Friday, 2 November 2012

Part One: Fighting


Si was bored.

Here he was sat with control of some of the most sophisticated long range weaponry known to man, located on bona-fide Odyssey class space ship and he was bored.
The central problem was, of course, that space, almost by its very definition, was boring. There is a hell of a lot of, well, space, in which not a lot is happening. Getting a grip on quite how vast space is, is hard. As well as being poor space farers, humans are also pretty bad at understanding large numbers. Take the asteroid belt, the section of space that the ship he was on was currently headed through. Yes, there are a lot of asteroids there, but even more space. More space to the extent to which that on entering the belt they could have just turned off the navigation AI and drifted through and still only had a one in a billion chance of accidentally hitting an asteroid. If the ship was capable and, more to the point, if the tight-arse AI control ever actually let him fire off some of this lovely weaponry to the extent that he blew up every rocky planet in the solar system, then shipped the debris into the belt, the mass of asteroids would increase by a factor of 10,000. New chance of accidentally hitting one of them while flying blind? One in 100,000.

He sighed.

He got up and headed to the door. The ship was currently slowing down, the negative thrust providing enough gravity to allow him to walk rather than float across the cabin. At the doorway he paused, no real plan of where he was going to head too. He briefly considered engineering, see if that hot trainee was around. His shoulders slumped. After screwing her last week he'd lost interest. The chase had been fun, but too short - it never ceased to amaze him how successful "I'm a starship fighter" was as an opening chat up line. He smirked. If only they knew quite how boring it was.
Another quickly dismissed idea was a trip to the gym. The months of low or zero g had seen him lose some muscle mass. While not important in his day to day work, when he got back planetside he didn't want to collapse under the weight of a single g. Fighter jockey or not, that sort of move didn't play well with the Earth ladies. But the ship gym was even more boring than space. 
Instead he bounded over to the lift--low g enabling elongated strides--the doors opening as he arrived. He selected drone control via his iris augment and the lift doors swished shut. The lift headed in the same direction as the breaking thrust, so what small g there was briefly disappeared, causing Si to grab for the hand hold as he began to drift upwards in the small vestibule. The lift halted, gravity returned, and the doors opened. Si stepped out into a small holding area while his ID was confirmed. The large hatch in front of him hissed before sliding into the ceiling. Another holding pen and another ID check later and Si was in the drone control hub.
A lone marine stood with his back to Si, absorbed in various displays called up above the secure node - no remote access permitted in mission critical sections. 
"What's happening big man" said Si as he moved to stand at the marine's shoulder.
"Oh, it's you" the marine didn't even look up "What you want? I ain't playing you at fulcrum-poker again"
Si smiled, "Relax Fuller. I'm not here to collect my winnings. Yet." he let the last word hang, then: "Just here to check on the ladies"
Fuller snorted, "You only like the feisty ones"
Si held up his hands in mock defence, "Guilty. Anyway, aren't you pack rats off duty at the moment? Big day tomorrow"
The big marine made a sound somewhere between a resigned whistle and a growl,  "Gotta finalise my tender before we deploy. Need to get this one right" he said
"Thought you were guaranteed to drop on the scenario runs?" Si frowned, although if he was honest with himself, didn’t actually care that much. 
"We are. This is final assessment - over 60% of my mark comes from the fucking economic AI number cruncher. We gotta provide VFM along with a clean run" the broad shoulders slumped a little, brow furrowed, Fuller was struggling.
If Si was actually capable of sympathy, he might have exerted a little for the marine. The big meat head was way out of his comfort zone. The ability to bench press 220, strip and reassemble a ZX ultra-sonic carbine in under 27 seconds, or effectively run a five drone pack didn't get you very far working for the Congloms if you couldn't provide VFM.

