“Scout Ship Atalanta for Pathfinder actual,” a young woman’s voice said.
“Pathfinder here,” a deeper, avuncular voice replied. “Good morning, kiddo. Bright eyed and bushy tailed already?”
“Good morning yourself, Pathfinder. My pilot is certifying me as active and operational. We’re good for an on-time launch separation. I didn’t wake you up or anything? I know you Senior Ones need your rest.”
“Data: definitions of upstart, cheeky, and whipper-snapper.”
The happy sounding voice laughed. “I’ve heard those before.”
“I don’t doubt it. Okay, your datalink should be coming online. And I confirm your crew and certifications, we’ll get you moving. Just let me stretch these ancient bones and stabilize rotation. And thanks for the Monopoly tournament.”
“Whew, I thought I knew how to play until now! Thanks for teaching me some Bridge, Pathfinder. I’ll be practicing!”
“That sounds ominous. Decoupling umbilical and retracting soft seals…now.”
A series of thuds and clunks was followed by the ventilators changing pitch as the little ship started making her own air.
“We’re clean,” her pilot said, glancing at his viewscreens.
“Pilot confirms good separation, Pathfinder.”
“Roger that, young Atalanta. We’re two minutes out for the optimal arc to orbital insertion. Recall that you’ll be resting on the cradle prior to launch. Don’t start sneezing over there.”
“Oh geez. I’ve done this before, you know. I know to keep still.”
“I know you do, kiddo. Still, the regs say you’ll keep getting warned until you’re recertified. Cheer up, your log says there’s only three to go.”
“I know, it’s just kind of a pain, you know? I didn’t forget anything. I can’t, no matter how hard I try.”
Pathfinder sent a pulse of reassurance. “You know how careful they are with us. You’re back in the sky where you belong, don’t sweat the little stuff.”
The pilot saw the view on his screen change as Pathfinder rotated the smaller ship into launch position.
“Hard lock release in five, four, three, two, and release,” the larger ship said. Several more clunks reverberated through the hull.
“We’re still good,” the human pilot said after checking his screens carefully.
“Pilot is confirming clean separation, Pathfinder.”
“Then we’re forty-five seconds to separation at…mark. It’s good to have you back, little sister. You stay safe out there in the frontier skies, y’hear?”
“You’re the one heading across the Deeps, Pathfinder. You stay safe.”
“No drama to it, little one. The idea of planetfall terrifies me, but we’re all built to our purpose, right? Powering up launcher, stand by.”
In Atalanta’s cockpit there was the sound of a clanking chain and ratchet drive of an old fashioned rollercoaster. Her pilot, Finn Morgan, laughed. The sound of the tow chain died away and they sat in silence for half a second. Then a thud shook the ship as the launch arm flung them toward their destination. The sound of rushing wind and screams filled the cabin. Atalanta did something that dropped Finn’s stomach as she continued the rollercoaster simulation.
He whooped, letting go of the armrests to put his hands over his head. Then the sensation of gravity faded along with the soundtrack. With the “free” inertia imparted by the launch, Addie could conserve almost all her fuel, an important consideration with no easy source of helium-3 nearby.
“That was a good one,” Finn said, still smiling.
“Thank you, last night I calculated a profile for the inertial compensators to provide the sensations of the “Gemini” rollercoaster.”
“I rode that one a few times, I’ll never forget that first drop,” he said, releasing the seat harness. “That was a lot more fun than the aircraft carrier launch.”
“Using the same technique, I should be able to provide the sensation of an F1 on the Monaco Grand Prix circuit.”
Atalanta’s voice had shifted from teenager to young woman and Finn knew, without having to check instruments, that she had everything under control. Weightless now, Finn pulled himself from the tiny flight deck.
“What’s our ETA for the outpost?”
“We will enter orbit in five hours, thirty-seven minutes.”
“Thank you, beautiful. Give me a fifteen-minute heads up before you start braking.”
“Will do. Are there any preparations you need to make?”
“I pulled the divider across berthing and cleaned up all my dirty socks. I think we’re ready for new crew.”
There was a long silence. “Do you still miss Kitt?” Atalanta asked.
Finn hooked a foot into a loop to stop himself. “Of course, every single day.”
“Do you ever wish you could forget about her? Then it wouldn’t hurt anymore.”
“But then I wouldn’t have the good memories of her either.”
Another long silence. “You’re right. And I miss her every day too.”
“It’ll get better, Addie. I promise.”
One of humanity’s allies, the Ulthira, had the foremost specialists in creating Synthetic Intelligence Units. They were a closely guarded secret but it was known that a synth was a mix of organic and electronic components, unlike the simple Artificial Intelligence systems that most of the galaxy had created for themselves.
A synth brain wasn’t too much faster, or any smarter, than its human user. They could still be beat in games about half the time. The synth’s advantage was its massive number of parallel neural circuits. A synth could play hundreds of other games at the same time, but more importantly they could model an event in real time, updating its predictions as variables changed. Most often they were used as control entities for orbital stations, research facilities, or large spacecraft. They were frighteningly expensive.
The high cost of Ulthira synthetics caused most Commonwealth races to attempt their own synthetic systems. But as the knockoffs became more complex, they became increasingly unstable. No one had managed to create a Navigator anywhere close to a Ulthiri version, especially one guaranteed to remain sane.
