“Technically” Sentient: Chapter 20
had been amazed by the size of Waystation LS-49 when she first
arrived. With a nearly 60 meter high ceiling, the bulk transport she
had arrived in almost seemed small in the cavernous space. As she
looked out over “Auxiliary Hanger 2,” that sense of starry eyed
wonder she had felt as a younger, more naive girl returned. The
almost like a forgotten toy left on the floor rather than a warship
retrofitted for survey work. The security team that had set up a
cordon around it looked like insects, not heavily armed and armored
She took a deep breath, and tried to ignore the stabbing pain in her neck as she closed her eyes. It was easy to think of them all as toys from this elevated, distant, and secure observation deck, but this was far from a game. Three teams stacked up on the craft, two at the cargo door, and one under the “wing” of the vessel. She couldn’t make it out precisely, but she knew they were planting breaching explosives. They’d been trying to cut their way in with plasma torches for several minutes, but whatever meta-alloy the craft was made of seemed extremely resistant to heat. Drastic measures were needed, so a mixture of cryo-treatment and breaching explosives were being used.
The security chief swore that he had attempted a diplomatic resolution to the situation, but Amonna wasn’t terribly convinced. In the end though, it was a matter of picking her battles. She’d been very clear that she needed them for interrogation . . . and a healthy show of force might not be the worst way to start that process off, after all. She would tolerate the over-exuberance of her subordinates for now, if only because they weren’t disruptive enough to warrant censure.
She saw the flash, heard the muffled crack of high explosives, and watched 12 troopers pour into the little puffs of smoke made by their dynamic entry. A trio of them bounced back out, as if they’d run head long into a brick wall, and suddenly the fight was on. Too far away to catch the specifics, she watched as five little black motes struggled against one particularly large specimen. She leaned forward, gripping the hand railing of the observation deck with a white knuckled intensity.
“ . . . It can’t be you . . . can it?”
Her voice was low, and incredulous, but she knew without a doubt that it was.
“Arch-Judge?” One of her honor guard stepped forward, tone uncharacteristically inquisitive. “Could you please repeat your order more clearly?”
Amonna shook her head, face still bearing an expression of disbelief. “Get down to that ship. They’re going to need backup.” They snapped into motion without hesitation, a dozen sets of boots pounding out of the steel and glass chamber. “I need them alive!” She shouted after them as they disappeared down the corridor, shock turning to ire as she whirled back around to watch the battle in miniature unfold. They seemed to be afraid to draw any closer, but unwilling to back away and use their other weapons. She let out several choice oaths, furious with her own lack of foresight. “Of course you’d survive . . .”
If she’d warned them, maybe they could have used electro-convulsive devices, or maybe some kind of gas to debilitate the creature, but as it stood their less than lethal batons were probably like nothing more than toys to him.
She watched a particularly brave trooper rush him, and be sent flying for his hubris.
A frustrated snort escaped her, and she could only hope that her “Honor Guard” were skilled enough to bring a neat resolution to the unfolding disaster before her. She watched as he seized one trooper, and hurled them bodily into another of her officers scrambling to get away.
Cringing, she murmured under her breath “ . . . I’d settle for an ugly resolution at this point.”
Darren was breathing hard, and swinging harder. He’d managed to wrestle a baton from one of the black armored goons sent in to beat him, and he’d paid back their aggression with a fair bit of interest. He didn’t know how the others were faring inside the ship, but he had bigger concerns at the moment. A few warning swipes with the baton, cracked and chipped from the force of his blows, was enough to drive the military styled thugs back a few paces. A few of them had been put out of commission already, either by his fists or a hearty kick, but he could still see that he was surrounded. Outnumbered but not out-fought, he concluded. He was damn tired of getting randomly attacked by aliens. Without much time to dedicate to the thought, he decided that the galaxy was a lot more hostile than it had been made out to be on TV.
There was a crunching sound as he stepped into some of the shattered ceramic armor that had “fallen off” his attackers, and his head snapped side to side in a feral manner, like a cornered animal. The six or so black armored aliens backed off slightly, pulling their downed comrades with them to a safer distance behind hastily erected barricades.
