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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Monday, November 16, 2009 20:32 EST



    Simon floated in the zero-G observation lounge, looking straight "up" along the axis of Kanzaki-Three, staring at the long, slender shape of Holy Grail. The experimental vessel had the look of some delicate sea-dwelling creature, a streamlined torpedo with four exquisitely narrow tendrils – the magnetic guide ribs for its mass-beam drive – trailing far behind it. In a few days, he thought, they would all be on board, and only a few hours after that… he would know. One way or another, he would know.

    Or, he admitted to himself and Mio, I may not know, if everything goes perfectly terribly and we explode or disappear.

    Let's not think on that. Remember, our pilot thinks the risk is hardly worth considering.

    Oh, that's a comforting thought.

    Mio suddenly notified him that someone else had entered the lounge. Not a member of our crew.

    Simon spun himself slowly and looked down.

    The woman ascending to meet him was of approximately average height, with severely styled brown hair in a short, no-nonsense pageboy cut, slender, well-built, with long, delicate hands that somehow made Simon think of a surgeon, and not a trace of biomods – not even a bit of hair coloring. She brought herself to a stop directly in front of Simon, wobbling a little in the characteristic manner of someone unaccustomed to long periods maneuvering in zero-G. "Dr. Simon Sandrisson, correct?"

    "I am, yes. And you are…?"

    She stuck out her hand. "Dr. Laila Canning."

    Oh, my. Mio said silently. Profile coming up.

    Simon allowed the information to flow and let it guide his response. "Doctor Canning! Very nice to meet you. What brings one of the System's most prominent biologists to Kanzaki-Three?"

    "You, of course," Laila Canning responded tartly. "I'm coming on your expedition."

    Simon blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

    For answer, Canning opened up a connection. A bearded AISage avatar materialized, extending an encrypted data icon which Mio took; it immediately recognized her private decryption matrix and opened; she played the message to Simon, shielding it from Canning's AISage.

    The message was from Commander Maginot, and was as short and to the point as every communication the CSF commander ever sent. Dr. Laila Canning was to be added to the crew, based on her own request, and would explain her interest in person. On a backchannel of the message, Maginot had added that Canning was a personal favorite of Dean Stout, one of the SSC members with the most influence. "I'd really appreciate it if you can accommodate this request," Maginot finished. "It is up to you in the end, of course, and if you feel it's not practical, tell her she isn't coming. I'll back you. But it'd be much, much easier on me if she goes."

    Simon put on his "friendly professor" face. "Well, I see Saul's being rather close-mouthed as usual, but quite clear that you're to come along. Might I ask, Dr. Canning –"

    "Laila," she corrected. "Let's not waste energy in formalities. Just get to the point – no offense meant, but I like getting to work right away."

    "All right, Laila. Exactly what do you see as your… function on Holy Grail?"

    She gave a quick chirping laugh, almost like a bird. "Function? None in the sense that sounds like, Simon. You already have ship functions covered, even, I understand, have someone trained to fly the ship physically.

    "My interest is in, naturally, the biological sciences. Your reports stated that biological systems appeared to continue functioning normally, yet even the most cursory examination of your data shows that you haven't any serious basis on which to make that claim. Oh, in very gross and trivial factors, yes. But," her eyes gave a gleam that echoed Ariane's when she was talking about flying a ship and risking her life, "in the details of the operation of biological systems – enzymes, RNA replication, metabolic shifts, all the thousands of different processes – in these areas you have no data at all."

    "Are you saying you think there may be an effect we haven't seen?"

    "I'm certain there must be." Laila said. "Oh, none that would show up on your crude tests for at least several days – the multivariate trending analysis I've done on your released data leaves me sure of that – but in the fine details? You're having some sort of effect that's disrupting other systems, physical systems, and biological systems are physical. They may operate very differently, but they're also exquisitely sensitive in many areas. I intend to be on board to observe, not only with whatever laboratory animals I can bring with me, but all of your crew as well – with their permission, of course."

    Simon looked at her speculatively. "You know that we will have to spend several days – instead of several seconds – in the transition space before returning. Do you think any of these effects could be dangerous?"

    "Over that period of time?" She thought for a moment, and Simon sensed, through Mio, an immense amount of activity surrounding her – more, he thought, than he'd expect from just a woman with an AISage. "Probably not. My earlier comments perhaps overstated the crudity of your monitoring. You had quite adequate basic monitoring, despite the handicap presented by lack of processing power in transition, and your post-transition analyses of the test animals showed no anomalies at all. What I hope to see are very subtle effects, probably toward the end of the transition."

    Simon sighed. "Let me see what I can do. Now that you've brought it up, this would actually be very interesting data – as a physicist, if you see subtle variations of biological function, it may give me clues as to the precise nature of any physical-law shifts we are encountering."

    He opened a channel. Steve?

    A cadaverous, black-cloaked figure materialized in his mind's eye: Allerdyne, Steve's AISage avatar. My Master sleeps. What do you desire of him?

    I want to know if we can move the internal designs around enough to accommodate one more passenger.

    This is within my power to examine. Allerdyne conferred with Carl Edlund and DuQuesne. It will be a challenge, but we believe so.

    Simon smiled. "You are in luck, Laila."

    "There was a problem?"

    "The problem is the way the so-called Sandrisson Drive works," he answered, pointing to the ship and overlaying a diagram. "There are the coils that have to generate the transition field around the ship – to a very close specification. The problem is that the amount of power to generate the field increases drastically with the size of the vessel, up to a certain point, and Holy Grail is at a particularly steep part of the curve. If we have to make her any larger, we may find that we can't generate enough power in that space without either waiting much longer, or building her even bigger to give us more power generation – which will of course increase the field size needed, and so on. Eventually the curve flattens, but by then I'm building something the size of Kanzaki-Three and putting in an antimatter generator."

    Laila blinked. "Oh my. I had no idea my mere presence could be such a problem."

    "It could have been, but as it turns out, it isn't." Simon took her hand again and shook it. "Welcome to the crew of Holy Grail, Laila."

    She looked up, and Simon could see a touch of the wonder and eagerness that he felt was necessary in anyone taking this trip. "Thank you so much, Simon. I know I come across as rather abrupt, and I'm not at all a very social person. But I do very much appreciate the opportunity – and the fact you're taking some considerable pains to assist me that could probably have been better spent elsewhere." A mischevious grin flickered on her face as she glanced up from under her fringe of hair. "And that it's a bit annoying to have political pressure forcing some new passenger on you."

    Simon laughed. "I think it will be less annoying than I might have expected, now. Care to join me at Café Rei? I was thinking of getting dinner, and I wouldn't mind hearing more about some of your research on Mars xenobiology."

    "My compliments to your AISage's quick research and update," she said, smiling, "and I'd be honored."

    Simon led the way, taking one last glance at the silver-shining sliver of Holy Grail.

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