THE GHOST HORSE
By TauMan a.k.a. Riodan O'Duffy
PART ON.E THE BORK'AN ADVANCED DESIGN COOPERATIVE
‘Yet another day of visiting yet another design cooperative on Bork'an, but at least the beer is good,' thought Shas'vre Vior'la Dai'tsin stepping from the grav-train. Then along with all the members of his delegation he made his way to the moving side walk. There were three fire caste delegations altogether, one from Tash'var, one from Vior'la and one from Bork'an; each delegation consisting of exactly five members. Standing on the side walk Dai'tsin looked over the towering snow shrouded blue black mountains that surrounded the white domes of the cooperative and smiled.
'Smiling this morning Vre'Dai'tsin? Are you still thinking about last night's the beer?' said a powerful built female firewarrior standing next to him.
'Aye,' he replied to his commander Shas'El Vior'la Onu'oshi'shi.
'I'm still thinking about last night's evening ride...and about today's dawn ride,' she said turning towards him with a flash of the morning sun in her ruby coloured eyes.
'You're welcome commander,' he replied looking back to her with a flash of gold in his own emerald eyes.
The side walk had finally reached the entrance to the Bork'an Advanced Design Cooperative, above the entrance the scrolling holographic banner read: “NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN WEAPONS RESEARCH...ADVANCED PULSE WEAPONRY...FASTER AND MORE EFFECTIVE GUN DRONES....NEW A.I. JETBIKES AS FAST AS AN AX-1 FIGHTER AIRCRAFT...” Dai'tsin paused and stared at the banner thinking, 'What new jetbike? We have jetbikes now just like the Ar'cea? As fast an AX-1? This I must see! '
Once all the delegations were inside and seated in the reception amphitheater they were treated to a long winded and very exacting history of the Bork'an Advanced Design Cooperative. There was the long list of Cooperative's achievements, and its equally long list of contributions to the Tau'va and to the destiny of the Tau people. It was tedious as it was thorough, but Dai'tsin was polite and sat through it all, as did most of the delegations members. That was except for the commander of the Tash'var delegation, who let it be known by her body language, just how snae'ta bored she was with it all! This made Dai'tsin laugh quietly to himself. There followed light refreshments and a chance to view a selection of curious historical items from the Design Cooperative's museum. Standing next to the Tash'var commander Dai'tsin could hear her grind her teethplates with annoyance. He laughed again. At last the moment had arrived to see the new weaponry and the delegation were led on a walk-through of the all the research labs with their various shops and testing areas.
This took most of the morning and was about as interesting as standing guard over drying paint.
'Advanced pulse weapons...nah, nah, nah...Faster and more effective gun drones...nah, nah, nah...Com'on let's get on with it! ' thought Dai'tsin he himself finally becoming bored. It was at the end of the morning when the delegations arrived at the laboratory labelled: TX-145 A.I. JETBIKE PROJECT.
All of the delegations were then ushered into a wide and darkened circular room, lit only by the lights of various holographic displays around the walls. When everyone had entered the lighting came up slowly to reveal a fully realized TX-145 jetbike on a rotating dais. A stout earth caste woman stood next to the jetbike in formal Fio robes edged in Bork'an blue. Her beryl yellow eyes flashed with excitement as she spoke.
'Dear shas'fann of Vior'la, Bork'an and Tash'var, the TX-145 A.I. Jetbike Project team would like to welcome you all! I am Fio'Vre Sai'run head of the A.I. Jetbike Project. The development of the Tau Empire's first combat jetbike is a culmination of many tau'cyr of work; which we are happy to announce, has finally come to fruition. We invite you all to now gather around and see what is next in ultra-fast troop deployment and extraction...'
Dai'tsin looked at the prototype jetbike as it slowly rotated, illuminated as it was from both above and below. The jetbike seemed like something almost alive, shimmering as it did, in chromium cobalt blue with dark charcoal grey highlights. The first thing that struck him was how small it was. Not even half the length of an Ar'cea jetbike, and it appeared to be all engine! The seat positioned such that the pilot's legs straddled the main exhaust. “A very precarious position to be sitting,” thought Dai'tsin.
