“Technically” Sentient: Chapter 6
Amonna grimaced as the stink of the maintenance deck washed over her. A mixture of ozone, oil, and stale air that was almost entirely dehumidified to better preserve electronics stung at her gills. She could hear the sound of heavy industrial machinery at work in the dark around her, the cavernous space clanging, thumping, grinding and clattering away. All of the machinery that kept the station a habitable place for the 25,000 or so organic lifeforms that called Waystation LS-49 home was built, maintained, and repaired here, autonomously.
Well, almost autonomously.
A single spotlight followed her from an overhead gantry, bathing her in a discomfortingly bright light. The only light, in fact, on the entire deck. It made sense, after all. Nothing down here needed light to see, and guests were not frequent enough to necessitate standard lighting. It was easier (and cheaper) to have a drone with a spotlight on it follow any visitors to maintenance around, so there she was. Alone in the almost pitch dark.
She tried to follow the line painted on the floor leading to “Neuromechanics Workshop”, but she could hear things . . . moving . . . in the dark around her. She knew they were harmless. They were just servo arms, or cargo loaders, or any number of perfectly mundane thing that in the light of day would be so unremarkable as to not even merit notice. But it was not the light of day, and though she couldn’t see them, she could feel the mechanical things moving beside her, before her, and above her in the dark. Occasionally a shadow would flicker through the light as some anti-grav courier drone delivered urgently needed components to some other region of the deck, propulsion unit whining softly. The pitch would get higher and higher, louder and louder, until suddenly she’d be momentarily lost in darkness as it blotted out the spotlight leading her onward. It would last less time than it took her to blink, but in that moment of Stygian black . . .
Something about it, the things moving in the dark around her, the sounds, the muffled groan of massive gantries, and the squeal of tiny servos reminded her of the ocean ravines of Promos. The oppressive dark, the strange smells, the bones of massive dead things just beyond sight. Though these dead things never were alive, being machines and all, somehow that just made it creepier. Maintenance was deep place anyone with good sense would avoid if at all possible. She felt like she was walking through the inside of some massive, submerged clockwork mechanism that was balefully aware of her presence and only tolerated such trespass out of twisted courtesy.
She nearly ran into the door to the Neuromechanics Workshop, her mind had wandered so far. As she stepped back, looking for an access panel or maybe an archaic lever she was supposed to pull, the door suddenly slid open with a series of dull thunks, and music started wafting gently from within.
“ . . . Didn’t start the fire . . . It was always burning since the world’s been turning . . .”
Her translator struggled with the precise meaning and meter, but it was a high end model, military grade, meant to try and capture implied subtext as well as subtle nuance, so it was acquitting itself well at the task. The ability to translate idioms had been sought after by the galactic art scene for hundreds of years with no effective solution, so it was quite a surprise when the military produced the first working model. As it turned out, being able to understand slang and metaphors was a pretty high priority for people trying to crack down on black market trade.
“ . . . Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again . . .”
Well . . . It didn’t get everything right. Because that made no sense. She stepped into the cluttered lab space, checking her wrist computer as she did so. According to the holographic readout . . . The C.A.S.I.I. unit should be in here. She scanned the surprisingly small space, dimly lit by a single fluorescent tube light dangling from a rack of esoteric tools she couldn’t fathom the purpose of. There was a table of what looked like micro-reactor parts, a bench seat that had an entire courier drone disassembled on it, a quantum blue-box hooked into what she assumed was a diagnostic tool, a heap of dirty red shop rags thrown on top of a rocket engine, all positioned around a massive Nano-Fabrication tank. Really it was just a fancy toolkit that could work on small things by remote, but it was still a marvel of tech.
“ . . . Wheel of fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide . . .”
Her nose wrinkled. “I’m looking for one ‘Chryso Pilaxis?” Her tone halfway between a demand and a question, calling into the back of the workshop.
The heap of dirty rags twitched.
Her gun cleared her holster before she even realized what she was doing, when the rocket engine stood up.
“You have reached he.” The . . . mostly . . . rocket engine said?
