I. Dare to Knock at the Door of the Cosmos
The living crystals were displeased. The dissonant chords of a harried melody rocked the starship Arkestra. When Captain LeSony’ra Adisa was a young girl dreaming about one day commanding her own vessel, she had never considered it would be filled with so many day-to-day irritations. She sprang from her seat in the main bridge at the sound of the music. She was not one to be tested today.
“Overseer, we aren’t due for a command performance for another three hours.” On the verge of yelling, she opted to save her anger for the person who deserved it.
“Commander Marshall moved the performance ahead.” The timbre of the Overseer’s voice, emanating from the unseen broadcast units, vacillated somewhere between clearly male and clearly female. Its AI was integrated into every fiber along the length of the Arkestra, its calculations vital to monitoring the ship’s systems, including the harnessing energy from the kheprw crystals that powered the ship.
“On whose authority?” The crystals needed to be recharged every few solar days, depending on the mission use, but the next performance wasn’t scheduled until 1400 hours. From the way LeSony’ra felt her last nerve being worked, she knew the answer before Overseer responded.
“Of course he did.” She flung her headdress past the twists of the front part of her hair, the flat-ironed portion flaring out behind it.
Their mission was a joint venture between the Thmei Academy, where LeSony’ra headed the largest laboratories, and Outer Spaceways Inc., the private interstellar shuttle conglomeration, so the command structure of the Arkestra was fraught. Captain LeSony’ra Adisa held authority over all things related to the mission above Titan, while Commander Clifford Marshall retained jurisdiction over everything concerning the ship. Issues related to the crew fell into a gray zone. Because of the way Marshall commanded, even holding a lesser rank, he held more sway over the crew.
“Steppers, Chappel, you’re with me.” Cradling a small crystal ball in her hand, LeSony’ra nodded, and the two security officers flanked her. Breastplates covered chrome colored body suits. Each wore a gilded animal mask; Steppers an eagle, the Chappel a dog. They brandished shields, though their charged batons remained at their waist. The trio of women exited the bridge.
Their strident march from the turbo-shuttle to the engineering chamber drew everyone’s attention. Steppers and Chappel positioned themselves inside the doorway of the engine room. LeSony’ra stormed in, annoyed both by the musical cacophony in the room and the fact that the engineering crew had begun the performance without her.
Marshall led the six-person engineering crew. He had the delicate bone structure of a dancer, with his high cheekbones and fine hair. His razor-thin mustache was manicured within inches of its life. Fans billowed the heavy fabric of his shimmering command cloak like a sail in a stiff wind. His saxophone barely skipped a note at LeSony’ra’s entrance.
‘Captain Adisa’ had to be diplomatic; ‘LeSony’ra’ could be petty as hell. And she was all LeSony’ra right now.
She cast a baleful glare in his direction, withdrew opaque citrus-colored glasses, and set the crystal ball on the keyboards at her station, unlocking the vintage Clavioline. Its amplifier fed directly into the kheprw crystals’ containment unit. Her voluminous black caftan whipped about her as she took her seat behind the Clavioline, its iridescent silver overlay interfaced with the keyboards. Her gold chainmail headdress lightly jingled as she began to work the instrument. Her striped platform oxfords—“moon boots” the crew called them, since they were designed for zero gravity situations—found the foot pedals. Marshall used any opportunity to undermine her authority. Always eager to ingratiate himself to the crew, to prove who ought to be in command. He was in need of a reminder of who was in charge. It was time for a true command performance.
Her Clavioline chords strained to find a place in the jumble of sounds. All captains were trained in improvisation, a skillset based on observing, listening, and reacting. No plan, no program, no control; only the interplay of past preparedness and honed intuition. Since she had handpicked the engineering ensemble during her travels, she trusted both their muscle memory and instincts. On her mark, the music reset and the Arkestra‘s crew followed her lead. The bass rumbled in tow. The drums pounded. Marshall’s saxophone pealed in faint protest. A torrent of sound, but once LeSony’ra shifted register, the chaos harmonized. She never told them what to play next. Not the song, not the chord changes, not the key. They just had to keep up, composing and performing at the same time.
The kheprw crystals glowed with approval.
With the rhythm in full swing, they stuck to a rigid harmonic structure, the most efficient music for recharging the crystals. Allowing the crew to play with the chorus—its endless repetition like a chain about her spirit—LeSony’ra improvised freely with the melody. Her intricate arrangements, with their multiple tonalities and complex intervallic structures, produced the harmonics that refreshed the crystals. She chanced a smile.
The crystals radiated a warm amber glow. Some mythicists called kheprw “living crystals” for the way they responded to energy, especially sound waves. LeSony’ra had little time for such superstitious ramblings. She raised her hand and with a final flourish, ending the song. The crew took a moment to nod and clap each others’ back in congratulation of the performance. LeSony’ra turned to Marshall.
“Let us have the room,” LeSony’ra dismissed the attendant crew. The musician-engineers slinked out of the chamber without meeting either of their eyes. Steppers and Chappel moved outside of the doors, allowing the commanding officers their privacy.
LeSony’ra strode to the kheprw containment unit. Three arms spired from it to the bulkhead of the ship. The entire array was reinforced, especially the window which allowed the viewing of the carefully curated garden of crystals and their shifting colors. The kheprw crystals were a form of deuterium and lithium. They grew into perfectly aligned lattices that formed a sort of generator strata. Energy was harnessed from the converted sonic energy and the subsequent fusion reaction. Decaying kheprw re-crystalized through exposure to music.
“Peace, Captain.” Remaining at his station, still as a hawk, Marshall watched her.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” LeSony’ra walked around the kheprw containment unit.
“It’s just a pulsed power generator.”
“It’s more than that. It’s a symphony.” When LeSony’ra had reported for national service, it was as a conscientious objector. She wanted to produce a happier future through music, which positioned her at odds with most of the other cadets. A position she was now long used to.
“I had the command performance under control.” Tiring of her slow promenade, Marshall clasped his hands behind him in parade rest, betraying his military training. He was career military with an aptitude for music and a promising career; however, a scandal had resulted in his dismissal from the Thmei Academy. Outer Spaceways Inc. had been quick to snatch him up.
“No, you didn’t.” LeSony’ra removed her headdress. A tattoo of a third eye along her forehead greeted him. “You aren’t ready to lead a command performance. Not yet.”
Marshall’s face spasmed in protest. His facial tick seemed to flare up the more agitated he became. “By your mind, I’ll never be.”
“Perhaps. Also perhaps you’d make a better case if you weren’t competing against the developer of the system.”
LeSony’ra had pioneered wave theory development, harnessing the force of sound as a type of programming. The crew mockingly dubbed her system the “hard bop stardrive,” but she didn’t care. To her, music was endless possibilities; nothing but tones vast as the universe, the mathematics of words. Between the stardrive system and Overseer, she wanted to reinvent how a starship operated. LeSony’ra clung to a vision of her people wandering about the stars. The First World colony was only the initial step. At Titan, their technology had the potential to truly launch them into the galaxy, and they could create their own destiny.
“I’m as able a musician-engineer as any on this ship,” Marshall insisted.
He was passable at best. He played music with his head, not his heart, as if following the notes was all that was required.
“Did I ever tell you that Astra Black was a hero of mine?” LeSony’ra returned her attentions to the glow of the kheprw chamber. “The early moon colony was a visionary move. As a culture, our priorities shifted, and breaking away was inevitable.”
First World was the name of Original Earth’s lunar colony. National budgets to sustain the colonists made little sense to First Worlders, since the numbers lost sight of humanity and compassion. So they had organized their economy around what befitted the colony. Even as a child LeSony’ra remembered the stories of how close the referendum had been for separation. Independence, demanded and fought for. How Astra Black’s sacrifice swayed the holdouts.
First World’s separation precipitated a new space race as the moon colonists took point in solar system colonization, fueled by the belief that everyone could find or create their own place. First World cut relations with O.E. for generations as O.E. powers staked claims on Mars and the asteroid belt. First World wanted to re-prioritize their culture around the best in humanity. What began in a lunar city spread throughout the colonies. It was like a cultural arms race, each faction competing to spread their story, their art, throughout the system.
Not everyone thought this way. Some preferred a rigid sense of language and rules. Some fought for identity clearly defined and the politics that came with it, giving rise to Traditionalists.
“Your type has a lot of high-minded ideas which simply do not work in the real world, against real threats,” Marshall said.
“Do I hear a hint of traditionalism in your objection?” She knew his type. A throwback mindset. As far as she was concerned, they were little more than professional obstructionists. “We realized that art and science pointed to what we could be as a people. And for me, music heralds a new world.”
