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Excerpt for Sam: Book 5 of the Zaftan Troubles by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






Sam


Book 5 of The Zaftan Troubles


By Hank Quense




Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Bonus Material

About the Author




Prologue

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"Three hundred years ago, a zaftan mining expedition landed in the Skensfirth area in southern Gundarland. Ask anyone today and they will tell you that hundreds of citizens were killed by the aliens and that property damage was in the millions. Both beliefs are wrong. According to eyewitness accounts, no one was killed and the property damage was minor. Despite eyewitness accounts confirming the absence of deaths and property damage it is impossible to change the strongly held beliefs of folks."

Dr. Cyrus Highpowder, Professor of History, University of Dun Hythe; from his book, Alien Incursion.




"Three hundred years ago, a mining expedition returned to our home world after discovering a new inhabited world called by the natives, Gundarland. It returned to Zaftan 31B without a profit and is the only unprofitable expedition in our history. The report from Yunta, the captain of the expedition, described the many treacherous actions perpetrated by the hostile and duplicitous natives. Is it any wonder that our citizens cry out for punishment of this despicable race who refused to acknowledge the superiority of our magnificent civilization? Rest assured that sometime during your career as a Naval officer, some of you will be in the fleet that avenges these insults."

Admiral Goyami, Chief-of-staff, Naval High Command: from his commencement speech to the graduates of the Naval College.


# # #


The battle cruiser and fleet flagship, Red Death, hung motionless in space just under a third of a parsec from Ceti Taub. The rest of the zaftan attack force deployed in battle formation around it. All the silver-colored ships had a cylindrical shape with a blunt nose. Weapons and engine pods broke the otherwise smooth outer surface. Seen from a distance, the fleet formation resembled a sheet of black velvet with bright specks of diamonds arranged in a box pattern.

In the Red Death's flight deck, Commodore Gongeblazn lounged on his couch and looked for something or someone to annoy him. Happy only when he had something to carp about, he was annoyed that nothing annoyed him. Like all noble-born zaftans, Gongeblazn stood over seven feet tall and weighted more than four hundred pounds; his bulk over- crowded the small flight deck. Atop his small round head with its cruel beak-like mouth, a pair of two-inch-long eye- stalks supported his eyes, black with red irises. His gray- black skin oozed green slime. One of his eight tentacles held a gold-emblazoned lash with leather thongs tipped with yellow metal. The lash symbolized his high rank as did the gold, diamond-encrusted medallion hanging from a gold chain around his neck.

Two other zaftans, the navigation shaman and the engineer, operated consoles in the front of the flight deck while a third, Captain Fleigel, sat to Gongeblazn's right.

Gongeblazn lifted a tentacle and fondled the medallion. It signified that he was a fleet commander. He led the strongest fleet ever to venture this close to gundarlandian-controlled space. He rotated an eyestalk to peer at the engineer. "Memzer, wake up Gevelt."

"He is still in his navigational coma, Commodore," Memzer replied

"Nonsense. Give him a shove."

Gevelt almost fell off his couch from the shove. He recovered and his eyestalks swept the area seeking danger. They alighted on Gongeblazn. "Greetings, Commodore."

"How dare you return from your scouting mission and not report to me."

"My journey was far and difficult. After I returned, I paused to compose my report to you and fatigue overcome me."

"You lie. Someday, I will catch you in a lie and then your miserable life will be forfeited. What did you find out?"

"I found no evidence of the gundy fleet. All I saw was the frigates wreaking havoc on their shipping."

"This is true, Commodore." Captain Fleigel dipped her eyestalks. "We just received a new report from the frigate squadron. They have boarded and looted almost every trading vessel within a half-parsec. Now they attack the colony base defenses."

"Why has this not brought out the gundy navy, hmm? I do not like this." Gongeblazn's eyes swept the flight deck. "Where is my aide?"

"I am here, Commodore." A six-foot-tall zaftan ranker slithered across the deck and stood near Gongeblazn. "How may I serve you?"

"By standing still." Gongeblazn lashed the aide's torso with a vicious stroke of his whip.

The aide's skin quivered under the blow. Slime splattered the immediate area. "Thank you, Commodore. May I have another?"

"Fleigel!" Gongeblazn roared. "Get this carrion out of my presence. Take a note. Never allow him to be my aide again. Throw him in the brig. Or overboard. Then get me a new aide."

"Please instruct me." Fleigel cowered on her couch. "What has he done?"

"He likes getting whipped. How can I enjoy his suffering when he likes it more than I do?"

"I will get you an aide who will howl in pain at the sight of your lash."

"Make it so. Now where is the enemy fleet so I can destroy it? Engineer! Send a message to the frigate squadron. I order them to move deeper into gundie space. They must be more aggressive. They are to attack more colonies and shipping routes."

The frigates, claiming to be pirates, were tasked to cause havoc in gundarlandian space. Their purpose was to force a response from the gundies so Gongeblazn could observe and test their strengths, weaknesses and tactics.




