Thursday, September 30, 2010

Burnout

In matters where logic reigned supreme, Alex did very well. He could plot a thousand light year course, scored fairly high on the three dimensional tactics and had a very thorough methodology planned for testing the graduate thesis he never got to use.

If someone he liked was having a bad day, all of that ability crumbled away. He ceased to be able to plan more than three steps ahead. He meant well, but was inept at best.

There had been a silence long enough to be considered awkward.

“I think it would be better if you worked in a different part of the ship today, Pilot.” Carbon’s voice was clipped, each word carefully chosen and precise, “perhaps you could see about getting a waveride set up.”

With that she shoved him away, eyes cold and lips pressed tight.

“Very well.” He didn’t argue, despite a strong urge to. Fingers grazed the wall, propelling him back towards the door to the passageway. The doors closed behind him, and he floated there for a few moments before shrugging it off and heading for the shower.

Wedged between two walls in a hot mist he pondered turning the AI on to do a jump calculation. Even with most of its logic processors shut off or underclocked - or both - the cooling system would still come on for the control processors alone. All of this nicely structured thinking did not stop Carbon’s rebuff from gnawing fervently on the edges of his mind. Alex had not shrugged it off very well.

He found himself staring into a bowl of oatmeal in the mess, mind flipping between what he’d done wrong and how to keep the cooling system from starting up a bunch of other systems it considered important, like the main reactor. That would give them away in a heartbeat and it was all hard wired. He’d have to go outside and cut parts of the system off, which would prevent it from working.

There was an emergency plan for loss of the AI... This did count as an emergency. Maybe actually doing something would free his mind up for a while, as well. He tossed the untouched bowl into the recycler and floated up to the forward airlock, slid into a space suit and sealed it. The suit cinched itself down, fit to the user. For the first time since he’d woken up in the medical bay, a machine accessed his mind, for now just a simple visual overlay of the on board systems.

The precautions were necessary because he was going back to the bridge. The Ehom had been so kind as to use a radiological round, leaving the bridge covered in enriched radioactive materials. This kind of thing was usually used against larger ships, to deny areas to your enemy and step up casualties.

The boots clicked to the floor, allowing him to walk up to the door to the bridge. It was an airlock style door, radiation levels picking up as he stepped into the space between the two doors and spiking to dangerous levels as the inner door opened.

The lights beyond were out, a flicker of his mind turned the suit’s lights on. If the engine room had been a mess, this was a disaster. Every surface was blackened, all of the kinetic buffers were blown out. A large hole in the ceiling had filled with foam in the wake of the slug, the deck below it warped and torn up.

The pit Alex had sat in, literally a divot in the floor surrounded by electronics, was now a lump of burnt crash foam with a roughly Alex shaped hole where Carbon had torn him out of it. Torn most of him out, anyway. There were some bits left down in the bottom where his feet had been, little bones and burnt flesh peeking out at him as he made his way to the front of the bridge. Lots of dried blood, now that he was close to it. He wasn’t sure where it had all come from. There couldn’t have been that much blood in him.

The deck plate he was looking for was easy enough to find, gloved fingers pushed into the recessed latch and popped it up. The little computer core slid up out of its socket, tiny blue and green lights blinking in the glare of the suit lights. Not particularly powerful compared to the AI, but it had a sealed power supply and no cooling requirements.

Alex yanked it up, half the lights winked out and the few systems in the bridge that still worked shut off. He clomped to the door, sealed the radiation back in and ditched the suit in the forward airlock.


He retrieved the same units from his cabin and the med bay, stacked them up on the little table in the mess and wired them together into a cluster. Some engineer had actually made this easy, the necessary wires tucked into a little slot in the back. More of the little lights came on as they found each other and linked to the data store via wireless.

Tucked away in the recesses of the data store, there was a tiny program that would divvy the duties of calculating a safe waveride up between the computer cores. It wasn’t meant for long distances, mostly just to get you out of harms way and send a distress call on the FTL comm. Just a few light seconds of distance, usually.

Alex was feeling pretty good about getting things done and not thinking about Carbon, which made him think about Carbon. He sighed and rubbed his face, second guessing himself again before forcing his mind back to work. The program didn’t even have an icon, the default system gears and wrench spinning slowly on his tablet as the setup crunched a test run.

