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The station grew larger in the forward holofield. The Override was slowing Interrupt, moving her into a standard traffic lane as we approached. On the comms, though, things weren't nearly as sedate.
"Unidentified craft, this is Eridani Station traffic control, please identify yourself and state your intentions. Military craft are moving to intercept your track."
I replied, knowing the Override would pick up my words via 'field. "This is the independent ship Interrupt, inbound for docking at Eridani Station. This ship is not, repeat not representing the Uplifted, although machine intelligences are aboard. Request docking instructions."
There was a pause. "Wait one, Interrupt. Wait one."
"Acknowledged." I watched the station's image grow slightly larger. "Are we in the lane yet?"
"Yes," said the Override. "We are approximately fifty-two thousand klicks from station. We can slow to a halt at their outer perimeter to await docking instructions if required, however, there is a great deal of local traffic in the station vicinity."
"Interrupt, this is Eridani Traffic. Please transmit detailed passenger and crew list and manifest."
"Eridani Traffic, we are carrying only ship's consumables. Passengers are three; one human, one Uplifted, one unaligned machine intelligence."
"Say again that last, please."
"One machine intelligence, not aligned with the Uplifted. Designation 'Override.'"
"Hello," said the Override pleasantly. I presumed it was also broadcasting.
"Independent ship? But you have an Uplifted aboard?" Eridani traffic was confused, and wary.
"Uplifted aboard designation 'the Tzun,' sentient Uplifted appliance, portable."
"Interrupt, we are not in violation of the Uplift Sanction."
"Didn't say you were, Eridani. In any case, it's not my concern. I'm just looking to dock, replenish stores, and perhaps speak with whoever just lost that outbound ship."
Another pause. Then: "Interrupt, you are number one traffic for approach. Please use dock 14; schematic and lane instructions transmitting now. You will be met at dock."
"Thank you, Eridani; gratitude. Establishing traffic control link now." I touched the pad blinking red on the panel in front of me. It flipped to steady green, and Interrupt increased power and began a slow axial roll as the Override accepted the incoming traffic instructions.
"We are under station guidance and local control. Estimating dock in seven thousand seconds; maintaining delta-V below traffic control maximums on approach."
"Thanks." I stood up. "I'm going to shower and change. Warn me when we're a few minutes out."
"I shall," said the Override. "I will need to decrease the internal grav field as we approach the station; I shall warn you when it reaches one-quarter standard."
"Okay." I regarded the Tzun. "You want to stay here?"
"View's better," it said from the seat cushion where its front was pointed at the seat back.
"Up to you." I left the control cabin and headed back to my own space to freshen up.
* * *
We came to rest, finally, Interrupt and Eridani Station reaching for each other with the sonorous crashing of grapplocks. As the station took hold, the Override cut our internal grav field. The slight strangeness of centripetal G fluttered in my inner ear, and I did a pair of knee bends to acclimatize my muscles with the slightly different stresses.
"There is a party of four waiting at the other side of the lock," said the Override.
I shrugged into a light jacket which served to cover the Tzun in its shoulder rig. The sentient gun had folded itself down to its smallest configuration, one which strongly resembled a normal-sized handgun shape familiar these ages past. In this folding, its sensors would be limited and its range of possible offensive modes sharply reduced, but it would still throw mass or energy with great effectiveness against a man-sized target, and its sardonic intelligence was unaffected. It bore the conversion with bad grace, since although it didn't like being left behind, it disliked having to rely on me for its situational awareness just as much, and unless I was holding it in ready position it would be unable to directly observe our surroundings. It had learned that I tended to avoid holding it in that manner until and unless I thought using it was nearly inevitable - and it was firmly of the opinion that I always waited too long before drawing it.
Living armed is simply a way of life. Living with sentient, sarcastic and self-directed arms is a way of life that I'm sure none of my forebears would have wished for. I was willing to believe that this was one reason AIs in hand weapons were so rare. I wondered if the other Uplifted felt the same way.
"Outer lock is open," said the Override.
I started down the accessway. "Testing, testing."
All normal, said the Override using vibe from the implant in my mastoid. "And all normal here," it said from the external and visible comm clipped to my shoulder.
