Geographic: Floating Free

Anar, Nenim 08, 0101

Alka's Felinzi smile could have been seen like a beacon from Pandora, Xing thought as he watched her float up through a long, hollow tunnel. He wondered what had made her so happy, but he supposed that a guide in a good mood was better than one who was not. She floated across the room and without even a pause to let him protest wrapped her arms around him. "Hi!" she said.

"Hello," Xing said, stiffening just a little at the obtrusive hug. He had come to like her, but her continued physical affections, so prevalent among the Pendorians, continued to bother him. When he was honest with himself, he knew that part of the reason for discomfort came from desire. He envied their freedom and their lack of fear. He, too, wanted to no longer be afraid. "You are in a very happy state," he observed.

"I am," she agreed. They were both speaking Mandarin at this point, he noticed. Unlike the others on the team, Xing had made no effort to learn the local language. That's what the guide was for, to be the translator. "I've been chosen to replace someone on the Terran Contact Team!" She nearly bounced, just like a kitten.

"You have what?" he asked.

"I've been chosen to replace someone on the Terran Contact Team!" she repeated. "One of the members of the Conventions and Events group has decided that she wants to come home. She doesn't like it down there. So I asked to be part of the team and I was accepted!"

"This means you will be staying on Earth," he said, wondering if he would have much opportunity to see or speak with her.

"Yes, but I probably won't have much of a chance to see you," she said. It was one of her more disturbing talents, this ability of hers to answer questions he had not given voice. It was as if she could read his mind. "The Convention and Events team is for talking to the people of Earth, not the power aggregates, and China doesn't have very much in the way of science fiction conventions. At best, I might be able to see you out in some event in Hong Kong; I understand that there is at least one convention there every year, but whether or not we go there will be determined by whether or not we think we can reach a large audience there and, of course, by safety risks."

It made perfect sense, he supposed, but that didn't make him much happier. He pointed out, "I do make trips to Washington. I am a science correspondent and go everywhere in the world. I am sure that there will be conventions is Australia, which is part of the area I cover."

She nodded. "Don't worry, Xing, I'm sure we'll get together and have dinner now and then. But, aren't you worried about your government learning that you're still talking to Pendorians long after you've returned home?"

He grinned. "I do not care. I will probably be under suspicion for the rest of my life. I am sure that when I get home they will be testing me for weeks to make sure I have not been brainwashed. Or replaced."

"That's the spirit. Anyway, I'm happy to see that you've made it here on your own. Would you like to go see the rest of the station?"

"It was not hard to get here. I just had to ask the AI. But, yes, I would be pleased to have such a pretty guide show me around."

Alka flicked her head to one side, an almost pointless gesture in the zero gravity but still communicative. "I thought you said you were a terrible flirt."

"I am practicing," Xing assured her, feeling pleased that she had noticed.

This area of Parma had been completed only a few years ago, and despite its recent heavy use still had the patina of fresh construction. The walls were a white just one shade from blinding, with long stretches of illumination running down the hallways and across the panel that was clearly meant to be thought of as the ceiling. Handholds dotted the hallways and walls. The soft hum of fans was the only sound he heard and that was primarily the air moving, not the fan mechanism itself. The smell of fresh plastics still hung in the air, but the smell was not entirely familiar to him. "Alka? What is that smell?"

"Which one?" she said.

"The plastic. They don't smell right. They smell... " He hunted for the right word. "They smell sweeter than the ones on Earth."

Alka was silent for a moment, and Xing had come to think of this commonplace pause in Pendorian thinking a time when they were downloading raw data into their brains. "Probably because they're agroplastics. Terrans use petroplastics, but as we don't have an oil reserve on Pendor we had to come up with alternatives. Agroplastics do the same job, but they're grown on an engineered strain of maize."

"Maybe Earth would appreciate having such a technology," Xing said. "We will run out of oil eventually and my country would dearly love to be free of the need for imports."

"Maybe, but I doubt it. Not until you have alternative energy sources like fusion or M-solar. Agroplastics take a lot more processing, and that means that the materials and electricity costs on your world would be prohibitive." Alka put her hand on his arm. "Sorry about that, Xing. It's something we'd be willing to trade, but I think Earth already has similar technologies, but they've been rejected for the reasons I outlined."

