Quinton Aldren thought he could leave his past behind him . . . He was wrong.
First came the development of a Personality Matrix Construct—PMC, transferring human consciousness into a machine. It changed the galaxy and the way wars were fought. Then something went wrong with PMCs and the Federation Wars toppled the galactic order. PMCs became a menace to be hunted and exterminated.
Long after the Federation Wars, the galaxy limps on. Spacers carve out an existence upon the bones of the old worlds, but things are about to change. . .something has begun broadcasting signals to reactivate PMCs that were stored in secret.
Quinton Aldren is a PMC. His consciousness was uploaded and stored over a century ago, before the Federation Wars. All Quinton wants is to leave his past behind, but the broadcasts keep occurring. More PMCs are coming online, and not all of them are entirely stable. Federation War machines are on the hunt for them, and they don’t care who gets in their way.
Acheron Salvation is a fast-paced science fiction novel in the classic space opera and military sci-fi traditions, by Amazon Best Selling Author Ken Lozito.
Release date: April 9, 2021
Publisher: Acoustical Books LLC
Print pages: 326
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Listen to a sample
Quinton and his crew rushed their sleek shuttle past a field of decrepit, broken-down spacecraft, searching for anything remotely intact enough to be worth investigating.
“I still say we could make do finding what we want out here,” Guttman said in a voice that was always a tad too loud for normal people.
“That’s why you’re not a scout,” Becker replied, keeping his gaze on the main holoscreen.
Oscar snorted a little.
“You think that’s funny?” Guttman asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Oscar replied.
Quinton heard the sounds of a quick scuffle from the two men who sat at the rear of the shuttle.
Oscar laughed while Guttman growled.
“Okay, seriously. Stop,” Guttman groused. “You always gang up on me. I’ve had it!”
The two salvagers wrestled for control, with Guttman using his short, stocky frame to its fullest advantage. Oscar managed to slip away with a grin, but Guttman spun around and his gaze zeroed in on Oscar.
Becker looked behind them and shook his head, pressing his lips into a thin line as though he were considering whether he was going to have to get out of the copilot’s chair. Too much time in the shuttle meant tempers were at an all-time high.
“Okay, Guttman,” Quinton said, “we’ll do it your way.”
Guttman stopped advancing on Oscar.
“There, you see,” Oscar said, gesturing toward the front of the shuttle.
Guttman frowned and scratched the patchwork of a beard that grew over his flabby jawline. His belly stuck out beyond his chest, and he narrowed his protruding eyes suspiciously.
“But do me a favor first,” Quinton said. “If you can detect whether or not any of these ships have a working power core and their main engines are operational, I’ll take us there immediately.”
Guttman bit his lower lip, shook his head, and glanced at the holoscreen next to his seat.
“Go on, take a look,” Quinton said.
Guttman slid forcefully down into the chair and reached toward the holo-interface. Then, he banged his fist on the side panel. “I can’t.”
“You know damn well why not.”
If any of the ships had active power cores, they would already have detected them. The ships had been out there for a long time, waiting for the people of Three Moons Shipyards to either bring them in for refitting or scrap them altogether. Bringing depleted power cores back online took time they didn’t have and required equipment they hadn’t brought.
“What about the engines?” Quinton asked. He twisted around and looked at Guttman.
Guttman sneered and glared at his holoscreen. “You’re not as smart as you think you are. There are some good prospects out there, like that HK light freighter over there. That one could work for what we need.”
What we need, Quinton thought derisively. His three passengers had, over the past few months, helped him get the Wayfarer space worthy. This whole operation was his way of paying them back.
“You won’t do it. You won’t take a look.”
Quinton glanced at Becker.
“We don’t have time for this,” Becker said.
“I knew it,” Guttman groused.
“Why don’t you do us all a favor and just shut up.”
“Come back here and make me!”
Becker shot to his feet. “My pleasure,” he growled.
Quinton grabbed Becker’s thick, muscular arm, stopping him from going anywhere. Becker was tall and liked to fight, but he was no match for the cybernetic avatar that Quinton was housed in. No amount of implants or strength enhancements could compete with the enormously powerful, advanced composites of his avatar. Despite superior strength, speed, and intellect—something the others might question, but Quinton did not—frustration could get the better of them. They’d been cooped up together for a long time without shore leave, and they all needed a break but had decided they’d much rather steal a ship. Becker, Guttman and Oscar wanted to get whatever ship they could find to get away from him, and Quinton tried not to take it personally.
“Let me go,” Becker said, his deep bass voice deadly quiet.
“Calm down, this will only take a second. What if Guttman’s right?” Quinton asked.
Becker glared at Quinton’s hand and then his gaze slid back to Quinton. When Quinton let go, Becker sat back down in the copilot’s seat.
“You shouldn’t encourage him,” Becker said.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? I’ll tell you what, Becker, I’m finished. I’m finished with all this. We’re done,” Guttman said.
“Hey, come on,” Oscar said quietly. “Calm down.”
“No, I’m serious. All of you walk all over me, and I’ve had it. I went along with it because in the Union we had each other's backs, but not anymore. There isn’t any Union for us, and I don’t have to take this crap from anyone.”
“We just have to get through this one last thing and then we can take a break,” Oscar said.
Guttman shook his head. “It’s always one more thing. Then it’s, ‘Shut up, Guttman. You’re an idiot, Guttman.’ Well, I’ve had it. I’m not doing it anymore.”
Quinton used the maneuvering thrusters to change course, bringing the shuttle toward the HK. Tempers had been flaring for weeks, and this was just the latest in a long line of escalating blowups.
“Will you be satisfied if I take us to the HK?” Quinton asked.
Guttman crossed his arms. “I don’t care what you do.”
“Well, I’m going to take us to the HK—the ship you picked. If you think it’s good enough to salvage, I’ll leave you on it. Deal?”
Guttman raised his eyebrows.
