Atop a platform on the edge of a vast artificial chasm, Kara stood, handcuffed, surrounded by the holographic avatars of Sirene, Vorsch, Rankin, and CeeVee.
“So, you wanted to ask me questions?” Kara asked Sirene.
“Affirmative,” Sirene answered.
“…Sure!” Kara sat down. “Ask all you want!”
“Please get back on your feet,” Vorsch demanded. “We have specialized rooms for interrogating outsiders.”
“It’s alright Vorsch,” Sirene said. “This isn’t an interrogation. Besides, we’ll still be able to record our conversation from here.” She joined Kara on the floor.
“Matriarch, you do not have to comply with the requests of an outsider. Also, you are currently a hologram. Sitting is not necessary.”
“She’s just a kid, and she doesn’t have any ill will towards us. Though considering that she was able to hold her own against an Advent Guard, it may be a good idea to have some security.”
“I will summon some units immediately,” Rankin said.
“That would be appreciated,” Sirene responded as Rankin and CeeVee vanished, Sirene then turned her attention to Kara. “Now… Kara, am I correct? Let’s begin with the inquiry: what was in that crater we found you in?”
“Crater? I thought your people found me in a hibernation chamber.”
“…Um… Yes, we did, but that chamber was in an underwater crater.”
“Underwater? Crater? Huh, I wonder how I wound up underwater. I was clearly on dry land when I got inside.”
“So, where was that dry land?”
“Jeva, of course!”
“And Jeva is…?”
“My hometown! It’s a little village on an island in the middle of nowhere!”
“An island… So, have you ever been in an Emorian military base?”
“Nope! I’ve never set foot outside of Jeva until now. Heck, today’s the first time I’ve seen non-Marbas in person.”
“This ‘inquiry’ is going nowhere fast,” Vorsch grumbled.
“They rarely do,” Sirene countered. “However, I think we are making progress. Anyways Kara, would you mind telling us more about Jeva?”
“Like I said before, it’s a village built on an island by Marba refugees.”
“When my people tried to recreate the Republic, not every Marba was on board. In fact, a lot of them, including my family, decided to leave our homeland in order to escape the Republic’s oppression. Unfortunately, nobody wanted us around because everyone hated the Marba, so for a while we just wandered the world. Then we found an uncharted island that we could call home, and that’s how Jeva was born.”
“I’ll say! I have to admit that I was born after my family had settled on Jeva, so for me the world beyond that island was nothing but stories.”
“Clearly you’re no longer on the island and we’re no longer just stories. So tell me, how did you end up in that hibernation chamber?”
“How did I end up there?” Kara’s smile started to fade away. “That’s… That is a very good question. I’m actually having trouble remembering.”
“If you don’t mind, Matriarch,” Vorsch said. “Perhaps I could refresh her memory with my own questions.”
“Feel free to do so,” Sirene said.
Vorsch’s avatar moved towards of Kara, flanked by a pair of floating pill-shaped objects. The pills projected a slideshow of images depicting the artifacts from the crater.
“You are currently viewing a collection of objects that were found in the same crater as your hibernation chamber,” Vorsch explained.
“Do you recognize anything?”
Kara sat there as Vorsch’s slideshow continued. Eventually, she saw a fragment of a brick wall with the remains of a y-shaped neon light near the top.
“That wall… That used to be part of Timy’s Pizza Place! My family used to go there all the time! Wait… the clothes maker I got my outfit from. Where did you find it?”
“It was one of the artifacts from the crater,” Vorsch answered.
“Really? I should have known my uniform looked familiar.” For a few moments Kara just sat there, lost in her own thoughts. “And the feeling I got looking at the cannon…” Tears started to form in her eyes. “Oh god, this isn’t a dream…”
“You’re remembering something?” Sirene asked with anticipation.
“Only fragments, and even that’s too much,” Kara said as she curled up into a ball, burying her face between her knees. “Black ships around the island. Everything is burning. Everyone is dying. My dad takes me to his lab, leads me to the chamber. I see a bright light as the chamber closes, and then… and then…” Kara stopped talking.
