Space Opera Part 37 – Pirates

I followed JJ off the bridge.

“Think we can use the conference room?” she asked.

I nodded and pushed the door open for her. She locked the door behind us.

“Well?” I asked.

“That last article hit you like a lightning bolt. Why?”

“Our AI capability is clearly illegal,” I said. “I’ve pushed that to the back of my mind, but seeing it in print forced it to the forefront. Don’t worry, I’m fine.”

“It’s illegal to use the AIs to run the New Jersey, but we have enough humans on board to satisfy the law. It’s not illegal to use the AIs as personal assistants or interfaces to our equipment and spacecraft.”

<Butch> She’s right, Trey.

<Emerald> Agreed.

I thought about it for a moment. “Okay, I’ll grant you that we aren’t out of compliance yet, but what happens when we finish the next two New Jersey class ships? We don’t have enough people to man those ships legally.”

“I say we cross that bridge when we come to it, and try not to worry now. There are a lot of things happening at once. It may never be an issue.”

“How could it not be?” I asked.

“Think about what Vermillion is doing now with his back-channel discussions. We may not be outlaws for much longer. Then we can recruit people for the new ships.”

I thought about that for a moment. “That should make me feel better, but for some reason it doesn’t. The Central Authority set this whole mess up by welcoming the Overlords into the government. I think they tried to use the Overlords to neutralize the Samson Corporation.”

<Butch> We’re in a position to dictate terms.

JJ eyed me after we both heard Butch’s comment.

“No, Butch, that’s wrong. I’m not going to go against an elected government. That would put us on the same level as Simone.”

<Butch> But your motives are not bad like Simone’s are.

“That doesn’t matter,” I said.

JJ looked at me, her eyes glassing over. “You’re a patriot. I guess I knew that shortly after we met, but it’s hitting home now.”

I watched her for a moment, not sure what to think. “Sorry.”

“Are you kidding? You’re a better man than any I’ve ever known. You keep right on with what you’re doing.”

“What I’m doing?”

“Being our rock. Making sure that we do the right thing.”

Somebody tried the door, then knocked.

<Butch> It’s Nolan. Shall I unlock the door?

I looked at JJ, and she nodded. “Yes, please.”

The door clicked, and Nolan came in. “Everything all right, Captain?”

“Everything’s fine,” JJ said. “Our Captain was just having a crisis of faith.”

“Faith in what?” Nolan asked, his eyebrows raised.

“Liberty,” she said.

I looked at Nolan, then shrugged. “What Hamilton Zenos said about AIs controlling battle ships kinda hit home.”

“We’ve got enough humans on board to be legal.”

“I know, Nolan, but what happens when the second and third New Jersey Class ships come on line? We don’t have enough humans for that.”

“Then we recruit, with or without support of the Central Authority,” Nolan said. “I’ve been scanning message board content that I downloaded while we were on impulse power. We’d fill every position we need in a very short time. We’re superstars, in case you hadn’t heard. We’re more popular than the Central Authority by far. There are millions of people who’d jump at the chance of serving on one of our ships. Trust me.”

<Butch> There are problems with that suggestion, but it’s not inaccurate.

<Me> You’ve been looking at his downloads too?

<Butch> I can multi-task on a level humans can’t understand.

<Emerald> Don’t give all our secrets away, dummy.

JJ snickered, Nolan getting the message too.

<Dojo> We could start recruiting any time. Even set up advanced screenings and signups.

“All right, hold it, you guys,” I said. “I know these are good suggestions, and we might even do them, but let’s not put the cart in front of the horse. We need to focus on our fuel supply and actually getting the new ships built, plus extending the AI capability to our entire crew. We’re a long ways from crew recruiting.”

“I think it’s prudent to start sowing seeds sooner rather than later,” Nolan said, “Make it more of a fan club to start with. It’ll help us gather names.”

“It might get us caught, too, by the Overlords or worse,” JJ said. “I’m with Captain Clarke on this one.”

The doorknob moved.

<Me> You locked it again?

<Butch> I did. It’s the Chairman. Shall I let him in?

<Me> Please.

The door clicked, Vermillion walking in.

“Anything wrong?” he asked, eyeing me.

“The Hamilton Zenos report got me spun up, but our friends here talked me down.”

Vermillion nodded. “That thought hit me the minute I read it.”

“That we’ll be out of compliance?” JJ asked.

Vermillion chuckled. “No, that it would bug Captain Clarke.”

I shrugged. “We’re okay until the other New Jersey ships are built.”

