Simon watched the tiny figure of Carl Edlund, clad in an almost-skintight ship-suit with a thin bubble helmet, drift cautiously toward a silvery tumbling tree-trunk -- a major portion of one of Holy Grail's coilgun supports.
"You're almost there, Carl." Ariane said.
"That's all well and good, but could you give me more damn light?"
Ariane frowned at the irritable tone. "Carl, Holy Grail's external lights light it just as bright as we always had the repair slips."
"Well… it doesn't feel that way. Jesus, Ariane, you should see this. Except for this piece of wreckage and the Holy Grail, there's nothing. We don't make near enough light to illuminate even the nearest part of the wall." She could hear his breathing, a little too swift and ragged. "Back home, you always had stars, reflections off whatever planet or asteroid you were near, something you could see, anywhere you looked. But … I'm like floating in a sea of tar here, nothing. If I look in the wrong direction, it's like being struck blind."
"Sounds unpleasant," Steve said. "But it's just a few more minutes, Carl. And really, can you see it well enough to do the work?"
A pause. She heard Carl take a deep breath and hold it, then let it out, slowly; on the monitors, his vitals dropped. "Yeah. Yeah, I can get to it. I wish we had USRVs to work with, though."
Simon sighed."I'm afraid no one ever thought we'd have any need for unmanned space repair vehicles, especially ones without their own AI, just remote-controlled. That's been mostly obsolete for almost two centuries."
He noticed multiple sharp projections jutting from the whirling, hundred-fifty-meter long rod and realized how easily one of them could kill Edlund; the ring-carbon reinforced suit might not cut, but that would only mean that they'd get his body back in one piece. "Carl, please be careful. I'd blame myself if anything happens to you out there." The blame of course had to do with the fact that it was his fault Carl was out there. The "Sandrisson Drive" coils were designed very specifically to generate the field in accordance with ship geometry – which meant that it wouldn't work at all without the Holy Grail being restored to its old self, within a very small percentage of error. And since they didn't have the mass to just manufacture another, nor the energy to spare at the moment, that meant they had to get the support rib, which in the past few days had drifted a few thousand kilometers into the blank vastness of the nearly-empty void that filled this impossible enclosure, back and re-attach it.
"And I wouldn't care who was to blame, I just want my favorite mechanic back in one piece," Ariane put in.
"Mechanic? Mechanic! And me with an advanced degree and certification in control and interface design, and another in small-craft drives!" Carl expostulated in hurt tones, as he cautiously approached the rotational center of the wreckage. "Besides, I'm your only mechanic. At least, the only one always on your team."
"And I want to keep it that way. Ohhh, watch out for that –"
"I see it." Carl evaded the sharp-edged piece of one of the accelerator rings as it rotated through the space he would have occupied otherwise.
I really have to take my mind off this. I can't stand watching."So, Ariane," Sandrisson said, "how exactly is it that a young woman of your obvious potential ends up in a…" Oh, wonderful start, Doctor Sandrisson. Have you ANY capability of starting a conversation with her without an insult?
To his immense relief, she grinned and picked up the question without a pause, "… dangerous, adrenaline-fueled, juvenile sport like obstacle racing?"
Thank the heavens for a sense of humor."Well, yes. No offense. You just seem no less capable than many I see in much more mentally demanding professions, indeed more capable than many, and it just seems… silly to me."
"You're not the only one," she admitted. "My mom and dad weren't happy about it, and they almost ended up not speaking with Grandaddy because of it."
"Their fault," Carl's voice put in. "If they'd kept a closer eye on you, maybe the old man wouldn't have been such a bad influence, and you wouldn't be trying to thread needles with a spaceship at orbital speed, fighting in bars, and hanging out with space mechanics."
"Really?" Steve glanced over. "I've seen your parents in interviews a couple of times, and they didn't seem upset about your choice of career."
