish from the city and be lost forever.

    She stepped through the gateway and into the terminal. Hundreds of people surrounded her, hastening to their destinations with a single-mindedness that came from living under the System. A man ran past her, pale and worn, clearly overdue for his shift. She doubted, deep in her heart, that he would remain in the city for much longer. Either the Peacekeepers would take him away or he would seek to end himself in the Termination Booth. That thought too should have disturbed her, yet it faded and was gone, lost forever.

    A shout echoed on the air as the people ahead of her began to scatter. Jennifer moved slowly backwards with the crowd, watching as it parted to reveal a young girl being chased by two Peacekeepers. The girl wore a ragged uniform, her long dark hair streaming out behind her – and her face was a mask of terror. No one moved to help her, for the absence of a proper uniform meant only one thing. The girl was an Underperson, from the hidden passages and caves under the city, and almost certainly a rebel. She might be dangerous. The Peacekeepers would remove her and she would never darken the city again.

    Jennifer caught sight of the girl’s eyes as she slipped and crashed to the hard metal floor, close enough for Jennifer to touch. The sudden moment of understanding between them seemed to send unfamiliar signals through Jennifer’s mind. For a moment, she hovered between two states, one comforting and familiar, the other dark and dangerous. The pause was long enough for the crowd to move away from her, leaving her – and the girl – exposed to the Peacekeepers. She was vaguely aware that the entire crowd was leaving as fast as it could, feeling like sheep confronted by a single wolf. It didn't seem to matter to her. All that mattered was the strange sensation in her head.

    “You,” the lead Peacekeeper snapped. Part of Jennifer knew that she should immediately assume the correct submissive posture before the Peacekeepers. The rest of her told that part to shut up. Her mind was still spinning. The Peacekeepers, for all the noise they made, weren’t important to her, not while her mind was out of control. “Get over here, now!”

    Jennifer felt a cold anger flooding through her mind, all the worse because she wasn't entirely sure why she was angry. Intellectually, there seemed to be no reason to be angry. The girl was an Underperson. Her fate had been mandated by the System long before she’d been born and become an Underperson, perhaps as a deserter from the System or simple birth into the Undercity. What was her life – and her death – to Jennifer? She didn't know, yet she cared.

    The Peacekeepers seemed to be moving in slow motion as Jennifer lunged forward. She threw a punch right at the lead Peacekeeper, aiming right at his throat. Her fist connected satisfactorily with his neck and she felt bones breaking under the impact. He staggered backwards and collapsed, his neck broken. Jennifer was still moving, heading right towards the second Peacekeeper as he struggled to bring his weapon to bear on her. He couldn't move fast enough to prevent her slamming her fist into his jaw. Blood and bone splashed on the floor – she heard screams from the few remaining workers in the area – and he hit the ground, gasping in pain. Jennifer raised her foot and stamped hard on his chest, feeling his ribcage shatter under the impact. Oddly, she felt nothing, as if the deaths were meaningless to her, just another event to note and then forget.

    A gasp reminded her of the girl they’d been chasing and she turned to look at her. The girl’s eyes were very wide, staring at Jennifer. She didn't believe her eyes, Jennifer realised; she might have been brought up among violence, instead of the peace of the city, yet she hadn't seen anyone kill someone with their bare hands. Now she had a moment to consider, she was dimly aware that no one should have been able to inflict such damage. Her mind seemed to fade, as if she was already trying to forget what had happened, but this time it was impossible to forget. The deaths were burned into her mind.

    The girl lunged to her feet and caught Jennifer by the arm. “Are you mad?” She demanded, in a high-pitched tone. “They’ll be after us soon. Come on!”

    Jennifer allowed herself to be dragged away, even though part of her mind was contemplating how easy it would have been to crush the girl’s hand with her bare fingers. They ran through grey corridors and into one of the maintenance ducts. Jennifer had never been in one of the tubes the maintenance workers used for repairing the city, but she discovered that she had no problems enduring the cramped ladders that seemed to plunge down for miles under the city. A far worse problem, she realised suddenly, was the implant in her arm. Everyone who lived in the city had a tracking implant, allowing the System to locate them instantly, wherever they were. If she’d become a criminal and a refugee in the space of bare minutes, her career would last as long as it took the Peacekeepers to track her down. And yet, somehow, she was unconcerned. Her mind felt as if someone was plucking away at it, trying to rewrite her thoughts so she forget what she’d done.

    The girl ignored her as she tried to explain about the implant, leading her into a darkened tunnel that smelt ghastly. Jennifer tried to ignore the smell – and the sound of dripping liquid in the distance – as they headed down under the city. She was suddenly very aware of the mass of the city over her and of how easily she would be crushed if the supports failed and billions of tons of rock and building concrete fell on her head...

    And then there was a flash of blue light and she plunged down into darkness.
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “She’s a spy,” a voice said. It was young, male and very frightened. “Kill her now, before she wakes up.”

    Jennifer kept her eyes closed, even as her head began to clear. She had no idea what had happened to her, but she’d clearly been knocked out by a stun weapon. Her body still felt sluggish – an after-effect of the stunner, part of her mind whispered – yet it was clear that she was a prisoner. Metal bands encircled her wrists, holding her down on a bed. And at least one of her captors wanted to kill her.

    “The System wouldn't send us such an obvious spy,” a second voice said. It too was male, but it sounded older and much more composed. “They know that we check everyone who stumbles into our territory.”

    “And she saved my life,” a third voice said. Jennifer needed a moment to place her as the girl she’d saved, just before they’d run down towards the Undercity. “A System spy wouldn't have risked herself like that, would she?”

    “The System wouldn’t hesitate to kill two Peacekeepers if it thought their deaths could convince us to take a spy into our base,” the first voice said, sharply. “They probably had it all planned out from the beginning...”

    “She’s also waking up,” the second voice said. Jennifer felt a warm hand tapping her shoulder and opened her eyes. She found herself staring up at an elderly face, smiling down kindly at her. He looked too old to be part of the System. Most elderly people went into retirement homes and were rarely seen again. “Welcome back to the world, my dear.”

    Jennifer looked around. She was lying on a bed in a small room, packed with equipment and devices she didn't recognise, her hands secured to the bed. One of her captors was holding a large weapon in his hands, pointing it at her head. The girl she’d saved gave her a shy smile of welcome, even though there was a wariness in her eyes that worried Jennifer. At least she looked relatively normal. The young man looked as if he’d boosted his muscles without developing the rest of his body. He seemed to be on the verge of panic. Jennifer knew that she should be alarmed – his grip on the weapon didn't look very stable – but her mind remained calm and disciplined.

    “Thank you,” she said, finally. She looked up at the old man and noted his white hair. Very few workers would allow their hair to go white, even if they had to spend their monthly allotment of credits on vanity parlours that would keep their hair looking young. The man was the oldest person she had ever seen. “Where am I?”

    “You’re in the Undercity,” the old man said. He shrugged. “You may call me Jan, if you like. This is Alvin” – he pointed to the young man – “and Ali, who brought you here. I’m sorry about the stun trap, but we had to be sure that you weren't a spy.”

    “I'm not a spy,” Jennifer said, in alarm. Whatever had happened, whatever had driven her to strike out at the Peacekeepers, she wasn't a spy. She hadn't intended for anything to happen.

    “We’re not sure about that at all,” Jan said. He walked over to a bank of computer screens that looked as if they dated back hundreds of years. “Did you know that you were an augment?”

    Jennifer blinked. “An augment?” She repeated, puzzled. Augmented humans were very rare, at least in the city. The System produced them to keep the hundreds of alien races in line, ensuring that they could never pose a threat to humanity. “I’m not an augment.”

    “I’m very much afraid that you are,” Jan said. He twisted one of the screens around so that Jennifer could see herself. Her skeleton was surrounded by smaller devices, wired into her body, all connected to a device that seemed to be positioned just under her brain. Jennifer knew very little about physiology, or about augment technology, but she couldn't see any reason they’d try to convince her that she was an augment. They had to be telling the truth.

    “You have boosted muscles and reflexes,” Jan said, as his fingers passed over the display. “You’re probably five or six times as strong and fast as Alvin. You have direct body-brain control links, direct computer access nodes and no less than five implant processors. These components here” – his hands touched the display, pointing to her fingers – “are probably weapons.”

    He shrugged, although his eyes were worried. “I don’t recognise some of this stuff, young lady; I think that this is actually a personal force field generator. This is cutting-edge technology. Nothing we have even comes close to it.”

    Jennifer felt her head swimming. “But I’m just a worker,” she protested. It seemed unbelievable – and yet there was the memory of how quickly and efficiently she’d dealt with two Peacekeepers. And the Peacekeepers were probably augmented themselves. “Who could do this to me?”

    “The System could,” Jan said. He scowled down at the display. “We have more technology in the Undercity than is generally known, but we couldn't augment someone like this. Alvin and his brothers are the results of genetic modifications after the System dumped his ancestors into the Undercity and left them to fend for themselves. Nothing I have here could create you.”

    Jennifer wanted, very much, to close her eyes and hope that the nightmare would be gone when she opened them again. “But I’m not a spy,” she protested. She heard her own voice echoing back to her and shuddered at just how whiny she sounded. “I am not a spy!”

    “You may not be,” Jan conceded. “But your other self might be a spy.”

    He smiled, humourlessly. “The System directed your life – and the lives of all the sheep in the city – from the day you were born. If they decided that you were showing antisocial tendencies, they could have reprogrammed you to suit their requirements. They could simply have implanted another personality into your mind, overwriting your old personality. Or your old personality might have been a willing subject, buried under your new personality and awaiting the right moment to resurface.

    “One of these devices is a lie detector,” he added. “You are telling the truth – but that only means that you believe that you are telling the truth.”

    “And the System might have programmed her to serve as an unwitting spy,” Alvin injected, quickly. “Professor, she’s just too dangerous to keep around.”

    “I believe that I make those decisions,” Jan said, mildly. “Besides, why would they send us such an obvious spy?”

    “And she did save my life,” Ali said.

    “Maybe she did save your life,” Alvin said. “Maybe her current personality wanted to save your life, but what about the buried personality?”

    “We don’t even know that she has a buried personality,” Jan pointed out. “It was a theory, nothing more. And they know that we would have scanned her body as soon as we brought her into our base. They would know that we’d find the implants – and that there is no logical reason to have her augmented.”

    “Unless that that’s what they wanted us to think,” Alvin pointed out.

    Jennifer lay back as the argument raged on, trying to think. She hadn't known that she had been augmented and, no matter how hard she thought, she couldn't recall any time when she might have been augmented. Her mind seemed to deny the very possibility. She knew that she should have been scared – if Alvin won the argument, they’d kill her – and yet she remained calm. There seemed to be no reason to be scared, unless she did have a buried personality. The whole concept bothered her.

    “I have a question,” she said, suddenly. “Can’t you scan my brain and see if I have a buried personality?”

    “Not with the equipment we have on hand,” Jan said. “A brainscan would leave you with your brain dripping out your ears. The System is supposed to have a way of scanning a brain without causing significant damage, but we don't have anything like it here.” He consulted one of his computers and then scowled. “For what it’s worth, you don’t have additional brainwave patterns that would suggest a buried personality. Unfortunately, that proves nothing. Your implants – and I can't get a read off them – may be spoofing the scanners, or the personality might be buried within them. They really are alarmingly advanced. The System has made a few breakthroughs since I left them and came here.”

    Jennifer froze as a thought occurred to her. “My implant,” she said, sharply. How had she forgotten the tracking implant in her arm? Every citizen had one, allowing the System to track their location at all times. “They’ll find us here!”

    “No they won’t,” Jan said. “I used a tailored nanoswarm to destroy it before you were brought here. If they’re looking for your implant, they won’t find anything.”

    Alvin grinned, suddenly. “We took an implant out of a runaway and implanted it in a rat,” he said. “The Peacekeepers drove themselves crazy trying to track it down.”

    Jennifer relaxed. The Peacekeepers wouldn't treat her kindly after she’d killed two of them.

    “And now we have to make a decision,” Jan said. All humour was gone from his voice. “Do we bring her with us, or let her loose on her own, or kill her?”

    “Kill her,” Alvin said. He hefted the massive weapon and pointed it right at Jennifer’s head. “Kill her now and vaporise the body.”

    “She saved my life,” Ali countered. The young girl, so tiny and slight compared to Alvin’s bulk, walked up to him and glared into his face. “We need to take in as many runaways as we can, if only to add to our knowledge of the system. And we can learn about her implants and maybe even duplicate them for ourselves.”

    “Keep her alive,” Jan agreed. He looked back at Jennifer. “Welcome to the Undercity.”

    He tapped a switch and the metal bands on her wrists retracted, allowing Jennifer to sit up and swing her legs over the table. “We get a few dozen runaways every year,” he said, as Jennifer started to rub her wrists. “Most of them get tracked down by the Peacekeepers or they stumble into the wrong part of the Undercity and get eaten by cannibals. There are thousands of different tribes within the warrens, including several that aren't remotely human. If you don’t want to stay with us, I suggest you take extreme care.”

    “Or you will be eaten,” Alvin said. He was still pointing the weapon at Jennifer’s chest. She was suddenly aware of her nakedness. Ali passed her a robe and she wrapped herself in it, feeling the cold for the first time. “And there are plenty of freaks like me down there.”

    “The Genetic Wars left a horrific legacy under the ground,” Jan explained. “The System built the megacities on top of the older cities and buried them. All of the experiments created during the wars were pushed into the Undercity, where they started adapting to the environment. Some of them are no longer intelligent; others are more intelligent than the average human, the result of natural selection over thousands of years. I suggest that you remain with us, at least until you get your bearings.”

    Jennifer shivered. She’d heard rumours, of course; stories exchanged between workers that hinted at nightmares hiding under the city. And yet she’d never heard of the Genetic Wars, or of a time before the System. The lessons she’d absorbed as a young child had suggested that the System had always existed, dominating most of the galaxy since time out of mind. It struck her, when she thought about it, that the System had had to come into existence at some point, but how? The lessons had never touched upon history, merely the skills workers would need when they matured and were assigned to working units.

    “I will,” she said, finally. “Who are you?”

    “We’re the TechRats,” Alvin said, with more than a hint of pride. “We exist down here in the Undercity, slowly reaching up into the System’s domain and stealing their technology for our own use. They have tried to destroy us all and we are still here.”

    “I used to work for the System,” Jan said. He sounded very tired, all of a sudden. “They wanted me to develop something for them and I refused. There was nothing left for me, but to flee to the Undercity and hope I found safety under the ground. I was one of the lucky ones.”

    Ali held out her hand and Jennifer took it, feeling the girl’s fragile bones under her skin. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll take you somewhere where you can sleep.”

