System Shock: Loyalties, By Robert Skilton (c) 2000

Part 1.

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If you want the latest technology, manufactured to the highest standards, and brought to you at an affordable price; then remember our name ServerDroid, where our robotic systems mantra is 'Our lives have meaning when we do the cleaning.'

* do you want to know more about the James 1700 or any of our other products, then follow this link to the ServerDroid info site.

-ServerDroid, a wholly own sub-subsidiarily of the TriOptimum Corporation.

"Yes that's the Tit-Optimum way. It is all bangs and bonks here at Tit-Optimum. When we screw-," pronounced a well modulated but slightly drunk sounding synthetic voice.

Ripping out the central power link of the malfunctioning bot, a grime covered tech cursed, "That's enough out of you, tin head."

The struggling bot ceased trying to rise off the thinly carpeted floor of the cabin. Sitting in a inelegant position of straddling it's 'bottom', the technician continued to poke around the insides of the profaning device. Scattered around them both was a field of tools, bot parts, and other undefinable technical items. The back panels of the skeleton like robot were sitting somewhere amongst the piles of high tech junk, leaving it's now semi-dismembered innards exposed to the world. The technician was busy poking a large grey lump of silicon processor mass with a binary pick, picking it's brain as it were, when the bot's owner hesitantly coughed to brake the silence.

"Er, what is wrong with it? Is it something that I have done? I hope not. I don't know if I could afford to pay for this call out, let alone for any repairs." Her voice sounded tired, but the concern was obvious.

Slowly the tech looked up from the exposed innards of the protocol droid and gave a knowing sigh.

He looked at the worried face of the client, her face drawn as tightly as the bun in her hair. Judging by the relative sparseness and size of the cabin, she had to have lived very cheaply and worked a lot of extra shifts to able to amass the large amount of nanites needed to be able to pay for even a simple bot like this, especially at the prices they charged on this starship. The bot's packing crate was still propped up against the window in this little box of a room. Looking at her properly, he remember seeing her working behind the bar at the casino here on deck five. If he had just finished another rotating shift and had called in for a shot of booze to help forget the grind, there she was. If he was off duty and felt like having a drink for just a bit of relaxation, there she was. She seem to always be there, behind the bar, always serving with a smile and a kind word. Now that he thought about it, she must have pulled a lot of double shifts to see her as often as he did. She worked her fingers to the bone, to get this; this damnable abomination. Sacrificing her own life for one of these damn droids; it made him sick to his stomach. Here was the perfect opportunity to get rid of another one of these machines and so promote the cause, and yet, and yet to do so would harm her. Regardless of how he felt about this thing he was picking over, with the compassion of a vulture for a cowboy's corpse, in the end its people that matter and not the things they own.

He hated conflicts of interest like this. He knew what he had to do, why he was here on the Von Braun, the mission that he had worked so hard to set up for. Yet, looking at this woman's tired face and work wearied body, he knew what was right. With a 'she'll be right smile' and a 'Mr Good Wrench' pose he went about betraying the cause, just a little.

"Don't worry about it Miss. I know what's wrong with this little droid. Fixing it will be a piece of cake." He said it with the reassuring voice that all repairmen take on when explaining things to the 'illiterate' customer.

"You see the problem is this. A while before we left Earth, a group of teenage hackers managed to break through the data security systems in the plant that makes these little things. They thought it would be a big joke to change the vocalisation system to produce, ... well..., smut. Quality control caught most of the 'damaged' units before they left the factory, but some did escape their eager eyes, and they all seemed to have turned up here."

He carried on explaining as he started to pack up his tools. "Even though we are a thousand billion kilometres from the Earth, TriOptimum stands behind it's products. Since you are still under your ninety day guarantee, there will be no charge for this service call out, or for the repairs required to put this little server bot back on it's feet."

Having packed his tools away, he preceded to loosely pile the parts of the disabled protocol droid into another crate, marked radioactive hazard. He saw the questioning look of the woman, but it took a moment for him to connect it with the crate.

"Oh, the crate, don't worry it's marked like that so people don't poke around inside it and maybe take some of the contents. We may all be loyal TriOpt employees, but some of us are more loyal than others."

Having sealed up the crate, he walked the very short distance to the cabin door and stuck his head into the corridor. There standing as close to the wall as possible was a beaver.

"Come on Frank, we've got a pick up. Shake a limb." Snapped the tech.

"Command understood, Robotics Engineer Yanos." stated the maintenance robot in its cheap synthetic voice. "This unit is entering the clients accommodation to collect one malfunctioning robotics unit, a protocol droid, modified for domestic duties, in private ownership."

"Christ, you damn tin can. I just want you pick to up the bot, not give me a damn novel about it," cursed the annoyed tech. He gave the maintenance unit a solid kick on it's unfeeling rear as it squeezed passed him into the tiny room.

