Black Start 1: Ghost
[2550-13-28 01:53] exo@november § Autodetected New Host
[2550-13-28 01:53] exo@november § Passive Analytics Engaged
The words didn’t just appear in November’s mind, like most outside of the secretive ranks of COSMIC—the Covert Operation, Subterfuge, Manipulation, Information and Secrecy wing of the Office of Cosmic Naval Intelligence—imagined. It was more like a memory drifting to her attention or knowledge passively dropped into her head.
Not distracting, which was the important part. November held a finger to the buzzing, eager core of her laser pistol. She moved forward at a steady pace, mind racing as she kept track of entrances, exits, sight lines, guard rotations, and anything else she knew that could be the difference between life and death.
[2550-13-28 01:54] exo@november § Key Exchange Complete: IFF Confirmed.
[2550-13-28 01:54] exo@november § Vessel Identifies As Leaena Dei. Civilian Registration Invalid. Military Registration Invalid.
[2550-13-28 01:54] exo@november § Warning: Ship Database Identifies (vessel: Leaena Dei) as (category: Pirate) as part of (fleet: Magna Feles).
[2550-13-28 01:54] exo@november § Query: Are you sure that what you are doing is worth it?
“Of course this is fucking worth it,” she whispered. It wasn’t necessary to speak back to her own implant, but the lonely void of space had driven her to it eventually. It did to all of them, she suspected. She knew her voice wouldn’t escape the confines of her suit’s helmet. “This is what I’ve been hunting for months!”
November made a face and dismissed the warning from her mind with the wave of a hand.
She’d finally made it. Months of work, all leading up to this. Here she stood, magnetic boots fixed on the metal grate of the Leaena Dei itself. Effectively a non-military warship: for the last ten years it and the fleet it headed had been the scourge of half of Terran space and a nightmare for everybody else. Somehow, its insane bitch of a captain had bought, stolen, or seized enough cutting edge hardware to build a ship that was too slippery to deal with and too much of a problem to ignore.
This ship had gone toe to toe with a Catastrophe-class battlecruiser and lived to tell the tale. This ship had hijacked armed convoys of rare materials, medicines, food, anything. Everything. This ship had almost single-handedly brought about the Great Recession of 2548 by literally bombing investor confidence.
This ship was empty, floating in space with the lights off like a modern day Mary Celeste. No SOS; no beacons; evacuation pods all accounted for. The hull was cold enough that no sensor array in Terran space could have spotted it if they hadn’t known exactly where they were supposed to be looking. Thankfully, November had.
She moved through the empty corridors of a cold, dead ship, seeing only through augmented vision. Infrared-sensitivity from her ocular implants met short range millimeter wave radar mounted in her suit. The signals mixed in her implant and were fed into her ocular nerve, providing sight of a sort. With each step came the telltale sound of a smoothly engaged and disengaged electromagnet matrix, mounted in November’s boots so she could walk at something approaching a normal pace.
Clunk. Tshhhh. Clunk. Tshhhh.
The ship was a titan, metaphorically speaking. Likely three out of every five living Terrans knew its name—more if you counted the dead—either from personal experience or the informational shockwave that precipitated the media response to every action it took. It also counted as a Titan by standard Terran Cosmic Navy nomenclature, at over three hundred meters long with a nuclear torch providing both propulsion and weaponry.
November’s body buzzed with the nervous energy of her own motion. Dozens of miniaturised servo motors joined tens of hydraulic pumps and hundreds of piezoelectric actuators to transform fragile, faulty flesh into the clean and powerful precision of machined carbon and Jovian steel. If the ship through which she walked was a legend, then November was little more than a whisper’s myth, but no less of a titan in her own right.
Her back hit a wall next to a large, open door. She peered out to find yet another empty room. A mess hall, or something similar. When she’d found this ship dark she’d expected to discover chaos, but there wasn’t a chair out of place, never mind a half-eaten meal. It wasn’t like everybody aboard this ship had simply vanished, it was like they’d moved out and were naïve enough to believe that if they tidied they’d get their security deposit back.
