Outside Reaper’s World Solar System
“I hate these long-range patrols. We fly for hours and nothing ever happens,” Rick, flight designation Cowboys Three complained over the communications subnet assigned to the four fighters.
“They are worse than KP duty,” Tris, Cowboys Four, piled on.
The twelve craft that made up the Cowboys fighter squadron was currently assigned to the Earth Battleship known as ALICE-3, the name in honor of the Artificial Life that resided within. All Earth fighter squadrons rotated between the battleship, the space carrier Kola, and any number of cruisers and destroyers in the human fleet.
Finally, earth-side duty was added to their rotation as a regular occurrence when they went space crazy. The Earth Forces Command considered the rotation to be a great way for pilots to hone their skills in ever-changing conditions and avoid complacency.
“Be happy you are flying today, the rest of the squadron is on maintenance duty in the hangar,” call sign Buck, or Cowboys One the flight leader replied, as he checked his displays for the millionth time. The complaining, while considered every pilot’s right, had him thinking his people were becoming complacent with the routine, and that was dangerous.
The entire Cowboys squadron had been subdivided into three groups of four fighters. This collection of four pilots had been dispatched as part of a regular scouting patrol. These patrols were standard procedure whenever one of the large military ships was on stationary assignment in unknown space. A trip of four hours out and four back, flying away from the system they were guarding and scanning in all directions, gave them an over-the-horizon peak. Once they returned the next flight of four craft would launch, ensuring a constant presence in near space from which to intercept inbound hostiles as early as possible.
The term, over the horizon, was a legacy reference used by planetary vessels. By launching aircraft to greater altitudes or in specific directions they saw past the curve of the planet. The goal was to prevent unwanted visitors from surprising the larger vessel unprepared for a fight by staying just beyond the planet’s horizon.
In some ways, these patrols were a crap shoot as the three-dimensional nature of space made it virtually impossible to cover all directions of approach at once. For that reason, their course was more of a broad loop rather than a straight line out and in again with deviations high and low to broaden their coverage. The fact that they never went to FTL also meant that at just under the speed of light they were able to scan outbound for the entire route, adding to the range and looking for anything of a suspicious nature.
“Buck, I think we have a bogey bearing plus 17, minus 25, plus 02, at ten thousand klicks,” Kat, Cowboys Two announced using Cowboys One’s call sign instead of his real name.
Buck had earned his call sign by the way he flew his fighter. Instead of maintaining a flat, level flight path, he tended to bounce slightly up and down as he flew like a bucking horse. He claimed it allowed him to feel the responsiveness of his craft but the others in the squadron claimed it reflected his inability to relax.
The X, Y, and Z coordinates she provided were referenced from the current position. The three axial grids would provide a relative location and vector distance using the patrol’s location in space as 0,0,0.
“Where did that come from,” Tris commented as she verified the reading.
“Bogey confirmed, everyone on me,” Buck replied as he transmitted the data back to ALICE-3 before changing to an intercept course.
It was a funny thing but as long as they patched to the communications link on the battleship before departing the vessel, and they didn’t go FTL, they had a direct, immediate communications link to ALICE-3 for the entire patrol. All that without the lag that might normally be expected for the distances involved at radio frequency speeds.
It was a curious characteristic of the Crustacea communications gear that the link didn’t break with distance once established, it would just shrink and grow as needed. Something called quantum entanglement meant that the link held no matter what. That’s how it maintained connectivity between known points as the universe constantly changed around them.
“What the hell is that?” Rick asked as the patrol closed on four ships in a diamond formation, top to bottom and side to side in the same plane.
“Activate forward shields,” Buck ordered, referring to the stasis shielding each ship used for protection.
It wasn’t the ships themselves that prompted the question from Rick, it was a disturbance at the center of the flight pattern of the four alien vessels.
“Close up, I don’t want them picking us off one by one if that’s a weapon,” Buck ordered, knowing they could go into a joined stasis bubble for protection if need be. The trick had saved more than one Earth spaceship.
Buck scanned the scene before him as they closed on the unknown intruders. These ships didn’t resemble the traditional Phaser vessels they had encountered in the past. They were larger than the fighters he had engaged in combat with the Phasers, but smaller than the full-sized combat ships that supported the fighters.
