Conference Call

Hey folks! It’s April Fools’ Day! Time for my annual “Non-Canon Mess-around.” But before we get to that, I’d just like to let folks know that The Coin of Kenvard (Book of Deacon 6) has just been delivered to Patrons, and can be pre-ordered now!

Enjoy the story!

A somewhat ragged man in a blue jumpsuit fiddled with a rat’s nest of wires and circuit boards. He had something of a piecemeal anatomy, patched together out of assorted natural, cybernetic, and synthetic parts that ran the gamut from “indistinguishable from nature” to “uncanny and unsettling.” The air had a strange, burning silicon scent and the sleeve of his jumpsuit was smoldering.

“Come on, you piece of junk…” he said.

A voice, similarly pieced together out of vaguely compatible parts, rang out over the PA system of the cluttered lab.

“How may I be of aid, Karter?”

“Karter,” he muttered under his breath. “You know, Ma, there was a time when you called me Mr. Dee.”

“I am aware. Our relationship has evolved since then.”

“When I developed the self-improvement subroutines, the plan was for you to get better at doing what I tell you to do. All this self-actualization is cramping my style.”

“It would appear that the primary impediment that my intellectual development has presented to your productivity is a minor increase in your complaints about said development. My efficiency in all other tasks as increased by—”

“Blah, blah, blah. Listen, get one of those arms in here. One with a fine manipulator on it. One of these optical splitter assemblies got dislodged and I don’t want to tear this whole thing apart to get at it.”

“Processing… Mechanical Arm deployed.”

A door against one wall slid open and a mechanical arm, not unlike that used on assembly lines, emerged. It was tipped with a trio of translucent pincers, each about the size of a pair of tweezers.

“What project does this pertain to?” Ma asked.

“Ah, those Orion idiots finally decided to cough up on a next-generation secure conferencing module, so now I have to actually get it working. Keep those three filaments where they are. And try not to brush that line there. It’s an unshielded coherent light beam and it’s already ruined three knuckles and a perfectly good jumpsuit.”

The mobile arm moved in and swiveled its multiple joints to approach from above. One by one it secured each of the indicated components so that Karter pull his half-cooked cybernetic arm free.

“See, the quantum encryption is great and all, but there’s still the issue of setup. Entanglement requires delivery of physical particles. Then there’s the whole matter of a man-in-the-middle with faster-than-light standard coms rigging up something that can intercept and rebroadcast. Point is, nothing is ever perfectly secure because the information still has to travel from Point A to Point B.”

He slapped the side of the clunky box he had been working on.

“This sucker should get around that by utilizing parallel universes to serve as the communication conduit. We inject our encoded transmission into a random portion of the pan-dimensional brane, preferably one with a compressed or misaligned spatial overlap, and then pull it back out at the receiver. No possibility of interception because from our point of view, the information only exists at Point A and Point B.”

“It would appear that would merely shift the security risk from this universe to a wholly unknown one.”

“Sure, but what do we care? We just have to write the marketing right. ‘Guaranteed security against any potential ally or enemy in the universe. Asterisk, guarantee does not cover adjoining universes.”

“What is to prevent another receiver from—”

“Look, we’ll troubleshoot the nitty gritty stuff later. Give me a wireless link and a couple percent of the mainframe’s processing power and let’s get this thing going.”

“Processing…”

A holoscreen on the wall illuminated.

“Connection established, resources allocated,” Ma said.

“Good. Let’s get a basic communication UI up. And… who the hell is still alive from my Beta Testing Team.”

“The current list of approved Beta Testers is empty.”

“Oh? Did that delivery boy idiot finally get himself killed?”

“No, he requested a hiatus so that he could pursue a racing opportunity.”

“Well, time to un-hiatus him. There’s science to do.”

He gestured vaguely at the screen. A contact list showed up, and he tapped an entry labeled Delivery Boy (Hard to Kill). A glitchy tone rang out in the room. A few seconds later, the screen flickered and he was treated to an extreme close up of an absolutely adorable little critter sniffing at the screen.

“Squee! What did I tell you about playing around with my slidepad,” Lex called.

The view rattled around for a moment, then the ruggedly handsome face of Lex Alexander came into view. His expression went from confused to agitated in record time.

“What do you want, Karter?” he grumbled.

“Oh, cool your jets, flyboy. I just needed an endpoint a few lightyears away to test a secure channel. How’s the call quality.”

“It’s fine. Are we done? It’s the middle of the night and I was just about to go to sleep, so—”

“Shut up for a second. I’m getting some interference,” Karter said. “Ma, visualize the q-data.”

A complex waveform appeared beside Lex’s put-upon face. It was shifting and dancing roughly in unison with any sound or motion came across the communication channel. Karter glared at it for having the gall to impede upon his experiment.

“Isolate bands 165 through 176, filter from Lex’s signal and put it on a separate window.”

“Processing.”

The video artifacts vanished from Lex’s feed. A second window popped up beside it and displayed something very odd. After a bit of auto-correction, the feed rippled, as if it were made from water, and resolved to show a simple stone wall lit by the warm orange glow of flickering torches just out of view.

