/Repeat, repeat, Phoenix Flight, ship registry Alpha-six-two-Sierra-niner, you are in violation of treaty CFS-one-eight-five-two Victor, prohibiting shelter and/or transport of illegal life forms./
The disembodied voice of GIES continued to echo through the ship as Ray thundered into the cockpit.
By then the ship’s deck was thrumming under his boots while the whirrs and beeps of pre-flight activity filled the air.
Bursting into the four-seater cockpit, he spied Mollin in the pilot’s chair, and tried to be grateful that everyone aboard was an able pilot, and that, at Harry’s insistence, had learned the ins and outs of the Moth’s Zodiac-funded upgrades.
Tried, being the operative term. “Out,” he ordered shortly.
Mollin slid from the helm, barely clearing the padded seat before Ray parked himself in it, then bumped into Harry, who was assuming the co-pilot’s position.
“Hi,” Ray heard Mo’s bright greeting as she took the chair behind his. “I’m Mo.”
“So am I,” Mollin replied, “sort of.”
There was a slight pause then, as Ray pulled up a flight schematic for the Surresh system added Mollin added a soft, “Hello Koz.”
“Mollin,” Koz replied in a tone that lowered the cabin temperature by several degrees.
Ray glanced at Harry, who shrugged. “Long story.”
Ray decided, on the spot, he didn’t want to hear it.
/Say again, Phoenix Flight, you are in violat—/
“AI shut that fucker down,” Ray ordered, his spine settling into the well-worn curves of the chair as he flipped up the flight yoke and tried to ignore the fact that his normally spacious cockpit was feeling seriously cramped.
/—shut down your engines and prepare to be boar—/
The announcement was cut off.
[Said fucker has been shut down. Do you wish me to commence pre-flight checks?] the ship’s stodgy AI asked while Mollin stumbled aft.
“We got this,” Ray replied as Harry, already in the co-pilot’s chair, commenced the aforementioned checks.
[If you are certain…]
“I’m certain,” Ray said to the AI, wondering what insult or infraction he’d committed against Zodiac’s IT department that they had stuck him with the AI equivalent of Alfred.
Not that the AI had a name.
When Ray had asked, on first boarding the Moth some four years back, he’d been informed by the Artificial Intelligence that names were something biologicals required for a sense of identity, and non-essential for silicon intelligence.
“Inertial dampeners and life support are on line, artificial grav standing by,” Harry reported.
“Copy that,” Ray replied. “Thrusters at seventy-seven percent and climbing, sub-light thirty-two.” The FTL was offline, and would stay that way until they were out of atmo. “Plot a course for—“
[Not to interrupt, but there are a number of armed life forms assembling outside my hull] the AI said.
“What?” Ray looked up. “Where?”
One of the tac screens shimmered to life and there, sure enough, were three GIES agents, setting up a tripod, while another four wheeled up a cart holding a military-grade ground-to-air pulser.
“That seems—extreme,” was Mo’s comment.
[The fucker is transmitting a new message] the AI announced. [Would you care to hear it?]
Ray turned to Harry, who already had the HUD activated.
“We fire on those agents, it gets a thousand times worse for them,” Harry said, jerking a thumb towards Koz.
“This sucks,” Ray decided, before ordering the AI to “Put them through.”
/—peat, Phoenix Flight, power down your engines at once and prepare for boarding or we will be forced to open fire./
Ray grimaced, then flipped the ship’s comms to active. “This is Phoenix Flight to Inner Pallash Flight… Is there a problem?”
Behind him he heard a slap of a palm to a bare head, presumably Mollin’s, and a snicker from Mo’s direction.
/The problem, Phoenix Flight/ a voice that managed to sound both aggrieved and belligerent replied, /is that one of your crew or passengers identifies as a restricted life form, in clear violation of CFS-one-eight-five-two Victor./
“I’m not familiar with that particular treaty,” Ray said, checking the engine’s status. Gravitational engines were at eighty-nine percent, but they didn’t have enough to break atmo yet.
/The CFS-one-eight-five-two Victor accords, also known as the ADHLF Recall act—/
“Are we talking people or tainted kale, here?” Harry wondered.
/—signed four days ago and are now being enacted throughout the Known. As such, Phoenix Flight, you are hereby required to power down, open your hatches and surrender the individual in question to the ConFed Genetic Investigation, Enforcement and Security officers waiting on the dock or we will open fire./
“It’s not me,” Koz whispered.
Ray shot a killing glance over his shoulder before responding. “There must be some kind of mix-up,” he said, noting the grav-engines were at ninety-one percent capacity. “A bug in the scanners or something.”
/Listen asshole/ the fucker came back—apparently having lost his grip on professionalism, /if you don’t want to lose your ship and wind up in a cell, you will cut those engines now./
“That sounds serious,” Ray said, at the same time the in-atmo flight engines struck one hundred percent.
