Chapter 30: Convergence
“Mac! Are you finished calibrating the gravity drives? Are they the best you can do, with the information and resources available?” Caleb inquired. The humor in his thoughts moments earlier had vanished.
“They are optimal for current resources and information,” the computer agreed, sounding smug.
“Are you completely integrated with me?” Caleb pressed. “Is there anything else needed for your ... umm ... optimum functionality?” he asked dryly.
“I believe so ... yes I am completely integrated with you,” Mac answered slowly. “Every nanobot has been assimilated, and mapped. All Star Hawk systems are assimilated, and mapped. Mapping is complete for all software. Your body has been mapped to the cellular level. I have fulfilled all installation instructions, and errors caused by system anomalies have been resolved. Resolving those errors was the reason I began communicating with you before completion.”
“I can see what you are thinking. Caleb, I’m not sure how to do that,” the computer added hesitantly.
“Why can’t I see what he’s thinking?” Al complained.
“Because he’s learned to block you from his private thoughts,” Mac answered. “He’ll learn to block me, eventually.”
“We’re going to mesh,” Caleb explained to Al, ignoring the byplay. “You, Mac, and me,” he added.
Al was quiet before admitting, “I’ve never tried to mesh with a machine before. No offence meant, Mac. I’m not sure how to do that, and I don’t know what it will do to us. Why is this important? If you didn’t block me so often, I would already know your reasons,” he accused.
“When I don’t block you, you start arguing with me about why it won’t work, before the idea is fleshed out,” Caleb explained, for the thousandth time, or possibly the ten-thousandth time. “Here’s my idea. You have memories stretching back damn near forever. You know things you don’t even know you know. In a mesh, all those memories are bare to the others in the mesh. Humans aren’t any better at sorting and cataloging information than Companions, so those memories are of limited use. Mac’s a computer, sentience and all. Computers excel at sorting and cataloging large amounts of data. I want him to store and sort as many of your memories, related to technology, as he can. Then, he will use that information to resolve our propulsion issues. We must find a way to get to the squadron quicker.”
“That’s brilliant,” Mac said softly.
“That’s crazy!” Al yelled.
“Do you think those kids can hold those Companions for hours?” Caleb demanded.
“I don’t know,” Al admitted. “Maybe they can, but that’s why I warned them the way I did. I didn’t want to demoralize them, but ... Caleb, those three Companions are dangerous!”
“Will you agree that we need to reach them quicker?” Caleb asked. “We’re going to lose more kids if we don’t. Unless you have a better idea, this is the best I can think of,” Caleb persuaded.
“This might burn both our brains out, too,” Al retaliated.
“What happens if the kids can’t hold them, and we have to face this triad, alone?” Caleb asked gently. “Can we take them down, alone? If they aren’t stopped, what happens to Earth, and the future of both humans and Companions?”
A frantic call from Karen interrupted their argument.
“The ship changed course!” Karen announced in a panic. “It turned around, heading back the way it came. We’re still on the ship’s surface, and Blake is still inside! What should I do?” she demanded anxiously.
“Don’t worry, Karen,” Caleb soothed. “I’m on my way, and I can stop them,” he assured her. “You’re on the ship’s surface, so you should be safe, for now. Help Blake mentally to hold those Companions until I get there,” he instructed.
To Al, he said, “The aliens can probably outrun us, at our current speed. What happens if they come back with an armada? What happens if they escape with Blake inside the ship and the other kids on the surface? They’ll run out of air and power eventually. Should we play it safe, or risk everything to save them?”
“You fight dirty!” Al complained bitterly.
He hesitated, and Caleb could feel his trepidation, indecision, and real fear of what they were about to do.
“Okay! Okay! Okay!” Al blurted, feeling Caleb’s urging. “You know, you’re crazy! I know I’ve told you that before, but I really mean it this time! Okay! Let’s do this! Right now! Don’t give me time to think about it! Mesh!” he babbled, deciding to do it before he had time to panic and back out.
Caleb and Al fell into the familiar melding, and both relaxed in the comfort of each other’s mind. Theirs was more complete than any group meld could ever be.
Al couldn’t help but to reflect back on how much he had changed in such a minuscule period of time. He was comfortable with Caleb in his mind. That would have been unthinkable, just a few Earth years ago. Now, he thought he was beginning to understand the human term, ‘love’. He treasured the times his host felt so close. They were an effective team, too! Al wondered which of them had learned more, since their bonding.
