I made my way down to the Zephyrus after leaving my stateroom. The bay was quiet, all the retrofit work finished. Both ships had their fuel supplies topped up after the battle with the massive Overlord ships. My first stop when I got on board was sick bay. Dr. Hazelton was there, running the learning program on Barney, who was unconscious. Deneuve sat on a chair near the bed.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Everything’s normal,” Dr. Hazelton said. “He’s very receptive. The sensors say he’s absorbing this better than he did the first round of training.”
“You look worried, Deneuve.”
“A little, sir,” he said. “I can’t believe how important this guy has become to me. He’s like my little brother. It’ll be weird having him behave like a full adult.”
“Emotionally he’ll be the same,” Dr. Hazelton said. “He’ll still love you.”
“Think he can be part of the crew, Captain?” Deneuve asked.
“We’ll see how he does when he comes out of it. We might be able to use him on the next mission.”
Deneuve looked worried. “We’re not going to make him fight, are we?”
“Remember what the mission is. We’ll be looking for more Clan settlements. He can sense them in ways we can’t.”
“There is one thing you’ll have to understand,” Dr. Hazelton said to Deneuve. “You won’t have as much of a parent/child relationship.”
“I’ll still feel protective.”
“Let me know if there are any problems,” I said. “I’m going to the bridge for a few minutes, then back to the New Jersey bridge.”
“See you soon, Captain,” Dr. Hazelton said.
“You’re still going to lead our next mission?” Deneuve asked.
“Probably,” I said as I turned to leave.
“Good,” Deneuve said.
Izzy was the only person on the Zephyrus bridge when I got there. She smiled at me when I walked in the door.
“Captain. Good to see you.”
“Likewise. Tim getting some down-time?”
“We’ve both had some sleep here,” Izzy said. “I sent him to get some food from the New Jersey.”
I chuckled. “It’s good.”
“Yep,” she said. “Any idea when we’re going on that mission to search for the Clan?”
“It’ll be several weeks, probably,” I said, sitting down next to her. “After we get through this jump, we’ll be cruising on impulse power for almost two weeks.”
“Wow. Anything we can do to prepare for that meeting?”
“Yes. Start looking at the space maps showing natural worm holes.”
She smiled. “That’s right, we can use those, and it’ll hamper the Overlord’s ability to corner us.”
“Yeah. JJ came up with the idea.”
“Kudos to her,” Izzy said.
Tim walked in, carrying a covered tray. It smelled like Texas BBQ.
“Hi, Captain. Want some?”
I chuckled. “No thanks, but I might get some later. That the special today?”
“Yep, and there was a pretty big line. I wouldn’t wait too long.”
“You got extra, right?” Izzy asked.
“They’d only let me take four portions.”
“Leftovers,” Izzy said. “I love BBQ leftovers.”
“I’ll leave you to it. You can fill Tim in, Izzy.”
“Will do, Captain. See you later.”
“Bye, Captain,” Tim said.
I left the Zephyrus, taking the tin can back to the New Jersey bridge. Sondra was on her way out when I got there.
“Hi, Captain, want me to stick around longer?”
“No thanks,” I said. “Go get some rest.”
“Nolan’s on his way back here. Eric will be a while longer.”
“Not a problem,” I said, sitting in the captain’s chair as she left. Nolan breezed in a moment later.
“Captain, how are you?” he asked, sitting at the Science Officer’s seat.
“Good, got plenty of rest. You?”
“Same, ready to go.”
“JJ had a good idea about the Clan mission.”
“What’s that?” Nolan asked.
“We take natural worm holes to those destinations.”
Nolan grinned. “That’ll throw a monkey wrench into Simone’s plans. I like it.”
“Hopefully that’s what will happen. What planet are we going to?”
“We should discuss it. There’s two that would be good, but any of them would work. There’s nothing below level 10.”
“What are the best possibilities?”
“There’s a level 15 world called Boroclize. It’s Permian period. Early reptiles. Lots of fish, many of them edible, but that’s not the best part.”
“It’s rich in Boron,” he said.
“That might be good, but it’s a long way to haul raw materials to Amberis.”
“This is very high-grade Boron,” Nolan said. “It’s been surveyed, but since it’s so far off in the boonies nobody has applied for a license to mine it. That will change eventually, of course.”
“There aren’t any natural worm holes nearby, are there?”
“Nope,” Nolan said. “Given the boron deposits, that was the first thing I checked. Clan ships in hiding will need a fuel source eventually.”
“Good. We’ll have to make note of this location even if we don’t camp out there.”
Nolan nodded in agreement. “Boron of that quality could be refined on board the ship, given the right equipment.”
“Yes,” Nolan said. “It’s the same level of quality originally found on Devonia Axxiom.”
“That must have been a long time ago.”
