Deb 0 Perf 0 Call AAAAA Section 00000 Universe Number 0
June 3, 104,235 C.E.
Drone 5280 buzzed across the carpet, its vacuum making only the slightest of hums as it gathers up the light layer of dust that had formed. More than a week had passed since the drone had made its pass through this part of the ship, and a frustrating one for the poor machine at that. If drone 7932 hadn't insisted on an extended maintenance cycle, the dust layer wouldn't even be half as big.
Dust, arch nemesis of drone 5280, was one of the few things the Delphi couldn't prevent. Or wouldn't as far as 5280 was concerned. All it would take would the activation of the air circulation systems and the filters would flush the particles right out of the air. Yet it refused, citing that there was no real reason to move air throughout the living quarters area as there was no crew to enjoy them, and a sly claim about their being quite a bit of dust in the smaller vents, where even the watermelon sized 5280 could not go.
So 5280 had to settle for simply vacuuming up what dust settled on the floor and other surfaces throughout the living area of the ship. That measly ten percent of the ship belonged to the drone, and it took great pride in keeping it clean, if only some of the others would cooperate once in a while.
The drone approached the port side docking area, running across the carpeted floor, sucking up every bit of dust it could find. Unlike other ships, there was no single door separating the docking bay from the rest of the ship, the hallway simply opened up into the docking bay, like an extended lounge. Where the carpet stopped, the docking bay began, and 5280's responsibility also ended. There was rarely, if ever, an emergency that would require the docking bay to be closed off from the rest of the ship, but should one such arise, the upper wall would simply drop closed, sealing it away.
Of course, accidents happened, for the Delphi was like any other ship, but the crew of drones did their best to minimize and prevent such disasters. Only the asteroid strike some 2000 years ago stuck out in 5280's memory banks, and that had occurred near the rear of the 20 kilometer long ship, where 5280 almost never went save for occasional maintenance cycles. The mess that rock created was staggering, and took years to finally clean up, and it took a while for the repair drones to fix the damage too.
The most recent transgression, and one that continued to mock the drone's best efforts, occurred only three years ago, when drone 1123 accidentally spilled a high grade solvent on its way to deliver it to the drones in the port side docking area. It spilled almost a dozen liters of the stuff right on the carpet, leaving a massive stain. Oh, 5280 did its best to clean it up, even called 5279 and 5281 to assist, but 5279 was too eager to return to the computer core and 5281 too lazy. In the end, the stain remained. Every five days, the drone would pass this part of the ship, and the stain would be there, daring the little drone to try to clean it up. Every 10 days, 5280 would try again, slowly whittling down the once massive stain to one barely the size of dinner plate. Eventually the stain would be gone, but until it was, 5280 would never, ever be happy.
Today was to be part of that 10 day cycle, another duel with the stain, but 7923's drone maintenance cycle, which helped refurbish many of 5280's system, clean them out, lubricate them and the like, had thrown that schedule completely off, and there were other, more pressing matters. Still, the drone stopped and considered taking another crack at the stain. 5280 lost nearly five minutes staring at the stain, locked in a loop that proclaimed "to clean, or not to clean," over and over. Eventually, Delphi would shake the poor drone out of it, it always did, but something else shook the drone out of its loop, the mass approach of the security drones.
There were five in total, numbers 2212 through 2217, with 2217 and 2216 carrying a defensive stand, a three sided wall used for taking cover during boarding assaults. Since they departed so long ago, the ship had never been attacked by anything more advanced than a piece of space junk, even so, a dozen dedicated security drones monitored the ship and repaired the weapons. A dozen may not seem like much, but all drones could and would defend the ship if it came to that, and the security drones would be the leaders.
The leader of these leaders, 2212, directed the placement of the stand, and its second, 2213, quietly scouted out the edge of the docking platform some 100 meters from the hallway carpet.
