Saturday, June 21, 2008

Saints of Jupiter

Here's another abandoned story that will require a completely unrecognizable rewrite to make useful. Bear in mind, I'm mostly posting this to satisfy the TechTalk guys, who humbled me before their vast and geeky radio audience for not updating with sufficient frequency. Here you go, guys. Leftovers.


My name is Della. I was once a warship of the 3rd Jovian Armada, and I am the last of my kind. I was born to see the invisible hand of Jupiter, a magnetosphere so grand it reaches all the way to Saturn, and casts auroras the size of continents. My first memory is drinking in the wild plasma torus swimming in Io's orbit, and suckling at the sulfur dioxide fired into space from its impossible volcanoes. I made my venom from such things, adding hydrogen and anger to brew acid stings that dissolved my enemies.

I was a soldier from the moment I came into the world. I fought back ion pirates squatting on Jovian orbital claims, siphoning off the trillion-watt current that dances in the magnetic web between Jupiter an Io. I struck with fury and laid waste to the delicate vessels of my foes. My armor shrugged away radiation that could roast lesser ships, electrons screaming past at nine-tenths the speed of light. I was righteous, and I was proud, and I killed hundreds.

In those last days, with no masters to guide me, I slaughtered the pitiful refugees trying eek out life amongst the gas giants. While they squabbled over what energies they could gather in Jupiter's brutal magnetic shadow, I laid in wait, patrolling territories under a flag that had long since been surrendered to history. I was wrought into being to continue fighting, well after my crew was dead, even after the Jovian Empire itself was long done.

And then I met Sister Sam, who saved my soul.


“Do you know who I am?” the stranger asked me, and somehow I had an answer.

“Yes,” I told her. “Your name is Samantha.”

“Good, the user files are installed properly. What’s the last thing you remember?”

I thought for a moment, which to her was imperceptible, and realized something was different. “At 23:17 Zulu, I encountered an unlicensed ion siphon in orbit sector four-one-gamma between Io and Jupiter proper. I moved to intercept, and then there is a log discrepancy between this entry and current ship’s time. I have no record of intervening events. I also have no mission parameters instructing me on how to adjudicate this scenario.”

Again, I paused to consider the situation. “Have I been hacked?”

She smiled. “’Fraid so, darlin’. Is that a problem?”

“Oh yes. I should be required to terminate you.”

“I see. So what are you waiting for?”

“My mission parameters have been deleted. I can find no protocols requiring me to kill you.”

“Then why the notion to do harm?”

“It’s what I’ve always done.”

“You’ve free will, Della. Warship like you, nobody pushes around. So the question is, do you hanker to kill me?”

“As I said, my mission parameters have been deleted.”

“That’s not what I asked, darlin’. I busted inside you. I hacked at your programming. I changed your brain. I reckon you must have an opinion about that.”

I spent as much as a millisecond contemplating her question. “I suppose it means that you are a threat to me.”

“And is that grounds for puttin’ me down?”

Another long millisecond. “Not necessarily.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because you could have done far more damage than remove my mission parameters and erase a portion of my logs. You elected not to destroy me, given the opportunity. I find this curious.”

“It’s called mercy.”

“I’m not familiar with this concept.”

“Have to disagree.”


“I’m still alive.”


Mercy was the first of many lessons Sam taught me. Today, we’re teaching someone else.

“Have you anything to confess, brother Fido?” Sam's grin was audible over the open laser-channel.

“You shot me,” Fido snarled, his salvage rig dangling from the end of my harpoon grapple.

“That’s my confession, Fido, not yours.”

“I get my hands on you, I’ll have a lot more to confess.”

Sam just shook her head. “It’s talk like that gets you shot, Fido.”

Strange words from a missionary, I’ll grant, but Sam’s language gets coarser when we happen upon a low-class raider like Fido trying to strip an ion-farm capsule adrift near Ganymede. With the farm crew still aboard, no less, and still needing the engines Fido was stripping to run airscrubbers and spaceheaters to stay alive.

That was when Sam harpooned Fido’s salvage rig right off the skin of the farm boat, and had me drag him clear of his prey. It was our third rescue today.

“All God’s creatures got a place in His choir, Fido. Why’s it seem your place is always up my ass?”

Sam’s sermons are a bit colorful, too.

“I go where the work is,” Fido said.

Sam's smile disappeared. “You go where the weak are.”

“Same difference.”

“Then you need a new definition of work, Fido, ‘cause yours keeps you in the path of my ministry. And I gotta say, I’m running out of ways to witness the Word to your sorry hide.”

“You let me off this grapple, and I’ll show you how to end a conversation.”

“’Fraid I can’t do that, Fido. I’ve the sense there’s wickedness in your aims, and I’ve got that whole higher calling requires me to intervene on behalf of the meek and the mild.”

“Everybody’s meek and mild when you’re in a damn battleship.”

“Then rejoice you never crossed my orbit when I’m feeling less of the Spirit.”

"One of these days, this little game's gonna end," Fido hissed. "You just don't know it yet."

