Greetings, one and all. You may remember my previous story, "I am a Thief", that was set in an integrated Nintendo science fiction universe. This is the second promised story set in that universe, or, rather, just the first chapter of it. It's rather a departure from the self-absorbed and proud ramblings of Daroach that people seemed to like so well, but I am nonetheless pleased with how it is progressing thus far. I won't be able to get another chapter out before Christmas, I regret, as I will be writing a story to go along with a CD as a present for everyone in my family, and will have little time otherwise. It definitely is on the list after Christmas, though.
Without further ado, I present:
The Clockwork Comet
Terran Calendar, January 13, 3247 A.D.
It was morning in the Federation Marine outpost on giant Daiban's far-flung moon, and a light methane snow was falling outside the metal walls with all their humming and thrumming machines that were all keeping the poison and cold and the dark vacuum of space at bay. The lights flickered, and sometimes the thrumming became a clanking, but that was business as usual. And they would call him, Doctor Daniel Defoe, a civilian engineer who still wondered what deity's caprice had guided his life to this cul-de-sac of an army base, to come and fix it. But whatever problem had arisen during the night would need to wait a few hours today.
For it was morning in the run-down, Kriken hole excuse for a Marine outpost on a moon so far away from the Federation Capital planet that no one cared, and it was time to meet the new intern.
Defoe had dark circles under his eyes and hair greasy from long nights subsisting on good Old Earth coffee and whatever vile brew the Chozo claimed was tea. A light layer of grease and grime covered the human's skin, for the wash facilities in the base had gone out nearly a week ago when the central fluid pump servicing the base failed, spewing water, sewage and scads of hydrocarbons all over the floor. Fixing the aging plumbing, however, tended to take a back seat to more mundane concerns like maintaining the life support systems, and the generals snug in their offices on Daiban below would see the work order forms cross their desks eventually. There was the backup pump, of course, but that was barely enough for drinking water and waste removal.
With a sigh, the human regarded his expression in the mirror.
Always were a looker, weren't you, Daniel?
He plunged an oil-stained rag under the trickle of water from the corroded tap and scrubbed himself with it all over where skin could be seen. If they were getting a new, naïve intern, then he at least wanted to not look like an unwashed monster, even if he smelled like stale coffee and machine oils. He wore a serviceable rubber working-man's robe, in the fashion of the Chozo, finding it not only more comfortable than Terran-style cloths, and airy in all the right places, but also protective for the dangerous and fiddly work he did every day. Still, it did nothing for the smell of unwashed human that even humans found offensive.
Well, there was nothing for it but to meet the lad, then, clean or unclean.
Defoe shod his feet in the Marine boots that were his allotment as a civilian worker, wrestling a bit to get into their tight confines, and strode into a corridor of twilight. Although the flickering dim of the lamps up above was a nice change from their searing glare on the metal walls, it meant something else to fix. That would just have to go on the list for later. Much later, after the water pump, the planetside communicators, the methane clathrate reactors…
Shaking his head, the engineer brooded as he walked. How will I find the time to do the work I am actually being paid to accomplish at this rate?
The Chozo Laq'l-ou – Black Wing because no one else could ever pronounce the darn thing's name – was already up and working at the massive computer terminal he shared with Defoe in their work, running calcs and writing algorithms even at this ungodly hour of the morning. Wait, what time was it, anyway?
"I have been awaiting you, Daniel. You were late to rouse yourself today," spoke the birdlike alien in its somber, gravelly voice, responding cryptically to the unspoken question. The Chozo did not turn from where he stood at the terminal, but stood still typing an endless stream of esoteric glyphs and numbers with one hand, proffering a ceramic cup full of some steaming liquid with the other.
"You were not the one to stay up until you nearly collapsed curled up inside a hexane condenser that wouldn't run, feather head," the engineer grumbled in response, snatching the cup away and taking a sip. He winced. Chozo tea, of course, how could it be otherwise?
"No," said the bird, slow and drawling. "But I am grateful that I am not called upon to perform such a loathsome duty. I leave that to you, my dear Daniel."
"How noble of you. Any progress on the Luminoth-Terran interfacing, or is this," said the engineer, sweeping a hand over the screen filled with symbols inscrutable, "still all so much theory?"
"Progress is slow, as always. Slow, but going ever forward. The conversion involves transforming information from a seven-base numbering system based on the Luminoth holy characters to your ever more sensible binary system, which in itself is not a difficulty, as I am sure you know."
The engineer nodded. "We've handled enough of that sort, it's just bloody tedious. What's the problem, then?"
