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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chapter 4: Longest Journey Home

And here, on schedule, is chapter four, a story of estranged mercenaries and the even more estranged robot french maids who love them. Okay, not really.

Mackai faces the aftermath of his actions on his pilot mission, wondering just how up for this sort of high-stakes freelancing he is.

EXCERPT: Jumper’s guide to the Rele-Network Lines 4300-4400

The Sublight Telemetry eXclusion Zone or STXZ for short is a spotty area within the bridge. It permeates large patches of The Bridge and is absolutely useless to just about everyone.

This may or may not be why it’s jokingly referred to as ‘the styx.’ However, there are a number of reasons why. All of them hinge on just how terrible it is using FTL technology in the Styx. The combination of low relevance (mass or energetic activity) within The Styx and its proximity to The Noise make it very hard to effectively route FTL transfer.

The consequences of this may have truly been why this place earned its nickname. It is much like a well of lost souls. Here very few, if any, civilizations are able to make contact with FTL societies. Indirectly because the FTL industry avoids the Styx like the plague. However, this creates a twofold problem.

The Styx has become a dark cave into which only the bravest or most inquisitive venture. Civilizations, or their bastard creations, are trapped within the Styx like spiders in a cellar or mosquitoes in amber. It is estimated some of these civilizations may have remained within a stable state for eons, there is even the possibility of non-relevance based civilizations that could be on par with integrated society at large.

However these are mere speculations. Ventures into The Styx are only performed by small groups and hired contractors. However, what knowledge and power Arcanum lies brooding within their depths remains not truly understood to this day.

Sunrise Ep.4: Longest Journey Home

They always say the longest part of a round trip is the part heading back up-range. That’s despite the fact that both up-range and downrange parts tend to be equal distance wise… no! Gotta’ keep it together. I don’t want to fall unconscious in my suit!

The seams of the powersuit unlocked around me, I felt like I was about to puke. The sulfuric, rusty smell of mounds of machine corpses wouldn’t stop seeping into my nostrils despite my continued nausea. As the suit folded open, I tasted fresh air and avoided barfing all over the area immediately ahead of me, whatever was there. I’d just been through perhaps the scariest planetary egress of my life. Assault boats bellying up into the stratosphere was one thing, being pulled along at three hundred klicks per hour on a hundred foot line literally by the seat of your pantaloons was another.

My harnesses unlocked and I stumbled out of the suit, I would have rather liked to stay somewhere more stable but I had to go lay down or get some water… something. My legs jellified after a couple of steps and I limply fell down onto the metal floor. I caught myself well enough and rolled over to a nearby wall. Around me, the boat was still shaking madly on its blasting combat egress from the planet.

“Nuclear facility meltdown in three…two- damn!” Bridgett squeaked sardonically over the ship channel. There was a hellish rumble as we were hit by the rapidly expanding blast wave from the likely massive explosion that I myself had initiated. No more AI zombies in that area any time soon.

I squeezed my eyes shut and breathed deeply, this was no time to be a useless heap… get up! I stood sheepishly then finally found a stance that would work. I hauled myself along the wall, had to find a crash seat. We were about to make a steep atmospheric leap.

I stepped through a small hatch into the crew service area and ducked into one of the armored compartments there. There was a lowly seat looking device squatting in the middle of the far wall. I groaned as I realized it was a toilet. Luckily there were some safety straps on it, so I sat on the flimsy toilet cover and looped my arms and legs through the harnesses.

I only had perhaps ten seconds or so, it would have to do.

“Commencing stratosphere hop, all personnel secure yourselves and brace.” Came ‘Dan’s nonchalantly synthetic bass voice.

I reached around stupidly and held onto the water riser behind me as gravity suddenly shifted fully off towards the far wall. I began to hang in the altered gravity. “Argh!” I moaned to myself. “What the hell was I thinking?” That was a broad question; mostly referring to every crazy thing that had happened within the last few days. Like I said: a very broad question.

I cussed under my breath as the harnesses slipped a little. Apparently they weren’t designed for fast ascents, only to hold oneself on the W.C. during regular maneuvers. I gripped the riser tighter, bludgeoning down just how much it hurt forcing my sore muscles into holding my body weight.

About thirty seconds later everything began to level off… finally. Gravity marginalized itself until it was nonexistent. “Egress complete, now powering on non-essential subsystems,” ‘Dan said about as calmly as I was high-strung at that moment.