“I’m serious. I owe all of you. If you want out that badly, then here’s your chance,” Quinton said.
Guttman licked his lips and his eyes gleamed. He nodded. “All right,” he said and looked at Oscar and Becker. “You guys are going to miss me when I’m gone.”
Quinton altered course to give them a better view of the HK. Guttman’s grin died, and a bout of laughter bubbled from Becker’s mouth.
“Oh, she’s a good ship right there. What do you say, Oscar? Think you can fly her?” Becker asked.
Entire sections were missing from the light freighter. It appeared that salvagers from Three Moons Shipyards had decided to scrap the ship for parts, but it had looked nearly intact from their initial approach vector.
Becker stopped laughing. “Okay, are we done? Now can we stick with the plan?”
Quinton changed course. “Sticking with the plan.”
Guttman slammed his fist onto the holoscreen controls and they went off.
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Oscar said. “You’ve still got us, and we love you.”
Guttman jerked his head toward Oscar, who was holding out a bottle of Sangorian Bourbon.
“Peace offering,” Oscar said, raising the bottle as the liquid sloshed around lazily.
Guttman smiled and grabbed the bottle, popping it open to take a long pull. Then he offered it to Oscar. They passed the bottle around and even Becker took a drink. He glanced at Quinton.
“Keep it. It would just be wasted on me,” Quinton said. He could taste the bourbon. In fact, he could smell it and knew it was worth all the sighs of pleasure from the others. He could take a drink and his sensors would report on the chemical components of the bronze liquid, but he couldn’t enjoy it. It wouldn’t take the edge off. That was just the way things were.
Becker handed the bottle back to Guttman and gave him a nod.
Then just like that, there was peace once again on the shuttle.
Quinton could have flown the shuttle by integrating with its computer instead of the physical flight-control systems. Personality Matrix Constructs—PMCs—were capable of direct machine interfaces, among other useful skills, and his prototype avatar was designed for the PMC interface. It was radically more advanced than the Consciousness Driven Android—CDA—he’d trained for in the Acheron Confederacy Navy. Quinton had been a commander in the ACN, which caused no shortage of friction with Becker and the others. They hated and mistrusted anything that had to do with the Acheron Confederacy, and it didn’t matter to them that the confederacy had been gone for almost a century.
The outdated star charts on Quinton’s ship had designated this sector along the Castellus Federal Alliance expansion route. For a century, Quinton’s PMC had been in storage on a third-tier colony world. He didn’t know how he’d come to be on that world, and he had no idea who had activated his PMC. His knowledge of the interworkings of the galactic region was woefully out of date. It would take time to put the pieces together, and his arrangement with Becker and the others had helped, but that deal was coming to an end.
“I never know what to think when you’re quiet like this,” Becker said.
“I was just checking the status of the Wayfarer.”
They couldn’t risk flying the Wayfarer into the shipyard’s region where they might be detected by automated defenses. Although Quinton had his doubts about this, Becker was sure this was the case, and it wasn’t Quinton’s mission. Becker was calling the shots. Instead, they’d opted for a fifteen-hour journey on a shuttle—fifteen hours to breach the protected interior of the Three Moons Shipyards and fifteen hours of the bickering that came with being confined to small places. This didn’t bother Quinton so much. Then again, he didn’t have to put up with the smell. Three men in a small space… There was going to be a smell eventually, and there was plenty of ripeness in the shuttle. Quinton could just ignore his highly sensitive smell receptors. The others had no such luxury.
They flew toward a large installation that was built into the side of an oddly shaped asteroid. Thousands of docking ports covered the outside of the asteroid, and automated tugger drones guided various ships in for inspection and evaluation. The larger ships were docked along the perimeter and other designated docking ports. Small to mid-size freighters were escorted to open hangar bays. Quinton saw that the hangars were designed for certain ship types but not others. Some hangars held ships that were in various states of either repair or breakdown—he couldn’t decide which.
“The shipyard’s name doesn’t resonate with this place,” Quinton said.
Long-range sensors had detected six asteroids nearly the size of small moons.
Becker looked at him and shrugged one shoulder. “Are you surprised? Three Moons Shipyards is just a cover name.”
“It looks more like a junkyard.”
“It probably was at one point.”
Quinton nodded. “Are you sure about this?”
“This,” Quinton said, gesturing toward the video feed on the main holoscreen. “There have to be better ships out there than this.”
“Oh, there are, but they’ll also have more security measures in place to protect them, as well as trackers.”
“I can deal with trackers.”
“We’ll find something. By the looks of things, we’ll have our pick and can probably get more than one ship from here.”
“If you say so,” Quinton said, not convinced.
“You haven’t been salvaging as long as we have. Ships like the Wayfarer are few and far between. More often than not, it takes the parts of multiple ships to get one in good working order. By that time, it’ll have a new identification and won’t show up on any rogue registry of stolen property.”
Salvaging, or something directly tied to it, was the way of life in the post Federation War galaxy. Quinton didn’t point out that they used to build things—ships, stations, colonies. Exploration and expansion were what galactic residents had striven for. Now, it was just this—salvaging for scraps.
“Does it bother you?” Becker asked.
Quinton shook his head. “It depends on who we’re stealing from. The original owners of these ships are long gone, so is it really stealing?”
“It’s the least I can do,” Quinton said.
He flew away from the larger docking ports. They couldn’t fly the bigger ships with such a small crew. But that wasn’t exactly right. Quinton could fly those ships with the help of his VI, Radek, but the point of getting a ship for Becker and the others was so they could part ways with him. PMCs were dangerous and sometimes unstable, and they experienced Quinton differently now. Despite months aboard the Wayfarer, their fear had dulled only a little. He’d even updated his appearance to look human down to the finest detail, but that had created more problems than it solved. Now they believed he was just pretending to be something he wasn’t.
