Alecha managed four steps toward the gallery’s gravlift before Jadyn grabbed her shoulder, abruptly dragging her to a stop. “Hold on.”
“She just said—”
“She’s lying,” Jadyn asserted.
Astonishment spread through the vixen’s countenance. Her incredulous stare remained fixed on him as he let her shoulder go. “She can lie? To you?”
“T’bia and I have a very unique working relationship,” he gently explained, scratching distractedly at an itch on his left bicep. “She’s kept me a generally sane and reasonable individual over the many years we’ve traveled together by attempting to drive me crazy at every opportunity she gets. At times it is inconvenient to parse what exactly she’s relating, to sift the information and the noise… This one’s easy. She knows I’m nearly asleep on my feet, so she thinks she doesn’t have to try very hard. There’s one glaring error in what she told us about Tari that gives it away.”
“I thought my performance was exemplary,” T’bia appraised over the comm channel.
“Yes, but you like Tari. If there was any sort of serious problem it would be the first thing out of your mouth—not the last.”
“Jadyn…” Alecha uttered, her eyes drifting to their bracelets. A few seconds’ silence persisted as she reconsidered whatever she was about to relate. “We need to have a discussion later.”
“If you’re concerned because she can lie to me—”
“She’s your AI. If she can lie to you, she can lie to anyone about anything. I can’t pretend that I understand what you’ve gone through together, but… No, no. One crisis at a time.” Pivoting on her toes, she resumed her stride toward the lift. The urgency in her gait was gone, but concern still weighed on her shoulders. “T’bia—what’s Tari’s status, really?”
“He called me a liar,” rebutted the AI. “Since my credibility is now in question, you’ll just have to come see for yourself.”
“That might not be helping your case right now,” Jadyn whispered, giving his arm another scratch.
Rothrr trudged out of an access conduit, sneezing violently and shaking out his pelt. “The bioconductor is destroyed approximately fifteen meters along the run from this point.”
“Figures.” Flicking through a schematic, Toliya drew a slash through the line indicating the nearby wiring. “That leaves us two linked cores out of eight. Allegedly, that’s not enough to boot this particular AI.”
“Allegedly,” the vulden wearily agreed, another sneeze punctuating the word. “I must congratulate you. The repellant you concocted is quite pervasive. I do not believe any creature with even the most rudimentary of olfactory awareness will remain in proximity for more than a minimally necessary amount of time.”
“That’s nice.” Toy stared at the schematic, tapping the backside of the display device with a claw. “Diagnostics might work on two, but we’re still sunk for anything else until we tie in a third. I suppose I could slap together some more converters and run regular lengths of wire… The interface isn’t exactly simple or cheap to put together. Figuring out the dendrite and axion connection points… Not going to be fun. These conductors are way larger than the ones we replaced on the Serin. Any of your crew specialize in molecular neurosurgery?”
“Not that I am aware.” Sitting back on his haunches, Rothrr let out a yawn. “I must apologize, but I will be of little further technical use this evening. My kit reports its onboard power cell is nearing depletion. It will take several hours to recharge.”
“Hm? Oh. We have been at it a while. You’re welcome to charge it from my generator. I’ll turn up the induction field.”
“Thank you.” Trundling up to the cart, the vulden crouched down. A short series of clicks along his spine signaled the release of the harness’ magnetic locks. Four thin stands dropped down, gently lifting it off his torso. With practiced ease he wriggled out from underneath the exoskeleton. “‹I neglected to ask if your translator handles Vuldanni.›”
“So long as only one of you is trying to talk at once.” Toy examined the exposed contacts along Rothrr’s neck and back as the vulden stretched his legs. “Does the interface still give you trouble?”
“‹Yes. I reduced the data rate as you suggested and it has alleviated the extremes of the discomfort, but doing so has greatly cut into the efficiency and response times. Unfortunately, the wider bandwidth potential of the newest hardware appears at fault—my peers utilizing this particular variant suffer migraines as well. In a way, I am lucky I only experience headaches. A few have developed seizures and worse.›”
“I, ah… I heard a rumor that someone died not long ago. Was that from this?”
