The Sword of Jupiter - Cover

The Sword of Jupiter

Copyright© 2021 by Lumpy

Chapter 1

“It is time, Commander.”

The voice echoed in Ky’s mind, pulling him out of the void of sleep in a rush. His eyes opened as rows of lights sprang to life, one after another, across the bay. Each new section of light dispelled a patch of the inky blackness that made up the sleep cycle, revealing row after row of beds.

Pulling himself up, Ky swung his legs over the side of his bunk and slid his feet into slippers. Looking to either side, Ky could see the rest of his batch working through the same process in ragged succession.

Ky stood and walked between the rows towards the lavatory to complete his daily routine, mentally preparing himself for the mission ahead. As he passed each bunk, the occupant would busy themselves or simply glance away, refusing to make eye contact.

Their detachment was not a sign that Ky was particularly disliked. He’d spent his entire life with this same group of people, training for the tasks they’d been bred for. Humanity had changed much in the last several millennia, but the values of friendship and camaraderie still held strong.

On any other day, he would stop by this or that bunk to have a brief word or tell a story, or someone would stop by his bunk for the same.

However, this morning was not any other day.

Ky had been selected almost a year ago to pilot the second prototype faster-than-light ship. The selection was not an honor or a coveted spot among the candidates though. The first test had ended in disaster as the ship consumed itself in a massive fireball while attempting to open a wormhole that would take it across the void of space to Alpha Centauri.

Ky had not been picked because he was the best or the brightest of his batch. He had been picked because he was adequate. Knowing the probable outcome of the test, command - in their infinite wisdom - did not want to waste their best pilots on a mission that had been given a twenty percent chance of survival. The type of pilot needed for this stage had been described to command by the lead scientists was ‘acceptable but not irreplaceable.’

That did not mean that Ky was sub-standard. Being average among the Empire’s most elite genetic batch still put Ky close to the pinnacle of what humanity had achieved.

Comparisons are rarely objective, especially by the person making them. Ky knew his place among his peer group and had accepted it a long time ago. As humans continued to increase their lifespans the ability to accept things as they were and exhibit patience for what was to come had followed. Ky had known his rating among his peers for eighty years, and he would have to live with that same knowledge for almost a hundred more. Assuming he survived today’s mission.

The lavatory remained empty the entire time Ky was inside. The rows of shower stalls he had once shared with his batchmates were silent except for his. Ky did not blame them for keeping their distance. He had done the same when Jax had been selected. Ky had not kept his distance because he thought less of Jax, but more out of fear. Fear of becoming closer and then losing a friend. Fear of a taint that might bring the next test to him. Ky guessed his friends had similar reasons now.

‘Well,’ Ky thought as the shower in the stall next to him sprang to life, ‘all of my friends save one.’

Turning, Ky saw Sara stepping into the shower stall. She turned and leaned back, letting the water roll off her toned body and smoothing her hair into a flat sheet against her back. Wiping the water off her face, she leaned against the short wall that separated them and smiled at him. Almond eyes crinkling as she looked at him, her golden skin glistening with beaded water.

He considered her for a moment. Physically they looked much the same. Centuries of intermingling among Earth’s cultures had virtually eliminated those features humanity once used to separate itself. Skin now came in somewhat lighter and somewhat darker shades of bronze. Eyes now had a near-uniform almond shape with a thin double-fold eyelid and hair came in various colors of black and dark brown.

There were occasional instances of a gene from the far past resurfacing, passing the person oval eyes, or blond hair, or dark skin. But it was rare, and these people were often seen as being lucky. Blessed by a quirk of genetics to stand out from their fellows.

The rest of humanity had melded into a more homogeneous whole.

“Nervous?” she said, her voice a gentle contralto.



Ky just looked at her with an attempted air of indifference, not wanting his weakness to show through. Sara’s brow wrinkled and her mouth became a tight smile as she saw through his forced nonchalance. He had never been able to hide his feelings from Sara.

“Don’t blame them Ky. They want to be here with you, wishing you well. They’re just afraid.”

“I know. I did the same with Jax. It doesn’t make it hurt less though.”

“You aren’t alone,” she said, reaching out and putting a hand on his shoulder.

Ky patted the hand, gave her a wan smile, and returned to his shower. They finished at roughly the same time, toweling off and heading to the lockers. She left Ky to his thoughts, just being present to support him and available should he need a friend.

As he dressed, Ky let his thoughts drift to the test and what he would do afterward if he survived. While he pondered what lay ahead, Ky pulled out the gold flight suit. The hexagonal pattern across its surface contained the impact shielding, power collection, and various sensors needed for flying modern spacecraft.

“Flight suit protocols initiated,” the AI said as the final wrist connectors snapped shut, activating the suit. Ky watched the confirmation data scroll across his vision as his AI completed the steps to gain full control of the suit’s systems.

