The hallways of the barracks were echoingly empty when Derek received the summons for an assignment briefing. The missive flickered along the light-emitting diode display of the room’s message tablet, casting the minimalist room in its dull glow. Pausing midway through his pull-up, Derek grunted and released the iron bar, set deep into the wall for this very purpose, and took up a small towel from his nightstand to wipe the perspiration from his face. He tended to ignore most communications from Control Centre as useless drivel, but a direct message – and one CC’d to Laura as well, it seemed – could not be ignored. It was early afternoon when he received the dispatch, or as close to that time as it could get on the ship, considering the station was still located on a Pole of their assigned quadrant, and their current ‘day’ had lasted almost eighty regular days so far. Even so, it was important to keep the crew’s schedules and body-clocks regular, and a strict itinerary was strongly encouraged. A schedule was enforced by the appropriate dimming of lights, closing of shutters, and so forth, trying to establish a semblance of normality to a ship full of people used to a planetary orbit of 24-hours.
Shrugging on a clean shirt, Derek left his systematized room, the electronic doors hissing shut behind him. At this time of the day, most of the Nauts were either in their own rooms, in the recreation facility, or eating their lunch in the mess hall. Walking on his own to the Meeting Room didn’t faze him, however – he wasn’t one to generally socialize. Indeed, even as his well-worn, military-issue boots paced the clean, spacious corridors of the barracks, the only people he passed were engineers and the occasional techie, who offered him a wide berth.
His journey across the breadth of the space station was quiet, giving him the opportunity to cast his eyes over the facility. At a length of six-hundred feet, the ARGUS was a feat of technological marvel. The largest of four stations, they were equally spaced at four points of their assigned boundary of their system, leading the field in research and exploration. Far from the initial days of when man had first stepped on the surface of the moon, ARGUS and its sister-ships were equipped with laboratories, training modules, fleets of smaller vessels and a slew of corps. And, for the past six years, barring the occasion few months’ leave, this had been his home away from home. Despite all the time spent aboard, the sight of the vast, endless expanse of star-dotted galaxy outside the windows never got old.
Commander Argent was the only one present in the Meeting Room, sectored off upstairs in the ‘business’ area of the ship. They nodded curtly to each other in greeting as the doors hissed open and then shut behind the younger man. Derek pulled up a chair and crossed his arms, his eyes adjusting quickly to the aerodynamic, sterile brightness of the boardroom.
“The rest of your department should be joining us soon, Hale,” Argent said, his tone of voice almost conversational, if, in the years Derek had been with the force, he hadn’t learnt that Chris Argent didn’t do idle conversations. Not with his Division, at least. Though his interactions with himself and the rest of his regiment were carefully neutral, Derek was under no false impression that Argent, like many others aboard ARGUS and even back home, retained a deep-seated distrust for Lycans. Never mind that his team, however small, was considered the ‘best-of-the-best’, the finest team of super-human soldiers available to ARGUS. Few Lycans enlisted in the Force, even fewer were inducted as a familial unit. The Hales were ARGUS’ Lycan Division, a small yet effective team, which headed most of the missions with their superior reflexes. Despite Argent assigned as the Sub-Director of the Force, the head of ARGUS, Derek took his orders from only one individual – his squadron Alpha, Laura, his older sister.
It seemed as though the mere thought of her acted as a summoning, because the Meeting Room doors hissed open and Laura walked in, followed closely by Peter, head tactician of their unit and their uncle. Peter walked past his chair and brushed his hip against Derek’s arm, before taking a seat opposite. Laura sat beside Derek, pressing a hand to his bare shoulder. The natural, tactile nature of Lycans held a strong connection with physical contact, and even those light touches of his family, as brief as they were, helped settle his discomfited disposition. Both she and Peter were wearing the full Nauts uniform, the polished cut of their black jackets streamlined, exhibiting the sleek, powerful musculatures of trained soldiers. Clad in his dark military training cargos and a worn singlet, Derek felt supremely underdressed and not the least bit comfortable.
“I’m glad you three could make it,” Argent began, seating himself at the head of the table and leafing through a sheaf of papers. His posture was straight, his face and crystalline-blue eyes devoid of emotions – even his scent yielded no discernable emotion. He was good at what he did, held an excellent poker-face, and Derek didn’t trust him one bit. “We’ve received a mission from HQ, one that we’ve discussed at length, in which your Division would be perfect for – Derek, in particular.”
“What sort of mission are we talking about?” Laura asked, settling her elbows on the table and leaning forward, her dark hair pulled back from her keen eyes, giving her fine features a sharp, cunning edge.
