The Earthseed Chronicles Free to read science fiction blogfic

10Sep/112

1-6: Mainframe

Anthea seemed to be in a very good mood since they had "shared information". Arcelia assumed that she was relieved to have recruited her into their elect group. But had she, really? Arcelia was not quite sure to have taken any final decision on that yet. She had only caught a glimpse of the other people she would have to work with, and even if she knew she would likely get along well with Anthea, she could not say about the others. Then there was Ragnar, the first to have been "created" for this epic mission she knew nothing about - except that it was real and that it was the single most important endeavor in human history. She had no idea how to even approach someone like that, with her social skills she was likely to botch the whole thing outright. She knew that people often found her offensive, and could relate to it at least in part - she knew she was blunt, which could easily be misunderstood. She was really apprehensive of meeting Ragnar, even if this was turning out to be a fantastic adventure.

"Tell me about Ragnar. Is he really as old as you have shown me?"

"Yes. He was born in 1506, in a small village near Trondheim in Norway. He turned 573 this spring if I recall correctly."

She tried to remember anything from her history lessons that would put a year like that into perspective, but apart from world war I and II she was ashamed to admit that she remembered absolutely nothing.

"1506 is the year Christopher Columbus died, does that help to place it?" Anthea said, sensing her distress.

She gaped at her. "The discovery of the new world and all that?"

"Well, technically the vikings discovered america first. But more or less, yes. Michelangelo completed his statue of David in 1504, and Leonardo da Vinci finished the Mona Lisa in 1506 as well."

"I'll be damned. I mean, I'm used to reading books or watching movies with immortals in them, but to know that someone who has lived for five centuries really exists... For all I know he could have inspired the Highlander movies!"

Anthea nearly choked on her piece of apple pie. "I do not think so, no."

"Right, he's norwegian, that doesn't exactly fit," she said, still thinking of ways to make it fit. She noticed that there was a touch screen embedded in the table not far from her, so she slid over and activated it.

"What is he like? I mean, how can I even talk with someone who lived that long?"

"You need not worry about that. He has seen many things, that is certain - but it does not mean he is that different from you or me. You forget a lot of things with age: when you turn thirty you have already forgotten most of what you did in that time. Except the events that stood out of course, and for him it is no different. He has forgotten whole decades of his past, which in his words is more a blessing than a curse."

While that was a bit reassuring, Arcelia wondered anyway how she would fit in with her sweet twenty-six. She would have to keep her mouth shut and try to think a bit more before talking, she thought that would be a good start.

"How old are the others?"

"I am the oldest after Ragnar. I was born in 1857 in the United States. All the others were born this century, with the youngest being fifty-three," she said. Golly, the youngest of them was just about thirty years older than her.

"Where were you born in the US?"

"I was born in Hollywood. It was founded in 1857, my parents were farmers who lived in the area. It was not called Hollywood back then though, the name only became official when I was older."

"Wow, and Hollywood does not even know about its biggest star," she said and tried to imagine Hollywood as a small farmer's village. She was convinced that the images that popped up in her mind were nothing like the real thing.

"It were sad times to live in, believe me. Slavery was rampant, and when I was 4 years old the American Civil War started. My father died fighting for slave rights."

"Oh, sorry to hear that."

"It is true that time heals all wounds, sometimes it is even a bit too thorough for my taste. Today I can mention my father's death without any feelings welling up. It is so far away that it has lost its reality," she said and emptied her glass of wine.

Arcelia felt strangely humbled, and even more apprehensive of being around people that had seen much more of what life offered from close up than she could ever imagine. She had not lost any relatives, suffered no particular torments, and even work was so impersonal that she could not call upon much human experience at all. Anthea got up, came over to her and put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"You will feel a bit out of your depth at times, but do not let that worry you. It is good for us elders to be brought down from our high horses once in a while, so do not go out of your way to spare us. Always speak your heart and be ready to defend it, then you will be fine," she said and went around the table to fill up her glass again.

The screen in front of Arcelia blinked with the results of her search. She grinned.

"It says here that Connor Mc Leod realizes he cannot die in 1536 when he is fatally wounded in a battle. Ragnar would have been around 30 at the time, so he had plenty of time to travel to Scotland."

Anthea laughed. "I think I will have to watch out for cheesy tag lines like 'There can be only one' from now on."

Arcelia was starting to have her normal feelings back she noted - Anthea's laugh no longer had that sensual quality to it that it had earlier. It was still a charming laugh, but it was quite possible that it simply was charming. At least it did not bother her any more, but it made her think back on the experience.

"When I was in your thoughts, I..." she groped for words to explain just how she had been given the information. She settled for the simplest. "You told me that you, - we - have been 'created'. Can you tell me more about it?"

"That's for Ragnar to tell you. He will be able to show you better than I can what it means. The term is not quite accurate, either. We all have normal mothers and fathers, no one created us in a lab or something along those lines - just in case you were wondering."

She had indeed been wondering, but even without that knowledge she was quite sure that her parents weren't a sham. Not that it would have been relevant otherwise, being convinced of something was seldom proof of anything.

"Are we all immortal then?" she asked, noticing that she had already subconsciously used 'we'.

