“Technically” Sentient: Chapter 19
Amonna was still alone, standing in
the cavernous VR chamber. She scanned the walls, examining each of the
hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny hard light emitters. It was certainly more
complex than anything she’d ever seen on the Waystation. As fascinating as it
was, she only had a few minutes to get to the bridge, so she could ill afford
to spend her time contemplating the finer details of hard light. As she moved
to exit the VR chamber, it the general held her attentions. Vrang was . . .
puzzling, and his questions even more so. She shook her head sharply, as if
trying to forcibly empty her head of existential fears. She had no use for
things like that, not now. Self-doubt was a luxury she could ill afford . . .
Her thoughts were interrupted by the steady tempo of heavy boots, and as she sealed the door to the VR chamber behind her, the march came to a sharp halt. A barking order rang out, but her translator didn’t recognize it . . . something that should have been impossible.
“Arch-Judge Tav! Coryphaeus Honor Guard, reporting as ordered!” There was the unmistakable crispness of military discipline, like every interaction she’d had aboard the vessel, but there was almost a raw edge to his voice. Her interactions with the Admiral, and Vrang had all carried a calculating, measured tone, but this was discipline of a different flavor. This was fervor. This was zeal. As she turned to face whomever had come to accost her, she was met with a solid dozen figures, arrayed in two neat columns, facing her, at sharp attention.
Her eyes narrowed, and she took a moment to really take them in. They were almost motionless, as still as living bodies could be. They were carbon copies of one another, figures clad in glossy black ceramic armor from head to toe. Dozens of elegant, silver buckles and latches covered in fine scrollwork clashed sharply with the utilitarian sheen of armored plates. Archaic looking knee high marching boots with all terrain soles added to the strange clash of style and pragmatism. While each of them were carrying a three-barreled rifle of some kind, the strange mixture of sleek black and gilded components made it appear as more of a work of art than a lethal weapon.
“Honor Guard?” She finally said, eyes still searching them over. She’d only seen a few Coryphaeus troopers in her time, but these definitely looked . . . different. The armor was bulkier, and covered in various pouches for gear. The helmets, usually angular, sleek, and pressurized, now left the lower half of the face open, and didn’t even have a neck seal. The armor had compensated for that with a fairly pronounced gorget rising up from the chest-piece, but it certainly wasn’t meant for use in a compromised environment.
The lead figure on the left, somehow, managed to stand up a little straighter. “General Vrang requested a detachment to shadow you. Permission to speak freely.”
It took a few moments for Amonna to realize that was supposed to be a question, not a statement. She nodded subtly at the figure, and she found herself staring at the only visible flesh of the one addressing her; a dour expression, drawn in a thin line across the only patch his helmet didn’t cover, was all she could see. “Permission granted.”
The soldier, or perhaps marine . . . she wasn’t sure which he would be, saluted sharply. “It was the opinion of General Vrang, and myself, that you have not been shown the proper decorum your rank demands.” There was a very pointed pause in his words. “Nor do you seem to understand the weight it carries. This honor guard is intended to act as that weight, and stands ready, able, and wholly willing to enforce that decorum.”
Amonna glanced over her shoulder down the corridor. Vrang had only left a few moments ago . . . had he been waiting for her to arrive to saddle her with this group? Or were they being placed here to keep an eye on her? Maybe he hadn’t taken to being interrupted in the VR chamber too kindly . . .
The . . . trooper, shifted slightly, drawing her attention back to the present. “And if I refuse this “Honor Guard?”
He remained stone faced, but the long pause made it readily apparent that either he was struggling to come up with a response, or that wasn’t an option to begin with. Amonna sighed, quietly, and let her head droop.
“I’m heading for the bridge. Can you Honor Guard me there?”
All 12 of them snapped their heels together sharply, saluting in unison, before flowing past her neatly on both sides. They readyied their weapons at what she assumed was some fashion reserved for drill and parade with a chorus of sharp clacks. As the formation, now finished reforming around her, came to a halt, she found herself in a neat bubble of midnight clad troops. Two ranks stood ahead of her, and two ranks stood behind her as well. As she glanced up and down the now far more crowded corridor, she couldn’t help but wonder why Vrang had orchestrated all of this. As she took a tentative first step towards the bridge another barking order rang out, and the cadre of black armored figures moved with her apace.
The voyage to the bridge was silent, save for the rhythmic stamp of marching and the occasional order to clear the hallway. Amonna internally suspected that this “guard” was just Vrang’s way of keeping tabs on her, but didn’t give voice to such concerns. No point. She felt the subtle tremor of the ship decelerating, and with a vessel as large at this it would take some time. Enough time for her to get to the bridge, or so she thought.
