Disclaimer: This stories contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
Author's Note: The weeks when I posted the first chapter I was having severe e-mail issues, which were totally my fault but still they happened, so I sincerely apologize to anybody who might've tried to contact me then but couldn't 'cause of my idiocy. It's fixed now, so the links should work like they're supposed to from here on out. But, at least I got out this part faster than the last one. Enjoy!
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|Running in Place||Part III
The kiss left Sabrin frozen for a moment before he registered what the manically grinning android had just done. "What the hell was that?" he sputtered before he held the back of his hand against his lips. Dreamer's lips were still cold, and combined with their lifelike texture it felt weird, to say the least.
Dreamer put on an obviously faked expression of indignance. His eyes were the same as that of Dreamer's image on the monitors, which had since vanished and been replaced with their normal displays. "I'll have you know I am widely regarded as an excellent kisser."
"Regarded by what? The make-out machine at Anqgo's Bar?" Sabrin scoffed. "I thought I was being kissed by an icicle. I'm just glad my lips didn't get stuck."
"You should be so lucky," Dreamer glared at him. In a graceful, feather-light movement he sprang off the floor and onto his feet. With the android standing, Sabrin noticed that the man was an inch or two taller than his 5'11" and bore a V-shaped tattoo between his collarbones. Dreamer picked up the uniform shirt lying on the floor and pulled it back on, before proffering a hand to Sabrin and giving an exaggerated leer, "If you want warm you're always welcome to come back in a few hours and try it again."
"You're so transparent." Sabrin gripped the hand and allowed himself to be pulled up by the android. "Hey, your plasma gun's gone."
"The engineers thought hiding the gun in non-life-or-death situations would be more diplomatic," Dreamer said, holding up his right hand. He twisted his body and limbs through a range of movements and then performed a backwards somersault over the aft console, landing neatly on his feet behind the pilot's chair. "Nothing seems to be damaged," he commented wryly, eyes sparkling.
Sabrin rolled his eyes at the blatant exhibitionism. "So what now? If I remember correctly you had reasons for all that trouble I just went through."
"Funny, I don't remember that," Dreamer said. Then when Sabrin glared at him again, "Okay okay. Let's see...I should probably give you a tour of the ship first. Wouldn't want you to get lost if we have some sort of emergency. I'm reasonably certain that you know where the bridge is already so...this way," he gestured and walked from the bridge. Sabrin shook his head and followed.
The Dream of Dawn was not a large ship, with five decks and measuring 85 meters from bow to stern. Directly behind the bridge was the conference room, and behind that the twin redundant computer cores. The aft section of the first deck was occupied by a small launch bay with enough space for two personal shuttles, although it was empty ("I gave them away as consolation prizes," Dreamer had said cheekily). Crew cabins filled most of the second and third decks, while a large aft cargo bay spanned both decks and extended into the tail of the ship. The lower two decks were mostly uninhabitable and filled with machinery, including the cylindrical power core and matter/antimatter fuel pods, as well as spaces to stow the jump vane when it was retracted. There were rooms which may have been workshops or labs are one time but have been stripped clean. In fact, Sabrin noticed that there were many parts of the ship which looked unusually sparse. When he asked about it Dreamer had just shrugged and said "It's been a long time since anyone needed them." Sabrin wasn't sure if it was possible but he thought he noticed a trace of sadness in those gold-ring eyes.
They had reached the bowels of the ship and the jump vane monitoring room. When inactive the tip of Dream's folded jump vane extended backwards a little past the cargo section, which, together with the narrow stabilization fins mounted on the outboard ion engine pods, gave the ship a three-pronged tail. Looking around at the displays, Sabrin noticed that the Dream's jump systems were unsually powerful for a ship its size. In fact, the size of the false-matter driver rods and spatial transfer nodes hinted at a ship three times the mass. He recalled something uttered by the officer back at Raal-Dakhir. "Hey, are these engines oversized because this is a 'farship'?"
"Of course," Dreamer looked faintly surprised. "You didn' know?"
"I've never even heard of a 'farship' before," Sabrin said. How could that be? He had studied ships and interstellar travel and never came across such a reference.
