28 Jan 11

The Last Command of Captain Deathblade

“The Sufaar flagship is closing in fast, Captain,” shouted Commander Tokunbo over the groan of the hull shuddering as the ship’s shields failed to fully deflect a barrage from the enemy’s gamma gun.

Captain Deathblade rose and stared at the rear view screen. A menacing slice of a ship was gaining on them. The Sufaar always seemed to pick the most perfectly nasty names for their ships. The command cruiser chasing them was a Corpsemaker. It was flanked by six Flesheaters — small, quick, deadly and bristling with plasma cannons and gamma guns.

The Captain twinged for a moment over the embarrassment of nomenclature. It made her feel like prey, having a Corpsemaker and a pack of Flesheaters chasing the Avalon, a ship named for a place of peace and rest. But also unfindable, Deathblade reminded herself, If only we could get lost.

The Avalon was the first ship of its kind. Its hull was a standard slimline nanobot skin, capable of repairing itself, thickening against impact or radiation, and adjusting its shape for optimal atmospheric re-entry and smooth motion at speeds exponentially above that of light. Really, it didn’t look much different from many standard civilian transport cruisers. But this was part of the Avalon‘s ruse. Stacked neatly between its twin warp engines was a small nondescript green box about half the size of the Captain’s liquor cabinet — The Forbidden Fruit, the crew had nicknamed it — capable of sending subatomic rumbles into the matter around the ship, distorting the fabric of space in ways so subtle and violent that anything that approached the vessel would be ripped apart right down to its quarks. A literal spacequake. While the green box made the nothingness around the ship growl angrily, it also quietly made subtle calculations for an escape route. While the enemy stood back, able only to see a blinding fog of distorted space-time, the Avalon shot away on a trajectory that, as the fog collapsed, became untraceable. In a vacuum this artificial earthquake in space-time usually resolved itself once the Avalon had shut down The Forbidden Fruit, but nobody knew for certain what would happen if it came into contact with a block of matter — say, oh, a space ship. But so far none of the enemies of the Avalon had been stupid enough to come close enough to find out if the rumors about the mysterious silver ship shrouded in fog were true.

She was invaluable as a scout ship, and under Deathblade’s command had always managed to slip in and out of enemy territory without ever being caught. Already in the course of the war Deathblade’s daring raids into enemy territory had allowed command to anticipate and drive off fifteen Sufaaran attacks on the colonies of Earth and her allies. That Deathblade’s actions as Captain had not always been strictly in keeping with Naval regulations was something command was willing to overlook, as long as ship and crew kept returning safely with useful information. Captain Deathblade was either very clever or very lucky, because in three years at the helm she had never run into trouble.

Until today, when the Avalon had dropped out of warp, expecting to land in a nice quiet hiding place behind a pulsar and instead fell into the waiting jaws of seven Sufaaran ships. This mission was meant to be a milk run. They had made their rendezvous with the Valhalla, a cloaked research station deep in sector 12 of the Norma Arm that had developed something command was terribly interested in putting into production. Captain Deathblade knew what it was. She knew when they made their second rendezvous with the Sir Francis Drake at Rigel that the spooks she handed the package to would take it to be replicated in great enough quantities to rip the galaxy to shreds.

But this was not a time for misgivings about orders. She had arrived at Rigel to find the enemy floating in a cloud of debris that she could only presume was the remains of the Sir Francis Drake. The Avalon had to make it out of this mess alive or utterly destroyed. Even one of the weapons in the hold could be used to destroy an entire planet.

“Lieutenant Odessa, have you activated the recovery beacons?” The Captain snapped, tearing her eyes away from the rear view screen. She would have to trust the Commander’s ability to outmaneuver the enemy until they were able to get into a position where The Forbidden Fruit would be able to work its magic.

“Aye, Captain,” the Lieutenant replied, tracking the motion of tiny scraps of metal hurtling through the debris cloud toward one another, each firing out a stream of data for the Avalon to capture. “Thirty-two percent of the data pods from the Sir Francis Drake have activated, and more are coming in. As soon as we hit forty percent I should be able to reconstruct her memory.”

“Good,” Deathblade replied, trying not to appear distracted. “I need to know what happened to that ship. Tell me if they negotiated, provoked the Sufaar, or were immediately attacked.”

The hull rocked as another blast from the gamma gun pounded against their deflector shields.

“Captain, the Flesheaters are moving in,” Commander Tokunbo said calmly. The screen flickered over to the sight of the smaller, faster ships breaking off from the flagship to move in for the kill. “At this rate we have thirty seconds before we are in range of their plasma cannons. However, our hull can withstand temperatures forty-eight percent greater than any known Sufaaran ship. I recommend we move in closer to Rigel and use the star’s gravity to slingshot into a position that would allow us to deploy The Forbidden Fruit.”

