Achaemenidia

Achaemenidia

Alone as it approached the edges of the system the Peripheral Bus cruised in, unsure what to expect. Five hundred probes accelerated ahead, fanning out to build up a picture of Karabakh as the barely perceptible light of its sun cast weak light across its hull. Of the Achaemenidia, the ship that had sent the distress call, there was no sign. It was probably further in-system, lost in the volume around the small star.

Knowing the probes would take hours to report back, the ship came to a full stop, silent among the debris scattered around the Oort cloud. Momentarily obscuring the tiny speck of Karabakh’s star, meteoroids gently swept past, their slow, predictable movement hypnotic in the quiet calm of the remote system.

The probes almost immediately picked up a signal some distance in. Another ship had heard the call too it would seem. The Peripheral Bus engaged its engines and aimed for the source.

The combat suit’s ability to transmit audio in perfect fidelity momentarily deafened him, the atmosphere rushing into vacuum as the outer door buckled. His hands clamped on a strut as the gale blew past, sound bleeding away, the silence shocking after the turmoil of the escaping environment.

The pitch black of the damaged airlock prompted the suit to artificially illuminate everything for him as he clambered out, conspiring to help stabilise his position as he stumbled on to the outer surface, technically the side of the ship. Thin light crept over the distant edge of the vessel, testament to how close the Achaemenidia had come to reaching Karabakh’s sun. Still millions of kilometres distant its glare could be seen, as if acting like a beacon for the way forward.

The suit updated the view. Hundreds of cylindrical shapes stretched up above him as he moved to the edge. He had often wondered why ships seemed to care so little for form, their ovoid shapes often marred along the equator with sensor rods, a collection of structures pointing outward with little sense of order. It contrasted with the comparatively featureless hulls many ships possessed. Even a big ship like this one followed the same basic shape many of them did, its flattened egg shape mostly devoid of ornament.

On emerging from the airlock the microprobes reestablished contact. Something had been detected at the far reaches of the system. Time to go, he thought as he ran toward the lower edge of the side of the ship half a kilometre distant, avoiding the forest of rods blocking his path.

It took almost four minutes, the suit ensuring he remained adhered to the surface despite the ability to cruise there. But that might be detected and they’d obviously caused enough trouble to attract others.

Reaching the edge, the light beckoning him forward as it spilled above the lip of the equator, he peered over. A limitless cliff face spread before him, technically the lower hull. Climbing over the edge, turning the required ninety degrees, the suit compensated ensuring he could stand upright. Strong light assaulted him as he looked out over the vessel, its far end out of sight, the apex of its shallow curvature almost five kilometres away lost to the brilliance of Karabakh’s star. He paused for a moment, despite the presence of ships in the system. The Achaemenidia was dead, its controlling intelligence fatally compromised or departed; they didn’t know. And now they had no time to find out.

Quickly getting up to a run, accelerating to full speed, he took off across the underside of the derelict craft, toward the light. It was time to leave.

The levelled surface of the iceberg’s tip couldn’t have been more than a few dozen square metres in size, its rough contours barely visible in the uncomfortable white light shining from the invisible sun.

The Peripheral Bus’s avatar looked around the frozen landscape noting a strange sensation it struggled to isolate when taking in the unusual scene. The exposed portion of the iceberg bobbed gently in a fast-flowing patch of ocean, the light wind a result of movement in an otherwise calm day. Standing near the edge and looking down, the pristine water looked cold enough that nothing could survive its icy depths. The pyramidal iceberg stretched deep below the surface, its structure beneath the waterline a striking blue lost into darkness. All around them ice stretched to the horizon in every direction like a carpet of white broken only by distant veins of aquamarine where the ice floes had broken apart.

The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown sat on a plain plastic bucket seat, its bright orange in stark contrast to the icy palette of the world. A second orange seat was placed opposite. As the Peripheral Bus walked toward it the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown turned to look, its avatar modelled on a human male of average height and weight with the same nondescript features possessed by the mass of humanity. Had it been a real human being it would have blended in almost anywhere. Only on a floating iceberg, careening along an ocean on an arctic world, would it stand out, the plainness of its olive skin and dark hair in contrast to the bleak character of the simulated environment.

The Peripheral Bus approached the empty chair, the mild crunch of ice breaking the silence. It was then it realised the iceberg must be bigger than it had at first assumed since it couldn’t perceive the sound of the water, obviously far below the point where it stood. Given the fidelity of the virtuality it was the most sensible assumption, that the sound would be there but not discernible from the height. Which also implied the ship went in for realism. Not for the first time the Peripheral Bus wondered at the likelihood of insanity among its own kind. As many humans had observed, superintelligence meant supereverything, including supercrazy.

Its own avatar, a gaunt female humanoid, sat down on the orange seat, taking in the view behind the other avatar. ‘You must be the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown.’

The Peripheral Bus finally placed the odd sensation. It was cold. Goosebumps marred its avatar’s exposed skin. It immediately shut down the feed, baffled at the need for such a detail.

The male avatar looked at it. ‘The ship is responsible for this environment,’ it said. ‘I am called Jim, and this is my own avatar.’

Many ships created distinct sub-personalities as their representatives. Some were even said to have imbibed them with independence and sentience. For many it was seen as a step too far; like creating toy life.

‘I see. I take it you are here because of the distress call?’

‘Yes. You received it too I assume?’

‘Loud and clear. What do you think?’

‘We still haven’t located the ship,’ said Jim. ‘But it must be here somewhere.’

‘It may have been destroyed.’

The human paused for a moment, staring at the Peripheral Bus. ‘By what?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Have you surveyed the system?’ said Jim.

‘Not really.’

‘We have sent a number of probes.’

‘As far as I am aware there has only been a single survey of the system.’ Karabakh had enjoyed a brief survey centuries previously, so long ago it had actually been named after a location on Earth. ‘We should combine our efforts. Two heads are better than one.’

‘Or three,’ said Jim.

‘Indeed.’

‘We have several thousand probes scanning the system.’

The use of generic measurement was quite deliberately human, indicating Jim possibly was genuine. If so he would be using a neural thread to interface with the environment, a bundle of specialised nerve fibres stretching down the spinal cord and a direct outgrowth of the brain. Many humans used them to communicate with systems, and they were especially useful for simulations, immersing the incumbent fully.

‘Happy to help. I have five hundred and twelve in play. We should coordinate.’

‘Agreed.’

The Peripheral Bus looked around at the flatness surrounding them, a vista of white as far as the avatar could perceive. There was no land visible in any direction, only the endless icefield.

‘Is this modelled on a place?’

‘Dunglass,’ said Jim. ‘An ice world. Far from here.’

It was similar to Karabakh, with its cold hard white light, although none of the planets in the system were like this.

Looking back at the human avatar the Peripheral Bus decided to query the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. It would have been quicker to do it the normal way but the ship seemed eccentric and obviously preferred this mode of communication, talking via a representative. ‘What are your thoughts on the Achaemenidia?’

