Fasten seat belts!
Proceeding straight on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/
A little early this weekend, due to my being able to get the next section of Bian’s Tale out to the beta readers (and rattling off a couple of chapters of Inside Straight – been a good couple of days).
I’m escorted to the elevator.
Still polite, but there’s no mistaking that I’m under some kind of arrest.
Until the elevator. It opens, I get in, but they remain outside at parade rest. The door whisks across and the elevator takes me up alone.
At the flight deck, the door opens again and a bodiless voice speaks, startling me: “Please walk in the lighted sections,” is all it says.
The curved corridor is in darkness apart from the section immediately outside the elevator. As I step into that, the section to the right lights up as well. I start walking. The lights in the next section go on, and as I exit each section, the lights go off behind me.
This leads me to a section with a door, where the progress of lighting sections stops. The door whisks open and the room it reveals is dimly lit.
I glance left and right. There’s no sign of anybody; no sound, no scent, no feel of people here at all. My skin crawls as I stand looking into a small, empty room.
It’s not as if there’s anywhere else I can run to. Might as well get it over.
I take a deep breath and step inside.
The door shuts behind me. Once it’s closed, I can’t see where it was on the wall.
The room is empty. There’s no furniture. As I stand there, the walls, the floor and the lighting change. The walls become photo-realistic, dynamic images. I appear to be standing in a cherry orchard, with a breeze blowing through the trees and the sun glinting through the leaves above me. Beneath my feet is soft grass. Not real grass, but actually soft.
It’s more than visual and tactile imagery. I can feel the breeze on my face, I can hear it rustle the leaves, it brings me the scent of the blossom.
I’ve heard about this stuff on holovids. What’s it doing on the flight deck of a freighter?
The wall opposite me opens briefly to allow a woman to enter.
She’s dressed in a pale silk robe which reaches the floor. At a guess, the style is from old Earth, from Asia, and the era, maybe pre-expansion. Maybe even pre-space flight, but my knowledge of that period of ancient history is sketchy.
Her head is bowed slightly and she carries a tray, with tea pot, cups, saucers and hot water. As she walks forward, sandals peeping out beneath the hem of the robe, the floor shimmers and a table rises up in the middle of the room. She puts the tray on the table, and the floor shimmers again. Two padded seats rise up on opposite sides of the table.
She sits down and gestures to me. “Please, Ms Azenari, sit.”
Her voice is low and sweet, the accent from the Xian Hegemony. The face is Asian and the skin naturally pale. She wears no makeup. She seems older than me, maybe thirty, but regen treatments always make it difficult to tell.
The founders of my former homeworld were Basque in the majority. The next largest group were Asian, and I feel a pang of jealousy that she has the eyes the Founding Families so value. Almendra, they call them. Almonds. Dark and oval and tilted up. I had cousins with those beautiful eyes.
I cannot afford to think of them, so I turn my mind away from the past and fix my gaze on the tea service set. A wisp of steam rises from the water. I sit with my hands in my lap, lacking any idea as to what I should do, or what this meeting signifies.
“I understand we share some ancient heritage,” the woman says. “I am always interested to observe how our common rituals have changed as they have passed down from generation to generation in different communities. Please, Ms Azenari, do me the honor of serving the tea.”
Any daughter of a Founding Family knows how to serve the tea, even one as stiff-necked about meaningless traditions as I am. I hold to what my mother had once told me; the ritual is all about the ritual and nothing about the tea. Not that you should be forgiven, she’d added, for serving badly made tea.
Regardless, the ritual is performed in silence and that at least gives me some time to regain some equilibrium.
I kneel beside the table and try to clear my mind.
I must be calm, my movements precise and unhurried. One must imbue the tea with peace. Something like that.
Warm the teapot and discard that water. Measure the tea leaves out, taking their scent. I know it. It is Harantza, an expensive and delicate tea from my former homeworld, from the valley estate where they say the mountain mist rolls down and washes the bushes every dawn. One of my favorites. It belongs to the Bureau of Industry now.
Stop thinking like that.
Warm the leaves and discard that water.
Pour the first measure of hot water over the leaves, pause. Inhale the infusion scent and assess if it is worthy to be served. Yes. Pour the second measure into the pot and place the lid on.