For a moment, it almost seemed like they were giving up, and a brief flicker of hope ran through him. He took time to try and catch his breath, re-orient himself, and spent a few free seconds to try and think of a way out of this mess.
Then he saw the backup.
A dozen figures, in bulkier armor, carrying big guns. Maybe special forces, maybe SWAT, maybe just bigger meaner dudes, but he could read the writing on the wall. He braced himself, guard up and baton ready, for the lot of them to charge him.
Surprisingly, they didn’t. In fact, all but one of them held back while a single, particularly bold individual began to remove his helmet.
Darren had expected something exotic, strange, or downright disturbing. He expected huge eyes, or spines instead of hair, or maybe some kind of compound eyes, but what greeted him was far more disturbing to him.
It looked like a child. Not . . . not quite a child, but boyish. The stature was like that of a teenager, or maybe just a fairly small framed guy. It was bearing a crew cut and a firmly set expression, like any soldier might appear, but the almond shaped eyes, faint hint of freckles, and slight features were really what was putting him on his back foot. “What the . . .” were the only words he managed to mumble out before it threw its helmet at him.
Throw was really the wrong word for it, even. It was almost like a playful toss. A gentle lob, pitched underhand, like it was a game and he was supposed to catch it. Without thinking, he let go of the baton to catch the blackish, grayish ceramic armor piece, raising his arms in the process. The motion of this . . . childish alien was quick, and he almost missed it, but as he felt something strike him in the gut, he realized with a sudden surge of anger he’d been tricked. With a slight flourish, this new adversary had pulled something from it’s pocket and hit him in the gut with it from 15 paces. He could feel thin, sinewy coils wrapping around his abdomen, cinching down tight with a mechanical whirring sound.
“Fu-” was all he managed to gasp before he was hit with a surge of electricity, making his diaphragm spasm. It felt like he was drowning, like the air was too thick for him to breathe as his entire body went rigid. The current lasted what felt like minutes, his every muscle bursting in a burning pain as they cramped violently from the hammer-blow of current. There was a moment that their eyes met, and while he was struggling to remain conscious, Darren couldn’t really come to terms with such a youthful face twisted into such an expression of raw loathing.
A haymaker to the jaw ended his struggle, and dropped him to the deck with a dull thud, ending the several minute long standoff in as brutal a fashion as it had started.
Amonna was quite pleased with the performance of her “Honor Guard.” Not to put too fine a point on it, she was almost impressed with the speed they had resolved the situation. They had taken an uncontrolled disaster and almost instantly brought it to a neat, non-lethal end. The “Human,” as the medic on duty had identified it, was secure and largely uninjured. She wasn’t terribly surprised to find it uninjured, even though it had taken a blow that would have left either the Centaurian or Kontosian passengers permanently brain damaged. There was the question of minor damage to its central nervous system, but the medic had told her there was some kind of multi-layered fluid cushion protecting the human’s brain. It just tended to “re-boot” when struck too hard, and that gave the security team time to restrain it.
She’d instructed it kept under a ridiculous level of sedation until she had the chance to fully review the file she’d been given on its physiology, but from what she had skimmed the thing was a tank. Blended muscle fiber motor units, redundant blood filtration organs, hyperactive scar-tissue formation. Just from the cliff notes she could tell the thing was a low-tech apex predator.
She didn’t know how well she’d be able to interview an attack dog, but she’d give it a try.
As a last resort, in case she couldn’t get anything useful out of the others.
She leaned back in her chair, eyes wandering over the seemingly ever growing spread of classified documents, reports, interviews, and images she had on her desk. She snagged the Research Institute charter for the Indomitable Explorer, and scanned through it quickly. Registered to Tilantrius Zepp Warzapp the Third and Zarniac the Lesser, it appeared to be a legitimate survey operation. She had interviewed the two of them, and her initial suspicion was that this “Zarniac” character was coercing Tilantrius. Last images of Zarniac were of a healthy, if slightly haggard Centaurian, not the maimed, steely eyed, tight lipped navigator she had in a cell seven decks below her. Still, their stories checked out. He really had been badly injured in the hangar incident, and then again while making his escape from Waystation LS-49. A flicker of pity ran through her, and sense of morose kinship. She sighed, and continued on reading the interview transcript. Their account of events on the station matched her own, and the story of coming back to rescue the Human, apparently named “Duh-Rehn,” also sparked a chord of compassion in her. The Centaurians were a good sort, she decided. They’d been put through the wringer, and she believed them when they said they had done their best to comply with the conflicting commands they were given in the arrest process. The Kontosian on the other hand . . .
