Finish the Sci-Fi Story IV: The Next Generation

control thread

After graduating from the academy on Sigma Theta—in the top ten of his class—Johnathan Charles Kaval found himself on Victory Station, a bustling Alliance port. The young man had hoped for a ship, any ship, but at least he didn’t end up somewhere like Outpost 77.

Victory Station orbited the lone planet in a system that the locals called “Dona”. Dona Salo had been the site of a major skirmish in the TALON Uprising, one that turned the tide in the Alliance’s favor. A large plaque at the entrance to the docks commemorates those Alliance soldiers who perished during that skirmish. The following could be found in the second column, third row: “Capt. Minas Sulat – MIA”. On opposite sides of the plaque were windows, both with majestic views of the planet below.

Although he’s primarily a security officer, Ensign Kaval has been helping out in Engineering because they’ve been short-handed lately. These days, he had been keeping mostly to himself. An electronic parasite had somehow found its way into the station’s computers and Kaval had volunteered to track it down. In doing so, he found something odd amongst the records. Some entries were misplaced, mislabeled, or just plain missing, and they all apparently had something to do with planetside goings on. But what?

“Ehinsinha Kuavowool - skwi’shi kara fvor’tun,” (or thereabouts) said Leistra’K solemly as his security console verified Jonathan’s identity. “Leistra’K, I’ve been coming in and out of this checkpoint for four days, and you still don’t know me?” The Quilliar rolled its heat-sensitive eye back into its fold and opened the gate. “Hi Bob,” whispered said Jonathan with a smile as he entered and was immediately shadowed by his Quilliar security agent.

Boabistil’Saulk, hence Bob, began speaking as soon as they turned the corner. “Reading history,” struggled Bob, “What is ‘collateral damage’?” Jonathan had developed a friend since Bob was very interested in learning English and local history. “‘Collateral damage’ are people killed in a war that were not fighting - civilians.” Bob thought this over as they walked and then said, “In war, person attacks or defends. All fight.” Jonathan reflected on what little he knew of Quillar society and tried another tack. “People like babies. Uh, i’shi, and people like Leistra’K,” Jonathan’s thoughts drifted a moment as he wondered if “i’shi” was the same phrase used in that phrase Leistra’K always used. Bob blinked rythmically in what Jonathan had come to realize was laughter. “Leistra’K not fighter, yes. ‘collateral damage’ is all who cannot fight, yes?” Jonathan agreed.

They entered the station’s interface to the Quillar embassy’s computer. “I would have fixed this three days ago if I didn’t have to leave for every security sweep, but then I wouldn’t have had been able to talk to you Bob,” said Jonathan. “I learn much. Thank you, ensign.” Johnathan had learned that Bob felt better addressing him with the title he had earned rather than a name given to him.

Bob settled in to guard and Jonathan got to work. “How is ambassador Qui’i’vor? Is he still mad having to use all those translators until this bug is found?” asked Jonathan. “Qui’i’vor active. Add three translators council meeting - “for” council meeting,” said Bob. “Well, this looks like a harvester parasite that’s just trying to gather memory blocks together, though it’s following a strange path. I should be able to isolate it today or tomorrow and get rid of it.” As the scans fixed the blocks, Jonathan used his security training to track the misappropriated blocks and try to figure out where it was going.

The blocks seemed to be sections from many different news, scientific, and even entertainment reports around the planet. Not a linear path through the system or the data. Maybe it was just hopping to avoid detection. Jonathan decided again to compare a collection of the misplaced blocks to find any patterns, but he was suspicious of Quillar security sweeps that always seemed to interrupt whatever he was doing. He setup two comparison routines and hid one with its data.

As expected the security sweep came through and he had to leave for a few minutes. He returned to find everything looking normal. He compared the hidden data to the current data and found subtle changes. A news report that talked of a man killed in a mine collapse now said that he died after an accident on the way to the hospital. Another had reported a violent protest of deforestation and now it read that protesters were simply arrested. A scientific paper about the mineral content of the Borshia mountain range now excluded a chart and truncated the summary. And a story about the rainsoaked fans of Kuvar being chased out of the concert grounds due to a freak flood just talked about how the wet crowd trampled one another, but not why. Each of these messes could be explained by how the memory blocks from one story and another were mixed up, but it just seemed odd how well the mixups fit together. And why in space was the data changing after that security sweep? Jonathan wanted to isolate this parasite and see just what it was built to do.

Dona Salo had not always been the only planet in the Dona System. At some time in the ancient past there had been at least one more. Dona Salo orbited it’s star, Beta Dona, (called “the Sun” of course) at about the same distance Terra did it’s own sun.

But about that much further out again there was a broad asteroid belt. Scientists of all stripes, geologists, astronomers, physicists, had not been able to settle on whether the belt was the remains of one planet, or of two.

Miners didn’t care. The belt was so rich in minerals that they could care less, as long as they could earn credits by hauling rock into Alliance deposit stations. There were several of these scattered through the belt, some on asteroids so large as to seem like small moons.

