Regulators formed a cordon down the center of the crosshatch, holding back a gathering crowd.
Some colonists hung back at the periphery while others shouted or tried to force their way forward, only to be beaten back by regulator batons. I walked between my two assigned guards. Since Prescott had been forced to resign his position as captain, the Regulatory had made several hundred more arrests. Messages encouraging off duty workers to remain in their berths littered the nets and pinged at regular intervals across my CATO. We couldn’t reach the tram that would take me to the drivetrain at the aft of the ship soon enough. There I would use the secondary sphere to test colonists and find a replacement navigator, assuming I could find someone suitable.
The math wasn’t ideal.
On average, one in a hundred people had the ability to stay conscious when exposed to fractal navigation, and only one in five-hundred could complete rudimentary tasks at the same time. One in a thousand could stay focused enough to sync with the ship. And of those few, a mere handful could hold the part of The Everything that the Chimera could not.
Starting with a pool of roughly four-thousand of the most highly-qualified colonists, I expected to narrow the field to three or four candidates in short order. If I ended up with two consistent performers, that would be a better than average result. And if one of them proved to have half the skill of Black, it might take us decades to reach Elypso, but we would, eventually, make it there.
On that the Regulatory and I agreed. We needed to make forward progress. To quell the panic rippling through the bowls of the ship and calm the demonstrators rioting in the crosshatch, we needed to show the colonists that things were under control. However, I doubted my role in the proceedings would help. I wouldn’t trust me, not after that insipid bio piece followed by my failure to partner with the Chimera. But the Chimera had been adamant that I would supervise the search, and the Regulatory had no choice but follow her wishes.
Falsgate, Collins, and a media team consisting of a pair of reporters met us at the tram. A group of regulators shepherded along a group of colonists.
“We’re going to live cast the first day to demonstrate the testing process,” Falsgate said. “I want to show everyone on the ship what they can expect.”
I eyed the group of colonists, all of whom appeared above average in looks.
“Hand-picked,” Falsgate said, smiling at me. “They’ll be on their best behavior.”
“I’ll bet,” I said, wondering what criteria Nivven and Flasgate had used to ‘hand-pick’ them.
The tram whisked us away, down into the dull gray tunnels of the drivetrain. Nearing the aft station, the ponderous hum of the cores began to vibrate through the tram. A few of the colonists glanced at one another, fake smiles cracking on their over-eager faces. They’d never seen this part of the ship, and clearly didn’t know what to expect. Had Falsgate bothered to give them any sort of briefing?
When we arrived, Chief Technician Kline greeted us on the station platform. He gave a brief explanation of our journey to the secondary sphere, unable to hide his obvious skepticism with Falsgate’s selection of testees. None of them crew, none with any experience. All green, eager, and in far over their heads whether they knew it themselves or not. I gave Kline a sympathetic glance; neither of us was looking forward to this.
Kline explained to the colonists that secondary sphere provided a backup in case the neural circuitry that ran along the backbone of the ship failed. It was there, down the dull passageways that thrummed with the power of the ship’s cores, that the Chimera truly resided. Forty-four meters of wound synapsis, not much larger than a human brain, contained the architecture of her synthetic person.
Chief Kline, a full beard swallowing the lower third of his face, handed out earcaps to our group and demonstrated how to put them on. “Not as good as an envelope, but we’ve got a limited supply of those.”
“Envelope?” Falsgate asked.
“A personal sound barrier,” I explained. Falsgate raised an eyebrow, then put her earcaps in place. A dull hiss sounded through the speakers embedded inside the caps, filtering out ambient noise. Then two tones sounded indicating our audio channels had synced.
“This way,” Chief Kline said, motioning for the colonists to follow.
The colonists clumped together, wide-eyed and silent, their smiles melting away with each step they took deeper into the ship.
We fell in behind Chief Kline as he started down the passage.
I rarely make it back here, Falsgate messaged me over CATO, forgoing the coms built into the earcaps. I forgot how industrial it is.