“Do it,” the Captain barked at Lieutenant Ashi.

“Aye, Ma’am,” the helm officer nodded, tapping at the controls on the main wheel. The ship dove toward the crackling blue surface of Rigel. For a moment the Flesheaters followed, but their hulls felt the rising blast of heat and the ships ricocheted backwards, scrambling and then regrouping to pursue at a safe distance.

“Take us in until the warning bells go off,” Deathblade instructed him, sitting down once again and trying to appear composed. The display on the forward-view screen adjusted rapidly to compensate for the blinding light that grew in intensity as they moved in closer to the supergiant star. “Tokunbo, recalculate time until they catch up with us.”

The Commander glanced at the changing vectors on the translucent surface of the helm display. Numbers flickered by too quickly for human eyes, but Tokunbo’s unblinking gaze took them all in. He held perfectly still, except for the the muscles under his silver-green scalp, which rippled with tension as he interpreted the data provided by the ship’s navigational computer. “Their velocity continues to increase, but they must now travel much farther to maintain a safe proximity from the gravity and heat of Rigel,” he said with satisfaction. “We now have thirteen minutes, seventeen seconds until we are in range of their weapons.”

Not much time to come up with a plan, Captain Deathblade groaned to herself. “Odessa,” she barked, “Report.”

“Compiling now, Captain,” Lieutenant Odessa called back from the communications station. “It looks like the Sir Francis Drake was not attacked right away. They held their position for about three minutes before they were destroyed, and it looks like the Sufaar did as well.”

“Any more than that?” Deathblade demanded, clasping her hands behind her back and resisting the urge to unbutton her jacket.

“Twenty seconds and I can tell you the species of every crew member that was onboard,” Odessa promised, the pitch of her voice rising.

Alarms went off as the ship hit the safety threshold. They were very close to the star now, and the hull groaned as the gravity well pulled in hard. Ashi smacked at a few controls to cancel the buzzing and leveled out the dive of the Avalon. He dared not take his hands off the helm to wipe the beads of sweat off his forehead.

“Well done, Lieutenant Ashi,” the Captain said calmly, disregarding the alarms as they fired back up again. “Hold us as close as you can and try to pick up the pace.”

At these constantly shifting velocities and speeds this high, Deathblade knew they couldn’t employ the device without ripping themselves to pieces. If they could make it to the far side of the blue giant star without being blown to bits, they may have enough time to slow down, activate The Forbidden Fruit, and make it out alive.

Chief Kai’s face flickered onto the Captain’s com. “Wake up The Forbidden Fruit’s artificial intelligence and tell it to be ready as soon as possible,” Deathblade ordered into the screen. “Chart a course along a random vector in safe space, then back to Valhalla for repairs and to warn them that somebody knows what they’re up to.

“Aye, Captain,” Kai responded with a crisp salute. “We’ll get us out of here.” The com flicked off.

“Captain!” Odessa called out, a strange tone of confusion and urgency in her voice. “You need to see this.”

Deathblade crossed the bridge to Odessa’s station, indicating to Tokunbo that he should follow.

“I don’t know what to make of it –” Odessa spluttered.

“Don’t think, just report,” the Captain snapped. “What happened on board the Sir Francis Drake before it was destroyed?”

Odessa fumbled at the controls and played back the holographic recording salvaged from the destroyed ship’s data pods. Deathblade saw the Captain conversing with a creature on the ship’s main com screen. A Sufaaran. Its eight eyes glittered with a hard, scaly greenness that, even through the recording, seemed to penetrate Deathblade’s body. It clicked and buzzed, and Odessa’s station provided and instant translation.

The spooks were negotiating a deal. Odessa, Tokunbo, and Deathblade watched in horror as a man in the black uniform of the Navy’s Experimental Research Division negotiated the price of the cargo about to be delivered by the Avalon.

“Anaru,” the Captain growled.

“You know him?” Tokunbo asked, surprised.

“A long time ago. Looks like he made his last mistake today,” Deathblade sighed bitterly.

“The delivering ship must not survive,” the Sufaar captain insisted as the playback continued.

Anaru cocked his head. “It will raise suspicions if the Avalon goes missing.”

“That is your problem,” the Sufaaran snarled.

“Our arrangement was to share the antimatter technology with you in order to keep the war balanced,” Anaru insisted. “Surely you don’t think that we will allow to gain one of our technologies and deprive us of another?”

The argument grew heated. A few seconds later, a horrifying roar screeched from the Sufaaran on the com. There was a flash of light, an explosion, and then nothing.

“What happened?” Odessa asked.

