The rude, cold light of the hallways. Down past the Circle and the Mess. Through the auxiliary crew compartments, and to the gaping octagon of the Arboretum’s opening. A temporary respite in the weak gravitational fields, before the stomach tossing change to the spinning Green House. A clanking trek across the Sky-pane catwalks. And the light headed descent along the wall to exit through the black-hole, back-end of the Arboretum. Cargo bays, shuttle bays, and the 750-meter journey to Engineering was behind her.
Diablos, thought Crimson, ready to lie down again. Where’s Gator?
The Megladyte was nowhere to be seen.
Engineering spread out before her like a nest of titanium serpent’s eggs. Bulbous reactor chambers hung from the ceiling and piled from the floor in gigantic proportions—eggs balanced in stacks for the circus! The entrance to Engineering was a glorified blast door, onto a platform with a railing. The floor dropped away then and it was a good fifty-foot drop to the actual floor. Usually one took the elevating platforms on either side of the entrance. From her vantage point Crimson could see down the four rows of reaction chambers to the distant Jump Core, a confluence of massive pipes and conduits that at this distance seemed far smaller and less important than it was.
But a yellow Megladyte stomping around between the spheres like a space invader through a metropolis in an Earth I’s monster “movie” she did not see.
Crimson clumped to the call station by the door and snapped, “Gator, I’m here. What’s the problem?”
It took a moment, before Gator’s baritone rumble came back, slightly out of breath, “Meet me up on Four.”
Bridge Four. The two of them had had to completely rebuild the access routes to the top of the hulking reaction chambers. Tiny catwalks were fine for limber humanoids toting a hydraulic wrench, but for an alligator the size of a mythical stone troll, something more substantial was needed. With much welding they had made bridges that Gator could comfortably use, carrying only a normal wrench the size of an Andromedan—she’d seen Micron next to Gator’s wrench; it wasn’t an exaggeration.
With a huff of resolution she swung her flesh and metal carcass onto the lift. The lifts were wide and flat without walls. Retractable railings could be raised and lowered depending on how big a thing you needed to take to the floor. Usually Gator left them up. Crimson rode the lift to the top of the massive chamber and hobbled along the wall-mounted platform past the first three bridges. At Four she turned and began towards the center of the room. Gator was not on the bridge. Begrudging the effort she’d put into getting here quickly she clumped to the center of the bridge and waited.
Bridge Four and Five were the centermost of the maintenance walkways. Around her hummed the reactions chambers, four huge vats equal with her, and four more below her. The others lined in ranks behind her to the entrance, and off to the Jump Core.
She waited. Her ears went numb to the deep buzz of the giant vats, and she shifted uncomfortably. Where was that giant lizard?
Finally she heard him. The thumping feet and the swishing drag of his tail across the grated floor of the walkways were well known to her. The lack of urgency in his gait annoyed her. He turned the distant corner of the far end of Bridge Four and lumbered her way. Was he humming a tune? Crimson’s annoyance grew.
She didn’t wait for him to arrive but barked, “What is it? You said there was an emergency!”
Gator stopped humming but didn’t reply. If she could read Megladyte features she’d say he was somehow pleased with himself, which irked her more. He thumped along, wiping his scaly palms on his overalls, until he arrived standing almost twice her height. He put his huge mits on his hips.
Crimson forced her robot and flesh arms to cross, and thrust her metal pelvis to the side, awaiting an explanation.
“Mmm, nope,” rumbled Gator, thinking back. “I said, you gotta’ look at something right away.”
“Well, what the chicken-spit is it?”
The Megladyte’s eyes were intent as he looked at her down the long snout. “Well, maybe not look at, but listen. Look and listen!”
Crimson was losing her patience, “What. Gator.”
“This,” Gator turned and looked out at the massive reaction chambers, he opened his monster palms; in that moment even he looked small against the enormous room that diminished towards its horizon lines. “Here,” he grunted again. Taking the railing with both hands he jerked it upwards. A section gave way. Twisting Gator placed it to one side, leaving a large, unprotected section of the glorified catwalk.