Across from him, Sara had finished pulling on the soft, white jumpsuit that was his batch’s off-mission uniform. The soft fabric was made for comfort, missing the connections for life support and safety features.

“I have my pre-flight med-check,” Ky said to Sara as he stood.

“Meet me at observation before you launch?” she replied, pulling on a boot.

He nodded, heading out of the lavatory towards the station’s medical facilities. He could not avoid the pang of sadness he felt as he saw his batchmates headed to finish their morning routine now that he was clear of the area.

Ky shook off the momentary depression. He stepped through the hatch, turning down the gleaming white hallway towards the station’s medical section.

The medical bay was one of the larger sections of the space station, barely smaller than the hangar itself. Designed to handle a hundred patients at once and capable of full-scale surgeries, the bay had been originally designed during the last separatist war a hundred and fifty years before and was one of the legacies that carried over from a more martial mindset of the past. The more recently constructed stations, such as the one currently orbiting Io servicing the various mining outcroppings across Jupiter’s moons, had much smaller and more reasonably sized med-bays.

Ky found it unlikely any current station needed the ability to handle a dozen simultaneous surgeries. Living in space was still more dangerous than planet-side habitation. Accidents happened, but there were rarely more than a handful of patients at any given time. The Bureau of Personnel never stationed enough staff to run the medical section at full capacity anymore.

A med-tech checked Ky’s orders, which was probably unnecessary considering the amount of gossip traveling across the station about today’s launch. He assigned him to one of the small diagnostic rooms lining one wall of the bay.

As with his batchmates, the med-tech did not speak to Ky and avoided eye contact as he placed two small, circular devices on either side of Ky’s head. The tech then tapped something into the control panel near the wall, causing the devices to emit a single low tone.

“Diagnostics mode accepted,” the AI intoned after a moment.

The sound of the AI was not so much in his mind, as echoing inside his skull, an effect of the implants in his skull. The acoustics would reverberate, limiting the sound to the implantee. He was not sure how the implants worked, but it sounded different than both how he heard his own thinking and how he heard things from the world around him.

The data that continually hovered in the periphery of Ky’s vision disappeared as the screen on one wall of the small room lit up with a wide array of information and diagrams. Checking to make sure the connection was secure and looking over the screen once more the tech left the room, leaving Ky to his own thoughts.

Ky waited for several minutes, looking at a map of his body made up of pinpoint dots, each representing one of the nanobots that littered his system when the door opened again, and an older man walked in.

“Commander,” he said by way of greeting.

Ky did not reply, waiting while the doctor punched some controls and watched as the data display switched, scrolling information that Ky didn’t really understand.

“How’ve you been feeling?” he asked without looking Ky’s direction.

“I’m fine, Sir.”

“Good. Everything looks to be right in the zone, although I guess if it wasn’t, we’d probably have figured that out by this point, eh?”

Ky just nodded.

“How’s the stress?”

“Manageable, Sir.”

“I know it’s tough for you guys,” he said, turning to face Ky, a look of compassion on his face, “Especially in these early runs. Trust me, everything you’re feeling is normal. Lt. Commander Jax had a similar expression right before his flight.”

Ky let out a snort.

“Well, yes. But I think we can both agree that what happened with his test flight was almost certainly not caused by something he did. The panel cleared human error as the fault of that ... event.”

“That does not fill me with confidence, Doctor.”

“I imagine not. Just do your duty, Commander. That’s all you can do.”

“I will.”

“Ky,” he said, looking at the data on the screen again, his voice returning to its professional demeanor, “when you get back, we are going to have to reset your AI. It’s already a month and a half beyond its operating window and the logs show it made two independent decisions on your last prep-flight.”

“They were the right decisions,” Ky said, somewhat defensively.

“I’m sure. The Mark Fourteens are the most advanced Tactical Interface and Guidance systems to come out of Research Command. Operating outside of the host’s decision cycle, however, is one of the early indicators of progression towards sentience. I know they briefed you folk on the dangers of AI integration when you were first implanted, but trust me when I say, you do not want to know what happened to the early users whose AIs went sentient. I’ve seen the archival recordings, and it was ... terrifying.”

“The waiting is almost the worst part. I sort of wish you could just reset it now?”

“Can’t. It’s already loaded and calibrated with the ship’s systems. Wiping it would force the techs to start over on this test run from scratch. It’s why we’ve let it run over its operating parameters already. Although I told them if they had one more overrun, I was going to say to hell with it and force them to start over. I may not be able to control what happens once you’re in that cockpit, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let them take unnecessary risks with my pilots.”

Ky smiled. He’d always liked Captain Pei. He’d transferred to Earth Station five years previously and had the respect of every pilot and trooper assigned to the station. Not just because he was likable as a person, which he was, but because every man and woman aboard knew the weathered doctor looked out for them.