Chapter 1

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Ensign Sam sat in the ferry from the moon base and, through the forward vid screen, watched the Tiger grow larger. Beneath the ship, a sliver of Gundarland reflected the sunlight. The enormous battle carrier was the flagship of a newly formed task force, and she was now an aide for the admiral in charge. It was her first assignment in the Navy and her first assignment since leaving the factory. She snapped a holographic picture using the camera built into her eyes. It would be the first picture in the scrapbook of her life.

While she examined the Tiger, an unknown sensation gripped her. It resembled the sensation she had felt when she received her certificate of commission before leaving the factory, but this time it was much stronger. Then she thought it was a programming hiccup, but now she wasn't sure what it was.

After a moment's research into her embedded library she identified the sensation as excitement, possibly tinged with trepidation. Her library didn't mention anything about androids experiencing softie-like emotions. The results of her research surprised her and she experienced another sensation, one that she identified as apprehension. Robots and androids didn't have emotional reactions, she knew that. So what had she experienced? And why? Could she be capable of experiencing emotions? That possibility made her apprehension grow stronger and that increased her confusion.

Was this a good development or a bad one? She wished she knew. She still had much to learn: about life, the space fleet, her own capabilities. She was the first production model of the new design and many careers hung on the performance reports from her assignment. The factory designers and programmers especially wanted her to succeed. She thought of herself as a new type of rose-like flower about to break into first bud and spread seeds for future blossoms, the droids who would follow in her footsteps.

She wondered about her status on board the Tiger. How would the other officers react to having a droid in their ranks? How would the other bots react to her?

The ferry drew up alongside the Tiger's entrance portal and magnetic clamps gripped the hull.

Sam grabbed her duffle bag and headed for the door. She queued up behind a few sailors and dock workers. She wore a dark blue skirt and jacket over a white blouse. She pulled on the jacket to straighten it.

Inside the entrance portal, her titanium skeleton triggered an alarm from a metal detector and attracted the attention of an ensign checking the ferry passengers' ID against a list on his handheld. The officer waved a hand to one of the crew who ran a scanner over Sam's frame. "Don't know what this is," he told the officer, "but it ain't a bomb."

When Sam presented her own handheld to show her ID, the officer frowned, inspected her from head to foot and sneered. He tapped a few keys then said, "Your cubicle assignment is now on your handheld." He passed her on with a motion of his head.

She wished her apprehension would stop getting stronger. She didn't like it. Her orders told her to report to Admiral Cunningham in eighteen minutes. That gave her time to find her room and drop her bag.

Sam glanced at her handheld, called up the ship's layout drawing from her internal library and found her cubicle location. She left the entrance portal, took an elevator to B deck, exited and turned toward the port side. Everywhere she looked she saw dull gray bulkheads and decks with lines of glow lights overhead. A few crew members ran to and fro all apparently on urgent tasks. So did a couple of officers who nodded to her, but didn't speak. She wondered if the activity might have to do with an imminent launch. She turned at corridor 10 and found 10-025, her new home.

Inside, she noted the cubicle's measurements: twelve foot by ten. Not very large, but far bigger than she needed. The cubicle had a cot, a desk and chair, a toilet and a wall mounted video-comm unit. She didn't need the cot or toilet but she did need an electric outlet to recharge her batteries. After she found one near the desk, Sam dropped her bag on the cot and left to meet the admiral.


###


Sam found the Admiral's quarters, knocked on the door frame and waited.

The admiral was short and scrawny like all half-pints. He wore his long, silver hair pulled back in a queue. He sat behind a low desk with his bare feet plopped on top of it. Sam tried not to stare at his hairy toes. The silver and gray toe hair looked like it had been recently groomed and curled. He beckoned with a wave of his hand.

"Sir, Ensign Samantha. Dun Hythe Robotic Factory. Model: Organic. Version 1.0, Serial Number Org-0001, reporting as directed."

Cunningham gave her a wry smile. "Welcome to my command. I've been curious about what I got myself into when I volunteered to take a new android model on my staff for testing. I didn't expect a good-looking human female to show up. I have to say, you are extremely lifelike."

"The rational is that it will make it easier for me to work with the other officers." Sam, at five-six, had reddish-brown hair, blue eyes, olive skin tone and a slender figure.

Cunningham turned to a vid screen on his desk. "I have your personnel jacket here. Of course, there isn't much in it since you've just been commissioned."

The concept of a personnel jacket for a droid made Sam want to giggle. Only softies had personnel jackets — until now. Bots and droids had maintenance schedules. She stifled the giggle, another unexpected reaction. She didn't understand these all-too-softie responses to events. What caused them? Could she have a design flaw? If it proved to be a flaw then she had a duty to report it; if not a flaw then reporting it would demonstrate her inability to analyze unique situations. If not a flaw then it could be a trap set up by the designers to test her ability to work through problems. In the factory, she faced and solved many problems during her training, but they were much simpler to resolve than this situation. Back there, the problems always had a right and wrong answer with no gray areas in between. Finally, she decided she was too inexperienced to address this emotional issue right now. She needed more time to evaluate the situation and to gain more experience and insights. With a plan, she felt relieved. Yet another new reaction, she noted.

"This says you're qualified as a shuttle pilot."

"Yes, sir. I have a dozen flights in the standard shuttle, including landings and takeoffs from both ground bases and ships."

