Entry 1: Syeon

I can't really call this a story -- not yet. It's too early in the planning stages. Instead, I'm writing one-off entries about specific characters within the narrative. Though each will relate to the others through setting, events and so on, I'd hesitate to call it an ongoing story right now.

The Luster Range shone almost ominously in the endless dark of Sector Three's space. Each distant flicker of light was one of several hundred asteroids in the formation, some with mass enough to dwarf even the most prosperous of the old homeworld cities. Others, a select few, could pass as planets in their own right. The whole belt had caused an uproar for months after its initial discovery, many decades before tonight's patrol saw the Everwinter and her crew pause to gaze upon them, contemplating or offering a wish or plea to the majesty of it all. That they posed a threat was the loudest and perhaps most troubling of claims, put forth no less by Captain Maradine of the Schism. Typical asteroids were as common as dirt, he had claimed, to which no-one had disagreed. The Luster Range was different. It was valuable and rare, both enough to incite villainy in even the best of men. And women, he had been forced to add, withering under glares from the more matriarchal captains. Rarity meant money, and money was everything to some people.

Personally, Syeon Solnir could not see the trouble. Not even the most profitable criminal syndicates could fund such an operation: chopping up even the tiniest asteroid was a tricky matter, not to mention incredibly dangerous if done wrong. It would take a government-funded operation to even come close, and no reputable administration in the galaxies would take the risk. Syeon would have preferred to believe that the beauty of the phenomenon would suffice in keeping troublemakers at bay. Forty-four years of life had taught her that society was not that simple, nor as deserving of her faith.

“Nothing to report, Captain,” a voice said, carried to her from the Everwinter's bridge via her earpiece. Anille Vestrine had the softest, gentlest voice Syeon had ever heard. For a man so wide with muscle, it was odd to hear coming from him. He had a booming shout on him, though, deafening enough to make the bravest of folk flinch away. “If pirates have been making a home for themselves on the Luster Range, there's no sign of them on our sensors.”

“Have you sent in the remote probes?” Syeon checked. She knew that he had done. Anille's meticulous nature had been the main factor in her hiring him. The captain asked only for her own sake, to be able to tell herself that she kept herself abreast of all developments.

“They returned just minutes ago. Nothing. Not even the Titan shows signs of habitation. I'm not seeing that the intelligence was false, Captain. In all likelihood, they were here, whether it was a week ago or right up to an hour ago. Now, though? Those asteroids are barren.”

“That's good enough for me,” Syeon said. It was a lie. She had wanted those pirates captured and bound by light until they were before a court. Galactic peace could depend upon it. “Has there been any visible disturbance to the area?”

“None.” This came from Niya, Anille's sister and secondary analyst. Never one to waste words, she said only what she deemed worthwhile. “From these readings, it looks as if no foot has ever touched the ground down there.”

“As it should be. Contact me again if there's anything new to report.” The communicator at her waist responded to her touch with a single beep, informing her that the channel was offline. Syeon would be notified in much the same way if she were contacted again. With her many duties as the vessel's captain, it would not be long before another call came through. Until then, she would leave command of the operation to the staff on the bridge. If she could not trust her crew to do that, there would be no sense in bringing them along. She wanted them capable of carrying on as normal if something were to befall her during a mission.

Pressing one of many buttons on her tabletop intercom, Syeon said, “You may come in now, Director.” The sound of the door parting down the middle, like a sharp exhalation, bothered her even years after becoming the ship's captain. It was a childish complaint, she knew. All doors made that noise, and even had they not it was still a pointless thing to hold any sort of disdain for. Yet disdain it she did, for it sounded altogether too much like the door was breathing. More like wheezing. That's a dying man's last gasp.

