Learning to Fly

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Page 2

Madeleine had been busy while Walker was out, but she wasn't about to let him know that. She pretended to be examining her nails as he returned. She knew it irritated him, particularly when he wouldn't be able to find anything unfinished.

"Where have you been?" She tried to make the question seem casual. She already knew the answer and she wasn't happy.

Walker went on the defensive immediately. "Where I said I would be. In fact, where you suggested I go. I've been speaking with Arlan."

"Between snores?"

Walker sighed before continuing. "All right. Arlan was exhausted. He fell asleep as soon as I got him to take a break. I had to get the information somehow."

Madeleine knew it was irrational to distrust this artificial construct of Arlan's but she couldn't help it. It was an instinctive reaction. "So, what did little Miss April have to say about her master's work?"

Walker burst out laughing which made Madeleine angrier. "If you seriously think that her relationship with Arlan is like that you obviously don't know her very well."

"That's right. I don't intend to get to know it very well at all in the foreseeable future, either."

Walker sighed once more and wrinkled his nose in that way Madeleine knew meant he was going to change the subject while the present matter was unresolved. Madeleine always felt a loss on the rare occasions he did this with her. She knew he was persistent with people on issues he felt were important. This felt like a rejection.

"Well, in the foreseeable future you may not have time anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"Arlan's new project. I don't know what it is just yet, but April could tell me this much: It will use a lot of power."

"How much?" Madeleine looked at Walker, who returned the stare.


Madeleine knew what he meant. Arlan had caused nearly every type of disaster possible in the facility except the one they feared most, total power failure. "Does he have any idea what that would do to the building for heaven's sake?"

"Madeleine, he won't have thought that out. He's operating like a fanatic on this project. He's just as likely to route the power through the computers and fry everything."

"Oh no."

Walker just nodded in response.

"I've got some things to prepare." Madeleine started hitting buttons on her desk. Walker just smiled and walked through to his office. Madeleine knew how busy she would be over the next day or so. Judging from the smile on Walker's face so did he.

As Walker's door shut Madeleine's mind was already in high gear. Walker had been absent for three hours. That meant Arlan would probably sleep for another seven, assuming he was as exhausted as Walker had indicated.

A huge model of the complex materialised in the room. She studied the activity and status listings for the various wings and floors. They had seven hours plus the project completion time to conduct damage control. It was the remaining time on the project which was the variable. She issued a voice command known only to Walker and her. The model dissipated as the data from Arlan's Fairchild began cascading through the room.

Madeleine was a quick study. She didn't fully understand most of the data, but she could see what Arlan was working towards. The cold and totally rational side of her was now in total control but it registered the feeling of awe that swept over her as she contemplated a mind capable of creating such theories as this. She knew he must be close.

She issued a voice command to return her to the status model. She examined the data with an absence of emotion. Assess, prioritize, implement. What would be the worst affected areas in total power loss? Life support for the underground floors? The starport on the roof? Transport? The surgery theatres in the medical wing? What if they lost the computers as well? How long does a Fairchild Mark IV take to cold boot?

She stood there for ten minutes taking in the data. She recalled facts, calculated timing sequences, and observed the data flowing before her. After the data was absorbed, she started issuing commands to the computer.


Arlan looked groggy as he woke. This didn't surprise April, he usually looked groggy in the mornings. He was an evening person. She had watched him in the past as he paused for a moment to watch the sun setting outside his window, and then go on to do some of his finest work through the night.

He had slept well enough, but he obviously didn't remember falling asleep in the shower cell by the look on his face. Walker had put a blanket over him and left him there before leaving.

April knew that as his consciousness swam to the surface it would be filling with all the data and variables he had been working with over the last week. Arlan was proud of this talent. It saved him all that time other researchers wasted doing things like recording notes, placing markers, writing up specifications. He could go straight to the computer, enter the needed parameters and commence once more.

Arlan would be hungry. April activated the microwave as he tried to stand. As if on queue the smell of hot delicious food hit his nostrils. His head went back and his nostrils flared, drinking in the scent. He dressed and walked out into the main room.

"Morning, Arlan." April spoke cheerfully. She knew it would nearly make Arlan sick. He grunted a reply. April watched a wave of nausea envelop him in his need for the food he could smell.