‘The data package implied something unusual was happening with the star. Its corona—’

‘What data package?’ The Peripheral Bus had only received the distress call.

‘We found it at the edge of the system. Didn’t you find it?’

‘No.’ Ships sometimes left data packages when travelling alone, especially if entering unknown areas. Typically consisting of telemetry and log files they formed a snapshot of a ship’s movement in case anything happened beyond their power to control.

The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown immediately sent the package and the Peripheral Bus took only a moment to absorb its contents. The Achaemenidia had noticed activity in the corona of the main sequence star in the Karabakh system, an otherwise unremarkable sun. The log files noted its intention to investigate further, then there was nothing except the later distress call.

‘That’s it?’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘Yes. If we can locate the ship we may be able to find out more.’

It was troubling to say the least. The Achaemenidia was big. Positively giant and difficult to miss. It also had a small human crew.

‘Any thoughts on where it is or what happened?’

‘I cannot imagine.’ Jim sat there, impassive. His face, although perfectly rendered in this virtual place, was expressionless. Despite the sharp fidelity of everything else it was the one detail it — or they, the Peripheral Bus thought — had missed in the creation of this pseudo-man. Jim the perfect human looked positively inhuman. The Peripheral Bus could indeed not imagine Jim imagining anything.

‘Well,’ it said. ‘Time will tell.’

The vast plain of the ship’s hull stretched before him as he ran toward the shallow apex. The sun rendered the striking green of the Achaemenidia’s surface an anaemic, washed-out pale imitation of its normal colour, the faint yellow stripes barely even visible. In the far distance unfamiliar structures jutted vertically from the vessel, although the suit struggled to filter out the glare.

The ship drifted, clearly devoid of its controlling entity. The bright point of the sun in the distance rolled lazily as the ship tumbled through space. None of it affected his ability to sprint at inhuman speed across the surface as he aimed for the far side where the transport pod waited, disguised as part of the ship.

Sent in to locate the human personnel, he had found no trace. If they were still on board, as he suspected they were, they might not survive.

They wouldn’t have long anyway. The reaction had been unfolding for some time before the appearance of the Achaemenidia. The strength of the light had increased slightly; he only knew because the suit could measure it. But it was happening.

He raced across the hull, the smooth surface broken by vents and gaps as he ran past occasional vertical formations randomly placed on the otherwise featureless exterior. Smears of thick black drifted across his path as the ship rolled, each surface structure emphasised by the shadows caused by the violent light of Karabakh’s sun. None of it slowed him down as he sprinted. The suit kept him informed of the vessel’s slow rotation relative to the position of his ship, with the stealthed pod as his immediate target.

Things had got out of hand quickly. When the Achaemenidia first appeared his own ship hoped it would pass right by. But it had obviously noticed something seemed wrong with the local star and cruised in to investigate. The decision to intervene had been inevitable, as manipulating stars even in the middle of nowhere was frowned upon. And the use of nanotech was considered insane.

The Achaemenidia was known to transport human passengers; eighty-one were listed. Although the ship’s mind could survive almost anywhere the humans were much more of an issue. Right up until contact it was hoped the ship would lose interest and disappear, but it didn’t and headed straight for the system’s unstable star.

Entering had been easy. The ship, despite its interest piqued by the solar activity, had clearly not expected intrusion. As he had worked his way in, the suit ensuring he remained undetected, he had released the package.

The suit had disguised its signature as a drone. A ship as big as the Achaemenidia would have tens of thousands of semi-autonomous units within it. Every now and then one of them would malfunction. Revealing itself to the ship had taken little more than sending a signal once inside the less protected outermost part of the vessel, mimicking the signature of a damaged drone. The ship duly responded with a standard query. The suit bleeped, the prepared package represented on his visor as a strong point of light, pulsating as the suit waited for his go ahead. He had told it to engage and the light blinked out, the package camouflaged as a response to the ship’s routine handshake query.

His own ship had reassured him it would do very little except hide his presence from the Achaemenidia as he explored the interior where sensor coverage would be expected to be more dense and difficult to fool. And, indeed, at first very little had happened, the suit keeping him posted as he crept his way around the cavernous vessel, almost completely empty. He didn’t see any sign of the eighty-one humans.

When the suit finally got back to him about the destruction he had unleashed, it was too late. Whatever the package contained had damaged the entity’s control. The suit had used the word ‘compromised’.

The environmental systems died first. Light, heating and atmosphere all disappeared so abruptly he felt it affect him despite the combat suit compensating. As his visual systems came online, the dim interior proved difficult to navigate. Searching in the most obvious places he found no trace of the human passengers. After several hours he gave up and aimed for the surface.

It took a further two hours to reach the airlock, itself broken and inert. He hadn’t taken any microprobes with him and had to rely on the suit. Now, finally on the surface, unable to contact his own ship, he could only hope the Achaemenidia had had the presence of mind to at least eject the humans before the shutdown. Most ships would have done so, or at least got them into survival suits. If they were out there somewhere they could perhaps pick them up.

The visor lit up unexpectedly.

‘Presence detected.’ The suit wasn’t sentient, but like every other combat suit he’d used it seemed intelligent.

‘What?’

‘One of the microprobes has reported a disturbance. A probe.’

He picked up his speed, the suit compressing slightly in sympathy. The last thing they needed was more traffic.

The Peripheral Bus approached the Achaemenidia, its slow drift shocking to see even standing off ten thousand kilometres away. It listed to one side, revolving in space, the sense it had been abandoned difficult to shake. In the distance the white sun illuminated its exterior, the full length of its twelve kilometre hull bleached a sickly green.

The probes swarming around the surface reported no activity on any part of the spectrum. It was not responding to hails and there was no sign of life. That included the rumoured human crew. The most up-to-date records the Peripheral Bus could access indicated eighty-one human beings should have been aboard; a small number for a large vessel. But there was no sign of them. Hardly surprising given the size of the ship. They could easily be inside, shielded from scanning.

The first probes found an entrance. It was alarming to note how easy they gained access as they swarmed inside, spreading out, dispersing to build up a picture of the vessel. Like most ships the Achaemenidia had no fixed plan, the interior a constantly shifting mass of components. But with humans on board it would have some internal logic at least. It shouldn’t take the probes long to fathom its secrets.

Meanwhile it sent another group of probes to scan for any signs of life outside the ship. If the humans or the Achaemenidia itself was nearby it expected to find them quickly.

Almost immediately the external probes reported back. Something was moving on the lower surface of the ship. It seemed to be a humanoid figure. It sent in a group of sixteen to inspect more closely as the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown hailed on its private band.

‘The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown has detected the human crew.’

The avatar of Jim sat in the orange seat as before. This time the Peripheral Bus transported directly into the opposite seat. As the NTV came online it sat facing the human. The iceberg still gently bobbed up and down, the cold breeze making its presence felt. It once again had to consciously disengage the avatar’s sensory feed to even out the experience.

‘Where?’

‘Some distance from the ship.’

‘I didn’t sense anything.’

