by Michael Bard and Quentin 'Cubist' Long
1 2 3
4 5 6 7
8 9 A
And with a strangled "Yeeep!", I collapsed in a disordered tangle
of hoses and data-lines and cheetah limbs. So damn tired -- I
couldn't even move as the decelerating treadmill belt carried me backwards! One
thought echoed through my skull as I lay there, gasping for breath:
Why is the bad man trying to kill me?
I was at the nonexistent mercy of a psychotic wolf SCAB named McGregor, and no wonder Carter'd said he was going to 'torture' me...
Somewhere along the way, someone undid the straps holding the gas mask onto my face. My starving lungs greedily sucked in sweet, sweet air. Wait, someone's talking, gotta downshift. And after a couple of false starts, I did just that, in time to hear, "-re you doing, Mr. Acinonyx?"
That was McGregor, the bastard. He thought physical abuse could force me to betray any of my clients' secrets, he had another think coming! I was panting like my life depended on it, but managed to insert some choice words in there anyway: "Acinonyx, Jubatus. Civilian. Ess-ess-en, 55 --" and suddenly the bloody-be-damned gas mask was back in place! So the dire wolf was finally going to stop... pussyfooting... around..?
And then my head cleared, thanks to the 100% oxygen being fed me through the mask; I knew what was really happening, and where, and why. The wolf was putting me through the wringer, alright, but strictly for the purpose of discovering the true limits of my metabolism and physical capabilities. If I were unfortunate enough to be here for another neo-Luddite assault, McGregor would know to pull me out of the fray before I made another disoriented strike at any Ad Astran personnel.
"Okay. I'm back," I said. "You were right, McGregor. When I'm breathing 5% O2, it doesn't matter whether or not you gave me advance notice; oxygen-starved brain equals hallucinations, period." After a deep breath of absolute oxygen, I added, "How long did I last this time?"
"5 minutes 28 seconds. Reflex test in 10."
"Got it." Having succeeded in driving me to exhaustion on the treadmill, he wanted to see how quickly I got my second wind. Aside from the damn '20 MPH until you drop' endurance test, the treadmill also helped McGregor clock my top sprinting speed.
I forced myself into a standing position, still breathing deeply, and walked carefully over to the next stop on this particular 'tour of Hell'. "Having fun, MacDuff?"
"That's not relevant. I'm simply doing my duty."
Yeah, right. I'll bet you enjoy your work, in all the worst senses of that phrase, McGregor. I didn't bother to say anything, because I'd reached his other infernal device, basically a Weed Whacker with a variable-speed motor and soft, paint-soaked cloth replacing the three nylon cords. My task was simple enough: Without getting any paint on my fur, reach between the whirling strips of fabric to pick up a pen on the other side. An elegant and effective method of gauging my reflexes and coordination, complementary to the treadmill tests of my power and endurance. All very simple, except the wolf insisted on running each test multiple times, under various combinations of tempo, oxygen level, and degree of exhaustion...
I looked at the wolf; his PDA was wired up to control everything, and he tapped at it now. "1000 RPM, normal O2, 15-second recovery. Do it... now."
I'd upshifted while he was still saying 'it'. Tempo of 30, high enough that I had .6 of my seconds to work with between one strip and the next, and... close, but I had the pen and remained pigment-free. Of course, it wasn't over; the damn wolf had me do it again and again, with the motor running anywhere from 500 to 3000 RPM. I think it annoyed him that my wrist never got painted, even at 3KRPM. That's because I didn't always just reach straight in; when needful, I added some circular motion so my hand was always at rest with respect to the rotating cloth. And if I missed the pen on one pass, there was always the next time it came around...
"Good. Let's try 1200 RPM," and I knew he'd cut my oxygen before he said, "5% O2. Do it... now."
That worked well enough to start with. It wasn't until maybe the 10th go-'round that the first hallucination cut in; it was a 2000-RPM test, and I looked at the wolf, and suddenly --
-- he was wearing black leather, a sharply tailored suit that had to be hellaciously hot and uncomfortable over his fur, one hand stroking the white Persian cat he cradled in his other arm. "Go away, Mr. Acinonyx," he said with a distinct German accent. "You are far too late. Dr. Carter is my property."
"Bullshit she is! You're talking slavery, asswipe!"
"My love is safe and secure in her velvet cage, Mr. Acinonyx; I provide her a pleasant, comfortable existence. In its place, what have you to offer but" --
--and the apparition was gone. I froze, blinking, while McGregor stared at me curiously.
"Ohhhhhh-kay," he finally said. "I think we've got all the low-oxygen data we need."
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
I was with Sandra in the predawn light, in my private greenhouse
near one of the moai. I would have much preferred to be wholly naked to the Sun and other elements, but given the nature of
what I now intended to do, simple prudence dictated that a 40-cm-thick
layer of impervious, transparent polymer be emplaced between myself
and any anti-tech zealots that might have managed to evade Drew's
watchful eye. There was no logical reason for this particular
location, but somehow it seemed right to share my quiet timeless
stare with that of a forgotten stone artifact. The plant kingdom's
relationship to Time is very different to that of animals; I know,
for I have partaken of both, albeit never simultaneously. To animals,
'now' is an infinitesimally tiny thing, ever fleeting; to plants,
'now' is so expansive as to be almost tangible, and it advances
at a stately, deliberate pace. It is different, relaxing in its
own way, and full of terror. There is a patience, a dispassionate
observation of a world that roars by too fast to comprehend, at
a speed which obviated appreciation of the quiet joys of life.
When I was mobile, fast, the thought of plantlike existence terrified
me. But sometimes it was necessary.
I'd found out about my dual nature at university, soon after the Martian Flu was finished with me. I'd been relaxing outside of the math/computer building on a bright sunny day, letting my bare feet play with the warm soil underneath, when I realized that sitting wasn't right. So I stood up and just stood there, respirating, transpirating, watching the sun rise and fall day after day. It took the biology faculty 2 months to decide to dig me up which, fortunately, restored me to my default state. It was...
It was seductive. And horrifying. And, sometimes, temporarily necessary.
Reluctantly I'd participated in studies, and eventually found that my mode of living was actually meta-stable; I could and did enjoy animal-like existence, but light and soil and a little bit of patience were all the stimulus my body needed to shift over to its alternate mode and take root. I did it when I needed to think, and I did it when I needed to heal as my body was able to regrow damaged sections much faster when in the static meta state. The current belief was that it was because my body could concentrate on repairs without needing to move or maintain a high metabolism. And yet...
Swallowing I removed my clothes and stood facing east, arms outstretched. I curled my toes and dug into the rich life-giving soil which had been enhanced with earth and loam brought from the mainland, and looked and stared and dreamed as the rays of the sun flowed visibly across the land like golden honey...
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
The physical tests really took it out of me. Around noon-thirty
(i.e. as soon as McGregor was done playing sadist), I dropped in on
the cafeteria and ate like Ad Astra was going to outlaw it tomorrow.
Fortunately, nobody bothered me. Of course, the lack of interruptions
might have had something to do with the fact that I didn't bother
to downshift... You might think handling the tray would be a bit
tricky at the 1/6 G I get with my default tempo of 6; if I hadn't
already been doing that sort of thing for years, you'd be right.
As it was, I came, I ate, I got the hell out and back to my room.
With my internal vacuum temporarily filled, I took some time to
surf Ad Astra's net before I hit the bed and lapsed into a coma
for a while...
...hmmm. Clock said it was 1:24 PM. I'd been asleep for 7 clock-minutes, more than triple the usual; I had been tired. Okay, the next item on my agenda is... heh! Some kind of mock combat, against McGregor, so's he can gauge my fighting ability. Apparently, the Greenpeace assault and the reflex test weren't big enough clues -- more fool he.
And the sparring session was at 3:45 PM, which meant I had just over fourteen hours to kill. So what else is new. I set the PDA's built-in alarm clock to give me 12 minutes' notice, and resumed my exploration of Ad Astra's network. No reason not to start troubleshooting down dirtside, right? Amazingly enough, I actually managed to locate a few exploitable vulnerabilities! Betcha they're known glitches that were left in place as a test... or not. Either way, Ad Astra needed to know what I'd found; I sent a report to the sysop and took another catnap. 1:55. Three hours down, 11 to go...
Awake again, I got a sheaf of hardcopy from my luggage -- a printout of the trajectory I'd worked out for my toy rocket -- and returned to the computer. I found Mathematica (cool program, basically an industrial-strength calculator on steroids) on the machine, spent a while whipping my numbers into shape, then looked over AA's organizational chart and sent the Ballistics department a request (BCC'ed to McGregor) to check over my work. Another catnap, another hour and a quarter done.
At this point my stomach said it was time to take a chance on the cafeteria -- near-empty, thank Hestia, even if the bastards who were there insisted on invading my space to chat. Deliberately and with malice forethought, I pre-empted their anticipated 'thanks for the murders' verbiage by asking them questions, first. That got me a good-sized infodump, insiders' views of Ad Astra. A hell of a lot more tolerable than having to incessantly remind myself not to rip their damn faces off; I'd have to try this again the next time I got surrounded. Three and a half hours gone, and could've been more if their lunch hour hadn't ended.
