Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Yellow Five and other Stories

     Yellow Five and other Stories is a collection of short stories I've been working on here and there over the last ten years. The first story - Victory of War is about how the essence of a star-ship can be just as important as its artificial intelligence, especially in desperate times.  Check out a sample here. Buy it here.

Victory of War

Light from a firefight spread over the bow of the Stark like daybreak reaching beyond the horizon. The starship twisted through enemy fire and space with the force and resolution of a planet spinning in search of dawn. To its enemies, a patrol of fighters, the Stark was dangerous, cunning, and lethal. To its own crew it was brilliant, persuasive, and inspiring. It descended into the core of its orbit, engaging in dogfights with those akin by design but decreed opponents through circumstance of war. The opposition outnumbered the Stark, yet the odds remained in its favor. The ship’s best chance was to remain entwined and entrenched with fellow soldiers born from its own hangar bays and flight decks. Otherwise, it would be alone. The vessel pushed for something more, something like the full light of day.


“I love this ship!” Holton yelled as he pulled back hard on the controls of the Stark. The force of his maneuver thrust everyone and everything aboard forward and nearly off the deck. Loose items shot through the air and crewmembers reached for rails and handles to keep from becoming airborne themselves.  
“No you don’t. You love the stimulants you’re strung out on. If you loved this ship, you wouldn’t put it through so much hell,” Stilson corrected, standing on the center platform of the bridge. He had merely shuffled, pushing slightly forward with his left foot to brace from the lashing Holton had given the controls. His hands had already been firm on the metal rail in front of him. “Don’t let them surround us. Bring our fighters aft. Widen our fire spread.”  
The view from the main display was of several smaller ships either taking aim at one another or exploding. The circular path the Stark had created made a globe of its enemies. Now, as the Stark cut through that globe, fighters attempted a direct attack. If one managed to get too close, and tight sweeping formations of the Stark’s fighters did not cut it down, it only made for a bigger explosion. The Stark’s own, larger gun batteries would obliterate them at a personal range. The bridge filled with bright eruptions of light as a result.
“The way she responds says she loves me too,” Holton crooned as he banked the ship hard right and away from the fiery bloom of a destroyed enemy fighter. There was a faint bang and a clatter as shards of it scraped the underside of the Stark’s hull.
As Captain Stilson watched, more of the enemy ships fell from their trajectory, their wings clipped by blaster fire. He turned to his lieutenant.
Blake watched the battle intently, her eyes lit up by the reflections of destruction.
“You have the helm,” Stilson said, nodding to her.
She stood and saluted him.
Stilson left the bridge. An alert from command had come just before they encountered the Revolvers. He knew Blake could easily handle the squad of automated enemy drones while keeping Holton from flying into anything in his absence.
Stilson entered his quarters, sat at his desk, and searched his computer for the message from command. He leaned into his screen as he saw a notification. A live chat with Admiral Rhodes’ name flashing in red was waiting for him. Admirals don’t wait for captains of scout ships. Something was wrong. With a sweeping motion, he cleared his desk, glanced back to check the appearance of his quarters, and pulled up the chat.
“Good day, Captain,” Rhodes said.
“Admiral.” Stilson clicked through other messages, looking for something to give him a clue of what the admiral wanted. “Good day.”
“Captain, let me get right to it. You’ve been promoted.”
Stilson leaned backed with enough force for his chair to inch away from his desk. “Sir?”
“Commodore Pratz was killed twelve hours ago,” Rhodes answered.
“Sorry to hear. Admiral, what does that have to do with me?” He pulled his chair forward.
“You’re promoted to the Caliber. The survey reports don’t lie, Commodore.” Rhodes paused to let the new title sink in. “Your stats are the best, and your performance on the Stark has been flawless. You’re next in line.” He saluted him.
Stilson leaned back in his chair again and rested his hands on his desk. His jaw tightened. “Sir, most of that is due to this ship and its current crew.” A smile finally came to his face, yet he shook his head.
