8: Fragile as an Icicle
Anna should have returned to Arendelle and dropped Elsa off. As she hadn't, Elsa had ensconced herself in Anna's smallest conference room and was trying to run the groundside disaster from two light-seconds away. Anna told herself that Arendelle's prime minister had all the authority he needed to handle the emergency, and Elsa was safest on the fastest mobile platform in the solar system, not to mention the one with the best shields, armor, and weapons. She told herself that, and she didn't believe it. She just wanted the woman close right now. Wanted to make sure she was being cared for, wanted to keep her away from the horror that awaited her when she got groundside.
The bridge felt empty and quiet. Twenty minutes shouldn't have felt so long. Only the quiet hum of the ship's life support and the occasional beep of attention distracted her. "Anything?" she asked Lieutenant Metzinger.
"Nothing, Captain. Not a signal from the Vessel since we started."
"They have to know we're on our way. They have to respond somehow. Don't they, Major?"
Buzz stroked his amazing chin. The temporary bump in rank had been explained to him as a courtesy of RMN starships, a way of making sure there really was only one person on the bridge who answered to the call of "captain." "I don't know, Captain DuVar. There hasn't been real-time communication with them in decades, I believe. It's always packeted, often just text. The messages we do get from them seem a bit... off. Animated, if you understand."
"Orbital insertion at Agdar in five minutes." Lieutnenat Ibanez' voice called from her station.
As Arendelle's only moon, Agdar was nothing to look at. Smaller than Luna or Thorson, but also significantly more dense, it was a classically battered reddish-yellow ball of rock. Tactical wasn't tagging any significant activity down there at all.
On the main viewscreen, the Vessel was growing. It was an elongated latticework of white-painted frames holding together an odd assortment of fattened cylinders. Tactical painted the display with best guesses as to what each equipment piece was.
"Ingresses here, here, and here," she heard Buzz say as he pointed at a small display next to Rekkit's station. "Still no communications, though. This is very strange."
"Ralph, call Major Camran to your station. If they won't talk to us, we're going to have a boarding party."
Elsa joined Anna on the bridge as they watched Buzz and four of Winterkiss's marines, including Major Camran, enter what seemed to be the largest and most central construction on the Vessel. Buzz had identified it as part of the original equipment, the crew's quarters. Heavily protected against radation poisoning and with multiple immediate power supplies, it seemed the best place to look for people.
Buzz kept up a monologue about what he was seeing that did not reassure Anna at all. "The construction has changed a lot from what was described in the original blueprints, and I've been through those in sim a thousand times," he muttered. "I shouldn't be surprised, but this is all very peculiar. Whoa, robot." His helmet camera focussed on a spindly multi-legged thing attached to the ceiling. It appeared to be using a static mop to dust. "This is where the main cabins were, but there's... huh." Buzz led her marines down a long corridor. He seemed much more at home in zero-G than her marines did, but he lived in it every day; they only practiced with it. "This corridor is a lot shorter than the simulation. The door is... locked. Well, this shouldn't be too hard."
Anna could only hear the sounds as he monkeyed with the controls. "Viola." His helmet cam shot up into a room. "What in the blazes is... Great God. Captain, I think we've found the crew."
"That has to be the creepiest ship I've ever been on," Flynn said. "Not that I've been on many creepy ships, but that one takes the cake." Anna was in full agreement. One or two pirate vessels in her experience had defined the term "creepy" for her, but Vesselton took creepy to an entirely different plane.
Elsa sat at the other end of the conference room, her elbows on the table, burying her head in her arms. Flynn, Anna, Kristoff, Buzz, and several other scientists and engineers watched her.
Anna struggled to keep her feeling professional and controlled. It was clear the woman was hurting, and possibly out of her depth. Anna had seen people shocked out of their depth before and her native empathy, much enhanced by her years with Olaf, made her ache to reach out and embrace the amazing blonde. She resorted to, "Your Majesty?"
"They're mad. They're all mad over there. Not a single one of them believed I was here. They all interpreted me through... whatever it was they were doing. They're stuck in simulations, virtual realities, video games! We've been negotiating with their automatic response system for fifty years?" She looked up. If she'd looked tired before, now the term "harried" didn't begin to describe her. "I knew their physical condition had deteriorated, it had to have after centuries, but I couldn't imagine they'd let their mental condition fall so far. I thought they'd be more like The Mother."
"Who?" Anna said.
"The Mother. Captain Gothel. She's on Corona."
"The captain of the colony expedition is still alive?" Anna said.
Elsa nodded. She pointed vaguely behind herself, as if she could see The Vessel through the ship's hull. "The people on the Vessel were her crew, Captain. If they're still alive-- if you can call that living-- she can be as well. But I understand that she's still walking around, talking with my family, advising them. She's been a confident to four generations of my family's branch over there. My cousin speaks fondly of her."
"Captain," Flynn said, "There's no reason to believe the Vessel here, and what remains of the crew on Corona, took the same path, culturally. Maybe Corona was more welcoming than the original colonists. The three-way split between Arendelle, the Vessel, and those who went off to Corona happened before the agro-plague and the Constitution of Monarchy." Anna nodded. "Anyway, Buzz has control of the transmission system, at least. He's been tickling the logs to see if he can find out what happened." Flynn sat back, his legs crossed. "We know about the crew. But what about the girl?"