"Not now, no." He could see her eyes get a distant look, seeing a not entirely pleasant past. "Once I started doing well, and they really understood that I was doing what I really, really wanted to do, they got behind me. But it was a tough few years." She looked back at Simon, her deep blue eyes meeting his gaze. "But that doesn't really answer you. My mom and dad … well, they both had jobs and hobbies and… maybe they weren't really thinking about being parents as much as they should. A lot of people do that, you know, have a kid and then just…"
Oh, how very much I understand.Sandrisson couldn't quite keep an edge of bitter sadness from his own voice. "… ah yes. Children of convenience. With a few AIs to make sure they're taken care of, dropping in to make sure the children are 'okay', involved in all the fun or entertaining parts of having a child, minimizing the less… fun. I think I begin to understand."
"It is not, I am afraid, an altogether uncommon tale. But please, go on."
"Yeah, go on. I don't think Steve's heard this either, and it's kinda funny," Carl put in as he finally locked onto the slowly-spinning piece of debris. "I'll have the cable locked on soon."
"All right." She paused as though getting her thoughts in order. "So Mom and Dad were sort of there sometimes, sometimes not. They never forgot things like birthdays or anything – and we did do a lot of fun things together. I don't want to sound like I didn't think they were good people or fun to be around or anything." Sandrisson and Steve nodded in understanding. "But Grandaddy – that's Dad's father – he lived right on our ranch, in Texas, had his own spread about a mile from the house. I used to hike over there a lot – he was in charge, when Mom and Dad were out, aside from Lacie. Lacie was the housekeeper," she explained at their glance. "An Estine Systems SmartBot 440. Pretended to be a martinet, but I could always sweet-talk her." Simon could hear the fondness in her tone.
"Anyway, it was like an adventure going to see Grandaddy, because he had like zero automation. And his hobby was old machines. Cars, tractors, trucks, that kind of thing. That was how I met Gabrielle, actually," she said, slightly sidetracking. "We were going to the same college, but we didn't speak much until she noticed the picture I had on my wallpaper one day, me and Grandaddy standing next to Big Pig, his rebuilt combine, and she just fell in love with the Pig. Made a model of it that year and when Grandaddy saw it he just about cried."
She blinked. "Where was I? Oh, machines. So I used to help him work on the cars and things, and he taught me how to drive them." She grinned, the distance in her gaze now filled with warmth. "God, I remember how terrified I was the first time he drove me in one. I realized that there wasn't a single little bit of automation in the entire machine, and that he was doing it all by hand, and wasn't even tied into the local net. And so of course he spun the car out – deliberately – in one of the turns, in a cloud of dust, and I was screaming, and by the time we really stopped I was begging him to let me drive."
Simon couldn't restrain a chuckle. "I see! So he scared you until you started having fun, and after that the best kind of fun was the sort that scared you half to death."
Ariane gave a delighted laugh. "Just exactly like that, yes! After that I knew my Grandaddy was the absolute cold-coolest guy in the entire world, and I spent most of the time I wasn't wired into school following him around with wrenches and stuff, and trying to drive his prizes. He had some small airplanes too, and I got a manual pilot's license – limited to private airspaces, of course – by the time I was 13." She was practically chattering, thought Simon, sounding like the teenage Ariane must have, talking about what had been the most wonderfully magical place in the world.
"And," Ariane went on with a smile, "he had really old books in his house, too, and didn't have direct net feed except for email and things – it was like he hadn't changed the house since his grandfather was born, or something. So I used to read his old books – some of them going back to like the 20th century, I think – and play those adventures when I got back home and could get my RecNet to render up something like the book."
"I'm heading back." Carl broke in. "We should be able to use the other three to generate a magnetic field that'll cut the rotation down, and then reel her in and put her back together. Then we make sure they're all straightened out and we'll be set."
"Good. Be careful on the way back, don't get clipped."
"Trust me, I'm watching."
"So…" she shrugged. "Make a long story short, Grandaddy taught me to be suspicious of automation and to like risking my life, so when I found a sport like obstacle space racing, it was a natural choice."
