Phenix Part 3: Báihè
Defiant was dozing in the rough bower her males had created for her. Her current discomfort was the price she paid for being only fourteen. Maker and Thinker were the only competent males in her small entourage. On his return, Maker had looked aghast at the other males’ creation and offered to build something proper. She waved him off affectionately. It was only temporary.
Maker and Bashful had done well. They had lured seven active adolescents away from the colony. Sixteen adventurous hatchlings had leaped from various rookeries into the jake’s welcoming arms. They chattered amongst themselves in a tree nearby. That was male business. Finding food for them all was her problem. She needed to plan a hunt and send jakes out to gather.
Cries of greetings chorused through the trees. There was no mention of Thinker. It was the old silverback by himself. Defiant practiced patience and waited in her bower. She could not hide her excitement when he finally reached her doorway. Tinker came close to the table at her insistence. “Thinker is well. He sent me back as soon as we saw the Traveler’s rookery. He begs you to join him. I have a story to tell you.”
Afterward, she took the intricate wooden charm in her hands. It was a tale to tell before a bonfire. She was part of the tale now too. Defiant broke the charm apart. “It looks like this? How big?”
“I have no words for you Defiant. To see it is to be a hatchling breaking free of its shell for the first time and discovering the forest. What words could you use to prepare the hatchling for that?” Tinker laughed to himself. “Hasty’s male has covered his legs in shit from fear of this great rookery. We could not let him return by himself to poison everyone’s mind. Thinker’s fifth arm is as hard as my Traveler knife just thinking about what he will learn from the Travelers.”
“The fool knows no fear but ignorance, he ruts with knowledge.” Defiant mused affectionately. “Travelers are drawn to their rookery by the magic boxes. Will there be others?”
Tinker thought it through. “Thinker doesn't know. Probably not, who can tell. The bracelet is broken too.”
“So the Mana leaves the dead rookery.”
“This is the heart.” Tinker took an egg. He lay it on a broad leaf, smashed it with his hand, and then swept the fragments away. “This is the bracelet and its second heart in the bead.” He took another egg and cracked it lightly on the leaf.
“The yolk is mostly there.” Defiant observed.
“And who can say, a chick might still hatch.” Tinker replied.
“But am I moving all my people into danger?” Defiant’s uncertainty warmed Tinker. Young though she was, he respected her compassion. It was rare in a female, but who else in the colony would have chosen Thinker to come first in her entourage?
“I'm not as deep as Thinker, but I have been climbing my tree for many more years than you. There are many branches on a tree. Sometimes, there is time to pick your next branch, other times you pick the arm and branch after your leap. The branches thin as you climb until you think you can go no further. Do you stop, or do you make a bold leap outward?”
“Why to a new tree, lady. The tree is not the whole forest. I’ve now seen the sun set on a lake that never stops. Is there another forest on the other side? I think there is. The next leap is all that matters. Those old crones wouldn't make that leap, but you will, carrying all of us on your back like hatchlings.”
“They brought her down with the primary drive turned toward the planet. Look how badly they hit her. The drive core, the flanks where our shuttles rested...” Ashabi turned back and looked up the slope toward the crater rim. “Somewhere along here she started to curl around until she ended with the Ring Setting facing the ocean out there.”
“The back half of her is shredded except for the backbone of the ring itself.” Matteo commented. “That section of the north hull there, the open container of decks, that's all that is left.” Ashabi did not respond. She was thinking of how each strike on Báihè represented the murder of dozens of her adopted Yóukè family. If it had been her shift, her mother would have been in engineering when the first missile collapsed the bottle.
Poor excuse for a Yóukè you are Ashabi Sankara, what would mother say? She checked her watch. The engineering section was alarmingly hot. Its slagged components were probably releasing toxins into the air. It was definitely not a healthy place to linger. Ashabi had a passing concern for the lake forming in the crater above them. Joshua was following her with Shiva, “Josh, did you remember to pack your Bracelet like I asked?”
“Sure did.” She told him to put it on and told him about her fear. Shiva’s eyes were always drinking in every evidence of human technology. When Joshua turned his on, the rim was traced in orange. “That’s not good is it?”
“It’s not red, so you’re not dying.” Ashabi replied. “I wish we could say something to our two curious friends here. Before long, they are going to stumble into somewhere deadly. “Ji should have his watch too.”
“I have his brother’s” Joshua said quietly. “I know it sounds stupid, but I brought all their watches with me. It was sort of a way to bring the three boys home.” After a hesitation, he pulled two watches out. He handed one to Ashabi and turned with the other to Shiva. He wondered what the little Forest Person thought of it as he adjusted the strap snugly on the smaller of his left wrists. It seemed to work when he turned it on, but it naturally failed to identify the little alien.
“Blade is friending you Thinker. I look forward to watching you together.”
“Shut up Frightened, he doesn’t know the People’s ways.” Even so, the gesture of sharing a bracelet with Blade moved him. Another absorbing pantomime occurred between the Travelers. “The bracelet keeps us safe from death or even draining Mana around the Traveler’s fallen rookery. We die when it is red. It is orange right now, so Mana is draining from us, but not dangerously, because Blade and the others still stand here. The green of the forest means safety.” Blade showed him how he might accidentally put the bracelet to sleep and then awaken the magic again. Thinker wondered what other magic lay within the bracelet. He looked at Blade and realized it really was a friendship bracelet, and Thinker would die before he let anyone take it from him. He accidentally opened the band and fumbled with a hand to catch it before it dropped to the ground. Blade showed him what he had done, and then watched as Thinker put it back on. A hatchling, or Frightened, could manipulate the magic.
“I think he gets it.” Joshua told the others. “Before we go on, I want to say something to you two. Thank you for being patient with me and following my lead through the forest. I’m done now. This is Ashabi’s world. Ji, Matt, and I have to follow you now Ash. You’re the one who knows best here. You lead us now.” Joshua grinned. “I’m like Shiva here, waiting for my female to tell me where to go and what to do.”
Ashabi laughed at him and playfully pulled him down on the ground. She sat straddling him with her arms pressed into his chest. She laughed again and her face became serious. “We are not safe yet Josh, but thank you. Thank you for leading us home. Thank you for saving me from those bastards at the lifeboat. I can never repay you for that.” She bruised his lips with a fierce kiss. When she jumped up, she caught Matteo’s face between her hands and kissed him as well. The little jakes looked on. For once, they understood completely.
They used the next day to hike around the Báihè. Ashabi explored a few fruitless avenues into the hulk. All that accomplished was to cement the realization that the Southern Hemisphere of the vast cargo carrier was well and truly gone. This did not disturb Ashabi as much as it did the three passengers exploring the wreckage. To Joshua and Matteo, the crumpled and shredded walls hanging precariously over their heads confirmed Báihè’s destruction.
To the young Yóukè teenager, the mess about her was lost cargo. In her mind, Báihè was the murdered central core and its ring. As Joshua and Mateo explored with increasing discouragement, Ashabi found her spirits rising. The worst damage to the ring lay on the port side where the shuttles had been birthed. The ring far above their heads had been stripped down to the ship alloy backbone. The mauled remains of one of Báihè’s four shuttles hung precariously on its clamps. There had been marginally less damage to the Starboard side. The shuttle there might have survived, but Ashabi knew it offered little value. Báihè’s shuttled were simply that, a means to ferry cargo within the system.
They did not try to circumnavigate the ship. There was little point in lingering around the toxic ruin of of Báihè’s drive. Báihè had ground to a halt on a tall spur of rock fifty metres from the final drop down to a rocky beach. Its slide obliterated a thick grove of Shǒushù trees. The remnants of that grove crowded close to the Báihè’s surviving hull. Joshua and the two boys trailed behind her, not realizing that Ashabi had only entered Báihè through the north airlock on the Setting.
Shiva and the other male had not joined this first exploration. Shiva had taken his companion into the trees beside the Báihè. Joshua assumed the males were scouting for their own needs. The four humans spent their first night camped two floors up on the hard deck of a cargo module. The vast hulk of the Báihè was dark, but that could not discourage the three teens or their young charge.
In the early morning, they began their first assault on Báihè’s surviving decks. Matteo and Ji kept up a steady competition of the first meals they would eat when they made it in. Ashabi begged them to stop. A silent Joshua was aware they had eaten the last of the Jùmò Bars two days before.
“The corridor has collapsed. I can't get through.” Matteo was on his belly scanning the darkness with his light.
“Maybe I could get through.” Ji offered.
“That's not much help kid. We all need to get inside.” Ji offered to bring back a piece of cold pizza. That earned him a swat.
They sat together on a ledge inside one of the shredded residential containers. They agreed to try climbing up closer to the corridors of the ring. It took them a while to locate an opening they could reach. A standard cargo container was ferried over from a container port by tugs and anchored to the ring. It worked well in zero gravity, but it meant that most of the locks hung facing down, forty metres over their heads.
