Transitions, Part VI: An Erik McKetten Tale
It was like a dream – a nightmare – the shattered remnants of rational thought in the tortured mind of a person gone insane. Fragments of images flashed outside the ship – rocks, planets, suns. Some exploded into a rainbow, some winked. An asteroid appeared in front of the ship and then vanished. His ears filled with the sound of rushing water and distant screams. His mother stood beside him, droning a series of incomprehensible numbers and coordinates.
He turned to look at her and instead saw a burned corpse. Flecks of skin, charred in the fire that consumed the Great Hall, broke from her face as she chanted the computer readout. Behind her, arms reaching out protectively, the shattered remains of his father’s face contorted in an eternal, soundless, scream.
“Momma!” The boy yelled, his voice cracking, as he ran through the still smoldering ruins of the Great Hall.
His pace slowed as if the gravity had been turned up. He felt weighed down, his legs screamed in agony with each new, faltering, step. His father’s mouth opened wider. Broken teeth and pieces of charred flesh fell from his jaw as it twisted out of shape. The face became a misshapen maw, opening ever wider until it looked as though it would swallow the child and his undead mother.
The corners of his vision blurred and came together into a tunnel. Momma fell backwards into the blackness. There was terror in her eyes, but her mouth continued to recite the meaningless numbers. He tried to stop running but the gaping maw pulled him forward. Darkness closed over him – a darkness so penetrating it muffled his screams of fear.
A bright flash snapped him back into the pilot’s chair. Signy continued to recite navigational information.
“Transfer to normal space complete.”
“Holy…wow. That was something else.”
“Are you okay, Cat?”
“I…yes, I think. I am. Probably. Wow.”
“May I inquire what the experience was like?”
Cat shook his head and blinked. Tears clung to his lids. He brought both hands up and rubbed them away.
“I can’t even begin to answer, Signy. That was…something else. I have a headache.”
“I would surmise you are one of the few who can comprehend Interspace.”
“I don’t know about that. I have no idea what I experienced.”
“But it appears you came out of it with no severe mental damage. I would recommend a thorough evaluation at your convenience, however.”
“Yeah, thanks, Momma.”
“I am not your mother, Cat. I just have her voice.”
“It was a joke, Signy – it’s just…nevermind.”
Cat unbuckled and stood up. His legs shook. He looked at the navigational screen. He didn’t recognize the name of the system they were in, but that wasn’t unusual. There were hundreds of “transitional” systems – systems that offered very little beyond being a nexus of jump points. Many were patrolled by UEE ships, but only on the main lanes between the jump points. Often, the rest of the system was filled with pirates and privateers looking for an opportunity. And a barely-functioning 315p, even twenty-years old, was a hell of an opportunity.
“Signy, how long until we reach the next jump point?”
“The jump point to Cathcart is one hour and forty-three minutes away, Cat. We are already en route.”
“Thank you. We need to reduce our signature as much as possible. I don’t know how combat-ready you are, but I’d rather avoid detection by pirates, or UEE, for that matter.”
“Understood. I will switch to passive scanning only and reduce shields to minimum safe levels. Once we obtain full velocity I can also reduce the engines.”
“That should do. Do you what you think is best. You seem to know what you are doing.”
“Of course I do.”
Cat chuckled. “Bit of an ego there, Signy?”
“No. A simple statement of fact. I was built for one purpose: to run a ship at optimal efficiency. I would be a poor program if I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Cat cracked his neck. Time to take stock of what was in the ship. He didn’t have much money for supplies or survival. Anything left in the ship would be helpful.
“What was that?”
Cat spun and faced the bed. Lena sat up, blinking the confusion of sleep away. Her eyes had a new light to them; they were more awake and aware after resting. The haze of SLAM faded. He noticed for the first time just how bright green they were. With flecks of gold. Like glitter. They were bright spots on a dirty, but pretty, face.
“Who are you? Where am I?”
“You don’t remember?”
She eyed him. He could see confusion flash across her face.
“How high was I?”
Cat shook his head. “I don’t know. You seemed fairly sober to me.”
Lena swung off the bed.
“Yeah, I’m pretty good at coming off that way, I guess.”
“Sounds like you’re a little too experienced.”
She laughed. “You have no idea, friend. Um, are we friends?”
