Awakening, Part 6


Anolis opened his eyes. The utterance barely registered in his ears, leaving him unsure he’d heard anything at all. The younger nemaqi’s coma had endured for several weeks, so he’d been told — there remained no sign he ever would regain consciousness before his passing. Yet, Anolis felt certain that some indistinct noise just escaped from his wayward son.

Gently moving to his feet, the elder nemaqi hobbled to the nearby biobed in relative silence, the butt of his cane disturbing the quiet with every tap against the deckplating. The dark-scaled face before him presented no glimmer of hope toward a miraculous recovery. With a sigh, Anolis gently laid his gloved hand on Khamai’s chest, following the rhythmic heartbeat from within.

And after a minute’s time moved past, Anolis’ son finally opened his eyes.

Khamai gazed at the ceiling, visually tracing the delicate contours of the Serin’s interior lighting panels. He did not appear surprised, nor even confused — instead, what some might mistake as indifference was simply resignation to whatever fate was at hand. After several minutes of architectural scrutiny, Khamai finally met his father’s gaze for a single second before looking away.

“I am dying,” Khamai spoke, both a statement and a question expressed in one breath.


“The constant headache is gone… As well, it seems, is the madness.”

“Commander Halio repaired your cortical implant. She was uncertain you would wake from the procedure.”

“Mm,” Khamai grunted, squinting at the lights above. A deep sigh left him. “Perhaps it would have proven far more pleasant for all had I not.”

“Do you recall all that you have done?” Anolis questioned, after a brief silence hung between them.

“I believe so. It feels like another’s life as I reflect upon it, yet I know it is not. A thankfully failed attempt to terminate you with a rapid cryosleep sequence… Rejecting my brother and forbidding his research… Trading your creators’ technology with the local outlying clans…” Inhaling, the dark lizard inclined his head to look upon his father. “Should I feel compelled to apologize for actions that I executed while my cortical implant was malfunctioning?”

“It does not matter. I forgive you.”

“Hm. And yet, I find it improbable to expect that graciousness from others.” Khamai shut his eyes. “There is a device implanted in my chest cavity —“

“The explosive has been disarmed.” Anolis moved his fingers from Khamai’s chest to his hand, grasping firmly. “I too am compelled to apologize. I failed Iguano, and I have failed you. I am not the father either of you required. Your journey though this existence was not optimal.”

“How long can I expect said existence to persist?”

“Perhaps a week.”

“Are my lower limbs in a restraint field because someone expects that I will flee?”

Anolis frowned. It was a fine question, one he found he could not predict an answer for. Would he in fact flee, given the chance? Anolis expected that, were their places reversed, he himself might be so inclined. Yet, before he could turn and inspect the bed’s controls to check for the presence of a forcefield, T’bia had already appeared beside him, running a medical diagnostic.

“I was afraid of that,” she spoke, a wide variety of health data sprawling over the wall. Neurological scans pushed forward from the rest, tracing out pathways in a variety of colors. “You aren’t under a restraint field. The nerves that should be passing impulses to your leg muscles… Aren’t. I hate to say it, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s only the latest symptom of the systemic degradation.”

“I see. You possess a finer grained estimate than ‘perhaps a week,’ I expect.”

“It’s hard to say.”

“No. It is not. Not for you, Commander Halio.”

“My status as an AI has no bearing on the impossibility of predicting how a particular biological system will fail when I’ve only seen it happen once before. Which, I should add, failed in a completely different way than you are experiencing.” T’bia clicked her tongue, eyes flicking between the handheld scanner and the readouts covering the nearby wall. “Besides, are you sure you wouldn’t rather be surprised?”

“How is he?” Tari questioned.

Jadyn shook his head, a wide grin on his muzzle. On the far side of the J’Ruhn’s medical bay, Alecha gently nudged her mate awake. “Kaler is defying medical science even more brilliantly than Alecha did. The way things look, a day or so of rest and he’ll be on his feet if he’s got a shoulder to lean on. What about you? Faring all right?”

Tari nodded, smiling herself as the reunited mates nuzzled each other — as much as was possible, at least, with a plastic mask obstructing Kaler’s face. “I still feel impulses rise up from time to time, but the intensity has tapered off as the morning’s gone on.”

“Good to hear. Aside from this interruption, how’s the tour going?”

“I can’t speak for Alecha, but it’s been quite educational for me,” she replied. “I learned something very interesting about Val’Traxans.”

“Do tell.”