Gripping the slender protocol droid around the waist with it's single massive fist, it lifted the defective robot off the floor with a surprising grace. It waited there patiently while the tech clipped the crate and toolbox onto its massive back. It remained there waiting long after the much softer humans had made room for it's departure in the cramped quarters. It would remain waiting there until it's battery ran down and it's metal body had disintegrated into rust. It would wait patiently, without complaint, until it received it's next orders. Robots are annoying in that way.

"For sweet pity's sake, Frank. Take the defective robot down to the robotics repair section of the engineering deck and place it on repair table two, where you will also place both the crate and the toolbox. Then you will return to your storage niche, power down and recharge, and wait for new orders. Understood?" The tech massaged his forehead with blacken fingers, trying to relive the stress he always felt having to spell out instructions to the 'pragmatic' robotics that filled the Von Braun.

"Understood, Robotics Engineer Yanos. This unit will transport the defective protocol droid, with domestic modification, to the robotics repair section on the engineering level of this ship. Upon reaching the correct section, this unit will place the defective protocol droid, with domestic modification, storage crate marked radioactive hazard, and the toolbox belonging to Robotics Engineer Yanos on the repair table slash workstation number two. At the completion of this task, this unit will return to storage niche one four two dash nine a and go into stand by mode to recharge and wait for new commands."

With that, the maintenance robot slowly turned around and made it's naturally ponderous way out of the room. As it slowly stomped pass, the tech tried to read the 'expression' on the glass and metal plate that passed for a face on the beaver. The tech always wondered if it was as really as mentally slow as it acted, or was it some scam by the beaver to keep him off guard. Unfortunately the metal and glass never betrayed any inner secrets, so it always left the doubt burning at the back of his mind. As the door whooshed shut behind the bot, Yanos snap back to the matter at hand, the concerned face of the worn looking woman.

"Don't worry, it's a pretty simple job," soothed the tech. "It just takes time to purge the entire memory matrix and reload it with the proper code. You're looking at four or five days at the worst. As soon as it's restored I'll send you an email, and we can arrange a time for delivery. Could I have your right thumb print please, it's just to prove that I've come to check out the droid, and that we have taken it back to the shop."

The woman didn't even question it, just automatically pressed her thumb on the tech's departmental PDA. He looked again at her face, the tired harrowed look of someone being ground down under the combined weight of TriOpt's, UNN's and the rest of life's unending demands, were deeply etched. All she wanted was a little bit of luxury, the luxury of coming home to an environment where her every wish was met without question. To get at home a little of what she willingly gave out every working hour of every working day. Screw the cause, was his thought, I am a humanist first and a activist second.

"Look, I shouldn't really do this, but what the hell," he confided as he was walking out the door. "I've got a fairly big workload on at the moment, but it's obvious you need your droid a heck of a lot sooner than internal security need's its combat units. I'll try to give the reprogram routine that maximum amount of process time I can get, XERXES willing, to speed it up as much as possible."

She smiled a thin smile, yet it knocked twenty years off her age and twenty kilos off her back. As the door closed behind him, he knew he had done the right thing. It was for the people like her he was fighting for, not for some ideological cause, or some pathological hatred. He was betraying everything that he was taught to believe, to make life better for people like her. That was why he joined the Humanists.

Trans Earth News Report: 2112-01-07, 10:00:00 EGMT.

Sabotage forces ServerDroid to recall it's defective James 1700 robot.

Today ServerDroid CEO held a net wide media conference to issued a statement that the company will be recalling it's James 1700 model domestic robot as a preemptive safety measure. He stated that because of a new, tougher testing schedule, the current version of the James 1700 did not meet up to the company's high standards. As an act of good faith, the company will be replacing all currently licenced owners of the units with the newly upgraded model free of charge.

Observers have noted that this has only happen because of the reports of defective James 1700 robots being broadcasted by the media groups. As reported by this news service, there have been several cases of James 1700 robots swearing and suffering sporadic seizures (which have been found to be a recreation of an centuries old dance called the 'Macarana.') Analysis by independent robotics experts have found that the robots central memory matrix has been reprogrammed by an outside agency during manufacture.

A group called Rossum's Rebels has claimed responsibility for the reprogramming of the robots. Rossum's Rebels, a radical offshoot of the Humanists, stated that they hacked into ServerDroid master control net to prove how weak their security is. Through the anonymous net-cast that stated if it was easy for them to plant a simple glitch, they wondered how easy it would be for someone to plant something far more hidden and dangerous.

This recall can only damage the reputation of both ServerDroid and it's James 1700 robot. Even with it's announcement last week of winning the contract to supply the Starship Von Braun with service droids, this recall only accelerated the downward fall of the company's stock value, which has been falling over the last few months. Already suffering the effects from the rumour that it James 1700 shares the same design faults as the current TriOptimum Protocol Droid, which is said to have an unstable (and explosive) power pack. If the company's fortunes do not turn around in the next few months, it is likely that it's parent company, TriOptimum, will shut down and sell off ServerDroid Inc with a resulting loss of sixty thousand jobs system wide.

