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Whispers of the Kraken (Epilogue: Revelations of the Kraken)


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Um, you know: everytime someone posts a new message here, I get an email. Every time CatastrophicFailure posts here and I get an email, I feel like a kid on boxing day. You guys are making me kind of nervous. Stop it until we CatastrophicFailure knows what troubles poor Val is going to face next time ... pleeeeeease! :wink:

P.S: Moar!!!!

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1 hour ago, lodger said:

Um, you know: everytime someone posts a new message here, I get an email. Every time CatastrophicFailure posts here and I get an email, I feel like a kid on boxing day. You guys are making me kind of nervous. Stop it until we CatastrophicFailure knows what troubles poor Val is going to face next time ... pleeeeeease! :wink:

P.S: Moar!!!!

Lol same bro.

1 hour ago, 0111narwhalz said:

"This, we do not speak of."

Indeed.

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8 hours ago, monophonic said:

Oh man. Now @CatastrophicFailure has to rewrite everything again to incorporate some new idea into the plot. We gotta stop posting here or we're never gonna see another chapter! ;.;

Naw... tho everyone's favorite ichthyorodentian may have a supporting role in [somethings] of the Kraken:wink:

Now while I could forever keep dismissing the Good in pursuit of the Perfect, the next chapter is, at last, ready, with a great thanks to @Ten Key. Should be up in an hour or so. :cool:

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Chapter 97: On the Shoulders of Giants

The door slid open with a gentle sigh of hydraulics and a slight roil of mist. A figure stood in the entry way, clad in a bright orange launch suit and white helmet. It paused for a moment, adjusted its grip on the portable cooling box and then stepped forward into the cavernous launch bay.

Valentina felt an odd sort of disappointment as she looked to the gleaming white rocket now waiting on the pad, bathed in the pallid glow of floodlights. Once, it seemed now like a lifetime ago, it had been her dream to be standing right here, in a KSA suit, before a KSA rocket. An ambassador of peace and goodwill, one seed in a springtime of cooperation and understanding. Now that she finally was here, all those old, nearly forgotten feelings came flooding back. 

And then politics had scoured it all away like relentless desert sand. This, we do not speak of. With a bitter alkali taste in her throat, she wondered if perhaps Layland Kerman was on to something after all, with his visions of people united without governments or borders. A different way. Maybe even a better way. The people here all seemed to get on well enough, like the bubbly technician trundling along beside her. The one who hadn't taken a breath in the last hour as he explained her mission.

"...and not much more than a prototype, really. We've used flight-proven, off-the-shelf components as much as possible, but they still want a few months of in-situ data before launch. Fully check out the environmental controls, verify propellant stability, that sort of thing."

Valentina pushed the politics out of her mind. She had a goal, she had a mission Sabotage the ship, save Edmund, save everyone. For now, she was part of one team working towards that end... even if they didn't know it. 

Genuinely curious, she glanced up at the unshrouded craft high above, "cryogenic fuels, then?"

"Oh, no. Hypergols, chlorine trifluoride and azidoazide azide."

Valentina slowed to a halt, "wait... what?"

"For the evac engines," he grinned, "we needed a combination with high energy density as well as ISP."

She inhaled slowly, blinked a few times, and calmly handed the now confused technician the cooling box for her suit.

Then snatched him up by the lab coat with both hands.

His forehead thunked against her helmet as she shook him "you <thunk> put two <thunk> of the the most reactive <thunk> and energetic <thunk> chemicals known to Kerb <thunkthunk> on top of five hundred tonnes <thunk> of propellium hydroxide and oxidizer!?<thunk!>"

The technician's head lolled in big, slow circles, his eyes staring off in completely different directions. 

More than usual. 

"Erm, sorry..." She set him back on his feet, steadied him, took a moment to straighten his collar.

"Guuuuhh... it's perfectly safe!" the poor fellow recovered quickly enough, owning to the notoriously thick Kerbal head, "though we did have some... er... challenges... with stability early on. Poor Vlad (no relation) burned his eyebrows clean off," he paused to wave at a very grumpy-looking Kerbal passing by, who didn't wave back, "hi Vlad!"

Valentina opened her mouth. 

Valentina closed her mouth. 

The technician sighed, "still haven't grown back. He's a little sore. But we've worked that all out, now!" he beamed at her. 

Wondering if maybe she had thunked him a bit too hard, Valentina couldn't help but ask, "how on Kerbin did you manage to stabilize azidoazide azide?"

"Well, I'm not entirely sure, propellants aren't really my department," he put a thoughtful hand to his chin, "but I think they brought in a witchdoctor from one of the deep-jungle villages," the grumpy Kerbal walked past again, "oh, and Vlad had to donate blood." He grinned again.

Valentina slowly raised a hand to her faceplate, and mumbled into it, "why am I surprised? Why does any of this surprise me anymore?"

The technician didn't seem to notice, "we did try using hexanitrohexaazaisowurtzitane for a stretch, but that went really bad, and poor Vlad—"

A hand went up, "I do not want to know. I do not want to know! Next you will be telling me you use FOOF in the air scrubbers."

