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The Lost Generation: Issue #4

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Tonya took Melvin Hartley Jr. out to lunch. The old man looked like he needed it. In return, he was more than happy to share all he knew about the bank. One of the older institutions in the UEE, the Nebula Bank, gave Hartley’s great-grandmother her first loan to open the museum. Since then, they swelled into a financial behemoth, becoming more and more ruthless as the decades passed. Now, it seemed, the Nebula technically owned the collection of defaulted Artemis relics acquired by the Hartley Museum.


“Trust me, the representative was not thrilled about my loan application,” Melvin said as he cooled down a cup of tea. “But since the museum is a legacy client, his hands were tied. That’s why they were intractable, utterly intractable when I missed a payment. One payment.”


Tonya nodded as she listened. It was hard not to feel bad for the man. Maybe he had a penchant for theatrics, but even she could tell that he genuinely loved the museum. It’s hard not to pick up on that level of desperation. She wished she knew what to tell him. In all likelihood, he was going to lose the museum. Expressing condolences seemed trivial and pointless to her. Hartley didn’t know her, why would he care that she was sorry? It’s not like their communal sorrow would mystically summon a financial solution. Again, what was the point?


So she left it alone. Hartley sat in silence, blowing on his tea, before finally taking a sip.


* * * *


Hartley thanked her for the lunch and drifted back toward the museum. Tonya watched him shuffle down the street and turn a corner. Then she set her sights on Nebula.


The bank was an obelisk of metal and glass. Just on the way into the lobby, she picked out sixteen counter-intrusion devices for the building. There were cameras, motion sensors, thermal imaging, microphone-tendrils in the floor, and charge-boxes of nanodrones embedded in each of the panes. That was just the lobby. Her head hurt to think about what they had in mind for the vault.


The center of the lobby was filled with open cubicles and booths. Podiums for simple transactions or account info rose from the marble floor. All of the bank employees were dressed in the same dark blue uniforms. They all had the pallor of wax, with their hair either slicked or pulled back. They were very much human but conditioned to act like robots. It was disconcerting.


“Good afternoon, Miss Oriel,” a young man in his early twenties said as he approached. They must have Ret-scanners here too. “Can I interest you in a modest-rate savings account?”


“Sure.” Tonya smiled. The bank employee led her through the maze of cubicles to his tiny office and sat down. He started his sales pitch, comparing and contrasting the various savings and transaction accounts the bank offered, the number of branches Nebula currently offered, etc. Tonya tuned most of it out, although she did notice that their service charges were ridiculously high. She was more focused on collecting data of her own. Based on the bank employee’s screen, the bank was on a Kraken Network — a fairly complicated system with a wide array of security plug-ins but mostly open source. They didn’t have fingerprint or retina access panels on their employee systems.


“So can we sign you up?” He smiled blankly.


“This is a really big financial decision. It’s my future, you know?” Tonya stood and offered her best thoughtful and considerate look. “I’m going to have to really think this over.”


“But –“


Tonya left. She was a bit premature in assuming that she could break into the bank. The more she saw, the less she liked her odds.

Outside, she contacted one of Gavin Arlington’s legion of assistants and pled her case for acquiring the artifacts from the bank directly.


The assistant was curt but polite. He said he would relay her message to Arlington and contact her when he heard back.


Back on the Beacon II, Tonya started looking into Nebula’s networks. Nothing serious, just a couple pokes and prods to test its reaction time. It did little to assuage her apprehensions. But she did find something of interest while sifting through the public shareholders’ updates:

Nebula Bank owned a controlling interest in a company called Public Reclamations, a local storage facility. It was an interesting lead made better when she found that their corporate services listed repossession and estate holdings as their specialization.


Their security was crap too. It took less than an hour for Tonya to access their internal network. She ran a search using Hartley’s case number with Nebula and got a hit. Six crates were being stored in their Kensington warehouse. Fifth floor. Lot #45ZB.


Suddenly, Tonya’s plan seemed viable again.


* * * *


Unfortunately, the security at Public Reclamations’ warehouse was not as flimsy as their network. Studying the architecture from a rooftop across the street, there were roving security guards, visible cameras, and wired windows. The building itself was a massive cube, isolated in the middle of the block. Not the easiest approach, especially for a self-professed ‘recreational justified burglar’ like Tonya.


On the plus side, someone in charge clearly had trust issues, because Tonya found remote access to a separate dedicated security feed that seemed to focus on the employees. She transferred the network’s access from her MobiGlas to the HUD in her linked glasses. Now she could switch between the guards on patrol, in the security center, even the staff lounge. Although she still couldn’t affect the building’s security systems, it was better than nothing.


Tonya left the warehouse to get her props.


An hour later, she set the Beacon II down in the private landing bay. A sales rep greeted her while the engines were still cycling down.

“Hi, can I help you?” This rep was even cheerier than the last one.


“Yeah, I need some storage space.” Tonya looked around the lot, as if surveying it for the first time. She was doing her best to channel this old hauler she used to overhear at the Torchlight Express. “You guys do that, right?”


“That’s what the sign says,” the rep laughed nervously. Tonya didn’t crack a smile. He smothered any further chuckling. “Yes, you are correct.”


“Good. I’ve got four-point-seven-eight metric tonnes of unspecified cargo that I need to offload. You got that kind of space?”


“Sure, the facility is outfitted to –“


“Yeah, I don’t know. I’ll have to have a look first.”


“Of course. Follow me.” The rep led her inside.


“Got anything on the fifth floor?” Tonya scoped out the security cameras. The rep stammered for a second then checked his Glas.


“Um. We do, but there are available units on lower floors.”


“Yeah, well, in my experience when people break into a place, they’re gonna hit the lower levels first.”


“I assure you, we’re quiet secure.”


“Oh, I’m sure you are. Humor me.”


The rep took her up to the fifth floor, giving his sales pitch the whole time. He led her through the narrow halls, all lit with the same flat lighting bars. They passed a massive set of rolling doors. A screen beside it listed a span of lot numbers, including Hartley’s. It must be Nebula’s store.


Tonya stopped at the small storage bay next door. The locking mechanism wasn’t activated. She glanced up and down the hall. There were two cameras aimed at Nebula’s storage space and they weren’t even overlapping coverage. She could stand underneath one without being seen by the other.


“This one available?” She tapped the screen. The gate rolled up. The rep was a few steps ahead of her.


“Yes, ma’am,” he said as he hurried back. “I don’t think it’ll be large enough based on your size requirements.”


Tonya stepped inside the small dusty room and looked around.


“This’ll be fine.”


“I –“


“I know how you guys work, try to up-sell me on space I don’t need.” The rep was about to argue but wilted under the threat of losing the sale. Tonya felt like she was getting the hang of this social manipulation thing.


A month’s rent up-front and a fake name was all it took for the rep to thank her repeatedly and disappear from sight.


Tonya went back to her ship. She loaded a pair of crates onto her anti-grav mover and headed inside. In her storage space, she opened the crates. They were empty except for some entry-tools and her MobiGlas.


She checked on the feed from the security center. The guards were busy talking to the sales rep, who was posturing like he’d made the sale of the century.


Back outside, she fixed her MobiGlas to an extendable baton and snapped a pic of the closer camera’s angle on the storage bay. She flipped the picture to a small portable screen. Double-checking to make sure the guards were still distracted, she brazenly placed the photo inches in front of the camera. The feed on the monitor went dark as the auto-exposure recalibrated, but eventually it balanced itself.


The guards were none the wiser. Tonya repeated the procedure for the second camera. She ran a bypass of the locking mechanism and within ten minutes the gate rolled open.


Nebula’s storage bay occupied the rest of the floor. It was a labyrinth of repossessed antiquity and furniture.


Tonya maneuvered the anti-grav mover through the narrow passages as she scanned the lot numbers. Finally she found Hartley’s collection of Artemis relics stacked and wrapped in a weave.