As ‘he’ turned around, and Amonna got a better look at him, she realized what she thought was a rocket engine covered in dirty shop rags was actually a Kontosian. Err . . . Part of one.
The moderate in stature, (at least, compared to her), scaled reptilian shuffled off of the bench towards her, a single cybernetic eye glowing as it blinked the other, natural one, blearily. “Sorry . . . “
“ . . . Didn’t start the fire, but when we’re gone, will it still burn on, and on, and-”
The music cut out suddenly as a mechanical arm mounted to the ceiling reached down and shut off an ancient looking audio playback device suspended by chains in one of the upper corners of the shop.
“ . . . Sorry, didn’t hear you over the music.” She looked the creature up and down thoroughly, trying to parcel out just what exactly she was looking at. One half of it was mostly chrome, or at least chrome covered in grime, and the other half was scales, almost perfectly bisected from top to bottom. The boundary between the two was made up of angry, puckered flesh that looked almost rotting and certainly painful. “Staring is rude.” The Kontosian gave her the same thorough look up and down she was giving it. “And if you’re here to cite me for illegal cybernetic augmentation use, I have the medical exemptions in the back.”
“N-no . . . That won’t be necessary. I’m here about a C.A.S.I.I. unit that was just dropped off . . . It has evidence I need, and I was hoping you could recover that. You are the only on staff technician, correct?” She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the incredibly extensive cybernetic work done to him, even as she smoothly re holstered her standard issue KP-7 sidearm. His single eye narrowed for a moment, but he sighed, and his posture visibly relaxed. “Well, I’m glad you’re not here to put me through the wringer about the augs again. But as for your AI, she’s scheduled for decommissioning. My work order has a big ‘D.A.T.’ written on it.” He plopped back down, and pulled a small electronic vaporizer out of his robes, and took a long drag of it, blowing smoke rings as he exhaled again.
Her snout wrinkled further as the chemical stink of smoke vapor assaulted her, and the small scaled creature chuckled at her discomfort as she couldn’t keep the look of displeasure from her face. “I’ve got a medical exemption for this too, before you get too up in arms.”
She waved the smoke away from her face with a free hand, scowling. “I’m a detective with FSOS, maybe you try not to make my life harder, and I try not to make yours harder. Also, D.A.T.?”
He couldn’t help but chuckle with a hint of smugness that she instantly hated. “Ma’am, with all due respect-” The way he said ‘respect’ indicated he didn’t mean any respect.
“-I’d be impressed if you made my life harder. I’ve lost 53% of my body to a degenerative genetic condition for which there is no cure, I am surrounded by degenerated and half insane AI’s as my only regular company. Well, that’s not true. Sometimes FSOS knocks on my door to either raise hell about how many augs I have. Or knocks on my door to cite me for modifying them to work half decently. Or sends a security drone to explain to me that the latest concentration of anti-inflammatory and pain-relief in my vaporizer is no longer legal. Oh, and D.A.T. means Disassemble and Trash.”
Amonna set her jaw firmly, before crossing her arms, and using her sheer size to her advantage. She loomed over him, teeth bared. “Well, 47% is a lot left. I need that data.”
She could see as he eyed the door, eyed her, and chewed the inside of his cheek, clearly weighing a series of options in his head. “Alright, fine. I disobey a direct order from Central Processing, you wave your magical FSOS badge all over the paperwork, and I give you a happy, healthy, functioning C.A.S.I.I. back, alright?”
She knew he caved too easy. Far too easy for someone so belligerent moments before. Her eyes narrowed. “ . . . You’re not telling me something.”
He snorted, a ring of smoke exiting his right nostril, and a thin stream of smoke leaking from under his cybernetic eye. “Yeah. A lot of things about the finer quantum fluctuations found inside an AI core, how to observe them without inadvertently changing them, and how to repair something that isn’t meant to be repairable. You want your data, I want permission to go about it carte blanche from the Frontier Social Order Service.”
Scoffing, Amonna shook her head. “No, I can’t give you blanket power like that, and I do mean can’t. It’s simply above my rank.”