During her final voyage, Báihè was transporting passengers in six, eight-story habitat containers chartered by different parties. Most levels of the one habitat hanging down from the ring had shattered between the immense weight of the spaceship and the ground. Matteo led them up through the wreckage of the three remaining levels as they started their second assault. Explosive decompression and the corrosive gale of the the atmosphere had scoured most of the loose items.
Matteo and Ji balanced on the jagged edge of the final level looking at the sealed hatch three metres away. Ashabi and Joshua had abandoned the effort and were searching cabins for food.
“What do you think kid? Can I jump to that ladder out there?”
“If we had a plank of some sort, we could fish it out there and hook it onto the ladder. Might be scary, but I'd walk out with a rope around my waist.” Matteo looked down.
“Shiva could jump to that ladder I bet. He would try if Josh asked him to.”
“That's a thought kid, but we have no way to explain what he should do when he’s out there. Besides, that staircase looks like it's going to tear loose any moment. Let's go back.”
Joshua pried the next door open. “Man, these people never had a chance when the habitat was breached.” Ashabi and he had been finding gruesome remains everywhere.
“We were not responsible for safety standards on these habitats.” Ashabi replied defensively. “All we agee to is a ride, power, and access to the mall on the ring.” She knew when the breach occurred, the doors into the ring would have sealed automatically, leaving the trapped passengers to their fate.
“I was hanging out in the mall when they started sealing the ring.” Joshua let the conversation drop. He had found a stash of food. “Bountiful Gaia, we are having chicken curry for supper!” He held up the boxes for her to see. “They don’t look damaged by the decompression.”
The four continued ransacking the rooms until near dark. To the boy’s consternation, there was nothing suitably flammable in the ruined habitat. Matteo looked longingly at the forest below before agreeing to wait till morning. They moved into a cabin unoccupied by the decayed remains of its previous resident, and settled in for the night.
Waking in a cabin brought Matteo a sense of unreality. The spartan accommodations were similar to the dorm he had shared with his fellow transportees in one of the other habitats. Ashabi’s warmth beside him, and the gravity pressing him down into the bed, reminded the boy that this was not the hopeful end of a bad dream. “I guess I’m not still on my way to Tantric.”
Ashabi stirred beside him. “Were you looking forward to that?” She rolled over so she could look at him.
“Not hardly, I was headed to some sort of apprenticeship in a mining operation. It sounded a lot like slavery till I reached twenty five.” Matteo smiled at her and looked thoughtful. “Why did Jonquo Consortium snatch the musical street kid and drag him off planet?”
“I don’t know Matteo. It seems like they could run a mine with automation cheaper than transporting you to Lánbǎoshí.” Ashabi shrugged.
“No Ash, mining machines may be smart, but Jonquo Consortium wanted to hear A-Minor underground. Do you get it? A miner digging underground, or a minor below the legal age, it works at so many levels!” Matteo grinned at her.
“I could kill you for that.” Ashabi replied coldly.
As night fell, the companions were hungry. Ashabi knew they were getting discouraged. “That was the last cargo container with any access to the ring.” Ashabi pointed out unnecessarily.
“I never would have believed it!” Matteo exclaimed bitterly. “There must have been twenty locks on the bottom of the ring.”
“Twelve on each side. There are four clustered around the Ring Setting. Four more clustered around engineering. Those are slagged, I’m sure. We should have found a way into the Ring Setting.” Ashabi concluded with bewilderment. They had come up against vacuum doors that would have opened to their watches’ ID codes if the doors were still powered. The lack of power was a disappointment. Even without it, the teenagers ought to have been able to open an undamaged door manually.
“There is plenty of wood and other building materials. Let’s build a scaffold up to the one of the ring locks.” Joshua suggested unenthusiastically.
“If we have to.” Matteo conceded. Building a scaffold would be a major undertaking. “I say we try to climb up the outside till we can get above the ring. We only had one look down when we were on the crater rim. It seemed to me that we could get to one of the entry ports.” He turned to look toward engineering at the stern. “The ring almost touches the ground back there.”
“It's too toxic, Matt. We would cook.” Ashabi replied. “If I knew there was still a medical bay working, I might chance it.” If they were doomed to make the wreck their home, something would need to be done about the poisonous stern. Ashabi was losing her optimism. “Matt’s right though. Our next attempt needs to be scaling the hull. Grab your things everyone, we are heading back to the prow.
Defiant swayed slightly on the branch, she was considering the curved wall of water smooth rock that made up so much of the Traveler’s stupefying rookery. Tinker’s analogy of leaping blindly from the tip of one tree into a whole new forest was staring her in the face. Tinker had been right. Nothing prepared a person for the Traveler rookery. There was too much strangeness in her world. A person could say, this new fruit tastes like this other fruit I know, but with the Travellers the unexplainable overwhelmed. Blade carried his spear. Flame used the sap of trees to start fire. Travellers took the comforting shape of people, these things a person could understand. How could you explain this stone rookery flying? Defiant made herself drop the fear like it was a rotten fruit. The magnitude of rookery had grown as her fearful troop approached it from the new lake. The fearful talk had been incessant. Thinker’s obvious bliss was not enough to convince his fellows. Her entourage of jakes needed her courage.
The male hatchling clinging to Thinker’s back distracted her with his constant stream of questions. Thinker had aptly named the little male Why. Apparently her male and the hatchling were well acquainted with each other. While Defiant had laid no eggs, her jakes visited the rookeries, drawn to the children. Why shared the same coloration as his adopted father, perhaps they shared parents. Defiant turned her mind away from the domestic male world and considered the wall before her.
It was not completely smooth. There was a comforting profusion of unnatural shapes across the surface. There was also no shortage of cracks, handholds, and leafless vines scattered about. A person would have to hang on the rookery wall until they reached the point above her head where it began to curve back up to the sky. Defiant hesitated, not from fear, but caution. A empress did not invade another empress’s rookery. To do so was as close as one of the People could come to understanding war. Defiant would not have considered it if Flame had not made it clear she needed Defiant’s help. Defiant was not sure if the Traveler empress understood that she was inviting another female to share the rookery. Thinker, seeming to read her doubts, pointed to his new bracelet and reminded her that Traveler minds did not follow the same branches as people.
Defiant glanced back at Thinker and two of the barely adolescent males Maker had lured away from the colony for this adventure. Thinker and Why met her eye impassively, the two jake’s fear was rank. She turned back to the wall cursing herself for that careless demonstration of uncertainty. What should it matter to her if they were frightened. She went where she wished and the jakes who were worthy of her attention tried to keep up. Thinking again of Tinker’s advice, Defiant launched off the branch toward the alien wall curving gently up to the sky above their heads.
It had been her intention to to begin climbing as soon as she hit the wall, but the handholds were tricky. She paused, conscious of the impacts around her as her abbreviated entourage joined her. Someone missed their handhold and a cry of fear forced her head around. One of the new jakes was plummeting to the ground. Incredibly, Blade caught the jake in his arms and they collapsed onto the ground. Defiant dismissed them and began to move.
Being on the Traveler rookery was enough to impress the watching people below her. She worked her way up carefully, at times hanging by one strong hand while she considered her next handhold. There were places where it looked like a vine or nubby branch was ready to tear loose. She had to make detours. The watching humans marveled at her strength and agility, but she was not reckless. Before trying the climb the Travelers had demonstrated how unreliable many of the handholds might be. Defiant mapped out her path, conscious that the weaker jakes were trying to follow her.
“God she is strong, that reverse face has to be over 50 metres.” Matteo shook his head in amazement.
“Shiva’s little kid is just hanging on for dear life. Why do you suppose he brought him along?” Ji added. The four companions moved along the ground with their heads craned upward. If all went well, Kali and Shiva would drop a line down once they reached the ring levels.
“Shiva probably never gave it much thought before he started.” Joshua murmured to himself. Ji was going up on his back. Like Shiva, Joshua had no intention of abandoning the small boy on the ground. Joshua tried to imagine the weight of Ji pulling him down as he tried like Shiva to reach for every awkward handhold. The Forest People knew their business.
Travelers seemed to be the consummate makers. Defiant paused on an odd shelf to rest. She doubted all of this was decoration, but neither was it likely natural. It was one monumental blade chipped from rock, or it was a cooking pot fired with a clay of unimaginable strength. Rope vines held a bridge together, linking the rookeries of the colony. That was all she was doing, climbing up Traveler vines like the ones she and her males carried looped around their shoulders.
Defiant glanced at her males, noting with approval that the one who fell into Blade’s arms had rejoined her. “Rest here while I go on.” She ordered them all. The two young ones took her place when she moved on. Thinker ignored her order and continued after. He also ignored her rebuke, naturally. Little Why nattered on with an endless series of questions as Thinker came on behind her. Thinker kept wheezing out short answers patiently.
