Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Zero Option

Four men attended a briefing at Pluto Station. Like most chambers in the shell of this moon-sized sphere, it looked out on a vast interior. Ships of all types floated at their moorings, awaiting their turn at the cavernous sender bay, which linked to other portals in the galaxy. Most had yet to be explored. The Builders had moved on eons ago, figuring that by the time a species reached the distant gateways, they were mature enough to use them.

They had never met humans.

Commander Donny Moast lounged with one leg over the chair side. He got away with that because he was mercenary, not military. The Consortium had recruited him out of the Apocalypse Wars on Earth because of his reputation for unorthodox (translate insane) solutions. Not being the button-down type, he disdained uniforms for his traditional black leathers.

A giant screen displayed known portals. Color codes ranged from black--a dead or useless system--to green, one which proved profitable.

And profit was everything. The Consortium's chief field rep was here to assure that. Trenn Harker, a crusty, retired former dreadnought captain, scowled out the window.

Admiral Jacobs turned his rotund form in that direction, straightening his red uniform tunic. "She's quite an elegant design, eh, Harker?"

Orchidia was unique in its class, a midsize vessel armed with the latest weaponry, and fastest in the fleet. Twin, high-mount engine pylons rose aft of the droop wings. The long nose was needed to house the barrel of the feared pulse gun. Yet she was no more military than Moast himself, but rather a creation of Consortium speculators operating outside the admiralty's purview.

Harker's craggy face considered Moast. "I don't fault the ship's design, Admiral, except for its AI. It created an avatar that scares workmen out of their boots when this limp-haired, round-eyed waif appears."

"When that happens," Moast said, "you need to pay attention. It means you're doing something that makes her uncomfortable, like the time you tried to sneak a spy package into her programming. Maybe she's justified in being a little paranoid. But she saved our cans more than once by being hyper vigilant"

The admiral watched the last of the new explosive-reactive panels being fitted on the starboard nacelle. "Save it for another day. We're keen to evaluate that new defense system. Lieutenant--"

A junior officer homed in on a red portal, one placed off limits. It lay in the dwarf galaxy Sagittarius, one of several dwarfs subsumed by the Milky Way, comprising about one percent of galactic mass. "One of our probes was destroyed by a directed energy weapon of a type that starts a chain reaction of disruptive--"

"A disintegrator beam," Harker cut in. "Get on with it."

Unperturbed, the lieutenant  brought up a galactic map. "Icarus is a blue super giant comprising the most distant star visible from here. Official designation: MACS J1149. Coordinates were detected by the probe, linked to another area in Sagittarius. There may be another extra-galactic gateway in the system, a network that leapfrogs across galaxies. It may even be the Builders' point of origin."

"Think of it." Harker slapped a palm down. "When Icarus was born, only thirty percent of the universe had yet formed. Imagine what we can learn there!"

Admiral Jacobs brought up a comm screen from the table center. "Not so fast, Harker. Someone out there is very possessive of the system." He punched up Orchidia's bridge, where First Officer Preston minded the store. Her blonde, red-uniformed visage stared back. "Kyra, how long before you can make sail?"

"Estimating four hours, Admiral, when the armor system goes to trial runs."

Jacobs signed off, turning Moast a blank face.

The meaning wasn't lost on Moast. "And Harker, of course, is tagging along."

"Drat it, Moast!--" Harker rose. "That ship is property, not a home for your rogue AI! I'll be there to determine whether it needs to be replaced." He rubbed at his jaw. "Take a look at this." He called up some of the ship's blueprints. Proposed modifications showed retractable wings for getting into tight spaces. "Would you like to know who the architect is?"

Moast knew. "We all like to improve ourselves. I sense you feel I've too much confidence in the AI."

Harker paused at the door. "The commander can also be replaced." He stalked out.

The specter of the "zero option" arose. It was an uneasy topic among the crew, one in which they truly went rogue, becoming free--and hunted--agents.

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