So I will not be *entirely* cruel to those who read the first chapter.
The scream was still echoing – in fact, had not yet finished – when the backup power systems brought her displays and controls back online. But it's not online! She thought desperately. The wireless systems were down, there was no connectivity at all that wasn't provided by hardwiring and actuators. What the…
PROXIMITY ALERT! What the hell… solid surfaces? EVERYWHERE! One closing at high velocity!
Racing-trained reflexes, enhanced by still-functioning nanotechnological augmentations, snapped into action. Chemical side-jets fired, spinning Holy Grail into reverse alignment with their vector on the fast-approaching object, and instantaneously triggering the nuclear pulse engine.
Except that the engine didn't fire.
FUCK! Her hands danced across the panel, molasses-slow manual controls overriding the original settings, shunting in the last-ditch backups.
Holy Grail shuddered as the massive chemical rockets roared to life, sending a blazing beacon of white-hot flame through the darkness. Incredulously, Ariane saw reflections all around her – dark-tinted shimmers and distorted waves, moving like the shadows and glints from water as you drove along the shoreline. The cameras pointing to the rear of Holy Grail showed an even more terrifying sight – a massive, unmistakeable, impossible WALL, a wall on which they were closing with terrible speed. Ariane went to full power on the rocket, the ship's structure audibly creaking as more than four gravities crushed down upon it. That unbelievable barrier continued to approach, looming in her displays like a gray oncoming tsunami, something elemental and massive beyond belief. The reflections of the rockets were becoming brighter, sharper, as they closed with the enigma.
Now she could see that they were slowing, but they were close, close, and the mighty tail of flame was actually touching that wall, splashing off it like a jet of water from a battleship's plating, broadening, still closing…
The long, arched tendrils of Holy Grail's four mass-driver coilguns impacted squarely with the wall, sending a jolt through the ship, snapping one off at the base and bending the others. The experimental vessel began to twist, but the relative velocity was now almost zero and Ariane cut the rocket, going to docking maneuver thrusters. There was a screeching clang as the broken coilgun bounced off the main hull, and Ariane compensated. Relative velocity effectively zero.
As the thrusters cut off, she became really aware of the silence of the ship. The environmental systems were still (or once again?) running, sending a subtle breeze of air through the vessel, but … there was no contact. The central computer systems were down. She had no direct connectivity to anyone, even Mentor.
Well, first things first. She knew she wasn't hurt – just bruised a little from the maneuvers. In the control cabin with her… "Steve? Simon? Are you all right?"
The voice behind her and slightly to her right didn't speak; there was a slight indrawing of breath and a … whimper, a sound of such pain and fear that she couldn't even recognize it as made by the same man who had been flirting with her just seconds before. On her other side there was a moment of silence and a chill seemed to fall over her heart before, finally, Steve answered.
"I… I don't know." Steve Franceschetti's voice was hurt and thin and confused. "He's… gone. I'm alone…"
"He?" She was momentarily at sea, then suddenly understood. "Allerdyne?"
"Simon? Simon, talk to me!"
The internal lighting electronics finally seemed to finish reconnecting, and the control cabin was suddenly lit. She winced and then looked around.
Sandrisson was staring wide-eyed into nothing,hand to his mouth. The blaze of light did seem to finally penetrate, especially as Ariane unstrapped and came into his field of view. The blue eyes blinked and slowly focused on her, and he lowered his hand. "A… Ariane."
She repressed an exclamation at the blood; he was apparently completely unaware that he had bitten deeply into his own index finger in fear or shock. "Simon. Are you all right?"
He shook his head violently, muttering something in Japanese. Without Mentor to provide unobtrusive translation, she couldn't understand it, but the tone seemed to be both angry and disbelieving. "Y… yes. Perhaps." He winced and stared in surprise at his hand. "Perhaps not. I… I have not been without Mio for, oh, twenty years, since I was a little boy. Like Steve, I am… alone now." He pulled a tissue from one pocket and wiped his face; she noted with some relief that at least some of the healing nanotech must still be working, as the wound on his finger had already stopped bleeding. "I will be all right for now, I think."
"Steve, can you get manual systems up throughout the ship?"
The diminutive system overseer wrinkled his brow, hands rubbing distractedly through his curly hair. "I… I have to think about that. Damn. They should have come up on their own. Except… I think they're set for at least some intermediary communication." He looked like he was ready to panic, but then closed his eyes, took several deep breaths, got it under control. "Too used to having Allerdyne there doing the direct access. Without him I can't directly reach my headware storage – I'll have to do a direct-link hack later. If I can remember how. Trying to remember exactly how to go about doing this…" He touched a few controls tentatively. After several more moments, he seemed to get a feel for what he was doing. Lights flickered momentarily again, then she saw another set of indicators on the main panel light up. "There, that's done it."
She hit the manual intercom. "This is Commander Austin. We have had multiple system failures but appear to be – at least for now – in no immediate danger. I need to know if everyone is all right. Please respond!"
DuQuesne's level, calm voice was the first to respond. "I am unharmed. My AIsage is offline, however, and the power systems have completely shut down except for battery power."
"How long will that last?" she asked immediately.
"For most ship internals, quite a long time. If you try to use the coilgun drivers or something similar, not long at all. I will get you exact numbers soon, but unless you do something extreme, the superconductor loop storage cells have enough power for weeks at least."