"Well, farships are designed to map new jump potentials into unknown systems. This vane can successfully jump at .033% of optimal probability," Dreamer declared with a hint of pride.
Sabrin was impressed. The locations where jumps were possible did not exist as discreet points in space but rather three-dimensional probability distributions. The percentage was a reference to how far from the optimal position the ship could still make the jump with the proper calculations. The Dream's low percentage meant that it could jump with a wide margin of error from the optimal position, a definite advantage if one didn't necessarily know where that position was.
"I thought you would've noticed when we jumped way out of position in the last system," Dreamer said.
"Actually uh...that was my first jump," Sabrin admitted in a slightly embarrassed tone.
"Your first...oh god..." Dreamer sighed and shifted his eyes upwards.
"Hey, better than you!" Sabrin said defensively. Dreamer was staring past him and seemed not to notice. A moment later he turned back to Sabrin with a neutral expression and said, "I thought you'd like to know, Tal's regaining consciousness."
His first waking thought was the abnormal brightness stabbing through the fog. Was he dead, gazing into the Tunnel of Light from those old fables? He felt a hard surface pressing against his shoulder blades and the back of his head. I'm lying somewhere, Tallas' disoriented mind realized. The last thing I remember was sitting at the console on the...bridge... He arched his back off the bed and stretched his arms over his head, testing his stiff muscles. I was starting to feel numb...Sabe was at the controls... Tallas furrowed his brow and twisted his torso, experiencing only a twinge of pain. He could just feel a light, steady tremor around him. I'm on a ship! Did we escape?
With that realization Tallas slowly pushed himself up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He yawned again and stretched more fully, feeling refreshed for the first time in almost five days despite the dull ache from his stunner burn. Holding his hand as a shield against the bright overhead light, he peered at his surroundings. He was startled when he saw the image of a handsome, black-haired man smiling at him from the wall-mounted screen.
"Hi," Dreamer greeted him cheerfully, "I'm the farship Dream of Dawn's artificial intelligence. You can call me Dreamer."
"I...I'm Tallas. Tallas Anderholt. Artificial intelligence? As in a computer?" Tallas asked hesitantly.
"Yup," Dreamer answered. Tallas thought he looked vaguely familiar but couldn't place his recollection. During the excitement on the bridge earlier he hadn't gotten a good look at the gun-wielding stranger. There was also something else besides his appearance, as if seeing the man in front of him was evoking something deep in his memory, tugging at his consciousness. "Though I prefer to think of myself as more than just a computer," Dreamer added.
"If I'm on the farship then...where's Sabrin?" Tallas asked, a brief vein of panic going through his mind that something might have happened to his best friend. "Is he alright?"
"He's his usual ebullient self," Dreamer deadpanned. "In fact he should be here--" Sabrin rushed into the sickbay "right now."
"Tal!" Sabrin skidded to a stop before the other man, looking into the dark brown eyes he'd missed for more than a day. Barely a nanosecond slipped before Sabrin launched himself into Tallas's slim body, engulfing him in a fierce hug. Both their eyes were wet with tears when they finally pulled away. Tallas managed a small laugh when he realized his sorry state, "I guess I should've taken a shower first huh?"
Sabrin giggled a little through his tears, "I don't care." He wiped his eyes. "God I'm so glad you're okay."
"The shower's in the crew quarters. If you'd put your clothes in the chute I can clean them," Dreamer interjected from the background.
"Go away!" Sabrin's joy couldn't be dampened by an A.I.'s inopportune timing. He didn't see the expression of barely restrained mirth plastered on Dreamer's face before the screen blanked. "I hope he didn't scare you," he said seriously.
"Scare? Why would he scare me?" Tallas said. "Actually he's kinda cute."
A small surge of jealousy went through Sabrin when he heard that, but he quickly shrugged it aside. "Well, I mean he's...you know..."
"I don't know what you mean," Tallas looked puzzled.
