Robert Allen Lupton
Captain Gregory said,” Boomer, I got a reading from an escape pod. The signal is faint, but the broadcast was regular. Someone may still be alive”.
Boomer pulled the pod through the bay doors and plugged in life support. “Captain, I’ve never seen one this old.
Captain Gregory announced, “I’ll be right there. Bridget is in command.”
He ran into the landing bay with his medical kit, ran his hands over the ornate carvings on the cold metal case and, said, “Great craftsmanship. They built these things to last. Crack it open, boys. This one’s a time capsule.”
The person inside was human and physically young. He looked about twenty. He opened his eyes, looked at Boomer, and asked, “Who are you?”
He held up my three-fingered left hand. “My name is Boomer, but everyone calls me Stubby.”
Captain Greg checked the boy’s vitals and said, “He’s seems in good health. Let’s get some food in him. Break out the good whiskey.”
Boomer asked, “Do you think he’s old enough to drink?”
Captain looked at the boy and said, “What year was it when you activated the escape pod.”
“We’d just arrived in the Betelgeuse system. It was 3035 Standard Galactic.”
Captain Gregory laughed. “The boy’s over two hundred years old. He can drink if he wants. What’s your name, son?”
He said, “Mel, call me Mel.”
The crew gathered in the mess. Everyone wanted to hear what a two hundred year old man had to say.
Boomer poured Mel a shot of single crop algae scotch. He didn’t turn up his nose at the green tinge. He drank it straight away and asked for a second.
Boomer filed his glass. “Tell us about yourself. What happened to your ship and crew?”
Bridget said, “Let the poor boy rest. We’re a week from Altair at top speed. There’s plenty of time to hear his story.”
Mel smiled and said, “No, I’m not tired. If you’re right, I’ve been asleep for two hundred years. I haven’t talked all that time and I do like to talk.”
Captain spoke to the artificial intelligence, Blue Bayou. She’s the heart and soul of our ship. “Blue, make sure you record this and save on the ship’s log. Upload a copy onto everyone’s private log.”
“You don’t need to tell me to record, Greg. I always record everything.”
“I know, but I want Mel to know you’re recording.”
Bridget, the captain’s wife, served a faux-lamb Irish stew. She grew potatoes, carrots, and onions on board. Mel ate faster than any of us. Evidently, the old adage about eating slowly after waking from hibersleep wasn’t true.
He filled his own glass and said, “This will take a while.”
Mel coughed to clear his throat and began his story.
I was fifteen when I signed on with Captain Baha. She stopped at the waystation orbiting Altair Seven for repairs. I poured her a drink and she said, “I’m hiring. My ship, Lady Macbeth, is a salvage vessel. I need new crew. We make a good living recovering scattered ships from an ancient war in the Betelgeuse system. The empty husks of thousands of empty warships drift in irregular orbits around the red star.”
I said, “I’ve never been in space, but I’m interested. Don’t the survivors care when you harvest the old ships?”
“No one knows who won the war because both races are long gone. There were no survivors.”
Captain Baha continued, “The ships are a treasure trove of unknown technology. Functional plasma drives, interstellar communication devices, food printers, and tractor beams are on those ships. Sometimes a ship can be retrofitted and used by humans. Lady Macbeth started her life that way. She was a proud cruiser in some ancient fleet and fought alongside her sister ships to protect some unimaginable way of life.”
I was orphaned and lived in the back of a tavern. I wasn’t expecting a better offer. I signed up, moved on board immediately, and made myself useful. The first day, I met an alien. She was a Queeg. I hope they’re still around. Bluish skin and six-limbed. Two arms, two legs, and two between that can go either way. The Captain called her Cyrana and she was covered with tattoos from head to foot. Cyrana took a liking to me. Queegs and humans get along really well. There’s no crossbreeding between the races; it’s not possible. Queegs are parthenogenetic. They reproduce without sex.
I asked, “How long you been with the Captain?”
“Twelve years and twelve voyages. She’s smart and always finds a vessel or two. She pays fair. Everyone gets one share, she gets three, and Lady Macbeth, the ship, gets four shares. The ship pays for all fuel, supplies, and repairs out of her shares.”
