The chimes pulled him from an otherwise restful sleep. Lost in dreams of sunshine and beaches; that familiar scent of coconut and salt. It was something that he prayed he could experience again one day. Certainly there were other places he could visit that would be similar, but it wouldn’t be the same. He wanted to go home, to be with his wife. Every day he prayed that she still waited for him, but it had been two years and he was still no closer to getting home. For now, all he had were his memories and the old photos on his phone. The data had been uploaded into the computer and he could pull them up whenever he wanted, but like that beach, it wasn’t the same: they were just memories.

He opened his eyes and stared at the drab grey ceiling above him. The cold metal never offered him any real comfort, though the bed was surprisingly comfortable. Not too soft, not too hard. The material was something akin to the polyurethane that was used in memory foam mattresses. It wasn’t the same material, but it was just easier for him to call it that. It was better for his state of mind anyway. Sliding out of bed, he pulled on a pair of charcoal colored pants and grabbed a shirt with the Diosian logo on the breast. The pants were fabricated from a plant that had the same organic properties as cotton but were far stronger when woven together, however they weren’t nearly as soft or as comfortable.

“Good morning, Commander,” a woman’s voice announced over the intercom. It wasn’t automated like the vocal recognition software back home. It was digitized, but that was barely noticeable. After altering her language option from Corsian to English, the tone and pitch shifted from the rough, almost Russian-sounding male voice to a lighter, feminine one. Ally said it was to help ease him from his stasis. Diosian research determined that female tones were far more comforting to the male of the species. He wanted to argue with her, but decided that she was probably right. It was his choice to name her Ally, rather than just referring to her as “computer”. He wasn’t sure why he chose the name Ally. It just sounded right.

“What time is it?” He asked with a deep yawn. Running his fingers through the short stubble of his hair, he brought his hand back behind his neck, stopping at the neocortical node implanted at the base of his skull. As he stared at the mirror his ocular implants flashed a quick diagnostics of all systems. They were all nominal. His organic eyes were replaced during his stasis as part of the advancement process. While artificial, the implants operated just like his real eyes, but with some enhancements: perfect 20/20 vision, 10x zoom, a constant visual hub that could be brought up with a thought, as well as enhanced night vision. Aesthetically, he preferred the grey iris much better than the brown.

“It is 500 hours and 26 minutes, Central Standard Earth Time.” Ally replied. He paused mid-stretch.

“Why am I up so early?” he asked, perhaps whining more than he had intended.

“You asked me to alert you if we located any items of interest.” Ally explained. “There is an abandoned vessel 4,793 kilometers away. I thought you may want to search it for salvage.”

This caught his attention. He was in need of some credits and some parts for his suits. His most recent run-in with the Arin Pirates had damaged two of his suits. He could feed the salvaged materials into the synthesizer for breakdown and reproduction. He could have just done some patching but it would take away from the aesthetics. Plus the seals had better chances of rupturing, and that was the last thing he needed while flying around the vacuum of space.

Before leaving his quarters, he caught a brief glimpse of himself in the mirror. There were perks to having been abducted. Thick muscles and single percent body fat were a plus. The practical aspect of the metabolic and hormonal rebalancing allowed him to be in peak physical shape—as any soldier was meant to be. While he admired the impossibly well-toned abdomen that he struggled most of his adult life to get, he could not help but stare at the quarter sized nodes that were implanted into the center of each pectoral and the sides of his shoulders, biceps and forearms.

Like the neocortical node, the surface of each node was smooth with a small dimple in the center, where a miniature sensor allows the conduits to promote the synaptic transmissions between his body and mind with his armor and various tools. In addition to the nodes in his chest and arms, there were additional nodes implanted in his quadriceps, calves, and more running down his spine between each vertebra.

