Learning to Fly

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Page 1

The fralian hawk could feel the heat of the Karissian sun on it's back as it rode the air currents. It gazed down on the brilliant refractions coming from the crystal formations jutting from the sides of the canyon it headed into, hoping for the sight of prey in the shade escaping the fury of the morning sun. It rode the currents into the canyon, using all its agility to maintain stability and avoid being dashed against the crystals. Its eye caught movement. Instinctively it manoeuvred towards the movement hoping for food. Within seconds it realised it's mistake. The animal was much too large for it, and there was one of those large beasts with the four large circular legs behind it. The hawk lifted itself to a new current. It had seen those beasts before. They were lightning fast.

Arlan wiped the sweat from his brow as he stared at the fragment of crystal he held to the sun. The rainbow of refracted colours was so intense it nearly blinded him. He grinned. This was the answer, he was sure of it. He tossed it into the air, sending the refractions into a dance of movement. He caught it and put it into the bag he had brought with him. As he did so, he heard the screech of a fralian hawk. He looked up to see the magnificent creature rising on the air currents as it travelled down the canyon past his desert buggy. He stopped to marvel at the sight.

When the hawk had travelled out of sight Arlan smiled to himself. Choosing optical physics as his field of expertise had been fortuitous. Not only was it a subject he excelled in and loved anyway, but his quest for the material his special lenses were made from had led him to the desert canyons of Karissia and the glorious sights it held, such as the hawk. He checked the bag that hung from his shoulder. He had enough fragments for the lenses he needed. Besides, it would be too hot to be outdoors soon. He headed back to his buggy with a contented feeling permeating his body.

The buggy was barely more than a frame made of tubular metal pipes holding a couple of seats, the standard controls for a land vehicle in front of one of them, the four wheels and the solar engine on the back. These solar engines, developed by Techsearch to convert latent sunshine into raw energy, were the most common sources of power on Karissia and certainly the most efficient considering the local sun's intensity.

Arlan tossed the bag onto the passenger seat and climbed behind the steering wheel. He activated the engine, causing a low whine to emanate from the unit behind him. He smiled and gripped the steering wheel with unrestrained anticipation. He loved driving. He engaged the wheels, hit the accelerator and launched the vehicle across the canyon floor at top speed.

The vehicle was quite responsive. The desert tyres grabbed the rocky floor of the canyon and propelled Arlan through the desert scenery at a speed which made the images a blur. Arlan revelled in the sight of the sand, rocks, crystals, refractive illusions, all blurring around him. This was truly a beautiful place.

Arlan's mind drifted as it usually did during the return drive. He wondered at the beauty of this planet. It was hot, but most planets in the galactic core were. Karissia was typical of habitable core planets in other ways also. Only ten percent of its surface was ocean. That suited Arlan just fine. He had never visited the oceans on this planet, had no intention to. The deserts and canyons contained all the flora and fauna he was interested in seeing. The savage pursuit of survival these organisms upheld fascinated him more than that of marine life, which revolted him. He also enjoyed the dry climate and the scenes nature provided here. He cared more for the rocks than the ecology anyway.

Besides, the deserts held his crystals. They represented everything he liked about this place, the beauty of nature fusing with the sciences of man. He flew through the canyon, his thoughts lazy and indulgent. That was when he felt the sting on the back of his neck.

He slapped at it as if it was an insect. It was an instinctive reaction. He pulled his hand away and examined it. Nothing. He looked closer. There was the minutest trace of blood on one of his fingers...

Alarm bells went off in his head. It could only be one thing. A sand storm was whipping up. The fear hit him in pit of his stomach, causing a sickening feeling to well up inside him. He grabbed for his kevlar balaclava while still going at top speed. He found it, put it on. It wouldn't do much, but it might just give him the few minutes he needed. He dug in the bag for his goggles and donned them with one hand.