One more nap in my room later, I went outside with a camera to play tourist. Would've preferred a digital model, but AA regs frowned upon unauthorized CPU-bearing gadgets, so it was a cheap-ass, disposable, 35-millimeter analog film job. I could have spent more, but seeing how bad my vision sucks anyway... It was the usual balmy Easter Island weather -- partial overcast, windy with occasional high-end gusts, bloody cold. Didn't stop me from getting shots of the moai. Also a few aerial pics; as long as I had this opportunity to jump around at a high tempo and not care, why not?
Kind of neat, wandering the Island without a detailed itinerary. Sure, I had a 3:45 appointment, but that was four hours off -- plenty of time to poke around. As I moved, a little glint of light caught my eye every so often. Didn't think anything of it the first time, but by the fourth, I not only realized it was fixed in one spot, I also decided to jump over for a closer look.
Turned out to be a big glass box (four meters tall, three across) with massive metal frame and a sloping roof, whose sides leaned in a couple degrees off of vertical. Contents: One dryad, buck-naked, arms raised to the sky, standing immobile with her feet buried in the dirt up to her ankles --
Shit! She has wigged out! was my first thought. Gotta get her out of there! But the damn box was too well-built! Design-wise, the structure had no evident weak points; sniffing at it, I couldn't find any evidence of poor materials (scent-traces suggested the metal was a high-vanadium steel alloy, and if I recognized the residual plasticizers in the 'glass', it was actually a Kevlar/Teflon polymer blend) or flawed construction (no excessive oxidation, etc, in the welds). Throwing rocks was an option, but not a good one; even my trans-sonic fastball might not be able to scratch the surface, and the risk of spalling off the interior was too great anyway. There was an obvious door, with the phrase SUE'S RESTING PLACE hand-written above it, but no handle -- just a PDA scanner and what had to be a software-controlled automatic latch. A big red button, labeled IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, which Demeter knew this was --
No. The panic button would almost certainly alert McGregor, and forget that until I ruled out the wolf as a potential mindgamer. But at the same time, a sane and active Carter was too damned valuable to Ad Astra, so if the bastard was an AAer, they'd have to be working alone, a single-digit cabal at worst, without their co-workers' knowledge or consent. So the question is... who do you trust, Jube? My reflexive first answer -- trust? yeah, right -- wasn't helpful, so I kept at it, and decided that the least likely suspect was Meisel, the medical head honcho, 'preservation of life' and all that.
I took a chance on the PDA, one of whose many functions was voice chat. An AA mindgamer could have a back door into the system for crap like real-time eavesdropping, but if they did, the PDA's built-in position tracking meant they already knew I'd found Carter, so it didn't matter if I did something which confirmed that fact...
Meisel answered on the first ring. "Mr. Acinonyx! Thank you so much for calling! I've been wanting to compare notes --"
"BFD. The name's 'Jubatus', and I'm about 10 feet away from Carter. What's going on?"
"Ah... excuse me?"
Apparently, I'd derailed Meisel's train of thought. Like I cared. "Look, Meisel. Your big brain, Sue Carter, is just standing there like a bloody mannequin! What the hell is wrong with her!?"
A couple of endless seconds crawled by before I got a response. "Oh. She must not have told you."
"Apparently not," I growled through clenched fangs.
"I'm sor --"
"Fuck 'sorry'! I want answers, damnit!" And then I upshifted high, and took deep breaths until I was calm again. The doc still hadn't said anything by the time I regained a tempo of 1. "Okay. That was uncalled for. I think I owe you an apology, Dr. Meisel."
After another second or so, she said, "No, that's quite alright." The sympathy in her voice could have been genuine. "I can see how it would be quite a shock if you weren't informed."
"Yes, you could say that. Now would you care to inform me, please?"
"Of course, Mr. Acinonyx. Physiologically speaking, Dr. Carter is a plant, and when she's rooted like this, she doesn't just heal, she actually regenerates. She is currently healing, very fast and very completely."
I crouched against the 'glass', peered inside; for all I could tell, the dryad's leg wound was gone. "I... see..."
"Aside from the medical benefits, she also finds the rooted state to be a powerful aid to concentration," Meisel said. "Really, there's nothing to worry about, Mr. Acinonyx! She's done this plenty of times before."
"Not worried," I said as I continued staring at the dryad. "Not any more, I mean. It just... takes a little getting used to, is all. So. When she gonna wake up?"
"Just before sunset. We've found that sunlight eases the uprooting process. Would you like to be in attendance when Dr. Carter returns to active life?"
I thought about declining, but the dryad was vulnerable now, and would be for as long as she stayed rooted. No sense giving the mindgamer(s) a free shot at her. Not on my watch, by Ceres! "Just try to keep me away."
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
My physiognomy incorporates an odd dichotomy. Whilst mobile,
I fear planting myself; whilst planted, I fear being uprooted
and the return of mobility. Being planted is different. I still
breathe, to completely survive by transpiration I'd need to look
more or less like a tree to get the required surface area, but
shallowly and slowly. Nevertheless my surface does transpirate
which creates an odd calmness within my body that changes to a
momentary sense of panic when I exhale and inhale, and then returns
whilst my breathing pauses to let gas exchange take place both
on the inside and the outside. In fiction I'd read before my change,
I'd heard it being described as a 'circuit', but that isn't right;
it's more like an unstable stasis, the calm before the storm,
standing at the top of a cliff just before you leap off. There
is an eagerness, a freshness, a calmness that I don't have whilst
mobile as I just stand there. When it rains I don't feel raindrops,
but instead a sensation of coolness, moistness, and a subtle annoyance
at the interference with my transpiration; when it is sunny I
often find it too bright and it takes too long to close my eyes
if I forgot and left them open. I knew when Jubatus was nearby,
a blur, an instant of comfort that was suddenly gone. And as the
sun rapidly sank I knew it would soon be time to be uprooted,
torn from the earth, and forced once again to the hurry-rush of
mobile life, of the endless necessity of rapid breaths and the
hypertrophied, Rube Goldberg complexities of animal existence.
Of being forced to interact with those whom Jubatus refers to as 'slowpokes'.
It is time.
Powerless I feel them cutting through the fine roots I've grown, a sensation like clipping a thousand nails; and then I'm gently lifted up by hot animal hands and cold water is sprayed on my roots, cleansing them, tearing me from the soil, forcing me to think and breathe and begin to move.
And once again to fear becoming rooted.
It's over; I'm back and mobile, looking at the shriveled roots left behind and shivering. Carefully putting weight on my leg I find that it has almost completely healed so the rooting accomplished its purpose. Apparently, Jubatus had come to watch my resurrection. "I apologize for causing you to see this, it is the best way for me to heal from traumatic injury."
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Came 3:45 and I was at the designated sparring arena, been there
since 3:41. In other words, I'd spent 20-odd minutes puzzling
over why McGregor was bothering, and whether or not Carter'd had
a hand in designing the protocols, and the usual gang of worries
besides. Didn't even see the wolf until after an involuntary upshift
-- the sucker fired at me from ambush. A paintball: I traced it
back to its source, grabbed it out of the air, and tapped at the
door of the camouflaged concrete bunker he was hiding in.
"You know, MacDuff, if you keep on pulling this kind of shit, I might start to think you don't love me any more."
A previously unseen door opened. "Good afternoon, Mr. Acinonyx. Come in." Not the response I was looking for. Then again, a sense of humor isn't necessarily a desirable trait in a chief of security... After I stepped inside, he pointed out a standard-issue Ad Astra helmet: "Put it on."
I did, but that didn't stop me from asking, "Done, but what's the point here?"
"Ad Astra exists in a state of perpetual siege. Need I say more?"
I thought for a moment, then sighed. "Shit. So there really is a non-trivial chance of another neo-Luddite attack while I'm here."
"Approximately 4.7 percent," the wolf agreed.
"Right. All those goddamn idiots who drive their econoboxes to every anti-technology rally they hear about on the Net, and never once get a fucking clue."
"Yup. Hypocrites all."
"Fine, but you saw what I could do in that first attack," I said, then (afraid I already knew the answer) I asked: "What else do you need?"
"A more comprehensive picture of your military value."
"Wonderful," I muttered. Sometimes being right is a real pain.
Then the bastard went to work.
Personally, I've never been a fan of tactical wargames, computer or otherwise. Sure, nobody actually dies in them, but the implicit mayhem really rubs me the wrong way. So naturally, McGregor started on real life military simulations. The first item on his agenda was determining exactly what it took to tag me with a bullet -- sorry, 'paintball' -- which ultimately turned out to be '500 rounds per clock-second, divvied up between five separate attackers'. McGregor took credit; no idea if he really had done it, or he'd ordered the others to allow him the kill, or what. Either way, he certainly smelled happy.