“Take us down near the maintenance access area,” Becker said and then craned his neck toward the others. “All right, pay attention. From here, we’ll explore the nearby hangars. We’re looking for ships that’ve had some work done to them. The priority is the most intact ship we can find. With any luck, we’ll find a few of them.”
Quinton glanced at the layout of the central complex. “How do you know the ships in these hangar bays are any better than somewhere else?”
Becker smirked. “Trade secret.”
Quinton made an uh-huh sound and plunged the shuttle toward an older Kappa freight ship, which still sported large bronze cargo containers that looked more like canisters. He increased their velocity, and the cargo carriers blurred past the video feed.
Becker went quiet, his mouth forming a grim line.
Proximity alarms sounded inside the shuttle and a warning flashed on the main HUD.
“You’re going to kill us all!” Guttman said.
“Come on, Quinton, pull up,” Oscar said.
Large shipping containers were mostly smooth walled except for the junction points where both interior and exterior sensor towers were located. These were essential for protecting the cargo and the shipping container.
The shuttle sped toward an island of towers.
“I don’t know, I’m feeling a little unhinged,” Quinton replied. “You know, there are several open comms channels.” He updated the HUD to show the Three Moons Shipyards secure transmissions, as well as the command-and-control comlinks used for their drone workforce. “I’m sure I can tweak the control signal and find out why this area is so important.”
Becker shook his head and Guttman shouted for him to stop.
“Do you think their comms systems can detect a rogue PMC interference if I attempt system access?”
“For the love of—Just answer him,” Guttman pleaded.
Seconds went by while the shuttle sped toward the towers.
Becker looked at Quinton. “Go ahead. See what happens.”
Damn it, Quinton thought. Becker was calling his bluff.
Quinton’s tactical VI presented a course for him to fly through the towers. Becker watched, his face deadpanned. Guttman and Oscar’s groans became louder but then were cut off as Quinton cranked up his frame rate. His perception of time accelerated so quickly that it slowed down for everyone else. Seconds in normal time dragged out while Quinton executed evasive maneuvers that narrowly avoided the towers. The inertia dampeners squealed, throwing up alarms as the shuttle jerked through the plot Quinton had programed. Maneuvering thrusters fired in concert with the mains that were beyond anything a mere pilot could execute, making use of systems—including artificial gravity—to assist with obstacle avoidance.
Quinton’s frame rate returned to normal and Guttman’s scream was cut short. They’d made it through, but the maneuver had pinned everyone to their seats. His passengers were jostled but would otherwise be okay.
Becker shook his head to clear it. “And you wonder why we can’t wait to get our own ship.”
“That hurts. You could have just answered the question.”
“You’re right. I could have.”
“You still can.”
“I’m still waiting.”
Becker’s lips lifted. “You can’t stand not knowing.”
Quinton sighed inwardly. Becker was right. He didn’t want to give the former salvager the satisfaction of knowing that, but Becker’s smirk meant he already knew.
He was being foolish. He thought he’d gotten his impulse response under control, which had been a real issue when he’d been trapped in an old garden bot. The limited systems access had so severely reduced his capacity that it had been a miracle he’d survived. But his current avatar was designed for a PMC. He had full access to his memories, but there were still questions he couldn’t answer, although this was no time to charge down that particular wormhole.
Quinton flew them to the maintenance hatch and deployed the docking clamps. The others activated their EVA suits and secured their helmets. Quinton didn’t have a need for protective outerwear since the avatar could function quite well in temperature extremes that included a vacuum. And he didn’t need to breathe, so oxygen wasn’t an issue for him. However, in order to conceal his identity, he updated the avatar’s configuration to make it look like he was wearing an EVA suit as well.
Becker led them to the hatch and gestured for Quinton to join him. Guttman and Oscar waited behind them.
Quinton accessed the door-control systems. Bypassing the pitiful security of the access control system was beyond easy; however, in order to cover their tracks, he brought up an access list of the previous systems that had used the door to gain entry to the hangars. A quick analysis filtered the entries by time stamp, and he picked the user or system that would most likely be used to access the door.
Quinton yanked the hatch open and they all went inside the complex.
“No alarms,” Oscar said.
Becker looked at Quinton and nodded. “Good job.” He then looked at the others. “The layout should be familiar.”
Guttman nodded. “It looks like a Union layout.”
“Where do you think Lennix Crowe got it from?”
The others shared a knowing look, and Quinton finally understood why Becker seemed to know where he was going.
Becker accessed his wrist computer, and both Guttman’s and Oscar’s highlighted with the data he’d sent them.
“You know, I could just access the system and probably find suitable ships quicker,” Quinton offered.
“You know we can’t risk that,” Becker said.
Guttman and Oscar headed down the corridor away from them.
Becker went in the opposite direction and Quinton followed him.
“The security here’s pitiful. They’d never know I was in the system.”
“You’re right because I don’t want you in the system. Quinton, you told me you’d cooperate. We do this my way. If I don’t need you to access the system, then I don’t want you to do it. If we come up short, we'll try it your way. All right?”
They weren’t concerned about whether Quinton could access the system. They were more concerned about whether his access would trigger alarms. Quinton wasn’t sure he wouldn’t trigger any of the PMC fail-safes that seemed to be in just about every computer system they’d come across. It was easier to hide his presence on the larger and more complex systems, but that wasn’t the case here.
They spent the next few hours exploring the hangar bays that contained ships in various states of disrepair. Some of the ships had massive hull breaches while others were missing critical systems from main engine pods, life support, or the power core, and sometimes all three.
“Doesn’t this bother you?” Quinton asked.
“Actually, it’s kind of encouraging.”
“Because those components were removed to rebuild something else. We’re looking for the ship they were rebuilding,” Becker replied.
The salvager had removed his helmet because an atmosphere was being maintained. Quinton found this interesting since there was very little life on this part of the station. The air was cold, which was evident whenever Becker breathed.
A comlink registered to both of them.
“I think I found a good one,” Guttman said.
