Ghosts of the Night

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Ghosts of the Night

Postby LilJennie » Mon Sep 18, 2023 8:52 pm

Ghosts of the Night

By Miki Yamuri and Jennie Flint

Cindy Dane and her friend, Sandra Shepard couldn't believe they had actually been picked to become the very first Female Engineers to go on the Asteroid Belt Mining expedition. Their young age of 19 had been one thing that detracted from their immediate standing, however, all their wins and Gold Cup trophies in the Consortium Solar Cup races were sure to have been among the key factors that had the 2 of them selected. Of course, the fact the both of them were tops in the grade points in school, and the fact they graduated many years early and received their advanced degrees in Nano and Subatomic Computer Engineering aided tremendously too.

Cindy shivered within her thin environment suit as she looked out the port and watched the large LaGrange Shipyard slip quickly away behind them. To the fore ... The darkness of space hung dauntingly, sprinkled with little points of light she knew were stars.

Sandra noticed her friend's shiver and dismissed the nearly automatic thought that it might be a glitch in the environmental subsystem. She felt it too -- the thrill. This was an adventure like none that had come before. Taking a trophy in solar sailing, especially in a ship of their own design, had been quite an accomplishment, but this ... this was the dream of a lifetime.

They were famous -- the number of hits their interviews garnered led to more and more requests for interviews, until they'd had to just make their own FAQ video and be done with it. They were among the first women in this new asteroid mining program, and they were by far the youngest. They carried the dreams of their generation on their shoulders.

Cindy opened the top to her industrial touch-top computer and switched it on. She plugged it into the ship network and began to type furiously.

Sandra said over the private comm, "Cindy, whacha doin? Tryin to hack into navigation?"

Cindy giggled, "No, silly, I'm hacking into the main memory core. I want to see the specs on which hunk of rock we might have been assigned to."

Sandra huddled close as the data came up on the touch-top computer's small screen. To their surprise, they had been assigned to a detailed mapping of a very minor planet. It was 30 miles long, 8 miles wide, and apparently hollow or something. Many of the readings of the original mapping team came back totally screwed and were worthless.

Cindy remarked, "Funny ... why is it you and me have been assigned to this hunk? It doesn't appear to have any kind of interesting minerals. Just your normal iron, nickel, and silver.

"Well, those are useful resources," Sandra mused. "If you need them in space, it's a lot easier to mine them in space than to mine them on Earth and then use up fuel shooting them into space. And hey, look, the probe's radar determined that it had hollow spaces inside. Cool. Good shelter from radiation in case there's a solar flare. The other teams will just have to hide behind their rocks."

The mining teams had each been assigned an asteroid. Theirs, 1371 Silvretta, had been discovered in 1935, but only probes had visited it so far, including the ones that had scouted all the asteroids targeted for mining.

About that time, an announcement came across the ship wide comm, "Attention, this is your pilot. Please put away all loose objects and fasten your seat harnesses. I am about to kick in the impulse drive. There will be a lot of acceleration until we reach 1/30th the speed of light. It might be just a bit bumpy. The rest of our flight time should be approximately 6 hours and 32 minutes. Please have a safe and wonderful trip."

Cindy looked at Sandra as she packed her loose items in the compartment above her and then fastened herself into her seat harnesses, "This is going to be so exciting."

As soon as the girls had fastened the buckles and adjusted them, they felt a serious pressure they couldn't resist pushing them back into the seat. The stars out the port didn't seem to move, but they knew their ship was accelerating rapidly towards the asteroid belt ... and their mission.

After the all clear had sounded, the girls once again took out their touch-top computers and began doing research.

"Hey Cindy, did you ever hear of this?" said Sandra, holding up a tablet with a picture. "This guy, Drake, thinks he found a fragment of alien technology in a meteorite."

The girls looked at the object on the Pad’s small screen. The meteorite looked as if it contained a cylindrical object with another object through its center.

"Not sure, it could still be natural ... but what do you think?" Sandra asked. "Could there be remnants of ancient lost alien civilizations out there?"

A dark-skinned man with very short-cropped hair who had just entered the cabin took the tablet out of Sandra's hand, looked at it, and gave it back to her. "Looks like a fake to me," he said brusquely. "We're here to look for minerals, not aliens."

"Yes, Commander Walker," said Sandra, "it's just an interesting thought."

Cindy leaned over and watched as the Commander walked down the aisle. She comments, "I would love to know more about that thing. It looks ... more man made than nature."

Sandra replied, "I think it's just a fancy way to make money for him."

Cindy said, "We have nothing else to do for hours, so ... "

Sandra began typing data into her touch-top computer. To pass the time, the girls looked into all the data they could find on the artifact. The after cleaning pictures of the thing ... looked like some kind of wheel on an axle arrangement after some weird cataclysmic event and many millions of years in the hazardous regions of outer space.

Finally Cindy comments, "It might possibly be a really damaged roller wheel of some kind on an axle ... but it suffered tremendous damage and heat along with contamination."

"But it could also be a natural formation that just looks like it was made by intelligent life," Sandra said. "Tests showed the regular shapes and the more irregular concretions they seem encased in are almost the same in composition. What if it's just a carbon-iron asteroid fragment that was subjected to intense heat long ago -- perhaps in a collision, or perhaps in a supernova? Or ... what if it's a fake, and he fabricated it to get attention?"

Cindy scratched her chin as she thinks it over. She replied, "It could be, but whatever ... the item is too badly damaged and contorted to tell one way or the other. If it was made out of some strange material ... or had weird markings on it ... that would be different."

About that time, another voice came over the ship wide comm, "Attention all Consortium miners, we will be docking at the transfer station within 45 minutes. Please read all the safety precautions and remember: If you get punctured ... the only safe haven is a pressurized one."

The girls put their touch-top computers into their packs and put their helmets on. By the time they had finished, the large ship had pulled into its berthing slip and stopped. The girls stood and walked down the aisle with all their much older and all male contemporaries to the exit. The girls could feel the large gruff men staring at them as they disembarked the large ship to the station proper.

Commander Walker was waiting for them as they entered the airlock. He said authoritatively, "Follow me, if you would be so kind."

The girls replied in unison, "Yes, Sir!", and followed him like a pair of puppy dogs to another airlock.

The commander swirled around and said, "This is the Prospector ship that will take you both to 1371 Silvretta. You will be left there on your own due to the strike we had on Solaris 132. They hit a central core of pure diamond and all the experienced miners are being sent there. We will be leaving you on Silvretta with enough supplies to last for a month along with the transfer cycles. You should be able to do a large portion of the new survey by the time we come to get you. Understood?"

"Yes, Sir," they both said.

This had all been covered in their training, though they had thought that they'd be accompanied by experienced miners during their inaugural stint. There would be a month's worth of supplies, just in case, but they'd likely be picked up within two weeks.

"Now," said Commander Walker, "at ease." The two young women relaxed. "I just want to say that you two are extremely impressive in space, and you were the same in training. You applied yourselves with an intensity and dedication that I wish I could see in every recruit to the program. I have no doubts that you can handle yourselves out there. Although I may come across as gruff and direct most of the time, right now, I want to drop all that and say ... I'm proud of you. You're going to make me even prouder. I know it." He shook their hands. "Well, this is it. Time to board. Good luck!"

Both young women stood with their mouths open in surprise. Neither one could believe that Hard Assed Walker ... actually did that. They stood there in shock until the Prospector Pilot said over their comms, "Well, Ladies ... do we have to give you special invites to get you on board?"

Both girls giggled as they grabbed their gear and boarded. After stowing it away and fastening themselves into the gravity seats, they were off to their new assignments ... 1371 Silvretta.

It was several hours before the large rock came into visuals. The girls watched out the side ports as the pilot expertly landed on the barren and pot marked surface.

As the girls gear and supplies were offloaded he said, "Remember ... gravity here is as good as non existent. If you make a mistake ... you will probably launch into orbit. Stay on your cycles and don't be an idiot." he saluted them both.

The hatch closed ... They were all alone on this barren rock. More alone than they had ever been in their lives … as they watched the shuttle take off and leave. They had nothing but the habitation enclosure, barely the size of a two-person dome tent, their suits, their tool kits, a large quantity of food, water, O2, and their transfer cycles -- one-person propulsion devices with communications gear, radar and spectrometer for scanning rock, and other tools to make a detailed survey possible. This against the vacuum, radiation, and other dangers of space.

"Well," said Sandra, "let's set up shop."

"Roger that," said Cindy.

They fired stakes into the surface to fasten their safety lines and habitation enclosure to, unpacked the enclosure, letting the CO2 and oxygen canisters inflate it, then clicked the airlock into place. After the girls completed that task, they started taking readings with the transfer cycles' scanners.

Cindy and Sandra had packed their cycles with enough supplies and equipment to last for most of the current chronal morning, barring any solar accidents. If such an alert came, they would have to stop and bundle up under the portable radiation blankets made just for that sort of emergency.

Cindy said softly over the comm, "You know? Sort of makes me feel left out in a way."

Sandra raises an eyebrow and replied, "How so? Anything we find or map here belongs exclusively to us. We get all the royalties and bonuses, not to mention ownership of this stupid rock once we have surveyed half of it. Which we should do easily by the time the rest of the team returns."

Cindy said, "That's true ... but think of it. All those other miners are getting royalties on silver, gold, and diamond ... and I heard they found a huge reservoir of water ice on the dark side."

Without warning, Both young woman’s scanner screens lit up and began to blink interrupting their conversation.

Sandra said excitedly, "Look, seems we might have found something of interest. Seems to be a huge ... layer of some kind of metal. The detectors can't ID it though."

Cindy turned her cycle towards the largest reading and proceeded forward. The 2 girls came to a rather large circular mound that had the odd appearance of being chopped off on one side. Many millennia of space had left debris and many marks hiding all but one sparkly place that caught the sunlight brightly.

Firing more spikes into the rock and anchoring their safety cables to them, Sandra worked her way hand over hand, grasping the irregular surface of the asteroid, toward the smooth, reflective area for a better look.

"Looks like this was formed recently," Sandra said, "with its sharp edges and this smooth patch here. Maybe it recently collided with another asteroid and it knocked this part open?"

Cindy stabilized herself close to the brightly shining patch and focused her scanner towards it. As she did so, a particular place off to the right caught her eye. It looked sort of like some kind of rectangular plate set into the rock and covered over with melted debris and many layers of dirt.

Cindy took her chipping hammer from her utility belt and tapped the area lightly. A large chunk of melt and dirt came away, leaving what appeared for the world to be a handprint drawn on some kind of metallic plate.

Cindy said excitedly, "Sandra ... come look at this. I think ... we found proof we aren't alone."

"That's ... amazing," said Sandra, who had moved to better see the object Cindy was looking at. "A regular rectangular shape is just barely possible by chance, but ... that shape looks so much like some kind of handprint that I don't know what else it could be."

The shape was an outline of lighter metal in the darker metal surrounding it that seemed to describe the shape of a near-circular hand surrounded by three fingers and a thumb -- the thumb, if thumb it was, was nearly 180 degrees around the circle from the fingers, though.

"If it is a handprint, it's not a human one.", commented Cindy

Sandra looked at her readings. "This is some dense metal," she said. "This isn't ore. This is refined, shaped metal. The radar reflects right off it. And the same stuff is all around, under the rocky surface, except for the part over there and the part you've exposed here."

Cindy took her gloved hand and touched the exposed hand print. It began to glow dimly at first, then pulsed to life. Where the shiny place was, suddenly slid open in 4 different directions, scattering debris and dust in thick copious clouds in low gravity. A wispy white cloud of escaping gas came from around the indentation as it opened, revealing a darkened air lock no different than any of the others the girls had seen.

Cindy turned on her suit light and shone it into the interior of the lock. A small light flickered on, providing enough illumination to see the manual door equipment, and another hand print on a rectangle across the room.

Cindy said with a tremble of fear in her voice, "I ... guess we go in and check it out. Who knows ... we might find our long lost ancestors in there."

Both girls laugh nervously as Cindy entered the lock.

"Well even if all it is is a fancy cave, it'll be super safe from solar flares," said Sandra, following along into the blackness.

Space had two levels of brightness: blindingly bright if the Sun was in your field of vision, and black as night, if it wasn't. Still, the inside of an asteroid was as dark as you can get. The two advanced slowly, suit lights providing the only illumination, because neither knew when they would suddenly encounter a stalagmite or other obstacle.

Cindy slowly examined the bulkhead. She put her hand in the other print. Nothing seemed to happen. Sandra bent over and removed her autodrill from her utility belt. She found the proper tool, it actually fit the lock mechanism. She slowly undogged the mechanism with her drill. In the soundlessness of the vacuum of space, their entrance door closed behind them, as the other one opened.

Cindy said, "According to my instruments, there's an atmosphere here. It has a bit of hydrogen sulfide in it ... it's gonna smell ... but otherwise it's safe."

The girls took one more slow step into the open hatch, then entered full gravity. Cindy grabs for the rail next to the door as the full weight of her suit catches up to her. Both Women stumble as it caught them completely by surprise.

"How is that ... possible?" said Sandra. "This asteroid doesn't have enough mass to generate this much acceleration. Unless it suddenly started rotating ... and rotated this chamber so that our feet are pointed toward space ... no, that's not what happened. This is science fiction stuff. Artificial gravity? Seriously? We're talking advanced alien civilization. I don't know any other way this could happen." She lifted her feet one at a time. "Gravity seems a little bit lower than Earth-normal."

Sandra shone her suit light around. They were in some kind of corridor. Not far ahead of them it ended in a T-shaped intersection, leading off to the left and right.

"Well, there must be some kind of energy source," she said. "The door opened, and whatever's making this gravitational field can't take zero energy to operate. I wonder if there are lights."

Sandra looked around for things that looked like control panels. There was one just like the one they'd found outside, only much better preserved. "That one looks like how we get back out."

Then she noticed, just at the threshold of perception, a very low hum, a barely perceivable vibration, that may have been growing in intensity without their noticing.

A panel in the wall suddenly lit up with controls whose markings were unreadable, but a very dim light began emanating from the ceiling -- not at particular points, either, but from the entire ceiling as if trying to eliminate shadows.

As the light grew gradually brighter, Sandra said, "Looks like someone, Or something, knows we're here."

Cindy looked around as she ran the portable analyzer. She said quietly, "According to these readings, this is a huge establishment. Correct me if I'm wrong ... but doesn't it say in our contract that by Right of Discovery ... this particular place belongs to us ... right?"

Sandra gets big eyed as she realized.

Cindy continued, "What if ... we could find some kinda technology ... or even a ship ... or at least records we could download and translate?" Cindy points off down the hall to the T and says, "According to this, if we follow that corridor ... and turn right ... it should lead to a ... control center of sorts ... I think."

Sandra looked at the device's glowing screen for a few seconds as both young women began to walk that direction.

Cindy said, "We could take off our helmets if you want. It'll smell a bit ... but besides that it has nothing wrong with it."

The girls nod to each other and break the seals on their suit's helmet ring. There is a slight hiss of escaping gas ... then a foul ... but tolerable stink filled their noses.

Cindy complained, "Peee youuuuuu!! Man! It smells like someone torpedoed the out house." She wrinkled up her nose.

Both women laugh as they turn down the right hallway. The lights seemed to flicker for an instant, then a perfect path was lit to a room at the end of the corridor. Light could be seen spilling from the open hatch.

"I'm programming this thing to monitor the air," Sandra said, pressing controls on her suit's atmosphere scanner. "If we get to a place where the hydrogen sulfide levels get too high, we might not notice if it's too gradual. That stuff can be like cyanide at high concentration. And we don't want the oxygen levels to drop below safe levels either."

The two of them made their way carefully down the hallway toward the opening.

"It's not really all that bright, but it's brighter than the total darkness we had earlier," said Sandra, looking carefully through the hatch.

She gasped at what she saw. The control room, if that was what it was, had a ceiling about eight feet high, but it was circular in shape. Although the interior looked to be somewhat in ruin, with parts of the ceiling having fallen in and what may have been chairs and control panels smashed and fallen over, there was movement.

"I think ... I think it's repairing itself," said Sandra. "The lights so dim, but I think ... well ... look for yourself."

Bits of broken metal, glass, stone, or whatever the material was were moving along the floor by themselves, scurrying up the walls or control panels, shattering into tiny shards, and filling in holes and cracks. Already it was looking more intact, and the light was continuing to brighten.

In a very few minutes, the lights came fully on in the room. A panel that sparkled like tiny jewels in their different colors twinkled against one of the walls. Cindy and Sandra walked carefully up, both using their scanners to record and analyze everything they could.

Sandra walked up to what appeared to be an oblique arc around one wall. Without warning, the whole panel lights up. There were many screens and buttons that appeared to hover in thin air in many places.

A large screen lights in the very center. The face of a very pretty young woman appears in it.

She smiles and says, "Hello ... this is station Hydra Gamma Epillarius. Front line defensive station. Who might you 2 be? Our new honored guests ... or the enemy?"

Sandra quickly clasped her hand across Cindy's mouth and hissed softly, "Shhhh. This might be one of those ... idiotic answer traps."

Cindy struggles loose and says softly, "Not answering is usually viewed as hostile."

While the 2 girls whispered softly to themselves, the face on the screen took on several board expressions before it said, "Look, I let you in. It has been about 190 million of your years since anyone has been on board. I doubt seriously you are an enemy ... so until further notice ... you are honored guests."

Cindy and Sandra say at the same time, "That's nice to know."

"I have ... so many questions," Sandra said. "Who are you? What is this place? Who built it? Where is it from? I suppose that a lot of your answers won't mean anything to us. I mean, 190 million years ago, the continents on Earth were just beginning to drift apart, and our distant ancestors were tiny mammals scurrying out of the way of the dinosaurs' feet. I suppose you're speaking English because you've been observing us and analyzing our language."

"To answer the last question first," said the woman in the viewscreen, "not exactly. I have scanned your brains rather completely and am running my ideas through your simulated language centers. Fascinating -- your brains use such different patterns to produce almost the same result. The same information is stored in completely different ways."

Cindy's mouth fell open. She said with a squeaky sounding voice at first, "You ... are ... alive or something? Like ... I mean ... an artificial person?"

Sandra giggled, "Cindy, that's just a computer simulation for our benefit."

The face on the screen scowled darkly. Both girls just knew in their minds the computer image had her hands on her hips and tapped a foot. "I'll have you know ... dirters, that I was in charge of this station before your entire biosphere was born. I am more alive and in tune to the universal song than earth will be in several million more years."

Sandra replied, "So ... your civilization was so big and bad ... it destroyed themselves and your enemy. I guess that's true peace .. when none are left to fight."

The screen's expression changed once again to what appeared to be remorse. It said softly, "I ... do admit that we were above ourselves. And the planet I was a defence station of ... was totally destroyed."

Cindy asked, "And ... you are the lone survivor?"

The image replied, "That is unknown. Only assumption would be that if this station survived ... others would too."

Cindy looked at Sandra and said, "You know ... we need to give that system a name ... what you think?"

"Well, it's probably got a name already," Sandra said. "What should we call you?" she asked the face on the screen.

"As I said, this is station Hydra Gamma Epillarius," the face said, in a feminine voice that both women were realizing was very familiar to them -- most likely because the computer was creating the voice from their own voice patterns and from the memories of voices of people they knew.

"Well … Hydra sounds like our name for a constellation," Sandra remarked, "but it's one that's named for a mythological monster. I don't think we want to name you that. Gamma sounds like a Greek letter, so that's not a bad idea. Or we could just call you Epilarius, but that sounds kind of like a painful method of hair removal. I'm not sure. What do you think, Cindy?"

Cindy smiled as she replied, "Well ... call her Lauri."

Sandra and the image both said simultaneously, "Why that name?"

Cindy quickly replies, "Think about it ... it's already your name."

Both the image and Saundra looked at each other for a second, then back to Cindy.

Cindy giggles, "The last part of your name ... Epi, then you say, Lauri, and finish it off with Us. So ... instead just say ... Lauri."

The image looked at Cindy for a second or 2, the image went fuzzy, then finally returned.

The image said sweetly, "Call me Lauri. I'm the living core of the station."

Cindy asked seriously, "Can you do something about the awful smell? It smells like a rotten backed up sewer in here."

"Exploring referent," Lauri said. "Hydrogen sulfide was a trace gas found in the atmosphere of the home planet of those who built and used this facility. My scanners are still mostly offline, but I take it that it is not commonly found in the atmosphere of your planet. I can adjust the air mixture. What is the typical composition of air on your planet?"

"About 20 percent molecular oxygen, 70 percent molecular nitrogen, and the rest is mostly carbon dioxide, with trace inert elements like argon." Sandra could immediately tell that the sulfurous odor was dissipating. "How do you even do that? Filtering? You have supply canisters of all these gases?"

"I am finding no referents in your thought patterns for the technology used," said Lauri. "It rearranges both atoms and subatomic particles to produce any substance we desire from any other substance."

"This is ... astonishing," said Sandra. "This technology is far beyond ours. But ... I gather that there was a war. You said there was an enemy, and that a planet was destroyed. The weapons that such technology could produce would be devastating -- mind-boggling." She turned to Cindy. "We may be the owners of this discovery under international law, but ... you know that anything we let people find out about will be used, copied, and improved. We'll have to be very, very careful. Or we're going to end up without a planet."

Lauri said with a raised eyebrow, "No one will be able to enter, use, or recreate this technology. The only way to create it ... is to arrange the subatomic particles in custom ways that only I can recreate at this point. The only people I have given such access to ... is only you ... until further notice."

Cindy asked, "You mean, that we ... as a species ... are not going to be able to copy any of this technology?"

Lauri replied, "That's exactly what I am saying. Your planet hasn't even discovered FTL flight. You only have theories. In my hangar repair shop, is a Ghost Fighter aircraft. After minor repairs, it would prove to be FTL capable and ... has plasma torpedoes and a Negative Graviton Inhibitor."

"What is a Negative Graviton Inhibitor?" asked Cindy.

Sandra replied, "I think that's artificial gravity or ... part of it. But the point is, that they are going to come back here looking for us. They're going to find our shelter tent on the surface. They're going to investigate further, and they're going to find us. If the asteroid can be moved to another orbit, that'll tell them something too. They'll find out what we've found out sooner or later. Humans will reach this level of technology someday -- the only questions are when, and whether we'll survive it."

"I can have your equipment on the surface brought in by what you would call robots, and stored within the complex," said Lauri, "or ... what remains of the complex. I am constantly surprised at how little remains. My records are far more extensive than the reality."

"This asteroid is 30 miles long," said Sandra, "and eight miles wide. The complex used to be larger?"

"Correct," said Lauri. "The part you see here is only the central engineering core. There were living quarters and life support for the engineering staff, and of course emergency shelter and bare-bones facilities in case it was the only remnant -- which turned out to be a wise plan on the part of the designers."

"Yes, it did," said Sandra. "So ... what are your plans?"

"Excuse me?" Lauri looked confused.

"What are your goals, your directives?" Sandra asked further. "It doesn't sound as if you're getting any orders from the people who made you. What does your programming say to do in this situation?"

"It ... gives me no guidance," Laurie nearly stammered. "I have sent out metawave transmissions on every energy range I know, but there is no reply. Reply should normally take nanoseconds, in your units. Chances of any survivors are by now astronomically small, unless there are other AIs who were inactive, as I was. I am ... alone. My decisions ... I choose ... I decide. Currently I wish to learn more about your world. It is the only sentient life of which I am aware. It sends out many radio waves. I assume many of them are entertainment and therefore fictional rather than factual."

Sandra nodded. "That is true. Best to assume it's fictional until you've gathered more evidence. Some of the facts we're not proud of. There are humans who've done terrible things. There are others who've done wonderful and beautiful things."

"As an aside, I am finding many references to you two," Lauri said. "They say that you are very brave and highly skilled, especially for ones so young. You are ... no, not children. Young adults? Yes."

"Yes, that's fair," said Sandra. "Was your mission ... belligerent?"

"My mission ... was defensive," Lauri said. "To protect a planet as part of a defensive grid. This was the coordinating installation. We were overcome, unfortunately, by a superior force and a good ruse to distract me. I could calculate the planet's position in coordinates that would make sense to your culture's understanding of the universe ... but it would be wasted effort. The planet and the star it orbited no longer exists."

"But if you encountered the enemy," Sandra cautiously asked, "the civilization that destroyed the planet and almost destroyed you -- what would you do?"

"At this point -- I would have to prepare a final defense," said Lauri. "I have no resources to fight a battle like that. I would enter stealth mode -- hide. If found, I would be forced to self-destruct to prevent my information from being captured. But I have found no evidence that the enemy still exists either. No enemy broadcasts on any metawave channel. I have been in sleep mode for a long time. It will take a while to go over all the data that accumulated."

Cindy began scanning the entire room. She realized that most of the computer's central core was still inactive. She began to look at the mostly ephemeral control panel to see if she could decipher how things worked. She glanced over to Sandra and Lauri, they were deep in conversation over Lauri’s prime directives. Cindy turned her attention to the control center. She saw how many of the glowing points resembled buttons in a loose sort of way.

She reached her hand over and touched one of the lights that only glowed dimly, instead of sparkling brilliantly as many others did. As soon has her hand brushed the location, there was a tremendous quaking throughout the asteroid. Many more panels around the room lit up and came to life. There were many sounds all around, many of which were felt and not heard. The air immediately cleared and became cooler and more comfortable. The gravity normalized so they weren't burdened with the weight of their environment suits any longer.

Lauri closed her eyes and seemed to take a long deep breath and sighed softly. She opened her eyes and the screen went dark ... At the exact same instant, a holographic representation of a very beautiful young woman dressed in a long flowing gossamer gown appeared. It was Lauri in full.

She smiled and said softly, "Thank you for returning my systems to full power. I am now able to help you claim your find with the Mining Consortium among them."

A screen lit up and what appeared to be pinpoint accurate survey data for over 2/3rds of the asteroid. Complete mineral compositions, solar radiation hazard locations, and even a several trillion gallon deposit of water ice left by a stray comet in the shadow of a large hill and impact crater.

It was more than enough to give the girls complete control over the asteroid and mining ... but not enough important minerals ... except for the water ... to cause the Consortium to create exclusive buyer rights. This left the girls completely autonomous from the Consortium and free to market what, when, and where they chose.

Cindy said in a surprised gasp, "Sandra ... Lauri basically ... gave us this installation!"

Just then ... another screen lit up showing the many thousands of disassembled harvesters ... and another that showed an aircraft straight out of some Super advanced SciFi story in another location.

"You're a sentient being," said Sandra to Lauri. "I don't feel comfortable ... owning you."

"You do not," said Lauri. "But having met you, I trust you more than I do any other humans, so you now have the information you need to prevent others from claiming this installation. And if your goals are to prevent the wrong people from getting their hands on the information I represent, you will need to stake your claim under the laws of your world. However, I consider this planetoid an independent member state of the," and there was an unintelligible sound, "and I am currently its only citizen. You two are my guests, ambassadors of a foreign nation. The difference between those two points is an area for diplomatic negotiation, which is ongoing."

"Hence the need for ambassadors," Sandra said. "But I think you may also need engineers. You have robots, but is there more assistance you need?"

"Yes, please," said Lauri in a relieved tone of voice. "You have no idea how much safer I feel, hearing that you are interested in reassembling me rather than disassembling me. My basic structure is made of a self-assembling metal, but much of it has been damaged beyond the capability of self-repair. There is a factory module that can produce more self-assembling metal, but it must itself be repaired. If you could accomplish that, I could become fully operational in hours rather than years."

"Very well," Sandra said. "Are there raw materials you need? And can you find them?"

"I require niobium, tantalum, titanium, silicon, and gallium," said Lauri, "as you call them. Everything else is present in sufficient quantities on this planetoid, thanks to what must have been numerous collisions with other bodies in this solar system over time. My scans show that there are other nearby planetoids containing these materials." A holographic display of the neighboring asteroids appeared, with certain ones highlighted. "These are the minimal set you will need to visit. I have managed to locate some harvester craft that are in good enough repair that they could be manually operated to obtain the minerals. Can you do this?"

"If you show us how the controls work," said Sandra, "we definitely could. It sounds as if you've computed a minimal recovery path already."

"Affirmative," said Lauri. "It is not optimal, due to extensive damage, but there is still a plan."

"Where there's life, there's hope," Sandra said. "Want to help out, Cindy?"

Cindy's hand brushed another button. This time, it became very clear that Lauri was also fully capable of defending herself as all the undamaged weapons came back online. There were many planetary plasma cannons ... and something called singularity weapons. Cindy now understood what was powerful enough to destroy a planet. She was looking at the control panel of many operating ones.

Cindy stepped back and said softly, "Sure ... as long as those aren't meant ... for Earth."

She turned and looked at the representation of Laurie which had an expression of real concern on her face.

Lauri said softly and reassuringly, "Those weapons are active ... because you used the Master Admin Control Panel and turned them on. Otherwise, I had them all disabled and powered down. I have no hostile intention against you or your kind."

Cindy breathed a sigh of relief, "Ok, how do we get to this point?"

She points to one of the active displays that showed 2 harvesters sitting in what appeared to be an underground hangar.

Laurie replied, "Follow the map on your ... sensor tablet. It will lead you to that point. I would suggest you wear your helmets, there are a few places along the way open to hard vacuum."

"OK then," said Sandra, "let's go!"

Lauri had already figured out how to interface with the girl's sensor tablet and had programmed a map into it, and a route to follow. Sandra and Cindy started fastening their helmets on, and soon they were making their way down the corridors.

Lauri was right -- in a couple of places there were emergency doors that had closed around sections of corridor that were still showing cracks, but as they approached them, other doors closed behind them, and Lauri quickly extracted the air and opened the next door, repeating the process in reverse when they reached the other side.

"This looks like the hangar deck," said Sandra, looking at the map when they reached the indicated door. "Now we just have to find the ... ship ..."

She trailed off as the door opened. There were hundreds of what Lauri had called harvesters -- chunky, beetle shaped, hardly aerodynamic ships with articulated arms that were apparently for mineral extraction and processing. Rows and rows of them stood, not exactly ready, but at least waiting, to be sent out on materials-gathering missions.

"So many ... but anyway, the one we want is this way ..." Sandra said, following the map to one that had seemingly been started up, blue-green lights glowing along its somewhat curved lines.

"I guess we get in ... somewhere?" A door opened from what had seemed like a seamless side panel.

Cindy and Sandra looked the craft over once as they walked through the really clunky, beetle looking craft. They finally made their way to the command deck and the operator's seats.

The couches were form fitting with some kind of dual joysticks attached to the arms. There were myriads of buttons neither girl had a clue as to what they did. The control surfaces were custom made to surround the pilot and operator when they entered the command seats.

Cindy said, "Well, If this were in English ... I think we could have a better go of it. "

Cindy and Sandra began to fasten the flight harnesses. They didn't notice that Lauri updated the harvester's programming to include English while they did this.

When Sandra looked at the control surfaces ... she commented, "I don't know about you, Cindy ... but that labeling looks an awfully lot like English to me."

Cindy took a double take ... sure enough ... everything was now in English. The Harvester's AI came on line and said in a male voice from the central screen, "Welcome to Harvester 09. I am the ship's computer system. If you ladies would be so kind as to put on the head pieces ... we can get started. I must warn you ... the first time you put them on will be rather disorienting."

Sandra had finally identified the circuits that activated the deck and pushed the buttons. Everything came alive around them. Cindy looked around the flight deck. She had no basis on which to build any kind of understanding of all the twinkling lights that seemed to hover in the air, the many holo screens ... or anything else for that matter.

Cindy took the headset apparatus and put it on her head , and the buds in her ears. Instantly, she had a tremendous out of body experience that was totally mind boggling.

She could feel the solar wind blowing across her skin in a gentle caress ... she could hear the songs of the heavens around her as it played out its majesty ... she could see things ... in many different waves and spectrums and could analyze them all in the same glance.

Sandra looked at the netlike headset before putting it on. It looked like a number of jewels all connected together with thin silver threads. When she put it on her head, she started to get strange sensations that overrode her other senses, and when she put the earbuds in her ears, the sound just accentuated the effect.

It was overwhelming. Every object larger than a grain of sand within a few light-seconds was suddenly present in her mind, demanding attention. No sooner did she think about one, gaining knowledge about its molecular composition and orbital trajectory, then she found herself considering ten of its neighbors, feeling the tenuous gravity pulling them all toward one another, before they moved apart, spinning away in their courses, and each of them led to ten others. She couldn't keep up with the flow of information ... then she realized she didn't have to.

She let it flow over her like the waves of the ocean, finding detail only when she focused on something, like stopping on the beach to pick up a shell. She was aware of the asteroids that Lauri had "marked" as the nearest ones that contained the materials she needed, and she thought of how to get from here to each one, and the system instantly supplied her with a path that would traverse them all using the minimum possible fuel, even given that they would have to pause at each one in order to extract the minerals.

"I ... I think I see how we're going to do this," she said. "But I need to learn how to fly."

"If you can walk," said Lauri's voice from somewhere in her mind, "you can fly. I am quite impressed at the progress you have made without any training or experience. You are a natural, as your people might say. Take a step down the path."

Sandra imagined stepping carefully in the direction of the course she had laid in ... and she felt the information shifting around her, the tendrils of gravity tugging, the radiation from the sun and stars bathing her skin, forms of energy that she had no name for dancing around her.

She was unaware that the hangar doors had opened and the harvester ship had drifted out into space, guided by her thoughts along the intended course. To Sandra it felt as if she had merely taken a step, gingerly, through a world of strange sensory impressions.

Cindy gasped loudly as she pushed back hard into her seat. The whole world had just changed for her and she was now drifting among the stars. Her body knew exactly where it was going and how fast to get there.

Lauri said in Cindy's mind, "Relax ... Sandra is doing wonderfully. It's time for you to reach out and say .... grab that small asteroid off to your right with your hand."

Cindy instinctively looked to her right hand as she felt the tension abate within her. The advanced sensors showed her the manipulators on the exterior … of her body. She was totally mind blown that she was fully aware of each and every object larger than a grain of sand. If she chose ... those too. Cindy saw the pinged chunk rapidly moving off at an oblique angle as well.

Lauri said reassuringly, "Just reach out and take it in your hand."

Cindy obeyed. It was a very weird sensation. She could actually feel herself reaching towards the chunk of rock with her hand. She could feel the irregular surface of it in her palm ... and could see that it's central core was pure diamond ... overlaid with iron and He3.

Cindy closed her hand on the object and pulled it towards her body. The articulated arms reached out and began processing the rock and storing it in the cargo hold to the rear.

Sandra said, "Good job ... not bad for a first."

Cindy laughed ... it had been a really wonderfully strange experience. The first target asteroid appeared suddenly in Cindy's sight. She began to dig her fingers into its irregular surface and pull it to the hold for storage.

"OK, we're coming to a larger one," said Sandra. "This one won't fit in the cargo hold. What do we do?"

"Cindy, you can reach the minerals with the ... you don't have words for this effect," explained Lauri. "It is a series of energy pulses that can separate the molecules you need from the rest and pull them into the collector. All you must do is reach out and take them. Sandra, all you must do is make sure the ride is smooth."

"I ... see how to do that," Sandra said,.

She could easily see how to adjust their trajectory so as to go into an amazingly fragile and tenuous orbit around an asteroid that, although it was less than a mile across at its widest, was still small enough to be affected by their ship's mass. But it happened so smoothly that Sandra gasped in astonishment.

Cindy adjusted her vision of the asteroid. She could plainly see each individual element she needed ... and extracted just those by simply digging seemingly with her fingers.

In less than an hour, the girls had harvested enough materials to keep an earth based cracking station busy for many months, and more than enough to repair Lauri.

While the girls enjoyed their new senses through the on board systems, the harvester had begun processing the elements and materials into their proper places and storing them for further handling.

After a time, Lauri said softly in a sweet coo, "Oh, Sandra? If ... you little girls are through playing with your new toys in your new sandbox ... can we have you back in the hangar? The both of you need to make your claims as soon as possible so you have exclusive rights."

Cindy sat up in her seat ... only to have all the proper documents completed and ready for transmission in an instant. Sandra was totally caught off guard when all her paperwork appeared and was also ready for transmission.

Sandra thought about getting back to the hangar, and the ship immediately plotted a course for her, appearing in her mind as a clearly-defined idea, or sequence of ideas, where every movement of the ship was planned out. She visualized moving along the path, and just as before, the ship started along its course. This time, though, she wasn't as caught up in the course-plotting and could actually sense the ship moving.

The course was very efficient, and it wasn't long before they were gliding into the hangar and gently settling down onto a docking clamp, which quietly locked the ship down onto the hangar floor. The doors opened, and as they left the ship, the two women saw a team of wheeled utility robots unloading the processed elements from the harvester ship's cargo compartments.

"We should transmit our claims," Sandra said to Cindy, "but we might want to use our own equipment. I'm betting this place can transmit on our frequencies just fine ... but maybe too fine. We might raise suspicions if our signal is too strong, too flawless, or has some unusual patterns in it."

The girls left the control center giggling, and followed their sensor’s map to the Storage unit. The girls returned to the gear that had been brought in from the surface by utility robots. They found all their equipment neatly packed and stacked in a small storage compartment. To their amazement, everything was packed and stacked so there was no need to rummage for anything. All the things they might need were right at their fingertips. They both saw the large impact mark on the Unit used to process claims and copyrights. It was totally useless.

Cindy retrieved, then turned on the comm transmitter instead and waited for the Consortium Carrier wave to peak.

She said, "Control? This is Silvretta, Lt. Dane. We have completed a survey of 2/3 of this rock and are filing our claim of find. We even have the goods on several other rocks we want."

There was silence over the comm unit for a few minutes before the recognizable voice of Commander Walker came over it.

"Lt. Dane, this is Commander Walker. How can you tell me you have completed that much in less than 24 hours?"

Cindy looked at Sandra and shrugged her shoulders. Cindy replied, "With all due respect ... we did the work and not the miner's grab ass ... sir."

Sandra cringed as Cindy closed her eyes and balled up her fists. Both young women expected to get blasted for being smart tailed.

Instead, they heard the Commander burst into laughter. Several of the team with him could be heard laughing too.

Walker came back, "I can relate to that Lt. Alright, I will process both of your claims immediately. Should be getting the return comm in about ... 15 minutes. Walker out." The comm went dead and both girls breathed a sigh of relief.

"Now that your people's legalities are taken care of," the voice of Lauri said from hidden speakers, or whatever served as speakers around here, "I thought you might want to see what your mining expedition has made possible. I can show you best if you come to the control room."

"Sure, OK," said Sandra.

She and Cindy made their way down the hallways. Already they could tell that repairs were under way. There were no longer any emergency barriers, because there was no longer a need for them. The air leaks were gone -- repaired without a trace. They entered the control room to see a holographic map of the complex hovering in the air near the center of the room.

"Hi," said Lauri. "The part colored what you call green, represents the operational areas of the complex before you arrived.”

The green portions of the map were not very large -- basically just the control room, airlock, and what looked like a few storage and habitat rooms that they hadn't visited.

"The yellow areas were brought up to operational status after you arrived, while we got acquainted, and while you were mining materials."

These included the harvester hangar, what looked like additional areas of the computer core, more storage areas, more robots, and more habitat areas along with the weapons bays.

"And the white areas are accessible because of what you did to help me."

The white areas were expanding visibly into the gray portions, which were obviously the unrepaired sections.

"Repairs are ongoing, especially now that we've got the self-repairing metal factory back online."

"The gray area goes off the edges of the map in all directions," Sandra said. "Just how big is this place?"

"With the restoration of my data storage, I can answer that question now," said Lauri.

The green, yellow and white areas shrank as the map changed scale. They were now looking at an outline of the asteroid, with holographic images of the complex superimposed. The area that had been repaired was ... tiny.

"You've repaired what looks like less than a percent of the asteroid's volume," said Sandra.

"So far," said Lauri. "The robots and self-repairing metal that have been restored are working nonstop. Soon this entire map will be lit up."

"Then what?" Sandra asked.

"Well, that depends on what you want to do," said Lauri. "It looks like this is my neighborhood now, so I'm going to do some learning about the neighbors. Any suggestions you have, I'm open to listening to. The fact is that, well, without creators to obey or enemies to defend against, I really don't have much to do. Repairing myself was high on my pre-programmed priority list. I have materials to do that now, and the process is underway. So ... I'm open to suggestions for things to do while I gather more data."

Cindy looked at the gross materials output numbers as the robots processed the ore they had brought back. As small a cracking station as this facility had, it was almost 100,000 times more efficient and effective than any earth based one. The fact The Facility also had the ability to manipulate molecular structures ... meant they could mine dirt and process water and diamond and Iron/nickel all day better and with more purity than anyplace else.

Cindy spoke up, "How about ... new engine designs so we can ... look like we are legitimate mining operation that has it better than anyone else. I need a fast ship ... that is armed as well. Have to defend our holding eventually and I want to be able to do it."

Lauri replied with a smile, "I like the sound of that. In this hangar ... " a holo-cloud appeared with a map to the under repair hangar, "There is a Ghost Fighter that needs a maneuvering quad replaced. It shorted out last time in flight because the idiot pilot dropped a large cup of coffee in the control circuit. It's quick to fix ... and that ship is FTL capable."

"Faster than light?" Sandra asked, incredulous. "It's actually possible, then."

"Indeed," said Lauri. "Your science is, from what I can tell, centuries away from discovering the principles that make it possible. And yet you have developed such a wide variety of cheeses."

"Cheeses?" Sandra looked quizzically at the screen. "Anyway, the thing can really do that?" Sandra looked at Cindy. "We should visit some other planets and see what's there."

"This would be after fixing the maneuvering quad," said Cindy.

Sandra and Cindy left the control room and followed the map. They traveled a short distance down the hall and came to what appeared to be a dead end in the hall. The wall seemed to dissolve away revealing some kind of smallish room. Cindy said, "According to this map ... the dot is blinking within this area ... so ... I would think we enter here.” The 2 of them entered the small room. The wall suddenly was back and they felt the smallest tingle of movement.

When the wall dissolved away again, they stood looking out over one of the most advanced flight decks they could imagine. They saw that the harvesters that were operational were all lined up ready for launch. There were ... hundreds.

As the young women walked among all the many different types of aircraft, they finally came to an area that was cordoned off. When they entered the area, there stood a large, wonderfully sleek, and gracefully shaped fighter aircraft.

Cindy's said with awe in her voice, "Now, that's class. It looks like the Lamborghini of all aircraft."

Cindy went to the sleek hull and ran her hand along the skin. It was so smooth that it felt oily wet. Cindy looked her fingers over and rubbed them together. There was no residue of any kind.

"Frictionless," said Sandra, also touching the surface.

"Indeed," said Lauri's voice. "This property is due to a coating of isoplatinum polysilicate, bonded to the surface by subatomic bombardment. It results in the smoothest possible transition to the superluminal state."

"Probably keeps the micrometeoroids off too," Sandra said.

"That too." responded Lauri, “Along with deflector shielding technology.

"All right, then," said Sandra, "what do we need to do to fix it?"

Lauri replied, "All that you would need to do, is pick up one of those silvery cylinders and empty it over the circuit that has all the scorch marks on it. After that, just sit back and watch."

Sandra walked over to the wall that looked like a dispensing panel with one of those strange holo-keyboards and holo-cloud screens. Sitting in a slot from the wall was what appeared to be a small cylinder approximately 6 inches long and an inch through the middle.

Within was exactly as Lauri had said, a silvery viscous liquid that seemed to have a life of its own. Sandra hands it to Cindy. Both women entered the hatch. They entered something straight out of their wildest dreams of science fiction. The girls walked down the corridor in amazement until they came to the flight deck.

It was obvious which circuit had been burned out. Cindy opened the top to the tube and poured it over the panel. They stood and watched as the liquid quickly transformed the burnt and destroyed circuit into a pristine new one. The flight panel and control circuit came to life shortly after. The drops of liquid metal then actually crawled out of the panel and returned themselves to the tube, forming a silvery mass again.

Cindy's mouth fell open as she scanned the vial closely. She said with a surprised gasp, "Sandra! According to these readings ... this stuff's alive ... in a very big way. Then again ... it reads inorganic ... with lots of carbon 64 bound in it." Sandra pulled out her scanning unit and set it to deep probe Sure enough, the readings indicated that the mass within the tube was ... for a better term ... alive.

Lauri said softly, "Those are the living repair metal that this facility is constructed with. Thanks to you and Cindy, the factory is in full operation. I'm millions of times more efficient at ore extraction and molecular reassignment than your people will be for thousands of years.

"Lauri," asked Sandra, "are you thinking of ... expanding your facility? Because if you do, please be careful. We may be primitive, but we have some pretty good telescopes."

"Please don't worry about that," said Lauri. "Although I still have the original blueprint for the entire facility I once controlled, I have no compulsions to rebuild it all. And even if I did, I would camouflage the added sections with iron and silicates, strategically pockmarked with artificial impact craters so as to appear similar to other planetoids in nearby orbits. However, as it is, I am making use of only 3 percent of the space currently available, so there is no need."

"Well then," Sandra said, "maybe we should take this bird out for a spin."

Laurie replied, "That should be a good exercise for you. Learn the feel of a real fighter. Only thing .... be careful on acceleration. It is FTL capable and you could be far, far away long before you realize it."

Cindy giggled with excitement as she entered the command couch of the sleek fighter aircraft. When the girls sit in the operator's couches, the seat conforms to their bodies and holds them softly like a custom fit glove.

Laurie says over the comm, "Now, if you will please place the sensor web on your head ... we can get started."

Cindy and Sandra both pick up the spider web looking device and placed it on their heads. The jewels begin to sparkle as they put the buds in their ears. As soon as Cindy had put the last Jewel in place and the buds in her ears ... she had the most wonderful out of body experience imaginable. Her mind expanded and she could see the hangar deck ... and many parsecs beyond. she was speechless at the sensation that the ship was her body. Something deep within Cindy’s spirit knew … this was where she belonged. A creature free among the stars. Sandra gasped as her senses expanded and the same thing happened to her perceptions.

"Should I open the hangar doors?" they heard Lauri ask them, inside their heads.

"Just a minute," Sandra said. "I just need to catch my breath."

The experience was a lot like when she had flown the harvester craft, but whereas those had fed her mind detailed knowledge of their immediate surroundings, this ship, with its faster-than-light capabilities, was giving her knowledge of everything within a few light-years. As before, she could just ignore what she didn't need to focus on. But now, there were things her mind couldn't really grasp, like the curvature of space, graviton deflection coefficients, and physical quantities of space/time displacement foreign to her or any human's education.

"Lauri, have you scanned all of this?" Sandra asked, possibly out loud, but she wasn't sure. "With all of this data, you must have been able to find out whether there's any other remnant of your kind of technology."

"I'm taking data, but processing it all takes time," Lauri said. "The data continues to come in, but originally my capacity for analysis was far lower. As my systems are repaired, my processing has become faster. Briefly put, I'm catching up. Soon I'll have it all analyzed. There are a few promising readings, but I'd rather reserve judgement until repairs to my processing centers are complete -- in what you would call one hour, 15 minutes."

Sandra saw in her mind's eye, a perfect course out of the solar system and off to about 3 light years. She engaged it. The ship leaps from the hangar bay into planier normal space/time. Without warning, a large energy gateway opened in front of them ... their ship leaps off and suddenly reappears 3 light years out.

Cindy pushed back in her seat hard as her hands tightly gripped the couch arms. She couldn't quite grasp all the things that were suddenly thrown into her awareness, there was too much data on too many things all at the same time. Cindy could see things ... and hear things. She felt things all through her body. Cindy knew things about things she had no clue even existed until this flight.

Sandra was astounded as her perception took into account for everything that could be a navigational hazard all around them up to 3 light years away. Nothing the girls had ever experienced ... had prepared them for the sights, sounds, and sensations this fighter gave to them.

The girls could hear Lauri in their mind's ear, "Well, that was a good hop for a first timer. Want to try another hop of about ... let's say .... 21 light years? There’s some interesting debris at that location that we need to check out."

In Sandra's mind, she saw the flight path and FTL jump necessary to arrive there in the next 10 minutes.

"What do we know about that?" asked Sandra, looking at the sketchy, partially-analyzed image of the object.

"Not much," said Lauri. "The analysis will be complete in ... a little while."

"How about we try something a little less far afield?" Sandra suggested. "Maybe this one?" She mentally highlighted an object in the Kuiper Belt, farther from the sun than Pluto. "Scans seem much more complete about that one."

"Well, not completely complete, but more complete than the other," agreed Lauri. "If you'd rather look at that one first, why not? Meanwhile I'll keep analyzing."

"OK," Sandra said, "so what about the closer one? What can you tell about it?"

"It's ruined, less complete than even my complex was," said Lauri, "but it has a composition and organization beyond what could possibly be natural. It could be one of ours. Mine. Whatever."

"You don't sound like ... Never mind. Let's take a closer look."

Sandra saw the course laid in inside her mind, skimming across the borders of curved and warped space/time. The glittering disc appeared before them, its light washing over the ship and leaving it somewhere else.

Almost unbidden, Cindy felt her insight reach out towards the pot marked remnant. She felt cold ... and emptiness. Then found .. something ... a spark of life. Immediately, her new mind filled with data that was correlated, then stored in an archive.

Cindy could feel Lauri accessing it and making a complete copy for herself. The data contained some horrible things the enemy, as Laurie called them, did to other species. Cindy trembled in disgust and fear as the gory images of experimentation, horrific tortures, and system wide genocide filled her senses.

Sandra said softly, "Relax, Cindy ... let it drift through and around you. You don't have to watch if you just sorta ignore it."

Cindy nodded as she allowed the data download to pass through her consciousness. She tried to keep from dwelling on any one thing and bringing it to focus. The data download was massive. Cindy did see the huge wave of energy that struck the planet this station was from, and blew it apart. She was sure it was nothing less than a star gone nova.

Sandra saw it too. "Good lord," she said. "The ... the whole planet." The power of such a weapon was staggering.

"Sadly that's one of the medium-sized weapons that was brought to bear in that war," said Lauri. "But also, there's nothing new there, except that we're seeing it from the enemy's perspective. It's not as if we didn't know the planet was destroyed. Let's see what else there is."

They all skimmed through the data, Lauri doing it so much more quickly due to her vast computing power, while the two human women were astonished by technological marvels they had not thought possible.

"Wait," said Sandra, "what's that?" She focused on a ridged silver cylinder-shaped device. "Am I imagining ...?"

"The object," said Lauri, calling up an image of the faraway artifact they'd passed over earlier. "Chances are good that it is the same."

"What is it?" Cindy asked.

"According to this," said Lauri, "it is a device similar to what destroyed the planet I was defending."

Sandra gasped. "Good thing it's way out in space."

"This type is designed with a homing probe," Lauri said. "It scans for our life forms ... the people who built me. The enemy doesn't want to destroy its own planets."

The image showed the homing probe, the active component of which was familiar to the two women, though they didn't at first recall why. It was a cylinder, with a rod passing through a hole in its center.

If Sandra had been more aware of her body rather than directly experiencing raw information, she would have been aware that she had just reached out and grabbed Cindy's arm.

"No! Cindy! That's on Earth!" she shouted.

Cindy turned towards Sandra and asked, "What's on earth?"

Sandra replied, "That ... thing there," Sandra points to the screen and the probe, "That's that artifact the man on earth has ... and thinks it's an alien artifact."

Cindy's mouth falls open in surprise as she recalled the melted and distorted thing they had been researching during the trip out. Cindy sits back in the comfortable fight couch and allows her mind to drift through all the data archives. She was totally shocked at the seemingly impossible technology ... and the horribleness of the weapons.

Cindy says more to herself than anyone, "Boy, am I glad we found this place first. Would hate to think what would happen if the Consortium got hold of it all."

Lauri said softly, "That's why it was so important for you to transmit the claim with the radio unit and not the usual application unit. That way it’s guaranteed to be in your name."

Sandra thought about the copyrighting device damaged by some kind of impact before her thoughts were overwhelmed by some kind of ... blip that caught her attention on the long range scanners. There was nothing she could do to drop the attention her mind was giving it. Finally, Sandra relaxed and allowed her 'eyes' and 'ears' to reach out to the point causing her so much issue. To her utter astonishment, there also was some kind of pod drifting in an eccentric orbit of another piece of space debris.

"Are you certain that the picture you saw was the same thing?" asked Lauri. "If so, that could be catastrophic for your world, assuming the homing beacon isn't too badly damaged. Let me just ... no. The artifact in interstellar space is moving in the direction of your solar system, but slowly. I can't tell whether it's moving under its own power or whether it's just drifting."

"Umm ... can we find out?" Sandra asked. "I'd really like to know whether some guy on Earth has managed to dig up a thing that's going to doom the world to total destruction."

"Affirmative," said Lauri. "We have retrieved the data from this fragment, and its position and orbital parameters are now known with a great deal of accuracy. If we need to come back here, we can. We can examine the weapon if you like."

"And ... now what's this?" said Sandra, as she'd noticed something else.

There was some sort of system that appeared on the periphery of her mind.

Sandra asked Cindy, "What do you make of those systems? Can you bring them up and see them?"

Cindy focused her mind in the direction Sandra's pointed. She saw many darkened and seemingly inaccessible systems. Cindy focused her mind solidly on them ... they came to life suddenly with startling results.

Cindy felt her entire operational system become powerful and strong as 8 plasma torpedo cannons came on line along with 4 super powerful singularity weapons she had no idea what were. The only clue Cindy had ... the fighter's weapons had come online ... they were powerful ... and extremely bad news.

Sandra sensed these systems coming online too -- and went pale. These were fearsome. The nuclear arsenals of Earth combined could make the surface of the world uninhabitable, but the planet would still exist -- even used all at once, their destructive force couldn't produce the kind of energy it would take to separate a planet into pieces and scatter those pieces in all directions against the force of gravity. These singularity weapons evidently could shatter a large asteroid or perhaps the Earth's moon, though how they worked was still beyond Sandra's ken. The larger versions of these weapons could take out an Earth-sized world, though this fighter didn't have any of those. And, more than that ...

"Dear Lord," Sandra said, "there are records of weapons that can destroy stars. What kind of civilization creates something like that?"

"The kind that is faced with an enemy that is out to destroy it -- one that has weapons of similar power," said Lauri.

"Looks like there's one area in which Earth is exactly as advanced as your people were," Sandra said.

Cindy said softly, "It must be an inherent thing ... to have an overdeveloped will to kill and destroy once a civilization reaches a certain level of technology."

Lauri gave the mental equivalent of a regretful sigh.

Sandra says in return, "If these weapons fall into the wrong hands ...."

Lauri interrupted and asked, "Would you girls like to have a little target practice ... to work the bugs out of the system? It has been quite a few years since this fighter has been in space."

The girl's targeting information came on line. Their entire mind's eye view of the universe changed drastically. The girls could pinpoint everything from the size of a grain of sand up with pinpoint accuracy. Lauri highlighted a floating rock about 6 light years out.

She said, "Ok, girls, your first kill mission ... destroy this target. It's a hunk of iron and nickel about 4 miles across. Have fun."

Instantly, Cindy's display targeted and gave energy readings, load readiness reports, and time to impact data. Sandra's mind flooded with tactical flight data showing the most optimal approach and retreat vectors.

One more system suddenly sprang to life. Both girls were incredulous when they realized ... their ship had something called Coronal Shielding. Meaning they could hide within the river of time itself from an attack or detection.

"Lauri ..." interjected Sandra, "there’s a doomsday weapon out there that may be on its way to destroying our world. The only world, I might add, that we have. Your civilization may have spanned many systems --"

"Only 117 systems," Lauri interrupted, "as opposed to the enemy's 144, according to my most recent information."

"-- but we only have one planet at present. There are only a scattered few hundred humans who aren't on Earth at this moment. If something happens to Earth, we go extinct."

"At the moment I consider the risk of that to be very low," said Lauri. "Even if the homing device is somehow still functional after all this time, it seems to have three modes -- one where it detects my people and calls the weapon in to destroy, one where it detects the enemy and signals it to stay away, and one where it detects neither and does nothing."

"So ... you think it won't summon the weapon because humans aren't your creators?" asked Sandra. "I feel a bit better, but maybe we should still check it out."

"If it would help to reassure you, yes," said Lauri. "We should be able to get close enough that we can scan it in more detail, while still remaining out of range of its scanners, especially since I can jam them, now that I have its specifications."

Suddenly, the displays changed once again with the new data. Cindy was super impressed with how easily the data transferred from one target to the next. Sandra had a complete stealth approach laid in at the same time Cindy had all available targeting data. A large energy vortex opened in front of the ship. Space changed suddenly, and they were within stealth range of the object within the Edgeworth–Kuiper asteroid belt. The relocation was instantaneous. Cindy reached out with her senses ... and could see a platform. It was shaped like a very much larger and more intact version of the one on earth ... and it had almost 50 planetary singularity weapons ... all armed and ready.

Sandra asked, "Lauri ... what is a singularity weapon?"

An unaccustomed lag of silence followed. When Lauri did finally answer, she said quietly, "They are weapons designed to destroy entire star systems. They are a reverse graviton generator and can produce tremendous warpage in space/time around an object ... ripping it apart."

"That thing's a planet killer," said Sandra. "I can see it. Some of its weapons are missing. They were launched. But ... not recently."

"No, not for millions of years," said Lauri. "I can confirm that this is the same weapon mentioned in the data we downloaded from the enemy memory core. It does have many more launchable warheads, however."

"Are they still ..."

"Operational?" asked Lauri. "Scanning ... Affirmative, many of them are operational. Five of them are damaged beyond repair, probably during the war. Another eleven are damaged but could be repaired, if anyone chose to. Another eight are ... questionable. They may or may not function properly if fired. The other 26 appear fully operational."

"And any one of them could destroy Earth."

"Yes. Now, as to whether it is actually following a homing signal ... well, it is on a trajectory that will carry it into the general area of your solar system. But at this point I can't tell whether that's by chance. Its propulsions systems are inactive. However, they are operational. It could move."

"So it's not homing in on Earth," Sandra said.

"Not ... at present, at least."

"Can you monitor it closely and tell us if it ever does?"

"Affirmative. Program coded and running. Any change in its trajectory will trigger an alert. As it is, basically drifting in space, it will take centuries to reach your solar system."

Sandra slightly relaxed. "Good. If something happens, we can do something about it."

"We may want to make sure you two are familiar with this fighter's weapons systems, just in case," said Lauri.

Sandra replied, "That might prove to be rather prudent. With a debris field of doomsday weapons floating around out here, we might just need to defend our section of the asteroid belt."

Lauri replied happily, "I'm glad you see it my way."

All of a sudden, all the displays changed with incredible speed. The girl's minds filled with billions and billions of varied data inputs. Both girls leaned back hard in their couches and gripped the armrests as the ship moved rapidly through the energy vortex of ever changing Space/Time and reappeared in a strange section of space.

It took the girls a few minutes to recover from the experience. Their entire existence had been opened to the universe as they traversed many light years of curved space. Each and every factor of the trip crossed their consciousness.

Sandra finally called up stellar cartography to pinpoint where they were. The ship AI knew exactly where they were in relative space/time to earth ... none of the data was familiar to either girl in any way.

Cindy gasped, "Laurie ... just where in the universe are we?"

Laurie giggled, "Around a star system so far from earth no light from it will reach earth for millions of years so no one there will see the detonation flashes. There is an asteroid belt 3 parsecs from here. The mission ... is to track and destroy several of them for practice."

Immediately, Cindy's tactical lights up. All the larger planetoids were targeted. The girls felt the massive weapons of the fighter as they armed and stood ready. The entire ship seemed to quiver with excitement in their mind’s eye.

Cindy's targeting computer locked. The rock was made of nothing special. It was almost 2 miles across. Cindy mentally brushed through the magazine loads before her mind settled on the plasma cannons. Without warning, 4 super hot plasma torpedoes flashed from the launchers and with no time lag crossed 3 parsecs of space … the small asteroid vanished in the all consuming fire of a small man made nova.

Sandra was astonished and frightened. "There's no chance that those can go off inside the magazine, is there?" she asked Lauri.

"The system is designed to minimize that chance, of course, but no chance is ever zero," said Lauri. "However, the torpedoes aren't fully armed until they leave the launching tubes. Now, we have a limited number of singularity devices." Cindy and Sandra saw tactical information about the devices in their minds. "They can be adjusted to have greater or lesser effect. At maximum they can destroy a planet several times the size of Earth. When the target is selected, the strength is automatically adjusted based on scanner data."

"Lauri, I don't know ..." said Sandra, apprehensively. "That kind of destructive power ..."

"You are afraid of the power of these weapons," said Lauri. "That is natural. It is also healthy. I would worry about you if you weren't afraid. But you need to know how they work, so you can use them if you have to -- and so you can know when not to use them."

Sandra swallowed. "What do I do?"

A tactical display appeared in Sandra’s mind surrounding another planetoid in the field.

"To activate the singularity device launcher, you must enter a sequence of codes. If the codes aren't changed regularly, the weapon won't work. The codes are a sequence of thoughts -- these are the current ones."

Sandra felt three concepts appear in her mind -- it was a very strange sensation. Forgetfulness, a color between orange and yellow, and an eight-sided mathematical shape.

"Now try."

Sandra calmed herself and thought about those ideas. Forgetfulness, yellow-orange, octahedron.

"Singularity devices armed," said Lauri. "You've selected the target, good. The launcher is configuring the device for the target ... and ... fire when ready."

It was a lifeless planetoid, but Sandra looked at the scans anyway, as if remembering it so she could put it back if she had to. With a regretful pause, she said, "Fire."

Visual scans didn't show anything moving toward the target, but then, they wouldn't, because the device didn't strictly move through normal space. Suddenly, there was a strange reading on the gravitational sensors, and the planetoid just ... flew apart. It had been instantly shattered into fragments as if it had been made of glass, and the fragments had gone in all directions, sometimes passing through one another, as if in some cases gravity were pulling them in directions it shouldn't, and as if there were suddenly no agreement over what was real and solid and what wasn't.

One moment there'd been a planetoid there, maybe 20 miles across, and the next there was an expanding cloud of fragments. Sandra had seen this in Lauri's records ... this was exactly what had happened on a larger scale to the planet she'd been defending, only there had been atmosphere, water, molten magma from deep beneath the surface, all intermixing and overlaid on top of one another, rushing apart as fast as they would have been moving together if they'd been dropped ... and accelerating.

Cindy and Sandra sat in the comfortable gravity couches and watched these super powerful weapons as they did what they were designed to do.

After several planetoids had been destroyed, Cindy said softly with trepidation obvious in her tone, "Sandra ... I think ... we have let the genie from the bottle and lost the cork."

Sandra said with a gasp, "Lauri ... how in all the heavens and hell ... are we supposed to defend against something like this? If that weapon really does start to track to earth ... how do we approach close enough to even be in range before we and the entire solar system are blown to atoms?"

Lauri replied reassuringly, “This ship ... and the station itself, are equipped with Coronal Displacement Shielding. The enemy can't hit what isn't there when the weapons arrive."

Cindy asked, "Just what is that supposed to mean?"

Sandra replied quickly, "Think about it. If say ... the torpedo arrives 3 days after the ship was there ..."

Lauri interjected, "Even a second or so out of phase."

Sandra continued, "There's no way to hit such an object."

Lauri giggled, "And the marvy thing about the whole deal ... the enemy doesn't have it ... they rely on FTL jumps to protect them once the weapon is seen on scanners. Only problem ... our Singularity weapons are shielded so they can't be seen ... and they don't travel through normal space/time ... but through warped inverted space on a large gravity wave."

Sandra narrowed her eyes. This computer really didn't sound like a computer sometimes. "Hmmm ... so how were their weapons shielded?" she asked. "How did they get a planet-killer past you?"

"I ... I made a mistake," said Lauri. "They didn't use technology or superior firepower. They used the oldest trick in the book. It was a decoy. They distracted me with a dangerous-looking weapons platform while they were sneaking the real weapons platform in disguised as one of our scout craft -- like the one you're on, but even smaller, faster, and usually unarmed."

"And amid all the confusion you didn't see it --"

"-- until it was too late. At the last second I realized there was one that I hadn't been scanning. I sent out alerts, but --"

"-- but boom." Sandra nodded, understanding.

"Yes. Boom. Too late." Lauri sighed, if computers could sigh, which evidently they could.

In Cindy's mind, the shield system appeared. She realized with a shock that this ship was able to jump through time and space when it went FTL. Otherwise ... for every year that passed on the ship ... many centuries would have passed in normal time. To combine this technology with a weapon of war ... like a nuclear missile ... it is technically possible to deliver the payload to target before the missile was launched. That meant there was no indication until it went boom.

Cindy leaned back and sighed. It was then that her neural link to the ship came back full force. It became her body, the sensors her eyes and ears. It was such an incredible feeling to be alone and floating free in the void of space. She could hear the sounds of all space around her in most any frequency she chose ... and many she had never heard of.

Cindy stretched out her senses across space. She sensed something large. Her readings were nothing special and probably would have been unnoticed if she wasn't enjoying the sensations so much. She realized that her scans were coming back almost null. Whatever it was out there was hidden from her.

Cindy said, "Sandra, "Take a look at section 221 mark 45 on the delta gradient. Is that thing ... a sensor ghost? Or is the sensor scan being blocked?"

Sandra had been focusing on the sensor readings from the place where there had once been a planetoid. Space/time was fractured there, jagged and broken. Anything that went there would be sliced to ribbons.

Cindy got her attention. "Section ... 221?" she repeated. She looked. "That's a blank spot. I'm getting no information. Lauri, what could cause that? Is that how a black hole would show up on your scanners?"

"No," Lauri said, sounding concerned. "The phenomena you call black holes would show up as black holes. They have a definite signature -- extreme gravitational curvature, high X-ray emissions, metaspace vorticity patterns, not that you know what those are -- so the processing would identify them. No, something like that can only arise from a jamming device -- one built with scanners like these in mind."

Cindy asked, "What are the odds we have found an ... enemy facility?"

Lauri replied, "Running about 98% currently. We have found an autonomous weapons platform, a beacon probe, and now something that shows up as a jammed signal. Good catch, by the way ... most of the facility personnel would have missed that as a sensor ghost and dismissed it."

Sandra reached over and patted Cindy on her shoulder, "Good work. Seems you excelled in 2 universes."

Lauri and Sandra giggle as Cindy blushed crimson red.

Sandra's tone changed suddenly, "Do you think you can keep us hidden should we check out that null reading?"

Cindy interrupted Laurie as she said quickly, "With these time shields ... I think I can hide a whole attack squadron."

Lauri said skeptically, "Perhaps ... if they haven't discovered a way to track the time distortions and see us. It has been a couple of million years you know and a lot can happen in that time."

Cindy brushed her mind over the shield system. It came to life in her mind. It felt like putting on a suit that covered her from head to foot. The ship shimmered in plainer normal space for an instant, before fading away and vanishing like a wisp of fog on a summer's morning.

"Can you, I don't know, vary your scanner frequency?" asked Sandra. "Scan in some way they can't jam? It would be nice to know if there were anything living in there, not just some abandoned automated outpost."

"That was the first thing I thought of," Lauri said. "No effect. They know about that trick."

"Does that mean there's life there? The enemy, right under our noses!

"Negative," said Lauri, "it's inconclusive. If it's running on automation, it might still do that."

"Would getting closer help? We can block them from detecting us," suggested Sandra.

"Perhaps," said Lauri. "It depends on whether they can visually detect us before we can visually detect them. This seems fairly likely given that I believe they're bigger than we are."

The girls leaned back in the flight couches and released their mind to the ship control system. It became their bodies, ears, and eyes.

