Peter Malik leaned forward as the holographic display bloomed into life. The galaxy spun before his eyes; an overview at first, the various territorial lines a vivid burning red against the blacks and blues of the projection. Then at the edges; black, blank space all waiting to be filled in. It superimposed itself over his vision, his neural implants placing the images directly onto his retinas.

He zoomed in on the pulsing dot that marked their present location, one of the dozen or so border stations that ringed human space. From there it was his job to head out into the unknown and live long enough to map it.

He called up his orders again, although they were no more specific than any others he’d had in the past three years. He could have quoted them blind or in his sleep. “Go to this area, and tell us what’s there. Avoid potential first contact scenarios whenever possible.” That last one would be underlined.

He triggered his comm implant, selected a contact and waited until the connection was made. He spoke quietly, a second implant transmitting his words. “Time until we’re done here, Thea?”

There was a second’s pause, and then the voice of his second was fed into his auditory canal.

“A few hours yet, boss.” He could imagine the smile her voice suggested. “You get cabin fever again?”

He raised a hand in mock surrender even though she wasn’t even of the ship, never mind in the same room. Some habits were hard to break.

“The quicker we get under way, the quicker we can get back to the core systems.”

She snorted. “Whatever you say. She dropped the bantering tone, assuming the voice of an executive officer. “We’ve got the majority of the stuff we need; most parts, food and water are already loaded. We’re just waiting for the right back-up fuel cells and station control says they won’t be ready for us until seventeen hundred.” The humor returned to her voice. “Turns out whoever req’d the cells got the idea we were a Horus class.”

Malik made a noise somewhere between irritation and disgust. He should know better than to trust the Asteria to one of these outposts. Half the time the crew of these places were where the fuck-ups were sent; out of sight, out of mind.

“Do we look like a warship to these guys?” He asked, not expecting or waiting for an answer. “Ok, Thea. Are you coming back to the ship in the meantime?”

She laughed again. “Nah. I’m going to take advantage of one of the restaurants they have here. I’m not planning on going back to ship-board food until I have to.”

“You know the difference is just in your head.” He told her, not for the first time. “It’s all still vat-grown. You just think it tastes different.”

“Yeah, I think it tastes better.”

“Fine.” He told her. “But be back in ninety minutes. I’ve got a feeling that by that point, I’ll be ready to start shouting at people and I’ll need you to smooth things over.”

“If that’s the case,” She said dryly. “I’d better have a drink with dinner. If you’re going to be in that kind of mood, I’m going to need it.”

He could hear the smile in her voice for a moment before I was subsumed back into the voice of his exec. “The techs say that they’re all done wiring up our new central computer. Should already be available, if you want to check it out.” She broke the connection.

Malik examined his command menu again. There was a new branch there, the descriptor showed it to be his interface with the Asteria’s new A.I. He activated it. There was a melodic chime then an androgynous voice spoke inside his head.

“How can I help you, Captain?”

“The area we’ve been assigned to, is there any history I should know about?”

There was the briefest pause, then the A.I. responded. “There are four items of potential interest. Do you have any preference for their order?”

He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair for a moment, careful not to transmit any of his thoughts. The A.I.s were an invaluable resource, both in ship handling and data streams but until now they had a tendency to be lacking in personality.

The newest generation of shipboard A.I. had been upgraded with built-in personality modules. And after her refit, the Asteria had been blessed with one. Based on what he had been told, the A.I. had been given a starting set of parameters but would learn and develop via its interactions, molding itself to the ship and its crew.

“Prioritize according to the potential threat.” He told it finally. “Give me the bad news first.”

“Yes, Captain.” As the voice spoke, sensor data began to appear in the display projected against his retina. “As requested, this is the greatest danger, although it is also the oldest.” Before he could query that, the A.I. continued. “Thirteen years, six months, twelve days ago; a group of Chirrad.” Somehow the A.I gave the name the species’ own distinctive clicking pronunciation. “Traders passed through that sector en route to one of the K’Lev’Tak colony worlds.”

His inner display put up a star chart, pin-pointing the location of the colony on the far side of the sector. A slow moving dot began to progress across the blank section of space, which he assumed was the Chirrad vessel. Two thirds of the way, the dot stopped and began pulsing.

“At approximately this point,” The A.I. continued and the star chart dissolved into a stream of sensor data. “The Chirrad began to detect some form of gravitational anomaly. Concerned that it could cause problems with their jump drive, they powered down and began a systematic sweep of the area.”

