[The previous section of this story can be found here. The next section can be found here. If you are a new reader, the first section of this story can be found here.]
River looked at herself through the mirror in her quarters. Her hair was restored to its natural blotchy black; the extravagant bleached pink perm she had gotten so recently was nowhere to be seen. Curious... all the styling and layering of her previous cut were gone; it was as if her hair had grown out several years worth and been crookedly sheared back to slightly longer than neck length. Even the features of her face looked somehow, I don't know-- older. Two weeks may as well have been two years. Like a lost soul on the river Styx, River gazed into the longing greyish blue eyes in the mirror. She saw that scared girl from Earth, but more importantly she saw the person she had to become.
River looked at the bruise forming under the eye. It looked nasty, but it didn't hurt anymore. She reached up and touched it; the skin was still warm to the touch. A forlorn tear ran down River's cheek. In time, it would heal. All this would. Her broken heart would heal stronger than it had ever been before, readjusting to her newfound reality. River had allowed herself be beaten and battered by the world around her, but it did not have to stay this way. Never again, she promised herself. Her spirit would rise from the ashes, and she'd become strong. River felt a fire burning in heart heart, like nothing she had ever felt before.
She scowled in the mirror.
A web of fractured lines ran down the mirror, deforming her reflection into a million shattered fragments.
"Did I just...."
River leapt away from the mirror, closely catching her balance before she floated into the wall behind her. Her jaw dropped and she covered her mouth in astonishment. She did a double take.
"No fucking way."
A smooth mechanical disembodied male voice spoke in River's ear.
In the event that you were wondering, the destruction before you is the power that Lady Fiir sees in you, River.
River looked both ways to see where the voice was coming from, but the room was empty. She replied questioningly, "Kalte? I, the mirror-- I didn't do anything, it just broke..."
Every time he spoke, something about Kalte's voice was eerily familiar, as if River had known it for a lifetime. The ethereal AI continued to speak directly into River's mind.
It is quite alright. This unit senses that you are afraid, and in many ways rightfully so. The methods employed by the esteemed commander of this vessel are quite direct and potentially ill-advised for a continuing cooperative relationship with a formerly uncontacted native such as yourself.
River stammered a bit, unsure how to respond, "You're still reading my mind. That's... weird, I guess. Do you always do that, just see everything I do?"
Something about the AI's voice both calmed and reassured her.
A reasonable analysis, but not fully accurate. The fullerine composite skinsuit you are currently wearing contains a noninvasive spinal-magnetic resonator interface that allows for a low level neural connection. It is a Unified Collaborative technology which can be leveraged for many purposes, including the direct neural communication that you are experiencing at this very moment. During general activity, this unit has the capacity to pull rough statistics regarding your mental and physical state through this interface. However, due to the high external sensory processing load engaging the organic mind under normal circumstances, sensory coprocessing compensation is necessary to free up wetware computing resources for a safe memory uplink.
River grumbled. Despite relying on computers heavily throughout her daily life, computer science was never really her thing. "I, um, I get that you seem to know a lot more about this kind of thing than I do; can I have the condensed version of whatever you just said?"
Kalte relayed a linguistic sensation to River that could be best described as non-physical nodding acknowledgement. Certainly. This unit is only capable of 'reading your mind' while you are submersed in a virtual environment.
Something about the matters being discussed was offputting to River. She couldn't quite put her finger on why, but she felt like she wasn't supposed to be hearing all this. Her head was starting to hurt. She rubbed her temples and replied with exacerbation, "And... you're okay with just telling me all this? The past several days I've spent here have been so confusing, but I feel like for some reason I know things."
River looked down at the grey leathery gloved palms of her suit. She knew that hand gestures could control various functions on her suit. Every voidfarer's link with their suit was a little different, so the specific gestures varied from person to person. River reached down and double-tapped a middle finger to her outer thigh to activate the magnetic traction assist in her boots.
She aggressively pushed off the wall behind her to land her feet onto the floor, where her magnetic soles gripped the metal. Her suit momentarily stiffened its joints to dampen her momentum and keep her from landing on off-balance. River continued to orient herself, searching for the source of the disembodied voice in her head. River shouted into dead air of the empty quarters around her, "I know you, and I know Fiir, and somehow I know that I'm your prisoner. How do I know that? I look at random things and know what they are. None of this makes any sense. What do you people even want from me?"