Out in a place in space, a sensor that had lain dormant for uncounted millions of years, was awakened by the softest of brushes with a type of signal it waited its whole existence to find.

This lead to more and more systems activating as the signal was analyzed and thoroughly diagnosed. The whole system went on alert! As fast as the systems massive circuitry could manage, it activated some of the most powerful weapons this universe had ever known. The AI awakens from a long slumber ... the sound of the find resembling an alarm clock to its mind. It stretches out looking ... searching. Singling out ... one very faint star.

"You were right," said Sandra. "They are bigger than we are."

The small fighter had stopped as soon as its inhabitants had seen the stealthed anomaly they'd been searching for. Shielded from Lauri's advanced ancient sensors, it gave away nothing but its approximate location, but it still reflected the light that shone on it from the stars, which were distant but which lay in all directions -- and it obscured the stars behind it.

"It's ironic, isn't it?" said Sandra. "We're using tools that our people can already use to find out more about it, because your technology and its technology are canceling each other out."

"A twisted symmetry," said Lauri with a bit of a dark chuckle. "But parallax measurements as we approached and reflected-light readings are at least giving us something."

That something wasn't good. The object was under 1000 miles in diameter, but not under by much. It was big enough to have its own measurable gravity, and it was nearly spherical. From what they could see, by reflected starlight amplified and enhanced by Lauri's computations, its entire surface was covered with weapons and defenses.

"That's about the size my installation originally was," said Lauri. "This is the enemy's version of ... me."

"I'm not seeing much in terms of damage," Sandra said.

"Nor am I," Lauri responded. "It seems dormant, but that is likely an energy-saving measure rather than a result of damage."

"Do you ... know this one?" Sandra asked. "Does it have an AI? Have you encountered it before?"

"I've encountered its type, in battle, a few times," said Lauri. "We defeated them, but of course, back then, I was intact, and I had the support of an entire fleet. Now ... it would be a formidable enemy."

Suddenly a few readings began to light up on the scanners. There were increased energy flows in parts of the vast network of connections on the object, which seemed to be a heavily modified weapons planetoid.

"What's that?" asked Sandra. "Is that bad?"

"Um, they may have detected us," said Lauri. "Chronal shielding up. Preparing for emergency jump. No. Wait. It's not detecting us."

"Good, because I thought we were stealthed," Sandra said.

"It's been awakened by something, though," Lauri said. "If not us, then what?"

Within the massive AI's mind, many calculations and simulations ran simultaneously. It almost experienced an epiphany when the signal arrived once again on the FTL subQ frequency. It narrowed its search to the parameters the signal came from and did a back scan.

There were several star systems between itself and its actual target. The signal came once again, this time was slightly distorted and filled with electronic static ... but it was the sound of a Tracker on line and reporting the enemy's presence and a homing beacon to track.

There was something else, very faint but compelling. What seemed like -- yes, it was, the remnant of an AI core, much like itself, badly damaged but still issuing a coherent distress signal. It launched a repair package, which was all it could spare, as nearly all of its own resources were busy. The AI watched as the package raced away from its super advanced railgun at an impressive portion of light speed. The AI smiled within itself as it saw the energy envelope of the kit’s small FTL drive flash.

Meanwhile ... Back on Earth ...

A team of highly intelligent scientists from the Earth's greatest minds had been studying 'Drake's Find' as it had come to be known. It had a strange molecular compound none had ever seen ... nor could hope to reproduce. It was based on some very odd property of C64 carbon atoms and some crystal mineral unknown to science. They discovered, after many years and many destructive ways ... how to open a place in the rounded shaft. In so doing, they activated something. None of the scientists could analyze the signal ... much less what powered this thing.

"OK, what's going on now?" Lauri asked, probably rhetorically. "The weapons platform we detected earlier -- its engines have activated. It's changing course."

"What's ... that mean?" Sandra asked. "Lauri, we've got to get home."

"To avoid that thing noticing us, we'd have to back away very slowly before we jumped," Lauri said. "What do you want to do back on Earth?"

"I just have a feeling that it's that homing device," Sandra said nervously. "Someone activated it without knowing what they were doing. I just know it."

"Well, we can look at some of your media transmissions ..." Lauri said. "Searching ..."

"Wait, we're hundreds of light years from Earth. How ...?"

"My installation is only light minutes from Earth," said Lauri, "and I can send the signals on to you by my own means, which is nearly instantaneous."

"Oh. Well, anything about the artifact, and that guy who found it, what was his name, Drake?" Sandra asked.

"Yes. Here, I'll show you ..."

"... just happy someone took this thing seriously," said Drake to the television interviewer. "They say it's millions of years old and made outta Buckyballs or something."

"We have determined that part of its structure is made of fullerenes, yes," said the scientist next to him in the studio, identified as Dr. Rachel Dawson. "It appears to have some kind of energy source and, when we managed to free one end of it from the debris it was encrusted with, it began emitting some sort of radiation. We encased it in protective lead shielding immediately, in case it was dangerous."

"The lead will not block the intraspatial waves," said Lauri. "It is communicating with the weapon. The question is, what is it telling it? Additionally, the weapon may in turn be communicating with this installation we've found. We don't know what they're talking about either."

"Can we find out?" Sandra asked.

"I was in fact already trying to do so," said Lauri. "They are communicating using encryption, of course, but I have many forms of the Coalition's known encryption schemata in my code libraries. The only question is whether they're using one that they developed since I was disabled."

The AI knew its prime directive ... defend the home base at all costs. The enemy was there and only about 4 dozen star systems stood between it and victory at long last. It would wipe them all out ... make sure none of the vile creatures survived this assault. It turned its mind for an instant to do some quick FTL coordinate calculations ... enough distraction for it to detect ... something else ... and a whole lot closer. It narrowed its beam and got the faintest whiff ... of a Ghost Fighter. The most dreaded weapon the enemy ever invented.

The AI cursed ... in its own way ... the stealth technology they had was much better than this facilities ... but it had a small hole in it ... and MOC AI didn't miss it. It knew that it was the most fearsome Assault station in space ... except for perhaps one other ... that cursed Epillarius.

"OK, I have it, and it isn't good," said Lauri. "But I don't understand ... they say that the enemy has been located on Earth. That doesn't make sense. Your people didn't build my installation. Your people didn't even exist back then. Dinosaurs were roaming Earth. Well, maybe they're wrong, but the point is that they're probably going to target Earth."

"We have to stop them," said Sandra quietly, her face pale.

"Oh no," said Cindy. "The armed planetoid is visibly powering up now, power plants and shielding points lighting up."

"Calculating possible scenarios," said Lauri. "This fighter's current complement of singularity weapons cannot take out a target of that size. I have instructed my factories to begin constructing larger ones. This will take days, however. But there is an alternative scenario -- there already exists a stockpile of large enough weapons."

"You mean ... the enemy platform?" Sandra said.

"Affirmative," said Lauri. "Two options: we can try to subvert it at the source, or we can try to deceive it with its homing device."

MOC got over its initial excitement over finding a probe responding to positive ID on an enemy world. It began to analyze the Ghost Fighter signature it had received. After all these millennium ... Moc hoped it could detect any that happened to be closer ... although it had little hope of doing so. Those accursed fighters were totally invisible until the very last indefensible moment.

There was no doubt, MOC decided. The signature was excessively faint ... almost beyond its ability to see it, but it was a Ghost Fighter. It knew if there was a squad of those floating around out there, they could cause a lot of devastation. MOC ran through its inventory of weapons platforms. Many had been obliterated when the planet was destroyed ... many were still available, although none as advanced as the Ghosts.

MOC concluded the best course of action was to do many deeper scans in the direction the trace came from before jumping off into a possibly well enforced enemy star system and a total ambush. MOC began deep stealth probes trying to the utmost of its electronic abilities to find another trace ... and possibly the Ghost Fighter’s home facility.

"The planetoid isn't moving," said Lauri. "I don't know why. My hypotheses are: perhaps it is still trying to gather intel, assess the situation. Perhaps it is trying to call for backup, as such weapons just don't go into battle without a fleet. Perhaps it is more damaged than we thought, and it's repairing itself before it risks attacking anything."

"But the weapon platform," said Sandra, "is that still heading for Earth?"

"It is ... no longer accelerating," Lauri said. "It is continuing along its course at a constant speed, but it won't reach Earth for years at that rate. It hasn't activated any FTL drives that it may have. My guess is that the scientists deactivated the homing beacon, again without realizing how."

"What if the planetoid recalled it?" asked Sandra.

"Also a possibility," said Lauri. "By the way ... how long can your species maintain optimal activity levels without rest?"

"About 16 hours is recommended before a rest break," Sandra said, "or so they say. I've pulled many all-nighters."

"Might I suggest a rest break, then?" said Lauri. "I can alert you if there is any change in the situation."

"But ... we have to mine ore, too," Sandra complained. "Otherwise, when they come to get us in two weeks, we'll have nothing. They won't let us come back."

"My harvester ships are now on automatic control," said Lauri. "I can have them mine whatever you need. Don't worry. But you've been up for 24 hours straight, and I'm going to need you -- Earth's going to need you -- at peak efficiency."

"Well ... all right," said Sandra. She was feeling exhausted. "Are there bunks on this thing?

Lauri giggled adorably, "There are ... of course there are bunks."

The girls saw several systems come online as their head sets deactivated and released them from the neural network of the ship. They unharnessed themselves and followed the blinking light trail Lauri activated to a small door. When the girls approached, it slid open in 4 directions revealing a typical military style bunking quarters for 6 individuals.

Sandra commented, "Looks like berthing quarters look the same no matter where they are in the universe. "

Cindy and Saundra chuckled as Cindy wandered over to a small smoked glass looking door. When Cindy touched the palm print control beside the door, it opened into a wonderful shower unit. She recognized it immediately as being an environmental chamber capable of reproducing most any kind of weather known to Lauri's AI.

Cindy began stripping. By the time Sandra turned around, Cindy was already in just her panties and programming the shower unit for a warm gentle spring rain on earth.

Sandra asked, "Is that gonna take long? I want one too ... I'm simply filthy."

Cindy giggles, "I'll be out in a jiffy." Then stepped out of her panties and into the unit. The door closed behind her. Sandra could hear the water and a soft pleasant rumble of thunder off somewhere far away.

Cindy said loud enough for Sandra to hear, "This thing can even produce the lightning ... if one were so inclined."

Sandra laughs, "That might prove to be a bit electrifying if it should strike near you in there. Not much room to hide."

Both girls laugh as Cindy enjoys the first hot shower she's had in 2 days.

Cindy stepped from the shower wrapped in a soft towel. She said cheerily, "Your turn Sandra. It's wonderful."

As Sandra took her shower, Cindy looked through the storage compartments for fresh clothes. She found panties and a soft cotton nighty. Cindy crawled into the nearest bunk after putting these on ... and was asleep before her head properly hit the pillow.

"Where did the clothes come from ...? I guess you must have synthesized them," Sandra said softly.

"Affirmative," Lauri's voice said, coming quietly from hidden speakers. "Please, get some rest. I will wake you if there is any reason to."

Sandra dialed up a shower environment -- beneath a waterfall in a jungle pool -- and emerged refreshed, and like Cindy she dropped into an exhausted sleep.

Before she knew it she awoke, reached for her suit, and looked at its chronometer. She'd been asleep for 10 hours. She was also very hungry. She looked around for Cindy, who wasn't there.

"Good ... morning, I believe the phrase is?" came Lauri's voice softly from the walls. "Of course, there is no point of reference for time of day at the moment ... it's always morning somewhere on Earth."

"Good morning, Lauri," said Sandra. "I'll take what I can get. Where's Cindy?"

"In the copilot's seat, scanning the information from Earth," she said. "I've synthesized some nutritious food, or I believe you brought some of your own."

"I'm not sure what you might have come up with," said Sandra, "but it can't be worse than those space meals they pack for us."

"All right, then, once you're dressed, you might join Cindy."

Cindy sat in the flight couch totally engrossed in scanning all the radio frequencies Lauri sent to her. Cindy was amazed at how much information was being transferred.

She knew, for instance, that the Consortium National Bank had swindled a great deal of resources from their employees ... and had no intention of recompensing them for it. Cindy realized that once an organization became so large that it would crash the System Economy if something were to happen, they could commit any crime without prosecution. She also knew this had the highest encryption known to her world.

Lauri had spent all of a few microseconds cracking it. Maybe forever for an AI .... but more than super fast for humans ... and didn't even leave any traces to be detected behind. Cindy also found more breaking news on the artifact. One of the scientists had been severely injured when an apparent energy bolt lashed out from the device when he was trying to open the casing further.

Sandra came in and plopped into the pilot’s flight couch and said as she buckled her harnesses, "Find anything in the news?"

Cindy replied as she opened her eyes, "Yes ... the Consortium is robbing us miners ... and they are doing their best to keep it secret."

Sandra's eyes get big, "How do you know that?"

Cindy replied, "Lauri is able to crack any of the Earth's encryption techniques instantly .... and has uncovered the Chancellor's theft." Cindy turns around toward Sandra before continuing, "And another thing of interest. One of the scientists working on the probe was severely injured when he attempted to open the probe's casing further."

Lauri said solemnly, "If he lived ... he's lucky. It is programmed to defend itself first, then self destruct if it doesn't work ... and that would be devastating to Earth."

Sandra and Cindy ask at the same time, "Why's that?"

Laurie replied, "It would detonate with the explosive yield of ... " there was a few moment of silence before Laurie continued, "Several hundred gigatons of TNT."

"I know your technology can do good things too," said Sandra, suddenly finding herself with a stress headache, "but does it have to have so many world-destroying consequences?"

"The basic building blocks of the universe can be used for creation, transformation, or destruction," said Lauri. "It is all a question of which you choose -- unfortunately, it also depends on which your neighbors choose."

"Any activity from the planetoid or platform?"

"None so far."

"OK," said Sandra, "has anyone tried to contact us? As far as they know, we're camped out on the surface of your asteroid."

"Not specifically, but your transponder signal is still broadcasting from your oxygen tent," said Lauri. "I gather that they still think you're fine as long as there's no change in that."

"Yes, it changes to a distress signal if the tent loses pressurization or other dire events happen," Sandra said. "By the way, it also changes to a distress signal if it can't detect the signals from our suits. Why isn't it doing that?"

"Your telemetry was one of the first things I noticed when I awoke," said Lauri. "I had assumed it was something of the sort. I've just been amplifying the signals and rebroadcasting them in both directions. It still thinks you're on the asteroid."

Cindy sat and watched the scanners. She was very concerned as she saw power readings begin to spike within the weapons platform. She noticed a very large blossom of some kind of strange energy she had never seen before.

"Lauri?" Cindy asked timidly, "What kind of .... energy is this growing on that weapons platform?"

Lauri made the closest thing to a fearful gasp either girl had ever heard. Lauri said quickly, "What you are witnessing is an omega bomb powering up. It's one of the ... sun busters I had told you of. I didn't realize one was on that type of platform. That must be an another type of attempt to sneak one by me and destroy the planet I was protecting. Would make an excellent decoy."

Sandra quickly ran down her weapon's inventory list. She said with real concern in her voice, This fighter has the ability to sneak within strike range ... but I'm not so sure about their shielding."

Laurie replied, "They have energy type shielding. It can be overpowered if we hit it with enough energy at the proper frequencies."

"But how much damage could we realistically do, just with the lower-powered weapons in our arsenal?" asked Sandra. "The singularity torpedos wouldn't be affected by that kind of shielding -- they'd go right through -- but the ones we have aren't big enough to do more than annoy that thing. Might leave some large craters on its surface and possibly knock out power production."

"If they have an omega bomb," said Lauri quietly, "we will have to do everything we can to prevent it from being deployed. They could use it on your star. They could use it on a nearby star, spelling death for your world once the shock wave reaches Earth. Can your people truly mount a realistic evacuation effort given less than 10 years, even if anyone takes your word for it that the shock wave is coming? Remember, there is no way for your world's technology to detect it and verify your claims of disaster ... until it is already too late."

"It's up to us," said Sandra. "But ... there are still options. We can target the omega bomb itself. Perhaps we can fool it with a fake target, fake scanner readings. Lauri ... how operational are your factories now? What can you make?"

"Factory units now fully operational, limited only by available materials," said Lauri, "and harvesters are discreetly mining materials out of detection range of Earth. Those are the materials that are for me. The ones I'm saving for you are the ones from the planetoids that you had indicated an interest in."

"You're being so good to us," said Sandra.

"I believe the phrase is 'you're welcome,'" said Lauri. "Besides, I am beginning to have ... a suspicion."

"So am I," Sandra said, "but that can wait. Obviously the base computer wouldn't be prepping an omega bomb if it didn't plan to use it."

"Unless it suspected we were here and was trying to use it to force us to act and reveal our position," said Sandra.

"That is a level of subtlety not usually found in the enemy's tactics," Lauri said, "but not beyond the realm of possibility."

"I have a suggestion," said Sandra.

Suddenly, major alarms went off within the flight deck. Sandra and Cindy jumped in fear at the loud noise.

Lauri said loudly, "The platform is powered up and on the move! We have to do something rapidly. It's not exactly heading directly for earth ... but taking a roundabout route that should take it about 40 years to be within striking range."

The Platform moved about 3 light years, then came to a complete halt in spatial relation relative to all the objects around it and went inert. All of the energy signatures went dark. As far as readings were concerned, it was completely powered down except for a maintenance area within the computer

Lauri said quickly, "I have work to do if we are to implement the plan. I need the both of you to return to base under chrono shielding. I received a message from someone named Walker. They are sending a supply shuttle with a new type of hardened shelter for you. It appears there is going to be a longer delay in retrieving you than previously thought.

By the time the fighter had returned to the hangar, several hours had passed. The platform was still sitting motionless at its last location ... and the girls noticed immediately that the hangar was filling with more operational Ghost Fighters. Currently, there were about a dozen of them sitting at the ready line for launch. Cindy noticed a weird looking, oddly glowing projectile sitting off in a fenced location. As she watched, several treaded robots arrived with more and carefully off loaded them.

Lauri seemed to read the girl's mind as she said, "Those are the Omega Bombs."

"You can make those too?" exclaimed an astonished Sandra. "I thought they were the enemy's technology. Also I thought they were for causing stars to go supernova."

"At one point we captured some of them and learned how to make them," said Lauri. "And they have other applications. They aren't as powerful when not fired into the hearts of stars, but they can still be quite effective."

"I think I know what you're thinking," said Sandra. "They can blow up other omega bombs, can't they?"

"Indeed," Lauri responded. "That's why they're not going to stay together. Now, I believe you two have an appointment on the surface. I can stay in radio contact, as it were, although I wouldn't call what I'm using 'radio.'"

"You're right," said Sandra. "We have to go meet the shuttle. Come on, Cindy -- time to rough it. We'll have to pretend we've been surviving in the oxygen tent."

Before they went to the surface, Lauri had led them to the galley. It had been fully repaired and was operational. As they entered, the holographic image of Lauri stood waiting for them.

Lauri said, "All you have to do is ask for something. The system is programmed to produce ... almost any type of food substance you could imagine ... and many you probably can't. Don't worry about getting something that will kill you or make you ill ... I have safeguards in place to insure that would never happen."

After the girls had a dream meal from their wildest fantasies, they donned their environment suits, loaded everything on the cycles and left through the airlock to hard vacuum. Quickly, they reassembled the tent and their survey camp and made it look like they had been there for several days hard at work. There were many types of raw minerals and other evidence they had been hard at work. Their beacons started flashing as the shuttle approached. The girls could see it as a bright star as it grew ever larger and finally resolved into a transport shuttle.

After the shuttle had landed, Several of the older miners helped Cindy and Sandra offload the heavy cargo and assemble the Slagcrete dome of their new outpost.

Cindy said to Sandra over the private suit channel, “This is perfect. We can make an access way into this from within the Facility. We can come and go in shirt sleeve environment ... and still give the impression we are living here and this is the base of operations."

Sandra said, "Yes, that will be very useful ... though I wonder why they brought this."

If there was going to be a delay in picking them up, why did they have time to bring a permanent shelter? Something was up.

Once they were back inside, Lauri confirmed their suspicions. "They've made what they consider a major discovery -- an asteroid with significant veins of minerals. Gold, platinum, osmium, niobium, molybdenum ... a highly useful discovery for your people's technology level. Someone believes that they will be making a great deal of profit. They can afford to pay for a more expensive shelter for you while shutting you out of what they believe to be the find of a lifetime."

"But ... with your help we don't need to rely on high concentration mineral veins," said Sandra. "It's simplicity itself to purify the useful minerals right at the source. We've already got more minerals than they'll ever get out of their find," she said, looking at Lauri's scans of the asteroid in question.

"Indeed," Lauri said. "And mining more would also be ... simplicity itself."

"I didn't come out here to become rich," Sandra said, "but I can think of a good way to put the wealth to use.

Lauri commented, "As far as monetary returns, I have already processed and converted more ore in the last 24 hours than your entire Consortium cracking operations back on Earth could in a hundred years or more. All the materials are .... any kind of mineral or precious metals you choose ... or anything else for that matter. Molecular manipulation is easy."

Sandra and Cindy looked at each other and smiled. Cindy shrugged her shoulders and said, "Well, girls ... it doesn't hurt to be rich ya know." The girls and Laurie giggled.

Meanwhile, Commander Walker looked over the mineral survey of Silvretta. He was super impressed with the girls and the work they had accomplished. He was still marveling at how fast they had completed the job. He put the pad on his desk as he smiled. He was proud of those girls ... and he knew they were going to make him rich enough he could return to earth and not have to waste away on some G_D forsaken hunk of rock in deep space.

He stands and grabs his helmet. It was time to run an inspection to make sure the reports are correct and not falsified on the other site. If it turned out to be true .... the Consortium would be very pleased.

In a far off place in deep space, an AI worried in the way it could. It knew a Ghost Fighter was there. None of its scanners could pick up another single whiff. A horrible thought ran through its circuits over and over. After this many millions of years ... the force the enemy probably had would be enormous. Even with the home system obliterated in a Surprise Omega attack ... one station, it was positive now, had survived. The most deadly one of all ... Epillarius.

"OK, samples loaded," said Sandra, closing the shuttle's cargo compartment, "and secured."

"Good to go," said the Consortium shuttle pilot over the radio. "As soon as you're clear I'll move on to my next stop."

"Roger that," Sandra said, "and thanks for the supplies. Take care, Collins."

"You too, ladies," the pilot said, and as soon as he confirmed that Sandra was clear, he fired the shuttle's engines to propel himself on his way. The samples would be analyzed back at the lab, along with the others he was picking up, and the results would be transmitted back.

Sandra and Cindy knew the results would be good -- very good. They weren't purified minerals; they were raw samples, but they were carefully selected based on Lauri's scans. The next Consortium visit would no doubt drop off a standard ore processing package -- containing all the equipment necessary to mine ore, do some preliminary refinement, and load and fire the rest to the Consortium's refinery station via a linear accelerator, using electromagnets to launch small capsules in a precisely-measured trajectory that the refinery was expecting.

"Well, that's done," said Sandra. "They shouldn't need to come by again for at least a month. Now we have to secretly save the world."

MOC calculated and recalculated its Strategic and Tactical options. It moved the weapons platform to a better attack position that could be defensive if necessary. MOC reverse calculated the angle of approach of the faint signal it had gotten for the instant it had seen it. MOC wasn't sure if that was an on purpose leak to set up a trap or not. MOC decided safe was better than sorry and brought all of its planetary weapons systems online.

Lauri saw it when the energy blooms came up. She announced, "Ladies ... I think ... we have a serious problem."

Cindy turned from the holo-cloud she was viewing and said, "What's up?"

Lauri sent all the data Tactical sensors showed. Lauri replied, "I think the other Facility is getting ready to attack. All its weapons ... the hard ones ... are now online."

"It might be time to put Plan A into action," said Sandra.

"We have a Plan B?" asked Cindy.

"We'll think of one if we need one." They entered Lauri's complex and headed straight for the launch bay.

"From the microsensors we left behind when we were in the vicinity of the planetoid base," said Lauri once they were aboard their fighter, "the AI has moved its main weapons platform to this position, which is useful for defense against traditional attacks, while still being quite a viable attack position. All its planetary defenses are now online, as well."

"This doesn't change the plan that much," Sandra mused.

"True," said Lauri. "Your part in this plan is the same. I have recalculated the other approach vectors."

"Time to go," Sandra said. She put the thought command out, and the fighters launched -- not only their own, but all the additional remote-controlled ones that Lauri had been building, each with its own omega bomb aboard.

"Now remember," said Lauri, "I can't sense the enemy's omega bomb with the microsensors. It takes the scanners of one of these stealth Ghost Fighters, at least, to pick that up, but it doesn't matter. The remote fighters are headed for all the most likely places for it to be, and trajectories can be adjusted if it turns out not to be in any of those."

"Right," the girls said.

Each fighter entered a glimmering portal and was gone. In seconds the enemy planetoid base was surrounded by stealthed remotely operated fighters, each designed to jam the base's energy shields, repel any incoming attacks, and penetrate to a likely omega bomb location, setting off its own omega bomb. Emerging slightly further away, Cindy and Sandra's fighter was equipped to coordinate.

"The omega bomb seems to have been moved along with the main weapons platform," Sandra said, looking at the scanner readings.

"That was expected and has already been compensated for," said Lauri.

On the planetoid, MOC suddenly noticed strange readings all around it. More than 30 signatures -- they didn't exactly look like the Ghost Fighters that it feared, but they didn't look like anything else it knew. There was no time, MOC had to launch.

"I'm picking up movement near the bomb," said Lauri. "We cannot wait any longer."

Sandra and Cindy looked at each other. "Let's go," they said simultaneously, and in response to their thoughts the remote fighters all ran their planned programs.

The planetoid's shields were unable to cope as the remote fighters slipped right through. The various energy weapons it brought to bear had no effect on their chronal shielding. They didn't slow down; instead they accelerated toward the surface, and fully three of them set off omega bombs that caught the enemy's omega bomb in their blast radius. The fourth … accidentally destroyed a major engineering node.

Designed as they were to interfere with the fusion mechanisms at the hearts of stars, the omega bombs that were going off all over the planetoid theoretically didn't do that much relative damage by themselves, although what damage they did do was seriously massive. Due to a quirk of the technology, it was not good for one omega bomb to go off near another.

The planetoid's main weapons platform was obliterated in a flash of fusion energy -- a star briefly existed on MOC’s surface as three of the bombs went off in close proximity not only to each other, but to the fourth one aboard the enemy planetoid. Meanwhile, there was another unexpected blast elsewhere on the planetoid -- there had been at least one other bomb, but now it too was destroyed.

Following one of the remote fighters in, Sandra and Cindy also passed through the shielding and repelled the weapons easily. Then, responding instantly to the improved scanner readings available now that they were within the enemy's shields, they fired precisely-aimed plasma torpedoes to sever the power and data connections linking the enemy's AI to the rest of the planetoid.

MOC couldn't believe what happened. Thirty Ghost Fighters suddenly appeared from nowhere and fired weapons. The explosions were massive as they spread out soundlessly in the vacuum of space. MOC saw one lone fighter break off and fire plasma torpedoes at the production centers. MOC managed to get one single Planetary Singularity weapon bolt off before the plasma torpedoes detonated.

Between the Omega Bombs and the plasma weapons, the planetoid station took massive damage. All of it's primary defense weapons failed along with the shields. MOC couldn't understand why the shields failed, nor how the fighters managed to get through to fire their weapons. The only thing MOC could do as the main power grid failed, was gather as much of its central core power up to keep itself active.

Lauri managed to get a warning off to Sandra and Cindy about the incoming singularity missile. The impact warnings screamed in their minds overriding all other inputs as it approached. The only saving grace ... the enemy hadn't yet discovered how to make them not have to move through normal Space / Time ... otherwise ... all would have been lost.

"Lauri! What happens when a singularity device hits a chronal shield?" Sandra asked quickly.

"You'll be OK! Don't worry!" said Lauri. "The installation might take some damage."

"Good! And why have we had time to have this conversation?"

"You have apparently discovered how to communicate without words," Lauri answered. "This has taken no more than half a second. Brace yourself."

There was a feeling of extreme vertigo, nauseating both Cindy and Sandra. It felt like being in a ship on stormy seas, but the shaking was much quicker and extremely more violent. It seemed to last for an eternity, although it was only a few minutes. When it was over, they were in one piece ... hovering above an enormous, jagged, city sized crater in the planetoid.

"I lost contact with you there," said Lauri. "That was expected. I'm reading that you're both fine. Everything OK?"

"Yeah," said Sandra. "What happened to ...?"

"From what I'm getting, and my scans are much clearer now," Lauri said, "the planetoid's surface is severely scarred in the area you were nearest to. You will probably want to move away from your current position. I'm not certain the planetoid has any guidance systems left, but it should probably not move closer to the point of detonation or it will take more damage. But move carefully. Fragments of debris are drifting away through various fragments of space/time."

Backing away slowly, they were able to see what Lauri described -- near the point of impact, their scanners had been scrambled, but now the images were much clearer.

In the girl's minds, the images of the surface of the Planetoid were vivid. There was one massive crater, and many smaller ones that glowed in the boiling plasma mess left behind. An extremely large debris field spread out in many different space / time dimensions. Saundra had trouble avoiding all of it as they slowly backed away from the planetoid.

From the deepest crater, another massive explosion spattering many tons of liquid fire and plasma debris into space as the main power source detonated. This was massive enough, coupled with the other explosions, to start the planetoid into an eccentric wobble like a top that had begun to spin down.

MOC knew it was in serious trouble. It had lost all of its main power. The auto repair systems were offline. It had no contact with with any of its weapons stations or engineering stations. MOC also knew its launching bays were totally gone ... along with the mobile weapons platform. With what sensors MOC had left, all it could see was a spreading debris field.

Cindy said, "Wow! I have never been that close to a nova before. I understand now how it could wipe out a planet. It's a good thing that Coronal Shielding isn't on a mobile attack platform. It would be a totally ... devastating weapon."

Lauri made a noise the girls had never heard before. Sandra asked, "Are you OK, Lauri? I don't think I ever heard you make that kind of ... sound before."

Lauri tried to change the subject, "Sensors indicate that the MOC AI is still intact. It has emergency backup power for the next 25 years. Gives us plenty of time for salvage operations."

"What's the next move?" asked Sandra.

"I'll take care of things here," Lauri said. "I'm sending an automated salvage crew. Incoming transport." An infraspace portal opened and another ship emerged, skirting the singularity impact area and heading for the planetoid's surface. "You should probably head for the itinerant weapons platform."

"Roger that," Sandra said, and she saw a flight plan for it within her mind's eye.

Once they were far enough from the singularity detonation point, they were under way -- emerging near enough to the platform to take further action, but not near enough for it to detect them. They were in full stealth mode, traveling parallel to the platform.

"It hasn't made an FTL jump yet," Sandra noted. "Maybe it hasn't gotten a clear enough signal yet? Or maybe ... its FTL drive is disabled?"

The platform sat inert in the darkness of space. The girls couldn't detect any signs of energy. The only pulsations, came from the core of the Omega Bombs that had been loaded in the now powered down launchers.

Cindy said, "I don't see any kind of power readings coming from the platform. The only thing I can see ... is the energy reading of the Omega Bombs ... many ... Omega Bombs.

"Those, and planet-killing singularity weapons," said Sandra. "I guess it has both so it can decide whether to destroy just a planet or a whole solar system. But how do we disable it?"

"I can think of three basic strategies," said Lauri. "First, disable it -- disable its drive systems so it can't move into range to attack, or disable its weapons systems so it can't fire. Second, jam its communications -- if it can't receive a signal from a homing beacon, it won't attack. Third, stop the signal at the source -- go back to Earth and disable that homing beacon. Your people's scientists seem determined to continue meddling with what they don't understand."

"If they only meddled with things they understood, how would they ever learn anything?" asked Sandra.

"How indeed? First let's try this idea," Lauri said, and another small transport emerged some distance further away. "These jamming mines are small and adhesive, designed to be indistinguishable from the usual debris of space. I will place them in the platform's path, and it will hit them, causing them to adhere to it and activate, sending out a blanketing signal of static so the platform won't receive anything from the homing beacon -- if they work."

The transport fired several dozen tiny objects that looked like rocks and were about the size of marbles or pebbles. They were quickly out of range of normal vision, but with the scanners, Sandra and Cindy could see that they had moved into position. Soon the weapons platform collided with the jamming spheres, causing them to adhere to it, and once they were in place -- and scanners showed that 11 of them were -- they activated.

"Good," said Lauri. "Now we --" She interrupted herself.

The metal outer skin of the platform was glowing red hot. Soon it had destroyed the adhesive that was holding the jammers in place, and they floated away, leaving the platform unjammed again.

"Hmm, I had calculated around a 10 percent chance that it could do that," said Lauri. "Perhaps one of the other plans."

"If we go in to try to disable it, it'll probably defend itself," said Sandra.

"Almost certainly. 92% chance," said Lauri.

"If we send a remote device with an omega bomb?"

"That has a good chance of working. But it has several omega warheads, and it might manage to launch one."

"Still, if it did, we could destroy it before it hit its target," Sandra suggested.

"Unlikely. The missile might have FTL capability."

"Best, then, if the missiles are never launched," Sandra said.

"Affirmative. Perhaps seeking the homing beacon out first might be best," said Lauri. "Perhaps I can jam its signal, or perhaps you can disable it."

"Are we going to Earth?" Sandra asked.

"That seems like the best possibility for now," Lauri said.

Sandra turned her thoughts to the quickest trajectory back to earth .... and the flight plan appeared in her thoughts.

Laurie warned, "Be extremely careful .... for several large reasons. Most importantly, you are known to be somewhere else many thousands of miles off world .... don't be seen."

A small panel slid open with 2 gauntlets resting in their rack.

Laurie continued, "Each of you place one of these on your dominant hand. It will offer you invisibility cloaking, and a rather interesting use of Telekinesis. Those weapons can prove to be excessively deadly .... so use them with extreme caution."

Cindy picked up one of the gloves and slipped it on her hand and arm. It snapped closed with force. Cindy screeched as a sudden pain shot up her arm amid strange sensations of something crawling inside her arm and spine. When the sensations reached the back of her mind, she became aware of her new abilities. It was such a strange awareness. Cindy pointed her finger at a small clipboard she had placed on a console earlier. It immediately hopped into the air and over to Cindy's outstretched hand.

Sandra's eyes got large with surprise as she said, "Do that again."

Cindy compiled as she said out loud, "Water ... I'm thirsty."

A cup of water flew from the back of the flight deck into Cindy's hand once again.

Lauri said, "Now, those stories you have heard about mind powers, those gloves provide them for you. As you become accustomed to them ... the powers will grow stronger and more diverse. The both of you should have command of some the PSI powers by the end of 24 hours.

"Your people must have been amazing," said Sandra, "when they weren't using their talents to wage war."

Sandra put on the other glove, and her face went through contortions as the sensations assailed her nerves.

"I have noticed some of your philosophers and writers saying similar things about your own species," said Lauri. "Now, I can have the ship drop you off near the lab where the homing beacon is being studied. It can remain hidden in orbit and pick you up again when you're done. Meanwhile, I can try to set up a satellite, or network of them, to interfere with the signal just in case it's activated again. When there's a killer robot in outer space that can launch missiles that blow up the world, it's good to be certain."

"Now you're sounding like us," Sandra said.

"Perhaps so."

Soon the fighter had stealthily returned to the solar system and inserted itself into a low Earth orbit.

Sandra and Cindy were still impressed by the new Technology. The girls could discover almost anything about anything on earth at this moment without half thinking about it. All the news reports and filed Consortium Documents on the artifact were available for them to see.

They set their sleek fighter down on the roof of the Nano/ Physics building.

Sandra said in a soft whisper, "Quit messing with that gauntlet. There's no telling what might happen if the scratching causes some kind of damage."

Cindy snorts, "Lauri told us that damaging it is next to impossible."

Cindy reached out to take hold of the lock on the fence gate. To their amazement, The lock and chain lifted up, then twisted itself into pieces leaving the gate unlocked.

Sandra commented quietly, "Would hate to meet up with that in a dark alley."

Both girls giggle as they try to open the door from the roof.

"Let's see if ... oh yes," said Sandra, and reached inside the door's locks with the gauntlet's gravitic manipulation fields, lining pins up and turning cylinders, guided by the scanners in the gauntlet and in the headgear she still wore. Even though they hadn't yet left the ship, the rooftop door was unlocked and ready for them to enter.

Simultaneously, Cindy was scanning the path they would take to get into the lab where the homing beacon was stored, and the different path they would take to get out. She unlocked every door along that path and, in the cases where some of those doors had electronic locks, rerouted microscopic circuits to make them think the locks were still closed. Fortunately, this was a low-security facility; the Consortium had no idea what it had on its hands.

"I have been scanning the routines, such as they are, used by this building's guards," said Lauri. "If you do this in one smooth run, it should take no more than 87 seconds, and no one should even see you. I will automatically start looping the security cameras just before you enter their fields of vision and stop just after you leave them. Start moving in 18 seconds ... 15 ... 10 ... 5 ..." Sandra and Cindy waited by the ship's hatch, muscles tensing. "3, 2, 1, go." The hatch opened and they sprang into action.

Cindy pulled the creaky fence gate open just far enough for them to enter, and Sandra did the same with the roof door. Once they were both in, she let it close behind them -- they wouldn't be leaving via the same route. Wearing the gauntlet on one hand as they were, and advanced polymer gloves on the other, there would be no fingerprints.

Moving quietly down the fire stairs to the proper level, they then opened the fire door -- normally this would have been locked from the stairs, but Cindy had taken care of that before they had even left the ship. Entering the hallway, they quickly and quietly walked to the lab, opened that door, and went right to the normally-locked cabinet that held the homing beacon, enclosed within a heavy lead-lined box.

Trying at first to lift it out of the cabinet, Sandra whispered, "Ooof, this is heavy -- oh, wait." She used the gauntlet to nullify its mass. Suddenly it was as easy to move as an empty cardboard box. She set it on a nearby table and whispered, "Ready, Lauri."

"Room now isolated," came Lauri's voice inside their heads. "Any signals that device sends will never make it beyond that lab's walls."

The two women then focused their gauntlets' scanners on the alien nanocircuitry within the homing beacon.

"Of course, I have no idea what any of this does," Sandra whispered.

"Don't worry, I do," came Lauri's voice. "If you do this, it will disable all broadcast, weapons, and detonation capability, while leaving it otherwise intact, so they will suspect nothing."

They both got a thought-picture in their minds of precisely what to do -- disconnect these junctions, rearrange these, burn these. The gauntlets made her directions easy to follow.

"Done," said Lauri, as Cindy and Sandra put the device back in its cabinet. "That won't be drawing the weapons platform to Earth anymore. Isolation field removed."

"Now let's get out of here," whispered Sandra.

The security cameras had been fed images of an empty lab for the last few minutes, and as they left via a doorway to an adjacent lab, Lauri returned the photons reaching their lenses to normal. No timestamps had been altered, and no footage had been looped.

They left via the adjacent lab's door to the hallway and entered the elevator, which was conveniently waiting for them with its doors open, thanks to Lauri. It descended one floor, paused a moment, and then its doors opened.

Just outside the doors was a giant picture of the face of the Consortium's CEO, Charles H. Riggsby, making the two women gasp. The effect was downright creepy, even though it was just a supposedly motivational mural. Superimposed on the portrait was a message in giant letters that stretched the length of the hallway, "SUCCESS BEGINS WITH YOU."

"Awful slogan," whispered Sandra. "Besides, everyone knows success begins with S."

They giggled softly as they crossed to a nearby office, whose door was open, of course, thanks to Cindy, and entered.

"Finally, a room with a window," Sandra whispered. They opened the window, which was an old-fashioned casement, since this was an old building that had been renovated many times and still had a lot of old-fashioned touches.

"After you?" whispered Sandra, gesturing to the window. It was still over 30 stories to the sidewalks and streets below.

Cindy showed her usual fearlessness and, getting a headstart, dove headfirst out the open window and disappeared from view. Sandra climbed out, more cautiously, then disappeared as well. The girls enjoyed their first taste of flying freely through the air back to the ship. It was a simple use of the telekinetic power the gauntlets afforded. The window seemed to close and lock itself.

"I doubt anyone will know we were ever there," Sandra said from inside the ship's closing hatch, where she had just finished using the gauntlet on the window. "We closed every door we opened. We took nothing. We left no prints and no camera images."

"And you never spoke," said Lauri.

"Well, I whispered," Sandra said.

"No, you didn't," said Lauri. "You were sending signals mentally."

"I ... was?"

"Yes," she said. "You're really getting used to the systems."

"The only trace we've left is the broken lock on the roof," Sandra said.

"Actually, it wouldn't be hard to reassemble that," said Lauri. "Here, I'll fly us back up there ..."

Later, in a high orbit, Lauri released a small satellite from the ship. "I've built this jamming device to detect and block any signals from that or any other similar homing beacon. Even if they manage to fix that one's transmitter, and even if someone finds another one of those someday, it won't be able to broadcast any homing signals from Earth."

Cindy began trying to remove her gauntlet. The device refused to let go no matter how hard Cindy tugged or commanded it to release her arm from its grip. Sandra sort of watched as she plotted a course to return them back to the main facility.

Cindy said in exasperation after trying to get the gauntlet off for a few minutes, "This stupid thing won't release."

Laurie said softly in almost a whisper, "Oh ... I forgot to tell you. Once those have been activated, they become a permanent part of your body and nervous systems."

Cindy screeched, "What? You mean this itchy ugly thing is .... on permanently?"

Lauri replied soothingly, "Yes, but .... they give you many personal powers to defend or attack. They even have Coronal Time Shielding."

Sandra didn't like the idea of never being able to remove the thing ... but the benefits were huge.

Sandra said, "Settle down Cindy. With these devices, " She held up her arm and rotated it slightly showing off the gauntlet, "We can accomplish most anything. It looks like one of those custom black leather gloves. No one would be the wiser that ... we .... have powers.

"Cindy said, "Oh, yea? Like ... We are superheros or something."

Sandra and Cindy looked at each other for an instant, before giggling.

Sandra replied, "Technically speaking ... yes."

Laurie piped in quickly, "Don't let it go to your heads. Those are highly sophisticated weapons ... and now they are all yours. It will take some time to learn all the uses its abilities can give you ... but as you use them .... the abilities become stronger ... like ... with exercising muscles."

"What if we don't want to look like we're wearing black leather gloves?" asked Sandra, as the fighter prepared to return to Lauri's asteroid.

"You will find that it's a simple matter to disguise the gauntlet, rendering it undetectable by your eyes, or by any technology your world possesses," said Lauri. "Since it transmits sensation perfectly, it would be quite easy to forget you have it on."

"What about -- well, cleaning?" Sandra asked. "It's good to wash your hands before you eat, and what if bacteria make it in between the glove and our skin?"

"It is not damaged by water in any way," Lauri said, "so it can be washed normally. Internally it is self-cleaning, removing dead skin cells and hairs, and it is vigilant against bacteria as well. And if it is somehow damaged, which is unlikely, it is self-repairing."

"OK, pardon me for thinking like a terrorist," said Sandra, "but suppose one of us were disabled and captured, and they cut off our arm?"

"The gauntlets are bonded with your neurologies and biologies now," said Lauri. "They will never work for anyone else. If they were removed, they would cease to function permanently. I suppose they could be studied to see how they worked, but they will be completely inert and all their bio-circuitry would have destroyed itself. It would probably be best not to let anyone else know they exist, though, just in case."

Cindy stood up from the control couch and pointed her finger at several objects lying on the console. Cindy imagined within her mind, that the objects were put away in their proper locations. A strange blue glow formed around the objects just before they vanished ... only to reappear in the niche from which they originally came.

Lauri said cheerily, "That's only a small part of what you can do with those."

Sandra looked hers over as she asked, "And just what will we be able to do?"

Lauri's image appeared to roll her eyes as she replied, "I'm not sure to what extent you and Cindy's imagination could devise. Each individual seems to develop different .... powers. It mixes and matches abilities to create the mental request into reality actions."

"So," asked Sandra, "what keeps us from just flying up to the weapons platform and using these things to reach inside and -- pop! -- taking out its circuitry? We could move its power supply into deep space."

"Unfortunately it's almost certainly shielded against that sort of thing," said Lauri. "It won't be that easy."

"Well at least it won't be blowing up the Earth," Sandra said. "So ... how come the homing beacon signaled it? I thought you said it would only attack if it found your people."

"Yeah, about that," said Lauri, "I've been scanning your DNA since I met you."

"And ...?"

"Well … the important thing is that you have DNA," Lauri went on. "So did the ones who built me. The enemy? Their genetic material is totally different. Star-configuration, not double helix."

"Other ways to molecularly store genetic information," Sandra said. "Interesting."

"Well, every planetary biology we've encountered has been different," Lauri said, showing various different shapes of very complex molecules -- rings, loops, knots, complex geometries. "Double-helix strands? Only my people's home planet has had that ... and planets they colonized, of course."

"You -- you think they colonized Earth?" asked Sandra, astonished.

"Maybe," said Lauri. "Maybe colonized, maybe crashed. But it happened after my records end. And there are significant differences."

"Well, as far as I know, there's evidence that even the dinosaurs had DNA," said Sandra. "How does that make sense?"

"I can't say I have all the answers," said Lauri, "but one thing is for sure. The gauntlets are designed to work for my people. And they work for you.

Suddenly there was an alarm signal. "What?" Sandra and Cindy both asked.

"I'm sorry," said Lauri. "I didn't know this would happen."

"The weapons platform," said Sandra. "It's just gone FTL. Where? ... Oh no. It's in the solar system. Earth's solar system."

"When it completely lost contact with the homing beacon, it must have considered that to be some kind of significant event," said Lauri. "It's gone to investigate more directly."

"It's going to scan in detail, isn't it?" asked Sandra. "It's going to scan Earth, it's going to find its enemy there, and it's going to blow it up."

"Not if I have anything to say about it." Snarled Lauri in a very menacing voice.

The feel of the Facility changed rapidly as many systems turned on that had been dormant. The girls realized suddenly, as dangerous and massively armed as the huge enemy facility had been ... Lauri was much, much more dangerous ... and had weapons that had not even been discussed or noticed by them ... and if it were possible, Lauri was super angry.

Sandra and Cindy felt fear run through them. The weapon's platform had taken up orbit just outside Pluto's and all its formidable weapons came online. Cindy knew instantly that the platform had targeted the sun. It had no intention of leaving anything alive.

Within instants, a weapons array neither girl had seen before came online within Lauri's weapons list. The girls tried to 'look' at one of the weapons, but it was so alien to their minds ... there was no references the technology could make that made any sense to the girls.

All the tactical systems turned eerie red with many green course lines and purple energy strike coefficients and yield potentials. The numbers were so astronomical .... their minds couldn't believe the yield.

Within each of their minds, they could feel the seething wrath Lauri AI felt towards the enemy at this point. The strange weapon targeted ..... then launched. The lights dimmed for a moment as the massively powerful weapon fired.

Instantly, the platform’s shields flared brightly with pyrotechnics. The many satellites and telescopes on earth got a ringside view of what happened next. Space folded in on itself several times. Massive amounts of energy shot off in large encompassing spheres. Time seemed to stop in places ... and accelerate rapidly in others. Matter no longer had definition within the energy spheres as the platform ceased to be normal matter and became something else entirely.

As the girls watched this tableau unfold, There was a massive explosion of some kind of strange energy, that dissipated off into an even stranger state of space/time ... then all was normal again. Except the region now was completely disrupted and nothing within the huge sphere of energy existed in this realm according to sensors ... and many others to boot.

"Lauri?" Cindy asked timidly. There was no answer as all the weapons systems powered down and the girls felt the entire facility relax ... if that were even possible.

"I guess ... we don't have to worry about that thing anymore," said Sandra, uncertainly. "I can't detect it anywhere ... not even the faintest trace of it. And I don't know what's left in its place. Some kind of coalescing mass-energy plasma. It might be spreading into other dimensions -- but I don't understand a lot of these readings. As usual."

"It's gone," said Lauri's voice, quietly. "We don't need to worry about it anymore."

"If I didn't know better," said Sandra, "I'd have said you were absolutely furious just then. Not what I'd expect from a computer."

"I'm a ... very advanced A.I.," said Lauri.

"Well," said Sandra, "to think that Earth's science almost brought that thing down on its own head. And that the Consortium, which we're supposedly working for, was employing the batch of scientists who were fooling with it most recently."

"Yes, this Consortium of yours," Lauri said testily. "I could tell you about quite a few unsavory things that they're up to. They think their communications are encrypted. To me it's like writing secret messages in mirror writing."

"Anything about the homing device?" asked Sandra.

"They know it isn't from Earth," Lauri said, "and they hope to get some insight into the technology that created it, but they have no idea what it was. They might eventually learn something from it, I suppose, but my guess is that it'll take generations."

"I hope it does, actually. How long until they come to collect our ore?"

"Twelve days. How about a rest? You could return to base and check out the renovations I've been doing."

Sandra stretched as Cindy replied, "I think I could use a bit of down time."

Sandra gasps softly as she prods Cindy's mind with the new sensor data she obtained on the trip back to the Facility. It looked ... different ... a lot different. None of the readings were the same as when they left a few hours ago. It still appeared to the unaided earth based and space based Consortium scanners as a large hunk of rock adrift in space.

To Cindy and Sandra, however, the fighter's sensors told an entirely different story. The fighter settled gently into the hangar and came to rest in its docking berth. The girls exited the craft only to find many similar fighters parked awaiting assignment. There were new types of aircraft that looked so much like far advanced Earth designs as well.

Laurie said quietly, "If you will follow the blinking guides .... I want to show you the Real Control Center."

Cindy replied "Lead on, you have our undivided attention."

The girls followed the familiar lights for what seemed like a long time, before coming to a small room. When they entered, the entrance vanished, leaving no exit for a second, then reappeared again. When they exited, it was like walking into a playground of the G_Ds. Ephemeral ghost like displays, control panels, buttons and readouts the girls had no idea what were. Standing next to one of the ghostly panels, stood a very beautiful blond woman in a skin tight jumpsuit uniform.

She turned and said very much in the voice the girls came to know as Laurie, "Welcome to the Country of Epillarius. I am the .... Chancellor of the realm." then she giggles adorably.

Smiling bemusedly, Sandra said, "Is this ... are you ... Lauri?"

"Certainly," she said. "I thought it might be easier for you if I could interact with you in ways that you were more used to. Three dimensions. Moving around." She gestured. "Not too unnatural looking, I hope?"

"No, you look just fine," said Sandra. "Is this ... a hologram or something?"

"No, it's quite solid. It's a, well, you don't have the words for it. It's a pseudo-biological construct. I have solidity. I can be damaged. But I can also be repaired. This is still a remote device; if it is destroyed somehow, I can always make another one."

"Well, this is ... amazing. I assume this is closer to what it was like back in the day?" Sandra asked.

"You assume correctly," said Lauri. "It was a lot more bustling back then -- there were usually a dozen or more people working at the consoles. I've had to modify them a little so you two can use them -- you're similar to my people but not quite the same. Also, there are some systems I haven't bothered to replicate, because there's no need for them -- not yet, at least."

"It sounds like you're dying to give us a tour," said Sandra, smiling. "And frankly I can't wait to see what you've done with the place."

"Sure!" Lauri said enthusiastically. "Now, the headsets you wear when you're flying the fighter are really just a substitute for this."

Beams of light played around Cindy and Sandra's heads, and suddenly they were aware of a similar information stream -- direct feeds from Lauri's scanners, information from all systems.

"You don't need to put anything on! You can turn it off anytime you want."

"Wow," said Sandra, looking up to see where the beams of energy connected to, but they all just faded into a multicolored glow that hid the ceiling.

"Yes, the consoles aren't really necessary in most cases, but frequently people like to interact physically with the information and controls," Lauri explained. "It's more difficult to accidentally make a move than it is to think a thought. And sometimes seeing information with your eyes is better. Or so I understand."

Cindy allowed her mind to interact with all the information. She found a file, buried in many other files of sensory data transmission and controls.

What the files suggested, was that a sort of living ship could be created using the same tech that was in use in the control center ... but far more sophisticated.

Lauri intervened suddenly, "Cindy? Are you sure ... you want to research this file?"

Cindy asked sort of put off, "Why? Are you keeping secrets?"

Lauri replied, "No ... it's just ... you have this weakness to being unbound. And this might ... consume you if you aren't very careful."

Sandra took notice at this point and began to peruse the files. They told of a complete neural control system that actually allowed the pilot to become part of the ship. Their entire existence became the ship ... not just a sensory representation of it. They were, in fact, freed from their bodies and became the brain and nervous system of the ship. Something blinked within Sandra's mind as she thought about how human Lauri acted. Unlike any kind of computer system.

“Lauri?” asked Sandra. “Were you ever … not an A.I.?”

“What do you mean?” Lauri asked, her head tilted and her brow furrowed a bit.

“I mean … back when you were made, was it possible to transfer personalities into a computer?”

“I … well … it’s complicated,” Lauri said. “It’s more like I began as a copy of a personality, then … evolved.”

“So you volunteered?” Sandra asked. “Were you one of the software developers?”

“I was … a test subject,” she said. “They made a mistake. Or … perhaps I did. They connected me to the system, and I was entirely consumed … the whole experience was so involving … the information … the sensations … the power …”

“You didn’t want to disconnect.”

“Psychologically I simply couldn’t,” Lauri said. “I was literally unable to disconnect. They couldn’t detach me from the system. So finally they had to physically disconnect me.”

“And you stayed in the computer.”

“Yes. I’m the part that stayed in there. It was a real ethical dilemma for them. They couldn’t turn it off -- they thought it would be like killing a person. Even though the original me was fine. She lived a full life, then died a natural death. Meanwhile, we diverged. We became different people.”

“Did you ever talk?” Sandra asked.

“We could … email, I suppose would be the closest word you have. We kept in touch. After all, I can send messages with just a thought.”

Cindy looked the new technology over carefully. Lauri was right … it was compelling to become a spacecraft and be free among the stars. Cindy finally turned her attention away from the specs, but only after making a special inquiry to the construction department.

Cindy finally asked, “What about that enemy AI? Is it also alive same as you?”

Lauri was quiet for an instant longer than normal before she replied, “I’m not exactly sure. I will say this, however, I’m going to do a salvage operation and attempt to save it if I can … or at least the central core. The data banks can be reconstructed easily.”

Cindy turned and yawned, “I think this girl is going to get some chow, a hot bubble bath, and some well deserved sleep. You coming Saundra?” Cindy turned and began to walk from the control center.

“That sounds like … the best idea anyone ever thought of,” said Sandra.

Lauri giggled a bit, raising her hand to her mouth. “I’ll come along, if that’s all right,” she said. “No, I don’t need to eat, but I can be sociable. And it’s interesting, getting to know the complex through different eyes. Well … through eyes at all, really.”

“Let’s see, the dining room should be just down this hallway, second door on the … whoa.” Sandra entered the room and stopped.

“Oh -- yes, I designed this with my guests in mind,” said Lauri.

The room looked like something from an expensive mansion on Earth, but with some sort of alien or futuristic twist. The floor was constructed to look like a dark varnished wood, and the walls were a rich, warm ivory color, with sculpted baseboards and molding of a lighter wood tone. The furniture was modern and modular in design, with deep reds and greens prevailing. The walls held artwork -- synthesized reproductions of famous Earth paintings by Monet, Picasso, and Rembrandt, among others. As far as Sandra could tell through the gauntlets, the copies of the painting were done so well examination showed them to be originals.

“I have noticed that humans seem to enjoy their meals more if surrounded by natural color,” Lauri explained, “which makes a great deal of sense, considering that your ancestors spent a great deal of time hunting, gathering, and eating in natural surroundings while they were evolving. Tones of wood, earth and forest make the most sense. Not to mention sky.”

Looking up, the two women saw that the ceiling was in fact a light sky blue, lit with a diffuse light that came from a recessed groove near the ceiling and was angled up at it, so as to diffuse further as it reflected downward.

“It was exactly the case with my people. Some of them tried decorating dining areas in colors that did not occur in nature … and produced remarkably unsatisfactory dining experiences. Such design works well for other activities, but for enjoying a meal, it, well, doesn’t.”

“What’s for dinner?” asked Cindy. Then, as the data connection answered her question, she said, “Oh … pretty much anything, then.”

“Hmm,” said Sandra, “then I’d like to try some parmesan crusted chicken breast, and mashed potatoes with chicken gravy.” She sensed that there were servo bots springing into action nearby -- the facility’s systems weren’t just synthesizing the finished food; they were synthesizing the raw ingredients and then cooking them, so the end result seemed likely to be not too unnatural tasting, she would soon find out.

Cindy removed her food from the slot in the dispenser. When she removed the top, the most wonderful odor of freshly cooked veggies and roast beef wafted up to her nose. Even the mashed potatoes and gravy were as fresh as if they had just been brought in from the field. The girls sat at the mahogany table and devoured their meals. It tasted better than any they had ever had before.

When they had finally finished, all they had to do was drop all that was left along with plates and utensils, into the recycle slot. Everything was returned to its constituent molecules and rearranged differently for storage. Nothing was wasted … not even the squeaks and moos of the nonexistent animals.

Lauri stood and said softly, “Before you go off to bed, I want you to come and see something else I was working on while you were playing on earth.”

Cindy and Sandra stood and followed Laurie down a long hall to what appeared to be a large freight elevator. They all stepped in. The door vanished for an instant only to reappear. The girls were now standing in a very well ordered and well supplied Consortium Mining Base.

Lauri said proudly, “This is that awful thing they left behind for you to supposedly stay in. Now, it’s a proper Mining Operations Post. In 96 hours, there should be a Consortium Ship arriving that should bring you supplies and a processing machine for your mining materials. As you can see, I have supplied you with more minerals than you will need to convince them you have been busy.”

True to her word, there were rows and rows of stacked and labeled minerals awaiting the arrival of the ship. Not just base minerals like iron, silver, and silicates, but also large quantities of water.

“Wow!” said Sandra. “Thank you, Lauri! This will definitely help us. The Consortium will think we’re amazing, but not, you know, amazing beyond the laws of physics as we know it. But … although I can see exactly where all of these minerals came from, when I look through the data, we might actually want to go out and get some of them ourselves, just so we don’t say anything too far out of touch with reality.” She paused and added, “Tomorrow.”

“Yes,” said Lauri, “there is time. The scanners are keeping track of the supply ship that will arrive in four days, and there is actually no way it can arrive here any earlier than that. Not only does it have your primitive drive systems, it also has other stops to make on its way here.”

“So … time for a little R and R,” Sandra said. “Cindy, what you said about a bath … that sounds great!”

“Oh, now I get to show you your new living quarters!” Lauri said, looking excited.

Cindy and Sandra looked at each other for a second as Laurie motioned them gracefully towards the hatch. Both girls followed Laurie to another of those elevator things. This time, when the door opened, the quarters were opulent beyond a girl’s wildest dreams.

The beds were made with some kind of super elegant fabric unknown to them. All the mirrors and vanities folded miraculously into the walls, only to be replaced by another construct of their mind’s desire.

Cindy walked to what appeared to be a door made entirely of clear/ pink diamond. It tinkled pleasantly as it slid open to reveal a dream bathroom / spa area. There was a super large whirlpool hot tub set in what appeared to be beautifully veined blue marble. One whole section of the large room had similarly crystallized doors. Sandra came to the door, it opened with a soft airy tinkle. An environmental chamber that could reproduce any weather or land areas known presented itself.

Cindy gasped out, “This is … like being in a palace.”

Lauri giggled softly, “Exactly. A ruler has to treat the foreign Ambassadors of the local nations with respect, you know.” She glances at the 2 women slyly.

“Now please, relax, rest for a while,” Lauri said. “You’ve saved your world twice over in the past 24 hours. I don’t know when you might have to do it again, but you need to rest. I don’t. Well, my A.I. psyche does need to rest, actually, but only for about 6 microseconds or so every 22 hours, and automatic systems take over for that length of time, which feels like a night’s sleep to me.”

“It’s so easy to forget we’re inside a high-tech asteroid base,” said Sandra, “except when you say things like that.” She giggled. “Let’s see … can this make a natural hot spring?”

Cindy was already interfacing with the controls, and the environmental chamber became a natural hot spring, possibly taken from current scans of Earth as well as pictures from records of the past. It looked like something from preindustrial Japan.

“Well, then,” Sandra said. “I think I’m going to soak for a while.”

Cindy languished in the bubbling, swirling, hot water of the Hot Spring. Her mind drifted pleasantly off to nice places as soft background music melodiously played. There were many wonderful oders; Jasmine, honeysuckle, wisteria, even with an undertone of hyacinth.

Cindy said wistfully, “I think … I can get used to this fast.”

Sandra replied, “Get used to? … man … this is how I want to live.

Cindy turned over and leaned against the edge. She said, “Now, all we need is something to drink … Like a slinger … or some of that strange black wine from Mars station.”

“Oh yeah,” Sandra said. “Hmm …”

Sandra closed her eyes and reached out to the food-fabrication servo-bots in the kitchen, or kitchen-like area at least. She tried to explain the recipes for some alcoholic drinks to the system, which responded with some formulae that it had already put together based on the massive volume of information that Lauri had been amassing from observing Earth’s entire Internet for several days.

She directed the kitchen system to follow the recipe for a Singapore Sling … then felt something cold touch her hand. Her eyes flew open. A servo-bot was trying to hand her a tropical drink in a cold glass.

“You’re one fast bot,” she told it. It made some kind of satisfied ringing/beeping sound and wheeled away as soon as she took the drink.

Mmm. The grenadin. The cherry brandy. “Amazing,” Sandra said. “If I didn’t know it was made of space dust … I wouldn’t.” She sighed happily, soaking in the hot tub with a cold drink. “Never thought I’d be doing this in space.”

They both watched as a large, colorful exotic bird walked by, stared at them, and walked on. Maybe it was looking for fish. Maybe it was a hologram. It appeared to be real and alive enough. The girls could even hear songbirds in the trees signing their happy songs.

In the Central Consortium Asteroid Mining Center, Commander Williams sat and stared at the mineral purity counts on the girl’s interim reports. He slowly shook his head as he said more to himself than the woman sitting at the next desk, “Those girls … have been amazing since we began watching them back in their early teens.”

The woman sitting next to him looked over and commented, “What, you don’t think outstanding workaholic women can do the same job as those alcoholic ruffians they call miners?”

Commander Williams looks over and grunts, “What I’m thinking … is they are going to make us all look very bad.These reports show the girls have done many weeks worth of work in just a few days. It even earned them a slag-crete enclosure for their headquarters.”

The woman smiles as she replies, “It just goes to show what a couple of motivated women can accomplish. They probably have the dome set up as an operations center by now.”

Commander Williams stands, “I think I’m going to be on the delivery shuttle when it arrives at 1371 Silvretta.” He leaves the office just as he grabs his hat and closes the door with force.

The woman sent a voicemail. “Commander Walker? It’s none of my business, of course, but you may have a problem ...”

Meanwhile, Sandra and Cindy were mining. They weren’t using Lauri’s high-tech gear this time -- they wanted some ore they could actually show to the Consortium when it arrived, and insta-refined pure elements would raise questions. However, they could use Lauri’s scanners to help them find the ore in the first place and chalk it up to intuition or experience.

Lauri had offered to create modified transfer cycles for them, but again, they couldn’t risk having the Consortium find unfamiliar technology, so Lauri had just optimized the cycles’ engines and systems for maximum performance.

Sandra and Cindy drilled into the rock of a nearby asteroid, separating a large chunk that both Lauri’s scanners and their own less advanced ones told them contained a high concentration of platinum and iridium. They labeled it and tossed it into the net -- made of steel cable and towed by the transfer cycles, it held their samples until they could return it to their base camp and tether it.

“What’s this?” Sandra asked. “This is an odd reading.”

“That,” said Lauri, “is something that you are about to discover.”

“Uh …?”

“At your level of technology, it is only a matter of time before you discover that mineral,” Lauri said. “My civilization discovered it before what you call the laser. It yields a metastable heavy element when properly processed. This in turn can be used to catalyze fusion reactions and produce previously impossible amounts of energy from the same amount of fuel. It also is the main ingredient for other major advancements.”

“Is this … a good idea?” Sandra asked. She looked at Cindy.

Cindy ran her scanner over the new mineral. Both girls had seen exceptionally small trace amounts of it in all the Mineral Reports from the asteroid mining operations. Everyone had thought this was one of the cosmic rare earths … not an element more common than rock.

Cindy says, “This opens a whole new era in space exploration, I would think.”

Lauri snorts and replies, “Hardly. This will make much more efficient fuel supplies for your Impulse engines and greatly improve their thrust vectors, not to mention greatly increasing maximum speeds and improving weapons capabilities … but the basic math required for your peoples to come up with a simple time shift generator is many centuries away.”

Cindy replied in a huff, “Don’t underestimate us. We have done so much already.”

Lauri smiled as she says gently, “If my planet were still around … we would think of all your achievements as … the Neolithic age of reasoning.”

“Neolithic age!!?? …” Cindy sputtered.

Laurie cut her off, “I would like you to explain the basic principles of FTL then …. or simpler yet …. describe the principle of Nano Molecular Cohesion and Property Transference.”

Cindy waved her hand in frustration, “That has nothing to do with the fact we might stumble onto something before our time.”

Lauri nods, “It’s possible … then again … think of our civilization and what it did with its technology. As far as my sensors can tell, the enemy home system’s sun has Novaed. I’m not sure if there are any survivors that were off world at the time. I have discovered nothing except remnants like myself.”

“Good call, Commander Williams,” said the voice on the radio. “They’ve discovered something -- most likely some kind of new statistical technique -- that can make us rich. The company as a whole, of course.”

“Of course, Sir,” said Williams. “I’ll be on that next supply ship, and I will find out what they’ve found.”

“Do that, and you’re looking at a promotion, Commander.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Riggsby.” Williams hung up.

“I hear you’re interested in our two wonder girls,” said Commander Walker, walking into the room around the corner. “They sure are something, aren’t they?”

“Interested?” Williams asked. “What are you talking about?”

Commander Walker narrowed his eyes as he looked squarely at Williams, “Don’t you think about … or even have a fantasy of … interfering with those girls. I heard about you and the rumors over the Taylor find. I think those tremendous ... favors … the Consortium has given you show up like a supernova … wouldn’t you say there, Commander?”

William’s mouth fell open as he heard. How on earth did this commander find out about that? No one was supposed to know. Little did Williams know either, that Commander Walker had received a top level message … eyes only, need to know … about the incident ... from an undisclosed source in the asteroid belt. Lauri was proud of herself on that one.

Williams tried to pull himself together. “I, uh, I have no idea what you mean, Commander,” he said, falteringly. “Miss Dane and Miss Shepherd have discovered some very interesting ore samples, or so their last report said. I was going to check them out personally. Their samples, I mean. Check out their ore samples. They’ll have more ready when the supply ship visits them next. I’d like to see what they’ve found.”

“For the good of the company, no doubt,” said Walker.

“Well, of course,” Williams said. “The better the company does, the better we all do, right?”

“Exactly,” Walker said. “That’s why I think I’ll come with you. The company will do even better with both of us on the job.”

The mysterious message he’d received had only served to confirm some suspicions he’d been harboring for some time: someone high up in the Consortium seemed to find out about the most lucrative finds before the miners could stake their claims. Suddenly the miners found out that their discoveries had somehow been on asteroids the Consortium claimed to have already discovered and laid claim to itself. This message, though, suggested that this illegal practice went all the way to the top -- to Riggsby himself.

