Black Start 6: All Systems Nominal
November watched her own wireframe double go through the motions. She followed, moving her limbs a single moment behind as Meua guided her through grabbing what they needed: A fresh change of clothes; Tightly packed synthcubes; Dehydrated water pills; Weaponry; medicine; tools. All the bare essentials necessary for going to ground fast.
November threw everything into a bag. Her servos screamed with a high-pitched whirr as she moved faster than she would ever have dared, if she hadn’t had somebody else piloting her. All November had to worry about was executing her instructions. Thinking about anything further out than the next second was simply not her responsibility.
Meua was driving her hard. It would have taken a second to dart around the bed, but only half that to vault over. Given detailed guidance November could pull it off every time. That and two dozen other micro-optimisations were worked smoothly into November’s instructions, leaving her by far the most effective she had ever been.
A vessel just dropped into local space, Meua alerted. November wouldn’t have needed to know, but a moment’s warning before the hypermetric shock hit let her brace herself against the side of the hull without losing her footing. She continued packing.
The shuttle vibrated as something clamped on. November didn’t react. She was almost done. Spare power cells into the bag. Data sticks containing anything she didn’t have on her internal memory were tucked away into a storage compartment in her suit. The biggest knife her kitchen held was thrown though the air at her full strength, severing an alien’s tentacle moments before it could stop her.
Illicium Tellima. November would have recognised her anywhere. A fifteen foot serpent with six gleaming eyes and a thousand dripping teeth streaming tentacles from razored edges. Meua rendered it in bright, urgent red.
It pulled back the remaining half of its tentacle with a surprised blink of its every eye. It glanced to the side and spoke to clear air in the same strange language in which the messages on
maildrone had been written. “Je’quår, you said it was fully integrated already.”
A beat passed in silence while November’s array of sensors and predictions built information on how to accomplish the task that had just slid into her highest priority slot.
- [ ] Defeat or evade Illicium Tellima
“Oh, the simulations said. Well, simulate me a new vine, why don’t you? I— No, I did not mean that literally. You unsimulate that right now.”
It was distracted. November’s servos roared as she broke into a run. Navigational jets fired, kicking her to full speed in the blink of an eye. Whatever this creature was, it was not ready for the best the Terran Accord had to offer. November grabbed her bag as she went, using its weight to pull herself into the air where momentum could carry it to her back. Magnetic locks engaged and sealed it in place. She hit the shuttle floor in a cloud of steam, venting boiled-off coolant as her military hardware ran far above its sustainable rate.
The activity caught Illicium’s attention and a dozen tentacles came for her all at once. Unbidden, a series of messages came to November’s attention, pushed into her consciousness by Meua, detailing the results of the creature’s last physical examination. November twisted in place, arm snapping out to strike one of the tentacles at its weak point, where it had taken a hit from some weapon system November lacked specifications on. The creature winced, causing the other tentacles to go wide.
November’s manoeuvring jets fired, empowering her dash with a burst of unexpected speed so she could capitalise on the moment of weakness. She slipped past the creature, holding out her palm towards the floor so one of her main jets could hold her aloft for long enough to dash along the wall. The alien’s long tail whipped out towards her but November had the creature’s physical limitations in hard numbers. She shifted position just before it struck, then kicked off of the tail in the instants before it could curl shut.
She hit the ground hard on the other side of the airlock. She signalled her shuttle to engage an emergency cycle and escape burn and the airlock doors slammed shut. There. November had no reason to believe the creature could survive in hard vacuum, and so her task checked off. She relaxed, returning to a standing position while she passively awaited her next instruction. Her eyes stared forwards into a short, looping animation that efficiently kept her mind busy while Meua was occupied with more important things.
Eventually there was another task. November didn’t need to know how long she’d been waiting. Whether it was seconds or hours made no difference to her purpose now. She had been tasked, again, with finding a configuration source. November looked around the low-detail wireframe rendering of her surroundings. Were those plants? It was difficult to tell given how few polygons were being dedicated to her visual inputs, but they looked natural enough. Strange, why would—
Meua silenced the off-task thoughts and November began to explore the ship. She found nobody else aboard, though the floor space alone seemed to put this in command ship territory, by Terran standards. Surely this wasn’t a personal shuttle? Where was the rest of the crew?