It’s not meant to be pretty, I messaged back.
Your girlfriend works back here, doesn’t she?
Did you get that from my bio or did you do your own private research?
Falsgate laughed. We have dossiers on all the flight crew and we keep them up to date.
I’m sure you do.
Chief Kline led us down lengthy corridors, circumnavigating core access, guiding us deep into the gut of the ship. If I hadn’t been tracking it with CATO, it would have bene impossible to know how far we’d traveled—over eighty meters into the depths of the Chimera’s unpopulated aft. No wallscreens here, no shuttered portals, no signs of human life. An occasional breakage panel passed on the right or left, data tags reflecting silver in my CATO’s overlay. They went unnoticed by the colonists shuffling along behind us until we reached the access point to the rearward sphere.
“We’re clear, you can take off your clamps,” Chief Kline said.
With ears uncovered once more, the whine of the cores sounded like the distant rushing of blood through veins.
“You’re not recording this are you?” Falsgate asked the reporters.
“Good. Because this is all wrong. We’re going to have to spruce things up, change the floor surface, gets some imagery back here.”
“Imagery?” Chief Kline asked. “Why bother? No one ever comes back here.”
“Well that’s about to change, isn’t it? A whole lot of somebodies are going to get tested, and we don’t want their experience to be an unpleasant one. I want continuous imagery front-to-back. Something natural and non-threatening. Nothing underwater, nothing too localized to a specific region of Erath, and nothing urban.”
Collins nodded in agreement. “Perhaps a ceremonial garden?”
“I was thinking of a prairie. A waving sea of grass. Samuelson, what do you think?”
I swallowed. “I’m no expert.”
“A prairie will do nicely. Lush stalks blowing in a gentle breeze. Warm afternoon sunlight. A distant horizon. That will engender the right response.”
Chief Kline ran a hand over his beard. “That’s a major install you’re talking about.”
“And an important one.”
“A load of man hours for wallpaper.”
Falsgate’s sea-green irises hardened and her white teeth flashed. “I don’t care how many hours it takes.”
Chief Kline took a half-step forward and spoke in a level, authoritative voice. “You might be under the impression that with Nivven as captain my technicians and I now answer to you. We don’t. You’re flight operations, we’re systems and architecture.”
Falsgate drew herself up, appeared ready to pummel the Chief with words or fists, then relaxed, seemed to reevaluate. “Look Chief, this isn’t some turf war. Finding a new navigator is the only thing that matters here. And intimidating potential candidates with a long walk through a dingy corridor in an unfamiliar part of the ship isn’t going to help us do that. All this—” Falsgate’s arm swept out, indicating the whole aft of the ship, “—is a lot to take in. We want to make it as accessible and as familiar as possible. We don’t want fear or intimidation undercutting the results of the testing.”
Despite my better judgement, I found myself agreeing with her.
Chief Kline’s beard shifted, hiding whatever expression had passed over his face. “I’ll pull in some extra help from maintenance. We’ll get it done. Won’t take more than a few days.”
“You’ve got twenty hours, Chief.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Make it possible. We start testing tomorrow.”
This time, beard or no beard, Chief Kline’s scowl engulfed his face. “I’ll do what I can, but I’m not promising anything.”
Chief Kline turned away to a nearby access panel. The secondary sphere breakage curled upward, revealing murky darkness beyond. After a few seconds, the chemical lighting woke; a subtle phosphorescence that grew to a pink-tinged glow. It washed over the duraceramic walls, over the sphere in the center of the room. A pearl surrounded by substations—an exact copy of the command deck, but in a room a quarter of the size. The air that greeted us was warm and almost humid. The space felt embryonic, the sphere an incubated egg, untouched since our journey began.
“Is that the Chimera?” one of the colonists asked.
“No,” Falsgate said. “But this is where you’ll interact with her—assuming you make it through the pass-fail cohesion test.”
“Can we get a few shots of the secondary sphere?” one of the reporters asked.