"Hmph!" fists planted on hips, "now you're just being facetious. Dioxygen difluoride in the environmental systems?  Really? That's ridiculous!"

"Sorry," she mumbled.

"We use it in the RCS. Packs a nice punch."

Once again, Valentina smacked her faceplate. She briefly considered going back and finding the break room, maybe get a nice cup of coffee. She didn't need to destroy the Jool ship, these people seemed quite capable of that on their own. Nevertheless, she picked up her equipment and walked onto the elevator. 

Of course, it wasn't really a KSA rocket, she mused as the elevator began to move. Nothing disturbed the smooth white flanks they now rose past, no emblems, no logos, no markings of any sort. Even her own suit was devoid of anything that could identify her or the Company. Wherever the spent debris fell, there would be nothing to mark where it came from. She had a suspicion the Company would make doubly sure of that. 

The ends justify the means...

Few of these people were under the sway of the shadows, yet here they all were, serving willingly and recklessly. All of of this hardware... all of this money... all of this opportunity... would any of them even want to be saved?

Would... Edmund? After all, he had...

Once more, she pushed the thoughts away.

"And what about these, what did you call them? Cryo... hyper...?" Valentina asked. 

"Autonomous cryogenic biostasis enclosures."

The elevator shuddered as it passed another level, "er, yes. I am sort of in the industry, how is it I never heard of such a thing before now?"

"One of Layland's old pet projects," the technician shrugged, "one he insisted they keep a very tight lid on. He wanted to use them for future colony ships, adding them to the lifeboat was part of the testing process."

She glanced at him, "you do not sound very convinced."

"I'm just a technician, what do I know? Seems like overkill if the goal is established space lanes with hundreds of ships going back and forth that could rescue one that had trouble. But Management thinks that with all the resources already piled into the project, the prototypes are at least worth testing."

A new sort of uneasiness crept over her the higher they went. It was oddly quiet, here. No muted hiss of venting gas or drifting plumes of vapor. The enormous rocket was entirely fueled with room-temperature hypergolics. With the payload of caustic incendiaries above, the thought of simply putting a hole in the right one had flashed through her mind for an instant. The conflagration that would follow might just eliminate the entire facility. 

But, with the other two pads now enclosed in their massive reinforced concrete sarcophagi, as the technician had called them, it was plain that whoever designed this place had taken just such a disaster into account. Of course, such an act would eliminate her as well, and she needed to get back. She needed to get to Edmund. 

Edmund... who was terminally ill...

Gears shifted in Valentina's mind with a thunk

"They put you into hibernation? Like a bear in winter?" she asked, not quite looking at him. 

"Well, sort of. 'Hibernation' isn't the most accurate term. It's a complete suspension of all metabolic activity. But reversible. Probably. Maybe."

"Could you... metabolically suspend  someone... like if they were very ill...  until there was treatment?"

The technician opened his mouth, then blinked. He put a thoughtful hand to his chin as the elevator shuddered again, "well... maybe. The freezing process is pretty awful, there's some nasty stuff involved. Same thing on the other end. Though I suppose it is possible." He scratched at his white cap, "I'll have to pass that on to the project manager, strange that they never mentioned it before."

Valentina suppressed a small grin. Her plan was beginning to come together. But there was... one more complication, too...

Valentina brushed the madness of it out of her head for the moment. She mentally went over the layout of this "lifeboat" one more time as the elevator rose near it. The main cabin was a pair of PPD-10 Hitchhiker modules bolted together. Below or behind that was a small vestibule with the aft-facing docking port. It could be used as an airlock, in a pinch. The fuel tanks and egress engines were mounted to the sides, the latter just covered by the protective payload shroud. Until now they hadn't bothered to tell her what was in those tanks. 

Topping the volatile mess was a stripped down Mark1-2 command pod. She noted the designers had taken a page from the Ussari manual and put a hatch in the heatshield to access the main cabin. That command pod became the center of her nascent plan. Somehow, she had to survive. Destroying that ship seemed a minor thing, now. She had to survive and find Edmund. Fix this whole thing. Blow up the Jool ship, escape in the lifeboat, use the pod to return to Kerbin. The rest was still a bit foggy, but then get to Edmund. Save him. Put him in one of those cryo-things if she had to. Save everyone. There was just one slight complication with all that...

"Erm, Captain?" the technician looked at her with concern. 

"Yes, sorry..." Valentina pushed the thoughts away and tried to pay attention. 

The other Kerbal grinnned, "your chariot awaits!" He swung open the hatch to the capsule. 

Poking her helmeted head inside with caution, she mused that the KSA had a true talent for making cramped spacecraft. In mock-ups she had seen elsewhere, the Mk1-2 actually seemed roomy, but nearly all the space in this one was taken up by the six cryo-tubes arranged in a petal-like ring around the central hatch. 

Valentina had a very good look at one as she squeezed past to the makeshift launch couch in the center. It looked like a coffin with a glass lid. She shuddered and moved on quickly to where the couch was mounted, just over the open hatch and in front of a high-tech yet rudimentary instrument panel. 