That didn’t mean he was okay with this idea. Melding with a machine scared him. Many of his prior hosts had artificial intelligence in their society. In many societies, AIs had been a boon. In others, AIs had been the society’s doom. Machines have a tendency to be very literal, which can lead to unexpected consequences. Still, Caleb was right. This was a chance, and even if it was a slim chance, they had to take it.
“Well?” the meld asked the computer.
“What do I do?” Mac asked.
“WHAT?” the meld asked.
“I’ve never done this before,” Mac explained with patience only a machine could possess. “I can deduce required processes, if I have a starting point, and knowledge of the desired end result. I believe I understand the desired result. Current data indicates this deduction is eighty-seven percent positive, so I am using that for the end-point target. The problem is, I don’t know where to start!”
The moment stretched, as the combined intelligence of an ancient sentient entity, and a human, struggled to explain the process to a machine.
“Umm ... ah ... For me, the first few times I meshed, I had to use visualization, and Al to guide me,” the Caleb portion explained hesitantly. “I imagined what Al would look like, if he had a head. I think we were fighting at the time. I imagined his head was green. Then I imagined my head, and I merged the two. It was difficult, and Al laughed at me for it, but I made it work.”
“I laughed because it was funny,” Al pointed out. “I wasn’t laughing at you imagining my head was green. I don’t have a head! I’m using yours! I was laughing at what I was imagining you ... never mind.”
“It wasn’t funny to me,” Caleb enunciated. “And what do you mean by, ‘never mind?’” he asked heatedly.
“That proves how poor your sense of humor is!” Al announced triumphantly.
“That doesn’t even make sense!” Caleb protested aloud.
“I feel like I’m stepping from a towering cathedral of reason and logic, to a kindergarten of learning impaired children!” Mac complained to no one in particular, before composing himself.
Caleb and Al both sputtered in indignation, but Mac continued over their protests.
“I don’t know if I have an imagination,” Mac admitted, speaking to both of them, and ignoring the righteous anger of the pair sharing the body. “But I can encapsulate the data addresses, the portion of my processes ... my thoughts, that compose my central functions, and on the two of you, and your central functions,” he struggled to explain, resorting to using graphical imagery to explain his words/thoughts.
An imaginary wall of flashing lights appeared in their minds. A block of the wall where the lights were the thickest flared into radiant brilliance.
“Then I do the same for how I perceive each of your ... thoughts,” Mac continued, accompanied by two additional dense blocks of flashing lights on the wall of lights, each flaring like the first. The three highlighted blocks drifted across the wall, towards each other. “Then I’ll move the three encapsulated processes together like...”
Caleb’s body convulsed, but the cocoon-like cockpit restrained him. His brain was on fire! He tasted blood in his mouth! He felt the warm flow of blood on his lips, and knew something had seriously broken.
“Al ... sorry!” Caleb’s mind floundered, regretting letting his friend down by insisting on this course of action. His body convulsed again. His back arched in pain. He would have screamed, but his body wasn’t responding to the need.
“Not ... going ... to ... happen ... like ... this!” he grated, determined not to let them die like this. Too much depended on them!
His mind fought the fire, but it felt like a futile battle. He could feel the flames driving him back farther and farther into himself.
“Don’t fight it!” Al urged, straining to hold their mesh together. “Embrace it! Accept it!” he pleaded, feeling himself burning in those fires, too.
A good rule of battle: when you are losing, try something different. Al’s advice had usually been good, and Caleb was sure death was imminent. He accepted the flame, fully expecting to die. His mind and thoughts burned in the fire. At least the pain would be over.
The pain stopped! Caleb didn’t think he was dead, but wouldn’t have taken any bets on it. He quivered in the cockpit, panting, and not surprised he had pissed on himself. The armor would eliminate the waste, but he was usually more delicate about it.
“Wha wha wha...” he stopped, and swallowed. The coppery taste of blood was thick in his mouth. “What just happened? Caleb gasped in his mind, and the thought echoed. “Happened ... happened ... pened ... pened ... ed...”
“I ... don’t ... know,” Al mentally panted, trying to regain his mental equilibrium. His thoughts also echoed.
“Are we meshed?” Mac asked, also echoing, but less so.
“What ... did you ... do?” Caleb haltingly demanded of the computer, still gasping for breath. The echo had faded more, but was still present.
“I encapsulated the memory addresses for the three of us, and combined them at the quantum level,” Mac replied reasonably. “Are we meshed?” he asked again.
Caleb and Al examined themselves, surprised at what they found. The three of them were part of a mesh tighter than any they had experienced. There were no thoughts held back. There were no private places in their minds. Everything was exposed. There was no effort expended to be in the meld. They were just ... one. There was one individual, comprised of three entities.
