Thursday, May 26, 2011

Upgraded

Dinner had been a little awkward after Carbon bailed, but just for Alex. He assured Ed that she had good reasons, even though he was unsure exactly what they were. Ed didn’t press the issue, dismissing it out of hand as good work ethic. Ed insisted on paying and they went their separate ways, Alex toting a plastic to go container back to his quarters.

He was unprepared for how alone a cheeseburger could make him feel. Eating it didn’t seem to improve anything, either.

The next few days were odd, finishing up the last of his reports and tossing emails back and forth with Carbon. Even though she was on the Tslao carrier, she was still using a cpp.navy email address. He was a litle surprised, but it made sense they would have provided her one when the engines were being fit. She didn’t have much to say, which he expected. Mostly taking care of all the stuff he had been doing, debriefs and the like.

It left him plenty of time to get his mods installed. In a matter of hours after stepping into the surgery suite, Alex had gained two and a half kilos. Barely even noticed it, aside from the shortness of breath and a small, dish-shaped medi-board attached to the back of his head. It was overseeing the final repairs from the surgery that had replaced his Amp - he got the upgraded Mk. IV, with more flex processors - and inserted the experimental Whisper.

Most of the weight came from the Immersion Translator. Nearly two kilos of specialized processor clusters and their controller were slipped into his rib cage by a robotic arm remotely controlled by a surgeon. The packages were slim, conforming to the ribs along the spine in an area that effectively had no spare room. Fortunately, they were very dense.

His head and upper body had been injected with an array of subdermal sensors that were wired into the controller. They allowed the translator to pick up sounds and information about these sounds. How loud, how far away, where they were coming from in a three dimensional space. The data shoots down into the IT, gets separated, translated and adjusted to retain vocal cues and then recompiled into a full, three dimensional soundscape.

All of that is then piped directly into Alex’s brain via his Amp, minimizing lag.

“So does this... Ever go away?” Alex wheezed as he sat on the exam table in a pale green gown, waiting for the medi-board to release the back of his freshly shaven head.

Doctor Hernandez had only performed the implantation of the translator, but she was overseeing his recovery. She only had about fifteen minutes to go. “Yes. It will take a few days to adjust to, most people are almost back to normal in a week.”


His eyebrows went up, skeptical of her answer. “Whatta you mean... almost back to nor... normal?”

“It is as it sounds. Almost back to normal.” She looked at him like he should have known this was going to happen. “Most of the problem you are having right now is related to temporary swelling after the surgery. There was a lot of cutting and drilling involved. Weren’t you told that during the consultation?”

“Got it for work.” He shook his head but smiled at the complete sentence, short as it was.

“Uh huh. You were given a dose of an anti-inflammatory, it should be working shortly. It’s important to remember that an implant that size is always going to make it’s presence felt. It’s going to slow you down as long as it’s in there. Maybe just a little bit, but you’ll notice it. Don’t expect to improve your hundred meter dash any time soon.”

“Great.”

“It’s a well known complication. People just don’t want to have organs removed so we shoehorn the implants in around them.”

Alex nodded. “Like ‘em where they... are.”

The doctor made a noncommittal sound as she reviewed his chart, again. “We put a lot of mods in you today. Why in the world do you have an Amp and Whisper?”

He wheezed a laugh, breathing starting to get easier. “Can’t say, it’s for work. Classified or something.”

She nodded and looked, if anything, more serious. “Have you ever used a translator before?”

“Yeah, external over comms.”

“Normally, they’d cover this in the consultation, but since you skipped that... An IT is very different. Over a comm, people know you’re getting translated information. It’s a given these days.”

“Yeah.” He focused on slowing his breathing down, trying to be less distracted by the burning urge to breathe deeper coming from his lungs.

“With an Immersive, things are very different. Unless you’re wearing a translator yoke or some other visual cue, people will not know that you have translation capability unless you tell them.”

Alex nodded along, not entirely sure where she was going, a hint of confusion on his face. “That makes sense.”

