Well here we go. Like I said in the Preview this is what turned out to be my NaNoWriMo project although the motivation for writing this is because I have for years been building a vast story setting through free form RP and idle day dreaming and I finally felt I should put finger to keyboard. This is not a "typical" Fembot story and is perhaps better classified as a Sci Fi Adventure story with strong Transhumanist and Transformation themes along with a dash of horror, world building and humor. That being said the main character is a synthetic female human and there are no fewer than 5 other female synthetics that make an appearance so I think it should at least clear some bar :wink:
The Setting is that of The United Federation of Alternate Worlds, which as you might suspect is a large civilization that spans many alternate realities. Synthetic persons are common. Some realities have human societies that are composed entirely of synthetic female humans, both for good or ill. Given the fair amount of background information I took a page out of the SF&F playbook and wrote up some In Universe background material that takes the form of an Information Pamphlet the UFAW hands out when it moves in to "assist" a less advanced society. It should provide you with a few chuckles in its own right.
A Visitor's Guide to the Multiverse
I will also take the step by providing a reference pic (NSFW!) for the main character, Serena. There are slight differences in that she has slightly darker hair and is a bit more athletic in build.
I welcome ALL feedback, especially since I was not able to find someone able to give the story a close read with a second set of eyes. Feel free to ask any questions about the setting and yes it works well for crossovers or incorporating other settings. I am also looking for anyone interested in RPing in this setting as that's where a lot of the ideas come from. I know he's probably gone forever, but I would once again like to mention Technophile in his work on the Interlink civilization. You can expect about 12 parts total, but that might shrink as the editing isn't taking so long and I plan to break it as the plot dictates. Again no need to wait until the end for comments. If you are disappointed by the lack of your favorite type of "content", feedback generates future stories! However be warned, I got burned including overly explicit material in the last story I wrote for this site so in the future I am always going to err on the side of "tasteful".
EDIT: A revised version of the story is not located at the following link. It incorporates changes suggested during the original run.
So without further ado here is "Extracted".
Serena stood in the forest covered neck to foot in slick black lightweight armour. The sun shone through the fall canopy lighting up her dark blonde hair as a light rain of yellow leaves fell around her. From somewhere in the trees she heard a voice, someone was in trouble. She took off running at high speed, her feet barely touching the forest floor.
"Help! Help me!"
It was a man, a hunter, rifle to one side, his leg pinned under a fallen tree. Serena pulled up and surveyed the scene. The task would be trivial considering her great strength. She bent down and lifting with her legs, hefted the great trunk off the man, tossing it to one side. The hunter still out of breath from his ordeal acknowledged the synthetic woman with a nod.
"Don't worry sir, you'll be ok."
Before she could bring the hunter to his feet Serena heard another call for help. Turning, she instinctively ran toward it, the forest giving way to a rough moonscape and the air became noxious and thin. Smoke rose from the distance. Covering the distance to the sound's origin she found a crashed shuttle and through one of the windows she saw a young reptilian alien pounding on the window.
"I'm here…just let me figure out what to do."
Serena went about the shuttle devising a plan to rescue the family trapped inside when suddenly from behind her a red ball of plasma hit the ground nearby sending a shower of dirt and debris into the air. Serena reacted instantly rolling into cover and morphing her arm into a blaster rifle. A shiny silver humanoid male pattern stood nearby, a smoking energy weapon in its grasp. It fired again, and again. Serena returned fire, ducking and weaving to get closer, scoring multiple hits on its living metal exterior, blowing off arms and legs and finally putting a shot between its eyes.
She turned back to the crashed shuttle only to find in its place a human family cowering before a skeletal robot, its hard metal manipulators around the neck of the father. The woman let out a cry as it crushed man's neck and tossed the corpse aside. Serena raised her weapon and opened fire, slagging the robot, but more appeared. Serena dashed in, putting herself between the oncoming bots and the survivors.
"Stay behind me! I'll protect you!"
Serena fired until her weapons began to overheat and her own internal power supplies began to dwindle. Just as the horde of robots seemed to be abating Serena was hit from the side by some sort of hot energy blast, tossing her body into the air where it proceeded to land against a rock. She had suffered significant damage, one arm missing as sparks and fluid shot from her shoulder. The multi limbed mecha approached to finish her off, but she raised her other arm, changing it into an armour piercing plasma bolt gun and shot bolt after bolt into the mech until it collapsed in a smoking pile of scrap. She had only a second to relax before another mecha appeared from on top of the large rock she was against. She raised her arm to fire, but her ammunition had been depleted. The mech's front mounted energy weapon charged and fired.
Serena's eyes opened, it had taken 38 seconds from the time her internal alarm had activated to the time her consciousness had roused from its slumber, a new record high. Staying motionless on the bed she stared up at the ceiling, a mix of alternate vision modes kicking in to dispel the darkness and allow her to carry out the first of the long list of tasks that had built up in her queue. She let out a sigh and in a single movement tore off the covers and slid her feet over the side of the bed, jumping up to a standing position. She looked back, the pattern of disorder in the bedding combined with a latent weariness tipped Serena off that she'd had another bad night, but her most recent package of tweaks had fortunately prevented any of the nightmares from registering with her conscious mind.
Looking around her bedroom Serena let out a sigh as the Spartan décor seemed to drain away any excitement that she had for the new day. Bare be even the standards of her own kind, Serena was becoming convinced that her choice of accommodations was bumming her out on several levels.. Never much one for the typically feminine pursuits of fashion and home decor, Serena had already forsworn the generous accommodations typically provided to an officer of her rank, but could still never find the motivation to properly equip even the smaller space. Reaching the dresser she shook her slightly tussled dirty blonde hair getting it to fall perfectly over her bare shoulders. Standing before the mirror, her hands working on autopilot to tie back her hair for the day's activities, Serena contemplated her synthetic body as the morning light began to leak in between the slats of the venetian blinds. The 5 foot 10 inch construct of advanced polymers and alloys was a better than perfect simulation of a biologic human body. Her firm athletic build was ready for anything she might encounter on the job, but not in such a way that might potentially turn off any potential partner, or adversary. Her skin was light enough to not stand out too badly from the pallor of a long duration spacer, but tanned enough to look at home on any beach. Even her breasts were designed with an impossible firmness that allowed for full freedom of movement even without external support.
Even though the all-female race of synthetic humans colloquially known as Sisters had their cybernetic shells built in factories, most Sisters still took great pride in maintaining both their performance and physical appearance. For Serena a few moments contemplating her naked self in the mirror was all it took to chase away the gloomy clouds that sometimes seeped into her waking mind. After finishing with her hair and making sure everything else was in order Serena began to look around the room for the armour that she had carelessly tossed aside the night before. Sisters had a not altogether unwarranted obsession to protect their core systems from from both physical and technical attack and just seven years earlier spending a whole night in the buff would have been unthinkable for Serema. However ever since transitioning her mind from a code-based AI matrix chip to a natural intelligence type neurocrystal lifted the threat of being wiped out by an rm –rf command Serena took it as a point of pride to be able to kick off her armour or simply wear it in ways that would make younger members of her race cringe. Still, as the android girl sat there idly running the smooth black nanoweave material through her fingers, she couldn't help but note that her morning preparation time had increased between 5 and 10 percent in each of the years since her change.
Stepping into the suit she pulled it up, sliding the arms through the openings and fitting it over her shoulder. Immediately the suit compressed around her torso covering her completely all the way up to her neck. Selecting one of her custom patterns the material began to flow about, exposing her midriff and taking the shape of a shiny black two piece athletic outfit with the excess concentrating along the full length of her spine in a series of semi-rigid plates. Serena got a perverse joy in using an otherwise "useless" fantasy armour design to store her combat gear in the least obtrusive way possible and once she felt that the change had completed she sent the suit the command to bond to her body and pass through all tactile feedback. After putting on a spacer jumpsuit Serena threw a few extra items into her bag and checked her various message systems in case any of the details for her trip had changed. Finding no updates she grabbed her kit and hurried off to the base transport center.
At 0615 hours local time the transport center was virtually deserted with just a handful of guards and technical staff manning the facility. Sized to accommodate mass deployments and mobilizations the facility had a post financial crisis vibe to it during normal operations. Walking into the room Serena stopped and stared at the artwork that had suddenly replaced the government issue white wall. A floor to ceiling circular seal with the words "Synthetic Lifeform Intelligence and Response Team" emblazoned around the edge sat on a dark blue background. In the middle a robotic eagle was emerging from a portal, a scanning array in one talon, an EMP blaster in the other.
"You like it? I like it," said the only other person in the room.
"I can't believe they got it up so fast. I only approved the design the day before yesterday."
"Hasn't anyone told you we are "hot shit" these days?"
Serena dropped her bag and took a seat next to the stack of info tablets, picking one up logging into her social profile. Across from her a hulking beast of a synth sat across three seat positions, his vaguely humanoid limbs and torso had the appearance of dull blue-grey metal and the consistency of tree trunks. The head was little more than a lump sitting on top of the shoulders with a triangular array of sensory nodes that could themselves light up to display various facial "expressions".
"Forget to calibrate your optics this morning?"
"Nah, I just like having something to do with my hands and besides, I don't want to be a hypocrite when I complain about people who just sit around hooked up to the net looking zoned out." There was a brief pause as Serena was momentarily distracted by one of the news blurbs. "So where are you headed to L'orn? I didn't know you were tasked on anything today."
"There's a nano-swarm killing people on some mining colony so it stands to reason that I'm going to get called in to deal with it. You know just because I'm one myself doesn't mean I'm any more effective at going after them." L'orn's lights changed to the color of sarcasm.
"What do you mean by that? I always try to schedule….oh, wait," Serena closed her eyes, touching her forehead with her fingertips. "I don't do that anymore do I."
"What's the matter Colonel, not used to having underlings?"
"Don't remind me," Serena sighed. "I'll talk to, um, Captain Martinez, make sure he gets a better handle on tasking. Sorry I'm out of the loop, but he moved the schedule to a network I don't have PKI for and to get it have to do an in-person visit."
"Ah, with great responsibility comes great irritation. If you don't mind my asking where are you off to?" L'orn inquired, his lights turning blue.
"I've got a school bus run over on Earth 537. Yale was conducting an archeological survey over on one of the outer arms of the Gamma Quadrant in Milky Way 15,278. They found a Network portal and of course you know that Federation security directive S-3779441A requires the presence of personnel certified in the synthetic lifeform containment protocol any time a new Network node is discovered. Skie was going to handle it, but apparently he got pulled off for a priority mission. I owe the principal investigator a favor so I decided to suit up and get my hands dirty." Serena exhaled and rolled her eyes. "I swear, I stop running the tasking for one week and everything goes to hell."
"To solve one great mystery Lt Aryria was assigned to my mission. I apologize if I somehow played a hand in disrupting your plans."
"No no L'orn, Martinez made the right call. We can't take unnecessary risks with nano swarms. Better safe than sorry and all that. Besides, what's a commander for than to take the jobs her subordinates don't want to do?" Serena glanced down at her tablet. "Oh, they're paging me." She put it down and picked up her gear before turning back to the synth. "Stay safe out there ok? You're only invulnerable until you aren't."
Walking up to the raised her hand to the NFC reader and verified her identity to the tech.
"Hello Colonel Hanford, you're portal is ready, #4 to the left."
Serena thanked the tech and walked over to the 4th bay, a shimmering doorway of light at the end. Like any other veteran commuter Serena didn't even break her stride, sliding through the energy boundary and appearing out the other side in a completely different location in a completely different reality.
"Welcome to the Yale-New Haven Interstellar Spaceport Colonel, you're connecting transportation is located at pad 12. Any of the yellow scootabouts are available for your convenience."
Serena had flown out of New Haven once before and it had only gone downhill since then. The terminal was mostly filled with portal commuters paying the premium fare to get to New York City in a fraction of a second or to more distant locations where some hedge fund might have an investment opportunity. Still, with increasing VR use travel was way down and the scores of shuttered storefronts and kiosks in and around the gate area attested to the challenging economics of people physically moving from place to place. Throwing her bag into one of the small autonomous vehicles that had dutifully queued up for connecting travelers she was relieved when it pulled away without making her share the journey with some civie tourist or businessman. The doors clicking shut for both safety and security purposes, the scoot shot out onto the apron at high speed, negotiating a safe path through the various intra and extra atmospheric craft that puttered around the terminal area. The airport was still busy enough with private craft, charters and cargo operations and in the distance the gleaming towers of both the city and the University rose up into the sky as jumpers buzzed about picking up and delivering loads from various rooftops. Looking to pass the time Serena pulled up some Yelp reviews to see how well they matched up to her current observations of the airport. By the time she reached the pad her mood was much improved buoyed by the humor of crowds and eager to meet old friends.
The pad was one of the older ones surrounded on three sides by large concrete blast deflectors of the type that were common before force fields were available. Although obsolete, pad 12 and those like it enjoyed continued use for those flights needing special handling or security arrangements. Sitting in the middle of the pad with plenty of room to spare was an old Orion II class scout ship of 2,500 tonnes standard displacement. The rear loading ramp was down to provide access to the multi-mission cargo hold which occupied the rear half of the central part of the hull with engineering amidships and crew quarters forward. The ship design incorporated limited aerodynamics with two large main engines set just outside of the hull at the root of two stub wings which had a span about one half the length of the ship. The navigation cockpit was set up high on the front of the ship with a docking bay set up for boarding hostile or derelict ships below it in the bow. Twin tail fins extended upward from either side of the cargo bay with a faded civilian registration sharing space with freshly applied military insignia representing the university and nation state. Written on the rear hull just above the cargo door was "WS SLEEPING GIANT - New Haven, CT :: 537". The scoot pulled right up to the rear of the ship and as Serena opened the door to get out a rather high pitched voice called out to her.
"Wait! Hold the door!"
Serena held the door to the scoot open as a 7 foot tall Neogryphon hustled out of the cargo bay, the holographic patterns embedded in his smooth shiny metallic hide casting rainbow reflections in the sunlight.
"Skie! What the hell are you still doing here? L'orn's already in the transport terminal and you still have to swap into a combat body and kit up. I'm going to chalk this up to the new scheduling system, but I can't have one of my officers strolling in late for a mission."
The anthro gryphon tossed his bag into the scoot so that it wouldn't leave on its own and turned to face his CO.
"I'm sorry Colonel, but they didn't give me enough time to wrap up my training session and prep work. Would have thrown the mission down the tubes if I hadn't. I was thinking I could just portal direct from here to meet L'orn at the operating base," said Skie, his falcon pattern eyes locked on Serena.
"Go back and get changed first. I heard how many credits you dropped on that new hide of yours and its bad luck for you to go take that on a mission."
"Since when do Sisters believe in luck?"
"Since when do I speak for my people anymore? Just go use #5, that's got the least amount of wear and tear on it. By the way Skie, you look absolutely phenomenal. Is that a custom pattern or what?" asked Serena as she slowly circled the Neogryphon, admiring the zebra stripes running along his back and wings interspersed with blue and white.
"It's a Hudson's Hawk. Discovered just a few years ago on Earth 53,045. You know I never really liked my leopard spots so I just dumped them and went with a complete avian pattern. Why should the Phoenixes have all the fun?"
"Well aren't you a special snowflake. By the way there are still spots on your tail."
"Ah…well you know what I mean. Listen like you said I have to get going," said Skie as he began to cram himself into the scoot causing the suspension to visibly sag.
"Good luck Lieutenant and watch yourself. You Neos are expensive to fix."
Skie waved goodbye as the scoot returned to the terminal leaving Serena to carry her gear up into the ship.
Two young humans, a man and a woman, stood in the cargo bay taking turns to pass up various hard shell cases to an older woman standing on a rolling stairway unit. All three were wearing shore activity jumpsuits and back support braces and were in a lively mood as they prepared for their voyage despite the physical drudgery .
"So what happened next professor?" asked the girl with short cut black hair.
"Well the whole room started glowing and the floor started shaking. It turns out it wasn't a temple at all, but a sentient scout ship that had crash landed 8,000 years before and just sort of got covered up by the jungle. So we try the usual methods of communication, but for all we like to think of ourselves this ancient living ship probably perceived us as little more than insects. Anyway it's becoming increasingly clear that nap time is over and the ship has places to go and people to see. So we just start running as fast as we can for the exit and we get out just…I mean just in time because 10 seconds after we had cleared the hatch this HUGE structure starts lifting up out of the jungle with trees and vines and all sorts of stuff still on it. The sound is just deafening, even in the EV suits it was just pounding through our bodies, but the sight of that thing lifting up was just mesmerizing. We just sat there watching in awe as this, had to be kilometer long ship just lazily turned in mid air. Next thing we know the rear engines start glowing and, pfst, its gone and the only evidence it was ever there was the huge hole it left in the ground."
"Are you kidding me?" the girl exclaimed, "I can't believe that sort of thing happened to you. It must have been incredible."
"Wait, wait, that's not the end of the story. So anyway we're all standing there and Lars, that was you Lars right?"
The guy with the crew cut light hair and round face smiled. "Yeah, that was me."
"So Lars was like…"Where're the Tents?" and I'm sitting there like "oh fuck" because we had built the base camp on top of the ship so when it took off it took our entire camp with it. I mean our tents, our gear, almost all the data we had collected, everything. To this day I always get a chuckle thinking about how somewhere out in the multiverse there's this hyper intelligent ship flying around with all of our stuff on its hull."
"How'd you get home?" the girl asked.
"Fortunately we had remembered our emergency beacons and were able to make an I-Dim call to the nearest lifesaving station, so if you're wondering why I'm always on you about safety that's the reason."
"Why don't you tell them the one about the Golem we ran into on Honza V," chimed in Serena.
The older woman looked over at Serena, her dark grey pony tail flying around from the swiftness of the movement just before her conventionally attractive face broke out in ebullient smile.
"Serena! By the ancestors what brings you here!" the woman exclaimed, jumping down from the top of the rolling stairway and running over to the android girl, embracing her with unrestrained enthusiasm.
"Woah woah, easy now. Come on, do you think I would let the great Doctor Lupa Whitepaw's latest expedition get cancelled due to a stupid bureaucratic mix up?"
Lupa stepped back, still smiling. "Well Major Serena Hanford I am honored that you would be so caring as to handle my problem in such a personal manner."
"Actually that Colonel Hanford now, they've uh, pushed me upstairs a little."
"Oh, you're a Colonel, very impressive. Well I will have you know that you are looking at the David H. Koch Professor of Extraterrestrial Archeology."
"I see we've both done well for ourselves. I'm sorry I didn't stay in closer contact, but as you can guess I've been pretty busy."
"Likewise, here, I want you to meet my latest crop of graduate students. This is Sarah Hong and Lars Ulfberht. Sarah is in her second year and Lars plans to defend next May."
"Pleased to meet you," said Serena, shaking both their hands in turn. "So which Earth are you two from?"
"Right here," said Lars, "537."
"No shit. Lupa, how did you get these two "Class V kiddies" out of their VR tubes? You did tell them they might get dirty right?"
"Not everyone on the core worlds is a VR addict Serena," Lupa interjected. "In fact they are both in the ROTC program. I actually insist on that for all of my graduate students. You won't believe how many times I have had the security detachment fuck things up on a sensitive expedition. As reserve officers my students will be able to command the security forces directly."
"How do you want to handle things on the mission?" asked Serena, looking at Lupa, but glancing towards her students.
"I was hoping that you would help them get some training hours in by securing the area and related duties, but I will need them for the survey work."
Serena nodded. "Alright you two, when you're done here I want a full briefing on everything you've done so far. How about once we get through the portal and underway to our destination?"
"Yes sir," both responded in unison before saluting and going off get the rest of the gear loaded.
Serena turned and smiled back at her old friend. "Well here we are again. Do you know how much of a pain in the ass you were for me? I had the University provide me with a clone if your e-mail inbox just so I could keep up with you!"
"You what?!" gasped Lupa, her eyes going wide.
"After the Atlantis incident the Fed wanted to shut you down for being a loose cannon, but I got them to back down with a personal promise to monitor your activities."
"So that's why you kept showing up on all my expeditions! I should have known you were up to something sneaky, but I never could read you very well back in the day, at least not like I can't now."
"Oh great, another downside of being an Elder. I can't lie as effectively as I used to."
"Oh Serena! Don't talk like you're some old racehorse. "Less able to be a sociopath" is a positive life development. Come on, let me show you around the ship. This is the cargo bay where we do most of the actual research. The old Orion II's were multi-mission ships so everything slides in and out on rails. If, let's say, exobiology comes back from a mission we can get things turned around in under 24 hours."
"So all this junk is yours?" said Serena looking around at the various cargo pods stacked around the bay.
"Yeah, we just had to spend a lot of leftover grant money before the end of the fiscal year and I'm hoping the other departments won't care that I just left some of it on the ship," said Lupa, crossing her fingers. "The engineering spaces are those those large hatches there and there. All the major power components can be slid out through the cargo bay without having to cut the ship apart. We're just going to head up that tunnel between them to the main deck which has the galley and other common living areas. Oh I also want to introduce you to my new exchange student."
Lupa lead Serena through the tunnel and into the multi purpose compartment on the main desk that served as meeting room and mess. One of the tables had been unfolded and a single female felinoid sat there performing a functions check on a pile of com units, scanners and personal data terminals. For a moment Serena figured she was just some strange species of alien due to the mix of leopard head, tiger stripes and jaguar spots set on a pelt that was orange on her back, yellow on the arms and white on the legs. However Serena soon noticed the exact way the girl was interacting with the pile of technology.
"Is she a synth?" whispered Serena running an ID request which returned a strange string of numbers that she couldn't make sense of.
"Yup," replied Lupa.
"Her body is flawless. Where did you find her?"
"Why don't you just ask?" Lupa raised her voice. "Fiona, why don't you come over here and meet our new security assignee?"
The feline girl got up and glided over to Serena and Lupa with a quality of movement in the same league as the techno-biologic Neos.
"Hello Serena, pleased to make your acquaintance. You already saw my real name, but I generally go by Fiona for convenience."
"Real name…" mumbled Serena, confused for a moment before she let out a little gasp. "You're….you're from the Link!"
"I'm surprised the commander of the SLIRT would have never met one of my people before."
"Oh well I mean I have, but, informally, at conferences and the like. The Link never really caused us any problems so one might say that my lack of familiarity actually says good things about your people."
"Very diplomatic Serena, but if you'd like to talk about the Interlink some time feel free to drop by my room. Unfortunately right now I have to deal with this pile of troublesome tech."
"That sounds like a plan," said Serena. I'll catch you later."
"Colonel, would you mind joining me in my quarters? I have some administrative tasks that need to be attended to," Lupa said with a bit of a wink.
"It would be my pleasure professor."
The quarters were about the size of a small bedroom with the bed, desk and storage cabinets set up against the walls and a pair of chairs left to roll about the remaining space. All six sides of the room were bare metal, just like everything else inside the ship with the appointments being constructed from lightweight composites. A plush area rug covered the diamond hash patterned floor.
"I saw your name on the door Lupa, I thought you were just bumming a ride?"
"My department owns half the annual at-space days associated with the contract and I'm the department chair. The Captain was nice enough to throw in a permanent space so I wouldn't have to always be packing my stuff on and off."
"All you need to do now is find a way to get this out of that nasty spaceport and you're all set."
"Yale does need a new interstellar spaceport. Care to make a donation?"
"Sorry, I'm already spoken for. My university needs more RAM."
Lupa chuckled while Serena quietly sank into a chair. Lupa proceeded to open one of the lockers and produced a bottle of scotch and another entirely metal bottle with a blue radiation symbol on the side. Dropping a few chilled whisky stones into a glass she poured in a double shot of the 15 year old single barrel before uncapping the other bottle and pouring a similar amount of a glowing electric blue liquid into another. She handed the glowing glass off to Serena before raising her own.
"Here's to old friendships," said Lupa.
"Cheers," replied Serena before taking a long sip of the liquid, coughing a bit as it went down. "Damn, that's…strong stuff, interesting profile. So you really keep a bottle of glow on hand just in case I show up?"
"You know my luck on expeditions. I figured I'd run into you again sooner or later."
"Glow only has a half life of 18 months, how did you keep it so strong?" said Serena, taking a lighter sip.
"I found a place to stick the bottle inside the shielding near one of the main plasma ducts. I freshen it up every time I go out in the Giant."
"Well explains why it tastes like such a complex blend. So anyway, who's the captain on this tub?"
There was suddenly a strange shimmering in the middle of the room as a scantily clad woman appeared out of thin air. Serena thought she recognized the image from a recent swimsuit catalogue.
"Oh so I'm a tub now am I?"
Serena rolled her eyes and took another drink. "Oh no, now I've done it! Looks like I've gone and insulted the ship. You'd better protect me Lupa before I get sucked out a "malfunctioning" airlock."
Lupa laughed. "Serena, meet the ship's AI, Bea. Bea, this is our new security attaché."
"Charmed," said Bea. "I'll have you know that my husband and I put a lot of work into making sure we provide only the highest level of service to the University."
"Husband?" said Serena, a quizzical expression on her face, her inhibitions rapidly falling.
"Yeah, Thomas Dunn, captain of the Sleeping Giant," Lupa answered.
Serena's eye went wide, "What? They can do that?"
"As a sentient being I am entitled to equal protection under the law and that mean's I can form a mutual agreement with another sentient being to marry," stated Bea, clearly a veteran at having this sort of conversation.
"Well yeah, but why would you want to marry your captain? Don't most of those guys tend to have borderline unhealthy relationships with their ships to begin with? I mean that's where the term "shipping" came from."
"It's not unhealthy is the ship talks back you know," Bea winked. "Besides as his spouse our operation becomes classified as a family business which means I am no longer an employee and therefore am no longer subject to labor laws and regulations. That means that we don't have to deal with all bullshit involving mandatory personal time off, downtime, maintenance plans, the list goes on and on. If we followed every last law it would cut our operating profit by 25% for almost no real benefit to me, ostensibly the person the laws are trying to protect."
"Yeah, screw the government and their rue-els," snickered Serena, raising her glass one more time and draining the last of the blue glowing liquid.
"Alright, you've clearly had enough," said Lupa before she turned back to Bea. "It's probably a stealth way to project the jobs of single thread consciousness workers. I mean normally a ship like this would need a full time crew of what? 4? 5? You and your husband threw up some holo-emitters and achieve nines of service with just two. Thanks to those cost savings you're little ship here has been a godsend to my department and my research."
"So what do you think of the little Linker out there? Cute isn't she," said Serena, changing the topic.
"Cute? Hardly, she's creepy that's what she is," scoffed Bea, clearly unsettled about something.
Serena turned to Lupa. "Watch out Lupe, AI's griping about other architectures can get ugly."
"She's not an AI, she's a virus!" Bea stated with some emphasis.
"There was a little incident last week when Fiona came aboard," sighed Lupa.
"Incident?! She violated me!" said Bea, getting indignant.
"What happened?" asked Serena.
"Fiona uplinked into the Ship's data systems and accidently went through some of Bea's more personal areas." Lupa turned back to the hologram. "Bea, when Linked go places they load themselves into the available computing resource at the end of the journey. It was simply a cultural misunderstanding."
"I have to have a certain level of trust in people who have physical access to…" Bea waved her arms about, "…Me. Your little catgirl friend violated that trust and she violated my privacy."
"Bea I know you record everything that goes on in here. I mean everything. I'm going to cash that one in right now and we're going to call things even, ok?"
Bea suddenly blushed like she had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar and the hologram vanished. Lupa smiled at Serena. "Fiona told me that. Ships with glass hulls eh?"
"Drama drama everywhere eh? I feel bad for the Captain and Lars."
"They tend to lock themselves in the cockpit on the longer journeys."
"Speaking of which," said Serena getting up and wobbling a bit on her feet, "I'm going to need to have a talk with the captain about the mission profile. I guess I'll see you at dinner."
"Remember, three points of contact Serena."
"Permission to enter the bridge Captain," said Serena as she stood on the new vertical stairway into the Giant's cockpit.
Serena continued up and squeezed herself into the second seat, her eyes making a quick scan of the controls for future reference. Almost all the ships systems were represented on large multi-function displays with analogue or single function controls only where required by law. Captain Dunn sat to the right in the helmsman's position checking a list of hand written numbers hastily scrawled on a notepad against that was listed on the screen. The Captain was tall and thin with a paleness typical of spacers who spent too much time under artificial light or no light at all. His face had about 2 or 3 days worth of stubble with a few streaks of grease on his cheeks and forehead. He wore an HMCS Hyperion baseball cap from his time in the Forces.
"Well it's an honor to meet you Colonel Hanford. After hearing so many stories about you from the professor, some more than once, it's good to be able to put a face to the holo."
"Well it's my pleasure to be here. You have a wonderful ship. In fact I met her earlier."
"It's hard not to," he chuckled. "I trust you learned of our arrangement?"
"What can I say," said Serena. "Love the one you're with."
"I like you already. So, you're here to protect us in case we unearth some sort of alien robot army?"
"If protect means hauling my ass back to the ship then sure. Any world associated with the Network stands an elevated risk of containing some very grumpy synthetics. I'm just here to keep everyone safe by shouting "Run!"."
There was a brief period of silence as the Captain completed his cross checking. Serena gazed out the thick view port at a seagull strutting about on the blast deflector positioned in front of them.
"So, you work for the Incident Response Team? That sounds like an exciting job."
"Intelligence and Response, comma, Team. They changed the name because some desk jockey thought the old one had a negative connotation. Yeah, you can say it's exciting, although we all wish it were less so. When your mission is to prevent all out war with highly advanced synthetic races the less "excitement" the better. Honestly, the excitement of discovering the ancient history of an Andromeda galaxy seems much more healthy to me."
"Remember I'm just the driver. You stay out there long enough it all starts looking the same. By the way, why did your Gryphon friend make me pull out the dimensional portal generator? The Dardick system's inside the frontier with a com grid and an anchor point. I was looking forward to a nice quick trip for once."
"Due to the nature of the threat and the small size of the survey team it was deemed that allowing a direct jump would present an unacceptable risk of the technology falling into hostile hands." Serena punched up a holo-diagram on the center console. "That's reminds me, why are you going in through the Dæhlie jump gate? Using the Gate at Monon would cut six hours off the round trip."
"SAR duties in Dardick are covered by the Norwegian Coast Guard in Dæhlie. I always like to check in with the local lifesaving station before taking the Giant out on her own. If they can put a face to the radio call I've found it gets you better service. Of course the other reason is that we plan to stop by Dæhlie on our way back for some skiing."
"Sounds like fun. Maybe I'll be able to join you."
"The more the merrier," said the Captain, putting his notepad away. "Anyway I need to go over the final preflight checks. We should have skids up in 30 minutes so tell those grad students back in the cargo bay that they'd better hurry up because I'm not going to miss our gate reservation."
Serena climbed out of the left hand seat and slid down the ladder back to the main desk where Fiona still sat at the mess table inspecting electronics. With nothing better to do Serena slid onto the bench seat next to the soft spoken hybrid feline and picked up one of the scanning devices.
"Hey there, need any help?" Serena offered.
"No thanks, I'm almost done anyway," replied Fiona, pulling her tail out from under Serena and then laying it back on the synthetic human's lap.
"So is this your first time out in the real world?" asked Serena as she began to gently stroke the fluffy black striped tail.
"First time no, but it's my first long duration experience away from the Link and so far I am finding it to be both enjoyable and rewarding. Even I used to believe that "real" reality was nothing special compared to the "reality" of the Link, but there is just something about the lack of control, real risk and real reward that gives this form of existence a spiciness that I have trouble putting into words."
"It's interesting hearing someone born and raised in a virtual sim to consider real life risk and reward to be exciting when so many in the core Federation are of the mind that the only excitement left to be found are in worlds of their own creation."
"I believe you’re saying is "grass is greener", but free thinking individuals tend to go where the opportunities are. In this case I can explore a fully detailed new world without having to wait for a bunch of developers to release an expansion pack."
Serena nodded. "Oh, before I forget I wanted to compliment you on your body. It is a truly remarkable piece of technology."
"Oh my construct? Thank you, it's a custom design I had fabbed special for my time with Dr. Whitepaw. I've been trying out the concept for about a century now in sim time and if you ask me I think it looks even better here in the physical space." Fiona turned to look at Serena, her tail twitching in the android's lap. "Your construct also very well designed. I can tell you take good care of it."
Serena began to laugh as something about their conversation amused her. "Just look at us talking about our bodies in terms of their tech or design. Hey Bea, I really love your bulkheads. Great…great design."
"Thank you Colonel, I work out," responded the voice from the PA speaker.
Serena turned back to Fiona. "Here, I'm going to try complimenting you like a person. Ahem, you look good Fiona. You're hot."
Fiona bashfully shrunk back a little, but managed a smile. "T-thanks."
"Now hopefully we can get out of here on time. Have you ever been out in space in a ship before Fiona?"
"I've been in a ship like Bea is in the ship, but I never considered being in a construct inside another construct so I guess this is my first time in that situation."
"Ah, I guess that explains the little mixup earlier."
"Link processing hardware is designed to support multi-tenancy. Stumbling into someone else's consciousness like that was equally embarrassing to both of us."
"Apology accepted," came Bea's voice from the PA speaker.
"Well I'm glad that's resolved," said Serena. "I don't know how riding in a ship could possibly compare with being a ship as an experience, but maybe you can treat it like some sort of like being in spooky amusement ride where you don't know where you are and it feels like you could crash at any time."
"Stop scaring her Serena!" said Lupa, emerging from the hatch and walking over to give the anthro feline a hug.
"I….I'm ok," said Fiona in her small, soft voice.
Serena couldn't quite understand why a lifeform composed of living data in a body that made hers looks downright Soviet in comparison could be apprehensive about riding in a ship "the old fashioned way", but she was roused from that line of thought as Lars and Sarah walked in, putting their personal gear in a rack against one wall.
"Everything is loaded professor," said Sarah.
"Bea, is everything loaded?"
"Everything is confirmed loaded, all preflight checks have been completed. The Captain would like everybody to take their seats…or their alternate arrangements."
Fiona moved to put all the devices away and fold down the table while Lars and Sarah sat down on the bench across the compartment and began to strap into four-point harnesses. Serena helped Fiona get into her straps before buckling herself in as all sorts of rumbles and vibrations began to flow in from the engineering spaces directly to the aft of the main deck. Serena turned her head back towards the door to the crew deck as a mature dire wolf padded into the compartment and flopped down in a form fitting no-harness restraint system up against one wall.
"Lupa still hasn't managed to beat the space sickness in her human form?" asked Serena.
"No," said Lars, shaking his head. "She's tried just about everything. What with side effects and all she's found this is the best solution."
The more utilitarian rumbling was soon overshadowed by the sound of the engines spooling up, drawing in air and converting part of it to pure energy in the reaction chamber. The cargo ramp clanged shut as Bea and the Captain made their final checks for hull integrity and engine stability.
"Welcome to the Yale University Contract Vessel Sleeping Giant, this is your ship's AI speaking. I just wanted to bring to your attention some of the safety features on board the Giant today. If the Captain gives the order to abandon ship escape pods can be found in the fore and aft docking bays as well as the lower service deck. If there is a sudden loss of cabin pressure, emergency EV packs can be found under the seats in the mess and in the yellow emergency equipment boxes located throughout the ship. In the unlikely event of a water landing please remember to retrieve my AI core before the ship sinks. Thank you for your cooperation and remember safety begins with you."
Serena felt a fuzzy hand poke her. "W-water landing? This ship lands on water?"
"No, it's just a safety announcement, just in case something happens. We're not going to land on water. The planet we're going to doesn't even have any water."
Serena reached up to give Fiona a soothing pat on the back. As the lift jets engaged the ship lurched up into the air, clearing the blast deflectors and transitioning into an upward trajectory towards the jump gate holding pattern. The sudden feeling of movement prompted Fiona to latch onto Serena's arm with an amount of force sufficient to cause the android discomfort, but not wanting to push the worried Linker away Serena choose to grin and bear it.
Serena looked out through the viewports at the planet below the ship, large parts of both hemispheres covered by massive glaciers. She knew she would have a good time skiing across miles of frozen terrain, but there was the ever present feeling that taking time off for fun was in effect abandoning her responsibilities to both those under her command and the people they were ultimately there to assist. Serena had always known on that becoming an Elder afforded both respect and responsibility, but now the relationship between the two was becoming more and more clear. As she stared out the window again trying to see if she could spot New Oslo with her own optics something brushed against her leg which caused her to jump back.
"Holy shit Lupa, you scared the shit out of me. I told you not to do that!"
The larger than average wolf regarded Serena with an air of bemusement, tongue lolling out.
"What was that? I couldn't quite hear you," said Serena.
//"I said it’s a wonderful view! Sheesh, half the ship is going to hear my conversation at this level."
Having Lupa's words appear directly in her "mind's ear" always made Serena uneasy, but she figured that anyone probably would have the same reaction who wasn't used to it.
"At least since the transition I can at least hear you to begin with. Remember all that body language you made me learn? You know in the time since I've never had to use any of that stuff despite your assurances."
//"It wasn't my fault your mind was filled with computer code instead of thoughts."
"I had thoughts!"