Caleb was conscious of the massive job to organize Al’s memory, categorize those memories, and integrate the keys to those memories with their, as in singular, mind. It was a process running in the background ... and he shook himself. “I don’t think like that!” he blurted, stunned.
“Mac! How do you undo this?” Caleb demanded urgently.
“I’m ... I’m not sure I can!” the Mac portion of their mind replied, sounding surprised at that fact.
The Caleb portion of their mind understood the surprise, because he could see the issues of reversing the process. Each encapsulated memory block had contained a value that equaled the essence of Caleb, or Al, or Mac. Once merged, there was no longer a memory block with a value equaling Caleb, or Al, or Mac! The longer they remained merged, the more the three encapsulated values blended into one.
“The echo,” he/they said softly. “It was our memories ... the very essence of who we are, were, being blended!” he surmised in shock.
“But ... I’m still me! But ... more! Everything that made Caleb Connor is still there! I am not Caleb, diluted! I am Caleb, with benefits. Al isn’t diluted either, but I understand his humor now, and the lessons he has learned in his billions of years of existence! Mac! I see what he did. He used the same process when absorbing my old armor! That was his concept of merging. I know what he was thinking, because they are my thoughts, now!”
He saw the physical damage caused by the melding, and with a thought, sent nanobots racing to the site of the damage, repairing broken arteries and veins. He examined the rest of their body, which now included the entirety of the Star Hawk, and ‘corrected’ areas of inconsistencies. The boundaries between his human body and his Star Hawk body became insignificant, because they were the same.
“They’re rounding the moon!” Karen reported anxiously. “I’ll lose line-of-sight with Earth in fifteen minutes! How soon will you be here?” she asked desperately.
“Soon, Karen,” the new Caleb replied soothingly. He extended soothing thoughts to the terrified girl, calming her.
He mentally glanced back at that imaginary wall of flashing lights. The three spheres of brilliance had merged into a single sphere. It pulsed, far outshining the three previous spheres. The mass of the blazing ball of light far surpassed what the three previous spheres could account for.
“Synergy!” he thought in awe.
“I’ll work on this later,” Caleb decided, aloud, purposefully turning his/their attention from what had happened to them, and focusing on the plight of the squadron.
“I think we can do better than this,” Caleb mused, referring to their speed toward the star-ship. “The gravity drives are fine for getting into space. Once out of atmosphere, we have a completely new set of resources. He glanced around him, using eyes not limited to the human spectrum. He noted the gale of photons that human scientists called the solar wind.
The analytical, number-crunching portion of his mind focused. It blasted through Al’s memories! The maelstrom of data surrendered bits of information from memories of hosts uncountable. Information shifted, like pieces of a huge puzzle, forming the picture of a plan.
There was a host, long ago. It was a species with wings, and he remembered the feel of the wind, slipping past his wings. He liked that.
Another host, in another time, had a sports hobby of riding a ... something like a surfboard from orbit. He wasn’t a host for long, but the memory of the experience had stayed with Al for eons. The surfboard was nothing more than a mass of super efficient solar cells collecting photons. The charged photons energized a reactor that powered a jet.
That ‘surfboard’ wouldn’t do what he needed, but the concept added to bits and pieces of other technology from a myriad other memories, both experienced with hosts, and learned from other Companions. The data combined into a massive puzzle that slowly resolved into a complete solution to his immediate problem: reaching the moon as quickly as possible.
“It can’t be that simple,” Caleb chided himself, smiling for the first time in days.
His armor thinned, and spread to each side. The cocoon around the cockpit engulfed the life support, which hung between the spreading black clouds like the body of a bug. The clouds of black began to take shape. Huge black wings formed, with the cockpit forming the center. They continued to spread, growing thinner in places, into a membrane just three nanobots thick. Each nanobot on the surface collected photons, and channeled them into reactors along the wing’s leading edge. Each ‘rib’ in the wings was a jet sweeping towards the back of the wings, and there were many of them. They resembled a bat’s wings, or the wings of a dragon more than those of a bird. He didn’t care. The simulations running in his mind indicated his projected speed, and he liked it.
Caleb flexed his wings, feeling the blast of radiation from the sun. He could feel the energy being absorbed, charging the reactors in the leading edge of the wings. He flexed them again, stretching them, turning them to catch the most energy as the solar wind washed over him. Each wing reached thousands of feet, but that could change, based on need and resources. His wings felt alive!
“I think it’s time,” Caleb said to himself, and he could hear the faint echoes of agreement.