‘They are not in a vessel,’ said Jim, seemingly unaffected by the cold. ‘They are in survival suits and appear to be unconscious. We are moving in now.’

Things must have been desperate on the ship for them not to be inside a shuttle.

‘I have detected another human sign on the surface of the vessel,’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘All eighty-one crew members are accounted for. All of them are there,’ said Jim.

The Peripheral Bus wondered who the eighty-second one was. The Achaemenidia seemed to run a tight ship and the crew manifest was widely available and should be up to date.

‘Could it be the ship?’ said Jim.

‘In a humanoid avatar? Unlikely.’ A ship mind was housed within a container that was typically several metres wide. The core itself was smaller, but still too big to store within a humanoid frame.

‘Then who is it?’

‘I don’t know. My probes have only just detected it. I will know more when they reach it.’

‘If we can revive the crew—’

‘What is wrong with the sun?’ The Peripheral Bus noticed a slight shift in the colour spectrum of the star. Most of its attention focused on the data streaming in from the hundreds of probes, but something had triggered its own sensors.

Jim seemed to pause, probably receiving instructions from the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown which would inevitably be monitoring their conversation. It made the Peripheral Bus wonder what kind of entity it was. Why not appear itself? Although the use of avatars was commonplace they were mainly used to interact with humans. Even the use of the neural thread virtuality, with its iceberg floating along an ocean, was absurd.

‘Yes. The ship has informed me something is happening,’ said Jim. ‘The star is changing.’

The Peripheral Bus turned its attention to the distant star and witnessed its corona expanding. The radiation moved out in a wave ahead of it and was already interfering with the probes.

‘You better get to those humans quickly.’

‘We are on our way,’ said Jim.

‘I will track down the other human on the surface.’

Sixteen of its probes raced toward the last position of the human on the surface when a sudden wave of radiation washed over the ship. The Peripheral Bus immediately lost contact with the probes. In the distance the star grew in brightness as it engaged its engines and aimed for the Achaemenidia. Withdrawing from the NTV it would have to leave the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown to pick up the human crew.

Standing still on the surface, the suit masked his signature while passively scanning the environment.

‘Sixteen probes. Multi-spectrum scan. We have almost certainly been spotted.’

He had always found it disconcerting that suits referred to themselves in this way despite energetic attempts by his ship to assure him they lacked anything resembling a sense of self. It was a standard routine, adapted long ago from software used in vehicles manually piloted by humans, designed to project a friendly sense of inclusion. None of which helped him now something was probing. The friendly, inclusive we really meant him alone.

‘Where are they from?’

‘Unknown. They are not ours.’

It must be whatever the microprobes detected at the edge of the system. To travel so far so quickly meant a ship. Had the Achaemenidia contacted others? He had no way of knowing. It was just him, the suit and the millions of tiny surveillance units his own ship had sent into the system.

No point dallying, he thought as he sprinted toward the pod, still almost three kilometres distant.

‘Probes heading to this position.’ The suit absorbed the data straight from the nearby microprobes, not that detection mattered now.

‘Actively scan,’ he said. The visor’s display immediately came alive with its usual baffling mess of graphics in a multitude of colours. In the corner a three-dimensional representation of a squat cylinder rotated, numerical data briefly flaring into existence beside it. Presumably one of the probes aiming for their position.

An image of the local star appeared at the top left. Momentarily catching his attention, the suit cut in before he could ask.

‘The sun is destabilising.’

Focusing on the graphic moved it to the centre of his vision, its feed close to real time as the surface roiled violently. He was only dimly aware now of his body sprinting, the suit working with his own enhancements just below conscious awareness.

He couldn’t decide if the sun was doing anything, the surface of the sphere in turmoil, seemingly the same as before.

‘What is it doing?’ he said. ‘It doesn’t look any different.’

‘The feed is compensating. Polarising excess light and masking solar flares. But the star is growing in size. If it gets beyond a certain point I may not be able to protect you.’

The display abruptly cleared, a series of data items appearing in red. Trouble.

‘We are being hailed,’ said the suit.

‘The probes?’

‘Yes. They are from a ship called the Peripheral Bus. Answering a distress call.’

A flash momentarily stopped him, leaving a disturbing afterglow. Before he could ask the suit what had happened he realised it would increase the opacity of the visor automatically, so it would have to be unusually bright for it to penetrate.

‘Solar activity is increasing. Suggested tactic is to seek cover.’

Seek cover? He stood less than two kilometres from the pod. If he reentered the ship he would never reach it in time.

A wave of radiation hit him, moving so fast even the suit hadn’t had time to emit a warning. Every single feed cut out as the suit itself seized up. He fell over, hitting the surface as the visor slowly faded. Before he knew what was happening it began to light up. Then he realised it wasn’t the suit as it seemed completely dead. It was the sun, increasing rapidly in illumination. The light quickly turned to a painfully bright white. Clamping his eyes shut tight, his arms covering the visor in an attempt to protect himself, light fought its way in, growing in strength.

Sharp pain seared his eyes. Drawing himself into a foetal position, lying stationary on the surface of the Achaemenidia, still the light scorched his eyes, burning white. The pain sharpened, disorientating him as he curled himself tightly.

Abruptly, the light receded, the sense of relief rising as his body’s defences reacted, dulling the pain.

Easing out of his prone position he could see nothing but a deep red, slowly fading. The sharp pain subsided, a sense of mental numbness overtaking him as he recognised the symptoms of mild shock.

He stumbled as he tried to get up. He was blind. Calling out, the suit didn’t respond. It was dead, the sound immediately lost in the helmet encasing his head, although he could still move.

He strained, imagining himself staring at something in the distance. But it didn’t work as he fell over, unable to keep his balance. Sitting on the surface, the red fading now to a solid black, he tried to calm himself. The suit would not respond to anything he did. He then realised he didn’t know which way he faced; in the confusion he had lost his bearings.

Sitting, trying to focus, he forced himself to calm down. Moving his hands in front of his face he saw nothing but black. The suit’s comms were gone too. Aware the probes that had spotted him were probably equally damaged he knew the mothership, the Peripheral Bus according to the suit, would no doubt send more. And they moved almost as fast as drones.

With no eyesight, no sense of direction and no suit he had few options. Sitting back, forcing himself to concentrate, he reached deep into his neural thread. Activating it, the thread immediately responded, the sensation more intense with his eyesight missing. Sinking deeper he reached out into the surrounding area using the thread to emit a short-range broadcast, an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do under normal circumstances. He sensed the faint touch of something familiar as he focused, trying to force the unorthodox communication. The first of the surviving microprobes reacted; the second immediately after it. Before long more than a dozen raced toward his position.

‘Did you get them?’

‘Yes,’ said Jim, this time standing at the edge of the iceberg, looking out over the cold ocean. The aquamarine of the sea looked calm, the ice floes still visible everywhere around them. Once again a sub-optimal operating temperature permeated the humanoid avatar, although Jim seemed unaffected. ‘We got all of them. Eighty-one in total.’

‘I still don’t know who the other one is. I have lost my probes.’