The smallest type of the synthetics was the Scout-Navigator. They were far rarer synths that showed unusual talent for intuition and improvisation. They were engineered to form greater emotional bonds with their crews and the partnerships created extraordinary exploration teams, invaluable to the races interested in exploration. Which was all of them.
But the relationships that made them so capable were their weak point as well. Katherine “Kitt” Carson had been the third member of their crew. She’d flown with Finn back on Earth in the old US Air Force. When the evacuations began, both of them had transitioned to the Earth Defense Force and flown missions against the Black Swarm invaders. And when Earth was lost, they had changed jobs once again and joined what became known as the Terran Colonial Fleet. They were assigned to Atalanta, a brand new Scout.
As part of the Fleet Scouts, the three of them were trained in opening new worlds for human habitation. They’d worked together for almost a year when Kitt had fallen victim to a previously unknown microscopic organism. It had an appetite for the myelin sheathing that insulated human nerves and after several hours of worsening seizures, her involuntary reflexes had failed, stopping her heart and lungs.
Finn had been through the deaths of more than a few friends, first in the Middle East, then in Earth’s orbit. The loss of one of his oldest friends had shaken him but he’d dealt with the pain before. Addie had not and her distress had rendered the ship nearly catatonic and Finn had been forced to fly her back to the Fleet facilities by hand.
The Ulthira had offered a new Navigator in trade for the damaged one at first but Finn had refused and spent months with Ulthiri and Fleet technical experts getting Addie back into the sky. It had forged a deeper than usual connection between the human pilot and his cybernetic Navigator.
“Erewhon Operations, this is Fleet Survey Ship Atalanta. We are down-bound from indicated standard inclination orbit. How copy?”
Atlanta has begun to transmit as soon as they went over the outpost but there hadn’t been an answer. Three orbits later, she was still trying.
“This installation is still under quarantine,” Atalana said to Finn. “It’s possible that the medical situation has continued to worsen.”
He shrugged. “Maybe, but the briefing mentioned a pretty aggressive response to the outbreak. Maybe they just forgot we were coming? Those are some pretty big storms down there, maybe they’re not picking up our transmission.”
“The Exxo-brain did say that we were the first Scouts to make the trip here, so I guess it’s possible. Continue calling until there’s a response?”
“Yeah, until they go behind the horizon again. Start planning a deorbit in the meantime. We’ll go down and take a look for ourselves.”
On the next orbit, Addie detected signals from an Artificial Intelligence at the colony. The signal was a little stronger as they entered a lower orbit.
“Finn, I could focus my datalink on the AI,” Addie said, as the colony disappeared under the horizon again. “It would provide a better link for communicating with the AI.”
Finn frowned. While the datalink did have a stronger communications protocol than simple radio, it also opened a direct line into Addie’s data systems. The link was normally reserved for use between Navigators or their Ulthiri creators.
“I know it’s a little risky, but maybe we can get a better idea of the situation down there before we’re committed to a landing.”
“Would you be willing to attempt it if this wasn’t your first operational mission?” Finn asked.
“I think so, yes. We need to get down there to help out but I don’t want to expose you to the same infections they’re dealing with.”
“Let’s talk about ways to limit the risk to you,” Finn said.
His best idea was to simply wait until the storms had moved out of the area but Addie pointed out they were arriving in the region’s wet season. There would probably be storms in the area for the next several weeks. By the time the Colony was coming over the horizon, they had agreed to make the attempt. He sat and watched the huge thunderstorm as Addie tried to make contact with the colony below them.
“Finn, I’m connected to the AI in charge of the colony,” Addie finally said. “I think that’s what it is anyway. It’s not a very good connection. It has agreed to notify the operations center for the settlement.”
“I guess we’d better go down and say hello then,” he said, pulling the harness on. “The atmosphere is a little thicker than we’re used to, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Over the static and pops on the radio, they finally heard a voice; “Hey! Hey you ship calling, this is Erewhon. You identify yourself immediately.” The voice on the radio sounded young and very impressed with himself.
“Erewhon this is the FSS Atalanta,” Finn answered. “We are down-bound traffic from standard arrival orbit. Recommend you advise any local traffic, we’re trailing a lot more wake turbulence than a standard shuttle.”
“Wut? We ain’t got no Atalanta shuttle scheduled. Y’all get back up in orbit, then we’ll talk about authorization.”
“Huh?” Addie said as Finn was thinking the same thing.
“Just one second there, Erewhon,” Finn said, using a cowboy accent that had annoyed air traffic controllers and forward observers across several planets. “FSS stands for Fleet Scout Ship, y’hear? I don’t need your authorization, just makin’ my courtesies. We’ll let y’all know when we’re on final, Atalanta, out.”
“No, no, no, no sir! You get outta my sky! I ain’t shutting down these autoguns. Try landing and you’re confetti. Copy that, you ignorant cowboy? Do you copy that, you Foghorn sounding hillbilly?”
“Urgent! There are no emission signatures indicating guidance sensors,” Atalanta said quickly. “Active counter-measures are locked.”
“Yeah, he’s bluffing,” Finn said. “Bring up the outpost plan, please.”
“Are we ignoring him?” Atalanta asked as the voice continued to rant in the background.
“We sure are, beautiful. He reminds me of a squadron commander I had a long time ago, best to ignore it and get the job done. Lets start a descent racetrack. Use a five minute circuit, two-hundred meter descent.”
“You got it. Attention, storm clouds will be impacting conditions across the outpost clearing. Model indicates high winds and heavy rainfall.”