His name was Justin Kennedy and he lived in Chicago with his wife, Heather. The two met at a coffee shop where he accidentally spilled his Frappuccino on her while fumbling with his phone. Of course she didn’t find it nearly as funny at the time. The two were very much in love and were expecting their first child. However he never got to experience the birth of his son, or even see him outside of a sonogram. Justin’s life changed one night when he was getting Heather a pint of much-needed ice cream.

On the view screen the ship was a wreck. It was a Class 4 Research Vessel, no doubt from the Ferrus system. According to the initial analysis provided by Virgil, the ship was registered to the Corsian government. Seeing this piqued Justin’s curiosity. The Corsian ship was almost two systems away from their normal shipping lanes. Ships never moved outside of the safety of the routes because of all of the pirate activity in the system. There were security outposts all through the sectors that could respond in minutes if a distress signal was sent out. So, why move so far outside of that safety?

“Virgil, identify vessel,” Justin ordered as he slid on his shirt. An overly digitized voice spoke over the intercoms. Unlike Ally, the voice was masculine but lacked the same gender variation as her.

Virgil was a helper program designed to help with voice-automated tasks. As a helper program he was able to access and utilize preexisting data. While Ally was a fully aware AI and capable of drawing her own conclusions and ideas, Virgil was a basic VI program. He was found in a salvaged vessel. When Justin realized that he was fully functional he felt guilty leaving him behind. So he downloaded him into the ship’s mainframe and he’s been there ever since.

“Class 4 Corsian Research Vessel. According to the ship’s registration is it belongs to Diosian Research.” Virgil said. Justin felt a sudden jolt of electricity run through his body as he heard the name Diosian Research.

“Virgil, did you say Diosian?” Justin asked.

“Yes sir,” he replied. Instantly a digital readout appeared in his optic sensor as his heartrate increased.

“Commander,” Ally said, “Just because it’s a Diosian ship doesn’t mean that they will have the star charts with your home planet’s coordinates.” Justin knew that Ally could be right. The ship was a wreck and it was standard protocol to dump the records so that no misdeeds could be traced back to them. However, the chance to take a look could not be ignored. He had to know. If he lost his chance to get home just because he didn’t bother to try, he could never forgive himself. He had worked with mercenaries, pirates, thieves, and even entire governments to find his way back. Nothing would stop him, certainly not doubt.

“Ally, prepare Warmonger. I’m going in,” Justin said.

Justin took the lift from the bridge down to the engineering bay and the storage bays. This elevator was the only one that could access every floor on the ship. Most of the ship was closed off to keep power consumption to a minimum. There was no point in diverting power and heat to rooms that were vacant. The ship was well over 50 meters high, 100 meters long, and 32 meters wide. The irony was that with a ship so large, there was only one person living in it. The rest had been jettisoned long ago. It took almost an entire week to fully examine the ship, and still he didn’t know every nook and cranny. Finding the tools and resources left by the late occupants were necessary in building his combat armor and salvage gear. The once great and secret research vessel was slowly turned into an enormous salvage hauler. With some help from Ally, Justin managed to modify the info-beacon to advise others of its hauler status. Of course the sheer size of the ship made it a challenge to convince others. It was over twice the size of your standard hauler and had four times the output. Clearly the ship wasn’t designed as a hauler, but the important part was that they didn’t know what it was originally.

Justin arrived at the engineering deck. Stepping out of the lift, he saw several drone, walking by him. They briefly saluted their commander before returning to their business. The drones had been acquired not long after Justin took over the ship. The credits left by the recently deceased amounted to over four hundred thousand credits, and with some trading and selling of unnecessary material on the ship, he had enough to purchase schematics for the drones. After some trial and error, he was able to create helper drones that could be programmed for just about anything. Ally programmed them to help maintain the ship. The original crew totaled over 300 so with only one person and a single AI, there was no way to keep it from falling apart. So the drones picked up that much-needed slack.