She’d grilled him for an hour, solid. When he stonewalled her, she had gotten “extra-curricular” with her interrogation methods. It had only taken a copy of her “Unlimited Mandate” in resolving the Waystation LS-49 issue to get him talking.
It had started, at least for him, innocently enough. He’d kill time between maintenance tickets by messaging random individuals on the q-net. Typically reserved for fairly high level communication, his engineering access let him utilize the most powerful FTL communications tech in the galaxy as a chat-room. That alone warranted maybe a negative quarterly performance review, it was who he began talking to that interested her. Chrysophylax, the little half cyborg red lizard she had entrusted the C.A.S.I.I. unit to, had been talking to some very dangerous sorts. While he confessed to picking up all kinds of dangerous skills, like how to build Class 2 energy weapons and modify AI cores, he swore up and down that he wasn’t responsible for what had happened on LS-49. There was a single user that had started messaging him consistently. At first he was terrified it was one of his co-workers, because they always seemed to know when he was busy and when he was free, but after figuring out what node they were logging into the galaxy wide system from, Chryso had concluded that they were just some kind of network penetration expert killing time at work too. A little more pressure, and he was telling Amonna everything they’d ever talked about.
This . . . character, only ever identifying themselves as “Seed_544” had been more than happy to talk everything from AI blue-box mechanics to firewall subversion techniques with Cryso. At least, according to him. It was always with the same casual air of superiority, and they always seemed to have some secret trick or insight he’d never heard of before. Chryso had always assumed they were either an AI killing unused processor cycles, or some kind of savant that didn’t know how to turn that part of their brain off, but they had been deeply, deeply intelligent. When they started offering solutions to some of his day to day problems, little subroutines he could install to keep unreliable systems working, or self-repair protocols to keep his workbench free, he’d seized them gladly and with both hands.
While rambling his occasional, almost aimless confessions continued to roll on and Amonna began to draw a much clearer picture of things. She suspected that “Seed_544” was not just some AI or savant, but a collection of individuals who had gotten close to Chrysophylax with the intention of infiltrating the station’s subroutines. They leveraged this unfettered access to take systematic control of the Drone officers in the FSOS department. She didn’t know how they managed to do it, but it seemed the only logical conclusion. The only thing that really kept her guessing was how Verdock was involved. He was clearly complicit and aided in this takeover, but she didn’t know how he was compromised. Maybe blackmail?
She put down the interrogation transcript, running her fingers through her hair just to busy them.
She’d expected problems with the C.A.S.I.I. unit. After what she’d seen, what she’d heard in Chryso’s workshop on the station, she knew whatever had been done to that little Social AI was bad. What she hadn’t expected was the amount of damage the core had suffered from overclocking. There was no way it was going to last more than another few years before its processors were completely burnt out. All of that didn’t hold a candle to the interview though.
The AI was non-responsive, as if it was in undergoing a system-safety reboot, but the entire thing was burning hot to the touch, clearly running at almost 90% processor output. It took a team of engineers to cobble together some way to begin diagnostics, and hopefully open a line of communication with the badly damaged and modified AI. While just about every single element was either encrypted or so radically restructured in terms of code that fixing it would prove to be a week long affair, they did manage to establish at least a rudimentary means of communication via command line inputs. They put 3 questions to it at Amonna’s behest.
“What was the Dolorous Star Massacre, what happened to Cygnus X-1, and the who are Cult of the Unfinished?”
The processor utilization was pegged at 100, and it took an emergency cooling unit to keep the thing from overloading entirely before they received a curt, and cryptic reply.
“My birth. My death. And my children. But not necessarily in that order.”