"The problem, then," spoke Black Wing haltingly, as though considering his words carefully, "is that despite all the urgings of my race, the Luminoth continued in their shortsighted folly and wove a computing theory so complex, and so intertwined with their spirituality that to communicate to their systems, one must first possess a great deal of knowledge in their theology. It is… difficult."
"Oh Lord…" groaned Defoe. This stumper was all he needed! "Is there even any rhyme or reason in the numbering, or do they send information to each other talking about resurrections and spirits?"
"Yes. Yes indeed," chuckled the Chozo - a deep, throaty sound that filled the room.
"Wonderful. A little explanation would be nice, if it pleases you, feather head."
"It is a little bit of both, which is why I could not answer you directly, my dear Daniel. We should be thankful that their computing follows solid mathematical laws at its base, but everything up from that just becomes a muddle. This alone will probably take us months to figure out an efficient conversion algorithm, let alone program it." All this the Chozo said quite cheerily.
"A pox on this!" cried the engineer, flinging his tea a bit. "There must be a more efficient way to this problem than all this… this converting! There's too many species in the Federation now waiting for a way to convert their data between systems, let alone ten years from now if sapients keep applying to join!"
"It is a problem, isn't it," agreed the Chozo, nodding sagely. "And an absolute shame that we're left to fend for the whole Galactic Federation's problems, stuck in an outpost where we will probably stay until we die of old age or catastrophic life support systems failure. But do look on the 'bright side', my dear Daniel; we will be employed until the day we die."
"Thank God for small comforts." The engineer took his place before the terminal with Black Wing, but the bird shook his head.
"I will handle this for now. I have a method that I wish to try, which may somewhat expedite our efforts if it works. In the meantime, you have other duties to attend to. Our young intern arrived not long ago and is waiting for you in the Mess."
"What?" Defoe asked in alarm. "Just how long did I sleep last night? Why did no one awake me?"
"Still clinging to concepts of day and night, my dear Daniel? More than likely you worked yourself to exhaustion trying to keep the machinery here from going to shambles and slept until you were rested. It is likely that no one awoke you because you are all that keeps this outpost from becoming a ruin, and you are no good to anyone tired. I don't know; I keep my own schedule. But why fret? Our little friend is arrived, and it is of prime importance now that you introduce yourself."
"Alright, I have it!" said Defoe, throwing his hands up in exasperation at the Chozo's indefatigable calm. He stalked back out into the flickering corridor, making a beeline for the Mess Hall where the Marines took their meals.
Black Wing chuckled to himself. The Chozo set himself to typing once more and mused. "I do wonder if I should have told him? No, he should be left to puzzle it out himself."
Still chuckling and clucking, Black Wing typed happily away, taming the math of the Luminoth.
* * * * *
It was not hard to locate the new intern, even in the steamy, greasy din of the Mess. Seated at one of the low, white polymer tables near the wall, surrounded by uniformed Marines and robed scientists all at least a head taller than he, sat a small-proportioned, blue-furred fox. A Lylatian, then, that was good. Fine people, always pulled their weight.
He would have been easy to spot even if he'd been a human. Good Lord, was that… tribal loincloth really all the boy was wearing? Well, aside from a few metal bands clamped to his fluffed tail. It was cold enough outside the outpost to sublime methane, and he was half-naked but for his cyan-coloured fur! This Lylatian was either crazy or insane, or both.
The fox didn't seem daunted at all by his surroundings, though, which was a surprising thing. Surrounded by inquisitive Marines eager for someone new to talk to and scientists eager for someone to grill, the kit was answering their questions confidently, occasionally drumming his paws rhythmically on the table and licking his lips with a strangely cherry-red tongue as he mulled over his answer. The gaggle of scientists were infinitely pleased with this newcomer, whispering to each other excitedly over the answer to some riddling question that the boy had just given.
Oh no you don't, thought Defoe. The boy is my intern, not some new piece of equipment for you lot to experiment on.
"Ah, Daniel!" called out one of the engineer's colleagues as he approached the table. That'd be Marcus Goroh, the fat insufferable weasel. "Why didn't you tell us about this bright young one? He's simply a joy to talk to! Planning on keeping him all to yourself?"
"If I am, it is only because you wanted him first, you toad," said Defoe, striding right past the fat man, who had the nerve to put on a pout and look hurt. Conversation lulled as he approached the table, the eyes of Marines and scientists turning to the engineer.
"…over time, my species adapted to the environment of our homeworld by evolving a protein complex in the blood utilizing cobalt, instead of iron like most species. On a timescale of…" the fox trailed off, looking up as well.