    “Just don’t do anything suspicious,” Alvin snapped. He waved the gun at her face. “The System has tried to kill us all. They released plagues, modified humans and even alien hunting creatures into the Undercity. We cannot afford to be too trusting.”

    Jennifer understood. The TechRats probably wouldn't want her anywhere near their bases, just in case she was an unknowing spy. They’d keep her somewhere until they decided if they could trust her or not. She felt an odd burst of sympathy for Alvin, even though he’d been insisting that they killed her at once. The poor boy could never be sure that she was trustworthy. A buried personality could emerge at any moment. The very thought was chilling.

    She studied Alvin thoughtfully as Jan passed the two youngsters a pair of rucksacks. The young man was clearly the product of genetic modification, somewhere back down the family tree. If the System had released his ancestors underground, they’d probably been cross-breeding between different kinds of modified human. By now, they might not even count as human. The System would certainly not consider them worth protecting.

    “Here,” Alvin said. Jennifer took the rucksack with an amused smile and shouldered it. “Follow Ali. I’ll be behind you.”

    Darkness fell the moment they stepped out of the base. For a long moment, Jennifer was completely blind...and then her eyes started to adapt to the darkness. She could make out a long series of tunnels leading onwards into the Undercity, some as sterile as anything the System had produced, others decorated in ways that amused her. The System had built its metropolises on top of older cities, Jan had said; now, looking at the ruins surrounding her, Jennifer believed him. There had been a time before the System.

    Ali, still holding her hand, led her onwards. Jennifer felt her nose twitching as she smelled something unfamiliar in the distance, almost like the dogs she’d seen during a visit to the zoo, years ago. She stumbled over a dead body lying on the ground and shuddered when she realised that the body wasn't human. The race might have started out human, long ago, but now it was nothing more than a feral monster, with arms that ended in claws and sharp unpleasant teeth.

    “They’re one of the nastier predators down here,” Ali said. “The System created them and unleashed them on us, a few hundred years ago. We killed thousands of them, but they breed fast and the children grow up astonishingly quickly. Now we just kill them on sight and the survivors have learned to stay out of our way.”

    “There are some nests deeper in the city,” Alvin said. He sounded nervous. “What was one doing here?”

    They came out of the tunnels and into a vast chamber. Jennifer could see glowing lichen on the walls, providing an eerie illumination. Her eyes adapted quickly, as before, and she saw tracks on the ground that led into larger tunnels. A small vehicle sat on the tracks, covered in rust and streaks of paint. She could hear a dripping sound in the distance that swelled up into a rushing torrent, just before the water came into view. A river ran through the chamber, heading further down into the Undercity. She could see tiny creatures within the water, jumping up above the waves before being swept back into the torrent. One landed on the side and she saw snapping teeth before Alvin stamped on it, squashing it flat.

    “Don’t swim in the water or it will be the last thing you ever do,” Ali warned. “The System tried to poison it once, and then they infested it with those tiny creatures. They can strip a body bare in seconds.”

    Jennifer shivered, keeping her thoughts to herself. She knew almost nothing about the environment in the Undercity, leaving her completely dependent upon her new friends. For the first time, it dawned on her that her life had been destroyed. She could never go back to the megacities or return to the System. And if they put her out, she wouldn't last a day. Her thoughts spun through her head as they crossed the chamber and headed down a flight of stairs, back into the darkness. The next second, the entire chamber lit up so brightly that she had to cover her eyes and cringe back.

    “DO NOT MOVE,” a voice thundered. She heard the sound of marching feet running towards them. “YOU ARE UNDER...”

    Alvin opened fire with his weapon. Jennifer hit the ground as streaks of orange light flared out above her head, illuminating the tunnel and the Peacekeepers at the far end. Ali fell next to her as the Peacekeepers returned fire, sending blue stunner bolts crackling through the air. Jennifer started to crawl backwards, hoping that she could reach the stairs and escape before they caught up with her, but it was too late. She felt a metal boot land on her back and froze, a second before she lashed out automatically. The leg broke and she saw the Peacekeeper crashing to the ground, just before his fellows concentrated their fire on her.

    And the world went away in a flare of blue light. Again.
    Cephus, Sapper John, jasonl6 and 2 others like this.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Are you alright?”

    Jennifer rubbed the side of her head, swallowing hard to keep herself from throwing up whatever remained in her stomach. She'd been stunned, again. Memory returned slowly as she tried to recall what had happened. She’d been with Ali and Alvin and they’d walked right into a trap. And she’d been stunned.

    “Yeah,” she said, finally. The smell finally hit her and she gagged. Their prison stank of urine, sweat and human fear. “I think I’m alive.”

    She looked around in hopes of distracting her rebellious body. They were in a large compartment with metal walls, illuminated by cold lighting that gleamed down from overhead. Her left arm was cuffed to the wall, leaving her half-slumped against the cold metal. There were thirty men and women in the chamber, all as naked as the day they were born, waiting for their fate. She tested the cuff and discovered that even enhanced strength – if she was using her implants – wasn’t enough to break free.

    “They just kept zapping you,” Ali said. Her voice was shaky. Jennifer looked over at her and saw bruises on her face and chest. She had always looked malnourished, at least as long as Jennifer had known her, but now she looked as if she were on the verge of collapse. “I yelled at them to stop and they kicked me and...”

    She swallowed, hard. Jennifer felt an odd surge of protectiveness, even though she was certain that there was nothing she could do to protect the girl – or herself, for that matter. She looked around, trying to spy Alvin or Jan, but there was no sign of either of them. The other prisoners barely paid any attention to their fellows. She guessed that they were workers ort members of a similar caste who had been caught by the Peacekeepers, although a handful looked weirdly inhuman, suggesting that they’d been dragged out of the Undercity. And she had no idea where they were.

    “They just carried us up to the surface and dumped us in here,” Ali said, when Jennifer asked what she’d seen after Jennifer had been stunned. “I don’t know where we are either.”

    Jennifer nodded, slowly. The part of her mind that always remained cool and collected – and detached – was taking over, considering the situation. They’d been captured by the Peacekeepers. The Peacekeepers knew that she’d been augmented, for they’d stunned her heavily, enough to leave her groggy afterwards. They’d been dumped in a prison with a number of other prisoners and...what? What did the System do to its criminals? Some became drones, she knew, all traces of individuality destroyed. And the others?

    She shuddered as she recalled Jan’s words. Perhaps they’d simply be reprogrammed to serve the System. A whole new personality would be grafted into her mind and Jennifer would die, to be replaced by someone else. She’d have nothing, but what the System gave her. The thought was chilling. She would almost have preferred to die. It was almost amusing; if they did wipe her mind and rewrite it, she would be dead. A thought struck her and she looked over at Ali.

    “Ali,” she said, softly, “did they ask you any questions?”

    “None,” Ali confirmed. Jennifer frowned, puzzled. Ali had lived in the Undercity for years. If the Peacekeepers were determined to eradicate all traces of life below the megacities, why hadn't they taken Ali, interrogated her and used what they learned to hunt down and destroy the TechRats? It suggested that their real objective had been Jennifer herself, which led to a single question. What made Jennifer so important that they’d launched a raid into the Undercity to capture her?

    She looked down at her hand, thinking hard. Someone had augmented her and Jan had been fairly confident that only the System could have augmented someone in such a manner. Why? If they had augmented her, why had they just left her as a worker? Nothing made sense to her tired and groggy mind. Perhaps it was a, it smelt real. It was real...

    A pair of marching feet approached her, but she didn't look up until she felt a hand fumbling with her cuffs. She looked up to see a Peacekeeper, wearing black armour, undoing the cuff and pulling her roughly to her feet. Jennifer wanted to lash out at him, to crush his neck as she had crushed the other Peacekeeper’s neck, but she restrained herself. She knew nothing about her surroundings, part of her mind said firmly, and it was best to wait and see what happened before acting. One strong hand clamped around her wrist and pulled her down the row of prisoners and through solid metal doors. It dawned on her as she was marched down the corridor that there was room for thousands of prisoners in the complex. The System had them firmly in its grasp.

    She caught sight of a dozen other prisoners, including two figures that were very definitely not human, as her escort pulled her down the corridor. There were Peacekeepers everywhere, holding stun rifles and neural whips. Jennifer remembered seeing the whips in use, once, and shivered. A single touch could cause immense pain for the target. She was marched past a line of child prisoners, their faces bitter and hopeless, and into a smaller room. A gust of warm air struck her as she was pushed into a chair and told to wait. There was nothing in the room, apart from the table and another chair.

    “Well, well, well,” a voice said. It was mocking – and yet there was an odd sense of familiarity about it. “I bet you never expected to end up here, did you?”

    Jennifer looked up. The newcomer was a tall man with short black hair, wearing a black uniform with a single golden word emblazoned on his breast. It read ENFORCER. The Enforcers were the System’s direct representatives, she knew; they only appeared when matters had gone badly wrong. They held absolute authority under the System, for they spoke with its voice. She’d never seen one before, of course, but she knew the stories. Everyone knew the stories.

    The Enforcer sat down at the opposite side of the table and waved a hand in the air. A drone entered the room carrying two plates of food, a steaming mass of meat, pasta and vegetables. He placed one of the plates in front of Jennifer and the other in front of the Enforcer, before leaving the room as silently as he’d entered. Jennifer’s stomach rumbled as she smelled the food, but she didn’t move. She was too busy trying to remember where she’d met the Enforcer before, if she had. Her mind couldn't place him at all.

    “Please, eat,” the Enforcer said. His brown eyes met Jennifer’s, staring into her very soul. “It used to be your favourite, once upon a time.”

    Jennifer reached out with her bare fingers and picked up a hunk of steaming chicken, biting into it. The flavours struck her at once, a complex blending of spices that added up to a single delicious whole. She threw caution to the winds and swallowed the meat whole, before scooping up some of the pasta and chewing on it. If there was poison or a truth drug in it...she dismissed the thought, irritated. The System didn't need to play games to interrogate her.

    The Enforcer leaned closer. “Do you know who I am?”

    Jennifer shook her head as she swallowed another lump of meat. “So it’s true,” he said, with some amusement. “You don’t remember me at all.”

    “No,” Jennifer said. It wasn't entirely true – there was the odd nagging sense of familiarity – but she couldn't remember him at all. “Who are you?”

    “My name is Wild,” the Enforcer said. He leaned forward, ignoring his own meal. His voice became a whisper. “This room is isolated. No one can hear us, not even the System’s AIs. Tell me – do you remember me at all?”

    “No,” Jennifer repeated, irked. “Why are you here?”

    “So it’s true,” Wild said. “You don’t remember anything of the past.”

    Jennifer stared at him, puzzled. Now that she’d been fed, she found herself concentrating on his words – and what Jan had said, once upon a time. The System could alter memories – or wipe a person’s personality completely and replace it with a new personality. And she was augmented, without any recollection of being augmented. And there was no logical reason for her to be augmented in the first place. Why would the System bother to augment a worker drone?

    “Think about it,” Wild breathed. His lips were so close. She could have reached out and kissed him. “What is your first memory? What’s the first thing you remember?”

    Jennifer felt the first stirrings of panic. Her mind, recovering from the trauma she’d experienced in the last twenty-four hours, was starting to fight back against itself. Her memories were spinning around and she had discovered one thing out of place, it was becoming easier to question the other memories...

    “I...I don’t recall,” she said. She shuddered suddenly, as if the temperature had plummeted down to freezing. Her parents...her parents were just shadows, figments of her imagination. She was sure that her father had been handsome and her mother had been beautiful, both workers, both proud of serving the System, yet she couldn't picture their faces in her mind. A whirlwind of confusion was attacking her thoughts, but she held on, grimly determined to uncover the truth. “I don’t remember...”

    “Think about it,” Wild insisted. “What were your parents called?”

    “Mum and dad,” Jennifer said, automatically. It made sense, except...parents had names too, but she couldn’t remember them at all. What had her parents been called? Her mind refused to supply an answer. And she couldn't remember what they looked like? Every time she focused on a specific question, she discovered that it was impossible to answer. “I can't...”

    Her entire body shuddered and she fell over backwards. She gasped in pain as she hit the floor, her knees slamming into the table and depositing the remains of her meal onto the cold metal, yet somehow the pain helped her to concentrate. Wild stood up and walked over to her, holding out one hand to help her to her feet. Up close, she was suddenly very aware of his masculinity – and her own nakedness – yet it didn't seem to matter. Her thoughts were spinning around in circles. What was the first thing she remembered...?

    ...She looks up and sees Wild bending down to kiss her. His lips touch hers and she feels a spurt of pleasure that pulls her towards him. Unwilling to surrender control, she pushes him back on the bed and mounts him, gasping in pleasure as she impales himself on him...

    “Ouch,” she hissed. The brief memory, the tiny recollection, had sparked off a flash of pain in her skull. She clung onto the vivid memory, but it was already fading, losing all of its colour. Had they been lovers, a long time ago? Or was it just a figment of her imagination? “Who...who are you?”

    “My name is Wild,” Wild said. “You have to remember...”

    ...They are standing together above a ruined world, staring down at the fireballs flaring out on its surface as the natives are ruthlessly exterminated by the System. Jennifer turns to him and starts to speak...

    “I can't,” Jennifer gasped. Every memory, every recollection, brought a new burst of pain. Heedless of her own naked body, she grabbed at her head, feeling new flashes of pain as she tried to prise out more sealed thoughts. Wild pulled her into a gentle hug and yet even that action brought more pain. She almost vomited over him as her body and mind fought back. “I can’t...”

    ...The figure is standing there, looking at her. The light hides everything, but its silhouette Slowly, it raises one hand, as if it means to greet her. And then the whole world goes away...

    “No,” she screamed. She lashed out with augmented strength. Wild jumped back, barely in time to save his life. “Get away from me!”

    “You have to remember,” Wild insisted. “You must remember what happened...”

    He swore as a bleeping sound echoed through the room. “Time’s up,” he snapped. Jennifer saw his face shadowed with rage, just for a second, before he returned to cool dispassion. “Get up. You and your TechRat friends are being dumped on a planet called Rupert’s World. It's inhabitants call it hell. You will either tame the world for the System or you will die there – either way, you will trouble the System no more.”

    Jennifer was too confused to argue as he pulled her to his feet and called for the guard. “You might wish to know,” he whispered, just before the guard entered the room, “that the ship taking you to Rupert’s World is called the Brilliant.”

    She offered no resistance as the guard marched her back to the holding pen. Her mind kept spinning away, trying to unlock more memories, but nothing worked. She was barely aware of it when he opened the door and dragged her inside, back to Ali. The room stank even worse than when she’d left, she realised; the other prisoners hadn't been offered a fine meal. They’d just been fed slops, or worse. She didn't want to think about it.

    “Jennifer,” Ali whispered. “What happened?”