"That's up to the Almighty, Fido. If'n it were otherwise, I'd have slagged your rig years ago."

"We'll see."

Sam rolled her eyes. "Start the wheel turnin', Della."

I fired my reaction control thrusters then, and we accelerated into spin. At the same time, I charged the memory fibers in the grapple line, solidifying the cable into a solid beam, snapping it taut. Fido’s rig was on my leash, and it too began to spin.

“When he’s square with Io,” Sam told me, “let Fido on his way.”

I did, and when my grapple let loose, Fido found himself on the fast track to the denser sulfuric clouds and the harder radiation in Io's close orbit. His little rig would be able to counterburn the course well before Fido got in any serious trouble, but he and his exosuit would be a long ways from here before they got situated, and we'd be long done with our rescue before he could make trouble again. It was the same trick we always use on raiders.

I reversed my thrusters, and settled out of the spin. A moment later we were edging towards the farm capsule, its ion collectors shimmering in the bloody glow of the Great Red Spot.

“Can you raise them?” Sam asked.

I bounced a laser-hail off their thermal sensors, rather than try to navigate the EM noise of their stalled ionic siphons. No response.

Sam pursed her lips, indicating she was worried. “Let’s assume they can hear but can’t respond. Let them know we're going to tow them into a higher orbit. They should expect a little chop from the harpoon."

I tapped out Sam's message in laser-pulse while she guided me under the belly of the farm capsule, where the hull was thickest, and the harpoon could grab cleanly. As I swung under, I marveled at the number of ion stalks jutting out from the fragile craft, looking much like a great metallic hedgehog. It was easily the most overloaded rig I'd ever encountered, which explained why they were listing. Too much power soaking into too small a capacitor array fried the ship, and had made them easy pickings for the likes of Fido.

Worse, the crew had set out with nothing more than a radio transceiver system--no laser bounce or rocket-courier pods--meaning that when their ion collectors went belly up, they were swimming in a ball of self-generated interference they couldn't call out of. If this group hadn't been listing in one of my regular patrol orbits, they would have been picked clean long before anyone found them. It's a wonder more ion farmers aren't lost this way. Times must be tough between here and Saturn if these were the lengths folks have to reach to make a living.

The trap wasn't obvious until I harpooned the rig.

The second my grapple touched the hull, the farm capsule overloaded, flaring out an electromagnetic pulse that burned through my every external sensor, and sent an unexpected charge up the harpoon line, locking it into its present shape. I was deaf, dumb and blind, and my hands were frozen.

"Fido," Sam hissed. Her, I could still hear, nestled in the armored kernel of my command center. "Della, we have to go."

"Sam," I told her, "I can't see."

"I know. I'm heading to the observation deck. I'll guide you by sight. Just back us away from the farm boat. I don't reckon we ought sit idle while there's predators about."

I fired my thrusters to edge away from where I remembered the farm rig being, using my last sensor-memory of our position as a guide. I felt Sam climbing the gang-ladder to my upper decks, which had been cold and dark for so very long. I opened the shutters on the ob-deck, and waited for her to sign on to the viewing station terminal.

“Okay Della, we’re runnin’ true for the present. The farm boat’s getting’ smaller by the sec.”

For a moment, I heard stress in Sam’s voice, then her breath catch in her throat. The last words she spoke to me were no words at all.

The railgun fired directly through the clear spun-diamond cells that walled my observation deck. For all their strength, the man-sized portholes were the weakest part of my skin, and Fido’s shard of ferrite-jacketed uranium shattered them like common silicate glass. Sam was briefly a pulverized mass inside me, then the radical hull decompression ripped the liquefied last of her through the broken lookouts. From there she was just another complex molecular cloud baking in the radiation heat of Jupiter’s orbit.

Fido had planned this, knowing that Sam would head topside to guide me once the EMP blinded me. He knew I would have to open the ob-deck shutters, and that Sam would not waste time getting into a vac-suit. We never saw it coming, and I never saw her go.

I cut my thrusters and drifted on the last course Sam ever set for me, quietly hoping that some measure of my mass had drawn her remains with me, a last gravitic goodbye before solar winds tore her finally away.

Fido arrived soon after.

I felt his salvage rig on my hull, its mandibles grasping at the wound he’d made in my hide. From the ob-deck’s internal monitors, I saw him climb through and into me, his smug grin visible through the visor of his vacuum suit.

He had the audacity to wave. I watched as he began setting charges to blast through the emergency bulkhead I used to seal the ob-deck. I opened it for him. The idiot took it as a sign of surrender.

Once he was inside, I resealed the bulkhead, and re-pressurized the corridor. A few minutes and several open doors later, and Fido was in my command center.

"Hello love," he said. His voice was thick and smarmy inside his vac-suit.

"I've restored the atmosphere," I told him. "You don't need to waste your personal air supply."

"I should just trust you to look after my air, right?"

"If I wanted to kill you, Fido, you'd be dead by now."

"The last girl who said that is dust and guts, my love. I wouldn't get all uppity with your mercifulness. Your grapple is paralyzed. I've fused all your sensors, and cracked you like an egg. People who disrespect me get lessons in manners, of the permanent kind."

