The good news is that our Kickstarter campaign to bring you volume two of our Middle of Eternity anthology series has managed to raise nearly $1,100! However, we have only 14 days left to raise the remaining $1,400 to meet our goal. Otherwise, the project will not be funded at all. If you’re considering whether to back our project, please click here to check out the various donation levels and the rewards we’re offering on Kickstarter. We deeply appreciate your support!
For now, I’m excited to offer you our second story sample. “Working the System” is a science fiction tale set in the same universe as “Water to Share”, a story I wrote for our first anthology, Somewhere in the Middle of Eternity. The events in this story are concurrent with those from the first tale about an interplanetary government that orders the destruction of all artificial intelligence…and the human casualties that result. I hope you enjoy the story and considering supporting us. Thank you for reading!
WORKING THE SYSTEM
by Phil Giunta
The deck was littered with bodies.
At the captain’s orders, they’d been callously dumped in the cargo hold. Practically all were riddled with blaster burns. A few had been dismembered to varying degrees. The last one had lost a chunk of his head during the morning’s violent incursion in the Ghanzing Belt.
Drug lords are afforded the dignity of body bags, while our own casualties are tossed in here like garbage. As he weaved his way through the dead, Lieutenant Cameron Glazier clenched his jaw against the bile rising in his throat. He knew how the captain felt about them, but that didn’t justify this.
Wait until Michaud sees this. Glazier considered ordering body bags down here before—
“What the hell is this?”
Too late. Oliver Michaud stood in the doorway staring at the congeries of corpses. A biomechanical engineer for the Geary Corporation, Michaud had been assigned to the Kindred as a civilian contractor.
“Wasn’t my idea, Ollie,” Glazier said. “Captain’s orders.”
“This is not happening.” Michaud stormed into the hold, gaping at the scene. After brushing past Glazier, he crouched beside the last body. Delicately, he turned the man’s head to conceal the gaping wound that had been the right side of his face.
“His name was Vance. We used to play chess. Some of our games went on for weeks. He was fascinated by stories about even the most mundane things we take for granted.” Michaud looked across the hold at the others. “They’re programmed to appreciate kindness and friendship. Did you know that, Cam? In many ways, I’m more comfortable around androids than my own kind.”
“I know.” Glazier nodded solemnly. “They were good…people. They fought well. Sorry you had to see this, Ollie. How are the survivors?”
“Once the nanites finish repairing their injuries, they’ll be fine.” With a sigh, the engineer rose to his feet.
Microscopic robots administered through injection, nanites were capable of healing non-fatal wounds, both internal and external, and curing certain common diseases. Each of Michaud’s androids had been manufactured with nanites in its synthetic bloodstream. However, those that lay strewn across the deck had been damaged beyond even the nanites’ capability to restore.
Michaud sighed and shook his head. “Such a goddamn waste.”
“Better them than us,” a new voice said.
Both men turned as Sergeant Amira Ecklund approached, rounding the pile of bodies without so much as a glance. “Isn’t that the whole point of your androids, to spare human lives?”
Michaud pointed toward the bodies. “And this is how you express your gratitude?”
“They’re machines, Doc.”
“They’re biomechanical, with emphasis on bio! Don’t forget they’re also—”
“Property of the System,” Ecklund said.
Michaud let his arm drop to his side. “Look who’s talking.”
Ecklund opened her mouth to respond when Glazier’s commphone buzzed. Hoping to escape yet another debate between these two, he pulled it from his belt and peered at the screen. “It’s Commander Zamora.” Glazier pressed a button. “Glazier here.”
“Lieutenant, I need you and Ecklund in the main conference room immediately, and bring Dr. Michaud. This concerns him, too.”
In the conference room minutes later, Glazier, Ecklund, and Michaud took seats opposite Commander Elyen Zamora. As with most people indigenous to the continent of Lhaneshka, Zamora’s orange eyes were in striking contrast to his dark complexion. Even when seated, the commander cut an imposing figure in both height and physique. He greeted them with a solemn nod, thick hands folded atop the table.
“Lieutenant Glazier, Sergeant Ecklund,” Zamora began. “Congratulations on a flawlessly executed assault today. You managed to eliminate nearly seventy percent of the illegal drug trade in the System, especially yhezerin. Commendations are in order for both of you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Glazier and Ecklund replied in unison.