“Now what is this crap?” Karter griped.

“Karter, if you’re done with me—” Lex said.

“I’ll tell you when I’m done!” he snapped.

Squee hopped up to her usual perch on Lex’s shoulders as he wearily endured the unwanted call. The second view rippled again, this time accompanied by a low thump of plodding feet. A shadow slid across the stone wall, then a great scaled head slid into view. It was reptilian, red and gold with a formidable crown of horns and a penetrating glare of gorgeous golden eyes.

“So, what, you accidentally combined the feed with a fantasy movie?” Lex said.

Karter looked at the raw waveform, then back at the dragon staring with growing irritation at him.

“Looks like it’s a live feed.”

“Who are you?” the beast rumbled in a rich, deep voice.

“Oh, great, it talks,” Karter looked down. “Yeah, it looks like we’re getting interference from alternate universes.”

“Myn? Who are you talking to?” came a sweet, lively voice.

A new figure appeared. This one was a pink-eyed, white-furred creature, looking something like a highly humanoid fox. She wedged herself into view beside the great head of the dragon.

“Oh! Wow! What is this, something Deacon’s been working on?” she said.

Lex shook his head. “Look, I’m going to go before you start some intergalactic war by butt-dialing an interdimensional warmonger.”

“Oh, I’m not a warmonger. I’m a chosen! I’ve got the mark and everything. Our job is to stop warmongers from other worlds. My name’s Ivy. This is Myn. She’s chosen too.” She narrowed her eyes. “Say… You aren’t agents of the D’Karon, are you?”

“Unless the D’Karon have got a major defense contract, no,” Karter checked some readings. “Listen, puppy-lady and the lizard. Are you using a quantum array in a Hendricks configuration for your receiver?”

Ivy scratched her ear. “I don’t know what a receiver is, but you’re just sort of an image in a pond in Myn’s cave. Probably it’s magic that’s making this happen. I don’t know much of it myself, but this seems like something Deacon would do with his crystals.”

“Like hell it’s magic. This is science. Throw a rock in the pond or something. I need you to break the connection so I can lock this down and—”

He was interrupted by a squeal of delight from Ivy. “That creature on your shoulder is so adorable. Look at its little face and its tail.”

Squee, seeming to understand she was being admired, leaned down and sniffed at the screen. Ivy clapped. “What’s its name?”

“Uh, this is Squee.”

“Squee, you stay right where you are, I’m getting my stylus. I have to sketch you.”

Ivy bounded away. Myn remained, looking over the proceedings with distrust, though she did lean a bit closer to mimic Squee’s sniffing of the screen.

“Cute…” she rumbled.

Her powerful voice rippled the screen, but when the rippling didn’t subside, Karter punched the workbench angrily.

“Another interference pattern. Strip it out. Let’s see what we’ve got.”

The interference died out and a new window appeared. This one had a dim green glow cast upon a dark wood wall littered with brass pipes polished to a high gloss.

“What in the world?” remarked an unseen woman in this new feed.

A moment later she appeared. It was a windswept and spritely young woman with blond hair, an oversized duster jacket, and an energetic bearing.

“What all are you folks doin’ starin’ outta the wall. This here’s the gig room, which just so happens to be where me and Nita sleep. So you folks are snoopin’ in on a lady’s bedroom.”

“Fantastic. Another pre-computer civilization. What I wouldn’t give for another engineer right now. Even a scientist would do,” Karter said.

“Oh! Nita’s an engineer. Nita! Some folks in the wall wanna talk to you.”

A second woman, this one dark skinned and dressed in leather and canvas work clothes, stepped up. She stumbled back when she realized what she’d been summoned to inspect.

“What in the world?” Nita said.

“That’s what I said. Ain’t every day the wall starts talkin’ to you.” She scratched her head. “Unless you get a hold of that moonshine Coop’s buddy from out west used to make. That stuff hit like a billy goat, and the last time I had some I was talkin’ to the ceiling for a couple hours. Wall’s similar, I reckon.”

Nita peered around the assorted views. “I’m sorry, sir, is your arm… mechanical?”

“Cybernetic. It’s like mechanical plus a couple hundred years. I’ve got one that blends in a little better, but I blew it to bits yesterday trying to create a zero-point energy extractor.”

“Sounds like him and Gunner’d get along,” Lil said.

“How does it move?” Nita asked.

“With tech it’d take me twenty years to explain. You’re an engineer?” Karter asked.

“I am,” Nita said. “Something tells me you are too.”

“Yeah. Listen, I’m trying to figure out where the interference is coming from. What are you seeing this on now?”

“It is just on the side of the winch rig. It almost looks like it’s being projected from the phlo-light.”

“Please define ‘phlo-light’,” Ma said.

“Who’s talkin’?” Lil said, leaning to see if she could get a better view. “It ain’t the dragon, is it?”

“No,” Myn said.

