A Protracted Game: 1.1.9b

Hoshi dreamed of the Great Wasteland, and her dreams were filled with sounds of the Somnium’s wailing klaxon.

A Protracted Game: 1.1.9b
If you haven't read the Previous Chapter, please do so before starting this new installment. If you'd like to read this installment on your favorite e-reader or would like to print it out, in order to save your eyes from strain, see the directions under "Read First" for an offline copy of this installment (and others). Happy reading! —G. Michael Rapp
Note. 1.1.9 will be a three-part installment, featured over the span of two or three weeks, depending on what comes up on my end. Those installments will be featured on RoyalRoad, on Substack, on Wattpad, and on this Website.

Hoshi dreamed of the Great Wasteland, and her dreams were filled with sounds of the Somnium’s wailing klaxon. A proximity sensor detected a sizeable object filling the ship’s forward observation monitors. Hoshi ignored the klaxon at first, and she continued to wander the Great Wasteland, using her metachines and neural implants to render the unmistakable landscape and its denizens.

Hoshi opened her eyes, blinking rapidly to wipe away the residual images of the Wasteland fading away. The klaxon wailed again. This time Hoshi took notice. It was a small planetoid—a misshapen potato of rock, ice, and liquid volatiles, pockmarked with tens of thousands of craters. Fissures and cañons crisscrossed the ash-gray and murky brown landscape, connecting craters and other geological formations protruding from the planetoid’s surface. Each craft, each piece of geography, is a story older than the human race itself. Older than time before Hoshi’s primitive ancestors looked up at the stars and other celestial objects of the cosmos with something bordering on religious devotion or what might be construed as intelligent thought.

Hoshi interpreted the pockmarked surface to mean that the Subaru Collaborative’s ruling elite didn’t much care for changing or molding the aesthetic of their planetoid’s exterior spaces. They were not like many of the Verse’s opulent masses. No gilded surfaces that shone brightly into the Verse. No majestic lakes or seas filed with imported hydrocarbons. No uninhabited architectural wonders dotting the landscape. No artificial biomes teeming with rare flora and fauns imported from far flung reaches of the Verse and humanity’s cradle—Earth—only protected by the thinnest of barriers.

The surface of the Collaborative’s planetoid indicated a taste for those natural contours and blemishes that could only be provided by millions or billions of years of happenstance. It was a taste that respected the natural order of the universe, existence’s endless entropic grind into oblivion. It was a taste that Hoshi understood and appreciated far more than those meaningless, flashy displays of material wealth she’d come across in her travels across the Verse.

The virtual analog for Somnium’s computational farms, Aurora, blinkered into existence and positioned herself, itself, next to Hoshi’s gravity cocoon. Her companion wore an intricately knit hijab and finely kept hair. Each strand of hair was immaculately rendered, almost lifelike. Even the hijab’s ivory threads appeared to be the work of careful artisans rather than the imaginings of a bored and annoyed bit of programming. Every detail, that Aurora could think of, was perfectly rendered in three dimensions, with the help of light and advanced mathematics.

"I see you’ve changed your attire again,” Hoshi remarked, knowing full-well that her comments would annoy Aurora.

“I’ve grown quite fond of a particular flavor of Arabian fashion as of late,” Aurora answered in a matter-of-fact voice. “I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve come up with in the next decade or so.”

“I’m sure we’ll be sunward soon enough,” Hoshi said with a chuckle. “That’ll probably mean you will need to change your attire soon enough.”

“Yes, yes,” Aurora said, clearly annoyed with Hoshi’s comments. “My fashion is always a laugh with you, isn’t it?”

“No, not at all,” Hoshi commented. “I’ve grown fond of your peculiarities over the years.”

“Do you require my services?” Aurora asked with a huff.

Hoshi nodded.

“Do your records have much to say about the Subaru Collaborative?” Hoshi asked, not looking away from the three-dimensional readout in front of her.

Aurora didn’t say much at first. She scratched her forehead and checked beneath her fingernails, nothing indicated that she was performing queries in the ship’s forward, aft, and spine computer banks. A few moments slipped away before she decided to speak. The silence was oddly comforting to Hoshi, who had only recently emerged from the dreamless, senseless slumber of requiescence.