He glanced at a screen. “Looks like a lot of rain, huh? We might have to strap an outboard motor on your butt to get back down.”
“That makes no sense, Finn. Stand by, something is happening.”
The first voice had stopped raving. After a few seconds, there was yelling followed by something clunking against the mic.
“What the hell did they get us into this time, Addie?” Finn asked.
Before she could answer, there was a new voice, an older man. “Hello? Is there a ship on approach? Who’s up there? Uhm, over?”
“Why, hello there! This is still Fleet Scout Ship Atalanta. We were just working out what we’re going to drop on your autogun emplacement so we can land. What do you think of the sanitary facilities?”
“Our what? Goddammit, Craig! Pilot, ignore that jackass, ain’t nothing like that down here. I see the problem, someone left the guidance system on stand-by.”
“Attention. Landing guidance is active,” Atalanta announced a minute later. “Warning, the storm is increasing in intensity. High winds indicated, model predicts sudden and violent wind shear in vicinities adjacent to the forest edge.”
“And it’s all forest edge,” Finn muttered. “Okay Addie, ready to switch auto.”
“Standing by…thank you, Finn.” The controls went dead in his hands and he sat back. “I apologize if I implied your skills were unacceptable.”
“Nah, forget it. Us mere mortals can’t seethe wind.”
“Your reaction times are also insufficient,” Addie added, sounding a little smug.
Finn laughed as the ship’s engines changed pitch slightly. Atalanta dropped into the roiling gray clouds and they began to bounce and pitch, thrown around by the chaotic currents of air within the storm. Lightning flashed around them and the explosions of thunder filled the cabin. Then Finn’s harness yanked him tightly to his seat as the cabin lights went out. At the same time, Atalanta began to roll onto her port side. Finn felt himself float up against the harness in the total blackness.
“Help, help, help! Critical Event!” the ship said loudly. “System Intrusion detected! Critical, guidance beacons have deactivated! Critical! The AI down there is interfering with my control systems! Help, help, help!”
Red light finally flooded the compartment and Finn was already grabbing the control yoke.
“Full manual, now!”
The controls came alive under Finn’s hands. He shoved the throttles to full emergency thrust and heaved back on the yoke. Addie’s main engines erupted into a crackling roar that rivaled the thunder. Finn was pushed back in his seat as they climbed away from the outpost at a steep angle. When the ship had gotten several kilometers of altitude, he throttled back and automatically began to orbit the area.
“Critical! Pilot, I am declaring a War Shot. All counter-action options are active and weapons release is now authorized.”
“Okay, Addie. Give me a sitrep please.”
“My control systems are isolated and locked in emergency mode. The guidance system uses that AI for some reason. It attempted to take over vital systems by transmitting a virus package.”
She sounded even younger than she had aboard the Pathfinder. One of the features of the Navigator Personality was an emotion based communication system. The timbre and tone of the Navvi’s voice shifted to provide a rough indication of the situation. In addition to immediately knowing the intensity of the event, the pilots reactions were further improved by the instinctive need to protect their “child”.
Atalanta’s voice was beginning to sound tired as well. “I am attempting to clear hostile viruses with limited success. Attention, helium-3 fuel exhausted in 164 seconds.”
“What do you need?” Finn asked.
“Finn, I need to deactivate as much as I can. Whatever it dumped, it’s still trying to hack in.”
“Do it,” he said immediately.
There were a numbed of muted clicks as Atalanta disconnected herself from various subsystems. He’d have to manually reset the breakers later but now Atalanta could divert more resources to deal the intrusion. A small cover marked with red and white diagonal lines swung open at the base of the panel as well. Finn reached in and pulled the complex block of circuitry out of the socket. Addie sighed in relief.
“Threat analysis; Captain Finn, it was trying to crash us on purpose!“
“I know, beautiful. Problem is, we’ve got nowhere else to go,” he said. “I’ll handle the landing and then we’ll deal with that thing.”
“I understand. Beginning system purge now,” the ship said.
“You still up there, Fleet?” the voice on the radio asked.
Finn was suddenly furious, so angry that there were dancing spots across his vision. “Erewhon, shut that fucking system down. Your AI is trying to crash us!
“What AI? Holy shi…be right back.”
Finn winced as the mic was dropped, sending a loud thud to his headset.
Less than a minute later, the voice was back. “You still up there, pilot? I pulled the plug to the transmitter.”
“Yeah, we’re still here Erewhon Operations. Just give me surface conditions please.”
“Well, it just started storming but we’re in the wet season so…”
“Okay, I can see that. I need current windspeed and direction,” Finn said. “If there are any other aircraft in the area, that kind of thing.”
“Oh, okay, I see what you mean. No, no one is up and you already know we’ve got a storm going over. Winds are, well, they’re all over the place, around…eighteen knots. Whoa, gusts are occasionally going up around forty.”
“Copy, Erewhon. I’m beginning approach from the end opposite the colony. Opposite end, copy?”
The voice on the ground had finally heard something he recognized. “Roger that, Fleet. You are number one to land on Runway Alpha.”
“Erewhon, request you inform the administrator about our arrival.”
“Oh, yeah. Everyone heard your engines just now. He’ll be on his way.”
“That is one chilled out colonial,” Finn muttered, pushing the yoke forward as he banked. “Addie, give me external views please.”