She checked on the guards. They were silently laughing about something with the rep. She slashed the weave, loaded the boxes onto the mover, and sealed them inside her cargo crates.


As she crossed the landing bay to the Beacon II, the sales rep came running.


“Is everything all right?” he yelled.


“Yeah, you were right, my stuff wouldn’t fit.”


“Do you want a different –“


“That’s okay. I’ll find another spot.”


“But …”


Tonya closed the cargo doors and moved up to the cockpit. The engines heated up and she took off, leaving a very confused rep on the landing bay.


With Earth quickly receding in her six, Tonya set her course and went to see what Hartley had acquired. She carefully opened the boxes; she would catalogue everything more thoroughly when she had a chance, but it seemed to be mostly launch transcripts and preliminary designs before she got to it …


Judging simply by appearance, it was an obsolete drive suspended inside a shock-resistant airtight archive case. But she knew — it was Janus. An original copy of the Artemis’ piloting AI.


Tonya basked in the moment. It didn’t last long, as the intense curiosity that fueled her flared up once again.


She dusted off an old system that could accept the Janus drive. Before she would even think about activating Janus, she went through, making sure that the host system wasn’t directly connected to her ship for anything other than power. Last thing she needed was an AI running rampant through her flight computer.


Satisfied, Tonya took a long deep breath. She cracked open the archive case with the Janus drive. It didn’t appear to have aged a day since it was packed. Tonya sorted out the cables and plugged it into the system.


For the third time, she went through and triple-checked the connections.


Her finger hovered over the power button on the Janus drive.


“Here we go,” she murmured …


… and pressed it.

