Chapter Two, Chapter Two at Last
I’ve been wondering about what my next post would be. I’ve decided to throw out some more of my current manuscript. Enjoy it! I strongly recommend you read it in order.
This is the second evolution of this chapter. I was quite disappointed with it at first. This is better, but it’s not final yet.
And without further ado, I introduce you to Dayna: a young woman stuck in the family business. She does it well enough, but it’s not what she wants. This chapter sets in motion a chain of events that flip her life upside down, for better and for worse. I hope you enjoy it.
“It’s not a glamorous job, but I’m sure it wasn’t on Earth either. There are no songs or legends about it. It brings zero fame and even less reward. But it is a job that needs doing, and I’m the guy that needs to do it. I can’t explain it. Some of us are born into it, but for me and those like me, it’s a calling.”
Peter Black, Space trucker
Cockpit of the New Ducky,
1952 hours, Feb. 22, 2324 Central Earth Time
Dayna laughed at a tweet on the holo-screen of her iBand. Perhaps a little too hard. The guy that tweeted it was clearly a belter. Dry humor, but hilarious undertone. I could live in the belt. They got it made, it seems. She made a quick swipe and the holo-screen vanished.
“Dayna dear, your father requests your presence on the bridge and says to tell you that you’re late” a disembodied voice said over the speaker in her bunk. It belonged Valerie, the ship’s A.I.
Dayna rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Val.” He knows I’m not late.
She rolled out of bed and drifted to the floor. She put her shoes on and climbed into the hallway through the hatch on her ceiling. From there she drifted in the zero gravity down the long stretch to the bridge.
Finally, Earth. Dayna let out a sigh of relief when she saw the blue and green sphere in the view screen as she entered. She took her seat and strapped in, admiring the coastal outline of the continents. This view never gets old.
This tour had taken nine months and she was looking forward to some time on the ground, a concept her father would never understand. She watched him key the control console between them as she redid her long pony tail in an attempt to keep the red locks out of her face.
“Earth Command, this is Captain Chris Meno of the cargo ship New Ducky. Copy?” His large hands reached over and patted her on the leg. “You ready to set her down?” he whispers.
She smiled and answered him with a quick nod. Landing was nothing she hadn’t done before.
“Copy New Ducky, Go ‘head.” A dry voice came over the radio.
Her father continued. “We are making final preparations for atmospheric entry. We have twelve souls onboard with cargo from Mars by way of Ares station. Truck run alpha fiver niner niner seven bravo seven. Two days ahead of schedule. Requesting landing coordinates.” His voice was rasp, but firm as he turned to his daughter, also first officer, “Twenty credits on New Detroit”.
“Let’s make it fifty, and I got London.” Her reply was cocky as she tapped a hydraulic pressure gauge on her side of the console. Its needle dropped a hundred psi and settled. Just another sign this bird needs an overhaul. “These old worlders never change.” Yet I still envy them and their blissful ignorance of this life.
Her thoughts of a life more adventurous where common these days. She watched her father make adjustments to the Captain’s Panel and wondered if he’d ever wanted the same.
The captain keyed the com circuit. “Five minutes till we disengage compartment roll, people. If it floats, falls, or rolls, lock it down.”
Compartment roll—spinning the outer compartments around the central corridor shaft—was the only way to simulate gravity in space. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to keep bones and muscles from atrophying over long duration flights. It was also vital for crews, such as New Ducky’s, that lived in space.
A thin film of dust and grime coated the console: a complex assortment of cracked gauges and dim meters, with some even missing their glass covers. A few had their lights go out for the last time months, even years ago. She didn’t mind it though. She had learned to fly by sight, feel, and instinct.
“Flying without instruments, that’s how you earn your ship’s trust” her father would tell her.
She didn’t really notice the lack of information in front of her with Valerie always around. More than just a sophisticated program, Valerie was part of the crew.
“Deal”, he said coughing a little into his sleeve.
Chris’s health was steadily declining. He knew it, but he also knew that his ship was in very capable hands. The New Ducky had been in his family for generations. A generation-II space truck, she was one of maybe five left in existence in her class.
New Ducky was the only tug of her tonnage capable of breaking the Jupiter’s orbit after atmospheric skimming with a full crew and cargo compliment, thanks to the two pair of Icarus II engines fitted to either side of her relatively bulky hull.
The four ion-drive engines didn’t come standard, though. In fact, they wouldn’t even fit originally. But the New Ducky had an unfair advantage. Dayna’s brother, Jerrod, was the best mechanic and one of the smartest technology enthusiasts this side of the sun. A few structural mods, a month of welding, and three weeks of calibrating sensors, rerouting power and installing neutron shields were all that were needed to make her faster and more capable than any other second, or even third generation tug still left in service.