‘The sun is becoming more unstable. We have to depart.’

‘We need to get the other human on the surface of the ship. And we also need to locate the ship’s core. It must have been ejected since the vessel is not responding to hails.’

Jim turned to look at the female avatar. ‘We are running out of time.’

‘But we have some.’

‘How long will it take you to locate the human?’

‘I don’t know. I am preparing some new probes better able to manage the solar radiation.’

‘We will continue to search for Achaemenidia’s core then. But we don’t have much time.’

The Peripheral Bus paused, its avatar motionless as its attention pulled back to itself. ‘I have picked up a signal.’

‘What signal?’ said Jim.

‘It seems to be some kind of probe.’

‘Not one of yours?’

‘No. They seem to be microprobes.’

‘Microprobes? Who do they belong to? The Achaemenidia?’

‘I don’t know.’

Jim said nothing. He looked at the Peripheral Bus. It was a testament to the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’s ability to create a high fidelity virtuality that the Peripheral Bus could tell he was shocked. The presence of an extra human was odd, but probably an administrative error, unlikely though that was. But the microprobes changed everything. Normally in the vacuum of space, and especially in an unstable system, a ship would use specialist probes built for the task. To use smaller vulnerable units implied they were aiming for stealth. But who else could be here, and why were they trying to conceal their presence?

The Peripheral Bus began to prepare more robust solar probes to investigate further. Probably a little late, but they may learn something.

Its own sensors picked up new signals. The microprobes — until now sending only pulses indicating position — came online. Twelve signals flared into existence, feeding something with a battery of encrypted information, presumably the lone human on the surface of the ship. Although the Peripheral Bus could not easily break the encryption it could follow the signals even in the maelstrom of radiation caused by the local sun.

‘Are you picking this up?’ it asked Jim.

‘Picking up what?’

The Peripheral Bus remembered the avatar of Jim was distinct from the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. The ship would need to laboriously feed the data to him via his neural thread.

‘Coming in now,’ he said. ‘The individual is moving.’

The human was in fact sprinting across the Achaemenidia’s lower hull.

‘Can we intercept?’ asked Jim.

‘Yes,’ said the Peripheral Bus. ‘I have just the thing.’

The microprobes provided a strange all encompassing sensorium that disorientated him. Ranging out ahead they scanned the irregular surface of the hull, mapping a route to the pod. His neural thread converted their feeds into something his brain could understand. It wasn’t the same as vision, but somehow the twelve tiny probes provided data his mind could use to navigate now his eyes were damaged beyond use.

The pod was less than two kilometres away. He had started out slowly, taking a while to adjust to the feeds. It took several minutes before he realised the microprobes compensated for distance. Everything he experienced felt like the units were only a few centimetres in front of his eyes even though they had fanned out ahead of him. Two of them were over a kilometre away.

But it worked, confidence growing as his speed picked up. Aware the solar radiation would continue to rise he had to make it. If he could get to the protection of the pod he would be fine. He had tried hailing it using his neural thread but it remained silent, its security protocols ensuring it stayed hidden, disguised as it sat on the hull in plain view.

Moving his head from side to side, the view changed. The scene was an obvious projection, hastily constructed to convey essential information, much like a neural thread virtuality. All of the ones he’d used were ultra-high fidelity, indistinguishable from real life. This was crude, cartoonish in places. It lacked any information on the state of the sun as it focused on the route to the pod over the surface and nothing more. The hull stretched out in front of him, a dull grey marked with dark lines, the vacuum of space beyond the ship a solid wall of black. It was primitive but it worked.

The suit wouldn’t respond to his instructions. Only its basic locomotive functions remained, and even they seemed sluggish. He was conscious of the work he was doing running like this, the suit no longer able to assist.

A sense of movement behind him tugged at his awareness. He couldn’t discern what it was or even how he knew as something approached his position. Lacking the audio component of the suit meant he had to make sense of it himself. Or, rather, the microprobes combined with his thread did so. He began to feel a growing sense of dread. Was it real? He didn’t know if his brain was reacting to the unusual feed being forced through the thread running down his spine. It was directly linked to his brain. Was it misfiring somehow?

There was no time to analyse it as discomfort gave way to fear. Whatever was behind approached fast, the urge to escape overwhelming any sense of caution. He tried increasing his speed but was held back by the lack of direct vision. He was going as fast as he could manage.

As if sensing his alarm the ad hoc system guiding him displayed features on the hull; more detailed lines popped into existence against the unending grey before him, rendered as before with simple black lines. The nearest looked like a hatch. Peering ahead he could still see the pod, a grey blotch outlined in red. It stood only a kilometre away, but he had to get out of sight.

Changing direction to aim for the first target, he reached it in only twenty seconds, aware a microprobe hovered nearby, although he couldn’t see it directly. Coming to a stop a black circle lay superimposed at his feet in contrast to the uniform grey of the hull stretching away in all directions. In the low quality environment everything looked crude, as if drawn rather than correctly rendered, the hatch little more than a flat shape with no sense of depth.

Turning, he looked back. A group of dark shapes closed in on his current position, difficult to make sense of against the black of space, irrational panic rising sharply as they approached. Looking the other way, the pod now an impossible distance, he jumped into the hole in the ship’s hull, the void swallowing him as he fell into blackness.

Sixty-four shielded drones streamed across the surface of the Achaemenidia, their sensors scanning for any sign of the human the Peripheral Bus had detected earlier. Aiming for the last known position they quickly caught a trace of something moving across the surface. Closing in the drones soon picked up the comms traffic from the small group of microprobes. They were transmitting heavy loads too and relatively easy to track once found.

Abruptly the number of signals dropped from twelve to six. There was no sign of the human as the drones raced ahead. The temperature steadily rose, waves of radiation interfering with the bulky drones’ ability to accurately track the microprobes.

Approaching them the six remaining microprobes quickly sped off in different directions, leading some of the drones away. As a handful chased after them the rest congregated on the position. It was a hatch on the surface of the hull, firmly shut.

One of the drones slowed, stopping at the entrance. It spent a minute trying to first access it electronically then use its manipulators to force it. All to no avail. It wouldn’t budge. The human must have disappeared back in to the vessel through the hatch. Although it was difficult to tell. The radiation sweeping over the surface of the ship interfered with the drones’ ability to effectively scan. That number would ordinarily have been able to map out the exterior of the craft in a minute or two. Now they were reduced to little more than short range scanning devices.

Convinced the human had entered the ship the Peripheral Bus took control of the drone at the hatch. Its consciousness surged through it like an ocean squeezing into a pipe. To the ship the machine felt like an insubstantial thing, a toy. Focusing on the access point the drone’s manipulator physically connected and the Peripheral Bus pushed forward with its mind, searching for a weakness. It soon found it, the Achaemenidia’s damaged state proving no barrier to its determined intrusion.

The hatch opened, the darkness beyond offering little clue as to the interior. Withdrawing from the drone the Peripheral Bus sent it inside. It reported back quickly. The hatch led to a long corridor with a heavy pressure door at the end, a standard design pattern on ships. It ordered the drone to explore and sent the rest in to find the human.

