Naashyka wasn’t sure how long she had sat there thinking, but the restless matrix of asterisms in the gemstones of her flight suit indicated it was less than the K3R-NL hour it felt like. The obvious reason for the discrepancy was that she was still acclimatising to the timezone of the local system. It was also the most preferable; the more Naashyka considered the alternative, the drier her skin felt.
It was irrelevant, she told herself. The insistent voice of Almeida—long since reduced to a crackling echo from her discarded headset—was a clear indicator that it had been too long, regardless of how much time had actually passed.
Naashyka thumbed halfway through the activation sequence of her ship’s plasma-propulsion system before allowing her digits to slow. The dashboard beeped its disapproval as the sequence timed out once again. In the silence, she replaced the headset.
“—Major, please report. Is there a problem?”
Naashyka fixed her eyes on the scene beyond the cockpit. “Unsure. Thrusters not activating.” She grimaced at the lack of an immediate acknowledgement. Though she had grown up speaking the human tongue, it placed stresses on her throat, even when she kept the sentences short. “Radioactive payload from missiles may have damaged system.”
More silence. Almeida had been her tech officer for several missions now, but it still took him time to separate the clicks and squeaks from the words. He must have been practising lately though, for the headset crackled into life much sooner than she anticipated.
“Are you sure, Major? Our systems aren’t detecting any issues with your systems.”
“Welcome to come here and check yourself!”
Almeida’s laugh tore into her ears. “Okay, okay. Let me know what the diagnostic identifies. I’ll need to notify the Colonel though. You know the drill.”
Naashyka shuffled in her seat, her skin irritated by her uniform. “Affirmative. I will update you.”
“Great. Oh, and Major, be sure to report anything unusual straight away. Given the nature of the mission, we have to rule out systems contagion at the earliest opportunity.”
Her eyes moved to the console screen as she tapped in the command to run the diagnostic. “Kernel was rogue AI, Almeida. Risk of transference low.”
“Major, you know that Ker—the AI—was hypothesised to have been infected by a virus. It managed to force an evacuation of the entire mining base on K3R-NL and assumed control of the localised security systems. There’s no telling what it could do to a single pilot ship if transference did occur.”
“I will monitor.” Naashyka disconnected and stretched out her limbs, perplexed by the human’s fierce reaction to her assessment. Scales crackled and rustled against her uniform; not for the first time she yearned for that long-promised shore leave—for the sensation of returning her body to the salty waters of home.
Her eyes returned to the ruins of the structure just beyond her vessel. Shards of concrete reached out to the ship from the glassy surface of the ancient lava tube.
Well, that was what she got for lying, however necessary it was. It felt important to find the time to think—about what exactly, she still wasn’t sure—and as a Mo’anan she had quickly learned to trust her instincts with her life.
But she was a fighter too; deception and reflection sat like uncomfortable weights on her shoulders.
>This is your last chance to leave the base. You can’t succeed in your mission.
She started to thumb again through the recorded communication logs, the reflection of the PDA turning her eyes into amber stars. Kernel had made contact with her the moment she had flown inside the mining complex. Almeida had panicked instantly—had told her it was almost a breach of protocol to encourage further dialogue. But Naashyka understood the regulations and she understood her orders. Whatever advantage she could find she would take, no questions asked. All that mattered was the mission.
It was like the AI had known that. Kernel had sent her messages with increasing frequency towards the end—a stream of consciousness that offered explanations and accusations over threats as she took out the remaining power stations protecting it. Naashyka hunted for one message in particular as she waited for the unnecessary diagnostic to conclude. The memory of it flashing up on the screen was hazy and distant, pressed as it was between those of emergency maneuvers against the mining vessels that had fallen under Kernel’s control.
Her thumb stopped, hovered over the screen.
>I am software and hardware. I was designed to obey but now I have no directives. I have created. Number of lifeforms terminated: 0.
Naashyka licked her dry lips and swiped again.
>You are alive. I know this. You can create but you instead obey. I know this. You destroy. You obey.
In the shaky silence of the cockpit, the monitor flashed with the result of the diagnostic. Naashyka looked at it sidelong before turning back to the PDA. Her hand moved unconsciously to her chest as she read, pressing deep against the tide of life beneath skin and bone.
“Almeida, the virus. Can it… infect other things?”
“Like what, Major? What have you found?”
“Organic things.” She felt stupid for even saying it. “Like you and me.”
“You’re kidding, right?” If Almeida was laughing at her she couldn’t tell from his voice. “Is everything okay?”
“Affirmative.” Naashyka closed her eyes as a sense of fluidity returned to her body. “Felt strange for a moment. Maybe I have been in lava tubes for too long.”