“Good. When you turn the translator on, there will be no obvious way to be able to determine if a voice is being translated unless you are watching at the speaker. Their lips will move differently.”

Alex honestly doubted he’d be having a hard time telling who wasn’t speaking English around the Tslao, but he kept that to himself. “Still following you.”

“Many people assume a level of safety around foreigners when they’re using their native tongue. Without any cues to let them know you can understand them, the sudden revelation that you’re surreptitiously listening to everything they’re saying can damage relations, even if you have no ill intentions.”

That tidbit was actually useful and made everything click into place. He’d be careful about that when he got around Tslao, might see about getting a yoke to wear just to be safe. “I can see how that could be bad.”

“Yes. That’s the main thing I wanted to warn you about. It’s a pretty common novice mistake to reply to someone who doesn’t know you’re translating. Most people just won’t like it, but some cultures are more accepting of violence towards spies.”

Alex nodded. ONI was all over his paperwork and he was getting a high-end translator implant. Not a stretch of the imagination, by any means. “Yeah, I was starting to think that’s where you were going.”

“Good. Are you familiar with any of the anti-augmentation organizations?”

“No. Should I be?” He’d heard of them, of course. Some people just didn’t like the idea of human augmentation, no matter how slight or beneficial.

“Let’s just say you might want to keep your prodigious number of implants to yourself. I’d have to check the numbers, but I’m reasonably sure you’re in the top ten percent of augmented humans now. At least, I’ve never worked on anyone with more extensive modding who still had their original limbs and organs.”


Alex took a moment to process that, a little surprised and disturbed. “Huh, well... Good for me.”

“Just be careful about who you discuss it with. Some of the more extreme groups are very extreme in their reactions.”

“Yeah. Not going to be an issue. Not in the habit of talking about work.”

“Good. That about covers the big items from-”

The medi-board attached to the back of Alex’s head started beeping, insistent about how finished it was. Hernandez took a hold of it and it popped off the back of his head, the experience remarkably pain free. Just a cool breeze on the newly healed skin. He sighed, relaxing with a smile. “That’s a lot better than last time.”

She stepped back and set the medi-board down, retrieving a medical scanner and holding over his chest. “Alright. Take a deep breath for me.”

He did, drawing in most of what he’d normally be able to before he winced and coughed.

“That’s right where it should be. You’re ready to go, Mr. Sorenson. The nurse will have all the documents at the front desk.”

“Excellent. Have a good day.” Alex smiled and gave a little wave as she left the room. All in all, a fairly productive morning.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Social Experimentation

There had been an uneasy silence between the store and Alex’s quarters. They walked in silence, an argument boiling beneath the surface. It even seemed to chill the other conversations in the elevator.

Carbon spoke first after the door to his quarters closed behind them her voice low and sharp, antennae pressed down tight against her head and body tensed for a fight. “Why did you do that?”

“Why did agree to have dinner with a friend? With a man that I respect as a mentor? Gee, I don’t know.” He dropped the bag on the table and tossed his arms out in frustration. “Doesn’t make any sense to me, either!”

Her lip curled up, sharp white teeth gleaming. “You spoke over me.”

Alex smoothed himself out, trying to remain calm as he explained himself. “I was excited. I haven’t done anything since we got back except deal with work and hide.”

Carbon made a derisive noise and glared at him. “Do you think that it has been pleasant for me?”

“Of course not! Do you think I’m stupid?”

She took a moment, crossing her arms over her chest before she shook her head. “No. Not stupid. Inconsiderate and coarse.”

“Because you expect me to behave like I’m Tslao?”

She looked away for a moment, her jaw working. She relented with just a hint of guilt. “I sometimes forget you are different.”

“I do that, too.” He laughed quietly, a smile forming. “You would think it’d be easy to remember, we don’t look that much alike.”

Her eyes darted back to his with a nod, the corners of her mouth twitching up. “You would think, yes.”

“I’m sorry I just cut you off like that, it was rude. I would still like it if you came to dinner. You know Ed just as well as I do, you know how much I respect him.” Alex had intentionally avoided mentioning her knowledge of Ed through the mind link.