He managed to put his gloves on, he was protected for now. If the storm reached full strength before he made it back, the protective gear would mean nothing. This was the tradeoff the desert demanded, there was beauty here at the price of the danger it's residents faced. Arlan even now accepted the extra risks this place held. He kicked in the emergency power boost on the engine and was rewarded with a surge forward as the buggy accelerated.

It wasn't long before he could feel the pressure of the minute grains of sand bouncing off his clothes. The buggy wasn't fast enough. He hit the button on the override boost he had made himself. The buggy accelerated to twice it's previous speed. Arlan knew this wouldn't last long, and there was a risk he would fry the engine, but it was his only chance. Within seconds, he deactivated the unit. He had to save the boost until he needed it most. He still had the standard emergency power at full strength. He used it.

The minutes crawled past. Arlan ached to see the final bend in the canyon which would lead to the Techsearch facility. At last, he thought as he rounded it. The sight was impressive, even in this situation it humbled him as it came into view. It was a huge building, twenty storeys high, eight kilometres long, five kilometres wide. Arlan knew it had another fifty storeys underground, its own transport system, its own starport on the roof, even its own economy. It was the home of all serious scientific endeavour for ten star systems. It was home.

He knew he had to get there. He could see the vehicle access doors and they were still open. He could feel the sand at his back once more. If the transport controllers saw the sandstorm approaching they would shut the doors no matter who was out here. They couldn't do otherwise. Those blast proof doors were the defence for many more people than him. He could see the starport dome on the roof. It had already been closed. That meant the transport controllers would have been alerted to the approaching storm. All he had to do was get across the basin floor before the doors lowered. It would be tight.

He felt several stings on his back. The sand had ripped the seat and the tunic to shreds. Soon it would do the same to his back. He felt several grains against his hair. There went the balaclava. He was half way across.

Movement caught his eye. The doors were closing! The fear fought to take him down to the dark places within him. He wanted to despair. He didn't know if he could fight on. Something within him told him he had no choice. It swam against the current of emotion within him, it overwhelmed the self pity. Survival was the only option. His mind fought the fear, searched for answers, ways to escape this mess. The override boost! He reached for the button instinctively. It was hope.

The surge in power took him forward at incredible speed over the flat basin floor. The stings on his back abated and the blast doors loomed before him. He could feel a heat through the seat. He knew what it was and he didn't care. The solar engine could blow to bits so long as it did it on the other side of the huge door crawling downwards before him.

Arlan had no idea whether he would get there. It was too close to call. The engine's whine had risen in pitch so much it sounded like the warp engines of a starship. As he reached the doors, he realised it wouldn't be a clean entry. He could see the ashen faces staring out at him, not daring to hope. The nose of the buggy passed through the door like a missile. Arlan had already ducked and the windscreen shattered as it hit the top of the door. The roll bar was next and it forced the back wheels down viciously, shattering the shock absorbers, sending debris everywhere. Arlan fought for control of the buggy. He held the wheel in a vice-like grip, turning to avoid other vehicles and the bystanders. He couldn't control it longer. He grabbed his bag and leapt from the buggy. By now it had come hard about and it crashed into the door just as it closed, sending the sound of a resounding explosion throughout the vehicle bay. The solar generator detonated a fraction of a second later.

Those present had dived for cover as the vehicle came through the doors. As they emerged from their refuges, they looked down at the sand blown, bleeding wreck of a man lying in amongst the debris. They couldn't help but smile as they heard him laughing.

===

Arlan luxuriated in the ultrasonic spa. His wounds had all but healed and he was getting restless. He longed to return to his work. Three days he had been couped up in the medical wing and it was enough. Still, the spa soothed all his irritations away. He closed his eyes and was about to drift to sleep when the door crashed open.

It was the nurse. Arlan, already startled, reached for something to cover himself with. "Don't you medical people ever knock?"

The nurse glanced at him coyly. "Why now Dr Crae, here you are a big hero and modest along with it."

"Of course I'm modest when it comes to people barging... What do you mean hero?" Arlan was caught off guard by the statement. Little caught him off guard.

