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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Monday, November 30, 2009 20:42 EST



    "Now I'm seriously creeped out."

    Steve answered from behind her. "What really creeps me out is that I have no idea what you're talking about. Without worthwhile associative connectivity and Allerdyne, I don't know anything without actually looking for it and trying to figure it out myself. So what's up?"

    "That, of course."

    Rather than pointing a finger, she sent an image to Steve and anyone else who might be listening.

    Holy Grail floated about ten kilometers from the anomalous extension of the massive shell enclosing them. A long, narrow, rippled rod with faerie-thin arches stretching in regular intervals along it, the thing reminded her of nothing so much as two snake skeletons back-to-back – except that these snakes would have been able to swallow something a dozen times Holy Grail's size in one bite. The black-silvery glinting object reached a full seven and a half kilometers from the wall, straight out from the geometric center of what they had decided was the apex of this impossible space.

    "Well, yeah, it does look kinda skeletal. I didn't know that you found that so creepy, though."

    Ariane shook her head. "It's not that at all. Look along there, between the, um, ribs."

    Steve focused his attention, causing the view to zoom in. "Oh… those circular things? Regularly spaced, like dots along it." She could sense him detach from the direct feed and consult the databanks. "Hey, they're about the same size and shape as a standard ship docking port!"

    Not about. Carl's silent networked voice held some of the apprehension she felt. Near as I can tell, they're exactly the same. I wish we had probes on board.

    "As do we all." Simon said dryly. "However, we have neither probes nor the templates for probes – which is why I have not suggested building one with a set of Sandrisson Coils to send for help. Since first we would have to spend months creating the templates for the probe by hand, and then I would have to design the coils for the probe."

    Well, fortunately it's not necessary. I'll just combine data from the past few seconds and enhance. Carl was the closest thing they had to a sensor expert on board, and at the moment they didn't need really fancy tricks. Yeah. Take a look.

    The shared image rippled and changed to a close-up of the wierdly dual-coloured material of the extension. Except that in the center the material was quite different. Composites and metals of much more familiar nature made up a circular area, with extremely familiar ports and connectors. A chill went down Ariane's back.

    "Wow. It is a docking port." Steve said. His tone, however, didn't show that he was feeling the same reaction she and Carl – and maybe others – were. "That's convenient."

    Convenient is not the appropriate word, DuQuesne stated flatly, showing he'd been watching for some time. Unless that's also the word you'd use for coming across a standard power outlet in an Egyptian pyramid.

    Steve blinked. "Well, okay, I can see it's kinda odd that theirs looks just like ours, but –"

    Utterly beyond odd, Mr. Franceschetti. DuQuesne's transmitted voice was somewhere between exasperated and amused. It's a truism that every generation thinks its experiences are natural, but the lack of depth I see in most people's knowledge these days… I suppose I am getting old somehow. That docking port design is the result of hundreds of years of engineering for very specific purposes. For purposes that serve our species, and our culture, and which also probably incorporate a few… legacy features which are purely a result of some almost random decision made a hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago.

    "Steve, he's right. It's like… well, you're into art, right? You've actually studied the history of art and you can name off artists and their works without any of Allerdyne's input. What we're looking at here is something more completely impossible than… well, than walking into the hut of some lost tribe of savages, and finding that their witch doctor has just finished painting a copy of the Mona Lisa – exact down to the precise brush strokes – when they'd never even encountered civilization before."

    That seemed to get through to Steve. "Then… how could it be here?"

    I think I have an answer to that, but it only raises a lot more questions, DuQuesne responded. I just went back over our initial entry to this space. It's hard to tell for certain, but as near as I can see, this… spacedock was not present when we first arrived.

    Dr. Sandrisson gave vent to an incomprehensible Japanese curse. "That entire thing was built since we arrived?"

    And without radiating sufficient energy to draw our attention to that fact. In our own solar system we might, given sufficient motivation, manage to build something that size in as few days, but it would be a very, very spectacular bit of work indeed, especially in the infra-red as the waste heat had to be carried away.

    "You all seem to be taking this the wrong way." Gabrielle Wolfe said, entering the control room. "Seems to me that this is downright hospitable of whoever owns this place. They've given us a place to tie up and a doorway to come on in and visit by."

    Ariane laughed suddenly. "Gabrielle, you are the best cure for depression, as always. Maybe you're right." She looked at the hulking alien spacedock again. "There's still a creepy aspect though, which is exactly how they knew that design. If they managed to get it out of our computers…"

    This time Carl laughed. No need. It wouldn't be hard to simply create a match to the external docking rings on our hull, now would it?

    Ariane smacked her forehead. "Duh. The best example is a prototype." She felt better. That kind of approach was impressive, and the construction capability kind of frightening, but it made the unknown Others a little less godlike. And as Gabrielle said, it was a lot more friendly than keeping all the doors locked. If whoever owned this… place was hostile, they certainly didn't have to offer them a door at all. "What about control linkages? Even if they've got the hardware down, the firmware and software isn't likely to be identical. You can't deduce those from a scan."

    "I would be very wary of using the term can't with respect to this place," Sandrisson cautioned. "We have already encountered several phenomena that we would call impossible if we were not directly experiencing them."

    True enough, Carl said. But in any case, even if they've just duplicated the hardware, it's not a problem. Me and Steve can tickle the hardware into accepting a firmware update from external control and that'll get the doors to open.

    Ariane nodded. "Good. Well, people, we aren't accomplishing anything just sitting here. We've got docking rings to fit us and we think we can get the doors open, so let's head on in. Our power supply isn't getting any bigger."

    Fortunately even rather stupid automation was well up to the automated docking task; Ariane had done full manual docking during her pilot training, but it was not something she particularly wanted to try again, and especially not with the two hundred meter long Holy Grail rather than a one-person fighter or racing vehicle.

