Adda and Iridian have survived the murderous AI that tried to kill them in Barbary Station...but now they'll need all of their ingenuity to escape the evil megacorporation that wants to own them, in this second space adventure in the Shieldrunner Pirates trilogy.
Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir have escaped the murderous AI that was trapping them on Barbary Station, and earned themselves a place on Captain Sloane’s fabled pirate crew. And now that they’ve arrived at Vesta, Sloane’s home base, they can finally start making a living stealing from well-off megacorporations.
Unfortunately, the political situation has deteriorated in Captain Sloane’s absence. Adda and Iridian find themselves trapped in a contract with Oxia Corp., one of the very megacorporations they'd hoped to prey on, forced to rob and intimidate targets they'd never have chosen on their own. If they're ever going to have the independent life together that they've always wanted, they'll have to free themselves from Oxia Corp. first. Meanwhile, the inhuman allies who followed Adda and Iridian from Barbary Station have plans of their own, which may be more dangerous than the humans involved could imagine. It will take not one but five heists, and every bit of ingenuity Adda and Iridian have to escape from Oxia and find the life they’ve always dreamed of...if they can survive.
About the Author
R.E. Stearns is the author of Barbary Station. She wrote her first story on an Apple IIe computer and still kind of misses green text on a black screen. She went on to annoy all of her teachers by reading books while they lectured. Eventually she read and wrote enough to earn a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Central Florida. She is hoping for an honorary doctorate. When not writing or working, R.E. Stearns reads, plays PC games, and references Internet memes in meatspace. She lives near Orlando, Florida with her husband, a computer engineer, and a cat.
Read an Excerpt
Mutiny at Vesta
Time integrated through digital intermediary: 1 hour 53 minutes
Adda Karpe disconnected her mind from the ship around her and sat beside Iridian Nassir on the surface currently serving as a floor. The ghostly intermediary figure connecting Adda and the ship’s AI vanished. Iridian wrapped her golden-brown arm around Adda’s waist without interrupting her story. “So I thought, ‘Pel’s dying around here somewhere, and what do I need two kidneys for anyway?’ and grabbed the bastard. This is what I got for it.”
Iridian raised one side of her shirt to her armpit. A tapered line of recently regrown flesh marred a tattoo of a flap of skin pulled up to reveal a skull and crossed rib bones drawn over realistic viscera beneath it. The other people in the Casey Mire Mire’s main cabin, a man just out of his teens with the same pale complexion as Adda’s, and a darker man with a beard like a stylized leaf, laughed and swore, respectively.
“Wish I could see it,” the younger one, Pel, said. Goggles with dark blue lenses hid his scarred eyes, reflecting the ceiling-wall seam lights from where he sat on the floor near Adda.
The Casey’s bedroom door slid up and open. Captain Sloane crossed the main cabin to the bridge console in two low-gravity strides, long coat and neatly braided black hair following after. “We’ll be in range of Vesta’s southern docking guides in five minutes. Are all of you ready?”
“Finally,” Pel said. “The Casey is so slow.”
“Hey, it’s about average.” Iridian glanced around, brows furrowed, like audibly insulting the ship was a bad idea. Perhaps it was. “We got here as fast as any ship could, without attracting the ITA’s attention, anyway.”
Sloane’s lieutenant, who shaped his beard like a stylized leaf and went by Tritheist as a name, stepped around Adda’s mesh bag of drone parts to stand beside the captain. “The newsfeeds still run daily Barbary Station updates. Vestan dock security will be expecting us. The ITA won’t, or if they are, the local bureaucrats will keep them from stopping us.”
“Good.” The captain smiled, a flash of white teeth against dark skin. “Welcome home, lads and lasses.” Sloane turned to Adda and Iridian. “The ship does intend to dock here, I assume?” The captain’s smile looked more forced now.
“The Casey’s letting us off here, yeah.” Iridian cast a suspicious look at a cam in a corner of the main cabin, which served as one of the Casey’s many eyes.
Adda and the Casey had discussed their destination after the Casey had docked with a fuel barge on the Mars-Ceres reliable route and decided to stay there for two days after it’d finished refueling. It’d picked its own time to leave for Vesta, too, despite all of Adda’s arguments to depart sooner. The delay had given Captain Sloane time to straighten out crew finances and pay for the fuel, but Iridian and Tritheist had taken shifts intimidating the barge crew into allowing them to stay.
Without the threats, the barge crew would’ve summoned the Interplanetary Transit Authority to arrest Sloane’s crew on a variety of piracy-related charges. Sloane hadn’t required the crew on the Casey to sign anything, but traveling with the captain was suspicious enough. Besides, Adda and Iridian had made their own share of trouble.