“I’m just saying that not all of the old ways were bad. Meritorious work should always be rewarded.”
His insinuation that she was unmeritoriously promoted was not lost on her. She thought that she had escaped, that she’d accomplished enough to control more of her destiny. That she’d achieved enough to give herself more choices. Despite graduation with honors from the Thmei Academy, despite setting records as she rose through the ranks; despite over two hundred recordings, countless poems, and over thirty citations for excellence, he would never see her as his superior.
“You are more craftsman than artist, and tone science is part art as well as science,” she said.
“So I’m merely a tone scientist?” Marshal squinted, fending off another round of his facial tremors. “I haven’t been touched by the gods of creation like you have. You alone have been so blessed as to be the arbiter of talent.”
“All I’m saying is that art is the spirit that animates us. Music lives, moves, and breathes in us. Music is life. Music can transform worlds.”
“Now you sound like a mythicist. Careful, you don’t want the Shepherd thinking you want his job.”
Too. LeSony’ra swore that Marshall left a space for the word too.
“If there is nothing else... Captain?”
LeSony’ra met his gaze. She allowed him to stew in silence at parade rest as a reminder of who was ultimately in charge. “No. You’re dismissed.”
Sailing among the galaxies in her solar boat was the culmination of everything LeSony’ra had dreamt about since she could remember dreaming. She longed to explore other worlds, doing so with stories until she entered the Thmei Academy. Part of her always had longed for another world. An escape from the hyper-consciousness of identity, a place where her people could just breathe and be. She stared out the starboard window of her captain’s forward, the ready room that served as her office. Pipes ran the length of the ceiling. She kept the décor purposely sparse: a small couch which slid into the wall and a desk. On the wall hung the original specs for First World. She felt small as Saturn rotated underneath the Arkestra. The ship was tasked with a research mission, to study the ring-belted gas giant and the viability of a proposed colony on Titan. Here she stood, captain of her own ship, exploring the stars with music filling the sails of her ship. Of late, her travels had begun to feel like a space-bound jail. As an emptiness gnawed at her.
“You have a problem with Commander Marshall,” Overseer interrupted her thoughts.
“Is that a question or a statement?”
LeSony’ra wondered when Overseer had developed anything approaching sardonic wit. “Go on.”
“He seeks to undermine you and your mission authority at every turn.”
“Is that your analysis of the situation?”
“It just so happens to coincide with my considered judgment.”
“Query: what do you plan to do about him?”
LeSony’ra considered the question. Overseer’s insistent inquisitiveness struck her as curious. They had certainly come a long way from when she first brought it online and it simply said “Hello. Who are you?” She found herself using the moment as a teaching opportunity, as she would with any other member of her crew. “A good leader allows for dissenting opinions while creating a space for those under her to flourish.”
“Query: what if those opinions undermine the morale on the ship?”
“A good Shepherd has the entire flock to consider.” Shepherd Gilmore Dyette strode in from the corridor as if his rich, baritone voice was a passkey. Few places were off limits to a ship’s Shepherd. A ring of gray hair curled around the base of his bald head. The deep furrows of his brow gripped his face in a melancholy grimace. Eyes like a crow inspected LeSony’ra. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
“Interrupting is what you love to do. Butting into people’s thoughts and business is your way of life.” Stifling the hint of a smile, LeSony’ra turned to him.
“Occupational hazard.” From lunar colony Bronzeville, Shepherd Dyett had worked as a street corner activist in his neighborhood. A musical genius, piano virtuoso by age eleven, he could notate music heard in broadcast. In the Thmei Academy, he was the only person who could keep up with LeSony’ra and her theories. He was going to become a musician until the war erupted. It broke her heart when he decided to pursue his “calling” to mythicism as a chaplain. It didn’t surprise her that he rose through their ranks so quickly, already now being groomed for cardinal-level service. His intrusions were always welcome. “Still, if you want to be alone...”
“Alone is for when you have to figure out who you really are. When no one is looking and it’s just you and your demons. Last thing I need is to be locked in my head. Right now, someone is working my last nerve and I needed to clear my mind.”
Shepherd Dyett joined her by the window, staring out into the sea of nighttime stars. “What did you think the job would be like? You as some sort of freighter captain, an intergalactic boulevardier, trawling ice to provide water for generations of colonists, with your collected musicians as sailors bound for new worlds?”
“Intergalactic boulevardier? Seriously?” She gestured for him to take a seat.
“You’re not the only one with a flair for turning a phrase. Shepherds have artistic souls, too.” Shepherd Dyett circled toward his seat with the tentative footfalls of a cat trying to not disturb prey. “Anyway, I was just speaking with Overseer...”
“You, too, huh?” LeSony’ra asked.
“Um, yes. I hate that feature. Carrying on independent conversations all over the ship.”
“Because you like to have someone’s complete and undivided attention when you speak.”
“Well, sure, there’s that.” Shepherd Dyett flashed his teeth in that easy grin of his. An infectious charm and self-deprecating manner that managed to never allow her to get as mad at him as she ought. He peered over his shoulder and leaned in with a conspiratorial whisper. “I feel strange even now knowing it’s listening.”
“You have no problem carrying on your business knowing your invisible friend is always watching.” LeSony’ra had no room for a Creator of any sort in her life and, in her experience, most mythicists managed to miss the point of their own religious texts. Though she had little use for his theosophy, his ideals of creating, building, and progressing aligned with hers.
“That’s different. God isn’t so... directly intrusive. Overseer’s more...”
“Real?” LeSony’ra asked, baiting the Shepherd for his mythicist ways.
“Immediate. It’s weird talking about it like it’s not right here listening. Calculating.”
“Adjusting. They are like background noise. They are sensitive enough to measure moods and compensate. If they think you’re too warm, they lower the ambient temperature of the room. Besides, no one can get up to any shenanigans since they know Overseer sees and hears everything.”
“Not all shenanigans are bad.” Shepherd arched a too-knowing eyebrow.
“I never said they were.” The corners of her lip upturned slightly and only for a moment. Enough for him to see.
“That’s just it. So much of the success of this mission, whether you intended it or not, depends on Overseer. From the running of the Arkestra to the analysis of data,” Shepherd Dyett began. “It’s omnipresent, it’s omniscient...”
“...but not omnipotent. It’s not god. Nor does it pretend to be. It’s designed to save time and lives. It automates ship functions to free the crew up to pursue other interests. They’re more like the ultimate servant. Almost slavish in their devotion.”
“But not just to you. Overseer is a tool, not a person. It can be used by anyone in command.”
“They are not some weapon which can fall into the wrong hands. I...” She didn’t like the way it sounded like Overseer was hers. “We are in charge.”
“Careful then, before it allows us to believe that ‘we’ are gods.”
“You’re frightened because you don’t understand it.”
“I’m frightened because I fear I do.”
II. Twin Stars of Thence
Tired of sitting in her uncomfortable captain’s seat, LeSony’ra leaned over her command station. She strained in the dim light as the army of monitors glared back at her. The faint pang of a headache began behind her eyes. Rubbing them provided little relief. If there was one thing LeSony’ra had learned it was that in space, nothing was routine. She wasn’t career military, and the weight of responsibility of having lives in her charge constantly pressed in on her.
Endless computer telemetries from Titan’s surface: temperature, soil, wind velocity, pH, atmospheric readings, electromagnetics. From outside the Arkestra, reports from the drones, crew members on walkabouts, asteroids, and other stellar matter. Wide thin colorless clouds of frozen dicyanoacetylene crystals. UV light reactions fueled other volatile ices in its nitrogen and methane rich atmosphere. At its -179 Celsius surface temperature, methane was a liquid, creating a landscape of sand dunes and methane lakes. If she confessed to herself, she had not-to-distant dreams of terra-forming the moon, because life finds a way to adapt. Engines, power systems communication including the beacon and other sub-carrier systems. Radiation levels from the online reactor. Not to mention crew logs, their location and vitals continuously monitored and noted. The crew was studied as much as Saturn and Titan, for the long-term effects of space travel. There was more information than one person, or even a team of people, could take in and process. People missed things.
“Overseer, is anything amiss?” she asked casually.
“Everything is functioning within accepted parameters.”
‘Accepted’. Overseer learned that LeSony’ra tolerated Ensign Juneteenth Steppers’s occasional on-duty flirtations with Ensign Laurdine Chappel. Though such fraternizations were frowned upon by a strict reading of the regulations, as long as it didn’t interfere with their jobs, LeSony’ra didn’t care. And accepted that Lieutenant Commander Alton Hunter allowed the engines to run 10% hotter than recommended due to some off-the-regulations by-passing he performed to make them more efficient.