McGregor offered me a couple pounds of raw meat during a snack break. I took a quick (upshifted) sniff, but the only discernable additives were garlic, vinegar and orange extract. So how'd the wolf know my favorite blend? That isn't in any files he'd have access to... "Thanks. Who told you, Carter or Miesel?"
He swallowed his own raw hamburger before answering. "Mr Acinonyx, I have been studying you for nearly a week. I know how you think, and I know your preferences, in food and in everything else."
If he can get that from a week's exposure to me, what's he gotten from his years with Carter? "That go for Ad Astra's permanent employees, too, or just us temps? "
"Everyone. It's my job. She compiles and I research, " he said wistfully. And exactly who might 'she' be..? "We work well together. We keep the rest in line."
Okay, wolf. You've just elected yourself prime suspect, but I don't know your accomplice(s). Yet. "Oh?"
"Carter and I --"
I upshifted to hide my shock. Him and Carter?! Like hell! No way Carter would ever let anybody use her! At least, not willingly... Shock over, I downshifted to keep from missing any more of his words.
"--on't know why she let you loose -- I guess she had her reasons." So saying, he finished his lunch. "Now, time for tactical and unit drills."
"What's the point? You know I work alone."
"Not on Easter Island you don't. You will drill and learn how to help existing units and not force them to abort to avoid you. We will start now."
Not an afternoon to write home about. At least after the wolf was done with me, I got to keep watch as the dryad safely resumed her mobile state...
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
Morning the next day and I was waiting for Jubatus and Sandra
on the Fokker. It was calming, albeit not as much so as next week
would initially be -- assuming NASA kept on schedule, an event
of grave unlikelihood. I felt better, more relaxed than I had
in a while. Planting always did that to me, even through the fear
it caused both rooting and uprooting. In fact not even the cool
wind and the dim sun behind the low cloud cover was enough to
dampen my mood. I was inspecting the missiles under the wings
when I heard footsteps behind me, and turning around I confirmed
it was the passengers.
"Ah, good morning Mr. Jubatus, Sandra. I trust that you're both ready for the fun part of the training?"
I could see Jubatus looking at the missiles under the port wing.
"Medically he's ready, Dr. Carter."
"Sandra, we've known each other long enough, you can call me Susan." I'd suggested this before, but she had always refused and that ensured that she knew who was the dominant personality. She was not herself afflicted with SCABS, but that, far from being bothersome, actually simplified matters; it merely meant that in order for me to ensure that her behaviour remained within optimal norms, I had only to exploit those cues and psychological traits specific to homo sapiens sapiens, and did not have to take other species' into account.
"That wouldn't be right doctor."
"Fine, then --"
Jubatus interrupted us: "Expecting uninvited guests?" He was pointing at the missiles.
"'Expect' is not the right word, Mr. Jubatus. It would be more accurate to say that we feel it would be imprudent not to be prepared for such visitors. This is our primary defense against attacks such as the one you experienced -- the ground stations are supposed to be backups."
He nodded, his eyes retaining their focus on the under-wing ordinance. "Suppose there's an attack while we're up today? Do passengers have any assigned duties when the shit hits the fan?"
"Yes. Passengers must remain strapped into their seats, out of the way." Curious; he'd tensed up a bit at my first syllable, only to relax almost immediately thereafter. "Defensive action is the pilot's responsibility." His reaction was consistent with the data I'd obtained from McGregor, which indicated that Jubatus was, quote, scared shitless, end quote, by violence. Very odd given his gifts in that department.
Obviously satisfied, he nodded. "Fine by me."
"Well, all aboard then."
I'd been awake for a while helping the ground crew with fueling, so I knew the Fokker was set to go. After confirming that both both passengers and the equipment were secure, it was a brief chat with ground control for confirmation, and then a short taxi, power up, and into the air. On-board radar showed clear as we passed through the clouds into the brilliant sunshine and I levelled the plane and put her on autopilot to go back and help the two prepare themselves.
"You can unbelt now and we can begin the freefall samplings whenever you're ready."
Sandra was already unbelting, but Jubatus remained still.
He smiled as if at some private joke. "Not particularly. Should I be?"
"OK. Bags are to your left. Sandra, do you need any help?" She was already getting out the equipment to monitor Jubatus' vital signs and I wanted to be there with the pheromone I was using in case he got jumpy.
"That's all right." She turned to the cheetahmorph. "Mr. Acinonyx, I'm going to need to trim your fur to get a clean contact. It'll just be a few spots."
"Go for it. Spots I got plenty of."
Pulling out an electric razor with vacuum attachment, Sandra quickly cleared the locations required. I watched as Jubatus appeared to remain calm, but I could see an odd glow come and go, the same glow that I'd seen before when he upshifted. By my observations and his own testimony, he involuntarily reacted to threats; apparently the electric razor was so classified. But why the glow? And why was he able to jump so high and smooth during the attack? So far the observed data strongly suggested a layered field effect of some kind around him, but the precise nature of that effect remained unclear. There were a number of possibilities, none of them entirely satisfactory. If this hypothetical field absorbed molecular kinetic energy, it would mean that SCABS had granted him a second superhuman ability, unrelated to his metabolic control, which could not be ruled out a priori but was deeply unlikely nonetheless; alternately, all could be explained if he were a true chronomorph with actual localized control of time. Even with the physics-bending examples of polymorphs and inanimorphs which preceded him, that was an idea I didn't want to accept but... My thoughts were interrupted as the machine beeped once, and then let out a high pitched whine. "Something wrong?"
"I don't know Dr. Carter, I checked it before we boarded, but... it's not getting a clean reading." She flicked it off, removed the contacts, and began to clean them, when Jubatus spoke.
"Mind if I take a look at the manual?"
I looked at Sandra and she shrugged, handing him a three-ring binder of documentation and saying "Go ahead," before she returned to her meticulous 'by the book' procedures. Paper hissed against paper for a short period, then she was about to start re-cleaning Jubatus' shaved bits when the cheetahmorph spoke again.
"Got an idea. It's quick and dirty, but we're on a deadline, and however much slack you guys wrote into the schedule, you burned more than a day of it waiting for me to wake up. If my idea works, we're back in business in under a minute."
Sandra looked doubtful, so I put her mind at ease: "Mr. Jubatus is himself a highly skilled troubleshooter; in fact, that's why the board approved bringing him up to Brin Station. Consider this an example of his abilities."
"Thanks," he said, then he grabbed the monitor and poked around inside. "Pliers?"
I retrieved the tool kit from under the seat and pulled out a pair of needlenose pliers and handed them to him.
He fiddled for a second, the 'aura' of his metabolic acceleration conspicuous by its absence, before pulling his hands out. "Got it," he said, and then handed the pliers back to me. "Try it now." He sat back down and Sandra went through the procedure again, and this time it beeped and kept beeping.
"Mr. Jubatus, what did you do?"
"It thought the impedance was too high, so I dialed down the sensitivity on the check circuit."
Lower sensitivity? I frowned. "But that's just a band-aid, not a proper solution at all!"
He shrugged. "I said my idea was quick and dirty. As long as it works, what's the problem?"
She checked the machine, touched her fingers to Jubatus' neck and after 30 seconds, "It matches what I feel. Still..."
"There you go. The damn thing was just oversensitive; nothing to worry about."
A moment passed, and then Sandra looked at me and shrugged.
"If it's good enough for the doctor, it's good enough for me."
"Thank you, Sandra. Now you'd best get ready for the fun part of the training Mr. Jubatus." I turned to make my way back into the control cabin as Sandra strapped herself down. She could handle herself in freefall but was never comfortable with it. After a quick confirmation with ground control, I turned another 180 degrees. "All ready back there?"
"When you're ready, doctor."
"What she said."
"Here we go then." I pulled the plane into a steep climb, saying, "Freefall in 3, 2, 1..." and then began to apply vertical deceleration to our trajectory. From that moment we were on a ballistic arc. For a second I relaxed, but then I remembered Angelo, and... I grabbed the seat and held on tight, forcing down my fear. I had loved this, the freedom, the peace, but since... No! I refused to live this way. Willing my breathing to calm I managed to relax and listened, but I heard no panic from Jubatus, no screams, just the regular beeping on the monitor -- his heart rate didn't even seem to have jumped. "All right back there?"
Jubatus was the only one who answered. "Piece of cake."
He must have been on planes before. "Mr. Jubatus..." and then the warning on the radar beeped. "...freefall will end in about 2 seconds." After I pulled the Fokker out of her dive, I sent her into a slow climb. "Sandra, any problems from our patient?"
"Nothing odd. His readings are steadier than yours."
Steadier than mine used to be -- even before Angelo my heart jumped a bit when freefall started. Why hadn't Jubatus'? No matter how calm and collected a person is, freefall always raises the metabolism -- it's a survival instinct, a moment of fear. "We'll be ready for another ride in about a minute. Sandra, are you sure that machine is working?"
"I checked the initial freefall readings manually to make sure."
