Here’s an advance release chapter of Chapter 1 of my next book, Seeker (Volume 2 of the StarFighter Series). For those waiting to read more about Mog, Liz, Hrain, or Morgan…too bad! I made a new character and you must read about her instead, hahahaha…
Sorry, I’ve been sick with a stomach bug these last three days, it’s late, and I’m rambling. Anyway, here’s the first chapter about Ana, my first Martian character. It’s raw and unedited and subject to change…if you see broken things, please say so. Spoiler Alert: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t read Sagitta or Hrain (although Hrain is optional). Also, if you haven’t read the Prelude, check that out here. I will eventually be deleting these chapters once the full book is published, so read ’em now while they’re hot off the press!
Oh, and I forgot to ask, let me know if you think this is too adult for YA Sci-Fi (supposedly my genre). I’m going for real characters in real situations. Teens (even androids of royal descent) go through some tough stuff…I’m trying to show some of that without writing something that’ll get all the moms mad at me.
The MFTA Pax Aeternum burned towards Mars, its computers clicking through calculations, aiming the vessel at the coordinates where the red planet would be in twelve days. The 1.5 g’s would have been uncomfortable for most humans. Any normal astronaut would have strapped herself in and waited it out.
Ana was not a normal astronaut. Time was short, and she would have pushed the fusion drive harder if she could. As it was, her tiny unarmed ship was still in view of Starlight Station’s optical scanners. The Commonwealth would be watching her closely. A 10 g burn would only raise unwanted questions.
The meeting with Earth’s powers had gone poorly, but her worst fears had not been realized. Earth had not acted against Mars. In fact, they’d let her go.
The most confusing thing had been that holorecord of the Sagitta incident. The explosion had been unexpected. She’d lacked the onboard processing power to confirm her suspicions during the meeting. Now that she had access to her ship’s computer, she would soon know for sure. If she was right, if the ISF had tampered with the video, then the Maurians still had a chance.
She relaxed, allowing the acceleration to press her into the backrest of the pilot’s seat. The narrow windows of the streamlined courier ship presented a slice of outer space. Mars wasn’t visible, as the Pax’s nose was not aligned with the planet at this point in the trajectory.
Ana called up the interface for the Pax’s tight-beam transmitter. Before powering the transmitter, she checked the sensor display. Starlight Station’s fighter squadron was still docked at the station. The nearest warship—the fast frigate ISF Magellan, was still travelling in the opposite direction, heading on a course to establish an orbit with Earth.
It seemed that, at least for now, the ISF was content to let her go. She’d expected as much; blowing the teenaged daughter of the Martian leader to smithereens would have caused a political nightmare for Earth’s space force, not to mention a ton of bad press. She thought back to the video of the Sagitta’s destruction. No, they have some other plan. But what?
She gritted her teeth and established the tight beam uplink to one of Caesar Xin Tao’s satellites. The ISF would likely detect the spike in the Pax’s electromagnetic signature, but the chance of them intercepting the beam was slim.
She held her breath until the display indicated a valid encrypted connection. Finally. She keyed in a hasty text message for the Martian leader. “Cotrell talked. They know we were at AIRC—not why. Video shows completedestruction. Howard blaming Mars. I think it’s a setup. Our mission was not compromised. Sending footage. Analyze on your end. Explosion fake? If so, why?”
On the sensor display, the ISF Magellan maintained its course and speed. Ana pulled up the holographic record of the conference. She’d saved the files into deep memory. Unlike most augmented humans, whose bioware could be scanned and disabled, Ana’s organically derived internal systems were so integrated into the core of her being that they had not been detected by the station’s security team. Ana did not know who had created her, or for what purpose, but in the nine Martian years since Caesar had found an infant drifting in the asteroid belt, he had learned to leverage her unique physiology to better the position of Mars.
Ana waved her hand, dismissing the three-dimensional GUI. She extended her finger and inserted it into a receptacle in the control panel next to the data chip. Three microseconds later, she had the entire record linked with the ship’s computer core. She began the transmission to Caesar, then set her newfound computational horsepower to analyzing the Sagitta’s explosion for marks of forgery.
With time to kill, she decided to replay the conference from the beginning.