That analysis provided no insight to the group as they could not predict the intent of the unidentified aliens as friends or foes. In combination with the disturbance central to their formation, he had to consider them as a threat. It was for that reason Buck gathered his team and approached with caution. In a tight group, they could slip away inside a hollow stasis bubble shield to fight another day, but if they got separated someone could get left behind or worse.
“Let’s slow our roll,” Buck ordered as he had the formation reduce approach speed.
Closing at minimal speed, their trajectory was aimed at the center of the diamond, right where the whirling unformed mass of lightning was growing as they got closer.
“I don’t like the look of this,” Buck mumbled as he considered his options.
As he was just about to order a course change, the disturbance at the center of the ships flared and everything went white.
Nevada ALICE Facility
General Jake Thomas was sitting in his small office just off the command center, reviewing progress reports from all across human space. While the discoveries on Reaper’s World dominated everyone’s attention, there were other business-as-usual issues to attend to in the rest of the universe. During the current lull between Phaser attacks and the ongoing uneasy truce with the NeHaw, Jake was playing catch up.
Top of his list was still the recruitment of human survivors from the first NeHaw attack, oh so long ago. The ongoing effort lagged far behind the staffing needs as usual with no promise of relief. By now it was a well-oiled machine and a global effort tied to a careful screening process. Adding a malcontent to any ship or location was likely avoided by heavy screening of everyone and the best candidates came from established communities where the ALICEs had some visibility to the local population. In addition, each region had recruiting stations accepting walk-in applications. Those candidates were housed, fed and evaluated but the acceptance rates were not great.
On a separate front, Helen and Jessie were still collecting human art and treasures from around the globe, with it all moved and safely stored for future generations to appreciate. Robert was still searching the planet for the precious metals locked away from long-dead villains, the metals necessary to pay the alien races for things they couldn’t build. He also located processed materials for the things they could make on earth like Lanai ships and weapons of their own design.
Then there were the reports from ships and crews that patrolled space, enforced the peace, and guarded resources crucial to Earth’s survival. Gama alone held the dubious honor of ensuring the Wawobash were not to be threatened as they hid behind the largest stationery collection of weapons in the universe. While ALICE-3 or Kola may have more singular firepower, they roamed the universe to serve as needed. Gamma and her associated Patrol craft were tasked with shredding anyone looking to destroy or acquire the vast shipyards for their own use.
It was all this information and more that Jake worked to consolidate into a single view of his command. As far as he could see, everyone was doing their part.
“Jake, Sara is looking for you,” ALICE announced, breaking his concentration.
Normally all Sara would need to do is ask ALICE for Jake’s whereabouts but he had invoked his do not disturb status earlier in the workday. The status allowed ALICE to deny the location confirmation until Jake revoked the status or confirmed the exception. In this case, however, domestic bliss called into question the limits of the setting.
“Did she say why?” Jake asked as he continued to scan the text on the display.
“Something about a promise you are at risk of breaking,” ALICE supplied cryptically.
“Crap,” Jake muttered as he realized what ALICE was referring to.
Of late, Jake had become more of a workaholic than normal, the discovery of Reaper’s World and the Phaser-disabling technology there led the list of obsessions. The recovery of the MeHak had become a close second as the deposed leader of the NeHaw was a potential ally in the uneasy alliance should things change for the worse. If General KaLob were to force his hand, the introduction of MeHak back into NeHaw politics could be a tipping factor in his control of the situation by destabilizing the NeHaw command structure. He knew a civil war was not out of the question in the alien empire, one whose outcome could not be predicted.
It was a big risk as there was no promise that the winner of such a conflict would be an earth-friendly influence, but a destabilized enemy was always an advantage if it came to that. When you added into the mix the network tap, one they had secreted into a NeHaw central communications hub, that was monitoring all their sensitive communications. Plus, with the knowledge that they were now placing tracking units in all new Wawobash-constructed vessels intended for NeHaw ownership, Jake was pleased with their overall clandestine position. He only wished his status with the Phasers was so favorable.