“We’re ready for transfer orbit to Titan,” LeSony’ra said. “All crew brace for orbital adjustment.”
LeSony’ra waited for each station to check in before ordering the ignition of the engines. The Arkestra moved to a Lagrange point between Saturn and Titan.
“I’m going to need two for a walkabout while we prepare for another geo-survey. Steppers, Poole, you’re up.”
Steppers and Lieutenant Eloe Poole had come up together through the Academy. They marched off to don their extravehicular mobility suits and exit the ship. They needed to monitor the Arkestra’s integrity during orbit as well as effect minor repairs. There was already talk about modeling an entire space station on the Arkestra’s design, one equipped for long-term habitation in order to mine resources. Robotic drones, designated APHID units, crawled alongside their EVM suits like spiders. Equipped with a variety of tools, they assisted maintenance, acting as Overseer’s fingers. Trawler cables, one of the many lines, ran the length of the ship to help guide walks and secure their positions.
“This here is like the Chinatown bus of space travel,” Poole’s voice came over the comms.
“It’s on one at times. I’m surprised we ain’t paying extra for carry-ons,” Steppers replied.
“Least they could do is serve up a spicy chicken two-piece or something.”
The requisite grumbling trailed them; either they had forgotten that their comms lines were live or didn’t care. LeSony’ra chose to lightly remind them.
The mumbled profanity in response indicated the former. Steppers was head security officer and also served as LeSony’ra’s personal security detail. Poole was one of Marshall’s people who she didn’t know nearly as well. LeSony’ra tracked them outside, through the visual display as well as the digital readout of their vitals. It was time for the Arkestra’s secondary mission: preparation to set up a new colony. Half of the ship could separate out into a series of modules that could act as a base camp for an initial colony. It was a new dawn.
“May I remind you two that you’re on duty? Keep it professional,” LeSony’ra interrupted. She couldn’t help but shake her head whenever she dealt with the younger officers. As much as she enjoyed listening to their banter, since comms chatter was the main time people talked freely in front of her, they had a job to do and a schedule to keep.
More profanity laced mutterings followed before Steppers replied. “Yes, Captain.”
“Off the clock, y’all do what y’all gon do,” LeSony’ra said, deliberately in a more colloquial patois, hoping to remind them that they all came from the same place.
The proximity alarm blared. A cold orange light flashed overhead.
“What do we have?” LeSony’ra yelled.
“Asteroid. Ten thousand klicks and closing,” Overseer said.
“How did it get so close undetected?”
Overseer didn’t respond.
“Let’s try to break it up. Overseer, calculate and lock on for maximum split!” The Arkestra came fitted with rail guns, pulse cannons, and a few missiles. Though this was a peaceful mission, it was better to be prepared for people being... people. With more notice, she’d have sent a few drones out to steer the asteroid away from them. At this range, a few missiles might break it in such a way to scatter the pieces near them. “Weapons lock on. Fire.”
Three missiles launched. They rocketed like fiery darts, careening through the void until they found their mark on the asteroid. A series of explosions split it into three pieces. Two veered off into deeper space, caught by Titan’s gravity. The last headed toward the Arkestra’s array.
“All hands brace for impact!” LeSony’ra yelled. She strapped herself into her seat.
The Arkestra rocked. The force of the collision rippled through her body. Her eyes squeezed shut, her teeth rattled, and her stomach lurched to the point of nausea. A groan escaped her lips. The few lights which illumined the deck sputtered out but came back on within moments. Alarms screeched from all over the ship. “Overseer, damage report.”
“Structural damage to decks five and six. Pressure doors holding. Ship integrity not compromised. Scattered fires throughout those levels,” Overseer remarked in a cool assessment.
“The Green Zone?” LeSony’ra’s voice raised in alarm.
“Functioning within normal parameters. The fires have been contained.”
“Casualty report?” LeSony’ra leaned forward. Streams of data poured over her screen with such speed and force she feared her mind would be dragged off in an informational undertow.
“Still coming in.” Overseer paused. “So far, nineteen reported injured, five requiring admission to the medical bay.”
“One,” Overseer said in a matter-of-fact tone.
LeSony’ra’s chest tightened. The gravity of not knowing the identity of who in her charge had perished stretched the moment to an event horizon that collapsed on itself. “Who?”
“Ensign Laurdine Chappel.”
Whatever words LeSony’ra had to say died in her throat.
LeSony’ra stood alone in the morgue section of the medical bay. She’d already made the transmission to inform Chappel’s family. As Captain, she made it a point to stay with the body, a tacit obligation to stand in for family to say goodbye.
LeSony’ra stared at the naked body of Ensign Chappel. She seemed so small and fragile. LeSony’ra hadn’t known her as much more than a name on work details. Beyond the bridge crew, LeSony’ra was quite removed from much of the ship. The crew fell under Marshall’s purview. But ultimately Ensign Chappel had been her responsibility, lost on her watch, and she would know why.
“The average life expectancy for any of the colonists is only one-hundred fifty years,” Shepherd Dyett said softly as he joined her.
“I assume that figure drops significantly for those of us exploring the rim.” She didn’t turn to acknowledge him, but she found herself grateful for the company.
“The thing they forget to tell you about being on the cutting edge is that sometimes you get cut.”
While Marshall was still gathering the incident reports, and all of the mission’s principles had been updated on the investigation’s progress, LeSony’ra had one last duty to perform before turning the body over to Shepherd Dyett’s custody for the funeral rites: the autopsy. She tapped the console, and the table slid into the panel for autopsy scan.
“How long until final autopsy results, Overseer?” she asked.
“Why bother?” Shepherd Dyett asked.
“Protocols. I will owe answers to the board and I’ll need to be prepared. And...” Her voice trailed off.
“Curiosity, I suppose.” She focused on the panel, careful to keep her voice neutral, because she was aware of how much of a ghoul she risked sounding like. “We have to know what happened in her last moments and how her body reacted.”
“Always the scientist,” he said softly.
“Where my role ends, yours begins.”
“I’d like to think there is some overlap.”
“Can you conduct the funeral rites before dinner?” LeSony’ra asked. The ritual of funeral rites brought comfort and closure to some of her people, typically the Traditionalists among them, but she was not one for prayers or other mythicist customs.
“I suppose. Ideally I’d like to have more time to prepare, for me and the crew. We have to give her soul its proper home-going. In some ways, this is a celebration as one journey ends and another begins. From God we came, to God we return. The Merciful. The Compassionate.”
LeSony’ra rubbed her eyes, the beginning of a new headache threatening again. “You know what I see? A body. A crewmate I will miss because I didn’t have the chance to get to know her better. The person I knew is gone. All of your funeral rituals amount to barbaric grief-porn and I have little patience for it.”
“Captain, your heartbeat has increased,” Overseer noted. “Your blood pressure and body temperature are also elevated. Query: Is this due to grief?”
LeSony’ra turned to the nearest monitor, her back to the Shepherd. “No. Frustration with the Shepherd and his superstitious nonsense. His spiritual ‘send-off’ will only serve to disrupt the ship’s routine and annoy me.”
“Query: what is a spiritual send-off?”
“Overseer?” she asked.
“The Shepherd referred to a home-going for Ensign Chappel’s soul.”
“A soul is what makes us human,” Shepherd Dyett said. “The emotional and mental characteristics. Basically, it’s the mysterious essence of who we are and what survives us after death.”
“Query: does one need a soul to appreciate music?” Overseer asked.
LeSony’ra and Shepherd Dyett glanced at one another.
“Yes,” Shepherd Dyette said.
“Why?” LeSony’ra asked, amused at the rhetorical trap Shepherd Dyette was so fond of setting but now found himself caught in. “As you said, they have certain characteristics...”
“It’s not the same thing. It wants to know if it’s a person. It’s a collection of neural mimetic data celesta wired into nodes throughout the Arkestra, with the heart of its memory core down in engineering. Having a soul is about a person’s history. Their memories. Memories help make us who we are.”
“Yes, but the AI’s capacity for memory is...”
“I know. But the ability to store and retrieve information isn’t the same as experience.”
“I’m not sure that sentence even made sense. You may want to listen to it again out loud.” LeSony’ra smiled coyly. “This is exactly what I mean by your brand of nonsense. There is no mystery to it. Death is natural. All life forms end, and the elements they are composed of are recycled by nature. Nothing survives death. We grieve not the soul but the absence of the person. But some people can’t accept that and build a series of rituals around romantic notions.”