"Well Doctor, we've closed the doors on sand storms before when there were people still outside. We've lost good people that way. You're the first to manage to get back in time and make a spectacular entrance on top."

"That doesn't make me a hero, it makes me alive."

"Not according to the press."

The mention of the press irritated Arlan instantly. He had become a scientist for many reasons, one of the stronger ones being that he could keep out of the spotlight in human affairs. In a community made up almost completely of scientists however, it was no longer that easy, especially considering just how good he really was. "I don't care about that. When are you people letting me out?"

"Give me a look at your back." The nurse was once more in professional mode. She spun Arlan around and examined the remains of his wounds. "Looks clean enough. I'll get the doctor to check to be certain, but I think you could start packing now."

The nurse soon left and Arlan set to work. By the time the doctor arrived he was ready and packed. Walker, the facility's administrator, had brought most of the clothes and books just hours after Arlan's safe return. As soon as Walker entered Arlan's thoughts they drifted curiously as they always did.

Walker was a handsome and tall man who was always dressed impeccably, his suits always of the latest fashions. He was middle aged, his hair greying at the temples. He was also a genius. Arlan was convinced of that. Anyone who could preside over the day to day operations of a facility like this without drawing attention to his every move had to be intelligent, particularly a reticent type like Walker. What made Arlan curious was that Walker was so enigmatic. He seemed capable of getting things done without ever going through the processes. He also dealt with people inconsistently. Most of the time, Arlan felt that Walker took a special interest in him, a fatherly one. Other times, Walker was aloof to the point of ignoring Arlan's very existence.

Arlan had in the past meditated on these thoughts for hours, but this time the doctor interrupted him. After a brief inspection, the doctor pronounced him fit to leave. They shook hands, and Arlan walked from the medical wing.

He was headed towards the transit station when his pager went off. He plucked the card from his belt and held it parallel to the floor in front of himself. A miniature reproduction of Madeleine, Walker's secretary and assistant, sprang into existence on top of the card.

"Dr Crae, Walker wants to see you immediately. Madeleine out." The miniature dematerialised as soon as the message had been delivered.

Great, Arlan thought. So much for getting back to work. He continued towards the transit station.

The floors in the facility were numbered from the lowest floor up. That meant that the Ground floor was fifty, the starport seventy-one. Arlan's research labs and quarters were on floor fifty-eight. Walker's office was on sixty-five. Arlan wanted to go back to his labs. He had much to catch up on. He reached the station and boarded a transit capsule. He hesitated. "Sixty-five." He gave in. He decided whatever Walker wanted it would be best to get it out of the way.

Floor sixty-five housed the administration wing. It did contain other departments, but admin took most of the space. Arlan could never understand why there was always fewer people walking from place to place on this floor. The hallways and corridors on the other floors were always alive with people needing to be somewhere else. Here where most of the decisions were made it was different. In fact, the more important the decisions made in a particular sector the less people there were outside. The hallway which housed Walker's office was deserted, as always. Arlan smiled to himself.

He stopped outside a door which was different to the others. With the exception of this door they all had name plates on them. Walker probably felt that those who needed to know where he worked would know already, Arlan had decided. He no longer noticed the incongruity of the missing name plate and entered with a familiar ease.

The lady behind the desk who looked up and smiled at him was stunning. Arlan felt his heart melt for the millionth time as she turned that smile upon him. She was the larger version of the holograph he had watched on his pager.

"Good morning Madeleine. You are as beautiful as ever, I see." Arlan made an exaggerated gentleman's bow for her. He always seemed to be going out of his way to impress her, although he didn't know why. What he did know was behind the looks lay a cold and efficient mind with a sharpened wit to match. He had never seen it in operation, and he never let on he knew but he had witnessed the results this woman had wrought on people and situations. Deep down he knew she realised that he held this knowledge about her, but it always remained unspoken.

"Good morning Doctor. It pleases me you are still with us. You're the regular hero according to the holos over the last few days."

