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Cables ran from the AI to the liquid in the bottom of the chamber. Writhing lines of electricity connected the ends of the cables to the towers of crystal. And the crystals pulsed inscrutably in the dimly light of the chamber. At first it was soothing. Then it grew unsettling. And, after about three minutes, it was boring.
“Nothing is happening, Priss.”
Priss didn’t bother to look up from her holodisplay. “Not true, Aubrey. The AI and whatever kind of software runs this place are definitely talking to each other. They just don’t understand each other. It’s the same problem I’ve had since we landed here. Computer infrastructure and programming language has grown too divergent in the last two centuries.”
“So why are you even bothering?” Sean asked. “If you can’t talk to it, you can’t use it. If you can’t use it, then isn’t it more important to find a ship?”
“The Nevada Launch Zone was huge,” Priss said, finally pulling her attention away from the AI. “And a lot of it was clearly repurposed when UNIGOV turned it into the Vault. We could be down here for days before we find the place they put the leftover launch craft. On the other hand, if we can access some kind of inventory or manifest we can find out where it is very quickly. The question is, which one is a better use of time.”
“Maybe we could look around while you try and crack the code,” Aubrey suggested.
“I’d prefer not to get separated,” Priss said. “I know you probably don’t know the words but you’re essentially collaborators and turncoats now. UNIGOV will not deal kindly with you when the time comes and that means, if at all possible, we’re responsible for trying to get you into space with us. At least until we get all this sorted out.”
“How long can that take?” Aubrey asked.
Priss stopped for several long seconds, clearly at a loss. Finally she said, “I honestly have no idea. There’s never been a situation like yours before, in scale at least. Years. Decades, perhaps.”
“Not a fan of that timeframe,” Sean admitted.
“What if you connected the AI’s input directly to the crystal towers?” Aubrey asked, not wanting to think about how long they might be forced off of Earth. “Whatever kind of liquid is down there can’t be a good medium for digital information transfer.”
“I think the liquid is actually the processing core,” Priss said. “We covered theoretical designs for this kind of computer back in school but no one had figured out how to make a liquid core processor work. The theory is that it’s supposed to function like nerve tissue connecting the data stored using isotopes of dense crystalized aluminum oxide in place of binary code.”
“So… wouldn’t connecting directly to the crystals let you access the information directly?”
“Not necessarily,” Priss said, slowing down as her eyes went distant and really thought about it. “Again, it depends on the programming language. Although looking at binary code might actually make understanding the programming easier…”
“Great.” Aubrey got to her feet and hopped down past Priss and Sean on their step, to the step below and stepped down into the pool, headed towards the closest crystal tower. “Let’s go see what we can find.”
Priss locked totally upright. “Aubrey get out of that, we don’t know for sure what it is or what it does.”
“Look down!” Sean added, pointing frantically. “Look down!”
Which was a mistake, as seeing the lines of electricity surging around her calves caused her to panic and freeze, ignoring the hand Sean was frantically stretching out to try and grab her and –
Just like that the pool was gone and she was standing in the middle of a wide, grassy field. Red hills rolled along the horizon in one direction and a few low buildings nestled under short trees in the other. As suddenly as Aubrey had arrived in this place a woman in white appeared between her and the buildings in the distance, her long black hair whipping around her for a brief second before settling around her shoulders, as if she had been running at a full sprint to get there and just come to a sudden stop. All without Aubrey seeing or hearing her coming.
The woman’s simple white dress didn’t have any kind of identifying marks on it, and although her face was unlined the depths of her eyes gave the impression that she was quite old. Her hair hadn’t turned gray but many women set their medical systems to artificially preserve their hair color these days, so that wasn’t any help at all. And her face was unsettling in its blandness, it could have been laid out by a compass and ruler it was so precise but there wasn’t a hint of character or life experience about it at all. She wore no make-up and her lightly tanned complexion looked natural.
If Aubrey had asked a hundred nine year olds to draw a woman and kept only the features in common among all their drawings it might look like the woman in the white dress.
“Who are you?” The woman asked. “A new Vaultkeeper isn’t due for another few years. And you don’t look like any upper Party member I’ve seen before.”
“What Party?” Aubrey asked, almost by reflex.
“The Unifying and Normalizing Governance Party,” the woman in white said.
“That’s the one.”
Aubrey pursed her lips. Technically she worked for UNIGOV, but then so did everyone these days. But she wasn’t exactly a member of UNIGOV. She didn’t make decisions, really. “Well, you’re right. I’m not a member of UNIGOV or a Vaultkeeper.”
“You can’t be the second without being the first.” The woman looked her over once more. “Fine. I give up. Who are you and what do you want?”
“To know where I am, for starters.”
Another hard look and, for the first time, a real expression on the woman’s face. Uncertainty. “You don’t know?”
After all the confusion of the last few days it was nice to know someone else was just as lost. Lang and company couldn’t have been anything else but they had an infuriating tendency not to show it. Empathizing with the woman immensely, Aubrey decided to go with the unvarnished truth. “A second ago I was in the bottom of Schrodinger’s Vault, trying to get a stack of crystals to tell me where I could find a spaceship. Now I’m-”
She crashed backwards onto the stairs. There a moment of disorienting vertigo, pain shooting through her back as her head spun, then Priss and Sean were looking down at her with concern, each holding one end of the carrying strap from Priss’ bag.