“Roger that New Ducky, we have you on radar. Escort drones are in route to guide you to London Space Port.” The radio crackled as the traffic controller spoke. “Sync before entry.”
It was time to get the com system an overhaul. Hell, this whole ship needs one, Dayna thought. It was true. The New Ducky wasn’t so new. She was four generations of the family business, a lifestyle that Dayna decided wasn’t for her years ago. I can’t leave yet though. She took a look at her father. He’s too sick.
“Confirmed Earth Command” The captains smirk faded. His mustache twitched. It was involuntary, but she had grown to love it. Even if he hadn’t trimmed it in weeks.
“Ha! What’d I say? Pay up!” Dayna demanded playfully. She couldn’t wait to let her long red hair down again once they hit Earth’s gravity well.
“You know it’s not nice to make bets with your superior officer.”
If Chris had one flaw, it was letting his family win far too often. Especially Dayna. In their bets alone, she had “won” a couple thousand credits from him this year alone. He didn’t need it, though. Aside from keeping the Ducky running and paying his crew, he had little use for the money. This was the life he was born into, and this was the life he loved.
“Actually sir, it was you who made the poor decision”. Val’s voice came from the ships speaker system. “And if I do recall correctly, it’s not your first.”
She was only a third generation ship AI, not even an original member of “the duck”, but Valerie had settled in nicely and knew the ship just as well as, if not better than, anyone else on board. And that was saying a lot. Dayna grew up with her, and her father was still a boy when she was installed into the system. She had shared many stories and confessions with Val, and Val told Dayna stories of her grandparents. There were no secrets on board the Ducky, at least none from Val. If a mic heard it, or camera or sensor detected it, she knew it.
Her addition to the ship meant calculations of enormous complexity were made in fractions of a second. She could process data from interior and exterior cameras, sensors, radio traffic, space beacons, and many other inputs simultaneously without so much as a few degrees increase of her processor array. And yes, she monitored that too.
“I told ya, dad, I’m not a nice lady.” Dayna retorted, unbuckling her seatbelt and drifting to the back of the cabin. Bracing herself with her back against her seat and feet pressed against the panel, she began checking off items on her data pad while running her diagnostic check.
“You two ladies quit yer yappin. We have incoming escorts at 2 o’clock.”
Chris tapped the touch screen heads up display, or HUD, in front of him to zoom in on one of the bots. Valerie’s subroutines displayed a schematic, stats, and call sign of the escort bot in real time. Its call sign, 3CH0–or Echo—was tagged above it on the view screen.
“Well it looks like they’ve got the latest and greatest”, Chris coughed, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Technology is moving way too fast for my taste.”
The two escort bots were almost spherical. The lights and cameras that lined the front “face” of the bots were recessed into their respective holes, but the real new features were the three anti-gravity ion thrusters that protruded backwards from each of its two winged panels. Opposite the ion thrusters, facing the front were the usual armament. Two pair of Type-AF rocket tubes arranged vertically that could fire homing missiles—both in space and in atmosphere—and below those, each wing had one magnetic rail-cannon that could fire two light rounds at speeds upwards of Mach 3. However, the real amazing part of any bot was the Wetware AI.
“You’re kidding me. Titan only recently got the third gen.” Dayna always was a tech junky. Nothing amazed her more than the newest gadgets or software. Her brother was probably the only one on board that liked Bots more than her. I wonder if they have the new AI upgrades too. “I heard they have a real human brain inside.”
“Pardon me Captain, but we have an incoming transmission.” Val’s voice had an old English hint to it.
“Patch it through, Val” Chris said, clearing his throat afterward.
“Cargo ship New Ducky, this is Lunar Prison Authority. You are ordered to change course to stationary orbit and make preparations for boarding, over.” The woman’s voice was stern.
Chris shook his head. Dayna pulled up the list of ships in the vicinity. Radar showed two small Prowlers closing in behind the New Ducky.
“Val? What do you read on those Prowler’s?” she asked.
Valerie was already ahead of her. She’d pinged the crafts on all frequencies, ran radar diagnostics and signature verifications, and rotated aft cameras to 180 degrees. The two craft were pin points on the screen.
“Displaying all known parameters.” Her subroutines displayed the information about the crafts on the view screen: It was a live feed two blurry gray dots in a sea of blackness. “Picture is at max resolution.”
Next to the live feed was the parameters Val could accumulate.
CLASS: PROWLER (unconfirmed)
RANGE/VECTOR: > RAD. DETECT. /178 DEGREES
RADAR SIGNATURE: FEEDBACK JAM
As Dayna read through the information available to her, Chris stalled for some time.