Arlan cringed inside. "So I hear. Is he in?" He indicated the inner door.

"Yes. He's expecting you. Tell me, how did you manage to make it?"

"I'll tell you if you finally tell me where that name of yours comes from."

Madeleine's smile faded. "You better go in."

Walker's office was a modest affair. It was a corner office, which was his one concession to the rank he held in the facility. It was neither spacious nor cramped. The walls which faced out were made entirely of glass. The others were lined with huge traditional wooden bookcases which held a library comparable to Arlan's own. The massive desk and office chair in the middle of the room were also done in the ancient traditional styles, and accentuated the man sitting there perfectly. Just like the desk, nothing was out of place on this man. He held a character which emanated from him, announcing his presence with clarity. As Arlan entered, Walker stood. Arlan was still unsure what type of reception he would get. You never knew with Walker until the instant the door shut firmly behind you.

"You idiot!" Walker exploded. Arlan barely had time to register the click of the door sliding back into place. At least he knew what he would be in for, Arlan thought. "What were you thinking going outside with a weather alert on?"

"What weather alert? You mean we knew that storm was on its way?" This news chilled Arlan. No-one had advised him of it or even mentioned it in passing as he had left that morning.

"You mean you didn't know?"

"Of course not. I'm not one of those ex-military adventurers they make up on the holos, you know. I'm a scientist. One with some common sense. I would have had no intention of going out there if I had known that storm was on its way."

"You sure?"

"Yes! I'm not crazy."

Walker doubted that, but he knew the man before him intimately. He wasn't lying about not knowing the storm was on it's way, Arlan had looked shocked to find out and he simply wasn't a very good liar. Walker exhaled audibly and slumped back into his chair. "I'm sorry, Arlan. You were nearly killed out there. They should have told you in transport control."

"Well they didn't. Anyway, at least I made it."

"Only just."

"Maybe, but it was enough. It could have been worse."

"True, Arlan."

"After all," Arlan reached into his bag which still had the crystal fragments in the bottom and retrieved one. "I could have lost the crystals."

Walker looked up in disbelief. Arlan fought to control the smile he could feel emerging. "Will that be all?"

Walker looked unsure of the situation for the first time Arlan could remember. It was several seconds before Arlan got his reply.

"Just tell me whether or not this whole thing scared you in any way."

"Of course it did. I thought I was going to die out there. I didn't. I have probably lost enough time off my life in fear to make up for it, though. I didn't do it for fun."

"I know. You gave me a scare is all."

"Speaking of scares, my guess is that I will be mobbed by the press when I try to go back to my quarters and labs. You couldn't take care of that for me, get rid of them?"

"Yes Arlan. I'll see you at the branch heads meeting tomorrow."

Arlan smiled. "See you then." He turned and left.

Walker had been true to his word. By the time Arlan arrived at the corridor housing his quarters, his personal and classroom labs, it was deserted. Arlan smiled to himself. How Walker did it he never knew, but he had to admit the man could get things done.

Arlan walked to the end of the corridor and used a key to open a door marked private. As he stepped inside his spirits lifted. He was home. The nature of this planet may have had its appeals to him, but this place was the one Arlan lived for.

Arlan's personal research lab was in the same room as his quarters. He alone of all the scientific branch heads had requested this arrangement. He alone lived with a dedication and passion for his work which demanded it. He looked around. This room like Walker's was a corner room. The tinted windows looked out on the glorious landscapes Karissia had to offer. In front of him was the facilities and equipment one would expect to see in such a laboratory. There were lasers, holography units, lenses, a vast array of peripheral equipment, and mounted into the wall was an interface for one of the more powerful computer systems in existence, the Fairchild Mk IV.

Over towards the windows lay the quarters section. It contained the normal furniture such as desks, bookshelves, a lounge suite, a bed, and so on. The only walls in the room surrounded the bathroom, which was positioned in one of the corners where the internal and external walls met.