    As the alignment was completed, Ariane felt the docking rings engage and lock. "Steve, you and Carl didn't do anything yet, did you?"


    "So much for can't," Sandrisson said dryly.

    Out of a sort of morbid curiosity, DuQuesne said, how did the station identify itself during the dock-and-lock?

    For a variety of reasons, including ensuring unambiguous communications routing, all installations had unique identifiers attached to them, used during all interactions ranging from docking to work requests. Steve parsed the command flow. "Identifier is… Null."

    What? Carl said, startled. The system won't even operate without a valid ID!

    "Sending another ID query." The answer returned almost instantly. "Just… wildcards. And our damn system's still accepting it."

    "Okay, I'm officially creeped out again," Ariane announced. "All and None, that's what it's saying."

    As though it is everything, or nothing at all, DuQuesne's silent voice mused. Sending another ID query.

    After several tests, it was clear that the station alternated between the two identifiers with no preference. It was either a wildcard identifier, all possible identities at once, or a null, no identifier at all, both equally impossible and yet equally accepted by the Holy Grail's systems.

    "Creepy or not," Gabrielle said finally, "we sure ain't getting anywhere sittin' here pinging it. Are we going in, or not?"

    "No real choice," Ariane admitted. "Everyone's outfits have the right environmental programming?"

    "I made sure of it," Carl said, joining them in the control room. "No AI, as you know, but the basic sensors and rule-based expert systems will make sure they react to the environment pretty well. Just make sure you're fully charged before we go out."

    "I'm staying," said Gabrielle. "The automatics have Laila under watch, but I just don't trust things without someone on hand."

    Ariane nodded. Dr. Canning had shown only the faintest signs of recovery, and she knew Gabrielle felt that she was failing as a doctor, despite everyone from Ariane to DuQuesne pointing out that Canning's dependency on AI-support automation had been so extreme that even the best therapists would probably have to run a full personality recovery to even begin putting her back together – assuming there was enough of a backup and remaining structure of Laila Canning to rebuild. "Stay connected with us, though."

    "No way I wouldn't. Now, don't none of you get yourselves hurt out there, all right?"

    "I don't think even all the rest of us should go out. At least not right away," Ariane said. "I think it should be –"

    "—not you," DuQuesne said firmly from the doorway. "You are the only qualified pilot of this ship and, of course, you're the Captain."

    The situation might be creepy, but she had been looking forward to being one of the first people to step foot on an alien installation. "Each and every one of us is unique and irreplaceable on this mission, Doctor."

    "Indeed, but for different reasons. In this case, we are most in need of power – my specialty – and I will need to have assistance perhaps in locating and utilizing controls and systems. If more… exotic demands are placed upon us, we will require the services of a theoretician, but that could likely be done via remote."

    Ariane wished she could think of an argument that wouldn't sound petulant, but DuQuesne was perfectly right. "So you, Steve, and Carl?"

    "Makes sense to me," Carl agreed.

    "What if… well, you get in trouble out there?"

    "You mean, if we encounter something hostile?" DuQuesne looked slightly amused as he looked down on her from at least fifteen centimeters above her full standing height. "Captain, in all likelihood if there was any hostility here we would be dead. Still, it might not be totally out of the question to bring some form of weapons for self defense."

    "What, a club?" Steve said sarcastically. "Oh, sure, we could render something else without the interlocks, but I don't have any training in using real weapons."

    "No virtual adventures?"

    "Well…" the diminuitive systems engineer looked slightly embarrassed. "I tend to have the realism dialed way down. Makes it easier, and I'm more a story and dramatics guy."

    "Dr. Edlund?"

    "I do a lot of that; I use maximum reality with my weapons use, and I do multiple timeframes – I like crossover, actually, though I admit I still prefer melee to distance weapons."

    DuQuesne nodded. "That should work well, then."

    "What about you?" Ariane asked. "I'd volunteer, though I'm a mostly fantasy buff when I'm not working, which means I'm generally experienced in using really old-fashioned stuff – swords, spears, bows, that kind of thing. But I agree that I should stay here for now."

    DuQuesne looked slightly surprised. "With your profession, I would have thought you get enough senseless excitement. On the other hand, that sort of weapon is easily rendered from even basic game files, and if you have some custom renderings that don't involve game-magic…?" He glanced at her questioningly, and she nodded.

    "As for myself," he went on, "I have similar tastes in entertainment to Doctor Edlund. I use the virtual inputs but my actual body motions control the weapons."

    Simon had been quiet during most of the discussion, but spoke up finally. "If it comes to that, I can handle a sword reasonably well – although I'm sure not nearly so well as Marc or Ariane, and probably not as well as Carl."

    Ariane nodded and glanced over at Dr. Cussler. "Tom, we can render weapons, right?"

    "Without the interlocks? If we have accurate full templates, I can make damn near anything." She was very cheered to see how well Cussler was recovering. "Game templates often don't have the detail, though, unless you are using full realism."

    "I assure you, my templates are more than detailed enough," DuQuesne stated. "Examining the files Dr. Edlund's made available… well, some aren't usable, but there are some excellent candidates here. So between myself and Dr. Edlund we have at least some defensive capability, and if the Captain disembarks at some point I see that she will have some quite suitable weapons as well."

    "How long will it take to render the weapons?" Ariane inquired.

    "Oh, a few hours, assuming we're discussing hand weapons and not siege artillery."

    She nodded. "All right. Then let's get that set up, and since it's getting a little late, shipboard time, the … well, landing party, I guess, or boarding party, will go out tomorrow morning."

    The others all agreed. Ariane leaned back in her chair as most of them left. A few more hours to think about what else I might be missing, and wonder if I'm going to get us all killed.

    This "Captain" business is really overrated.

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