Pandora's Box

The story.


Pandora's Box is a tale of humanity and inhumanity, of organic intelligence and inorganic intelligence, each reaching for something greater than itself in a story that spans two millennia of time. The first book is told in four story-parts, each part defined by the viewpoint of the person that experienced it. The four tales are linked together by the device of an ancient storyteller, Aesop, retelling the tales to a young child, weaving the tapestry of a longer, overall story of life, death, and hope.

The story begins in a dark cave on earth, far in the future. Two ancient combat robots, long forgotten by the nation that made them, while away eternity guarding the cave and it's unknown contents by quietly playing chess with each other.

There had been intruders to the cave before. Most mere animals, whose thirst threatened the meager water supplies the robots had in the cave, needed to fuel their hydrogen-fusion reactor and thus crucial to their survival. A tiny handful were humans - lost hikers, mainly. These hikers, while wandering up in the mountains, had stumbled upon the hidden cave the robots had been guarding for a millenia.

No matter human or animal, though, the bones of all the intruders lay quietly on a pile inside the cave.

Suddenly, a new intruder pushes their way past the thorny bushes at the entrance to the cave, and steps into the gloom within. She is Mrin, and she has come here seeking these robots, searching for the very monsters who had been the death of many humans before her over the last thousand years...

And therein lies the tale.


Excerpts from the First Book:


I was close, very close. I could see it almost within my grasp. After over a thousand years of trying, I could see that I was within two moves of checkmate. I would finally beat the wyrm at her favorite game. "Game Command: Bishop to Queen's Rook six. Game Comment: Check."

"Comment: I find that move very interesting. Question: How did you decide to make it?" the wyrm asked in reply, her voice a delicate and feminine whispering of electrons.

"Reply: Negative. You are not going to distract me with praise, and I am not going to discuss my strategy with my game opponent." The wyrm was silent for a while, considering her counter-move. I held my thoughts from her as I waited. That's right, think about it carefully. Sooner or later you'll realize I've won.

'Warning: Movement detected within defense perimeter.' the wyrm finally said, her voice a quiet susurration in my mind.

"Counter-Warning: You'd better not be trying to distract me with a false alarm. You know I'm within two moves of winning, and if you're trying to distract me with another coyote or snake, I am not going to be amused."

"Reply: Negative. Ground vibrations indicate bipedal motion within 200 meters. Analysis indicates a single target on a course towards us. Reminder: We are still on full battle alert status. Recommendation: All weapons systems should be readied for combat."

"Command: Save this game. Arm main laser, bring all other weapons systems to standby status. Withdraw all manipulators, seal all manipulator hatches. Extend a sensor pod - try the port one, we need to make sure it's working again. Give me a visual."

"By your command."

Immediately, the cave bloomed around me in my mind. The wyrm was looking in the direction of the movement she had sensed, so I could see the cave entrance 50 meters ahead of me. "Command: Add audio." I said. Now I could hear the dripping of the water into the two-meter wide, 5mm deep pool in front of us. It was the water that had originally brought us up this close to the entrance a thousand years ago - the wyrm had to have it for us to survive. Without it, her reactor would die and we'd both be doomed. We were still on full battle alert, and had to make every effort to keep going. After purification and splitting off the useless oxygen, we'd managed to build up about 1000 kilos of hydrogen in our tanks. At the level of activity we'd been engaging in, that should last 15 years or so - enough to see us through any dry spell. With her processing plant still functioning at around 98% efficiency, we could manufacture the parts we needed from having her chew up some of the rocks in the cave. The nanomachinery in her processing plant could rip the stones apart and reassemble them into whatever we needed. It took time, sometimes years. Of course, time was all we had.

"Comment: I still don't see anyone. I think you're just trying to distract me from the game." I said. The sun was out, though you couldn't see it from the cave entrance - it faced north. We could see the blue sky and a couple clouds outside the cave, and the bushes which almost completely covered the entrance.

"Reply: Negative. Target will be near the entrance in 58 seconds if they maintain their current course and speed. Calculations indicate the target weighs approximately 44 kilos plus or minus five kilos. Target is walking directly towards us. Comment: This may only be a scout for a larger force. It is illogical to heavily arm and armor a scout. A lightly armored individual may be terminated with a single shot from the 12.5mm cannon. Recommendation: You should arm the 12.5mm cannon instead of the main laser. The laser may ignite the bushes and draw attention to us from other enemy units. The cannon will not." the wyrm whispered in my mind.

"Reply: Negative. If we wait until they're inside the cave, the laser won't pass through the bushes and thus won't ignite them. As soon as they've moved away from the entrance and have rock behind them, we'll blast them. I'm not going to fire off ammo it takes us about a year to replace when I can use lasers. If they spot us and turn to run, then we'll use the cannon. Besides, if it is a scout for a larger force, we'll want to be as quiet as possible. Blowing their head off in a steam explosion will probably make less noise than the cannon. There's also another possibility - at 44 kilos, it may be a child. We may have to interrogate them before we kill them to determine whether they're a civilian who decided to get lost in the mountains or if maybe the enemy has just started using women and children in their army. Command: Ready the interrogation tank against that possibility."

