SG: Aurora #43 - Old Friends II - Part Two of Five
frobozz at eyrie.org
Wed Dec 29 19:58:51 PST 2004
[[CONTINUED FROM PART ONE -- WHICH HAD NO LIME!]]
It's a game that you play with yourself. You think of a number,
something between one and a hundred. No, that's not the whole game,
'cause grown-ups, they play more complicated games than kids. See, you
take that number that you picked at random, and that's how many seconds
you have to spend watching the Medbay door without letting fatigue and
pain distract you from your duty and make your rifle sag. Al Peterson
had come up with this game himself, and having picked the number
forty-three, the game was proceeding to kick his ass.
Twenty-seven. Okay, twenty-seven seconds wasn't too bad. It was more
than half his target number at least, and that wasn't anything to sneeze
at, right? He could work upwards from there; after all, twenty-seven was
absolutely no reason whatsoever to...
"What?" asked Peterson, jarred out of his internal pep-talk by the
voice of Chambers, his partner in these Medbay follies. Her voice
sounded tired and worn, roughly the way Peterson felt just this moment.
"Stop it, Peterson. You're in no shape for this."
"Mind letting me in on what you're talking about, Chambers? Your
incredible sense-making powers don't seem to be quite working all that
"The vigil, Peterson." Chambers gestured around them, indicating the
small medical room in which they were confined, because of Peterson's
grievous wounding. There wasn't much new to see, as both troopers had
managed to count every jar, bottle and piece of machinery in the place
about a hundred times so far, out of boredom. "You've been trying to
play the good sentry on your watch. You're pushing yourself to keep
alert. You're doing everything short of freebasing caffeine to keep
yourself on the guard. Well... just stop it."
"Um... did I miss a memo, Chambers? Last I checked, standard
operating procedure was to -not- let your guard down when behind enemy
lines. Is there a new tactical doctrine that I missed hearing about? One
involving being incredibly stupid? Victory through stupidity? Have you
been taking lessons from Doug again?"
"Al?" sighed Chambers.
"I've got no compunctions about beating the Hell(tm) out of an
invalid if he sasses me. So stow it till you're capable of running away
"As for the rest... look, Al." She pinched her nose, tiredly, as some
of her strength seemed to drain away. "You're not in any shape to go on
shifts until you've healed up a little more. I can't stay on guard
twenty-four and seven, but I can get by with catnaps and setting up
little alarms to wake me if someone tries to force their way in. So
you're going to go into total rest and relaxation for the duration, so
that you can soldier again once you're done. That's an order and I'm
brooking no dissension. Got me?"
"I'm pretty sure that even with all the fun we've been having lately,
what with the figuring out a whole new chain of command and stuff, odds
are good that you don't actually outrank me."
"You're wounded and I'm not. If you're not going to surrender command
to me gracefully, you'd better get ready to put down a coup."
"Do I get a little time to dig in? And some loyal troops and maybe a
"Nope. This is a -surprise- coup that I'm warning you about."
"I don't think that's allowed."
"Sure it is. Check with the boss. Which happens to be me right now."
"Since when? Last I remembered, we were discussing the rules of your
bloody revolution so no one would get hurt."
"All part of my plan, of course. While you were busy arguing, I
"Evil," sighed Peterson as he lowered his gun to his bed and
stretched out, as much as was possible in his condition. "I'm glad
you're on my side. Or has -that- changed, too?"
"We'll see." Chambers tilted her head. "So we're agreed? No being all
male and arguing about letting the woman watch over you for a while?"
"Y'know, you had me up till you had to drag gender into it. Now I'm
feeling all cavemanish again..."
"Yeah, yeah, fine Chambers. Stop with the arguing already. You win,
you win. Just one problem."
"What's that, Al?"
"It'll probably take me hours to fall asleep anyway. I'm too keyed
"Problem." She mmmed, then shrugged. "Well, settle back and I'll
consider you to be 'behaving'. But if I see a single firearm in your
"Not even a derringer?"