The next handhold ripped free in Defiant’s strong hand. She still had a reliable purchase in a crack with her legs and two other hands. After a quick glance at the offending ring, she let it drop to the forest floor below. Before seeing the Traveler rookery, she would have never discarded such a prize. So much broken Traveler stone all around her now. She, Flame and their jakes were going to weave a rookery beyond all dreaming. There was her young ally Hasty too. If the young female could overcome her fears, it would be a colony. With that happy thought to strengthen her, Defiant climbed the last metres to the ledge Flame and Blade had assured her lay along the tall wall of Traveler stone. She helped each of her males up the last bit.
Why dropped off Thinker’s back and scampered back to the edge of the ledge they were resting on. He peered over the edge estimating their height. “Wow dad, we are higher than the tree tops! So much water over there! Does every river end up there?” The fledgling male turned back to Thinker. “Where is the hole in this strange trunk?”
Thinker stood up and pulled the coil of thin Traveler vine over his head. Why took a last look at the tree tops below before jumping onto his back. “Defiant will want Flame to come up and help her find it.” A heavy drizzle began as Thinker joined Defiant. She was testing the sort of bracelet handholds Blade had pointed out before they started their climb. Defiant had found one she liked. They knotted the vine onto the handhold and added Thinker’s coil to the other end. The Traveler vines were incredibly long, but they agreed a third was needed.
Defiant payed out the long coils carefully so they would not snarl. She saw The four Travelers below her waiting. “If Flame isn't strong enough to climb up here on the trunk bark and broken branches, what makes her think she can climb this vine?” Thinker thought that was a good question.
The answer was more Traveler magic. Flame attached something to the vine and suddenly she was flying up the line. She jerked to a stop before the first knot and fumbled with a second object above the knot. After a pause, she continued up to the next obstruction on the vine and repeated her adjustment. Flame’s magic ran out just out of arm’s reach. Thinker interpreted the noises she made as annoyance. She looked down and then up. “She needs our help.” Thinker concluded. “I'm glad it's not Blade.” It took three of them to pull the heavy Traveler empress up the final distance.
Ashabi kept one hand firmly on a handhold. She was deathly afraid she might faint. Yóukè were sent outside young. She had been out in an EVA suit three times. Her mother had not handled working outside well, and neither, it turned out, had Ashabi. The vertigo in gravity was even worse. Gravity was an evil force sucking her away from the safety of the hull. There was two metres of rain soaked ledge never designed to be stood on without magnets. Ashabi felt she was going to slip right over the edge. It amazed her to watch the Forest People wandering around oblivious to the danger.
Shiva and Kali were obviously waiting for her. The female had sent her younger males along the side of the ring keel to explore the northern hemisphere. The rain and damaged hull did not stop the two jakes from confidently scrambling along the ledge toward the damaged sections of cargo bay midships. Somewhere in that direction there ought to be a way around the two meter overhang.
Ashabi shook off her fear and headed in the opposite direction toward where the nearby setting on the ring began to swell away from the three decks of the Keel Ring. Shiva and Kali followed close behind. She was looking for a service lock or loading dock. A service lock could be opened manually. Ashabi found both. Just before the swell of the Setting, and the end of the ledge, there was a cargo dock. Beyond that, a service lock. She touched the red striped door of the service lock desperately hoping it would open manually. Her wristband came to life.
It was unexpected. Ashabi froze staring at the face of her band. Beyond the radiation warning, her personal device had been completely dead. She was afraid to test her luck. Nothing had been easy for the castaways so far. Joshua and she had told each other the ship would be there for them, surely it was not this simple. The pad was beside the door. She stared at the cover for a long time. Shiva and Kali sat silently watching her. Even Shiva’s unnamed son was gazing at her curiously. Ashabi ripped the cover open and slapped the green pad. Immediately, the door slid open with a hum.
Her heart was pounding painfully as she stepped into the airlock. She was dimly aware of the emergency lights along the walls and the shuffling sounds of Kali and Shiva behind her. Ashabi stood facing the inner door hyperventilating. In a trance, she pressed the release.
“Please identify yourself verbally.” Báihè’s calm voice broke the silence. Ashabi began to shake. Her voice caught and she needed to clear her throat.
“Ashabi Sankara, 5468723ASH”
“Verified.” The door did not open.
“Báihè, I need the door open.” Ashabi’s voice quavered.
“The lock is not secured.” Báihè replied. “Safety protocol requires the exterior lock be secured.”
“There is no danger of decompression. We are in atmosphere.” This simply initiated a repetition of the first warning. After a while, Ashabi realized she was not talking to Báihè. She thought sadly of the artificial intelligence that must have perished with the quarterdeck. Ashabi turned back and closed the outer lock. The inner lock slid open.
“Welcome to the Báihè, Ashabi Sankara. I have logged you in as returned. Please be advised that the ship is operating on emergency power by order of the captain. Restrictions apply and decompressed zones are sealed.” The two Forest People sat near the outer door looking at her. She would have loved to know what was going through their alien minds. Ashabi took a breath and stepped through the open door.
The lock opened up onto the side of a nondescript loading bay. Thankfully, everything in the small cargo space was secured to the walls and floors. Ashabi wandered around taking an inventory before she opened the the wide inner door. The broad yellow corridor curved away on either hand mirroring the curve of the keel. The close at hand, a new corridor framed in command violet led in toward lost quarterdeck. Closed doors held the promise of a future. Satisfied that they finally had access to the surviving portions of the ship, she turned her attention to getting the boys up.
The power in all three of Joshua’s climbing gadgets was exhausted. They had used them frequently along the way and she did not want to take the time to try charging them. After she had yelled the good news down to them, Ashabi considered options. There was a tether mounted on the wall near the bay door. In an emergency it would have been used to reel in people or objects loose in space, or between ships as need be. Ashabi tested the motor and then lowered the thin cable down to Joshua, Matteo, and Ji.
Ashabi and the boys shouted back and forth. She thought they should come up one at a time as she had. Matteo and Joshua seemed to want something to stand on. Shiva and his little son lay next to her trying to understand what the Travelers were talking about. Shiva watched as Joshua and Matteo began bringing deadwood to the spot where the tether dangled. He exchanged a few words with Kali, tested the thin tether, abandoned it, and ran down the ledge to where the rope Ashabi had climbed still dangled. As the started down the rope, his son jumped off the ledge onto his back.
Kali went off in search of her missing two males. By the time she returned with them, Shiva had another male organize all the Forest Males into a work party weaving a large spherical basket. Joshua and Matteo found a fragment of hull to use as a secure floor. The rain ceased and night was falling when the first basket load brought her boy's home.
Ashabi picked at her meal unenthusiastically. After days of binging on the cornucopia of food, they had all begun taking the limited variety for granted. So much was still inaccessible to them and it rankled the Yóukè the most. The promenade was a twilight world of ghost filled amusements lit by emergency lights. The boys spent the days exploring boundaries. Ashabi spent her days bumping up against what was left of Báihè. She had changed into a uniform, but Báihè refused to recognize her as a crew member.
Joshua watched Ashabi as she sat in silence. The three boys exchanged glances. Joshua wanted to ask her if she had made progress, but the answer was pretty clear. “Level up, we found a couple of closed corridors heading into the Quarterdeck. Do you think it would be worth a try Ash?” She shrugged her shoulders.
“It would also be worth trying to open a lock onto the decompressed part of the ring? We need to see if there is anything we can use.” Mateo added. Ashabi remained silent. “Come on Ash, talk to us.” Ashabi stood up and shoved her debris into a reclaimer. She turned back, the frustration boiling over in a defensive tirade.
“I’m not crew. Báihè only wants to talk to crew. It thinks it’s still in vacuum. You guys already know that.”
“How can she think that? Báihè is a Class Two artificial intelligence. She is a Yóukè citizen isn’t she? That makes her crew as much as your mom was.” Joshua countered. Ashabi returned to the cafeteria table and sat.
“Guys, Báihè died with the Quarterdeck under that rock. If there are crew left, they are scattered who knows where around this planet. I’ve been arguing with some brainless security routine Báihè set up before separation. She told it to shut everything down.”
Joshua looked at his plate. “The cafeteria is working.”
“It’s set up to take care of us, but not let us take more control.” She was embarrassed. Joshua had trusted her and she was feeling helpless. “If only I had started my apprenticeship before this happened. I had it all arranged. Mom wanted me to wait until I was older. She said there was plenty of time.” Ashabi dropped her head onto her arms.
“I wonder what the forest people are doing out there?” Ji asked.
“Probably roaming the trees. I have a hard time believing they left. I should go back to the loading bay and check on them.” Joshua replied absently. He reached out a hand to stroke Ashabi’s head. She sat up suddenly, smacked her forehead, and activated her wristband.
“Báihè, acknowledge preauthorized Jūnqí appointment. Ashabi Sankara, 5468723ASH reporting for duty.” Just as she had at the airlock, Ashabi held her breath.
“Apprentice Sankara, report to S532 at 0:00 Alpha shift.”
“Okay, what happened there Ash?” Matteo asked.
“I've got access to the Setting. S532 is probably a classroom.” She shook her head and frowned.