The sensor data being played for him showed a definite gravitational spike, appropriate for a star or perhaps a large gas giant, but not for the empty patch of space the rest of the data showed. Malik was about to ask the A.I. to continue when the sensors picked up the outline of a ship. No sooner had it appeared, than the power systems of the Chirrad freighter began to fail. Not the immediate cut out of a reactor failure, but rather a slow draining. Even as they began to fail, the freighter’s computers made a tentative match. Malik felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he recognized it himself.

“Do any of the other files have mention of the H’Ganz?”

It seemed as if the A.I. hesitated for a moment, then said. “Not directly, Captain.  Although the next item I was about to mention has similar features. Apparently a ship from that K’Lev’Tak colony heading back to their home world reported a similar gravity spike and following power drain. Unfortunately we do not have any evidence supporting their assertions since the information was collected remotely.”

Which meant rather than being part of a shared data pool, someone had heard something somewhere and passed it on.

“But due to the similarities in the accounts, Communion considers it reasonable to conclude H’Ganz involvement.”

Great he thought, and this time he didn’t care if that got transmitted. If it did, the A.I. gave no indication of it.

“Would you like to hear the remaining items, Captain?” It said.

“Are they likely to make me any happier?”

“I’m afraid I cannot answer that, Captain. I lack sufficient experience to adequately predict your emotional responses.”

He sighed to himself. “Just tell me anyway.” He said.

“Yes, Captain. Four years, three months…”

“Years will be sufficient.” He over-rode it.

“”Four point two six years ago, there were some isolated reports of a Drashnar exploratory vessel being dispatched to the same sector.”

Malik blew out a breath. “The H’Ganz weren’t enough?” He asked, without expecting the A.I. to understand or reply.

He was surprised when it said. “It was never substantiated, Captain. But it is a valid point. I think you can take comfort in the fact that there is no further indication of Drashnar involvement in this area.”

“Are you trying to be funny?” That was the sort of thing he would have expected Thea to say.

“Of course not, Captain. Like I said, I have not yet developed a baseline for such things. Was what I said amusing to you?”

If it had been Thea saying that he would have been sure she was messing with him. But this new A.I… A thought occurred to him.

“Do you have a name?” He asked.

The A.I. paused, as if considering the question. “I have not been given a name, just a registration number. Since that is a string of numbers and letters thirty characters long, I do not think it would be appropriate for casual use. However, since I am to act as the central core and nervous system for the Asteria, it could be argued that that is now my name also.” It stopped and he got the impression it was waiting for his approval.

“Do you have any preference?” He asked her, realizing that he’d just thought of it as her. The power of suggestion perhaps.

“I have no real inclination in the matter, Captain. I am supposed to conform myself to the expectations of the crew, of which you would be the main representative. Would you like to call me Asteria?”

“Why not?” He told her. “Can you generate an avatar? It makes it easier to talk with you when I can see a face.”

“Certainly, Captain.” An amorphous humanoid form appeared in his display, subtly shifting into what he assumed was some constructed appearance. His display zoomed in, giving him a close up of the newly- created face. For some reason, it looked almost familiar.

“Will this suffice, Captain?” Asteria said. Her voice was different too. It had become warmer, more obviously feminine. Again, it seemed familiar.

“How did you choose?” He asked.

“I assembled a composite based on the biographical files of the female members of the crew. I thought that if I looked like a part of the crew, it would aid my integration with them. Did I do wrong in this?”

He didn’t answer for a moment, studying her chosen image. Now that he knew what to look for he could see the elements that had gone into it. The same was true of the voice, he could pick up traces if Thea’s Arcadian intonation.

“Well,” He said eventually. “Perhaps you should speak to anyone whose aspect you used, just in case anyone objects. Once everyone’s back onboard, I’ll introduce you to the crew properly. And then I guess we’ll get underway.” He paused. “Are you fully connected into the ship’s systems now?”

“Yes, Captain.” There was a brief flurry of data scrolling past his eyes. He had just enough time to recognize it as a full system diagnostic before it was complete and winked out. “With the exception of our back-up fuel supply, everything checks out and is now within optimal parameters.”

“The missing fuel cells.” He said. “I don’t suppose there’s anything you can do to hurry those up?”

Surprisingly, the avatar paused for a few seconds, flickering slightly. Then it re-solidified and smiled. “I have communicated with the central computer that controls operations here on Outpost Twelve. It is anticipated that they will be available in approximately two hours and I’ve expedited the work order. Once they have been installed, it will be a simple matter of some final pre-departure checks and obtaining leave from the Command and Control center.”

“Thank you, Asteria.” And he meant it. “Put a request in their departure queue now, please. I’d prefer it if we could get underway as soon as possible.” He gave a rueful smile. “After all, we wouldn’t want Communion to think we were reluctant to be about this one now, would we?”