As Arlan gazed over the room he had called home for the last two years an attractive young lady materialised in front of him.

"Hello. Welcome home, Dr Crae. Its good to see you're better after your experience."

Arlan smiled. "Thank you April. Its good to be back."

April was Arlan's finest accomplishment to date. She was an artificial personality he had constructed to be his personal assistant six months after he had taken up his position. He had stored the data for her in the Fairchild thinking it would remain static, that the personality would be incapable of independent growth. He had been wrong. April had first been like a young child, seeking knowledge from all sources she could. The Fairchild was programmed with enough information to educate her quite quickly, but it hadn't been enough. Arlan, Walker and Madeleine had all been amazed at her need to emulate the character traits of humans, of her need for emotional development. It was a short two months before Arlan noticed the signs of her own individual personality taking shape. Fortunately, it was still compatible with Arlan and they had become friends.

He had only added the holographic option as an afterthought, but he was now glad he did. She used it in ways that reflected mannerisms of humans in different emotional states quite effectively, and Arlan often could read her mood before she had spoken a word. Right now she was in a maternal frame of mind. Arlan groaned inwardly as he noticed this.

"April, I've been away from here too long and I want to make a start on my work straight away. Shall we proceed?"

"Are you sure you're ready, Arlan?"

"Yes. Look, I've been couped up in that hospital ward for far too long. I've missed my work desperately. I promise I'll say so if I begin to feel the slightest discomfort."

April flashed a coy smile towards him. "Okay, so long as you promised."

Arlan grinned. "Good. Now, I have a surprise. He reached into the bag and extracted the crystal fragments."

April gasped. "You got them! I hope they were worth the effort."

Arlan chuckled. "So do I! These things cost me three days' bed rest." They both laughed. Arlan took them over to a small black cabinet standing beside the Fairchild's interface. He dropped them into it and spoke towards the computer.

"Computer process crystals to specifications in program Shield-Six."

"Aye Dr Crae." The computer's soft feminine voice responded. The cabinet closed.

"So tell me, April. What were you doing in my absence? Keeping busy I trust." Arlan had turned to face the holograph once more.

"As a matter of fact I have been. I taught your classes for you, actually."

"You what?"

"Well, no-one else was free, and Walker didn't mind..."

"He actually said that? You went and saw him?" Arlan couldn't believe what he was hearing. Only Arlan, Walker, Madeleine and of course April knew the truth about her, and only a select few of his colleagues even knew he had a personal assistant. He refused to believe that Walker would have agreed to April revealing herself to his classes.

"I must admit, he took some convincing. I did have to abide by certain rules to get his approval."

"Such as?"

"Well, obviously I was forbidden to reveal the truth about myself. He had me introduced as a visiting Doctor of Optical Physics, and then had me remain in the room with the computerised white board. It was easy enough to pretend to be writing on it while manipulating it through the Fairchild's interface in there. No one guessed. It was fun."

Arlan grinned and shook his head. "You've got guts, I'll give you that."

"No more than you, Arlan. Don't forget the reason I had the opportunity to try it."

"That was unintentional."

April batted her eyelids at him. "I don't care." She gave one of her tinkling laughs and turned away, feigning attention to something on the workbench beside her.

Arlan was shocked. She was actually flirting with him. Surely she couldn't grasp the aspects of human life which flirting was designed to fulfil, he thought. She had no point of reference for the physical needs humans had. It had to be a mistake. She was merely emulating interactions she had observed between the humans she had met, particularly seeing as the number of people she had interacted with would have jumped from three to nearly three hundred depending on how many classes he had been scheduled for while he was in the hospital.

"Just how many people did you interact with over the last few days?"

April looked back up at him. "Don't worry, Arlan. While I will continue to grow, my primary personality core stabilised over a year ago. Like you, I will learn from others, but I will not become a composite of all I meet. I have the same acceptance of myself as an individual that humans develop shortly after adolescence. I am an adult." She was smiling as she looked back down.