He watched the clock as it worked. Minutes ticked over, each one slower than the last eating up the better part of an hour as the display crept towards noon. It bipped, displayed a short waveride, just a fraction of a light year.

Alex grimaced at it and the door to the mess slid open. Carbon was there, face softer than before. Her eyes were bloodshot but intent, voice quiet.

“Did you mean it?”

“Huh?”

“In the engine room this morning. Did you mean it?”

Alex thought about it for a second and shrugged. “I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it.”

She seemed to relax at that and pushed herself into the mess. Carbon threaded her arms around him and gripped him tightly, her head resting on his shoulder. She was far stronger than Alex had expected her to be.

“My father and aunt are the only ones left. I do not want to do this any more.”


“What do you mean?” He hated just saying that, but he didn’t know where she was going. Nonetheless, he laid a hand on her shoulder and gave her a tentative hug back.

“I have not seen them since before the disaster and everyone else I cared for has died. I want to stop, to be allowed to grieve, but my race depends on me now. Not just a ship and its crew. I have been...” she trailed off and sighed. “Unwilling to allow anyone else in. I appreciate you more than you know, Alex.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Back Up

The mediboard was not designed to be gentle, nor was it supposed to be smart. It was supposed to fix a person as quickly as possible and then load the next one up. Repeat until power or supplies were depleted. Around two AM ship time, Alex’s timer popped. He was done.

The mediboard was also providing Alex with significant amounts of pain management. Once his leg skin was done and the nanite gel had retracted, it stopped providing that. It was the most thorough wake up call he had ever experienced as he sat up at the waist like Frankenstein's monster, grunting in pain in the dark.

Everything hurt. New nerves were sensitive to even the lightest touch and his legs bouncing around in the privacy shroud was just short of agonizing. He shoved it back down and righted himself, floating there over the mediboard half naked and holding on to the rail to keep from flying into a wall.

“You’d think it would have a warning on it.” Alex mumbled to himself, shook his head and sighed, pushing off towards the soft glow of the door controls. His hand slid over the glassy panel, door to the passageway sliding open silently. Poking his head out into the dim red light, he looked back towards the engine room. Carbon’s cabin was back that direction, as was what passed for a mess and an airlock. He checked the other way, his own cabin door just a few meters away across the passageway.

He paused to consider actually getting into bed in zero gravity. It was a little more complex than a sleeping bag glued to a table, but that was always what it reminded Alex of. He pushed himself back into the infirmary towards the medicine pack. The screen lit up and he approached and he dialed in an analgesic with sleep aid. A few moments later a tube with two pills inside clicked into the tray.

Crushed between his teeth, the liquid in the pills was warm and flavorless. They dialed the doses in low on the ship, he’d get six hours of sleep at most. It would do well enough to keep him on ship time.

The empty tube found it’s way into the recycler slot and Alex shoved his way down the passageway to his cabin, swiped the door open and pulled himself in. The lights were on automatic and it was exactly as he remembered it. He flipped the bed down and latched it in to place. Just as disheveled as he had left it.

He tossed his shirt into the laundry canister, turned the light off, slipped into bed and zipped it up. It was as uncomfortable as he had imagined, but the drugs were starting to take the edge off already.

Alex couldn’t have been asleep for more than a few seconds when he heard someone say his name. They sounded really far away. Maybe they were underwater. Maybe he was underwater. No, that was insane, he was in space. They were underwater. That’s really unfortunate. They kept saying his name, so they couldn’t be too bad off. He would do something about that when he got up.

The voice got louder, resolved into Carbon’s voice. Whatever she was on about, it sounded urgent. Despite his better judgement, he started to focus on what she was saying. He caught his name again and she said something quietly in the sibilant tones of her own language. He recognized the sounds, but not what they meant. He should probably see what’s going on.

Alex clawed his way out of the stupor of sleep. His eyes creaked open and there she was, shaking him, eyes wide and the cabin lit from the passageway. It was day out there already? His brain slowly kicked up a gear before he managed to form something like a word. “Yeh?”

Carbon’s face softened, eyes relaxed back down to their normal size. “You did not tell me the mediboard had released you.”

“Yeh, jus now.” He thought to look at the clock. Just after seven AM ship time. The sleep aid was working better than he had expected and he struggled against it. “While ago. Took stuff to sleep.”

“I was wor- concerned when I did not find you in the medical bay.” She let go of his shoulder and leaned back with a ragged sigh.

