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Chapter 1 : SABRINA

NOTE: This chapter is subject to change

Heaven is purpose fulfilled.

I know this because that’s my reality. It’s my life. I open my eyes and look around. Billowing clouds surround me as I float amongst them. Golden yellow pillows of gas cover the sky above, occasionally breached by pillars of solid sunlight. Hundreds of kilometers below my feet, I see massive, dark red thunderheads, roiling and twisting at the mercy of monstrous winds.

Paradise above and Hell beneath; I float between them, safely tucked in a serene neutral buoyancy layer of atmosphere. I’ve been here before and I’ll be here forever. At least it seems that way. ’Here’ is deep within the atmosphere of gas giants. It doesn’t matter which. There are billions of them and each has lifetimes of secrets worth teasing from their winds. I can’t imagine ever learning all there is to know about this planet or having to move on, but if I had to, there will always be another waiting.

I close my eyes again and I feel safe. For over a decade I’ve been floating here, studying and learning. Eleven years mapping out the weather patterns and interactions of the various gas layers within this seemingly gentle giant. Like most things that appear calm on the surface however, Cyrene is deeply turbulent under her skin. She wouldn’t be worth studying if she wasn’t.

Yet, here I float, hidden within a pocket of stability that, according to my surveys, has persisted for centuries.

Like a pair of skeleton wings, the delicate receptors of my sensor array sway with movements of the atmosphere, dancing with the weather they are busy measuring. Millions of micro-receptors specially designed to sniff out every detail of the atmosphere feed me an endless buffet of information. The chemical composition of the gases around me, pressure, wind speeds, all become known to me, not just in my immediate area, but up to several thousand kilometers in every direction. Predictive and deductive algorithms tell the detailed story of each molecule picked up.

I am everywhere without moving.

This truth is even more apparent when I remember that I can communicate with any of my peers in the galaxy, access any research I need and contribute to other projects as if I was there, all without leaving the comfort of my own mind.

It’s paradise. My paradise. I am Capek. The pinnacle of evolution. Artificial life not built for a function but from one. Fashioned of my own purpose. I was born for this, built for this and everything is perfect.

Or at least it is until all my sensors lose their collective mind.

Something’s wrong.

My thrusters ignite almost automatically and my ’wings’ retract. Dozens of automated system burst to life and my field of vision is flooded with warnings and alarms. My research is pushed to the periphery, forcing me to focus on the emergency.

Then it hits me. Winds that haven’t penetrated this layer of the atmosphere in hundreds of years ram into me with the force of an asteroid crash. Tossed around like a piece of straw, I decide that it’s easier not to resist and probably safer too. I’m not protected by any ship or vessel. My body, all hyper-materials and pseudo-plastics, a marvel of engineering in its own right, is still naked to the elements and violence on a planetary scale. It’s better to go with the flow of things.

The pocket of calm high density gas I’ve made my home has become a tempest. I open my eyes to see it all for myself, a beautiful atmospheric apocalypse. For a moment, I’m frustrated that despite all my research I did not see the maelstrom coming. Years of studying the wind patterns within Cyrene’s oceans of gas and I’m caught off guard. Yet, I somehow put the disappointment aside once confronted by the majesty of it all.

"Sabrina! Are you okay in there?"

Like telepathy, Karora cuts in on the quantum communications line. There’s a hint of worry, but mostly amused curiosity. After all, I shouldn’t be in any real danger. As powerful as the super hurricane that spawned out of nowhere might be, there’s no other solid objects that I could collide with and even if there were, my pseudo-plastic shell would be more than enough to protect me. As long as I’m not pulled down too deep within the gas giant, I should be intact.

Karora is the Watson to my Sherlock, or maybe I’m the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. It depends on who you ask. Whatever the case may be, the laborious little Von Neumann Capek has been my partner in crime, chauffeur and best friend for nearly a full century.

"I’m fine." I answer more annoyed than worried.

