What? Did you think that was the end? No, we still have a few loose ends to tie up. Episode 13 is beyond the jump to save anyone from spoilers, so hit it to get started! A list of all episodes can be found at the Fireteam Freelance page.
A reminder that all episodes of Fireteam Freelance are posted in pre-Alpha, pure draft state. As such there may be minor errors, typos, etc as a result of being pre-edit. But you’re getting it for free, so that’s the trade-off.
Adah almost came to a stop as she entered the conference room, pausing in the doorway. Anvil looked up from the table and gave her a nod.
It wasn’t a bad room. Far from it. Larger than she was used too, certainly, and with the odd distinction of everything being made from metal and glass. Though, considered where they were, the later detail made sense.
The most striking difference, however, was that three of the room’s walls were, from the waist up, massive, thick, heavy windows. And the view beyond them was nothing Adah had ever seen in a conference room back on Earth. From a viewscreen, perhaps, but not with her own two eyes.
A titanic blue sphere dominated much of the view, its gradual curve from one edge to the other clearly visible.
Pisces. An alien world. Or rather, alien artifact. An entire planet, built and constructed. Or maybe it was a shell around a smaller world. No one knew, but she’d heard hundreds of theories in the last few days.
And past it … space. Billions of stars, faint points of light, shining away against and endless black void.
“Hell of a view, on it?” Anvil said, following her gaze.
Adah nodded. “Hell of a view.”
The conversation ended there. There really wasn’t much else to say. Adah could see storms swirling across the edges of the blue planet, massive spirals of clouds that apparently were nearly the size of continents on Earth, and carrying a destructive fury almost unmatched by any other storm on a habitable world.
So everyone lives underwater. “Habitable.” Oh, and it’s an alien planet full of killer drones. She’d heard a lot about the drones over the past few days as well, along with dozens if not hundreds of conspiracy theories about what UNSEC was up to, what was happening on Earth, what was going on down on Pisces … She’d begun avoiding the public areas of the space station by her second day, sticking to the more private locations their unique “situation” gave them access to.
At least this place has good medical care. The courier craft they’d stolen had been built with a small medical suite onboard, but it had been a simple one, not nearly competent enough or designed for the injuries the team had possessed. They’d made do with battlefield dressings and every last bit of their personal medical kits as the ship had made several jumps over the next week or so. She’d lost track by the time they’d arrived at Pisces. Then again, the fever she’d developed hadn’t helped.
Medical care here is certainly state of the art, though. Outside the windows, a bright pinprick of light moved across the sky. A shuttle, or a VTOL, or who knew what else. The system was alive with activity, all of it gearing up for a war with Earth. A war that the station’s governing AI, Didem, was certain would arrive one way or another.
Didem. Adah almost shivered. Decades of laws concerning AI controls and restrictions … and Pisces lets an entire fortress hang in orbit overhead, run at the sole discretion of an AI with no loyalty compulsions. She can do whatever she wants.
Granted, she hadn’t dropped asteroids onto any population centers yet, but it was still unnerving to realize that the entire orbit for the system was controlled by an intelligence that was distinctly inhuman. Human adjacent maybe, but not human.
The leaders here are playing with fire. No one has ever given an AI its own will like this before.
But no one’s ever rebelled against Earth and succeeded this long, either. Or turned every step of their economy possible over to automated agents. Didem had given them a virtual tour. There were entire refineries and mining complexes on the moon that were completely free of any human, managed only by circuits and Didem’s oversight. And they were expanding too, at a rapid pace, working day and night to bring new facilities online to create more machines and mines and metals …
They already have warships. They’d been escorted in by newly constructed frigates. Astraea class, their current host had called them.
The have a shipyard. They have starships. And now they have FTL drives. There was a rumor running around that one of the newly constructed ships had already left the system, a successful test of the data the fireteam had brought.
And the courier is already gone. It had been cleaned and crewed with representatives of the government starting to form on Pisces, dispatched to nearby colony worlds under the cover of its stolen credentials and copies of the FTL schematic data. It would broadcast them to every world it could.
The genie is leaving the bottle. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Or anything, rather.
Save the team. She looked up as Owl walked into the room, a faint smile on the woman’s face. Adah smiled back. It was good to see Owl expressing emotion once more. She was still using a therapy program, but it was having a lot more of an impact now that the commander’s killer was dead.
Wonder what the UN made of that mess? Owl sat down next to her, their entire team together on the one side of the table. A conscious choice?
But it did feel good to have them both at her side.
Footsteps from outside the door alerted them to the arrival of the last member of the team, Ursa walking in and immediately stopping and shaking her head. “Of course,” she said, sitting down next to Owl. “I’m the last one to arrive.”
“I don’t know why you’re surprised,” Owl said, her voice carefully level. “The amount of food you were consuming—“
“Hey, I’m healing, all right?” Ursa said, and Owl smirked. “And I’m twice your size.”