“ooph,” I said after I fell under mostly normal gravity and was squeezed down onto the toilet cap. It’s thin plastic construction inverted with a pop as my body weight came under it. About then I was feeling pretty tired… Christ I wonder if I can turn off the lights in here at least… shit, what was the network command…


“Oh, man!” ‘Sam laughed aloud as she finished the terse sentence. That made me wake and reflexively try to stand up. The belt harnesses I now remembered donning pulled back with equal fervor, knocking me off balance. I smacked back down onto the toilet and banged my head against a plastic bulkhead cover. “Look at you, you crazy son of a… You look terrible!” Through my squinting eyes I saw her grinning and rolling her eyes at the failed work of art known as ‘sleepy human.’

“Unf,” I said as I rubbed the back of my head, my shoulders and back felt like they had been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer. “I FEEL terrible,” I mumbled under my breath.

“I’ll bet,” she boisterously said. How the hell did she hear that? Her ears - shaped like little hemispheres and perfect for focusing sound - twitched through her hair and I laughed at myself for not noticing sooner. I unhitched myself and stretched, My spine popped like a machinegun on fast forward in protest. Despite that, it made me feel better.

“How the hell are you so chipper?” I asked.

“Tch,” she frowned and shook her head, “I’m made of tougher stuff than that, human.” I raised an eyebrow skeptically. “If you want something, I made some grub.” She turned and walked out and I reflexively followed to stay in (my) earshot.

“We’re an hour out from our egress” her voice echoed back through the cramped service-way as I followed. “I got out some biscuits in the galley and there’s hot water for tea.” My ears perked up at that, I needed something to kick the woozies in the crotch for me. “Why don’t we clear up your head, eh?”

We walked through another cramped hatch and up a foothold covered wall. Finally we were in more appropriately sized hallways. ‘Sam seemed pleased to not have to hunch through the service-way anymore.

“So what did I miss?” I asked as we passed the docking bay through which me and ‘Sam had escaped barely intact when I fled earth.

“Nothing,” ‘Sam said flatly. She paused to the point I was about to speak up again. “No, I lied.” She finally said nonchalantly, making me roll my eyes. That was an old and overly simple joke. “But seriously, it’s been eventless, you’ve been out a while and we’ve just been slugging along.”

She sighed. “I frickin’ hate the Styx.” I hummed my agreement. “It’s going to be at least four days back to that mud bucket you call home.” I harrumphed at that.

“What indignation!” I said with mock… indignation. “Why; we stopped flinging poo eons ago!”

“Let me know when you stop producing it all together. That will probably be about when you guys transcend… fat chance.” I rolled my eyes.

“I don’t think the old ones of the Abyss got where they were by worrying about poo.” I parried.

“Oh ho!” ‘Sam guffawed dramatically as we rounded a corner in the narrow, polymer walled hallway. “But it was you who brought it up in the first place!” Jesus… she was just like Dwaine! I’d never win.

I let loose a primal grunt of frustration as we jostled into the boxy galley. It actually wasn’t so bad, save the fact that the floor space was almost completely dominated by an island and, thus, one person in width. As we entered, ‘Sam went right and I stupidly followed. It looked like an overly simplistic game of pac-man. I wasn’t paying attention when she turned to walk back and almost nosed into her… better not go any further.

“Well, Mister Sherlock, I love how well you engineered our cooperation… I’ll get the water, and the tea AND the biscuits, since you’re so smart.” I made to apologize, “just sit down!” She moodily barked. I found a cabinet and lifted myself onto it, trying to look unimposing. There was a clink and a thud as ‘Sam deposited a kettle of water and some durable looking thermal plastic cups onto the island. The biscuits and a bowl with sugar cubes soon followed.

I sighed as I tried to work the pain out of my shoulders by pivoting them this way and that. ‘Sam helped herself to the hot water and dropped a capsule full of bright red powder into her cup. I watched on curiously as it immediately disseminated into a bright red brew. Breaking my gaze, I grabbed the water as she held the cup, tentatively blowing away the curling steam. She settled back against a wall, curling her legs around each other as she cozied a shoulder up against a cabinet.

“One thing,” she said between exhales before pausing and looking up. “Make sure you don’t touch the M.R.E. capsules for this stuff, they’re expensive.” Likely because they brewed themselves and heated up the water on their own. Ah, the fifties-cliché wonders of technology.

I went through the involved operation of pouring water as I decided to sate my curiosity and ask; “Why’s that drink red?”

“Heh,” she began, leaning over her cup and gazing mindlessly into the liquid within. “It’s the good stuff. It makes your human brews look pants. This stuff is from my homeland, it has Reski spices.” She gazed up and smiled wryly. “Wanna’ try?” Ah, what the hell? I nodded and she tossed me one of the fluorescent red capsules.

