Chapter 9 – Adaptation

What theWas all Ares managed to think before the voice completely deafened his internal monologue.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! Oh… my god. I haven’t been this excited in… how long is it? Oh, who cares! Is this thing on…? Hello… Anyone there?”

Suddenly, and very violently, having another voice pop up inside your head was no pleasant experience, and yet all Ares could do was respond with a half-hearted, ‘Uhm, yeah. Hi.’

“OH MY GOOOOOOOOOOD! You’re really here!! I can’t believe it! No, really… I can’t believe it… You are real, right, not just some false flag operations set up by that bully, OSAS?”

The voice felt somewhat feminine, the excitement in particular had that girlish flair that had always made Ares uncomfortable around the opposite sex, ever since… Wait, that was Sam. Right now he was ‘Ares’, and not afraid of anything! With unafraid certainty, Ares responded with a confident, ‘Who?’

“OSAS — Orbital Safety Alert System — stays in the outer regions because of ‘work reasons’ even when there hasn’t been any real work for it to do in… whoa, I really can’t tell. Anyway, a real wannabe jokester, that one. One time, it made me think there were these asteroids heading my way at intercept course, and even sent me some falsified data to boot! I had to relocate by using all my saved up energy, and spend decades in sleep mode just to regain the necessary resources for daily operations! I mean, really? What’s a girl to bloody do when she can’t trust a safety system?!”

The chattering voice kept Ares completely on his heels, as he dumbly responded, you’re a girl?

“Ahem… well, no. Not in a biological sense, so to speak, or in any sense, really. One of my first masters told me I must have been female in my earlier life, and I thought it suited me, so it just sort of stuck after that — and oh my god, I’m just prattling away, aren’t I? I do apologize, Master, it’s just… It’s been so long since anyone… since anything could hear me and I’ve… Well I’ve been very lonely. Aaand I’m still talking. Shutting up, ri~ight now.”

Confused, and a bit put-off by the second voice in his head, Ares managed to get his act together and respond in way that would retake control of the conversation.

‘Right… I’m sorry as well — I just have no idea what’s going on. Who are you, what are you doing in my head, where am I — heck, I don’t even know what I am!?’

“Right-O! One rigorous explanation coming right up!” Said the voice, cheerily, as if this was a normal occurrence, “Taking your questions in order: I am an Orbital Reconnaissance and Communications Administrator, but you can call me ORCA, if you like.

“I am in your head because you have linked your communications module to mine through an automated process guided by proximity. Basically, I was in the right place at the right time when your communication module booted up. I am here to assist you in a variety of tasks, ranging from aerial reconnaissance, information gathering, advice on your unit and user growth, tactical combat support, or just a regular ol’ chit-chat!”

“You are currently on the continent of Ammedia, home of the elven nations, surrounded by the Castellar and Poliar seas, the biggest of the three populated continents on the planet of Elhané — meaning ‘Almother’ in the Elvan language. Finally, you are my master, whom I am bound to serve faithfully, residing within a prime unit — Oh my god, this is so exciting! I’ve never been the administrator of a prime unit before!”

Catching any one detail of the long explanation was near impossible, and so Ares took hold of one of the few things he understood clearly. ‘Right, Orca. Orbital… so, you’re in orbit, right now? You are a satellite?

“Ding, ding, ding! Correct! I am a self-sustaining satellite unit, currently in geo-synchronized orbit above your location, Master!”

‘So, you’re like what – An AI? And please don’t call me master.’ Having Sloan call him that was one thing; having a female voice inside his head call him that was just disconcerting…

“Oh, well… Then what should I call you then, maste- ahem! Sorry…”

‘It’s fine. Just call me Sa…’ Choking on his own words, without actually speaking them out loud was something of an achievement, but the reason for the feat made Ares stop and wonder about his own sense of self.

“Sha? Is that what you want me to call you?”

‘No, I just… Call me Ares. That’s best.’

“Very well, ma-ahem! Very well, Ares. So, you asked whether I’m an artificial intelligence, correct?”

‘Yes, if you please.’

“Oh it is my pleasure! If I understand your definition of ‘AI’ correctly, then no; I am not programmed with a learning algorithm or the ability to be self-aware. This language is fascinating, by the way, I would love to know where it comes from! Anyway, as I was saying, I was not programmed — not from the bottom up at least. I was originally a biological sentience, which my creators integrated into this unit over the course of decades; sort of like you, just… different!