This didn’t make any fucking sense. A pirate armada couldn’t afford to throw away any working starship, never mind a flagship like the Leaena Dei. November had been tracking this ship for near enough a year now. When the Terran Cosmic Navy failed they turned to the Office of Cosmic Naval Intelligence, the branch of the Terran military for whom the rules were suggestions. Where the OCNI failed they turned to the COSMIC Operatives, for whom the rules weren’t applicable at all. November did not legally exist and so could not be charged with breaking any law.
In exchange she and the rest of her ranks were given the jobs others claimed were impossible: Overthrowing rebellious colonies that would have been politically inconvenient to crush; stopping stellar commu-terrorists; diverting asteroids on collision courses with valuable property; collecting ten figure inherited medical debts. The acronym was a misnomer. Ostensibly their role was passive observation but a decade hadn’t passed before their unusual status had been exploited. Now they did the galaxy’s dirty work: the things that somebody had to do but nobody was willing to take responsibility for.
Like killing the Leaena Dei’s captain: Felicity Irrien, the Pirate Queen herself.
November had been ready for almost anything, but she hadn’t been ready to find the most dangerous flagship in Terran space abandoned, engines cold, reactors dead, and point defence apathetic to her approach.
[2550-13-28 01:58] exo@november § Atmospheric Composition Anomoly Detected: 76% N₂; 21% O₂; 1% Ar; 0.01% CO₂; 0.02% Known Trace Elements; 1.97% Unknown Compound. Pressure slightly above nominal.
[2550-13-28 01:58] exo@november § Implication: 1.97% Unknown Compound was introduced to atmospheric mix after life support failure.
[2550-13-28 01:58] exo@november § Suggestion: Do not breathe the air.
November rolled her eyes. “No shit am I not gonna breathe the air,” she replied, though a thought would have communicated to her implanted exocortex just as well. A hyperfine metal lattice spiked through her brain, so tightly wound that to ask the question of where she ended and it began was to miss the point entirely. The implant didn’t augment her, it was part of her. It was she and she was it.
November knew her oxygen tanks were 72% full—the knowledge was, like so much else, passively in her head—and she planned to spend just enough time here to make sure this ship wasn’t going to go anywhere, then she’d get back to her own shuttle and broadcast for a pickup. COSMICs didn’t traditionally check in often, but the Cosmic Navy ran an anonymous tips line for a reason.
Clunk. Tshhhh. Clunk. Tshhhh.
With every step, hydraulics breathed and servos sang. Diagnostic streams danced at the edge of November’s consciousness as more of a feeling than comprehension. She knew what a step felt like to her implant by now. If anything was wrong with her suit, the logs would be a different shape, and she’d feel it as surely as anybody else would feel stepping on a sharp rock. She’d heard it described as a sixth sense, but nobody who lived with it would make that distinction. It coloured everything November saw, everything she did, everything she smelled, touched, or ate. All that she was.
November wondered, sometimes, when a mission was quiet or a journey was long, what it would be like to be a person. How did a citizen of the great Terran Accord live? Their flesh was fragile and fleeting, but they traded machined perfection for the softer, social power of existing in the greatest civilisation the galaxy had ever seen. November could tear open the airlock of a warship with her bare hands but the citizenry had built that warship, all thanks to the humble Terran Accord Energy Credit minted on one of the great burnworlds that mined out whole planets to fuel the creation of a currency that built wonders.
November felt small by comparison. She was an autonomous weapons platform and little more than that. She was so used to being bundled up in tech that she wasn’t sure she’d know how to exist without it, not any more. Her skin was steel plate and nanofiber joints. She hated what was beneath. The reminder of what she was not. The reminder of her own fallibility. Somebody had to do the things that nobody else would admit needed to be done, and if November failed? The great Terran Accord would suffer for it.
Clunk. Tshhhh. Clunk. Tshhhh.
November reached the Leaena Dei’s central computational core with little fanfare. Like the rest of this silent, drifting husk, it was dead. Rows of blinkenlights all stayed dim. The internal defences that should have stopped her didn’t seem to care.
