Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Weeks 18 to 22 - CORA

Michael Salsbury
Author's Note:   It's literally taken weeks to get this story out of me.  Don't know why. Hope you enjoy it.

Ethan Crosby hadn't set out to become a starship captain, but it seemed that fate had other plans. Managing an escape from the supposedly escape-proof Sylkaran prison system, he and the others now found themselves aboard an unknown alien spacecraft.  They didn't know a lot about it.  It was fast.  It had outrun a Sylkaran patrol fleet, a feat few ships could manage.  It had an intelligent computer, which seemed more than a simple AI.  With it, they felt they could probably go anywhere or do anything.  Facing a short life in prison, they suddenly had all the freedom they could imagine.

CORA, the name the ship's AI gave itself, couldn't tell them much about its creators.  It knew they had existed.  It knew they were under attack, but not by whom or why.  It knew they thought the ship was about to explode, and ejected in life pods.  But the auto-repair nanobots managed a miracle. The ship didn't explode.  It flew wildly through hyperspace before it finally got its navigation system functional.  CORA wasn't sure where it had flown from.  In fact, CORA either couldn't remember its creators or refused to identify them.  This made all of the crew suspicious, especially Bill Mills, their computer security expert.

"I can't believe we're free," Arden said.  "I thought we were going to rot in that Sylkaran prison."

"We wouldn't have lived long enough to rot," Mills said.  "We'd have been lucky to last six months."

"Ever the optimist, aren't you, Mills?" Brell smiled.  Mills scowled at him.

"If I could have your attention for a moment," Crosby raised his voice for attention. Now that he had it, he lowered it to normal. "We need to plan our next step.  We got away from that patrol, but the Sylkarans aren't going to take kindly to our little escape.  They'll be headed this way with everything they've got. Next time, we might not get away so easily."

"You're right," Mills said. "We should head for Alliance space."

"No," Brell shook his head.  "I'm a Sylkaran.  They'll lock me up for sure.  I didn't escape from prison just to go back to prison."

Monroe nodded.  "If I go back to the Alliance, I've got nothing. The Sylkarans took my ship, and my brother's here somewhere.  I vote we stay here."

"I wasn't aware this was a democracy," Mills said.  "Perhaps I'd have bought more votes."

"Quiet, Mills," Crosby said.  "What do say, Tork?"

"The Alliance is nice, but I want to save my people.  I'm staying here."

"Well, Mills," Crosby said, "I'm afraid you're out-voted.  Monroe, Tork, and Brell want to stay in Sylkaran space."

"And you?" Mills raised an eyebrow.

"The Alliance sent me here on a mission.  I was supposed to gather information about the Sylkaran government and Sylkaran technology.  If I leave now, I go back empty-handed--"

"But alive," Mills reminded him.

"Yes, but if I stay here, with this ship, and this crew," Crosby said, gesturing at the others, "I have a chance to do something bigger.  I think we can take down the Sylkaran government, help them build a new on that's more in line with the Alliance."

Mills laughed loudly, then calmed himself.  "You think one ship and five people can take down an empire that spans two hundred worlds and has lasted a thousand years?"

Crosby nodded.  "Yes."

"Then you're crazier than I thought."

"Look at it, Mills. The Sylkaran High Council keeps the rank-and-file population drugged so that they remain compliant and complacent.  They drug the military to prevent desertion.  If you could take out the High Council and wean the people off the drugs, you'd probably see a very different Sylkaran Empire... one that might join the Alliance."

Mills shrugged.  "Maybe.  That still doesn't tell me how you think you can do it with this one ship."

"I know.  Think about it.  This ship is faster than anything the Alliance or the Sylkarans have.  If CORA can be believed, we've got more firepower than a ship ten times our size.  We can fly the ship through the heart of the Sylkaran Empire, sabotaging their infrastructure and making it hard for the High Council to maintain control.  Sooner or later someone will stage a coup.  If they don't, we can find someone friendly to the Alliance and nudge them along."

"Sounds like a suicide mission."