“Sorry. Didn’t think about that.”

“It is not something that should come up again. I will be in the engine room, when you rise I could use your assistance.” She patted his shoulder and pushed off the deck towards the door, closing it behind her. Darkness filled the room again.

Alex lay there for a few minutes, working through the fog of the drugs. He unzipped his bed, leaned across the small cabin and plucked his tablet out of its charger. Even through the haze, his fingers were light across the slick surface, digging up the Lexicon and setting it up for a translation.

He scrolled through hundreds of phrases, in their natural written form listed next to their phonetic pronunciation. The translations themselves did not appear because people had a tendency to pick what they wanted or expected to hear. A finger stabbed at the screen and flicked one of the base phrases up to the translation pane.

Emotional syntax came next. Then modifiers, for who was speaking, who they were speaking to and how polite they were being. locations and modifiers for locations. All tossed over to the translation pane.

He poked them around into the appropriate order and hit the translate button. The icon spun as it worked out the best choice, Alex hunched expectantly over the glowing screen in the dark of his cabin.

Alex didn’t do anything for a few moments after it popped up, just sat and stared at the translation. He backed the translation pane up a step, rechecked his work and translated it again. Same as before.

(pleading, mercy) Please, please do not leave me alone out here.

He closed the program, returned the tablet to its charger and sat in the darkness, lips pressed together tightly as he fought a tightness in his throat. He dressed in the standard issue jumpsuit and departed his cabin, pushing down the passageway towards the engineering section.

The room was huge, a cathedral compared to the rest of the ship. It was a mess, too. The slug that had hit passed almost directly between the two waverider drives. The two massive access plates that faced each other were blackened and warped. Everything seemed to be covered in beads of material that had been sprayed into the room when it struck. How she had survived that, he wasn’t sure.

The hole in the ceiling had been filled with quickweld and many larger pieces of debris had been attached to the ceiling and walls with that as well. The hole in the floor was still open, the rail slug stopped by the third layer of armor protecting the reactor.

Carbon was around the outside of the starboard engine, the one that was being used for parts, hammering on something. She had braced herself between the wall and the upper drive mount and was beating the hell out of a long pry bar jammed into the guts of the drive. Alex stopped himself and pushed up off the deck towards her.

“You are up sooner than I expe-” She stopped mid-word as Alex slipped his arms around her and squeezed gently.

“I won’t.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Back to Work

Alex swore he would never take putting his own clothes on for granted again, at least for a few weeks. The previously soft cotton t-shirt Carbon had retrieved from his cabin was now rough and abrasive against freshly regrown skin, but it was a small price to pay now that he had his entire upper body back. His lower half was still covered in opaque nanite gel and a privacy shroud, but it was still a small victory.

The light gray shirt bore the one of the Civil Pilot Program logos, a scout ship over a star burst ringed with the program name. It had carried a bit more pride in the past, before he had realized he’d been chosen because someone had lied about his skill set and even that only came about because billions had died on Schon, the Tslao homeworld.

It had given him some pause. He knew the two were not connected at all, but some deep seated part of him wanted to blame the disaster on his desire to become a pilot. Entirely irrational, but it gnawed at him when awake and haunted him in his dreams.

At least now he could immerse himself in work without having to hope the feeble kickstand on his tablet wouldn’t collapse when he touched its screen, sending it spinning away, out of his reach.

As a scoutship pilot, Alex was trained to do two things better than just about anyone. Flying at superluminal velocities was the flashy one. Everybody wanted to go fast and scoutships went god damned fast. This is part of how they sold the program despite its astronomical costs.

The second was that he interpreted sensor data, which was actually a huge part of flying with FTL drives for humans. It was considered bad form to slam your ship into a celestial body at several times c and knowing what your sensors were telling you was paramount to not doing that. They would even revoke your license posthumously, if they figured out it was pilot error.

But right now, instead of having terabytes of data streaming into his Amp and spread out before him like the universe itself was in his optical nerves, Alex was poring over enhanced pictures of the local system pulled from the passive sensors. Unlike his working relationship with Carbon, this was more bad than good.

“So, I was looking at the sensor logs for the past few weeks.” Alex shoveled a fork full of Phad Thai into his mouth, his selection for the food exchange this week.

“You do not sound pleased.” Carbon either liked it or had much better control over her facial expressions while eating than he did.