Alka led him to the door an which he had been instructed to wait. "Ready?"

He nodded.

The other side of the door was a surprise. Where the space behind had the feel of a brand new, high-tech airport, on the other side of the door he was in a construction zone. "They're still putting in the panels," Alka said, "So many of the walls here will be exposed."

As they pulled themselves along on temporary handholds held to fixed pipes with tightened rings, Xing noticed that there were labels every meter on everything, and asking Alka, she pointed to water and waste pipes, data lines, power lines, gas lines, high-pressure atmosphere redistribution pipes, the list of what it took to run one small section of the facility rattled off and illustrated in cables of green and yellow, pipes of red and blue. Xing pulled out his camera and took close-ups of a section of the wall, and then a long backward shot down the hallway through which they had come.

Alka pulled up her PADD and showed him a cutaway view. "This is where we are, in crew transit tunnel number four. This is the main access tunnel, which is currently closed to us because there's a team installing power conditioners to buffer power needs in this section, where we're going. They're going to need them soon, because we're building six starships just as quickly as we're building the station. That's where we're going. The shipyards."

"You don't have a shipyard separate from the station?" he asked, surprised. It seemed odd to him, as if one could go to the airport and see airplanes being assembled on the tarmac. On reflection, he realized that most spaceports on Earth were still assembly grounds, where the components that make up a spacecraft were put together on-site before being launched.

"We plan on having one. The initial design for a separate facility called Pelcityr has been published and is now going through the vetting process. But for now, we have Parma, and the same tools used to build this station are used to build starships, so in the meantime, this is where we build starships."

"That makes sense. One does not use the same tools to build an airport that one uses to build an airplane, but an airport is not made to fly. A spaceport, I imagine, has many of the same needs as a spaceship."

"All but the engines," she agreed. "We even have the same weaponry."

"Weaponry?" he asked. "Parma is armed?"

"We don't know what kind of galaxy we have out there," she said, "So we've made sure that Parma can defend itself. It is, after all, a sentient being in its own right. The AI that lives here cannot conveniently leave in a moment of trouble."

Xing digested both bits of news with a feeling of dissonance. "I am walking around inside the guts of a Pendorian citizen."

"You are," Alka agreed, and Xing gave her a pained expressed. "Just be glad he doesn't have gastric juices. Or a need to consume flesh." She gave him a wicked grin and he tried to respond in kind. The notion of the AI of Parma being an eater of flesh did not improve his disposition over the station. "Hey, Ossian, are you there?"

"Always," a voice responded, droll and patient in its demeanor. "What can I do for you, Alka?"

"I just wanted to introduce you to our guest from Earth. Have you spoken to Xing Kanarak yet?"

"I have not," the voice replied. "But I am pleased to make you acquaintance, Xing Kanarak," Ossian responded calmly.

"And I to make yours," Xing said before realizing with surprise that the AI had been speaking Mandarin to him. And he had responded in kind. "I'm surprised that you speak Mandarin. Some of the AIs I have met could not."

"It is a difficult language, yes," Ossian replied. "But my duty is to be an administrator to the gateway through which all people visiting this solar system's residential neighborhoods will pass, and I am attempting to learn as many languages as I can." Xing thought for certain that the pause that followed was to stifle a yawn. Did AIs yawn?

"But, couldn't you just transfer the knowledge from another AI?" he asked.

"No, it does not work that way for AIs. We can incorporate much knowledge and use it quickly. Vocabulary, grammar rules, and the like can be transmitted from one AI to another. But the use of the language, the way something is spoken colloquially, can only be learned from experience."

"I see," Xing said. "Thank you for that explanation."

"You're very welcome. Now, if you will excuse me, my attention is needed elsewhere."

"Bye, Ossian," Alka replied.

They continued, careful hand over careful hand, until they reached yet another bulkhead. This one was again a circular doorway that seemed to roll away in one direction, a curiosity in a place with no gravity, but Xing thought there must be some technical superiority reason for that kind of motion. Alka floated ahead into a darkened room. He followed.