“We are, and we’ll be okay after that,” Vermillion said. “We’ll either get more people or get dispensation from the Central Authority.”

“Is the back-channel campaign bearing some fruit?” Nolan asked.

“It is, but we’re in the early stages. Suffice it to say that the Central Authority recognizes we’re all that stands between the survival of the Republic and an Overlords coup.”

“Is Hamilton Zenos getting his info from the back-channel campaign?” I asked.

Vermillion smiled. “Not from me, but it’s likely somebody’s talking to him. It’s not all bad.”

Nolan snickered.

“What?” Vermillion asked.

“It’s not all bad. That’s exactly what Sondra said, and I agree.”

“Tell him what you were saying about the message boards and recruitment,” I said.

Nolan smiled. “I downloaded message board conversations while we were on impulse power. We have a following. A very big following. We could use that to recruit crew members.”

Vermillion laughed. “Interesting idea, but there’s a problem. We’re burning through Corporation resources supporting the people we have now, and we have no income. Our balance sheet won’t look good as this continues. Hell, we can’t even sell stock to bring in more money. Adding millions of new employees will sink us. Don’t worry, though, we’ll get around it before we need to. That’s the main focus of the backchannel conversations.”

The solution smacked me right in the side of the head.

<Butch> I was wondering when you were going to figure that out.

<Me> Quiet.

JJ and Nolan shot me a glance, and Vermillion noticed.

“Your AI just made a comment on something you were thinking again,” he said.

I smiled sheepishly.

“Out with it.”

I sighed. “It’s just an idea.”

“Everything starts with an idea, honey,” JJ said, covering her mouth with her hand after the words left her lips.

<Butch> Oops.

<Emerald> Uh oh.

Vermillion laughed again, his gaze alternating between JJ and me. “I already know. Not only did you both mention it to me, but I see how you look at each other. No need to tiptoe.”

“So it is true,” Nolan said. “That’s delightful.”

“All right, all right. I’ll state what I was thinking, but it’s just an idea that popped into my head. There’s probably all kinds of issues with it, and I haven’t thought it through.”

“Do you think I’m going to punish you because of an idea?” Vermillion asked. “You know me better than that by now, I hope.”

“I don’t like to overstep my bounds, Mr. Chairman.”

“You won’t. Give me some credit. Now out with it.”

“Okay. If we go back to the model of the past, the New Jersey and the other ships will become assets of the Central Authority… and that’s what they’re supposed to be in the first place. When we need crews, we retire several Centurion ships and move the crews here, or get them the old-fashioned way. We go to the academy.”

“Normalcy,” Nolan said. “If we can keep the Overlords from getting back into the government, that should be our ultimate goal.”

Vermillion sat, the chair molding to him. “This doesn’t leave the room. Understand?”

We all nodded.

“Good. We won’t have normalcy at that level before we need crews. The Central Authority has a huge problem. The Overlords have been moving people into un-elected positions for years, long before they started running for office as a political party. The government is riddled with subversives, and they can’t be fired for their political views. Our constitution’s continuity clause keeps mass firings from being a possibility.”

“Worst amendment we’ve ever passed,” Nolan said.

“It’s troublesome, but it addressed abuses. We have laws in place that control the conduct of government employees. They can be fired for cause, and all of them are being watched carefully.”

“How does this preclude us turning our ships over to the Central Authority, exactly?” I asked.

“The leadership of the Central Authority believes they can’t keep our activities secret with the Overlords subversives in place. They want us to operate freely.”

I laughed. “Holy crap. I’m Sir Francis Drake, aren’t I?”

JJ joined me laughing. Nolan stared blankly at us.

“It’s earth history, Nolan,” Vermillion said. “Pretty good analogy, too. He’s not the first to come up with it, though. The designer of the AI and Nano system brought it up first.”

I froze, the situation expanding in my head. Drake.

<Butch> Wow.

“I’m still not getting this, Mr. Chairman,” Nolan said.

“You’ve heard of Queen Elizabeth I of England, haven’t you?” I asked.

“Ah, yes, the Virgin Queen. Notorious but very effective monarch. Chopped off her sister’s head, as I remember.”

“No, that was her cousin,” I said. “Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth’s half-sister was another Mary who reigned before her, nicknamed Bloody Mary because she tried to re-impose the Catholic religion by burning hundreds of protestants at the stake.”

“Oh,” Nolan said. “My early Earth history is a little weak. Why does this matter?”

“Sir Francis Drake was secretly used by Queen Elizabeth as a pirate, to capture treasure from the Spanish and sink their ships,” Vermillion said.