“It’s moot now I guess since it seems like the test is happening today, no matter what. I want you back here as soon as you finish your debrief. Once this phase is done, you’ll go back in the pilot queue, and we’ll have the time to reset your AI and do rehab.”

Ky frowned at the thought. Every pilot aboard had to have one of the advanced AIs installed to be fighter qualified. Fighter combat in space, or even just basic fighter operations, required reflexes that outstripped even those of pilots who’d received full nano-enhancement. An AI was required to handle the mass of calculations that were needed in an instant, and pilots trained for almost a decade to be able to integrate with one of the AIs. To people whose lifespans had reached almost two-hundred years, a decade was not a lot, but it was still a grueling process.

Even after a pilot had finally worked up to be AI rated, they would have to have them wiped every twelve months, to prevent the exact thing for which the Doctor was hinting. While the wiping and installing a fresh AI only took a few hours, the pilot would then have to go through almost two months of retraining to adapt to the AI. Every pilot dreaded the cycle.

Living with another personality, even one as hobbled as a freshly installed AI, was trying on the human psyche. Just as a pilot got accustomed to the one in their head, the AI had to be reset, and they got a new one. While, theoretically, the AIs were identical pieces of software and should have been uniform, at least when they were first installed, Ky had never found that true. Each one had their own near-personalities and foibles that had to be adjusted to.

The first few hours after the AI was reset, the pilot became almost an infant again. The physical actions needed just to walk were difficult as the new AI came online and learned the host’s movements.

The pilot had gotten used to the automatic reactions of the previous AI’s predictive directions, moving through indicated guide paths before conscious thought could be applied. When the pilot was locked into the AI, they could move before their brain actually registered the need to move. Coupled with the nanobots that increased their strength and reflexes, which were also integrated to the AI, the pilot could actually dodge fast-moving debris, although not so fast enough to dodge energy discharges or propellant driven projectiles.

Before the pilot was locked in, just getting a spoon into their mouths without smashing it into their face was difficult. For the non-augmented technicians and troopers who manned the station, watching newly recycled pilots as they tried to do the simplest task was a prime form of entertainment. Although considering the pecking order of the station, they usually refrained from making comments to the struggling pilots. The pilots, who shared the enjoyment of watching others being recycled, generally chose to ignore the smiles and stares while they fought with the computer in their head. It was a truce that had existed for as long as Ky’s batch had passed the indoctrination and training cycles.

“Well,” the doctor said, pulling the two small devices off Ky’s head, “You are cleared. I’ll send a note to Admiral Al-Wahi that the test can proceed.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Ky said, hopping off the hard seat and reaching for the door to the small diagnostics cubicle.

“Ky,” the doctor said.

Ky paused partway through the door, turning to look back, “Yes, Doctor?”

“Good luck, Son. I expect to see you back here this evening.”

“I’ll try my best, Doctor.”

Ky turned and left the kindly physician and surreptitiously staring med-tech behind. He headed for observation.

Sara was there ahead of him, waiting in front of the long wall of windows, her hands clasped behind her back, looking out over the launch bay and beyond to the blue globe spinning far below them. Ky stepped next to her, unconsciously assuming the same stance.

Outside the window sat a strange ship, different from those flying patrols outside circling the station or docked in the hanger bay. The front was a similar pointed, sleek frame topped by a bubble canopy with wings sweeping back into the larger and wider engine housing in a near trapezoidal shape, if you did not include the protruding cockpit.

What made this ship look so different were the missing weapon mounts on the wings, and the large, hollow circle, like a thin doughnut. It engulfed the back of the ship’s engine and was connected to the body of the test platform with wide, metal brackets.

“How’d it go?” she asked, not looking away from the preparations happening outside the window.

“Fine. He says I need a reset after the trial run.”

“Ugh,” she groaned, “I hate resets. I swear, last time I was close to telling them to just pull the implant entirely.”

“Ha. You wouldn’t give up piloting.”

“Maybe not, but it still sucks.”

“Sure. Although let’s be honest, I probably won’t have to worry about that.”

“Ky,” she said warningly.

“I’m not being pessimistic Sara. You know the odds. I’m not panicking. I’m not scared ... well, not terrified at least. This is what we’ve trained for. Everyone knows how important FTL flight is and I’m ready to do my part.”

She did not say anything, but also did not look back out the window.

“You know I’ll never be as good as you or Dek,” he said, watching the work party crawl over the small craft floating outside. “I won’t be chosen for the anti-piracy squadrons or any interdiction missions if those happen. Hell, I won’t even get to do any of the exhibitions. After the Io revolt, I don’t think we’ll have a chance to see any more real action anyways, at least not in our lifetime. So, this is really my only chance to do something, you know?”

“Still,” she said, “I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.”

He noted she had not disagreed with his assessment, which was not surprising. Sara had never been one to gloss over the truth.

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