Just a little more. Just a little more …
‘Captain, are you jacked yet?’ an impatient voice asks, bristling gruffness buzzing over my suit’s comm system.
Ivan Vasilyev. Ship’s cook, according to my official register. Unofficially, my team’s heavy gun, demo-expert and general pain in the ass, when he isn’t kicking ass. I love him and all, he’s part of my ship’s family, but sometimes his input is about as welcome as finding a skid-mark in your jockeys. Awful at chess, but has this stubborn patience that keeps him coming back to learn, and fun to play against–he’s not a sore loser, to his credit.
‘Well,’ I begin nicely, though my voice doesn’t quite hide my exasperation. Both our tones are due to nerves. He’s safely on board, watching me float out here in free space, my right hand holding the latch to a derelict spacecraft we’re trying to break into, my left, palm open, pressed up against a seared-off access port, gently petting at it as though it were a giant metal kitty. ‘You see the hatch unlock yet?’
There’s a pause before he returns a sour-sounding ‘No.’
‘That means I’m not jacked. Wanna give me a moment while I try and get that done?’
A sound of scuffling comes over the comms, and then Ivan’s pained ‘Oww!’ in the background.
‘Sorry Captain,’ the annoyed voice of Bethany ‘Betts’ Ortez replies. First officer and chief pilot, officially. Smuggler and grand larcenist, off-record. Two years Coalition of Allied Planetary Systems Navy (CAPS-N) officer, but now formerly goody-two-shoes Lt. Ortez is wanted by said Navy and four other non-allied star systems. Pssh, amateur: I’m wanted by nine, currently. She is my best friend though, my big sister by another mister. ‘Turned my back for a moment,’ she adds, and I can hear what I imagine is her elbow whumping Ivan again.
‘Be nice, he means well,’ I reply, but then I’m distracted by a kiss of electricity in my brain, as the wireless interface jack in my palm finally latches on to the access port’s interface jack. The cybernetic display unit behind my left eye starts streaming a series of connection protocols to my vision, as my biologically integrated computer system starts saying its first hellos to the derelict’s systems.
The faint tingling of my biocomp, which is about the size of a grain of rice and installed between my C4 and C5 vertebrae, is a remarkably comforting feeling, and I remember to feel lucky that I’m one of less than half a percent of humans who experience such mild side effects from their cybernetics. Most who try what I’m attempting would feel their interface-arm go dead the instant they jacked in, followed by a sensation of either burning, freezing, or in rare but still far too many cases, intense formication that ultimately renders the whole idea of them hacking a system pointless. For me? It’s a feathery touch, like brushing the tips of your fingers along the hairs of your neck.
‘Found it,’ I advise my crew, all five of them listening in, and then to the derelict, I murmur ‘Good morning, sweetheart. Open up, open up, let me in ...’
The stream of connection protocols, a pleasant cyan in colour, dances down the side of my vision as I begin my introductions to the derelict, but I barely finish my first ‘So where are you from?’ before that stream begins to pulse and switch to a warning shade of orange. Oooh, she’s not falling for my tricks, not that easily.
The derelict’s systems are not flat-out refusing my connection, but it doesn’t recognize my protocols, and is alerting me that unauthorized access will result in the authorities being contacted and possible countermeasures being deployed. Darling, you’ve been lost for twenty years, stuck in an asteroid field just past the far edge of CAPS space. The giant floating boulders out here contain large quantities of kelmisite, which are gonna fuck your long-range comm signals into gobbledygook. No-one will hear you. Your countermeasures, though? Those I do need to worry about; you’ll either dive Under to God knows where, or release a thermal pulse from your propulsion drive that fries me to a crisp.
‘No, it’s all good. I’m just a lowly maintenance worker, see? I’m here to reset your sensors, you’ve got a glitch is all,’ I promise the derelict. I do think my assurances help, if not the derelict then certainly myself.