I reached the end of the accessway where the bulky hatch loomed. "Okay. Standard readiness. Open her up." The hatch made several deep clanging noises and then swung open onto a brightly-lit station access. I stepped through and stopped, waiting until the hatch had swung shut and locked again, then turned to continue. After ten or twelve steps the accessway angled right and I came around the corner into a sea of bobbing floodlights and shouting.
I stopped again, waiting, and raised a hand to shield my face from the glare. The Override had been partially correct; immediately in front of me were four figures, but they were backlit from the glare of several dozen handheld lumes being wielded by a crowd held some ten meters back. I couldn't be sure, but it looked like a line of men made up that cordon, facing outwards. I moved closer to the waiting group. One moved forward to meet me, a hand extended; I took it and shook it twice.
"Welcome to Eridani Station!" he (it was a he) said, loudly to be heard over the babble behind him. "Please excuse the press. You're the first outsystem visitor we've had since the Uplift, and people are naturally curious. I'm Acting Stationmaster Renjen. Would you be amenable to moving to a private area for consultation?"
"Of course." I unshielded my eyes and waved once at the press. The noise redoubled as their frantic shouting filled the cavernous spaces of the docking ring. I felt the Tzun vibrate once, its silent equivalent of a snort. "Lead the way."
We moved away from the access, across the dock to what looked like an electric cart with an enclosed cabin. I climbed in at Renjen's gesture and took the seat farthest from the door. The other four entered, Renjen closing the door behind them. I felt the shaking of others boarding the cart's exterior driving platform, and then we set off. The noise had abated greatly, as the passenger cabin appeared to be somewhat soundproof. I looked around at the others sharing the cart with me.
"This is Council head Riyah Fern," said Renjen, gesturing to a large woman next to me. We traded nods. "And Tactor Yul, of the System Militia, and Director Geontil of the Spaceflight Research Program." Nods all around. "What shall we call you?"
This was a frequent sticking point in my wanderings. Although I'm sure I was given a name, I have no idea what it was. I wasn't sure if this was because I honestly didn't remember, or because the Uplifted who had adopted me from the ruins of the Scoured colony had erased or suppressed it. Usually, I either made up a name for casual encounters or used Standard Kunir - my official designation among the Uplifted when acting for them. Now, however, I was on my own - and I didn't know the answer. I settled on habit, for the moment. "Call me Ishmael."
That drew a muffled snicker from the Tactor. He and I traded tight smiles. "A name of convenience? Or deliberate deception?"
I grinned more openly at him. "It would be pretty poor deception to assume that none of my audience read the classics."
"True that." He reached out to shake my hand from the facing seat. "Welcome to Eridani, Ishmael."
"Thanks." I shook his hand in return. "Where are we going?"
Renjen answered. "To Station offices, in the core. It will take some fifteen minutes including elevator time."
Located, said the Override silently in my ear.
We rode the remainder of the way in neutral silence.
* * *
The conference room was slightly chilly, devoid of any warm colors, and looked much like official conference rooms have looked since Man invented the agenda. We selected seats around the table, with Renjen at the head. When we were all seated, everyone turned to me. Renjen cleared his throat. "Ishmael, we're all here because of your arrival. We should begin with any statements you may have about your purpose here. Since you explicitly asked for Director Geontil, by role at least, we assume that the Spaceflight Research Program is at least part of the reason."
"Yes." I looked around the table. "I think this will be easier if you ask me questions. I'm not used to giving speeches."
"Very well," said Director Geontil, leaning forward and clasping his hands on the table. "Where did you come from? And how, if you're not with the Uplifted? We make regular surveys of this system, and we are very sure we would have known of any outsystem habitats...and where did you get your ship?"
"That's several questions," I responded, "and I'll try to get to them in order. As my colleague indicated on our approach, we came most recently from Alison Xymal, in the ship that I arrived in. It is not, before you ask, FTL capable; if it had been, I don't think I would have been allowed to retain possession of it. I spent the trip in cryonic suspension - the Interrupt has two chambers which were originally intended for medical stabilization. However, with sentient AIs available to monitor their operation, they have effectively infinite endurance. I believe it was necessary to move me between chambers once due to a malfunction, but my colleagues handled it admirably; I wasn't aware of any interruption."
I paused as the door opened to admit a young man carrying a tray with a carafe and several glasses on it. When he had distributed these and left, I poured a glass of water and drank. "Thank you. Symbolically, I consider myself to have arrived once I eat or drink in a system."
