Week 7, Equipment Hunting
We left our heroes hovering in zero gravity, near the air curtain to Portpod, wondering what we are up against and what to do next.
Lorelei: "Looks like a psi-lord and his minions, to me -- too much for us to cope with."
Cantrel: "Why? This guy is a loser. We know he's doomed to be gone in 50 years."
Gene: "He's doomed in the long run, but in the short? Hm, maybe WE are fated to be the ones to dispose of him."
Jake: "We could shoot him from far off."
Gene: "Let's hop back a few days in time and intercept Waverly before he canget himself into trouble."
Chris: "Perhaps. Anyway, remember that our mission is just to rescue Waverly, not polish of a psi-lord. We aren't equipped for it."
Lorelei: "Right. And we've stirred up a hornets'-nest. Let's time-hop to before we stirred it up."
Tom: "That does sound interesting."
Chris: "It would be a causal circle, then. Waverly didn't report back because we took him home with us, and we came and took him home because he didn't report back."
Alag: "Grandma [Daewen] would NOT approve."
Gene: "Say! If he's a psi-lord, he could be watching us right now!"
Tom: (to Gene) "Yes, but we've kept Cloaked a fair part of the time." He then argues with Chris and Alag a bit over the propriety and architecture of causal loops. Chris recommends that we either go home to 2494 or just find Waverly and join forces with him.
Cantrel is reluctant to leave without having accomplished much. Tom recommends that we continue searching for Waverly. A good place to look, he says, would be the future, and possibly present, site of Jason Derrico's secret underground lab, in the depths of the Westpod wilderness preserve. Waverly presumably knows of the place and might go looking there rather than in enemy- infested Woodlark. Certainly Tom himself would rather.
AND we can sneak in the back door. We can go back to Northpod, get back in our ship, circle around the Jack, and dock and the outside end of Portpod, where people are not expecting visitors. That way, we don't have to sneak through the guard at the air curtain again.
Before we put this plan into action, we return (invisibly) to the Portpod air curtain so Alag and Chris ply their Retrocog skills to look for Waverly's tracks.
Chris gets a confusingly near-but-distant vision of a man fleeing through the curtain out of Portpod on a grav-sled, pursued by eight or nine other vehicles. A tall, powerful-looking man, dressed in a long robe, blue turban, and otherwise contemporary clothes, stands up in one vehicle, gestures dramatically, and apparently pulls the fugitive off the grav-sled with TK. The hapless fellow dies under multiple blaster-fire. He was not Waverly.
Alag scouts along the rim of the curtain (more than a mile around), and gets overlapping visions of the death-scene and misty images of other figures. Tom comments that, since Retrocog traces the LOCAL history, the images are probably confused by the air curtain, which is fluid and thus constantly stirs different bits with different histories.
Concentrating on the solid rim, Alag eventually gets a clear image of Waverly, hiking into the air curtain with backpack and inconspicuous clothes. Either he is using TK or a grav-belt in reverse, for the absence of gravity doesn't bother him. In any case, he DID enter Portpod.
We now flit back to Northpod and work our way through its curtain. We fade into visibility unobtrusively and start hiking down the Spiral Road. While still in low gravity, we are met by some Ragaij. Their spokesbird is curious to know how we negotiated the Hub on our own. "We picked up some really good stuff," Tom answers vaguely. Chris asks how much traffic passes through the curtain. A fair amount, the Ragaij tells us, but mostly air cars and its own folk.
We ask for the local news, but only learn there have been a large number of births among the Ragaij. We congratulate them, but this was a little too local. The Ragaij have been thinking over their last encounter with us and have begun to realize there's money to be made by ferrying non-Ragaij through the Hub.
We give them the chance to make some more money by ferrying us along the axis of Northpod. Though safer from attack, this journey is five times as long as the one through the Hub, and trickier, since the Ragaij must avoid the sun lamps and still stay close enough to the axis to keep gravity low. Nonetheless, they deliver us to the outside cap shortly before sunoff.
Under cover of darkness, we find our access hatch and retrace our steps through the utility tunnels to our dock. We get back in the ship and, while checking things over, find a clairvoyance tracer on Chris. This is upsetting. On the other hand, no one seems to have acted on it, and we WERE Cloaked most of the time. We remove the tracer and tentatively conclude that it was put on by the death-spell of that self-destructing warrior who tried to take Chris with him.
Still, it's rattling. Lorelei recommends we proceed disguised, and Chris suggests going home again. Tom and Gene, who control the ship between them (more or less), go on with the plan to sneak in the back way. But Tom suggests a short detour. Chris has often said we are ill-equipped for the situation, and particularly wants flying belts. Well, there are old factories out here, for processing asteroidal ores, and they may easily have flying belts in them. We could poke around and look.
The first factories we find are a pair of pods, similar to the Jack's pods but not attached to anything and much smaller. They are rotating and have electrical power. They do NOT resemble the box-like factory the Jack Patrol visited 70 years in the future, which is good, since it would be awkward (and possibly time-locking) to pick up Cantrel's spacesuit now when we've already salvaged the same suit later.
Examining the pair of pods more closely, Tom finds microwave broadcasts coming from them, apparently machine code. The ship's computers start analyzing it and say that it might be related to the robot language AI Protocol. It looks as if the transmissions might be a dialogue between machines on the two pods.
Tom stumbled across a life-form scanner among the instruments. It turns out that there IS living stuff in the pods, but apparently all vegetable. There is also working electrical machinery, some of it mobile. In one pod, there is a zone of considerable heat with a small, complex, mobile, electrical something near it. "A robot by a bon-fire," someone mutters.
By now the language analyzers are sure the code transmissions are not repeated or randomly varied, but intelligently modulated. "Intelligent" could just mean a program, though.
The pod without the fire also seems to have more working machinery. We decide to look in it first. We dock with TK and, leaving Cantrel on the ship to stand guard, hop over to the airlock. As we cycle through and the air comes in, we hear a synthesized voice:
"...JACT47 to incoming ... humans? Please be advised that oxygen level is not stabilized."
Chris talks to this solicitous machine a bit and determines that it itself, "the JACT47 module," is in the "main compartment." It appears to be tending vegetation. The other pod is tended by one JACT56, who is presently "stabilizing the oxygen level" by "reducing scrap vegetation." It WAS a robot by a bon-fire.
It decides to meet with us along the corridor where we entered. As it approaches, we continue to talk to it over the intercom. We ask about flying belts, since that is what we came for, and learn that it has 24 belts in stock, "75% of which were nominal as of last inspection." Last inspection was several hundred hours ago.
Soon, JACT47 itself comes into sight, a metallic stick-figure of a robot, rather in the style of the machines in the old "Magnus Robot-Fighter" comic books, or C3PO with no actor inside. It has its call-leters painted on one shoulder, a rake in one hand, and a few green smears about its person. As it ceremoniously shakes hands with us, Gene asks how long it's been since it saw any humans. Answer: 261,875 hours.
Copyright © 1998, Jim Burrows. All Rights Reserved.