“Did you know that they don’t use money? I sure as hell didn’t know that when I thought a shopping outing might be a fun distraction.”

“Oh, no.” Jadyn rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how I forgot to tell you.”

“It’s a rather large oversight.”

“Yeah, I really don’t have an excuse. With everything else that’s been going on I completely spaced that out. In my own defense, it didn’t exactly matter until today. Did she manage to explain it at all?”

“Somewhat. Which reminds me… How do you manage to write off laziness as a mental illness?”

Confusion spread over the blue fox’s face. “What…?”

“I asked her how you’d deal with someone who leeches off society because they’re lazy and don’t want to contribute. She basically said you’d lump them under ‘mentally handicapped’ and provide basic room and board.”

“Mm… Yes, that’s technically correct. What’s a good way to explain it… Uh… Bee —”

“Nope,” the skunk replied, her eyes shut while she relaxed against the nearby wall. “You are going to muddle through this one on your own. I’m busy.”

“You are not.”

“Aside from the thousands of other important things related to repairing this derelict that I’m iterating through at this very moment, I’m timing those two,” the AI replied, gesturing at the far side of the medical bay without cracking her eyelids. “Kaler still needs rest and I intend to make sure he gets it. Best of luck, though. I look forward to hearing what nonsense you create as an ‘explanation.’”

“Wonderful.” Letting out a sigh, Jadyn scratched at an ear. “I’d better try to cover everything, because I’m sure there’s things Alecha didn’t think of since she hasn’t lived outside our old system. First and foremost, our internal economy was based on reputation. Your work supports the community by providing goods or services that others need, and that activity betters your reputation. In return, the community supports you with what you need based partly upon that status.”

“But you can’t possibly know the reputation of everyone you come across. Not with billions of residents. How do you know if someone can afford what you’re selling?”

“There’s no prices on anything. You’ve already ‘paid’ up-front for the things you need simply by providing the work you’ve done. It’s not just the kind of work the person in question does, either — a doctor, a carpenter, a chef, a waiter, a janitor… They do very different jobs, but they all contribute valuable work to the communities they serve. They’re equally important.”

Tari frowned. “Saving lives is on par with sweeping the floor?”

“Is maintaining the hospital less important than maintaining those in it?” Jadyn returned. “We treat those two people equally because they deserve to be treated equally. Every job is important to the community as a whole. The larger the community, the more critical those ‘menial’ things become.

“But that doesn’t answer how we know who we’re dealing with when there’s nine billion natives and another six billion immigrants. As I understand the history, everything was essentially word of mouth before technology came into the picture. That method only works within a single small community, extending perhaps very slightly into those immediately around it. Computers, and eventually the AI Network, moved us to a worldwide community.”

“Then… There’s still a number of some sort involved. You’ve just replaced the yen or a dollar bill with a karmic value.”

“Not really —”

“Technically speaking, she’s actually right,” T’bia noted, her eyes still remaining closed. “Granted, the ‘number’ was only for tracking down gross abuses of the community’s goodwill, but the original techs who implemented it were trying to help solve a problem that didn’t entirely exist until offworlders arrived. We — the AIs, that is — refined the process over the years, charting out past contributions, predicted activity, some decay factors to normalize things. If you get right down to the core of it? Yes, we essentially pegged everyone with a valuation to society.”

“I guess I never really understood how the AINet followed any of that,” Jadyn admitted. “Didn’t ever matter to me.”

“Exactly. No one ever asked us ‘What’s my karma balance? What can I afford today? Who do I owe some work to come out even?’ The number didn’t really hold any sort of meaning outside of the AINet, anyway.”

“I thought you weren’t going to help this explanation.”

“That was your freebie. I’m still mad about your attitude at breakfast.”

Tari inquired, “No one ever wondered about their karma number?”

“No one cared,” Jadyn clarified, then grimaced. “No, I shouldn’t say that. It relates more toward why this system works for us. We don’t naturally chase acquisitions. Money, power, possessions as symbols of success… They don’t exist for us like they do for other cultures. They can’t. We’re not naturally wired to think like that. Take… Hm.”

His eyes darted across the room, considering briefly how much Alecha and Kaler might hear. They seemed engrossed in chatting with each other — Alecha providing most of the chat, Kaler listening — but it didn’t hurt to be cautious. Not that they’d fathom any of the details, anyway.

“Well,” he continued, “take your ape neighbors as an example. The western societies, at least, are focused on living both as a member of a social order and as a recluse. If the society fails, everyone is hurt by it, so people work to support the society. At the same time, most folks desire the resulting positives from that society only for themselves, maybe their family, perhaps some friends close enough to consider as extended family. Sound right?”