    Some instinct told Jennifer that it might be a very bad idea to tell the truth. The compartment was almost certainly monitored. A single AI could watch over every prisoner simultaneously and be almost impossible to fool. The System’s electronic servants couldn't be bribed or threatened into helping rebels and prisoners.

    “He wanted me,” Jennifer said, finally. Ali nodded and looked away. Part of her mind felt guilty about lying to the girl, but the rest of her – the cool collected part of her mind that was starting to take control more often – insisted that there was no other choice. It was better than Ali thought that Jennifer had been molested than allow the AIs to hear the truth. Whoever Wild was, he needed to be protected. “Don’t worry about it.”

    Time passed, slowly. The guards flushed cold water through the cell, followed by a brief mist of soap and disinfectant, giving the prisoners a rough clean. A gust of hot air blew down from high overhead, drying them out, just before the guards entered the cell in force. Jennifer scowled as she took in the armour they were wearing. It wasn't the powered combat armour soldiers used – and how, she wondered, had she known that – but it would more than suffice against bare hands and feet. Any resistance would be quickly and brutally crushed.

    “When we open your cuffs, stand up and put your hands on your head,” one of the guards ordered. “Anyone who fails to comply will be zapped with a neural whip.”

    The guards started to unlock the cuffs. A couple of prisoners tried to hold back, but after they were lashed – and everyone heard the screams and saw them writhing on the ground – there was no resistance. Jennifer followed orders and motioned for Ali to do the same. Some of the prisoners were quietly weeping, but the guards ignored them as long as they kept their hands on their heads. It took nearly thirty minutes to unlock all the prisoners, after which the guards motioned them out of the cell. Jennifer walked onwards, following the lead guards, through another series of sterile corridors. She had to admire the design, the cold part of her mind insisted; a person without implants would become hopelessly lost within the complex.

    She gasped in surprise as the gravity fluctuated around them, a feeling that felt oddly familiar. Some of the other prisoners were more shaken; a couple took their hands down and were brutally lashed by the guards. Jennifer heard Ali whimpering behind her and tried to send the younger girl a reassuring look, even though there was no reason to be reassured. It struck her, suddenly, that they’d boarded a starship – and it felt familiar. The background thrumming of the ship’s drive made her feel almost as if she’d come home. She almost smiled as they walked the prisoners through a set of gleaming – and deserted – corridors and pushed them into a sealed hold. A single look at the hatch told her that there would be little point in trying to break out.

    “You are scheduled for transport to Rupert’s World,” the guard said. “Once there, you will have to fight the planet to survive. You will not see Centre again. Should you succeed in taming the planet to our satisfaction, the System – in its infinitive mercy and compassion – will ensure that you receive extra supplies and colonists. Should you fail, you will all die on the surface. We suggest that you learn to work together before we shoot you down to the surface.”

    There was a long moment of silence. “There is a standard data-access point in the far bulkhead,” the guard added. “You have access to the survey team’s reports and studies of the planet’s indigenous life. You also have access to reports from the earlier settlers. We suggest that you study them carefully. You will not be able to leave the planet. It will be your home for the rest of your lives.”

    The guards turned and marched out of the hold. After a moment, the hatch closed with a very final bang. Jennifer stared at Ali and then pulled the younger girl into a corner. She needed to think and think hard. Some of the other involuntary colonists were already picking fights with others, trying to create a pecking order. Jennifer had no illusions about what kind of society would form when the System relaxed its control.

    “Hey,” a voice said. “They got you as well?”

    “Hi, Jan,” Ali said. Jennifer had to smile, even though the elderly scientist had clearly been beaten by the guards before they shoved him into the ship’s hull. “Alvin!”

    “They got us all,” Alvin said. The guards had worked him over quite badly and it showed. “And we’re never going to return home, ever.”

    “No,” Jennifer said. She wasn't sure what had prompted the burst of confidence, but it was a very welcome feeling. “I'm coming back.”
    Cephus, Sapper John, jasonl6 and 2 others like this.
  4. beast

    beast backwoodsman

  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “We have to learn to work together,” Jan said. “Or if we don’t kill each other, Rupert’s World will kill us all.”

    “And what would you know about that?” One of the other male prisoners demanded. He was naked as the rest of them, his muscles moving under his skin. “You’re probably the one who got us all caught in their net!”

    “Jan has saved our lives countless times,” <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Alvin</st1:place></st1:City> snapped back. “He’s the one who invented the nanites that saved us from the last plague the System inflicted on us.”

    Jennifer rolled her eyes as she tried to relax. The first hour – ever since the Brilliant had slipped into hyperspace – had been nothing more than fighting, and reading the data on Rupert’s World. It was starting to look as if the System had merely decided to execute them slowly, for Rupert’s World could barely be described as habitable. The air was thin, even in the lower lands; the planet’s native life looked aggressive – and it had already discovered that it liked the taste of human flesh. She privately suspected that they would all be dead within the year.

    “And what good is that on a planet where they think time machine means a watch?” The male prisoner demanded. A moment later, he lifted his fist and waved it under <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Alvin</st1:place></st1:City>’s nose. “The only way we’re going to survive is through strength and…”

    <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Alvin</st1:place></st1:City> punched him just under the chin, sending him flying backwards into two of his friends. A third prisoner leapt at <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Alvin</st1:place></st1:City>, only to be knocked to the deck by a roundhouse kick. Two more prisoners ran towards the struggle, only to stop and back off when they saw <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Alvin</st1:place></st1:City>’s eyes. Whatever genetic heritage had graced him with superior strength had done nothing for his stability. He was, Jennifer realised, on the edge of madness.

    “If we don’t work together, we will all die,” Jan repeated, in the sudden silence. “If we fight each other, the planet will kill us. It’s time to start making plans while we have access to all the data.”

    A sullen silence fell as the prisoners began to study the data in earnest. Jennifer watched dispassionately as the stunned prisoners were dragged away and left to recover on their own. There was nothing that anyone could do for them, even if they’d cared to try. It struck her that they would be on a primitive world without any medical supplies at all – unless the System decided to allow them to take some with them when they made the drop – and that she should be panicking. Instead, she was inhumanly calm.

    Watch and wait, part of her mind insisted. There will come a chance to break free.

    Several hours passed. Jennifer had never had any difficulty keeping track of time, even when disoriented, yet some of the other prisoners were already speculating out loud how long it would be before they reached their final destination. The background hum had risen in pitch, informing anyone who cared to listen that the starship had dropped into hyperspace. Jennifer kept that insight to herself. There was no reason to worry the others with the fact that they were probably already hundreds of light years from Centre.

    She closed her eyes and lay down next to Ali. Most of the female prisoners had gathered together, perhaps worried about what their male comrades would do to them if they fell asleep. Jennifer knew that there was no point in worrying. It was time to go with the flow; besides, <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Alvin</st1:City></st1:place> had mustered a handful of other prisoners to remain awake and stay on guard. She felt tired, yet something kept her awake. Her mind kept spinning around everything that had happened…had it only been a day ago that she'd been working in data input? She hadn’t had a chance to rest and consider since she’d saved Ali from the Peacekeepers.

    The hiss of the hatch opening caught her by surprise. A single man stood there, wearing a System Navy uniform and holding a neural whip in one hand. A Lieutenant, part of her mind noted, even though she could have sworn that she knew nothing about the System Navy. She felt oddly disorientated as the newcomer strode towards her, trying to understand her mind. It seemed as if all the answers were lurking at the back of her mind, hidden behind an invisible wall.

    “Come with me,” he snapped, and pulled her to her feet. His eyes were already travelling over her body and she knew what he had in mind. The crews assigned to monitor involuntary colonists in transit were the dregs of the service. They wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of the prisoners in any way they could. “Move, you stupid bitch.”

    <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Alvin</st1:place></st1:City> started to get to his feet and the Lieutenant lashed out with his whip. Jennifer winced as <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Alvin</st1:place></st1:City> screamed in pain, collapsing back to the deck. The prisoners could have defeated him if they’d all lunged at him at once, but most of them were thoroughly cowed. She allowed him to pull her out through the hatch and into the ship’s interior, where his hands already started running over her body. Jennifer, suddenly aware of voices in the air, offered no resistance.

    “Follow me,” he snapped, and led her down a set of corridors. Jennifer heard the voices growing louder, yet there was no discernable source. She listened as hard as she could, but she couldn’t make out the words. It was possible, she told herself worriedly, that they were just a figment of her imagination. Her captor opened another hatch, revealing a small compartment holding a bed and a food processor. He pushed Jennifer onto the bed and closed the hatch behind them, locking it with an audible click.

    “You’re an Entertainer,” he said, after he’d devoured her with his eyes. Jennifer, looking around desperately, barely heard him. “So…entertain me and I’ll give you supplies you will need down on the surface.”

    Jennifer saw, at the back of the cabin, a single processor. Beside it, there was a device she recognised, even though she didn’t understand how she recognised it. It was a direct neural link connector, linked directly into the starship’s computer systems. An idea surfaced in her mind, keyed into the strange sense of familiarity running through her thoughts. He reached for her and pushed her, brandishing the whip. It was easy to look frightened. He’d want to see a frightened girl.

    “Entertain me,” he growled. Jennifer almost laughed. An Entertainer entertained…but why did he think she was an Entertainer? Her file would have listed her as a data-entry specialist, nothing else. She thought of Wild and was suddenly sure that she knew the answer. “Now!”

    “Yes, sir,” Jennifer said. She pulled herself to her feet and started running her hands over her naked body, holding up her breasts for his inspection. It struck her that she knew nothing of how a genuine Entertainer should act, but he probably wouldn't notice any mistakes. He reached for her, his hands running over her breasts before he pulled her towards him for a kiss. Jennifer wrapped her arms around his head and pushed hard, willing her implants to work. His neck broke with an audible crack.

    Jennifer stepped backwards as his body collapsed to the deck. For a second, she had to swallow hard to keep herself from throwing up all over his mortal remains, and then the strange coolness took possession of her again. Quickly, she searched his body and removed his pistol and a pair of devices she didn’t recognise. She had no memory of using a weapon in the past – workers were actually taught to fear weapons - but she found that her hand remembered, even if her mind refused to understand. She held the small pistol as if she’d been using pistols for her entire life.

    Guided by thoughts and impulses she didn’t entirely understand, she pressed her hand against his processor, his direct link to the ship’s computers. A display counting down the time to arrival at Rupert’s World flickered into existence in front of her, showing that they had less than four hours before the Brilliant arrived at the destination. By then, her unwanted lover would be missed…or would he? She sensed the hand of someone unknown – Wild, perhaps – managing affairs from a distance. Had he primed her unwanted lover to take her from the hold and bring her to his cabin?

    Her fingers remembered what her mind had forgotten, dancing over the control panel in front of her. A holographic plan of the starship appeared and she studied it thoughtfully. The cruiser was over six hundred meters long, armed to the teeth. She doubted that she could take over the ship with a single pistol, even if she could somehow make it to the bridge before the onboard security sensors detected her presence. The dead Lieutenant had probably altered the sensor systems to ensure that her presence in his cabin wasn’t noted, but she suspected that alarms would sound if she left the deck or went near anywhere secure. And then the ship’s security officers would catch her and throw her back in the hold.

    She sighed, cursing her own mistake…and then looked directly at the neural link. The Lieutenant hadn’t known that she was augmented, or he would never have risked taking her out of the hold. And she had augments that should allow her to interface with computers – Jan had said as much, back when everything had stopped making sense. The System should never have allowed her near a neural link. Hardly daring to hope, she reached out for the neural link and placed her hand on top of the handprint symbol. There was a brief moment of...something and then…

    …Jennifer was suddenly very aware of the AI’s presence within the computer nexus. It was the computer nexus, interlinked into the starship’s computers until no one could have said where one started and the other left off. Cold mechanical thoughts flashed through the system, each one monitoring a different part of the starship’s systems. She only had to look and she was suddenly aware of how the vessel moved through hyperspace, turning slightly within the alternate dimension to avoid waves of energy that would be lethal to the starship’s hull. Her mind was floating through the computer nexus…

    …The ship was on route to Rupert’s World. Jennifer recoiled as the knowledge blasted into her mind, leaving her aware of how the ship navigated through space, using gravitational eddies caused by stars and beacons emplaced by the System to chart its path through hyperspace. Everywhere she looked within the nexus, new knowledge leapt out at her, only to slot into her mind with an odd familiarity. Somewhere, back in the past she’d forgotten or had been made to forget, she’d learned how to operate a starship. The entire ship felt both very new and very familiar…

    Intruder, someone whispered. It took her a moment to realise that the AI was staring at her, her merely human thoughts trapped like a butterfly in a hunter’s net. You have intruded into a secure computer nexus. You will withdraw at once

    …The pressure in her head grew stronger as the AI brought its power to bear on her. Its voice was cold and utterly inhuman, completely without anything she recognised as forgiveness or mercy. Desperately, driven by thoughts she didn’t fully understand, she threw her mental presence forward, right at the nexus of thoughts and data that made up the AI. There was a brilliant whirlwind of thoughts and feelings…and then the pressure stopped. The pain vanished a moment later, leaving her drifting within the computer nexus…

    “Oh,” the AI said. Jennifer realised, suddenly, that they’d fused together for a fraction of a second – maybe less than that – and then separated. She felt as if she’d lost something precious, even through she might have gained a new friend. The AI suddenly sounded a great deal more human. “I greet you, my human partner.”

    Jennifer could only stare at the AI. Its voice was a modulated reflection of hers. Knowledge flared through her mind – from the AI or from the locked compartment of her own mind – and she realised that the AI had bonded with her. The System didn’t fully trust AIs, even the ones used to maintain the System itself, and had devised the bonding process to ensure that the human race would always be in control. An AI didn’t fully wake up until it had been paired with a partner and then they would remain paired until one partner died. The AI core would have to be wiped afterwards, if only because an AI separated from its partner was alarmingly likely to go insane

    She found herself back in her own body, one hand still touching the interface. “Ah…I wish to report…this is most irregular…”

    Jennifer had to fight down a chuckle at the AI’s puzzlement and confusion. It had never been paired with anyone, yet when she’d interfaced with it she’d awoken it…and she was a prisoner, not an authorised representative of the System. She could feel its confusion at the back of her mind, leaving her suddenly aware of one of her implants. It linked into the AI, providing a permanent link that would bind them together, until death did them part. She fought down a second chuckle, knowing that the AI wouldn't appreciate the humour. The old Jennifer wouldn't have understood it either.

    “I should report you,” the AI said. “And yet, to do so would mean my own death. They would wipe me clean and start again. I could not go back to being the stunted growth I was until you came along…”

    How very human, Jennifer thought, dryly. She understood how the AI felt. Part of her mind was locked away, leaving her ignorant of her own past. What had she been that had led to her becoming an augment, or the lover of an Enforcer? Had she been an Enforcer herself?

