Death’s Flag Is Never At Half-Mast
“But he’s opened himself up. Their codecrackers must be working double-time.”
“I’ll firewall him before the viruses reach ship systems.”
“But what if you blow…”
The captain upped Halfacre’s amphetamine drip and reconfigured his programming. With new dedication, Halfacre set himself to the task.
The minutes passed in furious calm.
An automated subroutine cut off the drip and nanites began to iron the drugs from his system. Suddenly, Halfacre had access to the captain’s overrides. He quickly surveyed the scene, determining that French rate of fire was dropping, and partitioned himself back into the real world.
He diverted neural capacity back to processing sensory information and became aware of a burnt smell in the air. The captain was lying on the bridge with smoke pouring from several of his ganglia.
“Kiss me, Nelson,” said the captain as he lay on the deck. The hundred ganglia of his navigation implant writhed. A rogue virus had blown the capacitors in his implants. Lieutenant “Halfacre” Nelson grabbed an undamaged strand and slotted in a ganglion, but it was an empty gesture. The captain was cut off from his information apparatus.
Forty-Two had fully opened his wireless channels, and was pouring raw waves of devotion into the grunts as he minutely adjusted their chemicals. Below the broadcast there were individual messages for each grunt, exhorting them, making sure that no strap was left untied, power-pack discharged, or catalyst reservoir left at half-capacity.
Halfacre reached out and shut the boy down before the French could crack him as well. The grunts on the bridge roared when they felt the ensign disconnect from their minds, and began to manipulate the panels on their arms, trying to find the right combination of narcotics to wash away the loss. Several miscalculated and fell dead.
Halfacre felt the pressure on his phantom arm and found himself jacked into the few bridge sockets that were still functional.
Beneath him the captain breathed his last and fell silent. The remaining grunts stared at him in narcotic awe, tired, but poised to rush forward in angry vengeance against the ship that lay blind and disabled before them. The ship that had cost them their beloved captain and so many of their fellows. All he had to do was unleash them.
Forty-Two, already christened “Shouter” by the bored nelsons in Personnel, didn’t see Halfacre receive his citation. Shouter was at Lagrange Portsmouth, overseeing the retrofitting of the French prize. Halfacre had no choice but to put him in command. The virus had impaired almost all his nelsons to one degree or another. It was only luck that the French had decided to keep the boy as an undamaged conduit.
Halfacre stood expressionlessly as the Admiral beamed him the citation. At least this time they didn’t try to press a promotion on him.
“Another fine victory and a fine officer,” Admiral “Dodge” Nelson said. “How do you do it?”
“He just needed a little polish,” Halfacre said, dully. If admiralty knew what he really thought, he’d never fly again. Why did it always turn out this way? Was he the only failure in the fleet? “It was nothing to do with me.”
“Now, now, Shouter spoke very highly of you. Says your encouragement really brought out the steel in him. He was quite voluble in his praise, as are they all, as are they all.”
Rahul Kanakia was born in Redwood City, CA, but he grew up in the District of Columbia. He returned to California for college, but after getting a B.A. in Economics in 2008, he came back to the D.C., where he currently works for the World Bank on environmental operations in South Asia. He has sold stories to Clarkesworld Magazine, Nature, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Visit him at his website, Blotter Paper, and follow his Twitter Feed.