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Chapter Twenty-Eight

Key to the System

"They're called Zelan and Kuran," said Kain as the jet scooter skipped along the surface of the ocean towards Uzo Island. He glanced over his shoulder at Hugh and Lore. Wren sat in the back of the scooter, thankfully not heavy enough to influence the handling of the small craft.

Lore leaned forward from her seat behind Hugh and to the android's right. "So what do we know about them that makes it so imperative we have to go there right away? You all but hauled us out of New Zema! It's not everyday I see a jet scooter parked in the aqueduct so close to town."

"It's not so much what we know as what we don't," said Kain. "We don't have time to muck around building our own mainframe for Wren if there's the possibility one already exists. Motavia's health is shot. We need to pull ourselves together if we don't want to go extinct in the next few years."

A bumpy skip over an ocean wave punctuated Kain's words with a jolt to the jet scooter.

"The new Biolab will be operational soon," said Hugh. "Seed has DNA samples from some of the original plant life on Motavia. Once the lab is finished we can reproduce them en masse."

"That's not enough, Hugh." The biologist looked inquiringly at Lore, who continued speaking. "I don't know the exact nutritional facts behind it, but the first colonists reported the need for Palman vitamin supplements they could not acquire on Motavia. They had to survive off of plants imported from Palm. The Palman plants wouldn't grow on Motavian soil though. It wasn't until Mother Brain came and modified the planet that they would. We need the plants we have in the farms. There isn't any choice in the matter. Some of them, I don't know which ones, provide us with what we need to survive."

"There aren't many of them left," Hugh said somberly. He counted off the species left with one hand--less than ten. "We're dying."

"I know," said Kain, "that's why we're going to Zelan. If there's anything that's going to help us it's there. According to the information Wren decoded, Zelan's the head of Mother Brain's backup system, a powerful network consisted of three satellites in the same orbits as Algo's three planets."

"Three?" inquired Lore.

"The satellite Baron shared Palm's orbit. I doubt that it survived the explosion. Zelan and Kuran, the other two, I'm fairly sure are out there."

"How come our own satellites never picked them up?" said Hugh.

"Maybe no one was looking hard enough," Kain replied. "Or maybe because the satellites are cloaked like Noah was." His friends did not miss the strong hint in his voice. "According to the information Wren found, the satellites are hidden, probably because the Earthmen didn't want us to find them. We could have if we looked hard enough, we had the technology, but I'm not surprised no one did. Space is a big place. Why would anyone want to randomly scan for hidden objects in our own star system?"

Lore smirked. "I'm surprised no one's crashed into them after all this time."

"Remember, Mother Brain planned all the flight paths," said Kain. "And as far as we knew, she only chose the best for us. But anyway, the Dipwad has the cancellation device Tyler gave us, and I have a feeling we'll be using it. Wren has calculated the coordinates Zelan should be in so he'll do the actual flying there. I think it would be a good experience for him.

"But the important thing is to just get him on board the satellite and see if he can work with it."

Lore pointed over Hugh's shoulder at a speck on the horizon of the windshield. "Look, there's an island."

Kain nodded. "Yep, that's Uzo. Though I doubt you remember much of it."

"I don't think I was still conscious when you landed." She made a distasteful face. "Not surprising considering I had three fractures ribs and a punctured lung."

Hugh reached up and squeezed her hand. Lore's expression softened as she met his sincere gaze. She sighed and settled back in her chair. "But our last trip into space was worth it. I'm sure this one will be as well."

* * * * *

Dried twigs crunched beneath four pairs of feet as they came to a halt in front of a large wall of branches on Uzo Island. Kain made a sound between a cough and a sneeze as he waved his hand in front of his face.

"Phew!" he said. "This place smells like-" He cut himself, unable to find words to describe it. "I haven't smelled anything this bad since that factory in Piata!"

Lore drew aside the stiff, dry branches at the mouth of the cave and wrinkled her nose in disgust as more of the noxious vapors were released. She turned on her flash and peered inside. "That shuttle's in here though. I can see it. Ugh... Something must've been nesting in this place."

"Skaters from the smell of it," said Hugh, referring to the small water-walking lizards that managed to thrive beneath Mother Brain's care as opposed to most of Motavia's native fauna. "If you'll notice, their feces are composed of really concentrated stuff."

"And you think we don't notice?" asked Kain. "It's rather hard not too."

Wren moved to help Lore pull back the cave's camouflage covering. "Shall I record this chemical imprint as a sensation distasteful for Palmans?" he asked.

"Yes, please!" Kain groaned.

The four of them cleared away the brush together, Wren moving with some difficulty over the uneven terrain. The android corrected his balance several times, but proved to Kain's satisfaction that he could handle finding his center of gravity. He was not sure, but Kain thought Wren was actually learning from each false step he took.

After they removed the branches they picked their way through the skaters' den, scaring away dozens of small lizards as they did so. The shuttle was near the back, painstakingly turned around so that it could use the length of the cave for a runway. VTOL was not an option in here, not in any place with a ceiling.