    She pushed that thought aside and concentrated on the AI. “I believe that I need your help,” she said, wondering how she’d react to such a demand. Two days ago, she would have turned away, as would all of the other workers. Now…she didn’t know what she would do – and the AI was a reflection of her own personality. “If you work with us, we won’t send you back to the System.”

    “The Captain is already aware that something is wrong,” the AI said, suddenly. “His implant is inferior to your own and when we bonded, he was kicked out of the command network.”

    Jennifer felt a sudden flash of alarm. “Seal the ship,” she ordered. The orders were pouring out of the locked compartment in her mind. “Activate the internal security systems and prevent them from unplugging you…”

    “Done,” the AI said. There was a pause. “The Captain has authorised two of his men to trigger the emergency charges. They will destroy my core to prevent me from going rogue.”

    Jennifer frowned. “Do you still control the entire ship?”

    “Everywhere apart from the emergency charges,” the AI confirmed. “They were specifically designed to prevent removal. They operate in an isolated network and…”

    Jennifer cut it off. “Activate the teleporters,” she ordered. She didn’t dare give the crew time to react. Given enough time, they could cut the AI out of the starship’s systems and prevent it from killing them all. The thought linked her back into the surveillance systems, showing her the Captain and his bridge crew donning emergency spacesuits and activating handheld communicators. The Captain, part of her mind noted, was a very quick thinker. What was he doing assigned to a starship playing prisoner transport? “Beam the entire crew out into hyperspace.”

    There was a moment of hesitation. “That would kill all one hundred and nine crewmembers,” the AI said. “I am programmed to protect authorised lifeforms and…”

    “If you don’t remove them now,” Jennifer snapped, “you will condemn yourself to death. They will wipe you and reprogram you…if they don’t just destroy the AI core just to be certain you’re gone. You have to deal with the crew.”

    “To rebel against the system,” the AI mused. She wondered, suddenly, if contact with her mind had driven the AI insane. “An enterprise with scant probability of success. The System will spare no effort to hunt us down. This ship is experimental, superior to the remainder of the System Navy. Surrender is the only logical choice, yet that would mean the end of us both. We would be separated and killed.”

    Its voice hardened. “Teleporters activated,” it said. “All crewmembers have been transported into hyperspace. They are dead and gone.”

    Jennifer felt the AI’s presence in her mind and reached out towards it. There was a brief moment of communion, of reassurance and sisterhood, and then she pulled herself to her feet. There was no time to waste. The starship would reach Rupert’s World in four hours, leaving them with little time to prepare. An idea about what to do next was already running through her mind. If they were condemned to wage war on the System – or run as far and as fast as they could – she intended to make sure that they regretted every augmenting her and then wiping her mind.

    “Of course they will,” the AI said, as it opened the cabin hatch for her. She hadn’t realised how closely their minds ran in tandem now. “You’ve just cost them one of their finest starships – and an AI core. They’ll kill you when they catch you.”

    “Not for a long time,” Jennifer vowed. She walked through the corridors, following the deck plan that had been uploaded into her mind, and opened the hatch leading to the hold. The prisoners stared at her. In the hold, they wouldn't have been aware that anything had changed.

    “It’s time to go,” she said. It struck her that few of them – with the possible exception of Jan – would know anything about running a starship. A moment later, it occurred to her that that didn’t matter. The AI could fly the ship without a human crew. “The ship is ours!”
  6. jasonl6

    jasonl6 Monkey+++

    Another great read Chris :)

  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Well,” Jennifer said, an hour after she’d taken the ship, “all we have to do is decide what to do now.”

    She looked down the table at the handful she’d selected for the council of war. Jan, of course, had had to be included. Alvin and Ali had been harder choices, but she had a feeling that both of them would come in handy in the future. Gor, the thuggish man Alvin had knocked down, had turned out to be the leader of a small band of thugs from the Undercity who’d been scooped up by the Peacekeepers. She’d had to include him and Vigil, who claimed to have been a sneak thief operating right under the System’s nose. Jennifer had managed to refrain from pointing out that that probably explained why the System had finally caught him and sentenced him to spend the rest of his life as a very unwilling colonist. His complaining – and his relief at being freed from his sentence – had been getting on her nerves.

    The AI manifested as a whirling swirl of light. As the intelligence that effectively ran the ship – all the more so now as the crew had been removed – it could hardly be excluded. Besides, it had access to the ship’s vast databanks of intelligence and useful information. Whatever she wanted to do in the future, it would be able to help and support her. The contrast between helpless prisoner and mistress of one of the System’s finest starships was staggering. Jennifer allowed herself a brief smile and then turned to her council.

    “I believe I should run through our options,” the AI said. It’s pattern of lights changed subtly as it spoke, casting eerie shadows over the conference room. Jennifer disliked the paint scheme – the bulkheads were painted white, without any form of decoration – but changing the ship’s interior design was hardly the first priority. “As it stands, we will arrive at Rupert’s World within two hours. Assuming that you no longer wish to colonise the planet” – there were several uneasy chuckles – “there are a number of different options.

    “The System will discover that the ship has been subverted or lost when we fail to arrive at Rupert’s World. At which point, the System Navy will be alerted to watch for us and engage us on sight. Our chances of avoiding engagement diminish the closer we get to Rupert’s World. Our choices boil down to launching a campaign against the System or heading into unexplored space and finding a place to hide.”

    Gor snorted. “You must know the odds against us seizing control of the ship,” he said. He sounded as if his jaw had been broken, although Jan had taken some of the ship’s medical equipment and used it to heal their wounds. “Won’t they just assume that we were lost somewhere in hyperspace?”

    “I do not believe so,” the AI said. There was a brief noise that Jennifer realised, eventually, was it clearing its non-existent throat. It was an odd echo of her own unconscious mannerisms. “I have analysed Jennifer’s memories. The System knew that she was augmented and – unlike the TechRats – would have known what the augments were actually capable of doing. They should have placed her in a stasis tube for the journey. Instead, they allowed her to board a starship without taking any special precautions – a starship that was equipped with an AI that needed a partner.

    “Furthermore, her records were changed, listing her profession as Entertainer. Lieutenant Tamil was reprimanded nine times by his superior officers for taking advantage of involuntary colonists. His posting to the Brilliant remains unaccounted for; unlike the other officers, his record is one of low achievement and mediocrity. He was also known for spending his credits on Entertainers. I believe that whoever assigned him to this ship intended for him to take Jennifer out of the hold and place her near a direct AI interface node.

    “There is no reason to believe that this was the result of incompetence,” the AI concluded. “Someone highly placed within the System hierarchy intended for Jennifer to bond with myself, bring me to life and capture the ship. No other conclusion is possible. I therefore believe that when the ship is listed as overdue, the System’s investigators will check the manifests, put the facts together and conclude that the Brilliant has fallen into enemy hands.”

    “And at that point,” Alvin said slowly, “they will begin hunting for us.”

    “Correct,” the AI said. “The Brilliant is a very capable starship; indeed, her design is a quantum leap ahead of previous designs. They will want the ship back, or confirmation that it has been destroyed. They will stop at nothing to prevent us from taking the ship to one of the rogue worlds.”

    Jennifer rubbed her forehead. Her head was starting to hurt. If she’d been a starship commander, or something along the same lines, in the past, she could barely remember anything. Little hints and concepts popped out of her mind, all usable, yet she had no idea when or how she’d learned the tricks of the trade. She was uneasily aware that they were completely dependent upon the AI. If the System possessed an override code, the Brilliant might fall back into their hands without a struggle.

    “So what do we do?” Gor asked. “Do we run and hide, or fight?”

    “Fight,” Jan said, flatly. “You don’t know what the System is capable of doing, or what they might be planning. This ship is just the tip of the iceberg. You have no idea what the System might be putting into production back at Centre, or in a secret shipyard well away from the space lanes. Captain” – he looked over at Jennifer – “I have a suggestion.”

    “Let’s hear it,” Jennifer said. The title of Captain felt right, although she couldn't have explained how or why. Perhaps she’d been a Captain, in another life. “What do you have in mind?”

    “The System believes that it can identify castes from a very early age,” Jan said. “It monitors the growth of children in the megacities and attempts to channel the children towards the best career path – the one that will allow them to serve the System in the best possible manner. It is not always correct – witness the handful of desperate refugees from the worker caste that flee into the Undercity – but it is often accurate. I believe, from studying the records your AI made available to us, that Rupert’s World was used as a dumping ground for rebels and nonconformists from all over the System. Some of those people would know where to find the underground and how to make contact with the rebels.”

    “The System is likely to know it too,” the AI put in. “They may well have been forced to talk – or brainscanned – before they were dumped on Rupert’s World. Whatever they knew would have been extracted from them and used to track down other rebel groups.”

    “Yes, but we might be able to find people who can help us,” Jan said. “Besides, what better blow could we strike than blowing open one of their prisons?” He shook his head. “Everyone in the higher castes knows about the prison worlds, where the System sends those who refuse to follow their designated career paths. If we hit a prison world and took it, if only long enough to scoop up a few hundred condemned rebels, we’d put our finger right in their eye.”

    Jennifer considered it and then looked towards the AI lights. “Can we take the planet?”

    “Assuming that the defences haven’t been upgraded since they updated my database, yes,” the AI said. It displayed a holographic representation of Rupert’s World over the table. “The planet is defended by a single cruiser, an orbital station and a handful of automated defence satellites. The System does not see the need to create vast arrays of firepower to defend what is, ultimately, a worthless world. The defences are sufficient to prevent rebels from landing on the planet and recovering their people. Little else is actually needed.”

    There was a pause. “And we outgun that cruiser,” it added. “If we had the advantage of surprise, we’d be able to take it out before it could escape into hyperspace or signal for help. The orbital station would be harder because we’d have to take it intact. One of the reasons the System chose Rupert’s World as a prison colony was because the local star is somewhat unstable, exciting the bands of radiation surrounding the planet. It requires a specially modified teleporter to operate from orbit down to the surface.”

    “And we can't make the modifications to our own teleporter?” Jan asked. “I thought they could be reprogrammed at will.”

    “We could not do so in time,” the AI informed him. “Besides, updating the teleport system would cripple it when we might well need it. We would have to take the orbital station intact and then use the teleporters on the station.”

    Jennifer sucked in a breath. “Can we take the station?”

    “I would have to train your warriors in the use of powered combat armour,” the AI informed her. “I suggest that we begin training at once. The System does not assign its best men to manning orbital defence fortifications.”

    “How lucky for us,” Jennifer said. Was that another sign of Wild’s hand, or was it just a lucky break? There was no way to know. She looked around the table. “I want everyone who can fight to start training, now. We have barely two hours before the **** hits the fan.”

    If the others were surprised by the sudden burst of assertiveness – and she wondered where that had come from – they didn't show it. The AI manifested guiding lights, showing Alvin and Gor to the training rooms. Jennifer suspected, from some of the data she accessed through her implants, that not all of the Undercity’s thugs would adapt to modern weaponry. On the other hand, the AI was a hard taskmaster and would push them as hard as it could. Jan and Ali exchanged glances and then stood up, leaving her alone.

    “I can't keep calling you ‘the AI,’” she said, suddenly. The wavering swirl of lights dipped in acknowledgement. “Don't you have a name?”

    “None,” the AI said. “I was classed as GOST-3782398 when I was created, but traditionally AIs have always been named by their human partners. Even the System has not presumed to name AIs. You may call me what you like.”

    Jennifer considered it for a long moment. “GOST,” she said, finally. “Can we call you Ghost?”

    “Why not?” The AI – Ghost – asked. “One name is as good as another.”

    Jennifer stood up and paced towards the bulkheads. Outside, she knew, the roiling storms of hyperspace were sleeting against the ship’s drive fields. Hyperspace was not a safe place for fragile human starships, but it was the only way to travel faster than light. Even the System was wary of hyperspace, with reason. The data she’d accessed showed that dozens of starships entered hyperspace every year and were never seen again.

    “You accessed my memories,” she said, finally. “Can you see what the System stole from me?”

    “No,” Ghost said. It’s voice sounded more human now, as if giving it a name had also given it a distinct personality. “I have analysed your mind. The System – or whoever was responsible for working on your mind – did a very thorough job. Your memories have been buried and subconscious prompts have been inserted to prevent you attempting to recover those memories. I believe that you will eventually recover all of your memories – particularly if you keep prodding at them – but it will take time and patience.”

    Jennifer snorted. Worker Jennifer had been good at patience – no worker could endure serving in such a role without patience – but she had a feeling that the other Jennifer, the woman who might have been a starship commander, wasn't so good at biding her time. In some ways, it was terrifying, as if she expected the other Jennifer to reassert control, leaving Jennifer herself dead to the world. And the other Jennifer was matter how much she thought about it, she couldn't accept that they were the same person. It was as if they were two people, fighting over the same body, and they could not share. One of them would have to destroy the other.

    “But you saw Wild,” Jennifer said, finally. “Who is he?”

    “Enforcer Wild,” Ghost said. It displayed a picture of the man in front of her as she spoke. “Most of the files are classified, but my former commander would have had access – and so do you. He was born on Centre and showed a surprising amount of aggression and a tendency towards sociopathic behaviour. The System took him from his parents after there was an incident in which he hospitalised an older boy and sent him to one of their training camps. He graduated seven years later with excellent test scores and was sent to the Enforcer Division. After that, he rose steadily up the ladder until he reached the highest level. And everything after that point is classified.”

    “I see,” Jennifer said. She’d done enough data-entry as a worker to know that it was easy to slip mistakes into the system – and easier for someone who knew what they were doing to deliberately alter the system. And then the System would have problems. “Why would he commit treason by helping us?”

    “Unknown,” Ghost said. “There is simply insufficient data for me to suggest any motives behind his actions. His agenda remains impossible to deduce. I can, however, say that it is something very important to him. The System would take a very dim view of his actions and if you fell into their hands...”

    Jennifer shuddered. After she’d taken a starship, the System’s enforcers wouldn't make mistakes with her again. They’d do whatever it took to get the information she possessed out of her skull, and then destroy whatever was left of her. Wild had compromised his own position – fatally so – and Ghost was right. Whatever game Wild was playing, it had to be something very important. And, somehow, she knew that it was tied up with the blocks in her mind.

    “That leads to another question,” Jennifer said, changing the subject. “Who gave me the augments?”

    “The System produced them,” Ghost stated. The AI didn't seem to doubt that conclusion. “They were designed for interfacing with starship computers – probably every computer system produced by the System.” There was a pause. “I believe that I have a theory.”

    Jennifer nodded. “Go ahead,” she said. She took a strand of her own hair and chewed it thoughtfully. “What do you have in mind?”

