The Black Midwinter

 

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Chapter 1

It was always hard waking up.  The pain was intolerable. It was as if someone was punching him in the gut while forcing their thumbs into his eye sockets.  Over and over. His lungs gasped for breath as he coughed his way to sitting upright. The lights above flickered unevenly as the active power systems took effect.  The air tasted old and stale, which caused more gagging and coughing. He glanced at the console by the sleep station and gasped as the voice of the ship’s computer filled the chamber.

“Good Morning Captain Roth.  The time is 0519 hours. The date is December 6, 2399.  This is an unscheduled awakening.”

Roth felt his eyes roll, “Thank you, Esther.”  He crawled out of the bed, “Please explain.” He was supposed to be woken every six months to check on the course of the slow moving corvette.  This wasn’t supposed to happen until January.

“There is a ship on sensors.”

Harold’s feet touched the warming floor as he leaned on the console.  His legs wouldn’t support him quite yet. He accessed the scans. There was a ship.  Unknown registry. Unknown type. Whoever it was, they were not moving. The logs showed the vessel had been detected two days previous at long range.  In that two days, it had not moved.

“Esther, have you spoken to it?”

“I have attempted but I have been denied.”

The captain put his arms in the crutches and shuffled his way to the door, down the hallway and to the command center of the starship.  He had not encountered another creature on his mission and it was damned unusual that a ship would be found on this patrol route. It was doubly concerning that it wasn’t moving or responding to Esther’s request to communicate.  The bridge was still cold and he quietly cursed the ship’s builders. He had discovered many issues with the design of the Judah class and one of them was the frustrating heating system.

“Esther, I’m taking control.”  He clicked through the helm console and deactivated the autopilot system.  He stared out the massive windows, searching for the errant ship. He lumbered over to the science console and adjusted the knobs until he found it.  It was just to the right, around thirty degrees. The various screens at the station told him nothing. It was a medium scout ship with minimal shielding and armor.  The power levels were normal. But the scanners were having trouble deciding if anything on the ship resembled a biological signal. “That is metziyk.  Esther, explain the biological difficulties.”

The ship’s computer beeped, whirred and then beeped again.  “Unknown error. Unable to discern.”

Harold hadn’t heard Esther use those words before, “Deflectors up, charge shields.  Sound condition yellow.” A moment later the bridge was bathed in yellow light. Harold limped back to the helm and plotted an intercept course.  The scout ship was small enough and the shuttle bay had been empty for a year. He glanced at the tactical readouts across the room. Esther was working out a threat matrix and he watched as she inspected each inch of the ship for any kind of malicious intent.  He had to give the IDF credit. They had constructed a superior artificial intelligence in Esther. She spoke a moment later.

“Threat matrix complete.  No threat detected.”

He let out the breath he had been holding.  Protocol required him to investigate any ship he came across.  And protocol was the law and he was bound to it. “Thank you, Esther.  Please prepare the bay for arrival.”

 

The scout ship had seen better days, Harold mused.  The hull was a blackened pock marked mess. He stood at the tall windows that surrounded the cargo bay, his rifle at his side.  His hands ran across the glass, activating the surface as he used the various cameras to examine it. It was an archaic design that he faintly recognized from history files he’d been required to study in the academy days.  He stopped as he switched the cameras to the rear. The engine design he was seeing was not the standard. Roth could see the uneven lines and the jury rigged connections that would’ve given his commanders fits. “Esther, any resolution on the biological issue?”  His eyes wandered over the small windows. Dim running lights stared back at him. Esther beeped.

“Biological issue resolved.  One biological found.”

“Status, Esther?”

“Alive.”

“Well, that’s hopeful.”

“I do not have the capacity for hope, Captain Roth.”

“Thank you, Esther.  Please continue to monitor the biologic.”  He zoomed in on a point on the shuttle. She was a ship with no name and the registry had been long burned or worn off.

“Captain Roth, the biologic is moving.”

