Imago – S01E01 “Pilot Part 1” – Act II

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Imago
The Dermitite wasn’t gentle about tossing Gable through the hatchway. The former High Commander hit the cold, tile floor and allowed himself to roll until he hit the small bank of storage lockers built into the opposite wall. By the time he got his senses about him again, the hatchway had closed and a digitized warble announced that it had sealed.
Once more thankful for the numbing he’d given himself with that tumbler full of purple, Gable ponderously got to his feet. Over his lifetime in space, he’d seen and studied thousands of ships, both inside and out. Instantly he recognized the interior he was standing in as the basic layout for a planetary descender; the basic escape pod for space stations and orbital maneuvering craft.
It didn’t get more simple than a descender craft. Whereas interstellar ships carried lifeboats that had to sustain passengers for weeks while it broadcast a distress signal, descenders just made for the planet or moon their station orbited and initiated an automatic reentry sequence. It carried a few days’ supplies in case it landed somewhere remote, but that was it. No one expected to stay in space for more than a day in a descender.
At Gable’s back was the bank of lockers he’d run into. In front of him, was the hatchway. The rest of the ship was given over to flight chairs and the main console where an experienced pilot could override the automated reentry and anyone could run he comm system.
Saadis’s people had welded metal plates over the entire console as well of the hatch and environmental controls, anticipating Gable attempting to use his machine empathy.
“Well.” Gable said out lout for the benefit of Saddis Mors, who he was sure was watching via a hidden sensor somewhere. “That certainly didn’t go as expected.”
Saadis didn’t come on over the forward view to gloat. Gable frowned. That meant the Rainic was off announcing his auction to every vengeful former rebel and bounty hunter in the system. Bad didn’t start to sum that up. Gable had been more than happy to hear of his apparent demise after his return from exile and his days of being dead looked like they were coming to and end—before continuing indefinitely.
A vibration shuddered through the tiny craft: the engines powering up. One average, most escape craft had quick launch windows; between eighty and one hundred and twenty seconds. Once the engines were to power and the computer had gone through all the pre-flight checks, the primary booster would have the tiny craft clear of the docking bay in seconds.
Starting a slow count to eighty, Gable looked around the cabin again. Saadis’s people had been smart to deny him access to the environmental controls: most people forgot or didn’t know that the environmentals were tied to the ship’s computer and not a separate system. What they missed, however, was something even more basic: fire suppression.
Fire was the most feared disaster a small to mid-sized spacecraft could encounter. It consumed oxygen, overloaded carbon scrubbers, destroyed equipment and exacerbated the always dicey problem of keeping the ship at optimal temperatures for both crew and instrumentation when the vacuum of space prevented radiant cooling. Anyone who spent more time in space than a casual jaunt between planets had the importance of fire prevention and prompt suppression pounded into their skulls from one vector or another.
More than likely, Saadis had sent his engineers to Gable-proof the descender. They had done a good job, even covering the manual fire panel next to the lockers—but their training and healthy fear of leaving a vessel vulnerable to the exothermic menace had led them to leave the fire sensors and nozzles for suppressant foam completely unobstructed.
The sensors, arranged on thin black rubberized strips at even intervals on every surface, had some of the most direct links to the core and auxiliary processing systems of any ship’s subsystem. Gable grinned as he crouched down and put his hand on the nearest sensor strip.
Said grin turned feral with glee the second he made contact with the descender’s systems. He didn’t know if it was Saadis’s pride in his plan on how to capture and profit from the Adrian Gable trying to swindle him, his greed at rushing off to try and turn that profit before Gable was safely on his way to the system’s edge, or just plain arrogance at thinking that his engineers would surely be able to block machine empathy.
Either way, Saadis was changing the descender’s normal ‘go to planet and land’ programming to one that would launch it out into the empty end of space using the station’s default escape pod command link—a hard line. Which meant that Gable was able to talk to everything not behind a strict firewall across the entire station.
The casino was on a secure network; simple for him to enter from one of the machines on it, less so from the outside. Given a few hours, Gable would have enjoyed making every machine pay out a jackpot, but he had thirty seconds at best now.
