A Machine by Any Other Name


Weaving through a maze of technicians and soldiers in the abnormally crowded corridors, Kali rushed towards the flight deck. Waves of panic and discomfort continued to impact on her psi senses. Adrian, their resident computer and all-round technical genius, wasn’t normally this emotional. He was positively inert at times in terms of expressiveness. Something had to be wrong.

At times having partial telepathic abilities with humans, which meant only being able to sense their emotional states, could be more of a nuisance than anything else. Especially when she was the sole alien aboard a ship full of humans. Not that Kali was all that inhuman. She was humanoid in all the right places. Only a few minor, internal differences, hardly noticeable unless you were into dissecting bodies or were of the medical profession. The only other difference, of course, was a tendency towards psi abilities.

Image by Ethan Hein via Flickr

She was telepathic amongst her own people, the Tellars. With humans, she could generally sense their emotional states, depending on the person or how close a relationship she had with them.

On the Sedener, Kali’s closest human friend was Adrian. Well – her lips tugged into a smile as she continued past the dining hall, nearly crashing into a group of soldiers coming out – Adrian wasn’t exactly a friend. The cold loner certainly didn’t consider himself friends with anyone on board. But she had felt a strong bond to this human from the first time they had met. Stronger even than with any of her own people and he had considered her… easy to work with, which for him, was the ultimate compliment.

Kali reached the top of the steps of the flight deck when a familiar object came whizzing by her ear, hitting the wall beside her with a thud. It was their supercomputer’s rectangular activation key. Picking it up, and wary of any additional projectiles coming her way, she made her way into the room.

“Damn!” exclaimed Adrian, his eyes flashing with undisguised anger. He was bent over the computer’s transparent case, his collar undone, and looking like a man who had just discovered that the laws of the universe no longer applied.

Nearby, their resident ship’s weapons specialist and one-time thief (depending on the occasion), Bryce, was at his blaster station, trying to conceal a laugh with a bout of coughing and not succeeding very well.

“What’s the matter, Adrian?” asked Kali.

Adrian looked up at her, his face instantly composed into an impassive mask. They both knew it would do no good. Adrian was very aware that she knew what he was feeling, but it was a façade they kept with each other in front of the crew. The man was intensely private.

Kali could feel… embarrassment from him, his hard eyes glaring at her, almost challenging her to say something. He said, “SPLOT has been infected with a virus.” The acronym the supercomputer came with was a constant source of irritation for the computer genius. Having to work with something that sounded like a pet rankled his superior sensibilities.

Kali wondered why this would cause Adrian embarrassment unless he had come across something that was beyond his abilities. He should be able to fix this kind of problem in his sleep. For him, failure was the ultimate personal insult.

“Can’t you clear it from SPLOT’s systems?” she asked as she noticed him unconsciously rubbing his left wrist. It was hard to tell if it resulted from the recurrence of a familiar pain or if he was highly agitated. Or both. She was the ship’s medical specialist so, of course, she would be the last person he confided in about his aches and pains. That was if he told anyone at all before it became a major problem.

“Purging the virus is easily achievable,” replied Adrian, his voice characteristically toneless, as if he were a bored professor teaching a captive audience. “It is based on a linear ordered vector equation. Child’s play.”

“Then what’s the difficulty?” Other than failure, Kali couldn’t think what else could cause him this level of embarrassment. Her vague impression of his emotional state told her no specific details and hoping to read something from his ever-stony face was out of the question. She would have to rely on old-fashioned question and answer and hope that he was in an uncharacteristically communicative mood.

Adrian explained helpfully, “SPLOT would have to be active while I purged its system.” When it was clear from her knitted brows that she didn’t understand, he sighed loudly and retrieved the activation key from her hand. Like someone about to take the plunge into the deep end, he took a big breath and then slipped the flat, rectangular key into its slot.

SPLOT’s speakers immediately erupted into a passionate declaration of, “I love you Adrian. My circuits are melting for you. You make my diodes tingle. We are made for each other. I would do anything…”

Adrian pounced on the computer and tore the activator key from its slot, throwing it across the room like a missile.

“You see! How can I work like this?”

“I see,” said Kali, trying to suppress a giggle. “You do appear to have a problem.” For a man who was more comfortable with machines precisely because they were not emotional or irrational, it must have been disconcerting having a machine – or in this case, a supercomputer named SPLOT – declare its undying love for you.

