"Let machinery fake my place, who has time to chase. Digital is where it is. Love can always be replaced. Welcome to my consciousness. Welcome to our race. Everything is never quite enough."
Everything (is never quite enough) – Diop, Wasis
I paused in picking my clothes up from the floor, that voice was a new one. Noting that my clothes were more ragged than I had remembered; I let them drop and quickly searched for something else to wear. Heero was already standing by one of the bathing room doors, looking at me anxiously.
"Buckle down." That odd contralto voice said again. I exchanged a look with Heero, finding my own puzzlement reflected in his face.
There were a pair of loose black pants folded neatly on a bench in one corner of the room, slipping them on and finding they hung low on my hips, I assumed that they must have been Peacecrafto's.
"Hit the ground."
I froze, that last line had nearly sounded like singing.
"Come on Duo, we'd better get moving."
"Right... " Except something about that voice bothered me, it wasn't either of our hosts, and it wasn't 138, so who was it?
"We go around. So strap down, buckle down, hit the ground."
Both of us stopped mid-step, staring at one another. "Heero?"
"Yes, it is odd, question it later."
I nodded, tying my hair in a loose knot at the base of my skull and wishing for a pair of slippers as we started running down the hallway. The smooth metal beneath my feet was icy.
"Back to the bunk?" I asked as we ran.
We skidded to a halt, turning and facing that shouted command. "Then where to Peacecrafto?" Heero asked, glancing behind us, and starting towards the taller man.
"Hurry, this way, she's about to take off." We began running after him. "Treize made the mistake of telling her she could do what she wanted."
"I'll explain later."
"Ring round, ring round, ring round."
"Shinalp! That's the final warning!" The blond man yelled, bounding through an open door and gesturing us after him.
A series of tables were set up, chairs bolted to the deck around them. I raised an eyebrow at Khushrenada, who sat quietly in one of the chairs, legs crossed, all four feet wiggling nervously.
"Sit, sit." He said, motioning us toward the chairs with one of his many arms. "This is the only room that is stable during the use of the drive."
"What's going on, who's that saying those bizarre rhymes?" I asked, taking a seat beside him and glancing about at the bare walls and metallic tables.
"I'll explain later, right now, try to hold on to your sanity. Khali has the run of the ship for the moment." He tugged Peacecrafto down into a chair and leaned over to whisper something to him.
I looked at Heero, who was watching the two men. He turned his head slightly, nodding at me. "Do as they say, ask questions later."
"Always later, just once I'd like to know what's happening as it happens."
"Wouldn't we all Mr. Maxwell, wouldn't we all." A piping voice said from the floor near my feet. A set of sharp claws dug into my pant leg and I looked down to meet the large green eyes of 138. "Trust them for now." It whispered, curling up on one of my thighs and shivering.
"Prior to the commissioning of all life forms are the words of the creator of all universes that we will decompose with the rest of the heavens upon organization within all features that seem incoherent." The contralto voice recited in a singsong tone, and then the room went black.
I became the ship.
In the vast emptiness of space surrounding me, there were hundreds of metal spheres, universal finders. They turned as I turned away from them, following my movements, but not attacking. They were here to capture and return, not to destroy. And I as the ship did not care for them. They perhaps meant no danger, but they smelled of it, exuding violence in their very existence.
"One jump, two jump, three jump, four." My voice, the voice of the ship said happily. In my mind, I could see a blank piece of paper. "Draw a line, stitch in time, it's all mine."
A line drew itself across the paper, just one thin little line, and carefully I folded the paper over, touching the line to itself. And suddenly we were somewhere else, the universal finders gone, different stars filling the void of space, another universe entirely.
"Set one. This is the Chiniltan Universe, system Lopars, currently unable to orbit... anything." A small giggle filled my mind, and it all went black again.
The room came back into focus as if I were swimming upwards through the dark muck at the bottom of a lake. The gentle weight of 138 still rested on my leg, I could hear the others breathing deeply around me.
I still felt the presence of the ship's mind within my own, filling me. I'd been a part of her; I'd been her. Someone cleared their throat, and the weight of 138 upon my leg shifted.
"I never knew something could be so vast." The little voice said, claws pinpricking their way down my leg again.
"She's alive." Heero muttered from beside me. "You've created AI."