“Siddown,” he invited. To demonstrate the Megladyte crouched, put a hand to the grating, dropped his butt to the foot bridge floor and popped his legs over the edge. At this height his fiery shock of red hair was equal with Crimson’s head. His tail swished over the ledge and flopped funnily. He twisted to watch her, and waited.
Crimson felt a red surge of anger begin to boil her insides. He’d tricked her; there was no emergency. He just wanted to give her one of his pep talks. Only this time he’d dragged her all the way down here, instead of pestering her in her quarters. She felt her muscles tensing and the skin around surgical attachments pulling tight.
But as she inhaled for a loud expletive… she saw him: standing over her, starkly lit by the setting sun. Above him orange and gray clouds etched ribbons in the high ceiling of Xalon XII. She saw the big fold of his scaly, soft, under-throat and the long jaws of teeth. He turned the huge head towards her, with large instinctive eyes. His hands had descended and carefully scooped her up, a rigid, broken doll, and cradled her against his chest. At the time her mind was blank, like static, or perhaps a waterfall of unsorted, inconsequential data. Just pain, and awake, and alive. From some Earth I zoological encyclopedia her kaleidoscopic Mindframe recognized some of the shapes and conjured alligator. “—‘gator,” was all she’d managed. Besides the red blood on her own hand, he was the first thing she’d had seen.
If anyone could tell her to sit down, it was Gator.
Taking another deep breath she set her left heal over the bridge ledge. She cursed again as she saw how far away the floor below them really was. With her good hand she held the remaining rail and lowered it until her butt was almost down. Then she kicked her work boot out from under her and dropped the last six inches. Her metal ass and hand had caught her.
They waited. Crimson stared angrily at the bulbous reactors.
Crimson listened. The faint hum of the reactors. Nothing else.
Gator held up a gnarly claw.
She listened again. Just reactors.
Gator could see she was unimpressed. He tilted his head. “D8 is outta’ sync. And B4’s gotta’ funny rattle.”
Crimson scrunched up her face; he could hear that? She listened harder. After a long moment she identified it. There was a different timbre coming from below, to their left. And, after a longer moment, she thought she could hear a higher register from the distance. It was almost like a harmony of a really boring Gregorian Earth I choir.
“From up here,” Gator interrupted, “You can hear it all! You probably can’t tell, but the backup life-support is funky as well—I’m runnin’ a diagnostic.”
Crimson darted a suspicious look at the Megladyte’s acoustic meatus. “You don’t even have ears!”
“I don’t have big, flappy ears, like you!” Gator grunted, “But from up here, if you listen hard enough, you can hear it.”
Crimson sat for a moment, and tried again. She tasked her Mindframe to sorting out the decibel levels and tried to differentiate between the distant notes.
“It doesn’t come all at once,” Gator continued, “but you get to know how Rival ought to sound. You know when she’s sick, when she needs attention, if somethin’s come loose… she’ll tell you when and where she needs you. Just like us. Machines need love too, ya know.”
Crimson cast him another sidelong glance.
“I come up here sometimes just to think.” Gator leaned forward to drape his elbows over his knees. With his big belly it looked more like just leaning forward with his wrists crossed.
“What’s your point?” Crimson asked.
Gator looked at her again. “Crims. Most people go to the Green House to relax. You don’t like living things. But I thought you might like it up here. It’s big, it’s lonely. But… in its own way, it is alive. Rival’s our living beauty, and if we take care of her, she’ll take care of us.”
Crimson chewed on that. She didn’t know what he was saying. But he was trying to be nice.
He continued, “I know you want to find out what happened to you, Crims. And we’ll get there eventually. Just don’t forget to love your machines.”
He grabbed the closest rail, and heaved his heavy bulk up. Crimson leaned away from the swiveling mass of muscles and scales.
“I’ll leave it open for ya’,” he gestured to the spare railing piece as he thumped away.
Crimson sat there.
—‘gator. Annoying. But kind.