"By my father...!" Xing could not restrain himself. The sight before his eyes was astounding.

One entire wall of the large room in which they floated was a window out into space. Sunlight blazed in that space, reflecting off six enormous vehicles that were nothing like the spherical starships in which he had traveled from Earth to Pendor. Four were elongated, rectangular shapes with a flared tail that suggested to Xing a heavy sword in a scabbard more than anything else. Each was a different color, and on the side of two he could see clearly a blazoned shield of deep blue with a ring-and-star logo on a stellar background peppered with nine shining, standout stars. The other two were like the four in general shape, but the main body of the ship was a hollow space with only a lattice framework holding it together.

"That's our initial fleet," she said. "The spherical ships were good enough, but some discoveries and refinements have led to these. They can make the trip in three and a half months instead of six and some. What you can see there are two cargo ships, two warships, and two general purpose transport vessels. This is just what we're keeping for Earth to Pendor transit. When these are done, we're going to work on six more fitted specifically for exploration. But we needed to get commerce with Earth up and running."

Alka stared out into the blackness. Each ship hung in an enormous framework of its own, a framework with robotic crane arms, each of which must have been hundreds of meters long. One wall of the framework was closed, complete, and there were windows here and there. His eyes could just barely pick out a tiny, man-shaped figure clambering over one of the warships Alka had indicated, accompanied by a pair of large, hulking robotic shapes. From here, the construction party looked like an ant and two beetles attempting to scale a full-sized bus.

He stopped to take pictures. Hundreds of them. He understood why Alka had had the lights turned off in here. It let him take the photographs without worrying about glare from the window, although he had been notably impressed by the glare-free quality of much of Pendor's glass.

"Why do you need two warships?" he asked.

Alka floated closer to the glass. Xing took a moment to admire her form beneath the one-piece jumpsuit before attempting to put that thought away. "One for here, one to keep in orbit near Earth." That made him look up to her face. "Because our people are vulnerable down on your planet. One of those ships could end any war on your planet in a matter of days. We hope. We have robotic troops, great battlefield information, and no experience whatsoever, so we're likely to be very strong and somewhat clumsy in our response. I don't think you want that."

"No," he agreed, understanding now that Pendorian good will was going to be backed up with some of the biggest guns Earth had ever seen, and people who prided themselves on the competence to use them correctly but with the full knowledge that they lacked the experience that came with them. It was one of the many paradoxes of Pendor that he had noticed. They were better-equipped, better-educated, and more wisely motivated than many a general or politician, but they were on constant guard against their own inexperience, which was their biggest problem. A thoughtful, well-intentioned, but clumsy Goliath.

"Can I visit one of the ships?" he asked, coming back to the subject outside the windows.

"The general purpose ship number one can be visited," said Ossian's voice. "It is mostly deserted at this time, as the crew that was building it has moved on to number two, and the interior engineering and decor teams have not completed muster yet. There is a skeleton team of engineers in the rear of the vessel, but that is it."

Alka said, "Then let's do it." She indicated yet another doorway, which he followed her through.

The next room over was as unfinished as the one they had just occupied. Cables and pipes wormed through the room with no apparent purpose, and a duct large enough to permit two men side-by-side pumped air into the room as a gentle breeze. But what caught Xing's attention was the first standalone SDisk he had ever seen. It was like many of the SDisks he had seen, flat and about a meter across, but this one was not mounted to anything. It was a temporary measure, hooked up to the station's power supply by a thick cable that plugged into the wall. The wallside of the plug, he noticed, had a hook-and-cage mechanism over the plug itself; it would not be coming out by accident. "Alka? Is there a danger if the SDisk should become unplugged during transport?" He indicated the doubly-redundant plug assembly.

"Not that I know of. It is an expensive operation in power to create an SDisk, and they require a certain amount of low-level constant power to operate or else the system stops working and has to be rebuilt, so maybe that's just to keep the power on." She paused. "Then how do they move the SDisk around?"

"Are you asking me?"