The engine appeared to have been lifted straight from a XV-86 Coldstar Battleuit. And its intake appeared to be a small air scoop, that to Dai'tsin, resembled nothing more than the mouth of a fish. Now just below and slightly ahead of the pilot's foot rests, the jetbike sported two long swept backed wings, downward angled. The line of the fuselage, if one could call the slight body work of the jetbike a fuselage, then angled high and ended in a single swept back vertical tail, with longer twin vee tails below. Viewing the jetbike in a full profile, it seemed to Dai'tsin not so much a jetbike; but rather a large aquatic predator. What's more the jetbike looked like as if it were about to launch itself from the dais.
'Strange that any earth caste vehicle would give me such a feeling. Not even a TX-2 or TX-4 skimmers, which are the most creature like tau vehicles, ever made me feel this way,' thought Dia'tsin unable to pull his eyes from the small sleek jetbike.
'...Furthermore shas'fann, just think of the possibilities? Pathfinders on jetbikes deploying from dropships, to then swoop down behind enemy lines, and select targets with their marklights; or to support the main advance with ion rifle and rail rifle fire! Or Firewarrior squads, quickly outflanking the enemy, then dismounting to lay down vast quantities of pulse rifle fire! Once again our Tau fire caste will become the masters of mobile warfare...' the earth caste woman Sai'run continued her overwrought pitch to the delegations.
Dai'tsin, however was too entranced by the jetbike to hear much of what she was saying. He leaned over and pointing to some unusual charcoal grey patches on sides of the jetbike said out loud, 'Wonder what those are for?'
'Wit's t'at Vre'Dai'tsin?' asked his commander in her silky sing-song Vior'lan brogue.
'Sorry ma'am, Ah dinna realize Ah was speakn' out loud,' answered Dai'tsin in his own Vior'lan brogue. 'Look here at these dark grey patches on the sides...'
'Aye, Ah see them too. Curious...'
'Are you speaking of the those patches there?' asked a female voice besides them.
All the Viorlan delegation turned and looked to see the Shas'el, who was head of the Tash'var delegation, pointing at very same dark grey patches. 'I think I know what they're for. Do you ride Shas'el?' she asked the Vior'lan commander.
'Aye, I do Shas'el. I am sorry. we were just introduced, but it's Shas'El'Qim'ka'shi isn't it?' she answered bowing.
'Yes, Shas'El'Onu'oshi'shi, and I think I know what they're for. So please let me ask our Fio'vre to confirm or deny my suspicions; but if you ride I think you'll be able to guess what they're for?' said the Tash'var commander bowing in return.
“Ask away Shas'el...” smiled the Vior'lan commander.
'Fio'Vre Sai'run, would you mind telling us what these dark grey patch-like features are on the side of the jetbike?'
Sai'run however was in the midst of explaining to the Bork'an delegation more of the new jetbike's features, 'Yes, yes almost as fast an AX-1 fighter going flat out... What was that? ...Yes, just about all of the vehicle battle systems are available on the TX-145, except for the advanced targeting system and the point defence...I'm sorry just a moment El'Bogi'erra...Yes El'Qim'ka'shi, what was that you said?' asked Sai'run turning around to face to tall and imposing Tash'var commander.
'The dark grey patches on the side, what are they for?'
'T'ahh...' Sai'run's face suddenly went blank and she was at a loss for words, but finally said, 'T'ah...actually they're just decorative. The finalized TX-145 production design...t'ahhh...won't...I mean will not have those features.'
'Why is that? Wait...why would a decorative feature be included on the prototype in the first place? ' asked the Viorlan commander jumping into the conversation.
'Because...I suppose...the original jetbikes had them? So we of the design team decided to kept them for the prototype...'
'Original jetbikes?' simultaneously said a multitude of fire caste voices.
'T'oh, well we're a bit ahead of schedule to cover the project background, but I suppose I could now go over the history of the TX-145 jetbike development...'
'Wait didn't you say the team took tau'cyrs to develop the jetbike? Is this based on some alien technology then?' asked Dai'tsin joining in without asking permission.
Sai'run took a deep breath and letting it out slowly said, 'No the original jetbikes on which the TX-145 prototype are based on are entirely of tau earth caste technology. The only thing is, it isn't our earth caste technology.'
