HIS OPENED HIS EYES WHEN A VOICE SAID OVER THE INTERCOM, “CAPTAIN, report to the bridge. There’s a Merchant Raitor ship responding to the distress beacon.”
The message shattered the sanctuary of Amidien’s warm cocoon and the pleasant dream he was having about his beautiful wife. It brought him back to the cruel reality: soon he’d be ordering another ship of innocent lives to death.
Amidien turned, his hand dragging through the viscous substance that coated the inside of the cocoon. The air in the cocoon was thick with methane, like his home world’s atmosphere, and after hours of breathing only a carbon-nitrogen mixture of air, it made him feel light-headed. His species needed the gas to mix in their blood and keep their bodies from aging or becoming susceptible to illness.
Amidien climbed through the opening at the top, stepping into his cramped quarters. He was the only crewman with his own quarters. The rest of the crew slept in the hive decks below his.
Amidien stepped into a small booth and tapped the control. Steam released from the vents around him and the viscous substance rolled off his body. He left the steam bath and dressed.
As he finished buttoning the top of his uniform jacket Amidien quietly ordered, “Computer, transport me to the bridge.”
In a flash of light, Amidien disappeared from his room and reappeared on the bridge.
“On screen,” Amidien ordered. He skillfully hid how sick to his stomach he was, or how deep his regret ran.
There had been six names he knew on the last roster. Two of names were humans that had invited him and his family to spend a holiday they celebrated at the end of each year. He didn’t remember the name of the occasion, but he remembered the camaraderie and watching his children play with the human children. On Earth, the sex of a being didn’t matter, they were equal, and the males and females played games that made them laugh and squeal. His youngest son still talked about the snow, something Tetra didn’t have. Would he find more names he knew on this ship’s roster? He prayed to the Holy Ones he wouldn’t.
“They’re coming out of hyper jump, sir,” a crewman told him.
Amidien looked at the screen, watching the ship streak into view. He tilted his head to the side, his eyes narrowing. The ship’s design wasn’t the long Merchant Raitor cargo ships or the wide, flat cruise liners. The middle of the ship was a swollen octagon. The vents weren’t along the side, possibly hidden under the long octagon tubes that ran on either side. The hull was strangely colored: gold with a soft purple hue that flowed as light drifted across it. Amidien’s mind tried to place where he’d seen metal that color, but the memory wasn’t coming to him. What concerned him was he wasn’t sure this was even a Merchant Raitor ship.
“Can you identify that ship, Commander Jali?”
Jali scanned the database. He shook his head, looking up at Amidien. “No, sir. It’s not in any known databases. It could be a Merchant Raitor prototype.”
“Verify it’s transmitting a Merchant Raitor identification,” Amidien ordered. “Tell Captain Carej to hold position.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a Merchant Raitor ship or not,” the communication officer remarked. “It responded to the distress beacon.”
Amidien turned a cold glare on the Terallian. “We are under orders to only attack Merchant Raitor ships. Unless you would like to explain to Admiral Riliq why we attacked a ship that wasn’t Merchant Raitor, I suggest you do as you’ve been ordered.”
The officer quickly obeyed his order. “The identification tag indicates it’s a P-class Merchant Raitor cargo ship.”
Amidien dreaded even more the thought of attacking this ship. A P-class ship belonged to the captain. These ships were often passed generation to generation. The captains that owned them had invested their entire income into keeping the ships functional, so they often skimped on firepower.
“They’re starting a scan of the damaged ships,” Commander Jali informed him.
“Tell Captain Carej to proceed, but with caution.” If Carej were too cautious, maybe this captain would have time to jump and get away, and save his precious ship.
Amidien sat back in his chair, staring at his hands. He couldn’t watch another attack. If the Holy Ones were as merciful as the texts and monks claimed, they would stop this insanity.
Streaking light behind it, Prosperous came out of hyper jump into an area that resembled a ship junkyard. Aris slowed the ship to a halt, glancing at Tru rose to his feet.
“Which ship is the distress signal coming from, Jackie?”
“It don’t know, but it’s Avinion.”
“Avinion?” Tru asked. “We’re nowhere near Avinion territory. Aris, check the shipping lane schedule. See if there were any routs scheduled near here.”