I begin to transmit my first hacking algorithm, one of a million stored in my biocomp’s memory, electrically caressing the interface, whispering sweet nothings into a nervous lover’s ear, trying to find the right words to win her over. One, two, five, twenty, eighty, two hundred ...
The derelict is stubborn; she is refusing my best attempts but at least she’s still listening, but that’s only because I’m careful enough to craft each algorithm to appear as the first attempt. She is at least buying that part of my wooing, but I doubt she will for much longer; she’s got adaptive learning capabilities and it’s just a matter of time before she catches on.
The derelict’s reluctance was anticipated, of course: she’s a high-class vessel, even if she’s twenty years behind the times, and her onboard security systems are no joke. In her prime, the derelict was a top-of-the-line automated security transport vessel, long-haul range. The CAPS Trade Union’s (CAPS-T) best-of-the-best, she shipped high-value, potentially dangerous cargo from stellar point A to B, across vast distances, all by herself. She has her own Under-drive, as well as over a quarter of light speed propulsion for those trickier intra-system journeys, plus heuristic enemy-avoidance systems, and the sparkling crown atop her most beautiful head: her own Variable Energy Intensive Lightwave & Electromagnetic Distortion Device – her VEILEDD, or simply, her veil.
That’s what I’m here for–the veil. I’ve claimed it as my share of what the derelict is carrying, which, if our research is correct, includes a credit-press with a million unused credit IDs on it, all just wanting to be issued. Split five ways, my crew is looking at a two-hundred thousand perfectly legitimate, fresh-off-the-press payday, each–it’s the prize of a lifetime, a prize that can change a lifetime.
But that veil is mine.
It’s worth a fortune on its own; twenty years later and the tech behind it has basically remained the same, and there isn’t a species in or outside the CAPS that’s found a way to consistently beat it. Understandably, the veil’s usage is strictly regulated, limited to only a handful of species under a smaller handful of circumstances, and any unauthorized usage carries, oh, how to put this, ‘disproportionally severe penalties’. Tekethy in origin, and those shadow-loving spymasters know a thing or two about staying sneaky, but human ingenuity perfected it. All praise the mighty CAPS and its lucrative tech-sharing agreements.
But whatever the veil’s best black-market value is, it’ll be worth a thousand times that once my engineer, Mia, instals it into my ship. Long-range sensor-muting, short-range light-wave disruption, energy output dispersion–and just the right size for my little vessel to become entirely invisible, even to the naked eye, for a solid hour, if not more. The possibilities that a fully operational veil brings to mind make me salivate, even as I continue with my hack of the main access-hatch.
‘Captain Hale, forgive the interruption,’ Corculhoran says politely. From the crispness of his tone, one would think the voice belonged to a bookish, meek man, and of course, the opposite is the case with Cor. He is Harculcorian (roughly translated as ‘they who are biters’), a reptilian race known for breeding fierce and relentless warriors, and their heavy, massive frames and crocodilian appearance go a long way to perpetuate the human-centric stereotype that they’re all mindless brutes.
Cor is actually one of the sweetest men I know: keenly intelligent, brilliantly poetic, and nearly as good a hacker as I am. Though he is roughly the size and shape of a weapons locker, and has heavily scaled skin that’s a natural form of battle-armour, I’ve never seen him perform an act of violence in all the time I have known him. Officially, he’s our comms officer and quartermaster, but behind the scenes, he’s the brains behind our most lucrative schemes, our shifty accountant and probably among the foremost embezzlers I’ve had the pleasure to meet. It was Cor who had snatched up the whisper of the abandoned derelict, after all.
‘Go ahead, Cor,’ I offer. I’m one of only a handful of people he permits to use the short form of his name. The Cor part of his name means ‘biter’, which depending on the person saying it, can either be a term of endearment, or a patronizing insult.
‘Thank you, Captain Hale,’ he replies. His formality is non-negotiable, though we have all insisted he needs to start feeling relaxed around us, what with this being his fifth year on our crew. ‘I am noticing the derelict is powering up its intra-stellar propulsion unit; are you in jeopardy?’
