By Kevin C Mason
I stood at the console, bracing myself for another impact. Desperate to outsmart the godlike intelligence residing within the very ship that held our lives. This duel had already lasted two full Jhood cycles and I was at my witts end. I didn’t know how long I could keep going. I was exhausted. A Church vessel had caught us running guns to War-Zod and we were taking heavy damage.
Here - let me give you some context
About 500 years ago there was a great empire that stretched across a thousand systems, or at least that is how the story goes. Their tech was so far beyond ours it would make our faster than light travel seem like just a toy. Artificial intelligence - or AI - was in everything from timekeepers to galactic cruisers and humans barely had to do anything for themselves. Then, according to the Jhoodian knowledge Keepers, at a single point in time across all the systems, all the AI went simultaneously insane.
Nobody knows why. All the records were kept by, you guessed it, AI.
The machines attacked people at random. Maybe they learned to hate. Maybe they felt their humans were in danger but couldn’t distinguish the humans from their delusions. Maybe they thought the battle simulation that was running in the background was real. But their motivation wasn’t a priority at the time. Humanity was instantly in danger of extinction. The Jhoodian Knowledge Keepers immediately began gathering archaic materials from their archeology exhibits - paper and linen, metal and magnetic tape - and started to scribe and record events, scientific knowledge, technological schematics, anything they could remember or knew. If not for their quick thinking, the dark ages would have lasted 5,000 not 500 years.
Even so, The FALL was devastating. Battleships destroyed entire planets before turning on each other. And the Knowledge Keepers could only piece together so much. AI tech was either lost or deliberately destroyed in fear.
These days, the few bits of AI that is still around is considered illegal contraband and extremely dangerous to use.... AI tech like our ship.
We got it as a reward for a job. The owner of the ship did not even know what it was. He just said we could have the contents of the warehouse and all the junk in it. Well, to our surprise, not all of it was junk.
We call it the Can Opener.
Back in the day it was a flying weapons platform. The entire ship is actually built around the main gun. A total waste of space if you ask me, but then again I didn’t build the thing. It was meant to work with other ships of its type to team up against larger craft. For such a tiny ship it's extremely powerful. We figure it's about 10 times more powerful than any weapon its size. A huge death cannon and deflector shields - what else could a merc want?
Just one problem ... or perhaps a blessing. The targeting system is insane.
Like most devices of its time, the Can Opener is totally automated. At the time of The FALL, the gunner on the ship must have known what was going on and programmed a fail-safe into the targeting computer, to think that the only viable target is "Chicken Soup”. So a ship that is totally insane is always looking to open fire on Chicken Soup … whatever a chicken is.
Basically, our ship is a rabid dog that wants to kill everything in sight but is held back by a very short chain. My job is to strategically unchain the dog but be sure to capture and lock it up again before it starts killing allies or turns on us. The problem is, I have only seen pictures of chickens in history books and have never heard of a can of it. Apparently, a chicken is a small flightless bird that went extinct sometime shortly after The FALL. From what I have read, they were great house pets as many references refer to every man had a cock - which is a male chicken. They must have been a status symbol because the only images and paintings I have ever seen that depict such a bird were with people who could afford a lot of land, or food Barron's. Also from my understanding, the size of a chicken was also very important. Many ancient dialogs referred to the size of a man's cock as a metaphor for his social standing. In any case, chickens didn’t last much past The FALL because they were all eaten when the robots stopped making the food. Which brings me back to my story. See, the Can Opener refused to do anything about the church ship that was slowly kicking our ass because it was not Chicken Soup….
"It's … A chicken .. in a Can!" I said hoping to convince the AI that the church ship was an actual target.
"No its not. I fell for that one before. The ship does not meet the requirements to be chicken soup," the disembodied voice replied with a touch of disdain. "You will not fool me again."
In the past we managed to get the captain of another ship to say "Chicken Soup” by painting that phrase on the outside of our ship. Making the opposing captain use the phrase when hailing us. That trick only worked once.
"But it’s going to destroy us!" I yelled, hoping reason might convince an irrational AI to save our asses.
“That is not my problem,” replied Can Opener “I have backups. Perhaps you should just surrender” it smugly mocked.
“Is the missile ready?" I Asked my crewmate, Arnold, crossing my fingers.
"It's almost ready ..We need to attach the adhesive to the front ... I hope this works" Cried Arnold while applying some sticky substance to the missile. I put on my Vac suit.
