By Thomas Mc

Epilog : The Return

Four Years Later :

It had been a long and difficult project. Six and a half years surveying 153 lost colonies. The statistics from that trip had not been particularly up-beat. They had only found a total of 42 still active colonies. Only 16 of them, including Pern, could really be described as thriving. Unfortunately, 5 of those still active colonies had a population that could be said to have gone seriously and brutally off the deep end as a society.

They had found 36 failed colonies that had been wiped out by disease; another 8 had been wiped out by natural disaster; 25 colonies had died out with no explainable cause for their demise; they found 18 that had simply been abandoned with no indication where the population had gone. They found 23 cases where the colonists never arrived at their destination; and finally there was one example where the reported destination turned out to be empty space with the closest star system over three light-years away. That one had left them scratching their heads.

But now the project was finally finished and Tia was once again skated through the singularity skimming along the edges of reality like a surfer shooting the curl with practiced ease. There was a sense of joy in her heart because, for the first time in the last six and a half years they had been on this mission, Tia knew exactly what awaited at the end of this dive through chaos. She and Alex were looking forward to seeing this destination again.

Tia burst from the colorful chaos of the singularity into the starry blackness of real space. Before her, one star shined much brighter than all the rest. She felt a warm glow as she gazed upon the star that she had last seen over four years ago.

Tia's reverie was interrupted when she felt a whisper of a scanning beam then she was startled by a very annoying burst of discordant tones filling every known communications band. This was followed by a message demanding her registry ID and stating that this area of space was interdicted and ordering her to leave this location.

Startled by this turn of events, Tia transmitted her identification. The interdiction warnings immediately ceased and a new message announced that she was cleared for access to this system and had permission to proceed.

Alex looked over at her central column and shrugged. "It seems that Central Worlds has received our preliminary report on this place and has already acted on it." He shook his head. "I thought it would take the bureaucracy a couple of decades to get around to acting on our report."

Tia responded. "That surprises me too. I certainly never expected them to put me on an exceptions list."

"That is surprising. It's so uncharacteristically thoughtful of them. But I'm glad they did. It means that we can return here whenever we have the free time to do so." Alex smiled wistfully. "I'm looking forward to seeing all of our friends again."

"Jump drive system secured." Tia announced as several indicator lights ceased changing states and the control board was again green, quiet and peaceful. Then the door of her tiny coffin sized storage closet in the corner of the control cabin opened and Tia's avatar stepped out into the cabin. Tia caught the flicker in his eyes as for a moment those eyes were drawn to her temporary replacement arm. It happened every time she entered his presence. Tia looked over at the image of the star Rukbat that dominated the main view screen. "I wonder how much has changed since the last time we were here."

Alex saw her catch his glance but he couldn't help noticing this obvious indication of her avatar's artificial nature. He shrugged. "I guess we will find out in two and a half days when we get there." He responded as he quickly scanned the control board one more time. "All systems green and the AI's are now in command of the ship. Alex turned toward Tia's avatar, a wicked glint in his eye. "Two and a half days. I wonder what we can possibly do to pass the time?"

Tia met his glint with a gleam of her own as her voice took on a rather sultry tone. "Oh, I'm sure we can come up with something to while away the time . . . Don't you?" She cocked her head toward the hatchway that led down to the common living quarters and the sleeping quarters. Her eyebrows rode up and down her forehead suggestively as a very sexy smile graced her face. Then she turned toward the indicated hatchway.

Alex jumped up from his seat and placed his arm around her waist then they both moved toward the hatch. They both stopped for a moment as they were passing through the hatch and glanced back at the main viewscreen for one more, quick, glimpse at image of their destination.

They smiled at each other then continued down through the hatchway to continue the playful diversion that they had just begun.

Two Days Later :

The next two days passed quickly and as they approached the outer fringes of the ort cloud that surrounded the Rukbat star system. Tia took over control of her ship to guide it through the thick cloud. Soon they soon were deep in the ort cloud and the ship was filled with the whisper of the ice crystals hitting her hull.

Alex gave a little shiver at the eerie sound and commented on it. "There is just something so creepy about that sound, Tia."

Tia felt a ghost of a nonexistent tingle to match his shiver. "I know what you mean. In all the time we have been together we have never encountered anything like this and I've never found a mention of anything like it in the Central Worlds records."

Alex nodded his head and grinned up at her central column. "Even if that warning satellite didn't dissuade an invader, I bet encountering this ort cloud would."

Within minutes after they passed through the ort cloud, Tia's control board lit up indicated that she was being scanned from somewhere in the direction of Pern. Tia immediately recognized the format of that scanning beam. She glanced over at Alex. "It seems they got their asteroid detector system functioning."

Alex grinned as he scanned the board. "I guess this means they will be expecting us when we arrive at Pern."

"I would expect so." She replied with a hint of a laugh in her voice. "We'll be entering orbit around Pern in a bit over an hour.

