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Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Mobile Command Centre - Designation: Junior.

“What do you mean you’ve lost contact?” shouted Chief Supervisor Mayden. “We’re Vendx, we invented communications. We don’t lose contact. We have a lifetime guarantee of no signal drops, don’t we?”

“That’s only for new customers on the premium package, sir.”

“Are you telling me we aren’t on the premium package? We’re the company flagship.”

“The Motherboard has the premium package, Chief Supervisor,” said the Lead Engineer, cutting in from the orbiting ship. “The mobile command unit has the gold package.”

“Shouldn’t the gold package have a secure connection?” said Mayden. “It’s the gold package.”

“It does, Chief Supervisor. I don’t think we lost the connection. I think he broke off contact.”

“Then get back in contact. Do a full sweep.”

“Sir,” said someone from forward helm, “that will give away our—”

“I don’t care. Find him, now! We’re in the middle of—”

“Sir, the city council are requesting a meeting.”

Speaking to the Fraiche elders was the last thing Mayden needed right now. Vendx had shut down the city and locked it out of all extraterrestrial networks, as they were contractually entitled to do. But complaints were still going to be flooding in.

“Tell them we’re in a poor reception area and can’t talk to them now.”

“Ah…”

“What is it?”

“Sorry, Chief Supervisor, but we told the city council there would be no poor reception areas when we installed the communication array. It was one of our key selling strategies. PR are saying if we now admit there are areas of poor reception, we could be liable… you could be liable for a breach of contract claim.”

“Okay, fine, tell them we’re experiencing technical difficulties due to unduly high seasonal sunspot activity. And order the Motherboard to fire two solar research missiles.”

Sunspots were one of the acceptable reasons for a communications breakdown. Being able to instigate sunspots that, through high-explosive radiation blasts, provided the necessary corroboration in the records, once the connection to the network was reestablished.

This dumb little mission was proving to be far more complex than Mayden had anticipated. He was constantly having to move things around and reassign people to tasks as the circumstances changed.

The Primary Inspection Team getting wiped out, the Elite Assault Team getting captured, the Termination Team going offline. And now their contact inside the facility wasn’t responding. It was one thing after another.

Everything was in flux. He had almost forgotten what it was like to be in the middle of an evolving crisis like this. Not since his days as a senior installation engineer had he been this fired up, assimilating multiple feeds while issuing commands to three different tactical centres.

The team in the mobile unit with him, the crew in orbit on the Motherboard, Commander Creed on the Octanaria. Four, if you included the Fentarian Light, although that was only a supply transport outfitted to look like a battlecruiser.

It was a lot of information to juggle, even with the help of the Guidance Operating Platform plugged into his cerebral cortex.

The GOP told him the chances of their informant being dead was thirty-eight percent. He had no idea how it had arrived at that number, but he didn’t doubt it was accurate. You could trust in GOP. Personally, he would have guessed higher. If communication with a Vendx ship had been detected by the guild officials, there was no doubt the man would be terminated on the spot. That would certainly be the result in a Vendx facility.

Luckily, Ulanov had already transferred the EA team into the Origin program. The very program they had been sent here to take possession of, even though the EA team weren’t aware of it. They’d been sent in for the trainee, but the simulation was just as important.

Whatever the stakes, whatever the risk to him personally — failure could cost him his life, his pension and his entire portfolio of Vendx stocks — the opportunity here was too great to give up on. GOP told him the chances of downloading the full program under the current placement of operatives was over seventy-two percent, which was huge.

“Chief Supervisor, I have Commander Creed on the—”

“Put him through, put him through. Creed, tell me you have good news.”

“Chief Supervisor, the assault team have made contact with the guide.”

“Good, excellent.” Finally, something had gone to plan. Ulanov had said he could get someone inside the map to help the EA team, as crazy as that had sounded, and he had delivered. “Who is it? Ulanov himself?”

“No, it’s a digital construct, an AI.”

“What are you talking about, man? The sim-U doesn’t come with a guide.”

“We believe it’s a mod. Their engineer added it to help their trainees become quickly familiar with Antecessor tech.”

“That is… highly irregular,” said Mayden. “Tell the team to make sure the AI gets uploaded with the rest of the program.” If the guild had made an illegal modification to the program, that was even better than what he could have hoped for. They would have no way to make a counterclaim against the company (or him, personally) if they’d violated the ToS.

“Chief Supervisor, with this breach, do we have permission for a full incursion?”

“No, no, not yet. We still have a chance to resolve this peacefully. No point wasting additional ordnance and taking a reduction in our net profitability quotient.”

“Yes, sir. I concur.”

Mayden had never liked Creed, the jumped up little sycophant. He was clearly angling for a promotion into upper management, had contacts in all the senior departments, Mayden’s own contacts had confirmed it. Successfully completing this mission under budget was his first priority, reducing Creed’s impact on that success was his second.

“What about the security net? Still blocking all signals in or out?”

“Yes, completely solid. Zero pixelation. It’s quite a remarkable feat of engineering.”

The mobile unit was on the very edge of coverage, half in and half out. They could maintain contact inside the drone net from one side of the ship, and outside from the other.

The only reason Motherboard and Octanaria were able to make contact with the assault team inside sim-U was because of Ulanov’s soul box creating a stable connection. It gave them a line in.

“And we still have no way of breaking off the connection?” Not that he wanted to right now, but at some point they would have to.

“Not yet. We’ve got everyone available working on it. We could… bring in the off-duty teams.”