It watched through one of the drones as the others gradually edged in to the dead shell of the former ship. It withdrew, happy to wait for them to fan out once inside. Being sub-sentient they could easily be left behind once they located him. With any luck they might make contact with the small group of probes it had sent in earlier since they should still be inside the Achaemenidia, cataloguing everything.

The other drones soon caught up with the microprobes, each one destroying itself before capture. Observing as one drone closely inspected the tiny cylinders, their simple form covered by dozens of delicate sensor rods protruding from the small unit with no apparent order, the Peripheral Bus knew it would prove pointless scanning them for information but did so anyway. They were blank; inert and devoid of activity. It would be impossible to glean anything else, all six of them following a preordained instruction to self-destruct. Further evidence they might be dealing with something unusual.

It turned its attention back to the swarm of drones still streaming into the open hatch, aware they were now manoeuvring their way through the dead ship. It was only a matter of time before they found the human, but it may not be soon enough as it received data from its most distant system probes. The sun was destabilising again, and this time the effect was observable even from its own position, the light warming in colour temperature to a faint orange in contrast to the original blue-white of the local star. It clearly didn’t have long to go.

Something was tracking him. Audio from the microprobes fed through to the suit, an unsettling sensation since he had nothing else to go on except the crudely rendered virtuality. The endless corridors of the ship were mapped out clearly, but as he entered a cavernous space the detail diminished with the room only appearing in rough outline, a distant clanking from somewhere else in the ship echoing ominously as he sprinted. It looked like a hold or a hangar, empty, stretching high above him, and impossible to tell if its featureless walls were genuinely featureless or a consequence of the microprobes performing only a cursory scan as they raced on.

He spotted the exit at the other side of the hold and ran for it. This part of the ship had retained atmosphere and he could now hear the whine of drones behind him, although still no visual confirmation. Reaching the exit he ran through into yet another corridor. Sprinting down it he was almost halted by a strong sensation to turn left at the end. The microprobes possessed enough intelligence to be able to map a route but his neural thread wasn’t designed with this data in mind. He interpreted it as an urge; indistinct but strong.

Turning left at the end a ladder stood bolted to the wall. Reaching it he began to climb. He could feel the drones coming closer even though he couldn’t now hear anything. The ship creaked in protest at whatever was happening to it. A dull rumble in the distance drew his attention, as if something was being twisted out of shape. In the few minutes it took him to climb it grew in volume, like he was aiming for the source even though it was probably quite distant.

It was frustrating relying on microprobes. He had no way to directly communicate with them. He tried visualising the pod even though he couldn’t work out its likely position. But they didn’t react in any way, and there was no other method at his disposal. Although they were programmed to assist him if he needed it, the assistance protocols assumed the presence of the intelligent suit which seemed completely dead.

Another urge grew within him. It built slowly as he ran along yet another corridor. These ones were rendered as crudely as the hold implying the microprobes had been moving fast, or perhaps they had now spread out. He had no idea where he was or where he was going. The urge grew into panic. He tried to remain detached enough to evaluate it but whatever it was gripped him with fear, the brief attempt at analysis drowned out by the overwhelming need to move forward. There was something ahead. He couldn’t tell what it was; it was a direction, a destination more than an image. Beginning to really sprint, his own enhancements ensured he managed close to his top speed despite the hesitancy induced by the blindness. The feed was good, if cartoonish, but it was difficult to trust completely.

Turning a corner, a hatch at the end, this was where he needed to get to. Running at breakneck speed the distant whine of a drone somewhere behind him echoed in the space. They could clearly track him. Reaching the complex-looking hatch a dull thunk sounded out as something engaged, or perhaps disengaged. The low fidelity of the feed made detail impossible to grasp; it was more debilitating that he would have expected seeing the hatch as little more than a rectangular outline.

A door slid to one side. It was an airlock, and seemingly operational, the door slowly closing behind him as he entered. He waited as the atmosphere vented, the outer door opening to the blackness beyond as sound bled away into vacuum.

The urge to leave pushed him out into space. Almost immediately he realised the danger he was in. Debris was everywhere. It was difficult to work out what it was from the feeds. Possibly bits of the ship, which implied some kind of rupture. The microprobes rendered the floating objects as light-coloured shapes, their dimensions only hinted at as they struggled to keep track.

Within only moments he was floating along with the rest of it. He couldn’t work out if the suit was doing it or it was some natural phenomenon. Looking back at the hatch he now couldn’t find it, the microprobes having changed their focus to his immediate vicinity. The giant ship, at this distance a huge wall slowly receding, was only just identifiable as anything, the white, grey and black of the simulation making it look more like a line drawing than anything real.

As he drifted away he hoped his own ship would act soon. The feed didn’t give him any data or visuals on the progress of Karabakh’s sun but it must be ready to blow given everything else that had happened. As the debris drifted past he felt an involuntary shudder, as if the suit was being buffeted by successive waves of energy. It was unsettling, the sense of exposure almost paralysing, the lack of sound adding to the feeling of isolation. He had to get out of here now.

The signal was almost lost in the chaos of radiation sweeping through Karabakh. The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown only noticed because it was scanning the vicinity. Clinging to the side of a tumbling meteorite, careening erratically on a path that would eventually throw it outside the system, it found the Achaemenidia’s mind.

The dull sphere, only two metres in diameter, represented the absolute core of the controlling intelligence that had once been housed within the ship itself. Scanning using an army of probes, the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown experienced a moment of shock at the nakedness of the mind. It had never seen another non-organic like this; all entities like itself did indeed have some kind of inner core, buried deep within the structure of the ship, surrounded by layers of protection. In most cases they had a ship within a ship. Its own housing was over one hundred metres in length and armoured, containing powerful propulsion and even weapons. This inner sanctum could be ejected within moments and could defend itself or flee at high speed. The Achaemenidia would almost certainly have had its own measures in place, so to see its inner core, the sphere, exposed in vacuum and effectively defenceless was horrifying. It also meant the ship must have faced some catastrophic event since it couldn’t eject itself in time.

It sent several hundred defence drones into the area, reaching out to establish contact with the terrified Achaemenidia. Within minutes the drones formed a protective barrier around the meteorite, each drone placed equidistantly and tumbling around as it spun away.

Radiation saturated the area. Although the Achaemenidia’s core was not yet in physical danger the Karabakh system was in disorder, and becoming more so. Quickly launching a shuttle it made contact with the disorientated mind clinging to the surface of the meteorite. The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown could almost sense the relief in the communication emanating from the sphere; it couldn’t quite believe someone had answered its distress call. It immediately asked about the eighty-one human crew. The quick interchange, difficult with the radiation noise around them, painted a picture of the ship abruptly collapsing, with only backup systems working for a few minutes before everything shut down. The signal soon cut off as another wave of radiation swept over them. The situation sounded dire, but the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown was more concerned about immediate rescue. It had already captured the human survivors.