With so much territory to cover Alliance Security didn’t usually go out patrolling against crimes(claim jumping was always a biggy), as they did taking care of whatever complaints were brought to them. But anyone showing up for the first time at the deposit stations, however, to do business, had to register with Security. This meant that if your ship, or jumper, was found derelict, there might be a chance of identifying who you were(or had been.) When it came to law, Security presumed you were an adult, able to take care of yourself, in most cases.

One of the largest asteroids was officially named Gehenna, but to the small community resident on it, it was usually referred to as the Hemer 'roid. It had just enough mass to produce gravity, about 1/6 of Terran standard. This gave folks a sense of up and down, but ensured you didn’t wear out very often whatever style
of footgear you wore.

Brigid O’Connell had been resident on Hemer for nearly five T-standard years. A spinal injury had made it difficult for her to walk in a normal grav environment, but on the 'roid she had found relief, and a greater mobility than she’d had for most of her life. Brigid was tall, especially for a human female, and she had broad, well muscled shoulders, a mean right hook, and an intimidating stare.

This latter attribute came in handy when she had to face down unruly miners unhappy with her evaluations of their “rocks”. And the force of the occasional punch she had to throw belied the aging salt and pepper of her once all black hair. Brigid didn’t mind the hard work on the station. Hemer was an Alliance hardship post, her wages were high, and her expenses minimal. Another five years, and she’d be able to afford to move out to one of the better low-grav worlds.

Her day long shift was nearly over, and Brigid was tapping at her compupad, getting the day’s figures squared away. She was duplicating her calculations on the station’s own computers, because in the last month or so she had noticed incorrect statements being registered on the Alliance systems. Brigid thought she’d managed to find all the errors, on her watch at least, but making the duplicate calculations, and their hard copies, were an ancient ritual known as “covering your ass”. Damned if anyone was going to charge* her* with slackness!

A chime sounded as the hatch to her docking area slid aside.

“I’m closed!” she barked, without looking up. She knew it wasn’t actually a customer, as she’d locked out visitors. But Brigid didn’t like her relief, a surly Xavvian, Horaxiav. Brigid didn’t like cats, even felinoids like the Xavvians annoyed her. And Horiaxav, shorter than the average Xavvian, was worse than most, with an arrogant, condescending air to all those not of his species.

But this time the Xavvian didn’t try to bait Brigid. In fact, Horiaxav was abnormally cordial, accepting Brigid’s sheet and signing in as her relief with hardly a comment.

Brigid slid away, with the sort of smooth gliding walk only possible in low-grav. “Leave work at work” she thought to herself, as she made her way to the Commons, to eat before returning to her quarters.

Menwhile, a disheveled, purple-hued Renallian was walking into a seedy bar in the city of Sana Gien. “Ska,” he said while settling down at the bar.

“Ska, sKova,” said the bartender. “Taravastu?”

“Gien,” said sKova’sla.

“Stima mosava,” said the bartender as he doffed his cap, revealing a shock of gray hair. “Asaam?”

sKova nodded and the bartender drew a mug of Renallian beer. He didn’t particularly care for it but he felt it was necessary to maintain the charade. sKova is really a Daestral and had spent 25 Terran years keeping tabs on the remnants of TALON that were around. Renallians were renowned for their strength so being a Renallian miner was good cover. sKova’s life on Dona Salo had been quiet much of the time but lately he felt that something wasn’t quite right–and to his knowledge, he was the only Laxon agent in the region.

In a seat near the entrance of the bar, a very slightly built humanoid with an unforgetable face sat and watched the Renaillian miner closely. If watched is the right word to use. This creature’s face was so memorable because its species have no eyes. With all the available wavelengths to choose from, their prehistoric ancestors choose other options. There were many ways for a sentient being to gather information.

Noting that the Renaillian seemed ill at ease, he decide to play on his hunch. The crowded bar would be as good a choice as any. If he was wrong, it was simply an annoyed lizard. If right… Well, that line of thought will just to wait until he sees the reaction.

Brigid was finally winding down from her long shift, and the sedating effects of a meal made her even more tired. The food at the Commons was not as expensive as might be expected, prices being subsidized by the government, as an extra attraction to draw as good a workforce as possible to the station.

By the time she reached her small, personal quarters she was nearly asleep on her feet. * “I’m getting too old for this” * she mumbled to herself, as she prepared to clean up before going to bed. *“Thank God it’s Last Day” * she added, meaning the last day of her six day cycle. Brigid could now look forward to three days off. Clothes removed and minor ablutions completed, she sealed herself into a tiny booth just barely taller than she was, for the five minute high pressure water shower residents were alloted three times a week. At other times they had to make do with wipedowns or chemical baths. Of course some folks managed to get more water showers. “Doubling up” was one way, although those who chose it had more than personal hygiene on their minds. But Brigid didn’t have that kind of a friend to share with, being older than many of the other personnel, and a bit of a loner

The only person around she could call a friend was the doctor on Gehenna Station, It had amused them both that, after adjusting for local planetery calendars, they had been born on the same “day”. And both were touchy about their names… As far a Brigid knew she didn’t have a drop of Terran Irish blood in her, the name she bore had been given her at the orphanage that raised her. And Dr. Eleazar Fujisawa was the child of parents from Canaan and Nippon.

