Thursday, May 19, 2016

Phantom Server: Black Sun by A. Livadny - Chapter 2

PHANTOM SERVER Book III: Black Sun

by Andrei Livadny


Phantom Server: book I, book II, book III

Read previous chapter

Chapter II


All I could do during the ten minutes it had taken to fix the ship was watch helplessly as the Raiders went for the Relic. More drones and three cargo ships appeared from the shipyard and headed for the frigate: reinforcements!

The Relic’s heavy ECGs spewed fire three times in a row, downing the cargo ships, then fell silent. They didn’t have enough energy. The tractor beams were consuming most of it.

Space was rife with battle as the Haash confronted both the Raiders and the drones. Still, they were outnumbered badly. I put my foot down. Hold on, guys! Steady just a bit more!

“I can’t see them! Where are they? Where are they-“ an animal growl rose to a scream of agony.

They’d downed Danezerath! The remains of his yrob sped past me.

I entered the dogfight head-on, attacking the nearest Raider and planting the remaining ammo into the skirt of its cockpit. Molten metal splattered everywhere. The Raider’s AI attempted to change course - too late. His deadly ship kept accelerating, strafing haphazardly, until it rammed one of the drifting cargo ships and disappeared in a splash of flames.

The laser pulses of three Phantom Raiders continued to rake the Relic’s hull. The frigate shuddered with a number of internal explosions. Its armor burst in places, gutted by decompression. Ugly long gaps in the hull spewed tornadoes of murky discharge and clusters of technogenic debris.

Jurgen wasn’t replying. The frigate’s signature was crimson and deformed.

Her shields were down. The Relic drifted on, her engines dead, as she sacrificed her last remaining watts of energy to the towing beams. The three-mile asteroid obediently followed in the frigate’s wake. Still, its path was littered with debris which continuously collided with the asteroid’s surface, demolishing the last remaining structures of the ancient mine shaft.

My ECGs choked and shut up. I only had one charged accumulator left complete with two localizer lasers connected to it. The rest of my weapons were out of commission.

We were one step away from immortality and one step short of death.

Still, there were only three Raiders left.

I accelerated. I’d managed to burn the shock absorbers so now every maneuver pinned my body to the seat. The Raiders noticed me and scattered. You didn’t have to be a mind reader to second-guess their actions. Two of them would try to attack me while the third one would wait for an opportunity to finish me off.

I steered my ship within a hair’s breadth of the Relic, aligning myself with it as I pierced the murky clouds of debris.

“Someone, cover me!” I wheezed. “I’m engaging!”

I shot up vertically. My vision darkened. The mangled ship’s outline on the screens keeled over and began to distance itself. I had one Raider on a collision course while another one was trying to intercept me as I maneuvered. His laser beams traced past, barely missing my engines.

An yrob flashed past, hacked into several pieces, its frayed remains of fiber optic cables sparking. The scorched stump of the pilot’s seat trailed behind, tethered by a cable.

I passed the Raider head-on, just managing to get in a burst from my lasers. The two others flanked me from behind. They weren’t firing yet, trying to save power. Very soon they’d be able to shoot me at point blank.

Take that, you bastards!

I lingered, waiting for the right moment. Just as the Raiders were about to fire, I released a cloud of nanites and sent them a mental image.

Object Replication

Space exploded.

My mind went blank. One Raider less. Still speeding, he’d rammed the swarm of cargonite pellets head-on. The second one had managed to swerve, avoiding an inevitable collision.

The Relic’s signature was dying away as the frigate had reached the edge of the asteroid belt heading for Argus. But was there anyone still alive on board?

“Jurgen... Arbido... Frieda... anyone! Talk to me!”

Immediately the frigate’s tractor beams croaked. The three-mile rock tumbled and collided with a few smaller boulders. The collisions threw it off course. Slowly the asteroid began to drift away from the collision site, heading back into the asteroid belt.

The two Phantom Raiders were still following me. Space around me seethed with countless collisions. The stars in my screens faded, obscured by clouds of debris. I had no nanites left nor could I replicate them: the suspended mixture of fine rock dust and incandescent gas was not good for nanite replication.

I killed speed, forcing my ship to dive under the chaotically spinning body of a cargo ship.