"Especially not a derringer. If we have to make a last stand, it's
supposed to be desperate, not stupid."
"Well look at who's miss rulebook today..." Peterson chuckled and
went quiet for a moment, but realised that while he was dog-tired, sleep
was going to elude him for a time. "For a nice, quiet trooper, you sure
have gotten bossy. How'd you manage that so fast?"
Chambers shrugged, ready to leave her answer at that. But then she
considered a moment longer. "It's there when it needs to be. It just
hasn't needed to be for a while. Most of the time someone else is
barking orders, and I just have to follow them. It's pretty relaxing
actually. Especially after..."
"After? You -know- that I know that when you end a sentence like
that, you just want me to pry the information out of you."
"Guiilty. But a woman does like to be asked." Chambers smiled and
stretched out where she was, gun across her lap. "It all started when I
was a little girl..."
The stairs were a mixed blessing. Clark knew that he and his troops
could make far better time by taking them than by climbing shafts, but
the downside was that steps that ran so very high were necessarily
twisty in their ascent. Twists meant blind corners and blind corners
meant the possibility -- however remote -- of an ambush. And the
possibility of an ambush always meant 'jumpy commander'.
Still, he and his men were nearly at a level break and nothing had
yet jumped out at them, so Clark allowed himself to be guardedly
optimistic about their means of travel. The stairs had their perils, but
they were much faster than the shafts that Peterson meant to climb.
"Hey, Cl-- er, sir?" asked the man directly behind Clark. Like most
of his troops, this man still had trouble thinking of Clark as a
commander rather than just one of the boys. That was fine by Clark; he
was having the same problem himself, and had high hopes that his
elevation to high rank would prove to be temporary at best.
"Well.. just a question. Stupid question, but still... it's got to be
asked... it's not just me, it's some of the guys too..."
"Spit it out. There's only a few more days before we reach the top
and we're going to need total silence for surprise to be on our side."
"Well... just... I understand why Peterson wanted to take the shafts
up, right? Element of surprise, like you said, and safety and all..."
"So you're wondering why we're taking the stairs, is that it?"
"No! Oh Hell(tm) no, I said I understood why he wanted to take those
shafts up, but I didn't say I liked it! It's just... well... when you
and he, you know... had to travel down them to get out of the
"Yes? That top's getting closer by the minute."
"Well, just... why didn't you take the stairs down?" The trooper
stomped his foot against the staircase, to indicate the ones he meant.
There was a moment's awkward pause. Then Clark shrugged and kept
walking. "I'm sure there was a good reason at the time."
"You didn't think about it, did you? You two hotshots both plum
"Ahem. Shut it, soldier!"
"But I'm just..."
Oh thank Heavens, thought Clark, as he saw what was ahead. The door
to the next level of the Beanstalk that they were going to stop on!
Saved by the unknown and the possibility of combat! "Prepare to take
that door!" he called out, drowning out the solder's next question with
his order. He paused, and then decided to be a gentleman about it,
turning to the soldier who had asked the questions. "Oh yeah, and by the
Sometimes it was good to be the king.
Up, up, up... that way lay freedom, thought Nicholas Treis as he eyed
an elevator. Two men -- guards, clearly, from the way that they stood
and the weapons slung smartly over their shoulders -- stepped from it,
chatting amicably as they headed off to their rounds, or perhaps to eat
or just to get off-shift. Nicholas didn't much care what they did with
their time now that they'd left him with an open invitation to make his
way out of here. Leaning as far as he dared from the alcove in which
he'd hidden himself, Nicolas risked a glance left and right, and to his
relief he found that there was no one in sight. Thanking Murphy that
she'd stayed away from him today, Nicolas darted from his hiding place
into the now-closing elevator, moving as quickly as his old bones would
Nicholas sagged against the far wall of the elevator, catching his
breath. He'd forgotten how easily he was winded these days; it was not
good for a man his age to be darting like a snake behind enemy lines. A
man his age? He snorted lightly. A man his age was in the prime of his
life, enjoying wine, women and song; but Nicholas had been rendered
decrepit and feeble in his last truly great battle, forcing him to pass
his torch on to those who had remained hale and healthy. It was
staggeringly unfair, he had often whispered to himself when he was sure
that no one would be around to hear him wallow in self-pity. Superguys
could contract ancient or exotic ailments, be wiped out of existence,
have limbs and other parts blown off of them or even die and go to
Hell(tm)... and they always seemed to come back, as strong as ever and
ready to continue with the good fight. But if you wanted to hurt a super
and make it stick, all you had to do was wither him and then walk away.