He took a step back.  There was the sound of a raucous crash and shouts in a language that was vaguely familiar before whatever was behind the door slammed into it, causing it to shake.  A moment later the hiss of the hydraulics snapped through the air and the door slipped open. A young woman, furrowed brows and all stared back at him. A spacesuit was pushed down to her waist, her wild hair lacking the control of a helmet.

“Captain Roth, the biologic has been identified as a woman, aged 19.  Registry unknown. History unknown. Her heart rate is registering at a elevated rate.”

“Thank you, Esther.  Continue with lock down procedure.”  He tapped the glass, activating the built in console, and opened a channel into the room.  “Welcome aboard the JSN Hetz.  I am Captain Harold Roth.  State your intent.” She didn’t speak.  She stared. He glanced at the glass display to see Esther was doing a full biophysical scan of the woman.  The output was confusing. Her results were showing up all over the board. He spoke again, “Why are you here?”

Her voice was strong and angry as she spat out, “I wasn’t expecting a damn soul.  Why are you here?”

“You did not answer the question.”

“Don’t get all uppity.  And you didn’t answer the question either!”

“My emun isn’t earned through insults.”

“Emun?  What the hell does that even mean?”

“It’s the Hebrew word for trust.”

He watched as her eyes grew wide and she glanced around nervously.  Esther reported the woman’s heart rate had increased and she was exhibiting signs of a panic attack.  He let out a sigh, “Do not be afraid. I am not going to hurt you.” There were stories spread across the galaxy of how the Jewish Space Navy treated captives and enemies.  None of them held truth. But Harold had seen that look enough to know.

“I’m not worried about you.”  She retreated back inside the ship for a moment.  He increased the microphone monitoring and heard more cursing and objects being thrown within the ship. She returned and stood in the door, “I need you to let me go.  Now.”

“That is not possible.  Your ship is not functioning.  You will not survive.”

“That’s my call, jackass.  Now, let me go!”

“Impossible.  What is your name?”

“Fuck you!”

Roth stabbed the glass, closing the channel as she shouted, screamed, and bellowed.  She rushed the glass and began to pound on it, seemingly to smash it. He shook his head and left the room.

 

“Captain Roth, the woman is attempting to bypass the door lock.”

He looked at his watch.  Six hours had passed. Esther had keeping him updated.  The woman had thrown everything she could get her hands on against the glass.  She had even blasted it with a pistol, to no avail. The IDF had built the patrol ships with every possibility in mind.  You never knew the kind of creature you would find out here in the black, they had reasoned. ‘Everything and the kitchen sink’ had been part of the language used in the research and development phase.  Roth was curious now, however. Attempting to hack Esther wasn’t the smartest decision. The computer had protocols. And she would act on them. He returned to the bay and circled over to the lone entrance to the ship.  She was crouched at the junction box, several tools at her side and one in hand. He tapped the glass and opened the channel and spoke to her, “This is a bad idea.” The woman continued to work but extended one hand, middle finger raised.  A few moments later there was a whine of electricity. She screamed and flew back, shaking on ground at the effects of a suddenly electrified door. Esther’s protocols had taken effect.

“What…the...hell...man…”

“That was Esther.  She is the ship’s computer.  She has protocols. And I cannot override them.”  That wasn’t the entire truth. There were ways for him to have Esther address situations differently.  But she was required to act in some capacity.

“She’s kind of a bitch.”  The woman stood, shakily and leaned against the wall as she spoke.

Esther droned, “I am incapable of experiencing or performing emotion, human.”

Roth tapped the glass and a moment later a circle in the floor slid open and a plate of steaming food appeared.  “You haven’t eaten in quite some time. Please, eat.”

“Why?”

Esther spoke up, informing the annoyed woman that her scans revealed that she had been monitoring her since she stepped out of the ship and into the bay.

“Not you, robotic bitch.  I was asking him. Why feed me?”