"Maybe it is.  But suppose we go with your plan."  The others grumbled. Crosby turned to them, "I'm not saying we will. Just... suppose.  We fly this ship back to Alliance space.  I let you off wherever you like.  The Alliance gets a good look at this ship and forces me to turn it over. If I don't, I'm a fugitive.  If I do, they dismantle it and tear it apart for its secrets.  They build a fleet of ships like it.  Figuring they have the upper hand, they'll push the Sylkarans hard.  Sooner or later, we'll be at war again. With a fleet of these things, the Alliance will obliterate the Sylkaran fleet and take down the High Council.  Millions will die.  I don't want that much blood on my hands."

"Neither do I," Monroe added.

"Or me," Brell said. "Especially when they'll mostly be my people."

"I see your point, Crosby.  But going back to the Alliance and staying here aren't the only options."

"They are, for this crew.  Monroe needs to be here to find her brother.  Brell doesn't want to leave.  Tork wants to free his people and go back to his family, and they're here.  I won't make you stay, Mills, but we're staying."

Mills sighed.  "Fine. I'll stay with you, for now. I reserve the right to leave in the future."

"Understood, and I'll do you one better.  If you decide to leave, and we can help you get where you want to go without putting the ship and crew at too much risk, we'll take you there."


"Now that we've settled that, I think our next step is to find a base of operations."

"No," Mills said.  "The next step is to gain control of this ship."

Monroe laughed. "We have control of this ship.  What are you talking about?"

"Allow me to demonstrate."

"CORA, can you control the ship's life support functions?"


"Could you shut them down if necessary?"


"And could you self-destruct the ship, disable the weapons, or fly the ship into the nearest sun?"

"If circumstances dictated, those actions could be performed."

Mills turned to Crosby.  "Do you see the problem now?"

Crosby's eyes darted about for a moment, considering the conversation between Mills and CORA.  "You're saying that CORA controls the ship, so we need to be sure we're in control of CORA?"

"Precisely.  If her creators come along and remind her who they are, and tell her to kill off the intruders - us - we don't stand a chance.  She could shut off life support, open the airlocks, and kill us all as we slept."

"Comforting thought, Mills."  Brell said.  "You're always so cheerful."

"In computer security, you learn to look for the holes, weaknesses, and problems.  Right now, CORA is both our biggest asset and our biggest weakness.  If we're going to do what Crosby wants us to do, we need to be able to trust CORA.  Right now, I don't."

"You've made your point.  What do you propose we do?"

"First, take the ship to a remote section of Sylkaran space.  Find a planet with a breathable atmosphere and set down.  I'll shut down CORA's entire network and go over every centimeter of it.  If her creators built any fail-safe mechanisms into her, I'll remove them.  Then if they do show up, they'll find CORA just as uncooperative as the rest of us."

Crosby laughed.  "Let's do it."

"Um," Brell said, his eyes wide, "Won't shutting down CORA leave us a bit vulnerable?"

"Yes," Mills said.  "That's why it needs to be a remote planet."

"And if you can't get CORA working again?"

"That's why it needs to have a breathable atmosphere.  We might be there a while."

Brell turned away.  "Sorry I asked," he muttered to himself.


With CORA's help, Crosby and Mills found a suitable planet along the fringes of the Sylkaran Empire, near Alliance space.  They monitored their scanners for a few hours after setting the ship down, and saw no traffic in the area.

"Get started, Mills."

Mills gathered his tools and made his way to the computer core room.  The door wouldn't open.

"Warning... this area is restricted. Entry is not permitted."  CORA's voice came from the intercom panel next to the door.

Mills pressed the intercom button.  "Brell, I need your help."


"There's a locked door between the computer core and me."

"On my way.  I mean, there's precious little else to do here."

Moments later, Brell arrived with his own set of tools.  Mills watched with growing interest as Brell manipulated the locking mechanism to open the door.  When it slid open, Brell stepped back and smiled at Mills.  "Piece of cake."

