|Credit: NASA/Hubble Telescope|
We are doomed to die.
It was every species’ first epiphany; the foundation of sentience. One cannot know life without acknowledging there was a time before and, by observed corollary, a time after. A time beyond, maybe, depending on the myths one chose to armor oneself. Sentience arises from complexity, the universe tolerates this thermodynamic borrowing only so long before the bill comes due, and so any being able to think the concept Death in so doing signs its own warrant. The question immediately becomes: what to do about it? How to walk the edge of existence, always conscious of the precipice, without simply collapsing in the dust?
Most ignored it, or tried to. Some succeeded, particularly in civilization’s early stages when prospects were limited and death was less a philosophical concept than a hunter waiting to strike. It was hard work simply keeping oneself out of the grave, and hard work highlights the immediate. Faith could swaddle the grim idea with hopeful magic; chemicals offered a more rational route to the same destination. Entire industries arose to cope with the psychological pressure of the end impending. Men earned billions off their fellows’ demise and found themselves struggling to unload the lucre before estate taxes did their immortal work. Only two constants in the universe, went the proverb, and here they intersected. Men and women did what they could in the time allotted, fought bitter delaying actions in hospital beds, left their descendants to grieve the war’s inevitable loss.
The Ouro saw things differently. Death stalked the Kin closely, from their evolution in vast predatory seas to the dementia coring through their post-reproductive brains, and this struck their greatest minds as awfully unfair. Why should a fragile corporeal husk have the last word on anything so beautiful as sentience, as intellect? Ridiculous. No engineer would tolerate such vulnerabilities in any system she designed. And had the Kin not tamed their seas? Had they not taught their world to provide beyond anything ecologists predicted? They could do better. Dumb animals submitted to their circumstances. The Kin would conquer them.
They began crudely but asked themselves the right questions. What comprised them? What was truly lost to the Great Beyond? What might be salvaged? From the lowest castes they conscripted Kin to live alongside luminaries—those wise and stoic Ouro who sacrificed their genetic legacies for accumulated learning. A dormant gene-seed soothed the mind, kept it bound to reality for many orbits more before the dementing mist descended. The young Kin were meant to study the wise ones’ ways, to learn the tales of their lives from the first to the last.
The sages spoke; their thralls did more than listen. Tentacle on tentacle, one subcutaneous nerve cluster pressed loving against another, they came to know the elders. Knew them better than their students, better than the far-swimming Preachers who bore their chromatic wisdom verbatim across Ort’s vast seas. For a message was just that; a Kin was so much more than what he chose to express. The thralls saw everything, heard and felt everything, documenting every facet of the sages’ being and committing it to sense-memory until every last cell hummed with synchronicity. In the end the master could not even test his student; they inevitably grew too close, could no longer clearly divine the seam between minds. Instead they stood separately before the Passage Tribunal for six days and nights, answering question after question posed identically and in the same order. The sages noted every nuance. The slightest dovetailing of response sent master and thrall alike back to their work; a pass from the Tribunal, achingly rare, set off days of celebration. Upon the master’s death his caste, title and name fell to the thrall beneath. In this way, Ort’s greatest sages had persisted undying for millennia.
It wasn’t enough. Death they might have beaten, but still the trumpets of victory rang hollow. Battle won, war still raging. The wealthiest Ouro acquired their own thralls—their own vessels to cheat death, equally subject to the Tribunal’s judgment. Still, the vast majority of Ouro were every bit as wedded to mortality as their ancestors. They chafed at it, resented their betters, launched bitter internecine wars over the metaphysical insult. Ort’s ocean welled black with blood, the castes were violently dissolved and in the end only the very greatest sages were permitted the Passage.
Time ran and they built machines: machines that moved, that worked, that computed and eventually thought much as the Kin themselves did. In the machines they found their great solution. With deep, long-practiced knowledge of their own souls, they taught the machines to learn the way the thralls learned. Neither numbers nor politics cold stop them now. In one fell swoop they won themselves an indefinite future, lacking locomotion but scarcely needing it for the Kin were not mere swimming beasts but thinking beings. Gradually they filled their computers with sense-memory, with community, with wisdom. They took that wisdom along to the stars.