Normally exiting a ship in the middle of battle is suicide, but in this case, I was betting it could save our lives. After I was sure the suit was secure, I loaded the missile on to the expansion module over my right shoulder. As I exited the airlock to face almost certain death, the launcher showed up on my helmet’s HUD.
In space, the only sound you can hear is your own breathing and the echo of your pulse in the helm. Exiting out into the silence is always unnerving. In the middle of a battle, it's even more so.
"Magnetic boots active" reported my suit, making me jump at the sudden noise. I stepped out onto exterior hull of the ship.
I looked up and could see the church ship passing from port to starboard before I could get the missile system to lock its target.
"Fuck!! I need to get to the other side" I knew I should have attached the auxiliary sensors to the other shoulder.
The problem with magnetic boots is it's impossible to run. The magnetics take a second to disengage. Most of the time this makes me feel safer, but on that day it might have meant our death.
I prepped to hop, the boots disengaged and I thrust myself forward in a very shallow arc. I put my feet in front me and shot out my magna-line to the Starboard hull. It reeled me in just as the magna boots went live and attached me back onto the Can Opener’s exoskeleton. I let out the breath I did not know I was holding. My heart stopped when I got a good view of the church ship. For what the church lacks in technology it excels in construction. The ship was massive. I was in total awe when I realised that it was opening fire on us. The energy cannons erupted in a white violet firestorm. I covered my helmet with my arms out of instinct and prepared to die. I screamed - waiting for my body to be burnt to a crisp. The heat got very, very uncomfortable. The flash of the direct hit blinded me. But death must have hit the snooze button. I took me a few breaths to realize I was in fact, still breathing. My suit was damaged, most likely beyond repair, but it was still intact.
I forgot that one of the perks of having a 550 year old ship is that it comes equipped with deflector shields. Even the flagship of the confederate navy does not have deflector shields. The tech was lost long ago.
A garbled transmission came through my melted comm link - "Damit Jenifer ..kill that thing... That last hit blew all the fuses!! We can't take another hit" I could tell that Arnold was reaching his stress limit
So much for the advantage of advanced pre-crash technology. I fired up the targeting system. My HUD showed the church craft in my cross hairs. I let loose the missile. It was seconds before the missile hit the side of the ship ... Perhaps the longest 5 seconds of my life. The missile did not explode on impact, but then it was never meant to. Instead, the device half attached half embedded itself in the hull of the ship.
"To the heretic craft .. Power down your ship. Your attempt to harm us has failed. Prepare to be boarded and confiscated" Scolded the Church captain.
I heard the garbled threat come over my comlink as I began to make my way back to the access hatch. Demag - lift foot - remag - other foot …...
"Actually you should stand down! That was not an explosive missile." I taunted in reply.
"Then what was it?" The churchee captain was not amused by my joke. "It makes no difference. Prepare yourselves for conversion, you will make great additions to the faith."
"It's a transponder" I mocked just as I saw an umbilical gangplank begin emerging from the Church ship
"Arnold let’s open the can and call the puppy" I commanded. “-.-. .... .. -.-. -.- . -. / ... --- ..- .--.” Transmitted the missile.
I waited and hoped the AI could figure out the puzzle I’d laid out for it. Being direct and using confederate common did not work last time. I trusted the AI would either be aware of, or could easily decypher the code. We always have to make the Can Opener think that it made the discovery itself. The Umbilical was within 150 meters of the airlock before Can Opener identified and translated the ancient script. Morse code for “Chicken Soup”.
"Target acquired!!" Reported Can Opener. I was halfway back to the airlock. I made sure both boots were magged, crouched down and magged my gloves to the hull as well.
We turned toward the church craft. I could feel the cannon vibrate through my boots as it warmed up. The vibration took almost a 20 seconds to build up to a point where it almost shook my boots from the ship. It felt like hours. The Umbilical was less than 100 meters away. Then a pause that seemed almost deliberate - poetic even - about the length of 4 heartbeats.
The ship fired. A blue hot energy blasted out the Bow and engulfed the entire church craft like a wave vs a sandcastle. The debris was spectacular. The wave ran down the Umbilical like silver armbands on a Helios dancer. I imagined I could hear the startled screams of the boarding crew. I did not imagine the ash of their remains that floated close enough to touch. For the first time, I was happy to be on the outside of the ship. Sensor readouts just would not have done this justice.
"Jen you OK ?" Arnold asked
"All good Arnold. I will be heading back in a moment. I am just taking in the view" I replied
And that’s how we survived the churchees. Sadly, that trick will only fool the AI once. So before we leave War-Zod - we gotta find a new way to make chicken soup.