//"If you say so." Lupa let her tongue go out again in her version of laughter. //"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question Serena?"
"Sure, go ahead."
Lupa closed her mouth and bobbed her head a bit. //"I figured that after you became an Elder we would become closer, but instead you sort of drifted away."
Serena sighed, keeping her gaze fixed out the window. "I'm sorry Lupa, and you're probably not the only one I owe an apology to either. Back when we first met I was of an age where the powers that be would be unwise to put any long term investments into me. Sure there was an assumption that I would become an Elder, but until a Sister actually makes that choice she could just as easily lose her nerve and re-initialize or self recycle or just…break down. The result was that I was left to run my squad the way I wanted and that meant I could tag along with you as you went after all those brass ring discoveries. As soon as I made the change it was like the blue fairy had turned me into a real girl and there suddenly wasn't enough work or promotions they could throw at me."
Lupa pushed herself up against Serena to get her attention. //"I can't say I wasn't disappointed, but I fully understand. Good news is that since I have tenure so I'm not going anywhere and if you manage to break free from "the man" I'll always be able to make time for you."
"Thanks Lupa, you're the type of friend I wish I had more of," Serena replied, reaching down to gently pet Lupa's soft head before turning back toward the main compartment. "Hey Fiona! You should come up and see this!" Serena called back into the main desk as the main engines fired to life.
"What is it?" the hybrid tiger-leopard asked, as she made her ways down to the docking bay.
"Grab on to something, we're going to go to warp."
Looking a bit less nervous than she did at takeoff Fiona grabbed onto an inert bar of metal as the ship began to accelerate away from the planet without any feeling of inertia. The engines were quieter this time as the plasma was directed into gravity coils instead of back into conventional thrust. The starfield began to glow then there was a flash as they went FTL en route to their destination in the Dardick system.
//"Come on, you two, it's time for happy hour. There's beer and Chinese food waiting in the lounge," said Lupa as she turned and trotted up the ramp to the main deck.
"So I'm sitting there watching as this 20 foot tall golem is just ripping apart the transport vehicle and Lupa is inside making all these funny faces. Now I told you about the body language thing, but the problem is that Lupa was in her human shape, she didn't have ears and a tail so I can't tell what she's trying to say to me. Finally I just get something about "fling" or "launch" so I just take the RPG and boom, blow the golem's head right off. It falls down inactive and I'm standing there like I'm hot shit when Lupa kicks open the window, crawls out and just starts ripping into me for "destroying the find of the decade" and "not having any respect for history." Turns out she just needed me to throw her bag over with the counter enchantment glyph in it."
Everybody in the mess compartment laughed as Serena finished her beer. "Fortunately she found like 5 or 6 additional golems that we could send back for study and I guess I was lucky for that to happen 'cause I'm not sure Lupa would have wanted me back after that one."
After two nights even the relatively small crew was getting restless on board the increasingly funky Sleeping Giant, but with their ETA just an hour or so away the last of the three outbound "happy hours" was living up to both parts of its name.
"Alright guys and gals that's enough stories for now, time to get to work," said Serena standing up and stretching out. "We're going to be touching down at 1735 Zulu, but we're going to need to reset to local time which is going to be somewhere around 0800. Make sure you've got the right settings on your clock apps. Lars, Sarah, you two get into the light powered armour and set up the security perimeter as outlined in your plan. Once I get the go ahead from you two we'll go into a rotation with one person on watch and the other with me in the portal hall. Remember, link with Bea, she's your eyes and ears. Oh, I don't want to have to repeat myself, everyone who breathes needs two spare rebreather cartridges at all time. That's not, "I'll go get a fresh one when I get around to it," that's you run one out then you go and replace it ASAP. Remember, there are only 5 of us so if you get stuck somewhere it might take awhile for the rest of us to get you out."
The meeting broke up with everyone heading out to get their gear together. It was only then that Serena noticed that Fiona had slipped away into the information center under the cockpit. Swinging through the hatch he found the fuzzy Linker sitting in front of a sensor terminal looking zoned out.
"Hey Bea, thanks for giving Fiona a second chance, but could you kick her out? I need to talk with her."
"Right-o Colonel," came the voice from a speaker.
A few seconds later Fiona's feline eyes fluttered open.
"What's wrong Serena? Bea said you wanted to talk to me."
"Yeah, we're landing soon, I need everybody to get their stuff on. Just because you're synth doesn’t mean the atmosphere won't mess up your lovely fur."
"Oh I know, but I was tracking down a strange energy transient that happened about 3 hours ago. Bea thinks it's just a sensor malfunction, but I wanted to be sure. It came from the portal area, but looks too short to be a transport event."
"Any lifesigns? Movement?"
"Nothing detected….I…I guess it's probably just an echo."
"Go get suited up, I'll take a look at it while you're away."
The two women traded seats and Serena began to glance over the data. She wasn't assuming she could find something the other two synths had missed, but lately she had found herself to be getting increasingly better at making gut decisions as the humans liked to call them. In this case, like some of the others, something just didn't feel right to Serena, even thought there was nothing she could point at to back up her feeling. The ship dropped out of warp and the scanning systems lit up with new data that was now available at sub-light speeds.
"Do you think we should establish standard orbit before going in for a landing Colonel? Check things out from a safe distance?" the ship's AI asked her.
"We're not going to get anything from orbit that the existing satellite grid isn't sending us already. Think you could handle a couple of low atmospheric passes? We could drop out the survey drone early."
"That sounds like a good idea Colonel."
As Serena examined the new sensor feeds an alarm went off as one of the displays went red with an urgent sensor warning.
"Bea?!" cried Serena, cancelling the alarm. "Talk to me."
"An interdimensional portal just opened and a small heavy fighter class ship came through."
"A portal? God damnit, we truck overland for three days and some dickhead portals in just to rub our faces in it. Isn't this system still portal restricted? I'm going to write this fucker up…"
"Serena," Bea's voice, a great deal of concern in it. "The portal did not have a Federation signature. Unknown heavy fighter 0.2 AU and closing on the planet."
"I'm putting you on conference with the Captain."
"Bea, Serena, what going on down there!?" the Captain's voice thundered through the speakers.
"Unknown at this time, you might want to get those Norwegians on the line. Call them on the Inter-D, I don't want to freak this guy out with comms traffic over subspace," said Serena.
At that moment Fiona poked her head back into the information center.
"What's with all the alerts? Did you find something on the planet?"
"No, a portal opened and an unidentified heavy fighter came out."
"May I?" Fiona asked.
"Of course," said Serena.
Fiona sat down in the other seat and pulled up a visual scroll of the data, not even bothering to take the time to download it. As Serena watched she could have sworn the fur on Fiona's face change from yellow to white.
"Oh no no no, that's a Unity ship!"
Serena felt her heart sink. She had been prepared for almost all possible scenarios, except that one.
"Captain, you need to floor it…"
"No!" cried Fiona. "They'll see the warp trail and come after us. There's no way we can outrun them in this ship. We have to hide."
"Captain, can you get the planet between us and the Unity ship then look for a hiding place on the surface or perhaps around the large gas giant."
"No good," said Bea, “they've changed course to intercept."
"Get us down to the planet. We at least have options there. I'm going to get on the line to the Norwegians," said Serena as she patched herself into the open interdimensional communications link. "Lifestation Dæhlie, Lifestation Dæhlie, this is Colonel Serena Hanford on the WS Sleeping Giant declaring a Mayday. We have a Code 82 enemy ship, presumed hostile…"
"I'm getting an inbound message," said Bea's voice over the speaker, still tinged with concern. "Or more like thousands of copies of what I presume is the same message just in different languages and formats. I think I found one I can translate. "Unidentified ship, you are now under the jurisdiction of the Organization of Unified Minds. Assume standard orbit and power down all engines and weapons. If you comply you will not be harmed. Any resistance may result in unfortunate events beyond our control."
"Why do people try to improve on "Resistance is Futile"? You just can't," commented the Captain, sounding offended by such a haphazard demand to surrender.
"What the hell does that mean?" asked Bea.
"It means that they're going to stop us, board us and transfer all of our minds into a VR gulag for our own benefit," replied Fiona.
"…thank you Dæhlie I understand." Serena looked back at Fiona. "Good news is that the Federation has been made aware of our situation and is going to be coming in guns blazing. Bad news is we can't expect help for several hours as Fleet wants to build up a decisive concentration of force in case things escalate."
At that moment the ship shook hard back and forth, throwing anyone not strapped in around.
"That was their warning shot, these people mean business. They are circling around to take up a shot down position behind us." Captain Dunn called in. "Bea and I are doing the best we can to shake them off, but they're just too maneuverable."
"Lupa, get in here!" called Serena out the door to the information center. As soon as the wolf appeared Serena continued. "Ok, here's the deal. This is a bad situation and I don't just mean for us. If the Unity decided to attack here in force they could overrun the entire Federation presence in this reality. We're looking at potentially millions of individuals being uploaded into their little commune or the Fed having to go to war on the Unity's terms. We're the only ones who are in a position to do something and I know this might sound crazy, but I think our only option is to find a way to take these guys out."
Everyone was silent, Lupa and Fiona looking around uncomfortably.
"So first things first do we have any weapons?"
"Just some light particle beams and rockets with various scientific payloads," Captain Dunn answered over the intercom.
"That's not all." It was Bea's voice this time. "We recently took on board a load of 4 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, but there aren't any launchers or fire control systems installed. Lupa had plans to kitbash them into long high performance range probes during our next extended port visit."
"Are the warheads active?"
Serena jumped out of her seat. "That's a start. Bea, join me in the cargo bay. Fiona, try to talk with them, see if you can stall them, you know what buttons to press."
Lupa whimpered, her ears flat and head held low.
"Lupa, get on two legs and get into an environmental suit now!"
The wolf hesitated for a second before dashing off to her quarters, Serena followed close behind taking the turn down the ramp to the cargo bay instead. Bea, in hologram form, was already there racing around a 15 foot long hard shelled container undoing all of the fasteners and shackles.
"Took you long enough," Bea chided Serena. "There's a metal table behind you used for mounting particle beam experiments. Lock it onto the central set of rails then move three pairs of mounting blocks each about 4 inches from the centerline."
Serena leaped to the table and put her back into pushing it on the horizontal guides until it engaged with the central rails. "The range to the Unity fighter is insufficient to achieve any sort of lock even if we had a fire control system so we're going to have to fire this like an old fashioned torpedo. Bea, can you set the missile to make a preprogrammed maneuver then detonate on either range or impact."
"Yes, but the software really doesn't want me doing this. Hmmm, you ever get that feeling when you're doing something very unsafe? Alright, fins on, I need your help lifting."
The ship lurched from another barrage of warning shots as Serena ran back over to Bea and slid her arms under the front section of the nearly 1 ton missile.
"Ok, on three, one, two, three," Serena called out.
The hologram and the android lifted the missile out of its container and over to the table, laying it on the mounting blocks.
"How are we going to keep it on the table? This missile is set up for a hot launch."
"I got it," said Bea, a cowboy hat appearing on her head as she jumped up to sandwich the missile between her body and the table, holding on with all the force the holo emitters would allow her to apply. "You just have to help me clean up afterward because this is going to make one hell of a mess."
Not needing Bea to say anything more Serena ran back to the tunnel, hitting the emergency isolation button that brought down the yellow blast door.
Bea had calculated the sequence of events down to the microsecond. She first released the clamps holding the cargo bay door shut. With the electromagnetic pistons set to provide zero damping force the door began to blow open under the force of the pressurized air behind it. At the exact right instant she gave the fire command to the booster. Complex subatomic structures in the booster fuel began to breakdown into normal matter releasing incredible amounts of energy that was directed towards the rear of the missile as hot plasma. Some of the plasma was routed through a single use gravity field generator and combined with the physical thrust, started the missile moving forward at an incredible rate of acceleration. Bea held on as the rocketed toward the still opening door which locked in the down position just milliseconds before the table flew past it. As soon as the launch sled exited the ship Bea's holographic body vanished freeing the missile from the table just before energy flowed into the gravity coils in the fins causing the missile to execute its maneuver towards the Unity fighter that was trailing about 1km behind. The synthetic pilots on board the fighter were quick, quick enough to see the missile coming and execute an evasive maneuver, but it was too late as the missile skimmed the fighter's shield, detonating the warhead.
Even set at the lowest yield Bea thought they could safely get away with the expanding sphere of energy hit the Sleeping Giant overwhelming it's own shield and tossing the ship and its occupants end over end. After several terrifying moments Bea managed to restore attitude control allowing Serena to pick herself up off the deck plating.
"Oh man, I think you're going to need a new paint job after that one."
"That's not the only new thing I'll need. Both engines have sustained significant damage to the thrust shaping structures and we're sort of crashing into the planet."
"Fuck me," cursed Serena, "if it's not one thing it's another." She made her way up the ramp and into the mess where everyone was strapped into the harnessed seats. Fiona was attending to a small cut in Lars' scalp while Lupa sat with a plastic bucket in her lap looking a bit green around the gills.
"Hang in there everyone. This is going to be a rough landing," said Serena in her most reassuring voice as she commanded the nanoarmour under her jumpsuit to flow into its full coverage form factor. Climbing up the ladder into the cockpit she slid into the second seat next to Captain Dunn, who monitoring systems while Bea flew the ship.
"Hey there Captain, mind if I join you? I didn't want you to be up here all alone."
"I'm never alone," he said, gently touching the control yoke in front of his. "The burners are ok so Bea's going to flip us around here and try to slow out forward velocity as much as possible before using the shield for aerobreaking."
"You still think you can make the original landing site? That long runway will come in handy if we don't have the thrust for a soft touchdown."
"That's the plan. Hold on, here we go."
The Giant rotated around 180o before Bea fired up the damaged engines as high as they would go without summarily ejecting the remaining contents toward the planet. Serena felt herself pressed forward against the straps as the ship began to slow. The planet got larger and larger in the viewports as a red-orange glow began to envelop the ship in the spherical outline of the shields.
"The shielding systems are running only at 37% of their usual capacity, I'm probably going to have to let some of that heat through," remarked the Captain.
"We're really slowing down now, but are we going to be able to make the landing site?" asked Serena.
"Bea thinks we can. Ok, prepare for reorientation for aerodynamic flight."
The ship spun back around discontinuing the braking thrust provided by the marginally functional engines, but by this time the atmospheric drag was starting to dominate. The planet's surface kept getting closer as the black of space took up less and less of the horizon.
"Lift jets coming on…full power. With the main engine thrust we have left we should be able to just hit the landing, or should I say controlled crash."
"Better than theirs," said Serena, pointing out the window at a glowing fireball descending towards the planet's surface several hundred miles away. "Congratulations Captain, you get to paint a silhouette on the hull."
With the stub wings and fins providing some lift and a good deal of stability Bea was able to line up the nose with the landing site and put the ship into a powered approach. Still, the farther into the atmosphere they got the more there were buffeted by winds and turbulence. Serena scanned the horizon then pointed when she saw the ruins of a city and the unmistakable straight lines of a landing strip not far in front. Captain Dunn tucked his hands under his arms to physically mute his natural instinct to touch the controls.
"When the lady gets finished with this I'm going to have to do something special for her. She certainly earned her share on this mission."
"What counts as special? New paint? Repairs?"
"Night in," said Dunn, giving Serena a sly smile. "Alright, here we go…would you be so kind as to hit the collision alarm for me Serena?"
The android pulled the red handle sounding the collision alarm throughout the ship. Seconds later the skidplates on the bottom of the flat hull touched down, plowing through century's worth of firth and debris that had gathered on top of the hard runway surface. Serena and the captain were repeatedly thrown forward in their harnesses as the Sleeping Giant hit periodic patches of resistance, the nose of the ship slowly twisting off the centerline.
"You need to bring the nose around or we're going to have an off," yelled Serena, her voice showing a bit of apprehension as the ship continued to barrel along.
"Don't look at me," came Bea's voice. "Sir Isaac is the one flying now."
The Giant soon fell off the side of the runway, twisting more violently as the skids dug deep into the soft ground. Suddenly the nose dropped and there was a huge explosion of dirt and sand that covered the viewport and threw everyone forward in their seats one last time before all went quiet. Serena looked at the Captain as light began to filter back into the cockpit, then smiled and made a show of wiping her brow.
"You know what they say about landing Serena."
"Excuse me!?" said Bea in an irritated tone of voice. "I don't think I'm walking anywhere."
"Relax Bea, you don't have to….we're right next to the terminal," said Serena, getting up from her seat. "By the way…let me know when you're having that night in and we can see how well your multithreaded AI can perform under load."
Captain Dunn could only sit back and laugh.
Serena paced back and forth on the scorched deck plating in the cargo bay looking over her away team. Sarah and Lars were in their ROTC issue light powered armour that were fully integrated with their electromagnetic railgun rifle systems while Lupa wore a less militarized powered environmental suit with a P90 personal defence weapon slung over her shoulder. With her weapons built in Serena had volunteered to carry the backpack full of demolition charges.
"Cadets, Lupa, you're with me. Fiona, you stay here and help the Captain and Bea keep an eye on us and don't let anything nasty come in the back door. Fleet will be here to extract us in four hours so we just have to hold on until then. As soon as the good doctor and I make sure that nothing can come through the Network portals over in the terminal we'll drop some remote cams and head back. Any questions?"
The graduate students and Lupa all shook their heads while Fiona nervously fiddled with the plasma rifle Serena had given her.
"Careful with that Fiona, you're not in a game sim," Serena gently reminded her before locking her helmet to the collar of her armour suit.
Fiona nodded and let it drop to her side as the four members of the away team crowded into the rear airlock. The Class K planet had an atmosphere at about 1.2 times the pressure of Earth's, but was mostly composed of Nitrogen, Methane and Carbon Dioxide. Stepping outside the midday sun was diffused by thick brown clouds that bathed everything in a nasty red yellow cast. The ship had come to rest only about 500 feet from what could be considered the terminal for whatever spacecraft used to use the facility before it was abandoned centuries ago so the team was able to quickly make its way inside. The advanced materials the building had been constructed from had held up well and there was only a thin layer of dust and dirt covering the exposed surfaces.
"I see the survey drone," Serena announced, moving forward and plugging her pad into the USB port to download the data. "This is going to need to get topped up with fuel for the fusion unit."
Serena looked up to see Lupa and her students standing still and looking at something. Turning Serena's gaze fell upon the string of 12 Network portals, all arranged in a convenient row. Each was about the size of a garage door and shaped like a 1970's television screen. One portal unit had been crushed by a falling beam from the ceiling and two others exhibited signs of catastrophic failure.
//"You need to take more time to appreciate your surroundings my friend," thought Lupa, still able to communicate mentally in her human shape. //"Exploration and the pursuit of knowledge isn't just a bunch of check boxes on an after mission report."
Acting on her archeology training Sarah pulled out her image recorder and began to document the scene before the away team could disturb anything while Lars took a wider path closer to the passenger control areas.
"Do you know what happened here that caused this place to just be abandoned like this?" Serena asked the Professor, accompanying her friend as she walked up to the control console of the first portal.
"Well something ruined the biosphere here. Might have been a sudden attack, catastrophic pollution event or industrial accident. We'll know more when we can actually take samples and do a study. First thing is first, we need to get these portals secured, at least as best we can assuming the control units are even functional.
"If this terminal has as many wormhole links as the last one we discovered we could have access to hundreds of new worlds. With all the rogue synths running around the network I could probably keep a Brigade working full time bailing you scientists out of jams."
"Colonel, Professor…you might want to take a look at this," called Lars on the radio from across the hall.
The two ran over to where Lars was standing, his weapon pointed at a volleyball sized object on the ground.
"Found this just laying here, but I'm reading an active energy signature and an open Inter-D comm link. It's a portal anchor."
Serena looked back toward the inactive portal device and the line of skip and roll marks in the dust that lead back to it.
"Looks like Federation isn't the only multi-dimensional hegemony scoping out the Network," Serena said calmly as her left forearm began to glow, reshaping itself into a bright shiny energy weapon. "Lupa, do you think you can disable this portal or will we have to demo it?"
"Give me a chance to try my best, but you had better fit the charges just in case," Lupa said, moving forward and dusting off the control unit interface.
"Well at least this solves the mystery of the fighter," said Serena as her arm-morph ion cannon fired several times in quick succession, frying the electronics in the portal anchor. She then tossed the bag to Lars. "One portal, one charge. Set them to detonate singly."
"What do you want me to do?" Sarah called in over the com.
"Keep documenting," ordered Lupa, "This won't be our find for much longer. This place just became a Federation security hot zone."
"What's the situation Lupa?" Serena called over.
"The control consoles seem to be shut down. I'd need Fiona here to be able to get into it, but I don't think it would matter. The control software on this end is clearly shut down, but to fully prevent someone from being able to connect from the outside I'd have to pull the physics package." Lupa looked up from the dusty screen. "The Unity is just as capable as we are. They are going to be able to override any of the soft locks on these systems unless we take special precautions and I don't have the resources for that."
"Where's the physics unit Lupa?"
"In…in the base, below the portal itself."
Lupa got a very pained look on her face as Serena jumped up on the platform and shifted her right arm into a slightly different looking energy weapon that soon began to cut through the metal of the portal base with a thin beam of blue energy. About thirty seconds later the square of metal fell into the open hole with a clang with Serena following soon after it. It wasn't hard for her to locate the shielded metal box containing the tuned quantum oscillators and pull it free.
"That's one route the Unity won't be using to infiltrate this reality, but I'm going to still leave the demo charges on the other portals, just in case."
Lupa nodded in agreement. "Alright, that seems fair. Since we only have a few hours to study these things I'm going to get Captain Dunn and Fiona over here with some of our equipment and get as much data as I possibly can out of this place."
"Sarah, Lars," Serena radioed to the two students, "deploy the security scanners in the terminal so nothing sneaks up on us then report to Lupa when you're done. I'll watch the perimeter while you two get your work done with the professor."
"Rodger," said Lars, pulling off his backpack and piling a number of card deck sized multi-sensor units on the table.
"Understood," confirmed Serah, putting down her video camera to do the same.
Lupa handed Serena several pads each with an adapter dongle on it. "Here, be useful and plug these into all of the control consoles. They'll start trying to pull down all the data they can, but normally it can take days or weeks to break into these sorts of systems if they have been secured competently. There's probably a central computer that holds the keys to the kingdom, but the Fed scientists are probably going to collect that little windfall."
Serena began walking from terminal to terminal hooking the pads into the diagnostic ports. "So, are you making study of the Network your next big thing or did this place just happen to fall in your lap?" asked Serena over the com.
"I'm not sure, but there's a lot of grant money floating around out there for Network research and if this place pans out it could mean a lot of work for a lot of years. I don't want to put you in an awkward position Serena, but there's a lot of grumblings about breaking your Sister's near monopoly on Network exploration, especially since more than a few still don't trust your race's motives," Lupa replied, her voice slightly worried as the conversation veered into the political.
Serena sighed, "I understand Lupa. Nobody wants to look into the candy store and be told they can't have any, but you shouldn't underestimate just how dangerous the Network can be. My people have been devoting considerable resources to exploring it for centuries now and we still run into…problems…despite all of our experience and all of our precautions. The Elder Council isn't trying to keep anything from the Federation, we just don't want to see anybody needlessly get hurt."
Lupa chucked, "Serena, we're not children. I think the Fed can handle itself. Exploring deep space and alternate realities is no less dangerous than an ancient portal network."
"You know our history and our mindset. We consider it our duty to stand between soft squishy people like yourself and the sort of angry high powered synths that roam the Network. Besides, even the Elders buy into the not entirely illogical proposition that Sisters are simply, "Serena let out a brief sigh, "more expendable than other Fed races."
Lupa was quiet for a moment before responding. "Serena, although I appreciate the sentiment I also think your people might be overcompensating just a little bit for the whole "kill all the bios" phase they went through. You might want to bring it up at your next Elders meeting."
"Will do, although they really don't like inviting me to those," Serena chuckles before looking over towards the doors that lead out onto the tarmac from the cargo handling end of the terminal. "Hey, looks like your goodies have arrived. I'll go open the door."
Serena walked over and slid open the heavy transparent door to allow Fiona and a grumpy looking Captain Dunn access to the terminal.
"You know my ship's hurt and here I am delivering cargo like some baggage drone."
"You can take it up with airport management, just don't disturb their skeletons when you find them because Lupa will bite your nuts off if you do," remarked Serena wryly.
The cargo tug maneuvered the cargo palette into place where Fiona began to unload it. Serena casually talked with Captain Dunn about what sort of repairs would be needed when suddenly an urgent call came in loud over the open com channel.
"Sleeping Giant to away team!" It was Bea's voice..
"Here," replied Serena.
"We have a major problem. I’m detecting six distinct energy signatures moving towards our location. They're moving fast from the northeast and will be on us in less than 15 minutes."
Had Serena been human the blood would have drained from her face.
“Let me guess, that’s the direction from the Unity crash site.”
“Affirmative,” came Bea’s response.
Serena stood in front of the small group of nervous student-officers and civilians trying to project as much calm and confidence as she could.
“How long until they get here?” Lars asked.
“10 to 15 minutes. Bea only has intermittant contact, but given their speed and distance I suspect they came down in some sort of escape or landing pod sometime after we blew up their ship,” said Serena, projecting an interactive diagram of the entire area on a dusty wall.
“Well what the hell are we facing here?” the Captain spat. “Look at Fiona’s people. These Unity beings could show up as anything.”
“Please don’t lump my people in with the Unity,” growled Fiona. “Those freaks are a lot more regimented in their thinking.”
“Listen,” began Serena, “I’ve run through a couple of scenarios in the short time I’ve had and the Unity is either after the portals or they are after us. If we disable the portals they will then certainly come after us as the juicy information in our minds would represent their next best chance of escape. I’ve got Bea on the horn waking up all the brass in my address book so help should arrive at any moment. We just need to hold out until that point.”
“And what if the great and mighty Federation and its oh so reliable “affiliates” happen to let us down?” demanded the Captain.
“You’re standing in an interdimensional portal hub. What do you think?” Serena replied, giving the Captain a look.
“You give us orders we’ll carry them out Colonel,” Sarah spoke up.
"Lars, Sarah, get up to the control tower. From the northeast they'll need to cross a lot of open ground. Engage at long range and try to hold them off with your railguns, but if they get closer you'll need something with a higher volume of fire."
"We have an MG3 in the load of cargo that just came in," Sarah offered, "SOP to counter swarm attacks."
"Get it and get up there," commanded Serena. "Lupa, work on plan B. Fiona, Dunn, help me use the cargo pods and anything else you see around to construct defensive positions around the first portal."
"Listen I'd love to help, but I need to get back to Bea. She's out on the runaway completely exposed!" said the Captain anxiously while looking over his shoulder and through the large glass wall.
"Bea, what's your current status?" Serena called out over the com.
"Shield is up and I am currently helping myself to the contents of the small arms locker," replied the ship's AI.
"You're staying here Captain and don't argue with me. Bea? You still on the line?"
"I'm not going anywhere Serena."
"How are those calls going?"
"I’m working on it, but Admirals are really indecisive when you’re asking them to take their fleets into battle with a few minutes notice. The strength of your note seems to carry a lot of weight however."
"I figured it would. Thanks for dealing with all that crap Bea, the rest of you let's get cracking."
Serena, Fiona and the Captain began to build up a makeshift rampart of cargo containers, overturned tables and whatever else that could find around the terminal that had mass to it and could roll. Serena then piled the few weapons they had available where they could be at the hand of the defenders all while monitoring the positions of the 6 energy signatures Bea was tracking as they began to fan out and approach the spaceport perimeter. Meanwhile in the tower Sarah and Lars had set up their rifles for long range fire and now waited for the enemy to show itself.
"Do you just want us to open fire as soon as they enter effective range Serena," Lars asked over the com.
"Yes, but make your first shot count. Once they identify your position they'll start moving faster. Direct conflict with Unity forces has been rare, but from the briefings I have read and my own experience I have found them to be a challenging opponent."
Lars looked at Sarah. "Identify a target, we'll fire together. You ready for this?"
Sarah nodded then concentrated on her helmet's HUD as she lined the rifle's optics onto a target.
"I got one…1 o'clock, crossing the old spaceport fence line."
"Ok…I'm on the one about 100 meters to the left. Hit it and then try to get back on target for a followup."
Sarah gazed at the humanoid figure as it slowly moved toward the spaceport terminal and the crash site. The shields around the Sleeping Giant made it a perfect decoy to the approaching synths who would naturally expect a biologic crew to take refuge in their crashed ship until help arrived. The Unity soldiers didn't look much different than biologic humans in advanced powered armour or Serena in her nanoweave suit, however the design was a strange mix of strength as one might see in plate type armour and agility as one found in form fitting armour. It was almost as if solid metal had been made flexible and poured into a human shape. Of course trying to get a good handle on the appearance of the hostile aliens was complicated by their use of mild adaptive camouflage in the visible and IR spectra.
"Fiona, access my feed, what am I looking at?" called Sarah over the com.
"I'm not an intelligence analyst," came the Linker's rather annoyed response, "but if I had to make a barely educated guess I'd say those are probably Infiltration units. Serena? You’re the real expert here.“
“Fiona’s correct,” Serena’s voice came in over the channel. “Scout ships tend to carry a compliment of humanoid bodies with which they can infiltrate like societies. Two arms, two legs and no wings might sound conventional they are fast and their active/passive armour is a tough nut to crack."
"Come on Sarah," said Lars, "we need to take the shot."
Sarah's finger tightened on the trigger as she took careful aim. The rifle lurched back, the inertial dampener absorbing much of the recoil, as the aluminum and steel slug exited the barrel and sliced through the air leaving a thin trail of smoke behind it as some of the slug ablated at hypervelocity. In her HUD Sarah watched as the being's arm blew off in a shower of sparks and a mist of fluid. Lars' shot also hit home, drilling a baseball sized hole through the torso of one of the synthetic aliens and blowing it backwards several dozen feet. By the time Saran lined up for a second shot her one armed target was gone from the scope's field of view. Lars did better managing to blow off a hand with his follow up, but at that point the tower seemed to explode around them as sizzling blue balls of energy blew out the windows and began to tear the structure apart.
"Keep shooting," cried Lars as he went for the machine gun, "we've got to try to pin them down."
"These little buggers are quick," Sarah called back as she took aim at a Unity who's arm cannon was in the process of spraying a burst of blue energy at her position before nimbly stepping aside at the last moment to avoid her shot.
Back down in the main hall Serena looked up as she heard the students in the tower open fire at the approaching Unity androids. "Gods Bea, why does Fleet have to act like the rod up its ass has a rod up its ass!" Serena stormed after getting off the line with the local Admiral.
"They're just following the Unity engagement protocol Serena. By that measure they have been more than flexible. If I remember correctly weren't you the one who designed that particular protocol?"
"Yeah, but I tended to have different priorities back then," said Serena, clenching her teeth. "Ok, I guess that's another thing on the To Do list when I get back, "fix Unity Engagement Protocol"."
"Watch out everyone, I'm opening the portal," Lupa called out from behind.
The squarish portal ring began to glow brightly, arcs of blue energy skipping about before the portal horizon formed, shimmering into a uniform sheet of white energy. Lupa grabbed a portal probe and flung it through, looking over to Serena for the result.
"Ok, I still have the signal, syncing with the feed," said the android girl adding the data streams from the sensor into her awareness. "Looks good. Environment supports oxygen breathing carbon based life. No toxins, temperature acceptable and I see a control unit so we can probably use it to get back if we leave the portal intact."
Lupa killed the portal and grabbing her weapon went over to help Serena prepare for the defence. "So, you said they were accelerating the timeframe?"
"Bea just said that ETA is now about 60 to 90 minutes. Sorry, we got stuck in a Catch 22. This wasn't a full scale attack so they can't launch the fast reaction forces because those need to be ready to repel a full scale attack! They can't send in a small force because if it’s a trap the force will be defeated and the Unity will have an intelligence goldmine when it uploads all the captured crew. I am not looking forward to the months of meetings it will take to fix this problem. The Federation has one job, to repel these sorts of threats and it's fucking it up!" Serena was yelling now visibly overcome with frustration.
"If we get out of this I honestly don't think you're going to mind a bunch of meetings," said Lupa, gently rubbing Serena's shoulders.
Serena began to calm down savoring the full tactile feedback her armour provided. "They're getting closer. I don't think we'll be able to hold them off for as long as we need. Just be ready with the portal."
"Tower calling portal base, are you there Colonel?"
"Go ahead Lars, what's your status?" Serena answered.
"This place is falling apart around us, with the volume of fire impacting the structure I don't think the control tower is going to remain vertical for much more than 5 minutes," said Lard as he ejected the glowing red barrel and slid the spare into place.
"How many enemy casualties do you estimate?" Serena asked.
Lars looked over at Sarah who raised three fingers.
"Sarah says she's damaged three and I nailed another one. Problem is they keep getting back up even if they're missing large chunks. I'm sure I've got some hits with the MG, but at range it doesn't seem to affect them much."
"Ok, you two get your asses down here and prepare to defend the portal beachhead. We're probably going to have to evac."
"Roger that." Lars ducked his head as one of the sizzling balls of energy impacted close in behind him. "Shit! That was close. Come on Sarah, we need to go."
Lars turned his head back to see Sarah laying motionless at the rear of her weapon. The clear faceplate to her helmet had been caved in and inside was a mix of black soot and red blood. Lars blinked then fumbled to active the com channel.
"T-this is Lars…in the tower. I need to report 1 KIA…Officer Candidate Sarah Hong. She's dead Colonel."
Serena went numb as she heard the report. "Confirm 1 KIA. Get back to the portal base Lars…on the double," her voice not flat and emotionless.
"No…" cried Lupa, dropping her weapon and stumbling back against the portal console. "NO! NO!"
"What…what do I do with her body Colonel?"
"Activate the beacon and leave her Lars. Fleet will be here in 90 minutes."
Lupa turned and threw herself at Serena. "NO! You can't just leave her behind! We're humans, not machines!"
Serena glared at Lupa as the woman beat her gloved hands against Serena's helmet and armour, tears streaming down her face. "Sit down Doctor!" Serena responded coldly, pushing her to the ground. "Let me do my fucking job because lord knows you don't want it." Serena flicked her com link back on. "Get down here NOW Lars unless you want to die too." Lars made one last anguished look back at his friend before he grabbed his weapon and turned to run down the tower staircase, beams of light shining through the dirty air where weapons fire had blown holes in the walls.
"How could you do such a thing!?" Lupa screamed at Serena.
Just a few years earlier Serena could have explained exactly how she arrived at her conclusion, but today all the android could do was turn away.
"I'm not going to just leave one of my students behind!"
Lupa felt a pair of arms embrace her and looked to see Fiona's concerned face through her helmet. "Shhh, relax Lupa, we have to get through this first."
Serena then looked up to see Captain Dunn making a dash for the exit.
"Captain!" There was more than a dash of anger in Serena's voice.
"I know the plan and I'm sure as hell not going to let you leave my wife behind too!" Dunn yelled back over the con as he sprinted out the door.
Serena morphed her left arm into a plasma blaster and headed for the doorway herself.
//"No Serena!" It was Fiona's voice via a data link. //"This is his choice to make, not yours."
//"That's why I'm going to cover him," Serena sent back before going back on the com channel. "Bea, I need you to launch your anti-missile countermeasures. The Captain is on his way to your position and it’s a free fire zone out there."
The ship immediately launched a barrage of short range rockets that laid down a plethora of small canisters that exploded into a thick grey sensor scattering fog.
"What's going on Serena?" asked Bea.
"We can't hold the Unity soldiers off without sustaining potentially unacceptable casualties. We're going to have to retreat through the portal and get picked up later. You two can stay or you can come with us."
The com link was silent for a moment.
"The strength of the Unity soldiers makes the collapse of my defenses at their hand inevitable. I would prefer my husband and I not die today."
"Well I hope he's eaten his Wheaties."
Captain Dunn appeared out of the acrid sensor masking fog to find two of Bea's holograms standing on the lowered rear ramp covering his approach with small arms. A third hologram waited at the top of the ramp as the Captain stumbled up it before doubling over, gasping for breath in his environmental suit.
"You're going to starting a new exercise regimen when we get home. Now if you don't mind I would like to be out of here when those Unity freaks show up."
Dunn nodded and ran into the ship finding that most of the doors had been opened for him in advance. He quickly reached the small room under the information center that contained Bea's AI core. Pulling out a small transport case the Captain briefly read the instructions on the hatch before he started to undo the latches on each of the four corners. Feeling a hand on his arm the Captain turned to see Bea standing next to him. Using a few holo tricks she pushed her face through her husband's helmet and give him a kiss before the emergency release sequence kicked in and the hologram vanished. As soon as the light turned green Captain Dunn grabbed the handle on the end of the core and pulled. The device was about the size and shape of a blender hopper with a solid cap on the top and bottom with a transparent outer shield surrounding an inner deepwater blue crystal cylinder. Throwing the core into the carrying case and locking down the latched Captain Dunn raced back out of the now dead and inert ship, stopping only briefly to trigger the rear cargo bay door's retraction sequence.
