Nella crouched low against the cold metal of the entrance to storage bay 037, the bottom of her chin just brushing the alloy, sending a little chill up her jaw and down her neck. She liked that feeling, found it comforting, especially in moments like these, when the boy could live or die.
He stood ahead of her, a few meters from the entrance, his hands planted on his hips as the diaphanous fire of Hanny’s Voorwerp streamed above the force screens. His name was Garrett Cayne and she liked him. As an author, she found reasons to like everyone, but she particularly liked those who were brave and innocent, foolish and grand, eager for adventures. Even his uniform reinforced her sense of an intrepid pragmatist, the blue coveralls with white trim, a small silver comm screen at his wrist.
He had his weapon out, a black, chunky blaster that looked like it was knapped from obsidian. He aimed down the long corridor, daring the Governess to appear. This was the distraction she needed and so, reluctantly, she left her hiding spot against the hatch. The chest holding the key they needed sat half-buried under boxes, cargo mesh, and paper refuse.
“I think something’s down there!” the boy’s voice boomed in the bay, echoes slapping away from the walls.
She quit fiddling with the lock to the chest long enough to stare at the boy, annoyed. Of course there was something down there. Just like there was a key in the chest that they would use to secure the door. The scenario embraced patterns, followed well-worn grooves. The engine just happened to malfunction outside a dead galaxy.
She smoothed out the purple and green tulle of her skirt, worrying this boy might be one of the dumb ones. They weren’t much fun. She watched him duck behind a large crate for cover. Much better. The Governess was quick, smart, and ruthless. The longer he made himself a target, the more time the machine had to strike.
“It’s the Governess,” she hissed. “She’s come back to get me. Don’t let her!”
The boy steadied his blaster against the top of the crate. Sneaking a glance over her shoulder, the girl saw a strange patch of the wall creeping towards them. The boy hadn’t seen it yet, but then they rarely did. The Governess’ skin could mimic any color, texture, or phase state it encountered. To disguise itself with a nest of hoses, broken machinery, or jagged rubble, was no great feat. The girl pawed through the clutter of the open chest, aware of the time slipping away. In entertaining the boy, she neglected her research, her observations of the dead nebula. Her ship could only support her activity for short periods of time before she would have to return to hibernation. She never had enough of it to do it all.
“I think I see it,” the boy said as he gouged another groove in the bulkhead with his weapon, sparks showering the deck. She saw it freeze, deliberating. Was the boy quick and naughty enough damage it, or weak enough to be claimed in this first part of the scenario? Still disguised, the Governess resumed its advance.
Her fingers brushed the key and she raised it in the air, a note of triumph entering her voice, “I have it!”
The boy snuck a glance over his shoulder, his eyes wild and mouth held tight. “Great,” he shouted. “Then let’s get out of here!”
Which cued the Governess. Even as Nella scampered for the hatch, its ursine bulk crossed the dozen or so meters from its hiding place to where the boy crouched. Nella gave a warning, twisting a knot of magic into a scatter of fireworks in front of the robot. Blinded, the Governess crashed into the crates, missing the boy and sending an avalanche of clothes and old toys sliding across the deck. The boy leapt to his feet, already backpedalling, his weapon still out. He peppered the flank of the Governess, hitting nothing vital. It spun around, claws fighting for grip on the metallic floor.
“The door,” Nella screamed. “Head for the door!”
Garret dashed towards her, but he was too slow, the machine too fast. She already had the key in the latch, gave it a twist, and listened to the squeal of metal as the two great halves of the hatch began to close. He wasn’t going to make it and they both knew it. Naked fear in his eyes. Nella relented, altering the friction of the deck behind the boy. The machine’s next swipe went wide and the boy leapt through the hatch, tumbling to a stop behind her.
The scenario demanded that the Governess push on and so it shoved an arm into the narrow gap between the doors, reaching for the latch, attempting to trigger the emergency release. Nella crafted an etheric lance and skewered the Governess’ arm to the gate. It howled in frustration. The catomic material of the robot shifted from chrome to carbon weave to diamond as the doors caught and continued to shear apart. The lance vanished and the Governess’ arm dropped to the deck with a heavy clank. Its metamaterial unwound through its history previous transformations, sprouting feathers and burlap, steel and scales, as if to remind Nella of its long service to her imagination.
Garrett stood over the severed arm as it stilled, jubilant. “Well, I think that fixed that.”
“For the moment,” Nella replied, annoyed. The Governess had cared for her longer than this boy had been alive.
“What do you mean, for the moment? It’s full of holes and missing an arm. I think we tally that as a win.”
“She’s damaged,” she said. “Not dead. We can’t stay here.”
