Chapter 12: The Machine
A lot was lost when the old Technic civilization collapsed into tyranny and war. Not the least of those losses were twelve worlds and their billions of inhabitants. Even after twenty-two centuries, one cannot walk the surface of Numerica without an environment suit and radiation shielding. It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that the art and science of building antimatter power plants didn’t survive the chaos.
Through my lifetime, at least, it’s always seemed that we were just on the edge of recovering this ability, only to find some new subtlety to the old technology that put the goal just that much further beyond our reach. The potential gains: ships that can exceed one parsec per day while also traveling from one edge of known space to the other without refueling, energy shielding, faster than light communication and, yes, super weapons, to name a few, are enough to make this quest the philosopher’s stone of our generation of physicists.
The possibility that we might have an operating example in front of us was breath-taking.
“Do you think Edgar knows about this?” Ari’s eyes were wide with worry now.
“Not a chance. He would’ve come here first and looted the place and not bothered with the Rii. They wouldn’t even know he’d been here ‘til the water stopped flowing.”
“The Imperium needs to know! The pirates can’t be allowed to have it!”
“No, they can’t.” I shook my head. “In a few years, assuming they could figure it out, Edgar’s men would be building ships that’d individually be able to take on and destroy entire squadrons of fusion-powered dreadnoughts.“
“What can we do?”
“First, we have to determine that this is indeed powered by antimatter, though I can’t even imagine any other type of plant that could continue to operate unfueled and unsupervised for two millennia.”
“Are you sure this place is unsupervised?” asked Ari. “It sure doesn’t look it.”
“Or what is watching over it?”
Suddenly, we felt very exposed standing on the platform. I crouched and Ari sat down and curled her tail about her.
“I’ve never been on an archeotech expedition,” she said. “But I’ve known people who have. Anything like that is supposed to be classified, but when the cocktails and sherry are flowing, one hears things. Some ancient sites have been found to be guarded.”
“Really?” I raised an eyebrow. “By what, robot drones?”
She chuckled and patted her tail. “Remember, we’re talking about the same folks who designed my people just out of a malicious sense of humor and to imprison political dissidents. They wouldn’t bother with building and programming drones when they can more easily gengineer and splice together some creature to do the same thing.”
“But two thousand years?”
“They could encode instincts into some primitive form of life that could be isolated away from the colonists, and probably away from the entire planetary ecosystem.”
I looked out over the mammoth machine room. “What would they eat?”
She shrugged. “What ever happened to stumble in upon them?”
“This would have been a low energy, low risk facility when it was built. Maintenance would be a higher priority than security; maybe they won’t be very aggressive. One can hope.”
“If they’re still here at all.” Then I thought about that hatch. How long ago would that have been last lubricated? “We have to be careful regardless.”
“Yes, don’t touch anything.”
We went back into the passageway and closed the hatch. I then picked up Ari and continued the way we had been going. Eventually we came to another hatch. This led to a metal spiral stairway that led up and down. Ari climbed onto my back and we went down. At every full circle, there was another hatch. We’d passed about ten of these when we reached bottom, where there was one more. I carefully and quietly undid the latch and opened it. It was the floor level of the chamber.
“This is it,” I said. “Remember, we confirm that this is antimatter driven then we leave.”
“Wait Dri, let’s rest a bit first.”
“Sure.” I closed the hatch and looked at her quizzically. She slid off me and sat on one of the lower steps.
“I meant you should rest a bit. You’ve been carrying me a long ways without a break, and it looks like it may be a while before we get to water again.”
“Speaking of water, how are you holding out?” I sat and put an arm around her.
“I can do without water as long as any other human, but since you’re asking, I’m dry and ravenous.”
“I know what you mean. I could even eat one of those pale fish you’re so fond of.”
“Don’t talk about food! It just makes it worse.” She leaned her head on my shoulder. “Actually, I’m more in the mood for something greenish, like kelp in a sweet vinegar sauce.”
I felt a twinge in my stomach and thought I should change the subject. “I’ve told you a lot about me. I’d like to hear something about you now.”
“Oh, you would, would you?” She nuzzled my stubbly cheek. “You should really let your beard grow, Dri. It suits you.”
“You’re trying to change the subject.”
She sighed. “There’s really not much to say. I was born to privilege with parents who love me. I’m an only child, so I was spoiled mercilessly. I acquired most of my education in boarding schools on Earth. Quite boring to be honest.”
“Yet somewhere along the way you learned how to harpoon sea monsters.”
“You know, aristocracy and hunting go together.”
“How did those Terran boarding schools accommodate you?”
“There are more Syrenka on Earth than you might think. There are schools there built especially for us.” She smirked. “I learned my Plato under the Aegean and my planetary ecology on the Great Barrier Reef. I’m afraid for the interesting stuff; you’ll have to consult the tabloids.”
I shook my head. “That’s the last place I’d look, at least for the truth.”
“Thank you.” She disengaged from my arm, scooted to the other end of the step and faced me squarely. “I need to talk to you about this. The Imperial Court is a pool of sharks; I was naïve, still a teen, when I debuted. The tabloids abhor a vacuum more than Mother Nature does, so when I didn’t misbehave, they made stuff up. ‘Pretty young chimaera with the cold heart of a siren’ and all that. It sold memory chips. What did they tell you about me on the Agamemnon? Be honest.”
