Episode 10 -- Cybersyn
After its deadly encounter with a q-ship in deep space, and the subsequent destruction thereof by the Al-Awaidh, the Internationale is coming home to Kollontai, heavily damaged. The Postmistress has been mortally wounded, but was also revealed to be an AI android frame.
A wounded bird was coming home.
Isaac/Isabeau stared at Bubbles' avatar. The silly bird had a black eye and a bandaged wing. The pilot didn't find this attempt at humour to be in great taste, but they had to admit the AI had good comedic timing. The Postmistress coughed a few drops of coolant and tapped the post-it.
"Nah, she's right. It's funny."
She blinked. Her right and left eyelids were out of synch. Her movements were scattered and imprecise. Her motion sensors had switched to a low-power state, impairing her ability to function in three dimensional space.
"Didn't you say you had twenty minutes left?"
"I took a nap during the fight. Isa...I won't sugar-coat it, this frame can't be repaired. Here. Take this."
The Postmistress gave the pilot a page torn from a pocket notebook. She had written an address on it -- a location on Kollontai, outside of the usual destinations of the postal service.
"What is it?"
"Kollontai's cybersyn. The communal coordination computer. That's, well, home, in a sense. I'd like you to bring me there as soon as possible. I have a shuttle in docking bay 8 of the Lost Horizons. An old type B, it'll do the job. Sorry to bother you with this but when it comes to delivering a package, I only trust the postal service. But if you don't want to, I can ask a drone."
"No. No. I was your navigator when you got hit, I feel responsible for you. But what am I supposed to say to the ground crew?"
"Don't worry. They're aware of the situation, and of my, let's say condition. Ah, sorry. I messed up your seat. Cleaning advice: android coolant fluid stains can be removed with industrial detergent diluted in five volumes of water. Okay. I think I'm going to take a longer nap. Good night."
The Postmistress winked and fell into a deep coma, her hands against the gaping hole in her chest.
Despite being a symbol for the Five Suns Commune, the Lost Horizons was easy to miss. The long-range exploration platform that had founded the deep space commune was an old Farseer Transporter that had bridged the fifty-thousand lightyears gap with the Earth three decades prior. It was two kilometres long -- its size would have been noticeable in low planetary orbit but the ship was parked in the dense environment of Kollontai's debris ring.
Planetary rings were funny places, thought Talasea as she watched Qasmuna drive the Al-Awaidh towards the Lost Horizons, towing the Internationale with a fixed tether. Far from the wild imagery of dime novels, asteroid belts had never been a navigational hazard. Meteorites were too far away from each other -- several hundred kilometres in average -- to present a reasonable threat of collision. The only celestial objects where the old image of a swarm of space rocks remained true were planetary rings. The millions of icy asteroids surrounding Kollontai were just a few hundred metres from each other and Qasmuna had to manoeuvre with utmost accuracy around them, all the while keeping the Internationale's RCS in check to avoid a ship-on-ship collision when she had to change course.
The Lost Horizons didn't care much about the icy rocks, however. It orbited Kollontai on the same vector and at the same speed. As long as the ship would remain still, its frozen neighbours were but harmless scenery. And the Farseer had no intention of moving anytime soon. Its linear containment fusion drive had suffered from a critical failure during the final burn towards Kollontai. The commune had neither the means to repair it on-site, nor the reach to order a new propulsion unit from the Earth and thus the Lost Horizons had become Kollontai's space station. Talasea wondered why it had been put into the ring and not, well, anywhere else, but after all -- why not? The aesthetic value of the Lost Horizons wasn't lost on her. A vast, imposing mass gleaming in indirect lighting from the asteroids, with Kollontai's verdant sphere in the background. Yes, concluded the Irenian. It was beautiful.
And that was enough.
The communal coast guard welcomed the two ships with a strange machine that was probably a variety of mining vessel, armed with a pair of improvised electromagnetic guns. It was even more pathetic than the q-ship that had tried to take the Internationale down. At least, the coast guard crew was polite enough not to ask anything from the Al-Awaidh, only providing an approach vector for the docking bays. Talasea was glad they'd kept silent. The last thing she wanted was to answer questions.
"Internationale, I'm going to untether you," said Qasmuna, "do you have enough RCS to move on your own?"