“Last transmission was gargled. Say again, over.”
“Cargo ship New Ducky. This is the Lunar Prison Authority. Cease all operations. Stand off to stationary orbit, and prepare for to be boarded. Last warning, over.” The order came through harsh and firm.
Next to him, Dayna had put on a headset and was talking to Earth Command on a separate frequency. “Earth Command, this is cargo ship New Ducky. We are being hailed by the Lunar Prison Authority. Request guidance, over.”
“New Ducky, Lunar Prison Authority does not have jurisdiction. Recommend proceeding to London.”
Chris looked at his daughter. All it took was a short shake of her head, and he knew what he would do. “Negative, Lunar Prison”, he spoke over the com circuit. “We’ve already begun our atmo-entry procedure. Cannot abort, over.” It was a lie, but he made sure his own tone was full of authority.
“Stand down, New Ducky. That is an or-”
Chris cut the external com channel and accelerated towards Earth. “Valerie, is there anything they know that we don’t?”
“I’ve run complete systems diagnostics sir. Besides the usual system warnings that you refuse to do anything about, the only difference is the…”
“The cargo hold alarm.” Jerrod spoke up as he popped his head into the cockpit, bracing between the bulkheads of the main corridor to remain steady as he floated a short distance off the deck. “It’s been going off since we left Ares. I figured it was a shifting crate, and acknowledged it. Nothing we could do about it anyway. External locks are hard shut.”
Unlike the newer classes of freight haulers, the cargo holds on the older classes were not integrated into the hull of the living quarters. Instead, an independent compartment with minimal life support maintained oxygen, temperature and pressure for livestock, produce, and other vital goods, but was in no way meant for long-term human transport.
“Dayna”, Chris coughed, “check it out when we land. Jerrod, we have unwanted followers. See what you can do about that.”
The siblings nodded just and Jerrod disappeared around the corner moments before the ship shuddered.
“Are they shooting at us?” Dayna asked in a panic. An explosive glow shot past the starboard side with another rumble, answering her question. A glance at her father and his silent nod confirmed it. In the chaos that was unfolding around her, all she saw was her father’s face—red with beads of sweat dotting his forehead and cheeks—and new that she had to take control. “Dad!”
“I’ll be”, Chris’s voice was gargled and strained. “I’ll be okay.”
Dad? She looked at him, not knowing what to do.
“Fly the ship.” He forced the words out with an obvious desperation. His short dark hair was wet with pain. “You have the wheel.”
“Valerie. Get help.” She said as she transferred controls to her console. The ship took another nasty hit and shook more violently than last time. Its size compared to the prowlers being the only reason the situation wasn’t much worse.
“Jerrod is already on his way, dear. Remain calm.” Valerie wasn’t human. She wasn’t even a wetware AI, but she was definitely one of the family. Her algorithms had learned to be empathetic towards humans and their physical troubles.
“Earth Command, this is the cargo ship New Ducky. We are under attack. I repeat, we are under attack and unarmed. Request immediate assistance, over.” She looked at her father—eyes closed and clinching his chest—and knew she was alone in this. A quick look over her panel and she continued. “We have at least one injured in need of urgent medical care.”
Air around the hull started to burn in a brilliant orange as the reply came over the radio.
“We read you, New Ducky. Maintain course to London Space Port, East Pier. We will have a med team standing by. Escort Drones Echo and Light will assist you. Recommend AI sync, over.”
“Roger that, Command.”
“Valerie, are we in sync range yet?” Dayna choked the controls in her hands
The ‘sync’ between a bot’s AI and a shipboard AI was discovered to be the necessary missing link to allow them to work together. However, no one could have predicted that bond syncing would create, increasing the abilities of both, or the aggressive “grudges” that some AI’s would hold toward others. Dayna had even heard that some people where having neural implants surgically placed into their brains so that they could sync with AIs too. Now that would be so rad, she thought. I would love to do that, if we could afford it. Dad would never go for an idea like that though.
“We are, Captain Dayna.” Val’s voice was calm as always. “Escort One-Tango-Sierra-Zero-November, sending sync request.” Valerie said out loud. She didn’t need to say it to send the request, but did so for the sake of her human companions, trying to come across as human as possible.
“Cargo ship Titan class New Ducky, Sync Engaged.” The bot’s AI responded with a southern old-American tone. The first of the two spherical escorts positioned itself at a fixed distance off New Ducky’s bow just before exploding in a silent ball of fire, sending shrapnel flying in different directions. The second escort, 3CH0, darted sideways just in time to dodge its own demise.