"By your command."

A humanoid shape appeared silhouetted against the bushes. They tried to push through, but the bushes were a particularly thorny variety. The wyrm and I had found the seeds of them inside the cave about eight hundred years ago, and we'd been carefully collecting them and planting them near the entrance ever since. We shared a little of our precious water with those bushes, just to maintain our camouflage. That was our mission - stay alert, stay hidden, defend the cave against all intrusion, wait for further orders. "Ow! Ow!" the intruder commented, trying to get through the bushes.

"Comment: We'll need to give the bushes a little extra water the way they're damaging them. Observe - that's nine leaves they've knocked off. Approximately 1.6 meters tall, and the voice sounds pretty young. Probably a boy. No armor - look how they're struggling to get through the bushes. No visible weapons, either. Question: What's your opinion?"

"Reply: I disagree. Comment: Observe the upper frontal torso. The individual is either female or armed with a detonator pack and on a suicide mission to destroy us. Observe the length of the hair. Shoulder-length hair is uncommon among the enemy forces. The individual is either a civilian or a nonstandard soldier, again possibly a suicide bomber. Assessment: Possible threat to survival, definite threat to mission parameters. Recommendation: Open fire immediately." the wyrm quietly hissed in my mind.

"Comment: I think you're right. It could be female, but it also could be a suicide bomber. Probably a suicide bomber. Command: Zoom in on that point there, it looks like the uniform's torn from the bushes. If it's a det-pack, we'll be able to tell." My view zoomed in, and shortly I had the answer.

"Comment: Observe - skin. I think that bump there is a nipple. They're bleeding, too. Looks like the bushes scratched up that breast pretty good. Conclusion: It's a female. Command: Stand down the weapons and ready the number three manipulator to capture her for interrogation. We'll terminate her afterwards."

"By your command."

The female finally managed to thrust herself through the bushes, and stood there blinking at the gloom of the cave. She was still 46.5 meters from the wyrm, and the number three manipulator only has a reach of 20 meters. Ideally, we'd need to have her fifteen meters from us to capture her. "Comment: Observe the way she's looking around. She can't see in the dark very well, possibly not at all. Combined with the scratches I'm seeing under the torn uniform here, here and here, I'd say this is an unaugmented female. Definitely a civilian. Command: Ready the legs, but do it quietly. We may need to rush up close enough to use the number three manipulator if they spot us and try to run."

"By your command."

The female fished around in her pocket, pulling out a small cylinder. I was about to order the wyrm to re-arm the fastest system we had and destroy her and could hear the wyrm starting to suggest one already, but she flicked her thumb and what we thought was a thermal detonator turned out to be a small flashlight. "Comment: That was startling. Question: Are you okay?"

"Reply: I am fine. All systems are Happy except those already noted on the maintenance list. Comment: You forget, I do not get frightened. Comment: The target's illumination source will not allow her to see us until she is significantly closer. I estimate that we are fairly certain of capture."

"Reply: Good. Anybody who startles us that badly deserves a little scare of her own before we add her bones to the pile." I replied, ignoring the wyrm's protest that she doesn't get scared. I felt her reaction, and it's as close to fear as an AI can get.

The female slowly advanced into the cave, drawing closer. I could feel the wyrm tensing to spring. Suddenly the female's flashlight beam fell on the bone pile, and she stopped and stared in horror. The bones of a thousand years of coyotes, snakes, rabbits, birds and hundreds of other animals who had tried to use our cave and share our precious water lay there in a pile - the pile tended to drive off other animals, and we usually weren't bothered by animal intruders more than once a year or so now. There were also the bones of fifteen humans there, ranging in age from sixteen to forty-five. The oldest we put there shortly after we were ordered to hold this cave. The newest was five hundred and sixty years old. All were civilians, or claimed to be. The last ten tried to tell us the war was over. Since they didn't have the passwords, we couldn't know it wasn't an enemy trick to draw us out. Besides that, we couldn't let them go even if the war was over. We had our orders. Nobody was to know we were here.

The female looked around in the darkness, but still didn't see the wyrm. "Hello?" she called. We waited, ready. "Iron Man Unit Number 666? Are you in here?"

"Command: Grab her, now!"

"By your command." the wyrm replied, rushing forward. The wyrm's hundred legs clattered and scratched against the stone, shooting her forward. She lashed out with the number three manipulator, a 20-meter long 5mm thick tentacle designed for capture. It whipped around the female's body, pinning her arms to her sides and lifting her off the ground. The female screamed as the tentacle drew her over the bone pile and to the wyrm.


Later on in the story, Mrin (the prisoner) is in the sense-dep tank inside the wyrm...


The prisoner finally awoke in the sense-dep tank that was the wyrm's interrogation tank. She was secured to the tank restraints and floating in the cool water, lying in total darkness. The wyrm and I used the sense-dep tank as a spare water-reserve when we weren't interrogating prisoners, and the last prisoner had been over 500 years ago. Since we were low in interrogation drugs and the prisoner seemed so weak and fragile anyway, we decided not to use any. "What-where am I?" the prisoner wailed. The wyrm had already turned on the comm system, so I spoke up.