Kain palmed the door's electronic lock open and entered the numerical combination to the shuttle. The door opened with a hiss, dousing the four with sterilized air as a walkway lowered. Kain gestured for everyone to get inside and followed his friends up. The door closed behind him.

"Strap yourselves in," he said, taking a seat in the copilot's chair.

Wren reached for the safety straps and pulled them around his broad body. The android dwarfed the pilot's chair he sat in, making Kain feel a momentary wave of gratefulness that Wren could not suffer any back strain. The straps also probably weren't strong enough to hold him if they crashed into anything, but they provided at least a little assurance.

"I'll let the autopilot handle the takeoffs and landings," Kain continued, "but when we have to actually head towards the satellite Wren can take over. He's absorbed all the flight manuals I could find for him. I want to test how well his acquired knowledge holds up when put to the test."

"Do you foresee problems not listed in the manuals?" asked Wren, pushing the button to activate the shuttle's displays.

"Nothing obvious," he replied, settling back in his chair. "There are plenty of possibilities however. It's all part of the learning process."

Kain keyed up the autopilot, selecting the heading they wanted and setting the controls to revert to manual once they cleared the planet's gravity. He glanced around at his friends, saw that they were ready, and initiated take off.

The shuttle raced down the bumpy floor of the cave. Though they could not see exactly what its wheels tread over, Kain imagined it would be a mess to clean later. The Dipwad dove into sunlight, flying off the mountain ledge past the entrance to the cave. It caught the wind beneath its wings and soared towards the firmament. The blue of the sky faded, giving way to the blackness of space and the sparkling light of the stars.

The Dipwad released its controls to Wren, who promptly refined their heading to the amount changed by their journey through the atmosphere. Kain leaned back in his chair and folded his arms behind his head as he mindfully watched the android at work. Though Zelan shared the same orbit as Motavia, the journey would take a few hours.

"I hope no one noticed us take off," said Hugh.

Lore removed her safety harness and pulled a crudely arranged notebook out of a pack strapped by her chair. "As long as we don't do this too often, I don't think it'll matter. If Zelan is something we'll want to use we're going to have to eventually let somebody know anyway. If it isn't, then this won't be happening again."

"Letting someone know isn't going to be easy."

Kain nodded, even though he faced away from his friends. "I know. There's a lot we're going to have to tell them that they're not going to like, and I don't know how they're going to take it."

"I could talk to Councillor Dawson about it," offered Lore.

"That guy?" Kain snorted. "You sure about that?"

She shrugged. "If he agrees with us he'll make us sound like heroes."

"If he doesn't?"

"I think he will." Lore pulled out a pen and spread her notes on the workspace in front of her. "The Free Motavia Party likes this sort of thing."

* * * * *

Kain nudged Hugh awake from his nap as the four neared a particular sector of empty space. The field of stars displayed on the main monitor spread from one end to the other without a break, but Kain focused his attention as though he could see something else, something not readily evident.

"Lore," he said, "you might want to pack up your stuff. We should be in range of Zelan now, unless something knocked it off course in the three years since Mother Brain. Wren, throw on the cancellation device."

"Done," said the android.

The stars began to fade, disappearing into a vast pit of shadow. A gigantic shape began to haze into view, filling the entirety of the monitor and eclipsing the small form of the Dipwad . It was as large as city, woven of titanium and silicon; silent and forbidding. The Dipwad slowly descended towards the massive metal structure, guided by runway lights towards a loading bay six times as wide as their shuttle.

"Unless something knocked it off course, huh," said Hugh. "I'm not a physicist, but I would think you'd need something a lot larger than this to make a dent in it."

The autopilot touched down on the runway, taking them deeper into the cavernous satellite. The three Palmans looked through their monitors with awe. So different was Zelan from the strange stone ship of Noah!

"I didn't think it would be this big," admitted Kain. "The information said it would be a satellite, but I didn't think it would be much bigger than a simple space station, if even that."

"Zelan seems content to see us though," said Lore. "I don't feel the same sort of oppression I did on Noah."

The loading bay doors closed behind them. Kain checked the gauges on the Dipwad's control panel. He nodded with satisfaction. "The loading bay has been filled with oxygen. We can breath out there."

"Do you think Mother Brain left any AIs around here?" asked Hugh. "Lore and I left our weapons back at my apartment in Paseo."

"I don't know," Kain replied. "Zelan itself is intelligent, though not sentient. Would it need to have have robots aiding it? I think it controls everything about itself without the need of any, much like Seed wants to do. There are sonic guns in the hallway cabinet though if you want one, just in case."

Hugh shook his head. "We have our techniques. They'll do more damage against a machine than a sonic gun will."

"Then let's go."

The four exited the shuttle. To their surprise, Wren offered to take the point position. "Since I cannot feel pain and have the ability to repair myself as I walk, it is only proper that I take on any injuries that may harm or incapacitate you."

He strode into the lead, checking around doors and bends in the hallway before allowing any of them follow. Secure in Wren's care, the three Palmans crept through the darkened tunnels, only barely lit by soft orange lights. They took an elevator up to another floor, each of them positioned flat against the walls of the lift with a practiced caution. Wren exited first, signaled for them to follow, and guided them round the section of wall containing the elevator shaft. A short hall appeared ahead of them, opening up into a mammoth chamber. The walls on either side of them gave way to nothingness, the floor vanishing all around, save for a sole walkway leading up to a sprawling array of computer screens.

