tagSci-Fi & FantasySparrow & Tulip Pt. 12

Sparrow & Tulip Pt. 12


Spacedock #2, Ulthiran Space

When the two women collapsed onto the bed, Kiki had fallen asleep almost immediately. It took Rachel a lot longer to relax. After they'd gotten out of the shower, but before they'd started making out on the couch, she had sent a message to Jurgen Chah accepting the current Navigator configuration. In the moment, it had seemed like a tough, no-nonsense proposition; if the Commonwealth wouldn't give them a functional ship, they'd make their own damn ship.

Now, eyes open in the darkness, she began to realize the scope of what they had taken on. The "production floor" that Jurgen had taken them too was bigger than anything either of them had seen before. It was a domed area with a mind-numbing variety of ships in various states of completion, from complete looking vessels to skeletal collections of beams that were being welded together to form the framework of future hulls. Rachel and Kiki had looked around them in awe as Jurgen directed their electric buggy through the controlled chaos of construction. After several kilometers, they were approaching the far side of the space. The frenetic activity had begun to die away as they came close to the wall of the dome where it met the production floor. When Jurgen stopped the buggy, they had entered what looked like a backwater of the facility. A few half-finished ships were abandoned in the cradles, all of them smaller than anything else they'd seen.

"The projects that my section works on require greater discretion," Chah said as he got out. They followed him to a heavy looking door that took him some time to open. Once they had gone through, they found themselves in a smaller storage area. Collections of equipment, mostly dark and silent, were arranged on the towering shelves. A few, festooned with wires and hoses, blinked and squawked at the Ulthiran techs crawling over them.

"This is where flawed Ship Personalities are kept. The systems are complicated to produce, the hope is that they can be rehabilitated into some sort of other limited function," Jurgen explained as they walked through. He stopped at a heavy looking hatch in the floor and entered a code on a screen next to it. It opened, and he went down the ladder. Kiki and Rachel glanced at each other and followed him down.

They found themselves in a passageway not much taller than they were. Jurgen Chah was bent almost double, crawling along the space. Compared to the disordered collections and noise everywhere else, this area was dim and quiet with access hatches every few meters. They stopped at one of them that Jurgen opened and dropped into.

The pair lowered themselves through the hatch and found themselves in a ship's cargo area. Outside the portholes was the black of space and Rachel realized they were at the very bottom of the station's hull. Everything looked mostly finished, consoles and seats for prefcorian sized crew had been installed. Behind the pilot's station, another collection of cases and equipment sat exposed on the deck, cables, and umbilicals going in all directions.

"This is the Navigator," Jurgen said. "Unit theta four decimal nine-ninety. The personality was rated as outstanding in the basic production creche and should have produced an excellent Navigator. I had it transferred here, but the responses began to drift during the system installation. Now it is completely unresponsive. We have gone over every possible hardware problem and ruled all of them out, the problem is in the personality itself."

"What can we do that your teams haven't tried?"

"Sometimes aberrant personalities can be rehabilitated with interaction. That will be your task if you choose this course of action. Consider it during the upcoming rest period and let me know what your decision is."

Cramped by the size of the passages, Jurgen Chah made his way back to the main hatch of the ship and crawled out.

"I don't suppose you're just faking?" Kiki asked the systems that made up the personality.

There was no response, and she sighed and followed Jurgen out of the ship. Rachel stared at the system for a little longer and then patted one of the cases. There was a brief flicker from status lights. Rachel waited but nothing else happened, and she followed the other two out of the ship.

Laying in the darkness, listening to the rustle of the ventilators, Rachel worried again about making the right decision. But the idea of stranding the team while the two of them waited for a functional ship made her sick to her stomach. The only way to get there on time was to wake the ship up. Whether or not that was possible, it was the only chance they had to get to the rendezvous on time.

Telling herself that she'd made the only choice she could, Rachel's eyes finally closed and she drifted into uneasy dreams.

Unclaimed Space, Planet G789.5

Theo suddenly recognized the woman's face. "Jill?"

She laughed. "Yeah, Jill Altamira."

"Wow, I haven't seen you since Test day."

"Where you did a lot better than me. I didn't score high enough to specialize, but I got a spot offworld with my dad at least. Why are you guys here?"

"The outpost stopped responding to the courier," Kawehi said. "We're from a search and rescue team. Where did everyone go?"