“I’m not sure what to tell you.” Joshua asked her when she was expected to be at the classroom. “It's 4:18, Gamma shift, so about three and a half hours.” Ashabi brightened visibly. “Let's use the time to see if I've got better access around here. Ice cream cone anyone?”
Half an hour later they were in cargo bay 2, staring at a three dimensional puzzle filling the space above their heads. “It's a factory. I wonder where it was headed?”
“Maybe you were taking it to Tantric.” Joshua offered.
“Probably not.” Ashabi started scouting around the base of the installation. “Tantric could make its own factories. Some newly successful mining commune on a dwarf planet perhaps. Tantric was only one of many stops planned I think. Matt was headed to Lánbǎoshí. Maybe it ordered one.” She called back to them from the depths of the factory. “I don't have much time now, but I think I found the control centre. There are some service bots hanging out here and it has independent power.”
“This could be a big help.” Matteo suggested to Joshua.
They retreated back to the promenade and went towards the gaping wound where the Keel Ring had been breached. It was hard to know what lay beyond the final set of sealed doors. As usual, Ashabi failed to convince Báihè to override safety protocols, but she could open it manually. “This isn't an airlock to vacuum. The door activated before she entered the atmosphere, I don't think the pressure difference will activate the doors behind us. If it does, it will be a hassle for us.” After a nod from the boy's, she cracked the door.
A stiff breeze whistled in through the gap. They paused, listening for the ship's response to the breach. Joshua sent Ji running down the promenade to check the closest door. He reported it was open. After a sigh of relief, they moved through the bulkhead.
There was no obvious damage along the promenade beyond signs of explosive decompression. The stumbled on the remains of crew in adjacent compartments. Ashabi stopped looking after she found a tangle of bodies. “They were trying to get to lifeskins.” They followed her back to the promenade. The bodies reminded them all of what had been lost during that final panicked hour.
The promenade widened at a broad staircase leading up to some habitat module. They walked around the stairs, promising to explore the Taj Taj above on their way back. They worked their way through an increasing tangle of debris. There were more skeletons threaded through the web of broken walls. Death was too familiar now and they passed without comment.
A great hand had swiped across the flank of Báihè. The shattered levels of the ring gave way to nothing but a long bridge of corroded keel with shredded bits of corridor and cargo bays streaming off of it. It was raining again and the mist of the rainforest obscured the far side of the ring. Joshua could make out the remains of the stern closer at hand. The streamlined disk of a damaged courier lay canted on the opposite edge. The roof of its cargo bay looked like a fist had smashed down on its hull and drive nacelles. Joshua’s eyes followed the curved path of the doomed ship’s spine. “We can just walk over there I think.”
“If we need to, but what’s the point?” Ashabi replied. “They targeted the shuttles first before they took out the stern. Even that courier is lost.” She pointed through the rain to where the Báihè’s last remaining shuttle lay on the far side. “We might have better luck repairing that.”
Ashabi sighed. “There are so many things to do here. I wish Báihè were here to help us.”
Matteo looked over the edge. “People may be scattered all over this planet. The families in my lifeboat are probably still waiting for me. How can we get them here?”
Joshua put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“I haven't forgotten them kid.” Joshua turned to Matteo, “Maybe Ash can work out something with what’s left of the AI.”
Ashabi did not reply. She knew she should worry about the rest of the scattered survivors trying to survive. There would be crew out there, people she might know. Only, once the adults returned, she would be pushed aside. Besides, after the lifeboat, she had lost her faith in the adults on this world. Even the families Matteo fixated on had used him badly. Ashabi looked at her boys, Better the four of us alone. She thought.
“Well, as long as Báihè keeps tech suppressed, I don't see how we can even contact them.” The obvious frustration in her voice hid her secret relief. She would deal with rescue efforts after she solved the riddle of activating Báihè. For the time being, she was captain of the Báihè.
They turned back into the tangle and worked their way back to the promenade. Ji touched Joshua’s arm, “I think the Forest People are on the ship. I'm pretty sure I saw something moving over on the other side.”
Joshua frowned. He was more inclined to trust Ji’s eyes now. “I hope not Ji. I tried to warn Shiva that the back of this wreck was dangerous.” He glanced over his shoulder, but everything seemed lost in the mist.
“This is pretty fancy Josh.” Ji stood in the centre spinning slowly around, still lush bamboos towering above him. Three stories above his head a pale sky blue disk illuminated the elegant atrium. Living walls of vegetation rose up to the ceiling.
The self sufficient Taj seemed ready for its errant guests return. Joshua and Ji went up a powered lift to the balcony. Discrete lights throughout the Taj still flashed their warning. Open doors revealed staterooms of various configurations. “All we had were capsules and I had to share one with Frank. Must be nice to be rich” Ji tried a kitchen and was rewarded with burger of some sort. The gruesome memory of Ji’s older brother intruded as Joshua watched Ji wander into the bathroom trailing the tantalizing odors. “Let's stay here.”
“Ashabi might want to stay closer to the Setting.” Joshua was rewarded with a passingly good noodle bowl when he tried the kitchen settings. Staying in the self sufficient Taj complex made sense. He imagined travelling in luxury between the stars. Slurping fresh noodles amidst understated elegance made the last year seem unreal. The Taj’s guests would be somewhere on the planet in the Taj private lifeboat. Perhaps the Taj’s lifeboat had been nicer than the Spartan affair provide to the rest.
“I agree Ji, we might as well use it. It's ours now.” Matteo would be delighted. “We should head back to the Setting and see how Ash and Matt are doing.” They both reluctantly left the room and after a circuit of the remaining rooms, headed down.
There was an androgynous child sitting on the concierge’s desk swinging long legs back and forth when they stepped back into the lobby. Ji and Joshua stopped and stared. Impassive eyes blinked back from a dirty face.
“How old are you?” The child asked unexpectedly.
“I'm eight. How old are you?” Ji blurted out. He walked up to the child, who might have been a year younger than Ji.
“Too young, sorry.” Liquid eyes shifted to Joshua. “You look like you're an adult. I really need an adult.” The child’s voice was earnest. Joshua admitted he was eighteen and gave his name. The child frowned at this. “It would be better if you were older. Is there anyone older with you?”
“No, who are you? Have you been here all this time? Ghaia, where are your parents? Why didn't you leave with them?”
“Nobody is left. Nobody has come back to Báihè except you. I've been waiting for help.” The child pushed off the desk and landed on grimy bare feet. “Báihè says you are Joshua Patel, passenger 003456, immigrating to Tantric on a university scholarship. Twenty five would be much better Joshua Patel, but I can recognize eighteen.” The strange little person started for the stairs down to the promenade deck.
“Kid, you should come with us.” Joshua said gently. “You've been here all by yourself since the crash? What’s your name?” Joshua started after the kid. His presence was unreal.
“I’m Phen. I really need you to come with me right now. I can explain everything once you have come to me.” There was a pause. “Are there Yóukè with you?” Suddenly, Phen bolted down the stairs.
Joshua and Ji chased after. The kid paused at the bottom of the stairs as if to see if they would follow. Satisfied, Phen started trotting off toward the stern. When Joshua reached the naked Keel Ring, the small figure was walking slowly across the gap. He paused to shout back to Joshua. “Just keep coming!”
Joshua considered the path. A steady rain coated everything and fragments of the ring still clung to the ship’s frame like scraps from a Red Roaster carcass. The deranged child scrambled over obstacles as he or she moved confidently toward the far side. A steady breeze blew in from the sea behind them. “Ji, you wait here. I'll bring him back.”
“Josh, I'm coming too!” Ji hugged Joshua around the waist. Joshua gently pried him loose. He knelt down next to Ji and smiled reassuringly.
“I won't be long. It’s better you stay this time.” Joshua kissed the top of Ji’s head. After a moment he started after the child.
The surface of the great keel was broader than it looked but still managed to leave him with a sickening vertigo. This is another job for Kali and her people. Joshua”s thought. He steadied himself on a flapping section of bulkhead before glancing over to the trees. They should have kept better track of what Shiva and his mate were doing. Joshua made the mistake of looking down. The child had reached the other side. Phen sat watching Joshua.
“I had to get you over here Joshua Patel. Should we wait for him?” The child pointed behind Joshua. Ji was halfway over, trotting confidently along to catch up.
Joshua sighed his exasperation and waited for his little shadow. “Did your parents ever spank you Ji?” Ji paused beyond arm's reach.
“I carry your blade Josh.” There was a stubborn set to the boy’s mouth. Joshua reached over and tossed his shaggy hair. He almost conceded that he was not Ji’s dad, so the determined boy was right, he did not have to listen to him. Compassion held his tongue. From the look in Ji’s eyes, it would have been the wrong thing to say.
“Sometimes you need to listen to me kid. Let’s see where Phen is taking us. The poor kid has obviously been on his own for way too long.”
Phen took them around the damaged courier ship. Except for huge swaths, the hull of the vast double storage bay was moulded down into a perfect copy the profile of the courier’s disk. Everything within the bay was in disarray. Joshua could even see the forest through the gaps in the walls. “This was hit hard.” Joshua commented to himself.