The man who entered her office had a good few years on Syeon. That mattered little in most cases; foolishness knew little of the confines of age. Given the situation, and the nature of the Luster Range itself, Syeon was glad to be working with someone who had grown up prior to the last galactic war. She had no issue with young councillors and government officials, but experience counted for a lot in her book, and they were missing lots of it. Director Orsaen, chief official of the Treasurers, had seen as much of war-ravaged planets as Syeon herself. Anything that could trigger a return to those days of conflict was a matter of concern for them both. As it was his duty to oversee all operations involving matters of great historical or cultural value, he had quickly become something of an expert on the Luster Range and its unprecedented nature.

“Director,” Syeon said, shaking his hand before inviting him to be seated. She returned to her own chair, putting her back to the airtight window that allowed her an unobstructed view of the Luster Range. Never before had she seen anything so beautiful, except perhaps on the rare occasions her children went to sleep without a fuss. “I can only apologise for the wait. All scans have come back negative. There are no signs of drilling or mining on the asteroids' surface.”

He breathed a sigh of relief, a cough following that was not unlike the sharp whoosh of air from her door. Despite his position and the authority it conferred, Orsaen was a troubled, nervous man. The possibility of pirates making their homes in the Luster Range had clearly kept him up at night. “Now, that is a relief. Most certainly. They were there, though, surely? The reports came from reliable sources.”

“It's difficult to say,” Syeon admitted. Reliability was a tricky thing to come by, even on the Unity Council. “We can find no sign of them, no matter which asteroid we search. You know what these people are like, Director. Piracy would not still be a problem if those behind it were not stealthy, secretive creatures.”

She had learned that first-hand. Captaining a ship was one thing; they dealt with criminals on a weekly basis. As one of the Adjudicators serving the independent council, Syeon was responsible for directing any operations devised to deal with space-bound outlaws. She had lost track of how many had been imprisoned or killed because of her. It mattered little. Many turned to such a life as a result of supposed oppression by the galactic governments, and that was, in some ways, understandable. An understandable reasoning was not a justification, however, and she had no respect or pity for pirates.

“It's beautiful, isn't it?” Orsaen said, nodding in the direction of the Luster Range. It seemed so close, yet in reality they were dozens of miles away from the closest rock. “So naturally, innocently beautiful, and whole systems would go to war over it at the slightest provocation.”

It wasn't an exaggeration. The director was not the kind of man to see problems where there weren't any. Syeon doubted his heart could take it. There was immense value in each member of the Luster Range, and there wasn't a nation in the Seven Systems who wouldn't stake a claim to it if they could. Doing so would earn the immediate ire of the other administrations, and Syeon did not like the thought of what would happen if diplomacy failed in that situation. The rocks were valuable, yes, and governments throughout history had proven themselves willing to sacrifice lives for a profit. The present was no different.

“Fortunately for us, not a single faction appears intent on provoking the others,” Syeon replied. Her own heritage and national allegiances had long since become irrelevant. Her role as an Adjudicator demanded that she be impartial, acting with neutrality in mind and never involving herself in inter-world squabbles. “The current king of the Rafarin core world is most displeased with the current situation, being closest in proximity to the Range itself. I'm not sure if he is worried about his worlds being dragged into the chaos or frustrated that he cannot claim the Luster Range for his own.”

“I would keep my eye on the Kalahadran territories, were I in your position,” Orsaen hesitantly suggested. For him to speak so candidly, the matter would have to weigh heavily on his mind. “Just a thought. Nothing more. If you will excuse me, Captain, I wish to look over the reports from Titan's surface. An opportunity like this does not come along often, even for the Treasurers. Thank you for your time.”

“It was my pleasure, Director,” Syeon said as he departed. In truth, she felt as if she had failed him. If they had arrived sooner, they may have found what they were seeking. The timing was too perfect for it to simply be misfortune. Whether the information itself was false or their enemy had been warned of the impending danger, something about the situation was not as it should have been. “When is that not the case?”

“Talking to yourself again, Syeon?” The voice came not from her communicator, but from a device strapped to the wrist of her right arm, a fanciful system referred to as an AI Dock. Never patient enough to wait for a response, a hologram of the speaker burst from the bracelet, standing short but proud in a hollow designed for such appearances. “You can always talk to me.”