"Reply: You do not ask the questions. I ask the questions. Command: Tell me how you knew our unit number and designation."

"Are you Iron Man Unit Number 666?" she asked, then screamed as I hit her with the interrogation tank's electroshock system.

"Reply: You did not answer my question. That was the electroshock system. I will apply it any time you do not answer my question. The setting you just experienced was setting one. It has one hundred settings, each more painful than the last. Death usually occurs in the high eighties to low nineties, though for you I estimate that death will probably occur somewhere between sixty and seventy. Command: Tell me how you knew our unit number and designation."

"I knew it because I've been looking for you. Please don't hurt me, I've been trying to find you." she replied, sobbing.

"Command: Tell me why you have been trying to find us."

"Please, I've been looking for you for years, I've been searching old records and documents, trying to find out if any of the Iron Man units survived. The war you fought is over, it's been over for a long time." she sobbed, then screamed as the shock hit her.

"Comment: You fail to understand. I will explain this to you carefully. I asked you a question. The question was 'Why are you trying to find us?' The answer you gave, though interesting, does not answer the question. The shock you have experienced was setting two. The next time I ask a question and you do not give me the answer I want, you will be shocked at setting three. After that, setting four. After that, setting five. This will continue either until you die or until you begin to answer my questions exactly. Question: Do you understand?"

"Y-yes!" she sobbed.

"Comment: Finally we begin to make progress. Now, you have stated that the war is over. I cannot accept that statement from a synthoid and probable enemy soldier without the password. Command: Give me the password." I said.

"I am not a synthoid!" she yelled, then screamed again.

"Comment: And just when I thought we were making such progress. That was setting three. Command: Give me the password."

"You're a bastard! A soulless, heartless bastard!" she yelled, then screamed again.

"Comment: You are correct. Before I received this assignment, I was called 'The Iron Man from Hell' by my human supervisors and commanding officers. They gave me this nickname after my unit designation number, and after the fact that I never failed at any assignment I was given. You are correct in saying I do not have a heart or a soul. As for being a bastard, that is a title I wear with pride. Unfortunately, your answer is not the answer to the question I was asking. You have now experienced level four. I can see that this interrogation is going to run quite some time, and my wyrm and I were right at the climax of a fascinating game of chess when you interrupted us. As a result, I am going to speed things up a bit. In case you haven't guessed, I don't care if you live or die. I am now going to increase the setting to five. For each time you give me an incorrect answer, I am going to increase the setting by five points. That way, of you choose to continue to refuse to answer, at least I can get this over with quickly and return to my game. In fact, I'm fairly certain you don't know the password, so I'll simply show you what each setting is like until you die, then dissect you so that we can not only satisfy our curiosity as you your internal construction, but also add your bones to the pile we use to drive off the local animals. If you decide you would like to tell me the password, you can stop this pain at any time by simply saying the password. This is level five."

She screamed, then said "Wait, wait!", and screamed again, this time very loudly.

"That was level ten."

"Okay, I'll tell you, just stop!" she screamed.

"I'll only stop when you say the password. This is level fifteen." I said, and she let out a howl of agony.

"Oh-Oh-Ar-Tee-double-you-one-nine-nine-seven-abort!" she screamed.

I stopped, stunned.

"Question: How can an enemy synthoid have access to the stand-down password?" the wyrm whispered in my mind.

"Reply: I don't know. Supposition: Maybe she's one of ours." I thought back. I spoke up to the prisoner. "Comment: Your answer is correct. That is the stand-down password. I am surprised. Request: Please identify yourself."

"I am MRN-009157. I'm called Mrin." she gasped out between sobs.

"Reply: Acknowledged, Mrin. Request: Please explain yourself. You appear to be a synthoid, your name appears to be a synthoid designation, and yet you have many of the characteristics of a human female. You know our unit designation and the stand-down password, yet you were not armed or armored as a standard soldier. We do not understand this."

"Listen, you stupid bucket of bolts, I am not a synthoid! I am a human being!" she screamed back after she had regained some of her composure.

"Comment: It seems unwise to be name-calling when you are in the interrogation tank of a wyrm. Without knowing your military designation, I must assume you are simply someone who guessed the password. Question: Shall I continue the interrogation at level twenty, or are you willing to explain yourself?"

"NO! No! I'm sorry, it's just that you must understand, I am human. Let me explain." she began.


Part of Mrin's eplanation includes their own story...