“Thank you. Yes, I remember quite clearly. As I said, it was very vivid, unusually so.” She sighed softly and relaxed, rubbing her eyes. “I do not know...”

“Please? I know it’s stupid, but I want to actually go out with you. Eating in is getting kind of old.”

She glanced up at him with bright cerulean eyes, a flicker of mischief in them. “Were I not hungry, I would hold out longer. I enjoy your flattery when you’re trying to convince me of something.”

“Mmm. I’d noticed you like it when I beg.” He grinned back, leaning down to kiss her before grabbing his clothes off the table.

Alex was ready to go scant minutes later wearing one of the deep red t-shirts Carbon had approved of over black cargo pants. Noonan’s was on the other side of the station, the only restaurant in the secured section. Carbon seemed relieved there would be no tourists.


It was an unusual design for a restaurant. The decor was english pub, all dark wood and padded leather seating. The dining room itself was D shaped with two floors of seating along the curved wall. The flat wall was a single, massive display showing traffic in space immediately around the station and in the main runways for Sol. Specks of light in various shapes and colors floated across the screen, tagged with ship name, registration and other sundry data. Noonan’s was a popular spot for repair crews to wait.

Alex didn’t bother with the first floor, weaving through the tables that went almost to the screen to the stairway that curved up to the much smaller second floor. Ed preferred the booths up there, most people didn’t make the trek unless the first floor was getting full. As expected, it was nearly empty and Ed was tucked away in the far corner, nursing a pint.

Carbon took a seat on the bench first, sliding over to the wall to make room for Alex.

“Glad you two made it. Ordered you a porter.” Ed gestured to the other pint glass on the table, dark liquid topped with a tan head of foam. He looked over to Carbon. “Didn’t know what you’d like, though.”

“I am not sure. I am unfamiliar with most human beverages.” She shook her head, eyebrows knitting together as she looked over the menu Alex handed her. “I am... unfamiliar with most of this food as well.”

Alex set his glass down after a long pull. “Thanks. I’d start with something simple. Brown ale?”

Ed nodded. “That’d be a good place to start. They did tap a keg of double cream stout a few days ago, though. Nice and sweet.”

“I will try that. Sweet has been safe, in my experience.” Carbon tilted the menu towards Alex. “Chicken fingers. That is like the fish sticks, correct? They are not actual fingers?”

Ed chuckled quietly into his ale as Alex answered her question. “Yeah, it’s just a way to describe a particular method of serving chicken. Don’t get those here, they always fry them too long.”

“Ah. Is there something they are good at?”

Ed piped up. “Cheeseburger. Best on the station.”

“Oh yeah. With bacon.”

Carbon eyed the menu, one eyebrow raised. “It sounds interesting. I will trust in your judgement.”

The waitress arrived bearing a basket of garlic fries and took their order. Alex ordered for Carbon and himself, both having the same thing. Ed ordered the t-bone. The waitress gave Carbon a second glance, though it was a quick second glance. Tslao still weren’t common in Noonan’s.

Ed ate a few fries as he watched the waitress descend the stairs, barely hiding a smile. “So... you two are an item now, or what?”

Alex sat stock still for a moment before he took a long sip of his beer, shaking his head as he set the glass down. “No... What would give you that idea?”

Ed laughed. “Don’t lie to me, Alex.”

“We’re just professional acquaintances.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so. When I said that, you both looked like deer in the headlights.”

Carbon cleared her throat. “It was a surprising statement.”

Ed seemed very amused by the situation. “You ordered dinner for her. You never order dinner for anyone. And that glare you gave him in Uncommon? Clincher. I’ve seen those from ‘professional acquaintances’ before, but not like that. That came from the heart.”

Alex weighed trying to keep lying to Ed or just admitting it. Giving Carbon a look would tip his hand and it’s not like Ed was wrong. Might do him well to have an outside perspective on the whole thing, too. He sighed and leaned back against the booth. “Yeah, you’re right. We’re an item, as you put it.”

