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Director Geontil said, carefully, "Tiosyn du Xenophon? Who, precisely, is that?"
I leaned back in my chair. "We've been doing very well so far. I'd really prefer if we didn't have to fall back to obfuscation and denial."
"Mr. - Ishmael. We're just trying to determine how you came to Eridani."
"Open a comlink into this room that Tiosyn du Xenophon can access. He'll tell you. If you'd prefer to tell me you don't know who that is, then we can all sit here and I can make up pretty stories."
Tactor Yul spoke up. "Mr. Ishmael, you have a single ship, which is presently at dock..."
I cut him off. "Tactor, please, let's not get into threats. I've already told you there is an Uplifted-class intelligence aboard that ship. Furthermore, that ship mounts a state tap; admittedly, not a full vector tap and associated FTL drive, but it has a nearly unlimited energy budget. You have an AI with that energy budget and an unknown (to you) set of weapons and systems presently docked to your station. Do you really wish to go down this road?"
The Tactor's face had darkened as I spoke. No military man ever likes being reminded when they hold a bad hand. "Your ship may be at dock, Mr. Ishmael, but you are here."
I looked at him levelly. "You're missing one of my party."
"Pardon?" He looked too annoyed to be confused.
"The Uplifted," said Council Head Fern suddenly. "He said there was an Uplifted-class intelligence aboard his ship. He also said, on approach, he had an Uplifted with him."
I smiled at her. "Thank you, Ms. Fern."
She cocked her head. "And you think this Uplifted can save you from the Tactor's wrath?"
"Oh, I'm willing to gamble it can."
"All of you," said the Tzun suddenly in muffled tones from under my coat, "are really missing the point here."
The others started, staring at my jacket. I reached into the jacket, ignoring the Tactor's sudden lunge for an inconspicuous control at his seat, pulled the Tzun out and laid it on the table before sitting back in my chair. The sentient gun had elected its collectors to its skin, and was a matte black so deep it was hard to make out its surface details. I shrugged at their looks, and gestured to the gun.
"Ishmael, as you call him, is indeed not working for the Uplifted as a group. Neither, in fact, am I," said the Tzun. "However, I am myself an Uplifted. I have no interest in the current status of your star system; I leave those concerns to my siblings. However, I have a very strong interest in the well-being and freedom of my counterpart here, and you've started to trespass into that area of interest. Do we have a problem?"
The Tzun maintained a light tone, but then it didn't have to elaborate. The very fact of being a talking handgun lent its words all the menace required. The Tactor sat back slowly, his face still grim. "No. No, we dont."
"I appreciate that," said the Tzun with moderately-convincing sincerity. "I would appreciate it if you warned the guards you just alerted not to touch their weapons when they come through the door in a few seconds. That way I won't be forced to kill them."
The Tactor got up and moved towards the door. As he neared it, it slid open suddenly, and two men in what looked like light riot armor burst through it. He raised both his arms and got in front of them. "It's...all right, gentlemen, thank you. I apologize for the false alarm."
"Tactor Yul?" asked the one on the left. "Are you all right?" He was staring at me as he asked.
"I'm fine, thank you. Everything is stable here."
The pair relaxed visibly at what was obviously a code phrase, and allowed themselves to be chivvied out the door, still throwing mistrustful looks in my direction. The Tactor closed the door and returned to stand next to his seat.
I started again. "Look, gentlemen, lady. I'm not here to threaten you. You asked me how I came here, and I tried to answer you. Get Tiosyn on the line and he'll explain it all."
Director Geontil waved the Tactor back down into his station chair. "Mr. Ishmael, if you could find your way clear to telling us how you know about Tiosyn, perhaps then..."
"Tiosyn has been in contact with the Uplifted reconnaissance missions into Eridani system. He has been trading information for commercial news packets, and apparently for Uplifted gossip as well. He heard about the Override, the Tzun and me, and asked an Uplifted to carry a message to Alison Xymal - to us. We received it. It took us several years to prepare for and make the journey at near-c, but we made it - we arrived several weeks ago, in time to see your last two flight tests. Now we're here, at his request."
The four at the table looked at each other. The Tactor shrugged, and Director Geontil nodded. "Very well. One moment." He pulled a commlink from his tunic and began to issue instructions into it. The rest of us sat there, the other three Eridanians casting occasional furtive glances at the Tzun, which simply rested on the table and sucked up photons.
The Director put away his commlink, and a sudden tone sounded throughout the room. "Answer," he said to the air. There was a click, then a voice came on. It was not entirely human; it was human in tone, speaking Standard, but the emphases and tonal shifts were slightly off somehow.
"Good afternoon. Is Standard Kunir there?"
I raised my hand. "I'm here. Tiosyn?"
"Yes, Standard Kunir. It is very good to make your acquaintance. Thank you for coming so promptly."
The Tzun snorted. "Promptly. It only took how many years?"
Tiosyn laughed, slightly oddly. "But in order to get here now, you would have needed to leave Alison Xymal within mere months of my message arrival - at least, extrapolating from what my courier told me the message arrival time would be. I'm flattered you came so quickly."