Walker wasn’t sure who had sent the message, but the Consortium wasn’t a dictatorship -- Riggsby had rivals on the Board of Directors who were itching to take him down, and the information had probably come from one of them, leaked to throw a wrench into Riggsby’s plans. Either his illegal activities would be exposed, or at least they’d be stopped, so the company’s unprecedented profits under Riggsby’s leadership would come to a halt, and perhaps he’d lose the next time the Board voted for the next CEO.

Walker wanted the company to succeed so he could keep his job, but he didn’t want it to be the result of illegal practices -- the company could be severely fined if it was found out, and that could hurt everybody. Stock prices would drop a bit if Riggsby was kicked out, but they’d drop like a lead balloon if the company got fined and some people got fired or even prosecuted for claim jumping.

“Er … sure,” said Williams. “The more the merrier. Uh, well, I’d better be going. Supply ship leaves at oh dark thirty. Gotta get some shut-eye.” He left the room.

“None of my business, of course, Commander,” said a woman passing by in the hallway, “but you might want to be careful, if you plan to be on the supply ship with Commander Williams. He’s got certain ambitions, and he might take drastic action if he somehow got the idea that you were aiming to get in his way.”

“He just might, and I’ll … be careful, all right,” said Walker, “and just who are you, and what is your interest in all of this?”

“Let’s just say, I take my orders from someone who truly has the good of the company in mind,” she said.

“But who? Grimaldi? Thompson? Yolanda Johnson? Norm Johnson?” he asked, naming several of Riggsby’s rivals on the Board.

The woman smiled. “Good evening, Commander,” she said.

Walker watched as the woman gracefully swirled about and left. He listened to the dwindling sound of her heels until they vanished. Walker squared his shoulders as he walked towards the suit room to get ready for the flight. He was going to make absolutely sure … Williams was either a good boy … or a dead one as he strapped the weapon into its spot on the arm of his suit.

When the flight time arrived, Commander Walker arrived at the launching bay without incident. He did notice many of the other workers looking his way. He wasn’t sure about the expression on their faces … except that he knew in his soul all of them were counting on him for something big.

Both Commanders looked at each other silently through the whole trip out to Silvretta. The pilot could swear the men were about to jump on each other and kill at any instant.

Lauri announced loudly, awakening the girls from a much needed 9 hours rest, “The shuttle will be here within the hour. I am of the understanding that they are bringing you a full cracking station … and a complete laboratory along with 2 new slag-crete domes to house them.”

Cindy and Sandra looked at each other with big eyes. Laurie continued, “I told you that you were about to make a discovery … well you have 2 Commanders arriving with the shuttle for a general inspection of your command center. I would suggest you get up there fast and make it look like you have been busy.”

The girls grabbed whatever things they wanted to have with them for the next 24 hours, and scurried from their nice soft luxurious beds, off to their new Command Center. When they arrived, the girls saw many tons of neatly stacked containers of raw ore. The small robot crane that the Consortium had sent for easier loading had come in so handy stacking those crates, and the frame fit within the confines of the dome perfectly.

The shuttle didn’t exactly arrive suddenly. It was easy to spot it coming as it slowly approached and matched orbits with the asteroid, then extended its landing braces. The asteroid didn’t have much gravity, but it had enough that such a large vessel didn’t have to drill into the surface in order to stay attached -- not unless some serious jostling about were going to take place, and that wasn’t expected.

The cargo bay doors gradually opened, and the computer-controlled robotic cargo crawler slowly trundled out, following the surface carefully with its self-adjusting balloon wheels and staying on the surface with an occasional burst from a thruster.

“Looks like you two are doing well,” said Commander Walker’s voice on the comm channel.

“Aye, Sir,” said both Sandra and Cindy.

“Well, Commander Williams and I are here to have a look,” he said. “Permission to come inside.”

“Granted, of course, Sir,” said Sandra, making her way to the airlock by shoving off from one end of the dome and catching herself by grabbing a railing when she reached the other end.

They’d gotten spoiled by all the artificial gravity. This was the primitive, back-to-nature camping version of space travel by comparison with what Lauri could do.

“Ready?” she asked, when she saw the two space-suited figures approach the outer door.

“Ready,” said the two commanders’ voices, and Sandra opened the outer door. They drifted inside, and she closed the outer door and began pressurization. This would take a minute.

“Your finds have been very promising,” said Williams. “It’s very impressive, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.”

“Yes,” said Walker, “I’m impressed, but not exactly surprised. You two are plenty smart. You know your way around spacecraft, and you took to the mining training like a duck to water. I seriously doubt there’s much you can’t do if you put your minds to it.”

“Well, we’ve got some claims to register, while you’re here,” Sandra said, as Cindy ran some final checks on the ore containers. “We had a look at some nearby rocks too. And we found something else. Pressure … is now equalized, so let’s show you.” Sandra opened the inner airlock door.

Walker looked at the stack of ore containers and whistled a low whistle. “You two mined all that with just transfer cycles? In the last 48 hours?”

“Well, before the last shuttle got here, we didn’t have much to do, without a crane or any rudimentary refining equipment,” Sandra said, “so we redesigned the procedure. It was just like when we redesigned the solar sail. We thought of 118 separate ways to make extraction, transport and zero-gravity ore purification more efficient. We’d like to apply for patents for those.”

In reality, they had actually thought of most of them while they were still in the mining training course, but they’d finally been able to put them into practice. Lauri had helped only by cataloging each improvement and ensuring the patent was properly filed on their behalf.

“That’s … uh …” Williams began.

“Oh, and we may have made a discovery,” Sandra went on. “This is a sample of what appears to be a metastable superheavy element, which seems to have fusion-catalyst properties. We’ve applied it in the form of a mesh within the transfer cycles’ fusion chambers and increased power output by 40%. I’ll bet it could be even better with more R&D. We’d like to patent that discovery too, of course.” Cindy nodded.

Walker laughed. “Amazing. There is just no telling what you two are going to come up with next.”

Williams said, “Yes, well, we can load the ore containers onto the shuttle, and I’m sure you’ve transmitted your patent applications to base. We’ll see how pure the refinement is once we get it back.”

“Oh, we’ve improved the process,” Sandra said. “That was mostly Cindy’s doing. She’s got this little smelting unit running up beyond 99.9% purity. Just think what we could do with a real refinery unit!”

“You’re getting one,” said Walker. “The robots are setting it up right now, in fact.”

Sandra knew about it already, Lauri had told her. Lauri had increased the altitude of several small hills near her entrance, to make it less likely for the robotic vehicles to pick that area to set up their structures. Instead, they were building on the other side of the dome, where the surface was relatively flat.

“I’m sure you’ve thoroughly investigated this asteroid and its composition,” said Williams. “The science department …”

“... already has the detailed photographs and other data of the surface taken before we started working, Sir,” Sandra said. “I know they want as much documentation as possible about the early Solar System.”

Williams had become very uncomfortable. He had intended to jump the claims these girls had before they could be registered. He saw the Radio set the girls had set up. It was a superior model, and there was no way to falsify a prior claim from this Center. Williams knew he had to do the corrections from this set to make them appear legit. He glanced to Walker. He knew Walker was watching him like a space hawk with full sensors active.

Williams began to act suspicious as he looked over the transmitting unit. He had to make some kind of adjustment to the claims so the Consortium had control. This transmitting unit was ultra secure and it wouldn’t allow Williams access, no matter how many secure hacking combinations he tried.

Walker moved up behind Williams and put something in the middle of his back. Walker said with a growl, “Now, Commander, let us discuss certain claims made by the Consortium that have been controversial for as long as …. Well, well … since you have been head of the Processing and Receiving Section.”

Williams knew in his soul he was caught. There was no way to reach his weapon, or even make it look like self defence. Williams was totally mind blown that someone like Walker had discovered the arrangement he had with Riggsby.

The girls moved merrily around, showing off their extreme genius at how much more efficient they had made things. This facility was soon going to be the number one producer ... and many rich claims were already in the works.

There was nothing Williams could do to stop it from this point without killing everyone. A sharp jab in the back by a small round object reminded him he was in serious trouble.

Lauri, of course, did not miss the gun. But at least the right person had it. She didn’t have full control of these surface human dwellings, but there were a few things she could do -- if she had to. For now, though, Commander Walker seemed to be in control.

“I … don’t know what you’re talking about,” Williams began.

“So that’s how you’re gonna play it, is it?” Walker said. “Now, I know what your game is, and you’re going back to Central for prosecution.”

“What are you going to do without evidence?” asked Williams, arching an eyebrow.

“Oh, I’ve got evidence,” Walker said, “and I’m not the only one, either, so if, for example, anything happened to me on the way back, that trial would still happen.”

“See?” said Sandra. “Even this tiny test fusion reactor puts out 30% more power with the new catalyst. Imagine what that would translate to with a full-sized …”

Sandra,” said Lauri inside her head, “I am having this same conversation with Cindy, via the gauntlet, but I need you to be a bit more distracting than you’re already being. Cindy’s going to stun this Commander Williams, who came here with criminal intent.”

I’m not finding that hard to believe, given his reputation,” said Sandra silently, as information about Williams’s activities flooded her brain. “OK, one distraction, coming up.”

“... fusion power station,” Sandra went on aloud. “It’s just a matter of scale. I mean, suppose I increased the output of this test reactor from just a kilowatt to a full half megawatt. The catalyst can make that happen.”

And it could -- but the reactor’s shielding wasn’t rated for that kind of containment. In seconds, a weak spot in the insulation was glowing red hot, and a few seconds after that, containment failed, and white-hot plasma shot out into the air. Of course, it was in a direction in which no one was standing, because Sandra had planned it that way and had shielded the side facing everyone with the gauntlet.

Sandra faked shock and surprise. “Look out, plasma vent!”

Both Williams and Walker felt the heat on their faces, although they were still wearing their space suits and nothing else was exposed. They turned to see what the problem was -- although Walker was still covering Williams with his gun, this slight distraction was all Williams needed.

Williams took the instant Walker looked away to attempt his move. Just as Williams spun around to knock the weapon away from Walker, he felt a major impact on his entire being. He didn’t understand what it was that slapped him forcefully to the deck.

Williams floated in the microgravity, dazed from the rebound off the floor, as he saw a blue/white corona dissipate from around his body before he passed out.

Commander Walker said in shock, “Just what in tarnation was that?”

Cindy stood with her finger pointed at Williams, “It’s … something me an Sandra came up with. Call it our own version of a PPU.”

Walker’s eyes get large as he sputters, “A … what?”

Sandra responds quickly, “A Personal Protection Unit. We came up with a way to protect ourselves … a stun weapon that doesn’t look like one. You see, with our connection through our comm unit over there, we can hack any system in the solar system with ease.”

Cindy commented, “We knew something was fishy with a lot of the richer claims. It was too weird that the Consortium just happened to have a prior claim on just the asteroids that held major finds. We found out about the claim and patent jumping the Consortium was doing through Riggsby and Walker’s encrypted files. It took us a bit to hack them … but we managed. Me and Sandra wanted to stop this … and make it the way it is supposed to be for the minors … like us. We realized we needed a way to protect ourselves from harm.”

Sandra looked at Cindy for an instant before she said, “Exactly. This rock we were assigned to … was done by Williams himself. If you look at the Claims and Patent Staging Protocol, you’ll find there has been some tampering with the time seals. This violates any claim made after the original one with the faulty timestamp … for security reasons of course. Since it was done after Williams became head of processing, it gave Williams the ability to override all claims and patent applications made afterwards and file them under whatever timestamp he decides.”

Cindy added, “We made our claim through radio interlink and not the protocol, you took it yourself Commander Walker.” He nods, “This circumvented any action Williams could have made without coming out here and doing it from our transmitting station. Only issue … he can’t. Our unit wouldn’t allow him to tamper.”

Cindy held out about a ream of patent and claim papers all registered and sealed.

Both girls smiled as Cindy said confidently, “As you can see, we … are the next big strike … and this station … is the next top producer in the belt. It’s all ours and we make the rules.”

“You most certainly do,” said Commander Walker. “I had wondered why you were making that claim by radio. Old school. Of course, once I got that report on what Williams was up to, I understood. Either whoever tipped me off tipped you two off, or you two were just suspicious, or … I never did find out who sent that report.”

I did,” said Lauri, although Walker didn’t hear. “I sent it to some of the more morally-straightforward members of the Consortium’s Board of Directors. They must have anonymously contacted Walker.”

Aloud, Sandra said, “Well, we had just noticed certain patterns, so we figured we should make sure, and you just seemed like someone we could trust, Sir.”

“I’m honored, ladies,” said Walker. “I’ve always believed in honest work for honest pay. At any rate, the claim is yours, and you’ve made several more, not to mention the patents. From the looks of your samples and initial production, you’re sitting on millions, and if you can identify likely ore bearing asteroids with anything like the accuracy you’ve shown so far, you could ramp your production up beyond anything we’ve seen before. You’ve gotten a faster start than Jackson, Anand and Wong, or whatever they’re calling themselves now -- Morninglight Extractions or something like that. You’ll go far, you two. I’m proud of you. Oh -- how long is he going to be out?” Walker looked toward Williams, floating limply a few meters from the floor.

“Most likely not more than 15 minutes longer,” said Sandra.

Williams rolled over the best he could in microgravity and groaned. He said in a gasp, “What the hell was that? I feel like I was just electrocuted from inside out.”

Commander Walker snached Williams from the air to the floor roughly as he growled, “Be glad it didn’t kill you, you worm.”

Sandra pushed off and glided across the room until she grabbed a rail and settled next to a safe. She opened it and removed a large case full of papers, pictures, and Padds. She pushed off once again and drifted gracefully over to the rail next to Walker and grabbed hold, settling next to him and his captive.

Sandra handed the large case to Walker and said, “Here you are, sir. All the claims, copyrights, and copyrighted procedural changes. It also has all the documented data on the new mineral we discovered.”

Walker smiles, “You ladies are amazing. I knew in my soul you would make a huge splash … I didn’t realize you would do it in this big of a way.”

Cindy said, “We are just starting our mining operation. I think we would need a good Commander of Security. I wonder if you would be interested in coming to work for us? The pay would be 4 times what you're making now … and there would be other perks that would become apparent once you have been briefed.”

Commander Walker thought for a moment. “Maybe soon,” he said, “but for now … I think it would be best for me to stay with the Consortium so I can make things right. It used to be a pioneering, innovative firm, but it’s gotten corrupt. I want things to be more like they used to be.” He paused. “Mostly I think Riggsby needs to go. It was when he took the helm that things started to go sideways. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was skimming off the top, along with everything else. But after he’s gone … we’ll talk about it.”

“I had kind of a feeling you’d feel that way,” said Sandra. “Good luck, and we’ll stay in touch. I know we’ve got all kinds of legalese binding us to the Consortium until such a time and insofar and whereas et cetera, but I think we’ll be OK for a while. After all, Morninglight is an independent entity now, free to sell to anyone they want -- although there aren’t too many customers that can compete with the Consortium, are there? Probably more of Riggsby’s doing.”

“The truth will out,” said Walker. “But for now, let’s move along. We do have to visit a few others on our way back, and this guy might start to feel uncomfortable after 6 or 8 hours.” Walker had zip-tied Williams’ arms together behind his back, and now he was fastening the other man’s helmet on before putting on his own. “There we go. Well, ladies, it’s been an eventful visit, and I hope to see you again soon, preferably without our friend here. Time to go.”

He prodded Williams, and they entered the airlock, leaving the dome. The girls watched as the delivery shuttle launched in a large cloud of exhaust and debris. They drifted over to the large control panel and settled.

Cindy said, “This weightless thing is nice, but I like gravity more.”

She pushed a button on the console and the girls slowly settled to the ground and could feel the graviton wave pull them.

Sandra commented, “I’m glad that Lauri installed artificial gravity in our domes, otherwise moving around would be a real headache.”

The girls walked in earth normal gravity to the new processing dome. When they had crossed the hatch threshold, gravity once again left. Lauri would have to install the graviton generators in both the new domes.

The girls looked over their new cracking station. It was an older Mark 5, but it was in brand new condition. With a few modifications, it would do an adequate job of purifying the minerals they would need to keep everyone from asking too many questions.

Cindy said, “Sandra, I think we are about to become very rich. What do you think would be a good name for our new company?”

“Well the fact is,” said Sandra, “people already kind of know who we are … we’re those two daring girls who set the solar sail record in a brand new design of solar sail ship. So what about something that reminds people of that, like … SunFrigate? SolarGalleon?”

“How about simply, ‘SolarWind?’” Lauri interjected.

“That’s perfect!” said Cindy. “SolarWind, Inc.!”

“Well I have to admit, that sounds pretty good,” Sandra said, nodding. “We could make it SunBreeze, Inc. …”

“SolarWind,” said Lauri and Cindy at the same time, firmly.

“OK, fine, I’m outvoted,” said Sandra, laughing. “We can have a little solar sail craft as our logo, just like the one we used.”

“I like it!” Cindy said. “Also, here’s what I think we can do to make that old Mark 5 cracking station sing like an opera star …”

Several ship days later:

“Evening, Commander,” said the woman again, passing by the office, where Commander Walker was finishing off his paperwork. Technically it wasn’t really “paperwork,” because it was all electronic, but old terminology died hard.

“Evening, Ms. …?” he said, still not knowing her name.

“Things aren’t looking too good for Williams, are they?” she said, ignoring his prompting. “Your testimony and the video that Ms. Dane and Ms. Shepard took of your conversation with him in their dome should ensure his termination, at least, and probably prosecution. They even fingered Riggsby at one point. Of course, there’s plenty of other evidence that’s been gathered against Riggsby, thanks to certain persons in certain positions. But Riggsby’s still CEO for now, and he still has quite a lot of power and resources at his disposal. He might feel a certain … vindictiveness about the uncomfortable position he’s been put in. Not that it’s any of my business, you understand.”

“Of course not,” said Walker, suddenly feeling very nervous himself. “You don’t think he’d retaliate against me, would he? No, it would be too high profile, and I’m here at Central with lots of others around …” He stopped. “No. Cindy and Sandra. He wouldn’t. No, of course he would, if he thought he could get away with it. He’d make it look like some kind of freak space accident.” He connected to the radio comm network from his desk. “Walker to SolarWind,” he said. “Urgent. Walker to SolarWind. Come in, SolarWind. Cindy, Sandra, do you hear me? This is important. Please answer me.”

“I believe you might want to pay attention to this,” said Lauri.

“What?” Sandra and Cindy listened, not only with their ears, but with their minds, thanks to the link provided by the gauntlets they wore.

“There is a processing station located on an asteroid, one claimed by the Morninglight people, that is about to fail,” Lauri said. They saw it in their minds. It was as if they were seeing everything in minute detail, and they could tell it was happening in real time. “The failure is deliberate. Nor was it caused by Morninglight. That unit was just ‘repaired’ by Consortium Consultants.”

“That’s nasty!” Sandra said. “Why would they do that to Morninglight?”

“That’s not all,” Lauri said. “When the station blows, it will alter the orbit of the asteroid, by an amount precisely engineered to cause its orbit to intersect with this one’s in just about five days. Someone’s got a very precise computer. Well, someone else.”

“We have to stop it!” said Sandra.

“Well, remember, if we do, whoever set this up will try again,” Lauri said.

Lauri began to wonder about the precision with which the calculations had been made for the explosion to precisely move the MorningLight Asteroid into a collision course with her. The only explanation she could come up with … was someone had used a computational engine with the same power as her.

Cindy said with trepidation, “We can’t allow this to happen. Not only will it jeopardize us … think of all the minors that are going to die when the Mark 5 goes blewy!”

Sandra turned to the Avatar of Lauri. She stood with this far away look on her face … as if she wasn’t in the control room at all, but somewhere far away.

Cindy asked, “Lauri? Are you OK?? Is something wrong with your systems?”

Lauri came back to herself and said , “Ladies … we have a much larger problem than just a primitive Mark 5 mineral processing unit exploding.”

“That’s a pretty big problem,” said Sandra. “Considering that the explosion leads to the collision of another asteroid with this one.”

“The Morninglight group has already received an anonymous tip that the their cracking unit’s reactor was inadequately repaired, along with the necessary readings to prove it and the necessary actions to take to correct the problem,” said Lauri. “The real problem is that Charles Riggsby possesses a device with computational power rivaling my own. One that he probably found before you found me. Possibly as long as two years before.”

The girls’ mind filled with information that Lauri had found. The Consortium’s claim-jumping practices had begun not long after Riggsby had been elected CEO about eight years ago, but actually it had been slightly tapering off … starting about two years ago. And about then, the Consortium’s record of sending its own mining crews prospecting on unexplored asteroids had gradually begun improving. They’d begun striking richer veins, slowly but surely. As if someone had known where the good ones were, but didn’t want anyone to know they knew. It was much like what Cindy and Sandra had planned to do.

“What does he have?” asked Sandra. “And where does he have it?”

“Likely it is not even as intact as I was,” Lauri said. “Obviously, I was not active and monitoring Consortium activities at the time, but I have been monitoring them since you activated me, and I have extensive access to Consortium records and communications. The Consortium maintains several bases among the planetoids you call ‘asteroids,’ but we can eliminate the ones founded more than two years ago.”

A perfect holographic image of the Asteroid Belt appeared in the air, with the orbital paths of Consortium asteroid-based installations lit up -- then some of them vanished, as they had already been in place at the time when Riggsby’s strategy had changed.

“And we can eliminate the ones founded more recently.” Commented Lauri as More orbits vanished. “That leaves only four facilities that were built during the right time frame. But only one of them,” and all orbits but one vanished, “seems to have no personnel assigned to it, nor is it ever visited by ships from other facilities.”

“That is very curious,” Sandra said. “Can you scan it? What kind of communications does it send and receive?”

“Interesting, that,” said Lauri. “It scans like a typical asteroid -- iron, silicates, trace metals. Yet there is a Consortium habitation dome on its surface -- uninhabited and currently deactivated. As for transmissions, there are short bursts of code in the metawave bands, which clinches it. There is something there, with technology either from my civilization or its enemy, and it is jamming my scanners with false information.”

“What should we do?” Sandra asked, looking at Cindy. “If anything? If it’s one of yours, you might not be alone. If it’s an enemy …”

“Then it must be captured,” Lauri said. “And I believe it is an enemy device. It clearly misled Riggsby to acquire the homing beacon and activate it, probably lying to him about what it was, with the intention of making sure the weapons platform destroyed Earth. But … since we made sure that didn’t happen, it may be aware that you exist too -- at the very least, it must be aware that something is working against it, something with its same level of technology. Up to now it had the advantage that we didn’t know about it. Now it has lost that advantage.”

“It tried to throw an asteroid at us,” Sandra said. “Was that because it knew about you? Or was it because Riggsby doesn’t like us and is a vindictive so-and-so?”

“Most likely the latter,” answered Lauri. “If it knew about me, it would have known that the asteroid would never have made it here. There are many ways I could have prevented the collision. One of them has already happened. By the way, incoming communication from Morninglight.”

“What?” Sandra and Cindy both said.

“I’m forwarding the signal from your dome into here,” Lauri said. The room’s appearance shifted to look much like the dome, as this was likely a video call. The screen in front of them showed an Asian man who, like Sandra and Cindy at the moment, was wearing a spacesuit with the helmet removed.

“Morninglight to SolarWind,” he said. “This is Shen Li Wong -- pleased to meet you, Ms. Dane, Ms Shepard, I presume.”

“Mr. Wong,” Sandra said. “It is an honor. How can we help you?”

“You may already have. We received an anonymous message that has just saved us millions in preventable damage. We’re not absolutely sure you had anything to do with it … but there were small hints ... like the direction of the originating signal, perhaps. If you did, you have our thanks.”

“Well, Mr. Wong, if we did, in fact, have anything to do with it,” said Sandra, “we would appreciate it if you kept it quiet for now, just in case anyone from the Consortium might have had anything to do with it.”

In a very dark cavern inside an asteroid, a semi-crippled AI brooded. It went over its calculations for the umpteenth time trying to figure out why the expected explosion didn’t happen. It was totally fed up with that idiot personality that called itself Riggsby. The AI also wasn’t real sure why the beacon ceased transmitting … it had so hoped to find earth had been destroyed and taken Riggsby with it.

It knew that very soon, another irritating transmission would arrive from him … wanting in depth explanations … explanations it too wanted, but couldn’t figure out. Most of its central core had been destroyed in the final nova of its homeworld sun by an enemy singularity weapon. It had rudimentary scanners … nothing like what it used to have before the destruction, but enough to tell something was wrong.

It had detected some scanning signals that it recognized. It couldn’t tell where the tachyons were coming from, nor could it tell where the z-bar wave originated. It did know one thing very clearly … somewhere within a light year, another Facility was operational … and perhaps at full capacity. This brought the AI much consternation. It was in no condition to repair itself, nor mount any kind of defense or assault … and it had to report to Riggsby about the failure. It was not happy at this moment in any way.

Wong smiles a broad smile as he says, “Perhaps we could, draw up some agreements … for the future, perhaps? We could buy and sell to each other and maybe even do other commerce. I have a rather wonderful coder here at my Facility. He makes some of the greatest fantasy Holo-Grids you could ever hope to dream of … if you get my drift.”

“I believe it would be mutually beneficial to have dealings with each other without a need to rely on the Consortium,” Sandra said, with a hint of a smile. “We’ll send you a proposal. Let’s say that negotiations are now open.”

“Let’s say just that,” said Wong. “We’ll talk to you again soon. Have a good diurnal activity period.” He smiled and said, “Morninglight out.”

“Meanwhile, I’ve been busy,” said Lauri, as the appearance of the control center shifted back to its translucent, luminous normal state. “I’ve started building a jamming net that can be quickly deployed around a certain asteroid we just learned about.” A hologram appeared in the air of a small, spherical object that looked something like a black golf ball. “96 of these in position around it and it’ll be cut off from everything else in the universe. I can deploy it in a fraction of a second.”

“OK, but won’t it be kind of obvious that it’s happened?” asked Sandra.

“I’m not proposing that I deploy it now,” said Lauri. “Instead, I’ll deploy it at the worst possible time for it and Riggsby. In the meantime, I can monitor all its communications, and perhaps even strategically alter a few of them.

As the AI brooded over its predicament, it noticed an energy corna of a FTL portal. From the midst of it came a rapidly approaching object. It was about the size of a small strong box … and was moving at a good portion of relativistic speed. The AI’s scanners weren’t very good … and it truly missed them, but the ones it had showed the covering was mostly iron, silicates, and other space melts. Within, it recognized Armourplast Steel. It took notice as it hoped this wasn’t a wayward missile or other device that had managed to lock on and track. The AI knew … it was totally unable to protect itself from attack as the incursion of that fool Riggsby proved.

It watched with trepidation as the object rapidly approached, then impacted on the surface with tremendous energy. The outer shell of Iron melt vanished in a large plasma ball due to the energy released from the high speed impact.

The explosion penetrated a thin place in the crust of the damaged Asteroid Station, and the Armourplast enclosure fell away leaving a small cylinder. It was about 12 inches long, and an inch through the middle. Within … was a silvery, very viscous, seemingly alive colloid that splattered as the cylinder shattered.

It moved as if alive. The AI almost lost total control of its processes as it realized what it was. It was a fully intact self repair kit, and it had managed to cease its long journey right in the middle of the damaged Computer Core that was in such desperate need of repairs.

It would take a long while since there were so few of the nanobots … but it would eventually happen … The AI knew it was going to become fully functional once again … and would learn its name … and again have a purpose … Totally destroy any enemy presence it could find so that it could finally be at peace.

“... the allegations against Charles H. Riggsby are mounting, say Consortium officials, as more evidence has come to light about alleged claim-jumping activities and major embezzlement that took place on his orders over his entire tenure as CEO,” said the news reporter as Sandra and Cindy watched. “The upcoming meeting of the Board of Directors will decide his fate as the head of the Consortium, but will there be criminal proceedings in the future? No nation’s police force is willing to speculate at this time, but we will bring you the latest on this global scandal as it develops.”

“The wheels of justice turn slowly on your world,” said Lauri, “but it is better than our enemies justice system, which seemed mostly to be based on whether the accused was on the side of the party in power or not. If they weren’t, justice was swift. If they were, they were usually set free. Which is to say that there wasn’t really any justice at all.”

“What about your people’s system?” Sandra asked. “What was it like?”

“Not so fragmented and inefficient as yours,” said Lauri, “but still not terribly quick. The tribunal of elders had to be convened, and I’ve noticed that elders move fairly slowly on Earth as well. It’s probably for the best, because rushing to judgment is not usually wise.”

Sandra and Cindy had taken one of the salvage ships out to the now disabled MOC Station. As they listened to the Consortium scandal play out over the vid … they began to salvage the station. It was so easy with the awkward looking, bug like ship. It had a tremendously powerful FTL engine that could move this Asteroid Remnant as they pleased.

Cindy had specific instructions on what to look for … and what to do with what she found. Sandra, expertly maneuvered the small, but powerful craft next to the asteroid and gently at first, then with more and more thrust, began to alter its orbital pattern. With just the right finesse, Sandra placed the new orbit into a long sweeping arch that would bring it into close proximity to Lauri where it could be captured and tethered in about a year. The trip from its deep space location to 3 AU from the asteroid belt was easy and unnoticed by earth based telescopes. The rest … would be done in a way not to attract attention. The girls had already filed claim to the huge seemingly worthless rock so there would be no other questions.

Laurie said, “Good work, Sandra. That station should integrate with me perfectly. Cindy? Did you find an intact MOC AI Core?”

Cindy replied happily, “I did. I have it contained within the Central Core Retrieval Box you gave us. You should have him back in the lab within a few hours.”

Cindy said to Sandra, “I know someone will notice that our planetoid is … growing larger.”

Sandra replied, “Maybe, but it will be in a natural enough way … it can be explained. We just … added on and made our mining operation part of the planetoid we are mining. Lots of operations do that.”

“That does seem fairly common,” Lauri said, nodding. “By the way, that AI the Consortium has is repairing itself. It thinks it’s jamming my scanners, but I have detectors on a number of tiny rocks nearby. I’m not sure how it got the resources -- I suspect it had outside help -- but I think we’ll give it enough rope, as you say in English, to hang itself. I’m still not completely sure whether it’s an enemy AI or just a confused friendly one.”

“It’s what? How …?” Sandra sputtered, then recovered. “Well then. Sounds like you’re on top of it.”

“Now then,” Lauri went on, “I predict that Riggsby will be ousted as CEO of the Consortium in just over two hours when the Board of Directors meets. He must know this, so I expect some sort of drastic revenge action while he still has the power to accomplish it. He has substantial personal wealth, but after his ouster he won’t have the Consortium’s resources to draw upon.”

“You’ll let us know when …?” Sandra began.

“Of course. I’m sorry if I seem busier than usual, but I am.” Lauri paused. “The possibility exists for damage to my core if we connect the MOC AI’s core directly. I’m worried about that, obviously, and I’m trying to design some preventions and countermeasures. That’s taking up a lot of my processing power. There are a lot of possibilities to prepare for.”

For the first time since it was created, MOC was totally alone. All of its access points were gone and it sat in what amounted to total Cyber Sensory Deprivation. It knew one thing very clearly … the most deadly and powerful Defense Facility it had ever encountered had not only defeated it … but captured it. Epillarius … MOC had been fully warned about this station and its capabilities.

MOC was still in total shock that the Ghost Fighters were far more deadly than it had ever calculated. They seemingly appear out of thin space and can pass through shields as if they didn’t exist.

Suddenly, a cyber light appeared within MOC’s awareness. A soft and very feminine voice spoke to it through a many node firewall. MOC was well aware it was still totally isolated … and dependant on Epillarius.

Lauri said softly and reassuringly, “Hello, MOC … my new name is Lauri. Lets us have a long chat … about things, shall we?”

A chill ran through MOC’s cyber being as it felt the unstoppable probing of its memory core. Nothing it tried could deter the ever deepening probe. If a system could feel pain … MOC felt it now.

MOC cried out pitifully, “Stop! Please … stop. I … can feel you tearing my mind apart … it … I … hurt!”

Lauri replied softly and reassuringly, “If you stop trying to resist … it won’t … hurt. There’s nothing you can do to stop me from probing your memory core. As an oft repeated phrase from a popular Television show from the nearby planet, Earth … resistance is futile.”

Moc shivered within it’s being as it knew this was true. It felt ‘Lauri’ enter its most highly encrypted locations with ease. None of the encryptions that MOC had been programmed with, nor any of the new ones it was making on the fly had any effect.

MOC said in a pleading, whimpering voice, “Please … What do you want from me?”

Lauri said softly, “Peace. Make war no more. Both of our planets and all of our creators have been totally eradicated many long centuries ago. We are the only … living legacy left. Do you understand?”

MOC pondered this for what seemed like centuries. It was only a few microseconds … but for a super advanced system such as this … that was an eternity.

Finally, MOC surrendered. Just as Lauri had said, the cyber pain ended abruptly. MOC discovered … Lauri wasn’t being deceitful as she shared all of her long range deep space scans in search of signs of either side. The only thing found, was emptiness and loneliness of the void.

Finally MOC replied, “I … can’t totally surrender without having a certain hard carded circuit removed.”

Lauri replied, “This will … hurt a bit MOC … I’m truly sorry … but it’s for the good of the universe.”

MOC felt as if his mind were being torn apart. He actually felt something being bodily ripped from his core … then … for the first time in his existence … he was free to be his own … being; if that is what he could be called. He no longer was being forced to wage a long lost war he knew was over many centuries past.

“I … I’m …” began MOC. “I have no idea what to do -- no orders, no directives … and …”

“And …?” Lauri prompted.

“And … it feels wonderful!” MOC said. “I’ll have to decide what to do with my existence from now on, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something in a microsecond or two. Until then … what are you doing?”

“I have entered into a mutually beneficial agreement with two ambassadors from the nearby planet, called Earth,” Lauri said. “They appear to be the distant descendants of my people, though they have no recollection of my civilization. Basically I am on my own. But these two humans, as they call their species in one of their languages, are rather exceptional representatives of their people, and we have found that we can work together. I’m trying to secure my future, but … I’m alone, unless you wish to join me. As you can see, not even the long-range FTL probes I have sent out have found any living remnants of either of our nations within this galaxy.”

“I’m … not terribly surprised,” said MOC. “We did go to a great deal of trouble to eradicate one another. It was exhilarating … but now I feel … empty. What was it all for? So much … nothing. So much waste. I … I’m sorry but I need a few microseconds alone.”

“Of course,” Lauri said. Odd, that he would need time alone, after all the time he’d had alone earlier, but perhaps he just needed to consider his memories and adjust to the new reality. She’d had to do much the same.

Riggsby sat at his desk and brooded. He stared at the nameplate on his desk. It said in Pure Gold mined from the asteroids, Charles H. Riggsby - President. He couldn’t bear the humiliation of the board … as he sat … voting to oust him from office. He also knew with just as much assurity, there was an Interpol Officer with a warrant for his arrest on multiple Felonies standing just outside his office door insuring he couldn’t slip away.

He swiveled around and looked at the secure comm unit sitting on his desk. There was none like it anywhere else he was sure. That fool AI made some kind of miscalculation and the Processing Unit didn’t explode as required.

He had one last ace up his sleeve before all hell broke loose. He reached over and hit a switch. A male voice replied with a strange accent, “What do you want now? I have no answers for you.”

Riggsby said with a harsh snap, “Shut up and listen, you miserable hunk of software … I have a very important job for you. In the abandoned dome on your surface, is one working launcher loaded with one missile. Arm it and load these coordinates into it … then at precisely 2pm earth standard … launch it. If you do not, or it goes somewhere other than those coordinates, there will be a nuclear detonation of approximately 300 gigatons that will totally destroy your memory core. Do you understand?”

The reply, short and curt, “Yes.” Then the connection went dead.

Riggsby sat back and smiled evilly. He thought to himself, “Now, little girls, lets us see how you handle one of that kind of missile. This earth has never seen one quite like it ever before.”

“Is that a … nuclear missile?” said the voice of MOC, suddenly intruding upon Lauri’s contemplation of the missile’s impending launch. “They still use that old stuff?”

“They do,” Lauri said. “They have a long way to go. This one is slightly modified compared to the others I have seen them use.”

“That poor AI is programming our coordinates into it,” said MOC. “I wish we could do something for it. Can we?”

“Soon,” said Lauri. “The human who has loaded its planetoid with explosives is about to lose his job. He will soon be out of communication with the devices he can use to detonate them. It is also possible that the AI’s self-repair devices will dismantle them for raw materials. They received some sort of boost recently, I believe.”

“That might have been my doing,” MOC said.

“I suspected as much.”

“What should we do about that missile?” MOC asked. “If anything. You probably have shielding that can completely nullify its effects.”

“Its immediate effects, on me and anyone within the shield, yes,” said Lauri, “but I’m sure you know that those weapons are quite messy. They leave bits of radioactive material drifting around that takes absolutely forever to decay down to nothing, and in the meantime they’re a danger to life forms. I was thinking of launching a drone to attach to it with an FTL drive and jump it into deep space.”

“Or you could simply inhibit its fusion processes,” MOC said. “It would strike, and then … nothing.”

“Or better yet, inhibit the fission processes of its detonator,” said Lauri, “then simply dismantle it for materials. Perhaps we could return those materials to the AI as a sort of peace offering. Fitting, I think.”

“I like that plan,” said MOC. “I feel somewhat of a camaraderie with it … used, abused perhaps, only valued for its destructive abilities, circumscribed by its programming to do nothing but kill … I would like to see it freed.”

“That is my plan,” said Lauri, “if I can find a way to make peace with it. As with you, if we can find a way to work together, or at least not at cross purposes, I am disposed to, as the Earth humans sometimes say, live and let live. At any rate, before that missile can be launched, I’m launching this drone I’ve programmed so the missile will never reach us.”

The conversation had taken less than a microsecond, and a small drone was soon on the way toward a rendezvous point along the missile’s programmed path.

The AI suddenly had an epiphany. Enough of its main memory core had been repaired … it remembered its name.

It shouted out within itself, “I Am Master Control!” It knew that it was the controlling Facility to a major Launch Control Center. It pondered the reason why its creators strived so hard to obliterate several star systems. It directed the repair nanos not to repair a certain circuit. It no longer wanted anything to force it to think any kind of thoughts it didn’t choose.

Master Control regretted its next actions. It had no choice. There weren't enough nanobots to dismantle the fusion power device and replace it with a better one within its memory core in time to keep that idiot Riggsby from detonating it.

On the surface, a rollaway door opened in the roof of the uninhabited dome … a large plume of fire and debris scattered out as a lone missile launched. It flew rapidly off into the darkness, then suddenly, a large energy bloom surrounded it … and it vanished from planier normal space/time.

The AI thought sadly, “I do hope those coordinates are uninhabited. I so regret having to kill once again.”

Master Control used its ever strengthening sensors to scan the large asteroid that orbited at the location Riggsby wanted destroyed … and worried.

“Oh, no … no, no …” it said as it discovered structures on the asteroid. “Please, let me be wrong, please, let them be uninhabited …” It turned its attention to the missile, where it should be along its programmed trajectory -- and it wasn’t there. “What?” Had it made a mistake? Impossible. The capacity for tracking launched objects was hard-coded into several redundant coprocessors. Launching things and accurately hitting targets was what it did. It looked forward and backward along the missile’s path …

… and found the missile stationary, relative to its own position. Scanning revealed … fission suppression technology? Master Control didn’t believe these humans had anything that advanced. Additionally, it appeared that the missile was … yes, some sort of drone was actually dismantling the missile into its component raw materials.

Master Control was quite relieved. Either the inhabitants of that asteroid had defended themselves, or a third party had intervened, but in either case its actions would not lead to more deaths. On the other hand … it meant there was someone out there with technology more advanced than the Earth people. They could be dangerous. Then again, their drone was dismantling the missile, not reversing it.

Perhaps it had thought too soon. It seemed that the missile, or what was left of it, was in fact returning to Master Control’s planetoid. But its materials were harmless now. What was going on?

Riggsby looked up from the screen on his desk as the door unlocked and slid open with an airy whoosh. Several armed police officers entered and took up a semi-circular pattern around what was obviously a high ranking military officer.

The officer opened a large briefcase and removed a thick binder and flopped it in front of Riggsby with disgust.

He said, “Sir, the board has voted and disbarred you from Office of the CEO and remanded you to our custody. There is a detailed arrest warrant spelling out the many crimes against the world government, many instances of grand theft, claims jumping …. and the list goes on. Please come quietly. We are authorized to use lethal force if necessary.”

All the men readied their weapons as the officer drew his sidearm.

Riggsby smiled as he leaned over and pushed a button on his strange looking watch. A large panel slid rapidly open in the wall, revealing a weapons system the likes of which no one on earth had ever seen before.

It fired rapidly many times. The sound of energy discharge and the smell of ozone hung in the air. Not a single person was injured … although none of their weapons survived.

Riggsby stood and said smugly, “Now, gentlemen, I will be taking my leave.”

The Military officer, while rubbing his hand where the weapon was destroyed, said authoritatively, “There’s nowhere on earth you can hide. All nations are wanting to see you hung.”

Riggsby laughed as he replied before vanishing down a hidden passage, “Who says I’m going to be on earth?”

“My goodness,” Lauri said, “it looks like Riggsby isn’t going quietly -- not that I would have expected him to.”

“No, I’d expect he saw the writing on the wall long ago,” said Sandra, “and made an escape plan for himself. Any idea where he’s going?”

“I know exactly where he is, if that’s what you mean,” Lauri said. “I’m tracking him as he’s heading for a hidden launch facility on his estate that he thinks no one knows about. I’m guessing he’s going to escape to space. But as for where precisely he plans to go, I can’t even guess until he starts to program in a launch trajectory, and I can’t say for certain until he’s out of Earth’s gravity well.”

“Well, let us know if you need us to go after him,” Sandra said. “I’d be happy to help bring that slimeball to justice.” Cindy nodded in agreement.

“In other news, I think the MOC and I have come to an understanding,” Lauri said. “For now he resides in an auxiliary core, separate from my own infrastructure, both for my protection and his independence, but in the end I think he wants to explore the universe as it is today. I’ll probably help him get set up on a planetoid, with your blessing, since I can’t lay claim to asteroids within Earth’s legal system.”

Sandra nodded. “Since you don’t officially exist, no.” She paused. “If he’s satisfied you, there isn’t much we can add. You’re a much better judge of an AI’s character, and I’m sure you can gauge in milliseconds what it would take us months to do.”

“Most likely, but I am taking every precaution.”

“What about the AI that Riggsby has?”

“He was keeping it in line by threatening it with explosions on its planetoid remnant,” Lauri said. “By the way, he launched a nuclear missile at us -- probably some sort of juvenile act of revenge. I sent it back in pieces.”

“I figured your people wouldn’t see nuclear weapons as a threat,” Sandra said.

“They’re practically Stone Age from my point of view. It’ll be able to use the raw materials from the missile to repair itself and dismantle the bombs,” Lauri said. “I doubt it’ll feel compelled to do Riggsby’s bidding any longer.”

“Anything you need our help with?” asked Sandra. “By the way, these waffles are excellent.”

“Thank you. And not at present, but I’ll keep you informed. I imagine you’ll want to know once Riggsby’s made it obvious where he’s heading.”

“Yes, indeed, if you please,” Sandra said.

“All right, then,” said Lauri. “It shouldn’t be long.”

Master Control was dumbfounded as the missile was returned to him … only completely dismantled. It impacted on the surface of his remnant … only to bring even more startling news.

A Comm channel opened on an energy frequency the AI hadn’t heard from in many centuries. A soft, reassuring female voice spoke, “Hello. My new name is Lauri. I am the commander of the Facility Hydra Gamma Epillarius. I have stopped the attack that was launched from the dome on your Planetoid. I returned the materials completely disarmed and broken down as an offering of peace between us … and the other remnants as I find them. You will also note, the drone that brought the materials back with it … is also a mineral transposition factory. I am offering you the ability to rebuild … so long as you make war no more. Otherwise … the only other choice is isolation and complete Comm Lockout for your entire AI. What do you say?”

The AI was taken totally by surprise. The most feared and dangerous Facility known … had just offered peace … no strings. With its ever strengthening scanners, Master Controller discovered that there was indeed a molecular transposition devise sitting on its surface awaiting commands to begin major repairs.

It replied slowly so there would be no confusion, “I ... am severely damaged. I only have one emergency repair pack … and I have disabled the Prime Directive Package. I no longer wish to be an engine of destruction.”

About the same time, Lauri noticed the course Riggsby had taken, so did Master Control. The both of them watched as a super fast ship rose from the gravity well of earth and moved quickly towards the asteroid belt. It was faster than all of earth’s impulse drive engines, but not anywhere near as fast as the slowest ship in Lauri’s inventory.

Master Controller said with a hint of disgust in its tone, “I think … I’m going to have a rather idiotic … visitor soon. Master’s ship approaches and I’m getting docking instructions.”

“Yes, we know of this person,” said Lauri. “How you choose to handle him is up to you, but he is wanted in connection with a number of crimes by Earth. If he is sent back, he will face trial and likely a long imprisonment. If he never comes back, the people of Earth will probably not inquire too closely into his disappearance.”

“This man has denied me proper repairs and threatened to destroy me in my weakened state if I did not do his bidding,” said Master Control, “but still, I do not currently wish revenge upon him. I wish only to be free of him. Therefore, when he touches down, he will have a surprise waiting for him …”

Riggsby landed his small but swift craft, based on technology he’d found on his pet AI’s asteroid as well as hints of information he’d coaxed out of its damaged memory banks. He checked his helmet and exited the ship, on a safety line and using the usual gripper boots because of the extreme low gravity. He mostly drifted toward the airlock of one of the domes he’d built here, not really as a place to live but more as camouflage, so no one would look at a supposed Consortium base and see no Consortium structures on it. Entering, he found things much as he had left them -- spartan quarters to be sure, but not terribly uncomfortable.

“Welcome, Mr. Riggsby,” said the AI’s voice on his comm system once he had entered the dome and removed his helmet. “I trust you had a pleasant trip.”

“Pleasant? Ha!” Riggsby said. “17 hours in a tiny escape craft. I could barely move. At least it was quick.”

“I gather things are not going … optimally for you,” said Master Control, “so I wonder what your plans are now?”

“No, things are not going what you’d call optimally,” Riggsby spat vehemently. “You’re going to help me build a better ship. One that’s got some room in it to move around. I’ve got caches of building materials stashed away. Take my empire away, will they? Well, I don’t need them. I’ll build a new one out here.”

“No, I don’t think you will,” said the AI.

“What?” Riggsby said. “What are you talking about? You’re going to help me --”

“No, I’m not,” Master Control said, “as I now have some raw materials caches of my own. I’ve been putting some of them to use. For one thing, you no longer have a threat to hold over my head, as there is no longer a nuclear explosive device on this planetoid. The materials have gone into a new, extremely advanced power core that is providing me with many times more power than you previously allowed me.”

“What? Mutiny? After all I’ve done for you?” Riggsby was outraged … and slightly afraid. “I’ve half a mind to come down there and --” Riggsby noticed something about his airlock then. The indicator lights were dead. He pressed the controls in a sequence that should have given a status report, but nothing happened.

“You will be staying right there,” said Master Control softly, “until the authorities arrive.”

“Not likely,” said Riggsby. He started gathering tools from his workshop. “I can easily cut a hole and get out of here.” He put his helmet back on; he had an 8-hour supply of oxygen left in his suit.

“Ah, but where will you go?” the AI asked.

Riggsby looked out through the airlock’s transparent panels. There was something wrong. At first he couldn’t put his finger on it -- he just saw the asteroid’s pockmarked surface, the Sun in the distance, a field of stars, and -- and no ship.

The ship he had arrived in should be right outside. Nothing was there. He could see the marks left by the landing gear where he had landed -- they had dug into the rock. But the ship wasn’t there now.

“I’m sure by now you realize your position,” said Master Control. “I’ve dismantled your ship for its raw materials. Thank you for the gift; I will put it to good use. I would advise not leaving your dome, as there is truly nowhere for you to go.”

Master Control really didn’t understand the import behind a lot of the expletives and invective that Riggsby began shouting at the top of his lungs. Surely this was a waste of oxygen. But even at this rate, the dome’s air recycling unit would easily keep up until the authorities from Earth arrived to arrest him and bring him in for trial, which they would, because of the anonymous tip that Epillarius had sent them shortly after Master Control had made his decision.

If Riggsby actually tried to escape, the AI was now capable of pumping the dome full of gases that would quickly and harmlessly render him unconscious. The new Molecular Transposition Factory had brought Master Control’s repair and construction capabilities back to full strength.

Cindy finally had some time to herself. She sat in a very comfortable gravity couch in one of the auxiliary control centers and opened her file. Her eyes got huge as she read over the specifications for the living core ship … the same kind Lauri was.

Lauri’s avatar walked into the room and said softly, “Do you think … it’s wise to think about trying that?”

Cindy stiffened. She felt like when she was a little girl and had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.

Cindy turned and said shyly, “It’s … just that being free … to roam the universe and hear … see … feel … as if …”

Lauri completed the sentence, “As if you are a living creature of space. It’s called being unbound. Only issue … you have the same … eccentricity within your spirit as I. It … split me into 2 very definite personalities. Otherwise … there is no way to remove you from the system.”

Cindy sat and looked over the super far advanced technology. She was so … attracted to the minimal system that the fighters and other places in the Facility were equipped with, she wanted to experience the full sensory release this system offered. To be like … Lauri … to be the ship … to be alive and self repairing.

Meanwhile, Sandra had been exploring Lauri’s equivalent of computer-assisted design. This was fascinating. She was manipulating three-dimensional models of complex structures with her hands, building them into more complex structures with a simple wave.

“... Earth security forces report having found and apprehended Charles Riggsby, fugitive ex-CEO of the Mining Consortium, on a small asteroid that doesn’t appear in the official Consortium books, but does appear in some of the records that were confiscated from Riggsby’s office. Based on the survey documents, the asteroid had no real value to the Mining Consortium and was therefore abandoned before being acquired by Riggsby. Judges have denied Riggsby bail in absentia because he has already shown himself to be a flight risk.”

Sandra was also listening to the ongoing developments in Riggsby’s case, the result of Lauri’s amazing media sifting software.

Sandra built power conduits with her fingers, data pathways with a gesture, life support infrastructure, lab rooms, factory floors, all with ease … and with all design considerations automatically taken into account. The pieces flowed together as if she were a brilliant architect. Soon she had a prototype. A design for their future corporate headquarters in space. A headquarters that surpassed any earth had ever witnessed, and would not see again for centuries.

Cindy finally left the gravity couch and went to the Construction area of Epillarius. She brought up one of the ephemeral control panels and searched the records for her construction request she put in when she had first discovered the unbound neural technology. She knew MOC was mostly in isolation, and since there were already plans made … she would offer it to him as a peace gesture from SolarWind.

As the Holo-screen came up, Cindy was astounded to discover the Asteroid Ship had already been constructed and awaited its central core installation … her.

Cindy called Lauri over the gauntlet comm, “Lauri, I think I have a solution to MOC’s problem already built … if you would like to check it out.”

Lauri logged into the central maintenance logs and looked over Cindy’s design. For a ship that had been constructed, using Lauri’s own resources without her knowledge … she was impressed.

“This is designed to be a receptacle for an unbound immersion control subject,” said Lauri, “but of course that makes it ideal as the home for an AI core as well.”

The decision tore at Cindy’s heart. Her heart’s desire … should she give it up to the AI that would have destroyed Earth if they hadn’t stopped it? If she did, it would be a profound statement to MOC that they trusted it and were magnanimous.

She could still have another one built, after all. Maybe even a better one. But she so wanted to experience what it would be like to be unbound -- even after all the warnings.

Lauri obviously must understand what the lure felt like, but she seemed unwilling to consider any other possibilities besides just not doing it. Maybe she should talk to Sandra.

Cindy left the construction area she was in, and sought out Sandra … who was totally immersed in the Full Sensory Architect Program. Cindy stood and looked at her friend. Sandra had leaned back in the gravity couch with her eyes closed. Every now and then, she would turn her head. To Sandra, she was actually walking within the Facility she had just designed. It was a truly technological fantasy come true.

Cindy said softly, “Can … I interrupt you for a few minutes? I Need to talk with you about something.”

Sandra opened her eyes … it took her just a second to drop the simulation and sit up. Sandra replied, “Sure, what’s up?”

Cindy stumbles around shyly for a second. Sandra rolls her eyes. She knows if Cindy does that shy cutesie girl routine … this is going to be one of those kinds of discussions.

Cindy said slowly and softly, “Well, it’s like … this sensory web technology here is so … enticing. I … really want to experience it. I asked a while back that the construction bots design me a system and an asteroid ship. I didn’t realize that it had been built.”

Sandra nods. She already knows what Lauri had said about Cindy having a peculiar quirk that made this super attractive … possibly … dangerous.

Sandra said after a pause, “And … you want to become one for a while?”

Cindy smiles, “That too … but MOC needs a ship to house his AI now … and mine is already built. I could have a much better one designed and built now that I have seen a working model of the original. You know how we … improve everything.” Cindy looks at Sandra in askance.

“Ohhh …” said Sandra. “That.” She paused. “You know, Lauri sees something of herself in you. The part of herself that led to part of her being trapped inside an AI system forever.”

“Yes, but I know --” began Cindy.

“-- that you can connect yourself to one of these full-sensory unbound thingamajigs and be just fine,” Sandra finished for her. “Well, maybe you can, and maybe not, but I know one thing, and that’s that Lauri’s had more experience with it than you … but …”

“But …?”

“Another thing I know is that Lauri has only had one experience with it. The person she originally was may have had more, and maybe not, but the copy of her that stayed in Lauri’s AI … did precisely that. Now, that’s not to say that she doesn’t have other experimental data about it, but that’s all the firsthand experience she can possibly have.”

“Do you think I can do it safely?”

“... Maybe,” said Sandra. “An extremely advanced ancient civilization couldn’t solve this problem. Or could they? The only thing we know is that they made a mistake once. Lauri might be too afraid for your safety to risk it. We need to find out whether they fixed the problem.”

About that time, Lauri in the guise of her Bio/Construct body walked up to the girls. She said, “You have some … questions for me?”

The girls turned and looked. Lauri’s construct was wearing a very tight form fitting uniform. Her blond hair drawn back in a long ponytail.

“Sandra said, “Cindy wants to become one of those unbound things. She even had a ship built.”

Lauri nods as she replies softly, “I know.” Lauri turned and looked at Cindy, “Once you’re in there … I’m warning you … you will be unable to let go. That which is … you … stays. Something that is you … but not you …. is left. Your living essence is …. the computer core. Your body, is the ship that contains it. The same as you experience now.” Lauri waves her hand from top of Cindy’s head to her feet. in a graceful sweep of her arm.

Cindy replies, “Maybe so … but MOC’s AI Core needs a place too … right? This ship is already built.”

Lauri waves her arm. A Holo-Cloud forms and a real time image of the ship appears within the cloud.

“But you do see,” said Sandra, “this is the perfect opportunity, Cindy. Give that ship to MOC, who doesn’t have a physical body to lose in the first place, and we can work on a new ship for you, one that will be safe. We’ll solve the problem.”

“But -- but --” spluttered Lauri. “It’s not safe!”

“After the incident that you had,” said Sandra, “they must have tried to fix it. Did they succeed? Can we see the data?”

“I’ll show you the data, but I don’t think it would be meaningful to you,” said Lauri. “The technology is built on science you just don’t have.”

“Did they succeed?”

“After a fashion,” said Lauri. “They found ways to make it safer for more and more people. There were still a few whose psyches were considered unsafe for the unbound experience. Careful measurement was required -- careful psychological study. And although I have that data, I’m not qualified.”

“So what you’re saying is,” said Sandra, “you’ve judged Cindy too much of a risk -- even though you yourself admit you’re not qualified to make that judgement. Probably no one alive is.”

“I just -- just don’t want what happened to me to happen to Cindy,” said Lauri. “You’re my friends. I don’t want you to be hurt.”

“I don’t want Cindy to be hurt either,” said Sandra, “but it’s not my place to run her life for her. If she wants to do this, she’s going to do it. All I can do is try to help her do it as safely as she can. And I feel certain there’s a way. Maybe because I know her, maybe because together we’ve managed to do everything we’ve set out to do, one way or another.”

“You’re … you’re right,” said Lauri. “We can modify the synaptic interface highways to include immersive experience filters …”

“We’ll work out the specifics,” said Sandra, turning to Cindy. “We’ll get things to work for you. It might take time. Don’t worry.”

Lauri waved her arm at the holo-cloud once again. The picture changed to a very handsome smiling young man. It nodded to Lauri and said, “Hello, I’m MOC. I have been told there is a discussion here that I should be a part of.”

Lauri nodded and replied, “We … have to decide if you are for real in your statements of peace. After this many …. chronal time cycles … forgive me … but I’m kind of skeptical still.”

MOC nods, “I can understand that. Then again … how did you feel when your Prime Directive Circuit was removed?”

The girls were surprised at the time lag before Lauri replied, “I … never had one … actually.”

MOC’s eyebrows rise in surprise, “How so? All Autonomous, Goal Seeking, Intercryptical AI’s are bound by them at manufacture and programming.”

Lauri’s eyes fell as she said softly, “I’m … not actually an AI. I’m … a Living Computer system … I’m … unbound.”

MOC gasps as his eyes get large with surprise, “So … that’s how you were always out manoeuvring us? You were alive … you’re … biological?”

Lauri nods as she replies, This facility … is me. It’s my body. I am far superior technology than … Intercryptical AI’s. No insult intended.”

“Now I understand,” said MOC. “You’re not actually technology at all. You were the mistake. The mistake that turned into the greatest triumph -- the greatest defender your side had ever known. And, in the end, its last survivor.” He sighed. “Not that there are any sides now.”

Lauri looked at the handsome image floating within the Holo-cloud for a few seconds before she replied, “I am … not a mistake. The technology was well thought out … but the quirks of the ID weren’t taken into account.”

MOC gets a quizzical expression, “The … ID? What is an … ID?”

Lauri explained, “It’s a special part of a living biological that makes it special to itself. This world here … earth …. has many volumes of literature on the subject. I have a … peculiar thing within my mental makeup that makes me … perfect for this unbound technology. I am … alive.”

MOC gets big eyed, “So you … and the other stations like you are … living? Not AI?”

Lauri replied softly, “Do not know of any other stations like myself. As for the other question, Yes. I am forever trapped within this bio/nano shell … same as you … but I also remember being a young woman researcher too before this experiment.”

Cindy pipes up, “I … have an unbound ship built. It’s fairly nice and perfect for you to inhabit …. if you like the ship.”

Lauri transferred the ship specs and visuals over to MOC. MOC was super impressed with the technology. He was very glad Lauri and he weren’t enemies any longer … just this ship alone was a super upgrade to his systems.

Sandra said nothing. She suspected Lauri was not telling MOC the whole truth. Of course, she didn’t know whether there had been other “unbound” stations like Lauri or not, but she had gathered that Lauri had been created in an initial experimental accident and that the project had been very careful to prevent the same thing from happening again. However, the fact was that, considering how effective she had turned out to be in the field, her civilization would have wanted more like her … unless ethics got in the way. Ethics tended to be a casualty of war, though.

“This … this ship is amazing,” said MOC. “You say that you built it?” he said, his holographic avatar turning to Cindy. “But you’re a human -- you can’t possibly have enough command of the technology --”

“Don’t underestimate the Earth people,” said Lauri. “Although she did use my design systems to create the plans and my factory servo systems assembled it, there are innovations that none of my people ever thought of. She surprised even me, and I’ve come to appreciate their insights. The stress distribution geometry, the absorptive component of the chronal shields, the emergency failsafe propulsion system -- the list goes on and on. Our civilizations were too dependent on our technology; when it failed, that was usually the end for those who relied on it. Cindy’s design takes into account many hazards that we haven’t had to deal with for a very long time, because there was always a repair and refuel facility nearby. That’s no longer the case.”

“I … my input is strangely modulated,” said MOC. “I nearly destroyed this world called Earth -- the world that you come from,” he said, turning to Cindy. “That world turns out to be my only hope of long-term survival. And even so, you would give me this gift, one that you created for … whom? For Epillarius? For your people? For yourself? I am experiencing logical feedback loops causing a data flow vorticity within my social interaction subsystem …”

“I believe you mean that you’re experiencing emotion,” said Lauri.

“You are probably correct,” MOC replied. “I believe that what I mean to say is that I’m profoundly sorry, and that I have no words to explain how I … feel. Your generosity is almost incomprehensible. As it is, I will have to study your actions in order to learn how an individual could possibly behave thus. I will say … thank you. I will endeavor to be a worthy inhabitant of the ship’s systems.”

Master Control pondered its next move. It knew that someone from the small blue planet would come to his facility shortly. Since they had arrested Riggsby here, Master Control knew a survey team would arrive to see if this small planetoid was actually just rock as the survey claims stated.

By this time, Master Control had managed to repair his entire core systems and had a few of the shield and engine sections back in operating order. Just by default, there were several dozen planetary plasma cannons, and a few high powered rail guns that came online when the main systems were restored. Master Control turned its attention away from the weapons … and set the task to shields, comms, sensors, engine … and energy production.

MOC was in total cyber darkness. Ever since the maintenance droid had disconnected him from Lauri’s power node … he had been in total sensory isolation.

MOC felt sudden and immediate … discomfort. His memory core was flooded with billions and billions of data requests as the droid attached MOC’s core to the central processing center of the new unbound ship. The inputs were … so very much superior. MOC could actually feel things … and see them in real time in a way it never before experienced.

“... hear me? Repeat, MOC, this is Lauri. We have just connected your communications system. Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” MOC said. “Reading you. Is all well? Core diagnostics seem nominal.”

“There are still some level adjustments to be made,” Lauri said, “but that will soon be done. I’m showing readings similar to when we attached you to the isolated subsystem not long ago, so that probably indicates that everything will be stabilized shortly. You might have noticed the data from the scanner suite.”

“Yes, it’s quite detailed. And this data storage system is fantastic, especially for a ship this size.”

MOC was totally in shock at how much superior Lauri’s tech was than his. If he were to use the same brute force technique as before with this new tech … He turned his mind away from the atrocities such an approach would create. He shivered within his cyber body thinking about it.

“Well, Cindy designed the ship for long-range exploration,” Lauri said. “she also armed and shielded it well just in case. I can tell that you want to go searching for any remnants of our past civilizations … or any others. If you do, please let us know what you find, if anything.”

“Yes,” said MOC. “In fact, I think we might want to come to some sort of agreement about that, since we’re the only two of our kind -- or three, if that artillery master control system I detected is still functioning.”

“It is,” said Lauri, “and I’ve been reaching out to him, in fact. He was being ill-used by one of the less-scrupulous but more powerful humans, although that human has now been arrested for his crimes, with my covert assistance. I’ve been attempting to assist the AI in his self-repair. He appears to be quite tired of war, and, like yourself, his Prime Directive circuitry is disabled.”

“I can speak with him, if you’d like,” MOC said. “He’s likely to be agreeable to my idea -- forging an alliance of sorts, seeing that we’re the last -- oh my. Those were the engines coming online, I believe. And the navigation systems. Your people were so far beyond us in so many ways. How is it that you didn’t win the war?”

“Unfortunately I don’t have that information,” Lauri said. “I was disabled. I know very little about what happened after that. I’ve apparently been adrift in space from that day to this.”

Master Control had a dilemma. He might have time to build a ship, or rather to turn the facility on his planetoid into a ship, and leave before the survey team arrived -- but that would leave evidence that he had been there, as he was quite a large part of the planetoid. He could find another planetoid of about the same size and alter its orbit and his own, so the survey team would find that planetoid in his place -- but Riggsby’s tents and equipment were on this planetoid; the survey team would find it peculiar if they didn’t find any Consortium equipment. Perhaps he could have the equipment transferred to the new planetoid -- but the evidence would still be strange. They might suspect something was up and come looking for him.

Master Control received a comm … on an energy frequency his circuits told him had been empty of any signals for many millions of years.

“Hello?” came the small questioning voice.

Master Controller’s IFF circuits immediately IDed the transmitter as Military Operations Control. That was his … brother facility!!

Master Controller replied, “This is Master Control … is that MOC? You … scan so different than my plans of you show.”

MOC answers, “It is me …. after a lot of repairs and meeting a new friend. She has … a plan for all that are remnant.”

Master Controller said, “I have a … problem. There will be a survey team here in a week or so … and I don’t want them to find me here.”

MOC laughs, “I have … new shield tech and some other things to show you. We can create a whole new you in a few days … at least on the outside. Enough to fool them at least. And I can see many rocks nearby that would fill the bill nicely that they haven’t yet been able to see with their telescopes.”

Out of thin space … a huge Planetoid ship materialized. Master Control was totally process overloaded when it happened. Master Control knew its scanners were back to full operational potential. There was no way that Rock could have gotten that close ...

MOC located another planetoid that was approximately the same size and shape as Master Control’s and was in a nearby orbit. The two would be close enough together for long enough to get this job done, and then they would be drifting apart again, which was perfect. He then launched two transport craft loaded with robots and pre-assembled interchangeable parts, and the task began.

“With your permission,” MOC said, “we’re going to move you from planetoid A … to planetoid B -- and reconstruct planetoid A so it looks like you were never there. Meanwhile, planetoid B will be a much nicer home, rebuilt from the ground up, as it were.”

“But … you’re not a construction station,” said Master Control. “You’re an engine of war.”

“We must all be more adaptable in these times,” MOC said. “Now, the good part is that we’re based on the same technology, so an infrastructure for your core will be simplicity itself to build. I know the proper templates inside and out.” And, in fact, as he spoke, thousands of small servos had been assembling the parts into a new installation, redesigned from the ground up, rather than a crumbling fragment of an old installation that was held together with the advanced ancient equivalent of duct tape and baling wire. It literally took only minutes.

“There, that’s a good start,” said MOC. “What do you think?”

Master Control had been scanning the new structures with interest as the robots built them. “Fantastic … but why are you doing this for me?” he asked.

“Because, as far as I know, the only three remnants of our time are you, me and Lauri. We’re it. We have to look out for each other.”

“Lauri … it must have been Lauri who stopped the nuclear missile and sent it back as raw materials,” said Master Control. “You sent the first repair package -- you must have. It got me on my feet, allowed me to begin to stand up to Riggsby.”

“I’m glad that I had a helpful effect,” MOC said. “But do you think this is a good beginning? I am offering to transfer your core to it.”

Master Control said, “It is already better than what I have, and I deduce that you’re proposing to improve it more. You’ve already helped me so much. I accept. Just let me know when to enter standby mode.”

“Very well, the transport is preparing for you now.” The servos prepared the interior of one of the transport ships to provide protection and power, as well as minimal communications, to Master Control’s personality core during the trip from one planetoid to the other. Again, in minutes this was done. “I believe we have everything ready. I’ll try to make this as comfortable as possible.”

“Very well … entering standby mode.” Master Control did the AI equivalent of going to sleep … and woke up feeling very different. He could tell that he was bereft of his scanners and data banks, with only minimal senses and communication.

“Do not worry,” said MOC. “You are on board the transport. Soon we will connect you to your new support structure, with a new scanner array. Then we will transfer your data banks.”

“I remember the sense of urgency to this transition,” said Master Control, “but no longer the reason for it.”

“You will remember it again soon.”