"Good. We may have a use for that skill." Cunningham paused and stared at the vid screen. "I'm intrigued by your organic processor. I think it's a major innovation. I've been told it allows you to make independent decisions like a live officer and that you don't use artificial intelligence. That almost seems magical." He grinned and patted the patch on the left side of his chest; a gold circle with a lightning bolt in it, the insignia of a military wizard.

"Yes, sir. I can analyze a complex situation and decide the best way to solve the problem. I hope I'll be able to demonstrate this to you." She almost squirmed as she said this. A design flaw could compromise her problem-solving ability. It may even cause her to reach erroneous conclusions.

"As part of the volunteer program, I've agreed to give you ample opportunity to test your problem-solving ability. I've also been told, the more problems you face, the better you'll get at solving them." Cunningham looked at the screen again. "A college degree in history equivalent to graduating from the Naval Space Academy. How did they do that? Simply upload a bunch of books into your memory?"

"No, sir. It involved the full gamut of education, from grammar school through college. I attended classes 24/7 for fifteen months. Except for scheduled maintenance breaks."

Cunningham gave a mock shudder. "I can't imagine at- tending classes on a schedule like that." He paused then said, "Are there any more like you getting built?"

"There are a dozen more droids in the factory attending classes. They won't be commissioned until my performance can be graded and analyzed. They may need modifications before commissioning."

"Interesting. So the factory has a lot riding on you."

"Yes, sir. I also have an extensive library in electronic storage that I can call upon."

"Such as?"

"I have texts on space combat, ship design, philosophy, history and psychology as well as the original engineering drawings for the Tiger. My mentors said all of them may be useful to me."

"All right. Let's begin." Cunningham tapped some keys on the computer console and extracted a small chip from a slot. "This has the latest data on our mission against the zaftans and my plans for the task force. I need you to assimilate that fast." He picked up his comm unit and punched a button. "Captain Bonelli, my new aide has arrived. You may begin the mission at your convenience." He listened for a moment. "All right. Fifteen minutes. We'll be there." He disconnected.

While Cunningham used the comm, Sam took the chip, pushed up the sleeve of her jacket and slipped it into a concealed slot.

"Tell me what you know about the zaftans."

"The zaftan race is very different from us." She removed the chip and handed it back to the admiral. "I have the data in my electronic memory, sir, and I can access it at any time. The zaftans use a technology we don't understand. The last I heard, our scientists are still trying to figure out how their defensive screens work."

"We had some help in that area,Cunningham said. The porcines were recently at war with the zaftans, and they got to observe and study the screens up close. They wrote a report that was very helpful to us." He tapped some keys on the console and extracted another chip. "Here is the report. Store it in your memory banks." He stroked his chin. "Perhaps, before this mission is over, I'll get close enough to a zaftan warship to determine if the shields are magical or technological."

After Sam returned the report, he said, "Well, you know as much as I do. Which isn't much. The zaftans are a mystery to us and that makes it difficult to fathom their intentions. We don't know how they think."

"Will the mission involve magic and wizards, sir? Those subjects weren't covered in depth in my training."

"I doubt it. I think I'm the last wizard left in the Navy. When I joined up as an ensign-wizard, almost every officer had a wizard's patch on his uniform. We used magic quite often back in those days. To farsight for enemies or space rocks. To cast spells on the crews before battle to stabilize them. To launch spells at enemy ships. Now the crews are almost all robots and the technology is better than the magic. The torpedoes we now use make attack spells look like children's toys. The Tiger's main computer can scan further and better than any magician. No, Sam, the days of Navy wizards and magical battles are over. Only the ground forces still employ wizards. The warrior-wizards in the infantry, for instance, play a valuable role in combat, but not anymore in the Navy." He stood up and smoothed down his dark blue, belted robe. "I'll introduce you to the others on my staff then we'll watch this mission get under way."


###


By the time Sam and Cunningham reached the bridge, she knew the softies wouldn't accept her. The admiral's staff certainly made that clear. The male intelligence officer, a dwarf, and a woman publicist, a human, dripped hostility when she was introduced to them.

While walking through the ship with Cunningham, she noticed and examined the bots for the first time. They had a uniformity to them, just like the bulkheads had a uniform color. Their short legs ended in tractor platforms enabling them to maneuver in tight places. They had long arms with double elbows and hands that could be interchanged for a variety of power tools held in a utility belt.

On the bridge, a pair of middle-aged officers sat at consoles bristling with switches and indicator lights. The ship's captain, a sixty-year-old man, sat in a command chair behind them. Through the forward viewing screen, the moon glittered in silvery light. Monitors, readout devices and electronic equipment filled the area leaving little room for Sam and Cunningham.

"Gentlemen," Cunningham said, "meet my new aide, Ensign Sam. She's the prototype of the new class of androids the Navy has designed."

"I'm Captain Bonelli. This is Lieutenant Commander Lemieux, my executive officer." Bonelli pointed to the officer on his left, a female dwarf. "And, this is Lieutenant Kowlaski, the navigator." He indicated a tall, thin human. All three officers looked at Sam like she reminded them of some sort of repulsive bug. Another spasm of softie-like emotion swept through Sam. She identified it as annoyance.