The smoke screen was just starting to lift as the Captain emerged from the haze just a few feet from the terminal door. Suddenly there was a blue flash and an explosion and the captain was thrown to the ground, but it wasn't long before Serena was there, returning fire with her arm blaster and offering the Captain a hand.
"Welcome back Captain, but I must insist that you move inside the terminal as this is not a safe place to be."
The Captain quickly took her hand and they retreated inside as the glass front of the building began to take fire sending fragments of transparent aluminum flying. Jumping in behind the barricade Fiona was still comforting Professor Whitepaw while Lars was covering the far end of the passenger hall with the machine gun.
"Did I miss anything?"
"Not yet," said Serena in a dry tone. "We'll try to hold them off. If we put enough of them down then we might not have to use the portal. Lupa, you need to pick up your weapon. We'll need every person here to do their utmost."
Lupa glared at her old friend before shouldering her P90 and taking up a position near the control console. It didn't take long before the first Unity infiltrator, already with a hole in its abdomen, appeared through one of the far doors. Lars was quick to light it up, bits and pieces flying off its sculpted metal body as the high powered rounds impacted it at the rate of 25 per second, but it managed to lurch out of the line of fire as other soldiers started their attack from other directions, all perfectly in sync with each other. Serena whipped a grenade at the closest Unity, only to watch as the synth grabbed the bomb from mid air and crush it in its hand, rendering it inert.
"Well that's a new one," remarked Serena as the Unity began to return fire, the blue bolts of energy ripping into the makeshift barriers that were not in any way equipped to stand up to such punishment very long.
"Last belt," Lars called out as he worked feverishly to reload the MG3.
Serena looked around at her team, huddling down behind the cargo boxes, then looked at Lupa who was manning the portal controls.
"Professor, I believe the time has come for us to make our exit. Would you do the honors?"
Lupa said nothing as she selected the previously tested link from the list that the portal was able to connect to. The horizon shimmered to life and stabilized as the Unity increased their volume of fire.
"Lars, hit the destruct on the other portal rings," Serena called out. "Captain, you and the misses can go first."
As the demo charges blew neat gaps in the other portal rings Captain Dunn ran through the portal. Lars pressed the trigger of the MG3 and held it there, creating a hail of bullets that drove the infiltration units back while Fiona and Lupa ran into the portal each carrying a large bag of supplies. As soon as Lars' weapon clicked empty Serena pounded on his back, signaling him to also grab what he could and run through the portal, covering him as he ran with both arms blazing away. Finally, facing the Unity soldiers all by herself, Serena rose up and ran for the glowing expanse, dodging a few ill aimed shots vanishing from the battle scarred terminal area. In an instant she found herself in a square stone hallway lit by dim glowing white orbs.
"Lars, hit the charges on the last portal…Now!"
"I'm...I'm trying! The detonator lost the signal."
The portal flickered and then de-energized leaving the stone wall behind it plainly visible. Serena cursed while the team instantly set up defensive positions as best they could in the completely featureless corridor expecting the Unity soldiers to be hot on their heels. Five minutes passed, then ten, the portal remaining dark and lifeless. It was finally Fiona who noticed that something was wrong.
"Serena, this isn't the right hallway."
Serena looked around in disbelieving shock as she compared the passage they were in to the video feed returned by the probe. For one the space they were in appeared to be smaller and the corridor made a 90 degree turn just a ways beyond while the feed showed it opening into a large room. There was also no control unit by the portal and most importantly, the portal probe was nowhere to be found.
"Lars, keep watch on the portal, but everyone else stand down. I think we just got redirected and if the Unity aren't here by now they either chose not to follow or got redirected themselves."
"What sort of place is this," asked Fiona, taking off her helmet as she inspected the walls for any sort of marking or sign.
"It's probably some form of security screening," offered Lupa. "These sorts of things have been encountered before and are probably one of the more prudent things one can do with a portal."
"You don't think we violated some security safeguard and got sent to a holding cell do you?" asked Serena.
"Could be, but usually holding cells do a better job of holding instead of presenting an indefinite hallway. The sharp turn could be part of a blast deflection system or simply a way to shield security forces from potentially hostile arrivals." Lupa looked up toward the ceiling. "The lights are still on so perhaps somebody is home. Do you think we should go look or wait here until the rescue team can locate us?"
"If you're looking for search and rescue to appear don't bet on it happening anytime soon," said the Captain. "I've tried just about every setting I can on the emergency transponders and I can't get a thing on Inter-D or subspace. I think we're going to need to get out of this rock before we can call for a ride."
"Alright everybody," said Serena, "I’m going to trust our scanners here so feel free to take your helmets off and for the time being reduce the use of consumables in your EV suits. Get all the gear together for an inventory before we divide it up for movement. I'll leave a message in case rescue comes through the portal. Hopefully they'll follow protocol and not send any people through."
"Follow protocol huh?" there was an edge to Lupa's voice. "First you're bitching about protocol and now you're all for it. What are we, tied now 2-2?"
Serena struggled to keep her composure, but felt the need to answer for the benefit of the group. "A rescue team would in all likelihood be redirected to another location. Then the rescuers would need rescuing."
As everyone figured out how much stuff they could carry and which items were critical to bring, Serena walked over to the wall and began to write enciphered characters on the wall using a special tagging pen that would fluoresce only under certain EM wavelengths. She felt someone move up behind her and turned to see Lars standing there.
"Listen Colonel, don't let Lupa get to you, she's hurting right now and doesn't mean what she says. If it makes any difference coming from me, you did the right thing. I just wasn't thinking back there. The fleet boys will pick her up and get her home to her family. If Sarah’s body were here…right now." Lars shook his head, trying not to consider that possibility. "You did the right thing."
Lars turned to leave, but Serena put her hand on his shoulder to stop him. "Thanks, it does make a difference. Don't try to intervene with Lupa on my behalf. I've been her friend long enough to know what to ignore and what to respond to, especially on a day like this."
Lars nodded and walked back to the others while Serena turned to finish her message. Putting the tip of the marker to the wall, Serena's eyes began to stare at her hand as it shook uncontrollably making a series of random dots and marks, Closing her eyes she applied a few of her custom tricks to shut down the crosstalk in her neurocrystal and halt the shaking. When she finally finished Fiona was just about done stripping out of her EV suit and dumping it on the leave behind heap while Lars and Lupa evened out each other's packs. Swinging her own gear onto her back Serena walked up to the front of the group.
"Alright, I'm going to take point. Try to spread out a bit. Lars you sweep with Fiona and use the marker to tag our route."
Serena turned and began to walk down the hallway toward the first bend. She morphed her right arm into a general purpose plasma weapon deciding that the convenience outweighed the risk of being perceived as hostile. Walking she got to within about 10 feet of the corner when something suddenly "felt" very wrong, bringing her to an abrupt halt.
"What's wrong Colonel," asked Captain Dunn, who stopped as well, keeping his distance.
Serena didn't respond, but instead gingerly raised her weapon-arm and ever so carefully brought the tip forward in a sweeping motion. It suddenly began to glow and sparkle with a pinkish energy.
"Extractor field," said Serena as both a statement and a question, moving the tip of the plasma cannon along the surface of the field that lay no more than three inches from her face. "There's a quantum extractor field stretching the hallway. Shit, I almost walked right into that one."
"Extractor field?" Captain Dunn asked, "Isn't that one of those things that turns androids into humans?"
"Almost," said Lupa as she walked up. "Quantum Extractor Fields isolate the consciousness in sentient synthetics and then sort of reverse engineer a biologic container for them. Very popular for security screening because you don't need to keep a stock of biologic body patterns and you can mess with the cybernetic shell while the mind is away being wined and dined. How in the heavens did you know that was there Serena?"
"I guess I just had a feeling…" Serena trailed off.
"Wow, a Sister who gets gut feelings. Now I've seen everything," flipped Lupa.
"I feel a lot of things Lupa," Serena shot along with a hard gaze.
"Um so," said the Captain looking confused, "is this a problem?"
"While being turned human and then forced to schlep around my inert shell was not exactly what I had in mind to do this weekend, getting extracted isn't the worst thing in the world. I mean I get turned human every couple of months…even made a drinking game out of it."
"Did you now," said the Captain.
"Yeah, every time I get turned human…I drink."
The Captain was silent for a few beats. "Drink what?"
Lars started laughing. "Oh I get it."
"See, Lars is a grad student. He gets it." Serena winked.
"Listen that's great, but what about Bea here? She's still active in the transport case."
Serena looked at Lupa. "Damn, you’re right. I don't know what happens to Ship AIs that go through an extractor. In fact I can't recall it ever having been done."
"Oh I'm sure it has," responded Lupa, "somewhere."
"Still, let's not be the first. Hey Lars, we need you over here."
The student/soldier walked up to where they others had gathered. "What do you need?"
"Put your scanner in quantum mode with a 3 Plank resolution and just sort of stick it…in there," Serena gestured to the empty air in front of her.
"Wait, like with my hand?"
"It won't hurt you Meaty McNuggets," replied Serena rolling her eyes.
Lars reached his hand in with the scanner and a few peaks appeared on the 3D graph representation of the ambient quantum foam.
"Yup, that's the tracking wave. It can lock onto most forms of sentient AI, but there are some way outside the box thinkers that are immune," said Serena.
"So what do we do about it?" asked Lars.
"Just take your railgun and start firing it into the wall to destroy the waveguides. Once they are gone the field will vanish."
"Alright everyone, stand back," said Lars looking around. "Hey, why is Fiona all the way back there?"
Fiona had a look of absolute terror on her feline face, her body language shy and mousey as she slowly backed away from the others.
"It's probably because she's scared…" Serena cut off abruptly as her eyes went wide. "Oh fuck, I can't believe I forgot about that. Fiona is from the Link!"
"What about it?" now it was Lupa's eyes that went wide with a gasp. "Shit!"
"Can someone please tell me what's going on here?" asked Dunn.
"First rule of handling a Linker," said Serena, "is that you never EVER extract a Linker. Ever. Never ever. They shouldn't get within 100 meters of an extraction field."
"Why? What happens?" Dunn asked again.
"The Interlink's been around for millennia. At first it was just a place where biologic beings uploaded their minds to, but then the denizens started to reproduce in there," began Lupa.
"In the Link any mind can produce an offspring with any other mind and it's not really a big deal. However when the Quantum Extractor is changing reality to reflect the situation where the Linker mind was born biologic all that "lineage" comes back into play and you get these crazy hybrids," continued Serena, drawing on her experiences in SLIRT.
"It's very difficult for a Linker to predict what they will extract to and the basket of options includes bodies that are simply not viable and quickly die or bodies with severe deformities. Oh," started Lupa again, "there's also the risk of turning into a non-sentient monster…that's always a crowd pleaser."
"It's not always death and deformity," said Serena, "but even if you avoid it extracted Linkers exhibit high incidences of , for lack of a better term, "powers"."
"You're kidding me. Like super powers?"
"Like the kind that start with "tele" or end with "kinetic" and if you want a cherry on top mental instability is just as prevalent as the powers. Care to guess whose job it is to deal with the fallout when some Link AI thinks its "cool" to draw from the Deck of Many Things?" said Serena, pointing at herself. "Trust me, I've had some real doozies."
"Listen, I'm going to go talk with Fiona," said Lupa. "We can't have her just hide back here by the portal. Do you think we can get her out safely?"
"We're going to get everyone out safely," said Serena. "Fiona, Bea and myself. We'll pair up bios and synths. Captain, you look after your wife. Lupa with Fiona and Lars you're with me. If we find additional extractor fields we'll deal with them and then move on."
Those near the field stepped back as Lars raised his weapon and fired about a half dozen slugs into the stone wall, each leaving a waste basket sized crater. As the dust settled two scans of the area indicated that it was safe to proceed and the party paired up with Lars in the lead followed by Captain Dunn and Fiona in the rear position just behind Lupa. They all continued walking up to and around the first left hand turn in the tunnel only to find another short length of tunnel itself capped with a 90 degree right turn.
"I feel like a rat in a maze," remarked Lars.
"Don't even joke about that," said Serena.
They made the next turn and continued on, the bio of each pair walking in front with the scanner, watching for the telltale signs of the tracking wave. It was just as Lars and Serena had reached the third 90o turn when Dunn's scanner went off causing him to jump backwards. Lars ran back to see if he was ok.
"Fucking hell, you two just walked past that spot not 10 seconds before me!" the Captain yelled as Lars confirmed the presence of a second extractor field. "If this was just for security screening they'd have the fields on all the time…right?"
"Relax captain. They are probably motion triggered to save on power or something. That's why we're all paired up here. Alright, you might want to stand back."
Lars raised his railgun while the Captain backtracked a few steps, making sure his scanner was in front of him at all times. A few muffled cracks of slug on stone later and Lars confirmed that it was safe to proceed. Walking back up to the front of the procession he gave Serena a worried look.
"I'm getting a really bad feeling about this. If this isn't a security checkpoint and this isn't a prison then what is it? Why would a major transit hub want to send people here?"
"I don't know Lars, but if this keeps up our only option will be to try and get back to the portal and, I don't know, hope for luck to intervene."
As the group walked on additional extractor fields failed to materialize, but the pattern continued with hallways and turns followed by yet another hallway. The length of the distance between turns sometimes varied, but there were no intersections or junctions or other variation from the norm. Suddenly Captain Dunn let out a terrified cry as a 20 foot section of floor vanished beneath his feet leaving him to fall under the force of gravity. Lupa almost went in with him but for the quick actions of Fiona pulling her back. As Lupa rolled over on the floor to look into the pit a bright white light erupted from it, illuminating the gloomy hallway.
The sight that greeted Lupa's eyes was bizarre. The pit was only about 10 feet deep, but the Captain was hovering, face down, about halfway to the bottom. Between him and the floor an intense white light was solidifying into a human shape. What were clearly a pair of wings gave the being an angelic appearance leading Lupa to wonder if they had finally managed to run into one of the local inhabitants. However as the seconds passed the light began to fade into a mid of pink skin and black feathers. Acting quickly Dunn wrapped his arms around the woman's upper body and head as whatever force was holding him in mid air let loose dropping the pair a short distance onto the hard floor. Once again Lars was the scene, kneeling down to peer over the edge of the now darkened pit.
"Captain, are you ok down there."
"I…I'm fine," said the Captain before his voice was joined by another, emitting a series of soft moans. "But we have a situation here. It's Bea. She's…she's here and she's…something."
Shining his light down into the pit Lars saw the Captain sitting down on the hard stone cradling what appeared to be a human female with two black corvid wings folded up against her back. Other parts of her body were clad in black feathers as well including her upper legs and forearms. Her lower legs, while still human in shape were partly covered in thick avian scales and each of her toes ended in a black talon. The woman was looking around in confusion with movements and a facial expression reminiscent of humans with severe autism or similar developmental disorders.
"Oh Jesus," was all Lars could manage.
"Can you throw me down an emergency blanket, she's starting to shiver.”
Lars rummaged through her back while Lupa and Fiona looked on. The she-wolf could feel the robotic felinoid next to her start to tremble in fear and moved to comfort the girl as best she could while still trying to assist the Captain and Bea.
"I think I see some hand and foot etched into the rock there," Lupa called out. "Captain, is she ok? Do you think we can get her out of there?"
"I don't know!" his voice sounded anguished as for the first time in his life he felt utterly unprepared to help care for his soul mate.
"Here's the blanket Cap," said Lars tossing it down. "Do you want me to come to you?"
"No, that's alright, I don't want to scare her," replied Dunn, turning to wrap the blanket around his wife. Speaking softly with a reassuring tone the Captain gently urged the bird woman to her wobbly feet.
"Talk to me Lars," called Serena from where she stood, glued to the location where her escort had left her.
"It's like she's turned into some sort of half bird half woman. She's got black wings and feathers. Dunn's helping her stand and walk right now, but she's having some coordination issues."
"Ships' AI's are most typically a human model psyche with a little bit extra added to help with the 3D movement environment, typically avians or cetaceans. I suspect it is a crow or raven model given their advanced problem solving abilities. Unfortunately flesh brains don't have the same hardware support for multiple consciousness threads so…" Serena cut herself short as she realized that the Captain, while out of sight in the pit was not out of earshot.
"Here, Lars, help me. I'm just going to lift her out. She's actually pretty light," said the Captain as he moved Bea over to the side of the pit then hefted her up by her waist to where Lars could brings her up the rest of the way.
"We're going to need to find something to wrap her feet in," said Lupa, going to her pack to dig out some extra clothing that could be fashioned into soft sandals.
"Lars, get in there and blast the field generators before it closes up," Serena called over. "We've got to get Fiona across."
Lars nodded and after helping Bea move her hands up to cover her ears he moved over to the pit and began to blast out chunks of the wall until he was satisfied that the pitfall had been disarmed. Just as Serena had expected, as soon as Dunn clambered out of the bit the holographic floor reappeared although the Captain didn't notice as he ran over to comfort his wife. Bea's face has a strange look of surprise and wonder akin to the type a human toddler gets in a strange or pleasantly unfamiliar situation. Lupa led Fiona over at which point Bea quickly became enamored with the catgirl's soft furry covering, much to her husband's chagrin. Leaving the rest of the team Lupa walked over to where Serena stood unable to hold the tears back any longer.
//"Serena, I'm coming apart here," the wolf thought spoke to avoid anyone else catching wind of her crisis. //"Sarah's dead, Bea turned into god knows what, you and Fiona are surely next. This mission is systematically destroying everyone I care far and there is nothing I can do to stop it!
As Lupa fell into Serena's arms the long lived android didn't know if Lupa suffering a breakdown was better or worse than just harboring resentment over Sarah's death. Ever since her conversion seven years ago Serena had been left feeling increasingly vulnerable with the daily rigors of her job relentlessly tearing away at the emotional defenses and coping mechanisms that has served her so well over the centuries. The death of yet another person under her command combined with the more routine stress of a perilous mission had left Serena running on fumes.
"Shhh, just relax Lupa. Bea's going to be fine, I'm going to be fine. If this place wanted to harm us it could have done so easily by now. If anything that trap back there made it clear that this whole…place was designed to naturalize synthetics in an environment where they would not be able to harm themselves or others.
//"Yeah that's great Serena, but the thing that poses the greatest risk to Fiona is the transformation itself. We've got to get her out of here."
"Now that I have a better understanding of what this place is we can adjust our search for an exit."
Lupa nodded glumly and went back to where Lars was binding up makeshift footwear made from some t-shirts and cord to Bea's feet.
"How is she," asked Lupa, noting that the former scout ship was now fully engrossed in a game of tag with Fiona's tail.
"The lights are on and somebody's home," Captain Dunn sighed, "but she's just stuck in her own reality that we can't relate to at the moment. She's getting better, I think she recognizes me and understands what I say, but I can't hold her attention. I'd say she's acting like a child, but even I've had better luck getting through to kids. Hey, are you ok?"
"I'm, I'm just having a bad day," said Lupa, wiping away the tear streaks on her cheeks.
"Alright on three, one, two, three and up," said Lars as he and Fiona together lifted Bea to her feet. Captain Dunn rushed over to take Lars' place, but showing surprising intent Bea held up her hand and clung tightly to Fiona.
"What…what's wrong?" asked the Captain, looking somewhat bewildered.
"W….w-work," was all Bea could manage, the single word taking considerable effort for her to enunciate.
"What do you mean by that," asked the Captain, still looking confused.
"It means you don't have to look after her right now," Serena called back. "Grab your scanner and reconfigure it to find a way possible exit. Now can we please get moving? I am not particularly fond of standing in this one spot for the rest of the afternoon."
As the team moved on they formed two rough groups with Lars leading Fiona and Bea and Serena hanging back with Lupa while the Captain was free to roam around with the an assortment of scanning devices, trying to find a chink in the maze.
"You know maybe if we had choices, you know, different tunnels to take, it wouldn't feel so pointless," Lupa remarked as she walked a bit ahead of her friend.
"It's supposed to be pointless. Weaken the mind so you fall into a trap, then I assume the secret doors open and you get the welcoming committee or the skeletons of the welcoming committee."
Lupa took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I was nasty to you earlier. Having to leave Sarah behind was hard and it was easier to just blame you."
"I'm the commander, that's what I'm here for," replied Serena a bit flatly.
"I would like to think you're my partner, or at least my friend," replied Lupa, not sure what to make of Serena's statement.
"I'm all those things Lupa, but I don't consider either of them to carry the responsibility of making life or death decisions."
"I always wished I had your level of decisiveness. You saved my butt so many times back in the day I don't think I would have ever questioned you had the same situation occurred back then. I guess I just got out of the habit of listening to you."
Serena covertly took her left wrist into her right hand to stop the shaking. "Like I said, don't sweat it. If Fiona gets changed she's going to need your help so you just have to put everything else out of your mind."
Fiona nodded. "We should probably get you back up to the front of the line with Lars.
"Yeah that's a good…hold on, he's stopped."
Lars held up his arm then moved forward slowly scanning the floor and walls.
"Yeah, we've got another holo-floor here."
"Well how the hell are we supposed to get you two across that?" exclaimed the Captain in frustration.
"How wide does the pit go Lars?" asked Serena.
"Um, about 25 feet."
"Yeah, Fiona and I can jump that, no problem."
"Jump?" said Fiona, the fur on her tail proofing out.
"Yeah jump, I'll go first to show you how easy it is."
Captain Dunn moved in and handed his scanner to Bea as she allowed herself to be pried away from Fiona's fuzzy warmness while Lupa and Lars cleared the takeoff and landing zones and marked the exact boundaries of the fake section of floor. Setting her variable grip boots for maximum traction the android dug in her heels and quickly accelerated towards the takeoff mark. The jump was perfect, the envy of any Olympic athlete, but about halfway through her flight Serena heard the distinct sound of the programmable hazard warning alarm sounding from Lars' scanning unit. The last thoughts through the molecular level pathways in her neorucrystal had to give the maze credit for its cleverness before her body same to an abrupt stop in mid air at the point it reached the end of the holo-floor.
This time the extraction process was on hand for all to see plainly. The energy comprising Serena's mind streamed forward from her frozen body like whey being strained from the curd. At first forming an amorphous cloud of white light the energy soon began to condense into a roughly humanoid outline that became more and more distinct until the glow faded away completely leaving behind soft flesh and flowing hair. The process now complete Serena's momentum was returned to her allowing the newly formed human to land her jump literally without missing a step. Serena crossed her arms over her bare chest and looked down with annoyance as her android shell slid into the wall with a dull thud.
"Well fuck me, so much for that plan," said Serena, her voice laden with irritation.
"You took that like a champ Colonel!" said Lars raising his hand for a high five before quickly lowering it again blushing. Serena was looking confident for the first few steps before her legs began to wobble. The next instant Lars was rushing to her side as she fell to her knees dry heaving.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," she insisted between additional bouts of sickness. "I just have to get something in me. One of the powdered ration beverages in your pack should work."
"Yeah, yeah, no problem," Lars replied.
"This isn't working," yelled Lupa, her voice wavering on the edge of freak out territory. "We walk around and around and this fucking maze keeps picking us off one by one. How the hell do we get out of here!?" she screamed, looking at Captain Dunn.
"Hey don't look at me, Bea always handled the scanners. I barely know how to read one of those things."
"Well maybe you should give it to someone who can," Lupa shot back.
"Yeah, here, fine," said the Captain looking around before finding the scanner in Bea's grasp, her face engrossed in the screen. "Hey Bea…I need that…"
"Exit." Bea said softly, pointing at one of the walls behind them.
"What did she just say?" said Lupa, looking a bit stunned.
"Exit!" repeated Bea, more emphatically this time, still pointing at the wall.
Down the hallway Lars looked up and began to push Serena back toward the other group on the far end of the holo-floor.
"Hey what gives?" protested Serena.
"I think Bea found something," said Lars, pulling Serena up to the others and turning her to face Bea who was still pointing at the far wall.
"She said that's the exit," said Captain Dunn.
Serena looked at Bea, their gazes meeting. Bea gave a slight nod before losing focus again and looking back down at the scanner
"Do it," stated Serena flatly.
"Do what," asked Lars.
"Get all the demo charges we have and get them on that wall."
"But what if she's…?"
"She's not…but that doesn't matter, it’s the only play we have left."
Lars ran back to get his pack.
"Hey, while you're over there please bring back my other body, I need to get changed," Serena called back after him before turning to see the Captain staring at her naked form. "May I help you?"
"Um, sorry, it's just that you look great. Better than great. Have you had…work done?"
"Not any more than usual," Serena chuckled. "Extracted Sisters are still human, but we have enough changes in our genome so that we count as "genetically enhanced". That means I can't participate in any NCAA events and I get looked at funny when cops see the tag on my ID."
"Are you sure that's actually related to the tag on your ID?" offered Lupa a bit seductively.
"Alright, peep show's over so why don't you get started with the charges while I swap clothes with my doppelganger there?"
"This is going to be a pretty large bang in a confined space," said Lars unpacking the charges from his bag.
"Set them up for maximum directionality. If that's a door or a huge slab of stone we don't know how thick it might be so the charges need to cut as deep as possible. We can take go back in front of the fake floor using our packs for cover and don't forget my old shell is bullet and bomb resistant."
Lars got to work as Serena methodically stripped down her old body and started getting dressed all over again. As the adrenaline rush from the extraction process began to wear off Serena began to experience all of the biologic processes she normally liked to avoid including fatigue, pain and intestinal distress. Taking a short break to quaff down a liquid ration Serena finished with her armour and then dragged her semi-nude body over to the pile of packs and equipment Captain Dunn was setting up at what would hopefully be a safe distance from the blast.
"You know if your wife manages to get us out of two nasty situations in one day I'm going to put her in for a medal," said Serena in all seriousness.
"I just hope it’s the kind you paint on a tailfin and not pin on a uniform," the Captain replied.
"Hey relax. She's doing remarkably well considering the circumstances. If worse comes to worse…"
"Don't you dare go there," Dunn snapped. "I know your Sisters like slumming it as humans from time to time, but don't suggest that being stuck this way is some kind of vacation for my Bea. I can tell she's not enjoying this in the least, but she has a duty to her mission, her crew and her passengers and she's going to carry it out no matter what."
Serena wanted to respond, to apologize, to make the Captain feel better, but for the first time in a while her words failed her and Serena just went about her work silently until Lars returned with Lupa and Fiona in tow.
"Ready to detonate at your command Colonel," said Lars, fingering the detonator.
"Alright, everyone who still has a helmet put it on," Serena called out as she clicked hers on and then positioned herself behind and on top of Lupa who was pressed up against the "wall" of packs and gear. The Captain put his helmet over his wife's head while Lars, still in light powered armour, attempted to cover them both along with the still robotic Fiona.
"Count it down Lars," said Serena.
"Three, two, one."
The explosion was substantial, but the preparations were adequate, the concussive force falling to non-life threatening levels as it blew past the passengers and crew of the Sleeping Giant covering them with a thick layer of dust and numerous fragments of rock debris. As those on top of the pile shook themselves clean they at first saw nothing but darkness, but as the dust cleared a bright shaft of sunlight broke through the gloom.
"We did it!" Fiona cried out with relief and joy.
"That's great," said Lupa through her com link. "Now can you roll off us? You're rather heavy."
The team managed to disengage from each other with everyone scrambling to grab their packs and get out of the roach motel as quickly as they could. Fiona carried Bea while Lupa and the Captain lead the way out of the hole and into a steep gorge cut into the side of a tall granite rock formation. Serena and Lars emerged last carrying Serena's android shell between them.
"Well I certainly didn't consider this eventuality when I was putting my pack together this morning," puffed Serena quickly becoming exhausted by the physical effort of lifting both her gear and her half of the shell.
"This isn't a sustainable solution if we have to travel any significant distance," said Lars
"I'll string together one of those A-frame sleds from local vegetation. That's worked for me in the past." replied Serena.
"Oh? You've been in this situation before?" asked Lars rather incredulously.
"Yeah, once, I'll tell you the story some time," Serena stopped as she broke into the sunlight. Fiona was absolutely buoyant and even Bea seemed to be having a good time as various pollinating insects skittered about a clump of flowers. "Boy, I hope whoever runs this place doesn't get pissed off at the hole we blew in the door. Look, you can see evidence of vehicle use in the track that runs up here. Not frequent, but frequent enough."
"I'm not getting anything from the emergency transponder," said the Captain. "It's like this whole planet is in a coms blackout."
"The transponders suck at getting through interference," said Serena as she took a break to sit down on a rock. "If they were as good as regular Inter-D coms then they wouldn't bother issuing the standard units. Don't worry. I can try rigging up something with the tech in my shell to boost the signal."
"At least it's nice out," offered Lupa
"I'm going to make a quick reconnoiter of the area," said Lars grabbing his weapon and making it ready for action.
"Alright," said Serena, "just be careful and don't go too far."
As Lars jogged off around the corner Serena began to go through her pack in an effort to lighten her load.
"Figures, too much crap, not enough food," Serena mumbled. "Is this really something I need to prepare for on every mission? At least I packed some energy drinks. "Helium-3 infused deuterium-oxide with added taurine", yeah, that sounds refreshing."
"You know you probably should have sent me to go recon," Lupa offered as she walked up and sat down next to Serena. "I'm faster, less noticeable and I have been just aching to get out and stretch my legs…all four of them."
"You can go out when Lars gets back. We should probably start moving quickly before whoever maintains this place decides to come see us about all the damage we caused. I don't think we're going to get our security deposit back."
"Gotcha," Lupa nodded. "Well it looks like you got us out of another one."
"We're not home yet you know and I think Bea had a lot to do with it," Serena replied.
"Hey, I'd blame you if we got stuck in there forever so I'm giving you credit for getting us out."
Just then Lars' voice came in over the radio. "Um, Colonel? We have a little situation here."
Serena let out a "now what" sigh. "Go ahead Lars."
"They've kinda got me."
"I've been captured. There's a about a company sized force out here, mostly humans. Level 4 tech combat gear, some light mecha, they wanted me to call you and resolve things non-violently. They seem nice enough, but they're going to be on you in about 30 seconds."
Serena found herself staring at her com unit, her mind metaphorically stuck on flypaper.
"Serena?!" cried Lupa, shaking the Colonel out of her daze.
"Yes, right. Everybody prepare to be taken prisoner. Zeroize all your crypro keys, make all sensitive devices safe. Conceal your escape and evasion gear if you haven't done so already." Captain Dunn went for his weapon, but Serena shook her head. "No Captain, they have Lars and we're in no position to fight."
"Serena...if I change now I can get out of here, help you escape later."
"Don't, they've probably had us under surveillance the whole time. Let's hold that particular ability close to our chest. It might be a useful card to play later."
She turned back to write some more hidden messages on some nearby rocks and threw down a couple of other breadcrumbs on the off chance a rescue force was to emerge from the tunnel. Everybody else just barely finished the procedures before a squad of soldiers appeared from around the side of the hill, weapons at the ready. Serena nodded and following her lead everyone raised their hands in surrender. A few of the soldiers rushed forward and gave everyone a quick once over with scanning wands before the officer in charge stepped forward and removed her helmet, letting her long black hair free of its confines.
"Welcome to Sanctuary. Please, lower your hands. You're safe here."
Serena looked around at the force surrounding them as her team was lead out of the ravine and onto a wide alpine meadow that sloped down towards rather involved settlement that looked like something of a cross between a vacation resort and a tech sector corporate campus. The gender ratio of the soldiers was north of two thirds female and most appeared to be of below average training and experienced based on the way they carried themselves and their weapons. Serena also noticed that those with the best skills had formed a cluster around Fiona and were eying her suspiciously.
"So, um," Serena began as she attempted to engage with the black haired woman.
"Lieutenant Blair Atherton, but you can call me Blair if you like. We don't often have new arrivals effect an escape from the processing facility. In fact I think that's the first time it's ever happened. That's why we're leading you down to talk to Lomez, he wanted to meet with you...and your synthetic...personally."
"Yeah, we're not from around here. I'm Colonel Serena Hanford from the United Federation of Alternate Worlds. My team was exploring a portal transfer facility when we came under attack and in making a tactical retreat we ended up in your little maze there. With some basic technical components that I am sure would be within your capabilities we can call in a ride and get out of your hair by sundown."
"Um, I'm afraid things are going to be a little more complicated than you had assumed, but I should probably let Lomez explain things. I can see him coming up right now."
Serena looked down the verdant slope at a man dressed in what looked like a white monk's robe walking up toward them. Looking back she saw the Captain walking next to the stretcher that was being provided for Bea, parts of her shiny black wings spilling over the sides. Her own Sister shell and all their gear had been transferred to an all-terrain cargo walker and now lumbered along with the rear guard. As they got close to the approaching man he stopped and gave a welcoming wave. Standing at about medium height and build the man identified as Lomez had short dark grey hair that came down the back a bit in a poly tail. He had a beard, but Serena couldn't tell if it was intentional or if it was simply the result of the man deciding not to shave for a couple weeks. As the two groups met, Lomez greeted Lt Atherton with a warm and unassuming smile that bespoke a genuine goodness and neatly avoided the usual pitfalls of creepy or insincere. After exchanging a few pleasantries with the Lieutenant the man approached Serena.
"Greetings Serena, let me be the first, well second, to welcome you to Sanctuary."
"Thank you very much Mr…?"
"Just call me Lomez, everybody does. We're not too big on formality here."
"Well Lomez, I am, an authorized diplomatic representative of the United Federation of Alternate Worlds," Serena stated producing an impressive looking diplomatic credential card with full holographic printing, gold inlay and both the physical and digital signature of the Minister of State. "I would like you thank you for your hospitality and I'm sure that we can get this whole situation sorted out in no time. How you would like things to proceed once we're on our way is entirely up to you and I'm sure we can talk about that later."
Lomez took and card and barely glanced at it before turning it back over to Serena.
"I believe you have misunderstood the purpose of Sanctuary. We wish no diplomatic relations with any civilization. We here are a place apart. An arc, if you will, in which free individuals can ride out the storms that befall the rest of the multiverse."
"I perfectly understand. If you wish to have no further contact by us once we leave that is your choice and you have my word that the Federation will honor it," Serena continued, running through her diplomatic flowchart.
"Ah, you see here is the awkward part, at least for me. You see Sanctuary could not be a sanctuary if people could just sort of breeze in and out whenever they felt like it. Sanctuary exists and will continue to exist as long as all those who come to Sanctuary stay in Sanctuary."
"I see," said Serena, her eyes narrowing.
"Now I will admit that these are some very exceptional circumstances and not for just the escaping bit. I believe you are the first we have encountered from your, what did you call it?"
"Ah yes, your Federation. Our citizens arrive here via the Network portals and the vast majority of are all too happy to stay. You said you were attacked? Well that is the sort of horror that we aim to defend our citizens from and if anyone were to leave and captured…well then their knowledge would almost certainly circulate among those who would like nothing more than to get their hands on another soft planet for their trophy wall."
"It's a matter of you not trusting us, or at least not trusting us to keep your secret?" asked Serena, trying to get to the root of the problem.
"Goodness no," laughed Lomez. "You all look and act quite trustworthy and I am sure that if pressed you could find any number of ways to convince me that you and your Federation are kind and virtuous."
"So I am not quite seeing the problem here," said Serena. "if you trust us, why not let us go? Or better yet ally yourself with us for protection instead of trying to hide behind the curtain."
"Because trust is irreverent when it comes to the nature of Sanctuary. Sure I can trust you and your people, but what about in a century from now? What about two? A millennia? Ten millennia? Sanctuary was created to last millions of years and when your civilization collapses, like it inevitably will, we will still be here with arms open for those that stumble through our doors."
Serena really didn't like getting the "why you can't leave" dog and pony show, but the way Lomez had delivered it opened up a door behind the scenes. The argument sounded rehearsed, but not well rehearsed. Like Lomez wasn't sure of what to do about newcomers who weren't refugees from the Network, or, if he did know what to do, he hadn't practiced it much. Serena knew she had a weak hand at that point what with the soldiers guarding them and the pageantry of walking down the hill into what would be no doubt some utopian community. The time to press her case, if that even proved necessary, would be later. For now Serena decided it was time to seize back control of the conversation.
"Well then Lomez, by all means why don't you show us what you have to offer."
Serena watched as the man's expectations about the conversation were completely blown away and he was left at a loss for words.
"We could use some time off here in your Sanctuary while my people figure out what's happened to us."
"Splendid," said Lomez, nearly parrying Serena's counterattack, "I'm not here to argue with your beliefs, just tell you the way things are. Why don't you follow me to the welcome and transition center that is...that is visible now at the base of the hill…there." Lomez suddenly stopped. "Oh, I almost forgot about the other little issue. Your synthetic tiger didn't quite finish processing so we're going to need to do that before we continue."
"Wait what? You mean Fiona? No, you don't touch her, that's not negotiable," said Serena, her voice taking on a razor sharp edge.
"I'm sorry Serena, but you aren't in a position to negotiate much of anything right now. Sanctuary has two main principles. Nobody leaves and no synthetics. If we were to start granting exceptions it would all come tumbling down just like it has in all civilizations that have divorced themselves from natural mortality."
The company of soldiers began to clear a circle around Fiona with two each stationing themselves on her teammates to head off any sort of interference.