The Raiders whizzed past, unable to react in time, then swung round, looking for their evasive target.

They didn’t have it easy, either. Their power field emitters were also down, their hulls planished with impacts. Expert warriors, the Haash had put up a good fight. Pale light seeped through numerous breaches in the Raiders’ armor. Their antimatter units had had it. They were destabilizing.

I was going to kill them, then catch up with the asteroid and see if I couldn’t get to the artifact. There was no other option.

The Raiders had located me and followed my radiation trail, the two of them. My reactor was damaged, about to explode at any moment, but I wasn’t even considering ejecting it. I had to make it last as long as I could. The alternative was a long slow death drifting through space.

I skirted the cargo ship and went into a spin, preventing the Raiders from opening fire. I then ducked into a huge hole in its hull and swung round, reducing speed with a few calculated pulses.

The enemy kept tailing me but my radiation trail wasn’t a reliable target - rather more a guideline.

The Raiders’ signatures kept approaching. I spent my last nanites on activating Piercing Vision. My ship’s sensors had been scorched dead, the cockpit depressurized. Many of the control panels had melted.

There they were.

They were still keeping together. The leader turned toward the cargo ship as if sensing the danger coming from within its breach holes, trying to second-guess my actions.

The other Raider’s guns were down but its shield emitters still worked. It was now trying to stretch its sickly power field to cover its leader.

I shouldn’t let this happen! My lasers couldn’t breach their shield.

Thanks to Piercing Vision, my mind expander could “see” the targets well. The nanites kept streaming information but their quantities were dwindling. The Raiders couldn’t see me: my radiation trail created a shapeless blind spot.

I had but a split second to come to a decision.

My thrusters cast a fiery glow onto the ship’s hull. Slowly I turned my Condor round, leaving the breach on the portside. A powerful side thrust pushed my ship out to face the enemy.

Fire!

Molten metal spewed everywhere. Deep scars started to glow on the Raider’s hull, breathing heat, like the scores left by a clawed gauntlet.

My last accumulator was dead. My ship strafed to one side: mangled and defenseless, stripped of its technogenic power. The overheated reactor gushed radiation everywhere.

I didn’t expect another explosion. The apprehension of my own doom had tricked me into desperation. But I’d smoked the last Raider, after all!

Both of us dissolved in a circle of fire. A torrent of debris shot past. Some of it hit me, sending my Condor into an uncontrollable spin.

The accumulator indicators glowed weakly. I tasted blood in my mouth. I didn’t feel as if I’d won. I felt empty inside. I could barely move. Communications were dead. I had almost no thruster fuel left.

* * *

The asteroid that used to be the Outlaws’ base continued to drift through the asteroid belt. I navigated my disfigured ship past countless rocks and blocks of ice of every shape and size, catching up with it slowly but surely.

I released the last remaining probe. The spherical device headed toward the structure’s vacuum dock gates. They’d been gutted. Deep cracks had ripped through the ancient mine’s framework.

In expectation of the probe’s report, I plotted the trajectories of the nearest asteroids when I detected a Condor drifting nearby.

“Liori!”

Her ship was dead, its reactor block ejected. Most armor plates had been destroyed, the grid of her Condor’s support beams resembling a skeleton’s ribcage.

While the probe was busy studying the ancient mine, I swung my ship around and closed with the drifting ship.

“Hold on, sweetheart... just hold on, my love,” I mouthed non-stop. Sweetheart, darling, my love - and I used to think that these words were hopelessly dated and meaningless!

The automatic docking system kicked in, connecting the two crippled ships with a short pressurized hose.

Her cockpit was pitch-black. All the control panels were fused solid. Her empty pilot’s seat had been sliced in two by a laser beam. Tiny droplets of hydraulic liquid floated around it in zero gravity, having escaped the emergency anti-G system.

I received no feedback from the nanites that used to make up Liori’s avatar. She had used them all up when she’d run out of both ammo and power.

I refused to believe this was the end of her. A lump in my throat prevented me from breathing. I felt like screaming. Still, I clenched my teeth and perched on the seat’s edge, scanning a jury-rigged adapter.

Her cyber module was damaged. Its neurochips sported fire damage. Right here and now it was pretty impossible to tell whether Liori’s identity matrix had survived the predicament.