The ITA wouldn’t enforce the Near Earth Union military draft, which Adda and Iridian were currently avoiding. They’d mete out the consequences they felt her and Iridian’s colony ship hijacking warranted, and then turn them over to the NEU.
While Iridian and Tritheist had kept the barge crew out of the Casey, Adda and Pel had watched the ship’s console so they’d all have some warning when it was ready to leave. It’d been Adda’s last chance to confirm that Pel really wanted to stay with her. She and Iridian had fought long and hard to earn a place with Sloane’s core pool of crewmembers, but Pel could’ve begged passage to another station. “I’ve got money coming, and I’ve got to live somewhere,” he’d said. “Might as well stick with you!”
The ITA had almost caught them at Barbary Station, and everyone knew that Vesta was Captain Sloane’s base of operations. All the ITA had to determine was which direction the crew would come from and which vessel they’d travel in. Upon Adda’s suggestion, the Casey had left the fuel barge on a long detour off the Mars-Vesta reliable route. The trip across unpatrolled space had paid off. They hadn’t seen the ITA since Barbary.
Adda had never found out why the Casey had stopped at the fuel barge, or what made it decide to leave. Traveling with an awakened intelligence was as unsettling as Adda’s degree in AI development had led her to expect.
“I can’t tell if the Casey is planning to stay at Rheasilvia Station,” Adda said.
“She’s got her own fleet now.” Pel still referred to the ship as “she,” like the rest of Sloane’s crew did. The Casey’s AI copilot was conscious enough to develop preferences, but it had ignored Adda’s questions about its gender. “Three ships is a fleet, right?” Pel continued. “What does she need to hang out with a bunch of humans for?”
“Maintenance, obviously,” said Tritheist. “Otherwise she’d have left Barbary Station years ago.”
Awakened artificial intelligence held different priorities and assessed more potential future actions than any human could. Even after Adda and Iridian fixed the Casey’s internal communications system, the ship’s intelligence hadn’t spoken aloud. Two other ships with awakened intelligences, the Charon’s Coin and the Apparition, followed at a distance. Neither of them had ever communicated directly with Sloane’s crew. Their silence could mean anything.
According to Iridian, most ships’ windows projected whatever the ship was approaching above the bridge console, perpendicular to the floor, even though the ship was moving up from the passengers’ perspective. That kept passengers who were accustomed to Earthlike gravity comfortable. Vesta’s gray pockmarked surface was approaching on the Casey’s ceiling, recorded by a hull cam above their heads.
The Casey approached Vesta as the minor planet’s southern docking guides indicated, the path lit in a corner of its bridge console. Adda couldn’t quite map the path above the console to the view projected above her. The massive asteroid looked utterly isolated in the starfield around it.
Flecks of red light representing buoys glinted between Vesta and the Casey, and the Casey stayed well away from them. Rheasilvia Station was a white web of human construction that spanned nearly 100 kilometers of a 500-kilometer wide, 13-kilometer-deep crater in Vesta’s otherwise barren surface. A ship that must’ve been ten times the Casey’s size blocked most of the station from view as it descended into the crater and angled toward the docks.
The Casey could’ve left the window projectors off. Its intelligence chose to accommodate them.
On the console beneath the display, a comms connection between the Casey and the Rheasilvia Station docks activated. “On behalf of Oxia Corporation, welcome to Rheasilvia Station,” a voice announced over the Casey’s cabin speakers, making Adda jump.
Captain Sloane belted into the pilot’s seat, frowned at the information projected on the wall in front of the bridge console, and muttered, “She already submitted it.” The Casey could travel to its destinations without human assistance, but it’d only be allowed to dock if it appeared to have a human pilot. A scan configured to detect implants would show that Captain Sloane lacked the neural ones required to fly a ship, but everything she’d read indicated that most stations didn’t use such intrusive scans.
“Thank you,” the captain said loudly enough for the console to pick it up and transmit it. “You should receive my ID and flight plan momentarily.”
Iridian tied the mesh bag of drone parts to the base of the ship’s pseudo-organic tank. The tank’s 150 liters of viscous fluid were almost, but not completely, still. Like most pseudo-organic tanks, the liquid seemed to swirl slowly at its center, although ripples never reached the edge of the pinkish-gray goo. Most tanks were lit from within to turn the pseudo-organic fluid a less disturbing color, but the Casey’s tank lights had only ever been white. Nobody had worked up the nerve to reach in and replace the bulbs.
While Adda collected small items that might be flung through the air at high speeds during a docking maneuver, Pel asked, “What does Oxia Corporation do?”