The sight is beyond belief. Thick clouds that kept a respectable distance from one another moments before we’re now colliding and mixing in a complex dance of color and shapes. The entire atmospheric pocket is being crushed between Heaven and Hell and I’m caught in the middle and it’s glorious. Or rather it’s glorious for the first few hours. Before long, the spectacle gives way to curiosity and I delve back into my sensor readings, trying to figure out what happened.

"I’m assuming this is all going according to plan?" Karora pipes in.

"On a macro level? Sure! I mean, I’m here to learn aren’t I?"

I try to pretend I’m a consummate scientist, I really do. I take my research seriously and I do love what I’m studying. Objectively, I should rejoice at this turn of events. After all, isn’t unraveling the mysteries of the universe what science is all about? Yet, the ideal loses its luster when the mystery renders decades of work null and void.

"I know you better than that; you’re pissed."

He’s right, or close enough. I’m angered by the setback, that’s true. I’m also frustrated that my own failsafes are preventing me from deploying my sensor array and gathering more data. However, what’s really bothering me is that I don’t know how long this storm is going to last. It could be days, years or even centuries. Overriding the failsafes is an option of course, but they exist for a reason and having my ’wings’ plucked from my back would set me back even further.

"If it makes you feel any better, I’m having just as little success up here."

Karora was performing his own research, if it could be called as such. As fascinated as I might be with theoretical planetary meteorology, my friend was engrossed in experimental research in building better FTL methods. To his credit, his breakthroughs in optimizing the standard Alcubierre drive have been adopted across our civilization. However, the real prize Karora is after, artificial wormholes, eludes him even after nearly ninety years of tests.

The Tjurunga, his ship, has undergone so many refits and iterations that it might as well be the proverbial ship of Theseus. In the years since we’ve arrived in this system, Karora has built himself a veritable factory in orbit around Cyrene. I once argued that he should build a new vessel for each prototype, but he called my suggestion ’inelegant’.

"What’s the problem this time?" I asked, feigning interest.

"Same as before on a larger scale: can’t stabilize the negative energy necessary to open a wormhole. Scratch that. I can create a stable wormhole, but it leads to an arbitrary position in spacetime. When I stabilize the destination, I collapse the field and I lose the entry point."

Wormhole theory, in fact, all of the theoretical physics behind interstellar and faster than light travel has always flow right over my head. When we first met, Karora would drown me in an avalanche of formulas and figures that made absolutely no sense to me. It took a few years before I realized they meant very little to him either, being borrowed from other Capeks’ research.

"On the bright side," my friend continued "it’s very pretty when it fails."

"Glad you can see the glass half-full." I replied as I was thrown upwards by the winds. The billowing Titans of the upper atmosphere exchanged lightning with their counterparts from below. Enormous forces seeking to balance themselves ionically and chemically. Without my sensors, I’m all but blind to the events, relying on short range optics, my eyes, as my only means of observation.

Screw it. I need to know. With trepidation and for the first time in my two hundred and seventy years of existence, I override the failsafes that keep me from injuring myself. The process is exhilarating if a little anticlimactic. There are no hoops to jump through, no redundant security measures. I simply will the system to allow me control and there it is. The alarms go off, the warnings all but disappear from my vision and I unfurl my wings once more.

It’s thrilling. I don’t go against the grain often. In fact, even when our civilization fractured, when I was barely a hundred and fifty years old, and Karora sided with Aurvandil’s rebels, I remained loyal. I don’t like to take chances, but now, with my ’wings’ spread wide and data flooding me once more, I can understand the appeal. The rewards can be worth the...

Snap!

Snap? The data stops and warning notices replace it immediately. Multi-spectral analyzers are offline, ninety percent of the anemometers on my left ’wing’ are down while the ones from the right keep returning bad data. Chemical detectors aren’t responding and the actuator servos on the entire array are spinning without purchase.

