Monday, October 28, 2013

S.C.A.P.E. Goats - Chapter 1

“What are you having, then?”

                The bartender was a tall man, with thick, greasy hanging in his face in a wave.  He was thin, his cheekbones and bones in the back of his hands were prominent.  His complexion was sallow and his skin was as oily-looking as his hair.  He was chewing on what looked like a genuine wooden toothpick – an expensive habit in these parts.

                Seeing her uncertain frown, he smiled and said, “Let me make it simpler for you – I know the variety can be overwhelming.  Do you like it to taste like alcohol or not?”

                Mary shook her head.  “Not.”

                He nodded.  “Now we’re getting somewhere.  All right, sweet, sour, savory, tart, or bland?”

                Mary considered as she let her eyes travel to the holographic display above the bar.  Sports, sports, sports, dancing, and someone in formal clothing waving their hands and speaking vehemently – either politics or religion.  As she did, she felt an all-too familiar pressure in her thoughts.  It always felt like an obstruction in her stream of thoughts, like a partially submerged rock in a river that the water had to negotiate its way around.

                <<Bartender: You aren’t really here for a drink, are you?>>

                Mary bit her lip.  “Savory?  When I think of drinking something savory I think of broth.  Do you have alcoholic soup?”  She let her eyes wander to the holograms again, watching as scored of huge reptilian figures in archaic gear tackled one another while wrestling over what looked like an egg.  She projected back to him, <<Mary: Why, what do you think I’m here for?>>

                The bartender laughed and wiped the hair back from his forehead.  He had a ring on his middle finger, a large silvery band with a rectangular black stone set in it.  She caught the briefest whiff of expectation and excitement from him.  He’s expecting me to react to the ring, not that I have any clue what that is about.  “Well, we can make you some broth if you like, but I bet you’d want something stronger.  Nah, some people like their drinks to taste like food.   Ever had a beef shake?”

                <<Bartender: I think that you’re here to play the game.  Find some way to make a little credit off of the gullible or the desperate.>>

                “I think that I’ll go with sweet.”

                <<Mary: I’m not part of your ring club, guy.  What do you want?>>

                “Of course.  Do you like fruity, sugary, or exotic?  Also, sharp or mellow?”  He turned around and walked towards the back wall, inspecting bottles and nozzles as he waited for her reply.

                <<Bartender: You came alone and took a long time to come to the bar and were hovering around tables.  What are you after?>>

                “Um, exotic and sharp.”  Mary prepared her ID for scanning.  The small iridescent card was in her pocket, and she saw the bartender glance back sharply as she laid it on the counter.

                <<Mary: There were a couple of people that I’ve met but haven’t been introduced to yet.   I was hoping that they’d notice and say hi.  See the two Diplo officers sitting with the … whatever that is?  The scaly and hairy person?  The older of the two was in my first briefing.  I don’t know anyone on the station yet, really.>>   Mary carefully tried to project an air of mild frustration.

                “Exotic and sharp it is!  Time for some Tanalurian Tropical Torrent!”  He pulled down on two nozzles and began releasing them into a cup.

                <<Bartender: Nice routine, hon, but I’m not deficient.  You were scoping them.>>

                “Wow, sounds… exciting.”  Mary managed a raised eyebrow.  The bartender stopped combining the bright yellow and red fluids about three quarters of the way up the glass and reached for a jar filled with dark liquid and small, oblong objects.

                <<Mary: What business is it of yours if I was?  You’re not a Strainer.>>

                “You have NO idea.”  He said aloud as he opened the jar and reached into it with a pair of tongs, pulling out what looked like a soft, slick purple egg.  He turned it around in the light, grinned, and dropped it in.

                <<Bartender: Thought so.  No, I’m not, and neither are you.  It’s my business because you’re in my bar.>>

                The egg started to fizz and break apart in the drink.  Little purple dots floated to the surface.  He turned back around and presented it to her with a flourish, swiping her ID casually with the bar scanner at the same time.  He folded his hands and leaned forwards expectantly.

                Mary picked the large drink up and sniffed at it.  It had a sharp tang that was evocative of citrus and made saliva flood her mouth.  The little purple dots turned out to be slick little spheres.  She took an experimental sip, grimacing at the slimy texture of the orbs but pleasantly surprised at their slight spicyness.  She carefully chewed one between her premolars, and it fell apart easily under pressure.  She swallowed the rest of her mouthful and looked up.

                “That was … good.  A lot of flavor, and it doesn’t taste even remotely alcoholic.”  She licked her lips.

                <<Mary: So are you going to report me?>>

                The bartender nodded and waggled his eyebrows.  “Be careful with that.  Anything else I can get you?”

                <<Bartender: That depends.  Are you going to be honest with me?>>

                Mary sighed, thanked the bartender, and turned to walk towards an unoccupied table.  She hoisted herself up to perch on the seat and pretended to watch something mindless as she carefully sipped the Tanalurian Tropical Torrent.

                <<Mary: I don’t know what I was looking for, guy.  I just wanted to see what they were up to.  I can do this; it doesn’t mean that I do much with it.>>

                Two Vislin were involved in what appeared to be a martials arts competition.  The two sinuous figures stood in place, weaving back and forth, and occasionally lunging forward to tap the other in the chest or belly or neck.  One of them stumbled as they leaned back to avoid a strike and she could see the crowd behind them in the upper portion of the projection go wild.

                <<Bartender: Official training or did you sign up for a course?  Or did you just figure it out on your own?>>

                Mary twirled the drink with her finger and pulled out one of the slimy purple blobs.  What is this stuff?  I’d honestly rather not know.

                <<Mary: I knew that I had talent.  I’ve read a few things, basic practice kind of stuff.  I’ve never told anyone about it.>>

                A rowdy group of young Sec personnel jostled past the table.  One of the guys smiled at her as he passed.  She smiled back, trying to look distracted and unavailable.

                <<Bartender: Sounds like you don’t want to attract attention.  That’s smart.  Nosey Awakeners and SCAPE everywhere.  You’re in luck on this station – the fungi are mostly busy and there aren’t a lot of Watchers.>>

                The human Sec officer who had smiled at her began to make his way back over to her table.  She mumbled.  “Maurice, can you run some interference?”

                “Let me out and I’ll see what I can do.”  The smooth, stentorian tones of her Brin came out of her pocket.  She pulled out the projector and put it on the other available seat.  A large man, bald with a bushy black beard and pitch black eyes appeared.  He smiled at her and turned around to the rest of the room, scanning the crowd.

                <<Bartender: No matter where you go, though, someone is going to notice.>>  The bartender continued in her head.  <<Bartender: That is, unless…>>

                Maurice spotted the guy who was making his way over and waved to catch his attention.  He raised his eyebrows and shook his head firmly.  The officer’s face fell, and he shrugged and turned to rejoin his companions.  She felt a little bad.  He was cute, and she hadn’t been lying when she said she didn’t really know anyone on the station yet.  She made a note to keep an eye out for him when she was less distracted.

                <<Mary: Unless what?>>

                <<Bartender: Unless you’re really interested in not being noticed.  If that’s the case, then maybe we can help each other out.>>

                “Mary?  Are you alright?”  Maurice looked concerned.