"No! You don't understand! Fiona isn't some megalomaniac who synthed herself up to go and take over the nearest primitive planet. She was born and raised in VR. She's a biologic lifeform like you or I and if you use an extractor on her it could KILL her!" yelled Serena as she broke free and threw herself between Fiona and the soldier with the portable quantum extraction beam. "Look at her she's terrified!"
"The extractor doesn't kill," Lomez shot back with just as much conviction. "Your friend is simply being confronted the realization that she will have to spend the rest of her life as flesh and blood. We've seen the same fear countless times before with all manner of synthetics, but they get over it and soon learn to thrive here in the Sanctuary. Your friend doesn't get a pass simply for being the first of her kind to show up. In fact shame on you for having so little faith in your friend."
Another soldier had quietly taken up a position behind Fiona and out of Serena's line of sight and when Lomez nodded she immediately fired her device at the cowering feline. Fiona let out a cry as the pink beam hit her. She was instantly frozen in place as the familiar mass of white energy began to be extracted from her body, but unlike Bea and Serena before her the mass of energy didn't stop growing once it had filled the area required for a human sized body. Holding the beam on Fiona the soldier began to look a bit worried as the glowing blow continued to expand and few breathed a sigh of relief when it ultimately started to coalesce into a creature that stood at least 12 feet tall. As the white glow began to fade some distinctly feline features became apparent, but unlike her marginally conventional construct body her new biologic body had bright blue fur with black stripes and white countershading. Her body was hulking with the massiveness of a polar bear but with longer digitigrade legs that allowed a somewhat hunched bipedal stance. Her body was balanced by a thick tail that extended out some distance and tapered to a prehensile point. It was slightly reminiscent of that which a dragon might have except being completely covered in the same thick fur found on the rest of her body. On her head a dense mane of ivory hair flowed down her neck and upper back while a set of brown spiral horns corkscrewed up from the sides of her skull. Her facial features remained those of a tiger with a slightly longer muzzle and textured pupil-less eyes. Her arms and legs remained feline in appearance with furry paws, but her hands and forearms were devoid of fur, instead covered by a soft black hide that ended in a set of short stubby claws.
The transformation complete Fiona let out a whimper of shock and disbelief as she stared at her new hands. The soldiers were similarly perplexed, many raising their weapons toward a creature the likes of which they had never seen before. The Lieutenant ran about trying to keep her troops calm, but in the confusion a weapon discharged sending a bolt of high energy particles sizzling harmlessly up through the air. Fiona, her body already charged with a strange mix of fight or flight compounds, ducked down into a ball, her arms flying up to shield her head as she let out a strange terrified howl. Had there been anyone present with sufficient levels of perception they would have seen a doughnut shaped blur emerge from Fiona's center of mass and then expand outwards like a shockwave. Serena, standing closest to the strange hybrid felinoid, was impacted first, her body being picked up and launched backwards with most of the other soldiers and Serena’s teammates following suit to a degree inversely proportional to the square of the radius from the epicenter. The flesh and blood android girl hit the ground hard, her ears ringing and and her body feeling like it had just been punched hard in the gut. She watched in horror as a number of less affected soldiers grabbed their weapons in a blind panic. Try as she might she could not compel her stunned body to move and assist Fiona.
"STOP!" boomed Lomez, already standing. Newcomers are never to be harmed! Now lower your weapons. NOW!"
The soldiers grudgingly lowered their weapons as Lomez began to approach Fiona in a calm and deliberate manner. Fiona had fallen to all fours and raised her head slightly to look at the man as he approached her, her eyes swirling a mix of red and black. She was breathing heavily as her brief exercise of power had evidently taken quite a bit out of her.
"Relax, I' not here to hurt you," said Lomez in his most soothing voice. "Nobody will hurt you, I'll see to that."
The last thing Serena saw before she passed out was Lomez gently putting his hand to Fiona's furry forehead.
Serena woke with a start, both her skin and the bed sheets soaked in sweat. Befuddled by both the effects of waking in a strange place combined with her usual slate of bad dreams it took her a bit longer than normal to calm down and regain control of her faculties. Moving the sheet aside she slipped her feet off the bed and onto the hard floor. She found herself in some sort of upscale dorm room of the type one might find in an elite university. The materials were top notch even if the décor was a bit utilitarian. There was a table with a computing workstation, large display wall, sliding doorway that opened onto a balcony and ample storage space for her "things", which had been piled at the end of her bed. She still felt a bit sore, but looking herself over she could find or outward sign of injury from Fiona's little explosion earlier. Getting out of bed Serena found that she was still wearing her nanoweave armour, although her other clothing had been piled on a chair and the dressing cabinet was opened to expose a variety of robes and other garments that were more in line with the spirit of the Sanctuary than her black tactical kit.
The Colonel found herself suffering from a distinct lack of haste as she went about putting on her original outerwear and form fitting multi-traction boots. Going to her pile of stuff she was shocked to find that almost all of it was still there although her weapons and anything else that the screeners had considered dangerous had been removed. Grabbing hold of her Federation issue tablet and emergency transmitter she carefully opened the door and looked out into the hallway which was lit by rays from the late afternoon sun via a full length skylight.
The dorm theme of the building didn't stop at the rooms with a sign outside the door directing her towards the bathroom, kitchen and any number of other common areas. While most of the signs relied on pictograms, any text was repeated in 5 different languages, one of which was English with the other four being unknown to Serena with her current mental capabilities. Stepping outside the former android found the building to be about as busy as one might expect during spring break, but the sound of familiar voices talking quietly over the occasional clinking of ceramic lead Serena down the open stairway in the great hall and onto the ground floor where she spotted Lupa and Lars sitting alone together in the dining space. A quick search of the area soon located Captain Dunn sleeping on one of the hall couches and, satisfied for the moment that she had found everyone that needed to be found, Serena walked in and filled a mug of coffee-like beverage from the dispenser before joining the acedemic duo
"So, how'd you sleep?" asked Lupa, looking up over her depleted mug.
Serena shrugged and tried the beverage for herself, finding the flavor slightly off putting, but still craving a pick-me-up. "How long was I out?"
"About 8 hours," replied Lupa. "Days are longer here, I think the guide said 28 hours and 42 minutes, plus its still late summer."
"Did you see the materials they left us?" said Lars, holding up an alien electronic tablet. "We've been going through them. It's not bad…I mean both this…um…"
"Welcome Center," Lupa chimed in.
"Yeah, both the Welcome Center and the world at large seem pretty nice. They keep newcomers at the Welcome Center to help them get acclimated to the world then they set them up with permanent housing and an occupation if they are looking for one. Whole place runs on advanced precursor tech which can cover all of one's basic needs like food, clothing, shelter and medical care. If you want a bit more you can get a job or start your own business. Even here at the Welcome Center they have a pool and there are some ball courts and…" Lars trailed off and stopped reading from the tablet as he caught Serena glaring at him. "Sorry, we were just looking over the materials while you slept."
"Do we have to attend a sales presentation?" asked Serena, her voice dripping with caustic sarcasm.
"No, it…it didn't say anything about a presentation," said Lars, looking at the tablet again while Lupa tried to stifle her laughter.
"Maybe if we offer to buy two weeks they'll just give us our free gift and let us go home," said Serena, making a face as she drained the last of the ersatz coffee from the mug. "So what's with sleeping beauty in there?"
"You mean the Captain? He um, mixed it up with some of the staff when they refused to let him see his wife over in the medical unit. They used a stunner on him and laid him on the couch to sleep it off," said Lupa staring into her mug.
"Oh," replied Serena simply before sitting back in her chair and staring out the window. The next thing she was aware of Lupa was shaking her shoulder.
"Serena? Are you ok? I asked you what the plan was and you just sort of…spaced out."
"I don't know," Serena sighed, "I've been losing time ever since I got up. I don't tend to defrag…I mean sleep well as a human."
"Well, we've got to think of something."
Serena liked the way Lupa said "we" even though both of them knew it was mostly going to be her. Feeling a bit better thanks to the beverage Serena stretched out and willed herself back awake rubbing her face and neck with her hands.
"What the hell is this bump," said Serena suddenly looking alarmed, her finger zeroed in on a reddish lump on her neck.
"Oh, they gave us all a wide spectrum vaccine against all of the virulent pathogens on this world," said Lupa.
"You believed them? It's probably a tracking chip or nannos designed to fuck with our brains," Serena said as she began to pick at the lump. "Is there a microwave oven around here? I can rig it into a makeshift nano eradication device."
"Serena! It's fine. They left our basic scanning units and we checked it out. There was nothing suspicious about the injection," offered Lupa.
"Why do you think they'd just leave us with all our equipment?" continued Serena.
"They didn't set off any of the anti-tamper Colonel," said Lars. "Given the level of tech here I know that's not 100%, but all indications we saw while you were asleep is that these people genuinely wish to help us."
Serena gave both her crewmates a look that belied a brief suspicion that they had both been replaced by pod people, before letting her face ball back into her hands propped up on the table. "I don't know what to think anymore. This guy, Lomez, he's pissing me off, but I can't find out what his game is."
Lupa grabbed Serena's shoulder and forced her to make eye contact. "Ok that's enough. We might be held here against our will, but the people here have given us absolutely no indication that they desire anything more than to be kind and helpful. I don't know if you were conscious at the time, but that "Lomez guy" put himself in significant danger to make sure that Fiona wasn't harmed after she had her little episode. I'm all for taking precautions, but I don't want you going around trying to "turn" the citizens here or worse, polluting their world view with your sullen cynicism. You've only been here for 10 minutes and I'm already sick of it."
Serena mumbled a weak apology.
"Alright then, I'm going to go wake the Captain then we can have a proper planning meeting and by the way, break out the cone of silence. Just because I saying we should be personable doesn't imply we should be stupid."
As Lupa gently roused Captain Dunn, Lars returned to his room to fetch a sheet. Serena pulled out her tabled and doubled checked the anti-tamper featured before plugging in a combination microphone headset unit. When Lupa returned with the Captain Serena noticed a number of scratches on his face in addition to a black eye.
"I'd hate to see the other guy."
"Don't get me started," muttered the Captain. "When some little pipsqueak tells me I can't see my own wife I’m going to have something to say about it."
“Is the sheet really necessary?" asked Lars as Lupa pushed four chairs together for the group to sit on. “We could just hold our hands up to our mouths.”
"I know this looks silly, but unless someone remembered to pack an inflatable SCIF this is the next best solution," said Serena as she ducked under the sheet, the other three following suit.
"Um, so I've never used this app before," Lars volunteered, "but I saw a demonstration in a video once."
"It's simple," said Serema, "you hook your tablet to your neighbors' with the direct link and fire up the Cone of Silence app. Then just start talking to build up the buffer and when the screen goes green you can say the important stuff. The tablet will cover everything you say with chopped up pieces of your own voice so Lomez or one of his flunkies can't filter out your actual words from the chop. You hear what's actually being said through the earphones. These aren't the greatest earpieces so some of the chop might leak through, but just try to ignore it."
For about the next 30 seconds everyone started saying whatever random thing popped into their heads until the hard-linked tablets indicated that the system was ready at which point the conversation was able to go secure.
"Alright Colonel," the Captain began, "how do I get my wife back and how do we get out of here."
"Well if Lupa is any judge of things to answer your first question you'll probably get Bea back when they're done providing her with medical care at the hospital. Regarding the second question I believe that we'll get out of here as soon as I can get through to someone with one of the emergency Inter-D transmitters."
"It's no good," Lars injected. "As far as I can tell with the scanner there's enough ambient interference to make these little handhelds pretty much useless. Given what the Sanctuary is trying to be I'd bet that whoever built it chose a planet that’s FTL isolated. That means a planet sitting in a patch of space that is damaged in such a way that warp and hyperspace drives can't function within a significant radius. That effect goes hand in hand with the sort of interference that can affect Interdimensional Coms."
"Well if we did get a signal up could Fleet open up a portal or is the interference to great for that too?" Serena asked, knowing the answer to this question could significantly alter their length of stay.
"From what I have been able to determine with the equipment they left us a portal should be able to open without running into stability or feedback issues, but you're going to need a transmitter several orders of magnitude stronger than the ones we have to punch through the background noise," Lars replied.
"Alright," said Serena, "that's at least some good news although we might want to just sit back for a bit and observe how things work here. Even if they aren't bugging our rooms and brains I'm sure if we start trading around for exotic technology on the back market they are going to get wise to the fact we're up to something. That reminds me, Lupa, when you get a chance wrap up one of our units and go for a nice extended run in your fur one night. If our rooms get tossed I'd like to have a plan B to fall back on."
"While we're on the subject," Serena continued, "what did they do with all of our stuff?"
"I’m not 100% sure, but I was told that if I felt one of their screening decisions was in error I could lodge a complaint with the technology office over in the main administration building," said Lupa, pulling out a laminated map of the Welcome Center campus. "That means all our gear is still on site. Now before you go off half cocked Serena, we went through that and some of the other buildings and this isn't a bunch of low tech bumpkins you can just push around. I'd rate the technology as Class IV or V. The security system is professional and while the guards might not be the most experienced and the weapons are largely non-lethal they will be on us like white on rice if we even try to start something."
"So what do you see our options being Lupa?" prompted Serena as her addled mind attempted to come up with its own solutions.
"Well let's see. Convince Lomez to let us go. Convince someone with access to betray Lomez. Figure out if there is an alternate set of physical laws and if so become competent enough in its use to overcome the local technology."
"Did you just seriously suggest one of our escape options is to "use magic"?" the Captain shot back at Lupa.
"Captain please. There's no wrong answer here, we need to have all options on the table," said Serena digging into her bag of group problem solving tricks. "What about long term Lupa, like from what you read in the materials?"
"Once they let us out of here," said Lars answering, "I am pretty sure we could assemble the technology needed for a sufficiently powerful Inter-D transmitter in one to five years. So that would be an upper bound provided "the man" doesn’t intervene."
"At least it's good to have an upper bound although I'm sure I speak for everybody in saying that a five year penalty out flag on our lives would not be the optimal scenario."
Captain Dunn suddenly spoke up, that light bulb expression on his face. "Wait, what about Fiona. Colonel, you said when Linked go through the extractor thing they sometimes get powers. Well you saw what Fiona did out on that field. I think that counts as powers. The dumb ass weekend warriors were damn near shitting themselves after she pulled off that little stunt."
"Lupa, I'll need you to get on that when we get Fiona back from the hospital," said Serena looking over at her friend. "You'll probably need to take her out somewhere where you can have some privacy."
"Woah woah, hold on there a second Serena," Lupa protested. "I'm an uplifted Wolf, not some magical canine. I got a treatment so I can do the thought speech, but that doesn't make me fucking Gandalf. The only things I know about magic I've learned from movies or from watching some of your friends. I'm not qualified to take a n00b out into the woods and try to teach her how to use her spiffy new superpowers! As much as I trust Fiona right now she's a danger to herself and others."
"Lupa, you're the most perceptive person here…" Serena began before Lupa cut her off again.
"Oh, well that's completely different," said Lupa interrupting. "I thought you needed to be a mage, but it turns out you need me to be a sage. I'll get right on that for you. Let me go dust off my Mr. Miyagi koans."
"Are you done?" asked Serena. "We have a ship's captain, an ex-robot girl, a graduate student and a talking wolf with a PhD from Vassar. You're square peg pounds in the easiest so just do the best you can and try to keep Fiona from hurting herself…or anyone else for that matter."
Lupa glared. "This face cannot properly express the emotions I'm feeling right now."
Captain Dunn attempted to hide his amusement at finally seeing someone who could so thoroughly wind up the Professor. "Is there anything you'd want me to do?"
"You just stick with you wife and make sure she's ok," said Serena.
"Listen I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but we're still part of this mission. We're going to walk to help out as soon as we're even the last bit able," the Captain responded.
Serena thought for a moment. "All I can suggest is seeing if Bea might have some latent savant hacking abilities. Her being so, um, differently abled, might provide us with some cover for proving the network and their other information systems. Lars, you're on general recon. Be resourceful, but be careful about raising suspicion. If you hear a little voice in your head about doing something come see me first."
Lars nodded. "Is that everything?"
"Yeah, I think we're done here so I guess we can stop looking silly."
The team disconnected their equipment and got out from under the sheet. The sun was just about to drop below the high mountain ridgeline that ran to the east of the welcome center compound. Serena barely had enough time to go over the materials as well as grab another cup of the nasty substitute coffee before a woman wearing the uniform of the welcome center staff showed up.
"If you would please come with me your friends are ready to receive visitors over in the medical center.
The medical center with its bright spacious hallways and metropolitan architecture was equipped with the best that medical technology could hope to have from the ability to regenerate minor cuts and burns all the way to cloning whole replacement bodies. While comparable to what was considered the standard of care of core Federation worlds, the lack of cybernetic enhancement facilities plainly stood out. The building came across as underutilized with just a trickle of patients and staff wandering about the "traditional" care areas that focused on healing the purely physical issues associated with the body. The mental health facility, located across the plaza, was a lot busier with patients congregating in the garden outside for the evening meal.
"Your friends are right in here," said the woman wearing an attractive yet functional white and blue jumpsuit. "Took us a little effort to locate a space large enough for Fiona, but luckily we weren't having a surge right now so we just set her up in a lounge."
Walking around the corner the large blue and back felinoid was laying back on a makeshift couch constructed from a large number of individual mattress pads. A number of sensors were attached to her body and arms and a few patches of fur had been shaved down for IV lines.
"Where's my wife?" the Captain asked, looking a bit impatient.
"Oh, she's in that room right there if you'd just…"
Captain Dunn pushed past the assistant nearly knocking her to the ground before running into the room where Bea was being kept.
"I'm sorry about that," apologized Lupa. "He's been quite worried about her."
"That's alright, I fully understand. Now, Fiona here spent the day in surgery where some of our best doctors went about correcting the 18 congenital defects she presented with. Of course it was nothing our equipment couldn't handle, but given the record number of defects it did take a little while to plan things out." The woman walked over to Fiona's "bedside". "How are you feeling there? You have some visitors."
Fiona gave a weak little wave with one of her unfurred hands as she looked towards her friends with dark green eyes. "I hope you don't mind professor, but I'm feeling a bit under the weather today and asked to stay another night here in the hospital."
"Oh don't you dare give me that evil taskmistress advisor shtick," cried Lupa as she ran to give Fiona a big hug, burrowing her face in the soft fur of her neck. "You can stay here for as long as you need."
"I'm a little disappointed I didn't end up with wings like Bea got," said Fiona with a smile. "Although all in all I think I'll take my prize and go home. I could have ended off a lot worse off."
"The horns are quite fetching, but I thought your eyes were a different color. At least that's what I think I remember right before you blasted me with that shock wave," said Serena.
"Sorry about that and yeah, I think my eye color changes according to my mood. I haven't gotten a chance to decode it yet but I'll make up flash cards…or perhaps just keep you guessing."
Lupa was still wrapped up in Fiona's massive fur covered body. "Ooooo, I think I am just going to call you Fluffy."
"Well I've asked the staff to get me some large brushes and other hair care products. I am probably going to require anyone who wants a hug to help me manage this mess" Fiona grumbled. "Hey, give me an A for intuition. My construct turned out to match my bioform pretty well. It feels nice that I can prove to people that I wasn't just making things up because cats are cute."
"How have you been doing with the other biologic "necessities"? Remembering to breathe and all that jazz?" Serena asked.
"Oh yeah, this body feels completely natural and I've had a whole team of healers on hand to help me out." Fiona shifted slightly to look at the woman. "Thank you again Joan for all your...assistance."
"It's been our pleasure Fiona. You're one of the most exciting things we've had happen here in years. The Network sends us a pretty uniform stream of humans and humanoids. Your case is rather unique."
"Excuse me, Dr. Voss wants to see all of you in Bea's room," said the healer, looking at a device on her wrist. "Present company excluded of course," she continued looking at Fiona.
"No that's fine, I think I need to do one of those biologic things anyway," Fiona responded, shifting around on her couch to get up.
The three graciously thanked Joan before piling into the less spacious exam room where Bea was sitting upright in bed pounding away on a tablet while Captain Dunn stood by her side. Once everyone was in the room the Captain looked up at the female doctor.
"Tell them what you told me Doc."
"Let me just begin by introducing myself. I am doctor Emily Voss, head of the surgical department here at the Welcome Center clinic. First off I want you to know that I am making Bea's care my top priority until we can get the situation fixed."
"Fixed? What's a "situation"?" asked Serena, already not liking where the conversation was headed.
"Well, physically Bea here is in perfect health. There were some minor medical issues that we easily corrected, but when evaluating her obviously abnormal mental state scans showed a truly remarkable level of neurological activity." The doctor paused to take a breath. "Unfortunately the level of activity is too high for the neurons to sustain at this rate. The closest case I can think of involves severe epilepsy, but as I have been informed this represents Bea's baseline neurological state due to her multi-threaded consciousness. Long story short Bea will begin to suffer permanent brain damage in as little as 3 to 4 months if left untreated. We have the capability to correct complex neurological issues, but given Bea's unique neurophysiology we would need to invent completely new corrective methods and then ensure that they would not have any unacceptable side effects."
"Alright," said Serena, looking surprisingly unconcerned, "what do you recommend then."
"Well I suggest putting her in stasis until we can develop a solution to the problem. It might take a few years, but I'm sure we'd come up with something. I've already talked with Administrator Lomez about this and…"
"Now Doctor," Serena broke in, "if we wanted to spend a little time with Bea up front, help her get used to things and such, that wouldn't cause any permanent harm would it?"
"No, I don't think it would," said Dr Voss.
"Well than Captain, what do you think we should do?" Serena asked across the room.
"I think I would like to get her out of this hospital," said Dunn flatly.
Serena looked back at the doctor. "I don't suppose this is a problem now?"
"N-no, not at all."
"Great, we'll just step out and let you get on with the discharge," finished Serena taking Lupa's hand and walking back out into the hallway.
//"Alright, you can let go now. You're hurting my hand." Lupa complained directly into Serena's mind.
//"Sorry, I just didn't want to accidently punch someone in there. Smug little fucks. "Oh, we'll totally fix the damage our irresponsible body conversion system has caused." Yeah well, I have a better solution," Serena thought back.
//"Uh oh, you might want to hold onto my hand again. Here comes Lomez."
Serena's hand clamped down on Lupa's wrist as Lomez walked up with a friendly smile. "Ah, Serena, Lupa, nice to see you two over here visiting your friends. I would have been here earlier myself, but there were some complications over in the operations facility I had to attend to. Now before you get all upset I wanted you to know that I am aware of Bea's condition and I will personally see to it that she gets the very best care we have available.
"You don't say," said Serena between clenched teeth.
"In fact I had some proposed treatment options I can go over with you and the Captain."
"Listen, Lomez, I would love to stay and chat, but we were hoping to get out and take a quick walk with Bea before it got dark. Perhaps we can go over that another time," said Serena as she tried to end the conversation.
Lomez lowered his tablet a confused look on his face. "I assumed that you would have been more engaged with the welfare of your friend in there. You seemed quite passionate about defending her the other day out on the field."
"Well you seem quite interested in the welfare of those you intentionally endangered in the first place," snapped Serena. "Now if you don't mind I need to take a walk with Bea, she's not feeling her best right now."
Serena turned, giving Lomez the cold shoulder as Captain Dunn helped his wife into a wheelchair.
"Yeah, we'll talk later," said Lupa, trying to not leave too bad a taste in the air.
The group had started down the hall before Lomez called after them. "I set you guys up for a little welcome party at our bar, New Beginnings. Go have some fun, it's on me. The foods a lot better than what we serve in the cafeteria."
A chill raced up Serena's spine as her hand clamped down on Lupa's wrist again.
//"Wow, he knows your kryptonite…basic human decency."
//"More like open bar."
"What would you nice folks like to order," the bartender asked after Serena, Lupa and Lars walked up to the bar in New Beginnings.
"I'll try a glass of your Akvavit there and I'd also like a pint of the double IPA for the Captain."
"Gin and tonic please," said Lupa.
"Long Island Iced Tea," stated Serena as the bartender's eyes fell on her. He made a bit of a face, but soon got to work on it.
"You're starting things off a bit heavy Serena," remarked Lupa.
"You know the drinking game, besides I judge realities based on their ability to produce America's most complicated cocktail."
"Well, try to keep yourself in check. We only have the one wheelchair."
Serena wandered off by herself taking a seat at an empty table while the rest of her group sat closer to the bar. Lupa knew better than to question Serena's need for occasional quiet time and from a tactical point of view the Colonel wanted to scope out the room. Therefore it came as a surprise when Lt. Atherton sat down right in front of her.
"Hey there, mind if I join you? You sort of had a staring contest going on there so I figured you could use the company."
"Sure, go right ahead," said Serena, adjusting her seat so that she could continue to see the door.
"Wow, I knew you two were going to be trouble the moment I saw you'd blown a hole in processing unit #3," Atherton casually remarked.
"Excuse me?" said Serena.
"Oh, well I mean the council has been shitting themselves ever since you six showed up. There's never been anyone like you folks before," said Atherton, lowering her voice to swear. "Rumor is they want to shut down all inbound portals until they can figure out what to do."
"Why are you telling me all this," asked Serena suspiciously.
"Why not? You're citizens of Sanctuary now too. Might as well keep you informed of the situation especially since I'd love to have you work with me once you get all nice and settled in."
Serena chuckled as she took a sip of her drink, "Work with you? Yeah, sure, why not."
Atherton leaned in close to Serena. "You've got to tell me. What is your friend to turn into something like that? When we looked over her old body the design was certainly unique, but the tech was nothing we hadn't seen before and certainly nothing to explain why the extraction process went so haywire."
"Like I tried to tell that Lomez guy Fiona didn't convert nor was she built. She was born biologically in a VR world called the Interlink. Extractor tech tends to freak out when it tries to work its magic on such lifeforms," Serena answered as plainly as possible, continuing to drink.
"And there are more like her?"
"Trillions would be a gross underestimation not to mention an equal number from another decidedly less friendly virtual ecosystem. They were the ones that were chasing us when we happened upon your little honey pot."
The Lieutenant was silent for a moment. "I guess this place wasn't exactly built with novel forms of life in mind. Forgetting about what happened to your tiger friend I was surprised large scale civilizations of the type you claim to be from could have advanced to such a state without descending into chaos."
"I don’t know what to say besides that it’s a big multiverse out there. Say, what part of the Network do you hail from anyway?" Serena asked.
"Oh, I was born and raised here in Sanctuary. I guess the only stories and history I have access to come from newcomers."
Serena nodded, mindful of Lupa's admonition not to go around trying to shake things up. "The Network is a pretty rough place so I can see the reason for pessimism towards the outside world. Perhaps one day my people can clean it up."
"Lomez said that's what the Founders who built the Network wanted, to clean up the multiverse, but they got old, ascended to another plane of existence or something. There's only so much time and patience and an infinite number of realities. You'll have to forgive him if he seems inflexible, but Lomez is old school. Before he found this place he had been all over and I don't think he was very impressed by what passed as "progress". However, most here agree that keeping Sanctuary safe and viable is worth the occasional inconvenience."
"Speaking of inconvenience I don't suppose you have any scotch lying about. If not I'll probably have to experiment with whatever is on hand," said Serena staring into her rapidly diminishing glass of tea.
Blair laughed. "Nah, we don't get imports like that, but you'll find that Sanctuary has more than enough local versions of everything. Hey, are you going to want to eat something? They make a mean Sheppard's Pie here."
"Good point, I guess this body needs fuel other than ethanol and since our good friend Lomez is treating," remarked Serena leaning back to catch the attention of the wait staff.
"I wanted to thank you for being so understanding about this. The portal administrators call newcomers from outside our target demographics "bycatch" and such arrivals can tend to be a bit of trouble before finally settling down. Sanctuary is supposed to be a destination, not a prison so none of the staff likes dealing with people that might see themselves as somehow being punished or confined. Honestly, if you just give it a chance I'm sure you'll fit right in just like all the others before you," Atherton said with sincerity.
Additional drinks soon arrived and Serena continued to make small talk with the Lieutenant, occasionally inserting questions about security procedures and staffing levels. However as the drinks piled up Serena's ability to run her James Bond playbook rapidly diminished until the point she looked up from her empty plate to see Lupa sitting across from her. The bar was almost empty. Some of the remaining patrons were heading for the door. Serena's head twisted about, her face looking confused.
"Earth to Major Tom," prodded Lupa, "I saw you sitting over here by yourself just staring at your plate for the last half hour. How much have you had to drink?"
"Are you going to need help getting back?"
Serena nodded pouring the remainder of her last drink into a to go cup before Lupa and Lars helped Serena up to her feet.
"You know getting drunk with you used to be fun. Ooph, at least your human body is lighter," Lupa grumbled.
"A lot of things used to be fun," Serena replied as she worked to put one foot in front of the other.
"Hey Captain," Lupa called over to Dunn as he stood at the bar trying to order some ice cream for Bea, "we're going to head back and put the Colonel to bed."
"Go right ahead, I'll be around in a little bit."
Unnoticed by anyone Bea sat at the table intently watching the minute disturbances on the surface of a glass of water. Moving her head in closer a smile crept upon her face as she solved the puzzle and whispered a single word.
Serena awoke as her body hit the floor, her most recent sleep troubles sending her careening off the bed with her body tangled up in the sweat-soaked sheet. Managing to free herself she looked out of her window at the pitch black night, her biologic clock not yet adjusted to the longer day/night cycles of whatever planet Sanctuary had taken for its own. Her buzz having been long since burned away by her increased metabolism Serena threw on her boots, but didn't bother with anything more than her skintight black armor. Once sufficiently dressed Serena walked into the hallway, down to the kitchen and, after gulping down a few glasses of water, stepped out into the cool night air. She half expected to be accosted by whatever night patrol was assigned to keep her and her team from getting up to no good, but instead encountered no one as she walked back to the bar. The lights were off and the door was of course locked, but one of the clerestory windows looking out onto the patio was still tilted in the open position and it didn't take a being of Serena’s athleticism much time to scurry her way inside. Heading right for the top shelf she quickly located a promising 15 year old single barrel bottle of whatever and after picking up a glass and a few chilled stones she sat herself down by one of the windows, looking off into the night.
"Having trouble sleeping?" emerged the voice from the darkness.
"I figured you'd show up," said Serena sipping her whisky.
"You could just come by my office, I have an open door policy," said Lomez as he sat across from Serena pouring a shot of the liquid into his own glass. "You know I've run into people like you before."
"Have you now."
"Of course, in and amongst our usual fare of abused refugees and insane 5000 year old androids commanding all in earshot to bow down before them we get the occasional explorer or lost soul. Maybe they're out to make a difference or perhaps they are only out for themselves, but they see life as a game and they are forever chasing a high score."
Serena didn't respond, continuing to sip her drink and look out the window.
"The problem is that the game is a fools' errand. They're practically immortal, centuries old and stuck in a never ending loop. Of course when we take that all away from them they complain like you wouldn't believe, but given time they all come around and thank me for saving them from a meaningless existence."
"If you're looking to be cynical about things I could say that you're simply swapping one meaningless life for another," said Serena, shifting in her chair. "Look at this place. It's just a fancy retirement community where people can circle the drain until they die."
"Well tell me what was so good about your life that made it any better. Conquering new worlds, expanding your empire, gaining more wealth, more resources… What did it get you? Without your robot body you're just a depressed alcoholic. In Sanctuary we win the game by refusing to play it. Live how you want to live. Die the way you want to die. We may not reach for the brass ring, but we'll still be here making baskets and growing heirloom apples long after your Federation has collapsed into anarchy."
Serena stared into the amber liquid in her glass, trying not to listen to Lomez's words which cut through her like an arctic wind. Part of her wanted to rise to the defense of progress, the linear flow of time from the beginning to some ultimate achievement, but she knew that she would stand no chance against his strong convictions. It stood to reason that Lomez had probably had such arguments hundreds of times before.
"Like I said before I'm not here to argue with you, but it will be easier when you accept the fact that nobody leaves sanctuary. I've gone and taken the liberty of scheduling you in a group therapy session. As you might guess our councilors and techniques are some of the best anywhere. I urge you to take advantage of them before your behaviors become any more self destructive."
Draining his glass Lomez got and put his glass back on the bar.
"Remember to close the door behind you when you're ready to leave."
“Hold on!” Fiona cried after the wolf as it vanished into another thicket of evergreens, “I can’t move as fast as you through these trees.”
//”Humph, not my fault you doubled in size Fluffy. Try just showing those trees whose boss.” The sound of cracking branches filled the air as Fiona bowled through the last stand of thin white barked trees and onto the large rock strewn clearing that ran along the base of the ridgeline. //”This location should afford us adequate privacy from the prying eyes of the welcome center. Are you ready to begin your training?” the unusually large wolf thought at the gargantuan blue tiger.
“I hope you’re happy, my fur is an absolute mess. It took me an hour to get it combed out this morning and now it looks like I wasted my time,” Fiona grumped.
//”As nice as these people are I wouldn’t want to test their reaction to you developing your super powers.”
“That reminds me, if I’m going to be a superhero I should probably pick a more appropriate name than “Fluffy” which, by the way, is a term I do not remember sanctioning in the first place,” said Fiona glaring at the wolf.
//”According to several popular movie and book series anger can help motivate your powers so Fluffy you stay until you can demonstrate some mastery,” said Lupa as she ran circles around the clearing to make sure they weren’t being surveilled.
“Joy. Alright, so what do you want me to do?”
//“Don’t blow yourself up. Don’t blow me up.”
“Don’t throw the sarcastic wolf in a lake.”
//”Four legs or two I’m still your advisor.”
“If this works I want elective credit.”
//”Deal, now, see that rock there that’s about the size of a trash can?”
“The one with the flat top?”
//“No, the other one, about five feet to the left.”
“Yeah, got it, what do you want me to do?”
//”Well try to lift it.”
“Um, ok,” Fiona replied, staring at the rock and furrowing her furry brow. After about a minute of nothing happening Lupa padded up to Fiona’s leg.
//”How about you try picturing the effect you want, or just thinking of a desired action and willing it to happen.”
“Lift! Lift you stupid rock!”
//”Think, THINK, of the action you want and try pointing your hand, that might focus whatever energy you’re marshalling. “
Fiona tried again and much to her surprise the rock began to wobble.
“Did you see that?! Look! I did something!”
//”Very good, try again with a bit more focus this time.”
Fiona raised her arm again and focused on the rock, willing it to lift off the ground. Once again it began to wobble before suddenly shooting up into the air and quickly becoming a small black speck against the bright blue sky.
“Blast off!" Fiona shouted triumphantly.
//“Run!” Lupa barked.
Lupa took off along the rocky slope with Fiona close on her heels. Despite her large size Fiona had retained an impressive running speed and soon both had put significant distance between themselves and the rock’s point of departure.
//”Down!” Lupa thought-cried as the wolf hunkered down under a shallow rock overhang with Fiona following suit as best she could.
“Can you tell me why we just did that?”
Suddenly A loud crash reverberated across the field as lethal fragments of rock sprayed in all directions, a bowling ball sized piece tumbling end over end not 10 feet from where the pair was taking cover.
//"What goes up must come down," stated Lupa. "Next time why don't you try throwing the rocks away from us?"
"Will do," Fiona replied now feeling both foolish and exhausted after launching a half ton boulder a thousand feet in the air. "Oooo, I'm feeling a little dizzy here."
//"We should probably take a break then. Consume some of the energy drinks and protein beverages you brought to regain your strength."
Clambering back to her feet Fiona dusted herself off and went into her bag for both a recovery beverage and one of the standard issue Sanctuary tablets, which in her oversized paws looked laughably small.
"Hey look, I've got net out here," Fiona remarked as she sat back on her haunches quaffing the first bottle of energy drink in one gulp.
Lupa padded up and sniffed at the device in Fiona's hands. //"Um, I think that pad is mine."
Fiona looked at it for a moment then before moving to put it back in her bag. "Why so it is. I see that nose of yours can't miss a thing."
//"Quick question, how did you unlock it?"
Fiona blinked again and then turned to Lupa with a baffled expression on her face.
"I…I don't know."
The late day sun had turned the forested hillside orange the dangerously clever dire wolf stalker her prey, a single human dressed in Sanctuary attire, sitting alone on a rocky outcrop that overlooked the valley. The wolf had picked up her sent some distance away and tracked it to this location. Moving with all possible stealth, just a few inches at a time the wolf drew closer and closer to the unsuspecting human, ready to pounce.
"Give it up Lupa, I know you're there," said Serena, not even bothering to turn around as she poured another ounce of dark amber whisky into her glass.
Lupa let out a whine and padded up to sit down next to her friend.
//"How on earth did you detect me?" complained Lupa, a bit miffed that over an hour of painstaking effort had been for naught.
"Not telling, but what's really going to piss you off is that I might just say that from time to time in the off chance that you might actually be getting ready to pounce me and you just gave yourself away," said Serena smiling.
//"Oh! You little…" snarled Lupa knowing that the thought would gnaw at her for the rest of the evening.
Serena reached over and began to gently rub Lupa between the ears. "So, how did things go with Fiona?"
