Written by Mike Acerra
Edited by Allen Crowley
"Evolution is not the enemy of ethics but its first source."
Dr. Geminus was usually summoned to the Oculus for one reason: Captain Daria Kazemi wanted candid conversation. This time seemed to be no different.
When Geminus entered the foyer of the Oculus he was automatically scanned for listening devices and then a carousel airlock transported him into the spherical chamber of the 1 foot thick acrylic and nanopolymer giant snow globe.
He was always struck by the unsettling feeling of floating into a room that was surrounded by nearly 64,000 degrees of ink black space and a vast sea of stars.
Kazemi’s slate gray and chalk white streaked hair floated aimlessly in the weightless starlight. Her long dark form floated at the other end of the nine meter, transparent spherical dome. The only light came from the LEDs of the airlock panel and the stars outside, the oculus currently being in the ship’s shadow.
Designed as a forward observation workstation, Captain Kazemi had used the oculus for her private meditation room. But since the repurposing of the Proteus from the Venus science mission for the Martian political mission, she had swept it of all tech and communications. It was now one of the few places to have a private conversation on the ship. Even its life support was separated by independent filtration and supply from the rest of the Proteus to prevent infiltration of nanobugs. A quiet place amongst a background of empty space.
Kazemi’s nasal American soprano voice and Midwestern accent shook Geminus from his star-child reverie.
“What the hell, Gems? You were supposed to have had her under your care and observation and within an hour of waking up she nearly blinded one of our Marines.”
“He’ll recover, captain.” He said, bracing himself against the edge of the hatch opening.
“Maybe it was a mistake allowing her on board.” Came her voice from across the dark expanse between them.
“Allowing? Interesting way of putting it.” He shot back at her.
“Don’t rub it in. Sometimes I feel like you’ve forgotten your place. It’s too easy for me to forget that you’re a civilian.”
“Well I’m only technically a civilian. You know I’m at your service and the service of this mission.” He noticed the temperature was warmer than the airlock by at least 15 degrees and he thought the humidity was altered as well. It felt like a summer evening in Baraboo, Wisconsin, her hometown.
“You said he was bigger than her?” She said, slowly rotating counterclockwise.
“The master sergeant? He’s the biggest man on Proteus, besides Figi. Certainly the strongest and most formidable. I think she knew exactly what she was doing.”
“Oh really? That was a calculated move? Attacking her superior?”
“Perhaps not consciously calculated. I think she could have killed him in half the time, whether she knows it or not. She also could have stood down and taken his verbal abuse. But judging from the testimony of the Marines present, I think it goes without saying that our gunnery sergeant won over a good many of them by acting as she did.”
“I’d like to talk with her.”
“Is that wise? The Marines have a chain of command. She still needs to be debriefed by her commanding officer.”
“I don’t give a Goddamn. It’s my ship.”
“Indeed. Master and Commander. I’ll summon her immediately.” He tried to suppress his sarcasm, but felt it slipping from his grasp as he reached for the now missing comms panel by the hatch. Then he remembered the point of the room they occupied. “I mean,” he said more plainly, “I’ll send for her when I’m able.”
“Before you go there’s the matter of the Martian quarantine. Theories?”
He looked at her with his eyes slightly wider.
“New ones. Humor me.” She said, pushing off the sphere from the opposite side and gently drifting toward him.
He knew she trusted his intuition more than AI assessments, which was saying a lot since the newer AI’s abilities as prognosticators were nearly prescient.
Everything seemed compromised of late. There was conflicting data, dozens of subterfuges and psychological operations going on to sew distrust of any one source of information. Geminus worked at cutting through the fog. He suspected she may have known of his advanced neural enhancements. He usually worked at concealing his supercharged logic and memory enhancements so they wouldn’t interfere with human socializing. Often this was the hardest part of his job.
“I have a few new hypotheses. This is layered like a four dimensional onion, and I’m certain no players want us to know more than a fraction of the situation.”
“I’m all ears?”
“From my vantage you’re all hair.” He said.
Daria laughed. She continued to drift closer to the doctor, who had planted his magnetic grav shoes near the hatch, the only metal in the room.
“I’ve been digging through Overwatch “official” chronicles. I have tied together some loose threads before the planet went dark and the disinformation and psyop campaigns were in their full throws. I suspect that as early as the summer of 44, events transpired that could shed much light upon the manner in which our mission came to pass.”
“What manner was that? Oh, are you referring to pulling earth's most advanced research vessel off of its maiden five year mission to Venus to instead ferry an invasion force to Mars?” She continued to slowly drift toward him.
“Not so much about the how but the why. Why the Proteus? Why this crew? Why the replacement of the Tandaveer for the less powerful and untested SOLA aspiration AI? Why the Austin engine upgrade for such a short run. And why the frozen gunnery sergeant?”
“You’re not buying the reasons given by DOD?”
