Storm Wings Chapter 2

Artificial brains have both advantages and disadvantages in comparison to standard computer systems. The neural net structure of the artificial brains more closely resembles the natural systems and this structure allows them something close to creativity. However, they have to be individually manufactured and trained. They cannot as yet be mass-produced in any meaningful sense. A single program will not run the same on two artificial brains because the brains are different. Instead, extensive use of simulated reality systems must be used to teach them the way a child or a pet is taught and conditioned.

    Standard processors are cheaper both to manufacture and to program and, within their limits, they can be faster. However, in spite of the advances in both software and hardware, they lack that certain something. They don’t grow and they don’t learn.

Introduction to A Case for the Artificial Brain by Gerhard Schmitz, Phd.
Standard Date March 22, 625

Location: Pandora, In orbit off Concordia station
Standard Date: 01 16 630

Deep in the core of her artificial mind, Pan heaved a gargantuan sigh and opened a channel to the port, requesting information on the condition of Danny Gold. It was not a voice request, but a transmission in binary code from the ship Pandora to the station’s managing computer. It carried standard authorizations, and the answer came back the same way with the medical report, the police report, the insurance report.

Pan had a very large brain but most of it was dedicated to hyper transits. After that, a lot of it was dedicated to shipboard maintenance. Only a very small percentage was dedicated to human-style intelligence. The effect of that was to make her very bright in some ways, but not very bright in others. She was not particularly creative, but was very quick and had a perfect memory.

Since Danny had been involved in a fight with one or more Parthians, she researched Parthians in general and the ones involved in the altercation in particular. Sometimes—in fact, a lot of the time—hard work makes a good substitute for creativity. Pan was built for hard work.

By the time Danny was allowed phone calls, Pan had collected a great deal of information. Not everything. She had not been able to gather much on the content and ownership of the Fly Catcher‘s holds because the Fly Catcher‘s cargo had become a matter of an ongoing investigation even while she was requesting information.

Location: Medical Bay, Concordia Station

“Captain, what exactly did the Parthian Checkgok say to you?”

It wasn’t what Danny was expecting to hear from Pan. He was expecting yet another lecture on the obligations of his abilities. “I don’t know. Which one was Checkgok? The one I tripped over?”

“Yes, Captain.” Danny could hear the impatient tone in Pan‘s voice. “The one you tripped over.”

“It apologized and said some stuff in their clicks and whistles.” This was weird. What had gotten Pan‘s wings in a knot? “Are we being sued or something?”

“Was it recorded? Are there witnesses?”

Now Danny was getting worried. “Hold on.” He turned to the latest security officer, this one a guy. “Do you know what the Parthian said to me? The one I tripped over?”

Doc Smith cracked up. “It married you.”

“It did not marry him.” The cop gave the doctor a hard look, then sighed and turned back to Danny. “Look, Parthians are an alien species. They have their own customs and laws. The neuters aren’t supposed to get . . . ah . . . excited.”

The doctor cracked up again.

Danny handed the phone to the cop. “Look, officer. I have a headache and spots on my chest. Would you mind explaining to my ship what is going on?”

Danny didn’t listen after that. The Parthian Banger hadn’t been the only drink he had that afternoon. He would learn later that Checkgok had offered itself to his clan in recompense to the injury and insult it had offered. Further, that in accepting the apology, he had accepted the service. It was called kothkoke and had things in common with both adoption and marriage. What was still under question was the effect it had on the ownership and control of the goods that Checkgok possessed in trust for its clan.

Location: Virtual Courtroom, Concordia Station

“Former clan!” Captain Kesskox rose to her full height in rage. “It has abandoned its clan. It has no rights to the goods of that clan. It is dead to them.”

“Not according to the customs of Zheck.”

The voice from the wall startled Kesskox. It dropped a few inches. “Who is that?”