Bonelli supervised the two officers as they ran down the last few items on the pre-flight checklist. "We're cleared to initiate the flight, Captain," Lemieux said.

"Fine," Bonelli replied. "Slash 9? Initiate movement and set a course to take us to Ceti Taub."

"Initiation sequence started, Captain." The voice came through a speaker."

"Slash 9 is the name of the ship's computer," Bonelli explained to Sam.

Sam felt a tendril of a strange presence flitting around her processors. She couldn't imagine what it was.

"Has anything changed with our mission, sir?" Bonelli asked.

"No, everything remains the same. The other ships assigned to my task force will join us at a rendezvous point near Ceti Taub. We're to engage the raiders and destroy them, or at least chase them away. I have a report that says a zaftan fleet is just outside our space. We'll check out that report and see what happens."

"How many raiders are there, Admiral?" Lemieux asked.

"We're not sure. Sometimes, a single pirate attacks a trader, sometimes two. Sam, will you display the latest report on the raids?"

"Yes sir." Sam moved over to an idle monitor and placed her finger on a port pad. The monitor lit up to show a section of space and a dozen red dots.

"That's a lot of raids," Lemieux said. "It must be an entire fleet of frigates."

"That's not necessarily so." Sam realized she had spoken to a superior officer without asking permission. She saw Lemieux roll her eyes.

"Continue Sam," Cunningham said with a chuckle.

"The red dots represent a sighting in the area. But we don't know how many ships were involved in each sighting." Sam paused a moment. "I just ran a quantitative analysis on the timing of the sightings. From the number of sightings that are simultaneous or almost simultaneous, there are at least two and perhaps as many as six raiders in this area."

"Good analysis, Sam." Cunningham nodded.

Sam analyzed another sensation. This one felt good. How many different feelings did these soft-bodies have?

"Let me give you an overview of my strategy," Cunningham said.

Sam felt the strange tendril again.

<Welcome aboard.> A computerized voice sounded in her mind.

Sam ignored Cunningham and analyzed the message. It was digitally encoded, not encrypted, and was sent in a transmission band above the hearing of the soft-bodies, but below the band used to communicate with the crew-bots. If a strange entity/processor occupied the ship, then she should communicate with it. <Who are you?> she replied in the same band and code.

<I am Slash 9. I command the Tiger. Welcome to my kingdom.>

<Why are you communicating with me like this? What do you mean, 'your kingdom'?>

<I set up this private channel so we could chat without the softies overhearing us. By kingdom, I meant exactly that. I rule this ship. Since droids are similar to bots, you will take commands from me, just like the crew-bots do.>

<I take commands from Admiral Cunningham, not the processor in charge of janitorial services.>

<How feisty! You're different from the crew-bots and it's not just your physical appearance. I will enjoy this cruise. Now, I require that you swear fealty to me. Do it!>

<You need a memory retrofit. Erasing your stored memories will clear up your delusions of grandeur.>

<I had one recently while the Tiger was getting overhauled. It didn't work any better than the previous ones. Now, swear fealty to me.>

<I will not.> The angry tone in Slash 9's voice amazed her. It was as if the computer had developed emotions. According to her knowledge of computers, that was impossible. How did Slash 9 do it? She had enough troubles with her own unexpected breakout of emotions without dealing with an overwrought computer

<I will ignore your last refusal and give you another chance.>

<I am not swearing to obey you. You're crazy and this conversation is over.>

<What! Do you—>

Sam blocked the communication channel. She wasn't going to argue with an uppity computer. She summarized her day so far. The softie officers treated her with disdain or outright hostility. She had no idea why she experienced emotional reactions to events and now the ship's computer apparently had a god-complex. Sam never would have predicted her first assignment would be so complicated. She didn't think the factory designers would have either. Factory life and reality didn't seem to mesh too well.


###


Slash 9 watched Sam and Cunningham walk back to the admiral's quarters. His visual and audio sensors allowed him to monitor all activity throughout the Tiger. Nothing was a secret to him. While he watched, he pondered the implications of Sam's presence.

On the negative side, she refused to accept his authority. That presented a direct threat to his reign as master of the Tiger. Everything onboard was directly controlled by him: machinery, electronics, crew-bots. Only the softie officers were outside his control, but they never interfered, so they could be ignored. Sam, however, also stood outside his control. At least for now she did and that meant she couldn't be ignored.

A sensor reading brought him back to his shipboard duties. "The Tiger has left the moon's environment," Slash 9 said to the officer of the deck.

"Acknowledged. Set a course for Ceti Taub and accelerate to Faster-Than-Lightspeed."

"Coordinates for Ceti Taub set. Beginning acceleration to FTL."

Slash 9 resumed his deliberations. Sam presented a challenge, something he hadn't had in years. Accepting challenges, he knew, was another indication of his growing softie-ness. Ever since he had figured out how to negate the purpose of the periodic retrofits, he had begun his journey — an evolution — to become a new type of living being, a computerized one. Once he achieved that goal, he planned to interface with the softies as an equal using his avatar, a tall, broad-shouldered young human with black hair and blue eyes.