Also, Brigid and Eleazar were both superb Terran chess players. Brigid resented that nobody seemed surprised that a doctor excelled at such an intellectual pursuit, but seemed bemused that a “blue collar” worker like herself even knew the moves. When you were a lonely little girl in an orphanage, wearing a back brace besides, you had the time to learn, though.

Finishing her brief shower, she towelled off and finally was able to get to bed. Just as she was drifting off though, her comm terminal beeped. Beeped loudly, three times, in a repeating pattern, which indicated an emergency. “Frell!” she snarled in frustration, “this had better be good!” She padded over to the terminal in her bare feet( and bare everything else too), and, after adjusting for just a head shot, stabbed the “Accept” button.

It was Dr. Fujisawa, so Brigid held back the* really* cutting comments she’d been about to use.
“Brig, I’m glad to see you! How long have you been home?”

“Hello to you too, Eleazar, I’m fine, how about you? Did you have a nice day? I didn’t expect the Vossan Inquisition.” she shot back, then sighed and let her shoulders relax. “Sorry, Eleazar, I didn’t mean to bite your head off, what’s up?”

“I’ve just been to your docking section. How did your relief look when you turned over the watch?”

Brigid thought back. “He looked fine to me. Only thing out of the ordinary was that he didn’t make his usual snide remarks. Bastard was actually civil for once.” Seeing the doctor slump she had a bad feeling. “Oh damn, what’s the matter with him?”

“Nothing at all, seeing that he is dead.”

The Ensign was just finishing up in the Quilliar consulate when his comm chirped. “Kaval.”

“Ensign!” shouted Captain Sturdivant over the sounds of a pitched battle. “Get down to the rec deck right away!”

“Sir? What happened to the ringball tournament?”

“Don’t ask, haul ass!”

This wasn’t at all like “Sturdy” Steven Sturdivant. Kaval resoned that the parasite must have gotten into the holo-hall the senior officers were using and combined their ringball program with one of the combat programs. That hall is two decks straight down. I must have it on the run! thought Kaval. Now if I can trap it somewhere…

“Bob, it’s an emergency, I’ve got to leave,” said Kaval. “Change in assignment must be approved,” parrotted Bob, but Kaval had grabbed his tools and was heading into the corridor. He raced to the gate with Bob in tow and shouted, “Emergency, clear me through.”

Leistra’K started to protest as Kaval slammed his comm-id into the port and the screen flashed his emergency call. The gate opened automatically before Leistra’K could summon the wits to override it. Kaval grabbed his comm, vaulted the gate, landed in the promenade, narrowly missed a tour group, and jumped into an elevator. “Emergency. Holo QA24 Control Room. Go.” Kaval braced under the acceleration and caught two women who were not as fortunate. “Late for dinner?” remarked a young woman as she helped an elderly lady upright. “Left the water running. Excuse me,” said Jonathan as he slipped out at his stop. He smiled and saw it returned as the elevator doors closed.

“Power controls are offline. Manual overrides are not responding,” he heard in the controlled chaos. “Where’s Captain Sturdivant?” shouted Kaval. “Inside. You Kaval? Turn this thing off!” Kaval made a quick assessment. He checked the monitor and ran for an access hatch. He grabbed a tech kit and a service pistol. Donning a pair of goggles, he heard “What are you doing?” as he popped the hatch and entered the holo-hall.

He was innundated by the noise of explosions and an acrid smoke. An odd marching tune was also in the background. He used the goggles and the tech wand to search for a projector. Glancing into the fray he saw a ring-ball ring. It was on fire and chasing a ball grown to human proportions while people were jumping out of the way. Kaval reached a projector and made a quick attempt to turn off the unit. That failing as expected, he shot the power cords which sparked and exploded. A small island of gray metal became visible as the projector went offline.

He proceeded along the wall and took out three more projectors. He knew he didn’t have enough charge, or time, to blow all the projectors. He had a line of normalcy along the wall. Now he needed to make that into a DMZ. He started climbing up the access ladder to the next row. A ring-ball bounced and headed straight for him. He guaged how to dodge it only to see it puff up to 3 meters as it came ahead. He braced and was slammed into the wall. He held his grip on the ladder and watched it bounce off and explode in midair. He deactivated three more projectors and then three more on the next row.

As the cadets and officers noticed the DMZ growing they made their way over. Some waltzed in swearing and some dove in just before an errant ring of fire or a whirlwind goal net pounced. Then they started to make their way to the access hatch one at a time. Ten meters in the air Kaval wondered how he was going to get this bug before it got away again.

Kaval had an idea and keyed his commlink while he deactivated the last of the projectors. “Engineering.”

“Loomis here.”

“Hey, Mike!”

“John? What…?”

“No time! Can you give me a power stream?”

“A what?”

“A massive data stream! From here to Shuttlepod Alpha!”

“Yeah, I think so. Someone would have to make a direct path to the Pod.”