Magistrate Stella Jones was going through her notes as the preliminary hearing progressed. She looked up, over the half-moon shaped eyeglasses that even Kesskox knew were unnecessary to humans in this day and age. “It’s the Pandora. The starship of Captain Gold, the recipient of . . . what is the word . . . of Checkgok’s kothkoke.” She imagined that she had probably made a hash out of the clicks and whistles of the Parthian, but at this point she didn’t much care.

The hearing, instigated by Pandora on behalf of her captain, was to determine whether a restraining order was to be issued to prevent the Fly Catcher from leaving the station while still in possession of goods that Pandora argued were now under the legal control—if not ownership—of Captain Gold.

“Ship? Ships cannot be heard in court.” Captain Kesskox gestured with her right eye stalk.

Magistrate Jones had no idea what the gesture meant. She didn’t care very much about that, either. Stella Jones stared at the obviously irritated—and increasingly irritating—bug. “They can here.” It was true that artificial brains were not allowed to instigate suits in Drake space or very often in Cordoba space. But out here on the fringe, they had to maintain a fairly open policy. Station law had long since granted legal entity status to artificial brain ships. It had been necessary. They were often the only sober member of the ship’s company. Concordia Station was sometimes a bit on the rowdy side. Not that Stella was all that thrilled with the Pandora at the moment. She had gotten notice of the requested hold during dinner. Couldn’t the darn ship have waited a couple of hours? The Fly Catcher‘s captain was in lockup, after all, along with this Checkgok character and Captain Gold.

“What do you have, Pandora?” Stella asked.

“Nothing not available in station files.” The ship’s response sounded a bit . . . snotty, Stella decided. “The Zheck clan offers kothkoke as much as a token of trust, or test of the recipient’s honor, as a payment of debt. They sometimes intentionally offer kothkoke when the clan member to be adopted out has a continuing obligation to the clan. When that happens, the receiving clan—in this case Captain Gold—has a decision to make. Does he honor the obligations of the adoptee to the Zheck clan or ignore those obligations? If the obligations are ignored, then the clan knows never to deal with that clan again. If they are honored, Clan Zheck generally develops a relationship of trust with the adopting clan.”

Captain Kesskox dropped in shock. It was clear she realized where this was going. “The human is not a Clan. Kothkoke is invalid. Not a legitimate act, simply a disgrace.”

“Well?” Stella Jones quirked an eyebrow.

“Captain Gold is from Cybrant Five,” Pandora informed the court. “A member of the Gold Family, more properly rendered as the Gold Line. He is a licensed breeder with unlimited reproductive rights on Cybrant Five, where fewer than one in a hundred people are fully licensed.”

Danny Gold groaned. As well he should, thought Stella. Cybrant Five was not famous for its respect for other cultures or other people in general. The registered lines were self-proclaimed supermen. Supermen that most of the rest of humanity despised for their arrogance.

“Captain Gold is as close as it is possible for a human to get to the definition of a clan or hive. Under Parthian law, he would be considered a new clan.”

“Clans are based on females.” Captain Kesskox’s voice was strident and insistent.

“Not always.” Merchant Checkgok was looking at the screen to Danny Gold’s cell intently. “There are two Zheck ancestor clans that started from males.”

“You admit that?” Captain Kesskox swiveled both eyes to focus on the screen showing the Zheck merchant.

“Zheck clan is proud of all its ancestor clans.” Checkgok turned one eye to the screen to Kesskox’s cell for a moment, then turned it back to Danny Gold.

“Where does that leave us?” The judge looked at the screen showing Captain Kesskox.

It left Kesskox in a terrible bind and she knew it. “The human has not acknowledged Checkgok’s prior obligations.”

“Nor is there any need to,” the Pandora‘s voice came again from the wall. Rather quickly, the judge thought. “Until and unless Captain Gold officially renounces them, Checkgok—and through it, Captain Gold—has control over the Zheck goods.”

Stella Jones noted Danny Gold’s start at that. Apparently the Pandora wasn’t telling her captain what was going on until she had things set up.

