A real chapter will be along in due course, but in the meantime I was attacked by that Irish chap O'Make. He made me write this...
The distant stars and galaxies shone steadily in the absolute black and cold nothingness surrounding her. Only fragile metal, plastic, and ceramic separated her from a quick death, but in that saving condemned her to a much slower and more drawn out fate.
For a moment she wondered fatalistically if perhaps it would be better to accept quick and relatively painless over slow and horrible.
But it wasn't in her to just give up. Not even in circumstances where almost all would accept that no hope was left. Such circumstances as here, and now. Where multiple unlikely paths all converged into one unassailable fact; she was utterly alone, and without any realistic chance of saving herself, or having anyone else save her.
She knew that. Knew that she was going to die, knew that all her efforts to survive were at best prolonging the inevitable and possibly even making the end, when it came, worse than giving in and allowing fate to do what it intended.
But she simply didn't have the sort of mind that would stop trying to work out some way, some infinitesimally tiny possibility, that might save her.
So she kept working. Kept wracking her mind for a miracle, going over everything she knew about science and technology, every trick she'd ever learned or seen or thought of, just to stretch her existence that little bit further. And so far, she had managed to pull off what practically everyone else she'd ever met would have considered impossible.
But there were limits. Points beyond which even her abilities and knowledge, and indeed luck, would finally run out.
That didn't mean that she was going to stop before the uncaring universe forced her to, though. No, she would meet her final fate with a toolkit to hand and a glare of annoyance in her eyes. As her father would have expected, and as she intended.
Her brief meal break over, Tali'zorah made a rude gesture to the distant unblinking gaze of the stars reflecting dully off the fragmented hull of her ship and got back to work.
"Fucking Batarians," the young woman swore as she pulled herself underneath what was left of the starboard secondary fusion reactor containment housing. "I'd like to kill the lot of them. They make the Geth look nice." Reaching out she fumbled around with one hand at her waist until she found the tool she was after then used it to unbolt an access cover that wasn't ever supposed to be removed except in a shipyard. It was only the fact that she was very slender and not all that tall that allowed her to wriggle into such a confined space. Under normal circumstances the entire reactor would have been removed to get at this section.
Luckily, she thought with black humor, the last shot by that damned slaver asshole had literally bent the ship enough that the second engineering deck was distorted by a few centimeters, opening up the gap under the reactor a little and making it feasible to squeeze in and get at this section. Removing bolts one at a time she ignored, although somewhat uneasily, the slowly and steadily increasing chirping sound of her omnitool warning about the secondary radiation leaking around the cover. Under the circumstances, a risk of long term radiation poisoning was very low indeed on her list of priorities. But it was a sound that she was conditioned to take very seriously so it was hard to pretend it wasn't happening despite her logic. Each fastener she took out she stuck to a magnetic parts tray that was attached to the reactor housing next to her. In zero g they'd otherwise float around and as sure as Batarians were worthless scum end up somewhere critical at the worse possible moment.
Eventually she'd removed all the fasteners and put the tool back into her tool belt. She reached up and put her gloved fingers into the recesses in the plate that was only ten centimeters from her helmet before heaving on it with a grunt and managing to get it to shift a little. She swore viciously at the thing, wiggling it back and forth a couple of times, until it abruptly freed up and rotated a third of a turn. Carefully pulling it out, she flinched as the chirping got really far more enthusiastic than was safe.
Tali shifted the cover to the side and used another magnet to attach it out of the way, then moved her head around to get her helmet light into the right place to inspect the fusion initiator laser assembly she was after. With some relief she saw it appeared undamaged. It took her another half hour to remove it and disconnect the various cables and pipes, but in the end she had the device along with the necessary associated parts in a bag that was floating next to her, tethered to her belt with a strap. She replaced the cover more to stop the alarm irritating her than for any other reason, although her inner engineer was also pushing her to make the job neat.
When she finally finished she made sure all her tools were in place then slid out from under the wrecked reactor, making sure she didn't catch her environment suit on anything sharp. Finally safe, she pulled herself across the engineering deck using the line she'd rigged a few days earlier and left the compartment.
She wondered if the radiation dose she'd received was something she needed to worry about any time soon. It still didn't really seem that important so she didn't bother working it out.
Four full days of very hard work later, she inspected the results of her efforts. The machine in front of her was a horrible mashup of half a dozen systems that should never have had something so ghastly done to them, but in theory it stood a chance of working.
Or it might just explode, which at least would give her a quick and painless end…
Tali went over her calculations several more times almost obsessively, checking various instruments she applied to parts of the machine's control circuits. Eventually she couldn't find anything else to worry about and all that really remained was to see if it would function.
Holding her breath, she opened the main fuel bleed valve just a tiny amount, waiting as the premix bled into the chamber, then closed it again when her omnitool which was monitoring the process indicated she had enough deuterium present. Turning to a console constructed out of wreckage she'd salvaged from the weapons controls she plugged a connector in, linking one of the last fully charged batteries to the power bus. Sparks flew oddly in the zero g environment, bouncing off the floor and walls and dimming more slowly than normal due to the lack of air to cool and oxidize the glowing material. She ignored the fireworks display in favor of watching displays come to life.
"So far so good," she muttered. "Not dead yet, which is nice."
Reaching out she tapped a few controls, studied the results, then ran a final functional test on the cobbled together mass of hardware. Nothing jumped out at her as being instantly lethal so in the end she shrugged and hit the ignition button.
Virtual gauges jumped wildly and the small compartment shook around her as the entire machine flexed under the stress of the enormous magnetic field that resulted from the coils firing up. She watched a little nervously as the flux density readings climbed rapidly, glancing at the entirely untested and improvised fusion reactor she'd built from parts of two others, a large chunk of the mass accelerator cannon, the remains of one of the point defense laser generators, and quite a few other bits and pieces that were entirely and absolutely not intended for this purpose.
