“Technically” Sentient: Chapter 13

Faster-Than-Light travel was a bit of a misnomer, even if it was the term used for most means of interplanetary travel. While it was a commonly accepted name, it was also a commonly accepted fact that traveling faster than light was technically impossible. Accelerating any appreciable mass to the speed of light took so much energy that even if it was technically possible it was certainly economically non-viable. Some Core Worlds had looked into it, if only for academic reasons, and essentially concluded that the only practical application was extreme velocity kinetic weaponry. This was promptly banned, of course, but that didn’t solve the real problem. The universe has a speed limit. However . . . there were workarounds to this universal speed limit. Not exactly cheap or easy workarounds, but workarounds nonetheless. The primary way of dealing with vast interstellar distances was basically “why go in person when a phone call will do.” Quantum communications and the oddities of entanglement were very well understood, and with a few physics tricks, you could communicate across 15 light years with all the latency of talking in the same room as someone. Well, if the quantum bandwidth was available, but there was always enough if you were willing to pay for it. The other workaround was far less of a physics trick, and far more of an engineering marvel.

The warp-prow.

The way warp-prows were explained to children in school was with a blanket, and a needle. Given that it had taken several generations of self improving AI to design almost every aspect of technology, and that even individuals that had dedicated their lives to the study of theoretical and subatomic physics couldn’t effectively explain how they worked, most adults had it explained using the blanket and needle too. The blanket represents space, and the needle represents the fixed distance a craft can travel in a given period of time. Lay the blanket flat out, and the needle represents an insignificant distance. Bunch the blanket up though, and suddenly that blanket is only about three needle lengths from corner to corner. A faster ship meant a longer needle, and a more powerful ‘warp prow’ made the ship better at bunching things up. There was still the problem that folding space took a tremendous amount of energy, but it was doable. While expensive and challenging, interstellar activity was merely a complex engineering challenge.


 As with almost every engineering challenge, it was a game of “fast, good, or cheap: pick two.” If it needed to be done quickly and well, a massive undertaking of pre-fabrication, supply chain establishment, and logistic expertise was carefully orchestrated by planetary scale economies working at full tilt to get the job done. If it need be done well and cheaply, then a simple probe was sent, stocked with ‘Artificial Persons’ capable of executing a several hundred year plan to build something from the ground up. Mining equipment would pull raw resources from asteroids to build more mining equipment to build more worker drones to begin constructing infrastructure and so on until a whole new autonomous civilization sprung up out in the reaches of cold space. Lastly, there was fast, and cheap. Send one, fast ship with a handful of organics working on a shoestring budget to do a Hail-Mary job of it and then hope that whatever it is becomes someone else’s problem before it really costs something for a solution.

The Indomitable Explorer was fast, and cheap. A scavenged leftover of the first attempt at civilization level interplanetary colonization, which had nearly sent the entire society into an economic depression so deep it could only be accurately described with the word “apocalyptic”, the ship had been built to herald the coming of a stellar society. Instead it had served as a warning about what happened when blind optimism met extremely well understood limitations of physics. Moving things through space was hard, and expensive. Moving people? Doubly so. An attempt was made to sell it for a tenth of it’s manufacturing cost along with hundreds of other unused interstellar craft to shore up the crumbling Centaurian treasury,  but instead it wound up being kept in a spaceflight museum. As it turned out, absolutely no one wanted to buy a still ludicrously expensive ship when 300 year old financial institutions were dropping like flies and the government was teetering on the edge of insolvency. When the economic downturn caused by busted investments in the “space colonization bubble” hit, the museum in question was shuttered and forgotten as deep austerity measures stripped public programs to the bone. A rather unscrupulous night-watchman of the closed facility managed to build a retirement fund for himself by arranging the sale of the vessel to a mining company, which used it as a lobby decoration in their headquarters for nearly sixty years. Eventually it was gifted as a wedding present to the son of a board member. He donated it back to the revived Centaurian Office of Aeronautical History as a tax write off, and they lost it to a the Centaurian Office of Natural History in a card game. While the resulting scandal actually sent half a dozen people to prison, the ship itself wound up under the command of Tillantrius Zepp Warzapp the Third, and his aide from the Office of Natural History, Zarniac.