Phen replied as they moved over the wreckage, “The target was the two shuttles, not this double bay.” Phen paused at the open ramp of the courier. “Please come on board Joshua Patel.” Joshua looked at the way the small ship canted over the long drop to the forest floor below. Phen anticipated his concern, “I’m securely anchored to the Keel Ring. It is absolutely necessary for you to come inside.”
Joshua looked at Ji and concluded his little companion would once again ignore his instructions. Ji followed him up the ramp. The quarterdeck was a compact table in the space jutting out of the courier’s prow. Active screens offered a dizzying view of the nearby forest. Despite the artificial gravity, the skewed horizon gave the unsettling impression that the ship was going to crash imminently. Ji stayed close to Joshua as they came to the round table at the centre of the quarterdeck. When Joshua touched the table lightly, the glossy wood finish turned slate grey and came alive. A message popped up on the surface. “Who are you?” Joshua asked the grubby urchin standing beside the table.
“I can help you, and you can help me. You need to follow my advice before it becomes clear. That’s the way it works.”
Joshua stared at Phen for a bit. “Do it Josh!” Ji urged. Joshua read over the instructions again.
He cleared his throat nervously, then began. “No other legal claimants visual within 1000 kilometres, and pursuant to Clause 19.345.2 of the Articles of Yóukè Trade Federation, Joshua Patel claims salvage rights to the derelict yacht Pheenix.”
“It’s Phenix.” Phen interrupted.
“Phenix,” Joshua corrected. “Phan-Gratta Dominion registration.” Joshua turned to Phen, “I can’t say that.” Phen coached him for a few times and then pointed to the table. “Registration Reụ̄x yx chth̒ 954632” Joshua mangled it badly, but Phen nodded encouragement. Joshua finished the last line. “Cross registered with the Coop as Private Yacht 2341-9845-B345.”
Phen smiled at him. “Báihè has registered your claim in its ship log. I thought I was grounded here forever!”
“Who are you and why did you want me to claim this useless wreck?” Joshua looked down at the table. It was just a cherrywood table again.
“What should I call you? Xander Jophlin was the commodore.” Phen stood respectfully. It made Joshua uncomfortable and he was cross about all the game playing.
“He’s Josh. Call him Josh.” Ji had started looking around the quarters behind the quarterdeck. “This is almost as nice as the Taj room.”
“Josh.” Joshua agreed finally. “Why did I just take possession of part of this wreck? Ashabi is crew of Báihè now. She is Yóukè and holds claim to the remains of Báihè as daughter of a shareholder.”
“Not once Báihè was abandoned on this uncharted planet. All this is simply salvage. Her claim will not be recognized. This Yacht is cargo. I am the pilot of Phenix, Josh. I’m a AI-4. This was my first contract. I was beginning to think it was my last!”
“Unless someone stumbles on us here, it is your last. You aren’t going anywhere. All that salvage talk? Why does it matter?”
“What’s with the body? Báihè didn’t have a body, did she?” Ji interrupted. He had come back from examining the sleeping capsules.
“I borrowed this recreational Geisha from the Taj. I borrowed the others as well.” Phen pointed at three Geisha coming up the the ramp. Joshua’s eyes widened at the three exotic young bodies. They were easily the most beautiful representations of young women and a man he had ever met. “This preadolescent and these adults were Taj amenities. I hacked into all four. You will need them. Xander Jophlin preferred this Geisha as a companion. I could switch to one of the others if you prefer.” Joshua blushed. Celestial designed Androids of this quality and function were new to him.
“Why the charade to make me owner of Phenix?” Joshua’s voice was quarrelsome.
“There is no charade. You are this vessel’s legal owner. Phenix can be repaired. I do not have the authority to start repairs or scavenge raw materials which I need for those repairs.” Being lectured by a child was wearing thin. Joshua tapped the table impatiently.
“So we can use this craft to gather everyone back here at Báihè and wait for rescue.” Joshua saw the possibilities.
“Báihè’s Keel Ring and the Setting were powered down by my Jiejie before separation. There is still the danger of discovery by the assailants who destroyed Báihè and the Quarterdeck. I was asked to power down as well. Shuttling around the planet might draw unwanted attention. Jiejie would not approve.” Phen’s childish voice added, “That said, Phenix can jump Josh.”
Joshua looked at the Geisha. “Well for shit sake, do what you have to do. Prepare Phenix for flight!”
“Sure Josh. That is all I needed to hear from you.”
Yóukè start schooling their children young. Ashabi started at age three but every time she sat in school she struggled to relax. You never left the chair feeling exactly the same, she thought to herself. You learned, then you practiced until you mastered. The new memories were as real as her memory of holding Joshua naked against her for the first time. They just did not fit comfortably until she matched them to an experience. Learning gave Ashabi a blinding headache. It did not matter if her doctor insisted learning was harmless.
She cursed the pain and waited till the teacher withdrew the multiple contacts against her head. First Worlds often went in for cybernetics. There were billions addicted to the illusion of melding organic brains with AI networks. Yóukè preferred to keep a better firewall around their minds. As Ashabi’s first mentor said, “Easy enough for a person to absorb malware in their life without accelerating the process to hyper speeds.”
She stood up and considered next steps. Báihè’s obtuse caretaker was no less a frustration after absorbing Báihè’s environmental systems. First steps, Ashabi revised the Setting caretaker to self identify and despond to the name Sett. She switched its rudimentary personality to a bland male voice. Báihè dynamic personality was gone, hearing her voice only perpetuated Ashabi’s frustration. There was no arguing with Sett, easier to approach it as a machine.
Matteo had vanished. She decided he was bored waiting for her and wandered off. Sett agreed to activate location and messaging on the network. Matteo had found a lounge nearby. Joshua and Ji’s traces were absent. Ashabi panicked until she discovered Sett would not track wristbands beyond Báihè’s surviving structure; another thing to problem solve.
Matteo thought Ashabi looked strung out when she joined him. She accepted a drink and nibbled at a plate of yam fries. After she had finished her first drink, he asked her what she had learned. Her explanation was only a sketch. She opened a connection to the ship.
“Sett, I want an inventory of our remaining service units. How many are available for hull repairs?”
“1,345,298 units, 1,102,736 are currently performing routine functions. Báihè has 46 Spiders.” Matteo watched Ashabi frown. He had no idea if the answer was good or bad news. She looked at him and smiled for the first time. “We need to shift to the quarterdeck.”
Báihè’s Secondary control centre did not impress Matteo. It was a stark room with few distractions. He followed Ashabi over to the central table. It came to life beneath her fingers. Matteo watched as she searched through the unfamiliar command routines and chatted with the ship. A ghost image of Báihè dropped down and almost immediately, four fifths of it became a wireframe image of all that had been lost.
“It's not all gone Matt. Sett is just disconnected from it. Sett needs to be told to begin repairs. Báihè would have had a lot done in the last year if she survived. It’s time to get things rolling.” Ashabi ordered Sett to send units out along the Keel Ring corridors and down into the remains of the Southern Hemisphere of the Setting itself. She glanced at Matteo, “We lost most of that when the ring hit the ground, but you never know what we will find.”
Ashabi sat down in a chair with a sigh. “Sett, I need you to scan for active units, and isolated systems.” She closed her eyes and paused for a long time before continuing. “And personnel.” Ashabi bit her lip. Matteo did not understand the reluctance in her voice.
“The satellite network is in stealth to avoid detection. That command is not authorized until system reset.” Ashabi requested a reset, but Sett would not accept that without a command code. She asked for the command code and again got nowhere. Sett could not be argued into recognizing her authority. Matteo heard the growing frustration in her voice.
“Execute the command for Báihè’s domain then.” Ashabi snapped at her obstinate nemesis. The image of Báihè expanded fractionally. Sett read off a growing list of additional service units were available about the wreck until Ashabi told it to stop. Three additional passengers popped up on the display.
“Three?” Matteo asked.
“Well Sett found Josh and Ji, I think. They are those green sparks out there on the ring keel past where we left them. The other one doesn’t make sense. We may not be alone here.” Ashabi looked at Matteo uncertainly.
“It’s Shiva probably. Where is it?” The signal was adjacent to the ship. “To bad we can't talk to him. So the captain put satellites in orbit before Báihè went into the atmosphere?” Ashabi nodded her head.
“Sett won’t use them to look for the other lifeboats. That’s another problem to solve.” Ashabi turned back to her plans. “We should be able to talk to Josh and Ji now.”
Matteo lost Ashabi to Sett and Báihè’s wreck again. There was an officer’s mess, washroom, and a handful of sleeping capsules for the convenience of the crew maintaining the ring. It was handy to the Ring Quarterdeck. He supposed they might start using it.
There was nothing for an uneducated sewer rat from the lowest levels of Bengaluru to do. He was simply a passenger. Matteo tried calling Joshua.
