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Try, Try Again

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"Kusy, what in hell are you doing to that drone?" The Egni had laid out the small mechanical spacecraft on the workbench in Drone Control, and as far as Captain Shirai could tell, they were... merging with it. Shirai had seen standards of discipline decline significantly as the Federation slipped into civil war, but he drew the line at fraternizing with the equipment.

"Modding it, sir," Kusy said. The Egni carefully removed one arm from the drone, but left the other one inside, their skin shimmering with active nanomachines at the surface. "The standard AI isn't worth the data it was trained on."

"Didn't the Engi design these drones?"

"Yes, to Federation specifications."

In the past few years Jack Shirai had learned to smell disloyalty, and another captain might have smelled it here. But in the years before, the good years, he'd learned that commanding Engi required patience and diplomacy. It was a balancing act between their miraculous technological abilities and their belief that they were technology's only qualified judges and caretakers.

"I've been with the fleet for twenty years," he said, "and I've never had problems with the standard drone AI."

Kusy looked up skeptically at their new commander. "You've never had a drone fail in combat?"

"Well, failure, sure..."

"Machines don't fail; they quit. Federation military drones are programmed with a model based on a human psychology that's trained with an ethic of self-preservation. To put it bluntly, they're cowards who are afraid of death. I don't like serving with them."

Captain Shirai grunted, reluctant to test his authority on a new command with no crew beneath him except Kusy and another Engi. "Has this modded AI of yours been tested?"

"It's not an AI, sir; that's the point. It's me." Kusy slipped their other arm out of the drone, sealing the open casing with a solid resin exuded by the nanobots as they left. The drone powered on and lit up its self-test lights, significantly more quickly than normal.

"Can we trust it?" Captain Shirai insisted.

"Do you trust me?" Kusy asked, and Shirai had to say that he did, because the alternative was unthinkable.

The whole ship was on fire. Air rapidly billowed out of the open airlocks, and wisps of flammable hydrogen from the nebula were creeping inside. Kusy trained a fire extinguisher on the control panels in the oxygen synthesis chamber, so that they could fix it, so that there could ever be oxygen in here ever again.

"I need options five minutes ago!" Captain Shirai shouted over the loudspeakers, his voice faint and tinny in the diminishing atmosphere. The fire finally died and Kusy tossed the extinguisher into the next room, letting it clatter silently against the floor and push itself in tightening circles. Kusy went to work, exuding printed circuit sheets and filters from the top layers of their skin, prying away the burnt-out equipment and pressing the new stuff into place.

"We have one bar of offense back!" Gracie announced from Weapons Control.

"That's not enough!" Kusy could practically hear Captain Shirai pounding the console--an irrational and, at worst, counterproductive move. "I need power! We can't run the shields and the ion blast and the drone!"

"Shut off the drone," Kusy said. They pressed the comm microphone against their throat so that it would pick up the reedy Egni voice in the near-vacuum. "Power the ion blast instead. Switch power to the drone for a few seconds when the enemy shields go down. It'll take a while, but we'll wear them down."

"Isn't power off for an AI the equivalent of death? You're asking me to repeatedly kill a copy of yourself and revive it!"

Kusy evaluated this possibility for 0.2 microseconds. "I suppose if you had a drone that was a quitter, that might pose a problem, Captain."

"The point is moot!" Bjorn reported from Shield Control. "Shields are burnt out! Ion blast and drone! It's our only hope!"

Kusy ran through the unresponsive, wedged-open door, down the access hallway towards Shield Control. Reefs of Kusy's nanobots became fuzzy in the vacuum, drowsed and sloughed off their body like dandruff, dropping slowly like spores in the fluctuating gravity.

The path to the engine room was blocked by a large metal wall that hadn't been there before. One step further and Kusy was close enough to read "HOWDY, MFERS!" scrawled on the wall at an odd angle in orange paint.

It wasn't a wall; it was a TR-28 Hermes missile embedded in the hull. Who's supplying them with Hermes? was Kusy's final thought.

Kusy was immobilized, held upside down. A power cable had been rammed into their body, filling them with the strange taste of Rebel electricity. Kusy heard a sound like the hiss of oxygen flowing into an airlock, because they were in an airlock, held by a Rebel in an EVA suit who was eyeing over a large net bag full of electronic parts. Kusy recognized those parts: too many of them had been produced by Kusy's own nanobots.

"Report." The stressed, clipped voice of the Rebel captain came through a speaker in the airlock.

"Looks like a typical Federal setup," said the suited figure. "No idea why they were so far out here. The weapons are shot, but we recovered some scrap, and one of the drones was outside the explosion radius. I plugged it in and it still works."

"Finally, another drone." The speaker crackled noisily; someone needed to rewire that system but there'd been no time. "Prep it for combat while we move. We've fallen behind the rest of the fleet. We have to be in Sector Eight within fifty-six hours." With a click the power cord was yanked from Kusy, and they abruptly died.

When Kusy was powered on again they were being dropped on a table in Drone Control. A cable was roughly clipped into their data port. The drone operator logged in to Kusy's body and saw a standard Federation AI package: exactly what Kusy wanted them to see.

Rebel information security was unbelievably sloppy. The drone operator did no further checking except to run some automatic software updates, which Kusy easily fended off in the background while gaining control of the ship's crackly internal comm, the reactor indicator lights, temperature control and several lower-priority systems.

These fools thought they'd defeated the Federation? That they'd defeated Kusy? Their troubles were just beginning.