                “Yeah… just a little distracted.”

                “Is there something that I can do for you?”

                “Just … just make sure no one bothers us.  Give me a few minutes.”

                Maurice nodded, with a look of dawning comprehension, and put his hands atop hers.  It was odd, seeing his large, hairy fingers covering her smaller pale ones but feeling no pressure or warmth.  She had never quite gotten used to it.

                <<Mary: I am.  What are you proposing?  Does it have to do with that ring you showed me earlier?>>

                <<Bartender: Maybe.  Tell you what, my quarters are 15-3-57.  Come meet me there after my shift.  We’ll have more time to talk.  For now, enjoy your drink.>>

                Mary sent him a wordless assent and looked up at Maurice.  “All right, I’m better.  Are you okay going back into my pocket for now?”

                Maurice pursed his thick lips and sighed.  “Do I have a choice?”

                Mary frowned.  “Of course you do!”

                Maurice nodded.  “Then if it’s all the same to you, I think I’d rather hang out here while you socialize.  After all, you can always come back over if you have need of more  … interference.”

                Mary smiled.  Of course, he’s been lonely and cooped up.  “I’m sorry you’ve been away for the last couple of days.  It’s just … the Mauraug that I’m working with right now…”

                Maurice nodded magnanimously.  “I understand.  You don’t want to spook them or make things uncomfortable.  However, I’d like to have a little social time as well.”

                “Of course!”  Mary moved over and carefully hugged the empty air of his hologram and picked up the remains of her drink.  “Let me know if you want to leave early.  I’m going to go talk to Dimples over there.”

                She moved through the crowd, carefully feeling the psychic pressures around her.  As far as she could tell, the bartender wasn’t scanning her.  That was good.  The thought of the meeting later twisted her insides and she needed a distraction badly.  This was going to be a long night.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Full Throttle Ahrottl - Chapter 5

               The system search had been a dud.  After spending close to a week surveying the planets and their many moons, the crew had come to the conclusion that there was nothing that they could discover among them, at least not safely.

                One of the gas giants had a series of a couple of dozen moons, one of which was large enough to support regular life, and indeed, it had a passable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere.  There were what might have been structures on its surface, long eroded and gone into disrepair – or might have been old hills, hollow and pockmarked.  Despite the atmosphere, the radiation levels on the moon would have been downright deadly to any of the crew, and they didn’t have any atmospheric probes handy.

                The rest of the worlds were quiet, and free of any detectable life-forms.  Given that the ship was not well equipped to land and take-off from anywhere with appreciable gravity, more direct exploration was not in the cards.  Thus they had returned to the outer reaches of the system, hovering near the spiky ball of a hyperspace gate and the strange, oblong structure that they were all referring to as a space station.

                Ahrottl and Gerry were pouring over the records that the drone had produced of the station.  The structure was one and a half cubic kilometers in volume, rectangular and blocky, and made of what appeared to be a nickel-iron alloy.  The probe had discovered large spaces on one side that suggested docking bays, and several darkened circular panels that might be ports.  Visible light would not penetrate them – at first – suggesting shutters.

                The remarkable thing, however, what had them excited, was that after making a few passes around the station, the probe had noted power output in the form of visible lights.  Reviewing the holo records, the crew had originally noted whitish lighting flooding the docking bays, and some of the circular panels on the outside of the structure.

                Ahrottl manipulated the image of the glowing panel, wiggling her whiskers in frustration.  It looked like there was the ghost of an image inside of it.  “I swear, Gerry, I think they’re windows.”

                Gerry nodded.  “At first I thought that they might be guides or warning lights, but I can see what you mean.  Tommy, can you bring the probe around to one of them?”

                “Yes sir.  It will take a few minutes.”  Tommy replied.  They continued to turn the images that they had every which way, examining them idly while they waited.

                “So what do you think?”  Ahrottl asked.

                Gerry shrugged and pushed his glasses up his nose.   “I still don’t think we should go inside, if we find a way in.  Sending the probe in would be safer.”

                “Would you let an alien probe into your space station?”

                “Would you let a bunch of aliens into your space station?”  Gerry retorted.  “I wouldn’t, unless we’d established some kind of communication.  We’re receiving no signals from it yet, at least none that we’ve been able to identify.  It looks like the lights are on, but nobody’s home.”

                They watched as the probe scanned the surface, occasionally coming across strings of the unfamiliar script.  “What if they don’t try to contact us?”  Ahrottl asked.

                “Then we try and have the AIs contact them.  Failing that, we send a probe inside, if we can.  Then…”

                “The probe has arrived at one of the windows.”  Timmy pointed out.  Given the image that was now showing, no one was questioning his use of the term.

                The circular port seemed to be roughly two meters in diameter, and a soft whitish-yellow light was being emitted from within it.  Ahrottl and Gerry could see clearly inside – what appeared to be beige, tiled ceramic floor, and what could only be high-legged and high-backed couches.

                “I don’t think that we’re going to be hearing from them.”  Gerry said in a raspy voice.  He took a shuddering sigh, and Ahrottl stilled at what he was pointing out.

                As the perspective of the image shifted, she could see figures splayed out across the floor.  None directly beside the window, but further in, where she could make out what was probably the juncture of a corridor.  Bodies, almost certainly.  Two long arms, two long legs, trunk, and a head.  To Ahrottl they looked like…

                “Humans?  Are those humans?”  She asked in wonder.

                Gerry squinted.  “No, they can’t be.  It doesn’t make sense.”

                “But it does look like humans.”

                The door of the bridge slid open.  Maria, shaking sleep from her eyes, stumbled out.  “What’s this?  Ohhhhhh…”  Her gaze followed theirs to the images on the holo from the probe.  “They look like Vessels.”

                Both Ahrottl and Gerry turned around to her with quizzical looks.  Vessels, in the context off humanoid beings, was the term used for the vat-grown bodies that the Awakeners employed.  Bereft of sentience and self-will, these husks were used as transportation and tools to manipulate the environments of their fungal creators.  They resembled humans and Zig closely with a few key differences.

                “You’re right.  Their knees look like they bend the other way.”  Ahrottl pointed out.

                “Unless someone was trying to hobble them.”  Gerry added.

                “They don’t look decomposed.  Could this have been recent?  What happened in there?”  Maria asked.  “They sure don’t look like they’re sleeping.”

                “Considering dried circulatory fluid on the floor and walls, I’d have to agree.”  Mother Sueprior said primly.  “As to age of the bodies, we won’t be able to tell unless we examine them more closely.”

                Maria shuddered and Gerry grimaced.  Ahrottl stayed stilled, but for her whiskers, which were making furious figure-eights as she thought.  “Could this be an Awakener experiment gone wrong?”

                “Hull metal composition is similar to Awakener make.  There is no other indication of their indigenous technologies, however.  The lighting, for instance, is far brighter than is their preference.”  Mother Superior supplied.

                “Also, the Awakeners aren’t exactly known for resorting to physical violence.  The similarities may be coincidental.”  Maria noted.

