Chapter 5: Maria
After their chant, they contacted the client with a pulse message. The research group responded gleefully. Levon spoke personally with the leader of the research group, whose name was Aeolus Bija, to verify that no other mercenaries had taken the job yet. They set up a meeting with them on the planet Rubin, a fringe world on the far edge of space and the Coalition worlds. They were to meet in 5 days. The research group told Levon that they were to pick up a BioGEN geneticist named Doctor Ostberg on the nearby Nereus Warp-Gate, a massive space station with a warp-gate generator. He would be their contact, mediator, and provide indispensable information and aid for their mission.
The Raptors created a list of the necessary supplies and repairs to do at the Nereus Warp-Gate and then charted their course. Rubin, though technically in Coalition space, was a hub for criminals in the northwestern part of the galaxy. This is because of how close it was to the fringes of the galaxy where there was low density of stars, sentient populations, and planets. The Coalition kept watch on Rubin from a nearby space fortress called Jarn Vigi, but in reality, the Coalition put most of its efforts into other matters, with Rubin having little importance to them when compared to the dense star rings, galactic center, and the Warp-Gates.
Planet Arroca, the planet they fought on, was in the northeastern part of the galaxy, meaning it was close to the criminally owned Nereus Warp-Gate. In the galaxy, there were 24 Warp-Gates used by the non-criminal citizens of space and owned by the Coalition, but there were five ‘hidden’ criminal Warp-Gates. Groups like the Raptors who needed to avoid confrontation with authorities used these gates since they were in secluded areas far from populated star clusters. Travelling by Warp-Gate was expensive, much more costly than sluggish warp drives. The main appeal of Warp-Gates over warp drives was that Warp-Gates could get you across the galaxy in a day. Warp drives, on the other hand, were slow and took 10 days to get a ship across the galaxy if traveling a straight line and without maintenance breaks, which was never the case.
Warp-Gates were great investments for the criminals of the underworld. They generated toll money from travelers and made great trading posts for a plethora of illegal paraphernalia, technology, and slaves. They even cost half the price of legal Warp-Gate travel. The drawback was that hidden Warp-Gates provided refuge for outlaws, felons, gangsters, and even terrorists, making them dangerous. For a group like the Raptors, travelling by hidden Warp-Gate was common and afforded them cover from the prying eyes of the galaxy. Their reputation kept them safe, especially since Coalition authorities and bounty hunters were bigger threats than other criminals were.
After the meeting was over, Levon dismissed the crew and put bridge groups into effect. When travelling, the Raptors split the entire crew and the drones into two separate groups working shifts: group A and group B. While one group slept and had recreational time, the other group ran the ship. Shifts lasted 12 hours on long trips and they split the officers and core crew as follows:
Group A - Day Shift:
Pilots: Levon, Kamilla, Faye, Sabbas
Bridge: Rin, Ian, Baako, Jael, Madison, Maria.
Hangar: Emil, Walther
Group B - Night Shift:
Pilots: Garth, Phoebe, Cadoc
Bridge: Dayo, Aku, Nannette, Nabu, Obi
Hangar: Tania, Yancy
As the Raptors left to their stations, Levon once again sat on the bridge along with the rest of the crew while they awaited the launch sequence.
“Engage titan fuel cells,” Rin commanded.
“Check,” replied a crewmember.
“Turn off main thrusters and engines.”
“Check,” replied another.
“Begin Warp Drive ignition”
“Beginning now,” said Nannette as she disengaged safety valves and pulled the levers that began the warp cycle.
They waited for a few moments until a green light appeared on Rin’s terminal. She looked over to Levon. He nodded in approval.
“Initiating warp jump, NOW!” yelled Rin as she pulled a large lever concealed in her armrest.
Blast shields covered all view ports. The ship trembled and white and blue energy engulfed it as it accelerated to light speed and then faster than light speed. The energy distorted the shape of the ship as it passed through space like a flash of light, and in an explosion of white energy that twisted space itself, the ship disappeared into the infinite abyss. On screen flashed a flurry of blue and white light as they travelled through warp space. On the tabletop map, the Firebird left the vicinity of Arroca and passed by neighboring planets and stars at blinding speeds. Jael turned off the optics screen. Levon raised himself up from his chair and looked over the expectant crew.
