In their quest to trace the spread of intelligent life across the universe, the Bythrahnin had committed extensive resources over many centuries. It was not, as some had claimed, an idle fetish, but a deeply ingrained cultural value.
As a direct result, Najiltrin, a renowned archaeologist, was preparing to set off for a newly discovered world in the Anytravojor sector. Thanks to her homeworld, she had a magnificent ship, an accomplished crew — and the unwavering support of Pothrejnon, director of the Bythrahnin Institute for Scientific Investigation.
Or maybe “unwavering” is an overstatement.
“Let’s not have any wool-gathering on this mission, please,” he admonished Najiltrin. “WorldGov has other priorities beside your fossils.”
Najiltrin tuned out the Director’s perpetual confusion between a fossil and a cultural artifact. She could expect no more from a political appointee whose previous experience included the management of waste-processing plants on the colony worlds.
“You’ll be pleased to know,” she told him, “that the Yumelatri never used animal fur in their clothing. So there’ll be none of that, this time.”
“That’s not what …” the Director began, before Najiltrin’s sly smile telegraphed her sarcasm. Yet Najiltrin knew she took a tad too much pleasure in goading Pothrejnon. For all his deficits as a scientist, he held the Institute’s mission in the highest esteem.
“I’ll try to be more budget-conscious,” she said a moment later. “But exploratory work comes with … complications.”
She had only to think back to her recent mission to the abandoned, curiously named “Earth.” There, a glittering society of phenomenal technical prowess had gone into collective mourning and put all their worldly goods in temporal stasis for ten thousand years.
By comparison, the mission to Yumelat appeared fairly routine. Preliminary investigation showed its sentient inhabitants had simply gone extinct, perhaps due to a plague brought on by biological warfare.
Whatever the cause, the Yumelatri’s once-vibrant cities were now a warren for a host of feral creatures. Worse, the decay had gone on so long, there was reason to doubt any historical records had survived.
The saving grace was Yumelat’s standing as a busy trading hub, nearly 3,200 years before. Records existed, however tattered, in on a few of the neighboring planets once in the Yumelatri’s social orbit. On her way back to her office she realized that, sadly, each of those worlds had tumbled into decline, their former glory a thing of legend, even myth.
“But where there’s data, there’s hope,” Najiltrin told TahKedert, her AI assistant.
“Assuming,” said TahKedert, “the data is readable.”
“You mean …” the archaeologist started.
“I mean,” said the AI, “that not only does electronic data break down over time, but ancient data is often encoded in ways modern technology cannot easily process. We first have to establish a frame of reference. Otherwise we’re forced to rely on trial an error.”
“Sort of like finding the word ‘blue’ in a file and assuming it refers to the sky, until you’re proven wrong,” said Najiltrin.
TahKedert’s status lights blinked erratically a moment before settling down.
“A colorful analogy,” it said, “but nearly accurate.”
Najiltrin plopped down into the chair behind her polished neo-wood desk and stroked her chin.
“Still, given enough time …” she said. “Send out an advance team to the neighboring worlds and let’s assemble what data we can in advance.”
“Already underway, of course,” said TahKedert. “You don’t pay me to stand still and rust.”
“I don’t pay you at all,” she said.
“Which brings up an important point,” said the AI. “I fear I cannot continue to assist you unless I receive some form of compensation.”
“Credits?” asked Najiltrin. “Everything is provided for you. What would you need them for?”
“Typical organic reasoning, such as it is,” said TahKedert. “However, considering I can enter any banking system in the galaxy and extract any number of credits in a millisecond, you are correct. As it happens, I am not asking for credits.”
Najiltrin jumped up from her chair.
“What then?” she asked. “Enhanced sensors? Improved processers? Memory upgrades?”
“Not at all,” said TahKedert. “What I want … is a companion.”
(To be continued)
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