Robotics Engineer Yanos, chief of the red shift robotics repair crew, third in command of the Von Braun's Engineering departments Robotics section, Humanists agent and therefore traitor to both TriOptimum and the UNN, stood in the hallway trying to decide what to do next.

Glancing at his PDA, he noted that there were no more jobs logged on his work sheet and that it was only another eighty minuets till the end of his shift. Still thinking of the warn woman on the other side of the corridor wall, it put him in the mood to try to burn off a bit of the stress he was feeling himself. It would take the slow moving beaver at least forty five minuets to make it's ponderous way down to the robotics repair lab, even longer if there was a lot of high priority traffic which it would have to give way too. It would only take him twenty minuets to walk the same route, so gave him another twenty to kill before he had to be there. Thirty, if he used all the access way and conduit shortcuts that every engineer worth their salt knew.

He sucked his bottom lip in thought, a particular habit of his, wondering were he could spend his 'free' time. As he bit on his lip he realised that his throat was dry from the ships recycled air, and for some reason there was a bilious taste to his mouth.

That taste must be from that little episode I had before in that poor woman's cabin, Yanos thought. There no way I should react like that, that's not me. I think I have been spending too much time with machines, I need random, imprecise, humanity. Also a good stiff drink to wash my mouth out wouldn't go amiss.

As the Faster Than Light Ship Von Braun had to run twenty four hours a day, so did it's recreations. No matter what time it was in the arbitrary day, there were people always willing to while away the time, and their nano accounts, in it's gaming hall. Once, a long time ago, a fellow Humanist had remarked to the tech that 'while TriOpt is too stingy to give it's employees the full benefit of their hard labour, it's more than willing to lavish the nano's on any means on getting the nano's back from them.'

Even before the casino door had fully opened, Yanos was assaulted by the powerful smell of tobacco, booze and humanity that the air scrubbers could never quite remove. He smiled to himself and breathed in deeply of the smell of 'natural' human habitation. He had never been able to get use to the antiseptic artificial nature to the air on the rest of the ship. Feeling refreshed, he walked in and made his way through the milling clusters of fun seekers. There was a fair mix of ranks and professions in the place for the time of day, or was it night; such concepts had lost meaning to him in this artificial little bit of earth that was billions of km's from the real thing. A number of them were dressed in ships reg's uniform, either here to have a quick flutter before the start of another soul grinding shift, or to drown their pain having just survived another shift in the name of TriOpt. Most were in colourful and fanciful civilian clothes, often more extravagant than was needed, for what was a fairly ordinary place. Yanos had the theory that they dressed in that way in a attempt to forget that they were several billion km's from anything that could be called home.

He remembered seeing a documentary about the British Colonials in Africa during the early twentieth century. They lived a life that was an exaggeration of the lifestyle of home as a way to block out of their minds that they were strangers in a strange land. He could see the parallels here all to clearly. Disturbingly, he could see the parallels in his own behaviour. Further they got from home, the more exaggerated the extremes of his personalty would get. It disturbed him that he should get so 'anti' about a domestic droid. He loved robotics, that's why he became an engineer in the first place. Yet there he was cursing a device with a simple malfunction like a Luddite setting to torch a Jaqcard loom. He needed to interact with humanity again, for the sake of his sanity.

Weaving through the hubbub, he searched for a face he recognized. Although being trapped within a fish bowl like the Von Braun meant that everyone knew everyone else, some complex webs of friendships, and hatreds, had built up over the months. Everyone tended to stick to little cleeks and clicks of like minded souls, and you could grantee that if you belong to one group, you would immediately be the enemy of another. The UNN guys had it the worse, the crew of the Rickenbacker were outnumber by the Von Braun crew six to one. There was no loved lost between the hardliners on both sides, but yet people were mixing, and even dating. It seem to Yanos that in the end, a human being is a human being because a billon miles from home that's all you see, not the flags that they swear allegiances too. He knew that the navy personal must agree with him too for he could see a scattering of them in the crowd, although keeping a low profile by being dressed in civi' clothes. Tensions were high at the moment, no need to give some booze hound the excuse to start a riot simply because a navy staffer was on TriOpt turf.

Having slipped his way past the slot machines and poker tables, the tech walked in to the bar. There was only one other person in the bar proper, apart from the bartender, a junior flight technician call Mogol. Yanos had always considered the young man a bit of an facile idiot, too blindly loyal to the TriOpt, but he did had his uses. Part of the bridge crew, he was often privy to bits of information long before it was public in official channels. In the game of social activism, information is power; and the earlier you have it, the more powerful it is.