His calmness can sometimes be more disturbing than his panic, which I have only witnessed twice: the first time being when we resurfaced from an Under dive too close to an undiscovered black hole, the second time when I appeared brain-dead for a full minute after a nearly botched deep-jack.
I scan the still-orange warning protocols, then see the execution command for the automated propulsion unit to start up. My algorithms are becoming suspect; the derelict is catching on faster than anticipated. If that engine engages while I’m still holding onto its access hatch, losing out on our prize will be the least of my concerns; my atoms will be spread from here to wherever the derelict decides to stop running.
‘Captain,’ Betts cuts in before I can answer Cor. ‘Derelict’s comm unit coming online!’
Her urgency is matched by another bold orange command line flashed before my eyes. ‘Jamming it just in case but I’m seeing additional systems ...’
‘Mia, you there?’ I ask desperately, interrupting my first officer.
‘Yes, go ahead,’ the voice of my talented engineer, so young, responds enthusiastically.
‘We need to fake Lucky’s energy output signature; make us look bigger than we are.’ Lucky is the pet name for our ship, the Luck of the Draw. She’s my heart’s desire, my beautiful Lucky: I ‘won’ her after having hacked the system controlling a lottery scam being run by a shifty terraforming company, which used her as bait to draw the punters in to moving to a newly habitable planet. My first genuine hack on such a grand scale, and she’s named along the lines of how the best luck is the luck you make for yourself.
‘What size are we talking here? Corvette, cruiser, warmonger?’ she asks, letting me know that whatever I ask for, I will get. Mia is my baby ship-sister, and my newest crew member, but likely also the most talented.
‘Corvette,’ and after her quick ‘On it!’ confirmation, I make a plea to my quartermaster:
‘Cor, can you hack together a hail to the derelict, pretend like we’re a CAPS-T authority?’
‘Yes, I can do this. A simple authentication request, yes?’ he asks, out of courtesy. Though our two species started far apart on the evolutionary path, Cor and I are more alike than almost any two humans I’ve known. The man often knows my thoughts before I even think them.
‘Affirmative. Initiate when ready.’ I catch the wording of my orders, and frown. I hate it when I slip into my CAPS-N speak. Their training is hard to shake.
Yes, I used to be in the CAPS-N: graduated from the academy with a solid set of distinctions and honours, but just past a year of service, I dropped out, with the official reason given as ‘disenfranchisement’, which is a polite way to say I was no longer interested in the bullshit actual service in the CAPS-N entailed. And although I am a drop-out (well, dropped-out before kicked out), I am now a captain, which is five ranks higher than my CAPS-N rank ever amounted to. It’s an honorary title, of course, since I’m both the owner and the pilot of my ship: humanity still holds to our Terran naval traditions, even half a millennium or so after we took to the stars.
Speaking of Terrans–I am one–which these days means a human born on Earth, rather than say on one of our exo-planetary colonies, which we’ve got spread out over multiple star systems: Martians, Ganymedians, Oberonians, plus Nexians, Cygnians and Centaurians (not Centaurs, they’ll have you know) – we’re all humans. There’s about thirty billion of us, which forms a not-too-shabby sixteen percent of the total sapients comprising the CAPS.
I’m on the tall side, just under two metres, and thanks to the combination of lucky genetics (cheers, Dad), a CAPS-N-approved regimented exercise program and a healthy dose of masculine pride, it’d be more than fair to consider me as a solid slice of beefcake. Not like Ivan or Cor are though–they’re mountains of muscle on two legs–but I could hold my own against them, if I needed to.
Heh, that sound’s kinda dirty–Bryce is the one I hold my own against, or rather, used to; it’s been a while since we last knocked boots, and it’s looking more and more likely we’ll not be doing that again.