“Do you?” She gave him a wry smile and nodded. He knew that meant ‘continue’ and not that she believed the official story.
“The Proteus is one of the few technologies in the solar system with enough power to effectively contain Mars. I think we were chosen to ensure no contamination escapes from the surface. Proteus is the best option.”
“God. I don't even know what’s in those cargo discs?”
“Not U.N. Echelon supplies and equipment?”, He said with a sarcastic matter-of-factualness. He looked up and out at a distant star.
“What? I know that look.” She said.
“I think I know who might be able to find out.”
“Where are it’s loyalties, though? If I were to ask it, who else would know or who would it tell?”
“Good question. Have you considered just asking her?” He said.
“Asking a robot if it is programmed to snitch and keep secrets?”
“It goes by “she”. And sure. You can just keep the conversation theoretical.”
“She's too smart for that. And you know that I’m not comfortable with anthropomorphizing technology. Robots shouldn’t be sensitive to genders they don’t possess. In fact, an A.I. that does that is what scares the hell out of me.”
“Well the gendered robots horse left the barn decades ago. Emotional programming an oxymoron, eh?. But all things considered, she is our daughter and you two really should have a heart to heart.”
“Not funny.” She now floated within a meter of Geminus. Her right hand touched the cold acrylic wall of the sphere, causing her body to rotate around. He reached out and offered his hand. Had he not her legs would have eventually collided with his torso. They locked hands and he righted her so her grav shoes planted a foot from his own. Now staring at each other he noticed her eyes. A starburst of burnt umber, rust browns, and raw siennas. Like a desert sunset. He felt himself gulping.
He continued. “Spell out your concerns as the captain of the ship and ask her for help. I think SOLA desires nothing more than to belong to this mission and it’s crew.”
“I’ll consider it.” Her tone was now more conciliatory, softer. “And I also think you’re right about the chain of command. Can you please let Brevet Major Kahn know I’d like to see her here at four bells?”
His internal chronometer registered it was only 2:30. “Four bells, Aye Aye, skipper.”
“And … Don’t ever call me skipper again.” She said in a tone that mocked her authority.
Ninety-two meters in front of the Proteus, a dark silhouette of a twelve year old girl drifted in front of the starfield. She observed Captain Kazemi and Doctor Geminus embrace in the oculus. There was little lip reading for her to do after this. She stayed the next 34 minutes until the two had exited the oculus. She then propelled herself back to the midships of the Proteus and began to determine what the exact contents were of the mysterious container disks which had been loaded without the usual manifests and inspections.
She also ran 34,562 queries into ethics and efficacy of anthropomorphism and android psychology.
Brevet Roxanne “Roxy” Kahn got word of the incident in the gymnasium as she sat through another briefing of task force leadership. It came as a notice on her retinal display. Her lieutenant’s way of getting her attention without raising suspicions.
[BRVMAJ Kahn, Altercation during MAT involving MSGT and GSGT Tripi. MSGT in medbay. GSGT in brig. 23 witnesses. - Lt. Camaford]
She was still getting comfortable with the “Off Dirt” rank of brevet major since there could only be one “captain” on a ship.
The meeting with the twenty-four other leaders of the Mars UN Echelon was droning on, and with the delay from earth and Mars everyone present was anxiously posturing their pretense of confidence in awkward silences.
As the leader of The ANGLICO unit, she had to attend these daily meetings. Her SALT teams were at the service of all the United foreign participants. By design, they all outranked her and rank mattered to this hodgepodge of technocrats, desk soldiers, and mercenaries with badges.
Her inner jarhead was screaming “F.U.B.A.R!”
Their droning did nothing to alleviate her dread that she was leading her Marines into a bad situation, giving her a constant headache.
Now she had another variable to contend with. An unknown X factor. She hadn’t ask to be given this ancient, frozen, and supposedly enhanced Marine. The explanations given to her had added up to only more questions about this operation.
This would need to be nipped in the bud. Marine units rely on the strength and experience of their non commissioned officers to keep the Marines and their officers working with one mission and without too much rancor. Sergeants at odds was unsatisfactory.
She sent Lieutenant Camaford a reply.
[Send report ASAP. Copy to Dr. Geminus. Meet me in the brig at 3.]
She wanted to grill this artifact Gunnery Sergeant Tripi. Then she would have to chew into her master sergeant. What the fuck could he have been up to?
The Proteus’s brig was a repurposed laboratory for the now scrapped Venus ground mission. It still had charts of the Venus terrain and lockers marked with equipment for the scrubbed mission.
There Brevet Major Kahn found a woman in a space force uniform with the insignia of a marine gunnery sergeant at attention with Lieutenant Camaford facing her.
She brought her military experience to bear on her delivery.
“I’m sorry that I have to first meet the newest member of my team halfway on a journey to Mars under these circumstances.”
