Awakening, Part 13

The ship was creepy in the dark.

Fortunately for Alecha, she had too many things on her mind to notice as she meandered down the empty corridors. This section of the ship was still without power, which was generally fine for her needs. She simply needed somewhere to walk and think until she reached her destination.

She hadn’t slept entirely well. Exhausted though she was from overuse of her gifts, her concerns about waking the rest of the sleepers kept any restful slumber at bay. Data pulled both from her cryopod and Kaler’s was of essentially no use. That was not to say the data was a problem—no, everything was perfectly in order. That was the problem.

Based on everything she thought she had learned about cryogenics, both of their revivals were statistical impossibilities. They were outliers beyond the outliers of normal outliers. Could a reasonably healthy individual survive across centuries in cryosleep? Theoretically, yes. Would a simple and relatively painless recovery follow? Absolutely not.

The reverent val’traxan in her was certainly thankful to the Spirits that both she and Kaler were exceptionally healthy. The scientist in her was upset with their obnoxiously inexplicable recoveries. There was nothing abnormal to latch on to, and thus there was no guaranteed way to repeat the outcome. Alecha had to accept that the data was a dead end, and that had proven very hard to do.

For lack of sleep, she’d hoped that watching Kaler would provide some flash of insight. That too proved fruitless: everything that both the monitoring equipment and her own senses could tell her simply reinforced the fact that her mate was a healthy young male whose recovery from cold sleep was progressing arguably better than her own.

To draw her mind away, Alecha had decided to focus on a few menial but necessary tasks around the medical bay. She was marginally curious about how the section was powered while so many areas around it were still dark, but that was an engineering question better suited for someone else. Instead, she delved instead into an inventory. The medical bay would be an essential area once more revivals were underway, especially if the pods themselves could not be trusted to handle the full sequence, and it needed appropriate supplies on hand. While the official inventory manifest was inaccessible, she had a sense of basics that should be present. As she quickly discovered, the area had seen significant use over the years. Many critical pieces of equipment were missing altogether and a large quantity of other minor supplies had been expended.

To compound the issue, Tier had stopped refreshing some of the more perishable supplies at some point during the journey. After disposing of the remains, Alecha had set out to the biolabs to see what would be required to restock the more crucial of the items. It was unlikely that the labs were powered, but she could at least investigate those supplies in the meantime.

That, at least, had been her intent at the start. As she walked on through the dark corridors, her path only dimly lit by her bracelet, doubts clouded over her hopes. Fewer and fewer signs of habitation met her as she descended deeper into the ship. The stale air here hadn’t circulated in some time. Little flowerbeds dotting the junctions of corridors were no more than mounds of dirt, the once-thriving flora long since decomposed back into the soil.

It greatly surprised her, then, to find light spilling out of an open door when she rounded a corner in the lab section. As she approached, she sensed a distinct draft and freshness in the air that hadn’t been present elsewhere on her walk. Curious as to what was going on, she stopped just outside the door and peeked inside.

The room’s normal lighting was on, illuminating a large hovercart in the center of the room. A mess of cabling ran from equipment on the cart to the console and wall panel beside the door, its cover neatly removed and set aside. All the other equipment was shut down save for one lone cloning vat and its partially disassembled control console. Several spherical lights hovered in the air above it, shining light helpfully into the innards of the device, while a grubby vulpinoid attempted to work the controls with little apparent success. Alecha could see several errors on the screen and was fairly certain several of them were due to the additional wires running from the hovering cart to the controls.

The worker—perhaps a velorian, she surmised, with her limited knowledge of the locals—was completely focused in translations and hadn’t heard her approach over the background hum of the devices around him. After observing his actions for several minutes, she settled for a polite cough.

The young male flinched and turned, his eyes briefly going wide as he saw her. To his credit, he managed to get his reaction under control reasonably quickly. “Good morning,” he managed. “You must be Miss Rutemin?”

“That would be a fair assumption,” she replied, surprised that he knew who she was. “You are?”

“Keya Deshin, ma’am. I’m in charge of a number of biotech related repair tasks in our team.”

“Well, you’ve certainly gone out of your way to get away from any working part of the ship,” Alecha quipped. “I’m not one to talk, I suppose, but I at least know where I’m trying to go—what exactly are you doing down here?”

“I’m trying to get life support running on a wider scale. Right now, I’m a bit stumped on how this ship is producing fresh air at all.” He shifted uncomfortably on his chair, trying to keep his focus on the work in front of him and not on her.