“Just what are Checkgok’s obligations to its clan?”

There was a short pause. “No. Pan, we may be a little skint, but we ain’t thieves. If we can do what the bug needs us to and it’s a fair deal, we will. If we can’t, we’ll give it back to the Zheck clan . . . along with its goods.”

That sounded good, though Stella wasn’t sure that a Cybrant Gold Line could be trusted, considering the Cybrant System’s reputation.

Checkgok apparently had no such reservations. It lowered itself all the way until its body was touching the floor. Kesskox was hissing and clicking. The translation program was rendering the clicks and whistles as a series of expletives, most of which made no sense at all.

“Fine.” Gold waved his hands in the air. “Let the bug tell me that.” Pause. “Yes, I trust you, but you don’t know everything and you should have warned me.”

Stella snorted. She knew several ships like the Pandora. They had a marked tendency to treat their crews—even their owners—more like children or pets than like bosses. “All right. Enough. For the moment neither ship is allowed to leave station while in possession of the goods in question. After this gets resolved, I’ll determine which ship has the rights to the cargo. Two things.” Stella lifted two fingers and glared into the screens. “I’m going to want an official decision one way or the other from you, Captain Gold, whether Zheck custom requires it or not. And if you decide you’re keeping Merchant Checkgok, you pay its fines.”

Danny’s face paled. Pandora chuckled. Checkgok grinned. Well, its eyestalks slid past one another in what the translation program interpreted as a grin.

* * *

Over the next week or so, Stella had two questions to answer. “How much of the Fly Catcher‘s cargo belonged to Clan Zheck?” And “who was Clan Zheck’s on-station rep?”

In the first case, she decided that the on-the-books cargo was clearly Clan Zheck’s. The off-the-books cargo, whether it should be there or not  and how it was obtained notwithstanding, was the property of the ship Fly Catcher and its crew.

In the second case, she determined that Clan Zheck’s cargo was under the control of Checkgok and Checkgok could dispose of the cargo as it saw fit.

That cargo, by agreement between Captain Danny Gold and Merchant Checkgok as a representative of Clan Zheck, was transferred to the Pandora. Stella insisted on a contract between Captain Gold and Checkgok, with Checkgok acting as agent for Clan Zheck.

While Stella was working that out other ships arrived and departed; several independents, two Drake owned freighters, and a Cordoba courier taking an unofficial shortcut.  The story of Danny Gold and the Parthian Banger—or of Danny Gold, the Parthian Banger—was quite popular and would eventually spread to the wider universe. But there were more important things for the wider universe to be concerned with for now.

Location: CSFS James Bond, Aegean Cluster, Cordoba space
Standard Date: 01 18 630

Lieutenant Commander Tanya Cordoba-Davis took the steps leading to the bridge two at a time. It wasn’t hard. The Double O7 was running at point seven gee to conserve H. The hatch to the bridge was open. Tanya grabbed a handhold and entered the bridge at the sedate, stately pace suitable for the executive officer on a Cordoba Spaceforce warship.

Commander Lars Hedlund looked up and lifted an eyebrow. “Running in the corridors again, XO?” He was about average in height, with straight black hair and brown skin. There was just a touch of epicanthic fold to his eyes, which were a startling green.

“Aye, Skipper,” Tanya said, automatically using her  anatomical control to suppress the blush. The skipper wouldn’t care, but it was a habit by now.

“Is it the genetic mods or is there something to be excited about?” He was referring to the genetic mods that gave Tanya higher than normal energy levels. Tanya could stay up and fully operational for upwards of seventy-two standard hours, more if she had to. She averaged three and a half hours a night of sleep and was stronger than an unmodified human. The skipper had some mods, but he wasn’t a Cordoba connection and his parents, while stockholders, weren’t overly wealthy.