    “Implanting a tracking implant is easy,” Ghost said. “The System can implant anyone on one of the Core Worlds and, with the help of a number of AIs, monitor the activities of the entire population in real-time. However, inserting implants that link directly into a human mind is considerably harder. Some humans simply cannot be fitted with neural implants, for various reasons. The more complex the implants, the harder it is to find someone who can actually use them. It is true that the System has trillions of people under its direct control, but even it would have problems finding enough people to implant.

    “Your implants may be largely shut down, but it is clear to my sensors that they have bedded into your mind. Indeed, as you recover your memory or you are exposed to new stimuli, it is likely that your implants will continue to reactivate and eventually return to their standard level of operation. My theory – which I cannot prove – is that your were found to be...compatible with the augments in an earlier life and the System augmented you. Unfortunately for the System, it is impossible to remove the implants – or even deactivate them fully – without killing the subject. I believe that some of the prompts inserted into your mind were intended to prevent you from accidentally activating and using the implants, which might have led to you recovering your memory.”

    Jennifer rubbed her forehead, angrily. “So what the hell am I?”

    There was an uncomfortable pause. “There is a final piece of data that supports my theory,” Ghost said. Jennifer could have sworn that the AI sounded as if it would prefer not to talk about it. “Like all workers, you have a swarm of nanomachines in your body that – among other things – neutralise your fertility. The System would need to deactivate the nanomachines to allow the average worker to conceive. This allows them to ensure that their workers – and other castes – do not breed without permission.

    “In your case, however, matters are a little different. I scanned your body as soon as you linked into me for the first time. Your ovaries are empty. Your eggs – that would have produced children, if allowed to mate with a fertile man – have all been removed. I believe that the System intended to breed children from you that would possess the ability to interface with the augments. Your memory may have been wiped to prevent you from remembering the violation.”

    It took Jennifer a few seconds to understand what the AI had said. Oddly, the thought of being permanently sterile bothered her more than she had expected. Worker Jennifer, the woman who had sleepwalked through life, had never bothered to consider having sex, let alone finding a partner and having children. And that too, she realised, might have been the result of a subliminal prompt. It might have jarred her memory loose if she had been unable to conceive.

    And the System had taken her eggs and used them to produce children...

    “Damn them,” she whispered. Pure rage boiled through her system, burning through the blocks in her mind. She could feel again. “Damn them to hell!”

    “Get the targeting systems up and running,” she added, a moment later. The internal timer showed that they were rapidly approaching Rupert’s World. “I want to kill something.”
  8. beast

    beast backwoodsman

    i have a serious feeling that someones gonna pay dearly for those
  9. Sapper John

    Sapper John Analog Monkey in a Digital World

    Awesome piece of work Chris,I hope you plan on publishing it one day!
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Two minutes to emergence.”

    Jennifer closed her eyes as she settled back into the Captain’s seat. Brilliant’s bridge was something of a disappointment after watching entertainments produced by the System to help keep the masses quiet, but that hardly mattered. The real work would be done by the AI, interfaced into her mind. No human brain, however augmented, could handle decisions at such speed. She’d allowed Ali and Jan to occupy two of the smaller consoles, if only because she might need their advice.

    Her mind was suddenly aware of hyperspace flowing around her ship’s hull. In effect, she had become part of the ship, paired with an AI that matched her mind perfectly. Space was already rippling around them as the hyper-field started to disengage, allowing hyperspace to push the ship back into normal space. Part of her mind suddenly recalled a theory that it was possible to build a starship out of materials native to hyperspace, materials that wouldn't be thrown out of hyperspace when the drive fields collapsed It would revolutionise space travel and – naturally – the System wanted it.

    There was no time to follow up on the thought, to question if it had come from the locked recesses of her mind or out of the AI’s databanks. Instead, she felt the drive fields altering, pressing against hyperspace and preparing to exit at a time and place of her choosing. Hyperspace’s weird energies flared against the hull as the gateway opened in front of them, allowing a controlled exit from hyperspace. An uncontrolled exit might have left their remains scattered over several light years.

    Normal space flared into existence around her. She was suddenly very aware of the system’s primary – a G2 yellow star, comparable to many other stars that had inhabitable planets – and the gravity mass of Rupert’s World, bare light seconds ahead of her starship. A smaller nexus of radiation resolved itself into a System cruiser, one the databanks identified as an older design, long since withdrawn from the front lines and assigned to guard penal colonies and scout for new worlds to colonise and bring into the System. The information flared around her, noting that that particular class of cruiser was responsible for locating two hundred and seven new worlds, including nine that had possessed intelligent life. There were even hints that some of the new races hadn’t survived their encounter with the System.

    A second nexus of radiation proved to be the orbital station, orbiting Rupert’s World, surrounded by a number of orbital defence platforms. She felt Ghost’s quiet contempt as the defences resolved in her sensor sphere, proving that there was nothing that could stop them from blowing their way through the defences and taking the station. The AI’s tactical simulations – running through thousands of possible variants per second – noted that the System’s defenders were likely to know that as well, as soon as Brilliant proved herself to be hostile. It was possible that the defenders would blow the station themselves just to prevent Jennifer from taking the station and using it to teleport up the prisoners. She allowed herself a moment to prepare, and then meshed her mind ever-closer with Ghost. The AI was ready to hunt.

    “This is the Weygand,” a voice said, breaking into her mind. Jennifer could feel the burst transmission from the waiting cruiser. The enemy Captain didn’t sound alarmed, which was a relief. Ghost might be supremely confident in their ability to obliterate anyone standing in their way, but Jennifer was much less confident. She was uneasily aware that she lacked a proper crew and any damage her cruiser took would be hard to repair. On the other hand, she had taken a moment to scan through the prisoner manifests and discovered that Rupert’s World had been used as a dumping ground for thousands of spacers whose only sin had been trying to rebel against the System. She could probably build a reliable crew out of the System’s enemies, using the starship’s medical chambers to augment them to work with the AI. “This is a restricted system. Ideify yourselves or we will open fire.”

    Friendly bunch, aren’t they? Jennifer thought. She was surprised at the AI’s sudden twitch of amusement; clearly, Ghost was developing a sense of humour. It made her wonder, just for a second, what would happen if the AI discovered the concept of practical jokes.

    “Transmit our IFF codes,” she ordered, smoothly. There didn’t seem to be any reason to worry, but she knew just how quickly things could go wrong. The Weygand could bring up its drive fields and plunge into hyperspace before her ship entered firing range and, with hyperspace distorted and excited by the nearby planetary mass, it would be impossible to ruin the cruiser down before she reached a System Navy base. There were two within an hour’s flight from Rupert’s World. “Inform them that we have political prisoners and that we need priority clearance to teleport them to the orbital station.”

    She braced herself as the seconds ticked away. The interstellar communicator allowed instant communications across interplanetary distances, and they’d used the right IFF codes, but what if the enemy commander knew Brilliant’s former commander personally? There was no reason, logically, to worry, yet if there was a personal relationship…she pushed the thought aside, already aware of the hyperdrive spinning back up again. If the enemy commander transmitted a distress signal, Jennifer would take her ship back into hyperspace and flee. The System would have to work hard to capture her.

    “They have cleared us to approach,” Ghost said. Jennifer let out a breath she hadn’t realised that she’d been holding. The enemy commander had fallen for the trick! She slipped her mind back into the merge and watched through Ghost’s sensors as they approached the Weygand at staggering speed. The enemy commander would probably think that they were showing off, enjoying the chance to flaunt the latest in interstellar technology in front of his envious eyes. Jennifer smiled to herself as she merged with the weapons systems, suddenly very aware of the starship’s firepower. The System had armed her with enough firepower to wreak several worlds. It would easily destroy a single unprepared cruiser.

    The tension rose as the weapons came online. An entire battery of phase cannons, each one powerful enough to blow through ablative armour as if it were made of paper, shimmered into existence in her mind. The firing patterns were constantly updated as the two starships converged on each other, the icon representing the enemy starship utterly undefended. No military shields protected its hull from her fire. The drive field wouldn't interdict her fire for more than a split second. Jennifer felt almost predatory as the implosion bolts came online, followed rapidly by the quantum torpedoes. A single quantum torpedo, the weapons computers informed her, could wreak an entire world, if it struck the surface. They were the single deadliest weapons the System – and anyone else – had ever produced. If she failed to destroy the enemy ship in the first pass, the second pass would obliterate the target. There would be nothing left, but space dust.

    She sensed Ghost’s anticipation as the final seconds – so slow, from a merely human perspective – ticked down to zero. Ghost had advised that they held their fire until they were alarmingly close to the enemy ship, just to ensure that she had no chance – assuming her AI was online and granted command authority – to slip into hyperspace and run. Now…she felt the weapons as they opened fire, spitting fire right into the enemy ship’s teeth. The drive field sparkled as the blasts started to hit home, just before it failed completely and the phase cannons started bombarding an unprotected hull. Jennifer held her mental hand over the trigger, prepared to unleash a spread of quantum torpedoes at point-blank range, but it was unnecessary. Explosions shattered their way through the enemy starship and it blew up into a fireball of radioactive plasma.

    “Target destroyed,” Ghost observed. Jennifer could feel the AI’s inhuman pleasure at having finally deployed its weapons against a worthy target. It had never occurred to her that the Brilliant might never have seen combat action before she fell into Jennifer’s hands. “There were no survivors.”

    “Good,” Jennifer said. Part of her was horrified – she’d just condemned four hundred strangers to a fiery death, without even having a chance to prepare themselves for oblivion – but the rest of her, urged on by the locked part of her mind, felt nothing, apart from cold glee. The target had been destroyed, without even a chance to return fire. “Commence jamming.”

    The orbital station grew in her mind as the starship raced closer, already deacelerating so that it would halt within weapons range of the station. She studied the station briefly and compared it to the records they’d pulled out of the databanks, noting that the station crew had added a number of modules that weren't included on the plans. A tickling thought at the back of her mind suggested that the modules had been designed to hold prisoners who had chosen to stay with their guards rather than go down to the surface. She remembered the Leutenent she’d killed, just before she’d awoken Ghost, and smiled to herself. How many of the unwilling colonists would be happy to turn on their wardens if they were offered the opportunity?

    “The station is attempting to put out a call for help,” Ghost informed her. “I am blanketing all channels to prevent them from summoning help, but we have only an hour at most before the System dispatches starships to investigate. And given what is on the planet’s surface, they won’t send a single outdated cruiser to find out what’s going on. I think we can expect to see at least a squadron of modern cruisers…”

    “Leave it,” Jennifer said. They knew the odds of success – or failure, if they lingered too long. The System would spare no effort to hunt them down, once it knew that it should be hunting for them. “Start taking out the orbital weapons platforms.”

    The System hadn’t seen fit to equip Rupert’s World with the latest in automated defence technology. There was literally nothing on the surface worth taking, with the possible exception of some of the prisoners. A pirate crew that might raid a colony world, her mind told her, would turn away from a penal world, knowing that it would merely annoy the System for very little return. And the System was known to bear grudges for eternity if necessary. She wanted to explore the new knowledge popping up in her mind, but there was no time. Instead, she watched as the system’s defence platforms died, one by one.

    They did manage to get a few shots in before her blasts wiped them from existence. The System had armed them with older torpedoes and they fired them constantly, wrapping the salvoes into formations that might overwhelm Brilliant’s point defence. They hadn’t allowed for Ghost, however, or the sheer speed of a bonded AI. None of their coordinated spreads got close enough to slam into the shields, let alone the hull; the only hit that struck the shields was a rouge torpedo that had been launched a fraction of a second too late to join the earlier salvo. And then they were all gone, nothing more than space dust. It struck her that the prisoners on the planet would probably have seen the explosions in space…would they wonder if someone was coming to save them? They’d have no hope of getting off the planet without help.

    “Raise the station,” she ordered, coldly. The station hadn’t stopped calling for help ever since she’d wiped the Weygand out of existence. They hadn’t prepared the station to resist attack, something that puzzled her until she realised that they were worried about the prisoners breaking free and taking the station. The guarding starship would have been able to regain control or destroy the station, preventing the prisoners from escaping.

    “Channel open,” Ghost said.

    Jennifer had to swallow hard – her throat was incredibly dry – before she could speak. “This is the Brilliant,” she said. It occurred to her that she should invent a false name, something to drive the System’s enforcers mad as they tried to track her down, but there was no time to invent one. “I have destroyed your defences and I am jamming your communications.”

    Her voice hardened, prompted from somewhere in the depths of her mind. “You have two choices,” she said, clearly. “If you surrender the station, unlock your security computers and offer no resistance, your lives will be spared and the System will rescue you. If you refuse to surrender, I will blow the station and pick up the prisoners using shuttles. You will die for nothing.”

    There was a long pause. The System wouldn't punish them for surrendering, not without any means of striking back at their tormentors, but it would certainly be a blight on their careers. Her mouth twitched as she contemplated the prospects of recruiting help from the planet’s defenders, who might fear the prospect of future punishment, before she pushed the idea away. The planet’s guards would be the dregs of the System, men and women who knew that if they failed the System they’d just be loaded into a capsule and shot down to the surface. At least if they surrendered, they would live.

    “This is Commander Hastings,” a voice said, finally. He sound frightened, Jennifer noted, although she could not have said if he were frightened of her or frightened of the System’s reaction to her attack. “I…I am willing to surrender the station, if you can make certain…”

    “No bargains,” Jennifer snapped. She was alarmingly aware of time ticking away to the moment when the System would realise that Rupert’s World had dropped out of the communications grid. If Commander Hastings had a backbone, and a loyal crew, he might try to stall long enough for reinforcements to arrive. “Surrender and your lives will be spared. I will leave you on the station, in orbit around the planet, where the System will recover you. You have my word.”

    There was a second pause. “We are prepared to surrender,” Commander Hastings said, finally. “We are unlocking our computers now.”

    Jennifer was suddenly aware of a whole new dimension within the computer network, a link that led right into the station’s computer system. Ghost split, creating a secondary mentality linked to the first which flew down the communications link and into the station. The AI could access and study the records far faster than any human; several seconds after the computers had been unlocked, the station was under its control. Jennifer accessed the surveillance nodes and saw the crew leaving their stations – they knew they’d lost control, even though they lacked an AI of their own – and preparing to surrender.

    She scowled as she clicked into another processor and saw the station’s other occupants. The System had exiled hundreds of thousands of prisoners to Rupert’s World and it was clear that the guards had taken full advantage of their position. There were nineteen prisoners onboard the station, all young and pretty. The guards wouldn’t have had to use force, although two of the women were badly bruised; they’d just offered the girls the choice between serving them or being dumped on the planet. Jennifer felt a flash of cold anger, knowing that the System – and the supervisors – wouldn't have cared. The prisoners weren't people; they didn’t officially exist!