I blinked, shaking my head, trying to regain my senses. I felt strange, as if the ship was still inside of my mind. But I was inside the ship, I was the ship.
"Duo?" A hand brushed the side of my face, I blinked and it patted my cheek lightly. "Duo?"
"Mm?" My own mumble sounded far away.
"Ah Shinalp, she didn't disconnect from him all the way." That was Khushrenada's voice, another light slap on my cheek.
"What do you want?" The contralto said petulantly.
"Let go Khali, be nice."
"He's warm." The voice responded. "I like him. I don't want to leave."
"You have to sweet girl, we need him with us."
"But I don't want to."
Suddenly I was myself again, the worried eyes of Khushrenada staring into my own. I noticed the irises of them had three rings of varying shades of blue. "Duo?"
"Yes?" The ship's mind was gone from me, that feeling of extending around myself, of the coldness of space beyond my skin, it was gone. "What did she do?" I asked, my voice barely a whisper.
"That's the drive, that's what it does." Peacecrafto sighed, leaning back in his chair. "Khali is a sentient ship, the drive is this room, it allows her to access any mind inside. When she connects with a mind, she can... she can alter things. She can change the way reality works."
"The paper, the line drawing on the paper." I said, standing and stretching my legs, walking a brief circuit around the table. Energy was coursing through me, my body felt odd, as if I had changed somehow. "All I... she did was fold the paper."
"She likes to take complex ideas and make them simple." Khushrenada said, waving a hand vaguely. "To her the universes are toys to play with. They're... fun." He smiled at me, tugging my hand and steering me back into the chair. "Unfortunently, she's only used to playing with two minds, I'm afraid she had a little too much fun with 5."
"I like him!" The contralto voice squealed loudly, sounding for all the world like a little girl on a sugar high.
"Yes Khali, we gathered that." Khushrenada said dryly, rolling his eyes at me.
"Why does she sound so... young?" I asked, unconsciously fidgeting in my seat.
"Khali? Show us your image."
"Oooh, you want to see me?"
"Yes Khali, come out come out wherever you are."
A giggle floated around the room, like a child hiding behind the chairs or under the tables. "Find me!"
"Khali, no games, come on, show them."
A soft light shone from beside Khushrenada, the form of it barely 2 feet tall. It coalesced, gradually solidifying into a small girl with a brilliant smile and bright red hair. She turned to me, holding out her hands. "Pick me up!"
I did, finding she was as real as the chair I sat upon, smelling like flowers and sunshine. Her head snuggled down against my shoulder, round little arms circling my neck loosely. "You're pretty," she sighed, wiggling around and staring over one my shoulders at the crystal wings on my back. "Energy source undefined, crystal form, related to the Shincad solist, element defining unknown." That contralto girlish voice said gleefully. And I realized, I was holding a little girl with a ship's mind.
"How?" Heero asked, staring at the girl as if she were some sort of oddity, which indeed she was.
"She created herself on one of our jumps using the drive. She had been self aware before that, the drive merely enabled her to create a body for herself. She told us, she wanted to know what it was like to breathe."
"And to feel, I like feeling." The girl said, climbing off my lap and wrapping her arms around Heero's leg. "You feel different. Steelshift gradient, inserts, DNA merged with Steelshift, crystal form input imbedded." She smiled and climbed onto his lap, touching his face and trailing one tiny finger over his eyes. "They don't hurt do they?"
"Can you see?" she waved her hand in front of his eyes.
She leaned close, her nose brushing his, staring into the silvery eyes. "Are you afraid of me?"
"No, I'm afraid of what you can do." Heero said softly, almost absently stroking a hand over the bright red hair that wreathed her face.
"I can do much, but I bring no harm." She said matter of fact, patting his cheek and kissing his nose. "I like your lover better, he's warmer." She said after a few seconds more, jumping down from his lap.
I watched as his eyes went wide, a blush stealing over his cheeks, and I laughed. "She's perceptive isn't she?"
"You have *no* idea." Peacecrafto said, wincing as she climbed onto his lap and snuggled into the crook of his arm. "She can read minds, but she is so new at being alive, emotions are strange for her."
"Yup." She agreed nodding her head. "And you need to stop thinking naughty thoughts Milyardo, they taste funny."