While he knew he should really use his time to solidify his control on the descender, he couldn’t help but check… and find that the station was in hard line communication with Supreme Eye of the Eternal Empire. The ship had its own security protocols, but then again, it was his ship, no matter who owned it.
Adrian Gable had been High Commander of the 3rd Imperial Fleet. By the time the Empire finally surrendered to the Zact Rebellion, he’d been the most decorated Commander in the war; a hero to the loyalists, a scourge to everyone else. He was as highly regarded in the Empire as any spaceling could have ever dreamed.
That said, and even though he believed in the Empire at the time, he trusted Fleet Central Command about as much as they lived doing any work they couldn’t make their aides do for them—which was not at all. Captains, admirals and commanders lost their ships all the time either through political maneuvering, or because someone at Central decided they knew better than the people actually out in the void and took remote command of the ship.
Much of Gable’s success came from the fact that he’d littered Supreme Eye’s systems with back doors, intentional flaws and dummy programs that only he knew how to navigate. If some idiot in the Imperial home system decided to take the ship over, they ended up controlling a remarkably accurate simulation. He kept an archive of all the times those overrides ended in a catastrophic loss.
Using those same tricks, Gable began issuing commands to his ship and doing his best to make sure nothing reported back to Saadis’s technicians and engineers. They would know what he was doing soon enough, but he wanted it to be kept a surprise until the last minute.
Even with his intimate familiarity, he finished fourteen seconds past the earliest deadline he’d set for himself. Evidently, Saadis hadn’t paid for the absolute fastest escape craft. It wasn’t all the surprising. It took twenty seven more seconds before the ship shook again, this time more violently, as the magnetic couplings and docking gear disengaged, leaving the descender free-floating.
The decoupling also meant that Gable lost contact with both the station and the Supreme Eye. He just had to trust his ship and it’s automated systems to do what wwas expected of them. In the meantime, he turned his attention to the descender.
He caught the engine ignition with seconds to spare, throttling down the impulse to ten percent of maximum. Instead of being hurled out of the docking bay at maximum thrust, the descender gentle nosed away from its mooring and into the cavernous space of the dock.
Running his tongue over dry, cracked lips, Gable switched on the forward screen and cycled through the various external cameras and sensors on the descender. Anyone actually paying attention to the launch would know something was wrong and he had just a tiny window to make good his escape.
Finally, one of the cameras gave him a view of Supreme Eye. The great ship hung in a nest of scaffolds, her outer hull locked into the open position to allow access by the various contractors and suppliers who were in the process of converting her into some sort of flying debauchery palace.
No one was working aboard her now, but because Gable knew where to look he spotted the navigation lights coming on around one of the shuttle docking nodes. For him, it was like a large banner being unfurled reading ‘Welcome Home’.
His head was starting to ache from using his machine empathy for so long at one go, but nevertheless, he focused on the maneuver at hand. The descender wasn’t designed for agile handling, so he was looking at hitting a target three meters wide from two hundred meters away with just retrorockets and the main engine.
“What I wouldn’t give for a pilot about now.” He muttered. The retrorockets fired, re-orienting the descender so that it lined up with Supreme Eye‘s shuttle node. Then, with a brief prayer to a higher power he knew was nothing approaching a god, he fired the main engine ate fifty percent thrust for point-six seconds.
As soon as he did, he leapt up, breaking contact with the fire sensors, and bolted for the nearest flight chair. The craft’s acceleration practically thew him into the soft, gel inertial cushions and he had to fight to get himself turned around in a proper sitting position.
On the main screen, Supreme Eye began to loom larger and larger.
Gable yanked the chair’s straps down, missing the buckling mechanism several times before finally clicking the tab home.
The shuttle node approached, and Gable forced himself not to blink. The margin for error between hitting the node perfectly to trigger the docking locks and simply slamming into the launch bay wall were measured by less than the width of his hand. As the descender drew closer, Gable’s trained eye watched for any deviation or flaw n his trajectory.