Jackie suddenly stood and walked over to another terminal, pushing the other crewman out of her way. Tru held his hand up when the crewman started to say something.
“No Avinion for the next six months,” Aris told Tru, “and it’s a privately owned luxury vessel.”
“Sir, I’m detecting an approaching ship,” his TAC officer, Lieutenant Rueben Sanchez, reported.
Jackie turned, her eyes narrowed. “We just fell into the same trap these other ships did, Tru. There’s a cloaked buoy nearby and it’s transmitting the distress signal.”
Tru looked at her. The thought crossed his mind to reprimand her for using his name, but the gravity of what she just said was more important. “Where is it?”
“On the edge of the system. I suggest we get the hell out of here now, sir.”
“Are we clear of the gravity pull of the planets? Can we jump Aris?”
“No. We’re in a negative position, sir.”
“How close is that ship, Rueben?”
“They’re coming around the sun and will be within firing range in two minutes, sir.”
“We won’t get out of the system in time. Shields up. Bring weapons online. Jackie, see if you can jam the beacon and do not send a distress signal.”
“Sir, we need help,” Rueben urged.
“We aren’t going to risk others falling into this trap.”
Reuben suddenly stopped moving, staring at the terminals before him. “Sir, Gracie has everything up and has taken over weapons. She’s tracking the ship and has a lock on the buoy already. Did you send me the coordinates, Jackie?”
“Gracie, stop it,” Tru snapped.
“I have control back,” Reuben reported.
“Gracie’s identified the ship as a…” Aris trailed off. “A Paskian war craft?” She looked up at Tru. “What is a Paskian war ship doing out here?”
Tru stared at the screen, his mind whirling. Why couldn’t he have had a premonition about this? “I don’t know. Jackie, hail them.”
“Because you just know they’re going to reply,” Jackie muttered.
“The war craft is opening fire,” Reuben reported.
Tru sat down in his chair seconds before the ship rocked from the attack.
“Evasive maneuvers. Any response, Jackie?”
“They’re shooting at us!” Jackie snapped back. “Do you need them to tell us how dead they want us?”
“No!” She hesitated. “No response, sir!”
Prosperous banked right. Stars streaked across the view as Aris swung Prosperous around to face the attacking ship. Tru’s stomach froze as one of the planets passed by. He had seen this in a premonition. He’d seen the cannon exploding, had seen a ship passing them and firing. He had seen this very ship change from a Paskian war ship to a Terallian attack raider. What did it mean? Tru kicked himself for not having taken the time to study it more, but by fixing the cannon he had assumed the future was altered. He couldn’t have been more wrong!
“Sir, Gracie is trying to take over helm,” Aris reported.
Evasive tactics are inadequate. I will be destroyed if an attack is not initiated, Gracie informed him, and this entire crew will die.
“They’re Paskian!” Aris bellowed. “Don’t you dare attack them you piece of shit computer!”
“I will decide when we attack, Gracie,” Tru told the computer.
Tru looked up when Amanda stumbled into the XO chair on his right. Ag was right behind her. He pushed the crewman out of the chair at the engineering station and began making adjustments.
“Situation?” Amanda asked.
“We’re being attacked by a Paskian war craft,” Tru answered.
“Paskian?” Amanda asked, looking at him.
“Breeches on decks G and F, Captain,” Ag reported.
“Clear the halls and seal off the area.”
Captain, I cannot allow this damage to continue, Gracie stated.
“You can and you will!”
“Computers aren’t supposed to argue like this, Captain Barnet!” Aris snarled, her face morphing into that of a dog.
“Are you having any luck getting a response, Jackie?”
“No, sir. They aren’t responding.”
“Reuben, open fire on them. Try to keep out of their weapons range.”
“Captain!” Jali cried.
Amidien looked down at him. He was staring at his screen, bug-eyed.
“Look!” he turned, pointing at the dome.
Amidien looked up. The Merchant Raitor ship was moving faster than any ship he’d ever seen, proving to be a difficult target despite the speed of the Paskian war craft. Amidien rose to his feet, his eyes glued on the screen.
‘Holy Ones, please let this be the end. Please let this ship destroy the Paskian ship and end this insanity.’