Zamora shifted his gaze to Michaud. “And you, Doctor. Your androids performed commendably. I think it’s safe to say that today’s expedition provided irrefutable proof of their value to the military. You must be proud.”
Michaud smiled thinly, his eyes downcast. “Yeah, thanks.”
“Commander, I get the feeling we were called here for more than a pat on the back,” Glazier said. “What is this about?”
Zamora shrugged. “It’s the captain’s meeting. He should be along shortly. All I can say is that he did not sound pleased.”
Ecklund frowned. “With our performance?”
She spoke just as the conference room door slid aside. “Not at all, Sergeant.” Captain Veikko Jorgen strode into the room and took a seat at the head of the conference table. Jorgen was a gaunt, middle-aged man with platinum hair trimmed close to his pale scalp. As he sat forward, his wide gray eyes locked onto Glazier in what had become known among the crew as the ‘stare of steel.’
More like ice. If the man’s eyes had ever held any compassion at all, two decades in the System military had robbed him of it. Glazier’s shoulders tensed as the captain began.
“Damn fine job out there, Lieutenant. In fact, I admit to a certain degree of personal gratification in your success.”
It was no secret that Jorgen had lost his daughter to an overdose of yhezerin eight months ago. When manufacture of the drug had been traced back to a laboratory in the Ghanzing Belt, a ring of asteroids orbiting the 11th planet in the Noltaq system, he had volunteered to lead the assault.
“I’ll get right to the point,” the captain continued. “In the fourteen months since we left port, we’ve all watched the political situation back home steadily deteriorate. Since the New Fundamentalists attained increased representation over the past two elections, they’ve exerted more influence over policy than the Progressives.
“Even as we decimated the Ghanzing drug cartel today with the assistance of Doctor Michaud’s androids, the Fundamentalists finally managed to pass their law banning the development of artificial intelligence and biomechanical technologies regardless of their purpose.”
“That’s impossible!” Michaud blurted. “The System can’t just stifle decades of scientific progress because some politicians hold a fairy-tale belief in a non-existent deity.”
“I sympathize, Doctor. I despise the idea of our government turning into a theocracy, but right now, the religious zealots have control.”
“What does this mean for us, Captain?” Zamora asked.
Jorgen looked at Michaud. “It means that Doctor Michaud is hereby ordered to deactivate his androids.”
The engineer stared at him for several seconds, his incredulous expression hardening to anger.
Shit… Glazier tensed. Here it comes.
“You mean kill them,” Michaud seethed. “They don’t have off switches, Captain. They’re not automatons.”
“I was trying to be delicate, Doctor.”
Michaud threw himself back in his seat and stared at the ceiling. “This is not happening.” The room fell silent, all eyes on Michaud. After several seconds, he held up both hands. “OK, wait. Captain, what if you let me have a shuttle? I could take the surviving androids into the Empty Quarter and disappear. No one would ever know.”
An expanse of unclaimed space stretching about 50 light years, the Empty Quarter separated Noltaq from the next populated system controlled by the Zhoreen Alliance. It contained few planets, most of them uninhabitable.
Zamora nodded in support of the idea. “We could turn over the androids from the cargo hold as evidence of their destruction.”
“You of all people should know the penalty of lying to the System, Commander.” Jorgen turned his scowl on Michaud. “Even if I could use your dead androids as a smokescreen, explain how I’m supposed to account for a missing shuttle.”
“Lost in battle.”
“That would require tampering with the ship’s logs. This hole you have me digging would become my grave. I’m sorry, Doctor, but the orders stand.”
Michaud shook his head. “I don’t think you’re sorry at all, Captain. I think you’re pleased. You never wanted my androids aboard your ship in the first place. You were probably hoping the Fundies would push their law through. You’re no better than they are.”
Glazier shot a sidelong glance at Ecklund. Both knew that Jorgen would maintain his composure only for so long. Insubordination, even from a civilian, was not tolerated.
“I’m far from a Fundamentalist, Doctor Michaud, but you’re right. I don’t trust androids. I don’t trust artificial intelligence at all, no matter how much it resembles a human. System High Command ordered me to test your products on this mission and now they’re ordering me to destroy them. I follow my orders. It’s that simple, Doctor.”
