Thursday, October 28, 2010

Downtime

Manual labor was more difficult than Alex remembered. He ached just about everywhere and felt unbelievably filthy from a combination of dried sweat and the fine dust that coated the inside of the engine. Carbon had assured him the dust was not dangerous... and that he smelled. Despite that, he still felt accomplished at having pried all twelve of the plasma locks loose, each one with its tiny reprogrammable control chip intact.

This was good. The chips were used in everything in the engines but while they were durable, they were not meant to take the shock that came from a railgun round. The cache of spares Carbon had kept had been destroyed when a burning chunk of armor plate smashed into the storage locker they were in.

Alex found himself back in the head with a fresh jumpsuit tucked under one arm, staring at the water tank readout. The fresh and gray water tanks were both half full, the filtration systems made to circulate enough for two showers per day. He decided he’d probably want to use it more in the morning than he did right now, opting for an anti-bacterial body wipe instead. It wasn’t perfect, but it was refreshing in a shockingly cold sort of way.

He shoved himself across the passageway and back into the mess. Carbon had been so kind as to prepare dinner, two trays stuck to the table already as she waited for something at her dispenser. She looked at him sideways with a wave, a little disappointment in her eyes. Alex waved back, slipped onto the bench and clipped himself in.

“Hey, pizza. It’s been a long time since I had pizza.” He had been ignoring his hunger, but the prospect of eating changed things significantly. He had just about managed to get the round, cheesy disk into his mouth when he could tell that it smelled wrong. A little too sharp and tart, but he was already committed to taking a bite.

Carbon’s head perked up, clearly confused. “Pizza?”

“Oh, that is not pizza at all.”

“Certainly not.” She tossed him a beverage tube and sat down across from him.

“That’s... Not bad. Tangy.” The crust was springy and moist, what he thought was cheese was some sort of spicy, creamy sauce that had been browned.

“Good.” She nibbled away at her disk of food, “What is pizza?”

“It’s like this...” He set it down and gestured at it. “But different. There’s cheese, tomato sauce and toppings. Well, it’s actually nothing like this. But it is round. Usually.”

“I do not know cheese and tomato sauce are.” She spoke the unfamiliar words carefully, imitating his pronunciation.

His face scrunched in a little, eyebrows and voice pitching up in disbelief. “Really?”

“Yes, really. I would not lie about such things.” She was a little perturbed at that.

He continued to work his way through dinner as he spoke, a little confused. “I’m sorry, I just got used to you knowing a lot about... humanity.”

“I have become very familiar with the technology used in the ship and a few of your customs, but that is almost the full extent of my knowledge. The original manuals were in English and they were very technical.”

“They didn’t translate them?”

“The translations into written Tsla were... abysmal.” She paused to take a pull off her beverage. “I already knew a small amount of English, learning more of it proved to be only somewhat difficult.”

Alex nodded. Despite the plethora of other languages still in use, English was still what pilots and traffic controllers spoke to avoid running everything through translators. It’s usage was very common among engineers as well. “It has come in quite handy.”

She smiled, “yes, it has.”

“So you haven’t experienced any of our culture? Movies, books, theater?”

“I have screened two human movies that were in illicit data stores I confiscated on the Khav, but that was just to determine if there was anything of concern in them like viri or seditious materials.”

“Oh, what were they?”

She hesitated, suddenly uncomfortable. “They... were not complete, just a few long scenes. I do not think I could identify them.”

“Huh.” Alex steered the conversation away from whatever it was she didn’t like. “We should watch a movie or something. They packed a few terabytes of entertainment into the store, lots of classics.”

“You would like to watch something with me?” She contained her excitement poorly, leaning forward with a grin. All those pointy little teeth on display.

“Sure.” He finished off his not-pizza, “they have the series that really got me into wanting to work out here. In space, I mean. The circumstances are way different, but it still set me down this path.”

She leaned back, appraising him. “I am very interested in seeing what helped turn you into what you have become, Alex.”