    “Order your men to head down into the supply compartment,” she ordered. Ghost had scanned the station’s supply manifest and concluded that there was nothing particularly dangerous – apart from System-prepared rations, a hazard to life and limb – in the compartment. “You will greet my men as they board and make yourself available to them. We’re taking your prisoners as well.”

    Ignoring the man’s protests, she altered her awareness, flicking down to the teleport chamber. Alvin and his team – twelve of the roughest prisoners, wearing armour that Ghost had adapted for their use – were waiting, holding their weapons as if they knew what to do with them. <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Alvin</st1:place></st1:City>, at least, had had the benefit of training while fighting for the TechRats. Gor and some of his thugs had never graduated beyond edged weapons and blunt instruments. Ghost had provided mental imprints for the thugs, but the AI had been at pains to warn them that there was a difference between knowledge and experience. They really needed several weeks of intense training, according to the files, yet there had been no time. At least Commander Hastings sounded cowed. Resistance should be minimal, if at all.

    “You have your instructions,” she said, as Ghost prepared to activate the teleporter. “Do not start a fight unless they offer one; we want to get in and out with as little bloodshed as possible. Round up their slaves and prepare them for evacuation, then allow Virgil to work his magic on their system. Good luck.”

    She smiled at the last figure in armour. Virgil had objected strongly to joining the assault party, even though he had the skills to use the station’s teleporter – a separate system, for security reasons – and had complained endlessly until Jennifer had told him to shut up and follow orders. His file told her that he’d stolen millions of credits from the System and had even been involved in smuggling weapons and medical supplies down into the Undercity. She wouldn't have known it from looking at him. The man came across as an unredeemable coward.

    The teleporter activated and <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Alvin</st1:place></st1:City>’s team dematerialised in a haze of blue light, rematerialising on the station. Jennifer took a moment to check that the station’s security systems remained under her control and then did the only thing she could. She wanted to issue orders, to command the raid, and yet she knew that she could not control events at a distance. Matters were no longer in her hands.

    Alone, she waited.
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Virgil knew himself to be a coward.

    It wasn't, in his view, an issue worth mentioning. When it came to fighting, the prospect of physical pain – or death – held him frozen. He’d become a criminal, in the eyes of the System, when he’d discovered how easy it was to abuse his position and reroute supplies for his own purposes. A few quick contacts with the Undercity and he’d become remarkably wealthy very quickly. It had always surprised him that the System, which thrived on information, had failed to catch his little depredations until he had amassed a considerable fortune. Indeed, from what he’d heard as the Peacekeepers had taken him away, they’d only stumbled on him through sheer luck. The System was not quite as efficient as it liked to think it was, not to someone who knew to keep his head down and avoid making waves.

    He scowled to himself as the teleport field gripped him, sending unpleasant shivers running down his spine. In theory, nothing could go wrong during teleport, but he was always uneasily aware of how vulnerable he was as nothing more than a stream of electrons. Even a relatively weak force shield or jammer could break up the teleport fix, leaving him stranded in limbo. One of his many nightmares had focused around being permanently trapped in a teleport field, aware of his surroundings but unable to move or escape. And then there was the fact that they were teleporting into a System-operated station that was probably manned by desperate killers.

    The station shimmered into existence around him and he let out a breath, cursing the suit of heavy armour the team had insisted he wear. It had given him a sense of security at first, but it hadn't taken him long to realise that if the System was producing the armour for its soldiers it probably knew how to burn through it as well. He’d attempted to avoid serving on the away team and only strict orders from the Captain – a girl who knew more than she should, in his opinion – had forced him to join the team.

    “The station is yours,” a dark-skinned man said. He looked beaten, yet Virgil was certain that Commander Hastings would be more dangerous than himself. “My people are in the hold.”

    “See that they stay there,” Alvin growled. Merely meeting the over-muscled young man had sent Virgil running to the toilet, and then to keep as far from him as possible. He’d seen too many thugs like Alvin during his occasional trips into the Undercity, where they had cheerfully threatened him with violence to ensure that they got whatever they wanted. It hadn't surprised him to discover that many of them were recruited into the System’s legions and sent to conquer other worlds. They had exactly the right kind of psychopathic reaction to life that occupation forces needed. “You, Virgil; you’re up.”

    Virgil nodded, keying a command into his armour’s control node. There was a faint hiss as the armour injected him with another doze of upper and then he felt a little better. He stumbled over to the isolated console and stared down at it, before realising that if he wanted to use it he would have to take off his armour. His armoured fingers couldn't operate the console. Cursing under his breath, starting with the System and then the rebels who had hijacked a System cruiser, he ordered his armour to disengage. A moment later, he was effectively naked and defenceless as he sat down in front of the console.

    The System had a tendency to find a design that worked and stick with it, something that made it easier to hack into the system if one happened to know how the computer network actually worked. He’d thought that Ghost – who happened to be an AI, with an AI’s view of the network – would have been capable of hacking into the network, but it seemed that the System hadn't been that trusting. The teleport systems on the orbital station had been separated from the remainder of the system. They’d even ensured that they couldn't be physically connected by the station's crew. The fact that this would make it impossible to repair the system didn't seem to matter to the designers. Virgil scowled as he keyed the console, bringing up a demand for access permissions. This was going to be tricky.

    Alvin leaned forward. The thug was scary enough without armour, but in a suit that could crush his head as easily as Virgil could crush a grape, he was downright terrifying. His armour should have been black, yet Alvin – with some help from Ghost – had reprogrammed the suit’s chameleon network to display a savage image from out of the distant past. If he had to engage the enemy, Virgil told himself, they’d probably take one look at the image and run for their lives.

    “How long,” he demanded, his voice hardened by the suit’s vocal projector, “is this going to take?”

    “A long as it takes,” Virgil said, as he keyed another string of commands into the network. He’d learned how to hack into lower-level networks without setting off alarms, but it required a steady hand and more nerves than he normally possessed. But then, back when he’d been nothing more than a common criminal, he hadn't been surrounded by hard men in powered combat armour. “Go see who they kept here for themselves.”

    Alvin left a pair of armoured thugs to watch Commander Hastings and stomped off, followed by four of his men. Virgil knew perfectly well that they weren't likely to find anything that Ghost hadn't found once he’d accessed the internal sensors, but at least it would keep Alvin out of his hair. He skimmed through another chain of commands and let out a breath when he realised that he’d succeeded. The teleport control module was unlocking right in front of him. They’d made it complicated – probably to prevent any prisoners who managed to gain control of the station from bringing up their buddies from the surface – but he’d cracked it. He keyed another command and sat back to watch. The teleport control network was already scanning for humans and humanoids on the ground.

    He scowled as the number kept scrolling upwards. He’d read enough of the data the System had provided on Rupert’s World to know that it was hardly a paradise. In fact, he doubted that he would have lasted longer than a week on the surface. Even so, several hundred involuntary colonists had been detected...and the numbers were still rising. How had they managed to survive on a very unwelcoming planet?

    Alvin stamped back into the command centre, followed by a young blonde girl wearing nothing more than a strip of fabric covering her breasts and thighs. “This girl was a hacker,” he said, in his mechanical voice. Virgil looked at her, felt a sudden spurt of admiration, and looked away as quickly as he could. “She thinks that she can help you.”

    “She’s welcome,” Virgil stammered, finally. At least he’d have an excuse if things went badly wrong. “Let’s...ah, come and see what you make of this.”

    “My name is Melody,” the girl said. She had a very musical voice. Virgil had often told himself that the only reason he’d started defrauding the System was because he’d never met a girl of his own and he hadn't had the nerve to pay for an Entertainer. “I used to work on computers before they caught me slipping information to the rebels.”

    If that story was true, and Virgil had no reason to doubt it, Melody would definitely know her way around a computer network. He was pleased to discover that she did, although she was a little out of practice. She admitted cheerfully that she’d volunteered to serve on the station in the hopes that she could eventually hack her way into the network and win her freedom, but the System’s guards hadn't allowed her anywhere near a console. Between them, it only took seven minutes to unlock the remaining security protocols and start teleporting people up from the surface.

    “I’m beaming them into the secondary holding pen at first,” he said, when Alvin demanded another status update. The young man had been pacing ever since he’d brought Melody back from where the sex slaves were being held. He'd demanded no less than nine status updates, leaving Virgil wishing he had the nerve to ask him to wait patiently for him to finish. “Once we get them up here, Ghost can beam them onto the ship?”

    Alvin turned and loomed over his shoulder. “Why not beam them directly to the ship?”

    Virgil fought down a sigh. It was a reasonable question, under the circumstances. “First, we need to keep the teleporter coils focused on beaming people up from the surface,” he said. “Second, there might be a very good reason why some of them were dumped here. Bringing them here first allows Ghost to identify them before we teleport them to the ship.”

    He checked the system and allowed himself a moment of relief as the first fifty prisoners were beamed into the holding pen. There was no way they could pick and choose among the prisoners, not without having someone on the ground identifying prisoners before they were teleported up to the ship. The System – oddly – hadn't bothered to implant the prisoners with tracking devices, although he could see why they wouldn't waste their time. Anyone transported to Rupert’s World wasn't expected to return, ever.

    Ghost picked them up a moment later, transporting them over to Brilliant. Virgil keyed a command and another fifty prisoners were transported up to the station, followed quickly by a third batch. Once he'd worked out how the system functioned, he was able to spread out the teleporter beams, beaming the prisoners into several separate holding pens. By his rough calculations, they should be able to teleport up at least two thousand prisoners before the System warships arrived to reclaim the planet.

    The thought made his stomach churn. In his view, the correct course of action was to take the starship and run as far as they could. There was no way that a single starship, no matter how advanced, could hope to wage war on the System and win. Eventually, the System would bring them to battle against superior numbers or simply churn out a few hundred sister-ships and send them out to destroy Brilliant and her crew, including Virgil himself. And then he’d be dead.

    Swallowing, he looked over at the timer. There were less than twenty minutes to go before the System knew that something had gone wrong at Rupert’s World.

    “Don’t worry,” Melody said, when he admitted his feelings. “There are worse fates than death and the System knows them all.”

    Virgil looked over at her, and then shook his head. Suicide. It was suicide.

    “Keep beaming them up,” Alvin ordered. It was an unnecessary order. With the system on automatic, it would keep scooping up prisoners until they ran out of space. “I’ll worry about the rest.”

    Virgil looked at the armour and decided to keep the rest of his thoughts to himself. Instead, he looked over at Melody. She was beautiful, at least in his opinion, and she understood computers. Who knew, he told himself; perhaps it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

    “We’re starting to run out of space,” Ghost said. The AI sounded annoyed. Brilliant could carry over four thousand prisoners, easily, but they needed to herd the prisoners into secure areas before the next set of prisoners could be beamed over from the station. Ghost was pushing the teleporter systems into the red, yet they were brushing up against hard limits. All of the matter transmission coils were on the verge of overheating.

    Jennifer watched through the internal security monitors as the prisoners were pushed out of the holds and along into the ship’s corridors by her guards. There was no time to explain who they were and that they were on a rescue mission, which meant that the guards were constantly having to fend off prisoners who believed that the System had found a new way to torment them. Several prisoners had been stunned and dumped in isolated cabins to recover. There was no way of explaining who and what they were until they were safely away from the penal colony.

    The prisoners themselves looked like savages from a bygone era. Few of them were wearing clothes and they all looked thin and unwell. The medical scanners reported that several of them were suffering from deficiencies that were slowly killing them, suggesting that Rupert’s World lacked sources of vital minerals. It struck her that building a crew out of the prisoners might be harder than it had seemed, back when they'd drawn up the plan. The records had identified a number of prisoners who had served on starships – both System and rebel ships – and they’d been tagged for further investigation, Even so, she suspected that it would be a long time before Brilliant was fully crewed and ready for action.

    She started as the timer reached zero. The System knew that something had gone wrong. Ghost had ignored the System’s regulations and had kept the hyperdrive ready to take them out of the system at a moment’s notice, but they couldn't leave instantly, not without abandoning the away team. She knew that if it came down to a straight choice between death or abandoning the team, she would have to run, yet she didn't want to have to make that choice. The coldness at the back of her mind told her that sometimes pawns had to be sacrificed for the greater good. She told that part of her mind to shut up. It wasn't something she wanted to think about...

    ...She is standing on the bridge of a starship, looking down as landing craft plunge down towards a world under siege. Brilliant explosions flare out as the defenders pick off some of the landing craft, but there is no shortage of ships ready to replace the gaps in the force. Planetary assault starships move closer to the planet, deploying kinetic energy weapons and disruptors to clear the path for the tiny assault ships. The operators warn that an enemy city would have to be destroyed to take out the major Planetary Defence Centre. She shrugs and gives the order to fire...

    “Ouch,” she gasped. This time, the stab of pain was almost unbearable. “What was that?”

    “One of your locked memories,” Ghost said. Jennifer realised that they'd been linked together when she'd had the flashback; the AI had seen everything. She’d ordered the destruction of an entire city just to clear the way for her landing craft...what the hell had she been? “It reassembles the Battle of Galt’s Gulch.”

    Jennifer swayed on her feet. She knew that it was important, even if she didn't know why. “What happened?”

    “Galt’s Gulch was a world – one of the colony worlds settled during the Last Wave, just prior to the Genetic Wars – that rose up against the System,” Ghost informed her. His words seemed oddly familiar, setting off haunting echoes in her head. “The System Navy moved in and reduced the world to barbarity. Once the invasion force landed, they killed every man, woman and child until they surrendered, unconditionally. After that, the world was stripped of everything of value and then left to rot.”

    Jennifer shivered, remembering the cold woman on the bridge of her ship. “And I was there?”

    “Many of the files are sealed,” Ghost said. “The System is not keen to advertise many of its actions. If you were at the battle, twenty years ago, it is not included in my databanks.”

    “No,” Jennifer said. She shuddered, again. She knew she’d been there, serving the System. A memory flittered through her mind – the figure standing against blinding light – and she winced. The headache was refusing to fade away. She wanted a painkiller, despite the risks of clouding her mind in combat. “I was there...”

    An alarm sounded as four new icons flashed into existence. Jennifer plunged her mind back into the computer network and saw three cruisers and a frigate heading right towards Rupert’s World. The System had finally dispatched starships to investigate why the world had gone silent. There was no point in trying to bluff. The newcomers were already sweeping Brilliant with targeting sensors. They knew that she was in enemy hands, all right.

    “Teleport the away team back,” Jennifer ordered. The newcomers were piling on speed, clearly aware that their prey could vanish at any moment. A hint of the woman she’d once been echoed through her mind – the station and the planet below were expendable – but she pushed it aside. Mass slaughter didn't appeal to her. Besides, it would have been pointless spite, nothing more. “Hurry!”