Nolan grinned. “The Central Authority wants to use us to destroy the Overlords fleet. We can’t do that if we’re officially part of the Central Authority Armed Forces, because word will get out. Subversives will warn the Overlords of our plans.”

“That’s it,” I said. “We’re already working for the Central Authority again, just not openly.”

Vermillion nodded. “Yes. As I said, this doesn’t leave the room.”

“So our only real enemy is the Overlords,” JJ said. “Maybe that will help with our supply chain issues.”

“No, it won’t,” Vermillion said, “for the same reason we can’t operate in the Central Authority military. Although we know that we’re part of the Central Authority, we’ll be operating as if we must hide from them and keep everything secret. That’s essential. The Overlords have more capacity than even I suspected. It’s not a guarantee that we’ll beat them. Oh, and by the way, the Central Authority rank and file military is still under orders to hunt us. The leadership of the Central Authority can slow down their activities to a certain degree without raising suspicion, but that’s all the help they can give us.”

“What about the Clan?” Nolan asked.

“Wild card,” Vermillion said. “As far as we know, any Clan ships in our zone are hiding from everybody. The Clan Zone is getting worse by the week, too. They’re putting dissenters into camps as their economy tanks and their people demonstrate in the streets of their major worlds.”

“That’s not encouraging,” Nolan said.

Vermillion nodded in agreement. “They’ve been breaking the directive on worlds level six and above too, by the way, and starting to encroach on the free zone.”

“If they get desperate enough, they’ll start raiding our zone,” I said. “One battle at a time. We do need to keep our eyes peeled for them, especially on Boroclize.”

“Yes,” Vermillion said. “I need to go. Meeting starting up at the main production facility.”

“Using the holographic comm unit, huh?” Nolan asked.

“It’s a godsend right now,” Vermillion said. “Remember what I said. “Mum’s the word. Pretend that we must hide from the Central Authority. No slipping up in front of anybody, including the other bridge crews. They have no need to know. Got it?”

“Yes sir,” I said.

JJ and Nolan nodded in agreement, and we watched Vermillion walk out of the conference room.

“Guess I’ll go back to the bridge,” Nolan said.

“I’m going to the Zephyrus, and then I’ll set up the training for the Nano suits,” I said. “Want to come along, JJ?”

“Of course.” We followed Nolan out of the conference room, JJ and I heading to the transport.

“Sorry I slipped with the honey,” JJ whispered as we walked down the corridor.

“We aren’t fooling anybody. I’ll bet the waiter in the Executive Dining Room has been blabbing too. Might as well accept it.”

“What do you think about the situation with the Central Authority?”

“I’m not sure if we’re better off or worse off.”

She laughed. “Me too. I hope we don’t run into the Clan on Boroclize.”

“If we do, they’re desperate for fuel. It’s a long impulse cruise from the natural worm hole, and as far as we know they can’t cloak.”

“The as far as we know part worries me, honey.”

We grabbed a tin can and shot down to the bay, getting to the Zephyrus in about ten minutes. Andrea’s AI let her know we were there, and she met us just inside the ramp.

“Welcome,” she said. “What’s up?”

“I wanted to see how Barney was doing. How are you? Get some sleep?”

“Not enough. I’ll go back down in a little while. I’ve heard you’re going to train us on the Nano suits.”

“Word travels fast,” I said. “It’s true, although all I can do is get you started with the basics. I can’t work with the designer again until we get out of the jump.”

“What about the holographic comm device?” JJ asked.

“That might be a possibility, especially if we get stuck on a question. I want to pour through the rest of the documentation before I bug him, though. I’m sure Butch will help with that.”

<Butch> I’ve already compiled some highlights for you.

<Me> Thanks. Can we make the Nano documentation available to only the bridge crews for now?

<Butch> Yes, through the Central AI. Shall I?

<Me> Please do, and then notify the bridge crews that it’s available. Suggest that they should go over it. That will make the initial training easier.

“Heard that,” Andrea said. “Weird. Still getting used to this.”

“What’s your AI’s name?” JJ asked.

“I’m not that creative. Andrea II.

<Angela II> At least I’m not named after a dog.

“Ah, nice to meet you, Andrea II,” JJ said.

<Emerald> Likewise.

<Butch> Welcome aboard.

I chuckled. “All these voices in my head. Six hundred years ago this would be considered madness.”

<Butch> Probably still is.

<Emerald> Butch likes to make stupid comments, Angela II.

<Angela II> So I’ve heard. We’ll keep him in line together.