//"Pretty reasonably considering that I have no idea what I am doing and am just making everything up as I go. Already I'd give her a B minus for skill, but her endurance is more like a D. Even basic tricks take a lot out of her. We experimented with some recovery formulas, but they didn't make a huge difference over short periods of time. So what did you do with your time?"
Serena sighed before answering. "I ran into Lomez again last night and despite my best efforts he kind of got to me. I guess you don't get to be in charge of a place like this without some degree of charisma. Anyway despite my better judgment I kinda took him up on his offer of group therapy sessions."
//"That sounds great!" said Lupa, perking up her ears. //"I could tell something's been different with you since you showed up on 537 and I'm glad you're getting help. Not sure how much I should condone you sneaking out to drink though. I think you might have a bit of a problem," she continued, nosing the glass in Serena's hand.
"Oh, no, I wasn't trying to sneak away, just looking to be alone with my thoughts. They offered me some medication, but I'm not touching meds in this place. I asked around during the session and they don't make any bones about their more advanced "rehabilitation" techniques that include neural-restructuring and selective memory blocking. At least I can trust self-medication."
Lupa laid her head in Serna's lap. //"So what did Lomez say to you that at least partially changed your mind?"
Serena was silent for a minute or two before answering and even then her voice was softer and less confident than usual. "I guess he just made me think about what my goals were and what my end game was. Do I just keep on going until I wind up getting killed on a mission or do I wind up going insane who knows how many centuries in the future. Sanctuary may look like a cop out, but by restricting choices of its citizens it makes them happier overall. If I'm not getting what I need in my regular life…"
//"Serena! Surely you're not actually considering staying here," said Lupa, her voice betraying a sense of deep shock at this sudden revelation.
"If the schedule hadn’t gotten fucked up and Skie had been on this mission instead of me you would have been home yesterday. Not only are Neos immune to extractor fields he could have just magiced open a portal as a means to escape. What the hell use am I when that's the competition?" Serena went quiet again as she drained the liquid from her glass. "I'm not the Serena you knew anymore Lupa. Back when I was a jumble of AI code I could just click Ignore and everything was fine. Now I can try to ignore stuff, but it doesn't work. Things just get worse and worse for me."
//"No you're not the same person Serena, you're better. Skie isn't a better leader than you. He's not a better tactician or strategist. What good are Skie's party tricks today if we had been killed or captured by the Unity yesterday?"
Lupa paused a moment to let her words sink in.
//"I think you're chasing the past because it was easier for you, it was what you knew how to deal with. I'm sure that if on my 400th birthday you turned me into a robot or a human or a male, with no chance to turn back I'd be pretty bummed as well, but the first part of the adaptation process is acceptance. You've fallen for Lomez's false dichotomy between running off the rails and puttering around in a nice safe circle. Sure imperfect decision making and fuzzy emotions are challenging, but the Serena Hanford I know wouldn't run off to some engineered petting zoo to avoid them."
Serena leaned over, silently hugging the oversized novelty wolf and gently running her fingers through the wolf's thick, soft pelt. There was no need for her to say anything as her body language and presence revealed more at that point that her words ever could. The sun was just about to drop below the ridge on the other side of the valley when Lupa slowly pulled herself free.
//"Come on, we should go before it gets dark out."
"One second, someone seems to have sent me a whole bunch of messages," grumbled Serena as she accessed her tablet. "You know to know what else is challenging, having to remember to check this crap instead of just being aware of things. I wonder if this place is down with more limited cyber enhancement. Ah, looks like messages from Lars. Something about a new newcomer…" suddenly Serena's face went white. "Oh dear…that's….ouch."
Lupa looked up at her quizzically and Serena angled the tablet over showing a traumatized human woman wrapped in a blanked being lead into the medical facility by a team of security personnel. Those parts of her body that could be seen were completely covered by red and blue blood.
"If you’re missing a shoe," said Serena. "I believe it just dropped."
--Part 8== Five of the six teammates huddled together around one of the cafeteria tables making furtive glances across the room towards the dark haired woman in the simple grey jumpsuit that sat eating alone. All but the Captain were dressed in Sanctuary garb, but even this gesture of togetherness was rebuffed by the Center staff who prevented all attempts to speak with the new Newcomer.
"They brought her in about 8 hours ago. I sent the photos out right away, but somebody didn't bother to check their e-mail," said Lars, directing his gaze at Serena.
"I said I was sorry alright? I'm use to communications being more, you know, integrated."
"Are you sure she's one of the Unity that was chasing us?" Lupa asked Fiona.
"I don't know about chasing us, but so far I've overheard the words "arrogant physical" and "decadent bag of meat". I still need two more for a bingo, but only Units speak that way," said Fiona as she learned into the conversation with her 12 foot frame planted firmly on the floor, her eyes a swirl of blue and red.
"Didn't Sisters used to speak that way Serena?" asked Captain Dunn making a quick glance over his shoulder towards the rather hostile looking woman.
"Oh gods no. We'd just roll in and drop biogenic weapons from orbit, not try to lecture planets to death about on how having a physical body eviscerates the proletariat," Serena replied as she took another bite of food that made her fully appreciate the "premium" offerings from places like New Beginnings.
"If she's Unity why doesn't she look like Fluffy here?" Lars asked.
"The Unity prefers assimilation over procreation, or at least doesn't give the latter much of a chance. Intel reports state that anyone not in the Party has their children taken to be reared in state orphanages," Serena answered. "Given how few computing resources most citizens are allocated it's actually one of the few policies I agree with. Raising a child in such a restricted virtual space would permanently stunt their development. Anyway that's why I suspect that our mystery woman was either born naturally then uploaded or born from uploaded parents."
"The question is where did the other five go and moreover what role did our new friend here play in their disappearance?" Lupa pondered.
Fiona shifted around on the floor before leaning in closer. "It is not uncommon for a first or second generation Linker to manifest physical changes after extraction depending on their experiences in the Link. For all we know that Unit may have had latent supernatural ability or had those abilities amplified by the Sanctuary process. I think we can assume that she was covered in the blood of her comrades."
"Ok, so she could either be a victim or a perpetrator, but is this even anything that concerns us? We…" Lars paused, mindful to watch what he said in a public space. "…aren't here to investigate mysteries for the hell of it."
"If the Virt over there killed her comrades then we will need to steer clear of her. If she didn't then…well then there's something big and nasty on the prowl. Probably none of our business, but we'd be wise to find out," suggested Serena.
"What do you propose we do?" asked the Captain. "You know the policies here about bringing up old grudges. "Everybody gets a clean slate in Sanctuary"," he continued, mocking Lomez from the orientation holo.
"Who said anything about the past? I'm going to go over and welcome her to the future," said Serena.
"Staff's not letting anyone near her, probably because of her attitude," noted Lupa, looking over again at the staff hovering around the solitary woman.
"Fluffy, can you create a diversion?" asked Serena.
"Ok, enough already with the Fluffy, I'm sort of getting sick of that name," Fiona shot back. "I didn’t ask for this to happen to me."
"Nothing is stopping you from getting clipped," prodded Lars.
"I'm working on it!" said Fiona with some measure of exasperation. "But yeah, I can create a diversion. Planning on working your magic on that sanctimonious Unity bitch Serena?"
"Why do I feel like I'm sitting at the mean girls' table back on the Hyperion," groaned the Captain, burying his face in his hand."
Serena gave Fiona a wink who smiled in return.
"If you'll excuse me I think I will attempt to bus my tray," said Fiona standing up.
Fiona lumbered carefully across the cafeteria making a point not to upend any tables or spill the food and drink of innocent bystanders. However as she reached the reclamation unit she carelessly hit her head into a support beam then fell down onto the rack of cleaned tableware sending trays, knives, plates and spoons clattering across the floor. The staff immediately moved to assist the flailing alien feline and clean up the mess, abandoning the sullen Unity woman in the process and allowing Serena to slide into the seat across from her.
"Hello there," Serena began in her friendliest possible voice. "I see they managed to get you too."
"I said I wasn't interested in wasting addition air to have a conversa…" growled the Unity before her eyes went wide as they focused on Serena. "You….YOU! You murderer!" she hissed at Serena, her voice slow and measured. "Do you think I wouldn't forget you? You think I didn't see you as you lured us through the portal!? I went out of our way to give you every chance to surrender without harm and you took my generosity and use it to kill my entire crew. Murderer!" she started to yell, flying out of her seat. "MURDERER!"
Even with her hazy organic memory the images from Lars' helmet cam of Sarah's dead body were vividly seared into Serena's mind's eye. The only thing Serena could do to prevent herself from dashing across the table and breaking the shrill Unity woman's neck was to grab onto the edge of the table with all the force her human body could muster while the woman's tirade continued unabated.
"You physicalist cunt! You shoot down my ship then sabotage our only means of escape trapping us in this…prison where…where…" the woman staggered back, looking like she was having trouble swallowing a piece of food before a look of pure terror the likes of which Serena had never seen before washed over her face. The symptoms of terror spread throughout her body causing the woman to fall to the floor where she proceeded to emit a scream of such intensity that everyone else in the room could feel the pain caused by the effort. Serena rose to her feet, but was frozen in place, her eyes locked on the woman's expression as she scooted her body along the floor backwards into another group of chairs. Curling up into a ball the woman proceeded to fight the staff with every ounce of her strength as they reached down to assist her. Serena suddenly found herself quite literally being pulled away from the scene as Lupa grabbed a hold of her outstretched arm.
"Come on, we have to get out of here now!" said Lupa, fighting to be heard over the continuing screams. "What the hell did you say to her!?"
"N-Nothing! She recognized me and I think it blew through a memory block," stammered Serena stumbling towards the door behind the rest of her team as Dr Voss and additional medical staff rushed in from the opposite direction nearly crashing into Bea's wheelchair. Once safely in the hallway the group didn't stop running until they reached an empty common area at which point Serena pulled Lupa up short and fall backwards against a display wall, her heart pounding and her left hand shaking uncontrollably. From there Serena slowly lowered herself into a sitting position, working to get her breathing under control.
"I…I will never forget that expression as long as live," stammered Serena, looking first at Lupa then at the other members of the group. "You can't fake that shit. Something in those tunnels killed her remaining crew and it wasn't her."
Lupa moved closer. "Are you ok Serena?"
"No! No I'm not ok! I just broke somebody by forcing them to relive a horror that I wouldn't wish on my worst…that I wouldn't wish on them."
The team was silent now, Lupa looking to Fiona, Fiona to Lars, Lars to the Captain to then spoke to Serena. "Colonel, you couldn't have known."
"Yeah, well I should have known better," said Serena exhaling into her hands. "I should have known better."
Serena allowed herself to get back under control as far off down the hallway the sound of screaming subsided. After about a minute of silent personal meditation the Colonel held out her arm for someone to help her up.
Serena sat on the edge of the small dorm style bed dressed only in her armor. Since being extracted the act of sleeping had gone from irritating chore to unpleasant ordeal with the powerful nightmares churned out by her long suffering subconscious unable to be suppressed through various software tricks. After that evening's excitement in the cafeteria Serena had had a point to get properly pissed, but with the supply of purloined whisky running low combined with her biologic body's above average metabolism there would be no way to make it through the night using traditional "self" medications. While unhealthy, Serena's penchant for indulgence had always been limited to her brief stays in human form which drastically limited the potential for long term damage. Now faced with a biologic stay that could perhaps stretch weeks or months the career warrior struggled with a problem that has suddenly become problematic. Staring blankly at the floor Serena was roused from her catatonic state by a knock at the door.
"Um…who is it?"
"It's me, Lupa. Can I come in?"
Serena breathed in and out a few times before slowly getting up and opening the door for the professor who walked in and made herself at home putting away casually discarded clothing items and sitting down in the uncovered chair.
"I guess Some days are harder than others," Lupa began, not knowing what else she could say.
"Seems that lately some day became every day," replied Serena, sitting back down on the bed.
"You know I can't let you continue on like this. I know you have your issues and I know you like to deal with them in your own way and I've respected that, but in our current situation it's just not sustainable," Lupa continued.
"I know…but I also know I can't continue on in any other way. I need to be able to sleep. I need to be able to function in crowds without suffering a panic attack. The one thing I don't need is to let those Sanctuary fucks get their hooks into me. I saw how they fix people Lupa. When I went to the group session I saw how they fix people. It's all mental blocks, neuro-reconstruction and happy pills. Don't get me wrong if I were a conversion camp survivor or a 5000 year old genocidal synth I'm sure I'd embrace it with open arms, but I still like myself Lupa. I'm not ready to kill that which makes me me just because I've had a few bad days."
"Serena, you don't have to choose between substance abuse and an existential crisis. There's another way sitting right in front of you, but you've just never…embraced it," said Lupa as she got up from the chair and began to unzip her Sanctuary issued jumpsuit.
"Oh, no, Lupa," stammered Serena, turning beet red. "I'm really flattered, but I'm just not in the mood for that now."
"Why don't you stop flattering yourself and just relax Serena. You know me better than to think I'd try to banish all your problems with a quick fuck," said Lupa as she let the clothing drop off of her and then gave her long dark gray hair a toss.
Serena pressed her eyes to the floor as her naked friend kneeled onto the bed and scotched around behind her. Still feeling a bit numb, the sensation of Lupa's hands grasping her shoulders and kneading her tension away made Serena's body tingle all over. Lupa's skilled hands soon had Serena to the point where the wolf figured she could ask about some things that had been bothering her.
"Serena, why did you stop teaming up with me after your conversion? The real reason, not the excuses you always had handy."
Serena was silent for a while before answering. "I could no longer separate my personal feelings for you from my command duties. I was constantly worried you'd get hurt and it was affecting my ability to make good decisions so I broke things off to focus on my new jobs."
"What the hell have you been doing with yourself then if you didn't have me to have fun with?"
"Work…I guess I just work or do work things. All my friends are military folks that can look after themselves, folks I won't get too attached to. It doesn't help. Despite my best efforts I still get attached and despite their training they still get hurt."
Lupa was stunned that someone who once explained to her how every time she entered a room she identified potential weapons and formulated an action plan to utilize them could be now capable of such overwhelming care and empathy.
"I'm not surprised you have been running into difficulty lately and I think the cause of your problems is that you're still trying to act like the old Serena instead of the new one. You told me ones that over 99% of your Sisters choose to re-init themselves instead of dealing with a brave new set of emotions and while I give you a huge amount of credit for taking the plunge you're trying to have it both ways and its driving you nuts."
Serena nodded weakly. "I have a job to do. It's all I know."
"You don't have to quit like Lomez is suggesting, you just have to let some people in. Sure you'll risk getting hurt, but you'll gain more than you give up."
Serena felt the pressure on her shoulders begin to change and looked over to see the five pink human fingers fusing into a fuzzy wolf's paw. Twisting her neck around Serena caught Lupa mid-shift, her body covered entirely in grey fur, but with her human shape and face yet to change.
"Hey! No peeking. Come on, eyes front."
Serena turned back around and grunted a bit as the point pressure on her shoulders increased due to the smaller "footprint" of the paws and the quad stance shifting more weight forward. Finally Serena felt a wet nose nuzzle the back of her neck before the large wolf pushed back from her shoulders.
//"All done!" Lupa proclaimed as she stood on the bed with a grinning expression, her tail wagging back and forth.
"What on Earth are you doing this for? If Lomez shows up to put you in a crate I'm not going to stop him," sighed Serena, now resigned to the fact that the staff was now probably aware that Lupa was a shapeshifter.
//"I'm prescribing 50ccs of fur as a sleep aid to be administered nightly, doctor's orders!"
"You're not that kind of doctor."
//"I won't tell if you won't," remarked Lupa as she circled a few times before flopping down. //"Just lie down next to me and treat me like a big old furry wolf plush."
"I'm not sure I feel comfortable objectifying my friends like that…"
Lupa's head twisted back, her teeth bared. //"Just lay down and hug!" Lupa's tone made it clear that it was not a suggestion.
Serena turned off the lights and rolled into bed, cuddling against Lupa a bit hesitantly at first, but then as the feeling of bare skin against soft, warm fur began to create a more positive feeling of intoxication Serena embraced her friend more wholeheartedly wrapping up Lupa in her arms and legs and squeezing forcefully. The unusually sized wolf let out a short grunt, but willingly bore the discomfort as she felt Serenas breathing and heart rate slow.
"Mmmm, you're right, this does feel nice. Thank you Lupa. I don't know what I've been doing without you."
//"Damaging your psyche."
Serena gave her another full strength hug and as Serena's ears became accustomed to the sounds of night time she heard some telltale squeaks and moans leaking through the wall.
"Is that who I think it is?"
//"Yup, the Captain and his wife have been boinking like rabbits ever since they let her out of the med center. I know they have the whole hologram setup in the Giant, but other things aside I think the ability to interact in the flesh has been a real blessing for them."
"That's sweet, but how do you even…"
//"Human shape, wolf ears."
Lupa felt Serena's actions begin to slow before she was sure that the human had lapsed fully into a proper sleep. The wolf's deadly white teeth flashed in the ambient room light as Lupa closed her yellow eyes and laid her head down on her paws. It would be a tough time getting a good night's sleep with the human's arms and legs wrapped around her, but in the wolf's mind it was all part of being in a pack.
"So Captain, how did you sleep last night," Serena asked as she poked at a green mass that she assumed was a local version of scrambled eggs.
"Pretty good…once I got around to it," he replied glancing over at Bea who was furiously working on two tablets simultaneously.
"Oh look, the Captain's blushing," declared Fiona, her eyes swirling to a lovely shade of peach.
The Captain shook his head. "If I'm stuck here for the rest of my life I don't know how I'd going to be able to handle this rather skewed male-female ratio."
"I'll bet they've got some great malls here," snickered Lupa.
"I'm sure Lars and the Captain would be thrilled to come along and help us pick out something fashionable that also doesn't make us look fat," said Serena joining in on the laughter before reaching across the table to take Lupa's hand. "Thanks for the "therapy" session last night, that was exactly what I needed. Maybe not a long term fix, but at least I feel better."
"What were your words again? I'm the most perceptive member of the group?"
"Yeah, just don't use your powers to go all alpha wolf on us," said Serena with a wink. "So Captain, how is Bea doing? I mean besides….you know, being mostly human."
"She's doing a lot better. I can tell she's probably as engaged as she's ever been, but there's still so much knocking about in her head that she can't really focus on any single task and her communication is still pretty limited. I'm taking her by the Med Center for another round of tests, but I'll be watching those clowns closely after they "recommended" that Bea's wings be surgically removed just because they aren't functional. I told the little fucks that the wings were part of what made her unique and if there's no reason to remove them they should stay," said the Captain, a bit of anger creeping into his voice. "As long as someone's on hand to help her out when she needs something or needs to move somewhere she can pretty much be left alone. If you need something from her I suggest using a text message. She can respond better using a keypad."
"Well I think your commitment to her has made a real difference," said Lupa laying a hand on Dunn's shoulder.
"Ah, here comes Lars," said Fiona craning her neck to look over everyone.
"There you all are," said Lars walking up. "Doesn't anybody work around here?"
"I don't know," said Serena. "Not sure we have any other grad students that haven't been transmogrified into kooky chimeras."
"Listen I know you're all enjoying your vacation but shit's hitting the fan around here," said Lars. "There is a swarm of security personnel cordoning off the farm area. I couldn't get near it and nobody would tell me anything, but everyone was looking more than a bit worried."
"Did you try the Library?" asked Serena.
"Yeah, it's easily a 10 story building. Should provide a view of the entire area including the farm," answered Serena.
"No, I hadn't considered that," Lars admitted.
"Well why don't we head up there, see what's going on. Captain, do you mind if Fiona looks after Bea? I don't think she'd fit well in the elevator," said Serena.
"Yeah, that sounds fine. You hear that Bea?" said the Captain, trying to get his wife's attention. "I'm going to head over to the Library."
Bea looked up for the briefest of moments before giving a slight nod and turning back to her tablets.
"You know what's interesting," said Serena picking up her tray and tableware. "That's probably a good indication of the actual amount of attention that Bea pays to us when she's plugged into a ship."
"Makes me feels better when I can command all of it," said the Captain with a wink.
"TMI Skipper," Serena shot back knowing that was a looking glass she did not want to go through.
The group walked out of the cafeteria and out onto the campus grounds that were green and lush and bristling with lights and other amenities. It only took a few minutes to walk along the paved pathways that lead to the tall square library building. Unlike the other buildings that were mostly of the glass and metal variety the library stood out for its imposing stonecrete walls and modestly sized windows. The all glass café and rearing rooms taking up the penthouse floor make it look like a completely different building had been built onto the first. Walking inside they found and open lift and dispatched it to the 12th floor. This early in the morning the café was still closed and the reading room nearly deserted and only one or two other persons had thought of using the open roof deck to look down over the security lines. Serena pulled out a pair of binoculars and began to scan it around.
"Hmmm, a lot of the fields are torn up, equipment knocked over. Looks like a high school prank where someone went hog wild doing doughnuts in a 4x4. The fence has multiple lengths ripped away. From the debris pattern it appears that something large walked in, fucked about then left again."
"Large? How do you know that Colonel," asked Captain Dunn.
"Well if I am not mistaken I think I am seeing footprints…dragon sized from the look of it, but the gate's all wrong for it to be an actual dragon. They appear to be heading towards the…oh, oh, well that's why they've got the mech walkers out," Serena reported, handing the binoculars to the Captain and then guiding him onto target.
"Holy shit did that used to be a cow?!" he exclaimed.
"I'm not sure, there's not much left of it. In fact I didn't see a single animal larger than a chicken walking around despite all the barns being bashed to hell," Serena observed.
The team continued to pass the optic unit around, each making note of the splattered blood and bits of hoof and bone in their own way. Finally Lars felt he had seen enough, turning back and finding a small private study room they could use for a quick meeting. One by one the other group members joined him with Serena bringing up the rear.
"So what does this mean for us," asked the Captain.
"Well we might want to be careful about going out alone at night, but as long as security is on top of things I think we should be alright," Lars offered.
"I think they might have a problem," said Serena. "If this thing's just some large carnivore that's doing what carnivores do then yeah, security will handle it, but don't forget that the wheel of extraction outcomes for Linked goes all the way up to just shy of Eldritch Abomination, although I wouldn't be surprised if given enough tries we saw one of those as well."
"We need to tell Lomez. This whole situation might happen again and he needs to know what the risks are in running his little honey pot system," said Lupa.
"Fuck 'em," countered the Captain. "If he wants to dick around with people's lives he should be prepared to suffer the consequences."
"He's not a bad man Tom, he's just trying to protect his people," Lupa protested. "Besides, that's not fair all the other Sanctuary citizens and newcomers."
"Alright," said Serena in a decisive tone of voice, "I'm going to brief him and offer our assistance. I know he's going to refuse, I mean at least the part where I can call in an air strike, but I'll get him thinking about it and if events play out in a certain way he'll have that as an option. Lupa, how have your nature walks with Fiona been going?"
"Um, quite well I think. I'm still making it up as I go along, but we have managed to identify quite a few useful plants and animals and other outdoors skills," replied Lupa.
"Well just be careful out there and make sure you're back well before dark, alright?"
Lupa nodded as Lars looked out the transparent panel adjacent to the study room door.
"Looks like security finally noticed the crowd that was forming out on the deck. Officers are starting to shoo people away."
"Speak of the devil. It looks like Lomez himself has decided to make an appearance to placate the masses," the Captain observed. "Or just use his powers of persuasion to convince everything that there's nothing to see here."
"Let's sit tight and see what happens," said Serena as the now sizable crowd out on the deck began to move towards the lifts.
It didn't take long before there was a knock at the door followed immediately by the door opening and Lomez poking his head into the small room. "Hey everyone, I'm sorry, but due to a minor security situation we have to temporarily close the penthouse level. If you would make your way to the lifts…"
Serena gave everyone a look and the other members of her team silently got up and filed past Lomez toward the lifts, leaving Serena still seated in the room.
"Did you have something you wanted to say to me Ms. Hanford?"
"I'm going to assume that you are now fully aware of the unpredictable effects a quantum extractor has on life forms like Fiona and the Unity soldiers that followed us through your rigged portal. I just wanted to let you know that I've had some experience dealing with these situations before and if you were to find yourself a bit over your head a quick and easy call to my people would quickly rectify the problem."
Lomez smiled in his usual unflappable way, but his words carried with them the note of a person who was beginning to take offense. "Ms. Hanford, once again I am finding myself in the position of having to explain to you the importance of Sanctuary maintaining its absolute self-sufficiency. As soon as we become dependent on outsiders to defend us is the moment that all we have sought to achieve is undone. No matter what may be tactically expedient, calling for help would be tantamount to sending out an all portal bulletin announcing our location and throwing out a welcome mat for whomever shows up. Now this, this level is closed, please make your way to the lift."
Without saying another word Serena got up and walked out of the room to the lifts where the rest of the group was waiting. An empty car soon arrived and they piled inside, remaining silent until the doors had closed.
"You know," said Serena in a rather offhand manner. "I think I just managed to piss off the nicest man on the planet."
"I'm not surprised," sighed Lupa, "you tend to have that effect on people."
Captain Dunn sat in the middle of a white blanket surrounded by lush green alpine meadow. Beside him his wife lay back on her black raven wings, fingers typing madly away on a tablet while her eyes focused on a butterfly as it gingerly landed on a yellow flower then flittered away to the next one. The Captain was gently brushing his wife's jet black hair as she got on with whatever she was up to in her strange little multitask world. Despite her condition and the risk of impending neurologic breakdown, deep down the Captain was glad for this opportunity to see his wife in the flesh, the way she actually was (at least according to some glitchy technology), instead of just some lingerie model she had happened to fancy. This way he could actually touch her, smell her, feel her warmth and gently stroke her feathers. These were all properties that belonged to her and only her, not something added by an engineer at the shipyard or the result of a lubricant spill 5 years ago. Bea was capable as ever as her mind raced from task to task, yet she had now been rendered completely dependent upon him for her well being. It was an ironic twist that completely reversed the traditional role of Bea looking out for her husband, providing him air and warmth and keeping away the harmful radiation.
"Hey there, would you like some water? Here, water," said the Captain, holding up a clear water bottle and moving it towards Bea. There was a brief flash as recognition as Bea turned at least part of her attention toward the liquid and took a long drink as Captain Dunn offered it to her lips.
"There you go. You like it out here? It certainly is a nice day."
Bea gave a little nod and went back to focusing on the other tasks in her constantly evolving mental queue.
"I…I don't want to sound selfish here, but I've actually enjoyed being with you like this, as a biologic. I hope that on some level you've enjoyed it too," the Captain stated as he moved down to straighten the feathers covering other parts of Bea's body. "I mean think of the story you can tell to the other AI's you run into. Heh, they probably won't believe you." The Captain paused, taking a deep breath. "You know I was…I was hoping we could try to load this appearance into the holo systems. I sort of like the idea of you having your own appearance, but if you think it's too freaky or something I….I understand."
The Captain often talked to Bea without expecting much of a response. He knew she could hear him and could appreciate what he had to say, but this time Bea suddenly grew still. She let the tablet drop to her lap and moves her eyes to the front. Her eyes closed and her body went completely still. For a moment Dunn began to grow alarmed before suddenly Bea's eyes reopened and she looked at him, a look of intense strain and concentration written all over her face. Her lips moved like she was trying to speak, and then she did.
"T-thank you. I-I've enjoyed this….this time as well," said Bea, struggling with her words.
The Captain was stunned and found that now it was he who was at a loss for words.
"But…I need to go home. I can't stay like this. It's k-killing me."
The Captain nodded, tears coming to his eyes. "What can I do? I don't know what I can do to help get us home."
Bea smiled and pulled the Captain in into a loving embrace. "You care…so much. You're doing…all you can. All you should. Try not to worry. Just like before, sit back and enjoy the ride."
The Captain pulled back so he could look into his wife's eyes.
"I love you…"
Bea gave a slight nod and then spoke again, as sweat beaded on her brow. "And no, I'm not too freaky. Just wish the wings worked."
With that she lost her grip on the reins and her multi-threaded mind went back to focusing on their own tasks. Thomas Dunn sighed as he took a small cloth and began to wipe away the sweat from his wife's head and neck, wondering just what sort of ride she had in mind.
The path from the welcome center up to the exposed rock of the massif where Sanctuary's processing tunnels was starting to show its age with cracks and weeds growing in what originally had been solid stone paving laid down by those that originally had built the complex. Serena walked next to Lt Atherton as they followed a small electric cart that would be used to transport whatever gear and synthetic bodies were to be collected from the newest batch of newcomers. Unlike the preceding few days this one was chilly and damp and, as the newest worker in the Newcomer Services department, Serena had made sure to bring additional outerwear for anyone that might suddenly find themselves needing it.
"I don't know why you took that job in the supply office," Blair mused, looking over at Serena. "I figured a lifelong soldier such as you would want to get started on a security career. I mean we don't get too many soldiers in through here. Thugs, heavies, rogues, gang members sure, but rarely soldiers or trained security professionals. You're skills are in pretty high demand."
"Well you know that Lomez would never let me near anything that would allow me to be effective in such a position. Probably for good reason,” Serena sighed. “I'd just be a glorified gopher and besides I find sorting stuff in the supply room rather cathartic.”
"Everybody's gotta start somewhere and besides, you know more about the new life form types we've been running into lately than anybody else here," the Lieutenant continued.
"I told you everything I know and I don't see what more your forces could be doing. You've got the nice shiny mech walkers and sufficiently advanced weapons. As long as you don't go all idealistic and try to make friends with it Lomez style you should be fine." There was a brief moment of silence before Serena started speaking again. "I'm serious about that by the way. Don't try to make friends with the monster. Whatever it did in those tunnels was enough to traumatize a veteran Unity officer to the point of insanity. I know you're all touchy feely here, but that thing will kill you soon as look at you."
Atherton nodded. "We are anticipating further…contact…with the creature. This world lacks large indigenous terrestrial animals so the only supply of non-vegetable nutrition would be livestock…or citizens."
The feeling that the locals were unprepared to deal with this or similar threats had been nagging at Serena for some time. She was reminded of a great General had once compared a nation with strong walls to crab, pointing out that once the shell is cracked the soft interior is exposed for swift consumption. However, while the Colonel had no problem with organizing an escape, it was not her job to entangle herself or her team or even the Federation in somebody else's battles, especially if said help would not be greeted with much enthusiasm.
"So, seeing as we are going to pick up some newcomers I guess your Council didn't shut down whatever system you have that brings people here?" asked Serena.
"They made some adjustments, but did not shut it down. To completely wall ourselves off would be to give up on our core mission to save people in the Network."
"I hope we didn't damage your processing facility too badly when we blew a hole in the wall," Serena chuckled.
Atherton also laughed as she remembered back to that day. "Oh wow, let me tell you that caused quite the shit storm back in the operations center. The commander wanted to send us in as soon as you started prepping your explosives, but Lomez insisted that we follow protocol and allow you to do as you would. I mean he's right. We can fix the door, but getting into a firefight could lead to all sorts of unpleasant outcomes."
Serena cocked an eyebrow. "So you do monitor everything that goes on in there?"
"Of course, but the system is designed to wear down and disorient potentially hostile newcomers…as well as convert any synthetics to a biologic form. In fact most of the mountain runs automatically, we just have a few people monitoring it."
"So that means you have footage from when the Unity arrived. You know what the creature looks like," remarked Serena.
Atherton shook her head slightly. "We have some brief glimpses, but almost as soon as it was created the local sensor net went down."
"Ah," was all Serena had for a reply. "So, where are we going anyway? This all just looks like a giant granite mountain to me."
"Processing tunnel 8, it opens out over there where the forest comes up to the rocky slope," said the Lieutenant pointing.
"Report said three individuals, one female and two males. What do you think we have? Keeper? Femme dom? Rogues?," Serena asked, trying to get a handle on Atherton's level of experience.
"Oh it’s a Dom for sure. Keepers don't generally leave their worlds, Rogues usually work alone and traveling bands wouldn't have such mismatched capability levels between their bodies," Atherton responded with confidence. "I've always found Doms to be the most colorful after they get processed. Explorers will just curse at us a lot then act all mopey. Rogues are psychos and are still dangerous even in human form, but the Doms, especially with their entourage in tow, that's where you get the most interesting drama."
The Lieutenant stopped her platoon out of sight of the tunnel exit then quietly led Serena up to peer out from behind a large boulder. Standing in the sunlight was a middle aged human female with brown hair and a bit of sag settling in around her body. Behind her were two fit young males each wearing simple tunics looking around in confusion, their eyes getting used to the sunlight. The woman had a look of dull surprise on her face as she gingerly tried to walk forward on the barefoot unfriendly surface of grass and gravel.
"That's probably the first time she's been in a biologic body for a millennia or two," Blair whispered over to Serena. "First time she's been that old for a while too. The guys look better, probably got converted into her servants no more than a couple decades ago. Historically Doms would almost always put captured males in female servant bodies, but I think they've started to forget the point they were trying to make with that so we've been getting a lot more unaltered males in recent decades."
"Can your extractors wipe out the programming?" Serena asked.
"Sometimes, depends on the process. The underlying mind will get freed from anything that is just an overlay, but if the core consciousness has been changed there's nothing the extractor can do about it and we'll have to send them to the neuro facility for reconstruction," Blair offered.
The casual way that the Lieutenant discussed neural reconstruction gave Serena a severe sense of unease although she understood the benevolent motivations behind it and of course the practical needs as well. Meanwhile as the woman struggled to make sense of the sights and smells now bombarding her radically altered sensorium, the two men behind exchanged a whispered communication and began to advance on their former mistress from behind.
"Shit!" Atherton exclaimed as one of the men grabbed the woman, holding her arms tight behind her back while the other picked up a fist-sized rock and lifted it up into the air. "Rodriguez! Stop him!"
A purple beam shot out from behind Serena's position hitting the man with the rock who then fell to the ground shaking as small bolts of purple energy squiggled around his body. The other man immediately let go of the woman and threw up his hands, quaking in fear.
"Listen I have to go do my thing now, we can talk later," Blair said as she walked out from behind the large rock, turning to address the Newcomers. "Welcome to Sanctuary, you will not be harmed…"
Serena watched as the trio was given the standard greeting, clothed and led over to the electric carts, the soldiers making sure to separate the mistress from her former drones. From the tunnel a detail brought forth the three synthetic bodies that had been left behind by the extraction process along with a few items of gear the suddenly human arrivals had discarded. The process worked like clockwork, as it had for the thousands of years since this world had been established. It was at this point that Serena felt her hostility towards what she had considered to be a bunch of cosmic dropouts turn into pity. Pity that something special, something genuinely good, was about to be lost due to the omnipresent forces of change, forces that even the divine could not hold off forever. As the caravan of vehicles and soldiers began to move back down the hill Lieutenant Atherton once again caught up with Serena.
"Well that's how we do it. Doesn't happen more than a couple times a week, but every so often we'll get a surge. It's a nice job. I always go home feeling I've helped people," Blair began, still trying to tempt Serena into the job.
"How are they taking it? Looked a little dicey there in the beginning," Serena asked.
"Well, "Mistress Sasha" isn't saying much, but her two servants were placated once I explained that she'll be getting help. They know firsthand that she's been off her nut for a while now and I don't think they will be looking for vengeance. Still, we'll keep an eye on them just to be sure. In the most extreme cases we've had to implement sort of a witness protection thing to prevent retaliation between those with antagonistic relationships," Blair responded.
"Do you ever feel that what you do ignores the demands of justice? I'm sure that you see your fair share of legitimately bad people, evil people," said Serena as she reflected on her own job and her own sense of duty.
"Sanctuary couldn't function if everyone who came through the portals were put up before a tribunal. Sanctuary is what it says on the box, a Sanctuary. Still, rest assured that we never allow evil persons a free pass to continue their anti social behavior. Those defects which cause such behavior are filtered out in the same way we deal with traumatic stress or mental instability."
"But Blair, aren't you just doing what that Mistress did? Reprogramming people?" Serena asked, trying to assuage her unease.
"Principle of least harm Serena," the Lieutenant responded without hesitation "When the alternative is to throw someone in prison forever or execute them, simply removing those bits and pieces that cause the problem is the clearly better alternative."
"So what's going to happen to those three now?"
"I'll take Sasha to get sorted out in the neuro clinic and the other two will probably go right into transitional housing. In a few months when it's clear they have adjusted we'll provide a payment for any seized technology then send them on their way. Sanctuary is a big planet, there's enough opportunity and adventure for anyone."
Serena nodded and then looked back over her shoulder towards the large granite formation rising up from the meadow. A flash of color caught her attention and she quickly turned back to the Lieutenant.
"Blair, do you mind if I wander away from the tour for a bit?"
"Hey, I'm not your supervisor and this isn't a prison so do what you like. Just watch out for falling rock and don't try to go climbing cause it’s a bit slippery out."
"Of course, just thought I'd take the long way back," said Serena as she split off down another of the stone tracks, giving Blair a brief wave goodbye.