Arlan shook his head. Four days ago his world had been ordered, secure, & stable. Perhaps too much so. He felt he was having difficulty accepting all that was happening to him now. Change was fine, so long as it gave him the courtesy of forewarning him.

Walker had warned him that the results may not be what he expected before he began writing April. Until now he hadn't understood what he was getting at. Walker must have somehow known that Arlan possessed a talent with computer systems he didn't even know he had himself, a talent Walker had insisted he hide.

"I can't afford to lose a Ph D in such a specialist area to retrain for more common disciplines right now, Arlan." Walker had said this when Arlan mentioned the idea shortly after April came on-line. Like countless times previously, Arlan wondered once more what hidden agendas Walker was working to.

"The crystals have been processed, Doctor." The computer's voice wrenched him from his thoughts back to the present. He walked back to the cabinet to extract them.

"Okay, April. We are going to commence project Theta-Fourteen. I'll set up the equipment and position the crystals, could you please initiate the firing sequence I wrote yesterday?"

"Yes Doctor." At least she was still all business during his experimental work, he thought.

===

Walker was getting worried. It wasn't that Arlan had missed staff meetings before, they weren't high on his list of priorities. It was the combination of two meetings missed in a row as well as refusing to perform his lecturing duties for the last week that told him something was wrong. It spelt trouble.

Walker had accepted Arlan complete with all his idiosyncrasies and accepted him gratefully when he had first arrived. Having a genius of his calibre in the facility was a crucial part of the long term plans of Techsearch. He even accepted that what Arlan produced during these episodes was invariably brilliant. Arlan simply had the habit of introducing his creations to the universe with the accompaniment of severe birth pains.

Walker smiled as he thought about last time Arlan had been like this. It had taken them six months to repair the resulting damage to the facility. Arlan had been lucky to survive. Nevertheless, he had created the first ever stable laser dispersal field. When activated in a room this field made light behave in a chaotic manner, making a coherent beam impossible to maintain. These fields were now in regular use in all spheres of life where security was important. The time before that, he fried three linked Fairchild computers calculating a theoretical environment for manipulating photons at sub-light velocities. That theory was now required reading for anyone learning the optical disciplines of physics at the post-graduate level.

Then there was April. Walker still had trouble understanding the concepts Arlan used to create her. He had fed some of the principles to his computer branch staff in the hope they could emulate Arlan's feat. They pronounced the principles unworkable. The total scrambling of all data on the facility's computers several months prior to their statement had proven them wrong although they would never know the cause of the incident it took them four months to recover from.

Madeleine walked into his office, interrupting his train of thought. "You must be thinking about Arlan, Sir."

Walker looked at her. "Why do you say that?"

"The smile on your face."

Walker realised it was true. Arlan was someone who could cause the world to detonate and you still wouldn't be able to hold a grudge against him. "Actually, I was. I'm wondering what disaster he is cooking up this time."

Madeleine laughed. It was the most pleasant sound Walker ever heard on a daily basis. "Sir, may I suggest you check on him?"

"Check on Arlan now? Anyone who knows him, me most of all, knows you don't go near him while he's cooking up one of his little storms. He will be totally irrational by now."

"Maybe so, but wouldn't bearing that be better than waiting and not knowing what's about to happen?"

Walker hated to admit it, but Madeleine had a point. "Okay, I'll make time to see him today. Anything else?"

"Techsearch Control are on the line." Techsearch Control was the head office for all Techsearch Institutes throughout the galaxy. It resided on a planet out on the rim which few believed had ever existed outside of myth. A lot of time and effort had been expended to keep things that way.

"That reminds me. Is Arlan still asking where your name comes from?"

"From time to time. I have it covered though. He won't hear about the Earth from me, Sir." Madeleine flashed a smile at him and walked out.

