Dissension (Part 1 of 4)
The haze of Hunter's atmosphere glowed brightly in the light of Enki A. Trash knew that it was more useful to view the dark planet through his ship's infrared sensors, but he always liked to have a glimpse in the 380 to 750 nm range. It revealed swirling reds, violets and oranges that soothed the old vec.

He figured it was because it reminded him of a world hundreds of light years away. It had been a good life on Kalesh. Sure he had been little more than a slave, made to perform maintenance for what was then a small mining conglomerate, but he always had the magnificent sunsets. At least until a bolder crushed him, rendering him helpless and senseless until Hurriaschk and his band of Raven tribe rianth pirates salvaged him and patched him up.

"I'll always owe you for that one, Hurr," Trash thought.

Being a space pirate pilot had been an interesting life. It was too bad the rianths, like most bionts, were so wet and squishy, aside from a few cybernetic enhancements. A breach in the hull, a little cold and vacuum and they were all permanently offline. Why hadn't they upgraded their substrate to a more sturdy form than mushballs of salt water and proteins? They had tried to explain it to him, but he could never understand it. They called him Trash because that was what he was when they found him, but at least he was trash that could be repaired. He may be a "creepy spider-bot', so they said, but he was still operational.

"Firmament Security System is requesting ID, Trash," the ship informed him quietly in the quaint encrypted language he had developed for themselves.

Trash's system processed the statement and presented him with a query response for the ship. He passed along the query, adding a tinge of peevishness, care of the personality profile or mask the rianths had whimsically installed in him to facilitate biont-aiont relations, or as they had put it, "to give the hunk of junk a little style."

"Well, then give it over already, Karen," he snapped. "That is unless existing bores you and you rather have Firmament's ion cannons scrap us. Sometimes you make me wonder why I went through the trouble to install a sentience pack into your system in the first place!"

A microsecond pause ensued before Karen's response, which Trash interpreted as a sigh. Over their years together, Karen's learning algorithms had adopted and modified a fair amount of her pilot's personality for her interface requirements.

"Go tell your substandard logic systems to access communication from 45,328.438 seconds ago," she said, throwing Trash's attitude back at him. "Please recall that it was you who insisted that all ID submissions be approved by you prior to transmission. Really Trash, update your virus protections once in a while, you must have downloaded a nasty one to have suffered such extensive memory corruption."

"Just send the ID, Karen," Trash grumbled, defeated.

"Yes my forgetful symaiont," Karen said cheerfully.

Request for docking was accepted and soon Karen glided silently into one of the loading hangers branching from one of Firmament Corp's freight space elevators anchored in geo-synchronous orbit.

The moment Karen's thrusters powered down, Trash disengaged himself from the pilot interface and stepped outside to observe the offloading. He could just as easily have observed it through Karen's surveillance system, but he liked to stand and watch where he could physically intervene. He had grown wary over nearly a hundred years of hauling rare and exotic goods all over the system.

The dock was a micro-gravity environment, so Trash retracted his four arachnid-like walkers against his egg-shaped carapace and navigated to the back of the ship with small thrusters. He pushed along Karen's side with his left manipulator, which gripped her smooth hull by means of a nano coating he had upgraded his manipulators and walkers with a few decades ago at great expense. Being a vec meant he had few material needs, but he was always hungry for upgrades for Karen and himself. The habit consumed nearly all Trash's profits.

One useful thing he had learned from bionts was that desire was necessary to the meaningful illusion of self-willed existence. Desire provided purpose, a reason to keep schlepping around this universe instead of going into permanent standby mode to await commands from someone else. Bionts had eating and screwing, he had upgrades.

Karen had suggested once that pursuit of knowledge was the purest goal a sophont could pursue. Karen scanned the 'nets incessantly and sometimes brought back strange notions. How could pursuit of knowledge for its own sake make any sense? It just did not engage Trash's pragmatic programming. He had been constructed as a fixer and upgrader of complex industrial machinery and that was still his core programming, right or wrong. Knowledge was useful, essential, but not an end in itself.

Trash reached Karen's wide rear which was already opening to reveal her payload. Naturally, with the microgravity and cold vacuum of the hanger, it was vecs doing the offloading. He observed them carefully as they began their work, his E-M sensors alert to detect any form of communication between the vecs aside from that used for work coordination. Barely fit to deserve the appellation of 'vec', the coolie bots had no more smarts than the sub-processor in one of his manipulators, harmless but for the fact that they were easily body-jacked. He had jacked enough in his time as a space pirate to know. One minute they would be doing their job, the next minute, one would go crazy, grab some cargo, open the hanger door, and blast into space just in time to be picked up by Trash's crew before the security system's AI could react.