Their mission had been to brave new worlds, explore exotic landscapes, collect data on esoteric and alien phenomena, and to do it all in the space travel equivalent of a dubiously legal paddle steamer that had been rigged with a fusion powered outboard motor. Tillantrius rubbed his eyes, which had been getting heavier from fatigue, and tapped the Navigational-Aid AI module mounted on the control console. It was still reading data-lock. Only Chryso had come out of their escape relatively unharmed. Well, him and the cat. Zarniac had been fine . . . until he opened the bag with the cat in it. One fairly brutal mauling later, Chryso had dubbed the thing Hateful Many-Talons in the traditional style of his homeworld. Duh-rhen had managed to pull the thing off of him, but lost his grip on the vicious predator and let it shoot into the air ducts. They had managed to get it out, but not without additional damage to Duh-rehn. Ironically, he seemed to have the most affection for “Hatey Kitty” or just “Hatey” as he usually called it.

Tilly sighed, and tapped the frozen AI box one more time, knowing it was hopeless. They were stuck on their route unless Cas suddenly developed an affinity for astrophysics and the ability to interface with the guidance system, and she seemed too busy hanging out with Duh-rhen and Hatey in the “sick bay”. It was really just a bench and some padding next to the medical kit in a supply closet. Cas had said something about her “discovering the features of her new and seemingly persistent human form under Duh-rhen’s guidance.” Whatever that meant. Chryso was looking after Zarn in his bunk, but all that amounted to was administering antibiotics every 6 hours and letting him take a hit of whatever was in his vaporizer. Zarn’s eye was in a bad way, and it didn’t look like it was going to ever heal properly, let alone the rest of his face. His trusted second had come back from the cockpit very quiet after they had made their escape, and neither he nor Cas had wanted to talk about why.

There was a gut-wrenching lurch as space unfolded around them, and he prepared to make the thruster burn to compensate for the gravity of Cygnus X-1 with practiced and smooth precision. Except for one small problem, there was no gravity to compensate for.

He did a double take, looking for the massive, unmissable distorting pull that should have been drawing him into oblivion right that moment. A cacophony of exotic radiation and gravitational distortion should have been pounding away at his sensor array, but it was nothing but the faint afterglow of the warp-prow radiation. He checked every scrap of data he had, and then checked it again, trying to keep a composed and regal air even as he, at least internally, was screaming at a steadily increasing pitch. No black hole meant no slingshot, no slingshot meant not enough fuel to make the next leg of the trip, and not enough fuel meant slow miserable death as either the air, ration paste, or heat ran out on the ship.

He had half a mind to just open the cargo bay and look for a black hole, just to be sure, but as he triple and quadruple checked his readings, he was finally convinced there was truly nothing out there.

The math checked out, they should be caught in Cygnus X-1’s pull. A quick consultation of the star charts said they were in the right place, the right celestial bodies were shining from the right angles for them to be orbiting a black hole right now. By every metric he could find, they were in the right place, but where was the damnable black hole?

It’s not like someone could have just wandered off with it, right?

——————————

Amonna hadn’t really had an appreciation for total, and absolute dark until the third day. Even in the blackness of space, starlight filters in and lights things up, but not there. Not in her little cell. In her little tomb. It was a strange cycle, the more frightened she was, the more her bio-luminescent spots lit up on her face and forearms. As she calmed down a bit, the faint neon blue light would fade, and she’d wind up trapped in that Stygian dark not quite certain of where she ended and the dead space-station began.

She had been surprised by how quickly she’d gone from ‘burning up’ to ‘freezing slowly’. In the end, it really wasn’t that wide a range of temperatures she could survive in. As the station grew colder and colder, it creaked and moaned with unsettling inconsistency. She could hear banging, thumping, screeching, and the shudder of the contracting steel superstructure through the floor. It was like a death rattle to her, one drawn out over hours and days, a dying thing that just wouldn’t finally let go.

Sort of like her, in a way. She felt an odd kinship with the dying station, in that regard. It’s heart was ripped out, its body was cooling, but somehow it still . . . struggled against it. That it struggled against fate too was reassuring, in a twisted way.

The strange squeaks and groans had become so commonplace, that roundabout the seventh day, she almost didn’t react to the sound of something banging against the door to the decontamination chamber.

At first, she thought it had to be a figment of her imagination. That she had invented someone or something to keep her company through the crushing isolation that came with her slow death.