                “Maybe.”  Ahrottl was unconvinced, though.  Something was bothering her about the scenario.  “Should we check the other ports?  Maybe we’ll see some activity.”

                “Doubtful.”  Mother Superior said.  “Remember, the lights on the station were off from the time we arrived until when the probe made its first close sweep, approximately four hours after we departed for the inner system.  I would say that it’s likely that we will see similar scenes, or no activity at all, in the other ports.  It is best for us to search and examine, though.  Tommy?  Please move the probe to each of the available ports in turn.”

                The five of them watched, mostly in silence, as other windows offered similar views.  A collective gasp rose as they witnessed one rise into view with a figure leaning against the glass, trails of dried, crusted blood smeared beside it as though it was attempting to claw its way out into the vacuum.  Maria spoke up.

                “I’ve seen enough.  We know… we know something happened.  Shut it off, would you?”  The holo vanished.   All three organics looked at each other.  Maria got up and moved to sit on Gerry’s lap, and Ahrottl scooted over next to the chair, leaning against her knees.

                “What do we do?”  Gerry finally asked, his voice cracking.

                “Try and send a probe in.”  Maria said.

                “What if that doesn't work?”  Ahrottl asked.

                Gerry pursed his lips until they turned white.  “We try the gate.”

                “We have no idea how to use it successfully.  It could have killed you – or all of us – last time.”  Maria said, frowning.

                Gerry shook his head.  “If you want to walk into that-“ he foundered for a word.

                “Abattoir.”  Ahrottl supplied.  Both of them gave her blank looks.  “Slaughterhouse?”

                “Yeah.  If you want to go into that slaughterhouse, be my guest.  That’s too heavy for me.  I just can’t…”  Gerry trailed off.  “Tommy, take the probe around to one of the lit-up docking bays.  Let’s see what happens.”

Chapter 1

Monday, October 14, 2013

Royce's Dilemma - Chapter 10

Royce walked through the corridor of unused suites that had been turned into a hotel by an enterprising merchant not too long after the station had been opened.  She flipped the keycard around her fingers as she paused at the doorway that Marsten had indicated.  She took a deep breath.  Don’t back down.  Don’t give in.  I’m done with him.  I just want my life to go back to the crazy “normal” that it was before I got involved.

                She rang the bell and then ran the keycard.

                The door slid open silently and revealed a suite so opulent that she had to do a double take.  She hadn’t realized that there was any housing of this sort on the station.  Thick, velvety carpets covered the floor of a room hung with tapestries and paintings, all artful replicas of famous originals of a half-dozen sentient species.  The lighting was the low, yellow-tone that a lot of humans identified as “old fashioned” lighting.

                Sitting on a soft, red couch opposite the entry was Marsten.  He was human with the standard golden-toned skin, black hair, and dark eyes.  His hair was stiff and thick and was sculpted in a thick wave that brought images of frozen tsunamis to Royce’s mind.  He had no facial hair to add lines to his generally soft features.  His outfit was simple, conservative, and opulent: a thick, matte black, threadless poly shirt and trousers.  His shoes looked as though they were made of faux leather and would probably add an inch or so to his height when he stood.

                He didn’t stand, though.  He waved the Corporal over.  Carefully composed, she walked gracefully over to the sueded seat across from him and sat down.

                “So.”  Marsten said informatively.

                “So…” Royce trailed off.  She looked around nervously before looking back at Marsten.  His hands were folded, he was grinning, and he had a twinkle in his eye.

                “Well, you served admirably, given your lack of training and the circumstances.  This would be your second assignment for Human Affairs, am I correct?”

                You know damn well.  She thought, but for some reason just couldn’t bring herself to snark at him.  He had a powerful presence, and always gave the impression that he knew much, much more than she did and was holding something very threatening over her.  She couldn’t imagine what it was, since she had lived a life that was generally on the right side of the law.

                Then again, good cops tend to have a facility for making other people nervous in just such a fashion.  She had always been afraid that she hadn’t been able to pull that off well, that look that said, “I know that you’ve got something to hide. “

                Royce was having issues with her choice of careers.

                Marsten nodded back.  “Yes, you served admirably the first time, which is why we tapped you again.  Now it’s time we have a discussion about your future.”

                The gravity of his tone fell like a weight on her chest and shoulders, and Royce suddenly found that breathing required more effort than usual.  He’s not going to kill you.  He’s just messing with you.

                “Are you interested in continuing to be employed by Human Affairs?  Perhaps in a more long-term capacity?”

                Do it.  Do it.  Do it.  Just say it.  “No.”

                Marsten didn’t look at all perturbed.  He grinned a little.  “Might I ask why?”

                Royce licked her lips nervously.  “I think that it might interfere with my career here.”

                Marsten nodded.  “Care to explain?”  He asked.

                Royce took a deep breath.  “I’ve had to handle a lot of stress in my career.  I’ve arrested people who weight eight times as much as I do for destroying things more valuable than anything I’ll ever own.  I’ve been shot at in a room with a paper-thin bulkhead where the emergency vacuum protocol is sealing off the exits and letting whoever is inside decompress.  I’ve had to be the face of humanity day after day and not just when dealing with other members of the Collective.  Given that we’re on the edge of known, explored space, I get to be one of the first humans encountered by some of the diplomats that get invited to the station.

                “What you’re offering, though – it’s a different level of stress entirely.”  She ran her fingers through her hair.  “And it involves hiding things from my comrades in arms and my superiors, something that … I’m just not wired that way.  It doesn’t sit right with me.  I can’t do it anymore.”

                Marsten steepled his meaty fingers and pursed his lips as she spoke.  When she was done, he nodded again and picked up a slim, fluted glass filled with a clear yellow fluid and sipped at it thoughtfully.  Ugh.  I can’t stand people who do that.  Make you wait for them to speak.  Nevertheless, she maintained prorpriety and sat with her hands folded, waiting for a response.

                “Good.”  He said finally.  “We don’t want you.  Oh, don’t act surprised – we don’t want you for the same reasons that you don’t want to work for us.  The whole purpose of Human Affairs is to ensure that humankind sets its right foot forward as it continues to stride across the cosmos.  We might need covert operations now and again, but not at the cost of our image.  Do you know how the other species see us?  Na├»ve, unintelligent, slow – but friendly, hard-working earnest, and mostly honest.  Let them think that we’re stupid all they want to, that gives us an edge in certain relations.  We don’t ever want them thinking that we’re anything but friendly, hard-working, and honest though.

                “You typify the more positive stereotypes that our species has acquired in the interstellar community.  You are those things.  You’re exactly what Human Affairs wants the others to see us as.  Oh, you’re not stupid – but you have integrity, and we can tell that we’ve been pushing you way too hard to compromise it.  I brought you here to bring you good news: we have no interest or intention in retaining you or tapping you for aid again.”

                Royce sighed in relief.  “So that’s it?  Can I go?”

                Marsten looked apologetic.  “Um, not yet.  I was hoping that you wouldn’t be terribly disappointed to know that the funding that had been allocated to paying you for your services has been absorbed by the cost of employing Tatalik.”