“Like Hell it is.” Michaud leapt to his feet. “I’m contacting my company.”
“I’m afraid you’ll find that conversation a bit one-sided. System police have already seized Geary Corporation’s A.I. facilities. Your fearless leader, Doctor Isaac Geary is currently missing, but a warrant has been issued for his arrest. If he refuses to cooperate, he’ll be tried and probably imprisoned, or exiled. I would hate to see the same thing happen to someone as young and promising as yourself, Doctor.”
Michaud leaned over the conference table. “I realize they’re mere chattel to you, Captain, but these androids have become friends to me and many of your crew. I created them. How can you expect me to murder them?”
“I take it that means you refuse to cooperate?”
Michaud’s smoldering gaze met Jorgen’s frigid stare. “There’s obviously nothing I can do to stop you. Their blood is on your hands, Captain. I’ll have no part of this.”
“I see.” Jorgen kept the civilian in his sights as he spoke. “Sergeant Ecklund, please escort Doctor Michaud to his quarters where he is to be confined until we’re planet side. At which point, we’ll turn him over to military police. Let the System deal with him.”
Ecklund rose from her seat and stood beside Michaud. She placed one hand on her firearm and the other on his shoulder.
“This isn’t over, Captain,” he said.
“It is for you, Doctor. Thank you for your service aboard the Kindred.” Jorgen nodded at Ecklund. She turned him toward the door. Michaud shot a final threatening glance at Jorgen before departing.
When they were out of earshot, Zamora looked to Glazier. “How many androids survived the raid, Lieutenant?”
Jorgen smirked as he looked from Glazier to Zamora. “That’s all? The good doctor made it seem as if there were more.”
The captain and first officer rose from their seats in unison. Glazier’s shoulders tensed as he did the same. Don’t even say it.
Jorgen smiled thinly. “We’ll leave the method of their disposal to your discretion, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”
Dammit! Glazier felt the heat drain from his face. “Sir, if I—”
“Is there a problem, Lieutenant? You and Ecklund can handle seven androids, can’t you?”
Glazier clenched his jaw.
“As I understand it, Lieutenant, your tour aboard the Kindred will end in two weeks.”
Glazier held steady against the captain’s threatening scowl. “That’s correct, sir.”
“I’d hate to see such a loyal officer spend the remainder of this expedition in the brig, not to mention leaving the service with a dishonorable discharge for disobeying an order from System High Command. That would forfeit your benefits and make it difficult to find a civilian job. Now do we understand each other, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir.” Bastard.
The guards assigned to Michaud’s quarters snapped to attention as Glazier approached. Ignoring them, he pressed the button beside the door. A few seconds passed before the door slid aside.
Glazier entered into complete darkness. Across the cabin, a porthole encompassed almost the entire outer bulkhead, permitting a sweeping view of the Ghanzing Belt. Countless multicolored points of light studded even the smallest of the asteroids, marking various settlements and mining operations.
“What do you want?”
Michaud was somewhere to his left.
“I came by to apologize, Ollie.”
Finally, Glazier’s eyes adjusted and found the engineer hunched forward in his chair facing the porthole. He spoke in a strained whisper. “He ordered you to do it. You and Ecklund.”
Glazier lowered his head and sighed. “Yeah.”
“I bet she enjoyed it.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“I know.” Michaud lowered his head. “I still don’t get what you see in her, but I guess any port in a storm.”
Glazier let the comment go. His relationship with Ecklund was no secret among the lower decks. She was also part of the reason he was leaving the service, although he’d never reveal that to her.
“So how did you do it?” Michaud said. “How did you deactivate them?”
“Does it matter? It was fast and painless, I promise.”
Michaud sighed. “That’s more than I can say for myself right now. Political tides change and my life ends up in the shit can.”
“If it’s any consolation, I convinced Jorgen to dismiss what happened in the conference room. There will be no report of your refusal to cooperate. Once we’re back on Noltaq, you’ll be free to go.”
“Thanks, Cam. At least someone on this ship has a heart.”
“What will you do now?”
“I’ve been pondering that very question for the past few hours. I haven’t entirely decided, but one thing is certain. I’ll never forget what happened here today.”
To be continued in…