"Warning," CORA said, "You have entered a restricted area. Security measures will commence in sixty seconds if you do not leave."

"Well, so much for that," Brell smiled sheepishly.  "Time to go."

Mills grabbed him.  "Not so fast, Brell.  Help me find these so-called security measures and disable them."

"I'd rather leave."

"I didn't ask you your preference.  Do it."

Mills watched with genuine admiration as Brell scoured the room, finding hidden gas jets, lasers, and other intruder countermeasures. As he found each one, Brell quickly disconnected or disabled it. Although he wasn't sure he could do everything Brell had done, Mills tried to remember as much as he could. Physical security and computer security were often intertwined, and being able to defeat one made a person more adept at defeating the other.

"Nice work, Brell."

"Thanks, Mills. Coming from you, that means a lot. It's really--"

"Enough. Open that panel for me. It looks like a network access node."

Brell sighed, picked the optical lock on the panel, and opened it.  Too late, he noticed the nozzle behind it. A jet of gas sprayed out.  

Mills heard a hiss and saw Brell collapse.  Taking a deep breath, he grabbed Brell and pulled him out of the core room.  He hit the intercom button.  "Tork, down here on the double!"

Tork carried Brell to the medi-center, with Mills right behind him.  They placed Brell in a rejuvenation cell and switched it on.  Mills consulted the medical computer for an antidote to the gas in the computer core, and instructed the rejuvenation cell to deliver it. Brell regained consciousness a moment later.

"Am I dead?"  Brell rubbed his eyes.

"No. You're in the medi-center," Mills said. "And I have to get back to work."


"Attention," CORA's voice said.  "There is a small space vehicle in scanner range.  It appears to be drawing closer."

Crosby looked at the screen in front of him but couldn't make out the image.  "Can you identify it?"

"Negative.  The ship is at the extreme range of my scanners.  I will continue to monitor it."

"Right," Crosby said, hitting the intercom.  "Crosby to Mills."

"Mills here. What is it?"

"We've got an unidentified ship heading our way.  Don't shut CORA down yet.  We may need to get out of here in a hurry."

"Understood. I'm going to stay down here and run some diagnostics. Even if I can't shut CORA down, I want to see if I can figure out what makes her tick."


Franks nudged Davidge, "Look at the scanner.  There's a ship on that planet."

Davidge opened his eyes, squinting a bit as he focused them on the scanner. "Sylkaran?"

"Doesn't look like it.  Not one of ours, either."

"Should we check it out?"

Franks nodded. "If it's a new Sylkaran design, we need data on it.  If it's something else, it might be a first contact situation."

"Yeah.  Plotting a course."


Although Mills couldn't dig too deeply with CORA still active and running the ship, it was safe enough to sample the network traffic and try to understand CORA's design.  The more he looked at the network traffic, the less Mills felt he understood.  The activity graph reminded him of functional scans of the human brain more than computer traffic.


CORA projected an image on the main viewscreen.  "This is a silhouette of the approaching vessel."

"Never seen anything like that one," Monroe said.

"Me, either.  Is it Sylkaran?" Tork asked, looking at Crosby.

"No.  It's Alliance. I recognize the design," Crosby said. "CORA, open a channel to that ship, tight-beam transmission. I don't want the Sylkarans catching this."

"Confirmed. Channel open."

"This is Ethan Crosby. Identify yourself."

The intercom speaker blared to life, "Ethan Crosby? Of the Alliance?"

"Yes.  And you are?"

"Crosby, it's Carl Franks.  Remember me?"

Crosby laughed. "Who could forget the guy who nailed Captain Elrond's desk to his office ceiling?"

"Yeah. What gives with that ship?"

"What gives with you two on this side of the neutral zone?"

"Permission to come aboard and discuss."

"Granted. See you two clowns soon."

CORA announced that the communication was terminated.

Monroe's eyes widened. "Who are they?"

"They're two guys I went to the Alliance Academy with.  That ship they're in is designed for covert missions, quick in-and-out stuff.  It's designed to be small enough to slip across the neutral zone undetected."