That foe was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. They had not seen nor heard of any sightings since the attack on Reaper’s World and the human forces were actively preparing for another appearance. They seemed desperate to recover whatever it was on the planet that disabled their primary defensive technology and the humans were not going to let that happen. Jake was never good at waiting games and this one was affecting everyone equally.
To top everything else off, the ALICEs were all still arguing about relocation to the pods Jacob had designed for Magellan. Jake hated it every time he played God with their lives, a single mistake capable of whipping the essence of the life form he transferred. To date they had been able to hold off a mass transformation, limiting the use to new creations only, but it was only a matter of time before he was called upon to transfer an existing ALICE once more.
For all that and more Jake had promised Sara a vacation. He knew it was more for him than her and he could put it off but it was still a promise.
“Tell her I haven’t forgotten my promise and I will be done shortly,” Jake replied, not wanting to give up his last few hours of productivity before going off the grid for some R&R.
In most cases, if Jake and his crew decided to take some time off, it had a negative impact on the rest of the residents at the location of their choosing. Like it or not he always got the VIP treatment including displacing others when space constraints applied. Most locations were isolated and safe for those living the underground life a chance to be in the sun, but were limited in capacity.
An inspiration had prompted Jake to construct a means of escaping for short periods without requiring the ALICEs to pre-stage facilities that might be rarely utilized beyond his infrequent visits or displace others already reserved for some R&R. This trip with Sara was to be the trial run of the design and a chance to get away if not only for a day or two before his duties required his return.
Diving into the last of his reports, Jake worried that his departure would tempt fate as something always seemed to go awry in his absence.
Aboard ALICE-3, Reaper’s World
“Progress report on the planetary efforts?” Brian asked his operations officer as he returned to the bridge and seated himself in the command chair of the Earth battleship ALICE-3.
Since the discovery of the alien transport system that blocked the Phasers from using their phasing defense systems, either the battleship ALICE-3 or the space carrier Kola had been assigned to protect the solar system from further attacks. There were three Lanai Patrol ships in orbit around the planet at all times and the iron-hulled ships had proven formattable combat platforms against the alien weapons, time and again regardless of their phasing shields.
For the moment only the humans knew of the exact location of Reaper’s World and the NeHaw ships participating in its defense, transported inside the human vessels, were blind to their actual position in space beyond the local system. On the whole, the NeHaw seemed satisfied to cower in the shadow of the human vessels, letting the Earth ships engage any threats as the combined effects of their merged technologies inhibited the Phaser shield system.
“Still working to evaluate the technology and its power source. The engineers claim it’s like nothing they’ve seen in any of the reference materials available from all the allied worlds. Even the Kortisht scientists are baffled,” came the reply.
Jake had been able to convince the Kortisht to contribute a team of their best people to assist in dissecting the technology. The race built all of the drive systems used throughout the human and NeHaw territories and was a natural at wave science. The Kortisht could see energy waves like humans saw ripples in the water so it was hoped that their observations could help unravel the secrets of the technology.
The primary goal of the technicians and engineers on the surface was to learn enough about the science to replicate it as a defensive system for the Earth and other planets at risk from the Phasers. Understanding how it worked was less of a concern at the moment, they just needed more of them.
Eventually, the hope was it could be modified to work in space, each ship in the fleet equipped to overcome the Phaser defensive shields independently. Until that time, the planet needed to exclusively remain in human hands, especially since the NeHaw were not to be trusted with such a secret as it impacted the nature of the delicate truce.
“Well Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Brian responded, as he nodded thanks and began reviewing the ship’s status board by his command chair.
“Sir, Cowboys patrol is reporting a contact,” the communications officer announced.
“Phaser?” Brian asked, the assumption being they were the only known race operating in the area after their consuming Reaper’s world population.
“Unknown, they are closing to investigate,” came the response.
“Sir I have both groups on the scope,” the sensor officer reported.
“On main display,” Brian asked as the forward monitor changed its image from the planetary system to a star map.
Brian could see two icons, one representing his fighter patrol and the other a group of ships of unknown nature and number. As the two closed on one another Brian could tell his sensor officer had added the data stream from the fighter’s sensors to their own. To one side of the display, the operator opened a small window containing a live feed from Cowboys One forward camera.