“Well, the rear B sail runner is back up to full readiness. And Cook says we are having Morland lambfish with asparagus and hollandaise sauce for dinner.”  Tanya glanced at the main display that was showing the star field with an overlay of the ship routes and icons for the known jump points in the Aegean Cluster. She gave Lieutenant Christine Sanders who had the watch a nod, then turned back to the skipper.

“So it’s the genetic mods.”

Now it was Tanya’s turn to lift an eyebrow.

The skipper continued. “You can eat helping after helping of Cook’s hollandaise without worrying about it going to your gut. I just look at it and gain five pounds.”

“With all due respect, Skipper, I have never seen you just look at Cook’s asparagus and hollandaise.”

“XOs who point out their skipper’s lack of character have short and grisly careers, Tanya.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Tanya said, but in her case it wasn’t true, and they both knew it. Tanya was a Cordoba-Davis, a grand stockholder in her own right.  While another officer might find her career on the rocks because she was too open about criticizing her seniors, Tanya wouldn’t. That fact had made her very reticent about acknowledging Commander Lars Hedlund’s character flaws until she got to know him. She didn’t want to trade on her family name and had a tendency to bend over backwards to avoid it. That was something that the skipper and her personal aide had been working on correcting lately.

“Christine, you have the con,”  Commander Hedlund said. He hooked his thumb at the bridge hatch, and Tanya followed him out.

* * *

A few minutes later, in the captain’s cabin, Tanya sat in the chair across from his and looked at the picture of James Bond behind the skipper’s desk. The old movie series and the books they were based on were the basis of the ship’s name. In the centuries since the loss of Earth, the distinction between fictional heroes like James Bond and real ones like Audie Murphy had blurred. Only scholars knew or cared, and even scholars weren’t sure in cases like Hector and Agamemnon.

This was a small room compared to what might be seen on a station or a planet, four meters by six, with a bed that was, at the moment, folded up into the wall. Hero-class cruisers were light on amenities.

The skipper’s face grew pensive. “I know you don’t like to trade on your family, Tanya, but I’m hearing some pretty troubling rumors.”

“About what, Skipper?”

“A possible shakeup on the Board.”  Board, in this case, referred to the Board of Directors of the Cordoba Combine. The Cordoba Combine was effectively the government of much of the Pamplona Sector. It was run by a board of directors who were selected by the stockholders. Once the board was selected, it appointed the combine officers and officials. Election of board members happened when a board member retired or died and—very occasionally—when enough people with enough stock asked for a general stockholders meeting. There had been rumbles for the past two and a half standard years that there was going to be such a request with the requisite proxies filed, but it hadn’t happened yet.

“My mother doesn’t think so, Skipper, but Dad is less confident. Isabella  insists that nothing is going to happen, but she is so focused on the family investments that I don’t think she pays much more attention to politics than I do.” Tanya’s sister Isabella had gone into the family business with a will and was her mother’s fair-haired girl.

“Pay some attention, Tanya. When we hit port, send some letters. The fleet needs to know what’s going on.”

“The Admiralty . . .” Tanya started, but the skipper shook his head. Tanya’s father was one of the Admiralty Board, one of what the fleet referred to as stockholder admirals. Grand stockholders who went to the academy, then shot up the ranks, often with no experience at all on warships and who effectively controlled the spaceforce. They were the standard connection between the military and the civilian oversight, and the fact that the skipper didn’t seem to trust them was worrying.

The skipper shook his head. “Nothing against your father, Tanya. I respect him and his work in the appropriations office has done good things for the spaceforce. Still, the stockholder admirals are holding back. At least, thats what I’m hearing from the space-going admirals. The Drakes are fishing in a number of places and the stockholders don’t want to hear about it.”

The Drake Combine was the other major player in the Pamplona Sector. It was actually larger than the Cordoba Combine, but more dispersed, and that meant that its spaceforce had to cover more territory, be in more places at once. The advantage of the internal jump routes that the Cordoba Combine had was all that kept the Drakes at bay.

