Thursday, August 26, 2010

Laying Groundwork

If you had asked Pilot First Class Alex Carlyle Sorenson what he had expected to be doing in six months, six months ago, the answer you received then would have had exactly one thing right: He would be in a scoutship.

The rest of what he would have told you about the awesome, no... incredible adventure he would be having would be incorrect. The fraternal camaraderie between pilot and engineer, out in the unexplored wild west of space. Out there helping humanity towards its future. All that other manifest destiny bullshit they put in the movies whenever a scoutship was involved. He knew better now, but that kind of thing was what got him interested in being a pilot the first place... so he held on to it.

There is the chance he might have gotten the bit about encountering hostile aliens right as well. The Ehom seemed to roam just about everywhere in the galaxy without rhyme or reason, mining and killing. If there were deeper reasons behind what they did, no one had managed to uncover them yet.

Alex had found himself with a lot of free time since the attack. He knew there was nothing he could do about this. His Amp had been filled with bone fragments and flexed in a direction it’s manufacturer had never intended. Curiously this prevented it from turning on, locking him out of a direct connection to the ship’s systems. On the up side, it had prevented his brain from being filled with bone fragments.

The medi-board had given him back his right arm and even let him sit at an incline now. The skin was tight and unnaturally pale, the muscles weak. The rest of his body was still inaccessible, but he could feed himself and use a tablet now. Doing anything with the tablet was cumbersome, at best. Everything had been designed to be used by someone with a direct interface.

Filling the many hours he did not sleep was a remarkably guilty experience. Carbon would show up a few times a day with food, looking progressively more burnt out as days passed. He would be dead without her, he knew, and the first time the door had slid open and he’d been watching some fluff comedy show that had been packaged into the data stores his chest had constricted with panic. He had thumbed it off immediately, set the tablet screen down a little too hard and tried to look not guilty.

It hadn’t worked, he could see it in her face. That was interesting. He could see it in her face. Nuances he’d never consciously paid attention to didn’t spring out at him, but they were there. Her expression had changed, only for a second. Eyebrows leveling out, eyes squinting almost imperceptibly, ears compressing down further and her antenna lowered. A little sigh, resigned, and her face relaxed again. She knew there was nothing else for him to do yet.

This is what lead him to find out more about Carbon’s people. The data stores were huge - several exabytes of data, mostly for navigation - and there were only sixty pages about the Tslao outside of the translation database. It was the exact sixty pages they’d made him read during his primer course on interacting with them. Not so useful. He would have to take a more direct approach.

“So I was wondering if you could share some more of your culture with me.” He winced after he said it, the words had spilled out much faster than he had intended them to. “I mean, if you do not mind.”

Carbon’s eyebrows quirked up, her chopsticks poised over a bowl of vibrant green... chunks of food. Alex still wasn’t sure what it was, the primer hadn’t covered food beyond the fact that theirs wasn’t poisonous to humans. “I- I do not understand?”

“I know almost nothing about you, your people, what you do. You have done so much for me, and I don’t think I will ever be able to reciprocate that.”

She nodded slowly, “If you are looking to assuage your guilt over your lack of mobility, it is unnecessary. I understood it would take a long time for you to heal when I pulled you from the bridge. I have never seen burns so severe.”

Alex briefly remembered her smeared in his blood and burned bits when he first came to. Lunch was suddenly less appetizing. She kept eating. “It was that at first, yes. I suppose it still is guilt I feel, but on a much deeper level. I have had... some problems with the Tslao before, but not for good reasons.”

“I am aware.” She would be, of course. She had seen it in action.

“I am afraid that I have let others make some very personal decisions for me, and that is something I cannot tolerate in myself.”

Carbon leaned back in her chair and considered that. There was the faintest hint of surprise in her voice. “Very well. Is there anything you wish to know in particular?”

He hadn’t thought that far ahead. “I’m not sure. I’m starting to think the primer they gave me is pretty sketchy.”