I used a laser from my repair kit to cut out a fragment of the control panel with her cyber module still in it, then placed it gingerly into my inventory. I cast one last look at the silent cockpit and began retracing my steps back on board my own ship.

During the last few days, I kept getting these moments of absolute confusion. My life in other game worlds had been exciting and simple: trouble-free. Words like grief, desperation or loss never entered my vocabulary. They had no meaning. Now that they’d revealed their true sense, my heart struggled to accept them.

The world had changed forever. Your past was dead; your future wasn’t born yet. All you had was this now-moment and the fire-polished fragments of a cybermodule in your inventory. Plus the faint hope that you could still recover the bytes containing the digitized soul of the woman you loved.

* * *

I was closing in on the asteroid. I suppressed all irrelevant thoughts. First I had to get to the Founders’ artifact, then take it back to the Relic and restore the cybermodule containing Liori’s identity. Together we’d be able to work out what was going on, then find our way around our new environment.

The target loomed ever closer. The data collected by the probe seemed positive. The ancient artifact was still functioning. The numerous impacts had damaged the asteroid, creating a plethora of deep cracks in its surface which considerably simplified my task. Basically, the asteroid was only held together by the mine’s powerful superstructure made of cargonite alloy.

I was really pressed for time. The asteroid belt was growing denser. Hundreds of rocks of every shape and size crowded the asteroid, most of them capable of dealing the final blow which could disintegrate the ancient facility.

The reactor had stabilized at 30%. I forwarded all of its power to the shields. Manipulating the maneuvering thrusters, I steered the ship into a dark crevice and began threading my way through the web of distorted and degraded support structures.

My speed kept dropping. I couldn’t help that. My path grew more littered with my every turn. Fractured walls revealed glimpses of mangled rooms - once embedded into the rock and now ripped to pieces. My mind expander greedily absorbed all available data. This was where the Outlaws clan had built Avatroid!

There must have been loads of precious data still left in the ruins of their cybernetic laboratories, like nanite activation codes which could open new areas of nanite technologies yet unknown to me.

The sensors kept beeping anxiously. The walls of the crevice kept shrinking ever closer - but I now was a mere hundred feet away from my target!

I engaged reverse thrusters, then stopped. The ship couldn’t go any further. I had to get out.

The rock walls quivered treacherously as new cracks traced across them. In places, they dissolved in soundless rockfalls filling the narrow space with sharp fragments of stone that floated in the void, endlessly colliding.

My armored suit wasn’t going to take it. I had to find a different way. I activated navigation lasers and cleared the shortest path with a series of pulses. With a circular motion of my guns, I cut an opening in the nearest mangled bulkhead that offered access to the surviving premises.

The docking hose hissed, expanding. The plasma torches snapped into action.

I touched a sensor, disabling my suit’s security harness. I was just about to get up when a premonition of impending danger assaulted my nerves.

The signal had come from the probe still left outside. One of the many asteroids was on a direct collision course!

It crashed.

The walls of the crevice began to close around my ship. The force field throbbed. I heard a screeching sound as the ship’s stabilizers were being compressed into its hull.

My mind writhed in agony under the direct neurosensory contact with the ship’s systems as if it was my own flesh being crushed.

My mind crashed. Mercifully, it expired.

* * *

Gradually I came round.

The data I received from my implants was sparse. The area around me was saturated with radiation. My mangled Condor drifted amid the rocky remains of the destroyed asteroid. Not a single active power implant within the scanners range, meaning that the Founders’ device was no more.

We’d lost it for good.

My mind expander kept piecing data together, connecting the ship’s surviving modules. I managed to stabilize the reactor at 10%. One of the force field generators offered all of 0.3 megawatts. This was all the protection I currently could offer against radiation and any further impacts.

I wasn’t going to give up so easily.

I set the communications automatic repeat to Call Relic and switched to manual controls. I had to get out of this cesspit. Then I’d have to scan each and every one of the asteroid’s fragments while I still had time. Very soon Avatroid’s fleet would be here. You never know, the Founders’ artifact might have simply been deactivated with the impact.

I steered the ship slowly and gingerly past the larger fragments until I entered a safe orbit around the swirling mass of debris.