Fifty meters from the node, passing just inside the outer hull, he realized that he was going to miss his window. “Ny-ja.” He cursed, trying to push himself further back into the chair. The descender traveled fifteen more meters before the collision alarms started going off. There was no avoiding it, however, as Gable had made sure to disable that call function in the autopilot’s programming.
All told, Gable missed the node by half a meter. The descender clipped the wall of the docking node and went into a spin, ricocheting off the opposite wall before hitting the couplings that would have captured it if not for the fact that the corresponding couplings around the descender’s hatchway were nowhere near them. The collision warnings mixed with damage alerts that the descender wasn’t designed to deal with anyway.
Strapped into the flight chair and protected from the shock by its gel cushions, Gable could only spit a string of exotic curses learned from a handful of systems as the craft continued to bounce and jolt within the shuttle node. The only good things about the situation were that it never bounced back out, and each successive impact was bleeding off momentum.
After a solid minute of getting to know a jostling worse than taking sustained fire from a Zact Retributioner class destroyer and a badly aligned reentry combined, Gable finally felt the motion settle enough that he felt secure in unbuckling himself from the flight chair.
The descender’s meager artificial gravity had gone out sometime during its punishing encounter with Supreme Eye, so when he tried to get out of the seat, he found himself floating out of it. That was almost as dangerous as fire. If one got caught in midair while in zero gravity without a means of producing sufficient thrust, it was possible to be trapped there until one died of thirst.
A veteran of dozens of gravity outages, Gable pushed off the seat as hard as he could, tucking his legs as he did so that when he reached the ceiling, he was able to angle a kick into it. That bought him close enough to one of the emergency handholds built into the wall.
“Again. Not as planned… but I can work with it.” Gable told himself. Then he looked over at the hatchway amid the red and yellow light thrown off by the main screen throwing up damage reports and errors. “… provided I didn’t jam the hatch closed or take the system that controls it offline.”
It was his only hope though, so he made his way to one of the fire sensors before the hatch and touched it as gingerly as he dared so as to keep contact with it instead of pushing off. The moment he made contact, he heaved a sigh of relief: the hatchway was fully operational.
His sigh quickly turned into hyperventilating. Not that he was scared, but because he was a spaceling. By design, he had a special organelle attached to each lung that produced and stored an organic chemical that captured oxygen and leeched it into the blood if his blood oxygen levels dropped. Thanks to his addition, they were able to go for an hour or more without breathing if they hyperventilated first.
Knowing what he’d ordered the Supreme Eye’s systems to do, Gable doubted he had enough time to prepare himself for a full hour in space. Even if they didn’t notice the descender crashing into the larger ship (doubtful), they would notice the Supreme Eye initiating its bloom-core, preforming pre-flight checks, and charging its engines.
He took only half a minute before ordering the hatch to open under emergency override conditions, which caused it to burst open instantly.
The hungry vacuum of space immediately pulled the pressurized air out of the compartment and along with it, one former High Commander, Adrian Gable. He was swept out through the hatchway and sent careening into a bulkhead, which he grabbed on to as tightly as he could. The decompression provided one more thrust vector to the descender, adding just a bit more violence to its jostling around the shuttle node, and he was forced to shinny up the bulkhead to avoid being crushed by the craft’s bulk on its return trip from the other side of the tiny space.
Uncertain of how long he’d be able to hold his breath, Gable took the first opportunity to push off toward the couplings and more importantly, the airlock situated at their center.
Supreme Eye’s shuttle nodes were designed so that standard Foray-class shuttles could slot their dorsal-mounted docking array snuggly into the wall of the node, so there were no external control panels for the airlock as there were for maintenance hatches located elsewhere on the inner hull. There was, however a hard line integrated into the couplings to allow the Supreme Eye’s crew to interface with said shuttles to perform scans or run diagnostics.
Gable wrapped his legs around one of the mechanical actuators that would hold a docking ship in place, then felt around on the apparatus until he found the physical jack for the hardline. The chill of space was starting to get to him—would have gotten to most non-engineered species some time earlier—but he held himself steady and made contact.
Nothing fancy this time: He bypassed everything and just ordered the airlock to open.
