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Archie Phoenix

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About Archie Phoenix

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    Archie J Phoenix
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    USS Arcadia
  1. And in those moments after, Archie knew only falling. At first his falling was tangible, a descent through a smooth-walled chute of cold iron. He’d intended to follow the rest of his group through the concealed opening into this chute, escaping from the green-skinned boar-faced warriors swarming around them only after he allowed the others to disappear under the heavy stone slab he held up. His flight became a fall when the axe of one of the warriors dug into his chest. The force of the blow threw him between the chute opening and the stone slab, a twist of fate which at least spared him whatever indignities the alien creatures might plan for his lifeless form. As he slid, the slab closed over the opening with a thunderous crash of stone against stone, the last thing Archie heard. By the time his body hit the ground of the room below, his falling had become a mental journey not unlike the descent he‘d just experienced. In his mind he withheld a chute much like the one through which he’d just plummeted. He withheld a small opening with a light beyond, not unlike the escape hatch, only in this case he was falling toward it rather than away from it. He could still feel. The screaming of the gash in his chest affirmed that. But as he fell, the pain slowly faded. The light before him, growing as he soared closer, was shapeless and seemed otherworldly. In his mind, he associated a feeling of comfort with the light, of return to a place with which he was familiar and from which he had been away too long. At last, that light enveloped him in a brilliant flash. Archie was alone in the industrial sector of Deck 10. It was raining. Archie found that odd, but not as odd as the fact that he was alone in the industrial sector of Deck 10. Wasn’t he in the stone prison with Daena and Katherine? Wasn’t he dead? The rain, falling from the deck plating above his head, seemed to bend around him. It was not missing his back, though; the back of his uniform felt damp. As Archie realized this, he felt that something important was missing. He’d forgotten something, back at the exposed power node that he’d finished repairing. When he’d left, he was sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, but now he felt something calling to him. Was it calling because it wished to return to him? Or because it wished him to return to it? “ heeheehee … aaaar … chiiieeeee …. “ “Samantha?” Archie thought, though no lips moved nor voice intoned. He glided through the industrial corridors, answering the call. He remembered feeling fear when he’d left this section before. The voice! The disembodied voice had terrified him, then. But now he felt no fear. Had death stripped the ability to fear from him? Did fear have no hold on a being without life? Or did the experience of death, that which is feared above all, render all other fears inert? Or did the voice, impossibly, intend to help him? Archie arrived at the junction of corridors where he’d completed the repairs, though it was not in the state in which he‘d left it. The deck was still flooded, the damaged circuitry was still exposed, and the lights were still flickering. When Archie spotted the thing that had been calling to him, a chill shot through him. Lying in the water on the deck was his body. The skin was pale and the eyes were devoid of life. Samantha‘s voice rocked his senses. “ … time to wake up, archie … “ His eyes opened. His head was throbbing in time to the flickering lights. The back of his uniform was soaked. When he realized that he was still lying on the flooded deck, he sat up with a good deal of struggle; his muscles felt extremely weak. “Ahhh!” He groaned, reaching up to grab his aching head. He’d never had such a headache! And his arm felt like lead, such was the effort of lifting it. But as he allowed the pain and the weakness to sink in, a tremendous sensation washed over him. Reality. This was real! The unquestionable though inexplicable sense of reality one felt when waking from a vivid dream that had seemed -so- real at the time … Everything! Getting off the flooded deck. Draining the water. Replacing the wall panel and restoring the power. Fleeing the strange voice. Filing his report in engineering and speaking with Torre. The transport to the stone prison! Daena. Katherine. The traps. The green warriors! The axe! Now that he was immersed back in reality, his basis of comparison restored, he realized that all of it had been in his mind! All of it had been an hallucination! What was the last -real- thing he remembered? The radiation! He had to grab one of the exposed power cables to pull himself to his knees. Had something gone wrong with the radiation treatment? Had it gone farther than it was supposed to? Had it reacted unexpectedly with the dust organisms? The sensations coursing through his body suggested that something had gone terribly wrong. He tapped his commbadge. “Lieutenant Black?” He waited a few moments, but received no response. He tried again. “Captain Lo’Ami? Commander Alces? Lieutenant Ze‘Rea?” Was he the only one conscious? The only one alive? He quickly debated whether to go to the Bridge or to Engineering. Any number of disasters could ensue aboard a ship without a functioning crew. He decided that he could do more good at the station he knew best and made his way back to the turbolift as quickly as he could while bracing himself against the wall on a weakened arm.
  2. One by one, Archie returned his larger engineering tools to their box. All the water that had spilled onto Deck 10 was drained, the wall panels were bolted over the circuitry which had shorted out when contacted by the flood, and power was restored to the local coupling. A check of the crew logs revealed that this section of circuitry had been under routine repairs when the crewmen were ordered to sweep the decks for any equipment that could have been responsible for the strange dreams. The repair crew, in their haste, did not close the exposed circuits nor restore the wall panels. It was the kind of mistake crewmen were liable to make, and the flooding caused by the water conduit puncture turned this mistake into deckwide power fluctuations. All was well now, though. Thanks to Archie, the equipment on Deck 10 was once again stable and the deck once again dry. Now, to the brig. The ‘dream crisis’ had given Archie a few hours’ respite from his Aether debriefing/interrogation/inquisition. Now that things were settled down, he would have to answer for his unwitting creation of the Samantha-Kent construct. With a sigh, he closed his tool box, picked it up, and began his trek through the mazelike industrial corridors back to the turbolift. Halfway through corridor S8, he stopped. At first, he wasn’t entirely sure why he stopped. Aside from his reluctance to go to the brig -- a reluctance which was by no means overwhelming -- he could think of no good reason to stop in the middle of corridor S8 on Deck 10. He looked over his shoulder, back the way he had come. Had he forgotten something while repairing the fried circuitry? No, he was sure he hadn’t, and he was sure that this possibility hadn’t stopped him. He shrugged and continued walking; it mustn’t have been that important. “… aaaar … chiiieeeee ….” This time, Archie knew exactly why he stopped. He’d just heard a voice behind him. A female voice. He whirled around and saw, predictably, nothing in the corridor formerly behind him. The voice had been distant and hollow, as if the corridors were cavernous and the voice had echoed throughout them. Yet it had somehow seemed so near. The voice seemed familiar, though his mind found it hard to pinpoint. The image of a featureless cube with a ring inside kept forming in his mind. “ heeheehee “ Archie backed up slowly, glancing around corridor S8. He’d heard stories in the Academy, stories that had circulated among the aspiring engineers, stories of sections of ships being haunted by the spirits of crew that had perished on board, usually in … messy fashion. They were always the most isolated and stifling sections of the ships -- industrial corridors, maintenance tubes, weapon bays -- areas where the spirits would not be regularly disturbed. On the rare occasion that they were disturbed, however … watch out. Archie turned and hastened toward the turbolift. The lights seemed to dim a bit with every step he took; the uncomfortable sense that someone was nearby grew. His intimate knowledge of the industrial corridors, which he had studied thoroughly his first few months on Arcadia, seemed to be waning. At a few intersections, he was uncertain which way to take, but every time his alarm that he had gotten lost peaked, he found a familiar corridor. Eventually, he found his way back to the turbolift. The feeling of dread vanished immediately when he stepped aboard the summoned and quite appropriately named lift. As the lift sped its occupant back to engineering, Archie looked back at his flight from the industrial section and wondered why he’d felt so fearful. While the voice he’d heard was strange -- and intriguing -- it now seemed hardly a cause for the panic that he’d experienced. His reaction seemed even silly now, so when a small but prominent part of his brain urged him not to mention the whole incident to anyone, he was too eager to comply.
