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Human Factor

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This story features a heroic death for an important character.
A mothership in front of Earth
Major Sanja Khan stood at the recovery bay airlock, fighting the feeling that she’d been reduced to a weak, insignificant piece of herself. The enemy’s initial wave had damaged her neurocraft, forcing her to return to base. Disconnected from her craft during critical repairs, her own flesh and bones seemed alien. Her vision narrowed to her front side, making her back prickle as though something were creeping up behind her. Her thoughts were limited by the speed of electrochemical reactions, hazy and sluggish.

A dozen years ago, the untested neurocraft had seemed like invasive mechanical monstrosities. But to have any chance against the alien onslaught, Khan needed to steer by thought instead of control sticks. So she and the other pilots were transferred to the training base in Nairobi. There they spent a year of near-constant surgeries to irreversibly alter their brains so they could accept the neural linkup. Even after the surgeries, it took another year of training before they were ready to shield humanity’s guttering flame.

Since then, Khan had led her pilots against the Outsiders countless times, basking with them in the victories at Charon and Mars, mourning as the Outsiders swarmed over Titan, Europa, and Ceres. To prevent the enemy from swallowing up stations and their millions of inhabitants, her squadron spent their ships and their lives. They slowed the enemy’s advance, but they hadn’t stopped it. The swarm arrived on Earth’s doorstep five hours ago. Khan’s pilots were battling the enemy, and she wasn’t there.

A klaxon sounded, and the bay doors opened onto vacuum. The remnants of Khan’s squadron drifted inside the station. Their thrusters fired erratically; great gouges marred their hulls. Half her squadron was unaccounted for, including her best pilot, Mimi. Khan’s throat tightened. Mimi was the only one who took to the link naturally. When Khan was ready to resign from training in disgrace, Mimi showed Khan how to banish the ghosts of sensory overload and become one with her craft. Mimi didn’t even mind when Khan was chosen over her to lead the squadron. Now Mimi’s com channel was silent. Had her ship been destroyed? Or worse, had the Outsiders consumed her for fuel?

A second alert sounded through the station: approaching enemy ships. Beyond the station walls, in the vast emptiness of space, the Outsiders regrouped for another attack.

One final ship slammed into its docking cradle before the station doors closed. The craft’s nose bore a golden sunburst – Mimi’s ship. As soon as the bay was pressurized and the airlock opened, Khan sprinted toward the vessel. The craft was mostly intact, with only a few tiny holes from hypervelocity shrapnel. Mimi hadn’t signaled, but her transmitter might be damaged. She could still be alive.

The disembarking slide opened, and Mimi’s wetware, her physical body, collapsed to the docking bay floor. Blood ran from tears in Mimi’s flight suit and bubbled up between her pale lips. Khan grasped Mimi’s hand.

“Don’t check out on me,” Khan said. “I need you to keep me flying straight.”

Mimi’s lips parted in a grin to reveal blood-stained teeth. “I’m full of holes.” Mimi shuddered. “Promise me you’ll finish the job.”

“I will,” Khan said. “I swear.”

White-dressed medics surrounded the two pilots, and in seconds Mimi was whisked away on a stretcher, needles and sensors jammed into her flesh like a mockery of her neurocraft’s linkup. Khan stared after the retreating stretcher. Mimi was her rock in the void. At the battle for Mars, Mimi arced in at the last moment to destroy the Outsider mother ship. Without her, the domed cities would have fallen. Khan clenched her fists. Now it was up to her to defend Earth.

Khan’s wrist-com chimed, and she sighed in relief. Her neurocraft was ready. It was suspended above the docking bay floor just where she had left it. An elongated cube with a powerful fusion drive protruding from the stern – her neurocraft was a mass of sensors, torpedo tubes, and laser projectors. The craft gave her new eyes and ears, a body optimized for violence in the Solar void. She gave her craft a brain.

An ascent ladder unfolded from the hatch at Khan’s approach. She climbed into the the tiny cockpit, a form-fitting space designed to insulate her body from the effects of high-G maneuvering. She checked her status displays: her torpedoes were at full complement, and her engine was fueled up. Her neurolink still needed a few seconds to complete its warmup process. She adjusted her sensor interface so it would lock in and highlight Mimi’s location. Khan’s comrades would be with her, even in the depths of space.