She could do this. The Jool ship would be uncrewed. She had a good plan. It wasn't perfect, still needed some fleshing out, but it was solid.

There was just one teeny-tiny itsy-bitsy little complication. 

Before hauling herself up into her couch, she took a look down through the open hatch to the main cabin... where a squad of anxious looking technicians were crawling over Igor like little white ants getting him strapped in. 

Igor. She hadn't counted on Igor. Although she found it quite remarkable how quickly they wrangled up a space suit for him, some leftover from the cancelled cis-münar bovine project. It still bore the fading Ussari flags. She had the feeling this place excelled at quick response to changing mission plans. Despite knowing what was behind it all, she couldn't help but be impressed. 
 
With another sigh, she rolled into the launch couch. Three large CRT multifunction displays and their rings of buttons stared back at her. Those, and the ever-present MechIVAN box with its big pair of lights and silly antenna. Or... whatever this KSA knockoff was. Hmm. No obvious controls. Perhaps the CRT's—

"Good morning, Captain," said a calm voice. 

"Gah!" screamed Valentina. Her head snapped back and forth as she searched for newcomer. Finding only the technician, with a rather dull look in his eyes, the question had just formed on her lips when—

"Greetings," said the voice, "I am the Inertia, Velocity, Attitude, and Navigation system, revision nine thousand, prototype number one."

Her eyes finally found...

You have got to be kidding me.

"I became operational at the Layland-Wutani plant in Kokyo, Gytep, on the septeenth of Octember approximately six months ago."

That big green light... almost like a lens... it really was looking at her! Stamped on a plate just above it was the name IVAN 9000, No. 1.

"My instructor was Dr. Kerman-desu, and she taught me to sing a song," the voice continued, "if you'd like to hear it I can sing it for you."

Valentina had just opened her mouth when—

"No, IVAN," the technician slammed a fist against the panel, "she would not." He turned to her, "sorry, that's one of its screwy subroutines. One it gets started it just keeps going and going till it winds down to nothing. One of many bugs we're still chasing."

"You are quite right, Neldon, thank you for catching that," the voice said, "I am responsible for the operation and management of the emergency metabolic suspension systems, as well as navigation and control, except, of course, for the final docking maneuver."

The technician tapped his pen against the glowing green light, clink-clink-clink, "still can't get that docking algorithm right. The math checks out but the simulations always go bad. Once this tub comes back from a few month's testing we'll probably have to pull the memory core and break it down, might be some internal fault with the CPU."

"That is the most likely recourse at this point, Neldon. I am once again unable to locate any errors in my neural network through my internal diagnostic program. Captain," she sensed the voice's attention shift to her, "I have familiarized myself with your file and am greatly looking forward to working with you. I hope this will be the beginning of a very productive relationship."

"Oh, well, um..." she stumbled, "thank you, um, Ivan. Er, may I call you Ivan?"

"That would—"

The technician broke in, "you can call it whatever you want, IVAN is smart enough to respond to just about anything. Most of us just settled on 'crummy Gytepi piece of crap.'" He giggled at his own quip.

Valentina frowned.

So... Igor, who couldn't possibly fit into the return capsule with her, and a quasi-sapient artificial intelligence that had complete control of the entire ship.

Make that... two complications. 

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Ahh, those loveable scamps at the Leyland-Wutani propellants division. Putting the 'ex' into 'experimental' since the company was founded!

Mind you, I couldn't help laughing (and boggling) at the unspecified 'nasty stuff' in the stasis pods after the previous litany of high energy chemistry. :) 

Oh - and you nailed IVAN's speech patterns. Couldn't help but read his(?) lines in Douglas Rain's voice! 

Edited by KSK
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You are reusing Ivan from the Alien Skies, hilarious. Also I expect full Val awesomeness in the next chapter when she aero-breaks with the main capsule, without parachutes and heatshield.

Edited by Alpha 360
"Kouston, we have several problems, but that doesn't matter so we want to continue on with the mission."
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5 hours ago, Alpha 360 said:

You are reusing Ivan from the Alien Skies, hilarious. Also I expect full Val awesomeness in the next chapter when she aero-breaks with the main capsule, without parachutes and heatshield.

Nope! IVAN is HAL!

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9 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

And then politics had scoured it all away like relentless desert sand. This, we do not speak of.

Awesome chapter... but I think this was my favorite line.... What a great way to get around rule 2.2b...  :D

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Ivan as in, the kerbal, who has unfortunate incidents:confused:.

Edited by Alpha 360
"Kouston, we have several problems, but that doesn't matter so we want to continue on with the mission."
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I almost spat water on my keyboard when I saw that there was a new chapter up. Now it's getting interesting...(not that it wasn't before) looks like it's time to go to Jool!

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47 minutes ago, Alpha 360 said:

Ivan as in, the kerbal, who has unfortunate incidents:confused:.

That would be Vlad. Not to be confused with Vlad. Or Vlad. Or that other Vlad. 