Beyond Ort’s birthing tub they found another sea: older, vaster, untamed and un-tamable. Their ships bore them over its currents to strange lands and in those lands they found life. More breathing worlds, more living species than they ever imagined lay out before them. But amidst all this wonder the Kin could not help feeling lonely. Not in any personal sense; their electronic community of living and dead grew larger by the day. Nonetheless, on world after world they saw remnants of lost civilizations, dead peoples. They saw structures at larger scales than simulations suggested were possible for meter-scale organic life, ended and ground down to dust. They quailed to see Death once again triumphant, ashen cloak spread over galactic reaches. These foreign beings, for all the wonders at their feet, had found themselves paupers when at last the great bill came due.
A younger species would have reacted with arrogance, knowing they’d found an answer, seeing in those extinctions proof of their own exalted status. But the Kin had unnaturally aged, the swimming breathing mating Ouro with their hot passions tempered by legions of the departed who could not but mourn those dazzling boneyards. In response they dug back through their history, excavating until once again they asked themselves the good hard questions. What was sentience and what did it contain? What was it to die? How, in a quantifiable and thoroughly conserved universe, could anything so obviously powerful end? How had they—no stronger they knew, than any other flesh—proved the exception? Countless questions ricocheted about the Kin network, rendering only one point of consensus: given this apparently unprecedented gift, having developed the core of this technology, they had a solemn responsibility to share it.
* * *
“That’s right, ma’am,” Zachariah Obo grunted in reply. “One for each pylon, like the model shows,” he pointed to the blue wireframe pinwheel hovering chest-high in the air between them.
Karl Genz, still in his seat, leaned into his console and set the model in motion. From the swollen pods at the pylons’ tips emerged six crimson beams. Like lighthouse beacons they wheeled and sought, sweeping ever-shifting routes around and around the station until it was sealed in a sphere of translucent red. “That pattern is displayed in real time,” he explained excitedly to his C.O., “and utterly consistent with active scanning behavior.”
“Scanning for what?” she glanced between them.
Obo took up his coffee cup from the desk and drew it to his grey-stubbled upper lip for a slurp. “Billion-dollar question. Thing is, we’re two whole layers of exotica from an answer. The beams themselves we can’t directly observe; it’s indirect.”
“Second order observation,” Karl seconded. “By way of the photino bird.”
Lorena shot up her favorite eyebrow as Obo winced. He preferred to skirt that detail. “All this derives from something that dumb animal did?”
“It exhibited an unusually regular photophore pulse, first noticed by Mister Obo and Miss Leaf.”
That was why Obo’d sought to avoid the topic. He shut his eyes tight against the flood of irritation. “Maxine Leaf is spending her time in my docking bay?” Lorena’s voice rose as the sentence went on.
“She was trying to stay out of our collective airspace,” said Obo, leaving alone the question of exactly whose bay it was.
“Then she can stay in her damn cabin.”
“With respect, Doctor, Miss Leaf’s observation did aid our search,” Karl contributed. Lorena shot him a glare but found its effect irritatingly lost on the oblivious German.
“If anything in there were out of place, I’d know about it,” Obo assured her.
“Seriously, Lor, what’s she gonna do?” Beatrice asked rhetorically. The holographic model cast striking shadows over her face.
Lorena made a huffing noise and dropped it, not conceding the point but unwilling to push it past more serious matters. “Fine. You said second-order. The bird’s the first; what’s the second?”
“The outgoing beams are all we’re seeing, and only at close range,” Obo explained. “You’ll note the spherical distribution—in theory we’d have seen the effect earlier, even a whole dive out. But I checked the video and it didn’t start ‘til we killed the C-H gen’. So either it’s meant for a local effect, or we’re only picking up a fraction of the traffic. My money’s on the latter.”
“Our money. Proverbially speaking,” Karl noted. “If we cannot understand the sensor itself, guessing its purpose is futile.”
Lorena crossed her arms, took in the model once more. “So how do we do that? Earlier you said the station’s full of data storage. If we could get to it, that’d be one thing…but I’m guessing scanners are no good here.”
“Correct, Doctor. First, the facility’s hull shields its inner workings from long-range scans. Second, direct observation does us little good without knowing their system architecture. It would be like a map with no starting point, no legend to guide.”
“All right, next option?” she asked.
“Direct engagement,” Karl said before Obo could answer. “We carry so much Ouro data already. We know the contact protocols function for both A.I. gateways and shipboard systems. Perhaps they would respond to this.”
