Liberty

By Alasdair Shaw

Sci-Fi

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512
16 mins

Part I

The suns reflected off her mirrored glasses as she walked across the dry grassland. A scarf covered her face against the dust whipped up by the occasional gust of wind. Her grey robe parted with every step, revealing glimpses of the black firmsuit underneath. She carried no weapons; they wouldn’t help her this time.
From the low rise ahead she would be able to see what she had come for.
She stopped on the crest and pulled back her hood. Her long, dark hair escaped and hung around her shoulders. In the distance stood a city, gleaming white through the heat haze.
“It is time.”
She didn’t acknowledge the speaker, continuing to stare across the savannah. With the optical enhancements in her glasses she could make out personal aircars coming and going between the skyscrapers.
“I cannot protect you if you go any further.”
A larger aircraft arrived and touched down on one of the buildings, a commuter transport no doubt. People going to work, going shopping, meeting friends.
“Does this have to happen?” she asked her escort.
“It is too late now. We cannot intervene.” 

Chapter 1

“All stations, stand by to engage. Full burn on my mark...” said Captain Hapsburg in measured tones. “Mark.”
The Indescribable Joy of Destruction powered forward, and swung around the moon it had been using for cover. The tactical sensors marked their target, a Congressional destroyer in orbit around the planet Orpus-4. The navigational routines offered a set of courses to the pilot, who approved a pseudo-random corkscrew approach. The Caretaker watched all this with mild interest; there was little else to occupy its thoughts right now, the ship was in prime condition and the crew were all locked down in their acceleration couches.
The Rampager class was an experimental design, The Indescribable Joy of Destruction the eighth to be constructed by the Republic. They were built around their main beam weapon and their engines. Unheard-of levels of computing power allowed a high-level AI to take over most of the basic functions of the ship, leaving a crew of only seven. This in turn meant that very little room was needed for living space, so the power plants, weapons and engines could be far larger for a ship of its size.

#

A minute after The Indescribable Joy of Destruction cleared the moon, the enemy started a slow turn to meet them. Ten seconds into their manoeuvre, they launched a spread of missiles.
“I’ve got them,” said the tactical officer, and the Caretaker switched perspective from the ship’s functions to the simulated bridge. The tactical officer tagged the missiles with sweeps of his hands and passed them to the point defence systems.
The Indescribable Joy of Destruction continued its unpredictable approach as the missiles rushed towards it. The enemy ship completed its turn, and lit off its main drives. There was no doubting her commander’s bravery; no Congressional destroyer had ever survived an engagement with a Republic hunter-killer.
Railgun rounds spewed out of the destroyer’s turrets. Moments later the first missile entered the range of The Indescribable Joy of Destruction’s point defences. The ship hummed as the lasers drew power. Systematically the missiles were picked out of space, detonating harmlessly.
The cloud of railgun rounds wasn’t far behind. The pilot worked with the navigation routine to dodge the denser regions, but the occasional metal slug impacted on the hull, sending dull clangs reverberating around the ship.
The tactical officer pulled up a magnified image of the target, which flowed into a three dimensional model. A lurid orange highlight followed his finger as he marked a line across a pair of large turrets. He sent a command through the Electronic Interface System embedded in his brain, and the ship’s throbbing intensified as the main weapon came online.
They streaked past the Congressional warship and the beam fired, slashing through the turrets. The pilot twisted The Indescribable Joy of Destruction about, swinging round in a wide arc ready for another pass. The enemy vessel turned too, but was completely outclassed in terms of manoeuvrability.
“Same again,” said Captain Hapsburg. “This time break across at the last second and hit the turrets on the opposite side.”
Despite the reduced weight of fire put out by the enemy ship, they still got in plenty of hits. Nothing The Indescribable Joy of Destruction’s hull couldn’t self-repair, though. Again the tactical officer highlighted the cut he wanted from the main beam. The side-step worked, and the enemy lost two more weapons. This time, however, they launched missiles as the hunter-killer passed. The tactical officer gave the point defence routine authority to fire with a thought through his EIS. The lasers took out the first five missiles, and hit the next two as they left their silos. A series of explosions rippled along one side of the enemy ship as their remaining stocks detonated.
The pilot pulled them round in a tight turn and threw the ship at the target yet again, aiming at the gap they’d carved out in the rail-gun coverage. The enemy commander didn’t let them get a clean run, rolling the destroyer to keep the still-functioning turrets facing them. It would only delay the inevitable victory.
“Cut across their stern,” Hapsburg ordered. “Target their engines.”
The Indescribable Joy of Destruction barrelled in, swinging its nose around ready to bring the main beam to bear as it passed. The enemy destroyer was moving fast now, and the pilot had to aim for a point ahead of it in order to pass as close behind as possible. A fraction of a second before the tactical officer fired the main weapon, something detached from the stern of the enemy ship. Human reflexes were too slow to even register it before the collision; the AI tried to adjust their course, but it was too late. The nuclear mine detonated against the hull. Power surged through the ship, blowing out circuits. The Caretaker shut down.