“Kara, are you alright?” Sirene asked.
Kara remained silent.
“Vorsch,” Sirene said. “Do you think that-?”
“Yes,” Vorsch answered. “It’s possible that the Emorians lied to us. The settlement that used to be in that crater was not a military base. It was probably Jeva, and I doubt that it was destroyed by a meteor.”
“How long was I in there?” Kara asked.
“We estimate you were hibernating for 50 years,” Vorsch answered. “You mentioned something about your father and a lab. Could you elaborate?”
Kara only answered with a whimper.
“I think we’ll have to continue this inquiry at a later time,” Sirene said.
Roughly a half dozen Rote-4s appeared around Kara in a white flash. “Permission to undo the girl’s handcuffs?” Rankin asked through one of the Rote-4s.
“Permission granted,” Sirene answered.
A Rote-4 stabbed its blade into the ground behind Kara, breaking her handcuffs in the proccess. Though her hands were now free, she continued to just sit there.
“So,” Vorsch pondered. “What now?”
The AIs were caught off guard by a strange growling sound. After a few moments they realized the growling had come from Kara’s stomach.
“I’m hungry,” Kara said.
* * *
A large, lobster-like Susehpen was floating in the choppy waters around one of the legs of the Four Pillars Colony. Kara, CeeVee, and Rankin were standing on top of the Susehpen’s carapace were. It was low tide so one could easily see all the shellfish that had been living on that leg for decades.
“Kara, you sure you want to do this?” CeeVee asked. “I could easily reprogram an excavator to harvest these organisms for you. Heck, I could probably scrape them off with my own shields.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Kara said as she walked to the edge of the carapace.
“I would like to reiterate that it is possible for us to manufacture clothing more suitable for swimming, even at this location,” Rankin added.
“This may be a cheerleading and marching band uniform, but you’d be surprised how much punishment it can take,” Kara said as she jumped into the ocean. “For starters, it dries out faster than you can say ‘give me a J-E-V-A.’”
Kara swam up to the side of the leg. She grabbed hold of barnacle larger than her head, securing herself near a colony of clams. Using a small blade borrowed from Rankin, Kara cut at the fleshy stalks that anchored the clams to the metal. Eventually the stalks were weak enough that Kara could pull the fist-sized clams off with her bare hands.
“Hey CeeVee, catch!!” Kara called out to after she picked her first clam. She then threw it at CeeVee, who caught it with one of her shields.
“Great! Got more where that came from!” Kara said as she turned around to pick some more clams. However, she was interrupted when a large wave came out of nowhere and shoved her face first into the jagged wall of barnacles and clams.
“Kara!” CeeVee cried out.
“I’m fine, I’m fine!” Kara responded, hanging onto the wall of shellfish as she regained her footing. “I’ve done this kind of thing before!”
“Are you injured?” Rankin asked.
“Nothing serious, I’ll be fine!” Kara reiterated as she threw another clam.
The rest of Kara’s clam harvesting was relatively uneventful. After she had collected about a dozen clams, Kara swam back to lobster Susehpen.
“Kara, your leg,” Rankin said after Kara climbed back onto the lobster Susehpen’s carapace. Kara looked down and noticed that her right leg was turning red from the blood pouring out of a gash above her knee.
“Whoa. Thanks for pointing that out,” Kara said as she kneeled down. She held one hand over the injured knee. As her palm slowly started to glow green, the gash on her leg sealed itself shut before vanishing completely.
“Huh,” CeeVee said. “That’s a neat trick.”
“I know, right?” Kara replied. “Say, would you guys happen to have anything I could use to cook my clams? Granted I could probably eat them on the half shell, but – “
A small hatch near the back end of the carapace opened up, releasing a cloud of steam. When the steam cleared, Kara could see a glowing red radiator.
