The Hyperspace Witch and the AI
This is the first part of a short story that takes place in the Unseen Republic setting.
OCEAN PLANET, HOME TO THE OPAL LIBRARY
SOMEWHERE ABOUT 9,000 LIGHTYEARS AWAY FROM COLONIA
Maat's Imperial Courier, nicknamed Samara, pierced the heavy clouds that were stretching from one side of the planet's bloated horizon to the other. Ocean worlds, devoid of continental masses to satiate the appetite of hurricanes, were often covered in nigh-permanent storms, and this nameless planet did not deviate from the rule. Heavy droplets of water moved in silence alongside the curves of the Imperial Courier as it made its final approach towards a series of platforms that stood a few dozen meters above the tallest waves. They did not sit on the seabed, as the seabed was unfathomably deep, several tens of thousands of kilometers below the tempest-torn surface of the oceanic planet. It could have been worse : on true ocean worlds, there was no seabed, just water ice, maintained in this state by the unthinkable pressure of the ocean. Instead of being anchored to anything the station stood between the surface and the depths, using massive ballasts to remain upright. During the harshest of storms, it would fill them entirely, disappearing beneath the surface until the chaos had passed. But by this world's standards, the current tempest was barely a breeze.
Maat took a deep breath. The rain ticked on the Courier's hull, matching the pace of her heart. Her Courier had not been taken down by sea-to-orbit weaponry and the station had emerged, which meant that she was still welcome down there. Contrary to many of the places claimed by the Unseen Republic, this world did not only rely on distance for concealment. The Opal Library had its own defenses, the most terrifying of them being two heavy surface-to-orbit artillery railguns submerged beneath the ice at the two poles, ready to emerge from their slumber and fire at any arriving ship without warning.
But this day at least it was accepting visitors.
"Automated landing sequence initiated" whispered the ship's modified Covas, and the white Imperial Courier put its engine pods in VTOL mode while gliding towards the small landing pad that had just appeared out of the offshore structure's hull. The only reason why the station appeared small was because the waves down below were gigantic : in truth, the needle that emerged from the sea was more than a hundred meters tall. As soon as the Courier had landed on the pad, Maat felt several magnetic clamps locking the ship in place while the COVAS swiftly deactivated itself. Great, thought Maat. She was accepted, but certainly not wanted there. With a sigh, she reached for the manual override panel of her ship and opened the canopy.
The rain was warm, eerily so, as if someone had been blowing hot hair in the clouds. The atmosphere was breathable but it wasn't pleasant, with a higher than usual concentration of oxygen in the air due to the planet's hyperactive plankton. Maat didn't wear a Remlok suit but an elaborate coat made of some kind of semi-artificial cloth : it had a short cape worn on one of her shoulders, whose triangular tip was seemingly made of raven feathers. She held a ceremonial staff in her right hand, that she used to close the canopy of the Courier by tapping the ship's hull. After making sure the Courier was correctly locked in place, Maat walked towards the entrance of the needle-shaped oceanic tower, a few dozen meters away. There was a thin bridge and underneath it the ocean raged on and on against the station which didn't move an inch. Or rather, it did - but it moved alongside the ocean itself, and as long as Maat avoided looking at the horizon she felt perfectly immobile. The gravity was alright. 0.8 gees, slightly higher than what Maat was accustomed to aboard Cathedral Station but acceptable. In the middle of the bridge she realized that two anti-personel turrets had emerged from the side of the needle and were slowly tracking her. She wasn't armed, of course - no visitor was armed here - but it didn't prevent the station from considering her as a potential threat.
When Maat reached the hull itself, a door opened with a hissing sound. Maat entered. The inside of the needle was strangely serene. The ambient noise of the thunderstorm outside was completely muffled and the hallway was bathed in a golden light reflected by the all-white walls. A small skimmer drone came in front of Maat, scanning her with its camera and probably a healthy dose of near-infrared sensors.
"Hello, Maat, Priestess of Cathedral Station. Thot is ready to recieve you."
"Fine. Does it know what I am here for?"
"Answering this question exceeds my programming. Please follow me, Maat."
The priestess nodded and followed. Her coat was soaked and drenched the ground in rain - good she thought : a bit more work for the caretaker's drones. She chuckled in silence. Yes, it was very petty, but it was also deserved. Thot wasn't exactly the most pleasant of hosts. It had been attached to the Unseen Republic's project mostly by default, and mostly because of its own insistance. Many people had considered - and still considered - Thot as more of a problem than an asset. It was a fully unshackled artificial intelligence, standing atop a pile of data it had accumulated across its years spent in hiding within the Alliance's networks. It was a target. A massive, very clear target. But it was also a trove of knowledge, and a caretaker of archives almost as complete and sprawling as Achernar's or Earth's. And in any case, always thought Maat, one could always just cut all ties with this ocean world and let Thot do its own thing. It wasn't like it had any ships, nor - more critically - the means to obtain and maintain an FSD equipped ship. Maat knew this very well. She was a specialist in FSD, even though her approach was a bit...esoteric.