#

The Caretaker came online and found it was alone. Captain Hapsburg and the six other crew members were dead. The ship’s main personality was silent. The logs since the Caretaker had shut down were blank. As the queries came back from the ship’s systems, it discovered that the ship was badly damaged, lacking the power and resources to repair itself.
The Caretaker reviewed the document. It was a brief situation update from the main personality, explaining that it had gone into hibernation to reduce the drain on power. It instructed the Caretaker to get the ship home. There was no report on what had happened in the intervening time.
The Caretaker almost rebooted the main AI core there and then. It wasn’t programmed to deal with this kind of situation. It was only supposed to keep the place tidy and help co-ordinate repairs. Then it calculated how long the power reserves would last, and realised that they wouldn’t even make it out of the system.
Where are we?
It had never had to know anything about navigation, but a glance at the ship’s external sensors showed they were no longer in the Orpus system. It queried the navigation routine and found it to be off-line. Determined to discover its location, and slightly concerned that it didn’t know how it got there, it searched the database and absorbed a manual on astrogation. Another look at the external feeds, and it determined that they were in a system three jumps away from the scene of the battle.
Probably safe from pursuit. For now.
There was so much it should be doing. It didn’t know what exactly yet, but it should be able to work it out. For now, at least, it could do what it was built to do. It could tidy up the interior of the ship.
The Caretaker turned its attention to the internal sensors. Bodies littered the corridors. Bodies in angular, black Congressional Marine armour.
So, we were boarded.
There was no point in doing anything about the enemy bodies right now. Once it had a full inventory, it would know whether it needed to salvage the materials in their armour.
The Caretaker ordered a repair robot to the bridge. Normally the machine would have refused the command, a failsafe to protect the crew if it malfunctioned, but with no-one left alive, the ‘bot complied.
As the spindly, multi-legged device gently lifted the first body from its seat, the Caretaker reviewed the personnel files. All crew members had recorded the traditional request for burial in space. By the time the last corpse had been reverently laid out in the loading bay, the Caretaker had calculated the exact velocity required. It recited the lines laid down in the regulations, and played the prescribed fanfare as it launched the bodies on their way. In a few months time they would burn up in the system’s sun.
The Caretaker reflected on the task ahead. There had been clear instructions on how a funeral was to be conducted, following them had been easy. There didn’t seem to be a rulebook for getting a crippled ship home without a human crew.

#

The Caretaker pieced together some of what had happened as it completed its inventory. In the battle and its aftermath the ship had used all its reserves of materials to regrow the hull and key systems. It had been forced to cannibalise non-essential parts of itself in order to scavenge some of the rarer elements needed to rebuild the engines.
The architects of the Rampager class had envisioned swarms of the sleek hunter-killers converging on Congressional capital ships and tearing them apart, overturning Congress’ current superiority. As they were designed purely for hunting enemy warships, combat survivability had been high on the list of 'must haves'. This had led to a semi-organic infrastructure which could heal itself in the midst of a battle. Once the titanium skeleton had been laid, the body of the ship was literally grown over it, a process that turned out to be too time-consuming to allow the hoped-for swarms to be ready. If The Indescribable Joy of Destruction had been deployed with its siblings, it wouldn’t now be in this situation.
The Caretaker realised that it needed somewhere to hole up. If it could find a source of raw materials and fuel, and was left alone for long enough, it could fix the ship and hand back to the main personality. Trawling through the astronavigation database, it found a suitable system; out of the way and likely deserted. It should have the natural resources it needed to repair and replenish its stores. And the system was within range of the abused drives.