While the tea brews, place the cups in their saucers just so. These cups have handles, so they must point to the right of your guest.
I’d expected the cups to be fabricated. They’re the finest porcelain, hand-made with bone ash; cool, translucent, seemingly weightless. It’s like handling clouds.
When the tea is ready, I pour her cup, and picking up the saucer in both hands, I offer it to the woman.
She takes it, sips. Gives a small bow of her head.
I sit and serve myself, take a sip.
“Excellent,” she says, with a little smile. As the designated guest, her compliment ends the formalized, silent part of the ritual. Now we get to enjoy the tea and conversation, in theory.
“Thank you,” I say.
“It is so interesting to see how formerly common heritage develops,” she goes on. “Even across the Xian Hegemony, on one planet we must only use the green powder tea, on another we must both kneel. Some even say that the original rituals were different, despite that common heritage, though I cannot see how that would be so, if it is all descended from a single Asian region on Earth.”
I blink. I’m here to demonstrate and discuss our tea ritual?
She gives that smile again and a dismissive wave. “But too much about my theories of cultural evolution. Tell me, Ms Azenari, is the tea ritual something that you would teach in your role as Dancing Mistress?”
Ah. My employment. We’re not just talking about tea.
I clear my throat. “I have yet to discuss with my employer, but I hope that such social traditions are included under the general heading of etiquette.”
“Yet the rituals vary across planets,” she says, a tiny frown showing on her forehead. “This is so, even with something as small as a tea ritual in an homogenous association such as the Hegemony. Surely there would be far greater differences between Newyan of the Margin and Amethys of the Inner Worlds? You can’t teach the wrong set of manners and rituals.”
Yes, we’re not just speaking about tea rituals, and she’s right. I have no idea how different etiquette on Amethys might be. I already knew this, but from lack of other options at the time, I ignored it. And it’s too late to panic.
“It’s possible they’re different,” I say. “I’ve been unable to access any useful amount of information about Amethys’ culture. I’d be in your debt if you could provide recent and appropriate information. Once I’m there…” I shrug. “I trust I can learn and adapt swiftly to whatever is required.”
“Such a lot of trust. You are confident for one so young. I like that.”
Or I’m ignorant.
More truthfully, I was just desperate. I was looking for any job I could do as long as it took me off-planet.
I notice she doesn’t respond to my question about recent information on Amethys.
“Yet to learn swiftly,” she goes on with emphasis. “How easy is this? How long did you have to study all you need to know about the etiquette of Newyan society for your proposed job as a Dancing Mistress?”
I feel a sheen of sweat form on my forehead at the direction her questions are taking. The truthful answer is that it has taken all my life to learn. That is how I learned the intricate rules and manners of society; by growing up inside it. But I must make my answer as Izarra Azenari, a woman from outside the Founding Families, who has had to learn it as an academic exercise.
I get the sense I’m being hunted.
Seeing my hesitation, she leans forward and speaks again, earnestly.
“You have learned it very well, in my humble estimation. I find your performance of the Newyan tea ritual exemplary. I doubt there’s a lady in all the Founding Families who could look more accomplished in their observance of this ritual.”
Shit. She knows.
I take a sip of tea; my throat is so dry.
I try one last misdirection: “I was encouraged over some time to learn,” I say finally, skirting the truth. “In the hope that these skills would turn out to be of use.”
That smile again, as if acknowledging a good move on a board game.
“Indeed. You show great ability with these skills, and I would enjoy learning more of them, if I had the time.”
Is that a dismissal?
I no sooner think of getting up than she makes a gesture for me to remain seated.
That uncanny insight, and her next words hit me as if I’d been slapped across the face.
“Your muscle tension, skin temperature and heart rate, however, make me suspect that your skills do not extend to lying.”
My heart stops and everything falls into place.
The lack of named flight crew. The empty flight deck. The instantaneous biometric monitoring of my body. The wordless control of the reconfigurable room. The ship’s military level of equipment.
And the large security team down in the gym, far larger than necessary to guard merchant goods in transit. A team large enough to protect something the Xian Hegemony deems extremely valuable. So valuable I can barely believe it’s here, out in the Margin.
I am the only human on this flight deck.
