Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 06
Simon stood on the bridge of Paksenarrion and gazed outward. I do not think I will ever grow fully accustomed, let alone jaded, to this.
The great warship — one of several gifted to Humanity by the Liberated — was cruising now many thousands of kilometers away from the Sphere of Humanity, so far out that the Sphere itself was but a shadow in the gloom, its Luminaire a fuzzy circle of dimmed brightness. On every side flowed and eddied incredible banks of cloud — white and gray, green, pink touched with lavender. The darker clouds flickered, internal lightning discharging, sometimes arcing across unguessable distances to strike a neighboring cloud or to shatter some drifting rock or other debris. There was nothing to give a clear scale to the scene, nothing on which the ordinary human mind could seize and use to build a model of the incomprehensible. But Simon could — just barely — grasp it, partially with that vast, though currently tenuous, connection to the Arena itself, and that vista stunned him with its majesty and grandeur, storms large enough to lose even an entire world within.
He shook himself. “This should be far enough. Even the best remote sensors, operating in an atmosphere so extensive, will not easily tell one sudden discharge of energy from another.”
“As you wish, Doctor Sandrisson,” Commander Joani Cleary said. The trim young woman — no older than Simon himself, he was sure, with moderately long red hair on one side of her head and polished baldness on the other, suddenly smiled at him. “It’s good to see even you veterans get caught by the Arena. I was wondering if I’d ever get used to it.”
“I certainly haven’t yet, Commander. Although calling us veterans is somewhat misleading; only a year or so ago even we didn’t know the Arena existed. When did you come through?”
“About five months back. They were looking for people with experience in warship command and who met the other Arena qualifications. That… cut way down on the candidates.”
“It would, yes. We have to discourage embedded AISages, and any extreme biomods; we know that there are some limits the Arena enforces in the latter case, and in the former, well, a sudden shutdown of AISages nearly got us all killed when we first journeyed here.”
“Upshot was only me and five others from the SSC got cleared through all the requirements, and one of them couldn’t hack it when his AISage got shut down. So since we have a lot more than five of these babies,” she patted her control chair fondly, “all of us got a ship of our own. Thanks for choosing Paks for this test of yours; the more we get to do, the more experience we get for whenever the real trouble starts.”
“You’re welcome, Commander Cleary. But I hope you won’t take it amiss if I say that I hope the real trouble never starts.”
Joani Cleary shook her head. “Someone wishing that we don’t get shot at is never taken amiss. Now let me get to work here.” She nodded to the others of her bridge crew. “All engines stop; hold position.”
Simon braced himself by gripping one of the seatbacks as Paksenarrion slowed to a (relative) halt. “Thank you, Commander. Now, I’d better get to the lab.”
“Good luck. Will you need us to do anything else? You did say this had to do with weapons development, yes?”
“Well, yes. When I am ready, I will be asking you to activate various weapon emplacements in a sequence I will supply. Even if a weapon fails to function, simply continue the sequence; any damaged or malfunctioning weapons will be repaired before we leave.”
“Understood, Doctor.” She gave him a respectful nod, which Simon returned before leaving for the weapons emplacements.
“Been waiting for you, Simon,” Robert Hampson said. The somewhat older-looking man had the slightly-wrinkled look of someone who had lost a lot of weight and whose nanos hadn’t quite caught up with cutting down on the extra skin. “I’m still not clear why you chose me for this test. I’m not an engineer.”
“That was quite deliberate, Robert,” he answered, as he walked over to the massive cylindrical form of the Liberated energy cannon. “I chose you because you aren’t going to even try to second-guess what I’m doing here. I don’t want someone who’s trying to analyze the work, just follow it and copy it.”
“All right. It’s for sure a biochemist isn’t qualified to critique your weapons design. Though I thought you were mostly a theoretician?”
“Mostly, yes. But… well, it would be a long story, and some of it I cannot discuss. I am glad you were able to make the transition here.”
“So am I. Wasn’t so easy to give up Vanney, but he’ll keep things going back home, anyway. Now, what do you need me to do?”
“First, just observe what I do to this weapon. In detail — I want you to commit every single thing I do to headware, because what you’re going to do later is try to duplicate everything I do.”
He raised one gray-shot brown eyebrow. “Okay. I don’t quite get the point, but I guess that is part of the point.”
“Exactly. Now, let me concentrate a moment.”
Simon closed his eyes, reached deep within himself to that alien sensation.
The vision of complete and total clarity came far more easily this time, as though it had been merely awaiting his call. Simon could perceive, as though they were laid out before him and labeled, every element of the energy cannon, the control and power runs; he could see the entirety of the vessel that Commander Cleary had named Paksenarrion; he could perceive Robert Hampson’s heartbeat and the operation of his brain. Farther, he could envision the slow twining of the surrounding storms, evaluate the probability and vectors of lightning bolts…
Focus. One thing at a time. With difficulty, he pushed away the nigh unlimited vision and comprehension, focused directly on the cannon. Remember.
Suddenly it was there, the sense of desperation, the memory of a heart beating, hammering, hands wrenching the cover plates away. He found his body responding, following those long-ago actions in an eerie replication of fear and determination and inspiration. He removed power and control elements, modified circuits, replaced components with others, ran a new feed outward, to a loading and firecontrol subsystem.