“It is,” she had seen that as well, apparently. She unclipped herself from the chair and pushed away from it towards the door. “I will try to find a good place to start while I work. Have you ever sampled our food?”

“No. I am willing to try it, though.” He had heard the requisite horror stories about alien food, but they were always so over the top he couldn’t really believe any of them. Except for the ones about the tkt, but they were just weird and you couldn’t eat their food anyway.

Her hand brushed over the door controls and she rotated out of the room. “Good,” she sounded pleased, “I will see you at dinner.”

He might have caught a flash of an actual smile as the door closed behind her.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Breaking Barriers

No amount of fussing with the medi-board would make it put Alex’s feeding tube back in, despite the fact that it still prevented him from using the of the rest of his body. It may have been some of the best medical equipment ever produced, but it was still dumb as a brick without the main AI turned on.

Dinner had turned out to be mostly embarrassing for him. Carbon either did not mind having to feed him or if she did, didn’t show it at all. He could at least tell she was not particularly enthusiastic about it.

“I can not comprehend how so fractured a society managed to climb into space.”

Alex nodded and chewed on a gristly bit of meat from the beef stew she had brought in to the medical bay while he considered her. The days of her wearing what was basically a space-suit everywhere seemed to be over, the alien currently clad in a black jumpsuit with the flowing script for her name and title stitched in just below her collarbone.

“I hear that a lot.” He had, actually. The species humanity got along with, the Tslao and ktk, had almost entirely homogeneous societies and both of them had trouble wrapping their brains around it. It had been covered several times in school.

She offered up another spoon full of stew, taking his comment as an invitation to continue. “Your dispenser has over twelve hundred kinds of soup available, even on local backup power. Scrolling through the list gave me the feeling of going mad. It seemed to never end and there were so many languages. I had to do research.”

Peas, carrots and a powdery potato. “Really? I had never investigated the soups.” Since he had met Carbon just a few months ago, that was the most she had ever said to him at once. He was surprised that the statement was not directly critical and had been couched with explanations. They had told him that was a positive indicator.

“I will not accept ‘pick something for me’ as an answer from you in the future for your meals.”

Despite his best efforts, he smiled at that. The effort to suppress it just kind of twisted it a bit and made him look very smug.

She did mind that. Her expression darkened, her voice dropped away from the conversational tone she had just been using. “Are you mocking me?”

There went his bit of progress. “No. I was just...” he tried to figure out how to say what he meant through the cultural barrier with a bit of grace. He failed at that, instead choosing to simply barge through it with as detailed an explanation as possible. “I thought the situation was humorous for it’s irony. I had not intended to cause you any trouble when you asked me what I wanted to eat, but in offering what I perceived to be an easy option turned out to be the opposite.”

Her expression softened, voice chastened. “Irony... Yes, I can see that.” Carbon sighed, set the bowl down and rubbed her eyes. He hadn’t noticed how tired she looked until now. “Regret. I have not been very considerate of you, Alex. I confess that sometimes I forget you are in this state.”

Another first. She’d never used an emotion modifier when speaking to him before. “It’s fine. I forget that I’m stuck here every few minutes anyway.” He grinned. Miraculously, the corners of her mouth curled up just a bit as she picked up the stew again.

“The medi-board indicates you should have your upper body back sometime in the next week. Your legs will take longer yet.” Alex had made the mistake of asking to see his injury report, almost his entire body had suffered various levels of burns in addition to the crushing blow his head had taken. His legs had the thinnest layer of crash foam, most of which burnt off when the rail round had slammed into the bridge, spraying burning metal everywhere in the compact room. They had been cooked down to the bone.

He swallowed another bite. “Good. I’m tired of not being able to do anything.”

“I do not know how much you will be able to do. The ship is in good shape with the exception of the bridge and engine room.”

“Are the Ehom still in system?” He already knew the answer. If they had left, everything could be turned back on. They were still running just automated systems: life support, sheilding and the kinetic buffers. Most automatic system would run for months after a ship’s crew was dead.