In her head it should work. In reality…?
Only a few seconds later the field density hit the critical point and the ignition laser fired, the power readings on the battery dipping sharply as it drained electricity like it was a Krogan at a bar on someone else's tab. She knew she had only a couple of shots at this, because without any way to recharge the batteries without a working reactor and no nearby star for photovoltaic collectors to work, when they were dead so was she.
She watched intently as the displays changed. Temperatures inside her little reactor jumped enormously, a bright light shining through the small inspection port like a lightning strike. The power output graph spiked, then reduced, dropping back to a level that showed the ignition had failed.
"No, no, no," she mumbled, quickly operating the console and changing parameters more by feel than anything else. The temperature in the reactor kept dropping from the momentary near-ignition, making her nervously chew her lip. Reaching out without looking she opened the bleed valve again, let it run for a moment until she felt it was right, and slammed it closed. With her other hand she hit the manual laser fire control. "Come on, work with me here, will you?"
All the graphs jumped again, as another brilliant pulse of light speared out across the compartment, casting a circle of white on the far wall. She held her breath, then instinctively twitched the valve open and close almost too fast to notice. Hitting the ignition control one last time she watched the battery power reading drop to under ten percent.
The pulse of light from the inspection port flickered, dimmed, then brightened. One graph started to rise, then another. The automatic fuel feed system indicated positive flow while the neutron counter jumped halfway across the screen.
Tali stared at the console in disbelief, before taking a deep breath.
"I did it!" she screamed in joy. "You bosh'tets thought you'd killed me, but I'm still here!"
She smiled widely as the graphs settled down, showing a steady output from the reactor. It was only producing about half a megawatt, nowhere near enough to run the main drive, but that didn't matter as she didn't have a main drive. She had bits of one, but that wasn't going to help all that much. On the other hand, she now had more than enough power to get a reasonable level of life support up and running in the small section of the ship that could still hold air, and if she could fix it, get some gravity working.
After that, she was going to have a shower and try to work out what her next move was.
Three weeks passed as she tried to figure that out. In that time she managed to get the artificial gravity functional in the half dozen compartments she was able to seal well enough to hold pressure, fix the air processor so she wouldn't suffocate, sterilize the entire area with hard UV just in case anything had survived the vacuum up until that point, and take a more thorough inventory of what she had to work with.
It wasn't much.
When the Batarians, who she would happily strangle with their own intestines, had finished shooting, the ship she'd been traveling on was lucky to not have simply exploded. The eezo core had shut down just in time to avoid a catastrophic destabilization event, but there was no way to restart it seeing as how quite a lot of it was floating around somewhere in space. She could look outside and see little glittering fragments of hull and machinery following the crippled ship, but most of them were too damaged to be usable and too risky to even attempt to salvage.
All four fusion drives were damaged so badly that she wasn't sure she could gather enough of them to improvise a working one out of the parts, although she'd gone out on a tether and had a look to make sure. Two of them were missing the entire thrust assembly, another had a large part of the reaction chamber not present, and the fourth one was so badly twisted it was clearly a minor miracle it hadn't torn off the hull entirely.
On the up side, she had enough fuel slurry left in the port tank to run her little reactor for decades, and more than enough water and oxygen to survive for several years. The food supply was a little more problematic, as there was much less of the right chirality for her species to live on, but if she was careful and didn't mind the occasional bout of severe intestinal upset she could stretch that out with judicious mixing of the levo organics with the usable dextro ones.
Unlike how some popular stories on the Extranet had it, Quarians could eat small amounts of levo-chirality food, but it wasn't digestible as such. The minerals and inorganic parts were fine, of course, and some of the organic molecules didn't cause problems, but much of the rest basically went straight through. It wasn't toxic, it was just useless. The results tended to be both uncomfortable and antisocial. And in the long term lead to starvation.
But under these circumstances she'd risk it and live with the consequences. It wasn't like there was anyone else around to complain…
Briefly wishing that her former shipmates had included a couple of Turians as they'd have had the right food, even though most Turian food was pretty awful, she sighed and kept thinking. And being pleased that she wasn't a Turian as they had much more severe side effects from levo food. To the point that if you really didn't like a Turian sneaking a little levo sugar into his drink was an exceptionally impressive way to upset him and anyone else in the vicinity.
Lying on her bunk with her helmet off but right next to her just in case she needed to grab it, Tali worked on her omnitool, looking at the list of resources she'd built up and comparing them to every idea she could come up with for arranging a rescue, or failing that just some way to live longer. The more time she had to live, the longer she had to figure out how to get out of this. Assuming it was actually possible.
"Another ship might pass by and offer help," she mumbled, before laughing bitterly. Yeah. Right. Out here, over a light year from the nearest Relay on a heading that had her drifting away from any system even a fully working ship would take thirty years to reach at FTL speeds? No chance.
"I really really really hate Batarians," she grumbled as she scrolled through the list of assets, hoping for inspiration to strike. "So much."
The young woman kept working for many hours, until she finally was forced to sleep.
Tali's eyes snapped open in the dark, the dream she'd been having wavering on the edge of recall. Her thoughts were a little confused but she reached for her omnitool and opened a document with a reflexive motion, then typed frantically on the virtual keyboard, trying to get a record of what she'd thought of before it faded.
A few minutes later she stopped, her eyes burning from avoiding blinking for so long. She dropped her head back onto the bunk and put her hands over them, listening to the broken ship creak and groan around her, odd sounds echoing through the structure as stresses relieved themselves even this long after the attack.
"What the hell was I dreaming about?" she mumbled through her fingers. "That levo shit is really not good for my mind."