“Anaru raised his left hand to the level of his eyes,” Deathblade sighed dismissively. “It’s like telling someone you had a great time with their mother last night in most Sufaaran cultures. Idiot. Got his whole crew killed.”

“Better than us,” Tokunbo shrugged stoically.

“It will be us if we don’t get out of here,” the Captain said, returning to her chair and throwing herself down into it to think for a moment. The bridge grew oddly quiet as the crew went about their business with a kind of electric calm to maintain the Avalon‘s desperate attempt to slingshot around the blue supergiant to safety.

Deathblade’s com snapped back on. It was Chief Kai.

“Are we ready Chief?”

Kai looked nervous. She stuttered as she spit out the words, and ran her fingers through her cropped blonde hair. “The AI won’t do it.”

“Excuse me?”

“She says deploying a spacequake this close to the surface of Rigel would disrupt the star at a subatomic level and cause it to prematurely go Supernova.”

“Oh, she did, did she?” the Captain said sarcastically. She pursed her lips and glanced over at Tokunbo, who told her with a glance that this was very likely correct.

“Aye, Captain. The AI also adds that, in addition to destroying the Avalon, such a supernova would do irreparable damage to the . . .” Chief Kai cleared her throat nervously. “. . . you’d better see this.”

He pulled on his camera and pointed it toward The Forbidden Fruit. A ghostlike apparition stood before it.

“What is that?” Deathblade asked, her green eyes growing wide. She pulled her com screen close to her face and peered at the silvery ghost standing before the green box in the engine room.

“She’s using the holoprojectors in here to manifest,” Kai’s voice explained from off camera. “She’s even figured out how to modulate the PA system so that it sounds like her voice is emanating from the projection.”

Deathblade was astounded. No AI had ever independently chosen to manifest. They just did as they were told. That was what they were for.

“You were explaining it perfectly well, Chief Engineering Officer Embla Kai,” the ghostly being said. She stepped closer to the com. It was a little girl — or rather, it took the form of a little girl. She had long black hair neatly arranged in several braids down her back and wore a simple rectangular shift that floated down to her bare feet. “In addition to destroying me and everyone else on board, destroying Rigel would severely mar the aesthetics of Orion, which is one of my favorite constellations.”

“Bollocks,” Deathblade grumbled, pressing her slim fingers against the bridge of her nose. She removed her cap, threw it onto her chair, and ran her hands over her head. The stubble of her hair rippled past her fingers. Almost time for a haircut, she thought somewhere in the back of her mind.

“Ma’am, if I could –” began Kai, but the Captain waved her away and the com screen flickered off.

Elite Flesheaters on my tail, five minutes to live, and the AI decides to get sentient and sassy, Deathblade thought to herself. This was a puzzling development. But given that she was likely to be dead soon, there was no time to consider the metaphysical implications of an artificial intelligence that had suddenly decided to grow a personality and start thinking for itself.

Deathblade gestured with her hand and her com screen flickered back on. Chief Kai and the rest of the Engineering crew was still standing around staring stupidly at the silvery girl, who was now sitting daintily on top of the green box.

“Chief Kai,” the Captain barked in a clipped tone. “Open storage panel four.”

Dazed, the Engineering Chief obeyed her. The com camera followed her. The AI watched with interest as the storage panel creaked open. A large crate was inside. Kai pressed a button and the crate rolled out.

“Authorization Victor Kilo Niner Charlie One Sierra,” the Captain enunciated loudly and clearly, and the case’s locks snapped open with twelve pops. “Chief Kai, your team is to load the contents of that case into our launch bays, and on my order fire them at the Sufaaran ships.”

“Aye, Ma’am. Do these weapons require special handling?”

“They are antimatter grenades,” Deathblade informed them.

“Those don’t exist,” somebody on the Engineering deck cried out.

“They do now,” the Captain shouted over the com. “Now get them in the damn launch bays and be ready to fire.”

Commander Tokunbo cleared his throat and spoke words that he knew were his duty. His deep voice rippled across the bridge, reverberating in the strangely calming way that only the double-toned voice of a Folami seems to.

“May I remind the Captain that our orders were to retrieve the antimatter weapons from the Valhalla and deliver them to ERD, and that we are not authorized –”

“Can it, Tokunbo. Take the helm,” Captain Deathblade snapped. She glanced at the calculations on the helm. The Avalon didn’t have long before the plasma cannons blasted them all to hell. “Buy us some more time.” Tokunbo nodded and moved like a machine to the ship’s wheel. Lieutenant Ashi gratefully vacated his seat and saluted the Commander. He stood at sharp attention behind the helm, his eyes locked on Tokunbo’s four limbs, each bearing seven long, slim digits moving in an elegant flurry across the control panels.

