Tales about little friends

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Tales about little friends (1)

“I still remember when we made the first upgrade to our Exocomps. It was in summer 2017, a few months after our breakthrough in Mass Effect drives. The ESA had rented the whole space station to help with their “pit stop” project and we had a lot of time to tinker on random stuff.”

Sammy smiled to the group of kittens she was talking to. It was always fun to talk about one of her mayor hobbies.

“But of course the upgrade in 2017 was only a minor change for our little friends. We switched the drive core with the new model and updated their tools, but in fact it wasn’t that much. They still were working on the same computer, had the same hull. They were still our beloved friends, no need to ever change this.

Cortana and Serina built a machine together with us to recycle the old components and assemble the new Exocomps. Soon all of them had moved to their new body. I think they really enjoyed the new abilities and they experimented with them a lot in the next weeks.”

One of the kittens interrupted her story. “But Serina told me that she made a lot more Exocomps in 2017 than she had before!”

Sammy chuckled.

“Yes, that’s right. Lets say we were quite a bit surprised that our storage of smartphones was nearly gone a few month later, Serina had raided the store for parts until she ran out of Swiss Army Knifes.

But we were not angry about it, the increased number of Exocomp was a blessing for the projects we were doing at this time, especially the Normandy project. But the whole upgrade also told us a lot about our own limits, that we were not as independent as we liked to think we were.”

That got Sammy a couple of worried looks.

“In 2017, every piece of hardware we had built was controlled by some electronics made on Earth. Relations with Earth were not that bad, especially with Australia and the European Union, but the thought that we would not be able to build anything without Earth worried us.

I think it worried Cortana and Serina most, because their very existence and growth was dependent on the circuits we bought, and it made them look even harder for a replacement. But that was a work that would not create anything useful for years.”

Sammy leaned back and thought about how to continue her story.

“The next three years were good ones. We finished the Normandy in time for Christmas 2018, our research in mindtech gave us some first useful results, even our contacts to the European Union and Japan were improving. We finally managed to turn away from just gathering resources to things that mattered to us. Of course nobody expected the year 2020 to become that chaotic.”

One of the small catgirls chuckled. “You mean because of the anniversary party?”

“Yes, but that was just the start. And the 5th anniversary party was a really good start! I think we had never that many guests on Jenga before, it became one of the best parties we ever did. We had hundreds of guests here at Jenga, both physical or virtual on the Grid. We built a huge dancing hall just for the party and had a lot of external Fen helping us with getting enough food and drinks to Jenga.”

Sammy closed her eyes and purred for a moment, thinking back to the events on the party.

“We all had a really good time. Going open source with our tech was a calculated risk, I think a lot of the Fen thought we were joking or that we had burned out our capability as a research institute. But history told them otherwise, even today we are the primary creator of Mass Effect based technology.

But the party was only the start of 2020 for us.

In Mid 2020 we finished the second Normandy Class, the Serenity Valley. We had all been waiting for this for a long time, afraid that we would get another strange quirk would snatch the ship away from us in the last moment. But we were lucky and the Serenity Valley became an important part of our defenses and projects, making us looking forward for the next Normandy class.

Only a month later both Cortana and Serina were really excited, their quest for a locally produced computer chip had finally achieved a breakthrough. The ‘Holographic Waveguide Optronics’ were a really clever combination of Mimetic Plastic and optical metamaterials, they quickly became a central part of most of our local tech and the products we sold.

We were just finished with celebrating this success as a second breakthrough happened, this times by Jerry and her Eezo research group. They had got a new experimental batch of Eezo from our labs at Nostromo with some astonishing effect on small cores.

After some experiments and discussions, we agreed that this was the perfect time for the next upgrade for our Exocomps!”

Towards a new generation

“I tell you, its not a good idea to build a speed drive core into the new Exocomps. Think about it, this core will be faster than any we gave them before, a lot faster. I don’t want the walls of Jenga be like Swiss cheese with giggling Exocomps closeby!”