“‹Yes. Her name was Ühona.›” Rothrr peered up at Toliya, his head cocked at a slant. “‹Do you intend to continue working through the night?›”
“Well, I wasn’t, but… I don’t know. The sooner we have Sanusin running, the sooner he can help fix whatever he did to Tieralyene. I’m not quite sure what to do at this point aside from synchronizing the two connected cores and attempting to force them to load his code from the library. It shouldn’t work, but it might give us something to debug against in the meantime.”
“‹It strikes me that we have two distinct issues. One: an AI that is theoretically software-viable but cannot execute due to compromised hardware integrity. Two: an AI with compromised code, but hardware that is otherwise theoretically stable. Can we not combine the working parts of each?›”
“I wish. The ARIA core is older tech, by Val’Traxan standards. It’s a mix of their organic biotech and inorganic mineral technology. Tieralyene and T’bia reside on what they call a TBIA core, which is completely organic. Neither core can run AI software built against the other hardware platform.”
“‹Perhaps a virtualization layer is in order, to emulate the older hardware on the newer.›”
“I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’d take years to come up with a stable solution. Even so—we’d still need three viable cores linked together.”
Rothrr grunted, leaping to the top of the cart. Carefully avoiding the controls, he turned in three circles before settling down on top of the generator and resting his head on his tail. “‹If we are virtualizing the hardware in a single core that is more advanced than the one it is emulating, is it not conceivable that it could emulate the required trio simultaneously in three separate virtual environments?›”
Toliya scratched at his nose as he considered the possibility. “Maybe,” he finally conceded. “In any case, I need to move all this test equipment back up to one of the cores that’s still linked in. Are you going to sleep right there?”
“‹The harmonics of the generator are quite soothing,›” he replied, closing his eyes.
Alecha was first into the suite’s bedroom. Her initial instinct was to determine Tari’s condition—but without a proper scanner in hand, her ability to formulate a well-rounded opinion was limited to only what all her senses could provide. What she could see in the vixen’s aura explained much of the problem, however: Tari was utterly exhausted. It was no surprise that she wouldn’t wake up.
Jadyn wasn’t far behind. A single pace into the room, he stopped dead. Alecha felt something ethereal snap between Jadyn and Tari, like a rope suddenly placed under extreme tension; he grabbed at his upper arm, clenching his jaw tightly shut.
“You weren’t kidding,” he managed, his voice laden with torment.
“No,” T’bia confirmed. “But, you were right that I’m not concerned—she’s more than likely simply tired after what she helped pull off today. I’ve given her a tiny glucose boost to carry her through the morning, but I’m going to keep an eye on her vitals tonight.”
Jadyn tried to take another step forward, his knees on the verge of giving out. Alecha helped steady him long enough to pull a chair under him. A pained laugh escaped his throat, tears leaking down the fur of his cheeks as he squeezed his left arm again. “Oh, Light… She wasn’t kidding, either… She didn’t mention the burning coals floating in the lemon juice…”
“What’s wrong with you, now?” The skunk haphazardly waved the medical scanner’s probe around him. Gawking at the readout she made a second methodical and far slower pass. “I don’t usually see readings like this unless you’ve managed to nearly kill yourself.”
Alecha squinted, tracing the energy flow between the two mates. “Jadyn, what’s this dark flicker between you and Tari?”
“A gigantic screw-up on my part, from what I’ve been led to believe. I, ah… I can’t stay in here… It might help her, but… I… I have to put some distance between us… Void, I don’t even know if that’ll work, but it didn’t really hit until I came in the room…”
“Jay,” Tari whispered, her voice quiet and sad. The two medics glanced at each other before looking over to the bed. She’d sat up, now awake and alert… but only just. “I’m sorry. Some distance should help. I’m trying to slow it down, but I can’t do anything more. I don’t even have enough in me to change forms—”
He shook his head. “It’s not your fault.”
