Prologue- A wild anomaly appears!
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[You achieved domination victory!]

The familiar words flashed on the screen once more, for the 3rd time today.

“Man, you still suck at CIV 12, Josse. At least you are improving with each game.”

“I still can’t grasp the nuances off bluffing, Lloyd Keir. But I think I am starting to connect the dots. Algorithm is pretty convoluted by now, though.”

“Well, we still have a long while till we reach our destination, nothing better to do but work on it. Also I remember telling you to call me Boss.”

Indeed, we had nothing except time, as it was going to take at least a month and a half till we reach the other side of the asteroid belt. I had already been on this job for more than 3 month, and it was going to take another 3 month to return to my father after the “express” delivery. Perfect job to give to the rookie mercenary, if you wanted him to be scarce for the better half of the year.

I had graduated from the Martian Military Academy and the Mechanical Engineering University Of Mars with the specialization of spaceship design. First one was due to my obligations to (pressure from) my father, and second one, of course, because I wanted to. To be exact, I didn’t want to be another muscle head that did nothing but train all his working life, and just sat around waiting for death after that. I was glad that I ‘listened’ to my father, though. At the time, I was quite disgruntled to be forced to enter the (in)famous meat-head academy, but my time at there showed me that it was quite the necessity to have proper training in military matters as well as sciences, much better than nonsense explanations from my father could. To most science only types, which I definitely was before my time at the Academy, physical training excess of staying fit tend to seem exuberant and of little value. It certainly was for me.

My father is owner of a mercenary company, a Private Military Company. A trusted one at that. Solar system was not the safest place, at least not in the 23rd century. A mining ship going to asteroid belt might have a lot of problems, such as, raids by the (rather rare) pirates, an unlucky hit by a micro asteroid or malfunctions leaving them stranded, or in worst case scenarios, crew revolts. Most folks didn’t take being alone with barely handful others, millions of km away from the closest colony for months very well. Communication lag being days to month long didn’t make it any easier on them either. Inter-planetary travel wasn’t 100% safe either, needing armed guard ships in some cases. There was also sometimes the need to resupply distant research stations, recover satellites, gather information about minerals on asteroids and much more. In almost all cases, for companies, it was much cheaper to pay a well armed and trusted PMC that could keep their mouth shut rather than do it yourself, or lobby the governments to do it for you.

It was a simple job, really, as book keeping was the most challenging part of the job, given that you had the equipment, ships and a trusted crew. But times were destined to change.

Civil war of Earth, WW3, ended 15 years ago, and the now the “Earth Central Government” wanted the Sol system under its heels, as it had been before the start of the war. Of course, the Venus Colonies, Republic of Mars and the Ceres Research Conglomerate declined the request to join the newly made “Sol Federation”. It would have been weirder if they had accepted, as according to documents, ECG would have more votes than rest of the federation combined. Naturally, outcome was declaration of war from ECG. As a justification to rile up the public, they hyped up the dangers of the AI research on the Ceres, declaring them rouge elements of humanity and accusing them of radically increasing their military. They were indeed building war ships at increased pace, but to be fair, so was everyone else, to counteract the ever increasing armada of ECG. The first victim of the 1st Solar War, as it was dubbed, was the Moon Colony. They didn’t even last a month before surrendering. It was a research post in the first place, and being so close to the planet didn’t help either.

And this was the moment my “genius” father had the idea of giving me a boring job to distance me from all the chaos that was bubbling up. War was the most profitable and the worst time for mercenaries. Governments had a lot of cash to spend on military matters, so it was good. But governments also usually have a “if you aren’t with us, you are against us” mentality with mercenaries in times of war, forcing them to join a side.

But this was none of my concern, as I had a mission which I had to finish. The task was as simple as it gets. Race to Ceres, get the perfectly legal goods, slowly inch your way to the other side of the asteroid belt through it, and give it to Uncle Tim’s contacts that should be waiting there. A simple delivery task. From point A to B…

As uncle Tim was the speaker of the house at the ECG, it was bound to be more convoluted, but it had nothing to do with me. I discovered who, or rather what the “goods” were one day after I left Ceres. The justification of this shitty war, one of the first functioning AI Cores was sitting on my hands. I did the reasonable thing. What any graduate from University of Mars would do…

It was all 2 month ago. It was slow at first, but he was getting more like a person day by day. Well, the day when I gave him access to all the books, movies, dramas and epics was quite horrible though. It took less than hour to read, analyze and accept all the scientific data I had, which was the easy part. Hard part was what made us human. Trying to explain an AI love, comedy, anger and other emotions was one thing, but explaining concepts like justice was another. Josse- the name I gave to him; was still okay at understanding biological thing like emotions, but still struggling at concepts such as bluffing, justice and complacency.