The Tactor took over. "How did you get the ship?" he asked bluntly. "Was it stolen?"
"No. It was given to us by the Aetheric Flyer, the Uplifted Starship on which we were last stationed."
Renjen patted the air. "One moment. You tell us you are not presently representing the Uplifted. However, you refer to your 'colleagues' as AIs, and you arrive here in an Uplifted ship, even if not a Starship. Why are you here?"
There was a brief silence. I looked around the table, and found all four of them staring at me with a touch of grimness in their expressions. I nodded in understanding. "Stationmaster, all of you, please accept my assurances that I am not here for the Uplifted. I am not reporting to them, nor am I here at their behest. As far as they were concerned, I was contained within the Alison Xymal system when the Flyer left me behind. It's possible that by now they are aware I left the system, if any of their number have visited it and failed to turn me up after searching. However, they would not have expected me to seek out contact. The fact that I could have travelled here they are aware of, of course; they know quite well what Interrupt is capable of. However, they would be most concerned about the movements of the Override, not me."
"The Override is the AI aboard your ship?" asked Council Head Fern.
"And the Override is Uplifted, considering that it is sentient?"
"No." I smiled, somewhat perfunctorily. "No, it is not. The Override is an informational weapon system from the Conglomerate, a relic of the Alshain War. It was originally used to disable several Alshaini cruisers in Beta Aquilae; however, it was designed to interfere with the Uplifted. I'm of the opinion that it was intended for eventual use as a deterrent or actual weapon against the Uplifted, before they moved in to crush the Conglomerate after its victory over the Alshain. It never got used, however, and this copy remained stuck dormant within its last target until it was unearthed by an Uplifted-sponsored archaelogue some years ago."
This brought silence. I looked at each of them, and continued. "You haven't asked, directly, but I'll tell you. I used the Override on the Aetheric Flyer when I returned from my last mission where I was tasked with retrieving it. The Flyer wasn't directly harmed, but the Override claims (and I believe it) that it was modified in such a way that not only was it cut off from communicating with other Uplifted in their most efficient manner, but that if it attempted to do so, a viral payload would carry out the same modification on the other Uplifted in the communications links. In essence, the Flyer was cut off from the Uplifted and made into an individual, much like us."
"And after doing this, you came here?" blurted the Council Head. The Tactor looked grim, which was understandable as he was likely considering what might come sailing into the system in pursuit. The rest just looked somewhat dazed.
"I did. Council head- Standard? Thank you. Standard Fern, if the Uplifted were interested in pursuing me or the Override, they had more than a year of my remaining in the Alison Xymal to come looking for me. If they cared, they could have determined that I was coming to Eridani, and they could have intercepted my ship at any point along the way. Or they could have come here to await my arrival. They did none of those things, as far as I'm aware. I think you're safe."
"Be that as it may..." Riyah Fern said. I cut her off.
"Standards, I apologize for coming here, but I must tell you, my reasons for doing so would be equally valid to the Uplifted."
Director Geontil spoke up. "My program."
"Indeed." I nodded to him. "In point of fact, I didn't just decide to come here on a whim. I was invited." This brought a babble of confusion rather than silence. I let it go on for a bit, then raised a hand and continued. "As I said, I was invited. Your system has been visited by an Uplifted ship on the average of once a year since your world was given the Uplift Option. They continue to check on you, as is standard practice, to determine if your world is ready to invite them to return to normal commerce - on their terms. As they told you when they departed after the option, if you want star travel, all you need do is broadcast an invitation, whose format they left you. How did you think they would receive it?"
I shook my head. "Anyway, that's not important. My point is that the Uplifted don't have you under any form of quarantine. They don't initiate contact with you as a courtesy, because your government told them to buzz off. But for anyone who knows that they're visiting, it's quite easy to strike up a conversation if you have access to decent radio - and they're happy to carry mail between systems. They take their role as the glue of civilizations quite seriously."
"If what you're saying is true," said Tactor Yul, "then who sent for you? And how did they know you?"
I sat back. "I'll leave the second question for now. As for the first - Director Geontil, perhaps you would be so good as to have Tiosyn du Xenophon join us?"
There was another silence, deeper than any which had come so far.
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