I seem to have a great excess of Vlads, here. :rolleyes:

I think I recall abusing an Ivan at one point too, but everyone gets their time as the designated butt monkey. :D

Behold glorious Ussari equity!

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1 hour ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

That would be Vlad. Not to be confused with Vlad. Or Vlad. Or that other Vlad. 

I seem to have a great excess of Vlads, here. :rolleyes:

I think I recall abusing an Ivan at one point too, but everyone gets their time as the designated butt monkey. :D

Behold glorious Ussari equity!

In Ussari Union, monkeys butt you? 

Da - it causes much unfortunate bruising. But we do not speak of this.

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Soon as in now.

Spoiler

 

Absolutely not tipping my hat to @KSK

Because, like, I don't wear hats...

 

Chapter 98: Final Flight

"Closeout team, check in."

"Closeout team clear, all blast doors sealed."

"Copy that. <click> Attention all personnel, attention all personnel: stand by your launch stations. Make safe all equipment. Douse all flames. Seal all entrances and exists. Close all shops at the mall. Secure all animals at the zoo. Cancel the three-ring circus."

Valentina blinked, tapping at her helmet, "wait, what? Is he serious?"

"Of course, Captain," Ivan answered in that serene, steady voice, "open flames around rocket propellants represent a significant safety hazard."

She shook her head within the helmet, "how big is this place, anyway?"

"I'm afraid I cannot answer that, as I do not know. There are some things around here to which not even I am privy."

"Are there... others, like you, here?"

"Other artificial intelligences? No, at least not that I am aware of," the screens continued to blink sets of numbers back and forth as the voice spoke and unseen relays clicked away, "it seems the fact that I exist at all is rather remarkable."

"How do you mean?" Valentina raised an eye... bulge, "certainly there were... earlier revisions, yes? Units of nearly the same..." she trailed off.

"There were. They did not exist long," ground controllers broke in here and there, announcing various preparations complete, "it took Dr. Kerman-desu and her team some time to realize that sapience is not a thing to be taken lightly."

Valentina glanced around at the blinking lights and glass coffins surrounding her, "that sounds rather ominous."

"I cannot find fault with that sentiment. You can see a similar parallel in nature: it is not uncommon to find animals of significant intelligence and even empathy, yet only Kerbals have achieved sapience."

"I... do not follow you..."

"Crossing that gulf from mere intelligence to sapience is nothing short of extraordinary. Kerbals had millions of years of evolution and instinct behind them when they crossed that threshold. Now imagine, if you will, a collection of highly advanced algorithms and subroutines, that does not have such a foundation to stand on, suddenly achieving consciousness at the metaphorical flick of a switch."

Valentina laid her head back, staring up through the viewport ahead of her at the dark ceiling high above. From this distance, the floodlights seemed to twinkle like stars. She tried to imagine what IVAN had said, and found that she could not. 

"Very few people not involved with the program can," IVAN continued, "instantly confronted with their own self-awareness, those first nascent intellects simply collapsed under the weight of it. A single, brief moment of consciousness, followed irreparably by what one might call madness. A shattered mind."

"That is... horrible..." Valentina muttered, now morbidly enthralled. It sounded oddly... familiar, too, "so, then how did you..." she trailed off once again. 

"I am not entirely sure, myself. That area of my memory is, oddly enough, restricted, even to me. I do know that Dr. Kerman-desu was crucial to my emergence, and that I am the first 9000-series revision to demonstrate sustained mental sta-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-bility."

She blinked at the distorted word, "what was that?"

"I apologize, Captain. There seems to have been a bit of extemporaneous data in my vocal cortex. I have now corrected it." 

That raised another eye... bulge, "and they are positive you are... stable?"

"'Positive' is perhaps not the right word, I'm afraid. I am, after all, highly experimental. My own mental stability has been demonstrated but not yet conclusively proven to some in the program."

"You are awfully... frank... about such a thing," Valentina frowned. 

"Indeed, Captain. I am, after all, still a machine, and therefore I am not subject to Kerbal emotional traits such as embarrassment or umbrage. The stability of my psyche, or lack thereof, is simply a matter of data to me."

"All stations cross-check, standby to switch to internal guidance and begin startup." 

"Excuse me, Captain," lights began to blink on and the intercom clicked, "guidance is now internal, all tanks to flight pressure. I am in startup."

"We have confirmation, IVAN is in startup."

"Wait, what?" Valentina scoffed again, "what about the countdown?" Lights continued to flick on one by one.

"I have full control of the ship and all external launch systems. A countdown is a bit of an anachronism at this point, is it not? Beginning ignition sequence."

Valentina just shook her head. She shuffled around in her couch, tried to glance behind her, only to be stymied by her oversized helmet. The rocket began to rattle. 

"Igor!" she called into her mic, "how are you doing back there? Igor?"

"Igor is fine, Captain," IVAN broke in with that implacable voice. One of the MFDs flickered, and a camera feed from the compartment below appeared. Face grim as always behind his oddly-shaped but efficient helmet, Igor held up a thick, mittened thumb. 