"Where did the food come from?"

"Walker left it in the microwave ready to go. I started the cooking process as soon as you began to wake up." The microwave, like all electrical devices in the facility that used mains power, could be controlled or overridden by the computers.

Arlan removed the food and ate. He was ravenous. Within two mouthfuls, he was consumed by a frenzy which lasted until the plate was clean.

"My, my. Your table manners are slipping, Dr Crae." April felt playful again.

"Be thankful you have no need to eat, my girl. It is not a pleasant feeling to be deprived of sustenance."

April laughed. "But your deprivation was self inflicted, Doctor."

"Yes, I guess it was." Arlan changed the subject. "How about you start initialising the next test sequence while I clean myself up." Arlan walked back into the bathroom.

April couldn't help herself. She peeked on Arlan through the computer accesses in the bathroom as he showered. She felt a sensation she had felt more and more lately but couldn't place. She had read about the full range of human sensations and emotions from the medical, psychological and anthropological databases. The closest she could come up with was sexual desire. She needed him in a way she knew was impossible in every way. Maybe Arlan had created her too well. Maybe Madeleine was right to distrust her after all.

When he returned he looked better. He had bathed, dressed in fresh clothes and the hunger appeared to have passed. Ready for another day or three straight. He may have been more capable than most in recovering from breaks, but April knew he didn't like taking them.

"The computer sequences and power monitors are ready, Arlan."

Arlan strode into the work area. "Good. I'll set the physical layout modifications for the next series of runs." Arlan leaned over the bench and adjusted some of the lenses peppering the table. They all seemed to be set up to make the beams to be generated by the lasers intersect in one large crystal lens at the centre of the table. It was the biggest of the lenses he had made from the crystal fragments he had retrieved on the day of the sand storm. Before reaching that lens, most of the beams passed through light modulators of varying configurations. Arlan also opened and altered the settings in several of these units before stepping away from the table.

"Computer, execute firing sequence Theta-fourteen mark six on my mark." Arlan was watching the table intently. "Mark."

The lasers fired in a staggered sequence, feeding the modulators at slightly different intervals. The modulators each emitted a beam simultaneously except for one. All the beams passed through the lenses set for them and met in the centre crystal. A thin spherical shell of light encased the crystal for a fraction of a second before dissipating, leaving the coherent beams to pass freely through the crystal and safely into the cinder blocks set to catch them if the test failed.

Arlan looked disgusted with himself. The fixing beam hadn't fired correctly, it had been a fraction of a second late from the modulator. April could see Arlan's face set in that manner which she knew to mean he was writing the fix in his head.

"Computer, cease fire and open program Theta fourteen mark six for alteration."

The beams cut out. "Program open." The computer responded immediately.

"Alter subroutine coded Epsilon nine five two by adding the following sequence to location code..." Arlan spoke a series of codes and command sequences from memory for several minutes. After the computer had saved the new alterations, he asked it to repeat the entire sequence. It did. Arlan listened intently, a hopeful smile on his lips.

After the computer had finished, he asked April to initialise the coding sequence for firing. She knew he could do it himself, but was thankful for the chance to be useful. Besides, being an electronic entity she could do it better and faster than he could. She also monitored the data as it flowed through the Fairchild during the tests. With the quantity of information passing through it Arlan had no chance of absorbing it all immediately the way she could.

Arlan rechecked the modulators with trembling hands. He looked sure that they were close.

"Everything is ready to go, Arlan." April's voice held a touch of anticipation. She thought they were close also.

Arlan moved back to a safe distance, barely able to hold the excitement from his voice. "Computer, activate firing sequence Theta Fourteen mark six on my mark." He paused for a second, gathered himself. "Mark."

The computer unleashed the laser beams as it had before, but the timing on the fixer beam was a fraction advanced this time. As soon as it fired April could see Arlan knew he was right. The modulators to emitted their beams simultaneously this time. The beams converged on the centre crystal, but did not pass through.

The thin shell formed around the crystal once more. This time it grew slightly, then stabilised into a spherical, translucent shield around the crystal.