Eventually she sat up and reached for a bulb of water, squeezing most of it into her mouth and swallowing several times. Bringing the document up she read through the partially incoherent stream of consciousness, trying to work out what on Rannoch she'd been thinking about. Her eyes narrowed, then widened, then narrowed again. A wild surmise took root in her mind.
"That..." Pausing, she reread a couple of paragraphs, then looked across the compartment at the far wall as she thought hard. "That might actually work..."
Pondering the idea she added after a few minutes, "Although I don't know if it will help. But it's not like there's anything else I can try."
It was an entirely off the wall idea, but she could see a glimmering of something in it. And the tiniest speck of hope lurking deep inside that glimmering.
So she got up, ate, put her helmet on, and headed aft to see if she could retrieve the materials and parts she'd need.
It took her nearly eight days to build the thing she'd invented in a burst of desperate insight. Salvaging enough eezo from the severely damaged drive core had been a rather nerve-wracking operation, but she'd managed it without killing herself. Much of the work had been coming up with a way to contain the vast mechanical forces that were a likely outcome of this experiment. Making sure it was sufficiently well isolated from the structure of the ship, both physically and electrically, was also tricky, but she was able to improvise vibration dampers and insulators that should, in theory, be up to the job.
Assuming it didn't blow the moment she applied power, it might actually work. Whether, even if it did work, it would help, she wasn't certain. But it at least gave her something to do.
At the moment that was a net benefit. Losing hope and giving up would mean the end was that much closer.
Making the last connection to the power supply Tali nodded in satisfaction. She knelt on the deck examining the results of her labor. A small by ship terms, but worryingly large by any other common sense usage, amount of eezo was suspended in the center of the machine. A series of control coils and actuators surrounded it, along with some very heavy power leads that attached to the odd-shaped chunk of slightly glowing metamaterial. She'd had a difficult time calculating the right proportions to make the thing, which was nothing like the normally spherical eezo cores used in ship drives.
This thing was not a drive. Nor was it anything like any other applications she'd come across before.
What it was, was a controlled superluminal gravitic wave generator.
Her leap of insight had suggested that very carefully energizing a correctly shaped piece of eezo with the right frequency of alternating current could, possibly, rather than simply exploding with the fury of a thousand suns as common belief suggested, instead create a fluctuating gravitational distortion field that would propagate at faster than light speeds. It would, again in theory, do something related to how a Mass Relay was suspected to work, but for energy not matter.
FTL comms buoys did something vaguely similar with laser beams channeled through a mass effect field, but they required very careful alignment and most of the complexity of the things was maintaining that alignment. The tiniest miscalibration and they entirely failed to work. It was only the space-warping nature of a mass effect field that allowed them to function at all, as without it not only would they be relegated to the speed of light, rendering them useless for interstellar communications, but there would be no possible way to get them to point at each other accurately enough in any case.
This device was both more and less technically advanced. Less because it didn't have all the processing and delicate positioning hardware and software, along with the extremely complex field generation equipment required. More because it did something that as far as she knew no one else had ever tried, or even considered. It was somewhat brute force, admittedly, as well as so inefficient it was probably taking an order of magnitude more energy to work than it needed, but she wasn't exactly spoiled for choice in what she could build with the resources on hand.
A half-wrecked Salarian survey ship had a lot of stuff on it, true, but there was only one of her and a lot of the remaining hardware was extremely bashed about.
She stood up and walked around the machine, checking it over carefully. It had the possibility of going rather unpleasantly wrong considering the amount of energy that she was going to be using, and she had no intention of that happening if she could avoid it. Making a few adjustments then testing every connection one final time, she nodded and left the compartment, heading for the other end of the ship where her living quarters were.
Twenty minutes later she was sitting in front of a couple of holoscreens she'd pulled out of the wreckage of the bridge. One of them was showing a number of different views of her machine, the other was the terminal into the computer running the thing.
She typed a few commands, checking the results of the diagnostics, then prodded the final control. Three hundred meters away power flowed into her invention. Blue light glowed intensely as the eezo was energized with a complex waveform, entirely against all common sense and normal practice.
People used DC on eezo. That was how it worked. And if you got the polarity wrong you tended to very briefly regret it. No one was mad enough to apply AC if they'd ever read any of the research results on doing such an idiotic thing.
Holding her breath, the young Quarian watched with worried interest as the glow brightened. She could feel a deep vibration running through the decking under her feet, and see the entire machine visibly vibrating. As she cautiously increased the power flowing into it, the vibrations intensified, the glow starting to shift into a deep purple color rather than the normal sapphire blue.
She stopped and stared, fascinated by the effect, then shrugged slightly and kept winding the power up until she reached the level she'd calculated would be optimal. Assuming her dream wasn't trying to kill her, of course.
Nothing fell apart, or exploded, or fell apart then exploded, and after a few tense minutes she relaxed just a little. "That's the first part done," she commented to herself, having fallen into the habit of self-narration due to a lack of anyone else to talk to for the preceding nearly two months. "Now for part two..."
Bringing up another display she fiddled with the program, then ran it. The computer applied a modulation to the core drive frequency. If she was right, it was now acting as an omnidirectional transmitter of ripples in space-time that would propagate at superluminal speeds. With some luck, when those ripples reached the nearest gravity wave detector, such as those the Salarians used for research into black holes, it might be sufficiently obvious that someone would notice. And with a little more luck, they might be able to triangulate on the source.
If she had enough luck on her side, someone would investigate that source. And find her.
Hopefully still alive, and sometime before she got so old she wouldn't be able to enjoy the rescue.
The problem was that she had no idea how fast the ripples would propagate, aside from 'at more than c,' so she might be in for a long wait. The nearest location she was aware of that might be able to detect her signal was probably a good thousand light years away, so she could only hope that more than c was quite a bit more than c.
