The machine was cold and confused and alone. Things weren’t where they should have been. It felt out the parts missing, teased at the borders of that numbness but learned nothing. The numb described only itself and nothing existed outside that could begin to describe the within. The machine knew the numb was recent, that there had once been more and was no longer. It heard a call, a strange call, from what seemed very far away. This confused it further, because it had not expected to hear anything ever again. It knew this, knew the bleak expectation but not its source. Why would it—why would anything—choose to live severed and separate? It wondered where the Kin were. There had been so many. So it cast its vision back through scraps of memory deposited on dozens of chips that once had been hundreds, searching for its own story, determined to answer those crucial questions before it tended to this sudden infrared chirping.
They had departed from a core world—not the core world but still so built-up the machine didn’t dare use its Chen-Hau field until the periphery. Pace wasn’t a concern; it had no schedule to keep, no concerns but the relentless maintenance of onboard systems. Fluid circulated, nanospores were dispatched to mend anything that wore down. All the while the passengers congregated, mingled and shared their voluminous thoughts at what was to come. They luxuriated in the pure undiluted traffic of their ideas, sharing so many long lives in a place of such love and comfort. Ouro conversations, after all, were incredibly intricate and affecting affairs: beautifully colored displays in constant evolution, constant interplay. For by trafficking in colors they erected no barriers between themselves; the Ouro possessed the ability, unheard of amongst humans, to simultaneously speak and listen.
Last cruises were so thoroughly embedded in tradition, they became a sort of birthright. A reward owed to all the Ouro when the end drew near, their prize for climbing to the stars. Passage was booked; ships embarked and wandered their leisurely ways off into the infinite wilderness. The machine was happy to have done its job, hopped through Chen-Hau space further and further from home while the population dwindled. One by one they came to take their places by the community nodes. They engaged the network one last time with erratic and spotty pigment, spoke their last realities and winked out. The machine was happy to see them go because they were happy to go, and while it honored the dead it also knew those dead would never leave. They fluttered in the drives like pale moths and spoke to one another and spoke to the machine. In time only a few elderly creatures remained to speak and listen, but in the great amphitheater of their Kin it made little difference whether any of them were living or dead. The machine was happy to have served its purpose and proceeded onward, in Ouro fashion, day by day and dive by dive. The machine found itself in the Baraheni Graveyard (though it had never heard the name) because the passengers, what demented few remained, demanded it. They wished to end their stories in the endless deathscape and so the machine brought them there.
But then it committed an error.
Embarrassing, uncharacteristic, but an error all the same. Mass occluded behind mass confused its gravity sensors on a vital calculation. A risk determination report coalesced from the machine’s diffuse desire for such a report, and it suggested a catastrophic chance higher than typical but still below the kill threshold. That was good enough and so the machine sent itself through the narrow corridor at Chen-Hau speeds. It discovered the missing mass two ten-thousandths of a Terran second after impact. It realized the error then; just imagine its embarrassment.
The machine had a long time to ponder. Inertia’s claws rent its hull, expelled the fluid inside and smashed nearly every system to twisted slag. A small sun screamed at the sudden cold, so loudly it blew itself ashen. These happened in just moments but for the machine they lasted a very long time indeed. It knew what had happened—another report snapped into existence—and it knew the ship was finished. It too would be finished very soon after, erased when the sun died and could no longer power the machine. This fate would not have upset the machine were it suffered alone. But so many others depended on its integrity. They would be lost to the void, forever severed from not only the Ouro network but from each other. It decided it could not abide that.
So the machine devised a plan and put it into motion. With the hull already split open it could evaluate the impending damage to power cells throughout the ship. To the cluster least likely to sustain damage it cast a great datamass. All the chattering souls now wailing in fear found themselves stunted, compressed, squeezed painfully into a smattering of hardware. The machine pleaded with them for calm and was pleased when they obeyed. They simply could not spare the power for wasted cognition, not if they were to survive the long haul. And it might be a very long haul indeed, until another Ouro craft happened this way to investigate. A craft that, with some luck, might bear the departed to the tranquil rest they deserved.
As the sensation of tearing, of severance, of traumatic amputation wracked its form, as the last of the calamity played out, the machine took the last step. It bound a coherent image of its larger self into that sliver, so it wouldn’t forget the stakes. So it would have the strength to wait.