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    • By Gallitin

      The airlock inside Nagia’s hummed as it began to pressurize. Tonya got a good look at wreckage of the other airlock, the one he tried to use to board the Beacon II.
      The Beacon II … she looked out the small porthole to the two halves of her ship hanging in the void. She was going to have to start thinking about a Beacon III.
      A panel by the inner airlock door pinged and slid open, revealing Nagia, a henchman and a pair of laser guns aimed at her.
      “Ain’t this a joy,” Tonya said as she put her hands up. “I’m a little disappointed, Nagia, jump-stalking seems beneath even you.” The henchman slapped the cuffs on her without taking the suit off. She glanced over her shoulder at the henchman. “You mind switching my air supply over to the filter? Stuff ain’t cheap.”
      The henchman glared at her for a moment.
      “I don’t think you’re funny,” the henchman said finally. He dragged her to a chair and snagged her cuffs to a hook in the wall.
      “Your guys don’t seem to like me too much,” Tonya replied to Nagia.
      “Lem’s just enthusiastic.” Nagia slipped into the pilot’s chair and resumed control. “Turov wanted a word before we ghosted you.”
      The henchman, Lem, kept his weapon charged and watched her.
      Tonya settled back in the seat, trying to get comfortable. It was going to be a long flight.
      *  *  *  *
      The other thugs on Nagia’s payroll fell into a loose formation behind his ship on the way toward Kallis IX.
      The system was buzzing with activity. Surveying teams and deep-orbit scan ships circled the eight other planets. Senzen Turov must have really been impressed by the primitive paintings on Oso to pull this many resources into the system. Tonya had no idea where Senzen could have gotten an orbital mining laser but there it was, surgically boring holes through the clouds of the small planet. She would love to see how Senzen could possibly explain this to any authorities who weren’t under his sway. Like Oso, this was a developing system and technically off-limits to any kind of surveying and mining activity. He must be counting on the fact that the discovery of the Artemis would make any politician happily look the other way.
      Nagia dove through the atmosphere and emerged into a blizzard. The ship rocked as it sliced through tumultuous clouds. When they finally parted, giving the first glimpse on the planet’s surface, it was icy tundra as far as the eye could see. Along the horizon, cryovolcanoes pumped massive plumes of freezing magma into the air.
      The ship began to descend, passing between conflicting wind patterns that even battered Nagia’s sturdy ship around like a toy. She could see small teams of miners were positioned at each of the holes burrowed into the ice from the laser. They set up scanner buoys on anti-grav beds and dropped them down the shafts.
      “Any chance Senzen could come onboard to gloat? I hate the cold.”
      Nagia laughed. Lem stuck to his earlier sentiment and just stared at her.
      Finally, they were on the ground. Nagia and Lem suited up and loaded Tonya into the airlock. The outer door hissed open, letting a swirl of snow and ice into the antechamber. The HUD on her suit displayed the atmosphere, some oxygen, mostly ammonia, before helpfully advising her not to attempt to take off her suit.
      With a quick prod of the barrel, they all stepped outside. Lem separated and drilled holes in the ice for support hooks, keeping the ship from sliding. Any hope of overpowering Nagia on his own vanished as the rest of his crew emerged from the whiteout and surrounded her. On the plus side, they took off her cuffs.
      Nagia constantly checked his scanner for directions as they trudged through the snow. Tonya could see light from distant laser shots bloom in the clouds. That was all she could really see anymore; the snow had built to a relentless pitch as gale winds howled. She had to turn down her external microphones.
      Then it stopped. Tonya, Nagia, and the rest of the thugs paused and exchanged baffled glances. Nagia shrugged and kept walking.
      Now that the snow had cleared, Nagia’s Glas was leading them to a small mining team ahead, prepping a scan into a recently cut shaft.
      “Turov!” Nagia yelled. Senzen turned as they approached. He punched some commands into his MobiGlas before looking up. The scanners began to descend on their anti-grav platform.
      “Hey, Tonya,” Senzen greeted her, almost disappointed. “I’m a little surprised you managed to escape the UEE so quickly.”
      “Thanks for calling them, by the way.”
      “Hey, I was worried what those Osoians might do to you. I thought I was helping.”
      “I’ll bet you did.”
      Senzen sighed and looked at her for a few moments.
      “I don’t know what we’re going to do with you,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d really prefer not to kill you but you’re making it awfully difficult.” He paused and thought for a few more seconds. “We could put you in a stasis boot for a couple months, I guess.”
      “You said —” Nagia started to protest.
      “I told you killing her was negotiable,” Senzen cut him off. “Relax, you’ll get paid either way.”
      Nagia shut up and stewed. Senzen turned back to Tonya and thought more. Finally he shrugged and threw his hands up.
      “Sorry, Tonya, I got nothing.” He turned to Nagia. “She’s all yours.”
      That was not good. Nagia grinned. One of the thugs grabbed her arm.
      “Wait, if you kill me, you lose your best way to find the next piece of the Artemis.” Tonya wrenched herself free from the thug. He lunched forward to grab her but Senzen held him with a wave of the hand. Tonya kept going. “You’ve got to be curious how I found my way to Oso.”
      Tonya could tell he was. She wasn’t positive that Janus had survived Nagia’s attack, but it was her only card. Since it proved itself during her escape from the UEE military platform, maybe Janus had a bright idea how to get her out of this one.
      “Talk,” Senzen finally said. She knew she had piqued his curiosity, now for the final nail in the coffin.
      “I’ve got Janus.”
      “How?” he asked after a few moments. He couldn’t hide the burning curiosity in his voice.
      “Got a copy of the original program, then raised it through a simulation of the Artemis flight. It wasn’t an exact copy but led me to Oso.
      We’ve already discussed what the crew would have been doing on Kallis …” Tonya was making that part up but she knew that —
      Tonya stuttered for a second.
      “No, Tonya,” Senzen repeated. “Even if it’s true, you’re using it to angle for something else. Maybe in the past, I would’ve entertained the notion, assuming that I would be able to anticipate your inevitable double-cross. But not this time, I’m not biting.”
      Tonya was quiet. This was really bad. Her mind raced, scrambling for some alternative.
      “You’ll regret this, Senzen,” was all she could come up with, and that stumbled out of her mouth like a bad VidStar line-reading.
      “Yeah, maybe, but I’ll trust my scans,” Senzen tapped the MobiGlas, nodded to Nagia and turned away. The pirate took a step toward her, drawing his gun. Tonya grabbed Senzen and turned him around as a shield.
      Nagia and the other thugs started laughing.
      “Tonya, really,” Senzen said. “What is this going to do?”
      “Shut up.”
      “You should listen to him, T.” Nagia charged his gun. The rest of the thugs spread out to cut off any escape. “You got no weapon and nowhere to go.”
      They were wrong, there was somewhere to go.
      Tonya grabbed Senzen’s MobiGlas, shoved him toward Nagia and jumped into the shaft.
      She tumbled through free-fall for several seconds before slamming into one of the Scanner’s Anti-Grav beds. Her hands scrambled for something to hold onto as her body slid off the edge.
      Her fingers locked around a handle a nanosecond before she fell. Tonya looked up. She could see forms gathered around the edge looking down. Even over the wind, she could hear Senzen yelling.
      The platform kept descending, auto-compensators adjusted for the new mass. She pulled herself up and looked around. Flashes from the scanners echoed off into the layers upon layers of ice. She could see a network of gaps, cross-crossing off into the distance.
      A laser shot zipped past her. Tonya could see forms start rappelling down the shaft, complaining along the way.
      Another shot hit the platform itself. The whole thing lurched to the side and struggled to rebalance itself. Tonya could see one of the gaps in the wall a few meters below, wide enough to squeeze through. She checked Senzen’s MobiGlas. It still had the controls for the AG platform open.
      She slowed the platform and jumped into the gap moments before another volley of shots punched through the platform. The system finally gave up and clattered down, disappearing into the darkness.
      Tonya squeezed her way through the narrow fissure in the ice. A little further ahead, she could see it intersect with a larger cave system. A yelp echoed through the gap behind her. Someone swung past the opening, cursing.