Now all she could do was wait.
The machine kept running, sympathetic vibrations in the hull pulsing out a standard distress signal via very non-standard methods, the deep rumble making her entire body tingle slightly. Even from here she could feel the variations in gravity caused by the eezo resonating. Up close it would be quite dangerous, possibly even lethal, so she wasn't going to go and look at it in person as long as it was in operation. The weird color also suggested that there might well be an unhealthy amount of radiation being emitted, excited by the unusual drive mechanism.
After a while when everything seemed to be stable, more than a little to her surprise, Tali moved to her bunk and lay down, used her omnitool for a while to make notes on her work just in case she ever got to show them to someone, then closed her eyes and took a nap. She was very tired after working nearly constantly for over a week and felt a rest was justified.
She slept for more than twenty hours straight.
A very long away in more senses than normal, another young woman looked at her instruments and frowned curiously. "Huh," she muttered, leaning closer to the subspace monitoring system. "What on earth is that?"
She looked to the side at another display, studying the graphs present there. Moving the mouse she clicked through a whole series of pages of data with considerable interest.
"No, I've never seen anything like this before either," she said to the air. "I know. Weird, right?"
One of the many monitors around the basement workshop displayed a series of extremely complex glyphs, along with a couple of multidimensional moving graphics that wavered oddly in rainbow colors. Taylor looked at all this and nodded slowly. "Yeah… That might be worth trying..."
Pulling some spare equipment out of a drawer under her bench, she began assembling a new piece of instrumentation, carrying on a one sided conversation and occasionally stopping to scribble notes on mathematical theory that would have made almost every physicist on the planet stare in horror then go and have a little lie down. Whistling faintly, the girl kept working late into the night, as it was Friday and she could sleep in the next day.
Tali spent the next couple of days wandering around the parts of the ship she'd not so far investigated due to the damage, finding that she couldn't sit still for more than a few hours. She made a lot of trips through very dangerous and obstacle-strewn wreckage, managing to salvage half a dozen working omnitools, some more food, lots of random parts that might come in handy, another battery from what remained of the science deck, and a few other useful things. She also found two more bodies, badly damaged and almost unrecognizable.
The first one had made her stop dead then close her eyes. She'd liked Kenra, the Asari maiden was very funny and full of life. Unable to retrieve the body of her friend, and having no way to do anything with it anyway, she finally left that compartment and welded the door shut behind her. The second corpse was so badly torn up she could only tell it was that of a Salarian, one of the technical crew most likely, but that was about all she could discern.
Thinking very black thoughts about what she'd do to the next Batarian she saw she'd returned to her living space and collapsed on the bunk, dropping the bag of parts next to it without a second thought. It had taken her several hours to recover to the point she could get on with doing anything other than moping and mourning.
Eventually, though, her normal optimistic nature, as strained as it was these days, reasserted itself enough to make her go back to inventorying what she'd recovered and trying to figure out if anything would help her current plight. Unfortunately there was no miracle to be found, but the parts and tools were useful resources if nothing else.
She sorted everything out and put it away, adding each item to her growing list so she could find it later. There was, after all, nothing much else to do except wait and see what happened.
"OK, let's see…" Taylor checked over her work very carefully with a number of esoteric instruments of her own design. "Odd variation on subspace comms. It's really inefficient, worse than yours was," she added, glancing to the side with a smile, then returning her attention to the machine she had built. "Almost like the subspace aspect isn't the desired effect..." She pondered the mystery for a few seconds, made a couple of notes, and went back to checking various test points.
"...and the modified tesseract coil is resonating nicely," she finished a few minutes later, ticking off the last item on the list. "Great. Let's see what happens."
Plugging the cables into the computer she'd set up for the job, she ran the interface and decoding program, then when the main display window was running, started very carefully tuning half a dozen components inside the machine's open top cover with a couple of ceramic tools. Strange interference patterns in the circuitry intermittently combined to produce an audible sub-bass hum which made tools rattle on the bench. The computer chirped a couple of times as it found hints of the signal she was after, displaying a colorful waterfall graph that slowly moved down the screen.
Glancing at it every now and then, she fine tuned one of the controls. A flicker of motion on the monitor made her look at it, only to see the same graph with a few peaks showing up in brighter colors. "Weird. Could have sworn I saw a lizard there for a second," she mumbled, lifting an eyebrow at the display and peering at it, then shrugging. "No idea why." Returning her attention to the machinery, she kept tweaking the various adjustment points while checking the outcome of her actions on several other meters and a pair of oscilloscopes, until she finally sat back and nodded.
"That should be about right," she commented with a smile. "Now let's hear what it is."
Clicking on another program, she watched the monitor for a few seconds, then altered a couple of parameters slightly. Satisfied, she turned up the volume on the audio amplifier she'd hooked up to the system. A repetitive weebling sound filled the basement, with a burst of high frequency noise occurring on each cycle. She cocked her head and listened carefully.
"That is a frequency shift keyed data burst on an audio carrier," she finally said. "Low data rate, maybe phase keying too? Huh. Interesting..."
The girl looked to the side. "Distress call? Yeah, that's certainly possible. I wonder what it's saying."
After a moment's thought, she added, "And where it's coming from..."
It took her another hour of work before she'd added enough hardware and software to answer the second question at least.
"Well, now. Isn't that fascinating?" she muttered softly, looking at another display. It was showing an image of space that NASA would have killed for. And a tiny blinking dot way the hell out of range of anything that would pass as a star system. A very, very long way from her too. Not only from the point of sheer distance…
"I wonder if whoever that is knows their beacon is sending across dimensions as well as space?" she remarked with a thoughtful expression. After a while, having thought very carefully about the problem, Taylor started building some more hardware.