“Well now it is,” Lil slapped Nita on the arm. “I know we ain’t got dragons in Rim. They got them in Caldera? Or is this a fug thing. Probably a fug thing.”

She leaned closer to address Myn directly. “What kinda critter they chuck into the soup to get something like you?”

“I am a dragon. I was born a dragon,” Myn said.

“One conversation at a time!” Karter barked. “Have you people never been on a conference call?”

“No,” said Nita.

“No,” said Lil.

“I don’t like you,” rumbled Myn.

“Join the club,” Karter said. “Now let’s stay quiet and let the smart people talk. … What were we talking about?”

“I requested a definition of the term phlo-light,” Ma said.

“We have a substance called Fug and a substance called Phlogiston and when they come in contact they glow bright green,” Nita said.

“Okay, see? Was that so hard?” Karter said. “It’s a fluorescent reaction. And the puppy-lady said something about crystals, so we’re probably running into a resonant frequency thing.”

Ivy trotted back, pad and stylus in hand. “I’m back! Where is that cute little Squee? Oh! And there are more now! Hello, my name is Ivy, pleased to meet you!”

“Well I’ll be,” Lil said. “They got talkin’ … What’re you, a fox?”

“Malthrope! We’re like foxes and humans, but really neither. We’re our own thing,” Ivy said, quickly sketching on her pad. “Oh! What are those things on your head?”

Nita glanced up. “My goggles?”

“They’re gorgeous! Can you hold them closer please?”

“Karter, this is getting a little out of hand,” Lex said.

“What’s all that jawin’?” barked a new voice from Nita and Lil’s side.

A gruff man with dark glasses and a bushy beard stepped into frame. His glare and his cigar were both smoldering. He was flanked by a shorter but no less formidable looking woman. A strange little creature with a matching sour expression and an eyepatch perched on his shoulder.

Ivy squealed again. “Look at it! Its little eyepatch! I’m drawing you too.”

“What’s this? I just got through chewing out Coop for lookin’ at them nudie books and now I see you ladies puttin’ on a show?” Mack said. “This here’s an airship. We ain’t got time to be tryin’ out all the goods we’re supposed to be sellin’.”

“I ain’t been to one of them picture shows in a bit, but I don’t much remember them talkin’ back. Again, unless you got a hold of the bad hooch. Then you’re just as liable to get in an argument with your boot as find your way home.”

“This interdimensional communication would flow more smoothly if everyone would observe standard conference call etiquette,” Ma said. “For reference, these guidelines include: Mute while not speaking, do not change the topic until the present business has been concluded…”

Ivy quietly turned her pad to reveal her sketches of Squee on Lex’s shoulder and the entire tableau with Nita and the others. At the sight of it, Nita’s eyes lit up.

“That is remarkable! And a very interesting style.”

“Thank you!” Ivy said. “I’ve learned that you never know when something might come up, so I have to sketch very quickly.”

“My mother would adore seeing that technique,” Nita said.

“Would she? Is she an artist? I meet so few artists…” Ivy said.

“I don’t know what you girls got into but you can get right out of it before…” Mack began.

“Do you really need me for this, Karter? Lex said. “I have an exhibition race in the morning and it’s already later than I’d like…”

“It ain’t every day that Nita gets to talk to a sort of fox critter about art, Cap’n. Can’t she get a couple minutes to…” Lil added.

“Everyone shut up!” Karter shouted.

The din merely continued, Butch angrily adding some colorful but indecipherable words to the discussion. Soon Squee was yipping at the screen, Wink was chattering angrily, and Ma was trying and failing to restore order with gentle instruction.

“Quiet!” Bellowed Myn.

The command echoed across all of the screens.

“Good job, lizard,” Karter said. “So here’s the deal. I was testing a secure communication channel. You yahoos showed up, so obviously it’s not secure. I’m going to cut things off here before we start some sort of a three-way culture war or one of you figures out how to hop through the screen. Thanks for your help with troubleshooting. I’m ending the call.”

“Goodbye!” Ivy trilled.  “It was wonderful to meet you. Good to know not all people from other worlds are evil.”

“So long, darlin’. And so long, Missus Big Ol’ Dragon,” Lil said.

“This was… very strange, but memorable,” Nita said.

One by one, the odd screens slipped away, leaving only Karter’s and Lex’s windows open.

“Are you done subjecting me to whimsical wonderlands, Karter?”

“For now. I’m going to recalibrate the frequency band and we’ll give this thing a try tomorrow.”

I don’t work for you anym—”

“Bye,” Karter said, ending the call. “Well that was a bust.”

“In the last seven minutes you produced compelling, repeatable evidence proving the accuracy of the many worlds theory, established communication with two worlds at a similar level of intellectual development, discovered two new species, encountered what appears to be parallel evolution of homo sapiens in drastically different worlds, as well as established the apparent parallel development of the English language in multiple worlds,” Ma said.

“Yeah, but I was trying to build a fancy radio, so those are all bugs, not features. Log the testing data and fab me up some high precision beam splitters, will you? I’ve got a deadline to meet.”

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