Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Silent City

Quomodo sedit sola civitas plena populo facta est.
How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!]

—Lamentations 1:1
It was the silence that woke me. The control tower at HQ is many things—but it's never quiet. I couldn't quite grok what it was I was supposed to do about it though. I guess that's why I had the Ex-1 "Executor" implant installed in the frontal lobes of my brain.

The nano-fiber semiconducting lattice of the Ex-1 "Executor" implant  forms a kind of catcher's mitt between the rest of my brain and the frontal lobes, which, as any neuroscientist (or Ex-1 salesman) can tell you, act to inhibit the more crazy-ass ideas that come from the depths of our still poorly evolved brains (Jovian company excluded, of course. Who knows how they've modified their meat computers, or if they even use them anymore?). Ex-1's nano-fiber lattice, paired with a femtoprocessor chip, also embedded in my gray matter, picks up on any brainwave pattern that the frontal lobes deem worthy of my acting out in the real world, and then it effects them itself, if the context is right.

Example: Let's say I decide to lower the thermostat, or convo an old friend; Ex-1 does it for me. The real neat part is that this all happens before I'm even consciously aware I wanted to do it. Thus the devices and ship modules all around me—in pod or out—know that I want to do something before I do.

All of this goes to explain how it is that Rol Prime had just accepted a convo that I wasn't even aware I had already sent.

"Look, I know you're going to say it is my fault, but it's not." His voice had already taken on a frenetic tone. Damn his eyes! I didn't even realize I was upset about something yet.

"Explain," I said, hoping the single-word response would give my frontal lobes a bit of time to catch up.

"You know how it is. I was getting bored watching the progress bars advance in the refinery, and I decided to listen in on Sleeper transmissions. I picked up on a data stream...a really interesting one."

"Define 'interesting'." I was beginning to see where this was going, and why my sub-conscious had immediately called Prime.

"I've never seen anything like it!" He was giddy. "Well, that's not true. It looked like the kind of instructions repper modules send out to the armor-repair nanobots crawling all around the hull of a ship, except these were more advanced than anything I've ever seen."

"And?" I still couldn't see how any of this explained the gnawing sense of unease in my gut.

"And I'll tell you." He was shaking now. "If we could figure out how to adapt a data stream like this one to our armor reppers, we'd have a module that would leave Tech II in the dust—maybe even beat out officer mods like Tairei's. We're talking a capital-class tank on a cruiser-sized hull!"

"So let me guess: You plugged the data stream into our mainframe to get a better look at it."


Deep in the recesses of my skull the Ex-1 implant sprung into action, sending an instruction to a robotic arm conveniently located right behind the chair where Prime was sitting in the refinery control room. The metal arm reached out and swatted Prime on the head.

"Oww! Whadid you do that for?"

"I didn't; the Ex-1 did. The real question is, why do you think my subconscious mind wanted to slap you?"

He rubbed his thumped skull and mumbled something inaudible.

"I didn't catch that."


As he shouted it, conscious thoughts caught up with unconscious ones. "Let me see if I understand. You let the Sleeper data stream through the mainframe's firewall."

"Right, and now the Sleepers are rewriting all of the programs controlling several of APHID HQ's basic automatic functions."

"Anything important?"

"Not really, unless you think breathing is important. That silence you're hearing is the sound of fresh air not being pumped through our ventilators. It's only a guess, but I'd say we've got only a couple of hours of breathing left before we begin to pass out from hypoxia."

The robotic arm twitched again but held still. "Prime, why don't you tell me what is working."

"The Sleeper signal is hacking everything. It's like it's reprogramming the whole base to turn itself inside out. But for now, sure, yeah, some stuff is working: Weapons, lighting, pseudogravity. I even think the johns are still flushing. Oh, and oddly enough, auto-docking functions in the hangar are all nominal."

"That's all I need. Rol out." I disconnected the convo, got out of bed, and stepped into the head. I had a plan, but if that plan was going to work, I'd want to do it with an empty bladder.