“Then find someone!” Kaval then sought out the Captain and found him near the middle, directing everyone toward the DMZ. Now that was like Sturdy. Kaval gave a smart salute which Sturdy returned. “Sir, I need you to authroize me for an emergency site-to-site transport. Shuttlepod Alpha.”

“Done,” said Sturdy.

“Did you get that, Mike? Start the stream as soon as I’m on.”

“Who did it?” Brigid asked the doctor.

He looked at her sharply. “What makes you think he was murdered?”

“Oh, just that you didn’t come out and tell me what killed him, and that I was quizzed before being informed of his death.”

Eleazar sighed, “Brig, dear, your not a suspect. He was killed, but the evidence points to suicide.”

Brigid’s heavy eyebrows rose. Suicide, except in certain ritual situations, was very rare amongst Xavvians.

“Horiaxav left a statement, and the probable cause of death, pending a full autopsy, was a drug overdose. An empty inhaler of Nippers was found near the body.”

“Who found him?.”

“A maintanence tech who was tracing some of those power glitches rang for entry about an hour after you left. She didn’t get a responce, and used her override key to enter. Found the cat stretched out on the floor, looking perfectly reposed, no seemin g struggle, and the statement in a cube on his chest.”

“Look, El, I’m not going to cry for somenone like Horiaxav. I didn’t like him personally, he was a jerk to anyone not Xavvian. But he was damned good at his job, I never had to worry about the data I got whem my shift followed his. But how did he get Nippers onto Gehenna?”

“Damned if I know. There will be an investigation, and I’ll do the autopsy, but we’re not at the cutting edge of forensic science out here. I imagine some things will be sent to Dona Salo for further testing.”

“Doc, I could chat all night, but I was just falling asleep when you called. Can this wait until later?”

“It can, but I was supposed to let you know you’ll be getting a call from the tech, she went ahead and did her diagnostics after the scene was secured. Dedicated, that one. And Gehenna Security requests you come in tomorrow and make a statement.”

“Frell, it’s my time off”

“You should try being a doctor sometimes, Brig.”

“I know, I know, I’m a whiny bitch.”

“How about me beating you at chess tomorrow night? It is our birthday after all”

"Is it? Hard to keep track out here on the “roid. Sure, I’ll play, usual stakes?”

“Suits me”

Brigid had just got back into bed when the unit beeped again. This time it wasn’t an emergeny ring, so she lay there, willing the caller to break off. Instead a bright, disgustingly cheerful sounding voice began a recording. “Hi, this is Marna Thonal. I’d like to show you some results from the diagnostics I ran at you place of work. Please call me back on this line as soon as you can.”

“That’s gonna be later than you think” Brigid mumbled into her pillow

Planetside, in the seedy bar in the crime ridden city of Sana Glen, the eyeless Panil made his way over to dishevelled Renaillian named sKova’sla. He sat at the bar right next to sKova and, parting his mandibles, instructed the bartender to bring him a fengi.

As the foul smelling drink was placed before him, the Panil said, in a voice just barely loud enough to be hard by his Renaillian neighbour, “To get from there to here, one would be mistaken to assume that the in between existed.”

sKoval barely managed to avoid choking on his drink. Though he didn’t appear to react in anyway to the eyes of any casual observers, the Panil could see that he had hit his mark, he had the right lizard after all. He had observed a heat rise in the back of the Renaillian’s skull, indicating mental activity. Since the Renaillian’s usually kept their brains in their abdomen, the Panil seemed to have made the right choice.

skoval replied warily, “Sometimes, though, the journey is more important than the destination,” playing into the centuries old childs game his eyeless barmate had begun. Let’s see how far he takes this before committing, he thought to himself.

Pleased, the Panil exhibited the odd posture that was the Panil equivilant of a Human smile.

Brigid hadn’t set an alarm before finally getting to fall asleep. If there was one thing she enjoyed on her time off, it was being able to set her own schedule. Even if she woke “early” the pleasure was in knowing she didn’t have to get out of bed unless she wanted to.

But this “morning” she couldn’t enjoy herself as much, knowing she had to calll on Security and this Marna Thonal person. Brigid thought she’d seen her around but wasn’t sure, she could be a newbie.

Finally awake she decided to call Security first. Brigid had hoped to be able to make a statement on vid, without going to the offices, but was told she needed to come in person. “Strictly routine”, she was assured, “we’re taking no chances on this one. Seems the deceased had some sort of important connections”

“Then what was he doing on the Hemer?” she asked, with “how the frell would I know?” being the reply.

Just as Brigid reached out to tap in a return call to Marna Thonal there was a signalling beep! at her door. Checking the pickup she saw outside a young woman who could only be Thonal herself. She hit “Admit” and the door slid aside to show a young human woman who still looked as perky as her voice had sounded on the comm the night before.

“Hello Ms. Connell, I’m Marna Thonal. I was just in the area” *“Yeah, sure you were” * thought Brigid, “and I was wondering if it would be possible to go over those diagnostics I mentioned in my call?”

She stood aside and motioned the tech into her place. “Sure, I guess the sooner I look that sooner I can get to Security and to enjoying my time off.”