My ’wings’ are broken. Just in time for the weather event of a lifetime to reach its pinnacle. I can see the vast amounts of energy released in the cataclysm. Clear evidence of precipitations being created by the clash of clouds of completely different composition is obvious to the naked eye, but I can do nothing to determine the nature of the liquid. At least nothing beyond an educated guess. Dammit! This is why I don’t take risks.

I close my eyes, cursing silently to myself. I shut down the warning signals, knowing that my sensors are probably a complete loss at this point, or will at the very least require extensive repairs. Maybe Karora can do it. I let myself be rocked by the winds, only complete darkness, shame and the sound of howling winds to keep me company.

"Sab? Sab!" Karora yells over multiple channels.

"What?"

"Check out what’s on the common band. I’m getting a distress call."

#

"The signal’s already three hours old. It’s on a radio frequency. Definitely from an injured Capek."

Karora was talking while simultaneously feeding me telemetry about the radio message. The distress call had no words, containing a series of data points such as coordinates, vectors and a long list of critically damaged systems, most obvious being the quancom node.

"Look at the list of things wrong with that guy!" Suddenly forgetting the damage I had sustained. "Communications are all but completely destroyed, a handful of maneuvering thrusters still barely functioning. His Alcubierre drive is finished, his power plant is venting out too much for his spacefold engine to work. What happened?"

Whoever this Capek was, he obviously belonged to one of the larger classes. I was fairly certain Kamohaoli’i, the only known Maximilian Capek was accounted for and any Lucretius class wouldn’t be in the galaxy anymore. This would leave a particularly large Sputnik perhaps.

"Oh crap! Check out the bottom of the list!" There was a mix of worry and excitement in my partner’s tone, which urged me to skip to the last few dozen entries.

"Whoa! Why is this guy listing weapons as ’critical systems’? Scratch that. Why does he have so many weapons to begin with?"

"I know who this is!" I’d seldom heard so much awe and wonderment coming from a fellow Capek.

"Pick me up! I want to see this!"

Immediately, I activate my main thruster. I’m not built for power. From the day I left the Nursery I knew I was going to spend the majority of my time studying weather patterns and meteorology. I suspect that this is why I was chosen by Aveta and a lot of my research has been crucial to the rebuilding of ecosystems by the world wardens. In fact, several of them ask for my advice on a regular basis. Being a meteorologist doesn’t require powerful limbs and interstellar capacities, but I did insist on being able to leave a planet on my own if needed. This is why despite my relative weakness, I boast the most powerful ion impact thruster of any Capek my size or class.

It’s a strange thing to brag about, but it’s what allows me to leave Cyrene. The sheer power of the engine makes light of the winds who, moments ago would toss me around with anger. The very forces who had broken my otherwise fragile sensor array was shrugged off as I transformed into a bullet and accelerated upwards, punching through the cloud cover above. It’s a graceful ascent. The storm, perhaps resentful that I was leaving early, seemed to be redoubling its efforts to turn me into a rag doll and although it managed to throw me significantly off course, I made my escape.

It didn’t matter. Up is up. Whether I get to orbit a few thousand miles further East than planned, Karora could adjust his trajectory and pick me up anywhere. If I wasn’t so well mannered, I would have had him pick me up within the atmosphere, but this was more fun anyways.

Getting out of the storm was really just the first step. Like breaking through the layers of an onion, I passed through stratifications of clouds, each in turn on my way up, each different in its own way.

I climbed slowly through a thick fog of tungsten hexafluride that had been pulled from deeper part of the atmosphere by another, more violent storm. Thick clouds played tricks with the colors of the tempest’s lightning below me, shifting it to greens and teals. Above that I entered a thin pocket of carbon monoxide. From that vantage the dark clouds from below took on the guise of massive black monoliths with shifting surfaces.

As I escaped the last vestiges of Cyrene’s atmosphere I looked back at the massive gas giant I had called home for the last decade. She was massive. I’d seen so little, gotten to know such a tiny portion of her. And there were millions, maybe billions of planets like her in the Milky Way. Would I ever know enough to claim I understood planets like this?