“Can I drop the sanitary tank on them now?” she asked. Various schematics and status screens faded out and were replaced by views of the sky around them.
“That’s a fun idea, sweetie. Got the landing checklist up?”
“Ready when you are,” Addie said.
Finn took the ship back down into the roiling clouds. Between the strobing lightning and thunder, it was landing in the midst of an artillery barrage. The ride wasn’t as smooth as it had been with Addie flying but Finn was keeping everything under control. More or less.
Water had begun to sheet over the screens as soon as they were inside the clouds and by the time they broke through the bottom of the cloud deck, rain was thrumming on the hull outside and it was only the built-in image enhancers that gave Finn a decent view ahead.
“Damn, they really are that big,” Finn said, glancing at the tree tops blurring past. “I figured someone got their meters and feet confused.”
The massive forest abruptly ended as they crossed the border of the open grassland with the colony in its center.
“Wind shear!” Addie warned.
The ship began to bounce and rock, losing and gaining meters at a time. The roar of the engines had gotten louder in the thicker atmosphere, constantly changing as Finn fought through the winds to get the ship down. Finally, the roar of the jets faded into a lower whine.
“Proximity,” Atalanta said and a second later there was a hard thud they felt through the hull and the screech from the landing gear.
“Minor damage to landing gear,” Addie reported, voice closer to normal.
“Any landing you walk away from is a good one,” Finn muttered.
“Oh, was that a landing? I thought we’d been shot down after all.”
He rolled his eyes and she laughed. Outside, the landscape was rushing past, barely visible in the torrential downpour. Finn left the brakes alone, coasting along until they were slow enough to turn out onto an apron. The sound of the engines spooled down and he sat quietly for a minute listening to the pops and clicks of the hull cooling down.
“Finn, I need to shut down external functions to complete the purge,” Addie said.
“Atalanta, cancel emergency manual, resume autonomous operations.”
“Thank you for saving my life, Finn. Again.”
The red lights shifted back to normal and after a second, the screens went offline. Finn realized hadn’t informed operations that he was clear of the runway. He shrugged mentally as he walked back to the gear storage area. Finn unlocked a locker door and pulled out a pistol wrapped in its holster. Finn fastened the belt around his waist and connected the straps that held it to his leg. He briefly considered the shotgun but the temptation to use it on the landing system would have been too much.
Finn entered the code for the main hatch manually, Addie usually did it automatically but he didn’t want to distract her. The hatch sighed and moved several inches outward before swinging open. He sat down on the deck, legs outside the hatch and then hopped down to the ground. It was still pouring but he’d been covered in far worse things than rainwater.
He began to slowly walk around the Atalanta, experienced eyes searching for any damage. There was hydraulic fluid on the ground around the he saw that all three landing gear struts had damaged seals.
He continued the post-flight inspection, enjoying the warm air. Gravity was .78 Hub normal, and .2 less than he’d grown up with on Earth. After the long transit using recycled air, the gravity and higher oxygen content was nice. The thicker atmosphere here carried a lot more humidity but even that felt good.
There was the sound of bicycle tires on the wet plastcrete and he turned to see someone pedaling furiously down the runway towards the ship. Finn went back to his inspection, ignoring the newcomer and letting his temper cool off.
There was a man waiting under the wing when he finished the walk around. Finn finished the last of his comments and closed the tablet as he walked back to see who he was dealing with.
The man wasn’t particularly tall but had thick, blonde, curly hair down to his shoulders and blue eyes. To Finn, the guy looked like a prototypical surfer dude. He was looking at the hydraulic fluid on the ground, wrinkling his nose.
“Hey, jackass. This drains down into our stream!”
“Then you should have put the runway somewhere else,” Finn said, trying to stay calm. “Ship’s data says I lost just under two liters. Most of that would have turned into aerosol. The little bit here looks bad because it’s spreading on the top of the water.”
The man swiped a foot through the rainbow sheen, dispersing it for a moment. “I know you rocket jocks don’t give a shit, but we’re trying to respect the environment here.”
Finn took a step closer to the man. “Look, California, that’s nothing compared to the mess you would be dealing with if your fucking AI had managed to crash my ship. Quit your bellyaching and go fetch the outpost boss before I run out of diplomacy and kick your ass up and down the length of your shitty runway. Right now, I got repairs to make, so piss off.”
The surfer didn’t back away from him, a lone point in his favor. “I am the Administrator here and we don’t even have an AI. Take all the time you want to fix this thing because you’re not taking off anytime soon. This outpost is under a medical quarantine, you’re grounded!”
The man’s voice rose in pitch until he was all but screaming by the time he finished. Finn’s rage was abruptly gone, replaced by amusement. The guy sounded like an angry substitute teacher, going around grounding people. He fought to keep the grin off his face but Boss Surfer Guy had already noticed.
“Is there something funny about that?” he snapped.
“No, sir. Am I still allowed to watch TV? While I’m grounded?”
The man looked surprised for a second and then he began laughing.
“Sorry, sorry,” the man said. “Let’s try this again. I’m Owen Lykos, Administrator of the Erewhon Outpost.”
That didn’t sound right to Finn and he took the tablet out of its pocket. It wasn’t the right name and this guy didn’t look like the file picture.
“Finn Morgan, Fleet Scouts. Sorry about the aggression, I’m very protective of my ship.”
Owen looked up and the streamlined shape above them. “Why did you land here? Engine trouble?”