“Sir, they have stronger fire power than we do. We have to do something else,” Rueben urged.
“Target their engines,” Tru ordered. “Let’s shut them down.”
“Crewmen quarters are located around the engines on Paskian war ships,” Aris told him. “You’ll kill anyone in them if you hit the engine.”
“I know, but we have to stop this, Aris, before we end up dead.”
Your plan will not be effective, Gracie argued.
“I am one complaint away from disabling your control, Gracie,” Tru threatened.
The occupants of that ship are not registering as Paskian, Gracie reported.
Tru turned to the Drasken at the science station, Equ’Haglef. “Is that correct?”
“Initial scans suggest there aren’t any Paskians aboard, but their shields are preventing a full scan.”
“Shielding down to seventy percent, Captain,” Reuben told him.
A torpedo hit above the bridge, setting off a cascade of electrical sparks and blowing out several terminals. Smoke began filling the bridge and burning Tru’s eyes and lungs.
That’s it! Gracie snarled. I have had it with these assholes! This stops now!
Tru jumped up and ran to engineering. He reached out to tap a screen as it went black. Prosperous banked left and the Paskian ship came into view.
“She’s taken over weapons,” Reuben told him, “and locked me out.” Rueben looked up at Tru.
“Gracie, stop!” Tru shouted.
Tru leaned on the controls, closing his eyes. “Hold on, everyone!”
Prosperous banked sharply to starboard, shooting at the war craft. Before it moved out of range, Gracie fired two torpedoes at the bridge. Seconds before they exploded against the shielding she shot a disrupter pulse, targeting an area at the back of the ship. Gracie steered Prosperous in front of the ship and flew straight at it, firing a barrage at the Paskian war ship. The disrupter pulse had weakened the shielding, allowing the laser cannons to cut through the hull.
In two quick moves, the Holy Ones answered Amidien’s prayers. A disrupter pulse hit the ship’s shields generator, destabilizing it. Explosions ignited across the ship. The captain of the strange ship had won.
The Paskian ship’s hull ruptured as explosions ripped it from the inside.
“No,” Aris whispered.
“The ship has been disabled,” Reuben quietly said. “Multiple breaches, and I’m detecting environmental controls are off line. All hands assumed lost, Captain.”
Gracie slowed Prosperous to a stop, keeping the destroyed ship on the view screen. Tru stood, staring at the ship. Black smoke vented into space, only partially masking geysers of fire. Lacking oxygen to feed them, the fires would be out in seconds.
Should I deploy security droids to check for survivors, Tru? Gracie asked.
Tru’s eyes snapped away from the screen to the closest video node. “You haven’t listened to any of my other orders,” he snarled, “why ask now?”
I had to protect us! the computer argued.
“You defied a direct order and you killed an entire Paskian crew!” Tru yelled back. He returned to his chair and sat down. Tru put his face in his hands and for several minutes the bridge was silent. Tru sat back and calmer he continued, “Grace, I told you that things had to happen differently if you were going to be a cargo ship for the Merchant Raitor Union because there would be regulations and policies even you had to honor. Do you remember that conversation? I told you we had to wait to tell the crew until I felt they would be comfortable knowing about you. But ever since we’ve left spaceport you have been defiant and belligerent, and then this—” Tru motioned at the screen. “This, Gracie!” Tru shook his head. He looked back at the video node. “You know what, Gracie? I’ve had it with you. I’m going to send a message to Admiral Larson and request you to be decommissioned as a Merchant Raitor ship, because you clearly are not cut out for this type of work. You just killed an entire crew and you don’t even show remorse!”
The ship shuddered and it startled everyone but Tru.
I didn’t want to kill them! The Terallians wouldn’t stop attacking us!
“They are Paskians!” Tru shouted.
THEY’RE TERALLIANS! The other ships here told me that they’d attacked them too.
“So you’ve been handling communications behind our backs, too?”
I had to! You weren't listening to me!
“No. You had to obey orders.”
Quietly Gracie told him, Before we joined Merchant Raitor, you always listened to me. You haven’t listened to me about anything since we left spaceport. I was trying to save our lives, Truman.
Tru closed his eyes. He softly sighed.