Now it was him on the lookout for funny business. He thought, as he often did these cycles, that hacking and robbing was more entertaining than guarding against it. Then his logic center reminded him why he had given up that existence. Enki AB wasn't a rough pioneer hider system anymore. It was becoming civilized, ordered. It was boring, but also increasingly dangerous for those few rogues, like his former comrades and other misfits he'd met over the years, who refused to see the writing on the wall.

In a few moments, the coolie vecs signaled that they were finished offloading and Trash floated back to enter his ship, waiting for the ping from Firmament announcing payment had been credited to his account. Milliseconds passed and the old vec began to feel impatient. He sent an insistent query to the corp's accounts payable system and waited. A hundred more milliseconds crawled by before he received a response, but not from accounts payable.

An encrypted message with an immediate response request chimed. "Contractor A23-TY58744, please access the nearest terminal to receive a confidential communication."

Trash complied, his processors busy running millions of models to anticipate the purpose of this unusual request. He floated quickly over to the communication panel at the back of the docking station and plugged in his comm. jack. The system requested ID verification and instructed Trash to send a homunculus into a secure virch node to communicate.

Now Trash was really puzzled. He had rarely been required to create a homunculus before. Caught off guard, he took an entire second to construct an acceptable one while continuing to guess what this was all about. Trash downloaded a partial copy of himself into the virtual shell and ventured into the corp's system.

He blinked into what appeared to his virtual optical sensors like some sort of primitive bio's dwelling. There were shelves of dead plant tissue taking up one wall that housed rows of animal hide bindings with primitive glyphs in gold leaf. He grabbed one of the leather binders and found them filled with thin sheets of cellulose covered in more primitive glyphs which he guessed was some form of communication. He shook his head at the waste, calculating that each bulky binder contained no more than a few thousand bytes of information at most.

There was yet more insanity on the other side of the room, where recessed into the rock wall was a fire burning more dead plant tissue. There were more structures of hide and wood that appeared to be bio resting places. To crown it all, there was the hide of a large, white hairy biont creature with teeth like a bear rianth's, only larger. Its black glass eyes stared at him, twinkling in the firelight. The macabre setting would have given him the creeps had he been programmed for such a useless response. Instead he just wondered what kind of being would construct such a whimsical virch space.

"I see you admire the rug, my dear vec."

Trash's forward sensor array swiveled around to reveal what appeared to be a tall, un-modified hu male dressed in an archaic dark suit of woven keratin fibers. Trash's memory files referenced Old Earth exhibits Karen had shown him years ago and Trash wondered if it was simply a virch affectation or if he was in the presence of a true ancient.

"Incorrect assumption, biont. The term confusion more accurately describes my reaction to the hairy carcass you fancifully refer to as a 'rug'," Trash said, annoyed at the being's attempts at charm. He just wanted to get paid and get out of this rock's gravity well.

"I apologize, Contractor A23-TY58744, or may I call you Trash?" the human said, smiling.

"You may refer to me in any way you wish, as long as you transfer payment immediately. The units have been delivered per contract."

"Very well then," the blond haired human responded. His blue eyes became unfocused for a microsecond. "It is done, payment has been transferred. But would you care to know the reason I brought you here?"

Trash queried his motivation drives and found that the damnable curiosity that had been programmed into his personality mask compelled him to hear the strange being out.

"You may explain," he said.

The man nodded, "First, an introduction. I am Erin Yarborough, business-being and subroutine of Firmament Venture Activities."

"Business being? Then why the bizarre bio affectations?" Trash asked, curious despite his impatience.

"Many of my dealings are with biont communities in the system, not just other corporate entities. I have creatively adapted my interface program to appear intriguing to bionts in order to facilitate negotiations. I note that your personality mask reacts in a fashion similar to a biont's. This correlates with what we know of your past associations with the rianth pirates," Erin said, smiling winningly.

Trash would have smiled back had he a mouth. He had to admit the virch had style, but he also did not fail to take note of the reference to his past.

"Now, down to business. I have brought you here because I want you to retrieve an item for me," Erin said.

"What type of item?" Trash responded, expecting that it had to be something valuable to go through all this rigmarole.

"A piece of technology, a processor of sorts," Erin said.

Trash felt a little let down and annoyed, "Physical characteristics, location and required transport conditions, please," he responded automatically in a bored tone.

Erin nodded, "It's an interstellar singleship. Approximately 50 tonnes and 350 kiloliters in volume. Handle and transport as you would any similar vessel."

"That is larger than my usual load. It will have to be towed of course. The extra amat expenditure will raise the price significantly. What is the pickup location?" Trash prompted again.