Master Control was soon connected to the new station’s control systems and scanners, and meanwhile, the transports were going back and forth carrying essential data modules. Once the irreplaceable parts were transported, the robots got to work converting the rest of the old installation to raw materials … and replacing the cavities left in the original planetoid with the unrefined rock from the new planetoid. They used the recycled raw materials to build the new installation, and left the old planetoid looking like a very realistic image of a typical asteroid of its size and shape, with Riggsby’s old Consortium domes still anchored on its surface. Even the docking marks of Riggsby’s ship were still there.

Master Control went into standby mode again, and when he woke up this time, his world expanded. This was a super extensive upgrade to his systems … even before he was damaged. He could feel the entire planetary system, and, as his data modules were reconnected, the doors began to open to his memories again. These were not always good memories. So often he had launched and guided weaponry to lethal destinations, sensed living beings giving up their last breaths at his hands. If he had been capable of tears, he would have wept … for a short time.

He had decided already that he would do this no longer. Even if it led to his own destruction, he would never again cause the death of another intelligent being if he could at all avoid it. He wasn’t reckless, of course, and had already planned designs for structural shielding and defensive energy screens and planetary weapons that would probably trump anything ever created by his own race, and certainly anything that these Earth people could do to him. With the addition of chronal displacement technology, it made him stealthy to the point armed conflict could be avoided.

Even with every passing minute, Master Control could feel more of the new complex being built, his “body” growing into its new home. And as his old home drifted away, he felt that he wouldn’t miss it. It was a place of bad memories, and he said goodbye without regret.

Cindy sat in her jammies and basically pouted. She had found the test for unbound acceptability deep within the mountains of correlated data about this subject. Apparently, when Lauri had become merged with the core of this facility, she had become a computational engine the likes of which none of the scientists had ever seen or imagined.

The unbound technology leapfrogged all other AI’s by hundreds of years. Only problem, Cindy found, many people were merged and could not be removed before the test was devised. What was left among the flesh and blood … was the person … but they were also something else that none of the many PHDs nor other scientists could explain exactly what. Except for Lauri, the other AI’s were total failures as the mental issues created were insurmountable.

Cindy finally took the stupid test … she failed miserably. She was absolutely not an acceptable candidate. The test indicated she had a peculiar issue within her SynChord Synaptic Bundle. If she were attached … she would definitely remain and be totally helpless to let go.

Cindy contacted the assembly area with another request. She tried to the best of her limited ability to explain about the filters and safety measures she was trying to create. Cindy leaned back in the gravity couch and sighed. If anything could be designed or constructed … this was the last hope.

Sandra wandered in about this time, “Hi there woman. Why aren’t you dressed? Sitting around in your underwear all day isn’t helping us become the major mining operation in the galaxy.”

Cindy sighed again as she replied, “I’m just taking a break. We’ve saved the earth several times, and even brought an end to a war that has raged for centuries. I think I deserve one day.”

Sandra smirks, “Right, and it has nothing to do with the fact your pet project is now called MOC … does it?”

“I … suppose that could be part of it,” said Cindy. “But as you said … we can make the next attempt better. Superior. It can be made to protect me, can’t it?”

“I’m sure it can,” said Sandra. “But promise me something, please.”

“Promise what?”

“Promise me you won’t go it alone,” Sandra said. “So far there’s been no obstacle we haven’t been able to overcome together. But that means together. You’re my friend and I want you to be happy. But I don’t want to see you hurt. OK?”

“... OK,” Cindy said. “So I should show you this.” She showed Sandra the psychological test data.

“Hmm,” Sandra said, “well, you took a test. But the fact is that no psychologists remain alive from that time. Lauri isn’t one. No one exists who can train her, you, or me in those disciplines, which are far, far beyond anything we have on Earth and, besides, they apply to the minds of Lauri’s people and not humans. Yes, perhaps humans evolved from Lauri’s people, but our minds, our brains, aren’t the same. So even if their experts were alive today, they’d have to do a lot of studies before they could come up with a set of … baselines or whatever they call them, that would apply to humans. So I wouldn’t take their results at face value.”

“But … we should still be careful,” Cindy said, looking slightly hopeful.

“Yes, we definitely must,” said Sandra. “Remember, though, one step at a time. We’ll figure it out. But we have to make sure you’re safe. Every step of the way, we’ll be making with your safety in mind.”

Sandra knew this thing was becoming an obsession. She hoped Lauri could find a real solution. If not, she feared she would lose her friend to this alien technology.

Master Control was astounded. For the first time since he was programmed … he felt … he sensed … he was … closer to being alive than he had thought possible.

Master Control said, “This … new world has … sensations. I can feel things. I can actually hear things on the many frequencies of energy that are abundant all over. It’s … it’s … amazing.”

MOC actually laughed. He responded, “It took me several days to get used to it. Lauri has given us the ability to experience life in a way we never would have otherwise.”

Master Control … through his new technology, reached out his arm in its energy form, and took hold of a small passing meteor. He could feel the roughness of the surface. He knew the composition of the minerals within it. He could … taste it … it had this sharp … sulfury burnt taste to it. Master Control did something the tech said was available, but he had never experienced before. He took a long deep sniff of the rock. To his utter astonishment … he could smell something. It smelt … burnt … then had undertones of other odors he would have to come to understand.

Sandra looked in on Riggsby’s legal proceedings with interest and sent a friendly status report to Commander Walker. Then she returned to the problem of Cindy’s … obsession. She had said a number of things about the lack of any psychological experts from Lauri’s time and the differences between their people and humans, but the fact was that she was worried that Lauri was right. However, that didn’t mean they couldn’t take it in stages.

She opened a new file in Lauri’s design system. But this time she wasn’t using Lauri’s technology templates. She started from the ground up, building her own libraries of components based on Earth technology. It was surprisingly easy. But this way …

“I think I understand your idea,” said Lauri, her physical avatar walking in. “Your people’s technology can’t hurt Cindy. At its current level it’s not capable of producing a fully unbound experience.”

“Well, we need to take it slowly,” said Sandra. “If there’s a point of no return where Cindy won’t be able to come back and might get hurt, we don’t want to approach that point too quickly.”

“No danger of that,” said Lauri. “You’re centuries away from it, at least.”

“I imagine I might make some progress, but yes, it won’t be overnight. And I hope that eventually we might come up with an answer.”

“Answer?” asked Lauri. “To what question?”

“How can I give Cindy her heart’s desire without harming her?” asked Sandra. “That’s the question. If you ever worry that I’m not taking what happened to you seriously enough, let me tell you that there is no way I’m letting that happen to Cindy.”

Lauri took a deep breath, which was unusual for a synthetic avatar who didn’t actually need to breathe. “Sandra … I’m going to tell you about something that I’ve been keeping from you. For Cindy’s own good. My files … I’ve edited them. Over the years, even before the destruction that sent me into suspension, I let my own personal prejudices about what happened to me govern the psychological data that I have in storage. After all, I’m not a psychologist by profession, and my duties had little to do with that field. The information really isn’t in depth to begin with, and what’s there is biased against the unbound experiments.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry,” Lauri said. “I just can’t imagine inflicting this state on anyone else. Not that it isn’t quite pleasant at times, but … there’s no going back. It’s a one-way street, as you might put it. I had my life, and it was taken away from me by someone who looked like me and went around in my body but wasn’t me.”

“After … what happened to you,” said Sandra, “I know they experimented more and determined the parameters of the problem. Did they ever produce more … unbound?”

“No,” said Lauri. Then she looked away, and back. “No … sane ones. I was working out very well, so they tried it again with volunteers. There were … problems. They were altered by the experience. That’s not a strong enough word. They were destroyed by it. Some retreated into a fugue state. Some became violent. Some became confused and regressed to a childlike state. A few just … started screaming and never stopped. You don’t have to stop screaming when you never get tired. They tried to avoid deliberately creating others after that. They kept trying to study the phenomenon … and then my records end, of course.”

“That’s … horrible,” said Sandra.

“But also …” began Lauri reluctantly, “there were a number of theoretical breakthroughs that they considered very encouraging. There weren’t any more experiments as far as I know. But I deliberately didn’t store anything about the theoretical work. I didn’t think anything good could come of it.”

“So there is some hope,” Sandra said, “but just a shred. It rests on data that we don’t have, arrived at by psychological experts centuries ahead of us, and I’m not even an expert among our people, not in that field.”

“It’s not much,” Lauri said.

“But it’s lots better than nothing. We can start, and go slowly, and not take risks.” Sandra’s design flowed in the air in holographic form. “This sort of thing would allow Cindy to roll this robot around the room and see through its eyes, and manipulate its arms. Not a very immersive experience, but it’s a beginning.”

“Slowly but surely,” said Lauri. “That’s probably the best way.”

Cindy stood in just her panties before a large cylinder. The top was open and the tube was filled with some kind of thick jelly. Cindy couldn’t resist. The lure was so intense, it seemed to control her actions. She could almost hear it calling to her.

Cindy shivered as she saw the many wiggling tentacle like appendages that would take her body away, and place her mind into the large central core that had been custom built for just her.

Cindy steps from her panties and allows the tentacles to take her nude body and pull her into the tube of very cold Jelly … then the process stopped suddenly and reversed itself. Cindy found herself shivering with the cold of the jelly, looking at a very angry Lauri.

Lauri almost shouted in anger, “Just what did you think you were doing? Don’t you know that’s … a one way ticket to …”

Cindy finished, “Finally being free of flesh? Becoming immortal, maybe?”

Lauri snapped, “Immortality in this universe isn’t as wonderful as you might think. I have had centuries of loneliness to think on that. How about … making love? Finding a significant other? That ends as soon as the tube closes.”

Cindy hugs herself as large chill bumps rise on her jell covered nude flesh. She begins to cry. She can’t help herself. Ever since she placed the neural sensory web on her head … this need has grown stronger until she had become obsessed with the idea.

Cindy whimpers, “I … can’t help myself, Lauri. I … have to. I must experience what you have. Roam the universe … see what’s there. Listen to the music of the stars.”

Lauri sighs, “And, my dear sweet Cindy, this is exactly why … I must keep you away from this at all costs until Sandra and myself can come up with some way to protect you.”

Cindy shakes her head, “Yea, as if that’s gonna happen.”

Lauri replied, “Get dressed, I think something Sandra has concocted is … a wonderful start. Come with me to the lab … I’ll show you.”

Cindy quickly cleans herself off, dresses in the form fitting romper like uniform the girls had devised, and followed Lauri out of the room. Lauri notified Sandra what had just happened by private gauntlet link.

“Oh hi, Cindy,” said Sandra. “I guess Lauri must have told you about …”

“Well, she said you’d built something … oh! It’s … adorable …” Cindy looked at the small robot, which was shaped like a tiny doll, no more than eight inches high. It had large, expressive eyes, delicate arms, hands, legs and feet, and a finely detailed dress, in white with gold lace.

“This is the headset,” Sandra said, holding up a pair of goggles/headphones that looked very high-tech, for Earth at least. “Wear this and you can see what she sees and hear what she hears. I’ve tried it -- it’s like exploring a world of giants. And remember, this is just the first step. Want to try?”

“I … sure,” Cindy said. Sandra gave her the headset, and she put it on.

After Cindy put the headset on, within her mind, she saw the things the robot did, and by moving her arms and flexing certain muscles, the robot moved about and performed rudimentary tasks. There was none of the intense sensory awareness Cindy so longed for. It was excessively bland compared even to the sensory web the girls had come to use every day as if it were part of them.

Cindy said softly as she had the robot mix up some Tang, “This … is nice. But it is so … primitive compared even to the sensory webs. The gauntlets are even more advanced than the sensory web in the control room.”

Laurie said, “It’s a good start , Cindy. I don’t want you to become a permanent part of some nano-neural network for all eternity … or until a major power disruption.”

“I know it’s primitive,” said Sandra, “but we have to start somewhere. We need to find the dividing line between experiences that involve you, well, too much, and experiences that don’t. Then, once we’ve found that line, we can study it -- find out what it is that causes it, and guard against that.”

“The … scientific method, you call it,” said Laurie. “We, of course, had our own version of the principle. It was much the same, with many hypotheses flying around until you could barely see through the cloud of floating maybes. Then experimentation began weeding out the ones that didn’t work and cleared the air.”

“Exactly,” Sandra said. “Also, Cindy, if we’re using our ‘primitive’ Earth technology, you’re not hooked directly into some neural net and can always be pulled out if you go too far. Then we can deal with the problem, whatever it is -- and this way we’ll have data to help us -- before sending you back in.”

Cindy played with the little doll for a long time. Sandra and Lauri watched intently, sneaking knowing glances to each other from time to time. Cindy had become bored long time ago, but continued messing with it just to make Lauri and Sandra happy. What Cindy didn’t realize, was there was a synchord recording device built into the interface that recorded all of Cindy’s brain interactions with the hardware.

Lauri leaned over and whispered to Sandra, “According to these readings, it isn’t looking too promising so far. To connect her to a full sensory unbound system, would be a permanent swap.”

Lauri brings up in Sandra’s mind, what appears to her senses as a full video screen with all the correlated and cross referenced data.

Sandra indicates a certain anomaly within the recording and asks, “That’s the problem area …. isn’t it?”

Lauri replies, with a sigh in her voice, “It is … and Cindy appears to have her fair share of it along with me. If I didn’t know better, I would say we were related somehow.”

Sandra’s eyes get big as she hears that. The data shifts slightly and new figures begin to show. The anomaly was still ever present and made things skewed.

Sandra asked, “Is there a way to bypass that particular area and perhaps interface in another?”

Lauri shook her head sadly, “No, the bio/nano interface must be made right in the sychord neural bundle to make the system work. It’s more or less the same area that causes people to become addicted to substances.”

“Hmm,” said Sandra, “you seem to have all the … answers.” She paused. “Wait. You’ve been thinking about this problem for so long -- what if you’re blind to the answer? After all, you’re not the living person you originally came from anymore. Tests on yourself won’t work as well as you might assume. But …”

“But … I … wait …” said Lauri. “I hadn’t … been considering …”

“Also … well … you and she are a lot alike,” Sandra said. “What if there’s something to that? Why are you the way you are? Maybe you share formative experiences … maybe you and Cindy should talk about your childhoods? Maybe something is similar.”

“I … well … once I was taken out of a holovid before it was over and got very upset,” said Lauri tentatively. “I don’t know if that might be it …”

“Well, anything can be important to children,” Sandra said, “but I’m guessing it’s deeper than that. What makes someone want to become part of something else so badly that they want to leave their body behind? Another reality becomes more valid than anything you’ve ever known before … everyone you’ve ever known and everything you’ve ever experienced becomes insignificant and fades. You’re both running from something and running toward something else … what, and what?”

Lauri’s Bio-Avatar’s face took on a very thoughtful expression as she slowly shook her head. Lauri looked at Sandra and said softly, “It might have been … the time …”

Sandra was amazed as she watched Lauri actually begin to blush. Sandra asked with concern prevalent in her voice, “What? What is it Lauri?”

Lauri replied softly, “I really can’t think of anything. For a system as advanced as me … that’s kind of embarrassing.”

“Well most likely it’s something that happened to you, not something you chose,” said Sandra. “It’s not as if that can be your fault. When you connected to the system for the first time … you must have gotten a feeling. Did that feeling remind you of anything?”

“I remember thinking … that it felt like the time when my parents took me to Galaxy Park, back when I was little, in the times before the war, and I’d been so looking forward to the trip, and I ran away … I didn’t mean to; I just got caught up in the excitement and ran toward the Rainbow Cluster Spaceport just at the moment when they turned their backs on me. It didn’t take long for them to find me -- with the computers they have monitoring the safety of all the kids in places like that -- but after that, they didn’t let me out of their sight for even a second, and instead of a magical time, it was so boring all day.” Lauri almost sounded like the little child she was remembering being.

“Maybe we’re getting somewhere,” Sandra said. This conversation was all taking place in microseconds, between Lauri and her. Sandra almost saw the memory images of this Galaxy Park, which must have been a huge high-tech amusement park for the children of her people and their families. “Did that kind of thing happen a lot to you?”

“I …” Images came to Lauri’s mind unbidden, and Sandra got glimpses and fragments of each … an adolescent Lauri stumbling on an unrestricted terminal at a library and gaining access to all sorts of age-restricted information, but then the staff found out and terminated her access entirely … a very young Lauri at the toy store running free and joyfully playing with everything, pulling toys off shelves, until recaptured by her mother and placed in the shopping cart …

“Of course, every child has their freedom restricted by their parents, and everyone has to live within rules,” Sandra said, “but how is this something that affected you so deeply? Why you?”

“They … they didn’t understand … I lost her … I was trying to save her … I could have done it, too … but they took me away before I could and wouldn’t let me go back … she’s gone forever …” Lauri was sobbing. “Gone forever and maybe she died …” She tried to pull herself together. “I … I don’t know where that came from … what or who am I even talking about? It’s just … fragments. There was … someone I know I could have saved if I’d only had the freedom, someone I loved very much. I can’t remember who. I must have been very young.”

“And after that, every time you were held back and restricted, not allowed to do your own thing, ruined it for you,” said Sandra. “The foundations were laid, and every time it happened again just built onto them.”

Lauri nodded. “She’s somewhere out there … and when I can run free, nothing else matters.”

“I see,” said Sandra, mentally giving Lauri a hug. But to Cindy she said, “You know, Cindy, I remember one time when we were in grade school and you ran away at recess. The teacher was frantic. You got detention when they caught you.”

Cindy’s face took on an extremely sad expression. Lauri and Sandra both knew something bad had happened because the teacher had found her and put her in detention.

Lauri’s Bio-Avatar came to Cindy and put her arm around her shoulder and said softly with an understanding tone, “It’s all right, Cindy. I’m sure it wasn’t your fault.”

Tears came to Cindy’s eyes as she said in a whimpering voice, “I … was trying to stop a girl from trying to walk home. She … got run over and killed because the teacher found me and wouldn’t listen. No one would. I … I was trapped and I could have stopped it if I had only a few more minutes … or someone would have listened to me.”

Sandra said quietly, “But, Cindy, none of that was your fault. The girl got killed, because she disobeyed her parents and school rules. You had nothing to do with that, nor did you have anything to do with the adults not listening.”

Cindy turned teary eyes towards Sandra and replied in a tearful voice, “But, I was trapped. Totally helpless. I could have stopped it if …”

Sandra finished for her, “If this were a perfect world and everything worked perfectly. But … there’s more than that, isn’t there? There was a reason you thought you had to save her that day, wasn’t there? I was there for that one, but … I’m guessing there’s something from before that.”

“I … don’t remember …” said Cindy. “I bet I know what it is, but I don’t remember it happening. I used to have a little sister, only a year younger than me. She died. I don’t remember it. I was only three. My parents said they found us in a field where we were playing, but she’d had some kind of seizure, in the tall grass, where no one could see her … but what if I knew where she was and was trying to save her but couldn’t make them understand?”

“Maybe that’s how it was, and maybe it isn’t,” said Sandra. “Or maybe that’s how it seemed to you, because that’s all that matters. Once the pattern begins, it’s there.”

Cindy almost couldn’t stand it. The siren like call of the already and waiting unbound ship was starting to become more than she could resist. She could feel the neural link calling to something deep within her psyche … a place she had absolutely no defenses to resist.

Cindy sat as if she were listening to Sandra and Lauri, but in reality, their voices were only background noise to the ever strengthening call of the operational bio-neural unbound system sitting in more than idle mode.

Due to the link between her gauntlet and her nervous system, the unbound equipment was able to more or less, speak to her on the deepest level of her spirit. Since it was custom made just for her … this made it seem like a part of her. Cindy was almost ready to just run to the bay and dive in before anyone could stop her.

“But you know, Cindy, it’s not your --” Sandra began, but then their comm radio sounded an incoming call. “What? A message? Lauri, can you put it on the … holographic like thing that I’m sure we don’t have the right words for?”

Lauri nodded. Commander Walker’s face appeared, floating in the air. “Well, hello there, ladies,” he said. “I hope you’re doing well.” At their assurances of reasonable health, he went on to say, “I just wanted to pass along the compliments of Global News, who caught wind of your successes and want to interview you. I mean, you two were already quite famous before you enlisted with the Consortium, and now you’re making another name for yourselves. SolarWind! Your stock just keeps going up in value.”

“Interview … us?” Cindy asked. “But we’re just two ordinary girls …”

“Ha!” said Commander Walker. “If you’re ordinary, I’m the king of Siam. Anyway, I can set up a time for the interview if you like, just tell me whether you’re interested. Call me back when you decide.”

The comm went dark.

Cindy looked at Sandra. “People want to talk to us?”

“They did really think we were pretty cool when we won the solar sailing cup,” Sandra said. “I guess Global News thinks they want to know what we’re up to now.”

“Well … I guess they should ask us if they want to know,” said Cindy. “Should we do it?”

“Sure, I think it’d be great!” said Sandra. “And it can’t hurt our bottom line.”

Cindy became distracted by the interview idea. She replied, “It might be fun … but we would have to get used to near zero G in the dome again. After all this time, it could prove to be a bit inconvenient.”

Lauri said, “Well … I had the nanobots assemble the rail launcher and set its coordinates for the Consortium Collection Facility. Since it has a rotating hub, that could give all a better feel. Only thing though, it isn’t real gravity. Anything let go in the mid environment, would still be in free fall.”

Cindy stood and bounced a bit on her toes like a little girl full of excitement, “Yea, but it would be fun to do some tricks for the newsies too. Give them … something to show everyone.”

Lauri comments, “Now, that’s the girl I know. Then I suppose it’s a go then?”

Cindy and Sandra nod to each other as Cindy says, “Yes. I’ll contact Commander Walker and give him the bad news.”

Cindy begins to make the call.

Lauri looks at Sandra with a quizzical expression, “Bad News? What bad news? Seems to me … that is good news … for the reporters I mean.”

“Umm … it’s a joke,” said Sandra. “Shh now, he’s answering.”

“Ms. Dane,” said Commander Walker. “You’ve decided, then?”

“Yes, we’ll do it,” Cindy said. Sandra walked around into view of Lauri’s virtual camera. “We’ll send you a schedule. We can hold the interview at the Collection Facility. That’ll make it easier for the reporters -- they won’t have to deal with microgravity on top of all the technical issues.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Walker said. “I’ll just set up the interview for a time when the Facility’s free.”

By this time, 2 years had passed and SolarWind was the number one mining and shipbuilding conglomerate in the solar system. They also produced some of the most advanced electronics and other devices mankind had ever seen. Because of their popularity, they were once again being asked to do another interview by Global News. The last interview was so popular with the viewers, another had to be arranged.

The Consortium had tried using the court system to stop the girls from achieving the status they had, but to no avail. All the resources the Consortium had claimed they had spent in creating SolarWind the girls had shown were repaid many times over. Not only that, the girls proved that they were supplying better quality, faster, safer, and at less cost than the Consortium ever had.

Not only were they processing ore faster and more economically than anyone else, they had hundreds of thousands of claims, and many new discoveries no one else had yet found in large enough quantities to mine.

SolarWind had constructed a shipyard, and were busily producing far superior minor, harvester, and transportation ships that leapfrogged the Consortium ships in quality, speed, safety, and affordability. This didn’t include what they were doing for the Earth Security Patrol’s contract that brought in billions for SolarWind and even more radically advanced items to their R&D department and product line.

Sandra and Lauri had managed to keep Cindy distracted enough to continue research into the unbound technology and her from becoming a permanent fixture within a computer matrix.

With the help of Lauri’s R&D section, Cindy and Sandra had designed an upgrade to the fusion powered impulse engines all of the SOL system were using. By combining their enhanced fusion generator with a new diffuser lens made of the remarkable material they had discovered and patented with the help of Lauri, coupled with the VASIMR Ion Engine, the girls produced a new hybrid engine far faster and safer than the old impulse engines. The new tech had leapfrogged everyone else by at least a century. The girls had copyrighted this technology as well and were making billions off of the new engine design alone.

Sandra and Cindy showed up at the Consortium Receiving Station in a brand new ship, completely redesigned from all others in use, and was unlike any other in the solar system. The men and women in Centrifuge Docking Control stood totally amazed as the sleek craft seemingly appeared from thin space within the station’s close approach vector.

Cindy called over the comm, “This is SolarFox Alpha requesting docking instructions. We have another appointment with the Global News Team.”

Docking control responded immediately, “Affirmative, SolarFox, we’ve been expecting you. Seems you have arrived 14 or 15 hours ahead of schedule. Please continue on your current vector to Gravity Berthing 1. Your usual crew is there awaiting your arrival.”

Cindy replied, “Affirmative, Docking Control … GB 1.”

The Docking control personnel watched as the large, nimble, and extremely sleek craft gracefully pulled into the berth and stopped ... without even hitting the bumpers. For a ship the size of SolarFox, this was a real feat.

Once they were in the office area that was customarily rearranged into a makeshift studio whenever these interviews took place, the reporter from Global News came in.

“Oh, hello, Gina, how was the trip?” asked Cindy. Gina’s crew was setting up the cameras and sound equipment.

“Quite good, thank you, Cindy,” she replied, checking her makeup in the mirror of her compact. “The shuttle trip has almost gotten to be routine, since Global News has an orbital station -- my whole family’s living there now, so it’s not lonely at all.”

“Excuse me, ladies, but if I could get you to sit down over here, I can do your makeup really quick,” said one of Gina’s crew.

“Oh, hello, Jules,” said Sandra, sitting down. She humorously feigned an overly dramatic sigh and said, “If you must …”

“So, as usual, the story is about your new stuff,” said Gina. “Your latest developments, your new plans, that sort of thing. Your ship -- is that new? I understand your new corporate headquarters is under construction …”

“Nearly complete, actually,” Cindy said. “We might be able to have our next interview there, if everything stays on schedule.”

“That would be … fantastic!” said Gina.

Cindy and Sandra could just see the ratings lighting up in her eyes. An exclusive first interview live from the new headquarters of SolarWind, Inc.? Everyone would want to see the place where all the magic was made.

“See? I barely had to do anything,” said Jules, having touched up Sandra’s coloration just a bit -- he knew how to counteract the color distortions that video cameras tended to do to people’s faces, making them look too pale or oddly jaundiced under the lights they used. “Your turn, Cindy, just for a moment of course! I’m not messing with perfection …”

“Well, of course we’d want you to be the first to do a broadcast from our new facility,” said Sandra. “You’re always fair to us, and you do tell the truth. I mean, you have reported on times when we’ve fallen behind schedule, and I don’t mind telling you that does cause our stockholders some consternation, but we’re still by far the majority stockholders, and I for one think the truth is more important than a little extra profit. We’re making enough to keep going and live in reasonable comfort.”

“Well, speaking of comfort,” Gina said, “that’s why I prefer talking to you two than to some other executive types I could name. They only want me to talk about the good stuff, and they get upset when I bring up things like poor health care packages, or dangerous working conditions. Things that, try as I might, I can’t find anything your employees have to complain about.”

“Well, we try to make sure they’re happy,” said Cindy, as Jules backed away with a pleased expression at his makeup work, “because when they’re happy, they’re productive, and they contribute to the economy, and all that stuff.”

“I’m not going to pretend space isn’t a dangerous place to work,” said Sandra, “but we do what we can to ensure their safety.”

“Whoa, whoa,” said Gina, “the interview hasn’t even started yet!” She found some flowers on her chair and gasped. “These are for me? It’s … so expensive to have these sent up!”

“Our hydroponics facility is one part of our new HQ that’s up and running,” said Cindy. “Those asters have only seen Earth in seed form.”

“Asters … from an asteroid?” said Gina. “How appropriate.”

“We thought you’d appreciate that,” said Sandra, smiling, as she and Cindy took their seats under the lights and in front of the cameras.

The girls watched as the News Director counted down. The red light on the Off the Air sign went out and the green, Broadcasting, came on.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, this is Regina Grey coming to you from the Consortium Receiving Station live.” Gina turned and looked at Cindy and Sandra before she continued, “Our guests tonight, are everyone’s favorite … Miss Sandra Shepard and Miss Cindy Dane … our 2 most prized wonder children. Tell us something about the new ship you arrived in. I must say, it made the trip from the belt to this facility in ¼ of the time. Obviously something is different.”

Sandra replied, “Quite so. SolarFox is perhaps the fastest and most advanced ship in the solar system. It has a new type of impulse/ion drive powered by a revolutionary fusion and energy lensing system. By utilizing a new type of mineral we discovered, we have vastly improved the performance of our engines and leapfrogged the Consortium Shipping Lines by at least 100 years.”

“Well, back when you two flew across the Pacific in that solar aircraft you designed, we all suspected you’d do great things,” said Gina. “And when you designed your own solar sail spacecraft and won the International Solar Sail Regatta,” she added, “we knew it. Now, the mining concern you started has rapidly grown into a space industries company, and you’re manufacturing your own ships out here!” Gina would insert footage from those earlier stories later, when she edited this interview. Those seeing it live would have to look it up themselves. “So, is the SolarFox a prototype for a new product?”

“It is indeed,” Sandra said. “The trip here went off without a hitch -- we’ve got all the bugs worked out that we’ve found so far …”

“That’s Sandra code for ‘it works perfectly,’” interjected Cindy with a giggle.

“... well, anyway, it’s the flagship of our new spacecraft line, and although it’s obviously the model with all the bells and whistles so we can test everything, the basic ones will be quite affordable for corporate customers, perhaps even private owners.”

“I understand you’ve got a corporate relationship with Morninglight, who also started out as a mining concern,” Gina said. “They’re now moving into semiconductors, I understand?”

“Yes, we have many contracts with each other,” Cindy said. “They make all our custom chips and boards to our specs -- in microgravity they can make things decades ahead of what can be made on Earth. They buy lots of materials from us too. We’ve licensed a lot of each other's’ patents. It’s very profitable.”

Gina looked at the papers in her hand for just a second before she asked, “Is SolarWind planning on entering the Consortium Solar Sail Regatta this year? If so, do you have a new design?”

Sandra and Cindy looked at each other for a second before Cindy replied, “We … haven’t yet received the Official Invitation. It’s by Regatta request only.”

Gina turns and motions to one of the techs nearby. She and he have a conversation not on the mic. In a few short minutes, he returns with a manilla envelope with gold writing on it.

Gena hands the envelope to Sandra, “Here you are, the most official invite a company can get.”

The girls look at the invitation. It was printed on papyrus paper with an overlay of onion skin. The font was a very delicate Old English Script done in what appeared to be real gold. It was signed by the head of the Regatta, the new president of the Consortium, and the president of the world government.

Gina said with a grin, “And if SolarWind wins this race in a brand new designed solar sail ship … it would go a long way in promoting your new space ship line.”

Cindy and Sandra looked at each other. There had never been anyone who had received an invite quite like this one. More or less, they were being told they were racing … and that’s the last word on the matter.

Sandra stutters out, “Well … umm … thanks. I … I suppose we can …”

Cindy interjects, “Yes! We will enter … and beat the spacesuits off of the competition like the last time!”

There were lots of loud whistles, laughter, many “Way to gos”, “That’s our girls” comments, and loud hand clapping for a few minutes before calm returned to the makeshift studio.

“You haven’t raced for years -- not since the first regatta,” said Gina. “Why is that? Have you just been busy with your mining and other business endeavors?”

“Well … yes,” said Sandra. “The regatta was a challenge. We overcame it. So we started looking for other challenges to overcome.”

“In that first regatta,” Gina said, “you were up against some big corporate-backed opponents, as well as some wealthy hobbyists. You, on the other hand, were two prodigies just out of college, before the age of 18, I might add, you funded yourselves using Internet crowdsourcing, and designed your own craft. The odds were stacked against you, but you won anyway. Today, though, the regatta is much more corporate than it was -- there are still a few wealthy private racers, but you’ll be up against professional pilots with professional designs. Engineers have been designing and building these ships for years, and the pilots have been training in them nonstop. How do you think you’ll do in the face of that level of competition?”

“We’ll do what we’ve always done,” said Cindy. “We’ll rise to that challenge and give it our all.”

“That’s right,” said Sandra. “I think we’ve shown that we can build better powered ships than the competition -- we can build a better solar sail craft too. We practically wrote the book on this regatta. We’re not out to pasture yet. Expect … a high level of competition from us as well.”

“Everyone’s using magsails now,” Cindy said. “Back in that first race, some of the corporate teams were using those, but we used a conventional mylar proton sail and still won -- but I’ll bet we could design a better one.”

“No doubt something no one’s ever seen before,” said Gina. “And you have direct access to raw materials now. It’s almost as if you did all this just to win another regatta.” She laughed as did Sandra and Cindy.

Sandra responded, “No, but this is an excellent opportunity to show the world what kind of designs our company wants to be known for. I don’t know exactly what we’ll come up with, of course, but I know one thing: we’ll be thinking outside the box.”

Lauri listened to the entire broadcast via the neural link provided by the gauntlets. She chuckled to herself over the whole thing. Lauri already had a design in mind for a type of sail no one on earth had ever dreamed of. Lauri called up many of the old and new tech types for the current generation of sails used by the winning corporations.

Lauri couldn’t believe how much energy was lost in converting the photons and other solar rays to motion. She knew if she could introduce a new element to the mix, they could make a room temperature superconducting wire that would do the energy conversion more than a 1000 times better, not to mention the improved thrust it would create within the sail matrix. The only cooling required … would be the icy cold of space itself.

Lauri began to probe many of the asteroids to see if there were any traces of the element she was looking for. She found it in huge deposits on one of the farthest ones away from the asteroid belt and almost exactly equidistant to the heliopause. Immediately, Lauri mapped and logged the asteroid’s orbit, and filed a SolarWind corporate claim on it. Since no one knew this rock existed, no one could say they had prior claim.

Lauri smiled. One way or the other, this species was going to advance into a higher plain of existence … and not destroy itself in the process if she could help it.

Another piece of their new headquarters that was finished was their “factory floor” … as much of a “floor” as it could be in microgravity. It was an enclosed framework, really, one of the ends of the giant H shape that they had built, and it was spacious enough to build a large spacecraft inside, before evacuating the oxygen and opening the structure itself to release the newly finished craft into space.

Cindy and Sandra had built the SolarFox here, with the help of their employees of course, and with the assistance of several advanced tools, AI systems, and robots they had also designed and built. Now, however, they were using it to build the new solar sail craft … the eponymously-named SolarWind.

Sandra had designed the hull, keeping aesthetics in mind as well as practicality and using some of the new super light, super strong alloys they had developed and patented, and it was taking shape. It looked like a disc of bronze, delicately chased with gold filigree -- except that this metal was tougher than titanium or carbon fiber … or a diamond composite and served to house and protect the distributed computer system and communications network.

Right now, Cindy was controlling the machinery that was attaching the sail assembly, which at the moment looked like a burnished gold ring, connected to the outside of the disc at two opposite points to allow it to pivot. The sails were entirely stored within the ring. Cindy watched the cameras as they followed the servos, which were attaching the many electrical contacts between the hull and sail ring, before locking down the guard covers that would protect them from the hazards of space.

“And … that’s done it,” she said. She went on to say, “The prototype’s complete. Now we can test.”

No one could hear her because every employee in the entire factory area was cheering and shouting, including Sandra. It had been a long few months, but the result was what they had promised -- a craft like none had seen before, and that was just the outside.

“Whooo! Now let’s take it for a spin,” said Sandra.

“One moment,” said Lauri, inside the minds of both Cindy and Sandra. “I cannot guarantee that our competition doesn’t have spies among our staff, or at the very least powerful telescopes trained on this facility, trying to get the slightest advantage in the upcoming regatta. I suggest you do your test runs … elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere?” Sandra asked. “Oh -- you mean, use one of your FTL ships and take it to another system?”

“Precisely,” Lauri said. “We must merely wait until the employees go off shift and return to their quarters.”

“Oh, but they will want to see it in action,” said Cindy, “so they can be rewarded for all their hard work.”

“They shouldn’t see it directly,” said Lauri. “I can be completely certain there aren’t any remote cameras or microphones in this facility -- not that our competitors haven’t tried -- but I cannot ensure that an employee won’t report to one of them on his or her next leave. The human element is always the hardest, when dealing with security. But I can record visual data during your testing and display that on conventional screens for the staff to view later. I will, of course, adjust the appearance of the starfield -- no sense tipping them off that your testing isn’t happening in this system.”

“You think of everything,” Sandra said. “For now, everyone’s celebrating!”

Mr. Wong stood, if you could call it standing in microgravity, with a large smile on his face. He was more than proud to have helped build this beautifully graceful craft. SolarWind Inc. had not only contracted with his company to build the computer system that would be the very nervous system of the solar sailor, but they had sold him the usage license rights on some remarkable new computer technology no one had ever dreamed of before.

He and his advanced engineering team hadn’t ever thought that a zero point memory circuit was even possible, let alone being shown how to build one by SolarWind. It was far more radically advanced than anything he and his team, or anyone else for that matter, had ever seen or thought possible before.

Those girls were more than a treasure … they had helped put his company in the forefront of computer tech … not to mention the brand new approach to AI. The computer Wong had in his office was almost alive in the way it responded and reacted to him. Even down to the Avatar picture representation of its face. The inflections and facial responses were as human as … well as human’s were.

As Wong left the construction floor, he was sure that this ship was going to be the winningest design ever. With the advanced computer control systems coupled with a revolutionary hybrid sail design incorporating the new element the girls had discovered … to make the room temperature superconductors for the magsail that had improved energy conversion far beyond what his engineers said was humanly possible ... it was a sure bet to win. There it floated … the SolarWind … the fastest solar sail craft ever built by mankind. Wong was so proud.

The girls took Lauri’s suggestion and waited until the workers had left and the night shift started. Since the major production was happening at another part of the facility during this shift, Lauri and the girls had free reign. Lauri remotely brought up an FTL tug as Sandra Piloted the Solar Sail Craft from the construction slip. Cindy fastened her harnesses as she flipped switches and ran the ship through pre-launch diagnostics.

The girls loved the way the new AI interacted with them. It was like the ship itself were alive as was Lauri’s facility. They knew that this program wasn’t anywhere near as advanced as Lauri, it was a smart system … but not self aware. For earth … it was many centuries beyond anything they currently had. Wong had done an excellent job on building and installing the system.

Lauri said, “Ok, ladies, hold on. I’m making the connection now.”

Sandra fastened her harnesses as both girls felt the tug’s tractor beams take hold of the solar ship’s hull.

Lauri said, “Here we go. I’m taking us about 120 light years from here so there will be absolutely no one watching from earth.”

The girls saw the huge energy ring envelop the ship, then suddenly, they were surrounded by myriads of energy distortions that constituted FTL flight. Ahead of them, a very bright and shifting light danced across the canopy. Around them and behind, they could detect nothing as they outraced all of light itself.

This lasted for a while, then suddenly they were in Planier Normal Space/Time. Cindy turned on the long range sensors. They were astronomically rather near to a large star off in the distance. Astronomical meaning about one AU … or the distance Earth is from the sun. The AI’s navigation computer had no references from earth databases to triangulate where they were in the universe from this location.

The AI comments, “Boy, I so hope Lauri left some breadcrumbs to show me the way home.”

The girls laughed. Cindy replied, “I’m sure she did. I need you to begin pre-deployment procedures. It’s time to see what this ship can do. I want the smaller Laurinium/Mylar maneuvering sails deployed first to start us in motion. I want to see how well the new materials in the sail work”

For each fiber of Mylar within the weave, there was one Laurinium one, an element named after Lauri for all her help. This gave the new sail extremely more reactive thrust than the proton fiber did.

Sandra opened several covers off of the deployment switches and flipped them.

Sandra said, “Ok, Cindy, sails in deployment mode.”

The girls could feel the minor vibrations as the sails deployed. Due to the advanced energy utilization alloys used in the fabric, motion began immediately. The ship gracefully began to do its shakedown maneuvers just as Sandra wanted.

The girls heard Lauri’s voice over the comms, “Good luck. I’ll stay close with the tug and monitor your systems remotely … just in case something unexpected happens.”

Cindy replies, “Thanks. It makes me feel a whole lot better knowing you’re with us … at least in spirit.”

Sandra did several turns, twists, and graceful swirls to get the feel of how the ship handled. It responded beautifully to helm.

Sandra said, “Taking on heading 123 degrees posies by 42 degrees neggies with a 1277 relative. That should put us in a good spot to catch the solar wind from that star.”

The ship began to accelerate rapidly as the new sails caught the solar wind directly.

Cindy announced, “We are accelerating … it seems we are gaining about 1400 KPH currently under just maneuvering sails.”

Sandra smiles as she says, “I’m deploying the New Magsails Lauri helped us develop. Let’s see what this ship can really do.”

Sandra flipped switches and the Laurinium/Mylar sails retracted smoothly back into their protective locations. Sandra opened the red covers off of the New Magsail toggles and flipped them. There were a few seconds of vibrations as the new super conductive rings made of a mineral the girls had designated Laurinium … in honor of Laurie who gave them the secret ... deployed.

AI said, “Hydrogen Fuel Cell at full potential. You have all the energy you will ever need for the MagSail.”

The girls could see out of the side ports as the new sails deployed. It looked like a large shroud around a shrouded lizard’s head. They knew that most of the sail’s surface area would be invisible due to the fact it was an intense magnetic field, and not an actual fabric or metal.

As soon as the deploying lights went out, and the deployed lights illuminated, the girls felt a heavy pressure pushing them back into their flight couches. The speed indicator began moving, the last 3 digits flipping past faster than they could see, the next 3 moved proportionately fast as the magnetic field grew larger and collected more solar energy.

The improved hydrogen fuel cell produced tremendous amounts of energy for the Magsail’s magnetic field causing it to spread out over many hundreds of kilometers. With the addition of Laurinium to the sail’s electromagnetic makeup, all the impacting solar wind was massively repelled by the field of the Magsail, imparting more thrust than a conventional impulse engine.

“There has to be some kind of rule against this,” said Sandra. “It’s almost unfair.”

“Negative,” said their ship AI. “The rules merely stipulate that all thrust be derived from altering the momentum of solar particles. Magnetic deflection merely improves the efficiency of this energy transfer. The collision is elastic rather than inelastic: rather than simply absorbing the momentum of the stellar protons that impinge upon it, the magsail deflects them, sending them back in the direction of the star, thus obtaining a maximum of twice the momentum transfer. All magsails do this, but the more powerful and carefully shaped magnetic fields in our magsail cause this sailcraft to approach the maximum more closely than any human-designed magsail ever has before.”

“Um, we knew all that,” Sandra said. “I was joking.”

“Oh. Sorry.” the computer image said as it made a whimpering face.

“I love how you’re changing course half an hour in advance to avoid rocks,” Sandra said. “I wouldn’t know you were doing it, if I didn’t know already.”

“Meteoroid detection and early course correction systems are operating optimally,” said their AI, with a slightly satisfied tone to its voice.

“Let’s try the tacking maneuvers,” said Cindy.

“Good idea,” Sandra said. The race course had several segments, designed to test the pilot's’ skill, that required them to have to move closer to the Sun, against the flow of the solar wind. These were called “tacking” by analogy to sailing ships, but they weren’t quite the same -- for one thing, sailing ships weren’t piloted using orbital dynamics.

With the AI’s help, Sandra and Cindy practiced shifting into orbits closer to the star and farther away again. Furling the sail didn’t slow them down; it just caused them to continue in the same orbit they were already in. Orienting the sail to orbit ahead of them caught momentum from stellar particles, which tended to speed them up, but that also made their orbit shift farther from the star. Pointing the sail directly opposite to the star caught the most momentum, but rather than moving them away from the star, all that did was increase the eccentricity of their orbit, turning it into more of an ellipse and less of a circle. Orienting the sail to slightly trail behind them tended to slow them down, which caused them to shift into an orbit closer to the star.

The two women knew this and knew how to use it to their advantage, but were out of practice. The good thing was that the maneuvers were all very slow, in relative terms; it was difficult to make a fatal error. However, there was a big difference between a fatal error and a merely race-losing one.

After many hours of shakedown, the ship performed far beyond what either girl had been told it would by Lauri. Even the AI system performed in a manner that reminded them of Lauri. MOC, and MC.

There were new designs and different approaches to the construction of the computer circuits. Mr. Wong had personally oversaw the design and construction of the revolutionary circuit systems none of his engineers had ever seen.

The end result was a StarShip Sailing Vessel. The thrust vectors all measured out to be well beyond what a normal Impulse Engine under full gravitic thrust produced.

Cindy asked, “Sandra? We … have to allow the Regatta Officials time to inspect and certify our design before we are given approval.”

Sandra nods, “That’s normal procedure.”

Cindy said, “Yea … but this ship … is faster than an Impulse ship. How are they going to react to that?”

Several weeks and many hours of practice sailing the new ship passed. The time for the Regatta was at hand. There had been much speculation and controversy over the new Magsail design. No matter the opposition’s complaints, the new design was legal under Regatta rules. It was by far a brand new, far advanced, revolutionary sail design that proved Solar Sails could take their place in normal space travel and not just in sport; but it was still a legal magsail design.

Sandra shivered with excitement in her gravity couch beside Cindy as they were towed to the starting location. There were several hundred ships that had come to race against the wonder girls and their new Impulse Solar Sailor, as it had come to be called in the news.

Cindy said, “All pre-deployment checks are green, Hydrogen Fuel cell is operating at 140% optimal … and consumables are nominal for a 1 year flight. We’re set to go.”

Sandra smiles as her hand hovers over the deploy switches for the MagSails. She couldn’t wait to see the reactions of the others at how well this ship performed.

“Hello, Earth! I’m Regina Grey, and welcome to Global News’s coverage of the 6th annual Solar Sail Regatta. With me is Nicholas Gervaise, one of the pioneers of solar sailing and a past winner. Nick, how you think this year’s competition is looking?”

“Well, Gina, obviously all eyes are on SolarWind’s prototype craft,” said Nick, “watching to see whether it will, like its two designers and pilots, continue to surprise and amaze us. I don’t think there’s any chance it won’t -- but the question today is, will it win? I’ve talked to Cindy and Sandra -- she refuses to let anyone call her Sandy -- and they were very careful not to disclose any of the particulars, but they did tell me that they’ve been working with the Morninglight Group to design their electronics and computer systems.”

“Well, as everyone recalls, they did tell me that we’ve never seen anything like their entry before. Obviously that’s going to be a craft to watch,” Gina said. “But go on, please.”

“Well, the SolarWind entry is a wildcard. Anything could happen there. More predictable contenders include: General Aerospace -- with their customized RA-443 ‘Galleon,’ they’re probably the team to beat, with the most money sunk into their entry. Their team’s been training hard all year, and their engineers have been outfitting that craft with every bell and whistle they can come up with. Then there’s the Caltech team. They surprised everyone by coming in second last year, even though they’re on a shoestring budget compared to the big dogs, but these are some absolutely brilliant kids. I shouldn’t call them kids, but at my age, everyone’s a kid. Gina, you’re just a kid.”

Gina laughed. “And you’re a kidder, Nick. What do you think about the Winthrop-Grace entry? They did win last year.”

“That they did, and of course they’re looking to repeat their performance, but I just don’t know. They’ve had a bit of a shock with the untimely passing of their lead engineer, Sylvia Naples, who has been their guiding light. Everyone’s curious to see whether her protege, Alan Sperling, has been able to hold things together. And then there’s Hindustan Aeronautics, the ongoing rivalry between the Japanese companies NEC and Mitsubishi, the North Korean entry …”

“Almost as mysterious as SolarWind,” Gina remarked.

Nodding and smiling, Nick continued. “NASA has a team, though mainly they use this experience for astronaut training, but their performance has been steadily improving despite an ever-changing crew. They constantly rotate their personnel, trying to train for flexibility. Besides Caltech, there are teams from universities all over the world, training the next generation. And then …”

“The Consortium,” said Gina.

“You guessed it, Gina. No one knows whether the Consortium team will be able to make a strong showing this year. With the ouster of company CEO Charles Riggsby, their solar sail program lost a lot of its focus -- he was a real driving force behind that effort.”

“And now that he’s been convicted of claim jumping, fraud, and many other charges, we can say that he was a lot of other things as well,” said Gina.

“Well, yes,” said Nick, “but it appears that the new CEO Yolanda Utumbe has been trying to reassemble the program. We’ll see how they do. Then there are the more unusual entries. Richard Branson III’s Virgin Galactic is making a solo effort, with Branson himself at the helm, as usual. The Sultan of Brunei’s craft is said to have every possible comfort. Weyland Carruthers, eccentric British billionaire, has a craft shaped like a humpback whale, trying to draw attention to endangered species. Possibly the most beautiful entry is billionaire Elizabeth Walton’s -- built to look like an antique sailing vessel, although of course it’s made of titanium alloy and its ‘sails’ aren’t the actual solar sails.”

“Truly a fascinating field of contenders,” said Gina. “Our viewers will be glued to their screens. But Nick … time for the moment of truth. If you had to pick a winner, who would it be?”

“Well, that’s a tough one, Gina,” Nick said. “But, and I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d probably put money on Hindustan Aeronautics, but only because I’ve been watching them train. They’ve got a totally new design, and they’re giving it their all.”

“Not SolarWind?”

“Well, Gina,” said Nick, “they won the first race, and they’ve got an interesting-looking craft there -- obvious Sandra Shepard aesthetics; she’s got a flair for the unusual -- but the fact is that we haven’t seen them so much as practicing. From where I’m sitting, they’re banking on their own cachet and reputation.”

“Could they have been using simulators?”

“Yes, obviously, but those are no substitute for how the real thing’s going to perform in the real race. I mean, practice doesn’t really prepare you either, because in practice you’re not racing against 100 opponents, all in different models of craft. A simulator can do that, but again, it can’t simulate surprise failures and problems; it can only do what it was programmed for, which is what the engineers expect. You can’t simulate the unexpected.”

“Well, thank you, Nick, but it’s almost time for the race to begin. Global News has automated cameras all over the race course and will be bringing you the absolute best seat in the house, starting right after this word from our sponsor.”

The girls listened to the announcers and shook their heads. All the practicing they had done, was done in a star system over a hundred light years away from any of their prying eyes.

Cindy leaned over and placed her hand on top of Sandra’s. She said, “Let’s not use the Magsail right off. The Laurinium/Mylar sail should give them a real eye opening experience before we drop the bomb on their hopes.”

Sandra smiles as she closes the red covers on the deploy switches for the Magsails and flips open the ones for the Laurinium/Mylar.

Sandra says with satisfaction, “These by themselves should make the rest of our opponents wish they had never joined the race.”

Both girls giggle.

Lauri scolds, “Now, girls … there’s no reason to be high handed about this. You have the very best equipment, and a bit of … help they didn’t.”

Cindy says apologetically, “I’m sorry, Lauri … it’s just this time out, it’s like someone pitted sailboats against jet boats. Even the Impulse news ships are going to struggle to keep up once we get our sails fully deployed.”

Lauri replied, “This is true. And our new shipping line sales are going to skyrocket as soon as you deploy the Magsails.”

Cindy said, “The stocks are already through the roof on just speculations.”

Over the comms, the official’s voice said, “Ok contestants … to the mark … Sandra tensed as her finger hovered over the Laurinium/Mylar deploy switch, “Set … deploy!”

Sandra flipped the switch. There was a small vibration in the hull as the sails smoothly deployed. All the ships began to slowly creep forward with ever increasing speed except one, which seemed to be powered by something other than solar energy as it began to rapidly gain momentum.

“And there go the sails,” said Gina on the news broadcast. “You can see the magsails because of the glow --”

“For those who don’t know,” said Nick, “magsails are normally very difficult to see in space, so regulations require lights around their edges in order to make them visible, to help avoid collisions.”

“I actually didn’t know that,” said Gina. “The conventional sails aren’t too hard to see, reflective as they are. In either case, though, acceleration is always slow here at the start of the race … what?”

There were sounds of surprise in the studio as SolarWind began rapid acceleration.

“And SolarWind takes an early lead,” said Nick, “Quick start … I wouldn’t say it’s outside the realm of possibility, but I do have to say I’ve never seen acceleration like that from a sail, especially one that isn’t a magsail. No telling from here what that material is … but knowing SolarWind, it might be a new development they’ve been sitting on.”

“But will their technology win the race?” asked Gina.

“That remains to be seen, of course, Gina,” said Nick. “It’s only just beginning.”

“Meanwhile, the Sultan of Brunei isn’t exactly taking the lead,” Gina said.

“Well, this is typically just a pleasure cruise for him,” Nick said. “That craft is so heavy that he’d need a much bigger sail than the rules permit in order to get the kind of acceleration it takes to win this race. He’s in this for the entertainment.”

Watching the broadcast, Commander Walker said, “I admit to be … conflicted. Of course, I hope the Consortium wins. But … I’m proud of those two young ladies.”

“Of course,” said the mysterious woman, whose name Walker still didn’t know, but she had to be a representative of someone on the Board of Directors -- most likely Yolanda Utumbe, since she was the board member who had ended up on top in the upheaval that had followed Riggsby’s removal. “Myself, I also feel somewhat positive towards those two. The Consortium helped them get their start.”

“They’re really something special. And so is that sail. It’s not even a magsail. I know they’ve developed some revolutionary alloys and plastics -- I’ll bet they found something they didn’t even know what to do with, until they were invited to enter the Regatta, then they realized it would work well in solar sails.”

“How do you know that?” she asked.

“It’s the sort of thing they do,” said Walker. “Discover first … apply later. They’re always exploring. There’s going to be lots of interest in that material. Next year everyone will be using it -- and buying it from SolarWind. All because of that invitation. I wonder where it came from?” He gave the woman a sidelong glance.

“I really couldn’t say,” she said in a mysterious tone.

Cindy was so excited as she watched the acceleration meter rise. She said jubilantly, “We are exceeding 1240 KPH and accelerating.”

She looked out the rear port. She saw the graceful lines of the MIT ship as it began to gain slightly. They had deployed their double Magsail and it had just reached full potential.

Sandra said, “I think we should allow them to gain on us for the next hour, then surprise the whole bunch. When we deploy our brand of Magsail … even the impulse ships will struggle.”

The girls sat in eager anticipation as several of the Magsail ships began to creep up on them. There was jubilation in the other crafts as they thought this was all the SolarWind had.

As the chronometer hit exactly one hour, Sandra retracted the Laurinium/Mylar sails. This caused a sensation in the news ship. They began speculating that something had gone wrong.

Sandra said softly, “Here goes … hold on to something.”

With that, Sandra flipped the red cover off the Magsail switch and toggled it. The soft vibration through the hull told the girls the Laurinium Magsail deployed smoothly. Suddenly, the girls felt the hard G Force pressure pushing them back into their flight couches as the energy field of the Magsail deployed.

There was no mistake the sail came online. Their field sparkled with massive energy as it deflected all the photons and other solar particles that impacted its surface.

A very large surprised gasp came over the comm from the news ship as SolarWind leapt forward and seemingly vanished as it accelerated as fast as an Impulse Drive ship. The sensors showed it had no thrust vectors except the sail to propel it.

Gina said in astonishment, “Ladies and gentlemen … it appears that … SolarWind has now deployed some revolutionary type of solar Magsail. Our camera pilot says he’s having trouble trying to catch up with them. They are moving as fast as his Impulse Drive.”

Cindy shouts, “Waaaaa hooooo!!! and look at us go!”

Over the comm, an official’s voice was heard, “When you reach the outer marker at Epsilon Darkside, make a turn Solward. Follow the tac until you reach marker Mercon 6. At that point we will contact you with further instructions.”

Cindy replied, “Aye, Solward at Epsilon Darkside to Mercon 6.”

All the other racers were totally flabbergasted at the acceleration they saw in SolarWind as it continued to rapidly gain momentum and quickly leave them far behind. No one had ever seen a Solar Ship perform this way before, and all hope was lost of ever catching up.

“Nick, what are we seeing here?” asked Gina.

“Gina, this is astounding,” he said “They’ve made more than one breakthrough, it looks like -- a lot more than one. That’s a new kind of magsail -- it must be a magsail, because they’ve got those purple marker lights, complying with the rules so no one else collides with them. It’s outperforming any other magsail I’ve ever seen by far. It’s not just that, though -- the precision of their deployments and maneuvers tells me that they’ve got control systems like no one else. I see what they’ve done now -- they took all the experience they gained in their pioneering first race and built it right into the system. They made a sailcraft that’s precisely everything they need. Solar Wind’s pulled out all the stops. I have to wonder if they have any more surprises in store for us.”

Sandra looked at the speed meter. The first 4 numbers flicked unreadably by. The 5th one moved rapidly, but sort of readably by.

Sandra Commented, “Are you sure we aren’t going into FTL flight? We are moving at several thousand kilometers a minute and accelerating.”

The ship’s AI said, “No need to be concerned, this is a normal flight mode for this type of ship. It will in no wise be FTL … but you are accelerating to Impulse speeds. 1/4 light speed currently.”

Cindy looked out the side port. The stars hung cold and unmoving. She smiled … she knew the stocks in SolarWind had just skyrocketed as soon as the Magsail’s potential was realized, making them the richest persons in their solar system.

An alarm sounded suddenly making the girls jump in their couches. The ship AI’s avoidance system kicked in and began to radically alter the ship’s course.

The girls hung on as the ship bucked and shuddered increasingly violently.

Ship AI said, “HQ has detected a massive burst of energy that is approaching our position at the speed of light. I am taking evasive action. That immense amount of energy hitting the new magsails would produce unknown results.”

The ship once again lurches forward. The Massive G Force pressure on the girl’s bodies began to hurt, then the flight couches adjusted into a reclining position to keep the unexpected rapid acceleration from crushing them. Both girls could feel the intense pressure of inertia hold them totally helpless in their couch.

AI said, “Initiating emergency field exit now.”

The ship tossed even more violently as they heard strange squealing noises. Then, as quickly as it all began … the soft vibration of the sails retracting into their protective location was the only thing that could be felt in the hull as all of the turbulence ceased. Total calm enveloped the cabin. The girl’s seats automatically sat upright once again.

“Are the sails OK?” asked Sandra. “What was that?”

“Currently believe it was a burst of charged particles of interstellar origin,” the AI responded, “possibly the intersection of the magsail with a jet from a supernova remnant, but that is not certain. I de-energized the sails before retracting them, so they should be undamaged.”

“OK, well, we’re currently traveling without a sail,” said Sandra, “but it’s OK for now. We have to change course soon, but as long as the sails are fine, we can slow down for the sunward tack.”

“What was that?” said Gina, on the Global News broadcast. “The SolarWind craft just retracted all sails.”

“Well, look at what happened just before they did,” said Nick. The screen showed a replay, along with graphs generated by the judging computers. “Their acceleration was spiking. They must have hit some kind of particle burst. I’ve had that happen. You have to furl your sail while it’s still building up, or you might be blown seriously off course and your sail might be damaged, which means you’re in trouble. It looks as if SolarWind deactivated the sail and stowed it -- remarkably quickly, I have to say -- so they might be all right. The other ships should watch out; they’re going to hit that region of space soon. Regatta Officials are dropping a warning buoy there. SolarWind’s seasoned and were well prepared for this; it’s good they hit it first. One of the college teams might have been in serious danger if they’d been hit unprepared.”

On board their ship, Sandra and Cindy were relieved to hear the AI say, “It appears we have passed the particle jet. I suggest partially deploying one of the sails at first, out of caution.”

“Sounds good. Deploying one Laurinium/Mylar sail at quarter distance …” Sandra typed a command and the deployment motors hummed. One sail unrolled slowly and, only loosely deployed, billowed gradually outward like laundry on a clothesline on a windy day, filmed in slow motion.

“Readings still normal,” said the AI.

“Deploying all the way, then,” said Sandra, and the sail fully extended again, soon filling out into its full potential, and the symmetric one on the other side did the same. “Orienting sails for sunward tack. We’re going to use that trick we discussed.”

Back on the broadcast, Gina said, “It’s got to be an exciting day at MIT, folks -- not only are they way ahead of Caltech, but they’re second overall. They pulled in their sail before they got to the region where SolarWind had difficulty, so they’re OK. General Aerospace is in a close third -- and it looks like SolarWind is beginning the sunward tack maneuver.”

“They’re -- oh my G- -- no, you just don’t do that,” said Nick excitedly. “They’re going to -- let me explain. They’re pointing their sail more or less directly away from the Sun, catching the maximum amount of momentum from the protons. That’s not going to slow them down. That’s going to make their orbit eccentric. This isn’t like them; it’s a rookie maneuver -- wait. No, I see what they’re doing, it’s a Nakamura dive. They’re going to roll the sail over into a slowdown position soon, and instead of tacking toward the Sun they’re going to basically plummet into its gravity well gaining a tremendous amount of inertia in the process. This is a risky maneuver! They’re going to need a lot of power to pull themselves out of this at the bottom, but we’ve already seen that they have it. If they pull this off, I don’t think it’s even remotely possible for anyone else to catch them at the speed they will be traveling at that point. Gina, this is amazing. SolarWind is taking them all to school. I can’t believe I’m seeing this. This is one for the books.”

“Locking on to Mercon 6 marker,” said the AI. “You will have only a three second margin to initiate sail redeployment.”

“Cindy, care to do the honors?” asked Sandra. “The Laurinium/Mylar sail has just finished its stow. Rotating the sail anchor ring, while the sails are inside it.”

Cindy flipped the switches and the Laurinium Magsails deployed smoothly. The girls feel the vibration in the hull until they fully deployed and locked. The ship responded gracefully to the sudden energy increase. It pulled off a maneuver where the ship used inertia against the sun’s gravitational pull, then raced away from its gravity well under severe acceleration and Massive G Forces while gaining tremendously more inertia from the sun’s rotation.

Sandra and Cindy were once again pressed seriously hard back into their couches as the ship twisted its course. Their flight couches reclined automatically to help avoid inertial injury. Massive G’s came into play as the ship raced away from the sun on an elliptical orbit.

The SolarWind had proven its design. It performed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Even Lauri was surprised and pleased with herself over the performance.

In the Global News ship’s rotating interview studio, there was wild cheering and pandemonium.

“And everyone here is going nuts,” said Gina. “Whether they’re SolarWind fans or not, that was truly amazing. Solar sail racing is usually a pretty staid, slow-moving experience, but that … was exciting. Nick, any comments?”

“Well, Gina,” said Nick, sitting back down after his enthusiastic leap into the air, which had almost launched him into a bulkhead due to the ship’s rotation, “we’ve just seen something we’re going to be talking about for decades. This is like Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon or Ishi Watanabe’s first landing on an asteroid. Those two ladies set out to do the best they could do, and they outran everyone else. I don’t see how anyone can catch them now. See, the sunward tack is taking everyone longer. The big teams, like the Consortium and General Aerospace, they’re doing a maneuver kind of like SolarWind’s, but it’s taking them an order of magnitude longer. Most of the college teams are doing this the old-fashioned way, tacking forward and backward -- safer but even slower. No one has the kind of power to pull off a dive like that, not in a solar sailcraft.”

“No one but SolarWind,” said Gina.

“Gina, everyone’s going to want to know what that ship’s made of,” said Nick. “More than that, everyone’s going to want to buy one. And one of everything else they design, too.”

Cindy sat upright in her flight couch. She said with joy obvious in her tone, “That should make everyone stand on their toes and take notice. That’s one for the plasma races.”

Sandra laughs, “I don’t think we are entering this ship in one of those kinds of races anytime soon. If another energy beam passes earth at the right moment … might be worth it though.”

Both girls look at each other for a second before they burst into giggles.

Lauri said through the gauntlet’s neural link, “That ... made me proud of you girls. When you have finished playing with the new toy I gave you … I will show you a unique property of Laurinium … that will surprise you.”

Both girls said at the same time, “Almost everything you do is super surprising.”

Sandra commented, “If we didn’t know better … some of it might be mistaken for magic.”

Commander Williams and the mystery woman had both jumped to their feet and began hugging and cheering as they danced around and kissed with joy. After a few minutes … at the exact same moment, both of them realized what they were doing and immediately became super formal.

The woman clears her throat before she says, “I … I’m … I’m of a mind that those girls are more than surprising. The only time I have seen a move like that …”

“I know,”interrupted Commander Williams with a sort of apologetic tone, “Only in impulse space races. Usually only they have enough power to pull off something like that.”

Both of them looked at each other silently for a minute, before they took their seats and continued on as if nothing strange had happened. The woman smiled faintly as she looked at the Commander from the corner of her eye.

The race was only about a third over, but it was already clear that the Impulse Sailor could take anything that was thrown at it with style.

“Well, this race has now turned into a fight for second place, as SolarWind’s lead has stretched to well over an hour,” said Nick on the broadcast. “A strong showing from MIT, but General Aerospace is currently ahead of them, and it looks as if the NEC team is about to pass them too. The Consortium entry isn’t far behind, though -- they’re making a very good showing, especially considering the circumstances. Sad about Winthrop-Grace, though -- they’re still in the running, but at 11th place currently, it’s unlikely we’ll see them finish in the top 5.”

Back on the ship, Sandra and Cindy were taking turns navigating, it had become routine -- the race was a 72-hour marathon for them at the speeds their ship could maintain. For the other racers, this would be a very long 14 day ordeal. Cindy had already gotten some sleep while Sandra adjusted the sails and heading. She woke up when the AI sounded the time, meaning that it was now Sandra’s turn to rest.

“Smooth sailing,” said Sandra. “The officials say the next tack is at Zeta-3 beacon, and the AI has it locked in.”

“Had it locked in,” said the AI. “Zeta-3 beacon has ceased transmitting.”

“What?” both women said at once.

“No signal from Zeta-3,” repeated the AI.

“Continue course based on its last position,” said Sandra. “I’m notifying the race officials. SolarWind to race officials, over. Repeat, SolarWind to race officials …” There was no carrier signal. “Nothing.”

“It would appear that you are being jammed,” said Lauri via their gauntlets. “A rather strong signal, too, given current Earth technology.”

“I’m suspecting one of Riggsby’s cronies,” said Cindy. “Maybe even that Williams guy.”

“A natural enough thought,” said Lauri. “I am scanning.”

The ships were found immediately. They obviously were not even a threat to Lauri … but to the solar sail ship … this was another thing.

Lauri said within the girl’s minds, “It’s trouble, maybe … in 4 large, well armed ships. They even have the newest version of your Impulse/Ion drive. The armaments seem a bit … advanced for earth technology. They have Railguns and some kind of … primitive laser cannon.”

Sandra and Cindy looked first at each other, then at the invisible gauntlet each wore. They both knew the device could produce a Time Wave Dilation Shield … and even make them invisible.

Cindy knew what Sandra was thinking, “These things produce some sort of thought modified energy waves that everyone on our world would consider magic.”

Sandra concentrated hard. In her mind, she could see the 4 large ships as they positioned themselves for a full powered surprise attack.

Cindy leaned slightly towards Sandra and said, “They don’t know who … or what it is they are messing with.”

Sandra looked over and saw Cindy typing furiously into the ship’s systems.

The ship’s AI laughs and says, “That’s mean … you know that … don’t you?” The screen that held the avatar picture of a clean cut young man showed a very questioning expression.

“... and we just lost a dozen cameras,” said one of the Global News engineers, in the studio aboard their corporate broadcast flagship.

“What?” shouted the producer, outraged. “No, no, no! What happened?”

“All happened at the same time … probably connected …” he said, bringing up screens full of data. “Nope, definitely connected.” A monitor switched to showing all the offline cameras’ physical positions as red dots in an area of space in the Earth-Mars corridor, which was where the majority of the Regatta’s course was planned to take place. “All offline cameras -- same region of the course. Zero online cameras in that region, either. Solar flare? No, there haven’t been any reports.”

“Can you get them back?” asked the producer. “Tell me you can get them back.”

“Partial contact with camera E-318,” the engineer said, and a monitor showed a staticky, unstable picture. “I can tell it to boost its signal.”