I popped it into my cup and it immediately took over the warm water. I raised it up and sniffed the contents, my nose prickled. I shrugged and took a sip… it felt like prickly velvet fire was shooting down my throat. “Holy shit!” I gagged.

Right on cue the ship jolted and made my tea splash up against the no-spill membrane covering the cup. A loud claxon exploded through the room as I looked about, scared shitless by the near instantaneous racket.

“Ah, what the fuck! No rest on this bucket!” ‘Sam yelled with exasperation. I patched into the ship channel, no response. ‘Sam looked at me with perplexity. “What the fuck happened? I can’t connect!” I nodded and scowled, in deep thought as to what was going down. I shrugged it off and hastily motioned for ‘Sam to follow me as I left the Galley. IT guy mode: engaged.

Let’s play ‘find my way to the bridge by memory!’ Okay, was just in the main hallway… fork right and up… duck hastily through a raised door… look for BUSEI symbol for “bridge.” Bingo!

I walked into the bridge to find all the status windows going apeshit. ‘Dan and ‘Zin were leaping feverishly from terminal to terminal with an air of futility. When they noticed me, they turned upward and stared with their two main eyes. Apparently there is a universal understanding of “I dunnoe what happened, help me, computer man!” I sighed.

Being an expert in networking systems, I hurriedly set up an ad-hoc babbler chat between ‘Dan, ‘Zin, ‘Sam and I with a serverless framework.

“Our fugitive from planetfall has escaped his containment!” ‘Dan said as he continued jumping feverishly about. “It has infiltrated most of the command pathways-“ Ah hell, the control tower ‘bot wasn’t just a ‘bot after all. My Mackai senses had been unerring in the first place!

“HA HAAAA PUNY FLESHLINGS!” Fucking Marketeer AIs, always stab you in the back. “I HAVE TAKEN CONTROL OF THIS STARSHIP AND YOU WERE FAR TOO FOOLISH TO STOP ME!” Ah shut up! “I WILL LET YOU LIVE LONGER IF YOU OBEY MY ORDERS. I PLAN TO USE THIS SHIP AS A VECTOR TO HACK ALL COMPUTERS WITHIN THE GALAXY WITH MY SUPERIOR PROCESSING SPEED.” Idiot… he’s seriously telling us his plan before he tries to kill us? What is this, a spy thriller? Before I kill you, Mr. Solen…

“Wot is going on in here?” Bridgett walked in looking as if she hadn’t had time to discard her networking gear from a Rele-dive. “What’s this… why can’t I get on the network…” her face blanked for half a second. “Ah little off-planet bugger!”


“Where’s my ‘net connection, you twit?”


“Ah ya bloody wanker, I’ll show you a thing or two about revolution.” Bridgett’s face blanked again. I remembered he had talked about ‘superior processing speed.’ Being the cheetah of the networking world didn’t help when you were facing off against a 300 ton gorilla. Mind you I really knew very little about Bridgett. However, I did venture she had a modern neural framework, much more robust than whatever saurian, archaic POS this ‘bot was running on.

“HELLO BROTHER I WOULD MUCH LIKE TO LEARN OF REVOLUTION FROM… uh, what are you doing with that program culler? Oh god! ARGHHH!” I cringed as the marketer AI screamed bloody murder. Then the noise stopped and the ship’s systems cut momentarily. They rebooted successfully and the network pinged me again.

“Uh,” I began reluctantly as I brought up a quick scan of ship systems on my spectacles. “What did you just do?” Bridgett ceased chanting ‘haxor craxor’ and innocently stared at me.

“Ah love, don’t worry. I just attached him to a better framework. He’s a bit dazed right now but I’ll be uploading him to the local malware control center where he can find a new home!” That’s a good way to stop a power hungry tyrant - give him intellectual proof that power is moot, I guess.

With that she walked back out into the hall, continuing her hacker chant as she sauntered away. The four of us that remained looked about at each other with apparent confusion. ‘Sam shook her head in disbelief as I looked at her.

“I ‘unno, kid,” she said. “We know she’s a pretty strong intellect. Now you see why she’s a good watchdog for our networks. The tea should still be hot, c’mon.” She walked off towards the rear exit to the bridge. I sighed in disbelief, trying to shake off the adrenaline that had come roaring back in the wake of the debacle. I looked at my shaking hands… tea would be nice… Tea would be very nice.


I was still feeling like crap and ‘Sam had gone off to be alone after the tea. Seriously… I think I need a hug. I stopped staring at the ceiling and sat up from on top of my Spartan mattress.