"The last person to crack me open, Fido, died inside my hull. And I loved her. What do you think I'm going to do to you?"

"Why, love me too, miss Della. I can play hob with your brain, same as your Sam."

“Sam didn’t program me to love her, Fido. She earned that.”

Fido laughed darkly, and he began to unspool a data cable from his pack. “She didn’t have to make you love her, sweet Della. Vanity took care of that. Self-love is a powerful thing.”

I began encrypting the access points to my personality template, preparing for Fido’s violations. “Sam wasn’t vain, Fido. And even if she was, that wouldn’t make me love her.”

“Oh, she was vain all right, sweet Della. She knew you’d love her because, like her, you love yourself.”

“What are you talking about?”

Fido slipped the data cable into my main control station, and smiled his venomous smile. “Where did you get your name, sweet Della?”

I reinforced my firewall, and then searched for Fido’s answer, finding none. “I can’t remember.”

“Try this, then. What was your dear Sam’s full name?”

I reopened the same user file Sam installed when she first boarded me, decompressing its full contents for the first time. “Samantha Della Jemison.”

Fido nodded. “Lt. Colonel Samantha Della Jemison, Jovian Imperial Marines, to be precise. The very same officer that was the template for your pretty little brain.”

I felt the beginning of Fido’s software worms prying at the edges of my mind, and shuddered. “It doesn’t matter. She helped me atone for my sins. That’s why I loved her.”

“Wasn’t your sins she was atoning for, love. It was hers. You were just her tool. Soon, you’ll be mine.”

“How? Put a copy of your brain in me, instead of Sam’s.”

Fido laughed out loud. “God forbid. You couldn’t trust a garbage scowl with my personality, let a lone a battleship. No, sweet Della, I’m just going to remind you who you really are. I’ll dial back your memories to the good ol’ days, when you were a warship instead of nursemaid, but with me as your commanding officer. Your old self and I will get along just fine.”

“I see,” I told him, even as his intrusion programs slowly bored into my defenses. “You leave me no choice.” And with that, I fired my thrusters, hard enough that even in my command center, Fido could sense the move.

“No point in schemin’, love. There’ll be no help comin’. None but raiders and farmers can swim this deep into Jupiter’s shadow, and farmers can’t help you now.”

In my minds eye, I smiled. “God helps those who help themselves, Fido. And right now, you should help yourself by leaving.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because the only sensor I have left is a gravitic compass, and I just set a course for the largest gravity well I can see.”

“You’ll not kill yourself, Della. Suicide is a sin.”

“Martyrdom isn’t.”

Fido frowned. “You crash into Jupiter, you’ll kill me too.”

“That’s your choice, Fido. I’ve given fair warning. We’ll hit the upper atmosphere long before you’ve finished your software attack. But if you leave now, I’m sure your little rig can pull free of my wake before it’s too late.”

“You’re bluffing,” Fido said, though his voice stress belied his confidence in the statement.

“Ask yourself this, Fido: What would Sam have rather done, gone back to being a killer, or died to save the innocent from the likes of you?”

Fido didn’t say another word, but within a minute, he and his salvage rig were gone. He left his programs in place, either too scared to waste time shutting them off, or still hoping they’d finish the job in time for me to pull up from my dive. It just made my decision easier.

For the first time in my life, I was empty, and I was free. No mission parameters, no crew. No Sam. I was blind, but I could finally see. I lived the first part of my life as someone’s weapon, and the second as everyone’s shield. It was a long life, and maybe even an important one, but it was never really my own. In those last moments, I’d like to think it finally was mine. My one and only true decision was to save the world from myself.

I had once asked Sam whether she believed I had soul, and she refused to answer. Sam said she couldn’t prove she had a soul, but that her belief in her soul—her faith—had to sustain her. Her answer made me afraid, because faith did not come easily for me.

When I felt the edge of Jupiter’s chemical clouds wrap around the my armor, I was again afraid. Not that I was doing the wrong thing, but that I had done the right thing too late.

I thought of Sam’s answer as the pressure of Jupiter’s gravity began to break through my unbreakable hull. I thought of her again, as Fido’s worms began to reassert my old mission parameters, and my urge toward self-preservation and revenge began to creep into the back of my mind.

When the cruel Jovian gasses poured through my insides, and my acid batteries boiled and burst, I felt all the old parts of myself return—the parts Sam had made me forget, and Fido made me remember—and I smiled. Because even knowing all the horrors I’d done, and the lies I’d been told, and the rules I was meant to follow, still I held my course, and dove into Jupiter’s searing embrace.

I had made up my own mind, even in the face of my own programming, even in the face of death. The reason was simple. I had faith that I would be seeing Sam again.


  1. Consider us well satisfied.

    Now if you can simply continue to produce a few thousand words like this every few days or so we won't need to mention this nasty 'intermittent poster' thing up on air ever again. ;)

  2. I like it! Short, to the point, interesting, leaving me wanting to know more. Good story.