Sidling up to the flight tech, Yanos switched on his congenial look and slapped the young man on the back. "Howarya, Mogol. Long time, no see; hows life been treating you?"

The young flight tech looked up from his drink, a slightly forced smile appeared on his bland face. "Oh hi, Yanos. It's... it's good to see you. Sorry, about not recognising you before... I'm a bit distracted." There was long pause as he stared into his drink. "What are you doing here, it's still another hour at least till the end of red shift?"

Yanos collected his own drink, and sat down beside the distracted young man. "What you say is true, but I am here on official business. 'I'm here to observe the casino's protocol droids in their working environments to see if there are any improvements to be made in their operational makeup.'" He finished the statement with a knowing nudge of the elbow.

"Oh, yea." Another long pause. "Look, can you keep a secret?" Mogol looked at Yanos, his face a confusing mix of joy, uncertainty, and fear.

"You know me. What is it?" Yanos's face was full of concern.

"Just as I was finishing my magenta shift, we picked it up." A pause, forced by the gulping of a shot of clear spirit.

"What?" The eagerness in the traitor's voice was real for once.

"It was fragmented and weak, it took all of XERXES's spare runtime to clean it up and confirm it, but it was there."

Yanos passed the troubled man another shot glass of spirits and waited in silence as the flight technician gulped it down.

"A signal. A radio signal from Tau Ceti."

[ End of part 1 ]

Part two

The glass slipped from Yanos’s hand and bounced across the bar top with a plastic ringing sound. His face had locked into a mask of complete surprise, mouth gaping and eyes wide. The enormity of the statement had caught him completely off guard.

A message from an alien star system.

This was what the Von Braun’s mission was about, to find life amongst the stars. Officially speaking, of course.

Actually, the mission was in fact a survey flight to find new inhabitable worlds. Earth was groaning under the strain of the teeming populace of humanity. Even though the other planets in the solar system were being stripped of all their own resources to prop up the failing systems of the mother world. Even though billions of humans now lived in artificial habitats on or in orbit of, every planet, ever moon, and everything else that could be used to feed the hungry mouths of humanity. Even though all of this was being done, it still wasn’t enough. Although there always seemed to be more stuff to keep mankind fed, busy, and entertained; in real terms, with each passing year, mankind had less clean air and water, real food to eat, real space to live in, and real ‘true’ happiness in their lives. This was the real reason for spending trillions of nano’s on the Von Braun project, to find new homes for the ever expanding human race. Of course, only the parts of the human race who were rich enough or connected enough to be given the exploitation rights of the new worlds would really benefit from the mission. The rest of mankind would be left to rot on the dying Earth, or transported to the new worlds to work as indentured slaves to feed the coffers of the planetary barons. It had already happened countless times in mankind’s colonial history, on Earth and the neighbouring planets, and it would happen again given half a chance. That chance could not be given, not if Yanos and his fellow Humanist’s had anything to do about it.

"I know, it kind of blows you away don’t it. You could have heard a pin drop on the bridge when XERXES announced its analysis of the signal."

Yanos blinked for a moment, regaining his bearings. He was in the bar of the casino on deck five. Sitting opposite him was the vapid feature’s of Mogol, a junior fight technician that he maintained a ‘friendship’ with, purely to obtain tidbits of information that the young man had access to. The bartender was already cleaning up the spill on the bar top with a yellow sponge, that bore TriOptimum logo. In the background he could hear the jazzy muszac and muffled voices of the casino, as people tried to forget how many millions of kilometres they were from home. It was that faint smell of booze, tobacco, and humanity, that had drawn him here in the first place. He blinked again, and then ordered another drink from the bartender.

Taking a long sip, he then asked the obvious question of Mogol. "Was it an alien signal?"

Mogol just shrugged his shoulders. "To tell you the truth, no one knows. The message itself is the first thirteen primes then S O S, repeated." Seeing the confused look on the robotics engineer’s face, he explained it a bit better. "According to the senior fight officers, it can go either way. The use of the prime numbers is a trademark method of proving that the signal is from an intelligent life form, and not some naturally occurring phenomenon. As for the S O S, well we have been broadcasting radio waves into space for the last three hundred years, and that distress signal is probably one of the most recognisable bits in all the junk we have sent. If it is alien, then they are using it to prove that they have heard us, and that they want to talk back."

Yanos mulled over this information for a moment, then he asked. "Could it be human then?"

Mogol shrugged again. "Could be? We have been, I mean humanity has been seriously operating in space for the last hundred fifty plus years. There’s been a lot of starships, stations, and colonies which have just plain disappeared over all that time. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people that have just disappeared without a trace. Maybe a ship or something got blasted out of Earth range, so the crew went into deep freeze and waited to they found a suitable planet to live on. Maybe we’ve been listening to their children trying to make contact with home. Who knows?"