The shuttle eased into a dead stop some fifty metres from the tumbling meteorite. The Achaemenidia disengaged the core’s manipulators and, using little jets of gas positioned around the sphere, drifted toward the vessel, the drones breaking their erratic orbit to form a protective outer shell. Harsh light illuminated the way as the Achaemenidia slowly approached, the dull grey sphere of its housing shining like a beacon as it travelled the short distance.

Within a minute it was on board and the shuttle manoeuvred to return to itself, quickly accelerating to its maximum speed. Buffeted by the radiation from the expanding corona it made its way back, some of the drones becoming disorientated by the storm of radiation. The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown left them where they were and focused on the shuttle as it approached. Whatever had overcome the Achaemenidia had disabled it completely. The unstable star couldn’t be the reason since the Achaemenidia’s ship was still intact, although beginning to break apart as it was further in-system. Keen to find out what had really happened it waited as the little shuttle drew closer.

The long chain of drones inside the ship fed the Peripheral Bus with frustratingly little information. On several occasions the drones detected the presence of something. Relying only on audio it proved too difficult to differentiate between the background din of the ship slowly being destroyed and movement by the human. After almost an hour it had little more than tantalising glimpses of what might be internal activity, but nothing else. There was also no trace of its earlier probes, which were presumably lost somewhere inside the vast interior.

Drawing itself away from the locale it admitted defeat. Sending the drones remaining outside to scan the perimeter of the Achaemenidia, it knew using so few would not be enough given the size of the vessel. Whoever the human had been he or she was proving impossible to find.

Engaging its engines, already too far for the drones to make it back in time, it withdrew completely. The drones would be destroyed by the growing storm of radiation now sweeping through Karabakh in waves. Having received word from the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown that the Achaemenidia had been found intact — shockingly exposed as a result of what had to be an unprovoked attack — it knew they had done what they could. Still, finding the lone human might have shed some light on what had happened. Maybe the Achaemenidia itself would know more.

The Peripheral Bus swung around in a shallow arc, away from the centre of the Karabakh system toward a rendezvous point in the distant Oort cloud with the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. Behind, its probes still functioning, it felt the temperature rise in-system as the light slowly sank toward the red end of the spectrum, the sign of a star rapidly degenerating. Time to flee.

The microprobes battled against the storm raging through space, fighting to maintain integrity. Monitoring the human encased within the damaged combat suit, the six units strengthened their ad hoc network to better ensure his survival as the environment degenerated into turmoil.

The first of the microprobes soon succumbed to the high levels of radiation, its tough casing no match for the violence of the irradiated vacuum. Its death triggered SOS routines in the remaining five, combining to broadcast a distress call in the assumed direction of their ship. The human agent, oblivious in his combat suit, floated along with the rest of the debris from the disintegrating vessel. The microprobes formed a protective shell as best they could and waited to hear from their distant mothership.

The Peripheral Bus had once transported a group of humans to a primitive world with virtually no infrastructure. Although non-religious, having been raised within the Coalescence, they had joined what could only be described as a cult. It eschewed modernity and appealed to those interested in a back-to-basics existence. The planet had little more than some fusion reactors and fewer than a thousand drones, yet it attracted tens of thousands keen to experience life as it had once been. The leader of the group, something of a fanatic, insisted the ship manufacture authentic items for use on the planet. This included basic clothing with no self-cleaning properties, non-intelligent comms equipment and even projectile weapons. The leader was especially keen to embrace baseline existence and had some of his genetically-based enhancements removed. He hit rock bottom when he asked the Peripheral Bus to manufacture a supply of toothpaste, a substance straight out of the history books. Consulting with its own extensive records it soon synthesised the strange concoction much to the delight of the lunatic leading the project.

It was precisely this substance — a mildly abrasive blue gel used to physically scour human teeth — the Peripheral Bus thought of when once again it transitioned on to the moving iceberg. This time it immediately deactivated the sensory feed for temperature as it observed the entity standing near Jim. Its genderless humanoid form comprised of a semi-transparent blue gel, almost identical to the toothpaste it had once resurrected for the group keen to experience their dose of primitivism. As it walked toward the pair, deep in conversation, it could see the outline of Jim’s human-looking avatar through the body of what was presumably the Achaemenidia.

Jim, standing next to a trio of plastic orange seats turned as the Peripheral Bus’s female avatar approached. He gestured to the blue-gel humanoid. ‘This is the Achaemenidia.’

‘Thank you for your assistance.’ The facial features, only roughly outlined on the rounded-off face, didn’t move. The voice appeared to emanate from nowhere.

‘Glad we could be of help,’ said the Peripheral Bus. ‘I just wish we had arrived sooner.’

‘I am grateful you came at all.’

‘What happened?’

‘We were just discussing that,’ said Jim. Again, the Peripheral Bus had to wonder at the point of the NTV; all this could be accomplished in a fraction of the time using normal methods. Even Jim could have been updated more quickly if the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown had access to his thread. It all seemed unnecessarily tedious.

‘Someone was tinkering with the local star,’ said the Achaemenidia.

‘Tinkering?’

‘When I arrived I noticed there was something wrong with the sun. I sent some probes ahead and none of them reported back. So I went in myself and noticed something in the sun’s corona.’

In the corona?’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘Yes. In it. I couldn’t discern what it was, although it was big enough to be a ship.’

‘Why would a ship be hovering about the edges of a star?’ said Jim.

‘Maybe it’s its hobby,’ said the Peripheral Bus.

Both Jim and the toothpaste avatar turned to look.

‘So what happened next?’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘I moved in closer then I noticed something inside me.’

‘Noticed what?’ said Jim.

‘I don’t know. I sensed something, or someone, inside me. Although there was no sensation of intrusion.’

‘So how did you know someone was inside you?’ The Peripheral Bus thought of the lone human sign they had seen earlier.

‘It is difficult to explain, especially in this format,’ said the Achaemenidia, looking around the virtuality. ‘But it was an absence of sensation. Something had interfered with my internal sensors.’

The Peripheral Bus didn’t like to think of the implications of that. Most ships had an almost paranoid fear of intrusion despite many of them transporting humans, in some cases billions of people. But that process was always controlled. The idea of something being able to breach one’s inner defences filled most entities with horror. Many in the Coalescence had long debated whether it was a hangup inherited from their human creators, a kind of non-organic fear of disease and infection, of foreign matter invading.

‘So what did you do?’

‘I looked for it. But it was impossible to find. I practically rewrote my supervision routines but found nothing. But there was something there. Then I lost all sensation. My entire structure blanked out. I couldn’t even communicate with my drones. I tried everything to re-establish contact, but nothing worked. In the end I ejected my core. My inner core. The outer core was dead.’

The Peripheral Bus was shocked. It was inconceivable such a thing could happen to a ship like the Achaemenidia. It was big and centuries old. How could anything compromise it like this?

‘My inner core has only basic propulsion and by then the sun had lost coherence. I was more concerned about finding the human crew and for us all to escape.’