I currently have my original hair colour, which is either a light brown or very dark blond (think a darker shade of ‘sandalwood’ if that helps), that I keep short and neatly trimmed, and my current eye shade is the one that I was born with: a robust hazel-green that I also got from Dad, in addition to his muscles. Mum gave me my hair colour though, and what Bryce says, er, used to say, are my ‘rugged good looks, when you stop being such an ass about them’.
None of the above matters though: given the CAPS Federation of Medical Practitioners’ (CAPS-F) advances, humans are no longer bound by most constraints when determining how we want to physically manifest ourselves: pigmentation, sex, morphology, age appearance–it is all negotiable these days, if you’ve got the credits. Ivan was born physically female and aligned his external self to his internal self immediately after his first big pay-out with us, and Mia enjoys a blue tone to her skin, for a reason I’ve not figured out, but it suits her entirely.
I’ve myself gone under the genetic recombinator on a couple of occasions for a job, mostly just cosmetic stuff for disguises, but I always revert to my base-identity afterwards. It’s something to do with my parents’ death–yes, I’m a poor orphan boy, have been for a while–something about how much I look like the right combination of my Mum and Dad that always brings me back to my original self. That so long as I’m here, looking like the best parts of them got together and made me, then maybe they’re not lost to the universe, just yet.
A few more moments pass as my hack of the derelict continues, and, becoming impatient, I increase the transmission speed of my algorithms, the electronic signals firing from my biocomp rapidly over my reinforced nervous system and through the interface device permanently installed into my left palm. The derelict continues to refuse me, and that’s becoming annoying.
I pass the half-million mark of transmitted algorithms and the first waves of frustration crash into my confidence; you might think that the halfway point meant halfway home, but that’s never the case. You always start with your big guns–the algorithms most likely to succeed in cracking the hard exterior security protocols and getting to the ooey-gooey sweet access commands underneath–and then work your way down to smaller ammunition if your opening volley fails. Passing the halfway mark usually means you went into the battle under-gunned, and you’re left having to throw progressively smaller pebbles in the hopes of scoring a lucky shot.
I’ve never succeeded in a hack past the eight hundred thousand mark; no-one does. Well, that is, unless you’re more than fifty percent cybernetic and have onboard adaptive algorithm generation capabilities. Outside of my biocomp, its paired optic interface and my left palm, I’m one hundred percent human, only about three percent robot. The saying ‘too much tech makes your mind a wreck’ is a truism I don’t want to test on myself, because I’ve seen the proof of it first-hand in others. But if I’m clocking past a half million algorithms, and more and more frequently I’ve noticed I have been, it may mean it’s upgrade time. The symbol representing interstellar currency–CAPS-T credits–flutters in my imagination on tiny golden wings.
‘Authentication request completed. Transmitting,’ Cor advises, though he need not have. A bright green stream of symbols appears in the upper right-hand corner of my vision and begins to run with an urgency the derelict’s system cannot refuse. Authentication of its identity by its owner’s is one of the derelict’s highest priorities, and as it begins to stream its credentials, the system resources it’s allocating to prevent my access are redirected to complete this priority task.
I see it then, in that stream of orange symbols: the derelict’s identification key, hidden as an innocuous spitting of characters in a lengthy line of commands and processing confirmations. From system to system, the values for these keys always differ, and consisting of fifty-five characters, it would take more time than is left in our universe to guess it. But that’s its fatal flaw: the ID key is always exactly fifty-five characters, and always in the same configuration, meaning its uniform length and structure quickly snitches it out for what it is.
Back in the day, when this transport was first roaming the galaxy, this little security flaw hadn’t been discovered yet, and while it’s since been patched, this derelict is a couple of dozen star-systems away from the nearest server for that required update. Even then, the ID flaw is only exploitable if you know to look for it, and I just so happen to be one of the few people who know to look.