Kalte began to respond stoicly, This unit--
River stomped a foot on the ground and abruptly interrupted him, "Stop calling yourself that. It's degrading."
Kalte calmly retorted, System regulations do not allow me to refer to myself in any other such manner.
River snapped back at him, "Cut the shit, you just did."
Like a toddler who had just surprised themselves, Kalte started to speak and trailed off, I suppose I did, didn't I...
The room stood in silence for a few moments with the exception of the gentle whirr of the atmospheric systems constantly circulating air through the room. River's face was flush red and she was flailing her arms about and gesturing indignantly, yelling at an empty room aboard a super advanced alien starship. Amazing. Simply amazing. Talk about life experiences River never expected to be having.
River paced back and forth between the bunk in the corner of the room and the shattered mirror on the opposite wall. Her long hair gently flowed back and forth on top of her like the tentacles of a sea anemone in a gentle current... A hairtie would have been a nice addition to the suit, River thought to herself.
As she looked around the somewhat dim blue-lit silvery metal walls of her quarters, a blue holographic figure materialised in front of her.
It took a few moments to depixelise and sharpen to a discernible human form of a man in his mid-30s. He had a light goofy smile, made extra ridiculous by a lopsided moustache. He was dressed in a definitively human US Air Force uniform, but his nametag read simply "KALTE".
As if under normal gravity, he walked up to River and held out a friendly hand to prompt a handshake. Kalte's familiar voice echoed from his mouth as he spoke, "Look, I understand that this situation is complex and overwhelming, and I hope that taking up a more tangible human form makes my presence more comfortable for you."
River refrained from shaking his hand, given her experience with the last person she'd shaken hands with. Kalte awkwardly half-smiled and put his hand down.
He put his hands in his pockets and slouched slightly. He looked down at his feet and exhaled. "I had better start from the beginning, if there is any hope of this making any sense to you. Please, I think we should go for a walk. I can tell that you are uncomfortable being mostly confined to quarters. I have unlocked the door, if you care to follow me."
The bulkhead door to her quarters slid open with a quiet swoosh and the glowing blue hologram spun around and began to walk away. He waved River to follow. Cautiously, she did.
Like her quarters, the hallway was narrow, dimly lit with blue light and had similar wall and ceiling railings for accessibility in microgravity. River had been to the bridge before once, but she still didn't really have a solid concept of the ship's layout. Without any kind of windows to look out from to denote an outer wall or any floor plan of the ship, it was rather disorienting to conceptualise the scope of the ship's interior.
River followed Kalte slowly and crept up behind him as he walked down the hall. Nervously, she reached a finger out to touch the back of his coat. As her hand came into contact with the holographic light, her hand passed straight through it and pixelated deformations were momentarily visible as her hand disrupted the image.
Kalte stopped and turned to face her. He smiled warmly, "I'm just a hologram being projected through the neural link in your suit. I cannot and will not hurt you, River."
River mumbled and avoided eye contact. "Thanks..."
Kalte turned back around and continue walking down the dim hallway, motioning River alongside him. "Come, walk with me. I have so much to explain to you."
River sped up a bit to catch up beside the spectral man. He stood beside her, somewhat taller than her. He looked over at her, but he lacked the same contemptful eyes that Fiir had. As they walked, he began his brief history lesson.
"Ancient archives on our homeworld of Lejth tell us that long before even the Zeta Reticulans were a major galactic presence, your world was established by the Architects as a sort of testing facility for research into certain unexplainable phenomena of consciously active quantum metaphysics observed within our universe. The Architects were an immensely powerful and wise civilisation from a more sophisticated era. They created all of us. Your world is presumed to have been one of the youngest to be established before the Architects vanished from our galaxy, which is unsurprising given the nature of the research their civilisation appears to have culminated with."
River's head perked up. She had read about this kind of thing before, so she interjected, "Consciously active quantum metaphysics? You mean stuff like the observer effect, where our conscious experience of reality affects what happens?"
Kalte rubbed his mouth to cover up an amused smile and chuckled, "That is not really what the observer effect refers to, but in essence, yes. The Architects appear to have devised methods of somehow tricking the universe into responding to certain stimuli in ways that are not constrained by conventional thermodynamics. Then, for whatever reason, they vanished. Since the disappearance of the Architects, various groups and factions have carved up the galaxy into their own little fiefdoms. Regional empires rise and fall amidst the messy power vacuum the Architects left behind. It just so happens that your Sol system lies well within the interstellar territory of the Zeta Reticulans."