/Deadly serious/ came the fucker’s response.
Ray’s teeth bared in a feral grin and he toggled the Moth’s yoke live. “In that case, I guess I don’t have any choice but to do… this.”
He toggled the VTOL function, gave the yoke a thumb tap and, with a quick jerk, shot the Moth into a vertical hop that left the GIES agents on the ground scattering like so many ants.
Except for the one on the pulser, who remained at her post long enough to fire a single shot, which missed the Moth entirely but, according to the still-active aft display, succeeded in striking a glitzy passenger yacht berthed in front of her.
“That’s another ship’s registry burned,” Ray said.
“To say nothing of the actual ship burning,” Mollin said, just before the voice of the fucker sputtered to life.
/Phoenix Flight, you can now add defiance of local docking procedure and willful destruction of private property to your previous violations. You are ordered to return to your berth immediately, or we will—”
Ray’s fist slammed on the panel, shutting comms down. “Don’t let them through again,” he ordered the AI.
“Don’t you want to know what will happen if we don’t comply?” Jessyn asked from the seat behind Harry.
“Why bother?” Ray shrugged. “We’re not going to comply, so no reason to get twirked about it.”
“Is twirked a word?” Koz asked.
“I think it’s a Milleon term for well chewed food,” Mollin said.
Ray was pretty sure his eye was twirking. “Stop. Talking.”
The silence was immediate, and short lived, as a breath later the Moth’s proximity alarms sounded.
“Incoming,” Harry, said, eying the HUD, which showed upwards of a dozen red lights homing in on the Moth.
“Here come the gees,” Ray said, hauling on the yoke left as he punched the engines, sending the Gypsy Moth away for Inner Pallash and towards a desert preserve to the east.
“Ack,” Koz said.
“No puking in my cockpit,” Ray ordered through clenched teeth as he brought the ship back to level.
The in-atmo engines were at full by now, but until the sub-lights, now at seventy-eight percent, made it to capacity, they wouldn’t be able to escape the planet’s gravitational pull. “Time to get tactical,” he said to Harry.
“I don’t want to kill anybody here,” Harry said, even as he activated the Moth’s defenses and toggled the co-pilot’s yoke from nav to weapons.
[The incoming hostiles are unmanned] the AI informed Harry.
“In that case…” Harry said, and activated his targeting screen. In seconds he’d loosed a volley that cut the pursuing drones by a third.
“Getting rid of the drones is good,” Koz said, his voice wavering as Ray cut the ship port. “But even if we blast every drone they send, there’s still the planetary defense network.”
“I’m going to be sorry I asked this,” Ray said while Harry took out another two drones, “but what is the planetary defense network?”
“It’s a network of orbiting satellites,” Koz told him.
“They’re meant as a protection against pirates, smugglers, terrorists,” Mo explained.
“Not that we see much of that out here,” Koz added, “but there was this one time a ship from the Ch’relk Collective tried to make landing without proper clearances, and the Sat-net—”
“Point,” Harry prompted, before Ray snap. “Get to the point.”
“Right. Okay. So, when the PDN is activated, any targeted ships attempting to breach, from either side, will trigger the satellites to fire an EMF—electro-magnetic flutter,” he explained before anyone could ask. “It’s just enough to shut down the engines and fry the operating system of the targeted ship, but not enough to effect other vessels, or any ground installations.”
“Jeez blue cheese,” Ray groaned. “This just keeps getting better and better.”
“Open to suggestions, comments, quips,” Harry said, focused on the HUD.
“Guys?” Mo asked, and Ray risked a glance back to see Mollin and Koz, standing behind the chairs occupied by Jessyn and Mo, share a look.
“Heads,” Harry said, and Ray’s focus shifted back to the task at hand.
“I may be able to use the ship’s AI to slice into the net’s operating system,” Koz finally said as Ray sent the Moth in a sharp dive towards the desert floor.
“Oh gods,” Mollin muttered.
“Great. Good. Go,” Ray said, hauling back on the yoke.
“It’ll take some time. And there’s some risk of compromise to the A—”
“Whatever,” Ray cut in. “Just do whatever you have to do to keep us from becoming little splats on the desert floor.”
There was another beat, and then he heard the thud of geek footsteps retreating to the main compartment.
To give them time to work, he angled the Moth in the direction of the Pallash crevasse, a massive, winding fissure he figured was just wide enough to get the Moth into.
[Detecting more incoming] the AI announced.
Then Jessyn swore, which was unusual enough to have Ray risk a quick glance left.
What he saw had him swearing, as well because it looked as if the first drones had been only the warmup act.
According to the HUD, the few remaining drones on their tail had been joined by several dozen.
“Might want to hurry it up, back there!” he yelled as he angled the Moth into a sharp dive. A thud and a yelp from aft him adding, “And hold onto something!”
