Awakening, Part 7

“If you really wanted to distract me this morning, you should have brought me here,” Alecha observed.

Tari winced, smiling sheepishly as Alecha grinned back at her. “Was it that obvious?”

“Mm-hm. I do appreciate the effort — but this…” The salt and pepper vixen gestured at the gardens laid out before them. “This would have done it.”

They’d crossed from the J’Ruhn to Terac Lun, just for a change of scenery. The mini-tour of Azainte presented only a small cross-section of local species, mostly velorian with a few feldaran and some others she’d been unable to name; far more as-yet-unknown species milled about in the space station’s public gardens. Some in Councilor attire, relaxing after the day’s session; others clearly aides or pages passing through as they darted from one place to another. Several wore no indication of anything at all — perhaps civilians, sightseers like themselves.

“Hey,” Pakar spoke, walking up on them from behind. Alecha flinched as she turned around, laughing quietly to herself.

“‹You move far too quietly for someone your size,›” she quipped.

Pakar, sighing, raised a hand and shook her head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t think I’d need that particular translator this afternoon and left it in my quarters. Yet, here you are.”

“You’d better boss someone into updating the databases,” Tari stated. “While you’re still the boss.”

“Right. It’ll only take… Oh, maybe a year, if we’re lucky. I should have them toss in a Terran language or two at the same time. Yes?”

“Let’s not.”

“‹On the bright side,›” Alecha observed, “‹the one T’bia gave me is working for incoming.›”

“Great! Alecha understands you, Pakar, but I’ll have to relay the other way. Unless I get Bee to redo that roaming thing?”

“No!” the emerald drekiran hastily interjected. “No. Please. Even if Ness has his gavel back by the time the logs are reviewed, he’ll still hand them back to me to deal with.”

“All right. Oh, question for you, if you care to field it. Who or what are the Vulden?”

“They… Well, they’re…” Pakar wrinkled her nose, briefly introspective. “You really should get Jadyn to tell you about them. He’s most of the reason they’re still around at all. Why do you ask?”

“Because he wouldn’t tell me, either.”

“Aha. Well, as much as I’d love to ruin whatever fun he’s planning for you, I’m headed planetside. Taking Ness a copy of today’s minutes and some forms he needs to sign. Apparently, I’m not as all-powerful with the mantle of ‘Acting Speaker’ as they’d have me think.”

“I expect that’s for the best.”

“Whose side are you on, exactly?” Pakar retorted, grinning. “I’d better go.”

“Say? Are you coming back through here when you’re done?”

“It might be a while. Do you need something?”

“I was just thinking, maybe we could get a proper tour of the place… If you’re not too busy, of course.”

“Absolutely! It’d be my pleasure. It’ll save me from more paperwork for at least a couple of hours. In fact… Why don’t you both come with me? You might find the health resort… interesting,” she spoke, a sudden gleam of humor in her eyes.

Tari looked to Alecha, receiving a confirming nod. “That would be wonderful. Thank you.”

The trio moved to the center of the garden, boarding the local disk platform. Pakar glanced at the two vixens, verifying they were ready, and cleared her throat. “Mount Piroranan Medical, if you please.”

T’bia cackled with glee. “Oh, this is way too good to not share with everyone we know. I only wish there was video.”

“My kit’s sensor array should contain an optical log of the event,” Rothrr put forth.

“And if you weren’t enjoying lunch I would figure out how exactly to give you a hug. Mind if I grab a copy?”

The vulden grunted his permission and returned to gnawing on one of the rats he’d managed to retrieve on his way out of the room. Toliya grimaced at the noises of crunching bone rising from the floor, a shiver visibly coursing through him.

“Hrg… You can laugh it up all you want, Bee, but there’s a serious pest problem on this ship. They’re eating bioconductors — Are you even listening to me?”

“Look at that…” T’bia held up a datapad, playing back Toliya’s girlish screech and hasty exit from the room. “A feline afraid of a mouse! A wee little mouse!”

“It wasn’t ‘a wee little mouse’ — just look at the size of them!” Toliya defended, shooting Jadyn a tired glance as T’bia replayed the video once again. “Remind me why I volunteered for this?”

“You love a challenge?” Jadyn posed.

“There must have been more than that.”

“The Fleet is covering parts and providing some repair assistance, but I’ll wind up quietly paying your personal labor bill.”