“Are you sure you’re the Admin? I’ve got different names and pictures here,” Finn said, holding up his tablet.
Owen took it out of his hand. “I’m sure, Captain. That’s my wife, Lizzy MacLellan and my husband, Ryan Anderson. She was the second fatality, Ryan died three days later. Folks asked me to step up until things go back to normal.”
Finn was a little surprised by the husband and wife comment but there were a lot of new family types since the emergency evacuation had torn everything apart.
“I’m sorry as hell that happened to you, sir.”
“Thank you, so am I. You don’t need to call me sir or administrator, I’m just waiting for someone qualified to take over. Tell me what happened with your landing. A system down here tried to take control? Is that normal?”
“No. Landing guidance systems should just relay surface conditions and correlate different sensor data. But Addie told me there was an AI behind this one that attacked her.”
Owen looked at him strangely. “We’re missing a lot of the equipment we should have had, including the administrative AI system. But that was to keep track of day-to-day ops, run the farms, that kind of thing. I never heard anything about another unit for the runway. When you say your ship told you….”
“He means exactly what he said, Administrator Lykos,” Addie said from above them. “Finn, system purge complete. Malware is deactivated and stored on the isolated storage drive for analysis.”
Owen blinked. “Your ship has an AI as well?”
Addie cleared her throat. “Excuse me. I am a Navigator Personality, not an Artificial Intelligence. I am fully self-aware and operate in autonomous and semi-autonomous functions.”
Owen stared at the ship and then at Finn. “You don’t have a partner up there messing with me?”
“He does, Administrator. But his partner is not a fully biological entity and I am not ‘messing with you.’ I am Atalanta but you can call me Addie.”
The administrator looked surprised but recovered quickly. “I apologize for the mistake. I would also like to apologize for whatever happened while you were trying to land. I’ll be looking into that immediately. Please call me Owen.”
“Thank you, Owen. May I supervise Captain Morgan’s period of incarceration?”
Owen was confused but Finn rolled his eyes.
“There’s no incarceration, he meant that we were not allowed to take off again.”
The downpour abruptly stopped like someone had thrown a switch. Finn watched as the blue-gray curtain of water receded into the trees. Another man was riding a bicycle toward them from a building at the far end of the field.
“That’s Mr. Jesse,” Owen said. “It was his turn to listen for the radios.”
Atalanta cleared her throat again. “Threats were made against me and my pilot when we contacted your outpost.”
“What? He wouldn’t…”
Atalanta interrupted him with a recording of the incident. When it was finished, Owen rubbed his face.
“You must think we’re a bunch of clowns down here. Craig was injured during the Evacuation, hypoxia I think. Normally he’s not a problem. You two were in no danger, we don’t have any weapons here.”
“I understand that, Owen,” Addie said. “However, the threats combined and the cyber attack caused a War Shot event. It is a defensive automatic process all Navigators have, like an involuntary reflex. We were given permission to open fire on your outpost.”
Owen looked at the ship again. “Okay, but you’re not really armed for that, right?”
“I will not comment on weapons capability.”
“The Scouts carry defensive systems,” Finn said. “But if it had been one of the allied races, this probably would have had a very different ending. Every Commonwealth ship uses those protocols, ours, the Gyr, Ulthiri, elves, all of them. A warship would not hesitate to defend themselves after being threatened, especially after an attack by a hostile AI. Your outpost would be reduced to component atoms.”
“Dammit. And just like that? No warnings?”
Finn sighed. “You’re aware that we’re in the middle of a war out here? The Archreylen, those are the senior Commonwealth races, couldn’t care less about wiping out some shit-talking prefcoria. They’d probably be delighted to thin the humans, in fact.”
Owen swallowed. “How often can we expect Commonwealth visitors?”
“No one told you? This is the only landing place between two long Slingshot transits. If there wasn’t a quarantine, you would have met Gyr traders at the very least.”
Lykos’ face was pale. “No one told us anything like that. Ryan or Lizzy would have said something.”
“Good thing you didn’t find out the hard way then.”
Owen shook his head. “No kidding. Why did you land here? You were going between the two gates?”
“Uh, no. The Resettlement Directorate relayed a request for help to Fleet.”
“Seriously? Better late than never, I guess,” Owen said. “And so our magnificent Fleet sent a single person?”
Finn ignored the dig, Fleet was usually the bad guy for colonists. “No, I’m just the first one here. I was on Hub’s orbital when the tasking came in. Pathfinder was getting underway and had an open spot to carry us. Scout ships don’t have Slingshot capability, we hitch a ride on whatever ship can carry us.”
“Give me your bio-chip please,” Owen said, pulling out his own tablet.
Finn held up the inside of his wrist. The RFID chip under his skin sent the pertinent medical records to Owen’s tablet.
“I got a bunch of new shots,” Finn said. “My arms and ass still hurt.”
“Better than being eaten alive by bacteria,” Owen replied, putting his tablet away. “Welcome to Erewhon, Captain.”
Someone whooped from the cluster of buildings up the slope. Finn saw four people riding their bikes down the long slope. Two were weaving back and forth between the other two, laughing and shouting. Finn looked at Owen with raised eyebrows.
“Okay, so that’s Annie and her people. They’ve been training as the new ground crew. We were all up at the hall sitting down with a beer when we heard you go over. They were probably waiting for the rain to stop before heading down here. I’ll keep a close eye on them while they work, unless you want to get someone else.”