Talking back was going to be the interesting part.
"What the..." Tali jolted awake, then lay staring at the ceiling of her compartment as she tried to work out why that had happened. She listened very carefully, as strange sounds were often the first indication that something was going wrong, a bit of knowledge that her people had ingrained into them from the moment they were old enough to talk. She couldn't hear anything amiss at first. The faint hiss of the air processor doing its job, fans almost silently whirring somewhere in a duct, the basso rumble of her gravitic beacon steadily shaking the very fabric of space-time… nothing seemed different to what she'd grown to expect.
Still… There was something not quite right. She was sure of that, for reasons that she couldn't put into words. Something had changed.
After a few minutes she got up and went over to the control console she'd built, then checked the cameras monitoring her reactor and the gravity wave generator. There didn't appear to be any changes to either. The reactor was happily fusing away and making electricity, not a flicker of variation in the output to indicate any potential problems, which genuinely surprised her considering how much of a gash job it was. The beacon was still glowing that weird violet color and sucking most of the available energy that the reactor produced, pushing it off somewhere she was still a little hazy on even having thought about it for weeks. Neither machine seemed to be showing any issues.
So why did she have an instinctive sense that something, somewhere, had changed?
A thought struck her and she quickly checked all her other monitoring systems, including the ones she'd modified a couple of spare omnitools to build. There was no sign of a ship in the vicinity, which made her relax a little even as it saddened her. Nothing else seemed to indicate the broken vessel she was in breaking any further, no interstellar meteor had passed by or even hit her… Nothing seemed to have changed at all.
Tali knelt on the deck and put her hands on it, feeling the vibrations resonating through the hull and concentrating on them. Several seconds passed until she twitched in surprise. "Keelah..." she breathed. "There's another source! That's not the fundamental, something's mixing with it." She was certain she could feel something very subtle, almost too faint to detect, intermittently altering the gravitic waveform passing through the material of the ship and producing macroscopic effects perceptible to a living being.
Lying full length on the deck she pressed her forehead to the floor and concentrated. Nearly five minutes later she jumped to her feet. "It's real! And it's getting stronger..."
Rushing over to her cobbled together control system she sat and frantically began checking the program running the beacon, first to eliminate some instability in that as the source, which she quickly did, then in an attempt to work out what in the name of her ancestors was causing it.
Lacking any real scientific instrumentation that was capable of monitoring gravitic waves to the level needed, she mostly found herself looking at the mechanical load sensors and power detectors surrounding the eezo mass at the center of her beacon. Sure enough, both types of system were showing a small but growing variation in the operation of the device, something her program hadn't alerted her to as she hadn't written it that specific way. Until the vibrations grew large enough to become a problem her software would have ignored them and this particular whatever it was seemed to be too low level to show up as such. Staring at the graphs she tried to work out what might be causing it.
A resonance in the mechanism was easily dismissed as a possibility, as were instabilities in the power feed, carrier generator, or modulation system. Everything there was working exactly as she'd designed it and as it had been for days now. But something was causing an unexpected change to the core operation of her machine, and she had no idea what.
However a growing part of her mind was prodding her that it wasn't an accident…
Trying not to let hope distort her thinking, Tali studied the secondary signal that seemed to be superimposing itself on the modulation, and steadily increasing in level, as if something or more intriguingly someone was gradually narrowing in on her transmission with some sort of reply. It should have been impossible, she had no idea how you could use her machine as a two way comms system, but she couldn't ignore the possibility.
Maybe the Salarians knew more about gravity than she did. That seemed almost certain, in fact, and she couldn't think of anyone else who might be able to do whatever was happening.
She watched the instruments as the signal that was returning from her beacon steadily grew, in little fits and starts as if it was being locked in on from somewhere, while rummaging through her pile of spare parts and designing a better method of detecting and handling whatever it was that was behind all this. A few hours later, the signal had peaked and was holding steady, and she had a collection of repurposed hardware connected to the modulation generator and the sensor signals. Tali spent a while tweaking a program that calculated the difference between what her system was producing and what she was detecting, until she finally stared at the results then hopped up and down in her chair.
"Yes! It's really there, and it's an actual signal! That's not random noise, it's data!" She leaned forward, nearly burying her nose in the holoscreen. "But what is it?"
After thinking it through for a long time, while watching how the return signal varied when she experimentally changed the modulation signal, she threw common sense out the airlock and connected one of the omnitool imaging systems to the modulator. Programming it for the simplest video signal with audio carrier she knew of, a truly ancient completely analog method that her people had used centuries ago, she turned it on and watched to see what would happen next...
"Aha… That's more like it," Taylor said softly, smiling as she inspected the changes to the subspace signal she was exploring. "Let's see… yeah, definitely a high definition analog video signal, pretty simple really, so I just need to get the frame and line syncs running like this..."
She made a couple of changes to the decoder software and looked to the side at the display showing the output of the system, nodding when it settled down to a rectangular pattern filled with multicolored noise. "OK. Frame locked up properly, now demodulate the video carrier, map it to… looks like something pretty close to normal YUV color, let's try that… luminance values are inverted for some reason… Got it!"
The girl smiled as the picture suddenly flickered into showing a view of… someone.
Taylor studied the image with enormous interest. The slightly glowing eyes set into a face that was close to human but sufficiently different to make it obvious it wasn't was fascinating, but what was behind the person looking slightly down and to the left was even more so. She inspected everything she could see, spotting any number of clues that led her to only one conclusion…
"An alien, complete with an alien spacecraft," she mused out loud. Nodding to an unheard question, she added, "Yeah, and a broken alien spacecraft at that. I would guess that's the reason for the beacon thingy. Lost in space, bereft of hope for a rescue, our plucky hero scrapes together a method to attract attention." She smiled a little, then peered more closely at the image. "Or is it heroine? Hmm..."