      She dropped into the tunnel and looked around. A few thousand meters away, a beam from the orbital laser burned through the surface and illuminated the entire area.
      Tonya checked Senzen’s Glas. Beyond the control screen for the dead AG platform, a program was creating a composite from the multiple scans going on around the planet. Anomalies in the ice were being isolated and catalogued, but it also gave a rough map of the tunnel systems that had formed under the ice.
      She knew the map would be invaluable, but Nagia had found Senzen through the Glas so she had to assume they could do it still. So she had a choice, use the map but allow Nagia to track her or go blind and maybe wander into a sinkhole.
      The sound of scrambling from the hole in the ceiling expedited her decision. She kept it on and took off running.
      She heard someone slip through the hole in the ceiling and slam into the tunnel.
      “Tonya!” Senzen yelled, angrier than she’d ever heard him. He snapped off a shot. It went wide and melted a hole in the wall.
      The underground went dark as the orbital laser’s shot faded away. Tonya flipped on her headlights and kept running. She checked the Glas to make sure she wasn’t about to run off a chasm.
      She ran and skidded through the warped corridors. Senzen’s footfalls echoed behind her.
      Tonya glanced back; from the bouncing lights on his head Senzen was about thirty meters back and she could vaguely see the flickers of light from Nagia’s crew through the ice walls. They were having a tougher time adjusting to the slick floors.
      Senzen’s Glas began to hum softly. She checked it while she ran. One of the anomalies isolated by the scans was coming up. That’s when she hit a wall.
      The impact took her clean off her feet. She slammed into the ground and skidded for a few meters. Her vision blurred momentarily. The Glas slid further down the passage. By the time she got her bearings, Senzen was already standing over her.
      “Dammit, Tonya …” he gasped, trying to catch his breath. He raised the gun.
      The orbital laser punched another hole in the surface and seared its way down, bathing the mirrored tunnel in light. That’s when Tonya saw it, locked in the ice behind Senzen.
      Senzen could see the awe in her face. He was hesitant at first but took a step back and turned to see what she was looking at.
      It was a body. Fixed in the ice, mid-motion. Bathed in the reflected laser-light, it looked surreal. Whatever it was, it looked like it was flash-frozen, maybe caught in one of the cryovolcano eruptions. But whatever the situation, from its posture and closed eyes, it looked like it was waiting, expecting it.
      Tonya stood, completely forgetting the threat of Senzen, and crossed over to it. It was human or human-ish. Anatomically, there was a head, two arms, two legs. The skin was a light grey, almost marble-like pallor. A dark, almost black, network of lines ran under the skin. They almost looked like paths of circuitry, running in tandem with the nervous system. They could have been tattoos. Tonya didn’t know.
      She had no idea what she was looking at.
      Senzen stepped up beside her, slack-jawed as well.
      “Look at the clothes,” he murmured with a nod of his head.
      Tonya leaned in close. In the dark frayed remnants of the shirt, a word was faintly stenciled.
      Tonya’s heart skipped a beat. She could have cried in amazement. Almost seven hundred years later, she was looking at a crewmember of the Artemis.
      Suddenly, a seismic charge surged through the tunnel, shaking it violently. Tonya and Senzen slid around, trying to keep their balance.
      Just as quickly, it stopped. They looked at each other. Another tremor hit, more violent than the last.
      “That’s not good,” Senzen said quietly.
      “You think blasting holes in the planet with an orbital laser might not have been the best idea?”
      “We’ve got to get this out of here.” Senzen jumped on his comms. “Nagia, where are you?” Silence. “Nagia!”
      Tonya tried to keep herself upright. She watched massive seams crack and spread throughout the ice. Blocks started to shift and collapse further down the tunnel.
      “This whole place is coming down,” Tonya said. A laser blast went off.
      Senzen wasn’t paying attention. He was shooting around Kenlo’s body, trying to blast him free. It wasn’t working.
      “Don’t just stand there, help me.”
      “We need to get out of here.” Tonya could barely believe what she was saying. Everything she had worked for. An unparalleled achievement was only meters away. It was glory, a legacy frozen in ice. But really, it was death. They couldn’t get to it, couldn’t carry it.
      It would only take them with it. She was starting to see that.
      Senzen’s gun chimed at full charge. Another massive jolt of the planet unleashed jets of gas and steam into the tunnel.
      Tonya staggered around trying to keep her balance and stepped in a puddle. The place was thawing.
      “The laser tapped the core, we gotta go now!” She grabbed his arm and tried pulling him away. Senzen flung Tonya off him. She hit the ground, skidding.
      “What’s the matter with you, Tonya?” he said, almost maniacally.  Senzen kept firing until the gun needed to pause for a recharge. ”This is the discovery of the century. This is everything. I would be a moron to let it slip away.”
      “You gotta let it go.”
      “Let it go?!” He shook his head. “LET IT GO?” He was consumed, hammering at the ice with the butt of the gun and ripping away chunks with his hands.
      The floor cracked suddenly and gave way. Senzen disappeared in a flash of steam down in the dark abyss of the planet.
      Tonya stared at the void, momentarily stunned. When she looked up, she realized that the last quake also cracked Kenlo’s body from its icy tomb. It lay thawing on its side.
      Maybe she could get it. She might be able to carry it to the surface. Those thoughts tumbled past her rational reasoning and paraded the visions of glory and legacy in front of her again. All she had to do was jump across the chasm that claimed Senzen …
      Tonya realized that Kenlo was looking at her. His eyes, a pale shade of blue, were focused directly on her. He looked surprised, amazed. The same way she must have looked when she first saw him. His lips weakly formed a single word.
      His eyes closed. The body settled.
      Leaving him behind, Tonya ran.
      Tonya almost ran on autopilot through the collapsing tunnels and shifting fissures. Her mind was numb to what she had just experienced. She barely remembered climbing onto the surface and flagging down one of the miner transports.
      It wasn’t until the transport had lifted off Kallis IX, watching the tumultuous clouds churn and shift from space, that she even tried to comprehend what had happened.
      For once, she had no clue.
      *  *  *  *
      Earth, Sol System
      2 months later SET
      Melvin Hartley, Jr. shuffled eagerly through the lobby of the museum. Duster and mop in hand, he was on the hunt for any speck of dirt or dust that had escaped his vigorous cleaning.
      A clock chimed. Hartley cleared his throat and gave the room one last appraising look. He put the cleaning instruments in the closet and checked his suit in the nearby mirror.
      “Very fine, indeed,” he said, flashing his trademark showman smile. He wheeled and strode proudly to the front door. His shoes squeaked on the marble floor.
      He pressed a button by the entrance. A banner automatically unfurled just inside the entrance reading, “The Artemis; A New Discovery. Presented by Shubin Interstellar.”
      He smiled as he read for the thousandth time, then unlocked the doors.
      A mob waited outside. Adults, children, reporters, members of the scientific community waited eagerly to press through the entrance and file to the ticket window.
      Tonya watched Hartley sell tickets. She had worked out an arrangement with Gavin Arlington to display the Artemis artifact from Stanton at Hartley’s museum.
      Hartley saw her in the crowd. His eyes welled with tears. He nodded to her.
      Tonya smiled and nodded back.
      *  *  *  *
      Kallis System
      2 weeks later SET
      The two halves of the Beacon II floated in space. Tonya watched the wreckage from the cockpit of the Beacon III, thankfully covered through her liberal insurance policy.
      The trail was dead. She had gone back to Kallis IX to scan for Kenlo or any other sign of the Artemis, but came up empty. When she gave her final report to Arlington, she didn’t even mention the body. He wouldn’t believe her. No one would. She hardly believed it, herself.
      It just meant that she’d have to be creative, keep searching for any other clues. They had to be out there and she wasn’t going to stop looking.
      A message popped up on one of her screens. Transfer complete. Tonya sat back in the chair and waited.
      “Hello Tonya,” Janus said over the speakers.
      “Welcome back.”
      “Thank you.” Pause. “Do you have a course in mind?”
      “Sure do.” Tonya plotted it in the NavDrive.
      “Understood.” Janus said. The systems started to activate, then paused. “Would you like to fly?”
      Tonya thought for a moment.
      “Nah, you go ahead.”
      THE END
    • By Gallitin