“Alright everyone, this is it. You know the drill. Just make sure to get some rest because we’re going to need to work when we get to Nereus. We need to get this ship up to speed and fast. We don’t want to keep the client waiting.”
“Yes sir. You can be assured that we will be lazy asses while you guys are hard at work,” laughed Garth.
Group B started walking out the door, with some going to their chambers and others going to different parts of the ship.
“We’ll see who is talking while we’re all rested and walking around Nereus Warp-Gate tomorrow!” he yelled back.
Levon spent his time in the hangar with Kamilla, Maria, and Faye. Other crew wandered, checking systems, doing scheduled maintenance, and others just talking. Maria used her avatar, a mechanical body that looked exactly like her hologram, complete with synthetic skin, hair, and human like senses, including hot and cold sensitivity and touch. She was tiny, and looked exactly like a human teenager, except that her avatar had no genitals and the layer under her skin was made of solid titanium. The avatar also wore a black Raptor Squadron uniform, though it was a skirt with leggings and coat instead of a navy uniform.
The four of them, along with other hangar crew, performed a series of inspections on all 10 EBNs and on the shuttle, which was still broken. It needed a new engine and new plating for the wings, which had large messy holes that made flight impossible. They also checked on the Falcon fighters, and on their GSAAT Mechanical Combat Suits, of which they had eight. Several hangar crew were currently training to pilot them, but they hadn’t reached adequate levels of combat proficiency to aid the Raptors in battle yet.
The active crew inspected the water filtration system, gravity generator, engines, titan fuel cells, ammunition, and drones. They also checked on the energy cell for the ship’s shields and barriers and found it in bad shape, with Levon saying that he had never seen such a charred object in working condition. It was busy in the hangars. On the bridge though, life was stale since the crew spent hours staring at dials and gauges.
10 hours passed and it was almost time for groups to switch. The bathrooms and kitchens needed a thorough cleaning, which Levon was glad he wouldn’t have to do since their group practically destroyed them after 2 meals, especially with Walther and Levon’s disastrous attempts at cooking.
Levon and some of the crew met near the EBN racks by the armory. He polished his EBN, while Kamilla was in the armory. Another four members played a card game on the hangar floor.
“Ya know I haven’t been to Rubin before. I imagine it must be quite a rowdy place,” said Walther as he looked through the cards in his hands.
“I’ve only heard of it. They told me a lot about it when I was in the military. They compare it to Pok Station. They said it’s the outlaw moon of the west,” said Emil as he threw down a card. Walther looked at it with worry.
“I wouldn’t go that far. I mean it’s pretty nasty but nowhere near as powerful or imposing as the Pok Outlaw Moon. Not being biased either because Pok is our turf. A lot of us older members have been to Rubin, but we haven’t gone back since the Coalition took over,” Levon said, scraping grime off the EBNs wing.
“So what is it like then? You think we’ll see a lot of Coalition there?” responded Walther as Maria dealt him another card.
“Probably. I hear they send corvette flotillas or even task groups to try and collect taxes and whatnot. They land on loyalist parts of the planet, though there aren’t many loyalists there to begin with. I mean, the place is run by hundreds of pirate crews and gangs who are always blasting each other, and a lot of the cities are in ruins because of infighting between the groups. I’m pretty sure the Coalition does their fair share of blasting too…but I also heard that they try to stay away from the bigger gangs and mercenary crews. Most of the time.”
“Sounds like a load of shit to me. I wish we could take a few pot shots at a Coalition corvette or two. That would be nice, aye Walther?” said Emil with a villainous smile.
“I don’t give a damn. I’m just interested in finding Chief Luo. The rest of the Coalition can kiss my ass,” Walther said as he threw his cards on the ground, showing a full house, to which Faye responded by showing four of a kind. “Dear god woman. That’s 4 games in a row. You’re going to leave us all dry before we’re even on the Warp-Gate,” he whined as he tossed his leftover cards across floor.
Faye laughed. She pulled the holographic credit files floating above hangar floor and dragged them into her wrist computer.
“Something strange is going on here. Aye girl, you’re not helping Faye here by any chance, are ye?” Emil said as he leaned in to look at Maria in the eye.
“No, why would I?” she giggled as she put extra cards into a compartment in her wrist using only her middle and ring finger. Levon, who was still polishing his EBN, turned to her.