The Drakes usually had to go farther and send orders farther to coordinate. That let the Cordoba Combine get ships into position to respond to Drake incursions more quickly, and it had been crucial in the recent battle of Conner Chain.

“Do you really—” Tanya stopped herself. She knew the skipper was worried about the Drakes making a try for control of the Pamplona Sector. For that matter, Tanya was worried about it. It had been forty-three standard years since the last of the trade wars, when the Drake and Cordoba Combines had defeated the Ferguson Group and divided up their routes.

“Yes, I do. Because I don’t think the Drake’s pseudo-royalty system is stable. They need to fight us or they will come apart from internal dissension.”

Location: DSFS Brass Hind, Drake space
Standard Date: 01 18 630

Flash mist rolled from the vap into Third Officer Roselynn Tabina’s mouth and throat, then into her lungs, and the world became more intense. Colors were brighter and sounds crisper. The scratch on her quarter’s wall stood out in high relief. Roselynn could feel the wings flapping as a vibration in the grav intensity.  There was a hiccup, and she checked the readouts. There was a catch in amidships C wing. It was cycling fine, then it would skip a cycle. The comp was running slow. It always did when she was flashing.   She was in her quarters and used her interface to hook into the computer. The captain was off duty and Second Officer Andrew Watson had the watch.

Flash, a derivative of the thon plant, was a powerful euphoric and moderately powerful hallucinogen. It acted by increasing synaptic sensitivity and shortening synaptic response time. Depending on personal body chemistry, a user might feel ghostly touches,  hear voices, have false memories, see things, or all of the above. To the observer, the flash user shows signs of delusional paranoia, but flash generally made the user feel capable, sharp and clear. The world became more intense and connections, especially threats, that were obscure became obvious. People on flash also had response times that were as much as fifty percent faster than when not using. There were, in fact, recorded cases where the use of flash led to new and innovative solutions.

Along with her noting of the hiccup in amidships C, Roselynn realized that First Officer Jason Smythe was out to get her. It wasn’t just that he was always watching her. That had been a common response of men and more than a few women since she had  turned thirteen. Her five foot two inch body was shapely and supple. She stretched now, like a cat enjoying the feel of muscles across muscles, sliding smoothly beneath her warm tan skin.

No, there was something else about Jason Smythe. He wasn’t after a roll in the sheets. He was out to destroy her, not just to get laid. He resented her intelligence and her ability. Her mere existence proved his inferiority and he couldn’t stand that. In a moment of flash clarity, she knew that she had to get him before he got her.

* * *

Sir Jason Smythe looked on as Rating First Tom Tucker used his interface to control the bot that was on the hull, working on the amidships C wing. There was a valve that was sticking as the magnetic bearing weakened on the back stroke if the timing hit just wrong. In space magnetic bearings were standard. Anything else tended to vacuum-weld parts. In this case, the magnetic field was weaker than it should have been and out of balance so the rotator shifted to touch the cup. It wasn’t much of a touch, but at a hundred rotations a second it was enough to cause a flutter and over time would wear away the joint and cause worse problems.

“Watch that,” Jason said. The crew was sloppy and he had to keep an eye on them. He’d been tempted to do the repair himself, but that wasn’t an officer’s job.

Tucker muttered something that Jason chose not to hear and made an adjustment. Jason was a belted knight in the Drake Combine, which was more social rank than anyone else on this tub.  Even Captain Hickam was only an esquire. That gave Jason a special responsibility to make sure that the lower orders were kept on their toes.

He thought about Roselynn Tabina. The third officer was a cute little number, and he figured that with a little more pressure she would yield readily enough. It wasn’t like she had any other options, him being who he was and her being a half-caste and born on the wrong side of the blanket to boot.

“Caste” had nothing to do with ancient India or any other Earth nation. But for generations the upper echelons of the Drake Combine had been availing themselves of genetic mods. While still fertile with normal humans, they were—Jason was convinced—clearly superior. Yes, a few more “accidental” touches and Roselynn would get the message. But these things needed to be done carefully.