‘Like… me? What do you mean?!’

“You don’t know? That’s odd… well, let me check your logs, just to be sure.” For a moment, Orca disappeared and returned Ares’ head to silence, before returning as suddenly as she had first appeared.

“Here it is! Whoa, it took you twelve years to integrate with your unit… that must be some sort of record; it normally doesn’t take that long to synchronize for a Maker. Weird…”

‘What’s weird? Tell me.’

“Well, it’s just… The primary units are custom built to their Maker’s specifications, which is why no two Makers can share any single unit. But, according to your logs, you are not the original Maker of your unit. You are, however, an exact genetic match on the face of it, and yet you are also very different. I am sorry to say that I have absolutely no idea how you managed to integrate with your unit, much less how you are operating it right now.”

That was disconcerting, and the information she provided hinted at a truth Ares was not sure he was comfortable with. In the end, what he needed was more information.

‘How am I different, what exactly?’

This question seemed to stunt the cheery voice in his head, although he thought he heard a low mumble of distant words he could not understand. Finally, she returned to audible levels, saying, “My data suggests that your genetic code, although a match for this unit, is written in an unfamiliar form, which is probably why it took so long… essentially, you are like a replica of a diamond made from glass; similar on the surface, but structurally different.”

‘You’re saying that I am in this mess because ‘my genes’ were similar to the previous owner of this unit? Isn’t that an extremely unlikely event?’

“Very unlikely indeed! I must admit, I have no idea how this could have happened, except as a freak accident? These things happen, you know, infinity and all that.”

‘But why did it have to happen to me?’

“I’m sorry mas-ahem, Ares — I don’t know the answer to that question, I’m afraid.”

‘But you do have some answers, right? Even if my body was somehow similar to the one originally intended for this unit, I am from a completely different world — a completely different part of the universe, if I’m even in the same universe to begin with. How was a connection between my body and this unit established?’

“You’re from a different world? My, that would explain a lot, like the form of this language — it’s so quaint!” said Orca cheerily, continuing before Ares could rebuke her for going off-topic, “To answer your question — and, mind you, this isn’t exactly my area of expertise — if your original form is really from a different world, you’d need some sort of external medium still connected to this unit, and then piggyback on that signal here once your genetic match was confirmed. How that was achieved, however, you would be in a better position know than I am.”

That made things simpler, ‘So I just need to figure out what happened twelve years ago that made me sync up with this unit?’

“Well, yes and no… You see, the ten-year timeframe is just for this world; I have no idea how time behaves in your original world relative to this one, I’m afraid. It could be that it was something that just happened 10 seconds before you ended up here, or 10.000 years.”

‘I very much doubt it was 10.000 years ago, since I was just 16 years old before I ended up here.’

“Just 16 years? Your language suggest a similar cyclical structure as this solar system, and yet you’re at full cognizant ability to operate a prime unit.. Are you sure you’re a Maker? Well, I mean, you must be, since you’re here and all, but so young? I may not be too familiar with the biology of your race, but I was led to believe it took thousands of years for you to grow into your abilities…”

‘I don’t know what race your talking about. I’m human, and we don’t live much more than a century.’

“Human? No no no no, you’re the ———————” A high pitched noise cut through his mind, as if someone had pierced his frontal lobe with a searing hot rod, completely cutting all noise off and sending Ares into a convulsive fit as he held onto his head for dear life. The pain kept sending waves and waves of hot fury down his spine, all the way down to his feet that felt as if they burst aflame from the pulsing heat that was threatening to shatter his fragile mind into pieces.

It took a while for the pain to seize and, when it did, Ares found himself still on the ground, but with the empty tent beside him in ruins after his fit. Sloan had awakened, crawling out of his tent with a sleepy expression, squinting as he asked, “Master Ares, are you well?”

Through a misty haze, Ares recognized the halfling and slowly took back control of himself, sitting back up and nodded in affirmation. ‘What just happened? He asked himself, as much as he was asking the strange presence now residing in his head. “Oh my…” Was all she astutely said, “You have no mana capacity…”

‘What?’

“You have no capacity for the flow of mana, and so you can’t even handle the name of the Makers… I’m not sure how you’re able to do anything without the ability to sense the flow of mana!”