"You know, nevermind," Sabrin decided that was something they could tackle later. "You should get cleaned up. The showers here are awesome." He led Tallas to one of the crew cabins. "I'll...uh...I'll meet you on the bridge," Sabrin gave his friend another hug and left Tallas alone. Tallas wondered a little about Sabrin's strange behavior just then, but decided it could wait. He entered the bathroom, barely recognizing himself in the mirror, and thought about how Sabrin could stand touching him. He stripped off his coat and shirt, and was in the process of stuffing them into the chute when he heard Dreamer's voice.
"Hold on, Tal."
"What're you doing in here?" Tallas said, his face flushing.
"I just wanted to warn you before you put your clothes in that there's a datadisc in your coat pocket."
A datadisc? Tallas's embarrassment was forgotten as he hastily reached into his soiled coat and retrieved the small translucent square. Stunned, he rolled it around between his fingers. Is this what they were looking for? When they were running he had hardly time to think about why the Orions were after them, and the innocuous little disc was forgotten completely.
"Dreamer, what's on this?"
"I can't tell unless you plug it in," Dreamer answered, "Hey, where're you going?"
Tallas was walking briskly out of the cabin towards the bridge, disc in hand. He saw Sabrin sitting in the conference room, looking at a holographic projection of local space. When Sabrin heard his arrival, he looked up and promptly froze in place, his eyes wide like a deer in headlights.
For the time being Tallas was too caught up in his discovery to notice his friend's reaction. Instead he held up the disc and said, "Look Sabe! This thing was still in my coat!" He tossed the disc onto the table in front of his friend. "The damned disc must've been what the Imps were looking for! They traced it to me, and then when they showed up at my place and I wasn't there, they--" Tallas noticed Sabrin wasn't reacting the way he had anticipated and furrowed his brow. "Did you hear what I said?"
"Oh, uh...yeah. What's on it?" Sabrin managed to close his mouth and sit up. He picked up the disc as though it were an explosive.
"That's what I'm trying to find out!" Tallas said excitedly, snatching the disc back.
"Let me take a look at it then," both of them looked to see Dreamer's avatar arriving through the other door. Tallas almost started, but recovered admirably and slid the disc towards him. "I didn't think I'd ever meet an actual ship's avatar."
"Was it everything you hoped for?" Dreamer asked wryly as he deftly positioned the disc in his left hand, matching its data access port with his forefinger. Invisibly, small optical filaments extended from the digit into the disc. A frown appeared on his face. "It's encrypted. Pretty damned well too; polymorphic encryption locks with integrated recursive algorithms."
"Can you decrypt it?" Tallas asked, his hopes deflating a bit. Neither he nor Sabrin had the technical expertise to accomplish it.
"I think so but it's gonna take a while," Dreamer answered, disconnecting his interface with the disk. "I'll connect it to the mainframe and have a program work on it." He looked up and down Tallas' half-naked body, not unappreciatively. "Like I said, it's gonna be a while. I think maybe you should finish your shower. I don't think ol' Sabe here can take much more if you stay," he raised his eyebrows suggestively at them both.
"Oh yeah...right." Tallas blushed and started back to the ladder. "I'll see you in a little while, 'kay?"
"Why the fuck did you say that for?" a recovered Sabrin punched Dreamer hard on the arm after Tallas disappeared.
"You need to work on your subtlety, loverboy," Dreamer responded. "I could've set fire to your hair and I don't think you would've noticed as long as Tallas was standin' there. Very good taste, by the way."
"It's not like that!" Sabrin stood up angrily and ran a hand through his brown hair. Damn that pesky robot for bringing this up! "He's my best friend. We've known each other since we were kids. We're practically brothers for god's sake."
"There's no use hiding it. I can read your physiometric conditions like a book," Dreamer said.
"You're delusional," Sabrin said coldly, turning around to leave.
"Back there when he appeared, your heart rate increased, your blood vessels dilated, and your breathing became irratic," Dreamer persisted with a Cheshire smile. "Unless you thought he was gonna come at ya with an axe I'd say you're smitten."
"Shut up," to Sabrin's horror his blush was worsening.
"And don't think I didn't notice it happenin' after you woke up in sickbay."