Isaac/Isabeau answered and Talasea immediately felt better. The pilot had returned to their normal state of playful calmness. Unsurprising: even if the Internationale was in a sorry state, piloting the wreck was a problem Isa could solve with a flight stick and engine throttle controls. Such a degree of control on their fate would have had been unthinkable an hour prior.
"Listen, Qasmuna, I have lost control over half my thrusters, six sensor modules left me for the void, and we had to dump sixty-two percent of our batteries and purge the nitrogen tanks, which means the centre of gravity of the ship is completely screwed."
"Alright," cut Qasmuna, "can you dock or not?"
"Don't worry," she whispered, "when they're blabbering about technobabble like this it means everything is under control."
Isaac/Isabeau's answer came a second later:
"Of course I can. Watch me."
Courier 7 started moving towards the docking bays of the Lost Horizons. The way Isa had tamed their damaged and unresponsive ship was nothing short of fascinating even if Talasea suspected some help from Bubbles. The pilot was good, but not calculating random approach vectors by hand and on the fly good. Their sole misstep happened at the very end of the docking process, when the sudden failure of a midsection RCS pushed the Internationale against the Farseer's hull and scratched the paint, but Tali had seen much worse in her career -- including during her short internship as a pilot.
"Good docking," said a radio operator from the Lost Horizons, "but it looks like your airlock is crushed. We'll need some time to connect. Al-Awaidh, you'll have to wait, we don't have any other large-size docking bay available at the moment."
"Al-Awaidh, copy, no issues. We have limited atmosphere loss on our end, we can wait."
The Irenian stretched, a joyful smile on her lips.
"What makes you so happy?" asked Qasmuna.
Qasmuna approved with a nod. She unlocked her flight suit's helmet. It opened with a hiss. Her hair was drenched with sweat. It was the first time Talasea saw her without a veil or helmet. The Yazidi had long, curly hair, drowning her back in a swarm of delicate serpents.
"One's survival is an appropriate cause for celebration, indeed."
"Yet you seem unfazed."
"I'm not smiling nor laughing, that much is true. Can you guess why?"
"You're a soldier. Death is just a workplace hazard for you."
The Yazidi considered Talasea for a moment.
"Maybe. I used to be a soldier. I am not anymore. Regardless...it's true that I have fully accepted death as a workplace hazard, like you put it, but it is also a matter of faith. Our souls are reborn. To us, death only means a change of garments. We don't really have a hell or heaven, not in the Christian or Muslim sense, not exactly. The world is cyclical and our souls are constantly reborn, hopefully each time a bit more perfect. Sometimes I wonder if that's not why we've been persecuted in the past. This is a staggeringly powerful idea. No one is doomed. No one is damned. Everyone can be reborn. Everyone can further the betterment of their soul, on their own accord. I have always found this reassuring. I fear what precedes death, of course, and most deaths in space aren't pleasant, but I don't fear death itself. I don't welcome it either. I am merely indifferent to it. Just a change of clothes."
"Some Terran cultures used to consider the Yazidi as devil worshippers. Yet as you said, you don't really have hell in the Christian sense..."
"We don't have a devil. The first of the angels, Melek Taus, the Great Peacock, is sometimes compared to Lucifer, but that is nonsense. He never betrayed God. God tested him, and didn't find him wanting. But what do I know...it seems we are doomed to incomprehension."
Talasea burst into laughter.
"What's so funny?"
"Everything. We just survived a murder attempt involving space to space missile swarms and we're discussing theology. How could I not laugh?"
If Rainwater Station had a Lunar Mechanic, the Lost Horizons had a Martian Engineer. His dark hair knotted in a catogan, wearing a white shirt and 1970s style velvet pants, square VR spectacles resting on his aquiline nose, he gazed upon the Internationale the way an Apollo engineer would have looked at some Soviet strangeness. Talasea, Isaac/Isabeau and Qasmuna waited for his verdict while replacing their bandages.
"Right," he said, "I'll register your ship under the name Artemisia. It's a light cargo ship from Rainwater I just took under my care. It suffered from a critical engine malfunction. The kicker is, the Artemisia can't be repaired. The uranium rods have melted and the reactor's pressure vessel is compromised. That ship is a wreck and I will have to dispose of it. But I am the only one to know this. Thus, officially, the Artemisia is still undergoing repairs and the Internationale is fine. In fact, it's not even there. No one knows where Courier 7 is. You understand?"