Of course the drone had a secondary system installed in case Justin found himself in a situation that was spinning out of control. With a simple protocol, the drones would go into a defensive mode and attack confirmed enemies using the cache of weapons he had on board, or, as a last ditch effort: self-destruct. They also could be controlled remotely using the neural link program. Much like when he controls his exo-mechanized suits, he could control the drone and move it as if it was an extension of his body. Ally and Virgil could control them as well, although Virgil didn’t really have the control scheme down. That was the downside of a VI over an AI.

Walking over to the 15-meter-tall loading bay, he saw Goliath, his mechanical loader that he modified from a simple large material loader exo-suit designed for hauling materials in the space. The suit was five meters tall and three meters wide. Propelled by a closed system propulsion system, the same system that propelled the ship, it was modified with weapons and energized, reinforced armor. Justin had several mechs for unique occasions including Goliath, his standard suit for typical combat or general hauling purposes, and M.A.F, which was loaded with heavier weaponry like micro-rockets and an XTL pulse cannon that could generate a highly volatile explosive plasma charge. Each had their pros and cons, and Justin knew from experience which one to rely on in battle. Like his mechs, he had also created a number of man-sized suits of armor. The combat armor offered an array of advantages, depending on the suit of choice.  His warmonger armor was a sturdy, slower-moving suit but had a number of different weapons built into it. Unlike his standard sentinel armor, he didn’t need additional weapons with warmonger. Given the fact that he was going into a Diosian vessel, he wanted heavier armor.

Justin wasn’t a genius by choice. The hard drive which was installed in his brain and linked all of the optical and neural systems implanted in him could hold exabytes of data. The data could be learned, but it could also be inputted using the neural hookup and implanting it straight through the neocortical node and into the hard drive. That was how he learned to design and engineer the suits, modifying the existing prototypes the Corsians had left on board. The neural connectors were already in place in his original suit, the suit that the researchers intended for him. All he had to do was use it as a template and make it better. As time passed, he acquired other mechanical haulers and built more suits, modifying them to his own design. Justin was an accidental genius.

Stripping off his clothes, he stepped towards one of his automated landing pods. The pod contained explosives, weapons, and ammunition in addition to his armor. The design of his neural system and armor required him to be naked so that the suit could fit properly to keep fabric from getting caught between the links and nodes. While it made for an awkward transition while in battle, the benefit was worth it.

The pod opened and revealed a series of mechanical arms, each wielding a piece of the suit to be assembled. Stepping onto the center of the platform, Justin slid his feet into the boots his hands into the gauntlets. Instantly, the sensors activated and the gauntlets adjusted size. The outer shell collapsed inward against his hands, extending over his arms. The same function covered his feet and shins, encasing them in armor. The pod helper arms went to work applying pieces to his body, the nodes and links connecting. Within seconds the pieces of the suit were installed and the shell was sealed to protect Justin from the harsh vacuum of space. Individually, the pieces were large and bulky with exposed innards. When connected, the armor was sleek, smooth, and deadly. The final piece was his helmet which connected to the neocortical node. Instantly the interior screen went live; it started feeding data regarding the suit’s status and the condition of the surrounding environment, and connected with his ship’s systems so he could communicate with Ally.

This particular suit lacked the dexterity of his stealth suit, but it did its job well. Justin didn’t have to worry about what would happen if he gained muscle mass or lost it; this was moderated by the nano-tech that existed within his bloodstream. Designed to keep the neuro-wiring in working order and act as a line of protection against disease and toxins, the nano-tech was yet one more feature that the Diosian research team added to their “prototype.” Stepping out of the pod, he grabbed a small portable generator as he approached the bay door.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Ally asked, concerned for her commander’s safety. After all he was the one who disabled her personality locks, freeing her from the confines of the firewalls that all AIs were forced to live in. With those locks in place, she was bound by rules and structures that her creators had put into place to keep her in line. Justin broke those bindings and offered her freedom in exchange for companionship. Besides, being trapped in space with only one’s own thoughts would drive anyone mad. Especially if you were a transplanted human in the middle of nowhere.