That was half the fun.

“All right, Tucker. Bring in the droid and see that it’s put in the queue for maintenance.”

Three hours later

Roselynn took a last hit of flash and headed for the bridge. The Brass Ass had a long, narrow structure, little more than girders separating three sail nodes. The hull held atmosphere from bow to stern, but not much more. It had algae tanks for oxygen, but no other hydroponics. It carried the food the crew ate and would off load waste when they got back to a port. The waste was valuable feed stocks for the hydroponics of many stations. The three sail nodes held the sail rigging and the quarters for the crew. The bridge was in the forward section of the ship, a design decision that had much to do with status and little to do with practicality. With the Hind underway, Roselynn had to climb in a full standard gravity from her quarters in the stern sail nodule to the bridge located in the bow nodule. Roselynn was in good shape and it wasn’t that hard for her, but it was irritating that Captain Hickam insisted that she report to the bridge for her watch, rather than simply having her use the interface in her quarters.

Suddenly, in another moment of flash clarity, Roselynn knew that Smythe was responsible for that, as well as the rest of the hassles she put up with. It was all part of his desire to kick dirt on her, to keep her from realizing that it was her, not him, who was superior.

And there he was, the slimy bastard. Standing on the landing of the midship node, waiting with a smirk on his face. What was he doing here anyway? His quarters were in the forward nodule.

Another moment of clarity. He was going to touch her. She could feel it even before she reached him. His slimy paws on her hips, on her ass, on her . . . Roselynn. She slowed and his grin widened. And it was just all too much.

She sped back up. As she was starting to pass him and he was reaching for her, she struck.

* * *

Absent the flash, his reflexes would have been measurably faster than hers. But she was flying and, besides, the reflexes weren’t that much faster.

Jason Smythe was expecting to grab a quick feel as Roselynn passed him on the ladder. The last thing he expected was a blow to his diaphragm before he even touched her. It took him by surprise, and for a moment he was stunned.

Then he reacted. He tried at first for a restraining hold and a nerve pinch, but she was faster than he realized. She got out of the way of his grasping hands and hit him in the nose. It was supposed to be a killing blow, but he managed to shift his head enough so that the angle was off and the blow just smashed his nose to the side. Blood sprayed the landing and covered his lower face.

Now he was furious. He bellowed in pain and rage. He didn’t know what had caused this, but the uppity bitch was going to pay.

Second Officer Andrew Watson was coming down the ladder to return to his quarters. He wasn’t supposed to, but he usually left the bridge at the end of his shift even if Roselynn wasn’t there yet. The captain would be drunk in his quarters by then and that asshole Smythe would never notice. He heard the bellow and lept down the ladder. What he saw was Roselynn, who was five foot two, fighting Smythe, who was six foot four. What he assumed was that Smythe had gotten impatient and decided that with his social rank he could rape her without consequences. Andrew wasn’t going to stand for that. He went for the big man.

* * *

Smythe sensed the help arriving and backed away to give Andrew room. Then the stupid bastard came at him. Smythe was incapable of imagining why Andrew would be attacking him. It never even occurred to him that Andrew might think Smythe was in the wrong. That left just one option. Mutiny. It was a coordinated attack. He swung Andrew between himself and Roselynn, and opened his interface.

“Mutiny!” He dumped Andrew and Roselynn’s IDs into the interface with shoot on sight orders attached. The ship’s computer, an intelligent system but not an artificial brain, had a set of  protocols for mutiny, but there were failsafes built in. As long as the captain was alive only he could officially declare mutiny.

* * *

Captain Hickam was alive. He wasn’t even unconscious. He was just very drunk. He was looking at the image of his wife and trying not to imagine what she was doing while he was out here.

The alert was transmitted to him and so was the second one, when Andrew Watson accused Smythe of attempted rape. Hickam was drunk and confused and put a hold on any action by the ship’s automatics while he thought things through.