“Yes ma’am.” Said Gunnery Sergeant Tripi.
She stood at attention as Lieutenant Camaford silently read the witness reports.
Brevet Major Kahn stood in front of her trying to make eye contact.
“At rest, Tripi.”
Athena snapped smartly from attention to rest.
“Help me out here. Why do you think you were assigned to this mission?”
“Ma’am?” Athena for the first time showed signs of discomfort.
“Humor me. Why do you think they took you, a frozen gunnery sergeant who hasn’t been awake for nearly two decades, and assigned her to one of the most decorated SALT teams in the corps? What do you suspect the brass up above sees in you that can compliment my team?”
“Ma’am”, she hesitated.
“Speak, god damnit!”
“Yes ma’am! All war is deception, Ma’am. I’m not what I appear, either to you or to me. I think I have been somehow altered.”
The lieutenant grinned.
The brevet major studied Tripi. “Nice Sun Tzu quote, gunny, but I’ve got news for you, everyone these days has got enhancements. The lieutenant is actually way smarter than he looks. Every Marine you met today had hardened skeletons, enhanced muscularity, and amped up eyes and ears, and neurals”.
“Yes ma’am. But I believe I’m something else.”
“Well there we can agree.” Kahn kept scrutinizing Tripi's unusually calm face.
“What makes you think this, gunny?” Camaford chimed in, cutting some of the tension in the room.
“Since waking up I’ve had the dawning feeling that I’m not alone.”
“News flash. There’s hundreds aboard this ship.” The lieutenant snapped.
“I was referring to my mind. I think I’ve got company. Take the gym today.”
Khan made a hand motion to silence the Lieutenant. “Yes, explain that one to me.” She crossed her arms.
Tripi maintained her state of calm.
“The master sergeant appeared to aggressively confront me and illicit a response in a martial arts training arena.”
“Wait, what? Did you say ‘appeared to’?” The lieutenant looked genuinely surprised.
“Yes sir. The sergeant was involved in a clever deception.”
An incredulous expression crossed his face like maybe the master sergeant hadn’t been enhanced to look smarter than he was.
“Who was he deceiving?” Asked the lieutenant.
“Besides you, the other Marines”. Her affect remained neutral.
Again the brevet major waved a hand to Camaford. “And what was this deception?”
“The master sergeant’s goal was to quickly and effectively establish my acceptance by the other Marines. He determined the fastest route was to demonstrate a set of qualities I possessed that would be prized by the Marines. So he put me in a situation that would, at least in the eyes of the lower ranks, justify a swift and measured response.”
“Measured? You think a Marine Corps master sergeant you’ve never met, hatched this idea to insult you so you’d humiliate him for your popularity?”
“No Ma’am. He didn’t do it for me, he did it for the unit. My only explanation is that he must be a fucking great Marine, Ma’am.”
“And what should we do with you, gunny? You assaulted a superior in front of two dozen witnesses.” She uncrossed her arms.
“If you are asking my opinion, I’d recommend you discipline me.”
“That would be effective, ma'am.”
“Effective?” The lieutenant queried.
Kahn stepped back a bit, indicating the lieutenant had the reins of the interrogation. She had enough for a decision. Gunny was right about one thing, a court martial would be required and effective at maintaining morale and discipline.
“Lieutenant, the point of all of this is the morale, cohesiveness, and efficacy of this unit. Will they or won’t they charge into the direction of certain death when I order them to. If I get punished for what they believe was an unjust charge, they will close ranks around me. This will help the unit and I can assure you that you want them to close on my position.”
“And why is that, gunny.” He asked.
“Because I’m a gung-ho devil dog, sir,”
Kahn tried to hide her grin by scratching her lip.
“Going back to this idea that you believe you’re enhanced. What makes you think this?” Asked the lieutenant.
“Lieutenant, you can look at my record. I have a pretty average level of hand to hand training. The moves I had in the gym were not mine. I didn’t even know my shoes would lock onto the overhead. I’d never poked anyone’s eyes, or grabbed them by the tentacles and flipped them around like a rag doll. I have no explanation of how after being frozen for 18 years I had the strength, speed, coordination, and apparent muscle memory to execute these moves against so large an opponent, except that I’ve been enhanced.”
Kahn wanted to wrap this up. “We’ll speak to Dr. Geminus about this.” She said.
“Yes ma’am. Thank you.”
“Ok, gunny. I’m putting in the paperwork for a hearing. But I want you to train with ANGLICO in the meantime.” She turned to the lieutenant, “Please take gunny to the sierra deck and get her squared away. And get her out of those ridiculous Space Force pajamas.”
Athena snapped to attention.
“Lieutenant, dismissed.” She watched the two walk out then looked around the room at the details of the Venus mission. Why had all that been scrapped to deliver a bunch of grunts to Mars? There was more going on here than her eye augments could read.