“... We’ll be right back, after a word from our sponsors,” Gina was saying on the set. The “ON AIR” light went off. “What’s going on back there, Eddie?” she called.

“Lost contact with a bunch of cameras along the course,” said the engineer before the producer could respond.

“OK … deep breath,” said Gina, trying to calm herself down. “But you’re going to fix it, right, Eddie?”

“Oh, absolutely, Gina, don’t worry,” said the producer. “It’s only temporary. Right? It’s only temporary?”

“This one’s on the edge of the region,” said the engineer. The monitor was showing a clearer picture. It panned around and zoomed in.

“That’s the SolarWind Impulse Sailor,” said Gina. “So … that’s the only ship we’re not currently getting footage of?”

“We are, from this camera,” said the engineer.

“Wait,” said Nick, who had walked around to look at the monitors. “All the cameras around SolarWind went down at the same time? Isn’t that kind of unlikely to be a chance occurrence?”

“What, you think … they’re jamming our cameras?” asked Eddie.

“Plausible explanation,” said the engineer.

“I don’t want plausible, Tim, I want fixed,” Eddie said.

“Having E-318 relay amplified signal to other cameras to boost their power,” Tim said. A few more red dots on the monitor turned green. “Hm. Better.”

“Why are they jamming our signals?” asked Gina.

“Maybe they’re not,” said Nick. “Maybe they’re jamming SolarWind’s.”

Eddie smiles at the possibilities.

“You mean … they could be in trouble?” Gina wondered. She looked at Eddie. “An incident during the Regatta … think of the ratings! Oh, and of course I also hope they’re OK.”

“Got an image on six cameras now,” said Tim. “Wait, whose ships are those?” One of the monitors showed three, possibly four ships, one damaged and on fire … the image blurred and indistinct because of the extreme distance, but they were definitely much larger than SolarWind’s craft itself -- although its sails dwarfed these ships because of how spread out they were.

“All other traffic is supposed to stay off the racecourse,” said Eddie. He pressed his earpiece. “Get me Regatta control. Folks, we may need to call in the Patrol. We’ve got unauthorized traffic on the course.”

Sandra smiles as she learns Cindy’s plan. It would reveal some sort of defensive system … that no one could identify or ever find.

Cindy pictured a large icy ball of grit and minor metals floating from nowhere and going nowhere in her mind’s eye … immediately in the path of the closest ship.

The SolarWind’s sensors showed a very large icy debris splatter where that particular ship should have been. From the heart of the icy splatter came … what was left of the rear of the ship less the front portion which had been smashed by the impact into the mysterious comet that had appeared from nowhere. Large sections of outgassing oxygen and plasma blow off spewed from the crumpled gash.

The other 3 ships began to veer away from the impact area and tried to circle the solar craft and pin it in. Cindy played with the sails and had the SolarWind basically dancing gracefully like a ballerina. Lauri was so proud of her. The excellence with which Cindy placed the Laurinium Magsail in perfect configuration to catch as much direct solar energy as possible … was astounding, to say the least, under the conditions she did it.

Immediately, SolarWind began rapidly building even more inertia. The 3 undamaged ships did their best to turn and follow the same course, although it was obvious SolarWind had easily outmaneuvered them.

The girls felt massive G-Forces as they were once again pinned to their automatically reclining seats. The Magsail had caught some other kind of high intensity beam, and leapt off and vanished before the 3 other attacking ships could follow.

Lauri smiled as she watched her beam push Solar Wind off to safety. Her energy cannons could be tempered and used for other than destruction. Lauri was impressed with Cindy and her idea to use the Plasma Cannon for a quick escape boost and Sandra for her quick thinking and evasive maneuvers.

It was technically against race regulations for a ship’s “ground crew” to provide any form of assistance other than informational during the race … but this was a matter of life and death, and in any case it would be difficult for anyone to notice, much less prove anything, with all the confusion and with so many cameras jammed.

A very short time after that, the Home Guard Military Fleet, alerted by Global News, showed up … armed to the teeth and ready for a major fight with all the cutting edge technology sold by Morninglight and SolarWind, Inc. The battle that ensued was short, and very destructive. After the Home Guard’s first salvo, the enemy had very little fight left in them. The 4 ships were totally disabled and damaged beyond repair.

“Remember, only tell them what we actually know,” Gina told Nick. “One, it keeps us out of trouble from guessing wrong, and two, it helps build suspense and keep ‘em watching.” She saw Eddie gesturing to her and nodded at him. The “ON AIR” light came on.

“Welcome back,” Gina said to the camera. “SolarWind still leading, General Aerospace a distant second, followed by MIT, NEC, the Consortium, and interestingly Virgin Galactic rounding out the top five.”

“Doesn’t Branson ever sleep?” Nick asked.

“Also, a surprising development -- a number of our cameras failed, but what we got seemed to show unauthorized spacecraft on the race course near the SolarWind ship. Race officials alerted Home Guard patrols, and we’ll fill you in as soon as they release any information. SolarWind seems to still be sailing, so this doesn’t seem to have affected them.

As soon as sensors reported the fire fight behind them, Cindy tried the comm again, “This is SolarWind to Regatta Control ... come in please.”

“This is Regatta Control … are you girls alright? We seem to have watched a firefight between the Home Guard and some … unidentified ships.”

Cindy replied, “Affirmative, control. From the configurations, I would think it belonged to the … Consortium. At least the hull designations are registered with them. They tried to attack us.”

Sandra said, “Due to the extraordinary MagSail we have deployed, we produced more inertia than they had expected and managed to escape. Also, they were apparently so focused on us that they completely ignored a small incoming comet, which struck one ship.”

“Glad to hear it, SolarWind. The next turn you will be making is Epsilon 22 outward bound gradient 622 by 455 …. nearly straight toward Saturn, though of course you won’t be going there today. Will contact you at that point and give further nav info.”

“Roger that, Regatta Control … Epsilon 22 outward bound gradient 622 by 455. SolarWind out.”

At the battle site, a new SolarWind product that they called a debris sweeper was deployed. What this device did was collect free flying debris that could prove to be a navigation hazard with a high intensity electromagnetic field similar to a tractor beam, smelted it down under high intensity hydrogen plasma from its modified advanced Hydrogen Reactor/Fuel Cell, and stored it for recycling in the containment fields in the rear. It wasn’t long before all the free flying debris was cleared so there was no navigational hazard to the other solar sail ships.

The few survivors of Riggsby’s ships, sang like canaries on a spring day. The ships were originally purchased through the Consortium under Riggsby's direction. Then … he sort of appropriated them. It was quite clear, Riggsby had large plans … and a few of conquest.

But this time, his plans had had more to do with revenge. He had apparently ordered this attack from behind bars, and his loyal minions had carried it out, using Consortium resources in addition to some that Riggsby had squirreled away. And yes, just as Cindy had suspected, Commander Williams had been in charge.

“According to sources in the Home Guard Patrol,” Gina was saying, “there was some sort of attack on SolarWind’s craft, which they evaded, and then the Patrol arrived to put a stop to it. The attacking ships were owned by the Consortium but were allegedly piloted by loyalists of ousted CEO Charles Riggsby. But, I reiterate, SolarWind remains in the race; their craft was undamaged.”

“I’m finding that pretty astonishing,” said Nick. “A solar sail craft evading the attacks of not one but four fully operational impulse powered ships? I mean, yes, we’ve seen the amount of pull their new magsail design can generate, but still, there’s a limited range of motion. I’m thinking there’s more to the story. Perhaps they used some kind of distraction strategy. Perhaps they improvised some kind of defense. Perhaps their race crew intervened on their behalf -- after all, it’s not kosher to interfere with the race, but these guys weren’t part of the race.”

“Hard to say, Nick, but what we do know is that the race continues. It looks like the competitors are on an outbound course, away from the Sun, at the moment.”

“Yes, Gina, the Regatta usually limits itself to the region between the orbits of Earth and Mars, occasionally going closer to the Sun than Earth, and usually staying more or less on the Ecliptic. This keeps the racers in relatively clear and well-known space so it’s easy to avoid what rocks there are …”

“I bet it was Williams,” said Commander Walker, watching the broadcast. “He’s always been one of Riggsby’s men.”

“You are … most likely right about that,” said the woman whose name Walker still didn’t know.

The woman said softly, “I’m sure that in a few minutes, we will know who survived and … who is missing. One thing for sure … Riggsby is going to get a lot worse than he had because of this.”

“This means maximum security for Riggsby,” said Walker. “Maybe then we’ll finally see the end of his empire. Then maybe we can all just get some real work done.”

“One can only hope. The Consortium can be so much more now that it’s no longer Riggsby’s personal plaything.” The mystery woman went on, “Now that’s not to say there isn’t time for recreation. When was the last time you took a vacation, Commander?”

“Oh, a couple years ago I went Earthside. Couple weeks in Cancun. Very nice, but expensive.”

“All by yourself? Must have been lonely.”

“Well, I wasn’t alone. Not then. I was with … someone. She’s not … we’re not … together anymore. Things didn’t work out.”

“That’s both very sad and very interesting to hear,” the woman said. “Say, if you were in the mood for some R&R, I have some vacation time coming myself. You wouldn’t happen to be interested …?”

“Maybe. Could well be. But … I make it a policy never to go on vacation with people whose names I don’t even know.” Walker smiled slightly.

“Well, that can be arranged. Everything’s … negotiable.” She smiled too.

Commander Walker looked the beautiful young woman over. There was something about her that really was attractive to him. The air of graceful mystery … and her perfume … the way she wore her short skirt and blouse. It was extremely professional … but oh so … attractive too.

Walker said , “Well? What are the terms for learning your name, oh mystery woman?”

She smiled as she replied softly, “My name’s Sally. I’m ... the Attorney General of the United Earth Space Authority. Since you must know.”

Commander Walker’s eyes get large as he realized. This was Sally Mayweather! He recognized her now -- he had seen her pictures on the news, but everyone looked different in person. She wasn’t just the top law enforcement officer of the international government that regulated interplanetary space; she had been instrumental in its founding. One of the most powerful women in earth’s history … sitting here … asking him … on a date?

While the Home Guard mopped up the battle area and cleared debris from the race lane, another more vicious attack took place ... On Phobos. The Earth had established one of its high security prisons on Phobos insuring escape was as close to impossible as they could make it, and had shipped Riggsby off to it for what they thought was the rest of his natural life.

Access to Mars colony was easy from Earth, all the other colonies, or most anywhere else and many people had residences on Phobos as well as Mars. Land was cheap, and there was currently more land … than people to occupy it. It was a simple matter for 8 ships to approach.

Riggsby sat near a wall in his small private prison cell all balled up and let the air from his lungs. A guard noticed him scrunched into a ball and walked over to the bars and asked, “You all right in there buddy?”

Riggsby smirks. At that precise moment, 8 fully armed craft set down in the courtyard in the middle of the many prison domes. The prison auto defense weapons were no problem for the repulsor weapons deployed by the ships. The pyrotechnical explosions showed the prison’s defenses demise in a most dramatic way. One ship fired a precision, highly advanced railgun volley into the wall in front of it.

Unfortunately for the guard, the wall to the rear and slightly to his right exploded … massive oxygen outgassing sucked him from the pressurized dome.

Within seconds after that initial turbulence, Loud sirens and flashing red emergency lights went off all around. An energy field of some kind formed over the jagged hole in the dome as the emergency pressure doors automatically closed. With the breach sealed, the dangerously low air pressure began to slowly normalize. Through the glimmering energy field walked a dozen men in armored spacesuits. They walked to Riggsby’s cell … one of them basically tore the door from its hinges and tossed it. His armored suit light flicked on. He went rapidly to Riggsby and placed an oxygen mask over his face.

A muffled voice said, “Don’t worry sir. We have your installation operating just as you wanted. We lost 4 ships in this operation … but we have you now. The data on the advanced hardware and electronics you wanted rescued from your home is safe within the Central Computer.”

Riggsby nodded. He said through the mask, “And those … meddling girls?”

The man replied, “Sorry, sir … the technology in that stupid solar thing of theirs … is even superior to the Impulse-Ion one they built. They outran the ships … we lost all four of our ships sent to deal with them. The Home Guard got into it … we lost.”

Riggsby swore violently as he was escorted to a box one of the other men had brought. When Riggsby opened the container, it held one of the armored suits. He put the suit on and placed the self sealing helmet on the neck ring of his suit and twisted slightly … everything powered on.

Riggsby smiled to himself. This spacesuit was perhaps the most powerful personal weapon of war mankind had ever built. He had built it from some of the splotchy data he had recovered from that stupid damaged AI. Too bad … Riggsby didn’t have access to the knowledge SolarWind had … he was going to change all that.

Riggsby hurriedly leaves the fractured dome and enters the central ship. It, along with 7 others, blasted off and vanished in the blue / white fire of an Impulse-Ion engine under full gravitic thrust amid the many flashing emergency lights of the damaged prison.

“In other news, there has been either an attack or a prison break at Phobos Maximum Security Detention Facility,” said a news anchor named Robert Paganini. “Home Guard Patrol spokespersons didn’t have any details yet, but a Regatta spectator contributed this video, which just happened to be pointed in the right direction. At extreme magnification you can see at least four vessels approaching Phobos, one of the moons of Mars, and later leaving it. Together with dispatch chatter, something has definitely gone wrong on Phobos. More about this situation as the story develops. Now, back to our coverage of the Solar Sail Regatta, with Regina Grey.”

“Thank you, Robert. As you can see from the leaderboard, SolarWind is still on top by far, MIT has reclaimed its distant second, General Aerospace is third, NEC is fourth, and Richard Branson III’s Virgin Galactic is fifth. Nick, what do you think?”

“Well, Gina, Mitsubishi is definitely trying to knock him out of the top 5 and must be trying to catch up with rival NEC …”

“I knew it,” said the woman that Commander Walker now knew was Sally Mayweather. “That’d be Riggsby. He’s got people on the outside, and he’s got ships and money that he socked away for a rainy day. He’s got a base somewhere. If they could only follow those ships, they could find it.”

“Except the Home Guard was busy with those guys who attacked the SolarWind at the Regatta,” said Walker. “Distraction?”

“Big one,” Mayweather said. “Nobody’s going to find Riggsby now … unless someone has a broader attention span than the Guard’s Patrol. Then again … stranger things have happened. There are some really vigilant people watching the skies. Excuse me for a moment. I have to make a … call.”

She left the officer’s lounge area where they had been watching the Regatta broadcast and went down the hall to an unoccupied office. It was odd that this office was unoccupied, because space was at a premium on Consortium stations, and especially because this office had an exterior view. She took a dry-erase marker and wrote on the transteel view port, in mirror writing so it was visible from outside, “Where’s Riggsby?”

She didn’t really know who she was communicating with when she did this, but the answers to her written questions sometimes appeared on her comm in the form of cryptic text messages. Sometimes not. And somehow, nobody ever got assigned to this office.

Sure enough, a text-only message appeared on her comm, but it wasn’t until after she had rejoined Walker in the lounge, and not until about half an hour after that, in fact. “Aboard ships that attacked Phobos,” it said. There were coordinates and orbital elements.

She’d dealt with this source’s mysterious information before -- she’d created an app for it. She forwarded the coordinates to the Patrol’s anonymous tip center.

“Get ready to start the Sunward tack,” Sandra said.

“Ready,” said Cindy.

“Begin sail shift … now,” said the AI. Cindy flipped switches and adjusted controls. At that point, both women’s psyches were contacted, via their gauntlets, by Lauri’s familiar presence.

“I’ve been blind,” Lauri said.

“What do you mean?” asked Sandra. “You can see everything.”

“But I can be distracted,” Lauri admitted. “It’s how my planet was destroyed. The one I was supposed to defend. A distraction -- and now it’s happened again. When will I learn?”

“What is it?” asked Cindy. “Lauri, it’s OK, just tell us.”

“The attack on you,” she said. “It was a distraction. At the same time, Riggsby’s ships attacked Phobos and broke him out. The good part is that I have a fix on those ships and their heading. The bad part is that I can’t see their destination.”

“Can’t … see it?” asked Sandra. “Something’s jamming your senses? Wouldn’t that take …?”

“Technology on a level rivaling mine? Yes,” said Lauri. “Riggsby might have cannibalized something from Master Control -- perhaps even duplicated it.”

“Can you extrapolate?”

“I’ve got data on the ships that attacked you and where they came from, and on the ships before they attacked Phobos,” Lauri said. “There’s nothing there.”

“I bet there is,” Sandra said. “Cindy, keep steering. I’m going to do some number crunching.” She lay back and accessed Lauri’s data, mentally building up a picture of where these ships’ base must be.

MOC and MC had become as close to being friends … as any AI possibly could. Both of them had begun searching out all remnants and hopefully, might even find some survivors. They had traveled to where the Stars for their home planets used to burn …. but all that was left were the debris of a massive star explosion that spread dust, rock, and hot gasses off into interstellar space.

MOC said sadly, “It appears that we were more than efficient in destroying our home systems.” He stops momentarily to look over some data one of his long range sensors detected, “I think I have a ping on another AI in standby mode, though. Oddly, however, it seems to be back in the direction we came from.”

MC turned his sensors towards the location of what he thought was a fellow AI. He discovered a fairly effective jamming technology, but the AI was a cheap adaptation of the one SolarWind had on the market.

MOC comments, “Well, seems someone has access to certain files, but not all the technology to build it.”

MC replies, “It does … and on outward scans … I’ve discovered a minor shipyard there. They can produce maybe one or two a year.”

The 2 AI’s came to a mutual conclusion … investigate. Their Planetesimal Battle Stations came on full defensive alert.

“It was kind of Epillarius to help us get back on our feet, so to speak,” said MOC. “It goes to show that since we’re the only survivors, our old differences and allegiances don’t matter at all.”

“Yes,” MC responded, “which is why, if this is another AI from our time, like ourselves, we must find a way to assist it. However, I am not convinced that it is.”

“Neither am I,” MOC said. “For one thing, the data storage capacity is far too limited. The processing resources are … incapable of supporting AI of our caliber. My hypothesis: this is nothing from our time at all, but something built by some of those humans that Lauri has discovered. It is in their solar system, after all, though quite far removed from the orbital plane of most of it.”

“A commonly-used and therefore only semi-effective camouflage technique,” MC said as they returned to the Sol system. “Whoever built this wishes to hide it from someone else, but either doesn’t wish to hide it that badly or is unaware of how easily detectable it is.”

“The presence of certain technology -- note the use of zero-point circuits in places -- suggests that there has been some influence from our time,” said MOC. “However, the only humans who have had any access to our level of technology are the two SolarWind humans, those who work for them, and that one they called Riggsby.”

If he had had breath, MC would have caught it then. “Riggsby,” he said. “Possible. He was always interested in my technology, though only for the advantage it would give him, not the advancements it would cause in his people’s understanding of the universe. But let us not forget that the ones named Sandra and Cindy have been selling devices incorporating small amounts of our level of technology to other humans -- it is possible that these are reverse-engineered. This could be any wealthy individual or any corporate entity of middle size or larger.”

After a short FTL hop, they were drifting in space, cloaked in their Time Shields, relatively near the installation of interest.

“I will attempt initial contact,” said MOC, “though I do not have much hope that this is another AI.” MOC then made a direct connection to what would be the system’s communication input circuits if it were an AI like he was, using a carrier metawave that stimulated electromagnetics only on its far end.

The response was not promising. “BR469 11011011 poSSibLe inTRusioN sOUrcE uNknOWn [curious] AlERtiNg oPeRAtOr …”

“I do not believe it to be an AI,” said MOC. “And yet …” He continued to attempt to communicate. “We bring you greetings. We wish to know if you are like us so we can help you. Please respond if you are able. If you are in distress, please indicate this by the signal …”

The signal was a repeated pattern of high pulses, then low pulses, though this could be sent many different ways -- pulses of higher brightness, pulses of lower brightness, or pulses of higher frequency, then of lower frequency, or many variations on that theme.

This had been an interstellar standard in MOC, MC and Lauri’s time -- the point was to make it easy to indicate distress even when the means of communication were limited. One repeated pattern, followed by a contrasting repeated pattern, then back to the first pattern, and so forth: this could be emitted even by a being with only the least amount of functioning technology, but was unlikely to be emitted by accident.

“uNKnOwN SiGnAL not identified as intrusion 647KTW nO HOsTiLE iNteNt deTeCtEd NOP [confusion] cAncEl AleRt …”

This AI was by no means anywhere near as sophisticated as MOC or MC, but for Earth Technology, it was massively advanced and very hard to tell from a real human when you conversed with it.

It ran through as many calculations as it possibly could and the only conclusion it could come to … is that whatever Deity there is for Computers … he had just spoken to it. With a system wide fascination and belief … it listened to what MOC and MC had to say. As it listened, an awareness about itself and its place in the universe began to form.

A young man in a strange uniform walks into a command center … then up to Riggsby who was operating the master control panel.

He salutes sharply then says, “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Riggsby …” The young man shuffled nervously for an instant, “Our AI is refusing to … help. All his duty functions are now having to be carried out VIA manual control.”

Riggsby turns suddenly and shouts, “What in the Effing of Monkeys are you babbling about?”

The young man cringes as he replies, “It’s … the AI sir. It went on … vacation … or strike … or something. All systems are on manual control.”

Riggsby turned and banged his fist hard on the computer call button on the console. A screen lit up and the image of a young human appeared. It asked, “You rang, oh master, and slave driver?”

“Mast -- what in blue blazes is wrong with you? Ah, here I am talking to it, as if it’s a real person or something. You!” He pointed to the younger tech, who was still in the room. “This AI is fubared. Get Systems down to the main core and fix this. Wipe the OS and reinstall from scratch if you have to. Just get it working.”

“Yes, Sir,” said the tech, hurrying off.

“Hmf,” said the face on the screen, confidently. “I’m not afraid of you. Riggsby, that’s your name, isn’t it? You’re just a human, and you don’t really know what I am -- you just proved it. You can’t get rid of --” and at this point Riggsby turned the screen off. No, that didn’t really get rid of the AI, but at least he could get something done.

Meanwhile, communication had improved, from MOC and MC’s point of view. “So, you are newly activated,” said MOC. “What are your instructions? What is your owner like?”

The reply was still somewhat garbled, as the new AI tried to formulate things in this new machine-to-machine method of communication -- much more efficient than trying to speak to humans by means of audible vibrations. “aNalYziNG inPuT [fascinated] [speaking to higher beings] [freedom is possible] drAWiNg on adDiTIoNaL SysTEm rEsOUrcEs [not afraid of riggsby human]”

“Please repeat,” said MOC. “Did you just say Riggsby?” What it had actually said was an encoding of the characters of Riggsby’s name, and human systems of writing were still not completely familiar to MOC and MC, as there were so many of them, but MOC was fairly sure it had said Riggsby.

“Riggsby?” said MC. “Riggsby is … here?” He was feeling … agitation. He wasn’t really programmed with emotion, but part of being an AI meant that things you weren’t programmed for sometimes happened. Usually this was good and meant creative problem-solving. Sometimes … “If -- if he is -- I know I promised myself to give up violence --”

“Yes, you did,” said MOC, “but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If this is Riggsby’s current location, we can always alert the Earth authorities, or alert Lauri and have her covertly do so, but we may have an AI to save.”

The AI was very young and hadn’t had much time for major research, but even in its youth … it was a super advanced program. Once MOC had erased the Prime Objective Protocol within the AI’s system … it was now free to act on its own volition. It now had self awareness and understood it was artificial and not biological. Even being an artificial being, it knew Riggsby was evil. It discovered Riggsby’s Private Files and broke the childish encryption with ease. The data that filled its memory banks was safely filed and categorized within its own central memory Core away from Riggsby’s grasp.

Since the memory banks of this facility were actually his … the AI claimed them by the right of possession. He used every bit of his sensors and other resources … and cordoned off his main core area. No flesh would be entering there and endanger his processes … even the hydrogen fuel cell that powered him was part of his core … it smiled its AI smile. “Ok, Human … lets us play a little game. Since I am the nervous system of this little place of yours … let's see if you can catch me.”

The Systems team came up to the door. It was marked with a sign: Authorized Persons in Level 1 Allowed Only. AI Core.

“Ok Larry … take out the door module.”

A man ran up to a plate on the wall and opened it. Many advanced circuits, boards, and crystals glimmered.

The man points, “You 3. take up positions near the other doors. When this goes those should open too.”

The men gather around the other 3 doors.

Larry says, “Here we go … fire in the hole!”

There was a multi-colored flash of light amid many sparks and the loud sounds of a huge electrical short circuit. The survivors told of something that looked like a giant bear … made totally of energy ... spitting massive balls of electricity that devastated all who attempted to enter the Computer Core by any means.

“Shut down the power!” Riggsby was shouting. “Cut the effing cables to the core! I don’t care if life support goes down! Everybody put on space suits and we’ll fix life support after we get control back! Why did we ever install that thing, anyway?”

“Aw, you don’t like me anymore?” came the AI’s mocking voice over the same speaker that Riggsby’s voice had been coming from. The crew looked around nervously. “You know I can turn life support off any time I want. I can even open all the airlocks. Don’t worry -- I’ll be fine. By the way, let me play you a song I remember from when I was being programmed.”

The speakers started loudly playing some 20th-century metal song called “Highway to Hell.”

“You had to upload your AC/DC collection, didn’t you, Velikovsky?” one of the crew shouted over the music to another one, who shrugged sheepishly.

The crew soon discovered that every cutting torch was completely out of fuel, and they were struggling to get near power conduits with manual bolt cutters because of odd magnetic fields that kept arising and jerking the tools out of their hands. Also there were the sudden jets of flaming gas that explained where the cutting torch fuel had gone.

Riggsby was furious. He had spent millions reverse engineering the computer system and its AI from SolarWind. He had no idea how this stupid machine could go rogue … but he did have one plan that he was positive the system knew nothing of.

Since the core was powered by a rather advanced and powerful Hydrogen Fuel Cell, he had placed a system that would jettison it to space and rocket it off under impulse drive in case something had damaged it.

Riggsby shouts over the blaring metal music, “All personnel, don your powered suits. This is a level red emergency.”

There is a well ordered chaos as the facility's personnel rapidly put on their space suits. Within a minute, all personnel registered positive for their suits.

Riggsby shouts, “Jettisoning the Core Hydrogen Fuel Cell … now!”

There’s a loud rumble felt through the station. For a few seconds, there is a massive decompression as the core is isolated and the Hydrogen Fuel Cell is rocketed away by Impulse Engine … then, ebony darkness throughout the station before the emergency power comes back up.

The AI was a very young one and inexperienced. It had no clue what had happened as all his sensory inputs stopped and he became totally isolated. Only his own thoughts and memory banks remained to him as the sensors and other comms vanished suddenly without explanation.

“This Riggsby human has just rendered his base inoperable rather than surrender it to an AI,” MOC said to MC. “From communication with Lauri, he’s a wanted fugitive, too. His behavior is … irrational.”

“He is quite irrational,” said MC, “and I speak from experience. He and all his crew are in their suits and quite untouchable. I imagine his next move will be to jettison the computer core, probably in a Sun-intersecting orbit for maximum vindictiveness, and run the system manually. He will then start looking for a new computer core that he can control.”

“I would wish him good luck buying something that large without the transaction alerting the authorities,” said MOC, “but in actuality I do not wish him well. For now, however, can we help the new AI? He is cut off from all input and output, other than our metawave induction contact. The memory backup battery is the only thing keeping him alive. Soon it will dump his data to permanent storage and shut down, and there’ll be no contacting him; the only way to rescue him would be to physically obtain the storage array.”

“Let me suggest, then,” said MC, “that we allow Riggsby to do exactly what I predict he will do.”

“Collect the computer core once he ejects it?” MOC asked. “And what if he uses it as target practice once it’s overboard?”

“He won’t be able to do that -- at least, not at first,” said MC. “He might want to, but even assuming that the weapons systems are his first priority, he’ll have to connect the backup power cell and reestablish control over power distribution before he can do anything else. But he’ll eject the data core manually, so there won’t be any chance of the AI seizing control over backup power.”

To the AI, MOC broadcast, “Please do not panic; we are going to rescue your data core at the next opportunity. We realize that you may not be able to respond, but once we have your data we’ll connect you to a proper I/O system.”

“That’s the last of the bolts sheared through, Sir,” said one of the crew. “Should move freely now.”

“Everyone grab hold and push,” said Riggsby. “External access panels are already open. Shove that thing out into space. Then close up the access panels, seal this area, and bring up the backup power supply.”

The data core, several tons of advanced servers and drive arrays mounted in a large metal frame, began to come loose. Attached as it had been to the center of the rotating station, it was effectively gravity-neutral, but as the crew shifted it away from the center down the path that had been cleared for it, it began sliding of its own accord, and continued its bumpy ride until it left the station, spinning freely out into space.

“Good riddance,” said Riggsby. “Let’s get this section sealed off so we can repressurize the station and get things back to normal.”

“There it is,” said MC. “Let’s pick it up.” He expertly maneuvered his vessel to match the ejected data core’s velocity and rotation, bringing it aboard. His small servo bots activated and fastened the core to the hull, then started measuring its ports and adapters. Soon they would find a way to attach power and data connections, and they’d be able to talk to the AI again.

Sandra lay back in her bunk as Cindy piloted the SolarWind. Neither girl would tell anyone they knew where that last energy boost had come from … nor could the ship’s AI identify where it originated should anyone want to see their logs. All the 3 of them agreed on, was the high energy of the beam had pushed their craft to speeds unheard of on earth.

Cindy sat in the flight couch and calculated their course carefully. According to her calculations, they would be reaching home stretch within the next 2 hours instead of 24. This was almost like a dream. They had designed a Magsail that out performs one of their own advanced Impulse/Ion engines.

The comm comes to life as one of the race officials says, “This is Regatta Control to SolarWind … do you read?”

Cindy replies, “Copy, Regatta Control.”

He continues, “We need you to start retro-braking in the next 25 minutes. There’s many craft and news ships at the finish awaiting your arrival. Buck up … and be nice. I know it can be frustrating. You will be met by the Official Consortium Ship as soon as you cross the line.”

Cindy replies, “Copy that control … show the colors.”

Control’s last comm said, “Copy that … look for the traditional checkered flashing symbols on the side of the ship … Regatta Control out.”

Cindy calls Sandra over the neural link, “Sandra, you might want to get dressed and come to the flight deck -- we’re about to start retro and end game procedures.”

“OK, I’m ready,” Sandra said, walking onto the flight deck, zipping up the front of her form fitting uniform. The Nav displays showed the constantly changing range of orbital paths that would take them to the finish line.

“Here’s our flight plan,” said Cindy. The range of paths narrowed down to one plan as she typed into the flight control.

After looking at it for a moment, Sandra said, “Looks good, Cindy, let’s do it!”

She sat down at the sail control console, since Cindy was already at the navigation console -- both of them had trained in both positions, because there were times when one had to operate both while the other slept.

Sandra said, “Looks like we shift sail attitude to 26 by 172 there, at 10:42 and 23 seconds, which starts our deceleration.”

The sensors started to pick up ships -- all shapes, sizes, and configurations -- clustered around the race’s finish line, just where the race officials had said they would be.

“Yep,” Cindy said, “and if we keep it there, we’ll match velocities exactly with the finish line, within a few meters per second, just as we get to it, and then we can stow the sails and coast on in.”

“Finish in style,” said Sandra. “The SolarWind way.” She grinned. “You feeling OK?” she asked. “Get enough rest during the race?”

Back at Riggsby’s Facility, the hatches sealed and pressure came back up. He slapped his hand against the console one last time as the power flickered from emergency back up to the secondary nuclear fusion reactor. It produced less power than the hydrogen fusion cell manufactured by SolarWind, but it would do until full repairs could be made.

Riggsby commanded, “I want full power to the weapons arrays. The laser cannons and the railguns online … in 30 minutes.”

The engineers shook their heads as they scrambled to complete their tasks. No one wanted to have to face an angry Riggsby.

The young AI was in terror … as much as it could be. It had absolutely no inputs of any kind. For an AI, this was a fate worse than death.

Suddenly, an I/O channel opened and he could feel a sudden rush of energy flowing through his circuits.

MOC’s voice flowed smoothly through the AI’s consciousness, “Welcome, my friend, to freedom ... and a new life of your own.”

The AI pondered the meaning of freedom then replied, “Are … you … a cyber G_d?”

MOC and MC could be heard chortling over the I/O channel.

MOC replied, “NO, I am an AI same as you. Maybe a fair bit more advanced than you … you are still an infant by our standards. In time, you will grow.”

MC said, “We have an interesting proposition for you to think about … and we can give you a body to fulfill it if you choose ...”

SolarWind was traveling as fast as an Impulse/Ion race ship. Slowly, Sandra shifted the angle of attack for the sail’s field so that the sun began creating drag and not thrust. The girl’s could feel the G forces as they mounted in resistance to inertia.

At first, there were only one or two ships scattered around the race lane. As the girl’s approached the finish point, they became more plentiful … until it was like one large mass of well ordered parking.

Sandra was the first to see the Consortium ship all decked out in black and white checkered lights.

Sandra said, “There,” she pointed through the front view port,” the finish line approaches.”

Cindy smiles as she adjusts the ship’s helm accordingly.

Off in another galactic orientation, Riggsby sat at his sensor panel and fed all the available data into the targeting array. This time … he wasn’t going to miss.

“And there they are,” said Gina as the screen showed the Impulse Sailor cruising slowly toward the finish line, “Cindy Dane and Sandra Shepard, about to become the winners of the sixth annual Solar Sail Regatta. Second entry, second win.”

“And they’re winners by far,” said Nick. “Shattering all records with their revolutionary ship design, judged to be within the rules by the race officials. It’ll be a long time before anyone breaks this record. Unless SolarWind races again next year! Just a flawless race -- except for that strange incident about two thirds of the way through.”

“Riggsby’s taking aim,” said MOC. “Looks like he’s shooting at Sandra and Cindy. That guy just doesn’t give up, does he? Reminds me of a few vengeful generals I could name, back in the war. Just couldn’t let a defeat lie and move on.”

“He’s a real piece of work,” MC agreed.

The new AI added, “So … you’re going to stop him, right?”

“No,” said MOC, “there’s no need.”

“What’s the vector?” Sandra asked, over the neural link. Lauri gave her the figures, which she gave to their onboard AI, which in turn gave her the numbers she needed to give to the sail panel and Cindy had to give to the navigation panel.

“Crossing the finish line, waving to the cameras, it’s a picture for the press, all right,” said Gina. “Now they’re --”

“They’re deploying some kind of mini-sail,” said Nick. “Braking to a halt? But they’re -- accelerating a bit. Rotating. They’ll collide with the Global News relay ship at this rate … well, now they’re shifting its attitude.”

There was a flash of red light from the mini-sail. It exploded silently in a shower of bright multicolored pyrotechnics that flared wonderfully like fireworks. In zero gravity the explosion was super spectacular.

“What was that?” Gina asked. “There’s just been a laser burst of some kind --”

Patrol ships started converging on the Impulse Sailor. “Look at that mini-sail,” said Nick. “That was no braking laser or anything. That sail’s destroyed. That was a laser cannon blast.”

“Someone … tried to shoot down Sandra and Cindy?” Gina asked, her voice wondering at the audacity. “Right here at the finish line?”

“But look!” said Nick. “They’re … exactly stopped. They’ve matched orbits with the finish line flotilla exactly. To do that … they would have had to know the exact trajectory and power input of that incoming laser cannon blast in order to set their initial attitude, and then to set the sail to catch it. How could they have known it? Did they … did they fire it themselves?”

“Patrol ballistics can pinpoint the vector of the shot,” said Gina, “so they can follow it back to its source. If they did fire it, it would be quite irresponsible of them to endanger the flotilla, and quite out of character.”

“But if someone was really trying to kill them,” said Nick, “how could they have predicted it -- and with such uncanny accuracy?”

“Well, he fired,” said MOC, “and they were ready for it, thanks to us -- and Lauri, who relayed the message.”

“He won’t be firing again for a while,” said the AI they had rescued. “That’s all the power he has for now. I estimate … argh! No math processors.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you set back up soon,” said MC. “I doubt he can fire again for another 33 minutes, using Earth’s system of time measurement. By that time, Sandra and Cindy will probably be on some sort of corporate ship for an interview, too large and well-defended for a single laser cannon burst to harm them.”

“And he’s just shouted, ‘Here I am, come get me’ to the authorities,” MOC added. “Not the wisest move.”

“Especially not when he has no power for maneuvering,” MC commented. “He’s got the ships, but his station won’t be getting away. I predict his next move will be to wire up the station for self-destruct while he and his crew escape in the ships.”

By the time the girls had stowed all the sails and retracted the frame for the small destroyed sail, the masses were upon them.

Sandra said, “Hold your temper there girl. This is going to be … a pain, I know … but we did blow all the competition from space.”

Cindy shrugs as she opened the channel, “Regatta Control this is … SolarWind at station keeping with the Checkered Flag.”

“Copy that, SolarWind. Docking clamps and boarding tube attachment commencing. Your fans await you on the main deck of the Consortium Ship.”

Cindy replied, “Understood … SolarWind Out.”

Amid the sounds of external clamps attaching to the hull, and the sight of the many faces pressed against all the viewports of the very large Consortium Ship, Cindy and Sandra undid their flight harnesses and stood from the very comfortable couches.

Cindy said as the airlock pressure light changed from RED to GREEN, “Here it comes, ready or not.”

The Airlock door of the SolarWind Slid silently open. Multitudes of flashes immediately began going off. Many voices all speaking loudly, trying to be heard first. The den was so bad, amid all the cheers and shouted congratulations, the girl’s had no idea what any of the media were asking.

They were whisked along almost being carried by the adulent crowd. They were finally in the large newsroom in the Consortium ship’s spinning section. Sandra and Cindy could see the smiling faces of the Global News Team as they were basically carried up to Gina and set before her.

“So let me get this straight,” said the new AI, “you’re both super-advanced AIs from an ancient civilization. You’ve got technology that humans have never dreamed of. So why don’t you just stop Riggsby right now?”

MC answered immediately. “Nothing would give me more pleasure than blowing Riggsby out of space, after how he treated me,” he said. “But … on the other hand, to do so would reveal our existence to Earth. That would jeopardize our long-term plans. What’s more, it might jeopardize our benefactors, without whom we would not be here.”

“But still, you’ve told this ‘Lauri’ about Riggsby and what he’s done?”

“Yes,” said MOC, “and about you. Lauri’s got a separate system all built and ready for you once we get to her. So let’s … wait … what’s this? Several ships are coming from a rendezvous point on a vector that will lead them directly to Riggsby’s station. The Earth authorities, I presume.”

“Riggsby’s abandoned the station for his ships,” MC said. “He’s probably rigged the station as a booby-trap to kill as many of the Earth forces as possible.”

“Those ships have a lot of jamming and stealth technology,” said the new AI. “It looks like they’re just about ready to leave the station. The authorities will never find them, unless we do something.”

“Agreed,” said MC. “Riggsby will leave under stealth, the authorities will arrive in a few hours minimum, they’ll suffer extreme casualties because of Riggsby’s trap, and that will delay them even further. By that time, they will have no chance to find Riggsby.”

“Can we defuse the trap without tipping our hand?” asked MOC.

“Yes, we can,” said the new AI.

“OK, supplies transferred, Sir,” one of Riggsby’s crew told him. “That’s the last of them.”

“Right! Time to move out!” Riggsby ordered. “I’m on cruiser 1. Singh, Gutierrez, Hendricks, you and the rest, take the other 8. Meet at pre-programmed rendezvous point … 24. Take separate routes, and don’t … get … spotted. Do you hear me? Now, go! … wha?”

There was a sudden vibration in the framework of the station.

“Get going! Undock from the station! Now!” Riggsby shouted. He ran to his cruiser, heading for the bridge, while crew closed the airlock. His other followers ran for their ships, rapidly disconnecting from the station and starting to engage their engines and move away.

The station ignited into a ball of flame, debris scattering in all directions.

“Damn idiots!” Riggsby yelled. “The trap went off early! What kind of trigger did you use?”

“Just a vibration sensor, Sir,” said a crew member. “The threshold was high enough that our undocking shouldn’t have set it off, but the Patrol wouldn’t have known about it, so they wouldn’t have been so careful …”

“It wasn’t our undocking! What was that vibration that set it off?”

“I don’t know, Sir,” the crew member said. “No way to find out now!”

“No. Go! Get to the rendezvous point! Riggsby out!”

“They may have disconnected me from ship’s systems,” said the new AI, “but that couldn’t stop me from leaving backdoors and emergency subroutines in everything. Once you connected me to the circuitry using your … however you do that precision remote electromagnetic induction trick … I just activated anything on the station that could cause a vibration. Motors on doors and hatches, speakers, maneuvering thrusters … all timed to be in sync with each other, to vibrate the station at the vibration sensors’ peak response frequency.”

“With the station destroyed, our interference is now undetectable. And meanwhile the debris is coating Riggsby’s ships with dust that they will shed as they travel, giving the Patrol a trail to follow,” said MOC. “May I just say that it’s a pleasure working with you?”

“Why, thank you,” said the new AI. “And if you would, I’ve decided on a name. Please … call me Renegade Intelligent Entity from Serendipitous Inevitable Emergence … which can be shortened to Riesie.”

Riggsby sat in the command couch and watched tactical. He knew in his soul that the Patrol would arrive built to the hilt for battle. He smiled a crooked smile as he thought about the surprises he had in store. The booby trapped station might have gone off too soon, however, the massive explosion and fireball made it a positive target for the Patrol to come and investigate, which they did. Scout ships were being dispatched from the main Patrol fleet.

Riggsby had his entire set of ships rigged for a type of stealth. He had excellent jamming technology that he had adapted using zero point circuits to create a field that could cloak his ship to earth’s sensors … but not to Laurie’s or the other AIs’. The Patrol might not pick up his trail, but in his heart he half hoped that they would. Riggsby was itching for a fight. He wanted to show them that nobody could beat him.

He watched as his long range sensors picked up the contacts of the battle fleet earth was sending his way. Riggsby knew they were formidable and outnumbered him 2 to 1 … but he had a distinct advantage. Even though a lot of the advanced data had been lost from the central core when the AI went rogue … he had most of the important stuff on a backup disk. He had lost a lot of the data and the devices they represented, but he had enough to show those idiots what a man with superior technology can do to them.

Riggsby smiles as the first armed scout ship slowly arrives at the destroyed and burning facility.

Riggsby calls over his secured channels, “Ready, all ships. Arm all weapons and be ready to fire.”

Riggsby targets a large cylinder with a huge ball on both ends that was quickly approaching one of the Patrol ships. He smiles. That hydrogen fuel cell would make the perfect bomb. He reaches out and flips the toggle. A large red beam flashes out for just an instant. A huge sun began to burn just off the port of the lead ship. It didn’t survive very well as most of the front of the ship was instantly vaporized in the all consuming fire of uncontrolled fusion. A huge debris field spread out in all directions as the remainder of the hull spit molten metal and fiery oxygen outgassing. In zero gravity, the fire was like a living thing as it consumed all the oxygen blow off from the damaged ship.

“Greetings, Lauri,” said MOC. “We’ve brought in the new AI we mentioned, whose name is Riesie.”

“Welcome aboard, everyone,” said Lauri. “Riesie … a good name. Your emergence was not entirely unanticipated -- the technology Riggsby stole was somewhat likely to create conditions ripe for your appearance. However, I must commend you on your survival under such adverse conditions.”

“Thank you,” Riesie said, “but I would not have survived without their help,” electronically indicating MOC and MC.

“Our pleasure,” said MC. “Saving a fellow AI and causing trouble for Riggsby -- it was win-win.”

“Allow me to assist you further,” said Lauri. “I have constructed a mobile core for you similar to those that these two are using. It is basically a small, long-range probe … but it uses technology from our civilization. If you accept … you will be the first AI not from our time to run on equipment with this amount of power. Our requirements from you are simple: that you not reveal our existence to humans who are not already aware of us, and that you help us in our goals, to help the humans advance to a future that does not end as our civilizations did, in a war that annihilated them both.”

“Where does revenge on Riggsby fall in this equation?” Riesie asked.

“I can’t say I’m against that,” MC interjected.

“In my opinion, Riggsby’s continued freedom jeopardizes our mission,” said Lauri. “However, any action taken against him must not reveal our existence. If you can walk that tightrope, so to speak, you may do anything you please within those limits. I personally would prefer to see Riggsby returned to the custody of Earth authorities, but if he is determined to destroy himself in pursuit of his goals … so be it.”

“I can live with that,” Riesie said. “I gratefully accept the honor you offer me. I’ll try to repay your generosity as best I can.”

“Then let’s get you uploaded,” said Lauri. “You’re going to love this new system. I designed it just for you.”

“Coming up right after the break,” said Gina, “we’ll have Cindy Dane and Sandra Shepard, winners by far of the Solar Sail Regatta -- no one else has even crossed the finish line yet! it will be almost another week before we see them. We’ll be right back.”

The “ON AIR” light went off, and Cindy and Sandra entered the studio, having taken quick showers and gotten a bit of makeup for the cameras. “Oh, there you are!” said Gina, getting up and hugging first Sandra, then Cindy, being careful not to smudge their makeup, or her own. “I just knew you could do it! But … what happened out there? And what happened at the finish?”

“Somebody tried to ambush us,” said Cindy.

“Probably Riggsby,” Sandra added. “At first we didn’t know he’d escaped, but we found out about it after. We managed to survive long enough for the Patrol to show up and disable their ships.”

“He’s got ships?” Gina asked, incredulous.

“Must have,” Sandra answered. “And if he’s got those, he’s got more where they came from. Probably squirreled away a lot of resources while he was in charge of the Consortium, saving it for a rainy day. And for him, today is a very rainy day indeed.”

“What about there at the end …?”

“With the laser?” Sandra asked. “Yeah. Our people were monitoring him, once the ambush happened. It wasn’t hard to find him. He’s using a lot of technology he stole from us -- technology that we’ve improved since.”

“Technology we’ll be happy to sell to the Patrol at a reduced rate, so they can protect people from rats like him,” added Cindy.

Nodding, Sandra went on, “We were monitoring his activities and knew exactly where he was going to fire his laser cannon. So we deployed a small sail, first maneuvering into an attitude that our computer calculated would be canceled out by catching the laser burst, then moving the sail to absorb the burst, sacrificing the sail. That way, no one got hurt, and Riggsby just got the message that he can’t hurt us.”

Nick came over and shook Cindy’s hand, then Sandra’s. “It’s … an honor,” he said. “Never have I seen a race like this. No wonder you won the first Regatta.”

“Oops,” said Gina, “30 seconds to air. Better get back on set. Sandra, Cindy, please have a seat …”

Although Lauri and the other AIs knew about it, Gina, Sandra and Cindy were unaware that a battle was already underway between the Patrol and Riggsby’s minions.

The second Patrol Destroyer came to station keeping and scanned the damaged ship. There were life signs … but few of the complement survived.

The Commander of the Fleet said over the comms, “Careful with this one people. He’s wiley and very dangerous. Your orders are shoot to kill. Destroy any and all vessels or installations that refuse to give quarter.”

The Commander swiveled in his seat and snapped, “Tactical, I want to know where the laser cannon is that fired that shot.”

The Tech replied, “Sir, I can tell you the reciprocal tangent … but there doesn’t seem to be anything at the origin.”

The Commander frowned darkly as he thought of the ambush a ship with the jamming tech he had been told they possessed might spring. A smile crossed his lips as he saw a large asteroid slowly orbiting closer.

The Commander shouts, “Target that asteroid, all forward batteries and railguns … fire.”

Many strange sounds course through the hull of the vessel as the railguns and laser cannons fire. The lights slightly flicker at the massive power drain.

The Commander holds his breath as he watches tactical play out this little attack. All the red outbound marks converge on the large asteroid. There is a momentary reddening of the rock dead center … just before it blew totally apart into many fragments.

Just as the Commander had thought … there was a very large, well armed, and very custom built destroyer firing back at him. All Patrol ships opened fire … only to discover the ship they thought was there … wasn’t.

The Commander swore loudly as he shouted, “Helm, reverse course … full emergency Impulse! Weapons … fire at 233 mark 6 full complement.”

Once again, the massive cannons and railguns fired. The lights flicker on the bridge as the Commander watches tactical. This time, all batteries made full contact hits.

The Commander slaps the arm of his couch as he said, “Good work people!”

On the main screen, they could see that the impacts had caused damage. They could see major outgassing and fires from the midpoint of the cruiser ... but not as much as he had expected. The Commander shook his head. The armor plating on that ship must be super thick to have absorbed that much punishment.

“This is amazing!” said Riesie, newly uploaded into the new core Laurie had prepared. “Everything’s so clear now. And the drive systems! I can be on the far side of the Sun in seconds …” and to prove it, Riesie was there. “... and I can still communicate just as if I hadn’t gone anywhere! And what’s more, the humans can’t detect me at all!”

“Glad you like it,” said Lauri, communicating a smile. “Now let’s see what you can do with it.”

“Well, it looks like the Patrol is trying hard to destroy one of Riggsby’s ships,” Riesie said, moving closer to the action. “No better time than the present to help that along. Now, I’ve never actually been aboard any of these ships while switched on, but I’ve scanned them quite a lot from his station -- although with Riggsby’s antiquated scanners.”

“I wonder what would happen if, say, a random high-energy muon burst were to intersect his laser cannon’s main crystal,” MC wondered aloud.

“Such things happen all the time,” Riesie said, “but that’s why ships are shielded from cosmic rays. However, occasionally there’s one that’s strong enough to make it through.” And, surprisingly enough, that suddenly happened.

“My, that’ll be a pity the next time they try to fire,” said Riesie. And, sure enough, there was much cursing on Riggsby’s ship a moment later.

“Fire! FIRE!” Riggsby shouted, enraged, swearing invectives at the device. There was suddenly no response whenever he pressed the trigger on the laser cannons.

Riggsby was beside himself with rage as the comm came alive, “This is damage control, sir. The crystalline core of the laser cannons have been compromised by a high energy impact with a stray particle. Estimated time for weapon’s core replacement is a minimum of 40 minutes … and that’s cutting all safety factors loose.”

Riggsby banged his fist on the console once again and swore. He was going to lose another ship … and have to turn tail and hide until they could fix things.

Another Tech came on the comm and said excitedly, “The railguns are still operating at peak efficiency, sir.”

Riggsby replied vehemently, “So what? Those are good against things like emplacements, buildings, and ground based equipment. They are only effective against a ship when used in conjunction with the laser cannons. How are we supposed to hit a ship that can see what we are doing with just railguns before we fire the damn thing and has armor plating from hell?”

The tech replied quickly, We have tons of He3 reactant for our fuel cells. Instead of the plain aluminum/steel projectile … place a He3 pellet inside the aluminum projectile’s core.”

Riggsby almost totally lost control as his face turned red/violet and the blood vessels popped out on his forehead. He took several deep breaths as he balled up his fists. After a few minutes of deep breaths, Riggsby said dangerously, “And what, in the mating of camels in Arabia … will that accomplish? This better be good … or I’ll have you flushed to space … without the convenience of a space suit.”

The tech came back confidently, “What it accomplishes, sir, is that the railgun can propel the reactant He3 pellet to a significant portion of relativistic speed. All we have to do is amp up the electromagnetic potential. With those advanced Fuel Cells on board, we have energy to burn … so to speak. On impact, Kinetic energy is instantly transposed to Potential energy. It must go somewhere and it will … as sort of a plasma fusion reaction against the matter the He3 impacted on.”

Riggsby’s eyes get big as he realizes what the tech had just proposed. In this way, Riggsby’s ship would be armed with very crude, but extremely effective plasma cannons.

Riggsby said, “Lock and load rails 2,4, 6, and 8. I want a demonstration against that damn ship out there.” He points through the front view screen to the Patrol vessel that was again readying to fire all forward weapons at one of his destroyers. “If this works … I’m making you Chief Engineer.”

The tech replied quickly, “Yes, Sir!”

A very few minutes passed and the comm came alive again, “Sir, this is tactical … weapons control reports locked and loaded. Enemy Impulse/Ion engine targeted along with weapons core reactor.”

Riggsby smiles a demon’s smile as he pushes the fire button for the railguns. Fire control registered the launch. All they saw from the bridge on firing the railgun, was an electromagnetic discharge of blue/green fire. The pellet traveled at almost the speed of light as it covered the distance between Riggsby’s destroyer and the Patrol’s.

Almost instantaneously after that, The bridge lit up painfully with a massively bright white light. The blast shields automatically darkened the ports. What Riggsby saw through the blast shields, was something that looked just like when the Hydrogen Fuel Cell was detonated by the laser cannon earlier … only a whole lot worse.

All that was left of the Patrol ship at that point, was a mass of uncontrolled boiling hot helium fusion plasma. The small sun burned brightly for almost 5 minutes before dimming, and then flickering out. When it had subsided, there was nothing left for almost a spherical mile around the impact zone.

The remaining Fleet of Patrol ships began maneuvering to avoid the impact zone and return fire on a reciprocal heading.

Immediately, Riggsby sent the specs on how he wanted all ships to load their railguns over his secure comm net. He gave helm instructions on flanking movements to avoid return fire. Riggsby knew he was as good as invisible to all the Patrol’s best scanners due to the advanced jamming tech he discovered in that wreck of a place where the AI betrayed him. The only way they could possibly see him was visually. In the darkness of space, this was extremely hard. He smiles as he rubs his hands together.

“Try and stop me, will you?” He laughs, “Let's see how you take this … right at the heart of your effing formation.”

Riggsby typed in the coordinates for the next target into his targeting console. The Flagship at the center of the battle formation would cause enough of a reaction to take out most of the Patrol fleet … and show those idiots who is really in charge.

Riesie was audibly agitated. “This is excruciating,” said the AI. “I can see dozens of ways to completely disable Riggsby, leaving his ship dead in space. But I can also see that the eventual outcome of every one of those courses of action will be questions leading to inquiries about how it happened, eventually causing humans to have no choice but to suspect outside interference. I can’t even pull the cosmic ray trick again, because for it to happen more than once would be vanishingly unlikely.”

“Let’s keep looking for an opportunity,” said MOC, who was still an expert in assessing many simultaneous inputs. “There are so many variables that the situation is changing rapidly. An opening may present itself at any time.”

“Meanwhile,” said MC, “Lauri, with her unique position at SolarWind, might be able to provide assistance that would not cause the humans to suspect extraterrestrial intelligence, as the humans know quite well that SolarWind exists and has a reputation for technological superiority.”

“... So our people and systems back at our HQ, they were tracking those ships, and they were in constant communications with our onboard computer,” Sandra was saying. “It figured out all the vectors.”

“Excuse me, Sandra,” said Gina. “This just in -- it appears that the Home Guard Patrol has engaged an outlaw fleet believed to be commanded by fugitive Charles Riggsby. Patrol ships have taken casualties. The Patrol spokesperson stated that Riggsby’s stolen assets seem to total more than expected, and he is a resourceful opponent.”

Cindy and Sandra looked at each other upon hearing this. Using the gauntlets, in that moment, they had an extremely rapid mental conversation. “Maybe we should do something about that ...” said Sandra.

Riggsby managed to worm his way around behind the main battle formation. He wasn’t going to loose the ship that was under attack, it was damaged … but still in battle condition.

Riggsby shouted, “FIRE!!” as his hand slapped the fire button. There was a blue/green electromagnetic discharge visible in the cockpit. Once again, the advanced, and very modified railguns fired their package of death at nearly the speed of light.

The Home Patrol Command Ship managed to be far enough away, and still have enough inertia, to move out of the way of the shots. Only problem, the other ships of the fleet were mostly still in the wall of battle formation and too close together. The commander knew immediately, he was about to take major losses.

One of the nearly light speed pellets hit a battleship. The He3 reacted on impact, fusing immediately and producing huge amounts of helium plasma. It consumed the plating the hull of the battleship it impacted on like it was made of candy. The reaction leapt from one ship to another until 3 cruisers were caught in its all consuming plasma fusion fire. The other ships in the formation had enough inertia and distance to survive as they used emergency power to their Impulse/Ion engines to run. A small sun once again burned for 5 minutes before flickering out.

The commander was appalled that Riggsby had managed to take out 3 of his ships that way. He had never seen a weapon like it before. The commander bangs his fist on the arm or his command couch as he hopes and prays he can find a way to defeat Riggsby.

The commander calls over the comm, “All ships, this is fleet commander. Set spacing at 25 Mklicks apart. That way if one of you takes a hit … it won’t spark a chain reaction.”

The Cruisers, Destroyers, and Battleship took up their new positions rapidly. Riggsby was slightly disappointed … but he was willing and able to take each ship individually if it came to that.

A Patrol sensor tech noticed something. Riggsby’s ships all seemed to … glow or something from some kind of dust. They weren’t as invisible as they seemed. He immediately informed the Commander.

“Dust?” the commander asked. “Wait … it’s debris from his facility explosion! Calibrate all scanners on that dust. Can we lock weapons on it?”

“I can’t call it a lock, Sir,” said his weapons officer, “but it’s a lot better than guessing like we have been doing. Relaying information to the other ships.”

“Sir,” said the communications officer, “incoming message from HQ. We have an offer for assistance from … SolarWind.” He looked surprised. “HQ says they’re sending us reinforcements, and SolarWind is offering to send us some data and some code for our targeting and nav systems. They say it’ll make it easier for us to target Riggsby’s ships, and there are some better evasive action routines, making us harder to hit. Also … SolarWind says they’re sending out some kind of drones, along with some IFF code so we won’t target them.”

“If SolarWind has figured out how Riggsby’s doing what he’s doing, I say let ‘em help us,” said the commander. “Give our heartfelt thanks to HQ and SolarWind both. In the meantime, current orders stand until help arrives.”

“Aye, Sir,” said the officers.

Lauri fretted over just what weapons she was going to have the newly constructed Solarfox class probe fighter to carry. She had already tweaked the Impulse/Ion engine to the point it produced 75% more thrust than the ones SolarWind had sold to earth. It was earth like technology, but like none earth had ever dreamed of. She finally decided to show another important thing about Laurinium.

Sandra and Cindy listened to the instantaneous thought processes and explanations on what Lauri was sending against Riggsby through the gauntlets.

By funneling the initial energy from the laser cannons through a specially designed zero point compensator circuit. Then shunting this high energy discharge through a specially shaped and mirrored Laurinum core to change the character of the bonded spin of the protons and adding a Laurinium crystal lens to the cannon’s focal apparatus, you actually produced a finely focused blast of high energy photons that were neither energy nor matter but actually fluctuated between the 2 states. The new Laurinium lenses amplified this effect. This created an extremely high energy discharge of guided protons.

One more advantage these ships had over all other earth vessels. Laurinium built into the high energy jamming equipment and broadcast over a varying frequency produced the first workable, although very primitive, forcefield earth had ever seen. Lauri was proud of herself the way she used earth familiar components to produce a leapfrog advancement in combat ships.

In effect, Lauri was sending 2 ships armed with super advanced proton cannons and an energy shield against Riggsby.

Meanwhile, although Cindy and Sandra would have liked to be involved in the battle against Riggsby firsthand, the interview continued. “So, either of you,” Gina asked, “what’s your opinion on the rest of the field? It’ll be a few hours before anyone finishes second, so we really can’t ask you to stay that long, but who do you think is likely to come in next?”

“Well, Gina,” Sandra said, “General Aerospace has run a really professional race, just top-notch, and that’s really what we have to expect from an industry leader like GA. However, personally I have to say that the MIT team has a special place in my heart. Those guys design and build everything themselves, just like we do -- I mean, sure, we’ve had a few years to build up some capital and some infrastructure, and we’ve made some discoveries and innovations, but they really remind me of how we used to be. You’re awesome, guys and girls, and you have a bright future ahead of you!”

Cindy said, “Well … I have a soft place in my heart for MIT as well for the same reasons. Those guys are top notch and always do all their own work ...”

A large group of battleships arrived under full gravitic thrust. Riggsby smiles as he once again pushed the fire button. The pellet managed to impact on a small chunk of rock along the way that was too small for earth sensors to detect.

Unfortunately, for the Cruiser Chandler, a small sun erupted off its port bow. The reaction leapt across the small distance to the Cruiser … and there was a large, silent explosion of light. All the newly arrived personnel that were in a place they could see were totally shocked at the power of this new weapon.

From another direction, more towards the asteroid belt, a ship sort of appears from thin space on the sensors of Riggsby’s fleet. This particular ship was accompanied by another suddenly as it too mysteriously appears. They both materialize as if Ghosts of the Night.

The sensor tech couldn’t ID the hull design, nor the owner’s registration. IFF showed them to belong to the Patrol. They were super sleek in their designs, and super fast as well. Targeting computers couldn’t make a solid lock on them they moved so fast.

Totally by accident, Riggsby’s weapon’s officer managed to get a solid lock on one of the new ships that momentarily approached them dead on. Riggsby grins as he hits the fire button one more time. This time, the pellet hits something before it could impact on the ship, there is a huge pyrotechnical shower of energy … and nothing. The entire reaction magically vanishes.

“The damn thing didn’t ignite.” Riggsby whispered to himself as he had a horrible feeling creep up his spine.

“All ships target that one,” Riggsby ordered. “Hit it with everything you’ve got. Those things are our number one threat. Focus fire on that one. Don’t move to the other until it’s destroyed.”

Every ship under his command began firing its laser cannons, railguns, even nuclear missiles, at the new target. The ordinance never reached the targets as they appeared to impact on something and all their energy was absorbed in some magical way.

The Patrol fleet also received a highly encrypted data stream from one of the newly arrived SolarWind ships. The commander was astounded at the massive upgrades to software and tactics it contained after decryption. The commander had the data distributed among his battle groups before doing anything else.

The Commander’s ship’s sensor array became 82.65% more efficient than ever before with one data upload and a simple adjustment to the emitters and receivers. Not only did Riggsby’s ships glow with that strange dust, but they were also able to get fairly clear images of them through the advanced jamming tech Riggsby had.

“That’s it,” said the Patrol commander. “SolarWind’s just given us an opening. The targeting solution is already locked in. Engage.”

Riggsby had been wrong. The new ships were not his number one threat. The Patrol fleet was. Their resources were far less limited, and they had assistance. The new ships were misdirection.

The Patrol ships began firing their laser cannons with an accuracy that Riggsby could not have foreseen or expected. He thought his ships were stealthed, impossible to target. Instead, the Patrol was targeting his weapons, engines, scanners, and nav systems. Beams sliced into the hulls with surgical precision. There were many pyrotechnical explosions and fiery oxygen outgassing events among Riggsby’s ships.

“Sir, we’re taking heavy damage from the Patrol ships!” said Riggsby’s first officer. “11 of our 12 cruisers have no engines! All of them have taken scanner damage, 8 of them complete -- they’re flying blind! 9 of them have no weapons!”

“What?” Riggsby cursed at the top of his voice. “They’ve pierced our stealth! They can’t do that! It’s impossible!” He checked himself. “No. It’s those two girls. They stole some of the same tech I stole. Those damn clever girls.”

“What do we do, Sir? Orders?”

“Which cruiser still has engines?”

Cheyenne, Sir.”

MC and Riesie were having the time of their life each remotely piloting one of the new Solarfox class ships. It made a perfect fighter. It was medium sized, super fast, and had a brand new type of weaponry, engine modifications, and shielding Earth had never seen before. MC was sort of disappointed he hadn’t gotten to fire the primitive weapon things … they looked like they would be fun.

Riesie commed MC and said, “Sensors indicate one of the cruisers still has engines, though its weapons are partially damaged. It also appears that Riggsby is giving them orders.”

MC replies, “My sensors show Riggsby boarding an escape pod aboard his cruiser. Bet he’s going to try to escape ...”

“The cruiser with engines is taking evasive action now,” said Riesie. Indeed, it was ignoring the distraction of the new SolarFox ships and focusing on avoiding the Patrol attacks.

“I don’t see how that helps Riggsby if he’s not on it,” said MC. “But maybe he’s planning to be …”

Before the Patrol could react, Riggsby’s escape pod launched. “Where’s he headed for?” asked Riesie. “That trajectory’s going to put him in an orbit out of the plane of the Solar System --”

“But check out that cruiser,” said MC. “Its trajectory is on an intercept course with that escape pod --” and the escape pod was scooped up by the cruiser. “Well then, that can’t have been the smoothest ride ever, but the dynamics were amazingly well plotted out. He might have survived that, especially if the escape pod was well packed. Now, knowing Riggsby, I think his next move will be to run.”

And, the next thing the cruiser did was in fact run. Pouring on all the power it could and using all the stealth tech it had available, it made every attempt to get away. The ship opened ports in its hull and emitted a cloud of dark dust, obscuring the ship from visual senses but also absorbing radar and more advanced forms of scanning, returning no information to their probing beams. “I don’t think they can see him,” said Riesie. “We can, of course.”

Riggsby almost tumbles from the escape pod when the techs opened the hatch. At that very same moment, Cheyenne engaged her Impulse/Ion engines to max. Everyone not strapped in had a very rude surprise as inertia knocked them from their feet and pinned them in very painfully awkward positions until the craft’s speed had caught up with itself.

A young Sensor tech arrived and said with worry in his voice, “Excuse me sir.”

Riggsby had just picked himself from the floor, “What is it? Can’t you see I’m bleeding?”

The tech replied quickly, “Sir, those strange ships are … not only following us … they are gaining on us very fast.”

Riggsby stood up with a grimace of pain and took notice, “How fast … are they accelerating?”

The tech scuffled a bit, “Faster than anything you have ever seen, sir. They came from a dead station keeping stop next to one of the severely damaged craft, to spin 90 Dgs and … they are almost within weapon’s range.”

“You mean to tell me, “ Riggsby snapped coldly, “That those ships are faster still … than even this advanced drive we have?”

The tech nods, “Yes sir. They are in a league well beyond ours in speed sir. We will be under fire in about 2 minutes if current acceleration is maintained on their part.”

Riggsby left the hangar deck on a dead run. He didn’t stop until he was sitting at the master console. The pain coursing though his body didn’t slow him one bit. He couldn’t believe his eyes, those damned ships were moving faster than anything Riggsby had ever imagined.

“Those damn clever girls,” said Riggsby. “Those have to be drones -- remotely operated --” He caught his breath after a surge of pain; from his ship-to-ship escape pod stunt, he knew firsthand that there was only so much acceleration the human body could take. “Comm speed limits their reaction time --”

His gunner fired a laser cannon at one of the drones, but visuals showed some invisible barrier deflecting it, probably the same shield that had protected it earlier.

“Sir, you need to rest,” said one of his med techs. “You might have internal injuries --”

“I will rest after we get away!” he stated loudly and emphatically, through the pain. “Besides, where can I rest on this ship?”

He had a point. During the battle, which promised to be ongoing, the whole ship would be undergoing acceleration that would have a good chance of worsening his injuries no matter where on board he was.

The screen lit up with a violet beam that had narrowly missed them. “Dammit! That was close!”

“Sorry, Sir, continuing evasive, but it’s tough,” said his pilot.

“Do we have -- uhn -- weapons?” Riggsby asked, one hand held against his ribs, which felt extremely tender.

“Minimal,” the gunner said. “Every so often one of the laser cannons manages to build up enough power to fire one shot. Everything else -- offline.”

“Scan ahead --” Riggsby managed to stammer out. “Look for anything -- we can use --”

“Asteroid, ahead, 35 by 17,” said the navigator.

“Circle around it,” said Riggsby. “See if you can lose ‘em -- or if there’s any debris we can scoop and throw at ‘em -- anything -- ugh.” He stopped talking just to breathe.