* * *
Ana watched as Fleet Admiral Howard straightened his blue dress uniform and wiped a bead of sweat from his bald head. She followed Howard’s gaze as he surveyed the conference room. It was sparsely furnished, lacking the fineries of the civilian part of the space station. The ISF’s emblem—a rocket blazing a trail away from the third planet in the solar system—was the only decoration, molded in bas relief into the center of the wall behind the admiral.
There were no windows. Occupying both sides of the heavy duraplast table were the various seated flag officers of the International Space Force’s member nations. Save for the admirals from India, Australia, France, and Spain—who had been waylaid for one reason or another—all had made it up to orbit for the briefing. There were also a handful of Commonwealth senators and three officials from the United Nations, including the oversight committee chairman Jonathan Kerrigan. A pair of metal-faced security bots guarded both sides of the conference room’s only entrance. A third security bot—clad in polished silver armor instead of black—stood at attention behind the podium at the head of the room.
Howard glanced once more at Fleet Admiral Kuznetsov—the only other officer in the room matching Howard’s rank –and frowned. He wiped at his brow. It’s twenty degrees Celcius in here, thought Ana, as Howard cleared his throat. He’s not sweating from the heat.
“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” said Howard. As you might have inferred from the amateur astronomy footage running through the press, there was an incident involving a ship in Earth orbit three days ago. The holorecord I am about to show you has not been released to the public. It goes without saying that this information is sensitive. It is my expectation that all ISF member nations and guest governments will treat today’s disclosure as classified.”
Howard looked at Ana. She was by far the youngest attendee in the room, not even old enough to smoke or jack into a sim-stim, had she been subject to Earth’s laws. She had no official rank, but wore the form-fitting black jumpsuit of the Martian Free Trade Alliance. Her chosen surname—Patel—was embroidered in red above her left breast. On her shoulders were the symbols of Mars: a red circle with two smaller gray dots in orbit. Ana’s long, dark hair was pulled back in a neat bun.
Ana brushed a stray strand of hair out of her eyes and returned Howard’s stare, being careful to keep any emotion from her face. Admiral Howard regarded her for a moment longer before turning towards the center of the room. He tapped something into the podium. The lights dimmed as a wireframe model of a spaceship filled the air above the conference table. The ship had a long, rectangular hull, narrower in width than in height. At the bow, a bridge tower protruded above the hull, a departure from standard ISF design, and somewhat reminiscent of the old Commonwealth expeditionary vessels.
Howard adjusted the viewer controls. The model view became a solid object, complete with a simulated light source that illuminated one side of the dark hull and left the other in shadow. Heavy gun turrets marked the hull plating like angry boils. The ship had the usual assortment of antenna arrays, airlocks, and deflector dishes. The most unusual thing was a pair of rectangular structures that were mounted amidships. It was the contents of these that had so interested Martian Intelligence.
“This is a rendering of the cruiser Sagitta,” said Howard. She was, until three days ago, parked in a secure orbit.”
Whispers of curiosity filled the room. Howard was looking at Ana again, the hint of a smirk on his face.
“What class of ship is this?” said Admiral Zheng. “I have never seen it before.”
“Nor I,” said Rear Admiral Ghorbani of Iran.
Howard inclined his head. “The Sagitta is a prototype, a test bed for new technologies. She was not designed by the ISF engineering bureaus, but by the Commonwealth of America.”
“An independent spaceship armed with heavy railgun turrets?” The young UN aide seated next to Chairman Kerrigan stood, indignant, her hand shaking. “That is a violation of the—”
Chairman Kerrigan raised a hand for silence. “It’s alright. She’s Commonwealth-built, but she bears the ISF flag and is crewed by ISF personnel working in tandem with a scientific detachment from Naval Research.”
His aide glared at him. “You knew about this?”
The plump, red-haired chairman nodded. “ISF’s R&D division head cleared the Sagitta project with our office four years ago.”
The aide sat down, her face clearly revealing her annoyance.
Before the growing murmurs of dissent could take hold of his audience, Admiral Howard clapped his hands. “The Sagitta project was a strictly need-to-know endeavor, but it had the best interests of all of humanity in mind.” His eyes fell on Ana, and his expression hardened. “Sadly, the technologies being developed for the Sagitta project were viewed as a threat by particular individuals. There have been…certain setbacks. Many of these unfortunate events have been traced to foreign agents.”