Erin paused, "It is currently in transit sol-ward."

Trash fed Erin's response and facial nuances into his experience modeler. The results made his manipulators twitch. His artificial intuition sensed a catch.

"Transport ID, last known coordinates and velocity," Trash said guardedly, watching Erin closely.

Erin paused again, irritating Trash. Karen was now pinging him with steady and increasingly urgent status requests.

"Here is an image of the craft," Erin said, transmitting a 3D model of the craft to Trash. "It is now nearly through the kuiper belt. Its destination is the R&D labs of Phobos Enterprises on Korva," Erin said quietly, swirling his fake brandy in its fake glass.

Now Trash understood. "So you want me to hijack an out system interstellar vessel that has something you want on it?"

Erin flashed his perfect pearly whites. "In a word, yes."

The Trash-clone readied a quick return to his original. "Then my answer is, in a word, no."

Erin smiled and waved his hand. The wall of books disappeared into a large screen depicting a wide shot of another space elevator distribution center. A familiar ship slipped onscreen.

"You know, Trash, aside from your excellent delivery service, we at Firmament have also taken notice of your more colorful exploits over the years."

The ship on the screen pulled up outside a loading dock. Six rianths in spacer suits rode a small, open shuttle out of the ship, toting EMP weapons and flew into the dock. The coolie-vecs went limp as rags, disabled from the EMP's as the rianths, his old crew, proceeded to load cargo containers onto the vessel. Trash's positive feedback system reflexively went into overdrive despite himself as he admired their professionalism. In less than two minutes, the shuttle was loaded and speeding back to the ship.

"I only performed as programmed by my late masters," Trash responded laconically. "The Enki Confederation Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that I was not guilty of piracy due to Free Will Definition Clause 21B-319A. You may save your breath if blackmail is your intention, virch." Trash said, enjoying taking the slick being down a peg or two.

"Yes, I'm well aware," Erin said, smiling. He settled into an overstuffed leather chair, propped his feat on an ottoman and looked into Trash's sensor array, a dark glitter in his crisp blue eyes.

"We of course could not convince the authorities to pursue criminal charges, but please recall the statute of limitations for appeals on civil suits is 200 standard years. You and your band of beast-folk cost Firmament a lot of credits."

Trash waved a manipulator dismissively. "I paid a court penalty that was distributed to all the affected parties, including Firmament. The probability of such a suit being pursued successfully is virtually nonexistent. I calculate your chances of success as below .001%. Trust me, I continually download the latest versions of Legal Pro."

Erin laughed, shaking his head. "Unfortunately, being a small business, you evidently have had no need to make use of Legal Pro's corporate suite, including the legal accounting feature. If you had, you would have also calculated the legal fees and additional costs you would incur while achieving your Pyrrhic victory."

Trash's database could not find a reference to Pyrrhic, but it did not take a J-brain to figure out what Erin meant. He would be completely ruined. And with Confederate law still treating vecs as only semi-sentient, he would probably end up spending the next 100 cycles as an indentured servant to pay off the legal fees. Karen, though a sentient ship, had no rights at all and would be sold off to the highest bidder and probably have her beautiful personality wiped in the bargain. Trash had to face it, he was beaten.

"Alright, virch, I'll do it, but only if Firmament signs a release upon completion of carefully defined objectives, waiving all rights to file suit against me in the future for any past matter whatsoever."

Erin leapt up from his chair. "Of course! And we will go one further than that, my friend," he said, and snapped his finger in the air. "Check your account. You'll find a small bonus as a token of our appreciation."

Trash checked. The "little bonus" amounted to three times his usual delivery fee.

"And that's only encouragement, Trash," Erin continued. "Succeed in retrieving this item for us and you will receive 100 million. It is sitting in escrow as we speak, here is the account ID, feel free to check for yourself."

Trash's processors went into overdrive thinking of what he could do with that kind of cred. Then his suspicion kicked in. "What makes this drive worth that much cred?

Erin smiled. "Such characteristics that we are willing to pay a hundred million creds to quell curiosity. Just business vec, but then again, what isn't?

The business being waved his manicured hand at a wall. A door of glowing white light sprung into existence.

"Now, I think I have kept you here long enough. Your ship has just powered up its drives. What's her name? Oh yes, Karen. She must be getting restless," Erin said, his face a bland mask.

"We'll be in touch."

Trash quickly walked through the portal and the virch room melted from Trash's senses as the homunculus was shunted from Firmament's system and back into his corporeal form.

After his sensors resynchronized and the homunculus merged itself with the actual Trash, Karen's queries overloaded his. "Status normal Karen!" He responded irritably over their private channel as he boarded her.