“I guess so. Not everyone acts like that.”

“Enough do. And Veloria, Donami, Feldar… Many of the the Aligned Worlds to some extent are similar. Some are worse than others. But Val’Traxans… It’s deeply part of our instincts to contribute to the community around us without seeking personal gain as a ‘reward.’ We do what is right for the community, we’re seen doing it, we watch others do it. At the end of the day we’re happy that the system works — that’s our reward. If the AIs really were tracking some sort of value on each of us… It’s an amusement, at best. No one would actively care about their own ‘number’ or how to improve it for the sake of improving it.”

“Hm.” Tari exhaled slowly, running her fingers over the back of her other hand. “Still, anyone who hasn’t contributed at all, for whatever reason… She might not have any reputation on her side to barter with in order to get things above and beyond the barest essentials.”

T’bia’s eyebrow hitched up, her eyelids finally sliding open, but she remained silent as Jadyn shook his head. “That itself is so rare in a native as to be squarely in the realm of ‘unheard of.’ It essentially is a mental illness in a val’traxan because it’s not a normal part of our psyche to act like that. It’s also part of the instincts — contributing absolutely nothing goes against the fiber of our being. We’re not going to let that person starve to death or die in the elements just because they’re unwilling or unable to do their part, though. Which, in my opinion, is far better than what I saw done to the homeless on your planet.”

“I’ll give you that. I suppose retirement would drive you nuts.”

“‘Retirement’ didn’t exist in the way you think of it. I tried it here, more as a curiosity than anything else… Bee kicked me out of the house after two weeks. She couldn’t stand me anymore.”

“You were miserable!” the AI protested, throwing her arms wide. “There was nothing left to clean, wash, dust, organize, shred, anything! Locking you out in the rain was for your own good. It worked out nicely, I think.”

“I certainly can’t complain. It spurred the founding of my stores. I was thrilled when Ness called me back to Council work, too, but I didn’t want to seem too enthusiastic. I complain about the politics because I really hate the posturing… I don’t know what I’d do if the jobs were actually gone.”

“I foresee a great number of new outlets opening the day that happens,” Tari predicted.

Jadyn smirked. “On several planets, maybe a few starships. I really wouldn’t keep accepting the Council’s assignments if I loathed the work. No sense in doing something if I’m not going to take the time to do it right.”

“I’m still trying to picture it… No desire for extravagant houses? No collecting fancy, expensive cars? The Serin might fall under that, a little bit. And the cabin’s a touch on the large side for what’s been a single occupancy until recently.”

“The ship was dad’s container for his AI project, first and foremost. The cabin was meant to house a large family, back home. Here, though… Call it a sentimental eccentricity. Now, having lived for a great number of years in places where flaunting the latest shiny thing is a very important social activity to a great number of people, I’ve developed a fine understanding of how and why it works. I don’t have to like it, but I do need to survive in that same social system.”

Tari nodded “I really can see parts of your own system in how you’ve set up here, now that I think about it. The store allowing everything but the food for free as long as materials are kept in the building is the big one. The lack of a practical limit on the credit chip you gave me sort of does it, too… Though, that in particular might indicate — to a casual observer — you actually may have an interest in money simply because you have so very much of it.”

“It’s really unfortunate. The only way to live around here in a fashion that even slightly echoes home is to have so much funding available that you don’t have to think about it. Helps to know exactly what tech is headed the right direction so you know what to invest boatloads of capital in.”

“Also helps to win the lottery several times to earn that startup investment capital,” T’bia quipped.

“That was only twice,” Jadyn defended.

“Three times.”

“Three…? No, no. That doesn’t count. The last one went wholly into the fund for helping the Vulden. And your name was on the ticket.”

“You’re still talking but all I hear is ‘blah blah excuses blah blah.’” T’bia peered at her palm. “Speaking of excuses… Time’s up, kids.”

“She really could stay,” Jadyn offered. “She’s far better trained for dealing with post-cryo medical care than either of us.”

“I’d better not,” Alecha replied. “I won’t let any of my techs work on anyone from their family unit. There’s no sense in sidestepping that rule with you two on hand. From what I see, you’re doing fine.” She planted a lick in the center of Kaler’s forehead. “I’ll see you soon, love.”

“Mm,” he grunted around the mask.