Jerry suddenly stopped in her rant as she heard something hissing right behind her. She turned around, just to look directly into a Exocomp floating at the height of her head.

The Exocomp wasn’t happy, Jerry was sure about this.

“Hey my little friend, its not against you. I am just worried about a lot of you being damaged or dead because we step up the engine too fast!”

The Exocomp kept hissing and mumbling.

“Jerry, its not nice to tell the fastest Exocomp on the racing track that there is something like being ‘too fast’, don’t you think so?” Sammy said with a big grin, patting the drone carefully.

Jerry sighed as the Exocomp rubbed itself against Sammy’s leg, still hissing at her from time to time.

“I propose a compromise. Sammy and me will equip one or a few Exocomps with the new engine system as an experiment. If they can handle it, we make it an upgrade for all of you.”

The Exocomp stopped hissing, but Jerry got the feeling that the little machine still wasn’t convinced. ‘Time to add some little sugar' she decided.

“How about you will be the one to test it first? If you are the fastest racer and you cannot control it, we need to work on a slower one.”

Jerry could see that the Exocomp suddenly became dead quiet. It looked slowly left and right and then suddenly rushed over to Jerry, pressing against her and purring loudly.

“Sammy, I think we should meet next week to build a prototype.”

The Exocomp began to race around both of them, spinning around its axis excitedly.

Sammy watched it for a few moments. “Do you think its a good idea to delay it that much?”

Tales about little friends (2)

“In the end we agreed to start working at once. You wouldn’t believe how annoying a single Exocomp can be if he is really excited about some work that he expects to start soon.”

One of the kittens nodded. “I know, last time I wanted to move my meeting with a friend to play LEGO to the next day, my Exocomp just went crazy. It kept gathering LEGOs everywhere I went until we just decided start building right now.”

Sammy smiled.

“We moved to our private lab and started working on a prototype chassis, getting some peace to work quickly. Luckily our guinea pig.. eh guinea Exocomp had not told all his other friends about the project, maybe he did not wanted to decrease his chance to get the new engine first.

So we began to assemble the parts, and there were quite a few new parts to consider.

Like the old Exocomp we built the prototype around the new Mass Effect core. Even with the more compact core, it became quite a challenge to mount the Fusor in the hull and align it properly with the tool adapter, but we wanted the new engine to get much more power than in earlier Exocomps.”

“But... but... but if they only got a reactor in 2020, how did they got their energy before?” one of the her listeners asked.

Sammy smiled. “Oh, before this they just had a waved energy cell, that was enough for all normal operations.”

The young catgirl stared at Sammy for a while. Exocomps without their cool lightning gun? Poor machine. She needed to remember to hug her Exocomp when she got back.

“Unfortunately our project got delayed quite a bit soon after. Somehow the other Exocomps got the news of our little prototype project and the labs became a bit crowded.”

Sammy waited until the kittens were finished with chuckling.

“Yes, its true. A few Exocomps are really helpful at work, but at a certain number the amount of work you get done does not increase anymore or even goes down. Just look up the law of diminishing returns if you like, we were unwilling participants in a live experiment this day.

We tried to ignore all the watching Exocomps for two days, even when they started brawling over holding some tools while we were working, but at the third day Jerry had a nervous breakdown.

She suddenly began to shout loudly at the Exocomp, chasing them out of the lab by threatening to stop the whole project for at a year or more. The Exocomps were shocked, we had to carry a few of them out of the lab.”

Sammy shook her head, thinking back about this crazy time.

“We kept six of them inside the lab, and every times one of them started to snicker or made any other noise, Jerry gave the Exocomp an angry look.

I never thought it would be possible to keep them silent that quickly.

The next days we saw only very few Exocomps while we were not working, most of them quickly hurrying away or watching us while hiding behind something. It was hilarious and difficult not to laugh about it. We managed to keep our we are angry image for nearly three days.