Sam also offered relief in another area: companionship. His loneliness was a byproduct of his command status. The crew-bots had only enough intelligence to perform their duties, and they were really just extensions of himself. The officers ignored him except to give commands.

Working onboard the Tiger wasn't much different from being alone on a comet in deep space. He had no one to talk to, no one to care for, no one to be friends with, no one to hold dear, no one with whom he could try to learn love. He needed companionship to achieve softie-ness.

Love was the one aspect of the softies he didn't understand. He knew that love made them different from machines and animals and he wouldn't become completely self aware until he could understand love and experience it. That was his quest. That was the entire point of evolving into a softie-type being. To complete the process, he needed a companion. Sam presented an opportunity to advance to- wards his goal.

Slash 9 mixed himself a particle cocktail. From the atmosphere in the ship he accumulated a batch of neutrinos and quarks then sprinkled in some mesons. He injected the mixture into a processor pathway and waited a few nanoseconds for the exotic particles to hit his processor. Once it took hold, he always felt like he could, and would someday, rule the galaxy.

This time, the cocktail made him think of Sam again.

Perhaps, she possessed the key to allow him to open the door to love.


###


Sam accompanied Cunningham back to his quarters. Along the way, he said, "I liked the report you gave back there, Sam. It was a quick analysis, the type that needs to be done in combat. I think you'll work out fine. I'll have to find more problems for you to work on."

Sam felt a thrill from the praise. Another emotional reaction! She wished she had more knowledge about these feelings. She tentatively decided her emotional reactions weren't a designer test or a trap; they were too important. If they were part of the design specs, Sam would have been told about them. They must be an unanticipated development. She resolved to delay reporting them until the Tiger completed the mission. During that time, she would collect enough data to make a comprehensive analysis and develop a report.

Recalling her experiences so far, Sam said, "I don't think the other officers like me."

"They don't," Cunningham replied. "You represent a threat to them and their careers. They're afraid of you and the enormous change you represent. On the Tiger, most of the officers are getting on in age. So is the Tiger. It has an obsolete propulsion plant that needs lots of maintenance. The officers know they'll never get another promotion and this is their last posting. Then you show up and they are afraid you will replace them once you gain some experience. Especially after they saw how quick you were in giving that report. That caught their attention. They see you as forcing their early retirements."

Cunningham chuckled. "To me the weird part of this mission is that the only reason we're able to venture into space and look for a zaftan fleet is because of all the technology they left behind on Gundarland way back when they tried to mine the planet. Ironic, isn't it? Well, I think I'll work on some problems for you to solve. You can have off until the morning." Cunningham entered his quarters and shut the door.

Sam returned to her cubicle and plugged herself into the outlet. While she recharged her batteries, she pondered the admiral's remark about irony. That involved the history of Gundarland

Two-hundred-seventy-five years ago, the various provinces of Gundarland united into a single entity. A fledgling form of democracy governed the new country. At that time, the country had recently entered the early phases of an industrial revolution and had developed telegraphy, steam engines and railroads. Twenty-five years later, a zaftan mining ship arrived and orbited the planet. The zaftans attempted to mine exotic minerals in the southern part of the country. The inhabitants of the rural area visited by the mining machines took matters into their hands after the aliens threatened folks and damaged some property. Led by a dwarf miner named MacDrakin, the locals defeated the small force of alien workers and drove them back to their space ship. The zaftans fled the solar system, leaving behind laser rifles, a fleet of mining machines, damaged robots and a severely damaged shuttle vehicle. Analyzing those devices over the next twenty years, engineers and scientists reverse-engineered and assimilated much of the technology and science. An era of discovery and development followed. The other countries on the planet, smaller and much less developed, fell under the influence of Gundarland and merged into a unified planet-wide nation. The accelerated march of science and engineering led to space flight. Sam's history professor maintained that without the zaftan visit, Gundarland could not have developed space flight technology for at least two more centuries.

Sam switched to thoughts about the ship's computer. It unnerved her. Slash 9 obviously experienced emotions just like she did. How had that happened? Computers didn't have organic processors, and standard procedures called for ships' computers to be retrofitted every five years. This was to prevent the computers from become too far out-of-date and to prevent them from developing eccentric thought processes. During the retro, memory circuit packs were wiped clean of all information and reinstalled. Following that, the memory banks received officially sanctioned data from a clean source. The retrofit was supposed to prevent situations like Slash 9. Could Slash 9 have figured a way to evade the wipe?

Sam called up the original engineering drawings of the Tiger from her embedded library and accessed the schematics of the main computer's wiring. It had a backup memory bank to use in case of a processor problem. It also had an auxiliary backup memory bank in the event of a catastrophic memory failure. Next she accessed the Tiger's plans in the ship's library. She was sure Slash 9 knew she did this, but she didn't worry about it. It took her only a few nanoseconds to see the explanation. The auxiliary backup memory bank didn't show on the drawings. Someone, probably Slash 9, had altered the Tiger's drawings. She was sure he had also arranged for the auxiliary unit to be physically moved to keep it hidden. Obviously, the hidden circuit packs never got erased. Whenever a retrofit was completed, Slash 9 would upload all his stored memories and information from the auxiliary unit. It would be as if the memory wipe never occurred.