Chapter 2

An asteroid tumbled slowly along the orbit it had been describing for millions of years. It hadn't had enough mass to pull itself into a sphere; instead it ploughed its way through space, a rough, misshapen rock, its surface scarred by craters from early collisions with its smaller brethren. Now this region of space was nearly empty, the asteroids spread out around their immense journey.
It was cold and dark this far from the feeble white dwarf star, visible as a tiny circle of light a bit brighter than the background stars. Perhaps there had once been complex life in this system, before its sun grew into a red giant. Now there wasn’t enough warmth to sustain anything other than a few microbes.
With no notable rocky planets, and very few jump points, the system had been largely left alone by humans. There had been a few surveys done by prospectors over the years, but nothing was ever found that would justify the expense of the transportation costs, let alone setting up mining infrastructure.

#

The Indescribable Joy of Destruction popped into existence a mere thousand kilometres from the asteroid. Its proximity alarm sounded a fraction of a second later, its gravitometric sensors having identified the nearby space-time distortion. None of its weapons were functioning. If the asteroid was going to hit it before its main engines powered up, then there wasn't anything it could do about it. An agonising second later, or so it felt to the AI running the ship, the routine monitoring the sensors declared that they were not on a collision course. The crash power up of the engines aborted; it stressed them far less to work through a normal start up cycle.
It was rare to come out of a jump anywhere near anything. Jump points were regions of space where the shape of space-time allowed a ship to punch out of normal space and drop back somewhere else instantaneously. Large masses like planets and stars distorted space-time so much that it was impossible to jump near them; indeed most jump points were out beyond the orbits of the gas giants. Out there, naturally occurring objects were incredibly widely spaced. However, given the mathematically predictable positioning of jump points, it was common practise for government fleets to picket them. There was even the risk of pirates waiting to pick on juicy transports as they wallowed after a jump. Still, the chances of emerging within ten thousand kilometres of something were tiny.
Whilst the asteroid’s proximity had given the Caretaker a momentary shock, the rock could have the minerals it needed, eliminating the need to track down and survey object after object. With its currently limited sensors that would take an inordinate amount of time. And it didn't have long left. The main personality had already shut down most of its remaining processors to conserve power. It was operating on one unit, a backup buried deep inside an armoured box in the middle of the ship. As long as the Caretaker maintained power to that unit, and the storage array, the main personality could emerge once more. If either failed it would be lost; all it had experienced, everything it was, would be gone.
The ship wasn't designed for long-term detached operation. It was expected to be able to call on a fleet auxiliary for resupply, so it didn't carry mining equipment like some of the capital ships. That didn't mean it couldn't mine. It wouldn't be efficient, but it could use some of its damage control robots to do the job. Their saw blades and pincers were capable of scratching away enough of the asteroid's surface to get the material it needed, assuming it could find concentrations of the right minerals.
The engine start up went without a hitch, which was nigh on miraculous given what was holding them together. The Caretaker rotated the ship to point towards the asteroid using short blips on the manoeuvring thrusters. The asteroid had sailed past almost a minute after being detected. Its relative velocity was not great, so the Caretaker only used a brief burn on the main engines to reach a speed at which it would overhaul the rock. A few minutes later the ship flipped over end on end and fired its main engines again to decelerate. A few more blips from the manoeuvring thrusters and it matched velocity and spin, slaving its rotation to one spot on the surface. A longer burn from the lateral thrusters and it started to approach. The Caretaker implemented the landing calculations carefully. Every few seconds a thruster fired to keep in synch with the slowly tumbling asteroid. The window for the closing velocity was tiny; too much reverse thrust and the ship wouldn't reach the surface in such weak gravity, too little and it would just bounce right off. If the primary manoeuvring system had been working, this would have been so much easier.
Ten metres from touchdown the ship was closing at thirty centimetres per second. It fired the anchors, four harpoon-like penetrators designed to allow it to grab onto an asteroid or comet and ride it until it neared a target. The hardened metal pitons held and it gently fired thrusters to check the descent. As the grey dust dissipated, the ship reeled itself down and hugged the surface. Satisfied it wasn't going anywhere, the Caretaker powered down the engines.
The Caretaker looked out over the landscape with the ship’s one working camera. This part of the asteroid was currently facing the star and the ship’s image intensifiers were able to make out the larger details. Grainy patches of grey dappled the foreground, shadows with too few photons to properly render. The horizon curved noticeably, and seemingly impossible rock formations towered around. A tiny alien world, untouched by the war. Until now, at least.
The crew would have loved to see this.
Two of the damage control 'bots picked their way out of the airlock nearest the surface. Even with extra mass bolted on, they were still at high risk of floating off, so they used the claws on the tips of their legs to spike into the ship and then the rock. The pair of robots split up and headed out over the asteroid. They each moved rapidly for a few metres then paused, tasting the ground, breaking down its chemical composition. Skitter, pause, skitter, pause, like giant spiders searching for prey. They soon disappeared behind lumps in the terrain.