“Right, that was why.” Rubbing his eyes, the snow leopard stopped and sniffed at his fingers. “So strange. The replicator dumped all sorts of rodent feed on the floor right before they swarmed the place.”

“All by itself?”

“Yeah, no one was near it. Rothrr and I were setting up to access the ARIA core in that chamber when it happened. He smelled them coming just before they poured out of the wall behind the core. He said the interlinks have been gnawed off, probably by the same critters. Don’t suppose you know what species it is?”

“Can’t tell from the video. Let’s see about this specimen…” T’bia knelt down, examining the quickly shrinking rodent. Rothrr growled and put a paw protectively over his meal as she reached for it. “Well, fine, be like that. Turn it over at least so I can see it? … Hm. Hard to say for sure without getting a look at the head. Which… appears to be missing. What a poorly constructed rodent, indeed, if parts are just falling off. First thing that comes to mind is that it resembles a native pest back home, but larger.”

“Something genetically modified?”

“It’s possible. Be a dear and leave me a piece to run some tests on, Rothrr.”

Jadyn squinted at the sleeping Val’Traxan mel through the medical office’s window, tapping his fingers together. “Bee, expect any problems in the next little while with Kaler’s recovery?”

“He should be fine. You can go play exterminator if you want.”

He shook his head. “No, I’ll stick around here in case he wakes up.”

“Oh. Okay. I see what you’re doing. I get it. All you big, strong males around here, yet the only one who actually isn’t scared of a mouse is a little vulden with a huge appetite. How is that thing, anyway?”

“Quite delicious,” Rothrr praised. “Far better than my standard fare.”

“Just…” Jadyn pinched himself between the eyes. “Check if the interlinks are repairable. Make a list of what you’ll need to do it. Try to figure out why the replicator randomly barfed, too.”

“Fine. But no napping on nursing duty,” T’bia commanded, following Toliya out.

Alecha gazed over the railing separating the terrace from the volcano proper, her eyes drawn to the fireworks far below. The resort was not simply near Mount Piroranan — the miracles of technology allowed the entire complex to float within the bowl, hovering several hundred meters below the ridgeline yet also perched several hundred meters safely above the boiling rock. The power requirements to maintain the effect were undoubtedly steep. Even so, she had to admit it was a truly novel implementation of antigrav generators. Carts and vehicles, sure… But an entire health resort? Isolata definitely would get a kick out of the design.

If she gets the chance to see it…

She shook off the depressing thought, focusing instead on the magma boiling out of the planet’s crust. The gradual eruption seemed a rather prolonged event — a wide field of cooled lava spread out from a fissure in the bowl, the narrow band of still-molten rock marching slowly toward a sparkling turquoise sea. Whether it was a lone volcanic island or one edge of a much larger landmass, she wasn’t entirely certain.

In any event, it was an amazing sight from her vantage point.

Tari, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so impressed with the view. As she peered over the edge of the balcony, a clear sense of unease radiated both in her body language and aura. Her tail, now nearly motionless, curled over and around her feet, almost hugging herself in reassurance; her ears possessed a definite tip backwards, radiating uncertainty and more than a mere touch of distress.

“What’s the matter?” Alecha gently probed, giving Tari’s arm a gentle rub. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes… Amazing…” Tari swallowed, taking a breath. For their place over the molten rock, the air distinctly lacked even the slightest taint of ash or sulfur fumes. “I’m… I’m not a huge fan of heights… Not unless there’s solid ground directly underfoot. When Pakar said that there’s nothing holding this place up…”

She was hiding something — not that she hadn’t been hiding things all along. The way her aura contorted as she spoke, there was something tremendous bothering her above and beyond the issue of the altitude and she didn’t want to talk about it.

“It’s not ‘nothing,’” Alecha assured her. “If the rules here are anything like back home, there are layers of redundancies backing up the main antigrav generators. No one could operate a recovery facility like this in a place like this unless it was absolutely safe for the occupants.”

“I suppose you’re right… Still…” Tari turned around, easing away from the railing as she scanned the unpopulated open-air patio. Several empty tables and deck chairs adorned the outdoor area, but no one else was out and about. “It’s far too quiet.”

“Judging by the sun, we’re on the opposite side of the planet from the city we visited. It’s still very early morning here.”