The bridge itself was situated in an unusual fashion, or what Amonna thought to be an unusual fashion. A single, broad avenue led in and out of the bridge, which was nested securely in the very heart of the ship. As her guard led her from one of the small, narrow side corridors, she was absolutely stunned by the massive size of the space she was in. Thick girders and archways populated the space above her head, with armored gantries every few hundred feet. She could faintly make out what almost looked like weapon emplacements in the shadowed space above the lighting strips. There had to be at least 20 meters of headroom above her, and then another 20 meters of crisscrossing braces above that. It reminded her of a thicket, almost. A carefully woven bramble of alloy vines, and large caliber thorns guarding the most important room on the ship. At the heart of that thicket sat a massive, iron gray sphere.
On the one hand, it seemed a waste of both space and resources to be this prepared for a boarding action . . . the days of ships clashing together and offloading marines were long, long past. Occasionally there’d be a distress signal, a ship would pull alongside and be boarded by thieves, pirates, and brigands, but . . . this was a Coryphaeus warship. That would be tantamount to suicide, not even a madman would try something like that.
The passageway sloped gently upward towards this core, which as she examined it seemed to have no shortage of marring on its surface. Warped metal, drawn out into strange barbs jutted viciously from one side, while the other seemed to have a deep furrow running across it. There were intermittent patches of discoloration, the kind caused by incredible heat, and no small shortage of pitted craters that adorned it’s shadowed surface. It stunned her for a moment, looking at the scarred heart of the vessel. The scale of weaponry required to work such wounds, and the tenacity of a vessel to survive them were both staggering. As she scanned the other, adjoining surfaces, she noticed a distinct lack of similar damage, meaning one of two things. Either everything around the bridge had been replaced, or the bridge itself had been salvaged from another, ruined warship.
Perhaps they weren’t as daft as she thought to be ready for a boarding action . . .
Once they entered the main corridor, the column of troopers escorting her split, and fanned out into an inner and outer ring. The movement was completed with practiced and fluid precision, like 12 bodies moving with a single mind. With even intervals of about a meter between each of them, they took up nearly one third of the avenue leading to the bridge, parting the flow of crew around them the way a great stone might part a river.
A single ensign strayed just a few paces closer than the rest. He seemed preoccupied, eyes fixed on the tablet in his hands. Amonna paid him no heed until one of her “Honor Guard” lashed out at him. She heard the dull, fleshy sound of a blow to the gut, and her head snapped around to watch the ensign let out a faint wheeze of surprise as he was doubled over. A single, black armored figure shoved him roughly to the side, sending him sprawling and his tablet skittering with a loud clatter. Trying to push himself to his feet while spewing a mixture of surprised and indignant curses, the ensign stopped dead as he looked up to three barrels of lethal weapon pointed straight at his head. The bearer of said weapon, still moving with perfect precision and pacing, offered no more explanation than a silent, unflinching expression of raw indifference.
She stopped dead in her tracks, part from shock, part from outrage. That was assault, no doubt in her mind about it. A personal feud maybe? Perhaps the reeling, gray suited ensign had-
“This ensign violated your security cordon. Do you have a summary judgment to render?”
Summary judgment to render. The trooper, his rifle still leveled at the helpless and now very afraid looking ensign, had spoken clearly and without hesitation, but Amonna still struggled to understand. He couldn’t mean . . . he couldn’t possibly mean what he obviously meant. That would be madness, that would be . . . beyond tyranny. Barbaric, sadistic, and bald-faced insanity is what he proposed. To . . . to put someone on their knees for standing too close?
Her and the ensign’s eyes met, for a moment. His were filled with fear, hurt, and bewildered betrayal. Hers were filled with regret, sorrow, and disgust. “ . . . No. No judgment to render.” She kept her tone low and soft, and at her words the trooper lowered his weapon slowly. Every figure on the causeway was motionless, and all eyes were fixed on her.
“So this was the weight that Vrang spoke of . . .” she muttered, nearly silent, under her breath.
As she scanned the frozen crowd, she spoke clearly and with a confidence that she certainly hoped seemed genuine. “You have your duties. As I have mine. Guard . . . with me.” She punctuated the blanket order with a subtle nod, and the world seemed to slowly trundle back into motion. The world around her seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, and Amona ascended the remainder of the causeway to the war-scarred heart of the ship.
They crossed the threshold into the bridge further incident, something that Amonna was deeply grateful for. The space of the bridge may have been cavernous, but room to stand was at a premium. The honor guard closed ranks to compensate, neatly forming a carapace wall around Amonna in a fashion she found . . . oddly comforting. They blocked her from sight, and in a that saved her from the sidelong glares of mixed wariness and distrust.