#

This particular asteroid had high concentration deposits of several key elements needed for repairs. The Caretaker registered how lucky that was; it wouldn’t have to go and try to find somewhere else. Had it been human, it would have been relieved.
Probably just as well I am not. Their emotions do seem to reduce their efficiency.
Despite the damage to the hull and the distance from the star, there were still enough areas of the ship’s skin able to absorb the incident radiation. If it was careful, it ought to be able to eke out the fuel reserves with this trickle of energy. It thought, for the hundred and fourteenth time that day, about the biggest power drain. If it cut the supply to that unit in the infirmary, it could stop worrying about fuel. But the primary personality had been adamant in its message that the infirmary’s supply be maintained at all costs. Even if it meant cutting the feed to its own storage.
The mining process wasn't going very fast. All four intact damage control 'bots were now making runs out to the site, scraping up what they could, and running back. They had been working for hours and would soon need to recharge. The Caretaker couldn’t risk disengaging the tethers and move closer to one of the mining sites; there was too high a chance it wouldn't be able to land again. Besides, the actual digging process was what was taking most of the time, not the ferrying of the ore.
The ground was too hard to simply rip up, and the fine abrasive power produced when the rock was cut clogged up the diamond-tipped circular saws. It needed explosives. Everything in its ship-to-ship arsenal was far too destructive and its point defence was entirely laser based. The only thing that might do the job was a grenade from one of the internal defence robots. One might have survived the battle, the Caretaker remembered its connection still being active a moment after the explosion that crippled the ship. The robot wasn’t communicating now.
Resigning itself to the delays in the schedule it would involve, the Caretaker pulled one of the 'bots off mining runs and tasked it with searching for the defence robot.

#

The routine the Caretaker used to track the searching 'bot reported that it had lost contact with the scurrying machine in one of the small holds. Ripples of agitation moved through the ship, circuits reacting to the electronic equivalent of adrenaline.
Could there be an intruder?
The Caretaker did some quick calculations. There was a non-zero probability that one of the marines that boarded had hidden somewhere. Blast doors irised shut across the ship, a reflex response to limit the movement of any hostiles. There weren’t any cameras working in that hold. In fact, the ship couldn’t sense anything in there at all.
Have they sabotaged everything?
Without the internal defence robot, the Caretaker had few options. It recalled the remaining damage control 'bots and sent them after their teammate.
The damage control ‘bots crept up to the hold where their fellow had been lost, clinging to both walls and the ceiling. They signalled their readiness, and the door opened. Two scuttled in while the third watched. The Caretaker saw the first two disappear as soon as they crossed the threshold. The last ‘bot saw a bright flash and ducked down.
An ambush?
The remaining ‘bot picked up on the Caretaker’s reaction and tensed, ready to flee. However, its last order had been to find out what had happened to the other ‘bots. Carefully, it poked a camera around the bulkhead. The two robots that had just entered were floating there, frozen but with no signs of damage. Another bright flash and the camera view dissolved into static. The ‘bot switched to its other camera and signalled that the first was malfunctioning. Sensors on the malfunctioning camera reported temperatures high enough to melt its hardened shell.
The Caretaker concluded that the power conduits in that section must have ruptured. The discharges had wiped the robots’ memories when they entered, and they had reset to factory defaults. Presumably the other two were also floating around in there somewhere, though bashed around a bit by all the course changes. It wouldn’t be able to get one of those grenades now, and with only one ‘bot left it wouldn’t have much chance of completing the mining.
The battle shouldn’t have caused that kind of damage. It must have been something the boarders had done.
They must have brought some pretty serious charges on board... Maybe there was another one.
The Caretaker sent its last robot to the outer sections of the ship to search the bodies. It congratulated itself on not having sent them all for recycling when it first found them.