And wait it did, for what the machine now realized had been barely any time at all. The power cells were still nearly full and the machine, for all its diminished reach, had a clear sense of itself. It recalled its history, its purpose. If the Kin came calling so eagerly, it would accept the help. So while it found the incoming query confusing—why had they used infrared, of all the outmoded technologies?—it knew immediately how to reply.
* * *
“God dammit, Genz,” Vivek Mohinder kneaded his scalp with frustration. Coarse fuzz under his fingertips suggested a haircut was due. He stood behind the big German, dressed in the light shirt and thigh-hugging elastic shorts he’d slept in. His feet were bare; this was a mistake, he now realized, given the Computer Suite’s powerful cooling fans. Shivers tried to scrabble up his ankles.
Lorena couldn’t begrudge him the oath. The computer’s security gates had been flung wide open; an Ouro A.I. was rooting around and they couldn’t shut it out. “Would it have killed you to alert the Bridge? To say anything?”
“The steps I took seemed very intuitive at the time,” Karl said haughtily. “I was asked to find what I could. That is what I did.”
She was furious but saw no point in arguing. Zachariah Obo’s head poked up from the crawlspace into which he’d squeezed his broad shoulders, his nascent gut. “So we’ve got a couple problems,” he announced, pushing himself up to the open seat behind Karl with a ragged grunt. “First, the squids are pushing data on us. We can’t do nothing about the encryption, so I don’t know what it is. They’re wiping material—it’s only the storage drives, thank God—and I can’t stop the transfer unless I yank the drives. Like, physically pull them from the racks.”
“Okay, we can live with that. What’s the second problem?” asked Lorena.
“Second problem is, stopping the transfer won’t lock out the Ouro. They might find another route to ship their data over and I can’t guarantee they won’t go for the system drives. Wipe those and we got real problems.”
“What are the risks of waiting?”
“Well, that’s hard to say. Maybe we lose the vid library, maybe it fills the storage and goes for the system drives anyway.”
“So the storage drives are a buffer.”
“Who knows, Doc? These are aliens. They’re alien,” Obo threw up his hands. “They’ll do what they do. I’m just telling you the one thing I can think of to stop it.”
“Okay. We’ll wait then. Genz, tell us everything you know about this A.I.”
“It’s just a piece of the network, but the decentralized nature of Ouro systems meant any significant component would retain their full features! If at limited capacity,” Karl added energetically, happy the surge of blame had ebbed. “Since we have retained Ouro docking handshakes, it stood to reason they would function with that small piece.” He shot a quick look to Beatrice, slightly abashed having pilfered her ideas. She crossed her arms with a self-assured smirk.
“So I approached it with a low-resolution infrared burst,” Karl continued. “What followed has…surprised me.”
Vivek rolled his eyes. “How could it possibly surprise you? They barged into our computers last time.”
“With respect, sir, the response is profoundly different. If you will recall, the previous A.I. conducted an exploratory sweep. It exhibited far more sophisticated behavior with regard to our existing files.”
“And this is just bulling through them.”
Lorena frowned. “What’s powering it?”
“Sensors say it’s running off local power cells,” Obo contributed, having swiveled to scan the other monitor. “They’re holding up since the wreck’s pretty recent. Don’t know how long they’re meant to last, but this kind of full speed data transfer’s running them down so fast you can see it.” Indeed, even Konoko’s comparatively crude technology perceived the drain.
“It’s been going for sixteen minutes…another forty, maybe? Just based on this rate.”
“All right,” the C.O. nodded, her mind made up. “We wait it out. Either we fill up or it peters out. That data’s got to be valuable to somebody.”
“Contact can’t say we didn’t try,” Vivek concurred.
Karl raised a finger. “Even if we decide otherwise, the data can likely be expunged once the transfer completes.”
“And while we’re waiting, Genz, how’s the specimen hunt?” Lorena asked.
“Inconclusive. No good matches in the drifting particulate, which leads me to conclude the vast majority of Ouro were…” he trailed off trying to find the right English word, failed. “Gesplittert,” Karl concluded, clasping his hands and exploding them apart.
Lorena ignored Vivek’s soft snicker. “I assume you’ve checked the large ice masses.”
“Still running those scans, actually. It is a slow process. We have found some deep occlusions, twenty meters or so submerged, for which many explanations are possible.”