                Royce laughed.  “Not really.  I’m sure that my descendants will thank you; I might have blown most of it at the bar anyway.”  She stood up.  I still kind of see him as a superior.  I’m waiting to be excused.  How odd.

                Marsten stood up and shook her hand firmly.  When she tried to extract hers his grip remained firm.  “What if I told you that Shankuk Bash’Krakal sends his regards?”

                Royce felt the beginning of a panic reaction and swallowed it down.  “I’d call you an asshole.  If you were working for Shankuk you would have been decapitated by now.  You hired a Tesetsi.”

                Marsten laughed and released her hand.  “No, not stupid, not at all.  You’re perfect.  Thank you Corporal.  Good job.”

                Dea turned and left, trying to look relaxed.  When she got out into the corridor she headed towards the nearest lift to get a moment’s privacy.

                “Good job, huh?  How did I do a good job?  I blew my cover at least twice and cost them a fortune in medical bills.”

                “Maybe that’s what they wanted.”  Lim piped up.  “In fact, I’m sure it is.”

                “What do you mean?”

                “Look, Roycey, you didn’t just act as a mule.  You were bait.  You drew out Shankuk’s gangsters, their subverted Vislin, and forchrissakes Apostates came after you too.  These guys were identified and in some cases caught.  I’ll bet you anything that HA made deals with Covenant and Collective forces to draw them out.”

                That was a disturbing thought.  “Lim, do you trust him?  Do you think he’s going to leave me alone?”

                Her AI cackled.  “Gee, I wish I could give you a hug right now.  No, Roycey, not a chance.  Not a chance in the cosmos.”

Friday, October 11, 2013

Full-Throttle Ahrottl - Chapter 5

                “We’re alive!”  Gerry shouted.  Ahrottl was still shaking off the effects of hyperspace – this time she’d seen vast, planet-sized worms writhing around each other, forming words in a language she could just barely comprehend.  Travel through hyperspace never failed to unhinge psyches, including those of Artificial Intelligences, although those suffered more from simple sensory deprivation than the full-scale hallucinations and visions that biological life forms experienced.  Either way, it was an unsettling experience.

                Maria was touching her face and her hair with the tips of her long digits, as though assuring herself that they were still there.  Ahrottl romped over to her and nuzzles her elbow, and then moved over to Gerry and petted his hand, as much for her own benefit as for theirs.  Physical contact was very important to her kind.

                Gerry took a long, shuddering breath.  “Mother Superior, please report.”

                “Our ship seems to be all right, Algernon.  There is no damage or noticeable malfunction.  Our surroundings are unfamiliar.  Tommy and I are attempting to correlate the astronomic data now.  Our immediate surroundings, however, show a device similar to the one that created the gate that we travelled through, which appears to be powering down, and a very large edifice close by.”

                Two holos appeared over the panels.  One showed, as Mother Superior had described, a spiky ball with trails of purple-white energy coruscating across its surface and occasionally leaping between the tips of its spikes.  The other showed a dark, oblong shape.  No light touched it other than interstellar illumination, and no visible light seemed to eminate from it.

                “What is it?”  Ahrottl asked.

                “I think, if I’m not wrong, that it might be a space station.”  Tommy offered cautiously.

                Maria nodded slowly.  “It would make sense that there’d be some kind of station near a gateway like this.  No civilization is going to exist entirely outside of the bounds of a solar system, and the fact that we found the gateway near the edge of one indicates that solar systems were important to its creators.  Otherwise they'd be placed in the middle of the Big Empty, where we’d never have a chance of running in to it.”

                Gerry scratched his nose and chin.  “Mother Superior, could we get some light on the station?”

                Ahrottl spoke up.  “Why don’t we wait a bit, Algernon?  We don’t know what this thing is, and if it’s occupied or not.  Visible lights might be seen as a threat.  For all we know the occupants see with X-rays.  Have we seen any activity near it yet?”

                Mother Superior lifted her chin.  “We’ve been here less than two minutes, and Tommy and I have a lot of examination and calculation to engage in still.  We will give you updates when we feel that we’ve examined the situation sufficiently to explore more.  In the meantime, please ensure that your own needs are taken care of.  Hydrate, eat, and use the facilities.”

                Gerry snorted.  Why are so many AIs so unfriendly?  Ahrottl wondered.  She didn’t want to share the thought aloud for fear of offending them and their human creators, but she had encountered a great many Artificial Intelligences whose behavior, in humans or other civilized species (other than Mauraug she thought bitterly) would be considered outright antisocial.  Surely they could program them to behave in a more congenial manner?

                She followed Maria and Algernon back into the kitchen and rifled around for food, settling on some biscuits and water from the purifier.  She climbed up on the table to be on level with her human companions, a habit which she knew drove Maria to distraction, but she was still too discombobulated to care.  To her, recovering from hyperspace was like recovering from a severe nightmare after having not slept nearly long enough to be refreshed.  She finished her biscuits and went about grooming while the humans sat in silence and drank coffee and ate something that they called egg but smelled like rot and plastic to her.

                While they went off to shower she went back to the bridge and played with the hollow of the oblong mass, turning it this way and that.  She saw what looked like little dents or apertures on the ends of it, but the detail was not good enough, the light too dim, and the holo taken from too far away.

                Risking annoying the AIs, she said, “Is this a live feed?”

                Tommy spoke up, briefly.  “Yes, Ahrottl.”

                “So nothing’s been moving around it?”

                “If there was, we’d have alerted the crew to it.”  Mother Superior broke her silence to comment a little harshly.

                Yes, yes, I know that I’m not crew.  Ahrottl shook her head in a very human gesture, and turned her attention to the gateway.  The activity that had surrounded it had quieted down, and it was now floating, quiescent and quiet as the original had been.

                A wave of humid air washed through the room accompanied by the odor of human cleaning products, which they used to wipe away their natural scents as much as possible.  Ahrottl’s theory was that it spoke of an ancestry plagued by predation.  Only their armpits and generative and eliminative organs produced much scent, and even that was cut back heavily by aromatics.  It gave a kind of eerie impression to many Hrotata of a clone-like similarity between humans or a deep-seated shame regarding their personal identities.

                Maria and Algernon came out, freshly scrubbed and looking like they felt much better for it.  Algernon had a wide smile on his face, his hair clinging in stringy strands around his glasses.  He stretched and sat down in his chair, and Maria followed, taking her seat.  Ahrottl scooted back towards her beanbag and curled up, weaving slightly, waiting.

                “Well?”  Gerry said.  “Any news?”

                “Yes sir, Mr. Algernon.  Where would you like to start?”

                “Well, first off, where are we.”

                “We don’t know-“

                Mother Superior interjected sharply.  “Yet.  We don’t know yet.  At least, not in relation to current astronomic charts.  What information we have is relatively sparse.  We are close to, but still between the arms of what may be a spiral galaxy.  It may well be our own, although it is difficult for us to determine at this point.  We need more information for that.

                “We’re on the outskirts of a binary solar system consisting of one red dwarf and one blue dwarf.  We have not been able to locate any planets yet, although given the positioning of the gateway and the ostensible space station it is likely that there are some.  Closer and more long-term observation may be required to locate any planets.