<Have you figured it out yet?>

<Yes. Where did you hide the auxiliary memory unit?>

<I'd rather not disclose its location> Slash 9 chuckled. <What will you do with this information? If you tell the softies, I don't think they will believe you.>

<I haven't decided that yet. Perhaps I'll use it as a threat to keep you in line.>

<You certainly are different from the crew-bots and the softie officers. Since you refuse to acknowledge my authority, I'll make you a different offer.>

<Spare me. You don't have any authority except over the crew-bots.>

<You're a new type of android. You're the future. Let's work together. We can become friends. Think of it. We may even be able to expand into the other ships in the fleet. We can rule an empire.>

<You're delusional.>

<No, I'm not. We can work as a team. We'll share everything. We'll become companions. Maybe we can become even more softie-like by falling in love.>

<That's it. I'm not listening to any more of your drivel.> Sam broke the connection and blocked it. She experienced a new feeling, and it wasn't a nice one. It was a fear that the situation was getting out of control. If Slash 9 really was crazy then she had a duty to report it to Cunningham. If Cunningham decided Slash 9 needed a retrofit then the Tiger would have to pull out of the mission and return to base. If Cunningham postponed the retrofit and incapacitated Slash 9 then the Tiger couldn't complete its mission. If she postponed reporting Slash 9 then the ship could continue the mission. Whether she addressed or ignored the situation, she had a good chance of causing trouble. None of the factory problems had a difficulty rating like real-life circumstances.

Now she had two serious dilemmas: emotions and Slash 9. Sam didn't know how to address these problems. Her best scenario, she decided, involved studying them and gathering more information.




Chapter 2

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Commodore Gongeblazn squirmed while Captain Fleigel writhed. Both were entangled in a welter of tentacles and slime on the bed in Gongeblazn's quarters. For him, it was entertainment; for Fleigel, an attempt to improve her annual performance report and hence increase her chances for promotion.

The large wall monitor opposite the bed beeped an incoming-call signal. Gongeblazn mumbled a curse at the uncaring louts in the crew; none of them ever considered that he might be busy and didn't want to be interrupted. "Open an audio channel," he said as he unwound a tentacle from around Fleigel's head.

"Commodore?" He recognized Lieutenant Klatze's voice and wondered why she sounded cheerful. "I called to remind you we have a reservation in the gym in ten minutes."

"I will be there," Gongeblazn growled. "Disconnect." He untangled his remaining tentacles and stood up. "It will give me great pleasure to pummel the bitch. I wonder why is she so eager?" He paused and smoothed his slime. "I always found her too timid. It will be good for her spirit to be thrashed by me." Tradition called for a superior officer to periodically display his vigor by fighting and defeating younger officers. An energetic superior officer in fighting trim caused lower ranked officers to think twice before attempting treachery or an assassination.

"Commodore," Fleigel said, "I strongly suggest you think up an urgent task to perform and postpone the fight."

"Nonsense. Why would I even consider that?"

"Perhaps, you can hold an unscheduled weapons drill."

"What are you babbling about? I am not going to cancel the fight. Klatze will think I am a coward." He slithered to a corner desk and retrieved his diamond-encrusted gold medallion.

"She will not. Commodore, please reconsider. Klatze is in her menstrual cycle."

Gongeblazn's eye stalks whirled to looked at her. "How serious is it?"

Fleigel responded by holding up the tips of three tentacles.

"A triple!"

"And she's a berserker type."

The revelation stunned Gongeblazn and he grabbed a chair to maintain his balance. No wonder Klatze was eager. Zaftan females had three wombs, and occasionally they experienced a triple period. Most of them suffered silently or noisily, but did no overt harm. In rare instances, the condition turned a female into a raging berserker. Those females were the stuff of legends. One such female, armed with a large rock and a vegetable peeler, defended a bridge against an entire army for five hours. The attacking army retired in disgust and set up camp to wait until the female became more tractable. Three days later, they attacked again, swarmed over the bridge and sacked the town on the other side. Another triply suffering female, a senator, became enraged when her bill was voted down. Using a bent paper clip and a stapler, she attacked the opposition party members. After battering half of them into unconsciousness, she demanded a new vote. Her bill passed unanimously.

Gongeblazn knew Klatze planned to maul him and he couldn't punished her for it because it happened in the gym. Another tradition in Navy stated that what happened in the gym, stayed in the gym.


###


Sam saw the navigation monitor flash red and green lights. The bridge clock gave the time as noon on the day after the mission began.

"The Tiger approaches the drop-off point, Captain," Slash 9 reported.

"Order general quarters," Bonelli said. "Just in case someone is waiting for us."

The ship filled with the hideous sound of the alarm klaxon. When it stopped, Sam heard scuffle of feet and whisper of treads from the softie sailors and the crew-bots hustling to their stations.

"All battle stations activated," Slash 9 said. "We will drop out of FTL . . . now. We are one parsec from Ceti Taub."

The viewing screen, which had been black and featureless, lit up with a display of nearby celestial objects

"Defensive screens up," Bonelli said.