“That’s because you don’t want to do things to regulation, Gracie.” Tru looked back at the video node.
I am sorry for not listening, but I am not sorry for saving my boy’s life, my life, or this crew. If you think that deserves me being decommissioned, fine, do it. But if I had to make this choice again, Truman, I would do it again. The computer paused and when it spoke again, it sounded like it was crying. I need this crew, I need you, and I cannot let anyone die aboard me. I can’t. Softer it told him, Your father would have understood.
Tru sighed. He couldn’t argue with that, and he couldn’t be mad at Gracie for wanting to protect them and herself.
“If this ever happens again—” Tru began.
I swear I won’t let it happen again. Not unless—
“There is no ‘not unless’, Gracie.”
Not unless the crew is incapacitated.
Tru thought about that for a moment. He nodded once. “Agreed.”
Should I deploy droids now?
Tru turned to Jackie to issue an order and found the bridge crew staring at him. All of them looked utterly terrified, and it he knew it wasn’t the battle that scared them. It was the conversation he’d just had with a ship’s computer – one he knew they had never witnessed between a captain and his ship before.
The time to explain Gracie had unexpectedly come.
“Two years after Prosperous was commissioned, my dad and scientists were investigating alien ruins of an abandoned and very advanced alien city. The equipment and computers began behaving strange and when they came back, the ship’s computer began behaving the same way. His I.T. thought it was a virus and when they attempted to remove it, it fought back. It was about to shut off life support when my father realized that whatever was in the computer, whatever they’d brought back, was a sentient being. So he started talking to it. The being lived in the cybernetics of computers and it had been living alone for nearly five thousand years. When it found a way off the planet, it took it, and took up residence in the computer systems of Prosperous. My dad agreed to let it live in the computer as long as it didn’t interfere with regular ship routines, and he named it Gracie.”
Tru crossed his arms, shifting his weight from one foot to another. “Since then she has expanded into the space between the inner and outer hull, and fused into the metal. She is integrated into every system on this ship. She sees and hears through the communication system, smells through the ventilation, and she is very protective of Prosperous and its crew.”
Equ’Haglef quietly said, “There’s rumors she eats crewmen.”
Tru shook his head. “She’s a vegetarian, and even then she’s picky about what she eats.”
“Does she have feelings, like we do?” Aris asked.
“Yes. She is capable of thinking on her own and reacting to situations. She is a sentient, organic being like we all are. It is both her strength and weakness.”
Jackie asked, “Does she hear everything?”
Yes, I do Jackie Joan. Tru, the droids have landed. Ensign Rhoades should be receiving images within the next twenty seconds.
“Link up with the droids has been established,” Jackie said.
“We had one casualty, sir,” Equ’Haglef reported.
Tru looked at him. “Who?”
“Your Lead COM officer, sir. She was on G deck when it breeched.”
‘I guess that solves what I’m going to do about her.’ Tru shook his head at the loss of life. “Ask Q’al to take care of it.”
Tru glanced at Amanda when she walked into the back of the Bridge.
“I’m receiving video,” Jackie reported, “Routing the feed to main screen.”
Tru turned his attention to the view screen.
A video from one of the droids appeared. It moved through a dark corridor, the light on its head gliding over corpses, cutting a sharp slice through the darkness.
“Gracie, get a lit shot of one of the bodies,” Tru ordered.
The droid stopped and turned to a body. A light came on, momentarily over-lighting the image. It faded, revealing the hall was full of Terallians. Tru walked up to helm.
“Capture that image and then tell it to keep searching for any Paskians.”
The image didn’t move, but they could hear the droid’s movement over the bridge speakers.
“They are all Terallians,” Aris said.
“Why would Terallians try shooting us out of the sky?” Reuben asked. “They’re our allies.”
Tru wondered that himself.
“Wrigley,” Tru said, turning to where he’d last seen her standing.
She wasn’t on the bridge. Tru turned back to the screen. “Gracie, send probes to the other ships. Jackie, try to link to as many ship computers as you can.”
“Aye, sir,” the two replied.
“Alert me as soon as either of you find anything.” Tru walked to the transport at the back of the bridge. Quietly he ordered, “Gracie, transport me to Wrigley.”