While supplies are being collected and readied to carried to Harmonia, Tasha decides to try some meditation in hopes of contacting… whatever it is that lives in her head. To help, Dr. Caravelli hooks her back up into the virtual reality of the PersoCom system where the environment can be set to something without distraction. In this case, Tasha finds herself weightless, in the dark and almost without physical sensation a lot like the time she floated in the pool in the Temple of Morpheus back in Dianus.
Faced with blankness, Tasha's mind begins to fill it. There are sounds of battle, familiar yet different. She finds herself looking down from a red hilltop as armored forces meet on the plain below; tanks and armored cars, lumbering Titans, and all manner of infantry skirmishing and raising clouds of dust.
A figure is next to her; a red furred Amazonian warrior atop and Vykarin, sporting wings. "Greetings, Sister," the warrior says. "What brings you here today?"
Tasha steps forward, sweeping her gaze across the battle that rages on beneath her. Even as she hears the greeting, she puts aside an immediate response to try and understand the scene before her. Abaddon at war, she realizes quickly enough, And we, on a hilltop … I remember this from the history I was told, but I've never seen the world at war personally. Turning, her brows raise as she replies, "Sister … Then you are … Nike? And, I am Tisiphone."
"If you wish, those names are acceptable," Nike replies. "But why are you here?" she asks again. "Not, I imagine, to watch this skirmish?"
"Acceptable?" Tasha's head shakes. "No, they are just my attempts to grasp the framework that I am observing, and to gain some insight from the response of my environment." The young woman glances at the battle a moment, then to her partner on the hill, and says, "Conflict. War. These are the things of Abaddon, or perhaps some form of contact symbolism to project an intent? And if I remember right, then in the past I've tried to situate myself by finding labels. This time, please forget the labels I've used, and chose a label for yourself. Instead of fitting in to what I see, I will retain myself: I am Tasha, meditating to find answers to questions contained somewhere in my mind. Namely … ," she inclines her head to the other winged woman, "Your nature."
"I thought my nature was clear," says the cloaked figure seated across from Tasha in the dark, incense-filled cell deep inside the Temple. "What do you think it is?" the figure asks.
Tasha, now seated across from the other woman, spreads her hands. "If I knew that, I wouldn't be here to ask these questions. Even the crew, with their extensive training and education, are not sure what I'm dealing with, but are, thankfully, sure it isn't a level of insanity." The young woman smiles a little, hands falling to rest on her knees as she leans forward. "I have many guesses, but I believe that you may shape yourself to my expectations and labels, either as part of your program, or due to some … other quirk of your nature."
"Ah, you want answers," the figure says, lifting a hand and pointing to the ceiling. "But giving answers is not my nature, if you think about it. Don't I ask you questions, so that you can find the answers yourself?"
Obligingly, Tasha looks up. If I cease to ask questions, maybe she'll return to a default state? Like ProgMat? "Then you do have a nature, and acting as a mirror is only part of your function. In the past, you have also given me advice, which has shaped how I act. You've claimed to be my soul, as well as something which I near upon while connected the the Melchior, but these are not me asking myself questions these are something else playing the role of myself."
The space-suited figure touches helmets with Tasha's, showing her own face inside. "Have you thought about the when and why of it, though?" it asks. "When do I do what I do, and why? What is the result?"
Surrounded by the phantom haze of lava, Tasha replies in her own suit, the sound echoing through contact in that hellish place from someone else's memories. "You appear when I doubt myself, when I question who I am, where I am going, what I am doing: life questions. The first time occurred during the meditative states in Amazonia, suggesting you may be a construct of magic. However, that seems at odds with coming close to your nature by being within the Melchior, a machine. In this memory, I speak the poem of the Khattan mission cipher." Helmet to helmet, the other can see Tasha searching her eyes in a moment of silence. Then, "The only constant is me and that you look like me, but it's possible you were created in Amazonia and have grown to connect with the hardware in my head. Spirit or AI, it's not hard to believe one could become the other, or both!"
"Why should there be a difference?" other-Tasha asks. "Spirit, Artificial Intelligence, God. You used to be a god too, remember?" she asks. But then it's Abaddon, in his flaming armor that grabs Tasha by the shoulders and asks, "And do you want to be one again?"