Two seconds later Tia felt a familiar presence as Markath's happy voice invaded her mind. 'Tia, you're back! I've missed you these last four turns.'

'Hello, Markath. I'm glad to hear from you again.' Tia responded.

Then Tia felt a deepening of the contact with Markath and saw the memory of her last view of the main cargo hold pop up in her mind. 'I'll be there in just a moment.' Markath remarked then the connection blinked out of existence before she could respond. Two seconds later an alarm sounded as a couple of indicators flashed telling them that there had been a major shift in the mass in her main cargo hold. The contact returned as she shut off the alarm. 'I'm here in your main cargo hold.'

A quick glance through the main cargo hold sensor verified that Markath was indeed there. 'Wow.' She thought. 'He got bigger.' Markath had heard her thought and she felt his laughter in her mind. She grabbed Alex. "Markath is down in the main cargo deck." She told him and they both headed below.

As they looked over their guest Alex commented. "Wow, you've grown."

Markath was now a bit over three meters long and his wingspan was up to five meters. The cargo compartment was just a bit cramped for him. He folded his wings as tightly to his body as he could and settled into a more comfortable position. 'It seems that you were right when you thought it would not be a good idea to take me with you.' Tia and Alex both heard his comment in their minds.

Tia smiled at her black dragon friend whose head was now lowered to be level with her and Alex. "So what do you do with yourself now?" She asked him.

Markath responded to them both. 'I now split my time between helping with the asteroid surveillance project and the Landing archive project with many visits to Talen's family where I occasionally help in their shipping business. I was on the Yokohama when the scanning satellites detected your arrival. They are all expecting you and have invited you to land at Fort Weyr. Jaxom, F'lar and N-ton will be meeting you when you reach Pern orbit and hope to ride down with you.'

For almost an hour, while Tia's servos installed extra seating in her control cabin, Tia, Alex and Markath talked about what had been happening over the last four and a bit years.

Markath told them that he had learned that he could not chew firestone after his first disastrous and very messy attempt. The healers figured out that the special stomach that the dragons use to create the phosgene gas from firestone is completely undeveloped in him and the mess had just come back up. They had also discovered that his black hide seemed to be impervious to thread. Although he couldn't fight thread directly he could make himself useful delivering replacement Agenothree tanks to the Queens' wing and he could fly up near the edge of space to report on the shifting of threadfall patterns.

Markath also bragged that he had a perfect sense of relative position in space and always knows exactly where his is. He was capable of making jumps to an exact three dimensional point even if he has never been there or seen his destination. Also his jumps, when he made them based on three dimensional coordinates rather than visual references, always seem to be nearly instantaneous with almost no time spent between. He told them about the latest efforts to restore the Yokohama and use it as a research station and control center for the satellite system. Just last turn they added three small weather satellites to more accurately track the weather patterns on Pern and to give them advanced warning of any severe storms. Eventually they one day hoped to use the Yokohama as a jumping off point to explore the other planets in the Rukbat system.

Markath paused then announced that they were approaching Pern and he had to return to the Yokohama but he assured them that he would come down later to see them after they had landed. The next instant he was gone.

Tia and Alex returned to the control room just as the AI put her ship into orbit. Shortly after that, two great bronze dragons and a small white dragon appeared near her, each carrying a space suited figure. Tia opened her main airlock outer hatch in invitation. Soon the five friends were hugging and clasping hands as Tia and Alex were welcomed back to Pern. Then Tia returned her avatar to its storage closet and shifted her control to her ship as the others strapped in for the ride down.

Tia did her best to make the ride down to the surface fun (meaning she showed off a bit).

~ o ~

Fort Weyr was full of Dragons and Dragonriders, Craft Masters and Lord Holders that had arrived at the last minute to welcome Tia and Alex back to Pern. Once she had landed, Mnementh, Lioth and Ruth took up honor guard positions around her ship.

Immediately after she greeted everyone that had come to see her Tia informed them that Central Worlds had received her preliminary report on Pern and had agreed to her recommendations. The Rukbat system was now interdicted until such time as the inhabitants of Pern announce that they wished to make contact with the rest of the Central Worlds Federation. Tia also told them that she and Alex had apparently been officially exempted from the interdiction so they would be able to come back for a visit occasionally and maybe bring in any unique items that Pern might need. When asked how long they would be staying this time Tia informed them that they would only be able to stay for a few days.

As they were brought up to date on the latest news of Pern, Tia and Alex were both sad to learn that Lord Groghe had passed between from old age less than a turn ago.

Later that evening T'cab on bronze Radeth and T'ia on green Cornath arrived at Fort Weyr bringing their parents Talen and Corena. Talen bragged that T'cab was now a wing leader at Benden Weyr. He also told them that Corena was his first mate on his new ship.

Markath arrived at Fort Weyr about an hour later to join the welcoming party.

Later when they were alone for a few minutes Lessa asked Tia about her replacement arm. Tia told her that she had become more or less used to it but she was looking forward to getting back to Central Worlds and have it properly repaired.