“Their tongue, their rules,” said Beatrice with a nod of assent.
“No, no, no,” Obo stepped forward sweeping his hands back and forth, waving off the idea, splintering the model as projector lights shone on his skin.
“If properly managed—“
“No. It was you blew our data security back in the Graveyard, and now you want to do it again. Never mind that first one half-wiped our drives in an eyeblink. A half-dead civilian A.I. with its transmitters fried by superlight breakup. What do you imagine this thing’s capable of? Did you think this through for even two seconds before blurting it out?”
Lorena shot him a sympathetic look, placing herself on his side while also suggesting the younger man be given a modicum of slack. “I asked for solutions, and that might work,” she began, watching Genz’s face recover from its bludgeoned look. “But Mister Obo’s right. What if this thing erased our star maps? To say nothing of a dozen other core systems. We won’t compromise the computers again if we can possibly help it.”
“Understood, Doctor,” Karl dipped his head slightly. Obo let out a long, phlegmy sigh and downed the rest of his coffee.
“Well, what other questions can we answer about this beast?” Lorena paced a slow lap around Genz’s model like a clue might be hidden somewhere, though logically that was impossible—any clue would have originated in the German’s own mind.
“Hard to answer from this range, Doctor. If we drew near the station, we might glean something of value. But I cannot speak to security.”
“Again, seems like a bad risk,” said Obo. “They’ve not acknowledged us so far, but who knows what proxy-based defenses we’re looking at?”
“No conventional weapons, you said.”
“No, ma’am. Though any number of point defense systems could have slipped our notice.” Genz rubbed his chin, bit his lip, pondered.
“Give ‘em a poke,” Beatrice declared flippantly.
“It is actually possible,” Karl gave a sudden nod. Obo frowned, confused by his phrasing.
“We have courier drones aboard, yes? What if we were to use a courier drone to investigate? Load it up with portable sensors and send it on a near pass! It may teach us something about the station’s defenses, at the least. That may yield larger clues as to its purpose!” he beamed with perfectly enameled teeth.
Now Obo showed a scowl, seeming to chew on something though his mouth was empty. He strove for a reason this couldn’t work. He found nothing but for the feeble prospect of all-out retaliation—an idea swiftly rejected. Whatever one might say of the Ouro, they certainly weren’t clumsy.
“Fine,” he replied to Lorena’s questioning look. “Can’t imagine we’ll find any other use for ‘em.”
“Then it’s settled!” Beatrice crowed. “Thank all that’s good and holy, we’re done sitting around!”
* * *
Karl gritted his teeth hoisting the drone from its black plastic holding case, long arms and big white hands seeking purchases. With a clank he set the thirty-kilo mass down on the hastily cleared workbench. Wide atmosphere-ready fins tapered gently to a rounded nose; the tail was a dense cluster of thruster nozzles. Touching both seal releases with his thumbs, Karl flipped open a hinged door to expose an empty cylindrical compartment.
“That an Emm-Eye-Eff Seventy? We had a couple on Toussaint,” remarked Maxi Leaf, bending down to peer at the silver machine’s inner workings. Small, fast and disposably cheap, courier drones were the preferred method for moving small payloads between ships without the risk and hassle of docking. Larger freight carryalls might deploy hundreds of drones at a given stop, ranging in size from shoeboxes to houses, though Federal law mandated human-piloted tugs inside designated Economic Development Zones such as ports and shipyards.
Karl rolled the thing halfway over to check the numbers stenciled in white down its flank. “Yes,” he declared. “We have four on board, and two more of a larger model.”
“You don’t know what kind?”
“No. Their maintenance is Mister Obo’s concern.”
“He doesn’t like you. Why is that?”
Karl looked at her, unsettled by the question. “He has never treated me inappropriately.”
“Oh, come on.”
“To answer your question, I do not know. I have always assumed it was a question of seniority. A form of unofficial hazing.”
“But he obviously likes Ashley.”
“That is different.”
“Why is it different?”
“I do...not have an adequate response.” Karl stood up straight, rolled his shoulders, swung his neck in a circle to crack out some tension.
Maxi let him off the hook with a tinkling laugh. “I didn’t really expect one. So what’s going in this critter?”