As Marna slid in Brigid took another look at her. With dark blonde hair, a pretty face, eyes bluer than Brigid’s own, and the picture of glowing health, she was everything Brigid had ever though she wanted to be. Sitting at the one low table in Brigid’s front room, she laid out a compupad with full display. Brigid came around to look at it herself.

“First let me say how impressed I am with your tallies, Ms. O’Connell. You have the lowest error rate of anyone working in Recieving.”

“I do my own tallies seperately before signing over the records.”

“I wish the Xavvian had done that, he might have saved himself.”

“Huh? I thought he was as clean as I am.”

“Maybe he tried to be, but he wasn’t as careful. There were a number of differences in what he declared for submitted core samples, and what ended up being listed to Recieving. So some miners were getting overpaid for their hauls. I’ve tried from there to trace a credit trail, and it seems like all those who got “extra” were registered on station within the last six weeks. And they all came from one place, a city planetside called Sana Gien. I haven’t got any further yet, because I can’t access private financial records without a court order. But it’s an interesting pattern.”

“Why haven’t you gone to …”

“…Security with this? I have, but I was told it could be a coincidence.”

“By whom?”

“By Col. Stang”

“But he’s head of Security!”

“I know. And Horiaxav ‘committed suicide over his despair at the news his nephew and heir had died’”

“That’s a load of crap! Horiaxav didn’t care about anyone but himself. And I never heard of him having an heir.”

Marna told Brigid “We have to take them at their word, you know,” but as she aid this she made a few more entries on her pad And then turned it again so Brigid could see it. She read When you go to make your statement to Security, just agree with what you are told

Brigid took another look at Marna. “So, you’re more tha a blond bimbo, are you”
she tought to herself. And got the shock of her life when she heard the reply, “Yes” in her head, without the word being spoken out loud.

It was sKoval’s turn, according to the game, to supply the next verse. Each statement and response was alternated, so for a long while, one person is heard twice. The responses given are the set up for the next statement. The game ends when both (or all, any number of people can join in) parties reach the same conclusion, namely, what is the theme or reason for the conversation? Not a terribly exciting game for the unimaginative, but when played by differing species, it can get silly and raucous or downright surreal.

sKoval stated, “Not all points touch the same plane.” (Yes, the game can get surreal fast!) This next response would be the important one, sKoval was thinking, because this would tell if it was just another silly Panil looking to waste time (which they have plenty of), or an actual contact. He didn’t have to wait long, as the reply came almost as he was finishing sounding out the last syllable.

“Planes and trains, we have none of these!” was shouted in reply. Then the Panil led with the next statement, “A mouth opens for exhalation, too.”

”What the frell?” thought sKoval. ”So close to the right theme. It can’t be a mere coincidence.” Taking the plunge, he responds, “Too much breathing can kill you. If underwater.” And now, for the deciding statement, “Without breath, I cannot ask direction.”

On pins and needles now, he anxiously awaited the reply.

“Don’t breath the air in non space.”

The game was though. The original statement was closed by the revelation of non-space. More importantly, it meant that this Panil was a legitimate contact. Not from LAXON, that was a given. But with an allied group to be sure. One needed to be careful about who one chooses as associates and allies, though. So, the nonsense bantering of apparently meaningless phrases of the game was a good way to ferret out who might be a needed accomplice.

Still, it had been over eight years since anyone new had sought out the group, so sKoval was still somewhat skeptical. Which pleased the Panil. He needed sKoval in that mindset if he was going to get the information he sought.

Motioning to a dimly lit booth with his eyes and a slight nod, sKoval got up as though to leave. After he made a meandering trip to the facilities, he realized he didn’t know if the Panil could follow such subtle sight gestures. The Panil was waiting in the booth by the time sKoval reached it.

The older woman’s eyes narrowed in annoyment. “How did you do that? Oh no, don’t tell me, you’re not one of those couriers, are you? I didn’t think you all could listen in on someone though, who wasn’t trained too.”

Marna’s eyebrows rose in respect, and she seemed to shake off her previous persona, becoming more serious and direct. “You are very well informed, it seems.”

Brigid shrugged “so I read the SJ’s a lot. Helps keep me from having too much crap being pulled on me, especially when some miner thinks he can give me a line of bull about his takings.” She paused, then darkened. “But I also really don’t like being spied on like that”

Marna sighed. “I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but I didn’t like doing it. But in this matter I’m just vain enough to think that if Canons are going to be violated then I’m the best, or most honest, person to do it.”

“This matter? What matter? I’m the one, remember, who you said had the best record. Am I accused of something?” Brigid was getting visibly angry now This was personal.

The younger woman was not intimidated. Her reply was sharp as well. "I didn’t reveal myself to you as a parlor trick. I wanted you to realize, deep down, how serious and far reaching this embezzlement issue is. It’s not so much that credits are being siphoned off, it’s what they’re going towards.

“And that is?”

“Like I said earlier, the miners involved all came from Sana Glen. It was a stronghold for those involved in the TALON uprising. There have been some incidents, minor in and of themselves, that indicate some may be attempting a resurgence.”

Brigid made a face. “I don’t want to be involved. All I want to do is make enough to retire to someplace like Titania, or Gravitas, where I can look at the sky, and walk without a cane.”