"In that case, Sandra, something is odd. Everybody experiences fear momentarily upon entering free fall, so why don't you, Mr. Jubatus?"
Smugly, he shrugged. "I got used to it."
"What's the matter, Carter? Can't figure it out on your own? Think it through!"
Stop. Think -- don't let him bait you. I never got used to free fall, and I have the fifth longest cumulative exposure of anybody at AA. Therefore, his pulse had to fluctuate. Maybe another trial... "You're both ready?"
"Yes," Jubatus said, and Sandra echoed.
What was I missing? Occam's Razor suggested that all of his oddities were connected. "Freefall in 3, 2, 1..." and then I was again on the edge of panic as the damned monitor recorded the same level of calmness. I forced my mind to focus -- why? Hypothesis: Jubatus could control local time flow. What would that mean? First fact: something decreased his drag. Solution: time varied around him in a highly localized field with the standard inverse-square decay function. This would cause his surface to appear as a set of nested layers of different drag coefficients. Next fact: freefall has no apparent metabolic affect. Solution: Jubatus has stated that his body reacts to threats, it changes the intensity of the time distortion field. Since time and gravity are inter-related, that means that his body would have localized control of gravity. That bastard! All this time and -- no. Remember the scientific method. It may fit the data, but the 'time control' hypothesis hasn't yet been confirmed. A few more seconds passed, and the radar beeped. "Freefall will end in about 2 seconds."
"Gotcha," Jubatus replied.
I waited two seconds, three to be safe, and then pulled the Fokker out of the dive, returning her to level flight. After checking the systems and locking in the autopilot I climbed into the back. Sandra was visibly nervous, and a sheen of sweat was on her forehead -- Jubatus looked perfectly calm. "So how was your first experience of freefall, Mr. Jubatus?"
"Zero gravity? Piece of cake, like I said."
"Mr. Jubatus, that was not 'zero gravity', that was freefall. There is a significant difference. In orbit we will not be under 'zero gravity' but experiencing freefall within a reduced gravitational field."
"Whatever you say, Doc," he stated, his face as insufferably smug as that of any natural feline.
"Mr. Jubatus, English is an exact language." There; as a technical writer, he couldn't help but surrender to the superior force of my argument.
"You bet! And 'free fall' is a Tom Petty tune from the late '90s."
He was mocking me! How dare -- no. Calm, stay calm. "Terms have specific meanings. 'Zero gravity' would almost exist if we were at the Lagrange point between the Earth and the Moon. It did not exist now, and it will not exist on Brin."
"Zero gravity, freefall, what's the diff?"
"They are very different, Mr. Jubatus." I could feel my hands clenching and forced them to relax. "Sandra, do you have everything you need?"
She swallowed. "I'd prefer one more set just to make sure. I want to confirm the whole sequence manually."
It seemed she shared my concerns. "No problem. You've got five minutes."
Jubatus smiled maliciously. "I'll be ready for zero gee when you are."
I opened my mouth to reply, and then closed it. He was edging me on in a friendly banter kind of way; I refused to grant him the dominant position by rising to his bait. "Freefall, Mr. Jubatus." I turned and sat back down, disengaged the autopilot, turned, and began to climb again. After a minute I called back, "Freefall in 3, 2, 1..." and again the Fokker was on its ballistic course. Calm, I would remain calm. Even through the maddening steady beep of the pulse monitor. Think: If Jubatus could locally control time what else would occur? Anything that moved into or through his body would effectively be slowed down or sped up due to the distortion in local space-time. Electricity would be affected -- as was the monitor! But he wasn't shifting so why... And the type of effect suggested that he was slowing down time... Hadn't he said at one point that his default was 6x normal? Did he have to slow down time simply to interact -- and the radar beeped its ground proximity warning. I called back, "Freefall will end in three seconds," and then I waited, and then gently levelled off the dive. A quick turn, a reengagement of the autopilot, and then back into the passenger cabin. "Well?" I asked Sandra.
"Pulse was rock steady -- both on the machine, and through my own fingers. He's good to go."
"Well Mr. Jubatus, you pass with flying colours. Orbit shouldn't be a problem for you."
"I keep telling you, zero gee's a piece of cake."
Friendly banter. Very well, play along with it. "And what sort of cake would that be?"
"Sirloin, extra rare, with lemon/garlic filling and a demitasse of A.1. icing on the side."
Bemused, I could only shake my head. "Freefall, Mr. Jubatus." I returned to the cabin and called ground control and prepared for landing. They called back a weather prediction; according to them, the incoming storm front likely wouldn't actually arrive until tomorrow. I needed a storm, I really did.
If Jubatus did have local control over time, he might also have it over gravity. They were inter-related -- Einstein had worked that out. It seemed too much a coincidence -- my research halted until the collider is built, and then the sudden appearance of a SCAB that could answer all my questions. Still, it fit too well. Fine. Assume he did. How to prove it? Tests and readings -- if there was a continuous local field when he was interacting, then electrical impedance would appear to change as he changed his local space/time. Tomorrow was the centrifuge, and if I could get claim a need to get some baseline metabolic readings...
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
For once, being permanently stuck on Fast Forward was a Good
Thing: I wanted to soak up everything Ad Astra had to offer, and I only had two weeks in which to do
it, with maybe one or two extra days on the other side of orbit.
'Two weeks' by the calendar, meaning at a tempo of 1. That equalled 'three months' at my default tempo of 6, or 'a year and a half' at a tempo of 40... Okay, that last was an unreachable upper bound (if nothing else, my schedule included way too much time spent in the company of slowpokes), but you get the idea, right? The point is, I had a goal with which to while away the hours while I was here -- and that goal was, 'gather a lot more data than anyone else could'.
Even the time necessarily spent at a tempo of 1 isn't that bad; live, first-hand reports from Ad Astrans have a certain something, a personal touch that just doesn't come through in video or text files. And it's not like the time is wasted anyway, because while I'm dawdling with AA slowpokes, the search-bots I've written are combing AstraNet for interesting data at cybernetic speed. Mind you, I'm not stupid (or self-deluded) enough to think I'll be able to take all my booty back home with me, but I'm pretty sure McGregor will rule that some of my collected files aren't sensitive enough to warrant confiscation.
Case in point: The Sue Files, a combination betting pool and running gag that's been absorbing the spare time of Ad Astra's personnel for at least 6 calendar years. A whole batch of files that I ignored when I first noticed 'em on AstraNet, but went back to after hearing various AAers talk about them. The deal is, Sue Carter's been supplying photos and news items to the likes of the Weekly World News --
Yeah, I know. That's what I thought, too. It gets better: Not only is she getting a little cash on the side from the stuff she gives those yutzes to print, but every item she's given them has some sort of 'in-joke' concealed in it, and sometimes more than one! That's what the betting pool is about: how many of Sue's in-jokes will be identified (by other AAers) in any given week or month or whatever...
You want a 'for instance'? Okay, here's one: A photoshopped image, looks like a daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln shaking hands with one of those big-eyed Grey aliens -- and if you decode the digital watermark, you get a copyright notice and a limerick:
Subscribers to this publication
Are far from a cause for elation.
And if you paid cash
Before reading this trash,
I recommend decapitation.
Another example: A lengthy article -- basically a Bible Code rerun -- that 'proved' President Bush Jr. to be responsible for the Martian Flu. The tricky bit is, if you take the second letter of every seventh word in the thing, you get MINUS B PLUS OR MINUS SQRT OPEN PAREN B SQUARED MINUS FOUR AC CLOSE PAREN OVER FOUR A -- in other words, the Quadratic Formula! But that's not all: In the starting paragraphs, the first letters of the last words in every sentence, in reverse order, spell out LORD WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE...
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
Last night I had sat down and worked out some possible rough
mathematical descriptions of the way that Jubatus' time power
would likely have to work, on the presumption that he did indeed
possess such ability. After one formulates a hypothesis the next
step is to test it, and thus...
"Carter, what the hell do you think you're gonna do with this?" he asked, holding up one of the sensor pods of a magnetometer. "I thought I was here for a physical examination, not a Physics 101 exam."
A better description might be a Physics 401 exam, but I decided not to mention that. It is always more useful to have the subject unaware that he is a subject in order to ensure natural responses. "I thought that it would be appropriate to take some baseline readings before you go through the centrifuge, in order to develop a reliable set of data for comparison --"
I paused, puzzled. "Excuse me?"
"I said, 'No'. As in, 'No, I'm not going to let you probe at me.' You can just point your sensors elsewhere, because this is one physics exam I'm not taking part in."
"But... surely you must realize that --"
"What part of 'no' are you having trouble comprehending?"
"Well, I'm not at all clear on why you've elected not to cooperate on this matter. Could you clarify your rationale for me, please?"
"Fu -- uhhhh... Again, no. My reasons are none of your damn business. You wouldn't even be asking that question unless you thought you could persuade me to change my mind, and that ain't gonna happen."
"Tell you what: You let me know how many minutes you want to waste on this bullshit, and I'll just go poke around the Island for that length of time, how's that sound?"