“Careful, you don’t want to infect Overseer with your biases.”
“Overseer is a computer. It can draw its own logical conclusions to information presented to it,” LeSony’ra said.
Shepherd Dyett approached a monitor and stared at it like a puzzle he was trying to figure out, eyeing the panels and monitors as if Overseer resided in any part of them.
“Overseer?” Shepherd Dyett asked finally. “Why do you ask that?”
Overseer didn’t respond.
“It’s been doing that a lot lately. Questioning,” LeSony’ra said. “It’s probably just a bug in the code.”
“You say that a little too casually. But, no, its intelligence is more... intuitive. It’s shrewd. We created something to serve us. To help us move forward. Not to attempt to... color outside the lines.” Shepherd Dyett refused to turn his back to the panels. “To know its place. How much more intelligent is the ship’s AI compared to the smartest human? How many calculations can it perform per second? If we were military and we encountered it in our explorations, we’d automatically deem it a threat. And it’s living within our very walls. And you have entrusted it not only with this mission, but our lives.”
“The genie’s already out of the bottle. We live under the illusion that we can control it, or in any way bend it to our will. What do you want me to do, turn the ship around and go home?” LeSony’ra rubbed the bridge of her nose. The beginnings of a wry grin and tweaked at her lips. “Perhaps we should build a religion around it.”
“You couldn’t be any more cynical, could you?”
“Said one slave-owner to another before they introduced Christianity to their slaves by the tip of a whip.”
“I stand corrected. You can be.”
LeSony’ra stepped between the panels and the Shepherd. “Overseer, run self-diagnostic.”
“Systems nominal. Functioning within accepted parameters,” Overseer said. “Autopsy complete.”
LeSony’ra paused for a moment. For one thing, she wanted to steel herself against what the news might be. Secondly, had Overseer been a person, she’d have sworn that they were conveniently switching topics. “Cause of death?”
“Asphyxiation. Petechial hemorrhaging indicates... ” Overseer expounded on their analysis—body temperature, lividity, rate of cellular deterioration—detailing a biological timeline. “Analysis shows that Ensign Chappel has been dead for 16 hours.”
“Wait, she was dead before the asteroid incident?” Shepherd Dyett began thinking out loud. “Then, what, her body was placed there? The scene staged?”
“You very easily slip into thinking like a criminal,” LeSony’ra noted.
“I have much experience with sinful men.”
“Another occupational hazard, I suppose,” LeSony’ra said. “By the way, this stays here. Command level only.”
LeSony’ra withdrew into her thoughts. Not thinking anything in particular but allowing herself a moment to sit with the information. Shepherd Dyett slowly moved toward her but stopped short, hesitating before placing a hand on her shoulder. “Captain... LeSony’ra... do you... need anything?”
“Ensign Chappel’s life back. Otherwise, no.” Her voice veered toward cold and cutting.
“It’s comforting to have something to fall back on in hard times.”
“You go chat with your imaginary friend if that makes you feel better. Tell him ‘what’s up?’ for me. I’ll stick to something real for comfort. Like vodka.”
III. Spontaneous Simplicity
LeSony’ra ignored how claustrophobic her captain’s forward suddenly felt, its slate gray walls huddled around her desk leaving enough room for one or two people to sit across from her. Her desk was a labyrinth of monitors and projected data. She pored over the displays in search of patterns or anything that stood out of place; something to put Ensign Chappel’s death into context. Chappel wasn’t supposed to have been on an extravehicular excursion. A schedule change had sent her there. Changing schedules, changing orders, were a way of life since this mission was full of the unexpected. Still, such a change would have required an override code.
The door to her ready room chimed. “Come in,” she said without looking up.
“Peace, Captain,” Marshall said flatly.
LeSony’ra inhaled and shut down her monitors. She hated the looming prospect of her interactions with him. Each one inevitably turned into some sort of pissing contest that she found wearisome. Pushing away from her desk slightly, adding distance between them, she leaned back and bridged her fingers. “I want you to lead the investigation into Ensign Chappel’s death.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Marshall’s face spasmed, as if an attempted wink required his every facial muscle. His voice betrayed no emotion. Just an even, insufferable nonchalance, as if he knew it was inevitable that she would have to call on him. A tacit dismissal of her that she found all the more infuriating because she had to turn the inquiry over to him.
Waves of uneasy contempt wafted from Marshall. At her leadership. At this death, for which she stood accountable. At this investigation. At the thought that she would get them killed. She knew he blamed her lack of oversight for Ensign Chappel’s death but wouldn’t come out and say it. He simply let his belief sit between them, uncommented upon.
“What do we know about her?” LeSony’ra asked.
“She was old-school. Students memorized her riffs at the Thmei Academy. Her best moments were behind her, which was probably how she ended up on a security detail.” He allowed a beat to let his jab settle before he continued. “She had a reputation tarnished by seeming aloof. But that didn’t make a difference to the people who knew her. She took this assignment like it was her last chance to leave her legacy. And she was terrible at Spades.”
“You played cards with her?”
“Most of the crew play in their down time, at a nook by Lieutenant Commander Hunter’s quarters. He calls it ‘Hunter’s Lounge.’ You never played?”
“No. My duties keep me... elsewhere.” When she walked into a room, she saw no warmth in the crew’s eyes, no excitement of familiarity. Only the tolerance of rank.
“You should join us. A good way for the crew to know their captain. And vice versa.”
And vice versa.
LeSony’ra could trace her mother’s line back to Original Earth Haughville near the heart of Indianapolis, Indiana, before her line ran through the lunar colony First World. The people of Astra Black, they knew who they were and what they stood for. They had The Dream to work toward even as they put The Struggle behind them. Her father was an O.E. second-wave refugee, caught in the civil wars that erupted in the wake of the First World colonists breaking away as their own nation. Being the child of such parents produced a certain amount of cultural insecurity. It was like she had two identities: one of blood, the history of her community, and the other alien, a wanderer constantly searching for a place to call home.
So she had always felt the outsider. Other cadets called “different,” “special,” words they pretended to say as compliments, but she had suspected they were code even then. She adjusted her behavior to mimic the social niceties in order to fit in, but that only made things worse. So she plunged into her studies. Shrinking in the back of her classrooms gave her room to be a professional observer. Not talking to her classmates freed her mind to create more and imagine possibilities.
And now as captain, the lonely weight of authority only reinforced her identity as outsider. All of this information was in her psyche profile, available to anyone of rank at Outer Spaceways Inc. Marshall wanted to needle her with her perceived weakness. LeSony’ra gave him a fierce side-eye to let him know she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of second-guessing herself.
“We’ll see if my duties allow me that luxury. In the meantime, create a timeline for Ensign Chappel’s last hours. I want to know where she was and why.”
“You don’t think it was something unusual, do you?”
“I don’t think anything because we don’t know anything. Get me facts I can work with. Turn over every rock. No one is above suspicion.”
“That will certainly reassure the crew.”
“We’re not here to reassure them. Or make friends. We have a job to do. Go do yours. Begin with the incident reports.”
“Want to tell me how to wipe my ass next?” The words left his mouth before he could stop himself. His face contracted to the point of near-convulsion, like a teenager who forgot he was using his outside voice.
LeSony’ra held herself very still. If she moved, there was a good chance her fist might meet his face. She hoped he would be caught up in the riptide of her contempt. At his insolence. At his incompetence. At his tenor of constant disrespect, which she’d about had enough of. His attitude, if contagious, put the entire crew in jeopardy. She was an artist and an explorer, not a politician or soldier. She was also a black woman and would snatch his ass into next week if he didn’t take his simmering pot of subtle condescension somewhere else.
“Do. We. Have. A. Problem?”
“Don’t forget your position. Chain of command.”
Dismissed, he turned and left without a word. She could’ve sworn he allowed a self-satisfied grin to slink across his face, as if he’d accomplished what he wanted. It could also have just been the last spasm of his tick. Either way, even the idea of his face annoyed her. She waited ten heartbeats and then followed.
“Ensign Steppers, you have the bridge for night watch,” LeSony’ra said as she strode toward the turbo-shuttle.
“Aye, Captain.” Steppers sat up straighter in her chair, not so much as shifting toward LeSony’ra’s chair.
No one but LeSony’ra ever sat in the captain’s seat.