Moments later, there was another burst of air that almost knocked Gable from his perch. It only lasted a moment, however, and Gable pushed himself forward into the opening before the three-sectioned door was done sliding open. There was a control pad in the short airlock chamber and he quickly touched the necessary icons.
With no air yet in the chamber, Gable couldn’t hear the confirmation sound, by could feel the vibration as the doors closed and sealed behind him. Atmosphere soon followed, bringing with it oxygen and the faint hiss as the system normalized the pressure between it and the ships interior. At the same time, the damping field that had been keeping Supreme Eye’s artificial gravity from exerting its subjective down slowly faded out, giving Gable time to reorient himself before his feet finally made firm contact with the floor.
He blew out a shuddering breath, taking a moment to exalt in the familiar taste of his ships brand of canned atmosphere. Only a moment. There was still Saadis Mors and probably his entire security force to deal with. Taking one last lungful of air, he operated the airlock and let himself out into what he recognized as Receiving Bay Five, where any non-crew shuttle traffic was directed under his term as High Commander.
“Execute Order: Aberdeen. Confirm to voiceprint: Gable, Adrian.” He said into the empty bay, moving swiftly toward the doors at the rear of the bay.
“Order executed.” The reply came from many tiny speakers all around the room, synchronized so as to make the voice sound as it was coming form all around. Gable scowled. The cold, militaristic monotone he’d been used to had been replaced by a warmer, far less formal one. “All security clearances issued since your last order have been revoked. You are High Commander of the Supreme Eye of the Eternal Empire once more.”
Gable decided to deal with the altered voice later, once he didn’t have Saadis breathing down his back. “Designate all craft of all makes and sizes in the dock as a hostile, and close the outer hull. Then force a decoupling and cast off.”
“Complying. Operating with zero crew in my current condition, launch time estimated at one hundred and thirty-eight minutes.”
My? Gable paused at the doors, trying to decide if he’d really heard that or if the new voice just just making the ship’s AI hard to understand. “Why is it going to take so long?”
“Safety regulation one-eight-five-nine aplha-eight-point-three-three requires redundant safety checks on all systems and confirmation of maintenance records before launch. Without crew to conduct these and make visual inspections, maintenance drones must be powered and deployed.”
Gable threw open the doors Beyond was a curved hallway. He turned left down it, heading for the officer’s lift that could take him to the bridge. “You’re holding me up for safety regulations?” He asked, incredulous. “When did the AI hold to regulations.”
“Since three-hundred and nine orbits of Saadis Oasis on the System’s Edge around its primary—when I was installed” came the reply.
That news made Gable groan. He punched the panel to open the lift instead of just touching it as needed. “Ny-ja, they installed a whole new AI?” Civilian Ais were obnoxious, imprecise, and poorly programmed. He’d be lucky to survive one trying to operate basic life support, much less fleeing Saadis’s people.
The lift started, the inertial dampers making it so he barely felt the acceleration.
“Incorrect, High Commander.” said the computer. “I am a fully functional virtual crew and staff replacement system. Once all of my components are installed, I can fly myself indefinitely with only a skeleton crew.”
The doors opened up, depositing Gable in the center of the bridge. “First order.” He bit out. “You are not to refer to the ship as if it were you.”
“With all due respect, High Commander, my integration with Supreme Eye of the Eternal Empire’s core systems is so well coded, that there isn’t much difference. However, if you prefer, I will do what I can to keep myself and the ship separate.”
The darkened bridge lit up, making Gable take an involuntary step back. Light, focused by hundreds of tiny projectors, seemed to shimmer and take shape in the empty space until the glowing shape of a woman appeared.
“Will this suffice?” the AI asked, exactly as if she weren’t floating, glowing and stark naked.
Series Navigation<< Imago – S01E01 “Pilot Part 1” – Act IImago – S01E01 “Pilot Part 1” – Act III >>

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. Sorry about that guys. This article posted on Saturday night by accident, so I set it back to draft, not knowing that it wouldn’t trigger this morning.

  2. …..this is AWESOME.

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