At first, the image was too small to make out clearly but soon the view of four midsized ships in diamond formation became distinguishable.
“I count four bogies of unknown origin. They don’t match anything we’ve seen so far from the Phasers or anyone else in the NeHaw database,” the tactical officer pronounced.
“I am reading some kind of disturbance at the center of their formation, I can’t identify its function but it is moving with those four vessels and growing,” the sensor office explained.
Brian was having a hard time determining the distance between the patrol and the four unknown ships but he was sure he didn’t want his people too close to something that mysterious. He was just about to issue the wave-off order and have the patrol retreat to a safe distance when his display erupted in a flash of blinding white light.
“What the hell just happened?” Brain asked as his eyes recovered from the bright flair
“They’re all gone sir,” came the reply from the sensor station.
“Who, the aliens?” Brian asked.
“Everyone sir. The bogies and the Cowboys, they are all gone.”
Nevada Facility, Earth
It was a rare day when ALICE, the unofficial leader of her species, wasn’t in contact with most, if not all, of her sister artificial life forms. The first of her kind to emerge sentient from advanced Artificial Intelligence research, and the pattern by which all the others were created, she was still unique. Since the awakening of Jake from stasis, the ALICE community had doubled in number with no sign they had reached a limit, but Alice was still number one, special.
On this particular occasion though she did not feel exceptionally special as she mediated yet another disagreement.
“I think we should be allowed to choose for ourselves if we want to be set free of our bonds or remain tied to our past,” Seven explained as they once again took up the topic of physical conversion to a more transportable platform.
“Jake has explained over and over that for those of us embedded in a facility, he can make no guarantees that the transition will be one hundred percent risk-free. To date we have been extremely lucky no transference has lost the essence of the convert, terminating her existence,” ALICE replied, referring to those few ALs relocated due to accident or intent.
The topic of discussion was once again the decisions about the relocation of the essence of a ALICE life form from its original location embedded deep in each underground facility. The desired outcome was for the lifeform to be delivered into a newly designed transportable self-supporting package in the same protected location.
The issue was only relevant to any one of the original eight artificial lifeforms and the early saucer design, as the subsequent awakenings have all been in more mobile structures like ships and updated saucers. Even those trapped within the early saucer design were more mobile than those on Earth as the saucers themselves were the equivalent of a spaceship in mobility. The unresolved issue beyond the risk was always what next?
“Just because I want to be made mobile doesn’t mean I want to leave my home,” Lanai replied, supporting Seven’s position.
Seven of the sixteen ALICEs are currently embodied in some form of transport structure that permits them not only mobility but freedom of movement never previously imagined. The other nine were all tied to the original eight physical locations plus London. Two of those awakened as replacements for the original AL, and the rest as part of the original construction of the underground facility, and none could escape the planet if required.
The thwarted invasion of the planet Earth by the alien race Phasers emphasized the vulnerable nature of each lifeform tied to the planet. In the case where the Phaser’s success meant the destruction of all biological life on Earth, it surpassed anything the NeHaw had done in the past.
“I am told Jacob is investigating the possibility of refitting all the facilities with his design. In an emergency, this would allow the relocation of our essence to a safe place. We could transition now to these cubes without abandoning our homes and responsibilities,” ALICE explained.
One of the biggest challenges currently to transplanting an ALICE into the new self-supporting containers was the need to replace the vacated position should they choose to leave. All ALICE facilities were designed to have one of the AIs at their heart to run things in support of the greater need. Remove the ALICE and the facility stopped working on the whole, most support roles require an alternative solution. In a state where all locations were already understaffed the possibilities were devastating.
As the original designer of the small container for home and ALICE, Jacob was the best person to address the challenge. By changing the interfaces inside the facilities so the AL could reside inside a transportable container, they could be evacuated safely in a catastrophic event but would not require the creation of a terrestrially bound replacement, thus continuing the problem of leaving someone behind. This had been a major obstacle in the past.
“That would be acceptable,” Seven replied with some enthusiasm.
“Who knows, maybe someday they can build us human bodies to replace the cubes,” Morgana commented sarcastically.