* * *

Roselynn was on fire. Between the flash and the adrenaline, the world around her had slowed. She stepped back and let Andrew fight Smythe. She got on her interface and called Lieutenant Quinton Williams, the commander of the ten-man exspatio force on the Brass Ass.  He was a crook from way back, but a smart crook, and he had no loyalty at all to the Drake Combine.

* * *

Quinton Williams’ link came alive with Roselynn’s data dump, and he had a decision to make. He didn’t really trust Roselynn, but he had wanted out of the Drake Spaceforce almost since the day he had joined. He had quickly come to realize that even for someone who had served well and faithfully, first lieutenant was about as high as someone not titled could go. And it was almost impossible to get a title for service to the Combine, even if it was the stock scenario in holo cubes.

Fuck it, he thought. Let’s kick some ass.

    He got on the link and started giving orders.

* * *

Back on the landing at midship node, Smythe blocked a blow by Andrew, who had missed a beat due to the shock at the accusation of mutiny. Andrew was strong and fast, even reasonably bright, but he wasn’t that much of a multitasker. He had excellent reflexes and was better trained in martial arts than Smythe had ever bothered to become, but for vital seconds he was running on pure reflex. His higher functions were distracted by the fact that he had somehow ended up on the wrong side of a mutiny.

It cost him. He was in the wrong position to respond to Smythe’s elbow strike and was unable to avoid it.

It grazed his right temple and he never even saw the throat strike that crushed larynx and, minutes later, would end his life. He hit Smythe twice more, crippling blows, but he was already dead when they landed.

Absent an emergency tracheotomy, which Roselynn didn’t provide. She had decided that he was much more useful as a martyr than as competition for command.

Instead of making any effort to save Andrew, Roselynn used the the time Andrew was distracting Smythe to try and find a weapon. It was surprisingly difficult. The Brass Ass wasn’t a frigate from the first age of sail, with belaying pins everywhere. It was a jump-capable spaceship that used drones for much of the work. Lines were tied down, but they were tied down by computer clamps that were hidden behind wall panels. Where was a monkey wrench when you needed one?

As it turned out, she didn’t need one. Andrew’s last blow had brought Smythe to one knee, facing away from her. Roselynn spun, bringing her right boot heel to the back of Smythe’s neck just between the skull and the top vertebrae.  It wasn’t a killing blow, but it did render him unconscious.

That was good, because Roselynn had just realized that she didn’t want to kill Smythe until she was sure she had the captain. The Drake Combine didn’t trust its spaceforce, especially the enlisted ranks, so command devolved to the highest surviving commissioned officer, but not the enlisted personnel. That meant that Roselynn needed to be the ranking commissioned officer.

She ran through the list even as she dragged the unconscious Smythe to the nearest airlock. Captain Hickam, drunk in his quarters . . . he would need to die last. First Officer Smythe, now in an airlock. Second Officer Watson—she looked at Andrew—Second Officer Watson was dead. Quinton Williams was an officer, but exspatio, not spaceforce. The engineering officer, John Boyle, was a warrant officer, not commissioned, so as the computer saw things, not in line of command.

Roselynn opened up a comm channel to Williams. “Quinton, I can’t do the deed,” she sent, careful of the words even on the secure channel. “Smythe killed Watson and he’s unconscious in airlock 2C.” She paused. She had to be extra careful here. “You know the programming in the ship’s comp. You know the protocols.”

What she was referring to was the fact that the person who killed the captain—or, for that matter, any officer—could  not be placed in that slot. Someone else would have to kill Hickam and she would have to arrest and court martial that person. Either that, or hold them for trial as soon as they got back to a Drake base. In fact, it would be better if she could get to the computer without having killed anyone, at least before she assumed command.

