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Pyrrhic Victory

by James Bright

part 6

Inside Cyberspace:

Erik was making full use of the counterfeit command paper he’d made. As soon as he was back inside, he found another place to hide out and began counterfeiting orders using the names and locations his laptop was showing him. His translator program was linked into the cyberspace pen he was using, so that the common language words he was writing would change before his eyes into enemy script.

After writing up a bag full of orders on the spot, Erik walked through security toward the ICC and pulled out another grenade. This one didn’t shoot black, sticky spam. It was a shock grenade, designed to simply overload a program, forcing it to lock up on the spot. Erik was going to hammer the clerk in the ICC and hand-deliver the orders to the right slots himself. That way, no one but he would know what was in store.

Walking casually into the ICC with the grenade hidden under his shirt, Erik looked at the clerk with the usual stone face that everyone wore. Getting closer, he swiftly pulled out the grenade, took out the safety pin, and over-handed it right at the clerk. It took the program clear in the face and exploded, sending apparent electrical shocks through the clerk and knocking it to the floor.

Without missing a beat, Erik jumped the desk and opened his bag, beginning to unpack orders and slipping them into the receptacles for the correct ships. About halfway through his bag he began to see his avatar being tugged. He braced himself for the dizzying ride he knew was coming and closed the bag, tucking it away just as his view swam and he watched himself pulled all the way from the ICC back to the entrance he used, before being booted from the system.

Just as he left the enemy ship’s computer, Erik heard the beeping of Hargrove’s sensor over the intercom. Erik sat very quietly and waited it out. He knew that was the proximity sensor and that being pulled out meant the system was powering down.

He thought about that. The enemies would notice the difference in power levels, but the proximity sensor was set to go off when the enemies were far enough away not to pinpoint the change. Erik could only figure that the enemies were worried about the bombs they’d been hit by and were being extra careful.

To be honest, he was surprised it took them this long to send scouts out. They couldn’t have been sent out too long ago, otherwise they would have been sensed much sooner than this. Erik wondered how Hargrove would handle the situation, but he didn’t want to key on any power sources like intercoms, just in case the enemies were on high alert, as they should be.

The truth was, most Amoeboid warlords were absolute idiots who were truly good at taking orders, but that was about it. They’d functioned perfectly well under their late leader, but on their own, they couldn’t decide their way out of a paper bag. That said, not all were dumb. Under their leader, all warlords had been equal, but now that the ceiling had been taken away, there were some who were bound to be coming into their own element.

The Empire was taking chances at this point on figuring out which warlords were smart and which were little more than figureheads. It was safe to say that the fleet leaders had to be intelligent, but it was a crapshoot whether the actual leaders were aboard the flagships or not. There had never been any indication that the Amoeboids had personal egos. The fact that they’d submitted so well to a single individual seemed to suggest that egos were foreign to them.

Which brought Erik back to the question: were the enemies following a set pattern, or did they have a thinking brain among them that could improvise? Erik was all too familiar by now with the enemy’s assumption-making way of fighting. He’d been taking advantage of it this entire mission. Could he take the chance that the enemies were alert and call Hargrove to let him know that half the enemy fleet might be crashing all around them soon, or should he sit back and let Hargrove do whatever he would?

Erik watched the view screen as the enemy passed by. As soon as the scout was out of detection distance, the power turned back on full and the Sight glided through the asteroids to find a new observation point. Erik took this chance and opened the intercom. “Captain, I changed orders for about half the fleet before I got pulled, at least some of those ships are going to be acting weirdly, so watch out.”

With a grin hidden from Erik, Hargrove listened to his subordinate and replied, “Define weirdly, Hacker.”

“Crashing into one another and doing random fire tests in places other ships shouldn’t be and yet somehow are, Captain.”

“Keep up the good work. We’ll be stationary and safe again soon. Just hang in there. Hargrove, out.”

The intercom turned off and Erik took in the view of the stars floating by as Sight One passed through the asteroid belt at the same speed as the rocks around them. The Sights had been painted brown for camouflage and could coast with barely any propulsion; they could keep up the hide-and-seek act for long stretches without running out of fuel.

Erik marveled at how well Hargrove handled the ship. He’d always heard that the captain’s reflexes bordered on the supernatural. That made it almost easy to believe that Hargrove simply blamed himself for not being able to save Erik’s older brother, but Erik wasn’t going to assume that was the reason Hargrove wouldn’t talk about that mission.

Erik and Hargrove both looked over the enemy fleet, watching for the crashes and misfires that were sure to come. It didn’t take long for Hargrove to find a suitable observation point, and the two just sat in the darkness observing enemy actions. Erik decided to wait some time before going back inside the computer. Too much going on at once was likely to alert even an idiot fleet leader, and Erik wanted to avoid frantic action as much as possible.

The enemy fleet did suffer set-backs: a few crashes, a misfire or two, but nowhere near the pandemonium that Erik’s orders should have created. When the Conglomerate ships started piecing themselves back into a coherent formation, the two soldiers started worrying.

The intercom clicked on and Erik could hear Hargrove, “I guess whoever runs this fleet was on the ball. You’ll probably have a harder time from here on out.”

Furrowing his brow a little, Erik replied, “Sir, even if they wised up, there should be more damage than this. We gave the other teams the same algorithms I used. They should have done something, anything.”

Hargrove kept the intercom on, and found a line of sight to another Sight. He saw that it was Sight Three, and keyed on the comlink. “Sight Three, this is Sight One. Did your Hacker change any orders for the Conglomerate ships? Over.”