As with the first time, it did not take long at all before he slapped the cover shut. He slowly forced his mind to clear, the detached, Olympian perspective to fade away. As always, he felt a momentary depression at returning to himself — to a mind he had once thought incisive, quick, brilliant, but now felt dull, slow, almost empty compared to the grandeur and scope of the vision of the Arena. “Did you get all of that?” he asked, consciously keeping a light, unaffected tone to his voice.
“Got it in the can, yeah,” Robert said. “Have no idea exactly what you were supposed to accomplish, though.”
“Good. You can duplicate it, can’t you?”
“Sure I can! That’s why you hired me, right?”
“One of the reasons. You aren’t a military pro, but you’ve tinkered with all sorts of things, including pretty much every type of weapon. That should allow you to do this reliably.”
“Should, yeah.” Hampson hesitated. “But, um… it’ll take me a little longer than you did. You were flying there, Dr. Sandrisson. Never seen anyone working like that.”
I suppose I must have. I did that fast enough to make a difference in a battle, and therefore could not have taken much time. “No time limit, Rob. I was trying to duplicate something I had to do very fast. Now, I don’t want to have any additional chance to bias how you do this. Go to Turret 2 Starboard and perform the exact same modifications on that gun.”
Simon sat down on one of the storage bins at the side of the turret and waited. There wasn’t, after all, much else to do; Paksenarrion was doing a deep patrol, and he devoutly hoped nothing would happen that would require the supercargo scientist to lend a hand.
And he did have a lot to think about. The use of that power was clearly seductive. He didn’t think it was, inherently, sinister or a trap. But for anyone with an inquisitive mind and an interest in grasping the truth of the universe, it was a temptation of almost unbearable intensity. Perhaps it wouldn’t — quite — allow him to see the actual origin of the Arena, the power behind it, the “Voidbuilders” — but it certainly seemed capable of almost anything else.
The thought countered the elation with caution — no, Simon, be honest: fear. Sometimes almost terror. Information was power, and this… connection to the Arena was a source of information literally beyond his dreams.
In a way, I suppose this confirms that this peculiar power was an accident. Any Faction that had and used this power regularly… it could dominate the Arena easily.
And for that very reason, Simon knew, he had to minimize his use of that connection. Addiction takes many forms, and this would be the one that could destroy me.
The dull ache in his heart at the loss of that omniscient vision just emphasized how very true that fear was.
His headcomm pinged, startling Simon enough to make him jump. Good lord, I was in a brown study there. “Sandrisson here.”
“Doc, I think I’ve got it finished — but I have to tell you, I have no idea how you did some of those things with the tools you had on hand. I had to go fetch a much more diverse and capable toolkit to get this job done.”
Really? The expert tinkerer couldn’t do it with the same tools? Simon shook his head. Think about that later. “You have compared it carefully with the original, correct?”
“Three times. All checks out as exactly the same.”
“Good. Then it’s time for the field test. Please evacuate the turret immediately.”
He pinged Commander Cleary. “Commander, are you ready?”
“Nothing showing on any of our instruments, none of our observers report anything. We’re clear. So yes, go ahead, Doctor; you’re in charge.”
“Thank you. First, I’d like you to fire a volley from Turret 1 Port.” That was an unmodified energy cannon. “Make sure all firing is done in a direction that will not, I repeat, not even possibly intersect with any of the Spheres equivalent to our nearby stars.”
“Yes, sir.” Her voice became slightly more distant, as she was speaking to someone else. “Spriggs, unlock turrets and prepare to fire. Greenwood, I want you to find an appropriate firing solution as far from any likely Sphere as possible.”
Simon stepped outside of the turret and locked down the door. No need for a repeat of my most unpleasant experiences on Orphan’s ship.
“All turrets unlocked and ready to fire, Commander,” Lieutenant Spriggs reported.
“Firing solution complete, Commander,” Lieutenant Greenwood said immediately after. “Coded and locked in.”
“Thank you, gentlemen,” the Commander said. “Turret 1, portside — fire when ready.”
“Firing,” Lieutenant Spriggs answered.
Simon felt a very faint vibration through the ship, thought he could hear a distant whine. “Firing of Turret 1, port, complete, Doctor,” Cleary said.
“All functions normal?”
“Very well. Now, please fire Topside 1.” That was the one he had modified.
“Topside 1, roger.”
Even through the shielded, sound-proofed door the blare of sound was almost deafening, the concussion enough to jolt him.
“Holy Jesus!” Commander Cleary said, and her other bridge crew echoed the expression. “What the hell did you do?”
“At the moment that’s need-to-know, Commander, and per Captain Austin, you do not need to know.”
“Now, please fire Starboard Turret 2,” Simon said. He felt his gut tensing. This will be the real test.
“Roger, Starboard Turret 2. Lieutenant Spriggs, you may fire when ready.”
Silence followed the command. “Commander, Starboard 2 does not respond; telltales show it is inoperative.”
“You heard that, Doctor?”
“Yes,” Simon said, feeling a chill go down his spine like a slow-moving drop of liquid nitrogen. “Yes, Commander, I heard.”
Ariane was right. It wasn’t favoring her. It isn’t something just favoring humanity, either.
It’s me. I — and only I — can do this.
But how — and most importantly, why — I have no idea.