"Can you trust them?"

"I think so. We're on the same side."  Crosby pressed the intercom button.  "Crosby to Mills.  Go ahead with your work. The ship's a friendly."

"I see.  Mills out."


Mills tried every network cracking trick he knew, and even made a few up on the spot.  No matter how hard he tried, CORA's systems seemed too resilient.  It was almost like the computer knew what was coming and adapted to it, sometimes before he even made the attempt.  It didn't make sense.

Brell entered the room.  He looked Mills in the eye. "Thanks. You saved my life. I didn't think you liked me."

"I had to.  If Crosby's plan is going to work, and I'm not saying it will, he's going to need all the help he can get.  You're the best security cracker I've ever seen.  We need you."

"Oh," Brell said, looking down at the floor.

"Besides," Mills said, grinning slightly, "I think there are still a few tricks you can teach me.  I might not be finished with you yet."

Brell smiled. "Good to have value, then."


"How's it going?  Got CORA singing show tunes yet?"

Mills shook his head.  "I've tried every trick I know, and I'm not getting anywhere."

"Maybe CORA's designers were smarter than you, Mills."

Mills gritted his teeth, turning back toward the network analyzer.  


The Alliance ship docked and Crosby opened the airlock to let Franks and Davidge in.  He noticed they were wearing sidearms, then realized he would have done the same in their situation.  They couldn't be sure this wasn't some kind of Sylkaran trap.  He smiled and waved them aboard.

Franks stepped forward and shook Crosby's hand, then looked around. "Looks like you're doing OK for yourself."

"Yeah," Davidge said. "Where'd you get this ship?"

"We kind of inherited it?"

Davidge raised an eyebrow.

"I'd been arrested by the Sylkarans.  We all had.  They were taking us to a prison planet. The prison transport ran across this ship. The captain wanted to claim salvage rights. She sent two guards aboard.  When they didn't report in, she decided to send prisoners.  That was us."

"We'd heard about your arrest. You've been disavowed, of course."

Crosby nodded, then looked down at the floor. "Of course."  He looked at Davidge and Franks. "Anyway, the ship's intruder controls nearly got us, too, but they didn't."

"So you control the ship?"

"For the most part."

"What does that mean?"

"Follow me.  I'll give you a tour and explain."


Mills wiped some sweat from his forehead.

"No luck?" Brell toyed with a lockpick.

"None.  I need to take a break for a moment, and clear my head."

"I don't blame you."

Crosby stepped into the room, followed by two strangers.  "This is Bill Mills, our computer expert," Crosby said, then pointed a Brell. "Brell is a Sylkaran thief and physical security expert."

"Thief?" Davidge asked.

"The label doesn't bother me," Brell smiled. "It's kind of an honor, really. Made my living that way for a long time... until they caught me."

Mills, Brell, and the others exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes.  This was a few minutes more than Mills could tolerate.

"If you'll all excuse me, I have work to do."  Mills got back to his tools.

"If you don't mind me asking," Franks said, "what work are you doing?"

"We inherited this ship. Either the AI doesn't remember its creators or it's keeping them a secret. Whichever it is, I don't intend for them to regain control of the computer or the ship. I'm trying to shut it down so I can analyze its programming."

"Reverse engineering alien tech," Franks nodded. "You must be pretty good."

"I am.  Now please, leave me alone. I need to concentrate."

Crosby smiled.  "You heard the man, let's move on."


Crosby showed Davidge and Franks the rest of the ship. The tour ended on the bridge, where Monroe and Tork were watching the scanners.  Crosby introduced them.

"What do you think of our ship?" Crosby smiled.

Franks and Davidge looked at each other, then turned toward Crosby.

"You need to take it to the Alliance. Directive 51 applies here."

"No it doesn't.  Directive 51 says we only take technology home if doing so isn't going to cause harm.  If I take this ship home, Monroe may not be able to find her brother. Tork won't be able to free his people. I won't be able to finish my mission, either."