The bridge chatter grew quiet as she entered, and she took a moment to survey the nerve center of the massive capital ship. It was in stark contrast to every other part of the ship, a strange and incongruous insertion of bright displays and organic shapes into what was otherwise a linear, ordered, and gray toned vessel. The bridge itself was a hollow sphere, with hundreds of consoles and displays covering the inner surface. Elegant, sleek, and displaying a dizzying volume of information across their bright white holographic readouts, the bulky and crude chairs welded to them seemed an almost out of place afterthought, like a retrofit. Officers of varying rank and seniority strode up and down the inner walls of the sphere, navigating the maze of workstations like a swarm of insectoid drones. The dull thunk of their magnetized boots mingled with the buzz of technical data call-outs and communications chatter, and the vast sensory overload was enough to make her ears fold back involuntarily.
Suspended at the very heart of the bridge on the end of the steadily tapering causeway was a single chair. Surrounded in what appeared to be a field of stars, charts, and figures, a familiar face aggressively typed away at the hard light projections surrounding her. “This is Admiral Chase, to all shipboard personnel: We’ll have completed deceleration from warp in 60 seconds, move to readiness level 2.” Amonna recognized the voice from her disastrous meeting the day before, and as she looked to the admiral’s chair in the center of the bridge they made brief eye contact. The Admiral’s cold set of eyes walked over her, logged her as a minor detail, and returned to the myriad screens surrounding her. Her order was relayed a dozen times into dozens of different communication devices, and a single stray through crept through Amonna’s mind.
Shouldn’t there be an AI control system?
At the very least, shouldn’t there be a single, combined system capable of performing a ship-wide broadcast?
The entire place was an strange juxtaposition of technology more advanced than any she’d seen before and almost archaic methodology. The clock ticked down steadily, and then, with a barely perceptible lurch, the ship dropped into orbit around Cygnus X-1. Or at least, it should have.
Alarms began blaring sharply, and the entire bridge flew into a flurry of activity. A half dozen white screen flashed red, and a full dozen crew-members began shouting orders into communication links. It looked like utter bedlam, until Admiral Chase pushed herself up from her chair and began calmly firing off orders at individual stations. Like an unflinching pillar of stone in the eye of a hurricane, she began directing the chaotic mess into an ordered response. From the few tidbits that Amonna was able to glean effectively, the allegedly impossible had happened.
It was easier than Amonna had expected, being a fly on the wall in such a crisis. As the situation was brought to heel, she gleaned several very interesting tidbits of information in slow succession. One, Cygnus X-1 wasn’t just in the wrong place, it was absolutely gone. As in, some force had removed it from existence. A specialist team of astrophysicists aboard the vessel had been consulted, and after reviewing extensive data on the subtle gravitational distortions that now saturated this region of space, revealed a second tantalizing clue. The black hole had been neatly flayed apart, steadily unspooled layer by layer. The idea seemed ridiculous, even to them, but something of incredible power had generated a powerful gravitational field that had teased the black hole apart, piece by piece. The only thing that should have been able to do that would be . . . well another black hole, and the end result of 2 black holes interacting should have been one larger black hole, not zero black holes. While they were frantically going over the math, trying to find out if that hypothesis was even remotely credible, they were absolutely certain that what they were looking at was a unique stellar phenomena. Unique, or so rare that it had only been recorded once in 8 billion years. The third, and as far as she was concerned, most substantive clue, was that floating about three hundred and eighty million miles away, was a tiny little survey craft registered as “The Indomitable Explorer.” She knew that name.
She wracked her brain in silence, expression twisted into a scowl as she strained her memory for details.
It was an impossibly familiar name. She thought back to lists of known pirate vessels, tech traders, even overdue docking fees . . . and came up with nothing. Nothing, until she thought back to her last shift before everything had gone to hell. A cargo technician. Duh-Rehn. A handful of Jandoorian extortionists. 4 dead, two wounded, and a mess of paperwork. That was the ship he was loading up.
She wasn’t the only Wastation LS-49 survivor.
“Admiral!” She raised her voice. It wasn’t a shout, wasn’t a bellow, it was only barely loud enough to be heard over the tumultuous din of the bridge. Admiral Chase’s head snapped around, eyes filled with indignation at the gall of Amonna to interrupt the flawlessly orchestrated feat of command that was going on before her. Amonna let several seconds of silence drag on, her interjection bringing the bridge to a silent halt.
“Yes, Arch-Judge?” The words clear, and without a hint of rebuke, but Amonna knew that Admiral Chase was simmering with irritation beneath her icy surface.
“I have need of the vessel “The Indomitable Explorer.” Intact, and undamaged, their crew unharmed and ready for interview. It is necessary for my investigation.” While Chase may have been able to execute a perfect, emotionless facade, Amonna couldn’t help but show a little satisfaction in giving Chase an order. After all, that’s what she’d asked for during their meeting.