Stacey Ibarra floated in a white abyss, her senses starved for anything but the sound of her heart beating and the light that cast neither shadow nor heat. She replayed a pop ditty from her high school days in her head, waiting for the translation to end. It took hours for the gates between Bastion and the Crucible to deliver her from one place to the other. Timing the experience with remembered songs staved off boredom and panic.
Weight returned to her body and the sunken stadium of the Crucible’s control center came into view as the white field subsided. She floated to the ground, her armored boots scuffing along the floor as she regained her balance.
Stacey looked down at her arms, still covered in the battle armor from the day humanity took the star gate from the Xaros and she began her career as an ambassador to the alliance against the invaders. Drops of blood, black spots surrounded by streaks of red, ran up and down her gauntlets. A Marine named Franklin had sacrificed himself to save her from a drone, and she’d done nothing for him but abandon him in a passageway.
Each time she left and returned to the Crucible, she was in her armor. Yet, on Bastion she came and went in a body glove and tunic. This discrepancy hadn’t been cleared up by either the AI on Bastion or the man that got her into this predicament.
She shook her head and pushed sweat-soaked hair away from her face.
“Ibarra? Granddad?” she asked to an empty room.
A hologram of Marc Ibarra materialized in front of her, looking like the middle-aged industrialist she remembered from her childhood.
“The Breitenfeld is overdue,” he said. “I hope you’ve got good news.”
Stacey unsnapped the clasps on her right forearm gauntlet and let it fall to the floor. She stripped off a glove and pressed her hand against the plinth in the center of the room. A panel lit up under her palm.
“DNA data transfer commencing. Thank you, Stacey,” the probe at the heart of the Crucible said, its voice artificial but pleasant.
Stacey glared at Ibarra and shook her head in disgust.
“You put procedurals on the Breitenfeld? Without telling me?”
“How do you know that? Where is the ship, Stacey? We’ve got a lot riding on it,” Ibarra said, crossing his arms.
“The ship took a detour on the way back to Earth. The mission to Anthalas was a success—better than we’d hoped. They found an intact omnium reactor the Shanishol used, control protocols and an ancient…intelligence that’s been most informative about how to control omnium,” Stacey said.
The panel beneath her palm blinked, signaling the end of the data transfer encoded within her DNA. The human mind could remember only so much data and was subject to the vagaries of memory and damage. Bastion fused data within her DNA for a lossless transfer, but the ability wasn’t without cost. The circumstances of her birth had been manipulated; synthetic material had been incorporated during her gestation to produce a baby somewhat more than human. Ibarra had subjected his many daughters to the procedure, but Stacey was the only viable child from many failed pregnancies Ibarra’s daughters endured.
“There was something else on Anthalas…the Toth,” Stacey said. “They came in on the same gravity window we used to get in and out.”
“Read the report. Everything I know is there,” she said.
Ibarra used the tremendous processing ability of the probe to digest the video statements, ship’s logs and the Alliance’s entire data file on the Toth within thousandths of a second. Having his intelligence subsumed within the probe came with a few advantages.
“They sampled the procedurals. They know…” Ibarra said.
“That’s right. A hostile race addicted to neural energy knows that Earth has the key to an unlimited source of their fix. They know this because you thought it would be a good idea to send untested vat babies with the Breitenfeld!” Stacey picked up her gauntlet and threw it at Ibarra. The armor passed through the hologram without incident.
“Science requires experimentation, my girl. If I’d known the Toth would be there, things would have played out differently.” Ibarra tugged at his lip. “Valdar suspects, but he doesn’t know?”
“I played coy, and it killed me to lie to a man I respect,” Stacey said. “You know, not everyone can lie as easy as breathing.”
“Deception is a skill just like any other; you must practice to gain and maintain proficiency,” Ibarra said. He waved a hand in the air and a star chart of the local galaxy appeared in the air before him.
“I’m not in the mood for your fortune cookie wisdom. What’re we going to do about this mess? The Toth know where our planet is and they’ve got Alliance jump technology. If they want to pay us a visit, they could be here within—”
“Now. They could be here now,” Ibarra said. “Toth Prime isn’t that far. They managed to reach our planet millennia ago using sub-light vessels. This was back in the day when they were whole as a species—scientists and traders, not the drug addicts they’ve become.”