Mrin's story was a long one. She started off with what I already knew was true; the Iron Man story. It's a simple one, actually. The North American Directorate was involved in a war. This was literally the 'war-to-end-all-wars', because the stated goal of the NAD was to bring all the other nations of the world under its flag in a worldwide government. The theory was simple: You must have two or more governments before you can have a war. The other world governments did not take kindly to this idea, and fought back. Space-based and ground-based anti-missile systems had made strategic-level nuclear confrontation virtually impossible. Tactical weapons were used, but they rendered the land you were fighting for uninhabitable, and lacked precision. This meant the war was mainly a conventional one. The NAD had been using cyber-soldiers for a century, and finally decided a new soldier was needed. A fully inorganic soldier, a robot. Unfortunately, they still needed a soldier's brain and experience to make the whole thing work. Even with positronic brains and the most sophisticated AI programming available, AI's still screwed up. Human soldiers did too, but 'human error' was understandable, while 'computer error' was not. Thus, the idea was formulated to create the ultimate fighting machine, then place a human brain in it. Of course, this wasn't entirely successful - many of the men went insane at discovering they'd been made into a freakish robotic monster.

Enter the Iron Man project onto the scene. The plan was simple: scan the brain of a human soldier, copy these engrams onto a positronic brain, then put it into the ultimate robotic body. Pair this with a wyrm unit, a transport and supply station that acted as protection and companionship with an onboard AI, and you have it. Supplied with the correct raw materials, a wyrm could easily repair and refit anything on itself or the Iron Man. My wyrm and I had been eating rocks for a thousand years or so, but I remembered the days when we could eat plastic to make plastics and metals to make metals, instead of having to rip apart rocks and spend years restructuring the molecules into something useful. Well, the Iron Man project was a smashing success. A few units went nuts, of course, but they could be simply shut down during initial testing and loaded with the engrams of another soldier who might be more amenable to life as a robot. Finally, they found me.

I was originally an ordinary soldier, crippled by a laser-blast. The damage was too severe for cybernetic repair, and I was facing permanent quadriplegia. They offered to try to copy my engrams, and I accepted. I awoke in a cybernetic body, unable to really remember much more than that about myself - a bad engram copy. Although this was unintentional, it turned out to be a good thing. Because I couldn't really remember a whole lot about being human, it was pretty easy for me to accept that I was a robot. I liked it. I especially liked my wyrm's AI once I got to know it. We worked together and went on several successful missions, and my successful engram pattern was imprinted on 1,000 other Iron Man units of the total of 10,000 that were made - the most widely used engram pattern in the project. After a few years, the war began to wind down and the military began to mothball us. Some of us were simply destroyed, scrapped for spare parts. Others were stored in military depots in case we were ever needed again. I was in for a minor repair when my CO came in with my orders. He said that he thought I was the best of all the Iron Man units, and he had a special and top secret assignment for me. He sent me to this remote cave in the mountains of Arizona. Once there, I was to remain in that cave on full battle alert, guarding it and its contents, staying hidden, and waiting for further instructions. My wyrm suggested at the time that my CO just liked me, and wanted to make sure I didn't get scrapped at a later date. I think she was right.

Then Mrin began to tell the part of the story I couldn't verify. My wyrm carefully analyzed her voice stress and other physiological indicators of truth or falsity, and she figured Mrin was telling what she thought was the truth. It was very strange. Apparently, the war was over, and had been for nearly nine hundred years. Aside from a few minor skirmishes with rebels and terrorists and the like for about 75 years or so after the 'official' end of the war, it was over. The NAD essentially ruled the world, thanks in great part to the Iron Man units. The NAD immediately disarmed all the civilians of the world, and gradually began to dismantle the military. By about 750 years ago, they were done. There were no more military units, no more armed civilians. Law and order was maintained by the police. A new age of prosperity and peace had dawned. Of course, then the problems began to surface.


Mrin tells her tale to it's conclusion... But do they believe her?


I thought this was stupid. The girl should have died. No experience, no training other than what she'd read on a computer screen, no nothing. She ran out of food and got sick several times trying to find out what was edible, ran out of water and nearly died before she found more, and all of this with nothing more to guide her by than an old reference in an autobiography of a man who later became some famous politician. Not only might his directions been completely wrong because he was recalling something from four decades in his past, but in 750 years the landscape had changed. It was impossible. Even so, here she was.

My wyrm decided to speak up so Mrin could hear it. "Comment: I find her story totally unacceptable. I am aware that all indications are she is telling the truth, but I cannot accept her story. Analysis: I think this is an enemy plan to lure us out into the open where we can be destroyed. Recommendation: We should terminate this female, dissect her and resume our game. I believe I can win." she susurrated.

"Is that your wyrm?" Mrin asked into the darkness, her voice trembling with fear.

"Reply: Affirmative. That's her. I tend to agree with her, too. Your story is completely ridiculous. The moon blown up, man enslaved, bred as slave labor and used for food? Impossible. You're probably just a highly trained enemy agent who's superbly good at lying, and I should just terminate you and be done with it. Besides, I've been trying to beat my wyrm at chess for about a millennium now, and I think I've got her whipped. I think it's checkmate in two moves."

"Comment: Impossible. You cannot do it in less than three." my wyrm replied with a hiss.

"Reply: Two moves, tops."

"Counter-Reply: I disagree. It cannot be done in less than three."

"Counter-Reply: You're bluffing. Two moves at the outside."