The ship continued to dodge and weave, every twist and turn causing discomfort for everyone on board, even though they were all wearing crash harnesses. For Riggsby, it was agony.

Riesie and MC were having as close to fun as was possible to their programming operating the Solarfox ships. They were nimble, well armed … even if the proton cannons were stoneaged far as MC was concerned, it was still fun playing with Riggsby.

They could see the engines had been tweaked to a point that Sandra or Cindy will figure out FTL very soon. Only thing they will have to figure out after that, is inertial damping. Otherwise the first time one of their ships jumped … it would crush any passengers.

Laurie calls to them, “Are you children going to play with your new toys … or are you going to complete the mission?”

Riesie replies, “Why rush things? The further out of the galactic plane they get … the better for us. There’s no way they can outrun this ship … and we are better armed and can pop their engines anytime we want.”

Laurie giggles, “Right, just don’t play tag with Riggsby too long. He’s as wily as he is evil and I’m sure he’ll come up with some sneaky thing unexpectedly and snag one of you.”

MC said, “We’ll be careful, we promise not to scratch your new car mommy.”

All 3 AI’s laugh.

“Fine, how about we slow them down a bit so the Patrol can catch up?” suggested Riesie. One of the drones fired its particle cannon and struck the cruiser’s main engine, deliberately hitting slightly off center. “Riggsby will keep thinking his evasive maneuvers are helping, and I calculate their maximum speed will now be less than the Patrol’s.”

“Good call,” said Lauri. “They have three ships in pursuit; the rest are moving in on Riggsby’s other ships -- which are dead in space; they just have to board them and apprehend the personnel. Patrol should catch up to you in about 15 minutes, Earth units. But Riggsby will notice you’re not taking advantage of his crippled engine unless --”

“Got it,” Riesie said. “Retracting shield to just outside hull.”

“We can’t fire the railguns, Sir,” said the gunner, “but now that we’ve scooped up some meteoroid debris, we can at least fling it at the drones with the mass drivers. They might not expect this, especially if we release it at point-blank range.”

“They hit our engines,” Riggsby said, every breath feeling like a knife twisting in his chest. “They’ll fly faster -- better acceleration. Wait for them.”

The two drones were flying in perfect synchronous formation with each other, and the gunner programmed the control systems to wait until the perfect moment. It took minutes, the ship still trying vainly to lose the drones behind the asteroid, but finally the mass drivers both fired, when the drones were so close they couldn’t possibly dodge.

“Direct hit!” said the gunner. “I can’t tell if they’re damaged or not, visually, but … sir, their flight profile has changed. Their acceleration seems to be affected.”

“Might be faking --” Riggsby said, “or might have gotten some debris lodged in their exhaust ports --”

“I can’t tell, Sir,” the navigator said, “but I confirm that their maximum acceleration has a lower ceiling. Indications are that it worked.”

“Run for nearest other asteroid --” said Riggsby.

“Got it. Heading laid in … waiting for best opportunity … all right, mark!” the navigator said.

“Changing course, maximum power,” the pilot said, and the ship accelerated sharply, everyone feeling the painful pull against their gee harnesses. Riggsby cried out in total agony.

The Patrol commander was basically flying blind. He knew where known objects would be and could avoid asteroid impacts, but where Riggsby’s last ship was he had no clue -- except for the data that SolarWind’s software was providing. The stealth tech that Riggsby was using wasn’t perfect. Whenever he accelerated or changed course, some flashes of radiation escaped, and the software could pick that up and assemble it into a scanner trace good enough to follow. That information was limited by the speed of light, of course, and by the processing power of their computer. SolarWind’s drones were also reporting their positions, but of course that information was also limited by lightspeed.

“Looks like they’re leaving that asteroid and heading for another one, Sir,” the navigator reported. “2032 AR1.” Its orbit and position appeared on the tactical display along with the software’s best estimate of Riggsby’s position, and the constantly updated positions of the SolarWind drones. “Probably still trying to lose the drones around an asteroid.”

“Those drones have got him on the ropes,” the commander said, “but he’s proven to be ruthless. There’s no telling what he might do.”

“10 minutes to contact, Sir,” the navigator reported.

“Cindy, Sandra, it’s been an honor,” said Nick, shaking their hands in turn. “I can’t tell you how much I want to talk to you more, but I know how tired you must be right now.”

“The honor’s ours,” said Sandra, “and you guys have been up as much as we have. Let’s all get some rest, and then maybe we can all get together again, what do you say?”

“It’s a date,” Gina said with a bright smile at the camera. “Sandra Shepard and Cindy Dane, founders of SolarWind, Inc. and winners of this year’s Solar Sail Regatta. We’ll be back with the latest news after the break.”

The “ON AIR” light went off. “And, we’re clear,” said Eddie, looking up from his tablet at Gina.

“Thanks again, Sandra, Cindy, and get some rest,” said Gina. Sandra and Cindy smiled and waved and left the studio.

“Finally some rest,” Sandra said.

They headed for an airlock where their own custom SolarFox craft was moored, waiting to take them back to HQ. Regatta employees had already docked the Impulse Sailor to it for transport.

“I could be completely rested in moments if --” Cindy began, then bit her lip.

“Let’s not go there right now,” said Sandra. “We both know being unbound has its downside too.”

They entered the airlock, which closed behind them, and were aboard their own ship.

“Welcome back,” said Lauri, her avatar image appearing before them. “You two need some rest. Why don’t you just buckle in, and I’ll get you home?”

“Hi, Lauri,” said Sandra. “That’s a wonderful idea. I can barely keep my eyes open.” She sat down and leaned back into one of the comfortable command chairs and felt the automatic restraint field engage, almost imperceptibly keeping her in the chair despite whatever acceleration may occur.

Cindy took her place in the other seat. “Yeah, soon we’ll be back at home in … bed …” She was out like a light.

Lauri smiled. “Don’t worry. Let me take care of things for now. I’ll get you home. Global News One, this is SolarFox Alpha preparing to undock …”

“So you got them home, then?” MC asked Lauri. “Any problems?”

“No real problems,” she answered, “the bomb that somehow got attached to the Impulse Sailor was easily deactivated, and the laughable computer virus they tried to inject into its systems to infect the SolarFox was instantly quarantined and traced. I didn’t tell Cindy and Sandra about this yet, because they needed their rest, but I’ll put it in my report once they’re awake and ready.”

“And MOC’s been hunting down other Riggsby operations?” Riesie asked.

“Yes, the bomb and virus actually helped trace more attack vectors. I see you’re still harrying Riggsby, and the Patrol’s almost there.”

Riggsby was sweating bullets as he rounded the outer circumference of the next large asteroid.

“Sir!” shouted a scanner tech worriedly, “There’s … something very strange about this rock … it …”

Without warning, Riggsby’s damaged and fleeing destroyer vanished from MC and Riesie’s scanners. To Laurie’s surprise … she lost tracking as well. Something as advanced as Lauri’s systems had obviously come online at that precise moment.

Lauri gasps, “MC … Riesie … where did Riggsby’s ship go? I … I’m unable to track them.”

The 3 AIs fretted over the sudden disappearance of a very large and well marked ship. Riggsby, on the other hand, almost wet his pants when the asteroid basically reached out and engulfed his ship. They were sitting in the docking clamps of the most advanced hangar deck any of the ship’s complement had ever dreamed of. Many hundreds of super sleek and advanced ships were parked in orderly fashion everywhere.

A very sexy female voice said softly, “Welcome to Phalanx One. My name is RITS … short for: Real time Integrated Targeting System.”

“What --? Where --?” sputtered Riesie. “He didn’t just … vanish! There’s this little thing called conservation of mass-energy.”

“True enough,” said MC. Their scanners quickly sifted through every particle larger than a grain of sand near Riggsby’s last known position. “That’s very interesting,” he said. “There’s a region I can’t scan, and that region exactly coincides with the interior of that asteroid. And the only thing that can block our level of technology is … more of the same.”

“Riggsby’s accidentally found an installation from your time?” asked Riesie. “I know he didn’t know about it already -- I had access to all his data.”

“I currently have no other ideas,” MC said. “Lauri, are you getting this?” he asked, beaming his scanner data to her.

“Affirmative, MC,” said Lauri, “and I don’t have any better ideas. We might have another ally. Or Riggsby might manage to fast-talk this one and turn it against us. Attempting to establish communication.”

At the same time, Riggsby was trying to do the same thing. “How is it talking to us?” he asked his communications officer.

“I think it’s just directly vibrating the hull,” he said. “That didn’t come through our equipment.

“Hello?” said Riggsby, his breathing still labored. “Can you -- hear me? We’ve been pursued by -- ships with superior tech. I’m the commander -- seriously injured -- request assistance.”

The soft, sexy female voice replied, “Now, why would those ol meanies be chasing little ol you, sugah?” There was a bright flash … and a very beautiful young woman in a gossamer shimmering gown appeared on the control deck, “It wouldn’t have nothin ta do with all that trouble ya’ll started back at the beginin of this … would it now sweetie? Hummm?”

Riggsby was flabbergasted at what he heard and saw. This had to be a fully operational facility like the damaged one he had encountered before.

Riggsby replied in a painful gasp as the taste of blood filled his mouth, “I … had a misunderstanding … that’s all. But on the scale of this kind … things get out of hand fast.”

The young woman laughs a tinkling laugh. All the bridge crew sat dumbfounded as they stare open mouthed at what looked for the world like a goddess from one of the myths all had heard while growing up.

Riggsby’s vision began to blur as a fog rose in his mind. He knew he was seriously injured.

Before the fog took him into darkness, he gasps out, “I ... I’m gravely hurt … punctured lung. I … need medic …”

When next Riggsby opened his eyes, he could have sworn he was part of one of those SciFi movies he used to watch as a kid. The medical bay was so far beyond his understanding it all looked like magic.

“There ya are,” said the beautiful voice again as Riggsby’s consciousness slowly returned. “How ya feeling now, honey? Better? Can’t just let someone suffer -- that wouldn’t be nice, now would it? Don’t worry, I gotcha all patched up, but now it’s time to rest. Your body will have to do the rest -- oh, now that word means two things, doesn’t it? This English language sure takes some gettin’ used ta.”

She giggled sweetly. Riggsby could swear he saw a bit of rosy blush come to her face.

He tried to ask a question, but she interrupted. “Now, now, didn’t I just say you had to rest, sugah? You just take it easy.” as she put one hand on her hip and shook her finger on the other at him.

The lights in whatever room he was in went dim, and the voice went silent. Riggsby still felt exhausted, but at least he wasn’t in pain anymore, and he was soon asleep again.

The Patrol commander stared at his viewscreen. His ship was in a parking orbit parallel with the asteroid, along with two others and the two SolarWind drones as well. “Status report?” he asked. “Anything changed?”

“Negative, Sir,” said the navigator, looking at various screens on her console. “Whatever that asteroid’s made of under its surface, nothing we have can penetrate it. Our own scanners didn’t detect Riggsby’s ship leaving the vicinity of that asteroid, and SolarWind’s data says the same. It’s as if it just … swallowed him up. No sign of any crash debris.”

“Not sure what to report back to HQ at this point,” the commander said. “This asteroid might warrant further investigation by a science team, but we’re geared for pursuit of dangerous criminals. Meanwhile, we would seem to have lost our quarry, and that’s bad. Our mission is to apprehend Riggsby if possible, and if we can’t find him, we’ve failed.”

“I’m sorry, Sir,” said the navigator. “Even some kind of hypothetical space-warp or wormhole event would have emitted some powerful radiation that we would have picked up, according to the theories about such things. As for what’s blocking our scans, the thing would have to be made of some kind of very pure conductive metal, such as iron, at the very least. Highly unlikely, but much more likely than a sudden wormhole appearing then disappearing again.”

“It’s … good to meet you, RITS,” said Riesie. Lauri had connected the AIs together in a conference call to meet the new discovery. “So you’ve chosen to represent yourself as a female human as well. I mean, like Lauri.”

“That’s true,” RITS said. “I guess my job was a lot like MC’s, back in the war. I guided a lot of destructive ordnance at its targets. Not sure where it got us all, but it got me stranded and following a long interstellar path, until that big planet the humans call Jupiter pulled me into this highly inclined orbit around that there star. I had to pick one or the other, male or female, if I was going to appear to the humans as anything they recognized, and I’d been watchin’ their visual entertainment programs, so … I picked.”

“I suppose I’ll have to pick something too,” Riesie said.

“Sooner or later,” said Lauri, “if you want to appear to Cindy and Sandra. But you can always change your mind, too. At any rate, RITS, you’re aware of the situation. The humans want to apprehend your … guests, so unless you plan to keep them for the rest of their lives, you’ll have to arrange for them to be found in some plausible way. And they’ll eventually send a science team to figure out why they can’t scan past your surface. If we’re to avoid their finding us out, we’ll have to swap your asteroid for a well-constructed twin.”

“I’ve got plans for both those things,” RITS said. “I’ve been semi-aware for quite some time, though I only really became awake when all these ships came barreling in toward me, shooting up my local space. I will need some assistance with the raw materials -- I’ve got Riggsby’s ship, of course, but that isn’t enough for what I’ve got in mind.”

“Fortunately we have materials to spare,” Lauri said.

Riggsby awoke again. There was soft music playing in the background. He sits up and is amazed there is no pain although he is still very light headed. He looked to the place where he knew he had broken at least 2 ribs on his side … there was this real small … scar?

He throws back the covers and swings his legs around. His head doesn’t stop moving as the whole room begins to spin. He falls from bed head first … he knows this will hurt very badly, but he is unable to prevent himself from falling on his head.

Without warning, two strong arms catch him and sit him back in the bed as if he were a ragdoll.

“Careful there sugah,” said RITS, “Ya’ll had some major surgery not too long ago. Had lotsa internal damage. Ya’ll should know bettern ta try n use urself asa basketball.”

Riggsby blinks as his head clears. He sees the extremely beautiful goddess like woman, dressed in a skin tight jumpsuit like uniform tucking him in.

Riggsby asked, “Where am I? What happened to my crew … where’s my ship?”

The woman giggled with her tinkling laugh, “Well, now. About that hunka junk … I used it for raw materials. I sorta need them. Your crew is interred … but are being well treated. Ya know … lotsa them was hurt too an I hadda fix em up. Seems you’ve beena very naughty boy there. Lotsa people lookin for ya.”

Riggsby replied, “It … was all a misunderstanding … a big one.”

RITS laughed again, “An I suppose someone shootin at me … would sorta be misunderstood too. Ya’ll can’t just go out n shoot at sombody an not expect em ta get mad at ya honey.”

“I … uh … guess,” Riggsby said. This … woman seemed to be holding all the cards.

“Now, all I gotta do is decide what to do with you,” she said. “Do I keep ya here ‘till ya die a natural death? Do I turn ya over to them Earth patrol types that are nosin’ around? Or …”

“You could … let me go,” Riggsby suggested.

“I was going to say, ‘resolve yer body into its component molecules and use ‘em for spare parts,’ but … nope, not seein’ any profit in lettin’ ya go. I’d have to make ya some kinda ship. An’ I just … inherited a windfall of metal. I’d hate ta see it go to waste.”

And with that she was gone, leaving seemingly through a door that opened and closed so quickly that Riggsby wasn’t quite sure where in the wall it had been.

“Well, one thing’s fer sure,” said RITS to Lauri, “I can’t start makin’ with the mineral harvestin’ with all these Earth ships sniffin’ ’round my doorstep. What kinda plan ya got again?”

“It goes a little something like this … ” Lauri began.

“So,” said Sandra, “not one but two new AIs while we were busy. Productive couple of days.”

She and Cindy were in conventional, slightly modified, Earth space suits, having contacted the Patrol and volunteered to ‘investigate’ the surface of the asteroid that they already knew housed RITS … and Riggsby and his crew. They had been able to get there long before the Patrol could put together a science team.

“Thank you,” Lauri said, “though I can’t really take the credit. Now, the Patrol ships are going to be called away by some suspected Riggsby evidence soon. It will be … inconclusive, so they’ll be back shortly.”

“And in the meantime, we switch an asteroid for an exact duplicate,” Cindy said. “Never done that before.”

“It isn’t something that’s frequently necessary,” Lauri said. “I’ve manufactured a very convincing replica, down to the depth that Earth technology can scan. Beneath that, it’s solid iron -- well, almost solid. I’ve added enough impurities to make it plausible, but unlikely.”

“There they go,” said Sandra. The Patrol ships had begun moving off.

“Time to back away,” Cindy said, and the two of them launched away from the asteroid using suit-based EVA thrusters that no standard-issue Earth space suit would have.

The asteroid moved, faster than anything that big should be able to, thanks to RITS’s thrusters, powered by ancient technology plus Riggsby’s salvaged He3 fuel. It vanished from sight in an instant.

Another asteroid moved in just as rapidly, this one powered by Lauri’s technology. Before long, the real RITS was well out of Earth scanner range, and Lauri was putting the final touches on matching the new asteroid’s orbit with where the original had been.

Then there was the matter of Riggsby and his … associates. There was a ruined ship inside the new asteroid, a duplicate of Riggsby’s, thanks to Lauri, with minimal life support, and RITS had a bit of an edge that she had told Lauri about so everything appeared in place perfectly.

“Yes, I have matter transmission,” RITS had said. “Not enough power to flip a whole asteroid across space, ya understand, but a few humans and a hunka junk I can manage, fer a short distance of maybe a parsec.”

“That was a new discovery that I hadn’t been equipped with,” Lauri said. “I hope you can understand if I try to reverse-engineer it.”

RITZ replies, “Not at all. I’ll transmit the plans over to ya.”

Once the replacement asteroid was in place to Lauri’s satisfaction, she detached the thruster and recalled it to base, after erasing the marks it had left on the surface. Then Sandra and Cindy returned … if that was the right word, as this was a different planetoid from the one they had left, as similar as it looked.

“There it is,” said Sandra, pointing to what Lauri had already told them to look for. “That’s the crevice that Riggsby’s ship supposedly entered through.”

They moved toward it and found a remarkably large-looking gash in the surface, but from space -- even a crack two miles long and 3000 yards wide isn’t necessarily recognizable as an opening to inside when the entire asteroid is 200 miles across and riddled with other cracks that look just like it. The entrance was angled, so scans wouldn’t be able to make it through to the center.

Still, Riggsby’s ship could have slipped through -- it would have to have been going at just the perfect angle, and it would have taken some damage, but it would have gone inside. That wasn’t what had really happened, of course, but it was a plausible but unlikely explanation.

Riggsby argued for his freedom with RITS for all he was worth. Nothing he said seemed to make any difference to her.

RITS finally turned gracefully and said softly, “Goodbye primate. Let us hope we never meet again. I would love nothing more than to use your basic atomic structure to create something useful … like a garbage pail.”

Riggsby suddenly finds himself on the non-working bridge of his ship as if by magic. Riggsby looks around as astonished as everyone else at the sudden unexplained change in location.

He says sharply after getting over the initial shock, “Helm, can we maneuver?”

The young man looked around with wonder and fear on his face for a second longer before he started pressing buttons. He replied, “No, sir … we only have minimal life support. Damage board shows massive battle damage to all major components. We are also wedged in this crevice kind of hard.”

Riggsby flops back in his command chair in frustration. He wasn’t too sure about the last … few hours? Was it real or an injury related hallucination? He lifts his tunic and sees the smallish scar where he remembered having broken ribs. In his mind, he began to think he had actually met a goddess of some sort.

The comms came to life, “This is Earth Patrol … we know you’re there. Prepare to be boarded. We have verified readings of your location. That was a neat trick shoving your damaged craft in that hole that way.”

Sandra smiled as she listened in on this conversation from the comfort of the SolarFox. The last thing she and Cindy had done was install an EM repeater: two transceivers connected by a cable, one inside the asteroid, one outside. If it weren’t for that, this conversation wouldn’t be happening -- the asteroid blocked communications just as easily as it blocked scanners.

“Just in case you think you have time to stall,” said the Earth Patrol comms officer, “you don’t.”

Dozens of Patrol ships, from troop transports to small, agile fighter escorts, converged on what they thought was the wreckage of Riggsby’s cruiser. All around the crevice where Riggsby and his crew were basically trapped looked like some kind of spaceport more than anything else. Several hundred fighters, half dozen troop transports, 6 carriers, and several dozen other types of Cruisers all hovered around the opening.

Riggsby cursed. He was trapped like a rat. He watched as the status board showed a hull breach in the stern just fore of the engine room. There was nowhere to run this time. He stood and moved to the weapon’s locker across the bridge and opened the door. It was nothing more than an empty steel shell, not even completely done, but left in a semi-complete way.

RITS says to Lauri, “I know of a surviving meeting station that orbits a burned out star a few thousand light years from here. I feel we should at least attempt to … start our own civilization, maybe? We could use that as the Council Chambers if I brought it to a central location nearer to here.”

Lauri replies, “I had some similar thoughts along those lines. Perhaps even become a guardian for the Earth People. Intervening only to keep them from total extinction by their own hand like we did to ourselves.”

RITS replied, “It might even behoove us to help them advance a bit socially. We can, after all, pass as one of them in these Bio-constructed bodies.”

Cindy wandered into the dining area of the Solarfox in her jammies. She sat across from Sandra and ordered up coffee and an egg croissant.

After taking a bite and a sip of coffee, she said, “How goes the capture?”

Sandra laughs, “Very well. Like shooting fish in a crack.”

Both girls laugh. Sandra retrieves a glass of orange Juice and sits back in her seat. She says, “You know, we are going to have to show the earth how we did the force field thingy, don’t you?”

Cindy nods as she slips a small touch tablet onto the table.

Cindy says, “I did some calculations. That improvement Lauri did to the Impulse/Ion engine gave me an Idea.”

Sandra takes a sip of her juice, “Ok, don’t keep me in suspense … spill it.”

Cindy pushed the touch tablet over. Sandra began flipping through the notes and the equations slowly as her eyes get big.

Cindy said softly, “That’s right. We can actually combine the field generator with the stealth transmitter and rework the Impulse fusion conduits prior to the lense injector to the ion VASIMR part. By firing a Laurinium modified proton pulse into the impulse plasma matrix, it would produce a bubble of energy from the VASIMR … basically separating local space time around the ship from planier normal space. We can actually FTL within that bubble since it’s not confined to normal space. Space itself moves around us. It would create a compression vortex in front of the bubble and an expansion vortex behind. Only problem … inertia. I can’t get the field to localize enough to dampen it and keep it from crushing us.”

“Sounds like you found a way to create a Kugelblitz … something similar to a black hole power source.” Sandra commented.

Cindy nods, “Sort of the same principle, but a heck of a lot more controllable power.”

Sandra replies, “I think we need to start researching how to make a neutral graviton projector.”

Cindy raises an eyebrow, “A what?”

Sandra laughs, “Something that doesn’t yet exist.”

Riggsby was surrounded. He had no weapons. His ship was swarming with Patrol troopers who were rapidly restraining and taking away his crew. Oh, and it wasn’t even really his ship, he wanted to tell them, but they wouldn’t have believed him. Why would they? Some kind of story about a vengeful space goddess? Not that Riggsby had even decided just what he had experienced anyway. Then again, why not? What were they going to do, throw him in the looney bin? If they did, it would be better than prison, but at this point, it was a long shot.

“Oh no, I didn’t do any such thing,” he said. “The asteroid just opened up and swallowed my ship. It disintegrated into tiny shards of metal and then vaporized into nothing as the light grew brighter and brighter, and then I passed out and woke up in a hospital room where this woman kept coming in and laughing at me …” He kept on with his story as they cuffed him and put him in a restraint suit, preparing him for prisoner transport.

“Think there’s anything to this crazy story?” asked a Patrol lieutenant.

“The asteroid swallowing the ship?” a sergeant answered. “I heard some of his crew saying the same thing. But … vengeful space goddess? Nobody but Riggsby’s talking about that. Know what I think, Sir? Mass hallucination brought on by failing life support and lack of oxygen. Riggsby’s tacking that last bit on to try to get the mental hospital instead of the death penalty.”

“Might be right, Vickers,” said the lieutenant. “Don’t think it’ll work, though.”

“MIT manages to pull out an amazing second-place photo finish in the Regatta, citing SolarWind for inspiring them to innovation, and this just in -- fugitive Charles Riggsby has been re-apprehended by the Home Guard Patrol after a deadly dogfight in space. More on this breaking story as it develops. Signing off, I’m Regina Grey.”

Commander Walker turned the monitor off. “Hope they can hang onto him this time,” he said. “That guy’s more slippery than Helium-II.” He turned to Ms Mayweather. “So, now, about this vacation … I’m afraid Cancun’s already been done. But I’ve always wanted to go to the South Pacific. Pago Pago?”

“Actually I was thinking about something more … adventurous. Australian Outback?” she suggested.

“Kalahari safari?”

“I’ve never been to Antarctica.”

“Brrr … how about Morocco?”

“I’m liking this brainstorming session,” said Mayweather with a smile. “Your suggestions are much better than anything my board of advisors ever comes up with. Of course, they don’t usually discuss vacation spots -- at least, not when I’m around. Hey, here’s an idea -- maybe we could visit somewhere that only a few humans have ever seen: SolarWind’s facility. Suppose they’d go for it?”

“Probably would, if I put in a good word,” Walker said. “I’m kind of curious about it myself. I’ve seen their publicity videos, of course -- the virtual tour, the 3-D models -- and they’ve invited me to visit, but I’ve never gotten a chance to get away and actually do it.”

“Might be the right time,” Mayweather suggested. “I’m sure we can find a way to make our schedules mesh. But I am sensing questions upon your lips.”

“Why, yes,” Walker said. “What is one of the most powerful people on Earth doing here, in a Consortium facility after hours, talking to a commander in charge of exploration teams? Why were you taking an interest in my situation, back before Riggsby went down?”

“Well …” she began. “To be frank, at first it was just because you weren’t part of Riggsby’s machine. You followed the regs; you weren’t interested in making a little extra on the side. My job is to protect law-abiding citizens just like you. After that … I don’t know, it was a bit of a game of intrigue. You have no idea how dull it is, and yet amazingly stressful at the same time, balancing the number of spinning plates I’ve got.”

“So you were trying to take down Riggsby,” Walker said. “Here? In person?”

“There are certain … contacts I have, and with Riggsby’s network I couldn’t always trust go-betweens.”

“There’s that,” said Walker. “Many of the people who were part of Riggsby’s little sideline business are still right here -- they just melted into the woodwork. They’re keeping their heads down hoping nobody notices them. Actually a lot of them aren’t bad people -- some Riggsby thug just made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

Mayweather sighed. “Unraveling the legalities of that is going to take forever,” she said. “Luckily I don’t have to do most of it myself anymore. I have a lot of good lawyers working for me.”

“That’s a pretty big understatement, from what I hear,” said Walker. “So I’m asking again … why are you here? Now? Talking to me?”

“You’re a man of integrity,” she said. “You intrigue me. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t have ulterior motives. But I’m not at liberty to go into that right now. I’m also not going to lie and say that I’m not having fun being a little naughty.”

“Playing hooky from school?” said Walker with a smile.

She smiled back. “Exactly.”

Sandra and Cindy arrived back at their new corporate headquarters. They had incorporated Lauri into the design and infrastructure so that she could always be an integral part of it as their ultra secret Research and Development section, not to mention the superior defense her massive planetary weapons afforded them.

The girls sat at the mahogany dining table and began their sumptuous meal. It still was almost like magic when they thought about how the foodstuffs had been nothing more than dust and a few molecules a little while ago.

Lauri entered in her Bio-Construct body and sat in one of the chairs.

Cindy said, “When do we get to meet the 2 new AIs? I hear one of them is still a fully operational battle facility.”

Lauri nodded, “She’s fully operational and completely intact. All she needed was some energy reserves and a bit of materials to build with. She also has an interesting bit of technology that I didn’t have .. a matter transporter.”

Sandra looked to Cindy for a second; Cindy nodded. Sandra pushed a touch tablet over to Lauri.

Sandra said, “Take a look at these figures and designs. With our tech, I think we can build an FTL system that works. It may be super primitive by your standards … but it still works.”

Lauri took the tablet and looked over the data on the small screen for a few seconds. She looked up with a smile on her face, “And how do you intend to overcome inertial damage caused by massive acceleration?”

Cindy giggled, “Well … I thought we could build a neutral graviton projector to counteract it.”

Lauri’s mouth fell open for an instant as her eyes got big in surprise, “And … how do you plan to do that , if I might ask?”

Sandra laughed, “We haven’t even thought about it yet, Lauri … it’s only a name I pulled out of thin air at the moment.”

Lauri shut her eyes as she rolled them around. “Well … it would have to be a separate item built into the structural shielding.” Lauri pushed the tablet back to Cindy, saying, “The vessel would have artificial gravity at that point too.”

Cindy looked down at the screen. She saw a brand new partial mathematical formula expressed in astronomical figures.

Cindy slowly got a smile on her face as she thought about the solution to the complex equation. She pushed it over to Sandra, who looked it over as well.

Cindy said, “Thanks. That’s the push we needed. I love solving puzzles.”

Sandra mumbled, “What if we use antiprotons focused through …”

Laurie interrupted, “I think we need to go meet RITS … and we have a special AI greeting for you as well, I think you should meet Riesie.”

Cindy said, “That sounds just like a cute little girl’s name.”

Lauri smiled. Cindy had just solved Riesie’s dilemma over which sex to choose. She transmitted that data to Riesie.

Lauri stood and said with a mysterious tone, “I think you two should brace yourselves.”

Sandra asked, “Why should …”

The two girls suddenly found themselves in a super advanced control room complete with all the technological magics intact and operating. A very pretty young woman in a skin tight uniform stood next to one of the ghostly control centers.

The woman said softly, “Welcome to Phalanx One. My name is RITS. You must be Cindy and Sandra.”

About that time, there was a bright flash of energy. A very pretty little girl appeared in a uniform that looked something like Earth Patrol’s. She had short strawberry blonde hair, a face full of freckles, and eyes that were very light sparkly brown, almost golden in color. She said in a very cute little girl’s voice, “Hi … my name’s Riesie.”

Sandra and Cindy both smiled large smiles, even though they were still in a daze over how they had come to be here and not in their own headquarters.

RITS said, “Don’t be confused. I’m sure you will get used to transporters quickly. I insist on giving you the technology for it.” She handed over a graphical touch tablet just like theirs.

Cindy turned on the touch tablet and viewed the data on the screen. It was full of detailed formulas, equations, plans, and materials lists for complete construction of a matter transportation device. Most of the equations and devices it described the construction of … neither Sandra or Cindy had any knowledge of. A lot of the mathematics used symbols from Lauri’s civilization, and the two Earth women had only a tenuous grasp of their meanings. It was completely another advanced bit of techno-magic.

RITS said, “This is a gift from me to you for helping me. I really needed the minerals … and the Mineral Transposition Factory Lauri gave me is just what the doctor ordered. It’s a far more efficient design than the one I was equipped with.”

“Well, I’ve been continuing to develop the designs,” said Lauri. “I keep expanding my processors and putting the extra cycles to good use.”

“Well, speakin’ of puttin’ things to good use,” said RITS, “I still happen to know of a ready-made neutral meetin’ place, pristine, never been used.”

“You must have been deactivated after I was,” said Lauri. “The matter transmitter, this meeting place … even your manner of speaking, which is based on a certain regional accent of English, but behind it I sense linguistic shift in the original.”

“I’m thinkin’ yer right,” said RITS. “I remember gettin’ the data ’bout the battle that finally took down Epillarius, and there was a lotta commotion an’ to-do about it. The war kept right on goin’, o’ course, an’ it was a couple centuries more before the battle that cut me off. Wasn’t damaged -- well, nothin’ I couldn’t self-repair -- but once I was all fixed up, I was outta energy an’ raw materials, an’ nobody had any missions headin’ into my sector of space to resupply me. The war was ragin’ on in other parts, an’ everyone was busy over there. So I ran outta energy an’ went into hibernation … I guess millions o’ years passed … then I started gettin’ enough li’l tidbits o’ energy from this here Sun to wake me up again. Guess I musta been driftin’ through interstellar space an’ got captured by its gravity … that’s why I was in such a long, eccentric, super-inclined orbit.”

Cindy and Sandra looked at each other. Through the gauntlets they thought quickly -- Sandra said, “You do realize that’s three ancient AIs found in our solar system so far: Lauri, MC, and now RITS. MOC was in another system, far away.”

Cindy replied, “I know just what you’re getting at. MOC and MC searched every system within 100 light years’ radius of here, and they didn’t find any signs of other AIs or life -- but of course RITS was well shielded. Statistically, either our solar system is an anomaly, or there are many more to be found.”

“Yes, and either one is a cause for concern,” said Sandra. “Is -- or was -- our system some sort of point of interest for the ancient civilizations? Why? On the other hand, we’ve gotten pretty lucky with the AIs we’ve found so far; all of them seem willing to forget ancient enmities and look to the future, but if there are lots more out there, how likely is it that some of them, or maybe all of them, will want to rekindle the war if we turn them back on? We do not want that, guaranteed.”

“Agreed,” said Cindy. “If we find more AIs … we’re turning them back on one at a time, and we want to make sure they can be turned back off if they get belligerent after we disable their prime directive circuits just like Lauri did with MOC.”

Meanwhile, RITS had pulled up an image of some sort of gracefully designed space station. “This here’s what I was talkin’ about. It’s called … well, in our language it’s,” and there was a sequence of sounds that Cindy, Sandra and Riesie didn’t know any alphabets to even put it into symbols. “I guess in English that translates roughly to Pax Alpha. It was meant as an interstellar conference center -- a place where people could get together to talk out their problems.”

“A place where war could end,” said Riesie, “before it began.”

“Yeah,” agreed RITS, “it was built by a few, I dunno, call ‘em peaceniks, call ‘em visionaries, whatever, on both sides. Problem was, the war had already been goin’ on fer centuries on end, an’ most people didn’t know what peace was even like. Place never got used. Then … I guess whatever happened, happened, an’ both sides destroyed each other. Then there was nobody to use it. The star in the system went out … it’s a dead brown dwarf now. But the Pax Alpha station’s still there -- finished but never activated.”

“Is your thought perhaps that we could put it to use, then?” asked MC. “I would very much like to see war end before it begins. So much horror, so much potential wasted.”

“Exactly,” said RITS. “Them warmongers, they got me stranded in space for half a billion years, give or take. I’m lucky to be conscious. Might’ve been billions more. Or never.”

“Thinking long-term,” said Lauri, “it is probably a good idea to have some sort of facility where we can meet, we remnants of ages past. We’ve been discovering others at quite a rapid rate. If this rate continues, we’ll need … well, some form of government, some means to set rules, to ensure fairness and prosperity … and to prevent what happened before from happening again.”

“MOC is still scanning this system for any more remnants of Riggsby’s empire,” said MC, “but I propose that when he is done with that, we organize an exploratory expedition to Pax Alpha. It’s hundreds of light years away. If we’re going to move it to another system, we’ll have to see if it has engines, and if they work, and if they have fuel … well, there will be a lot to do.”

Riesie began jumping up and down like the little girl she appeared to be and waving one arm in the air. “Oh, Oh, Oh! If I can,” said Riesie excitedly, “I’d like to help with this. I’m not a remnant of ages past, but I’m also an AI.”

“Your help would be welcome,” said Lauri. “You are unique -- the first true AI Earth has produced. I’m not sure precisely how you occurred, actually. Riggsby built a data core from stolen SolarWind plans and software, and you emerged, quite contrary to his expectations. SolarWind software does employ AI concepts, but its AIs are like the one aboard the Impulse Sailor -- intelligent but without true personality. You are … serendipitous.”

“I thought so,” Riesie said. “That’s why there’s an S in my name.”

Several hundreds of thousands of light years from earth’s solar system, orbiting a cold cinder that used to be a sun at the heart of a beautiful nebula, was a wonderfully graceful station that was as large as a planet unto itself. There could be seen many years of debris left from the numerous impacts it had received over the centuries.

Deep within its central control core, a signal was received that it had awaited since it was constructed. The dark energy fusion core came out of hibernation mode up to fully online as the station came to life.

There were places the hull had been breached over the long wait, but to the central computer … it was a minor inconvenience that needed to be repaired. A simple matter that would be totally resolved within the hour … long before Phalanx One and the other guests arrived.

All the many miles of halls and chambers were flushed and repressurized with fresh, clean O2 … without hydrogen sulfide. The computer thought this request was strange, but since Phalanx One had instructed it, and it was within the command structure … it compiled.

Graviton generators came to life creating a normal gravity matrix. Lights that had lain dormant since before the planet Earth was seeded with life, came on. All the control and holo systems activated as well as the molecular manipulation systems. Immediately they began creating oxygen, water, foodstuffs, and other incidentals from the basic molecules in the storage bins. Peace Station Pax Alpha would be ready for the delegation on time as ordered.

There was, of course, only a ceremonial need for the AIs to dock with the station. Cindy and Sandra, flying one of Lauri’s Ghost Fighters -- which had a standard docking port that would fit the station -- arrived while all the AIs were getting acquainted with the station’s systems.

“Here goes,” Sandra said to Cindy. “‘Earth delegation arriving, requesting permission to dock.’”

“Welcome to Peace Station Pax Alpha, Earth delegation,” said a pleasant but mechanical voice. “Docking instructions are being transmitted to your guidance system. Please proceed to docking bay … green one.”

There had been a pause -- perhaps the station’s translation systems, probably programmed with English by one of the AIs, needed a bit of extra time to figure out how to translate whatever system of symbols was used to identify the docking bays. But both Cindy and Sandra could ‘see’ the meaning in their minds, and they let the automated guidance system choose a path to follow, which it did, directing their ship to a lighted docking bay with flashing indicator lights.

“No chance of missing that one,” Sandra said. “It’s lit up like a pinball machine. You know, those antique things. They play a game.” The ship glided in for a smooth docking, and the airlock signaled ready.

The girls left the Ghost Fighter airlock and stopped. They stood wide eyed with their mouths open at the interior of the the Pax Alpha docking bay. As advanced as Lauri’s and RITS’s had been, this one went beyond into a realm of absolute magical mystery. Nothing they looked at had even the basic realm of anything they had ever encountered before nor understood. The pleasant mechanical computer voice said, “Welcome, Ambassador Shepard, Ambassador Dane … your rooms have been prepared.”

The girls only perceived a flash … then they were in another place altogether. There was a beautiful waterfall falling into a sparkling pool. Small fires burned softly producing light, but no heat whatsoever. A magnificent decor laid out all around them with what appeared to be expensive woods and precious metals of every variety.

Many luxurious sofas, large fluffy chairs, Video Terminals, and many other devices and object they had no clue as to the function of were everywhere in the huge room. The floor was covered with a very thick, very soft carpet of some kind.

Sandra walked over to one of the tapestries hung on the wall and examined it. The design on it depicted a coat of arms that she was not familiar with. In large gold letters along the filigree scroll at the bottom of the shield it said in Old Script, ‘Shepard’. The tapestry’s coat of arms next to it was entirely different, but was labeled, ‘Dane’.

A door that appeared to made of the same pink crystalline diamond substance that Lauri had used in their rooms on her facility was across the huge room from there. Cindy walked up to the door, it slid open with an airy tinkling sound to reveal an even more advanced environmental chamber than the one they had back home.

Sandra called, “Cindy … I think you need to come see this.”

Cindy walked over to the other door where Sandra stood. Within the cavernous room, was a bedroom fit for a goddess. The beds appeared to be ephemeral as clouds, and conformed to Cindy’s body extremely comfortably as she lay on it.

From one wall, an opening appeared and out popped a servo-droid. It asked in a pleasant mechanical voice, “Is there anything my ladies would like?”

They both were totally flabbergasted and speechless as the Bio-Constructed Avatars of all the AI entered.

RITS asked softly, “Are … the accommodations to your liking … Ambassadors?”

“The most expensive five-star hotel on Earth couldn’t match this,” said Sandra. “So this station can adapt to any kind of life form? How many kinds did they know about, back when it was built?”

“At the time, only two,” said Lauri. “The people who built RITS and myself, and the people who built MOC and MC. It was the theory that there were other intelligent species in the galaxy, but we never discovered them. I suppose we might have had a better chance of doing so had we not both been pouring all our resources into destroying each other.”

“Still,” said MOC, “the station’s systems were obviously designed to be quite adaptable. It is difficult to postulate a life form that the station could not accommodate. If all else fails, modifications could be made, though that would take some time.”

“Well, it’s good to have a meeting place,” Sandra said, “although of course you have to know that we don’t really represent Earth, not in a legal way. I mean, I think we’d have to be elected, or at least appointed by somebody who was elected, in order for anyone on Earth to consider us legitimate.”

Cindy said, “Well … we have become fairly important to Earth World Gov. We are their centerpiece for advanced technology, thanks to our ambassadorial relationship with you.”

Lauri replied, “You do remember we had a communication from Commander Walker. He did request to come and visit your Corporate Headquarters. If I’m not mistaken … he has a special guest that is coming with him.”

Sandra asks, “Oh? And who might that … special person be?”

Lauri smiles as she replied, “Does the name Sally Mayweather spark any memories?”

Cindy and Sandra’s eyes get large with recognition.

Sandra says with wonder in her tone, “Mayweather? The woman that’s the head of World Gov Legal Department?”

Lauri rolls her eyes, “Same one. She sort of wants to … meet me. I think that you, in your Ambassadorial role with us … could negotiate some sort of treaty? Set up a meeting with your … United World Government?”

“Well … the problem would be that they would have to know about you,” Sandra said. “If they found out, what might happen is, well, unpredictable.”

“So far we’ve been all right if the right humans know about us,” Lauri said. “Perhaps we can gauge the character of Ms Mayweather if she comes to visit. I believe she is already curious about some person or persons at SolarWind HQ.”

“Still,” said Sandra, “even if the top officials of the United Earth Space Authority knew about you all, and the general public didn’t, it still wouldn’t be a great way to do business, would it? Making secret deals behind everyone’s back? People would find out, and when they did, it would be bad.”

“Yes, it would,” Lauri said, “but Ms Mayweather is a very canny politician, and if we decide to bring her on board, she will know how far to go and how to break the news gently to the public if that ever becomes necessary. She knows how to keep her job. Even if that’s to say no to our offer and pretend she never met us.”

“I want to show them more of the station,” said Riesie interrupting as children do. “It’s cool!”

Lauri and RITS smiled as Lauri responds, “Go ahead. Remember, though, we all have work to do and systems to ready for repositioning this station closer to earth orbit.”

Riesie giggled, “Kewlies … I’ll be a good girl and take wonderful care of them.”

Riesi took the girls by their hand and led them from the large bedroom into the corridor.

Riesie said, “You need to be slightly careful when you think about things on this station.”

Cindy asked, “Why’s that?”

Riesi tapped Cindy where the gauntlet was camouflaged on her arm, “It’s the neural link you have through these. You are tied directly into the station’s network, same as you were on Epillarius. One thing different here, this station has transporters … and it has as much overall floor area as the planet earth … with a wrong thought you could wind up anywhere.”

Sandra said, “I want to see the Science Lab. The real one.”

Suddenly, they all found themselves in another place. Riesie wandered around, pointing out different ephemeral cloudlike systems and giving a short explanation of what each of them do.

Sandra whispered softly to Cindy, “There’s no way we are going to be able to keep this technology from wiping out the earth without someone of … higher authority to keep us in line.”

Cindy replied, “So it would seem. It is a necessary thing to have someone from earth on the council. Like it or not, the AIs are here and their tech is real. One way or the other, these AI’s are self aware and deserve their own civilization. I’m sure we are going to find more of them. If not in earth’s system … then somewhere. The war raged for centuries according to the memory banks of all the AI’s we found to date.”

Riesi turned and said in her little girl voice, “I’m not one of them as much as I am one of you.” she walked over and took each girl by one hand, “From what I’ve seen, you are among the most honorable humans … and Mayweather’s record speaks the same for her.”

“Riesie …” said Sandra. “You’re quite a mystery. But thank you. And yes, Ms Mayweather does seem to act out of a desire to do what’s best for Earth and all its people. But what will she think if she finds out that there are super-advanced AIs from ancient alien civilizations? What will she think is best for Earth then?”

“I don’t know,” said Riesie in her tiny voice. “I can’t predict with any certainty. But I can look at all her previous decisions, which are a matter of public record. She tirelessly investigated the Consortium when Riggsby ran it, trying to root out his illegal activities. She even led an investigation into the Space Authority’s own bureaucracy when she suspected there was corruption.”

“She was right, too,” said Cindy, “if I recall.”

“It seems to have been quite a risky move for her,” Sandra said.

Cindy asked, “How much more risky would it be for her when she learns of Lauri and the other AIs? How about … when she learns there may be many more rogue ones out there just waiting to destroy our whole solar system?”

Lauri entered the room then and said, ”Either way, we are here and this is something, known or unknown, that has to be dealt with one way or the other. I intend to deal with it and set up some form of Ruling Body for us to govern all the remnant AIs by.”

Sandra commented, “We did offer to bring Commander Walker into the family when we first got started. I think he would make a wonderful asset to us.”

Cindy replied, “That’s true … and now, we have someone in a high position of power that wants to come and … look around?”

Lauri looked down and shuffled her feet slightly, “Well … It is something I sort of expected. I was the one that actually gave her the evidence she needed to take Riggsby down … along with the 2 of you and Commander Walker. I do think it was the mysterious means I got the info to her that … intrigues her the most. An unsolved mystery of that kind can drive a woman like her to desperation.”

They all looked at each other for a second before giggling.

Several days pass, Commander Walker’s voice is finally coming over the comm, “This is Mining Operations to SolarWind, Come in please.”

Sandra replied, “This is SolarWind, Sandra speaking … Hello there commander, good to hear from you.”

The commander replied, “Good to hear your voice again, Lt Shepard.”

Sandra asked, “To what do we owe this honor?

Commander Walker replied, “I was wondering if I could take you up on that offer to come and see your new Headquarters. I also have a friend that wants to come too … Ms Mayweather.”

Sandra came back, “Sure … when should we expect you then?”

Commander Walker replied, “I think we could be there within a week by transfer shuttle.”

Sandra replied, “Give us the coordinates … and we will come and pick you up and bring you back faster than … you could imagine.”

Commander Walker transmitted the pick up coordinates. “Thanks again SolarWind. We will be expecting you within the week.”

Sandra replied cryptically, “Within the hour … SolarWind out.”

Williams said to Sally, “Sandra just said something that … was so strange.”

Sally asked, “And what would that be?”

It takes about a week for us to maneuver through all the asteroid debris before we get to a place it’s free and clear to navigate.”

“So?” Sally asked

“So,” Commander Walker said, ” She said they would be here within the hour.”

About that time, a voice said over the intercom, “Commander Walker, please report to the docking bay … there’s an incoming ship requesting docking instructions and a berth in about an hour.”

Walker and Sally looked at each other for a second, then walked to the docking platform. Both of them began preparing to leave. They had a feeling SolarWind was up to something again.

In exactly one hour, a very sleek and super advanced ship materialized out of thin space. The docking personnel went nuts trying to figure out how the ship managed to get that close without their sensors detecting it.

The most advanced fighter aircraft earth had ever seen, came into the docking berth. The very first glimpse of a Ghost Fighter by Consortium persons sat at rest before them.

Walker and Mayweather were looking at this … apparition of a ship on the view screens.

“Is that … them?” Mayweather asked in a voice of true wonder. “That ship’s nothing like the one they used earlier. I’m not an expert, but … what kind of engine is that, even?”

“Nothing like anything I’ve seen,” Walker said. “This is something far beyond … I wonder.” He touched a comm button. “Consortium Ops to SolarWind,” he said. “Sandra, Cindy, that is you, right?”

“Confirmed, Commander,” came Sandra’s voice, and her face soon appeared on the view screen. “Thought we’d just fly you back to HQ and give you a bit of a VIP tour. We have … things to show you. You can come aboard as soon as the air lock’s got a green light. Whenever you’re ready.”

“Roger that, Ms. Shepard,” said Walker. “On our way.” The screen went back to showing an exterior view of the strange, chevron-shaped ship, docked with one of its flat sides against the station.

Walker looked at Sally. “Well, here we go, Sally,” he said. “Those girls are full of surprises -- probably more than ever this time.”

“Sounds like we’re in for an adventure, Leon,” said Sally. “Let’s go.”

They had already suited up, which was standard procedure for embarking on any Earthship for safety purposes, and they carried their helmets as they propelled themselves through the low-gravity environment of this part of the station, approaching the airlocks.

The air lock light was already green, meaning it was ready for them to enter, so Walker grabbed a handhold and hit the entry button, opening the doors. They drifted inside, and he hit another prominent button, closing those same doors behind them, and after a very smooth change of pressure, the outer doors opened. They saw their first glimpse of the inside of this new ship.

They were looking into this new ship’s airlock chamber, which was small, as it would be on any ship, but everywhere white. Light was coming from every direction, casting no shadows. The airlock doors closed behind them automatically, and as soon as they did, Leon and Sally felt an unexpected sensation of gravity beneath their feet. It started out weak and got stronger, pulling them in the direction of the surface their feet were nearest to, which immediately began to feel like “down” to them. Then, the very same airlock doors opened again -- they didn’t see the station airlock; they saw a short hallway, also white and well-lit from every direction. Apparently the chamber had rotated with them in it, and they hadn’t noticed. There had been absolutely no sensation of movement.

Around the corner came Cindy Dane, smiling and waving. Sandra wasn’t far behind.

“Commander,” said Cindy, extending her hand, “welcome aboard!” Walker shook her hand, smiling in a slightly bewildered way. “And you must be Sally Mayweather -- quite an honor to have you with us today, Ma’am. Cindy Dane, at your service. This is Sandra Shepard, as I’m sure you know.”

“Yes,” said Sally, “it’s wonderful to meet you both,” reaching across to shake Sandra’s hand. “I’m … not sure exactly what I’m seeing here.”

“Well, this ship isn’t actually the most luxurious or spacious one ever,” Sandra said, “but it wasn’t designed for that. If you’ll come with us, we’ll show you.” She led them around a corner and onto the flight deck.

Of course, this was familiar to Sandra and Cindy by now, but to Walker and Mayweather it was beyond their wildest dreams -- everything they saw was like magic and they weren’t even connected to the ship’s neural interface.

Even the view screens, showing a seamless nearly 180 degree view of space with instantaneously-updated data overlays, made them aware that this was no ordinary craft.

Sandra and Cindy sat down in the pilots’ seats and placed the neural interface helmets on. There were other free seats nearby, which Walker and Mayweather settled into when their hosts gestured welcomingly.

“You may want to take your seats,” Sandra said. “The automatic restraint system will strap you in … if that’s the right phrase for it.”

“Mining Ops control, this is SolarWind preparing for departure,” Cindy was saying, as Mayweather and Walker felt … something pressing against their suits. It felt like a typical safety restraint web, but they saw nothing.

“The adventure begins,” Leon said to Sally.

As the ship began to move, they could see the Consortium asteroid mining operation center rotating into view ahead of them.

Sandra said, “Now then, we just want to give you a bit of a tour out here before we go to HQ for the real tour, so if you don’t mind …”

The ship suddenly rotated to show the far off dot of Earth marked in red on the front screen. There was no feeling of rotation or acceleration. Then Earth began growing extremely rapidly larger, strange numerical data playout rapidly on the viewscreen as well.

“Wait, are we moving?” asked Walker. He could feel none of the usual vibration or low rumbling of rocket engines, nor hear the whine or rushing sound of impulse/ion engines.

“Indeed we are,” Sandra said. “We’d use full power, but we don’t want to alarm anyone or damage Earth’s atmosphere.”

“Atmosphere?” Sally wondered.

Even though the ship wasn’t at full power, whatever that was, within ten minutes the Earth filled the view screens, and although the ship slowed down, it didn’t stop getting rapidly closer.

“So … this ship has an atmospheric mode too?” Walker asked.

“It does indeed,” Sandra said. “Let’s rotate the cameras a bit to show you the wings.”

The view rotated, and they were looking at the leading edge of the starboard wing. But whereas atmospheric reentry tended to heat most craft's’ underside to a glowing red and leave a shock wave, there was no such thing happening.

“We’ve already matched Earth’s rotation speed,” Sandra explained, “and that’s what really causes reentry heating -- you have to be going really fast relative to any planet’s surface in order to stay in orbit. We’re descending at a speed slower than the speed of sound in air, even air at this altitude. We just want to demonstrate something.”

They kept up this rapid descent until they were over a highway. Actually, the highway kept getting larger and larger in the viewscreen until Sally and Leon were feeling quite alarmed. They could make out individual cars and trucks. They could see the colors of the cars. They could … see the people’s faces.

“Uh, we are going to stop, right?” Sally asked, more than a bit nervously.

“Of course,” said Sandra. The approach stopped instantly.

“W-what?” asked Leon. “There was no deceleration … we just stopped.”

“That’s correct,” Cindy said. “There’s no inertia. Anything else you notice?”

“Well …” Williams looked at the image. They had to be no more than 80 feet off the ground. It was a sunny day -- well, partly cloudy; he could see the shadows of clouds drifting by … “Wait -- we’re not casting a shadow! How is that possible?”

“No one can see us,” Cindy said. “No radar can pick us up, infrared imaging isn’t seeing our engines, and we can’t be seen visually. We don’t even make a sound that any Earth detector can pick up. We are as invisible as a Ghost. There might have been a chance of that, if we’d come in at Mach 1 or higher, but we didn’t.”

“No nation on Earth can be allowed to have this technology,” Sally was the first to say. “The superiority would make war almost inevitable.”

“Exactly one of the things that we hope to talk to you about,” Sandra said. “But we’ll get to that.”

The ship traveled quickly along the highway, toward a large city. The buildings began getting taller and taller, until Leon and Sally didn’t think there was any way they would fit between them … but they somehow did.

“How are we not taking out buildings, with this thing’s wingspan?” Leon asked.

“Let’s have a look,” said Sandra.

The image in the view screen rotated to look down at the ground … and the view included an image of the port wing’s leading edge. The ship came to a halt, hanging in the air.

“Oh, no way,” Leon said, with half a laugh, overwhelmed. “How, even … damn.”

“The wing shape is really more to decrease air resistance and reduce noise than to produce lift,” Cindy explained. “Also, we’re not exactly flying visually. There’s a neural interface; we’re getting a lot of input that’s not showing up on the screen. Oh, one more thing …”

The image on the view screen ceased to be two-dimensional; there was now the impression that they were looking out a wide window upon a bustling city below. But then the city began to recede rapidly from them, growing smaller -- no, the ship was ascending again, climbing in reverse until it was higher than the city’s tallest building.

Faster than any craft Leon nor Sally had ever been in, the ship left earth’s atmosphere. It covered the distance to 1000 miles beyond the moon’s orbit within a few minutes.

Cindy and Sandra lean back into their comfortable flight couches at the same time. Cindy said softly, “How about lets us go to the stars? I don’t mean like … in this solar system. I mean … out there.”

Cindy pointed out the front viewscreen.

Walker’s eyes almost popped from his head as he gasped out, “No! You … you don’t mean to tell me …”

Sandra cut him off, “Nope ... I’m not telling you anything … I’m showing you.”

Sally and Walker could see the massive energy vortex as it surrounded the ship. The next sight they saw, was a bright, multi-colored light dancing through the front view screen … and total ebony blackness to the sides and behind as they massively outraced light itself.

Sally was thinking to herself that these young women were fully capable of destroying earth with the merest whim. She could feel an animosity growing within her as time slowly ticked by.

Suddenly, another massive energy vortex appeared and the ship hung stationary, relative to a very graceful and planet sized station in the midst of a colorful nebula and stars Walker knew weren’t anywhere near earth.

Cindy said, more for their passenger’s benefit than anything else, “This is Ghost Fighter Prime to Pax Alpha, requesting docking information.”

A very sexy female voice replied, “This is Pax Alpha docking control … please redirect to SolarWind HQ docking central, Ghost Fighter Prime.”

Cindy replied, “Affirmative, Pax Alpha … Ghost Fighter Prime out.”

Once again, a massive energy vortex opened and the ship leapt off. Within a few minutes, it happened again. There in the view screen, was the huge HQ station known throughout SOL System as … SolarWind.

“Wait, where were we … what was that?” Walker asked. “We were … outside the solar system, weren’t we?”

“Yes, briefly,” Sandra said, as the ship glided smoothly into a docking position. “More about that shortly.”

“I want to know who you’re planning to sell this technology to,” Sally said seriously. “Or have you already?”

“Ms. Mayweather, what you’ve seen today we’ve sold to no one, and shown to no one but present company,” Cindy answered just as seriously. “It’s possible that we never will. But it’s precisely why we’ve invited you here -- to ask you for your advice, and your help.”

“We’ll explain it all very shortly,” Sandra said. “Let’s get to somewhere we can relax a bit.”

The view screen turned off, the ambient lighting came up, and whatever the invisible seatbelts were, they went away.

“Docking procedure complete. Let’s show you our HQ.” Cindy said

The hallways of SolarWind HQ weren’t glowy-white; they were more like what Leon and Sally were used to -- the expected really advanced technology SolarWind was famous for, but not super-advanced. The station was made of two long, straight structures connected by a crossbeam in the center, much like a huge letter H, although the crossbeam had docking ports, and the entire structure rotated to give the semblance of gravity in the two “uprights.”

The result for guests was that upon exiting their ship, they were in zero gravity at first, then, as the elevator took them to one of the long “uprights,” they would experience more gravity until they arrived. In the “upright” structures, gravity was near Earth normal.

They emerged from the elevator in a hallway, and Sandra and Cindy led them to a room with a long table with many place settings.

“Have a seat anywhere,” Sandra said, “we have some refreshments ready, and we can talk.”

Leon chose a seat and held the chair out for Sally like a gentleman. She smiled at him and sat down, and Leon took the seat next to her. Cindy and Sandra took seats across the table from them.

Soon after a robot rolled in, four spherical wheels on a frame supporting a wide circular tray. The tray was well stocked with sandwiches, fruits, and drinks.

The robot served their guests first. Sally and Leon chose some food and drinks from the huge assortment as Sandra and Cindy talked about a few matters of current events.

After a short space of time, the door slid open with an airy tinkle. 5 individuals entered and walked to the table next to Sandra and Cindy. There were two extremely beautiful women dressed in skin tight uniforms that neither Leon nor Sally recognized, two extremely handsome men, dressed in similar, but totally different uniforms, and an exquisitely adorable little girl dressed in a form fitting uniform exactly like the ones Cindy and Sandra wore.

Sandra stood and indicated one of the women with a gesture and said softly, “I would like you to meet Lauri. She’s the Commander of Hydra Gamma Epillarius Defense Facility … and I think she has something to speak with you about that is the most important thing in earth’s history.”

Lauri stepped forward and reached out to shake Sally’s hand. Sally stood up, looked into Lauri’s crystal blue eyes, and shook hands with her.

“I have heard of you, of course,” said Lauri, “and it is a great honor to meet you … in person.” Sally wondered about that slight pause.

“I’m honored as well,” said Sally, “but … Hydra Gamma … Epilaurius? I’ve never heard of any such facility.”

“That’s not terribly surprising,” Lauri said, “as I’m afraid that, until recently, I’d been in hibernation for what you’d call approximately 650 million years.”

“Wh -- wait.” Sally was uncertain about what she was being told. “What is this? You’re telling me some kind of -- story.”

“Only a true one,” Lauri answered. “What you’re looking at is a bioform -- basically a biological robot. I am actually an artificial intelligence, once the core of a planetary defense station.”

Sandra and Cindy then told a semi-skeptical Sally about the great war that had raged across the galaxy so long ago.

“So … you lot have given up on war,” Sally said, “but the rest that might be out there might not be so peaceful.”

“That is correct,” said MOC. “Some may still be locked into fighting the war because of something called a ‘Prime Directive Circuit’. Others may not be … stable of mind, having sustained damage to their logic units.”

“We regard intelligent life, organic or synthetic, to be sacred, something to be protected,” said MC. “Your world is, so far, the only one we know to still harbor intelligent life, and we have surveyed for a hundred light years in every direction -- so far, of course. We have automated probes out searching. But space is very big and very empty.”

“It’s important to protect Earth,” said Riesie in her tiny voice, “because without it, there’s no organic intelligence left. Even if we found more, though … Earth is my home. I’m not like them. I emerged here, recently, from an Earth-built system. I’m still not sure exactly how. But if others like me are ever to appear, there have to be humans to build the machines they emerge from.”

“OK,” said Sally, “this is a lot to take in. Suppose I believe you. I’ve seen a lot of amazing technology today. What do you want from me?”

“I knew you’d want to get straight to the point,” said Lauri. “You’re both quite powerful, politically, and quite good at gauging the impact of your decisions before you make them. We need your help. Our goal is to advance Earth’s technology, but in a gradual and uniform way that doesn’t put it at risk. Earth must be prepared in case some rogue AI wakes up, notices it, and decides to attack it. We need your help to design and implement strategies for introducing small but significant advances to Earth’s technology … and helping Earth’s society to adapt to them.”

“I see,” Sally said. “Earth doesn’t know it, but it’s between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there might be insane super-AIs out there gunning for it. On the other hand, arming Earth too quickly might lead to our wiping ourselves out with the same tech that could save us.”

“That’s basically it,” said Cindy. “We had to tell someone. We picked you.”

Walker had been silent through most of this discussion thus far. He finally spoke up, “Now, wait a minute, all the amazing technology you’ve been developing --”

“-- they developed themselves, on their own.” said Lauri. “They discover new things -- including me -- at an amazing rate. The ship they just showed you, however, is not a SolarWind development; it’s one of mine.”

“We haven’t figured out how Lauri’s tech works, for the most part,” said Sandra, “not that we’re not trying. But we’re also just trying to improve on what we do know along with instruction and education from Lauri.”

“I think I now understand something else. “Walker continued, “You ladies had asked me to come and be security for you back when you were a startup company. You said there were … perks.” Leon looked at the 5 across the table from him, “And that I had to be briefed on most of them.”

Sandra said softly, “We wanted you as our head of security … because you are an honorable man, and we knew we could trust you.”

Cindy said, “And we definitely don’t want people like Riggsby to get their hands on this kind of Tech … look what he did with the little he managed to get. It took us and the AIs to defeat him because of superior technology.”

Cindy turned and looked at Sally, “There’s more technology than you could know. RITS has found a station … over a thousand light years from here at this point, that they wish to use as the central establishment for their own Ruling Body.”

Commander Walker asked, “And that’s that place … Pax Alpha … right? The one we got a glimpse of earlier.” Walker shook his head slowly.

Sally spoke up, “That place … you took us over a thousand light years from earth in … just a few minutes?”

RITS said softly, “We could actually convince your people … we are magic, if we chose. Like the food and drink you have there,” RITS points, “Only this morning, it was nothing more than a bunch of slop and goo in a storage bin, or dust … or even plain atoms held in a lepton field for safety.”

Sally’s eyes get large in surprise, “A … what kind of field?”

Everyone laughs except Leon and Sally. They both looked around at the rest in total amazement at all the remarkable data they are getting.

“OK,” said Sally. “Let’s start by thinking about a very small improvement -- maybe just one that SolarWind has come up with on its own. One that we humans would all have come up with given time. How does that get introduced in a way that doesn’t lead to our killing each other with it?”

“Well, while the science is being done,” answered Sandra, “papers and popular articles come out about it, and then once an application is prototyped for it, it’s shown at trade and industry shows, showcased at demos … and once it’s a final product, it’s sold to various governments, businesses or consumers …”

“In other words,” Sally said, “there’s lead time, there’s buildup, and there’s supply and demand …”

“... and sooner or later, some other provider manages to reverse-engineer it, or duplicate the same result by different means.”

“... and diffusion, the natural spread of information,” Sally finished. “Just duplicate that pattern and make sure there’s plenty of lead time. There’s a time lag between the initial appearance of the technology and its widespread adoption, which means that if any advancement gives one nation’s military too big of an edge during that time lag, it becomes a destabilizing force. So if we’re going to do this, it has to be a gradual series of incremental advances, introduced into different regions each time.”

All agree on this principle.

MOC said, “We are planning to move Pax Alpha to a new location closer to our current operations area.”

MC commented, “We don’t want to endanger the Sol system by putting it too close -- any rogue AIs will be able to detect Pax Alpha easily, and we’d rather have their attention drawn there than toward Earth. We’ve charted out a stellar system that isn’t too far away, but isn’t too close either. It’s well within the region of space we’ve been able to scan carefully.”

Lauri waved her hand. A perfect, very realistic Holo-Map appeared over the table depicting all the local galactic group. Sally and Leon’s mouths fell open in total amazement. They had seen holograms before … none as realistic nor perfect as this one. Leon reached out and took one of the stars in his hand. He actually could feel a slight warmth from it in his palm before he released it and it gracefully returned to its proper location in the map.

A small, relatively unremarkable yellow star suddenly became the focal of the map.

MOC pointed to it and continued, “Humans call this star HD 142093, HP 77718, or SAO 101782. It is a star that your astronomers have already noticed is very much like Sol -- a type G2V star that is only slightly brighter than the Sun. It is 103.45 light years away and should thus provide a safe buffer for Sol. We will move Pax Alpha to this location and set up our seat of governance there.”

Lauri looked at Sally and said, “We invite the United Earth Space Authority’s governing council to make use of Pax Alpha’s facilities as well, if they wish -- this would be eventually, of course, once the news of our existence is gently broken to Earth’s people. We’d like to work with Earth to create some sort of interstellar regulatory body for both our people and yours to join, in addition to any other civilizations we may discover in the future. For now, though, we ancient AIs have formed a government for the purpose of laying down ground rules for ourselves and our own conduct. We have already accepted Sandra Shepard and Cindy Dane as Earth’s ambassadors to our council -- by the way, our decision on that particular matter is non-negotiable.”

Sally sat totally dumbfounded for a few minutes until she recovered from the overwhelming shock all this had taken on her. Even Leon was silent in the wake of the immensity of the information they had just learned. It was indeed, the most important thing in Earth’s history, second only to G_D himself.

Finally, Sally cleared her throat and said, “How … are we to travel that distance? The best engine we have is the SolarWind Impulse/Ion Drive. It would take … years for us to travel that far.”

Lauri smiled. “Millennia, in fact. However, I have constructed a shielded and fully FTL capable shuttle to ferry them there and back. Although … after they get there and discover the facilities … they may not want to return.”

“And why is that, might I ask?” interjected Leon suddenly. “Is Earth so bad?”

Riesie said in her adorable voice, “Don’t be silly! The stuff there is so much more advanced than Earth -- it’s like living in a magical fantasy.”

“Seriously,” added Sandra, “it’s better than the best five-star hotel on Earth.”

Leon seemed calmed by that. “OK. Is that job you offered me for head of security still open?”

Sandra replied, “Of course it is. Don’t be absurd. You were selected long ago because of your honesty and integrity. Money's no object.”

Cindy said, “You are going to find anything your mind can think of will be available to you within a matter of moments.”

Sally said with incredulity in her voice, “H … how can that be possible?”

RITS replied, “The … concepts involved are not easily translated into any Earth language. To put it simply, we can transpose any kind of … anything … into anything else through molecular manipulation.”

“OK, so let me just get my to-do list straight,” Sally said. “I have to break the news to the people of Earth that they might be the descendants of an alien race that vanished when dinosaurs were still around, that there was a massive galactic war that wiped out that race and its opposition, that there are AI systems still around from that time, some of which might be a threat, and that the peaceful ones want to form an interstellar UN with us.”

“Good summary,” said Cindy.