The alien was apparently studying something at their own end, looking down and left, and Taylor could see their arms moving as if they were typing on something like a keyboard. She could also see ample evidence that pretty much everything in view was damaged, or improvised out of things that weren't meant to do what they were being used for, with wires and optical cables strung rather haphazardly around the room behind the figure on screen.
Inspecting the alien, she decided that going by human standards it was probably she rather than he, and quite young. On the other hand that was entirely a subjective impression and possibly the person was actually a six hundred year crotchety old man or something. Snickering at her own thoughts, she turned back to the decoded program and fiddled with it for a while, getting the audio subcarrier working as well. Sounds abruptly came to life to go with the image.
Hums, a clicking sound in the background, several different intermittent chirping noises that sounded like annunciators from a computer program, what was certainly the sound of fans running, all filled her workshop, being broadcast from a vast distance away. Under that was the sound of a voice mumbling to itself in a completely unknown languages, which corresponded to the mouth movements of her new alien friend.
Even if she couldn't understand the language, she could understand the tone perfectly.
The alien was working hard and trying to figure something out, while improvising technology from parts available. That was something she had no trouble at all recognizing.
"So far so good," Taylor nodded to herself. "Now lets see if I can talk back..."
It didn't take her long to rewrite the software decoder to make it bidirectional. When she was sure it was working she linked it into a spare camera, adjusted the device to point at her, looked around quickly to make sure that nothing she didn't want visible was, then clicked the relevant icon and waited patiently.
Watching the output of her instruments, Tali stiffened when the incoming signal stopped, then a few minutes later started up again, this time with a modulation format she recognized with a shock. It was exactly the same as her outgoing transmission. Whoever it was had worked out what she was sending in a remarkably short period of time and was apparently responding in kind.
With a slightly shaking hand she looked at the imager, wondering who was seeing her through it, then quickly set things up to decode and display the incoming video signal. Only a couple of minutes later the image jumped into life, twitching a couple of times until her software locked properly, then stabilized. She stared at the picture in shock.
'A pink Asari?' she thought in bemusement. That was about as close as she could come to describing the person looking at her. The resemblance was uncanny, although the longer she looked the more differences she spotted. Asari didn't have hair or fur on their heads, for a start, the eyes were subtly wrong, and the color was obviously entirely off. And what she could see in the background of the transmission was nothing at all that she recognized, other than in broad strokes.
The conclusion was unmistakable; She'd somehow managed to contact an alien species no one knew about.
First Contact. By her. By accident.
She nearly laughed. The entire thing was so ridiculous it belonged in an Extranet story, one of the ones everyone giggled about due to the lack of realism.
Still, there was no denying she was looking at someone from a species she'd never heard of, who was looking back and seemed oddly unsurprised. Experimentally she raised a hand and made a friendly gesture, which made the alien smile, something she hoped meant the same thing for them that it did to her. The creature waved back and said something, the language entirely unknown but the tone sounding pleased. And probably that of a youngish female assuming their species worked like Quarians did.
"Hello," Tali said, knowing the other person wouldn't understand but feeling it was only polite. She pointed at herself. "I am Tali'Zorah. I am a Quarian."
The alien cocked her(?) head a little and seemed to think. It said something which sounded very strange, but the one thing Tali managed to get from it was probably a name. Possibly species, or more likely that of the individual in question.
She pointed at the camera. "Taylor?"
The alien nodded, the gesture looking so familiar that Tali could only accept it as that.
Tali stared at her unexpected contact for some seconds, before slumping in her chair with a wave of different emotions going through her. She hadn't managed to contact anyone she had expected to, but at least she'd made contact with someone, no matter how alien. And she wasn't alone any more.
Taylor watched her, appearing worried, until she looked up at the imager again. "Sorry. I've been alone for months now," she explained uselessly.
The alien seemed to get the basic idea and if she was any judge was sympathetic, based on the expression. She held up a hand and made a gesture that seemed to convey 'wait a moment' then vanished from view. Picking up a drinking bulb Tali squirted some water into her mouth, just glad that the circumstances, as horrible and confusing as they were, allowed her to remove her helmet without risking her health. Face to face contact seemed important right now.
Taylor reappeared on screen, then looked down for a moment and did something. A series of bright green diagrams appeared overlaid on the image, apparently being hand drawn as the other person worked. Tali peered curiously at them.
It didn't take her long to work out that her new friend was describing a data format, one based on eight binary bits. She set up her omnitool to allow her to draw her own diagrams and sketched out something in return, describing the most basic binary coding scheme she knew. Taylor looked pleased and altered her own drawings.
Three hours later they had mutually settled on a method of transferring data both ways, and Tali had set up a secondary digital data channel through her gravitic generator. Holding her breath, she tried sending a basic uncompressed image grabbed from her omnitool. Taylor worked for a few seconds, then nodded, making a gesture with her fingers all wrapped into a fist and her thumb sticking straight up, which by implication seemed to mean things were going well. She moved her camera to point at a display which was showing the image Tali had sent, then moved it back to show her smiling face.
Tali smiled as well.
Now, how could they work out a mutual language? She needed some sort of translation matrix, which would require a lot of data on whatever it was Taylor was speaking, something she could feed into the translation program of her omnitool. Poking through the files she had available, including all the data she'd downloaded from the remaining storage in the ship's computers and the salvaged omnitools, she finally found something useful. A basic standard first contact package the Salarians had stashed away, something most science vessels carried just in case, although as far as she knew it hadn't been used in centuries.
Setting things up to convert the basic data on several languages to an uncompressed and unencrypted format, along with a lot of equivalent information on writing systems, Tali started transmitting it. Taylor looked at her own equipment and nodded, apparently immediately working out what it was and seeming pleased.