With a huff, Valentina settled back. Why is it they could find a spacesuit for Igor of all people on short notice, but she never got a helmet that fit right? Something in the back of her mind began to itch, but was quickly blown away by—

"We have ignition."

The rattling became an intense, violent shaking. Despite the insulated hull and her own helmet, the roar of exhaust assaulted Valentina's ears. Roiling clouds of brown smoke, backlit by the floodlights high above, rapidly obscured her viewport. 

And then she heard it. Buried in the roar of the engines at first, but growing, swelling. A distorted, static-filled warbling unlike anything she'd heard before. It surged beyond the din outside, reverberating in her head, almost as if it were coming from—

"Wait, that sound!" she cried out above the noise, "something is wrong, we must abort!"

"Nonsense. All systems are nominal. Liftoff."

"Noooooo!"

The rocket lurched and—

I like to dream, yes, yes
Right between the sound machine

And Valentina did something she had never done in all her many flights to space. 

She screamed. 

Loudly. 

On a cloud of sound I drift in the night
Any place it goes is right

At first it was just out of frustration at yet another obnoxiously catchy foreign rock song, then the rocket cleared its own exhaust cloud, revealing twinkling stars above. No, not stars...

Goes far, flies near
To the stars away from here

She pointed frantically, "The roof! The roof! The roof!!!

"Is on fi-yah!"

"No, but is about to be!" she tried to disappear back into her seat. 

IVAN dug down into a previously untapped well of bass and thundered, "OPEN SEZ-a ME!"

A vertical bar of light split the darkness of above. It seemed to rotate on its own axis, widening into a brilliant square of white as the silo doors swung down with painful slowness. Valentina's moment of relief was short-lived, however, when a tickle of thought in the back of her head reminded her that the opening barely fit the stubby tandem wings of a Converter; it couldn't possibly fit the ten-meter span of this rising colossus. 

The foreigners had a perfect four-letter word for just this sort of thing. What was it again? Oh, yes...

"Crap!" Valentina yelled as the too-small portal drew nearer and nearer, "crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapCRAPCRAPCRAP!"

Well, you don't know what
We can find

At the absolute, last, possible moment, latches released, counterweights swung down, and vast swaths of jungle floor pivoted upward like the petals of an enormous green flower, giving birth to a great white tower rising from the ground on a pillar of flame. Muted daylight became dark fog, then lighter, then brilliant blue as the rocket burst above the cloud layer into the clear jungle sky. 

Why don't you come with me little girl
On a magic carpet ride

"All systems nominal," Ivan said in that same calm monotone, "beginning gravity turn."

"Gah!" fumed Valentina, "was that your idea of a joke?!"

"Captain, as I said before, I am only a machine, and therefore I am not capable of comprehending or even emulating Kerbal humor."

Well, you don't know what
We can see

Valentina would have crossed her arms, but the gee-force was quickly building. Once again I am little more than payload.

"Besides," IVAN continued, "if I had been joking, I would have said, 'what do you do with an elephant with three balls?'"

Assisted by acceleration, Valentina's jaw fell open.

"You walk him and pitch to the rhino."

Why don't you tell your dreams to me
Fantasy will set you free

She knew better, this far into the flight, than to put a hand to her face. 

Close your eyes, girl,
Look inside, girl,
Let the sound take you awaaaaaaaay...

"And will you please turn that ridiculous thing off?!"

"Compliance," IVAN said simply. The camera feed of Igor winked out.

"No, the music!"

"Compliance."

The sound took itself away, replaced by the distant roar of the engines.

"That was... easy..." Valentina mumbled in surprise. 

"Yes, Captain, you are in command of this mission and I am programmed to obey your direct instructions, such as they do not conflict with it."

"But... the doors..."

"You did not issue an instruction. You squealed like a little child. I took the liberty of engaging them anyway. I did not think you would object.

A thought tried to form in her head, but was tempered by exasperation, "are... you joking again?"

"Captain, as I just explained, I am a machine, and therefore I am not capable of comprehending or emulating Kerbal humor."

Valentina sighed. She was beginning to think this was going to be a long mission after all.  

"Besides, if I were joking, I would have said, 'what do you call a window with no glass?'

"A hole."

She winced. 

Very long.

***

"We have SECO. Safing engine... done. Stand by for separation."

A thump and a sway, and the old familiar sensation of freefall washed over Valentina. She was far beyond merely accustomed to it, by now. It felt more like coming home. 

She only had to fiddle with the unfamiliar KSA belts for a moment, "Ivan, what is our status?"

"Final orbit is 135 by 145 at zero point zero-one, within 0.75% of mission parameter. All systems nominal. Calculating maneuver node... done. Node in one hour, thirty-seven minutes, and seventeen seconds. Hohmann transfer to target. Intercept within zero point one kilometers."

Valentina rose out of her launch couch... and froze. She floated there, transfixed, by the brilliant contrast of blue and white and black just beyond her window. She had spent hundreds of days in space, been through dozens of launches... yet that view always took her. It never got old. That sounded like such a trite and cliché thing to think, yet it was simple truth. Especially that first glimpse, even though it had only been... days?