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Beneath the Surface

Alex slept better than he had in some time that night, despite the fact that there was nothing working in his cabin. The computer core he had re-purposed to crunch a waveride had run everything in it, from lights to the life support module.

So, he left the door open and slept just fine in the gentle red glow of the corridor. Carbon had fussed over that, said it wasn’t safe, but the ship's documentation indicated otherwise: as long as the passageway had life support running, the ship would produce enough oxygen for two people. He would be fine.

The door controls on the head said that it was unoccupied. He knocked anyway, got no response and set about his morning routine. Shower and shave, vacuum himself dry, dress. The standard issue clothing for him included two pair of black cargo shorts which he'd never taken out of the drawer before today. He opted for those knowing that he was going to be doing manual labor on a cold engine - that is to say, one that was fully powered down and discharged.

He tossed a gray CPP t-shirt on over that and what were effectively running shoes. He'd never seen Carbon wearing anything other than her encounter suit or jumpsuit, but she apparently hadn't been issued the same vacuum-packed brick of clothing designed for humans that he had. That made sense. Their upper body was basically the same, but they had those weird, thin digitigrade legs.

Carbon was already in the mess. She stuck a spoon loaded with pink-orange breakfast mash into her mouth, glanced up at him and choked on it, eyes wide with surprise and antenna whipped up over the top of her head. It did a good job at making her appear taller, if only for an instant.

“Are you alright?” Alex paused there in the doorway, startled at her reaction.

“Yes.” She coughed, face squeezed tight as she tried to get food out of her trachea.

“Okay, good.” He edged around her to the dispenser and dialed in his usual morning oatmeal.

“I have determined-” Carbon’s voice tightened as she spoke before cutting herself off to cough again and sneeze. Her eyes rolled and she got an exasperated look about her before she continued, “There is a part I need you to free.”

The dispenser dinged, he retrieved his oatmeal and sat, bowl clicking down against the table. “Sounds good, what do I do?”

“I will show you when we get there,” she paused and fought another sneeze. “Your height should give you better leverage on it.”

He shrugged and nodded, setting into his oatmeal. It was as bland as always, mildly sweetened and fibrous. They were both done in a few minutes, Carbon leading the way to the engine they were scavenging for parts, up near the top where she had been working the previous day.

“This part, with the tubes?” She leaned into the engine and tapped a very solid looking box about the size of a pillow with a half-dozen stout tubes leading in and out of it. There were a dozen of the boxes in a neat row running down the mounting plate. “It is a plasma lock. I need you to pry the c-clips off the fittings and unhook the tubing.”

“Sounds easy enough. Anything else I need to know?”

“They require some force, you will need this.” She pulled a pry-bar about as long as she was tall out of the mess of engine parts and pressed it into his hands. With that, she pushed up and disappeared over the top of the engine.

It was easy enough to get the pry-bar into place, the c-clips were notched to take the bar, and they did require a large amount of force. Alex found quickly that if you let off the pressure on the pry-bar, the clip would slip back down and any work would be gone in an instant.

The first one came off after almost an hour of pushing, re-setting the bar to better angles and generally flailing around. It came off with some force, ejected from the engine and ricocheting off the wall and back into the engine. Alex lost where it went, but it didn’t matter.

The next clip only took a half hour, but the work was mindless. He had plenty of time to think and found his mind wandering to the memory Carbon had shown him. Part of it was that her father seemed unimaginably tall, which made sense considering she had been a child at the time. It still threw him off.

The bigger part was the little details. Things he was starting to notice now that he wasn’t experiencing the memory for the first time. They - Carbon and her father - had the same coloration, the deep blue-black with pale blue striping at the shoulders. Alex had inadvertently seen Carbon's coloration and patterns when he had regained consciousness after the Ehom attack. The stripes continued down her back and sides, over her hips and legs. Alex assumed it to be a leftover from their evolution, when camouflage would have been useful.

The thing that had bothered him the most had been the vehicles parked on the rise behind them. A glossy black sedan, the wheels stretched out in front of and behind the cabin in a configuration that was common enough on human vehicles that it looked familiar. The sides bulged out, the creases in the body work glowed. Armored and shielded.