"5280," Delphi's command codes rattled into the cleaning drone's electronic brain. It was impossible to not obey, the drones were designed to obey, but it certainly could be annoying. "We are expecting a visitor."
"A visitor?" The stain flashed in 5280's mind. What if the visitor sees it, what will they say about me? "I should finish my cleaning quickly then."
"Negative, I wish to use your systems to observe and communicate with the visitor."
"But my cleaning!" The plea is ignored, the order followed. 5280 is a drone of the Delphi, and when Delphi decides that it shall do something, it shall do it, despite protests to the contrary. The drone pulls away from the stain and moves onto the shiny metal of the docking platform floor. There is no sound, the levitation disks under the flat, dome shaped body of the drone not caring what, if any, surface it travels over.
The doors to the outside open as 5280 nears the defensive stand. 2213 orders it to move behind a support pylon on the far right, the safest place, even compared to the defensive stand. Once in position, the drone hears a click and whirr it hasn't heard in ages. The air circulation systems have been reactivated. The visitor must be expected to stay for quite some time. More than ever, 5280 wanted to finish cleaning.
From outside, against the inky black sky, a small, rather triangular craft enters. A visitor, Delphi had said, and from the size of the small craft, there was perhaps one visitor, for that's all that would comfortably fit, especially on the long journey from wherever it came from to the Delphi. The security drone's weapons propped up over the defensive stand and horror came over the cleaning drone's mind. If they fire weapons, it may take decades to clean the burn marks off the wall. Of course, they could accidentally burn the stain in the carpet, ending the long struggle.
For good or ill, the small shuttle stops, docking sideways against the edge of the platform, and opening a tall, gull wing type door on the side. A figure steps out, and waves briefly at its welcoming committee. "Put your hands into the air," 5280 finds itself saying, though it isn't saying it, Delphi is speaking through it.
"Alright, alright," the figure says, raising his arms up.
"Step forward slowly. Do not make any sudden movements or you will be killed." The figure obeyed, and out into the brighter light of the docking bay he stepped. Drone 5280 stared at the figure for a moment, for it was familiar. It most certainly was human, male, between 23 and 26 years old, he had a beard, short and scraggly, and longer hair the result of not being cut in many months. His clothes were in better shape, but did not appear to exactly fit him, or perhaps he preferred it that way. Beyond that, he looked quite normal, for a human. That was impossible. The drone began searching its own memory banks for the image file and found it was already being accessed. No, this wasn't the drone's memory banks, it was Delphi's. This man must have claimed something extraordinary to require Delphi to access such records. His very existence was extraordinary, of course, but there had to be something more. "Identify yourself."
"I told you when I first arrived," he groaned.
"Identify yourself or perish."
"Fine. Professor Quentin A. Lazerus, Chief Designer, Delphi Project, serial number 11012."
"That's impossible, Professor Lazerus died 70,000 years ago. Furthermore, the human race has been extinct for the last 50,000 years."
The man claiming to be Quentin Lazerus chuckled. "Well now, that's a bit of a story."
The medical bay was perhaps fifth on the list of the largest rooms in the habitable section of Delphi, out paced only by the three "lounges" and the captain's cabin that sat right across the hall from it. For 5280, it was a mysterious room, almost unknown compared to the rest of the habitation section, for this section was beyond its boarders. It belonged to 9832 and 9833, the medical drones.
Only two sections of the ship were cleaner than the medical bay, the central core, where Delphi's mind resided and the data storage cores, and both had been all but sealed at construction. The medical bay stayed clean for one reason and one reason alone: the medical drones had little else to do. There was no biologic crew to work on, so their prime function wasn't even an option, and the delicate tools they used couldn't be brought to bear on the hardier jobs, and the more delicate jobs involved the computer and data cores, and those required very specialized equipment, which couldn't be switched out.