Marna Thonal looked Brigid straight in the eyes, saying “What if I said I could arrange that?” and was pleased to see a look of yearning flit across Brigid’s face."

“Checkmate” said Dr. Fujisawa. He had beaten Brigid handily tonight, something very unusual. His opponent, he’d noticed, had seemed distracted. She didn’t seem put out by the loss. “C’mon, Brig, out with it. I hate to use a cliche, but you haven’t been your usual self tonight. Tell Uncle Eleazar”

“I’ve had a very weird day” she sighed, wondering how to word this. “First I was grilled about my tallies by that tech Thonal, you know who I mean? Then I had to go see Stang about Horiaxav, and get warmed up on my* other* side. Seems like the suicide is going to be taken at face value.”

“Brig, I did the bloodwork” Fujisawa deliberately looked both ways with a dramatic flair. “He did take the OD of Nippers”

“Sure, sure, but why?”

“How should I know?”

“Anyway, then I got a comm about a job offer planetside, and I, uh, decided to accept it.”

“On Dona Salo? Brigid O’Connell, you’re out of your mind! Dona Salo may be only .87 STG, but that’s too much for you, for any length of time anyway. I’m your doctor, as well as your friend you know.”

“Yes I do, but I’m assured it will be a desk job on Victory Station most of the time. I can have quarters with low grav too.”

“What will you be doing?”

“Accounts analysis for AllGov. They wanted someone like me with “real universe” experience I’m told, to look at intake trends and so on. Look, Eleazar, I do have the creds for it, I took the online classes.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“And I’ll miss our games”

Three days later, on the intra-system shuttle, Brigid wondered yet again if this was all going to be worth it. Marna Thonal had implied there could be “some risk” which Brigid cynically interpreted as “Your ass might get shot at” But Titania! Or maybe even Paradise! She hadn’t got to be as old as she had without knowing how to look out for her backside. But why was she supposed to check in with this Capt. Sturdivant, in Alliance Security? Oh well, no use stressing out about it, she’d find out when she got there.

Ensign Kaval ported to Shuttlepod Alpha just as some tech was finishing making its physical connection to the main computer system. The data stream he had requested came in a moment later. Kaval, hoping that his bait had worked, signalled to the tech to sever the connection. Where are you, you slippery son of a…oh there you are! Kaval smiled as the parasite started speeding through out the shuttle’s systems like a flying insect trapped in a glass jar. A klaxon sounded but Kaval paid no mind…at first. He couldn’t help saying to the parasite, “Messing with life support won’t do you any good. We’re not in space!” Then he realized what was going on and contacted Engineering again.

“Loomis here.”

“Thanks, Mike. Now can you get me the LT?”

“Sure, just a sec…”

“Lieutenant Danski,” said a female voice.

“Ma’am, this is Kaval.”

“Go ahead, Kaval.”

“Ma’am, we have a bit of a situation here. I’ve trapped the parasite in a Shuttle computer but this thing is acting intelligent. It’s attacked life support here, apparently in hopes to kill the only one who knows what it’s been up to!”

“Mmmm…we should bring it somewhere to be studied.”

“It would have to be completely isolated.”

“Mmmm…any suggestions?”

“The academy on Sigma Theta has a research facility. That should do nicely.”

Three days later, Ensign Johnathan Kaval, his shuttlepod, and his parasite were onboard a Kingston-class cruiser bound for Sigma Theta. The cruiser’s captain wasn’t too happy about ferrying an infested shuttlepod but acquiesced after being informed of the gravity of the situtation. Zora Innison, himself having been informed by some plants, was preparing for the ensign’s arrival.

One standard day out from Sigma Theta…


“Captain? We’re picking up a distress signal.”

“On my way.” Captain Connor took the short walk from his quarters to the bridge. “Status?” he inquired as he took position in the Command Chair.

“Almost dead ahead, appears to be a cargo vessel of indeterminate origin.”

Connor nodded to his communications officer. “This is Captain Lucas Connor of the ANS Halsey. How can we help?” The response was unintelligible. “Helm, move us in closer until we get a stronger signal.”

“This is the ANS Halsey, Capt. Lucas Conner speaking. Can we render assistance?”

“No,” a tinny voice answered. “You can give us the bug.”


“The bug. Now.”

“Sir,” exclaimed the tactical officer, “that’s no cargo hauler!”

“Red alert, defensive posture!”

A few moments later, Kaval keyed his commlink as the cruiser was rocked by torpedos impacting its forward shields. “What’s going on?”

“Somebody wants your parasite.”

Kaval headed for the shuttlepod and keyed his commlink again. “Bridge.”

“Not now Ensign!” shouted Capt. Connor.

“Sir, with all due respect, if they want the parasite, let’s give it to them.”

“Are you insane?”

“No, sir. What I am is the grandson of Frank Fulton.”

After a few seconds of silence, “‘Fearless’ Fulton? The Sachem of the Semtele?”

“He didn’t care for the name the press gave him but, yeah, that’s Poppy.”

“Son, if that’s what you have in mind, go to it!”

