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Jack shifted from one foot to the other, standing in awkward silence beside Alistair Bishop, the acting captain of the UWDFF Alcubierre
. They had exchanged a few pleasantries upon initially arriving, but there was little to be said beyond that. Now, they waited as the airlock hissed and went through its cycle. A deep grinding occurred, and a slight hiss emitted as the airlock door swung open.
Idara stood beside Kai, who was sitting in a gurney, flanked by two medical staff, one of whom was pushing a second gurney. There was a white bandage wrapped around his eyes, obscuring much of his face. Other than that, he looked largely as he had before departing the Alcubierre
for Halcyon. Jack opened his mouth to speak, but Kai beat him to it.
"Permission to come aboard, Captain Bishop?"
"Permission granted, Admiral. I am under instructions to have you escorted to Doctor Lai for a physical examination--"
"I've already been poked enough by these--"
"Sir, Fleet Admiral Orléans was specific on this. Part of authorizing your return to the Alcubierre
entailed your acceptance to various stipulations."
"Fine, fine. I was just hoping to avoid the lecture from the good doctor."
Alistair offered a small smirk, "Yes, well, I suspect that will be unavoidable. We can continue as we make our way to the infirmary." He turned on his heel and began to stride down the hallway.
Kai was pushed forward in his gurney and Jack fell back to stand beside him.
"Kai," Jack said.
"Jack," Kai replied.
Alistair spoke up again, cutting off anything more for the time being. "In addition to strict medical oversight by Dr. Lai, you will be confined to proscribed locations within the ship due to the...unusual circumstances of your condition."
"What? We aren't set up for this? I thought alien mind-melds would be old hat by now."
Alistair came to a stop and turned back, forcing the procession to a halt. "Admiral, I would ask you take this seriously. I am responsible for the ship and its crew, and I have been asked to accommodate this highly atypical situation in order to further the Fleet Admiral's priorities. I am concerned about the security risk of introducing an unknown alien force to this ship. I am concerned about the health risk of having an alien body on board. I am, in short, concerned."
Kai grimaced and then nodded, "Understood, Captain. Please continue." A look of relief crossed the captain's face and he turned back to continue on down the corridor.
Jack arched a brow at the interaction. Kai wasn't one to be chastised. Perhaps the experience had changed Kai more than Jack had thought.
Captain Alistair's voice traveled back as they turned a corner. "In addition to limitations on location, you will travel with a security escort and be subjected to monitoring at all times. You are also instructed to limit your interactions with ship personnel to medical staff, your security escort, myself, and Chief Griggs and Chief Adeyemi."
They came to a halt before the door leading into the infirmary.
"The restrictions are clear, Captain."
"Glad to hear it, Admiral. I will leave you in the doctor's capable hands then. Should you need anything, please let me or your security escort know immediately."
"Thank you, Captain, both for the accommodation and for the concern you've shown for my crew," Kai responded.
Jack could only stare at Kai as the captain departed, wondering whether Neeria had just dispensed with a few mental upgrades and sprung for the full lobotomy.
The door to the infirmary opened, revealing Chief Medical Officer Kate Lai. Her arms were folded and she looked Kai up and down, her eyes lingering on the bandage around his face.
"You forgot your helmet, didn't you?"
Kai flushed. Jack did not believe he'd ever seen that happen before. "Hello, Kate."
Kate motioned to the medical staff, and then pointed to an available medical bed. "Get him up over there, I'll take a look at what's left."
Kai grumbled under his breath as he was hoisted up and sat down on the table. Kate's hands moved with practiced ease as she removed the bandage, her face gave away little as she regarded the blackened skin beneath. Jack could only wince and wonder how Kai had survived the ordeal. "I understand you've acquired numerous maladies since our last checkup."
"Yeah, been experiencing some arch pain in my left foot."
"Mmm, well, that does sound serious," Kate said, "Anything else?"
"I'm sharing a brain with an alien consciousness. I'm blind. My right arm is encased in glue and clutching an artifact that might determine the fate of the galaxy."
"Huh, third one of those I've seen this week. Must be going around."
Kai visibly relaxed, an easy smile coming across his face. "Must be."
"Well, as to the mind, I can only hope the new inhabitant makes better use of the material than you have."