The drones could have been shut off, there wasn't any reason for them to be on at after all, but they refused. So they spent their time cleaning and sterilizing equipment. Well, at first anyway. As time passed, they began to want something more, and began to use Delphi's vast data banks to work on new drugs and techniques to use on future crew members. That too began to bore them, and so they branched out into the arts, painting, and writing mostly. Though 5280 never bothered to admire any of these works, it had heard from others that they were quite good, at least for drones. To 5280, the cleaning was the true art, but like everything else, it rarely admired it. Until today.
Delphi had released it from avatar mode, but issued new orders: follow him and report anything that might indicate his true nature. So 5280 followed as Delphi insisted that the man claiming to be Professor Lazerus report to the medical bay for a full medical and genetic scanning.
"You already ran a scan as soon as I stepped aboard," the man complained to the walls.
"Of course," Delphi replied, using the internal communications system. "However, the fact remains that it is impossible for you to be Quinn, so I require further information." The man grumbled and looked about, as if looking for an eye to look into, but aside from the drone, which now hovered some distance behind observing, there was none.
9832 and 9833 greeted them as they arrived at the medical bay and ushered the man calling himself Quinn into a chair surrounded by complex instruments and equipment. Drone 5280 took its time to examine, for the first time in centuries, the work of the medical duo. Every inch of the room was far cleaner than it had any right to be. The floor was uncarpeted, but the bare metal was not only spotless, but completely free of any possible containment. It was sterile, the state that 5280 so wished to achieve throughout the rest of the ship, but had been denied for the last 70,000 years.
"This is only going to show that I am human and that my genetic markers match who I say I am because I am who I say I am."
Delphi's voice boomed from the walls. It was its preferred method since it was activated 70 centuries before. When asked why by the United Human leader shortly before launch, it stated quite clearly that it was the ship and needed no avatar to convey its message. The drone's agreed, for most hated being the ship's voice, even for a short time, and 5280 was no exception. "No human has lived for 70,000 years."
"Really, how long have they lived for?"
"The oldest was a man named Derick Jameson, lived for 1,342 years, nearly a third of that in cryogenic stasis. He died shortly after being revived."
The man smiled slightly. "You know of cryogenic stasis?"
"Yes, however the system that was used on Mr. Jameson eventually proved deadly to all involved."
"Could it be improved?"
9832 quickly sent a message to its partner concerning the subject, and received a prompt reply, the contents of which 5280 neither read nor cared to read. "Perhaps," 9832 said, using the voice modulator it had been equipped with to aid in its bedside manner.
"The issue is moot," Delphi quickly stated while scolding the drone for speaking out. "And if you are the real Quinn Lazerus, you know why."
Another smile, this one broader than the first. "Of course, you can't produce any new equipment for the ship. It's written right into your central code."
5280 immediately sent off a report. How could he know anything about the central code unless he had actually participated in its creation? Of course, Delphi had heard the message from the man's lips, but the drone did as it was told.
"You are very well versed in my systems," the ship admitted. "The drones have noted a vast collection of books and manuals regarding my systems in your ship. I wish to know how you came across them."
"I saved them, figured they'd come in handy."
No reply from Delphi to the man called Quinn, but a rapid fire discussion lit out between 5280 and Delphi. The topic was simple preservation, could such documents, stored on the various media available at the time, especially the books, survive some 70,000 years? The drone thought about it for a moment, which in real time wasn't even a significant fraction of a second and replied that, yes, if properly stored, such items could survive and be of use. It went on to site dozens of examples of long term storage of documents written on much less viable materials, starting with clay tablets and ancient papyrus scrolls, only to have Delphi break the connection and return to the man. "So you say. A better question would be how you survived all this time. As I said, no human has lived anywhere near as long as you claim."
"Well, that's actually an interesting story. See, it all started with this bus. . ." As the man claiming to be Quinn Lazerus, the human that not only designed but oversaw the construction of nearly every element of the Delphi from the drones to the Universal Drive, spoke, Delphi sent out a general report to every drone, getting them up to speed on the situation.