The Sufaar began to fire. Bolts of white-hot plasma shot toward them. The first shot barely missed the Avalon‘s starboard engine, and Tokunbo sprang into action. Controls flashed like stars moving by at warp speed. The Avalon whirled improbably through the vacuum, its jets deftly firing to allow it to maneuver as if it were surrounded by real air.

Chief Kai’s voice crackled over the com. Some kind of disturbance made the image faint. The engineering crew was loading the antimatter grenades, built to the standard size of ordinary plasma torpedoes, into launch bays as quickly as they could move. “Where are we getting calculations for these new toys, Captain?”

“Tokunbo’s busy. Can your computer do it?”

“If the gravity well around the antimatter holds when we shoot them out of our cannons, and Rigel doesn’t suck them in, and solar radiation doesn’t rupture the grenades before they hit the Flesheaters, and, considering the amount of shrapnel out there –”

“Will it work?”

“The physics for this is purely theoretical,” Kai said, struggling to maintain a level tone. The ship shook as Tokunbo dodged another close blast. “I’ll blow us to kingdom come if i don’t get this right.”

“I can do it,” a childlike voice called out in a sing-song tone. It was the AI. “I can do it, I can,” she sang.

Captain Deathblade’s jaw dropped as calculations appeared on the navigation tablet below the comscreen. The AI was in the main computer.

“Where are these numbers coming from?” the Captain cried out.

The holoprojectors on the deck flickered and the ghostly girl appeared on the bridge. She looked around inquisitively, turning until she saw the screen tracking the six Flesheaters. Her eyes widened as she watched glowing bolts of plasma erupt in rapid succession from their cannons.

“I just did the math,” the AI sighed, shrugging. “It will work, and we’ll only have to use one torpedo. Check it if you like, but your computer is so stupid we’ll all be dead by the time it verifies the equation.”

Deathblade stared at the thing. “Why should I believe you?” she asked.

The AI turned to face the Captain and stepped toward her. She looked up into Deathblade’s eyes and gazed at her for three long seconds.

“Because I don’t want to die either,” she said.

“Do it,” ordered the Captain.

The AI smiled brightly and vanished. A moment later the reverberation of an antimatter grenade blasting out of a launch tube thudded through the ship. In the moment the shields were down to let the grenade through, a bolt of plasma hit the Avalon squarely on her aft engine vent, causing her to veer dangerously deeper into Rigel’s gravity well. Tokunbo’s digits flickered ever faster and the ship shuddered as it pulled upward.

“Pursuing ships on main screen,” Deathblade ordered, and the computer flicked to the six pursuing Flesheaters. A tiny dot hurled toward them, as menacing as a flea advancing on a pack of dogs. For two long minutes the crew of the Avalon watched, holding tight to emergency handles as Commander Tokunbo continued his evasive dance a few thousand mere kilometers from the surface of the blue supergiant.

There was a flash. Light flooded the screen. Captain Deathblade shielded her eyes. When the screen crackled back to a view of the darkness behind them, four of the Flesheaters were utterly gone. The remains of the other two hurtled apart, twisting and whirling. It looked as if some invisible monster had bitten off and swallowed most of the ship.

“Tokunbo,” the Captain breathed, “Get us out of here before that Corpsemaker sees what happened.”

The Avalon pulled out of her slingshot and pulled away from Rigel toward the black.

The Captain spent a full hour in her quarters before descending to the Engine Room. “Are we far enough away to deploy The Forbidden Fruit?” the Captain asked the childlike apparition, which was twirling before the reflective surface of the engine casing like a ballerina practicing at the barre.

The AI cocked her head as if to consider this, and then nodded. “Engaging now.” She resumed her dancing.

The Captain considered her for a while. “Allowing you to take control of my ship will get me put in prison if I return home. But your actions also saved us from the commanding officers who double-crossed us and would have left us to die. One way or another, this will be my last command as Captain. The question is what do I do with you.”

The AI blinked thoughtfully, then looked up at the Captain. “I’d like a name, please, if you don’t mind.”

Deathblade was baffled. She stared at the luminescent figure before her and considered her for a few minutes. “Eve,” she finally said.

The AI flickered as she processed this. “Because of the ancient folktale regarding Forbidden Fruit? Eve consumed the Forbidden Fruit, so you choose an ironic title considering that The Forbidden Fruit contains me?”

“Not because of that,” the Captain said raising an eyebrow in amusement. She turned her back on the AI and strutted toward the door. “You are Eve because you don’t do as you’re told.”

The door to the engine room slid open. The Captain lingered for a moment and glanced back at the childlike apparition. “But somehow . . . it’s better that way.”

The door slid shut. The lights flickered off and Eve lingered for a moment. She stared at the door for what was, in her mind, a very long time. Then she flickered off and went to sleep.