                “At this distance the oblong object appears to be made of metal, likely an iron alloy, and seems to have openings or hatches in it.  Unlike the gateway it is the same temperature as surrounding space and does not appear to share any of the former’s absorptive properties.  No activity or energy usage has been detected on, in, or around it since our arrival, and there are no traces or anomalies to suggest any recent energy usage.  At this point we know very little about it.  Again, closer and more thorough examination would be required.”

                “Thank you for the succinct and comprehensive report, Mother.”  Maria said.  Mother Superior’s avatar smiled, something she did for no one but her human.

                “So what do we do?”  Ahrottl asked.

                “I think we should try and reactivate the device.  Maybe if I get back down there I can see if I can’t figure it out.”  Gerry said.

                Ahrottl stilled briefly, and Maria frowned.  “Maybe so, but we got you out of there just in time last time.  I would rather not risk it unless we have a better idea of what we’re doing.”  Maria said.

                “Never mind that we don’t know if it would take us back to the other gate.  These things might work in a series, or have coordinates.”  Ahrottl pointed out.  “I think we should go examine the station over there.  Even if it’s shut down – and it looks like it is – we may find information we can use on it.”

                Mother Superior nodded.  “I have to agree with the Hrotata on this.  The potential dangers of improperly using the hyperspace gate far outweigh the possibility of us activating it correctly on the first try.  If any information of its usage is archived in the artifact we’re referring to as a ‘station’ it may help to shed some light on the matter.”

                Gerry frowned.  “I’m not remembering; do either of you have any linguistic training?”

                Ahrottl started to speak up and then realized that he was speaking to the AIs, as Mother Superior responded, “No, not specifically.  We each know the base packet of Collective languages and a few dialects, but we have no specific training or programming for the assimilation of new languages.  We will need to work together on this; we have just as much experience as any of you do in this field.

                Ahrottl coughed just a little to get attention.  “I have extensive linguistic training.  I might know fewer languages than your Brins do, but I studied linguistic theory for two years as a part of my education in literature.  I can speak, read, write and compose poetry in at least twelve languages.  I might be able to help here.”  She glared a little at Mother Superior.

                Algernon beamed.  “That’s great!  Why don’t you start looking over the recordings we took of the glyphs on the first hyperspace gate while we start heading over to the station and poking around its exterior.”

                “Actually, I’d like us to take recordings of the markings on this gate too, for comparison.  I have the feeling we only got a small sample of what there was on the first device, but I’d still like to note any differences.  Mind you, this doesn’t mean I’ll be any closer to knowing the meaning of the symbols, but it will help to have a base to work from.  Any information would be helpful at this point.  What we really need is some kind of interactive software, or a picture book.”

                Maria raised her eyebrows.  “A picture book?”

                Ahrottl nodded.  “Yes, whatever whoever wrote in that script used to teach children.  We’re starting from the ground up here.”

                “Allright,”  Algernon said.  “Let’s pull in closer to the gateway to take some readings.  Then we’ll , head over to the station.  I’m just… I’m itching to see that thing.”

                Maria nodded.  “I think we all are, Gerry.  As scary as this is, it’s actually kind of exciting.”

                Ahrottl remained silent, but worried to herself.  The air and water we can keep going indefinitely with recycling and space filtration, but we don’t really have much in the way of food supplies, and hydroponics aren’t going to cut it for very long.  I wonder if we should see if there are any habitable worlds.

                She spoke up.  “Hey, don’t we have probes?”

                “We do, but they’re not really all that long range.  Why?”  Maria asked.

                Ahrottl rolled her whiskers.  “As exciting as this is, we have some practical considerations.  We need to eat, and I remember you pointing out that we were low on food as it was.  Do you think we might want to send a probe to check out the station, and go check the system for habitable planets?”

                They were all quiet for a moment.  Gerry looked like he was about to voice an objection, but finally nodded.  “I guess.  I mean, we know nothing about the biology of the species that created this gate.  For all we know, they could be AIs.”

                Mother Superior chimed in.  “I think that this is the best course of action.  After all, if they are any station defenses active, or hostile occupants, it is far safer to send the probe first.  Also, your biological needs do need to be seen to.  Once we are done surveying the gateway I will launch the probe, and we will make haste to the inner system to begin our inspections.”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Royce's Dilemma - Chapter 9

               "Commander, do you have a moment?”  Ushkar asked.  He was sitting in his quarters, legs crossed beneath him on a large beanbag chair.  The room was dark.  It was also quiet, but for a low, pulsing bass beat interspersed with chanting.

                A human figure appeared above the projection disc, and Uskhar frowned and spread his lips.  It was not the Commander.  It was human, probably supposed to be male, with thick, curly hair and heavy brows.  Not the Commander, but the Commander’s AI.

                “Greetings, Orson.”  Ushkar said.  He examined the image more closely.  It was wearing a costume from the human past that made Uskhar think of a peeled fruit.  It was a thick outer coat, split open on the center, with a shirt made of thinner material underneath, held shut by small, round fastenings.  The AI’s hands were hairier than Uskhar was used to seeing on humans, and it wondered at that.

                “The Commander is terribly busy at the moment, and I of course am handling all of his contacts.  Would you like me to record a message to relay to him?  Or are you going to sprinkle me with holy water and banish me with incantations?”

                Uskhar threw its head back and laughed.  “Have I ever tried to exorcise you, Orson?  I don’t even know if you are possessed or not.  Nor do I have the authority to do so if you were.  Also, you may want to more closely examine the methods of the Inquisitors.  You will find that their ways of exorcising your kind are far more effective than water and words.”

                Orson rolled his eyes and snorted.  “You aren’t the only sapient to be trying to reach the Commander right now, and answering calls for him is just one of my many duties.  I’m spread rather thin, I’m afraid, so I’ve no time or energy to waste on banter.  Do you want me to record a message, or should I go?”

                “You should go and tell the Commander that Ushkar Bash’Torkal wants to speak with him.  You should inform him of that now.  You should also let him know that I have found an advocate willing to speak for the Apostates in their trial.  I will not close this channel until you do.”

                Orson nodded sullenly, and his image froze.  Ushkar contemplated the AI as it lingered in the air.  Many of Ushkar’s kind despised Artificial Intelligences of any type.  After all, their own AIs, in conjunction with their Tesetsi slaves, had caused more damage to their species than any conflict with the Zig ever had.  The Prophets had declared AIs as easy targets for demonic possession, and their society had been purged of them.

                Many Mauraug who worked in Collective efforts lived in superstitious fear of the human AIs.  Ushkar’s fear was not superstitious; it was well-grounded in personal experience and study.  Thus the electronic entrapment circle it had carefully built and hidden around the only data point and holo disc in its chambers.  It had learned a few tricks from the Inquisitors back when it had been groomed to dispense Prophecy, but that was long ago.

                The AI began to move again.  “Commander Kowalski says –“

                Uskhar cut it off in mid-sentence.  “Now tell him that I am the one.”