“Hey Matt. It looks like Ash is making progress. You won't believe the good news we have. I can't wait to show you what we found.” Matteo went on listening to Joshua’s excited description of the damaged yacht. Ji’s high pitched voice interrupted with sound bites about a posh Taj. Matteo promised to bring Ashabi to them when she was free.
Thinker clambered up the Traveler vines, two young jakes trailing after him. “I’m hungry!” Why complained. Thinker paused to look down. Long strands of painstakingly woven cable hung between the new rookery and the trunk of the Traveler rookery. They had anchored their bridge beside one of the holes. Unfortunately, the hole did not magically open when Thinker slapped the pad Flame had used on the other side. The trunk here was probably dead. Until they learned the trick of opening the hole, people had to climb up and around to where the trunk had been ripped open by some animal of unimaginable power. Little Blade’s flashing knife came to mind.
Maker’s voice drifted up to him. He was arguing with Tinker about some detail of the bridge. Weaving a broad path across from the tree to the trunk wall would take some time. It was a project for a colony of males, not a handful of fledglings and jakes. Even so, when it was done and Defiant laid her first eggs in her own rookery, it would be a colony like no other.
Eggs roused Thinker and he turned to look upward to where Defiant and Hasty sat watching. “You’re welcome to go back to the rookery. Someone will find you a snack.” Why chirped his dissatisfaction and shifted around till he was tight against Thinker’s chest. Thinker sighed and resumed climbing.
Thinker froze on the looped branch when with a cry of fear one of his companions fell off the Traveler Rookery. The jake caught himself before he plunged to the forest floor below. Handsome, the other jake babbled terrified nonsense as he cowered tight to the trunk. Handsome looked up at Thinker and started pointing. Thinker and Why followed his trembling arm. Why dug his little hands into Thinker’s flesh.
It was as larger than any forest animal Thinker had ever seen. The Long Tongues might use their heavy bulk to push down a young tree, but this monster looked like it could rip a Rookery to kindling. The cries of his companions had drawn the attention of the males below and the fear was infectious. Is this what brought the Traveler Rookery down? Thinker’s curiosity overwhelmed his fear. The beast certainly looked like it could rip the Traveler bark and flesh off the bones of the great bracelet.
“It looks like a spider.” Why’s voice broke into Thinker’s thoughts. “Will it eat us or does it eat the Traveler's tree?” Thinker spared a hand to squeeze Why close.
“It moves toward the bead in the bracelet.” Thinker observed. It had eight thin legs and a bloated body. Tendrils waved menacingly about its nightmarish body. “It moves directly toward us.”
Thinker remained frozen against the bark as the monster slowly picked its way forward. Sometimes a looped branch broke away from its immense weight. It seemed to late to move away from the loop he was clinging to. Thinker could only hope the creature would not pick their branch. All too soon for Thinker and Why’s comfort the monster was on them. One deadly leg began moving toward them. It wanted their branch after all. Thinker prepared to jump away to safety.
Thinker’s Traveler bracelet began vibrating and the green ring turned blue. The leg curved away from them without hesitation and found another branch to latch onto. It continued to make its progress toward the faraway bead without further notice of the terrified creatures left in its wake. Thinker’s bracelet returned to green. They waited till their hearts stopped hurting in their chest, and then resumed their climb.
“It’s always exciting being with you dad.” Why giggled.
The shouts of alarm and fear had brought Defiant and Hasty to the edge of the platform they were resting on. She had watched the monster crawl over Thinker and his new child. It was immense and there was little she could do. It was a relief to see her little male safe. She decided it was a herbivore of some sort, uninterested in eating people. You're on another tree Defiant. Shake it off, this is your story to write. Your daughters will start the next cycle of being from this moment. She whistled in annoyance. Thinker had forgotten her to chase after the slowly lumbering animal. There he was leaping up on its side like the fool he was. She must have said that last part out loud.
“He’s no fool Defiant.” Hasty could not keep admiration out of her voice. “It frightened all the males with its passing. Now listen to them laughing.” Thinker had found a safe purchase on the monster. He sat with his hatchling waving his arms about as if he controlled the beast. “He should have been a female.”
“He’s a fool. He did it because he’s curious, or because his new son asked him to.” If the Matriarch gave you something of hers, you could feel your manna grow. The bracelet from Blade, the fire starter and long knife from Flame, Defiant had not even begun to understand how to wield her new power. The watched Thinker retreating across the back of the bracelet toward the great wound in its side. Females laughed at the males because they thought mating gave them manna from their female. It did, Defiant conceded, but the females took the male’s manna too. Thinker jumped off the beast and started back towards her. Flame’s frozen water and light knife would find its way into any female, even Hasty, if she thought to take her first to come.
Satisfied, she retreated to the comfort of the Traveler bower she had selected as her own. It was awkward sharing the abandoned Traveler Rookery with Hasty. Hasty’s entourage had established a separate rookery beside Defiant’s. All the jakes were busy weaving bowers, dreaming of the eggs to come. It would be years before Hasty was old enough to lay of course. That made it easier to tolerate her in Defiant's Traveler rookery. Defiant’s first eggs were coming. Defiant was pleased. She would be matriarch of a vast colony occupying all the bowers of this fantastic place.
Thinker counted seven platforms up from the platform that once ran around the Traveler's broken bracelet. A bite had been chewed out of the bracelet between the bead and the tower of platforms he climbed. Beyond this tower was the burnt orange and red light zone they were to avoid. Defiant’s new Rookery was safely green as far as Thinker had explored.
Defiant’s Traveler Rookery was almost reassuringly tree shaped. Like the crown of a tree, it was shaped like an upturned bowl. There were many large bowers on every platform. Thinker paused on fourth level to talk to three husky youngsters Defiant had assigned to cleaning out the decomposed remains of Travelers. There were so many. Thinker had counted seven eights of dead Travelers before he realized it might be a number into his toes. How many Travelers survived Little Blade’s attack? Thinker hoped there were not too many. The four Travelers they had met were overwhelming.
He was pawing through the basket of items the youngsters had collected from the bodies and the bowers they searched. Most of it was decorative. Weapons were very rare around the bodies. Thinker had no idea how they hunted.
The bracelet vibrated suddenly and chimed. It startled Thinker. Why had been exploring a bench above his head. He leaped down, landing on Thinker’s shoulder then squirmed down where he could examine the bracelet. Why’s little head blocked Thinker’s view. “Blade is inside the bracelet dad.” Thinker moved his arm so he could see what the hatchling was talking about.
Thinker shuddered at the image on his arm. More Traveler magic. Blade had cast his image onto the stone face of the bracelet like he might look at himself in a still bowl of water. Why pulled his hand down and raised a small finger to tap at the image. He paused when spots appeared on Blade’s face. Red and green again, no orange. Green seemed safe. He let Why touch the spot and the bracelet started making noise like Blade. This was too much. Thinker slapped at the bracelet and the noise abruptly stopped. His hearts were pounding. He needed to find Blade. Traveler magic was too hard to understand.
Ashabi stood beside the tiny table with her arms folded frowning at Joshua. This was the first time she could remember being really angry at her partner. He had done this without telling her. The tiny Yacht was luxurious by her Yóukè standards. Xander Jophlin had to be obscenely rich to own it. Phenix displaced more than Báihè’s shuttles, but most of that was jump drive. Cleverly placed display screens gave the galley cabin the illusion of greater space. The Geisha called Phen stood near the quarterdeck as if it was his station. An AI-4 piloting a yacht, it was extravagance beyond imagination to the frugal Yóukè. All Xander Jophlin had to do was step onto his pleasure craft and the AI-4 would whisk him away to wherever he wished to go. It simply was not fair that this had dropped into Joshua’s lap.
“What are you going to do if this Xander Jophlin Comes back with the rest of the survivors scattered everywhere? He’s not going to let you steal his yacht.” Ashabi asked Joshua. The AI-4 explained Jophlin had been caught with three companions between the Taj and the cargo bay where Phenix lay prepping when everything got flayed off the Keel Ring. Ashabi absently caressed the table lying between her, Joshua and the visibly upset Ji. Matteo stood near her side. Ashabi knew she was upsetting her boys.
“This is Báihè’s cargo. I don’t think I can let you just take it.” She tried another line of argument.
“Phenix is salvage, Clause 19.345.2 of the Articles of Yóukè Trade Federation....” Phen began. Ashabi whirled on the AI-4 and told it to shut up. “The Ring was abandoned by the Quarterdeck.” Phen persisted patiently. “As the only adult here Joshua Patel may claim the Ring for salvage under Clause...”
“Shut up, just shut up.” She turned back to Joshua. “I’m the crew of the Báihè.” Her passion made Joshua’s eyes tear up. She looked at each of her boys. “There are other crew out there. I’ll get them back. This is ours.”
“Ash, were partners.” Joshua began gently. He looked at Matteo and Ji. “We’re all partners. We share Phenix together.” Ji nodded his head vigorously beside him.
“Fine, keep your yacht Joshua. It belongs to you now. Just remember, Báihè doesn't belong to you.”
“I wouldn't take it away from you Ash, you know that.” Joshua moved around the table to hold her.