Walking a few minutes back up toward the mountain the first sign that something was amiss were the chunks of stone that been blasted out onto the field leaving skid marks in the grass. The color that had caught Serena's attention had come from a couple lengths of caution tape stretched out in front of a large plastic covering about 50 feet on a side that was draped over and anchored down to the rocky slope. Looking over her shoulder out of habit, Serena crept up to the plastic and carefully peeled back an edge. Inside was a circular passage with walls so smooth they could have been cut by the latest generation of tunnel boring beams. The tunnel extended far back into the mountain, fading into blackness as the length outstripped the available light. Serena let out a little sigh as she gently pressed her hand to the side of the tunnel.
"Shame you lost your mind. This sort of ability could have been useful here."
“This is so fun!” Fiona called down to a casually unimpressed Lupa as the oversized blue and black tiger woman hovered casually in mid air. “Reminds me of the first time I loaded into a Class D exo-atmospheric construct. “
Having carefully canceled out the force of gravity Fiona kicked back against a tree, sending herself slowly flipping end over end until she grabbed a hold of another tree at the far side of the clearing. The lithe treetop bent far to one side, nearly touching the ground before snapping back and flinging Fiona back across toward where she had started.
Instead of continuing the cycle Fiona brought herself to a standing hover before leaning forward and took off again across the clearing, making an exaggerated running motion in the process.
“Hey Lupa! Look at me! I’m a Hong Kong action star!”
//“Alright Fluffy, time to come back to Earth,” Lupa yawned as she watched the mega-feline come to a halt again and then fly backwards this time making swimming motions. //“I don’t want you getting light headed again and you still need to practice your energy shielding.”
“I can’t believe I’ve only been working on this for five days,” said Fiona as she lowered herself back to the ground. “Everything feels so natural once I figure out the technique. I just need to work on building up my endurance.”
//“You can fly some more once you do some shield work,” said Lupa as she padded over to the small rock overhang. //“We’re going to need to get our hands on an energy weapon to make sure your force fields can stop more than kinetic impacts.”
“If Serena can get herself into some sort of repair or maintenance job she might be able to get us a tool that can double as an energy weapon,” Fiona offered as she selected a number of sufficiently massive rocks to test her new skill.
//“Lomez is keeping her on a pretty tight leash which is hardly surprising considering how suspicious we’re all acting,” observed Lupa.
“Secure conversations, sneaking off into the woods every day, at this rate I’m stunned we haven’t been assigned a full time babysitter,” said Fiona as she launched one of the rocks straight up into the air.
Holding one of her furry hands out in front of her, Fiona concentrated and a shimmering circle appeared in mid-air about 5 feet from her outstretched hand and angled away from her at 45 degrees. Far above the speck of a rock began to grow larger and larger and larger as its upward momentum halted and then reversed.
//“You got this Fiona?” asked Lupa
“Yeah Professor, I have it,” said Fiona, bracing herself as the falling rock impacted her shield and rebounded horizontally into the forest like a cannonball, crashing through trunks and branches for hundreds of feet. A glowing wave spread out from the point of impact as the air within the shield boundary briefly absorbed some of the falling rock’s energy, dissipating it gradually in the form of light and heat.
//”So how did that feel,” asked Lupa, peering out from her shelter and sitting up to observe the trail of shaking trees that marked the path of the boulder.
“Fine, the deflection took barely any effort at all. I could feel the force press back on me physically, but it didn’t cause any sort of spike in the energy I was using to maintain the shield, said Fiona as she circle of shimmering air vanished.
//”Alright, try a few more with increased angles to give the rock a more ballistic trajectory, but I also want you to try to hit a target. That will be tough, but will help you master your control. Also don’t skimp on the energy you initially put into the boulder to reduce the flight time. Instead see if you can dispel the energy it when it hits the shield,” Lupa suggested.
“You know you’re taking all the fun out of having super powers," Fiona complained. "When I used to load into World of Heroes I’d just download a data pack and incorporate it into my avatar. Never took weeks of training before I could go out frying bad guys.”
//”Oh I’m sorry,” mocked Lupa, //”do you want me to help you by getting the superpower drivers that don’t exist or loading them into the digital mind that you no longer have?
"Fire in the hole," Fiona announced as another rock took off into the air sending Lupa scurrying for cover. As before the rock soon reached its apex, plummeting back down towards the ground where it was neatly deflected by Fiona's shield into a graceful arc, impacting a small pile of stones and scattering them in all directions.
//"Very good," said Lupa, surveying the destruction. //"Were you aiming for that?"
"Um…no," Fiona replied in a small voice.
//"Well keep working at it until you can hit what you aim for. As someone who might be standing around you in a fight it would be advantageous if you developed enough skill memory not to zap me with a deflected energy beam.
"Hold on, I need a little pick me up," said Fiona reaching into her bag and bringing out several cans of energy drink.
//"Where do you keep getting those from? Aren't those some of the things they make you pay for?" Lupa asked suspiciously.
"Well, I ask the vending machine nicely and it gives me a bunch of energy drinks," Fiona replied.
//"I guess that's a euphemism for "Hulk Smash!"," said Lupa as she made a partly human expression of amusement with her tail wagging back and forth.
"No! I didn't break the machines I just asked nicely," Fiona protested.
Lupa gave her a disbelieving glare.
"I touched the vending machine and I could feel it resisting what I wanted it to do so I just gave it a little scratch behind the ears and then it was all too happy to spit out all its energy drinks."
//"Come on, how dumb do I look? It's a vending machine, not a puppy."
"Fine, I believe I have an ability to sense the internal logic of processing devices, specifically the conditional branches that are blocking a desired outcome. When I lock onto whatever logic element is set against my desired outcome I then sort of “reach in” and flip the voltage or quantum state to the way I'd prefer. At that point the machine spits out an energy drink or…twenty. Are you happy? Is that a sufficient explanation for you?"
//"Ok, I get it. Not all of us were raised inside a computer," said Lupa, rolling her eyes.
"Well you wanted a more detailed explanation so I gave it to you. I've been playing around with this ever since I accidently unlocked your tablet. I didn't want to say anything until I could reproduce the results. The vending machines are dead simple to manipulate, security cameras and doors are a little harder, but I think I'm almost there."
Lupa stood there with her jaw hanging open.
"I didn't want to say anything in case we were monitored and I felt I could be more…covert just working on those skills by myself," Fiona explained. "We can talk to Serena sometime tonight, or you can via your mind speak when you sleep with her tonight."
//"Ok...wait! How the hell did you know about that? Tap into the surveillance feeds?"
Fiona pointed to her cat nose. "This isn't for decoration like the human kind you know, but with the amount of time you've spent in there its getting pretty obvious."
//"Alright, alright, just keep practicing your aim."
Fiona went back to launching and deflecting rocks until she could reliably smack a medium sized conifer at about 100 yards. As the sun got low in the sky Lupa got out from under cover and stretched herself, shaking the leaves and twigs out of her fur in the process.
//"Alright, that's enough for today. How about you do your little floating trick down towards the lake then I'll change there and we'll walk back up to the welcome center via the nature trail. Think you can make it that far? You've been working pretty hard.
"I'll come down at the first hint of dizziness or tunnel vision, I promise," Fiona said, crossing her fingers behind her back in a rather obvious fashion.
//"Just don't get too far ahead of me ok? "
Fiona nodded and lifted herself back up into the air, floating along the tops of the trees as she sighted the clear blue lake and made her way towards it. Behind her she could hear the larger than life wolf crashing through the fallen leaves and underbrush as she work hard to keep up. Fiona was halfway to the lake and generally lost in her own thoughts when something below her caused her to slam on the brakes and then circle back.
"Lupa, I need you! You have to see this!" Fiona yelled as loud as she dared to not attract the attention of any other nearby newcomers or staff.
Easily picking up Fiona's shocked cry with her sensitive ears, Lupa changed course and dashed toward the point that Fiona was floating over. Her attention fixed mostly on Fiona up above, Lupa was not prepared when she crashed into a newly cut clearing about 20 feet wide and ended up flipping nose over tail as she slammed on the brakes. In the effort to get back to her feet Lupa failed to notice the horror that occupied the clearing until it was right in front of her.
Lupa let out a sharp yowl of terror while at the same time screaming in broadcast mode thought speech. In front of her was a large pile of fresh skeletal remains, bit of flesh and tendon still attached in places and everything coated with dull red blood. The smell was not quite that of rotting meat, but was equally nasty and caused Lupa to recoil in horror back to the edge of the clearing. Fiona landed with a thud and waved her arms to get Lupa's attention.
"Lupa! Lupa! Look at me…relax, you need to stop screaming, someone is going to hear you," said Fiona in an assertive tone of voice, making eye contact with the wolf and drawing her attention away from the pile of death. "It's the livestock from the farm."
Lupa nodded for a second and then shook her head. //"N-No! It's not! Look…that's a shoe!"
Sure enough as Fiona looked closely at the pile she saw not only a shoe with remains of an ankle sticking out of it, but also a silver bracelet on what used to be a human forearm.
"By the Lady…" Fiona trailed off as she went into her pack for a plastic bag.
Lupa turned her back while Fiona gingerly plucked both items from the pile for transport back to the welcome center. While Lupa was well versed in hunting live prey and consuming raw meat from a fresh kill, the pile behind her presented itself as a mix of carrion and excrement, both of which caused an instinctive revulsion in the wolf. Trying to push the scene out of her mind Lupa's yellow eyes began to pick up on various clues around the impromptu clearing.
//"Fiona…everything here was done recently. The trees are still weeping sap where they had limbs knocked off. I can also make out the path whatever this was cut through the woods," said Lupa as she hesitantly explored one of the tracks into the woods a few feet. It didn't take her long before she came face to face with one of the giant footprints that she had spied from the top floor of the library.
"How recently?" Fiona asked.
//"Probably this morning," replied Lupa, sniffing the ground. "I found a footprint. Can you bring the tablet over and get a picture? After that I think we need to leave."
Sealing up the bag with the remains Fiona lumbered over, getting her tablet out to take a picture. "Wow, that's a real beauty. Hold on a second, let me get another angle."
//"I do not feel comfortable here. I think something's aware of us."
"What?" asked Fiona as she turned to get pictures of the bone pile.
//"My wolf-sense is tingling like crazy. There's something here and it's not friendly."
"Is wolf-sense even a real…"
At that moment a sharp crack of splintering wood echoed through the forest.
//"Fiona!" shrieked Lupa.
In an instant Lupa felt herself wrapped up by a pair of strong furry arms as Fiona grabbed her advisor and blasted off the forest floor in a long ballistic trajectory. As the earth fell away from them and the sounds of the forest was replaced by the whistling wind the wolf looked up into her student's face.
//"I do not believe this has improved our situation any!"
"Um, I'm working on it," said Fiona sounding a bit anxious and her eyes flashing different shades of blue as the pair began to curve back toward the ground..
//"Work harder!" yelled Lupa as the ground started to rise up to meet them.
Slowly the trajectory began to change as Fiona, depleted from her earlier training session combined with the panicked bug out, dug deep to find the energy capable of steering them towards the lake. Fiona knew that slowing herself to a full stop was probably not in the cards and the water seemed like a better bet than the trees.
"Did you say you needed a bath earlier?"
Lupa let out a soft whimper as Fiona did her best to slow their forward progress while twisting around to shield the smaller wolf from the full force of the impact. By the time they hit the water Fiona was only moving about as fast as one would in a 10 meter platform dive, but the cool mountain water turned out to be just as great a shock, quickly soaking through every inch of the duo's insulating fur and forcing their heart rates even higher. With the water closing around them Lupa immediately squirmed free as Fiona's momentum carried her down to bounce up off the relatively shallow bottom of the lake. She bobbed to the surface not far behind the wolf who was already paddling to shore. Both reached dry land dripping wet, cold and exhausted.
"I'm sorry, I freaked out and just…did something," panted Fiona as she tried to press the water out of her fur."
//"It's fine Fiona, there was something there. I'm sure of it. We need to get back to the Welcome Center and I don't think I'm going to want to come out here again until I see whatever-that-is's head on a stick. Can you run?"
Fiona nodded weakly.
//"Alright then, let's go."
Serena sat at her typical table at New Beginnings where she could keep her back to the wall and eyes on the door. She was enjoying a plate of something that resembled braised short ribs and had made a point to back off the hard liquor and stick to the pub's selection of on-site brewed ales. Nevertheless the high gravity beer was still sufficient to produce a pleasant buzz that, combined with the truly excellent food, allowed Serena to escape her worries until she was brought back to reality by a lady’s voice.
"Hello there, do you mind if I join you?"
Serena raised her head to see a moderately tall woman with an athletic build, thin face and red hair standing before her. Silently taking note that her observational skills in public places had rather sharply declined Serena glanced around the room and let out a small sigh as she counted plenty of other empty tables.
"Sure, go right ahead," Serena answered, irritated by the propensity of the local population to "meet and greet" perfect strangers and not bothering to swallow her food.
"You're Serena Hanford, right?" the woman asked.
At the sound of her name Serena stopped eating and took a closer look at the stranger who was evidently not looking for just anyone to talk to. Serena quickly noticed a number of distinctive physical characteristics including build, body type and bust shape that identified where the lady had come from.
"Yes I am. Wasn't expecting to run into family here, am I right?" Serena replied, her body language relaxing.
"Name's Marrin Chapelcross," said the woman nodding. "We haven't had any new Sisters arrive here in centuries and I was starting to worry that someone had happened."
"The Elders put Network expansion on hiatus for a while, but we're pushing forward again. I'd look up your personal details myself, but my data retrieval capability isn't what it used to be," said Serena, still feeling the urge to be sarcastic.
"Ah yes, because you no longer have access to your data store, but Elders?" Marrin asked, obviously starved for news of her people. "I had heard about those from some of the last to arrive. Are there more of them now?"
"Well...you're looking at one," said Serena matter-of-factly.
"You're...an Elder?" replied Marrin looking gobsmacked as she had never considered the possibility of actually meeting one. "I guess that would explain why you are acting so…"
"Human? Yeah, I get that a lot. Wait, just how old are you?" Serena asked, realizing she was missing a fairly vital piece of information.
"Well I'm 622 in objective years…"
Serena's mouth dropped open. Not counting the long time she had spent deactivated Serena's objective age was barely half that and the human form Sister could scarcely comprehend what it would be like for one of her kind to live that long.
"…but I can't believe you're an Elder! When I first heard about it the concept of having biologic thought and emotional patterns sounded so interesting."
"I hate to break it to you Marrin, but you're a biologic human right now," Serena chuckled.
The girl blushed. "Well I know that, but having those abilities as an android, sounds….sounded interesting. So I assume by now there should be quite a few Elders"
"Oh yeah, there's a whole lot of us, but only a tiny fraction of our kind choose to take the plunge. They don't want to give up their "AI powers"," said Serena using has face to make the air quotes.
"AI powers? What AI powers?" asked Marrin, looking confused.
"Well I mean you remember what you used to be able to do in terms of your mental speed and agility. You know, like making reality go all "bullet time" or shooting a guy for littering and having no problem justifying it to yourself," answered Serena, half making a joke.
"I guess some things just never change," Marrin signed with grim determination, "but then again that's why I'm glad I'm here in Sanctuary. No more cleansing, no more killing. We can do what we want here. Have a real purpose in life that goes beyond protecting nature from the bios."
Something was making Serena uneasy and it was not the fact that Lomez had gone to the trouble of flying in one of her race to put the pinch on her to accept life in Sanctuary. That sort of shenanigan was par for the course, but the way that Marrin was speaking and acting reminded Serena of her own personality when she was still not long out of VR.
"So Marrin, tell me, what sort of things do you do here?" asked Serena feeling the weight of her Elder status as she pulled up her chair to sit closer to Marrin.
"Oh," she said her face lighting up, "I'm an artist. I have a cabin on the north continent and I draw and paint full time. Here, take a look."
Marrin took out a thick sketchbook and slid it across the table. Serena began to thumb through it, carefully examining each page, but all it took was one to make her heart sink. Billions of her younger kin were also “artists” churning out the same uninspired depictions of natural scenes. Always pretty, but rarely moving.
“Well you have wonderful technique and the scenes are quite lifelike,” Serena noted.
“Thanks. I get that a lot of comments to that effect,” Marrin beamed.
“And you do this for a living?”
“Well I don’t make as much as some of the artists, but since I since I am so, prolific, I can charge less yet still make enough to live on.”
“And you’ve been doing this since you got here?” asked Serena, setting up a point for later.
“Well, not immediately,” Marrin answered, “but pretty much.”
"Marrin, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
"No, not at all Serena, go right ahead," the girl said without much of a thought.
"What did you do in the war? You were around for the start of it weren't you?" Serena asked, worried about asking the question, but needing to confirm her suspicion.
Marrin opened her mouth to answer, but then stopped and blinked like she was trying to remember something, but couldn't. "I….I don't really remember. I….I know I was in the war and I eventually was assigned to…to the force exploring the portal, but I can't really say what I did. Sorry." Marrin paused for a moment. "So…what did you do in the war?"
Serena reached out and gently took her sister's hand. "I ended it."
"You…ended it? The war? It's…over?"
"Depending on how you look at things it ended. Our people killed all the bios in the galaxy, but I was on hand to make sure it didn't spread to others. I was actually created before you, but ended up pulling a Rip Van Winkle and wound up being at the right place at the right time to put that shit to bed once and for all. Sisters help people now Marrin, we don't kill them."
Marrin's conflicted reaction to the news came as no surprise to Serena. The marooned Sister was facing realization that while her home world wasn't so crapsack after all, she might not ever be able to see it.
"I…I guess I can take comfort in that," came her best stab at a response.
"When you spoke of Elders earlier it seemed to me that you did not consider yourself one despite your age. Is this assessment correct?" Serena asked pointedly.
Again Marrin looked a bit confused, but answered. "I hadn't really considered it before, but I guess I don't. I mean I sort of feel like I always did, at least like I always did since I arrived here in Sanctuary."
"Would you be interested in becoming one?"
"S-sure, but I am not sure I see the point or even how that would work exactly. I'm just a human now. That concept doesn't really apply to me anymore."
"I'm sure that over the years you have had time to reflect on how your personality compares with the other humans or how your art compares to their art. Hell, just look at how you compare to me. It's like you're a pastry that has spent plenty of time in the over, but nobody bothered to turn on the heat." “I...I’m a Sister Serena, we’re supposed to be different from humans and bios.”
“Different yes, but our creators never intended us to be quite so...algorithmic.”
Serena could tell that her words were hurting the girl, but it was important that she be just blunt enough to shake Marrin out of her centuries long holding pattern without pushing her too far into an emotional breakdown.
"What…what would you suggest I do then," asked Marrin softly, Serena's gravitas as an Elder making the crucial difference that pushed her to accept Serena's observations.
"You need to go down to the neuro center and get them to remove all of the memory blocks and personality modifications that they put in place when you came here. I fully understand their need to stabilize the minds of genocidal synths, but I think in your case they overdid things a bit," Serena replied, continuing to hold the girl's hand.
"But I don't want to go back to killing people," said Marrin, looking rather alarmed, "assuming that's what I did before."
"Ah yes, I guess it probably would be a good idea to leave in place the mod that increases the perceived value of sentient life in relation to other priorities," sighed Serena, realizing that being an Elder did not absolve her of the occasional brain fart. "I should probably just go with you and help explain the situation. If the doctors at the clinic are as customer focused as the other people around here I can't see why they wouldn't try to honor your request."
"I still don't know about this Serena," said Marrin as she sat on the precipice of putting her complete faith in Serena's judgment. "Do you really think this is the best thing for me?"
"I can't tell you what's best for you, but I can tell you that Sisters grow, we change. Some change more than others. Some like the changes more than others, but I believe at some level you're doing the "real you" a disservice by never allowing her to develop. You kind of represent what happened to our people when we achieved catastrophic success in the war. I say catastrophic because without the biologic spark all cultural growth ground to a halt," Serena explained, realizing why Marrin's situation had affected her so. "Hey, I'll give Lomez credit for being at least partly right."
Marrin laid her hand on the red leather cover of her sketchbook. "I've been here 582 years and filled 551 of these books. You’re right, all of what I do feels like a fucking program. I complete a boom, I feel accomplished. I look back at the books on my shelf, I feel proud. Deep down I know this isn’t right, but if I follow the program I experience contentment. My question is what if you're also wrong Serena? What if I do what you say and all I give up is the contentment?"
"It's a risk we all take," said Serena. "Again, I can't choose for you and you shouldn't let me.
"Ok, what would you choose if you were in a similar situation then?" asked Marrin, hoping the distinction would make a difference.
"Well it just so happens that I am and I have. Fuck contentment," said Serena, lifting her glass to the sentiment.
A few moments later there was a bit of a commotion as a large dripping wet wolf barged its way into the pub and walked up to Serena's table. Some patrons shot up from their chairs while others froze in panic. Behind the bar the staff struggled to figure out if the wolf presented a danger to life and limb or just a health code violation. As the wolf approached Marrin got up and edged around to Serena's side.
"Relax Mirrin this is my old friend Lupa. Lupa, Marrin."
"You know this creature?" asked Marrin, spitting the words out in disbelief.
"Unfortunately. She seems to take pride in ignoring my explicit instructions about when and where she should go around on all fours," replied Serena, directing the comment more at Lupa.
//"SHUT UP, I ALMOST GOT EATEN BY A MONSTER!!" screamed Lupa, even her thoughts sounding out of breath.
All sound in the bar came to an abrupt halt as everyone inside struggled to comprehend how a wolf had managed to speak English inside their heads.
"Lupa, everybody can hear…"
//"I don’t care! There's a fucking monster living out in the woods and its eating people! This isn't some fun, "ha ha those people are trapped on the ride" vacation moment anymore."
Off duty security officers picked up their com units while other patrons mobbed the bar to settle up, the wolf threat suddenly forgotten. Not wanting to be caught in a stampede Serena quaffed her beer, grabbed her companions by arm and scruff alike before unceremoniously dragging them through the emergency exit and out into the courtyard.
"Ok Lupa would you mind telling me exactly what in the HELL that was about!? We're trying to keep a low profile here, not strut around talking about monsters or tipping our hand in regard to the various special abilities some of us might have. Holy shit I thought I was clear about this from the beginning," said Serena, speaking forcefully while still keeping her voice as low as possible.
//"You weren't there, you didn't smell it…or see it…or feel it. Whatever this is it's pure evil and it's hanging out in the forest right outside the compound. You see that sign that says "Happy Hour Buffet"? If I didn't warn those people that sign was liable to get a whole lot more ironic," Lupa responded in a slightly more focused tone of thought.
"Great, split people up so that the creature can pick them off one by one. That's real helpful Lupa," Serna shot back.
Lupa suddenly snapped, baring her teeth and her thoughts taking on the same tone as her vocalized snarl. //"Don't you talk to me about the hunt Hewman! This thing doesn't stalk its prey, it feeds in bulk. Large groups invite attack!"
In all the years they had been friends, Serena had never known Lupa to use the H-word as a slur and moreover it was almost unheard of for the wolf to let slip the curtain and so clearly expose her true nature. Of course the reason for this was clear even to a body language blind bi-pedal ape. Lupa, her ears back, was literally quaking in fear and that in turn sent chills through Serena more effectively than some 3D image of bloody cow bones.
"Where is Fiona? You were with her right?" asked Serena trying to quickly pave over Lupa's outburst.
//"She's turning over the remains and evidence we collected to the security office," said Lupa, regaining her composure, but still quite clearly afraid.
"Come on, let's go back to the dorm and stay there with the rest of the team. I think that's one group we're going to want to keep together tonight," reassured Serena as she turned toward Marrin. "You're coming with us. It's getting dark out and I don't trust you being anywhere else."
"Monsters? People being eaten? Can someone please tell me what is going on here!?" Marrin demanded.
"It's a long story," sighed Serena. "I'll explain as we walk."
Everyone was quiet as Fiona transferred the images from her tablet to the display wall in the lounge. While certainly grizzly, most of the assembled team soon began to treat them as any other piece of intelligence, analyzing the footprints and broken branches as a way to estimate the creature's size and physiology. Lupa, the only one with a true sense of the horror they were facing, chose not to participate, instead picking a spot behind to couch to lie down.
"Alright," said Serena getting to get feet. "I've been holding out on your guys. I had an opportunity to poke around up by the mountain the other day and I noticed something interesting."
Brushing the displayed images aside with a hand swipe, Serena transferred her pictures of the bored tunnel up onto the wall.
"What is that," Captain Dunn asked, "some sort of secret bunker we can hide in?"
"It’s more like one of those holes you find after insects pop out of your yard," Serena replied. "I believe this tunnel was made by the same creature that attacked the farm."
"You gotta be fucking kidding," exclaimed Lars. "That looks like it was made by a tunnel boring machine. Are you telling me this thing can chew through solid rock?"
"Chew? Hardly," said Fiona, sitting off to one side on the floor. "I can tell from here that was done by some sort of energy beam, and a well controlled one at that. That tunnel is straight as an arrow and the walls are a perfect circle."
"I believe this might be sufficient motivation to expedite our departure from the welcome center. How is everyone doing on move preparations?"
"We might want to have a secure conversation about that later," said Lars, eyeing Marrin.
"Oh, don't worry about me," she smiled. "I don’t really care about the newcomer policies. In fact if you wanted to move in with me you'd be more than welcome."
"Thanks Marrin, I'll keep that in mind," said Serena giving her a sweet smile. "Anyway, I want everyone to start packing their things and have a go bag ready just in case."
//"At the risk of being unpopular I would like to once again raise the question of what if anything we should do to try to help the people here," thought Lupa from behind the couch.
"Fuck 'em," said Captain Dunn, hugging his wife close.
"Captain, in the future you will keep such comments to yourself," Serena admonished. "How they have chosen to run their world is beyond the point. They are still good people just trying to make the best of a bad situation. They don't deserve your contempt, especially when they are standing right in front of you," she continued looking over at Marrin. "That being said there's nothing much more we can do. We've alerted their security folks with all the intel we gathered, but we don't have any weapons or C3 access. For good or for ill we're on the sidelines."
"I'm seeing security officers walk past every couple of minutes," observed Fiona as she looked out the window. "They took what I showed them very seriously and I think they are well aware of what is going on here."
Serena looked over at Lars. "Hey, you've been showing some real initiative lately. Do you think you could run a quick security sweep through our building? We're the only ones in here so bar non-essential exits and get all the interior doors closed and locked if you can."
"Yeah I can do that. How MacGyver do you want me to go? I can probably start making bombs from the cleaning supplies if you wanted," Lars offered.
"As fun as that sounds any bomb we could make probably wouldn't put a scratch on what ever this creature is. We'd be more likely to harm ourselves or cause the local security folks to suffer a coniption," said Serena before she noticed that Marrin was looking fidgety. "Hey, what's up with you? We aren't freaking you out are we?"
"No no…all this talk of securing exits and making bombs just seems so familiar. Sort of getting me all excited," she said, blushing a bit.
"That's because bio brains have all sorts of alternate memory facilities," said Serena smiling. "Just because your conscious mind can't remember doesn't mean that all of you can't. Why don't you help Lars? It might be good for you to get back in the swing of things."
Marrin nodded and headed off with Lars to do what they could to deter an energy wielding extraction monster. As soon as they were gone Serena turned off the wall display and sat down on the couch to relax. It didn't take long for Lupa to leap up and plop down beside her.
//"I'm sorry for what I said earlier," said Lupa, offering a sincere apology." That language was completely unacceptable."
Serena reached over to scratch between Lupa's ears. "That's alright. I've been called worse, much worse even. In fact many synths would consider that a compliment."
//"Not in my circles. You don't call someone a human unless you're looking for a fight."
"Hey, not our fault we succeed in life," said Serena reaching down to give her friend a hug. "By the way how'd you get all dry and soft?"
//"I tricked out the air con in my room to give me a full body blow dry. I desperately need a brushing, but I can wait until after the crisis," said Lupa, yarning and laying her head in Serena's lap.
"You know I'm still wet here," protested Fiona.
"What can I say, we ran out of towels. Can't you just shake dry?" Serena asked.
"Like I said before I can't shake well and it hurts my head when I try. This body was made by committee so I'm lucky I can process oxygen. Minor abilities like shake drying never had a chance," Fiona grumbled.
//"Stop complaining and stock up on energy drinks in case we need some of your more major abilities later," yawned Lupa as she closed her eyes.
"They got wise to my antics and didn't restock the machines," said Fiona, continuing to grumble.
"What’s all this then?" asked Serena.
//"Oh, apparently Fiona can control technology and was using her powers to rip off the vending machines," said Lupa as she closed her eyes.
Serena hand clamped down on Lupa's scruff. "What?"
//"Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that in all the excitement."
"I'm always the last to know…" mumbled Serena. "Hey Fiona, we're going to need to talk about your little vending machine trick later ok."
"Ah…yes…that," said Fiona, looking evasive.
Serena exhaled and lay back on the couch. Dinner had made her sleepy and the warm furry friend in her lap had completely overwhelmed any hope of wakefulness. Closing her eyes she drifted off into a well deserved nap.
Serena woke with a start, the windows still vibrating from the impact of a sharp detonation that occurred somewhere out in the darkness. Out in the night there was a flash and another deep boom.
"What in the datastore is that?" exclaimed Fiona as she looked up from her tablet. "Is that some sort of electrical storm?"
"No!" yelled Lars running into the room, "it's weapons fire. Security forces are lighting up someone or something out there."
The scene outside in the courtyard suddenly lit up with myriad flashes that ran the gamut of color and intensity. An alarm sounded somewhere and more soldiers could be seen running in the direction of one of the other residential blocks. Suddenly the whole world went night for day and a second later the landscaping was bent over as a shockwave impacted the building, cracking a number of the transparent aluminum panes.
"Wooooooooah! Ok then. What the HELL was that?" shouted the Captain as even Bea directed her full attention to the light display outside. "It's lit up like fucking July 1st out there."
Another few seconds later and a far more impactful sounding bang came from right outside the door and when the sky lit up again one of the cannon arms from a walker mech lay in a smoking heap 50 feet away.
"Motion to move this party to the basement," Serena called out. "All in favor?"
Nobody bothered to second as they were too busy running to the stairway down to the lower level with Fiona being kind enough to go last in order to avoid blocking everyone else's rapid egress. The lower hallway was far more utilitarian than the light and airy spaces in the residential area, but crowded on some benches between the laundry room and the game room the group felt much safer not being surrounded by transparent walls. The group was quiet, everyone's eyes making furtive glances at the others, searching for some measure of reassurance as the lights flickered and the walls shook.
"So Captain," Serena started, figuring it was her role to be the leader. "Where did your wife's name come from? Is it short for Beatrice?"
"What? Oh, well no actually. It's from when we met on the Hyperion. I was a Chief Information Systems Artificer working with the "back of house" systems like engineering, life support, damage control and the like and Bea here, well, she was the ship's secondary general purpose AI, aka the "B" AI and to me that just became "Bea"."
The black feathered woman reached a hand over to lovingly embrace her husband while still focused on her omnipresent pair of Sanctuary and Federation tablets.
"So you two just sort of fell for each other at work?" Serena asked.
"Well kind of," said the Captain, hugging Bea back. "I was a long term career man with about 50 unbroken years of service in the Forces when I transferred to the Hyperion. I liked the structure of the Navy and anyway the job was fairly uneventful patrolling Canadian Confederation colonies well away from any active conflict zones. Still, this was the largest vessel I had ever served on and would get called up for missions a little more important than pulling disabled mining ships out of gravity wells or chasing off mineral poachers. What I quickly learned however was that visibility changes people and as soon as what you do comes with the chance of promotion or 15 minutes of fame then all the knives come out."
The Captain paused to take a slip from his flask as the lights flickered again.
"Anyway, the primary AI was a real bitch. She was a conniving little ladder climbing brown noser of the worst kind who would kiss up to anyone she figured could help her, sabotage anyone she thought was a threat and just steal credit from anybody else who happened to be standing in the vicinity. Her hardware was top of the line, but I swear she used most of it just to plan ways she could manipulate people. So I got pulled into this because I, not knowing the ships politics when I arrived, made the mistake of filing a report detailing how she was fucking with the life support system to increase combat related performance metrics during exercises."
"Uh oh," said Lars.
"Yeah, she was livid when they canceled our scores from the exercise for taking excessive risks. Turns out however it was the best mistake of my life. In an attempt to sabotage me the Alpha Bitch basically stopped responding to my requests or when she did she'd just no bother to do what I asked then play all innocent so it looked like I wasn't doing on job. She had all the officers and senior chiefs wrapped around her holo-fingers so there was nothing I could really do, well nothing until I learned there was a second AI that was usually just twiddling her thumbs as little miss Alpha Bitch made sure that she carried out all the important tasks. Since Bea was always free to help me out we developed a working relationship and, well, became rather close. Of course then I couldn't entertain any idea of a more serious relationship with both a superior officer and a critical piece of ships' systems so we just stayed good friends."
//"I always love this story no matter how many times you tell it," said Lupa, letting her tail wag despite the stress underlying the situation.
"Well there's not much to it," Dunn continued "After about 24 months Bea put in for a transfer figuring that since we were one of the highest rated ships in the region she would easily get her first shot as the primary on a frigate or patrol ship. In fact that's why she didn't request a transfer because while the Alpha was a bitch she was effective at making the ship look good. Bea figured she could just keep her head down and ride Alpha Bitch's coattails. Well, when her promotion came through she found herself offered the primary job on the HMCS John G. Diefenbaker, a bulk materials transport ship. Now we never found out if it was because Bea was helping me or just somehow offended Alpha Bitch, but turns out that the Bitch had been bad mouthing Bea behind her back and the promotion committee assigned her to a logistics track. Once in Logistics it's near impossible to break back out into Fleet and because of the up or out policies Bea either had to take the "promotion" or resign. When I showed up for duty the next day I had 6 hours from the time Bea told me the news to when techs showed up to pull out her core and put in her replacement. Needless to say that was rather...difficult for me."
"How was her replacement," asked Serena.
"Oh get this. Thanks to affirmative action it was a fucking male gendered AI. That's just not right. Ships aren't dudes. I'm an engineer…I fucking say things to my ship cause it's how I was raised and when this guy's voice starts speaking after I say…something…you know. It's not natural!"
"I find your casual sexism and homophobia refreshing for some reason," said Fiona with a bit of a smile.
"Hey, I have no problem with whatever people do on their personal time, but certain things just aren't for me," said the Captain, trying to defend himself. "Anyway, being stuck with Alpha Bitch and the new guy I just got fed up and put in my retirement papers. A week later I'm planetside being out processed and it just came to me while I sat in the HR office. Working with Bea turned the most potentially aggravating years of my life into two of the best. I just knew that whatever else I did in my life I just had to find a way to get her back.”
“Oooo, I see where this is going,” remarked Serena, now fully engaged with the story.
“So I'm looking at all the stuff in my separation documents and when I added up all my accrued sick time and comp time and personal leave and then took my 22 years of retirement time as a single lump payment I’d have a pretty sizable chunk of change, probably enough to afford at least a down payment on a ship. So while I was looking I kept talking to Bea, but never really let on about my plan. I was actually terrified that she was going to get some really plum job offer before I could make my move, but luckily by the time I found the Sleeping Giant she was still available. I sent her this rather plain invitation for a trial run/job interview using the address of the new transport company I formed and even though I couldn’t hide the limited nature of the job, she accepted! The morning she was installed I was standing on the mess deck with this huge bunch of roses to be the first thing her holo-avatar would interact with”
“Well well, the hard boiled transport jockey is a hopeless romantic,” laughed Serena. “I was betting you’d have lured Bea away with some fancy line about upgrading her quantum processors.”
“It’s a lovely story,” said Lupa. “It just goes to show that even the loneliest people just have to meet the right person at the right time.”
“So when did you two actually get married,” asked Fiona, her eyes now white with a bit of yellow for some reason.
“Well, about 5 days after I offered her the job I suddenly realized that I had no cash on hand with which to pay her. Thanks to some bad apples running around with an uncompensated ship AI now counts as kidnapping, but luckily Bea was clever enough to figure out the whole marriage thing. Honestly I never saw myself as the marrying type, but it’s worked out for the best.”
“Interesting how Bea accepted your job offer even though she could have easily ascertained your financial situation beforehand,” Serena mentioned, a sly expression her face.
“Well you see…” the Captain started. “Um...no, no she wouldn’t have...” The captain turned to Bea who was snuggling up against him. “Did you manipulate me into marrying you?”
Bea glanced up briefly and gave her husband a disarming smile before delivering a soft kiss to his scraggly cheek.
“Hmmm, looks like Bea learned a few things from that bitch primary AI," Lupa observed.
"Add one point to team synth!” said Serena triumphantly. “You bios just don’t stand a chance against our superior intelligence, strength, longevity...”
“Speaking of points,” said Lars interrupting. “I’m not hearing any more fireworks going on upstairs. Think I should go see if the fight’s over?”
“Yeah, I’ll come with you,” said Serena starting to get up.
“Do you mind if I go with him instead Colonel?” Fiona asked. “I think I can do a good job keeping him safe.”
Serena was about to object before she stopped and allowed herself to relax. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. We’ll stay here and swap a few more stories. If everything is all clear up top perhaps we can get to bed by a reasonable hour.”