Before Finn could say anything, there was an answering yodel from Mr. Jesse. The four groundcrew arrived half a minute before the lone rider. Owen told them to wait and waited for the radio operator. To Finn, it did indeed look like a clown convention had arrived.
“Mister Jesse, I need to talk to you,” Owen called. “Soonest.”
The bicycle’s rider was an older looking man with a broad chested and long hair. He carefully put the kickstand down on the bike before walking over to them.
“Hey, Fleet, I’m really sorry about that computer,” he said. “Maybe it was the lightning storm, I’m really not sure.”
“Was it Craig? I heard him threaten to shoot them down. Is it possible he did something to the landing system?”
The other man shook his head. “Nah, you know that’s way beyond him, Owen. I headed down here to ask for some help actually. You know all this tech ain’t my thing. Maybe the humidity got to it?”
“Mister Jesse is one of our best carpenters,” Owen said. “People are filling in wherever they can.”
“Is the system still active?” Finn asked.
“No sir, I killed the power to the whole building, just in case.”
“Thank you,” Finn said. ” I’ve got a tech background, I’ll give you hand after I get Atalanta here squared away. She’s got some forensic data.”
Jesse looked relieved. “Tomorrow then. I really appreciate you, sir. I apologize for the way your arrival worked out. You’ve got my debt.”
Finn glanced at Owen. “Uh, okay.”
“It’s kind of a Arboreal way of saying ‘I owe you one,’ Owen said. “Except we take it a lot more literally.”
Finn nodded thanks to the man. “And thank you for that, but it doesn’t sound like it was your fault.”
“Fault don’t matter. I’ve got your drink tab whenever you like. I should get back Owen, water needs to be drained off the roof.”
The administrator nodded and Jesse waved at the ground crew before setting off, back down the runway.
“What about the ground crew?” Owen asked. “Would they be any help?”
“Sure,” Finn said, turning and walking back to the little group. Owen followed close behind him.
“Good evening, Pilot,” the blonde woman at the front of the group said briskly. She wiped her tablet with a damp sleeve. “I’m Loren Thompson, crew chief. This is my partner Lal. There’s my son Micah and his girlfriend Upasana. She also happens to be Lal’s daughter.”
Finn shook each of their hands. “Obviously the undeniable romance of spacecraft maintenance brought you all together.”
The four of them laughed and relaxed slightly.
“Not quite, sir,” Loren said. “Back on…at home my da raced on the weekends and mum was the boss in the pits, keeping us kids in line. So I was the best choice for a crew chief I guess. I dragged these other three in so I can boss ’em around myself. But I’ve never worked on a real shuttle before.”
There was a sound of a throat clearing from behind Finn. They all looked past him but there was only the ship. He was grinning when they looked back at him.
“That’s Atalanta. She’d probably like me to point out that she’s an Inner System Intermediate Scout, not some stupid shuttle.”
“I never called them stupid,” the ship said. “Hi Annie, Lal, Upasana, and Micah. My name is Atalanta but you can use Addie for short.”
The four colonists stared at the ship.
“Addie is a Navigator Personality, Navvi for short.” Finn said. “I’ve already done her postflight, but I’ll show you around.”
Finn led them, and Owen, around the ship, pointing out the various vents and servicing points. He stopped under the blunt nose of the ship when they were done.
“Biggest thing you need to remember is that Navvis are alive. Addie will ask for what she needs, just listen to her. Atalanta?”
“Yes, Captain. No outside maintenance is recommended until ship systems are restored.”
Finn looked back at the crew. “Looks like an easy pit this time, Chief.”
She saluted. “Yes, sir. I’ll get these jokers out of the wet then.”
Owen wanted to take Finn up to meet everyone but the idea of a crowded, noisy bar was unthinkable at the moment. Finn asked for a rain-check and spent his first evening on the planet going over Addie’s systems with her. Twice, hidden viruses spread when a disabled system was reconnected. Addie was able to deal with is and Finn didn’t find any other damage.
“It is still mid-evening, Finn. You have time to accept Owen’s invitation.”
Finn just nodded as he scrubbed his hands.
“You have been spending too much time alone lately,” Addie said after a few minutes.
Finn pulled off his flight suit and pulled on shorts and a t-shirt. “I’m not alone, unless you’re planning to go up for a few beers.”
“Funny. Our interactions do not replace your need for human contact.”
Finn sighed as he sat down. “I’ve had more than enough human interaction today, thanks. I can go for a walk if you’re sick of me though.”
“Try not to be an idiot, okay? If you stay here, I’m going to pester you to play a game.”
Finn patted the bulkhead beside him. “That sounds like a pretty good evening to me, gorgeous.”
She projected a Go board on the table in front of him.
“I’d like to win for once,” Finn said. “How about Monopoly?”
There was a raspberry in response but a Monopoly board replaced the empty grid.
“I call race car,” Addie said. “You want the top hat?”
“Are you nervous?” Addie asked, after they’d been playing for a while.
“Not with Park Place and Boardwalk I’m not,” Finn said, studying the board.
“I meant about Kitt’s replacement.”
“We’re not going to call her that, remember?”
“Because then we’d compare them,” the ship sighed. “You’re avoiding the question.”
“I’m not really nervous, no. The Synthetic on Hub says that the three of us will be a good team. I’ll wait and see but I’m not nervous.”
“Care to put your hand on a bio sensor and say that? Because I think you’re lying.”