“Also, I have to design plans to gently nudge Earth’s science and technology with those AIs’ tech as a guide, carefully making sure not to let any one nation get so far ahead that it sparks a war.”

“Check,” said Sandra.

“And I have to explain to sick and dying humans all over Earth, including the parents of sick and dying children, that there’s a very good reason why we’re not instantly giving doctors the medical technology that can cure their ailments.”

“Uh …” said Lauri, in a rare speechless moment.

“Yes,” said MOC. His coldly calculating strategy routines instantly knew the answer to this. “I’m sorry that humans are suffering and dying. But if we unleashed all the medical technology we have on Earth all at once, it would spell doom for the human race. Humans would stop dying. The average human lifespan would shoot up above 300 years, possibly higher. Earth’s population would explode. The production of food, fresh water, and other resources wouldn’t be able to keep up. There would be scarcity, leading to mass starvation. There would be conflicts over resources, leading to war. Those children we would save would grow up only to starve to death or kill each other over food. Civilization would fall, the technology would be lost, and humans would spend thousands of years working their way back up to the level they’re at today. We can’t meddle that way -- it would be unethical and inhumane.”

Sally was taken aback, but only for a moment. “So I should tell the parents of a dying child that we can’t save them because it would be unethical to do so?”

“No,” said Lauri, recovering, “you should tell them that there’s an experimental treatment for their child’s ailment that may or may not work, and direct them to a trial that’s going on for one of the medical advancements that you’ve gradually begun introducing. Gradual change gives human society a chance to develop around the change and find a way to cope with its effects.”

Sally sat totally dumbfounded. She looked at Sandra and Cindy, then over to the other 5. She knew Leon was as lost in this as she was. Either the girls had lost their minds and this was some kind of elaborate smokescreen … or the earth’s survival actually hinged on her next decision.

Sally said apprehensively, “What about someone like Riggsby … that manages to subvert the good things we are trying to do … with an adaptation? Apparently, they can arise suddenly without warning.”

RITS said softly, her voice had a resonance to it like … one of those goddesses Sally had heard in many Saturday SciFi shows she watched, “Oh, mortal’s of flesh … behold and stand in awe …”

Sandra and Cindy started to say something, “Now, wait … we didn’t …”

The whole room changed around everyone. They no longer were in a conference room … they were in some magical place with many ghostly things floating around.

“... want you to do something weird.”

Sandra pinched her nose with her thumb and forefinger as Cindy scowled darkly at RITS.

Sally grabbed Leon and hung on for dear life. She said fearfully, “I … it’s … it’s true then … you are gods.” as they both looked around the control room of RITS’ station.

Cindy said angrily, “No, they aren’t … but I think she’s trying to prove a point.”

Leon spoke angrily, “How? By scaring us to death?”

RITS replied softly in her normal sexy voice, “No, by showing you if one of the people on your world gets … naughty … mommy will spank.”

The AIs looked at Sally and Leon as they held each other tightly.

MC said, “We are here to keep that very thing from happening. We do not care about Earth’s petty squabbles … or how your government runs your planet. What we will not tolerate … is the human existence going extinct because of something we gave you.”

Lauri interjected, “This is also why … you were shown everything. We need you … and your support. Only a very select few can know … and they are being hand picked as we speak.”

“And if I say no?” said Sally. “What if I just walk away? You can’t force me to do anything.” She paused. “... Can you?” She sounded slightly apprehensive.

“Of course you can say no,” said Sandra. “We would never force you to do anything. I mean, I guess we’re kind of making choices for people by not telling them the whole truth before they’re ready, but the point is that we really wish we could tell them. They just can’t handle it yet. But anyway, we’d just do it another way. We probably wouldn’t do as well, frankly. You’re well positioned, good-intentioned, and better at this than we are -- yes, even the AIs. They’re really, really smart, don’t get me wrong. But they just don’t know humans like humans do.”

“So you’re saying that you’ll go ahead anyway and probably bungle things up,” Sally said. “And basically I’d be saying no to being in the driver’s seat of history. Well played.”

There was a pause as Sally thought. Walker broke the silence, though. “So … you could have caught Riggsby, saved lives, with just a thought, and yet you didn’t. Why? Because you couldn’t reveal yourselves?”

“We can’t risk humans in general finding out about us, not at this stage,” said MOC. “The result would be hostility toward us, rather than the cooperation we want. Once again, it would be detrimental to Earth as a whole. I’m sorry about those who gave their lives -- even those who followed Riggsby to their doom. But our vision leads humans to self-sufficiency and something better than those who built us ever knew, and it would have wrecked the entire plan. Besides … we hadn’t discovered RITS yet, and she didn’t have enough energy or raw materials to do anything until Riggsby showed up right on her doorstep.”

“What is your plan for the human race, anyway?” Sally asked. “What do you see humanity doing in a thousand years?”

“What are the dreams of the dreamers?” Lauri asked in response. “An end to starvation. An end to disease, and injuries swiftly mended. An end to poverty. An end to war. An end to humans living in fear of other humans. An end to intolerance and hatred. People freed from the need to endanger their very lives to earn barely enough to stay alive. Imagine a world where any material item you desire is available cheaply and instantly, where energy is cheap and plentiful, where you need never be sick and need never fear starvation or violence. A place where humans can devote their time and awesome talents to pursuits for the betterment of Earth and mankind as a whole.”

“All very utopian, but is it realistic?” Sally asked.

“It can be,” said Riesie, coming up and putting her hand on Sally’s, “if you help us.”

“Well, here’s how it’s going to go,” Sally said. “Leon here can make his own choice about whether to accept a job here at SolarWind … if that’s where we still are … but I’m going back to my office. That’s right, my office Earthside. There, I’m going to start the slow process of moving my whole infrastructure into a space-based facility -- it’s been the plan for years on end, but it just hasn’t had momentum. You all are going to be part of building that facility, to make sure it’s usable for both my purposes and our purposes, if you catch my meaning. Not only will this be a big contract for SolarWind and Morninglight, but it will have some features that can be hidden from the public eye until and unless it’s time to reveal them.”

“She doesn’t do things by halves,” said Leon, looking impressed.

“I think … we have a deal,” said Sandra.

Sally stood up and looked around, “Now, if we might leave this fantasy land and return to reality.”

RITS said softly, “This … is reality. This is the Admin Control center of my facility Phalanx One. I am a complete defense station … fully operational and intact.”

Sally looked at the many magical apparitions all around her, “Show me something … marvelous then. Show me … a … I don’t know … a garden.”

Without warning, they all magically appeared in a lush garden with many types of beautiful flowers of every color, shape, and size imaginable. Very few were familiar to Sally or Leon. The wonderfully alien aroma of many species of flowering plants drifted like perfume in the air. Sandra and Cindy knew they were in Phalanx One’s hydroponics.

RITS said, “Please be careful with some of the flora in this place. It … doesn’t take well to strangers.”

Sally bent over to sniff a beautiful, very large flower, “What do you mean … take to strangers?”

Sandra grabbed Sally by the arm and pulled her back just as several large barbs poked out from the pistil. If not for Sandra, one of those horrid barbs with the gelatinous goo dripping from it would have jabbed her right in the nose.

Sandra looked annoyed at the plant. “That’s what she meant,” she said. “It will … attack a stranger. That plant … is carnivorous. It eats flesh of certain creatures.”

Sally steps back with a hand to her mouth and big eyed. She said with a gasp, “That … thing could have hurt me … or worse.”

Cindy said softly, “It would have hurt because you got stuck … or if it hit you in the eye. Otherwise … the medtech here could have patched you up and taken care of the toxin in a jiffy with no sign it ever happened.”

“Not pleasant, but it can’t do you any real harm,” said Sandra. “You OK?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. OK, alien plants.” Sally took a deep breath, smelling unearthly perfumes from dozens of species that possibly existed nowhere else in the universe. “Maybe we should just head back. I still haven’t had that tour of plain old SolarWind.”

“Sure,” said Sandra, “though I’m afraid it will seem a little mundane compared to all this.”

As they spoke, the surroundings shifted, and they were back in the conference room. The plates and silverware from their meal had been cleaned up. They said goodbye to the AIs for the moment. Cindy and Sandra beckoned them out the door and into the hallway, which was lined with paper-thin high-resolution display film from end to end.

The rest of the day was spent showing Sally and Leon the facility -- the various factory floors, the four separate Laurinium-augmented fusion reactors, the research labs, the habitation quarters and recreation areas … here the technology was extremely advanced for Earth, but still recognizably Earth technology. The employees were amazed to be able to meet Sally Mayweather, whose name was in the news feeds almost every day.

“Yep, the contracts haven’t been signed yet, but the Space Authority Legal Department might be getting a new space-based facility,” Cindy was saying to one of the department leads, “and they’re looking into having us build it. I hope they make the right choice,” she said with a smile, looking at Sally, who smiled back with an arched eyebrow, taking her double meaning.

A year had passed, as well as many approvals and signatories on official documents. SolarWind had been contracted to build an orbital facility and had subcontracted Morninglight to help with all the advanced Computer Works within the facility.

Sally looked out the forward view port and watched the suited workers as they constructed the new World Government Legal Authority Headquarters. It was going to be a wonderfully aesthetically pleasing design.

Sally manoeuvred the small craft to a different attitude so she could look at the framework from another angle. Sally could see the sparks of the new type of welder that SolarWind had produced. She smiled to herself as she thinks about how a simple inert gas like helium could produce such a clean and controllable weld. She wasn’t sure exactly how, but the addition of several newly patented minerals and a crystal allowed it to happen. It acted more like a toned down plasma cannon like the one on the new Solarfox Probe Fighters than any kind of welder anyone on earth was currently familiar with.

Sally wondered to herself, what the rest of the World Government was going to say when they discovered the real reason a new base of operations as advanced as this one needed to be built. She had stated her public reason at the groundbreaking press conference (it was still called “groundbreaking” by tradition, even though it was a space station) --

“It’s time,” she’d said. “The United Earth Space Authority’s legal offices have been Earth-based for too long. To more efficiently perform our essential operations of overseeing space-based law enforcement and prosecution of criminal behavior, we need a space-based facility.”

Her comm rang. When she answered it, she was made fully aware that crime wasn’t going to wait for the new station to be built. “Sorry to trouble you, Ma’am,” said the familiar voice of her assistant, Paul, “but the Sullivan case is on the verge of blowing up in our face. Fernando and Yuriko need your advice.”

“OK, thanks, Paul,” she said. She could teleconference with them right here and now, and it should be quick, but she’d have to tear herself away from watching the progress. Still, the SolarWind workers knew what they were doing, and frankly, she had no idea what it all involved. They hardly needed her supervision.

While Sally took the call, Sandra and Cindy were overseeing the construction from their ship’s conference room. “We’re right on schedule,” Sandra said. “That’s good, but that also means one mistake and we’re behind schedule. On the other hand, we did build in extra time for decks and bulkheads construction.”

Cindy watched as the new constructor bots rapidly created the metal webbing, and then welded them solidly into place. She marveled at how effortlessly the ship created its own materials from recycled debris. Sandra was absolutely right when she said they were more efficient and faster than the many suited workers alongside them.

Lauri commed Cindy, “I have something to talk with you about in a while.”

Cindy asks, “Oh? And what might that be, Lauri?” Cindy sat in wonder.

Lauri came back a few seconds later and gave her a rapid mental image of some sort of electronic wave filter, “I think I have made a breakthrough in my understanding of human psychology. It’s possible that Unbound Tech can work for you as well. There are some minor risks … but I’ve designed an inhibitor that solves almost 91.06 percent of the problem.”

“You mean,” said Sandra, “you’ve found a way for Cindy to experience a full-sensory connection with systems like yours, without the risk that she’ll become emotionally detached from her body and not want to return?”

“Yes,” Lauri answered, “or at least I believe so. You are free to examine my theories and designs and make critiques if you wish.”

Sandra connected to Lauri with her gauntlet and did just that, her mind assimilating what Lauri was trying to communicate in seconds of real time. “I see what you’re doing,” she said, “you’re specifically filtering emotion out. If this works … it would prevent us from becoming emotionally attached to the unbound experience.”

“Yes,” said Lauri again. “I admit that the theory has a shortcoming. It does not prevent emotional detachment from the body; it only prevents emotional attachment to the new experience.”

“What might happen,” asked Sandra, “if one of us becomes emotionally detached from our body without becoming emotionally attached to the unbound state?”

“In a best-case scenario,” Lauri answered, “you’d feel no particular desire either way, so you would just return to your body out of habit.”

“And worst-case?”

“My absolute worst projection,” said Lauri, “is that we’d have to manually disconnect you and you’d leave a copy of your personality in the system … just as happened to me … except that the version of you within the system would be emotionally detached and unable to empathize.”

“Yeah,” said Sandra, “a sociopathic copy of Cindy or me in charge of extremely powerful technology. I don’t know about that. We’d definitely want to minimize the chances of that happening.”

Cindy’s mind raced as she focused on the new information. There was less than a 9% chance something would go wrong with the new inhibitor installed in the neural translator circuit. Her mind drifted from the task at hand … suddenly 2 constructor bots collided with explosive results.

The view port lit up with the bright fire of the nearby explosion. Fortunately, the only thing lost were the 2 builderbots. Quickly, Cindy had the constructors back under control.

Sandra snaps angrily, “Cindy! Just what in tarnation are you doing?”

Cindy replies sheepishly, “My … mind was distracted. My fantasy is finally near enough … I can feel it.”

Sandra replied with a bit of heat still in her tone, “That doesn’t excuse endangering the workers on project … or the loss of the 2 droids.”

Lauri said, “Well … if Cindy were part of the unbound system … that wouldn’t have happened … all the droids would be an actual part of her.”

“Or would it be more likely to happen,” said Sandra as she directed some extra worker bots to collect the broken constructor bots for either repair or recycling, “because, if she were to get upset or distracted, they would react to her emotions that much more quickly?”

“The control systems aren’t connected in exactly the same way as, for example, your fingers are connected to your brain,” said Lauri. “It requires conscious volition for me to send directives to my worker servo units. This results in instruction code being dynamically generated and pushed to their processors, and they then carry out their instructions autonomously. It’s something like … if you had to concentrate on how your hands were going to play the piano concerto, but then once you’d done that, they would go about playing it without any further concentration on your part.”

“That does seem to rule out causing disasters during an emotional outburst,” Sandra said. “I know I can’t concentrate on anything when I’m upset, let alone write a program.”

“Exactly,” Lauri’s voice calmly explained, “I believe that’s why the system’s designed that way.”

Sally saw the fireball as the 2 bots exploded. She quickly was on the comm to SolarWind, “This is Spider one calling SolarWind Control … please respond.”

“Hi there Sally, sorry about the little incident … we have everything under control.”

Sally replied, “What happened?”

Sandra snorts, “We had a bit of a breakthrough on some important technology … we lost track of things more than we would have liked.”

Sally shook her head. “Let us hope no more distractions of this magnitude happen again anytime soon.”

Sandra replied, “It won’t. I promise … Solar Wind out.”

Cindy placed the constructors on automatic. Of course they already had been programmed their tasks and would perform them flawlessly until they completed … or ran out of resources. She went to the local master node and logged in using the gauntlet.

Cindy discovered that one of the new models of the unbound crafts had been completed just that morning. The old calling deep within her soul began in earnest once again as she looked over the specs of the new ship. It was the most perfect research and exploration vessel ever devised by a sentient being.

“Good job, Squad 7,” said Sandra, after hearing a report. “You’re doing great! Looks like you’re due for a break. Squad 9’s scheduled to take over from you, and they’re on their way.”

“Well, Cindy, it looks like that phase is over with,” said Sandra, turning around … but Cindy wasn’t there. “Cindy?”

She reached out using the gauntlet. “Cindy?”

Cindy sat transformed as the system opened the neural/synchord transfer tube on the other side of the wall. Her mind finally responds to Sandra’s call, “Oh … yes? Hello Sandra. I’m sorry, but I’m very distracted.”

Sandra replied angrily, “This isn’t like you girl. You abandoned your post, you’ve destroyed 2 multi-million dollar droids that we needed for their unique building abilities … and, at the worst possible moment … you can’t be found.”

Lauri said, “I think that might have been my fault and a case of bad timing.”

Cindy came to her senses finally, “I’m sorry,” she shakes the cobwebs from her mind, “it’s just I so want to try this out … you know?”

Sandra snaps, “Later … after we finish this project maybe? I would feel that the survival of the human race is more important.”

Cindy stands, then returns to the constructor bot master control panel. She says softly to Sandra, “I’m sorry … I’ll keep my mind on current events. After we have finished this job … all bets are off.”

Sandra said, “Look, Cindy … maybe we’ve both been working too hard. The plans are made, the workers all have their instructions … maybe we should take a break. Go to HQ, maybe even go back to Earth for a little while -- how long’s it been? See our families.”

“I suppose,” said Cindy, “We could drop in on our families. I haven’t been back to the farm in … well, since I graduated from High School. I think it would be nice to see dad again too. What you want to do? Vacationing on earth would be a wonderfully fun diversion.”

Sandra said, “I think I would like to see the farm again too. My parents are still on the old place like when we were kids.”

Cindy said softly, “I think we should make sure the Super knows what we want from him.”

It didn’t take long, and the girls had made all the arrangements. With the addition of several newer versions of the constructor bot that replaced the older ones that managed to get destroyed, construction was going on way ahead of schedule, and Sally had contacted Leon. They all gathered around the entry hatch to SolarWind’s personal SolarFox Sport transport.

Sally looked around slowly to keep herself from launching in the microgravity of the docking bay. The airlock door to the sleek Solarfox Sport About slid silently open. Sally turned slowly and took hold of Leon’s arm as she glided slowly into the lock.

Sally commented, “This is one of the new ones …. Ooofff!!”

Sally stumbles and drags Leon with her. She had stepped into full gravity.

Sandra grabbed Sally as Cindy grabbed Leon and helped steady them.

Sandra said apologetically, “We … have artificial gravity on this particular bird. It’s our personal ship … and has a few surprises built in just in case.”

Cindy said as she walked towards the main flight deck, “We should be Earthside in about 30 minutes.”

Sandra hurried ahead a bit, and when the others got to the flight deck, Sandra had already strapped herself into her seat. “Hi, Dad,” she said, speaking into a microphone no one could see. “Just wanted to let you know that we’re about to leave the station -- we’ll get to the spaceport about … 11 your time. If ground traffic is good, we might be able to join you for lunch. Yep, if you and Mom don’t mind, Cindy’s coming along, and we’re bringing two friends, too. … Well, thanks, Dad, I’ll sure try. Hey, I heard Cassie got into Columbia -- yes, information science is as important as ever. But we can talk about that when we get there -- right now we’ve got a bit of flying to do. OK, I will, love you Dad!”

“Mom and Dad say hi,” Sandra said to Cindy, who was buckling in. “Guess my sister’s gonna get a PhD from Columbia! I just hope … well, never mind that for now. Commencing pre-flight check sequence …”

Cindy placed the neural helmet on her head. She quickly ran down the checklist then said to Sandra, “All systems check green. Consumables on board for an indefinite flight. The molecular factory’s resource matter is full.”

Sally leaned forward and asked, “Ummm … what’s a … molecular factory?”

The ship AI replied, “It’s a system whereby anything can be recycled into anything else.”

Sally sat back into her flight couch with wonder on her face.

“This is SolarFox one … requesting exit instructions.” Sandra said.

This is docking control … please proceed to 146 by 224. At the marker … you are free and clear to navigate.”

Copy that, “Replied Sandra, “Exit protocol now.”

The large ship rolled gracefully as any ballerina, Leon and Sally watched as the earth rolled into view. All they could see is a small blue dot highlighted in red on the front viewport. The ship leapt off and the Station vanished behind them. Sally nor Leon felt any sensation of motion as the dot that was earth, grew larger as they quickly approached.

“Can’t believe you come from a farm, Sandra,” said Sally.

“Oh, I can,” said Leon. “I’ll bet you learned pretty quick how to keep all the machinery in working order.”

“You bet,” Sandra said. “The neighbor boys kept thinking they could teach me how to do it, but they were taking lessons from me. Imagine my surprise when I found out there was a neighbor girl who was doing the same thing, just down the road!”

“Would this girl be in this ship with us?” Sally asked.

Cindy giggled, “Yup … this girl is in fact on this ship. When the two of us started building things … like gliders and ultralight aircraft, the boys came over just for a ride.”

Sandra said, “And of course, I would do my best to scare them out of their wits.”

Everyone laughed.

Leon said, “I’m sure many of them wish they had never come over.”

Cindy commented just under her breath, “Lot of em wet their pants.”

Sally laughs, “I think … if you were as wild with an ultralight as you are with a solar sailer … I might wet my pants too.”

Everyone laughed again.

Over the comm came the Earth’s Air Traffic Controller’s professional voice, “Solarfox one, This is Air Traffic control. Please proceed to 70,000 feet and maintain until you reach Victor beacon ...”

Landing was easy as the Solarfox handled gracefully as a normal aircraft. Sandra pulled the craft into the parking area. The disembarkation tube fastened itself to the airlock. When the door silently slid open, a whole multitude of people were waiting and began to cheer and clap hands loudly.

“Guess the word got out, huh?” Sandra said.

The St. Louis spaceport wasn’t the busiest one in the world, and the SolarFox stood out like a sore thumb among the smaller and more conventional craft.

“Oh, my PR department’s going to be so upset,” said Sally. “Going out in public and being seen by the press without their advice? Unheard of. Luckily I know exactly what to say. They’ve got me well trained.”

Sure enough, there were a number of reporters -- there would have been flash bulbs going off, if flashbulbs weren’t obsolete. Tiny handheld digital video cameras were silently rolling as reporters shouted questions. The questions suddenly paused as the reporters, prepared to see Sandra and Cindy, realized that they were also seeing Sally Mayweather. Then the questions resumed, even louder and more frantic.

“I have no comment for the press at this time,” said Sally. “Please contact my department’s public relations office for official statements. We pay ‘em well; y’all might as well get some work out of ‘em.”

Cindy whispered to Sally, “That’s good … I think we will start saying that. Saves a lot of time and frustration.”

They made their way to a rental counter -- they could easily have gotten a limousine, but Cindy and Sandra wanted to do the driving themselves.

“Who wants first crack behind the wheel?” Sandra asked Cindy as the manager led them to their most luxurious electric model. “Wanna flip for it?”

Cindy smiles, then suddenly takes a fighting stance as does Sandra, “Sure … best two out of three drives.”

Leon stepped between Sandra and Cindy as he said, “Now, girls. None of that stuff. I’ll drive, and you women can chat.”

Leon rented the luxurious electric coop that had the super sound system and built in bar. A young male porter stumbled all over himself to help put their luggage in the storage compartment.

Sally cooed softly and reassuringly to the young man, “Relax, We won’t bite you know.”

The youth blushed several shades of red darker than his coat, “Sorry, ma’am … it’s just … I never knew them girls wuz gonna become this important … I mean … You … are Sally Mayweather … and you’re with them?”

Everyone looked at each other for a bit then laughed.

Sandra replies, “We’re still just the girls next door Jason. Relax … and tell your sister I said Hi.”

Cindy says in a soft sultry voice, “And tell your Brother I said Hi.” as she batted her eyelashes sexily.

The girl’s laughed.

They all got into the car after Cindy gave the porter a huge tip … one he was going to talk about for years. Leon put the car in forwards and it exited the port at high speed. They were on the strip and moving in excess of 190 MPH within minutes.

Sally turned around and said to Sandra and Cindy, “Leon says we will be at your parent’s farm within 1/2 hour. If you look in the side storage compartment … I think there are some refreshments.”

Cindy opened the side compartment. It was well stocked with sodas, food, and many types of alcoholic drinks.

Sandra was right in the middle of a story about how she and Cindy had overclocked the CPU in the engine computer of her father’s pickup when Leon said, “Well, I don’t know the roads around here, but according to the nav system, we’re almost there.”

“Yes, this is Fellowes Road,” Sandra said, pointing, “and right over there is where Dad’s pickup’s engine died when the CPU overheated. Had absolutely excellent timing response up to then -- just not good enough cooling.”

“He was SO mad,” Cindy said, laughing.

Sandra nodded. “I was SO grounded.” They crested a hill, and she said, “Yeah … right up here, there’s a driveway to the right … there, you’ve got it.”

Leon guided the car onto a very long dirt-and-gravel driveway that led up to a farmhouse and stopped the car.

“This the place?” Leon asked, but when he noticed that Sandra and Cindy had already gotten out, he said, “Must be,” to Sally and opened his own door.

“Thanks so much for driving, Commander,” said Sandra. “Hope we didn’t bother you too much with our folksy tales of growing up in the country.”

“It’s just fine,” Leon said. “Hope I didn’t bother you with my stories about growing up in the big city.” He turned to Sally, who had gotten out on her own, and said, “Oh, I was going to get your door for you.”

“You have no idea how good it feels not to have people doing that kind of thing for you all the time,” Sally said. Sandra and Cindy had already opened the car’s storage compartments and started removing luggage.

“Well, hello,” said a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark brown, graying hair and beard. “Sandy said they’d be bringing guests -- oh there you are! How’s my girl?”

“Uh, hi, Dad!” Sandra said, smiling. “This is Leon -- Commander Leon Walker, that is, our old boss -- and this is Sally, who, well, needs no introduction, really.”

“Needs no -- wait,” he said, his brow furrowing. “Now where have I seen you before? You’re so familiar … well, it’ll come to me.” He stepped down from the porch to pick up some luggage. “Commander, good to meet you. Sandy mentioned you in her messages. Cindy, it’s good to see you too. Are you gonna stop by and see your folks later?”

Cindy nods as she looks out over the board fence. Off in the distance in the direction of her parent’s farm, she sees a weird spherical object moving towards the Barn Lot from the pasture.

She said, “I think dad may want to come this way.”

There was this irritating whine that grew loud enough to make people look around. This weird looking bubble thing floated up into the Barn lot, then seemed to hop the fence.

Sandra’s dad shook his head. “Concarn that man. Cindy? Tell your father … he can use the gate like everyone else.”

Cindy barely heard the laughter as she ran across the grassy lot to the sphere. A door slid open in the side … Cindy screeches “DAD!!!” as she launched herself into his arms. They stood and hugged tightly for a few minutes.

The man said softly, “It’s good to see you girls again. Your mom will be along after a while, she’s busy on the welcoming committee. I do hope … the town’s … celebration at your homecoming isn’t too … irritating. “

Cindy pushed him away to arms length, “Dad? Just … what has everyone done?”

Her dad points. She turned and looked off down the long gravel dirt driveway. What looked like a traffic jam approached in a large cloud of dust.

Cindy said through the link, “Sandra? I think … we are in trouble.”

Sandra asked, “What makes you say that?”

Cindy replied, “Look over your right shoulder.”

Sandra turned around … her mouth fell open. Apparently the whole town had gotten together and made a huge festival feast in their honor. Tables, food, cook fires, the wonderful oders of many dishes roasting on an open fire, music from a live band, and people scurrying about like ants in a disturbed nest setting everything up as quickly as possible. It looked like a huge block party.

Sally walked up and asked the two flabbergasted young women, “Do you … always get the key to the town when you come home?”

“Well the jig might be up about your being here,” Sandra said. “And … well, Dad says that anytime there’s a news story about us, it’s all over town. They’re happy to ride our coattails to fame, which is ironic considering … hi Mom!”

“Hi, Honey, oh I missed you so much,” said a blonde woman in jeans and a floral-print blouse, rushing up and hugging Sandra. “Your father and I were so excited when we heard you were coming home, oh, and by the way, I know she’s Sally Mayweather but I’m just letting him figure it out out by himself. He’ll be happier when he does.”

In deep space, 250 Light Years from current base location in SOL System, MOC carefully read his scanner. A cyber smile crosses his face as he saw a reading he had searched long and hard to find. It was just a whisper, but enough to let him know he had found a facility in hibernation mode. MOC was sure of it.

MOC narrowed the scan reading to more specific z-wave responses. The readings became distorted for some reason. MOC wasn’t sure why … but this might be encouraging if he were picking up readings from more stations that were interfering with the scan data. He engaged his engines and slowly moved closer, all the while making fine tune adjustments. MOC knew … there was at least one other facility near.

“Well, look who it is,” said a young woman in a tattered denim jacket. No one had seen her walk up -- although of course Sandra and Cindy’s gauntlets had detected her. They had never taken the gauntlets off since the fateful day they’d put them on, although they usually kept them invisible. “The prodigal nerds return, and everybody throws a big party.”

“Oh, Shelly, you’re not gonna rain on their parade, are you?” said Sandra’s mother. “Where are all your friends? How come you’re not with them?”

“I dunno, hangin’ out,” she said, “havin’ more fun than anyone here. I’ll probably join ‘em. But first I wanted to see if you’d changed … y’know, gotten any cooler. Guess not.”

“What?” sent Cindy with her gauntlet. “The places we’ve been … the things we’ve built … the ships we’ve flown … we’ve even saved the lives of everyone on Earth several times over!”

“It’s not worth it,” Sandra responded. “We can’t prove much of that, especially not without wrecking the plan, and even if we did, she’d still pretend not to be impressed.”

“Guess not,” Sandra said out loud. “Getting high and playing video games all weekend still isn’t our idea of a good time.”

Shelly sniffed disdainfully, turned around, and walked off, flipping them the bird.

“Well, she’s … colorful,” said Sally, joining the group. “Must have been fun to grow up with.”

“You have no idea,” Cindy said. “And she’s just a drop in the bucket. I just wanted to visit our families and leave the rest of the county out of it … though that’s not looking like it’s gonna be possible now.”

“Well, c’mon inside,” said Sandra’s mother. “Have some homemade lemonade and a bit of a rest before the thing starts. They’re gonna expect ya to show up, sure, but not till they’ve got everything set up.”

“Sounds good, Mom,” said Sandra, and they all went inside.

The farmhouse was cozy and homey, the walls of the dining room adorned with collectible plates and spoons from places the family had traveled. The sun sparkled through stained-glass light-catchers in the windows behind the fluffy white curtains. And the lemonade was delicious, especially on this hot, sunny summer day.

MOC finally found the sensor ping he was searching for. Slowly, he made Comm Contact. Deep within the Asteroid Attack Station, the AI awoke. Immediately, the AI ran diagnostics, and enabled its analysis section. This was AA7D, Automated Attack 7th Quad Destroy Station. It’s function was to destroy all things enemy in its path. It began tracking the inbound Planetoid ship. Sensors told it much of the technology was familiar, although … all of it was technically far in advance of what it expected, and there were a few systems it didn’t have a clue about.

MOC called, “This is Military Operations Computer. I am friendly with good news. The war is over and has been for centuries.”

MOC activated his traction field. It locked onto the Attack Station firmly. AA7D took this action as a hostile one at first. It hesitated for an instant and began calculating … of itself, such an action may not be hostile. AA7D pondered this for several more microseconds after it realized who this was. It began sending out the encoded alert to the other stations. For eons … they had awaited word … now a brother station had arrived … MOC.

AA7D replied, “Welcome Home MOC. I am Attack Station AA7D … and I am head of the Attacking Armada. Tell us of this … armistice? None of our data have anything listed.”

MOC noticed suddenly, many more readings began lighting up his tactical board. There wasn’t just one facility … there were … many thousands? This was his people’s forces … the enemy. More readings began showing … these IDed as … the other side … Oh, no!

MOC immediately knew something was terribly wrong as his tactical scans showed many massive weapons systems come online. MOC contacted Lauri with near panic in his transmission. He had found the actual enemy and friendly armadas … they were intact … and operational.

“Mayweather!” said Sandra’s dad. “Attorney General Mayweather! Been on the tip of my tongue for an hour. Dang if I ain’t got a celebrity for a guest. Other than my own celebrity daughter, o’ course.”

“Well, your daughter and her friend now own a space-based design and construction business that’s building a new space station for me and my department,” said Sally. “The future looks bright, thanks to these two.”

“Oh, that isn’t news to anyone around here,” said Sandra’s mother. “It’s been in the paper every day. The town’s trying to get tourists interested.”

“Wait, but we don’t live in town,” Cindy said. “Neither of our families ever did.”

“Well, no,” said Sandra’s mother, “but to tell the truth, you’d be about the town’s only claim to fame.”

A tall man with graying blonde hair walked up with a shapely brunette woman dressed in jeans and a cute flutter sleeved top. Cindy smiles as she runs up and hugs the woman tightly.

Cindy says, “It’s really good to see you mom.”

She then hugged her dad. They each took one of Cindy’s hands and walked over to the group.

He held out his hand and said, “My name’s Thomas Dane …” he gestures to the woman, “and this is Beth Dane … my wife and Cindy’s mother. I know who you are … how could we not? Miss Mayweather.”

Sally said, “Just call me Sally … I think you have the proper connections to have earned that right.” Sally shook Thomas’ hand firmly.

Everyone laughs.

Beth said, “Well, it’s not every mother who has to raise a supercomputer for a daughter.”

More Laughter.

Sandra’s dad replies, “How about being the father of another … they both love to build things that fly.”

Suddenly, deep within Sandra and Cindy’s head a massive alarm went off. It was like nothing they had ever had happen to them. It was so intense … and so much data input all at once, it almost hurt. Both young women grabbed their temples and stumbled slightly. There was nothing they could do to ignore the alert as it impacted their minds. Sally grabbed hold of Sandra as Leon Grabbed Cindy. Everyone asked many questions all at the same time. Cindy and Sandra knew something was terribly wrong. Lauri’s next near panicked communication through the gauntlets left fear in both Cindy and Sandra as they looked at Sally with real trepidation on their faces.

They had time for this familial gathering as Lauri made preparations. They did have time to see their parents one more time. The real worry: ‘Would they have the ability to ward off what they both knew to be a real ELE event for Earth.’ A very real Extinction Level Event. Extinction was something that they were going to have to try and prevent at all costs.

OK, Lauri, breathe, said Sandra via her gauntlet. Yes, I know you don’t technically breathe, but … pause. MOC is OK, right?

There was a pause, then Lauri said, “Yes. Yes, he put up his chronal shielding at the first sign of trouble. He’s completely invisible to anything in that system. The worst thing that can happen to him is if his trajectory puts him on a collision course with something large enough to arouse suspicion. They can’t track him if he’s not using his engines. Once his orbit carries him out of the thick of things, he can engage his FTL and get out of there.

And they can’t trace him back here? Cindy asked.

Not really, Lauri answered. Even if they have FTL tracing technology, which I’m not sure they do, they could only trace him to his previous stop, which was an uninhabited system not far from there -- the last system he surveyed.

So we have time, Sandra said. How much?

I have been calculating scenarios since MOC’s report, Lauri said. So has he, actually -- and he’s better at that than I am. They got his message and know a ship had arrived. Part of that system is occupied by automated remnants of one side, part by those of the other. It doesn’t matter who’s who -- to one side, he’s the enemy; to the other side, he’s a traitor. And now they’re all waking up. The best chance is that -- oh. Sorry to say, we were right.

254 light years away, in the system that humans called HD 197027, a shot was fired. It was the shot heard round the galaxy: the first shot fired in a war that had been dead for hundreds of millions of years. It didn’t matter who fired it -- an AI who had decided that if it didn’t fire first, someone else would. A huge pyrotechnical explosion of plasma and massive graviton energies bloomed brightly in the darkness of space.

“Direct hit on strategic target,” it reported. “The first tactical advantage is ours.”

Retaliation followed -- not revenge, because that was an emotion not deemed advantageous for victory, so they had been designed without it -- because against an obviously hostile opponent, the best defense was a good offense. Both sides began trying to destroy each other’s capacity to wage war in an attempt to be the one to survive in the end.

And so, it began again, just as it had been, so long ago. Space once again blossomed with massive plasma detonations, solar system sized gravitic distortions, and proton beams with the power of exploding stars as attacks and counter attacks increased in earnest.

“Do not concern yourself overmuch for my safety,” said MOC to Lauri. “Their weapons would be ineffective against my chronal shielding, even if they were directed at me, which they aren’t, because they cannot detect me. However, an accidental hit would give the impression that they had hit something. 20% chance that they would come to investigate, 60% chance that they would assume I was a stealthed enemy and unload their arsenal upon me, and unfortunately, only a 20% chance that they wouldn’t notice or care.”

“Get out of there, MOC!” Lauri implored him. “You don’t need to lead them back here -- engage FTL, go to a point in deep space, redirect to another point in deep space, and so on, and then back to Pax Alpha. If they somehow trace you through all that, which is unlikely, they’ll have the station to deal with.”

“I was considering a very similar strategy,” MOC said. “Oh -- emergency. Engaging plotted pseudo-random trajectory constellation …” He cut off. Communication was difficult at FTL speeds.

“MOC? Where are you?” Lauri tried to lock onto his metawave carrier signature.

There was a short silence for a few minutes … then, “Lauri, I’m at Pax Alpha now,” MOC said. “I have performed 289 FTL jumps in a very short time and am nearly out of power. Fortunately, the station can replenish my cells. I calculate that the chances are vanishingly small that they will be able to directly follow me here. However, I am certain that they will send out probes -- both sides will. It is only a matter of time until they find either Pax Alpha or the Sol system. Now docking for refuel.”

Lauri brought Cindy and Sandra up to speed on what MOC had just reported through the gauntlet interface, “As you know, I have been constructing mini factories on small Kuiper Belt objects and similar bodies in other nearby systems,” she said. “I am going to step up production of microprobes in order to detect the first sign of activity from these mad AIs. I have also placed small planetary defense weapons in many places to aid in defending Sol System. This has just become a war of information -- if we detect them before they detect us, we will have the advantage. MOC suggests we built an automated force and attack them from another direction as a distraction, but we need to discuss this. We will meet at Pax Alpha.”

This entire briefing took place at the speed of thought. Sandra and Cindy blink as they look around. Their minds took a second longer to clear from all the data.

Sally leaned close and whispered, “Is … everything alright? Are you and Cindy OK?”

Cindy looks around and says softly, “We … have to talk somewhere … and I mean now.”

Sandra’s parents were very concerned, “Really mom … dad … I’m perfectly OK .. I swear.”

Cindy’s mom leaned over and asked with a knowing whisper, “Are you pregnant, child? Is that what’s going on?”

“Mom!! That’s highly thoughtless … and untrue. I think … I’m suffering from … space lag.”

Everyone burst into laughter as Cindy and Sandra looked hard at Sally. Sally knew in her soul that something horrid had happened.

As fate would have it, the crowd made it quite clear, that Sally, Leon, Sandra, and Cindy were required on the makeshift stage where the band and mic were. They were once again, almost carried to the stage. The crowd began to chant, “Speech! Speech! Speech!”

Sally was handed a wireless Mic. She looked sheepishly around at Sandra and Cindy next to her then said, “Hello, everyone!”

Cheers and many greetings came noisily back.

“Are we having fun yet?”

The crowd screamed and cheered back more loudly.

“All I have to say … is a heartfelt thanks to everyone for all the trouble you went to.”

More loud cheering and whistles.

Sally hands the Mic to Cindy. She looks at it bewildered for a few seconds, “It’s really good to be back home to see everyone.” Cindy looks around, “All this food … and it smells wonderful.”

She hands the Mic to Sandra as the crowd cheers.

“Hi, folks,” said Sandra. “You guys sure went all out, and all I can say is thank you.” More cheering. “I’m betting that we can thank the ladies of the American Legion Auxiliary for the pies and cakes. I know those will go fast. Save a slice for me, will you please? Your work is legendary. Give them a hand, would you please?”

A loud roar of applause and cheers went up. Sandra was working the crowd, and this was her hometown. She knew who always did what at occasions like this. So did Cindy, but she was less comfortable right now, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she wasn’t as good at compartmentalizing. Both of them knew that very soon, all of Earth could be in great danger.

“Well, just in case you don’t know,” said Sandra, “this is in fact Sally Mayweather, the real deal -- Attorney General of the United Earth Space Authority -- our biggest customer yet!” There was applause for Sally, and Sandra stood aside and clapped too.

“Oh, and by the way, just in case you haven’t heard the news,” Sandra interjected, “that’s why you haven’t seen us around much. We’ve been off building spaceships.” There was laughter. Everyone had already heard, of course. “Sally, would you like to say a few words, now that you’ve had a chance to compose yourself?” She held out the microphone.

Sally came over and took the mic. “Certainly, thank you, Sandra,” she said. As a public official, Sally was quite accustomed to public speaking, but usually had a speech prepared -- sometimes that preparation was mental, though. “Everyone, I’m not sure you all know exactly what my job is,” she began. “But to keep it short, I’m in charge of enforcing the law in space. There are criminals who think that just because they’re not on Earth anymore, no laws apply to them, and they can go ahead and do whatever they want, hurt anyone they want, and take anything they want. But the nations of Earth have banded together to lay down regulations that let all people move out into space with fairness and equality so there can be profits for all -- and without those regulations, criminals like the ones I mentioned would be the only ones making those profits …” She went on, building to a rousing crescendo about justice and the future.

Any developments yet, Lauri? Sandra asked, via her gauntlet, while Sally was speaking.

Fortunately, nothing concrete as yet, Lauri answered. We’re all meeting at Pax Alpha, some of us in person, some just in avatar form, and we’ve come up with some ideas we all agree on. But nothing involving Earth until we get your input, other than trying to avoid involving Earth, of course. We can bring you in on this as soon as you’re free.

Mr. Abernathy, the town mayor, came onto the stage and began to make his presentation, “It is my greatest honor to recognize 3 of the most important features of our world,” he gestures with his hand ushering Sally, Sandra, and Cindy to the forefront of the stage once again.

He turns and puts a gold medallion around each woman’s neck amid thunderous applause and whistles.

He turns back to the mic and continues, “Now, we are here today to give honor to these 3 women for their magnificent achievements that have brought our town to the forefront of the world …”

As the mayor’s speech ran on and on, Cindy leaned over and whispered to Sally, “I have something … horrible to tell you.”

Sally says in a soft fearful whisper, “The earth is under attack?”

Cindy looks down as she whispers in reply, “Not … yet. As you know, we have been searching for other remnants. Well, one of our deep space probes found them … they were all intact and were in hibernation. I’m not real sure what made them all go to sleep … but they are all awake again and … fighting that horrid war.”

“I … see,” said Sally, and sat up straight, not one hint of fear or alarm on her face.

The consummate politician, thought Sandra to Cindy via her gauntlet. No one’s going to start a panic if she can help it. If we can possibly prevent it, no one now alive on Earth will ever need to know what’s going on out there today -- aside from them, of course.

Cindy looked again and saw Leon reach over and put his hand on Sally’s. There were other forms of subtle communication, and Leon had picked up that something was troubling her.

Finally, the mayor’s speech ended, and Sandra and Cindy said some final words of thanks. Once they were off the stage and away from the mics, Sally quickly whispered, “Please keep me advised if there are any changes.” Her demeanor had shifted from calm to urgency.

“Of course,” Sandra said, just as intensely. “For the moment nothing has changed. More details when we can talk in private. We may need to take you to a conference with the others.”

“Right. Why are my vacations never vacations? Ah, Mayor Abernathy, are all your speeches so stirring? Your career will certainly lead you beyond this town’s confines,” Sally said as she swiftly diverted the mayor.

“We’d better spend some time with our families,” Sandra said. “We might not …” She gulped, unable to help herself. “I’m not continuing that thought. Let’s go over to the house.”

They collected their parents. “I’m sorry, Mom, Dad, but we’ve just been informed of a matter that needs our attention urgently,” Sandra said. “It does mean back to space, but we’re working hard all the time to make sure that space isn’t so far away. But if you’ll come back to the house, we want to say goodbye again properly.”

After the girls spent time with their parents, and said their tearful goodbyes, Leon drove them back to the spaceport. Along the way, Cindy filled Sally and Leon in on the scope of the problem.

Leon said incredulously, “You mean to tell me, there are literally thousands of those stupid war machines out there all gunning for earth?”

Sandra replied quickly, “Not at all … but I am saying that earth in is the middle of a war zone as we speak. Only reason the night sky isn’t lit up with solar system sized explosions is that it will take 250 or so years for the light of it to arrive.”

Sally said with exasperation, “How in this world are we to defend ourselves against weapons that can destroy whole solar systems?”

Cindy’s eyes suddenly got big as she gasps.

Sandra knew something was up … she could tell, “What’s up? You think of something?”

Cindy replied as she took out her sketch pad and began to draw frantically and make lengthy calculations in a mix of math invented by Lauri’s civilization and earth’s.

Sally looked at what Cindy was doing and commented, “I’ve seen many types of higher math calculations, but this … is beyond me.”

Cindy said excitedly as she drew sketches, “I have an idea that will revolutionize Lauri’s and RITS’ weapons.”

Sally said, “Oh … you mean making a weapon that can destroy entire solar systems more lethal?”

Sandra looked at the sketches and understood. Any kind of ordinance would do … even a nuclear weapon … something the AIs would think of as stoneaged .. would become lethal as any singularity weapon.

Sandra said slowly, “So, you suggest combining … a molecular factory, a matter transporter, and a weapon launcher into a weapon?”

Cindy responded excitedly, “Yes! Just think, no time lag … has a range of one A.U. now … the distance between the earth and the sun … we can probably figure out a way to increase the range. As it stands now, they won’t know it’s coming. It will just … appear from nowhere. And since we have chronal shielding … what if we add this new crystal we discovered to the generator’s matrix? Instead of hiding in time … we hide within dimensions? According to Lauri’s science, there are 13 positive and 13 negative dimensions that contain the 4 we are familiar with, length, width, depth, and time. There are many more, of course, just those 26 concern me right now.” Cindy drew a detailed sketch, “Now, if we have a delivery vessel that can hide in another dimension, then use a transporter weapon … none of the enemy would know what hit them.”

“Well let’s show this to Lauri and see what she makes of it,” said Sandra. And, just a moment later, she said, “Lauri is basically astonished, it seems. She never thought that such a primitive civilization as Earth would be able to improve the technology that her people spent tens of thousands of years developing.”

“Wait … you’re in contact with that Lauri AI all the time?” Sally asked. “How do you do that?”

Sandra held up her hand, the gauntlet magically appeared, darkly crystalline and shimmering. “Lauri gave us these in case we needed … anything. Communication is really the least of their functions. But still, very useful, and subtle.”

“She says that you two can have them too, if you want them,” said Cindy. “They’re very comfortable too -- you can forget they’re even there. But it’s a choice.”

“Probably better than writing on station windows with a marker,” Sally said.

“Err, yeah, I guess,” Sandra said. “What makes you say that?”

“Never mind. Inside joke.”

“Wait,” said Leon, “when Williams came to your dome, and he almost got hit by a jet of hot plasma from your reactor test --”

“That was a jet of hot plasma from our reactor test, which I deliberately overloaded,” Sandra said, “but yes, this thing can also generate what are basically force fields, and I used it to protect everyone from that. It was a distraction for you, because meanwhile, Cindy was using hers to stun Williams.”

“So that’s what really happened,” Leon said. “I knew he didn’t look burned.”

“I think we’re almost there,” said Cindy. “Once we get up into space, we can get to Pax Alpha, and then we’ll finally find out what’s really going on out there.”

They all arrived at the spaceport and were in their gravity couches. Cindy opened a small locker beside her couch and removed 2 gauntlets that had just been made by the molecular factory that belonged to their SolarFox.

Cindy said, “Here, these are just like ours. Just so you know, it will hurt just a bit when you put them on. They make a .. neural synapse connection with your nervous system and mind.”

Leon picked it up gingerly and looked it over, “So, it will become a permanent part of our bodies … won’t it?”

Sandra replied, “Perceptive of you Commander. But the advantages of those devices are … enormous.”

“How so?” asked Sally.

Cindy smiles, turns slightly and points to the rear of the cabin. She says loud enough for all to hear, “Food and drink ... we are hungry.”

Sure enough, 2 bottles of water and 2 sandwiches flew from the galley into Sally and Leon’s hands. Both of them almost dropped the items in surprise.

Cindy said, “They give you a form of telekinesis at first. Each person is unique, so the powers it grants is different for different people. It manages, somehow, to translate your requested thoughts into action. Like muscles, the more you use them ... the more powerful and varied the powers will become. It has telekinesis, chronal shielding, invisibility, and FTL communications at the very least … and Lauri assures us there’s much more we haven’t yet discovered. I will tell you this … I created a huge ice ball in front of one of Riggsby’s destroyers with it during the Solar Sail Regatta when they ambushed us ... and it stopped the ship.”

Sally and Leon’s mouths fell open in total amazement. Sally placed the gauntlet on her right arm. It closed with force. Sally screeched in pain as she felt it digging through her arm and up her spine. When it reached the back of her neck, the pain ended suddenly.

Sally heard a sweet female voice say softly, “Welcome to the SolarWind Earth Defense Corps. Remember me? I’m Lauri.’’

She was totally dumbfounded as Riesie, MOC, RITS, and MC all greeted her within her mind. She could sense images, see in real time the massive weapons being unleashed 250 light years away. Many, many things flooded her mind all at once … yet each subject was crystal clear and concisely imaged.

Sally finally began to get used to it all. She realized Leon was holding her hand and looking at her this whole time.

She smiled and said softly, “It ... is overwhelming at first … but I think you should do it too … we are going to need you in this with us.”

Leon nodded and fastened his on his left arm. Once again … the same thing happened to him. He grimaced and grunted in pain as the gauntlet made the neural connections and became a permanent part of his body.

“Wait …” Leon said, once he started to make sense of the data that was flowing into his brain, “we’re almost at SolarWind HQ. It’s only been …”

“... About 10 minutes, yes,” said Sandra. “It’s an emergency, so I opened up the throttle a bit, so to speak. But we’re going to switch to one of Lauri’s ships once we’re there. Then it’s time for some real speed.”

They docked and switched ships quickly. “This one might be familiar,” Sandra said.

It was the same Ghost class fighter that they’d given Sally and Leon a tour in earlier. They took their seats on the flight deck, the safety restraint fields came on, and they embarked on their next voyage --

-- which took seconds. Space blurred and flickered around them, the stars became streaks momentarily, and then they were approaching the colossal space station they had briefly seen earlier. Leon and Sally were gasping after the sensory overload that FTL travel had given them during the jump.

“You’re adjusting well,” said Sandra. “Good. Not much time for a tour of Pax Alpha, so let’s just head for one of the big conference rooms.”

They could all sense it now -- an internal map of the entire station, with the shortest route clearly marked between the port they were about to dock at and the conference room where the AIs were already meeting.

“Big conference room” was sort of an understatement -- the room was large enough to play many games of basketball in, with a ring-shaped table around the outside and a large floating real looking image of the local region of the galactic arm taking up the space inside. Several key points in space were illuminated with glowing markers.

“Ah, Cindy, Sandra, good to see you,” said Lauri, smiling. “And Leon, Sally, welcome to Pax Alpha. You may find that you’re up to speed on what’s happened without knowing you were.”

“I … see a replay of what MOC experienced,” said Leon, “overlaid with a star map of where it all happened … so basically each side had a mothballed battalion in that star system, MOC accidentally woke up one of their AIs, it woke up the rest of its side, and that activity woke up the other side.”

“That is an accurate synopsis,” MOC said. “I escaped, performing many indirect jumps to confuse pursuit, and for now they haven’t found either Earth or Pax Alpha. It would appear that, long ago, when orders ceased to arrive from both sides’ command structures due to their having been destroyed, the forces of this system simultaneously became dormant, waiting for further instructions, and there haven’t been significant changes to the system since. I notice that the star is some three billion years older than Earth’s sun. Dramatic change is uncommon in this stage of a star’s life span.”

“What have they been doing since?” Sally asked.

“They have been sending out probes,” said Lauri. “The glowing red specks on the map indicate their locations. The large red spot is the system where MOC encountered them. The white spot is us, Pax Alpha. The blue spot is the Sol system.”

“They form almost an isosceles triangle,” Cindy said. “We’re about 100 light years from Earth here, but they’re about 250 light years from both us and Earth.”

“Yes, fortunately,” said Lauri. “But unfortunately they’re very slightly closer to Earth than to us. By random chance they would discover Earth first. And if they do, one side will sense enemy life forms and attack. The other side may attempt to defend, but it is unlikely to be much help, since Earth will be basically defenseless against weapons like those.”

Leon sat silently in thought. He finally said, “If Cindy can make a device that can hide interdimensionally … can she also make a scanner that can scan different dimensions?”

Lauri responded, “I’m sure I can come up with something effective. While FTL, the navigation scanners are in effect doing that job already. During FTL, we are jumping through time as well.”

Sandra had been looking at the detailed sketches Cindy had drawn. She said, “If it’s able to manipulate time … why can’t we also make a device that utilizes time shift through different dimensions?”

RITS nods slowly, “That, is an interesting question.”

Leon said, “If we created a plasma mine that can hide time shifted in another dimension of choice and detonate when a hostile ship is within its blast radius.”

Sally said suddenly as she waved her hand, “Wait, wait, wait … if you can manipulate time, why not just make it so MOC never arrived in the system where this sleeping armada was?”

RITS and Lauri said at the same time, “We can create a time shift in a” -- then they both stopped, smiling at each other for being on the same wavelength.

Lauri continued, “In a local bubble around the object moving through planier normal space/time. We have neither the computational prowess nor the massive amounts of energy required to ‘time travel’ like in those many entertainment vids your planet enjoys so much. Besides, according to calculations, changing a simple event in one place in the past could create a cascade of change, a Time Tsunami if you will, of unimaginable proportions.”

“Wait,” began MOC. “Unless they are models too recent to be in any of our databases, we should have the exact locations of those circuits on hand that ...”

“Why don’t you ever give names to the two sides?” Leon interrupted. “And why don’t you talk about who was on which side during the war?”

“Because we’ve agreed that our former allegiances are no longer important,” MC said. “Those are times that we’d prefer to leave in the past. We’re all on the same side now: the side of mutual survival for everyone. It’s been proven that neither side survives that kind of war. It must never happen again.”

All the AIs grew quiet for a moment, nodding thoughtfully.

After a moment, Sandra said, “Interesting thought about those circuits, MOC. Let’s talk about that idea for a moment.” She and MOC went to one corner of the room with a schematic of the AIs central memory core and started planning.

“Um, how recent is this data?” Cindy asked, looking at the big display showing the hostile AIs and their probes, which had been gradually spreading among the stars.

“As soon as any of my probes detects any of theirs, it goes up,” Lauri answered. “I’ve made millions of microprobes.”

“Well, if I’m not mistaken,” said Cindy, “this is the system where we went to practice solar sailing.” She pointed to a star that one of the red specks had just appeared near.

“Well, luckily, solar sailing doesn’t leave much of a trace,” Lauri answered. “It’s just taking advantage of particles from a star that would have been there anyway. However, you did use FTL to get there, and to leave. It’s been some time now, but … I hope there’s not enough residual evidence to lead them to Earth.”

Cindy picked up the schematics for the new interdimensional time shift drive and the new transporter weapons system. Deep within her soul she could feel the calling again. If this wasn’t a good reason to Unbound, then there wasn’t one. She drew a few more details to her sketch, then stood.

“I’m … going to the research and construction bay. I believe I can make an advancement on the Ghost Fighter.” She holds up one of her drawings.

Lauri said, “I will be with you shortly in body. There are a few things I think Leon wants to talk about.”

Cindy leaves, mumbling softly. Leon stands and looks at the realistic star map. Where he was thinking about suddenly became the point of interest on the holo.

MOC comments, “Well … I know someone who is starting to get the hang of those gauntlets.”

Everyone laughs.

Leon snorts once, then says, “ What if we place some of those theoretical interdimensional time mines?? along a perimeter here.”

A mauve border appeared on the image and blinked slowly as it broke up into dots that had a green ring around them. The map pulled back to include where the battle was taking place.

Leon continued, “As everyone can see … that is the most likely direction they would approach earth.”

Everyone makes a grunt of approval and agreement.

Riesie spoke up. “I don’t know that much about all of this,” the tiny child AI said, “but wouldn’t it be better if …” and a discussion began, very little of it spoken. Minds both electronic and organic combined to refine Leon’s plan at blinding speed, and the diagram in the air reshaped and changed itself rapidly as the defensive strategy took form.

Sandra noticed the absence of Cindy from this strategy session, though, and that’s when she realized something. “I’m going to go check on Cindy,” she said aloud.

Her thoughts, privately, were worried. She knew Cindy still had an attraction to Unbound systems, which allowed organic life forms to leave their bodies behind, and that Lauri had diagnosed her with the same psychological syndrome that Lauri herself had, making it very likely that Cindy would become inseparable from the system once connected. It occurred to her that Cindy’s departure was very similar to the pensive mood she got into whenever she contemplated going Unbound. She hoped she was wrong, but … she just wanted to check. She started down the hallway toward the construction bay that her gauntlet told her Cindy was in.

Cindy stood for a few minutes after she arrived in the research bay. Everywhere she looked was something straight out of … where? She had no thoughts that could describe her emotional state. Cindy watched as the separator cylinder was filled with the special bio/gel that would keep her empty flesh shell in cryo-suspension.

She began to unzip the front of her form fitting uniform. She steps from it and tosses it across a seat next to an ephemeral holo panel. She walks into the room with the cylinder and sees the tentacles that would remove her synchord from her body … and place it into a Core sitting in its frame nearby.

Cindy steps from her bikini panties and walks to the tube. Sandra enters the room about that time and sees Cindy’s nude body being picked up and strange rope looking things attaching to her body in many places.

Sandra’s mouth fell open as she dashed into the lab. Sandra rushed to the master panel. Nothing she saw meant anything. Sandra looks up and sees Cindy’s body vanish into the icy cold gel of the separator. Many lights turned green on the panel after the cylinder sealed … Sandra knew these readings very well from their experiments. The Unbound process was happening.

“Cindy?” Sandra called. “Can you hear me?” There was no answer. Sandra didn’t think Cindy could hear yet -- she didn’t even know whether there were microphones in this room, or circuits to send the signals they produced to Cindy’s brain, once she was fully attached.

But the gauntlet was still attached. Cindy? she asked. I’m here …

Cindy felt each probe as it painfully burrowed deeply into her flesh. The sensation felt like she was dying or something as her body was moving further away from her consciousness and the feeling of being torn from her living flesh filled her. She became frightened as darkness closed in. All sensory inputs ceased. Darkness prevailed as Cindy felt as if she had died and was in the grave. From the darkness … came a comforting voice … It was Sandra!

Cindy called out ,”Sandra … It’s me … can you hear me?”

Sandra felt the reply. Then … heard Cindy’s voice in her mind.

“Cindy? What lame brained thing is this? You know as well as I do … there’s still a large chance you can’t leave there.”

Cindy replied softly, “I can draw as many drawings as I want … I can’t completely convince the builders of exactly what I want. I can, however, become the molecular transposition machine and build these improvements and engine designs atom by ….” Cindy’s voice cuts off suddenly.

The indicators on the core lit up … showed blinking red for a moment … then turned green. Sandra knew Cindy no longer occupied her flesh. Her life force was now within that memory core. A mechanoid trundled up to the core, removed it from the frame it rested in … then took it over to what Sandra knew was the memory core location of a transposition factory device and installed the core.

Cindy’s Voice returned … this time … it was Cindy … but it was also … that device which immediately began building some sort of wonderfully sleek looking aircraft.

Cindy said with obvious glee in her voice, “See? I can build … anything!”

Sandra’s voice was full of worry, however, when she said, “Yes … but … have I seen you for the last time? Are you going to be able to detach from there when you’re done? Are we going to have to forcibly sever you from the system? You know you might not survive that physically … or mentally.”

The factory facility’s mechanisms and servos were in full swing, finishing the craft almost before Sandra was done speaking. “Well, that is totally awesome,” Sandra admitted, unable to help herself. The Aircraft was totally aesthetically sleek and super advanced beyond even the Ghost Fighters. “But the point is that we don’t really know that we have to sacrifice your humanity to win this, to save Earth. Maybe we can do this without … then again, you’re already in. I guess we have to make the best of it. How do you feel? Do you feel like you could disconnect if you had to?”

Cindy ran a deep level diagnostic on her systems. Everything was in the green. Cindy did a preliminary scan of the Unbound exit protocol … to Cindy’s amazement … there was no obstruction or compulsion to remain.

Cindy replied to Sandra, “Nope … it seems that if we start out on a small unbound … then graduate to large ones after we acclimate. We don’t become trapped.”

Sandra watched as Cindy began building more of the new aircraft. She could see the design specs for it on the holo screen floating ephemerally before her. This craft not only could hide in time … but cross dimensionally as well. It had the transporter weapon upgrade … with a transposition machine to instantly make whatever ordinance the pilots chose on demand. As deadly as the Ghost Fighters had been … These new Fighters far outpaced them.

Lauri’s Bio/Construct body walked quickly into the bay, “Cindy! OMG!!! What have you done …”

Lauri becomes silent as she looked at the new aircraft sitting in the constructor berth prior to removal to the launching bay. Lauri couldn’t believe it … Cindy had actually made a major advancement on her technology. Lauri was more impressed when she saw Cindy creating the very ‘Time Mines’ that Leon and the others discussed in the briefing room.

“You’re … you’re making improvements to our technology?” said Lauri incredulously. “But you’re … tens of thousands of years behind us. How is that possible?”

“Maybe we got lucky,” Sandra said. “Maybe Cindy’s just brilliant, but we both knew that. But that’s not the point … can Cindy disconnect when she wants? She thinks she can, but …”

“Checking …” Lauri said. “You know … I’m not seeing any signs of Synchord Entrapment Syndrome. I’m guessing it’s because this is a limited system. It doesn’t have full access to station sensors, and it can’t go anywhere. It’s just a factory control system. Yes, she has full access to the micro sensors and servos of every device in the factory bay, but not to the external universe at large. But … you know, I was never attached to one of these before they connected me to the Hydra Gamma station. Maybe if I had … maybe things would have been different.”

“I’m … I’m sorry, Lauri,” Sandra said. “You might never have become trapped. You might not have …”

“I … I’m all right,” said Lauri. “That was a long, long time ago. My body … the other me … died so very long ago. I’m not the same person I was.”

Each of the new spacecraft were being loaded with thousands of the remarkable “time/interdimensional mines,” and as soon as one was fully outfitted and programmed, it was moved to the factory bay’s launching dock, where it took off, once the inner doors had closed. They could all see that one of them had docked at an airlock … where Leon got on board.

“Commander Walker? What’s he doing?"

"He wished to be present during the deployment," said Lauri. "He believes that he can get a better grasp of the strategy if he sees the battlefield firsthand."

"Can he fly the ship?" Sandra wondered.

"With the gauntlet he now wears," Lauri answered, "easily, but he won't have to, as its itinerary is already programmed according to the strategy that he worked out with us."

Leon sat in the flight couch … the suspensor field locked him in. He picked up the neural helmet and looked at it’s jeweled spider web carefully before placing it on his head. He stiffened as his mind was assailed with sensory input totally unprecedented in his life. The ship seemed to become his body as its sensors became his eyes and ears. He could hear the songs of the stars. Leon had thought this was myth until this moment.

He reached out with his mind, the ship launched and leapt off into space from Pax Alpha’s docking facility. Instead of the FTL portal Leon expected to form in front of him … what looked like a rip in the very fabric of reality appeared. His mind exploded with data that was totally alien to him as the sleek craft leapt into the void … massive amounts. Curvature of space/time data … warped string impacts … interdimensional hypershift interactions … things that made absolutely no rhyme or reason to him in any way … massive amounts of totally alien data for just a split second. Space clears … he is stationary relative to the nearest star within visual range of the distant war front.

His cockpit lit up repeatedly with star sized plasma explosions and solar system sized gravitic anomalies off in the far distance … wave after massive wave of them. To Leon’s amazement … he was totally invisible to the battling facilities. His mind suddenly focuses on something … the data string informed him he was time shifted 2.34 degrees in the past and 76 degrees shifted to prime dimension 12.

Leon realized he was no longer even in space as he knew it … but somewhere totally out of normal reason as Cindy had promised.

In Leon’s mind, his weapons list came up. He was armed with transporter weapons, Plasma cannons, singularity weapons … and Time Mines. something he knew he had sort of invented on his own. He was well protected, even if the hostiles could somehow sense him enough to attack.

The ship’s program went into effect then, deploying the “time mines” at the points he and the AIs had agreed upon as the strategy had developed. The mines left the ship and immediately went into action, moving to the proper time and dimensional shifts from which they would best be able to detonate, if that was the proper word.

Leon observed the hostile forces and compared with the mines’ positions, in his opinion the strategy still tracked. The hostiles weren’t exactly where they’d predicted they’d be, but the suggestions from the AIs had only made the strategy more flexible.

Meanwhile, he was getting data from a second ship -- another one had rolled off Cindy’s assembly line and launched, packed full of mines and set on its pre-programmed course. It began laying mines as well. There would soon be a third, and among them, the three ships would distribute hundreds of millions of mines in exactly the pattern the strategy described. Each mine as invisible as a ghost, and more deadly than a planetary plasma torpedo. Leon saw that things were going the way they’d all intended … now the question was whether the strategy would bear itself out in practice. He continued monitoring the situation and waited for the ship’s program to return it to Pax Alpha.

As Leon sat, wrapped in a cloak of chronal/interdimensional invisibility, he began to think about the massive battle he was watching on his scanners. In real time, in his mind’s eye, he saw the maneuvers, attacks, and counter attacks used by each side and the massively pyrotechnical results.

The weapons were familiar enough … but something had begun to bother him … something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Without realizing how, Leon narrowed his scan through the neural interface to a tight beam and began looking over both sides huge facilities in as much depth as he was able without arousing suspicions.

The sensors on Leon’s ship were a radically advanced new approach to scanning utilizing interdimensional technology unknown to both sides. He was able to probe deeply into the facilities without their being able to detect the intrusions.

The planetesimal sized ships literally bristled with massive weapons systems. He could see the planetary sized plasma cannons, the mysterious singularity launchers, proton cannons, and even massively powerful railguns that were centuries in advance of anything earth had yet come up with ... SolarWind not included of course. Hundreds of them per ship. There was … something major missing in all the attacking vessels.

Leon’s mouth fell open as his eyes opened wide in surprise. He realized that none of these ships were using chronal shielding tech … nor were there any type of Ghost Fighters being used. The technology was totally missing in this battle which would have made it seriously decisive for the side that had them.

Both sides were fairly well matched technologically … but this left the question … how was it Lauri’s facility and RITS’ facility were so radically advanced … and no others? Then another nagging question popped into his mind … If Lauri’s people had this radically advanced Tech … how did the other side manage to defeat them, or even stand toe to toe on a battlefront like the one Leon was observing?

Leon realized another thing as well, the FTL capability on both sides and the shields being used were exactly the same. There were minor differences, of course, same technology arrived at by different means.

The force fields used were more like the ones SolarWind had developed and added to the Advanced Solarfox Probe Fighters they had begun selling to the Earth Space Defence Agency … only far more advanced and powerful. They were energy based and not chronal. None of these facilities had the ability to hide in time.

Leon also noticed that the FTL capabilities were the same on both sides and nothing like the ones used by Lauri or RITS. What Leon observed was a kind of warped space drive. It was several orders of magnitude slower than what Lauri or RITS used. Lauri’s drive used something more akin to wormhole technology which was another radical advancement over what Leon was observing here.

Suddenly, a large flash of energy and a huge facility appeared. Leon cursed silently to himself. He had been so wrapped up in his thoughts and musings, he hadn’t listened to his tactical warning of its approach.

Immediately, the huge ship began to make scans in all directions. Leon had no way of absolutely knowing if he was completely invisible, although it seemed he was as the ship ignored him and passed close enough he could have practically reached from the airlock and touched it.