The smoking dragon lizard scowled with the fleshy half of his face. “Fine, okay, great. You “can’t officially” let me do it my way. How about this, I test out some . . . esoteric repair techniques while you’re here . . . and you don’t tell anyone that I did them. We pretend that the data just sort of fell out when I plugged the C.A.S.I.I. in to decommission it fully. Best offer I’ll give you.”
Frustration quickly turned to confusion on her face as she weighed the option. “Esoteric? How so? What do you mean?”
“Eugh.” Chryso groaned. “I don’t have the time or the extensive library of technical literature required to get you up to speed on why this isn’t done . . . Okay, umm, you want me to get a suitcase on a train. The problem is, I don’t have a ticket, the train is moving at about 600 kilometers an hour, is filled with armed guards that will shoot unauthorized individuals on sight, and I don’t know what color the suitcase is in a car full of other suitcases. And I’m on a bicycle.”
Amonna blinked a few times. “So you’re saying it’s impossible for you to get me this data?”
The little dragon man grinned an unpleasantly wide, asymmetric grin. “No . . . I’m saying I know a guy with a hell of a bicycle, and I want you to stay here and keep me from getting a speeding ticket. The rest is a breeze for someone of my skill.”
Zarniac groaned quietly, head throbbing almost as much as his knee was. “Eugh . . . Where . . . What?”
“Ah, Zarniac, old chap . . . You’re alright there chum. Just take it easy.”
He managed to make his groan of annoyance sound like one of pain. Tilantius Zepp Warzapp the Third.
“Cap’n Tilly . . . Where are we?” He kept blinking, hoping the brightness would fade, and it finally did, as Tilly turned the bedside lamp off.
“Sorry about that lad, we’re in the station infirmary, if you’ll believe it.”
Zarniac looked down, the disposable bedding covering his lower body was rough, and heavy. Machines monitoring his vitals beeped and whirred softly, and he was most definitely in some kind of infirmary room. “ . . . What happened?”
The captain shifted uncomfortably, before placing his thin, three fingered hand on Zarniac’s shoulder. His voice was soft, but stern. Like an aristocratic father would sound. “You were . . . injured, in that nasty dust-up with Duh-Rhen. Seems that while they were trying to subdue the brute, they accidentally winged you with one of those kinetic pulse weapons. I’m . . . I’m very sorry . . . I don’t know how to put this Zarn, so I’ll say it the only way I can. They didn’t make it. None of them did.” He closed his large, bulbous eyes, and dipped his head. “I know it’s a lot to take in, and there’s no easy way to-”
“Wait did you just say they’re dead!?” Zarniac squeaked, voice cracking slightly.
The captain shifted even more uncomfortably. “Yes . . . Yes I’m afraid so.”
It was like a slap to the face. “Duh-Rhen . . . He . . . He died?”
Zarniac could hardly believe it. The way he had just . . . Shrugged off those blasts. He was sure he was okay. And the way he’d tried tending to him. Simple. Brutish. But every inch of him was loyal, steadfast, and kind . . . All that, while mortally wounded. Tears began to bead up at the corners of his large, starry-eyes. He’d only known him for moments . . . But to sacrifice himself like that, truly a noble soul-
“Oh, no. He’s fine. Under arrest for triple homicide, but I’m told in at least passable health. I was talking about your Jandoorian friends. They were asking about you at the market when I bought the Hurliphump cartridges. Did . . . You hit your head when you fell, Zarniac?”
Darren was watching the desk guards. They were strange, colorful fish like people. He wondered briefly if they got along with the shark detective at all. He chuckled at the thought of it, then he winced from the abdominal spasming caused by the chuckle.
The whole being arrested was kind of a new experience for him. First, the robots dragged him up here, and dragged was entirely the appropriate word. They’d had him get down on his knees for what he assumed was a high-tech mugshot. They scanned his face, eye swollen up to what felt like the size of a baseball, blood leaking from his nose. Like that was going to be good for identifying him. After the mugshot, they took more . . . scans, he guessed, of him, head to toe. They had to do some of them twice, first they put the machine around his legs and torso, then moved the scanning machine to the top of a desk to get his upper body. They took him to a cell . . . That he didn’t fit through the door of, then took him to a much larger, much sturdier looking cell that looked out into the area they’d taken his mug shot.