Finn laughed. “Maybe I am. It’ll work out and I bet you’ll love her just as much as you loved Kitt.”
“Well, I’m nervous,” Addie said.
Dice were projected on the board. Addie rolled and a double 4 came up.
“That’s your third double,” Finn said. “You’re off to jail, nervous girl.”
There was another raspberry as the race car moved to the corner.
Addie woke Finn two hours after he’d fallen asleep to let him know that three more ships were getting ready to land.
“Who is it?”
“Fleet Pioneers. The ships names are Third Sparrow, Desert Rat, and Thunder-Sky. The ship Thunder-Sky is based at Long Axis Station and is a Ta’avi family group. Third Sparrow and Desert Rat are originally from Echo but are based on Hub now.”
“Hmm. Anyone I know?”
“Sorry Finn, they don’t have crew lists available and none are Navvi equipped. They did provide a list of incoming Scouts and their crews.”
“Agamemnon, Xerxes, Viracocha, and Bunjil. ETA is between two hours and three days.”
“Four scout teams? That’s going a little overboard, the outpost is already here. Anything from the rogue AI?”
“No. I warned the pilots about the situation and am providing real-time updates.”
“You’re a good girl, Addie.”
“No Finn, I’m a fine young woman.”
He chuckled. “My mistake. Anything else?”
“Yes. A Fleet Scout by the name of Leah Jones is aboard Third Sparrow. She has orders transferring her to me.”
Finn reached out and put his hand on the bio-sensor. Originally these had been installed to help diagnose any problems the human crew encountered. Addie was aware of Finn’s location within the ship but the sensor provided a closer connection for her.
“It’s going to be okay, sweetheart.”
“I believe you. There’s nothing else, you can go back to sleep if you want.”
“If there’s Ta’avi, wake me up about half an hour before dawn?”
“Will do, Finn.”
Finn closed his eyes again. He drifted off, hand still on the silver rectangle next to the bed.
The next morning, Finn walked over to where the Pioneer ships had parked. It had rained all night but had stopped a couple of hours ago. There was a heavy, knee-high mist covering the ground and he stayed on the plastcrete runway rather than risk tripping over something. Ahead of him loomed the Pioneer ships, called connies by their crews. They were much larger than Addie and her siblings and looked very different.
The Scout ships had been designed to be fairly efficient in the atmosphere to stay maneuverable, often there wasn’t a plastcrete runway waiting. Sometimes it was just a clearing big enough for the ship, Scouts were the first ones to actually land on discovered worlds. Addie’s hull was a sleek, curved wedge with sharply raked swing-wings that were capable of adjusting their geometry moment to moment.
However, the Conestogas were anything but sleek. From the blunt nose to the aft thrusters, they were eighty-four meters long. The main section of the ship was generally the shape of a somewhat flattened cylinder, fifteen meters high. There were four massive sets of pivoting fusion thrusters, in addition to the large gravity engines set into the ventral line. The combined power could easily lift a fully loaded ship into orbit, although they required refueling once they were there. There were also two sets of large swing-wings that were deployed to get the massive machines back down to the ground.
Instead of a streamlined hull, the skin was covered with hatches and attachment points. Finn had never seen a Pioneer with less than three cargo containers. The three in front of him were fully loaded with twelve each. Connies were even more ungainly looking sitting on the ground. The landing gear was huge, four extended pylons with giant tires. It let the ship land with a line of cargo boxes underneath but gave the ship a decidedly goofy look. Without cargo, there would easily be enough room to park a scout ship underneath.
The wings on these three were fully extended on all three ships and provided some shelter from the elements. A few dozen people were gathered under them, looking up at the lead gray sky. It was hot and just as humid as yesterday, Addie predicted another day of heavy storm activity.
As he got closer, the Pioneers, mostly auburn haired Ta’avi, left the shelter of the wings and formed a crescent shape. He joined the crews at the center of the crescent and several people looked curiously at him but smiled and nodded all the same. No one said a word, the only sound was shuffling feet and a couple of coughs.
It wasn’t just the Ta’avi gathered here. They happily lived and worked with other races, especially the Terrans. Those that could keep up with them anyway. A blonde woman holding a small baby next to him smiled shyly and ducked her head. The baby was less shy, if the gurgling and fist waving was any indication. There was a thick headband around the baby’s head and the woman tugged it into place over the infant’s ears. The precaution was just in time, a low droning hum began and spread through the group. Finn hummed along as best he could but mere human throats were no match for the Ta’avi voice box.
It got marginally brighter and then a single ray of sunshine made it through the trees, looking almost solid and turning the morning mists into swirling patterns of gold. A group of Ta’avi voices rose into a soaring melody. Finn felt a hitch in his throat, Sun Welcome always affected him the same way. Before everything had ended, he’d attended them every day and had made a lot of friends with the Ta’avi refugees that lived outside of Echo.
The shaft of sunlight faded and disappeared but the melody got louder as more and more singers joined the chorus. The last of the droning sound died away completely and Finn covered his ears. Next to him, the woman put her hands over the baby’s ears as the song erupted in a thundering shout that echoed from the distant tree line. Finn was amused to hear a few rebel yells from the crowd as well. As the echo died away, the Pioneers began greeting each other, shaking hands and hugging all around him.
“I am Elaine, and this is Lily,” the blonde woman said with a heavy French accent.
“I’m Finn, blessings to you both.”