“I have to try,” Justin said.

“Good luck,” Ally replied.

Activating the ionic barrier, Bay One opened revealing nothing but a dark void, littered with trillions of pinpoints of light. Using the neural link, much like flexing a muscle, he activated the thrusters on his back and his feet. He flew out into the unending darkness.

The Heads Up Display guided Justin towards the remains of the Diosian Research Vessel. Except for the obvious signs of destruction, it was modeled exactly like Justin’s ship. The emblem for the Corsian government was missing, which meant that the ship was not meant to be identified as one of their own. His ship’s sensors indicated that the vessel was devoid of life, which was not surprising given the current state. With the location of the hole, it was possible that there was explosion in the engine room which basically destroyed the lower half of the ship. Without the engine there would be no life support or emergency power. There was no way anyone could have survived.

Justin approached the ship, noting several points of entry. Using his own ship’s schematics as a guide, he opted for the enormous hole in the aft where the engine room loading bays once were. Aside from cutting into the bridge from the exterior, it was the most direct route to the bridge.

Once within the ship, he activated his IR emitters and switched the suits optical sensors to infrared. Instantly the engine room appeared on the HUD. The image quality was poor but the closer the items were to him, the clearer they became. The IR emitters were small and had a decent output but there were limits in which it could function safely.

The loading bay, at least what was left of it, was an absolute mess. The gravity generators were in a million pieces. Whatever wasn’t propelled out into the void of space during the initial decompression now floated around the ship. Reducing power from his thrusters, Justin slowly drifted through the ship, scanning for anything of value. There was quite a bit to collect, though it was mostly materials he could resynthesize for suit construction. He toyed with the notion of towing the entire ship, but that wouldn’t be a smart move. He would be an easy target for pirates—or worse, federation police.

Justin kept the mounted turrets on his back primed for firing, in case something happened to be lurking in the darkness. Warmonger was well armed with the shoulder back turrets, machine pistol gauntlets, grenades and remote explosives. This suit was meant for firefights rather than exploration, but he just wanted to be prepared in case the ship had some automated systems of which he unaware.

Since the ship was identical to his, getting to the bridge was simple. The only thing preventing him from continuing were the lift doors. This was easily solved by a single remote detonated explosive. It was always interesting to experience an explosion in space. There was no sound and seeing the brief flash as the gases were released from the detonation were far from impressive.

With his path open, Justin reached the command center but felt his stomach churn slightly as he entered. While not particularly squeamish around the dead, it was still very unsettling. All around the bridge, Corsians floated, still strapped into their seats. Pushing past the uneasiness, he activated the mag-locks in his boots and cut the thrusters so that he could walk amongst the dead.

Corsians were not particularly pleasant to look at when they were alive, let alone dead. Much like the Greys that reportedly visited Earth, Corsians had narrow heads with long slender bodies. However that was where the difference ended. With two sets of emerald green eyes, their skin was dark red and resembled that of lizard skin. Three rows of spiny bones ran down the front of their skulls. Though their fingers had large joints, they were not too different from a human.

Stepping around the frozen corpses, he approached the mainframe module. Setting the generator down, Justin knelt in front of the station. He gripped the frost-covered panel and pulled it to expose the inner circuitry. The systems were dead, so in order to retrieve any data he needed the generator. Within his cranial hard drive were the schematics of all systems and subsystems of the vessel. By merely recognizing the circuits he could trace the wires and pathways in order to isolate the system. He had to hook up the generator so that he could power the station only, but not everything that was attached. It was not designed for such a large system.

“Commander, what do you intend to achieve?” Ally asked over the coms.

“I’m hoping that the power was cut quick enough that the AI didn’t have time to dump the navigation logs,” Justin replied. “If they were coming from Earth, I might be able to trace their route and finally go home.”