Sai'run let her information sink in and when it did, there rose one long collective, 'Xhmm...' from the delegations.
At last the Tash'var Commander asked, 'Are ye saying that the jetbike technology came from...'
'The Farsight Enclaves,' hurriedly broke in a square jawed earth caste man; who turned towards Sai'run and asked, 'Permission to continue Fio'vre?'
'Granted Fio'vre,' she answered. 'Dear shas'fann this is my chief assistant on the project Fio'Vre Ru't'suam,' said the Team Leader bowing to the delegations and then pointing to her assistant.
'The jetbikes are recovered Enclave technology...' added Ru't'suam also bowing to the delegations. '...And the original jetbikes had these patches or pads on them...'
'Wait, Fio'vre, but I have always been led to understand that the earth caste of the Enclaves lagged behind us considerably as far technology was concerned,' broke in the stern faced Bork'an commander. 'And that they were not as proficient in weapon development as our earth caste. That in fact that most of their weapons are just knock offs of our own earth caste technology, or that at the very least their technology was stolen from us?'
'T'ahh...' stammered the assistant.
'In this instant Shas'el it appears not to have been the case,' said Sai'run now jumping in to return the favour and rescue her assistant. 'For a while now, we’ve been reassessing our knowledge of the Enclave earth caste, and perhaps it is time to re-calibrate our estimation of their capabilities. Or simply put, what we thought we knew of Enclave technology has been thus far... inaccurate?'
'IN-acc-ur-ate?” said the Bork'an commander emphasizing the syllables.
'Yes, Shas'El Bork'an Bogi'erra our understanding of the Enclave earth caste has heretofore been inaccurate,” said a deep gravely voice in a heavy Bork'an accent. Every one turned to see the head of the Director of the Bork'an Advanced Design Cooperative as he strode into the room surrounded by an entourage of other earth caste personnel. The Cooperative Director was short, elderly, but still was a forceful presence. He moved on two prosthetic legs of chromium steel and the entire left side of his face was made of the same chromium steel. His prosthetic left eye was a wide red lens that reflected the entire face of the Bork'an fire caste commander.
'Yes, Fio'O Bork'an Vi'ghal...I must be mistaken,' said the commander bowing deeply.
'Well then proceed with your history of the program Fio'Vre Sai'run,' said the Director of the Cooperative.
'Excuse me O'Vi'ghal. But I politely ask that we dispense with the long history of the how these jetbikes came to the Design Cooperative?' cheekily asked the tall Tash'var commander.
There was silence as everyone waited to see what the Director would do.
Vi'ghal had a history of taking no guff from the Bork'an fire caste. Nor for that matter did he take guff from the fire caste from any other sept. Nor did he take any guff from any water caste, air caste, or even other earth caste. Only to the ethereal caste did he defer, so everyone waited for his reaction. The Director wagged his head once or twice and looked up at Project Team Leader Sai'run on the dais.
'Any objections Fio'vre?'
'No Fio'o...but I was...looking forward to telling our shas'fann guests how Por'Vre Bork'an Kruu'kais tricked the Be'gel Free'boot'az out of the jetbikes,” said Sai'run looking sad.
'Perhaps another time then Fio'vre...,' said the O'Vi'ghal, and turning to the Tash'var commander asked, 'What was it you wanted to hear about instead Shas'el?'
The Tash'var commander smiled and bowing formally to the Director asked, 'What was the original purpose of these dark grey patches on the side of the jetbikes? For the Enclave jetbikes that is.'
'Xhmm...what are they for Fio'vre?' asked Vi'ghal turning back to the Sai'run standing on the dais.
'T'ahh...' Sai'run's face turned a deep blue and then she spat out, '...We still don't know Fio'o.'
There was a collective gasp from the room.
Then assistant Fio'Vre Ru't'suam again jumped in saying, 'On the Enclave jetbikes these dark grey patches are a touch pad style of control surface; but we still don't know how they were meant to be used...or what it was they exactly controlled. The touch pads are not directly hard-wired to any mechanical part of the jetbike; but rather they are connected directly to the jebike's A.I. unit. Therefore we have no real idea just how they were meant to function.'
'So you see it's true that we don't know what they're for,' added the Team Leader.