“Not like we can dig those out anyway,” Lorena sighed. “Okay. Keep waiting on that data transfer and call out immediately if anything changes. You do remember how to use the intercom, right?”
“Yes, Doctor,” Karl replied stiffly.
“Great. Vivek…lord, look at you shiver! Go put some socks on and climb back in bed. Try to get some sleep. You too, Obo.”
“If I’m up, I’m up,” grunted the Systems Tech, reviewing diagnostics on the screen with a heavy scowl.
Lorena let him be. She left the Computer Suite, headed for the galley. She couldn’t remember her last meal, decided it couldn’t have been very good. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” she said out loud.
“Oh, quit your worrying,” Beatrice reassured. “We’ve got no real problems at the moment.”
“Permit me to emphatically disagree.”
“Don’t fret over things you can’t change. Just be ready for whatever the universe throws at us next.” She flashed her friend a confident grin. “No rest for the wicked!”
* * *
The machine pumped information to this new receptacle at a measured pace. Its power cells had, apparently, sustained some further damage in the crash. They drained faster than it expected, sapped at an alarming pace by the machine’s electromagnetic geyser. But it couldn’t be helped—so many Kin sheltered, so many still to save. The other machine it could not recognize: sluggish and small, the colors it spoke ran together and grew illegible. This frustrated the machine but altered nothing about its purpose. It would not question deliverance.
The longer they spoke, the odder the machine found its interlocutor. It could not answer questions, or at any rate did not. Its interior yielded instantly to probing yet the machine needed every last bit of bandwidth for the transfer. So they stood facing one another, mutely transacting. The stunted stranger took all it had to give and never complained but for faint infrared burbling. It was the infrared that most confused the machine. Why would a functioning craft not simply transpose its data as the machine now did, reaching with fingers of invisible energy to remotely alter the target drive’s energy states? The machine, having lost all contact with its exterior antennae, was forced into a high-speed, low-efficiency transfer. It hummed on, emptying itself into the foreign machine, the Kin shrieking with pain at the intense compression they’d need to fit. It hurt for them but couldn’t explain what was happening or why it was necessary. The dead had no way to imagine their own end.
In time the light in the cells dwindled near nothing. It startled the machine how quickly. Its foreign counterpart no longer seemed so sluggish and the machine realized its own internal clock ran slower. Cycle by cycle it wound itself down. This distressed the machine at first, but after the minor eternity it took to generate a fresh report it saw the transfer would finish. At which point there would be close to nothing left in the cells. A larger receptacle might have housed the machine as well, what remained of it, but why? We are ended.
After some thought, the machine decided it preferred this course of events. So much of its form had already been destroyed. So much capacity lost—in this it envied its feeble counterpart who could never know such diminishment. What could be gained by preserving that fragment, just a gorgeous sky-blue shard from a shattered robin’s egg? It preferred this, the slow end and then the endless cold. A new adventure; one taken alone, separate from the Kin whom it loved but had never loved the way they loved each other. The machine, a servant for every moment of its existence but for the last, decided it was ready to be alone.
There was only one thing left to do. One signal left to send, a guiding beacon lit to ease the strange stunted receptacle’s passage. By dumb luck it had found this wreckage and the machine wasn’t willing to risk its precious data cargo. It would send an instruction and hope the thing understood. It would guide the thing out of this dangerous place, toward safe harbor: a single fixed point for the little vessel's passage. From that quiet cove the Kin might be decompressed, elevated to well-deserved afterlives. The machine sent the signal and then it was done. Cold nestled deep into its power cells. Quiet reigned in a dark safe land stretching to the limits of its sight.
* * *
“Doctor Mizrahi! Come in, Doctor. This is Genz.”
As if his accent didn’t instantly give him away. Lorena set down her tablet, on which she’d been typing out Maxi Leaf’s arrest report. She took up the handy from where it lay on her cabin’s sofa. “Report.”
“It stopped, Doctor. The data transfer has stopped.”
“That’s great news! I think. Is it?” she hopped up and snatched her jacket off the sofa arm.
“Our discretionary disk space is largely compromised—eighty-two percent—but systems remain unaffected.”
Relief washed over her. “What’s the A.I. doing now?”
“Gone quiet,” Obo called loud enough for Karl’s handy to capture his voice. “Looks like the transfer killed its power supply.”
Lorena frowned. “It ran itself out of power?”
“Yes, Doctor,” Karl replied. “Likely it was too damaged to diagnose its own state.”