“I’m not. The Ehom are moving away, but they’re just going to the other side of the system. They appear to be mining a planet over there, they were probably doing a material trade when we arrived.”

The Ehom only talked to each other. There had been plenty of spying and attempts at retrieving data after combat. All that had been confirmed was that they did not appear to attempt communication with anyone who was not Ehom and the only history they kept was related to mining and trading. They appeared to be highly xenophobic, so much so they wouldn’t mine a planet with anything beyond microbial life.

Carbon nodded at that. “I was afraid they would not move off. This somehow seems worse.”

“They will likely remain here for years, and never be more than a few minutes away.” This severely limited their options. If they wanted to do anything akin to leaving, they’d need to turn on several systems and that would tip the Ehom off.

Carbon stared into her tray and twirled her fork in the wide noodles idly. “I can run the diagnostics on the one engine without turning the main reactor on. Once that is done you should be able to jump out with ease in less than one minute.”

“Nope.” He tapped the back of his head, “my Amp is shot. No Amp, no quick jumps. We’ll have to fire up the AI to run a safe route based on the navigation maps and that will take at least an hour.”

“Where are they in relation to the local star?”

“Thought of that, too. The star will provide us with cover in about six years, about five years after we starve to death in the dark.”

Carbon blanched, picked at her food like she did when she was thinking. “Could we shut down several compartments and use the power saved to operate the AI at a fraction of it’s normal speed?”

He nodded, lost in thought for a moment. “That might work. I’m not sure about the heat dissipation, but I will look into it.”

“Good.” She went back to eating, clearly pleased at a possible solution. “How are your legs doing?”

“Better. The damage to the bone is completely repaired and it’s started to regrow the muscle and skin. Should be up and about next week.” Alex poked at the dessert item, a baked pudding he couldn’t pronounce without seeing the name. “As up as zero g allows, anyway.”

“That is good as well. I will need help resealing the drive plate soon. Speaking of that, I have my doubts about how long the single repaired drive will be able to safely propel us.”

“Is it at least twenty four light years?”

“I was going to suggest under thirty, just to be safe. That seems like it is very specific for a reason.”

“It is. I found a Thackeray’s Globule just a bit over twenty three and a half light years from here and SAPRAM readings in it fluctuate wildly. It would be impossible for a pursuer to tell where we went in it and the Ehom will not dispatch their entire fleet to leave a mine unguarded.”

She smiled, perhaps with a touch of pride. “Very nice, Alex. That sounds like it will do very well.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Used

“And?” Alex was thoroughly confused as to why she seemed upset at this. Szhaan had just been another word she’d left behind, as far as he knew. There didn’t seem to be anything else going on in his head.

Carbon stammered and looked at her hands, fingers knitted together in her lap. “I am sorry. I was not entirely honest about what I did when I linked with your mind.”

“Alright.” As nebulous as his question had become, he was still no closer to an answer, as far as he could tell.

“There are... We need to, to feel at ease, have a certain amount of emotional contact with others.” Carbon edged away from him in her seat, voice getting softer and softer as she spoke. She looked like she expected him to reach out and hit her.

“Still not following.”

“While I did inspect your mind to see if you still lived, I also used the connection to experience that emotional connection without your permission.”

He nodded slowly. She was saying a lot but he wasn’t really catching anything yet. “Okay. This still means nothing to me and you’re over there acting like you accidentally mind raped me.”

Carbon seemed to shrink away at that, curling up into her chair.

“It is not- It is not unlike that.”

He found himself exasperated at this but still tried to hide it, closing his eyes and exhaling to calm himself down. He sounded positively understanding when he spoke. “Look, I don’t feel like anything untoward happened. If you want me to feel violated, you’re going to have to try harder. Please explain what is going on so I can understand it.”

It seemed to settle her down a little. “As Lan, I am in charge of more than just the upkeep of the ship itself. I monitor the mental and emotional well-being of the crew as well. I was chosen to be the Lan of this ship because I am of excellent breeding and am considered emotionally durable.”

He nodded, the very edges of the puzzle starting to come together. Her use of Lan over shipmaster made sense, the original word was gender neutral like most Tslao titles and she had earned it. Being in charge of the emotional health of the crew? That was entirely new by him. It did make sense that someone would be watching over that as they could link to each other’s minds so easily. But to add that on to the duties of the Lan? That seemed a bit much. “Please, go on.”