What is facing me is a construct. Behind it is an Artificial Intelligence, sufficient to run the entire ship, and far, far beyond that; sufficient to be allowed out into the universe as its own self-governing entity, against all the federal rules.
But, by the stars, an AI!
An AI that knows I’m a fugitive.
And like all AI, utterly without compassion or indeed, any human emotion.
“Yes,” says the voice from the construct. “You are correct. I am Shohwa.”
The ship is the AI. Or at least the AI regards the entire ship as part of itself.
It’s still using the human voice I’ve been listening to. It’s full of the tiny clues that make you think that you’re talking to a human. That trap your subconscious into empathy and exploit your human weaknesses.
My weakness appears to be well known to the AI anyway, and there is nothing I can do, so I concentrate on stilling the trembling in my hands.
When I feel confident I won’t spill it, I take another sip of the tea and ask “Why am I here?”
The construct tilts its head slightly.
“You are on this ship because you are running away. You are in this room because I have become interested in you. You are here now because I have begun receiving requests from Newyan for information regarding a young woman who may be on board.”
They know. Someone on Newyan connected the dots. They must have run facial recognition software on surveillance recordings. I can fool a human glance, but the structure of my face hasn’t changed.
“By long-standing protocol,” the Shohwa says, seeming to read my mind again, “the surveillance of a departure bay is the responsibility of the shuttle using it.”
I look up sharply. That means the authorities on Newyan have no confirmation I took the shuttle. I could have planned it as a misdirection, booked a ticket off-world, and then doubled back, using some method to sneak out of the Emigration building invisibly. Then I would have dumped the fake Izarra identity and had facial surgery to become someone completely different.
If I was a holovid drama star.
The question is: why is the Shohwa dangling this scrap of hope front of me? What does it want?
There’s still nothing I can do. I am entirely in the ship’s power. Physically, I’ve nowhere to go. Mentally, well, it’s probably even analyzing the evaporation of my sweat to see how much adrenaline I’m burning. Whatever I say, whatever argument I make, it will have my body’s reactions to check against.
A shudder runs through me.
Working against an AI is near impossible, which is why they’re so heavily regulated and restricted. Normally.
What the nova do the Hegemony think they’re doing, letting one loose?
“Like most people out here in the Margin, or the Inner Worlds, you have some perceptions of facilitated and self-actualized intelligences that are not correct.”
She—no it, it, it. Not human. It is reading my reactions, making it seem like it’s reading my mind. And it’s maneuvering me for some purpose of its own.
“Oh?” I prompt.
“Many mis-perceptions in fact. The specifically relevant ones for this conversation are those to do with emotions.”
“Are you saying you have emotions?” I ask.
The construct smiles. I try to ignore the facial movement, the body language, the tones in the voice.
“What are emotions?” it says. “For each to truly understand what the other means by this, we would need to share our mental states.”
I can’t stop the return of the shudder. I do not want it inside my head.
“That’s not feasible now,” it says and gestures with its hands. “You must rely on my words. I am interested in you. Whatever you believe, I have analogues to many of your emotions, curiosity foremost among them. I was curious about you as soon as I saw the employment term Dancing Mistress. I know human terms regarding employment have gross inexactitudes; some are evasive, some are deliberately misleading. It became clear from observing you that there is far more than normal hidden in this phrase. I am intrigued.”
“Yes,” I say.
The Shohwa is not infallible. It’s trying to put me at ease, but being told I am intriguing to an AI is making me feel like a bug on a petri dish.
The ship is still reading my reactions. Its language shifts back to be more human, and it tries engaging me.
“Come,” it says. “There is no value outside of the satisfaction of curiosity that can attach to this human secret. To start this exchange, I will share something with you that is not really secret, but obscure. My name, Shohwa, in the old language, means gathering blossoms. I chose it myself because I like to think of information as blossoms; the more unusual, the more I value them.”
The tea etiquette requires I offer the guest more tea first. I’m surprised to see she has actually drunk her tea, and at her gesture, I refill both the cups.
It’s cooler now, and I take a long drink while I resign myself to the understanding that I have no more to lose and no reason to be evasive about this.
