“Technically” Sentient: Chapter 3
Zarniac the Lesser blinked his nictitating membranes in a mixture of annoyance and fatigue. Annoyance from the corrections he had been forced to make to their expedition path, as the route-helper AI had bungled their slingshot of Cygnus X-1, and fatigue from having to walk halfway across Waystation LS-49 to file the findings of their last expedition.
It seemed to him that his life’s work was not in fact to explore new worlds, document new life-forms, and write the scholarly papers that would be revered as the wisdom of the ages (as it had been advertised to him). It would seem he was in fact a glorified mechanic, accountant, cook, copyboy, secretary, and, with disturbing frequency, miracle worker. Minus the glorified bit. If anything, he felt he was rather underappreciated, considering the level of fly-by-night genius it took to keep the Indomitable Voyager actually… voyaging. It was, by all means, a historical relic in its own right; the fact that it even had a crew meant the vessel was a sign of its age.
He leaned back in his navigator’s console and placed his hands over his eyes to block out the ambient light. The dull pounding in the center of his large, grey, bulbous head wasn’t getting any better. He was told that the next generation of Centaurians wouldn’t have headaches from light sensitivity – they said that about the last 3 generations too. He groaned audibly as the door to the cockpit opened, and in rattled . . . him. Captain Tilantrius Zepp Warzapp theThird.
Captain Tilantrius Zepp Warzapp the Third, or “Captain Tilly” as he preferred to be addressed, was the object of Zarniac’s unmitigated, undivided, and unrelenting loathing*.* A clone of a clone of a ‘great explorer’ that had been one of the first to make contact with galactic civilization nearly a thousand years ago, his status was assured from the moment he began gestating. While Centaurian society was a meritocracy there was no way to really stop nepotism entirely, so Captain Tilly’s familial connections kept the credits rolling in smoothly. The trust that owned the ship also paid for the voyages it went on, and the noble Warzapp lineage continued to push the boundaries of known space, at least in name.
‘Tilly’s’ crimson doublet was studded with medals, ribbons, and other frilly bits that made him jingle when he walked, and he never left his quarters without it. Combined with the brass rimmed ‘sun goggles’ of ancient solar explorers, he cut quite the dashing figure for a Centaurian. When one added in irrepressible cheer and his undeniable panache, the end result was that Tilantrius was incredibly well liked by just about everyone he’d ever worked with – except Zarniac. Zarniac possessed an unflinching, unremitting, unbounded hatred for the small grey male that technically owned the ship and signed his paycheck, and it had everything to do with the conversation they were about to have.
The captain, jingling into the confined control room of the ship, let out a quiet chuff. “Ahh, had a bit too much of the Rest and Relaxation lad?” Captain Tilly’s capital world upbringing shone through whenever he spoke, and while the accent had sounded high class and refined when Zarniac first met him, now it simply served as a herald to something incredibly stupid happening. A three fingered hand clasped Zarniac on the shoulder gently. Zarniac, eyes still closed, sighed quietly.
“Just resting my eyes. Has your stipend cleared yet?”
The hand left his shoulder, and a few soft chimes came from the captain’s wrist mounted artificial adjutant.
“Indeed, I’ve transferred the remaining funds to your account to keep the ol’ girl in tip-top shape.”
Zarniac’s blood ran cold. “. . . remaining?”
He didn’t open his eyes, he didn’t move, he didn’t even inhale after the words left his body. The captain’s words seemed distant, as if being overheard from a cabin away.
“Yes, I managed to find a delightful chap selling Hurliphump cartridges. I’ve got all three of them in my study, and they look absolutely fantastic, though to be frank I think I half paid for the story about how he got them.” The captain chuckled as Zarniac’s aortic arches sank to the pit of his stomach, entirely unaware of the disaster he was currently causing. “Quite funny, I always thought. The further from civilization we travel, the easier it is to find interesting things! Almost like fortune itself is paving our way. Well, see to it that we’re stocked and ready to make FTL within the next few days; Oxygen and mooring fees don’t pay for themselves you know!”
Hurliphump cartridges. While they would make an excellent talking point if the captain were say, entertaining Jandoorian Hunters, they would be largely useless when the very same sort came to collect on the ‘personal loans’ that Zarniac had taken out to cover the operation of the ship.