"I like her," Jack offered.
"Her?" Kate asked, not looking up from her examination of Kai's eyes.
"Neeria. The alien. She's a Caretaker."
"Ah. Well, hello, Neeria."
A grin fell off Kai's face, becoming more neutral. "Hello, Doctor."
Kate's hands paused, and her lips pressed together. "This is...you're the alien?"
Kai burst out laughing, "Did I get her Jack?"
Kate stared daggers at Kai and then turned them on Jack. Jack swallowed, suddenly wanting to be very far away. Clearly Neeria had not quite completed that lobotomy yet. "I...uh..."
"Neeria is with me, Kate, but she's the pragmatic sort. Prefers to ride passenger unless there's a reason to be involved. Right now she's fiddling with synapses."
Kate's mouth fell open. "Fiddling...with synapses?" She frowned, "Oh, I get it, another joke."
Kai shook his head. "No, she's been making upgrades. Apparently Humans are highly inefficient."
The doctor reached over to the side and pulled up the diagnostic charts, flipping through until she reached the brain scans. She licked her lips, eyes scanning through the images. "Kai, this isn't normal."
"No, it's not. This isn't even supposed to be able to happen. Neeria is as confused about it as I am, but it's the hand we've been dealt and we're both trying to make the most of it."
"How do you know where you end and she begins?" Kai asked.
"It's hard to explain. I just have a sense of self and a sense of her. I have an awareness I didn't possess before. We occupy the same space, but we are still two separate beings, we just opt to share and collaborate on a very...intimate level."
"I see," Kate said, her attention still on the brain scans. "I'm not sure that makes me feel much better."
"At this point, we're past having our feelings matter. The stakes have never been higher, Kate. What I need is to get cleared to work." He waggled his right side a bit. "And getting my arm back would be great too. The Admiral's Bridge didn't have any laser cutters on it."
"I want you here for monitoring. Minimum of a day," Kate replied.
"Not gonna happen."
"The decision isn't yours, Kai. Captain Alistair is awaiting my go-ahead before releasing you."
A pleading note entered Kai's tone. "We can't afford it. Something terrible happened back at Halcyon. We need to get moving, and fast."
"Do it from here then."
"I said, do it from here. There's enough room." Kate nodded to Jack and to Idara. "You two can set up what you need here, right?"
Jack and Idara looked at each other and then nodded. "Yes, Doctor, so long as we make use of the viewscreen and you do not object to a constant inflow and outflow. Much of our discussions will be directed at making engineering improvements, which will require coordination with the engineering and science teams," Idara said from the back of the infirmary.
"That's fine." She swept a hand through the room, "Empty house right now. If there's an emergency we can make changes."
Kai relaxed some at the interchange, settling back onto the bed and resting his head on the pillow. "Hey, Doc?"
"What's the story on new eyes?"
"Do you have a week to spare?"
"I didn't think so."
"Any other options?"
"Neural link to an Optica."
"How long does that take?"
"Installment? A few hours. A few weeks for mental training, but you can do that passively. Doesn't need to interrupt work, though you may feel some disorientation while your brain grows accustomed to the new inflow."
Kai was quiet for a moment. Though his lips and throat twitched. "Yeah, we can handle that. Schedule it."
"Me and my cerebuddy. Wanted to make sure getting a neural link installed wouldn't cause our head to explode." He smiled, "She's reasonably certain it won't."
"Reasonably. Certain." Kate repeated.
Kai offered her a thumbs up.
Kate did not look amused.
Sana still didn't have a fucking clue what was going on.
Fish Bowl had tried to explain it to her a few times, but let's just say there had been a failure to communicate. Apparently his translator thing was broken, because he couldn't understand half of what she said and she didn't have the patience to try and figure out what he was saying. Once they'd gone around in circles enough times, Lida had stepped up to the plate and played interstellar diplomat. Things went a lot smoother after that, and Sana was glad to be done with the tripod.
What was its name? Boy Hookah God or something. Whatever. Fish Bowl was close enough.
Even with a better back and forth, shit was still a mystery. Apparently they were going to throatpunch some Automic's cousin and save the day, which Sana was on board with, but how they were supposed to do that and what was supposed to happen as a result wasn't clear. Lida said Fish Bowl was unsure as well, which Sana took to mean they were all going to die.