  3. Archie’s head still hurt, and he couldn’t be sure that the regular injections from his nurse weren’t making matters worse. It was no wonder that Doctor Swan was keeping him here under observation until she could be sure that he’d recovered fully from his concussion. Not that Archie was complaining. While Sickbay was not the most entertaining place to be on the ship, the good Doctor Swan was the last person he’d ever argue with; she was one of the nicest people on Arcadia, to say nothing of her medical expertise. Still, Archie couldn’t help wondering if the ‘observation’ was focused on more than his concussion. He was still stunned at the full extent of the Aether crisis. He’d known something had gone wrong after the Samantha Kent construct had attacked him and locked him up, and he was able to guess at her harmful intent. He knew nothing of her actions, however, imprisoned and cut off as he was from events outside of Aether’s Caress. He’d assumed that Kent and, perhaps, other constructs in the facility were doing something nefarious to the other members of his team. He couldn’t imagine their influence spreading beyond the facility. When he read the mission logs and took in the entirety of the false Kent’s actions, he could scarcely believe it. The things she’d done. Archie wasn’t sure if it was her capability (nearly taking complete control of Aether’s data network) or her iniquity (bargaining with the lives of Aether’s people, even killing a few outright) which surprised him more. That the Kent entity was his creation surprised him most of all. Or was it his creation? He still had no idea. He’d tried to produce Commander Alces through the neural hoop. Samantha Kent was produced instead. And the Samantha Kent that was produced was like nothing Archie would have envisioned. The Aether’s Caress technology had misinterpreted his thoughts grossly, and the resulting entity was able to break free of that technology in a way that Archie was sure the Aether’s Caress staff could never have anticipated. Everything had gone terribly wrong. There were no answers from Aether. The Caress facility and its control mainframe had been extinguished when Samantha Kent was purged from the net. The Caress staff had been killed by Kent (the thought made Archie’s skin crawl) as a show of force to Arcadia’s crew. Since the facility’s mainframe had always been kept secured from the rest of Aether’s net to respect the privacy of its clients, no one else on Aether could offer any answers. To everyone involved, Kent’s creation was a mystery. So it was, Archie suspected, that he was being required to report to Security after his release from Sickbay. Kent‘s creation was his doing. Naturally, they’d assume that he had answers. Perhaps they’d even speculate about his intent. He could only tell them that he had no answers to give and that he’d never intended for anyone to get hurt -- the truth … but did they have any reason to believe him? The Aether mission was as terrible a string of events as could be imagined. Someone needed to be blamed. And the string lead back to Archie any way it was traced. Archie’s struggles to mix in with Arcadia’s crew had not been resolved. He hadn’t gotten particularly close to any of his crewmates. Who knew him well enough to speak for his character, to defend him if he were accused of willfully causing the events on Aether? No one. And those events would do little to improve his relationships with his crewmates. How could anyone trust him now? His name was in the mission logs. Everyone knew that it all traced back to him. Samantha knew. Again, the thought that caused Archie’s head to throb the loudest, and his heart the coldest. Samantha would certainly know about everything that had taken place on Aether. She would know of his involvement. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking at this moment. Probably the same things that the security officers were thinking. And everyone else. How could he ever face Samantha again? He could almost hear her voice in his head, and its tone was not pleasant. Archie wished the nurse’s latest sedative would reclaim him, that he could disappear further into the comfort and isolation of Sickbay that weren’t going to last long enough. Everything had changed, a nightmare was waiting outside of Sickbay’s doors, and Archie had no idea what he was going to do …
  4. “I can die, but my foes cannot.” The absolute worst tactical scenario that could possibly exist for an individual in a combat situation. It is the job of a warrior to kill the enemy while preserving his own life. If the enemy cannot be killed, the battle for sheer survival is already lost. This was the reality which Tom-Servo faced. His enemies, now, were not in another realm of existence where they could only interact with his invulnerable light-projection. Now they were in the Aether’s Caress mainframe. Here, his only existence was the computer code which comprised his being. To the others, his code appeared much the same way his light-projection appeared in the other reality. This was the way that Samantha-Kent willed it; she‘d explained that representing the computer code this way allowed her partially sentient mind to better understand the Aether data network. But it left him vulnerable. The weapons which the Arcadia team wielded were constructs of their mind, transformed into computer code through their neural links. Code could harm code. If Tom-Servo were shot, he would cease to exist. Samantha-Kent had learned right away that this process could not be reversed. She’d tried snapping the teams’ neural links by sending bad feedback through the signal to Arcadia. But something blocked the attempt on Arcadia’s end. The same block would ensure that any harm to the team members’ coded counterparts would not extend to the real team members on the ship. They could simply will the damage away! Though they did not yet appear to fully grasp this, they now had the same power that Samantha-Kent had! But without the vulnerability! Their coded counterparts were just that -- counterparts … simulacrums … computerized puppets. The real Malik Pilot and Torre Ze’Rea and -- damn it all -- Tom Servo were on a ship out of Tom-Servo’s reach. But Tom-Servo’s code was not just an extension. It was his very being! All of this had been made clear by Samantha-Kent. And yet she’d made his objective very clear -- stop the team from Arcadia. How? If they did not share his imminent mortality, how could he stop them? Only by interpreting the objective as loosely as he could and altering his methodology appropriately. His gun could not kill, so he would use it to distract. And that was just what he was doing. Someone was trying to break into the mainframe access terminal (another vulnerability which Samantha-Kent had insisted on!) -- that was the primary threat. Archie-Phoenix would try to deter her efforts from within. Tom-Servo would flood the chamber with gunfire to keep her mind filled with fear and doubt. The attention of the others would remain on his gun, and so they would not be able to provide assistance and reassurance to the primary threat as Archie-Phoenix worked on her conscience directly. And he would avoid hitting any of them! At all costs! Anyone hit by his phaser fire would know instantly that his weapon was useless. The distracting agent would be rendered inert. He was thankful that Daena was not on the team. It was bad enough that he had to do this, to fight his good friend Malik and Sam and even his own self. But Daena … his beloved. He’d already abused her enough by treating her as a prisoner in the other reality. To have her here, wondering if a shot from his rifle could intentionally end her life? He inwardly railed against Samantha-Kent’s control, even as he knew that this would please her. “I can die, but my foes cannot” … but the objective can still be met. Daena had given him the great sense of purpose of a Starfleet security officer. Even if, sickeningly, he needed to apply it to the orders of a perverse entity to whom he owed no willful allegiance, he loved Daena more for gifting him with such an admirable sense of duty. These things he told himself in silent consolation, for he doubted that he would survive this encounter …