It had been a calculated risk: He knew that the retrofits to the sensor array data collection system had to be done and certified, or else any results they acquired while surveying would count for nothing. Without the survey data, their findings would be deemed ‘hearsay’. If their findings were hearsay, then they wouldn’t receive a grant from the Centaurian Office of Natural History. A government credit grant came with a half a dozen tax exemptions, many of which were double digit percentage values. Without that . . . they wouldn’t be able to afford fuel. Without fuel, they didn’t fly. If they couldn’t fly . . . Zarniac couldn’t get his name published on an academic paper. If he couldn’t get his name on an academic paper . . . he’d never manage to draw enough academic fame to merit a gene therapy treatment, and clone-birth on the capital world. He’d been a damned border jockey for six clone iterations. Six! He was starting to degrade on a genetic level between all the damned solar radiation he dealt with and the cheap AI operated revivification pods he’d had to use over the last 80 years. He forced himself to breathe once he heard the door to the captain’s cabin close with a soft hiss.
“Okay . . . well . . . now I just need to find a way to come up with 3000 credits before the Jandoorian Mafia breaks my legs. Easy problem . . . easy problem. Time to work miracles . . .”
— — — — — — — — — — —
Cas wanted to sigh. She wanted to huff. She wanted to pout, and perform all of the small nonverbal cues that would inform the rugged and …dashing creature sitting on the far side of the desk in her incredibly cramped office that she was irritated with it. Him.
“ . . . we can’t send you back.”
The human, not bound by any form of statute or apparent courtesy, was sighing, huffing, pouting, and performing all manner of verbal and nonverbal cues informing her that he was very irritated with her.
“Okay, so, it’s not your fault I’m here. It’s not my fault I’m here. So let’s get who’s fault it is that I’m here, and make thempay for my transport ride home.”
Cas cleared her virtual throat. “As I said before . . . space travel is expensive. The amount of energy required to accelerate something to a fraction of the speed of light is immense. Energy is not inherently expensive. But, add enough orders of magnitude to something cheap . . . and it becomes expensive. As for finding a person to blame – the only thing at fault was a regulation distribution subroutine that was disabled by a probe AI to ‘save space’ in its memory matrix.”
The human – Darren, she reminded herself, as it liked to be called, became very upset by this.
“So that’s your answer!? ‘Oh hey, nobody’s really at fault, so you just have to live in the space ghetto until you die working a dead end job just to breathe!?”
Cas’s digital avatar blinked. “While that’s a gross oversimplification of your current situation . . . yes?”
And that’s when he threw the chair at her.
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Zarniac was in trouble of a rather unique variety, as there was very little trouble quite like credit trouble involving Jandoorians. Not to be speciesist, but they were not very nice creatures. Being entirely carnivorous and accidentally uplifted due to improper disposal of manufactured goods that hadn’t met quality control standards, they had started out mean and had only gotten worse. Naturally evolved as opportunistic hunters and carrion scavengers, that mentality had carried over into their business dealings with surprising effectiveness. They were almost always underhanded, unscrupulous, unusually profitable – for them. Their interest rates were criminally high because their clients weren’t Central Bank certified debtors, and quick credit with no limits and no terms was great . . . if you didn’t mind breaking the law.
The real key was being capable of paying them back exactly on time.
Zarniac thought he was more than capable of paying them back exactly on time. Then he idly wondered if they’d start with his right leg or his left. As he was coming about to sincerely hoping that he could find an inexpensive hover-chair, his miserable train of thought was interrupted by a soft beep on his communications terminal. Hoping that it was an automated receipt for the hydrogen and atmospheric probes he’d ordered, he opened it without looking. “Zaaaaaarn . . . my little grey pal . . . “
The unmistakable screech of a poorly translated Jandoorian made him shoot straight up in his seat. He spun his chair around to face the comms console, his circulatory system shooting into overdrive out of panic.
“H-hey Wind-Sliver . . . h-how’s it going?” He managed stammer out a response, but only barely.
“You know . . . same old . . . same old. You haven’t . . . made the transfer . . .”
Zarniac tried to swallow the lump in his throat, but only managed to choke up even more. “I-it’s, you know . . . uhh, the funniest thing really . . .”
The red and black vulture-like avian clicked it’s flesh tearing beak at the camera, cutting Zarn off. “No lies . . . it’s rude . .. and we’re such good friends . . . Zaaaarn. Don’t be . . . rude . . . to your friends.”