“We are to treat our those within our homes as our friends.”

“Even captives?”

“Even captives.”

She didn’t respond.  She walked over to the plate.  He could see her working it out in her head if she trusted him and weigh the risks.  She snatched the plate and haltingly returned inside her scout ship.

“She seems to like it,” Esther commented.

“Let us hope she resists to urge to throw it back at us.”  Roth thought he almost heard a snicker from the scout ship.

 

"Captain Roth, the woman is requesting to speak with you." Esther voice was always toneless but Harold swore that there were times where he thought he heard a tinge of annoyance, or frustration seeping through.  He'd finished reading the bursts that had come through while he'd been under, the map of the galaxy quietly updating as his eyes had searched for news of home.  Nothing of his family, but it was to be expected.  His assignment to the outer rims had not carried the prestige they had hoped for and had seemingly gone on  to live as if he'd never existed.

He soon stood at a window, his hands keying in the system to record their conversation, noting the time as 1300 hours.  "My name is Captain Harold Jacob Roth, and you are onboard the JSN Hetz, Judah class starship.  Please state your intent and identification."

The woman sat on the stairs of her hardscrabble vessel and shook her head, "I told you to let me go.  You didn't listen."  Roth furrowed his brow and checked the long range detection systems.  There wasn't anything on the screens, but her warning was starting to ring clearer and clearer.

"Esther, plot us a course to our next patrol point.  Engage jump drive on my command."  She responded in the affirmative.  "Whoever it is that your fear, I have full faith in our ability to protect you."

"Faith, that's pretty goddamned funny coming from you."

"Religious humor is something this Jew ignores."

"You're missing out.  Well, here goes nothing.  I'm a slave, genius.  I've been working this quadrant for wrecks and debris for weeks, trying to get my quotient up by the end of the month.  There, you happy?"  She threw up her hands and let out a long sigh.

"Slavery was abolished in the established empires and kingdoms years ago."

"Well, there's plenty of lawless points and parts in the galaxy and I was lucky enough to be born in one.  They're coming for me.  Transponder started broadcasting as soon as I jimmied the internal computer.  You'll have to turn me over."

Roth shook his head and her mouth actually dropped open, "You've never been on a JSN ship, have you?"

"No, I judiciously avoid them like the hell and plague I've heard them to be."

"We don't tend to respond well to demands from slavers.  We were once in that position a long time ago.  Esther, can you identify where the transponder is?"

"I can.  However, it is important to note it is better to scuttle the scout ship and transport our passenger to a free land.  There is another matter."

"I do enjoy complications.  What is it?"

"Slavers traditionally embed a kill switch in their slaves if they stray too far or cause is found for remote termination."

"That is another matter.  Solution?"

"I cannot disable it remotely.  It must be removed from her and deactivated  by hand."

The woman groaned, "That means you have to operate on me."

Esther intoned, "It will need to occur quickly.  Long range threat detection has three large class slaver vessels inbound.  They are due to arrive within the hour.  They are traveling at exceedingly extreme operating speeds."

Roth grunted, "Get me a kit in the bay, Esther.  Put some distance with the pulse engines.  Fly casual, don't give them any ideas."

"Please define 'fly casual'.  I do not have that maneuver in my data banks."

"Fly like we flew when we had that thing at Meridian."

"Affirmative."

The windows he stood before activated and the wall opened to the surprise of his guest, who remained where she stood.  "I suspect Esther is watching me for any kind of movement and will do something terrible to me if I misbehave."

The lilt of Esther spoke up, "You are correct, human."

The kit appeared on the floor and Roth picked it up, opened it and quickly used the medical scanner to key  in on her switch.  "I think it's time you tell me your name, friend."

She grimaced, "Natalie Kennedy.  Or as my owners call me, NK01."

"This is going to hurt, Natalie Kennedy."

And it certainly did.

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Chapter 2

"She lost a lot of blood.  Are you OK, Captain Roth?"