“Aaaannnnghhh” Valerie’s voice cried out in pain, or the AI equivalent of it, sending deafening feedback through every speaker system on board and briefly causing all monitors to go black. All they had now was the viewing window in front of them—six inches of carbon composite glass—and it was fixed on the approaching Earth.
Dayna knew that an unexpected disconnection during the sync-bond could be very traumatic experience to an AI, but she had never witnessed it before. As much as she wanted to be there for Val and do whatever she could do to help, it’d have to wait. The remains of Light crashed against the hull as a fireball silently washed over the window.
“Valerie? Are you there?”
There was no response.
She pulled back on the throttle and the Earth shot downward in the view screen in response. The groan of the pressure hull flexing sent chills down her spine. Cargo ships like Ducky weren’t designed for evasive action.
Dayna felt the explosion shake the ship, then saw the remaining escort bot exchanging fire through the window. She yelled as she pushed down as hard she could on the throttles, straining to regain some sort of control of New Ducky. C’mon Dayna. You can do this. You’re first officer for a reason.
She saw the Earth return to view as the panels and lights came back to life. Movement to her left caught her attention. Jerrod had returned, but with a smear of blood on his brow. He spun his father’s chair around and tried to listen for breathing among the roaring of the burning atmosphere. He looked at her and shook his head. Dayna watched as Jerrod began CPR on their father. It wouldn’t be easy as taking him out of his chair during atmospheric entry would probably cause more harm than good.
“Val, are you there?” Dayna asked, her voice full of uncertainty.
“I jettisoned the trash” Jerrod said between breathes. He began to check the vitals of his father as best he could as gravity returned. He wasn’t a medic by any means, but he knew the basics about as well as anyone else on the ship, except for maybe Ian. “It might act as a screen, shielding us from any more hits.”
It was everything Dayna could do to keep the Titan class cargo ship moving towards Earth in a vector that wouldn’t get them incinerated. I can do this. “Is everyone else alright?” She couldn’t help but worry.
Jerrod unbuckled his father’s seatbelt and pulled him from his chair. He swapped back and forth between deep breathes and chest compressions. “I don’t know.”
“Everyone is fine.” Valerie’s voice returned. Her systems where processing things Dayna couldn’t even see. “Echo has engaged the prowlers and we have a clear vector to London.”
“Right.” Dayna pressed forward on the throttle and felt the response as she was pulled into her seat. She keyed the emergency coms button on her panel. “Prepare for emergency maneuvers. I repeat, prepare for emergency maneuvers.” She let go of the button and flipped a few switches on her panel. “Val, are you alright? I thought we lost you”.
“Nothing I can’t handle, dear. Adjust your entry angle by minus 2.4 degrees”. Valerie wasn’t alive. At least not in the traditional sense. She didn’t even have the biological wet-ware that Smart AIs had. Dayna knew she must have feelings and emotions though. She’s too real not to.
Dayna watched as another escort bot flew past her at almost supersonic speed. Its call-sign, L1GH7, flashed on the touch screen. She had read somewhere that the Bots saw themselves as independent beings created to protect and serve. She caught herself hoping that 3CH0 was kicking ass. I would love to sync with one someday. I will sync with one.
She shook the thought from her head. She truly cared for AIs, but also for the lives of her crew she was in charge of right now. “London Spaceport, I have you on visual.” Dayna’s eyes darted from one status icon to the next. “We have significant damage to our starboard engines.” She looked back to see Jerrod performing CPR on her father, blood running down his forehead and dropping to the deck around him. “We have at least two injured. ETA: twenty four minutes.”
Val spoke up. “Everyone else is fine, Captain Dayna. Their mic is broken, but they appear to be stuck in the living quarters. Your mother is mouthing to the camera that no one is hurt. Allow me to fly the rest of the way to the pier, ma’am.” Valerie wasn’t the most agile of pilots, but she could manage an emergency docking sequence just fine. “They need you more than I do.” She must feel something, Dayna thought.
The ship shuddered as Val switched from ion thrusters to atmospheric thrusters. The flight to New London would take several more minutes, and Dayna had more important ways to spend that time than in the co-pilot seat.
“Thank you, Val.” she said as she unbuckled and quickly sat by her father. In all the excitement, she didn’t even notice the shift in gravity. Jerrod sat back and gave her a quick nod with a sigh of relief. “Dad, you’re gonna be ok. Dad?” she shook him as she felt a tear roll down her face. His eyes were still closed, but she knew he could hear her.
“He’ll be ok, sis. Go tell the rest of your crew to quit sleeping on the job.” Jerrod said cracking a smile. He always could make her smile. For being her little brother, he sure had his ways of looking after her too. She stood up and began to exit the cockpit. She turned around to glance at her father, and left.
Tell me what you think. Feedback is welcome.