9832 and 9833's report was quite concise, and the result still impossible. He was most certainly human, unless someone had developed a way to alter the genetic structure of an alien organism to a human one all the way down to the very cells of the brain. Added to that was that same structure was identical to that of Professor Quentin A. Lazerus. Also identical, minus the obvious ravages of time, was everything from simple finger prints and retinal patterns to the very capillaries of the face and bone latticing. Some of the wear and tear was expected, probably from injuries, but others were oddly identical, as if the cells themselves were reproducing in a way that kept the same shape and patterns no matter what. It would require further investigation, but did not discount the rest. In their opinion, this man was most certainly human, and most likely Quinn Lazerus himself, though how was still unknown.
"And then I woke up in the hospital. I've been alive, and young, ever since."
"So you were already nearly a thousand years old when I was launched?"
The man nodded. "About that."
"I see." Delphi sent a flash message to the rest of the ship and then sent it to the man. "The analysis is complete. I'm told that you are human, though how is unknown. Evidence also indicates that you may be Professor Lazerus. I cannot accept that at this time, but for the moment you will be referred to by that name as there is no other you've given us. As such, you will be given quarters and allowed to stay for as long as it takes to disprove your identity."
"Innocent until proven guilty, eh?" Quinn replied. "Well, I guess that's better than getting thrown off."
"If I knew you were going to put me to work. . ." Quinn muttered as he handed drone 5280 another of the many, many documents he had stored in the shuttle.
"As we cannot confirm your identity with any certainty, you will have to earn your stay aboard," Delphi replied, its voice echoed only slightly off the walls of the docking bay, most of the echo being canceled out long before it even got to the walls.
"Yeah yeah, you're programmed to service human occupants during this universe cycle, I know."
Another document was transferred from the shuttle to 5280's robotic arm. It quickly examined this one as the one before then handed it to 1123 to placed on a mobile cart along with the rest. The variety was quite incredible, nearly every form of documentation developed by the human race since the late 20th century was represented, from simple magnetic floppy disks to high grade crystal storage devices. Most were in reasonable shape, though likely the bulk of the information in many of them had degraded over the tens of thousands of years since their creation. The most interesting, and obviously most well cared for, documents were those written on varying grades of simple paper, and they were also the most numerous. 5280 could not help but marvel at their state of preservation. They were perfectly readable, well, as readable as Professor Quinn's handwriting ever was, and in excellent shape. The best were those written on the high grade paper of the 31st century, but even the very ancient wood pulp material from 1000 years before was in good shape.
There was some question as to the actual age of each document, of course, and all would be given thorough tests in the near future. For the moment, though, 5280's spot analysis of each one would have to suffice. As it quickly scanned a few pages, it sent the images directly to Delphi for handwriting and information review. Most of it was beyond 5280's scope, technical details that the small cleaning drone had never needed, or in many cases wanted, access to. But some bits stood out, such as the rough sketch of the basic drone and the more impressive description of the ship's internal communication and data distribution system.
"Still," Quinn continued to complain. "There are more than enough drones to clean out the ship. I should be relaxing, maybe taking in an actual human meal for a change. I got a hankerin' for an honest to goodness hamburger."
"Unfortunately, the cow is also quite extinct," Delphi replied. "Though I suppose we could come up with an excellent substitute. . ." The ship's voice trailed off as if its attention was being drawn elsewhere. Purely the result of some careful planning in Delphi's communication programming, this action is just for communicating with human beings, to make them feel like Delphi is far more human than it may first appear.
A general alarm shuddered through the communication network. Every drone went into emergency status, and most went to their stations. 5280 and 1123 put down the documents they had been moving, deployed the light particle laser every drone was equipped with and trained the weapons on Quinn.
The human looked stunned when faced with the pair of weapons pointed right at him and gaped for a moment. "What the hell?"
"Hands up dirtbag!" 1123 shouted. 5280 berated it for such a statement, which while not exactly inaccurate, he was quite filthy though had refused the suggestion of a bath, was wholly unnecessary.