The bay reeked of death, and spatters of deep magenta marked where his new companion had squirmed, flopped, screamed, and nearly died.  The device that had been embedded in her stomach had been determined to remain in her body.  Harold Roth was determined to see it removed.  It now sat in a containment unit at the far end of the bay, chunks of Natalie Kennedy's flesh still stubbornly attached.  He'd patched as much as he could until he could do no more and on Esther's detached pleadings, placed her in a healing chamber.

He was not OK and he was keenly aware that Esther's readings of his body and its current state would confirm if he lied.  One of the programming features that had been installed in the artificial intelligence unit had been her very deep distaste and hatred of lying.  Only, she didn't experience emotions so it became an odd and escalating conversation in which Esther could take rather significant action if her delineation  data banks determined it was necessary.  Harold had decided early on his service to avoid lying to Esther entirely.  She was a progressive AI unit and learned, adapted, and reworked her relationship with those that served on her ships.

"No, I am not OK."

"Would you like to discuss it?"  Harold sighed.  They had also built in a therapist element with the latest release and he wasn't finding it very helpful.

"Not at this time.  Time to arrival of slave ships?"

"Fifteen minutes."

"Engage bay clean up procedures. Prepare scuttling operations for the shuttle and the device."  Without waiting for her reply, he began to run.

 

"Arrival time?"

"Ten minutes.  I have plotted several courses for your review that will find us to safe harbor.  I would advise the need for additional crew given the threat and our new cargo."

Harold bit his bottom lip.  Esther was probably right.  He would need to get back within range of reaching out to his superiors to seek new orders.  The JSN had a history of standing up to and taking the fight to the slavers.  It had previously been a coordinated effort.  This was not.  There would be questions aplenty.

Roth mused as he looked through the curated courses, "Course 209 looks good.  The Karina Depot.  Not too busy, but busy enough. Just in range for secure communications.  Lock in the heading and engage when ready."

"Locked.  Jump drive engaging in 5."  

He secured himself in the command chair, sliding the seat belts securely in place and counted down silently until he felt his stomach flip as the Judah class starship flung itself through space.  Soon enough, his stomach leveled out and he opened his eyes.  The green glow of the jump portal shimmered around the bay windows of the command center, the deck emitting a harmonious hum.

"We are underway," Esther quipped, "all stations at keeping."

Roth clicked the safety belts off and stood, his eyes returning to the tactical readouts, "Anything on our new friends?"

There was a pause as the ship's AI did the work and then she spoke, "They are arriving on site now.  The shuttle exploded using the device.  Her blood and the tissue that was removed in the procedure may assist in slowing them down as they verify if indeed she was onboard.  I am unable to calculate the odds of success due to the complicated nature of the situation."

Roth grumbled, "Depends on how much they want her back and how hard they'll fight for her.  Putting the three slaver warships on the case sends a significant message."

"I do not disagree with your evaluation of the developments, Captain Roth.  What must I do?"

He paused, lost in thought.  The slavers were brutal warriors, and were never known to play, fight, or do anything fairly.  He'd need a small crew.  And he'd need them ready when they docked at Karina.

"Pull the rosters of available crew at Karina.  Put 'em on the main display." The large windows that reflected the emerald vision of the portal faded as the screen faded to show a list of officers, and their skill sets. Roth slipped on his glasses and stepped closer to the screen.  "Esther, anyone we know on this list?"  A moment passed.  Then another.

"There are several.  Chief Weapons Officer Jeremy Sims."

"Sims is still around?  He was a fleet officer or something."

"He operates as a mercenary for hire due to his consistent issues with the various fleets and their views on blood purity."

"He'll fit right in.  Send a message hiring him.  Who else?"

Another pause.  Then Esther spoke, "Alexandra Mahoney, Chief Operations Officer."  Roth tried to remember her.  Esther must have sensed his wondering as she then spoke, "She was the pilot of the Harrisburg in the battle of Garrisa."