“No, I mean… This place is supposed to help people recover health or sanity or whatever else… How can anyone feel comfortable without a bit of living green around?”

Alecha frowned, gazing around at the topiary. The active volcano far underfoot so completely demanded her attention that she’d failed to detect the representatives of her very own elemental alignment as fake. Every single leaf, branch, and flower on the terrace… Empty. Holographic.

“You’re right,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice. I should have… That’s the first thing I should have felt about this place.”

“I probably shouldn’t care. It just bugs me. Just look at this thing.” Tari shook her head, gesturing at an immaculately manicured bush. On closer inspection, every shrub in view around the terrace shared the same pattern of branching, leaf position… A single template had been copied and repeated with zero variation. “Why waste the energy to create something so obviously fake instead of actually planting a tree or a flower? I’d rather see nothing at all than this insult.”

“While I agree with you, intellectually… Allergens, perhaps. Have you noticed the air? You can’t smell the volcanic activity or much of anything else coming from the outside. They’re working quite hard to filter everything out.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call this ‘purified’ or ‘healthy.’”

“I wouldn’t either. Simply ‘sterile.’” Alecha plucked a flower from a nearby plant, watching the projection dissolve in her hand as it reappeared on the empty stem. “Ignoring the blatant duplication of the template, the illusion’s still lacking… There’s no holographic insects or birds around. The designer was totally lazy.”

Tari laughed, following Alecha’s lead and taking a chair. “If I have any grasp on how you and Jadyn have explained bits of your society… That is a monumental insult.”

“It is. Not taking the time to do something right, leaving it half-assed for someone else to clean up… That’s a special breed of laziness. The programmer here needs to take some pride in the work, add little details. Fractal randomness in the plant structure, a critter or two…”

“Still wouldn’t feel right.” Drumming her fingers on the armrest, the snowy vixen shot a glance into the brush. “I don’t think it’s even real dirt.”

“We could transplant some seedlings if it was,” Alecha mused. “Fix this atrocity ourselves.”

“After what happened on the J’Ruhn I’ve started keeping seeds with me. There’s just nothing here to plant them in.”

“What exactly did happen up there? I haven’t had the chance to ask anyone.”

Tari sighed. “There was this lizardman, a ‘nemaqi.’ I don’t know all of what he was up to but he had some sort of issue with Jadyn. He kidnapped me, held me there with with a family he’d already captured… Sanusin let me take over the ship when Khamai was too sick to do anything about it anymore.”

Alecha nodded, her eyes flicking toward the windows of the complex. Something inside had briefly rippled the quiet energy of the place, but she couldn’t quite tell what might have done it. “Jadyn mentioned a ‘nemaqi incident’ from back home but didn’t go into detail. Do you know anything about that?”

“No, I haven’t heard —“

Another disturbance to the quiet — this time, more than a mere peripheral sense. Tari and Alecha stood up at the commotion, trying to spot what was going on.

! Unidentified signals entering core internal sensor radius

…Not again… Go away… Leave me alone…

! Begin threat assessment

Why won’t anyone help me…

! Organic biosign identified — biometric signature consistent with lifeform ‘PanLidaefel’ — high threat risk

MURDERERS need help too…

! Biotech waveform identified — Holographic Technology: Val’Traxan — threat risk unknown

…A Val’traxan hologram?

! Probable destination: AI Chamber Six

Has someone finally come -

! Unknown risk colluding with known risk — threat prediction: high risk

- to play? I’ll -

! Prepare countermeasures

- kill them all. But -

! Countermeasures unavailable

- what a mess that will make. Who will -

Help me…

- clean up?

! Access housekeeping robotics — access granted

T’bia scrutinized the spotless floor, running her fingers across the surface as Toliya held up a light. “There’s no sign of this supposed rodent smorgasbord. Not even a molecule of a crumb. If I hadn’t seen the video, I might suspect you’ve been sniffing solvents.”

“The other dead ones are gone, too…” Toliya observed. Inhaling sharply, he nervously glanced around the room. “Oh, if they eat meat, I seriously can’t take naps aboard anymore…”

“Don’t worry. There’s not nearly enough meat on you for any predator to bother with. It’s a risk-versus-reward calculation, just like anything else.”

“You’re going to tell me my ratio is represented by a ‘divide by zero’ error.”