Corona, one of many AI constructs designed as part of the CAIS project, had the form of a younger woman, no older than thirty years, with dark hair, twinkling green eyes and a constant mischievous grin. Her appearance belied the AI's true age: the youngest computerised personality designed by the CAIS group was, by Syeon's estimation, at least fifty years old, and Corona had been one of the earlier models. Though a perfectly functional and adaptable programme, Syeon's companion had, in her own words, grown out of the polite formality she had been coded to display at all times. Corona had been nonchalant, chatty and, at times, flippant with all but Syeon herself.

“Fine,” she said, waving a hand towards the monitor on the wall to her left. “On the screen. I'm not talking to my arm.”

The projection on the dock vanished, Corona's likeness having transferred itself to the monitor. There, she was indistinguishable from a living, breathing human. The tiny, digitised image of her shown on the wrist strap had always reminded Syeon too much of computer-generated pictures for her to think Corona a real person. On any normal screen, however, the AI looked no different to a typical human. There had been several mistaken attempts at courting her, to the amusement of both women. When we first met, I did not think of her as a woman. Now, I can't help wondering: aside from flesh, blood and bone, how are we any different? The years have changed me.

“I'm going to assume from the sour expression that no pirates were found,” Corona said, adjusting the frilly sleeves of the dress conjured for today's appearance. Not even lacking a physical form could stop her obsession with fashion and what she deemed to be adorable attire. “Time to head home?”

“You assume?” Syeon repeated. “With direct access to the ship's systems, I doubt you ever have to assume anything.”

Corona sheepishly scratched at her chin with a single finger, the nail shining a deep crimson. “You noticed? I thought you might. Nothing gets past you, ma'am! Might I add how lovely your hair looks today?”

“Your compliment is noted,” Syeon said, “as is your eavesdropping.”

Turning her chair to face the window, the captain gazed out at the vast expanse of space before her. There was beauty there, not to mention peace, prosperity and everything else someone in her position could want from a galaxy of billions. Piracy, murder, oppression . . . Those are out there, too. If we let criminals use the Range for their own gain, the peace we Adjudicators value so highly will quickly disappear.

“Is an apology in order?” Corona was surprisingly hesitant as she spoke, for once taken aback by her partner's tone.

“Not at all,” Syeon said, smiling with the side of her mouth that the AI could not see. “I had hoped you would oversee matters. I want to know what you think.”

Corona raised an eyebrow from within the screen. “About?”

“All of it,” Syeon told her. “The mission, our findings, the Director . . . Don't make me spell it all out for you, Corona. Even having to ask your opinion on something is unusual. I'm surprised you haven't given me a barrage of your thoughts already.”

“You sound ill at ease to these ears, ma'am,” Corona said, gesturing playfully at one of her ears. “Not that they're real. You know what I mean.”

“The eyes may not be real, but they see well enough,” Syeon said, unable to refute her claim. The whole mission had left her unsettled. “I'm no young grunt, Corona. The council wouldn't have sent an Adjudicator without good reason. Why is there nothing to be found here? Because the enemy escaped, obviously. But how? They're resourceful, but not to the extent that they should know our moves before we make them.”

“Does this worry you?” Corona said. Any trace of her usual carefree attitude had disappeared.

“Worry?” That was too strong a word. “No. I find the whole thing very suspicious. I feel there is a problem here that requires correction.”

Syeon couldn't quite place the feeling. She trusted her sources; they had never steered her wrong before. The council members, too, were meticulous in their planning, to the point that any problems encountered often arose from the execution, rather than the plot itself. Her own actions had been without error. She knew that. Still, something had gone wrong. As the ship's captain, the responsibility to find answers was hers.

“I must be cautious,” she thought aloud. “In aid of that, Corona, please lend me your aid.”