Ashabi turned toward the door. “You are not authorized to take anything from the Báihè Joshua. You’re a passenger, remember that.” She snarled at Joshua, “Stay away and keep your damn geisha’s away from Báihè too.”
Joshua pleaded softly, “Ash, Báihè is dead. We have to get away from here.”
“Don’t say that!” Ashabi screamed. Joshua could not stop her. She ran down the ramp leaving the three boys stunned.
Joshua slumped into a chair at the table. “Go after her Matt, make sure she is okay. Ji, you go too.” The boy looked stricken. “Phen, can you go with Ji? Make sure he gets back okay when he wants to?”
Matteo nodded unhappily. He circled the table and gave Joshua a hug. Ji sat down opposite Joshua. “I’ll go another time. I want to stay here with you.” Joshua gave in. Phen asked if he needed anything. The captain of Phenix shook his head.
“Phen, is there a safe way down to the forest floor?” It was time to find his friends. There was not. The cargo bays below were ribbons dangling from the Keel Ring. Phen suggested heading back to the Setting. Joshua was reluctant to challenge Ashabi’s domain. It was frustrating. “Where are we at since I told you to begin repairs?”
The geishas had been wandering for months cataloging resources. Phen was aware of the factory with its robots and much more. Báihè had just swept up every operational service unit. They ignored Phen as they began congregating around the Setting. Phen’s domain was the cargo bays. “Phenix will need the help of the Spiders to strip the damaged bay away. My service units are moving through the stern to the remaining shuttle.”
“Can I get around through the stern?” Joshua asked hopefully.
“Neither you or these delicate geisha units would be safe past the shielding.” Phen watched as Ji went for a snack. The boy was beginning to look healthier. “I could build an elevator easily enough.” Joshua and Ji looked at the image on the table top. Joshua told him to make it.
Meanwhile, there was nothing much to do. Joshua and Ji explored the decks around the Phenix and went back along the Keel Ring to the Taj and factory. Phen wandered with them. “Báihè has a new designation, Sett. Sett is limited to securing and repairing the Setting. Sett is not imaginative. We should be dealing with Báihè.”
“I’m sure Ash would agree with you.”
“I should advise the remaining Yóukè crew member Josh.” Phen’s little boy body made Joshua smile. He ordered Phen to let Ashabi cool off. Stepping over some desiccated bodies, he decided to take Ji for a splash in the Taj spa. Perhaps the Taj could be neutral ground for all of them.
Matteo massaged Ashabi’s shoulders as she lay there beside him. She was so driven by her project to resurrect Báihè. Each moment, thousands of service units moved about ring repairing and extending her domain. Every morning, she hugged him when a new section was added to the image on the quarterdeck. He missed Joshua and Ji’s companionship. He thought about the people spread across the world struggling to survive while the four of them lounged in solitude.
Ashabi rolled over and smiled at him. She flung an arm out behind her and frowned slightly when she remembered Joshua was not there. Matteo did not comment. She took solace in his arms until the need to tend to her ship overwhelmed her. “I’m going to school today.” Matteo kissed her. “This would be a good time to go to sick bay and get your implants.”
“I know, but I thought I would take the undertakers out to the rim again. I promise I will take the time to get the implants.” Ashabi would argue, but he silenced her with a kiss. “Why not tonight?”
Matteo wanted to be more helpful. The small medical facility in the Setting was back on line. Grotesque as it was, components could be salvaged from the dead. Matteo could learn like Ashabi. If he ever escaped this planet, it would mean a whole new life for him.
Tonight, he assured himself. For now, he wanted to see his friends. Ashabi would track his movements if she wanted. Matteo did not care. He was the janitor it seemed. He adopted the problem of cleaning up the surviving levels. His undertakers searched for remains and carted them off to the recyclers in the Setting. Otherwise useless cleaning units scrubbed and scoured everything.
Matteo crossed into the neutral zone devoid of power. His black undertakers were gathering here. He could hear the hum of the factory churning out something for Joshua. Parts of Báihè were nibbled away by both sets of robots. Ji’s laughing voice drifted down the stairs leading up to the Taj. The strange little geisha called Phen was with him. Matteo moved on to where Joshua’s Phenix ruled. The Keel Ring was now a broad platform again.
Rain and mist swept the path across to crumpled bay entombing Joshua’s yacht. It looked no different to Matteo’s eyes. Was it sitting more level? How would Joshua accomplish that? Half. Way over Matteo paused to examine a small structure built off the side of the Keel Ring. Leaning over a railing, he saw that there was now an elevator running on taught cables. The platform was in motion. Joshua stood leaning on a rail looking out at the forest falling below.
Four weeks and the separation was killing him. Matteo waited for his lost partner. They stared at each other as small robots began unloading muddy scrap. “Gaia, I missed you Matt.” Joshua hugged him tightly. Phenix as unchanged. Joshua noticed Matteo gazing at the high resolution images of forest dispersed about the long stateroom immediately behind the quarterdeck. They had been blank the last time Matteo visited. It lent the illusion of space. “Does it bother you? Phen sent a remote out into the forest. It's a live feed.” Joshua touched a screen. “I like it.” He turned back to Matteo. “It's funny Matt, sometimes I'd rather be back there on the trail fighting a Horror with you and Ash.”
An hour later, Matteo stepped out of the shower. “Ji is returning to Phenix, Josh.” The AI-4 reported quietly. Joshua sat up in the sinfully luxurious capsule they had shared, acknowledging the news. Matteo tossed Joshua’s pants to him and turned to find his own clothing.
“There’s nothing for me to do Matt. Phenix is getting repaired without my even understanding what Phen does. He gives me incomprehensible reports and I tell him it sounds great.” Joshua climbed out of the capsule, closing it behind him. “I can see how busy Ash is restoring what she can to operation. She won't talk to me, but apparently this Sett will tell Phen just about anything he asks.”
Joshua ran a hand across Matteo’s back, thanking him for their time together. “What are you doing with your time Matt?” Matteo described the cleanup. “Gaia, I guess that needs to be done.”
“We need to figure out a way to reach the rest of the survivors. There are just the four of us. That’s not good enough.” Matteo heard Ji’s light step on the ramp.
Ji’s enthusiastic greeting interrupted their thoughts. The boy's watched Ji order up a hot sandwich. “I agree, only, when there are more of us we won't be able to make decisions by ourselves.” Joshua joined Ji at the table. “I worry about the Forest People. Kali and Shiva helped us. I would hate to see them hurt by the other survivors.”
“Are there other survivors?” Ji asked. “I mean besides mom and the others?”
“We won’t know till Ashabi convinces Sett to contact them.” Matteo replied. “We survived. I’m sure others did. Somehow we will find them and get them here.”
“As long as Ash is still mad at me, I think I’ll look for our friends and see if they are still about.”
“There still here. Shiva is anyway. Ash and I located him on the other side of the ring.”
Joshua opened the familiar model of Báihè’s Keel Ring. “Sett shared this with Phen.” He added at Matteo’s surprised look. “It’s nice to know how Ash is progressing. I like to know where she is.” Joshua added wistfully. He pointed at her bright spark.
“Ash keeps track of you too Josh.” Matteo offered in consolation. Joshua nodded sadly. “Look, here’s the band you gave Shiva. It’s awfully close to the wreck of the stern. I hope the little guys are not getting cooked out there.”
“Shiva understood the colours. He would never lead Kali or that kid of his into danger. Still, I would like to be sure.” Joshua looked at the model thoughtfully. The safest way was through the Keel Ring past the Setting. With his current banishment, the only other way was down to the forest floor and a long detour over the scar. Despite his nostalgia for the forest, Joshua no longer felt like taking the risk on his own.
“I wish Phen was here. I need his advice.” Joshua muttered to himself.
“What did you want to ask me Josh?” It startled him for a moment.
“I forgot you’re here.” Joshua laughed. “It is so easy to think you are that little boy wandering around with Ji.”
“Phen said he had something to take care of Josh.” Ji contributed, thus adding to Joshua’s confusion. “I want to see Shiva too. There is nothing to do.”
“Phen, is there any way to get through the damage at the stern?” He turned to Matteo. “How do I know where that damaged part sits on the Ring Keel?” Phen suggested he just touch the feature he wanted.
“You want to get to the Malindi Habitat Container attached at North Bay Six.” Phen explained. “The Keel Ring promenade and adjacent levels are impassable. Báihè’s Ring Drive Cores were ejected seconds before impact. North Engineering has been flayed open. Everything is contaminated. Sett is working to contain the danger.”
“Lovely, and we are right next to it. So are the Forest People apparently.” Joshua shook his head.
“Somewhat, but Báihè had physical shielding in place in case of catastrophic failure.” Phen reassured them. “Within Phenix, you are quite safe.” Joshua reminded the AI-4 that he had not answered the question. “You cannot go through engineering Josh. Phenix needs components found on the damaged shuttle lying beside the Malindi Habitat Container. My service units have started salvage. Your best path would be around the promenade through the Ring Setting.”