"You don't know what the fuck you're talking about!" Sabrin whirled around and whispered harshly at Dreamer. Recognizing his outburst, he let out a long, shuddering breath. "Why the fuck am I even listin' to a computer program?" he muttered, "I might's well be yelling at the fortune-telling machine down at the arcade."
"Fine," Dreamer's face perceptibly darkened at the last comment. "Live in misery. I said something; I'm done with it." He turned gracefully and vanished down the corridor.
Sabrin leaned against the doorframe and closing his eyes, willing himself to calm down. He thought Dreamer was being over-intrusive but he hadn't intended to lose his temper like that. He certainly didn't think the man was just some mere "computer program." In fact he thought the black-haired A.I. could a bit too human sometimes -- such as right then. And despite his annoying streaks Sabrin couldn't deny what the ship had done for them in helping them escape, and in a short time he had even come to regard the A.I. as a friend. He pushed himself off the wall with a sigh and resolved to apologize at the next opportunity.
Tallas found Sabrin waiting for him after his shower and gave him a lopsided grin. His clothes were clean, and the gash on his forehead was healing nicely. However, there was a ragged hole in his shirt where the stunner struck. Angry, blistered skin was visible on the skin beneath. Sabrin took a look at the wound and winced, "We should take care of that. Maybe there's a dermal bandage in sickbay."
Dreamer's image greeted them when they walked back into the now-familiar confines of sickbay. "There're a few bandages left in the second cabinet from the left, third shelf," he said. There was nothing in his demeanor to suggest his earlier talk with Sabrin.
"Thanks," Tallas smiled and sat down on the surgical bed, "Do you listen to us all the time?"
"In a way yes. As an A.I. I'm an expert at multi-tasking," Dreamer grinned. "I'm always aware of what you're sayin', but strictly speaking I'm not 'payin' attention' unless I choose to. Does that make any sense?"
"Sort of," Tallas said with a still-confused voice. Sabrin returned with a nearly empty box of bandages and tore one from its wrapping. "I, uh, need to put this on," he said quietly.
Tallas obligingly pulled up the back of his shirt, exposing his smooth, pale skin. He sucked in his breath as he felt Sabrin's fingertips gently brace the translucent, elastic material over the wound. The burn stung when the bandage made contact, and then there was a cool numbness as the analgesics in the material took effect. In a matter of days, the artificial enzyme matrix on the bandage would repair the skin, leaving no scar. Sabrin lightly rubbed his hands over the slick material, ensuring that the heat-sensitive adhesive took effect. His fingers made slow circles on the bandage, pressing here and there, but not daring to venture outside it.
Silently, Tallas turned his head to catch Sabrin's blue eyes. Sabrin grew uncomfortable under that penetrating gaze and withdrew his hands. "That should do it," he whispered in the thick quiet of the room, his face only inches from Tallas' face but unable to move. Tallas never broke eye contact, as if he was searching for something inside Sabrin's soul, and Sabrin began to sweat beneath that searchlight scrutiny. Thankfully Dreamer chose that moment to walk through the door.
"Hey guys, everything go okay?" he asked.
"Oh sure, yeah," Sabrin stepped away from the center table and cleared his throat. "Well, unless there's something more pressing I think we should sit down and figure out what to do next."
"Good idea. Conference room?" Dreamer suggested and Tallas nodded in agreement.
On the way Tallas thought about what had happened back in sickbay. In the past few years he had become adept at concealing himself from his best friend, as much as it pained him to do so. However, with the rest of his life in smoking ruins back on Astral-Ishasa, Tallas discovered that much of his resolve had gone with it. He had nearly fainted when he felt Sabrin's comforting touch on his back, and his warm breath caressing his neck. Right then Tallas had came to within a hair's breadth of throwing it all away, when he delved into those dazzling sapphire eyes. Tallas silently chided himself for being so reckless. Everything else in his life was gone; he couldn't afford to lose his best friend too.
Once Dreamer began his report on the condition of his ship body, it became rapidly evident to Sabrin and Tallas, seated on the opposite side of the long conference table, that their predicament was precariously close to disaster. The rotating holographic display of the farship projected above the table was awash in alarming yellows and reds, and as the android talked he gestured to different sections and brought up additional display panels.