A few moments later, Oscar joined them on the comms channel. “I’m not having any luck at all. I keep finding breakdown projects. No intact ships at all.”
“It’s all right, Oscar, I found one. You should head to my coordinates,” Guttman said.
“On my way,” Oscar said and left the comms channel.
“What did you find?” Becker asked.
“A Stellar Gypsy that has all the critical systems intact. Looks like it was going to be cleared for auction in another month or two. The modular layout is for carrying cargo,” Guttman said, his voice high with excitement.
“That’s a good find. Keep checking the systems and see if you can bring it online. Have Oscar do a double-check with you.”
“Roger that,” Guttman said and disconnected.
They headed to another hangar bay, and Quinton was starting to feel that his time with these people was just about up. He would help them get away from here if the ships they found were in working order. Then that would be it. That was the end of their arrangement.
“It looks like you’ve got what you wanted,” Quinton said.
“Not yet. I know there’s another ship over here.”
“You know what they say about wanting more.”
Becker frowned and shook his head. “No, what do they say?”
“Sometimes it’s better just to accept what you have.”
“One ship does not a fleet make.”
“Is that what you want—a fleet of ships?”
Becker tilted his head to the side and peered into the hangar. He mumbled a response, and a subspace comlink opened from the Wayfarer.
“Go ahead, Radek,” Quinton said.
Radek was his virtual intelligence assistant that actually resided within his Energy Storage System—ESS—but Quinton had left the sub-VI on the Wayfarer to monitor the ship systems.
“A massive broadcast signal has just reached this star system,” Radek said.
“From the communications buoy in the system. The origin of the broadcast is unknown.”
Becker looked at Quinton. “What’s going on?”
“The Wayfarer detected a broadcast that came from outside the star system.”
“I have analyzed the signal and confirmed that it’s a PMC activation signal similar to the signal that activated you on Zeta-Six.”
Quinton’s thoughts scattered for what felt like long moments as seconds dragged by. Radek sent him a data dump of the signal detection and the VI’s analysis. This contained standard comms initiation protocols, but it was looking for a particular acknowledgment before the rest of the data inside the signal could be reviewed. Quinton was a PMC and could provide the special acknowledgment but wouldn’t risk it. There was no way for him to determine what else was inside the signal. There could be block protocols that could initiate changes in him and in Radek. It was too risky to do further analysis here, even if he increased his frame rate to maximum. He needed the computing resources aboard the Wayfarer.
The signal was almost here, and that meant there must be a PMC somewhere nearby.
Quinton looked at Becker. “We’ve got a big problem.”
Becker was standing inside a hangar bay and had just turned on the overhead lights when he suddenly went still and a wide smile lit up his face.
A golden hull nearly gleamed in the light. Heavy robotic arms were frozen over the rear of the ship, and it looked as if several large sections of the hull plating had been completely replaced. The ship almost completely filled the entire hangar bay.
Becker raised his wrist, reading his amber-colored holoscreen, and grinned. Quinton cleared his throat and Becker tore his gaze away from the ship. “What did you say?” he asked, his eyes sliding back to the holoscreen.
“I said, we’ve got a big problem—"
“Yeah, baby!” Becker pumped his fist and looked at Quinton. “Critical systems are all intact. Someone even restocked atmospheric filters for the life-support systems. There’s enough fuel in the power core to take us away from here. Jump drive,” Becker paused and whistled. “It’s got a Paxton Series 15 drive—"
“Becker! You’re not listening to me. We’ve got a big problem,” Quinton said. Becker raised his eyebrows and looked at him questioningly. “Radek detected a PMC activation signal heading this way.”
Becker blinked several times and leaned forward. “What? Heading this way, or…”
Quinton brought up his own holoscreen and showed Becker the trajectory of the signal. It would reach them in less than ten minutes.
Becker’s gaze darted to the ceiling, his lips pressing into a white slash. Then he looked over at the ship with longing eyes. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean there’s a PMC here. Right? The signal that activated you went through thousands of star systems before you were reactivated.”
“That’s true, but activation signals aren’t sent out randomly. At some point, there was an ESS in this star system,” Quinton replied.
Becker swore and took a few steps toward the ship, then turned back toward Quinton.
“Think about it. This system was used for scrap. It’s a good place to hide something, especially during the Federation Wars.”
Becker bit his lower lip a little and then sighed explosively. “Can you help me with the ship?”
“I don’t think you understand.”
“I do. Can you help or not?”
“That signal is going to trip the security protocols for the entire area. Then, Three Moons security teams are going to swoop in after they initiate a lockdown. No one can afford to have a PMC roaming around their operations, especially if the Sentinels are tracking the activation signal.”
“Have any Sentinels been detected?”
Quinton couldn’t believe Becker was being like this. Normally, the spacer was much more cautious. “Not yet,” he said finally.
“So we have time. Have they initiated a lockdown?”
Quinton rolled his eyes, then licked his index finger and held it in the air as if trying to gauge the way the wind would blow. “How should I know? I told you I wasn’t in their systems. What the hell, man? We’ve gotta get out of here.”
“No!” Becker said and stomped toward the ship. “It’s a damn Diamondback Trailblazer. There’s no way I’m going to…” He raised his hand to his ear and opened a comlink to the others. “What’s your status?”
“I’ve just begun the startup sequence for the Red Sun freighter. Oscar found a Mercury class star jumper a few hangars away from me,” Guttman replied.
“Things are heating up. Can you switch to emergency startup sequence and use maneuvering thrusters to get to the waypoint?” Becker asked.
Quinton heard the atmospheric scrubbers running through a cycle overhead. Radek was still feeding him updates via the subspace comlink. By all outward appearances, no alarms had been raised.
“Guttman,” Oscar said, “you don’t need to wait for the power core to come online if you’ve got emergency backup power. You can bring up minimal systems while the power core comes online.”