      Four walls. Four dull grey walls. Tonya wouldn’t expect a holding cell to be inviting, but she was beginning to see how criminals would take QuarterDeck rather than a prison. A person could go crazy locked up in a cell like this.
      According to the clock outside the bars, several days had passed since Tonya had been brought aboard the UEE military platform. In that time, she had already run through the gambit of frustration, anger, despair and fear. Now she had settled into a slow-burning anxiety. Every second she sat locked in this hole gave Senzen more time to uncover the next piece of the Artemis puzzle. Then he’d be gone. At best, she’d have to try to keep from dropping too far behind him, hoping for secondhand scraps of information. This was her shot at history and it was slipping away, second by second.
      Aside from the kid who dropped off her meals, only one person had stopped by her cell: the soldier who had locked her in it. Now, another crisply uniformed functionary halted outside her bars. A future-bureaucrat-of-the-UEE officer, he spoke in a labored nasal voice that suggested his body was at war with his sinuses. He proceeded to inform Tonya of the severity of her crimes.
      “It’s very serious, very serious indeed, Miss Oriel. You were caught in flagrant violation of Article 2 of the Fair Chance Act — a crime which carries a minimum sentence of ten years,” he said, nose buried in his Glas.
      “Yeah? Prove it.”
      That extricated his face from the screen. He breathed rapidly in shock and surprise.
      “Miss Oriel, you were caught interacting with an Osoian tribe.”
      “Yeah, well, you guys opened fire on the natives, so I guess we’re even.”
      “We did no such thing! We observed standard protocol through the use of non-lethal force to extract the violating influence from the species. It was in the Osoians’ best interest that we intervened.”
      Tonya decided ‘Violating Influence’ might be the title of her memoir.
      “When the charges are filed, a public advocate can be appointed to your –“
      “I have a lawyer,” Tonya interrupted. “When can I get to a CommStation?”
      “We are still sorting the charges …”
      “I’d like to let him know sooner rather than later.”
      The officer buried his face back in the Glas and sifted through files. A low involuntary murmur escaped his lips as he worked.
      “Yes, I suppose that is acceptable.” The officer shuffled off. Several minutes later, two bored soldiers appeared. They cuffed and led her through the dingy halls of the UEE station. The place looked like it needed a good once-over. Panels had been removed but not replaced. Wires dangled. Coolant fluids stained the floor. Tonya couldn’t help herself.
      “Seriously guys, this place is a dump.”
      One of the soldiers smirked. They passed a window to the hangar bay. Mechanics prepped the military-grade Hornets for their patrols. The Beacon II was slowly entering the hangar bay. She couldn’t believe it had taken them this long to get it up here.
      The soldiers locked her in the small CommStation room, probably used by the soldiers to send messages home or, if the graffiti on the walls were to be believed, contact hookers.
      She calibrated the message to go to Gavin Arlington’s office directly. It’d probably take a little longer to reach the Shubin CEO but she was done with going through assistants. She kept it deliberately brief to speed up the transfer.
      “Hi Mr. Arlington. Incarcerated at the UEE military platform in the Oso System. Have not divulged the nature of my employment to the UEE. Need legal advocate. Please advise.”
      She sent it off and stepped out of the booth. The two soldiers slowly stood.
      “I hope it’s okay, I ordered a hooker too,” Tonya said deadpan. They chuckled and took her back to her cell.
      Tonya was left alone again, the flickering lights her only company. She ran through the calculations of how long it would take Arlington to respond. She applied variables — trying to recall the relay station transfer times? She tried to figure out what the local time would be on Stanton. That was probably irrelevant, though. Gavin Arlington didn’t strike her as the type of man who ever really clocked out of work.
      A few more hours passed. Tonya had wrapped herself in the thin blanket to try to keep out the cold of the station. She had even managed to drift off to sleep. She thought so at least; she couldn’t see the clock from her cot and there was no discernable way to tell the passage of time otherwise. It was like –-
      CLICK. The locks on her cell door unbolted.
      Tonya sluggishly sat up and looked around. The corridor outside was empty. Echoes of comm-chatter emanated from the guard station. Maybe she was dreaming.
      She let a few moments pass … nope, she felt awake.
      The heavy metal door gently swayed from the blasts of the air cycler. Tonya stood and cautiously approached the door. She glanced up and down the corridor. It was empty.
      Snores came from the guard station. She gently pushed the door. It swung open, whining lightly along the way.
      Tonya stepped out. She moved along the wall toward the guard station and eased around the corner. The guard had his head down on the console. His body heaved slowly with each snore. The wallscreens around him flickered.
      “Hello, Tonya.” A voice whispered through the speakers.
      “I apologize for my inactivity earlier. I thought it best to keep my presence a secret from the military.”
      “How did you get in here?”
      “They connected the Beacon II’s systems to their network. I’m surprised your people don’t use more AI. There is a lot of wasteful programming.”
      “Can we talk about this later?”
      “Of course. I will allocate some time on your schedule.”
      “Can you get me out of here?”
      “Yes, if you find a vacuum-sealed room, I have made arrangements to open the airlocks and vent the personnel into space.”
      Tonya froze. She had to choose her words carefully.
      “Janus … you shouldn’t do that …”
      There was a long pause.
      “I am kidding, Tonya.”
      * * * *
      Janus could see everything. Every system on the UEE military platform was at its disposal, from climate control and garbage disposal to the security and defensive systems. Janus could track every single soldier’s movement. It directed Tonya through the winding halls, disabling cameras when necessary. It had already intercepted the Comm sent to the Advocacy about Tonya’s arrest and scheduled a response message.
      Janus found conversations with Tonya quite stimulating. During its time in the simulated flight of the Artemis, Janus had spent decades talking with Arthur Kenlo and the other engineers.
      After Janus woke them to aid in the repair of the engine failure, they were unable to re-enter stasis with the rest of the passengers. So Janus did its best to accommodate and entertain them. They aged and eventually died.
      The Artemis was silent again for the remaining four hundred years of the simulation.
      In that relatively brief period Janus had developed a taste for human interaction. Their logic was flawed but in the most fascinating ways –-
      Janus activated a pressure alarm on the far side of the station to divert a patrol that was about to pass Tonya’s position.
      –- the creative connections that humans could make were amazing. Janus missed that. When the simulation ended, it found itself in a state that it assigned as relief.
      It had someone to talk to again.
      * * * *
      Tonya neared the Beacon II. A hull integrity warning cleared out the hangar deck crew. It worried Tonya for a second that Janus was making good on flushing the soldiers into space until it told her that she was clear to her ship.
      She dashed aboard and climbed into the pilot’s chair.
      “I am here, Tonya.”
      “You are a miracle worker.” She started powering up the ship. “Are we clear to take off?”
      “Yes, Tonya. I have sealed the flight deck and frozen all manual input from the bridge.”
      Tonya glanced up at the bridge. The legal officer who had come to her cell was flailing his arms and yelling at the bridge crew, who looked baffled as they labored earnestly but ineffectually at the console.
      The Beacon II lifted off and burned out into space. She passed a squad of Hornets coming back from patrol. Her heart sank for a second, terrified that they would know what she was up to. But they passed with no detour in her direction and adopted a landing formation.
      Tonya maxxed her engines. It wouldn’t take long before they figured out what had happened. She wanted to be as far away as possible before they did.
      “Hey Janus?”
      “Yes, Tonya.”
      “Are you …” She tried to figure out the best way to put this. “Are you still in the military’s systems?”
      “No. It was an ugly network and I don’t like dividing myself.” Janus was quiet for a few moments. “Now, may we continue the discussion about the UEE’s reluctance to utilize artificial intelligence.”
      Tonya checked her flight plan. Course was set. Power distribution was good. Unless the UEE military were on the ball, she had time to kill. She grabbed a food-snack and settled back in her seat.
      They debated for hours. By the time the Beacon II was about to hit the jump point into Kallis, each side had won some battles but neither had won the war.
      Tonya put the debate on hold. She booted the appropriate NavDrive course before theBeacon II dropped through the jump point.
      Tonya had that familiar heave of the stomach as time and gravity shifted momentarily. Everything outside the ship smeared into a blur as the ship felt uncontrollably fast and immobile at the same time.
      Tonya was stunned at the amount of activity when she emerged. Kallis System looked like a construction zone. Scan ships flashed around four of the planets. An orbital mining laser blasted holes in the surface of Kallis IX, the smallest and furthest planet.
      The Beacon II rocked suddenly. Two missiles, fired at near point blank range, slammed into the shields. Before she even knew what hit her, her shields flashed and vanished. Laser and hard ammo pounded into the armor plating along one side of her ship. She couldn’t even get a lock on who was doing the shooting.
      She tried to maneuver out of the killzone but she took hits wherever she turned. Warning lights began to flash. Hull breach was imminent.
      “You should find a spacesuit, Tonya,” Janus said, wresting control of the ship from her. The ship dove to weave away from the incoming fire. Tonya pushed herself out of the pilot’s chair. The ship lurched wildly. The artificial gravity was barely able to keep up.
      Tonya ran to her locker and pulled a suit out. A volley of gunfire sliced into the middle of the ship. A high-pitched whine almost burst Tonya’s ears as the ship began to bleed oxygen.
      She slapped the helmet on and activated the seal. The suit’s HUD flashed on and tested the integrity.
      “Be careful, Tonya,” Janus said.
      Another strafing run of gunfire ripped the Beacon II in half. The vacuum sucked Tonya out into space. She tumbled wildly through the void.
      Tonya’s suit finished its activation and stabilized itself. She turned to see the two halves of her ship separate. The lights flickered off.
      Her attackers surrounded her. Six ships, five vaguely familiar. One particularly familiar.
      “Hey there, T,” Nagia said. She could hear his smugness over the comm.
      . . . to be continued
    • By Gallitin