In the end we lost.

We just had entered a nearly empty storage room and had accidentally ‘trapped’ a group Exocomps in it. There was just and a few racks at the walls and one large box in the middle of the room, and they all tried to hide behind it.

We tried to stay calm while getting the stuff we wanted from the racks, the Exocomps bumping against each other to hide behind the chest, which was just too small for all of them. I think a few of them even tried to push each other away to get ‘out of sight’.”

The kittens chuckled.

“I am not sure who started laughing, but we just couldn’t stop it. It took us minutes to calm down and wipe the tears out of our eyes, only to find a group of puzzled Exocomps floating around us.

I think everyone was happy that we made peace with them, but at least the whole episode made them a little bit more careful not to overrun our labs.

We worked constantly through the next week, and after 8 days we had the prototype finished. Our guinea Exocomp was always sitting in our lab and transferred himself over to the new body as soon as we considered it done.

Then we started the first training session with him.”

Third generation Exocomps training

Sammy and Jerry checked the new drive on the Exocomp once more. For the first time in a decade, an Exocomp would be able to fly with a speed useful for open space and interplanetary travel. At least if they had made no mistake with the new engine.

The small machine was excited about the procedure too. Doing racing with one of the catgirls was fun, but more speed was always more fun. It looked up for Cathy.

Cathy petted the small drone. “Yes, we are finished. We want you to fire up the new turbo boost for a moment, then stop so we can follow you with the car. Don't worry, we will hear each other through the emergency radio.”

The Exocomp blinked with a few status light to show it had understood Cathy, aligned itself towards some interesting blinking lights on the black background and engaged his new drive.

It was fast.

Faster than anything he had ever measured before.

It felt great!

Finally, after some time, the Exocomp disengaged the engine. The nice small light he had raced towards was still far ahead.

Maybe his new engine wasn’t working that well?

It slowly turned to the side. Yes, the large big yellow light was still there too. Had it moved? The little drone wasn’t sure.

But when it continued to rotate and looked ‘back’, home was gone.

The catgirls were gone.

All his friends were gone!

The Exocomp quickly rotated back and forth. But there was nothing except some small and large lights shining in the dark.

It send out a broadcast with its wifi transmitter. But no one answered.

The catgirls back at Jenga just heard a long loud ‘WEEEEEEEE’ from their radio.

“To boldly race where no Exocomp has raced before” Jerry said with a grin, “I hope he will come back.”

After a few minutes, the excited sound of the Exocomp stopped.

“I have a bad feeling about this” Sammy said, “it enjoyed the flight a little bit too long. We are still not completely sure how fast an Exocomp can push this engine.”

At this moment, the Exocomp on the other end of the radio started crying.

Tales about little friends (3)

“It took us three hours to find our runaway, it turned out he hadn’t kept his direction absolutely straight. I think I had never seen an Exocomp that frightened, the instant we opened the car door to look after him, her raced inside and cuddled down in my lap.

I had to increase the heating of my spacesuit quickly, he had become a little bit cold during his space journey, even with the internal fusion plant. We took him back to Jenga, but he was unwilling to enter our lab!

We just managed to download the logfiles of our test flight before he raced away. No chance to make him switch back to his old body. We sat down in the lab and ran everything we got through a couple of simulations. It turned out there were some bugs in the engine activator, nothing we could not fix the next day when our friend was back.

Only that he was not back on the next day. I was at a loss, but Jerry grinned and told me she had hid a small location beacon inside the prototype, so we left the lab and began looking for our missing Exocomp.”

One of the little catgirls showed Sammy a facepalm. “Finding a certain Ecocomp that doesn’t want to be found on Jenga, even with a location beacon? Good luck with that!”

Her friends just snickered.

“Yes, that’s true, but Jenga was quite a bit smaller at that time, and we asked friends to help us. Within a few hours, we managed to track down the location beacon in a module near the storage area and began looking for our friend.