“Interesting. She’s doing it again.”

Alex glanced over and Carbon was giving him the ‘why did you do that’ look. “What? I don’t like lying and he’s both perceptive and trustworthy.”

She relented, jaw still tight as her eyes softened. “I know. I do not enjoy duplicity either.”

Alex turned back to Ed. “Alright, so do we throw a party now?”

Ed considered him for a moment, idly swirling the amber liquid in his glass as the waitress returned with Carbon’s stout and waiting for her to leave again. “I would think that a bit extreme. I get the impression you’ve been keeping this under wraps, or trying to?”

“Yeah.”

“You could stand to work a little harder on that. Just off the cuff, I would find this rather deviant. Still kind of do, but I’m willing to entertain the idea you’re not just kirking here, Alex. You seem too into it.”

Carbon looked up from inspecting her drink, perplexed. “Kirking? I have never heard that word before.”

Ed didn’t miss a beat, explaining with his usual level of nonchalance. “Having sex with an alien.”

“Oh, he has not done that.” She lifted the glass with both hands and took a sip.

Alex rolled his eyes, words dripping with sarcasm. “Thanks. I’m sure he wanted to know.”

Carbon shrugged through a second sip. “He brought the subject up and I would know if you were. Now there is no doubt for him.”

Ed was laughing, hard. “No, that’s great. I don’t really want to know, what you do behind closed doors is your business.”

Alex cleared his throat, cheeks feeling a bit warm. “Anyway. Not just in this for the alien sex, thank you.”

“Actually going for the inter-species relationship? You’re not just putting her on, right?”

“No, I’m not putting her on. She’d know by now if I was.” He put his hands up by his temples, index fingers waggling. “The deely bobbers aren’t just for show.”

Ed was a little perplexed. “So... they work with humans, too?”

Carbon’s pint was mostly gone now. “Very well, actually. Our brains are very similar in layout.”

“Interesting. So she can see into your mind?”

“It’s duplex. Works best when both people have a set, but that’s somewhat impossible.” Alex hadn’t told her about the Whisper he was going to be getting yet. He was hoping it would be a pleasant surprise.

“Huh. That’s a hell of a-”

Carbon started to chirp, the sound unfamiliar to Alex. She fished a slim black communicator out of one of the many pockets on her jumpsuit and tapped through to a message. He leaned over, unable to read the Tslao on the tiny handheld.


Her eyes widened slowly, a look of apprehension washing over her. Her head twisted to look at the screen on the far wall of Noonan’s. “Excuse me.”


Alex moved out of her way, following her to the railing. She scanned the screen, jaw working until she found what she was looking for, a hiss of her native tongue following.

“What? What is it?”

Carbon looked at him, bristling with a mixture of fear and anger. “I must depart. I will contact you as soon as I can, please thank Ed for me.” She stood on her toes and kissed him softly before running away, taking the steps two at a time.

A glance at the screen told him part of what he needed to know. Triangles were military ships, red was non-human. A great big red triangle was in the runway right now, the Sword of the Morning Light. Listed as a Tslao Hammerhead class Carrier. Her government had arrived in system.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Widening Gyre

Edwin Brzezinski was a big man. Tall, burly and bald, he looked like he might have traveled with a circus at one point as a strong man, lifting impossible weights and bending iron bars. He made Alex seem slight and simply eclipsed Carbon.

He was also a pretty nice guy. Alex knew this first hand, Ed had been his trainer. He was one of the best in the Program and probably one of the most respected personnel on the station. He had been doing this for a long time and loved his work.

But right now, Ed was confused and a little bit surprised. He stood there, holding a crisp white button down shirt, wearing an expression that said he did not know why this little alien thought she knew him or why she was speaking english. His eyes traveled down to Carbon’s badge, lingering there for a long second before a glimmer of recognition lit them up. Ed was good with names.

The pleasant smile that graced Carbon’s short muzzle melted away, her face registering something just short of horror for a moment. She regained composure before he looked back up, a faint smile returning. She still shrank away from Ed as she did this, ears and antennae pressed down as she took a step back and leaned against Alex.