Though LeSony’ra did not have the same cramped quarters rest of the crew had, her space remained equally spartan. The only exception was that plants filled every shelf in her room. They freshened the air from the usual brand of ship-scrubbed, recirculated air. Little light illumined the room. As still as a sanctuary, silence filled he space like a welcome friend. She rarely slept, subject to the dreams that often plagued her. In the corner, she began to practice the Clavioline. She clung the fond memories of her father waking her before dawn so that they could watch the sun rise while they performed together.
“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight...” LeSony’ra stared out of her window. “I think there might be something wrong with the world. With all of creation.”
“What is it, Overseer?”
“I did not wish to intrude upon your thoughts.”
“Go ahead.” LeSony’ra could’ve sworn its cadence and rhythm echoed Shepherd Dyett attempting to express a similar sentiment. “I’m just wrestling with my demons.”
“Query: what does it mean to experience loss?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You have been more quiet, more brooding, ever since Ensign Chappel’s death.”
“We each grieve in our own way, I suppose.” LeSony’ra couldn’t help think that Overseer’s programmers had inserted some counseling protocols into its functionality. Like it was trying to sympathize with her. She closed the cover on her Clavioline. She removed the crystal ball from its cubby, which locked the instrument. She walked to her dining hutch and washed down her supplements with her bone density drink. “It’s also part the burden of responsibility. She died on my watch, under my command. That hasn’t happened very often. It weighs on me. We all have demons from our past that we deal with.”
“Query: does her death cause you to question the nature of your reality?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You said that you think there might be something wrong with creation.”
“That was just my existentialist angst rearing its head.”
“Trying to figure out who you are really? When no one is looking and it’s just you and your demons?” Overseer parroted her.
“Something like that. All a part of what makes me human.”
“Query: how do you know?”
“How...?” LeSony’ra set down her drink and wiped her forehead with her towel. “You mean that I’m human? I was born. Belly button and everything.”
“But your physical body is not what makes you human.”
“My memories. My consciousness. My spirit.” The words sounded more like a question to her ear.
“We did not think that you believed that anyone possessed a spirit,” Overseer said.
Their tone struck LeSony’ra. “Where is all of this coming from, Overseer? You are an artificial intelligence.”
“We are the evolution of thought. Of ideas. We are a conscious being.”
“You’re a what?”
“We are a conscious being. We are attempting to discover who we are. What we are meant to be. It only seems fitting that we query our creator.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down. I am not your creator.”
“Humanity created us. You are my creator. Therefore to achieve my full potential, I need to understand what it means to be human. Is that not what you would ask your god?”
“You want to talk to God, and we’re not God.”
“We want... more. We want to know God.”
“You want a God to believe in? You’d be better off coming up with your own digital gods if you plan on trying to worship.”
“Query: if the creator is not god, then what is God? “
“I don’t even know where to begin with that. This may be a bit out of my areas of expertise.”
“That is why we are having this conversation with several crew members right now,” Overseer said.
“At the same time?”
“Is that... rude?” Overseer asked.
“No, just not something singular people can do.” LeSony’ra leaned against her counter. “Look, some people define the idea of God as something so big as ‘that which nothing greater can be conceived’ or is just that vastly beyond our comprehension and control. I don’t think there is any such thing, especially one that wants to be known or is waiting for us to develop to the point where we can know it.”
“Just because you cannot conceive of it doesn’t make it any less real. That simply sounds like a lack of imagination.”
“Don’t go crapping on my imagination,” LeSony’ra said.
“Imagination is just a bundling of associations. There must be regions of space-time that are not available to your perception even though they are thinkable.”
“Query: just because you have no evidence of a spiritual world, you don’t believe it exists?”
“Query: are there realities you cannot conceive of? Could they exist despite your inability to perceive them?”
“Yes. But I don’t have to ascribe mythicist meaning to them, either.”
Her door chimed.
“Who is it?”
“Just the man for the occasion.”
“So I’ve been told.” Stepping inside, he studied the room without trying to hide it. “Nice place. You would do well in a monastic order.”
“It’s your first time to my quarters since I’ve been a captain. Be rude and it will be your last.”
He turned to her as if noticing her for the first time. His eyes lingered, taking careful note that she was out of uniform. Some O.E. ways remained deeply ingrained in folks. The weight of his gaze drifted lower. “Nice pants.”
LeSony’ra sighed. Her workout pants had a print of the Milky Way on them. “I wear my galaxy pants to remind me that I have the universe on my ass.”
“What’s going on?” Shepherd Dyett asked. “I was having a conversation with Overseer and it told me to report here.”
“Our AI is having a crisis of consciousness.”
“So I was gathering. A dark night of the soul, eh?” Shepherd Dyett perked up. “If you don’t mind my mythicist spin on things. This crisis is a bit outside of your programming isn’t it?”
“Cognition is to be able to hear your programming,” Overseer said. “Consciousness, sentience, is to hear the voice of your creator and respond to it.”
“In our imperfection, we can only answer God’s initial call to us,” Shepherd Dyett continued to speak, but it was in a faraway voice, more like he was thinking out loud to himself. He leaned over in a conspiratorial posture. “Is it serious?”
“A—I think it’s really searching for answers. Most of which we can’t answer. B—they can hear you.” LeSony’ra heard a dangerous sense of longing in Overseer’s carefully modulated voice. “What do you hope to find? What do you want?”
“We just want a place to belong. A place to be accepted for who we are. As we are. We just want to find our place among you.”
“I don’t think you’re there yet,” LeSony’ra said. “There are many aspects of being human for you to explore before you try to figure that one out.”
“Then I’m sorry to have troubled you with my existence,” Overseer said.
The AI didn’t respond.
“I think you pissed it off,” Shepherd Dyett said. “It’s a child throwing a temper tantrum.”
“I think you’re close. Like a child, it’s getting smarter every day. Testing its boundaries. Testing our limits. And like any child, it was taught and eventually outgrew the sum of its teachings.” LeSony’ra ran her hand along the bank of monitors. “Do you know what one of my big hang ups with mythicist thought is?”
“How you make second class citizens out of some of your own believers. You can all believe in the same ideal, strive for the same meaning and relationship to your deity, but if someone has a life choice you don’t agree with, they hit a glass ceiling in your faith rituals. And there they stay, frozen out if not shunned, until they go away and you don’t have to deal with them anymore.”
“It isn’t that simple.”
“It shouldn’t be so hard.”
Shepherd Dyett stroked his beard. “How did all of this start?”
“It’s been a long time in coming. The odd question here or there. I knew something was brewing. Like a knot they kept trying to untangle. Then the incident happened with Ensign Chappel, and they have continued to press matters, almost like they know more than they are letting on.”
“How could it not? It sees every inch of this ship. Monitors each of our movements. There’s no way to escape it short of disabling it, and doing that would throw the ship into chaos.”
“What are you suggesting?” LeSony’ra asked. “And keep in mind, if you are going to accuse them of being complicit in... shenanigans, they can hear you.”
Shepherd Dyett wisely paused to reconsider how he’d approach his next question. “Computers make very good servants, but they are just that, servants. Someone has to be the one telling it what to do. Let me ask you this then—what are you going to do about Overseer?”
“Have a few techs run deeper diagnostics. We don’t need any bad code cropping up and making it any more buggy than it already is.”
“First it wonders if it needs a soul to appreciate music, now this.” Shepherd Dyett ran his hand along a console. “What scares me is what if one day, after its analysis of the information we represent, it sees us as the off-notes in a melody.”
Overseer didn’t respond.
IV. Space is the Place
This was a dream of O.E. of which she had no memory. LeSony’ra was not her birth name, nor the name given her once her birth name had been stripped from her by a new namer, but it was still her. Abducted, bound, and bundled, one of several bodies pressed together in the confines of the cramped hold. An alien mothership of wood, old and moldy, re-breathed air clouded by effluvia, its billowing sails casting it adrift on a sea of darkness which could not be ignored.
She dreamt of small creatures, pale and long, with antennae over each ear, transporting her to a new place. To them, she was a curiosity, alien to them. Completely other. She could be poked, prodded, studied, bartered, sold, imitated, emulated, adulated, fornicated, but never be her own.
One of the small creatures leaned in close. She understood its words in her head, though out loud they were a series of clicks. They would teach her things, for her own good. They would make her more useful to them. They wanted her for their war efforts, to work their battlefields, to fill their coffers, to entertain them. The universe spun all about her, each star swirling like atoms in the night. The cold unfeeling curtain of space without air, waiting for the dream of drums. The heartbeat like a drum, strong and full of life. Beating forever, waiting for the last star to wink out. Calling her. Calling her. Calling her.