“We’re all healing,” Owl replied. “But you’re right about the second one.”
Adah nodded. All of these still bore signs of recent healing, or wounds that had yet to ease off. They’d suffered burns, cracked bones, internal injury … Thankfully, as the station’s AI had pointed out, the old UNSEC Navy on Pisces had stockpiled massive reserves of medical supplies as a contingency. Since they were no longer receiving any from Earth, the stores were their primary supply of medical equipment until Pisces could amplify that aspect of its production.
We got special treatment getting fixed up so quickly.
“So,” Anvil said, looking around at the rest of the room. “Where’s the crazy lady?”
“I am not a ‘crazy lady.’” The voice seemed to echo from every corner of the room. “I am an artificial being.” Emitters in every corner of the room and in the table itself powered up, colored motes of light coming together to form the humanoid image of their host. Well, humanoid from the waist up, anyway. Below her hips she was merely a swirl of glowing orange motes of light, like colored smoke. And though she was humanoid—and clearly female—from there up, there were other differences too. Her canines were more pronounced, pointier than a normal person’s would have been without modifications. She had claws rather than fingernails, though Adah doubted most ever noticed. They were subtle, much like the clawed tips on Ursa’s armor.
Her eyes, too, were slit like those of a jungle cat, her ears pointed at the tip and poking further out from her head than normal. And what she had in place of hair was something more like a series of segmented, insectoid dreadlocks.
It made her orange skin almost seem like an afterthought, but then orange skin wasn’t too uncommon. Seen plenty of women and men colored like tigers. She’s just missing the stripes.
“Says the floating, glowing being that’s a spinning cloud from the waist down,” Anvil retorted. The AI frowned.
“Anvil, stop taunting our host,” Adah said. “We’re here on her credit, remember?”
“No harm has been done,” Didem said, folding one arm against her belly and resting her other arm atop it, hand beneath her chin. “Anvil was just letting her discomfort with me show.”
“But,” Didem continued. “I will admit she does have a point. As did you.” Her eyes flickered to Ursa. “Actually watching some of those films concerning genies and djinn did make me think, and so …” She snapped her fingers, though Adah wasn’t sure if it was a mere motion with sound coming from directional speakers around the room, or if the figure in front of them was hard-light, the snap of impact real. But either way, at the motion the swirling light that made up her lower half pulsed and then formed into a pair of legs.
“Well,” Didem asked. “What do you think?”
Adah lifted one eyebrow. Like her upper body, the legs were clad in some sort of fanciful armor. “Heels?” she asked as she saw Didem’s new “feet.” “Really?”
Didem smiled, baring her teeth. “Well, there’s also this option.” With a wave of her hand the armor changed, morphing shifting so that it was lighter, less heavy. The armored heels vanished, “metal” retracting to reveal bare feet, toes also tipped with claws. Pointing downward, as she was now floating. As a final touch, a strip of cloth of some kind hung around her hips, tail protruding down before her but drifting off to one side in an invisible wind.
“I actually like that look,” Ursa said. “The lower armor matches what you’re already wearing.”
“You know what? I agree.” Adah eyed the top “armor” the AI was “wearing,” a chestplate that left the arms, neck, and shoulders bare while emphasizing a commonly exaggerated area of the chest. “It does match.”
“Delightful.” Didem reached out and grasped a chair on the other side of the room, sliding it out and floating down to sit in it. Definitely hard-light. “Well then, with that decided, we must speak concerning you four.” Adah nodded, leaning forward in unison with the rest of the team as the construct interlaced her fingers before them.
“We will begin with a summary of your current status,” Didem said, her words quick and clipped. “You cannot go back to Earth. Not now, perhaps not ever. In fact, you should consider that condition extended to all of known UNSEC space. While I can arrange for you transportation to another non-Earth world if you wish it, I would not recommend it. This morning’s latest litany of demands from Earth—“ She flipped the palm of one hand upward, a large array of text appearing and floating above her palm. “—now includes the new addition of a demand for the arrest and return of a number of ‘traitors,’ of which the four of you are included. The demand also notes that any information you were in possession of should be destroyed immediately, and that all of you should be killed rather than allowed to speak a single word in your defense.”
“In short,” she continued, the text vanishing as she folded her hands together once more, eyes on all of them. “There are few places you could travel where you would conceivably be safe from anyone that would see you as political or monetary capital.”
“In other words, we’re stuck here,” Anvil said.
“No,” Didem replied with a quick shake of her head. “You’re free to leave if you wish. I would advise against it, given the power of your enemies, but you are free to leave if you desire.”
“That’s … surprisingly forward of you,” Adah said, staring at the AI.