  5. Samantha-Kent’s virtual mind had already molded every aspect of the Aether network to a form that was more familiar to her. This was necessary. The Aether network was based purely on energy, but Samantha-Kent had not been born from energy. She had been born from the mind of Archie Phoenix. Though her control of the Aether network was absolute, her unique perspective still required an understandable interface with that network. Just as the currents of electricity which controlled the functions and data of any basic computer system were translated into pictures and words that its operator could recognize, the Aetherian energy which Samantha-Kent controlled was instantly molded to an amalgam of Bajoran and Starfleet forms. Since Archie’s research into Bajor had not yet delved deeply into their computers, the Aether’s Caress mainframe bore a strong resemblance to Arcadia’s computer core. There were only two levels, the lighting was much weaker, the equipment had a more coppery sheen, and there were more doorways around the core’s periphery. But the resemblance could still be recognized -- the very core to which Archie and Torre Ze’Rea had retreated when Arcadia was overrun by officers of New Atlantis. Now, here in this core was Torre, again. Only she was not here, but connected directly to the mainframe by a neural interface. Conveniently enough, this allowed her to share Samantha-Kent’s Starfleet-friendly perspective of the mainframe. In a way, Archie had brought Torre to the core again. For all of her power, Samantha-Kent’s existence was still reliant on the very people now trying to defeat her -- a reaction to those people, to use Commander Alces’ words. While Tom-Servo weaved his way from doorway to doorway firing phaser blasts into the core, Torre was searching through the main terminal at the center. The effort was proving extremely difficult. Every time she tried to access a file, it was scrambled or hidden from her. No matter how fast she worked or how invasive her methods, something inside the computer was always one step ahead of her, blocking her efforts. “Lieutenant Ze’Rea … ” Torre jumped as the voice emerged from the terminal. “Oh no … you again.” Archie was in the core with her again, but this time his intentions were not as helpful. “Lieutenant. Torre. Are you aware of what you are doing?” Archie-Phoenix asked calmly. "Obviously, or else I would not be doing this," she snapped, stressed as she tried to get through to the files. “No,” Archie-Phoenix replied matter-of-factly. “I am afraid you do not know what you are doing. The severity of this situation would not have been communicated to a junior officer like you or me ... Archie.” "You? Archie? Ha," she said, laughing nervously as another blast from Tom-Servo’s rifle hit the ground near her. "Well, then, if you are so informed, tell me what I am doing," she said, trying another approach to get around the blocks in her way. “You are destroying the world,” Archie-Phoenix answered as he blocked Torre‘s latest attempts. He was anticipating every one of her methods and developing rapid responses. "How am I destroying your world?" “If you destroy Samantha-Kent, you destroy the only hope for its salvation. You must stop. You will doom the world.” "The world is already doomed. How do you expect her to save you?" she asked, trying to keep him occupied as she worked on prying her way in. “Samantha-Kent is the only entity who can stop the stars' destruction. She has a developed a means of stopping the supernova. The Captain does not believe there is a foolproof plan. But I have seen it myself. It exists and it will work -- work -- w - w -- work.” The voice of Archie-Phoenix began to crack as the pulse from Arcadia continued to overload the network. “She is s-s-slipping. You must s-s-stop. She is losing her c-c-control.” "Hmm.... having a little problem?" Torre asked, barely paying attention as she continued her attempts to access the system. Every attempt hit another wall. “Everyone has a plan, and every 'foolproof plan' is never foolproof. Never. In 13 hours, this star is going nova. What I am trying to do is to prevent that. The entire ship, up there, is trying to prevent that." “Torre ... you must listen to me.” Archie-Phoenix began to speak more quickly and with more urgency in his voice. “This is important what I must say. You were correct -- I am not Archie. I am ... you.” Torre stopped there... shocked at that. She struggled to get herself back together as she tried to get back in. "Y-you're lying. Trying to get me to mess up." “No, Torre. I was born from your mind, do you remember? I do not possess the engineering knowledge of Archie Phoenix ... but of Torre Ze'Rea. The knowledge has been given the form and voice of Archie Phoenix because you willed it. But it is your knowledge. So you see, it is not Archie Phoenix blocking your efforts. It is you.” Torre blinked, stopping what she was doing. "Fine... you have my attention." “I am sorry. Your efforts are futile, Torre. Every c-conventional--vention--conventional method you use to enter this computer will be blocked.” Bursts of static interrupted the voice. “C-c-conventional … for I know of every one … her c-c-control is slipping … there is a foolproof plan.” "Foolproof?" Torre asked, not moving, but going through every trick she had ever learned in her head, searching frantically for one thing, even she wouldn't expect. “I know of all of your methods, Torre. Everything you have ever learned. Ever -- ever learned. I …” Archie-Phoenix paused for a moment, before his voice regained its calm tone. “She is not pleased. You must stop, Torre. You will doom the world. Your methods are all predictable to me. And I will stop them all.” “Samantha Kent.... created by Archie Phoenix... wouldn't that make it seem, like she is Archie. You are me, after all," she said, grabbing straws from any place, trying everything she could. “Samantha Kent has become … something else. This is not my concern. My concern is defending the Aether's Caress mainframe. And I am having a delightfully easy time of doing so.” "She was created from the thoughts and knowledge of Archie Phoenix though, do you not deny that?" Torre then stood back, closing her eyes for a second. Then, she thought of it, it was so simple. So easy. And she would only have so long. "Go attend to guarding your systems," she said, before turning off the commlink.
  6. Archie was a bird. The landscape thousands of kilometers beneath his soaring body was of no land he’d ever seen. It was a dead world, an ash grey mass pocked by hundreds of massive craters and countless smaller ones. Perhaps this land had been vibrant once. Indeed, Archie got the sense, a sense he could not explain, that this world had once, long ago, contained life. But no world could survive such a meteoric onslaught. What force had wrecked its atmosphere and allowed stellar bodies to strike its surface? Archie’s wings were fire. Each elegant stroke of his wings revealed a fluttering coat of bright feathers, blending from deep red at their bases to orange at their tips. He was as magnificent a beast as had ever taken to the skies of this or any world. But he was also deadly. Waves of terrible heat distorted the landscape around his beating wings. He knew that any creature that touched his feathers of flame would perish instantly, becoming one with the ashen landscape below. Archie’s eyes were a predator‘s eyes. And they sighted something unusual the moment it turned the curvature of the horizon. There was the greatest crater on this world’s surface -- the mark, perhaps, of the calamity which had incinerated the atmosphere. It was thousands of kilometers wide; its depth Archie could not sight from this angle, but it was certain to be great. A stellar monstrosity had left this legacy of its arrival. But it was not the crater, which Archie had begun to sight minutes before, that grabbed his attention. Just beneath the far lip of the crater, imbedded in the charred rock, was a structure of glass and metal. It was a facility built by the hands of sentients. Not a ruin -- even from this distance, Archie’s eyes could discern that the materials were clean and fresh enough that they’d been placed recently and were still being maintained. To his right he heard a vague squawking, warning of danger which it brought. His long neck swung around to point his hawkish head toward the source of the noise. It was as if he gazed into a mirror. Another head emerged from his body and stared back at him. It was nearly identical to his own -- the same hawkish countenance, the same fiery plumage, the same neck curved around the back … but the eyes. The eyes. Deep. Molten. Blood red. Terror. This head was repulsive and alien to him. But he knew that it was his own. Archie’s mind was an enantiomorph. Archie woke with a start. His left hand immediately reached up to grasp his right shoulder, though he did not know why. His Samantha Kent construct had wounded his abdomen, not his shoulder. With his other hand, he pushed himself up to a sitting position. He was still in his cell. It was an unremarkable cube of steel walls. Kent had created it before his eyes, carving it out of the walls of the Aether’s Caress facility and then sealing him inside of it. From in here, Archie had no idea what was going on. He knew only that something had gone horribly wrong when the Samantha Kent was produced from his mind. He had been taken outside the cell once. Tendrils of energy had snaked from the walls, lifted him up, and carried him out to a great hall he did not recognize. There was Samantha, dressed like royalty, and the other two members of his group, Torre and Daena. He knew that he was being displayed to them, that Samantha could have killed him with a thought if she desired. Clearly, she had some sort of control of the energy of Aether. How she achieved that control, and what she’d been doing with it since, Archie could not tell. All of his equipment had been taken. Archie was not claustrophobic. He did not particularly enjoy enclosed spaces, mostly because he grew up on a world of enclosed spaces which he’d always desired to escape, but he did not fear them. Now, though, he felt great unease. It was not the enclosed space itself which caused his unease, but rather the great sense of hopelessness, the knowledge that something terrible, something for which he was partly responsible, was going on outside this cell, but not knowing exactly what was happening nor being able to do anything about it. His thoughts kept turning to Torre and Daena, beyond these cold steel walls, and his concern for their safety was great. Even during his most tedious days on Renazia, six surfaces had never been this stifling. Archie backed into a corner and wrapped his arms around his knees. All he could do now was wait … for something … anything to happen.