“One thing,” Tari pondered aloud as she and Alecha paused at the door. “What’s a ‘vulden?’”

! Unidentified signals entering core internal sensor radius

…Not again… Not the dreams again…

! Begin threat assessment

Please… just make them go away…

! Organic biosign detected — Species: unknown, biped

Make it all go away…

! Organic biosign detected — Species: unknown, quadruped

But there’s so much work to be done!

! Fusion power waveform identified — Technology: unknown

What will they do without me?

! Vector 4.712 Velocity 5.63 — Course change: Vector 3.193 Velocity 5.12

They’ll probably die…

! Probable destination: AI Chamber Six

They’d starve to death… Organic lifeforms need nourishment so often…

! Security notification queued for transmission

They’re such a plague! Draining resources and contributing nothing!

! Network access failure — Notification not propagated

…Help me… Is anyone there…?

“Lighting controls must be offline in here… It’ll take me a minute to set up in the dark,” Toliya stated, guiding the portable powerplant to a stop. The antigrav cart carrying the heavy generator and the rest of his tools thumped quietly as it touched down on the floor. “Your kit has lamps with the rest of the tools, doesn’t it? Care to run some initial scans before we open this thing up?”

“Most certainly, Mister PanLidaefel.”

Toliya watched the diminutive vulden vanish around the backside of the ARIA core, faint luminance spilling out around the back of the boxy enclosure and up the wall. The core itself seemed very slightly smaller than the master core he’d tinkered with already. Three one-meter cubes placed side by side would make a snug shipping container for the dormant computing hardware.

As the illumination danced behind the core, Toliya quickly spotted an out-of-place silhouette on the far side of the room, barely outlined by the reflected light. Focusing a handheld beacon on the far wall confirmed the identity of the shadow — another TBIA core, lying in wait. Or, rather, sitting.

The gently contoured casing, half the size of its larger ARIA cousin, felt slightly warmer than room temperature to the touch. A quick scan revealed the internal powerplant — something like a fusion generator converted entirely into organics, but not a device he’d noticed as part of T’bia’s own primary core — was in fact quite active. Nothing else, however, indicated any sign of life. Even the diagnostic console refused to appear. The surface controls didn’t even chirp in failure. Aside from the slightly elevated temperature and energy readings, it seemed completely dead.

“Bee, are you busy?” he called.

Yes,” her voice returned, drifting from the commlink lying on the cart. “What is it?

“I just found another TBIA core. It appears to be the same size as the one in the master core room.”

Makes sense. There’s probably a few. On a mission like this I’m sure someone still insisted on multiple cores for redundancy. Tier could have slaved them all together for a processing boost, if she needed it for some reason. Any particular core could serve as the primary for solo use. I’m sure she had a favorite.

Toliya hopped on top of the core, shining his light down in the space between the core and the two adjacent walls. “There’s not nearly enough data linkage to support the bandwidth that neural coprocessing would require. Unless some of it is going out through the floor…”

Our design uses a wide-spectrum subspace link for that. It’s the same way I run the emitter bracelet remotely. Sanusin, on the other hand, will have hard-wired links between the cores. His code won’t run on a single unit, either. These particular ARIA cores are strictly distributed units. He might be able to limp along on two, but he shouldn’t be bootable that way. Needs at least three.

“Well, we know there’s at least two functional,” he replied, sliding back to the floor. “He’s been running until recently. Just have to find which ones so I can properly synchronize them for debugging. By the way, does your own core have an internal power source for backup?”

Just the portable. My primary core depends entirely on ship’s power.

“I thought so. There’s a—“

A high-pitched squeak of protest and the crunch of bone only briefly preceded a limp rodent-like creature out from behind the bulky ARIA core. Toliya picked it up by its hairless tail, turning it in the beam of his flashlight. Greenish-brown fur covered most of the body, while the eyes were milky-white and lacked any sort of definable pupils or irises. The nose seemed larger than normal for a rat. As did the teeth.

“What is this…? Rothrr, are you okay back there?”

“I am most fine, Mister PanLidaefel. I do believe I will take a lunch break soon, if that is acceptable to your schedule?”

Toliya grimaced and lobbed the dead rodent toward the door. “Whenever you want. Bee, I think we’ve got a pest problem on top of everything else. Not sure what they found to survive on —“

“Much of the wiring that links this core to the ship has been damaged beyond repair,” Rothrr answered. “It appears that it has been gnawed through. While from personal experience I know that most wiring is not sustaining, your explanation of the Val’Traxan penchant for organic hardware may in fact extend to the conductors within the protective coating, providing some nutritional — one moment.” Another shrill squeak, another limp rodent tossed out from behind the core.