Liori’s Condor drifted nearby. I sent some nanites on board her de-energized ship with a dozen micro nuclear batteries I’d robbed from the survival kit. They were going to activate the on-board scanners. With two sets of scanners, I could finish the job much quicker.

An incoming call, finally! I had the frigate on the line. Judging by the signal’s bearings, the Relic was still heading for Argus!

“Zander? Where are you?” Jurgen’s hoarse voice sounded first, followed by a murky image. He looked even more gaunt and weary than normal.

“I’m at the asteroid. It’s been destroyed.”

“So it’s the end of us, then?” he asked bluntly.

“I’m just trying to scan it. I’ll stay here for as long as it takes. How’s everything?”

“The Haash have respawned. They’ve lost their yrobs. The Wearongs are dead. The children are all right. Their room was well protected. What do you want us to do now?”

“Just don’t lose hope.”

“Is Liori with you?”

“She is. Her cybermodule’s been damaged. She’s incommunicado at the moment.”

“Zander? I think the artifact is ruined.”

This wasn’t an easy conversation. “If I don’t find it, we might try to contact the Oasis.”

“The hybrid? You think he might help?” Jurgen’s voice perked up.

“Do you want me to go there and speak to him?”

“No. I’ll give him a call from here. I have Oasis within my direct line of vision. You take care of the ship. Do whatever repairs are necessary and check the life support. Give Charon a ship: let him go collect the fragments of their yrobs. I’ll take care of Liori’s Condor. Tell Charon that I’d also appreciate his bringing any fragments of the Raiders he can find. We need to study them.”

“Just what are you hoping for? Tell me!”

He'd lost all optimism. I could read it in his stare.

“If the artifact’s destroyed, we’ll have to build something similar,” I added a note of confidence to my voice. “Between my Mnemotechnics and your Technologist skill, we might come up with something.”

Jurgen sat up. “Then you should come back! No good wasting time taking stupid risks!”

“There’re loads of fragments of various devices here. I’ve never heard about most of them. I’ll keep searching for the artifact while leveling up my skills. Creating artificial neuronets will demand a very high Mnemotechnics level.”

“Avatroid’s fleet is coming,” Jurgen reminded me.

“I know. Which is why I’m asking you to take care of the frigate. I want you to dock it to the station and camouflage its signature. Tell Vandal and Foggs to check the Technologists Clan’s quarters and search the debris for any data storage devices they might find. The Founders’ technologies are the key. When I’m back, I’ll need any information that might help me to level my skills and abilities.”

“Zander, all this rushed leveling will kill you.”

“It might,” I snapped. “Then Liori will have to finish it for me, won’t she? Enough of this, Jurgen. We’re losing time. Let’s each of us do his own job.”

“Very well. As you say,” he sounded anxious. “I’ll keep communications open just in case.”

“Just please don’t bother me with the basics. You can take care of them yourself.”

* * *

As we spoke, the nanites had finished patching up Liori’s Condor. I sent it the instructions to join in the scanning of the asteroid fragments.

The mnemonic load indicator surged into the orange as my mind began receiving data from two combat scanning systems.

Translucent schemes of various devices drifting in space flashed before my eyes: some floating on their own, others bejeweling angular slabs of rock.

I switched data collection to background mode and opened the abilities tab. In all honesty, we stood very little chance of ever locating the artifact. But apart from that, the Outlaws’ base had been literally stuffed with equipment. Most of the already-discovered devices belonged to the Founders’ technosphere. I’d never studied them before. In just a few brief minutes of data collection, my Alien Technologies skill had already grown two points.

This was a good start. Still, too early to celebrate. I kept replicating nanites over and over again, then sending them deep into the mangled mines toward the surviving rooms of the ancient installation. Soon they would begin streaming more data; in the meantime I could finally take a breather.

I injected myself with a dose of combat metabolites. My mind cleared somewhat. The mnemonic load indicator reluctantly shrank into the yellow zone.

I switched on the long-distance communications. The far-off spark of the Oasis station glimmered on its grid. Obeying my mental command, the optical multiplier kicked in. The image zoomed in, gaining detail.

The hybrid was neither our friend nor foe. He was a synthetic identity, an AI pieced together by the corporation out of the dead players’ neurograms. He was, intrinsically, the result of a chilling otherworldly experiment that brewed fear and resentment.