Becker ran toward the Diamondback and initiated the maintenance override to gain access to the ship systems. Quinton walked away from the gleaming hull and headed back to the corridor. Not directly interfacing with the station’s computer systems was keeping him in the dark, and he walked over to the access terminal near the hangar bay entry. The interface came right up and there were no alarms. What was taking them so long? The activation signal must have been detected by now, but he couldn’t confirm it because he wasn’t patched into the station.
Overhead, the atmosphere scrubbers cycled again, sending a gust of air into the hangar.
Quinton squatted and placed the palm of his hand on the floor, increasing the sensitivity of both his auditory system and his sense of touch. He began cataloging the sounds and subtle vibrations through the floor, increasing his frame rate slightly to give himself an edge in analysis and reaction time. He couldn’t increase it too much, or detecting anything out of the ordinary would be all but impossible. He just needed a slight edge.
Becker shouted an impressive stream of curses and hastened away from the ship. From Quinton’s perspective, Becker wasn’t moving very fast. He partitioned his efforts so he could interact with Becker while still doing his analysis. Multitasking like this made him more reliant on his VI assistants, which could sometimes be a challenge.
“Who the hell rips out the entire backup system?” Becker said and frowned. “What are you doing?”
“To see if anyone’s coming.”
Becker shrugged. “Oh that. Don’t worry about it,” he said and walked past Quinton.
Quinton stood up.
“I’m patched into the system,” Becker said, waving his arm up and down, and the amber holoscreen flashed. “No alarms.” He grinned.
This was too much. Quinton was often accused of being reckless, but seeing Becker’s flippant reference to station security was downright alarming. “Wait a second.”
“Can’t wait, Quinton. There’s another hangar this way. Thanks for the ride. We’ll take it from here. You can head back to the shuttle.”
Guttman and Oscar paused their own conversation.
“Goodbye, Quinton. It’s been great,” Guttman said, and then a bout of laughter bubbled out over the comlink.
Oscar grinned. “Woohoo! Thanks for the memories.”
Quinton shook his head and hastened to follow Becker.
“I thought we’d never be rid of him. We’re almost free, boys,” Becker said and started jogging down the corridor. Without warning, he lost his balance, as if the floor had dipped heavily to one side.
“What the…” Quinton muttered and blocked out the jeering from the others.
He heard a faint humming sound far down the corridor that sounded more like an echo. A soft breeze blew overhead again, and Quinton glanced at the vent. Becker stumbled ahead.
The others were laughing uproariously and spouting random words.
“I could never leave my body. Women would miss me too much,” Oscar said.
“They’d have to get past your bad breath,” Becker quipped.
This led to them all speaking at once.
“Hey, morons!” Quinton shouted. “Put your helmets back on. You’re being gassed.”
He had to repeat himself two more times before his inebriated companions acknowledged that he’d spoken.
“I got your helmet right here,” Guttman said mockingly.
“Wait a minute. Is that why I’m feeling so good?” Oscar asked with a long sigh. “God, I really needed this. Just needed to cut loose and be still. I couldn’t handle being on that smelly shuttle anymore.”
Quinton bet they were just sitting on the floor, taking it easy.
The hell with this, Quinton thought. Becker stumbled and fell, and Quinton quickly caught up with him. He pulled him forward and palmed the helmet controls on Becker’s spacesuit. The helmet protracted, and clean air began pumping into the spacer.
Becker groaned for a few seconds, and Quinton spared a moment’s satisfaction, knowing the headache that awaited him. There were still no alarms, which Quinton no longer believed was possible. Time to break his promise. He cranked up his frame rate to the max and infiltrated the Three Moons’ computer systems. One of the advantages of being a PMC was the ability of directly accessing any computer system. Energy-state data storage meant that he could access the data at the speed of light. Quinton’s PMC actually resided inside an ESS. Essentially, he was a being of light with the strong perception of being human. The leuridium core could power his ESS for a thousand years. Quinton’s VIs helped manage the brain-to-machine interface, which also included accessing external computing systems. The risk of accessing the current systems was the enhanced detection capabilities for PMC infiltration. Those capabilities hadn’t been well developed when Quinton was uploaded into an ESS. A century and several brutal wars later, he’d awakened to a galaxy vastly different from the one he remembered. Memories of his old life stirred, as if sensing his attention, but he ignored them. No use dwelling on the past. Whatever the past was, it was gone. At least that was what a friend had told him once.
Quinton blew past the pitiful security protocols. Civilian-grade security was no match for his capabilities, nor were they designed to be, and he obliterated the PMC detection protocols for anomalous activity before the system had a chance to detect him. Computing limitations could always be tied to the system they resided on. Quinton’s platform had been created through the Acheron Confederacy Navy’s advanced research projects initiative. The Acheron Confederacy hadn’t been the most powerful federation in the galaxy, but its technical base was ahead of the curve with research and development it had carried out in secret. Quinton’s cybernetic avatar outclassed most computing systems he’d encountered. His VI henchmen infiltrated and confirmed that the station’s automated defenses had been engaged.
The lockdown protocols were designed to function even in the event of successful infiltration. This made things more complicated. Initiated security measures, which included atmospheric contamination, functioned on isolated systems that were now offline, and he couldn’t simply kill the lockdown protocols. They’d have to be physically reset. They functioned as such for the purpose of remaining undetected and thus able to operate in isolation. Those systems had their marching orders and there was no central command authority to stop them.
Quinton brought his frame rate back to normal. Becker was breathing deeply.
“I said to put your helmets on,” Becker snapped.
“I’m already on the bridge,” Guttman said. “You should see this thing. This is it. This is my ship. I think it was going to be someone's luxury ship. Not anymore. The carpets feel amazing. I just need to take off my other boot.”
Becker pushed his brows forward in frustration.
“I bet it’s good,” Quinton said.
Becker glared at him.