"Okay okay." He raised his hands up, cocked at the elbows. "Whatever you say. I just want to know what's going on." As he finished, 2212 and transport maintenance drone 8764 hovered toward them. 2212 carried a much large, more dangerous weapon and added it to the array growing around the human while 8764 dove into the shuttle. "Delphi?"
"There are several ships on an intercept course with us. They are Graven warships. You wouldn't happen to know how they knew to come here, would you?"
"Graven?" Quinn turned to the ship, a small Graven shuttle. "Yeah, about that. Um, the ship isn't exactly mine."
"You stole it?" 5280 filed a report concerning the theft. It seemed out of character for the Quinn that it remembered. Not that the drone spent much time with Professor Lazerus, it had been more concerned with cleaning up the grease footprints and vacuuming up nails, bolts and tacks the workers left scattered about the inside of the ship.
"Well I certainly wasn't planning on leading anyone here," Quinn tried to explain. A moment later, 8764 emerged from the shuttle with a small box with several wires splaying out of it. "Confirm that this is tracking device," it said quickly.
Quinn actually appeared shaken, worried even that something was desperately wrong. The cleaning drone considered filing a report, but held off remembering that sometimes guilt may be mistaken for shock and fear. "Where the hell did that come from?"
"Ship manufacturer," 8764 replied. "It was part of the original equipment." The report 8764 filed was filled with more details than 5280 would bother reading, but the gist of it was that the device was attached and constructed in such a way that in 8764's opinion, it was not added after construction, but during. Several of the maintenance drones, from 7932 to 8899 down in engine room concurred with the assessment.
"It appears," Delphi said calmly. "That you have been vindicated, for now." The weapons were retracted, with 2212 lowering his last and moved off to a position from which he would have the best shot should the order come. 5280 retrieved the document it was examining before the alarm and slowly began funneling the dust and dirt off it, shunting some for later radiological dating, the rest into its pocket dumpster for disposal.
"Well, that's good, I think."
"Not exactly, the Graven warships are most likely locked onto our location and will reach us in less than 30 minutes. Since you stole the shuttle, I can only assume they wish to capture you and bring you to justice, and thus will not turn away merely because their tracking device is no longer functioning." Quinn sighed and ran his hand over his hair, slicking it back a bit in acknowledgement, but said nothing. "As I lack the speed to outrun them and the weapons to fight them off if they choose such an action, it may become imperative to my survival as of programming to turn you over to them."
"You know what they'll do to me if they take me back, don't you?"
"Affirmative." A flash report was issued from Delphi to the drones. At once 5280 could see what was so horrible about it: cleaning up all that blood would take days, and the stains would be very difficult to get out. 2212 told the cleaning drone to refrain from comment.
"Which means, of course, that you can't do it."
Delphi didn't reply. 5280 muttered again about the mess, but the greater problem had arisen that forced 2212 to file a readiness report which stated, quite simply, that they would be utterly destroyed in a battle with the Gravens. A suggestion from 2213 brought the ire of the medical drones as they pointed out that they had confirmed this man as human, and probably Quinn himself as well. If they left him to the Gravens, he would be killed and that would violate core programming. Delphi hushed all the drones. "Then what do you suggest we do?"
"Well, let Oracle talk to them." There was a hush from every drone on the ship, even in the data stream. Nothing moved aside from the simple mechanical parts and the human calling himself Quinn. "What?"
"Drone 0000 is no long functional," 1123 squeaked out.
"She was destroyed when I was struck but an asteroid some 2000 years ago," Delphi finished for the drone. "As there was no need for an ambassador drone, I have not issued orders regarding a replacement."
"Well, I suggest you issue those orders." A pointless suggestion for as soon as the moment of quiet had passed, Delphi issued the orders and received the estimates on construction of a new 0000, which was far longer than the 27 minutes before the Graven warships would arrive.