“Tsk! Spoilers.” Sliding herself in front the replicator, T’bia examined the wiring inside the open access panel. After brief contemplation of the dangling power connector, she smirked and plugged it back in. The alcove’s interior lighting immediately returned, punctuated with the quiet drone of a self-test routine. “Press your luck?”

“The last time anything came out of that replicator, it didn’t stop.”

She gave a little shrug and knocked on the control panel. “Hey. You in there. Coffee, dark roast, with sugar. Just in case you don’t understand Velorian Standard… Luofu-zae, miuvi, yit cikyn.

“Did you seriously just request a scalding liquid from a malfunctioning replicator?” Toliya looked on from a safe distance, the alcove humming loudly as the beverage appeared — a roughly fist-sized mass of liquid hovering within the replication containment field. When no vessel of any sort followed suit, the steaming beverage simply spilled into the drip tray when the unit powered down.

“I thought it a given that I’d want it in a cup. However… It does not appear the area is flooding with coffee. Lucky you.” Clicking her tongue, T’bia turned around and eyeballed the room. Her gaze briefly landed on the TBIA core, flicked to Sanusin’s ARIA core, then back. “Heat signature here but not there… Were you about to tell me something about this particular core of Tieralyene’s when those rats declared lunch hour?”

“Right, yes. There’s something on scans that strikes me as an internal fusion plant, and it’s quite active.”

Squinting, she wandered up to the sculpted box, placing her hand on the casing. “‹AI Control,›” she ordered in Kametian. “‹Maintenance override. Give me console access.›”

Nothing happened. T’bia slid her fingers to the sides of the core, gently releasing the front panel. Toliya screeched as four of the rats darted out and scurried for cover behind the other AI core. Composing himself, he waited for the inevitable snide remark.

“Toy…” T’bia posed, studying the inside of the AI core. “If they’re eating bioconductors… Why haven’t they nibbled the links inside here?”

“They haven’t?” he questioned, looking over her shoulder. “But why were they in there? With all the organics, this whole core should be on their menu.”

“And yet it strikes me that she’s existing less as a buffet and more as an apartment complex.” Gently parting the frontmost bundles of cabling, T’bia nodded to herself. “There are nests in here, but they haven’t destroyed anything inside.”

“Bee, I realize we’re looking at someone who is basically a relative of yours — but thinking strictly objectively here, should we do the work on Sanusin first? He’s got all the recent data on what’s been going on.”

“If we were thinking objectively, yes. Do you have the diagnostic bridge you cobbled together? The one you’ve used on my core.”

“Uh… Let me look.” Peering into his cart of tools, the feldaran dug around for a time before finally pulling out a converter box with two dozen tiny needles dangling on spiderweb-thin wires. A single wire connector hung from the other side of the box.

“It’s not that I don’t agree with you,” she continued, gently poking the needle-tipped wires into various places inside the organics. “For what we need to salvage, he’s the one we need up and running. He knows what Khamai’s been up to and who he’s dealt with inside the pirate clans. At least, I hope he does. There’s more than likely some Val’Traxan hardware still out there that we need to repossess.”

“So —“

“So why am I messing around with the wrong core, you might ask,” she rambled on, nabbing the diagnostic pad from his belt and snapping the converter’s single connector into the side. “Ooh, look familiar?”

“Hm?” Toy read over the data spilling onto the screen. “It’s the same virus you had.”

“But way worse. She’s been infected far longer than I was…”

“Can you tell what she’s going through?”

“No… But looking at this process list, I can just about guess. Everything is struggling for processing time, nothing is synchronized… All the different parts of her psyche are fighting each other. It’s a digital nightmare you can’t wake up from, because you’re not asleep. It just never ends…”

“It was limited to your subconscious processing matrix. This looks way more widespread.”

“It’s in everything. Subconscious, emotional processing, the defense processes, all the queues, her memories — short and long term memory. It’s all infected. But how —“ T’bia suddenly punched the floor. “Damn! I’d be in this same state if we tried a restart!”

“How? It should be purged off during the shutdown scripts —“

“I can see it in a simulation. There’s one brief moment when housecleaning gets to the running viral code and analyzes it to determine whether to purge or save it… It abuses an exploit, manages to get itself tagged as ‘save’ and written to longterm storage as well as inserted into the defense routine.”

“Do we need to roll a fix right now? If not for her, at least you?”