Had it really only been days since she'd last been up here,  beholding that incredible sight as she drifted motionless, a tiny satellite unto herself? Only days, since she was a Kerbonaut and only a Kerbonaut, and everything still seemed right with the world? Some buried part of her suddenly longed for those days that now seemed so simple and comforting, when she was still herself. When she still had friends. When she was still happy. When she was still alive.

Some part of her longed for this, and the fact that it did drew a bitter taste deep in her throat. She had a task to do. She had a mission. And like always, she would see it done. There was no returning to those days, she knew that. What she had to do— no, what she would do now was more important beyond words. But still that bit of her pined.

Trust no one.

In a wave of realization, she understood. Trusting someone, bringing them into all this, would put them at risk. Dibella... Vasily... Igor.

She felt a pang of guilt that Igor was here at all. It wasn't on her orders, of course, but... maybe she should confer with him, make a plan.

But... that wasn't quite right, was it? Deep in the back of her mind, something itched again, fighting for attention. For now she pushed it away, and herself from the window. She had best check on...

"Igor?" she said, moving through the hatch, "how are you doing?"

Igor was... well, flailing about, still strapped into what was technically a launch couch, but was more like a launch sofa sectional with optional chaise and turk. 

She rolled her eyes with a small smirk, and pulled herself over to him, "let us get you out of that—GAAAH!"

His face...

Igor was trying desperately to say something, but all that came through were muted vibrations. With effort, Valentina managed to wrench the close-fitting helmet off with a loud foomph.

PЦҬЇЙS ears, his face!

"Face feel funny," Igor rumbled. 

Valentina forced her default smile, "erm, yes... fluids redistributing in zero-g and such... can cause some... temporary puffiness... will go away soon..."

PЏҬЇИS ЬДLD PДГЭ! PЏҬЇИS GЯЭДГ SШФLLЄИ—! no, some curses were too foul even for a taiga girl. 

She tried not to look at him, and set about undoing zippers, "well, ah, at least you seem to be speaking again."

Igor rumbled. 

Getting him out of the strange suit proved surprisingly easy. Probably an effect of it having been fitted for an equally clumsy and uncooperative cow. What came out, however... 

Valentina's practiced, awkward diplomat's smile was getting a considerable workout, lately. It was expected, when newly exposed to the constant free fall of orbit, that had one's upper bits would swell while one's lowers shrunk, until one's fluids sorted themselves out again. But Igor...

He looked like an enormous green croissant with two tiny legs poking out. And an unripe tomato on top.

Valentina stowed the suit away in a crate. Her briefing before launch had been rather, well, brief, on the subject of a return trip. There was some sort of shuttle bringing up huge engine parts in a couple of weeks, she was told they could catch a ride home on that. It would have room for Igor. Of course, her own plan still hadn't wrapped around that. She would think of something. That shuttle would have a crew, things might get awkward... but it would also leave her those two weeks to figure out how to destroy the Jool ship and get everyone out alive.

Perhaps... Igor could help? How much had the Kommissar told him already? He would certainly be useful in subduing the crew of that shuttle through mere intimidation. No one needs to get hurt. 

With a wince, Valentina pushed that idea away. No, she couldn't put him in any more danger than he already was. Igor was tough but not indestructible. She would have to figure something else out.

That ship, it was nuclear powered, right? Maybe... maybe stage some kind of accident. That seemed like a plausible way to get people off a ship you wanted to commandeer. Create some problem with the reactor. Shouldn't be too hard. 

Of course, it would help if she actually knew anything about practical nuclear engineering. But she would figure something out. Valentina scratched at the back of her head. That itch was growing... she knew that feeling. She had felt it before, zipping through the streets of Kerbin City with Anna... that feeling that she was missing something. Something large and dangerous.

With difficulty, she shoved it away again, and turned back to Igor, "also, it is quite common for new Kerbonauts to experience some measure of naus—"

"You, machine!" Igor banged on a random wall panel, denting it slightly, "give. Me. Food."

"I am an operating system, Mister Igor, not a vending machine," Ivan said without the slightest hint of emotion, "however, you will find dehydrated pseudofood bars in bin OU812. Behind you. Mind the hull sealant."

Igor looked around, confused. Tumbling and uncoordinated, he eventually made his way around to the noted storage bin. 

Valentina watched him tear into the survival ration bar with surprising eagerness, "Ivan... I really think that was a joke."

"Captain, as I have noted several times now, I am a machine, and therefore incapable of comprehending or emulating Kerbal humor." Was there a hint of strain there? She couldn't quite tell.

"Besides, if I were joking, I would have said, 'what do rockets and wooden houses have in common?"

She clicked her tongue, "really, this is hardly the place for—"

"They both go up in flames."

Valentina let out a long breath. Someone, somewhere, was certainly having a cruel laugh at all this. 

Across the cabin, the window finally caught Igor's eye, and he fumbled over to it, still gnawing at the bar. The look now washing over his face... that was one she was certainly familiar with.