“I had not understood how difficult it would be to be alone out here. The maintenance never seemed to end and you... did not seem to be very interested in dealing with me. I do admit I did nothing to help that.”

“Yeah, we were both pretty standoffish for, uh, since we met.”

She smiled a little and continued, “I overestimated my own abilities while ignoring why you acted the way you did. As Lan I always had the captains ear, but you received orders on where we were to search from Earth. I always received first choice in partners as well.”

“Partners?”

“Yes, for emotional bonding and monitoring the crew’s health. It’s important that a non-family crew be very close for optimal ship performance.”

Alex’s brow furrowed. If that meant what he thought it meant, mixed crews were going to be pretty rare. “Very close, like...” he made half an obscene gesture with his functioning hand, “partners?”

“Oh, no.” She shook her head and then reconsidered, ”Well, yes, on occasion. Not often.”

“That’s... Good.”

Carbon nodded in agreement. “I was unprepared for this mission and while I had just intended to just be sure you were still alive, I did let our emotions mingle while I was in your head.” She sighed and ran her fingers down her antenna. “It was like finding water during a drought, I could not stop myself. I believe that is why you remember that link.”

“Oh. I suppose you did what you had to do. Do you feel better?” His response surprised him a little bit. He actually wanted to know if she felt better.

“Yes, I did for some time. Even unconscious, you have a wonderfully vivid mind. It was exhilarating.”

“I’m glad.” It was almost a question. “If you need to do that again, please just ask first. I don’t think I mind.”

“You will have much more control over what is experienced when conscious.”

“I guess I won’t mind at all, then.”

She relaxed noticeably and sighed with relief. “I am glad this did not end how I initially envisioned it.”

Alex laughed, “I figured. You looked pretty worried, but it’s not like I could have done anything in my current state.”

She smiled in earnest again, “Thank you. I did not think we would ever be on good terms, I am glad they let me pick you over the others.”

“What?” They had said he’d been chosen because he was an exceptional pilot and this was important. Both those things were still true, as far as he knew, but no one had told him Carbon had gotten to pick.

“I thought your background in anthropology would be useful in understanding each other. They did not tell you?”

“No. When did they have you do that?”

“Shortly after the project was started, over four years ago.”

“Four years? I wasn’t brought into the civil pilot program until about three years ago.” Alex was starting to feel uncomfortable with the slow realization that he was just a small cog in a big machine.

“The documents said you were already a pilot.”

“I had my atmospherics license at the time, but my aptitude scores were just below the threshold to get in. I had my choice of schools for sciences. Then about four years ago they came to me and offered to let me in the program, I ended my classes in anthropology for this. It’s what I’d always wanted.”

“What?”

“Since I was a kid, I had wanted to be a pilot.”

“Not that... You were still in college?”

“Yeah. I’d almost finished my undergraduate work. I had good grades, probably would have gone for a doctorate.”

“I had been told you had achieved that rank and had also become a pilot.”

He laughed a little, “No. I was still several years away from that.”

Carbon had started to look a little upset again, starting to talk several times without success before she finally spoke. “How old are you?”

“Twenty six.”

She body relaxed, conforming to the shape of the chair she was clipped to as shock spread across her face. “I had been told you were thirty, four years ago. I am very glad I chose you now.”

“Wow. Looks like they lied to both of us.”

“How could- If you did not have the abilities they claimed, this could have been more disastrous. We could both be dead.”

“Having met a lot of other pilots, I think it is because I was studying social anthropology. I am interested in other cultures, while other pilots... Eh, Some of them still don’t like having women on board their ships. Having an alien on their crew would be a slap in the face, they just wouldn't have gone along with it.”

Carbon’s face was resting in her hands, fingers massaging her temples and she rocked slowly. “I am sorry, this is a shock. Do not take me wrong, I am pleased you are as capable as you are.”

“We can file a complaint when we get back, ok?” He laughed, hoping to lift her spirits.

Carbon sighed quietly before a smile crept back onto her lips and made a sound akin to a snicker. “We will, for what good it will do.”

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cultural Exchange Night

Carbon had just dropped a tray and a squeeze tube off in front of Alex, tiny magnets clicking it down to the retractable table over the medi-board. She had excused herself to get her meal as she pushed off and glided into the hall, humming some tune he did not recognize. It was disconcerting to see her happy. That worried him a little. Shouldn't he be glad to see her happy? Maybe he just wasn’t used to it yet.