“Hey Maria. That’s not cool girl. What did I tell you about cheating on the crew?”
“Ugh! Levon!” she pouted.
“Ah, whatever. We got caught. Here.” Faye threw the credit files back at the two men.
“Nah. Don’t worry about it. I saw her through the corner of me eye. Sneaky fingers she has there,” laughed Emil.
“No really. Just take it. We were just having some fun,” Faye said and smiled at Maria. “So, guys, I really need to get a drink. We haven’t had booze here for a month.”
“Aye. That sounds good. Get ourselves some nice drink on the Gate for the trip to Rubin,” replied Emil. Levon felt satisfied with the EBN, threw the rag, and sat.
Levon turned to Walther.
“If you want to get off to look for information on Luo, go ahead. Just make sure not to cause too much trouble. We don’t need any unnecessary attention.”
“Aye aye sir. I’ll find that bastard and make him look me in the eye as I torture him and extinguish every last bit of life he has in him. Promise I’ll drag it out,” he said with an empty look in his eyes.
Faye looked shocked.
“Wow, Walther. I thought only Yancy said things like that,” she laughed.
Emil laughed heartily and slapped his leg.
“Oh, Lady Faye. Most everyone is sick aboard this tin can!”
“I know that. I’m dating one of those sickos.”
The group went into a laughing fit as they made fun of Garth by doing impressions and quoting him. Kamilla came out of the armory and sat with them.
“Alright, so the Armory looks good. I tried to evenly distribute the ammunition we have left between…uh, what are you guys laughing about?”
“Nothing, just putting some dirt on windbag Garth again. You know, ye always work hard, Officer Kamilla. Yer should take it easy,”
“Yeah, but if I don’t help Baako and Faye, who will? …Hey are you guys up for another round of cards when I’m done?” Kamilla said brightly.
“We’re good. Maria always lends a helping hand to the girls whenever we play,” replied Walther with a bored expression.
When Walther said that, Garth, Sabbas, Tania, and Phoebe came out of the elevator and walked into the hangar. Several other crew followed shortly after them.
“Anyone alive in there? The cavalry has arrived!” Garth screamed as he ran towards them while using a massive torque wrench as a sword. Faye face-palmed. Garth’s group stopped when they saw the huge mess of oil, equipment, engine parts, and EBNs spread all over the hangar floor. “God damn you guys. Did you make a mess on purpose for us or what? Shit!” he said, looking grim.
“I imagine that they probably did a lot of hard work while we were away, so it’s only fair we clean up after them, commander,” Phoebe said with annoyance.
“Girl, you side with them too much. You fight for B group mang!” he yelled as he swung the torque around fighting imaginary enemies.
Faye approached Garth and punched him in the gut, supposedly in a playful manner because of her smile, but he grimaced. Levon’s group laughed at him while they made their way out of the hangar. Levon then turned and threw a greasy towel at Garth’s chest.
“Shut up and clean it for me, won’t you baby girl?”
“Ah, fuck, you didn’t just say that you jackass!” he laughed as he picked up oily tools from the ground. Phoebe looked at Tania they both rolled their eyes at Garth. Sabbas sighed and left to the armory to wake up Yancy.
Emil and Walther left to the Rec room to recover their winnings from Faye now that she had no advantage over them. Levon and Kamilla, on the other hand, left for the crew chambers, where Levon took a hard fought shower before dressing in his casual space uniform. Maria stored her avatar on the bridge and reappeared in the hallway outside of Levon’s chamber.
“Hey, Maria, come into my room real quick. Me and Kamilla need to talk to you,” he said.
She frowned and disappeared. Levon walked into his room. It was dark and the only source of light was the hologram of the Maria sitting on his desk with legs crossed. He sat on his bed and looked her in the eyes.
“Alright, I just wanted to talk a bit…You’ve been saying some really weird shit to me and Kamilla lately. You always say you trust us, so we want to know what’s been bothering you lately.”
“If this is about the ‘I’m just a program with feelings’ comment, then I’m really sorry. I just haven’t been feeling so well lately,” said the little girl while looking down and yawning.
“Are you tired? We can talk about this later if you need to sleep, Maria.”