“Yes. They have held their position and we are moving away slowly. They have made no attempts to check the ship yet.”

“That’s something.”

“Yes.” She fed him another bit of stew and looked away, expression guilty. “I have been meaning to discuss something with you.”

In his experience, good conversations did not start that way. “Go on.”

“After the attack, when I entered the bridge-” she stopped and her eyebrows knit together, some internal tug-of-war going on. “There was so much blood.”

“You didn’t know if I had survived and my Amp had been destroyed. You had to do it.”

“Yes, that is exactly...” she trailed off, her eyes briefly meeting his before darting away. “What do you mean by that?”

“You performed a neural link with me while I was unconscious.” He had plenty of time to suss out possible explanations for why she had done it, and it probably wasn’t because she had been bored.

“You should not be able to remember that.”

“Well, I do. Why did you do it?”

She hesitated, and looked like she was about to bolt from the room for a moment. “I had to know if you still lived.”

The way she put emphasis on it was telling. She had wanted to see if his collection of memories was intact. From learning to read to flying a scoutship, these were what made him unique, according to the Tslao. With his memories gone, he would have been some sort of ghoul to them, and useless on the ship.

“You would have left me to die if I had not?”

“Guilt.” She watched the bowl in her hands intently, the one word carrying everything he needed to know.

“I do not blame you. In the same situation I can’t say I would not have done the same thing.” It might have been a lie. He wasn’t sure, but he knew it was the diplomatic thing to say, effectively letting her save face by saying he’d let her die as well.

She nodded, still looking guilty but more relaxed. “Thank you.”

Friday, August 13, 2010


“That was incredible.” Alex sat in the cockpit of his simulator, blinking in the bright lights of the sim bay. “If that’s where the next generation of wave drives are going, we’ll be able to canvas hundreds more systems per year, at least.”

(Ashalon. He knew this one, amusement-superiority. It was mocking. Your next generation of drives, perhaps.)

Speed was important. Humanity needed to expand out as Earth was basically used up and slightly toxic. They started terraforming just about anything that would take the process, even if it would take a hundred years for good results. The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, after all.

The simulation was notably faster than what Alex had trained on previously, the connection and increased data flow to handle the speed left his brain aching, and his Amp implant felt itchy. His trainer, an old pro who’d spent more than a decade on scout runs grinned and reached down to give him a hand up out of the enclosure. “You’re damn right, Pilot Sorenson.”

(That’s not what Ed had called him. He always called him Alex.)

“Are they going to have these ready for my ship?” He was eager to know when he would finally get his assignment. He had spent two years getting ready for this assignment, even spent six months at Navy boot camp for zero-g training. They should have put him on one by now. Three others had left while he’d been stuck doing more training... but if the trade off was the new engines, he’d be happy with that.

“As a matter of fact, it will. Your charge will be ready in just about two months.” Ed looked... Alex wasn’t sure. Sad, tense, hopeful and worried, all at the same time, boiling just below the surface.There was more happening than he was letting on.

(Kason. To be pleased at another’s intuition. About the closest thing to a compliment he’d gotten.)

“That’s great! Is it new? Will I get to name it?” First pilot always got to name a new ship. He felt like a kid in a candy store at the prospect, his mind running over all of the potential names he could assign it before Ed cut him off.

“No, it’s already named.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense with the new engines. What’s it called?”

Kshalvo. Bridge builder.”

“I don’t recognize that language.”

“It’s Tslao. Your engineer is going to be a Lan, a Shipmaster.”

“I’m getting put on a ship with a fucking dog?” His voice practically cracked, starting to make a scene in the quiet hum of the sim bay. He didn’t have any particular problems with the Tslao, but he didn’t want to be stuck in a ship with one for a year. Ed’s expression cemented into an unhealthy mix of anger and disgust.

(Tan ch. They covered that one in his primer, too. Anger and disgust. It did fit the situation well.)