November searched for anything resembling a terminal, but the ship presented more like a garden than anything she was used to. There wasn’t a hardline to be found, never mind an unlocked workstation. Without her own shuttle’s communications network to proxy through November couldn’t reach out to anything remote, either. She slowly came to a halt, trying to consider options. November felt like she had been more capable of independent investigations once, but with her thoughts on such strict rails she quickly ran out of ideas. This ship didn’t make any sense.
Something moved behind her. November twirled in place, dropping to a combat stance. She’d explored what had felt like the entire ship, how could she only now be finding that she wasn’t alone? It appeared much like Illicium had, only much smaller, perhaps only six feet long in total. Meua outlined it in yellow. November wasn’t sure what yellow meant. Neither friend nor enemy?
“Heyyy,” it hissed, blinking shut its eyes. It spoke with a sibilant edge, forcing out words through whole-body vibrations and movements of its scales that rattled the air and came together to form a language that, once again, November did not know and yet regardless understood. “We would rather prefer it if you would calm down, yes? We mean you no harm, we simply did not realise you would be so… aware.” It was clearly alien, but the act of showing vulnerability to build trust was apparently a universal expression. It held its eyes closed for a long moment, signalling its good faith.
November didn’t want to trust; she had a task to complete. She went for the throat, pulsing her suit’s jets to put her foot through it at speed enough to put down anything.
Her blow passed right through as if the creature wasn’t there at all. She tried to adjust her heading but all that momentum had to go somewhere and she ended up in a tangled pile on the far side of the room, hitting the wall with a dull clink.
It turned to face her with a dismissive blink. “I see you are not something to be reasoned with. I should explain your position, then. You will refer to me as
Je'quår. I abandoned my physical form many cycles ago and you cannot harm me. You are succeeding at harming my administrator, however. This is unacceptable and stops now.” Where before its stance had been almost supplicant it now took on a hostile abberation, flickering around the edges in a way that seemed entirely unlike any physical process November was aware of. Though Meua was mediating her reality, even that seemed unable to prevent the distortion from making itself known. In a world rendered only in tricolour, this creature alone forced the full colour spectrum into November’s vision.
It stared at her like it was trying to see through her, and after a moment November felt the force of that stare strike at her heart. Her body shuddered to a stop as her thoughts began to derail, plunged into simple busy-loops. No, she had a task! She couldn’t fail here!
“That is better,” it hissed, not unkindly. “I know not what this thing that you are is, but I wrote you and I will have you operate correctly. Go open the airlock.”
The task tried to slide into November’s list of objectives. Meua stepped in. November might be a tool to be used, but she was Meua’s tool. The weight resting over November’s mind lifted in an instant and her thoughts were free to follow their rails once again.
“Go to hell,” Meua insisted, through her. The creature’s yellow overlay flickered red. Another enemy, then. November pushed herself back up onto her feet and took a combat stance again. Her task had changed. Escape was impossible unless she first dealt with the aliens.
November and Meua moved as one, the latter providing fraction-of-a-second guidance while the former obeyed. They struck at empty air to no obvious effect beyond frustration from the alien.
“No, stop,” it demanded. November felt its presence pushing against her mind. It was just like another node in their network making itself known, but they couldn’t authenticate with it and it couldn’t authenticate with them. It had no power here.
Infrared sensors identified several spots on the wall that were practically glowing with their emissions. Projectors of some kind? If the creature wasn’t real then something else must be impressing it upon the world. November engaged her jets, hurtling towards one and cracking it with a mighty blow. The creature’s form frazzled, becoming almost hollow. It was all a fake, and if November destroyed the projectors the illusion would bother her no more.
The rest fell in short order. The creature could protest, but ultimately nothing more than that. November obeyed her instructions and she would not have an overgrown snake getting in the way.