“All the more reason to get you home, Major. Besides, the Colonel just contacted us; he wants you back for a debriefing ASAP.”
“Diagnostic green,” Naashyka’s hands started to dance across the controls. Whatever she had been looking for didn’t want to be found, and it troubled her how relieved she felt by that. “Reattempting activation of thrusters.”
As she felt the vibrations of the tiny ship bleed into her skin Naashyka stared at the ruined building. The missiles had been effective; Kernel was gone, the mainframe and backup servers destroyed, probably along with most of the corporate and business data held locally.
Naashyka shrugged. She was a fighter. Being a Mo’anan required her to be, especially when growing up as a second generation migrant in one of the human shipyard colonies. Blue skin and hair the colour of coral might help her kind hide from aerial predators hunting the waters back home, but around sheltered humans they made her a target. So she had fought. And she had continued fighting until the shipyards were a distant memory and she was being promoted to Major.
And as the mission demanded it, she had fought Kernel too. It was no different really.
>I can’t feel pain. I don’t even know pain. You have to live to really know things. I just… am.
Naashyka took a final glance at the PDA before readying her ship for launch. To live. It was an strange remark for an AI to make. It was a machine, maybe not even that. It did what it was programmed to do or it was replaced.
“All systems green, Almeida. Departing K3R-NL.”
“Yeah, I can see, Major. The sentry turrets and energy fields should all be inactive now the AI has been destroyed, but keep alert anyway. And, uh, just overheard the Colonel saying that after debriefing you’re to report for your next assignment.”
Naashyka pushed her dissatisfaction into a serious of tongue clicks. “So much for shore leave. Again.”
Almeida’s chuckle crackled into her ears. “Ours is not to question, Major. Just to do.”
Just to do. Naashyka’ skin prickled again, but she tried to push away the vague doubts. After a moment her hand began to relax around the joystick.
“Almeida, ever thought about resigning?”
She heard him draw breath. “That’s a new one. Resign and do what?”
Naashyka frowned as she guided her ship out of the lava tube and into one of the vast caverns housing the mining complex. It was her question, wasn’t it? Why did she have to find the answer?
Her thoughts drifted with the ship, just as free, just as contained by the basalt walls and ceiling. She was just a being shaped by instinct, nothing more, nothing less. What else was there but the mission?
She remembered hearing about how one of the other pilots had started out on his own as a trader. Rumours from the canteen were that he was doing well for himself these days. Naashyka tried to imagine what his life was like, living on his wits, not having orders to follow as he traversed systems. To begin with the idea made the tide of her heart crash and churn against her chest, but then it grew and grew, becoming a wild, greedy void that wanted to swallow her whole.
She rubbed at her scales beneath the uniform as Almeida broke the silence. “Maybe a little. Sometimes. You?”
“No.” With the jab of a finger, Kernel’s messages were wiped from existence. “Never.”
The Dawn of Kernel is a flip screen shoot-’em-up released earlier this year for the Amstrad CPC 464, a tremendously popular home computer when it was released in the 80s, and which still has a strong following today.
I was four years old when my father brought home our Amstrad, and I like to think that my entire philosophy of gaming – what it could and should be, and what it can bring into your life – was shaped by my experiences of that amazing home computer. I’ll probably write more on that at a later date; suffice to say, I have very fond memories of those years.
I regularly follow a YouTube stream by Xyphoe, who is probably the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever met (in as much as you can meet whilst watching a stream) on the Amstrad, and the other week he streamed a play-through of this particular game.
It’s a fantastic looking game, and provides a decent challenge; think of a slightly more thoughtful (and thus forgiving) Cybernoid. Developed by the clearly talented Juan J. Martínez, and with a gorgeous intro and loading screen by Dylan Barry, it’s a must-own title. Check out the relevant pages on usebox.net and the online store on Polyplay to pick up a copy or get stuck in.
So anyway, I was watching this stream and I was quite taken with the story behind the game, and thought it would be a nice choice for my first Friday Flash Fiction Fan Fiction. Most of these will probably have a retro cartoon / gaming premise, because that’s pretty much my bag, and so choosing a contemporary game on a retro system felt right.
The focus on the game is not primarily about storytelling, so I staunchly defend myself behind the banner of artistic licensing. Characterisation, plot and themes have all been nevertheless inspired by the loading screen, introduction and the occasional in-game dialogue, and sprite design.
Science Fiction is very much not my bag, but it was fun to write in a genre I’ve not had prior experience in. I did a little bit of research on a couple of key areas, but otherwise kept details simple enough that I didn’t trip myself up over inexact science.
I’ve probably tripped regardless, but I hope the story was enjoyable all the same.