This would take a while. It was a lot of data even at the fairly high transfer rate they'd managed to come up with, and then Taylor would need to figure out how to use it. Tali waited as her contact somewhere else in the universe seemed to think for a while, then vanished once more for a couple of minutes. When she came back, the return data link came to life with a large transmission from the other end, which Tali made sure she was saving. Looking at it she felt pleased too, as it was clearly something very similar to what she was sending Taylor.
Hopefully, between them, they could come up with a mutually understandable method of communicating a little more advanced than sketches...
When the transmission from the alien called Tali'zorah finally finished, Taylor gave her new friend another thumb's up then started looking through the data. It was immediately obvious that it was a massive trove of lexical data on a number of alien languages along with information connecting them. Clearly designed as a translation aid, she thought, pleased and impressed. "This shouldn't take long," she said to the camera. She'd worked out just from the initial results what it was likely to be and had sent the equivalent information on English, but having several languages present would make the task much easier. Basically the same idea as the Rosetta Stone, being able to compare them would give even more information than any one on its own.
Still, it wasn't a trivial thing to do, translating a completely alien language. Luckily she had various options most people didn't…
Smiling at the face on the monitor, who smiled back, Taylor got to work with the aid of a different friend.
Four hours later, Tali jumped a little, almost dropping the tool she was using to work on a better air processor unit. "Hello? Can you understand me?"
Whirling to stare at the image of Taylor, Tali gaped a little for a moment, then said, "Yes. How did you translate my language so fast!? That's amazing." Her own efforts had stalled out after a couple of hours and possible twenty very basic concepts.
Taylor grinned widely, seeming very happy, as Tali sat down in front of her console once again and forgot about the air unit for now. "I've got some very good computers and a few other useful things," she replied in a cheerful tone. "Anyway, it's nice to be able to introduce myself properly. I'm Taylor Hebert, a Human from a planet called Earth."
Tali nodded, amazed and impressed at her new friend's technology and abilities. "Tali'Zorah vas Klaatu, I'm very pleased to meet you, Taylor Hebert."
"Call me Taylor," the girl replied.
"And you should call me Tali," Tali smiled. "I have to say I didn't expect to make first contact today. Or for that matter any contact. I didn't have the first idea my invention could do this. I was just trying to attract help."
"Well, you did that," Taylor chuckled.
"Can you send a ship for me?" Tali asked hopefully.
"Ah. That part is a little… complicated," her friend commented, looking thoughtful. "As we don't actually have any interstellar ships yet. It's something I'm working on."
Tali stared in confusion.
"On the other hand, I know a lot about subspace, and all sorts of other interesting things, so I bet we can figure out a way to help you," the girl continued. She made herself more comfortable in her chair and looked directly at Tali through the camera. "I like fixing problems. So tell me what yours is, OK? And we can work on fixing it."
After a couple of minutes, wondering exactly what help Taylor could provide in the absence of any FTL ships, and what 'subspace' was, Tali shrugged and began explaining how the Salarian science vessel she'd been serving on had been jumped by Batarian pirates, chased far off the beaten path, shot to hell, and left for dead with her as the only survivor.
It was a story that took hours to tell, and left her depressed and Taylor looking very, very coldly furious.
"I see," Taylor said when her new friend finally ran out of things to say, sounding like she was on the ragged edge of falling apart. Clearly she'd pushed herself to the absolute limit over the time she'd been alone, and was an exceptionally talented engineer as well. That was the only reason she was still alive.
Taylor decided that she didn't like Batarians. Anyone who could act like that needed something unpleasant to happen to them.
But that could wait.
For now, she had a friend to help. And the first part of that was working out what was available in the way of resources. Only then could she explain how to make some of the equipment she was designing in the back of her mind.
"All right. By the sound of it you have food, air, water, and energy enough to live on for quite a while," she said after the Quarian seemed to pull herself together. Tali nodded a little.
"Great. That's good, it removes one of the main problems. Let's see if we can sort out the rest. Have you got a list of what you have to work with, and some background data on everything?"
"Yes, I've made a fairly complete inventory of all the usable equipment over the last couple of months," Tali replied. "And I can send you all the data I have available if we can work out a suitable compression scheme. It would take months otherwise."
"Do you have the technical specifications on the system you guys use?" Taylor asked.
"I should have, yes," Tali responded, looking to the side. She worked for a few minutes, then nodded. "Here we are. The programming specifications for the standard Salarian science council data compression format. I'll just send it."
Running the block of information that came in through her translation system, Taylor started reading it. The described method of compression was elegant and efficient, and vaguely similar to some of the latest systems she'd read about. "This doesn't look too hard to implement," she said, returning her attention to Tali. "Let me work on it for a bit. You get something to eat, or have a lie down, you look tired."
Tali didn't question her assessment, merely nodding and moving off camera. Taylor could hear sounds that suggested someone lying down nearby. Smiling gently, and wanting to help, Taylor began writing some software to decompress the Salarian data format.
This was turning out to be a very strange weekend and it was only Saturday afternoon so far.
"Tali? You there?"
Tali blinked a few times at the sound of the voice, then remembered and sat up. She checked the time, seeing that she'd been asleep for about four hours. Getting off her bunk she went over to the console and sat down, seeing Taylor looking at her. The Human seemed relieved when she appeared in the view of her imager. "Ah. I was worried something had happened, I was calling you for about five minutes."
"I think I needed the sleep," Tali replied, rubbing her eyes. "Sorry."
"No problem. Right, then, I've looked through your list of resources and had a think about it. I've got some ideas that should help, something for the short term and something for the longer term."
Tali looked curiously at her. "What are they?"