Value for money. 
Space isn't for the dreamers or the idealists. It's for the money men. Or more precisely, the money AI. When the nation states began to exit the space race as budgets boomed and more local spending pressures intensified, private business stepped in. Not for the joy of exploration, but the quest for profit. The mineral companies led the way. Coffers swollen by the high prices paid in the final days before exhaustion of Earth's resources, the more shrewd entrepreneurs looked to the stars to invest their ample resources. 
It took vision, as well as - you guessed it - a hell of a lot of money. The first ounce of gold mined from asteroid Xb395c cost upwards of two trillion new dollars in investment to land back on Earth. When the next 4.7m ounces were landed in one go it fucked up the economy, caused prices to crash and sent the pioneering company bankrupt.

But that was just a minor hitch
The companies that saw the bigger picture, saw the potential, headed for space. They learnt from the mistakes made before, how the materials contained in the asteroids they were mining could upset the fragile Earth economy, so they built depots orbiting both the larger asteroids and Earth itself. The AI was put in control. Materials were refined on site, many combined into actual end products - advantages in efficiency were soon discovered from developing electronic equipment in zero g; computer processing power increased; AI became more sophisticated. This AI was instructed to maximise profit, so it developed its own algorithms to figure out when best to return the materials and products developed in space back to the Earth economy.

Profits surged, companies grew
As the companies grew and the mega Conglomerates emerged, it was perhaps inevitable that tensions between them would develop. It wasn't so much that disputes in space drove these disputes, after all space is large and there were plenty of asteroids to go round. Rather it was company disputes taken from on planet, off world. Rival pricing and distribution AI getting in one another's way. Intense competition for local markets. Covert electronic attacks increased; the Congloms began to recruit heavily among, as they put it, the “more technically able”. Everyone else called them hackers. 
The electronic, and physical, arms race increased off world as a result. Actual conflict was rare; after all, it tended to harm the bottom line, but it did happen. Congloms built sophisticated "intervention" ships, as the AI calculated that tactical interventions from time to time would increase company margins. Back on Earth, no one especially cared. They were getting the latest consumer goods at good prices, what's the problem with a few AI ships knocking the crap out of each other 300 million km away? 
But then the AI started to notice something more than a little odd. That, by combining its Earth based "technical specialists" with its own drone warfare equipment it could yield some interesting results. In particular, as the AI put it, "unconventional tactics" emerged. Or as humans know it, "fighting dirty", something the AI could never quite get the hang of on its own. Intervention efficiency using human drone assistance improved by over 20%. An extra 20% margin started to make shipping some humans into space, well, VFM. 
Of course when all the Congloms started shipping humans off world, they largely cancelled each other out and the margin dropped right back down. But none of the Congloms could send their humans back to Earth without losing competitive advantage. And so the next struggle became recruiting the best humans possible.

Humans like Si
The lanky drone controller left the increasingly puzzled Fuller with a few bland platitudes and headed for the main-bay hatch. On the other side he quickly pulled on a vacuum-suit, locking the face plate down with a click, before sending a command for the air lock to cycle. 
The main-bay accounted for almost two thirds of the ship, and while this wasn't an especially large ship, coming in at around three and a half million cubic metres (some of the mega-haulers were seven or eight times large), the visual impact from stepping from the air lock into the cavernous space never failed to make Si gasp. Not that he's ever admit that to the rest of the crew of course, there were certain appearances to be maintained after all. 
With the ship exerting reverse thrust, the direction of gravity in the main-bay made everything look upside down, but it wasn't hard for Si to mentally adjust his frame of reference and head towards the correct aisle of tall storage gantries. As he wandered towards the part of the main-bay he considered to be "his", movement caught his eye down one of the other aisles. 
About 20 metres down, and a good 30 metres up, hung in the air another of the marines. Not hung in the noose / difficult-letter-to-loved-ones style (Si screwed up his face in thought at this point was is hung or hanged?) but in the precariously-attached-to-an-aerial-drone-looking-at-some-equipment style. Si half considered wandering down the aisle to see what he or she was up to, but the looming presence of the marine Sergeant pacing around at the base of the gantry underneath persuaded him otherwise. Something about the Sergeant seriously unsettled Si. And the fact that she appeared to enjoy that unsettledness made it worse.