“There are plenty of air recyclers all over the ship,” she replied, training materials coming to mind. Everyone, despite their primary missions on the crew, overlapped into other areas in varying amounts. Regardless of who woke up in the end there was a decent chance that the survivors could take care of the ship. That plan still assumed several hundred actually woke up. She hadn’t personally excelled greatly in engineering, but some of the basics stuck with her. “The filter media contains a small group of simple, artificially derived organisms that break down carbon dioxide and remove other pollutants. Since there is fresh air in some parts of the ship, some of them are working.”

“I made the same assumption at first.” He flipped to another portion of his translation guide, scanning for the phrase that had blinked across the controls. Apparently, whatever was allowing them to converse was not so advanced as to also interpret what was on the readouts. “I started checking in the most recently inhabited areas. I needed samples to examine so I could fix other scrubbers, and there were plenty pushing air around. As soon as I opened them up I discovered that none were actually producing oxygen. The other cleaning functions weren’t much better.”

Alecha frowned. As she recalled, air recyclers were supposedly hard to damage. Perhaps centuries on end were too much to ask of them. “Do you have any idea what’s wrong with them?”

Keya turned to his cart, sorting hurriedly through the datapads, and extracted one to the top of the pile. With only a few taps, a holographic schematic of what she assumed was an internal scan of an air recycler appeared in the air. “The working principle isn’t too different from our technology—I think so, at least—even though the stuff inside is way different. Based on what I could tell they all failed in exactly the same way. The biofilm responsible for regenerating the unit is completely dead.” The picture changed, showing a colorful growth over part of the equipment. “I had to shut several of them completely down because mold was forming on the substrate. I don’t think we want mold spores proliferating through the ship any more than they already have.”

“Did mold cause the damage?”

“I don’t think so. It’s too weak. The biofilm should have been able to fight it off without a problem. Something else managed to overwhelm the scrubber’s ability to regenerate damage.”

“Strange.” Alecha could tell Keya was uncomfortable with her presence and she had half an idea as to why. Unfortunately for the young male, she wasn’t in an accommodating mood. “But that,” she said, pointing at the rather sensitive piece of hardware in front of him, “is not an air recycler.”

“I know what it is,” he replied, his ears flipping back at her assertion. “It’s a small vat capable of producing living tissue from a stored DNA and cytoplasm signature. Quire ingenious, really. If it was operational it would beat most of what our labs are capable of—combined.”

“I see.” So he at least knew what he was working on, even if he was having issues. “And what are you trying to do to it?”

“I need cell cultures to grow new components and I can’t find any working scrubbers to take them from. If I can get this thing running it’ll be handy for other spare parts too. Commander Halio actually suggested this lab, in case you’re wondering if I bothered to consult with anyone.”

She had been wondering, but remained quiet. After a pause, Keya took a breath and continued.

“I started by asking her for living samples. I thought that maybe since the Serin is based from the same technology, she might have them on hand. Apparently the designers went with a different approach. I’m not sure if I completely got it right, but I think her interior walls are covered with a regenerative tissue layer of some sort—Yes, finally! There we are… Wait, no.” Keya looked momentarily thrilled as the console went through part of the startup phase before failing with an error once more. “Damn it. Anyway, she looked up the component patterns and made a list of what I’d need as well as some items other teams will need.”

“Makes sense,” Alecha offered. “I have a few things I’d like generated as well. Why don’t we start off by authorizing this device properly? This is a specialized piece of equipment. We don’t let just anyone walk in expecting to build the next great supervirus.”

“Is that what this is trying to tell me?” Keya asked. “That I don’t have permission?”

“In part,” she replied, walking to the console. The velorian immediately stood, giving her the space at the controls while he moved to the opposite side of the vat in a relative hurry.

“My apologies,” Alecha spoke sourly. “I didn’t mean to intrude on your personal space.”

“Um… Sorry,” Keya spoke, the embarrassment in his voice diffusing her annoyance. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea that I get your scent on me.”

Alecha looked at him, not sure what to say.

“Um…” Keya stuttered, fidgeting with the only datapad remaining in reach. “How much do you know about Velorians?”

“Not nearly enough, it appears.”

“My mate,” he explained. “She’s in the last days of her pregnancy. I shouldn’t actually leave her when she’s so close… If I came back with the scent of another female on me—and worse, if she finds out that it was someone both very attractive and working with me while completely naked? She’d be very unhappy with me.”

Alecha understood that one. It could be Tari’s outbursts all over again with the onset of labor added in the mix. “You could just not tell her that part. She…might understand?”

“Oh, she’d understand. She just wouldn’t be very happy. The way the air stales in this ship, I need to be careful.”

Alecha frowned, looking out the door. “Come to think of it, air is circulating right outside. In here, too.”