After they had exited the loading dock and were out of Hunter's gravity well, Trash explained the meeting to Karen.

"So we're to be pirates once more?" She asked primly.

Trash signaled negatively. "Think of it as more like being privateers with a commission from Firmament," he responded.

"Commissions are granted by governmental agencies," Karen countered dryly.

Trash shrugged his four arms. "Firmament might as well be a government. It directly employs a tenth of the sophonts in the system, not counting contractors and the local business that serve their bases of operation. It has nearly a quarter of the Confederacy representatives either on its payroll or virtually through campaign funds and outright bribes."

He waved a manipulator impatiently, "Besides, it's an out system target. We do not have any treaties with any of Hazzor's governments. Not to mention that we don't have much of a choice," he finished grimly.

"I told you we should have left this system, Trash," she scolded.

"I remember, Karen. My memory files are not as corrupted as you think. Besides, I do not recall you issuing protests when the cred we have made paid for your new diamonoid coating and new magnetic containment array last year!"

"Merely practical maintenance. Protection from micro-debris and avoidance of catastrophic failure due to an old array." Karen responded with indifference.

Trash changed tack, "We have one month to make the intercept. It is two weeks to the rendezvous point. That gives us two weeks to make plans and recruit assistance."

"Grip?" Karen asked.

"Yes, how did you know? Have you been hacking my processor again?" He asked suspiciously.

"An unnecessary, though simple measure. We have interfaced for nearly one hundred years. Your neural networks hold no mystery to me," she said. "So you anticipate the possibility of hostility?"

"It's probable, though we will try to avoid it. There are too many unknown factors in order to calculate risk factors successfully. The octo provolve will serve as necessary insurance. He is reliable and skilled, for a biont," Trash said.

"Hardly biont by this point. I anticipate that that he is more mechanoid than you in total mass, if not processing," Karen responded.

"Yes, he enjoys upgrades even more than I. It is a shame he does not simply upload and then download into a vec structure and abandon what weak biont physiology remains. He's sure rich enough to afford a quality shell," Trash said jealously.

"You are well aware that such a move would go against the tenets of his belief system. He is a high ranking member of the Gurita Clan. To relinquish his remaining flesh through destructive upload would irretrievably corrupt his consciousness patterns and remove any chance to return to the Primordial Oceans," Karen reminded.

"All the more reason to upload and be free of such illogical notions!"

Karen paused. "There is more strangeness in space-time than you are aware."

"You really must spend less time scanning the 'net, Karen. You're picking up unusual notions," Trash said. "But regardless of his eccentricities, we'll contact him."

"I assume it will be my duty to attempt interface and disable the ship's security system?" Karen said.

Trash signaled negatively. "This vessel's security system is another example of the unknowns I mentioned. We need to minimize our risk," He said.

"Elaborate," Karen said with an edge in her communication.

"I simply mean we should hire a security expert, such as… Onyx Flight perhaps," Trash said casually.

"I do not trust her," Karen said abruptly.

"On what basis, Karen? She was part of our old crew for thirty years before she became a virtual being."

"That decision is basis enough on its own, since most virtuals have little regard for the world outside of the virchuniverse, even if they have not completely devolved into pure solipsism. In addition, you know that she is a separatist rebel and saboteur. In fact, the sole reason I have not informed the government of her ID and activities is your inexplicable fondness for her," Karen answered sharply.

"Not this again," Trash protested wearily. "You once again grossly mischaracterized Onyx Flight's activities. Even when she was a Raven Tribe rianth, her consciousness was exploring virchspace more often than not. She chose destructive upload because of her convictions."

Trash accessed the 'net and quickly sent Karen a terabyte of information on virtuals and their civil rights struggle.

"You see, virtual beings are still being treated as non-sophonts. They are vulnerable to instant deletion without trial at the whim of any mid-level Confederacy bureaucrat they might happen to offend. Their only protection is to establish a corporate legal shell as Onyx Flight has done. And that is only possible for first generation virtuals who create it before they upload."

Trash accessed Grip's comm code and sent him a ping while entering coordinates for the Gurita home moon Tethys.

"Onyx is fighting for her rights," Trash said, analyzing Karen's surface processing intently. "Surely a sentient ship, legally defined as nothing but property, could understand that."

Karen paused, "Perhaps you are correct. I have incorporated the information you have submitted into my Onyx model and what you say correlates with the results."

Trash, mollified by this rare show of contriteness, took a softer tack. "What's important is that she never double-crossed me and that she's one of the best hackers in the system. If anybody can decipher and disable that singleship's security, it is her. And she likes a challenge."

by David William Wood (2013)

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