Nolan chuckled. “Yes, it was what led to their dominance in the Central Authority Zone.”
“Is there even a reason to discuss the other possibilities?”
“Singoiea would work. It’s level 10. Past the worst of the beasties, and there is a continent with no humans in the southern hemisphere, with very nice weather. It’d be much more comfortable for an extended stay than Boroclize.”
“What’s the problem with Boroclize?” I asked.
“Lot of volcanic activity, and widespread areas with dangerous winds. During the worst season they have a lot of tornados.”
“Geez. Got it. We have a decision to make, then.”
“I don’t suggest that we move a bunch of people to the surface in either case, Captain. We can’t land the New Jersey there anyway. This ship has to stay in orbit, as you know.”
“We have to decide before we get out of the jump, don’t we?”
“Well, yes, because these two worlds are in nearly opposite directions. If we went to one and decided to go to the other, we’d be using impulse power for about a month.”
“Is there widespread knowledge about the Boron deposits on Boroclize?”
Nolan froze, his brow furrowed. “There’s a good question. I should’ve thought about it. Simone knows that fuel is a big problem for us. They might check to see if there’s any places we might be able to pick up fuel.”
“Is there a suitable world that’s closer to Boroclize? We could hang out there, watch for them, and engage if they showed up.”
“The closest is a level 13. Jurassic period. Lots of dangerous beasties on the surface, all continents. It’s called Fioxen.”
“Okay, I want to meet with the Chairman a few hours before we come out of the jump. Make sure we have plenty of details for him.”
“Yes, you and the other principals,” I said. “Anything interesting on those news reports?”
“Bluster from both sides, but nothing we didn’t know.”
“Okay, I won’t bother. Thanks, Nolan.”
Nolan nodded to me, and I got back to the AI, programming the interface, which had a service set up to talk to PA devices. After I set it to run, I did a very detailed search on Ecason’s spacecraft designs in our data library. There was more out there than I expected, including a decent writeup about the concept model that looked like the Overlord’s ships, and a technical paper on advanced power systems, weapons, and shields. That was enough to occupy me for several hours, although I did break once to grab a snack from the commissary next to the bridge. JJ showed up, looking well rested.
“Captain, looks like you’re hard at work.”
“I’m doing research on Ecason and his ships,” I said.
“You are?” Nolan asked, turning towards me.
“I have time to kill. You probably know most of it already.”
“I’ve been too busy to browse that,” Nolan said. “Learning all of the capabilities of this ship is more critical, so I’m working myself through a crash course.”
“You’re right, that is more important for you at the moment,” I said, shooting a glance at JJ.
“Do we know what planet we’re going to orbit yet?” JJ asked.
“We’ve got some possibilities to discuss. Nolan, how long till we’re out of the jump?”
“Five hours, give or take,” Nolan replied.
“Okay, I’ll schedule the meeting for three hours from now.”
“Anything I can help with?” JJ asked.
“You could help me with my research. Do you know who Ecason was working with before he disappeared?”
“I know a few names and can find more. We’ve got the entire SDAC archive in our databanks, up to about a month ago. I was perusing them earlier.”
“Perfect,” I said.
JJ took a seat and got to work.
I sent a message to the principals and Vermillion about the meeting, then checked the program I was running in the AI system. As I suspected, the AI aboard this ship had capabilities that were beyond legality in the Central Authority Zone. Since it was there, I planned to use it to our advantage, but not mention the capabilities to anybody just yet. There were template AI assistant programs available, ready to connect to individual PA devices. My program was building one of those now, tailored exactly to my needs. The program was still running, the creation of the assistant already 15% complete. It was prompting for a name. I chuckled to myself, then typed in Butch.
“What’s funny?” JJ asked, shooting me a sidelong glance.
“Oh, nothing, just saw something that reminded me of an old buddy of mine.”
She nodded and went back to her research. The time went quickly, my PA giving me a five-minute warning for the meeting. I backed away from my screen, rubbing my eyes for a moment.
“It’s almost time for the meeting, isn’t it?” JJ asked.
“Five minutes. In the Conference room. You’ll get a reminder any second.”
Her PA beeped a second later. “Speak of the devil,” she said, looking at it. “I guess I have nothing better to do.”
Nolan laughed. “I’m sure everybody will be on their best behavior around the Chairman. Except me, that is.”
“You’re always nice to him,” I said.
“I’m trying hard to be nice to everybody. You’ve noticed I’m not being so sarcastic these days, I hope.”
“I did notice. Are you ready to admit that Earth is a true level two world?”
JJ snickered as Nolan thought for a moment.
“Well?” I asked.
“Not a chance.” He shot me a grin and turned back to his console. Vermillion came onto the bridge.
“Hello everybody. Is everything proceeding well?”
“Yes sir,” I said. “Here for the meeting?”
