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Grand Central Arena: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 20:04 EST



    "I surely do appreciate the help, Dr. DuQuesne."

    DuQuesne smiled back at the little blonde. "Do we need the formality?"

    "You're a very formal kind of man." Gabrielle Wolfe responded, pinching the cable-ring tighter to make it seal more securely. "A girl doesn't want to seem too familiar."

    "I don't think of myself as particularly formal." DuQuesne protested mildly.

    "Maybe that ain't the right word. Distant? Formidable? I don't know, but whatever it is, people feel it." He watched her struggling with the case connectors, and resisted an impulse to help; he knew Gabrielle Wolfe would let him know if she wanted any.

    "She's right, you know." Tom Cussler put in from his current position at the AIWish manual input module. "You're the kind of man that… well, even before we… lost computation…" Cussler paused a moment to recover himself before continuing, "… well, even before then, you were the sort that would walk into a room and everyone would pay attention to. Even the AISages. You're just not about getting friendly, DuQuesne, at least not on the outside; it's like trying to pal around with a top-ranked General. We can count on you, but you're not going to any parties you don't throw yourself."

    Even after fifty years, I'm still … He gave a mental shrug. "Well, then, allow me to invite you to use my first name."

    "With pleasure, Marc. And you can call me Gabrielle, or Gabby, or Dr. Wolfe, whichever suits your pleasure."

    "So it's not your intent?" Cussler studied him.

    "Not really. Just the way I am, I guess." The casual phrasing wasn't quite his normal manner, and he knew the others could probably catch it.

    The flicker of a glance by Tom showed he was right, but Cussler didn't push it. "Well, if you can figure out how you do it, there's institutes back home that would hand you your own custom asteroid for the secret. How's it looking?" The last question was addressed to Gabrielle.

    "Stable at the moment. What d'you think, Dr. – Marc?"

    DuQuesne turned his attention to the new independent power source they were making for the life support and monitoring unit. "Let me see…" he concentrated and interfaced with the controls and diagnostics. "Stable. Not a bad job, considering."

    Cussler grinned faintly. "Why do I get the impression that you could probably have done the whole thing yourself in just a little more time?"

    "Tom, I'm hardly an expert in replication technology, outside of my own speciality. If all you needed were the storage coils, that would be a different matter."

    "I suppose. Maybe it's just the fact that you're so much more together than the rest of us. Except Ariane, of course."

    At least he's not pursuing that other line of thought. "Luck of the draw. If you weren't spending half your energy adapting to losing half of yourself, so to speak, you'd have gotten this done in half the time."

    Cussler nodded, but stared at the replicator with an expression perilously close to depression, enough that DuQuesne noticed that Gabrielle looked concerned. "All the time I spent… wasted."

    "Tom, honey, no one could've predicted this mess." Gabrielle said.

    "Maybe not. Maybe not." the nanoengineer responded. "But it does make you wonder. Or me wonder. Can I really call myself an engineer when I find that I don't really understand half the field?"

    "That's a bunch of crap, Cussler." While DuQuesne, in principle, agreed with some of the ideas, this wasn't the time. They really couldn't afford to lose anyone. "You're just feeling that way because everything doesn't come easy. And yeah, I'm more used to that than you. But you know all the principles. It's going to be a lot harder, since you need to do the searches, the sorting, and the understanding yourself, without any support, but it's still you doing it. The AISages were great, and they are great, but they have limits, and they can't be you any more than you can be them."

    Cussler looked at him, and DuQuesne held his gaze – the right expression, both supportive and with just the right amount of impatience, enough to goad but not to depress. "I… I guess you're right. I just…"

    "Haven't had to do it much before. We all know, Tom, and aside from Marc and Ariane, we're all in the same boat." Gabrielle put a comforting hand on Cussler's shoulder. "I surely couldn't have figured out how to get the AIWish working without help, and as to making the templates, Lord no."

    "Making? Hah, just a few tweaks here and there." Despite the deprecating words, DuQuesne could tell that Cussler was feeling better at least for now.

    He also suddenly felt as though he was being watched and glanced behind him. "Laila?"

    Dr. Canning's eyes were open and looking at them. She blinked.

    Gabrielle sprang up and ran to her side. "Laila! Do you hear me?"

    DuQuesne shook his head; the biologist's gaze didn't track the doctor as she crossed the line of sight. Several more queries got no more response. "Gabrielle. Dr. Wolfe, can I ask you a candid question?"

    Gabrielle Wolfe frowned, then turned to him. "What is it, Marc?"

    "Are we wasting our efforts on her? I know how you doctors are generally trained, but is she really just brain-dead and unrecoverable?" He knew this would sound cold, but the fact was the question needed to be asked, and asked straight.

    The pretty blonde face went cold for a moment, glaring at him for the suggestion (in pretty much the manner he'd expected). Then her gaze dropped, she took a deep breath, and sighed. "Lordy, I really wish I could answer that, Marc."

    That wasn't the exact answer he'd expected. Neither of the answers, actually. "What do you mean?"

    "Take a look. With systems the way they are, I can't get the full-bore data, but I can show cerebral activity and some correspondences."

    Several images from differing angles materialized on the medical platform display. DuQuesne narrowed his eyes, trying to figure out what he was seeing. He was generally familiar with the normal patterns of these displays, but… "What the hell?"

    "That's the problem. If she was totally brain-dead, I shouldn't be seeing any coordinated higher brain activity at all. Instead, I'm seeing these … well, whatever-they-are… surges of high-level activity, but they're not distributed properly. A lot of them look rather similar to seizure activity, which can effectively 'light up' a whole hell of a lot of the brain at once, but they don't appear to trigger any motor responses. And when there's people speaking around her she shows at least some reaction in the speech processing region."

    "Any ideas?"