Her vessel’s com chimed a priority message. A woman’s voice sounded over the cockpit’s tiny speakers. “Major Khan, this is Admiral Li aboard the Kongzhi. Nairobi Command has put me in charge of orbital defense. The Outsider fleet has regrouped and is burning hard for Earth.”

Khan frowned. Admiral Li was well known. After her home colony of Europa had fallen to the Outsiders, she was appointed head of military research and development. She was a strange choice to lead orbital defense.

“Understood,” Khan said. This was it. The remaining Outsiders were making a Hail Mary pass at humanity’s home world. Khan set her teeth in a grim smile. When she destroyed them, the war would finally be over. “Repairs on my ship are finished; I’m ready to take the lead.”

“Negative,” Li said. “You’ll fly support for the synthcraft squadron.”

Khan’s gut clenched into a tight knot. Synthcraft were nothing more than mechanical automatons, soulless machines that only did as programmed. They had never been tested in real combat, no matter what their simulations showed. “Admiral,” Khan said, “you can’t send in the synths now. This is too important. I still have enough pilots to-”

“It was your high casualty numbers that convinced Nairobi to authorize the synths,” Li said. “We cannot waste human life by sending up wounded pilots or damaged ships. Command feels your rank and record entitle you to fly, but only in a support position. Kongzhi out.”

Khan snarled at the inactive com terminal. Ten years of fighting, only to be discarded like an outdated piece of equipment. Her ship chimed an announcement: the linkup had finished its warming cycle. She thumbed the controls harder than necessary. The synths couldn’t match the Outsiders the way human pilots did. Synths couldn’t improvise, couldn’t think for themselves. Her pilots had put sweat and blood into their training, only to be shoved aside for a pile of circuits.

Cables slid into Khan’s jackports, and the fatigue of her wetware fell away. Supplementary processors came online, linking her to the craft’s sensor suite. The narrow cockpit vanished. She rested in her docking cradle, thrusters warmed and fusion drive rumbling on standby. Her vision widened to encompass the entire bay, every surface standing out in sharp detail.

The world around Khan slowed as her thoughts were transmuted into electrons traveling at the speed of light across a neural net. Khan fired her maneuvering thrusters. Hot gas washed off the bay floor and caressed the composite alloy of her hull. With the thrusters’ gentle push, she fell backward into the void. Vacuum surrounded her, an endless black filled with tiny chunks of rock and blazing stars.

The repair station fell away as Khan accelerated. It became a pinprick in seconds, but her lock on Mimi’s com signal illuminated the station in a golden halo. Below Khan lay the titanic mass of Earth, a thin shell of atmosphere and crust over a pulsing iron core.

Her receivers picked up a tight-beam laser from the Kongzhi. The beam carried flight telemetry for a course along Earth’s orbital plane to a far-off cluster of high-velocity objects: the Outsiders. With the station at a safe distance, Khan lit her drive. Deuterium atoms smashed together deep in her belly, flaring through her drive cone and propelling her to an acceleration of three Gs, following the course laid out for her. Her wetware tugged at her. She called up status readings. Her wetware was handling the stress of acceleration at acceptable levels, cushioned by layer upon layer of weight-distributing gel in the cockpit.

Dozens of fusion drives lit up around her like a cloud of fireflies, white-hot exhaust spilling into the vacuum: the synthcraft were waking up from their dormant orbit. The synths moved in a packed formation by the standards of the void, with barely two thousand kilometers between the nearest crafts. A final drive lit up the night: Admiral Li’s Kongzhi, far behind the formation.

Another tight beam pinged from Li’s ship, whispering in Khan’s antenna.

“Major Khan,” Li said, “there’s no need to risk your life. Please position yourself behind the formation.”

Khan’s supplemental processors measured the admiral’s tone and inflection, comparing them to profiles of standard human conversation. False, insincere. Li didn’t care about Khan’s life; all that mattered to Li was showcasing the synths’ abilities. Khan reduced the reaction mass in her drive to fall behind. Sincerity didn’t matter. Li gave the orders.