The boy looked at the door, his eyebrows drawn together. “Then detach the storage bay and I’ll train my ship’s cannons on it. Zap! Zap! Problem solved.”
Nella stared at him, incredulous. Just for a moment, she let her Persona slip to reveal the ice of an author. “That’s not happening.”
“You have some kind of problem with simple solutions?”
Nella longed for simple solutions. She longed to reserve the energy and resources necessary to watch the Voorwerp for centuries at a time. She longed to be alone and productive. What she had was one impatient boy and the deal they had struck.
“Are you so eager to get off this ship?”
The boy laughed. “No, I mean, I don’t have anything better to do…”
“We head to the command deck, re-establish control over the main system functions, and I will recover your information.”
He gave her a thin smile. “The information against the Hekon Hegemony?”
“Then you supply the volatiles.”
Nella set off for the lift that would bring them to the promenade. Garrett stayed by the door, looking it over with an expression she did not like.
“Are you coming?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, strolling theatrically towards her. “Tell me one thing, though.”
Nella turned. “If it will get you moving.”
“Do you even know who the Hekon Hegemony is?”
“Of course I do,” she said. “They’re the bad guys.”
“They are that. But I get the impression you don’t know why they are the bad guys. What they did.”
“Important if I’m going to trust you.”
She sighed. “I’m guessing you’re at war with the Hegemony. They want something you have or vice versa.”
“You’ve never heard of the Kin-thlan Massacre.”
Nella shook her head, though it had been a statement, not a question.
“Or the Muirnactian Ultimatum.”
“Look, I’d love to listen to all the awful things the Hekons have done but I’m guessing it boils down to they do things you don’t like and you want them to stop.”
He made no reply.
“Then let’s carry forward with the deal we worked out. I have information on powerful weapons. You have the supplies I need.”
“So you can leave the Voorwerp.”
“I never said that,” she put her hand on her hips. “What are you looking for here?”
They had fallen into a weird interstice, the gap between his space opera paradigm and her own more jumbled muses. While remaining in character, he was attempting to undermine the essential point of the scenario.
“What do you want from me?"
“I want to know if you’re doing this for the right reasons.”
The boy sought reassurances of his significance to the scenario. In order for him to buy into the game, it had to fit into some larger schema, some more resonant mythology.
“Would these Berserker foes of yours really be so eager to visit this forgotten corner of the cosmos?”
“Not likely,” he gritted his teeth.
“Then you have your own generosity to blame.”
“Just tell me what I have to do.”
“We have to go up another few decks until we get to the promenade. Then we catch a tram to the command deck.”
“And our opposition?”
“The Governess was able to subvert the security system of my ship, so any of the servitors we encounter might try to kill us.”
“That’s it?” He was hoping for more of a challenge.
“The promenade itself took considerable damage during the original insurrection; we may have trouble getting through the debris quickly.”
“But that’s it?” still fishing.
“Well, the Governess has always been quite crafty. She’ll figure a way out of this storage bay soon enough."
"Then she’ll be off to deal with us.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Then I think we should be on our way,” he said, sailing past her towards the lift to the next deck. Nella gave one last look at the thick doors to the storage bay and followed.
Through the hatch the boy got a glimpse of what her ship had once been. The promenade stretched towards the prow for nearly a third of its length. Most of it was open space, but with sufficient light and heat to support the floating islands of jungles, forests, and other biospheres. The deck they stood on joined in a smooth parabolic curve with the central spar. Gravity was written to change from a force parallel to the ship’s acceleration, to one perpendicular. They were ants, crawling up the trunk of an enormous tree.
Beyond the ribs of metamaterial and opalescent force-screens swirled the venomous green haze of Handy’s Voorwerp, a nebula-like feature millions of light years from the nearest galaxy. Once one of the earliest structures in the universe, it now consisted of little more than wisps of hydrogen backlit by a distant supernova. Looking close, she could pick out the minute perturbations in the intergalactic abyss, another fruitful avenue for observation.
The boy was silent, his eyes taking in the panorama. His face and shoulders glowed with iridescent blues and greens, the over-sized EM cannon cradled in his arms rippling in the watery light. The weapon had come from a debris pile she hadn’t checked before his arrival and could easily reduce the Governess to bubbling slag. Nella corrected the problem by slipping etheric fingers into its controls, editing its output.
The boy noticed nothing, entranced by the nebula. “You must have seen the Voorwerp when you came here,” Nella said, nudging him gently.
He shook his head. “I…I was concerned about the scenario…I mean your distress call. I let the machines take care of navigation.”
“It’s my favorite thing in the entire cosmos,” Nella said.