“No, it’s okay. That’s actually one of the things that’s bothering me…”
There was a knock on the door and Kamilla’s voice called out from the other side. The blast door slid open.
“Come in. Sit wherever you like,” said Levon.
Kamilla smiled at Maria, sat down in a chair in front of the bed, and extended her feet. Levon closed the blast door.
“So where are we right now?” Kamilla asked.
“Maria was just talking about what’s bothering her.”
“It’s not just the sleep protocol that is bothering me. It’s a lot of things. It’s just that…I’m coming to realize that I don’t have as much free will as I thought I did…” Maria propped her face on a balled fist and poked the desk with her fingers.
“Okay, but you have to be specific. What did you find out?” Levon crossed his arms.
“Well, the thing is…remember how you told everyone to stand down earlier today? After the battle?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Well, the thing is that my programming forces me to attack people whether I want to or not. Up until recently, I thought it was just my own personality that drove me to kill protect the crew, but during the battle, I was connected to the main guns. After you told the crew to stand down, my programming made me load the main cannon anyway and I prepared to fire since it perceived the Datti carrier as a threat. Cadoc unplugged me from the system before I could fire but it bothered me that even with all of my ‘will power’ I still couldn’t override my own programming…”
“You’ve never said any of this. Why haven’t you told us until now?” Kamilla said, crossing her arms.
“I didn’t start realizing it until a year ago. That time Nannette got attacked on that dark space spaceport when we were refueling, I ended up killing the alien instinctively but I didn’t order myself to do it. I still would have protected her anyway, but I didn’t want to kill the alien. I only wanted to stop him and I ended up killing him against my will,” she said. There was a deep sadness in her glowing blue eyes.
“So…you’re worried that you really are just a program and that your personality might not be a product of your own will?” Levon asked.
“But Maria, you ARE a program. Your personality might be programmed but that still doesn’t change the fact that you can change yourself just like organic living things. You’ve shown this to us many times over. Besides, remember that living things are organic machines to begin with,” Kamilla stated.
“No. That’s not it. I know I was programmed, but there are things I can’t change that control important functions and it’s frustrating. If I had real free will then I could take off the sleep protocol and I wouldn’t need to sleep…”
Her face suddenly looked droopy and ready to doze off. Levon snapped his fingers at her.
“Hey. Stay awake. We’re not done here.”
She shook her holographic face and rubbed her eyes.
“I-I’m awake. D-Don’t worry… S-So the problem is that I have no control over some of my functions. It makes me feel like any other machine. My code is so complicated that even Cadoc can’t figure it out. It’s almost like my sleep protocol doesn’t exist …I want to be able to choose when to spare someone and when to kill someone. I’ve always felt like a good mercenary, but as I get older and meet new sentients…I feel more inclined to let people live, but once they cross the line I can’t choose anymore, and it’s scary. What if I kill one of you one day?”
Levon and Kamilla looked at each other and then back at the girl. Kamilla sat in deep thought before looking up at her captain.
“You know, Levon, what if we went back to Hanya to see if they have any data on Maria’s programming? That might be useful in understanding her code and finding her free will inhibitors. We might even discover some information on Maria’s origins.”
“Well, the Pax Facility where we found her is dust, remember? Me, Mazan, and Garth nuked the place when we left. I don’t think there is anything there besides dirt and charcoal. I did hear from the dark pulse network that they reformed the Pax Research Group, though. We could go looking for them once we have some more money to spend.”
“That sounds like a good plan, but it would be really dangerous since we’d be travelling through Coalition territory. I don’t know if the crew would want to go, especially since we wouldn’t be making profit,” Kamilla threw her head back and closed her eyes.
“Cadoc can’t take off the defensive protocol you have in place either, right Maria?” asked Levon.
“No, he’s been trying. It makes him feel frustrated since he says can understand most technology in the galaxy with ease,” she replied with a hint of sadness.
Kamilla threw her head back up.
“Well, whatever inhibitors you have in your system, I don’t think that changes the fact that you’re very alive. The reason you worry about these things and try to change them, despite not being able to, makes a strong case for you being a living thing like the rest of us. You’ve changed a lot since we first met you. When we first started this journey, you didn’t care about those you killed and you were very passive on death. Now you worry about the crew and feel sympathy for others. I think that show’s that you’ve become something more than a machine.”