Cat hesitated to answer. He wasn’t sure what he should tell her. How do you tell a teen girl that you kidnapped her when she was blacked out and are taking her to one of the lawless systems…and not sound like an utter degenerate?
“Um. Well, that’s complicated.”
“What do you mean?”
“You tried to buy passage on my ship – without, uh, money.”
Lena’s eyes widened. “Oh. What…what did I…you know…um…?”
Cat smiled and held up his hands. “You didn’t specify. But I got the impression you weren’t too choosy on the method of payment.”
“Well, I’m not doing it…whatever you think it is!”
“Don’t worry, I didn’t agree. The thing is, you…well, you got locked in here before we lifted off.”
“There’s no way to tell you without telling you, I guess. Signy, will you reintroduce yourself to Lena?”
Lena looked over her shoulder and back. Her eyebrows went up.
“Good day, Miss Lena.”
Lena looked up at the bulkheads. “Where are you?”
“I am the ship.”
“Lena she’s not, um, a normal ship’s computer. As near as I can tell, twenty years ago, or more, my father helped steal a copy of the A.I. from the Artemis. They made copies and installed one in Signy here. She’s a fully functional artificial intelligence.”
“Whoa. That’s insane. Isn’t that illegal, or something?”
“Correction: research into artificial intelligence is heavily regulated, but not illegal, by any known UEE laws.”
“However,” Cat added, “I’m fairly certain possessing a copy of a stolen A.I. from the Artemis is at the very least frowned upon. I have a feeling it may have something to do with the Breida Purge.”
“You know about that?” Lena looked surprised.
“I’m from Breida. So was my family. My father was a Thane in BSVC before everything went down.”
“Wow. So doesn’t that make you, like, a Thane?”
“Sure. A Thane in a Thing of one. Hell, I might as well be the Jarl of Jord, for all it’s worth.”
“I’m from Breida.”
“I know – you told me.”
Lena walked around the cargo compartment, examining the screens and hatches. Cat watched her. She seemed much less a threat now that she was sober.
“Wait.” She paused, and stared down Cat. “That doesn’t explain why I got locked in.”
“Well, you kind of panicked when we first met Signy. And you were going to leave. I was afraid you’d report it.”
“So what? You kidnapped me?”
Cat exhaled. “Yeah. Pretty much. Not with any…uh…bad intentions, though.”
“What? Kidnapping isn’t a bad intention? What the hell?”
“Look. I didn’t have many options. I didn’t even know exactly what Signy was then. I just knew I didn’t want the UEE to know about her. Now that I know she’s a copy of Janus, I really don’t want them to know. But, I am giving you what you wanted, for free – we’re going to Cathcart right now, and then maybe Jord or some other place until I can figure out what to do with my new, and thoroughly illegal, ship.”
“I would like to remind both of you that I am not technically illegal. It is just the manner at which I was acquired was questionable.”
Lena looked as if she was about to fire off a caustic retort, but then reined it in with a deep breath.
“Okay. Fine. I don’t know why I wanted to go home. Which reminds me, where were we when we started this…adventure?”
Cat blinked. “You don’t know?”
“I was high, remember? Everything is a little fuzzy. Last thing I remember is meeting a dealer on a junk heap orbiting some asteroid in Pyro.”
“You were doing more than SLAM, then. No way does a SLAM binge black you out like that.”
Lena shrugged. “Probably. I like to party.”
Cat shook his head. “Okay. Well, we were on a UEE station in Croshaw. I was getting Signy here out of impound, where she sat since The Purge.”
“Phew. Damn, I travelled.” Her face turned worried. “I wonder how I paid for it. Oh, man, I hope I wasn’t doing…things.”
Cat bit his tongue.
“Wait, who are you?”
“Erik McKetten. But you can call me Cat. Everyone does.”
“I know. No last name. Lena of Breida.”
“Damn. I really don’t remember telling you any of that.” She looked around again. “Got anything to eat? I’m starving. I don’t think I had a damned thing that wasn’t a chem or stim in days.”
“I don’t know, yet. I was just about to take inventory.”
“Good. I’ll help.”
Lena turned and opened the nearest drawer, mumbling to herself. Cat stared at her back. Just like that they were friends, apparently.