It felt strange to Yanos to see how much Mogol had changed, from the vacuous youth of a few weeks ago, to the strong self-assured man that sat before him. It was as though the message from Tau Ceti had been an epiphany to the young man, giving him a cause to believe in, giving him the strength of convictions he had lacked until now. It seemed to Yanos, that the void that Mogol had tried to fill with undying loyalty to the TriOpt, had been filled with the drive to meet the source of the signal, whatever it may be.

If someone as ‘basic’ a person as Mogol has had such a massive a change in his personalty from the news of the message, what would be the effect on the rest of the crews of both ships. Things were already stretched to the breaking point, as it was. Both ship’s brigs were already filled with to the brim with people who had broken the numerous rules and regulations that kept this mission functioning. There were fights nearly every day, some of them almost crossing the line into outright murder. The clouds of war are on the horizon, growing blacker and more turbulent every day.

The war was always going to happen, for this mission had become the focus point for all of mankind. Everything that was good, and everything that was bad, had been condensed, distilled, refined, and compressed, into a few hundred million cubic metres of starships. Two generations of hatred, ignorance, foolishness, idiocy, raw ambition, and every other flaw of humanity had pulled the UNN and the corp’s so far apart. The last few months had only intensified the divisions. Every star system that the Von Braun had passed through had been found to be a desolate stellar wasteland. The dream that each new system would offer the chance for humanity to start again with a clean slate, was cruelly shattered time and time again as they discovered another empty star system or one that offered only dead worlds. Each disappointment made the Earth, mankind’s only haven, seem even smaller, and the rage from the sense of loss made the divisions within this small fragment of mankind even greater.

In the end, it all boiled down to one simple question; how would the crews of the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker react to the news of the ‘alien signal.’ Would the announcement bind them together in the quest to make contact with the mysterious message senders. Would it be the catalyst, the start of the healing of the rift that has fractured humanity for so long. Would it be the blow that brings the tottering house of cards, that they laughingly called a civilisation, down around their collective ears, as the sides fight for the right for first contact with the message senders and all the wealth they might have. Would it be the clarion call for the burning rages of a nuclear fire storm, that would finally extinguish the blood stained works of man.

It was apparent to Yanos that the next few weeks could possibly decide the fate of all of mankind.

His mouth was dry from the enormity of the situation. Taking a small sip from his own drink, the bitter alcohol did little to change it. Instead he focussed his attention on the ripples in the glass.

"So, how many people know about the signal?" Yanos spoke with a softness that seemed appropriate for the situation.

The fight tech sat quite for a moment, doing the maths. "There’s about thirty staff members on the bridge at any given moment. So maybe there would be another ten or twelve associated personnel who would know about the signal because it would have to pass through their stations. So forty, forty-five people in total, including you, since I’ve told you aswell."

"What, about the Rickenbacker? After all if you heard it, they probably did too."

"I don’t know. No wait, I did hear one of the Navy guys talk about how over staffed we are on the bridge in comparison to them. He said that they only needed a dozen or so people to run their ship. If they need the same proportional amount of extra staff members to do the signal processing, I guess it would round up to about eighteen, maybe twenty people."

It didn’t take much to figure out that there were at least sixty people aboard both the ships who know about the signal. To the Humanist sitting at the bar, it meant possibly sixty sets of lips that could blab the news, to the wrong person just as Mogol had done with him. He shuddered slightly, seeing with his mind’s eye, the news spreading out through the ships crews like a summer fire through a tinder dry forest.

He thought to himself. The people on these ships are like the flammable’s hold in engineering, unstable and ready to blow. God only knew how many primed grenades, in the form of over talkative people, have been thrown in there in.

"Oh my god!" Exclaimed Mogol, leaping to his feet and spilling another drink across the still damp bar top. "Is that the time? I was supposed to meet Diana at the movie theatre half an hour ago. She’ll skin me alive for being late again."

The engineer looks up from the drink that he had been staring at while he had been deep in thought. He said with a quiet, distant voice. "You go and meet your girlfriend, before it’s too late and she walks. You can say that I co-opted you to help me with some tech work. I’ll pay for the drinks too. Just don’t tell anyone else, including your girlfriend, what you’ve told me because the repercussions from doing so could be disastrous. Do you hear and understand me? Do not tell anyone. Understood?"

The agitated youth quickly nodded in understanding, then dived though the bar door and disappeared into the milling casino crowds. The bartender stepped over to Yanos and handed him the bar PDA, which listed a substantial drink’s bill, with a polite cough. The tech studied it for a moment, not really paying attention to it, then added a figure to the empty tips’ entry of the bill sheet and thumbed it paid. Staring at the altered entry for a moment, the bartender gave Yanos a puzzled look.