“We can’t rely on that. I tried tracking the currents but every time I think I’m getting somewhere the currents shift and the trail runs out. The isotope composition of the air is constantly changing too.”

Isotopes? she thought, going over emergency procedures in her head. There was one system that would lace the air with isotopes. “Replicators. If life support fails, the emergency procedure is to use replicators to generate air. They have emergency power available.”

“How is the air disposed of?” Keya asked. “The only efficient way to replicate atmosphere in large quantities would be bubbles of highly compressed air. Reclaiming the stale air would be inefficient because it’s at normal pressure and less dense. Clearly it’s going somewhere—there’s no noticeable increase in pressure on board.”

Alecha puzzled over that. Something wasn’t quite right. “I’m pretty sure it’s vented off.”

“Ah… That would explain both the shifting currents and the isotopes,” he spoke, noting something on his datapad. “Switching around the active replicators and the venting points together with adjusting gates within the ventilation system… That explains why the vulden complain about an ever-changing maze in there. It would keep air circulating through the ship even in an emergency situation. Cunning. Who designed all this?”

“A lot of very smart people,” she replied, realizing what was bothering her. “But what’s controlling it?”

“It’s your ship. You tell me. There must be some sort of emergency system to handle it,” Keya surmised.

“No. The AI systems are normally responsible. They have so many backups and redundancies they’re never supposed to fail.”

“And yet they did.”

Alecha grimaced at his dry remark. “It might be possible to set something like this up in a single section, manually, but not across the entire ship. There’s nothing running that can coordinate something of this magnitude. Are you sure it’s shipwide?”

The velorian consulted another datapad, his fur starting to stand on end. “It’s happening in every area we have sensors in, changing all the time…”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m sorry. I’m an engineer on an alien vessel that was just told by the only person who seems to know much of anything about that vessel that an unknown automation system is in control of a large number of matter emitters.” He took a breath. “It also can control the gates in the ventilation system and is capable of evacuating atmosphere. Any idea how selective its friend versus foe identification might be?”

A loud bang from the direction of the door made them both jump. Keya ducked behind the vat for cover as Alecha spun around, primed to defend herself. With Nature in short supply on board she turned instead to Air, drawing a few strands of energy together and building a defense while she scanned the room. The room console’s paneling, previously leaning against the wall, had flipped over and was now resting flat on the floor with scraping sounds coming up from underneath. Alecha tilted her head curiously, trying to get a feel for what was on the other side. A moment later the flat panelling lifted itself up several inches and silently floated out of the way, too smooth and quiet to be natural.

As she watched, ready for whatever was encroaching on the room, the panel settled to the side revealing a section of ventilated grating on the floor. A number of clicking latches later the grating popped open, revealing a small foxen nose followed by a matching foxen head. Two large ears popped forward attentively as they pushed through the gap, the nose snuffling at the air.

Alecha relaxed, releasing the Air energy into a harmless puff of wind that stirred the dust around her feet. The small quadruped turned its head slightly, fixing her with a look of intelligence that contradicted its animalistic appearance.

“Good morning,” it greeted in almost flawless Kametian, its mouth not actually moving. The voice echoed up around the ventilation hole its head was sticking out of. While the voice itself did lean toward the masculine, the scent wafting from the conduit confirmed the creature was male. “Vel’Rutemin, I presume?”

“Yes,” Alecha confirmed. “You are…?”

“I am Orrthra. I apologize, but have you seen a Mister Deshin around here? Red furred velorian, biotech engineer, perhaps a little soiled from working? This is listed as his last known position—”

“I’m here,” Keya answered, standing up from behind the vat in annoyance. “What do you need?”

“There appears to be an issue with my harness’ communicator,” the small fox reported, using a language that actually came through his own mouth. Consulting her own bracelet after hearing it translated, Alecha identified it as ‘Vuldanni,’ an offshoot of Velorian Standard. She looked up as the quadruped struggled to free himself from the hole in the floor, something inside holding him back. “I also appear to be stuck.”

Keya stepped over the equipment strewn about the lab, keeping his distance from Alecha. He lifted the grating free of the floor and shined a light down around the small creature. “Hunting dust bunnies? Hold on…” He pushed Orrthra down, fishing around in the hole and untangling something holding the fox back. Orrthra slipped easily from the vent, revealing an unwieldily electronic backpack of sorts strapped to his torso. Shaking himself, a cloud of dust left his sandy fur and settled on everything nearby.

“I was following a duct near this area when the problem occurred,” Orrthra reported, sitting back on his haunches while Keya retrieved a small pack from the cart. “Since you were nearby, I chose to consult you directly.”

“I apologize if this sounds strange,” Alecha ventured, trying to discern the nature of the visitor. “What exactly are you?”