Defoe crossed his arms over his chest. "Why in the bloody blue blazes are you all staring at me? Am I interrupting some sort of interrogation here?"
"You do us a disservice, Daniel," said one of the spectacled vultures at the table. "We were just getting to know this fascinating boy a little better."
"Before I had the privilege of doing so? He is my intern." Defoe turned halfway, gesturing for the fox to follow. "Come along, boy. I have work for you to do so don't get too comfortable just yet."
"Y-yes, sir," said the fox, rising from the table bench and straining to pull his legs over the knees clustered at the table. Defoe thought he could hear Marcus sigh wistfully as the boy passed him, and his stomach clenched in disgust – there were rumours that might be why Marcus was stuck out on this gods-forsaken outpost, but to think of it…! Revolting. He hated that man more with every passing encounter.
The engineer led the fox away from the Mess back into the dim corridors, not sparing even a glance back. The shorter fox had to nearly job to keep up with Defoe's long strides. At length, though, they stopped in front of the door to the laboratory. Defoe released the vulpine's paw and heaved a heavy sigh.
"I apologize for the abruptness of all that," he said. "I sometimes can find my colleagues here to be a bit… grating. I suspect you might have found the same." The engineer turned to press his palm to the lock on the lab door; Black Wing must have stepped out for a moment.
"No, no, sir," said the fox, clasping his paws together and bowing from the waist. His tail swept in a slow arc behind him as he bowed in what was clearly a gesture of respect. "Thank you for getting me out of there. I do not… well, I am not so good in crowds like that. It is like being in the middle of a psychic dung heap."
"Oh, you're a PK psion, then?" asked Defoe interestedly as the lab door rattled open. "I didn't know you Lylatians could be."
The fox cocked his head. "Lylat? No, no, sir. I am Cerinian. We are empaths by our biology."
"Then that should tell you exactly why I don't get along so well with most of my colleagues. 'Psychic dung heap' indeed." He laughed. "I'll remember that for the next time Marcus tries to slither his fat self into my good graces. It probably smelled to your nose like a dung heap in there as well, eh? Sorry about that. Our central pump is out right now, and Daiban doesn't care enough about this little wart of an outpost to fix it before we all die of stench."
The engineer surveyed the fox. No, he was wrong the think the boy was Lylatian, for of all the myriad of species populating the planets of that system, none of them had hair that was distinctly different from their fur, and certainly none could boast of either hair or fur of such a distinct and striking blue. He was also a little less naked than Defoe had thought, having bands of the same silver metal that were clasped to his tail on his arms, and a circlet of the same on his head.
Something clicked inside his head. "Cerinian… that wouldn't happen to be the same as the University of Cerinia, would it?"
"Yes, sir. I am here on our work studies internship program that we have with the Federation."
Huh. Well, however he chose to look, the boy was certainly capable, if that was the case. Native or not, the University of Cerinia was both elite and selective. Only Chozo priesthood training was more intensive, and he only knew that because of Black Wing's frequent horror stories from his brief stint as an acolyte.
What paper-pushed had screwed up and put such a bright young lad here?
"Cerinia." The engineer nodded. "Well, I can't say I'm unimpressed. Do you have a name, boy?"
"Yes, sir. It is Alopia," said the fox, bowing again.
"Enough of the sirs. Whoever taught you Galactic Common obviously wasn't an engineer. Call me Daniel, or Defoe if you're ever ticked off at me. I will be your research advisor and boss for the next year, if time has any meaning out here. That great chicken," the engineer said, pointing out Black Wing as the Chozo strode in the door, "you can call however you like."
Black Wing's chuckle rumbled low in his throat. The Chozo bore a satchel of fine-woven blue synthate over his arm and another steaming cup of the slop he called tea in his hand. "I see you two have been getting acquainted," he said, proffering the tea. Defore waved it away; one cup of torment in an hour was enough.
"Oh!" exclaimed Alopia. Or it may have been an animalian bark of surprise. "Laq'l-ou, I thank you for retrieving my belongings for me. But I thought the Federation Marines would see that I received them?"
"It would be a most inefficient choice to depend on the Marines for anything, Vllquan Alopia," said the Chozo, the strange word rolling out of his chest like a growl. "I just chanced to be wandering by the dock, where I found this. I did not think it likely that this bag belonged to any of our dear Marines, so I could only surmise that it belonged to my newest friend."
"Well, I see you two are acquainted already," Defoe grumbled. "But why send Alopia to the Mess, then, when he might have waited here and saved us both the trouble?"
"Because having seen it once, our young intern is far less likely to ever go into that stinking morass of maleness again. I do apologize for the trick, Vllquan Alopia, but you can certainly see why Daniel and I keep to ourselves and our work?"