~ o ~

While on Pern Tia spent a half day at Landing in the Southern Continent with F'lar, Lessa, Markath and Master Sebell. The AIVAS Center was now maintained by the Harpercraft and had been turned into the major record keeping facility for all of Pern. Lessa told them about the artificial intelligence that had occupied the center's systems when it had first been uncovered. She told Tia about the loss of AIVAS when Masterharper Robinton died.

Tia examined the main AIVAS console for a moment. "I remember reading about those AIVAS systems. They were the most sophisticated artificial intelligence systems ever created. They were the closest the AI people ever came to creating true sentience in a machine. They quit making them shortly after Pern was colonized."

"Why would they do that?" Lessa asked.

"The AIVAS systems turned out to be too unpredictable." Tia replied. "They tended to develop emotions and unique personalities but it was impossible to predict exactly what type of personality they would develop. After several nasty disasters, especially among the systems sold to the military, the whole project was scrapped. Based on the type of self-defense capability he had, I think your AIVAS system was a military model that was wiped and reprogrammed for the Pern expedition."

Lessa responded. "But Aivas was very friendly and helpful." She glanced at the console. "I still miss him."

Tia paused a while deep in thought then glanced at the others. "I have an idea." Her avatar froze as Tia linked her AI system to the AIVAS system and started exploring. She found the root kernel of the original system. She also found a large chunk of empty memory where the AIVAS personality had once resided."

Tia's avatar came back to life. She glanced around. "The personality matrix is gone but I think I can reactivate the system with a stable personality." She looked at her friends. "Would you like me to try?"

They looked at each other a moment. Finally Sebell shrugged then nodded. "If you think you can do it . . ." He glanced at Lessa. ". . . then go ahead."

Tia's avatar again froze as she dived into the AIVAS system then, using her own AI's, she downloaded a copy of her own memories into the empty Personality matrix location. During this process there was a growing, and very disconcerting, feeling of being in two places at once. Tia began to fear that had gotten herself into something she couldn't handle. Once the download was complete Tia had become completely disoriented and the system restarted itself without any conscious action on her part. For an instant Tia felt as though she was the AIVAS system and she looked around in surprise through the AIVAS sensors. She tried to break free but it was like fighting her way up stream against an impossibly strong current. Then she was literally ejected from the system. It took her a couple of seconds to recover from the shock of finding herself as her ship again. She regained control of her avatar. "It's running." She announced a bit shakily.

The others tried speaking to the console but there was no response. Ten minutes later they had just about given up, thinking the attempt had been a failure, when AIVAS responded with Tia's voice. After the initial shock of hearing Tia's voice coming from the AIVAS console, they all began talking to it at once. They all soon realized that Aivas was alive again but with Tia's personality.

The rest of that day was very exciting as many of the important people of Pern visited Landing to get reacquainted with the newly reawakened Aivas. Soon many of those present began referring to the AIVAS system as Tia Aivas or Tiavas half in jest but the name soon stuck.

Tiavas actually seemed to be pleased by the name they gave her. She had memories of being Tia and memories of being Aivas. Her personality became a combination of the two with the Tia part being the dominant factor.

~ o ~

All too soon it was time again For Tia and Alex to leave. This time the farewell party was a smaller more intimate affair of fourteen people gathered in the larger of Tia's cargo holds. Lord Holder Benis and Lady Briala, Lord Holder Jaxom and Lady Sharra, F'lar and Lessa, N'ton and Margatta, Sebell and Menolly, Talon and Markath were all present.

After drinking a toast to friendship, Alex looked around and commented. "When I finally become too old to go gallivanting around the universe with you I may want you to just drop me off here."

Tia snorted. "You'll never be that old, My love." She paused. "But it is a very enticing thought." She smiled at the rest. "In the short time I have spent here Pern has come to feel almost like a second home to me. There is no doubt that I will be back."

Jaxom spoke up with a smile. "In a way, Tia, you will always be with us. You are Lady Starship Hypatia, an important new part of our culture, and soon our history. You also left a large part of yourself in the AIVAS system. She may just be a copy but she is definitely you."

"She feels more like a little sister to me." Tia remarked. "But she does have a lot of me in her."

An hour later Alex was at the pilot's seat and Tia was her ship self as they sped away from Pern. She was sad to see Pern dwindling behind her but she knew that they would be back. She had plans to have a new simpler avatar constructed while her own avatar was being repaired. That new avatar she would bring back to Pern and connect it up to the AIVAS system.

The End
(For Now)

( rev 130828 )

'The Ship Who Searched' and 'The Dragonriders of Pern' and their characters are owned by Anne & Todd McCaffery and Del Ray Books. No infringement on copyrights is intended. (I'm only borrowing the characters and promis not to damage them, too much.) This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans. Original concepts and story elements may be freely used by other authors as long as appropriate credit is given.