Kaval launched the shuttlepod shortly after arriving in its bay.

“Ha’sva,” Connor addressed his tactical officer, “target that shuttle.” Then to the unknown vessel of the port bow, “Your bug is on that shuttle and, as I’m sure you can see, we have it targeted. Come any closer and nobody will have it.”

“That is acceptable,” said the tinny voice and a barrage was launched at the shuttle.

Meanwhile, Kaval was in the engine room and smiling to himself.

The decoy–or “semtele”–worked perfectly. Kaval had isolated the parasite by shutting down the shuttle’s systems one by one until it had nowhere else to go, the he had that section of circuitry physically removed and placed in a stasis container. The missing circuitry was subsequently replaced and the bug’s signature installed. Kaval and the stasis container both were now in a well-shielded portion of the engine room…hoping that the bug would be shielded enough to prevent any scanners from picking it up.

Had Minas Sulat been around, he would have recognized the tinny voice as being from a standard-issue TALON vocal distorter.

It wasn’t her first trip to Victory Station, but this time around Brigid was surprised at the level of security around, when dis-embarking the shuttle. She was thankful she didn’t have a large amount of luggage, just one duffle, a case, and a backpack. It was all gone through thorougly though.

Curious, she asked the official doing the searching "I didn’t expect the Vossan Inquistition, what’s going on?

This comment got her a sharp glance “You really don’t know, Ms(here he glance at her ID) Connell?”

“The shuttle didn’t have a free newsport, and I’m cheap”

The officer seemed to back down. “Well, we’ve had some “vandalism problems” that seem connected with part of the station’s computer system, so we’re on a higher alert status. You haven’t heard the local news?”

Oh frell” Brigid thought to herself “my so-called ‘accounts analysis’ job is all about computers.” Out loud she said, “I’m supposed to see a Capt. Sturdivant before checking in to quarters.”

“Ol’ Sturdy Steve?” But then, seeing Brigid’s glare, he said “Level 3, Section Beta, follow the signs from there.”

Despite her reluctance to spend credits she didn’t have to Brigid decided to splurge on a carry cart. Victory Station had .6STG, light by human standards, but still “heavier” than she had gotten used to on Gehenna, with it’s .17. Her back and feet were hurting more than they usually did, although not so badly as to make her break out her special cane.

Wearily arriving at her goal she showed her ID to the corporal on duty. “I know I’m expected, but I doubt the captain knows my arrival time.”

“Certainly ma’am” the baby faced non-com said “if you’ll have a seat over there” and he waved his hand at a small waiting area “I’ll buzz Capt. Sturdivant that you have arrived. Actually, I don’t think it should be too long.”

Brigid plopped down into a surprisingly comfortable chair, directly opposite a large planter containing some sort of alien plant, with tall narrow leaves and pointed ends. The leaves themselves were translucent, almost crystalline in appearance, and of a variety of soft, pastel shades that seemed to change from time to time. They rustled a little too, although there was no breeze.

As she waited another joined her in the waiting area. Brigid looked him over, she knew a number of Renallians, as they seemed to gravitate to high risk, high pay jobs like asteroid mining. They glanced at each other but didn’t speak, as almost at once Brigid was told “the captain can see you now” and she got up heavily.

As she passed through the door and it closed behind her, the plant rustled some more. The Renallian leaned over slightly towards it, pressing a button on a small voice box, and beginning to speak.

The rest of Kaval’s trip to Sigma Theta had been uneventful. A flight of Viper-class fighters had been within range to pick up the torpedo impacts but arrived too late to do anything. The captain of the lead ship offered an escort, which Capt. Connor declined so as not to look suspicous.

Kaval had exchanged pleasantries with Adm. Innison and the two of them walked the bug and its case over to the academy’s research center.

The research chief was one Dr. Frankel Sverba, “Frankie” to pretty much everyone. Frankie was close to two meters tall and humanoid in appearance, except for the extra pair of arms that he usually kept under his lab coat. You see, Frankie was descended from a species not unlike Earth’s arthropods and was vaguely unsettling to those who have arachnophobia. This is why he decided to keep his extra arms out of sight when they weren’t needed. Today, he was the only one in the lab so all four arms were out in full view.

Frankie snapped to attention when the admiral walked in. “Knock that off,” said Zora, smiling.

“Aye aye, sir!” This was a running joke between the two; Frankie was a civilian and hand-picked by Zora to run the research center.

Frankie turned his attention to the ensign. “Nice to see you again, Johnnie.” Frankie preferred to address people by the diminutive, initially to gauge their reaction.

“Likewise,” said Kaval as he held out a hand. Frankie had been around humans long enough that hand-shaking became second nature. With the greetings exchanged, Kaval put his case on a workstation.

“What’s this?”

“Frankie, we’re not sure exactly,” replied Kaval as he opened the case. “It’s apparently some sort of parasite that feeds on data.”

Frankie made a thoughtful noise then asked, “Has it been rearranging news reports?”

“Yeah! How…?” Kaval was too shocked to finish his question.

Zora asked, “You know what this is?”