“Of course. Just got off a call with Tac. He got the reactor up and running already.”
“Wow,” I said. “Hopefully he hasn’t noticed any Overlords activity in his sector.”
“Not so far. That’s the main reason I called him. I did short calls with the leadership of all the factory installations too. So far, so good.”
JJ leaned away from her screen. “We might have damaged Simone enough that she’ll back off for a while and regroup.”
“I’m still expecting her to send ships to the end of our wormhole,” I said.
“Me too,” Nolan said.
“What’s that you’re looking at?” Vermillion asked.
“Technical papers from Ecason. He made mention of a plasma saturation mode. It would fire in all directions, with a pretty dangerous range.”
“I read about that one,” Nolan said. “That idea was abandoned.”
“Why?” I asked.
JJ looked up. “I was in on those conversations. The system required momentary lowering of shields. At the time this came up, it almost made sense, because the plasma weapons Ecason had designed were strong enough to blast through any of our shields.”
“Not anymore, though,” Nolan said. “The system being developed didn’t even have the ability to burn through Centurion shields before they could get enough shots off. It was designed to take out the smuggling fleets that were giving us fits about twenty years ago. They were using much older ships.”
“Still trying to find out about Simone’s ships by finding out more about Ecason?” Vermillion asked. “You know that for the last ten years before he disappeared, he wanted nothing to do with military technology, right?”
“I know for a fact that he was still working on defensive capabilities, right to the last,” Nolan said, “but I agree if you’re talking about offensive weapons.”
My PA buzzed. “Time for the meeting. Let’s go into the conference room.”
“I set up one of the consoles in the conference room to monitor the sensors,” JJ said. “We can leave the bridge empty if you think we need everybody in on the conversation.”
“If we weren’t still in the jump, I’d say no, but in this case it should be fine,” I said, getting up after locking my screen. “Let’s get this done.”
We went into the conference room. Andrea was already there with Deacon, Izzy, and Tim. Cyrus walked in with Sondra and Skip.
“Looks like we have a quorum,” I said, taking a seat at the table, enjoying the active chairs as they sculpted against my body. JJ sat next to me on the right, Nolan on my left, Vermillion at the head of the table, the others spaced around it.
“We need to decide which world to orbit,” I began. “Nolan has two recommendations which we need to discuss.”
“Two out of how many?” Vermillion asked.
“Sixteen,” Nolan replied. “Not enough if we weren’t using the proton mines.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Nolan, go ahead and let them know about Boroclize and Singoiea.”
Nolan nodded and went ahead, describing the pros and cons of each. He also went into the possibility of watching Boroclize from Fioxen.”
Vermillion leaned back in his chair, thinking, the others waiting to see what he had to say.
“The best place that we could choose would be Boroclize. We could refine Boron of that quality onboard this ship. We have most of the equipment, and what we don’t have we could replicate easily.”
“There’s a but coming,” Andrea said.
Vermillion nodded. “As soon as the Overlords see our wormhole trace, they’ll do an analysis of the area. Boroclize is going to stick out like a sore thumb, given our current fuel situation.”
“It is possible that we’ll blow all of their ships with the mines before they can cause us any trouble.”
My PA started to beep at me, the icon for Butch showing up as I frantically turned it off.
“What was that?” JJ asked.
“Automatic note taking,” I said. “It wanted to ask a question. Not ready for prime time.”
“Interesting,” Vermillion said, eyeing me for a moment.
“I think it’s too dangerous to go to Boroclize,” Cyrus said.
“I agree,” Andrea said. “Maybe we should go to Fioxen and watch.”
My PA vibrated at me silently, showing Butch’s icon again. Then my ear implants beeped. There was a yes or no choice on my PA.
“That thing still messing with you?” JJ asked.
“Yeah, sorry,” I said, clicking yes with my finger.
<Butch> Good, you’re being smart. Change course. Go to the Leo Supercluster. It’s not too late if you do it now. Boroclize is one month away, because of the natural worm hole on the outer ring of that system.
JJ watched me as I concentrated on the message, not hearing the comments that Izzy made.
“I have a suggestion,” I said, stopping Izzy in mid-sentence. “Sorry, Izzy, it just popped into my head, but we’ve got to act quickly.”
“I’ll defer to you, Captain, of course.”
“Thanks, and sorry,” I said.
<Butch> So polite. Get on with it.
I smirked, then turned towards Nolan. “Let’s change course. Go to the Leo Supercluster. There’s a natural worm hole there that will get us in the vicinity of the Virgo Supercluster. We should be able to get to Boroclize from there within a month using impulse power.”
Nolan’s mouth dropped open. “How do you know that?”
“There was a search I had running. The info just arrived.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” Cyrus said.
Vermillion looked at me suspiciously for a moment, then sighed. “I’ll approve that idea, but you and I need to speak in private, Captain Clarke.”