Instead of answering, she looked at the three women and then back at him. "You weren't a Colonial Marine, Theo. Who are these people?"

"We're Terrans deployed with the Commonwealth 18th Rapid Action Squadron," Marisol said, saving Theo from answering. "The kid is with us to get some field experience."

There was another strange little pause before Jill nodded. "Well, I'll come up tomorrow and take you guys down. There's a lot of boggy spots, it'll be easier if I show you the path."

"Could you tell us about the grave?" Kawehi asked.

"Vicahl, yeah that was really sad. He had some kind of accident in the machine shop. Kevin said he reached into the booth while the CNC was running. It cut his arm off, and they couldn't stop the bleeding in time. Everyone else is fine though."

"Jill, who are these giraffe looking guys?" Theo asked.

"We call them Gangles. Don't worry, they're harmless. I think they're like park rangers or something. They came up here because I was coming up to get a book I forgot."

"Park rangers?" Kawehi said. "None of the reports I read said anything about contacting another race here. We're in some kind of preserve?"

"The whole planet is like a nature preserve, I guess. But Marcelo Diaz, our Project Admin has been dealing with that. I can introduce you tomorrow."

"That would be great," Kawehi said.

There was another pause before Jill looked closely at Theo. "You aren't here to take us away are you?"

He shook his head. "They just sent us to make sure everyone was okay, Jill."

The smile came back to her face. "Great! I'll see you in the morning then."

Without another word, she turned back the way she'd come and walked back into the darkness.

"She forgot her book," Marisol said quietly.

"Yes, she did," Kawehi said, a little grimly. "How long until dawn?"

Marisol checked her watch. "About nine hours."

"Send the off-duty back to bed," Kawehi said, turning to walk back to the admin building. "I think we're going to have a busy day tomorrow."

Kawehi nodded for Theo to follow her. They went back to the admin building, and Kawehi led him to one of the small offices off the main hall.

"You're welcome to stay, Emma," she said. "But if you want to get some sleep, I won't let him leave the building."

"That'll work. Give me your gear, Sparrow," Emma said.

Once he had handed off the field gear and SMG, Emma headed back to the barracks room.

"How well do you know that woman?" Kawehi asked.

"Friendly acquaintances. We met at a party, not long after I got back home. I had a couple of classes with her, and we went through the aptitude testing at the same time."

"And what are your impressions of her tonight?"

"It was a good act, but she wasn't surprised to see me. I don't think she appeared in the middle of the night just to get some book," Theo said. "Her general affect seemed kind of strange as well."

Kawehi leaned back in her chair. "I noticed the same thing, but I didn't know her on Earth, so I wasn't sure. Did you notice those small pauses before she answered a question?"

"Like she had to think of the answer, yeah. You think Jill was under duress?"

"I'm not sure what it was. Maybe Jill was working out the right answer?"

Theo sighed and leaned back. "I didn't get a detailed look at her, she could have been wearing an earbud. Here's what bothers me; the last time I saw Jill was when Rachel and I dropped her at home, after the Test. She went offworld with her dad before Midwinter Gala. So how did she know I wasn't a Colonial Marine?"

"Maybe she kept track of you. She was hitting on you at a party."

He shook his head. "I put her attention on someone else, they fit together well. It's possible that she was secretly into me, but she's not the type. Maybe it's minor, but it bothers me."

"No, stick with your instincts. I wish she hadn't seen both of us tonight, now we'll be expected to be there tomorrow. I want to leave a section here during our visit tomorrow. What do you think the best force balance would be? Start from the top..."

Spacedock #2, Ulthiran Space

Rachel and Kiki threaded their way back through the maze of the Ulthiran platform the next morning. Jurgen Chah had sent them a tablet with the details of the tests used to "wake up" a Personality and the general outline of the process. There had been a note warning them not to take it anywhere near a departure area. The tablet was set up to automatically erase itself if it decided they were trying to steal information on Personality production after it had summoned a tactical squad of course.

"I really hope this isn't a fools' errand," Rachel muttered as they opened the hatch to the narrow passageway.

"The Ulthira aren't known for being good liars," Kiki said, closing the floor hatch behind them. "Most of them refuse to play cards with humans now."

"You know a lot about them."