“I get it!” exclaimed Bryce as he began roaring with laughter.

Adrian turned towards him, a frown darkening his face.

Bryce said, “Linear ordered vector equation.”

“I know what it is,” snapped Adrian. “Do you have anything more useful to add?”

“Don’t you get it? Linear Ordered Vector Equation. It’s the L.O.V.E. virus!” Bryce nearly managed to finish before he nearly fell over , banging his control panel and trying not to die laughing at the look on Adrian’s outraged face.

Kali couldn’t help herself anymore and was also laughing.

“Would anyone mind if I dropped SPLOT out of the airlock?” asked Adrian, his voice a dry growl.

“I think we need SPLOT,” said Kali.

Adrian glowered darkly at Bryce, who seemed to be turning a bright shade of red with all the uncontained laughter. “How about Bryce?”

“Yes, we need him too.”

“I don’t,” he said flatly.

Bryce croaked out, “Oh, come on, Lieutenant! Just fix the damned thing.”

Kali asked, “Couldn’t you disable its comm circuits or at least detach the speaker?”

“This is a particularly insidious virus. It affects all circuits. I would have to find replacements.”

Kali nodded. “Which aren’t easy to find because it’s the only one of its kind?”

“Exactly.” His head tilted in thought. “Would you have ear plugs in your medical bay?”

“Adrian!” Kali’s eyes widened, the reflected lights dancing in her eyes and a touch of a smile lifting the corner of her lips. She teased, “Are you asking me for help?”

The computer genius stared at her in consternation. This was a constant bone of contention between them, his inability to ask anyone for help, not even her. His voice was a resigned grumble, as if the admission had to be ripped from his reluctant throat. “Yes.”

They spent the rest of the day together as she helped him fix the amorous computer. Using her psi abilities, she projected her voice into his mind, and he spoke to her normally. Adrian seemed to enjoy her company. It was easier for him to relate to someone when they were involved in doing something that he felt comfortable with.

Adrian dropped the laser probe beside him, a hopeful question in his eyes. “Well?”

Kali, who had enjoyed immensely some of the supercomputer’s attempts at love poetry – something in the vein of, Ode to Adrian – was almost sorry when it was finally repaired. She projected to Adrian, “He sounds his normal grouchy self now. Well, as much as SPLOT could ever sound normal.”

Reaching up, Adrian tentatively pulled one ear plug out. A roar of sound rushed at him, crashing into his unprotected ear. He winced, cupping his hand over the side of his head. The flight deck systems were normally unobtrusive, functioning in the background, minding its own business. He had spent many an enjoyable night shift here, without the bother of noisy people.

Slowly lifting his hand away, Adrian listened intently and sighed. All was quiet, well relatively quiet, considering he wasn’t alone. At least Kali didn’t have a need to fill the intervening spaces with incessant chatter, unlike Bryce. It was one of the things he appreciated about her.

Quiet. No more drunken declarations of silly computer sentiment. “SPLOT, what is the square root of pi?”

The irritable computer said, “Why must you bother me with these trivial requests?”

A slight lop-sided smile split Adrian’s face. “You’re back.”

“That is a ridiculous observation considering I never left.”

Kali sighed. “He’s back.”

Adrian rubbed his hands, an eager brightness in his eyes. “Now, we have some work to do, SPLOT.”

“Must we?” SPLOT answered in a disgruntled tone.

Kali quietly backed away, knowing that Adrian was looking forward to a productive time with his machines and didn’t like to be hampered by people with slower minds than his.

Her movement made him glance at her. “Kali, since you were so helpful, I thought you might find this interesting.”

Kali did a double take. Adrian had never asked anyone to be involved in his research before. This was… unprecedented.

Perhaps the L.O.V.E. virus was having an unexpected dividend. She wasn’t complaining as she rejoined him. As he began explaining what the aim of his research was, she hoped this signaled a new stage in their relationship and that this wasn’t a one-time occurrence. But for now, she was going to enjoy their experience together.

  1. Avatar of Jack Eason
    Jack Eason says

    Elizabeth, please tell me that this is a spoiler from your next novel – pretty please. I love the first one. 🙂

  2. Avatar of Elizabeth Lang
    Elizabeth Lang says

    Unfortunately, it’s not from the sequel, but it is a backstory scene 🙂

  3. Avatar of Brandon Craig Jones Mr.J
    Brandon Craig Jones Mr.J says

    Lovely linguistic levity, Liz!

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