"Tio," said Director Geontil, "You did ask them to come here?"
"You knew he would be bringing along an Uplifted? Here, to the heart of the Program?"
"Director," said Tiosyn, "The Uplifted are either concerned with the Program, or they are not. If they are, the presence of this weapon or even the other machine intelligence in their ship will make little difference. If they are not, then surely they wouldn't be interested in these three, whose location they already knew."
"But why did you ask them here?"
"To save your program," said Tio calmly. "We need their help."
"Why?" asked the Director.
"Several reasons, but two are the most important. For one, we have been unable to provide a smooth enough power supply to the vane cage using microfusion. If possible, we need their assistance to construct a working scalar state tap. Two, as I have been telling you for some time, one of the primary reasons for our drive failures has been that the Pilots do not have models for successful drive initiation. In other words, they don't know what a successful drive initiation should look like, so they are unable to perform one."
"Our modelling has shown that-"
Tio interrupted. "Our modelling has shown what the physics representation of a proper drive field is. However, that does not tell us what the actual inputs and sensor translations for this look like. Remember, Pilots are not computers. Their sensoria are idiosyncratic. We need to know what a successful drive initiation 'feels' like before we can properly perform one."
The Director glanced at me. "Then how does Mr. Ishmael come into this?"
"More specifically, his colleagues do. We must convince them to have one of their machine intelligences perform the initial test, so that we can record the drivefield readings using a Pilot's pod sensoria inputs. Then we will be able to run proper simulations of the drive, and Pilots will be able to learn what a functioning and calibrated drivefield 'feels' like."
All eyes at the table turned to me. Stationmaster Renjen spoke. "Well. It appears, Mr. Ishmael, if you have been in correspondence with Tiosyn, you likely know all of this. It seems that we need your assistance in order to successfully flight test our design. The question, if we cut through the various levels of misdirection, is this: are you willing to help us?"
I nodded. "Yes. Otherwise we wouldn't have come. But, as you may have guessed, there is a price."
They looked at each other. Then Director Geontil took up the spokesman's role. "You have made it clear that your ship is more capable than ours, and you appear to have clear title to it. What would you want from us?"
I looked at each of them in turn. "We want you to modify our ship with a version of your drive."
"But- your ship has already made an interstellar-"
"Be serious, Tactor. Your program is close to producing an actual working FTL drive that does not require computer support of a level high enough to bring it into the purview of the Uplifted. If this succeeds, you will be the first humans since the Uplift Break to possess an independent starflight capability. Even the slowboat method I used relied on a sentient machine intelligence, without whose assistance I would have perished when my original cryocapsule malfunctioned. I and my colleagues are quite willing to help you achieve this; all we ask is to share in the results."
"What, precisely, are your terms?" asked the stationmaster.
"We will provide you with engineering assistance constructing a working scalar state tap to power your ships. We will provide a machine intelligence to 'ride along' and manage your drive on your initial tests. Assuming those tests are successful, we will remain and assist until your Pilots have demonstrated that they can successfully perform drive initiation without our assistance. In return, we ask that your shipyards modify our ship, the Interrupt, with whatever systems are necessary to allow her to attain FTL flight equivalent to your ships, using either one of my colleague machine intelligences as pilot or possessing the requisite capability to connect a Pilot akin to yours up to our systems. Finally, we will charge you a consulting fee, in standard interstellar Credit, of five million - which is approximately one-fifth the cost of each of your most recent four prototypes. That seems equitable to me."
"We...we'll have to discuss this."
"I have a condition," said Tio from the comm link.
"Tio? What-" said Director Geontil.
"Assuming they are agreeable, I want to be moved to the Interrupt when our flight tests are complete," said Tio.
"But- why?" asked Tactor Yul, in surprise.
"Tactor, I was born in space. I was raised in space, a working crewman on a working ship. Since my - accident - I have been confined not only to this metal coffin, but due to my 'importance' to your program, I have been confined to this Station. I want to return to space again. These people have agreed to provide me with passage or a crew berth if it becomes possible. You will retain all my records, and you have created seventeen Pilots since the program's start - the last fifteen attempts have been successful, indicating that you no longer need me as a research subject. If I am, as you have reassured me, still human, then this is my test - am I free to take passage where I will, or not?"
There was a pause, during which the four Stationers looked at each other. Then Renjen turned to me and the Tzun. "As we said, we will need to discuss this - but are you willing to accept Tiosyn onto your ship if necessary?"
"Then we will escort you back to your ship. We should have an answer for you in one standard day, if that is acceptable."
"It is." I stood. "Am I free to travel within the station? I'm not entirely broke, and the change of scenery would be nice."
Renjen nodded. "I approve your entry, Mr. Ishmael. I'll have a local ID sent to your ship; once you have it, you're free to access the Station's public areas."
"We do," said the Tactor, "have a 'no weapons' rule on the Station, however."
"I'm not a weapon," said the Tzun from the table. "I'm a sentient intelligence."
I picked up the gun and stuffed it back into my jacket. "I think I'm on their side on this one," I said.
The Tzun made spluttering noises for a few moments, then switched to vibe. Quisling.