"As far as I know, yes - but not in the way that you seem to imply. We will not die of old age, but we can still die. Some of us died in accidents, even though we tend to heal a lot faster and better than the average person. Nothing like instant healing, mind you - just substantially faster."

Arcelia remembered her teacher marvel at how fast the scrapings on her knees healed, and how proud she was to be better at something than the other kids - even if it was something that trivial. Later on, being very solitary, she had not had any real occasions to compare the speed at which her wounds healed with anyone. She was curious to see how slowly normal people healed. She absently took another piece of apple pie and gulped it down rather unceremoniously.

"I think the mainframe should be online by now, shall we?"

"Yes please, maybe we can make some sense out of this together." Arcelia picked up the last piece of apple pie and followed Anthea out.

"Is this about those files you tried to decrypt?"

"Yes, and the decryption might even have been successful - I managed to salvage a drive I had hidden away, and my system was set to save a copy of the decrypted files on it. I need the mainframe to be able to access it."

"How come they did not find or destroy it?"

"It's designed to be hidden - and it's even illegal to own one, as the encryption on them is higher than military specs."

"I have absolutely no clue how all that works, but I can see how the authorities would not want devices like that in the general public. How did you come by it?"

"A hacker friend gave it to me in exchange for my help on a project of his," she said remembering the first of her forays into illegality.

"'Project' sounds... like a diplomatic choice of words," Anthea said with an eyebrow raised.

"I made some mistakes back then, and I don't want to dig them out now," she answered curtly. She knew from what she learned about Anthea during their information exchange that her intentions were honorable and that she could probably be trusted, but Arcelia also knew of herself that she trusted too easily. The fiasco with Frank was enough proof of that, and she blamed it on her lack of experience working with people. She was already immersed up to her ears in something that would likely put her into whole new levels of trouble, so limiting revelations about her shady past sounded like a sensible idea.

"I understand," Anthea said seriously. "I take it the people who contacted you were not aware you had such a drive?"

"Judging by the way they ransacked my machine, I think they at least had doubts. I worked from a thumb drive, and yet they extracted my regular drives and thrashed the rest. Which was a very stupid move."

"How so?"

"If I ever find out who they are, I'll arrange for their network infrastructure to go up in smoke," she said with conviction. She would hack into their systems, and take her sweet time. She would hide sniffers everywhere to extract every last piece of data she could find, as well as to create a mapping of all their external connections. Then she would bring it all down in one stroke, and post the best bits online.

"Ah," Anthea simply said beside her with a hint of a smile. She realized she had stopped walking, one fist balled and knuckles nearly white. She grinned foolishly and unwound her fist.

"Sorry about that, I got carried away there for a second," she said and walked on. Anthea simply smiled at her with the benevolent smile of someone had seen your thoughts as if they were printed on paper, and approved of them.

They did not meet anyone on the way down. According to the lift they took, they descended two floors below ground. A well-lit bright white but otherwise unfurnished and undecorated corridor led them into a heavily cooled room. Arcelia could smell the typical fragrance of heavy duty computer systems, and knew the mainframe must be nearby. The room itself was oval-shaped, and featureless bright white save for a wide sitting area in front of a big screen integrated into the wall.

"The memory and processor arrays are in a sealed room behind that side of the room, there," Anthea said and pointed to the far right. "We can access the system from the screen there, and there is a panel with series of interfaces you can use. I hope we have an interface for that drive of yours." They went over to the screen, and Anthea made the panel glide open. Arcelia inspected the available interfaces.

"Usually I operate the drive over a directional, short distance wireless connection. That won't work here, so we'll use that optical connector there," she thought out loud for Anthea's benefit, and extracted the drive from its hidden pocket. Anthea watched her curiously but did not comment. She plugged in the drive, and sat down on the couch.

"Errrrm, where do you hide the command interface?" she asked, looking around puzzled.

"This is an experimental facility, the system is voice controlled. Let me clear you for access," Anthea said, and turned her head towards the screen.

"Ion, start listening."

"I am listening, Anthea," an ethereal voice answered. Arcelia was used to computerized voices, but even though they had made tremendous progress in the last ten years, you could still recognize it as a computerized voice within a few instants. This voice however, despite being broadcast over invisible loudspeakers in the room, had a richness to it that she found unsettling.

"Ion, please add a new user with administrator privileges. Name: Arcelia. User is currently pyhsically present in the room."

"User record added. Arcelia, please repeat the following phrase for my vocal recognition banks: 'If it doesn't matter who wins, why do we keep score?'" The phrase was replicated in textual form on the screen in front of her. She looked over at Anthea, bemused.

"It is one of nine sentences that are phonetically rich enough to recognize your voice accurately enough initially until the system is trained," Anthea explained.

"If it doesn't matter who wins, why do we keep score?" she said, taking care to speak clearly.

"Thank you, Arcelia. I have logged you on as administrator."

She was still more than a little disturbed by Ion's voice. If this was indeed a true dynamically generated voice, it was revolutionary. She had not heard much so far, but even the pronunciation of her name was correct and inflection changed based on context.

"This is really impressive. Is Ion's voice entirely dynamic?"