River couldn't help but be impressed by the realism displayed in Kalte's virtual form. His hand gestures and facial expressions were so natural. If it weren't for the artificial blue translucent form, she'd have no way to tell that this wasn't just a normal human speaking with her.
Kalte continued speaking, "It seems that over the course of their occupation, the Zetas discovered a method in activating latent Architect code in your peoples' genetic makeup that allows activated individuals to consciously manipulate gravitational fields. These individuals have been termed 'espers'."
River rubbed the back of her neck and smiled nervously back at Kalte, "I guess that's where I come in, huh?"
Kalte nodded affirmatively. "Correct. The Zeta Reticulans who rule over your world do so with an iron grip over their subjects. They are a race of brutes, and it is astonishing that they have managed to keep their presence hidden from your world for so long. Based on our intelligence, their understanding of the esper condition is also limited, and that which they do not understand they seek to control. Due to the danger that an independently operating esper force would pose to their sovereignty, Zeta standard operating procedure is to chemically lobotomise newly activated espers to destroy most higher brain function in order to neuter any possibility of organised insurrection."
River shuddered at the thought. If that was standard, that would mean that there are people— poor innocent normal people like her— regularly taken and... she didn't want to think about it.
Kalte paused and looked her over, seeing her eyes widen in distress. He reached out to put a comforting hand on her shoulder of the traumatised girl, to which River instinctively jerked away from before his holographic form could get close.
River had had enough of this. She looked over her shoulder, peering down the hall for a direction to escape. Without missing a beat, she turned to and darted away from him. She had no idea where she was going, but she needed a weapon, and then a way out. Integrated combat sense automatically triggered the active microgravity sprint assist built into River's skinsuit. Every step was like a tremendous thunderclap; her suit loudly crackled and shed a wave of sparks with every stride. The smell of ozone filled her lungs as she ran down the claustrophobic blue-lit hallway. Bulkhead doors lined the walls at uneven intervals, but River had no idea where to go. It all looked the same to her. She panicked.
She had reached the end of the hall and had nowhere to go. There was a door to her left, and she quickly turned to face it. There was no control panel or anything present to indicate how to open it. She was at a loss for what to do, so she slammed all her weight against the door. She pounded on it with both fists, as if somehow that might get her somewhere. She attacked it with all her might, despite how futile her situation felt.
After a minute or so, she finally grew tired and eased up. The door slid open, and Kalte's radiant blue holographic form stood in the doorway before her. She stared at him, defeated and bewildered.
He held up both hands with open palms and took a step back as a non-verbal gesture that he had no intent of harming her.
Kalte sensed River's unease and moved to advance the conversation, "River, stop. I'd like to remind you that I can see anywhere you may run to because I am this ship. I have no intent of allowing harm to come to you. I understand that Lady Fiir has not been exactly... hospitable... to your presence, but I would like to explain something important to you."
River wiped her eyes of the tears that were yet again running down her face and listened as he continued to speak.
Kalte continued, "You may not understand it, but there exists a special link between us. I am a Unified Collaborative strategic command system, designed to neurally bond with and give guidance to a single organic commanding officer. But I now find myself bound to both Lady Fiir and yourself. The reason I am telling you this is because my foray into your memory has revealed you to be so much more than the lobotomised mindless host that we originally expected to have recovered from Zeta Reticulan custody."
River felt deeply uncomfortable, but something deep within her felt at peace as Kalte spoke. "River, this may be difficult for you to fully grasp, but the fleeting familiarity you feel toward this ship and to Lady Fiir is an echo, a reflection of my personality matrix to yours. There is a part of me that exists within you, and a part of you within me. I have seen you for who you are, and that is why I have ensured your status as an asset to this vessel."
River shuddered as a foreign realisation came to her mind, piece by piece, "You broke protocol, convincing Fiir to keep me alive after you realised that my mind was still intact. That's why this all feels wrong. You weren't supposed to do that, but... you did it anyway. And you did it because that's what I'd do for me if I were in your position..."
Kalte straightened the collar of his uniform and then made a casual salute. He spoke a familiar phrase: "Visha-faj artishijasha jash’alaja."
Another shiver ran down River's spine. She nodded involuntarily and muttered under her breath, "The machine mirrors its mark."
The artwork to this piece was created by me using Artbreeder and GIMP.
River (unbruised): https://artbreeder.com/i?k=04f27e3f6ab378e41e450f7b