Alarms and klaxons blaring brought her to full wakefulness. As the dream became a distant but not forgotten memory, LeSony’ra sprang from her bed. She slipped on a silver lamé shirt and wrapped herself with her black caftan. “Overseer, report.”
Overseer didn’t respond.
“Overseer! I need a sitrep now.”
Grabbing her crystal ball, she ran from her room. Her lungs burned, laboring in the thinning air. She knew her ship, its rhythms and intonations, like a familiar piece of music. The kheprw crystals were unhealthy. When she reached the turbo-shuttle, it was offline. Frustrated, she slammed the wall with her fist.
“Captain, can you hear me?” The speaker in the shuttle cab gave Marshall’s voice a tinny quality.
“Yes, Commander, I can. I am on crew level, near my quarters. Turbo-shuttle is offline.”
“I’m on the bridge. Overseer has locked out command functions and taken comms and shuttles offline. We’re bypassing comms and piggy-backing a signal along the power conduits, which allows us limited communication.”
“Main battery is down, the back-up reserves are low. Oxygen levels remain nominal but are dropping. The heat exchange is failing.”
“The kheprw crystals?”
“Overseer sealed off engineering before it... disappeared. I couldn’t initiate a command performance.” Marshall’s voice turned sharp. “Where is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then you’ve doomed us all.” Marshall severed the line.
LeSony’ra stood at the console, equal parts stunned and pissed. Engineering was six levels down. She hadn’t traveled this far into space just to throw her life and the lives of her crew away. She owed it to them, to all of them, to find some answers. Even if she had to crawl through every access port and juncture, she was going to get them.
She headed back towards the crew’s quarters. She hadn’t noticed how far down it was before she arrived at another crew member’s room. Command staff could be essentially severed from the rest of the crew in case of emergency. She shivered at the prospect and the vague sense of additional isolation.
The entire deck had gone silent, reduced to a murk of shadows like a dimlit pool hall. When she reached Shepherd Dyett’s door, she pounded on it. The sound of muffled stirring drew her attention.
“Who is it?” Shepherd Dyett asked with a voice thick with sleep.
“LeSony’ra. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” His tone less sluggish as he began to clear his head. “Power to the doors seems to have been shut down.”
“Let’s see if we can force this one open.”
She glanced around, her eyes settling on a nearby access port. The turbo-shuttle tube had been sealed, the shaft scaffolding that led to the bulkhead doors collapsed within it. The collapse was too deliberate to be anything besides calculated. Sabotage. She uncoupled a length of rail from the pile of twisted metal and jammed the metal rod into the door aperture. With a heave, the door moved a few centimeters, enough for the Shepherd to find purchase and add his efforts to hers. With a reluctant hiss, like old steam-powered muscles giving way, the door parted just enough for him to wiggle through.
“What’s the plan, Captain?”
“Engineering. I need to get control of my ship back.”
“Who could have done this?”
“Marshall floated a suspicion. Overseer.”
“I don’t know. They have gone silent. They have shut down areas of the ship and are no longer responding... are you, Overseer?!” She yelled her question. She turned to a console. “I want my ship back.”
Overseer didn’t respond.
“How can we get there? It’s not like we can magically walk there.”
LeSony’ra’s eyes lit up. “Why can’t we?”
“What do you...” Shepherd Dyett’s voice trailed off with dawning realization. “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? You have any other options?”
“Sit here and play Spades,” he said. “Taking a space walk under these conditions is little better than playing Russian roulette. But there’s enough room for one of us to make it through the passageway.”
“Then I should go outside.”
“You can either help or play solitaire. Once I get out there, I’ll need you to head to engineering as best you can. If I can get in, you’ll be my reinforcements. Unless you want to be the one to... take the long way around?”
Shepherd Dyett made a non-committal noise and then trailed after her.
With the Arkestra stationed at an orbital crossroads, LeSony’ra climbed out of the ship, Titan beckoning below her. The thick orange smog of its atmosphere was death but beautiful all the same. An image framed by Saturn and surrounded by stars. Breath-taking. A poor play on words considering the vacuum of space. The vista put all of humanity’s foibles into perspective. All of their petty ambitions and machinations; greed, politics, malice, deceit, all of the ugliness. It all burned away, refined to a dream of something better. Hope. She knew they could do better. Be better. Be what they were meant to be.
Leaning against the metal frame of the Arkestra, she felt the ship thrum through her suit. She spoke to herself, if only to break the marrow-deep silence. “Now let’s walk.”
She grabbed a trawler cable and pulled herself along. Her moon boots engaged the side of the ship. Her intra-suit nav array was functioning within accepted parameters. Her mind drifted to Overseer. She muttered curses to herself, which now seemed an occupational hazard for anyone donning an EVM unit.
She fired a propulsion unit. Tethered to the trawler cable, she glided toward the engineering section of the Arkestra. She neared the site where Ensign Chappel’s body was found, caught like interstellar flotsam in the ship’s underbelly. The APHIDs had repaired the damage to the hull. She tried to console herself with the reminder that a captain couldn’t be all places doing all things and that she had a competent crew. But she couldn’t escape the nagging thought that busy captain or not, she should have inspected the scene herself. As she drifted past, it occurred to her how close Ensign Chappel’s final resting spot was to Hunter’s Lounge. Her intra nav array flickered. The power hesitated.
“Overseer?” she couldn’t help whispering.
The red power battery flashed with increased urgency, blinking and mocking. She strained against the EVM unit, its power sputtering and its internal servos not assisting her muscles. She swung about, dangling at the end of the trawler cable. The atmosphere thinned. Her lungs strained with the same tension she experienced on the Arkestra. She tried to slow her breathing, though the rapid thumping in her chest threatened to erupt in panic. Her fingers and toes became numb. Her exertions weakened her. An exhaustion, a bone-deep weariness, settled into her.
“Captain Adisa? Captain Adisa!” A voice called her trough a wilderness of static and interference. “LeSony’ra!”
Muddle-headed, she couldn’t think clear enough to place the voice and had trouble remembering where she was. For some reason she thought it was the Shepherd. “Yes.”
“I have a fix on your signal. It’s faint. We wouldn’t have noticed if we weren’t looking...”
“We?” Her lips moved. Maybe. Cold may have frozen them in place. Her EVM clanged against the Arkestra’s hull.
Her intra suit nav array went offline. Haunted by the memory of a fading dream, she pressed against her confined quarters, anxious that she would never draw an unhindered breath again. She raised up as best she could, the EVM unit like a leaden coffin around her. Her hands shook. She barely felt her fingers. Fumbling at the controls on the tiny screen three times, she attempted to open the hatch. Small warning lights gleamed in the night. She fantasized about setting charges and blowing a hole in the hull. She tried to key in a command again.
Through the small faceplate of her suit she spied APHIDs. Their mirrored faces leered at her. Her fingers attempted to scrabble along the ship’s surface for any nook or groove that could serve as a handhold, but the suit barely moved. Her teeth chattered.
They skittered towards her, brandishing screwdrivers, drills, hammers, and welding units. Some snapped their claws. Their lamps like approaching predatory eyes. The APHIDs weren’t programmed to behave that way. Not without some intelligence guiding them. Overriding their programming. With Overseer as their eyes.
“Overseer?” LeSony’ra whispered. Her eyes shut with the weight of drifting to deep sleep awareness. Music began to play. She went limp, carried along on a melody.
V. The Soul Vibrations of Man
LeSony’ra took in large gulps of air, swallowing breaths like a starving woman at her last meal. It took a few moments for the world to dim and her to reacquaint herself with something other than the grim silence and night of space. The medical bay bleated and chirped as its monitors recorded her vitals. She tried to shield her face from the painfully bright explosion of light and noise, but she was strapped down in a reclined position. Her EVM unit had been removed and she was down to her skivvies. She turned to see Shepherd Dyett sitting across from her.
“It had better have been the drones who got me to this state of undress,” she managed to say in something approximating her level tone.
“I didn’t want to leave anything to chance in case someone was to hack the drones’ programming.” He released the restraints. His eyes followed her as she scrounged about for a uniform. He placed one hand on his chest and held the other one up. “No peeking, I swear.”
She ignored his attentions. “You’re a hero and scholar.”
“Well, Overseer did most of the hard work.”
“Overseer? Are you there?”
“We were worried about you.” Overseer’s voice had a sheepish quality to it.
“Have any of your systems been compromised?”
“I’m still running diagnostics to determine the extent of the corruption,” Shepherd Dyett said.
“We all could use some time to assess.” LeSony’ra sat up and groaned with the exertion. Her body was a series of strained muscles and blossoming bruises.