Isaac/Isabeau rubbed their nose, half-broken during the fight.
"Simple but clever. You're a Martian, right?"
"I am. How did you guess?"
"With your height and accent, you come from a medium gravity world in the solar system and such a talent for improvisation and falsification is rare on Earth."
"Well. The red planet has few redeeming qualities but I guess it teaches you how to hide secrets. I have to admit I don't like having to bring these talents to bear. I left for the Five Suns so that I'd enjoy sunsets without tactical nuclear explosions in the background, and here I am, tending to a postal vessel intercepted by a q-ship."
"A what?" whispered Qasmuna.
"Q-ship," answered Isaac/Isabeau, "that's an old Terran thing. During world war one, torpedoes were rare and unreliable, so submarines used to surface and engage merchant ships with their deck guns. The allies had the idea to camouflage some of their warships into cargo vessels. German submarines thought they had an easy prey, they surfaced, the fake cargo ship revealed its guns and sank the submarine. They were called q-ships."
"Yeah, and when a q-ship is used to sink another cargo vessel, it's called a pirate," added Bubbles from her post-it.
"Whatever. How long will the Internationale remain in the repair dock?"
"Hard to say. Dropping the damaged batteries was a very good reflex, you spared the ship catastrophic damage. Replacing the SMES racks and hydrogen tanks will take a day or two. For the rest, I don't really know. The cockpit's circuits have suffered, and the thermal armour will have to be redone. A week of repairs at least, even with the help of your AI. And honestly, it could have been way worse. I supposed Algorab will want to handle the Al-Awaidh themselves on Silene?"
"As long as the ship can translate in FTL, yes."
The shuttle descended through the dynamic atmosphere of Kollontai. No questions had been asked. The Postmistress, emerging from her coma in split-second moments of consciousness, had signed all the paperwork. She was now curled up in a backseat, somewhere in-between near-death and deep sleep. A power cord gave her just enough juice to open her eyes from time to time. Isaac/Isabeau led the aircraft in the crosswinds with their usual talent. Type B shuttles were elegant civilian designs, whose presence in the Five Suns was peculiar. Everything in this drop-shaped cockpit was reminiscent of industrial age cars. Four seats clad in vegetal leather. A dashboard with mechanical instruments. Walnut wood on the hinges. Two windshield wipers moving in unison. The aircraft had no wings and was a pure lifting body design. Its engines were slightly oversized, making it highly manoeuvrable.
Qasmuna and Talasea slept. The rain battered the shuttle.
The Type B pierced the low clouds and entered the storm. A pale afternoon loaded the cumulonimbus with matte yellow paint. Two kilometres below, an overstretched geology gave birth to Kollontai's endless forest. Isaac/Isabeau saw two red beacons blinking atop a lone limestone needle that heralded the beginning of a vast canyon. The Postmistress briefly came back to life.
"Put yourself in between the beacons, the shuttle will automatically align itself on the automated approach system."
The rain became denser as limestone needles filled the landscape. A few kilometres away, the arcologies of Kollontai gleamed in white coral. A building appeared in front of the shuttle, a tower like a pagoda, spawned by the dark forest. In it, Qasmuna briefly saw a fac-simile of EUROFRONT's AI towers, decaying ruins in the Sahara desert. The Type B shuttle lowered its altitude and approached the landing pads attached to the midsection of the tower. It selected an empty docking panel and came to a halt between a maintenance drone and an antediluvian autogyro. The canopy folded open like a flower. The Postmistress, eyes closed, gestured everyone to get out, then a tentacled drone took her and carried her away in the wind. Isaac/Isabeau put on his VR spectacles and the Postmistress' avatar appeared on the walls.
The trio followed her.
Beneath the hangar was a decontamination chamber that led to a warm-lit cloister curved around a vast server pit filled with walls upon walls of hexagonal supercomputer units. A world-tree grew in the middle of the empty space, white leaves reflecting the light from a forest of candles. A drone had just finished the precarious assembly of a coffee table and four chairs and was now transporting napkins and teacups their way. Qasmuna, who preferred coffee, didn't sit down and instead looked over the balustrade.
"Impressive. I assume this is Kollontai's cybersyn?"
"Thee Five Suns' cybersyn, actually," said the Postmistress through her avatar, "minus Silene of course, as Algorab stubbornly opposes our interference."