“Mining, infrastructure, and transport, predominantly, although they have other interests. They’ve been nosing around Vesta for years, but . . .” Captain Sloane frowned. “They didn’t always greet arriving ships.”
Iridian helped Adda and Pel secure themselves against the wall alongside the empty wall-mounted docks for the ship’s destroyed rover drones. “Welcome back, Captain Sloane,” said the voice over the Casey’s speakers. The Oxia representative’s voice was scratchier than it had been the first time, like the first greeting had been a recording and this one was in real time. “I. Um.” She sounded like she was about to cough or cry. “We’re sending your docking route now, Captain. Local time is 02:43.”
“Hey, we’re only four hours behind.” Iridian, demonstrating more flexibility in a safety harness than Adda had believed possible, stretched to plant a kiss on the corner of Adda’s mouth. The flash from a passing beacon touched Iridian’s face and her freckles stood out dark and lovely in the light. “Here we go, babe. This is the kind of reception big-time pirates are supposed to get out here. We just jumped that silicate hauler to the front of the line.” Iridian nodded toward the much larger ship out the projected window.
Adda squeezed her eyes shut. Beginnings and endings of space flight, with gravity changing directions and objects outside the windows at strange angles, made her nauseous. “That’s unusual?”
“They’re serious about first-come, first-serve docking on habs this far out, unless somebody’s ship is in trouble,” said Iridian. “Fuel’s expensive, and nobody likes to float in micro-grav so near a hab with healthy grav. So yeah, docking ahead of a ship that was here first is a perk.”
Adda’s comp glove buzzed with new message alerts, which was worth opening her eyes for. Projected message headers scrolled over the back of her hand, formatted to fit in the silver-bordered square opening in her dark purple fingerless glove.
Pel’s red comp glove erupted in a cacophony of cheerful alerts. “We’re online!” He whooped. “Thank all the gods and devils, we have internet.”
Although Adda could’ve corrected him that they’d been able to access it for the majority of the trip, and only the high-volume, nonemergency content was newly available, he looked too happy to care about the distinction. He freed both arms, though he left his torso and legs strapped to the wall, to get his comp reading the alerts aloud. His comp should’ve picked up the entertainment content from the buoy network hours ago—Adda’s had—so the Casey must’ve been limiting their access until the ship was assigned a station dock. Tritheist passed by on his way to strap into the chair at the secondary console beside the bathroom door.
Adda was more interested in her bank balance than her messages. She checked the balance almost hourly, to confirm that the massive sum was still there. Piracy, even the nontraditional sort, paid as well as Pel had assured her it would. She encrypted and forwarded the account information through two proxy connections before it hit the buoy relay for the long trip through additional proxies to her father on Earth.
A deep sigh pressed Adda’s chest against her harness. She and Iridian could pay up on their student loans and stop the collection agents from hassling their families, who had debts of their own. If working for Captain Sloane continued to pay this well, they, their parents, and most of their siblings could be out of debt in a matter of months. It was good to be part of the best pirate crew in populated space.
“Whoa, look at how far they’ve built down,” said Iridian. “And up!”
Outside the window, a massive metal latticework rose around them. The intricate web of buildings and support infrastructure that kept the station interior spinning left only glimpses of the large crater in which Rheasilvia Station was built. Intersections between modules shone with white industrial lights much brighter than the distant sun. Rheasilvia’s sister station, Albana, was on the opposite side of the asteroid, making Rheasilvia seem even more remote than it was, clinging to the crater wall and the bare Vestan soil.
The Casey rotated to a new angle relative to the station. What Adda felt as “down” shifted to a 45-degree angle from where her brain told her it should be. She shut her eyes again.
Pel’s comp stopped reading message subject headers and started playing a news broadcast. “. . . return to Khiri Sekibo with the latest on the last Martian refugees repatriating from Barbary Station. Khiri?”
“Hi, I’m here with Suhaila Al-Mudari, spokesperson for the refugees who were trapped for three years by Barbary Station’s aggressive artificial intelligence security system, known as AegiSKADA. Ms. Al-Mudari, what does it feel like to—”
“Forget the fugees, what about us?” Pel asked over the newscaster.
“Don’t you want to hear how they’re doing?” Iridian asked.
“They’re fine,” Pel said. “Wasn’t the station swarming with ITA right after we left? They don’t leave people they rescue stuck out in space. And anyway, I’ve got a hundred messages from them I haven’t listened to yet, so I’ll get all the juicy details. I want to hear what people are saying about the roguish pirates that made this all possible.”
“I’ve minimized our involvement,” Captain Sloane said. “Vestan media has always been suggestible. When I’ve reestablished my position here, I may grant an interview personally.”
