Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.
But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury—they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave—so there’s no way out.
Adda and Iridian have one chance to earn a place on the pirate crew: destroy the artificial intelligence. The last engineer who went up against the AI met an untimely end, and the pirates are taking bets on how the newcomers will die. But Adda and Iridian plan to beat the odds. There’s a glorious future in piracy… if only they can survive long enough.
Barbary Station, the debut novel from R.E. Stearns, is available October 31st from Saga Press.
In her water tank, Adda shook blue dust out of her hair. Since the tank was suspended underneath the pirate compound, beneath the station’s double hull, Iridian proclaimed it safe enough without the blue antiradiation coating. Adda kept forgetting to pull her hood over her head when she left the tank, and the blue stuff that covered the rest of the compound’s ceiling and walls fell into her hair and shirt.
She piled pillows inside her workspace’s noise-canceling canopy. Though the sides were transparent beneath a thick grid of black tracer lines, it did resemble a tent. Once she’d plugged her nasal implant jack and her comp into the main unit, she triggered the comp’s countdown timer. If she spent five hours in a workspace, Iridian usually checked on her. When both of them forgot, Adda had headaches and nightmares. She placed a thin purple sharpsheet square on her tongue. While it dissolved, she inserted earbuds, which hissed pink noise and canceled out everything else.
Time to find out what I’m up against. As one of her professors used to say, Zombie AI can’t develop their own priorities, so give them yours. If she got the intelligence to interact with her, she could ask it to stop. The pirates didn’t have a workspace generator, so they couldn’t have tried that.
She lay on her back and sealed the sound-resistant generator tent. After several seconds, the sharpsheet took effect and the generator’s software accessed her neural implant net to draw her into a workspace. Her parents’ house in Virginia, before the bombing, assembled around her.
The comp glove could render small parts of the programs she worked with, but interacting with the fragments limited her view of the system as a whole. The workspace software converted the concepts and commands into visual metaphors her brain processed quickly, naturally, and more effectively with the sharpsheets’ help. Sunlight patterned down through a large, high window. All six shelves of the bookshelf beside it were full of ancient paper books, many more than the tiny collection of books that her mother had maintained. Each book represented information on the station intranet’s public front. Station administrators would be remarkably careless to leave a manual on the station’s security intelligence sitting out on unprotected intranet, but she had to check. A spiral-bound stack of paper labeled Employee Policies might be helpful.
An orange glow with ragged gray-blurred edges swam over a plain black book’s spine. The glow shrank into the words Criminals and Criminology. With dreamlike slowness, Adda pulled it from its shelf, blew the ensuing dust cloud away from her nose, and placed the book beside her bare feet.
Despite the carpet, the book landed with a sound like a massive gong struck with a hammer. Adda stilled, her hand hovering over the book. She hadn’t set any alarms like that, so who had?
When she turned back to the bookshelf, a yellow eye stared out from its back panel, in the space where the book had been.
“Hello.” She breathed slowly to keep her field of vision, already gently twisting left and right, from starting to spin in response to her excitement. It wasn’t clear how well her biological functions carried through the workspace to the intelligence. Heart rates told a lot about humans. What conclusions AegiSKADA drew from hers was something else again.
“I’m looking for your occupant monitoring archives. I’m a friend. Everyone near me is too.” She concentrated on the concept of a group of nonthreatening individuals with similar objectives and priorities. “We don’t attack friends.”
The eye didn’t blink. Its pupil was a splotch of black liquid, asymmetrical and fraying into digital static at its edges. Adda reached into the bookshelf and pressed her fingertips to the top of the panel, above the eye. The titles on the other books’ spines swam, cycling through numeric codes and names. The eye refocused on them. The human-to-AI translation software in her comp was hard at work.
“Look at me.” She concentrated on how delighted she was to meet a new intelligence. The eye’s gaze flicked from one mental construct of household objects to the next, checking each one for signs of her. It was possible that no one had spoken to it in the four years since the station had been abandoned. If it understood what she’d said, it didn’t agree with her.
AI played games with human minds. Her translator should protect her, but depending on what direction this intelligence’s development took, the translator might be outmatched.
The risk raised her heart rate. The room rocked like a boat on stormy seas. The eye focused on her, confirming its access to biometric sensors. How many had the station’s designers planted, recording every cardiac rhythm of humans within range? And where was the one recording hers, alone in an empty water tank? She shut her eyes against the swinging room and concentrated on the second question. The rocking sloshed the contents of her stomach. Whispers in static too soft to interpret brushed across her arms and thighs. She thought she heard her name, and Pel’s.
When she opened her eyes, a dark image flickered in and out of existence below the eye on the book spine. Orange specks of light near the top were probably the string of lights in the passage between the hulls.
Adda grinned. It was so satisfying to create an answer through the intensity of her question. The nearest sensor node was in the hull passage that led to the pirate compound. She didn’t know what to do about that yet, but she’d think of something.
A cardinal peeped triumphantly outside the high window. The whispers faded to silence, and a hard, squared-off edge formed against her palm. She drew a paper book out of the bookshelf with the intelligence’s eye in the center of the cover. The image of the space between the hulls flickered out.
Behind the workspace’s hallucinations, her translator had convinced AegiSKADA that she was a temporary systems maintenance technician. That granted her the most basic levels of personal security aboard the station. Leaving so much of her identity open to the intelligence made her vulnerable, but she now claimed enough clearance to review its biometric database.
Millions of records swirled around her as dust motes in sunlight, with no archival procedure. AegiSKADA had recorded over a year of the pirates’ heart rates, respiration, gait, words, and images, every move the pirates had made since they’d crashed in the docking bay below. As she watched, the intelligence accessed record after record that hadn’t been significant enough for the workspace to render before. The workspace depicted each shining mote of information for only an instant, and then the eye on the book absorbed them.
The intelligence hadn’t been accessing those records when she first applied the translator. Adda could only imagine AegiSKADA accessing the pirates’ data this way in order to select targets for investigation or attack. If she had time to think, more reasons might occur to her. It was appalling that the intelligence had so much biometric data so readily available. None of the utilization scenarios she was coming up with had positive outcomes for Sloane’s crew.
AI rarely gave humans enough time to develop viable plans of attack, and she couldn’t just watch it work. Adda slammed her hand down over the eye to stop the transfer to its active memory. The home around her flickered, with red nothing behind it, as her software struggled to block AegiSKADA from records it was already accessing.
The eye widened and widened beneath her hand. It expanded past the borders of the book representing her software barriers between the intelligence and her personal system. The eye swelled to the width of the bookshelf, then the room, before Adda could draw her hand away. And it was focused on her.
The overwhelmed translator didn’t interpret the angry digital buzz filling the workspace, but something was hunting her, had caught her scent in the red beyond the workspace’s world. It was coming, and she had to get out.
Excerpted from Barbary Station, copyright © 2017 by R.E. Stearns.