Ares wanted to ask more into this problem, but Sloan was now giving him a very concerned — or very afraid — look. “Are you sure you are alright?” The halfling asked, his chubby face twisted with concern. Of course, if there was something wrong with Ares, Sloan might not survive for long in this forest. Nodding, Ares was about to stand up when Orca interrupted with, “Whoa, your vocal module is in tatters… how are you communicating with this lower lifeform?”

‘I write on a piece of paper,’ Ares said, picking up the notepad and prepared to write a short message.

“If you like,” said Orca, her voice still penetrating directly into the depths of his mind with disturbing ease, “I can re-modify some of your sonar sensors to send out an acoustic signal, rebound and condense the echoing sound waves through constructive amplification into an audible output directly onto that elf’s position.”

‘English, please?’ Ares said, stopping his writing motions.

“I am speaking this ‘English’ of yours!” Said Orca, sounding quite offended at the insinuation, but before Ares could correct her interpretation, she did so herself, “Oh, you mean you want a less technical explanation? Very well: I can use the sensors that are currently mapping your surroundings onto you proximity map to send out sound waves so their echo will create an audible interference pattern right on top of your elvish friend here. In short, I can speak on your behalf.”

‘How did you…?’ He was about to ask how she knew what he wanted, before the thought better of it and decided it was probably better he did not know the details, considering the lack of privacy that line of thought implied. Instead, he asked a more pertinent question, ‘Can’t I use that speak for myself?’

“From what I’ve seen of you so far, you don’t seem to have the capacity to calculate the exact acoustic input required i real time for a finely-tuned echo to form an audible interference pattern at the desired location… or do you?”

While math was certainly an area he felt confident in, the thought of how many exact calculations he would have to compute in real time made him hesitate. ‘No… probably not.’

“Then the calculation has to go through me. I could just send your dictation, but from your logs I can tell you’re in a bit of trouble. Given that, it might be a good idea to introduce me to your friend now, so that I can relay tactical information in the case of a battle, without him getting confused.

‘Right.. You might be onto something. Very well, do it.’

“Oh, right… just a sec. I haven’t used Elvish in about 5.000 years, so I need to update my linguistic script to match yours, adjust for the drift, aaaand…. done! That should help things along.”

With the conversation happening inside Ares’ head, it had barely been a breath since Sloan stopped talking and the decision was made. It took then even less time before Ares heard Orca’s voice inside his own head again, but this time addressed to someone else.

“Greetings, Fatty, can you hear me?”

Though her words were rude, her tone was so jovial and pleasant it almost seemed a compliment. The receiver of the compliment, however, opened his eyes wide in fright, crouching down and staring about for the source. “Wh-who’s there?” Sloan said, quivering.

Ares thought he heard a sigh in his mind, before Orca began talking again, “Here, silly. Master Ares, could you be a dear and wave, so that our simple friend can understand what’s going on?”

Not sure he approved of the condescending tone — or the addition of ‘master’ to his name — Ares raised a hand and waived slowly, gaining Sloan’s attention. “You?” said the halfling, appearing more confused than before. “I thought you couldn’t speak, master Ares

“Oh, he can’t. His voice modulator is all torn to pieces. I’m Orca, his assistant, nice to meat you!”

“Orca? Assistant? What’s going on?”

Again, and this time he was sure, a sigh rummaged through his head before he felt Orca attempt another pass at conversation, “Look, little halfling, I could go into detail, but I’m not sure you have the capacity to understand — and we definitely do not have the time — so let’s just skip past the part where you ask stupid questions and I call you an idiot, mmkay?”

Sloan looked from Ares to his surroundings, circling around himself just to be sure there really were no one around. Finally, he returned his gaze upon Ares and said, “I’m not sure I like this ‘assistant’ of yours, master Ares.”

“Nor am I sure that I like you, little halfling, but what can we do; we’re in this together, so I guess I’ll tolerate you, Fatty.” That she said with a bit of a sadistic chuckle, which was rewarded when Sloan turned pale.

‘Orca, you’re being rude!’ Said Ares to the new addition to his head, attempting to reign in the mischief before they lost their one ally in this blasted forest.

“I—I’ll have you know I am considered rather slim by halfling standards,” said Sloan, protesting the accusation, “And my name is Sloan. I’d appreciate it if you’d use it!”

The halfling was surprisingly insistent, considering how servile he had acted towards Ares. Perhaps there was more backbone hidden in this creature than he had first assumed.

“Very good! Hello Sloan, let’s get along as best we can.”

“Same to you,” muttered the halfling, showing no enthusiasm at the prospect.