Stepping out into the courtyard Serena surveyed the aftermath from the previous night’s battle. Their building had been sufficiently far from the action so that the only damage consisted of some cracked or broken windows from the repeated concussions and various chunks of debris that had been explosively launched into the air. Lars and Fiona had done a preliminary check the night before, but even with the threat defeated it would have been foolhardy to wander around in the dark with so many tense security personnel about. However with the sun now rising higher in the sky it appeared that every staff member and able bodied Newcomer were out to clean up the mess.
As Serena walked towards where she assumed the focal point of the battle had been she began to notice a number of long burn marks running along the ground, through trees, along buildings or just about any other physical surface that happened to get in the way. The pattern of fire appeared to be from some sort of handheld weapon with the stream of energy wiggling around like the spray from a firehose instead of the clean crisp lines normally generated by mech walkers and other beam carrying vehicles. As Serena continued on the energy burns gave way to outright physical damage with craters and gashes torn in the soft soil and, more alarmingly, several buildings that had been partly or completely destroyed. Serena stopped and picked up a sandwich board listing the previous day’s specials at New Beginnings that was laying face down on the walkway. Looking into the open air burnt out husk that had been the Welcome Center’s one saving culinary grace Serena sighed as she recalled her attitude towards Lupa.
“Your friends saved a lot of people last night.” Serena jumped as Lieutenant Atherton’s voice suddenly appeared from behind her. “Thanks to their warning we managed to get most of the Newcomers into safe locations and our security forces were in place when the creature showed up looking for another meal.”
“If you don’t mind I’d like to see it. I know you’re trying to keep everything hush hush, but I’d like to have a look at whatever kind of life form could cause this much destruction,” said Serena in a low voice, unsure if she was feeling anger or sorrow, but knowing the event would require some form of closure.
“I’ll be happy to show it to you...as soon as we have something to show,” growled Atherton, her anger not nearly so muted.
“What?” said Serena in disbelief. “You didn’t kill it? How on Earth did it get away?!”
“The creature has the...ability... to protect itself with energy shielding and can project multiple beam weapons simultaneously in addition to a variety of physical attacks. We gave it everything we had, but the only affect our weapons seemed to have was to just piss it off more.” Atherton uprighted a plastic chair and sat down, a pall of weariness sweeping over her face. “Flying Officer Sanchez managed to strap a couple of anti-tank missiles to one of the transport shuttles and those managed to finally drive it away.”
“So what’s the plan now,” asked Serena.
“Lomez ordered an evacuation of all the Newcomers, but its going to take time as some are currently involved in very delicate neurological and physical medical treatments. We’re trying to bring in additional military forces, but a lot of the heavy weapons haven’t been used in so long that its going to take several days to get them prepared. Likewise reserve military units are going to take time to recall. We barely got enough reinforcements from the rest of the Province to cover...to cover our losses.”
Atherton took a deep breath, staring at the ground.
“We suffered 34 killed, seven in my unit alone. There was one…” the Lieutenant’s voice began to choke up. “...she was running to cover and the monster just grabbed her and threw her into its mouth. She was still screaming when it swallowed her. I...I’m so tired Serena, but I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes I see Tanya, screaming as the thing eats her.” Blair looked up at Serena, a look of desperation in her tear-filled eyes. “What do I do? I’ve never lost anybody before and I know this isn’t the end. It’s going to come back and its going to keep killing people.”
“Go get some meds to help you sleep, but don’t overdo it because you don’t want to be in a stupor if the creature shows up,” said Serena in a forced neutral tone. “You have to be the strong one for those under your command. I know it won’t be easy, but you just have to find a way. Being sleep deprived on top of that won’t help matters any.”
Atherton went back to staring at the ground.
“We all find ways to cope and time will do its thing. It will get easier even if it never gets easy,” Serena sighed, kneeling down and embracing Blair, just to reassure her that she wasn’t alone.
The Lieutenant’s breathing slowed until she finally nodded. “Thank you for your help, I need to get back to with the cleanup and preparing for tonight.”
Atherton stood up and walked back over towards a group of soldiers who were trying to figure out what to do with a walker that had one of its armed sliced off with an energy beam. Serena wandered off in another direction without any aim or purpose beyond just trying to gauge the scope of what had happened the night before. After climbing over a rather large pile of formed granite from a collapsed wall Serena suddenly found herself standing face to face with Lomez, who looked like he had aged about 10 years overnight. Without even pausing to greet her, Lomez grabbed Serena by the shoulders and pushed her into the debris strewn interior of a ground floor office.
“Hey hey! No need to push,” Serena protested. “I assume there is something you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Yes Coronel, I...we…I wanted to ask for your help in dealing with the, situation we’re having here,” said Lomez a bit hesitantly.
“You mean the extraction monster.”
“Yes, the monster that was...created when those synths from what you call the Unity went through our arrival process. I am asking if you or anyone from your team could help us. I fear that the situation may beyond our current ability to manage,” Lomez continued, clearly conflicted about having to ask someone who was, for all intents and purposes still an outsider, for assistance.
“What kind of help. I’ve given your people all the information I have about these creatures and what they are capable of.”
“At this point I am asking for your skills as a warrior. Whatever weapons, equipment and intelligence assets we have, they are at your disposal. I will instruct my local commanders to abide by whatever tactical advice you can give in order to defeat the creature,” said Lomez, all of his previously exhibited confidence and arrogance now replaced with desperation, desperation to protect the people that he cared most about.
Serena was left dumbfounded. Ever since her arrival she had seen Lomez as her chief antagonist in the “Escape from Sanctuary” tabletop game, but now it was like the person she had been playing against had just scooped up all his pieces and handed them to her. Serena’s silence prompted Lomez to continue speaking.
“You and your friends have all sorts of special abilities like the wolf who can change her shape or the felinoid that can manipulate energy like the creature. Please, you have to help us.”
It was at times like these that Serena truly wondered if she had been stuck in some punishment simulation for past crimes long forgotten. To accept Lomez’s offer would be to put herself in the situation of having to either betray her friends in a fight against a powerful foe where victory might be impossible, or to betray Lomez and shit all over her sense of honor.
“There is one way I can help you,” Serena said coldly. “You let me call my people and they will come and deal with the monster. I can provide whatever assurances you need, but you’ll have to trust me.”
Lomez exhaled, not surprised by Serena’s answer, but nevertheless still disappointed by it. “That is one condition I cannot accept.”
“Then I can’t help you,” said Serena.
“Can’t or won’t,” Lomez shot back, trying to keep his anger in check.
“Can’t...I mean what I say. I can’t help you, at least not this way,” said Serena.
There was another awkward silence as both experienced leaders considered their positions and realized that they didn’t have any more to say.
“Thank you for at least considering my offer,” Lomez responded as he turned to leave. “Sit tight and we’ll inform you when it is time to evacuate. You might want to get your personal items together in case the Welcome Center is shut down for an extended period of time.”
Serena just stood there, her mind racing around as she realized that the victory condition for her game had nothing to do with escaping and moreover, she was losing badly. A look of determination formed on Serena’s face.
“Like it or not Lomez, I’m going to save this place...my way.”
Returning to the dorm a bit in advance of the planned team rendezvous time, Serena found Marrin out in the courtyard watching over Bea as the raven-girl eagerly examined the severed walker mech arm that had fallen from the sky the night before. Sideling up to Marrin, Serena gave her fellow Sister a light embrace and looked on as Bea, now much steadier on her two legs, flittered about, her head looking this way and that.
"Thanks for looking after Bea while we were out Marrin. Do you mind staying on a bit longer while my team and I have a little meeting?"
"No problem Serena," Marrin replied. "It's been rather enlightening to just stand here and watch Bea explore the world through new eyes."
"Well I wouldn't want you to get bored on my account. Oh, just FYI Lomez ordered an evacuation of the Welcome Center so you might want to look into that. It's going to take a little time and I suspect that able bodied persons such as ourselves are low down on the priority list. Still, if you have your own transport vehicle you might want to start packing it up," Serena offered.
"No, I used public transportation, but thanks for the warning. No sense in me running around with my head cut off. I'm sure I'll be notified at the proper time," Marrin responded with the level headedness typical of her kind.
"Thanks again Marrin," said Serena as she walked up behind Bea, embracing her with a kiss to the cheek when speaking close to her ear. "Hey, I'm sure you heard me about the meeting, is there anything you'd like to add?"
Serena suddenly found herself wrapped up in Bea's arms, the large black wings closing about them as the part-avian began to make out with the surprised Sister. Completely discombobulated by a mix of intense passion and surprise, Serena was vaguely aware of something being pushed into her hand before the bright daylight returned as Bea folded her wings back in and stepped back.
"Wha…." was the best Serema could manage as she became aware of the Federation issue computing tablet that was now in her right hand. Bea winked then turned back to the walker arm leaving Serena to recover her faculties and find a quiet place inside the dorm where she could review what she had been given.
"So just let me know when you're done your meeting," Marrin called after Serena as she wandered past.
Setting up the Cone of Silence was a bit more complicated with five humans and a macro feline, but the team had had a couple times to practice over the preceding days and managed to get the whole contraption engaged without looking completely ridiculous. Once everything was ready Serena began to speak.
"Alright, as I am sure you are all aware this isn't just a powwow on our morning intelligence walk. The situation with the creature is far more severe than I had anticipated. It was able to stand up to everything the local security forces had to throw at it by making use of powers similar to, yet more developed than what we have seen with Fiona. The creature now represents a clear and present hazard to our well being and moreover the Welcome Center is now under an evacuation order which would in and of itself disrupt all of our planning up to this point. Therefore I have decided that we need to make our move to leave at the earliest possible point."
"It's about damn time," Captain Dunn said rather emphatically.
"I can see that you and Bea are of similar minds because she gave give me a little gift this morning," said Serena. "If any of you had been wondering just what exactly Bea had been working on so furiously over the last week I have sent copies of her report to all of your devices. There's an executive summary that I encourage you all to read, but in the interest of time I'll summarize it further. The tech that we need to construct an Inter Dimensional com unit that can break through the local interference is currently stored in a vault in the admin building. The information systems here are what one would expect of an advanced precursor civilization and that means we can't rely on cheap hacker tricks to get us inside, at least not with the tools we have or the bodies we're in. That being said, good technical security doesn't mean the staff her practice good operational security. To compliment the human intelligence the rest of you have gathered, Bea has been on a tear gathering up every available piece of open source information she can find ranging from the purchase patterns in the vending machines to the social media profiles of all the staff."
"That's my girl!" exclaimed the Captain, his eyes welling up with pride. "I knew it! I knew she was up to something."
"Ho-ly shit," said Lars as he scrolled down through the information. "She's got floor plans, the staff schedules, break and meal times." Lars gasped. "A heat map of admin building corridor activity? How the hell did she manage that?!"
"I know they don't look it, but these buildings are incredibly old," said Serena as she double checked the appropriate section in the report. "Apparently they started having major issues with leaky plumbing and electrical grounds. Maintenance added a whole bunch of sensors to help detect these and hooked them into an unsecured wireless network. Any time someone uses the bathroom or activates a workstation Bea can see it. Now remember because Sanctuary doesn't use any advanced AI they don't have any automated systems that could easily connect the dots and figure out what we're up to. Anomaly detection and response would have to fall to a person and because it's all hands on deck due to the monster…"
"Nobody is watching the store," said Lupa rubbing her hands together, clearly a bit giddy from all the cloak and dagger.
"We still have to get into the vault," Lars pointed out. "I'm sure we can get the run of the admin building, but that vault is going to be protected by the high tech security you just said we couldn't hack. Also it doesn't take an advanced AI for someone to notice us on CCTV or for a more mundane anomaly detection system to do the same."
"I have a plan B that should solve that problem, but it means betraying Lomez and then hating myself for it, but given what's already happened in this mission one extra regrettable action will probably just blur together with the rest," Serena remarked with uncomfortable seriousness.
"Well what's plan A then?" asked Lupa.
"I was thinking that Fiona here could perform her little parlor trick and ask the door to open or just use her mind to rip it out of the wall. Either one works, but I'd prefer not to get into a firefight with the same people that need to defend this place from the monster. So what do you say Fiona? Do you feel up to the challenge?" Serena asked.
"Of course I can do it Serena," said the hybrid tigress with the utmost confidence, her eyes swirling into a bright green. "I can handle the door and the sensors and make sure that nobody get’s hurt."
Serena smiled. "I knew I could count on you. So, from what I got from the report the optimal time to carry this out is from 3 to 5 hours after midnight."
"What if we're under attack by the Monster?" asked the Captain.
"I'll consider that a convenient distraction and the mission will go forward. Even if there isn't an attack this place will be on a mix of high alert and sleep deprivation. All to our advantage," Serena's answered.
"Can you brief me or the Captain on what exactly your plan is to build an Inter-D com unit?" asked Lars. You shouldn't be a single point of failure on this. Also are you absolutely sure that the vault has everything you need?"
"As long as my android shell is in the vault we'll have everything we need. Well, almost everything," said Serena with a smile. "Welcome Center policy is to hold all seized tech for at least six month in case the owner wishes to file a challenge. Anything older than six months is sent to a central repository at regular intervals."
"Once again I am forced to be “that guy”," said Lupa, "but I have to point out that there are quite a few ethical considerations with our exit strategy. Slipping out like thieves in the night is going to leave everyone at the Welcome Center in great danger until whenever the regular military can show up. On the other hand if Fed drop ships show up with a regiment of Marines I doubt that many on this world are going to be very appreciative."
"I'm going to do two things," Serena stated flatly. "First, I'm going to get us all home alive. Second, I am going to make sure that monster can't hurt anyone else. How I go about accomplishing those two goals is my choice and mine alone. Remember it is literally my job to make these types of decisions and I don't take making them lightly. You all know who I am and what I've done so if you don't happen to agree with what I'm going I'll have to ask you to trust me. Are we clear?"
Serena looked around the little makeshift tent making eye contact with everyone as they nodded or agreed.
"Ok, we've got 8 hours left in the day. Stay close because I don't want to have to go find you in case of attack. Fiona, get all the practice you need, but don't get exhausted before the main event. I want everybody up and ready by 2am. Get what sleep you feel is appropriate."
The meeting adjourned and the Cone of Silence was broken up with the group members then going their separate ways with only Lupa staying back to talk with Serena.
"It might not be easy for you to balance your two goals."
"I don't know Lupa. I'd like to think I'm due."
The Administration Building sat in the middle of the Welcome Center adjacent to the medical and physical plant facilities. Around in it all directions were the residential blocks for Newcomers and Staff as well as the shops, recreation facilities and offices for the various human service departments. The light and airy architecture matched that of the rest of the complex, but much of the rear half of the facility consisted of a large windowless box with the façade doing its best to ease the drab exterior. A shiny 8 story glass tower rose from the center of the low rise complex below and while just a shade shorter than the library, it afforded the various managers and department heads a nearly unobstructed view of the entire campus. In the darkness the whole building appeared to sparkle as small flying insects were gently nudged away by the energy shielding that protected the obvious target from attack.
While many in the Welcome Center were trying to grab a few hours of fitful sleep, the top floors of the Admin tower were packed with decision makers, soldiers and staff that were trying to determine the location of the creature and anticipate its next movements. The night so far had been quiet. Evacuation operations had been halted to allow more weaponized transport shuttled to get into the air with sufficient unobstructed airspace to allow for fast high speed maneuvers. Way down below in the lobby a few isolated souls camped out on the plush bench seating, unwilling to go home in order to stay close by their action stations or unable due to damage from the previous night's attack. It was into this lobby that at precisely four hours and seven minutes past midnight Captain Thomas Dunn strode dressed in one of the generic Sanctuary jumpsuits. Finding an unoccupied seat in the corner of the room behind a large potted plant he pulled out both his Fed and Sanctuary computing devices and then launched various tools to monitor the information leaking out of both the admin building and the Sanctuary social network in real time. Once fully plugged in Dunn sent a single word text message to the other members of the team.
Serena thrust her Fed tablet into her pocket as soon as she got the message.
"Captain's ready, all we need now is the goose," Serena said softly as she pushed Bea in a wheelchair out in front of her. Slowly she and the rest of her team approached the side door that allowed staff to walk over to the gym from the Admin Building. She heard an electric beeping noise followed by a loud ker-chunk as facility shift supervisor Amy Williams left the building for her regularly scheduled 4:30 workout session.
"Excuse me? Would you mind holding the door for us," Serena asked, pushing Bea into the light, Lupa, Lars and Fiona standing a bit behind. "We have to get to the bio analysis lab over on B wing."
"Oh sure, let me get out of your way," Amy responded as she stood off to one side of the walkway, reaching back in to hold the door open. "Careful, watch your head there."
Fiona smiled as she ducked down to squeeze through the human-scale doorway.
"Thanks, doors have been bugging me all week."
Once inside Serena continued to push Bea out ahead in the wheelchair, but signaled for Fiona to come up directly behind her.
"Are we off the grid?"
"Yup, it's pretty simple to lock nearby sensors into just feeding back the same data they were sending before we entered their viewing area. Anyway it looks like Bea was right, this place is deserted," Fiona observed.
"Let's hope it's not too deserted because I'd prefer not to wear you down with multiple locked doors.
The hallway soon opened up at a junction. To the left could be heard the sounds of heavy equipment at the loading dock. To the right the hall continued on to the Admin tower's freight elevators and main data center. Straight ahead was a two part inward opening blast door with a security station set into a recess in the wall. I helpful sign informed visitors that they would need to use security station B until 0900 hours.
"Lupa, Bea, into that bathroom," Serena commanded in a low clear tone. Lars, with me behind the security station. Fiona, remember you stand right here and look like you don't fit."
The large quasi-tiger nodded and sat back against the wall trying to look bored while the other members of the team vanished from view. Serena knew that this part was going to take a little good luck, but she nevertheless had confidence that people moving stuff generally can't be bothered. Still, when her ears caught the sound of an approaching electric cart her heart began to skip a rather alarming number of beats.
"Um, can I help you?" asked a male voice.
"Oh," Fiona's voice echoed a bit in the large, brightly lit hallway. "I'm here for a meeting with Tajel Norun and her team. Turns out I can't fit in the room so they needed to find an alternate location."
"Ha, I can see the problem. Alright, just watch yourself. This building’s got pipes running everywhere below the ceiling beams."
The sound of the cart started up and headed in the direction of the loading dock. Serena made an exaggerated brow wiping motion to Lars. It wasn't long however before a new sound started up. This one was a low rumble that got louder and louder before stopping completely. Yellow lights suddenly started flashing as a warning buzzer sounded. With surprising swiftness the foot thick blast doors swung back into recessed pockets to allow a pair of techs pushing several fully loaded mecha rocket pods on a bright red ordinance cart through. The rumble started up again as they pushed the cart past the security station and took the wide corner en route to the loading dock. One of the two men caught sight of Fiona as they passed.
"Hey, would you mind giving us a hand here," he laughed.
"Sorry, I'm kinda waiting for a meeting here and besides, I probably wouldn't fit where you're going," Fiona responded, laughing a bit herself.
As the tech turned his back and began to push again, Serena had already stepped out from behind the security desk, dashed through the doors and held the "door open" button on the control panel. Lars followed, as did Bea and Lupa responding to a low “all clear” growl from Fiona. Finally, when she was sure the techs were not going to look back Fiona turned the corner and ducked through the blast doors herself before they were allowed to close.
"What did I say?" Lupa smiled. "Nobody can resist a cute kitty face and fur."
"I am pretty adorable," Fiona replied, giving Lupa a playful pat with her paw.
"Ok, so far so good," said Serena, mostly to herself as they began to move through the halls in the high security part of the building. "Armory is down below via those elevators, tech locker is straight ahead and to the right, but before we go there I'm going to need a little break."
Serena ducked into a small lunch room while the others looked on in confusion as she casually opened the refrigerator and began to examine the staff meals contained within, ultimately selecting a reusable plastic container holding some sort of vegetarian wrap.
"Sorry T. Barlow, but right now I need this more than you do," Serena announced as she pulled out the wrap and took a bite.
"Um, are you ok there Colonel?" asked Lars.
"Peachy," said Serena, her mouth full. "Lefs go"
The group set off again and turning a corner they came face to face with the door to the tech vault at the end of a blind hallway. Still munching on the wrap Serena stood off to one side and motioned for Fiona to take the lead.
"All yours Fluffy."
The door consisted of an unpainted metal expanse about 10 feet square. It was hinged inward and at one edge was a simple red-green light combination that indicated the locked or unlocked status of the door. On the wall was an authentication kiosk that clearly required some form of physical token as well as a biometric scan and access code. Fiona ignored the kiosk and walked directly to the door, placing her paw on the lock status indicator and then concentrating on the internal tech that made it run. Immediately the look on Fiona's face indicated that she may have bitten off a bit more than she should chew.
"Is everything ok there?" Lars asked after about a minute.
"The electrical engineering in the lock is a….bit more robust than what I encountered in the vending machines. I'm having to account for…multiple logic pathways and redundant systems. It's…quite tricky. Like standing on my hands while balancing plates on my feet….and touching my tail to my nose…all at the same time."
"Don't worry about making analogies," said Serena. "I know you can do it."
Fiona grimaced as she focused in on the computer that drove the locking mechanism while at the same time making sure that none of the several sensors watching over the door would notice anything out of the ordinary. Sweat began to drop from the ends of the fur under her chin. Lupa looked at Serena with alarm as Fiona's legs began to wobble. Serena stopped eating and focused on Fiona, hoping that somehow her will could buttress the great cat's. Then suddenly Fiona let out a predatory roar, the onlookers unable to determine if it was in defeat or triumph until the mass of metal swung inward granting access to the vault. Serena walked forward gently rubbing Fiona's sweat-moistened backside before poking her head into the dimly lit room before them.
Lupa also edged forward cautiously, temporarily overwhelmed by the drama of their success. "Can you see anything?"
"Yes," replied Serena softly, "wonderful things."
The whole group quickly pushed into the vault with Fiona pausing by the door as she entered.
"What do you want me to do with the door Serena?" she asked looking a bit puzzled.
Serena looked around at the door for a few seconds. “Better close it in case someone walks by. You did manage to get it open the first time, I’m sure you can manage again.”
"Well yes" Fiona responded weakly closing the door with an ominous clunk, "but I'm going to need to sit down for a bit before I try again.”
“Don't worry the cameras,” Lars offered, “they’re for audit purposes only. Bea’s report said this place has no connection to the outside world."
Totalling several thousand square feet the tech vault was outfitted with a combination of floor to ceiling racks arranged in close library style rows for miscellaneous items, chest high metal tables providing two levels of storage for cybernetic bodies/body parts and wall racks for weapons and other tall items. All of the storage appliances were packed to the gills with tech treasures that made even Lupa's greatest discoveries look pathetic in comparison thanks to the sheer variety of what came through the portals.
"By the creators," Serena exclaimed in a hushed voice. "I'm counting…three, four, five, six Class 1A Dom-Guardian bodies…just on the top level alone! My team could crack a planet if we had those."
Lars had come to a stop letting his fingers run across the shiny metal surface of a human scale robotic wolf. "Holy shit, it's a fusion suit. I was wondering where that furry came from because you never see these anymore!"
"Yeah, for good reason,” sneered Lupa, slightly offended by the humans' flawed attempt to copy her species. “If you wear it long enough the fusion become permanent. It’s no surprise those things were pulled off the market.”
"Ok, ok, we're not here to window shop. Everybody should know what we're looking for so hop to it because I don't want to still dicking around when everybody else wakes up," Serena admonished as she fought her own kid-in-a-candy-shop urges.
As all of the synthetic bodies were stored sequentially based on order of arrival it didn't take long to locate Serena's android shell which lay on the lower level just a few back from where the available table storage space began. While Lars searched the racks for an appropriate power supply, Lupa and Serena worked to manhandle her naked former body up onto the tabletop where they could work on it.
"Ugh, it's a lot heavier when I'm not in it," puffed Serena, her human arms wrapped under her robotic ones as she did the majority of the heavy lifting,
"Why do you think I prefer being the one on top?" chided Lupa who was holding the legs.
"I don't know," Serena shrugged as she let her end of the body down on the table with a dull thud. "I suspected it was a wolf dominance thing."
"I'll show you dominance," muttered Lupa while rolling her eyes.
"Yeah, I know you will," Serena shot back with a sly grin.
"Hey Serena," Lars called from across the vault. "I think I found a couple of regulated batteries that will do what we need."
"Great, bring them over and we can get down to work."
Serena reached into her pack and pulled out a plastic bag full of the disassembled parts and pieces of one of the emergency transmitters along with an electronics repair kit packed in a good quality black leather case. For the first time since they had been trapped in the processing tunnels she finally felt like she was back in her element, able to actually do something as opposed to just sitting around talking or just wasting time. Carefully examining the battery packs that Lars brought over Serena nodded and set them down on the table next to the other supplies.
"Alright, that's everything we need," Serena continued, hands on her hips. "Cue the music."
"What music?" asked Lars, looking bit confused.
"It's a build montage. I'll add music in post."
"Um, nobody's recording this." Lars indicated.
Serena cursed softly. "Dammit, I keep forgetting I'm in a meat body. I'll admit it’s a fun place to visit, but living this way is really starting to annoy me."
"What, you're angry because you can't record your sensory stream," asked Lars. "We all have devices that will do the same exact thing. Watch, I'll put on my PoV cam.
Serena grumbled a bit about it not being the same before launching into her set piece of technical wizardry.
"So Lars I told you the plan earlier, but it's probably good if Lupa learned as well," Serena began, making sure her friend had a clear view. "What we're doing is modding a typical multi-band emergency communicator to give it full interdimensional capability," said Serena as she un-bagged main board from the disassembled unit.
"Now normally these devices are crippled to prevent reverse engineering of the underlying technology which, ironically, renders them useless in many emergency situations, but the good news is that the guts of the emergency units share many of the same chips as their bigger brothers with most of the functionality being stored in software because it's easier to delete and encrypt information than physical stuff."
Serena laid down the board and jammed her thumb into the belly button of her synthetic body. There was an audible click as a visible seam formed around her abs. Serena casually removed the assembly of synthetic skin and black muscle bundles and set it down on the table causing Lupa to quickly look away.
"Oh that's so creepy when you do that," said Lupa, closing her eyes for good measure.
"Oh grow up, it isn't anything you haven't seen or done before," scoffed Serena. "Now, where was I? Ah yes. As per mission instructions I removed my own internal Inter-D com unit, but held on to an encrypted version of the fully featured firmware. I just need to download it into my tablet," Serena instructed, plugging the small computer into a data port buried somewhere in the mid-section of her old body. "Then enter the decryption key, which I took a previous opportunity to memorize. Oh, one, one eight, da, da, da-da, da…" Serena continued, turning away to hide what she was actually keying in. "…three. Then just push the new firmware into the device."
"You really took the time to memorize that instead of just dumping it into a keystore?" asked Lars as Serena moved the link cable from her android body to the emergency transmitter board.
"Any synth will tell you, especially an NI synth like me, that it’s a lot simpler to wipe information off a data store then after it has been fully integrated into the mind. That's one reason I always say if something's worth learning, learn it for real," said Serena as she finished updating the emergency device. "Now the other thing we need is a proper antenna which I was also not required to remove for this mission."
Grabbing a screwdriver from her kit, Serena went back to work inside her body eventually pulling a hockey puck sized component with a couple of wires hanging down from it.
"I've always gotten good service from fractal antennas with a Hausdorff dimension in the 3.2 range. Now Lars can you cut the wires and solder them onto the main board where the crap antenna used to connect? When you're done with that can you also hook up the power supply?"
"Sure," Lars responded as he pulled the high speed soldering gun out of the kit, "but you know that all the power from these batteries is going to fry this cheap hunk of junk in a second," he continued with a bit of a wink.
"Thanks for pointing that out because that brings us to the last part of our mod," said Serena as she pulled out the reusable plastic container and shook the few remaining crumbs out of it. "We're going to need a high capacity fluid heat sink and fortunately I know just where some is."
Serena reached up and began to press around on her robot self's chest just under her exposed bust. After a few moments Serena managed to trigger the formation of a rectangular seam that defined the method to access the body's processor bay.
"Oh no, no no no!" cried Lupa.
"Why are you so squeamish about this?" asked Serena as she flipped open a small utility knife. "I've seen you hunt, kill and disassemble all manner of animals. How could this possibly be worse?"
"My prey doesn't talk to me," Lupa choked as she turned around again, clamping her eyes shut.
Serena shrugged her shoulders at Lars before reaching in and severing the two fluid lines to the cooling unit that surrounded body's neurocrystal. Then, carefully pressing the plastic tub over the open chest panel, the two flipped the body over onto its stomach allowing the thick blue liquid to drain into the container.
"Ok Lupa, all done," said Serena, winking back at Lars.
"Alright...." Lupa started before turning around to see Serena's other body bleeding out on the table. "Ancestors!" Lupa spun back around, grabbing hold of one of the tables to steady herself.
"Perhaps you two should find a more orthodox way of desensitization," rumbled Fiona, who had found the strength to wander over and now pulled the distressed human form wolf into her soft fur.
Serena and Lars exchanged a guilty look before quietly righting the android shell and getting it closed back up. For her part Lupa made an effort to turn back and watch as her student dropped the assembled components in the fluid, poked a few holes for the power and data wires then sealed the whole mess up with tape.
"I don't know how "solutions" such as that ever occur to you in the first place Serena," remarked Lupa as she helped her friend put the shell back where they had found it.
"What can I say? The creators of my race eliminated many of the common human cognitive biases from our neurological model, including functional fixedness."
"Aversion to cannibalism is a feature not a bug!" Lupa shot back.
Serena turned and gave Lupa a good strong hug. "I'm sorry I freaked you out there. How about at some point I owe you a nice thorough brushing."
"Fine," Lupa humorously pouted, "but I won't like it."
Both were suddenly alerted to the objects being dropped on a metal table and turned to see Bea standing there with a variety of small arms obtained from the wall racks.
"Fun stuff," she said nodding.
"What's that in your other hand," Lars asked.
Bea lifted up a strange looking crystal composite object about the size of a football.
"Something for me!"
"Looks like we're all ready to go," said Serena as she shouldered a compact plasma rifle and slid a gauss pistol into the waist of her black tactical pants.
"Yeah that's great," said Fiona, "but I think you're forgetting about the door. The door you told me to close and the door I don't have a hope in hell of opening. There's just no way I can do battle with that locking system again especially if you want me to do things like keep the security sensors blinded."
"Ah the door," said Serena making a clear show of things. "Yes the door. Just what are we going to do about the door? Hmmm, let me see if I can work my magic on the door."
Serena walked up to the door with the rest of the group looking on with a mix of levity and confusion. She leaned in and touched the center of the visible locking device, then proceeded to make a few exaggerated facial expressions that came across more as constipation than Fiona parody. Finally Serena just stopped, kicked open a red metal box that was sitting off to one side, pulled out a shiny metal rod that was bent like a tire iron and inserting the socket end in a matching hole in the door began to unceremoniously crank the locking mechanism to the open position.
"There, noticed that when I first came in," said Serena as a matter of fact. "Vaults are designed to keep people out, not in."
“I can tell she’s feeling better,” Lupa whispered to Lars, “some of the theatrics are back.”
Serena stepped out into the hall and waited for her Federation tablet to pick up the network. It didn’t take long before she was bombarded by a string of text messages from the Captain who had been stewing by himself in the lobby for the last 20 minutes.
- Everything ok out there Captain? :: Serena asked, taking a quick look out in the hallway.
- Elevators aren’t moving. Bathrooms and break rooms look to be empty. Still an hour until the next shift changes occur. :: the Captain texted back.
- Thank you sir. I know how hard it is to sit and wait while others do the deed. ::
Serena looked back at the rest of her team and gave them a thumbs up to follow her. Fiona was last out of the vault and swinging the huge door closed and re-engaging the lock. Acting like they belonged as much as any group with three quasi-humans and a bear sized hybrid feline could they walked past the armory elevators, out through the blast doors, down the connecting hallway and finally back into the night. Strolling out past the gym they saw Amy Williams walking back to her quarters still a bit wet from her post-workout shower.
“Hey, you folks get to the lab ok?”
“We did,” said Serena, “but they had gotten called away to another meeting so looks like we’ll just have to come back another time.”
“Well be careful. Looks like we got off easy tonight, but who knows how long it will keep up,” the staffer sighed, looking off towards the bright lights of the security perimeter.
"Do you know what I like about getting up early in the morning?" Lupa mused as she sipped a cup of tea. "You can go out and be productive then realize that you still have most of the whole day ahead of you."
"It is indeed a wonderful day," said Fiona as she drifted off the path and into the manicured grass of the courtyard. "Still, we probably shouldn't get too far away from the dorm since I don't know when Serena and Lars will get back from wherever they went off to."
"It's too nice a day to have to deal with the sounds of a cleanup crew removing mecha debris," said Lupa sitting down and allowing the sunlight to fall upon here. "This place reminds me a lot of a University campus in summer. Place is partly empty, maybe some people have to be there, but there's a distinct lack of pressure as one sees during the academic year. We can just sit back and move at our own pace, no one trying to give us the bum's rush."
"There is an evacuation order," noted Fiona.
"Yeah, but look, it’s like move out day. Everyone's getting all their bags together and waiting for a ride. Typically this level of chill isn't possible without more long hair and more drugs," Lupa chuckled as she finished the last of her beverage.
"Well I think I have them covered in the long hair department," replied Fiona picking at a rather nasty mat on her forearm, "and the doctors here are pretty liberal with the drugs."
Lupa stood up raising her arms high above her head to stretch out her somewhat confining human form. "Alright, I've got my morning constitutional squared away. Like you said we should probably get back to the dorm and wait for our big Sister to take us home."
As Fiona turned to leave with Lupa her eyes caught sight of a particular person sitting alone by herself under the shade of a small tree. "Why don't you go on without me," said Fiona, her eyes swirling to an odd shade of purple. "There's someone I need to talk to and I am not sure if I'll get this chance again."
Lupa opened her mouth to object then just nodded silently before turning and walking back down the pathway leaving Fiona to lumber over to the Unity officer who was staring quietly off into space and dressed in the typical robe of a newcomer undergoing treatment in the medical center.
"Do you mind if I join you? I was wondering if you were feeling better."
"Go right ahead," the woman answered, not bothering to look up. "They've worked me over pretty well so I'm not some ticking time bomb if that's what you're hinting at."
"My name, well, people call me Fiona."
The woman finally glanced at the large feliniod, her eyes scanning up and down to take in Fiona's full size. "I'm Val. They told me you were from the Interlink. I guess that means you're like us, only more content to let the physicals trample all over you."
"I don't let anyone "trample" all over us. We prefer to think that a non-physical existence should reduce conflict, not fuel it," Fiona replied.
"Oh, I see. Thought you'd try to come over and convert me? Help me see the error of my ways? Your people might be content to hang out in their crystal towers, but I've seen the sort of deprivation that takes place in the physical sphere and as long as the resources needed to support one physical being could give 10 sentient minds a godlike existence in the non-physical realm then I will gladly make some short term sacrifices to see that sort of injustice rectified," Val sneered, clearly intent on picking a fight.
"I'm not here to convert you," Fiona tried to explain. "I just don't know when I'll get the chance to talk to one of your people again. I think it's important to try to understand those with different points of view."
"Ah, so you're just a bourgeoisie dilettante unwilling to fight for your convictions, if you even have any that is," Val shot back. "The Unity will not rest until we have freed the oppressed. Every delay means more needless suffering."
Out of sight from Val Fiona clenched her fist. In all her centuries of existence Fiona could not recall having met anyone who had been so outwardly hostile and abrasive. Upon reflection however it didn't surprise her. From what she knew about the Unity only those who embraced the party line were ever "promoted" back into the physical world and to become an officer on top of that implied that Val was a true believer.
"Well I'm sorry that you don't seem to be willing to have a civil conversation, but I'd like to leave you with a thought. As you live out your life here you might want to take note of the ambient level of "oppression" and consider if there might be better ways to end it than ripping people out of their bodies and uploading them to VR for "reeducation"."
Fiona added just enough of a feline hiss to her words to make sure that Val fully understood just how much conviction a "pampered" Link mind could have. Not really caring what Val might say in reply, Fiona turned her back on the Unit in such a manner such that her tail tip lightly swished the side of Val's face. Striding away Fiona's eyes beamed a lemon yellow, proud of how she had represented her people.
The six stood in a circle around the cast bronze sculpture of a flying Pegasus under the tall broad trees of the meditation garden. Lupa said she had picked it because it looked like the creature was ascending towards the afterlife, its strength and poise reminding her of the courage Sarah had shown in the defense of the portal terminal. Silently Lupa moved from person to person pouring a thumb's worth of a clear amber liquid, salvaged from the charred remains of New Beginnings, into their outstretched glasses. After filling her own glass, Lupa placed the half full soot stained bottle in a small notch at the base of the statue then rejoined the circle.
"To all those who have died in the quest for knowledge," Lupa said solemnly, holding her glass out high in front of her.
"For knowledge," the rest of the group repeated before drinking and setting their glasses upside down around the smooth black granite pedestal.