"Yes," the blue fox said with a sigh. "Yes, I do." Alopia cast his eyes downward, opining his mouth as if he wished to say something. But instead, he only closed his eyes and muzzle, shaking his head.
"Something on your mind, boy?" said Defoe. He turned to the computer terminal, examining the Chozo's handiwork. "Your dress certainly isn't shy, so why should your speech be?"
"Sir… Daniel. I do not mean any impertinence, but why do you and everyone else here call me 'boy'? I am not entirely at ease with Galactic Common, as you can likely tell, but that is the term for a male of toddling to adolescent age for most species, correct?"
The human froze, every muscle in his body stiffening at once. Black Wing's chuckle filled the room, swelling to a full-throated, roaring laugh that reverberated off the walls.
"You never thought to ask me what Vllquan meant, my dear Daniel," chided the Chozo, the purring word rolling off his tongue with ease. "Cerinian society is quite a shift from my people's priestly system and your planet's backwater hegemony, but an approximate translation of the title would be 'Duchess'. Xenopology is a fascinating subject, is it not?"
Duchess? But, he – Alopia – wasn't he? Had to be. Couldn't not. Could he? But – but – his clothes!
Her lack of clothes.
"So prudish," chuckled Black Wing, catching Defoe in one arm as he fell. He sipped his tea with the other.
* * * * *
Once Defoe had overcome his shock at the Cerinian form of dress, and had paid back the chicken's cruel humour by spiking Black Wing's Zebesian slop with good Old-Earth brandy, he had to admit that Alopia herself was not so shocking. If she had a gender, it was in name only. Her voice speaking Galactic Common was a vulpine trill due to her muzzle – quite beautiful in its way, but perfectly androgynous. And if she even expressed any sex characteristics under her fur, it was just as well that no one would suspect them. These were Marines, after all, male to a fault and quite lonely in their duty.
In truth, the Cerinian vixen could dress however she wanted, if it suited her. In less than a day, Alopia had already proved her worth a thousand times over, erasing any last lingering doubts in Defoe's mind that his intern would be unable to pull her weight, or that he would have to invent problems for her to solve.
"Laq'l-ou, Daniel," she had asked not an hour into their work, her tongue facilely navigating the Chozo's clacking name. "I mean no impertinence, but what is the purpose of this?" She had meant Black Wing's work on the Luminoth systems, the "method" he had wanted to try.
"I told you earlier, [i]Vllquan[/i], about our Commission from the Federation Synod to produce methods of information conversion between the computer systems of its member species? That was only the generic purpose of our research. This is the specific, an example of the struggle of dear Daniel and myself from day to day," the Chozo had replied.
"But… these calculations are wrong," she said, her voice becoming more resolute.
"It isn't often anyone finds a reason to criticize this old crow," Defoe had said, inspecting the failed nanogel transducer in the outpost's lighting system.
"It isn't often I make a mistake. But, alas Vllquan," said the Chozo, heaving a gravelly sigh, "your chastisement is quite deserved. Whether I faltered early on or late, I do not know. The Luminoth were cleverer than I gave them credit for in creating their computer systems."
"Let me fix it," was all that she said.
And she did. They were achieving basic number swapping and computations within the hour. At this point, it would just be the usual matter of appending the basic algorithm – really Alopia's algorithm – for more intricate forms of data, and then… boom! One small, nihilistically insignificant step towards their goal.
Black Wing made tea to celebrate.
Days passed and the three fell into a routine, sequestered away from the rest of the base. Defoe would be called off to fix this or that which some Marine's fumbling fingers had broken, and even occasionally buckling down to knock out some of the rote computational work with the bird and the fox. Alopia's presence continued to help speed things along, so much in fact that the Federation might even be encouraged to give the project more resources. If there was any deity out there, that would hopefully mean they would be moved somewhere, anywhere other than here.
When the three were ready to collapse from exhaustion each day, or the amount of time that it took between sleep cycles for stimulating beverages to lose all their potency, Alopia bedded down with Defoe in his chamber. "Bedded down" seemed a more appropriate way to describe the Cerinian's sleeping habits than anything else, for she slept on a pallet of some blue silken synthate, uncovered but for her normal dress and curled up with her tail in front of her face like… well, like a fox. Some instincts stayed the same across the universe, apparently.
It was a productive arrangement, free from distraction since the engineers virtually barricaded themselves into their laboratory. So what if they weren't sociable? Engineers were not paid to be sociable, as Defoe constantly reminded.
Of course, everything fell to pieces once inspiration hit.