His wings twitched, and he changed his heading slightly, to get a better angle on the solar wind. He rode it like a surfboard on a mile high wave, and it was just as chaotic. For a moment, he felt like a hang-glider flying in a hurricane. The solar wind churned after earth’s magnetic field forced it to bend around the planet.
“It’s like white water in a river, forced to change course to go around boulders!” Caleb noted in awe.
It was whitewater at the speed of light!
His Star Hawk, now truly a Star Hawk, twitched its wings again, aligning with the blast of solar energy. The reactors were fully charged. He soared, riding the light faster and faster. The wing ribs pulsed a brilliant white one time before fading back to the inky black of the wings. The trailing edge of his wings flashed with the eye-searing light of a star, and he blasted towards the moon on a wave of pure plasma.
The Captain listened to the Companion’s rage as it struggled to get free. The rant gradually subsided, but the struggle to escape did not. He could almost hear the Companion’s thought processes, when it turned its attention toward him.
“You must countermand that order!” the Companion ordered.
“No!” the Captain replied angrily. “What you are doing is wrong! My ship will not be a party to it! Your actions violate the host/Companion agreement! An agreement based on trust!”
“Evil has reappeared!” his Companion protested. “It must be destroyed!” it pleaded.
“Evil has reappeared!” the Captain roared aloud, as much as an alien of his species is capable of roaring. “That Evil is you! Your actions, and that of your triad, are EVIL!” the Captain enunciated.
“I am not Evil! You don’t realize what the Evil is capable of!”
“No I don’t,” the Captain conceded. “I do know that you are willing to destroy a near sentient species out of fear! I know that is evil! Give me back my body!”
“When I am free, and the Evil is stopped,” the Companion proclaimed, before renewing his rant and his struggles.
The Captain strained to use his legs, to no avail. His legs twitched, but that was the most response he could get. He had not attained captaincy of a star-ship by giving up, and he wasn’t about to give up now. He continued to fight the Companion that wanted control of his body.
“What’s he doing?” Karen asked the meld, knowing that no one had an answer.
She was part of the meld holding the Captain’s Companion.
“It feels like he’s getting slick!” she said, voicing everyone’s concern. “Blake, what’s he doing?”
“He isn’t getting slick,” Blake asserted grimly. “I think he’s creating the illusion that he is, to make us change the way we’re holding him. Holding him different, could give him an advantage. Think about it. He can’t be slick. There is nothing there to become slick. We are holding an ethereal entity, not a physical body.”
The meld reviewed their instructions from Al, and Blake continued leading with, “We need to convince him that struggling is uncomfortable.”
“Why is he twitching like that?” another portion of the meld asked.
“Probably another ploy,” the Blake portion of the meld responded. “Remember what Al said! These Companions are dangerous!”
“They’ve quit shooting at us!” the meld holding the Science Officer noticed.
“Why would they quit shooting at us?” the meld holding the Medical officer wondered.
“I don’t know, but this is getting harder” the Captain’s meld grated. They were struggling to maintain their shield around the Companion.
“Emotion! That’s what I used to stop them before!” the Blake portion of the meld noted.
“STOP FIGHTING!” the meld screamed into the shield, adding all their anger and fear for lost comrades to the order.
The alien’s body shuddered, and the tendrils of thought maintaining the shield shattered. It was still for a moment, before struggling upright to lunge towards the cannon.
“What happened?” Karen asked when their meld collapsed with the shield.
“I don’t know,” Blake answered, panic in his thought. “We need to meld! It’s going for the cannon again!”
The Captain continued to struggle against the Companion. He was not winning, but he wasn’t losing either, for now. The Companion was using his own vitality against him, and eventually he would become too weak to fight back.
Raw, primeval emotion slammed into his mind. The Captain was stunned, neglecting his battle for only a moment.
The ancient Companion didn’t need a better opportunity, and seized control of the Captain’s body. It used the Captain’s own momentum to sever the tendrils of thought binding him. The Companion erected its own shield as quickly as thought, once free of the Evil’s embrace.
He considered his next action before setting his shield to wildly fluctuating, mimicking mental signatures of hosts throughout the ages. It was much easier to prevent a blocking than it was to break one. Establishing a mental shield on another entity required synchronizing mental signatures, which was a straightforward process. It would take a very skilled mental operator to synchronize with him now. The Companion then created his own shield, within his host’s mind, and walled the Captain’s consciousness away. He would deal with the Captain after the battle. For now, he had an Evil one to kill!
The Captain was furious, and continued to fight for control, but he was fighting an unfamiliar battle. The Companion had eons of mental experience to draw upon.
The Companion ordered the legs to move again, and struggled upright. He awkwardly forced the body to lunge towards the cannon, and nearly fell again.