I tried to think, but honesty seemed the best option. “I believe the phrase that came up most frequently was ‘often pursued but seldom caught’.”
“Hmn, not too bad really, but not true. It should be ‘often pursued but never caught’! You may or may not believe it, Lieutenant Rhodri Morgan of the Imperial Navy, but you are the first!”
I was stunned. “That means you said no to…to…”
“The Emperor?” She smiled sweetly. “Michael is a monarch, but he’s also a gentleman. He was the easiest to fend off.”
I wanted to think that it didn’t matter, that I wasted no consideration for whether I was first, only that I was last. Knowing was still a relief, however. Somewhere inside it did matter to me, perhaps just a little.
I scooted over and took her in my arms. She whispered in my ear. “How about you? Am I the first?”
I pulled her away and grinned mischievously. “Well there was this flaxen-haired lass from New Aberdeen.” Ari clouded up. “Of course, there was nothing physical. I was twelve, well supervised and me Mum wouldn’t have approved.”
She brightened. “I like your mum already. I was especially impressed with how she handled the Fleetwynde brothers.”
“Oh, you were awake after all? I’m sure the two of you will get along famously. She won’t even be all that surprised for, if legend be true, I won’t be the first Morgan to bring a mermaid home from the sea.”
“Really! You might have Mer genes? I’ll have to check your toes for webbing.”
“It’ll have to wait sweetie,” I stood up and stretched. “I do believe I’m rested now. Ready to go exploring?”
“Now that you’ve awakened my curiosity, I’d rather explore your body. But I know,” she sighed. “It’ll have to wait.” She climbed my back and kissed the nape of my neck. “Let’s see what’s beyond that door!”
I opened the hatch. All the different machinery sounds combined into a continuous low hum that soon shifted itself to the back of my consciousness. There was also a crisp ozone smell that slightly irritated my nose. The air in general was filled with an electric quality that lifted the hairs on my arms. Before us was a corridor that reminded me of a hall of giants. Banks of machines, from computers to steam pumps and everything in between, extended as far as we could see.
“We may be in over our heads, Ari. I have some engineering experience, but hardly enough to scratch the surface of this!”
She shrugged, “We’ll just have to do what we can.”
The floor of the machine cavern was organized into a grid. Access from anywhere to anywhere would be easy, but so would getting lost. The corridor we were on was near the middle and was somewhat larger than the ones we passed, so I was hopeful that it would lead to the most important parts of the facility.
We had advanced about four hundred meters, craning our necks like tourists in a great city, when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.
A little ahead of us was a greenish-gray bipedal reptile, about a foot tall. It squeaked and dove under a bank of panels.
“It’s a sand-skitter,” said Ari. “I’ve read about them. They’re harmless.” She slid off of me and crawled to where the creature disappeared.
“What are you doing?”
“It has scales, that’s close enough to fish for me. I want to see what it tastes like!” She nosed about like a hunting cat and reached under the bank. “I’m thinking it’ll taste like chicken!”
“You said not to touch anything.”
“I meant the machines…There! Gotcha! No? Dammit! Eek!” It scurried over her shoulder and into the corridor. Ari then half turned her body and tail-slapped it in mid stride. The little lizard flipped head over heels and into the maw of something much larger.
We both froze. Standing in the middle of the corridor was a preying mantis/beetle/centipede/thing about a meter and a half long. It calmly chewed and swallowed the skitter.
“All right now, what’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t f***ing know.” She slowly and carefully raised herself to a sitting position. “But I’m willing to bet it’s one of the custodians.”
It’s black, faceted eyes looked at me, then Ari. It made a spitting sound and a brown, sponge like object shot from its mouth and struck Ari just above the navel. She yelped and I raised the bar to strike.
No Dri! Don’t do it! I’m not hurt!
The creature reeled the sponge back to its mouth, and then spat again, hitting Ari’s tail.
What’s it doing!?
Ugh! I think it’s ‘tasting’ me! Ari covered her face while it repeated the same action about a half-dozen more times. Finally, it stopped.
Why isn’t it ‘tasting’ me?
No one back then ever thought it would meet a Syrenkan. It may have no idea what I am or what to do with me.
Since I’m with you, perhaps it’ll think you’re all right?
I hope so.
For nearly a minute it stood perfectly still, as though considering, then it leapt up and away faster than our eyes could follow.
“What happens next?” said Ari.
I tore away a piece of my shirt and began wiping the slime off of her.
“Do we really want to find out? We should leave, now!”
“But we haven’t confirmed that this is anti-matter powered.”
“We’re not knowledgeable enough to confirm it anyway. They’ll have to take our word for it.”
“You’re probably right Dri,” Ari sighed. “I messed everything up, either by being hungry and noisy or just by being a chimaera.”
“Nonsense! Now let’s argue about this from a safer place. Come on!”I picked her up and she settled on my back. I was doubtful that it would be safe to return the way we came in, but the danger of getting lost seemed worse. We had just gotten to a place where we could see the hatch leading out when I tripped. I pitched forward onto the floor and Ari rolled away. I looked up in time to see several strands of a silk-like material attach themselves to her. She screamed and was lifted away. I saw several shadowy figures scuttle off with her through the catwalks and pipes.