“They’re definitely old,” Aurora finally answered, clicking her tongue, showing that she was clearly bored and annoyed with Hoshi. Aurora preferred the ship’s gardens to those trivial tasks like research and life support diagnostics.

“My records don’t seem to indicate any clear genealogies—or anything that might be useful for a first-time meeting,” Aurora sighed, which sounded like air escaping the hull from a pin-sized hole. “They don’t appear to be a product of any modern politico-economic dealings—that much is clear. It seems that they’re an island unto themselves, relics far older than most clients we’ve dealt with in the past.”

“That’s all you’ve got?” Hoshi asked, half amazed at the lack of information on her client. “There has to be more, Aurora.”

“Yes, Hoshi,” Aurora answered, followed by another loud sigh. “I’m sure if I were a magician or whatever, I might be able to conjure up magical data on the Subaru Collaborative. However, that is not the case. This is all I could scrounge up from our repositories. I am no miracle worker, not by a long shot, to use your vernacular.”

“I’m not expecting a miracle, Aurora,” Hoshi fired back, all the while pushing herself up from her gravity cocoon. “I just want to know who the hell we’re dealin’ with.”

“That is all I’ve been able to find on them. The usual registries are coming up empty. The ALLYA registry didn’t have a thing on them. They’re unusually thorough in investigating anything of note, especially those more esoteric types in the Verse. The Collaborative has an incredibly tight ship. Not many organizations operating in the Verse have been able to maintain that level of congruity. I’d urge caution when dealing with them, Hoshi—I have to say that I’ve grown quite fond of you these last few decades, and I’d hate to see you die in some unfortunate ambush or whatever. You’re far more interesting than my former proprietor.”

Hoshi nodded and said, “I’m glad to hear that you enjoy my company, Aurora.”

“Whatever,” Aurora sighed. “Do you want me to hail them? Our comms array is operational and ready for transmission.”

“No,” Hoshi answered, pushing herself away from the gravity cocoon and over to the nearest console. The short walk showed Hoshi that her muscles and joints were still sore from her stay in requiescence.

“Are you sure?” Aurora asked, knowing what Hoshi’s answer will be. She could anticipate her every thought with the help the neural implants the ship implanted in her brain long ago.

“The Collaborative’s been monitoring our approach for a better part of a a decade now. I don’t doubt they have been monitoring our slowdown burn, checking its spectral signature against any registry information they have on us. If they thought we were a threat, we’d be space dust by now.”

“Putting it that way—” Aurora said, trailing off. She offered a half shrug before talking again. “You have a perfectly reasonable point there, Hoshi. I’m off to the gardens then.”

“I’ll be fine without you, Aurora,” Hoshi said, only partially verbalizing her words, the rest remain in her head, echoing inside. She hoped to reassure Aurora—and herself, for that matter. “Just a meeting. I’ve done this far more times than I’d like to admit.”

“I’ll try to see what else I might find on the Subaru Collaborative,” Aurora offered, but the offer wasn;t very sincere. Aurora wanted to go to her gardens. Hoshi couldn’t blame her. She prefers Aurora in the gardens and out of her hair, as she seemed to be far happier and far more productive there. “I’m sure I can find something—anything that might prove beneficial in your contract negotiations.”

Hoshi said, “I’m sure any information that you find is a bit stale by now. The information in the ship’s repositories is well over twenty-years-old.”

“Twenty years isn’t exactly stale by information standards,” Aurora interjected, following it by a chuckle. “Relatively speaking, it’s quite insignificant.”

“True,” Hoshi acknowledged. “Still old enough to make someone like me jittery.”

“That’s the primate in your DNA,” Aurora joked with a cold laugh, tilting her spectral head back some. Aurora’s laugh sent chills down Hoshi’s spine. Even after knowing her, it, for several decades, she couldn’t understand how a program could laugh and sound so human.

“Fear of the unknown. Evolutionarily-speaking, it’s quite beneficial for the wilderness of some backwater place, where flight or fight responses have to kick in so you’re not something’s next meal.”

“I’ll take your word on that,” Hoshi said, stretching some more and glancing over at the console. “Go to your gardens, Aurora. I’ll beam you if I need anything.”

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