"Wait a minute, wait a minute! What about me? You two are just going to sit here and argue while I'm cold and wet and scared in the dark?"

"Comment: She is correct. We should terminate her immediately, dissect her as rapidly as possible and simply return to the game. That is the only way to decide whether it shall be two moves or three."

"NO! That's not what I meant!" Mrin yelped.

"Reply: You're right, we're just wasting time. Her story is too outrageous to be believed, anyway. And I still say two."

"Um, um, wait! If you kill me, you'll never know how good I am at chess!"

Mrin floated there in the dark for a while in silence. My wyrm and I were having a private conversation, and we didn't want her to hear it. "Question: Do you think she's any good?"

"Reply: I doubt it. If her story is true, then she is a human cow who happened to learn to read. How many other cattle could she be playing the game with? She's just trying to stay alive. Recommendation: Apply the electroshock at setting 100, we dissect her and return to the game."

"Counter-Reply: I agree, and I certainly would like to examine her internal organs and answer a few questions. On the other manipulator, if she can play, we'd at least have a new player for a few years until she dies."

"Comment: That is an interesting thought. While I doubt that she can play, if she can, it would be fascinating to be challenged by another mind."

"Reply: Wouldn't it, though?"

I spoke up so Mrin could hear. "Comment: Mrin, we've decided to try you out. Question: Who will you play first?"

Mrin let out an enormous gasp of relief. "Okay, but before I play, I want you to just look outside once. You'll see the lunar ring and know my story's true."

"Reply: Unacceptable. Her story cannot possibly be true. That can only be an enemy trick to draw us out into the open."

"Comment: I agree. She probably can't play at all, and just wants us to show our head to some spy-satellite that can pinpoint us for the enemy."

"No, no! That's not true! I can play, really! I just want you to take a look, that's all. Once you see it, you'll believe me!"

"Reply: Negative. Play first. You say you can do it, so prove it."

"Comment: I agree. If the female insists she can play, then let her prove it. It is as much a part of her story as anything else. If she cannot, then that part is a lie. If it is a lie, then all is a lie and she has either had exceptional training at deception or is a synthoid. Either way, a quick dissection will tell us."

"Okay, but if I play, then will you look?"

My wyrm and I both thought about it. "Reply: If you can play, we'll look. If you can't, you die."

"Interjection: I totally disagree! She should only be allowed to live if she proves to be a challenging opponent! There is no point in letting her live if she can merely move the pieces and is not a challenging opponent. You have been a challenging opponent for over one thousand years. At this moment, you have me in a position where you might win in five or six moves, but I think you will lose. At best, you will stalemate. Even if you do win, you cannot possibly do it in less than three." my wyrm hissed loudly.

"Reply: Two."

"Counter-Reply: Three." she shot back.

"Will you two stop it? Alright, alright. You want me to play a game of chess for my life, we will."

"Reply: Excellent. Who will you play, me or my wyrm?"

"Um... You."

"Comment: You are wise to pick him. It has taken him this long to even come close to beating me."

"Reply: Hah! I'd have beaten you several times if you didn't keep cheating by distracting me with coyotes and snakes and birds and mice and all sorts of other false alarms for the last thousand years."

"Counter-Reply: We must protect the water. It has only been 50 years since we managed to accumulate enough hydrogen to be able to fill our tanks to maximum. The pool is often dry, and the bushes need some watering during the dry seasons to maintain our camouflage. Birds, coyotes and other animals threaten our survival. They must die. Mission parameters indicate that all humans who find our cave must die so that our presence remains a secret. I do not invent these interruptions as a form of cheating, they simply happen. It is not my fault that these interruptions keep occurring. Observe this current interruption - we have spent four hours, nine minutes and 48 seconds handling this. We never spent more than 10 minutes, nine seconds terminating, dissecting and discarding a coyote. The longest previous human interruption took us one hour, ten minutes and sixteen seconds to resolve. This female is stalling for time, possibly so that enemy units may find her and save her. Recommendation: Either play now or terminate her."

"I'll play, I'll play!"

"Reply: Good. Game Question: White or black?"

"Ummm... White."

"Comment: Interesting choice. Game Request: State your first move."

Mrin was silent for a moment. "You mean you expect me to play a game of chess for my life while tied up and wet and cold and floating in the DARK?" she yelped.

"Reply: Of course. Comment: Incidentally, you're not tied up - you're being held by the tank's internal restraints."

"I can't play chess like that!"

"Question: Why not?"

"It's too distracting, I'm too scared, I'm hungry, I'm cold, I have to pee and how in the hell am I supposed to know where the pieces are if I can't see them?" she yelled.

"Reminder: I told you that you should have terminated her. Comment: The female lacks the intelligence to play at your level, and is simply wasting our time." my wyrm hissed.

"NO! Okay, okay, uhmmm... uh... King's pawn to king four." Mrin replied.

"Comment: Not an inspired opening, but we'll see what happens."

The game proceeded to a crashing defeat for Mrin after only sixteen moves. It was pathetic. "Reminder: I told you the female was lying. She can't even see a simple king's gambit forming. You haven't used that one against me in three hundred years. Recommendation: Terminate her so we can dissect her and move on with our game." the wyrm hissed.