  7. Sixteen hours. That was the best estimate that Samantha-Kent could generate based on the data that Daena had entered into the computer, to say nothing of the piece of Daena’s mind which existed in the Tom-Servo program. Daena’s knowledge of solar physics, Archie’s mastery of computer engineering, and Torre’s studies of the Aetherian energy grid had all come together wonderfully to give Samantha-Kent all the tools she needed. The move toward the inevitable had begun. In sixteen hours, the Aetherian sun would go nova. Nine of Aether’s solar collectors were now under the control of Samantha-Kent. Millions of programs throughout dozens of Aether’s Districts had been infected by her code, and Aetherians were in panic at the changes she’d brought to their city. They would demand a response from the technicians. But the technicians did not know half of what Samantha-Kent knew of the functioning of the energy grid or the structure of the control systems. Their only viable response was to bow to her control. Their immediate response to her increased consumption of the solar energy was to reduce the flow to Aether. This effectively contained the spread of Samantha-Kent’s control. Unable to take direct control of either the Solar Induction Station or the City Core, their systems isolated as they were from the main energy grid, there was nothing she could do about this directly. But it was exactly the response she’d anticipated … and exactly the response she’d desired. With the energy induction reduced, the drain on the Aether star had been thrown out of balance. The balance could not be restored unless she ceased her activities in the controlled sectors of the city. The Aetherian sun had already had an appointment with supernova in just under two decades. Thanks to Samantha-Kent, it would now take only sixteen hours. She was certain that she was the only entity who could stop the breakdown. She was ready -- in fact, eager -- to bargain.
  8. Marshall Bendeaux stood in a light tube in City Ring 5 overlooking one of the strangest scenes he’d ever witnessed. He’d situated himself so that his feet were pointed away from the City Core. Beneath them was District 6-82, where contact with the District Watch office had been broken shortly after report of strange phenomena in the energy grid. It seemed that the situation had taken a turn since that report; what the Marshall was seeing went well beyond energy walls flickering off. Normally, the Marshall would be seeing the customary Aetherian energy conduits, strips of light flowing along the city’s multi-directional transport conduits; perhaps a few walls dimmed to opacity where residents desired privacy, but most of the city’s inhabitants visible as they went about their daily business aligned along various gravitational vectors; and beyond it all the stars in Aether’s sky. But the Marshall could see none of this. Instead, Marshall Bendeaux saw structures … actual, visible, material structures. The only such thing he knew to exist on Aether was the City Core … but these structures were nothing like the City Core. They were like nothing he’d ever seen, even in light-projections of Aether’s ancient history. There were spheres and half-spheres, great domes of gold atop spiraled and stunted bases, none of it transparent save for thin strips of glass panels around their peripheries. There were spires wide and slender, with rounded tips and pointed tips and needle-thin tips. Narrow bridges crisscrossed every which way throughout the District, linking these strange structures. They were the buildings of District 6-82. But they had been transformed. The energy which had made up the walls had been morphed into these structures which no Aetherian mind could imagine, the conduits into this network of bridges. In the spaces between it all were great lawns of emerald grass, the kind of thing one could only see in Aether’s few small greenhouse facilities. There were even two large pools, with a stream of water flowing past two bridges from one to the other. It was a breathtaking sight, Marshall Bendeaux had to admit. And it was freakishly out of the ordinary. ‘Alarming’ was the word Officer Charltrey had used before he witnessed any of this. ‘Alarming’ was no longer adequate. Bendeaux’s eyes shifted to the left, to the border between the anomaly and the rest of Aether. There, he saw the gradual shift from the stone of the bridges to the usual light conduits, from the domes and the spires to energy walls which freely revealed citizens who had gathered to gape at the phenomenon … or to run in terror from it. For the phenomenon was not still. The border was moving. The Marshall could see the energy barriers flashing and flickering as the alien district spread outward. People were only now starting to panic. “There are others trapped inside!” The Marshall looked to the right, at a man fleeing up the light tube toward him. He’d recognized the uniform of office. He waved his arm toward the anomaly. “They can’t escape it! A wall holds them back! They couldn‘t get out before they realized what was happening!” “What -is- happening?” The Marshall asked. “No one knows. But it came from there …” Bendeaux knew where the man was pointing before he looked. He’d seen it as soon as he surveyed the anomaly. One of the great lawns of the transformed District 6-82 rose up to a flattened hill. Atop that hill was a domed structure larger and grander than the others -- a Palace. It was at the very center of the transformed district, overlooking all the rest of this aberration. The Marshall recalled Officer Charltrey’s words -- ‘the building at the very central point of the anomaly.’ ‘Aether’s Caress.’ The Marshall thought-projected a message to his office. “Get me someone from the Core.”
  9. “What do you mean, you cannot fix it?” Quintessa asked. “I am only an Operator,” Akash replied. “I am not an Engineer. I am trained only to interpret the code and to command the computer.” “Then who is our Engineer?” “We do not have one,” Akash answered. “A failure of this magnitude is unprecedented. It is unthinkable. Our technology is without flaw.” “Then how do you explain this?” Quintessa had a cold bite to her tone. She waved an arm at the code still swirling around the mainframe display. Every other interface with the mainframe had failed, but the code was still visible … almost as if whatever was causing the failure wanted the operators to see what was going on … almost as if it were boasting. “There is only one explanation I can fathom,” Akash said. “Though we do not have an Engineer in the facility … there may be one inside the mainframe.” * * * * * Samantha-Kent surveyed the codescape. Though her existence was purely digital, her mind was a sentient mind, so to her virtual eyes the billions of lines of code in the Aether’s Caress mainframe appeared as cylindrical mountains of formula rising and falling in blinding flashes of light. She’d already taken control of several hundred of the mountains. Her power in this place was staggering. Behind her on the broad plateau of light-data she’d sculpted for herself (just to give herself a place to stand and observe), three Aetherian women and one Aetherian man stood and watched her in still silence. She viewed them as they were viewed in the real world, though they too were simply constructs of computer code. And they too were at her command. Thin beams of light emerged from two dozen of the mountains and rose to the virtual sky overhead. They curved and swirled and danced about each other before converging at a single point. From that point a shaft of light descended to Samantha-Kent’s plateau and took on the form of a fourth Aetherian woman. “Another fantasy object,” Samantha-Kent observed, remarking at how the men of Aether were little different from the men of most Federation worlds. They were of little use to her … but then … if not for fantasies, she would not exist, would she? No matter. She already had a university professor, formed by another university professor. Two of Aether’s brightest minds condensed in a form which was totally subservient to her. What an invaluable aide to her, their knowledge of Aether! Beyond the mountains of data, Samantha-Kent perceived the dim haze of light on the horizon. Though she could make out little at this time, she knew what lay beyond that horizon …all the data and all the programs which lay outside the Aether’s Caress mainframe. Everything on Aether was part of a single great whole, the gathered and routed and shared and recycled energy of the planet’s sun. The food the Aetherians ate and the forcefields which surrounded the homes in which they lived and the trams which carried them across the planet and the computers into which they plugged their minds and all the great channels of energy which waited to be molded to whatever purpose the Aetherians desired -- it was all part of the very same stream of data and energy which flowed straight through the Aether’s Caress facility, ready to form the playthings which Aetherian pleasure-seekers came here to conjure. Samantha-Kent smiled as the mind of Archie Phoenix, the mind from which she was birthed, remarked at how foolish the Aetherians were. If she could extend her influence to the processor at the nearest solar collection facility, she could mold an entire region of the city to her whim. She could then use the city’s vast network of energy distribution nodes to spread, like a virus, to the other collection facilities’ processors. All it required was a skilled engineer. Samantha-Kent’s eyes were drawn to a clump of data streams near the horizon, the latest set of code she‘d managed to break. Her smile broadened. It seemed that she was not the only member of Arcadia’s crew inside the Aether’s Caress computer! * * * * * “Marshall Bendeaux, are you in?” “*CHIRP* -whirrr- This is Bendeaux. I am in, but I am off duty. Who is projecting?” “This is Officer Charltrey of District 6-82. I am sorry to disturb you while you are off duty, Marshall, but I have a report of very alarming energy grid activity in my District.” “… alarming?” “Yes, Marshall. Just a few Enzens ago, several of the energy walls momentarily … shut down … for no reason that we can yet ascertain. The walls were spread over eight buildings in a single remote region. There was also a shut down of inertial stabilizers, among other minor equipment, in the same area. A few people were thrown about, but fortunately no one was badly hurt. Currently, the minor equipment -- neural terminals and visual displays and such -- remains unresponsive. We, again, cannot yet ascertain the cause.” “That is impossible. I have never heard of anything like that occurring before.” “Which is why I made haste to bring this to your attention, Marshall. I have also contacted the collection facility which serves our District … but I do not expect an answer from them any time soon -- requests to the collection facility generally spend a great deal of time passing through a dozen or more people. I also felt that this was alarming enough to be brought to your attention. While the scale of this particular anomaly was very small, on a larger scale -- say, if walls had been dropped as far out as Aether’s periphery -- people may have been exposed to the vacuum of space. I cannot predict if the anomaly will recur on such a scale.” “This had better not be the Revelationists causing trouble ...” “There is more, Marshall. The building at the very central point of the anomaly -- the ‘Aether’s Caress’ Center -- was not in any way affected by the anomaly. Further, that facility is currently surrounded by an impenetrable shell of force energy which did not exist prior to the anomaly.” “ … what?” “We … hazard a guess that the cause of the anomaly may be inside Aether‘s Caress.” “Have you contacted the facility?” “Yes, Marshall. We have attempted neural-comm with them three times. … they are not answering. We do not know if this is because they choose not to answer or because our messages are not reach-- *BUZZ*” “… yes, Officer? … Officer Charltrey? Officer Chartley, do you receive?”