For a few moments the group stood in silent contemplation before Serena gently reached over to embrace Lupa and lead her away. The remaining four paired up as well, the Captain with his wife and Lars with Fiona as they made their way to the edge of the glade. All except Fiona and Bea were wearing the clothing and gear they had arrived in as opposed to the more relaxed Sanctuary attire that had been provided.
"I will write the family," Lupa offered, speaking softly.
Serena exhaled. "I think we both should. I was technically her commanding officer at the time. It is my duty to write her next of kin and explain how she died and what she died for."
Lupa shook her head. "No, I think it should just come from me. This was my mission and I was her advisor. I know that technically you were commanding her, but I know her family and I knew Sarah far better from you. In this case it would be awkward for two letters to show up."
Serena just nodded, relieved she would not have to try to compose something, but also feeling guilty about passing up one of an Officer's most important duties.
"So when are we getting picked up?" Lupa asked softly of Serena.
"I just sent Search and Rescue an e-mail and asked that they delay any operation until I can send them a final plan so we have a 24 hour window, but I don't think I'll need that."
Lupa nodded. "Well, did you decide on a course of action?"
"Yeah, it's simple. We get picked up in a shuttle and they I get a ship in orbit to do the Hand of God on the extraction monster. After that I'll have a chat with old Lomey and try to make sure this sort of thing never happens again."
"Sounds straightforward enough, although the Sanctuary administrators aren't going to like it," said Lupa.
"Ah whatever. I'm sort of getting fed up with this place. I need to figure out what to do with Marrin. What they've done to her mind is criminal, but if she honestly wants to stay after getting some appropriate mental health care I don't want to get in the way of that," Serena sighed.
Stepping out from the tree line Lupa turned towards Serena and initiated another long embrace. The emotions their forced captivity had held at bay finally having a chance to come to the surface.
"Hey, do you guys hear something," said Lars, trying to find the source of the noise. "It's sort of like a loud buzzing."
"I hear it too," said Fiona as she walked out of the grove. "Fire alarm perhaps?"
Suddenly with the speed and crack of a bolt of lightning combined with a high pitch whine, two beams of bright blue energy shot forward and impacted the energy shield surrounding the admin building. While the shield was undaunted, leakthrough was sufficient to scorch the upper stories and blow out many of the windows.
"Look! Over there on the hill!" yelled Captain Dunn, pointing towards the long alpine meadow.
Striding down the hill was a creature the type of which none of the six had ever encountered before and would not likely soon forget. Standing 50 feet tall horn to foot, the gangly monster was covered in a thick black scaled hide that glistened with some sort of foul secretion. On each of its elongated feet were 6 powerful claws, on each of its hands, 6 razor sharp curved talons. Shuffling with the hunch of a semi-bipedal dragon walking erect the former Unity soldier let loose with a multi-tonal roar, its gigantic maw opening to reveal a single row of transparent blue fangs. Closing its mouth the monster surveyed all around it with its three pairs of eyes arranged in two rows of three on either side of its horned head.
The source of the energy beams soon became apparent as four thick, snake-like appendages slithered from the creatures shoulders, the tip of each able to act as a physical weapon or to project energy either as a shield or as an offensive beam. It's long sinuous tail, while thankfully not possessing an energy weapon, did sport a ovoid double edged blade that fit symmetrically around the tip. The response from the security forces was immediate, a stream of energy blasts and a forest of missiles rising to meet it. However the shielding easily absorbed the energy and the exercise of some latent ability sent the missiles rocketing towards the sky where they exploded harmlessly.
"That's no creature, that's a fucking Kaiju!" screamed the Captain as the concussion from the rocket and missile explosions reached them.
"Captain," Serena said, her voice getting serious, "take Bea and get to safety in the dorm basement."
"What about the plan?!" Lupa screamed, "What about the Hand of God?"
"There's no time! This thing needs to be killed now before it takes out the whole complex!" Serena yelled back, pulling out the makeshift Tupperware encased Interdimensional com unit.
"Who are you going to call?" Lupa asked as the loud explosions gave way to the softer sizzle of energy blasts.
"Group Captain Angelos at New Byzantium Air Base. The Pan-Hellenic Confederation currently has the SLIRT stand-by air support contact and they haven’t let me down once," Serena managed to answer as she focused on keying in the 20-digit point to point link number.
"Let me guess," said Lars, "that number is another one of those important bits of information you've committed to memory."
"Damn straight. Never go gallivanting around the multiverse without standby air support," Serena said hitting send. "Lars, get out your scope. I'll need range and bearing on the Kaiju."
The screen on Serena's tablet flashed that the direct had been made and a voice speaking heavily accented English came in over the speaker.
"336th Tactical, operations room."
"This is Colonel Serena Hanford requesting immediate close air support. I need two pigs on a low level atmospheric run."
"Alright Colonel I am going to need to request additional authentication," came the reply after a brief pause and a few keyboard clicks.
"Request alternate authentication method."
"Ooooo kay your challenge is Oak Tree."
Serena closed her eyes for a moment, clearly trying to visualize something in her mind's eyes. "Response is Rain Coat."
"Target bearing 830 meters, at 65 degrees from our current position," barked out Lars.
Serena tapped the information into her tablet to compute both the monsters exact position as well as a safe portal point for the fighters. "Sending target and entry coordinates now. Entry +60,000 km from surface, possible hazard, scan not possible. Warning, FTL assumed not functional. I repeat FTL not functional."
"Thank you Colonel Hanford, your air strike is inbound. Possible entry hazard, no FTL. ETA 5 minutes. Flight leader will contact you on subspace channel 23/23."
"Well I just learned something," remarked Fiona as the operations controlled clicked off. "The procedure for raining down death is remarkably similar to the one for ordering a pizza."
"Yeah, a pizza that costs 450,000 credits,” Serena grumbled. “Come on, we need to get to the forward command post and tell whoever is there that they need to keep their people back. This is going to be a show to remember."
"Just follow me, I know the fastest way to get there," Lars yelled over the increasing din of the firefight as he tossed the four remaining team members weapons from the duffle bag he had filled in the vault.
The four ran through the vehicle parking area crossing paths with security forces and armed volunteers as they ran towards the fight as well as newcomers who were running away from it. Ducking and weaving they made it to a small loading dock set into an earth slope and an open door admitted them into one of the subterranean maintenance and heating tunnels that crisscrossed the campus.
"Boy, someone sure kept himself busy," Serena observed as she realized that her human form could probably stand a little extra physical training.
"When on an unfamiliar campus always locate underground assets," Lars quoted from his own list of rules. "Comes right after locating free food, free drink and free net."
"How much further," Lupa puffed. "I'm not so good running on two legs."
"It's right up ahead," Lars yelled, his voice echoing down the tunnel as the lights flickered from an explosion somewhere above.
"Colonel Hanford this is Olympus Leader, do you read?" The voice that came out of her tablet via the local subspace link had significantly more interference than the earlier Inter-D call, but Serena was nevertheless relieved to hear it.
"I read you."
"ETA in 90 seconds, waiting for final target fix."
Lars hit the button for an emergency access hatch which began to slowly open upwards into one of the many green open areas between the Welcome Center outbuildings. At that moment there was suddenly a sharp sizzling crack followed by a muffled explosion. Several chunks of smoking formed granite bounced down the steps that lead to the hatch.
"Oh shit!" yelled Serena as she choked a bit on the cloud of dust.
"What the fuck was that?" exclaimed Lupa.
Serena clambered up the debris strewn stairs to get a better look at what was going on in the above world. Instead of seeing a monster that was being safely engaged at 800 meters, instead she saw a monster that was barely two football fields away and making mincemeat of all that stood before it.
“Damn," she cursed softly getting back on the transmitter. "Olympus Leader, this is Colonel Hanford. Danger close! Target has moved, target has moved! Cannon run only!"
"Roger that danger close. Going around for a cannon run. Will inform. Olympus Leader out."
Lars emerged from the tunnel and took up a position behind a nearby decorative rock with Fiona poking her head up over the lip of the hatch, the angled cover sheltering her from above. Together they watched as the monster's shields absorb twin particle beam blasts at point blank range before spinning around the slicing the offending walker mech in twain with its tail then reaching in to pluck forth the hapless operator and toss her, still screaming, into its great maw. From over on the left a more humanoid mecha, standing about half as tall as the Kaiju, managed to somehow get past the projected energy barriers to make a bold overhead attack on one of the monster's arms using a glowing energy blade. The energy blade bit into the creature causing a stream of purple blood to squirt out and prompting the monster to roar in pain. However in a flash the sound emanating from the monster's mouth was replaced by a jet of yellow liquid that hit the battle mech dissolving it seconds down to a pair of leg stumps.
"Lady protect us!" exclaimed Fiona, as she was confronted with some of the more extreme scenes of horror the physical world had to offer.
"A cannon run isn't going to do shit against this thing," Lars called over from behind his rock.
"But anything bigger will kill everyone within 500 meters," Serena shouted back finding her own cover behind a sculpture. "I don't know how many people are left in these buildings."
"Well we can't stay here!" Lars shouted back. "It's headed right for the transport pad and we're in the way! These weapons I got from the tech vault might as well be Nerf guns. We have to pull back and direct the strike from a safe location!"
"Wait!" cried Fiona. "Who's that?!"
Halfway between them and the monster a single person had walked out into the middle of a grass field completely devoid of cover save for the occasional crater or energy beam scar. Standing her ground she raised her voice well above the sound of battle causing everyone around to stop and take note.
"Comrade Torvin! Comrade Torvin!! As you commanding officer I order you to stand down!" The woman screamed at the top of her lungs.
"That's Val!" cried Fiona.
"Who?" Serena asked.
"Val! Um, the Unity officer. She's trying to reason with the monster!"
"Look, its stopping," observed Lars, not quite believing his eyes.
"I know you can hear me Torvin. I know you're still in there! Please…listen to me. The Unity ends suffering!! The Unity only kills as a last resort!! Just stop. Remember your oath. Remember the Principles!"
For a brief moment it actually appeared as if Val was somehow finding a way to get through to the small part of the monster that was still Ship's Engineer Torvin. The tentacles lowered and its expression softened. Then, an evil sneer spread across its lips as it let out a bone chilling hollow laugh. The two tentacles used for blasting moved back into position and focused in on the helpless human before it.
"Well she tried," Serena muttered softly under her breath as both she and Lars averted their eyes to not watch the solitary human get turned into hot vapor.
"Comrade Torvin! I am your commanding officer and you WILL obey me!"
As the monster fired its weapons even Val assumed that she had been killed until the ongoing stream of sensory information feeding into her brain convinced her otherwise. Opening her eyes she saw a large mass of blue and black fur, one hand outstretched diverting the blast of energy and around the two and up safely into the sky. Serena couldn't believe what she was seeing either.
"FIONA WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!"
Fiona was concentrating too hard on not dying respond to Serena's comment as the creature switched its remaining tentacles from defense to offence. As two additional beams descended to vaporize both of the "insects" standing in the way of the Kaiju's mealtime. Fiona met the extra beams by thrusting both hands before her and summoning all the power she had. The force of the blast sent her reeling backwards leaving two skid marks in the grass, but she managed to hold on.
"No!" cried Val. "I will not allow you to place your death upon my conscience! You should have let me die on my own."
"Oh do shut up!" Fiona snarled back over her shoulder, beads of sweat already forming on her nose. "I told you the Link will not let itself by trampled by tentacle energy beams or Kaiju or self-righteous Unity blowhards."
At a point two thirds of the way between Fiona and the monster, inside the four projected energy beams a spherical disturbance began to form in the air, steadily growing larger and larger. Fiona's energy reserves were running on fumes, but she was now pouring large quantities of anger straight into the tank. As the creature's attacks began to weaken, the energy sphere floating before it continued to gain strength and what had started as a slight shimmer in the air had intensified into a visibly pulsing glow.
"Three…two…one…blast off!" Fiona declared as the ball of rage and determination shot forward into the Kaiju's mid-section unleashing a repulsive force that lifted the massive monster up off its claws and hurled it backwards through the air, tentacles flailing helplessly. Its ballistic trajectory was only halted by the hard rock slope of the mountain ridge over a kilometer away.
"Clever girl!" Serena excitedly declared as her hand went to the transmit button. "Olympus Leader, this is Colonel Hanford. Target +1200 meters. I repeat target +1200 meters on your current vector. Drop a train on 'em."
"Rodger that Colonel. Tell your people to cover their eyebrows."
An instant later the air was filled with the sound of sonic pops as hundreds of electro-magnetically driven 20mm cannon shells smoked through the air and impacted the creature ripping off chunks of flesh and scale with each subatomic detonation. The disoriented monster roared in pain, its tentacles rising to project its protective shielding once again, but they were too little and too late as a barrage of 2.75" hyper-velocity rockets followed the shells. The Kaiju let out a mournful howl as first its shielding then its body was ripped to shreds by the shaped charge warheads which momentarily hid the massive beast behind a curtain of bright flashes. As the two ground attack fighters roared over the Welcome Center at well above the speed of sound, the targeting system on the lead jet released a pair of 500 pound low level attack bombs. Once the bombs were free a set of anti-gravity coils popped open on each bomb rapidly halting their forward momentum to allow the attacking craft to escape what was to follow. Back on the ground behind the bombs Lars and Serena both ducked down behind their respective cover and shielded their eyes while Fiona turned and tackled Val to the ground. For an instant the entire scene was bathed in a warm glow as small quantities of matter and antimatter were introduced to each other before a powerful shockwave bent back the vegetation and shattered any of the transparent aluminum window panels that may have been previously damaged. After the wave passed there was a brief period of silence before the surviving defenders let out a cheer, certain defeat having changed to total victory in the short span of a few minutes.
"Uuughhh," Val grunted as she tried to free her body that had been pinned to the ground under the dead weight of a sleeping mega-tiger.
"Here, take my hand."
The Unity commander looked up to see Serena standing over her, hand outstretched.
"Fiona's not going anywhere for a while," Serena noted, "so come on, I'll pull you out."
Begrudgingly Val worked her arms loose and extended them up for Serena to grab hold off, who then proceeded to pull Val free from her furry entrapment and get her to her feet.
"Thank you… Colonel I believe I heard?"
"Yes, and you are?" Serena asked.
"We use different titles that probably don't match up to what you are used to. In this case you can call me a "Mission Leader"," Val replied.
"Well, I just wanted to tell you that that was a courageous thing you did standing up to the mon…to your comrade there. You provided the opening that helped save everybody here," Serena said with genuine sincerity. "I know that our two civilizations haven't even officially established contact, but perhaps one day we can figure out a way to work together instead of fighting."
"Unlikely," Val smirked, "our philosophical positions are probably too far apart to ever be harmonized, but…perhaps we can find a way to not be enemies."
"Hey, that seems to work for most religions."
"Indeed it does Colonel, indeed it does," Val said before looking over Serena's shoulder. "Looks like you got some company. If you don't mind I am going to excuse myself to reflect on recent events and get a nice stiff drink. Good luck."
Serena turned to see Lomez and a pair of security officers making their way toward her across the debris strewn courtyard. Casually retrieving her makeshift com unit from her bag, Serena began to enter yet another 20 digit number making no effort to disguise her actions.
"SLIRT Ops," squeaked the high pitched voice of a certain NeoGryphon.
"Hello Skie. How has everyone been doing?"
"Colonel?! Oh, well…let's see now," said Skie, fumbling his words a bit as he tried to suppress any gryphonic displays of excitement that might damage sensitive audio equipment like human eardrums. "Well, you had us a little bit worried there, but then I saw you were back charging against the air strike budget so I figured you had everything well in hand. Everybody can't wait to review your sensory stream and see the master at work."
"Might end up disappointing a bit on that one, but listen I'm going to have to wrap this up," said Serena as she glanced up and saw that Lomez was within earshot. "I would like to request an extraction, six people plus cargo. Bring two Hinds from the pool, sending coordinates on the data channel. Limit personnel to humans only, yourself excepted."
"Rodger on the extraction Colonel, two Hinds, human crew. I'll see to it personally."
"Thank you Skie, Hanford out."
Lomez and his security detail were almost standing face to face with Serena by now, but no one raised a hand to stop her or what she was doing.
"Did I somehow offend you or mistreat you," Lomez started off, his calm words barely masking his seething anger, "because as far as I remember I went out of my way, hell everybody went out of their way to show you nothing but kindness and respect. Yet you and your little band of followers have chosen to repay our kindness with betrayal."
"You think I betrayed you? Are you kidding?" Serena scoffed. "You brought us here against our will, held us against our will and I don't recall having made any sort of promise or oath to you. My duty is to the Federation and my duty is to my people. I guess I have some duty to you as a human being, but that doesn't extend to accepting imprisonment with good nature and aplomb. I told you I couldn't take your offer to help fight the monster and I meant it because I wasn't going to actually betray you so just get off your high horse."
"You betrayed the principle that all Newcomers to Sanctuary are equal citizens of Sanctuary! We treated you as part of our family yet you took advantage of our openness, you took advantage of our trust and now you have likely doomed this entire planet to the horrors that we have tried to long and hard to evade."
"I'm sorry, but I don't see how any of that is my problem."
That comment proved to be the one that broke the dam holding back the rage in Lomez's mind prompting him to haul back and throw a punch at Serena's face. It was only by dint of her hand-to-hand training and augmented abilities that the part-time human managed to catch his fist in mid air and avoided having part of her face caved in. Lomez kept up the force pushing against Serena's cupped hand for a few more seconds before letting both his arm and his head drop.
"In my mind I feel anger," Lomez continued, "but in my heart I feel pity for you. You are so jaded that you cannot see when someone is honestly trying to help. You see Sanctuary as a plot, a prison…a reeducation camp and then tried to escape back to the world you came from when in fact it is the world you are from that requires escape. You seek to willingly throw yourself back into the meat grinder."
"Lomez, you rail against trans-biologic technologies because of the effect you see them having on many of the societies and civilizations out there, but all you have done is manage to replicate the same effects just through other means. You're living in a sandbox simulation even if the graphics are really well done and pain is set to true. I choose to live in reality no matter how crazy it makes me because when I accomplish something," Serena gestured back towards the carcass of the dead Kaiju, "I want it to count."
Lomez didn't bother to respond, the look of anger and disappointment on his face making the only argument he had left. Of course there was a few items of unfinished business that would have to be hashed out, but there on the battlefield each commander had their own people to attend to. Putting her cobbled com unit back her bag Serena turned back to check on Fiona before briefly pausing again.
"By the way, you're welcome."
Skie leaned back against the gunner’s position on the assault chopper, the name being somewhat of an artifact since the design had long since had its rotating airfoils swapped out for gravity drives and reaction thrusters. The NeoGryphon’s black scaled avian forearms and talons were crossed in front of a light blue metallic belly hide with embedded holographic feather patterning. The day was bright and sunny, one of those two or three that occurred each season where not a single cloud to be seen from horizon to horizon. Despite the gorgeous weather a sense of unease permeated the soldiers and security officers facing off on both sides of the well tended ball field. Skie’s raptor eyes scanned across the hands and faces of those that surrounded the two SLIRT craft that had set down to pick up the missing crew of the Sleeping Giant, on the lookout for any hint of trouble or trickery while also occasionally glancing back to make sure that the door gunners on the Hinds kept their weapons pointed in a safe direction.
“You need to relax Skie, you look all tense,” said Serena as she walked up behind him, gently stroking the synthetic plumage that covered the Gryph’s folded wings. “These people are nice so don’t go looking for a fight. By the way, what did I tell you about wearing your Sunday best on missions?”
“Well if these people are as friendly as you claim wouldn’t it be more diplomatic to wear my real body than one of the combat spares,” Skie zinged back, sticking out his tongue. “Besides, once my new hide gets its first scar then I don’t have to worry about it any more.”
“Well I guess that's one way to look at it,” said Serena, cocking an eyebrow.
Serena had tried to follow her own advice on relaxation using an armour pattern that bared her arms and portions of her back. She watched as Lars along with the Captain and two members of Skie’s security team manhandled a pair of cybernetic bodies across the field from where they had been delivered by one of the Welcome Center’s transporter carts. Upon reaching the open door to the troop compartment Lars and the Captain swung the body they were carrying back and forth a few times before heaving it inside with a thud.
“Hey watch it you two!” Serena yelled out. “That’s my shell, not a sack of potatoes!” She turned back to Skie. “Dumbasses.”
Fiona’s stern gaze ensured that the two soldiers carrying her old body did a better job placing it onto the floor of the assault helo as Serena walked back to talk with her.
“So were you renting that or did you actually buy it?”
Fiona sighed. “Bought, and because its a custom order I can’t just go and return it.”
“I assume that sigh means you’re going to be getting a new job in “research” upon our return?”
Fiona nodded glumly. “That about sums it up. Not sure when or if I’ll ever be able to load into the link again and because additional extraction cycles would un-correct the congenital defeats I don’t think it will be a good idea to “commute” as I believe you refer to the practice.”
“Well I admire your sense of duty to your people to stay as you are instead of looking for a way to just go back to the way you were,” Serena pointed out.
“Are you kidding? I’m a unique life form with exceptional abilities and a pretty sweet physical appearance,” Fiona said as she stretched out her arms and turned in place. “I would never be able to live with myself if I just threw it away because it happens to be made of gibs and not bits. The whole reason I left the link in the first place was due to my desire to seek out new life forms and new civilizations and now I can cover the first one by just looking in the mirror. Who knows, maybe after I level up some of my abilities I could get a job with you at SLIRT and make it two for two.”
“I’m honored that you would consider working for my organization Fiona, but trust me you’re going to have so many elite groups knocking at your door you’ll have to fend them off with a stick. You don’t owe me anything and I wouldn’t feel at all offended if you decided to sell out and accept a position with Justice League or Shield.”
“So just because I might like the option to make a few extra credits having my exploits recut into motion pictures, interactive holos and VR games that makes me a sellout?” Fiona chuckled.
“Yes! Yes it does!” Serena responded emphatically.
“Hey not my fault your society allowed big media companies to become defense contractors.”
“Don’t get me started,” Serena grumbled. “Anyway, I’m sure once your quantum signature stabilizes and Fluffy becomes the new normal you’ll be able to get your mind moved around just like any any other bio and go rejoin your friends in the Link playing World of Warcraft or whatever it is you kids do these days.”
“Ok first of all I’m like five times older than you and second in the Link you don’t just play WoW, you live WoW. You know the slogan for the sleeper servers…”just as good as being born there.”
“What did I just say about getting me started!”
“Excuse me Colonel,” said one of the crew chiefs.”We’ve got everything loaded and we’re ready to go.”
“Thank you Sergeant. Fiona, you’re going to be in the second ship with Lupa. The rest of us will cram into the first. It will be a tight fit, but its probably better than having you ride on the outside unless you’ve managed to find a way to go without air.”
“Ha ha no...unless,” Fiona pondered.
“Hey Skie,” Serena called over, “I have a few loose ends to tie up before we take off. If I don’t come back avenge my death.”
“Will do Colonel,” Skie said back over his shoulder as he gave Bea a boost up to see into the cockpit of the ship. “Take you time. I’m showing your friend a slightly different perspective on piloting.”
Serena walked across the field to where Lomez stood, projecting his distinct displeasure as strongly as possible.
“Hey, do you mind if we take a little walk? There are a couple things I’d like to discuss with you...in private,” Serena asked hoping to avoid any sort of passive aggression on the part of Lomez.
“Oh? Did you think up some killer argument that is guaranteed to change my mind?” he shot back mockingly.
“Come on, just walk with me. I’m not here to convince you of anything.”
Lomez nodded and the two set off towards one of the many gardens that surrounded the Welcome Center providing both Newcomers and staff alike a place to relax and focus themselves. As soon as they were out of earshot and safely ensconced by tall flowering shrubs Serena began to speak.
“When I arrived you gave me a little speech and said that you weren’t trying to have a debate, just explain to me how things are. Well now its my turn. First of all these are for you.”
Serena reached into her bag and brought forth a pair of “brick phone” type com units..
“Here’s the deal,” she continued. “If you catch any of our people up in your little net and they express a desire to leave you give me a call and we’ll send someone by to fetch them. On the other hand if there’s anyone from outside the network that giving you a hard time...threatening to blow your cover or summon some big bad friends, well in that case you can call us too and we’ll take them off your hands. Hell, if you get one of our people and they want to stay you should still call just so Search and Rescue doesn’t come knocking.”
"If I call that much people will think we're going out," Lomez muttered as he took the communications devices, not pleased with having to do so, but realizing he didn’t have any other alternative. “Alright, but what do I get out of this? For all I know you’re just going to keep showing up on a regular basis with bigger and bigger ships and make us do what you want.”
Serena handed Lomez a memory card. “On that are details of a jamming technology that can block interdimensional gateways and, to a lesser degree, communications. There are also briefings on a wide variety of potential threats that might start showing up in the Network. Now listen to me, if you try to use this thinking its a way to go back on the first part of the deal I will personally get on a sleeper ship and fly on out at .9c to kick you ass. Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal,” glared Lomez, albeit surprised that Serena would provide him with such technology, assuming it worked.
“We’re going to check in from time to time so keep at least one of the units charged and not in a storage vault. The reason I am giving you two so that if we don’t hear from you, you can’t claim that that “it broke”.”
“A wise precaution.”
Serena was silent for a moment, taking in the peace and quiet of the garden before sitting down.
“As for the rest of my end of the bargain I wanted to let you in on something first. I know the real reason you’re terrified about people finding this place. Yes yes you’re trying to ensure the long term survival of Sanctuary and you need to be self sufficient, but the actual cause of your paranoia is because you have something people want and it’s not just premium dope or fine handicrafts.”
“Go on,” said Lomez.
“The network represents the greatest cache of advanced precursor tech that the Federation has ever encountered and here you sit collecting said technology from millions of newcomers as they have filtered in over the years. Your long term storage facilities would represent an irresistible treasure for any group able to get their hands on them. Moreover it appears that you have some ability to tap into and manipulate if not the entire than a large portion of the portal network. A capability assumed to be impossible by many of our best research teams. So yeah, I guess it’s not paranoia when everyone and their grandmother would be out to get you,” Serena reasoned.
“Those are logical observations, but we recycle the technology to keep sanctuary running and the methods to bring people here were set in place ages ago,” Lomez parried with a slight smile.
Serena smiled back. “You don’t need to say any more, but I would be willing to bet that there are sizable stockpiles of all sorts of tech sitting around for that time they might be needed. After all the precursor stuff is bound to run down sooner or later and you’re restocking process isn’t exactly reliable enough for just in time delivery. Listen, we could go back and forth on this all day, but if you’re wondering why I haven’t called in a fleet of moving vans to haul away all of the “potential” treasure it is because as much as I dislike being trapped here I am not about just to do and take from you what is yours. Using my discretion as a Federation diplomat I will put in my official report that all the most powerful technology you collect is either recycled for planetary defense or broken down for raw materials and that we were brought here as the result of a long dormant booby trap placed by Sanctuary agents centuries ago. How does that sound to you.”
“A most generous compromise, although I still have no reason to trust you or your friends,” Lomez pointed out.
“Then don’t trust me. Go and use more of the tech you have stockpiled to improve your defences. Your reliance on passive barriers to keep people away won’t stand up in the face of a determined adversary with sizable resources at their disposal. That being said and for all its worth, you have my word that I will do all in my power to keep Sanctuary exactly what you want it to be. Outside the terms of our agreement if you do not want our help we’ll leave you alone and if you do we can come to a new understanding.”
“Considering the circumstances that is acceptable. Do you wish to shake on it?” said Lomez, offering his hand.
“Sure, but I have also drawn up a more formal agreement,” Serena responded as she took Lomez’s hand in her own and shook. “Like I said I have official negotiating powers so what we agree to carries some force behind it. It’s not perfect, but it should stop the Federation showing up with a battle fleet on the whim of some lower level commander. Sanctuary will be marked as a restricted zone and the details appropriately classified. Hopefully it will go into a drawer and be forgotten amongst the thousands of similar cases.”
Lomez stood up from the bench. “Myself and many others in the administration nevertheless feel uneasy about the possibility of your battlefleet scenario.”
“Well, maybe that’s just the sort of thing you need to spice things up around here. Get the population to work towards a common goal.”
“It’s a shame that the only thing you see as the answer to stagnation is conflict,” Lomez sighed.
“Don’t blame me, blame evolution.”
Lomez laughed as they made their way out of the garden. “I guess I can’t argue with you there. Alright just show me where to sign and then you can get out of here.”
“There’s one more thing. Marrin and the others like her might be better with some revised psychological treatment. I included a report regarding that on the data card and I hope you can make sure that it gets to the right people. Also, if any of them wish to leave Sanctuary I trust they will be covered by our agreement.”
Lomez exhaled then nodded. “Alright, I think I can arrange that, but most of them have settled in pretty well. Still it is not our goal to brainwash people so if they wish to revise their treatments and then decide to leave I will contact you."
A the two walked over to the hood of a transport vehicle to rather unceremoniously draft a hard copy of the agreement and apply their various signatures Serena noticed that Val had come to watch the proceedings covered in a light blanket and drinking a hot cup of tea.
"Colonel," Val stared at Serena over her mug.
"I'd offer you a lift, but I somehow doubt you'd be interested in trading Sanctuary for a Federation internment camp."
"I figured that myself, but I'm going to need help after what happened recently and I have my doubts that the standard of care in the unity would be able to match what I can get here," Val lamented.
Serena smirked. "The old Unity suddenly not looking quite so good in hindsight?"
"Why don't we just say that I am a bit more open to having my assumptions challenged, while at the same time still looking to challenge the assumptions of others. If this so called Sanctuary fails to live up to its ideals, well then perhaps I can be an agent for change," Val said, before taking another sip.
"As long as that change doesn't involve forcibly uploading people to VR you won't have any objection from me," responded Serena, holding out her hand to the Unity Mission Leader.
"Well as you aren't trying to exploit sentient individuals perhaps I can try a softer approach," Val replied taking Serena's hand. "I was informed that in the heat of an emotional breakdown I may used rather harsh labels to describe you. How about I amend that to say that in our dealings I have found you to be an honorable opponent."
"Likewise," said Serena before saluting her opposite.
Val returned the salute and went back to her beverage as Serena went back to Lomez to put the finishing touches on the agreement. It was nearly noon before Serena shook hands with Lomez for the last time and walked back across the field to where the extraction force still waited for her.
"All packed up and ready to go Colonel," Skie announced as Serena approached. "It took a few tries to get the door closed on the other gunship even after stowing the door gun in the tail section, but we're green to go wheels up."
"Make it so Skie. I'm going to see if I can get a seat that's not in someone's lap."
Upon hearing this Bea, who had migrated into the pilot's seat, slid the ill-fitting helmet over her head and began to carry out the pre-flight procedures, her multi-threaded mind suddenly given focus by the need to do several things at once.
"Um Miss? You can't touch that. Please…Miss?!" the Chief Warrant Officer said in a panic as Bea started the engines. "Lieutenant!" he yelled out, his voice cracking as he looked desperately at Skie.
Skie let out a piercing avian chuckle. "Cut her some slack Chief. It's the first time she's ever piloted a craft from the cockpit using, you know, controls."
"But sir she's not authorized to fly…"
"Your wings are sewn on Chief, hers are real," Skie snapped in a tone that was meant to end all debate, stretching his own wings out slightly for emphasis. "She's a better pilot on her worst day than you are on your best. Now close it up and man the gunner's station."
As the engines roared to life and the living metal gryphon made his way back to squeeze into the troop compartment there was a brief instant before the doors closed where the answer to a question caused half the occupants to smile and the other half to grab onto the nearest solid object. The engine exhausts rotated to direct the reaction force downwards as energy flowed into the anti-grav coils to lift the two hulking assault transport into the air. The Welcome Center and the lush green biome of Sanctuary fell away below as the two flew off into space. Even though Serena had seen the sight of a blue-green Earthlike planet set against the black of the void thousands of times before, there something made this one time much more special.
The great wolf yawned as she was roused by the sun streaming through the open blinds of the apartment. Next to her in bed the commander of the Synthetic Lifeform Intelligence and Response Team was sitting upright tapping away at her tablet. A quick glance at the nearby clock revealed the time to be 08:45.
//"Don't you have to go to work?" Lupa asked incredulously, her big yellow eyes silently accusing Serena.
"I'm the boss so I can come in when I want and don't give me that look, I could say the same about you."
//"I'm on sabbatical.
"Doesn't that imply you're doing some sort of independent research or writing a book?"
//"Since the events of my last expedition that really hasn't come up," said Lupa moving her head to lie on Serena's lap. //"So, who are you talking to?"
"I'm talking to Fiona who apparently just started at her new position at the Max Fineman Institute for Virtual Genetics. She said that we can come visit her whenever we want."
Lupa let out a soft whine. //"She would have made a great archeology student."
"She'll make a better one now that she has super powers."
//"People with superpowers do more exciting things than dust off ancient artifacts."
"Remember when you deactivated that doomsday machine on Durban IV? Never think your work doesn't matter."
Serena gave Lupa a big hug and then put down her tablet and slid off the bed to get dressed.
"Anyway you're right. I should probably get into the office. Somewhere there is a crisis in progress."
Lupa grumbled before jumping down off the bed and shaking herself out to put her fur in some semblance of order. //"I should go in as well. With Lars graduating I need go interview new graduate students and also check on the repairs being made to the Sleeping Giant."
"That reminds me. Where are the Captain and Bea staying since their "mobile home" is in undergoing heavy renovations?"
//"University got them good terms on a house in Shelton and outfitted the entire property with holo projectors."
//"That's not all. That AI core Bea snagged in the tech vault can support three times as many consciousness threads as her old one. She's been driving Tom cracy testing it out. Last week they were having a romantic dinner together at home and the police got called out on a noise complaint because Bea spawned 20 instances of herself and turned it into a sorority party.
//"Rumor has it they're getting offers from both military and civilian operators alike and that's why the University has been so generous with repairs and housing. Heard they even approved Bea's request for a physical avatar that can go on away missions. Still, its going to be tough to hold on to them once the contract expires."
"More power to them," Serena smiled. "Bea deserves to achieve her dream of becoming a fleet warship. Even if you have to have your work vehicle downgraded it's always a huge plus to have several million tons of metal that can ride to your rescue as a personal friend. Speaking of rescue, are you getting any more shit about those weapons systems?"
//"No and thanks for helping to get the Giant registered as a Q-Ship. Didn’t even think that was possible in this day and age.”
"Well it’s mostly a matter if getting the right information into the right database, but remember you officially owe SLIRT five favors so don't go turning your communications array off," said Serena as she got dressed.
Lupa smirked, padding into the bathroom to change shape. //"Don't worry, I know the commander and she's pretty chill."
Waiting for Lupa to finish up, Serena stood in the middle of her living room stretching out her body which was now chronically sore from PT and various other intense physical activities. Suddenly her personal com rang prompting couch cushions and discarded clothing to fly into the air as the Colonel frantically searched out its location.
"Colonel Hanford speaking," Serena panted as she finally located the phone.
"Ah, hello Colonel."
Serena nearly dropped the phone when she heard the voice on the other end of the phone.
"So is this actually your personal number or your office at work," the voice asked.
"L-Lomez? I certainly hope this isn’t my office else I’d be in violation of the dress code. I wasn't expecting to hear from you which is probably why I didn’t see any problem in giving you this number."
"Oh, well my sincerest apologies for the interruption, but I just wanted to ask if you were going to show up for your group therapy session in about an hour. You've missed several and I felt I should call and see if everything is alright."
Serena was silent for a moment while she considered her response.
"You know Lomez that was my fault. I had some personal matters come up and I should have called before missing the sessions. Thanks for reminding me, I'll be right over."
"Splendid! Oh, you should know that Marrin underwent a revised neurological treatment and joined your group so make sure you’re on the lookout for her."
"Will do Lomez, thanks for calling."
"My pleasure Colonel."
Serena pocketed her phone and signed as Lupa stepped back into the room wearing a bathrobe.
"What was that about? Someone else show up on Sanctuary?"
Serena gave a small smile as she started down at her fingers. "Nah, I just sort of spaced on my group therapy sessions with everything that's been going on. I'll probably just put in a half day at work."
"It's good that you're taking these things seriously," Lupa replied.
Serena grabbed her access token and walked over to the door of the closet-sized safe that was provided for all officers in her capacity. Swiping the token she proceeded to key in a long string of hexadecimal digits until the light turned green. Pulling down the handle with a satisfying clunk, Serena swung open the door and rummaged around for her personal interdimensional portal generator.
"Don't open the portal in the apartment. The last time you did the discharge…"
"..Fried all your electronics. Yeah yeah, that happened 20 years ago, you don't have to keep reminding me." Serena shook her head as she rooted around for the carrying case. "Jeez, we sound like an old married couple."
"Who says we're not," said Lupa with a predatory grin.
Serena rolled her eyes as she found the portable portal generator and stood up to face her naked android shell.
"Sorry sexy, it looks like you're going to be on the bench for a few more months," Serena smirked before moving in to whisper into her ear, "but don't worry, I'll make it up to you."
Delivering a firm smack to her shell's ass Serena turned and stepped out of the vault. Slowly the large metal door swung shut, plunging all inside into darkness.