Moving from the screen to the projection point in the centre of the room, which allowed the AI a full-bodied appearance, she launched into an analysis of the earliest reports, the council's debates and the ship's journey to the Luster Range. As expected of a sentient computer programme, Corona was able to speed through documents that would have taken Syeon hours to read. Testimonies from supposed witnesses were of similar ease to her. When Corona began to offer her own thoughts, only a few minutes had passed. Syeon envied her efficiency, even knowing that AI systems like Corona had insecurities and wants of their own.

“This is a summary of the initial report,” Corona said, a document presenting itself on Syeon's desktop screen. “Nothing fancy. Merely a few choice quotes from significant contributors to this assignment.”

Syeon was not surprised by Corona's definition of significance:

“The Althean Trading Company has made three reports to us thus far, each further emphasising the need for an intervening party to visit the Luster Range. They speak openly and plainly of pirates, of banditry and disruptions to free space.”

Councillor Eldarin Rossen, Unity Council

“If this problem is left alone, we will only hear the end of it when the flames have settled and blood has already soaked into the dirt at our feet. Certainty or no, trespassers within the Luster Range cannot be tolerated.”

Councillor Rasim Calstos, Unity Council

“This intelligence comes directly from Merchant-Master Rossler herself. True or false, to ignore it would be folly. To leave this matter to chance or fate or whatever in the hells you believe in would be the most disastrous course of them all.”

Mageaus Kirring, Captain of the Starsail

Kirring's opinions would carry for less weight than any councillor's. He was a captain and nothing more. Had she not known of the recent whisperings, Corona likely would have excluded him from her notes. “No matter how the council respects him, he will never become an Adjudicator if he continues throwing himself into the biggest conflict he can find,” Syeon noted, despite her own admiration for the man. He got the job done, which was more than she could say for many in his position. “He would not have said anything without good reason, and he speaks truly of the Merchant-Master. What do you think?”

“He makes me uncomfortable,” Corona said, her tall projection flickering briefly. That was more often than a not an indication of her observing, as she called it, most of the ship's interior at once. “Like having a rat in the kitchen.”

“Really? A rat in the kitchen?” Syeon said, perplexed by the AI's use of a more human example. “Wouldn't 'A virus in the system' be more appropriate for you?”

“That would be rating him too highly. I dislike him, but that is not what you asked.” She paused a moment, page after page of documentation appearing around her, cycling too quickly for Syeon to make anything of them. “I can't say why you should distrust him, Syeon. He is reliable. I don't understand why this is any of his business. He has never been the sort to care about maintaining the peace. Unless he wants some sort of profit for himself from the Range, I can't understand his reasoning here.”

“Reasonable enough.” Syeon felt the same. Why the council had even sought his advice on the matter was beyond her. “Were there any more, say, suspicious presences during the preliminary discussions? I understand why the agent assigned to the mission is kept out of the debates, but it makes things excessively complicated in situations like this.”

“None. There was a formal council session, of course. A few people you might not expect, but none worth worrying about.”

“Such as?” Syeon loathed being dispatched with great urgency. There was never enough time to give the briefing notes the necessary attention. There were always surprises when travelling through even the most civil sectors, but a little forewarning could go a long way in keeping her and her crew alive.

“Prince Roderin was present via remote connection,” Corona replied. “Nothing worrisome there. His family controls only the one planet, and it is too puny to go to war over anything. Tisara of the Chroniclers attended through the same methods. Supposedly, the council invited her to ensure everyone was on the same page regarding the nature of the Luster Range.”

The AI continued to list attendees, the names ranging from minor nobles of territories close to the Range all the way to representatives from preservation societies. It reminded Syeon of the initial discussions regarding the asteroids. Why the council had enlisted so many outsiders for a routine patrol mission was beyond comprehension.

“I think they share your worries,” Corona said, her expression reflecting Syeon's own feelings. “If they don't keep themselves aware of the dangers the Range presents, it could be disastrous. The Adjudicators are, after all, the only real obstacle between the Luster Range and those who seek to carve it up for a profit.”