"As far as I know it is. The whole system was conceived and engineered by one of us, Gordon Wainsworth. He is in Lyon with Ragnar, so you will meet him there. You can try to ask Ion though, Gordon always want us to treat the system like a human being so it can learn to handle our requests."

"Ion, is your voice entirely dynamically generated?"

"Yes Arcelia, it is. Shall I elaborate?"

"Yes please," she said but no answer came.

"You always have to address it by its name, even if you are answering a question," Anthea interjected.

"Uh? But I didn't do that with the passphrase either?"

"Yes, that's an exception it seems."

"Ion, yes please."

"My voice is derived of an extensive sampling of the voice of my creator, Gordon Wainsworth. It is based on an adaptive phonetic analysis and generation engine. It allows me to analyze recorded or spoken conversations and learn the correct intonations and inflections from them. Shall I elaborate on technical data?"

"Ion, that won't be necessary," she said, and turned to Anthea. "This is all very nice, but is there a manual interface as well?"

"Yes, just tell Ion that you would like a keyboard."

"Ion, I need a keyboard."

A slight noise coming from the ceiling made her look up, and she noticed that there was a sort of rail inset into the ceiling just above the couch, arcing over the whole length of the sitting area and disappearing into the wall. A previously invisible sliding panel in the wall had just opened, and what looked like a suspended keyboard rushed out of the dark space that had been revealed by the panel. It came to a halt above her, and the keyboard itself slowly descended, leveled itself right before her, and lit up. She stared at it in disbelief.

"Why the hell couldn't you just have put a couple fixed consoles here? No offense, but this is just as silly as it cool."

Anthea laughed. "I tend to agree. Gordon designed the whole system. He is a brilliant engineer, but he has a fetish to add bits like this purely for show and effect."

Arcelia grunted and looked at the keyboard. It had a nice large gliding surface for the mouse, and the mouse itself - which had descended separately in another show of surprise - had a good weight and feel to it. The whole contraption was suspended by thin cables and was surprisingly stable when she typed. The UI was familiar, so she managed to start up her software and files well faster than she had anticipated.

"Arcelia, I have detected an unsafe device connected to interface 5. Disabling it automatically in 10 seconds."

"Ion, override that, I need the device active."

"Arcelia, may I sandbox the device instead?" Ion asked. She considered it, and it was not a bad idea. Unnecessary, but she understood Ion's security concerns.

"Ion, yes please," she said and watched as her drive was deactivated and brought back online in a sandbox. She then browsed through its contents, and found the files.

"It's all here!" She half shouted excitedly.

"What kind of files are they?"

She decompressed the archive to a separate folder and had a look.

"It's a collection of text documents. Let's see," she said an opened one of them. It seemed to be a scan of some kind of medical report. Anthea gasped, she was staring at the document, unbelieving.

"What is it?" Arcelia asked, alarmed.

"Can you please open another?" she asked, and Arcelia did not dare ask what this was about yet. She opened another document, and another after that. Anthea seemed ever more distressed.

"You recognize these documents."

"Yes, I do. They are our medical histories."

"Medical histories?"

"Yes, when you live as long as we do you have to try and keep track of all your health issues because they may become relevant later on when you need treatment for something. Leaking these is not dangerous per se, although I am sure that in the right hands they can do some damage. What concerns me is that they were leaked in the first place."

"Oh," was all she could say. Her mind raced. Was it a coincidence that they chose her to decrypt the files? Highly unlikely - but what was the endgame? What was she getting into now? Anthea was standing in front of the screen, talking over her earpiece. What the hell could Frank want to do with these files? He had a copy of them, that was now certain as the decryption had worked. But why go to all the trouble he certainly went to to steal a bunch of medical histories? They must have been after more than just details on the age and health of the members of Anthea's special family.

All of a sudden the air in the room seemed to thicken, and her hair tingled. Alarmed, she looked around. Anthea was looking towards the room's entrance expectantly, so she quickly turned around. What she saw was difficult to grasp; The air was shimmering with a greenish tint, and a low rumbling sound reached her ears. The sound and tingling sensation began to be overwhelming, so she put her hands over her ears. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, then shimmering air contracted and a man appeared.

"What the...!" she said, staring in disbelief.

"Arcelia, meet my husband, Ragnar Thorvalds," Anthea said simply.

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  1. One disadvantage of taking your time to write is that by the time you sit down to write the next bit, you’ve forgotten exactly where the story stands. So you have to re-read the last few pages to make sure you get the dynamic right.

    The first part of the page was easy, I had a good idea of where I wanted to go but when I go to the point where Arcelia and Anthea go down to the mainframe, I was unsure where I wanted to lead the story from there. I put off writing the rest for quite a while while I struggled to decide on the next events. Never underestimate the power of a hot bathtub filled to the rim!

    I’m quite happy with the result, although I know I will have to proofread it in a while with the needed distance.

    For now, the plot thickens!

  2. Update: corrected the passage about Arcelia’s own mainframe being ransacked – I had written it so she thought that they did not know about her hidden drive. The evidence tends to point to them at least searching for one, since Frank had asked her to work from his thumb drive only.


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