He’d never been in a prison cell before, but he had been in a drunk tank to pick up co-workers. And this was definitely a drunk tank. Lots of shiny metal and far less puke smell, but there was no mistaking the four benches and single toilet surrounded by floor to ceiling bars.
“ . . . So damnably huge. We tried loading him into one of the solitary cells, but . . . We literally couldn’t get him through the door.”
His translator crackled. They hadn’t taken it off of him, which he supposed was nice, but he wished they’d either whisper quiet enough that it couldn’t hear them, or do their gossiping further away.
“I saw the medical scans . . . His insides look like tenderized synth-meat, like they sell at the carnivore restaurants.”
“ . . . Get this, I had my friend in forensics send me the initial forensics report, they say that he took at least 14 PK shots to the torso alone. No idea what species that is, but I’m glad they sent Mono to deal with it.”
He tried to ignore them by tilting his head back, and pinching his nose until the bleeding stopped or he threw up from swallowing too much blood. That’d give them something to chatter about for sure.
He’d been there for what he guessed was three hours before he finally managed to fall asleep on one of the benches.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, he didn’t get to stay asleep.
He was awoken to the sound of high pitched wailing, almost squawking, as the door to the drunk tank rattled open. His translator beeped to life a few moments later.
“-I’ll have your fucking badge you jumped up, algae sucking, pond-water guzzling, glorified security guard! I will sue this department so hard they’ll be renting the inside of your cells for ad-space you . . . You . . . You fucks! I’m a goddamn solicitor! I know the fucking law, and I-”
It was by this time that Darren had gotten tired of the angry, squawking, bird like creature that was assaulting his ears with its incessant stream of expletives when he slowly sat up, bench creaking slightly beneath him.
“I . . . I . . .”
The vulture like creature turned slowly to face him, swallowing hard as its voice decreased in volume from a shout to a faint whisper.
Darren looked up at the two officers, colorful fish people, that had just been on the receiving end of some colorful language.
“You’re absolutely right Mr. Glint-Feather, you are a solicitor. And you do know the law. 8 hours of detox for someone found to have been on synthetic-adrenaline in a comedown-cell. We don’t have any cells that fit the big guy, so he has to be contained with a reasonable degree of force and comfort, as is dictated by FSOS code 12-81. What’s your name again big fella?”
The fish officers smiled, and nodded. “That’s right. Duh-Rehn . . . Tell them what you’re in here for.”
Darren, not particularly in the mood for anyone’s shit, let alone loud and annoying bird shit, saw exactly what game the officers were playing. Asshole lawyer, strung out on drugs, thinks he’s above the law. Above the law and has decided being aggressively belligerent is the best way to improve his situation. Because . . . well, the bit where he’s strung out on drugs. On the one hand, seeing a vulture in what had to be the futuristic space equivalent of a suit was hilarious. On the other hand, incoherent bird noises while he was trying to recover from what was almost certainly a concussion . . . Less amusing. Doing what the space cops wanted . . . A necessary sacrifice to be made for the good of everyone in the precinct.
“Some birds shot me. Birds like you.”
He leaned down a little bit, just enough to really get into this guy’s personal space.
“Dead birds now.”
He had a hunch his translator was oversimplifying some of his more complex turns of phrase . . . but he was pretty sure this one came through loud and clear.
An acrid smell filled the air, like ammonia mixed with bile. And then the vulture in a considerably soggier suit, quietly cleared his throat, stepped backwards until he was pressed against the bars, and quietly whispered. “I will sign and date a written confession to anything you want, just let me out of this cell . . . right . . . now. Oh by whatever is good in the universe I thought it was a structural component of the cell.”
The door opened, the bird nearly tripped over himself trying to scramble into the cuffs waiting for him, and Darren got a good night of sleep. Well, he wasn’t sure it was night, but considering how bad his everything hurt, he was sure as shit done for the day.