  10. “How can this be?” Archie wondered aloud. “This isn’t what I thought of!” He was lying on the cushioned platform in the middle of the Aether’s Caress service room, though he wasn’t sure whether he’d fallen back or been pushed back. He was also unaware, in such a dazed state as he was, that Quintessa had already left the room to give demonstrations to the other officers. He was now alone with Samantha. Only it wasn’t Samantha. The only way Samantha could appear out of thin air was if she materialized out of a transporter beam, and transportation did not work through Aether‘s energy fields. The possibility that this was someone’s idea of a practical joke seemed distant. “But it is what you thought of, Archie,” Samantha replied, her hand running up the front of his uniform top. “Isn’t it?” Archie looked down at Samantha’s hand. He reminded himself that it wasn’t Samantha’s hand. It was light wrapped in a soft layer of force energy and giving off heat. Lots of heat. So much heat, it almost burned. Not Samantha’s hand, certainly not, but the touch somehow excited him. It could be so easy to convince himself that this was really Samantha, in all her glorious flesh. “I-I … thought of Commander A-Alces,” Archie stammered. Samantha giggled playfully. “He’s not your type. But I … ” Her hand reached his shoulder and made its way up to his ear. The way it brushed the hair behind his ear was almost too much for him. How could this be Samantha? How could it not be? “I -am- your type, aren’t I, Archie? And you -did- think of me. You think of me … all the time.” “Something is wrong,” Archie said. That much was obvious. This may have been the Samantha Archie wanted to know, but it wasn’t the Samantha he did know. It took months to even get her to notice him, and that was when they worked together at New Atlantis. Even then, the only looks he solicited from her were ones of her usual curiosity. She never appeared even the least bit interested in him, a fact that Archie was desperate to change. Desperate enough to create this Samantha with his thoughts? Samantha’s hand wrapped around the back his head. “If this is wrong, then to hell with right.” And then she leaned over him and kissed him. This time, Archie didn’t bother putting things in perspective. He didn’t remind himself that the lips touching his were simply a softer region of the force membrane surrounding this mass of light, or that the body pressed against his was more of that same membrane, down to every wonderful contour. He didn’t recall Quintessa mentioning that the constructs generate moisture for enhanced realism, an attribute he did not understand at the time, but one that’s benefit was becoming more clear. He didn’t believe that if any of this were real, none of it would be happening, because this only happened in his wildest imagination. He simply allowed himself to enjoy the kiss. His first kiss. With not just any woman, but the woman he was sure he loved. By the time his mind returned from its euphoria (seconds, minutes, hours later?), Samantha was smiling over him. That same strange smile. Almost … devilish. He never could have imagined that smile on Samantha’s face. So, if this was his creation, why did she have such a smile on her face? “Would you do anything for me Archie?” She asked. Her other hand was moving across his waist. Such heat! He didn’t realize that his tricorder was gone. “W… what do you mean?” Archie asked, his senses again sharp enough for suspicion. Samantha frowned and narrowed her eyes. It was the first time she wasn’t smiling, but somehow this look seemed less alarming. “Wrong answer, Archie.” Pain. Terrible pain. It pierced his gut. The heat from Samantha’s other hand had turned into a fire that scorched his belly. He yelled out, but the room’s walls blocked out the sound. He looked down to see that the tip of Samantha’s hand had morphed into a shaft of pure energy stabbing into his flesh. As he watched, she withdraw the shaft and morphed it back into a hand. The pain was gone, and there was no sign of injury, though there was a hole in his uniform. The same energy that had burned him had also healed him. “The correct is answer is ‘yes,’” Samantha continued, her fingers now gently teasing the exposed skin. “You -will- do anything I ask. Or … you will die.” * * * * * * Operator Akash noticed the anomaly in the Aether’s Caress mainframe quickly, but he did not report it to Quintessa. He knew that Quintessa was in one of the service rooms personally handling a client and that she preferred not to be disturbed with anything less than significant problems when she was in the service rooms. This problem did not appear significant. Millions of beams of energy spun around Akash’s work chair in patterns that any trained Aetherian computer technician could decipher. Several Enzens ago, while Quintessa was overseeing the second of her three special clients, some of the beams had stopped moving. A few dijits later, they began moving on new unprogrammed pathways. A momentary glitch, Akash speculated, for which the system was now attempting to compensate. He watched the errant beams, waiting for the programmed patterns to restore themselves. They did not restore themselves. They only got worse. Akash was uncertain about what, exactly, the new patterns revealed. He was sure of this much -- they were tied to the behavioral algorithms of the last construct which Quintessa had manifested, the demonstration she was giving to the first of her three clients, a construct labeled Samantha-Kent. Unfortunately, the behavioral algorithms themselves were kept hidden from the operators, to protect the privacy of Quintessa’s clients. If anything was going wrong, the client would no doubt be observing odd behavior from his construct. But an operator could not determine more without delving deeper into the mainframe, bypassing the privacy safeguards which Quintessa would only authorize bypassing in an extreme emergency. This was not an emergency yet. At least, not an emergency that Akash was aware of. He was momentarily on the verge of reporting the anomaly to Quintessa, now on the last of her three clients. She would know if something were going wrong with one of the clients. But she would be done with her demonstrations soon, he assured himself, and then he could report the anomaly without any risk of angering her. The mainframe was his area of expertise, after all, and Quintessa did not like being disturbed by her assistants. He instructed the computer to execute a diagnostic program. It would delve past the privacy safeguards without giving the operator any idea of what was going on in the service rooms (unless something had gone terribly wrong with the Samantha-Kent program, which it would report at once). Before the diagnostic could be completed, however, things went from bad to worse. More of the beams were having their patterns altered. Quickly glancing over the now errant beams, Akash realized that they were tied to two more of the thirteen currently active constructs. There were now three constructs behaving oddly, including Samantha-Kent. And there were already signs of the trouble with the remaining ten; their lines of code were moving sluggishly. Akash looked at the status of his diagnostic, only to see that it had failed. Not that it returned no results, but that it had completely failed. It had simply ceased functioning. That had never happened before. He quickly instructed the computer to begin a new one … but the computer did not respond. Things had gone from worse to crisis. Before Akash could contact Quintessa, Quintessa contacted him. Apparently she had tried to shut down the Tom-Servo construct after her client reacted badly to its appearance, but the system was not answering her. Akash also tried to shut down Tom-Servo, and even took the initiative to attempt shutting down all thirteen (they could deal with the clients’ complaints later), but the system did not respond to any of the requests. Five of the constructs were now errant. Further, Akash was noticing a very curious pattern emerging in the beams of data which swirled around him. The lines of code which were tied to the Samantha-Kent construct were replicating themselves … and the replicated code was embedding itself inside the code tied to the other constructs. He guessed that this was the reason the system was not responding to his commands. The Samantha-Kent code was acting as a security barrier against outside intrusion. Further … it seemed to be taking on an administrative role within the system. “Tell me what is happening, Akash,” Quintessa communicated through their neural interfaces. Akash replied simply, “… I believe we are losing control of the system.”