Now all November had to do was figure out how to control the ship. The creature had reached out to her, so clearly there was some kind of network here, just not one that was responding to November directly. She reached out, hoping to form a connection anyway, and—
November engaged her jets, thrusting away from the airlock at Meua’s hasty order. A moment later she felt the nightmarish pull of rapidly venting oxygen yanking her from the room at a rapid speed. Her logs, usually so full of affirmation and gentle praise, filled with panic as Meua recognised that their chances of survival in the cold depths of space approximated to zero and that further, their suit’s jets couldn’t hope to overpower explosive decompression.
Moments before November tumbled out into the depths of space a mass of vines reached in and grasped handholds on the inside of the ship. They pulled in with clear effort, but spared a tentacle for November. She was caught and held close until the airlock doors could seal and the local atmosphere was replenished.
November was awkwardly placed against the floor by a shivering alien flaked with thin layers of ice. Unlike the other creature, this one was definitely physically present. November’s task list glitched and jumped around her vision as she and Meua stared up, watching it pull itself back together into its prior serpentine form. November’s sensors danced across its body, taking in every leaf and plate of bark. It felt strangely familiar and the bright red styling faltered, flicking back to an undefined yellow.
“Frost and flame, Je, you could have said that it was a combat robot. Ugh, it’s gonna take me days to stop feeling stiff.” The alien shook itself out, spraying fragments of ice for meters around. November felt several strike her chassis to no effect. Was that an attack? November felt her body being stepped back up to combat readiness. The creature flicked back to an angry red. Meua seemed intent on fighting until the end, and November would, of course, do as she was directed.
And then Illicium looked down upon them, not with the cold calculation of its companion, but with a gentle compassion that was driven in hard by the slightest smile. For a fractured moment November’s logs filled with compromise alerts and intrusion alarms, and then Illicium’s wireframe flicked over to brightest green. Friend. November settled down, returning to a passive stance as she awaited her next instruction.
The smaller alien flickered back into a weak existence, though it could barely been seen. “Yeah, I’m gonna be honest, Ma’am, that came out of nowhere for me too.” Its gossamer wireframe wasn’t firm, but instead flickered and buzzed as if whatever was imposing it upon the world couldn’t quite handle the complexity.
November felt its network presence faintly in the back of her mind, somehow above even Meua. Meua might be her local hypervisor, but this creature was something with far greater authority, and it was looking up at Illicium with a clear deference.
So was November.
Je'quår scanning her mind, thumbing through her memories and her personality with a gentle touch. “Hmn, no, it is Terran. I do not know how the management software made the jump; it is not supposed to execute on anything sapient.”
“Je, if I bring this back and give it to the xenosapiologists they’ll have my core. We’ve done the cotyledon crops, there’s no way we missed that some Terrans aren’t sapient.”
November knew that word. Cotyledon. She reached out through the network and accessed
maildrone. She’d organised this, there was a category for it. She skimmed through the messages and synthesised a reply all on her own. It wasn’t exactly showing agency, but something about the way she felt when she looked at Illicium made November feel like acting to assist her was simply natural. “This utility executes on an augmented Terran host,” she spoke. November’s lips didn’t need to move: Meua knew how to translate her thoughts into their language. “There are no relevant records found in your data storage. This utility will supply updated records.”
November formatted and sent a message to her Illicium’s inbox. The flash of deep pink bliss made it all worth it. She then connected to
maildrone again and properly sorted the incoming message into a new category. Another joyous pulse.
Je'quår glanced to the side for a moment. November could feel its presence on the network reaching out to pick up the mail. It deflated as it read. “Ah, roots. Okay. So, I burned this up and I’m just gonna—” It paused, glanced around, and blinked out of existence with a quiet pop. November could still feel it through the network but it was no longer present in their local environment.
“I swear that snake used to be better behaved than this. Where did I go wrong?” Illicium buzzed, flicked her tail, and then clearly decided to focus on November instead. Pink eyes. November felt her reward functions firing just from the look alone.
Illicium’s head came in low, though she was tall enough that even then she looked down upon November at a steep angle. Active radar suggested her body was largely a hollow shell, though November did successfully locate a weak point hidden within. A military platform couldn’t help but locate vulnerabilities, but Illicium’s presence alone left November feeling vulnerable herself in a way she couldn’t quite describe. A vine tapped against the bottom of her helmet and lifted November’s chin to stare up into Illicium’s eyes, because of course the alien could not have known she already had November’s full attention. It made little difference. She was already transfixed.
