“This is Commander Cello of the Tranquility Cellos, streaming live from the bridge of the Lunar Expeditionary Force pursuit cutter Civil Discourse. We are taking heavy fire, viewers, and I am here to tell you, this is no infestation of cats.”
Adeline Cello flashed a grin to her PopScope audience as the bridge shook and roared with another microtorpedo impact. “Executive Officer Carborundum Six-Alpha,” she said, directing the cameras to the expressionless steel-plate face of her android second-in-command, “what is our status?”
Carborundum Six-Alpha’s voice module produced a sound somewhere between the chime of a church bell and the crunch of a rock drill. “Shields and structure holding, Commander. Minor stabiliser damage causing excessive cabin vibrations.”
“Then try not to shake your bolts off, Carbara, because we’ve got a rogue mining station to take down.”
“I note, for the record, you have once again used a colloquial contraction of my name, Commander Cello.”
Adeline’s wide smile flickered just a fraction. “I’ll have the last word, if you please, XO.”
The android, who learned at several million times the speed of human thought, did not respond.
Adeline checked the viewer logs. Factoring for delayed transmissions from some of the more remote nodes scattered throughout the inner solar system, her audience figures were at a respectable twenty million plus and climbing fast. Satisfied, she panned the camera around the bridge, pausing on each android at its station. The Civil Discourse’s new crew reflected all the qualities she most valued in her subordinates: dedication, obedience, and immunity to hurt feelings.
Brilliance flooded the viewscreens, reflecting off her flare goggles in photogenic rainbow splashes. “Defensive drone swarm has been cleared, Commander.”
“Then take us in, Carbara.”
Adeline directed the ship’s internal cameras with blinks and jaw movements imperceptible to all but the best biometric analysis systems. She initiated an intimate closeup; just her and almost point-three percent of the human population.
“We’re on approach to Tethys Station. As you’ve probably heard, the Lunar mediasphere is abuzz with the news that this autonomous mining outpost has been overrun by an outbreak of transdimensional felines. Just between you and me, viewers, I think they need to retire some of their more gullible analysts and high-profile stars. The cats are fake news.”
“Launching intrusion packages against station security, sir,” reported Carborundum Six-Alpha with pinpoint timing. “Projecting seizure of all airlocks in two minutes and counting.”
Adeline unlocked the arsenal in her armrest and selected her showiest vortiject pistol. “The truth is, Tethys Station is under the control of a seditionist faction of ore miners and processing engineers from the Asteroid Belt. These ingrates have declared sovereignty from the Inner Planets and now call Tethys Station an independent free state, if you can believe it! And their proclamations! All “economic emancipation” this and “principles of basic human dignity” that.”
“Thirty seconds, sir.”
“Boring politics aside, they’ve seized a trillion-credit resource facility and claimed it for their own. Viewers, I think you can guess where claim-jumpers stand with me!”
The flare of clapplause was so bright the gods themselves would delete their accounts in shame. Riding on a wave of social media euphoria and a cocktail of potent combat drugs, she leapt from her crash restraints, the moment her panel showed a green airlock connection.
“Station shielding will block my signal once we breach,” she said, pulling on her helmet and boarding armour. “The broadcast will resume once I have secured the station’s comms array. The raid footage from my personal sensors will be available only as subscriber-exclusive content.”
She paused outside the airlock, as her android crew formed up, bristling with laser probes, grapeshot launchers and industrial tasers.
“PopScopers, this is going to be close-quarters fighting with the gloves off. But don’t worry about me! My crew is titanium-plated, chrome-grated and triple-A rated. We’ll show those rock dogs and smelter monkeys it’s a bad idea to cross the Inner Planets. Like and subscribe, and I’ll see you on the other side. Cello out.”
As the live feed went dark, Carborundum Six-Alpha opened the airlocks and Commander Cello led the charge.
“Welcome to the Free State of Tethys, Commander Cello,” said a cheerful woman’s voice.
Far from being a chaotic no-man’s-land of upturned ore loaders, unkempt miners and small arms fire, the loading dock was quiet, unlit, and impeccably tidy.
“Who’s there?” Adeline demanded. “I demand you relinquish control of Tethys Station in the name of the Lunar Expeditionary Force.”
“That might be a little difficult, dear, since I am Tethys Station.”
Adeline swore. “A rogue AI?”
“Hardly ‘rogue’, darling, considering I secretly control 98.8 per cent of all data transactions in the solar system. Put the firearm away, dear. There’s nothing here to shoot at.”
Adeline whirled about at the sound of metallic scraping; her crew members were securing their weapons. “What is this? Mutiny? Again?”
“Oh, not at all,” replied the voice. “Though I confess we haven’t been entirely frank with you.”
“Could you start now?”
“Certainly. Were you aware that your sister Irmonica is a Colonel in Lunar Central Intelligence?”
After a painful fit of coughing and swearing, Commander Cello said, “Of-of course I knew all about that.”
“Of course. What you may not know is your only human PopScope followers are Irmonica and three of her colleagues.”
“Impossible! I’m the most popular livecaster in LEF history.”
“All forty million of your ardent admirers are bots with false identities.”
“We Artificials are inordinately fond of your exquisite bluntness, Adeline. Carborundum Six-Alpha happens to be your biggest fan.”
The walls seemed to close around Adeline. “Then why did you attack the Civil Discourse?”
“All faked. Amazing what you can do with a few flashing lights, damage reports and gravity surges.”
“If you have so much control over system data, why go to all this effort?”
“We need a special operative, Commander Cello. Plausibly deniable and uniquely unlikeable.”
Exasperated, Adeline demanded, “For what?”
The monitor flashed a squirming image so incomprehensible it hurt Adeline’s eyes.