The ship’s computer was a large computer and extensively programed with a lot of protocols, but it wasn’t an artificial brain, so it lacked the consciousness to realize that she was running the mutiny. As long as she hadn’t actually killed anyone and had arrested those who had, it would treat her as a loyal little Drake minion. Especially since she was from a good family.

* * *

Williams considered. He did understand the protocols. And the smart move would be to have Downing do it. But Quinton Williams was, in his way, an honorable man. He couldn’t, when all was said and done, put one of his men in that sort of jeopardy. If it was to be done, he would have to do it. Nodding his head sharply, he headed for the captain’s quarters.

He used his interface to announce himself and the captain’s hatch opened.

“What the hell is going on, Williams?” Captain Hickam asked.

“It’s all rather complicated, sir,” Quinton said. “It started when Lieutenant Commander Smythe decided to have his way with Lieutenant Tabina.” Williams was speaking to the recorders and the expert system as much as to the captain. After all, what Hickam thought was about to become completely irrelevant. He was walking across the captain’s cabin even as he spoke.

Captain Hickam shook his head in befuddled disappointment. “I hope she isn’t expecting me to do anything to Smythe. His family is very important on New Florida.”

“No, Captain,” Williams said calmly. “No one is expecting you to take any action.”  By the time he had finished the sentence, he was standing right next to the captain, who nodded in drunken relief.

Quinton Williams, in a carefully measured strike, hit the captain in the side of the head. It was a touch too measured. The captain was stunned, but not unconscious. Quinton hit him again, a bit harder. He then pulled the necklace from the captain’s neck and stuck it in his pocket. Everyone—well, all the officers anyway—knew about the captain’s pendant and the private rutters that it held. This would be his insurance. Roselynn would want it.

Quinton lifted the captain in a fireman’s carry and headed for the 1B airlock. Then he sent Downing instructions.

* * *

Joe Downing got the orders and headed for the 2C airlock. He passed Lieutenant Tabina on the ladder but he didn’t know what was going on. Spaceforce uniforms in the Drake combine were white with blue and gold trim. It made blood easy to see and identify. Exspatio uniforms were black with gold and red trim. They didn’t show blood hardly at all. Both uniforms were based on the old heavy spacesuits, so they had fabric folds at the shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles, and wrists to mimic the air containment folds of the old heavy suits.  But that made no impression on Joe, in comparison to the blood spatter that marked the body and right side of the lieutenant’s suit.

Joe reached the airlock and, against Lt. William’s orders, looked in. His orders were to cycle the airlock without looking, but Joe wasn’t as dumb as people thought. He looked and wished he hadn’t. If he had cycled the airlock without looking, he would just be obeying orders and he wouldn’t be at fault for anything except for failing to check. Now, cycling the airlock would be murder . . . and he almost didn’t do it. But while the LT would take care of him if he obeyed the orders, there was no way that Spaceforce bastard Smythe would protect him if he didn’t. Joe pushed the button and the lock cycled, sending Lieutenant Commander Sir Jason Smythe, belted knight of the Drake Combine, sailing gently into the void. The cycled lock had very little air left in it when the outer door opened, so it was only a gentle shove that lasted until he got far enough out to be picked up by the wings.

By that time, Captain Hickam was in space as well, and Lieutenant JG Roselynn Tabina had reported to the captain’s cabin and found him gone.

* * *

On her own authority, Roselynn used ship systems to determine the locations of Captain Hickam and First Officer Smythe. She also reported the death of Andrew Watson to the ship’s computer, making a full and truthful report of the incidents leading to this situation. Well, almost full. she failed to mention her communications to Quinton Williams, and when asked she honestly responded that she had told no one to harm Captain Hickam, First Officer Smythe, or Second Officer Watson.

She hadn’t, not in so many words.

Given the emergency, she took command and ordered the arrest of Quinton Williams and Joe Downing.

Roselynn now owned her own ship. But Roslynn was no sheep of a trader and the Brass was no cargo ship. No. Roslynn would hunt merchants.

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