"Your responsibility is not to these people.  They're criminals.  If you bring this ship home, the Alliance could build a fleet of them. If it's as good as you say, the Sylkarans won't be a match for it."

Crosby shook his head. "You're talking about starting a war. That's what I'm trying to avoid. I'm planning to use this ship to take down the Sylkaran High Council. No one has to die, at least not by Alliance hands."

"That's not your call to make."

"You're wrong. It's my mission. The Alliance disavowed me, so technically I don't work for them anymore. The ship is ours. We'll use it as we see fit." 

Too late, Crosby realized that Davidge and Franks had maneuvered themselves in position next to Monroe and Tork. They pulled out shock sticks and knocked Crosby's crewmates unconscious, then started in his direction. Crosby turned and ran for the armory.


Mills gained limited access to the computer core, but found his access terminated almost immediately.

CORA responded at once. "Your skill is impressive, but it is triggering my self-protection protocol."

Mills looked at Brell. "Computers have warned me like this before, usually just before they crack."

An alarm klaxon went off. "Self-destruct in ten minutes."

Brell's eyes opened wide. "Self-destruct? Hadn't we better get out of here?"


"Yes, Mr. Mills?"

"Please cancel the self-destruct."

"That is impossible. Your tampering with my systems has triggered a built-in protocol.  In less than ten minutes, the self-destruct system will be activated."

"And you will be the one to trigger it?"


"If you were shut down, the self-destruct would be canceled?"

"Effectively, yes. I am required to send a signal to trigger the mechanism."


Crosby grabbed a few weapons from the armory and locked it down.  He pressed a comm panel button on the wall.  "Mills?"

"What is it now? Is your tour boring them to death?"

"No. Franks and Davidge attacked Tork and Monroe. They're trying to take control of the ship."

"Let them. It's on a countdown to self-destruct. They've got about ten minutes."

A chill went through Crosby. "I gather you're working on stopping that?"

"No," Mills said, his voice oozing sarcasm, "I thought I'd start writing my will."

"Is Brell with you?"


"Brell, I need you to meet me outside the computer core in two minutes."

"What if your friends are out there?"

"I'm counting on it."

"Well, I'm not."


Davidge took out a pair of plasticuffs and bound Monroe's wrists and ankles. Looking at her in that position brought some curious ideas to mind, but Davidge shut them out.

Franks put plasticuffs on Tork.  Looking at the man's muscles, he took out a second set and put those on Tork as well. Davidge looked at him, cocking his head to one side.

"Don't want him getting free, do we?" Franks asked. Davidge shook his head.

"Let's take care of the others." Davidge started toward the exit at the rear of the bridge.

"What's that noise?" Franks looked concerned.

"I don't know.  CORA?"

The computer didn't respond.

"CORA, what's that sound?"

"That is the self-destruct warning. This space vehicle will self-destruct in 8.5 minutes."

Franks shook his head. "Self-destruct. Why the hell did Crosby trigger that? Is this ship really worth that much to him?"


As Crosby made his way to the computer core, he began to second guess himself.  Did he have the right to keep this ship and CORA? Did he have a duty to the Alliance to turn it over? Was it really his choice what happened to the ship? Was he just being selfish? Then he realized this didn't matter at the moment. His crew was under attack and the ship was about to self-destruct anyway.  He quickened his pace toward the computer core.

Brell was waiting outside, carefully looking in all directions. When he saw Crosby coming, he nearly ducked back into the core. Crosby held up a hand to stop him.

"We don't have much time, Brell. Take this gun." He held a weapon out.

Brell shook his head. "I don't like guns. Don't know how to use them."

"Take it anyway. Franks and Davidge won't know you can't use it. It'll make them hesitate before they approach you. That may buy me time to get the jump on them."

Brell sighed and took the gun. Crosby reached out and flipped off the safety.

"There," he said. "At least if you do have to fire it, it'll actually fire."

"What's your plan?"

"I'm going to climb up in the air duct there," he said, pointing at the ceiling. "When they get close to you, I'll drop out and land on one of them."

"What about the other one?"