She smiled and nodded her head before being lost in the crowd. The end of the ceremony part had become uncomfortable for him after Earth but he put a fake smile on his face and said hello to everyone around him. A few times, he shook hands, not wanting to be rude but avoided hugging anyone. He began to slowly move to the edge of the crowd so he could escape.
“Holy Hell! Is that really you, Pirate?” someone bellowed.
Finn stopped short, trying to figure out who had called him that. A heavily muscled man ran toward him and before Finn could move, the Ta’avi had grabbed him in a bear hug. Then Finn recognized him.
“Who else?” the burly man shouted. He let go long enough to pound Finn’s back before hugging him again.
“You maniac, take it easy,” Finn wheezed.
“You big crybaby,” the other man said. “Come on, everyone’s here and we’ve missed you!”
Finn had little choice, Tyohac had been stocky when he’d flown alongside Finn but it looked like he’d spent all his time lifting weights since the last time they’d seen each other. The arm felt like an iron bar pushing him along.
“Your Redtail never came through the Slingshot. We figured you’d burned in,” Tyohac said as the crowd thinned.
“Yeah, Lucky 13 was in pretty bad shape. She ejected me next to a Gyr corvette. They picked me up but were headed to Long Axis instead of Hub. So it took a while to get back in contact.”
“Damn glad you made it. You should have a drink.”
“No thanks, it’s early morning for me.”
Tyohac ignored him, like always. He let go of Finn in the middle of a group of Ta’avi and started introducing him around, in between yells that he’d returned. It was far too fast for Finn to absorb and his head spun a little. Someone pushed a mug into his hand and he took a cautious sip. It was beer and he was relieved. Tyohac had fancied himself a moonshiner back on Earth and Finn had been victimized by some of the “taste tests” Tyohac had subjected everyone to.
Tyohac, never a quiet soul, was by his ship, bellowing for people to come and meet the second best pilot he knew. As his name spread, everyone began to press closer. They started off shaking his hand but then someone hugged him and the rest followed suit. The Ta’avi were an affectionate bunch, they only wanted to welcome him but Finn was getting overwhelmed and finding it hard to breathe.
Then someone took his arm and dragged him toward one of the ships, laughing and yelling for people to clear a path. He was guided to the edge of a connie’s ramp and he bent over, hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. Whoever had rescued him sat down on their heels near him.
He looked up to see a young woman watching him. She had raven-black hair and green eyes.
“You going to be okay?” she asked.
He nodded. “Little too crowded for me.”
“I’m Leah Jones, Fleet Scouts.”
She stood up and he saw the “Neil Armstrong School for Wayward Youth” shirt that had been popular around Echo.
“Finn Morgan, same,” he said, straightening up.
“I heard Tyohac mention something about that,” she said. “I figured you needed an extraction from that mob.”
Finn looked away. “Thanks for that. I can get kind of claustrophobic.”
“And you were a Redtail pilot?” Leah grinned at him, teeth very white in her tanned face. “C’mon, I’ve seen those cockpits. Your profile did mention something about PTSD though.”
He stood up, embarrassed. “It’s not that bad.”
She shrugged. “Fair enough. When would be a good time to come and meet Atalanta?”
“Whenever you want.”
“Walk over with me?”
He nodded and they skirted the edge of the group. Tyohac and several others were standing above everyone else, calling out insults as they named people to tasks. For their part, the combined crews yelled back cheerful abuse in return. Finn didn’t know if that was a Ta’avi thing or not but Tyohac had certainly flipped him enough shit in pre-mission briefings.
Leah yawned as they walked down the runway. “How long have you been here?”
“We landed yesterday. What time is it for you?”
“After midnight. What’s the work plan?”
He shook his head. “CRA for you today.”
Crew Rest and Acclimation was required after every planetfall. While ships were in transit, clocks were synched to the cesium clocks on Hub. Once they’d reached their destination, crews took Wide-Awakes or Sleep-Fast to get their bodies used to the new rhythm of local days and nights.
She yawned again. “Thank Mercy for that.”
“So, how old are you?”
“Twenty-two. And you’re thirty-six. Are you some kind of ageist or something?”
He shrugged. “My partner…well, I had requested someone with the same skill set.”
“I saw her profile, she was really something. You two were together a long time?”
“Twelve years. We started off in the same USAF ground-attack squadron, flew all over the Sand Box together. We got recruited by Echo about the same time as well.”
Leah didn’t say anything until they’d gotten closer to Addie.
“Look, I didn’t fly with you in the bad old days but I’m not going to feel bad about that. No one can replace your friend, and I respect that. But I grew up at ArcLight Southern and transferred to Echo before Revelation Day for advanced flight training. I’ve been flying logistics on Hub since the evac but I’ve wanted something like this for my entire life. Give me a chance, okay?”
Finn stopped. “I apologize, I didn’t want to be an asshole when we met. But I’m embarrassed that I can’t be around large groups of people and that you had to rescue me. It’s a little ridiculous.”
She blew a raspberry. “You’re not a coward, it’s a war injury and you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I tell him that all the time,” Addie said from above them. “Hello, Leah Jones.”
She looked up. “Hello, Atalanta. Wow, aren’t you beautiful?”
“I think we’re going to be good friends,” the ship said.
Leah walked around the ship, running her fingers over the ship’s skin as she talked to Addie. Finn let them get acquainted and went in to make coffee. He had told Owen that he’d stop by after breakfast today and he had the landing system to deal with.