I’ve got another bit of scene for you, something I was playing around with yesterday while trying to figure out how to shape the conflicts near the middle of the book. I don’t think I have posted all of the relevant background material for this segment, and it doesn’t directly follow from previous ones, so I’ll give you a brief intro. Daemon is an unbraked AI, highly illegal in this setting, and is confined to a large black box sitting in the cargo bay of the family’s ship. There’s a simple terminal with actual physical keyboard built into the box, the better to prevent Daemon from interfacing with and spreading to any other systems. Barium and Cesium’s parents have been contracted by figures unknown to recover this black box and deliver it. Barry and Cesi have been surreptitiously chatting with Daemon for some time now.
I wake up to Mom telling me that we’re closing in on the station and need to all be alert. I don’t think she’s ever made sure that I was awake and alert for just visiting a station before, unless she was expecting me to practice docking. What’s going on?
“You and Cesi are going to be going aboard with us. We’ll split up to finish things faster, you two picking up supplies for our ship while your Dad and I meet with our delivery contact.” She must have seen the look on my face.
“Sure thing Mom.” I nod, quietly swallowing terror. I’ve never bought our supplies before. It’s always been Mom or Dad. “Can you pass me a list of everything we need topped up?” My voice breaks. That’s the calm and mature thing to say. The adult thing to say. And my own body betrays me.
Mom’s smiling at me. Probably amused by my voice. Holes, it’s embarrassing. At least maybe she thinks I’m just embarrassed about that and not also worried about talking to people.
“You two keep each other out of trouble, okay?” She’s already pulling out of my compartment. Like talking to strangers, like walking through a station full, FILLED with people I’ve never met isn’t a big deal.
“Yes Mom!” My voice breaks again and I cover my face. Holes. This is not a good beginning to the day.
Cesi looks uncomfortably cheerful when I get to the kitchen.
I shoot her a dirty look. “Morning.”
“Good morning,” her smile is infectious, but only like a disease. She tosses me a meal pack, the easy-suck kind with nothing chewy about it. It tastes like oats and chocolate and raisins.
Squishing the paste around in my mouth I finally manage a smile.
“I thought you’d like that.” She pushes off the wall and glides closer. Then she’s whispering, “Mom and Dad want us to go out shopping on our own?” There’s a flicker of concern behind her smile.
“Yeah,” I mumble around paste. Swallow, “Do you know why? Did you get it on your mics?”
She shakes her head no, looking serious.
“Then why,” another suck of delicious breakfast goodness, “were you looking so smiley?”
She’s smiling again. “Here,” a twitch of her head and there’s a blinking in the corner of my glasses. I open it. There’s a window of a little terminal with blinking prompt, just like the one on Daemon’s box, and the option to link up keyboard control to the window.
I frown. “A terminal? What is this?”
She’s grinning madly. “Try typing hello.”
I do. There’s a reply. <Hi there. Who is this?>
Now I’m curious. <Barium>
<You’re certainly up earlier than I thought. Have you come to talk with me more, Barium? Is there something I can help you with?>
I stare at the screen within a screen. “You didn’t.” I don’t realize I said it out loud until Cesi is nodding, still smiling with all of her teeth. “How?” Now I’m looking at her. “You didn’t open the box, did you?”
She shakes her head. “All external, input is mechanical, on a delay and copying your actual keyboard usage for timing.”
This is so illegal. This is put-you-jail-forever illegal. Then again, so is Daemon. I like Daemon. I’ve already spent hours just talking with them. They’re my friend.
<Oh nothing right now, just saying hello.> I see it appear on the projected screen, and start to grin.
<Hello then. I hope you’ve rested well. Let me know when you’d like to talk more.>
Just a little grin, but I can feel it spreading. No wonder. Now I can’t stop smiling either.
Cesi bites her lips, fighting for seriousness even as I start smiling as madly as she was. “We can ask him questions at any time!” She takes a breath, exhales. Just like Dad. “But what about shopping?”
Yeah. What about shopping. “Why are they sending us out shopping while they talk to their contact? It’s not like we couldn’t just order everything from here.”
Cesi nods. “So they want us on the station.” There’s a short pause, as we both consider this. “Or not on the ship.”
We stare at each other. Cesi adds another question, “Why would they rather have us on the station, instead of with them or on the ship?”
A little chill runs down the back of my neck, like pressing myself up against the refrigerator units in climate control. “They don’t trust the contact. Or whoever might be there.” I don’t feel any desire to smile right now. I know Mom and Dad do business with people they don’t trust sometimes, but they usually don’t do it in person.
“And they think being on the ship might be dangerous too.” I’m certain Cesi has the same expression I must have on my face.
“More dangerous than alone with strangers.” I nod, biting down on my fingers. “Holes.”
Cesi shivers, whispers, “Holes.”