When we’d last met, he publicly declared himself the opposite of Avatroid, announcing his intention to restore Oasis to its original glory.

Still, it looked as if it wouldn’t come to anything. The skeleton of the ancient station was still dark and gloomy - not a sign of any repairs in sight. There was one other thing I couldn’t understand: why hadn’t the hybrid even attempted to help the Eurasia? I knew from experience that his technological skill at least equaled those of Avatroid. He could have thwarted the Phantom Raiders’ attack - and still he hadn’t lifted a finger to save the defeated colonial fleet.

I activated the communications with Oasis. The only things that the hybrid seemed to have restored were the locator tower and the transport beam control devices associated with it. He'd apparently used those ancient alien systems in order to spy on the Eurasia fleet and listen in to their command frequencies; he’d even managed to beam me up to the Eurasia station with the orders to bring him Genesis: an ancient planet-forming device safely stashed away on Darg.

Never mind. This wasn’t the right time to rake up recent developments.

A green indicator lit up on the control panel. I had a connection with Argus; still, no one seemed in a hurry to answer me.

Whatever had happened to the hybrid? Why wouldn’t he speak to me?

When my Darg mission had been over, I couldn’t help wondering why he hadn’t claimed Genesis’ scanner files that I’d made. Those were indispensable for him to restore the station. Why hadn’t he tried to buy them off me or even take them by force?

Now I understood: he’d had nowhere to hurry to. He knew about his own true nature - and certainly about our desperate situation. In case of my death, the neurograms of my disintegrating identity would return to the corporation’s server where he’d immediately be granted access to them.

He wasn’t our friend. Oh, no.

“Zander... what is it?” I could barely recognize his voice through the interference. “What do you... want?”

That was weird. There were no obstacles in the laser transmitter’s path capable of distorting or diffusing its signal. Could it be the hybrid? He seemed to have blocked the video channel. His speech was slurred and faltering.

“I need you,” I said. “I know that you need the Genesis files in order to restore Oasis. I’ll give them to you. In return, you must teach me to build artificial neuronets.”

“Not interested,” he said, wheezing as if his every word was a physical struggle.

“Why? Tell us!” Jurgen butted in. “Don’t you understand we have children on board?” his desperate voice rose to a scream.

“I... don’t... care. I... won’t help... anyone. I have... my own... problems...”

The communications indicator blinked and went out.

I sat there, gasping. “Did you hear that?”

“I did,” Jurgen echoed. “What a piece of shit!”

“Never mind. Forget him. It wasn’t meant to happen. I’m sure we’ll know everything when the time is right.”

“Zander?” Frieda chimed in. “Any news? What does the scanning have to show?”

“I haven’t found the artifact yet if that’s what you mean. My levels keep growing but not as fast as I thought they would. The scanners keep bringing lots of interesting stuff but nothing we can use at the moment.”

“Arbido seems to have an idea,” Jurgen joined in.

You’ve received a new level!
Your Mnemotechnics skill has grown 1 pt.!
Your Alien Technologies skill has grown 3 pt.!
You have 2 new nanite activation codes available!

“Sorry, Jurgen, can it wait until I’m back? I’m a bit busy right now.”

“Very well. You do what you can.”

* * *

I opened my character’s characteristics.

The rapid developments of the last few hours had forced me to ignore system messages. My mind barely registered them, dismissing their contents.

Within that time, I’d destroyed the shipyard, smoked about a hundred drones, downed five Raiders and was constantly busy with nanites.

No wonder I’d grown 12 levels.

My Robot Technician skill which I’d received way back on Argus and which had grown 3 pt. during my memorable fight with Dargian pythons, had now risen another 50%.

The question remained, was this information worth anything anymore?

The ambiguity of the situation was quite unsettling. On one hand, once I’d learned the truth I’d stopped paying the same attention to the char’s characteristics as before. On the other, I was contradicting my own logic still putting my faith into the abilities I knew I had.

The truth had to lie somewhere in between. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover some real-life skills integrated into the game interface.

At the moment, all I was interested in was nanite activation codes. They were definitely real. I knew that from experience!