Calm. Show no emotion. If my hypothesis was correct, that meant that the cheetahmorph knew and was trying to hide the fact. If he knew, then he must not want me to find out why. Assuming of course that my hypothesis was correct. I had tossed the 'hypothetical' fluid dynamics model of Jubatus' flight to some biological specialists I knew, so if I was wrong, they would find the answer. Until they did I would operate under the assumption that I was right, for Jubatus was the key to my dream for humanity.
He started to get up and I realized that I had almost waited too long. "Very well, Mr. Jubatus. As this exam is not critical to certifying you for orbit, you do have the right to refuse it." I started putting away the measuring devices I'd brought. If he wanted to play that way, there were other ways of getting the data. "If you are ready for the centrifuge then...?"
He got up, calm and collected as he always was, and I motioned him towards the entrance. Contrary to popular belief, Ad Astra is not infinitely powerful or wealthy. The massive centrifuge requires a significant amount of energy and thus it is set up to both use electrical potential to speed up, and then return the same electrical potential into batteries whilst in process of decelerating. There was some loss, as in any system, but the net result is that the power can be stored from off-peak hours, and then be used as a reserve in case of problems. After checking to make sure that Jubatus was securely strapped in and that the medical monitors, which I had adapted to a lower sensitivity -- another point supporting the time hypothesis -- were tested and did work I followed Matt up into the control booth where Peter was already seated and watched as they started the centrifuge up.
And then my PDA buzzed.
What was so important -- ah! It was the storm that had been coming -- the meteorological front had sped up and would break over the island in an estimated thirty minutes, which gave me just enough time to get my equipment. At this point anything that got my mind off of Jubatus would help me think about this rationally. I needed a break to make sure that I wasn't focusing on the hypothetical time control to excess and incorrectly discarding other possibilities. With a nod to Matt I turned and hurried off to get my wings and meet the storm.
I needed to remember that I was alive.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Considered as a roller-coaster, the centrifuge rated -1 on a
scale of 1 to 10 -- bor-ing! The worst part of it was worrying about Carter. Maybe I'd
stomped on the bloody magnetometer, but what other sensor-tricks did she have up her sleeve? Have to be careful about resisting the dryad's probes; raising
too much of a fuss is a sure-fire way to attract the wrong sort of
attention from other Ad Astrans, and Carter's scrutiny is bad
enough by itself.
Having done all I could to forestall disaster, I pushed it out of my mind and concentrated on riding the centrifuge. Had a couple of weird spells -- 'real' gravity or not, it was still the first time I'd ever experienced 1 G at my default tempo, kinda threw off my equilibrium -- but upshifting helped, and when it was all over, I thought I'd check in with Carter. Apart from the sensor thing, maybe I could gather more data relevant to the asshole(s) playing with our heads.
Unfortunately, she wasn't there! I just didn't get it. She'd suddenly become very interested in what made me tick, and she pursued whatever interested her with all the unfocused frivolity of a salmon en route to the mating grounds. So why in Thoth's name had she bugged out? I asked the two-man centrifuge crew: "Where's Carter?"
The flunkies looked at each other, and one said, "I think she's gone to throw herself off a cliff."
"No kidding. Thanks ever so." They didn't want to tell me -- fine. I'd just have to find out on my own. Obvious first line of investigation: Use the PDA... and discover that Carter's status was a mystery. ATMOSPHERIC SURVEY, location unspecified. Damn. She's locked herself out of the system; why? Never mind, time to worry about that when you find her. With technological searching out of the question, my next trick was something a little different.
I tracked her scent.
Her trail led outside. There was a hell of a wind, and rain falling in disorganized sheets -- I had to get down on all fours, and even then, Carter's minutes-old scent-traces were rapidly dissipating below the point of detectability. Fortunately, Easter Island isn't very big and doesn't have a lot of foliage to block line of sight. By the time the storm had washed her traces completely away, I'd reached a point where I could stand back up -- and I saw her. On the edge of a cliff.
And she jumped...
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
I didn't even feel an instant of freefall before the wind howling
up the cliff grabbed me. Even throwing my arms vertical to prevent
them from being ripped off wasn't enough to stop the wind from
tossing me hundreds of metres into the air against the driving
rain, each drop's individual impact a separate and unique impulse
of vitality on my back, on my legs, on my head.
I was alive!
Then, so abruptly as to defy thought, the wind scattered into a million tiny vortices, and the rain turned to stinging hail as I stretched out my arms to catch the air and keep from being dashed to the ground. In my mind I pictured the cells of high and low pressure, the swirls of screaming air, the static trembling across their boundaries, capturing the entire system in a four-dimensional differential construct that changed from second to second. In one instant the probabilities were clear, and then something would change the entire system.
Swooping down, screaming both in pain and pleasure, I saw Mr. Jubatus on the ground staring at me in shock, and a slight movement of my arms changed the airfoil structure that kept me from falling so that I raced by only metres above him, outpacing the hail, until I was suddenly grabbed by an unknown cell of warmth that shoved me upwards, the wind singing against the transparent plastic of my wings, making their straps dig into my arms, for a second reminding me that this was only artificial, that I was aloft only through the magic of technology. I lowered my legs, and for a moment I kept my arms outstretched to what I knew was the limit of the stress the material could take, before I let the wind blow my arms back to the vertical.
Then the cell broke, and for moment I hung at the apogee of my arc, before I rotated around and dove straight down, the stinging wind almost blinding me but in my mind I knew where the ground was and how long I had to pull up. As long as the storm didn't mutate.
It was just me, and the storm. And the sure knowledge that I was still alive.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
After the initial surprise, it didn't take long to figure out
that she was wearing an airfoil suit of one kind or another, probably
made of some tough and transparent plastic. Then there was the
second (and continuing) shock of realizing that she wanted this, wanted to risk violent and painful death, that she'd done it deliberately.
I remembered the so-called 'extreme sports' that'd been briefly
popular around the turn of the century; all of them were as tame
as a neutered rabbit, compared to what she'd done. Heh -- maybe
extreme sports might still be around if Storm Riding had been
part of the deal! Thor's hammer, what an exhibition...
...and an indeterminate number of seconds later, it was over. Aloft, she'd swooped gracefully through the convection cells; unfortunately, her landing was as clumsy as her fight wasn't. She bounced and rolled awkwardly through the tough grass. I was there to meet her when she skidded to a halt.
"What do you think, Mr. Jubatus?"
"I think you fly like a seagull, and you land like one, too. Wouldn't it be quicker and more efficient if you just lose the suit?"
She looked thoughtful for a second, then said, "I could, but then it would be difficult to soar for more than five minutes, and landings would be much rougher." Watching the storm front recede, she went on: "Mr. Jubatus, too often my mind dominates my body. It is times like this that remind me that I am a biological organism, and not one of Stapledon's Fourth Men. It is both an intellectual and physical challenge that I need to stay alive. "Then she faced me. "I am a living creature, not just a brain. Often it is very hard to remember that." With that, she started peeling the airfoils off of her body.
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
Sandra had just finished checking me over, she always insisted
on checking me over after a ride, and her checks were a condition
of the board allowing me to do it. That and wearing a biological
monitor to call Sandra and the psychological recommendation that
without this release I would go insane. That one had taken some
effort. As she finished putting away her instruments she asked
me over to a computer station and pulled up a WAV sound file.
"Dr. Carter. What do you make of this?"
I listened as Sandra played a recording of a most peculiar noise, a sort of slow warble in the upper register. "It would appear you've got two oscillators that are marginally out of synchronization with one another, thus creating a 'beat frequency'."
"No. There's just one sound source, and it's Mr. Acinonyx. "
Now that was interesting. Why would Jubatus be making that noise? It was like nothing I'd ever heard, but... "Sandra, could you slow down the recording, say by a factor of six?"
Blinking, she looked at me, and then shrugged. "As you wish."
I waited and then listened to the sound as it played again, this time revealing itself to be far more complex than a mere warble. It consisted of a remarkable variety of noises, hisses and growls and squeaks and clicks and many more, their pitches flitting semi-randomly up and down the audible spectrum and beyond, all seamlessly blended into a sort of multi-layered audio collage, with varying levels of reverb and other processing seemingly applied to the whole of it. And the cadence and 'beats' of this sound, overall, were oddly similar to those of spoken language...
It went on for five minutes. As I listened, my brain's efficiency-heightened auditory center gradually resolved various bits of it to intelligible (if isolated) syllables: 'Ha', 'ist', 'made', and 'vio', among others. But why would Jubatus have made such a sound? What was the point of it? Thinking back, his medical records had contained a section devoted to his vocalizing abilities...
"Could it be some kind of RFI or cross-talk from security recordings?"
"No, I don't think so. I believe our guest talks in his sleep and I would guess the distortion and tonal qualities are because the sound is at the frequency limits of the monitoring equipment."
"I'll tell him in the morn-"
"No, best not to."