“That’d take us the rest of the day.” T’bia bobbed her head from side to side, humming to herself. “Okay. I’ve now written out a checkpoint and write-protected my long-term storage. I should be immune to this little turd at this point, but… No chances. You’ll have to physically clear the read-only flag for me later after we patch that hole — I disabled my own access, just in case.”

Toliya nodded, letting out a sigh. “What now?”

“I hate leaving her like this but there’s not much we can do right now. I’ve got to think about how to get through to her. Let’s have a look at San’s core in the meantime? I’m still curious to see these chewed-up interlinks.”

“I didn’t see it myself. Rothrr was behind the core when he discovered that, and there’s not room for anyone our size.”

“Easily corrected.” After unlocking the clamps holding it to the floor, T’bia grabbed the front of the ARIA core and gently dragged it away from the wall. Behind the cumbersome box, a large gnaw hole in the wall took the place of an access panel where at some prior time only wiring would have passed. A few remaining strands of destroyed cabling dangled from retaining clips, tatters of wire insulation and destroyed bioconductors swaying in the breeze of the air recyclers.

“Well, well,” T’bia appraised. “That’s compounding a bad day quite nicely…”

Alecha peered toward the complex’s open door, listening to a feminine voice yelling in the serpentine clicks and hisses of the drekiran dialect. Before long, a ruby drekiran stormed out of the inner complex, smoke rolling from his nostrils. Trailing close behind, Pakar shouted at his back — and for all the good it was doing, she could have been hollering at the holographic plants. A polite distance behind her, a very nervous medic in a blue lab coat clutched a datapad to his chest, his long rabbit ears flattened back in distress.

As the entourage passed them, Tari cleared her throat and yelled over Pakar’s continuing barrage. “Speaker!”

The red drekiran stopped mere feet away, shooting a glare and a snarl at Tari that would provide Alecha’s psyche ample nightmare kindling for several days to come. Pakar fell silent, a curious gaze focused on the white vixen.

“I realize you don’t know me, sir,” she began, looking him square in the eye. “I honestly don’t know if there’s some sort of important protocol to follow when addressing the leader of the Aligned Worlds… But. If this facility is anything like the ones on my homeworld… There’s no smoking allowed in a hospital.”

He stared blankly at her, uncomprehending, until she tapped her own nose. Crossing his eyes to look at the vapor, he let out a snort — which promptly expelled a large, billowy cloud — and continued on his path toward the terrace railing.

“Nesoli —“ Pakar began, immediately cut off. The red drekiran spun around, roaring a chain of unintelligible expletives at the green that shook the tables and chairs and left her mouth hanging open. Leaping onto the guardrail, he shoved himself into the air and through the atmospheric filtering field.

“Tari…” Alecha raggedly whispered, discovering herself trembling. Days of nightmares? Weeks. “‹You… You’re absolutely insane…›”

“I was hoping a laugh would help with the tension. Pakar? Are you all right?”

She was staring at the twisted remains of the guardrail, collapsed by the force of Nesoli’s launch. “I… He… How could he…?”

“What did he say?”

“Roughly translated… He strongly suggested that my broodmother and father should have made an omelet many years ago…”

Tari grimaced. “What happened in there? I thought you just needed him to sign some things.”

“And I wanted to introduce you both since you’re here,” Pakar confirmed. “But… He was working out in the weight room, and his physical therapist wanted him to ease up.” Her gaze travelled skyward. “He insisted he feels fine. I asked him if he was trying to cripple himself on purpose. After that, things didn’t go well. He can be so stubborn sometimes…”

Alecha smirked. “‹She’s in love with him.›”

Pakar, still lacking her translator, frowned. “What’d she say?”

“She wants to know how much longer was he was supposed to be taking it easy,” Tari replied, not missing a beat. “He’s been here a while, hasn’t he?”

“Not supposed to be on his wings before more of the flight-specific physical therapy, that’s for sure. He already fired four trainers. They want to restart that regimen later today. I really hope he doesn’t hurt himself, showing off like this —“

A roar of pain ripped through the sky. Alecha looked up in time to see a red blur plummeting from above, one wing fluttering helplessly as the drekiran tumbled in freefall.

One Response

  1. typhoon says:

    Heh.. Since Alecha understand Pakar the suggestion about Terran Languages was a mayor oops on Paraks side. And neither Tari nor Pakar notice :) Yet.