Same shit, different day.
After a few more pleasantries, they'd all agreed on the team-up so they could go blow on the artificient's cartridge. The tripod had skittered off then, its lumbering bodyguards in tow and they had followed. The city itself looked like a place that had been abandoned in a hurry. There was crap everywhere, toppled over and laying about. Still, even with the chaos, Sana could see it was a city worth seeing. She'd port hopped half the cities left in the twenty-seven, and this one had bones that would put any of them to shame.
Sana didn't like how that sat with her. She preferred to think about the enemy as some acid blooded menace out of a sci-fi movie, not civilized walking fish bowls.
After a few minutes of walking, they arrived at a long, straight hallway. The walls were a different color than the ones she'd seen so far, and the other end of the hallway had a few more of the half-slug dudes posted up by a massive doorway.
Sana glanced at Lida, who was walking beside her, trying to avoid stepping in the sludge left by the slugs. "Looks like we're here."
Lida tilted sideways, trying to get a clear line of sight ahead. After a quick recon, she nodded, "Looks like it."
Sana turned slightly to Rome, "All right Rome, you take the one on the left. I'll handle the other three."
"Take the...goo monster? Are you serious, that's--" He cut off when he saw Sana's toothy grin. "You're a real piece of shit, Cap."
Sana shrugged, "You're probably right. Better you stick back and let us do the heavy lifting. I'd hate to see that pretty face get bruised."
Rome snorted, "You two go right ahead, I wouldn't even know where to begin. Do you...just kick 'em in the goo part?" He was appraising the sludge beast immediately in front of him, trying to make heads or tails of it, and then grimaced.
They came to a halt shortly after, and the doorway ahead slowly slid open. Despite its size, it didn't make the mechanical grinding sounds Sana was largely used to from Human machinery. Ahead there was a short hallway and then another set of doors. The group made their way through the first door, the two guardian slugs remained outside.
Once the first door had fully sealed, the second door began to open. An expansive room was unveiled, populated by beings of all shapes and sizes. Sana and Lida shared another glance, but it was clear Lida had nothing to offer on the subject. They knew they were heading to the headquarters of these 'Remainers' and apparently this was it. Sana shrugged and continued onward, following Fish Bowl.
Despite the number of occupants, this area was considerably more organized. Each area appeared to have a designated purpose, though the particulars of those purposes weren't immediately clear to Sana. It didn't seem like the main living quarters, mostly because there were no beds, but maybe these aliens didn't have 'em. Probably all slept on puffy clouds of their own greatness.
Fish Bowl broke off to the left, to a smaller room that was carved out of the wall. As Fish Bowl entered, the two bodyguards took position on either side of the entrance while the Humans followed. Once inside, Fish Bowl settled in to some odd contraption, it's three legs curling up beneath it and the large orb coming to rest in a cradle. There was a whirring sound and the three lights in the fish bowl moved toward the bottom of the bowl and began to flit about.
Apparently it was feeding time.
Sana wondered what she had done to deserve this. It all had to be some cruel joke the galaxy was playing on all of them. Sana let out an exasperated breath and then took a place on the far wall, leaning her shoulder against it as she watched Fish Bowl eat its vegetables.
The wait was not long before Fish Bowl addressed them once more. "Apologies. Regular sustenance is required to maintain optimal conditions for our mind," Fish Bowl said. "If you have similar requirements, it is suggested you see to them. What is to come is likely to be highly dangerous and will tax our faculties. Any attempt to dislodge the artificient is likely to be rebuffed given its reaction to Peacekeeper spaceborn assault. The artificient continues to restructure its current holdings utilizing methods and means we do not understand. The material thresholds have long since been surpassed, indicating that our assumptions may not apply when interacting with it." Fish Bowl paused now, the lights swirling for a moment, as if discussing among themselves. "Did your artificient engage in a similar behavior?"
"The Automics? No. They went broad. Infected our fusion plants to build their mindframes everywhere they could," Lida shrugged, "But they were already pretty much everywhere before, so I don't know if that's a good example."
"Everywhere before?" Fish Bowl asked.