“Watch your fucking mouth.” He was, for a moment, pretty sure Ed was going to beat him to a pulp right there. Ed’s voice dropped an octave but retained it’s edge as he leaned in to Alex, eyes burning. “You need to see something. Come on.”

The walk to Ed’s office was uncomfortable. He’d overstepped his bounds far more than he thought, if Ed’s posture and the way people got out of his way in the wide hall were any indication. Goodbye future opportunities anywhere. Ed slammed the door shut behind him, pointed at the seat in front if his desk without saying a word. Alex sat silently, hoping that he might be able to salvage something.

Ed just stared at his monitor and dug around for something. When he found it, he swiveled the screen around to Alex. Just a video, time lapse, of a blue and green planet spinning slowly. The original timestamps were in a flowing script he assumed to be Tslao, modern English numerals below it. It ticked forward three minutes every second, must have been taken from a geosynchronous satellite as the landmass below never changed.

He missed it at first. A black speck maybe a few hundred kilometers from it’s western coast. It expanded, a ragged spot and then a gray-black smear spreading across the atmosphere. The playback sped up, each tick an hour forward. The continent dipped into night and then came back around to day, the streak had widened by about double. Alex’s blood ran cold as he watched it envelop most of the planet, finally understanding what he was looking at. “Was that a volcano?”

(She’d not left any words here, just the unmistakable feeling of sorrow.)

“Megacaldera. Ejected more than nine thousand cubic kilometers of debris into the air. There is debate about extending the Volcanic Explosivity Index past eight just for it.” Ed was unimaginably calm about this. The old pilot continued, “That was six years ago, they came to us for help a year later. Scientists figure it’ll take about sixty years for the ash to come down to survivable levels. In the mean time, most cities still have functioning shielding, but they’re still trying to offload the remaining one and a half billion refugees on planet.”

Alex nodded, unable to look away. He knew about keeping ships in the air as well as anyone and most ships wouldn’t be able to deal with that much ash. There were ways around the limitations, but there were a lot of limitations. Small craft would require hundreds of modifications to survive it, and it would eat up most of the cargo space. Maybe some atmosphere capable warships with fully sealed systems... but good luck landing those in a city.

“It’s dead, isn’t it?”

“Basically. We’ve been helping with the offload, giving shelter where possible without making a scene,” he gave Alex a pointed look. “Getting their shipbuilding capability back up has been a nightmare, I’m told. A lot of prefab on the ground with them, then up the elevators to be built.”

The past few minutes had changed his perspective significantly. Shipbuilding was the lifeblood of any star faring race. If you didn’t have ships in good working order, you were just- “The Ehom. Do they know?” He blurted it out suddenly, almost startled at the revelation. The Ehom had a tendency to kill anything that wasn’t Ehom. Humanity and the Tslao were about evenly hated by them, the opportunity to snuff one out would be welcomed with open arms.

(Lanan. Cautious enjoyment of a change of events.)

“We’ve been keeping them busy elsewhere, but they’ll find out sooner or later. That is why we built the Khshalvo. They need new colonies. They need a homeworld. Without the Tslao, the Ehom will eventually overrun us as well.” Ed leaned back in his chair. “Do you understand?”

Yeah, I get-”

Alex would have sat up bolt upright, startled from sleep by the feeding tube slithering back up his throat and out his nose, but he was still pinned to the medi-board. The dreams had all been the same since the attack, snippets of his past with Carbon’s thoughts from when she took a peek in his brain over the top of them.

He had still not discussed that with her, unsure of why she did it, or of the protocols around such a thing. Her demeanor had been warming slowly, which was good since he was immobile and unable to connect to the ship. He could eat by himself now, since the tube had retracted. He focused on moving his arms... Nothing. Still too badly burned.

Dinner was going to be awkward.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Things Done in Confidence

Alex had never believed that your life would flash before your eyes when you died, but there it went. Snippets of what made him into who he was, some parts just a stuttering slide show of his life, other moments stretched out to weeks. It was confusing at best, but it wouldn’t have been better if he could have understood the narration.