Si moved on.
He headed for the far right of the main-bay, or left as Si now looked at it from upside down. The marines would say port or starboard, but Si couldn't be bothered with that salty-sea-dog ancient history bullshit that those knuckle-heads insisted on keeping alive. In this remote spot of the main-bay were his drones, his pride and joy, his ladies of destruction.

They sure were ugly. 
Ok, maybe ugly was a little unfair. "Utilitarian" might be a more apt description. Drones designed for operating in a vacuum, where aerodynamics mattered not, and built to a tight AI enforced budget were never going to be beautiful. In this case, imagine a brick. A big brick granted, two metres along its length, and a dull grey colour, but a brick all the same. The shape made configuring its internal layout and weapon payload easy for the manufacturing plant. The shape also made them easy to store, in neat rows within the gantries of this section of the main-bay. 
Much like the environment that they take place in, drone battles (or "unsanctioned incursion repulsion" as the AI PR termed them) were surprisingly boring. First of all is the lack of human participation on board the individual ships themselves (drone controllers like Si remained on the host ship, a long way behind the front line). The high velocity chemical thrusters at the corners of the brick like drones allowed for high g manoeuvres that would cause the innards of any human occupant to turn into a lumpy mush, oozing out of their anus and eyeballs.
 So no handsome starship pilots heroically fighting the evil alien hordes. On that subject, no alien hordes. Despite centuries of searching, nothing happening. Space is big, after all. 
The next problem with space battles is that they are seriously boring to watch. Not that you could watch them even if you wanted. Spaceships don't have windows - classified by the shipbuilding AI as an expensive structural weaknesses. Even if you could watch, you wouldn't see anything. Any hostilities are usually resolved while the rival drones are still thousands of clicks apart. Also, while the human eye could just about make out the occasional flash of a laser, or bright contrail from an ultra-g missile, physical weaponry accounts for less than 5% of drone payload. The other 95 plus percent consists of all the sort of nasty stuff outside of the human visual spectrum. The high-band electric warfare, the x-rays, the ultra violet pulses. 

Si sat, cross legged, in front of his ladies. The other crew members were used to seeing him come down here. He told them that he was swapping in new hardware, flashing new firmware, or any one of a hundred technical terms that the dullards he shared this ship with would ever understand.
He pulled open a pouch on his vac-suit, reached a hand inside which came out holding a small case. The front panel on the drone facing Si slid out and then hinged upward, silent in the vacuum. Si ran a quick diagnostic check via his bio-link with the drones, but just as yesterday, and the day before and the months before that, all was ok.

They were sleeping. 
On pin-beaming a code over to the case it hinged open along one of the longer sides. Si paused to look at its contents for a few seconds. He selected one of the implements inside and picked it up between vac-suited thumb and forefinger.

A paintbrush.
He'd selected one of the finer brushes from the artist's case, as his work only required a few concluding details, a final flourish. On the inside metallic skin of the hinged up outer case of the drone was a picture of a lady. An old lady; age just as evident in the folds of her skin as in the look in her eyes. It was a beautiful painting. It was also upside down, of course, but that only made Si smile as he could imagine what she'd say, you've got your head on the wrong way laddie.

Great grandma. 
During the frequent poker games or e-vid marathons that the crew killed time with together Si hadn't technically lied that much. The crew knew that he named his drones after ladies in his life. He just hadn't actively sort to correct them when they assumed the ladies were past conquests, or fantasy pin-ups, like those voluptuous women carved into the bow of ships or painted on the nose of bombers in ages long gone. 
But those sort of women really didn't mean that much to Si. They came, they went. The ones that really meant something to him weren't around anymore. The grandmother that raised him, the great grandmother that gave him sweets and the more than occasional rebuke. The big sister. The little sister.

The daughter. 
Si reflected for a moment, before once again burying the pain in an effort of concentration. He set to finishing the painting.

No comments:

Post a Comment