Shipmind Chapter 28

I took a few moments to work out my appearance. I wanted an image of my old human self to show on the screen when I spoke to the prisoners who had been my bridge crew. I had to construct it from memory, from having seen myself in the mirror. My interface had a program for doing that, though; the ability to construct realistic human faces by combining features from a library of them was so old no one knew when it had been developed. I worked at it until I got something that matched what I remembered seeing in the mirror, the work of less than twenty seconds, then flipped it so it would match what everyone else would remember seeing.

On top of that basic appearance, a standard shipsuit without any markings. Wearing my old rank insignia felt wrong now that I had, in a very real sense, turned coat. On the other hand, the more comfortable Commonwealth uniform would create entirely the wrong first impression, even if I did mean to build up to that.

Voice synthesis was a little harder. Just as ancient a technology, but the variables were more fluid. I tweaked until I got something close enough to what I remembered my voice sounding like, then applied a filter to take some of the depth out of it. No one sounds to everyone else as they do in their own head, but the effects in play were well studied and easy to account for. It sounded close enough to the way I’d sounded in recordings, I thought. A pity I didn’t have any reference material to check my work, but my records had all been destroyed with the Hammerhead.

I’d never had to deal with such issues as Ransom. My voice had been synthetic from the moment I’d first been powered on, so I’d never had anything to try and match it to. Just something that sounded good to querral ears. Still, what I had was, in my opinion, a very good likeness of my old face and voice. I certainly wasn’t going to do any better without some reference material to work from.

That still left me a few minutes while the three people in the quarantine room slowly roused themselves, which I spent on the comforting routine of maintaining my ship’s systems, such as they were. Scanning through them on honed instinct, so much smoother and easier than the overwhelming mess it had been before the Ransom part of me had finished “waking up”.

Marcus was the first to lift their head. I projected my new image onto the chamber’s wall-screen and spoke through the attached speaker.

“Take it easy, Commander, you’re safe.”

They groaned and put their head back down on the bed. “That you, Captain? You sound kind of weird.”

Close enough that they recognised me, at least. “Long story,” I said. “But yeah, it’s me. Tann and Theo made it off too.”

“They were in my pod. Did…” They trailed off, but I knew what the question was going to be.

“Just the four of us, Marcus. I’m sorry.”

Marcus covered their face with their hands. “Emperor protect… I knew we didn’t give it enough time. We actually did it, didn’t we? Set off the bomb.”

“We did. I didn’t think any of us would make it out. Cruel irony that it should be us.”

Marcus rubbed their eyes then slowly, painfully slowly, sat up. Looked around, blinking in the harsh, sterile light of the quarantine chamber. Then they looked at my screen. “Hey, you’re not Captain Gold. That’s a composite avatar. Where are we?”

Apparently my work wasn’t quite as good as I’d thought. I put my avatar’s hands up in imitation of a defensive gesture. “Hey, calm down, it’s me. The day’s code word when we evacuated was pinion, and if you still don’t believe me I can tell you the story of how I had to pull you off of Titan after you tried to—”

“Whoa, whoa, code word’s enough. We don’t need to be bringing up Titan again right now. Or ever.” That was good. I didn’t think I recalled enough details of that story to tell it convincingly, just that it was important and extremely personal. “But that doesn’t explain why you’re using an avatar rather than being in here with us, or video calling from your own room.”

“Right, like I said, long story.” No, that was too breezy, too Ransom. I needed to slow down. “I was in rough shape when they pulled me out of my pod. No one else from the main bridge survived the inversion, and I very nearly didn’t. There isn’t much left of me, and there’s only a machine keeping me alive. This composite was the best I could do from memory, because there isn’t even enough left of my face to compare it to.”

“…damn. I’m so sorry, Erin. No matter what happened, you deserve better than that.”

I shook my virtual head. “No, I don’t. We actually did it, Marcus. We opened Pandora’s Box, and now more than three thousand people are dead.”

Marcus didn’t immediately react to that. Instead, they changed the subject. “Who picked us up?”

I decided to go with honesty. Too many lies up front would seriously undermine what I was trying to do here. “Commonwealth ship called the King’s Ransom. They picked up my pod first, yours a couple of weeks after.”

“We’ve been captured? And you didn’t activate your implant?”

Oh, crap. I really wished I had remembered about those before.

I shot a quick message to the panel outside, where Pepper and Sam were listening in. “Better get ready to rush in. Standard Imperial Navy officer implants have a suicide function. We’re supposed to hit it in case of capture.”

Sam scoffed. “Let ‘em. Solves our security problem.”

I felt my opinion of Sam move down a couple of notches. Pepper didn’t look very pleased either, not that they had looked pleased about anything since we brought the pod in.

But I didn’t have time to worry about that.

“Not captured, Marcus,” I soothed. “Rescued. Trust me, this ship couldn’t fight the Imperial Fleet if it tried.”

“Oh? And I suppose that door will open if I get up and try to leave?”

“If you get up and try to leave, you’ll collapse on the floor. And… no, the door’s locked, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.”

My old friend’s eyes narrowed. It was an expression I’d seen lots of times, but never directed at me before. No, those eyes, that tight mouth, were reserved for a subordinate who had commited a truly astronomical blunder. Had I?

“They got to you,” Marcus growled. “Emperor damn it, Erin, this is why we’re supposed to punch out if we get captured.” Then they closed their eyes, starting to work the interface projected into their vision. I had a few seconds maybe.

“Marcus, please! If anything I believed ever meant anything to you, hear me out.”

The rapid eye movements stopped, but they stayed closed. “Are you even still my friend? How much of the Erin I know is still in there with whatever the machines did to you?”

“They didn’t know!” I shouted, straining the wall panel’s little speaker. “When they picked me up and put me back together, they thought I was one of theirs. Even if they could have got to me, they wouldn’t have known to try.

“But the Commonwealth isn’t like that. It’s not the old Overmind. Their machines don’t do to them what ours did to us!”

Their eyes flicked open again, back to the screen showing the facsimile of the Imperial officer I used to be. To the pleading look I was trying so hard to put into my eyes.

“The Overmind said it was for our own good,” they said. “Are you going to believe their lies too?”

I shook my image’s head. “I’m not explaining this as well as I should. I haven’t been given the party line, old friend, I’ve seen them living it. This ship was beaten to hell and back, but these people – these proud, independent people, Marcus – they didn’t curl up and die, they didn’t run for the stars, they pulled together and started working to get home. Just like we would if this was the Hammerhead.”

Marcus shook their head in turn. “This is a trick. For this, I have only your word, only your word that you even are who you say you are, as much as you sound like my Captain. What are you hoping I’ll give up to you?”

“It’s me, Marcus. I know about Firewall.” That made their eyebrows go up. “I know what we were trying to do. I know the desperate risk we were running with long-range hyperspace collapse. Every secret you could possibly give up, I was the one who briefed you on it.

“But you’re right. You only have my word. Stay here with me until Tann and Theo wake up. Our doctor says it’ll be any minute. Then I’ll show you. Not on the screen; I’ll let you see, with your own two eyes, what kind of people are on this ship.”

“And you think their ship’s machine mind will just let you do that? I’ll believe it when I see it.”

I sent a command to our jury-rigged locking mechanism. The compartment door popped open, revealing a rather shocked-looking Sam and Pepper. Maybe I should have warned them I was going to do that.

“Believe it,” I said, barely missing a beat. “Because the shipmind is no tyrant. Please, let me introduce you to Pepper, the ship’s acting Captain.”

Marcus rubbed their eyes, then stared out the door. “Is that a ferret?”

Tags: shipmind, writing