Alex registered that to mean Carbon did not actually know Ed in person, but was recalling his memories. His brain spun, trying come up with a cover story that made sense to him, let alone Ed or anyone else. The little ONI shield on his badge was not making him a better spy. Maybe he should buy some time. “Oh, hey Ed, hows it going?”

The words came out too fast, too loud. Ed looked up and the confusion that was leaving his face came back instantly. “Alex?”

Alex nodded and laughed, breaking out a smile that was more nervous than he would have liked. “Yep!”

He still looked confused and Alex knew that he did not like being confused. Ed would just keep asking questions until he was satisfied he understood what was going on. “Shouldn’t you still be out in the deep?”

“Yeah. There was... Uh, we ran into some-” He stopped himself and blanched. “I don’t think I can talk about it.”

Ed looked skeptical about that but tipped his head in assent, the confusion gone for now. “Nobody told me you’d been brought back in, you should have stopped by Training and said hello.”

“Yeah, things have been kind of hectic since I got back. Lots of people want a lot of stuff, had a job transfer and all that.” He rubbed his neck and shrugged, feeling guilty about not looking Ed up before now.

“Ah, I see ONI got you. Let me guess, Section 7?”

“Yeah. They do that a lot?”

“Often enough. Makes me want to ask you a whole load of questions I know you can’t answer, so I won’t.” He nodded over at Carbon, who had quietly shuffled out from between them and stood next to the belts, looking as casual as she could. “You ever going to introduce me?”

“Thanks. Ed, this is Shipmaster Tshalan... Shipmaster, Ed.” Alex didn’t think Ed thought anything was up... or he was just doing a good job of hiding it.

Ed stuck his hand out at Carbon with an easy smile, affable as he’d always been. “I’m sorry we didn’t meet when they launched the Kshlavo, I had been called away on a family matter. I assume Alex has spoken well of me?”

Carbon’s hand disappeared into his and she smiled back. “Please, call me Carbon. He always spoke very well of you and in great detail.”

He laughed. “As you wish. Well, can’t say I was expecting to see either of you today... You guys want to grab dinner? Even if we can’t catch up on what you’ve been doing, I love to hear myself talk.”

There was a moment of silence before Alex and Carbon both started to answer at the same time. Carbon managed to start first. “Oh, I do not-”

Alex was much more enthusiastic as he unintentionally cut her off. “That’d be great! Where are you thinking?”

“The usual, Noonan’s. Unless there’s somewhere else you’ve been wanting to go?”

He was dimly aware of the wide-eyed stare from Carbon that seemed to say she did not approve of being interrupted or the idea of having dinner out. “No, that sounds perfect.”

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Blown Cover

It had been a busy few days, if you counted writing reports as being busy.

Alex did not, at least not in this case. It was an insufferable chore, knowing that the military had thousands of hours of sensor data that told them exactly what they wanted in the reports... but he was still on the hook for condensing it down into neat, easily digestible documents.

At least things had calmed down. He got up, showered and ate, worked most of the day in a flex office, went back to his room and met with Carbon, had dinner and then started over again the next morning. Structurally it was not much different than life on the Kshlavo, but it still felt much less rewarding.

Carbon was not burdened by the same workload and spent most of her days poking around the station. Things had changed. News of the disaster on Schon had been released a few weeks after they had departed. As long as she was wearing her CPP badge, she seemed to have no trouble around the station. There were still odd looks and some people still prefered to keep their distance, but the overall attitude was more curious now.

They were even friendly on occasion. Carbon had been ambushed by a group of tourists in the museum. As she had explained to Alex later that day, it is supposed to be less busy just after it opens. It was, having been nearly empty the entire time she was there. Still, she attracted a group of older ladies all wearing the same hat who were very apologetic about what had happened and kept giving her hugs and she was the first alien they’d ever met and could they take a picture with her? She believed she understood their actions well enough, but was unsure how she felt about it.