“You’re really going to eat these?” Toliya questioned weakly.

“Of course. One does not let fresh meat go to waste, especially an entree so lacking in basic intelligence that it does not recognize a predator.”


The interlinking between ARIA cores was indeed designed for an organic conductor,” T’bia confirmed over the comm channel. “A little nibble here and there should also have been taken care of by regeneration… Wouldn’t surprise me if regeneration controls have been out for a long time. Another case of ‘fix the power grid so we can finish fixing the main computer so we can figure everything else out.’

“You still running automation?”

I passed it off to Aerin quite a while ago, since it can’t get bored opening doors and shutting off lights. Still leaves us tethered.

“Well, there’s not a lot I can do about that. I’ll call in a few exterminators for the pests, at least.” The snow leopard peered at the dead rodents on the floor. “Or maybe I’ll just bring up a few more vulden, if Rothrr doesn’t mind competition.”

“Quiet, please. Another is approaching.”

! Life sign terminated


! Casualty count: 3


! Life form ‘Rothrr’ — Threat level upgraded

! Life form ‘PanLidaefel’ — Threat level upgraded

! Threat assessment complete: Colony at risk

! Prepare countermeasures


! Access holographic emitter network — access denied


! Access bio-synthesizers — access denied


! Access transporter control — access denied


! Access gravity plating control — access denied


! Access fire suppression control — access denied


! Access autodestruct — access denied

Maybe they’ll kill each other…?

! Countermeasures unavailable

Help me…

! Interrupt raised: Scheduled test of replicator node 0y3H27 1 minute past due — running test sequence

Toliya flinched as the room’s replicator suddenly powered up. Why a replicator would even exist in a room with two AI cores was puzzling. It wasn’t as if they needed them. Maybe the room’s design originally indicated some other purpose, and later was retasked with all the other changes they’d made to the construction plans as a place for the cores to live.

A large empty bowl took shape within the humming alcove. As he walked up to investigate, small bits of pet feed quickly filled the container. Taking a handful, he picked through the mix: grains, seeds, and some sort of rough purplish pellets. The scent drifting from the pellets vaguely reminded him of the insulation on biotech wiring. Otherwise, it appeared a standard rodent feed mix.

The contents rapidly overflowed the containment of the bowl, spilling onto the floor in an avalanche of grain. Neither voice commands nor the surface controls around the alcove compelled it to stop. Kneeling down and popping off the access panel beneath the unit, he traced a bundle of cabling while the torrent continued to pour upon his head. Upon removing the cable’s connector from something suspiciously resembling a power converter, rodent kibble immediately ceased raining from the unit, the interior lighting flickering off.

“Strange…” Toliya glanced over his shoulder at the ARIA core, shaking the seeds out of his ears. “Rothrr? What do you make of —“

“Quiet, please.” The quiet snuffling of the vulden briefly permeated the requested silence. “We must leave. This room is about to be overrun.”

“By what?”

As though on cue, dozens of the ratlike creatures streamed from behind the ARIA core and across the floor, heading straight for the pile of feed around Toliya’s feet. With a yelp of surprise the feldaran jumped away, stopping only long enough to make sure his helper was already in the hall before locking the door shut.

7 Responses

  1. Tsunari says:

    Rather super orderly society, though at least they don’t engage in the more destructive aspects that well were described.

  2. Derek says:

    Which destructive aspects do you mean?

  3. typhoon says:

    I’m not sure what he’s referring to but I imagine things could get really messy when two communities interests collided. Back when they were a lot of small but expanding communities.

  4. Tsunari says:

    Lets see, people are content with their place and considered important as opposed to being a CEO or President as being the best and everyone less than that is somehow inferior and everyone should be working to take over. Not caring about little numbers is another. As well as what do they get back from society. Although I have to say that unless their instincts were far stronger than even the ability to ignore them that what they classify as mental illness would be more common.

  5. Tsunari says:

    Oh and they aren’t complete dicks to those different from them. Being self suppressed on natural nature, etc.

  6. Tsunari says:

    Although I’d also have to say why would the techs even worry about such a thing to program an AI to keep track, when the rest don’t.

  7. David F says:

    The basic outlines of Val’Traxan society/economy remind me a lot of James P. Hogan’s Voyage from Yesteryear. Except it works a bit better, because humans just aren’t wired like that, but an alien species could be.