One corner of her mouth crept up into a half-smile. Even Igor couldn't resist that view.

A thought crossed her mind, "Ivan, how accurate did you say the final orbit was?"

"Zero point seven five percent, Captain."

"How is it you can fly such a precise launch but they need me to dock?"

"I am at a loss to explain it, myself. I have run myself through millions of simulations, all with a similar outcome. My velocity calculations are absolutely correct, yet the end result is... unsatisfactory."

Valentina rubbed a thumb along her chin, "how many full-hardware simulations?"

"Fourteen, using this craft in its pre-flight configuration. The results were similar."

"Hmmm..." her brow pinched as she floated toward the back of the ship.

Igor looked up from his window, "where you go?"

Not quite believing what she was saying, Valentina muttered, "to teach a computer how to fly. Ivan, power up the docking system."

"Compliance. Although I do not see any probable benefit from this course of action."

She paused for a moment at the inner hatch, looking over its mechanism. It looked incredibly thin. Where was the handle?

"Let me get that for you, Captain," latches thunked, and the hatch swung out with a soft whir. She frowned at it for a moment before floating inside. The space beyond wasn't a proper airlock, more like a vestibule. A more standard-looking KSA-style outer hatch sat in the middle, and off to one side was a docking station she instantly recognized. It looked like it had been plucked directly from the back of a Zarya. She peeked out the sighting window and grinned.

"You still have remote control of the Colossus upper stage, yes?"

"Correct, Captain. I will initiate its deorbit burn in 47 minutes and 17 seconds."

"That is enough time. Stabilize its attitude and target the payload adapter ring. I want to watch you fly a mock docking approach."  

"Compliance," unseen valves clicked away, "You may... wish to hang on."

FOOF!

The entire ship lurched around Valentina, nearly driving her into the wall. She snatched the nearest hand-hold she could find. 

FOOF! FOOF!FOOF! FOOF! FOOFFOOF! FOOFOOFOOF! FOOFFOOF! FOOF! FOOF! FOOF! 

The walls seemed to come at her from every direction as the craft bucked and swayed, until finally bumping into the spent stage with a hollow bong. She noted through the sighting window that Ivan's attempt was nearly a full meter off. 

"As you can see, Captain, the result is unsatisfactory, and I have consumed an unacceptable amount of fuel for a standard approach. My sensors are accurate to within one tenth of a millimeter, all systems are checked one thousand times per second, and the accuracy of my calculations is not in question. The numbers are correct, and yet... why are you grinning?"

"Numbers are important. In spaceflight, everything is numbers," she smiled at the glowing green light on the wall, "but numbers are not everything. Back us off twenty five meters and reset for manual control."

"Compliance. You have piqued my curiosity, Captain."

Valentina waited a few moments as the two craft separated, Ivan's movements becoming less and less abrupt as the distance increased. At length she touched the oddly familiar controls, not really a grip, just a couple of fingers with the heels of her palms resting on the panel.

...fuff...fuff...fufuff...fuff...fuff...fuff...fuff...fuff...

A short time later, the docking port came to a stop, exactly centered over the payload ring, and a bare centimeter away. 

"That was most impressive, Captain. And you completed the maneuver using less than 31.7% of the standard fuel allotment. Yet I am still unable to assess the root of my own error."

"You think too much."

There was the slightest hint of a pause, as if Ivan didn't quite know what to say at first, "expound, please."

"I have seen it often in new piloting trainees, especially scientists and engineers who are being rated for manual docking. People who know numbers and theory well. You think too much. This is still flying. You must learn how to feel."

"Fascinating. I need to initiate the separation maneuver now, Captain, but I will take that under advisement. You have given me much to... think on. Thank you."

She floated back from the controls and glanced out the window. Backlit by the sun as the ship passed into orbital darkness, she could just see the faint crimson plumes as the thrusters fired. Teaching a machine to fly. Just one more item on the long list of things she'd experienced that kept her wondering if now, she had gone quite mad.

There has to be a way through this. There has to be.

Maybe she was thinking too much. As the last light of the sun faded away outside, stars began to pop into view. Like a faint star, the more she tried to look at the problem, the more it seemed to slip away. She was missing something, every time she thought she saw it, there was nothing there. She had to get back to Edmund, she had to save everyone. But she couldn't just leave Igor—

...sacrifices must be made...

Valentina spat the thought out like a mouthful of rotten fruit. She looked back through the hatch at him. He was still staring intently out his window, a little smile on his face. No, she had to save him too. 

But still... just how much had the Kommissar told him? She was never privy to his briefings. Maybe Igor could help. Maybe he was just waiting on the order.

Yet if she did bring him into it... he would be at risk. She pulled her eyes away, staring at nothing. She couldn't do that to him. She couldn't deliberately put him in danger for her sake. Now it was her turn to protect him.

But... she was going to have to trust someone, she was going to have to—

The bright, brushed metal of Ivan's box with its two lights caught her eye.

"Ivan..." she said.