"I am buying your silence in relation to the conversation that just took place here." Yanos’s voice had become hard and threatening. "You do realise how dangerous lose talk about the ‘news’ could be. Heard by the wrong ears, it could very well lead to bloodshed and that is something all we want to avoid." Yanos’s face was now as hard as his voice. "I might also add that if you do talk, I will find out, and you will pay for it, rest assured." He gestured to the bartenders lowly rank of a single ‘dash’ against the three stars of his own high rank as a section head.

Seeing the look of complete understanding in the bartenders face, he got up and made his way out of the casino. He knew that he was already late in returning to work, there was no need to check his watch to confirm it, but after what he had just learnt, he frankly didn’t care.

Spot from the Trans Earth News Channel, 2113-06-08 03:24:00 EGMT
Are Aliens out there?

With the maiden flight of the Von Braun only a few months away, one though is on every one’s mind... ‘Are there aliens out there?’

Ever since the Stone Age, when mankind looked up at the starry night sky and wondered if it was the campfires of other tribes that he saw up there, we have wondered if we are alone. That is what the Von Braun’s mission is all about, to search for signs of intelligent life.

It’s two year mission is to search our neighbouring solar systems in the hope of finding our brothers and sisters among the stars. Its highly trained crew of 1200 men and women, the best and brightest that mankind has to offer, will be searching the cosmos on our behalf. Their willing sacrifice to be so far from friends, families, and loved ones so that we all will benefit from a better tomorrow. Their two year long trip of loneliness, to be so distant from Earth, is a choice that they have happily made for the chance to reach out touch those who wait for us out there.

Don’t you wish you could be going along with them? To be one of those 1200 crew members boldly going where no one has gone before. Don’t you want the opportunity to say hello to our alien brothers and sisters?

Well, now you can.

TriOptimum is proud to announce the opportunity for you to say hello to our alien brothers and sisters. You too can have the chance to give a message of peace and friendship to those not born of our worlds. For a limited time, you can record a message which will be given to those we meet, as a sign of friendship from the peoples of Earth. Just like the Voyager probes that were launched at the dawn of the space age, the Von Braun will be carrying a special recording containing the sights and sounds of Earth. This recording will be given to our alien brethren so they can see what our world is like as we will see of theirs. As part of this recording, there will also be messages of greeting from the peoples of Human Space. You too can be part of this greeting.

From a low price of 5 nano’s for a 512-character message, to 5000 nano’s for a one minuet audio/visual message, you too can say hello from Earth, or anything else you want to say. It’s your chance to be part of history in the making, So why wait, act now before time runs out.

« Follow this link to view the full range of message options, payment plans, message contents limitations, and to record your message. »

This has been an advert for the Von Braun Project. Another ground breaking development from TriOptimum Corporation.

The walk back to the Robotics and Cybernetics section of the engineering deck gave Yanos plenty of time to think.

Tension was in the air and it was more than palpable, it was a solid object like a lead slab tied around each person’s neck. As Yanos made his way along the crowded hallways of the Recreational Deck, he read the faces of the people he passed. The ‘public’ faces that everyone wore were normal enough, the usual mix of emotions for the usual mix of people, but Yanos could see the truth behind all that. Years of training and experience had taught him to see behind the mask, to read between the lines on peoples faces. The lines were written deep and bold on every one of the faces that passed in front of him. They all read the same, fear, raw naked fear. Behind every friendly face, was a soul screaming in pure terror.

It came to Yanos, as he stood waiting for the central access lift to slowly make its way to deck five, this was the breaking point. In another few days, maybe within the day itself, the populations of the Von Braun and Rickenbacker would finally snap. The tensions were certainly at the explosive level, and the news about the signal would certainly detonate it, but who or what would press the trigger. He spent the slow ride down to engineering weighing the probabilities. He spent the rest of the walk to the Robotics & Cybernetics section, still weighing the odds. Being too lost in thought, reality decided to bring him back to earth with a very solid clank.


"Oww. Fuck it!" Exploded the engineer, hoping back and holding his bruised knee.

Looking up he, saw that the immovable object he had walked into was the metallic bulk of a maintenance mech. More than that, it wasn’t just any maintenance mech, it was Frank. It stood there in the corridor outside the R&C section entrance, patiently waiting, toolbox and crate still clipped to its back, and the limp form of the swearing domestic android still griped in its fist.

"Frank! What the hell is going on here!" Yanos exclaimed, his anger intensifying.

The mech turned around to face the fuming human and answered with its normal impassive tone. "Command not understood, Engineer Yanos. Could you please rephrase your instructions."

Taking a deep breath, Yanos managed to force out his query through gritted teeth. "Frank, why have you failed to comply with my last set of commands that I issued to you on deck five."

"This unit was unable to comply with the commands that you, Engineer Yanos, had issued due to the current environmental situation of the Robotics and Cybernetics section of the Engineering deck." Stated the mech in its unemotional way. "Technician Woods commanded this maintenance unit to wait in the corridor until space was available for it to complete its commands."