A few minutes later, the Apocalypse-class vessel Ass End of Space undocked from the ship hangar and aligned for the source of the Sleeper data stream: a radar-return signature suggesting some sort of large structure. When I brought APHID to this system to mine and refine ore, it had been my intention to leave the rogue AI natives of J124654 alone—to let Sleeper dogs lie, as it were. Prime's rash actions had nixed that plan. The only way to salvage APHID HQ and its crew now was to seek out the source of the rogue transmission and destroy it. The problem was, I had no idea how my battleship's tank would hold up to the defending Sleepers. I had hastily converted a remote-rep, sniper fit to an active tanking, six-gun Megapulse Laser II set-up. If I got killed in this heap of garbage, and if the killmail made it on to public killboards, I would never live down the shame.

"Right, well I'm off. Wish me luck."

"Luck." Prime said, almost under his breath.

Twenty seconds later, the Apocalypse landed at the site. Fifty kilometers away, behind an angry swarm of Sleeper frigates and cruisers, was the transmission tower I needed to kill. Afterburners engaged, I dove into the swarm.

The Megapulses made steady progress tearing apart the armor of the Sleeper cruisers. Unfortunately, their beams and missiles were making steady progress tearing my armor apart as well. Armor integrity reports showed that I was winning the race, but just barely. And I soon discovered a second problem.

Several sleeper frigates were laying into me with webbers and scrammers. The cruisers destroyed, I had switched my guns to the frigs but wasn't scoring any hits. The tracking on the turrets just couldn't keep up with the speedy frigs, which were locked into a tight orbit around my ship. There was only one weapon left in my arsenal: drones. I had two full complements: one flight of light drones, and one flight of mediums. I launched the lights first.

As expected, the Sleepers switched from targeting me to targeting the drones. It was all I could do just to keep them alive by recalling them to the drone bay whenever their shields evaporated. They Sleepers were slowly but surely attritting away the drones, and, with the webbers and warp disruptors still targeting my ship, I was going nowhere fast.

The Ex-1 implant knew how deep the crap was in which I was presently sinking. Taking the lead from my subconscious mind, it kept trying to activate the self-destruct mechanism on the ship. I reached out each time with my conscious mind to shut it down again, but gradually my conscious and unconscious thoughts were coming into alignment. I was going to lose the ship, and APHID HQ shortly thereafter.

And then a Thorax-class cruiser showed up on my overview. No doubt some piratical pod pilot from known-space had stumbled into the system and noticed this little drama unfolding. No doubt he was now swooping in to deliver the coup de grace.

But that final blow never came. The Thorax swooped past me and disgorged a complement of medium drones that began to tear into the armor of the Sleepers' warp-scrambling frigates.

An anxious voice broke out over comms. "C'mon, Rol, I can't last long. Let's blow this thing and go home." It was Prime! He had taken the completely unfitted Thorax in APHID's ship hangar and stocked it with a haphazard assortment of drones.

"You perfect idiot! You've got no combat skills!"

"Correction: almost no combat skills. But we Gallente do love our drones."

It was a pitched battle–sleeper vs. drone—as each side traded kills, one for one. But before long, the Sleepers realized that targeting the Thorax—the control-source for the drones—was the wiser course. Its armor began quickly to melt under the bright hail of the Sleeper fire.

In the Sleepers' haste to eliminate this new threat, however, they had broken their lock on my battleship. I knew I wouldn't get another opportunity like this. I aligned at the nearest celestial, targeted the Sleeper's data transmission tower and let fly with a Megapulse laser volley. The tower evaporated in a single shot.

As my Apocalypse entered warp, I saw Prime's Thorax light up in separate, even more brilliant explosion.

Back at HQ, the lights were on, life support was back to nominal. Amber contacted me from the control room.

"We were monitoring the fight as best we could. Did he make it?"

"I don't know." All comm channels were open; over them, only silence reigned.

"Pod on scan," said Amber. He had made it. Seconds later his capsule came to a stop inside APHID HQ's shields.

"Sorry about the Thorax, boss."

"Yeah, well, don't mention it. It's coming out of your paycheck."

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