"My father," Simon said, "was a physicist himself. He was also a much more hands-on parent than Okasan – mother." Amazing how that still hurts, even now… and yet Okasan influenced my childhood far more, in some ways. "Eventually I think that's why they … separated. Anyway, I grew up with datafeeds on mathematics and physics almost from the time I remember. But not pushed on me, just… all around, because it was what Father did, and I listened, even when I didn't understand.
"Father liked to move around a lot; some people don't see the point, given that the right interfaces can let you be there anyway, but he preferred the actual movement. Said it emphasized the shift in perspective for him. He was working at Oxford when I was three to, oh, 7, and then we moved to California, then to Kanzaki-One for several years." He smiled. "Which, naturally, explains why I speak with an English accent but – occasionally – curse in Japanese. Alas, my father did not indulge his ancestry, else I might be able to entertain one by cursing in two badly-accented languages."
Ariane smiled at that. "So it was your father's profession that made you go into physics?"
"One moment." Simon said, having thought of something. He touched a link control and concentrated, activating a calibration pulse through the Sandrisson coils. Oh, blast. That's not good enough. "I'm afraid, Steve, that we’re going to have to also straighten out the other three driver supports. They appear to have bent more than I think safe."
"No problem." Steve said cheerfully. "We’ll do that when we finish reattaching the fourth one. Align all of them back to optimum. At least that's a pretty simple geometric design and all we have to do is use the built-in nanosupport to extend and contract the right portions."
Thank goodness for that. "Now where was I…? Oh yes. It was a little more indirect than that, actually. The education track I was in on Kanzaki focused on learning from personalities, human perspectives and how the individual influenced the course of history, that sort of thing, and Kanzaki herself was naturally included." He gave a wry grin. "Do you really want the sordid truth? I got a crush on the virtual teacher and started studying physics to impress her."
"Oh, I most certainly did. I did my best to show off, too. I'm sure an old-fashioned psychologist would probably have all sorts of things to say about that."
"Oh, come on," Carl said, entering the control area. "How old were you then, anyway?"
Carl shook his head, bemused. "You can't tell me there weren't bootleg datesims of her available. Every school I ever went to, all the hot teachers were simmed and passed around like from the second day of class."
"Oh, undoubtedly there were. I had a few offered to me. But I was… perhaps am… something of a romantic." He could restrain the blush, but he knew his grin was now rather embarrassed. "I wasn't interested in an imitation of her, that would have felt cheap."
"But you said she was a persona, not the original!" Ariane said, looking puzzled.
"Well… yes, I suppose that was the reason I said it was a rather sordid truth," he admitted, shaking his head. "I wanted the true original simulation Kanzaki persona, but I wanted her to be real. Well, not really real, exactly, since the real Kanzaki was married, but real, like..." He rolled his eyes in exasperation. "You know what I mean!"
Steve laughed. "No one ever said teenage boys were sensible. C'mon, Carl, admit it, you've done something just as silly."
Carl grunted and then gave a sideways smile. "Mmmmaybe, but I'm not sure I'm going to talk about it with an audience." He glanced at the telltales. "Looks like the driver rib will be in position in about an hour; then we'll have to get Tom to tweak the nanorepair to activate and start fixing everything. But she'll be locked down enough for us to start moving in, oh, a couple hours."
"That's good," Ariane said. "Let everyone know that I'll be getting us underway as soon as you give me the green light. I'm going to go get something to eat."
Simon busied himself with his panel. I hope that didn't make me sound too foolish.
As the blue-haired Captain passed him, she leaned over; he sensed her damping the room sensors to make what she said private. "It's not so silly, you know."
"Really?" He looked up at her. "I thought it was uncommonly silly."
She stopped for a moment. "I think AIs are real people. And that means that getting a crush on one isn't any sillier than getting a crush on a living flesh-and-blood person, and wanting the actual one you're focused on rather than an imitation makes perfect sense to me." She grinned as she turned to leave. "And if he gives you any more grief, just ask Carl about Megan!"
And after this, we'll be finding out more about where we are instead of where they've been...