Moisture streaked across the sides of the Taipan’s canopy as the craft soared past the rising smokestacks fuming from the burning city.
Three thousand meters and climbing Commander.
Arctano’s voice boomed in the tiny enclosed cockpit.
I hunched over to the side, holding my side as blood pooled around my waist onto the chair. The strenuous act of escaping had caused some grievous infraction to my wounds.
“Thanks…” I grunted as the fighter shuttered violently through its beginning ascent through the atmosphere, Arctano’s auto-piloting skills straining to keep the ship stable. The Arctano was an intelligent little program as far as AI standards go, but thanks to the limitations enforced by multiple legislations across the entirety of the inhabited bubble banning machine sentience (something that I did not agreed upon), his ability to respond to anomaly quickly was somewhat restricted.
The ship penetrated the thick dark blanket of clouds. I turned my head back around to gaze upon the city through the windshield. For a moment between layers of smoke, the smoldering glow of embers and skyscrapers was witnessed. Flashes of light silently popped as rifles discharged.
Glad I’m no longer down in that shitstorm. Almost as if on que, Arctano’s echoed again.
Commander, two vessels of unknown identity’s have located the fighter and are currently tracking you.
“Wonderful. Tell them to piss off.”
The holographic radar in the center of the console that controlled the Taipan pulsated as two signals apparated. The electronic panel next to my ear beeped. Someone was attempting voice communications. I pressed the button to the receiver with my free hand.
“Tutor to Taipan, this is Master Geur of the Empire. Disable your shields and turn your ship around immediately, or me and my Eagle buddy will be force to take immedi-.”
I backhanded the receiver’s switch. “Get me out of here Arc. Keep the ship hidden as best you can but shoot these guys down if necessary.”
Understood. You’re twenty kilometers away from the Phantom Commander. Taking evasive maneuvers now.
The Taipan lurched as a salvo of laser fire brushed the right engine.
Initializing stealth protocols. Disabling functionality.
The ship’s radiators retracted, and several of the controls panels inside of the dead turned off. The cannon’s retreated into their holding compartments. The fighter dipped into a nearby castle of clouds, obscuring the Taipan from sight. The heat indicator began to flash as the temperature increased, but thanks to the combined effort of the high altitude and the heat transference between the moisture in the clouds, the heat levels in the Taipan could only climb incrementally.
Driblets of water splattered against the canopy as the Taipan plowed through the white blankets.
“Bring me carefully back up above the cloud layer. Let me see if they’re around. Make ready to dock.”
The Taipan’s engines hummed loudly as thrust was output and the ship carefully slipped it’s the tip of the canopy above the lip of the clouds.
I looked around, trying to visually find any sign of the two trailers. The scanners failed to find anything either.
“Where’s the ship Arc?”
27° Northeast and 40° vertical of your bearing Commander.
I looked slightly to my left and up past the nose of the Taipan. In the distance, I could barely make out the silhouette of the Phantom, the pale blue lights betraying its position, flickering every so often inside of the massive cloud it was hiding in.
“Excellent. Bring me home.”
The Taipan momentarily dipped back underneath the clouds, readjusted its angle, and proceeded to blast out of the clouds, heading straight for the ship overhead. The two Eagles from before instantly began taking potshots at the tiny Taipan. The fighter’s shields quickly melted as the enemy’s laser weapons scraped the area surrounding the ship.
Deploying countermeasures. Chaff away. They’re unable to lock with their primary weapons due to silent running. Missile – Lock. Taking evasive maneuvers. More laser fire. Taking dam-
Arctano’s voice garbled and disappeared.
“Arc?” I called out. The whine of the missile-lock cried out. I looked down. On the radar panel in front of me, I could see one of the holographic icons flashing white. A missile had been fired.
“Arctano can you hear me?” The panic beginning to rise in my voice.
I smashed a command on the panel in front of me, overriding the autopilot.
A miniature screen flared in front of hand as I yanked the throttle back with a bloodied hand. The ship’s communication relay had been shot cleanly off. I looked up at the rapidly approaching missile, trying to determine its velocity and time it would take to hit me. There would be no dodging it. There was no time to re-deploy the autocannons. My only hope lay in trying to get the missile to detonate early or by hitting one of the antenna-like wings that the Taipan sported.