“Quinton, you have no idea. My bed on the Wayfarer was nice enough, but this is amazing,” Guttman said while letting out a moan of pleasure. “Heh, there’s wetness on my cheek.”
Quinton tried not to imagine Guttman stripping off his spacesuit.
“Hey, have you closed off the ship? Are you ready to take your new ship out for a ride?”
Becker glared at him. “Are you trying to get him killed?”
Guttman groaned with effort. “Yeah… No. I’m not sure.”
“You’d better get to it if you want to keep that ship.”
“You’re right. Is someone coming?” Guttman asked. He sounded like he was climbing into a seat.
“Yup. They’re on their way. I’m sending you a set of coordinates. Enter those into the navigation system and switch to the ship’s life-support systems,” Quinton said and muted the comlink to Guttman. “He probably doesn’t have his helmet or his spacesuit on, for that matter. The only way he’s gonna make it is to escape on that ship. His head will start to clear once he’s off the station’s umbilical.”
“Hey, there’s lights outside,” Oscar said.
Quinton accessed the video feed. Oscar was sprawled on the floor, looking as if he’d just rolled on the ground. Quinton traced the source of the flashing and saw three oval-shaped security drones flying through the corridors. He accessed the door-control systems and closed off the corridor.
He looked at Becker. “Security drones.”
Becker unholstered his blaster and Quinton did the same.
A comlink broadcast came through the station's communication systems.
“What the hell was that?” Becker asked.
Quinton recognized it immediately, even though he didn’t want to believe it. It was the acknowledgment of a PMC activation signal. Somewhere in this facility, a PMC was coming online.
“What’s happening?” Becker asked. He kept his gaze down the corridor with his weapon ready. Ribbons of flaxen light radiated from both sides of the corridor, separated by adjoining sections that were locked together.
“There’s a PMC coming online,” Quinton said and tacked on, “I think.”
“What do you mean ‘you think’? Don’t you know how it works?”
Quinton brought up the standard operating procedures for PMC reactivation on his HUD.
“We’re slightly more complicated than the standard computing core.”
There was a loud clang against the bulkhead door farthest from them. Several more clangs reverberated through the corridor, followed by a bright flash as the security drone began cutting through the door. The video feed showed that an armored unit with eight legs, like a spider, had seized the door while it used a plasma cutter to slice through it. As if sensing it was being watched, one of the drone's crimson optics spun toward the camera. Then the video feed went dark.
Quinton and Becker hastened away from the door.
“That’s right, you’re a sophisticated piece of—"
“Be careful how you finish that statement,” Quinton warned. “Right now, I’m trying to keep all of us safe. Oscar is staring at the back of his hand like he’s never seen it before, and Guttman has stripped off his spacesuit down to his underwear. Geez, there’s a stain on his belly. Does he ever not get food everywhere? Not to mention the security drones that are converging on our location. If you want to take your chances without me, I can live with it.”
Becker glanced behind them.
“Eyes front. We’re turning here,” Quinton warned.
They increased their pace and ran past another set of bulkhead doors. Quinton tried to close them, but they wouldn’t respond to his commands.
“They won’t shut.”
Becker slowed down. “We’ll have to close them manually.”
A metallic slam echoed down the corridor. The drones were through, and Quinton saw them race through the opening at breakneck speeds.
“Come on, it’s too late for that,” he said.
They ran along the corridor, Quinton matching Becker’s pace.
Guttman’s cough sounded through the comlink. “We’re green across the board.”
Becker cursed. “Guttman, hang on a second.”
“It’s all right. I locked out the console he’s sitting at,” Quinton said.
“Comlink. I’ve uploaded the waypoint coordinates to the nav computer.”
“What’s with these straps? I can’t move!” Guttman shouted.
“Sit still,” Becker ordered.
“Guttman, guess what?” Quinton said as they ran. “There are a group of female Servitors on that ship, and they’re heading to the bridge right now to help you out.”
“Really?” Guttman asked with awe in his voice. He sounded like he was twisting in his seat to look for them.
“Yup, there are six or seven of them on their way right now.”
“But no one is supposed to be on the ship.”
Becker shook his head. “They come with the ship. It’s part of the luxury package. Enjoy it. They can’t wait to meet you.”
“I will,” Guttman said, sounding like he was drifting off to sleep.
Quinton muted the comlink so Guttman couldn’t hear them.
“Good thinking. That ought to keep him occupied for a while,” Becker said.
Servitors were genetically enhanced humans that exemplified physical beauty, and their services extended beyond primal pleasures to nurturing psychological and emotional wellbeing. Quinton had yet to actually meet one. They’d encountered an agent who had disguised herself as a Servitor and had had no shortage of admirers, with Guttman first and foremost among them.
Quinton pulled Becker to the side just as a red particle beam singed the wall where his head had been and returned fire with stunning accuracy. Two of the flying security drones tumbled out of the air and crashed. The third dropped toward the ground and flew near the wall. Quinton couldn’t get a clear shot at it.
“Where’s the other one?” Becker asked.
That was a good question. The big spider-drone should have been with the others. More and more of the video feeds were cutting out and going offline, blinding him. How could a glorified scrapyard have such a comprehensive response for intruders?
“I don’t know.”
They kept running.
“Are we close to Oscar’s location?” Becker asked. He was starting to breathe heavier.
“Hey, you don’t have to worry about me. I found a ship,” Oscar said.
The pilot had been quiet this whole time. The video feed of the hangar bay showed Oscar sitting in a small, two-person aircar that rested on a raised maintenance platform. The entire engine was in pieces on the floor, and it looked as if it had been in the process of being gutted for parts. Quinton saved a quick recording of Oscar sitting in the aircar, attempting to engage the flight controls. He was acting as if the vehicle was actually moving.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Quinton said, bemused, and sent the video feed to Becker.
Becker grinned for a few moments and then frowned. “The bulkhead doors are closed— the video feeds just dropped for the surrounding corridors.”
