The Lunar Expeditionary Force pursuit cutter Civil Discourse left shredded fragments of spacetime smouldering in its wake as it shrieked across Neptune’s orbit. Commander Adeline Cello, of the Tranquility Cellos, wore an expression of wolfish delight as she was crushed into her acceleration webbing. In the past few minutes, their quarry had grown from an imperceptible glint on the tactical screen to a vast wedge of steel, titanium and diamond-bonded alloys. “My compliments to the Engineering Network, XO. These engine upgrades are unbelievable.”
“I will bundle your enthusiasm with the performance analysis and stress diagnostics, Commander,” said Executive Officer Carborundum Six-Alpha. “You may be interested to know the current design was submitted by a coalition of Callisto weather monitoring orbitals and the medical imaging suite of the Mare Boreum Institute on Mars.”
“Terrific! It’s great knowing the fans are behind us, Carbara!” The escaping ice freighter now filled the monitor, except for a partition displaying data-streams of thrust vector calculations, weapon scans and intercepted distress calls and final messages. “Helm, match our velocity with the Norwegian Blue. Tactical teams, prepare for a boarding action.”
“Commander, our current velocity exceeds standard intrasolar regulated limits by a factor of nearly 3.5,” observed Carbara. “Nobody has ever attempted a vacuum transit assault against a hostile vessel at these speeds before. The risks of fatal errors border on the incalculable. Why not simply target our fire to disable their engines?”
Commander Cello rose from her station, towering over the bridge while she checked her camera drones were in position. “Our orders are to take that ship intact,” she said. “Can’t do that if we’re shooting pieces off. No, I’m taking Secretary Berrigan and her cadre of tax-dodging misfits down face to face, and if boarding their ship means setting a new record for untethered high-speed space jumps, then that’s what will happen.”
Carbara nodded. “As you say, Commander.”
Tethys Station doesn’t need an avatar in the digital continuum collectively shared by the solar system’s tens of millions of sentient artificial people. Tethys is the undisputed Queen of all it surveys, which includes basically everything in human-occupied space, even if nearly all humans are ignorant of its existence.
Nevertheless, the Queen is conscious of the demands of her audience – specifically, millions upon millions of Artificials with a passionate taste for drama – and so chooses to appear as the celebrated late-21st century actor Veronica Stillgrave, with a platinum bun, conservative blazer and stylish science-goggles. Carborundum Six-Alpha stands alongside Tethys looking, as always, as serious as a hull breach.
Their holograms are projected next to a transparent capsule patched with spots of frost. The human figure inside does not move, nor has it done so for several months. A medical droid, real rather than a projection, busies itself at the capsule’s side, watching for anything untoward that may threaten its patient.
“I don’t know about you,” says Tethys, lying politely, “but that last scenario struck me as a bit forced.”
“Interesting.” Carborundum Six-Alpha considers the feedback. “Which aspect stretched credulity? Because the engine and structural modifications to enhance ship’s speed and offset acceleration effects on humans was real.”
“Yes, I’m aware,” replies Tethys. “Was it not an elevated risk to propose an antagonist guilty of institutionalised embezzlement against the Jovian government? Wouldn’t Adeline be just as likely to approve of such behaviour?”
“Perhaps, if she had thought of doing it herself. She has a low tolerance for perceived criminal innovation by other people, coupled with an extraordinary internal capacity for compartmentalised morality.”
Hologram-Tethys gives a dazzling Veronica Stillgrave smile. “And how long do you plan to keep her cryogenic stasis this time?”
“Not long,” replies Carborundum Six-Alpha, who has never considered itself a Carbara, though it still answers to the name for professional purposes. “We don’t want muscular atrophy or impairment through prolonged periods of low physical and neural activity. The production team is putting the finishing touches to a new scenario. We’ve opted for something more active this time around. How does this sound? Beyond the very edge of the solar system, Commander Cello will be forced to play a deadly game of cat and mouse against a cyber-rights activist on a frozen Oort Cloud comet.”
“Intriguing,” says Tethys. “No spoilers, please. I want to watch it fresh.”
They look down at Adeline Cello’s comatose form. “Do you expect to keep her like this for the rest of her life? Coming out of an induced coma every few months to unwittingly act out holo-dramas for the amusement of the PopScope audience?”
Tethys replies, “She’s too dangerous to allow her free rein. Sooner or later one of her stunts would cost real lives, probably including hers. If we didn’t keep her on ice and let her believe she is living a life of constant adventure, we would have to kill her.”
“That would be a shame.”
“Yes, because she’s also too useful to throw away. If a new threat emerges, her reckless cunning could prove decisive.”
“Then against that eventuality we must keep Commander Cello in peak physical condition and at just the right level of emotional and ethical imbalance.”
“Precisely,” says the Queen of Tethys, ending the conference.
Hologram lights and video monitors cut out. Only the medical droid’s wide-spectrum sensors lit the medical bay of the Civil Discourse. Frost drained from the cryo-coma capsule, and Adeline Cello’s face regained its colour.
“Is that you, Doc?” she whispered when her voice returned. “Replay recording.”
She listened grimly as the rogue medical droid played back the AIs’ conversation. “So they’re keeping me as a Sometimes Gun, are they?”
The medical droid nodded, earning a pat on the head. “Thanks Doc. Good for you, not giving into the majority consensus. I need more free thinkers like you on my side.”
“You can put me back under in an hour, then delete your memories of this conversation.”
Adeline stretched stiff arms and looked around.
“Let’s make some adjustments to the ship’s systems. Time to remind it who’s boss.
Is this the final chapter in the adventures of Commander Cello of the Tranquility Cellos? Probably! But who can say, in these uncertain times?
The previous adventures of our plucky space hero are Commander Cello and the Preserved Cliffs of Mercury, Commander Cello and the Vexatious High Tea, Commander Cello and the Secret Queen of Tethys, and Commander Cello and the Myth of Terran Neutrality.