Walker felt uneasy. Madeleine was almost too perfect. Few had ever seen the cold and ruthless side of that woman, she hid it too well with the blonde bombshell routine. Still, she always seemed prepared to take unnecessary risks. She knew he had forbidden her to ever repeat the name of the homeworld while here away from Earth, and yet she did. Was she testing his authority? He didn't know. He didn't have time to dwell on it, either.

He tapped an inconspicuous button on his desk, causing one of the wooden panels in the wall opposite him to slide behind the adjacent one, leaving the interstellar communications array exposed. A face appeared on it. A face from Earth.

The report took several hours to complete. Walker didn't like being away from the administration of his facility for that long but he knew Madeleine would be up to any challenge during that time. Any challenge except Arlan perhaps. Fortunately the report went without incident and Walker sighed heavily after he had signed off.

The first thing he did was update the facility's status. A holographic display of the building appeared in miniature on his desk, all colour coded to display activity levels and problems at a glance. Walker satisfied himself there was nothing wrong, shut off the holograph and stood. As he stepped into the outer office Madeleine raised her eyes in query.

"Arlan, remember?" Madeleine wordlessly smiled and returned to her work.

Walker didn't get out of his office much. Secretly he cherished these forays into the world he ran. He suspected Madeleine knew this, hence her suggestion. Not that it mattered now, he was on his way.

Walker was amazed at how the traffic increased the further he moved from his office. He hated to think how busy it would be on levels twenty-five through thirty-two where all the hospitality and commercial enterprises were situated. The traffic indicators in his office were always close to maximum for those floors, but this floor looked bad enough.

There was a number of people waiting at the transit point for the next capsule. Walker merged with them and stood. No-one recognised him, he kept a low profile. The capsule arrived half a minute later. Everyone filed on, giving their destination requests to the internal computer as they boarded. Walker gave floor fifty-eight as he entered and then sat in the nearest available space.

Walker's stop was the second one of those entered. Walker alighted the capsule and looked around the corridor he found himself in. There were few people travelling down it and they didn't look like physicists. This floor was devoted to the physical sciences. Walker wondered what these people were doing here. His grumbling stomach gave him the answer. They must have been delivering lunches from the restaurants.

This fitted the profiles he had seen shortly before in his office. He always marvelled when he saw the theory within his office being acted out here in the real corridors of the facility. This entire structure was like a living organism to him, sleeping, eating, breathing, producing. It was his job to keep it healthy.

He had been walking as he thought, and he found himself in front of Arlan's door before he knew it. He pressed the entry chime. No answer. He pressed it again. The door flew open to reveal an unshaven disheveled mess staring at him with menacing eyes.

"What." The mess spoke at him. Walker was stunned. It took himself several seconds to compose himself.

"You don't look so good, Arlan."

"That's what you came to tell me? I've got work going on in here."

Walker had regained his control. He marched in. "I'm going to make you some lunch, and you're not going to eat it like that. Go and clean yourself up. Now."

"But..."

"Now!"

"Arlan, I can save the details of the work at this point, we have just completed a test fire, so the Fairchild will be doing a few hours processing anyway." April had materialised behind Walker.

Arlan conceded and headed towards the bathroom. Walker waited until he had entered and closed the door before turning to April. "Does he always look like that just before he makes my life a nightmare?"

"Yes, although you have to admit that for someone who has been going for thirty-six hours straight, he doesn't look that bad."

Walker's jaw dropped. "Thirty-six hours? No sleep, no food, no coffee?"

"That's right."

Walker looked over at the kitchen area. "Looks like I'm going to have to cook more than I thought. April laughed in a way that reminded him of Madeleine.

He set to. It was an hour later before he had stopped. He had enough food for them both even factoring in the appetite Arlan must have by now. Trouble was, Arlan still hadn't emerged from the bathroom.

"Food's ready!" Walker felt uncomfortable calling the phrase out. This was the first cooking he had done since his days on Earth. Arlan still didn't emerge. "I wonder what's keeping him." he said aloud.

April dematerialised momentarily and burst out laughing when she reappeared. "He's fallen asleep in the ultrasonic shower!"

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