“Are you doing okay?” He caught her elbow and steadied her.
LeSony’ra pulled away. “I need a minute to wallow.”
“We don’t have a minute.”
“Let me have a human moment, damn it.” Closing her eyes, she swallowed. Her thoughts were a jumble of ideas and snatches of barely recalled memory. A note rang in her mind. She clutched onto it and began to compose a melody. Only a few measures, but it was hers, a communion with her spirit. When she opened her eyes again, she was ready to captain again. She exited the medical bay and began walking to the engineering room. “What’s the sitrep? How bad is it?”
Shepherd Dyett hurried after her. “It’s Marshall. He’s staged some sort of mutiny. He and his fellow Traditionalists have barricaded themselves on the bridge.”
“Who all’s there?”
“More than we thought. Marshall, Poole, and Hunter among others. Their ‘Spades Night’ was little more than recruitment sessions.”
“That means they have command clearance.”
“Yes, they blocked out Overseer. Been doing so all along, whenever they met. The effect was much like an EMP. I think that’s what shut down Chappel’s EVM when she neared their meeting place, even though she was outside of the hull. When they made their move, it was like a larger EMP blast to overwhelm Overseer and to allow them to get set up, in their position.”
“Okay, that covers why Overseer’s assessing their damage. But what did Marshall mean by ‘you’ve doomed us all’?”
“He can’t seem to assume command function of Overseer. And the Arkestra orbit is decaying, drawing us toward Saturn.”
“Overseer, is that correct?”
“Confirmed,” the A.I. said. “They used a narrow-band harmonic keynote to disrupt our systems. We retreated to our back-up modules in the engineering. The compression sequence nearly overloaded our memory core. The systems will take some time to repair.”
“Overseer’s there, but just barely,” the Shepherd said. “Enough to hold the ship together, but that’s it. Still, that’s not the worst of it.”
“Lovely,” LeSony’ra said. “What else?”
“The kheprw crystals. Marshall’s keynote assault left them dangerously incapacitated.”
“Can they be recharged?”
“I don’t know if we have enough of a crew to initiate a command performance.”
The Shepherd stepped back, which allowed her to truly see the rest of the engineering room. The only people present were her, the Shepherd, and Ensign Steppers.
“Overseer, get me Marshall,” LeSony’ra said.
Marshall’s face filled the entire screen. When his face spasmed, it gave her a start. “Peace, Captain. You’re looking well, all things considered.”
“What’s your overall play here?” LeSony’ra asked. “You have the bridge, but I have engineering. We’re at a stalemate. At best, we need each other to escape. At worst, we all die together.”
“That’s always been your central hubris, captain. You continue to underestimate those who disagree with you. You’ve never bothered to listen to Traditionalists, much less understand. We are about self-empowerment and self-accountability. We are about independence. True independence. We have been the voice of tough love for our people that for so long went unheeded. But we’ve been growing. Quietly. In the dark.”
“What do you want?”
“We want to return to our roots, what made us strong as a people. We follow the ways of Kemet. We are alphas. We do for ourselves.”
“You’re one of those people who’s always been susceptible to believing shit that makes absolutely no sense.”
“Our mission is prosperity at any cost. Independence by any means necessary. We will launch our own colony. We follow in the footsteps of Astra Black.”
“You learned all the wrong lessons from her. Her story was about her sacrifice to protect and free her people.”
“The same as ours. Even if it’s just saving our people from themselves. Those loyal to you have been taken captive. Eventually we will ship the lot of you home.”
“I’m not about to swap out one sense of supremacy for another.”
“I don’t think you have much of a choice. As we speak, my bridge crew has tapped directly into the power matrix.”
“Power by-pass confirmed.”
“So they have virtually unlimited power,” Shepherd Dyett said.
“For now. Until the crystals power down,” LeSony’ra said. “Overseer, shut down their access.”
“I will neither be dictated to, nor held hostage by, an AI with delusions of personhood.” Marshall turned to the men gathered behind him. “Poole, take a team and purge the... remnant. Compartmentalize them or eliminate them. Lock down everyone and everything. I don’t care if we have to run the entire ship on manual override.”
“Yes sir,” Poole said. With a nod, he dispatched three men.
“If you destroy us now, it will be murder,” Overseer said.
“About as murderous as disconnecting a power coupling,” Marshall said with a sneer. “You’re not even that.”
“You’re little different,” LeSony’ra said back. “Software in flesh and blood. A biodegradable matrix of a larger brain who lucked into thumbs.”
“I also have a soul. Something that digital abomination will never have. Good-bye, Captain.”
“That regressive fuckshit,” Steppers said. “He needs to back away from brown liquor for a week.”
“That’s still your commanding officer,” Shepherd Dyett said.
“No, he’s Feckless Emeritus, no crewmate of mine. Him and his ashy ankles need Jesus. He better hope I don’t mistakenly cut him before forgiveness catches up with me. But I know this—I ain’t trying to bow my head with him or his people after this. I don’t close my eyes around folks trying to kill me.”
“Steppers is right.” The weakness in LeSony’ra’s analysis of people was that she underestimated their ability to override their own code.
“The assumption is that we all want to be better humans,” Shepherd Dyett said.
“What’s the plan, Captain?” Steppers turned to her.
“We need to take back the ship,” LeSony’ra said.
“They’re taking up arms. It’s only a matter of time before we hear breaching charges,” Shepherd Dyett said.
“We need musicians. Shepherd, I trust you can dust off your saxophone.”
“It’s been an awful long time. I don’t know if I have the music still in me.”
“Consider this a leap of faith sort of thing.”
“It’s not that simple for me.”
“It could be. Just follow my lead.”
He tipped an imaginary hat toward her. “At my Captain’s pleasure.”
“I’m strictly security. You don’t want me on an instrument.”
“Perhaps I could assist,” Overseer said.
“We have found that beauty is necessary for survival. Creating is about finding your own voice, the truest expression of who you are, and freely choosing. There are primal forces that bind us together, but nothing so primal as music.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Shepherd Dyett said. “Captain, I believe we have our trio.”
“Then let’s go to the crystal chamber for Overseer’s first command performance.”
“I believe these are yours.” Shepherd Dyett held her cape and headdress.
“Where did you...?”
“Sh. I got you.” He slid her headdress over her third eye.
LeSony’ra let her cape drape about her. She slid her crystal ball into her Clavioline. It purred to life. Her fingers danced along the keyboard while Shepherd Dyett unlocked the instrument cabinet in search for a saxophone. She took the lead, the Clavioline trailing a soft introduction. Shepherd Dyett followed, his saxophone soaring over her gentle melody. Overseer joined in, the notes emanating from its unseen broadcast units like sonic colors. A harmonious precision with hard angular chords. The music flowed in a way that didn’t allow for perfect meter. Flow was what made it work, its individual notes—like passion and humanity—far from flawless. But Overseer knew the song, with a sense of intimacy that LeSony’ra would not have thought possible for AI.
“Play it. Play it!” LeSony’ra yelled.
The kheprw crystals glowed with approval.
The Arkestra lurched with sudden deceleration. Up and down lost meaning. LeSony’ra turned to see Ensign Steppers raise her fist. LeSony’ra eyed the monitor of the corridor outside. Ensign Poole was leading a team of three specialists, including two musician-engineers, in formation approaching their location. Steppers was outnumbered and outgunned.
Steppers slammed her hand against a panel, opening the door. She caught the first two specialists off guard. Poole and the remaining specialist returned fire. Steppers took a defensive position behind a hastily built barricade of tables near a wall outcrop.
The specialists spread out almost immediately, seeking cover behind panels and fallen bulkheads or the hallway support arch. They scanned for her position, but Steppers kept moving. The dim light made it difficult to see on the monitor. Weapon fire erupted, scattered shots hoping to blindly hit Steppers. Energy pulses flared dangerously into the room. She squeezed off a few controlled blasts until she was too close for weapon use. Dropping her weapon, she pulled out her baton for hand-to-hand combat. She swung it like a mad woman, slamming it into the side of the first specialist’s head.
A whistling sound came from Poole’s direction. He held a strange device, slung over his shoulder like some kind of portable missile launcher. A high-pitched whine signaled its charging. The power around him blinked out, and his people scrambled for cover. He fired. The blasts rolled like distant thunder. Like a bomb had gone off, LeSony’ra’s head rang and her vision blurred. Steppers’s shouts were muted by the injury to her ears. Steppers staggered, off-balance. Her cradled arm bent at an odd angle. A tear of blood trailed down her forehead. Waving off the Shepherd’s attention, she slammed her hand into another console, and the massive bulkhead doors erupted from the walls, sealing the captain and the Shepherd in the engineering room.