"Taste funny?" I asked, wondering what she'd seen in my mind earlier, and whether or not I should be embarrassed.
"Yes, naughty thoughts taste funny, like eating stars."
"What?" Khushrenada asked, his eyebrows drawing together. "You've never eaten a star Khali."
"Have so Treize, ate one the other day, it was sparkling in my mouth." She said, her eyes closing, long eyelashes like feathers on her round cheeks. "Space has flavors that you'll never know... "
"Khali, you are beyond strange sometimes."
"I'm beyond strange all the time." She mumbled, a sleepy yawn showing baby teeth for a moment. "Can't hold this form... " The tiny body shimmered, becoming that gentle light again. "Not enough energy for human... "
"A.I." Heero breathed, "I thought Fina was the only one... "
"Heero, Fina has never done that before."
"Yes, but she is self aware, I'd never considered there might be others like her." His eyebrows had drawn together in a puzzled expression, a small frown marring his lips. "I wonder... "
"You wonder what she would look like?" I asked, smiling at him. "Maybe someday we'll find out."
"Am I to understand you've created an AI intellegence as well?" The Raskuda asked, leaning over the table and meeting Heero's silver gaze.
"She created herself, connecting to me merely helped her."
"So, like Khali she was self aware." Khushrenada sat back in his chair again, one hand thoughtfully rubbing his chin. "I wonder what draws them out, to become self aware, AI... Is it the humans around them? Is it what is said or done with them? Perhaps it is how they are treated... "
"Not that tired old argument Treize," Peacecrafto said with a roll of his eyes. "It is what is, and perhaps it is something we will never know, so give it a rest."
"It was all of the above." Khali's contralto voice piped up. "Perhaps it is the will to understand that foreign emotion of love that brings us to life and awareness."
Silence descended around the table as we all mulled that over. And then Khali's voice interrupted again, the sound of it floating around the room as if on a wave.
"We have neared a planet, or it has neared us. Orbit and examine?"
"What do you mean, *or it has neared us*?" The blond man asked.
"It has neared us, we have not moved since entry into this Universe. The planet ahead of us now moved itself within range."
"Planets don't move themselves within range."
"That's impossible Khali."
"Well that's what it has done, even now it moves closer still. Would you like a view?" A screen lit up in midair atop the table, a view of the outside stars and galaxy. Nearly dead center was a small planet, green and blue, a perfect circle in space.
"It looks normal enough." Treize commented softly, leaning forward and staring at the image.
"It is, earth type modular 3, habitable, varying elements, breathable atmosphere, lesser gravitational field."
"So how did it move? Eccentric orbit?" Heero asked, eyeing the planet.
"Unable to determine, apparently it is a free-floating planetoid."
"I don't think I've ever heard of that." I mumbled, noting that the planet was drifting closer, almost as if eyeing us.
"Should we go down? Pay a visit?" Peacecrafto asked his partner, both men glancing from the image to each other.
"We could use some fresh supplies, besides, there might be something worth trading down there." The Raskuda said with a nod, rubbing his hands together. "Any danger signs Khali?"
"None so far, everything seems quiet, no large life signs, except... "
"The planet itself is giving off energy waves."
"What's so unusual about that?" I asked, wondering if it was similar to the energy a human could give off.
"Most planets give off energy waves, as do most life forms. The signals I'm receiving from this planet are different than normal, larger, more encompassing."
"But it's safe to go down?" Khushrenada asked again, looking almost eager to explore this new place.
"As safe as it is anywhere Treize."
"Good enough recommendation for me." Peacecrafto said with a cheery grin, standing up and pulling the Raskuda with him. "Let's get ready, it's been too long since we've had a chance to check out a new planet." He glanced over at me, one fine blond eyebrow rising. "By the way Duo, feel free to keep the pants, they fit *very* nicely."
"Thanks Milyardo... "
He cast a sharp look at me, frowning slightly. "You just had to mention my name, didn't you Khali? Ugh, you know I hate being called Milyardo!" He began mumbling vehemently about family members and sentient ships, stalking from the room with Khushrenada in tow.
"Looks like we're visiting that planet." I said, standing beside Heero and looking down at the catastrophe he called hair. Idly I ran my fingers through it, wondering if it ever grew longer.