'Well, would you permit me to then sit on the jetbike, or should I say take the saddle of the jetbike Fio'vre? If you do, I'll show you what I think the control surfaces were for,' asked the Tash'var commander.
'Absolutely Shas'el, any objections Fio'vre?' asked the Director.
'No Fio'o I have no objections.'
At this point Dai'tsin leaned said to his own commander, 'Ah think Ah knae wha' they're for, dae ye El'Onu'oshi'shi?'
'Ye dae? I can only guess wha' they're fer!' she replied.
Sai'run halted the rotation of the dais and the tall Tash'var commander sat down on the seat of the jetbike. Putting her hooves on the pegs, it was immediately apparent to all that the grey patches corresponded exactly to where the commander's knees and heels touched the side of the jetbike. She asked, 'Fio've, if I move my feet forward are there two corresponding patches there as well?'
'T'eh? Why yes there are!' replied Ru't'suam pointing to the heretofore hidden touch pads.
'And there are two more behind the foot pegs aren't there Fio'vre?' she asked leaning down to look at his upturned face.
'T'ah, behind? Why of course there are two more small touch pads behind...'
'Does anyone here ride rat'lai – horses?' asked the commander. 'Do you Fio'Vre Ru't'suam? Or you Fio'Vre Sai'run?' How about the Director of the Cooperative Fio'O Vi'ghal?'
To this question all of the Vior'lan delegation raised their left hands in a fist, as did all of the Tash'var, and three of the Bork'an delegation. None of the Bork'an earth caste in the room raised a hand.
'No Fio'ui Ru't'suam? Well if you did, you would know what exactly these touch pads are for, as they are the same places on a horse's flank a rider uses to control her animal.'
A collective 'Xhmm,' rose from the room.
'Hiya-te! I ride myself I should have known that,' shouted the Bork'an commander tapping a hoof in excitement.
'I ride as well and should have also known that,' said the Vior'lan commander, but then flashing her dark ruby eyes at Dai'tsin she added, 'Isn't that right Shas'vre?'
'You're a better horseman than me commander, so I'll...defer to your judgement on this matter,' he replied with a small smile.
The Tash'var commander turned to her earth caste hosts and so began her lecture and demonstration, 'Let me explain how it works in traditional horsemanship. In the days of horse warfare, even before the mont'au, when a rider went to battle she or he needed to use both hands to yield a sword and shield or to fire a bow. So there developed various methods of controlling the horse without the use of the hands on the reins.
Most commonly, when a rider pushes with the right knee to the right flank, and the horse goes right. When she pushes with the left knee on the flank and the horse goes left. Touching both heels, or both spurs actually, and the horse will trot. Spur again and the horse will break into a run. Touch both toes to the front at the same time and the horse will stop. Touch the left foot forward and the right spur at the same time and the horse spins in place to the right. Now I could go on, but you see what I am getting at. In my opinion these touch pads would allow the Enclave firewarrior to control his or her jetbike as if it were a horse.'
Another collective 'Xhmm,' came from the room.
'We knew the touch pads corresponded to where the leg and the spurs of the rider were when perched on the seat...we just didn't know how it supposed to work,' stammered a stunned Ru't'suam.
The Vior'lan commander then turned, and taking Dai'tsin by the belt, spun him around and away from the crowd, 'Ye knae wha' those pads were for even before the Tash'var commander did, dinna ye?' she whispered giving him a fierce look.
'Aye, Ah deed...' he laughed putting a hand surreptitiously on her hip.
'Dinna ye nay think to tell mae?' she said giving him a quick nip on the cheek.
'T'ach, wer in public Shas'el!' he laughed. 'Dinna Ah say ye wer better horseman than Ah? Could ye nay figure it out yersel?'
'Ye nay hae me figured out Shas'vre!' she whispered.
'And at no time did anyone in the Design Cooperative think to bring in someone from the fire caste as a consultant? Why not Shas'El Bork'an Bogi'erra here? Doesn't he have a high enough security clearance?' asked the Tash'var commander getting off the jetbike.
'It was project of the highest top security level, and until very recently it was rated at security level 'Invisible'. Not even high ranking members of the Bork'an fire caste with the proper clearances knew about the program,' said the Director of the Cooperative bowing by way of apology to the Tash'var commander.