“Simple recon, from the sounds of it,” Argent spoke, his heartbeat completely steady, no detection of falsehood. “We’re still waiting on one more person, but from the paperwork, it appears to be a simple retrieval mission. Fly in, retrieve intel, and fly out.”
“So why involve Derek?” Peter asked, his casual tone belying the keenness of his mind as he steepled his fingers together. “Simple recon shouldn’t necessitate the use of one of your Lycan Nauts. So why assign a Lycan in particular, when a regular Naut would do?”
“It appears that the reason they chose Derek in particular for this mission is because of, ah,” he flicked past another page on his dossier, then settled the clipboard down and smiled what Laura had dubbed his ‘Insurance Salesman’ smile – the smile of a man who was attempting to sell an unsavory situation as diplomatically as possible, “Derek’s… reluctance to work with an AI.”
“I won’t work with ‘em,” Derek growled, feeling a hot rush of anger spike through his body. The presence of his sister beside him was reassuring, and held most of his anger back. However, the constant pressure from ‘up above’ to force an AI partner on him, well, it was starting to wear thin.
“Neither Laura or Peter have AIs,” he sneered, arms still crossed tightly in front of him.
“Though that may be true, Derek, neither of your family members are regulars on the field,” Argent reasoned, “If you really want to dissect the situation, neither your sister or your uncle have set foot on the front line since the beginning. Laura has been a vital asset to our engineering department, and Peter’s contributions to the data and planning sector of ARGUS has been indispensable.”
The doors behind them whirred open, and a young man in a crisp, pristine lab coat stepped through, his dark eyes crinkled in mirth, dimples set deeply into his cheeks and exuding an air of cordiality. Derek’s guard refused to come down, despite knowing the other man to be no threat.
“This is Doctor Daniel Mahealani, head of the AI Division,” Argent introduced him, shaking the man’s hand.
“We’ve met,” he remarked dryly, remembering with distaste the countless times he’d been herded into the labs, had his physical and mental aptitude tests resurfaced and combed through again, refreshed and commented on while they ran him through the basic instructions for operating with an AI unit for the umpteenth time. It hadn’t been his fault that, in the near half dozen years of service, he hadn’t been able to build a proper, functioning working relationship with any one of the units they’d provided him with. “And, if Doctor Mahealani recalls, I’m not a fan of AIs.”
“It is understandable to feel frustration at having a digital partner when you are in possession of naturally superior capabilities, especially in comparison to other Nauts,” the doctor spoke, his hands tucked into the pockets of his coat, “Despite your exceptional proficiency, Derek, you remain an anomaly in our system. Every single Naut on our ship, in the corporation, has their own AI.”
“Not this drivel again,” Peter bemoaned, rolling his eyes heavenwards and leaning back into his chair.
“Why are you so adamant to saddle my brother with an AI against his wishes?” Laura asked, her face and tone of voice devoid of any real emotion, but the undercurrent of an irritated inquisition underneath. “Our unit works fine without one, as we’ve argued multiple times in front of the board at HQ. Each of our members works in synchronicity with the other far better than a regular human unit would. We each have our assigned strengths-”
“Command-” Peter pointed to Laura, “- Brains,” he pointed to his skull with a satisfied smirk, “-And the brawn,” he finally gestured at Derek, still tight-lipped with irritation.
“- which, though seen as unconventional to some, works for us,” Laura continued, seemingly unfazed about the interruption from her uncle. “As it stands, we barely have any interactions with the human Naut departments in the field as is.”
“I’m sure Derek’s heard all the info about AIs multiple times, Danny,” Peter drawled, motioning flippantly to the young man in the coat, “But enlighten us, if you will, on why you deem it so important for my nephew to have one.”
“Well, as you know,” the scientist began, taking an empty chair in hand and seating himself across the desk, “An AI unit has been deemed an integral component to a Naut’s equipment.”
“Start at the beginning, doc, and try not to confuse me,” Peter smirked, earning him a sharp look from Laura.
“Very well. The Artificial Intelligence unit, or AI, was invented by ARGUS to act as somewhat partner to the soldier. Their creation is immeasurably complex - instead of simply programming a smart AI, the AI matrix is actually partially created by sending electrical bursts through the neural pathways of a human brain. This is then replicated in a superconducting nano-assemblage known as Cognitive Impression Modelling. Additional software programming is then built up on top of the bare bones of the program, which creates unique software with the capabilities of expanding its knowledge. In short, it is a program which evolves with information, learns, and is more adaptable to change from personal experience.”