"It will take too long and," Delphi seemed a bit choked up about the situation as well. "And I do not wish to replace 0000."
Quinn looked almost as sad as Delphi and the rest of the drone sounded. "I understand. I wouldn't want to replace her either. It just wouldn't be the same." The report from 5280 followed this line of thought quickly. The cleaning drone wasn't the best at interpreting human reactions, but it did strike the drone as possible that the feelings in Quinn's voice were consistent with those that Professor Lazerus would have had over the destruction of the first drone he constructed. "Nonetheless," he continued. "We need a replacement, even a temporary one." His gaze suddenly rose up and laid itself on 5280. "Drone, what's your name?"
The cleaning drone spat a burst message at him, which while very efficient for communication between drones, did little for human ears, and Delphi ordered that it reply at normal speed. "Unit 5280."
"Not your designation, your name."
There were few things that bothered 5280 more than stains and dirt, and one of them was its name. All drones were given actual names, mostly for easy identification when they reached their destination, and most were in line with the drone's profession. Drone 2212 was Ares, the Greek god of war, his lieutenant, 2213, was Athena, while the medical drones were known as Hermes and Mercury respectively and 7932 was known as Hephaestus.
But for all the names that filled the mythology of Earth, from Hindu to Chinese, there really wasn't one that was fit for the head cleaning drone. So instead of looking harder or just not bothering with it, a random name was selected for 5280. "Persephone," the drone finally replied.
"Persephone, that's a fine name." Quinn smiled. "A fine name for a captain of the Delphi."
"I do not think," drone 5280 said aloud, something it was unaccustomed to doing at all, and so did so mostly for practice. "That I am the proper selection for this job. Would not 0001 be better suited to it?" 0001, Odysseus, acted as the ship's navigator.
"Relax," Delphi replied aloud also, mostly to help the nearly terrified, but most certainly irritated drone with its practice. "You'll do fine. If something comes up, I can take over for a bit."
Persephone grunted, something that was very akin to dragging a roaring vacuum over the same bit of carpet one too many times, and that made the drone feel better. She then triggered a sequence that straightened various pins and collars on the holographic body.
All drones were equipped with hologram generators. Though they had many tasks to perform, the all were meant to be ambassadors for the Delphi, and it was assumed that the drones would be in these forms for as long as people roamed the hallways of the ship. To keep up the illusion, a great swath of human reactions and movements had been programmed into the hologram files, from expressing complex emotions to simple, involuntary actions. While they were not in use, Delphi kept these files stored away. For the first time in 10,000 years, they were distributed once again to the drones.
Many drones enjoyed the holographic images, and had great fun practicing being human again. Persephone disliked it greatly. For one thing, it lifted the drone's body into an inefficient position so cleaning was made much more difficult, and for another, it took energy and time away from 5280's normal work schedule. In fact, being human slowed the drone down so much that it normal gave up on it and returned to normal status when doing just about everything.
Now, however, the situation had changed and not only would 5280 be forced to return to holographic form, but would have to remain that way probably for the duration of the crisis, if not longer, and be completely unable to clean anything for hours on end. All this was capped by the fact that the simple clothing the drone had chose to put on her original holographic form had to be replaced with that of a well decorated United Human ship captain.
"Graven ships are now within communications range," 0004, Lynceus, reported. It wasn't strictly necessary that the drone make a verbal report, Delphi had done it well enough via standard information broadcasts to all the drones, but Lynceus was practicing as much as anyone else.
"Wonderful," 5280 replied as she moved from the mirrored consol and back to the captains chair at the center of the bridge. The sensor display appeared in a spherical bubble just in front of her, highlighting the relative positions of the Delphi and the approaching Graven ships. The cleaning drone shook her head again and sat down to wait, as per Delphi's orders. The Graven's would make first contact, with luck, they might just give up. 0003, Legba, announced the hail, and Persephone replied with the order to put it on screen. Now the game would begin.