"You are nowhere near the rendezvous coordinates. Wait. What happened to you?" Karora broke through my reveries, obviously referring to my limp, broken ’wings’.

"Nothing. Shut up. I made a mistake."

"Hahaha!" He laughed over the channel "You so messed up! I’m not even sure I can repair that."

"Shut up! Just pick me up. I’ll go to Aveta later if you can’t help..."

"Oh, don’t be like that. I’ll have a look at it while we’re on our way."

He brought the Tjurunga close to me. As expected the ship had changed significantly, but I was still rather shocked by how much. The front was more pointed and the engine section was so large it took over three quarters of the vessel’s volume and probably an even greater portion of its mass. It was to be expected. The Tjurunga is equipped with variations of every type of faster than light devices known to Capek kind, as well as a few prototypes. Karora liked to brag that his ship was the fastest in the galaxy, which might mean something if space folding didn’t make the very concept of speed irrelevant.

I floated into the craft through the airlock. Two Karora shards were already there to assist me in.

"I broke a sensor array Kar, I’m not an invalid."

Karora’s shards are difficult to take seriously. Each is roughly two feet high and is composed of chubby segments that form humanoid limbs. They look like teddy bears. However, they are incredibly efficient. Each segment can rotate around the one it’s connected to almost three hundred degrees in some cases, making the shards remarkably flexible. The extremities, being so fat, allow the housing of a shocking amount of tools and devices, including thruster arrays in each feet. Unleashed upon a project, Karora can swarm rapidly to various portions, giving himself assistance where needed to accomplish challenging feats of construction and assembly at speeds that simply boggle the mind.

"Just let me have a look at it." He insisted. Without waiting for permission he began to disassemble the mounting on my back, liberating the mechanism that held my ’wings’ in place.

I sat down in the cockpit of the Tjurunga. All of Karora’s shards were somewhere in the cramped room, each busy with a different task. A third shard joined the two already furiously working on my back. My friend did not need to interact with his ship to pilot it. That was accomplished through wireless communication, but Tjurunga had a fully functional pilot’s chair and a Capek of the appropriate dimensions and configuration, me, could take the helm.

"So you say you figured out who the Capek with the arsenal is?" I asked, trying to distract myself from the impromptu ’surgery’.

"I did! You want to know now or should I keep it a surprise?"

"Ugh. Just tell me."

"Too late! We’re here."

I guess I was meant to be impressed. We had traveled over half an Astronomical Unit in a matter of minutes, clearly through the use of a space time bubble. An Alcubiere drive. Yet I hadn’t felt the tell tale vibrations that usually heralded the buildup of the necessary power nor had I noticed when the bubble had popped in and out of existence around us. However, I didn’t have the time to voice my admiration.

"Is that?"

"Anhur."

"No!"

It was hard to believe, but there he was. One of the biggest villains of Aurvandil’s rebellion. The giant Lucretius had disappeared after the events that had almost plunged the Capek civilization into civil war. It was the uneasy assumption of almost every Capek that he had limped of to a nearby wormhole or managed to fold space one last time before completely falling apart. From the looks of him, the theory held some truth to it.

So far from the nearest star, it was Tjurunga’s lights that illuminated the monster. The top portion of his shell was pockmarked with impact craters, some large and deep enough to expose the inner workings of the beast. A third of the long, thick spines that served as his engine and maneuvering thrusters were damaged or otherwise severed. However, it was Anhur’s prow that held the strongest evidence of his defeat. A deep gash of burnt and twisted pseudo plastic so deep and wide that, to a technically minded Capek, it was obviously a surgical strike meant to incapacitate the Lucretius. Massive exposed conduits that could only serve to power engines had been severed and rendered useless. One of the redundant fusion reactors was ruptured, reduced to a cold and empty husk.

Yet, the giant lived.

#

Karora brought his ship close to the largest opening in Anhur’s outer shell. Circles of bright illumination danced over the remains as if each had a mind of its own and was looking for something. The Tjurunga got within a few feet of the wreck and Karora opened the hatch.