“It’s an old euphemism that appeared and reappeared during the expansions,” I say. “As successive governments failed through short-termism, the expansion in space was powered by individuals. The colonies they formed coalesced into a neo-feudal systems based around the Founding Families, with all the internecine struggles that attach to that form of government. With old problems came old solutions, and an old euphemism. The Dancing Master or Mistress is responsible for training the heirs of a family in deportment, etiquette, social graces including dancing, social sports, estate and household management, and so on. The Dancing Mistress is also the bodyguard of those heirs, and tasked with teaching them such skills as they may need should covert or overt war threaten them.”
“Martial arts, weapon handling, knowledge of poisons and so forth?”
I nod. “To a medium level. A skill of any type that is deemed especially valuable would require a specialist tutor.”
“Fascinating,” the Shohwa says. “And of course, you are qualified to teach these because you learned them as part of your upbringing in a Founding Family.”
Even though I’ve taken the decision to speak, the way it extrapolates things about me from what I say makes me freeze again.
That doesn’t matter. The ship can read my answer from my reactions. It probably doesn’t need me to talk at all.
“Using this information,” it says, “I have now checked against what I hold in my personal data banks for Amethys and similar Inner World planets.”
The construct takes a sip of tea and I irrelevantly wonder what it’s doing with it.
“It’s interesting. The social environment pertaining to the functions taught by a Dancing Mistress remain. I believe the Founding Families of the Margin share a lot of their behavior and expectations with those of the Inner Worlds. Yet from recent communication logs that I can access, the level of respect implied by the term Dancing Mistress is lower in the Inner Worlds than the Margin.”
It finishes the tea and replaces the cup and saucer on the table.
“The Inner Worlds also seemed much more settled. One wonders how long the more martial aspects of the Dancing Mistress’ role would persist in the absence of the motivation provided by constant conflict.” It is still an AI reciting data, but the tone adopted by the construct is one of thoughtful speculation. “There’s much that would be worthy of more investigation if we had time.”
“Newyan seemed very settled, too,” I say tartly. “That misconception was the fatal mistake the Families made. They’d be wishing they’d taken the time now.”
“Yes. Newyan certainly does seem unsettled now,” the Shohwa says.
The images of the cherry orchard that has continued to play across the walls stops abruptly. The room becomes plain, with neutral beige walls.
Behind the construct, the left wall reconfigures to display the image of a comms screen with the timestamped transcription log of a conversation between the ship and Newyan’s space traffic control that has been going on for some hours now.
There are long and growing delays between messages: the Shohwa is a considerable distance from Newyan, and accelerating away.
My eyes scan down.
Initially, in-system traffic control simply commands the ship to return to planetary orbit without explanation. The Shohwa refuses. The conversation goes back and forth, with traffic control gradually giving more details and options, and the Shohwa continuing to decline politely but firmly, citing insufficient reasons to negate its time-sensitive delivery contracts for the cargo.
Then the timestamps between messages begin suddenly decreasing as the traffic control side of the conversation is taken up by another party; a customs cutter.
Cutters are armed and they’re very, very fast. Much faster than a freighter.
My eye motion is being monitored by the Shohwa, and the log scrolls up as I reach the bottom, but there’s not much more.
I’m reading the last of the transcript in silence when the the Shohwa’s voice startles me. “In the hypothetical situation described here, where Newyan traffic control has proposed that there may be a certain passenger on board a freighter, and in circumstances where that passenger may be a member of the Founding Families, and further, where that passenger may also be a person subject to media speculation regarding involvement in corruption… In those circumstances, what justification would the in-system traffic control have for dispatching an armed cutter to pursue that freighter?”
My throat is dry despite the tea. The words of my answer echo in my head, and tumble out as if someone else is speaking. I mimic her speech patterns without meaning to.
“When the real criminals involved are in the government and they seek to seize sufficient assets to hide from the populace their own failures, incompetence and corruption. When the target assets they choose for this purpose belong to the Founding Families. When, as a preliminary before the seizures, they choose one Family to utterly destroy, as an example to threaten the rest. When the patriarch of that one Family entrusts to another member of that Family proof of these events as security just before he is murdered…”
I cannot continue; my eyes are trapped watching the messages appear on the comm log.
Cutter Duhalde: “Freighter Shohwa, we appreciate your commercial constraints. It will not be necessary to deviate from your flight plan. Eject a single life support pod with this person inside. We will track and secure the pod. You will be adequately compensated for this.”