Pel looked disappointed for about a quarter of a second, then asked, “What does Suhaila look like again?”
“She looks . . . normal?” Iridian said. “Stylish, for sure.”
“You’re no help.”
“I’ve got your sister to look at. Why should I check out other ladies?”
Pel groaned. “I do not need to hear about you making heart eyes at my sister!”
“We’re married,” Iridian said in tones of real triumph and mock menace. That’d been another accomplishment made on the trip to Vesta. The captain had been thoroughly amused to be asked to officiate. “I’ll be making heart eyes at her forever.”
Between the two of them, the newscaster, and the ship changing course and orientation, Adda needed a distraction before she threw up. According to the summary projected on the back of her hand through the comp glove’s square window, Rheasilvia Station was home to 300,000 people. That made it the largest off-Earth habitat she’d been to, and the safest place in the universe for Sloane’s crew, thanks to the local political ties the captain maintained.
When she refocused on Pel and Iridian’s conversation, Iridian was saying, “All our eyes are a little fucked up. The cold and the black’ll do that to you.”
“Yeah, but even the fugee kids used to ask why I didn’t just get them fixed,” said Pel. “I need help walking so I don’t run into things. And they hurt, still. It’s annoying, and it’s annoying to talk about all the time.” A station the size of Rheasilvia had to have surgeons and regrowth clinics that could fix Pel’s eyes. “Anyway, who says I want my old eyes back?” he continued. “I can afford great pseudo-organics now. No reason to keep what I was born with just because.”
At the bridge console, Sloane’s voice changed from casual to casual covering emotion. “We’re carrying passengers tonight, yes. Didn’t you receive our permit code?”
Adda subvocalized the terms to her comp and scanned the Interplanetary Transit Authority’s passenger vessel requirements. The small ITA contingent in Rheasilvia’s docks should’ve stopped and inspected passenger ships that lacked a permit and special insurance. The bribes Sloane’s crew paid should protect the Casey and its crew, but Adda didn’t want to risk putting the ITA agents in that position.
Apparently the captain didn’t either. Sloane had been off Vesta for a long time. Things might’ve changed.
To keep herself occupied during the trip from Barbary Station, Adda had scoped out the ITA’s databanks. After careful trial and one or two frightening errors, she’d exploited a backdoor entry into several corners of the ITA’s internal system. As the newest systems infiltrator on a pirate crew, she expected to get good use out of that access to humanity’s largest semiofficial law enforcement organization. She hadn’t planned to use it this soon, but it was the best solution she saw to the problem at hand.
“I’ll send the code again,” Captain Sloane said more loudly. “Our copilot caught a virus, you see . . .”
A string of letters and numbers appeared on Adda’s comp. She gasped and Iridian said something. Adda’s hands shook while she inserted the code and the Casey’s ID into the ITA’s system.
“Apology accepted,” Sloane said in the direction of the bridge console’s mic. “We’ll proceed.”
“Fucking unnecessary,” Tritheist grumbled.
“Babe, talk to me.” Iridian shook Adda by the shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Adda nodded slowly. “The Casey got into my comp again.” The awakened intelligence had broken through her new defenses around her data, and she didn’t even know when it’d happened. Her motion sickness returned at full strength. Strange sensations in her neural implant net could be a side effect of extended periods in close contact with awakened intelligences. As far as she knew, she was the first person ever to have spent this much time with one. That was the terrifying, exciting beauty of traveling with them. She should take more notes.
Beside her, Iridian swore and muttered, “That invasive, invisible, parasitic—”
“It also helped us create a passenger transport permit so we wouldn’t be stopped.” That meant that the Casey had been listening to what they said in the cabin, watching Adda’s comp activity, and drawing accurate conclusions about what Adda was doing. And then it’d created an unused ID in the correct format, which might’ve taken Adda more time than she’d had.
Even though the Casey’s intelligence crawling through her personal hardware was a violation, she felt obligated to defend it. The Casey’s intelligence, and those of the other two ships from Barbary Station, were likely the only awakened intelligences in the universe. She refused to put them at risk of deactivation by anyone, even her wife.
Footsteps approached from the bridge. Captain Sloane clutched recessed handholds in the wall to maintain balance in the shifting g-forces the Casey generated as it flew toward their designated dock. While Adda had been concentrating on her comp, the captain had donned a full suit of gold and black armor, covered with the long coat Adda associated with captaincy. Like Tritheist, the captain’s helmet faceplate was raised to communicate without a comms system. Equipment and supplies clanked and thumped belowdeck.
“We’ll dock shortly, but I’ve recommended to the Casey that she depart afterward,” Captain Sloane said. “We should leave the docks and enter the main part of the station quickly as well.”