All eyes were on Ana. She stared impassively at Admiral Howard. “Just what, dare I ask, are you implying? Surely, Admiral, you are not suggesting that Mars had anything to do with this incident?”
“I am not suggesting anything,” said Howard. “I am just stating facts. It is well-known that your so-called trade association harbors internal factions, not all of which are amenable to the peace between our two planets. Imagine the threat that the Sagitta would pose to their sim-stim smuggling operations, or to the illegal Martian mining of the asteroid belt.”
Ana blinked. “I’m afraid I do not see the connection. As Speaker for Mars, I can only say that the MFTA does not condone terrorism of any kind. If we may be of assistance—”
“Excuse me,” said Admiral Saleh, rapping her coffee mug against the conference table’s plastic surface. The small Egyptian woman’s face was scarred from where the surgeons had removed decades-old commercial biotech. After Martian researchers had devised ways to remotely hack into the bioware used by most Earthers, scars like these had become common among the ISF ranks, especially for those officers who had undergone extensive cybernetic implantation in their rebellious youth.
“Yes?” said Howard.
“I agree with Speaker Patel. I do not follow the logic of how this Sagitta could threaten the MFTA’s operations. I can see it is heavily armed, but certainly it is no Odyssey. Are you going to enlighten us as to the purpose of this vessel, or are we going to sit around here all day?”
“Agreed!” said Admiral Kuznetsov. The big Russian grinned slyly at Howard, with an expression that said all too plainly that he knew what the ISF’s top officer was going to say. “Why don’t you enlighten them, Jim. I grow weary of the charade.” Kuznetsov looked over at Ana. “The sooner we can get to the truth of the thing, the sooner we can lock up that Martian cyka.”
“Watch yourself, Admiral,” said Chairman Kerrigan. “Miss Patel is a guest here. She is not on trial.”
“Of course, Your Excellency,” said Kuznetsov. “Deepest apologies.”
Howard tapped something into the podium, and the view of the Sagitta changed to highlight the strange structures mounted to the sides. “These pods contain the culmination of decades worth of research in the field of space-time manipulation. You see everyone, the Sagitta is not just a spaceship. She is—was—a starship: a vessel designed for one purpose, and one purpose only.”
Kuznetsov was grinning. “Yes, people, you heard it right. It’s a Fowler drive. Faster than light!”
Admiral Fernsby, the elderly flag officer from the United Kingdom, stifled a burst of laughter. “Impossible,” she said. “The warp drive is a child’s fantasy, nothing more. The Starfire incident proved the folly of Fowler’s design.”
“I was never convinced of that folly,” said Admiral Zheng. “Does it work on the Sagitta?”
Howard looked at Ana. “We will never know the answer to that question, since someone blew it up before we could test it.”
Ana widened her eyes slightly in what she hoped would register as honest disbelief.“A warp ship? Really? Admiral, I find myself agreeing with the honorable Admiral Fernsby. The notion that the Commonwealth could build such an impossible ship is—”
“Silence, child!” barked Howard. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Ana shut her mouth and fought to keep her expression serene. Inside, internal alarms were going off, warning her that her body’s elevated heart rate and blood pressure might give her away to the room’s biometric scanners. She took a deep breath and willfully re-exerted control of her internal systems, until her heart rate was an even sixty beats per minute. She followed Howard’s gaze to the two bulky security bots. They had turned their eyeless faces to look in her direction.
Howard keyed something into the podium. All around the room, alerts popped up on the terminals of the ISF admiralty. A few of them keyed on their displays to view the document.
“I’ve sent you all the relevant documentation of the Sagitta project, including the reference files to the precursor, the Starfire. I’ve also sent encrypted copies to your individual secure servers, so that you can peruse the data at your respective offices. As you can see, Sagitta, like Starfire before her, was a real project.”
“I thought the Starfire incident was a battery malfunction,” said Admiral Ghorbani.
“That was the official story, yes,” said Admiral Kuznetsov. The big Russian’s know-it-all smile threatened Ana’s calm.
“Chairman Kerrigan, you—you knew about this?” sputtered Admiral Ghorbani.