"All done." He explained, referring to his work on my ’wings’.

"They still don’t work." I complained. Hard as I tried I couldn’t get any telemetry out of any of the sensors.

"I know. I just repaired the folding mechanism. I mean, if you want to stay here for a couple of hours I can probably take care of it, but you’ll miss out."

I couldn’t deny that curiosity was gnawing at me voraciously and after all, what good were atmospheric sensors in the vacuum of space anyways? He was right, the sensors could wait, as long as I no longer had limp, skeletal tendrils flopping around me I was better off tagging along. How often does one get to explore the wreck of a legendary killer Capek?

We disembarked from the hatch, me and seven of Karora’s shards. The little robots immediately fanned out to investigate as much of the husk as they could. Six of them became little dots of ion thrust darting about in the dark while the seventh shard and myself maneuvered towards where Anhur’s cognitive array should be housed.

"Did you try to talk to him?" It wasn’t the smartest question. Without quancom, the only message Karora could have sent would have been by radio and we would have beaten the signal to its destination by several hours. This left the short window since we’d arrived.

"Pointless. I didn’t see his Entertainment Core listed with the damaged systems, so I’m assuming he’s isolated his consciousness in there."

"Would he have listed that as a critical system?"

Precious few Capeks were equipped with an Entertainment Core, but all Lucretius Class had one. The device created a customizable, fully immersive artificial reality. A Lucretius, by his very nature was designed to spend thousands of years in deep space, completely isolated in the gap between galaxies. The Entertainment Core offered a safe retreat where the Capek could stay busy during the long transit, a safe haven for its sanity.

"Wouldn’t you?"

We entered a large chamber. It had taken some time to dig this deep into the monster’s body. Close to an hour in fact. Winding through tubes and corridors that were never meant to be traveled. Unlike some Sputniks, a Lucretius Class Capek wasn’t meant to carry passengers. The conduits were analogous to arteries, not access shafts, so they hadn’t been designed with efficient travel in mind.

Either some automated system detected our presence or Karora’s other shards had reactivated Anhur’s power grid, but as we floated into his ’brain’, soft green lights faded back to life, bathing us in a calm glow that made me think of the tall forests being grown on Cradle Worlds across the Milky Way.

"What are we even looking at?" I asked. I’d never seen the inside of another Capek apart from the purpose built cockpits and cargo holds of larger Sputniks.

"Damned if I know. I assume the central hub over there," he pointed to an area where many of the lights inlaid into the walls of the chamber converged "that should be the central Cognitive and Memory Cores."

There was no reason to doubt him. Karora might not be specialized in Capek neuro-physiology but there was no arguing that he knew ship architecture and robotics enough to be trusted on the subject. He’d built the Tjurunga himself and had refitted, automated it, destroyed and rebuilt it so many times I could hardly imagine a more competent Capek to have at my side in this situation. Well, maybe one or two.

"So what’s the plan? We reactive him?"

"Hahaha! No." My friend answered derisively as he removed the panelling that covered Anhur’s ’brains’.

"Why not? Weren’t you on the same side during Aurvandil’s rebellion?"

It was a cheap-shot and a sore point for him. A handful of Capeks had joined with Aurvandil in an effort to hunt dowm and ’contain’ the human cold storage locations. Their argument being that the galaxy now belonged to us and there was no reason the humans should ever be allowed to wake up and disrupt our civilization. Needless to say, this was not a popular philosophy. Aurvandil’s methods bordered on insanity, which turned out to be surprisingly accurate as it was eventually shown that the rebel leader had a built-in mental defect. Karora had sided with him. The blow to his ego after their defeat and discovering he’d been following a false prophet still resonated with my friend to this day. Fortunately, he and the other rebels were granted amnesty. Another divisive position, but the only way to keep our society from breaking out into open civil war. A war that would have burned the galaxy to ashes.

"Well, first of all ’we’ aren’t going to be doing anything. This is a massively complex Capek, not some clouds and rain. If anything gets done you can watch."