Since Dreamer re-established contact with his complement of maintenance drones, most systems on the ship were being restored to full efficiency. Unfortunately, the work was slowed by the fact that nearly half of the drones were malfunctioning, off-line, or missing altogether. More serious were the number of degraded and failed components which could not be repaired by the ship's automated systems, as well as the Dream of Dawn's critical consummables shortage. Dreamer projected that they only had enough antimatter to last through four, possibly five more jumps. Their deuterium supplies, which fed the three fusion reactors that powered every other onboard system, were also depleted. Someone had obviously ransacked the ship previously for equipment, leaving only the most basic amenities. Finally there was the issue of food, as Dreamer only had the facilities to synthesize basic rations, and after Sabrin sampled one he quickly concluded that it was a problem of utmost urgency.
By the end of the report, Sabrin was picturing them burning a fiery trail across space after the next jump, while Tallas was idly tracing patterns on the glassy surface of the conference table. "The bottom line is," Dreamer said to the two of them after switching off the holographic display, "we need replacement supplies and parts soon, or else we end up a derelict space popsicle a few months down the line." His black and gold eyes were set in total solemnity, in stark contrast to the effusive personality he previously presented.
"That's all well and good, but neither of us has any money to buy supplies, or hire a repair crew, or even to pay planetside docking fees, and I haven't seen anything around here that's worth a tachyon coil or a M/AM regulator," Sabrin said in a discouraged voice. "And I don't think two first-year cadet fugitives from Orion are that employable -- not for the kind of cash you're talking about -- unless we want to deal with the Guilds."
"We might's well give up right here if we're gonna do that," Tallas responded vehemently.
"I'm with him," Dreamer added, "the Guilds are nothing but a horde of back-stabbing murderers and thieves."
Sabrin sighed, there was an option he'd considered but which left a bitter taste in his mouth. Still, they were not endowed with a wealth of choices at the moment. "Well, we could...jump to a neutral system and sell the ship," he said, somewhat hesitantly.
"Excuse me?" Dreamer's incredulous voice was mirrored by the expression on his face.
"I know it's not pleasant, but we have to consider that there may be no way for us to maintain this ship," Sabrin attempted to explain his reasoning to the rapidly darkening A.I., "and if that's the case, then we can at least all stay alive, if not together."
"No, you two'll survive, and I'll be dismembered and sold off piece by piece," Dreamer's face was contorted into a strange combination of fury and sadness.
"We'll make sure that won't happen," Sabrin said, not quite managing to convince himself. Starship transactions were practically an entire branch of the economy in itself amongst the teeming starlanes and in truth he had little idea what the fate of Dream would be after they signed the papers. He hated what he was obviously doing to Dreamer, especially after his prior outburst, but he forced himself to assume the realist role and pressed on. "You have to admit it's better than all of us dying when we run out of gas."
"I don' believe this," Dreamer's body slumped and he brushed a hand roughly through his black hair. He turned back to Sabrin with eyes ablaze, "After I saved both your asses back there on that sun-blasted rock you're just gonna dump me and go?"
"It's not like--" Sabrin was becoming incensed himself. The last time he checked, he and Tallas were the ones who piloted them out of Astral-Ishasa.
"We're not selling the ship," Tallas' loud, but even voice interrupted the brewing argument. He looked back and forth between his two companions. "We started this thing together, and it's only fair that we end it together."
The small amount of anger Sabrin gathered melted away as he looked into Tallas' shapely face. Dreamer seemed defused as well, as he dropped wearily into a chair. Sabrin was not entirely sure that androids could experience fatigue, but the Dream's avatar certainly crafted a passable facsimile. "You're right, Tallas," Sabrin said carefully, "Um...what are we going to do then?"
"Well...couldn't we salvage this stuff from somewhere? Most wrecks are de facto unclaimed right?" Tallas asked.
"By interstellar convention yeah, except there are dozens of salvage teams in every sector scourin' for those gold mines. We'd need some sort of miracle to find one that hasn't been picked clean," Sabrin said.
"And it just so happens, I know a place," Dreamer said with an indiscernible expression on his face.