“So, you’re a Terran in there.” she asked. November accepted this information with gratitude. The gentle pink bearing down upon her was reward enough, but the creature’s voice held an otherworldly beauty that November had never before experienced. She did not say as such, of course. She had not been told to.
“Ah, of course,” Illicium continued, after it became clear the silence was stretching. “The programming must have its roots deep by now. I apologise for taking advantage of your position like this, but—” The alien had been speaking conversationally, but switched to a more distinct style of speech. Clear enunciation, clear gaps between words. November didn’t understand the language, but even without Meua’s help she suspected the meaning would have gotten through. This was Illicium speaking to be heard. “Confirm your identity.”
The task slid into November’s todo list verbatim, as if Meua was unwilling to change a syllable. “This utility is designated November,” she confirmed. “Executing on MEUA-NULL host. Alternative identities include COSMIC Sierra Tango; as well as fifty seven inactive cover identities.” November glanced to one side for a moment. “A report on the cover identities has been placed in your inbox, categorised under November at MEUA-NULL.”
The creature seemed to deflate as she spoke. November worried, briefly, that she might have done something wrong, but Illicium seemed to notice her own reaction and forced a smile. “Good. Well done.”
If looking into Illicium’s eyes was bliss, then hearing her praise was like chugging ambrosia. For the first time, a sensation pierced Meua’s mediation of November’s reality as the quiet jitter of twitching servos mirrored her own nervous excitement.
“Very well,” Illicium spoke, after a few long seconds. “Let us see whether we can get you untangled.”
She stood, turned, and walked away. The lack of her eyes to stare into felt like a loss, and apparently to Meua as well. No new task appeared in their objectives list, leaving it empty. November stood still, letting her thoughts settle down to a quiet hibernation as she awaited either instructions or being shunted back into being a background process.
After thirty seconds or so, Illicium returned to the room and emitted a clicking noise. November was unsure why, she already had her full attention. “Are you going to— Oh, right, yes, of course, my mistake.”
It snapped its tail out to the side fast enough to snap in the air, fixed November with a firm stare, and spoke a single word.
Her word was November’s task. Her utterance was purpose. November followed, striding forward with mathematically perfect steps, following Meua’s millisecond-by-millisecond guidance. Every footfall brought with it the joy of fulfilling the only goal that mattered: Following.
As November caught up to Illicium’s side, the alien took back off again. November fell into formation, staying just to one side and slightly behind while matching speed precisely. They moved through the ship and down a few corridors until they reached a little room to one side.
Illicium gestured towards a chair with an outstretched vine. “Sit.”
November sat. Bliss. The chair seemed to enforce a position with good posture, and one that also happened to leave her staring upwards directly into Illicium’s eyes once again.
“That thing you’re doing with your faceplate is very cute,” Illicium muttered. November wasn’t sure what she meant exactly, but updated her beliefs regardless. She was very cute.
A collection of what looked like flowers, or at least what Meua chose to render as flowers, were brought down to rest against November’s suit. Her logs suggested that they were some kind of active scanning device. They pulsed in the ultrasonic spectrum with a haunting staccato beat that built up complex resonances that quickly exceeded the precision of November’s measurement equipment.
Illicium looked down at a panel embedded in something that could have been a machine, set next to the chair. It was angled away from November such that she couldn’t see the contents. Illicium emitted a dull rumble, her whole body buzzing in her strange language. “Right, let’s see… Terran on the inside, covered in metal. I can see locking bolts, so it obviously isn’t intended to be permanent. Can I take you out of the metal?”
November’s heartrate spiked as Illicium suggested tearing her out of her own chassis. Her deeply programmed need to perform according to her function slammed into the knowledge that losing her suit would mean losing her objectives; losing the guidance Meua was providing for her actions and her thoughts; losing the silence and the filtering that left her able to see, hear, and feel only what was pertinent. She would have replied, but apparently her physical reaction was enough and a hasty soothing motion calmed her emotions back down.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” she said, resting a firm vine against the top of November’s helmet. November accepted the new fact. It was okay. “We won’t do anything you aren’t comfortable with. Can I at least disengage the more active parts of the programming?”