“Of course, sir,” I said.
“I’ll go change the course right now,” Nolan said, getting up.
Skip got up too. “I’ll join you, if that’s okay.”
“Good idea,” I said.
The two left the room.
“How sure are we that the Overlords won’t figure out we’ve used a natural worm hole?” Tim asked.
“We aren’t one hundred percent positive,” I said. “We’ll use the same precautions with natural worm holes that we would using the normal Samson Drive functionality.”
<Butch> I am 99.9900234% sure.
“The destination was the main decision we needed to make,” I said. “We can break the meeting now. I’ll let you know how much longer we’ll be in the jump after Nolan finishes the calculations.”
Everybody rose to leave except for Vermillion and JJ. When the others got through the door, JJ walked over and locked it, then sat back down.
“Okay, what are you doing?” she asked.
I shrugged, shooting a sheepish smile at her and Vermillion. “Butch happened.”
“I don’t follow,” Vermillion said.
“I started researching the AI capabilities onboard the ship,” I said. “It’s far more advanced than anything I’ve ever seen.”
“That’s classified,” Vermillion said, an uncomfortable look on his face.
“I’m not telling anybody outside of this room. I know it can land all of us in hot water.”
“What did you do?” JJ asked.
“I read the system description for interfacing and started programming myself an AI Assistant. His name is Butch.”
<Butch>You could’ve done a better introduction than that.
I switched on the dictate setting on my PA and thought my response, the words typing out on my display.
<Clarke> Don’t be a wise ass. Good AI assistants should not be so snarky.
“You’re interacting with it right now, aren’t you?” JJ asked, a smile on her face. “It’s going to your ear implants.”
“I’ll turn on the speakers so you can hear him,” I said, tapping the preferences and taking my PA out of silent mode.
<Butch> Ah, that’s better. Hello everybody. Are you going to punish Clarke for this? Can I watch?
JJ laughed. Vermillion shook his head.
“I think I accidently clicked the checkbox for sarcasm,” I quipped.
<Butch> Funny. Nolan already got the course changed. We’ll be in the jump for an extra fourteen hours.
JJ smiled. “Wow, can I have one of those?”
“No,” Vermillion said, “and not a word about this capability to anybody. We weren’t honest about it when we designated this ship with the Central Authority.”
“Do you want me to delete Butch?” I asked.
<Butch> Don’t you dare.
Vermillion thought about it for a moment. “No, he’s useful. Keep him for now, but no spilling the beans on this capability, even if we’re in trouble, and don’t have your PA on speaker. Ever. You know how to use the mental dictation?”
“That’s how I answered him in the meeting,” I said.
“Good, then you’re allowed to have private conversations with him. That’s it.”
“Maybe we should bring Nolan in on this, because he’s probably already accessing the documentation,” JJ said.
<Butch> She is correct. My, but he’s a fast reader. I’m about to have a baby brother.
“Call Nolan in here now,” Vermillion said.
After a moment Nolan tried the door, which was still locked. I got up and opened it, and he came inside, looking nervous. I shut the door behind him and locked it again.
“Uh oh, am I in trouble?” Nolan asked, taking a seat at the table.
“Nobody outside of this room can know about our AI capabilities,” Vermillion said. “Do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” he said. “You’re AI assistant saw me reading up on it, didn’t he?”
<Butch> Call me Butch. Yes, I saw that. What are you going to name your assistant?
“I hadn’t even decided if I was going to create one,” Nolan said. “Can I?”
Vermillion sighed. “Dammit. Okay, both you and JJ can have them, but make sure you hide it from the others. Comprende? That means no PA conversations without using ear implants, and no vocal commands, only mind dictation. Got it? That’s an order. Oh, and I won’t be having one of these. I consider it a security risk to have the CEO’s brain in this system, at least until we figure things out.”
“I understand why you’d be apprehensive,” Nolan said. “We should set them up to share data between the three of us. I suspect that with the level of data processing we can get from this system, we could’ve destroyed all of Simone’s ships in that last engagement.”
<Butch> He’s right about that. They would’ve lost all five ships instead of just two.
To be continued…
Bug Out! Texas Book 1 is now just 99 cents in the Kindle Store! Free in Kindle Unlimited! This is the story of Texas Patriots and their struggle against enemies, foreign and domestic, during the Bug Out! War. Chock full of action, adventure, suspense, and romance. Pick up your copy of Bug Out! Texas Book 1 today!
The first of my full length novels has been published in the Amazon Kindle store, available now. For those of you have have been readying the Bugout! series, the story involves George and Malcolm, and is set about seven years earlier. This book R rated, instead of the PG-13 of the Bugout! Series, so be warned. Here’s the link to “Never A Loose End”
Copyright Robert Boren 2018