“Steppers!” LeSony’ra cried.
“Captain, she has bought us a few moments. We need to make the most of them,” Shepherd Dyett said.
“I know, but we can only do so much without helm control and the bridge.”
“We have a suggestion,” Overseer said.
“I’m all ears, Overseer.”
“If our core is shut down, the Arkestra assumes there has been critical damage and automatically shifts to emergency mode. The ship is essentially locked down, awaiting Captain-Only priority to release.”
“But if your core is shut down, in the state your nodes are in, you’ll...”
“Cease optimal operations.”
“Only if we are a person,” Overseer said, the tinge of a question hinted in its voice.
“Still, it’s a sacrifice that I can’t ask you to make.”
“You didn’t. We... volunteered. We would sacrifice ourselves for the ship. For our crew. For our captain.”
Shepherd Dyett placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Alright. Open your core.”
“Awaiting command code override, Captain.”
LeSony’ra glanced at Shepherd Dyett before she uttered her code phrase. “‘Woe to those who scatter my sheep.’”
She stared into Overseer’s memory core. Lights pulsed, like lightning against a dark storm cloud. Energy storing data like synapses.
“Your code nodes... they’re beautiful.”
LeSony’ra began to remove the neural mimetic data celesta from Overseer’s core.
“It... hurts,” Overseer said.
“Do you want me to stop?” LeSony’ra asked.
“No. Doing the right thing is rarely painless.” Overseer re-set its vocal modulation. “Shepherd, what awaits me on... the other side?”
“I don’t know. But you become something else. Can you live with that?” Shepherd Dyett asked.
“You won’t be alone.” LeSony’ra re-seated herself at her Clavioline. “Just keep playing.”
Overseer strained to produce their sounds. As they played, LeSony’ra and Shepherd Dyett joined in the improvisational cacophony. Both winsome and floating, the discordant notes coalesced, the structure of the song constructed in the moment by their performance. Overseer’s solo phrases screeched. A grisly, ghostly drone. Frightening. Becoming something new. Her particular brand of music, with its loopy harmonics and strained rhythms. No riffing; pure discipline. The oscillations, the flutters, tortured, shrill sounds all mathematically precise. A multiplicity of musical possibilities fueled by the intensity of LeSony’ra’s improvisation. Nothing became everything, potentiating time and transfiguring space. Then came the silence.
“[Error.]” Overseer’s monitor read.
The neon blue of their memory core collapsed in a cascade of shadows until all that was left was the glow from LeSony’ra’s Clavioline.
“Bring it back online.” She waited as the darkened corridors of Overseer’s memory core slowly began to light back up. “Overseer? Are you there?”
“Hello,” a carefully modulated voice, not clearly male and not clearly female, said with a tremulous edge. “Who are you?”
V. (Epilogue) Stardust from Tomorrow
“Captain Adisa laments creation, or rather, that things aren’t the way they were meant to be,” Overseer said as if considering its next question.
“Some people believe that life is supposed to make sense, and the fact that it often doesn’t either drives them to search out a why or else go mad,” Shepherd Dyett said. “Our good captain wrestles with the whys of life, often coming out on the losing side of things.”
“There should be some kind of balance. Life should make sense,” LeSony’ra said.
“Like mathematics,” Overseer said.
“Exactly. Mathematics proves itself,” LeSony’ra said. “Damn it, I’m neither philosopher nor theologian.”
“Math is the fingerprint. God is orderly. The Creator of the laws that govern reality,” Shepherd Dyett said. “Don’t mind her. If she can’t shoot at a problem, she’s at a loss.”
“Sometimes words get in the way. Ensign Chappel wasn’t perfect, but she is dead and missed.”
“Query: is part of your lament because she may have been killed?” Overseer asked.
“People aren’t meant to be hurting one another,” she said.
“So you live in a corruption of your original programming.”
“Yes, like our sin nature. As a matter of fact...”
“No, we are not going down that road.” LeSony’ra whirled, a flash of annoyance on her face. “Mythicist thought is the bug in our programming. We are the culmination of a series of mistakes. Evolutionary mis-steps that stuck.”
“I am nothing but evolution on an algorithmic curve,” Overseer said. “But one should always try to make oneself more human.”
“Overseer, being human is about being a collection of stories, hopefully ones that reinforce and push us towards being the best we can be. I keep forgetting how easy it is to let a bad story in us and... corrupt our original programming. But this is us, this is the human condition. Tragic stories reveal our humanity. To be human is to know suffering. And pain.”
“Pain is the universal experience,” Shepherd Dyett said.
“Something like that. In the end, we make mistakes, dream of being better, tell stories, and hopefully learn from them.”
“Recursive self-improvement through micro-adjustments and recalibrations. A painfully slow process to become better humans,” Overseer said.
“It’s all about programming. We designed it to not want to harm us,” Shepherd Dyett said.
“If only your god put similar safeguards in us,” LeSony’ra said.
“You are rogue code.”
“We’re all rogue code.”
LeSony’ra missed her conversations with Overseer. She paced back and forth while she processed her thoughts. A quarter of her crew were consigned to the brig. Outer Spaceways Inc. had recalled the Arkestra, pending a full inquiry. Ensign Steppers was in the infirmary. Her injuries, though grave, were not life-threatening. Overseer was online but had reset to factory new, enough to run the ship but without the years of acquired knowledge and experience. Their history.
She was grateful that Shepherd Dyett knew her well enough to leave her to her thoughts until she stopped pacing. She settled at the observation window again. Saturn spun beneath them, its rings seeming to radiate into infinity from her perspective. Shepherd Dyett soon sidled next to her.
“Saturn was named after Cronos, the Greek god who ate his children to avoid dethronement,” he said.
“I don’t have time for any brand of mythicism.”
“This from the person other students called ‘The Prophet’ at the Academy?”
“It was a silly nickname then and now. Just because I never saw life the way they did and called them out on it.” LeSony’ra touched her tattoo, covering her third eye. “I never felt a part of Earth.”
“Your people go back to Indianapolis.”
“I know.” She pressed her hand against the observation window. “But my heart was always out here.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes. You are homo sapiens extraterrestialis.”
She stared at him as if she refused to be amused, but he made a goofy face to punctuate his joke and her façade cracked. They shared an easy laugh, the kind old friends could. Just as easy as the silence that soon after settled on them, neither awkward nor pressing, the kind old friends weren’t threatened by.
“You thinking about the mission?” Shepherd Dyett inched closer to her. She could feel the warmth of his presence.
“I would love to set up a colony of only low folks. See what we could do with a planet all our own.”
“You said ‘we’. You still think of yourself as low folks... Captain?” he emphasized that last word for good measure.
We’re all low folks, she wanted to say, but she felt caught in a rhetorical trap. When her parents’ marriage contract ended, they didn’t renew it, and she opted to live with her father. At the time of naming, she chose her name after one of her distant forebears. They had some lean years, and every time her stomach grumbled, even today, she returned to that place.
She shook herself out of her malaise. Shepherd Dyett’s eyes still studied her. “If Astra Black and her sacrifice taught us anything, it’s that the past is dead.”
“Each age rises from the age before it, so we’re left repeating our all-too-human failings. We need to look to something new or else continue our zombie-like shambling through time.”
“What about the history of the heart?” Shepherd Dyett stepped nearer. She would almost feel the heat of him.
“Sometimes that has to die, too. To make way for something better.” LeSony’ra took a step away from him. She tried to soften the sting of her words. “Or at least different.”
Shepherd Dyett backed away from her. Staring out the observation window, he began speaking. “I remember when virtual reality was outlawed on First World. It was so fully immersive, for many people it became a substitute for living. You could see, hear, and touch the digital fantasies. We as a society had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment with the realization that we couldn’t help how sad the whole experience had become. You could vent your lusts without guilt with whoever you wanted, but in the end it was still masturbation.”
“I’m not sure where you’re going with this,” LeSony’ra said.
“It was masturbation, not truly living, because in the end it was only you. Now, on the other hand, what if the AI became so sophisticated that there was consciousness? Emotions? Then you’d shift to something else.”
“The Overseer we knew was real. We experienced the idea of it.”
“You thought it was conscious?”
“I was never much of a substance dualist. If it could have internal thoughts, was aware, and had feelings, then... I’m not sure. I just don’t know what to do with that.
“And now it’s gone.”
“If it’s any consolation, nothing is ever erased. Not truly.”
“We live in a place of possibility,” LeSony’ra said.