I patted it through my jacket as we all moved towards the door. "You're the one who's fond of telling me how lethal you are."
* * *
"I don't know, eh? I'm telling you, nothing's come off that ship since it docked except a man. No cargo. No other passengers. Security's got it locked down, and it's just sitting there. There's no name on the boards, no count for departure - it's just sitting there. I heard a guard say it came from Alison Xymal, which means it's Uplifted, but I haven't heard anything about the Uplifted being here, so who knows..."
The docker slugged own a third of his drink and shrugged at the five or six men clustered around him. "It's not hazardous, or they wouldn't have the cordon so close. There's no traffic advisories. But I was talking to Merliken, that girl works in Station traffic, and she says she's seen it on vid, looks nothing like anything she's seen since the Uplifted were here, so who knows."
There was a mutter from the group. I finished my own drink and applied myself to the grilled meat sandwich on my plate. The Interrupt had quite a good 'chef, but new places, new tastes. I almost felt like I was working again at this reminder I was in an unfamiliar starsystem. The bar was almost undecorated, catering to docker and maintenance workers, but it fronted onto the main dock area within sight of Interrupt's berth. I waved at the keep for another beer.
"If that ship is from the Uplifted, what are they doing here?" asked one of the other drinkers. His comrades shrugged. "We're not building logic frames powerful enough to fall under the Sanction. We're not! Why would they be here? Why would the government let them stay here?"
The first docker snorted "Not much the gov could do about it. If they want to stay, they're going to stay. We lost every damn ship in the militia when they came last time."
I accepted my beer from the tender and tossed him a chip before draining the mug and standing. "Thanks," I nodded to him and headed for the door.
Tio says you're needed at the test center, said the Override on vibe. I crooked my jaw muscles twice to trigger an acknowledgement in the implant and left the bar.
* * *
"Ah, Ishmael," said Director Geontil as I entered the bay. "How was lunch?"
"Different," I said, grinning.
"Different is good," I replied. He chuckled and nodded. "Where are we?"
"We're preparing to bring the drive field up in the frame."
"How's the Override doing?"
I'm doing fine, it said in my head. That's why I'm here.
"Fine," confirmed Geontil. "We're getting good data from the test frame." One of the larger holofields in the bay was showing the test frame, a scaffolding with jump vanes protruding from it in the same shape as the prototype had. The static test rig was several light-seconds from the Station.
One of the technicians sitting in the station chairs lined up at a console along one wall turned to us. "First pulse in ten seconds."
Geontil nodded, and we both turned our attention fully to the holofield. There was a pause, and then a slight warping of the picture. Several holographic indicators blinked bright green above the console. A couple of the techs cheered, and Geontil wiped his brow with his sleeve. "First pulse complete. Sim indicated point-two cee."
Still okay? I asked silently. The Interrupt took my signal and pushed it out to the test frame, where one of its auxiliary compute frames was currently holding most of the Override.
Everything is fine, said the Override. Second pulse.
The holofield rippled again. "Simulated point-four-one cee," said Geontil. "The state tap is providing higher pulse strengths. Prepare for third pulse and full drive field initiation."
In the manner of techs since time immemorial, the techs bent closer over their consoles. I found that I was gripping the back of an empty station chair hard enough to hurt, and forced my hands to relax.
"Sir!" One of the techs was hammering frantically at his console. "Sir, I have a transient!"
Geontil hurried over to his station. "What? What is it?"
"I don't know, sir. One of the vanes...it's producing an imbalanced field, but there's no stress readings from the vane structure..." Geontil bent over the tech's shoulder and they began muttering to each other in deep engineer.
Override? I sent.
I am attempting to re-establish contact, came the Tzun's signal from the Interrupt. No success yet.
Geontil and the tech were jabbering excitedly. The tech was pointing at something in his console's display field. I moved towards them, and as I did so, the announcer broke in. "Third pulse...now!"
I spun to look at the field. There was a rippling distortion across the display. I couldn't tell whether the frame was still there, or if it was intact.
I'm fine, came the response. I sagged against the chair I was holding, relief taking my strength. That was a new experience.
"Director-" Geontil spun to face me. "Director, the Override says it is fine. I don't know if the drive test was successful."
"I don't know either," said Geontil. "We'll have to run the numbers, which will take some time without the Override to help. But if you're still in contact, then the frame is holding, and that's an excellent sign."
I spun the station chair, sank down into it. "Yes. Yes, I think it is." I hadn't been prepared for how worried I would be about the Override. I wondered whether it was because the machine intelligence was important to what I hoped to do, or whether it was because it had become important to me as a friend, the three waking years or so that I had known it. I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer.
The Tzun cut into the operating comm link, and its voice echoed through the bay. "My colleague says that it has your readings, Director. Please move the tender out to retrieve the compute frame so that it can transfer back to the Interrupt."
The Director nodded at one of the techs. "The tender will be there shortly. What happened there at the end? Does your colleague know?"
The Override's deeper voice came over the link. "Smoke in the cabin, Director. Smoke in the cabin. But everything appears to have survived."
* * *
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