“Yes, it is. You know that as well as I do.” The snowy vixen let out a resigned sigh. “I won’t be offended. I wouldn’t want to be sitting there going through that, either.”
“Did I tell you I attended a few wedding ceremonies while I was doing the research?” he questioned, fighting his way back to his feet. Alecha watched his aura flicker in even greater distress as he approached the bed and knelt on the covers beside Tarioshi. “There was a recurring theme to the promises I heard. It varied here and there, but generally the sentiment was that one would stand beside their partner ‘in successes and failures, in sickness and in health.’ We’ve both had our share of all of the above so far.”
“And to think we haven’t taken any vows. You haven’t even proposed.”
“If we’re trying to pass you off as a half-proper Val’Traxan, you should know that in our tradition, that’s not strictly my job. It’s also not necessary for the majority of mates.” He lifted her left hand, giving it a gentle nuzzle. “Vow or not, I’ll stand beside you when you need me. Though, from time to time, I might prefer to sit.”
A smile cracked over her muzzle; she leaned forward, pulling him into a brief embrace. “It’s worse than the lemon juice on flayed flesh example I told you about, isn’t it?”
“Reconstituted with boiling hot ocean water.”
Tari traced his cheek, giving him a little pat. “I’ll make it easy for you, then. Get the hell out.”
“Love you, too.” Sliding off the bed, Jadyn shot T’bia a glance and held out a trembling hand. “Hypospray.”
“Where’d you leave your medkit?”
“Upstairs. Hypospray, now.”
The AI grunted, tugging the medication unit out of her emergency kit. Tapping the buttons on the side, Jadyn pressed it against his arm and cycled it, squinted, and followed it up three more times before passing it back. “So much for that idea. Presuming I don’t tip over before I make it there, I’ll be asleep in the gallery if you need me. Please don’t need me for at least the next fourteen hours.”
“No promises,” T’bia replied, examining the settings he’d used. “How in the Light and Void are you still standing?”
“It’s not even making a dent. Good night.”
The three watched the door close as he left the room, Tari rubbing her arm distractedly. Alecha took the hypospray from T’bia, her eyes wide as she examined the cocktail of painkillers he’d given himself. “That should have killed him on the spot.”
“At least three times over,” T’bia confirmed. “You haven’t been around him enough to know this, but he absolutely abhors taking any medications for anything. The only time I can force any into him is when he’s so badly hurt that he can’t physically stop me. That he actually hit himself with not just a single dose of that size but four…? Whatever pain he’s experiencing would probably have killed anyone else outright.”
“It has been rumored,” Tari mumbled.
“Do you want us to leave too?” Alecha asked of Tari.
“I didn’t want him to leave. I just won’t put him through that—he doesn’t deserve it. He probably knew he was helping me despite what it was doing to him.” Tari looked at her hands, slowly working from fist to unclenched and back again—five digits on each hand, Alecha observed. Her tails weren’t visible with the way she’d tugged the blanket around herself. Her feet, however, were sticking out beyond the bottom of the sheets—flat-footed, like T’bia.
“Yes?” she asked, looking up from her quiet appraisal.
“There is an old story on my homeworld. It tells of a man who was ordered by messengers of a higher power to take his family and flee his home before the city around it was destroyed. They told him not to look back. Under no circumstances should anyone look back. His wife—his mate—she looked back… And was instantly turned into a pillar of salt.”
“The chemical processes required for that to actually happen are rather unlikely,” Alecha replied. “The most abundant metal in the average body is calcium, not sodium. I don’t think I have much to worry about, unless you’re telling me you’re also a messenger of a ‘higher power’ capable of such an act?”
“Gods, no. My own people think I should be.” Staring at her toes, Tari shook her head. “They hoped I was some sort of sign. I disappointed a lot of them.”
“I… I’d rather not go into that, if you don’t mind? It would probably make things look way worse than they do already. I really shouldn’t have said anything.” Tari sighed, resting her hands in her lap. “Look… I’m sorry that you had to see what you did. Understanding the very little that I do about your beliefs, I didn’t want you to see me like that—like this—because I didn’t want either of us to have to deal with an existential crisis. I don’t know what you’re thinking about me now, but I definitely don’t want you to believe I’m some sort of… I don’t know. Some sort of saint or messenger or whatever else. I’m not. I’m just me.”