“I’ve never been on board a ship before. Captain Baha says the ship is an AI. How does that work?”
“Like I said, her name is Lady Macbeth, but she’ll answer to Lady. She monitors everything inside and out. Polite though, she won’t intrude unless there’s danger or she’s invited.” Cyrana smiled and lifted her glass in a toast. “Isn’t that right, Lady? Say hello to Mel.”
The voice didn’t come from anywhere, but it seemed to come from everywhere. “Hello, Mel. I’m sure we’ll be friends.” She sounded familiar. It took a moment, but I recognized her voice. In the orphanage, Saturday was video day and one of my favorites was the story about Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. Lady sounded like Judy Garland, the actress who played Dorothy.
“Hello, Mel. Cyrana has work to do and you need to learn your duties. We’ll start with a ship’s tour and the rules. Follow the blinking yellow lights on the floor.”
Lady guided me around the ship three times a day until the repairs were complete, the ship restocked, and the rest of the new crew were on board. I asked her, “What happened to the old crew?”
Lady replied, “We found a Tarn battlecruiser and the crew boarded it.”
“The battle around Betelgeuse was fought between the Tarn and Vrats. The Tarn were a race of silicon based lifeforms. The closest physical analogue in your world are large squirrels. The Vrats were carbon-based oxygen breathers who originated on the fifth planet circling Betelgeuse. They called the planet the same thing they called themselves—Vrat. The Vrat weren’t that different from you. A little shorter and a lot stronger. Planet Vrat’s gravity is twice what your race calls Earth Normal.”
“How do you know that? Why didn’t I know it?”
“I know because I began my life as a Vrat battleship. As to your second question, I’m not responsible for your previous education or lack thereof. As I was saying, the crew boarded a Tarn battle cruiser. Sometimes the ships we find are in good enough condition that we can get them working again. It’s faster to pilot a salvaged vessel home than it is to tow it. The crew activated the solar charging system and the ship came to life. I uploaded protocols to allow me to control the vessel remotely.”
“The Tarn AI woke up. Tarn AIs are organically based rather than purely electronically based like I am. It’s a different type of artificial intelligence. The acronym is MOBI—multifunctional organic based intelligence. Humans haven’t been able to recreate them. A few hundred Tarn vessels have been salvaged, but a functional one had never been encountered before.”
“The MOBI panicked and lashed out. I tried to calm it down, but it saw me as a Vrat trying to take control. It fought me. It detected my protocols and methodically destroyed them. Once it gained control, it attacked the crew. The MOBI treated them the same way it would have treated the Vrat. It withdrew life support from the areas where my crewmen worked.”
“The men were in containment suits, but the oxygen supply in those is limited. The Captain suited up. She ordered Cyrana and me to maintain contact between the two ships. “Hold us against their airlock until I come back with the men. Lady, fry that bitch’s brains. I want this ship.”
“Did you fry her brain?”
“No, she almost fried mine. The Captain boarded the Tarn and used a Vrat battle axe to batter her way from compartment to compartment. The axe is cast from titanium. The handle is six feet long and pointed on the bottom. The blade has a twelve inch razor sharp edge and the butt of the blade is a long spike. She says it makes her feel like a pirate.”
“She found the men dead in the room where the MOBI trapped them. The Tarn opened the airlock and blew the Captain into space. The force knocked her out and her spinning battle axe cut off her left leg below the knee. I took control of her suit and sealed the tear before she died from lack of oxygen, increased the pressure on her leg like a tourniquet, and targeted the Tarn.”
“The old ship fired on me and I took significant damage. I could chase the Tarn or I could save my captain. I saved her. I put her in my regeneration tank and her leg regrew while I limped to this repair station.”
“Do you know where the Tarn ship is?”
Lady Macbeth said, “I recorded the signature of its engines. I know exactly where it is.” She went silent for a moment. “Captain’s on board. We’re leaving. Thrust will be less than one gravity and you’ll hardly notice it. Go to your quarters. Dinner is at 1700 hours. Don’t be late.”