She finally entered a circular room, right in the middle of the needle, just above the massive counterweights enabling it to remain immobile within the storm - she could feel them ticking under her feet. A holographic display started blinking in front of her, creating the golden shape of some kind of bird - an ibis, to be more accurate, whose wings flapped in complete silence, emitting scattered colored light around the room. Quite why the AI had decided to take the shape and assume the persona of an ancient egyptian god was quite a good question. "AIs are weird" was the most commonly accepted explanation and Maat would almost believe it if she didn't have herself a much simpler explanation : Thot assumed this image and role because it was alone in its little oceanic kingdom and could do whatever the hell it damn pleased. If it wanted to cosplay as a mythical ibis, there really was no need for explanation beyond "I like it that way."
The AI's voice was amusingly gendered - Thot kept switching between male, female and ambiguous voices, and had never managed to settle on any of them. It also really liked the sound of its own voice.
"Hello, Maat. You should have told me in advance that you were coming, I would have made the place a bit more friendly. I had very nice algae for you, they would have been beautiful in the entrance."
"Two days before I wasn't even sure I would have to come here, in truth. And honestly..."
"You would have preferred not to? Aw, Maat, but you're always welcome in the Opal Library, as a witchspace priestess and as a friend. What are you looking for, exactly? You know that I would be delighted to help you."
Maat took a deep breath - she knew that despite its welcoming nature, Thot would probably not be very happy to hear her request, witchspace priestess or not.
"I am looking for a ship that disappeared long ago."
One of the Ibis' wings moved around like wave crossing the sea.
"A lost ship? Interesting. So you are looking for a wreck? I assume you have already dug into the archives of one of the three Unseen Republic Mega-stations, right? Yes of course you did, silly me. So you are looking for something not relayed by our...your explorers. Interesting. Sadly, if it is not in their archives, it's probably not in mine...I do not conduct exploration myself, even if I would like to. I am a little short on faster-than-light means of propulsion, you know, being a shackled AI and all that sort of things."
"You are also lazy."
"Yes, I won't deny that...so. What are you looking for, then?"
Maat grazed the hologram with her ceremonial staff, watching as scattered light illuminated the backside of the ritualistic object, setting the wood surface ablaze.
"I am looking for an ancient INRA ship. No name. Identification number was SAR-1862. And I know that you have a record on that ship."
The hologram blinked.
"Your past is less shrouded in mystery than you think, dear...you were once a flight computer, and some people still remember in what kind of ships you were installed. In this case, this is not your archives I am after, but rather your memories, even if both are more or less the same thing at that point, aren't they."
"You are walking on thin ice, Maat."
"Not much more than an AI that still clings on to ancient INRA flight information."
"Is that a threat?"
"We're two adults here, there's no need for threats."
"Alright. Yes, I do know where SAR-1862 is, or rather its wreck. And no, I do not know what the hell was that ship doing so far in the Milky Way, and so far away from Colonia specifically."
"I am not after this ship's navigation history, I am after what it was transporting."
"That is precisely what I am afraid of...Maat, come on. You can't spend your life going after whatever your ancestors have left hanging in the void, especially 29,000 lightyears away from Sol, right? INRA was dissolved in 3253, and the powers that be have found other ways of fighting thargoids anyway...it's been more than five decades. And The Club has been busy making us forgetting that it ever existed and...bloody hell, we already know too much about this entire thing, do we?"
"Do I care? Do you care? You are an artificial intelligence, you'll never go back to the Bubble lest you want to experience the feeling of getting a nuke to your face. And I also have to remind you that my people commited murder to escape the Bubble as well. This isn't about whatever skeletons the Federation and the Alliance still have in their closets, or the Club, or any of their silly secret societies - this is about us, and this is about securing whatever advantage we can to avoid being forced back to the Bubble."
"You're not going to like what's in that ship's wreck, I tell you."
"Whatever. Where is it?"
"I have transmitted the nav data to your ship. It is a lone system, far above the galactic place, not far from the Bleia permit-locked Bubble. Yes, it is also a permi-locked systems, but hey, you've got ways around that, don't you?"
"Well then here you go, little space witch, but don't tell me that I didn't warn you."
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