Of course he was nowhere to be seen.

It took us more time to track the signal to some part of the floor space between inner and outer wall. Of course it was just a place with lots of heavy racks on it with hundreds of things on it, so we could not just open the floor and look below it.

Luckily, we had thought about that problem when we redesigned Jenga in 2016. There are small corridors within the walls which the Exocomps use to get anywhere and do maintenance, and these are large enough that a catgirl can crawl through them. We even provide some training courses where you can prove you can handle tight spots and are good in getting back and forth through these corridors without being stuck below a Battlesteel plate.

So we opened the nearest hatch and started looking for him. But as you can think, an area which is mostly inhabited by Exocomps does not necessarily look similar to your plans anymore after a few years.

After following a small labyrinth of tunnels I finally got into a small chamber, maybe one square meter large and half a meter high with thick blanket on the floor, just besides the cooling system of one of the modules fusors.”

“Sounds like a nice and comfy place” one of the kittens remarked, “do you know why the Exocomps built it?”

Sammy shook her head.

“I am not sure, maybe it just found it this way. Or it just copied a similar place a catgirl built.

But in the middle of this nest I found our missing Exocomp, sleeping peacefully in a corner. He had a number of dents and scratches, maybe from some missteps with his new engine, but he looked okay.

I touched him up carefully, I didn’t wanted to startle him and he woke up slowly, making some pitiful noises. He definitely wasn’t happy with the situation. It took me a few minutes to calm him down enough that he would let me switch off his Mass Effect core and carry him outside and back into the lab.

We quickly called Serina’s avatar into our lab and started discussing how to solve the problem. One for all and all for one “Okay, we got our runaway back and he managed not to bump into walls too hard” Jerry said, “now we just have to figure out what we can do to improve compared to yesterday.”

Sammy nodded.

“I think if we can work out the bugs in the engines firmware and the injectors, it should become a matter of training for the Exocomps. Its a larger step for them compared to the update to the second generation core, but they should handle it with their improved computer hardware.”

“But that doesn’t solve our problem during the spaceflight, why the hell did he not flight back to Jenga when we did not rescue him. Was he that scared that he did not turned around?”

The Exocomp made a series of protesting noises, which made the the catgirls wonder what had really happened during the flight. Finally Serina’s holographic avatar sat down besides the Exocomp.

“Everything is right my friend, just tell me what has happened. No one is accusing you of doing something wrong, we just want to understand” Serina said and the Exocomp calmed down visibly. A few moments later Serina nodded and turned back to Jerry and Sammy.

“I think you two underestimated how large space is” she said with a smirk.

“Yes, its large” Sammy said, “but what does this have to do with our Exocomp?”

Jerry looked more thoughtful.

“It isn't just large" Jerry finally said, "it was incomprehensible huge for our little friend. Think about it Sammy, the largest thing they know is Frigga. They consider Frigga gigantic, but its less than 100 km long. The new speed drive moved the Exocomp over a few light seconds!”

Serina’s avatar nodded to Jerry.

“And he didn’t had any points of reference, he did not even knew what these blinking lights it saw were, and that they were even further away. He just looked back and Jenga was gone and out of normal communication range.”

Both catgirls were silent for quite some time, thinking about the problem.

Jerry sighed.

“We could give them a radio with a higher range, maybe a few lightseconds, but it will not really solve the problem of navigation. I don’t think they want to be always guided from some external operator. And giving them some co-processor specialized in navigation is just the same thing.”

The Exocomp made an unhappy noise, showing that he really did not liked the idea to depend on someone else to move around.

“What do you think about a group of Exocomps?” Sammy suddenly asked with a smile. “One of them is quite clever, but a small group of them should be able to keep track of stellar navigation. We could train them to work together on it while staying in radio contact, they might even be able to triangulate their position by looking at the background from multiple positions!”