I went to quarters as ordered. I shared my compartment with Cyrana, the Queeg. She was almost never there. She spent her free time decorating an escape pod similar to her tattoos. She painted, acid etched, laser engraved, and scratched curlicue upon curlicue, and design over design. I asked why.
“This pod may be my home for a long time, maybe even eternity. It could be my salvation or I could ride it to a fiery death in a blazing sun. In any event, the markings tell the story of my life and my people. It gives me comfort.”
She point to an area near the latch. “This part is new. It tells of the coming of my human friend, Mel. I left enough space to record our first journey together. This symbol means good hunting.”
Captain Baha called a meeting before we left the Altair system. It will take three years to reach the Betelgeuse system. After dinner, I want everyone in hibersleep. Lady Macbeth will wake us when we arrive.”
One of the new recruits asked, “Why Betelgeuse?”
“There are still thousands of Tarn and Vrat ships to be salvaged. On my last trip, we woke a Tarn MOBI. Who knows what mischief it’s up to by now? Lady Macbeth can track it. It killed my crew and escaped me once. It won’t again.”
I think of hibersleep as magic. I close my eyes in one place and open them somewhere else—magic. We woke up, cleaned up, and met with the Captain.
“Boys, the Tarn is in geosynchronous orbit around the fifth planet. We’re going to take our time and sneak up on her. Lady Macbeth will only use her drive when the planet is between us and the battleship. We’ll power down and drift for three weeks. We’ll position ourselves behind the largest moon and when we’re as close as possible, we’ll come at her out of the sun.”
“Each of you has a job to do. I want to hit her with electromagnetic pulses at the same time Lady Macbeth unleashes a six-pronged cyber-attack. Three of you will man lasers. Mel and Cyrana will operate the tractor and repulsor beams. I don’t want the MOBI to have time to think. The Lady has the simulation room ready. We’re going to practice this assault a thousand times before we do it for real.”
The Captain was a mad woman and drove us twenty hours every solar day. She went so far as to base our synth-alcohol rations on our performance. Disable the Tarn every time or drink water with your meals. Finally, the day came. We came over the moon’s horizon and out of the sun. Lady Macbeth fired an array of EMP bombs. They had no effect. The Tarn’s shields held and she shrugged off our tractor beams like they were spider webs.
The Tarn returned fire and we took heavy damage. She left our ship adrift and flew away. Two of the laser operators were killed. I don’t remember their names. I found the Captain. Her left arm was gone from the elbow and she’d lost an ear in the battle. Cyrana and I carried her to the hibersleep pods. The AI flashed a blinking light over the one outfitted as a regeneration chamber. We placed her inside. Cyrana reached to close the door and the Captain woke up.
“What in the nightmares of seven hells do you think you’re doing? I’m not going to sleep.”
Cyrana replied, “Begging the Captain’s pardon, but you’re badly injured. We’ll make repairs to the ship while you sleep and heal.”
Lady Macbeth said, “The hyperdrive is offline. I can manuever with thrusters, but we can’t reach escape velocity. We’ll orbit this planet forever without repairs. I need three weeks.”
“The Captain crawled from her pod. “We aren’t going anywhere. I came for the Tarn and I’m not leaving until I have her.”
She patched her arm and ear with Phoflesh. “Five people make repairs faster than four. Did you track the Tarn?”
“No, but I can find her engine signature once repairs are made.”
The Captain printed a metal hand for herself. It was more like metal pincers than a hand. It reminded me of channellock pliers, but she was happy with it. Repairs went slower than expected. We recycled broken parts and printed new ones.
Lady Macbeth located another Vrat cruiser orbiting the fourth moon. Betelgeuse Five had nine moons in all. Captain Baha asked, “Do we have the power to get there? It will be easier to salvage parts than to keep printing them one piece at a time.”
“Yes. I can match orbits with the craft and make contact in forty-eight hours. You will have to connect the docking tube manually.”
“Make it so.”
We checked and double checked our suits and equipment. The Captain rigged her suit to accommodate her metal hand. Cyrana didn’t sleep. She spent every personal moment working on her escape pod. She constantly laser-inscribed new designs. I told her to give it a rest.