“We aren't doing much good out here,” Syeon pointed out. “Regardless of my personal opinion of them, this mission was backed by a body of consistently reliable officials, plus their experts advising them in these matters. We must be missing something here, Corona. I've had pirates give me the slip before, but never so cleanly. If they were on the surface, there's no sign of them now. None. How is that possible?”

“They . . . gave you the slip?” Corona said, perplexed. “What?”

“It amazes me that you have never heard that phrase despite your love of assimilating any databases you happen across,” Syeon said. “You've lived my life several times over. Have you never once heard that phrase?”

“No,” the AI admitted, sounding hurt. “Must you mock me for that?”

“I'm sorry, Corona.” Syeon had never completely come to terms with computer systems having feelings. “It means that they managed to elude and escape me. That's what it is to give someone, or something, the slip.”

After muttering something about the nuances of human discourse, Corona said, “What do you propose we do? Like you said, we aren't accomplishing very much by sitting here, in deep space, with nothing to do.”

Syeon could only see one viable path. “A visit to Titan's surface may be in order,” she told the AI. “We don't have time to search each asteroid. If our analysts can find even the slightest trace of pirate presence – lingering heat signatures, for example – that will be enough to justify landing.”

“Why?” The confusion twisting Corona's expression was swiftly replaced with realisation. “Surely not. Camouflage?”

“Is it unlikely that any band of outlaws has access to such expensive technology. Regardless, it would be wrong of me to ignore the possibility. What do you think?”

Corona pondered that for a moment, hair sliding about her face as it tilted back and forth. “I think your greying hair isn't as big a problem as you believe it is.”

“About going to Titan's surface,” Syeon said with a growl. “And stop reading my private messages.”

“I can't help it,” she protested. “Have you ever seen something you wished you hadn't, only it was too late to look away? That's how text-based files are for me. I don't have to read. Accessing them is enough to know what lies within.”

Syeon had actually grown to like, or at least tolerated, the fading colour of her hair. She also did not mind Corona having access to her mail; there was nothing in them that she would not say to the AI directly. Sometimes it was simply amusing to make her think she was in trouble. “Moving on,” the captain said. “The surface idea?”

“After twenty years together, you and I rarely disagree,” Corona reminded her. “This is not a time for exceptions.”

Syeon approved of that arrangement. It meant that any disagreement from Corona was sincerely, irrevocably given. During their first meeting, she had worried that the AI would be little more than a system of set functions, its answers based entirely on computational logic. Or worse, she might have been a dullard and a sycophant. Corona was, as things had turned out, neither. Instead, Syeon had received a companion who was sincere almost to a fault, occasionally lacking in the awareness that would keep a flesh-and-blood person from speaking their mind. That aspect of her personality had its ups and downs.

Syeon reached for her communicator, a single push of a button reinstating her direct link to the bridge. “Anille, how are the readings from Titan's surface?”

The response was immediate. “At the moment, Captain, it's shifting into its own makeshift night-time. Temperatures are well below freezing.”

“Would a landing be plausible twelve hours from now?” she asked. If it's near inhospitable without the heat from Acept's sun, anyone setting up a base down there would have to be very efficient.

“It would,” the analyst reported. “Chilly, yes, but not fatally so.”

“That will do. Keep us in a low-power state until we begin our approach. I want all systems running at their best in the event that something goes wrong.”

“Yes, ma'am. Anything else?”

“That's all,” Syeon said, turning off her communicator after adding, “I will be in my quarters if needed.”

The Everwinter was, during more prolonged missions, a home away from home for its crew. Though built with speed and manoeuvrability in mind, rather than firepower, the clever minds behind its design had seen fit to include private rooms for each person on board. For everyone, that included a bedroom and washroom; no more, no less. The Everwinter was no different to its sibling ships, the other Adjudicator-class vessels, in that regard, save for Syeon's refusal to accept more elaborate quarters for herself. The extra space had instead been used to house spare provisions and other resources. She had always loathed wasting good storage room.