Charging into the area where several spider-drones were attempting to reach Oscar wasn’t a great idea. They were armed, and Quinton wasn’t sure their blasters could penetrate the drones’ armor.
“We have to get to him,” Becker said. “We can’t leave him like that. All they have to do is vent the hangar bay and he’s dead.”
Quinton used the comlink channel to Oscar's wrist computer to access the aircar’s computer systems. It still had emergency power, which was fortunate for Oscar. He engaged the canopy and a protective shield protracted over Oscar's head, sealing the inside. The aircar’s life-support systems came online, and Oscar stared at the roof of the vehicle with a mixture of awe and bewilderment.
“Now sit tight,” Quinton said. His voice boomed over the aircar’s sound system. “Don’t touch anything.”
“I wasn’t… I wasn’t going to,” Oscar replied.
“Can you lock him out like you did Guttman?” Becker asked.
“I can’t, but I did enable the first-time-user preference interface.” If Oscar accessed the aircar’s controls, he’d spend twenty minutes answering new-user prompts.
They raced to the end of the corridor, where it split into two different directions. A spider-drone sped toward them and Quinton cranked the bulkhead door shut. The drone slammed into the door with enough force to put a sizable dent in it. They moved fast, but Becker continued to breathe heavily, and Quinton wasn’t sure how long the spacer could keep up the pace. He was certain Becker wouldn’t appreciate an offer to carry him.
There was another broadcast from the PMC being activated. It was broadcast on all comlink channels, and Quinton was able to pinpoint its source.
“Why is it doing that?” Becker asked.
“It’s not the PMC. It’s the VI that’s sending out a general broadcast. It’s probably because the ESS is unable to be installed into a host, so the VI is requesting information on how it should proceed,” Quinton said.
“Well, can’t you tell it to shut up? Tell it this was an accident and it should shut down.”
Quinton felt a flash of irritation ignite amid his thoughts. The utter disdain that Becker and the others had for PMCs sometimes rubbed Quinton the wrong way. PMCs were alive. They were actual people. They weren’t machines that should be shut down until it was convenient. The fact that they were being used as pawns was the source of growing irritation for Quinton. He’d been in the same situation when he was brought online. He’d been hunted as a result, and he was very lucky Radek had taken matters into his own virtual hands or he wouldn’t be alive.
“I’m not doing that.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because it’s not a machine. How would you like it if I knocked you out every time you wanted to wake up? Dose you up with drugs to make you unconscious just because you had the audacity to wake at an inconvenient time.” The words came out harsher than he intended them, and Becker was taken aback.
“All right, I get it,” he said evenly, “but we’ve got to save Oscar.”
Quinton opened the control interface for the maintenance platform where the aircar was located. He ordered it to lower one side so the top of the aircar faced toward the hangar doors. The hangar bay door-control systems were still online, so he ordered them to open. The hangar bay quickly depleted its atmosphere and Quinton initiated the aircar’s emergency egress system. The passenger compartment of the aircar was also an escape pod. Its thrusters exerted enough force to carry it beyond the hangar bay doors and out into space.
Becker watched the video feed, his eyes wide. “What have you done?”
“Oscar is safe. He’s got thirty-six hours of O2, which is more than enough time for us to pick him up. I’m not leaving without that PMC.”
Becker knew better than to argue with him.
Quinton scanned the walls and found a maintenance access tunnel. He bypassed the security mechanism for the door, and they entered, having to bend over a little to fit inside the small space. Quinton closed the door and waited for a few moments, hearing the security drones race by, none the wiser.
“We’re clear,” Quinton said quietly.
Becker led the way since they didn’t have room for Quinton to squeeze ahead.
“Straight on for a hundred meters. Then left,” Quinton said.
Becker quickened his pace. Quinton noticed that he kept glancing toward the ceiling.
“Minimal monitoring in here. They’re probably reliant on drone check-ins rather than monitoring these tunnels,” Quinton said.
Becker nodded. “How’d you know these tunnels were here? Did you see it on their system?”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve done something like this.”
“Now there’s a story I’d like to hear.”
“Later,” Quinton said. Despite Becker’s disdain for the pre-Federation War galaxy, he was keenly interested in what Quinton had done for the Acheron Confederacy Navy.
“How are we getting this PMC out of here?” Becker asked.
They reached an intersecting tunnel and Becker gestured for Quinton to lead.
“You don’t want to take the long way back to the shuttle?”
Quinton heard the clatter of the security drones as they went by in the corridor, detecting four of them. He tried to detect a comlink session being used by the drones, but there wasn’t any. They must be coordinating using a line-of-sight comms, but without any video feeds in the area, he had no way of confirming his hunch. Whoever designed the security response for Three Moons had taken their job quite seriously.
“How far do we have to go?” Becker whispered.
“Just a little farther,” Quinton replied and then added, “The fun part will be going back into the corridor.”
“Why do we have to go back?”
“Because it’s the only way to get outside.”
“You didn’t say anything about going outside.”
“You didn’t think the PMC was in here?”
“Yeah, I kinda did. I figured it was on a ship that had been brought in or in some kind of cargo stored here. Nothing goes to waste in places like these,” Becker said.
“Not a bad guess, but still not right.”
“You told us the activation signal propagates through a star system’s communication infrastructure, so it didn’t need to know precisely where a PMC was stored.”
“That’s right, but this one came directly here. To this asteroid, in fact,” Quinton said.
Becker didn’t reply because they were nearing the maintenance hatch that would let them back into the corridor. Quinton leaned toward the hatch and listened for a few moments. He looked at Becker. “Okay, it sounds clear. There’s an exterior hatch and airlock a short distance from here. We’ll take that to the asteroid’s surface. Then it’s just a few hundred meters away.”
Quinton opened the door and they stepped into the dark corridor. The security protocols must have switched off the lighting, but Quinton could see in the dark and Becker’s HUD could compensate for low-light conditions. They quickly ran toward the exterior hatch.