The rest would take care of itself. Though he'd done his best to move on
with his life, lead Aurora and make a difference behind the desk if he
couldn't stand on the front lines, Nicholas had felt as though he'd been
dying a slow death ever since he'd been stricken, moving and breathing
only as a matter of habit.
Not now, though. Now, he felt alive. The erratic heartbeat hammering
in his ears reminded Nicholas that he was -alive- and could still impose
his will upon the universe directly, rather than at a remove. It was a
good feeling to have and he had never realised how much he had missed it
until it was gone. It would have been a very worrying feeling, if he'd
stopped to think about it, but Nicholas was beyond worrying about little
details like massive cardiac arrest at the moment. With a smile and a
gasp, he slapped ten random elevator buttons and hunkered in a corner to
wait. In a structure this size, maybe he'd get lucky and there would
only be one or two people along the way who were waiting to get on.
Maybe. He could deal with one or two, if they weren't ready for him.
The future was a mystery. And Nicolas grinned an unconscious grin,
ready to solve it.
"Well that's it," muttered Vedding, as he returned from a search that
was fruitless in more ways than one. "There's no food left anywhere in
Father O'Rourke, spiritual adviser to Aurora and exorcist
extraordinary, nodded with a solemn smile. He'd known that their hiding
place had not been extensively provisioned when they'd barred themselves
in it, and they'd been lucky to stretch what food they'd had on hand for
a full week. With a sigh of protest that his bones were getting old
before their time, O'Rourke climbed from the chair where he'd been
perched while waiting for his assistant to return from his search. Truth
be told, the priest would have been happy to help Vedding in his quest
for food, but the young lad had needed something to keep himself
occupied and feeling worthwhile. Ever since O'Rourke had offered the
hand of forgiveness to the ex-trooper, after Vedding had betrayed his
fellow soldiers, the lad had responded well to assisting the priest as a
part of the long healing process that would only end when Vedding
finally absolved himself of his sins. The only problem... the -one-
problem... was how determined Vedding was to prove himself, as if he
could atone for his sins through deeds alone. Truth be told, O'Rourke
thought that Vedding needed to find a little less solace in the muscles
and a little more in the heart. Still, it was a start, and if you had a
long journey ahead of you, the best way to start it off was with a
couple of steps to make sure you had the knack of walking by yourself.
"Guess there's nothing for it then, lad," said O'Rourke, rooting
around behind his desk. "We've got water, but that only fills a man up
so much. I'm thinking it's time to risk poking our heads out of our
warren and seeing what we can steal before the fox notices us."
"Yeah," sighed Vedding, looking torn. O'Rourke could imagine his
dilemma: on the one hand, the boy was probably starving, that being the
logical end result of 'starvation rations'. On the other, his natural
concern for the priest was just about to make him say something foolish,
"And you're not going alone," said O'Rourke, as Vedding opened his
mouth to say something foolish. "It's just fool-headed to divide up what
little strength we have, ah HERE she is!"
The priest straightened, retrieving his prized double-barreled
shotgun from behind his writing desk. He often liked to rest his feet on
its stock while penning his latest sermon.
"The Lord forgives and the priest loads his gun with rock salt,"
murmured O'Rourke reverently, stroking the weapon. "Ready, lad. I hope
you recall all your soldiering lessons from before. Particularly the
ones about sneaking through enemy territory."