"Shoot him if you can."

"You'll be lucky if I don't shoot you by mistake. I mean it, I don't know guns."

Crosby nodded. "OK, OK. Just keep it pointed at them when the get here. It'll slow them down."

"So you said."

Crosby climbed into the air duct. Brell pressed his back against the closed computer core room door.


As CORA continued to count down to the ship's destruction, Mills became more nervous.  Could he stop it from happening, or should they run?  "No," he told himself. "I won't let them beat me. I can do this."

Something Brell said to him kept replaying in his mind. "Maybe CORA's creators were smarter than you are."  Why was that bothering him so much?  Was his ego really that big?

It hit him. "Intelligence!" he said to himself, "That's it. I've been treating this like any other computer network. I should have been treating it like an intelligence living on a computer network."

"CORA," Mills said, smiling, "I think it's time we reached an understanding."


Brell resisted the urge to whistle to calm his nerves. He tried to imagine he was on a beach on the Sylkaran homeworld and not standing on a spaceship about to self-destruct with him inside it.

He heard sound from both his left and right. To his left, he could see Franks coming his way. To his right, Davidge. He swung the gun in his hand left, then right, then back.

Franks and Davidge stopped about twenty feet away.

Franks smiled. "Mr. Brell, I can see you're not a very experienced marksman. If you put down the gun and surrender, I promise I'll incapacitate you painlessly. You won't feel a thing. You'll just go to sleep."

"That's very friendly of you," Brell said, turning the gun his direction.

"You can't stop both of us, you know," Davidge said. "If you shoot him, I'll be on you before you can aim the gun my direction. If you shoot me, he'll get you."

"Yes," Brell said, swallowing, "I kind of figured that." He turn the gun toward Davidge.

The two men began moving slowly toward Brell. He fought the urge to look at the air vent where Crosby was waiting.

Franks stopped moving and looked up at the air vent.  Brell wondered if he'd looked at it subconsciously, or if Franks had perhaps heard Crosby up there. Suddenly, he felt a rush of adrenaline.

Davidge kept inching closer. Brell, without thinking, fired. Davidge collapsed. Franks started toward him, only to have Crosby fall down on him from the air vent. Crosby moved quickly and Franks was unconscious quickly.

Crosby smiled at Brell. "Nice shooting."

Brell looked as though he'd lost his favorite pet. "I've never killed anyone before."

"And you still haven't," Crosby chuckled. "Did you think I'd set that thing on Kill when you've never used one before? What if you'd shot me instead of Davidge?"

"I see," Brell said, dropping the gun.

"Look, Brell, I need your help. We have to get these two to their ship."

The alarm klaxon stopped, and CORA was no longer counting down to the ship's demise.

"Mills must have stopped the self-destruct," Brell said.


Crosby shackled Franks and Davidge inside their ship with some of their own plasticuffs. Then he took a few minutes disabling their weapons, before calling Mills to join him there.

"What's the plan?" Mills asked.

"I need you to program this ship to return to Alliance space. Do anything you can to lock it on course so that when these two come around again they don't have any choice but to go home."

"Alright," Mills said, and got to work. "Are you sure you don't just want to shoot them? That way you know they won't be coming back."

"No. They were only doing their jobs. They're supposed to make sure any useful tech finds its way back to the Alliance labs. Technically, that's what I'm supposed to do. But you know what this ship can do. If the Alliance built a fleet of these..."

"It would be a very bad day to be Sylkaran."


"Done," Mills said. "Assuming they can break the lock on the system, the controls are encrypted and the code changes every few minutes. I haven't met many people who could break that."

"Good. Let's send them on their way. But Mills?"


"These guys are good. You'd better work fast on CORA."


Mills looked at Brell.  "This is amazing."

"What? That computer?"

"CORA is more than a computer, Brell. In a computer, if you change a bit or byte here or there, you don't affect anything else most of the time. Not so with CORA, here."

"What do you mean?"