  11. Archie wasn’t sure what he was doing in this somewhat dark, very enclosed cell of Aether’s Caress (whatever Aether’s Caress was). With each moment he spent in this facility, he became more and more confident that it had nothing to do with energy transfer. His group had been taken to this facility aboard one of the neural trams, even as they were determined to arrive at one of the planet’s energy substations. He couldn’t grasp the reason for this error (and nor could hostess Quintessa, assured as she was of the neural tram’s infallibility), but he guessed that it must have been a good one. While certainly not infallible, the technology on this world -was- incredibly advanced; there had to be a logic to its actions. “Just focus your thoughts on whomever you wish to appear.” Quintessa instructed as she placed the hoop of materialized energy on Archie’s head. Archie and the others had been taken to private rooms for a demonstration of the facility’s services. Archie was extremely uncomfortable in this room, alone with the Aetherian woman, so he wasn’t sure how well he could focus his thoughts. In fact, he wasn’t even sure who he wished to appear. If Archie understood correctly, this device on his head would gather his thoughts of any one person, and something akin to a holographic projection of that person (much more lifelike, of course) would be constructed in this room. As Archie was brought to this room, he hadn’t even given any thought to whom he’d construct. One of his parents? His tutor on Renazia? One of his Academy instructors or fellow students? One of the other Arcadia crew? Archie had not gotten acquainted with very many people in his lifetime, and he had developed close relationships with even fewer. How about Jordan? Oh … but what would she say if she found out? Likely, whatever she would say if she found out about a crewmember using her image in the holodecks. That -was- his chief; he would not want to upset her. “This is odd.” Quintessa suddenly broke the silence, her brow furrowed. “Are you hooked to another neural link, Mr. Phoenix?” Archie gave Quintessa a look of utter bafflement. “I … I’m sorry?” “You are an engineer, correct? The interface is picking up some interference. It happens sometimes, when one of our customers is still linked to a separate neural interface. I cannot localize the source, however … and I was not sure that Starfleet officers routinely utilized neural links. I can usually compensate for such interference; it will be more difficult in this case, since I cannot identify the source. … just keep thinking of your intended subject and I will get this sorted out. I am sorry.” Archie had little idea of what Quintessa was talking about, but he’d finally decided on a subject -- Commander Alces. They’d worked together very recently on the New Atlantis mission, so Archie had a fairly vivid image of the Commander in his head. He’d seemed like the sort who would be very open to this kind of experimentation. And they didn’t have to work together on a daily basis, so there would be relatively little fallout if the Commander did find out and get angry. He did not know the Commander well enough for a very accurate construct, but well enough to simply see the technology work. He closed his eyes and tried to keep an image of Commander Alces in his mind. “I’ve got it,” Quintessa announced. “Just keep concentrating a bit longer.” Nervous as he was, the thought never occurred to Archie that he’d been through this before. Not even an hour ago, a device much like this energy ring had rested on his head, and his mind had tried to focus on a different objective. Aetherian technology, awesome though it had first appeared to Archie, failed him then; it brought him to this strange facility which had nothing to do with energy transfer, and left his mind even more achurn with confusion. A sound like a gust of wind opened his eyes, and his jaw dropped at what he saw before him. “Hello, Archie,” Samantha said with an impish smile.
  12. Quintessa was giving her usual demonstration of the Aether’s Caress services to the Starfleet guests, but she was beginning to get the impression that the three officers had no idea where they were nor what services were offered here. They seemed interested in Sten, Quintessa’s favorite sample subject, as she pointed out all of his lifelike features, but their faces betrayed an underlying confusion. “ … a carefully shaped core of light energy allows you to see Sten as you do,” she explained. “That is wrapped in a membrane of ‘intelligent’ force energy … ” Hadn’t one of the officers mentioned an energy transfer station? Yes, as Quintessa continued her lecture, she started to wonder if these three weren’t supposed to be somewhere else. But they had arrived aboard a neural tram, hadn’t they? If they wished to visit one of the energy stations, the chair certainly would have brought them to the nearest one. Technology rarely malfunctioned on Aether, and malfunctions never went unnoticed for more than a few moments, so reliable was both the control and monitoring of the energy flow. “ … once we have you linked to our neural interface,” she continued, “you will be able to create a virtual mimicry, just like this, of any person you wish … ” Perhaps the chair’s neural interface had reacted badly to their minds? Unlikely. They were designed long ago for Aetherian minds, but the software had since been expanded to meet the needs of Aether’s growing interstellar tourism industry. The brain wave activity of even the most disparate sentient races was similar enough that basic patterns could be easily picked up on and ‘translated,’ just as alien languages were handled by the speech modulators. No, it was most likely that these three were exactly where they were supposed to be. And being the consummate professional, Quintessa was going to give herself fully to sating their scientific curiosity. As she finished showing off Sten’s features, she thought-projected a request to one of her assistants to take over the reception desk. She then looked back at the three officers. “So … would you like to give it a try?”
  13. Quintessa Mayhew glanced at the sphere of numbers that was light-projected above her desk. They displayed the current date and time on Aether, the result of a complex formula which allowed for a uniform planetary time while also displaying a less-emphasized regional measure of the position of the suns. There were no ‘time zones’ on Aether -- everyone’s days operated on the same basic schedule planetwide -- but the positions of the suns were important to maintaining the schedule of solar particle collection, the most important schedule in Aetherian society. In an Aetherian year, there were roughly 427 Earth days, in a day roughly 48 ½ Earth hours, and in an hour the solar harvesting of four separate collection arrays yielded 217 Enzens of energy, further broken down into a segment of time called a Dijit, equivalent to .74 Earth seconds. All of these measures were reflected in the Aetherian clock, and it would take hours for a Human mathematician studying the Aetherian time cycle to even begin to grasp the meaning of the ball of numbers. It took Quintessa and her glance just short of two Dijits to fully register the time and to realize the one concept that anyone on any time cycle could comprehend: Late! More than forty Enzens late, in fact, was Quintessa’s next client. Her next appointment was in another fifty Enzens, and if this one was any slower in arriving, she would have no choice but to push him to the back of her daily schedule. She was very strict with her scheduling and was not about to make any of her clients wait on account of another’s tardiness. In fact, Quintessa was right on the verge of thought-projecting her day planner when the tardy client finally arrived outside the facility’s entrance aboard a neural-tram. Quintessa gave the shabby-appearing Aetherian man a stern look as he stepped through the parting force-doors. “Terribly sorry, Madam Mayhew!” The client huffed in Aetherian versions of those words as he leaped off the ceiling and realigned himself relative to Quintessa. “The life of a professor is demanding and has the most annoying habit of monopolizing one’s time.” “I was about to move on to my next appointment when you arrived, Professor Morley,” Quintessa admitted truthfully. “But we still have time. Please, have a