Mnemotechnics Skill
Current level: 25
Abilities available:
Replication, 15
Steel Mist, 5
Object Replication, 4
Piercing Vision, 3
Integration, 2
Breakdown, 5
Plasma Blast, 5
Differential Nanite Control, 3
Disintegration, 10
System Failure, 5
Advanced integration, 2
The Call, 1
Self-Sacrifice, 1
Plasma Lash, 2 (requires a generator built by Object Replication)
You have 2 new nanite activation codes!
You have 19 characteristic, skill and ability points available!

On Liori’s advice, I’d boosted Disintegration already during our battle with the Raiders. As a close-range weapon, it was truly lethal - but as it had turned out, using it required a powerful ship with excellent shields.

We couldn’t even fathom the true potential of these ancient alien technologies. Even at my current level of Disintegration, we could have deterred the Raiders’ attack had I been on board the Relic and had it had enough energy to power the shields. I was beginning to understand that Founders’ ships didn’t really need any cumbersome weapon systems which were a pain to operate. All they needed was a well-trained crew with advanced nanite control skills. The range of nanite application was so broad one couldn’t even imagine all the possibilities it offered.

In which case, who had equipped the Relic with all those coil guns, laser beams and plasma batteries? We had to examine the ship again and try to envision it the way it had been when it had first been conceived.

But I digress.

My mind was in turmoil. The sheer thought of all the mysteries contained within the Founders’ technosphere was overwhelming. As my combat with the Raiders had just shown, I could select a target by focusing on it and then decide whether I wanted to disable it or disintegrate it on the spot.

Let’s see what the activation codes would offer.

I entered them in a special box, one after another.

New ability available: Global Net. You can now receive status reports from devices located in other star systems. Requires 70 Mnemotechnics and a functioning hyperspace communications module.

New Ability available: Active Shield. From now on, the nanites you create will automatically react to any threat by forming a protective cover. Requires 30 Mnemotechnics, 20 Replication, 10 Differential Nanite Control and an implanted artificial neuronet module to recognize any potential threat and control nanite groups automatically.

The new abilities’ icons were gray. Blocked. What a shame.

The nanites busy exploring the asteroid fragments kept streaming data to two scanning devices which relayed it to my mind expander. I felt increasingly unwell. Once I received another level, my XP bar began to slow down.

Alien Technologies, 30. Finally! Now I’d be able to examine neurochips.

Actually, I already had two artificial neuronets available for study. One was the AI module implanted into my nervous system (yes, the one that used to belong to the monster who’d attempted to take control over me when our assault group had been about to land on Darg). Plus I had Liori’s identity matrix confined within the cybermodule that the hybrid had made for me.

I glanced at the sensors. The asteroid belt seemed calm. Still, I knew this was a lull before the storm. Avatroid was obliged to send drones to investigate the wreckage of the base which had been his birthplace.

Which meant I shouldn’t waste time. Let nanites keep collecting data. I had other things to do.

* * *

A slim plate bespangled with neurochips floated in mid-air in front of me.

I’d removed the silvery cover. A light cloud of nanites surrounded the object, awaiting my command.

I was taking my time. I had no margin for error. The neurochips were oxidized but not destroyed. The cover had taken the worst of the heat exposure. Restoring it wasn’t a problem.

I began scanning the neurochips trying to locate the damage.

Gradually a 3D model began forming in my mental view. I watched the layers of artificial nervous tissue grow, immersing myself into this yet unfamiliar world of neurons and their complex interwoven structures which resembled three-dimensional cobwebs. Some of its threads were broken, unable to transmit electric impulses.

My breathing was fast and deep. I had to remain calm. I was to locate one undamaged neurochip, then copy its structure.

I didn’t notice the time fly. My tension was such that reality had faded.

The object’s matrix has been created and downloaded to your mind expander.

Finally, the data processing stopped. I channeled all available resources into copying a simple neuronet module built by the hybrid. They were the building blocks of every AI. If I managed to build it, then-

That was irrelevant. The nanites were ready.

The replication matrix accepted.
The mental image recognized.
Warning! The object cannot be replicated. Creating it requires 100 Mnemotechnics.

Dammit!

Trying not to disrupt my concentration, I pulled the Founders’ glove out of my inventory and slipped it on.

You have activated an item: Modulator.
Class: rare, indestructible.
Permanent effect:
+1 to Intellect
+1 to Learning Skills
+2 to Alien Technologies
+1 to Mnemotechnics

Let’s do it again.