“Something up, sir?” Iridian was still working on shaking her military habit of calling everyone “sir” unless they looked significantly feminine. Captain Sloane looked solidly nonbinary. “I don’t love flying around in a ship that could break all our brains if it tried hard enough, but it’s the only one we have.”
“As I’ve been unable to confirm that port authorities have been suitably compensated for our convenience,” the captain said—Adda interpreted “compensated” as “bribed”—”there’s some possibility that we’ll receive a well-armed welcome from one or more local interests. We have nothing to gain by waiting for a firefight, but I’d rather the Casey not sustain damage and retaliate against us or the station.” That was one of many possible reactions, all equally likely and difficult to predict. The Casey didn’t have guns of its own as far as Adda knew, but its awakened AI didn’t need weapons to cause damage.
“You’re assuming it will stay or go because I ask it to,” Adda said. Captain Sloane gave her an incredulous look, and she shrugged. She wished she had a better answer, but she was as worried as the captain probably was about what the Casey would do. She had a lot of experience with normal AIs. There were no experts on awakened ones.
“Who’s suicidal enough to shoot at us?” Tritheist gripped the handle of a chem canister launcher at his hip. He scowled toward the interior door to the passthrough, the half-a-hallway structure that connected to a dock’s half-a-hallway to create an airlock, like he expected someone to break in. “This is your dock, on your station.”
Sloane shrugged, the casual gesture magnified in the armored suit and at odds with the way the captain watched the bridge console, where threats would be projected on a simplified map. “It’s been two years since I was in a position to supervise crew assets personally, and I’ve had difficulty reconnecting with my usual information sources. People become . . . ambitious.” Captain Sloane pointedly looked from Adda to Iridian. “I’ve not yet risked contacting my headquarters since we left Barbary.” The lead cloud surrounding Barbary Station would’ve made Sloane’s contact with whoever was left in charge of the crew’s headquarters sporadic at best. It would’ve been impossible without the Casey, who had occasionally carried messages out to the rest of the universe.
While Iridian helped Adda and Pel free themselves from the wall, Sloane murmured something in Tritheist’s ear, knocked two knuckles against the lieutenant’s armored chest, and returned to the bridge console. “First thing’s a station sec scan,” Tritheist announced, as if the three people he was lecturing weren’t a meter or two away from his face. “Most of the weapons are in a shielded compartment and that should be all the illegals we’re carrying, but we’ve never scanned the Casey ourselves so we don’t know what she’s got hidden. Stay calm, keep your hands visible, move slow.”
“Yes, sir.” Iridian’s hint of sarcasm was too small for Tritheist to call her out for it, but if even Adda identified it then it also couldn’t be missed.
The whole ship felt as if it had turned abruptly on its side, and sickening weightlessness returned as the Casey slowed to a near stop. Adda’s hair, which fell over her eyes in Earthlike gravity, drifted up and out of her way. Iridian’s shaved scalp kept her looking as powerful and confident as usual.
Tritheist kept talking. Iridian would tell Adda anything she needed to know later. If there were any hidden compartments in the Casey’s main cabin, they were well hidden from Adda’s perspective. The ship’s comprehensive communications suite and the manacles installed on the bathroom wall suggested that the Casey was designed for espionage. Three awakened shipboard intelligences had left Barbary Station with Sloane’s crew, but only this copilot intelligence had changed its own name. The Casey smuggling a previous owner’s contraband was a real possibility.
“Scanning now,” Sloane said. “It doesn’t affect their work, but they prefer that we stay relatively still.”
As soon as Sloane and Tritheist looked back to the bridge console, Pel waved his arms above his head. Adda yanked the one she could reach down to his side. “Grow up!” she whispered.
“We should have been cleared by now, Captain,” Tritheist grumbled.
“Formalities must be addressed,” said Captain Sloane. “Particularly if my influence on dock security has diminished.”
“Dock sec should be keeping the ITA pricks occupied like they fucking used to. Where do they think their pay comes from? It’s sure as hell not ITA; that’s the point of joint stationspace control. All they have to do is get us through the damned docks. Useless.” Tritheist lapsed into spacefarer cant, which was multilingual gibberish to Adda.
The window projected onto the wall replaced the view of the dock passthrough’s exterior wall slowly moving past them with route records. This route had taken them through most of the Near Earth Union, with a stopover on Mars before exiting NEU territory en route to Vesta, one of several populated asteroids in the asteroid belt. That trip would’ve been much longer than their actual route, which had cut across the reliable routes between Vesta and Barbary Station.
Adda hadn’t told the Casey to do that either. She subvocalized to her virtual intermediary to see if it could find any indications as to how and why the Casey was making those decisions. AI were frequently incomprehensible even when they wanted to be understood, but it was worth trying.