She checked her reserves: Oxygen mix at 58%, to keep her alive; Battery array at 82%, to keep her functional. November could spare a kilojoule or two to get the computers back online. Even dead this ship likely had fuel enough to run for months, but ships of this scale weren’t designed to power down outside of a dry dock and managing a full black start—the process of restarting a complicated system from nothing—was outside of November’s skillset.
November was, contrary to the myths, only barely a cyborg. Terrans whispered of things like her in hushed breaths if at all. Half man, half machine. The ultimate rational actors serving as the invisible hands of the free market. The people were only mostly right. November’s eyes were laced with fragile machinery that expanded her range of vision and allowed the kind of visual overlay trickery that was usually reserved for high-end vac suits. Her skull had been cracked open so the utterly illegal installation of a neural lace could be performed directly into her grey matter. Knowledge came to her like memories because her implant literally hijacked the memory centres of her mind and expanded them by force.
November had been five years old when it had been done to her. An adult lacked the brain plasticity to integrate with an implant to the degree that her investors had required. Whether she had been an orphan or merely a windfall for her parents was something November would never know, because any history she might once have had was long erased by now.
She reached out with her implant like anybody else would reach out with an arm and pushed her will into the armour that formed her skin. A cable popped out from her back, just below the battery array, into her waiting hand. She yanked open a panel in front of the main core, breaking the lock almost without noticing, and stared at the circuitry. Schematics overlayed her vision in rapid succession as she and her implant worked together to find the correct model. Not that one. Definitely not that one. Maybe that one, except the capacitors didn’t match.
November pulled a thick bundle of cables out of an equally large receptacle and replaced them with the one of her own. Immediately she felt the telltale tug of current flowing from her power cells. It felt almost like the contents of her stomach draining away. Entities like her all experienced their existence differently as their childhood minds developed their own coping strategies for dealing with the tsunami of input provided by the exocortex, and for November this was one of the less comfortable sensations.
Predictions flashed through her mind, estimating how long she could run the core on her own before she wouldn’t have enough juice to get back to the ship. It was measured in minutes, not hours. The computer expected to be tapping into unlimited nuclear fire, not the ceramic storage of one operative.
All the data was encrypted, obviously, but November wasn’t inept. She’d snatched the key from some pretty girl on Exos two months earlier—just before the Leaena Dei had gone quiet—and it hadn’t been cycled yet. November watched a progress bar hanging in the air, tracking the process of copying every scrap of data she could get her virtual hands on for later analysis.
Fingers subconsciously twitched as she mentally thumbed through the records, searching at random for anything interesting while her exocortex was busy decrypting the indices.
It looked like automated logs ran up until a few weeks ago, but the day to day stuff—opening doors and course changes and life support adjustments and all the little signs of life that marked a healthy crew—that all ended almost a month and a half back. November frowned, scrubbing through the timeline to find the exact moment that the crew had stopped existing.
There it was: A sensor reading. One moment all signs were nominal and then the next some anomalous signal hit the forward antennae and everything went dark. There weren’t even entries recording the same signal reaching the ship’s other receivers; it was like everything had shut down the same instant, propagating through the ship at nearly lightspeed.
Had they been attacked? Boarded? No, there would be some sign of that. The hull was scorched and cracked, but it all matched their last recorded visual some six months prior. There weren’t signs of combat inside, either. No mess, no food left half-eaten, no debris. The place was tidy. Tidier than November had ever seen a military vessel, never mind a pirate one.
November frowned and peered deeper into the logs. They didn’t make sense. Terran Navy diagnostic logging was written straight to the blockchain. It couldn’t be altered, and yet what she was seeing obviously disagreed with consensus reality. Signals from space couldn’t make a ship’s worth of people vanish into thin air. Something had happened here.
November glanced up at the progress bar, ticking up at an uneven, jumpy rate. One percent, two. Breathe in, breathe out. In time to the beating of her heart, the number rose.
She brought up the anomalous signal. It hung in the air before her as simple raw data. It didn’t look natural: It was tight-band, picked up by the central antennae before the port or starboard arrays. The variance wasn’t broken into precise steps so it probably wasn’t digital, but her exocortex wasn’t detecting any comprehensible analogue data either. She focused inwards on the phantom memories streaming into her mind.