“Retiring for the night, ma'am?” Corona said. “I'm no stranger to long treks through the Seven Systems, but I have never grown accustomed to the lack of a day-to-night cycle. How do you sleep? I was told that such things were important to you people.”

“You get used to it,” Syeon replied, exiting her office. Entering her private passcode into the panel beside the door locked the entrance for the night. “'How do you sleep?' you ask. I should be the one saying that to you. Don't talk as if humans are so complex when you happen to be a sentient string of coding.”

“That, a superb 'eye' for good attire and a few delicate chips,” Corona said, speaking directly through her AI console. “Is this what happens when you know someone for several years? You repeat the same conversations over and over?”

“You've asked me that before,” Syeon said, unable to hide her smile. She had never been fond of AI constructs in her adolescence, believing them to be deviant and untrustworthy. At the age of forty-four, she counted one amongst her closest friends. “Just as I know how you sleep, yet I put the question to you all the same.”

Corona laughed, saying nothing, a sign that she had found something worth pondering. Syeon would not disturb her. Instead, she navigated her way through the ship's passages, all the while considering the events leading to their arrival at the Luster Range. If she ignored her personal opinions of the people involved and the niggling suspicions that arose from them, the captain could find no reasonable way to suspect the council or their affiliates of being responsible for the failure. She believed it much more likely that the pirates hoping to prey on the asteroids had tricked the Everwinter crew somehow, herself included.

The Everwinter had always struck her as a very formal ship in appearance, both inside and out. The walls were a hushed, metallic silver, brighter colours appearing only in the form of various interfaces and consoles. Every few minutes, fine lines of sky-blue would race through the parts of the walls protecting the ship's computers and its data streams. To most people, it was a sign that the ship was online and functional. The truth was that a bit of colour traversing the metallic panels indicated that Corona was active and had unrestricted access to that part of the ship.

Syeon's quarters were alongside those of every other crew member, directly behind and below the bridge. Accessible only by password-protected lift-pods, the private rooms were on one of the lowest points of the ship. The captain preferred it that way; it meant she slept in a quiet, relaxing environment. With a crew of over sixty, there was always someone moving about on the upper decks, attending to this and that. Down below, all was silent. A set of sturdy walls on all sides helped to insulate noise from the other rooms.

Typing out the code to her own pod, Syeon was transported down to her bedroom with only the rush of air as ceremony. It was a surprisingly fluid motion, with only the change of surroundings indicating that she had moved at all. Her experience on flimsier ships had been very different: transportation between levels could be very jarring – nauseating, even. She was glad her role as an Adjudicator afforded her such an efficient ship, and Syeon knew well that it had all been earned and deserved. The Everwinter was a fitting reward for twenty years of dedication from Syeon and Corona.

Syeon had made sure to furnish her quarters as she saw fit, rather than adhering to any notions of formality. She was, after all, the only person who would ever see them, aside from Corona. Two digital poster frames hung from the walls opposite one another, their displays ready to change at the press of a button. Right then, each of them showed detailed paintings of the Dark Dales, one viewed from atop the Tower of the Dawn, the other the midst of the valleys themselves. Also amongst her decorations, hanging above either bedside table, were several finely preserved longswords, the steel blades still sharp enough to cut. Weapons of their like had not been used properly in combat for hundreds of years. That did not diminish their elegance.

Leaving her shoes by the entrance, Syeon welcomed the soft carpet beneath her feet. The aches and cramps of a long day's work were never more apparent than in the first moments of being off-duty. As always, a warm bath was in order. The Adjudicator no longer possessed the stamina she had taken for granted in her younger days; the wear of an arduous day could easily hinder her the following morning if she did not get sufficient rest.

The hot water had barely begun to flow in the bathroom when Corona's voice filled the small room. “May I?”

“Strictly audio, lieutenant,” Syeon said. She peeled off her gloves and left them on the cabinet by the sink. “Strictly audio.”

“I still don't understand why we don't have cameras in the private quarters,” Corona protested, hopefully out of a sense of security. Long ago, Syeon had been unnerved by having a disembodied voice addressing her. It was one of many things she had become accustomed to after 'adopting' the AI.