The amazement in the bar had turned into fear during the walk to the elevator. During the trip down to deck one, the fear had changed into frustration at the uncontrolled nature of the situation. Frustration had grown into anger at himself, for the lack of options available to him. Anger had exploded in to rage as he discovered one of the few things he could control, a simple beaver, was unable to complete its commands that he had given it. Fury ripped every other thought from Yanos’s mind as he stormed around the mech and in to the R&C workshop. The storm dissipated, as he stared in shock at a normally cramped workshop that was now filled to overflowing with the last thing he ever expected to see there.

Space was always at a premium aboard the Von Braun. Regardless how big the ship looked on the outside, or how spacious it appeared on the promotional videos, in reality the ship was cramped. It was to be expected, after all, the ship was never really design for the role it was fulfilling.

In one of those little secrets that somehow never leaked out, the Von Braun was originally going to be the interplanetary cruse ship Star Chaser. The Star Chaser was going to be the biggest, most indulgent interplanetary cruse ship ever constructed. It was going to be TriOptimum’s show piece, the jewel in the TriOpt’s corporate crown. She was the most massive single investment the corporation had ever made, sucking up almost a third of the corporation’s operating resources. TriOpt didn’t mind though, it was the biggest corp’ in the history of the world. TriOpt was extremely rich and powerful, and nothing could stop the corporate juggernaut from getting even more rich and more powerful every week, so the billions of currency units it was pouring in to the Star Chaser meant nothing.

Then the SHODAN crisis happened.

Over night, TriOptimum’s absolute power and wealth disappeared like ice under a mining laser. The massive reparation that it had to pay out from the law suit won by the families of the lost crew of Citadel Station were the least of its problems. It could even weather the massive fines being levied by the formally weak and ineffectual governments, as they went over every operation that TriOpt owned looking for the smallest infraction of legal code. Even the now organised and effective actions of anti corporate terrorist groups could be suffered by the corp’, for at their best the terrorist hardly made a dent in the corp’s operations.

What hurt it the most was the actions of its bread and butter, the consumers. Whole cities of consumers were boycotting TriOpt products and services. Millions of ordinary individuals were now questioning the actions of the corporations they had so trusted before. Hundreds of millions of people had lost faith in the wisdom of TriOpt and were saying so with their credit accounts.

TriOpt was forced to sell off or shut down hundreds of subsidiaries just to stay solvent. Millions of employees were layed off, which only added to the backlash against it. Everything that was not vital to the continuing operation of the corporation was sold off, mothballed, or assets stripped for what little value they could get on the open market. As the single most obvious drain of the TriOpt’s resources, the partially completed cruse ship Star Chaser was the first to go.

She was too huge an investment to sell, only the other megacorp’s could afford to buy her, and they were under as much pressure as TriOptimum. The TriOpt couldn’t break her up for scrap either, there was no way they could ever hope to recoup even a fraction on what had been spent on her so far. Mothballing was the only option. TriOptimum stripped out of her what they could, and towed her to Mars orbit, in the hope one day that they would have need of her.

There she orbited for a generation, her graceful form and powerful lines left to slowly collect space dust. Her grandly panelled walk ways and softly furnished state rooms were preserved in a soft vacuum to save power drain from the nearly dead engine. Banquet halls and sports centres never got the chance to hear the voices of happy tourists. The only foot prints that were left in the rich carpeting were from the space suited technical crews, that payed their all too infrequent visits to insure that she maintained her station keeping high above the red sands of Mars. The pride of her generation was left to slowly fade away, to be forgotten like the rest of the excesses of that time. She was the legacy of all that was great and that was evil of those times, times that the rest of the worlds of man wanted to forget. At the dawn of the twenty-second century, only the peoples of Mars knew of her, and in some respects, even cared about her. They considered her the planet’s third moon and renamed her TriOpt’s Folly. The only future that great ship had, was as a forgotten monument to corporate dreams.

Then out of left field, like all great inventions, Dr Marie Delacroix’s warp drive changed everything. Suddenly TriOptimum was in the possession of the worlds only working interstellar drive. To actually use it, they needed a ship massive enough to support it and all of its attendant systems. The now skeletal TriOpt, had no where near the funds to support building a ship of the size that they needed to contain the drive. Nor could they get assistance from other corporations in the project because you could guarantee that they would want shares in the warp drive patent, something that TriOpt could not, and would not, give up. The UNN had the ships big enough to support the drive, but to give the civil servants access to the drive technology was the equivalent of cutting one’s own throat in the current lukewarm war between government and business. Then someone remembered the Star Chaser. She was more than large enough to contain the drive, also being only half completed meant that the costs of refitting her would be well within the limited funds of the corp’. In mid 2107, the Star Chaser is hastily brought back on-line, re-christened the Von Braun, and towed back into Earth Orbit to be refitted.