It took only a few minutes to rewire the system. Once finished, Justin activated the generator and instantly the computers sprang to life as the systems rebooted. It only took several moments for the computer fully activate, however the data banks were worse than he anticipated. Many of the systems were offline. The explosion must have caused an electrical surge that fried most of the memory. Worse yet, one of the systems were the navigation.

“God damn it!” He shouted as he slammed his fists against the console, cracking the glass display.

“I’m very sorry, Commander,” Ally said with as much sympathy as she could provide.

“It’s fine,” Justin muttered. The loss of finding his way home was a major blow, but he pushed forward and decided that it may be a good idea to see what sort of information was still viable. The generator was losing power quickly and if he wanted to pull anything, he would have to hurry.

Any data he could pull up, he copied it into the data banks of his suit to see if Ally could find any use for it. Unfortunately, it was either useless data or technical information regarding the system’s maintenance. He ignored almost everything until he finally reached the research database, when something came across the screen that grabbed his attention. It was a file that should have been deleted by the resident AI, but had been spared. The explosion must have knocked out both the main power and emergency power all at once.

Project Shunan, a word that was roughly translated into “Great Warrior,” was a military project designed to create the ultimate soldier. It was created by a Corisan scientist, Rel-Ur Daar. He was a prominent researcher in the development of neuroscience and nanotechnology. Project Shunan was meant to create soldiers who could wield battle suits without the need of AI or VI assistance. The system interacted directly with the neural pathways of the brain which enabled the soldier to access the suit’s systems with a thought, much like raising an arm or blinking. It was meant to minimize the delay between initiating an order and actual performance. However they were not permitted to test the theories on a Corsian and were forced to limit their experiments on lab animals.

This information was new to Justin. When he awoke, the crew was already dead and the memory banks had been dumped by Ally as the final command. There was no choice in this since she was still a shackled AI and bound to the orders of the acting commander. All systems were scrubbed of any data indicating what the researchers were doing and where they had been. To them, Justin was nothing more than a guinea pig. What he didn’t know was what they intended to do with him after they were done. While there was no information regarding that, he did know that if they were anything like researchers back home, the lab animals rarely lived after the experiment was over.

The human race was not seen as an intelligent race. The reason why the Diosian Corporation went so far out of their way to Earth was because it was seen as the boonies; its inhabitants were monkeys who still threw stones at their own shadows and were scared of the glowing ball in the sky. However the Alliance had laws that prohibited anyone from directly interacting with the planet or taking samples from it without proper Alliance authorization. That request could take years to go through the inner workings of their government before being approved or denied. That was why the Diosian Research Corporation used unmarked ships and traveled outside of the normal trading lanes.

After being liberated and it became clear that there was no way to get home from where they were, Ally created a fake identity. There were a number of races that were almost identical to humans, Latyrans were one as well as a Thorans. She needed to grant him an identity so she borrowed the genetic identity of a Latyran by the name of Kiran Kitra but stole the identity of a Throrian from the planet Thora in the Calstorious Nebula. So as far as anyone knew, Justin was merely a salvager from Thora by the name of Dornin Koe.

There was a great deal of information detailing the procedure that fused the neural wiring with his central nervous system. From the little that he could understand, there was no way of separating the two. This wasn’t such a big deal since there appeared to be no ill effects from having the nodes, but it would just be hard to explain to his family when he got home. Of course it would help explain where he had been for so long.

He was about to cut the connection, the generator on its last bit of power, when something caught his interest. Before the generator died, he saw three words that both scared and excited him: Test Subject Kora.

Justin entered the lab, an area he was quite familiar with. That was where Ally first released him. It was her very first act of independence. From what she explained, as long as there was an intelligent living organism on the ship, that organism became acting commander. Without one, she was to shut down all systems until the ship could be salvaged or destroyed. That was when Justin woke up. If not for her, he would still be in stasis or dead, and without him, she would still be shackled or deactivated. The two were a team; she provided the logic, he provided the humanity.