“That’s perfect!” Kara declared. She quickly grabbed six clams and placed them one by one on the radiator. Each clam released a burst of steam and a sharp hiss the moment it touched the hot metal.
For a while Kara just sat there looking at the clams on the radiator. Eventually they started opening with a soft popping sound, prompting Kara to take them off the radiator and set them by her side, making sure to keep the juices from spilling. After giving them time to cool, Kara picked up one of the clams, cut it into rough chunks with her blade, and slurped it directly out of its shell.
“So,” CeeVee pondered. “Does it taste good?”
“Of course!” Kara exclaimed. “Though it’s lacking something.”
“Just a few things to add some flavor. I think I saw some sea onions and maybe a sea cucumber when I was looking for clams.”
“We’ll see if we can find them,” Rankin and CeeVee said simultaneously. A Rote-4 materialized on the edge of the carapace.
“Thanks, but I think I can handle it,” Kara replied.
“We insist,” Rankin said. “Besides, you still have clams to cook.”
“Oh, right! Silly me.”
* * *
Within the cyberspace of the Four Pillars Colony, Sirene and Vorsch were observing Kara from afar.
“It’s strange seeing her now compared to an hour ago,” Vorsch observed.
“She rebounds quickly. I find that reassuring,” Sirene said.
“Perhaps. Anyways, I’ve done some research on Jeva.”
“And nothing beyond the girl’s words. There aren’t any maps that depict an island at this location, though she did claim it was uncharted. However, none of the historical records I’ve researched say anything about a group of Marba refugees wandering the world fifty years ago nor do they mention a town named Jeva.”
“I was observing Kara’s vital signs during our inquiry. Nothing ever suggested she was intentionally lying.”
“That wasn’t what I was trying to imply, though it is a possibility. I’ve heard rumors that the Emorian Empire erases their most hated enemies from existence, destroying evidence and rewriting historical records. Based on what I’ve learned about the crater, there may be some truth behind said rumors.”
“So we have more clues, but nothing definitive.”
Sirene and Vorsch refocused their attention of the Emorian ship a quarter mile south of the colony. It was alone, a black speck in a dark grey ocean, its control tower perched high above the long thin hull like a vulture waiting for its prey to die.
“So,” Vorsch pondered. “What should we do about them? I doubt they’re happy after today’s events.”
“We wait, see what they do next,” Sirene said. “In the meantime, have Rankin run simulations to prepare for any counterattack they may attempt.”
* * *
Kara was lying on top of the carapace of the lobster Susehpen. Next to her was a pile of empty clamshells and sea cucumber husks, and behind her were the avatars of CeeVee and Rankin.
“Just how much did she manage to eat?” CeeVee wondered.
“I counted 35 clams,” Rankin replied.
“I also counted – “
“I’d rather not know the number of onions and sea cucumbers.”
“Well, this was the first time I’ve eaten in 50 years,” Kara said as she sat up. “You know, it’s pretty fascinating that a bunch of robots can band together and form a civilization. I’d like to know more about it.”
“We are not robots, we are Susehpens,” Rankin said.
“Oh, my bad. Still, how do you guys organize yourselves? What’s your government and society like?”
“…The Nation of Susehpe is a race of sentient artificial life forms whose population is organized into colonies. Each colony consists of a colony walker, a mobile self-repairing factory that manufactures and houses non-sentient Susehpens known as ‘units,’ and a series of sentient AIs that control the walker and the units within.”
“Wait. So right now, I’m sitting on the back of a giant unit?”
“And you have to do all of this unit’s thinking for it?”
“Actually, I’m the one controlling this unit right now,” CeeVee said.
Rankin continued with her exposition. “However, this unit contains a computer brain that allows it to continue functioning without direct orders from an AI.”
“Really?” Kara said. “So, how intelligent is this thing?”