See, that’s my job. Officially, I am our ship’s captain, co-pilot and I guess our tactical officer, though any time we enter a firefight I figure I’ve not done one of my other two jobs correctly: Lucky is a lover, not a fighter, and she has many aliases. Depending on where we are and what we’re up to, my ship’s registry can be either The Fortune’s Favourite, CAPS-T Harrogate, or the CAPS-N Blazing Talon, which is one of my favourites, but it’s dangerous to use; the CAPS-N gets its best frown on about pretending you’re one of their fleet.
If I remember correctly, today I’m Captain Donald Welsh of the CAPS Systems Salvage Corps (CAPS-S) vessel Brunhilda’s Grace, but that’s neither my nor my ship’s true name: I’m Captain Rowland William Hale II, and my pretty little ship is the Luck of the Draw–with no CAPS credential staining her name.
My off-the-books job, however, is being our team’s system override specialist: a hacker, a data-thief, a scourer and scourge of incriminating records. The street term for me is a ‘jack’, as in I hijack a system and make it my personal plaything. Not all jacks are thieves, some are entirely legitimate and are employed for everything from data-recovery to improved file-archiving. Most CAPS-T and CAPS-N comms officers are jacks in some form. But I’m a jack that steals data and sells it to the highest bidder, and that’s definitely outside of the recommended usage for my hardware. I’m expanding my enterprises though: for a cheap five hundred credits, I can make someone disappear from the CAPS network, and for a thousand, I can make them a ‘fresh-start’ identity to suit their wildest fantasies. Cash upfront of course.
I am smart enough to stay out of dealing in really lucrative information though: war plans, galactic trade strategies, fleet deployments and such. Working with that kind of information often buys you top billing on the CAPS’s kill-list, and yes, as I discovered, there’s a literal kill-list. So, I keep my activities on the small-time scale, making me an annoyance to the CAPS but thanks to our talents and constant diligence, not one worth their effort to swat–though I have scored a handful of truly top-tier escapades, enough for me to earn legit black-marks in those nine stellar systems I mentioned. Normally, I’m all about quantity of jobs over quality of jobs. Except for today.
Getting back to convincing the derelict to drop her knickers on our first date, I copy-and-paste the ID key directly into my biocomp’s algorithm matrix, and on the six hundred and thirty-fourth-some odd attempt, the warning orange colour of the protocol stream switches back to the courteous cyan, and the flashing cursor denotes I’m at the primary command prompt. I set my user ID to be an admin, update the command protocol and …
‘Got it,’ I breathe, and I hear cheering from the comms.
‘Pay up, pay up!’ Ivan booms happily, his normal gruff tones elated and cheerful over the comms, causing me to smile despite my stress. ‘I said less than ten minutes, and Rowley’s done it in nine!’
‘Incorrect. Captain Hale triggered the automaton’s alert protocols,’ Cor nonchalantly counters. He does not mean to be insulting, and I don’t take it that way. I know his calm, logical and simple response is just a front for his clever, quick and charmingly cunning mind. Cor would only take Ivan’s bet if the Harculcorian was sure he knew he would win. ‘According to the ...’
‘Guys, the hatch is still locked. I’m just in the system,’ I correct. ‘Sorry Ivan, but I’ll cover your losses, I promise,’ I mentally picture his scowling face, so I add, ‘Thanks for having my back though, bud.’
‘I said fifteen minutes and you’d crack the lock!’ Mia adds quickly, but her tone is cheery and encouraging. ‘You still got six minutes, Captain!’
‘I said twenty for full access, Captain Hale,’ Cor remarks. To anyone else, this would just seem like a statement of fact, but I think I sense hurt feelings in his voice. Our universal translators (UT) do not replace the voice that a speaker uses; Cor’s talking in his native tongue, which is a series of throat rumblings, hisses, growls, air grunts and snaps of his jaws.
My ears hear those sounds, and using all their little bones, do the evolutionary equivalent of a magic trick that converts those vibrations into a series of nerve stimuli that my brain interprets as words–but since I did not learn Harculcorian, without my universal translator, all I would hear is crocodile talk.