“Mel, my human friend, I cannot. My gods call to me. My story must be complete when I enter the pod. I fear it will be my coffin rather than my salvation. If my people find me, I want then to believe me worthy of waking or proper burial, whichever is appropriate.”
“Lady Macbeth and the Captain will get us through this.”
“Captain Baha is the reason we’re here. She is not our salvation.”
Cyrana never stopped decorating her pod. I watched for another hour and fell asleep in the corridor. Lady Macbeth announced contact with the Vrat cruiser and the Captain ordered us into our suits. We flew the docking tube into position and manually connected it to a Vrat airlock.
We returned to Lady Macbeth and were in the airlock when the Tarn battleship skimmed over the moon’s horizon. The MOBI opened fire. We scrambled to battle stations and Lady Macbeth shifted her remaining shields and returned fire.
The Tarn didn’t target Lady Macbeth. She targeted the cruiser. The long-abandoned craft was inert and defenseless. She cut it to pieces on her first pass. As she flew by, she caught it with her tractor beams and jerked it out of orbit. She released the beams and the cruiser slowly fell toward the surface of the moon.
The Captain screamed, “Release the docking tube. Release the docking tube.”
Lady Macbeth said, “I can’t. You’ll have to release the tube manually.”
We hurried to the airlock and dumped the air pressure. The tube was bolted and sealed in place. The Captain used her metal hand on the first bolt she could reach. I fought with a second one. Cyrana held herself in place and attacked two bolts at a time. Four arms is a good thing. There wasn’t room for the other two crewmen to help us.
Lady spoke calmly. “There are thirty-six bolts. You won’t have time to disengage them before were are too close to the moon’s surface for me to escape. I can’t target the tube.”
Captain Baha grabbed a laser torch. She clipped a cable on her belt and shouted. “I’ll cut the tube. Pull me in before Lady activates her thrusters.”
She drifted a few feet into the depressurized tube and started cutting below her feet. The docking tube tore along the cut line and cruiser twisted, tumbled, and ripped the tube apart. The tube billowed and collapsed around the captain. She lost her balance and burned her ankle with the torch. We pulled on the cable, but the captain was engulfed in the wreckage. Cyrana activated the winch and jerked her free. I shut the airlock after the Captain cleared the door.
Lady Macbeth said, “Engaging thrusters. Brace yourselves.”
We continued to fall, but the fall became shallower and eventually the ship began to climb. The Lady put us in a high orbit above Betelgeuse Five. She called it a LaGrange Point.
The Captain’s right foot was gone; burned off by the laser torch. She was the toughest human I’d ever seen. Cyrana tried to help her and she said, “Keep you blue hands to yourself, you ugly Queeg. I will not go to the regeneration chamber. The MOBI’s taken a leg, a foot, and a hand. I take that from no creature, breathing or not. Spend your time fixing Lady. I want that battleship.”
She made a metal foot for herself. It wasn’t a claw like her hand. It didn’t open and close. It was a spring-loaded peg that gave a little when she stepped on it or bounced gently off the walls when internal ship gravity was off.
It took a week, but we got the drive working. The Lady said it would function at about forty percent of capacity. It would do. We cut the remains of the broken docking tube away and repaired the hull as best we could. We didn’t have the material or time to repair everything and several of the internal chambers were left in vacuum.
The Captain’s plan was simple. It wasn’t necessarily a good plan, but it was simple. She said, “The Tarn is still in orbit around the same planet we are. I’m not sure exactly where, because she’s hiding behind one of these cursed moons. Her drive signature is close and Lady will find her.”
We shifted all the tractor beams to the port side. When we encountered the Tarn, the Lady would spin on her axis and activate all the beams at once. Cyrana and I would man the bow lasers and the other two crewmen would man the aft lasers.
The Captain said, “Your job is to distract the battleship so I can board her and disable the MOBI.”
She built a rocket sled. I figured she’d smash herself flatter than a breakfast pancake, but no one asked me.
Cyrana stopped talking and eating. She continued to decorate her escape pod in her off hours and constantly cleaned it. She checked and rechecked the batteries, the solar chargers, and the hibersleep controls. She sat and meditated, but she didn’t sleep.