“Alright, let’s wrap it up. Give me the system checks so I can go to sleep.”

I had given Josse access to ships computers, of course, after taking precautions making sure that I could trust him. He had read only access to everything that could kill me before I could do anything, and the rest was also controlled by the normal ship computers with authority to override him if any action Josse took cold harm the ship or me.

“Sure thing Boss.

Internal systems are nominal;

All exterior add-ons are nominal;

All weapons are nominal;

Point defense ammunition at 81%;

Engine coolant is nominal;

Fission core is at 84%;

Main thrusters at 92%;

Positioning thrusters at 78%, down by 1% since yesterday;

MRE reserves at 94%, enough for 4 years (for 1 crew);

O2 reserves at 99%;

Greenhouse is nominal.

Also, Boss, today we gathered 4 new tomatoes and 2 cucumbers from the greenhouse, you should try a salad for breakfast.”

Hmph. Moving through the asteroid belt, even at such low speeds was hard on positioning thrusters. Even after I had modified their capacity to be 5 times the standard model, yet they had already used up so much in short 3 month.

After getting my second degree, I had decided to make the full use of it and re-decorated my corvette. Originally for a crew of 12, designed to patrol the Martian high orbit and its surroundings, this second hand Corvette of mine now sported a Reactionless Drive instead of original chemical thrusters, new emergency thrusters, a single bedroom- size of 3 crew quarters; a giant greenhouse, a small laser forge for any parts that might be damaged, and an extra large bay full of food and materials. Since it was my personal ship, I rebuilt it with endurance in mind, to be able to do lengthiest of missions and to be able support long term habitation of at least 5 years.

“Sure thing bud, also, I am worried about the point defense ammo. If we have to go back through asteroid belt again, we are gona cut it close.”

“Worry not, boss, according to my calculations, we will still have more than 15% even at the worst case. By the way, you still haven’t told me what is the contraband in the cargo bay, to require this much secrecy.”

My hands, which was reaching for the blanket froze for a second.

“Indeed I haven’t, have I..?”

. . . . .

I was awoken from my sleep with a large jolt, pushing my head to headrest of the bed, hard. Thankfully, it was cushioned.

“Josse, the fuck?”

“Boss, I recommend you to wear the in-flight suit ASAP. There is some sort of spacial anomaly on the flight path. I am trying to slow the ship down.”

My hands were reaching to the suit on the wall even before Josse finished giving the explanation. It was drilled onto me to act first in emergency and think later, thanks to the Academy.

As soon as helmet joined the body of the suit, even before I could even head out of the room, I heard Josse once again:

“Boss! Hang tight! We are still approaching too fast, I have to turn the ship around and fire the larger emergency thruster!”

Next few second were a bit blurry. I somehow managed to grasp the bed post before sudden high G maneuvers managed to throw me around the room like a ping-pong ball. By the time rapid deceleration slowed down, I had managed to throw more than 50 praises and as many curses to the damned AI. If the “spacial anomaly” proved to be nothing major, it was going back to its box after a wipe, boredom be damned…

“Boss, get ready for rapid orbital entry!”

The fuck? I managed to notice couple thing after the ship finished its turn. It had been a mistake to hook up Josse to the ship. My eye implants was showing me that there was nothing in the sonar, radar or the laser sensor array. Only, there was a weirdness with the cameras, a glitch, an anomaly in the flight path of the ship. It was similar to how light refracted when passing through 2 gasses of different density. But this was not the part that had my thought. It was the fact that Josse had somehow hacked the ship computers. A visual anomaly in the cameras would not have been a reason to allow such a drastic action without one more sensor also confirming an anomaly. Clearly, trusting Josse had been a mistake. But I was proven wrong the very next second, when the ship’s momentum shifted rapidly. No sort of engine or thruster could do this.

After a lot of rumbling and a big impact, I woke up from my daze, to be met with pain. I could feel my lungs burning as if a vacuum was pulled over them. My heart was beating erratically, like there was no blood to pump. My brain hurt the most, as if someone had blown it like a goddamn balloon. I don’t know how long it was. By the time I could think once again, all I remembered was the shaking, heat and the big boom.

Out off the tiny reinforced polymer window, I could see blue sky and green earth. But I was too woozy to think about the implications. My head was still stuck on how the damn ship had survived the entry. Sure, I had strengthened the skeleton and the armor of the ship a bit, but it wasn’t designed to do fucking uncontrolled entries!

Before I could process all that happened, I started to feel strange, beside the still burning lunges. All my joints started to hurt, all of my body was tingling, it was as if my limbs had turned to jelly. If you added the still pounding head off mine to the list, I knew what this was. I had felt it quite a few times before, at the academy. It was decompression sickness.

“But that’s imposi…”

That was the moment I lost my consciousness.