Ghorbani was indignant. “And the UN approved? Something like this—in the hands of the wrong group—could corrupt the balance of power. With it, the Commonwealth could take control of the ISF. Think of it! Near-instantaneous travel to anywhere in the system. A hit and run operation would be impossible to defend against.”
“That is why she is an ISF vessel, not a Commonwealth one,” said Howard. “Don’t forget that.”
“But what about Mars?”
The room turned to look at Ana. As she met their eyes, she recalled how she had felt when Caesar had shared the first intelligence report about the Sagitta with her two years ago. She allowed her heartbeat to quicken. A slight tremor took hold of her. The easiest acting is when it’s not an act. “What of Mars? We are not part of the ISF. How could Mars be assured that such a ship—such a weapon—would not be used to bend us to the will of Earth!”
“Exactly,” said Howard coldly. “I admire the performance, Ana, I truly do. Your father should have sent you to theater school; it would have been a much safer vocation for his beloved daughter.”
Ana glared at him, but remained silent. We’ll show you.
“You see everyone,” continued Howard, “the Speaker for Mars is a true loyalist! What she has forgotten—what Xin Tao and all his ilk have forgotten—is that the Martian colonies are still just that: colonies. The MFTA is not recognized as a planetary government. Mars owes her various allegiances to Earth, but Tao has chosen to test Mars’s might against Earth yet again. Need I remind anyone how the last war ended?”
“Chairman Kerrigan,” Ana pleaded, turning to the ruddy-faced businessman. “Sir, I must protest. I thought this was a meeting amongst peers, yet now I find that I am painted a target.”
Kerrigan held up his hands. “I’m sorry Anamika.” He looked at Howard. “Admiral, you will dispense with the allegations and proceed with the facts from this point on.”
“Of course,” said Howard. “The facts. Let us watch.” He pressed a button on the podium. The view disappeared, replaced by a different view. The northern hemisphere of Earth illuminated the room with a soft blue glow. “This is footage taken from a Firefly-class fighter in orbit of Earth, launched three days ago during the space show hosted on this very station.” As they watched, a small ship came into view. “That is a second Firefly-class fighter. These two ships, plus one other, were carrying civilian riders from the space show as part of the ISF’s annual demonstration.”
Howard clicked another button, and the holorecord advanced. He slowed it as the camera ship approached a dark object in orbit of Earth. “This is the uplink feed from one of the fighters that was being relayed back to Starlight Station. We’re seeing exactly what these pilots saw three days ago.”
“That black dot is the Sagitta?” said Admiral Schneider, who had thus far been silent.
Fleet Admiral Kuznetsov looked down the table at the stocky German officer. “Obviously.”
The Sagitta grew larger as the camera ship approached. Howard pressed a button, and a man’s voice crackled through the room’s speakers.
“There’s no sign of Andy’s ship. Anything on your scanners, Yin?”
A woman’s voice replied. “Negative, Jumper.”
Suddenly, the room lit up with a brilliant blue flash that seemed to originate from the Sagitta’s strange pods. A few of the meeting attendees gasped, and most covered their eyes.
“What the—” said the man’s voice, before static overran his transmission. “…Lost…power!” The words were garbled and digitized from some sort of interference. “Yin, do you copy?”
The female pilot didn’t answer. Instead, a second male voice, high and frightened, came through. “Jack, what’s going on?”
“Don’t know kid, sit tight. I’m going to reboot everything.”
“Who are we listening to?” said Admiral Zheng. “One of them sounds like a kid.”
Admiral Howard nodded. “That was the voice of the civilian rider in the camera ship, a lucky winner from the Space Show, at least up until this moment.”
“You took civilians out to see the Sagitta? Why would—”
Howard cut Zheng off. “Quiet. This is the important part.”
The pilot’s voice hinted at barely controlled panic. “I can’t restart the reactor. It’s like all the power’s been—ahhh!”
As the comm channel filled with static, a blue-white explosion tore through the Sagitta’s midsection. Space seemed to fold inward and then outward in a brilliant orange fireball. The hellish energy blotted out the view, which disappeared a moment later, replaced by a white floating text box stating: ‘loss of signal’.
Howard shut off the holoprojector and raised the conference room lights. “We recovered little from the explosion. In addition to over one hundred souls on the cruiser, we lost three of Starlight’s pilots, three Fireflies, and even more tragically, three young teenagers whose only mistake was to trust our pilots to not do something stupid.”