I pushed the throttle forward, my heart racing as I continued to focus on the missile nearing on my radar.
A moment before the missile hit, I pulled hard on the throttle, using the deceleration to drop the ship’s nose down. The missile exploded. The force of the blast slammed into the Taipan, sending it into a downward corkscrew. I was pressed against the side of the wall of the cockpit from the shockwave, sparks spraying across the cockpit falling into my lap. The Taipan held together. It took every bit of strength to reach up and re-take control of the ship. The exhaustion nearly caused me to faint. Feeling my waist painfully stretch, I gingerly countered the spin, and the ship settled to a somewhat stable glide.
In the horizon I saw the rapidly approaching Eagles. I tried to charge the engines, but there was no further response from them. Only the lower stabilizers were able to keep the ship from plummeting further.
That’s not good…
Unable to accelerate, I grit my teeth, waiting for the next missile lock. I had a plethora of other tricks I was ready to use. I was not about to concede to the imperials demands. Not again. Not like last time. My vision began to blur. The indisputable feeling of rage began to grow as the whine of a missile-lock screamed in my ear. I punched a command and overrode the stealth protocol. The Taipan’s autocannons limped out of their retainers. I would keep fighting until my last.
I tightened my grip on the controls as the missile-lock cried out in the cockpit for a second time.
Right as the icon on my radar flashed white, a single glowing orb lit up the darkness, stealing my attention away from the Eagle about to fire. It gracefully flew across the sky in the direction of the nearest ship. It smashed into it, crumpling through the minimalistic shields and punching through the midline of the vessel. The velocity of the sphere continued forward, going so far as to hit and dissipate, as it splashed against the opposite wall of shielding. The missile that was primed to fire exploded on the side of the ship, and the eagle sank, corkscrewing in its mangled mess before disappearing below the clouds.
I looked up and realized I was directly underneath the triangular silhouette. Arctano had waited until the last possible minute to shoot.
The second Eagle, realizing it’s mistake, dove, trying desperately to disappear below the storm’s canopy as the Fer de Lance exploded from its cover. A second orb of light followed the Eagle, cleanly sinking into the ship. It melted through shield and structure alike. All that remained was a glowing stripe running diagonally across the Eagle’s dorsal apparatus. It quietly spun and fell beneath the clouds.
With the danger finally gone, Arctano maneuvered the Phantom until it lined up horizontally with the Taipan and I carefully maneuvered the Taipan forward using the ship’s stabilizers. The Phantom’s magnetic system locked onto the Taipan and scoped the fighter into it’s bay. I fell back into my seat.
It’s cargo safely secured, the Fer de Lance tipped it’s nose skyward and began charging its frame shift drive.
Witch-space disappeared behind the Phantom. The crystalline beauty of Alioth’s star filled the ship’s interior, lighting up the miniature emergency room.
T9U-K1 stood solemnly by the metallic table where Vitu lay unconscious. The android scanned Vitu’s body for the umpteenth time, sending a continuous stream of information to another android opposite of him. The XiHe self-proclaimed Penghouin, or “Penguin” as Vitu had jokingly called him after the time he’d visited an amusement park, carefully used the medical tweezers in his disformed hand to pull out a fragmented bullet. Both androids mutely relayed information to one another, pressing commands on the nearby operation table, steadily injecting Vitu with a variety of medicines as they both operated on him.
Androids T9U-K1 and Penghouin, how is patient?
Arctano’s voice called out through the Fer de Lance’s speakers.
T9U-K1 responded without looking up from the mass of flesh and blood in front of him.
“Patient, is, in, stable, condition. Patient, needs, further, evaluation. Several, contusions, to, infra, structure, may, cause, discomfort, if, left, untreated.”
Can it be treated on a later date?
“Plooblee, bu he nee come back soum.”
The XiHe’s distorted translator warbled.
Initiate wake-up call. You can work on him later.
“Yes, Arctano. Should, we, initiate, Irena, upon, wake, up, procedure?”
No, I don’t think that Vitu will be in the mood for her. He has a deadline. He needs to deliver the data he’s collected.
“Under, stood, higher, one. Peng, houin, please, initiate, wake, up, procedure.”
The XiHe turned to a panel besides the table. “Initializ wake o procedor. Tree, two, whom.”