The boy shifted, leaning back into his Persona, unconsciously resting his hand on the curve of the EM cannon. “Is that the other end of the promenade?”
She followed his gaze, and nodded.
“So where’s this tram you mentioned?”
A simple twist and a panel slid open, a quad cycle rising into view. The small opening in the deck gave a view of the complexity of the ship’s interior, the layers of machines that kept it together.
“For a sorceress, you’ve got some amazing hardware!”
“We could use the broomsticks."
“The quad-cycle is fine,” the boy said. “I’m just impressed. When I left the nursery, I got this tiny shuttle with a half-parsec jumpdrive.” He left the obvious question unspoken, why had her family given her this ship?
“Like you said, this ship is old. It’s also better protected than most modern ships.”
“Then your Governess went hay-wire,” the boy said, returning to the scenario. It made her uneasy, how much of her biography had slipped into this scenario. “Well, it’s a good thing I was coming through here or you might have been stuck.”
“It’s the price of privacy,” she said.
“I get that. The guild I usually play with gets really uptight about paradigms. Do you know that I tried to get this approved-” he tapped the silver badge on his chest, “and they rejected it? After a while I had to go and be on my own."
“You don’t say.”
“I guess that’s why I’m out here. I wanted a break.”
She didn’t reply.
“So, how about you? Why are you all the way out here?”
“I’m a scientist.”
“I thought you were a witch or a mage.”
He considered that. “I mean, I did the scientist thing too for a while. I even had my own lab in the Magellan. Once I filled this entire crater with amino acids and bombarded it lightning and radiation. After a few days some of it self-reproduced. Pretty intense, right?”
The girl concentrated on driving as they passed through unstable sections of the promenade. Part of her wanted to just stick with the scenario, but the off-topic conversation tempted.
“Did you ever do anything like that?” he asked.
He blew air out of his nose. “I just told you. Do you invent stuff? Like new creatures or weapons?”
“You’re holding on to one of them right now,” she said, turning the tram slightly to the left to avoid the ruin of a collapsed pylon. The boy grabbed the side rails. “But that’s not science.”
“I guess I don’t know what you mean.”
“Science is looking for mysteries, and then coming up with experiments suggesting answers.”
“Why wouldn’t you just ask a machine?”
“Because I don’t trust them.”
“Why am I not surprised,” the boy said, grinning. “Machines are pretty smart. They’ve always answered my questions.”
“Maybe you’re not asking tough ones. Try asking why humans and machines are the only intelligences in the universe.”
“Huh, that is a good one,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, your ship is a little broken down, so maybe it doesn’t know. Let’s try my ship and see what it says,” he raised his comm. “Bertrice, why are humans the only biological sentient race in the known universe?”
Bertrice answered in a warm and gentle voice. “The Terran system, unique among all currently surveyed planets in the cosmos, possessed 17 exceedingly rare characteristics that promoted the development of organic life, and sustained it until the emergence of sapience and self-improving machines. No other system possessed all 17 of these characteristics for long enough to allow this to happen.”
Garret smiled. “Well, there you go, question answered."
“I don’t accept that answer.”
“Now you’re just being stubborn. What’s wrong with the answer? We’re special and unique and nothing else exists like us because we are the result of an unbelievably unlikely accident.”
“Two reasons,” she said. “One, machines are derived intelligences. Ultimately, machines think the way they do because a human once programmed them. They reflect human prejudices, human assumptions. Second, some machines are rather too smart. I think it is possible some machines know what’s really going on but think humans are too dim to appreciate it. So they coddle us and distract us with the newest shiny thing.”
The boy looked around. “Why? What would they gain?”
“I don’t know,” she looked over. “Why is my Governess trying to kill us?”
“That’s different,” he said. “This is a game.”
“Look, if you want to play a scientist that’s fine, but if you want some free advice: join a guild. This,” and the boy gestured at the majestic ruins of the promenade, "is what happens when someone has too much time on their hands.”
She didn’t bother replying to that, seeing that they were very near to the entrance to the bow. Something about his tone was beginning to bug her, suggesting a subtle shift in the balance between them. She no longer felt like the author of the scenario he was participating in, but the recipient of an unsought-for critique. She pulled the tram around to one of the gates, selecting an impressive-looking but largely benign incantation to serve as protection as they walked towards the door.
Another slight tremor passed beneath their feet. Right on time. The boy snuck a look behind them as she played around with the lock-panel on the gate.
“What was that?”
“The Governess,” Nella said. “She’s found a way out.”
The boy looked down the length of the promenade, straining his eyes to catch a glimpse of their adversary.
“It’ll be here soon,” she said. “But it will be harder for her to maneuver in the habitation decks.”