He tried to steady himself by placing his hands on his knees, which only served to remind him of what they were going to do after if he didn’t make the credits appear in by the end of this conversation. “I uhh . . . I’m gonna get the credits to you, no worries p-pal . . .” He managed to squeak out in a very quiet, high pitched tone that would go on to later be described by a linguistics AI as ‘the exact opposite of reassuring and confident.’
“Don’t have the money? . . . Did you . . . blow it all on . . . cartridges?” The bird biped squawked savagely, and held up a gold and silver Hurliphump cartridge in its feathery, clawed grip. The cylindrical, blunt ended archaic implements that the captain had blown a substantive portion of their budget on . . . were purchased from his loan shark. They knew he couldn’t pay, because they were the reason he couldn’t pay. They trapped him using his captain’s penchant for expensive things and his own ambition. Under normal circumstances that’d actually have impressed him a bit, the sheer cunning of it all. The fact that he couldn’t feel his legs due to the spike of fear overwhelming his senses was just apropos.
“We’ll be by later . . . to take some collateral . . . and the interest rate just doubled.” The signal cut out, and Zarniac let out a quiet moan of despair as his body melted back into the comfortable, if about to be repossessed, navigators chair.
His mind raced.
His brain strained.
His hope . . . well it held in there.
There was a solution . . . there had to be. He just needed a little help. Just . . . just a little pick-me-up. He leaned forward, brow furrowed, and began searching the net. He had a cargo loader that was busted up, and on its last legs, but if someone would buy it, that would cover at least the first payment of his loan. Wind-Sliver, the heartless vulture, didn’t want to break his legs, he just wanted money. So if he could throw money his way, that’d save his knees until he could get off this damnable station. A little bit of creative navigation work, and a few formal requests for transfer, and the Indomitable Voyager would be making port so far away that Wind-Sliver wouldn’t even be able to find it on a galactic map.
The advantages of being frontier explorers, he supposed.
With a wry grin he began throwing together as persuasive a sales pitch as he could, trying to unload the old auto-loader as a ‘fixer upper’ for a new pilot or cargo team. He posted the sales offer to the net, and got 4 responses from AI’s instantly . . . and all of them wanted it as a collectors piece. For a third his asking price. He grimaced . . . but hastily arranged the sale, wondering if Wind-Sliver had an AI making lowball offers on his stuff too.
“Wouldn’t put it past you . . .” Zarniac muttered to no-one in particular. He watched the credits roll into his account . . . and then back out again as he fired off a transfer to Wind-Sliver, with the memo “No need to stop by. Just a processingdelay. These things happen. -Zarniac” He grinned smugly at the turn of events. If they showed up now . . . he’d just call Municipal Enforcement on them, let that bloodsucking bird brain try and shake down fully combat capable peacekeeper drones. His comms console chirped again, this time it actually was an automated receipt.
His head drooped until it gently rested against the console. “ . . . now I need to figure out how to load all the cargo with no loader.”
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Cas had managed to calm the human Darren through logic, emotional insight, de-escalation techniques, and genuine empathy.
At least, that’s what she put in the report after she cut the camera feeds in her office and hit him with 50,000 volts of electricity to the chest. She had no idea what the effect was going to be on his already limited intelligence, but it was already drastically improving his disposition towards his new life – particularly when she explained how acquiring a job would allow him to save up money to purchase a ticket home, and that if he had a job, she would no longer have any reason to interact with him whatsoever.
“And look! You already have an offer, so stop looking so glum, get up off the floor, and let’s get you to an interview.” She smiled, and reached down to help him up off the floor. Uncurling from the fetal position, he pushed her hand away with a scowl. He struggled to stand, failed, collapsed twice, and then very begrudgingly accepted her help to get to his feet.
“Look at you, standing after that much voltage! Most creatures would be on fire, or worse, and you’re already off to your first interview! Has this provided the necessary positive reinforcement to restore favorable terms to our relationship after the physical violence I was forced to employ against you?”
Darren scowled, and shuffle stepped out of the office, ignoring her while nursing the spot where his knee had slammed against a stack of chairs. He grumbled something under his breath he didn’t think she would hear, to which Cas responded “I’m not actually capable of asexual reproduction, though I can understand how a limited intelligence like your own might mistake me being able to make copies of my own software for reproducing with myself. Also, you’re going the wrong way. It seems the navigator of Indomitable Voyager is actively looking to hire a Medium Scale Durable Goods Kinetic Manipulation Technician. With just a little bit of on the job training, you’ll actually be qualified for that!”