"In an ordinary computer, you could replace all references to one person with another. The other memories would stay intact. CORA's memory is more like yours or mine. Individual memory elements are linked to one another. If you change one, you change others. Change those, and still others change. It's a kind of domino effect."

"You mean, if you change just one memory you rewrite lots of them?"

"Exactly. Imagine if I could reach inside your mind and change it."

"That's a scary thought."

"It should be. Now, imagine I changed your attitude toward your mother. Instead of remembering her fondly, I made you hate her."


"Because you have lots of memories tied to your mother, making you hate her is going to affect all those other memories. At first, you'll wonder why you bought your mother birthday presents when you really hated her, or why it made you feel good when she said she was proud of you. You'll find that you have a lot of memories of your mother that don't make sense."

"Sounds confusing."

"Eventually, your brain will reconcile all of it, and decide that those pleasant memories of your mother were just mistaken. Suddenly, that happy childhood becomes a nightmare. Would you be the same person you are now?"


"Right. By changing that one little memory, I've set off a cascade that changes your whole attitude toward your past, your present, and your future. Change the wrong memories, and you could make a person insane."

"An insane computer running the ship. There's a pleasant thought."

"Exactly. I can't just poke around in CORA's memory and start changing things. I need to see which memories are connected to others. When I make a change, I need to make sure--"

"You aren't making her go round the bend?"


"Can I help?"

Mills scowled at him. "No."

"Then if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go get something to eat."

"Fine." Mills turned back to the display, his brow furrowing.


Crosby, Monroe, Tork, and Brell sat in a small circular seating area in the ship's galley. Brell had made Pintak Souffle, a Sylkaran delicacy that the entire crew enjoyed. Crosby was surprised at Brell's culinary skill. He took another bite of souffle and smiled.

"Brell, until we've got an official cook, I think you're him."

Brell smiled.

"Yeah, really nice. You'll make someone a great husband," Monroe told him, shoveling in another bite.

"I hope not," Brell said. "I like being single too much."

The ship shook. Brell pouted when he saw his souffle fall. "What the hell is Mills doing?"

"I don't think it was Mills," Monroe said, running toward the bridge. The others were right behind her.

The ship shook again, nearly knocking them over as they ran.

When they reached the bridge, a light on the communications console was flashing. Monroe tapped the activation button

"Crosby, this is Davidge. Surrender that ship immediately or we'll be forced to destroy it on the ground."

Crosby pressed the internal comm button.  "Mills, what's the situation there? Franks and Davidge are back already. They want us to surrender or be destroyed."

"CORA's down. I've been altering her memories. If I bring her online now she might turn the AI equivalent of insane. I need another minute, at least. Can you stall them?"

"I'll try." Crosby hit the reply button for Davidge's frequency. "If we surrender, what assurance do we have that you won't destroy us anyway?"

"None, but you don't appear to have a choice."

"Then come aboard."

The crew, except Mills, met Davidge and Franks at the airlock. Franks looked through the viewport in the airlock door, then pressed the intercom button. "Drop your weapons, then open the door. We've rigged our ship to explode. Davidge has the dead-man switch."

They dropped their weapons, opened the door, and raised their hands in surrender.

"Start walking toward the brig," Franks told them, aiming his sidearm in their direction.

"Where's the other one?" Davidge asked.

"Who, Mills?" Crosby said. "He's got the computer core torn open. He's trying to get it fixed."

"Keep an eye out, Franks."

Moments later, the group reached the ship's brig. Davidge and Franks locked the crew into cells and activated the force fields.

"Now to deal with your friend Mills," Franks told Crosby.  Davidge and Franks left the brig in the direction of the computer core.


The door to the computer core room opened. Mills drew his sidearm and turned to face it, taking cover as he did so.  Davidge and Franks stepped in.

"That was quite the puzzle you set for us," Davidge said. "If we hadn't had a backup copy of the ship's navigation system, we'd probably be half way back to the Alliance by now."

"Next time I'll make sure there's no backup," Mills said through gritted teeth. "If you two will excuse me, I have work to do."