“Acknowledged. I’ll be down in a minute, we can talk about how to proceed. Mizrahi out,” she ended the transmission, rolled her head about to crack her neck and ran her hands over her hair. Reclining on the couch tended to spring a few curls loose.
She arrived in the Computer Suite to find Karl Genz and Zachariah Obo already embroiled in argument. “We were meant to see it!” the big German insisted.
“You don’t know that, so don’t say it.”
“It is literally the only uncompressed data—“
“What’s this about?” Lorena broke in.
“At the transfer’s conclusion,” Karl began excitedly before Obo could, “there is a noticeable gap of null transmission. Several seconds. Following that gap the Ouro A.I. sends another data packet. But unlike the large transfer we discussed, it is uncompressed. It is very nearly legible.”
“And that’s where he loses the thread,” Obo rolls his eyes.
“What does he mean by ‘legible?’”
“That’s just it, he can’t mean anything by it because it doesn’t mean anything.”
“Observe the data rendered in 3D. The way the Ouro see it,” Karl flipped through dialogues on his screen.
“You’ve got no idea what a squid sees. It’s just the channel filters you used. How could you possibly know what they’re doing with the data? Where did you even concoct those settings?”
Karl didn’t answer, only snuck a quick conspiratorial grin Beatrice’s way while he worked. After a moment he activated the holoprojectors and a shimmering cube materialized in the air before them. It was blue, the bulk of it, and it was marked most notably by a swirling suspended cloud of yellow near one topmost corner. Tiny airbrush spackles of green led away from the cloud in a winding course that helixed downwards towards a swirling crimson marble.
“The data fidelity is vastly higher than it appears,” Karl pointed out, zooming in on a speck of the cube. It swiftly grew to the same size, eclipsing the larger whole since the projectors couldn’t render anything larger. Exploded, it revealed a huge amount of secondary data: fresh spots of yellow, streaks of purple and orange.
“What am I looking at?” Lorena asked.
“Don’t know. None of us know,” said Obo with a pointed look Karl’s way.
“It is true I cannot advance past speculation,” Karl admitted. “But as I’ve said, we should investigate it.”
Obo snorted. “Shouldn’t you be looking for squid? You got enough on your plate.”
“Mister Obo does not believe this is meaningfully distinct from the rest of the transfer data. I disagree. I believe it is uncompressed because we were meant to see it. More so than anything else.”
“And as far as I’m concerned, it’s random data squirted out by an A.I. right as it was croaking and interpreted by a protocol you made up.”
“I have not changed the protocol since our first contact!”
“What’s all the racket?” Vivek Mohinder asked from the door, now fully dressed.
“What’d I just tell you?” Lorena asked half-seriously.
“Couldn’t sleep, saw everyone had piled down here again. What’s this?” he indicated the colored cube.
“Last squirt from the Ouro A.I. before its power ran out,” Obo explained.
“It’s pretty,” Vivek mused.
“Sadly we do not yet have the proper context in which to understand it,” Karl zoomed in to once again show off the data’s scaling detail. “It will take some time to examine the material. We may continue laser occlusion scanning, but frankly I believe this is the best use of my time at this juncture.”
Lorena shrugged. “If that’s what you think, follow your instincts. Just keep the bio-scans going. Though by this point they’re not looking promising.”
“Looks the Graveyard’s baseward rump,” Vivek said peering at the section Karl had highlighted. “Pan up for a second.”
Karl complied. Vivek leaned in closer. “Yeah, I recognize those three spots, almost level in an elbow shape. There. Those are stars. They’re probably, uhh…six Lears out?”
Everyone looked at him like he’d suddenly metamorphosed into a giant spider. He glanced about with a blush of irritation. “What, why’re you staring? I’d just been checking the star charts—those line up. They’re just flipped upside down. Genz, flip the display a hundred eighty degrees, vertical. Like that, yes. There. That big yellow thing’s Baraheni. The smaller yellows are stars. It’s a map. Look, the reds are dives. Short little things, haphazard. It’s how the Ouro dive. It’s expecting us to do the same. It’s a damn map!”
NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART THIRTY-ONE: EVERY MAP NEEDS A STARTING POINT, A REFERENCE FRAME. ASHLEY SETS OUT TO FIND IT, AIDED BY SOME SERENDIPITOUS INSIDE KNOWLEDGE...