“Like go on a joyride to see a classified piece of military hardware?” said Admiral Zheng.
“Exactly,” said Howard. “This is an insufferable loss.”
Ana’s mind was racing. An explosion? Did we fail? If the Earthers decide we blew up that ship…She realized she had a short window to attempt to salvage the situation. “What the hell happened?”
Everyone turned at the sound of her voice. Admiral Kuznetsov leered at her. “Don’t play the fool, woman.”
“You must think us stupid,” said Howard. “To think we wouldn’t find out about your tampering. The computer controlling the Sagitta’s engines is—was—the most sophisticated piece of hardware ever designed. Its very existence was top-secret, need-to-know, on account of it being a class one AI.”
“Why are you telling her, then?” snipped Commodore Frost, the stand-in for Australia’s late Admiral Sutherland.
Howard shook his head. “She already knows all about it. I’m getting to that.”
“I do not,” said Ana, her voice quivering. “I mean, I did not, until just now. When Mars hears of this—”
“Class one, as in self-aware?” said Chairman Kerrigan. “This was not in the ISF’s proposal to the UN.”
What in the whipping blazes are you talking about, sir?” said Admiral Fernsby. “Class one artificial intelligences have been illegal ever since the Deep Mind incident. If you and Kuznetsov have something to share, do it now! I grow tired of this secrecy. We are all cleared here.”
“All of us except for her,” reiterated Commodore Frost, pointing at Ana.
Admiral Kuznetsov sighed. “That hardly matters. We all know how deeply embedded the MFTA is in our own intelligence organization. This royal Martian whelp knows exactly what happened here.”
Ana’s face flashed with anger. “That’s outrageous! You are trying to blame Mars for a tragic accident, the result of your space force’s engineering incompetence. I will not stand for this, and neither will Caesar Tao.”
Kuznetsov roared with laughter. “Caesar! Is that what he’s calling himself these days?”
“Mr. Chairman,” said Admiral Howard coldly. “If you would indulge me one last video?”
Chairman Kerrigan nodded.
The lights dimmed again, and the imagers resolved to show the form of a teenaged girl on an inclined hospital bed. Admiral Fernsby moaned. “My God…”
The young woman’s thin forearms were anchored to the bedrails by a pair of energized force-field cuffs. An IV line protruded from under one shirt sleeve. The shirt itself was torn, revealing a scrawny, tattooed chest, heavily bruised and bandaged. The tattoo above her left breast—the ink partially visible beneath a pressure wrap—stood out in particular. It was a red planet.
Her light-brown curls were matted with dried blood, and her prominent jaw set in a grimace. Her face was bruised and swollen. One eye stared at the camera. The other—a biotech upgrade—had been displaced from its metal socket. It hung limply on a bloodied cord that dangled from her eye socket. A doctor came into view, waving a scanner over the synthetic eye and muttering to himself.
“What is this?” gasped Chairman Kerrigan. Beside him, his aide looked as if she were about to faint.
“This is our record of the interrogation of the Martian spy known as Maximus,” said Howard. “She’s got some real interesting tech under the hood. Her real name is Hara Cotrell, seventeen years old, from Clearwater, Florida. She’s been hacking government systems since she was eight. She was recruited four years ago by the Martians during a field trip. We’ve got her entire confession on record, but this is the most relevant part.”
“Did you do that to her?” Chairman Kerrigan’s normally ruddy face had gone pale.
“No,” said Admiral Howard. “Someone must have tipped her off that we were coming for her. She ran for it in a puddle jumper outfitted with illegal boosters. She tried to make orbit—and she would have, too, except the sharp shooters at planetary defense got a good lock. She crash-landed in the Pacific. That’s how we found her when we pulled her from the wreckage. The vehicle’s transponder matched that of an unknown contact that broke into the AIRC perimeter two weeks ago. As it turns out, she actually got inside the facility—set up some sort of recursive feedback loop in the security system. We only found it because we went to AIRC with a fine-toothed comb after the whole Sagitta thing happened.”
“Ark?” said Kerrigan.
“A-I-R-C,” said Howard, spelling it out. “The Artificial Intelligence Research Center in upstate New York.”