“What is the purpose of pairing an AI to a Naut, then?” Laura asked, her expression curious.
“Simple,” Danny nodded his head, turning his face towards her. “AIs and their Central Processing Unit chips, or CPU chips, are removable, and when engaged, stored in-mission inside the Naut’s suit to collaborate with the Naut on a closer level.”
“Glorified electronic babysitters,” Derek grunted, already tired of this shit.
“An AI is more than a babysitter, Derek,” the scientist spoke, his voice irritatingly patient and grating against Derek’s already frayed nerves, “AI’s and Nauts are intended to have a close working relationship, and, through this, an exceptionally intimate bond. A Naut and his AI have a closer rapport than with his fellow team members. Because of their bond, the AI is considered one of the paramount pieces of equipment on a mission. Long exposures to their partner means that the AI collects data on their assigned Naut. They can interpret their reaction times to stimuli, speeds, and so forth, and then calculate diagnostic matrixes that help in guiding them through battle and difficult situations with military precision. They act as a sort of – how shall I put this – a guide, if you will, a working partner whose ability to process dangers and missions is of the highest caliber.”
“I’ve got to say, an AI companion doesn’t sound at all bad when put that way,” Laura mused, leaning on her elbow and looking over at Derek, though not addressing him. Derek was starting to feel mighty sick of people talking about him as if he wasn’t there. “I suppose Derek never really clicked with a unit, though. Surely it’s not an issue if he doesn’t have one, right?”
“Derek’s unique reluctance to work with an AI has been a fascinating study, to say the least.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled at Derek, a smile he didn’t return. “Lycans wouldn’t need to rely on an AI nearly as heavily as human Nauts, what with superior reflexes and all. While AIs are relatively inexpensive to create, it is the rigorous training programs and simulations that they are run through to garner experience to work in the field that makes them so costly. They become more advanced and valuable as their years in action expand its knowledge, and it grows and develops into an advanced, inimitable system.”
“So, in essence, an AI is also a tactical aid?” Peter commented.
“Precisely. Each AI is different, and in possession of a diverse ‘personality’, as unique as their experience on various missions and paired with their Naut partner. This is a fail-safe system implemented by ARGUS, which makes them varied enough that enemies cannot predict their reactions to situations. Now, in Derek’s case,” he motioned with a hand to Derek, who, until then, had largely been ignored (and it took all his self-control not to bare his teeth at the young scientist), “his hesitancy to work with an AI caused quite a discussion between us. You see, Derek has worked in the force for numerous years, and yet has not held an AI partner long enough to build any type of rapport with. Tell me, Derek, how do you feel about the AIs you were assigned before?”
“I couldn’t stand them,” Derek answered, unhappy that his feelings weren’t even getting a say in the matter, save for scientific observation. As if his emotions were a specimen to be observed in a petri dish under a microscope, rather than accepted.
“And why is that?” Danny prompted.
“Because they undermined my decisions,” he growled in response, ignoring the warning look his sister shot his way to curb his rising temper. “Anything I did, they second-guessed and called into question, reported back to ARGUS. Lycan Nauts are different from humans, we trust our instincts.”
“And the AIs you were partnered with did not agree with you on your courses of action?”
“It was ‘numerical improbability’ this and ‘success rate’ that. I train myself hard to be in peak physical condition. My reflexes are ten times better than anybody else’s. I didn’t need some disembodied voice in my suit telling me what I could and couldn’t do.” He paused a moment, then added, “And I don’t trust them enough to give me advice.”
“I’m sorry – did Derek just say ‘disembodied voice’?” Laura asked, one of her perfectly-groomed brows inching higher.
“An AI manifests itself either through a voice in the suit of the Naut when in-mission, or by a holographic representation of itself from the surface of the CPU chip.” Danny explained. “They’re responsible not only for data collection and storage, but also for communications between the Nauts and the ARGUS, providing their assigned Naut with mission briefings, relevant information and tactical intelligence, and also monitoring their vitals through the suit. They can also aid the Naut by, for example, regulating the temperature inside their suit for optimal performance, or by activating the medical-aid function if the aforementioned soldier is paralyzed, blacked out, or unable to activate the function themselves. Many lives have been saved on the field with the help of AIs.”
“I’ve seen a few AIs myself, though,” Peter mused, tapping his chin with a finger. “Well, not on the field, of course, because I’m smart enough to not get involved in any conflict that doesn’t involve topographic digital raster maps, or gestural interface screens. Dermott in Planning has one,” he motioned vaguely to Derek, who had no clue who the fuck Dermott was supposed to be. “His AI isn’t in a chip or hologram, though. She’s actually a rather attractive brunette. Stunning eyes.”