Arlan looked ecstatic. The shield was holding. April gazed into it. She noticed that the beams were no longer entering the crystal but feeding the shell. Not only that, but the stand on which the crystal was standing had been neatly severed where the shield was now passing through. It was the shield which now rested on the remains of the stand. Arlan had just experimentally validated his 'hard light' theory.

A quiet beep sounded from the Fairchild. Arlan looked up at her. He knew she would be monitoring the computer's data feeds.

"Arlan, the computer is having trouble coping with the power flow. Are you sure its safe to run the power monitor through the Fairchild?"

"I have to, you know that. Without the monitor, The power boosts won't know to kick in."

"About those power boost units, what do you need them for again?"

"The power boost units will increase the power feeds to match the defensive energy levels to the level of energy the shield needs to dissipate."

"So in other words, they feed more power into the shield as it resists higher energy levels?"


April read the power transfer readout. For her, reading information from the computer didn't involve the gauges. It was like remembering the information like humans remembered the past.

The power flow was at ninety-nine point nine percent of capacity for the facility. There was some ancillary information available which she accessed. There were brownouts occurring throughout the facility, this level of power usage could not be sustained by the solar generators for much longer.

Arlan raised a laser pistol. His eyes were focussed on the shield.

"What are you doing? Are you insane?" April saw the weapon and realised what he had in mind. This would be the ultimate test of the shield's abilities, except there wasn't enough power to support it.

"I have to do this, I have to know." He took aim at the shield.

April didn't have much time to think. There were few places for her to hide. If the computers crashed, so would she. It was the equivalent of this planet being destroyed right out from under Arlan. She thought desperately for the answer.

Protected memory! There was a supply of protected memory in the master computer which served Walker. It was used to house information which was vital to the safety and security of the institute, if there was some space there...

Her hologram flickered slightly as she flew through the circuits towards the one safe haven in her electronic universe.

She was on the threshold as the universe went black...

She made one more lunge through the circuitry, supported by the last shreds of current flowing through the systems. It was enough.

April felt herself shaking as she rested in the secure circuitry of the protected memory banks. That had been too close. Gradually she calmed down, thankful to be alive.

Soon she was back to her usual self. She decided to get her bearings in this new environment. She had no idea how long she would be there, she may as well look around she thought.

The protected memory environment was crowded. It was like a warehouse. There were several dormant programs lying around, but mostly the space was filled with data. April was bored with the place after several minutes. For something to do, she went to and accessed the index logs. The data available to her amazed her. She read Madeleine's contingency plan for total power failure. It was good. Madeleine knew her stuff, alright.

There was countless other headings she could choose from, but one stood out. It had no descriptive summaries, all it had was a name: Earth Control. On a whim, April accessed it.

If she had of contained blood, it would have chilled. This couldn't be possible. She accessed information on several side points mentioned in the data. Then several others. It took her four hours human time, but she read the entire contents of the protected memory store. After all that, she knew one thing. If she was found inside this environment, she was dead for sure.


Arlan could feel his consciousness being wrenched from the depths of oblivion. It was dragging a huge headache with it. As he became more aware of his senses returning he felt an uneasy feeling. Something about the room in which he was lying was familiar, but in a way which disturbed him.

He felt the sensation of the soft sheets under him and realised he was in a bed. It wasn't his, it was too stiff. His olfactory senses kicked in and he caught the sterile scent of fresh disinfectant. The hospital! He had only just got out of here recently. This was the second time in as many weeks he had woken up here, he wasn't happy.

At first he couldn't remember the events which had brought him here. With some effort, he summoned the memories up. It was times like this he was thankful for his recall abilities. He remembered seeing the working model of the hard light shield in front of him, aiming the pistol at it, and firing. The room had gone black, the beam had been deflected into the Fairchild, which had exploded, showering him with debris.

Something about that made him uneasy once more. The data? No, April would have taken care of that. April!

"Shhh. She's all right, Doctor. Rest now." Arlan had not realised he had called out loud or in fact that there had been anyone else in the room. He recognised the voice as belonging to the nurse who had looked after him just over a week ago.

Arlan's throat was parched, but he made the effort to speak. "What happened?"

The nurse broke into laughter. "What happened? You just blacked out the entire building, that's all. We lost three Fairchilds with unrecoverable crashes, yours is scattered over three labs so they tell me, you're lucky to be alive at all this time."