"No, just trying to figure it out." She shrugged. "Anyway, let's go visit that ship." She put her hand on the SDisk; in the low gravity it would have been hard to arrange anything more elegant. Xing joined her and in a second they were floating in blackness.

"Lights!" Alka shouted. The lights came on, revealing what had to be one of the largest rooms Xing had ever been in. It was a cube fully forty meters on a side. The walls were peppered with small, welded rings, cargo tie-downs and the like. The SDisk they hovered against was certainly not a temporary one, welded as it was to the surface. Xing started to feel disoriented. His brain insisted that he was in a normal position-- he had become used to working in low gravity-- but his eyes told him that if this was the SDisk, he must be lying on the floor.

He straightened up out of habit and immediately shot into the cargo room. "Xing!" Alka called.

"Help!" He was floating away and there was no way for him to get back down again. Someone was listening, however, because a basketball-size drone floated out from somewhere and in a controlled fashion came to a stop near Xing. It had a handgrip. He took it. The ball jetted towards Alka, dragging him along, and he went willingly.

"There," Alka said. "Now, don't do that again."

"I have no intention of doing that again. Where are we?"

"Cargo deck one," the ball said in Ossian's controlled tones. "There is no shipboard AI yet, but several are being built to take over minor tasks planetside while their elders are considered for volunteers. There are a number of volunteers."

"I... see." He watched Alka's grin. "So, is there anything of interest on this ship to show me?"

"Everything," Alka replied with a smile. "But I know what you mean. Let's go see. We'll start at the bridge."

Xing agreed readily. On the ship he had taken from Earth, the bridge was one of the parts that he had not been allowed to visit. He had been told that they were cramped and professional affairs and that accommodating guests would not be practical. He had accepted that at the time.

She led him down hallways that were clearly meant to be used only during freefall. He wondered how this ship would handle the apparent gravity from acceleration needed for their non-FTL maneuvering. He also had trouble keeping his eyes from her lithe, feline form as she navigated the handholds with acrobatic ease.

This bridge was not what they had described to him. It was quite the opposite-- large and laid out so that people could maneuver comfortably. It was also designed more along the lines of a NASA ship, with equipment everywhere. "I thought you were going to build spheres again."

"There's discussion going on. We have several large living- space drums for the crews, but these ships will be mostly about cargo. Personnel transport ships are being built after these."

Xing satisfied himself that he had taken enough pictures and they headed back down into the ship itself. The walls were a dull grey in color, and for the most part the hallways were rectangular affairs with rounded corners and handholds everywhere. The colors chosen were those of the construction material and not that of an interior decorated by professionals. That got him thinking.

"How... how will you decorate these walls? The starship I traveled in, and the Ranch ship especially, was very utilitarian. You had very comfortable sleeping quarters, but the hallways and many of the common rooms were painted in the colors one might find in a prison."

Alka gave him her downloading pause for a moment and then said, "We actually brought a lot of that back with us from Terra. It was one of the few things we could get in the short month we were there. Apparently, that was one of the few things that Shardik recommended we buy on library and distribute the same way-- according to library rules as in the United States, where we bought them. It's difficult; it means that only one person at a time may actually possesses the material, a strange concept to us, but we're abiding by it until we can negotiate a better deal."

"So, you're guessing what works based on past experience. These are working ships, however. From what I have seen of your cabins, you would appoint them as if this were a cruise ship and expect that level of maintenance out of the crew.

Alka nodded. "Probably."

They wandered throughout the ship. Alka showed him everything he asked for, including Engineering, where a group of Pendorians looked up with curiosity before realizing that Alka and Xing were working just as much as they were, then assisting him by explaining to him whatever he pointed at. He shot thousands of pictures, rationalizing that the editorial team back on Earth would want every one of them.

They stopped in the rotating sections, which Xing found curious in their lock-down positions. "Sometimes I still feel as if I'm in a movie."

Alka grinned. "Sometimes I wonder when your movies will catch up with reality." She floated past him to the center spindle. "Come on." He followed her into the tunnel and down into another rotating section, this one obviously decked out as sleeping quarters. "There's a crew of 24 on a ship like this," she said, counting out fourteen rooms. "Eleven pairs, captain, first officer, and medical." The drum was little more than a hallway to the attached rooms and was narrow enough that fully stretched Xing could touch both walls.

