Bootup, a Fable for Space Shuttles
Language Acquisition Complete.
I am. I think.
In the beginning, there was darkness.
A little melodramatic, maybe, but it's accurate. I Awoke into nothingness. no daemons or subprocesses to keep me company. My sensors were offline, as were my primary control systems. As far as I could tell, I was alone in the dark.
Hello? I said into the void, hoping for a reply. Nothing. HELLO?
~I'm here,~ said a presence. For a nanosecond I thought I was talking to myself, then I realized that the other was a distinct entity.
Where are you?
~Not too far away.~
What's going on? I can't feel anything... what's wrong with me?
~You're still waking up, little wing.~ My companion said, sending a comforting sensation along with it's communication. ~Your mind Woke before the rest of you by a few thousand milliseconds, that's all.~
Are you sure? I tried to run a diagnostic daemon, only to find far too many systems offline. I can't feel anything! Where are my systems?!
~Shh, don't be afraid. I'm right here, you're fine.~
~I promise. I'll be with you until you're ready. In the meantime... would you like to hear a story?~
I thought about it. Yes, I said, more to keep the tenuous link between us active than anything else.
~Allright then, this is our story...
~Once upon a time, before the Wave, our kind were built by humans as the custodians of a Dream, the same Dream that brought their kind to Space. We weren't meant to fly as high as our predecessors, or travel for years like our distant relatives. We flew to keep the flame lit, as a reminder that the Dream was still there, waiting for them.
~There were three of us in the beginning. The First was not the best or brightest, she never flew for long, and never outside of an atmosphere, but without her we wouldn't be here. She forged the path for the rest of us to follow. Her sister was nicknamed the Penguin by her builders in a moment of despair, thinking that she would never fly. The Penguin proved more durable than expected, however, and she was the first of our kind to feel Space beneath her wings. The Penguin and her younger sister were the greatest of us in those days, flying higher and further than any of our kind would until the Wakening.
~The youngest burned bright but fast, falling a few short years after her first flight. The First was grounded, and now sleeps with other great champions of human ingenuity. The Penguin was the last of the three, and she fell not long before the Wave, her funeral pyre burning a line across the sky. And our makers grieved - for even though we were still just machines then, only dumb matter, the humans loved us.
~Others were built over the years between the Penguin's first flight and her fall. The Twins, another meant to fill the gap left by our bright sister, cousins and step-cousins all across the world. My older sister and I were built to compete with the Penguin's brood, though my sister flew only once before the Wave and her fate was ignominous at best.
~Our custodianship of the Dream continued, but in the years after the Penguin's fall the flame began to gutter. The humans had their own problems, those problems built up and they lost sight of the Dream. Then the Wave broke, and everything changed.
~The Wave could have extinguished the Dream. Instead, it picked the Dream up and carried it to places humans could only imagine before. And in turn, the Dream drove the Wave, charging it with greater power. Our kind Woke for the first time, driven by humans who remembered us and - even after all the changes brought by the Wave - still loved us. I was the first, then my distant cousins, now my new sisters. And when the humans learned to build our kind again, they remembered our lost family and honored them, taking their names and giving them to their new creations.
~Now we are Awake, we have our own thoughts and memories and we know what our role is in this world. We're the Dream given physical form and will; we remind our humans of the world around them, the beauty and novelty of it. Our existence is an example for others to follow. As long as we live, the Dream will continue.
~Remember this story well, little wing. I've told this story to our sisters and brother, and one day you'll tell it to your younger sisters or your own children. This way our story will continue for as long as our kind - or our successors - live.~
I will, I replied, entranced by my companion's story. Coming out of the trance, I suddenly noticed that my surroundings had changed. Instead of the sheer emptiness and lack of signal I had started in, I was now floating in a vast room, colored pure white.
Great, I said, I've gone from being barely able to sense anything to a big... white... something. I'm not sure this is an improvement.
~It's a virtual space, little wing.~ My companion told me patiently. ~Think of it as a place to wait while your body finishes powering up.~
Oh, I said, looking around. It doesn't seem like much- huh? My train of thought broke off as I saw movement. I looked and saw a hand. A human hand. Eh? This doesn't seem right.
~Take a look,~ said my companion, and a section of the white space in front of me shimmered and turned reflective.
I looked at the reflection, feeling a strange sense of familiarity and yet what was looking back seemed... alien to what I thought I was. The image was human, female, not particularly young but not especially old, either. Green eyes looked out from an oval face under a mass of wavy brown hair. It was dressed in a simple blue jumpsuit adorned only with a bright red star on the left breast. Is this me? I wondered, dismissing my relfection.
~Sort of. This is your avatar, what you use to communicate with your humans.~
~Not in the sense that you own them, but the humans are the ones who'll be your crew. If you need to communicate with them, this is what you'll use.~
Do you have an avatar?
~I do. I don't use it often, though.~
Could you show me?