Angela smirked. “Be nice. Barney is on the bridge, learning the Zephyrus controls. We haven’t said anything about the AIs yet.”

“Let’s wait on that,” I said. “We don’t know if the connections will work with a Neanderthal brain.”

<Butch> Want me to probe?

<Me> No, I want you to sleep for now.

<Butch> As you wish. Thank you.

“Perhaps you two should put your AIs to sleep while we talk to Barney.”

“Done,” JJ said.

Andrea nodded. “Me too. Let’s get up there.”

We walked to the bridge.

“This feels so cozy,” JJ said.

“It does, which is weird, since we were here just hours ago.”

“It’s the natural worm hole,” Andrea said. “I was reading about it. The impact on the human mind is a little different. It tends to mess with your concept of time.”

We entered the bridge. Barney and Deneuve turned towards us.

“Hi, Captain Clarke,” Deneuve said. “How are you?”

“Great, thanks,” I said. “How are you and Barney doing?”

Barney eyed me for a moment. “Hello, Captain. This is fascinating. A whole new world is opening up for me. I assume I have you to thank for that?”

“You have us to thank for that,” I said.

“Us? I don’t understand.”

“You’re part of our family, Barney,” JJ said.

“Oh. Thank you. That’s very kind. I’d love to be of service.”

“We’d like you to become an official member of the crew,” I said. “You’ll have to go through aptitude testing first, of course.”

“To see if I’m worthy?” Barney asked.

I laughed. No, no, we know you’re worthy. We’d like to know what you’re best at, so we can put you into the right job. That’s all.”

“It won’t be something dangerous, will it?” Deneuve asked.

“Just being on this ship is dangerous,” Andrea said.

“Which ship, the Zephyrus, or whatever we’re inside?” Barney asked.

“The New Jersey,” I said proudly.

“That’s the name of the big ship? What does New Jersey mean?”

“It’s named after a series of battle ships from Earth’s past,” Andrea said. “The initial one was an ocean ship.”

“Can I see it?”

“Search for USS New Jersey in the data banks, like I showed you,” Deneuve said.

Barney spoke into the microphone on the Science Officer’s station, and a picture came up on the monitor in front of him.

“Isn’t she a beauty?” Deneuve asked.

“Are those plasma guns?” Barney asked, pointing to the sixteen-inch guns spewing fire.

“Those are similar to rail guns,” I said. “They shoot physical projectiles, but the propellant was chemical, not magnetic.”

“Oh, that’s why the fire is coming out of the barrels,” Barney said. “Deneuve, you called it a she? Why? This isn’t a biological organism, is it?”

“No, it’s a metal boat,” Deneuve said. “We use the female pronoun for vehicles we have affection for. Not sure where that started. Ships, airplanes, and spacecraft are often referred to as she.”

“Human customs can be hard to understand,” Barney said, “although I must say that this ship is beautiful. Does it still exist?”

I smiled. “It does, and I’ve been on her. She’s a museum now. They used to have her in the water, but for the last four hundred years she’s been in dry dock. The salt water does too much damage.”

“Earth has salt water oceans too? Like home?”

“Yes, Earth has salt water oceans just like Valla Cappos,” I said.

The door opened, Deacon walking in with a big grin on his face.

“Cappy! Heard you were on board. How are you? Been a while.” We embraced.

“Is Deacon your father?” Barney asked.

Deacon chuckled. “No, Barney, we’re just close old friends.”

“Oh.”

“You getting ready to take him outside?”

I smiled back at Deacon. “I don’t know. Barney, would you like to see the New Jersey?”

Barney smiled. “Could I?” He glanced at Deneuve, who shook his head yes.

“Wait till you taste the food,” he said.

“Do they have burgers?” Barney asked.

“Yeah, real ones,” Deneuve said.

“Well, I don’t know if they’re real or not,” I said.

“You haven’t heard?” Deacon asked. “You need to read up on your ship.”

“I’ve been concentrating on the military aspects of the ship since I’ve been back. Haven’t had much of a breather from that. What are you telling me?”

“With a ship that size, there’s plenty of room to farm and raise livestock,” Deacon said. “They knew we’d have a hard time getting re-supplied, so they set it up. Hydroponic and soil-based growing for the plants, plus the livestock. Chickens, turkeys, hogs, cattle, even fish breeding tanks.”

“How big is the New Jersey?” Barney asked.

“Ten kilometers long, four kilometers wide, and about two kilometers tall,” Deacon said.

“Say again?” Barney asked, his eyes wide.

To be continued…

 

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