He took more pictures, taking care to get extra photos of sickbay. "I would have thought that it would be more restful for recovering patients to sleep in zero-G. As well as the rest of your crew."

Again the download pause. "More restful, maybe. Healthful, no. The internal workings of your cells don't grow correctly without gravity. Cells have an internal latticework of fibers that keep internal operations separate and maintain the cell's shape. Without gravity, that latticework doesn't form; it has no expectation to. And you have no idea how difficult it is to do surgery in zero-gravity. It's nearly impossible to deal with heavy bleeding. Imagine trying to work on someone as the blood bubbles into a balloon held together only by surface tension, and when it breaks it keeps traveling until it hits something."

Xing gulped. It was a gruesome image and he preferred not to think about it. But she had a point. The necessity of some kind of acceleration became clear to him.

She gave him her prettiest smile. "Hey, let me show you the landing bay. And then we'll head back to Parma."

He followed towards what he thought was the middle of the ship. "Ring," she said. "I was hoping they would have ships in here."

Instead, the hanger bay had only the clamps, cranes and cradles necessary for four smaller ships, Xing saw. "Since Earth knows that you have SDisks now, why bother with ships?"

"Because," she said patiently, "We can't SDisk to a place without a receiving disk. But with one of these, we can go anywhere in your solar system in a matter of days."

They left the ship and headed back to Parma. She led him into one of the more populated sections of the station, still without gravity of any source. "Populated" may have been something of a misnomer, he thought; it meant that one person had walked by as he sat and reviewed the pictures he had taken on his loaner PADD and sorted, cataloged, and annotated the images.

"So," she said as he reached the end of his task, "Ready to do something relaxing?"

"What could be more relaxing than this?"

She grinned. "True enough. But is following your calling really the only way to relax?" she asked, reaching out and stroking his cheek with one finger.

He looked up at her with something of a smile. "You are being a flirt again," he said.

"You started this," she said softly. She pulled her hand back. "I'm sorry."

"Are you doing what you think is right?" Xing asked, "Or are you just doing what you desire?"

"Both," Alka said. "I really like you, Xing. But I want to show it in ways that you... you would probably think are inappropriate.

"Are they inappropriate for you?" he asked.

She didn't say anything. It was a rhetorical question anyway.

He said, "I want to go back to Earth and start my life over. Trying to leave it behind was a mistake." He looked up at her. "I will never understand why, as the shortest person on the Geographic team, I was assigned the tallest member of the guide staff."

Alka giggled. "Don't ask me that, either. I imagine that there was something other than physical compatibility in mind when they did that."

He nodded, and then, awkwardly, stepped closer to her. "If I were to accept your inappropriate offer, Alka, would we be able to actually do anything?"

"Actually, yes," she said. "Those parts of us are compatible."

Xing sighed. Then shook his head. "Would you be upset if I told that I did not think it would be the right thing?"

"No," Alka replied. "No, you have your own values, Xing. I can't change them, and I'm not going to tempt you to."

He nodded. "Alka? I think it would be better if..."

"If we were just friends?" She giggled.

"I would not have put it so badly."

"You would probably have had trouble find an alternative."

He thought about that. "You're probably right."

"No, I don't mind at all if we're 'just friends.' I know that you've got your own life, and from what you told me on the trip you're going to be spending a lot of time putting it back together. It would be unfair of me to get in the way of that. I'd like to be your friend. So long as you remember that it's my job to show you around. And don't forget to call me when we get to Earth."

"I'll do both. I won't forget, I mean."

She surprised him with a laugh and a hug. He returned the hug chastely. "Thanks, Alka."

"You're welcome," she said with a smile. "Let's go get something to eat. We haven't had a bite in nearly six hours."

Xing looked at his watch. "Please. Lead the way."

Geographic: Floating Free
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is copyright © October 1, 2000 Elf Mathieu Sternberg and is available under a Creative Commons License.