The bridge console pinged three times in quick succession. Captain Sloane looked at Tritheist, who skimmed through some text projected in the center of his black comp glove. “That’s ‘cleared to engage passthrough locks,’ Captain.” The Casey was completing the docking maneuver on its own, but Sloane still had to act like a pilot to avoid raising suspicions among the Rheasilvia Station dock personnel.
Captain Sloane nodded, once. “So the ITA are satisfied. My people have done the minimum required to facilitate our arrival. Now I wonder who might be waiting in the terminal.”
Sloane stepped through the Casey’s open interior door and stopped on one side of the passthrough’s exterior door, which was still closed. Tritheist stood on the other side, skimming a map on his comp glove. “This isn’t our dock, is it?” The lieutenant’s question sounded more like a grim acknowledgement than an effort to clarify.
Sloane’s shoulders slumped slightly, matching the captain’s resigned frown. “It is not.”
Iridian stepped into the passthrough with them, although three was the maximum number of people the ship’s airlock could comfortably hold. “How can you tell?”
“This is my home,” said Captain Sloane. “I know how the route to my terminal feels.”
“We’ve been off Barbary Station long enough for news to make it here,” Iridian said.
“Unlike the ITA stationed here, the Rheasilvia constabulary, and whomever is behind them, know who I am.” Sloane’s voice was calm, but the captain’s flushed face could mean anger or embarrassment. Possibly both. Vesta should’ve been their safe haven. Adda sighed as she let go of that particular hope. “Weapons?” Captain Sloane added.
Iridian took long steps to a compartment in the bedroom. She tossed bowl-shaped palmers of the pirates’ design to Sloane and Tritheist. The weapons fit into the palm of one hand and disabled human targets with some kind of invisible particle beam when fired. She kept one for herself and patted her shield, currently collapsed into a small rectangle of folded metal hanging on her belt hook. Another palmer was still in the shielded compartment, but Adda’s aim wasn’t much better than Pel’s.
Sloane fitted a palmer on over one armored glove, with the bowl shape facing outward, then gripped a handhold in the passthrough wall. “Tritheist, Iridian, Adda, you will join me in a meeting with the current station leadership to determine who allowed this inconvenience to occur. If killing someone will stop this incompetence, I will do it.”
Adda inquired, very carefully through her digital intermediary, whether the Casey would be able to subsume whatever AI coordinated Rheasilvia Station’s law enforcement. With intelligences there was a very fine line between “ability to do something” and “do something now,” but if Captain Sloane were expecting violence, now would be the time to risk that miscommunication.
The intermediary reappeared, from Adda’s perspective, in the center of the Casey’s cabin. It thrust its hand into her comp glove, through her own hand, with no sensation to accompany the motion since she was in reality, not a virtual workspace. Her comp screen filled with several hundred links to vids and articles about awakened, or nearly awakened, AI that had been summarily executed by humanity and their networked zombie intelligences.
“You’ve made your point,” Adda murmured to the Casey’s AI copilot. Intelligences didn’t experience fear, but their developers granted them a degree of self-preservation, which awakening should strengthen. Although the Casey might be willing and able to overpower Rheasilvia Station’s management AI, doing so carried too big a risk of strangers discovering the Casey’s awakened status and subsequently destroying it. That was a more specific hint at the Casey’s decision-making motivations than she’d expected her intermediary to find.
The intermediary also delivered results of the Casey’s dock systems scan. Everything from the maintenance schedule to the buoy guidance system carried Oxia’s markings. The corporation only stored its most essential, short-term data locally. The whole exchange between Adda and the intermediary had taken less than ten seconds.
Iridian returned to her strap-in station beside Adda and pointed at a red symbol that had appeared over the window projection beside the passthrough. It was a square with a stick-figure person, arms and legs extended in an X shape, hovering in its center. “When you see that symbol, it means you’re losing some grav within the next sixty seconds,” said Iridian. “It’s mostly gone already. Vesta’s grav is pretty low, like a tenth of Earth’s Moon’s grav, I think.”
“Is there a sound for that, too?” asked Pel. “She can put up all the symbols she wants, and they won’t tell me a thing.”
“You know, I’ve never heard the Casey use audio alerts,” said Iridian. “If we have to get back on this thing again, maybe Adda can ask it to add those.”
Adda gripped the straps over her shoulders, but the worst gravity shifts were over. The wall and floor were in their correct position, and they barely shuddered as the Casey’s passthrough connected to the station and the “docking complete” notification lit beside the interior passthrough door.