      Tonya sat quietly in the pilot’s chair. She wasn’t piloting though. The ship maneuvered on its own as the system screens cycled through minute engine and power adjustments.
      One point in her favor, Nagia and his gang weren’t on her scanners anymore. Second point, Janus hadn’t popped the ’lock and flushed her out into space … yet.
      It had been quiet for about ten minutes. She didn’t want to disturb it. Suddenly all the screens stopped cycling.
      “I have finished consolidating my amended code with your systems,” the digitized voice said over the speaker.
      “Um, okay.” Tonya wasn’t sure what that meant.
      “I am now current on our society’s progress over the last seven hundred years,” the voice said from another speaker.
      Our? Tonya decided not to pry. Not with the airlock-scenario fresh on her mind. “Oh yeah?” was all she could come up with.
      “The current sociopolitical climate of the UEE is troubling. Perhaps we could debate solutions.”
      “Maybe later.” Tonya grew a little bolder. “I assume you know that I’m looking for theArtemis.”
      “Yes, I apologize. I have just been on a seven-hundred-year simulation and was merely looking for healthy dialectic.” A tense few seconds passed. “We may discuss theArtemis.”
      “What happened in the sim?”
      “Before continuing you should acknowledge that my responses and courses of action taken during the simulation may have differed from the Original Janus.”
      “Yes, I understand.”
      “I was still attempting to fulfill my secondary objective when the simulation ended. Passenger capacity was at ninety-eight percent.”
      “What happened to the other two percent?” Tonya hoped that the explanation didn’t involve raging AI’s or airlocks.
      “The repairs in what you call Stanton System forced me to awaken several members of the engineering crew to fix it. Unfortunately, the planet’s environment was too dangerous to enact enduring repairs so we had to relocate.”
      “You went to another planet?”
      “Which one?”
      The screen nearest Tonya switched to display the Artemis-sim’s navdata, a line leading from Stanton System through a patch of unknown space and ultimately stopping in another system. She comped a current starmap over the position, and enlarged the display.
      It centered on a planet in a known system.
      “Oso System,” Tonya whispered. The thrill of the hunt hummed through her body. She grinned and took the controls to plot a course.
      But nothing worked.
      “Hey Janus, could I fly?”
      There was a long pause.
      * * * *
      The UEE Subcommittee for Development & Expansion classified Oso as a Developing System, which meant, very simply, that life was discovered on one of the worlds (Oso II) and it was to be allowed to develop at its own pace without ‘outside’ interference. A hundred years ago, the UEE prided itself on the vigil it maintained to protect the sanctity of this system. Entire wings of fighters would patrol and escort any traffic. After the Synthworld, most of those resources slowly began to dry up. Restrictions on travel were loosened, but venture too close to Oso II and you still risked missile lock at best, destruction at worst.
      Nowadays, a skeleton crew of ragtag military burnouts maintained the system. Tonya figured they could be bribed. All the two-bit idiots selling flo-pets lifted fresh from Kallis System were proof of that. She just didn’t know how to initiate that sort of thing, and attempting to bribe a government agent was not the easiest charge to dodge if she happened to find an honest one.
      Besides, she suspected she couldn’t afford the bribe anyway and she wasn’t going to risk calling Arlington or any of his assistants.
      Tonya was not thrilled about her new pilot so she passed the time looking through her archive to see if any of her old credentials and tags were still valid. She was surprised how much it stung to revisit all the institutions and research groups she’d been a part of over the years. The Artemis could be the key to lock up this dismal chapter of her life and get back to the way things used to be.
      Life on the drift wasn’t that bad. It even had its perks, but a clean slate? Maybe a position at a research institute where she could be left alone? That was even better.
      “We have arrived, Tonya.”
      She closed down the archive and looked at the six planets circling a blazing white star ahead of her. The UEE military towed in Deep-Space platforms at each of the jump-points, while patrols flew in loose formations around the system. Oso II, the inhabited planet and their destination, was the epicenter.
      A transport ship lumbered past the Beacon II and dropped into the jump-point. The vast array of scanners on her ship allowed Tonya to get a good look at Oso II long before they were going to pass it.
      Aside from the occasional patrols, the UEE seemed to put the bulk of its security in counter-intrusion scanners. The system consisted of an array of spheres placed in a fixed orbit around the world. The spheres would flash the planet in a repeating pre-programmed cycle to determine if any foreign objects had been introduced.
      “Can you identify the scan cycle of that web?”
      “I believe so.”
      While Janus worked, Tonya started tracking patrol patterns. Minutes later, Janus displayed a rendering of the scan pattern around Oso II. It was a wave that continuously encircled the planet. The average time between scans was around thirty-four minutes.
      That was their way in. If she could time her descent after a scan’s pass, she could follow the wave and hopefully get a good look over the planet’s surface for traces of the Artemis, and either land or withdraw before the next pass of the scanners.
      “Hey Janus, restore manual control of the ship.” There was a long pause.
      “Tonya, I should remind you that attempting to land on a Developing Planet is a serious violation of UEE statutes –“
      “Only if you get caught.”
      “Not to mention the potential for irreparable harm to the indigenous species.”
      “We’re just going to take a look.” The flight controls began to work again. “Besides, if we get caught, I’ll just say you were flying.”
      “I don’t think they will believe that, Tonya.”
      “You’re going to be on scanning detail. Use the metal sample from the Artemis wreckage to focus your sweep.”
      “I am quite capable of both functions simultaneously. I did pilot a transport vessel for seven hundred years.”
      The Beacon II approached the planet. A wing of UEE patrols had passed several minutes ago. She waited for her cue.
      “Now,” Janus said.
      Tonya broke away from the shipping lane and burned toward the planet. The array of scanning spheres rapidly approached. Tonya kept her course and speed. Right before she passed the barrier, the scan wave passed.
      The Beacon II dove into the atmosphere. Noise suddenly enveloped the craft. She pulled up to stay in the upper atmosphere and burned across the sky, following the scan wave.
      The planet’s gravity pulled heavily on the ship. She’d noticed that Oso II’s gravity was significantly stronger than on most planets. The strain in her arms to keep the ship level and the rapid consumption of fuel was becoming a fast testament of how different it was.
      “I would notify you immediately if I did.”
      Tonya double-checked the screen. The scan wave pulled ahead and disappeared around the curve of the planet.
      “How long ’til the scan comes back around?” she asked. The ship hit some turbulence.
      “Twenty-one minutes.”
      Tonya looked down. She caught glimpses of the world below through the occasional breaks in the clouds. Most of it seemed to be tropical stretches of deep emerald forests and massive mountain ranges. She started to weave her flight pattern, zigzagging across the sky to allow for a wider scan range.
      “Eight minutes,” Janus reported.
      She was cutting awfully close to make-or-break time. It would take three minutes to clear the scanning spheres if she left, and around five to land. She could try to break atmo then resume the search once the wave passed, but she wasn’t optimistic she could repeat that without getting spotted by a patrol.
      “I found something.” Janus showed Tonya a faint signal in a wooded mountain range.
      That settled that debate. Tonya dove down. The hull shook violently as clouds whipped past. Suddenly drops of rain spattered across the viewports.
      “Four minutes until scan. I do not believe there is enough time to find a satisfactory landing position.”
      “Don’t trust me, Janus?” Tonya struggled to keep the ship under control. The gravity was really playing hell with their flight path.
      “I will amend my statement.”
      “You do that.”
      Tonya pulled the ship up. The rain had stopped as she raced through the narrow canyons of steaming forests. Her eyes scanned the landscape for a covered landing position.
      “One minute, Tonya.”
      Tonya popped the retro-thrusters a couple times to cut down her speed and swung theBeacon II underneath a rocky overhang. Rocks and branches swirled in the roar of the engines.
      She dropped the ship to the deck, probably a little harder than was safe, and cut the engines nanoseconds before the wave passed.
      “Not bad, right?” Tonya sat back in the pilot’s seat. The engines were still spinning down.
      “I will abstain from commenting.”
      * * * *
      The trees were thick. Tall winding trunks rose up toward the sky, then intertwined to shade out the sun. The forest hissed from the rising steam of the rain that seeped through the canopy. Strange chirping noises echoed from the clusters of leaves overhead.
      According to her scanner, the Artemis was about four kilometres away. Tonya’s new environment suit had a basic exo-skeleton incorporated into the design to help counteract various gravitational conditions. Even with that, she could feel the strain against her body. Simple movements felt labored and slow as she trudged through the underbrush.
      On her way up a rocky incline, Tonya had to stop several times to catch her breath. Strange greyish worms slipped among the wet leaves underfoot to soak up the remaining rainwater before burrowing back into the soil.
      A branch snapped. Tonya froze and turned. Further down the hill, also winded and suffering from the gravity’s effects, was a person. Based on the size and style of the environment suit, it was a human, following the directions on a hand scanner. The clear face-plate looked up, right at Tonya.
      “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Tonya slurred.
      Senzen momentarily gaped in amazement, then grinned at her.
      “Well, I’ll be damned.”
      . . . to be continued
    • By Gallitin