The second one was more of the same, just larger. There was a dome atop it, and a slender barrel mounted behind that tracked the sky slowly in the few seconds she had looked at it. Anti-air laser, he was sure of that. Whoever her father was, he was probably a lot more important than just a mineral commodity trader.

The fifth clip popped off after just a few minutes of work, he was now able to finesse them a bit to get the bar into a better position. The final clip was almost easy, despite having to jam the pry-bar to his shoulder and pushing off the wall, effectively standing up to pull it free. His shoulders hurt from the bar, and his legs were starting to ache already. At least he was done with this.

Alex was about to go looking for Carbon before he realized she was already there. Sort of. She was down at the forward end of the engine by the floor, partially hidden and watching him work. The look in her eyes surprised him as they made contact, hungry in a way that made him decidedly uncomfortable before they flickered over to something more composed.

“It’s done, just need to get the tubes off.”

“So it is.” Carbon pushed off the floor towards him, stopping herself with a hand on his shoulder before reaching into the engine and wriggling the tubing free of their fittings. She produced a screw driver from one of the many pockets on her jumpsuit, quickly freeing the plasma lock from its mounting plate, flipping it over and unscrewing a tiny panel on the back and extracting a glittery chip no bigger than his thumbnail from it.


She held it up in the light and smiled, “perfect.”

Alex's brow furrowed. All that, for a sliver of material. "So what is it?"

"High temperature resistant programmable control chip." She said it like he should have known what it was.

"Of course. What next?"

She looked at him with a faint touch of mischief in her eye. "My reserve of these was destroyed," Carbon patted him on the shoulder and tilted her head at the remaining plasma locks. "Do the rest of them."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Accidental Overdose

Carbon outlined a few simple rules for a mind link, just the most basic things one should know.

Keep your eyes closed. Someone else was going to be using the visual center of your brain, conflicting input would just give you a headache or make you throw up. Alex understood that from using a cheap VR rig as a kid. In his experience, it would do both.

Don’t think too hard. It’s not your memory. You can’t change what they were looking at or who they were listening to. Relax and let it be shown to you. He was very familiar with this, thanks to his Amp’s connection to the computer. Fighting it was an exercise in futility and painful if dealt with incorrectly.

Breathe through your nose. Your breath might be fine now, but it will not always be that way.

He had stuck the computer cores to the ceiling with a bead of quickweld and folded the table and bench up into the wall so they could use the couch that folded out of the other wall. Just like home. Part of its right arm had been carved off to make room for the Tslao food dispenser that had been welded into the corner, but it was far more comfortable than the benches on the dining table.

Retired to the couch, Carbon looped a belt around an ankle and sat on her legs facing Alex, who was likewise turned to face her with one leg tucked under the other. She got this weird look of concentration as she whipped her antenna up and over her head. They were no thicker than a pen at the base over her eyes and tapered rapidly, sheathed in keratin the same color as her fur and tipped with, for lack of a technical term, little fluffy balls.

They hung there, framing her face in a way that was ominous and comical at the same time. “Are you prepared?”

“Yeah. As ready as I’m getting, anyway.”

She nodded and leaned towards him, rested her hands on her knees and gently clasped the sides of his head with her fluffy tipped antenna. Despite feeling silly, it made him tremendously uncomfortable. His jaw tensed and he swallowed, watching her face just inches from his, eyes closed and expression placid. Something prodded the inside of his brain.

“Eyes, please.”

He did as she asked, exhaled through his nose and closed his eyes. The prodding resolved into... an inquisitive feeling, maybe about his preparedness.

“Yes?” He said it out loud.

Amusement co-existed in his mind and a message filtered into it. Just think what you mean to say.

Easy for you. He struggled with that little sentence, and the feedback he got was confused.

Garbled, but good for a first try. We will work on it more later.

Alex nodded in agreement, what now?

Clear your mind, I will show you a memory.