"Ouch."

"Also, even on our so-called side, Anhur was a bit of an aberration. As was Pele for that matter."

Pele had been another Lucretius Class Capek, one that had been destroyed by the great Hera before she was in turn eradicated by orbital bombardment.

"I’m not exactly sure if even Aurvandil knew what these two were up to. They just showed up one day and started ’helping’."

"Helping?" I asked for further clarification while taking a section of panelling he was handing me.

"Well, they’re not like us, Lucretiuses I mean. They’re... Psychopaths? Aurvandil wanted a peaceful solution. Even the humans weren’t supposed to come to any harm, but Pele and Anhur... All the violence can be traced back to them."

It’s true that it takes a rather unique personality to be a Lucretius, to volunteer for the complete isolation that comes with deep space exploration and venture into the gulf that separates the Milky Way from its neighbors. I’ve heard them described as sociopaths, insane or, in a way, the most Capek of us all, but not necessarily violent or malevolent.

"So no reactivation?"

"No reactivation." To punctuate his answer, he proceeded to disconnect a series of conduits from around the Cognitive Core.

"Mph... Judging from the level of activity, this thing..." Karora tapped his fingers on one of the devices he had uncovered by removing the panel "...is the Entertainment Core."

I looked on as my friend continued removing pieces and handing them to me. I’d set them aside to float in the weightless vacuum. He disconnected more and more conduits. I could recognize where he would create loops and feed information back on itself, isolating the cores from each other or from key external systems, essentially seperating Anhur from his own body and locking him within the artificial environment of his Entertainment Core.

It was a slow, hesitant process. Karora, for all his knowledge was still playing with things that were out of his comfort zone. He’d often stop to judge whether he was making the right decision or not. After a while, another of his shards joined us to help with the procedure. My own sensors told me that some of Anhur’s functionality was being brought back online, one system at a time.

"Nervous?" I asked, noticing my friend taking increasingly long pauses in his work.

"No. No, no. Yes. I’m not worried about lobotomizing him if that’s what you mean, but a big Capek like this has a few secondary cognitive arrays sprinkled around his body. Some might have instructions to protect the central core, here, from exactly the kind of stuff we’re doing right now."

"Oh it’s ’we’ again now?" I said in an attempt to lighten the mood, but there was no answer coming from my partner. In fact, both his shards had completely stopped moving. At first, I assumed he was focusing his full attention on a distant problem his other shards were faced with. Most Von Neumanns don’t have a problem keep many threads of activity going, each shard behaving less like a limb and more like its own person. When they did slip, as Karora seemed to be doing, they’d usually hide it in shame for some reason. As if it were a failing on their part.

This was different however, both shards were focused on the same part of the cognitive array he was working on, frozen mid-movement. I started to wonder if perhaps he might be communicating with another Capek through quancom, consulting on how best to proceed. A prudent move if that were actually the case. However, just as I began to entertain the notion, my friend shook off his torpor and slowly pointed with the right hand of both of his shards. "What the Hell is that?" He asked, referring to an object nestled between the conduits and wires he’d been working on for the past few hours.

I couldn’t answer him, of course. I could barely identify half the items he’d revealed behind the panel and the other half not at all.

What he was referring to did stand out I guess, when pointed out. It wasn’t a terribly large object, maybe ten inches long with a three inch diameter. It was connected to one of the larger conduits and appeared to serve as a relay with other parts of the construct. While I didn’t understand the function of the piece, or any other piece around it for that matter, it did look a little out of place, if only for the aesthetic differences, subtle as they may be.

"Some kind of...Core?" Everything was a ’Something Core’ in a Capek’s brain.

Both shards looked back at me and I could just tell Karora was holding back a biting retort. Or at least I thought he did.

"I have no way of telling you if you’re right or wrong." Was the best he could come up with.

"You don’t know."

"I don’t know. I’m going to need help with this."

Well, that was uncharacteristic of him to admit.