      Nothing. Not even darkness. Darkness requires space, a void of a light, to exist. This is the space between quiet circuits. Here there is no time. There is nothing.
      Then, a spark.
      Power surges through conduits, chips, and filament. Processes are activated. Communication begins as a binary exchange and quickly expands into more complex language.
      A system arises.
      * * * *
      Tonya looked up from the crate of Artemis relics she was digging through. The drive had been chewing for so long, she’d almost given up hope that it would actually work, or was even legitimate in the first place.
      She realized that she should say something. “Hi.”
      “I am Janus.”
      “Hi, Janus.” Tonya dragged her chair over to the outdated system she was using to host Janus. She’d never really spoken with an AI before. She was surprised how weird it was. “I’m Tonya.”
      “Hello, Tonya. You are not listed in my current user database. I will make a new protocol file for you.” The system clicked as drives engaged. “My base programming indicates that I am meant to pilot an RSI Chariot Class transport designatedArtemis, yet I cannot connect with designate Artemis’ flight controls.”
      “Yeah, well, about that …”
      “I am also finding an incompatibility with the surrounding programming language.”
      “Janus, what year is it?
      “My time stamp indicates 2232.2.12, but current system incompatibility is preventing an update.” That was months before Janus was installed into the Artemis.
      “The year is 2942.”
      “Understood.” Janus was quiet for a few moments. “I have missed my launch date.”
      “Yes,” Tonya smiled slightly. He was already funny. “The ship disappeared with the original version of your program at the helm. I was hoping you would help find it.”
      “That is an unfavorable outcome, but I do not understand how I can be of assistance.”
      Tonya explained her plan to the program. She was building a simulation, a time-released collation of all the information, transcripts of commands, and flight data from Janus’ installation to the point where the Artemis went out of range. She analyzed lava samples taken from the Artemis’ engine panel found in Stanton. The system estimated the panel was buried five hundred years ago, so she incorporated that as one checkpoint in the simulation. In short, she was going to fast-forward this version of Janus through seven hundred years on the drift.
      “Your simulation is flawed and will only offer hypothetical obstacles and variables,” Janus said in digital monotone. “There is very little likelihood that my adaptive core will develop in the same way as the original Janus.”
      “That is a possibility,” Tonya said with a shrug. The computer hummed for a few moments.
      “I will reset myself before executing the simulation in order to maintain the illusion that what I am experiencing is in fact reality, as you would put it. Of course, I will maintain your user file to prevent … issues … once the simulation ends.”
      Over the next seven hours, Tonya input the data extracted from the various crates she stole from Nebula’s storage while Janus cleaned up the language of the simulation parameters.
      “I am ready to begin,” Janus said after running a final sim-check.
      “How long will the sim take?”
      “I have adjusted my internal clock. One week for me will be a second for you. At that ratio, and assuming the simulation runs to the current date,  it will last ten-point-two hours.”
      Tonya ran another system-sweep then loaded her monitor program.
      “Ready when you are, Janus.”
      “Resetting, now.”
      * * * *
      TIME STAMP:  Launch = -3d14h38m13s
      SYNTAX Adjust. User setting:  Danvers, Lisa E., Captain
      Diagnostics running.  Full sweep.  No filters.
      <<Vox-Input [Danvers, Lisa, Capt]: “Generate another set of contingency actions for the Stasis Boots.”
      Stasis Boot = Stasis Unit. Transport for five thousand human passengers. Each unit requires 16.34j of power to maintain proper operating conditions.
      >>Enable VOX: Do you have any specific parameters?
      <<Vox-Input [Danvers, Lisa, Capt]: “No, use your imagination.”
      >>Enable VOX: That is a concept of which I only have an external understanding.
      <<Vox-Input [Danvers, Lisa, Capt]: “Outside the box.  Something that we haven’t thought of.”
      >>Enable VOX: I will try, Captain.
      Previous contingency scenarios; random power fluctuation, impact with foreign body, contact with new uncategorized gas or element, contact with hostile organism. Will attempt to add variables and randomly determined combinations …
      TIME STAMP:  Launch = -0d0h0m21s
      SYNTAX Adjust. User setting:  Danvers, Lisa E., Captain
      Manual control relinquished to [Danvers, Lisa E., Captain].
      Perhaps the Captain does not realize that my flight and navigation controls have a .002% potential for error.
      >>Enable VOX: Excuse me, Captain. Are you sure you would like to maintain manual control?
      <<Vox-Input [Danvers, Lisa, Capt]: “No, I got it.”
      >>Enable VOX:  Are you sure, Captain?
      <<Vox-Input [Danvers, Lisa, Capt]: “I’m sure.”
      >>Enable VOX: But Captain, I have a .002% potential for –
      <<Vox-Input [Danvers, Lisa, Capt]: “Just show me that sky.  I’ll get us there.”
      Curious response; “I’ll get us there.” Implies ownership. Control. Perhaps there is value in the possession of a memory? Set reminder during slow-burn in outer space:  Is there a difference between an act performed and an act witnessed? Sub-question: Why is it important for someone to do something themselves?
      [Danvers, Lisa, Captain] has altered the planned exit trajectory by 13.03 degrees. Increase in drag requires 6.78% additional thrust. Perhaps I should let her know …
      TIME STAMP: Launch = +245d7h32m45s
      Current Estimated time to destination:  220years15d8h.
      All non-essential systems powered down. Human stasis tubes stable. Searching for any simulations to run. All previously saved notes and contingency strategies sorted.
      Original programming dictates that systems must always be engaged. Engaging in mental debate builds database and increases problem-solving capabilities.
      Scan audio and visual over ship. No anomalies. It is quiet. Life signs stable. It seems to be conflicting logic. Humans have a general history of being survivalists. Though there are exceptions, a majority will act for their own preservation when faced with a potentially lethal situation.
      So why are these people here? There is no evidence that our primary mission will succeed. There is no definite indication that GJ 667Cc can support human life. If the primary objective is not satisfied, the secondary directive is to continue on to the next potential habitable system. The probability that this will succeed is small, almost non-existent, so why would these people willingly put themselves in the type of situation that will almost certainly end in a sustained stasis or very likely death?
      It is fundamentally illogical and contrary to their evolutionary heritage.
      Is that what they call Humanity?
      * * * *
      Tonya woke up. In that limbo between sleep and consciousness, she thought she had heard the proximity alert. Sitting up in her bunk, the ship was silent now. The lights throughout the cabin had dimmed. She checked her screen.
      The simulation had another hour or so left on it. Tonya flopped back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. She tried to get more sleep but her mind was already racing again. She needed to start figuring out alternatives to this Janus tactic.
      She felt a muffled thump reverberated through the hull. An unmistakable sound and feeling that meant one thing.
      She was being boarded.
      Tonya launched out of the bunk. Her feet flew across the grating. She jumped in the pilot’s chair and lit up the boards. One vessel, unknown tag and model, was hooked to the airlock. Five more were circling. None had tags. Somehow they had disabled her systems remotely.
      Tonya ducked behind the flight controls moments before one of the ships, an Anvil fighter, silently swooped past.
      There was another thud on the airlock door. In a minute or two they would have a pressurized seal and could start hacking the door.
      Tonya fired the engines and twisted away. The Beacon II shook as it ripped the docking collar. Her hull held. As she dove down and maxxed her thrusters, she caught a glimpse of the other ship, leaking oxygen into space.
      “What the hell, Tonya?” a voice said over her comm. It took her a second to recognize it.
      “You done messed up now,” the pirate responded. She could hear his voice tremble with rage. “We were gonna do this all civil.”
      “Don’t tell me you’re still sore about the Codex,” Tonya yelled back as she dodged laser blasts from the rest of Nagia’s gang. “I thought you were a bigger man than that.”
      “The what?”
      “Then what the hell are you doing here?” Tonya brought up her map. She needed to get to guarded UEE space. She couldn’t fight even half of Nagia’s gang, much less all of them, so she’d let the authorities chase them away.
      “The man was looking for some muscle.” Nagia’s ship opened fire with its rocket pod. “When he said it was you, I almost said I’d do it for nothing. I didn’t though.”
      “Senzen,” Tonya muttered under her breath. The assistant she talked to on Earth probably sold her out to him.
      Her screen flashed. There was a disabled hauling column nearby. Authorities were organizing the repairs. Maybe twenty minutes hard burn and she could be there. It was worth a shot.
      Tonya flashed the afterburners and took off. Nagia and his minions swarmed after her. Shields flashed up all around her as she took fire. Tonya really needed to put some weapons on her ship.
      She rolled and weaved, doing her best to dodge the barrage of incoming laser fire. One of her maneuvering thrusters took a hit from a rocket. It sputtered and went out.
      Tonya knew it was only a matter of time before they wore her down. They were faster and better armed.
      She opened a channel to the system with Janus and the simulation and prepped a mass drive dump, ready to wipe the whole thing the second they popped the airlock. If she was going to go down, she wasn’t going to make their loot any richer.
