22 July 2011
By Curtis C. Chen
Kevin's hologram materialized in the ship's mess. That was odd; skippers usually displayed rescue holograms on their navigation boards, to provide the most information they could during a limited connection time.
There were several people in the mess. Kevin nodded at the nearest crewman and said, "I'm Warrant Officer Kevin Rhee, beaming from Orion Rescue Buoy 73. What's the nature of your emergency?"
The crewman stood up, fidgeting. "We've had a hull breach."
"Can you show me a damage report?"
"Um, yeah." The crewman gestured to a small screen above a food dispenser.
Kevin walked over to the screen and read the display. "This says you've got two breaches, port and starboard." The locations didn't line up, so it couldn't have been a single, through-and-through meteoroid strike. "What happened?"
The crewman's eyes darted around the mess before he answered. "I don't know. I wasn't on duty when it happened. Sleeping! I was sleeping."
Kevin's right hand drifted to his left wrist, but he hesitated before hitting the kill switch. Regulations were fuzzy about what circumstances would legally release a rescue hologram from his obligation to aid a vessel in distress. And Kevin didn't want to risk innocent lives just because one sailor had drunk too much coffee.
A tall, shirtless man entered the mess. Tattoos covered his skin from the neck down. Just as Kevin recognized the symbol on the man's right bicep, his vision blinked, and he knew he was in trouble.
Kevin slapped his kill switch. Nothing happened.
The tattooed man walked up to Kevin's hologram and grinned. "Welcome aboard. I'm Captain Branson."
The blink in Kevin's vision had been the local computer taking control of his holo-projection. Rescue communication protocols degraded gracefully that way, when circumstances made a continuous data stream impractical—like pirates intentionally jamming the signal.
"Warrant Officer Kevin Rhee," Kevin said. "Orion Rescue Corps, service number—"
"Save it," Branson said. "Tell us about Hemet Interstellar's trading routes."
Kevin shook his head. "I don't know anything about private cargo carriers."
"Do I look stupid?" Branson spat. "Let me explain your situation. You've been downloaded, and we've modified our hologram engine so you can feel things like this."
He slammed a fist into Kevin's face. An impossible, searing pain shot through Kevin's entire body. He yelped and stumbled.
"Painful, isn't it?" Branson said. "We can make you hurt real bad, for a real long time. Tell us what we want to know, and we'll turn off your program."
"Go to hell."
Branson raised an arm. Kevin disappeared before the punch landed and reappeared on the far side of the mess. A murmur rippled through the room.
"I'm inside your computers, remember?" Kevin said. "I can access every system tied to your auto-pilot, including comms and navigation. I can drive this ship wherever I want, and I'm already broadcasting your location to every law enforcement sloop between here and Saturn."
"You can't access shit," Branson said. "Your program's running in a sandbox VM. You're bluffing!"
The ship shuddered. Kevin smiled. "Am I?"
Image: HMS Cornwall on Patrol (UK Ministry of Defence, photo by Dave Jenkins), February, 2011