Falsgate examined the room, the sphere and substations, the warm light. “Yes, please do. It’s organic, inviting even.”
Kline gave me a look. Is she serious?
I smirked, then took a seat at one of the substations and waved a hand over the grid. The lines flickered into existence. Marigold-yellow. My spine tingled in response and my CATO cleared my overlay of everything but the flight statistics from the command deck. Strange to feel the NAs on the command deck here at the opposite end of the ship. I closed my eyes and a sense of displacement came over me, as though I were two places at once: my body at a substation outside the secondary sphere; my mind connected to the navigational grid along with Compton, Lin, and Magpie nearing the end of their duty cycle.
I felt their movements rippling across the grid—the paradox load ebbing and flowing as they held the ship in stasis, tethered to a stitch. I opened my eyes. In my overlay, the androgynous face of the Chimera appeared. She looked at me—not really looking as she had no actual eyes—but engaged me. “Welcome to the secondary sphere.”
Falsgate sat at the empty substation on my right. She leaned forward as though she might plunge her hands into the grid, watching for my reaction. I gave none. Instead, she folded her hands in her lap. “When do we begin? I’d like to do a few practice runs, then livecast the rest to the nets.”
“Sure,” I said. “Let me check with the Chimera.”
“You’re talking to her now?” A colonist asked. “That’s amazing!”
I didn’t have to ask the Chimera anything—her toneless voice spoke aloud, broadcast from my CATO’s external speaker without my prompting. “Each colonist will sit at a substation and engage the grid. I will conduct the pass-fail test.”
“About that,” Falsgate said. “What exactly are we pass-failing? What do you mean by ‘cohesion’?”
“Synthesis with the navigational architecture. Those who pass will enter the sphere for further testing,” the Chimera replied.
Falsgate looked confused.
“She means she’s testing interconnectedness—the ability to form a neural link with the grid and sustain it. It’s something some people do naturally and that others can never learn. We need to find people with a natural affinity for thought-machine interfaces.”
“Ah,” said Falsgate. “Is that why you rearranged the Regulatory’s testing order?”
“The Regulatory testing order was non-optimal,” the Chimera said. “Navigator’s Assistant Samuelson ordered the testing cue to give weighted advantage to those already using CATOs, and those with prior exposure to synthesis.”
“What about me?” Falsgate asked. “I’ve got a CATO.”
“You are a senior Regulatory officer and acting First Officer of the ship. You are exempt from testing.”
“I understand that,” Falsgate said, annoyance in her voice, “but you can test me all the same, correct?”
“The test would be pointless. You are—”
Falsgate cut the Chimera off. “Test me,” she said, speaking to me. I paused, waiting for the Chimera to say something, to deny the test, but the expressionless face in my overlay did not move, and no voice sounded from my CATO.
“I want to know how this works,” Falsgate said. “If I’m going to be asking more than half our colonists to do this, I want to be able to tell them I’ve done it myself.”
“I don’t see any reason to deny you. Just put your hands into the grid.”
She slid her hands into the golden light. I felt her at a distance—a dull, shapeless person. Clumsy and unsure of herself. Then her presence intensified, fighting to take shape, for dominance—
“Test failed,” the Chimera said.
“What!” Falsgate exclaimed. She shoved her hands forward but the grid rejected her. “As quick as that? How did I fail?”
Chief Kline gave her a smug smile.
“Synthesis requires cohesion of purpose. You sought control,” the Chimera said.
“I wasn’t trying to control anything. I’d just started to get my bearings.”
The Chimera said nothing. Falsgate stood and faced the reporters. “Keep that off the broadcast.”
“No, make it public,” Kline said. “Who better to demonstrate the testing procedure than First Officer Falsgate?”
“You want to try it?” Falsgate said, turning stormy eyes Kline’s direction.
“No, I have more pressing things to do. Like installing wallpaper.” The Chief gave a perfunctory salute and headed for the door. “I’m sure you can find your own way out,” he said, then ducked through the breakage, leaving me with the roomful of anxious testees.