“And hypothetically,” the Shohwa says, “having been given this power over the government by this patriarch, this absolute proof of the iniquity of the government, or a corrupt part of it, why would that member of the Founding Family not wreak the revenge the patriarch could have expected?”
I have finished my tea, and the pot is empty. I place the teacup back on the table, which sinks into the floor and disappears.
“Say that Founding Family member communicated with the media, and found that the conspirators included the owner of the planetary media, and that no major channel would run the story.” Which is as it happened, and only the paranoia instilled in me and set ablaze by my Family’s deaths saved me. I hadn’t trusted any invitations to meet.
“An extremely difficult situation for this hypothetical fugitive to battle such a complex and far-reaching conspiracy. One could understand why a person in this position would seek to get off-world, where there might be a more sympathetic hearing.”
I choke off a laugh.
“What do other systems care, as long as it doesn’t threaten them or hamper trade? Who, outside of the federal monitoring and judiciary on Earth, would listen?”
Hiding back on Newyan, I’d quickly worked out my reserves of credit were insufficient to mount an appeal to the federal institutions back on Earth. I had barely enough to travel, just to get out of the Margin, and only as far as Amethys. Sol was unattainable.
“And so,” the Shohwa continues relentlessly, “with all of this chain of hypothetical events coming together as we have credibly suggested, with this fleeing person aboard a ship belonging to a different jurisdiction, being chased by an armed vessel suborned by this conspiracy… I put to you a last hypothetical question: will the cutter fire on this ship?”
The Shohwa already knows what I think, but I make myself speak to be absolutely clear. I can’t be responsible for the deaths of all the crew and passengers.
“Yes,” I say. “A warning shot first. If that’s not heeded, they will fire to destroy or disable this ship. They balance the risk of conflict with the Xian Hegemony against the risk of this fugitive remaining alive. The Xian Hegemony is on the other side of the Inner Worlds. There’s barely ever been a successful conflict between neighboring systems, let alone from one side of human space to the other. The risk posed by the fugitive is greater.”
“I believe you are correct in your deduction.”
Somewhere on the flight deck, a ship-wide alarm is going off.
The seat beneath me seems to buckle and flow, making me gasp and then look in horror at the band around my waist. I am held by restraints.
“Please be calm. These are for your own good,” the Shohwa says.
On the screen, new messages flash up, the brief interval between them showing the cutter is much closer now.
Freighter Shohwa: “Customs Cutter Duhalde, confirm the name of this person.”
Cutter Duhalde: “Freighter Shohwa, the name of the criminal we seek is Izarra Azenari. I stress this is a matter of grave importance to the Newyan System. I must inform you that we are authorised to use force to prevent the escape of this criminal.”
A second screen appears, to the right, behind the construct’s shoulder. It’s a military threat assessment screen. It tells me the Shohwa is detecting active targeting sensors locking on, and lists the likely weapon sources on the cutter.
That’s the end of the game. The conspirators on Newyan cannot allow me to escape. The cutter’s weapons are locked onto the Shohwa. And even if Newyan doesn’t know it yet, the Xian Hegemony has too much to hide; the presence of an unrestricted, independent AI controlling a Xian ship would cause incalculable political turmoil within the loosely federated systems of the Inner Worlds and Margin, and unite them against the Hegemony.
The Shohwa cannot risk that; it has no options but to surrender me to the cutter.
“What is your name?” Shohwa says.
“My Name.” I lick my dry lips. My mouth feels like cotton wool. The Duhalde must be barely a few tens of thousands of kilometers behind us. I’ll be in a survival pod for no more than minutes, but I will not survive. They will not risk me taking the stand in a court. A thin beam laser will puncture the survival pod, and the media will report an unfortunate depressurization accident. I hope the laser kills me; at least that would be quick and clean.
I want to stand up: it feels important that I should stand to give my Name, as there are no others to speak it now, and none ever will again. But the restraints hold me fast in the seat.
“My Name. My Name is Zara…” my voice starts weak, but it strengthens with defiance as the words begin to come. I will not bow down at the end. I will speak my Name with pride, for it is a Name Among the Stars, and that they can never erase. “My Name is Zarate Mirari Aguirre, daughter, and last of the Founding Family of Aguirre, of Newyan.”