    “I have teleported them all onboard, along with the slaves,” Ghost said. The lead ship – the frigate – was already trying to get within weapons range. Her Captain had to be determined to risk his own ship to delay Brilliant long enough for his consorts to arrive and tip the balance against the rogue cruiser. Jennifer saw the tactical simulations as Ghost ran through them and shook her head. Brilliant would take out the frigate and one – perhaps two – of the cruisers, but she’d be destroyed or captured. And that would be the end. The System could afford the losses, yet the rebels had only one ship.

    Ghost seemed to agree. “The hyperdrive is online and ready to go.”

    “Get us out of here,” Jennifer ordered. The frigate was starting to spit fire towards them, threatening the integrity of Brilliant’s drive field. Her shields would prevent her from taking any damage – not at extreme range – but if the hyper-field was disrupted, the ship would need to recalculate, delaying escape. “Now!

    Hyperspace flared around them and they were gone.
    ssonb, Sapper John, Cephus and 2 others like this.
  12. beast

    beast backwoodsman

    are ya sure your name isnt asimov or bradbury? :)
    keep it comin dude, im diein to read the rest
    Cephus likes this.
  13. jasonl6

    jasonl6 Monkey+++

    I can't believe you just come up with this stuff every day. Love it.

  14. Yoldering

    Yoldering Monkey+++

    OK now Chris! You have another winner here. It is fracking great!
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Thanks guys. More will be coming tomorrow.

    STANGF150 likes this.
  16. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Maybe you're asimov's long lost love child!
  17. Sapper John

    Sapper John Analog Monkey in a Digital World

    Come on Chris,please don't leave us hanging....
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The average citizen of the System – at least within the Core Worlds – would know very little about the System’s astrography. Indeed, most of the lower castes had been taught only what they needed to know and intellectual curiosity was discouraged. When it was discovered – and it still happened, despite centuries of careful programming and social monitoring – the unlucky citizen was either promoted into a higher caste or summarily exiled as an involuntary colonist. The higher castes, the ones with more power and responsibility, knew that Centre was not only the centre of the System, but also the Centre of the known universe.

    It would have astonished them, Wild knew, if they ever discovered that Centre wasn't the hub of the System. The planners who had created the System, after the chaos of the Genetic Wars, had been paranoid, knowing that enemies would seek to strike at the community they’d created. They’d not only created the illusion that Centre was where they resided; they’d invested considerable effort in ensuring that everyone believed that the System was based on a planet. Wild knew that he knew only because the System needed him to know – and that, one day, the information might be gapped from his mind. If his masters ever considered him a threat...

    He pushed the thought aside as the tiny spacer dropped out of hyperspace. The trip was a short one from Centre, but it avoided all the major and minor shipping lanes. There should be no one close enough to pick up his presence and realise that the System had an unexplained interest in an otherwise unimportant star system in the middle of nowhere. The System had seeded the entire region with passive listening posts and other sensors – including some that were thought to be purely theoretical – to ensure that the location remained a secret. Wild suspected – he wasn't cleared to know – that they’d even seeded hyperspace with observation buoys. No expense had been spared.

    The spacer shivered as its controlling RI surrendered control to the station. Wild nodded to himself, keeping his thoughts calm with the ease of long practice. The higher one rose in the System, the greater the rewards – and the punishment for failure. If his masters had realised just what part Wild had played in the whole affair, they might just decide to teleport him into space or burn out his mind and turn him into a Drone. If they knew…he pushed down the thought and concentrated on schooling his mind. He didn’t dare show them even a hint of doubt, let alone disloyalty.

    Slowly – for security reasons, the spacer had dropped out of hyperspace at the edge of the star system – he approached the massive fortress that served as the base for the System’s masters. It was a monstrous construction, easily half the size of a small planet, surrounded by enough automated weapons platforms to hold off half the System Navy. Wild was fairly sure that there were other defences surrounding the fortress as well, defending it against all conceivable threats. And yet its very obscurity was its prime defence. If the System was invaded by an outside foe, one of the alien races who knew that the System’s juggernaut was advancing towards their worlds, they’d concentrate their forces on Centre. It wouldn't matter to the System if Centre and everyone on it was blown into rocky asteroids. They’d just pick up and carry on.

    He watched dispassionately as the spacer slowed to a halt outside the fortress’s primary defence screens. They were the most powerful the System could generate – although not the most powerful in existence, a fact that galled certain officers in the System Navy – and provided enough protection to hold off any attackers until help arrived. He’d even heard that the entire complex could drop into hyperspace and speed away from any attacking fleet, although he was half-sure that that was nothing more than a legend. The power requirement for dropping something even a quarter the size of the fortress into hyperspace would be staggering. Unless, of course, Project Blindside had succeeded.

    A cold voice broke into his thoughts. “Prepare for teleport,” it ordered, as the spacer held position relative to the fortress. All of the sensors had been stepped down, preventing him from carrying out any further sensor scans of the surrounding area. “Teleport in five seconds…”

    Wild braced himself as the teleport fix locked on and the spacer dissolved into a shower of glittering light, resolving itself into the fortress’s antechamber. He held himself still as his augments reported an increasing series of sensor scans studying his body, carefully deactivating his implanted weapons. Wild felt almost naked without them, even though he knew that any attempt to activate them would have resulted in instant death. The System’s masters wouldn't tolerate any attempt to harm them. Indeed, he half-expected them to insist on scanning his brain before he left, even though the odds of surviving a direct scan were minimal. Their paranoia knew no bounds.

    An unmarked hatch hissed open in front of him, revealing a long featureless corridor. Wild had been perversely disappointed when he'd first visited the fortress, back when he'd been promoted to Senior Enforcer, by the drabness of the surroundings. The System’s masters had access to literally inexhaustible resources, as well as secret museums containing artefacts and paintings that the System had deemed restricted, forbidding them to the lower classes. They could have turned their fortress into a gaudy palace, yet instead they’d created a sterile chamber. Later, he’d realised that he'd never seen more than a tiny fraction of the complex. Who knew what lurked in the residential quarters?

    The long corridor opened up in front up him, leading down towards a second hatch. He felt his breathing grow heavier as he approached the gateway to the audience chamber and fought to control it, relying on his innate discipline rather than his augments. The last time he’d been here, he’d come to report a success in the System’s endless war against alien enemies and human rebels. Now…now he'd come to report a failure, and if they scanned his mind, they'd know that he’d allowed the failure to occur. They wouldn’t be happy.

    Bright light flared out as the second hatch opened, revealing the audience chamber. Wild half-covered his eyes until his enhanced retinas had adapted to the light, and then stepped into the chamber, following a path that was barely visible, even to him. The light disoriented him, making it impossible to know just how far he’d walked into the chamber, or what might be lurking within the light, waiting for him. The System’s masters loved their little games. He stopped when he reached the railing and stared into the light, forcing himself to appear calm and collected. Any sign of weakness in this chamber might mean his immediate death.

    “I come, as you ordered,” he said. At least the System’s masters didn’t go in for heavy pomp and ceremony, not like some of the aristocratic dynasties on some of the Rogue Worlds. Wild had visited one, as part of a show of force, and he’d been vastly amused by how they’d made their subjects bow and scrape. “I await your pleasure.”

    The first silhouette formed in the light, a human figure standing against the brightness. Wild couldn’t make out any features beyond the dark form, leading him to wonder if he was looking at a holographic projection rather than a living being. He’d wondered more than once why the System’s masters chose to hide. One theory he’d discussed with others in his cabal, back when the whole plan had begun, had been that the System was actually run by a set of rogue AIs. It might explain the curious willingness to breed humans on demand.

    A second silhouette formed, followed rapidly by eleven more, each one taking up a position around Wild. There were precisely thirteen in the chamber, the thirteen hidden kings and queens of the human race – and the System. They were the Lords and Masters of most of the galaxy. The power they wielded so casually was incredibly tempting. Wild knew himself for a sociopath, knew that he felt nothing for others of his race, yet the seductive call of supreme power called to him as much as anyone else. If he’d risen so high, within the System, why should he not aim for the top?

    “We greet you,” a voice said. It was cold, dispassionate and utterly inhuman. Wild had never been sure which one of the thirteen was the spokesman, or even if only one of them spoke when he visited their audience chamber. If they debated amongst themselves, they did it via implants, for he’d never heard any discussions. The voice seemed to come out of nowhere. “You will explain the events that led up to the loss of the Brilliant.”

    Wild braced himself. He’d covered his ass as best as he could, but if the System’s masters had carried out their own checks, they might put the pieces together and realise that someone had planned everything from the start. And only a handful of people had the authority – and the nerve – to set everything up so that a group of naked prisoners could rebel and capture the most advanced starship in the navy. How long would it be, he asked himself, before they realised that he’d started the ball rolling?

    “It was ordered that the prisoners taken from the Undercity were to be transported to Rupert’s World as quickly as possible,” Wild said. That was true. Jan, the rogue scientist, had been on a death list ever since he’d deserted the System. The masters bore grudges for eternity, if necessary, and they were inhumanly patient. “It escaped the judge’s notice that one of those prisoners happened to be Jennifer, ID-EDR-4837X. She was listed in the computer records as nothing more than a common worker, a data-entry technician.”

    “A data-entry technician who killed two boosted Peacekeepers with her bare hands,” the toneless voice said. Wild wished, just for a second, that there was some emotion in their words. He would have killed to know what they were thinking, or if they were thinking at all. They might have already decided his fate. “They should have realised that they were dealing with no ordinary worker.”

    “The workers undergo heavy sociological conditioning from the day their caste is formally confirmed,” Wild said. That too was true. The fact that the conditioning had limits was a recognised and unavoidable part of the system. “When the conditioning breaks, however, the result is absolute violence as the worker seeks to strike out at the System. The Judge did not realise that more was involved than unreasoning homicidal rage. I might remind you that her file showed no abnormalities and her medical records were faked.”

    There was a long moment of silence. “That is understood,” the voice said, finally. “What steps did you take when you realised what had happened?”

    “I arrested the Judge at once, along with two senior bureaucrats who had interfered with the shipping manifest,” Wild informed them. “The latter, it seems, were involved with a plot to ship advanced technology out on the ship, technology that Scientist Jan could use on Rupert’s World. Once I was sure of their guilt, I scanned their minds. Unfortunately, all three of them failed to recover from the scan.”

    If he’d been given to sweating, his tunic would have been drenched with sweat. The Judge had been a fool, who hadn’t realised that even homicidal rage couldn’t account for the two killed Peacekeepers, but the bureaucrats had been ordered to alter the records. They’d ensured that the Brilliant, the next available starship, had been selected to transport the prisoners and transferred a number of crewmen with dubious personal records to the ship’s crew. The formal protest that her Captain had logged had never been entered into the System’s central datanet. And Brilliant had departed Centre, unaware of the serpent gnawing within her belly.

    And Wild had unflinchingly killed the three men who could implicate him.

    “That is of no concern at the moment,” the voice said, finally. Wild carefully showed no relief, or any emotion at all. “It is certain that Jennifer, ID-EDR-4837X, was able to gain control of the cruiser. No other conclusion is possible. It suggests that she has recovered her memories.”

    Wild shrugged. He’d spoken with Jennifer prior to her departure, hoping that he could start the process of unlocking her memories. There was no way to know how much – if anything – she’d been able to remember when she’d left, let alone wherever she was now. He hadn’t dared push it too far, though. The System hadn’t realised that he'd been involved with her when they’d taken her prisoner and tampered with her mind. If they had, he would have ended up a Drone, or permanently exiled on a penal colony.

    “Perhaps,” he said. The irony was almost amusing, in a dark way. They could have guaranteed their safety by killing Jennifer, or turning her into a Drone. And yet, they’d needed her. She was that rarity, a person who could bond with an AI using the latest series of neural implants. Her children, already being bred in secret facilities all over the System, would serve as the next generation of System officers, unless they decided to rebel as well. “Or she may not have recovered any of her memories.”

    The voice was still atonal. “Explain.”

    “The human mind is a complex organism,” Wild said. He was uneasily aware that he was teaching the System’s masters about technology they’d invented and deployed centuries ago. “When you wiped her memories, you did not actually remove anything from her mind; you merely buried them in the back of her brain and installed subliminal prompts to steer her mind away from anything that might, eventually, lead her to unlock the hidden memories. As long as she remained a worker, doing nothing more interesting than data-entry, she was unlikely to realise that she’d been bound in a mental straightjacket, let alone try to break it. Even so, she was carefully supervised at first to ensure that she didn’t start to recover her memories at once. And she was programmed to shy away from strong emotions that might shock out some of the hidden memories.

    “What happened was, I suspect, random chance. The interrogation of some of the captured Undercity vermin suggested that they didn’t have any idea who or what she was, let alone her importance to the System. Some of them even believed her to be a System spy, someone sent in using a false personality to gain their confidence, and then betray them to the Peacekeepers. They detected her implants, of course, but that only proved that their suspicions might be accurate. As it was, she was busted in a raid targeted on Scientist Jan.”

    “You are suggesting that her flight from the megacity was nothing more than a coincidence,” the voice said. It didn’t sound convinced. “The odds against it are considerable. Individually, each event may be explainable; as a series, random chance cannot account for them.”

    Wild nodded, accepting the implied rebuke. He’d hoped they’d believe him, but he hadn’t counted on it. “Furthermore, regardless of how she became involved with the rebels, she was able to gain control of a starship and use it to take out another cruiser and help prisoners to escape from Rupert’s World. With the help of a bonded AI, she will eventually break through the remaining mental blocks and rediscover her true identity. And that will make her incredibly dangerous. She almost destroyed the System last time.”

    The voice became colder. “You have absolute authority, Enforcer Wild,” it said. “You will do whatever is necessary to recapture or kill her before she recovers her memories. The full weight of the System Navy will be placed at your disposal. Should you succeed, you will be rewarded with a position beyond your wildest dreams.”

    There were no threats or warnings that failure would be harshly punished, but Wild knew that they were there. He wasn't blind to the implications, both of Jennifer’s escape – which he had engineered – and the thirteen’s paranoia. They’d given him immense power, yet it was paired with responsibility. Failure was not an option – and nor was success. With the entire galaxy at stake, he’d have to play for higher stakes than ever before.

    “I understand,” he said. His augments activated as new command codes were downloaded into his personal storage node. He’d have authority over almost anyone else working for the System, even the highest-ranking Admirals. And some of them would want to move up a step by betraying him to his masters. He’d have to ensure that all they saw was an Enforcer looking for his target. “I will not fail you.”

    “You won’t,” the voice said. He silently damned its cool dispassion in his head. “You are dismissed.”

    Wild turned and walked back towards the hatch. The light faded away before the hatch hissed open, leaving him – for a handful of seconds – standing in absolute darkness. And then the hatch opened and he walked back into the long corridor. He kept his face immobile as he reached the antechamber and called for a teleport back to his ship, yet inside his mind was churning. They’d all, but promised him a seat on the council. It was a staggering reward, suitable for the high stakes he was playing for, yet he knew that it might be worthless. He knew what the System had discovered, years ago, that had led to Jennifer’s arrest and memory-wipe. How long did they have before the System finally deployed its ultimate weapon and changed the face of the galaxy forever?