Object replication. Come on, now!

The object cannot be replicated. Your skill level is too low.

Dark circles swirled before my eyes. I was shaking with tension. As I tried to catch my breath and concentrate, the Founders’ glove blurred, enveloped by an aura. Threadlike charges of energy reached out for the broken cybermodule, touching its chips and branching off as if exploring them.

Not enough data to commence automatic repairs. Please connect specialized databases to continue.

The system message brought me back to reality. Did that mean that by the Founders’ standards, an artificial neuronet was a rather ordinary device?

I checked my interface again. Apparently, this glove - part of an ancient gear kit I’d come across back on Argus - had a number of built-in functions. Until now, their controls had been disabled but now that I’d gone up through the levels, I discovered a new entry in the Repairs tab:

Damaged Equipment Repairs
Requires: a Founders’ glove (a Modulator gear version), 30 Alien Technologies and 30 Mnemotechnics.

I could do that!

I selected the freshly-scanned model of the functioning neurochip and uploaded it to the Modulator.

The replication matrix accepted. Please select the object requiring repairs.

I focused on the cybermodule’s damaged elements, selecting them one by one.

Task accepted. Now attempting to restore the neuronet units using the sample provided.

I watched closely as the threadlike charges of energy enveloped the damaged plate. Nanites obediently joined in as the Modulator used them as raw materials. A separate bar appeared in my interface to report on the repairs’ status.

An emergency signal entered my mind, disrupting my thoughts. Several weak notches appeared just within the scanners’ range. Avatroid’s fleet!

I called off the nanites still busy studying the asteroid’s destroyed laboratories. They’d failed to locate neither the artifact itself nor its fragments. Still, there was nothing I could do about it. We had to make ourselves scarce.

Both The Call and Object Replication worked like a dream. The recalled nanites formed two strong cables, towing Liori’s ship safely in my Condor’s wake.

I headed toward Argus. Considering my engines’ feeble output, it would probably take me six hours to get there, give or take.

I checked the auto pilot. It worked fine. I double-checked the repairs bar. It was barely moving even though the nanobots kept toiling away.

I could barely keep my eyes open. I hadn’t slept for over twenty-four hours. I needed some rest. Or rather, my mortal body needed it, left on far-off Earth.

Trying to fight off fatigue wasn’t a good idea. I was beyond exhaustion.

* * *

I awoke to a quaint long-forgotten feeling, warm and peaceful. The way I used to wake up when I’d been very, very young.

I opened my eyes. Was this the same old cockpit? Dozens of holographic tablets exuded a soft light scrolling data interspersed with schemes of strange devices. The dead fire-damaged control consoles towered further away. Overhead, breach holes leaked darkness.

The cockpit was at the mercy of the infinite vacuum. Half-turned toward me, Liori sat cross-legged, leaning comfortably in a seat formed by nanites.

She wasn’t wearing a pressure suit. Still, the resemblance was striking. Sensing my stare, she turned round.

What was technology doing to us?

Our minds touched, then merged in an acute, desperate bout of gentleness.

The cold melted away. The darkness shrank back. Warm sunrays lit up our faces. A breeze ruffled my hair. The gray outlines of sea cliffs acquired shape and depth. The roots of squat pine trees clung to the cracked rock. Flat waves shimmied along the pebbled beach.

An uncontrollable surge of emotion surged through us, burning our minds, distorting reality and wiping away the panorama of deep space. We failed to keep our balance on the edge.

Darkness embraced us.

Connection error. The external neuronet is not connected to your mind expander. Direct contact is not possible.

“Zander? Can we ever be together?” Liori’s voice brought me back into the Condor’s savaged cockpit.

The dull glow of screens assaulted my eyes. Once again the veil of nanites formed her image. This was enough to drive anyone crazy. Still, I resisted insanity.

“We’ll manage,” I answered with a quiet confidence. “There must be a way.”

Liori returned to her seat and zoomed in the repairs status bar.

99%

“You’ve repaired me. Repaired. Do you understand? I’m a machine now. A cyber system that can be fixed or rebooted. And what if we don’t find a solution? Does that mean I’ll stay here all alone?”

Cruel but true.

Liori cut herself short, as if regretting her hasty outburst. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

Both of us were crushed by this spontaneous mind contact which had ended as abruptly as it had started.