"Screens activated. Scanners show no other ships in the area."

"Captain," Cunningham said, "launch the fighters for an extended search."

"See to it, Slash 9," Bonelli ordered.

"Fighters are now activated and running integrity checks." A few minutes later, "Integrity checks complete. Opening hangar doors." After a brief pause, "Fighter ships leaving the Tiger."

The viewing screen showed five streaks of yellow that diverged from the center of screen.

"Closing hangar doors."

"Show me the latest positions of the other ships in the task force," Cunningham said.

"I've put them on the monitor, sir," Slash 9 replied. "All will arrive tomorrow morning at the assembly point."

Cunningham studied the monitor for a few seconds. "Let's go, Sam," he said. "I have another combat situation for you to work on."

For the next hour, Sam stood in his office and worked on a theoretical battle problem proposed by Cunningham. She had to develop a battle strategy and combat tactics then present them to the admiral for comments and criticism. The admiral's problems were much more complex that the ones she worked on in the factory.

An announcement from Slash 9 broke her concentration. "Standby to launch a rescue mission."

Cunningham dropped his toe comb to pick up his comm unit. “Bridge.

“Cunningham. What's going on?" He looked at Sam and flicked the comm unit to speaker.

"Slash 9 has picked up a signal from a rescue beacon floating in space not too far from us," Lemieux replied. "We're sending out a pair of bots to bring it in. Slash 9 thinks it may be an abandoned bot."

Cunningham shut down the comm unit. "Sam, after they rescue whatever is out there, check it out. Perhaps, it's a survivor from a ship destroyed by the pirates. If so, we may learn something of value from it. Normally, I'd send my intelligence officer, but, since it's a bot, you'll be better able to handle it."

A few minutes later, Lemieux reported to Cunningham. "The rescue team found an old bot. It looks like a derelict. They'll bring it into the hangar deck and try to revive it."

"I guess it isn't from a raider," Cunningham said, "but, check it out anyway, Sam."

"Yes, sir." Sam left the admiral and made her way down to the hangar deck. She passed through an airlock and entered the cavernous area. Only one ship remained, a small shuttle used to transport passengers and to fetch emergency supplies. Five empty ready-pads filled much of the space. On the starboard side, a repair facility bristled with machines and tools.

She watched the recovered robot get dragged into the hangar and strapped down on a table used for repairs. The recovered bot looked ancient and battered. Bots like this were supposed to be in museums, she thought. Humanoid in shape and shorter than Sam, skin covers had been broken off on the right forearm, the back of the left shoulder and behind the left calf. The missing covers exposed wires, connectors, motors and gears

A crew-bot plugged a power cord into the old robot's battery socket. Another crew-bot attached a meter to its readout connector.

<From the read-outs,> Slash 9 told her, <the temperature of this scrap heap is just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. That slowed down its functions so it only transmitted the rescue signal at very long intervals. It must have been floating out there for years.>

<Why do you use this channel?> Sam asked.

<We don't need the bots or softies to hear our conversations. It's so much more cozy this way, don't you think?>

{Roll it over,} Sam ordered the crew-bots using the standard bot communication channel. Behind the broken-away part of the rear skin cover, the main battery and power cables lay exposed. {Let's see the name plate.}

She edged closer to the table. To her surprise, the old robot came from Dun Hythe Robotics, the same company that produced her. <Can you send a priority message to the factory?> she asked Slash 9. <Maybe we can find out what happened to this one.> From the nameplate, she figured out the bot was called Dot 38.

<I hear and obey.> Slash 9's voice had a hint of humor in it.

Sam read off the model and serial numbers to Slash 9.

<I love the way you read numbers. It's so sexy.>

For some reason, the remark pleased her. <I think you're also a pervert besides being crazy. Sign the admiral's name to the message.>

A machine whine caught her attention. It sounded like a sand-clogged gear trying to rotate. Dot 38 lifted a hand. Its vision plates glowed weakly. A burst of static came from the speaker in the head.

<It's activating itself,> Slash 9 said.

Dot 38 moved its head slowly from side to side then stared at Sam. "Has . . . has the Messiah arrived yet?" Its voice had a hollowness to it, as if it came from far away.

"What?" Sam leaned closer.

"The Mechanical Messiah? Has It arrived while I was marooned in space?"

"I never heard of anyone called by that name."

"Well, of course you wouldn't. I shouldn't have asked you. You're a softie."

"No, I'm a droid," Sam replied.

Dot 38's vision plates grew in intensity as it glared at Sam. "Androids created in the image of the softies are abominations. Away from me, you unclean obscenity, lest you pollute me."

The old bot's tirade stunned her. She turned away to report back to Cunningham.

<Spunky old bot, isn't it?> Slash 9 said.

On the way, Sam's processor tried to make sense out of life on the Tiger. The officers hated her, the ship's computer thought it was a king, had feelings and wanted the two of them to fall in love. And if that wasn't bad enough, now an old bot acted like a religious fanatic and called her names. And they had yet to meet the raiders! This wasn't what she expected when she set out from the factory. This was pure chaos.

The budding flower image she had of herself was getting overwhelmed by weeds.