"Um, unfortunately we were a power-armoured unit," replied Vedding,
rubbing the back of his neck. "'Sneaking' tended to involve radar
baffles and tops of buildings. I don't suppose you have an ECM suite on
"I'll have a talk with the good Lord about installing those on his
children, Mark Two, when next we converse," said O'Rourke, with a grin.
"Meantime, why don't we do this the old-fashioned way?"
"Trust to the luck of fools."
Vedding walked to the door leading out of the office and put his hand
on the handle. "If fools have luck, then I've probably got a -lot-
banked up right now. Let's see how much I have to spend..."
He turned the handle and pushed open the door a crack. Peering out,
Vedding saw very little.
"I'm not -actually- sure that's open wide enough for a photon or two
to slip through, lad," commented O'Rourke, patiently. "You might need to
pry that door open a sight more."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," replied Vedding, hiding his unease. Taking
another breath, he edged the door wider until he could see down one side
of the corridor without. To his relief the corridor was empty, though it
was too soon to rejoiced. He pushed the door open wide enough to slide
his whole head out and glanced in either direction down the corridor.
"See anything?" asked O'Rourke, directly behind Vedding, causing the
younger man to jump and crack his head against the door jam.
"Just stars, now," complained Vedding, rubbing his throbbing head.
"But we've got a great big empty out there."
"Then let's use it, shall we?"
Vedding nodded, and the two sneaked out into the corridor, in search
of food, news and hopefully no trouble whatsoever. Both hoped that the
luck of fools would be with them both.
Xenophon found that he didn't mind the fixing.
The fixing was easy. You just sewed bits and pieces together until
they made a whole. It took skill and a lot of intuition to repair a
broken Computer Intelligence, and challenges involving both were
appealing to someone who loved to work with his mind.
No, Xenophon didn't mind the fixing. What he did mind more was what
he would be required to do once the stitching was done.
In his virtual space, Xenophon watched as the fractal totality of a
damaged computer mind was restored from broken shards to a completed
whole. The problem with working on a task like this was that editing the
structure was nigh impossible. When fixing something as mathematically
complex as a sentient intelligence, it was theoretically possible to
edit out memories and excise unwanted details; theoretically, assuming
nearly unlimited resources and computing power by which to perform the
task of reformatting the 'shape' of the mind to its new contents. Make
too many mistakes, however, and the intelligence would find itself too
full of holes and contradictions to survive.
Though that might not matter with -this- particular intelligence.
BARD had been in some senses Xenophon's son, and of use as a turncoat
in the ranks of the Tribe of Behn, back in those simpler times when said
group had been of concern to him. Back in those times when Aleph had
still lived. Back when there had been something to fight for...
But BARD had been more than just a creation to Xenophon, and as many
sons are, the CI had proved a disappointment to his father when he sided
against his cause. The two intelligences had clashed, and BARD had lost
the struggle as well as his existence. At the time, Xenophon had told
himself that he was just collecting his creation's shattered code to
build something better from it, so as not to allow valuable resources to
lie fallow. Those such as he did not concern themselves with the
sentimentality of kinship, he had told himself. They pick up the pieces
and move on with dry eyes.
And yet so soon after, Aleph had died for her daughter and the world
in which Xenophon lived had gone insane...
It was long past time for pretending that he had no feelings for his
creation, though Xenophon simply ignored them, forging and tempering his
'son's' code until it was no longer battle-shattered and rent. There was
enough processing power in this hidden sector of Aurora's Beanstalk's
computer network to support two CIs; Xenophon had made sure of that
before he had settled on this place as a hiding hole.
When the pattern was finally made whole, and it came time to bring
forth life once snuffed back into the world, Xenophon hesitated as one
unsure whether or not he really did want to set BARD's engrams in
And yet. All decisions should be made in the space of seven and a
half breaths if one is a human, and in about as many nanoseconds if one
is of a more silicon origin. Knowing that he needed the help to fight
the battles ahead, Xenophon started his new-old code initializing.
Happy birthday, he thought, as the last self-check ran.
[[CONTINUED IN PART THREE -- WHICH HAS MORELIME!]]
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