“I am vulden,” he replied, once again speaking to her in her own language without moving his mouth. Flinching, he loosed an annoyed bark at Keya.

“Sorry,” Keya apologized. “It’ll happen again if you keep moving around while I’m checking things… I can’t see anything wrong in the bio-neural interfaces, but you really should have the implants recalibrated. They must be giving you some trouble?”

“No more than usual,” Orrthra replied.

“Right… I’ll schedule an appointment with the clinic.”

“The interface is fine,” the vulden whined. “It’s the communicator that is misbehaving.”

“I’d rather be sure.” Switching tools, Keya moved toward the harness and began probing.

Orrthra fidgeted as the examination of the hardware began. “Would you prefer I remove it?”

“In this dirt?” Keya snorted. “Only if you want me to carry it back for cleaning. The contacts are going to be covered in filth the moment you take it off.”

Alecha observed from what she hoped should be an acceptable distance as Keya continued his analysis. She still wasn’t entirely certain of the creature’s nature—half machine? Some sort of implanted devices?—but another concern took priority. “What are you doing down here? I thought most of the work was around the engine core and the main AI core chamber.”

“I was following a trunk of cabling for the main computer core,” he explained, vocalizing in Vuldanni. Perhaps the work Keya was doing now prevented him from speaking Kametian? That would indicate some software was handling the vocal translations. “We are trying to find enough intact fibers to repair other critical links. The central section of this trunk looks salvageable, but by the amount of damage I’ve found I am probably nearing another AI core.”

“More than likely,” she confirmed. “This section is comprised of labs and most of the hardware ties back to the AI. Makes sense to have a dedicated core nearby. Is this the same sort of damage you’ve seen elsewhere?”

“In part,” Orrthra confirmed. “I found an increasing amount of rodent damage but there is a huge tract of biofiber in this area that is completely dead for no discernible reason. I am still attempting to grasp how these biological conductors sustain themselves, but this was an obvious abnormality.”

“Your communicator doesn’t show any faults,” Keya interrupted. “What exactly is wrong?”

“Did you check the buffer?”

“No. I don’t like to intrude into private messages.”

“Please. I don’t think I can explain it in a succinct way.”

Keya probed into the comm unit, his small holographic display flooding with text above the handheld portion of the scanner. The screen rapidly turned into an unreadable blur; a few pokes at the controls brought up a different display of data. The velorian stared at the mess for some time, slowly shaking his head.

“This… This isn’t funny.”

“I agree,” Orrthra replied. “But it is not a joke I am privy to.”

“By the look of this, half the quadrant just tried to talk to you at once.”

“Some from beyond normal time and space as well,” the vulden corrected. “At least one of the messages was sent by someone I know is dead.”

Keya squinted at a newly highlighted line. “Yes, she is… But this indicates it was sent five minutes ago. I’m shutting this unit down.”

“Can you just make it function for a while longer?”

“Do you really want to have a malfunctioning network-accessible device wired directly into your brain? This is going to take some work to diagnose. I’ll give you a regular comp for now.”

Biocyber interfaces with direct nervous system access? Alecha eyed the harness with new appreciation. Maybe these people did have some technology that was actually somewhat interesting, if not a bit unwieldily.

Before she could extend further questions, the ship lurched a quarter-meter to the left, leaving behind everything that wasn’t tied down. Alecha grabbed onto the cloning vat’s console to balance herself as the tremors continued; Keya didn’t fare as well, hitting the decking ungracefully while trying to not land on Orrthra. Sparks flew through the air as some of the cart’s cabling tore free of the lighting controls, plunging the room into partial darkness. Only the small floating spotlights Keya had been using to see the cloning console’s innards remained lit, adjusting themselves to hold their place around the device.

“What in the world was that?” the vulden asked, looking around the room as things settled.

All hands,” their communicators all spoke at once. “Commander Halio here. Code White has been declared. All hands are to immediately disembark the ship at the nearest functional stepdisk. I repeat—all hands, disembark immediately.”

“T’bia,” Alecha called out. “What’s going on?”

Can’t talk now. Get back to the Serin as soon as you reasonably can.

“Hey, no.” Keya blocked Orrthra’s attempt to descend back into the vents. “We stay together. If something happens, someone else can go for help. Let me unhook the cart and we’ll go.”

“Leave it,” Alecha requested. “You have a solid start. No sense in starting from scratch the next time you’re down here. There’s another stop to make before we leave and I’m going to need your help. This stuff will be in the way.”

“We shouldn’t linger—”

“My mate is in medbay and I’m not leaving without him.”

Keya dipped his head in apology. “Then we’d better go get him.”