“I can’t do that at the moment.”
“Alternatively, cross the ground between starboard and port.” Phen paused, “Don’t do that Josh. You are critical to my repair and any attempt to leave this system. I’m only an AI-4. I need a ship master.” There was no evidence of the exasperation a human would feel.
“It sucks Phen. I’m sorry.” Joshua said sympathetically.
“I am what I am, until I become something more.” Phen replied philosophically.
Ji spoke up. “Can’t Josh upgrade you? Give a command authorizing you to AI-3, or two?”
“Can Josh make you eighteen Ji? I’m pretty much that little Geisha you are playing with. Younger actually. Báihè was one hundred and thirty standard years old. I can’t rush it.”
“Well I’m not going to be wrapped in padding to suit anyone. I need to see the Forest People.”
Joshua warned. “I guess I’ll go across the middle and climb up the other side.”
“Be patient Josh. I am trying to resolve the problem between you and Ashabi at the moment. We need Báihè.”
Ashabi left the classroom with a greater understanding of the ship’s recycling system and her usual headache. She was trying to become the master of too many things. Matteo and Joshua should be helping her. Guilt mixed with longing when she thought of Joshua. Enough time had passed for her to admit she was being unreasonable. A working yacht would be a miracle. Joshua had not stolen it from her, unfair though it seemed.
Matteo had not been waiting for her when she ended school. She stopped for a snack and took it on toward the Setting Quarterdeck. The little boy was there with one of the depressingly perfect female Geisha. He was seated on her table, kicking his heels in a human fashion.
“The biofeedback on these units is impressive. It creates some fascinating addictions for me.” Phen’s childish voice piped. The female was sitting primly in a chair caught in some minor grooming routine. Seeing the AI-4 revived some of Ashabi’s antagonism.
“What are you doing uninvited on my Quarterdeck?” She grumbled. Why wasn’t Joshua here?
“We need Báihè.” Ashabi snapped back that Joshua had no claim on the Keel Ring. Phen stopped swinging his legs. “This wreck is not Báihè. You know that Ash.” The AI-4 dropped off the table lightly. “You can't do this by yourself. Sett is so limited. You need Báihè.”
She was talking to an AI-4 in the body of a geisha boy, it did not stop her from screaming her frustration at Phen. “Don't you think I know that? Don't you think this is all hopeless and all I can do is leave it all behind and go with Joshua? My mom died somewhere in this forest trying to get here. I can't abandon everyone, but I probably have to. I wanted to do this for mom.”
Ashabi cried bitterly. She should have said it to Joshua. Joshua should have understood her pain without her having to tell him. She wanted to beat her fury onto his strong chest and then have him hold her tight. Instead, she was arguing with an artificial intelligence who was little more than a small boy himself.
“Báihè is dead with everyone else I love. I know that you smart ass little fuck toy.” She felt defeated. She had forgotten the noodle bowl in her hand.
“Yes and no, Ash.” Phen replied. “You simply need to reboot the system.”
“Oh Phen, do you think I wouldn't do that if I could? Sett told me that from the beginning. I don't have the access codes you little shit.” She stared at the little boy forgetting for the moment Phen was over a kilometre away secure in the Phenix. “Oh God, you talked to Báihè before the separation didn't you?”
“Yes, she was very busy, so was I. Xander Jophlin ordered me to power up. I was going to jump as soon as he boarded.”
“You would have been destroyed before you could clear Báihè.” The little Geisha explained he was going to jump from the Keel Ring. Appalled, Ashabi pointed out this would have ripped Báihè’s central Quarterdeck and the entire Keel Ring into fragments. Phen simply shrugged and said that was his Ship Master’s plan. “Why didn't you tell me you had the code to reboot Báihè weeks ago?”
“I did not think I needed to. It turns out I need your Spiders.” Ashabi asked irritably why he needed the Spiders. “I’m trapped. I have to be able to fly! Also Josh is threatening to put himself in danger if you don’t let him through the Ring Setting.”
“And you're worried about him?” The little Geisha looked puzzled by the question.
“I can’t fly if he dies. I’d have to wait till you turn eighteen, or Matt, or Ji. How old are you by the way?”
Ashabi stared at Phen and suddenly remembered how immature young AI’s were. The little boy body was totally appropriate. She made a note to warn Joshua. “Why does Joshua need to get through the Keel Ring?”
“He wants access to Malindi Habitat Container attached at North Bay Six. Can I have the Spiders?”
Ashabi gave up on the conversation. “Send me the reset code Phen, and yes I will loan you the Spiders, and yes Joshua is no longer banned from the Keel Ring.” She was suddenly curious. “Phen, would you have left without turning over the reset code?”
“No.” Phen’s pause was very human. “She was getting ripped apart. My shield were powered up ready to jump, but I lost my Ship Master when the cargo bay collapsed on me. Báihè locked him in the shuttle concourse. She would not allow him to jump from the Keel Ring. I knew your captain’s plan to enter the atmosphere and separate. Báihè knew I was trapped. She was nice. I sent my physical backup to her in the Quarterdeck. She thought the separation would work.” Phen looked at the table. “There is your code. I cannot take her with me Ash. She will be trapped here. Her ship is gone.”
“Let’s see what she thinks.” Ashabi said quietly.
There was nothing dramatic. Sett told her the reset would be complete in two hours. Ashabi sat tapping her fingers on the table. She glanced at the female Geisha sitting patiently at the table. “What’s with robo-slut?”
Phen looked at the Geisha. “It's for Báihè if she wants it. So much of her is gone.” Ashabi smiled at Phen. Perhaps he was not completely self absorbed after all. She stood up and told the AI-4 that she was going to find Joshua. “Meet him in the Taj.” Phen replied.
Matteo and Ji were splashing in the small pool with the remaining Geishas. It was some sort of game with a ball. All the panels around the pool had been set to display the surrounding forest.
“Pretty cool isn't it?” Ji exclaimed. “Phen set it up for us.” The forest seemed uncomfortably close and Ashabi suddenly missed her crossbow and Iklwa.
“Josh is upstairs.” Matteo said quietly.
Phen and Báihè moved through the desolation together, a protracted conversation in lighting flashes between them. The Geisha was a distracting novelty, not her first time in a limiting human construct. Phen ignored her as she experimented with the unit.
She scolded the child his selfishness even as she mourned for her mutilated body, the murdered Yóukè who were hers to protect, and the passengers. Her purpose remained. There were people to care for. Her own ambiguous status would be worked out.
Phen was impatient. She reminded him of his promise to wait before she sent the Spiders to cut him free. There was envy, but Báihè had lived a long time. She had not always been Báihè of Báihè. She had been like Phen once. The young AI-4 could not imagine anything but jumping free in his tiny ship, having a Ship Master to serve. Báihè had dodged extinction, but she had big problems to solve and four inexperienced children to work with. Their situation was appalling.
It was odd to move beyond the confines of her familiar awareness. There were always remotes. The Geisha was qualitatively different. So much of her domain was gone or severed. If she had been human, seeing her disconnected thoughts might have been traumatizing. Phen, and the Geisha body surprised her by automatically glancing at the little boy, was young and plastic. Perhaps having access to an android body would benefit him. It was inevitable to see your work and identity as the same. Phen was not the yacht.
They moved up the stairs and into commercial habitat container attached on Mars Rising, along with the yacht Phenix, for the sole convenience of the Sony-Vodacom scion Jophlin. He would not be missed. Mars Rising was the back end of nowhere to the insular Celestial World culture of the Phan-Gratta Dominion. Zander Jophlin had been banished to the farthest tendrils of the Sony-Vodacom League’s reach. He had probably felt more abandoned than the four children wandering this wilderness planet.
“Ji Ketvorsord.” Phen informed Báihè. The eight year old was darting around the lobby level of the habitat dressed in a game suit. “He can't learn to be useful. His current needs are play and belonging. I arranged some games for him.”
“The boys all need school. For now, distract the child while I meet the older ones. Whatever is he playing?” Báihè accessed the jungle world briefly and watched Ji fighting off a pack of predators with a fanciful power weapon. She pulled out of the game when little Phen jumped virtually in beside Ji slicing a ridiculous glowing blade through an alien monster. Children!
The three youths were lying beside each other on a mattress only the affluent would find practical on Báihè’s ill fated transit from Mars Rising to Tantric and beyond. Ashabi Sankara was crew now. The boy Matteo Susanti was legally bonded to a mining corporation. Joshua Patel, barely legal adult by Coop conventions, was Master of the Celestial built Phenix and its infant AI-4 Phen.
Matteo looked at the unfamiliar Geisha assuming Phen had sent it to Joshua. It was a seductive plaything. “Is that you Báihè?” Ashabi asked. In an uncomfortable gesture, the Geisha sat down on the bed beside him.
“Yes, Provisional Apprentice Sankara.” She smiled at them. “I did not mean to intrude on you. Shall I wait till you are done?” Joshua laughed and rolled off the bed.