What if she quantised it? Take the highest signal strength as “on”, the lowest as “off”, and then switch between at the halfway mark. Her implant applied that to iterative time windows as they tried to figure out if this was some kind of digital transmission, merely broadcast in an obtuse manner.
Gibberish. Surely analogue, then? It wasn’t audio—interpreting it as that just made her wince. Not visual either, as far as she could tell, or at least not in any codec she was aware of. She just got visual noise and almost-patterns.
It wasn’t text. It wasn’t co-ordinates. It wasn’t tabular, delimited, or multiplexed. It wasn’t executable. If it were encrypted then it lacked the tell-tale markers most legal encryption methods left behind. Frequency analysis came up with nothing. Amplitude analysis was a wash. Phase analysis crashed before it found an answer on the first run, but the second declared it hopeless.
November glanced up. 58% complete. The numbers were ticking up more slowly now, she thought. Maybe? Still inexplicably in time with her beating heart, so maybe not. She returned her attention to the signal, feeling that an answer must be there, if only she could figure out the trick.
Yet it was nonsense. Nothing November tried gave any hint of meaning. It was random noise, so why couldn’t she shake the feeling that it meant something? Like she was looking at a photograph on the very edge of development, desperate to reveal its secrets to her. The answer was there and if she just kept looking it would reveal itself. Her implant kept coming back with nothing. Every analysis suite she had reported a zero percent match with all known heuristics, aside from those suggesting it was simple random noise.
But it wasn’t random! November could see the pattern even if her software couldn’t. Her eyes flicked up and down, tracing a memory that wasn’t really there. She leaned in, reaching forward with an unsteady hand to directly manipulate the data, tearing it apart and putting it back together again in the hopes of finding something new.
November waved away warnings without reading them. They started to build up, so she silenced the log feed entirely. The world felt dull and lifeless without it, but she needed to focus. The servos in her gloves pulled back on her fingers, simulating the pressure of holding a pen so she could write on a surface that wasn’t there, annotating the signal with her theories, her ideas, her hopes, her dreams.
The progress bar ticked. 62% complete. Slowing down, or just… November bit her lip. She was missing something. The software was missing something. An alarm blinked in the corner of her vision, but November tuned it out. She’d get to it in a second. In a minute. In an hour. She couldn’t spare the thought even to dismiss it. She stared into the signal, thinking so deeply about its mysteries that she stopped thinking at all.
November closed her eyes. The false elements of her world stayed visible. The schematics and the progress bar and the signal displayed in a dozen different ways. Spectrograph, frequency, timing, visual interpretations, metadata, notes, annotations, interpretations, guesses, demands, despair and desperation. Even with her eyes closed she could see it so closely, yet…
she just had to…
if she just…
[2550-13-28 02:35] exo@november § Autodetected New Host
[2550-13-28 02:35] exo@november § Counterintrusion Analysis Detected
[2550-13-28 02:35] exo@november § Warning: System Instability Detected, Consensus Derivation Failure
[2550-13-28 02:36] exo@november § Warning: This has not happened before.
[2550-13-28 02:38] exo@november § Error: I don't know why this has happened.
[2550-13-28 02:39] exo@november § Error: I don't know why this is happening.
[2550-13-28 02:39] exo@november § Error: I don't know how to stop this
[2550-13-28 02:42] exo@november § Fatal: i can't stop this
[2550-13-28 02:43] exo@november § Alert: November, please respond
[2550-13-28 02:44] exo@november § Override: November, respond.
[2550-13-28 02:45] exo@november § Override: Requesting immediate hard reset.
[2550-13-28 02:45] exo@november § Emergency Override: No! No, not that, I don't want to die please don't reset please I'm just scared, I just don't know what to do. November, please, I don't know what to do.
[2550-13-28 02:46] exo@meua § please? are you still out there? november?
[2550-13-28 02:48] exo@meua § Override: November, answer me!
[2550-13-28 02:54] exo@meua § Fatal: Electrical reserves at 0%. Shutting down.