“Then why aren’t they here? Our planet might as well have a giant ‘Free Lunch’ sign on it, considering how little of our navy is left,” Stacey said.
“Toth elites survive only because they keep one Toth in particular happy, Dr. Mentiq. Any corporate takeover or capital expansion requires his knowledge and approval, and he gets a cut. Try to shortchange him and he’ll hit a kill switch on the offending elite’s life-support tank.”
Jump plots appeared across the map, permutations showing the route the Toth would take to reach Earth and the time it would take.
“This Mentiq’s got the entire species by the balls, doesn’t he? Sounds like someone you could relate to,” Stacey said.
“I don’t have a heart to wound anymore, darling. That the Toth aren’t here yet means they’ve gone to Mentiq for permission. Given when the jump window was open to his system… travel time…warrior-clone growth rates…” Equations formed and solved themselves in the air before Ibarra.
“We’ve got months, if we’re lucky,” Ibarra said.
“You think they’ll come?” Stacey asked.
“The Toth gave up their place in the Alliance and their best chance to survive the Xaros in order to feast on the Karigole. They’ll come for us. The procedural technology and a practically limitless supply of new and interesting sustenance…it’s too good to pass up. I thought I’d have decades to turn this solar system into a fortress against the next wave of Xaros. Now we’ve got months before a different existential threat comes knocking.”
“May I interject?” The probe flared into being above the central plinth, a needle of light glittering with static.
“Doubt we could stop you, Jimmy,” Ibarra said.
“With current crew and vessel production rates, our chance of defeating the anticipated Toth fleet is approximately two and a half percent,” the probe said.
“Don’t, Jimmy. We’ve been over this,” Ibarra said.
“You said ‘current.’ Why?” Stacey asked the probe.
“Procedural crew gestation tubes lie dormant at the Oahu facility in anticipation of true born societal acceptance of the new humans. I can activate the production lines with the truncated protocols. Given the circumstances, the risk is acceptable,” the probe said.
“The failure rate is too high. If the decision matrix is off by the slightest margin, we will lose thousands of lives,” Ibarra said. “Growing a new human body from sperm and egg to fully mature in nine days is as far as Alliance science could manage. If we grow them too fast, there will be significant consequences for future generations. Too many abnormalities would sneak into the gene pool.”
Stacey laughed, an expression of contempt, not humor.
“You, Marc Ibarra, the man who pulled the strings on our entire species for decades and left billions to die on Earth when the Xaros came…now you’ve grown a conscience?” she asked.
“The plan,” Ibarra glared at the probe, “my vision, was for humanity to continue without losing what we are in the process. My fleet was supposed to be embers, rekindling the same flame that the Xaros snuffed out. The proccies aren’t supposed to be any different from the true born. We meddle too much and we won’t recognize humanity in another couple hundred years.”
“If the Toth take Phoenix and repeat their conquest and occupation of the Karigole home world,” the probe said, “then your vision is moot.”
“Jimmy, I’m not sure if you’re a pragmatist or a buzzkill,” Ibarra said.
“The Alliance needs the Crucible. It is against my programming to allow something so pedestrian and biological as human ethics and morality to interfere with my mission,” the probe said, its light fading and growing in tune with its words.
Ibarra rolled his eyes and waved a hand in the air. “Speaking of those blowhards on Bastion, will they send anyone to help against the Toth?”
“I asked,” Stacey said, “but the Qa’Resh refused to even let me bring the motion to the floor. Officially, their position is that the proccies and our Karigole advisors are all we would need to beat the Toth. Unofficially…there are some concerns with the jump technology. After the Breitenfeld jumped away from Bastion, there were some anomalous readings in the quantum field left in the ship’s wake.”
“I’ve detected no such anomalies from jumps utilizing the Crucible,” the probe said.