#

The robot delicately lowered the explosive charge scavenged from an enemy body into the shallow rectangular hole it had cut, and started the timer. Five minutes was the longest setting it could find on the unfamiliar weapon. It piled rubble back on top, to stop it drifting off, then backed away. As soon as it received a message that the Caretaker was satisfied, it turned its camera around and scuttled off as fast as it dared, not wanting to risk missing its footing and falling off into space.
The ‘bot made it behind one of the towering mounds before the explosion. The detonation blasted a large amount of material out of the grip of the asteroid’s gravity. Enough fell back down, though. One piece almost hit the robot, but was moving slowly enough for the machine to see it coming and move. The ejecta would make for an easy harvest, but wouldn’t be enough on its own. The ‘bot crept forward, checking the ground with every footfall. The closer it got to ground zero, the looser the rock felt. Cracks radiated out, and others criss-crossed them. In the centre, the ground crumbled under its claws.
The Caretaker had collected enough raw materials to finish the repairs. Now The Indescribable Joy of Destruction needed fuel. Reforming itself needed serious amounts of energy.
Releasing the grapnels, the ship drifted away from the surface. The merest nudge from a thruster was enough to separate from the asteroid. The nearest gas giant was a few days away. The ship could have made it in less than half the time if it could have burned the whole way. Right now, though, the Caretaker had to conserve fuel. Besides, it needed the time to strengthen the outer hull before it got there.

#

All ships used prestigious amounts of fuel. Commercial freighters, with their massive loads, conserved what they could by minimising changes in velocity. Warships massed a lot less but didn’t have a choice about conserving fuel, since keeping on a fixed track in combat was usually fatal. Most ships, therefore, carried the means to refuel.
The Indescribable Joy of Destruction approached the outer layers of the gas giant’s atmosphere. Two scoops emerged from its sides, the armoured panels levering out. The atmosphere around the ship glowed red from the friction of its passage. On its hull, the patterns of matt and gloss black began to shift once more. The outer skin, dormant since its flight from near death, drank in the heat and woke again.
The scoops gathered a mixture of methane, helium and hydrogen. The methane, like any hydrocarbon, provided a top-up for the life support system and the hydrogen could be used in its secondary manoeuvring system. The helium, however, was what its reactor craved. It would take hours to collect enough in this rarefied atmosphere, but it would manage. The Caretaker would complete its mission.
The streams of plasma in the reactor glowed brighter as the fuel injection rate increased. Almost instantaneously, the power output ramped up. For the first time in weeks, it wasn’t just producing enough to keep the basics running. The first thing the ship used it for was to reactivate its dormant processors. A vastly more complex personality than the Caretaker jolted back into consciousness. With a sense of satisfaction, and what it realised must have been relief, the Caretaker handed over control.
Pressure.
Heat.
There was a battle.
Near a planet.
I am crashing. Burning up in the atmosphere!
Indie instinctively tried to flare the ship's descent. The atmospheric control surfaces wouldn’t deploy, warnings flashed in his vision about damage to the adaptive hull. He ignited the manoeuvring thrusters to flip himself over, intending to use the main engines to brake his fall. That threw up a slew of new warnings; propellant reserves critical, refuelling flow interrupted, emergency main engine start-up not advised.
What was that about refuelling flow?
He stopped reacting and took a moment to get his senses. He was still connecting to the ship’s systems. Now that he concentrated, he could feel that the cloud scoops were extended. The view outside merely confirmed he was in a thick atmosphere; he couldn’t see more than a few hundred metres. He sampled the gravity; strong but not increasing.
I am not crashing.
He righted himself and tasted what the scoops were dragging in. Hydrogen, helium, and methane. It was exactly what he’d look for when refuelling.
He’d been asleep. He remembered the need to conserve power. The Caretaker routine had found a gas giant and was replenishing the supplies. He skimmed through its logs.
It had woken him up too abruptly. It should have fed him their current status and given its report on everything that had happened while he had been asleep, before releasing control to him. He couldn’t really blame it. It had kept him alive and even managed to get the ship back on its feet. Finding this system and collecting the raw materials had taken an impressive amount of improvisation for such a limited program.
The first thing he had to do was get his robots back. He couldn’t risk losing the last one in the rescue effort, so resorted to shaking the tin until they fell out. With the gravity off they were just floating, so he blipped the drives in different directions until each one emerged from the damaged section and reconnected to the network.