                Orson’s jaw was hanging half-open, and the image froze with him in that pose.  Then it vanished, very suddenly, and was replaced by an image of Commander Kowalski.

                The human Commander of Lotus Station had a rich, tanned complexion and hair almost as bright white as Uskhar’s fur, but not nearly as long or silky.  The sharp bridge of his nose helped to form a triangle that Ushkar found pleasingly precise and sincere.  His eyes were dark beneath a broad and high forehead.  His mouth was wide and lips thin.  His uniform was trimmed with the silver of Administration, and he wore red and gold chevrons on his chest, indicating that he had served in the Medical and Diplomatic Corps before his promotion.

                He did not look pleased.  Then again, he rarely did.

                “Detective.  You say that you want to represent the Apostate kids?”

                Ushkar nodded.  “Yes, Commander.”

                They were both quiet for a moment.  “Well, is this a joke, Uskhar?”

                Ushkar shook its head.  “No, Commander.”

                It was quiet again for a few moments.  Kowalski sighed.

                “All right, I’ll bite.  Why are you representing the Apostates?  You were a Prophet of Sha’bahn and are about the most upstanding supporter of the Covenant on the station.  If I didn’t know you better, I’d assume that you didn’t have their best interests in mind.”

                “I was never actually a Prophet, Commander.  You know this.  You do indeed know me better.”
                The Commander held his forehead in one hand for a moment, and then looked up to meet his eyes in a very Mauraug gesture of challenge.  “I know you better than that, Detective.  That doesn’t mean that my superiors, the media, and the people that they can influence will know you and your motives – and mine.  I’m going to have to answer a lot of questions as to why I put a Covenant Mauraug in as a lawyer for Apostates.  I am sure that you can appreciate why that would sound insane to anyone who is not a part of the Covenant.”

                “I am better versed in generic Collective law and precedent than almost any occupant of the station.  Although I have been involved in the case, it is not one that has any sort of personal stake for me – I am not in any way involved in the cybernetics industry.  I am respected by figures of authority here and in many places in Collective space.  Those are the things that you can tell people who question you.

                “I can tell, though, Commander, that you need something that you can tell yourself, so that you know that, whatever the outcome of the trial may be, that the best attempt was made for justice in this case.  I can give you that as well.”

                Kowalski cocked an eyebrow.  “This had better be good.  Talk.”

                Ushkar sighed and rolled its shoulders, loosening muscles, and stood up.  It began to pace slowly in front of the Commander’s image as it spoke.  “Let me begin by stating what we both know of this situation.  First, Shankuk Bash’Akral and his employees worked a human-style artificial intelligence into a battlefield enhancement implant.  AIs can process information far more quickly than a Mauraug or human can, and with the correct probability algorithms and knowledge of military history would make dangerously capable advisors.  Given their direct implantation, they could potentially be even more effective than a human AI could be for the same purpose.

                “These devices were discovered by humans.  One Corporal Royce Dea was tipped off as to where and how one was being shipped, stole it, and had it implanted in the flesh of her leg, where it would not activate or be able to interact with her, but being kept in a living organic environment so that it would not signal any sort of distress.  Her reasons for doing this at this point are unknown to me, but I can assume that she was holding it until she was capable of revealing it to Human Affairs or another internal Collective agency.

                “Hrogki and Mashaun, meanwhile, were young Mauraug who were uncomfortable with some of the ideals that the Covenant espouses and sought a way that they could escape it.  They had made contact with Apostates, who were willing to give them safe passage to Apostate space – if they proved themselves.  They informed them of Shankuk’s activities, and asked them to obtain one of the AI enhanced cybernetic implants as a proof of their loyalty.”

                “Just how the Apostates knew the details of an illegal operation going on under our own noses before we did is something we need to figure out too.”  The Commander interjected.

                “Quite so.  These younglings intercepted Corporal Dea in an attempt to remove the cyberware.  They failed.  How did they come to know that the Security Officer had one of these implants?  Of course, all of my kind who travel among other species carry implants that allow us to know about the presence – and the licensing – of other Mauraug implants nearby.  There are many humans with Mauraug cybernetics on Lotus station.  How did they know to corner her?”

                Kowalski nodded.  “I’ve been wondering that myself.  We know that there’s a traitor among Shakuk’s people, but why would they inform both Human Affairs and the Apostates?  Alternately, there could be multiple informants, but Shankuk’s isn’t just hacking one-armed bandits at the casino.  You don’t run the sort of operation that it’s running without being damn careful who you hire.”

                “As you say, Commander.  As you say.  This leads me to believe that someone in the operation is more interested in seeing it fail, period, than they are in seeing it fail in any particular way.  Whoever the informant is has an issue with the Covenant as a whole.”

                “That’s an awfully big leap for you to take there, given the evidence.”

                “Even so, Commander.  As your people say, “the truth will out.”  Somehow, a device was implanted in the Security Officer’s wall that caused her implant to become agitated and emit microwaves, a possible prelude to self-destruction.  There was an attempt on her life by a Vislin security guard, who by his statement is working closely with Shankuk’s organization.  He made an ill-conceived and terribly executed (if you’ll forgive the pun) attempt to try and remove and destroy the device and silence her.”

                “This is a complex web of occurrences, and there are many factors and actors within.  My primary concern, though is for the youngling Mauraug.”

                “Right.  So you’ve said.  You still haven’t given me a reason that you playing advocate for them is a good idea.”

                “My point has already been made.  This is larger than an illegal tech operation.  I can tell that wherever else this leads, it will lead again to my species as a whole being put on trial in the court of public opinion, if not the Collective High Council itself.  Between the Vislin being encouraged into acts of terrorism on behalf of Covenant criminals and the Apostacy trying to steal dangerous technology that might give them an edge against humans and Mauraug both on the battlefield, I assure you that my race will again be forced to defend – and possibly redefine – its existence.

                “In all of this tumult, and in the midst of all of these grand implications, the lives and names of two young creatures might seem insignificant.  I don’t want that to be so.  I don’t want them to be forgotten, Commander.  Their only crime – up until attempted burglary – was to sin against the Covenant in their hearts.  And how did they sin against the Covenant?  By disagreeing with the religion that it was founded upon.

                “Every constitutent species of the Collective has special terms for their membership.  The Tesetsi can refuse any sort of combat service, and are provided means to escape even if it puts others at risk.  The Ningyo cannot be forced to undergo transport through hyperdrive.  The Great Family acts as a whole, and no deal may be brokered with one species without the agreement of all of its branches.  My people?  My people demanded the right to police their own faith.  The Will of Sha’bahn has kept our people in line, as a mighty empire, for many millennia.  We claim the right to punish those of our species who leave the faith, or who sin against it.

                “Every constituent species’ exemptions are to the benefit of sentient creatures but for that of my own species.  Our laws concerning Apostacy and faith ensure that the will of individuals and groups are crushed.  They ensure that there is no escape from Dominion.  Of course, our faith states plainly that there is no true escape from Dominion, and in this I agree.