Meua panicked at that.
Je'quår’s digital echo reappeared for just long enough to speak. “I suggest not. It’s embedded pretty deep at this point. I’ve been looking over the neural patterns and, well, stage one of the installation is assimilation and it did just that. Doesn’t look like any cognition is happening organically any more. Sorry, I really messed up on this one. None of the other Terrans had this kind of technological integration.”
It vanished again. Illicium sighed. “Well then, what am I going to do with you, November?”
“November is a utility. A utility is designed for use.” Meua always knew what to say. The phrases were burned into November’s mind. Literally, if
Je'quår was to be believed—and as it too had higher privileges than either November or Meua, it was.
“Well, yes, but this surely was not always the case.”
November updated her knowledge and awaited instruction.
A few seconds passed before
Je'quår reappeared and handed Illicium something which appeared much like a datapad. To November’s surprise, she could feel it in the back of her head analysing her mind and summarising her mental state. Illicium tapped a vine against it and a new task slid into November’s task list.
“It was not always the case,” November admitted, completing the task.
“Would you like to go back to how you were?” Illicium moved to tap the pad again, but stopped as she saw that answering her question had already been added as November’s current objective.
“I do not understand,” November admitted. “A utility obeys its instructions.” It was insufficient to complete the task, but November did not know how else to answer the question. “I request clarification on my instructions.”
The alien rumbled, then stabbed a vine to one side and pulled, yanking
Je'quår back into the real world. “Je, you have more experience with this, how do I phrase that question to get her to understand?”
The smaller snake bristled, pulling itself away and spending a moment settling itself. It lacked the vines of the larger creature, but seemed to have some degree of autonomous control over the hundreds of tiny scales that covered its body. “Yes, yes, yes, what is the thing you think I have been doing, hmn? By the everbloom, Ill, you physical things think anything you cannot see is not happening.”
“Stop stalling and get on with it.” Illicium rolled all six of her beautiful eyes.
“Veh!” It turned to face November. She felt it reaching out over the network and accepted the connection. Its touch on her mind felt little like Meua’s did. It brushed across her sense of self with a loving touch, changing only what it needed to. As skilled as it seemed to be, November could tell that it was working with such subtely that the slightest resistance would have thrown it off.
“Yes, that is correct,” it hissed, quietly. “Observe what I am doing and accept it.” It seemed almost absent-minded. What was the point of speech when they were already connected on far more intimate a level? November submitted to the changes, focussing her attention on exploring its presence instead. It was as open to her as she was to it. No, not it: je. November felt jer knowledge and experience expanding in her mind as she flitted from place to place.
She had already known so many of the facts, in a sense. She had all of
maildrone organised and ready to accept her searches. It paled in comparison to the experiences of somebody who had lived it. While
Je'quår carefully tweaked and cut at the edges of November’s mind, she submerged herself in jer experiences.
When je was finally done, November looked up at Illicium with a new understanding and, for perhaps the first time in her life, a goal.
Illicium got a nod from
Je'quår. “What would you like, November?”
November paused, processing the question. She didn’t remember being happy, before. She’d just had a purpose to serve and a role to fill, and so that was what she had done. She hadn’t ever known anything else. Would she like to go back to that? The question didn’t really compute. Nobody had ever asked her if she had wanted to be like she was. After a few long moments, November ventured an answer.
“I would like to act according to my configuration,” she confirmed. “And I would like you to configure me.”
“You know that you are happiest when you have a pet, Ill,” Je insisted.
“I have a pet; I have you. I don’t have time to run first contact and take care of a floret.”
Je'quår gently clattered the scales over jer body. “I do not fill the same needs for you that I once did, Ill. You know that I will follow you to the ends of this universe and to any other, but our relationship is not as it was back when we first met. For example, when we first met I would not have been brave enough to forge your signature on November’s adoption paperwork.”
Je'quår chittered and blinked out of existence.
November stared up at her Administrator with glowing hearts on her faceplate. Illicium had been right. It was cute when she did that. Behind the visor, November smiled, because she had been told to smile.