“That would be Michelle, wearing her android suit,” Danny smiled. “I perform maintenance on all high-level AIs myself. AIs come in two grades – your standard Assist AI, which is what Officer Dermott has, and the Military AIs, which are on a much higher caliber of functioning than the former. Military AIs aren’t assigned android shells, they remain in chip form, or inside the Naut’s suit.”
“That would explain why we haven’t seen any of the other Naut units with an android AI following them around,” Laura observed.
“Precisely. Assist AIs and Military AIs are interchangeable, of course, being based on the same CPU outputs, but Military AIs are much better suited to the field. When not used in a mission or on the front line, an AI chip can either be stored inside the suit, or transferred into an assistance-type android body that can cohabitate the Officer or Naut’s living space and assist them in various ways. Michelle is a fantastic help for Officer Dermott, since he always seems to lose his glasses.” He chuckled, unfazed that only Peter seemed to find the situation humorous. “ARGUS has a multitude of android bodies. They range from completely cyborg shells, like the ones you see in the mess hall that prepare our meals, to near-perfect human-looking androids.”
“Michelle,” Peter prompted. “I picked up that she wasn’t entirely human, but even my own senses were fooled – she smelled human to me. If I hadn’t seen Dermott temporarily put her in sleep-mode for maintenance, I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Science has come a long, long way from the early days of robotics. We’ve replicated the human body almost perfectly into androids, with synthetic tissues, organs and hairs, a nervous system, even a proper circulatory and digestive system. They can eat, defecate, sleep and even bleed.” Danny’s chin lifted as he spoke, sounding proud. “You see, the cyborg androids are handy for menial tasks, but it’s the humanoid ones that are most useful. They’re used by ARGUS in many spy and infiltrating missions. Their appearance, combined with the carbon-based replication technology available to us, which means very few mechanical parts, makes it difficult for enemies – and seemingly Lycans, too – to detect. There are probably soldiers out in the barracks with more mechanical prosthetics in their bodies than our androids. AIs, especially ones that have been on the field or operational for a number of years, are especially proficient at operating these almost-human androids. Their experiences and training have made them ideal to move as programmed for them.”
“I think that’s more than enough technical mumbo-jumbo for my head today,” Laura sighed through pursed lips, rubbing at her temples with her fingertips. “I have to say, an AI companion sounds like a good thing to have. But with my brother’s-” she shot a quick, almost apologetic glance to Derek, “- headstrong nature, I can see why it wouldn’t work.”
“And I believe we’ve found a solution to the problem at hand,” Danny pulled out a flat, gunmetal-colored rectangular box from the inside pocket of his coat, about three inches wide and barely an inch thick. Derek couldn’t help his eyes from narrowing in dislike – he knew very well what lay inside the metallic capsule.
“Is that an AI?” Laura asked, her face quizzical as Danny opened the container and laid it open between them on the smooth surface of the white meeting table. Nestled neatly in laser-cut EVA packing foam lay an AI chip, identical to the other five they’d attempted to saddle Derek with before. “It’s – well, I’m not going to lie, it’s smaller and less assuming than I would have thought.” His sister wasn’t wrong. For the entire technological marvel an AI was lauded to be, the chip was a tiny, seemingly fragile-looking thing. Two and a half inches long, two wide and barely a quarter inch thick, it was smooth and streamlined, with the ARGUS logo emblazoned on the front, any details on its façade solely for aesthetic purposes.
“This is a fully functioning Military-standard AI housed in its CPU chip, a feat of technological marvel. When you see an android walking around, this is what’s at their core – their soul, if you will.” Danny grinned, dimples set deep in his cheeks. “The First Computer weighed 30 tons, took up 1800 square feet, and consumed 150 kilowatts. Technology has improved at an almost exponential rate since then. Don’t let its size fool you, they’re powerful things with innumerable uses.”
“What makes you think that this AI in particular is going to pass Derek’s scrutiny?” Peter asked, doubt layering his voice.
“The issue of Derek’s partners has been a concern of ours for some time,” Danny said. He finally turned to Derek, his dark, merry eyes settling over him. “How many years have you been in the force for, Derek?”
“Six years,” he replied. “Two in training, four full-time in the field. All at ARGUS.”
“Are you aware that Nauts only need serve a maximum of seven years?”
“Derek has expressed his inclination to remain with ARGUS for longer than the requisite seven years,” Chris voiced.