He asked around, apparently there had been a few other Tslao through the station. They weren’t really common in system, but they weren’t unusual anymore. Vegas station apparently had a Tslao restaurant, or a restaurant run by Tslao. The guy he got the information from wasn’t too sure. It gave them a little more leeway in public. They could go pretty much anywhere and no one would give a second thought to an escorted alien.

Alex had been unprepared for how excited she would be when she found out that he needed to go shopping and she could come along.

His transfer to ONI went unnoticed by the world at large... He almost didn’t notice it, for that matter. The main indicator that anything had changed was a request from the CPP to turn the clothing they had issued him back in - a standard security practice. He did get to keep his t-shirts, but that left him with just t-shirts. There were several stores that sold clothes on station, though.

He found himself sitting in the elevator lobby in the promenade, waiting for Carbon to be done talking to Rear Admiral Argueta. His head would swivel from one elevator to the next as they arrived, watching them disgorge people getting off from work in the late afternoon. She arrived well after he did, hidden behind a load of Navy personnel. She looked a bit perturbed.

“So how’d it go?”

Carbon sat down next to him and huffed, straightening her jumpsuit out. “It was fine. She was very reconciliatory and I believe she means what she says. I will still not help them directly any further.”

“But?”

“There is nothing to add about my meeting.”

He rolled his eyes. “You seem bothered by something, what is it?”

“It was crowded on the elevator and I had several people I did not know touching me at once.”

“Ah. Are you going to be all right?”

She gave him a sidelong glance, a little frown pulled tight on her lips. “I will be fine. I was just surprised when they did not stop getting into the elevator and it was upsetting.”

“Well, now we know not to use elevators during commute time.” He smiled and stood, stretching his back. “Shall we be going?”

Carbon exhaled and nodded, managing a faint smile before she got up. “Yes, that sounds good.”

“Alright... There’s an Uncommon about a half-kilometer down, they’ve got some pretty good stuff.” He directed her clockwise down the arc of the promenade, standing about a foot away from her. That had become a sort of game for them. Look casual so no one notices while trying to catch the other looking.

If someone had told Alex that they did that or he had seen some other couple doing that, it would have been met with a dismissive roll of the eyes and some grumbling about how sickeningly saccharine they were. When he and Carbon did it, it was adorable.

By the time they had strolled down to the store Carbon was in a much better mood. He tilted his head at the entrance with a smile that was dangerously close to being flirtatious. “Come on, this is the place.”

Alex picked up a basket and slung it under his arm, heading back towards the men’s clothing. Each store of the ironically named Uncommon chain was roughly the same. He had been here before, just not on McFadden station.

Cabon lingered behind him, slowing to inspect the women’s cloths but never stopping. She hurried to catch up with him, voice low as though they were conspiring. “I think I may want to try something. But at a different time.”

“Alright. We can come back next week? I might even be done with my reports by then...”

She nodded, smile returning as they passed into the men’s section. “Yes, that will be good.”

“Excellent.” Alex pushed through the formal wear and into casual clothes. He’d never enjoyed dressing up, he wasn’t about to start now. He wasted no time, picking several pairs of jeans and cargo pants off the shelves before turning his attention to a few tables of t-shirt and polo’s.

Carbon bumped his elbow, caught his eye and glanced down at a stack of blood red t-shirts. “Mmn. This one.”

He shrugged mentally and picked out two in his size. It wasn’t a bad color and he was inclined to indulge her anyway. They worked their way around the rest of the corner of the store in a similar fashion, glances and nods surreptitiously selecting the rest of his gear.

She had stepped back from where they had been silently considering belts and bumped into someone. They both turned and apologized amicably. Something about his voice was familiar.

“Oh! Ed, it is good to see you again.” Carbon said, quite cheerfully.

Alex pressed his eyebrows together as he processed that. He distinctly recalled Ed leaving the station before the Kshlavo arrived to take care of a death in his family and they had departed before he returned. Carbon had never met Ed... Not outside of Alex’s memories, anyway.