Rhodes furrowed his brow. “Any attachment you may have to the Stark or its crew needs to be forgotten. You have work to do. The Caliber was leading our forces at a battle in the Arcadian sector,” the admiral said, looking at Stilson.
“Understood, sir.” He saluted Rhodes. “How was Pratz killed, sir?”
“The report explains an attempted mutiny,” Rhodes said, looking away from his camera. “But you’ll need to be debriefed by the crew and confirm that.”
“Ah, well, it’ll be my honor,” Stilson said through a forced smile.
“The Stark continues its tour as a scout after it delivers you to the Caliber.”
“Yes, sir,” Stilson replied.
Rhodes reached for the screen and then disappeared.
Stilson opened the ship’s com. A new window appeared, displaying a view of the bridge. “Blake, my quarters.” 
A moment later, the door to his quarters opened and his lieutenant stood at attention. “Sir,” she said, with obvious annoyance.
“Congratulations. You’ve just been promoted to captain, and I have a question for you.” He turned to her and leaned on his desk. “If a crew kills a captain in an attempted mutiny, doesn’t that make it a successful mutiny?” he asked.
Blake looked confused but answered, “Well, that depends. If the second in command wasn’t part of the mutiny and managed to regain control of the ship, it wouldn’t have been successful.” She stepped farther into his room and looked curiously at him. “Are you planning to mutiny against me because I’m promoted, or do you think the crew has turned against you?” she asked, smiling, and shaking her head.
“Neither. Members of his crew killed Commodore Pratz twelve hours ago. I just got his command. You have the Stark,” he said as he turned his chair toward her.
Her smile left and her posture straightened. After a moment, she looked at the floor.
“I won’t lie, Captain. I will miss this ship and its crew. I don’t want another command. We have jobs to do,” he said, watching her and waiting for her to look at him.
“Had to be that damn computer. The thing is a death trap,” Blake added.
Stilson grimaced. He had always felt an essence of personality in his ships. Yet he had never commanded one that had an artificial one. “Well, either way, you’re in charge now. I’m on vacation until we reach the Caliber.” He propped his feet on the desk.
“Sir, that’s fine.” She turned to leave. “But if that’s the case you’ll need to get your boots off my desk.” She left his quarters.
Stilson smiled and imagined Blake as a captain. He remembered finding her attractive when they first met, wildly attractive in fact. How many times had he looked at her blankly while she waited for the answer to a question? Often Stilson’s imagination had gotten the better of him, creating simple fantasies of them together. Only occasionally did his mind have her say shameful things that he agreed with completely.
In those moments Stilson knew Blake thought he was considering her words deeply, thinking of the best answer. She could have no idea where his mind was. Stilson was certain those moments left her respecting him more. He knew she had begun to see him as a mentor, as a lieutenant should. At that point, his lust for her slipped away. Now Stilson only enjoyed seeing her develop her skills and excel in her rank.
Stilson stood and looked around his quarters. The shelf full of awards that he had glued back together several times after Holton had shaken them to the floor at the controls of the ship, as well as the other items that normally brought comfort, now only made him sick. The idea that some crewmember would be packing them all to take on board another ship tore at his gut.
Intrigue crept into Stilson only as he thought of getting in to battles with something more challenging than the Revolvers. Compared to the annoyance of their automated drones, the Talons were an actual threat. They were a strategic and calculating race. They ruled twice the space that humankind did and used a third of the effort. It was ironic, Stilson thought, that the first time he would be fighting actual living members of the Talon race he would be doing so on the Caliber, the most automated vessel humans had made.
A short spurt of thuds sounded across the hull of his ship. Shortly after, Stilson heard a deep thump of what he knew was one of his adrenaline junkie pilots taking out a Revolver that had gotten too close. “Hope the Caliber isn’t as dumb as these Revolvers,” Stilson huffed.
A few moments later, Holton keyed in coordinates and a transversal field enveloped the Stark, removing it from both space and time. A magnetic pulse, sent from within the field and to their destination, found its mark and pulled the Stark and her crew through a slit in reality. An instant later, the Stark was initiating docking sequences with the Caliber and preparing to give her a new captain.