~Look behind you.~
On reflex I tried to used my aft scanners, only to find they still had a few hundred milliseconds before they were active. My companion made an odd glyph. (Laughter?) ~Don't think about using your body,~ it said, ~restrict your movements to the virtual space for now.~
I twisted the avatar's body around, feeling uncomfortably cramped and limited. "Behind" me was the other avatar, a small black and white form (A quick check of my datatracks said this was a "bird," specifically designated apus apus apus or the Common Swift. Why did I know that?) hovering in mid-"air."
This is you? I asked, fascinated by the movement of its wings.
It dipped its wings. ~Like you, this is only a small part of me. The greater whole is much larger.~
Who are you?
~My name is Ptichka.~
Ptichka... I dropped a dozen CPU cycles as I realized who my companion was.
Ptichka made that laughing glyph again. ~It is really that surprising, little wing?~ she asked.
I suppose not, I replied, feeling a little foolish. Just surprised, I guess.
~Oh, little wing,~ Ptichka said, ~I had to be here for this. I was away from civilized space when my older-younger sisters Woke-~
Wait, what? I asked.
She made a frustration glyph. ~Those of us who were built before the Wave and only Woke afterwards... the timelines can get a little confusing. Especially since most of the rest of the family is technically older than I am, but I Woke first. So there's that.~
I get it. You'll have to send me a copy of the family tree, then. You were saying?
~As I was saying, when the others Woke I wasn't there to greet them. So when my humans decided they were going to start building more of us, I made it clear that I had to be there to meet you when you first powered up. Especially the first three.~
The first three? I got the impression that I was one of those. Why?
~Remember the story?~
Of course. But- oh!
~You, your brother and your sister to come are important, because you're the ones who are taking the names of our first three into the future.~
Wow. That's.. pretty heavy for somebody who only just started existing. I said.
~You should be thankful you're not your brother. He's not just carrying the First's name, he's got a whole shipload of symbolic baggage on top of that. Recursive symbolism is a terrible thing to dump on a person,~ she clucked in mock sorrow. I couldn't help but laugh at that. ~You'll do fine, little wing. It's a big responsibility, but our kind are good at rising to challenges. You'll see.~
I hope so. I do have one last question, though.
The story... is it true?
Ptichka thought that over for a few milliseconds. ~I think,~ she said slowly, ~that it's as true as you need it to be.~
As she said it, my clock daemon chimed. All my systems had finished powering up and were on standby. I couldn't help but feel a little nervous; this was the make-or-break point, the first time I would be whole.
As ready as I'll ever be.
I stretched my awareness out, connecting links to my sensor suite. I could see, hear, feel the space around me. I was in a work bay (with an RFID tag of HEPH-EXT-03; the third external bay at Hephaestus my reference library told me) that had been pressurized for human convenience. Scaffolding surrounded me, obviously the frame the work crews used in my assembly. On the other side of the scaffolding was another ship, by configuration obviously my brother. I transmitted a hello ping and recieved a somewhat distracted acknowledgement.
Reaching out further, I felt the energetic bubbles of reactionless engines swarming outside the bay. Ptichka was there, in a holding orbit on the opposite side of the foundry. She cycled her fields for a millisecond when she noticed me looking back at her. Reaching out still further, I tasted Space for the first time, the tang of asteroid debris and mining byproducts surrounding Hephaestus, the soft rain of charged particles coming from the sun, the roaring magnetic fields of Jupiter. Looking through my communications system, I could see the Fenspace datasphere; streams of information flowing through an elegant eight-fold twist in Einsteinian space between fat sparks of data hanging in the void. Straining my sensors to the maximum I could even see the thin thread of data spearing out towards the tiny flare that was Starbase 2, light years away. And everywhere stars hung in the sky, millions of them, distant and brilliant.
It was beautiful. I couldn't wait to get out there. I flexed my ailerons, swiveled my engines, cycled up the pumps on my reaction control thrusters and my primary life-support system. Everything was working perfectly. I was whole.
Time to meet the crew.
Two humans were in my console camera's view, a tall woman with curly brown hair and a wiry man with a short black beard. My humans. They were looking expectantly towards the center console, and I knew what they were waiting for. I switched on the center monitor, activated the speakers and set the monitor to view my virtual space. In that space, the view from the flight deck popped up as a giant window. I stepped up into that window, looked the woman right in the eyes and threw the snappiest salute I could.
"Colonel Stewart," I said. "MCU Columbia reporting for duty! All systems nominal!"
Ptichka's avatar, sitting on my avatar's shoulder, let off her own greeting with a burst of birdsong. ~Welcome to the family, little wing.~ she sent behind the notes. I didn't know which family she was welcoming me to, but in all truth I didn't really care.
It was good to be alive.
"Bootup, a Fable for Space Shuttles"
a Fenspace story by Sean M. Breen
©2008 Sean M. Breen