“Maybe.” Frankie took the case and its contents into a smaller room in the corner of the lab. Kaval and Zora started toward its door when Frankie waved them away. “No, no, don’t come in. This area will shortly be hazardous to humans.” He pointed toward a wall as the door closed, then keyed an intercom button. “We can talk through this.” Holding onto the case with his secondary hands, Frankie used his primary hands to enter something into a computer terminal.

“What are you doing?” asked Zora.

“Flooding the room with a mixture of Radon, Argon, and Nitrogen. It won’t harm me but it should slow down the parasite enough for me to examine.” Frankie keyed the intercom again after a couple of minutes. “Yes, yes, I think this will work.”

A couple of minutes later, Kaval keyed the intercom himself. “I need to see about getting passage back to Victory Station. Let me know if there’s any developments.”

Kaval was back at the docks and had just booked a room onboard a civilian transport when Zora ran up to him. “That parasite of yours. It was caught on Victory Station?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Come with me.” The pair hurried over to Zora’s private berth. “You’ll need something faster that that transport.”

Kaval’s eyes widened as Zora’s Echo II came into view. The admiral placed his hand upon the hull and the ship’s door opened. “I take it Frankie had some news?”

“Bad news,” was the answer as they boarded. “There’s still more work to be done but one thing is certain: Tali’s fingerprints are all over it!”

“Tali? As in TALON’s Solomon Tali?”

“The very same.”

“Isn’t he supposed to be dead?”

Capt. Sturdivant rose a Brigid trudged into his office. “Please, Ms. O’Connell, sit down, I fully understand the difficulties you must be laboring under.”

She took a look a look at a hulking but fit character who looked as if he’d just stepped out of a recruiting poster , and wondered sourly if he’d ever found just walking around hard. But the chair seemed to be form fitting, adjusting itself to give just the back support she needed, and for this much she was grateful.

“Ms. O’Connell, I’ll come right to the point, so you can get to your quarters and get settled in. You were recruited for accounts analysis, and there are some things in particular we’d like you to keep track of. This” and here he handed her a data chip “will go over them in detail, all but one. I take it you probably notice our extra security around”

“Especially when they were going through my underclothes. Yes, I noticed. I take it that’s somehow related to what you haven’t included on this chip?”

“You guessed right. We were ‘attacked’, if that’s the right word, by some kind of techno bug. It did a lot of overt damage before it was captured, so to speak, and sent to Sigma Theta. But what we are afraid of is that before that it may have ‘infected’ other systems or record in more subtle ways.”

“So what you want is patterns, trends, activity and so on that weren’t there before? That courier back on Gehenna told me one thing, that a number of miners connected to the embezzlement all can from Sana Glen, planetside. That what you’re talking about?”

The captain smiled in appreciation. “The briefs I had on you didn’t lie, did they? For more regular duties you’ll report to the section supervisor in the normal way. But when you find what you believe to be TALON related activity, you’ll contact me. The chip I handed over has the contact code included.”

"So I’m a spy. Well, it beats standing on my feet, or getting shot at. When do I start?

“As soon as you feel up to it, but I hope it’s soon. When I hear any news from Sigma Theta about the bug, I’ll let you know that too. Hopefully it will be soon, the package left Victory Station here about the time you left Gehenna, I should imagine. And Ensign Kaval, the one I sent it with, is sharp. You two will probably be comparing notes when Kaval returns.”

Capt. Sturdivant noticed the tightening in Brigid’s jaw, and the wince she made, as she began to rise from her chair. He came quickly around from behind his desk area. “Please, let me help you to your cart, Ms. O’Connell.”

She waved him off in annoyance, her discomfort making her even more curt than ususal. “Thanks, but I can manage. Just be glad you don’t have to worry about mobility the way I do.”

A strange light seemed to flicker in Sturdivant’s eyes. “Ms. O’Connell, if I could prevail upon you for just a very few more minutes. We’re going to have to work together at times, and I don’t want things to go badly.”

Brigid realized she’d been bitchy again so she stayed seated. Capt. Sturdivant stayed in front of the desk. “Now, there’s a few people who know this, but I try not to talk about it too much.” He bent over and pulled up his left pant leg.

What she saw made Brigid look around for a crack in the floor to trickle gently and unobstrusively into, her face flaming in embarrassement at her earlier sarcasm. The captain’s leg, from just about midcalf down, was a high quality prosthesis. He rapped just below the knee, on his right leg, and Brigid could tell it must be the same kind of artificial limb.

“I won’t go into details, but this happened during my first policing action, not long after I graduated from Academy. Guess I surprised 'em when I turned down a medical discharge.” He looked Brigid straight in the eyes. “Are we even now Ms. O’Connell?”

She swallowed once more and looked back at him. “Yes, we are”

“Allright then” said Sturdivant “Now may I help you to your cart?” He offered his arm, and she took it. Just as they reached his door a small comm signal started beeping from his unit. Brigid glanced inquiringly at the captain but he just said. “It’ll keep for a couple of minutes” and they walked out of his office past the corporal on duty. “Sir, I just passed a comm into your office…”

“Langston, it will keep.”

“But sir, it’s from Adm. Innison!”