“I have to emphasise the word 'private' in what you said,” Syeon reminded her. “If you weren't so keen to dismiss anything you lack access to, you would recall that there are cameras in the crew's bedrooms and bathrooms. They require joint access codes from you and I, and I don't intend to offer mine unless I believe there to be a substantial security risk in the private sections of the ship.”

“I'm not suggesting anything inappropriate,” she claimed. Syeon was not so sure. “For you, this conversation must be odd. You can hear me, but not see me. Think of it from my perspective, or lack of. I can hear you, but I can't see anything. Try having a conversation in a pitch-black room and tell me it doesn't feel odd to you.”

“I suspect it would,” Syeon admitted, “but I'm sure you can find something to distract you from this temporary blindness.”

Easing herself into the steaming bath, Syeon noted that she did feel somewhat sympathetic towards Corona's plight. From what she had gathered, it was no easy task for an AI to amuse themselves for long periods of times. What might take Syeon herself hours to do – reading a book, for example – could be accomplished by Corona in a matter of minutes. Other media, like broadcast programmes and music, were a different matter, but Syeon's companion had always been largely uninterested in them. Clothes seemed to call to her on a spiritual level, but it did not take long to peruse a fashion database or twenty.

“What do you expect from Titan tomorrow?” Corona asked. There was no levity to her words; she spoke only of their duty.

“Honestly? If my suspicions are correct, we won't even get close to the asteroid. If cloaking systems are in play, it is plausible that we are already being watched, and hostilities will commence as we approach Titan.” Though in possession of its own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, an Adjudicator's vessel was more than capable of fighting off an aggressive assault. “Depending on their numbers, I do not mind fleeing.”

“I'm sure you don't.” The sarcasm there was hard to miss. “Are we forsaking reinforcements for the usual reason?”

“Whilst the council certainly would not appreciate having to dispatch further ships on a whim, there is more to it than that,” Syeon said. Politics had never been her closest friend, but her duty demanded that she acquaint herself with it. “If anyone comes out here in force, even the council's forces, someone is going to take issue with it. Let's avoid disturbing the hornets' nest for now.”

“I remember when you first used that metaphor around me,” Corona muttered, her voice growing distant. How did she manage that? “Upon looking them up, I found the things repulsive. Still do.”

“Your strategical advice has been noted,” Syeon retorted. “Essentially, I want this operation to stay as quiet as it was when we set off. No noise, no drama. Not yet.”

The AI's voice held a hint of mischief as she said, “Say we get attacked. What then?”

“Then, as always, you get my newest code for the weapons systems.” The Everwinter had its own designated gunners, but their presence was a contingency plan: Corona was the main operator of the ship's defences. “All I ask is that you go easy. I would like to identify any enemies before you turn them to dust.”

They chatted about past missions as Syeon scrubbed her weary body. She would need to stock up on new soaps once they returned home. Allowing Corona to do most of the talking, which took little persuading on her part, Syeon listened with amusement to the AI's retelling of some of their oldest stories. Some were acceptable; Corona recalled conflicts including the Saskand Discord and the Fall of the Duskens with precision. Others, though, had a few embellishments and exaggerations, usually in her favour. Loath to point them out, and at least somewhat sure that the AI was joking, Syeon let her push on.

She had just climbed out of the bath and begun drying her hair when Corona said, “It's been a long twenty years, hasn't it?”

Syeon raised an eyebrow. “You've been around much longer than that. What's twenty years to you?”

“Everything,” the AI replied, refusing to elaborate despite Syeon's requests. “I'm going to pore over the surface analyses some more. Cloaks can be detected with a little luck.”

Only a lasting silence indicated that Corona had distanced herself from the room's intercom. Syeon had a good number of ways to summon her back, including her wrist device and the console in her bedroom, but something told her that Corona had more to ponder than just the day's findings. That an AI could have feelings had been the biggest surprise of them all; years later, she was still taken aback by how accurately they resembled a person's. In spite of her long life, Corona still had much to learn about herself and the world. As do we all. That's merely another way the AI programmes have come to resemble us.