A terse reply could be heard through the intercom, “Sight One, this is Sight Three. No, she did not, that’s not part of the mission. Over.”

Erik growled inside. Not part of the mission? That was the mission, to relay information back to headquarters and to keep the enemy occupied until a second and third volley could be launched. How could anyone who’d been at the briefing not see this as mission-critical?

Erik made a mental snap. He recognized that voice, it was someone he and Hargrove had hoped would not be on the mission. Captain Sanderson was as stodgy as a person could be, and the only reason he was in this system was that he was one of very few pilots who could fly better than Hargrove. He also had enough political clout to put a kill switch in his ship so he could control whether his passenger could connect to other computers or not.

Hargrove continued talking. “Sanderson, do the mission. The mission is, and I quote: ‘To observe and aggravate the enemy until the cannons back home have done their job, using any means at your disposal.’ ‘Any means’ and ‘aggravate’ — those two words mean that hacking the enemy and planting false orders is mission critical.”

The comlink stayed silent for three long minutes before Sanderson spat out, “You listen here, boy. I’ll run my ship however I like, so mind your own business.”

Multi-tasking like always, Erik messed around with his fabricator, creating more order sheets for later while laughing to himself about the two ranking officers having their little spat. Guilt-ridden or not, Hargrove knew his mission, and no one was going to derail it on his watch, no matter what politics were at play.

Hargrove sighed audibly, and started in on Sanderson again. “You don’t outrank me out here, Captain. The mission outranks us both, and if you screw it up for us, I will personally make sure you get court-martialed and a dishonorable discharge. Is that understood? Captain?”

The distaste in Sanderson’s voice was almost palpable as he replied, “Who the hell do you think you are, ordering me around like that?!”

Erik didn’t have to see Hargrove’s face to know he was snarling as he said, “I’m from the Armored Legion, thank you very much. You never lose that, and no one, no matter rank or service, endangers a mission we’re on without paying for it later.”

“Listen, you punk, my family...”

“Is very rich and powerful. Of course they are. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you right now, would I? All you need to know about that family of yours is that if they try to cover up your stupidity and get you out of that court-martial, I’ll have them charged with obstructing justice and sue them for every cent they sink into your defense. You’ll do the mission, or you’ll find out just how much you have left to lose.”

There was silence on the other end of the conversation. After five minutes with nothing said, Hargrove closed off the conversation with, “I think they’re onto us, so it’s too late to cause more damage for now, but you’d better do what home base asked us to. If you don’t believe me, try me. I’ll make sure you never fly anything faster than a jail cell. Hargrove out.”

Just as Hargrove was about to close the comlink, Sight Three kept it open, from the hacker’s compartment. Hargrove and Erik waited as a female voice sounded clear through the cockpit. “Captain Sanderson has turned off his kill switch. I can get on with my job now. Thank you, Captain Hargrove. Over.”

“You’re welcome. People like that are a reason wars are lost. He should have someone kick his backside from time to time. Over.”

The girl, she didn’t sound much older than twenty, spoke again, “I hope the fall-out from that outburst doesn’t ruin your career, Captain. You’re a national hero, after all! Over.”

A snort. “Careers are made and broken every day, I think I can handle a family of politicians. We need to hide for now, so shut off the comlink and rest up; you’ll need your strength for what’s coming. Hargrove out.”

This time the link did shut off, and Erik listened to Hargrove through the intercom. He spoke up after a minute, “The other two Sights should have hacked, but I can’t see any evidence they did much, if anything at all. We need to straighten them out, don’t we, Captain?”

Hargrove shook his head. “They are straightened out or should be. I remember when these ships were being customized. I practically lived in this thing during those days, but the others didn’t. They probably had themselves enslaved to Sanderson’s ship. He couldn’t touch mine, but believe me, that man’s a classic piece of work. Doing something so stupid would be right up his alley.”

Erik didn’t let up. “We still need to check, don’t we, Captain? If we let an assumption blindside us and the Conglomerates escape, we’ll be to blame for it too. Won’t we, Captain?”

Hargrove shook his head and let out an exasperated sigh, “I suppose you’re right, Hacker. Leave it to my wingman to keep me on track after reaming someone out for not being on track.”

Hargrove located the other two ships quickly enough and hailed them both for short reports. Just as Hargrove thought, the other two ships had been on a slave circuit to Sight Three and had been unable to, as they put it, play.

Erik also found out how it was that the ships could be slaved to Sight Three yet still download the programs in the first place. Sight Three’s hacker had inadvertently discovered the slave circuit and had rigged up a small bypass. Nothing that let her hack into someone’s computer, but it was enough to receive files, data, anything someone wanted to send her. She’d made sure the other two hackers did the same.

Curiosity and knowledge satisfied, the soldiers settled down to hide and wait. Hargrove kept his eyes on his sensors, looking for anything and everything strange, just in case the Conglomerates got jumpy or else decided to hunt down the flies buzzing in their ears.

Hargrove started talking to Erik. “Do you think you could go into cyberspace and spy on them? We really need to know what that fleet commander is thinking.”

Nodding to himself, Erik replied, “Will do, Captain. Cautiously, of course. I would like to return home in one piece, if it’s at all possible, sir.” Taking the plunge, Erik opened up a link to the Conglomerate flagship and...

To be continued...

Copyright © 2013 by James Bright

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