From a bag labeled “LasGel,” a thick greyish substance ran down the tube leading into the center of Vitu’s exposed arm.
“Wake o procedor stared, nanbots restructlizing body…”
Several hours later…
I awoke in a familiar cramped bed. I was in my personal compartment.
Blue light reflected from the massive gas giant, spilling into the small room. I wiped the drool from my mouth and swung my bruised legs over the bench that I’d personalized to fit as a bed for my modest frame.
The quarters were small, a mere three-hundred square feet, but it had everything I could ever ask for. Panels lined the walls displaying real-times and statistical data of various planets and systems. Pictures of artwork and scenery intermingled with the duly flickering screens. Below the reinforced glass pane looking out to the void was a long, slanted glass wall, encompassing a miniature terrarium. Rows of plants that had been ascertained from all types of worlds from across the galaxy grew wildly, their dangerous beauties and substances withheld in the auto-adjusting garden. An occasional spray of chemical components rained down on them. It was one of the more humane things I did to help keep my sanity in check during my long voyages. Arctano also found quite the pleasure in helping keep the flora alive and well.
In the center of the room was a low, flat, cylindrical machine. The starship’s galaxy map rotated above it slowly. I painfully stood up and hobbled over, making a face as I felt the bruises protest.
The Fer de Lance’s icon appeared as I neared the map.
The hairs on my neck went up slightly as the “social” AI named Madam spoke with her elderly, serene voice.
Standard time is 0521 hours. We are currently in orbit around Alioth 5. You are expected to meet with a representative from the Alioth Independents in approximately three and a half hours, in the city of New Rossyth, on Turner’s World.
“Thank you, Madam. I’ll get right on that…”
I stood painfully.
“Madam, what do the androids in medical have to report?”
Medical androids T9U-K1 and Penghouin located several injuries that required immediate service.
Madam hummed. From the worst to least concerning problems you have… You were shot multiple times, of which two bullets remained lodged inside of you. One was found in your lower stomach and one pressing against the oblique fissure of your left lung. The ninth and tenth rib in your back were shattered from the bullets. You also bent several metatarsus’, and your left arm was once again, regrettably, damaged beyond typical function.
The AI imitated taking a breath and continued in an almost sarcastic manner. You successfully managed to strain three of the more important tendons in your left foot and a few in your shoulder’s rotator cuff. In addition to all of this, you suffered a variety of other lesser sprains, bruises, and abrasions.
Madam paused momentarily. With all of that said, the androids reported that they were able to amend several injuries, as well as extract the two bullets that were still inside of you. Nano-bots were able to stop any further hemorrhaging that had occurred when you were shot. Minor surgeries were implemented to realign the fragmentated bone structures and are being superficially held together via LasGel. Some was also used to alleviate discomfort in your ankle and shoulders. However, the LasGel was implemented roughly eight hours ago and will be biodegrading shortly. I recommend finding a better suited nano-surgeon on Wicca’s World, or traveling to Selene Jean’s engineer depot and re-allocating your titanium bone structure there.
“Thank you again Madam. I’ll consider your suggestion.”
Of course, Commander.
I headed for the sliding door and exited the small room.
The narrow hallway was only twenty meters long but echoed as the soft scuffing as the balls of my feet lightly tapped the galvanized tinted floors. The hallway was octagonal, but simplistic and elegant. No electronics were here. The only things on the walls were a few grooves and handles for zero-gravity movement and small manholes for quick access to either of the two lower floors. The unique symmetry was akin to that of Core Dynamic models, resulting in swift and uncomplicated travel. The lowest passageway connected to the engine room, power service, the fighter bay and rampway. The second neatly winded in a figure eight pattern, reaching to the weapons, shield systems, power distributors, defenses and countermeasures, and the small cargo hold. The uppermost, the one where I was on, solely led to the bridge.
After managing to limp a quarter of the way, I gave up.
“Arctano, please turn off the magnetism.” The transmitters picked up my voice, repeating my command through the entirety of the ship so all could hear.
Arctano boomed in return.
There was a disorienting feeling as the current feeding the ferromagnetic floors was disabled. No longer tied to anything, I pushed myself off the nearest groove and floated the rest of the way down to the bridge.
The pressurized door hissed and slid open.
Welcome back Commander.