Kiki shrugged. "They're close allies, I made a couple of Ulthiran friends when I was at Arclight."

"I didn't realize any of them were on Earth."

"They aren't. Real academies send you Up Top to train with the Others."

Rachel had to refer to her notes so that she could enter the access code on the blank panel beside the ship's hatch. It hissed open, and they both dropped down into the small ship.

"Good morning," Rachel said to the collection of equipment that housed the Personality.

There wasn't much of a response, but she thought she might have detected a flicker in the status lights. Kiki patted one of the cases as she walked forward to the cockpit, but Rachel didn't see any response. Rachel sat down near the collection of equipment and leaned back against the bulkhead.

"So we're supposed to go through a bunch of questions again," she said, pulling out the tablet. She looked at it and then held it up to one of the camera pickups that were scattered around the ship.

"I'm not sure why," Rachel said, paging through the questions and expected responses, mathematical exercises, and logic tests. "Jurgen said you had already done all of these checks before you got quiet."

She gave the voice commands that opened the Personality diagnostic and watched the flickering lights. The configuration of lights showed that the diagnostic was functional and correct, but the Personality's voice didn't announce the fact. Rachel ran through a basic test that showed everything was functional. If there was a mind in there, it was listening and watching.

"Would it be boring to go through all this again?" Rachel asked. "The answer is probably yes. Maybe we'll try this later because I had an idea last night. Do you like stories? There was one I really liked when I was young. Want to hear it?"

It was probably her imagination, but it looked like the flashing lights had slowed down a little. Rachel smiled and picked up her own tablet and opened an e-book.

"Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops, and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of old Cuthbert place..."

Almost ninety minutes later, Kiki was done with testing the links to the cockpit controls and headed back to see how Rachel was coming with the logic tests. She'd been hearing the sound of Rachel's voice without making out the words and smiled when she realized Rachel was reading a story instead of working through the test steps Jurgen had provided. She stopped in the passageway and sat down on the deck to listen.

"'God's in his heaven, all's right with the world," whispered Anne softly."

Rachel finally said. She got up to stretch and drained her water bottle.

"Wow, that's a terrific story," Kiki said, standing up as well. "I was listening in by the way."

"Yes, I heard you sniffling back there."

"Why'd Matthew have to die though? He was my favorite."

Rachel shrugged. "Why does anyone have to die? It's just the way the story goes."

"I can't decide if that's poetic or fatalistic. What other books do you have on there?"

Rachel laughed. "I have a lot of books, but my voice needs a rest. Are you hungry?"

"Yep, but a whiff of a meal bar will cure that."

Rachel just smiled and rummaged in her pack. She pulled something out and tossed it to Kiki.

"What is thi...Snickers!" Kiki exclaimed. "Senior Pilot, I am your devoted slave."

"I'll be reminding you of that later." Rachel opened her own candy bar and took a bite.

Kiki grinned. "Ooh, kinky. Are you ready to run one of those test sets?"

"No, she already finished those. I was thinking we could listen to some music next."

Kiki took a small bite of the candy bar and closed her eyes as she chewed. "Do you have a plan here?" she asked after she swallowed.

"Not yet. But there's a Synthetic Intelligence at Echo, and he liked stories, games, and music. So I thought I'd try a little of each. Did you notice if the status lights changed at all while I read?"

"I couldn't see them from where I was sitting."

Rachel sighed. "It was a dumb idea."

Kiki smiled and went over to kiss Rachel's cheek. "No, it wasn't. It was an incredibly sweet thing to do. Maybe she just doesn't like that kind of story. What else is in there?"

"At the Mountains of Madness? Or The Shadow Over Innsmouth? Those are different."

Kiki winced and took Rachel's tablet. "Yes they are but let's not wake her up screaming, hmm? Oh, good, there's normal stuff in here too. I was starting to wonder about you."

"There's nothing wrong with Lovecraft. I loved his stories when I was little."

Kiki looked at her and nodded. "I can totally see that. Anyway, how about Podkayne of Mars? I can totally see Poddy as a Ship Personality."

"Yeah, that's a good one."

"Not the original ending," Kiki whispered in her ear.

Rachel nodded and sat down with her back against the bulkhead and her legs against a couple of the components that occupied the room. Kiki laid on the deck next to her and stretched out.

"I'm ready," Kiki said.