The Outsider cluster increased acceleration, a swarm of agile fighters around a behemoth mother ship. They gave off no fusion plumes, no sign of any drives at all. After years of studying Outsider wreckage, humans were no closer to understanding how they moved through space. Their weapons were clear enough: coherent laser light that burned through hull like paper, and torpedoes that blended into the void like black flecks of sand.

At the same moment, synths and Outsiders cut their forward acceleration. They spread out across space, scattering torpedoes like grapeshot and sweeping the void with great arcs of laser fire. The opposing ships burned in random directions, obfuscating their positions. The two sides were light-seconds apart; their attacks sought the target’s future location.

Khan’s vision showed the Outsider fleet at nearly full strength, despite the damage she and her pilots had inflicted in the previous battle. Her sensors honed in on the mother ship, a massive craft built around a cloud of nano-disassemblers. As she watched, helpless to intervene, the mother ship pulled the wreckage of a neurocraft into its nanite swarm, to be stripped apart and recycled into more Outsider ships. Khan hoped the pilot wasn’t still alive. In 13 years of war, Outsider mother ships had consumed ships and stations alike, with no regard for their inhabitants. It was how they rebuilt their strength so quickly.

The enemy swarmed closer to the synths. Khan’s visual processors projected the most likely trajectories of each ship, thousands of glowing lines across her vision. She focused on the nearest Outsider ship and brought her weapons to bear. Her torpedoes raced out into the vacuum, and her lasers arced across the glowing lines of the Outsider’s projected course. Each time a laser crossed a potential vector without registering a hit, it proved the projection incorrect, and a branch of glowing lines disappeared, like great shears pruning a tree across the void. None of her attacks struck true. She needed to be closer, but Admiral Li’s orders forbade her.

The synths and Outsider ships drew together, circling around each other. Their formations drew into tight nets to trap the enemy. The mother ship and the Kongzhi waited on either side of the melee, overseers watching their toy soldiers at work. The Outsiders’ trajectories split to avoid a synth trap, opening a small hole in their net.

Khan focused on the opening and calculated the range. None of the synths were in position to exploit it, but she was. If she pushed her acceleration to the limits of her wetware’s capacity, she might break through and destroy the mother ship. She increased the fusion rate of her drive, leaping through space on her own bright trajectory.

A tight beam pressed on her reciever. “Major,” Li said, “maintain your position.”

“I can take out their mother ship.”

“You won’t make that gap. Let the synths handle it.”

“This is my fight, and I’m going to finish it,” Khan said. She switched off her receiver and opened her throttle. Hydrogen fused into helium in her drive, propelling her forward at eight Gs. Her wetware sank into its cushioning gel as a mountain pressed down upon her.

Outsiders changed their trajectories, the flower of their potential paths spreading out to engulf her. Khan rotated herself in space, tracing an erratic zigzag. She only needed to evade their fire long enough to slip through the net. An uncomfortable pressure built up on her wetware. Torpedoes swarmed around her, close enough that her maneuvers alone could not evade them. She launched her own torpedoes in defense.

The Outsiders were closing their net, but not fast enough. She was almost through. She fired her fast-burn rockets, giving her a last push of speed.

Pain shorted her neural linkup, and her vision flickered between the void of space and her cramped cockpit. Alarms blared in her ears. The acceleration force was too much – her wetware couldn’t sustain it. Her vision pixelated as her brain was starved of blood. With the few thoughts still at her disposal, Khan cut her acceleration.

An Outsider torpedo exploded off her bow, sending her spinning through the void. Shrapnel tore into her hull. Only her fix on Mimi’s com gave her any sense of orientation. Half of her systems wouldn’t respond. Statuses showed auto-repairs in progress, but it would take precious seconds. What was left of her sensor array showed the flower of Outsider trajectories closing in around her. Probabilities showed an even split between being carved up by laser fire and being towed into the mother ship’s waiting maw.

New trajectories streaked across her vision with the fusion plumes of human craft. Her fellow pilots had arrived to fight beside her, to finish what she’d started. No. Her memory recovery processes spat the truth into her mind. Her fellow pilots were dead or grounded. The synths had come to her rescue. They drove back the Outsider formation as she lay helpless in space.