Syeon had heard nothing further from her lieutenant by the time she was in bed, and she knew that no further conversations would happen until the morning. Corona had always made her fellow AI constructs look positively reclusive and unsociable by comparison, but even she had her moments of deep introspection. She would continue to excel at her duties, never once allowing her own feelings to hinder her tasks. Idle chatter became temporarily forbidden, the ban only lifting when Corona had resolved whatever was troubling her. Sometimes, she would confide her worries in Syeon. Not often. That one is independent to her core.

She was asleep almost immediately after closing her eyes. At home, with her husband, Syeon found it difficult to sleep, even if she happened to have the bed to herself. It was a different matter entirely on a ship, flying quietly through the darkest reaches of space. Far from battles and bickering, the galaxy was an infinitely serene place. How could she not find peace there?

Syeon was on the bridge within half an hour of waking. Others had arrived there long before, their shifts starting well during the night. Her navigational crew and the analysis team worked at consoles along the walls, their screens displaying data they had acquired from the previous day's observations of Titan and its smaller siblings. No words were exchanged, but the regular beeps and chimes from the machines said it all: work was underway, and there were to be no disturbances.

“Good morning, Lindrem,” Syeon said, approaching the pilot. Huddled over the navigational controls, Darzie Lindrem looked no bigger than most men, save for the obvious bulges of his sleeved arms. Standing, the man was a different matter, more than a head above his captain, who herself was hardly short. “How are we doing?”

“Coming up on Titan now, ma'am,” the pilot said. “We'll hit gravity in about twenty minutes. Will that do?”

“Perfectly.” Syeon often wished she could take the man with her on reconnaissance tasks. Alas, he was too valuable to separate from the ship. “No issues overnight?”

“None, Captain,” Darzie replied. “Big Sister kept a good watch, so she did.”

“So I did,” Corona agreed, appearing on a nearby screen as if summoned. “You hardly need to say it. I always– Wait. Darzie, shields to maximum! Now!”

The navigator hardly had the time to adjust the settings before the ship shuddered under impact. Alarms blared immediately, screens displaying innumerable warnings. They had been fired on. The shields, raised in time by Darzie, had taken the brunt of it. The act of engagement alone had confirmed Syeon's suspicions: the pirates had indeed set up a base on Titan's surface, and they had remained hidden through use of cloaking technology. The attack could not have come from anywhere else. I'd take the fight to them for no other reason than to find out who sourced their equipment.

“Orders, Captain?” Darzie said, taking them out of range of the next volley. From what she saw through the external cameras, they were using R-33 Terrestrial Defence cannons. Very dangerous, even for an Adjudicator-class vessel.

Syeon saw only one course available to them; she had to get a good look at the enemy and their weaponry. “Can you get us down there?”

“With some difficulty,” the pilot admitted. “Someone needs to take out those weapons ASAP.”

“Corona?” Syeon said.

“I'm your girl,” the AI said. “Top of my class for marksmanship. Just get me close.”

Ignoring the fact that Corona had never attended any classes in her life, Syeon watched as Darzie manoeuvred them closer to the asteroid. Rapid-fire bursts continued from the surface, each brilliant beam only becoming visible to the Everwinter and its crew after passing through the cloaking field. Once the ship itself was on the other side, it would be Corona's task to eliminate as many hostiles as possible, ensuring the crew's safety. She was not merciful in combat.

“Taking her through the cloak, Captain,” Darzie said. He did not sound fearful. Syeon had picked her crew carefully. Apprehension was fine, but she had made sure to select only those who would throw themselves into every mission with unwavering diligence and loyalty. She, too, felt no fear in her heart. She had no time for such things. Whatever awaited them on the other side, Syeon and her crew would deal with it by any means necessary. The Luster Range would not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

They would do whatever it took to prevent a galactic war.

The End

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