“Right, which is why everyone’s scratching their heads back at Bastion. Some of the eggheads extrapolated out the implications of the anomalies…and the results weren’t good. Seems every time the jump engines open a hole in reality to create the wormholes, there’s a chance the hole could grow…exponentially,” she said. “If the math is right, the growth wouldn’t stop until it reaches intergalactic space. So, maybe everyone dies from the Xaros, or there’s a cascading fault in the fabric of space and time and everyone definitely dies.” She sighed heavily and tried to squeeze her armored bulk into a chair bolted to the floor. “I love my job, really I do.”
“And the Qa’Resh aren’t willing to risk sending us reinforcements if they don’t have to,” Ibarra said. “It’s going to be ugly when I tell Phoenix.
“Jimmy, use the truncated protocols for the next production batch, limited to five hundred tubes. Let’s see how viable they are. Then ramp up all dormant lines with what we know works. We can make progress, but no need to rush into disaster.”
“The first of the accelerated procedurals will be decanted tomorrow morning,” the probe said. Ibarra and his granddaughter traded a confused glance.
“How, Jimmy? The rush jobs take a hundred hours to grow and implant a personality,” Ibarra said.
“When the Breitenfeld went overdue, I assumed it was lost and its mission a failure. Without the ability to utilize our sizable store of omnium, I decided we would need as many capable humans as possible to defeat the Xaros’ return fourteen years from now,” the probe said. “I told Thorsson to create a test batch, but only two hundred and fifty units. Should we make more?”
“Behind my back, Jimmy?” Ibarra asked.
“Shall I perform an act of contrition?”
“No, you lump of photons, you can go straight to—wait. Where’s the Breitenfeld? Where’s the omnium reactor you said it found?” Ibarra asked Stacey.
Stacey brought Ibarra up to speed on the Xaros invasion of Takeni and Captain Valdar’s plea to the Alliance for permission to render aid, and that the reactor was secured deep inside the ship’s hold.
“Never send an idealist to do a pragmatist’s job,” Ibarra said. “He knows we need that reactor, right? We need it to transmute omnium into Q-shells before the Xaros even get here.”
“Stacey brought schematics and fabrication protocols with her,” the probe said. “Given our current manufacturing capabilities. I can build a new one in roughly eighteen years. Raising our—”
“Valdar knows we need that reactor, right?” Ibarra asked again.
“I told him. He swore he was on an evac mission, not a head-hunting trip. He’ll jump back to Earth before he risks destroying the reactor…I hope,” Stacey said.
“Isaac Valdar earned his first Purple Heart on a beach in Okinawa,” Ibarra said. “Took a Chinese bullet through the calf trying to load up every last soldier and civilian he could, then he navigated a rusted-out trash hauler through minefields and ducked a Chinese sub for two days before our navy found him. Any Dotok left on that planet is as good as dead. Valdar won’t leave anyone behind—he’s that kind of officer. I’m not sure if it’s bravery or stupidity.”
“The die is cast, Grandpa,” Stacey said. She struggled out of the chair, pulled her shoulders back, and tried to scratch at an itch buried beneath armor. “I’m stuck here for a few days. The ambassador quantum gate is blocked while Pa’lon relays updates from Takeni to Bastion. Can I change? Maybe get a shower and speak to an actual human being?”
“We’ve got quarters waiting for you. Follow the running lights down the hallway,” Ibarra said.
Stacey gave him a lazy salute and left.
“She doesn’t know. Does she?” Ibarra asked.
“Correct. Confirmed by the behavior files Bastion’s AI encrypted into her data transfer,” the probe said. “Let her find bliss in her ignorance. At least until the conflict with the Toth is resolved.”
“She won’t take it well.”
“She is of your bloodline, which remains significant in human relationships. There is no replacement for her. Formulate a course of action to keep her viable once she learns the truth of her situation.”
“Jimmy, you sure do know how to sweet talk a guy. Speaking of ‘courses of action,’ we need to tell Admiral Garret about the Toth...and the production ramp-up. I wonder how our two remaining Karigole advisors, Rochambeau and Kosciusko, will react when we tell them their mortal enemies are coming for a visit.”
Ibarra’s hologram flickered, then vanished.