“Only two more steps and it will be over!” the Companion gritted, forcing another leg to move, even though he couldn’t feel it. His control of the host body was fragile. He steeled himself for the coming battle with his host ... forcing his arms and hands to aim and fire the cannon.
“Why can’t we shield him?” the meld asked, anxiety giving the thoughts a sharper edge.
“I’m almost there,” Caleb interjected calmly. “What’s wrong? What is happening?”
“He broke free, and he’s almost to the cannon!” the meld replied. “We can’t get a lock on him!”
“He is a tricky one,” Caleb conceded grimly. “Blake, brace yourself! I’ll be coming through the hangar door in a moment. I haven’t slowed as much as I should have, so it might shake things up a bit. I’ll try not to depressurize the hangar.”
Karen wondered what Caleb was talking about, and looked towards the Earth in expectation.
A brilliant pinprick of light rapidly expanded, and expanded, and expanded. It was a line of light, stretching across the heavens, while hurtling towards the star-ship. It was so bright; it even illuminated the darkened moonscape below them. It took a long moment before Karen realized that, above that line of light, the stars disappeared.
“What the hell!” Karen blurted aloud.
“Is that on our side?” Morrigan asked in awe.
“It had better be!” Karen muttered. “Blake! Brace yourself!” she warned, letting him see what she was seeing.
The object shrank, as it neared the spaceship, and Karen suddenly realized that she was seeing wings! They were wings so vast, and black, they seemed to be a hole in space. The wings rippled with varying depths of black. The surfaces were adjusting, as they flew through space, to take optimum advantage of eddies in the solar wind. The wings continued to shrink, the line of fire growing shorter and shorter, until moments before it reached the ship, it was a solid blast of light.
“Caleb?” Karen asked hesitantly.
“Surprise, surprise!” Caleb answered, sounding calm, and completely at odds with the current circumstances. “Everyone, tighten your seat belts. I’m not sure how this is going to work, but it was the only thing I could think of to get me here this quickly!”
Karen squinted, until she could see the figure atop the pillar of fire, and gasped. It looked like the caricature of a giant hawk, its wings seeming to cup to slow it. The blazing light from the trailing edge of the wings focused the thrust, not only slowing, but also guiding its trajectory. Two massive legs stuck out below the Hawk, and lethal talons grew from their base as she watched.
It slammed into the hangar door, and the giant star-ship trembled beneath Karen’s feet.
Al had known the basic configuration of the star-ship. He would know where they held Blake, based on Blake’s description. That knowledge was Caleb’s now, and he felt a momentary feeling of ... loss. He set the thought aside, literally in a memory address. He would deal with it in calmer moments.
The jolt was bone jarring when Caleb hit the ship. It was expected, but still caused him to pause for a tiny fraction of a second for a systems check.
The landing struts were giant, multi-layer, pistons, capable of partially absorbing the impact of their mass. He hit the door at a slight angle, helping alleviate the shock of impact by transferring some of his vertical momentum into horizontal momentum. The claws, actually large grappling hooks, sank into the door of the hanger, and hung on. The Star Hawk’s body whipped forward from the force of the collision, and Caleb caught himself on another pair of pistons with talons on the end. Still, the impact drove the Star Hawk flat against the hangar door, and it stuck there without a bounce. The surface of the star-ship and the Star Hawk fused together upon contact, and the nanobots began assimilating the metal of the hangar door.
The deck lurched under Blake, and the alien stumbled to the side.
Something had changed in the alien’s mind. Blake led the meld that frantically hammered against the alien’s mental wall. Earlier, the mind they had blocked possessed ‘handles’ that allowed them hold it firmly. Now, the ‘handles’ were gone! Every connection the mind had to the outside world had disappeared.
“How can he do that?” the Blake portion of the meld asked anxiously. “It’s like he’s a blank slate!”
The alien straightened, and shuffled another step towards the crew-served cannon.
“If he reaches that gun, I’ll have to use the armor to stop him!” Blake warned. “I’m dropping out of the meld! I don’t know what would happen to the rest of the meld if something happens to me!”
“Not yet!” Karen pleaded. “Caleb is almost through the door!”
“I’m out of time,” Blake said grimly, when the alien grasped the weapon with one elongated hand.
The barrel swung drunkenly, as if the alien weren’t in control of his body. The alien’s head lolled to one side, the neck muscles requiring too much effort to control. The barrel swung wildly again, pointing away from Blake. Then the alien clutched at the weapon’s chassis to maintain its balance.
“Something’s wrong with it!” Blake exclaimed, ensuring everyone could see what was happening.