A tight beam pressed on Khan, and she couldn’t concentrate enough to shut it out. “I was afraid you might do something like that,” Li said. “Fortunately, my synths can cover for your incompetence. Enjoy the show, Major. Your contribution to this fight is over.”

A group of synths dove for the same opening she had tried to exploit, their drives a new formation of stars in the night sky. They reached her eight-G mark and held it, with no wetware systems to be damaged by the extreme acceleration. Outsider crafts raced to intercept, but they were too late. The synths smashed through the gap and swept their lasers across the mother ship, peeling back its hull like a ripe fruit.

The mother ship lay dead in space. Without it, the remaining Outsiders were sluggish, uncoordinated. The synths finished them in minutes.

Khan ran simulation after simulation, but she already knew: human pilots could never fly like that. The endless surgeries, the countless hours training for high Gs, the years of studying the enemy: none of it mattered. She didn’t have the proper hardware. She was obsolete.

Synths combed through her vision, latching onto Outsider debris. Even now, the research had to continue. Khan’s systems came fully online. She was one with her neurocraft again, a human consciousness riding a tail of starfire. But not for long. News would have reached Earth and the remaining Solar colonies by now. People would be celebrating the synths’ victory. They would take her craft away.

An alert tugged at her. Her fix on Mimi’s com had vanished for a moment. She focused her sensors. The fix was re-established; Mimi was fine. A synth had briefly passed between Khan and the repair station. A synth dragging a chunk of Outsider debris. Why? The repair station wasn’t set up to retrieve research materials. Khan widened her vision, tracing the synth trajectories. None of them were bringing material back to the Kongzhi. They were spreading out over Earth.

Were the synths malfunctioning? Khan focused a tight beam of her own on the Kongzhi. “Admiral, what’s going on?”

“Nothing to concern you,” Li said. “Land your craft and await orders.”

Khan’s wetware teeth clenched together. Land so they could tie her to the ground, send her on an empty tour showing off medals? Not yet. She fed data on the synths’ trajectories into her prediction algorithms. Supplementary processors kicked in. The synths were headed directly over heavily populated areas. She checked her geographical data. Not just populated areas, but Nairobi and the major military installations of Pan-Africa. Each synth was dragging a piece of high-density debris that could be accelerated into multi-megaton projectiles.

Khan tuned her radio antenna toward Earth and picked up a high volume of encoded military signals coming out of Chinese and Indian military installations. She called up supplementary information: Admiral Li had served at each base, and they would be in a perfect position to take over if Pan-Africa was devastated. The admiral was launching a coup.

The golden halo of Mimi’s com signal was directly in the synths’ path. Her station would be one of the first targets. No. Khan reversed course and took aim. The synth burned on a simple course, not suspecting an attack. Khan’s lasers carved it into an expanding sphere of debris.

The other synths took evasive actions, accelerating so fast Khan’s processors strained to project their courses. Li’s voice sounded over the tight beam. “How dare you.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Khan said.

Li’s voice was a growl. “I’m saving you. I’m saving everyone.”

“By attacking Earth?”

“If those incompetents in Nairobi had listened to me when the Outsiders arrived, we could have driven them out years ago. But no, Nairobi wasted time and resources on you and your neurocraft. Europa fell while my synths languished in storage. When the Outsiders come back, I’ll make sure we’re ready.”

Khan estimated the damage if Li launched her attack. The admiral would burn Earth to ashes in the name of saving it. “I’ll stop you,” Khan said.

Li laughed.

Khan generated a tactical analysis. Sounding the alarm would do no good; Earth had no more ships to send up. Attacking the synths again was pointless; they’d outfight her in seconds. Li’s command ship was her only hope. If Khan destroyed the Kongzhi, control of the synths would pass to an orbital station, and the synths would never receive their final attack orders. Earth would be safe. Mimi would be safe.

She released mass from her bow thrusters and spun on her axis. Her drive lit up the void. The Kongzhi wasn’t built for close combat. Its point defenses would stop any torpedoes, but she only needed to get within a light-second to slice it apart with her lasers.