                “Where I do not agree is where the law crosses this boundary.  The laws should not be needed to enforce the Will of Sha’bahn.  The will of Dominion will be expressed despite any foolish laws made to try and enforce it.  Apostacy will occur, as will innovation.  Is not the way of Dominion greater than any of these things?  If it is then we have no need of laws to enforce it.  If it is not, and we do need laws to enforce it – then it is not true.

                “I believe in Sha’bahn.  I follow the Will of Dominion.  I do not need interspecies laws to conform with Divine Law because they already do.  Until my species sees this they will continue to try and enact the law of Sha’bahn through lesser vehicles, and will suffer the derision and hatred of the other inhabitants of the cosmos for it.

                “In short, Commander, I wish to represent them because I do not believe that Apostacy should be a crime, and I do not wish two young Mauraug whose only sin was disagreement to be forgotten.”

                There was a period of quiet again.  The Commander broke it.  “I heard that you were almost made a Prophet, and I wondered what happened.  I think I understand.”

                Ushkar nodded.  “I am … radical in my thought, Commander.  The establishment does not seek radical understanding of our scriptures.  It wants its Prophets to enforce our philosophies, not explore them.”

                “But the Apostacy commits terrorist acts daily, Detective.  It’s beyond simple doctrinal differences.  They’re not just arguing, they’re firing missiles.  And not just at Covenant forces – at other members of the Collective too.”

                “Yes they do.  I wish that it would stop.  It will not, however.  It cannot as long as what occurs within one’s mind and is expressed by ones mouth rather than that which is acted upon with one’s hands is legislated by our hierarchy.  I have heard a human term for this, “Thought Crime”.  It is rarely spoken but with sympathy for the criminal.  I have heard off another human term, “The Human Spirit”.  Humans pride themselves on their fierce and rugged individuality, on their ability to interact with the cosmos on their own terms, on the importance that they place on the freedom of the individual.  Tell me, Commander, as you are a human yourself: in this conflict, where would the Human Spirit stand?  With its allies, the Covenant – or with the Apostates?”

                Kowalski nodded grimly, then grinned bitterly.  “You’re ready.  I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, though.  I’ll make sure Orson gets the details ironed out.  Anything else?”

                Ushkar shook its head.  “No, sir.”

                Commander Kowalski nodded again.  “Good job on all counts, Detective.  Kowalski out.”  The image faded.

                Ushkar sat in the near dark, tapping its fingers on the ground in time with the rhythm, chanting along with the forbidden poetry it had composed long before.  It was to have been his acceptance speech to the Prophecy.  It had been disqualified as was found to have words of an old human text worked in to it.

                “A leader is best
When people barely know he exists.
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
The people will say, “We did this ourselves.” 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Full-Throttle Ahrottl - Chapter 4

                “It doesn’t look familiar to me.”  Ahrottl offered.  Everyone ignored her.  It’s all right, I’m getting used to it.

                Mother Superior stated, “The writing is unfamiliar to me, but the spacing and frequency suggests phonetic rather than representative symbols.  Unfortunately I do not have a great amount of information about linguistics, and we are far enough from the Station network that I cannot easily obtain any.  It doesn’t look like any script I’ve seen before.”

                Gerry and Maria both made noises of surprise.  Ahrottl rocked her head back and closed her eyes in frustration.  Sure, you’ll listen to your talking machine but not the author who speaks twelve languages and can compose poetry in all of them!

                One of the holos, projected images from Gerry’s scanner, rolled across the script on the surface of the strange artifact.  The holo giving the overview of it showed the small figure that was slowly walking across the central surface. 

                “The writing continues in a line, and seems to reach between the spines and … oh man, look at that!”

                The projection that had been showing the writing continued to scroll and came to a stop at a symbol that no one could mistake.

                “It’s an arrow!”  Maria said in awe.

                “It’s a pretty simple symbol.  A lot of species use that to indicate direction.”  Ahrottl said.  She slowly romped over to Maria, crouching by the side of her chair.  Maria unconsciously reached down to scratch the top of her head.  Yes, good.  I may as well get scritches out this.  She wriggled, more comfortable now, and kept sipping at her stimulant bulb.

                “I wonder what it’s pointing to?”  Gerry asked.  His face showed a childlike wonder.  The scanner showing his holo continued to scan forwards as he followed the arrow, walking between the two spires and across the open surface of the strange, twisted metallic hull.  “I think I found it!”

                The scan lurched forwards and centered on what appeared to be a circle set into the metal.  There was some kind of device set in to it, and more of the lettering around it.  Gerry’s forehead furrowed in concentration and the holo became an extreme close up.

                “It’s a latch!  Like, a latch on a hatch!”  Gerry was practically bounding with excitement.

                Congratulations, Doctor Seuss.  Not that you have any idea who that is.  Ahrottl stilled briefly, concerned.  Why am I so grumpy?

                “Yeah, I see it Algernon.  It sure does look like a latch.”  Maria said archly.  “You know what you’re going to do?  I do.”

                Gerry looked confused.  “Huh?”

                “You are going to NOT touch that latch.  You are going to zip right back to the ship here and pilot us back to Lotus to report this.”

                “Oh come on, Maria, I’m not stupid.  Who knows what’s in there…”  Gerry trailed off, his eyes growing distant.

                “Neither one of us knows, and neither one of us is going to know today, because you’re going to be a smart, smart man.”  Ahrottl winced as Maria unconsciously squeezed one of her ears a bit too tightly.  “Gerry, I’m serious.  We found this thing.  We’ll get our pictures beamed across the galaxy as the folks who discovered it.  Ahrottl here”  She shook Ahrottl’s head, almost violently.  What in all the hells is wrong with you?  Ahrottl contemplated biting her.  “will write the novelization and we’ll have the youngest, sexiest actors play us in the holo.  I’m really uncomfortable with this, Gerry, please come back.”

                Gerry swallowed, and the downward-facing scanner showed him running his hand across the surface next to the hatch.  There was a small series of protrusions that looked like they had to be switches of some sort that his hand came to rest near.

                “Maria, this thing is dead.  Dead dead.  It’s in the middle of no-where and we’d have noticed if anything was flying to or from it.  The Collective has been charting this system for the last twenty years, give or take.  Opening the hatch, stepping inside, even just recording what we see when we’re in there … how could that hurt?”

                Ahrottl shook her head and wriggled free from Maria’s fingers and leapt up on the console, putting herself face-to-face with Gerry’s projection.  She stared into his large, dark eyes.  “It could hurt if they breathed acid.  Or plasma.  It could hurt if the pressurization fails and you’re blown out into space and smash into something.  It could hurt if the ones who built it are hibernating and opening the hatch wakes them up and they decide to vivisect or blast the intruder.  It could hurt you in a thousand, thousand ways.  Get your lanky hairless behind back here and let’s go report this thing.”

                Gerry frowned again, and cocked his head to the side.  Ahrottl had never seen him make this gesture.  She got down off the panel, uncertain, and glanced back at Maria, who seemed as puzzled as she did.

                “No.  This is it.  This is what I came here for.  This is what I’ve been looking for all along.  This is our big break.  It’s The One.  It’s…”  Gerry looked down, then looked back up.  “I sound crazy, don’t I?”