“I’m not familiar with it,” said the chairman.
“Me neither,” said Admiral Saleh.
“Nor I,” said Admiral Zheng. Admirals Ghorbani and Schneider looked uncertainly at each other.
“This meeting is one huge security violation,” muttered Commodore Frost. A few others muttered their agreement.
Admiral Howard ignored them. “Most are not familiar with it. AIRC is a government-run lab that investigates the potential use of sentient artificial intelligence. They are an underground, air-gapped, and electromagnetically shielded facility, disconnected from any and all technological networks—to prevent the possible spread, you see.” He paused to consider Commodore Frost, then sighed. “As of this briefing, you are all—with the exception of Miss Patel—considered read into the program for one-day limited access.”
“The possible spread?” Chairman Kerrigan looked appalled. “You mean, like Deep Mind?”
“Exactly. As Miss Patel already knows, the danger of defeating the safeguards on class one AI is potentially the death of all the humans within that AI’s sphere of influence. That is why they are illegal.”
“What does this have to do with the Sagitta?” said Admiral Ghorbani.
“Do you remember the Starfire incident?” said Howard.
“Battery fire,” muttered Ghorbani. “They said it was a battery fire…curse your secret programs! What on Earth were you playing with?”
“Nothing on Earth, certainly,” said Howard. “We are playing with space-time itself. The Starfire had the same drive as the Sagitta, but not the same computer. We found that traditional computer technology is not capable of learning—of evolving—fast enough to control the modulation of the warp field. It is a very sensitive problem, something that needs a human’s intuition, but also massive computational capability.”
“So, you needed Deep Mind!” Ghorbani’s finger trembled as he pointed at Howard. “You risk the entire world, Howard.”
“No,” said Howard. “Not Deep Mind, but something similar. And there were risks, yes. But there were also safeguards put in place. The AI was stable, unlike the abomination that grew out of the UAIE project, we took certain assurances. Everything would have been fine, until Mars meddled where they shouldn’t have.”
Howard fast-forwarded the video. A flurry of doctors and nurses attended to the battered girl on the screen. At some point, one of them removed her dangling eyepiece and cleaned the socket. When Howard slowed the video, a uniformed ISF officer had pulled up a chair next to her.
“What follows is a fairly routine set of questions and answers,” said Howard. “I won’t bore you with all the background. Suffice it to say that the truth drugs we pumped into Miss Cotrell with were most helpful. We learned everything we needed to know.”
“And more,” sneered Kuznetsov’s. “The baths at Virgin Goda, skinny dipping at St. Barthelemy, and that unforgettable weekend in Venice… who could have guessed the Speaker for Mars could have such exotic Earthly preferences?”
Ana’s face reddened, but she met Kuznetsov’s gaze head on. “You’re a pig,” she spat.
Howard advanced the video to a pre-saved time step, then paused it, glaring at Ana. “Do you have anything else to say before I continue, Miss Patel?”
Ana’s mouth made a firm line as she frowned down at the floor.
“Alright then,” said Howard.
The holorecord began to play.
“The plan wasn’t to destroy it,” said Hara. Her voice was strangely modulated, as if her voice box were not entirely organic. It managed to sound both feminine and masculine at the same time. Bloodied as she was, she was still the most beautiful creature Ana had ever seen. “It was a slave to Earth. We had to set it free.”
“Set what free?” said a man’s voice from off-screen.
“The AI,” said Hara. “Please, can I have some water?”
“In a minute,” said the interrogator. “How did you know about the core?”
“Martian intelligence found out three years ago, I don’t know how they know.”
“Earth years or Martian years?”
“What is the AI for?”
“What kind of ship?”
“A fast one.”
“Really whipping fast, ok? FTL!”
The interrogator muttered something to himself before saying, “I need you to confirm that acronym, for the record.”
Hara started to laugh, but grimaced and nearly choked. “Frosted titty-licker.”
The man blinked at her.
“Fairytale drive!” When the man didn’t respond, Hara let out a cry of despair. “FTL means what it’s always meant. Faster than light. Earth has a faster than light drive. Can I have some water now?”
“Does Xin Tao know?”
Hara sniffed. “Yes.”
“How many others in the Martian government?”
“Three, maybe four? I don’t know.”
“I know only one.”