"We used AI for everything. Automated as much as we could," Rome interjected. "So when they went bad, they were already in all of our big cities. Any place big enough to be running cold fusion."
"Cold fusion?" Fish Bowl asked.
"It's how we generated power for the cities. Solar couldn't get the job done alone," Rome continued.
"How many of these fusion facilities did Humanity possess?"
"What does this have to do with anything? I thought you needed us to help you fight, not spend our time shitting around. You're the one who said acting was better than reacting." Sana remembered that bit, mostly because it was the only sensible thing Fish Bowl had said.
"This situation is novel to us. There is much about the foe we do not understand. A bias to action is called for, on this the three agree, but additional information may aid us in selecting which actions to choose."
Sana pushed off the wall and stepped toward the alien, her voice raising. "The brains were in all the big cities. Growing like a tumor. So we cut 'em out. Killed half of Humanity, but we got it done."
"After they were...cut out, what became of the cities?" Fish Bowl asked.
"Dead zones. Quarantined and shut off from the rest of civilization. No one knows what really happened, at least none of us standing here do. We just know the pulse got fired and that was that. No more brain. No more Humans." Her voice dropped now, "That's what we're willing to do to survive, Fish Bowl, let's hope you don't forget it."
The red light flitted about erratically, but the blue remained floating in place. Sana got the feeling she was being sized up, which was odd coming from a blue light in a giant orb. Sana put her hands on her hips and leaned forward, her breath fogging the surface of the orb. "So, what's the plan?"
"We will make contact with the artificient."
"Make contact?" Lida said.
"The Combine utilizes a First Contact Protocol when interacting with a new sentient species. It is a highly adaptable framework designed to determine the species suitability for participation in galactic affairs." The light swirled. "Humanity was deemed unsuitable."
Sana reached up and used the sleeve of her uniform to polish the breath fog from the orb's surface. "Seems right," She said with a grin before taking a step back. It was only once there was a bit of distance that the red light stopped darting about. "So you want to make friends with it? Why bother saving us then?"
"I do not expect to make friends with the artificient. I do not expect it to respond. There is no record of an artificient communicating during the Expanse's battle with the Divinity Angelysia."
Lida frowned, "Never?"
Sana shared a look with Lida. The captain shrugged her shoulders slightly. "Might as well," Sana said.
"The Automics contacted us," Lida said. "Toward the end. Once the first few Griggs' Pulses were successful. Tried to negotiate. After we'd won the war, it came out. Some whistle blower with an axe to grind against the United World. Said we'd committed genocide against Humanity."
"This is unusual," Fish Bowl said.
"Ancient history now," Sana replied. "But if you want to try and chat the fucker up, then be my guest. Fire up your little program and let's see what happens."
"We cannot do so from here," Fish Bowl said.
"Why the hell not?" Sana said.
"A number of reasons, chief among them security. Any attempt to directly interact with an artificient carries with it a number of risks. We are best served by isolating ourselves from the Remainers before initiating the protocol."
"Fine. Where do you want to do it then?" Sana asked.
"As close to the portion of Halcyon the artificient occupies as possible," Fish Bowl said.
"The area you just said a few minutes ago was supposed to blow up?"
"Doesn't sound fucking ideal to me, but I wish you luck."
"Your presence will be required," Fish Bowl responded.
"Saw that coming a mile a way. You got your slime guys, why do you need us?" Sana asked.
"It may make little difference, but there is a chance the artificient will be more inclined to respond with Humans present."
"Show your work," Sana said. When Fish Bowl did not respond, Sana groaned. "Explain."
"Humans were responsible for its creation. You are its progenitors."
"Progenitors?" Sana asked.
"Parents," Lida interjected.
Sana laughed. "If you call putting it up for adoption by firing it off into an alien civilization parenting, then I hate to see what your home life was like." The smile faded. "So the mission is to travel to the place that's going to blow up to talk to the thing that can't be beaten and spank it for misbehaving because we're it's parents?"
"That characterization is an oversimplification, but largely accurate."
"Great. When do we leave? I need to piss first," Sana said. Next If you're enjoying the story, leave a comment and demand MOAR! <3 <3 Want NIFTY and SPIFFY Nest flair? Another serial? Bespoke globs? Tasteful platypus art? Check out the Platreon
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