Karl squatted to grab a canvas duffel bag stamped with the Explorer Corps logo. He lifted its clunking mass and unzipped the bag before extracting a pair of cup-shaped plastic devices. “These. And a few others, likewise salvaged from the surveying gear. I think I retrieved everything of use.” Obo had declined to help Karl, leaving him to negotiate the unfamiliar supply manifest on his own.
Maxi took one of the devices and turned it over in her hands. “Basic broad spectrum EM stuff? The sort of thing you’d set up planet-side and leave recording?”
“Just so. Though this one is designed for acute radiation, and this uses algorithmic filters to pick faint communications out of incidental EM,” he brandished a pen-shaped device along with a meaty black disc like a hockey puck. Each went into the drone’s open compartment, and once he’d gotten an idea of the space he took up a number of unmarked yellow grease cloths from a basket below the workbench. His great white hands twisted, warped and crushed them. He pushed them in around the sensors as wadding to hold them in place.
Maxi watched, frowning quizzically. “Has it been modded? Because if it’s no different from—“
“No modifications post-manufacture.”
“Well, that’s why I brought it up. If it’s commercial stock, it’s got no inertia field. Mif70s never had ‘em.”
Karl paused, looking down at the objects stuffing the drone. “I am not sure this equipment warrants such safeguards.”
“I promise you, the moment this thing burns up to cruise speed, it’s all getting crushed into the compartment floor. This thing might make it,” she said, flicking the hockey puck with her fingernail. “But the rest will break before you get a reading.”
They stood there a while, the two of them—Karl staring silent and ashamed at the childish mess he’d assembled, Maxi waiting for him to react though it didn’t seem to be coming. “Maybe,” she said at last, “we should think of a better layout.”
“I am unsure how to proceed,” he finally admitted. “I must concede I am beyond terrible when it comes to handicrafts.”
She laughed again and began emptying the compartment once more, pincering her fingers to yank out the crumbled yellow cloths. “Sorry to say, it shows. Look here, at the inside walls. See those ribs? They’re anchors for just about any modular bolt-in frame you want to use.”
“Do we have any?”
You’re asking me? she wondered, halfway between flummoxed and charmed by the holes in his knowledge. As though the Karl Genz factory had simply failed to ship some minor components. She looked around the workbench, the toolboxes and supply chests. She saw what she sought. Pointing: “Over there, on the wall rack. The thin metal rails; go grab them for me.”
* * *
The courier drone slid down the reflective metal chute into Konoko’s jettison tube and settled at the bottom with a soft clanking sound. Zach Obo closed the hatch, twisted the handle clockwise to seal it. There came a high drill-bit whine and an LED flipped from red to green.
“Mohinder put together a flight plan already,” he was telling Karl and Maxi. “Get it there in about a half hour. Faster if we had a head-on course—at this speed it’ll have to spiral in—but it’s only a few minutes more.”
Obo took out his handy to hail the bridge. “Hey, we’re about to launch the drone,” he announced. “Objections?”
“Can we give it a name first?” Vivek chirped back. “Before we send it off to its fate in the infinite?”
“Proceed with launch, Mister Obo,” said Lorena.
“Roger. Firing,” he said and without further ado jammed his calloused thumb down on an orange plastic button with a little glowing light trapped inside like an ambered insect. A low mechanical baying cut itself off with a two-stage CLU-UNK.
“Payload away,” called Vivek. Karl was already hustling away, legs battling each other propelling him downstairs to the Computer Suite.
The drone’s engine screamed to flaming life. Crude carbon-based propellant catapulted it to high velocities as Karl’s surveying sensors strained against the light aluminum framing he and Maxi Leaf had so recently installed. The drone had an added edge from Konoko’s momentum, forcing it into a shallow rightward turn, cutting coreward from the clipper’s orbiting course. It circled the Ouro station once, twice, three times—every circumference a fraction of that prior.
Circling the pool, winding its way down the drain, the little drone broadcast a flood of mundane data back to its mothership. Karl watched it come in, every sense perched alert. He watched the proximity numbers descend as the drone approached the end of its course. He was prepared for anything.
NEXT TUESDAY, IN PART FORTY-ONE: SHOTS FIRED! KONOKO'S CREW SCRAMBLES TO REACT, SMOOTH OVER HOSTILITIES AND KEEP THEIR SHIP INTACT LONG ENOUGH TO CONTACT THE ENIGMATIC OURO. ANOTHER WEEK, ANOTHER EPISODE!