"If he talks in his sleep, we'd better get Drew on it in case he spouts out things better kept secret. I'll make sure he keeps it private and I'll tell him before I take him home."
"Are you sure?"
Looking at the screen I did not allow my smile to appear on my face. "We need to monitor this for security reasons."
"As you wish then. I'll let Mr. McGregor --"
"Don't worry about it -- I'll tell him in the morning. We'll have to swap some of the hardware anyway to handle the frequency."
"I'll log it in his files then."
"You do that. Good night."
"Good night Dr. Carter."
I turned and walked away thinking. If Jubatus did control time, then he was a very valuable commodity. No matter how great his waking reluctance to aid the cause of science, some useful information could be mentioned accidentally. Alternately, there's always blackmail. This time I let my smile onto my face. Drew would take care of the hardware changes, and after that it wouldn't be difficult using some backdoors to make sure that I got a copy of anything recorded.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Next day was technical systems training, which included the
final testing of my pressure suit. This wasn't strictly necessary
-- it was all off-the-shelf tech, no real surprises, and I'd checked
it myself anyway -- but redundancy is good. Aside from that, I had to lose the fur, to ensure the proper
fit. Zero-G meant that shaving was right out -- clipped-off hair
fragments being tiny enough to drift inside people's pressure
suits to impersonate itching powder, not to mention the usual
round of problems electronic circuits have with organic contamination
-- so it was depilatory lotion all the way. What I'd brought with
me didn't pass muster, so after my attendant stopped laughing,
he supplied a half-liter pump bottle of Ad Astra-approved glop.
A shpritz of DeadGlove on my hands and I started to slather on the lotion, which wasn't Nair for SCABs. Pity, that. The stuff bubbled on contact with my fur, and I did my best to ignore the noxious aroma that emerged from each bubble as it popped. Breathing through my mouth helped, but only a little, since the stench insisted on diffusing up through the back of my sinuses. Fortunately, Ad Astra had a little experience along this line; someone rubbed a dab of Vicks under my snout, and I couldn't smell anything over it -- whew!
"Better?" A male voice -- didn't recognize it.
"You're welcome," he said. Caucasian norm, six-footer, light hair. "Even to a human nose, that stuff reeks pretty bad; I don't want to know how it smells to you!"
I smiled. "McGregor really hated it, huh?"
The guy smiled back. "Oh yeah! Same as every other furry type who's gone up."
"You have many outside guests?"
"More than you'd think, though most are norms. McGregor's been up; didn't like it. We took Dr. Brin up once years ago -- it just felt right. Some others, including a few SCABs. It's odd though, every SCAB guest we've had was furred... which was a real bitch till we found this goop. Why are so many of you guys furry anyway?"
I shrugged. "You're asking me? Tell it to the Martian Flu Virus."
"Sorry. Say, you ever done this before?"
"Shave? No, it's my first time."
"Got it," he said, nodding. "How're you set for clothes?"
I almost replied, 'like I need them?', but considering the weather hereabouts, I would need a substitute for my soon-to-be-missing fur. "I'm screwed," I admitted. "Didn't think when I was packing."
He chuckled. "Good to know you're human. Hang loose, I'll get you something to wear."
'Good to know --' son of a bitch! I zipped over to grab his arm before he left. "Hold it. Are you saying some people had doubts about my humanity?"
"Hell, yes! I mean, I wouldn't have believed it was possible to go from zero to 4 gigabucks in... wait. You thought I was talking about your SCABS, not your track record, didn't you?"
"Oh. " 'Enhance your calm', Jube. I let go of the guy. "Right. Let's just say the latter referent isn't exactly common, back home."
He swallowed and then was all business. "Okay. Clothes. Three sets alright? Good. And the goop, how much do you need for your trip?"
"Got a spare six month supply?"
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
When I met Jubatus after he shaved, I barely managed to keep
from giggling. It seemed that he'd met our resident chemist, Dr.
Christian Johnson. Although Christian had two PhDs, he never really
put on airs -- likely Jubatus never realized and thought he was
just some techie. I could still smell some of the goop Christian
had come up with on Jubatus and since he'd forgotten clothing,
Christian had dressed him in a trench coat and he looked like
a detective from some bad anime.
"Nothing Mr. Jubatus. I was just surprised to see you."
I had of course taken charge of Jubatus' training personally. This did require a minor realignment of my various pre-launch duties, but in view of the fact that the cheetahmorph displayed the same remarkable speed in learning as in the performance of any physical action, it was merely prudent that he be assigned a tutor able to transmit information as quickly as he could absorb it.
"Hang up your coat and sit down Mr. Jubatus." Fortunately Christian had also had a shirt and pants hanging around. "As a last minute change I've been asked to train you in your required technical skills in our systems, both computer which you shouldn't have any problem with, and orbital. We're running late already, so I expect you to pay attention."
He was seated at the computer terminal before I finished talking. "I'll just read."
"You will do that, and more. I expect you to read everything to expand upon what I'm going to teach but you will also learn and do what I tell you. There is no room for mistakes. On Earth, bad code can cause lost data; on Brin, it can cause everybody to die." He looked at me, his ears perked, and I knew I had his full attention. It seemed that Jubatus was indeed pathologically afraid of causing death. Odd that. "This terminal is an exact duplicate of the systems on Brin. The chair's different since we have gravity, but the other hardware matches. If you'll open the manual from the icon on the top-left corner of the screen, we'll start."
The rest of the day passed swiftly, with regular breaks for Jubatus to eat food that was brought for him. Morning was with the computer interface, Ad Astra coding structure, what flags designated how critical a function was, and other system-specific stuff. He caught on fast. Most of it was common sense, for example any critical system required three confirmation checks before it could be shut down. That one was inspired by the myth of the NASA technician who had told one of the Viking probes to turn off -- one of the Viking probes on Mars. Our IT head, a structure fanatic if there ever was one, had managed to keep personal idiosyncrasies more or less completely out of the code.
The afternoon curriculum switched to simulators of Babylon.
Incredible though it was, he actually objected to this portion of the training: "This is a waste of time, Carter. My upshift --"
"Shut up Mr. Jubatus. Your upshifting abilities are not sufficient. You may be able to step back, and think about things for a second or two of normal time, but even that is too long. As I told you before this all began, near earth orbit space is dangerous. Even you won't have time to think." I would have to give him an example. "In 2021, at the outbreak of the China/India war, I was aboard the US aircraft carrier Nimitz undergoing pilot training. Ad Astra used to get along better with NASA. When the war broke out and Chinese fighters were detected launching from land bases the admiral didn't know what was going on so he ordered all fighters to be airborne." Again the vision of what had happened that night played through my mind. "I watched from a corner of a lounge as the entire carrier deck exploded into a controlled pulse of activity. Hundreds of men and women ran across the deck. Catapults loaded. Blast deflectors popped up and slapped back down. And during all this not a single person got in the way of another. Why Mr. Jubatus? Because the entire crew had trained repeatedly to work as one organic whole in a four dimensional space/time environment. I watched as individuals suddenly turned for no apparent reason until 2 seconds later a blast deflector popped up. All I could do was stand in awe, staying out of the way of the immense organic machine that operated perfectly. If there had been an error someone would have died. I stood and watched for an hour, mesmerized by the interplay of lights flashing from reflective tape, the roar of engines, the snap of the catapults, the cacophony that was actually an example of four dimensional order.
"It was a defining moment for my opinions Mr. Jubatus. For in that instant, I saw the power and the might that was the due of humanity. That was when I swore that I would keep the race alive.
"However, this is an example for you. Each individual knew exactly where and when they were, and where and when all others were on that carrier deck. Each individual had to know that else either they, or someone who thought that that individual would be somewhere else, would have died. Ad Astra has to act like that because there is no room or time for anything else. You will learn to act like that as best you can, and you will not depend on your upshift to save you, because that weakness could kill everybody.
"Do you understand this?"
I hadn't expected him to balk more, but he had one further objection: "Yes, I understand the importance of cooperation and adherence to schedule and all that. What I don't get is, what's that got to do with the simulator? What's the point, Carter? I'm no pilot, and you damn well know it!"
"No, you are not, Mr. Jubatus. The reason you will go through this is because something could happen to me. Critical life support failure resulting in my death, systems failure, disaster on Brin leaving you the only one conscious, and who knows what else."
"In other words: A 1% chance of living with a half-competent pilot looks real good, when the alternative is a 100% chance of everybody dying in a crash."
"Correct. No one will expect you to fly Babylon with any great degree of skill, but you will at least learn to land her in one piece. There is no choice in this -- this is a requirement of your going up. Take it or leave it."
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Babylon's dashboard was pretty damned intimidating at first sight. Ever
seen an old-style 747 cockpit ('old' meaning before fly-by-wire
avionics took over everything), the kind with more banks of controls
and gauges than a cathedral organ? Well, Babylon was at least that bad. That bird has close to a fifth of a million
individual components, and every last one of 'em had its own dedicated
indicator or gauge -- or that's what it looked like, anyway! And that's not counting the sensor displays for
airspeed and pressure and radar and temperature and hull stress
Thought so. The point is, that dashboard is isotopically pure Information Overload on a stick, and it's an absolute bear-and-a-half to learn.