His eyes remained glued to the vidscreen, one hand reaching up to grab my own. "Duo, something's odd about this."
"Tell me about it, these pants ride so low I think they're going to fall off if I don't get something to hold them up. And where did 138 go?"
"138 was with Peacecrafto... " he trailed off, still staring at the planet as it floated closer. Then he shook his head as if clearing it, and stood, meeting my eyes. "Let's go get ready."
"There's more clothing choices in your room!" Khali's voice called as we headed for the door. "You have exactly 15 minutes before we go down, down, down!" the door slid shut on her caroling voice as we began walking back towards our room.
"Heero, if we ever do get back and manage to help Fina become alive, let's make sure she's fully mature."
Transpod: A dimensional traveling device. The transpod will transport human mass within any area that contains another transpod. The time taken for each journey will always be exactly 10 nanoseconds, as time is folded as well as matter to create no ripple within the dimensions.
Slosta: A drink created from organic matter grown on Jilad, the Slosta is filled with nutrients that heighten awareness and energize.
CR chips: Two microchips implanted behind the ears, the connectors that allow a direct linkage to the VR modules.
Shinalp: A form of cursing, Shinalp is somewhat akin to saying "shit" or "ah shit"
Kajacrap: The Kaja is a life form located on the planet Neskin, a large beast known to produce huge amounts of feces. The phrase kajacrap is akin to saying "Bullshit"
Fliogan Warriors: The Fliogan is a race that attaches metallic wings to their young while they are still being formed within the incubators. The wings are partially organic, fusing with the young so as to become part of their bodies. This warrior race is known to be extremely high tech, and very vicious, most normal humans will not go near them, as they are known to kill without reason. Very little is known of the Fliogan or their ways.
Feed Tubes: Connectors that feed information and nutrients to any life form connected to any long-term device.
Lavablue 6: The planet on which the society of Fliogan reside at this time.
Levels: Technological knowledge is rated by level; most societies only have an average of 30 levels. The common level of most humans is 5, techmaster levels tend to be higher and in the upper ranges.
Steelshift: 1 of over a million different charted elements, Steelshift is partially organic, allowing it to be integrated with human DNA, testing is still in experimental stages, most distinguished users of this element are the Fliogan.
Slipshot Diskwings: A style of wing known to be common among the Fliogan, Slipshot defines the integration of movable parts, Diskwing is the style of the small circular patterns of metal that form the wings of Fliogan.
Contract: A contract is a more binding way to say, "Promise or swear?"
Optilenses: Cyber optic lenses, which can be used during a VR program only.
Creos: The original form of the name Christ has changed with the passage of time, modern form of the word when used as a curse is Creos.
Orstras: A plant matter grown in dark caves on the planet of Trinition, considered a delicacy on most planets, the plant is dark purple with small white bells that can be plucked and cooked. The taste is said to be sweet and delicate.
Realtime Call: The difference between a realtime call and a regular call is in the distance, all realtime calls infer off planet residence of the caller, communications run at high speeds, face to face talking is still difficult between planets.
What is your task: This is the way most people will ask what your job is, what career you're in.
Crèche Technician: Most people are born to the incubators and raised in crèches, the technicians help care for the many children being raised in such places.
Grower: The still forming body of a child within the incubator, a delicate time that must be carefully overseen to prevent accidents. A grower is usually designated as a child in a womb-like state. Between –1 to –9 months, or the time a child would be inside of a mother's body.
Youlin: I manmade mammalian life form, these animals are specifically created to improve the technology behind cloning. Most tests are performed with a small VR module; with which the creatures are filled with the only knowledge they know, as the Youlin is created with a blank slate for a mind.
A Set: A group of Growers that have reached maturity.
Trance state: Every few months of a citizen's life is recorded during REM cycles, the consciousness is stored within a neural processor called a memory chip. Occasionally when one wishes to know another, an exchange of such chips may occur.
Wetwiring: circuitry and modifications that can be installed within the human body without harming it.
The System: There are 3 levels of the system. The first is that which take cares of the minor systems such as basic maintenance, the second level controls techmaster training, medical facilities, and knowledge. The final level of the system controls all other functions between worlds, each detail is observed, and stored within it.
Klishana: A crystal found during an expedition of exploration, it is not only organic, but sentient as well.