“We plan to extend our terms for longer as well,” Laura added. “We work together well as a team – we don’t see why our services wouldn’t be useful after a prerequisite amount of years. The three of us discussed this at great length – we believe we’d be useful for another four years at least.”
“I see,” Danny mused. “What I believe has happened is that Derek has been assigned new AIs to work with, which is probably why he feels uncomfortable partnering with them.”
“So you’re saying that I’ve been designated amateur, inexperienced chunks of software?” Derek growled, his brows furrowed with barely-repressed anger. To think they would entrust a Naut, a Lycan one at that, with a piece of equipment that hadn’t properly been field-tested yet.
“The AIs are hardly inexperienced,” the young scientist answered, “Once created, AIs are put through rigorous training programs and simulations designed to reflect real scenarios on the battlefield. That’s where most of the AI budget actually goes. They garner experience to work properly on the field, that’s one of the reasons they’re so costly. It is my belief that the previous AIs assigned to you have not received enough Naut interaction, and therefore have little to no experience in how to collaborate together with a Naut that has such a strong-willed disposition. Which is where this little guy comes in.” He smiled warmly down at the chip, silent and immobile in its foam packing. “One of our previous Nauts from a sister-ship had him for quite some time, built a good rapport with him, too. Incidentally, he was also a Lycan Naut, so he’s not new to the idiosyncrasies and mannerisms of your type of soldiers. I think he’d be a good partner for you, Derek. I’m pretty attached to him myself.”
With careful fingers, he reached out, extricated the chip from the its packing and laid it on the table. He pressed a seemingly-invisible keypad upon its surface, the numbers flashing white momentarily under his fingertips. The chip’s circular center glowed bright for an instant, and then a faint halogen light flared from within. With a barely-audible hum, even to sensitive Lycan ears, a figure took shape in the holographic glow, standing less than a hand-span tall. It straightened its spine and squared its shoulders, its back to them as it faced Danny.
“Heya, boss-man. How’s it shakin’?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Derek muttered, feeling his stomach drop.
“Derek, meet Stiles, your new AI partner.”
The AI turned around on the spot, finally meeting them. Derek’s eyebrows rose in surprise. His AI holographic images had all been varied, from young-ish-looking women and men, but this one’s interface just looked – boyish. Like all AIs, he was bare-skinned, though there were no signs of genitalia visible. His skin was an iridescent sky-blue, covered in a fine mesh of polychromatic, gleaming formations of darker cobalt circuitry, which shimmered brightly to white every so often up and down his limbs, effectively tracing patterns that semi-resembled a skin-suit. His body was lean, with wide shoulders and a slim waist, and his hair was cropped short and seemed to stick up in an odd, almost messy direction. His features looked quick-witted and clever, with a turned up nose and wide eyes, a hint of mischief turning up one corner of his mouth.
Derek’s scowl deepened. The AI looked less like a military tactical aid and more like a wayward teenager.
“What the hell kind of a name is Stiles?” he asked.
“You know, a series of sounds spoken in a particular sequence that represent my identity, primarily, referring to me?“ the AI – Stiles – answered cheekily, crossing his own arms in front of his chest, mirroring Derek’s position.
“Ooh, this one’s feisty,” Peter smirked.
“AIs are usually designated a number code to their identities, though their Nauts can appoint them with a personalized moniker,” Danny grinned, “Though this guy is a little unique. He named himself.” He shook his head with seemingly fond exasperation.
“Stiles, short for Specialized Technical Intelligence and Logistics for Earth and Space. Thought it had a neat ring to it. I tweaked my base state parameters a little,” Stiles grinned. “My original assigned name was in Polish. Too many consonants to be comfortable.” His grin seemed infectious, making even Laura’s lips quirk up. Derek, however, remained impassive.
“So you’re expecting me to head into missions with this,” he jabbed a broad finger at the holographic projection on the table in front of him with a distaste he could not suppress. “I might as well charge into gunfire without a suit, a full 300 cc of wolfsbane solution in my bloodstream, hands tied behind my back and blindfolded, for all the use he’ll be.”
“I’ll have you know,” Stiles stiffened on his chip platform, his demeanor serious, “that I was considered the best in my entire division. My former Naut was elected squadron leader within three years thanks to working together with me. My ability to process information and deliver instructions is second-to-none. My only question is,” he cocked a semi-transparent eyebrow at Derek, which in turn made his pulse spike with irritation, “what makes you think you’re qualified enough to work with me?”
“Oh, this is going to be good,” Peter grinned, failing to cover his amusement behind his gloved hand.