Seth lay on his bed, watching computer code scroll through the air. “Well, looks like it’s not hiding in your personality routines, whatever it is.”
“You’re sure it’s there?” asked Izzy. “I can’t find it.”
“I’m sure,” said Seth. “Your unused cycles aren’t. Something’s running in them, and I want to know what it is and how it got in you.”
“It’s creepy, not being able to detect it.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what has me worried. A virus that can infect youhas to be more than some kid playing around. It’s somebody who knows what he’s doing. But the virus doesn’t seem to do anything! It’s processing something in spare cycles, but it has no inputs or outputs I can find, and it always gets out of the way whenever you need the cycles. It’s like it’s waiting for something — but if that’s the case, why run at all? Why not just sit there quietly until it’s time to do whatever it’s programmed to do?” Seth threw a grease pencil through the display. “Turn it off. I’ll work on it later.”
“Hey, boss, you made me, remember? You’ll figure it out.”
Seth rolled back off his bed and grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair he’d slung it over. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he walked out into the hall. His footsteps echoed on the shiny metallic deck, kept meticulously clean by a small army of cat-sized maintenance robots, one of which whirred past his door as he left the room. The walls were a warm, friendly shade of tan above and silver-gray below, marked here and there by the golden splash of a lamp. A multicolored stripe ran between them. Potted plants, marked as “oxygen reclamation units” on the ship’s blueprints, lined the corridor, and a holodisplay in the corner was busy cycling through Izzy’s latest attempts at drawing. Privately, Seth thought she should stick to interior design; her drawing of him looked like he’d lost a fight with several very large, very angry bouncers and one extremely irate barber.
He walked the other way down the hall, toward the elevator that led to the cargo deck and the AMWS bay.
“You all right, boss?” asked Izzy.
“You’re worried,” she said. “Is it money?”
“Nah. We’ll make do. We might have to make ourselves scarce in Federation space for a while until we can make some of those back payments, but we’ll figure something out.”
“Vix isn’t going to stay much longer if you don’t find a way to pay her soon.”
“I know,” said Seth. “But we need a crew. If people figured out you can run the ship alone –“
“You’re worried about the virus, aren’t you?”
“It shouldn’t be possible to hack you, Izzy! You’re way too complex and self-referential for an intruder to hide.”
“And a computer that can be hacked can’t be trusted to control the ship unsupervised. You’d need at least one more crewmember, and you can’t afford the ones you’ve got.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about!” The elevator reached bottom, and Seth stepped out into the AMWS bay.
“Aw,” said Izzy. “That’s sweet of you, boss.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m going to see if I can tweak any more maneuverability out of AMWS Two. Watch the drive output while I do, huh?”
“Captain!” shouted Wehj’s voice over the intercom. “We’ve picked up what looks like a space battle near the fifth planet!”
“Izzy, feed it to the AMWS’ screen.” Seth watched as lines of light and blossoms of fire erupted around a large cargo ship, boxier and more heavily defended than the sleek Isolde. It was no match, however, for the dagger-like warship bearing down on it or the AMWS units picking off its defenses.
“All right!” said Vix. “A chance at some decent salvage. I’m staying somewhere with a tub tonight!
“Pirates,” Seth hissed between clenched teeth. “Both of you, get down to the AMWS bay, now. We launch in five minutes.”
“Captain, you can’t mean we’re going to help them! That’s a real warship out there, with real military AMWS! We can’t take on something like that,” Wehj whimpered.
“That’s an order!”
Seth hopped down from AMWS Two. “Prep the launchers and load AMWS One’s missile batteries. Arm all weapons, and set us on an intercept course with that warship, best speed,” he ordered Izzy.
He had his flight suit on and was just sealing his helmet when the others arrived. “Suit up!” he ordered. “We’re launching in two.”
“This is crazy,” said Vix. “There’s a pocket cruiser and a dozen military-grade AMWS out there! We’ve got one bow cannon, one out-of-date military AMWS, and a pair of heavy lifters you slapped partacs on! Besides, what does fighting them accomplish? We drive off the pirates, we get to keep whatever debris they leave behind. Maybe a few damaged AMWS at best, and we have to split it with the ship they’re attacking. Just wait a little while, and we’ll have an entire ship’s worth of scrap metal, any munitions or cargo the pirates don’t carry — way more stuff.”
“I gave an order!” snapped Seth.
Vix stepped forward, topping him by a full head. In her black flight suit, the helmet still deflated and dangling from her collar, she looked sleek and deadly. “I refuse to risk my skin with nothing to be gained from it.”
“I am the captain of this ship!” Seth shouted, beginning to purple.
“Not for long, unless you figure out how to pay off some of those loans.”
“Bounty,” said Wehj.
The other two turned to look at him.
Wehj cringed but kept talking. “Federation has bounties out on hundreds of pirates, and we’re not far from their space. There’s a good chance we can sell these scraps to the Feddies for a lot more than market value?”
Vix rubbed her jaw. “Yeah, okay, could be worth it,” she admitted.
“We launch in 70 seconds,” Seth said, ignoring her. “Finish getting on your suits and power up your AMWS.” He climbed the concealed handholds on AMWS One’s leg and swung into the upper of its two cockpits.
“You all right?” asked Wehj, eyeing Vix warily.
Vix growled. “If this doesn’t pay off, that’s it. I’m bailing, and forget the back pay. There’s gotta be some other ship in this shitpile system that needs crew.” She glanced at Wehj. “You with me?”
He considered a moment. “…Yeah, I guess I am.”