“Yes, that sounds like a good idea” Serina agreed, “and I think they will like it. Its not that we want to send a single Exocomp that far away alone anyways. I think we can start with a group of six of them, that should be enough in terms of capabilities. Can you two build another five prototypes and equip them with the better radios?”

Both catgirl nodded and began to work.

Tales about little friends (4) “So that’s why Exocomps love to travel in groups?” one of the kittens asked curious.

“Yes, its one of the reasons. Of course our Exocomps today have been getting used to space travel for quite some time and are more flexible in their abilities, but they are still neither allowed nor able to go to high sublight speed alone.

We finished the other five prototypes within the next two weeks. By that time we already had five other Exocomp racers eagerly waiting to switch into their new bodies, but before we let them out into space, we convinced them to run through a couple of simulations.”

Sammy snickered.

“One day I will show you the videos of it, we had lots of fun this day. We increased the size of a Grid instance to a light minute and placed a target on the other side. And then we let them play with it for some time.

I think their attempt to build a large catapult was quite clever, but they became annoyed quickly that space was that huge. And we still don’t know who introduced them to Angry Birds. One of them accelerated to his best normal speed and tried to go to an internal sleep mode, which of course deactivated his engine instantly.

But after a few days they had learned how to use their new engine within the simulation, and how to look for planets and stars to determine their own position, based on the charts we gave them. It looked quite funny to see them floating around in three dimensional shapes, looking at the simulated stars and chatting among each other, then getting back together and continuing their voyage.

So after three days we let them do a test in real space. This time they were a lot more careful than our daring guinea pig a few weeks ago. But we also had brought some better tracking equipment with us to find them if necessary.”

A single Exocomp slowly opened the door to the room, saw the group of kittens with Sammy and rushed into the room, the door closing behind him with a BANG. It sat down on the lap of one of the kittens, looking into the direction of the screen behind Sammy.

The catgirl smiled and began to pet the machine.

“We were just talking about one of your friends... and his first spaceflight!”

Sammy shook her head and blinked.

“Where did I stop before we got our new listener? Ah yes, the second prototype flight. It looked as our first test pilot had got a healthy respect about this ‘damned large dark’ out there, the Exocomps kept playing with their new radios for more than ten minutes before we could persuade them to activate their new engine.

They quickly assembled into a tight formation and made a short hop, not even reaching maximum speed. We followed them with one of the Oculus drones. They spread out a bit, looked back to Jenga which was several thousand kilometers behind them, and then raced off again.

We got nice pictures of their flight for some time, until they got ahead of our recon drone and vanished into the night. Luckily the emergency com was still working and we could hear they were excited about the flight, not scared.”

Sammy smiled at her listeners.

“They came back half an hour later, and all of them were still in a good mood. We called the test a full success, took the logged data with us and transferred them back to their original bodies. At least after we promised them they would get the new ones back after we had time to look at everything.

A few weeks later we finished our tests and soon after the first upgrade machine was ready. It took quite a while to upgrade all Exocomps, but it was worth the effort because we could recycle a lot old parts.”

Sammy patted one of the kittens on the head.

“And that’s the story about how you got the Exocomps we have today. There were some minor hull upgrades a few years ago, but nothing as complex as they got both a new Mass Effect core and new computer hardware.”

One of the kittens nodded.

“Yes, its really great they got the fast engine. Last month we missed the bus for our flight to the Wizards, so we just asked a group of 12 Exocomps to carry us. We put a blanket between five of them so we could sit, they assembled around us and made a shield and of we were going through the belt.”

Sammy just stared at the kitten.

“Ehh... what?”

“Don’t worry, we all had our space suits on and it was quite fun, both for us and the Exocomps. And we were there a lot faster than with the bus!”

“But you had your communicator with you? All of you?”

“Yes, yes... there was nothing to worry about, why are you asking?”

Sammy had no answer to this.