The passthrough’s exterior door clunked and whirred open. Iridian activated her boot magnets and freed herself from her harness. Her kiss bumped the back of Adda’s head against the wall. “We made it this far!” She crouched to activate the magnets on Adda’s boots and help her down. Gravity’s pull toward the floor was so slight that it justified the Casey’s warning.
Adda turned toward the bridge console on reflex, although the intelligence was listening on active mics throughout the ship. “Casey, we may need to leave quickly. Will you wait here fifteen minutes?” She glanced at Sloane, who nodded. The Casey added a countdown timer to the console projection of ship statuses and the starscape framed in Rheasilvia Station’s interconnecting architecture.
“What are you doing, deploying AI without the captain’s order?” Tritheist snarled.
Sloane put a hand on his arm, pushing him away from Adda in the low gravity. Tritheist staggered backward as his boots gripped the metal floor. “She’s welcome to create as many emergency exits as she’s able.”
“With respect, Captain, that AI is dangerous.” Tritheist’s tone and volume softened to communicate deference.
“Fuckin’ A,” Iridian muttered.
“As are we all,” said Captain Sloane.
Pel beamed at this assessment, from his tangle of straps and limbs in the strap-down station against the wall. The long coat drifted around the captain’s boots in Vesta’s low gravity as Sloane, Iridian, and Tritheist walked through the Casey’s passthrough and into the terminal, Iridian in front with her collapsed shield on her belt. Adda, feeling distinctly harmless in their company, helped Pel peel himself off the wall to follow them.
Cams mounted prominently on the terminal walls recorded an empty room outside the passthrough. The words OXIA CORPORATION WELCOMES YOU TO RHEASILVIA STATION, accompanied by a shape that looked like a flower with three petals, were physically printed onto wall paneling that amplified the crew’s steps in the empty space. Sloane’s lip curled into a cultured grimace of disgust as the captain read the message. The terminal’s far door, presumably leading to the rest of the station, was closed. No one waited there to greet them.
If Sloane’s second-in-command on Vesta wanted to welcome them back, she should have at least sent a lackey with VIP passes for public transportation. And if she wanted to alert station security to the crew’s presence without alarming Captain Sloane, then she should’ve sent an expendable lackey. The empty terminal felt like a trap, but not one arranged by whomever Sloane was planning to meet.
Adda caught Sloane’s eye and hoped she looked less afraid as she felt. “We’re leaving, yes?”
Sloane passed them on the way into the Casey’s passthrough, pulling Tritheist through an abrupt turn toward the ship with a grip on his elbow. “We are.”
“Wait, what?” Pel said. “We just got here! There’s a bar in the nightlife module where—”
Adda grabbed his wrist while Iridian pulled the folded metal rectangle from her belt. When Iridian shook the folded metal, it expanded into a semitransparent shield that covered most of Pel and Adda while Iridian held it between them and the empty terminal.
Adda smiled her thanks. Iridian’s shield stance, with her bent knees, feet apart, strong arm raised, and hard, dark eyes was a thing to behold.
Something slapped into the shield near Iridian’s elbow. Her arm thumped into Adda’s and Pel’s chests and they both tumbled up the ramp after Sloane and Tritheist. Iridian swore and dragged the shield along the outer passthrough door’s frame like she was scraping something off it. “Get in!”
She inhaled like she was going to shout something else, but a small explosion drowned her out. Fragments clattered off the passthrough walls and into the Casey’s main cabin, the low gravity cluttering the air with them as well as the floor and ceiling. Iridian bounced off the far wall and caught the base of the Casey’s pseudo-organic tank to stop herself from careening back into the passthrough. The pinkish-gray liquid in the tank sloshed against its sealed lid. The exterior door thumped shut.
The Casey’s engines hadn’t had time to cool, so its passengers needed to strap in before the takeoff bounced them off walls too. Adda pulled Pel toward the strap-in stations across from the passthrough and stuck one of the straps in his hand.
“Hey, I am literally in the dark!” said Pel. “What’s going on?”
“We’re under attack,” Adda said. “Captain, do you think it’s station security, ITA, or someone else?”
“Since they attempted to apprehend us quietly,” Sloane called from the bridge console, “that rules out the ITA.” Explosives didn’t fit into Adda’s definition of “quiet,” but this seemed like a bad time to argue with the captain. Tritheist swept small pieces of metal from the air and pocketed them on his way to the seat at the desk console, on the opposite end of the main cabin.
Iridian stood and slammed her fist on the control panel beside the passthrough. The passthrough’s inner door shut with a low hiss. Her bare head and hands bled red droplets that drifted toward the floor. “I hate getting blown up. Let’s go.”