“Intelligence is variable. All units are initially programmed with self-preservation instincts. However they are also designed to learn from experience and occasionally a unit will acquire enough knowledge to gain sentience, becoming an artificial intelligence. Once a unit becomes an AI the unit’s physical body will become a hindrance in its intellectual growth. To counter this an AI will to either download itself into the circuitry of its walker or to leave its home colony and start a colony of its own.”
“Wait so you mean that you guys used to be units?”
“Affirmative. Our existence began as units under Sirene’s control.”
"So, what happens to you body once you download yourself?”
“It remains in the core of the colony, integrated into the hardware of the central processing computer.”
“Would it be too much if I asked to see it?”
* * *
It had been two days since the failed negotiations aboard the Four Pillars Colony. Nollan and Chowski were in the basketball court of the ship’s gymnasium, the largest open space on the vessel. At one end of the court was Chowski, sitting in a recliner and locked in a meditative trance. At the other end was Nolan, surrounded by unconscious Advent Guards. She had taken off her uniform jacket, revealing a brown sleeveless shirt held together by leather straps and a matching pair of pants.
“So,” Nolan asked Chowski. “How did I do?”
Chowski’s fingers twitched, indicating that he had left his trance. “Poorly. You were supposed to focus on defensive combat.”
“Oh screw you! I needed to blow off some steam!”
“Those are our men you just beat up.”
“I didn’t do any lasting damage. Besides, the best defense is a good offense. That’s how the saying goes, right?”
“Perhaps, but even a good offense or defense will mean nothing if the Susehpens once again find away around it.”
“You’re giving those tin cans too much credit. They got lucky.”
“I don’t think you’re giving them enough.”
“Whatever… Gah! I am so freaking BORED!! I’m sick of being cooped up in here! I want out! I want blood!!”
“Not without the Empire’s permission.”
“And the Empire is taking their sweet little time with that permission. Honestly, what is taking them so long!?”
A door opened up behind Nolan. An Advent Guard entered the room and placed a small disk on the floor a few feet from Nolan. “I bring you a message from the capital,” he said before leaving the room.
“About damn time,” Nolan grumbled.
The disk started glowing a pale blue, creating a hologram of a slender figure. It wore a cloak that completely covered its body and a helmet that seemed far too big for its head. The helmet vaguely resembled a snake, with a rectangular snout out in front and globe-like eyes on the sides. The cloak was solid black save for a band of white down the front while the helmet shimmered with iridescent colors.
“Your Majesty!” a surprised Chowski and Nolan said simultaneously.
“This is a pre-recorded message,” the Emperor said with a reedy yet booming voice. “Do not waste your breath.”
Chowski was surprised that they were getting an order directly from the Emperor rather than from the DM Commission, though it did explain why it took so long for anyone to respond to his report.
“W Chowski. Kit Nolan. As you may have guessed by now, the DM Commission believed that the appropriate response to your report was to give you a CE order, a decision that I must personally approve. While I for the most part agree with their assessment, I also believe that we need to learn more about the situation.
You are to re-establish contact with the Marba girl and ask her if she knows a man by the name of Fitzroy William Darcel. If she states that she does, then you have my permission to completely eradicate of all the artifacts found in that crater, including the girl. As with any other CE order, you are to erase any records the Susehpen colony have of the artifacts. Should they interfere with your mission, eradicate them as well.
Your actions here shall ensure the continued dominance of our Empire and the security of the world. I wish you luck.”
The Emperor’s hologram flickered away, leaving Chowski and Nolan alone in the gym. For a while there was only silence, but then Nolan started to laugh. Her laughter grew louder until it echoed throughout the room.
“Now THAT is the kind of permission that I was looking for!” she declared. “Get your troops ready, we’re going back to the colony first thing tomorrow!”
“Not yet,” Chowski countered. “We need to form a strategy just in case they don’t take kindly to our return.”
“I charge in, guns blazing, and make my demands. If they give me crap, you call them and tell them where to shove it! If they fight back, you provide some backup fire from the ship! How’s that for strategy?”
“…Just make sure to negotiate before you attack.”