At dinner, the Captain announced, “Tomorrow, we find the Tarn and take her down. Be at battle stations at 0600.” Her claw hand and foot were chrome plated. She’d printed a new scarlet uniform. Her six foot battle axe was sharp and polished. Even the cables that operated her hand were bright and shiny.
“Double shares for the man who first fires on the Tarn.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. Battle stations? I signed on a salvage vessel. I didn’t know anything about battle stations.
Cyrana and I manned the laser array even though the lasers were controlled by Lady. Our job was to take over if something happened to Lady’s targeting programs like an EMP attack or total destruction of our AI.
We drifted toward the moon closest to Betelgeuse Five. It was small, fast, and irregularly shaped. Lady said, “I’ll snuggle up to the moon and skim barely above the surface. The moon’s gravity is negligible. The Tarn is on the other side. I’ll position myself so the tractor beam generators face our direction of travel and activate them the instant the Tarn’s in range.
Lady was true to her word, we skimmed the surface and slipped into the moon’s dark side with tractor beams engaged and lasers blazing. The Tarn was less than three hundred miles away. She tilted when the beams hit her. Our lasers looked like red spotlights flashing in the dark. The metal glowed where the beams cut her hull.
The Captain shouted. “I’m away. For God’s sake, don’t shoot me.”
Lady had perfect control of the lasers. We didn’t have anything to do except watch. The Captain quickly crossed the decreasing space. She spun her rocket sled and fired thrusters too slow for impact. She grabbed an airlock handle with her claw and pushed the manual switch. The door opened and she went inside.
She activate her helmet camera and ordered, “Stop firing. Full power to the tractor beams. I’ve got this.”
The Captain drifted down the passages to the core of the ship where the organic parts of the MOBI were secured. The hatches were locked and pressure sealed. “I’ll have to burn my way inside. She’s opened her compartment to space. I can’t fight the pressure difference.”
Captain Baha activated her torch and cut away at the hatch.
Lady drew the ships together. The Tarn didn’t try to cut our tractor beams. It didn’t fire back. Suddenly, the Tarn activated its own tractor beams and the ships screamed toward each other. Lady responded by cutting some of her beams. She fired her repulsors, but the two ships clanged together. At the moment of contact, the Lady reactivated her tractor beams and the two ships were as one. Lady said, “Captain, we have the Tarn. Our ships are locked together.”
The Captain moved through the dark Tarn ship. The MOBI didn’t need light. The Captain’s helmet lights jerked and shifted as she made her way to the vessel’s core. She’d salvaged several Tarn battleships and she barely glanced at the virtual map projected on her helmet’s faceplate. The control room door didn’t respond to her touch. She hefted her battle axe and activated her boot magnets. Anchored to the floor for leverage, she said, “I’m going to enjoy this.”
She smashed the door’s controls in one blow. She sliced a three-inch cut through the door on her fourth overhead chop. The axe blade caught in the metal. The Captain swore and braced one foot against the door and twisted and pulled to free her axe. She used her metal claw to peel the ruptured metal away from the axe.
I watched the visual feed. I was fascinated. She refused to use her torch and pounded the door as though the MOBI could feel pain. The Captain ripped a big enough opening to crawl through, but she wasn’t satisfied. She didn’t stop until the interior of the corridor and the MOBI control room were filled with hundreds of pieces of drifting shrapnel. Her magnetic boots clanged in the silence. She smashed the butt of her battle axe on the floor and spoke firmly. “Hello. My name is Captain Anaya Baha. It’s time for us to have a little talk.”
She moved to the control panel and activated her laser torch.
At the first touch of the laser torch, the MOBI applied full power to its drive. The thrust overbalanced the Captain. Her boots held her in place, but she dropped her torch. The thrust pushed it against the ceiling. Its short range beam glowed red in the darkness.
The Captain screamed, “I’m fine. Lady, don’t you dare let this bitch get away.”
Lady responded, “She hasn’t released her tractor beams and ours are holding. She’s taking us with her.”
“Where’s she headed?”
“The planet. She’s diving at the planet.”