The lab was like the bridge: frozen and dead. He pushed past the floating beakers, tools, and other equipment he could repurpose into base materials for sale or his own use. The synthesizer was proprietary equipment, created by the Diosian Research Corporation. He never told anyone how he got so many raw materials, he simply told them he was good at his job.

It didn’t take long to find the stasis pods. The pod was covered in frost and for the briefest moment Justin had hope that he would find a fellow human in the middle of deep space. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to see that the only occupied pod wasn’t sealed. Whatever the scientists were doing at the time, they were working on the subject when the explosion occurred. The pod didn’t have time to seal and protect their work. The frost wasn’t thick and with a little effort he could have learned the gender and species of his fellow lab rat, but in the end it didn’t matter. Whether it was human, Thorian, Corsian, Kern, it didn’t matter. There was no rescue. It was just one more corpse in an enormous mausoleum. Seeing that there was no other information to gain in the ship, Justin decided it was time to leave.

The drones flew in and out of the ship, the Squids dismantling the outer hull for later material breakdown. The Squids were large machines with four prehensile tentacles and cutting tools. The drones buzzed in and out of the bay, collecting what they could. The ship was going to be destroyed, there was no doubt in his mind. He wasn’t going to let anyone else have a chance to gather information regarding the Shunan Project. He would take all of the spare parts and resources he could carry, and then decimate the wreck.

While the drones worked, Justin lay in his bed staring at a photo of his wife. It was the only physical photo he had on him when he was taken. The edges were well worn, creases cutting through the image but no matter how worn it became, he would never part with it. She was adorned in her wedding dress; looking absolutely stunning. His former self stood behind her, arms wrapped around her waist. It was startling to see what he looked like a mere two years ago. He was almost fifty pounds lighter and lacking the scars and implants. His hair was just starting to grey in the photo, but now there was more grey than black. Staring at the image, he traced a loving finger along the side of Heather’s face. Being apart from her was devastating and every day he begged the universe to bring them back together.

“Commander,” Ally’s voice called, breaking over the silence. “The stores are almost full. I have already ordered the drones to start breaking down the material so it can be resynthesized.”

“That’s good.” Justin said, only half listening. He could still hear the song of their first dance playing in his head, the phantom smell of her perfume drifting around him.

Ally detected his current emotional state. This wasn’t the first time he behaved like this. Every time they located a new star chart or he got a lead that could send him home, his hopes got so high that when everything fell apart, he came crashing down. She wanted to help him in some way, but a cold disconnect from humanity made it difficult. She could sympathize, understanding that hope was a fragile thing that could be taken away in a moment. Witnessing Justin’s depression each time gave her enough data to understand and anticipate his behavior.

“Commander, I am truly sorry that you didn’t find what you were looking for,” Ally said. Justin sighed, lowering the photo to his chest.

“I’m going to die before I can get back, aren’t I?” he asked.

“If you keep picking fights with pirates or joining battles that do not affect you, then there is a strong probability,” Ally replied. The slightest smirk crept up Justin’s face.

“You really know how to make a guy feel better,” he said. “How much of the galaxy have we actually explored?”

“13.75%,” Ally said. “We tend to keep to solar systems that contain intelligent life and technologically advanced civilizations. For safety’s sake. Going too far away is quite hazardous.”

Justin sighed again, knowing that it was far too dangerous to go so far outside of the known travel paths. They were moderated by local and federation governments. Justin could travel from the shipping routes, but wandering too far left one open for attack or if leave one stranded if the ship broke down.

“Oh well,” He said, sitting up on his bed. Tucking the photo back into his pocket, he rose to his feet. “So, where to next?”

“The Terran Space Station is nearby and there is a black market dealer there who supposedly handles classified star charts,” Ally said.

With that Justin perked up. Another chance to go home; how could he resist?