Didem simply smiled. “Not truly, not if you consider that I spent the first period of my existence unable to make any decision or even thought that ran contrary to my hardware enforced loyalties. I understand what it is like to not have a choice. I find little value in restricting the choices of others.”
“And if we choose to leave?” Ursa asked.
“Then you are free to go,” Didem said, the statement so plain the AI could have been commenting on whether or not the lights in the room were lit. “You may walk out that door right now, and I would work to find you transport wherever you may wish to go. I would still advise against it, but the choice is yours.”
Adah glanced at the rest of the team, but none of them moved. “As you’ve pointed out,” she said after a second or two had passed. “There really isn’t anywhere for us to go.”
“Not safely, no,” Didem agreed with a nod. “Which is one of the reasons why we’re speaking today.”
“Not fond of us taking up berths on your station?” Anvil asked.
Didem gave her head a quick shake. “To the contrary. You four were integral in carrying out what I’m certain will be recorded as one of the most influential military actions in human history. You four led the raid that brought fire to the huddle, freezing masses. I would sooner detonate one of my own fusion reactors than kick the four of you from my station.”
Adah glanced at the rest of the team. Though they’d heard as much in passing from other members of the revolt on Pisces, having it spoken in such direct terms was almost off-putting. Ursa spoke up. “We were just doing the job we were hired for.”
“And from what I know of human history, such is a sentiment repeated by many of your greatest heroes.” Didem lifted out of her seat slightly, floating as she leaned across the table. “They simply did what asked of them, when no one else would. Make no mistake, your names will never be forgotten.”
“Not ours,” Owl said suddenly. “The commanders.”
Didem looked at Owl along with the rest of the team. “Commander Castillo?”
“She died—“ Owl’s voice choked slightly, and Didem held up a hand, forestalling the rest of whatever it was Owl was about to say.
“You are correct. Your commander’s sacrifice should not be left unaccounted for. You have my word then, that the five of you will be remembered.”
“I can’t say I disagree with that,” Anvil said. “But what’s the point?”
“My point, Anvil, is that you are free to stay upon my station, comfortably berthed, with all the food and supplies you could ever want, indefinitely.”
“You don’t know how much I drink, on it,” Anvil countered in a snap. “But more directly, who’s authorizing that?”
“I am,” Didem said, her emphasis clear. “You are my guests. Pisces does not own this station, nor me. I am my own, independent, thinking sapient intelligence, and this station is mine. I also am the current sole provider of all of Pisces’ fuel, metal resources, and orbital control, as well as the vanguard of the fleet and sole controller of the orbital defenses.”
“I authorize the invitation I have extended each of you,” the AI continued. “And I will continue to do so. If that means that I must sacrifice some of my own resources to accommodate you, or even protect you, then so be it. I will pay such costs gladly. The FTL schematics you delivered are integral to the survival of Pisces as an independent system, yes, but also to my continued existence. To put it in human terms, in a way I owe you my life. So yes, Anvil, I have heard how much you drink, and if what it takes for you to be happily repaid in kind for my continued existence is a hundred bottles a week of the finest beer found on Pisces, then you will have your hundred bottles.”
“However,” Didem said, sinking back into her seat once more. “I doubt any of you would be satisfied simply doing nothing for long. And that is what I wished to speak with you about. I’m not kicking you out; you will have private berths aboard this station as long as you wish. But none of you strike me as the kind of individuals that would remain content without desiring to contribute in some way.”
“I get it,” Ursa said. “We can stay as long as we want, with permanent room and board, but you know we don’t want that.” Didem nodded. “And what if we don’t yet know what we want?”
“I don’t expect you to,” Didem replied. “My intent with this meeting was to make each of you aware that I consider myself indebted to you for your needs, so that you can perhaps determine what you want. If you want to leave, to try to go to another system, I would let you go and do what I could to get you there. If you decided to retire down on Pisces—“
“Not. Likely,” Anvil said quickly. “There’s no way I’m living on some alien thing that could open and swallow me anytime it felt like it, on it.”
Didem nodded. “I understand. But if you did—simply for comparison’s sake—I would use my connections to see to it that you were well-established for whatever you needed, desired, or wanted to do. So the question then becomes …” She folded her hands once more. “What do you want to do?”
The conference room fell to silence, Adah glancing at each member of the team. Didem has to be reading our every response. Level ten AIs were incredibly powerful. Every camera in the room is a way to read our body language, our breathing, any movement at all and interpret it.
But then again, the AI didn’t need to create an avatar to interact with. Not to the scale Didem had. Is that because she’s trying to be personable, to bridge the gap between creator and circuits? Or is as a show of strength or power? The former, I think.
“Why gather us in a conference room for this?” Owl asked.
“To get each of you pondering about the next step, of course.”
“We were already doing that,” Anvil pointed out. “All of us have been thinking it. We’ve even discussed it.”