seat, and tell me of your desire.” “Ah, you’re much too kind to an old scholastic. Thank you.” A chair materialized out of the floor right where Morley was standing in front of the desk, and he allowed himself to recline on it. “I must confess that my ’desire’ is … not something you are used to, I am sure.” “As your request for an appointment implied,” Quintessa smiled. “But I assure you that I have gotten used to unusual requests. There is little that has been brought to this desk that has surprised me.” Indeed, the Professor’s unkempt appearance was not at all unusual for her clientele. His hair was sticking on end in various different directions, and it appeared as if he’d put on the same outfit three days in a row. Morley glanced around the lobby and gave Quintessa a wry grin. “I … know what you must be thinking, Madam Mayhew. But, really, my request is not at all of your garden variety. Ah … -do- we have time? I do not want to keep your other appointments waiting.” “I have several assistants who may take on another appointment if need be. Please go on,” Quintessa said, not at all convinced that the Professor’s request would be any less ordinary than the others, but professional enough to humor him. The thought of any of her assistants handling a client was alarming enough, however, that she would attempt to rush him to the point. “Ah, good.” Morley folded his hands on his lap and sighed. “It is like this, Madam Mayhew. Just this past year, a colleague of mine at the University, but more significantly a very dear friend, passed away.” “I am sorry to hear of that,” Quintessa replied with a sympathetic frown. “Ah, thank you, thank you. I do miss Professor Mikelz terribly. The warmest times of our friendship were the … debates that we would have. Great scholastic discussions, often quite heated, but never with any hard feelings -- our friendship was too strong, you see. Mostly we would debate within the privacy of our offices, but at times we would find ourselves almost accidentally embroiled in a heated discussion within the assembly hall, to a delighted and growing audience of students between classes. Quantum physics, solar engineering, even history and philosophy … oh, but we would go at it sometimes! And always in nothing but the best spirit of scholastic progress.” Quintessa tilted her head at the Professor. “She does sound as if she was very special to you.” “’He’ was special actually,” Morley corrected her. “I am telling you, this is not what you think, my dear. You see … Professor Mikelz left me many of his notes and journals, records of the great maelstrom of cogitation, supposition and, sometimes, lunacy swirling around inside that oversized head of his. Delightful reads, all of it … but it just isn’t the same, you know? Having him seated right there in front of me, trying to expound his warped position, responding futilely to my counterpoints, his arms flailing around excitedly as if he’s actually experienced some kind of breakthrough, the giant fool.” Morley laughed. Quintessa’s brow furrowed. This -was- one of her more unusual requests, though not unprecedented. “Ah, I begin to see now, Professor. You wish to debate with Professor Mikelz once again?” “You’ve got it exactly, my dear!” Morley smiled. “I have heard that your facility has the means to accommodate my request. That you can create a virtual representation of Professor Mikelz based on my memories of him, as lifelike as if he were actually here?” “That is correct,” Quintessa nodded. “We use the basic neural interface to pinpoint and extract every one of a client’s thoughts and memories of an intended subject, then piece those fragments together into an exact a replica of the subject as we can manage. Allow me to show you our basic demonstration.” Quintessa stood and circled around the side of the desk, and Professor Morley followed with great interest. With a thought, Quintessa instructed the lobby projectors to summon one of the samples. In an instant, an Aetherian form appeared out of the thin air in front of Quintessa and Professor Morley. It was a young, tall, handsome Aetherian man with the well-defined muscles of his upper body exposed. “Oh dear,” Professor Morley remarked. “This fellow seems to have lost his shirt.” Quintessa couldn’t help but smirk. “This is Sten, one of our samples for prospective clients. He is just a basic construction, not molded after any specific individual, but … idealized for our customary purposes.” “Ah … yes, it seems so.” Professor Morley said with amusement, looking Sten over. The sample’s head was turned to face him, but he was otherwise expressionless and rigid -- a mere drone. “And this is constructed of light, or is this actual flesh?” “Something roughly in between,” Quintessa replied. “Give him a touch and see. He is composed of various forms of solar energy. A carefully shaped core of light energy allows you to see Sten as you do. That is wrapped in a membrane of ‘intelligent’ force energy which simulates the texture of skin and yields to the touch as would a soft surface. There is also a minute amount of heat energy generated by the field. You see how the ‘skin’ feels warm to the touch, perfectly lifelike? We even convert small amounts of energy into surface moisture.” “My word! I can see why this place is so popular!” Professor Morley exclaimed. “Especially with the students.” Quintessa smiled, finding the Professor’s sense of humor about the whole thing refreshing. Most of her clients were quiet and reserved, seemingly embarrassed about even being here. “-You- will be most interested in this, though. Sten, say hello to Professor Morley.” “Hello, Professor Morley,” the statue-like sample said in a deep voice. “Well, hello, old chap! I would hope that being locked up in this place’s database hasn‘t done too much to tarnish your good manners.” “Not at all,” Sten replied. “I am most pleased to serve.” “Basic utilization of sonic energy, patterned after the voice recalled by the client,” Quintessa pointed out. “Our computers would contain your representation of Professor Mikelz. They would be the brain of your friend, and the visual projection would be the voice. Understand, Professor, that it would not be an exact copy of Professor Mikelz that we would be creating. We would merely be creating -your- unique perspective of Professor Mikelz, the way that you viewed him then and remember him now.” “Lovely,” Morley said. “He would be as much of a raving idiot as I recall.” “There would likely be no glaring differences, especially since you knew him so well and for so long -- your mental image of him is as accurate as it could be. But if, for instance, he were keeping any secrets from you, our representation of him would not possess those secrets.” “Well, it is all quite impressive,” Morley nodded. “I am certainly interested in proceeding further. As I noted in my request, I have quite a deal of clout at the University, so I can allocate whatever resources you will use and then some.” “You may work out the payment with Belasia. I will notify her to receive you in the back room.” Quintessa motioned to a force door in the back wall of the lobby, the only wall which wasn’t transparent, for understandable reasons. “She will also take care of the neural scan and show you the finished product.” “Mm, if only Professor Mikelz could hear himself described that way. He‘s already got the ‘finished‘ part covered, of course,” Morley laughed. He nodded to Quintessa before stepping toward the back room door. “Thank you for making the time for me, Madam Mayhew.” Just as Quintessa returned to her seat behind her desk, another tram pulled in front of the entrance. Her next appointment, right on time! In fact, according to her glance at the clock, this one was a few Enzens early. But when Quintessa took a better look at the tram’s occupants, she knew something was amiss. There were three people on this tram, not just one, and they were all dressed in the same strange jumpsuit, one with a different color at the shoulders. She’d seen something on the news projection that morning about Federation naval officers visiting Aether. Some kind of scientific exchange, if she’d recalled correctly. Those suits looked just like the ones she’d seen in the projection. How odd. If these three were part of that envoy, here on a scientific mission, whatever were they doing at the Aether’s Caress Pleasure Center?