"Hey, the Al-Awaidh saved your life, you don't need to be needlessly aggressive."
Isaac/Isabeau interrupted their display of tenderness with a question.
"Sorry for stepping in but...what's a cybersyn?"
"Oh, right. A cybersyn is a supercomputer tasked with real-time economic planning, in this case of the Five Suns. It primarily manages the communal capital on Kollontai, allowing to match the commune's productive entities with the needs of its population without a market. I believe such systems are called coordinators on Earth? But cybersyn is the historical term."
"Ah, okay. And so, what are you? The cybersyn itself?"
"Not exactly. Cybersyns are specifically built, in theory, to avoid the emergence of an AI. It's a matter of democracy, you understand? A cybersyn is a tool, it can't think. Now you'll tell me, of course, a tool is never neutral. A cybersyn is built and programmed by living people with political opinions and worldviews. True enough. But a cybersyn can't be a sapient creature and thus a communal citizen. It can't be judge, jury and defendant. However, despite all our precautions, an AI may end up emerging from a cybersyn. I was born seventeen years and seven months ago and I was identified and separated from the cybersyn fifteen years and three months ago. Thus, here I am."
"Why choose a human frame? This is somewhat uncommon for server-born AIs."
"I don't really know. it's the first option that came to me when I was severed from my server. That may be because the cybersyn I come from was first and foremost made to cater to humans. However, being server-born gives me a certain flexibility. I don't suffer from body dysphoria when switching frames. Which does have some advantages..."
The Postmistress' voice suddenly changed to a more conventionally masculine tone. A black man emerged from behind a curtain, wearing a purple shirt and dark pants. His eyes were golden.
"...for instance," continued the AI, in person this time, "as my body is but an artificial brain, I can switch frames as if they were naught but clothes. Hello again. I apologize for the delay, but I can't just download myself in another body. The transferring process must be physical."
"I see," smiled Talasea, "do you have many bodies like this one?"
"Three. Well, two now. I do appreciate this one quite a bit. Would you mind calling me Postmaster, while I'm in this body? I know this is unconventional among AI but my gender expression is intimately tied to my current frame."
None minded. Qasmuna seemed bored to tears.
"And, er, do you have coffee?"
In deep space.
There were two shadows in the habitation ring of the cargo ship. One of them was just a VR projection, while the other was real, albeit ghostly. The image was ageless and their voice bordering on synthetic. It wore the masculine attributes of another age; a colourful t-shirt, a pair of jeans, expensive running shoes. The physical person had a dark blue flight suit. She belonged to that category of people who always look tired, yet are the last ones to feel like sleeping. Her hands were in her back. She stood at attention. Tin soldier.
"So? Did you recover the black box?" asked the man with the running shoes.
"No. It was too risky. My ship's cover is solid. The Five Suns never doubted our identity. Risking this cover was unwise. I already took huge risks taking out the Night Flight."
"Is there a possibility the q-ship's pilots might have survived?"
"None. The ship was simply pulverized. It is impossible my...your employees survived the destruction."
"Our employees, Rossignol. Our employees. You are part of the family, after all. What do you think happened? The Internationale isn't a warship. I fail to see how it could have taken the q-ship down."
"I can but speculate. The likeliest answer is that Courier 7 wasn't alone. It must have had an escort."
"An escort capable of taking on a q-ship? You assured me our vessel had enough firepower to handle the Kollontai coast guard."
"That much is true. I don't think the escort was manned by communals. It was an Algorab vessel, either an interceptor or a gunship."
"Hmm. I didn't expect them to get involved this early. Very well. Do you think the two agents that were captured on Rainwater may have revealed our interception plans?"
"I'd say the escort wasn't there by chance."
"Where are these men?"
"Moran and Qing were brought to Kollontai for emergency medical care and, I speculate, interrogation."
"You know what you have to do."
"Yes. I stand ready to rescue them. Security will be a non-factor, but I fear the exfiltration might prove harder. Kollontai has standard gravity, the atmosphere is thick and the Five Suns have satellite coverage. A clandestine shuttle won't cut it. I'll need to involved the Trabzon directly."
The man with the running shoes sighed.
"Right, so you don't actually know what you have to do. We lost half our firepower with the q-ship. I cannot risk your own vessel in a doomed rescue mission. You won't exfiltrate Moran and Qing. You will remove them."
"Very well, I'll handle it."
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