A cluster of trajectories slammed down between her and the Kongzhi. Synths were weaving in a pattern so tight and controlled she’d never get through it. She changed course, an erratic zigzag, to avoid the lasers her algorithms predicted were coming. At this range, she could dance around their fire, and they hers, but she’d never get close enough to destroy the Kongzhi.

She had no hope of defeating the synths. They could do things no human pilot ever could. They fought with the Outsiders’ perfect coordination. Without the telltale drive plumes, Khan would have believed the synths were Outsiders. Their flight pattern formed the same tight net; it even had the same false gap, a gap her wetware limitations made impossible to exploit. She would die from the attempt.

But at what point in the attempt? She devoted processing power to analyzing her wetware. If she timed the acceleration just right, she might last long enough to reach the Kongzhi. Her wetware wouldn’t survive. She wouldn’t survive. Her fix on Mimi’s com was a warm gold in the corner of her vision. That was all right.

She tumbled in space to line herself up with the gap and fired her drive at a mere four Gs. Please, let the synths think this was another evasive maneuver; let them not try to close the gap until it was too late.

Torpedoes closed in around her, and she burned them out of the sky in silent flashes. She opened her drive’s reaction to maximum, her wetware pressing into its cushioning gel at over eight Gs. The synths reacted to her move, closing in to kill her when she cut thrust. Would they register surprise when she didn’t cut thrust?

Khan flared the last of the fuel in her secondary boosters, pushing her over the nine-G mark. Pain lanced through her wetware, and her vision faded at the edges. Thousands of kilometers vanished with every second. Out in the void, the Kongzhi lit its own drive, finally aware of the danger.

Li sent out a wideband message. “Stop this or you’ll die!”

“Humans choose what to die for,” Khan said. Her lasers reached out to breach the Kongzhi’s core, and Khan’s sensors were blinded by nuclear fire.

Khan’s vision through the neurocraft’s sensors was narrowing by the second. Color vanished, transforming the synths into limp gray shapes, as a dull pain built behind her wetware eyes. In the fading gray, Mimi’s signal blazed its golden halo.

 

Comments

  1. crimson square

    I… give me a second, kind of a bit overwhelmed with feeling right now.
    Khan’s death is kind of heartbreaking in this; I kind of expected it because of the content notice, and it still was.
    The fact that her decision is ultimately made by Mimi being one of the first targets is… just. Can’t quite describe it. Works too well.

    I don’t quite like Khan’s insistence that a tech development that would save lives is a bad thing, since while it would make her obsolete, it would also mean she would get to stop fighting and humanity would have a better chance. It just – kind of doesn’t quite ring true, the way she dislikes it so much, it seems like an unadressed flaw to me: That she’s just purely resenting of something that’s quite literally saving her ass and her friends’ and her whole society right now, something that she’d likely lose without. Also, that Khan initially dislikes Li for… basically, telling her Not To Die and not to let her friends get killed. After her insincerity? Dislike understandable. Before that – not quite.

    It’s also odd how Khan’s narration paint the synths as the villain when they’re just machines? Doing their job? What’s so awful about “soulless machines”?

    Otherwise – I really enjoyed the strong character voice – “wetware”, “hardware”. I also like the way the villain is explicitely using “I just want to save everyone” rhetoric and quite clearly in the wrong, because that rhetoric as a justification for horrible acts needs to be shown for exactly the awful stupidity it is. I also like the way the relationship between Khan and Mimi is left ambiguous yet obviously close, because whether it’s a strong friendship between women, a queerplatonic relationship or a romantic relationship, all need representation.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks Crimson, I’m glad you liked the story! And yeah, it was nice to get a dig at the whole “I’m doing this terrible thing for the great good!” thing.

      For what it’s worth, my *intent* with Khan was to work through the feelings I think most of us have at the thought of our labor being made obsolete by automation, with the eventual realization that the problem isn’t automation itself, but the way it is used.

      However, as I’m fond of saying, the author is dead, so your interpretation is just as valid as mine.

  2. Jack

    Engaging story! Well-built battle scene that held me all the way through. Khan’s ability to choose something other than orders was a fitting resolution.

    Of course, she might have wished she had her own synth at that moment…

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