Levon smiled at Kamilla. He agreed with her. Maria had always been special to him, like a virtual sister, and she viewed him as an older brother. Most Artificial Intelligences in the galaxy were powerful programs but they were hollow and had limited personality. They could learn through experience, though, much like living things. Maria was different, however. Maria could get confused, feel sad, feel happy, feel discouraged, share opinions, have dislikes, disobey orders, and so on. The degree to which she had free will amazed everyone.
One of the things that made her so special was her childish personality. When Levon first activated Maria on the Firebird, he was the first sentient she’d ever seen. She was naïve and knew nothing of the universe except what was programmed into her. This annoyed some of the Raptors at first, but she grew on them after proving her usefulness in battle. Maria provided Levon an escape from the grim aspects of his line of work, and reminded him of the sisters he left behind on his home world.
“You understand, Maria? You’re not just another machine. You have to acknowledge that you’ve changed since the day we first met you. That makes you different from all other Artificial Intelligences,” continued Kamilla.
“Thanks, Kami. I just wish I could have more freedom over my actions, though,” said the little girl as she curled up into a ball. Levon sat up.
“Maria. I’ll find out how to change your programming, even if I have to search the entire galaxy.”
“Hey! Don’t just sign yourself up for an adventure. You haven’t asked ME yet. You can’t go anywhere without talking to the other officers,” Kamilla taunted.
“Alright, Officer O’hara!” Levon said, saluting with a smirk. “Well, we need to see what the rest of the crew thinks, but first we have to finish the assignment on hand. Transporting that Dabba shit.”
“It sounds terrible, Levon. I’m not going to even try to lie.”
“It sounds easier than fighting a war, though.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. Flying an EBN is pretty easy.”
“That’s because you’re a freak of nature like Garth. You two make it look easy. One can snipe ships from hundreds of miles and the other can pilot their ship safely through a moving debris field. I have to put in extra work just to keep up.”
“Thanks, but it’s all hard work. Me and Garth have the most hours accumulated on the simulators,” she said proudly.
“True enough. So how are you feeling, Maria? Feeling better? You’re more than a machine to us. You’re a Raptor… You’re part of our crew and a good friend.”
“Yeah, I am. Thanks guys,” she said as she lay on the desk. She fell asleep.
“Wow. She’s out like a rock. I hope she really does feel better,” whispered Kamilla, taking a closer look at the girl.
“Why would someone create an Artificial Intelligence that needs sleep, though? They programmed her for war, so wouldn’t sleep make her less efficient?” said Levon, thinking aloud.
“I don’t know. It’s odd. She almost seems like a human girl that’s been transformed into software,” Kamilla said. She passed her hand over the hologram’s hair.
“…Hey, if we go to Hanya, will you go see your family?”
“Isn’t there anything you can do to see them without endangering them?”
“I don’t want to risk it. I would rather never see them again than put them in danger. The galaxy thinks I died 14 years ago and thinks that Captain Levon Artyem is a sentient from the fringes of the galaxy. I think things are better that way…besides, what brothers and sisters would want a murderer as a sibling?”
“I know you say that, but I’m pretty sure you miss them.”
“That’s not important, Kamilla,” Levon said. He laid back and stared at the roof.
“Hmm, well I’m not sure what to say then…I think they would still want to see you, even if you are a mercenary now.”
“My family would find it disgraceful. They were all loyalists when I left…it’s alright Kamilla. I’m happy this way, knowing they’re safe. They’re all still alive and healthy, thanks to the money I send.”
She sighed and stood up.
“Okay. I’m going to go to bed then…goodnight.”
Preview of Chapter 6:
Levon and the crew on the streets of the Nereus Warp-Gate:
The crewmembers around Levon suddenly looked uneasy and gripped metal handles on the walls. Some even used the safety straps they were going to use for the ship parts to tie themselves to their benches. A few of them murmured.
“This is bullshit. That AI has no self-control…”
“Are you kidding me? I ain’t sign up to die like this…,” a dark skinned Raptor said...
End of Chapter Five. Comeback next week to join Captain Levon and the rest of Raptor Squadron on their adventures across the Kaleco Galaxy! Remember: this web novel is published for free on GFMakina.net. Not sure when it will end, but as far as the current written work goes, it could go on for months to years! Enjoy the ride everyone!