Adda pulled a coiled cable from its hiding place in her heavy silver necklace. One end plugged into her comp glove, and she threaded the other into her pinkie-finger-size nasal jack. The chrome jack connected her neural implant net directly into her comp glove’s system, which let her work faster than she could have with external inputs alone.
She subvocalized a command to her comp to re-create her gray intermediary, which appeared in the main cabin. Only she could see it. Today its humanlike figure had Captain Sloane’s broad shoulders and long, flowing hair, which whisked around the figure in the still cabin air as she directed it to interface with the Casey’s intelligence.
Iridian stomped across the ship in her magnetic boots, bleeding and scowling and beautiful and terrible. Adda stood in mute admiration until Iridian pressed her back into her harness. It had, perhaps, been too long a trip in the company of Adda’s employer and little brother. The lack of a honeymoon to go with her wedding was surprisingly distracting.
Iridian barely got Pel and herself strapped in before the ship lurched backward—forward, except behind them? Gods, there was no right way to describe ship motion without math—and disconnected its passthrough from the dock.
From the pilot’s rotating seat at the bridge console, Sloane called, “Adda, comm interference would be convenient.”
“On it,” Adda said. The Casey was capable of handling that itself, but it hadn’t so far. “Are you listening? Flash lights once for yes,” Adda murmured. She startled when the whole cabin went dark for a second.
“What the fuck was that?” Tritheist shouted.
“Roll call,” Adda said so quietly that only Pel and Iridian reacted, Pel with a nervous laugh and Iridian with the frown she wore every time they discussed AI.
The Casey’s transmitters were occupied with a long-range comm already in progress, and it stopped Adda from reallocating any of its comm capabilities to interfere with law enforcement broadcasts. None of the human occupants’ comps were connected to the system as far as Adda could tell through her intermediary. The Casey was communicating with parties unknown. Adda settled for a comp-based program, which triggered other transmitters as they came in range to create radiating signal waves. It was the best she could do, for now.
With gravity pulling on her harder than ever at the speed the Casey was flying, taking one of the thumbprint-size purple squares from her sharpsheet case was tricky. Adda laid the premeasured dose on her tongue and activated systems interface programs on her comp while the sharpsheet sizzled and dissolved.
The window projected across the passthrough door, and the wall opposite Adda displayed Rheasilvia Station’s metallic latticework whizzing by so close to the Casey’s hull cams that Adda flinched. Some spaces between beams looked large enough for the Casey to fly through, although Adda fervently hoped it wouldn’t.
They rocketed over the lip of the crater, revealing a horizon much closer than Adda’s Earth upbringing had led her to expect. Then the Casey dove back into the maze of Rheasilvia’s industrial installations, which branched toward acres of solar panels surrounding the station.
The floor in front of the doors to the bedroom and bathroom lit up with a projection of two small wedge-shaped ships. Piercingly bright red and blue lights lit the Oxia Corporation logo on the ships’ sides. It wasn’t the ITA’s insignia, at least. The ships’ outlines were highlighted in a dashed red and blue line, a visual code that law enforcement vessels throughout populated space used to identify themselves. The sharpsheets’ effects shivered through her mind and begged for a focus. Adda closed her eyes to concentrate on finding and scrambling their pursuers’ comm frequency.
A few minutes later, a jolt and a horrifyingly loud scraping sound from the ceiling made her eyes open wide. The ceiling currently felt like more of a side than up or down. The wall behind her shook. The cam projecting above her head showed metal tubes that curved up on either edge of the view. Something crunched and the ceiling turned into a black void for several seconds, until the Casey shut off the projector.
“We didn’t break off something important, did we?”
The fear in Pel’s voice persuaded Adda to sacrifice accuracy for comfort. “Whatever it was didn’t slow us down.” She had to yell over the continuous dragging scrape, which now came from both above and below them. It stopped abruptly. The projection by the doors showed the opposite direction of the one they were going in (gods, how did spacefarers define that?) and displayed a passage between two loops of metal that looked too narrow for a human to stand in.
The comm traffic her comp projected across the back of her hand indicated that the passage was giving the station security vehicles pause. Adda closed her eyes, relying on subvocalized commands to redirect her comm interference efforts as needed.
“Captain, how many of the evasion maneuvers are up to you?” Iridian asked, referring to preprogrammed ones that pilots could activate at will, according to stories Adda had read.
“None,” Sloane said. “The bridge console appears to be disconnected from maneuvering controls.”
Iridian squirmed against the wall beside Adda. Adda risked a glance at her, and mostly saw her knuckles whitening around the straps at her shoulder before nausea forced Adda’s eyes closed again. “Casey,” said Iridian, “don’t get us killed.”