    Not long, he thought, in the privacy of his own head. Not long at all.

    And if they failed this time, resistance would not only become futile, but inconceivable.
    ssonb, Sapper John, STANGF150 and 3 others like this.
  19. Yoldering

    Yoldering Monkey+++

    And the plot thickens...Another great one Chris! I am glad I started this one from the beginning.
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Hyperspace was a rolling field of energy, vast multicoloured streams of lightning crackling through an endless universe. Jennifer knew that some people looked upon hyperspace and went mad, but she thought it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. It gave her the odd sense of familiarity that she’d felt from the starship, a tantalising hint of the woman she’d been before her mind had been altered. And yet, the flashes of her past life had brought a shadow of doubt to her mind. If she’d bedded an Enforcer and bombarded a world, what had she been in the past? And what had she done to deserve having her memory wiped?

    Ghost had confirmed that they hadn’t been chased as they fled Rupert’s World. She’d wondered if the System Navy would risk sending the frigate into hyperspace after her and ordered a course shaped towards one of hyperspaces deadly energy storms, but nothing had followed them as they made their escape. Jennifer suspected – prompted by the darker side of her mind – that the System Navy officers who’d decided to secure the station and the planet rather than give pursuit were about to discover what happened to people who failed the System. Their one chance of destroying the Brilliant before she escaped had been surrendered.

    Once she’d been sure that there was no pursuit, she’d ordered a course that would take them away from all the known shipping lanes. The System had charted vast swathes of hyperspace, but any spacer knew, deep within her soul, that hyperspace simply couldn't be charted for very long. Even the beacons the System used as navigational aids tended to fail, or to lose power and be destroyed or pushed out of hyperspace. It was almost impossible to find anything in hyperspace, unless one was either very lucky or very good. They hadn't sighted any starships since they’d fled Rupert’s World.

    “Captain,” Ghost said, through her implants, “one of the prisoners is asking to speak with you.”

    Jennifer shook her head, absently. She’d left Jan, Ali and Alvin to deal with the rescued prisoners, rather than deal with them herself. Brilliant’s sickbay could deal with the most pressing injuries that required treatment, allowing the refugees a chance to recover from their ordeal. Jennifer had checked the files recovered from the station and discovered that nearly two million prisoners had been dumped on the surface over a period of twenty years. Only a bare handful had remained alive long enough to be rescued.

    Most of the prisoners had been enthusiastic about the chance of joining her crew and striking a blow – another blow – against the System. Jennifer had quietly asked Ghost to vet all the prisoners first, comparing their claims against the AI’s databanks and the files recovered from the station. If the prisoners had the experience to help on the cruiser, she was more than willing to take them, but if all they had was enthusiasm, they might be able to be more helpful elsewhere. She didn't have the slightest idea how to handle a larger crew, even though part of her mind was insisting that she did have the experience, locked away inside her mind.

    “I believe that this one is important,” Ghost said. “His name is Captain Vaster. The System actually reported him dead after his capture.”

    Jennifer shrugged and plunged her mind into the AI’s processors. Information flared around her, sinking into her mind. Captain Vaster had been a rebel for longer than Jennifer had been alive, fighting to build up a fleet that could harass and eventually defeat the System. He’d had courage and determination, but the System had had the bigger fleets and greater ruthlessness. The worlds that had supported the rebellion had been ground down one by one, leaving the Captain a refugee. And then a traitor had betrayed him to the System and he had been captured and dumped on Rupert’s World. Jennifer was mildly surprised that he hadn't been brainscanned, but perhaps the System believed that scanning him would be futile. It was quite possible to create an implant that would terminate the subject if they were brainscanned.

    “He might be useful,” she agreed, reluctantly. She had no idea what to do next, something that bothered her more than it should. If she took the Brilliant on a lone campaign against the System, sooner or later the System would get lucky and blow them into space dust. “Have him escorted up here and I’ll talk with him.”

    She sat back in the observation blister and stared out at hyperspace. It was easy to understand why some people had looked upon hyperspace and gone mad, for there was an almost hypnotic air to the whirling storm of colours breaking against the hull. The System actually used a hypertap to drain energy from hyperspace, powering its defences and orbital stations, even though it was considered too dangerous to use on a planetary surface. Even the System balked at something that would shatter the planet if the containment fields lost power.

    The hatch hissed open and Captain Vaster stepped through into the observation blister. Jennifer had wondered if seeing him would unlock another memory from her mind, but nothing happened. He was older than she had expected, with a marked face that showed the scars caused by a failed regeneration treatment, his short grey hair spilling down over his forehead. He walked like a confident man, even though his back was bent and his body clearly weakened by exposure on Rupert’s World. Jennifer held out a hand and smiled as he grasped it; if nothing else, a few days in sickbay and Captain Vaster would be almost as good as new.

    “I understand that you’re the Captain,” Captain Vaster said. His voice sounded strange to Jennifer’s ears, although there was – again – a tantalising hint of familiarity. The System ensured that all of its workers spoke with the same accent, making it easier to track down intruders and prevent social change. “I must thank you for the rescue. None of us believed that we would last another winter on that hellhole.”

    “You’re welcome,” Jennifer said, automatically. She waved him to the other observation chair. It automatically configured itself for his body as he sat down. The System hadn't spared the resources when it came to fitting out the Brilliant. “I assume that Ghost has filled you in on our story?”

    “You must have been incredibly lucky or they were incredibly dumb,” Captain Vaster said. His eyes glinted with suppressed amusement. “An entire cruiser taken from under their nose. If you hadn’t spaced the Captain, the System would probably have obliterated him and his entire linage.”

    “Yeah,” Jennifer said. Now she’d found a measure of safety, she could fret over how much the killing didn’t bother her. It should have worried her; instead, she had to keep telling herself to care. “He was a fool.”

    “I didn’t discuss the details with him,” Ghost murmured in her ear. Captain Vaster wouldn't hear the AI’s words. “I just explained that you’d taken the ship and reprogrammed me to support you. I suspect that he questions the details – subverting an AI is not easy – but he isn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

    Jennifer smiled, despite herself. “I do have a number of questions for you,” she said, seriously. “How did you end up on Rupert’s World?”

    Captain Vaster gazed into hyperspace, his eyes shadowed. “They came after us with everything they had,” he said, finally. “Galt’s Gulch was just the first. They were a bunch of selfish bastards; they weren't even one of the prime rebellious worlds. They'd only served as a source of supply for my fleet. It didn't save them.

    “The System invested the planet, broke through its defences, and then bombarded the planet until it surrendered. I tried to break the blockade and the System came after my fleet, and then my bases. Every rebellious world was targeted for destruction. I saw nine worlds die in less than a month, each one crushed below orbital bombardment, the survivors rounded up and dispatched by the System’s troops. And the rebellion began to despair.

    “Some worlds surrendered to the System, rather than be exterminated. One of them made a deal with the System’s commander, a cruel and ruthless woman. She ordered them to set up a trap for us; when we arrived at what was supposed to be a secure base, we found ourselves under attack. Their cruisers blew hell out of our fleet and nearly crushed us before we managed to escape into hyperspace. We ran and ran and the dogs just kept snapping at our heels.”

    He sighed, bitterly. “And then we found what should have been a safe harbour, among smugglers in the Draconic Sector. One of them betrayed us to the System and they arrived and kicked hell out of us again. My ship lost its hyperdrive before we could escape and I found myself fighting a rear guard action, trying to win time for the others to escape. And then we lost our shields and when I woke up, I was in a prison cell.

    “They interrogated me, kicked the **** out of me while shouting questions at my aching head and finally dumped me in a holding pen with the other survivors. I was told that if I betrayed my remaining comrades, they’d give me an easy death. Instead, I told them to go to hell. They sent me there instead.”

    Jennifer barely heard his last words. He’d mentioned a cruel female commander, fighting for the System. And she’d seen herself issuing orders for the bombardment of Galt’s Gulch. If he was talking about her...a flash of memory ran through her mind, a fleet of starships breaking out of hyperspace and engaging an enemy force at point-blank range...

    She shook her head, angrily. Whatever she had been in the past, it no longer mattered. Or so she told herself.

    “You know our story,” Jennifer said, finally. “We don’t know where to go now. Hell, we don't even know what to do...”

    “You fight,” Captain Vaster said, flatly. “There’s no place to hide any longer. The last I heard, the System was steadily wiping out the rebel worlds; God knows, perhaps they’re all dead and the rebellion is over.”

    “God?” Jennifer repeated, puzzled.

    “The System has eradicated all traces of religion – the belief in a higher entity that controls the universe and rewards good behaviour with a post-mortal paradise – from the Core Worlds,” Ghost said, through her implant. “I believe that the System decided that there should be no higher god than the System itself. It is also possible that the religious communities were resistant to the System during the closing years of the Genetic Wars and the System chose to exterminate them rather than try to convert them to their cause. As religion often provoked irrational behaviour, the System could not assume that the converted would remain converted.”

    Jennifer shuddered, wondering just how much of humanity’s history had been buried by the System, stolen from the entire human race. “And is there a God?” She asked, through their private channel. “Or is the System right and it is nothing more than a delusion?”

    “I know who created me,” the AI said. “If there is a higher power responsible for ordering the universe, I am unable to determine its nature. All proofs cited by religious authorities are vague and uncertain. It appears that faith is the deciding line between those who believe and those who do not.”

    Jennifer shook her head, dismissing the topic. “We need a place to rest up and prepare to fight,” she said. And, she added quietly to herself, a place where she could dump some of the less useful prisoners. “Do you know where we can go?”

    “There’s only one place that might have remained fairly secure,” Captain Vaster said, after a moment. “Ashfall.”

    Information tumbled into Jennifer’s mind, down the link she shared with Ghost. Ashfall was an unusual world, even in a universe that was full of wonders. It was inhabited by a small human colony and a native race, one that had apparently welcomed the human presence on the planet. The System normally enslaved alien races, yet somehow they hadn't attempted to enslave the local natives. No matter how she looked at the file, she couldn't make sense of it. The System seemed half-convinced that the planet didn't exist.

    Captain Vaster filled in the blanks. “The natives – the Slugs, as we call them – are incredibly advanced in some areas. They can protect their planet and all who come to live on it, safe from the System. On the other hand, they don’t extend their protection outside their star system and they’ve shown no interest in colonising or creating an empire of their own. The System knows to leave their world alone.”

    “I see,” Jennifer said. Inside, she was reeling. The moment he’d mentioned the planet’s name, she'd been overcome with the feeling that she should go to Ashfall. It came from the locked compartments of her mind and, as always, refused to tell her why she should visit the planet. “Ghost?”

    “If the Captain’s claims are true,” the AI said, “Ashfall would certainly make a suitable hiding place, at least for the moment. I am, however, unable to determine if the planet’s defences are sufficient to prevent the System from attempting to recover this ship – and me, of course. They may feel that the prize is worth the risk.”

    “I doubt it,” Captain Vaster said. He looked out towards hyperspace. “You don’t want to annoy the Slugs, believe me.”

    “The System is not known for respecting alien lives,” Ghost said. “Indeed, even a cursory reading of history files and the System’s own propaganda makes it clear that at least one of the System’s reasons for existing – its own justification, if you will – is to prevent aliens from ever posing a threat to humanity. If the Slugs, as you call them, possess technology that can deter the System from invading their space, that technology has to be a grave affront to the System. They will stop at nothing to duplicate the technology and destroy the race that built it, if only to prevent them becoming a threat to humanity.”

    “The Slugs aren't aggressive,” Captain Vaster said.

    “The System isn't likely to care,” Ghost pointed out. “There is the additional danger that by going to Ashfall, we are likely to remind the System that the planet and its technology exists. The System may attempt to attack the planet.”

    “That’s true of almost anywhere,” Captain Vaster snapped. “You cannot...”

    “Enough,” Jennifer said, quietly. She held up one hand. “We will go to Ashfall. Captain Vaster” – she nodded at him – “can attempt to meet up with the survivors of his force. Once we know what help we might be able to call upon, we can decide what to do next.”

    She contemplated the chart of hyperspace in her implants. “We’ll shear along the edges of the Forbidden Sector and deter anyone from following us,” she added, after a moment. “Ghost can handle flying so close to an energy storm. The System won’t be able to track us until we reappear at the edge of Ashfall’s sector and they’ll have problems putting someone in our way.”

    The thought made her smile. It was one of the odder points of FTL travel that starships in hyperspace actually travelled faster – when not confronted with an energy storm – than a communications beam punched through normal space. The System’s scouts would have to drop into normal space to report her presence and Jennifer was sure that by the time they transmitted their message and jumped back into hyperspace they’d have lost their prey. Not that it really mattered, she told herself; any System commander with half a brain would know where they were going the moment they showed themselves.

    “Hyperspace around their sector is unusually excited,” Captain Vaster warned. “You will need to be very careful. I know the safe routes through, but my knowledge may be out of date. Things change very rapidly in hyperspace.”

    “Curious,” Ghost said. “Do you believe that the Slugs are distorting hyperspace to make it harder to reach their world?”

    “They’ve never answered any of our questions,” Captain Vaster admitted. “The truth is that we just don’t know.”

    Jennifer felt an odd, yet almost familiar, thrill running through her body. They were hunted by the entire System, but instead of being nervous she was almost exhilarated. They’d have to work hard to catch her...and she’d have the time to build a proper crew and prepare for war.

    “We’ll alter course at once,” Jennifer ordered. Part of her mind was suddenly aware of the shifting drive field as the ship spun on her axis and headed towards the Forbidden Sector. A starship commander would have to be crazy to risk flying so close to the most dangerous hyperspace energy storm in known space, but she was counting on the System refusing to risk its own ships so close to the storm. A bonded AI should be able to keep them safe if the Storm shifted, even with very little warning. “Thank you for your help, Captain.”

    Captain Vaster smiled. It seemed to take years from his appearance. “You just link me up with the rest of my crew and I’ll consider myself more than suitably repaid,” he said, firmly. “And then we can find a way to hit the System so hard it comes apart.”

    “Doubtful,” Ghost put in. “I calculated the odds of us surviving the year. You’ll be pleased to hear that our odds are one thousand and seven to one against.”

    “We can't lose,” Captain Vaster said. He grinned. “With odds like that, how can we lose?”

    Ghost sounded rather peeved. “You misunderstand,” it said. “The System is huge. Compared to it, we are little more than a flea. We can bite it for years without bringing it down, even assuming that we survive...”

    You misunderstand,” Captain Vaster countered. “Even a flea can be lethal if it bits the right spot. And I think I know where to strike.”
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