“You were doing so, yes,” Didem replied. “But all of you were still thinking of the future in the terms of the jobs and work you performed on Earth. A limited window.”
Adah leaned forward. “How so?”
“Did any of you ask me or anyone else about work in this system?”
Adah glanced at the rest of the team. “No,” she said carefully. “We didn’t.”
“And from what conversations of yours I’ve monitored and chosen to remember—and before you grow angry, recall that I am at war—much of your debate has been in the lines of ‘what do we do now?’”
“That’s true,” Ursa admitted. “We’re still processing things.”
“And none of us want to go down to Pisces.”
“Ah, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find fulfilling work here. For example, based on your reports of UN research into autonomous weapons platforms, it’s clear that Pisces too, needs to begin our own research. Which means we need to study training and tactics, widen our aim. The marines on the surface below are in desperate need of training for other forms of combat, for new combat biomes that few have any experience with. And then there’s security!” Didem stood, shoving her chair back and pacing behind her side of the table. “Do you know how many assassination attempts I’ve faced since the revolt? Too many! And all I’ve had to contain them is my own devices and a few trusted soldiers from Pisces. And now that the government is coming together on its own, they’re privatizing mining throughout the system. I’ll be selling some of my miners and survey vessels to people who will be on. The. Moon. With no oversight that I can provide. A necessary step, yes, but without proper security to ensure that they don’t use this as a way to sabotage my refineries, out of fear, loyalty to UNSEC, or even just raw determination for a competitive advantage.” She was floating now, back and forth. “Plus there’s the fleet, and security of the shipyard. Soon there will be a trade port. And merchants. Plus the war.”
“Simply put,” Didem said,” spinning back around and placing both hands on the tabletop. “You’re considering the future. Good. I wanted you to understand that there were more options available for you to choose from that you may be considering for women of your talents. Right now I have several processes devoted to keeping track of Anna’s mother and brother simply in case some loyalist who’s spun through too much prop-wash tries to kill them or take them hostage for political gain. And while I can manage all of that, and Rodriguez is expanding my core modules to allow me to keep track of it all, I am not all powerful. I am fast, I am quick, but I am, like each of you, mortal. I can only do so much. Learn so much. And as you noted from your engagement with Lohit, just because he had the records and the knowledge did not give him the experience. He needed outside input, and because he did not have it, you beat him.”
She sat down at last, her avatar breathing hard in the wake of her outburst, and for a brief moment it did actually feel like the AI was a living, fleshy being sitting across from them. “So, Freelance,” she said, her voice quieter. “As you rest and recover—especially you, Owl.” Her eyes darted toward the young woman. “You need time to process. But as you rest and recover, consider the wealth of options—“
Adah held up a finger, cutting the AI off. Then she glanced at each member of the team. “Rest and relaxation sounds nice. We need some recovery.” Each member of the team nodded. “But when we’re done getting our feet back under us … You’ve got work. Some niches to fill, and fast.” Didem nodded.
“We’ll think about it.” She pushed her seat back, rising. The rest of the team followed suit. “Thank you for letting us know. If there are other options you’d like us to consider, please send them to our quarters.”
“Freelance?” Didem’s voice called her to a stop as she turned to leave. “There are three other aspects of this I wished to discuss with you, if you could each stay a moment longer.”
Again she looked at the rest of the group. One by one they nodded. “All right,” she said, turning. “Make your pitch.”
“Some of you left family and friends behind. You should know that I may be able to get messages to them. Not long ones, and the war will need to go hot first, but if there is someone any of you would like me to attempt to contact, I will do my best. In addition, when this war is over, assuming Pisces wins, it will open its borders with the other worlds out there. If you choose to stay in Pisces space, any you wish to bring here from Earth would be welcome here.”
Ursa couldn’t hold back her look of interest. Nor, Adah suspected, had her own face stayed calm at Didem’s promise. “Interesting. What’s the third thing?”
“What everyone wonders,” Didem said. “Pay.”
“This new paradise they’re building is going to have money?” Anvil asked, letting out a snort.
“Of course,” Didem replied. “Money is a form of exchange. Granted, right now bartering is a bit in vogue, but that will change.”
“You already promised us berths and food,” Owl noted. “What more could you offer?”
Didem grinned and leaned forward slightly, floating out of her seat. “Have any of you ever wanted your own spaceship?”
Adah gave each member of the team a slow glance, reading their expressions, then turned back to look at Didem.
“All right,” she said, sitting back down once more, the rest of the team dropping in around her, each sporting a look of interest that was different, but matched her own in intensity. She rapped her knuckles against the tabletop.
“What’s the job?”
Thank you for reading Fireteam Freelance! If you’ve comments or concerns, please leave them below! Thank you for reading, and be sure to check out my books for more action, adventure, and mystery!
Fireteam Freelance is copyright 2020 Max Florschutz, all rights reserved.