The first few runs were what Carter called 'arcade mode', in which all the sim's parameters were tweaked to make it more friendly to complete and utter novices like me; even so, my first actual landing came only after three crashes! Babylon's controls are damned finicky at the best of times, and in some of them the stimulus/response curve can get pretty nonlinear.
And then they started using realistic parameters...
All it took was one little mistake, one tiny error, and the simulator run ended in a fireball on the runway's tarmac -- except for the runs in which it burned up in midair, that is. Whether it was an errant breeze adding a new vector to the simulation, a necessary attitude adjustment to keep the airflow around the hull within nominal parameters, or what, undercorrection was every bit as fatal as overcorrection. Oh, and redundant controls aren't, not really. When you're flying a normal aircraft, it doesn't really matter whether you turn by raising the port aileron, lowering the starboard aileron, or both; with Babylon, it took me four simulator runs to figure out that it does make a difference, and another 15 before I started to get a handle on when it was appropriate to use which option.
I hated it. If not for the fact that I was effectively a backup to a backup, and therefore wouldn't have to go anywhere near the controls unless no alternative options whatsoever were available...
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
Faced with a 'take it or leave it' ultimatum, he took it. He
did exceptionally well, too; within the first three hours of his
training, he improved to the point that no less than 16% of his
runs ended in a safe landing, a survival rate well within the
low end of the range associated with Air Force test pilots. After
his second sequential survivable landing -- Babylon didn't but at least he did -- I gave him the last couple of hours
of the afternoon off to unwind. "We will continue tomorrow morning
Mr. Jubatus. First with the emergency escape module from Brin."
He jerked. "That holds five people..."
"And if you're the only one conscious, you'll have to know what to do." His 'aura' blossomed around him for a moment when I touched his shoulder. "Don't worry so much. You're doing quite well; it's only your fifth hour of training, and you've already achieved a survival rate of 18%!"
He was not impressed. "Which means a death rate of 82 percent. Not bleeding good enough."
"Mr. Jubatus, your 18% survival rate is poor only in comparison to those registered by guests with a significant amount of flight experience. In comparison to persons who, like you, lack any previous flight experience, you are doing very well indeed! Most of our guests never get two safe landings in a row, and you're the first 'flight virgin' to do so."
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Easter Island is like Oakland; "there's no 'there' there". Face
it -- when the high point of each week's social activity is a
double-feature on a 7-meter flatscreen TV, you know you're in Geek Heaven. A couple of the techs invited me on the
strength of my status as an Official Hero of Ad Astra, and I'd
expected the dryad to show -- no joy. First on tonight's playbill
was a costume drama I'd ignored when it hit the multiplexes a
couple months ago, but the second feature had potential. As per
usual for this crowd, it was a classic like Hollywood just doesn't
make any more. What with the Plague and Collapse and all, these
days there's no way in Hell any SF flick can attract a big-enough audience to cover costs, and
even fantasy tends towards lousy box office. If it wasn't for
tax write-offs, sci-fi would be completely dead...
Anyway, tonight's second half was one of Disney's greatest cinematic disasters ever: The Black Hole. This excremental piece of celluloid detritus cried out for audience abuse on a scale that only Sue Carter could dispense -- so where was she? Her co-workers assured me that she only left her room for storms or job-related tasks, neither of which was happening at the moment, so my first stop was her private quarters. I followed the map in my official Ad Astra PDA, and knocked on her door.
"Who is it." Even through the door, she sounded dead tired.
It was a few clock-seconds before the door opened, revealing the dryad in her usual skin-tight black. She shook her head at me. "You really need your fur back."
"Wait a couple days," I said with a shrug. "How come you're not watching the movie downstairs? You could give it the MSTing to end all MSTings!"
"'Misting'? Excuse me?"
"Yeah. You know, emm-ess-tee? Mystery Science Theatre?" And she still didn't recognize the reference... sigh. "Never mind. Come on, it's The Black Hole, you'll love trashing it!"
"Oh God. They're actually showing that?"
"Yep -- after The Battle of Baden Hill. Plenty of time to relax during the intermission."
"I don't have time to relax. Too much work."
I gave her a skeptical look. Extreme fatigue, check; driven to an unhealthy level of overwork, check; unwilling to unwind, check. If this isn't another mindgame attack, I'll buy a hat and eat it. "Come on -- everybody needs downtime, and we've got six whole days until launch!"
"Correct. Six days in which I must deal with a superfluity of contracts, studies, mathematical correspondences, papers..."
That did it. I bulled my way into her room. "Fuck that noise. You need to relax, and I'm... just the cheetah... " What in the name of Leonardo..?
Suddenly I was on the set for a remake of Forbidden Planet -- specifically, the Krell Lab! I spun around. Sure enough, the door was the pentagonal Krell egress, and it -- hold on. It did look exactly like that scene where the monster was burning its way in. And, right, a bed, a desk with computer, a large glass window almost hidden behind weird looking plants... it was her room, just with an incredible trompe l'oeil paint job on the floor, walls, and ceiling.
"'It will remind us that we are, after all, not God'," she said, quoting the film.
No shit, Sherlock -- but why do you have it? The fatigue never left her voice; now she'd added some pain to the mix. I gestured for her to go on. "Okay..."
She closed the door, stared at the picture for a bit, then walked over to sit by her computer. "Mr. Jubatus, it is a reminder that I am a mortal, that I come from humanity and evolved up from the mindless primitive."
"True, and so what?"
"Let me clarify. According to your records, you have an IQ of 153, for what that's worth. It is far from clear that IQ tests are a suitable gauge of anything other than how well one does at IQ tests. Before SCABS I was 162; now I'm far, far off the high end of the chart. I would guess in the neighbourhood of 400-500, but that is very loose and dependent on how one interprets things."
"Jesus... How often do you get the feeling you're the only sentient being in a world of jumped-up apes?"
"Mr. Jubatus, I am the only sentient being in a world of jumped-up apes. You still don't get it, so I'll try and simplify it for you. An institutionalized person incapable of functioning in society has an IQ of about 30. Human average is about 120, or 4 times that. My IQ is on the order of 4 times an average human. In other words, to me an average human is only capable of institutionalized support."
"You're smart, alright, but obviously not smart enough to spot the flaw in your analogy!"
She bristled at the implied insult, just for a moment, before her customary mask of impartiality fell back into place. "And what flaw would that be?"
"You don't put a moron away just because he's got IQ 30. Instead, you put him away because he hasn't got the brains to cope with the culture he lives in. 'Nuff said?"
She inclined her head. "Ah. Your point is valid, and perhaps applicable to me as well. Consider this then. How would you survive in a society created by morons?"
Maybe SCABS had screwed her worse than me... "Poorly, I think."
She nodded. "So -- are you willing to concede that there are significant similarities between how a moron interacts with normal humans, and how the rest of humanity interacts with me?"
I nodded. "Obvious. And?"
"Very well. To continue: I'll assume that your IQ does not take your upshifting into account. Note also that this is not EQ, which has confirmed that my social skills are gravely lacking. To all intents and purposes I am Dr. Moebius surrounded by confused and uncomprehending humans. My room is an attempt to remind me that I came from the same beginning, and even the most brilliant of minds can be blinded to their own fallacies. Talking to you is sometimes like talking to a bright child, and that is only because your upshifting allows you to grant yourself extra time to think about things and react."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, I guess." And here I'd thought I was isolated...
"Let me give you another example. By which adjectives would you most accurately describe my customary speech pattern?"
I had no idea where she was going with this, but the answer was simple: "Verbose. Precise. Needlessly detailed."
She shook her head. "You are correct, correct, and incorrect, respectively. Believe me, Mr. Jubatus, my chosen level of detail is, in fact, a vital necessity. If I know a person I could transfer information to them with a word, a gesture, a smile. It would not be speech, but it would be efficient communication -- too efficient, too lacking in the redundancies with which conventional spoken language is encrusted. Even an eye-blink's lapse of attention on the other person's part could cause him to lose track of the conversation's thread. I almost fell into that trap, a professor realized it and I swore I would never isolate myself. Hence my speech patterns. It is a defensive measure because I am restricted to talking to idiots."
There really wasn't anything more I could say to that, so I changed the subject. "True, but what are you working on that won't let you take a break?"
"The usual. The planned ballistics of our trip; ways to get the cost of the big atom smasher down so that it can actually be built; probability studies for Dr. Summers at MIT; predictive mappings for this year's American League games in the States --"
"Baseball?" I asked, incredulous.
"Drew likes to make bets."
I shook my head. "You need a vacation, lady. Let your vines down, relax."
That got a smile (weak, but a smile natheless) out of her. "That's the problem, Mr. Jubatus. I can't. It's a curse."