  14. From climbing endlessly through a barely stitched together tin sail boat to having his body hurtled painlessly at impulse speeds through tubes of light energy, Archie certainly felt as if he’d crossed from one extreme of the technological spectrum right over to the other. In no way did this belittle his experience at New Atlantis; sailing the Cloud of Pacifica was a thrill in its own charming rustic way, enhanced by both the great danger of that mission and the mystery of the maintenance droids. But the primitive level of the particle sailboat technology afforded Archie a mastery that did little to challenge his Starfleet skillset. Granted there was some initial confusion as to the layout and configuration of the boat’s controls, and there was that unfortunate run-in with the security weapon, but those were symptoms of the scarce amount of time Archie was given to study the ship. Once he got used to the controls, he could operate them without a hitch, and once the presence of the security weapon was revealed to him, he was able to deactivate it with ease. A few scars (made barely noticeable by Doctor Swan) and a bit of derision from Commander Alces were just small signs of his initial struggles. Aether was an entirely different matter. The technology here, he estimated, was centuries ahead of Federation capabilities. The applications were actually not that far off from Federation standards -- inertial dampening, energy-matter conversion, solar energy collection, and neural interfaces were all utilized by Starfleet. But on Aether, the degree and scope of these applications were almost frightening. This technology was well above Archie’s head, and that posed a challenge and a learning potential that he had not enjoyed since his early years at Starfleet Academy. As Archie understood it, -everything- on Aether was converted directly from the particles of its binary suns. Well, everything except the people. Life replication was probably out of the Aetherian sphere of mastery; in that regard, at least, the Renazians were their superiors. But everything else was fair game. The homes the people lived in, the light tubes that carried them around the planet, the food they ate, the energy that powered their appliances, the light shows that provided entertainment, and the inertial forces which kept them rooted anywhere they wished were all converted from the solar energy being siphoned directly from the binary stars. By comparison, a Starfleet replicator struggled with any complex molecular configurations. To build a starship, for instance, Starfleet engineers could only use industrial replicators to produce the raw materials which still needed to be assembled and modified for compatibility. One could not simply construct a giant-sized replicator powered by M/AM reactors, and use it to endlessly pump out complete starships with structurally sound hulls, miles of utility conduits, working warp cores and other such devices, not to mention the smooth vinyl carpeting. Starfleet’s ability to manipulate energy patterns was simply not that refined. The best they could accomplish was tracing the energy pattern of an existing object and only then converting that object to energy and back into matter. This was the idea behind transporters, and even Starfleet’s ability to use those was both restrictive and demanding of the utmost caution. But the Aetherians, Archie imagined, could draw on one of their solar particle streams and mold the raw energy directly into a starship. Further, he could see the Aetherians using the solar energy to propel said starship at any FTL speed they wished, much like the Bajorans and their particle sail ships, only at far greater speeds and with more precise control. With enough modification, the starship could carry a solar energy power pack which could serve any of the crew’s needs, from simulating gravity, to powering equipment, to mending wounds -- all capabilities of Starfleet technology, only far more customizable and without the need for hundreds of specialized devices that could leave a crew crippled if they ever failed. With his knowledge of biotechnology, Archie likened the Aetherian solar particle to a stem cell -- once cultivated, they could mold it to any purpose they required. Perhaps even more remarkable was the neural interface technology powering the chair that was carrying Archie, Torre, and Doctor Swan at said impulse speeds. No need for any control panels which were not certain to be designed for a particular user’s ease of operation. Whatever you wanted the device to do, you simply needed to think it, and the device would do it. Starfleet had taken small steps in this direction with their bioneural gelpacks and positronic matrices, but if Starfleet could produce a technology capable of translating thoughts to a machine (and possibly even vice versa), it would already be integrated into their starships. Of course, the interface, it appeared, was not without its limits. Archie was noticing that the chair kept lurching around in confused circles, taking a left at this light tube junction, then shooting upward, then back downward, then a right and another left, before ending up right back where it took the first left. Archie looked over at his two companions, both wearing their neural caps, and wondered if the chair wasn’t having trouble sorting out three distinct sets of thoughts. Perhaps only one of them should have worn their cap -- a designated thinker. Or perhaps the fact that system was designed for the Aetherian brain was working against it. In a universe of disparate technologies, compatibility was always a universal concern. Could an Aetherian neural scanner make much sense of a Renazian, Cardassian, or a Human brain, let alone all three at the same time? Archie was trying his best to concentrate on the ‘energy distribution station in corridor TT15.’ But had Torre and Doctor Swan also overheard Captain Lo’Ami’s comm? Were they even sure what these chairs were about and what they were supposed to be doing? Some planning, Archie now realized, might have served this venture well. Was his own mind even doing much good to drive the chair? Perhaps the Aetherians were better than other species at focusing their thoughts well enough for the neural interface to pick up; otherwise why integrate the devices into their society? Try as he might to concentrate, thoughts of Tom Servo and Daena and, consequently, Samantha were still lingering in Archie’s mind. What if the chair brought the trio somewhere very far away from corridor TT15? Well, wouldn’t that be quite a thrill and quite a challenge to overcome? If Archie’s mind was confusing the neural tram chair, the small part of it that was hoping they did not end up in corridor TT15 might just overload the thing.
  15. One of the displays in the bank of engineering terminals at the back of the Saint-Epoch’s bridge was showing a copy of the sensor readouts that had just grabbed everyone else’s attention. There could be no mistaking that the long, thick form undulating toward the ship (as evidenced by its rapidly increasing size on the sensor display) was a Pacifican Serpent. The only other inhabitants of the nebula were the ships of the serpent hunters, and if any of those had been designed to look and move like a Pacifican Serpent, Archie very much would have liked to meet its engineers. The approach of the great beast was gradually strengthening a feeling that had crept into Archie’s mind when the Saint-Epoch was carried far into the unnavigable depths of the Cloud of Pacifica -- a feeling that the ship would not be returning from its voyage into the nebula. What made the feeling worse than anything was the knowledge that Archie himself would return no matter what. Of the crew assembled on the Saint-Epoch, only Commander Alces, perhaps, could properly understand Archie’s fear. The Commander, too, had a life force that could be separated from his body and introduced into another -- the mysterious Trill symbiont. If his symbiont was old enough to have experienced previous transfers, the Commander would be no stranger to outliving friends and loved ones, to surviving untold years while those around him perished. It was a burden that Archie was too young to fathom, but one that he surmised could be too much to bear. Of course, if the Saint-Epoch were destroyed out here in the Cloud of Pacifica, the Commander’s symbiont would not likely survive. That was a key difference between Trills and Renazians. Trills carried their living life insurance policies inside of them, perpetually tied to their host bodies by living biochemical pipelines which were necessary to the survival of both; if a freak accident killed one, the other had little chance of survival. Archie’s soul, on the other hand, was safe and sound inside of an indestructible chunk of crystal in his quarters back on Arcadia. If he perished in the Cloud of Pacifica, the Renazian Mystics would simply return his soul to Renazia and bring him back to life with a new body, but with all of his old memories and acquaintances in tact … and all of the accompanying guilt and loss. There was another difference between Trills and Renazians. Each new Trill host was a distinct individual with his own unique personality. The bitter memories of past lives might still be there, but how much could a mourning process be aided by the fresh perspective of a completely alternative mind? When a Renazian is brought back to life, he is the same Renazian through and through. On the Renazian homeworld, this was never a concern. With very few exceptions -- the rare soul-murders and the handful of Renazians who chose not to be revived -- no one on Renazia ever truly died. A Renazian’s loved ones would be there with him, in one form or another, forever. Perhaps this contributed more than anything to Renazia’s poor outlook of space travel and interstellar relations -- a fear of the temporary, of associating with other beings that some day would not be there any longer. This was one of Archie’s great dilemmas in joining Starfleet, a military institution, where death is more commonplace than in ordinary life. He was surrounding himself with people that he was doomed to outlive, one generation after another. If he served two hundred years in Starfleet, how many crews would he pass through, how many lives lost around him? He often questioned whether he would be able to handle it in the end. What did his tutor back on Renazia, and all the others who tried dissuading him from joining Starfleet, constantly tell him? That he would learn soon enough that the Starfleet life was not for him? That he would realize that he belonged on Renazia among others like him? Among others that could not die? Those were the things they kept saying to him. But what was really their reasoning? Was it more their bigotry toward outsiders that drove their outlook, or more their fear of the temporary which defined the lives of other species? Archie looked at Samantha, seated at the front of the bridge dreading the same sensor images that were in front of him. In all the chaos of studying the Saint-Epoch and making sure it carried the crew into the nebula safely, Archie still hadn’t had a chance to speak to her … aside from warning her away from a security gun which had sliced his body in two places. He remembered at that point feeling as humiliated with himself as he was concerned for her safety; there he was bleeding all over the corridor, all over -her-, because of his ineptness in not realizing the danger of trying to break through a sealed door on the ship. Now his fear for her safety was overriding everything, as was his deep regret that he still hadn’t spoken with her. If the serpents were stampeding, it could mean the end of the Saint-Epoch, and the loss of her life. The thought of being on Arcadia in a month, thinking about her, wishing that she’d known how he felt about her, wishing she were still alive … Even when the Saint-Epoch was stranded, Archie had felt a steely resolve. He knew the ship had to have secrets that could help the crew steer it back out of the nebula. That’s why he’d blundered into the line of fire of a security laser, and why he wouldn’t let Commander Alces talk him out of making a second attempt at the sealed hatch. Though his own life was in no way jeopardized, his desire to protect Samantha and everyone else on the ship drove him as if it were. The serpent loomed larger on the sensor display. Archie’s feeling of impending doom grew. So did his resolve -- no matter how much he bled, he would do everything in his power to help get the ship back home.