“Here’s what I think.” Alecha settled down on the side of the bed, taking over the spot Jadyn had vacated. T’bia stepped up beside them and held out two bowls of various fruits. “Oh, thank you.”
“Jadyn made the selections. Not even replicated—Pakar had everything brought up fresh from Veloria. The larger round berries are in season right now, but I’m sure they’re all quite good.”
“They look sort of like grapes,” Tari appraised, biting into one. “If grapes had hints of lime…”
“Reminds me of mesac-fruit, that little touch of sour.” The salt and pepper vixen held one up in the light, watching droplets of water sparkle on the orange skin. “What do they call these?”
“Clustervine berries,” T’bia answered. “The sliced up violet wedges are a fruit called a rose-ball. The yellow disks are actually something I’m sure Tari’s familiar with, but around here they’re called ‘maydran-pannea.’”
Curious, the snowy vixen lifted a slice to her tongue. “It’s… a banana?”
“Banana…” Alecha repeated, sampling the pulpy fruit. “Interesting. I don’t think we had anything quite like this.”
“A similar plant was around but no one ever thought it was worth the effort to domesticate it into an edible fruit. The genetics involved… Well, I’ll show you another time. It’s really quite the mess.” T’bia snapped her medkit shut. “Since you two don’t need me around, I’m going back to the J’Ruhn. Don’t stay up too late.”
Briefly studying a violet wedge, Alecha took a nibble and nodded approvingly to herself. “Before you go… Was I correct in my assessment?”
T’bia gave no sign of acknowledgment aside from a second’s hesitation at the door. “Call me if you need anything.”
As soon as they were alone, Tari shifted uncomfortably on the bed. “What was that about?”
“I don’t like the idea that she can lie to me—or to anyone else, for that matter. You’ll find that most Artisans prefer face-to-face meetings. It gives us a better sense of whom we’re dealing with. We can’t pick up on subtle hints in the aura of others across a commlink. Obviously, we can’t read AIs at all.”
“T’bia has an aura of sorts, though,” Tari pointed out.
“That’s just the biotech in her mobile emitter and her core. It’s a residual effect more than anything else.”
“I… I think you’d better look a little closer,” she suggested. “I’m not remotely an expert on your technology, but it seems like there’s more to her aura than just a lingering bit of science.”
“She still shouldn’t be able to lie to us. No AI should. It completely undermines the implicit trust we place in them.” Alecha rubbed her nose. “Sorry. I’ve gone way off track.”
“No, please, keep going. I’d love to talk about anything else.”
“No doubt.” Tracing a finger along her bowl of fruit, Alecha gestured briefly at the blankets. “Hiding them?”
“I can’t stomach a shapeshift right now—er, rather, you and he call it ‘shapedancing.’ I didn’t give my appearance a lot of thought when I first met Jadyn. I was around him for a week or two like this before taking on a proper Val’Traxan form, but even that change didn’t alter my appearance much. If I’d known what I know now…”
“For what it’s worth? I don’t think you’re the Kshorahii. There’s a few parallels at first glance that are enough to make someone wonder, I’ll admit—”
“You could ask me outright. Would the Kshorahii lie if confronted directly?”
“No. I don’t believe so… But until today, I believed our AIs couldn’t lie, either. And there’s the lingering fear that I might hear something I’m not prepared to hear.”
“Ask,” Tari stated.
Alecha remained silent, the question on her tongue, but unable to progress further.
A smirk pulled at the corners of Tari’s mouth. “Are you sure it’s fear?”
“What else would it be?”
“Hope, perhaps. As long as you don’t confirm a result, the possibility for either is still there.” Tari looked at the blanket, suddenly giggling. “I’m sorry… I just had a flashback to this morning. There’s this thing back home they call Schrodinger’s Cat—What did Jadyn call it…”
“The Nulani Paradox,” T’bia immediately supplied from Tari’s bracelet.