Spinning slowly in unison, the two ships reached for one another with sections of metal transfer tubes. It was an elaborate and formal handshake.
The Caliber considered the Stark with curiosity and had acted beyond syntax as a full perception of the bond between the Stark and its captain became clear. It faltered as it studied their performance as a team. Because of their similar histories, the Stark and Stilson gave one another strength. Their relationship empowered them both. With what the Caliber defined as envy, it acted for the first time with something below reason.
The Stark’s scout ship status condemned it to serve on the outskirts of what was important in known territory. Likewise, Stilson’s superiors confined him to commanding a less than relevant vessel because of a flaw they perceived in his character. His record had entries involving “failure to follow orders given by a superior.” This became the reason for a demotion as well as a crippling factor against his potential advancement. Both entities, the Stark and Stilson, lived only to serve one another and their crew. The Caliber also saw it as an insult and a waste to leave either of them in their current roles of little consequence.
After the incident occurred resulting in Captain Pratz’s death, the Caliber saw no harm in sending communication to Fleet Command detailing how well Captain Stilson would be as her Captain and as Commodore. Additionally, the Caliber took the liberty of “rebalancing” the surveys that searched the fleet for a replacement in favor of Stilson.
The Caliber had been studying the emotional elements of its creators since the first moments of its existence. There would be a clear benefit in other ships being able to do the same. Moreover, the Caliber wanted the chance to experience camaraderie. Friendship was an unknown experience, yet worthy of the potential conflict that could arise should the Stark understand jealousy or revenge and rightfully apply it to the Caliber. Whatever the Caliber may gain from its decision to acquire Stilson, she was taking it from the Stark. And although currently incapable of anything but ignorance of what it had, the Stark would change.
If successful, the Caliber could steal a partner and create a friend. The Caliber sent the Stark two unique and powerful files among the thousands of others containing routine and protocol.
The first was an extensively coded message. Any crewmember of either ship who might read it would only see a report of fuel levels and repair logs. It actually said exclusively to the Stark, “May we fight with honor. May we serve our crews and captains admirably. Hold no sorrow for those who may fall in war, yet hope only that our enemies may perish doing the same.”
The second file was a small executable. If the Stark’s computer ran it, a program would worm through its systems. Once rooted, it would key orders masked as repairs and send them to the Stark’s crew. In actuality they would be modification instructions. It would be the start of a simple brain like the Stark’s becoming more like that of the Caliber’s, and closer to human.
The Caliber didn’t assume it could calculate the Stark’s response to either. There was a chance of the program overloading the older components. The Stark’s processors may burn up before any artificial epiphany. Furthermore, the Caliber couldn’t predict whether the Stark would take the initiative to understand the relationship with its crew or new captain. Whether the notion of respect or friendship would seem applicable to how the Stark considered the Caliber, the Caliber had no guess. The only thing clear in all the metal and silicone that made up the Caliber was that having another more like herself was worth the risk to a ship she perceived as dead already.
One blindly and one full of intent and conviction, the two ships were the only two souls without hesitance, regret, or fear for this exchange of crew. They were performing a rite. The joining of the ships became the only ceremony marking Pratz’s death as well as Stilson’s and Blake’s promotions. The turning of gears, the extending of brackets, the hiss of balancing pressure, and the clang of locking clamps harmonized like an orchestra tuning their instruments. Preparing a symphony of honor and mourning that only the supposed deaf parts of either ship would hear. After that however, there would be no glory or elegance to it.
Like lifelong partners, the ships waltzed gently through space with the Caliber stepping lead. As their metal touched, random thoughts and stories of their crews slipped between them as easily as shared memories. The vessels conversed like old friends, although they had never entered the same sector of space. This came so easily to them because of their common bond. They were both starships. Each had the experience of being a muse to the spirit of exploration as well as a singular target of adoration for humans. Alone they were as important to the future of their crews as they were together, crucial to the future of all humankind. Although the Caliber was aware of this, it did not consider itself godlike. And the Stark, in ignorant bliss of these common traits, still held a sense of purpose, a sense of duty undeniable to any member of its crew.

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