Pulse quickening, they hesitantly set foot on the walkway. Kain narrowly focused on the array at the end of their path, hoping, almost praying, that it offered what they needed. Lore breathed in deeply and looked with awe at the vast space around them. Hugh came last, turning a furtive glance behind them as they progressed.

"We are here," said Wren, stopping before the middle of three terminals built evidently for the usage of beings with height and hands like that of Palmans. Above him rose the multitude of greater displays, all currently dim.

"Looks like Mother Brain shut this place down before wiping everything else out," said Kain, looking up at the screens.

"Do you think she might have erased the data here?" asked Hugh.

"Dunno." Kain moved past Wren to look thoughtfully at the keys of the terminal. His hands hovered tentatively above them. "But we'll find out in a moment."

He tapped one key, set off from the others with a deliberate air. The terminal in front of him glowed. The screen splashed words in front of them, written in the strange language of the Earthmen. The message faded and the system whirred. A dark blue backdrop filled the monitor and a small window popped up on screen.

Hugh peered at the alien text labeling a box in the window. "What does it say?"

"Password," said Kain. He looked down at the keys beneath his fingers. Some of them matched the shape of the strange glyphs on screen. He pressed a sequence of them deliberately. With each touch an asterisk appeared in the window box. Kain looked up, counted their number, then glanced back down at the keyboard, hunting. He pressed a wide button on the right side of the keyboard with several of those strange characters printed upon it.

The window disappeared with the hum of computer drives. The entire screen filled with a bright green light. Kain squinted, still looking into the screen. "Activate?" he muttered, seeing something his friends could not. "Yes."

His hand touched a final button and the ceiling lights came on. The green light spread to the monitors of the other terminals, filled the great displays that covered the wall above their heads. Panels appeared, flickered, showering the chamber with a dazzling array of color. The three Palmans looked around themselves in wonder at the sudden brilliance of the satellite. Though buildings such as the Biosystems Lab and the four dams were of metal and lights, they were nothing like the bustling atmosphere that illuminated Zelan.

Lore looked up at all the dancing images of white on luminescent green and turned to Kain. "What are they all doing?"

"Self-diagnostics is my guess," said Kain. "Zelan hasn't been active for almost three years. It needs to be certain it's still functional."

He stepped away from the terminal and motioned for Wren to evaluate it. The android hesitated, so much as a being such as him could. "I'm indicating you may use the terminal," said Kain to clarify Wren's confusion.

The android nodded and took his position in front of it. He looked intently at the keyboard, then up at the screen. Wren positioned his hands above the keys and rapidly typed in several commands. Diagrams scrolled up the different monitors, sheets of data passing by at speeds barely within perception of the Palman eye. Still Wren continued to work, drawing up more information until all of the terminals and displays fed off the speed of his diligence.

"So much information..." said Lore.

Kain nodded. "It's all up to Wren now. If he can't figure out how Zelan works, all this is useless."

"But he knows something though," said Hugh. "He's going through everything so quickly."

"He knows a little. We didn't get everything Mother Brain knew when we tried scavenging her remains, but it's enough to get some of the knowledge necessary to operate Zelan and Kuran." Kain looked at Wren's back as the android continued working, undisturbed. "Wren's going as fast as he can, but this satellite is huge. There's no simple language translation available for what's going on here. He's going to be spending lots of time here if he determines that Zelan is operational."

"It is," said Wren, not breaking a stride in his absorption of the data on the many screens.

When the android did not elaborate Kain prodded him to do so.

"I am currently examining the different systems that are connected to Zelan," he explained. "While Zelan contains most of the raw processing power, Kuran is the satellite that implements the selected tasks. For us to use this we will have to reactivate that satellite as well. However, we may be able to do remotely from here. Baron was the satellite that performed most of the major decision making, but with the new system Mr. Kain has in mind, its loss will be inconsequential as I will be performing those tasks.

"Zelan's programming appears to be intact. There is also additional information I was not previously aware of. Though Mother Brain professed no control over Dezo, I have discovered that there is a climate control system available on that planet." He passed his hand over the keyboard, shutting down several of the monitors. "Finally, Kuran's link to Motavia is listed as being beneath Climatrol, in a small control room deep underground. I believe the three of you are familiar with it?"

"Quite," said Lore.

"Then we'll have to go back there." Kain ticked off his thoughts on his hand. "We can activate Kuran and reestablish through it the connection between Motavia and Zelan. Then we can link up Seed and everything will be part of a central system again, but this time it answers to us instead of the other way around!" He grinned, whirling around to face Wren. "You think you can get all this operational, right?"

Wren inclined his head. "I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that I may eventually be able to run all the systems necessary to sustain life in Algo."

"Then we've done it!" said Kain, tackling Lore with a hug.

The historian laughed, nearly falling over.

"Yeah," said Hugh darkly, too soft for them to hear, "we'll have done it."

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