The knocking kept happening though. Steady. Consistent. And then her wrist computer chimed softly. “To all  survivors, please respond on the emergency broadcast frequency. We will continue to broadcast this on sweep until the emergency response team has secured the entirety of the station. Help has arrived. This message will repeat in 30 seconds.”

To say she frantically fumbled with her wrist computer would be an understatement. “HERE! I’M HERE!” She practically screamed into the communicator, broadcasting across every channel she could tune it to. Her voice was hoarse and raspy from a mixture of dehydration and disuse, but what she lacked in finesse she made up for in volume. It took a few heart-stopping moments, but the reply came through in the same, mechanical, cool female voice that she had heard first. “Signal lock on successful. Due to excessive radiation levels in your area, retrieval may be delayed by up to two hours. If you expire during this time, do you have any ethical objections to aggressive reanimation treatment?”

Amonna blinked in surprise. The voice had been smooth and calm, almost strangely so. Clearly artificial but even AI’s had some semblance of emotion. This was just flat. “N-no? But I’m fine for now. Air is running low, but that won’t be a problem for 2 hours . . . probably.” She felt a little light headed as the words left her mouth, but she had lasted this long just fine, 2 hours was nothing compared to the 7 days she’d already spent in here.

“Remain calm. Help is on the way. Please do not resist retrieval.”

Amonna’s blood chilled a little at that.

“Why . . . would I resist?”

The tone of the voice shifted, ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly lower.

“Remain calm. Help is on the way. Please do not resist retrieval.”

With nowhere else to go, and no way to defend herself even if she wanted . . . she did her best to settle down, and remain calm.

——————————

Machinator watched over Verdock, monitoring his status. He had been 95% certain the captain would be dead, but as he watched rise and fall of his chest, the flicker of rapid eye movement behind pressed shut eyelids, he knew the Zylach was anything but dead. His body temperature had peaked at nearly 42 degrees Celsius, but hadn’t dropped back below 40. He had considered forcibly cooling his body with some of the advanced medical equipment on board the stolen Coryphaeus vessel, but as soon as he’d considered it the fever had started to come down. The vomiting had stopped at the 24 hour mark, but the introduction of intravenous feeding seemed to have brought on a 140 beat per minute persistent tachycardia. He had followed the plan to the letter, the cargo was secure, and they were on their way to the drop point, but treating Verdock had been a challenge he was unprepared for.

Everything else had gone according to plan. Why weren’t there any preparations made for this? Why didn’t he make arrangements for his own treatment? Why leave them in the dark?

The other security officers had taken up the running of the ship with little effort, most of the systems were automated in some fashion or another, and few of them were sentient. Those that resisted were neatly disabled by overrides. The weapon systems AI had been vocal about how they were all traitors and cowards, but Machinator didn’t blame it. He’d think the same thing too if he didn’t know the Captain the way he did.

He replaced the IV bag, the third one in almost an hour. The excess fluid was literally seeping through Verdock’s skin, which had taken on a much rougher, almost blotchy texture. Like a full body eczema, but worse. They were like burns radiating from the inside out, weeping plasma as skin sloughed off in wet sheets. It had some similarities to severe radiation poisoning, but a quick scan revealed nothing of that sort. He didn’t have the proper medical equipment to make a full diagnosis, but he guessed that there was something wrong with his kidneys as well. He’d tried to keep as much fluid in him as possible to counteract the open sores, but the clock was running out. He’d spent all day going over the details, trying to match the symptoms to any known disease, disorder, or injury in his admittedly limited field medicine database, when Verdock suddenly sat bolt upright.

Machinator reflexively hopped back slightly, the movement was so sudden and violent. Scraps of leathery grey flesh fell away, revealing fresh, pinkish growth beneath glistening with moisture.

“Machinator . . .” Verdock gasped. Yanking the IV out of his arm, his weepy, slightly distorted face pulled into a toothy, rictus grimace of pain as he tried to peel himself out of the now bloody cot he’d been resting in.

Machinator was speechless. Verdock shouldn’t have been alive, let alone up and talking.

“Machinator . . .” he repeated, this time deliberate and confidently. He unsteadily staggered forward, nearly falling before catching himself on Machinator’s shoulders.

His core process was overwhelmed with a sense of disbelief and amazement as he beheld his own friend standing under his own power, alive and talking. He didn’t remember him being this . . . tall, though.

“Machinator. Where’s the mess hall?” Verdock’s face split into a wide, sharp grin, and Machinator felt a very rare sensation.

Unease.

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