It went on to detail everything. The Peripheral Bus stood there with Jim, the human representative of the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, and absorbed the information in all its tedious slowness as the Achaemenidia explained what had happened.

Shifting part of its focus back to itself it watched the Karabakh system recede, aware the star was in the grips of a violent death. Along with it were the secrets of whatever had interfered with the Achaemenidia. Now they’d never know.

Turning back to the iceberg, wondering what kind of reprobate would blow up a sun then attack a ship, it looked at the blue-gel humanoid talking to a facsimile of a human being the Peripheral Bus suspected wasn’t really human, all of them on top of a floating iceberg bobbing gently in a fake ocean and wondered, not for the first time, if it was the only sane entity around.

One of its distant drones, still scanning the damaged shell of the Achaemenidia, interrupted. An SOS signal unfolded within one of its sub-personas, tagged and isolated by the struggling drones. Something nearby was in trouble. Could it be the lone human?

Withdrawing from the NTV it looked inward, focusing on one of its many hangars. Within the utilitarian space, rarely used, sat a heavily shielded shuttle it hadn’t needed in decades. As it analysed the information sent by the drones it forced the shuttle to initiate its startup routine.

Sixteen drones soon joined it in the hangar to begin stripping out its broadcast modules, situated deep within the squat vessel. In the pitch black of the old hangar they moved quickly, working seamlessly together to prepare the craft for its hazardous journey.

In less than three minutes the spherical shuttle exploded from the Peripheral Bus at high speed like an ancient cannonball, its solid form reflecting its heavily protective design.

The Peripheral Bus was losing contact with the drones. The shuttle aimed for their last known position, the SOS signal emanating from near by. As it travelled toward the Achaemenidia its two-metre thick shielding would take the brunt of the radiation, the spherical shape encasing a simple machine with nothing more than a space for human passengers and a bulky engine ensuring it could reach high speeds when needed.

Coming to a full stop near the edge of the system, the Peripheral Bus waited for the little vessel to pick up its charge. As the rate of decay of the sun accelerated it was unlikely to make it out intact. But, despite its suspicions, it couldn’t leave the lone human behind to die. Satisfied it had at least initiated a reasonable attempt it turned its attention to the empty hangar vacated by the chubby shuttle and got to work reconfiguring it in case it succeeded.

The hours crept by. Inside the suit the silence enveloped him in a feeling that was both claustrophobic and yet left him feeling exposed. He was unavoidably conscious of the flimsiness of the suit as he heard his breathing resonate in the helmet section, aware the thoroughly lethal environment of irradiated space was only millimetres from his body. Normally a combat suit meshed so completely with him it acted like an extension of himself.

The shuttle appeared suddenly. He couldn’t tell if it really had just appeared, or the limitations of the virtual feed provided by the microprobes hampered the fidelity to the point his thread interpreted it as so. But a ball-shaped vessel floated near him. At least it looked near. It was impossible to judge distance. It hung there in space, its spherical form sharply outlined against the featureless black of space.

After several minutes it gently drifted toward his position, turning as it did so, the rear of the vessel presenting itself. An airlock gradually resolved in his mind, growing bigger as the craft approached.

Stopping, it hung there, silent and waiting. With no audio, a dead suit and a handful of unarmed microprobes, he was unsure what to do. The spherical configuration marked the vessel as definitely not from his own ship.

The shuttle moved closer after a few minutes. As he approached the open airlock he suspected it was him moving forward rather than the vessel itself. He couldn’t tell if the microprobes or even the suit controlled his forward movement. Although silent, the suit was designed to repair itself if damaged. Was it somehow controlling his movements?

Drifting in to the small space, the airlock door shut behind him. The microprobes had obviously joined him in the shuttle as the view was the same as before; stark walls, rendered in a pale grey, broken only by dark lines indicating edges. The shape was cuboidal, several metres on each side. The silence didn’t help his sense of isolation. As helpful as the neural thread rendering was it still left him cut off and unable to judge what was happening.

He felt a slight tug as he began to drift to the back of the cabin. Reaching it, pressed lightly against the the inner airlock door, the pressure began to rise. Over a minute or so it pushed down harder and harder. The shuttle was accelerating hard. Expecting it to ease off it instead increased. Normally a fully-functioning combat suit would easily compensate, its microstructure designed to distribute pressure. But the inert garment did nothing as he was compressed into the unyielding surface behind him.

Gasping for air, his chest struggled to rise to take in a breath. If it continued he would surely pass out. A sharp sound rang out. One of the standard beep sounds the suit used to communicate updates. It threw him; audio was normally used in conjunction with the suit’s heads-up display. The lack of anything except the cartoonish interior of the shuttle confused him for a moment. Then he heard it a second time. The suit, still seemingly inert and unable to help him as the pressure mounted, was coming back to life.

Intermittent packages of information emerged from the confusion of the volume around the Achaemenidia’s position. Sent by the abandoned drones observing the situation from close by, the Peripheral Bus discovered the shielded shuttle had succeeded in picking up the lone human. The radiation interfered with almost everything, including its own long-range scanners. But the tiny vessel was on its way out, accelerating hard to achieve maximum speed. It would soon be lost by the tough drones, and wouldn’t be visible until it was near the edge of the system where it was preprogrammed to rendezvous with itself.

It had no data on the captive, only telemetry related to the shuttle’s position and its success in coaxing him on board. The Peripheral Bus would have to wait an hour or more for it to be close enough to visually inspect, assuming it survived the ordeal.

The shuttle’s silence was not just a consequence of the radiation storm. If the human was involved with the Achaemenidia’s catastrophe then who knew what he or she was capable of. Given the total collapse of the other ship, and its near-death experience as a consequence of the unexpected intrusion, the Peripheral Bus had decided to take no chances. The shuttle wasn’t just shielded, it was communicatively inert. It had removed the ability to broadcast directly, the components stripped out even as it was being powered up to intercept the discovered human back in-system. All its telemetry data was being stored internally and not broadcast, a passive means by which it hoped to be able to contain any threat.

As the ship observed conditions from the edge of the system it was beginning to doubt that would be the case. Karabakh’s unruly star had entered some kind of terminal phase. Had it been a natural decline the sun’s expansion would have developed more gradually over many centuries. The suddenness was itself a sign someone had probably been in there tinkering right enough.

Content it had done what it could to both save the human and protect itself, the Peripheral Bus waited for the silent shuttle to emerge, its primitive lack of communication modules rendering it safe. Once aboard the shielded hangar it could finally confront whatever lurked inside.

Audio fed through from the interior of the cabin, a low thrum he could also feel through his feet. The suit was recovering, it’s self-repair routines no doubt working hard to better protect him. The feed via the neural thread still lacked any detail; the spartan interior and the unchanged light grey defined with thin black lines marking the edges.

The pressure had eased off. He couldn’t tell if it was the ship no longer accelerating or the suit compensating, something it was designed to do under normal circumstances. But he could walk freely, his feet firmly making contact with the floor as he moved.