'Ja, it's true,' said the Bork'an commander wagging his head “yes”, 'We knew nothing about it either.'
'Well, if there ever was a case for more inter-caste cooperation this was it! Somebody at some level must have got wind of this? I believe with fire caste help...who knows how many tau'cyr could have been cut off the development of the project. The question is now: how many other things has your team missed?' asked the Tash'var commander.
All the earth caste present looked at each and gave out a collective, 'T'ahh.'
'Why would the Enclave fire caste want to control a jetbike without their hands?' then asked Sai'run the Team Leader.
'To use a pulse rifle or a pulse carbine I suppose,' replied the quite exasperated Tash'var commander. 'Zoom in close enough for a volley of rapid fire, and then zoom off again. Back in the day our firewarriors use to do something similar with the TV-7 troop transport. Use to drive the Gue'la into a rage every time we did it!'
The Bork'an delegation now took turns sitting on the prototype jetbike and then pantomiming shooting pulse rifles and pulse carbines at imaginary enemies. While this was going on Dai'tsin looked at his commander turned around and rejoined the group of delegations. He looked at her with a look that said, 'May I ask a question?' The Vior'lan commander wagged her head “yes”.
'So, if these jetbikes are originally from the Enclaves, how did you go about designing and building this one? Did your design team...xhmm, what's the word, reverse engineer the Enclave jetbikes,' asked Dai'tsin.
'In a manner of speaking yes. We duplicated most of everything except for the Enclave A.I. unit, but there were also some other components which we could not replicate,' she answered.
'How did you then estimate the performance of the Enclave jetbikes?'
'Well not knowing just what the performance for the jetbikes were, we went with our own estimates of what we believed they were capable of. This was based on the projections we did of comparable engines, avionics, and so forth; which were then used these in the construction of our first early prototypes. Now I can say unequivocally that we've come quite close to replicating the performance of the originals.'
A Bork'an shas'vre was now lying down on the jetbike and pretending to fire his imaginary pulse pistol behind her at a pursing enemy.
The Viorlan commander got a quizzical look on her face and then shot Dai'tsin a quick glance before asking, 'How does your final prototype jetbike compare then to the Enclave jetbikes. In a side-by-side comparisons?'
There was another long pause and another panicked look from on the Team Leader's face. She bowed apologetically and said, 'It was not possible to do side-by-side comparisons of the jetbikes.'
'And why is that fio'vre?' asked the commander.
'It was not...possible...to...operate either of the Enclave jetbikes,' she replied looking to one side.
Again the fire caste delegations all turned their heads in her direction, even the Bork'an shas'vre shooting at pursing enemies, stopped her firefight to look at the Team Leader. Dai'tsin leaned over and whispered in his commander's ear, 'How deed ye knae they hadn't actually ridden the Enclave bikes?'
'Just a guess from everything ta't they've shared soo far,' she whispered back.
Once again her assistant came to the rescue, 'It was not physically possible to ride the Enclave jetbikes, for a side-by-side...'
'How is that? They are operational are they not?' fired back the Vior'lan commander.
'Well yes shas'el, however...'
'Is there some reason why they cannot be flown?' boomed the Bork'an commander.
'Are they, or are they not, operational fio'vre?' asked the Tash'var commander adding to the fusillade.
'Please understand that we not with holding any information! Both of the recovered jetbikes and their A.I. units are...were operational, we've lost one...But there is the matter of friend-or-foe transponder identifiers, encrypted pass codes, security firewalls. Not to mention differences in operating systems...Then there is the self-defense programming of the Enclave A.I. units themselves, what with their fail-safe systems linked to self-destruct charges. All of which made it difficult to penetrate the A.I. databases. Eventually we had to remove the A.I. units altogether, due to the aggressive response of the jetbikes, when approached by our team members...'
Silence fell across everyone in the room, but then a shas'vre from Tash'var asked, 'Aggressive response?'
'Yes,' replied the Team Leader Sai'run signalling to her assistant to continue.