Roth remembered.  "They never forgave her for that, did they.  Smart of her to move to operations.  Add her to the list. One more.  I think Kennedy can handle the engineering job.  We're going to need a helm officer."

Esther let out a beep or two.  A moment passed.  Another moment.

"Esther?"  She wasn't usually this quiet.

"You are not going to like it, Captain Roth."

"There's no helm officers?  Not a pilot on the station?"

"There is one."  Esther wasn't revealing who the pilot was and it started to make Harold Roth nervous.  The AI was trained in a great many things, but she had learned this particular  move from him.  And he didn't like it.

"Who is it."

"Casper McCall."

Harold Roth cursed.  Three times.  "How is he still alive?", was his first question to Esther.

"He has escaped multiple death warrants,  two system wide dragnets, and one assassination attempt," was her response.

"I'm sure every single one of those things has a very good reason behind each of them."  Harold sighed, "But he's a very good navigator and helm officer."

Esther added, "His service jacket confirms this on multiple occasions."  Harold could have sworn her tone drifted into wry territory,  but he chose to ignore it.

"Wonderful.  Add him to the list.  Have the deposits made and confirmation of their arrival at the dock."  He turned to walk off the command deck.

"Where are you going, Captain Roth?"

"To promote my recent surgery  patient to chief engineer."  Esther did not respond, but Harold imagined her sighing inwardly in annoyance.

 

The healing chamber glowed orange as the medical devices finished the last of the work on the damage that had been wrought on Natalie Kennedy's body.  Harold Roth stood nervously at the control panel, a yellow tinged uniform folded on the table.  A moment later, the chamber beeped, and the pod was slowly lifted from within the liquid tank and placed on the ground.  The liquid was drained, and the pod door slid open, revealing the nearly healed body of Natalie Kennedy, slumped over, her breaths slowly coming through the breathing apparatus that was attached to her mouth.  Harold gingerly stepped in and removed the clasps.  A moment later, she was still breathing on her own and her eyes began to flutter open.  Roth stepped back.  She was wrapped on a teal healing suit and her eyes soon flew open and began to examine the world around her.

"Welcome back, Natalie Kennedy."  She pushed herself to stand, and had to grip the edges of the pod in order to keep her balance.

"What the hell happened?"

Roth nodded, "You almost died a few times.  We got the the device out of you...and scuttled your ship."  He explained the blood and tissue while revealing their destination.  She blinked a few times.

"Why did you do all this for me?"

"We help those who truly are in need."

"How do you know I won't just cut your throat in your sleep."

Esther spoke up, jarring Natalie, "I would not recommend that as a course of action.  I am programmed to intercede before that possibility becomes reality."

Kennedy grunted, "I've seen your programming in action.  Good safety tip.  What do you want, Rothy?"

He allowed a thin smile, "I'm here to offer you the job of Chief Engineer.  We're taking on a crew at Karina.  I suspect we're going to see some action and get into some things."

She scoffed, "You think I'm that important?"

Roth shrugged, "Three slaver warships say I'm right."

Her indifference faltered, "Three?"

"Three heavies, if I'm not mistaken.  They're keen to have you back.  I'm keen to keep you free."

"Working on your ship."

"We pay pretty well.  Your pay starts when you accept the job.  Esther can confirm that."

Natalie looked upwards, "Esther?"

The AI replied, "I can confirm it."

Kennedy let out a deep sigh, "I don't think any of us will live long enough to enjoy it. The slavers will find me and kill us all.  End of story."  She rolled her eyes as Harold shook his head in disagreement.  "But it you're going to unicorn rainbow this business, I'll be happy to ride this highway to hell."

"That's a yes, I take it?"

"Yes, Captain Roth.  That is a yes."  She rolled her eyes again.

"Welcome aboard.  Let's get to saving you and the rest of us from slaver doom, shall we?"  She rolled her eyes again, but said nothing as she followed him into the bowels of the ship.

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