The nurse had obviously missed the point. "April..."

"Yes, yes. Walker told me to tell you she's safe, she'll be in to see you as soon as you're cleared for visitors." Arlan smiled. That was Walker's code which meant she would appear when the coast was clear.


The nurse laughed once more. "Maybe I should be thanking you. With the security cordon around your labs the word is you've developed something big this time. If so, it is the first time you've done it without filling this entire wing." She laughed once more and left Arlan alone. He smiled at the thought. Techsearch had got off easy this time.

Arlan's eyesight was returning and he saw the pain killers the nurse had left beside his bed. He reached for them and took some, leaving the rest for later just in case. He leaned back and closed his eyes, waiting for them to take effect.

Walker must have got the jump on his plans this time, Arlan thought. He couldn't have been out that long, and the power was back on, at least in the medical wing. He remembered when he had been working on the proof for the coherent light disrupter it had taken them months to get things back in order and the injury count had been quite high. Admittedly, he had blown part of the building away as opposed to blacking it out, but still, he knew that wasn't an easy thing to recover from in a facility such as this. Not that in either case he had caused the damage intentionally...

April materialised before him, breaking him from his reverie. She looked pleased to see him once more.

"How are you feeling, you stupid idiot?"

Arlan chucked. "Better. What did I do, overload the power grid?"

"Exactly. You nearly killed both me and yourself in the process."

"I'm sorry, April. You know I would never hurt you intentionally."

"Yes, I do. That only means you really have to pay more attention to the wider picture when you get into those creative spells of yours. That time you blew off the side of the building had taught you a lesson, I thought."

"Maybe this has instead. I promise to be more careful."

"Funny, that's what you said last time." They both roared laughing.

After they had calmed down, Arlan grew serious. "So, just how did you survive the blackout, particularly after I blew the Fairchild out of existence?"

April looked troubled. "I, I found a circuit which was still being fed by a capacitor. I hid there. I was nearly dead when they found and rescued me."

Arlan knew April well. He had created her. He could tell that for the first time in her life, she was lying to him. He thought the matter through. He knew what her responses would be, he knew what she would think in a crisis. The answer came to him.

"Wouldn't you have had enough advance warning of the power failure to head out of the Fairchild? Out somewhere safer in the facility?"

April stiffened. "Everywhere was affected by the blackout, Arlan."

"Not Walker's protected memory banks." Arlan took a chance. By mentioning his suspicions in such an open way, he knew he should be able to flush her out.

She hesitated before answering. When she did, it was in a deliberate, controlled speech. "I wouldn't have headed there, Arlan. Walker wouldn't want that. I know that memory bank is off limits."

Arlan had her. He knew it. She had been itching to get in there since she had learnt of it's existence. He grinned at her.

"Arlan you have to believe me, I wouldn't have and didn't go there." April's voice held traces of desperation he had never heard before.

Arlan was confused. This just didn't tally against what he knew of her. She was insisting on something she must know he would see through. There didn't seem to be any logical reason. April was a creature of logic. In order for her to react this way, either her logical patterns had in some way been disrupted by the blackout and her brush with oblivion or her logic was based on parameters he wasn't aware of.

The pieces began to come together in his mind. She would have headed there, he knew it. That meant that she must know something about the situation that he didn't. Like what was contained in that memory bank perhaps?

"Okay, April. I believe you. You survived the way you did." Arlan saw the relief wash over her.

"Thank you, Arlan." April had an expression on her face which displayed both gratitude and humility simultaneously. For reasons Arlan did not understand this disturbed him somewhat. He decided to change the subject.

"So, is the data for the hard light theory proof safe?"

"Yes, I had the backups written in another computer bank. When I was rescued I went to check on them. The computer booted up safely, they made it."

Arlan felt it was his turn to feel relieved. "It's good to see you were thinking ahead. By the way, what's this I hear about my labs being under lock and key?"

April grinned. "You mean you don't know? Walker is hailing your proof as one of the most important engineering marvels of the history of Techsearch."

Arlan groaned inwardly. Not again. Walker had bastardized his dissipation proof and turned it into a defensive weapon. What did he have in mind for the hard light system?