'The jetbikes attempted to fire their twin-linked pulse pistols at our team members; which would have been bad, had not both of their power packs already been empty. Both jetbikes then charged our team. Several were severely injured and some lost limbs as the result of the incident. Two were killed outright. Only a focused beam from an electromagnetic pulse generator drone stopped the jetbikes' attack.'
'I am sorry for my impertinent attitude fio'vre. It is quite understandable as to why the jetbikes could not be ridden,' said the Tash'var commander bowing formally to Sai'run. The rest of Tash'var delegation then bowed, followed by both the Vior'lan and Bork'an delegations.
'Excuse me fio'fann, but may I ask about the jetbike's primary directive? All A.I. life forms are programmed not to let harm come to any tau? How could this happen? Didn't the jetbikes “know” they were attacking tau?' asked the Vior'lan commander in a respectful tone.
It was now the Director of the Design Collective who answered her question, 'Shas'El'Vior'la Onu'oshi'shi, the jetbikes knew exactly who they were attacking. Repeated shouts for to them to respond to the primary directive were ignored. It must be therefore assumed that their original programming had been intentionally tampered with, there being no sign of damage to their A.I. units. And it is my opinion that we may be seeing the true face of the Farsight Enclaves!' The Director then turned and set the gaze of his large red augmented eye upon the Viro'lan commander and said, 'We gave both verbal and transmitted requests to respond to the primary directive, but received only one transmission in return: “For the Dawn Blade! For Vior'los! For O'Shova!”'
And as the entire room stood there in shock, Fio'O Vi'ghal bowed and with his entourage left the display room.
It was the assistant Fio'Vre Ru't'suam who broke the chill silence of the room. 'There is another reason why we still don't know what the full capacities of the Enclave jetbikes are. There is, we think, an as yet unknown interface between the rider and jetbike. During the incident both of the jetbikes were broadcasting short range recognition-and-link-up requests; which was rapidly repeated over and over again during the attack. This low frequency broadcast is very similar to one used by our gun drones, when they need to re-establish a link with a crisis battlesuit pilot. We therefore surmised that the Enclave firewarrior's were using an interface that allowed them to sync-up with their jetbikes. However since the jetbikes didn't come with any captured Enclave firewarriors, so we were unable to test this hypothesis.'
'You mean an interface like using a drone controller to direct fire of gun drones?' asked Dai'tsin.
'Yes, the jetbike's broadcasts would seem to indicate that, but there are no captured firewarriors to ask, “Are you using a drone controller with your jetbike?” Although I have to say Shas'Vre Sai'run believes the interface may be more like that of the XV-02 Pilot suit used by some of our tank commanders.'
'Yes, it would seem to be a bit more sophisticated than just a simple drone controller that's for sure,' interjected Sai'run the Team Leader.
Dai'tsin leaned in close to his commander and whispered in her ear, 'Ask them if we can see the last Enclave jetbike? Ye'd like to see it wouldn't ye?'
'Ye canna resist seein' a nice piece of horse-flesh, even if it wants to kill ye Dai'tsin?' she said giving him a conspiratorial look. Now turning to the earth caste design team she said, 'My dearest fio'fann, would it be possible to view the surviving Enclave jetbike? Am I correct in thinking there is one still operational?'
'Yes, but we can view it only remotely,' replied Team Leader Sai'run, but then seeing the disappointment in the faces of all the fire caste delegations she said, 'Upon reconsideration I will take you shas'fann to the training dome where the last jetbike is kept, and view it from there. We can also view the mock-up of the other jetbike, as it looked before before it self-destructed.' And with that she led the delegations out of the viewing room and then down the hall to the building's maglev rail station.
'What the snae'ta? Self-destructed?!' muttered Dai'tsin to his commander. But others were thinking the same thing, and the expression could be heard muttered from under the breaths from several of the delegations' members.
Author's note: This story was published as part of the 2016 Challenge TX-145 / TX-153 A.I. Jetbike entry, and was immediately pulled by the moderators. And rightly so, since the story would have tipped everyone off as which entry was mine, but in my defense I didn't realize the entries were suppose to be anonymous! Also it wasn't meant to sway anyone's vote, just an added treat to the contest.
However I've been wanting to do a Halloween story here on the A.T.T. for sometime now, so here is that story; and maybe others will jump in and do their own 'spooky'