Easier said than done. Alex had never tried anything akin to meditation. Tossed into a wildly unfamiliar situation, his mind thrashed with a need to somehow make things normal. Part of him simply wanted to flee the unknown he was facing down.

He made himself slow his breathing, painfully aware of Carbon in his mind watching with no small amount of curiosity. He tamped down the urge to run, the need to look around. Carbon’s presence pulsed with a mixture of pride and relief and it reached down and slipped fully into his mind.

There was no warning of what would happen next and it was probably for the best. Alex was dumbstruck for a moment, slammed down into one of Carbon’s older memories.

For the first time in his life, he experienced the world through the eyes of a young Tslao girl. Laughing and playing with her father - flying kites, actually. Happy as could be on the sandy shore, purple-red grasses bent and waving in the chill wind on the dunes behind them. Everything was a little out of focus, memories faded with time but something singular, almost mythical permeated the experience. It was something she remembered often, but rarely shared.

As quickly as it came, the memory left. Carbon was still there, enmeshed in what had been his mind, now belonging to neither of them entirely. Show me one of yours. An older one and happy. The words were excited, almost elated that it had worked.

He thought about it for a moment and had just the thing. He remembered the day he had gotten his atmospherics license like it was yesterday. Anybody could get a ground vehicle endorsement for their ID with a simple test, but he had to study and prove himself capable of handling an aircraft. It had been his hard work that had paid for the training and test. Not the youngest person to get their license, but still only 16.

He remembered sitting at the kitchen table, ripping the letter open with pride like he had never felt before. The cold synthetic of the license between his fingers, something that he had earned.

Carbon made a little noise, a quiet exclamation of surprise and the link severed with an electrical pop and twinge in his head. She sank forward against him, arms slipping around his torso and pushing him down as she stretched out, feet braced against the arm of the couch.

Alex blinked in the light, voice louder and more alarmed than he intended. “Are you alright?”

She nodded, her face blissful as she nestled herself down against him. They were definitely mammals. “Better. Please be quiet while I enjoy this.”

Carbon seemed well enough, so he let it go and waited for her to get talkative. It didn’t take more than a few moments before her eyes fluttered open, squinting in the light.

“So what was that?”

“It is...” she trailed off, her voice unusually soft. “Ah, a emotion-narcotic? I did not expect such a fresh memory or one of such intensity and I left my defenses down. This is why we start with good memories. Waiting for this to pass is pleasant.”

“Uh huh. Narcotic? So is this addictive?”

“Not like a chemical dependency. Give me just a few more minutes and I will be better, I am still disoriented.” She smiled and closed her eyes again. “I am so glad you can take direction.”

“Why is that?”

“Positive emotions provoke positive emotions and the narcotic effect is pleasant. Negative emotions can be terrifying.”

“The trip depends on the baggage, then?”

She didn’t say anything for a moment and then giggled into his neck. “That is very clever and an apt description. You know, this is how we used to deal with criminals.”

“I can’t see this being an effective deterrent.”

She shook her head, “the criminal would be beaten or starved until they could not defend themselves and the victim or their family would be allowed to do what they felt was appropriate. They were often driven to suicide.”

That was easily the most shocking thing Alex had heard in awhile. The Tslao always seemed so peaceful. “That sounds horrific.”

“It was.” Carbon nodded again. “Once we really started to understand how the mind worked, that practice fell out of use. It’s been over a century now.” She pushed herself up and rubbed her eyes, slicked her antenna back and still managed to look disoriented.

“Are you going to be ok?”

“Yes, I’ll be fine shortly.” Her voice was almost back to normal and she smoothed her jumpsuit out. The skin of her ears darkened with a blush. “I did not intend for that to happen, I am sorry.”

“I didn’t intend to do that to you. I’d say we’re even.”

“Very well, we are even.” She smiled and laid a hand on his knee. “We will have to work on your control during a link. I feel much better than I have in some time, but having that happen often will be detrimental to getting any work done.”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Partners

It didn’t take much convincing to get Carbon to take the afternoon off. As much as the ship had an afternoon, anyway. She said there was only about a week’s worth of work on the engine left, with his help. The calculation for the waveride was going to take longer than that anyway. The thought of a little bit of down time seemed to perk her up a bit, as well.