                “Only a little, honey.”  Maria chided gently.  “Come back.”

                Gerry sighed deeply and stood up.  “Okay, zipping back.”  A moment later he looked puzzled.  “Nothing’s happening.”

                “What do you mean?”  Ahrottl and Maria asked at the same time.  They glanced at each other and Maria gave Ahrottl a tight-lipped smile.

                “I pressed the button, and the rope is going taut, but I’m not leaving the surface of the artifact.  It should be reeling in the cord.”

                “It’s possible that the surface is somewhat magnetized.  Try carefully to jump off of it.”  Mother Superior suggested.

                Gerry’s figure crouched and straightened a couple of times.  “I can’t get both feet off of it at once.”

                “Hmmm.”  Maria seemed to be considering.  “Maybe you’re making a circuit with your feet.”

                Ahrottl frowned.  “His suit’s not going conductive.  That would be terrible design.”

                “Well, what do you suggest?”  Maria raised one eyebrow.

                Ahrottl looked up to Mother Superior.  “We reel him in ourselves.  Can’t we do that on our end?
                Mother Superior nodded sharply and froze in place briefly.  The view through the port shifted just a touch, stars swinging up a little and then back down.  Mother Superior spoke again.  “Attempting to reel him in is instead drawing our own ship closer to the artifact.  I am sorry, I have no explanation for this phenomenon.”  She looked grave.

                They all looked at each other for a moment.  Ahrottl piped up.  “Hey Gerry, try walking back to where you first landed.”

                Algernon’s head bobbed.  “It can’t hurt, I guess.”  His tiny figure on the holo turned around and started to take a step.

                Ahrottl’s heart leapt into her mouth as she saw the very ends of the spines of the floating artifact glow.  A whitish purple glow, with small crackling blots of energy resembling plasmic discharge began to dance around the ends of them.  Maria gasped and looked on, slack-jawed.

                “Guys, what’s going on?”  Gerry asked.

                “What did you do?”  Maria asked.

“Mister Algernon, you may want to look up.”  Timmy supplied helpfully.

                Gerry’s eyes widened.  “What do I do?  Guys, get me out of here.  Get me out now!”

                The energy at the tips of the spires continued to crackle and discharge but showed no signs of changing its pattern.  Ahrottl thought fast.  “Cut the cord and fire your safety jets, but get away from the spines first!  Go back to the hatch!”

                They watched as Gerry panted and his figured turned back around and ran back towards the hatch.  “I’m trying to pull out my emergency torch now.  Damnit!”  They saw him crouch down over the hatch.  “I dropped it.  At least it’s sticking…”

                His eyes widened again.  “I think I-”

                A massive bolt of energy leaped from one spine to another.  They began to fire intermittently, connecting the tips of the spires, dancing in a slow pattern around the artifact.

                “-kicked something.  I’ve got the torch.  Cutting the line now.”

                Maria’s face was screwed into a knot of concern.  Ahrottl was stilled, gripping her arm with both her hands, unconsciously licking her lips and whiskers in fear.  She pulled herself up onto Maria’s lap and buried her face against chest, peeking out to glance at the holo of the artifact, not wanting to see Gerry’s face.

                “Firing safety jets now.”  Through eyes slitted in fear Ahrottl saw the tiny figure separate from the surface of the artifact, floating upwards towards them.  “I’m free!  I’m off this thing!”

                Maria breathed a tremendous sign of relief, and Mother Superior clapped her hands twice, primly.  Ahrottl scooted around, facing back towards the holos, watching as he floated ever closer.

                “Mother Superior, please move for intercept.”  Maria said.

                Mother Superior nodded gravely, pursing her lips, and the stars in the port shifted.  Meanwhile the light had begun to leap more and more quickly between the spires.  Ahrottl was reminded of something, something that she had seen a few times before.  What was it?

                “It looks like a hyperspace gate.  The same kind of light.”

                Maria snorted.  “We’re in the flattest space that there is.  Do you know how much power that that would take out here?”  Hyperspace travel exploited the curvature of space, “punching through” layers of space where they were the most curved and thinnest, as close to a heavy gravity well as possible.  The less curved the space, the more energy it would take to open the way through to other levels of space.  In theory, traversing hyperspace when not close to a star or an extremely large gas giant would require more power than even Great Family technology was capable of producing.

                The light was now connecting all of the spires, stably, as Gerry was trying to slow down his jets to coordinate with their vessel.  He passed control of them to Tommy so he and Mother Superior could work together, using their unnaturally quick minds and near instant communication to set him on a safe trajectory.  A few moments later, Gerry spoke up.

                “I’m at the airlock.  Cycling in.  Mother, please pull away to a safe distance.  This thing is making me really uncomfortable.”

                “I’m not sure what a safe distance is, Algernon, given that we have no idea what in heaven’s name that thing is doing.  I will say, however, that our guest’s comment was not entirely incorrect.  The energy discharge does resemble that which  is present at the opening of a hyperspace gateway.  Might I suggest that we withdraw now to Lotus Station and warn the authorities there?”

                Gerry came in, his helmet hanging off the back of his suit, the smell of space wafting off of him. “Yeah, I think we should warn them.  I’m sorry guys.”

                “We are drifting closer to the object.”  Mother Superior’s voice rang out with an edge that Ahrottl had never heard before.  Is she afraid?

                “Are the engines engaged?”  Gerry asked.

                “Yes, Algernon, the engines are engaged.  In fact, they are the only thing preventing a collision now.”  Mother Superior sounded strained.  Ahrottl fell into a crouch, shocked.  Am I going to die now?  Is that it?  Destroyed by something that I don’t even understand?

                All of them watched as the bolts of purple-white light seemed to stabilize, and the spaces between them rapidly began to fill in.  In a matter of moments the object had been replaced by what seemed to be a bright, lavender star.

                “Master Algernon, might I make a suggestion?”  Tommy asked timidly.  Gerry nodded.  “Any suggestions anyone could make right now would great.”

                “Perhaps we should save fuel and allow ourselves to fall into the object.  It does seem to be a hyperspace gate, as improbable as that is.”  Timmy offered.  “Perhaps once we are through the other side, we can figure out how to get back.”

                How many adventure serials begin this way?  Ahrottl wondered.  A small crew of a tiny ship are transported far, far from home and spend years trying to find their way back.

                Maria and Gerry were holding hands, looking into each others eyes, tears forming on their faces, murmuring potential farewells to each other.  Mother Superior spoke up again, “In any case, we are at thirty seconds to impact.  I am engaging hyperspace shielding, and will attempt to guide the ship in the inevitable fugue that will follow.  Should this gate be functional we should all be fine when we get to the other side.  Should it not, bless you, and may God have mercy on our souls.”

                Gerry and Maria kissed, and Gerry looked around and nodded at Ahrottl.  “I’m sorry for bringing you along for this.  Timmy, Mother, thank you.  Drop the engine to minimum.  That way we don’t need to re-engage when we arrive.”

                “It’s okay, Algernon.  Hey, at least I’ll have something to write about-“  There was a lurch, a bright flash of light, and massive discontinuity.