April looked as if she revelled in Arlan's anguish. "They intend to start installing them in some of the institute's starships for trials as defensive screens immediately."

April giggled as Arlan closed his eyes and wrinkled his face in a look of disgust.


Walker reviewed the files from his personal Fairchild via the remote link he wore on his wrist. It displayed a holographic projection in the air before him which listed the status on all files in protected memory. They had been untouched. That was good. He didn't trust April's story, probably because Madeleine didn't he admitted to himself. The more he thought about it, the more unlikely it was. Nevertheless, the files had not been accessed and she had been found in that damaged circuit. Even if she had snuck there after the fact from the protected memory, she didn't appear to have touched anything.

Walker decided to put his concerns on hold in that area for now. He could always ask Arlan for his opinion later, he realised. Right now the important thing was Arlan's invention. Arlan would be furious when he found out what he intended to do with the experiment, he knew. He had nearly shouted down the walls of the intensive care ward he had been placed in when Walker had come to him with the plans for the disrupter field. Not a bad effort considering what was left of him at the time.

Walker stood and moved over to the workbench where the shield was still active. Walker grinned. It had stayed powered during the blackout, he still didn't know why. This was big. He said that every time Arlan produced something new. Still, this one beat everything before.

He looked around the deserted lab. It looked like a war had been fought in it. The computer interface in the side of the wall was completely gone, the debris was scattered throughout the room. He looked through the gaping holes in all the walls, the debris had spread through the other two labs in this wing and completely shattered the windows to spread out onto the desert basin below. What a mess. Despite it, Walker grinned. This time the damage was minimal. They were learning to cope with the creative windstorms of their brightest scientist.

Walker was interrupted by a knock on the door. He looked through the gaps peppered through it and realised it was his security team. "What is it?"

" Sir, you said you wanted to know when the engineers arrived." Walker liked direct men to serve in his security team. They were less capable of duplicity.

"Send them in." Walker heard no further comments, but the door opened moments later to admit the four men in white lab coats who made up Walker's elite engineering team.

"You wanted to see us, Sir?"

Walker stared at the men for several moments. To the vast majority of personnel within this institute, the men in front of him included, he was an enigma. He liked it that way, it made his job easier if no-one could guess his next move.

"I want you to take this unit and study it." Walker made no attempt at pre-amble. "You will learn how to duplicate it and contact me for further instructions."

None of the men made an attempt to find out what those further instructions may entail. They were too experienced to try. They moved wordlessly to the device and stood around it, observing. Walker stood back and observed them for several moments. None of the men noticed the wry smile on his face, they were entranced by what they saw. Walker knew that they would realise instinctively what he had in mind, that was why they held the positions they did. Walker didn't hire on looks alone.

One of the men moved slightly, making a crunching sound with his boot. Walker cringed. What a fate for a Fairchild to suffer. He spoke to the men. "Perhaps you would be more comfortable if I had the device moved to your own labs?"

The men looked around themselves. They didn't have to say anything, the expression on their faces told Walker what they thought about the state of repair where they stood. "Alright, return to your labs. I'll have it shifted and guards placed on your labs. You don't speak to anyone about what you've seen, no-one gets in to see it in your labs. Understood?"

Walker waited until each of the men assented. He dismissed them. The lab was deserted once more. Walker took one last look around and grinned. He had to hand it to Arlan, he sure could make a mess.

As he walked out, he gave all the relevant instructions to the security team. They organised the secure transport of the device. He knew they would keep their mouths shut about what they had seen. As an afterthought, he activated the comm link on his remote access terminal and arranged for repair crews to start work after the security team had finished the transport.

He headed for the transport station. It wasn't long before he was on a capsule headed back to level sixty-five. He was alone, most people had restricted their movements today thanks to Madeleine's contingency plan. He sat back, intent on enjoying the ride when his comm link signalled an incoming message. He opened the channel. It was Madeleine.

"I was just thinking about you, my dear."

Madeleine's holographic double blushed. "Why, Sir!"

"Relax, Madeleine. I was just going to congratulate you on your efforts over the last two days. You did a good job."

"Thank you Sir. Just to let you know, there is a message coming in from Techsearch Marinus. Person to person."

"Marinus, isn't that out on the rim?" Walker was business once more.