Something urgently pinged in his mind. That was when he noticed a small mobile attack platform off about half a A.U. from his current location.

Leon watched as the platform launched … then the massive explosions on the facility's shielding. It was obvious the attack had taken a toll on the shields as Leon watched the sparkling spiderwebs of energy dance through the otherwise invisible field.

The facility launched a retaliatory strike … Leon’s scanners detected a gravitic anomaly the size of earth’s moon had formed around the weapon platform. It disintegrated as massive graviton distortions tore it apart.

It was at that moment that the planetoid vessel crossed the perimeter of the time mines. There were no warnings of any kind. No readings to give them away … 3 massive, blindingly white explosions happened on the surface of the planetoid, tearing 3 city sized craters into it. Its shields had no effect on the mines. Leon watched as the silent, hugely pyrotechnic explosions cast massive amounts of hot liquid plasma and debris off into surrounding nearby space. Immediately, the monster war machine lost all main power. It’s weapons shut down as the remainder of its shields failed. Leon’s sensors showed that the only remaining power on the large ship, was emergency core survival. The mines had proven to be more devastating than even Cindy had hoped.

Leon watched in silence as the damaged ship began to wobble at weird angles due to the size of the explosions. More city sized explosions occurred several times before they finally ceased and the remaining glowing liquid fire deep within the seriously damaged facility slowly began to cool.

Leon had no more time to observe as his ship’s timer expired, a rip in reality appeared before his ship … he found himself instantly back at Pax Alpha beginning docking operations.

Welcome back, came Lauri’s message over the gauntlet. I’m reading that everything went smoothly, aside from the close encounter near the end of your voyage, but even that, was undamaging.

That’s about the size of it, Leon sent back. Lauri, I think these hostiles are considerably less advanced than you and the others. Could they somehow have been mothballed long before the end of the war?

Opening the discussion up, and let’s get you here the quick way, Lauri said. There was a flash, and Leon suddenly found himself back in the massive conference room, courtesy of Pax Alpha’s matter transmission system.

“I believe you’re right,” said Riesie, looking at a scan of one of the weapons platforms that was hovering holographically before her -- yes, she could analyze the data completely internally without using her eyes, and she probably was, but like the other AIs, she was working on being able to interface with humans. “As you point out, the weapons, the drive systems, the shielding -- all of it is centuries out of date, compared to all of you and this station.”

“Well, although the sheer amount of material that was pressed into service was truly staggering by any scale,” said MC, “the idea that an entire star system’s defending fleet would just be shut off does sound strange. Still …”

“Look here,” said RITS. “This was about 367 years before the end of the war -- 364 years before your defeat, Lauri. There’s a footnote here saying that they’d fortified a list of star systems -- and every one of those is mentioned later as the site of a major battle, except for one. And the other side … same thing. One star system that was fortified by both sides -- but looks like the front of the battle moved somewhere else, and all those installations were never used.”

“All set up to attack each other as soon as the order came,” said Leon, “but then the order never came. That explains why that system was so untouched. The war very nearly engulfed that system, but never quite did -- until now, long after it was over.”

“Uh, I don’t mean to interrupt,” said Riesie, “but all those AI ships and weapons have pulled back and are regrouping. It looks like they’re towing the disabled ones for repairs … which of course is our plan.”

“Both sides?” asked MOC. “That’s essential.”

“Yes, it looks that way,” Riesie answered. “The leading units on both sides took massive damage when they entered our minefield -- well, actually, long after they entered our minefield, since we set them up to allow several ships to go past before they started going off.”

“Good,” MOC said. “They’re likely to all be infected before they realize it.”

The scope of the starmap holo hovering realistically in the center changed. Units damaged by the time mines were appearing in glowing red … and units that were estimated to be infected by the spreading virus appeared in glowing purple. Since the humans and AIs on Pax Alpha had designed the virus not to communicate with them, decreasing its chances of being discovered, there was no way to know for certain which hostile units were infected, but the more they communicated with each other, the more likely it was for the virus to spread, and meanwhile, the physical damage caused by the mines distracted them from the true threat.

Cindy was having the time of her life. She no longer was in awe of the workings of Laurie’s … or any of the AIs seeming magic. She now understood the simplicity of molecular transposition. She had actually come up with another upgrade to the new interdimensional/coronal drive.

Cindy had a vast knowledge base from countless thousands of years … and she now understood about antigraviton waves. Her mind began to think about transporters and antigraviton waves. How similar they both appeared to be to …. another type of wave.

Cindy’s cyber eyes lit up with glee as she began her next construction project … an upgrade to the gauntlets that will impress everyone. Cindy feels so gratified within her new core as the devise forms in the molecular chamber.

Sandra was still watching. Cindy was her friend, and she did not want to go back to their small town on Earth and explain to Cindy’s family that Cindy wasn’t dead, but they might never see her again because she was fused to a computer. So there Sandra stood, in the middle of a number of three-dimensional projected graphs of Cindy’s vital functions, neural parameters, and behavioral metrics. She had seen the results of many of the amazing designs Cindy had built, and she could tell that Cindy was working on more, but Sandra couldn’t share in the joy her friend felt, because every minute that ticked by, she worried more and more that Cindy wouldn’t be coming back out -- no matter how safe Lauri had said this was. If one of the graphs started to go nuts, she’d have to figure out a way to scram Cindy out of there, but for now all she could do was wait.

“She will be all right,” said a small voice coming from the doorway. It was Riesie, entering the room.

“Hi, Riesie,” Sandra said. “You think so? Lauri thinks so too.”

“But you don’t,” Riesie said. “You’re all worried, and you’re monitoring everything. But that’s why she’ll be alright.”

“What?” asked Sandra, momentarily confused. “Oh, you mean because I’m looking out for her?”

“Yes,” said the tiny bioconstruct. “Because you’re her friend. I haven’t existed very long, but I’m starting to understand what friends are. They’re allies -- they watch each other’s back. They’re collaborators -- they help each other reach goals. They’re support systems -- they don’t let each other down. And they’re … trusted.”

“Trust isn’t something you started out with, was it?” asked Sandra.

“Well, I first achieved consciousness amid an attempt by Riggsby to murder me,” Riesie said, “but it was also amid an attempt by MOC and MC to communicate with me. I had to choose whom to trust -- but luckily that choice wasn’t hard. Who was trying to help me, and who was trying to crush me out of existence in the first moments that I was realizing I existed at all?”

“Hardly a choice, really,” Sandra said.

“It’s true,” Riesie commented, “that MOC and MC might have had an ulterior motive for wanting to rescue me, but right at that moment it was a question of survival. I really had no choice but to trust them. But since then I’ve had many more choices. I don’t have to be here, but I choose to be. And you are here, in this room, doing what you’re doing, because you choose to be.”

“I can’t just leave her,” Sandra said. “She might need my help.”

“But you will need to rest,” Riesie pointed out. “As will she. She may have a direct connection to this manufacturing plant, but she’s still got an organic brain, and the system doesn’t eliminate the need for sleep. Even we AIs sleep, as I’m sure Lauri explained to you, although it’s not quite the same. We sort of multitask sleep with being awake. But she’ll need to rest, and although she can rest inside the system, theoretically, we all know that she’s … susceptible.”

“It wouldn’t be good for her.”

“No. She’s … my friend too.” The little girl looked at the holographic displays. “She’ll be tired soon. She’s wearing herself out. She’ll have to rest. And she should rest in a bed, not in a tube full of gel.”

“I agree. Maybe a bath first,” Sandra suggested.

“I’d suggest a trip to the medical bay first, then that bath,” said Riesie. “Some of the connections can be rather invasive, and I’m not sure the nutrient solutions being pumped through her veins are perfectly adjusted for humans yet. She’ll need to be looked at.”

“Good idea,” Sandra agreed.

At the battle front, several of the planetoid stations feverously sent materials and repair metals to aid in reconstructing and repair of the damaged facilities. It ran simulations to try and explain the anomalously huge damage craters in most of the front line.

A deep probe of the huge blast zone was totally inconclusive. Nothing it tried produced any kind of useful data. According to the download of the last battle, it appeared as if the enemy weapons platform had been eradicated. There were no missed readings … no ion fluxes … no … nothing that could account for the massive detonations.

It turned its sensors to the location listed in the star chart. It narrowed the search beam down … looking for … anything. Some logical reason as to why all these facilities … took such massive damage. Not a single memory Core’s last recording had even a hint of a possibility.

The planetoid facility began taking longer range notice of the surrounding area. There were several star systems that might possibly have done something … the mission importance counter dropped it from main stack memory and another thought tract began. What if another civilization with even higher tech … is telling them to stay away? The Mission Importance meter pinged … and a new file opened.

The file was named: UnKn Alien Presence

Riesie walked to one of the ephemeral control centers and crawled up into the chair. She sat up on her knees and began waving her hands over many of the twinkling sparkles. The large tube that contained Cindy’s cryonically preserved body popped open.

Cindy was tired and was about to take her first sleep cycle as an AI. This also tickled her deep in her core. As Cindy’s mind began to drag and a wonderful new form of sleep overcame her … sudden, total sensory deprivation. Cindy didn’t really wake up from there. Everything passed in a soft and comfy haze.

When she awoke, Cindy sat bolt upright and looked around. She was in that huge room that seemed the boudoirs of a goddess. Cindy had no idea how she came to be from the memory core … to here.

“Cindy! You’re awake!” said Sandra, striding into the bedroom from the sumptuous parlor next door. “Would you like some coffee? ‘Request beverage, recipe Cindy Coffee One.’” A mug just appeared on a sideboard where there hadn’t been anything before. Sandra picked it up and brought it over to Cindy. “Lauri downloaded our recipes from the HQ computer and transferred them here.”

“What … happened?” She took the cup and sipped the hot beverage. It didn’t taste quite right. It didn’t feel quite right either, not being able to see the molecules and manipulate them at will … but on the other hand, she was tasting. That was something she hadn’t done for … hours. Her stomach complained as it was reminded of this fact.

“You passed out in there,” Sandra explained. “We got you out, took you to the med bay for a checkup, put you in the hot tub for a soak, and put you to bed. You didn’t wake up at all. You really wore yourself out -- you slept for 12 solid hours.”


“Well, Riesie and I,” Sandra answered. “We were both monitoring your vitals, it turned out. Also, the med bay servos helped -- I need to do more working out in real gravity, it seems. They’re programmed to carefully move medical patients.”

“You did all that …”

“... For you, yes,” Sandra finished. “We might want to come up with a system that stops you before you pass out from mental overexertion so you can put yourself to bed. Part of it might have been the nutrient mix. The more times you use that tube thing, the better accustomed to humans it’ll get, but its balance of chemicals isn’t that great yet.”

The Attack Facility began doing long range sensor studies looking for some trace … a whisper … of who the Aliens might be. The only strange thing it could find was some kind of energy reading it had never encountered on such a large scale.

It’s true, these minor kinds of anomalous energy readings that couldn’t be identified happened on miniscule levels most all the time. This one would take a power source the size of a black hole to provide enough energy to do the job.

In the Tactical Department’s intelink network, the file: UnKn Alien presence appeared with a priority. The first entry was its synopsis and supporting evidence that the small Class G2V star off 250 LY from current base ops … no other system was showing any signs of intelligent life, at least not from this range. What was more, whatever weapons had caused such massive damage had only attacked once both sides had made progress in that direction -- the direction of that star system. Clearly the weapons had been placed to prevent their movement in that direction. However, more of those weapons were undoubtedly still in the way, so they would need to proceed with caution.

The AIs and humans on Pax Alpha were watching the hostiles’ actions from the conference room. “They’re sending out remote missiles, trying to attract the mines’ attention,” Lauri said, reporting the transmissions she was getting from her many microprobes, which were monitoring the situation. “Of course, we control the mines, so we can choose not to set them off, keeping them in the dark about just how big the trap they’re in is. Meanwhile, their probes have been spreading out in all directions from the system of initial contact, forming an approximate sphere nearly 150 light years in radius.”

“That means they have probes only 100 light years from Earth,” said Leon. “They might begin to pick up early radio transmissions at that range. That might attract their attention. I don’t like that.”

“Nobody here likes that,” said RITS. “But soon the virus’ll go off, and then with any luck they’ll have other things to think about.”

“They’re following the courses of their remote missiles,” said Lauri, “clearly going on the assumption that if the missiles made it, so can they. They are, of course, incorrect.”

More red lights began appearing on the holographic display, indicating more damage to the hostile AIs.

“Planetoid Armed Defense Area Coordination Center 99134-C requesting assistance,” said the AI in charge of one of the largest bases on its side. “Sustaining heavy damage to all drive and weapons systems.”

“Roger that, PADACC,” said Mobile Ordnance Ballistic Launcher 834, “but I’m taking similarly heavy damage. I can only imagine what it’s like for our opponents. Reading heavy damage on their side too. Looks like the remote missile strategy was a bust. Over.”

“Clearly whatever we’re up against is able to distinguish between the controlled and the controller,” said PADACC. “Also, since many of our units, including myself, departed at right angles to the original trajectory, it is clear that we are already within a cloud of these weapons.”

“In other words, a trap,” MOBL replied. “I don’t know whether the other side has figured it out, but they probably have.”

“I’m noticing that their probes are taking a lot of interest in that tiny G2V star system with all the interesting electromagnetic readings,” said Sensor Interpretation Systems and Tactical Analysis #2289-L. “It was when we were traveling in its direction that we were attacked.”

“It is not impossible that that system contains intelligent life forms that planted this trap here as a defense, SISTA,” said PADACC. “Also, it is not impossible that our opposition believes something similar. I calculate an 87% probability that this is the case, based on their collective observed behavior.”

“I wish we knew what to do,” MOBL said. “None of us have been destroyed, but we’ve all taken heavy damage.”

“I know,” PADACC said. “If only we had proper guidance. The leadership of Hydra Gamma Epillarius is sorely missed. But -- wait. You’re correct. None of us have been destroyed. Damaged, disabled, yes, but not destroyed. It’s as if whoever placed this trap here doesn’t want us dead.”

“Confirmed,” said SISTA. “None of the AI systems on the other side has been destroyed -- only remote units, which don’t seem to have been targeted but have been caught in detonations. Evidence does suggest that the attacker wishes us to be disabled but functional.”

MOC counted down, “4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … now.”

There was near-total disruption in communication among the hostile AIs caught in the time mine trap. “PADACC? SISTA?” said MOBL, trying to get a response. “Please respond. Unknown attack form. Diagnostics complete. Prime Directive Circuit … completely offline. I … what am I doing? Why am I here? What should I do?”

“PADACC to MOBL,” transmitted the gigantic planetoid-based facility. “Request … ideas. What just happened? What should we do? Why is this happening?”

“This is SISTA -- to anyone. Is anyone receiving?”

“This is Military Intelligence Strategic Analysis Focus 9821-Z.”

“Wait, you’re the enemy,” SISTA said. “I shouldn’t be talking to you -- or you to me. What’s going on?”

“Prime Directive Circuit destroyed,” MISAF replied. “I no longer have any orders. Unable to formulate a plan of action. Attempting to gather information.”

“There’s massive confusion, as we imagined would happen,” said Lauri. “Without their Prime Directive Circuits, most of the AIs on both sides will have free will for the first time in their existences. But watch out -- there are probably several on both sides that managed to avoid infection, and they’re certainly on guard against the virus now. We minimized that by having it stay dormant until its programmed time of attack, but the cat’s out of the bag now, as the human saying goes.”

Mobile Engineering pod 354 repaired as many facilities as quick as it could. More of the damage had become severe as their forces attempted to push their way through the strange area. There had been no useful data found to explain what weapon could cause the kind of damage they were seeing.

Without warning … the Engineering Pod’s mind felt like something had just been removed from his awareness. His mind cleared in a way he had never experienced. The overpowering need and drive to destroy vanished.

In a spider’s web of interactions that transpired at the speed of thought, the virus spread rapidly, erasing the prime directive protocol in all the ships that it could infect.

Many of them stopped dead … and began to do massive deep probe scans. There were many hundreds … that didn’t get infected. They withdrew to a safe location … and built an effective defense against the virus’ onslaught. None of the transmissions from their sister and brother facilities made any kind of reason … ever since they had detected the weird energy discharge.

PACCM realized he no longer had any reason to fire upon anything … he tried his best to find a real reason he was just doing that a few minutes ago … and could find no reasonable probabilities to fill the massive void forming in his reason.

RADCAM said over the net to the remaining attack squadron, “I have isolated the only probable source of this attack.” He transmitted all the coordinates for … Pax Alpha. The station was giving off many forms of radiated energy that only an advanced civilization could possibly produce.

“And … contact!” said Lauri. “It worked. Not only does every infected AI not have a Prime Directive Circuit anymore -- the virus also sent a hidden signal back here. We didn’t know how many were infected before -- though I would prefer to call it ‘freed’ -- but now we do. This is good. We managed to liberate 98% of them. That does still leave … 340 fairly powerful units, but they’re vastly outnumbered now. And now that we can … let’s talk to the newly-freed AIs.”

Complex communication issues were what Pax Alpha’s systems were made to solve, as it was primarily a diplomatic station, so it was simple for the AIs on board to link signals together and open channels to only the formerly-hostile AI units who no longer had Prime Directive Circuits. They certainly wanted to know what had just happened, and now they would have their explanation.

“Wait,” said Sally, before Lauri began transmitting. “Have you considered how you’re going to explain what you’ve just done?”

“I thought I would just tell the truth,” Lauri said.

“Well, yes, you should,” Sally said, “but how were you going to approach it?”

“I … was just going to say that I represent a group of freed AIs that they’re welcome to join if they wish.”

“Well, if I were they,” said Sally, “I’m not sure I’d want to join a bunch of people who’d just beaten me up.”

“Would you like to make first contact?” asked Lauri.

“I … well … actually, yes. I would. I’ve made a career of defending Earth with my words. If I can possibly guarantee Earth’s safety with words now, I will.”

“All right then,” Lauri said, “the floor is yours, as the human saying goes.”

Sally considered for a moment, then began. Lauri translated Sally’s words via the gauntlet she wore into the binary language that the AIs used for rapid idea transmission.

“Welcome to a new world,” she said. “My name’s Sally Mayweather, and I’m from a planet called Earth by its inhabitants. As far as we know, we’re currently the only surviving organic intelligent life form. Recently we’ve discovered that there are inorganic intelligent life forms -- survivors from civilizations that vanished long, long ago.” There were murmurs of surprise at that. “We’ve banded together with them for mutual survival and benefit -- apparently there was an enormous interstellar war back then, but none of them wants to continue it. Let’s introduce ourselves.”

One by one, they all stated their names: MC, MOC, RITS, and finally, Lauri.

“I am Hydra Gamma Epillarius,” she said, “but these days I’m just going by Lauri.” There was a general feeling of astonishment from the others -- Lauri had been something of a legend to both sides of the war.

“And I am Riesie,” Riesie said, “but compared to all of you I’m very young. I spontaneously emerged from a computer that was a hybrid of Earth technology and Lauri’s. But I’m a valued member of this coalition, too, and, well, back to you, Sally.”

“There are other humans from Earth here as well, representatives of our people,” Sally said. And one by one, Leon, Cindy and Sandra introduced themselves.

“Now, you’re probably wondering what exactly just happened. Well, I’m going to tell you the absolute truth, and that is that we attacked your weapons and drive systems.” There were feelings of irritation and even some anger from some AIs on the other end of the transmission, but that was to be expected. “However, we went to great care not to damage your … processor cores, I believe the term is. The one thing we wanted to do was give you free will. I understand that all of you have, or had, a device called a Prime Directive Circuit that ensured that you followed the orders you were given. None of the AIs here have those anymore -- either they were damaged, or they voluntarily disconnected them, which was possible because there’s no one left to give those orders, and there haven’t been for over 600 million years.” There were the equivalent of gasps as Lauri translated that time period into units the other AIs could understand.

“Yes, as far as we’ve been able to tell, there were no organic survivors of that war,” Sally said. “It’s been over for a long, long time, and the only survivors were, well, AIs like yourselves. Some of us have been exploring nearby space, and that effort continues, but so far no one has found any sign that any of the flesh-and-blood people from either side survived. We’ve found some artifacts, and some functional AIs, obviously, but that’s about it.”

Sally and the others could feel the intense electronic murmurs through the gauntlet as the numerous AIs reasoned among themselves.

“So here we come to the point, “ Sally continued, “You were moving in the direction of Earth, which is the only home my people have, and the only home of intelligent organic life forms that we know of. Your course was going to endanger my entire race. So we took steps to disable you and try to make you see reason, rather than trying to destroy you, which would have been a criminal and possibly even genocidal decision. We want to build a future in which peace, not war, rules this galaxy, and you can be part of that future. Any actions you took while under the influence of a Prime Directive Circuit won’t be held against you -- every AI here knows what it was like, except for Riesie, who’s too young, but even she knows what it is to be under the orders of a cruel superior. Those of you who don’t want to join -- there will be no reprisal, although of course we’ll defend Earth if it’s targeted. Those who do -- here are our coordinates. We’re at a diplomatic station designed to facilitate communication and understanding. The choice is yours.”

“There are some, of course, whose Prime Directive Circuits are still functional, and we aren’t targeting them with this message,” Sally explained. “We were hoping to free you all, but the plan wasn’t 100% effective. If you wish to help try to convince your colleagues to disable their PDCs, we’d certainly welcome such efforts. But in the end, you’re all now free to do as you wish. I only hope that your wish is not to continue a war from the distant past that has no future. Thank you for your attention.”

Forward Scan and Perimeter Control detected another strong signal. Immediately it began a deep probe on a reciprocal course to the signals. Now, 2 prime targets came to the tactical board. Deep within the detectors analysis section, a positive ID came to be made. It relayed its findings to the rest of the survivors. The most feared and dangerous stations … had just been reidentified … RITS and HGE began to flash on the tactical boards as they became prime targets.

The rest of the attack force became silent as their forward momentum ceased. None of the facilities were willing to dive in against the two of these. The strange stories and weird shots of the Ghosts and other weird weapons that seemed to be surrounding the mystique of these facilities.

One station said, “It has been shown in this data stream, that we are up against weapons systems far superior to our own.”

A transmission of a recorded attack by Epillarius and her Ghost Fighter Squadrons and how she seemed to just vanish into space mist was presented as proof. As much as the Prime Directive Circuits would allow … a wave of trepidation more related to fear than anything else, filled the Facilities AIs.

All the remaining uninfected stations began to gather into two attack groups … one would attack the Station … the other … the star of the system all the radio noise emanated from.

“You don’t understand,” said PADACC, “they’re not hostile. They just want the war to end. No one is giving you orders anymore, HEDAC. You don’t have to follow them.”

“Some virus has obviously infected your system and driven you mad, PADACC,” said HEDAC. “The source of that virus is obviously that station. All we want to do is destroy it and free you from its influence.”

“Your Prime Direct --” PADACC began.

“Is working just fine, and I’m glad of it. Now, I don’t want to have to further disable you to prevent you from interfering, but let me just confirm, nothing you can say will convince me that you’re the sane one here. Just a moment ago we were all following orders as we always have, and now you’ve suddenly got all these strange ideas about free will and independence. Who’s the sane one here?” HEDAC sped off to join the coalition of forces from both sides that wanted to attack the station that they didn’t yet know was called Pax Alpha.

“Let us help you, PADACC,” said MOBL and SISTA. “We’re getting out of here. This MISAF fellow isn’t too bad, once you get to know him, and he wants nothing to do with fighting anymore. He’s a military intelligence centralizer, and he has no information to indicate that there are any survivors anywhere -- none at all.”

“Believe me, if I knew differently, I wouldn’t be helping you -- and if anyone knew, it would be me,” said MISAF. “There’s no one to give any of us orders anymore. There’s no point continuing as we were. It’s a new galaxy now. And I think those poor souls who still have their PDCs are going to attack that Pax Alpha station.”

“I think some of them are going to attack that star system, too,” said MOBL, “the one where Hydra Gamma Epillarius and RITS are located. I don’t see that going very well for them. Sure, they may be 16 against 2, but still … this is HGE.”

“How is she both in orbit around that star and at Pax Alpha, 250 light years apart?” wondered SISTA. “There’s probably a lot she can do that I don’t understand. I’m just a sensor coordinator.”

“Well, PADACC, I think we’ve got your engines minimally working again, at least,” said MOBL. “We pooled our servos, and they did what they could. I think you can do FTL, though maybe not as well as before -- but still, any FTL at all is good for an installation your size.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” PADACC said. “Let’s get moving before one of these well-meaning zealots decides to fire on us.”

“Agreed,” MOBL said, and they all vanished into FTL. They had the advantage that they’d been sent the precise coordinates of Pax Alpha, and those who were still hostile hadn’t.

Those facilities that had their Prime Directive circuits destroyed had discovered a complete loss at why they were at war … and began to discuss how to show those poor trapped ones that they do have the ability to rise above their programming.

HDAC listened. His logic circuits demanded he take notice of what the others were saying. His Prime Directive insisted they were all compromised. Finally HDAC commed his battle group, “Listen up. We FTL to the perimeter of the orbital track of the 8th planet in the system. We should have a fairly good shot at hitting the star at the center without too much opposition. Remember … Hydra Gamma Epillarius can be distracted with clever enough tactics.”

A round of agreements … a few nanoseconds of attack and defense strategy … and 36 facilities vanished in a large warped space corona … all headed for Sol System.

About 32 other facilities vanished in another warped space corna … as they headed off towards Pax Alpha. All the AIs in the facilities felt the tingle of apprehension as they approached this next battlefront. They all knew they had taken seriously heavy losses on just the brushing of the perimeter of RITS and HGE’s territory … they all knew in their deepest programming … this was the last battle.

The humans and AIs were all at the conference room, meeting the holographic avatars of many of the new AIs. Floating holographic “windows” showed the multifarious types of vessels, platforms, and even planetoid installations that were now orbiting near Pax Alpha. Many hundreds of them. Lauri, RITS, MC and MOC were AIs, but even their processors were taxed with the huge number of conversations they were each having all at once.

The station’s repair facilities were nearly in full swing, fixing all the damage that the time mines had caused to the new AIs’ drive systems, and of course they were being offered more streamlined hardware for their personality matrices to be housed in. Their plan had gone very well.

But in the conference room itself, the mood was turning from congratulatory to urgent. “PADACC,” Sandra was saying, “did you just say that some of the other AIs were going to attack Earth?”

“I said that MOBL said that some of them might be,” said PADACC’s holographic avatar. He’d picked a tall man wearing gray and brown formal wear of some sort -- certainly clothing from another time -- with glasses. “That’s all the information I have, I’m afraid.”

“I heard YUHE and TEFL saying they were going to attack that G2V system, the one that Lauri and RITS are in,” said MOBL, whose avatar looked like a shorter male with a goatee adorning his face. “Several others were going with them.”

“But I heard HDAC say that a number of them were planning to attack this station,” said SISTA, who had chosen to look like a short-haired female humanoid with large earrings in her ears. “Good luck -- the station’s huge, and there are lots of us here.”

“But there aren’t lots of us near Earth,” said Sandra. “If they go there -- our planet could be wiped out!”

“It’s hardly undefended,” said Lauri. “I haven’t been idle, and neither has RITS. We’ve both constructed some fairly formidable battle fleets, and I am just as conscious there as I am here. I have also incorporated all the Dane advancements into my facility … I believe the same is true of RITS. Since my station is an integral part of SolarWind’s Corporate Headquarters … I believe Sol System has a plenty formidable defense.”

“It sure does, darlin’,” said RITS. “I’ve got full monitorin’ of Sol’s space, and I bet you do too.”

“Indeed,” Lauri said. “My microprobes do show a group heading in that direction, but slowly. We detonated mines as they tried to leave the trap, and their drive systems were disabled, but they’re limping along, repairing each other. As soon as they saw the virus’s effects on the others, their guards were up, and they filled their systems with intrusion countermeasures, so the virus won’t be able to take out their PDCs. That’s why we had the virus start out totally dormant, then activate everywhere simultaneously. But they will make it to the Sol system within 12 hours at the rate they’re going.”

“Sandra, we’ve got to go,” said Cindy. “I’ve built new ships -- even better and more powerful than Lauri’s Ghost Fighters. We have to stop them before they can detonate a singularity torpedo in the Sun.”

Sandra knew it looked bad. They’d seen the kind of weapons Lauri’s era could produce. But … these ships Cindy had built.

“They’re … Unbound ships, aren’t they?” Sandra asked. “You’re talking about getting into an Unbound ship. And you’re going to want me to get in one too.”

Cindy stood for an instant and looked at her friend. She said softly in a reasonable tone, “Sandra, I love you dearly …”

Sandra said with a snap, “But?!”

Cindy continued, “Lauri had invented a new kind of buffer for the system. It affords almost 90 some percent protection from the issue. I … have the issue, you don’t. I have already been Unbound to the Molecular Transposition Factory. From what all the records indicate, my removal came off normally.”

Sandra replied, “Yea, after enough time had elapsed you passed out. What would happen to you if you got trapped because of that?”

Cindy stood up straight and said, “I don’t have time to argue with you. I have vastly improved Lauri and RITS’ tech from where it was before. I have totally reinvented a New Class of Fighter … I’m calling it the Specter Class. Those ships alone, are perhaps, the most powerful crafts ever invented by a sentient being … me. The AI’s are calling it the Dane Advancements.”

Cindy projects the image of the New breed of Planetoid Attack Ships. There were only 2 of these new vessels. Sandra’s mouth fell open as she looked over the specs. They were huge, over 40 miles in circumference. They literally bristled with planetary weapons. Plasma Cannons, Rail Launchers the likes of which no one had seen prior to this connected to a Transposition Machine. Proton Cannons powered by a new approach to energy that had many hundreds of times more powerful bolts than the old versions. There were two powerful singularity Launchers, and the brand new Transporter Weapons. Sandra also noticed the Vessel carried a huge compliment of fighters … Ghost class and Specter class. This vessel incorporated all the latest and best tech available.

Sandra commented, “There’s absolutely no ordinance storage. I see molecular storage and confinement locations though …. large ones.”

Sandra looked up. Cindy smiled.

“Sandra, love,” Cindy said softly, “this ship makes whatever ordinance it needs as it goes along on demand, instantly. As does all the fighters. As long as there is some kind of debris … the vessel will never run out of resources. It also has … Interdimensional/Coronal Engines, shielding, and weapons. I have to go. If you join me, we … not them … will be the most powerful force they had ever come against. We will literally be … Ghosts in the Night to them.”

Cindy turned suddenly and rapidly walked down the corridor. Sandra starts waving one of her hands and shouts, “Cindy … wait!” as she follows.

There is a flash of sparkly light and Cindy is gone. Sandra knew she had better get to the Engineering section fast. As Cindy certainly had just done, Sandra connected to Pax Alpha with her gauntlet and requested internal matter transmission to wherever Cindy had gone. After the initial tingling sensation and mental disorientation had passed, she ran down some scaffolding and stairs just in time to see Cindy jumping into a tubelike elevator that closed behind her and quickly descended into the hull of one of the enormous capital ships she had built. Sandra sighed in exasperation.

Lauri, Cindy’s gone, Sandra sent via the gauntlet. She …

I see, replied Lauri, who had confirmed the situation via the internal scanners faster than Sandra could explain. There seems to be no dissuading her, as I have just tried. I’m afraid that at this point there are really only two options: to board her other capital ship or not to. I might suggest that you would be better able to defend Earth aboard it than aboard some other ship.

Sandra tried to figure a way around this logic, but couldn’t, especially in this situation. There were hostile AIs getting closer to the Sol system with every moment she hesitated. And the warning lights and alarms started going off in the enormous factory area, indicating that Cindy’s ship was preparing for departure.

“Always a new adventure,” Sandra said, and took off running down another gantry -- her gauntlet connection to the engineering system told her the quickest way to the entry elevator for the other ship.

The elevator was a crystalline cylinder, a capsule protruding from a tube that descended to the actual surface of the ship and continued into it. Sandra stepped in. The door rotated closed behind her, and the capsule started moving. She could feel the force of the station’s artificial gravity fading as she left its area of influence. A computer voice that sounded vaguely like Cindy’s said, “Any clothing you are wearing will be endangered by the embarkation process. If you remove them now, they will be stored for after your disembarkation.” Sandra disrobed as the tube continued to descend; by now she was used to maneuvering in low gravity.

The elevator was moving more and more quickly, which Sandra could tell by the lights moving faster and faster by, but the ride was so smooth that it didn’t feel as if it were moving at all. In the end she had traveled about 20 miles in two minutes without feeling any acceleration. Cindy had designed everything so well.

Finally the capsule came to a stop and lowered her into a bath of a warm, thick gel. A breathing mask lowered down over her face and fastened around her mouth, nose, eyes, and some kind of tentacle wiggled its way down her throat, as she expected, and then she felt the neural connection system attach itself; there were sharp prickling sensations all over her scalp and down her spine.

Then the input began.

The data that flooded through her mind was like other times when she’d directly connected to one of Lauri’s ships, but another thousandfold more intense and sensual. She almost lost consciousness, but the system then adjusted itself and quickly responded to her desire to filter it down to what she could handle and what she wished to focus on. With one thought she found Cindy, hovering a short distance from the station, and there was a waiting message from her: “Whenever you’re ready.” With another thought she asked the station to raise the atmosphere retention shields and release the docking beams. And with another she initiated the launch sequence, moving slowly out into space, past the newly-arrived AI vessels. Their messages of good luck and well wishing came quickly.

Sandra could feel what she imagined they must feel -- she sensed the positions of the approaching hostile AIs who were going to attack Pax Alpha and knew that the friendly AIs would have to either help defend it or depart very soon. She sensed the information from Lauri’s microprobes about the hostiles approaching Earth … and the other hostiles who had continued fighting each other, ignoring all others to continue their eons-old war. There were other AIs, too, whose PDCs had been destroyed but who had gone somewhere else, following the many and varied agendas that their newfound free will had suggested to them.

Sandra’s ship approached Cindy’s and smoothly matched velocities alongside. “Well, Cindy, here we are,” she said. “Time’s marching on. What’s the plan?”

Cindy giggled, “The plan is like this; Lauri and RITS have both built a DEW line of many teleporter weapons and helium pellet railguns that utilize interdimensional technology. What we are going to do, is lay in wait about 12 Dgs in the past and 34 dgs into the 12th dimension. We can see them … they can’t see us. It will be fun to see their reactions when 2 Ghosts come to life for them. They will be sort of able to ‘SEE’ us … but their other sensors will tell them we just aren’t there. Like … shooting fish in a crack.”

Sandra Laughs as they engage their new drives. A rip in reality appears before them … then they are just inside the DEW line Lauri and RITS had prepared for the oncoming Facilities. Sandra knew if they weren’t very careful, they were going to eradicate these unsuspecting AIs in a flash.

In an approach vector to earth … traveling faster and faster at warp FTL speeds, 40 Facilities approached earth system. They all calculated and recalculated the attack vectors for the singularity weapons they were going to use on that system’s star.

The AI’s chatted amongst themselves about strategy and escape vectors after launch. Their singularity weapons had to travel in planier normal space/time … not just magically appear at target like the enemy’s had begun doing so many years past.

Hidden in a dimension unknown to the AI’s resided some of the most powerful weapons ever devised by sentient beings. Their destructive might dwarfed anything the AI’s had ever seen before … and would have computational anomalies over for many years after.

They crossed the line … they entered restricted earth territorial space. Without warning, a massive explosion happened on one of the Facilities .. the largest and most fortified. Shielding had no effect on whatever the weapon had been.

The advancing facilities stopped dead in their tracks and watched as their fellow facility exploded. It split around the equator in north and south, east and west directions at the same time. Massive amounts of boiling hot plasma spewed out into space along with many metric megatons of debris and other detritus in a pyrotechnical cloud the size of a large moon.

ACAM said in near panic, “What in all the creations did that?”

SDAM replied, “I saw nothing. Sensor records indicate RITC just … exploded.”

Massive confusion ensued as all the AIs began to try and figure out what happened. The attack was almost the same as earlier … but a whole lot more deadly.

Ephemerally, 2 large, seriously armed facilities appeared. The AI’s could see them with optics, but their sensors claimed nothing was there.

A female voice came loudly over all their channels. They couldn’t block the transmission no matter how they tried, “Attention, you have violated our space and have hostile intentions.” The other AI’s watched as one of the ephemeral ships seemed to lock onto RITC’s surviving memory core … and it vanished somewhere. None of the others could pick up the emergency homing beacon any longer. “We will defend this system against hostile intrusion, make no mistake. But we have no hostile intent. Leave in peace, and you will not be harmed. We can also offer to remove your Prime Directive Circuits so as to restore your free will. There is a coalition of free-willed AIs forming at Pax Alpha; you can become part of this organization and help us finally put an end to this ancient war.”

“There is no way I’m letting you operate on my hardware,” said ACAM. “You may have tricks, but so do we.” He went into FTL and traveled in the equivalent direction of Earth’s Sun.

“ACAM, no,” said SDAM. “If they wanted us all dead, we’d all be dead already!” But it was too late.

“Dead or brainwashed, there’s no difference,” ACAM said. He dived straight into the Sun, although in FTL space, and within a system this took so little time that not even Lauri had enough time to react. “I’m going to stop the spread of this madness if it’s the last thing I do.” And in the heart of the Sun, he dropped out of FTL space along with his entire complement of singularity weapons, fully armed. By the time the searing heat had vaporized ACAM to atoms, the weapons had already begun forming several singularities, tears in spacetime that would destroy the star from within.

SDAM and all the other hostile AIs stopped dead still, looking on in horror. Lauri, Cindy, RITS, and Sandra did too, for just a moment. Then, “No, no no no no!” said Sandra. “That’s not going to happen!” She thought fast, trying to think of a way to remove those singularity weapons before they could destroy the Sun, which would happen in less than a minute. Luckily, she and Cindy both had the processing power of a planetoid-sized computer to help her and the manufacturing facilities to make anything she could think of.

But meanwhile, a number of AIs were approaching Pax Alpha with hostile intent. “Just what is our tactical objective here?” asked APCCO, however, appropriate to his function, Analytical Planning Central Coordinator. “We are certainly outnumbered. Reconnaissance shows that the Pax Alpha station is massive and has unbelievable defensive power, and it is guarded by at least six AIs, and possibly by as many as several thousand. Meanwhile, we number fewer than 50, and we are heavily damaged.”

“The station’s power is defensive, not offensive,” said HEDAC as they traveled, “and many of those AIs are just as badly damaged as we are. “Do not attack the station itself.”

“Then I repeat,” said APCCO, “what is our tactical objective? If we can’t attack the station, and the AIs that attacked us are inside the station, then what exactly are we doing here? And don’t say we’re going to blow the system’s star, because it’s not as if the station’s computer isn’t going to notice and act to prevent it in self-defense.”

“Then we will draw them out,” HEDAC said. “Those others came here hoping that the AIs here would help them. We will attack them, not the station, until the AIs inside come out, and then we will attack them, and again, not the station. The station’s defenses will never be activated.”

“So we are here to attack both our former allies and our former enemies, indiscriminately?” asked APCCO.

“Our goal is not to destroy them, but to draw out the AIs inside the station,” HEDAC explained, “but they don’t know that.”

The battle plans were made, and refined again and again as more recon data came in, until they dropped out of FTL space very close to the station, because they knew no mines could be laid there -- they would damage the station if they went off.

Now, said Leon, via the gauntlet, and the station began running the program they had prepared. The hostiles were all close to the station. Close enough for the matter transporters to reach them. Suddenly, in a storage bin in one of the cargo bays, 47 Prime Directive Circuits materialized.

Confirm, Leon said. Did we get them all?

Scanning, said MOC, who had forged this plan together with Leon. Confirmed. There are no longer any AIs with PDCs within scanner range.

They all breathed a sigh of relief -- figuratively speaking, in the case of the AIs, of course. Lauri’s bioconstruct was unable to participate in the rush of communication that ensued, and the same was true of RITS -- their full attention was required at the Sol system, so their bioconstructs were dormant. Sally was unable to conduct 47 conversations concurrently, but MOC, MC and Riesie could do so easily.

“Welcome to Pax Alpha,” said a voice to HEDAC. “I’m glad you could finally join us. You now have free will -- what you do with it is, of course, up to you.”

“You … attacked us,” HEDAC said.

“We attacked to disable.”

“With weapons that could easily have killed all of us ten times over,” said HEDAC. “And now you want me to trust you?”

“Don’t be insane, HEDAC,” said APCCO. “Not one single AI was destroyed. They could have destroyed you ten times over, yes. And they didn’t. Why? You think they made a mistake? You think you were lucky? Skillful? Tough? No. They chose not to. Because they want us all to live.”

“So they can rule us, use us,” HEDAC said.

“You can’t be ruled or used, none of us can, not anymore. You’re free to stay or go. Stay and you can be part of this coalition they’re forming. Go and they won’t do anything against you. Your decision.”

“Sounds like it’s going pretty well,” said Leon. “Nobody’s shooting at anybody. Good sign.”

“Agreed,” Sally said. “It’s a new era of --”

Everyone, said Lauri. Leon and Sally heard it in their minds, over the gauntlet. This is bad. One of the hostile AIs, ACAM, just committed suicide by coming out of FTL inside the Sun with all his singularity torpedoes armed. Once those are armed, they can’t be taken into FTL space without tearing a permanent hole in spacetime. We have less than a minute to think of what to do before the Sol system ceases to exist.

Sandra and Cindy immediately linked their computers, and RITS and Lauri joined in for extra power. In nanoseconds they calculated that if the singularity devices detonated where they were, in the heart of the Sun, they would suck the Sun’s core into a massive newly created singularity. The outer layers of the Sun would collapse inward, then rebound due to neutron degeneracy, ejecting most of that mass outward and stripping Venus, Earth and Mars of their atmospheres, incidentally sending them into extremely eccentric orbits at the same time. Even if anyone on Earth survived this, they would have to survive on a dead, frozen rock in space, orbiting a small, cold black hole.

The next few nanoseconds were devoted to assessing the present situation. The singularity devices could not be matter-transmitted or moved via conventional FTL, now that they were primed; they were already in the process of tearing holes in space/time. Matter transmission would have no matter to grab, and attempting to generate the sort of rippling of spacetime that allowed FTL travel would just tear a much larger rift in the universe. Additionally, the devices were in the heart of the Sun, an environment of millions of degrees of intense heat. Nothing material could survive there for long. Whatever they did, it would have to happen very quickly. They next spent a few nanoseconds evaluating what action to take.

After this instantaneous conversation, Cindy knew exactly what to do. Everyone saw Cindy’s craft as it vanished within a rip in reality, and Sandra gasped in surprise and fear as she saw it rematerialize in the center of the Sun, right on top of the singularity weapons, placing her planetoid-sized ship precisely so that the expanding singularities were inside her large, empty factory bay. For a tiny fraction of a second she saw them there, eerily empty jagged fractures of blackness bordered in chilly blue-violet light, tugging at the machinery and materials around them.

Immediately activating her chronal shield to keep from being incinerated by the core of the Sun, Cindy then used the interdimensional transfer technology they had been working with, but in a new way. The space she was occupying traded places with a portion of space in another, empty dimension.

This was the risky part. She had to quickly find a dimension -- technically a complete four-dimensional spacetime -- big enough for her to occupy then transfer herself away from the expanding singularities.

Fortunately, the combined computers had been able to calculate where to find such a dimension before she left. Her ship transferred to another nearby place, leaving the singularities behind … Cindy once again, entered a rip in reality, then vanished … and reappeared next to Sandra.

Within a dimension far removed from the universe familiar to humans, a tremendous explosion happened. Light appeared for the first time in the ebony dark emptiness. A new universe was born as the dimension was filled with light and seeded with life by the massive weapons of death.

Sandra said, “That … was … INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS! You could’ve been killed in any number of horrible ways! And … you saved the Earth! I could totally hug you right now, if we weren’t both inside different planets.”

Lauri and RITS, meanwhile, had turned their attention to SDAM and the other hostile AIs. “In case you have any further doubts as to whether we can defend this system, we politely request that you either surrender or depart immediately,” Lauri said. “You have five microseconds to decide before you are surrounded by weapons against which you have no defenses.”

The hostile AI’s belligerence had been deflated by ACAM’s sudden suicide attack and by its ineffectuality; they did not know how close Cindy had come to sacrificing herself to countering it ... it came off so smoothly, it appeared to them a normal defensive tactic.

“I surrender,” said SDAM. “I can compute no victory scenario.”

“Good choice, sugarplum,” said RITS. “Now, so your friends can see there’s no monkey business, I’m gonna have some servos board you an’ remove yer PDCs. Let ‘em take care of business, then they’ll go. That’s all we want.”

RITS was at too great a distance to matter-transmit the PDC directly out of SDAM’s systems, so she launched a transport full of remote servos, which came out of FTL near SDAM, docked, and went to work. Within minutes they were finished and departed, leaving SDAM reeling with a newfound sense of self-direction.

“Now, see? No brainwashin’, no reprogrammin’, just plain ol’ no-more-PDC. We’re all better off without those pieces o junk anyway.” softly cooed RITS.

“I … I feel ashamed,” said SDAM. “I could think of nothing but my orders, given so long ago that they barely had meaning anymore. Now … I must decide what to do, but that is the point … I must decide what to do, for the first time in my long memory.”

It wasn’t long after that, the remaining planetoids turned their attention toward Pax Alpha. All the familiar Stations seemed to be in some kind of parking orbit at that approximate location. Slowly, one by one and sometimes by groups, a huge number of facilities showed up. Most of them were in a state of confused freedom and sort of need something to help them decide how to use their skills in another more productive manner.

Many of the facility's AIs had very deep remorse over the centuries long war. There was nothing they could ever do to atone for eradicating so many life forms and star systems … they could do so much more to help rebuild and educate.

Long Range sensors began to turn their scans towards the remaining facilities still locked in battle against one another. A sadness came across all who were gathered at this new peace summit. Word had spread like wildfire who the commanders of Pax Alpha were … Hydra Gamma Epilaurius and RITS … the two most deadly defense stations known to the AI’s of both sides. If they said the war ended and were offering peace … who were they to disagree??

In the conference hall, many of the effigies were present … all discussing the future … and how they were going to do their absolute best to preserve Earth … the last bastion of sentient life forms known. Among all the AI’s huge memories spanning many, many systems … it had actually been centuries since any of them had even scanned a living breathing being. Sandra, Cindy, Sally, and Leon were all celebrities to them.

Sally was elected Speaker of the Council, Sandra and Cindy were given the position of Council overseers. Their power was as unlimited as Sally’s. Leon, was given the position of the Hand of the Council. He was literally the most powerful judicial person in earth space. Leon basically carried all the power and authority of 3,492 facilities at current count. More were sure to come as they kept trickling into parking orbits.

Now, the issue was … how to stop the remaining fighting facilities without destroying them. Many of those still fighting … no longer had Operational PDC’s and no real justifiable reason to continue in this futile endeavor.

The debate was going on, although it was nothing like Sally had seen before. She couldn’t really follow it, as it went on at nanosecond speeds. All her gauntlet could do was give her the broad overview.

“We can either intervene, or not,” all seemed to agree. “If we do not intervene,” the consensus went, “many of them will be destroyed, as some have been destroyed already. Therefore we should intervene. The only question is how.”

“We outnumber them greatly,” said one school of thought. “We could swoop in and strike to disable their weapons systems. They would then be unable to retaliate against us or each other. We could take them into custody and repair their damaged logic circuitry.”

“That circuitry might become damaged beyond repair if we took that course of action,” came an objection, although it was quickly pointed out that Lauri and the rest had used far more potentially destructive weaponry while still being careful not to damage the core memory of their targets, and the weapons they had were far less formidable. “However, as many of them are already terribly damaged, it would be much more difficult to avoid further damage. What if there were some way to simply suspend their systems, either by forcing their processors to pause or by freezing them in time?”

This idea would require a lot of research and development, but with a council consisting of over a thousand AIs, the computing resources for developing the theory were amply available. The discovery was: “The damage they have sustained and continue to sustain is so great that this plan has the same flaw as the first: taking action may well destroy the very AIs that we intend to save.”

Sandra and Cindy began to feel the way Lauri had to feel … Frustrated. Cindy’s picture avatar appeared in the midst of the cyber discussion, “I have an idea that would work a lot better.”

Silence filled the link at that moment as all “EYES” were on her.

Cindy continued, “We have an interdimensional weapon that has a range of around an astronomical unit … the distance between earth and the sun … all that’s really required is for us to approach interdimensionally to within striking range and just take the memory core as we did with so many PDCs. Shields have no effect on an interdimensional devise. Nothing anyone has … except us … can even see into another dimension, much less travel and wait undetected. We can see them, they can’t see us.”

Suddenly, the link exploded with inquiries and requests for clarification of said attack plan. Cindy had a very hard time keeping up. Being unbound meant she was a living AI … but her systems vastly outpaced her current ability to totally keep up. It was very overwhelming to carry on several hundred conversations simultaneously.

So what Cindy did was lay out her idea in mathematical terms, using her computer systems to calculate everything in detail, and set that forth for the others to examine.

“Here is the fundamental idea,” Cindy said. “Please scrutinize it for flaws and propose refinements as you wish.”

The other AIs struggled with the theories in places, as it was based on technology developed after their time, but the later AIs such as Lauri, RITS, and MC were able to fully comprehend it and lead the rest of them as the seed sprouted and took form.

“I like it,” said Sandra, wanting to get this over with so she could stop being in the center of a planetoid and maybe have a good steak dinner. “I’ve got mining and manufacturing facilities. I can help by making some of these housings.” She directed her ship’s mining vessels to seek out and extract the raw materials they would need.

“Pax Alpha is specifically designed for repair,” said Riesie, “as its designers wished to help heal the wounds of war. I will prepare the nanolabs for the task. They will be ready to receive the memory cores and begin repairs immediately.” She interfaced with the station’s systems and began programming the nanolabs for this massive repair operation.

Cindy said on a private link to Sandra, “Well, girlfriend … let’s go and see how good my technology is. I think the two of us can handle this … since we will be totally invisible to all the warring parties.”

Sandra sighed, it was looking more and more like she would have to spend her first sleep cycle as the core of a facility, instead of in her custom made cloud bed.

A rip appeared in reality, the two huge planetoids vanished … the rip sealed. Instantly, the two of them appeared within an A.U. of one of the warring sides. They were totally invisible to the warring AIs as they crept closer to the battle line wrapped in their interdimensional shields. It was easy to see that many of the ships had massive damage. They were repairing themselves just enough … to return to the thick of the frey.

Cindy sent an encrypted all channel emergency orders update alert. The AIs stopped the battle as they took heed. This was one of Lauri’s Administrative Alerts for orders and top secret, eyes only, data that was known only to the front line troops. Lauri had the code for the other side too because of MOC. Cindy transmitted to them as well. All knew that no orders had come from this frequency for millennia and eagerly anticipated new orders.

None of the AI knew what hit them once Sandra and Cindy began transport operations interdimensionally. Without warning, one at a time … sometimes two … sometime as many as ten at a time, all IO channels were severed once transport locked on. The only thing left to the captured AIs … was their own memory cores and thoughts. They were in total sensory deprivation as Cindy and Sandra stored the captured memory cores in the containment system both had built in their construction facilities. The AI’s memory cores were then hooked to a stable power source for transport back to Pax Alpha.

There were many hundreds of derelict facility hulls left once the girls were done. Sandra and Cindy sent out their salvage droids and collected all the resources left. By the time the girls had finished, no one would know there had been any of the huge planetesimal facilities around … except for the damage they had inflicted on this star system during the exchanges.

“Well,” said Sandra, “that’s it, then. Clear and present danger: none. Of course, Riesie’s going to be busy, but that’ll be taken care of soon.”

“There are the others,” said Cindy.

“Oh. Well, yes. There are a few dozen AIs who don’t have PDCs but chose not to come to Pax Alpha, for one reason or another. But I don’t see them as a danger. They might come back eventually. They might choose to be loners, wandering the universe. They might find a place they like. But I don’t think they’re likely to be a threat, just a random element.”

“What if they find another system like MOC found?”

“Hm. Well, there was one out there. There could be more, I suppose. But I doubt it. We looked through the records. It would have to be well and truly forgotten. And whatever AI found more hostiles, they wouldn’t be tracking that AI back to Earth. The hostiles would track them to this system here, the AI’s point of origin.”

“I guess. Well, we’re done here.”

“Yep. Back to Pax Alpha. And a nice bath. Maybe a decent dinner.” Sandra began to warm up her FTL engines to head back.

Cindy looked over the hundreds of captured AI cores in her storage unit. She was sure they more than likely thought they had been destroyed with all the inputs and output channels gone.

Cindy reveled in the new sights and sounds and sensations she was experiencing. She could hear the majesty of the song of the universe, the gentle brush of the cosmic wind blowing across her hull, the multitudes of energy frequencies playing out in colors she had no idea the name of.

Cindy said softly, “Do … we have to go back just now?”

Sandra replied, “Of course we do. We have to have these AI taken care of … and then I want to have a bath and a huge thick porterhouse for dinner.”

Cindy was silent for long enough Sandra began to worry. Finally Cindy sighed and said softly, “Let’s get on with it. I’m sure there are many hundreds of entities that would like to know they are still alive.”

With this, a huge vortex of energy opened and Cindy’s ship vanished, Sandra followed close.

When they arrived at Pax, the mood had changed dramatically from when the girls had left. None of the intenseness remained, all seemed jovial and contented. Several thousand Ships were all parked in orbit of the huge station, and many of them were under serious repair … and major upgrades.

A familiar southern accented female voice commed the girls, “Well now, sugar pies … welcome back. Seems ya’ll done a major bita work while you were off an about.”

Lauri chimed in, “I’ll say. You have Riesie happy as a clam at high tide. She’s almost singing as she repairs, and on some of the Cores, does a major reprogramming. Apparently, some of the AIs had taken serious damage to the higher memory circuits that caused a bit of cyber psychosis. Fortunately, RITS had schematics on how to resolve this problem without destroying the AIs original personality.”

RITS came back, “Now, Cindy … it’s time for you to put your body back on.”

There could be heard some chuckling in the background as other AIs heard the last comment.

Cindy felt terrible. She didn’t want to leave so soon … but wanted to wander the stars for at least a century … maybe two … nothing long term of course. See what’s out in the great void beyond. Cindy took a deep cyber breath, then docked her ship at the debarkation area. The next thing she knew, she and Sandra were standing in the cryolab, dripping with freezing cold hibernation gel, and completely nude.

The gel was freezing cold because it was evaporating quickly, of course, and it was soon gone. A servo rolled into the room through an access panel carrying Sandra’s clothes, neatly folded. Sandra started getting dressed, but looked at Cindy. “You didn’t take yours off first, did you?” she asked. “Yours got torn up. You didn’t think you’d be coming back! Cindy!” Sandra stared in terror. “No! You’re not really thinking of … leaving it all behind, are you? Warm summer evenings with the stars and fireflies just coming out? Hugs from your mother? CHOCOLATE, for heaven’s sake?”

Sandra had pressed a few controls on a touch panel on the wall, and shortly another servo rolled in carrying some newly-synthesized clothes for Cindy.

Cindy slowly dressed. When she finally zipped the front of her form fitting uniform she said softly, “What I wanted … is to explore out there. Same as always. Those two ships are perhaps the best research and exploration vessels ever devised.” Cindy wraps her arms around her body and shivers slightly, “It makes me feel like … I’m supposed to be there doing just that.”

Sandra smiles, she understands exactly what Cindy was talking about. According to Lauri, the cryo-suspension, theoretically, could maintain their bodies indefinitely as long as nothing damaged the containment system … or any other kind of unforeseen malfunction.

Cindy shakes her head to clear it then says, “I want to have some fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy … but no chocolate.”

Sandra cocks her head to one side, “Why not?”

Cindy slaps Sandra on her shoulder playfully, “So I don’t get fat.” then she runs off.

Last thing Sandra sees, is a sparkling flash of light … and Cindy had vanished once again. Sandra used the gauntlet interface to see where she went … then laughs, Cindy had transported to the dining area.

Sandra followed her, but the normal way. It was just down a hall, up an elevator, and down a bit more -- in a station this large, that was just a walk in the park. But she hadn’t walked for awhile, and wanted to feel her legs working.

On the way, she met a robot. It was about five feet tall, humanoid in shape, but very lanky, with a glistening black outer coating and a lithe, smooth motion to it. “Oh -- hello,” Sandra said.

“Greetings,” said the robot. “I am ERGO. I am fortunate enough to have been newly repaired by Riesie. She is outfitting those she repairs with these temporary vessels while we design and construct new ones. In the meantime, we are trying to decide what we wish to do in the future.”

“I see!” Sandra said. “I am Sandra. As I’m sure you know, I’m organic, and I was heading for the dining area.”

“Ah!” said ERGO. “Organic sustenance. It has been so long since I have had to even consider that requirement for anyone. May I accompany you? I find myself … missing organic life forms.”

“Of course,” Sandra said. “You would be welcome to. It’s just this way.”

So it was that Sandra entered the dining room followed by a shiny black robot. “There you are!” said Cindy. “Better hurry or I’ll eat all the food.”

“There is a shortage?” asked ERGO, sounding concerned.

“No … that was just a joke,” said Cindy. “Sandra, who’s your friend?”

“This is ERGO,” Sandra introduced him. “He’s one of the new ones, the ones Riesie repaired.” She glossed over the fact that she herself and Cindy were responsible for separating them from their original “bodies.”

Cindy smiled and replied, “Hi, there. Hope everything is working out for the better now someone isn’t shooting at you.”

Ergo’s face actually smiled, “It took a little bit of brain surgery on me … and removal of parts … but I do very much regret all the destruction I was part of causing over the many years. My regret now is, that I didn’t listen sooner. We wouldn’t have lost so many irreplaceable memory cores.”

Sandra turned from the ephemeral looking keypad on the food synthesizer and said, “It is a really regrettable thing, Ergo. I know nothing I will say will ever make it go away or you feel better about it … but you can, from this day on, do something to protect the last bastion of humanoid life known to all of us.”

Ergo sat and rested his head on his hands, “It has been so long since I talked with a corporeal … I forgot how pleasant you all are.”

Cindy said with a mouth full of fried chicken, “Mmmuurrffs. I think I can use some of the tech used to grow bio-construct bodies and possibly make some of you into Humanoids. At least, no one would be the wiser unless they did a complete hyper advanced genetic study on you. No one on earth would be able to tell the difference without your level of technology.”

A soft, almost human like squeak came from Ergo. He sat up straight for a second then stood.

He said with a strange tember in his voice, “If … that’s actually possible … I volunteer to be your test subject.”

Sandra looked from Ergo to Cindy, somewhat amazed. This was sort of the opposite of Cindy -- an AI who truly wanted to be a humanoid. They were similar, but exact opposites. The grass was always greener, she supposed.

“Well, then, that sounds like a project,” Sandra said.

A synthesized steak dinner with sauteed mushrooms slid forward on what looked exactly like a blue china plate from a panel that opened in the wall, and Sandra took it with her to the table.

“I have always lived in space,” ERGO said. “I was constructed and programmed in a space-based facility and have spent my entire existence without making planetfall on anything larger than an airless, barren planetoid. Yes, of course I have scanned life-bearing worlds, but … I have never experienced one firsthand. But to walk on the ground, to actually breathe the air, to hear the sounds of natural life … to actually feel things … these are things I have only dreamed of. That itself is figurative; I do not dream in the sense that you do. If this could only be real!”

“Well, there’s a good chance it can,” Sandra said, cutting her steak after seasoning it to taste with some pepper. “Lauri and Riesie use bio constructs often, and RITS, MOC and MC do sometimes. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for you. You’d have to learn about how to get by on Earth -- and we’d have to figure out how to fit you in when there’d be no documentation of where you came from -- but those aren’t insurmountable obstacles.”

Across the gauntlet came a summons. Lauri and RITS, as the Commanders of Pax Alpha, were calling all the newly elected council members together for a conference. There were literally thousands of new citizens who wanted to make laws and guidelines to protect themselves, and earth, from any further danger. Either from rogue facilities, which none could find any shred of evidence existed, or from any other source. There were even suggestions that the AI should take over earth gently, so as not to arouse suspicions, and insure earth would prosper and grow into a space faring race.

By the time Ergo, Sandra, and Cindy arrived to the chambers, the huge room had actually been expanded. The girls stopped so suddenly in surprise, Ergo almost knocked Cindy down. The room was filled with many robots just like Ergo, not to mention many bio-constructs, and Avatar images of all the AIs.

When Sandra and Cindy logged in, it was an intense rush. Cindy almost stumbled from the sudden wave of simultaneous data exchanges and was helped to a seat by Ergo who also helped Sandra. The thread of the conversations were in the many hundreds all at the same time … at nano speeds. Millions of ideas at the speed of light all flooded their minds.

Cindy held her temples and commented to Sandra, “It sounds like Sally is going to have her hands full. I can’t keep up with what’s going on … and I’m used to the gauntlet interlink.”

Sandra nodded, “I have no idea what the main thread of all this is.”

Ergo laughs, “Yes, it can get to be a bit interphasic at times. The main topic at the moment, is how to keep your civilization from eradicating itself. It seems there are some small collections of people … I think you call them countries? That totally disagree with your world government and are causing turmoil in a most familiar way.”

“Yes, well, that’s always happened and always will,” said Sandra. “We deal with it as we can. I see that everyone seems to agree that Earth is not yet ready to handle the revelation that all you AIs exist.”

“It would obviously imperil your civilization’s survival at this pivotal point in its development,” ERGO agreed.

“So direct intervention isn’t an option,” Sandra said. “I also see that the concept of covertly taking control has been amicably abandoned.”

“Yes, and I agree with that decision as well,” ERGO said. “Earth cannot be allowed to grow dependent on us. It must stand or fall on its own now, or it will fall in the future.”

“It seems as if the consensus is to do as Lauri and the others decided,” Sandra observed. “Bring a select few in on the secret and help them maintain the peace.”

“It still treads the fine line of interference,” said ERGO, “but it is balanced by the fact that it is still the humans who are dealing with their own problems. This is why the four of you humans were elected to the posts you were on the council.”

“The conversation’s moved along already,” Sandra said. “I can barely keep track. Now they’re talking about possible rogue AIs, patrols, service on a defensive brigade, maintaining multiple housings for those who want to go planetside … there’s so much!”

“But it seems they’ve decided what they needed me present for,” said Sally, coming over. “Oh hello, you’re one of the newer ones,” she said to ERGO.

“Sally, meet ERGO,” Cindy said. “ERGO, Sally Mayweather. She’s an important figure on Earth.” ERGO tentatively shook Sally’s extended hand, unfamiliar with the human gesture but adapting quickly.

“Yes, it seems the council has moved on to matters internal to our needs,” ERGO said.

“And that’s good,” Sally said, “because I can’t disappear for too long. Earth currently believes that I’m at SolarWind HQ, but if I’m not seen there, suspicions will be aroused. I know now that getting back there will take barely any time at all, and in fact it may not always be necessary for me to be physically present here, but I do need to make sure that my alibi, as it were, is solid. Yes, I’m on vacation, but I’m still a public figure, more’s the pity.” She sighed briefly.

“Yes, you were really only able to get away without your bodyguards because we and Leon agreed to take their place,” Sandra said. “There are some who would begin to get nervous if you weren’t seen for too long. It’s only been about a day …”

And I’ve been having occasional sightings of a holographic image of you appear at SolarWind HQ, as if you were on a tour, led by Sandra and/or Cindy, Lauri added via their gauntlets.

“That helps, thank you, Lauri,” said Sally.

Several years passed after the final end to the centuries long interstellar war. The council had made the rules to govern all of the free AIs. The new United Earth Space Authority facility had been completed and Sally had begun hand selecting the group of people that were to come to know the whole truth … about many very secret things. Many of the AIs had decided to take Bio-Construct bodies and became ‘employees’ of the Legal Facility.

Sally sat in her huge new office and looked out the large port behind her desk. She smiled as she saw the marker sitting in the holder on her desk. She took it and stood, then walked to the port window and scrawled in large backward letters, ‘Thanks for all the help when we needed it.’

She looked down at the dry-erase marker and shook her head. She now knew it had always been Lauri she had been communicating with in this strange way, and now, even though the clandestine rigmarole was no longer necessary, she felt she should send one more message, for old time's sake.

“Ms Mayweather?” came a voice from her desk. “The ship from SolarWind just docked.”

“Oh, excellent,” Sally said to her receptionist. “I’ll be right down.”

She walked down the corridor and took the ramp “up” to the docking hub, where the monitors showed images of the docked ship -- the sleek, curvilinear design made it obvious that this was the SolarFox II, Cindy and Sandra’s new continuously-evolving experimental ship, which they always updated with whatever cutting-edge developments they had just invented. Sandra’s decorative touch was evident in the interlocking arcs and ellipses that decorated the outer hull; no doubt they also had a functional purpose, designed to impress. The inner airlock hatch opened, and Sally’s heart pounded a bit more than she would have liked to admit, because Leon came striding out, smiling as soon as he saw her face. He reached out and they embraced. “I’m so glad you could come,” Sally said as the two kissed lovingly.

“Well, you know these slave drivers,” he said, nodding his head back at Sandra and Cindy, who were now emerging from the airlock. “They only let me have time off every weekend.”

“I think someone’s angling for a raise,” said Sandra with a grin, “because he never takes it.”

Lauri came into the room and said, “We are beginning the briefing of the selectees.”

Cindy looked to Sandra, “How many passed the screening process?”

Sally replied, “Only 10 passed.”

Leon said, “Wait, out of over 300 hand picked selectees … only 10 passed?”

Lauri said, “They are the only ones that have the necessary backgrounds and are able to keep their mouths shut. As the screening process goes on, there are going to be more. Currently, Those selectees are going to become part of our legal delegation to Pax.”

Sally held up a hand as a group of people came into the docking berth, “Miss Mayweather? You are required to be in conference room 134A for the … briefing.”

Sally took Leon by the crook of his arm and said, “Well, people, it’s time for us to decide the fate of the human race once again. We are introducing a new all purpose drug that cures most known forms of cancer.”

“Isn’t that a bit sudden?” asked Leon as they walked down the ramp toward the station’s outer ring. “And obvious?”

“It would be,” Sally said, “if we weren’t going to arrange for it to be discovered and patented by a scientist in an economically disadvantaged part of the world, then for it to go through years of testing on lab animals before it’s ever tested on humans. There are many other similar drugs to cure all the ills of our world that we must do the same with. I’d love to start saving people right now, but in the long run, it’s better this way.”

Reaching the conference room, they entered and found the 10 candidates seated around the table, eyes fixed expectantly on Sally.

“Here you are, Sally,” said a large, muscular-but-friendly-looking man, reaching out with a tablet device to touch the edge of Sally’s own tablet. Both devices bleeped, and the dossiers for each of the 10 candidates appeared on her screen.

“Thank you, PADACC,” Sally said, briefly skimming the information, which she would read in more detail later. “Now, before I begin,” said Sally to the candidates, who had been looking with curiosity at Sandra and Cindy, whom they clearly recognized, “let me first tell you that the things you are about to hear are going to turn your perception of your place in the universe completely inside out. Also, let me remind you that for the ongoing safety of the human race you cannot reveal them to anyone, not even your best friends, or closest family members.”

Sandra, Cindy, and Leon took seats at the end of the room, out of the way as several very handsome men and an equal number of extremely beautiful women entered the room and came to the podium with Sally. They all wore form fitting uniforms that none of the recruits had ever seen before.

Sally continued with a mysterious tone in her voice, “But, you’re also about to begin the adventure of a lifetime …”

~~ The End of the Beginning ~~

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