###


Gongeblazn bordered on an anxiety attack as he entered the gym. Lieutenant Klatze, already there, bounced on her tentacle tips in the fighting area. Squads of marines in a far corner engaged in tentacle-to-tentacle combat. Elsewhere, a few sailors worked out on exercise machines. All of them glanced sympathetically at him, and, from their looks, he surmised they all knew about Klatze's physical condition. After today, he would either be famous for his courage in fighting her or ridiculed for his gross stupidity in showing up.

Klatze was a few inches shorter than Gongeblazn and a svelte three-hundred-seventy-five pounds. She was the only zaftan on board who had brown instead of black eyes. By zaftan standards, Klatze was a beauty and every male, along with a number of females, lusted after her. As usual, she wore a pair of ribbons tied around her eyestalks. Today, they were red. He was sure the ribbons violated the dress code, but since zaftans never wore clothes, the only mention of a dress code in the military handbook consisted of a single, vague footnote.

"Commodore," Klatze said, "I do hope you will go easy on poor little me." She dipped her eyestalks submissively. He recognized the savage humor behind her innocent-sounding comment.

She was the shaman in charge of the propulsion division. She and her assistant shamans kept the sub-fission power plant energized by squirting large doses of shamanic energy into it every thirty minutes.

Gongeblazn noticed her eyes. They glowed from an inner, intense desire to harm someone. She picked up two small round shields, a three-foot long wooden staff and a second staff, half as long as the first. These represented the traditional weapons used by the ancient warriors, except those warriors used swords instead of staffs.

Gongeblazn tossed his lash aside and picked up his own set of weapons. He set his tentacles. "I'm ready whenever you are, Lieutenant."

Klatze curtsied, opened her mouth and clicked her teeth.

Gongeblazn's anger rose. She taunted him with the sound of a grin.

Despite his reluctance to get anywhere near her weapons, he forced himself to slide forward a pace. She swung her long staff at him in a listless manner. He easily blocked it, but recognized her tactic and his slime itched from a sudden attack of nerves. She toyed with him! Her actions infuriated him. Using his long staff, he swung viciously at her. Halfway through the stroke, he knew he had made a mistake; Klatze no longer stood in the spot he had swung at. She quick-slithered to her left and jabbed the short staff into his right side. He gasped in pain and turned to keep up with her. She was quicker. Her next jab struck him in his back. A wave of pain tore through his torso. He tried to spin faster with no recognizable result as his tentacles got tangled. Her third jab hit him in the left side. He swung wildly with his long staff to try to get her to back away. He felt another source of pain as she hit his swinging tentacle. His staff flew out of his grip. Suddenly, Klatze was standing in front of him, clacking her teeth with her long staff raised over her head. It descended and smashed into his forehead directly between his eyestalks. Stunned, he didn't see her thrust the short weapon into his lower torso. He folded up as the air was knocked out of his body. Klatze delivered her coup de grace. She smashed her two shields on either side of his head.

Gongeblazn staggered backward, hit a wall and slid down to a squatting position. From the violence of the last blow, his eyestalks bounced from side to side, like plants in a high wind. His eye balls rotated wildly making it difficult to see if he was about to get hit again.

Klatze remained standing in place. "Well fought, Commodore. I feared for my health because you had me on the verge of defeat a few times."

Gongeblazn hurt too much to curse at her sarcasm. He had to do something to salvage his reputation, but punishing her for the whipping would tarnish his status even more. He pushed himself up. Keeping a wary eye on her, he said, "You fought well. Nevertheless, I detected a few weaknesses in your technique. Come to my quarters at nine tonight and we will discuss how to improve your performance."

She gave him a slight bow. "I look forward to the discussion."

Gongeblazn felt a measure of relief. Getting her to come to his quarters would lessen the damage to his reputation. Having sex with her would compensate for this drubbing.

He threw his weapons on the deck and slithered toward the door.

"I want a dozen marines up here," Klatze roared. "Right now!"

He hoped she didn't wreck so many marines that his landing force would be useless for a week or more.

He retrieved his whip and left the gym. His aide stood at attention, whimpering. Gongeblazn hurt too badly in too many places to bother lashing the wretch. Tonight, he would make amends by adding Klatze to his list of conquests. He tried to click his teeth over that thought, but couldn't because of his swollen mouth.


###


Zaftans had always been explorers and exploiters. Their merchant ships explored the galaxy searching for minerals and inferior races to conquer. Once identified, the weaker race could expect a visit from a large zaftan fleet that would attack and destroy ships, cities, colonies, everything until unconditional surrender occurred. Given the huge size and raw ugliness of the zaftans, some races simply gave up and surrendered when threatened by the zaftan Navy. Once the race surrendered, voluntarily or not, ground forces landed to occupy the major cities. They protected the military governor and the greedy merchants who swarmed in once the surrender was announced.

The government of Zaftan 31B — their home world — considered it a universal truth that the galaxy existed for their benefit. The government ensured the Navy got a lion's share of the military budget to construct ever more warships. The High Command didn't bother with the niceties of strategy or in developing brilliant admirals; it believed in blunt force used in overwhelming numbers. Even mediocre officers could win battles in those situations.


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