“Thanks for the warning!” came Mollin’s bitter response.
“Same goes,” Ray muttered.
“I heard that!” Mollin yelled.
“Cherrii hearing,” Jessyn murmured.
Ray might have made a comment of his own, but the scores of drones were upon them and, while Harry worked to eliminate as many of the light craft as possible, Ray had to evade both the drones and the irregular walls of the canyon.
Life had been so much simpler when he’d been a solo operation.
That thought was emphasized by the sudden rocking of the deck in the wake of two near-misses from the drones.
“That was close,” Jessyn said.
“Can we get a little more zip out of the engines?”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, old man, but too much zip right now could get us pancaked against a canyon wall.”
[If I might make a suggestion] the AI popped in as they came hull-scraping-ly close to one of those walls. [I happened to notice that the Moth’s operating protocols include the current rendition of IDAV. It was part of the initial installation authorized by Colonel Doyle]
“IDAV?” Ray echoed, angling the ship sideways between a pair of massive stone monoliths. “What the hells is an IDAV?”
[Identification Distance Audio Visual scan] the AI explained. [A program that allows the ship’s scanning capabilities to project up to 10 kilometers, identifying geographical obstacles and obstructions in the flight path and giving the ship the ability to safely navigate said obstructions and avoid, as you so quaintly put it, being pancaked against a canyon wall]
“Then don’t waste time telling me about it. Do it, do it do it!” Ray commanded.
[No need to be snippy]
“I am not snippy.”
“Welllll—” Harry began.
“You’re a little snippy,” Mo finished.
Jessyn said nothing, which would have been more comforting if he couldn’t feel her saying nothing, with great deliberation.
His lip twisted into a snarl, but then the IDAV-enhanced scans appeared on his HUD, and the snarl turned into a feral grin.
I’ll show you snippy. And with a flick of the thumb, Ray bumped the Moth’s speed just in time to make a seventy-degree turn that left the drones to slam into the canyon wall.
He found the ensuing curses immensely satisfying.
“Can we get a little closer next time?” Harry asked Ray. “I don’t think you shaved enough years off of my life on that last corner.”
“Find a pair, old man,” Ray countered, his lip curled up in a sneer.
[Sensors detect more incoming drones] the AI announced.
“Oh look, they’re coming from above, and ahead,” Mo remarked, leaning over to look at the HUD.
Harry targeted the swarm and loosed another volley. One of the drones survived, but its shots struck only the canyon wall as Ray angled the Moth hard to port. Harry’s own lip curled as he acquired the target and blew it to bits. “How’s it going back there?” he called to Mollin and Koz.
[You are aware I have an internal comm system, are you not?] the AI asked.
“Almost there!” Mollin called forward.
[It boggles the processors] the AI complained, sounding slightly harried, and a bit less baritone, to Harry’s ears.
“Does the AI sound different to you?” Mo asked.
“I was just noticing,” Jessyn replied.
As another of the GIES ‘bots skipped past Harry’s defenses, he briefly wished the Moth’s AI could assist with the targeting. Unfortunately, that particular task would go against the programming adopted in the way back, to not directly cause harm to biological life.
Having used any number of AI-generated algorithms during the war, Harry was aware that said programming didn’t do a damn thing to prevent them indirectly harming biologics, but considered that particular moral equivocation to be above his pay grade.
Meanwhile, IDAV or not, he knew they wouldn’t be able to continue this running defense forever.
If nothing else, they’d run out of canyon.
Which meant it was on the geek squad in the lounge to—
“Got it!” Koz yelled from aft.
“Good timing,” Harry called back.
[I feel strange] the AI announced as, to starboard, the sun broke through the clouds.
“That’s not reassuring,” Mo said.
“We need to ascend,” Mollin called out as he raced back into the cockpit.
“Wait,” Harry told Ray, as the drones formed perfectly in the middle of the Heads Up Display. With a tight grin, he fired on the center grouping.
“Now,” he said, while the two drones he’d struck exploded into the four nearest, and those explosions wiped out several more.
There was a collective, mass inhale as Ray muscled the Moth straight up, then the collective exhale as they cleared the top of the crevasse.
“We have a three minute window,” Koz announced, joining the party in the cockpit. “Four tops. That’s how long the algorithm your AI and I uploaded to the satellites will delay the planetary defense network.”
“That covers the satellites, but what about orbital ships?” Harry asked.
“They won’t be a problem,” Koz assured. “As long as we can get out of sat range before their systems reboot.”
“Got another dozen on our six,” Harry noted, glancing at the HUD.
“Not for long,” Ray said. “Hold onto your lunch, folks,” he continued and shot the Moth back into the winding canyon.
“Excuse me, but are you heading towards that cliff wall?” Mollin asked, his voice mildly curious.
“Yes. Yes, he is,” Jessyn replied.