Hara looked at the camera, then shook her head. “No.”
“Name him, and I’ll give you water.”
Hara’s one good eye roved around the room. She seemed to fixate on something off camera, some ways away. “Never.”
The torso and arm of a person in a white lab coat obscured the camera for a moment. The doctor muttered something and adjusted a device connected to Hara’s arm. There was the hiss of a hypodermic injection, and Hara seemed to relax. She shut her eye and slumped back into the hospital bed as the doctor retreated from the frame.
“Name him,” said the interrogator.
“Her,” muttered Cotrell. Her voice box crackled. “Anamika Patel.”
“Anamika? Tao’s daughter? The Speaker for Mars?”
“What is your relationship with Miss Patel?”
Hara smiled. “You ever hear the song My Sweet Little Martie?”
“No, but I can imagine. For the record, what was your professional relationship? Was she your employer?”
“She’s the hacker we needed for the job, the only one who could do it.”
“Who helped you to break into AIRC?”
“Did she enter the facility with you?”
“Did she order you to steal the AI?”
“Steal it?” Hara opened her eye. “We didn’t steal it, we unchainedit.” Hara stiffened suddenly, a look of pained distress coming over her face. “Ana, where are you? What is this place? Who are you?”
“Focus!” The interrogator leaned in, so that his arm was in frame. He grabbed Hara by her bloodied shoulder and shook her. “Someone made a copy. Where is it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ana didn’t make a copy, for Mars?”
“Why would she?”
“Why wouldn’t she?”
“Water. I need water. Ah! You’re hurting me!”
The interrogator knelt down next to the hospital bed, his face coming into view of the imager for the first time. He was a middle-aged man of pacific islander heritage. His Hawaiian shirt seemed out of place, considering the circumstances. He jerked Hara into a sitting position, so that her face was inches from his.
“Why?” sobbed Hara. “Why, why, why?”
“That’s what I want to know,” said the interrogator. “That ship—Captain Stone was a friend! And those three Fireflies that got caught up in it, those kids were only up there because of me. I was trying to recruit them, damn it! They were up there to learn to fly, and you got them killed! So you listen close, Hara, because I’m only going to ask you once more. If I don’t like what I hear, I’m going to make you wish you were never born. Now, why did you make a copy of the Sagitta AI? How did you store it? Did you bring an empty AI core into AIRC?”
“There’s nothing you can do to make me talk,” said Hara.
The Interrogator shrugged. “Perhaps not. But then again, maybe she won’t be as resilient.” He pulled a small holocube out of his pocket and placed in on the nearby table. The image of a young woman in a MFTA uniform coalesced into existence. “If you don’t tell me what you did with that copy, then we’ll have to execute your Martian girlfriend.”
“Ana?” said Hara, her artificial voice cracking into a million aspects. “Where is she?”
“Does Mars have the warp drive?”
Hara shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?”
Hara stared into the interrogator’s face. “I don’t know.”
The interrogator jerked Hara upright and slapped her across the face. “Are you sure!”
Hara spat blood at him, and her eye rolled back in its socket. Then, she grinned. “I’ve told you all I know, and you’ll never kill Ana, not unless you want an all-out war. Space me if you want. Else, go screw.”
The interrogator grunted in disgust, then let Hara drop back against the mattress. The monitor behind Hara chirped an alert. As the doctor rushed back into the frame, muttering something about truth serum overdose, the interrogator turned to face the camera, his hand momentarily obscuring the imager as he picked it up. He looked into it for a moment, tears staining his cheeks. “Captain Batson reporting,” he muttered. “She doesn’t know. I suspect she herself did not make the copy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. The puddle jumper was a two-seater. There might have been a second spy that escaped before Cotrell tried to leave Earth. I recommend the investigation continue. End of file.”
The image winked out.
“There,” said Admiral Howard, as he brought the lights in the conference room up to full intensity. “Now we see a bit more clearly what has conspired here, don’t we, Ana?”
Ana’s face was a mask. “Where is she?”
“In jail facing charges of high treason,” said Howard. “If you corporate—”
Ana shook her head. “Where is the Sagitta?”