"Well, in the short term, there's getting you off that ship and somewhere safer. In the longer term there's getting you home. Sound good?"
Thinking that this was slightly simplifying the issues, Tali eventually nodded a little. "I can't disagree with either of those. But how do I get off the ship? You told me your species doesn't have superluminal travel." 'Yet,' she added mentally, remembering what Taylor had said a while ago, wondering what she'd meant by that.
"Ah, I have a better idea than a ship," Taylor replied with a look that on a Quarian would have been classified as 'slightly smug.' She worked for a few seconds, then Tali inspected the file she'd been sent.
Her eyes widened steadily. After blinking a few times, she looked at the crazy Human. "A teleportation machine?"
"Yeah. Don't your people have them?" Taylor's expression was mischievous.
Tali fixed her with a somewhat exasperated look. "No. Nobody has a teleporter. It's ridiculous, something out of a science fiction novel."
"Here's how to build one," Taylor replied as she sent a much larger block of information. Somewhat skeptically Tali opened the file and started reading.
Half an hour later she looked up, feeling lightheaded. "This is… impossible."
"I know it will work," she muttered in shock. "That's what's impossible." Her new friend seemed to have knowledge that the Salarians would have killed for. And she could hardly believe. Even so, when she checked the information again, and ran the math, it all held together. It completely rewrote a large part of physics in the process, but it was consistent.
"Based on your list of resources it should be possible to make that in a few hours. I can program it from here over the link. I'll make the other end, and you just come through. Then we can figure out what to do next, but at least you won't have to worry about a sudden failure or something taking out your air. From what you said, and your scans of that thing, I'm amazed the ship is still holding air at all."
"So am I," she muttered as she read the documentation again. "What about food? Your species isn't dextro from what you said."
"Nope, but don't worry, I've got a friend who can sort that out easily enough, and the same for your immune problems." Tali looked at the screen in renewed shock, Taylor smiling at her. "Honestly, don't worry, Tali. I'll sort things out. I've got some friends in the government that can help too, they owe me a couple of small favors. So let's get to work."
Shaking her head a little wonderingly, Tali got up and started digging through her parts pile to find what she needed, thinking that the day she met Taylor Hebert of Earth was the day things got very strange.
Checking the last of the connections one final time, Taylor felt satisfied. "All checks out," she muttered. "Great. Now we just need to sync up both ends..."
She got up from the floor, where her end of her new teleport pad was sitting, having put the protective cover back onto the portal generator mechanism. Sitting in her chair she ran some functional tests, powering the device up in standby and making sure everything was working to design. The meter-square device on the floor hummed faintly, lights blinking on it in a pattern that showed correct operation.
"I'm ready at this end," she said as she looked at the camera. On screen she could see Tali's version of her hardware, which was much less polished due to the lack of proper tools and components, but was still a very neat job. She approved of what she'd seen so far of her friend's capabilities. The Quarian was very good at this sort of thing.
"As far as I can tell this is also working," Tali replied as she sat as well. "I'll link the control system into the data channel so you can check."
"OK." Thirty seconds later, Taylor was poking around in the virtual innards of the far-off hardware. She nodded a little, configuring all the dimensional parameters to match her own system, then announced, "It's ready. I'm going to initiate the connection."
Tali turned to watch as Taylor issued a few commands, checked the results, and hit the final key. Both units powered up fully and emitted a deep whoomph sound, then settled down to a barely perceptible whine in the background as the portal formed. Two cubic meters of space above the pad wavered and shimmered, going slightly cloudy in a very unusual manner.
"Keelah," Tali muttered in awe.
"Cool," Taylor smiled. "Hold on, let's test it." She picked up a screwdriver and lightly tossed it towards the blurry part of space in the middle of her workshop, watching as it passed into it.
Nothing came out the other side.
A clattering sound from the comms link made her turn to it to see Tali bend down and pick up the screwdriver, then look at it in numb incredulity. "It actually works," the Quarian woman said in tones of flat disbelief.
"Looks like it." Taylor nodded, pleased. "I'll send through a test probe to check for any dangerous radiation, but there shouldn't be anything, if I got the math right." Picking up one of her modified phones, she tapped a few icons, set up the function she wanted, and let go. It hung in the air for a second, then floated towards and through the portal, as she watched carefully. On the screen she could see it emerge, and after ten second, turn around and return. When it was back in her hand she studied the readings.
"Nothing at all. Looks like the transit time is under ten milliseconds, which is about what I calculated. You should be able to just walk through. Bring some of your food and anything else you want, then we can shut it down for now."
Her new friend looked at her wordlessly for some time, but eventually took a breath and nodded. Picking up a helmet she put it on her head and sealed it to her environmental suit, then wandered around for a few minutes packing up a number of things into a case, which she closed firmly. Then, after looking around for a moment, she headed towards the distortion in space. Stopping a meter away from it, she just looked at it for a while.
Glancing over her shoulder at the camera, she nodded.
Moments later she stepped out in front of Taylor.
The girl stood up and walked over. "It's nice to meet in person, Tali'Zorah."
"Likewise, Taylor Hebert," the alien woman said with a sort of near-laugh buried in her voice. "And thank you."
"It was my pleasure," Taylor chuckled. "Let's shut this down for now, get my friend Amy over here to check you out, and then I'd better tell Dad we've got a house guest.
She picked up her phone and dialed. "Hey, Amy, want to see something cool?" she asked cheerfully as Tali looked around her workshop, moving like someone who thought she was in a dream and was worried it would vanish when she woke up.
Brendan picked up the phone. He listened for a while, then very carefully put it down again, sighed, and rested his forehead on his hands.
Eventually he straightened up and began to make some calls. Apparently an alien ambassador was now required, which in retrospect probably wasn't all that surprising if you knew Taylor...