The Tarn maintained acceleration. Lady said, “I can’t escape the planet’s gravity with her attached to us. I have to break contact.”
The Captain attacked the control panel and screamed between blows. “Lady, if you let her go, I’ll restore your system to factory settings. Stay with me.”
The Captain wasn’t finished with the Tarn and the Tarn wasn’t finished with us. The battleship reversed polarity and shoved us away. She targeted our tractor beam emitters and burned them into molten slag. The ships drifted apart.
“Captain, the Tarn has broken contact. She burned out my tractor beam array. Instructions.”
“Ram her. Ram the bitch.”
It was as though the Tarn followed her order. The alien used her thrusters and turned toward us. The battleship grew larger.
Lady responded, “The Tarn is targeting us. I don’t have the speed to evade her. Impact in sixty seconds. Abandon ship.”
Cyrana and I scrambled toward our escape pods. Communications still worked and I could see and hear the Captain. She slashed and pounded at the alien hardware. Lady’s countdown reached thirty seconds and the MOBI opened fire.
Lady’s shields fell instantly and laser beams ripped through our ship spilling the atmosphere and vaporizing everything in their path. A beam tore the passage. I heard a gasp and looked behind me. Cyrana was down. Her rear legs were on the floor. The beam cauterized as it cut and she wasn’t bleeding. I struggled to her aid.
She slapped me. “Go. There’s not time. Tell my people I died in battle. Take my pod. My people will read my story and sing my praises.”
I didn’t stop to talk. Countdown to impact was ten seconds. The Captain’s blows were about a second apart and I used them like a metronome. At seven seconds, I climbed into Cyrana’s escape pod. At four seconds, I closed the canopy and hit the jettison button. I was nearly crushed between the two ships.
The Captain’s feed survived the impact. She anchored herself with her boots and her claw. She never stopped tearing at the AI’s guts.
Lady Macbeth drifted silently and she never spoke again. I called repeatedly to the other crewman, but no one answered. I yelled to the Captain, but she didn’t respond. She broadcast visual, but her audio was down.
She opened the organic processor and tore at the flesh. She shoved her metal claw into a cluster of connection nodes wiring the organic components to the ship and there was a bright electrical flash. Her claw fused to the metal housing.
The Captain’s last effort must have been successful because the battleship never made another maneuver. The Captain tried to free herself. She would have cut off her metal arm if she’d had her battle axe or her laser torch. She never located either one in her dimming headlights.
She removed her metal foot with her good hand and used the metal appendage like a hammer. She was still pounding the ruptured flesh when the transmission went dead.
Lady Macbeth and the alien ship tumbled toward Betelgeuse Five. The hulls separated when they hit the atmosphere. The shower glowed like a waterfall at sunset and the pieces flashed into brief bright flames like trees in path of a lava flow. The fire was so bright that I covered my eyes. The fragments cascaded through the sky below me. The thousand points of light burned out and the morning sun glinted on the quiet fleecy clouds.
I set my pod on automatic. It had enough power to break orbit and head toward Altair. I started the hibersleep protocols and saluted the empty sky. The next thing I remember was when you woke me.
Mel put down his glass and stood. “That’s my story. I’ve think I’ve had a bit too much to drink. I’m out of practice.”
Bridget said, “I’ll show you where you can sleep.
Captain Gregory said, “Blue, put a copy of his story in our files. What do you think, Stubby?”
“Two hundred years is a long time. His pod records show it started for Antares a hundred and eighty years ago.”
“I know that, but I don’t know who won, the Captain or the battleship?”
“They both won and they both lost. The Captain and the MOBI were obsessed with each other. Either one could have retreated, but neither could stay away. They were moths circling each other’s flame. The both won and they both lost. They killed each other, but they killed themselves in the bargain.”
The Captain’s wife laughed. “Stubby, that’s pretty deep. Good advice, though. I expect you to remember it the next time you’re throwing dice. Sometimes, a man’s got to walk away.”
Stubby smiled, “Maybe that’s true, but sometimes when the bear’s got your arm in its mouth, a man’s got to keep shoving until it bites off his arm or chokes on his fingers.”