Gravity was still off, and wouldn’t be coming back on until they were alone in system, so the tray was a necessity. It kept the food from floating away. In this case, it kept a brick red sauce with unidentifiable white disks in place. It looked like someone had roughed it up a bit, too. Some green stuff that looked like it might have had lentils in it - he knew enough to not assume they were - and a yellow-orange cake-like thing rounded it out. It didn’t smell bad, just different. The squeeze tube was a mystery, though.

He turned it over, the markings on the bottom in the flowing Tslao script and a tiny magnetic node. Couldn’t tell it apart from what his beverage dispenser would have turned out. The cold liquid inside sloshed, a kind of deep golden brown in the translucent plastic. Alex twisted the top and smelled it. A little lemongrass, maybe a hint of cinnamon.

His right shoulder lifted in a shrug that stopped half-way across his chest and he sampled it. The scent carried over into the flavor. Earthy, a little bit spicy and gritty, maybe the consistency of an aqua fresca. It wasn’t bad. He sucked some more out of the tube.

Carbon stopped in the doorway, tray in one hand, two more beverage tubes in the other. Several emotions played over her face and he distinctly made out confusion and a flicker of revulsion before she settled on something that seemed to say what the hell are you doing?

He stopped drinking, twisted the cap closed and set it down where it had been. She glided over to the chair next to the board and floated him a second tube, this one with a gentle concave twist and filled with a faintly pink clear liquid. She pointed to the tube with the lemongrass-cinnamon stuff.

“That is a condiment. It goes on the green one.” She said it slowly, each word carefully pronounced and very amused.

“Ah. I see.” Good job on drinking the ketchup. Smooth. “So what is this?”

“Try it first. I did check to find what would be palatable for you and was pleased to see one of my favorite dishes was compatible. That would be the red one.”

Alex didn’t argue with that, applying some of the condiment to the green stuff before offering the tube to Carbon. She just shook her head.

That was fine. More for him. He closed it and set it back down.

He started eating before he gave himself a chance to think about it. The flavors largely didn’t make sense to him. The red sauce was chalky and savory at the same time, all at once kind of good and kind of bad. The white things may have been noodles... They didn’t have much flavor.

Alex looked at her food and cocked his head to the side. Her noodles were larger and cylindrical, about the size of the first joint on a finger. “Did you cut my food up for me? I can eat perfectly well, I don’t need that.”

“I did. Not for that reason.” She continued to pick her way through the main dish.

“Why would you do that, then?” He actually felt a little perturbed but kept eating as well. He hadn’t been a kid in a long time, and it felt rather denigrating to have his food cut up for him.


“Do you really wish to know?”

“Well, yeah. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.”

Her shoulders raised in concession and she fished one of the white things out of her tray with her chopsticks and held it up for him to see. Golden compound eyes shined out of the deep red sauce, surprisingly vicious looking mouth parts beneath them. She popped it into her mouth and he figured out where that faint crunching noise had been coming from.

The primer had said they eat a lot of insects.

“They are better fresh, but are not safe to cultivate on a ship.” So very amused.

He gritted his teeth briefly and kept eating, formulating various reasons he should not feel weird eating bugs. Lots of societies on Earth eat insects. They’ll eat you if given the chance. Higher energy density. They worked, if only just enough for him to power through it. The green stuff was spicy and sweet, reminding him of Thai food. The cake and drink were both sweet with flavors he couldn’t quite place.

“It’s different, but I didn’t mind it. I’m not used to the flavors, I guess I have no idea if it was good or not.”

“Thank you for your honesty. I am glad you did not dislike it outright.”

“You’re welcome.” He relaxed as much as he could as she took cleared his table. Carbon was only gone a few moments before she returned and settled into the chair next to the medi-board again.

“Is there anything else you would like to know about us?”

“There is, but I still don’t know where to start.” He stopped and gesticulated, trying to figure out something to ask her. “no, actually, I do have one question.”

“What is it?”

“What does szhaan mean? It wasn’t in the primer and it’s been bothering me.”

“It is-” Carbon just stopped and coughed. What little skin he could see in her ears darkened as she looked away. “The- the translation is imprecise. It is something like using someone else to fulfill your own needs.”