My UT works by intercepting those stimulations before they reach my brain, converting them from the format they’re in into one I understand–which for me is CAPS Standard Language. Once translated, the converted signals are released and resume their course to my brain, and voilà, Harculcorian to CAPS Standard is achieved.
This translation works with impressive accuracy–though there are some hiccups with species-specific words or concepts–idioms too, frequently–the CAPS Language research team is a well-funded priority project that’s been in operation since the day we met the first non-human sapient-level species, and so constant language updates are freely and frequently distributed throughout the systems, under the premise that it’s cheaper to learn a language than risk a misunderstanding leading to war.
It’s not just verbal language either, written languages can be translated, but that’s a deluxe model and requires more hardware than your average joe on the street has–specifically, an optical nerve interface–which I just happen to have. So, I get the benefit of being able to read not only the popular Terran languages, but most of the frequently encountered non-Terran languages too. Harculcorian text is beautiful–their script is based on swirling logographs, like fishes in water–and there’re shades of meaning in their written word that are missed when they speak.
‘Stop distracting him,’ a harsh voice interjects over the comms. Bryce. Ship’s medic and perpetual killjoy. Wait, no, that’s not fair: he’s just being protective of me, or if not me, the mission. Probably more me than the mission, I still hope. He knows the next part for me is going to be riskier than holding on to the side of a spacecraft about to power up. His worry comes hand-in-hand with being a doctor, and my now ex-lover. I’m still trying to convince him not to be. It’s not going well.
‘Thank you, Dr. Winston,’ I reply, formally. We are always on formal terms these days. He’s announced that this is going to be his last gig with us, and only came along because I promised a score that would set him up with enough credits–plus a free new identity–to start his life over wherever he wanted. Wherever that is does not include me. I love him, but he’s made it clear that will not be enough for him to stay.
‘Your vitals are good, Rowland. You can deep-jack when ready. I’m monitoring, and you’re out at two hundred and fifty heart beats per minute,’ Bryce orders. Advises, I attempt to correct myself. It’s part of the reason he’s leaving; he’s no longer willing to make the distinction between when I’m the captain, and in command, and when I’m his partner, and we are equals. That’s normal, I told him. I’m not angry with him too much anymore, though I suspect when I drop him off at Venris Station Beta in a few days and see him walk off Lucky for the last time, that anger is going to come back. Or a profound sadness. I’m not looking forward to finding out which.
‘Three hundred, for five minutes,’ I counter, more out of petty spite than actual need. These days I rarely reach the two-fifty ‘worry zone’, and my biocomp can regulate my heart rate at three hundred beats for a solid four minutes before its auto-disconnect protocol triggers. But I need to let Bryce, and the rest of my crew family, know I’m the captain, and I will make decisions in the best interest of our crew, and our mission.
There is a pause before the terse reply. ‘Proceed.’ Another fucking order. Goddamn it, I’m having it out with him when I get back. Again. Like it will change something this time.
I push my impending fight with Bryce out of my mind, and concentrate on my breathing, preparing for the deep-jack. My old CAPS-N training kicks in again, and this time I don’t scold myself as I run a full check against my suit’s systems. I’m good: two hours of oxygen, thirty-three-degree body temperature (bit low, but the deep-jack generates heat, so that’s fine), full suit integrity, and I don’t need to go to the bathroom, thank you very much for asking.
I exhale a long, steadying breath, which my crew knows to mean that I’m about to go on a mind trip and won’t be available until this stubborn hatch unlocks. Or my suit registers the massive synaptic failure of my brain, if I screw up at what I’m about to do. Either outcome is the signal that will spell out whether we’re getting paid today.
Another breath in, and out again, as I form the mental image I use to signal my biocomp that I’m ready. My Mum, laughing joyfully as she wins me a stuffed animal at the fair. Her face–eyes bright and smile wide–as she scores the winning laser hit, dead centre in the target–and that giant fluffy teddy bear is handed to her. She is so beautiful in this moment, so beautiful, she is so beau …