Anna made a face. The 'girl' was the least significant of their problems, but for some reason everyone else had fixated on her. Probably because the rest of the crew were so damned disturbing.
Anna had thought Elsa joking when she described the crew as "brains in jars." She hadn't been. Of the eight thousand members of the crew who had chosen exile on The Vessel after the Arendelle Establishment of Monarchy, only 63 survived, and all of them were exactly as Elsa had described them. The jars were not, thankfully, transparent, or even really just jars; they were medically closed, surgically clean life-support systems with their own power sources, cleaning and recycling systems, and a nutritional reserve. Each system consisted of a coffin the size of a small two-man groundcar. "How did the crew end up like that?"
Buzz shrugged. "They always said they wanted to be freed of the limitations of the flesh. From time to time they would proseletyze, telling us down here of the wonderful freedom that came from giving up the limitations of our bodies. They never got any adherents that I know of." He looked down at his hands, as if seeing them in a new light. "I suspect that in their wait, their technology outstripped their maturity."
Flynn said. "If I didn't have to eat or sleep or chase after girls, what would I do with myself?" He sat back, legs crossed in a way to take up more space than was necessary, and ignored Elsa's flush. "Their brains were still telling them to do those things, or whatever their personal equivalents were. They went into simulations and... stayed there."
"But why won't they believe Queen Elsa when she tells them she's not part of the sim?" Anna said.
"Think of it this way, Captain. You know how to fly a fixed-wing, right?" Flynn said. Anna nodded. "You probably have something called competence transparency. Your tools are invisible, you no longer think about how to fly the aircraft. You just think about what you want it to do, and your hands and feet do the how by themselves. You've built a lot of brain matter to do that and acheive that competence. The Vessel crew are still humans, with human brains. They've spent so long in simulations their brains have built up a massive collection of hows about relating to that world. Eventually, it's all they know."
"And... the girl?"
"We have no idea. She's in cryo, not in sim. There are no marking or labels indicating who she might be, and the computers are refusing to acknowledge she even exists. Even though some of them are obviously caring for her. She even had a separate hydroponics fab attached to her side of the facility, where the algae is exposed to sunlight to filter any toxic buildups in her blood. It's amazing." Flynn shook his head. "There's some lost Terran tech there Manticore could really learn from."
Anna nodded. The survivors had been found in one long bay, serviced by clever machines that hovered over each station and monitored it. In a separate room, locked with a different keycode from the one Buzz had hacked to access the main medical bay, there had been a single cryogenic chamber, and inside it a young woman. Just using the equipment on board they had been able to show that her body and brain was similarly wired to the rest of the crew, but whereas they were hundreds of years old, the scanners had shown her to have been frozen somewhere around sixteen years of age.
"If she's remotely related to anyone on Arendelle, we'll figure out who she is," Buzz said. "Arendelle's tissue matching library is comprehensive and complete. Patients in cryo aren't really frozen, and cryofluids always have enough loose DNA to provide samples for testing."
That was good enough for Anna. "Your Majesty," Anna said. Elsa looked up. "We must get you back to Arendelle. I'm sorry, but you have a to-do list a light-year long, and so do I. Buzz, call ahead and assemble a team of... psychologists, I guess. And physicians. And engineers. And a long-duration habitable ship. We'll drag you all out to Agdar immediately, and then you can begin trying to get through to those crazies, and make sure they're not a threat to any of us anymore." She had spotted the wedding ring on his hand earlier. He wasn't her type but he was handsome in a lot of ways. "Sorry to keep you away from your wife."
"Good idea. I'll even sign off on it." He tapped his chin idly. "Oh, and it's husband, actually. Sure hope Oaken doesn't mind having to watch the kids by himself for too long." He noticed Anna's startlement and laughed. "Oh, it's all right, it's the less likely possibility."
Anna stared. Husband. Back on Manticore, homosexual encounters were regarded as just one of those things that happened, but nobody treated them with the significance and dignity of marriage. She'd even heard of church services for same-sex couples, in those churches that tolerated such things, but there was no civil recognition of them. Few even cared, but everyone understood that the purpose of marriage was to guarantee the lineage going forward, especially in the case of nobility and gentry. Regardless of one's personal indescretions, the obligation to family and line and heredity were everything. Biological heritage is the only wealth that matters. That distinction had always made Anna feel something like an outsider. Manticore had always been oh, so accepting of her consensual peccadilloes as long as she wasn't about to be derelict of duty.
Anna had always wondered if she would end up married to some nobleman for reasons of pure economy and heritage-- someone like Hans, maybe-- and then find romantic pleasures in her life elsewhere. It felt like a desolate compromise. When she'd told her father, he'd shrugged and said that life was compromise.
She shook herself. She had responsibilities, and tasks, an after-action report to dictate, a ship to repair. Now was not the time to be thinking about Elsa. Elsa? She hadn't been thinking about Elsa at all. She glanced at the Queen, who was now looking up at Captain Calhoun and talking, slowly, making plans. She turned back to Buzz and smiled. "Thank you. My crew will make sure you get about safely."
He grinned. "And thank you, Captain."
She glanced back toward the Queen again, trying to keep the roiling thoughts in her head from showing on her face. Elsa looked like a mess. Anna wanted to hug her, to hold her and tell her it would be all right. But that wasn't true, and hugging wasn't permitted. Anna only hoped that by the time they all got back to Arendelle, the proper courses of action would be underway.