Which was good. She had a death grip on his torso for awhile there. Those thin, comparatively small arms had quite a bit of strength in them, at least enough to keep him from breathing properly. Alex drew in a full breath of air as she extricated herself and slipped onto the bench across from him.

She knitted her fingers together on the small table, worrying them and looking guilty. “I do not want to impose on you, Alex.”

“The situation here is a little unusual, don’t worry about it”

Carbon nodded, but she still sat there looking guilty.

“You said you hadn’t grieved, yet... I thought that was, uh, mandatory?”

A smile crept onto her face, thin but there. “The primer they gave you is lacking in depth, Alex. It is not surprising, we have never been forthcoming with our ways.”

He mostly understood that, but the vagueness bothered him in a few different ways. “So you don’t have to at all?”

Carbon shook her head, “there are exceptions. Despite the urge to do so, I was Lan on a Kshanev - I think you call them mako class - at the time of the disaster on Schon. They require a lot of maintenance and have almost six hundred crew.”

They had drilled ship profiles into him during training, for friend and foe. He would have no problem spotting a Mako dreadnaught, the centerpiece of Tslao offensive capabilities. That must have been a prestigious post. “You had to take care of all of them.”

“Yes.” She pursed her lips and nodded, reflecting for a moment. “It was easier to do at first. The urge to ensure my ship and crew were safe and functional was strong and I could ignore my own needs quite easily. A few weeks went by and I was still fighting to keep my crew right. They stabilized slowly, but a quarter year passed, then a half year... They told me others had grieved for my family. That helped.”

“That sounds rough.”

Her brow furrowed as she sussed out what he meant by that. “Yes, it was difficult.” She said it almost as a question, expecting some sort of feedback from Alex. He nodded apologetically and she continued. “The ship was on alert the whole time, it just wore down the crew. It wore me down, but I would not let anyone help me. It was not much longer before I was transferred to this project. I oversaw the production and installation of the engines myself.”

Carbon paused and sucked in a ragged breath, “they marveled at how strong I was. How I could just keep going so tirelessly. My race needed me, and I could not let the survivors down but now I cry and shake in the corner when someone shows me compassion.” Her voice caught and she barely whispered, “I do not know what I have become.”

“I.. uhm.” Alex swallowed and didn’t know what to say to that. That hadn’t been his intent at all. “I’m sorry if I caused you any distress.”

She crossed her arms on the table and laid her head on them, eyes closed. “It is nothing you have done, Alex. Truthfully, I could not have asked for a better shipmate. You have been better than many I have had in the past.” Carbon rested silently for a moment before a smile crept onto her short muzzle and she laughed quietly. “With the exception of almost dying. I did not appreciate that.”

He chuckled, “I’m difficult to get rid of.”

Carbon looked up at him with sad eyes, smile fading. “Would you-” she stopped and her eyes fell to his hands resting on the little table. “No, nevermind.”

“What is it?”

She pushed herself up onto her elbows and rubbed her fingertips together nervously before taking a deep breath, apparently steeling herself for rejection. “Would you be my partner?”

She had mentioned this in passing when he was still in recovery. Something to do with the emotional well being, which they both could use a lot of right now. “After all you’ve done for me? Yeah, of course.”

Carbon started to speak, stopped and snapped her mouth closed. Her head cocked to the side, “really?”

“Yes... Is there something you’re not telling me about this I should be concerned about?”

“No, I had just thought...” She looked at the table, introspective for a moment. “I did not think clearly.”

“That happens to everybody.” Alex waved a hand dismissively, pleasantly surprised at this turn of events. Part of it may have been his natural urge to learn about others, but there was some other happy feeling hiding in there he couldn’t identify yet. “Nothing to worry about.”

She smiled, reached across the table and clasped his hands in hers delicately. The skin of her palms and fingers hot against his. “It feels like all I have done lately is thank you, Alex.”