“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.”