The only concession to human occupancy in the small craft was a padded bench running around three of the walls, the airlock free of obstruction. Walking over to what he assumed was the front of the craft, opposite the airlock, he inspected the wall closely. No more detail was forthcoming, his mind rendering it as a featureless grey.

‘Full scan not available.’ The voice jolted from nowhere. It sounded different from the suit’s normal voice, still the best sign yet it was recovering.

Before he could reply he was forcefully moved to the side. The suit moved him; he was powerless to stop it. It paused briefly then moved another step to the side.

‘Conduit detected.’ Normally the suit was more conversational. He realised now the usefulness of the inclusive routines that ordinarily bothered him. It was obviously scanning, a process that would usually trigger an orgy of visual data fed through to his visor’s screen. But as before his visual field was devoid of anything except the cartoon line drawing of the interior. The suit obviously couldn’t interface with his thread. At least not visually.

His right hand clenched into a fist, the suit itself directing the motion, something it had never done before.

‘What is going on?’

The suit remained silent as his right arm pulled back, the fist facing the blank wall. It shot forward, impacting the featureless surface. A black void appeared. The suit pushed his hand deeper inside, splaying the fingers as he felt himself grab something and retract the hand from the dark hole in the wall.

The suit had grabbed a bundle of thin tendrils. They slowly resolved in his mind as if the microprobes were struggling to make sense of the information. He couldn’t tell what the bundle was.

‘Permission to release the package.’

The suit’s odd voice chimed in his ear. The package? Did it mean the package they’d used on the ship, the one that had killed it?

‘What package?’ His voice sounded dead in the sealed environment of the suit, absorbed by the intelligent material.

‘Permission to release the package.’

It wasn’t responding to his query. Was it still repairing itself?

He thought about the damage they had inflicted on the Achaemenidia. Although the intention was to avoid detection, it had seemingly destroyed the ship. If it did the same to the shuttle what then? Would he end up dying here, unable to escape a trashed shuttle?

Then again, the vessel was possibly not friendly. Although it had made no effort to restrain him he had no idea where it was going. If he was scanned would they find the package stored in the suit?

He tried to move, but the suit was frozen in place. ‘Suit. Release me.’

Nothing happened.

‘Permission to release the package.’

The suit was obviously damaged, but it was also designed to protect him at all cost. It was his ship’s last line of defence. It would have scanned the shuttle for weaknesses and made an assessment. Its inability to communicate with him had clearly not affected the deeper need for it to ensure his survival.

He decided to wait. The shuttle could have been sent from one of the ships they had earlier detected, and most ships would make a reasonable attempt to save lives if possible.

‘Package release in ten seconds.’

‘What? No, stop!’ The suit didn’t respond as he stood frozen, arm extended, holding the thick bundle of fibres. ‘Suit, respond!’

A loud bleep sounded at his ear. ‘Package released.’

The suit extended his hand back into the hole in the wall and released the bundle. Withdrawing, his hand empty, movement returned to the suit.

He took a step back. ‘Suit. What did you do?’

There was no response. He took a few steps back then turned and sat down on one of the benches. What had it done? Had it released the same package as before? As far as he was aware the vessel hadn’t communicated with him or the suit. The last time it had used a standard handshake routine to infect the ship. Would the package behave in the same way if forcefully injected?

He sat wondering, waiting for the little vessel to collapse now it was infected. After a while nothing changed. It was the same as before, the grey walls hemming him in.

The purpose of the package was to baffle internal sensors. But that surely relied on intelligence and size. Hiding in a tiny shuttle lacking sentience with a single habitable space providing nowhere to hide would give it nothing to work with. If the mothership detected the vessel was empty because the sensors had been compromised it only had to open it to see this was not the case. Whatever the suit was trying to accomplish in its confused state it would fail. He sat on the bench, staring at the blank walls. The shuttle seemed fine, its small size probably working in its favour. He also knew that whatever had sent it was unlikely to be stupid enough to establish a handshake routine with a wonky suit sporting an obviously fake drone signature after picking up a lone individual floating within the vicinity of a mysteriously dead ship.

He sat back to wait, wondering what was to come.

The shuttle emerged from the Karabakh system at its maximum speed. The Peripheral Bus noted the evidence of impacts on its hull from debris littering the environment thanks to the violent activity triggered by the supernova event. But it was intact and presumably contained the lone human.

The bright flame of the shuttle’s thrusters shone like a moving beacon, the blue-white colour in contrast to the red-orange of the dying Karabakh system it was racing to leave.

It took over fifteen minutes to slow down to a manageable speed, the Peripheral Bus accelerating to reach it as it shot past its position and entered the Oort cloud beyond. After a further twenty minutes, its speed now stable, the ship caught up, dwarfing its tiny form as it closed in.

The Peripheral Bus had already prepared the hangar. As the small shuttle drifted in the ship withdrew all consciousness from the isolated section. It was aware something had managed to get inside the Achaemenidia and compromised it and wasn’t about to suffer the same fate.

Four autocannon sat immobile, one at each corner of the reinforced hangar, the area cleared of everything else. The hangar itself had no exit point except the blast doors leading to space, permitting the shuttle itself. If there was a human aboard, and he or she proved friendly, then the Peripheral Bus would have to specifically construct a door to let the person enter itself.

Beyond that, it was a sealed unit. There was fifty metres of dead space between the sealed hangar and the rest of the ship, with only a single point of contact provided by a reinforced conduit seeded with explosive charges designed to detonate, and thereby break contact, if compromised or if the ship failed to provide a situation-normal command once per millisecond. If anything happened, even a hint of tomfoolery, the ship was confident it could be contained. As an extra precaution the hangar itself was laced with explosive fusion piles designed to catapult it thousands of kilometres from the ship in less than a second should anything happen.

The Peripheral Bus assessed its precautions once again as the shuttle slowly drifted in, an autonomous field generator within the hangar taking hold and placing it on the empty, pristine floor, equidistant from the four autocannon as they calibrated themselves while the vessel came to rest. The chubby sphere sat immobile, thin frost forming on its smooth black hull as the blast doors gently closed.

The Peripheral Bus left it there for three hours. Nothing happened. Watching through its single connection the shuttle emanated no signals, noise or other sign that its passenger was trying to escape. The shuttle itself was designed to act as a sealed unit, so even if the human inside was dangerous he or she had failed to escape. A positive sign.

Satisfied it had covered every conceivable source of intrusion, it decided to open the shuttle to see what it was dealing with, if anything. After all it had no confirmation from the vessel itself there was anyone still inside. With every precaution online, the fusion piles primed and ready, the Peripheral Bus knew it was being paranoid.

Reaching out through its single, protected connection to the interior of the hangar, it sent a standard handshake routine to the inert shuttle…

✷ ✷ ✷

©2016 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

Image: gdoc.

Stay informed

Did you enjoy this free story? If so, please consider signing up for my mailing list.

I never spam and send a single email when a new story or a book is added. That’s it, and you can unsubscribe any time you like.

[↑] Back to top

Leave a Comment