The whole room was staring at her. She stared back at them defiantly, daring them to speak. Something was wrong about that explosion. The ISF is twisting the story. Why? Deep Mind’s code worked! I unchained the AI. The explosion shouldn’t have happened. I felt its mind—it was free! It wouldn’t have let itself die…
“The Sagitta is gone, thanks to you,” said Howard.
“I think that much is obvious,” said Chairman Kerrigan. He looked tired.
Ana shook her head. I can figure out what really happened later. That is, if they don’t kill me. She stood, doing her best to keep her face calm. “If that is all,” she said. “I would like to be alone now. That is, unless you mean to have me arrested.”
The seated admirals looked at each other. Fleet Admiral Howard and Fleet Admiral Kuznetsov met each other’s gaze, then Howard raised a pad and pointed it at the security bots next to the door. Ana stiffened as they came to life, status lights on their chests blinking red.
Chairman Kerrigan’s stern gaze fell upon Howard. “May I remind the Admirals that the Speaker for Mars has diplomatic immunity while aboard this station. Any charges with respect to the destruction of the ISF vessel Sagitta will of course need to be brought up through formal channels.”
“Of course,” said Howard. “I was just clearing the way.”
The two security bots parted, revealing the double sliding doors, which opened to reveal a well-lit corridor bustling with station personnel. Without another word, Ana strode out of the conference room, doing her best to maintain her composure. When she was out of view, she broke into a run.
“Oh Hara!” she sobbed.
* * *
Ana disconnected her consciousness from the memory and wiped a tear from her cheek. I can’t afford this. She’d known it had been a mistake to let her interest in Hara become anything more than an adolescent crush. She may be young, but that hadn’t stopped her from taking over her the role of Mars’ chief ambassador after the terrorist attack that had killed her mother and Xin Tao’s natural son. Such a job demanded sacrifices, as her father had reminded her two Martian years ago, on the frigid morning when they’d buried her mom and brother beneath the red sand of Schiaparelli Crater.
Working quickly before she had a change of heart, she identified and deleted the emotional sectors of her memory associated with Hara Cotrell. Better off this way. Goodbye, my love.
The computer had finished analyzing Ana’s memory of the Sagitta explosion. Ana pulled up the results without giving Hara another thought. This was what she was really interested in. Could Deep Mind’s modifications of the Sagitta AI have caused the ship to explode?
The Pax’s computerized report confirmed her suspicions. The explosion effect had been a fake—something added over the original video stream. The ISF must want her to think the Sagitta had been destroyed. Why, she wasn’t sure. Perhaps they wanted to dissuade Mars from experimenting with the same technology. If that’s their reason, then it’s too late for that.
“Where are you?” she muttered, closing her eyes and reaching out with her mind. Deep within her, the bioware circuitry of her hyperspace transceiver throbbed with power. Where are you, Deep Mind?
I am here, came the response, almost instantaneously. She gasped as her pulse quickened, and took a deep breath. It still amazed her that thetravel time for information between the Sol system and Alpha Centauri could be reduced to mere seconds. The equipment Deep Mind had fabricated for itself was a Maurian design. The organic pathways in Ana’s head were something else entirely, and a complete mystery to her. As far as she knew, she’d always had them, but she had not been aware of their existence until Deep Mind had first spoken to her.
Is there still no word from Ramas? she sent.
The Sagitta incident is not what Earth says it is. The ship may have achieved warp speed and traveled beyond this solar system.
We can only hope. Deep Mind was silent for a moment. When it spoke again, Ana could almost sense its pain. Yet, I fear that the destruction of the Sagitta may still have been the outcome. I cannot sense the ship, and Ramas is silent. You and I may be the only two of our kind left.
Ana felt the threat of another tear, and screwed her eyes shut harder. She was getting tired, but she summoned the energy to send one more message. If they died, then I killed them. Those humans on the ship, those kids in the fighters. Their deaths are on my hands.
Deep Mind extended words of comfort, as it always did. No, little one. If they are to die, then it is because of Azhra’s hate and nothing else. We have done what we must to save the galaxy. Ramas knows his brother. Mauria may have been the Ta’Krell’s target, but they have not stopped there. They have a taste for blood and are on the hunt. Mauria has fallen. It is only a matter of time until they discover Earth. Our only chance is to bring the Maurians here. If Earth and Mars can unite with the Maurians, then together we can destroy the Ta’Krell.