That would mean overtime, an additional expense that would greatly reduce the profit margin. “Not yet. We have time, and we need that connection for now.”

A soul box, practically a toy, creating a bridge between systems. It was hard to believe it was even possible, never mind so unfeasibly stable. Ulanov was clearly someone with a bright future in the Vendx futurist section. The finder’s fee for bringing him in wouldn’t be insubstantial, either. They just had to find him, and hope he had managed to achieve the sixty-two percent chance of still being alive.

“What about the Termination Team? Still no contact?”

“No, I’m afraid not. Can’t say I’m surprised.”

Mayden wasn’t, either. Fully automated teams were great, when they worked. They could get a job done in a fraction of the time a manned response would take, and with far less whining. But the failure rate for parts was more than double. Something was always going wrong with tronics once they were out in the field. In lab conditions, ten thousand hours without failure of any kind. Ten minutes on site, and they 404’d or stopped working or just fell to pieces. Every planet was a different kind of problem and only humans seemed equipped to adapt quick enough.

“Sir, we’ve got an unauthorised launch.”

“What? Who?”

“It’s one of the Termination Team transports. It’s returning to the Motherboard. Empty.”

Another glitch. At least this one was fairly inconsequential. The emergency homing system had been activated for some reason, which was manageable.

“I’m seeing a slight discrepancy in weight,” said Grewmann, his second-in-command on Motherboard.

“Are you sure it’s empty?” said Mayden.

“No life signs and interior cameras show nothing.”

“Hold onto it once it docks,” said Mayden. “Run it through the antivirus before you send it back down.”

They had time to do this properly, no silly mistakes. They could stall the city officials indefinitely, and anyone else wanting to get involved wouldn’t be able to get here for twelve standard hours, minimum. No point taking unnecessary chances over bugs.

“Belay that. Do a clean install.”

Once they had control over the guild’s internal network, they could wipe all records and no one would be able to prove anything. No evidence meant no criminal charges. Civil claims would get stuck in arbitration, as always.

Everything was progressing smoothly. He was managing it all from his mobile hub while keeping a lock on any potential issues. Senior management were bound to notice. A promotion wouldn’t be out of the question. Admiral of the fleet? Maybe not quite that, but certainly a bump to his dividend share.

“Sir, we’ve lost contact with the Motherboard.”

“Again?” These glitches were going to be more of a problem than the actual mission. “Restart the communication array, put it in safe mode and do another antiviral sweep. Let’s go people, back online in under thirty seconds, please.”

Maybe things weren’t progressing as smoothly as he’d like, but it was manageable. He was on top of things.

***

First Quadrant

Sterile Zone

Central Authority Headquarters

“Sir? Guardian Tezla? I have a message for you.”

Tezla turned over in her bed and looked up through bleary eyes at the drone floating above her.

“What is it, Janx?” She was still half asleep, only slightly curious about the interruption. Nothing of any great urgency ever happened in the Central Authority, an institution so powerful, no one ever bothered to provoke it.

“We have a possible declaration of war.”

“What?” She sat up abruptly, fully awake.

“We have a dec—”

“Yes, yes, I heard you. Show me.”

A light shone from the side of the circular drone and formed a picture in front of her face.

It was a text-based message. A ridiculous announcement.

“Has it been verified?”

“No.”

“Any authentication markers?”

“No.”

“Any confirmation of hostilities?”

“No.”

Tezla relaxed a little and threw back her covers. She was awake now, might as well get up.

“It’s obviously a fake.” She poured herself a stimulant beverage to help clear her mind. It was dull black and smelled awful, but it had a hell of a kick.

“Consensus puts the chance of war at approximately forty-nine point six percent.”

Tezla nearly spat out the liquid in her mouth. “How can it be that high?”

“Irregular variables,” said the drone. “And a complete loss of network connection.”

“Planetwide?”

“Quadrantwide.”

The problem with being the only human in a fully-automated facility was that no one ever acted on a hunch. There were not gut feelings. Everything was a precise calculation, even the approximations. That was why she was here — for three long years and still two more to go — to provide insight and context.

A full blackout across an entire quadrant didn’t need intuition to trigger alarm bells, though.

She had graduated at the top of every class she ever took, won every athletic competition she entered, mastered every musical instrument in existence, including those played by feet. So good at everything she tried that she had been recruited by the Central Authority for the prestigious guardian role. She was guardian for the whole galaxy, all four quadrants. Her word was law, as long as she got Consensus approval. Any planet she set foot on was hers to command as she wished, also pending approval.

It was a position of great power and eminence. And for three years she had been bored out of her mind.

Now there was a 49.6 percent chance something was actually going to happen.

“Prepare my ship — wait, where is it?”

“Fourth quadrant.”

“Right, the cruiser, then.”

“Should I activate the fleet?”

She thought about it as she looked through her wardrobe for the appropriate outfit. If she turned up to some prank with the full fleet, she would just look foolish. But if she turned up to a full-fledged war on her own…

“Put the fleet on standby and secure wormhole passage. I’ll take the full briefing once we’re underway.” She pulled out a brand new ultra-light Vendx spacesuit. They had sent it to her as a gift, just as all the other companies did when they came out with a new product. She would get to keep everything once her tenure was over, not that money would ever be an issue for her. This suit was purple, though. Purple looked good on her. She put down her beverage and got dressed for war.

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mooderino

Bio: Moody writes: 'How to Avoid Death on a Daily Basis', 'The Good Student' and 'Deeper Darker.' How does he do it? Where does he find the time? Is he just a better person than me? All good questions.

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