Quinton opened the hatch and saw an airlock a short distance from them. He stepped through the hatch, but something slammed into him from above and knocked him back into the corridor. As he was crashing into the wall, he cranked his frame rate up to maximum in order to quicken his perception of time and slow everything else down. Becker was just starting to flinch away from the doorway, and the spider-drone that had been hidden on the ceiling of the airlock was coming through the door. Quinton lowered his frame rate and aimed his blaster. At this point, his perception of time was still way above normal, but it wasn’t at a standstill for everyone else. Plasma bolts shot from his blaster. His back hit the wall as the bolts hit the spider-drone’s armored chassis. Quinton fired his weapon again as the spider-drone closed the distance. Becker was turning toward him. The jagged ends of the spider-drone’s legs also had grabbers, which meant they probably performed maintenance, as well as security. The plasma bolts scorched the armored chassis but didn’t penetrate it. He angled his fire toward one of the oncoming legs and blew the end off the body. Then the spider-drone was on top of him.
Quinton grabbed the nearest leg and twisted to the side. He jumped toward the ceiling, yanking the spider-drone’s leg hard. Becker fired his blaster at it but missed. The spider-drone’s leg bent at an awkward angle and Quinton let go, but it still had six legs. It stabbed him, and the hardened alloy penetrated his own armored torso. Quinton didn’t feel pain, but he did register that the spider-drone could do some serious damage to him. The drone slammed him to the ground, and he rolled to the side, breaking the jagged foot off the drone’s leg as he did.
The spider-drone tried to stab him again, but Quinton was too fast. He scrambled out of the way and stood up. More spider-drones were heading toward them from farther away.
“Go out the airlock!” Quinton shouted, making sure his speech came out in normal time so Becker would understand him.
Becker spun toward the hatch. He was sure Becker was moving as fast as he could, but he still appeared to be moving in slow motion. The spider-drones were able to move quicker than an unenhanced human, but Quinton’s avatar had the advantage now that the trap had been sprung. He increased the power output of his blaster and took out three of the spider-drone's legs. With only one left, it couldn’t do more than flail about. Quinton ran past it and into the airlock. He slammed the hatch shut and was through the airlock before the other spider-drones reached it.
The asteroid’s terrain wasn’t as uneven as he expected. Becker waited for him outside, and Quinton looked at him incredulously. Why wasn’t he moving?
“I don’t know which way to go.”
Quinton shook his head. “Sorry about that,” he said and closed the distance. He grabbed Becker by the back of his suit. “We’ve got to move.”
They were at the edge of the artificial gravity field, but it was still half the standard one g. He took several steps to gain momentum and leaped. Becker used his suit thrusters to level them off and extend the jump.
The brownish, roughened terrain sped by as Quinton jumped into the air again. The PMCs location was on his HUD, and they were closing the distance.
“We’ve got company heading our way. Where’s the shuttle?”
Quinton had had their shuttle on standby since they first arrived. He hadn’t been convinced they wouldn’t need to find another way off the asteroid.
“It’s coming,” Quinton replied. He’d tasked a VI to manage the autopilot so the shuttle would head to their location.
Quinton peered into the distance and saw what looked like an escape pod that had crash-landed onto the surface of the asteroid. It looked to have been there a long time.
“We’re going to have to hold them off. Aim for the legs. They’re vulnerable there,” Quinton said.
As they closed the distance, they noted patches of bronze amid the blackened walls of the pod, which easily blended with the asteroid’s surface. If there hadn’t been an active comms signal coming from it, Quinton was sure he’d have missed it.
Quinton opened the escape pod’s hatch while Becker fired his weapon at the spider-drones, but they dodged out of the way. Inside the pod was an ESS core suspended in a counter-grav cradle that had been designed for it. The decagonal shape of the leuridium core glowed with a bluish light that pulsed lazily.
“Why don’t they send out a body with it? Seems short-sighted to me,” Becker complained.
“I’ll bring it up at the next PMC governance review meeting about improving their services,” Quinton said.
He couldn’t reach inside and just snatch it out of the cradle. There were defenses in place. He initiated a comlink using his own PMC protocols.
VI designate Greta.
Quinton observed the spark of communication from Radek to Greta. Radek had to conduct the initial greeting, or Greta might not communicate with him.
PMC Quinton Aldren – G-Class.
Greta, we’re here to retrieve you.
Understood. Clearance given to transport PMC Nash Harper into an acceptable host.
No host available. Hostile forces in the area. Need to transport.
Must confirm with COMCENT.
PMC Nash Harper will not be moved without a host.
“Damn it,” Quinton said.
“What is it?” Becker asked.
“It won’t allow me to retrieve it without a host.”
Becker’s mouth opened a little and he frowned. “We tried. Let’s just leave it.”
Quinton wasn’t going to leave it. Greta was just following safety protocols, but he didn’t have time for this.
“I see the shuttle,” Becker said and then fired his weapon at a spider-drone. He hit one of the legs, but it hardly slowed down.
Guttman’s comlink became active. “Someone’s firing weapons at my ship,” he said. His voice was clear. The euphoric effects must have worn off. “Quinton, what did you do? I can’t control the ship.”
Quinton sent a command to end the lockdown via comlink on Guttman’s ship.
“Head to the waypoint,” Becker said.
“Do the best you can. We’re a little busy down here,” Becker said.
“Fine,” Guttman grumbled.
Becker kept firing his weapon at the two spider-drones as they continued to push closer to their position. They darted out of the way of incoming fire, staggering their approach.
Quinton glanced at them. “Hold your fire.”
“I have an idea. I need one of them intact.”
Becker glanced at the escape pod and his eyebrows raised. “You can’t be serious. You’re going to stick that thing into one of those drones?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“How the hell are you going to do it?”
Quinton watched the spider-drones racing toward them, their legs propelling them across the uneven terrain with ease.
“I have no idea.”
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...