"Well, that's good news." She took another deep breath, continued to check on the others. Her old friend first. "Gabrielle?"
The usually-confident voice was much softer and unsure. "Y… y'all watch that first step. It's a doozy. My little friend's shut down too and I've got nothing in connectivity." Her laugh was forced, but at least it was a laugh. "I may have to actually use some of that stuff I studied in school."
"Never… realized how empty it would be without her." The first response was not encouraging; Carl sounded distant and not really there. Ariane's lips tightened; as the controls and automation specialist, Carl was going to be critical to getting everything working again. His next sentence, though, carried more of the tall, whipcord-slender engineer's confidence. "Physically I'm a-ok, though. I'm trying to get manual control figured out for the rest of Holy Grail. Whatever took down the Aisages seems to have whacked the thinking automation, too."
"We'll worry about what did it later. For now, just keep getting as much as you can working again. Dr. Canning?"
She repeated the name several times, but only a thin, almost inaudible keening sound came back. "Gabrielle –"
"On my way. She was so wired that she must've crashed like a drunken fighter pilot."
And our maintenance engineer was a transcender. "Dr. Cussler?"
The voice that answered, after a long pause, was barely distinguishable. "Empty… small… lost…"
"Dr. Cussler – Tom – listen to me. We can't let the shutdown stop us. Focus!"
"Icarus." Tom Cussler whispered. "Bellerophon."
She exchanged a puzzled glance with Simon. Somewhat to her surprise, DuQuesne spoke. "Worry about our fall, and our hubris, later, Cussler. Right now, do you have any connectivity with the nanomaintenance systems?"
The direct technical question jarred a response out of the apparently nearly-catatonic engineer. "Nanomaintenance… on automatic. No AI controls at all. Basic computational evaluation." He took a deep, shuddering breath with the hint of a sob in it, but didn't quite break down again. "Even … distributed systems down below Turing threshold. Can't restart AIsage packages – they thrash and drop back to baseline."
"Have you tried running a fresh core learning seed?" Carl suggested. "Maybe all the priors are corrupt. A naïve AIsage would still be kilometers better than none."
Tom Cussler gave a sort of barking vocalization that might have been meant to be a laugh; it was not a comforting sound. "Infant seeds start up and then crash immediately."
"Worry about that later." Ariane ordered, using the same voice she used on her racing team when they started debating minor possibilities in redesign. "Dr. Cussler, I know this is upsetting, but I need you to make sure that we have the best maintenance we can manage without the AIsages. Can I count on you to establish direct control where needed, or do I have to get Carl or Steve to take over?"
As she hoped, the implication that she thought he was helpless got a more focused response. "Of course I can do this. I made all of … well, with help I made all of them. And I… I can figure out how to control them myself. The information's there."
"Good." That's everyone. Aside from Laila Canning, at least it looks like most of us came through it okay for now.
But what did we come through into?
Ariane turned back to her own controls and brought up the displays and history. As she tried to bring up some more complex analysis of the current situation, her datacom implant suddenly picked up a carrier signal.
"Ha!" came Carl's voice over the speakers. "That's got it started. Steve?"
"Trying… yeah, I think… there!"
The carrier became active. "Oh, thank god." Ariane said, hearing the sentiment echoed around the ship as she made her connection.
It was still an eerily empty connection, with no trace of the almost omniscient, helpful AIsages or even less intelligent but usually more omnipresent smart automation, but at least she could access a lot of the control systems and give them more complex direction.
A model began to build up before her, showing the 200 meter long Holy Grail and then moving outward. A nearly flat surface just a few dozen meters away. More… farther…
"Holy shit." She finally said, unable to even think of an appropriately apocalyptic curse.
"Nani?" Sandrisson said, glancing at the display in front of her. "I… cannot quite figure out what I'm looking at."
"Let me put it into scale." She linked to Sandrisson's data feed directly, overlaying the data on the image.
Masaka. His silent voice said after a long time. Impossible.
Holy Grail drifted within a monstrous enclosure, in the shape of a somewhat flattened sphere, over twenty thousand kilometers across the wide axis, sharing that space only with a handful of other, spherical objects ranging in size from one at the exact center which was nearly three kilometers across to several only a few meters across; with the exception of the central object, none of them exceeded 300 meters.
Ariane studied the other objects. Featureless spheres as far as their radar could make out, and no more detailed by the few visible-light images acquired during the brilliant firing of the rocket, they were all clearly laid out along a plane that cut through the center of the enclosure, none more than a relatively few kilometers off of that imaginary surface. Judging by the minimal data left from the recorders during their emergency stop, they'd first entered this weird place at roughly a thousand kilometers from the center, maybe a little less, and then careened outward until they'd almost hit the … wall. Moving pretty much along the plane of the other objects, too –
She sucked in her breath. No. That's insane.
But the thought triggered the query, and even the simplistic, un-intelligent automation available now was more than capable of performing a simple comparison and overlay.
"Mother of God." DuQuesne's voice spoke finally, the others in the crew having also connected to see exactly where they were.
Within that impossible space, the featureless spheres drifted, moving almost imperceptibly slowly, following in precise and terrifying accuracy the motions of the Solar System from which Holy Grail had come.
Am I not merciful?