No one was saying anything so Aubrey decided to start. “What happened?”
“You walked into the water – like an idiot – then started staring into space,” Sean replied while Priss ducked away to grab her medical scanner and started looking her over. “You weren’t answering us and there was current focused on you from practically every crystal pile down there. When you wouldn’t respond we grabbed you with this,” he held up the strap, “and pulled you out.”
She pondered that for a second. “Priss?”
“I don’t see any damage,” she replied. “That doesn’t mean it’s not there. This is more for battlefield trauma, not nerve damage.”
“Not what I wanted to know,” Aubrey said. “You mentioned feedback issues from early AI, right?”
Priss slowly lowered the scanner, looking puzzled. “Biofeedback, through the neural interface, yes.”
“What kind of feedback?”
“Phantom sensation, mostly,” she said realization starting to dawn. “Seeing ghostly images, phantom limb sensations – even when all limbs are accounted for – sudden bursts of taste, particularly when drinking. Or loss of sight or taste for brief periods of time. In extreme cases, minor paralysis or seizures. Did you feel or see something while you were down there? Are you saying this whole room is some kind of AI?”
Aubrey thought about the unsettling features of the woman’s face. And her weirdly hostile personality. “Not necessarily. But I think you are supposed to interface with it via nanotechnology, like our medical systems, not normal computer links. Maybe that’s why so much of it is concentrated in our neurosystem. I saw… something. A grassy field with a person. She spoke to me.”
“There’s a lot more to that nanosystem than they let on,” Sean muttered.
“So it would seem,” Priss said. “Why give you a version that would let you access a secret AI? If that’s what it is?”
“Maybe the functionality can’t be separated out?” Aubrey shrugged. “They essentially piggyback off of existing biology, except for the part where they monitor our senses. But that’s all I really know. I’m not a doctor or nanoengineer.”
Priss started gathering up her AI’s cables. “In that case, we don’t need to try and reinvent the wheel.”
“Right. Whatever this is, it seems willing to talk.” Aubrey rolled up her sleeves so they wouldn’t get wet. “So I’ll talk to it.”
“Hold on.” Sean put his hand on her shoulder. “How do we know that’s safe?”
“We don’t,” Aubrey said, annoyed. “But it’s the best option we’ve got.”
“Yeah, but you aren’t the only option we’ve got,” he pointed out.
“But she’s the better one,” Priss put in. “Her system hasn’t recently suffered a shock. And for all we know the loss of the nanotech – or the hand – that Lang took is enough to make it impossible for you to use the crystals. Aubrey will be safer doing this than you will.”
Sean worked his jaw for a moment, clearly looking for another objection to raise, but couldn’t think of anything. Aubrey gave him a small smile to say she’d be fine and stepped back down to the bottom step of the stairs. “Okay, give me about five minutes, then pull me back out.”
“Sounds good. I’ll also monitor you on the scanner.” She held up her medical device. “I don’t know how this system works but remember our AIs overwork parts of the brain and demand electrolytes. Without them problems develop. If I see anything like that we’re pulling you out early.”
Aubrey nodded and carefully put her hands into the water at her feet. For a moment nothing happened then the world around her changed again.
She was expecting to be back in the field but instead found herself in a large city square – free of foot traffic – looking down a long boulevard towards the setting sun. Rolling hills dominated the horizon here as well, the “city” actually didn’t look like it extended much further than ten or twelve blocks, in spite of being crammed just as full of buildings as any modern city Aubrey had visited. Maybe this was just a large open area near the outskirts.
The woman in white appeared, much like she had before, just as Aubrey was getting her bearings. She pursed her lips and said, “You’re back. Or maybe you just wanted to move. There are easier ways to get where you want to go, you know.”
“Actually, I don’t,” Aubrey said, sticking to her previous approach of total honesty. “I’m not a Vaultkeeper and I’m probably not even supposed to be here. But I’m trying to help my… friends find a space ship and we’re pretty sure this is the right place to start.”
The other woman frowned. “I don’t know much about spaceships, or if this is the right place to start, but we can take a look around if you want.”
“Okay.” Aubrey looked out over the city square again. “So where are we?”
“You don’t know?” The woman looked surprised. “This is Borealis city, on Mars. It’s a good enough place to try to find a spaceship as any, I suppose. Although this early in the colony’s history they only visited every three months. You might have to duck forwards or backwards a bit.”
A chill settled in Aubrey’s gut. “Mars? That’s what this is?”
“You should know this…” The woman in white waved a hand and the landscape around them somehow faded, becoming indistinct and distant. “You said you’re not a Vaultkeeper and I figured it was a trick. But if you’re really not a Vaultkeeper, who are you?”
“Aubrey Vance, from Austin, Texas. I work in the traffic control office.” Aubrey hesitated a moment then asked, “Who are you?”
“Sarah Conrad. From Borealis, Mars. I was a colonist.”