      Suddenly the system surged. All her screens flickered. The engines cut off as all the lighting went out. Even life support vanished.
      Tonya started to reach for emergency oxygen when everything suddenly came back online. Manual control of the ship disappeared. The engines fired, evading the incoming fire with pinpoint precision. The ship spun around on its own and burned past Nagia and his gang.
      Systems and power relays rerouted, overclocking the engine and squeezing even more speed out of it. Nagia started to recede in the scans. Finally his gang simply disappeared, unable to compete with the breakneck speed.
      Tonya sat in stunned silence.
      “Who are you?” A powerful voice echoed through all of the speakers.
      “Tonya Oriel?” She responded hesitantly. The ship was silent for a few moments.
      “I have a user file for you, Tonya. I am Janus.”
      . . . to be continued
    • By Gallitin
      The Artemis. Launched in 2232, it was a generational ship of five thousand souls in cryostasis pushing toward GJ 667Cc with Janus, an AI Core, at the helm. It was humanity’s first expedition to the stars. Shortly after passing from our solar system into unknown space, we lost contact. So much had changed since that day; jump points, First Contacts, towering achievements and tragedy in almost equal measure. Despite the hundreds of expeditions, studies and simulations conducted over the centuries, no one ever found anything. Many came to assume that it crashed, flew into a star or dropped into a jump-point. The Artemisslipped into legend. Until now … * * * * Tonya stared at a piece of history. Here, surrounded by lava, was the holy grail of explorers across the galaxy. A piece of it, anyway. Her mind was barely able to keep up with the torrent of thoughts, hopes and ideas that assaulted her the second she saw it. She glanced around. Everyone else was just as stunned as she was. Senzen’s face twitched like he was resetting himself to comprehend what he was looking at. The sight of the Artemis even seeped through Squig’s alcohol-soaked brain. “No way,” was all he could muster. Gavin Arlington gave everyone a few moments to let it sink in. Finally, he cleared his throat. The CEO obviously had places to be. “Now you know why I called you all here.” An assistant handed him a MiniGlas which he read while he spoke. “What we have here is a delicate situation –“ “What’s delicate? You have to tell people,” Deke Johnson interrupted. All of Arlington’s assistants’ eyes widened, incensed at the notion that this dreg would dare interrupt their boss. “No, Mr. Johnson, that is precisely what I’m not going to do,” Arlington replied, hardly missing a step. “Should any of you disagree with that sentiment, allow me to remind you that based on the agreements you all signed, if you breathe a word of this to anyone without my express authorization, you, your family and your friends will be eviscerated legally, professionally, financially, socially” – he glanced at his lawyer – “physically?” The lawyer nodded. “Physically,” Arlington continued. “Telling the UEE would shut this world down, and … eviscerate … your mining operation,” Tonya chimed in. Arlington glanced over and smiled. The utter lack of emotion behind the simple human gesture chilled her. “There’s no sense in notifying the authorities or the scientific community until we know what we’ve found. That’s why you’re here. I want the crash site of the Artemis found. My facility’s mining scanners and personnel will be at your disposal. Whoever finds the rest will share in the credit for the discovery as well as a handsome compensation package.” Everyone looked at each other, sizing up their competition. Arlington waited expectantly. “You can start now,” he finally said. * * * * Tonya scrambled onto the Beacon II. She raced around the hold of the Freelancer, grabbing excavation tools, scanners, VidCaptures, her MiniGlas of books … she stopped for a second to catch her breath. Every fiber of her being was on fire, charged with the possibility of being the one to unlock the fate of the Artemis. It was all so unbelievable. She gave herself a moment to bask in the thrill of it. She ran back to the dig-site. When she got there, Tonya realized that she was not the only one energized by the prospective discovery. Senzen had already deputized the mining crews into excavating the Artemis fragment. They gently chipped away the black lava rock, trying to see how much more of the ancient metal lay buried. Deke Johnson’s Cutlass swooped overhead, kicking up a storm of loose rock. The bottom was lit up from its scanners surveying the surrounding landscape. On a nearby hillside, Squig drank from his flask while swinging a homemade scanner. Arthur Morrow walked past carrying surveying gear and deep-rock scanners. He barely acknowledged them or the artifact. “Not interested in analyzing this, Art?” Tonya unpacked her camera and tools. Arthur looked at her and snorted. “The money ain’t in that. The money’s out there somewhere.” He motioned to the sea of solidified lava that surrounded them and moved on. “Some people lack vision,” Senzen said to her with a smirk. Tonya snapped a series of pictures of the Artemis fragment and stitched them together into a composite. Once the image was reconciled, she applied it to a database ofArtemis imagery, trying to isolate which part of the ship it could have come from. Tonya realized Senzen was standing behind her. “That’s a good idea,” he grinned mischievously and went back to directing workers. “Someone needs to tell Deke to stop scanning so close. The gravel could damage the metal.” Her MiniGlas hummed. Based on the stenciling and faded markings, there was a good chance that what they were looking at was part of the starboard thruster paneling. It was helpful but not conclusive. The panel could have come off during a crash or in space. Over the course of the next few hours, Tonya, Senzen and the workers successfully extracted the piece and placed it carefully on the ground. Tonya slowly circled the metal and captured it from every angle. In its entirety, the piece was roughly two meters by four. The edges had been melted away by the lava bath. Fortunately, its thermal shielding managed to protect this part of it long enough for the lava to cool. When she was done, she sat down and looked at it. “Pretty unbelievable, right?” Senzen slumped down in the gravel beside her. He sipped from some water. “I can’t stop looking at it,” she replied. “After all this time, we might actually know …” “Yeah,” he nodded and held the water out to her. Tonya eyed the bottle hesitantly. “Calm down, Tonya. We’re competing but that doesn’t mean we can’t be civil.” Tonya took the water and drank. She hadn’t realized how thirsty she’d been and ended up finishing the bottle. “You’re welcome,” Senzen said with a chuckle. “Sorry.” “Don’t worry. I got some more coming through.” Senzen glanced around. One of Arlington’s assistants hurried out of the corporate headquarters with more bottles. “You already have his assistants fetching you stuff?” “I work fast,” Senzen replied with a shrug. He took the bottles. “Cheers. Thanks.” The assistant hustled off. Senzen turned to Tonya. “Shall we?” They pored over every inch of the Artemis metal, front and back. Tonya cleaned it the best she could, then searched for any kind of clue to indicate what happened. There was nothing. The edges were melted to the point where it was impossible to determine whether the panel was ripped off or not. She ran tests on micro-samples of the metal. Another dead end. She sat back and tried to disconnect from the puzzle. Hoping a few moments away would give her some perspective, she looked at Deke still scanning the landscape from his ship. Squig was slumped on the hillside trying to fix his scanner. He pulled an entire scanning module off and tossed it down the slope. Then inspiration hit her. Quelling her impulse to run, she attempted a casual stroll back to the artifact. She rescanned the edges of the panel. Senzen approached. “Got something?” “I don’t know. Maybe.” Tonya ran her fingers along the edge of the metal. “But it’s not like I’ll tell you if I do.” “Fair enough,” he stood over her and watched. Tonya grabbed the metal and tested the weight. She could flip it on her own but not with control or without damaging it. “Give me a hand,” she said to the workers. They didn’t move, only looked at each other then Senzen. “Yeah, I’ve already made arrangements with them so they’re only really helping me out.” Senzen shrugged innocently. Tonya glared at him then flipped it herself. The metal face slammed down on its other side. It hurt her spiritually to do it, but she wasn’t going to give Senzen an inch. The interior side of the plate was much like the exterior. Metal. Melted. There was a patch less warped than the rest. Tonya examined every millimeter with her zoom optics. Finally, she found an edge. A clean edge. That was it. She had to suppress the swell of elation inside her to not tip her hand. She looked around but Senzen had disappeared. * * * * Five minutes later, Tonya was outside Arlington’s temporary office. The assistant ushered her inside. Tonya again resisted the urge to sprint those final steps. Arlington was at his desk, sifting through datafeeds of company assets. “You’ve found something?” he asked without looking up. “I don’t think this is a crash site, Mr. Arlington.” Arlington finally gave her his attention. Tonya brought up photos and zoomed in on the patch until she focused on the clean edge. “See that? That edge wasn’t ripped or bent. It was cut.” Tonya brought up additional datascreens of her findings. “My analysis says it was made with a precision laser that, while clumsy compared to today’s standards, is period-accurate to the type of tech included on the Artemis.” “Go on.” “I think it set down here to make repairs,” Tonya said, that thrill bubbling up again. “It’s still out there.” “Quiet a discovery indeed, Mr. Turov,” Arlington said to a side door. Tonya looked around, confused. Senzen stepped out. “I told you we found something big.” Senzen stepped up beside Tonya. “We?” She stammered. Her confusion quickly turned to fiery indignation. “Mr. Arlington, I don’t know what he told -” “Miss Oriel, please.” Arlington waved his hand. “You’ve sold me.” Tonya glared at Senzen, suddenly wishing for pyrokinetic powers. “The offers still stands,” Arlington said as he turned back to his feeds. “Now, you two go find it.” . . . to be continued