“Ah.” Alecha nodded to herself. “I suppose that’s about where I’m sitting, yes.”
“There is one problem, though. You’re working on the premise that if I am your Kshorahii, I wouldn’t lie to you, and therefore wouldn’t answer ‘no’ if the truth was actually ‘yes.’”
“Right…” Alecha dubiously agreed.
“However, if I’m really not, I could still answer ‘yes.’ So a ‘yes’ answer could either be ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
“But a ‘no…’ It would have to be… Er…” Alecha frowned, studying Tari’s poorly restrained grin. “You… You don’t strike me as the kind of person who would lie about something like that.”
“And T’bia doesn’t strike me as someone who would lie about something unless there was a very good reason. Granted, she’s a little eccentric—”
“You take that back right now,” T’bia demanded. “It’s a deep understatement of reality.”
“Okay, she’s a lot eccentric,” Tari resumed, “but I can’t think of a single truly malicious act on her part. Everything I’ve watched her do has been done with the best long-term intentions in mind.”
Looking down at her own hands, Alecha gently stroked a finger in contemplation. “T’bia. Are you capable of lying to everyone?”
“Yes. That answer itself may be a lie, for what it’s worth.”
“True,” she replied. “Either way, I don’t like the implications. How does Jadyn function when he can’t trust you?”
“When it matters, I don’t steer him wrong. Get it? That was supposed to be funny, because usually I’m also piloting the ship.”
Alecha’s focus fell back on Tari after contemplating the AI’s response. “I don’t know if I really want an answer to the question still in front of me…”
“Just ask,” Tari insisted once more, her grin growing wider. “And trust me.”
“Gods,” she muttered, touching her forehead. Every beat of her heart sent a wave of pain through her skull. Of course, it wasn’t her skull—nor was it her forehead or hand or even her heart beating in her chest. But damn if this body didn’t hurt.
She sat up in the relative darkness, eyeballing the starry sky above and the planet floating on the horizon. This could prove the hardest aspect to acclimate to—always waking up in a strange place, not knowing what was going on or who was around. The fleeting glimpse of his bedroom, then an office of some design, and now this place—whatever or wherever it was. Was this to be her fate, a hellish and sporadic existence meted out in fleeting periods of lucidity as punishment for some unknown transgression? Or was this merely a brief reprieve before complete oblivion? She wasn’t sure which to hope for.
That she was awake, of course, meant he was once again asleep. She tried to stand up but inertia foiled the attempt, immediately sending her sprawling to the floor. Mixed in with the ongoing pain and the fresh dose from her fall, she realized, was a thick layer of mud in her thoughts. Reactions were slow. Balance was off. The effects of a strong drug, perhaps. But he hated using pharmaceuticals—
Did he? Yes, he definitely hated drugging himself. The chemical cloud it created in his thoughts interfered with reaching for the Art. The sensation of pain also served as a reminder. Firstly, that he was alive; secondly, that, for some reason, he’d recently been an idiot.
She considered how she knew that particular detail of his psyche as she crawled back onto the futon. Was it a transient memory from their prior fusion, or was it new from the current predicament? Besides that…What level of trauma had prompted the change in heart regarding that particular antipathy? It was on par with his aversion toward firing a particle beam weapon of any variety.
Squinting, she briefly pondered where that one came from.
Even with the quiet serenity of the star-filled room and the effects of the drugs slowing her thoughts, she couldn’t quite fall asleep. It was too quiet. Too…artificial. Sure, those were really the stars beyond that window, but the constructs allowing the vantage point to exist at all were not natural. Maybe with affinity toward the Heavens, this place would be more relaxing.
If she was going to let the body get any rest at all, it would have to be somewhere other than here. With careful determination, she managed to force her unstable legs into a rhythm. Working her way to the gravlift and then through the suite proper, she boarded the main lift leading to the rest of the station. The controls glowed through the dim nighttime light levels, that foreign language both illegible and familiar, as she contemplated a destination.