"Ready?" Rachel asked the cluster of components. She was thrilled when the status lights flashed on and off, but then they returned to flashing randomly.

Just another coincidence.

Unclaimed Space, Planet G789.5

The twins were waiting with Marisol and Kawehi where they'd met Jill the previous night. Ayr, Ian, Deidre, and Jonesy waited with them. The rest of the team was on the opposite side of the outpost, staying quiet and out of sight. The armored aliens had silently faded back into the darkness soon after Jill had walked back to wherever the scientists had moved to. There hadn't been any movement outside of the outpost since then.

"You're quiet," Theo said to Emma.

"I'm just trying to figure out which would be better; the girl showing up or not showing up."

"Girl? She's the same age as we are."

"No kidding? Well, she looked decidedly waifish last night. I can't believe you were hot for her."

Theo started to say something rude but noticed everyone was listening to them. So he just shrugged. "She was the one to explain what Naked Twister is and why you'd want to be oiled up. That does things to a guy."

"What's Twister?" Ayr asked. "I like getting oiled up."

"Mercy's Tits," Marisol snapped. "Didn't you people get enough action at summer camp?"

Everyone in the little group turned and looked at her. There had been a couple of very noisy threesomes between Marisol, Willi, and his wife Toni on the transit to the planet.

She glared back at them. "What?"

"They're just jealous," Kawehi said quickly in a soothing voice.

"Of what?"

"I'll tell you later," Kawehi said. "Look down there."

The low rolling ridges faded out into the brownish-yellow haze, looking almost like swells in a chaotic, polluted ocean. Above them, just becoming visible was a broad head and thick neck. It was one of the strange individuals, the Gangles Jill had called them, that had surrounded the outpost last night. As it came closer, Jill Altamira came into view, walking a little ways behind it. There was another bipedal form with her.

The trio started up the long slope, and Theo could see that other than a long neck, the Other than Jill had called a park ranger, it really didn't look like a giraffe at all. This one was still wearing what looked like armor, widening it's already substantial body. It was a grayish brown, and the head looked more like a dragon or dinosaur with long canine teeth protruding from the upper and lower jaw.

"That's Jay Mishra, the project's head scientist," Kawehi said quietly.

The large Other stopped moving when they were within twenty meters of the metal prefabs. The two humans kept walking, ignoring it.

"Good morning, is this everyone?" Jill asked.

"Dr. Mishra, it's good to see you," Kawehi said, stepping forward to shake hands with the man.

"Yes, hello," the man said, shaking her hand briefly. "Who are you people?"

"We're a search team from the 18th Rapid Response Search and Rescue," Kawehi said. "Colonial Administration got concerned when you stopped responding to the courier drone."

The unit was entirely fictitious, and Kawehi had briefed everyone on the cover identity this morning. Throughout the Commonwealth, the Lantern Regiment was a strange rumor, and Teodora liked to keep it that way. The slight, Indian man didn't respond at first.

"Yes, that," he finally said vaguely. "We found an entity here, we call it Gee Square. When it made contact, it showed us a better place to live and work. I suppose you want to see it for yourself? I will take you to our new settlement, but we are pressed for time I'm afraid. Is everyone ready?"

The team picked up their packs and followed the pair back down the slope. Theo tensed as they walked past the massive Gangle, but it didn't move a muscle until they were ten meters past it. The enormous bulk turned, and it began to thud along behind them.

"Why do you call them Gangles?" Emma asked Jill, who was walking with her and Theo.

"The name Gee calls them is hard to say, but it sounds kinda like Gangle. You don't have to worry about them, they just wander around. The only problem is getting them to move when they're in your way."

"Can you talk to them?" Theo asked.

Jill shrugged. "I've never heard them make any noises. They don't seem very intelligent."

Dr. Mishra was mostly quiet on the hike, but Jill did more than her fair share of talking, pointing out different things to Theo as they went. She stayed glued to Theo's side, chattering away at him but ignoring Emma who ended up trailing the pair down the long slope. Theo stopped when the saw the swamp ahead. The omnipresent tall grass only grew a few inches off the ground here, giving them a good look at the sheet of water, broken here and there by small islands. It was easily a couple of kilometers to the other side, and there weren't any clear paths across. Theo wondered how Jill had crossed it last night in the dark until the lumbering Other plodded into the water.

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