Arctano stated, his computerized voice sounding almost happy.
Two androids, JK-95U and D6-20D sat in opposing chairs, silently inputting commands and watching their screens. Busy with their task they quickly glanced over to me and waved hello.
"Nice seeing you again gentlemen." They nodded and returned to their work.
I floated to the center of the triangular shaped room. “Thank you Arctano. Turn on the magnetism again?” I slowly fell back onto the flats of my feet. “Nice job knocking those ships back there.” I dryly said.
Arctano hesitated, trying to discern the emotion behind my words. Of course, Commander. Apologies on the delay. I didn’t want them to have the chance to call reinforcements if I missed my first shot.
“You hardly ever miss your first shot.”
I have a reliable record yes, but it’s all via virtual calculation. Sorting out anomaly before it can occur can be time consuming. In this case it was the acceleration of the pl-
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry, I get it Arc. How’s the Taipan?”
D6 turned to face me in his chair."The fighter suffered severe damage to its lower apparatus. Most of the internals have been compromised."
He said, his voice crisp.
I raised my wrist and tapped a glowing button just beneath the skin. Nothing happened.
Your left arm needs a repair to its functionality. Penghouin was able to stabilize the rotation mechanisms in your wrist, but all the electronics that you’re used to has been either destroyed or disabled for fear of short-circuiting.
A holographic screen shot into the air on one side of the bridge. I hobbled over to take a better look as the cross-section of the fighter formed. There was an enormous red patch just below the Taipan’s cockpit. It seemed that the missile hadn’t just hit the antenna-like wing like I’d planned, but at least every vital part of the ship as well.
The missile detonated early… but just barely… how in void’s hell did the thing stay afloat?
I thought to myself.
“Quite the close call… Did you calculate the chances of me surviving as well?”
Would you like to hear the analytics in creating my evaluation for that problem?
There barest hint of amusement in Arctano's voice sounded.
“Just a brief description would be nice.”
The Taipan’s superior set of armor is made for conflict, something that I’ve always considered unnecessary given that you always run away from fights.
“Guilty as charged. Better to live to spy another day in my opinion.”
An opinion that has proven itself multiple times. I believed you to be safe enough to survive multiple missiles. Apparently, that later presumption was nearly fatal, however, I assure you: if I didn’t trust your capability in solving the predicament, I would’ve stepped in sooner.
I pursed my lips, the issue of my near-death experience somewhat unsettling me. Arctano’s programing at times made me nervous me. He wasn't like more AI, such as Madam, who had come with the stock Fer de Lance. His calculating demeanor was cold yet frighteningly effective. I didn't blame him though. His only fault was following the programs that he was given, to come to the best solution, and then act on it. He had solely been created to assist me in accomplishing whatever mission was at hand and to grant further capabilities so that I may make a safe return. But the Alliance engineer who had done a majority in creating his omnipresence aboard my ship also made sure to inform me, that Arctano was different. Something that he had never seen before. It was almost as if Arctano was a little too
Thankfully, dealing with the a semi-aware sentient machine was one of the lesser drawbacks of being a spy. The Alliance and Independent systems I worked for paid me well and kept me informed about any changes that might concern me, primarily those that had to do with the Empire and Federation. And while I may have sold my a majority of my life working for both influences, it kept my home system Nagnatae safe. Protected and supervised by the partners that I had made over the years.
Employment as a spy also kept the boredom of work far away. With new danger’s around every corner, dullness was never a part of my semi-adventurous life.
For the most part, life was good. A bit lonely granted, but I had plenty of fun with the androids who helped run the ship. Lots of them had been programed with combative and gaming capabilities, allowing for many long travels to be spent in joyful contemplation as cards were thrown around or the training robots exercised me with mock fights. Arctano and Madam would also rarely, but always humorously, bicker with one another, complaining that the other was somehow utilizing too much “space” in the ship’s mainframe.
My stomach growled.
Not to mention, Penguin’s cooking skills.
I raised my hand and swiped the holographic screen away. A livefeed of the earth-like world, dimly lit by the white star, replaced the image.
“Send a message to the representative that’s meant to meet me. Tell him I need to do some quick maintenance on the ship, on myself, and I’ll be down shortly for debriefing.”
“Prepare for descent in one hour.”