    "Nary a one. Well, some, I guess – there hasn't been anyone doing experiments on it that I know of, and if they did, they'd've been taken out and shot anyway, so we've got nothing on what happens to people like that who've lost it all in one quick shock. Graceful degradation, you know; even if someone's headware AISage crashes, they've got about a thousand safeguards to make it so it's more like a slow shutdown." Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "This, she got the 'Sages yanked and all the support gone in like a millisecond. Could be we're seeing what happens to a brain like that – keeps trying to find the connections that just went down because there's nothing telling it where they went, and the connection protocols don't handle that."

    DuQuesne studied the images for a few moments, then shrugged. "Well, I admit, I haven't any better explanation. But it's definitely not the same as being brain-dead, and you're right, I'm seeing some indication of reaction whenever we're talking." He met her gaze. "So we're definitely not wasting time or effort. And I hope you understand why I asked you that way."

    Gabrielle pursed her lips, then sighed and nodded. "I guess so. Most doctors do tend to keep going on the life support until someone stops them, and we can't afford to waste resources if that was what I was up to."

    "Well," Tom put in, "I'd sure as hell rather have a doctor who did that than one who went the other way."

    DuQuesne chuckled. "I can't disagree there." He helped Gabrielle and Tom fasten the power module – mainly a lightly-armored superconductor battery with simple power regulators and readouts – securely to Laila's life-support module. By the way Gabrielle moved, it was clear she'd spent a lot of time in null-G environments, considerably more than Tom. "Gabrielle, it strikes me we have some other concerns health-wise."

    "You're thinking about the gravity issues."

    She's very good. He thought with surprise. He could, thinking about it, realize how she'd managed to read that from his own glances and body language, but it was a hell of a jump. "You're not a doctor, you're a mind-reader."

    She gave a deprecating handwave. "I've just been thinking a lot about that myself lately. A lucky guess."

    Tom frowned. "You're right. Holy Grail wasn't designed with spin because we weren't expected to be out for more than, at most, a month, and more likely about ten, twelve days."

    "I'm going through the null-G medical refs, but it's hard to do by… well, hand, I suppose you'd say." Gabrielle said. "I know there's adjustments I can do to make sure our medical nanos prevent bone loss and the other subtle effects, but I didn't have them in forward headware because of the mission parameters. But… will we really need to worry about it, Marc? After all, we've only got two months power, even by your estimates. Two months won't be particularly critical, if we just all exercise a bit."

    "It might be," DuQuesne answered, testing the solidity of the connections. "Let's say we find a power source, but it's not on the level of a main fusion reactor. We might need to hang around here for months before we've finally got the Sandrisson coils charged enough to leave. They need an immense amount of power, remember, far more than all the other ship's systems combined. So we could have enough power to keep Holy Grail running, but still have to wait a good long time."

    "I hadn't thought of that." Tom said. "I… I don't know how well I'm going to handle two months here, let alone many more."

    "Tom, if we make it two months, we all'll probably be doing a lot better than we all are now." Gabrielle said. "It's the next few weeks we'll be finding out if we can cut it without the 'Sages."

    "Either of you have hobbies?" DuQuesne asked. "Not the virtual world gamesims or stuff like that, but real physical kinds?"

    "Eh?" Tom and Gabrielle looked at him, puzzled by the shift.

    "Hobbies. Generally speaking people often put a lot more of their own effort into their hobbies, sometimes even excluding their headware AISages. Right now we've been focusing on survival, on the areas where we've always used artificial support the most. Maybe what you need to remind you about how to be yourself, by yourself, is to focus on anything you like to do that didn't always involve one of those damn artificial brains. So do you have any hobbies?"

    Gabrielle smiled slowly. "Now that's a right smart idea, Marc. And I surely do have a few hobbies. I think mountain-biking is rather restricted here, though, so maybe I should focus on my model-building."

    "What kind of models?" DuQuesne asked. Tom was looking thoughtful.

    "Vehicles, mostly. I look through archives of pictures and when I see something that strikes my fancy, I start working on building a copy. I use fabs like the AIWish for the parts, but I put 'em together by hand. I was working on a model of a 1990s diesel locomotive back home." Her eyes lit up. "You know, I think I could start on a model of the Holy Grail! That might even be worth something, one day, when we get back!"

    Just seeing the animation returning to Gabrielle's face seemed to bring Tom's spirits up. "I think that sounds great, Gabrielle." Tom said. "And I do have one hobby that would work here; jewellry. Not particularly fancy stuff, and I'm not even close to an expert, but I like designing patterns, picking the materials, that kind of thing."

    "That's just the kind of hobbies I was thinking of, too." DuQuesne said in agreement. "They need your personal focus, and your personal choices, and you've done them – I'd guess – mostly by yourself, not using the AISages to help."

    "You're exactly right." Tom's voice was clearer and stronger than it had been since they first came… here. "For material synthesis Maxine helped, yes, but that was only at the start. I've got all those templates already, some of them I haven't even used yet." He looked at DuQuesne. "Thanks. I think… I think that this will work."

    "I'll make it an official medical recommendation." Gabrielle said decisively. "If you don't mind my stealing your ideas, Marc."

    "Steal away." He grinned as she turned away to compose the announcement; the grin faded somewhat as his gaze wandered across Laila Canning, whose eyes had closed again. He checked the connections of the system once more, and noticed how, by that time, Gabrielle and Tom Cussler were exchanging experiences and ideas in their respective hobbies.

    Neither of them had asked him about his hobbies. Probably never occurred to them to ask… and if it did, they probably thought it'd be intruding. He restrained a rueful smile. I can see the inside, but I still stand outside.

    But looking at the two faces – more alive than they'd been for days – it didn't matter. They'll make it now, and so will the rest of us. And that's what really matters.

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