The Charred Tree

Diaspora: Someone Else’s Mail

“Wake up, Boss.” Nora’s voice came from somewhere near the center of the dark compartment that served as a stateroom aboard the frameship. The lights began coming up and the recorded sounds of flowing water faded to silence. “It is 1143 and we are approaching 2004 XR190. Braking maneuver will begin in 22 minutes, 15 seconds.”

Thomas Jefferson “TJ” Clarke stirred within his sleep bag. The retention straps held it in place. They were designed to keep the occupant secure within the coffin-sized space reserved for sleeping, but TJ had added the customized sleeping bag as his own personal touch. It made him sleep better. Most spacers used the standard harness and set the environmental controls for personal comfort levels thus eliminating the need for bedding during rest periods. As in most things, TJ preferred doing things his own way and kept the temperature in his room set cooler than the rest of the ship.

TJ rubbed his face with his hands and yawned as he awoke. “Thanks, Nora. Have you alerted Julia?”

“Julia has been on watch since 0800. She and I have analyzed the most recent survey reports of 2004 XR190 and plotted an orbit that will offer us excellent opportunities to scan the surface for grounding sites. Fifteen of the top twenty-five locations listed on the reports can be scanned within eight hours of achieving orbit.”

TJ yawned and shook his head to clear the last of the drowsiness from his mind. “It’s called ‘Buffy,’ Nora. ‘2004 XR190’ is too big a mouthful for me.” He pulled himself out of the sleep bag and reached for the singlet he had stuffed into one of the strap loops the night before.

“The planetoid does not have an official name other than its designation: 2004 XR190. Buffy was a nickname used by the researchers who discovered it but no name has been official assigned.” Nora sounded smug.

“‘Buffy’ is easier to say and I kind of like it. I wonder if it is related to that television show? The one with werewolves or vampires…something like that, anyway. Have we gotten any full shows of it?”

Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” Nora replied. “No, we have pieces of fourteen different episodes but nothing complete yet. Notes in the registry indicate the nickname is indeed a reference to the television series. I am uncertain how this planetoid is related to any of the information we have about the series.”

TJ sighed. Sometimes Nora took her analysis too far but he tried to take it in stride. It was a natural part of the AI maturing process. “Unless you can get the researchers on a comm channel and ask them, let’s just accept that it’s called ‘Buffy’ and go with it. OK?”

“Sure thing, Boss, if you say so. Braking maneuver commencing in 17 minutes, 52 seconds. You have time for breakfast if you hurry.”

“No breakfast. Is there hot kaffe on the bridge?” TJ learned on his first cruise that rushing a meal ahead of any delta-v would have disastrous results on his digestion.

“Yes. Julia made some a few minutes ago.” Nora replied. After a barely noticeable pause she added, “I have completed the decryption of the message sent from the communications probe that nearly hulled us.”

TJ pulled on the shoulder straps to his singlet. “I’d nearly forgotten you were working on that. What’s it been, almost a month?”

“29 days, 7 hours, 36 minutes, 16 seconds. It was a very complex, quadruple-layered, counterbalanced-null return encryption. Considering I had no information regarding even the type of cypher being used, I completed the task very quickly. The message contained a code that unlocked more information in the larger file sent under government encryption. The whole message is rather large. I have placed it in your access files. There is not enough time to review it all before braking begins.” Nora’s voice practically purred with satisfaction at her accomplishment.

TJ whistled his wonder as he pulled himself out of his quarters and expertly glided down the passageway that lead to the galley and then the bridge. “What the hell does ‘counterbalanced-null return’ even mean? I don’t even pretend to be a cryppie but I know the lingo well enough. I’ve never heard of that one.”

“It is a cutting edge encryption developed by a combined team from the government and representatives from the largest of the consortia. It utilizes formulas developed in multi-dimensional mathematics and quantum oremotics—real bleeding edge theoretical stuff. I had to teach myself a whole new branch of mathematics before starting the decryption.” Nora stated without letting even a hint of bragging seep into her voice.

“Cronus’s balls, girl! You did all that in only twenty-nine days? Next time remind me to have you do the windows, too. You’ve spent too much time loafing around.” TJ was impressed. He understood enough of what Nora had said to know that the accomplishment was quite a feat. He doubted any other AI outside of a major university could have done it.

“As if vacuum promotes grimy build-up on the viewing ports,” Nora quipped.

TJ pulled himself into the bridge and saw that Julia was strapped in at Navigation and sipping at a plastic globe of kaffe. She looked up as he entered.

“Nora told me you were on your way. Made it fresh.” Julia held out a second globe of kaffe to him.

“Thanks. Everything set for braking? How long to delta-v?” TJ sipped the hot stimulant.

“Everything is calculated, triple-checked, and locked in. Ten minutes, plus or minus. Has she been bragging about her cryptographical prowess to you, too?” Julia smiled like a doting mother.

TJ chuckled, “Oh, yes!”

“I was not bragging, Julia. My captain asked a question about the task he had assigned me and I answered him.” Nora stated flatly.

Julia half-heartedly grimaced while TJ activated the restraining harness at the helm. He glanced at his daughter and said in a stage-whisper, “Now you’ve done it. She’s miffed at you.” They both laughed.

“9 minutes, 12 seconds to braking maneuver. Next time figure out your own damned secret messages.” Nora snapped as TJ called the decrypted message up on the main display.

The words “Adjan 172” appeared in the upper left corner of the display and was quickly joined by an array of words, symbols, and numbers that quickly spread to the right and down. As data categories were added, the font got smaller until TJ could barely read it. Translucent arrows began flashing to the right and bottom of the display. Even smaller numbers appeared next to the arrows indicating the number of rows or columns being added. The numbers climbed steadily for almost a minute. When they stopped, TJ and Julia were dumbfounded to see how much information was in the file.

Julia was the first to recover enough to ask, “Nora, exactly how much data is in this file?”

“8.42 zettabytes.”

TJ and Julia looked at one another; their faces asking the same silent question—Did I hear that right?

Nora’s voice interrupted their confusion. “4 minutes to braking maneuver. Commencing engine reactor warming. Thruster assist cross-control calibrations locked.”

A series of heavy metallic impacts echoed through the ship. “All hatches secured and locked.”

The air vents in the bridge began to blow chilled air with more force. “Environmental systems secured for delta-v. 2 minutes, 52 seconds to braking maneuver.” Julia tore her eyes from the main display and focused on the navigation instruments. The strange message would have to wait until they were in orbit.

TJ lightly rested his hands on the helm controls. Nora would handle the actual piloting of the course change to achieve orbit around Buffy, but he always shadowed the commands on the manual override. It gave him the opportunity to practice while adding yet another level of safety in the event a worst-case scenario developed. He looked at the data on the main screen as the time ticked down. Something about it did not feel right.

“Nora, you’ve looked at all the data in that message. You have a theory on the purpose of that message?” he asked.

“Not a theory, Boss—it is a system survey of Adjan 172. It is the most complete and detailed survey I have ever encountered. In addition to the standard set of information, there are estimated mineral values estimated based upon commodity trading prices from 32 years ago.” A trace of satisfaction seeped into Nora’s voice. “Braking maneuver in 20 seconds.”

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