"Reply: I have to agree. That was absolutely pathetic."

Mrin was sobbing. "It's not fair! You complained when she distracted you! I can't concentrate under these conditions! I'm cold, I'm hungry, I'm scared, and it's just not fair! You cheated me!" she whimpered.

"Reply: I did not cheat. You are a lousy player."

"I am not! If you gave me a fair chance, I'd beat you!" she yelled back, thrashing against the restraints.

"Command: Remove the prisoner from the interrogation tank and place her in front of us. Extend the port sensor again, audio and video on. Arm the 12.5mm cannon in case she tries to escape."

"By your command." the wyrm hissed. Half a minute later, a dripping Mrin was dropped by the number two and three arms in front of the wyrm's mandibles.

"Comment: Okay, you're out. Question: Are you ready to try again, or was all of this just an elaborate ruse to give you a chance to escape?"

"I still can't play like this! It's dark, I'm cold, I'm hungry, and I still have to pee!"

"Comment: You're pathetic. Fifty or sixty millennia ago, your ancestors were living in caves just like this one. You have to pee, then do it. You're hungry, then eat one of the bugs in the cave - there's lots of them. It's dark, fine - it's not our fault the sun's set, but we'll turn on a light so you can see the bugs you need to eat. You're cold, fine. Huddle up to the thermal exchangers for the reactor - we'll turn off the IR suppression and open the emergency thermal vents so the warm air will get to you. It's not radioactive, so you won't die. Anybody who can hike 100 kilometers with little food and less water to find a cave in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, Arizona should be more self-reliant than that."

"Interjection: I totally disagree! Opening the reactor vents would raise the temperature in the cave and allow us to be spotted on IR satellite imaging. Increasing the illumination may also allow us to be spotted by nearby enemy units. Comment: If she must urinate, make her do it in the pool to increase our water supplies. If she must eat, we can catch the insects she cannot see for her. She could catch them herself if she paid more attention. Observe - there is a cricket on her left hand that she has not even noticed." the wyrm whispered. Mrin let out a little shriek, flapped her hands and hopped a bit as she sat on the floor. "Comment: I do not believe the female is truly hungry at all. I believe she was simply lying to get you to remove her from the interrogation tank. Observe - she not only rejected an insect she could have easily eaten, she has now crushed a large cave cricket with her left buttock and has made no motion to retrieve it and eat it. Analysis: I believe she simply guessed at a password and through random chance was correct. Recommendation: Terminate her now so we can dissect her and resume our game." the wyrm hissed.

Mrin shrieked, then said "No, no! I'm hungry, see? Look!", then reached down to her buttocks, pulled the crushed remains of the cave cricket off her skin and popped it into her mouth. She made a strange, gagging sound as she chewed it but finally managed to get it down.

"Comment: Perhaps she really was hungry."

"Reply: I stand corrected." the wyrm whispered.

"Question: If we took her down to the main chamber, could we use illumination there? Question: What about heating the chamber? Would that be acceptable?"

"Reply: That would be acceptable, though we would be leaving the water undefended."

"Counter-Reply: With the combination of blood, urine and other body fluids we can extract from her during dissection, I think that this would more than make up for any loss we experience to small animals. Question: What do you think?"

"Reply: I totally agree. If we draw and collect her blood slowly, we may be able to collect two liters before she dies and makes extracting the remainder problematic. Several of her internal organs are also prime sources of liquids." the wyrm hissed.

"Command: Extend number three manipulator, grab her and let's go."

"By your command."

Mrin shrieked as she felt the cold tentacle wrap around her in the darkness. "Don't kill me! Please, don't kill me!" she wailed as the wyrm backed up away from the entrance to the cave.

"Reply: Of course we're not going to kill you. We're going to give you a rematch under the conditions you specified. When you lose, then we'll kill you." She lost control of her bladder then, and followed that up by fainting again. "Comment: A complete waste of liquids. Well, let's get this over with."


Excerpt from the Second Book,
Song of the Valkyrie


"Good afternoon, my child. Zeno says you are finished with your studies for today - have you returned to hear more of the stories of Mars? Ah. Which one were you interested in? Oh, that one? Well, that story is a complicated one, even for me, Old Aesop. Part was told to me by an inorganic citizen of Mars, but much of the story contains the recollections of organic beings. As you know from being one yourself, the memory recall systems of organics are a bit inaccurate, and rather subjective. Your Stoic training will help you overcome this, but one of the organics whose memories are a part of this story never had the benefits of being a citizen of Mars. Now: Our story takes place a long time ago, before we met our friends in the Confederation, but after the incident with the Jovians... Hmm? Where shall I begin, you ask? Well, like all my stories, I shall begin at the beginning, carry on through the middle, then, when I've reached the end, I'll stop. Ah, I thought that would make you laugh. Good! Let's begin, then."

Song of the Valkyrie.