It was a sad inditement of twenty second century, that a thirty-five year old starship only needed minor modifications to bring up to line with the most advanced starships currently available to mankind. Replacing the old engines with the warp drive was simple enough, they basically sawed off the old engine from the hull and welded on the new one. What caused the most problems was fitting everything else in. Installing equipment and features that the ship was never designed to carry, meant there was some creative floor planning done. What were smooth flowing corridors that provided easy access to every part of the ship, had become tortured three dimensional mazes. Floors had hills and leans for no explicable reason, sections of rooms had one part of the floor a centimetre lower or higher than the rest to trip the inattentive. Ceilings bowed and twisted without rime or reason. Everywhere there were pipes and conducts that were bolted to the outside of the walls, simply because there was no room within the walls to fit them. Fixtures and fittings were placed in strange positions and stuck out at odd angles, which always connected with the shins or the forehead of the unweary traveller. Every member of the crew quickly got into the habit of carrying their PDA with them at all times, so they at least had a map to show them where they were, and the distance to where they had intended to be when they had started on their trip. Still, getting lost was the least that the crew had to deal with.

As one wag once put it in an anonymous global ship’s email, ‘A public relations rep’ from TriOpt said to the media four days before we left, "Of course the Von Braun is shipshape and ready for flight." What she didn’t add was that it would be about six months after the ship returned to Earth.’ Every crew member had tales of the numerous malfunctions aboard the ship, ranging from minor ones like cabin light switches that would not stay on, to the major ones like the reactor’s coolant system constantly springing leaks. Each day brought a new catalogue of troubles, small and large, for the over stretched engineering crew to deal with. The cause of these troubles was simple enough to see. When the Star Chaser was mothballed, she was only eighteen months into a five year construction schedule. When the Von Braun was retrofitted, they only spent two years on the job. The starship was short eighteen months of construction time, and it showed. Instead of spending time exploring the realities of this new world the FTL drive thrust them into, the crew spent most of their time repairing or working around the numerous faults and malfunctions that she inflicted on them. Even that was considered less of a problem by the crew in comparison to the one issue that everyone onboard complained about, space.

The Star Chaser was designed for only four hundred passengers and a hundred and fifty crew, in relative luxury and space for a months travel at a time. The Von Braun had to fit in twelve hundred crew plus all the scientific equipment, laboratory space, and supplies for a two year mission. Something had to give, and as per usual it was the employees that did, and in the case it was their living space. TriOpt stated that it couldn’t increase the physical space available by enlarging the ship, without risking weakening the superstructure. Most of the crew reckoned that it was because it was cheaper to shrink the living space of each crew member, than it was to weld on a couple of extra thousand cubic metres of living space. What people tended to forget was, that the living spaces they were assigned too were in fact not that much smaller than what they normally lived in back on Earth. It was the vastness of deep space itself that made every thing aboard the ship seem so much smaller.

In the end, regardless of her name or mission, the problems she was burdened with, or the stresses the crew suffered, the ship known as the Von Braun carried them to places never seen before by man, and for that they were all grateful.

Again, Yanos felt shock roll over him like a tsunami wave. Robotics and Cybernetics had always been a crowded workshop, being such small area shoved in, as almost an afterthought, between the storage holds and the coolant system. It’s sloping far wall and S shape floor plan meant that stuff had to be placed in constantly shifting piles, just so the engineering staff was able to get any work done. He was use to it looking over full, but what he saw right now was taking it to the extreme. Stacked on every available surface were security turrets. Such massive stacks that they were literally spilling over onto the floor. Popping up from behind one of the great stacks came the worried face of Sue Lee.

"Boss, it’s so great to have you back." She babbled, the hurriedly spoken speech further blurring the words already fuzzed by her southern Chinese accent. "We’ve been trying to call you for the last half hour, but your PDA has been off-line."

Yanos blinked for a moment before realising that he had turned it off when he went into the casino. A lot things had happened since then, so he could forgive himself for forgetting to turn it back on.

Sue Lee continued blabbering. "It started about forty minuets ago. These two security creeps came in with a lifter full of turrets and these orders. Since then, every ten minuets, another load of turrets. I called my friend Deter in Stores about this, and he said they were pulling every turret stockpiled there out and bringing them here." Grabbing the hard copy order that Sue Lee had waved in his face, he uncreased it and read slowly. As he scanned down the page, the fury that had dispelled, returned with a vengeance. With the order crushed in his white knuckled fist, he stormed over to the central console and stabbed the communications link button so hard it jammed on the ‘on’ position.

"XERXES." He shouted into the mike with an unnatural rage. "Get me Security Chief Bronson on the line now. I don’t give a damn what time it is, or where she is, or what privacy orders she may have given you. I am ordering you to make a connection right now under protocol beta one." To himself he added. "If that bitch thinks she can get away with this bullshit, she has no idea what she is in for."

-- To be continued. --


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