How did I want to bring it back! Then again, why not? The module containing Liori’s identity was within my reach. Problem was, I couldn’t unseal my helmet in the surrounding vacuum.

Still, this was something I could solve.

I activated Nanite Replication. Starboard echoed with a dull thumping sound as I sacrificed a few of the ship’s armor plates. I had no other source of cargonite available.

Liori cast me a quizzical look. “Are you increasing the Steel Mist? Why?”

“Just in case.”

The nanites had already commenced emergency sealing procedures. They might need several minutes to repair all the numerous points of damage to the ship’s hull. In the meantime, I motioned to the screens, trying to assuage her anxiety, “What have you been doing?”

“Just fooling around. I tried to look into the game’s interface and see which of our abilities were part of the Founders’ technosphere and which were just figments of game developers’ fantasy. Here, take a look.”

Four holographic tablets moved closer to me.

Each one revealed a first-person view.

My interface was the one on the right. I immediately recognized its translucent ability icons crowding the quick access slots and below them, Life and Physical Energy bars. Danger sensors of all kinds waited drowsily in their gray boxes. The fine inconspicuous lines of the scanning grid covered my entire field of vision. The gravitech and life support power levels glowed green; the outlines of life support cartridges that might need changing were highlighted in yellow. A flat micro nuclear battery unit was hatched in red.

The second screenshot was definitely Charon’s. It showed a fragment of the Market Desk back on Argus. The Haash’ eyesight is different from ours in that they can see the objects at the periphery of their eyesight, as well as objects’ thermal imprints. For that reason, the three-dimensional image on the screen looked unusual as every object was outlined in greens of every shade and degree of intensity.

“Take a look at the icons’ design and positioning,” Liori said softly.

I took a second look - and was astounded. You’d think that a Haash interface would be utterly alien to the point of being unidentifiable. Still, his interface was a carbon copy of mine!

I turned to the third tablet. This was the screenshot I’d received from the Disciples’ leader back on Darg. When we’d been battling our way through the ancient biological laboratories, Roakhmar had forwarded me this snapshot in an attempt to help me focus on the target. A hydra-like monster was careening at us head-on through a long succession of rooms. Its abominable shape was overlain with elements of the Dargian interface. The resemblance was striking: the picture was virtually identical to mine!

The fourth screen showed my ship’s cockpit in real time, streamed by Liori.

“As you can see, my interface is identical to the other three,” she said. “Even though it in fact belongs to an ancient AI."

This revelation was mind-blowing. The only difference in the four layouts created by four unrelated space civilizations was in their languages: the tongues of the Haash, the Dargians and humans respectively. All the rest, down to the relative positioning of the development branches and their effects was identical!

“Does that mean that the interface was built by the Founders?” after having seen it with my own eyes, this was the logical conclusion.

“Absolutely. The way I see it, the military back on Earth discovered some artifact - a neuroimplant, most likely. They must have studied it and used it as a prototype to build more of them. Then they used us to test them. I’m pretty sure the Haash and the Dargians followed the same route. Plus dozens of other civilizations we know yet nothing about,” Liori turned to me, hope in her gaze. “Do you understand? None of our abilities are made-up! The Founders built this interface to use it themselves in order to travel through the Universe. Even if I’m the only one who survives,” tears glistened in her eyes, “I’ll level up Mnemotechnics and bring you all back to life, I promise! I’ll piece your identities together neurogram by neurogram and byte by byte!”

By then, the nanites were done sealing the ship. I sent a mental command, assigning part of the ship’s power to atmosphere regeneration. Then I removed my helmet, unbuckled and rose, reaching out my hand.

“Zander? What do you think you’re doing?”

The thin plate covered with neurochips clicked shut in its dedicated mind expander slot.

External neuronet connected. Your Mnemotechnics skill has grown 5 points. Direct neurosensory contact established.

The gloom of deep space faded away.

Sunrays began to fall on our faces. A breeze tousled Liori’s hair.

“Zander,” she returned my kiss, nestling up to me.

Red sand crunched underfoot. A purple surf broke over the boundless coastline awash with orange light. No idea where my subconscious had unearthed these images from. For Liori and myself, they’d forever remain the epitome of happiness.




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