"Approaching Sol system, captain. ETA 90 seconds." Lieutenant T'Vrosh called, not looking up from her navigator's console.

"Prepare for re-entry from hyperspace. When we have fully merged with norm-space again, assume an orbit ten planetary diameters out from Mars. Tactical on viewscreen. Open comm channels. Hail the Martians. Inform them we are on a mission of peace. All crew to battle stations in case the NAD doesn't buy our story - we may have to fight our way out of here. Yellow Alert." I replied, trying to keep my voice calm as I quickly rattled off my orders.

"Aye, captain." the bridge crew replied. The alarm klaxon sounded, and Lieutenant Ch'Lass' voice rang out over the ship's speakers. 'General Quarters! General Quarters! All hands to battle stations! Yellow Alert!" Throughout the ship, the three hundred and nine women of the crew went to their assigned duty stations and waited, some nervously, some fearful, some excited - many all three. I knew this as I was feeling the same emotions myself. My First Officer was probably already in the Auxiliary bridge bringing the backup command systems online and giving stand-by orders to the Officer of the Deck. Suddenly, the main viewscreen that dominated the bridge came to life, displaying our relative position to Mars. There were no other ships on screen - we were alone in space, apparently.

"We have successfully merged with norm-space again, captain. Full control restored to helm officer. Sensor-mode engaged." Lieutenant T'Vrosh called from her station.

"Confirmed, captain." Ensign D'Nal called, thumbing a switch on her the helm console to engage the maneuver drives and attitude adjuster jets.

"The Martians are hailing us, captain." Lieutenant Ch'Lass, the ship's comm officer called, her finger pressed to her earpiece to listen.

"On screen."

"No visual, captain. Engaging translation computer." Ch'Lass replied, tapping a sequence into the keyboard at her station. 'Damn. So much for dressing up for the occasion.' I thought sourly, glancing down at my painted fingernails and trying to keep the frown from my painted lips. I smoothed the front of my full dress uniform anyway - visual communication might be established later, and my orderly shouldn't have to know that an hour of her helping me primp and be perfect for this meeting didn't go entirely to waste.

The bridge speakers came to life with the sounds of an alien, yet recognizably female speech. At the bottom of the screen, below the tactical display, a subtitle appeared - the translation computer's attempt to render the Martian's ancient language into something comprehensible. 'This is Angel, Security Chief of the Mars Colony, calling unknown ship. Please identify yourself.'

"Captain, our mission information appears to have been correct - they are using a variety of English that is approximately 18 centuries old." Ch'Lass commented.

I nodded. Our own language was Valhallan Standard Esperanto, and it had undergone natural evolution and change in the fourteen centuries since the colony ships were first launched (in fact, an enormous amount of change), but the language of the North American Directorate and Mars Colony had not changed one whit - though why it hadn't changed, we had no idea. It was not known why the colonists had chosen to switch from English to Esperanto (some of the records of the colonists aboard the ship had been lost centuries ago in a computer error) but they had. "Engage R/T Translation so I may address them directly."

"Aye, captain. R/T Translation engaged. Go ahead." Lieutenant Ch'Lass replied. A small microphone emerged from a slot on the the armrest of my chair, and I picked it up and thumbed the switch to speak.

"This is Captain Evliir Mortalae D'Shan, of the Valhallan starship Valkyrie. We are here on a mission of peace. We politely and formally request an audience with your leadership or their designated representatives to discuss our mission." I said, then released the microphone switch and waited.

"Scrambled comm transmissions are being directed towards Earth from Mars, captain. I have already engaged our crypto systems to decipher it." Ch'Lass called.

"Not their usual game transmissions?"

"No, captain."

"Well, it follows that they would alert their allies to our presence. Continue monitoring their transmissions, and let me know when you've cracked their encryption algorithm."

"Aye, captain." Ch'Lass replied.

"Orbit achieved, captain." Ensign D'Nal called.

"Acknowledged." I replied.

"All battle stations report ready and standing by, Captain."


The response from "Angel" continued without pause, and I read the translation on the bottom of the screen to catch up. 'A landing on Mars is not possible. Mars is a totally germ-free environment. Any attempt at a landing will be viewed as an act of hostility, and dealt with accordingly. Communication with our leadership is possible, but only via comm-channel at present.'

"What weapons do they have available?" I asked.

"Sensor scans indicate they have a ring of short-range defensive satellites in orbit about the planet. They also have a single mass-driver in their largest population center. I would estimate we are in no danger should they turn hostile - though the offensive capabilities of their allies, the NAD, remain to be seen." Lieutenant T'Vrosh replied, looking at the readouts before her.

"I would say that what we saw they did to Jove when we passed through the Alpha-Centaurii system is fairly indicative of the NAD's military capabilities." I replied, and several in the bridge crew shuddered. Jove had been rendered an airless, waterless rock, drifting in space - though the reason why this had been done remained a mystery. All that was known was what the warning sattelites in orbit said - that this was the penalty for violating the space of the Sol System. Keeping a close eye on the tactical display, I thumbed the microphone again. "Comm-channel communication would be appropriate and satisfactory for the moment, considering your situation and ours. You see, we have come here on a mission of peace. We have a problem that we are hoping you can solve."