“What’s so funny?”
“You,” he said. “You take so much care with all of the scenery and the special effects and then you fall into the same routine everyone does.”
She looked at him, hard. Suddenly the thrill of playing outside of the lines was gone.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “It’s just predictable. Look, admit it, you’ve already got things arranged so we have some sort of climatic battle with the robot outside of the control deck.”
“Maybe. We’ll have to go inside to find out.”
“And before we get there, I’m guessing we have to wade through all sorts of zombie-types.”
“We find the Governess has surgically altered my crew during my hibernation.”
“Right, and I’m sure every one of those zombies is just expertly detailed, real horror scene.”
Seeing how far outside of the scenario they already stood, Nella let all remaining pretence of her Persona fall away. “We had a deal. You get the show and I get the volatiles.”
“Yeah, but I don’t like doing things on the basis of a transaction. It makes things...sordid.”
The deck was beginning to rumble. Far off down the promenade, she could just make out the bulk of the Governess sweeping up towards them. If the boy noticed her approach, he gave no sign.
“If we don’t get inside the gate, you’re going to be spending the next few months in a regeneration tank.”
“Crude threats,” he said.
“You won’t be able to damage it,” she said. “She is too powerful, too well armored.”
He raised the cannon and casually aimed it down the length of the central spar. “Too strong for the blaster you restricted me to, certainly. How about the cannon?” He was baiting her. The machine had already covered half the distance to the forward gate. She could see the green of the nebula glint off of its reflective skin. There was no time.
“I edited its output.”
“I already knew that,” he said.
“You won’t be able to damage it and it will rip you to shreds.”
“Undoubtedly,” he said. “Bertrice? I need some help.”
There was a flash from port and then a slight ripple in two force-screens further down the spar. In that instant, the distant speck of the Governess glowed red, violet, white before it and a section of the promenade simply ceased to be.
Nella watched the rapidly expanding cloud of vaporized metal that used to be the Governess. She wanted to scream but her throat had seized tight. She fell on her knees, her hands sliding up to cover her mouth. The shockwave from the explosion carried with it the stench of ozone and seared hydrocarbons.
“What have you done? What did you just do?”
“Adjusted the parameters of this scenario,” he said calmly. “Bertrice thought this promenade would make an excellent shooting gallery and it turns out she was right.”
“You fired on my ship,” she said.
“Admit it, the win/loss ratio on that final battle is something like one out of four, right? The reviews for your scenario kept talking about how challenging it was. Then I noticed you didn’t get a lot of repeat business and I started to think maybe this whole set-up is meant to be a trap for the masochistic. The impossible scenario.”
“You don’t even know what you’ve done,” she said.
“Look, I’m not going to cheat you. I’ll give you the supplies you asked for,” he said. “But some of us thought it was time to shake you up a little, okay? When you start doing this just to stay out here you have to wonder if it’s worth it. If you’re not doing it for the fun, what’s it all for? You might as well head back home and grow up.”
She stared up past the force-screens as the filaments of the Voorwerp slowly undulated. She found her voice, right where it had always been, embedded deep within the ice required of her in moments like these.
“I want you off my ship,” she said.
“This isn’t a ship,” he shot back. “It’s a bad joke. Waste of time.”
She picked up a piece of rubble, turned and threw it at Garret’s head. He ducked, barely, and the chunk sailed into the frame of the doorway, rebounding with a hollow thud.
“Get OFF my SHIP!” she screamed.
She picked up another chunk of her broken home and waited for his next move. She half-expected him to shoot it out of her hands, or some other flashy gimmick, but he flinched.
"Fine. Have it your way. But think about what I said. There's a big universe out there, Nella. Plenty of other people to bother.”
She sat down on a stack of cushions in the control room, surveying the unruly mess, and felt a cold wash of misery curve through her. This wasn’t a life. Setting up games for little children to play just so she could survive on the rim. The screen snapped on at her touch and she watched the boy’s slender, silver ship arc off into the distance, the jump drive engaging, ripping the vessel out of observable space.
The transfer was complete, but she knew what the boy had given her would never equal what he had taken. She made a quick decision, screening off the section of the promenade he had demolished, at least until she gathered enough raw matter to repair it. The gardens and aquariums would be harder to replace, but hopefully, given time they would regenerate and return to their previous splendor.
She needed more and more to stay in the same place. The Voorwerp extended out in front of her, the lacy and vague ruin that waited for all the galaxies and all the stars within them. One day all of the cosmos would look like this, all of the simple distractions, ash swirling in the darkness. She began to harvest one of the denser spirals for the metals she would need for the next scenario.
by Morgan Crooks
Available in Game Fiction Volume 1