How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 02

          Merlin sat very still, watching his instruments, waiting. Five more minutes crept past. Then ten. Fifteen.

          “Any response from the kinetic platforms now, Owl?”

          “Negative, Lieutenant Commander.”

          “Good. That’s good, Owl.”

          There was no response from the computer this time. Merlin hadn’t really expected one, although Owl did seem to be at least starting to develop the personality the operators’ manual promised he would . . . eventually. The AI had actually offered spontaneous responses and interpolations on a handful of occasions, although seldom to Merlin. In fact, now that he thought about it, the majority of those spontaneous responses had been directed to Empress Sharleyan, and Merlin wondered why that was. Not that he expected he’d ever find out. Even back when there’d been a Terran Federation, AIs — even Class I AIs (which Owl most emphatically was not) — had often had quirky personalities that responded better to some humans than to others.

          “Activate phase three,” he said now.

          “Activating, Lieutenant Commander.”

          This time, if Merlin had still been a flesh and blood human being, he would have held his breath as two thirds or so of the thermal signatures on his sensors began to move. Most of them moved fairly slowly, their paths marked by twists and turns, stopping and starting, turning sharply, then going straight for short distances. Several others, though, were not only larger and more powerful but moved much more rapidly and smoothly . . . almost as if they’d been on rails.

          Merlin watched the slower moving heat signatures tracing out the skeletal outlines of what could have been street grids while the larger, faster-moving ones moved steadily between the clusters of their slower brethren. Nothing else seemed to be happening, and he made himself wait for another half-hour before he spoke again.

          “Still nothing from the platforms, Owl?”

          “Negative, Lieutenant Commander.”

          “Are we picking up any signal traffic between the platforms and the Temple?”

          “Negative, Lieutenant Commander.”

          “Good.” Merlin’s one-word response was even more enthusiastic this time, and he felt himself smiling. He leaned back in the flight couch, clasping his hands behind his head, and gazed up at the moon that never looked quite right to his Earth-born memories and the starscape no Terrestrial astronomer had ever seen. “We’ll give it another hour or so,” he decided. “Tell me if you pick up anything — anything at all — from the platforms, from the Temple, or between them.”

          “Acknowledged, Lieutenant Commander.”

          “And I suppose while we’re waiting, you might as well start giving me my share of the flagged take from the SNARCs.”

          “Yes, Lieutenant Commander.”

* * * * * * * * * *

          “Well,” Merlin said, several hours later as his skimmer headed northwest across the eastern reaches of Carters Ocean towards the city of Cherayth, “I have to say, it looks promising so far, at least.”

          “You could’ve told us when you started your little test.”

Cayleb Ahrmahk, Emperor of Charis and King of Old Charis, sounded more than a little testy himself, Merlin thought with a smile. At the moment, he and Empress Sharleyan sat across a table from one another. The breakfast plates had been taken away, although Cayleb continued to nurse a cup of chocolate. Another cup sat in front of Sharleyan, but she was too busy breast-feeding their daughter, Princess Alahnah, to do anything with it at the moment. Depressingly early morning sunlight came through the frost-rimed window behind Cayleb’s chair, and Sergeant Edwyrd Seahamper stood outside the small dining chamber’s door, ensuring their privacy.

Like them, Seahamper was listening to Merlin over the invisible, transparent plug in his right ear. Unlike them, the sergeant was unable to participate in the conversation, since (also unlike them) he didn’t have any convenient sentries making sure no one was going to wander by and hear him talking to thin air.

          “I did tell you I intended to initiate the test as soon as Owl and I had the last of the EW emitters in place, Cayleb,” Merlin said now, mildly. “And if I recall, you and Sharleyan knew ‘Seijin Merlin’ was going to be ‘meditating’ for the next couple of days. In fact, that was part of the cover plan to free me up to conduct the test in the first place, unless memory fails me. And in in regard to that last observation, I might point out that my memory is no longer dependent on fallible organic components.”

          “Very funny, Merlin,” Cayleb said.

          “Oh, don’t be such a fussbudget, Cayleb!” Sharleyan scolded with a smile. “Alahnah was actually letting us sleep last night, and if Merlin was prepared to let us go on sleeping, I’m not going to complain. And frankly, dear, I don’t think any of our councilors are going to complain if you got a bit more rest last night, either. You have been a little grumpy lately.”

          Cayleb gave her a moderately betrayed look, but she only shook her head at him.

          “Go on with your report, Merlin. Please,” she said. “Before Cayleb says something else we’ll all regret, whether he does or not.”

          There was the sound of something suspiciously like a muffled laugh from the fifth and final party to their conversation.

          “I heard that, Ehdwyrd!” Cayleb said.

          “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re referring to, Your Majesty. Or, I suppose, I should say ‘Your Grace’ since you and Her Majesty are currently in Chisholm,” Ehdwyrd Howsmyn replied innocently from his study in far-off Old Charis.

          “Oh, of course you don’t.”

          “Oh, hush, Cayleb!” Sharleyan kicked him under the breakfast table. “Go on, Merlin. Quick!”

          “Your wish is my command, Your Majesty,” Merlin assured her while Cayleb rubbed his kneecap with his right hand and waved a mock-threatening fist with his left.

          “As I was saying,” Merlin continued, his tone considerably more serious than it had been, “things are looking good so far. Everything I could see on the skimmer’s sensors, and everything Owl can see using the SNARCs, looks exactly like a whole batch of steam engines either sitting in place and working or chugging around the landscape. They’ve been doing it for better than seven hours now, and so far neither the kinetic bombardment platform nor whatever the hell those energy sources under the Temple are seem to have been taking any notice at all. So if the ‘Archangels’ did set up any kind of automatic technology-killing surveillance program, it doesn’t look like simple steam engines are high enough tech to break through the filters.”

          “I almost wish we’d gotten some reaction out of them, though,” Cayleb said in a far more thoughtful tone, forgetting to glower at his beloved wife. “In a lot of ways, I would’ve been happier if the platforms had sent some kind of ‘Look, I see some steam engines!’ message to the Temple and nothing had happened. At least then I’d feel more confident that if there is some command loop to anything under the damned place, whatever the anything was, it wasn’t going to tell the platforms to kill the engines. As it is, we can’t be sure something’s not going to cause whatever the anything might be to change its mind and start issuing kill orders at a later date about something else.”