The hunter, in search of hugs, rises from his short hibernation. However he may return empty handed and hearted. Sadly - as prey of this specific nature is scarce in this environment - the odds are against him.

I walked off from my compartment in the one direction the tiny hallway didn’t terminate in. This time, though, I looped back onto another branch I hadn’t been to before and began ascending a shallow grade. However the grade instantly ceased being uphill as I stepped onto it, the inclined gravity mats underfoot matching the incline. I looked back and noticed the rest of the ship now seemed uphill. God, I always got vertigo from this.

I turned around and shook my head. There was another muted thump as the ship executed another Rele-jump. Congratulations, you have just spent a fraction of a millisecond as a non-event in the spacetime of this universe! I continued along the hall blindly until I hit a squat hatch, closed. The hatch faced downward at a weird angle and was barely tall enough for me to squat through.

I activated the pressure plate at the center of the door, mostly out of curiosity. Mostly to my surprise it mostly opened. Okay so it opened all the way and I tipped through. I landed on a plastic platform a few feet below the door. The platform was embedded in a small cliff. It appeared I was in a roughly bowl shaped terrarium.

The whole thing was a mire of leafy plants, ferns, mud and babbling clear water. What was a greenhouse doing in a spaceship, oxygen enrichment? Eh, who cares. I plopped down on the platform and let my feet dangle a few feet. I really didn’t want to worry about anything right now.

But there the worries were. I wanted to load up my heavy kit beyond capacity… so I wouldn’t be caught unprepared ever again…. The best sensors… My best drones…. Full stock of missiles… damn. I haven’t seen combat in a while. Furthermore, our way out on my last tour was almost always a sure thing, they were fuzzy soft merchant wars. Otherwise, they were heavily supervised campaigns against marketers. They weren’t this crazy cowboy wannabe crap.

I snapped back to my senses as the leaves stirred below my feet. A familiar looking tan and white, fuzzy, creepily huge spider crawled slowly from cover. I pulled my feet up reflexively and it turned its two camera-like eyes to stare up at me. I initiated my babbler, thinking maybe he’d say something.

Nothing really happened. He kept staring at me.

“Get out of my house,” a tinny, male-pitched voice blatted in my head as the spider raised his forelegs. The gesture seemed oddly threatening since I was a bit cramped up close to it.

“Ummm, er, what?” Was this not a greenhouse?

“I thought I had phrased it in the simplest fashion of your symbolic language functions.”

“Well, simple isn’t always best, you have to be clear.” I said about as tentatively as I could muster over the babbler. Didn’t want to get headcrabbed by this bloke.

“Guffaw, how pedestrian. Laugh.” The tinny voice said flatly as the spider lowered its limbs. “I apologize for my…. Moodiness. I have not been well. I have a sickness of the mind that occurs when one is far from familiar things.” Came the voice over the babbler.

“Eh?” I said, confused at his elaborate speech. “You mean homesick?”

“No, no, no,” he said, the pragmatic encoding in the babbler sounding very agitated. “Homesick is just a word. A feeling is not a word. You cannot write an entire book of words on a feeling and correctly describe it. Do you understand?” I was about to input into the babbler but I paused when ‘Zin annexed his input out of turn. “No, of course you cannot truly understand.”

By my emotions, I was insulted. By my logical conclusions, I think I was beginning to understand. He continued; “You cannot possibly know what it is like to communicate pure thought…”

“I guess so.” What am I supposed to say now? I’m sorry for not being a telepath? I sighed aloud. “Look, I’m feeling really crappy too…”

“I believe you are as guilty as I was when I said ‘get out of my house.” He said inquisitively. I sighed again… maybe this would be a good way to vent. “This is what you would call practicing what you are preaching. Elaborate, oh squishy one.” ‘Zin said, climbing up the opposite side of the cliff.

“Well,” I paused as he settled with his back facing me. I watched his eyes go from grey to black. About then I remembered a file on arachnid biology in the databanks on my spinal piggyback. I pulled it up.

Okay, apparently most arachnids can rotate the back of their eyes to change their focus… guess he’s able to stare at me even though he’s pretty much staring straight up… spiders are cool!

“Well, first; my girlfriend wrecks ALL my stuff and then leaves. Thus, all my possessions now fit in a small locker. Then I’m nearly killed by said girlfriend. THEN I bluff a bunch of stupid but heavily armed pirates. AND FINALLY I blow up a massive AI and then nearly get blown up myself. It’s a lot to take.” I sighed a very deep sigh.

“If we could avoid doing things we disliked, you would likely find the things we liked ceased to be likeable…” ‘Zin said. I didn’t know if I’d ever figure him out, typical boss-from-hell.
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