Sitting on the bed, I thought about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and wondered if anyone at Ad Astra knew -- or cared -- whether she had it... She continued: "I can't stop thinking. It's a desperate need to be working on a problem, usually many problems simultaneously. Even while we're talking part of me is working through the predictions for Drew. But, if you want me to relax, I could use a break. Just a moment, while I put the terminal to sleep."
Waiting for her to finish, I scanned the room again. This time I noticed some new details, including a small bookshelf over the bed with a bunch of brittle-looking, yellowed SF classics. Foundation; a lot of Poul Anderson, including Brainwave (how appropriate); Heinlein; Niven. Of those I recognized, the most recent was a 2004 edition of Anderson's A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows. 2004, that would be... just before she SCABbed over? More details near the bed: A work table which held a half-painted resin cast of the Babylon 5 station, plus an extensive suite of model-working tools; beside that, a wire-mesh crate half-full of finished spaceship models, mostly from last century's SF movies and TV but with a few real ones. Including the Agamemnon, that'd pranged in the spring...
"If you'll excuse me?"
"Oh -- right. Sorry," I said, moving out of the dryad's way so she could get to the work table. Once there, she picked up a very fine brush and resumed painting hull plate lines on the station. The lines she'd already laid down -- it looked to be thousands of 'em, and at least that many to go.
And the brush moved with mechanical precision, a millimeter at a time.
And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And -- "What do you think you're doing?"
"Relaxing," she said without the least disturbance to her meticulously overexacting work.
"That's what you call 'relaxing'?"
"Exactly so, Mr. Jubatus, " she answered, pausing only to put fresh paint on the brush. "This task is complex enough to take up the majority of my conscious attention."
"And when you're done?"
"Toss it in with the rest." She kept painting. One of the models in the box caught my eye: The NX-01 Enterprise, from the Trek series of that name. Sculpted to an insanely precise level of exacting detail. Ditto for the paint job. And when she was done, all those thousands of tiny lines, all those dryad-hours of intense concentration... she'd just thrown it to the bin.
Hard enough to break off one of the warp nacelles.
"But..." How much of her life had she poured into that one model, only to throw it away? Christ on a sidecar, I'd seen worse models go for thousands of dollars on internet auctions! "These are amazing, why do you..?"
"Mr. Jubatus, they are simply intellectual aids. By working on them, I clear my mind of a problem that has stymied me, allowing me to later come back to it from a fresh perspective. They are quite useful to me."
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
As I absentmindedly responded to Mr. Jubatus' queries, most
of my mind was on the painting. Work at this level of detail requires
a rock steady hand, and extreme control of physical movement,
along with a fine understanding of the fluid dynamics of a paintbrush.
Each panel needed to be meticulously placed, the irregular pattern
of lines exactly straight and mathematically perfect else it would
obviously be wrong. Painting was a study in detail, fine muscular
control, and endless patience. By superimposing my memory of the
station over the model in front of me, it was simply a matter
of painting the lines, though a very finicky and exacting matter.
There was also the subtle shading of the lines to give the plates
a visual depth, not realistic in terms of the scale of the model,
but that 'forced perspective' enhanced the appearance of the miniature
version of the station.
The station. I remembered watching the series, and unfortunately the last season too. Days of dreams and normality when I believed in ideas and scientific possibilities that I now knew were mathematically and physically impossible.
Gravity was like that -- mysterious, misunderstood, but oh so crucial to so many things. And just as impossible until the big atom smasher was finally built, whenever that was. Unless Jubatus was... Ignore that... Concentrate and wait until he was on Brin and there would be time to confirm or deny.
I cleaned off the brush, licked it to a perfect point, and started on the next line.
This wasn't like flying which was an excitement and a dare with continuous peaks of risk, this was calm, predictable, a kind of endless monotony that still required my concentration. Sometimes it almost put me into a trance where I could almost hear my children -- cuttings -- by the window...
Carefully I cleaned the brush, dried it, licked it to a point, and put it in its place. The tone of Jubatus' voice strongly suggested that he would need more of my attention than I could spare. Turning around I saw him holding a model of the NX-01 Enterprise and remembered when Paramount had asked me to be a 'holodeck guest star'. I wouldn't have done it if Ad Astra hadn't insisted. "Did you not tell me to relax Mr. Jubatus?"
"Damn right, and that wasn't 'relaxing'. All you did was trade one treadmill for another."
"It works for me."
The look he gave me was one of purest skepticism. "For a suitably large value of 'works', maybe. Come on, let's head downstairs for the second feature."
"Movies are predictable and so-called 'science' fiction movies are impossibilities, often laughably."
He motioned at the mural. "Every last one of 'em? I know you've seen Forbidden Planet."
"When I was young Mr. Jubatus."
"Then you know they're not all special effects and explosions and 'check your brain at the box office'."
"Your assertion may be technically accurate in a Clintonian sense, Mr. Jubatus, but I've seen them all, and I can perfectly recall them whenever I want, in any scene order I want."
"Fine. How about one you haven't seen?"
"Mr. Jubatus, Hollywood hasn't made anything of any intellectual interest in forty years. I used to try the ones that were recommended by associates, and they never failed to disappoint."
He pointed to the old novels from my youth above my bed. I turned to look; I had them all memorized, if I wanted to I could read any page at any time, but I kept them for their memories of a simpler time.
Grinning smugly, he said, "Bet you haven't seen A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows."
I looked at him for a second, going through all the movies I'd seen over the decades. "Hollywood never made that into a movie. The only Anderson novel they ever defiled was The High Crusade --"
"Naah. Germany, not Hollywood, gets the blame for that one."
I blinked at the interruption. "Be that as it may, The High Crusade is not worth commenting on, certainly no more so than any of the numerous affronts to human intelligence for which Hollywood truly does bear responsibility."
His grin widened. "So who said it was a Hollywood production?"
At that point the computer dinged for my attention. The tone indicated that it had completed another test run on a private problem that I'd been working on for years, likely another false alarm, but you never know. I got up and walked over to the computer and sat down as Jubatus followed.
"What's that?" he asked.
"In 2021, Dr. Saleem Hawkins contracted SCABS and became an inanimorph. In 2023 Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Stein were discussing black holes and apparently Dr. Hawkins turned himself into one. He suddenly vanished, and the fibres on the carpet he was standing on were pulled inward towards a common centre suggestive of the tidal forces of a quantum black hole passing by. In 2033 I detected a gravitic anomaly orbiting about the common centre of mass of the Earth-moon system which I believe is Dr. Hawkins. Since then I've been running backwards extrapolations of the anomaly's current orbit to try and determine if the point of origin matches the date and location where Dr. Hawkins disappeared."
The cheetah blurred in place for a moment, with that odd 'aura' I was coming to regard as characteristic of him. "Sensitive dependence on initial conditions. You honestly think you've got a prayer of success?"
"Given time, yes. It is purely a matter of identifying the one mathematical model which most closely corresponds to reality in this context, and the number of such models which might potentially be valid is, while large, not infinite..." I clicked and pulled up a mathematical plot of the results. "And that was model number 241 proving itself a failure. The data I'm working with is Dr. Hawkins' known position of origin in 2023 and the anomaly's orbital pattern from Jan 1 2035 to Dec 31 2038; by comparing calculated results to the anomaly's actual trajectory on and after Jan 1 2039, and discarding those models which do not match reality, I must necessarily arrive at the correct set of equations. Unfortunately, I haven't had any luck thus far." I plugged in the data for model 242 and started the analysis again. "Eventually I'll get it right. You were talking about bad movies?" I remembered the interesting, but plotwise highly unsatisfying home-made space scenes from the internet when I'd been in university.
"Yeah, but -- that's it? One more down, a subinfinite number to go?"
"Mr. Jubatus, black holes are a theoretical phenomena that even I consider weird. There are thousands of potentially applicable mathematical constructs and this is a private project. If the anomaly is Dr. Hawkins, then he's been there for 16 years and a few more shouldn't make a difference, if he is even there anymore. Einsteinian time dilation may be having an effect, or he may be insane, or he may be a white hole somewhere else. It all depends on what mathematical model you use. Now, as I was saying, movies made outside of Hollywood have yet to impress me."
I could see he wanted to ask further but his eyes flickered to the complex mathematical plot I'd brought up and he decided not to. "Is that so. When's the last time you checked?"
He smiled. "You're up for a years-long trek through the uncharted wilds of darkest Calculus, with no guarantee that the solution you seek even exists, and you don't have the patience to wait for a decent movie?" He shook his head. "Anyway, Knight carbon-dates to 2015. Download it and you will be impressed, or double your money back."
I entered the URL he supplied and started the realtime download -- my logon had long since had the size block removed -- and sat down to watch. It was actually quite good. I knew the story, but the producers had, correctly in my opinion, concentrated on the character interactions rather than the scenes of epic combat and destruction. Their vision of Aycharaych's homeworld was different from mine as I would have added a greater degree of mathematical elegance into the architecture, but that was the limit of my complaints. I even managed to hold Jubatus's hands through the ending.
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