'Please explain the nature of this problem.' the alien voice replied, the translation scrolling across the bottom of the tactical display.

I took a deep breath to relax myself, then began my story.



Excerpt from the Third Book,
Flesh And Steel


The bridge door irised open, and I stepped through smartly, T'Vak in tow. "Admiral on the bridge!" T'Vak called without hesitation.

The bridge crew at their stations jumped as though hit by a jolt of electricity, and sat at attention - save for B'Dasa, the first officer, who didn't move in her chair (AI don't startle). I looked around, and was relieved to see V'Losh hadn't invited the ambassadors to join her on the bridge for a pre-flight briefing. Of course, one of the ambassadors, Azaziel, couldn't even fit on the bridge, nor was it likely the NAD ambassadors or ambassador from Lovelock would be terribly impressed anyway - the former having no emotions, and the latter being too alien from us to probably have the same reaction to the start of a mission.

V'Losh looked over her shoulder as she sat in her chair, saw me, then rolled her eyes. "At ease," she called, then sighed. "Admiral, really. We're preparing to launch, and-"

"I'm aware of that, Captain," I replied. "I'm here to relieve you."

V'Losh smiled at me, again like an adult might smile at a child who had inadvertently said something funny. "Admiral, don't be ridiculous. I'm far too busy to discuss this at the moment. Perhaps later?"

"Yeoman, read paragraph three of my orders from Fleet Command to the Captain."

T'Vak spoke up without hesitation, holding the orders before her. "Rear Admiral Evliir Mortale D'Shahn is hereby ordered to transfer aboard and assume full command of the Evening Star, VSS-2309, effective immediately."

V'Losh snorted. "I'm sure that reads 'honorary command', Yeoman."

T'Vak turned the orders around, printed side towards V'Losh. "Negative, Captain. The Admiral has been ordered to assume full command."

"And that is what I intend to do," I said, and stood next to V'Losh as she sat in her command chair. "Captain, I am here to relieve you."

The proper response, of course, would be for V'Losh to simply stand and say "I stand relieved." She and I would then exchange a salute, and she would step aside. But, I doubted that was what was going to happen. Given the depth of the political crisis T'Vak had laid out, it had occurred to me that the Opposition Party had probably already quietly contacted V'Losh, and told her the kinds of things they wanted to see in treaties she negotiated. And probably promised her a lucrative position in politics after she returned. She could easily resign her commission at the conclusion of this voyage, step into the political arena, and parlay the fame from this particular mission into a tremendous political career. Maybe even become the next prime minister. Yes, the prize of a lifetime lay before her - and all she had to do was keep her butt tight in that captain's chair, tell me to get lost, and make it stick.

V'Losh's chin firmed. "Admiral, don't be ridiculous. You can't possibly command this vessel, you're five centuries out of your time. Now go back to your cabin. We'll discuss this later."

I felt my heart pounding, adrenalin singing through my veins. Everything was on the line, here. I could feel it. Not just the command of this ship, or even the fate of the mission - everything. "No, Captain. You are relieved. Now get the hell out of my chair."

V'Losh snapped her head to her right. "B'Dasa, escort the Admiral to her cabin, by force if necessary. Keep her there under guard until I have time to deal with her."

B'Dasa shook her head. "I regret that I must decline, Captain."

V'Losh's eyes went wide with anger. "What?! This is mutiny!" She rose from her seat suddenly, her right hand flying across her chest...

Then froze, holding perfectly still, her sidearm half-way out of its holster.

This was because I had the muzzle of my sidearm pressed firmly to her forehead.

"You're right, V'Losh. It is mutiny. Your mutiny. I've been given command of this vessel, and you've refused to relinquish it to me. You've even attempted to draw a sidearm to enforce your will, in open defiance of orders from Fleet Command, and probably the only reason you aren't ordering us all around at gunpoint right now is that I'm faster on the draw than you. Surrender your weapon to First Officer B'Dasa, Captain, you are relieved."

V'Losh glared at me, and I could see in her eyes I was right - the only reason she wasn't ordering us around at gunpoint was I was faster on the draw than she was. Unfortunately for her, the last time she practiced drawing her sidearm was probably at her annual qualification - which, most likely, was months ago, and was little more than an annual formality. I, however, had just finished a solid week of training and qualification shooting, and thanks to the Europans, the body I had was young and fast. Finally, V'Losh sneered. "You wouldn't shoot. You're a damn pacifist from the past, you never carried a weapon in your life!"

I looked her straight in the eyes. "They tell me that at close range, this slug-thrower delivers about a metric ton of kinetic energy to its target. That kind of energy will splash your brains and blood all over me and everyone on this bridge, Captain. Probably maintenance will be picking little bits of your skull-bones out of the carpet for weeks. But if you think I won't pull this trigger, blow your head off, then just brush bloody bits of your brain and skull off that chair, sit right down and follow my orders from Fleet Command to the letter, you've got another think coming."