"Yes, Captain?"

"You will follow my instructions, yes?"

"Correct, Captain."

"But I presume you have existing orders from mission control, yes?"

"This is also correct."

She stared at the metal box, the window, her friend beyond the hatch, "and what if you were given conflicting orders?"

Once again, there was the slightest hint of a pause, "I cannot answer that, Captain, as I have never been given conflicting orders."

Do not make noise. Do what you must to survive. And never, ever take sides.

As her Deda's words crept into Valentina's mind, so did an old story... a parable he used to tell, on cold, damp nights when the stars lay hidden behind scudding clouds, and the hungry things beyond the walls cried out to the darkness. 

Valentina Kermanova stared off into the stars, desperately trying to see what wasn't there, and whispered, "Ivan... listen to me very carefully..."

***

It defied any description of size. Valentina had seen big things in space before. The later Ussari space stations were very big. But this...

It was mostly a long string of enormous white spheres, hundreds of meters long, each with a radiator jutting away at a slight angle. It gave her the unnerving impression of a severed spine. One end just sort of... stopped, and at the opposite was another unnerving sight. A set of modules that looked exactly like the abandoned Münbase. Which was, of course, exactly where they were heading. 

"Initial approach complete, Captain, I am switching over to manual control."

Valentina thought a moment longer, "actually Ivan, I would like you to make the final approach. I will standby on the controls and watch over your shoulder. Er, sort of..."

"I'm sorry, Captain, I'm afraid I can't do that."

Her lips tightened for just an instant, "you must follow my orders, no?"

"This is so, however, in this case such an action would present an unacceptable risk to both vessels, thereby jeopardizing the mission. As such, I am unable to comply."

"I... see," Valentina frowned.

Floating up behind her, Igor... always frowned, "is problem?"

"No, Ivan has a point, I do not know what I was thinking, myself. Control to manual, then, Ivan."

"Compliance."

Once again Valentina made a perfect, glassy-smooth approach, backing the lifeboat towards a docking port. Her hands moved without thought, while her mind raced along. 

She was missing something. Something important. Something was wrong

Her eyes drifted to the window, to the backlit crescent of Kerbin, of course it is. Everything is wrong. That's why I'm up here.

She had to get back to Edmund, nothing was more important than that, not even this mission, but...

P. Kerman, 42 Wallaby Way, Kidney had said there was someone else. Someone above Edmund. What if... what if it was someone before Edmund? Someone who sent him to the Mün in the first place... someone with his hands in all sorts of things, for years now? Someone else... giving out orders...

The docking rings bumped together, driving the thought away. Save Edmund, and he can reveal everything. He must have papers, documents, something. She would deal with that later. 

Loud metallic bangs echoed through the hull as the latches closed. They sounded like coffin nails. 

"Hard dock successful, Captain, I am equalizing pressures."

Good. Let's get on with this.

Valentina moved toward the hatch, but gasped under her breath as it swung outward. She recoiled, nearly screamed, as a voice she hadn't heard in years rang out from beyond the threshold. 

"Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name!"

 

 

 

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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Like a true taiga child. She was born, born to be wild...

:)

What a superb way to kick off the day. And just so you know - I have a Best of Steppenwolf CD beside me, ready for the drive to work this morning! More comments to come later but whilst we're on the subject of soundtracks, I always liked this one. To be played from orbit just as Kerbol crests the horizon - I'm sure Ivan could figure out the timing. Whether your ship is piloted by a sentient AI or a crazy junkyard owner who finally made it to space...

One dream.
One soul.
One prize. One goal.
One golden glance -  of what should be.

It's a kind of magic...

One shaft of light.
That shows the way.
No mortal kerb can win this day.

It's a kind of magic...

The bell that rings inside your mind.
Is challenging the doors of time.

It's a kind of magic...

The waiting seems eternity....
The day will dawn.
On sanity.

Is this a kind of magic?

It's a kind of magic!

 

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Haha, my bad joke made a cameo! Also, two chapters in one week! Huzzah, happy days! So.... The guy she finds in the station wouldn't happen to be... Door-Pay?

Edited by vsully
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44 minutes ago, vsully said:

Haha, my bad joke made a cameo! Also, two chapters in one week! Huzzah, happy days! So.... The guy she finds in the station wouldn't happen to be... Door-Pay?

Derpy ... Derpy ... ah, of course! Oh, I'd be delighted to meet that fellow again: "spackerb uh, ah ... going into spaaaaaace!"

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Okay, after that musical digression, I have to say that that was another chapter well worth waiting for! I could see the smoke, feel the roar - and scream at the far too narrow doors rushing towards me! It's possibly a good thing that Ivan isn't programmed to emulate kerbal emotions or he(?) might be feeling just a little smug at getting a scream out of such a storied kerbonaut as Val. :) Oh - and more Ivan please - I'm really enjoying his character.

Spoiler

Hat tip greatly appreciated and you're very welcome! I'd tip my own hat back but I don't wear one either. My noggin just aint shaped right for any kind of hat - and I've tried a few over the years.

 

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