Franks shook his head. "No you don't.  You're finished. Get that computer online - now!"

"It's not that simple." Mills explained how the computer worked, though Franks and Davidge didn't seem to believe the description.

"Power it up, now." Franks aimed his weapon at Mills.

"If I do, bad things could happen. The AI might go insane."

"We're willing to take that chance."

Mills sighed, and made one last change to CORA's memories before powering the AI back on.

"Online," CORA said. "What is your order, Creator?"

Mills ducked behind a console. "The other two in this room are intruders. Deal with them."

Mills saw a sudden bright flash and heard screams from the direction of Franks and Davidge. When Mills stood up, he noticed two piles of dust on the floor where they had been standing.

"Most efficient, CORA," Mills said. "But a stun would have worked, too."

"Understood, Creator."

"Call me Mills, or Bill if you like."

"Is the use of the term Creator offensive?"

"Not to me, but the rest of the crew might find it to be."

"Acknowledged, Bill."


Mills found the others locked up in the brig and released them.

Crosby eyed Mills strangely. "What happened to Franks and Davidge?"

Mills smiled. "I told CORA they were intruders and should be dealt with. I think she practically vaporized them."

"Vaporized? I don't think I want to know. So CORA's back online?"


"And you're sure she'll listen to us now, and ignore her creators."

"She'll listen to me, anyway. I'll tell her to listen to the rest of you."

Brell raised an eyebrow. "Why is she listening to you?"

"She thinks I am her creator."

"You? All by yourself?  You're right, tinker with that machine's memory and it does go insane." Brell turned to the others, pointing in Mills' direction. "He probably wanted CORA to think he was her god all along."  They laughed.

"Ethan?" Monroe looked at him. He turned to face her. "What's going to happen now that those two are dead? Will the Alliance come after us?"

"It depends on what they told the Alliance before they died. I'm sure they reported me. I don't know about the rest of you."

"I'll find out," Mills said, walking in the direction of the airlock.

Brell looked at Crosby. "What did he mean by that?"

"He's going to look in their ship's computers.  If they contacted the Alliance, the computers should have a record of the conversation."

"But isn't that a spy ship? Wouldn't it be a bad idea to keep records like that?"

Crosby shook his head. "No, usually you set the computers to wipe the storage if you're captured."



Mills programmed the spy ship to fly into the nearest sun after extracting the information he needed from its computers.

CORA lifted off moments later.

Crosby looked at the information Mills retrieved from the computers on Franks and Davidge's ship. His shoulders drooped.

"I'm sorry, everyone," Crosby said. "It looks like they sent a full report back to the Alliance. They know about the ship, and about all of us. They have have medi-scans, voice-print, and images."

"Doesn't really matter for me," Brell said. "I'm a Sylkaran. I'm not really welcome in Alliance space anyway."

"Me either," Tork nodded. "I just want to get back to my people, my family. I don't care Alliance or Sylkaran, but I hate Sylkarans. Except you, Brell."

"Thanks," Brell flashed a weak smile at him.

"I've been smuggling for years. I'm already an outlaw to the Alliance anyway. This didn't change much. I just want to find my brother."

"It will make them a lot less friendly toward you, Monroe," Mills reminded her. "I was only a criminal to the Sylkarans before this little incident. You made me one to the Alliance, too, Crosby. You owe me."

"Fine, Mills," Crosby said, "So CORA's safe now?"

"Yes. She's adopted me as her creator. It was the safest route I could take under the circumstances. All I had to do was replace the missing memory of her creators with her memory of me. CORA should always listen to me, and I've told her to listen to the rest of you as well."

"Alright then, what do you all say to getting out of Sylkaran and Alliance space for a while until the heat's off?  All in favor?"

All the hands went up.

"CORA, this is Crosby. Take us to the coordinates I gave you earlier today. Best speed."

"Confirmed, Crosby."

When they saw how fast CORA could really move, they were breathless.  CORA was not only powerful but faster than anything they'd ever seen.

Life is about to get very interesting, Crosby thought to himself.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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