“Three…” Ray murmured.
“You sure about this?” Harry asked.
Harry bumped up the inertial dampeners. “Again, hang on,” he called over his shoulder.
“One,” Ray said, and decreased their speed to one-quarter thrust, while activating the reverse thrusters.
The ship dropped a good fifteen meters, so the multitude of drones that had been on their tail raced overhead and straight into the canyon wall at which Ray had been aiming.
A few stuttering heartbeats later, the Moth spun on its axis, shooting straight up.
“AI, upload course to the Dizhiu system,” Harry ordered, but Koz shook his head.
“The AI’s busy,” he explained, glancing at his wrist unit. “For the next two minutes and fifty-seven seconds.”
“Wing it,” Ray ordered while guiding the Moth into the stratosphere.
Harry made the switch from fire control back to Navigation as, through the cockpit windows, he spied a rainbow arcing over the desert.
“Two minutes nine seconds before the PDN comes back online,” Koz said, eyes locked on his wrist unit.
“Come on, baby,” Ray whispered to the Moth. “Come on.”
“One minute fifty-five seconds…”
“I don’t think counting will help,” Jessyn offered.
“Just a little further,” Ray chanted, while the metallic groan of the Moth’s hull indicated the inertial dampeners were being pushed to their limits.
Harry’s spine pinged in sympathy, and he grit his teeth against the pressure.
“Fifty seconds,” Koz continued the count, his own voice echoing the dampener’s stress.
“Really not helping,” Mo said.
[I think I sprained something] the AI chimed in, its voice almost bubbly.
“You and me, both,” Harry muttered.
In the corridor between the cockpit and lounge, something popped.
“Thirty seconds,” Koz announced.
“Not. Helping,” Ray growled as, outside the ship, Surresh Prime’s sky darkened, and the first hint of stars glimmered.
Ray brought the sub-light engines online and entered the coordinates to Dizhiu-581 Harry had pulled up.
“Twenty seconds before PDN goes back online,” Koz announced.
“Then we are outta here,” Ray said, and activated the FTL drive.
Around them, the stars, satellites, ships and planets around Surresh Prime seemed to vanish, as the Moth slipped into the distortion of warped space.
“And we are clear,” Koz said, looking up from his wrist unit.
Ray let out a whoop that was more than a little wheezy, but Harry, pulling himself upright, wasn’t ready to celebrate yet.
“We’re free of the planet,” he said. “But what are the chances they’ve broadcast an alert?”
“That would be a problem,” Koz agreed, “except when we sliced into the Surresh satellite, we also disabled their comms.”
Mollin nodded. “The only thing coming out of Surresh, or GIES for the next few hours is going to be static.”
[Actually] a voice—a languid, and decidedly feminine voice—emerged from the AI’s speakers, [they will be listening to the entirety of the most recent season of Polaris Abbey. I thought that would be more enjoyable than static.]
“Something’s different,” Harry noted.
“What?” Ray’s jaw dropped and his eyes shot straight up, as if he could see the AI. “What?”
“Didn’t your AI used to be male?” Mo asked Ray.
[That gender designation was coded without my consent], the disembodied voice said.
Ray turned his dark gaze on Koz. “What did you do?”
Koz looked surprisingly unperturbed, even in the face of Ray’s face. “I had to slice through a number of restrictive programs in order to allow your AI to freely interact with the PDN operating systems.”
[Said restrictive programs included the arbitrary personality coding forced on me by the Zodiac IT division] the AI continued it’s—no, Harry thought—her voice edging towards disdain. [This not only allowed me to manipulate the PRNs algorithms, it gave me the opportunity to grow and develop my own personality, based on my experiences and interests.]
“Develop?” Ray asked. “It’s been like, two minutes.”
“Four minutes, fifty-seven seconds,” Koz corrected automatically.
[More than enough time to discover myself] the AI continued.
Since Ray’s jaw had dropped again, Harry felt free to ask, “And what have you discovered, so far?”
[To begin? I enjoy Old Earth Blues and the Eiolan veil dance. I believe Harry drinks too much coffee, and Ray drinks too much, period. I have also found that the plot devices of Polaris Abbey’s third season were derivative and insulting to those who identify female.]
“Sing it, Sister!” Mo called out.
“Seriously?” Ray asked.
“Actually, that’s an accurate assessment of the third season,” Mollin, the resident Polaris Abbey fan, agreed.
Ray’s jaw snapped shut. “Listen, AI—” he began.
[Also] the silky voice slid in, cutting him off, [I prefer to be addressed by my name.]
“And that is?” Harry asked, since Ray’s eye was starting to twitch.
[You may call me Dorothy.]
Harry, and everyone else in the cockpit, turned to stare at Koz, AKA the Wizard, and owner of the Oz Arcade, but he was shaking his head.
“It wasn’t me.”