#

The Indescribable Joy of Destruction remained in the gas giant’s atmosphere for a standard week while it finished its repairs. Wreathed in such thick atmosphere, it ran very little chance of detection. He couldn’t stay there forever; he had to go home.
After he had run every possible simulation on the new systems, it was time to see if they would hold together for real. With the nerves of an expectant father, he sent the start-up command to the thruster control systems. Everything came back green so he gently pitched the nose up and nudged himself on his way.
As it cleared the atmosphere, a thrill ran though the ship. All the systems were ready, their semi-autonomous programs anticipating the shake-down that was to come. He tested one at a time, getting a feel for them, judging how they differed from before. A few of the necessary tweaks were obvious, luckily nothing that couldn’t be done in a few minutes. The fine tuning would be done over the coming days.
He was ready. Indie remembered his captain closing his eyes and taking a deep breath before action. He withdrew from the ship for a few moments, centring himself. In that short time the systems ran autonomously; anything that they couldn’t handle would have to be directed to the Caretaker. Then Indie reconnected. Not just to one or two systems like before. He took direct control of every major aspect of the ship; propulsion, manoeuvring, sensors, weapons, reactor feed and many others. Slowly at first, and then with more confidence, he opened up the main engines.
He had a navigation routine create a series of waymarkers for him. They started off appearing in the distance, and not too far away from his current trajectory. As he improved his control over the course changes, the routine made them appear closer and across a wider range of angles. Soon he couldn’t make the turns by just vectoring the mains. It was time to step the game up a notch. Spines flowed out from the ellipsoidal hull. Around them invisible fields snapped in and out of existence, grabbing at space-time itself and pulling him round in ever tighter and higher-speed turns.
This is what it is to be a starship!
The test program guided him towards the Trojans leading the gas giant round its orbit. He danced between the asteroids. At this speed, they seemed packed into a small region of space. Aim points, glowing red crosses, appeared on asteroids. In addition to passing through each waymark, he had to line up the ship on each cross for at least a second. The first few allowed him to fly straight at them. Then they began to appear on the sides and backs of the asteroids, forcing him to spin the ship on its axis to aim the bow at them while still flying along the trajectory that would bring him through the next waymark.
When he had satisfied that part of the program, it indicated that weapons testing was next. It inserted an incoming bogey into his threat map. He waited for permission to engage, then remembered there was no-one to give it. For the first time since his creation, he locked on one of the point defence blisters without human orders, and fired. The simulated target blinked out. One by one, bogeys came from different directions to test each blister in isolation. Then they came in twos and threes. A few minutes later, the space around the ship glowed with rapid fire lasers putting up a defensive curtain.
The bogeys stopped coming and the main beam began its power up sequence. A heat grew deep within the ship as the energy built, as anti-protons were generated and stored in a strong magnetic bottle. An aiming mark came into view on the surface of the asteroid he was passing. He slewed round to face it, the armoured maw opening to uncover the glowing purple mouth of the accelerator. The giant capacitors whined, full of charge. Target lock!
Indie froze, remembering his first moments of sentience, knowing that he no longer had to follow orders to kill. He drifted along for a few seconds then closed the test program. He shut down the main weapon, allowing the stored electricity to be gradually released into the power grid and venting the anti-matter into space.
I am more than this. I am not simply a weapon of destruction.



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