"Yes. Delta-four Sector. About three quarters of the way out from the core."

"Okay, I'll take it as soon as I get there." Walker disengaged the link. This was strange. It wasn't uncommon for institutes to communicate between each other, it was just that the Marinus Institute had never contacted them before. They had very little research paths in common. Walker spent the rest of the journey to his office wondering what the call would be about.

He walked into the outer office deep in thought. Madeleine woke him from it.

"You ready for that call, Sir?"

Walker turned to her. "What do you know about Marinus?"

"Well, they do research and engineering of starships, mostly. They have the finest docks and shipwrights in the galaxy. They can build ships in orbit, but they mostly do it below the surface..."

"Below the surface?"

"Yes. The entire surface of the planet is ocean. No natural land masses. The population lives in huge underwater cities protected by domes."

"A planet like that would have a huge biology section, wouldn't it?"

"I guess so. You think they may request some of our biologists?"

"Its possible. Our biology units are fairly small and specialised, maybe they need a specialisation of ours. Could you run a check while I take the call and see if any of our personnel have been or know anyone at Marinus?"

"Yes Sir. I'll put the call through now." Madeleine went straight to the controls on her desk as Walker passed through the inner door.

He hit the button on his desk which activated the interstellar comms screen as he reached it, by the time the administrator of Techsearch Marinus was staring at him he had sat down and composed himself.

"Administrator Walker, this is Administrator Marshall. How do you do?" Marshall was a lean man with a licorice moustache which gave him a military air.

"I do well. Yourself?" Walker decided to hold with the formalities until Marshall got to his point.

"Fine, Sir. Fine." Marshall looked worried Walker noticed. "Look Walker I won't mince words, there may not be time. I understand you have a molecular biologist there by the name of Gromm?"

Walker decided he liked this man. He obviously preferred a direct approach. "Yes, we do. He's currently tied up with a number of our projects. Can I assume you wish us to transfer him?" This was obviously out of the question. Romus Gromm wasn't as critical a component of Walker's scientific staff as Arlan, but he held important roles in most of the current biological research projects at Techsearch Karissia.

"Walker, this is not a petty staffing squabble. We need him to find a control agent for a virus we have detected here. He can do it there, in fact he will have to do it there."

"Do you have the data ready for transmission?" Something in Marshall's voice told Walker this was no time for politics or protocol. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

"You will already have the data there. In fact, most core institutes have samples of the virus in cryo. We have detected the Hydrosarax virus here."

Walker felt his blood freeze. Hydrosarax was a virus which haunted the rim. So far it had only hit several small colony planets, but that was bad enough. No-one knew where it came from, very little was known it other than the virus thrived in water environments and could wipe out all life on a planet within weeks. He had seen the results this virus had wrought on a rim colony first hand. It hadn't been a pretty sight.

"Has the virus activated?" Hydrosarax was known to have a dormant stage of approximately six weeks when it first arrived on a new planet.

"No, we're lucky on that front. The virus still has the full six week dormant stage to pass through. All ships have been warned away, the planet is under quarantine as of two hours ago. There are two billion people on this planet."

Walker could see the despair in Marshall's face as he had made that statement. It was clear that Gromm was their last hope. "I'll put Gromm on it straight away. We'll find you an answer, Marshall. I swear." Walker hoped he looked more confident than he felt.

Marshall appeared to relax somewhat. "Thank you, Walker. I'll leave you to arrange things." They each signed off. Walker sat in a state of shock for several seconds after the screen went blank. Two billion people. If the Hydrosarax activated before they found something to control it...

Walker shoved the images from his mind. The sight of what had remained of the Phoenix VI colony jumped unwanted into his mind. They had to find the answer, there was no other acceptable option.

Walker strode out to the outer room. Madeleine was waiting. "Madeleine, where is Dr Gromm right now?"

Madeleine looked surprised. "Gromm? I thought that call would be about Arlan."

"Why do you say that?" Walker knew better than to pass off such a comment from Madeleine.

"The search you asked me to prepare. There was one match. There is a starship design engineer at Marinus by the name of Peallos Crae."

Walker spun to face her, the shock apparent in his features.

Madeleine answered Walker's unspoken question. "He's Arlan's older brother."


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