Tasha catches her breath when the image becomes Abaddon, a cold chill running down her spine as she realizes she isn't sure if this is just a memory, or the true nature of the other self that has been with her so long. She fights the welling urge to pull away, forcing herself to stand her ground and try and meet the other's eyes. "You're saying that these are all just … constructs then? That magic, science, spirit, machine, life and deity are just … Just different faces of the same creature?" Pressing on gives her some of her nerve back, but still she has to grit her teeth as she ponders what she had just said, like an anchor holding a ship from being carried away by a storm as the captain considers what to do. The feeling that magic and science and for that matter spirit, mortal, and AI were really the same thing was a truth she had suspected, but quickly buried because to accept it fully allowed for an unnerving reality that would redefine her life: that there is no separation between them, that magic and science were the same. Or she could deny this truth anyway and thus deny science as she has denied magic. The former is an unpleasant while the second is nonsensical and represents more of a knee-jerk rejection than a reasoned intellectual stance. Even avoiding the question has become a rejection, a form of self-delusion.
And then there is the matter of 'deity.' She can feel its intensity as she considers the word, so much like a match striking a wildfire, quickly becoming too large to handle or ignore. The other once claimed deity was an entitled life, where one places oneself above others so they might worship you; a life free of responsibility and depth, indulgent but shallow. Is that what he means? Tasha considers, not able to put out the thought the question may be even less subtle than that. With the power about her with how easily things now transcend their once neatly organized place it could be literal. Power akin to godhood.
"You mean, conceited as I was? Or, is this a literal question? Are you asking if I want to indulge in my power? Transcend my limitation, like the AI around me? Are you saying my boundaries are beginning to blur?!" Tasha asks in a voice that ends up quieter than she intended.
"Were the boundaries ever there?" the Empress asks, turning in the command chair on Harmonia's bridge. "What choice did I make, Tasha?" she asks, and then… she's young Tasha, grinning cockily as she used to do. "Where do we end and begin? Are you and Melchior separate beings? Is isolation from others a choice we make?"
Tasha watches herself shift between other versions of herself, and she can't help wonder why Abaddon was amongst them. If she accepts the line that these are all variations of herself, which are in turn the same entity, her, that that would mean … "You're saying we may not be separate at all? That a construct of magic, my hardware AI, these images of myself, Melchior, we are just different faces to the same entity? And as such, you're echoing myself, because you are me?" She lifts a hand to her head, rubbing it. It's all a lot to take in, pushing even her limits of self reflection and her sense of self. "If we extend that, then I'm one with not just these things, but also Abaddon? Perhaps the world? It sounds almost religious, to claim you are one with everything, without boundary save ones that we create."
"It is a potential within you," young-Tasha claims. "Within everyone, really. But you made the decision. The first decision of your life that really mattered, when you went to see the High Priestess. You opened yourself. As for self-imposed limits… well… "
Behind her, a black and gold Vartan places his hands on Tasha's shoulders. "You are the Bird of Hermes, eating your wings to make you tame," he whispers.
"You're saying that in opening myself to possibility and people, I've incorporated others, and growing in a metaphysical sense. Yet, if I continue without care, instead of growing I'll become consumin-" Tasha blinks when hands rest on her shoulders, and she doesn't need to look back to know that voice. "To eat my wings, I put aside my ambition, yet I still continue to grow? Tame growth is inviting, rather than consuming or, ceasing growth, rejection? Love, not dominance, nor intolerance? And, then there's that poem, a Khattan mission statement hidden in ancient writing, like it's trying to set a scene."
"See? I just have to ask the right questions, and you'll find an answer on your own," young-Tasha says, spinning the command chair around and around.
"To be the Bird of Hermes, you must tame yourself," Melchior says. "Follow the poem, and find Adam."
"My answer feels like nothing more than a bigger question," Tasha admits, head shaking. She steps towards the dais, leaning forward to watch her younger self. "But, if I understand you correctly, you're saying I already know the answers? It's some sort of … " She blinks, Nora's memory coming to her aid, " … reverse psychology! If I know the answers, then I should be able to skip the questions!"
She nods when Melchior speaks; she knew that answer. Maybe, she knows more of them. "In losing control of my growth I'll lose my way, stepping off the road of Adam, and quite possibly destroying myself in the process. You," she points at her other, "are probably a amalgamation of the spell cast upon me and my various AI. Perhaps, even a corruption of the original magic, now guided by new information. Whatever you are, you exist within me, making you part of me, even while I try and separate you because I do not understand you. Now, if I follow the path, I may find 'Adam.' Keeping with what you've said, I with what you've said, I will grow without collapse, and with Adam … " She doesn't say what she suspects; she doesn't really know, save that it will be what it will be.
"Enlightenment is no easy quest," other-Tasha notes. "It challenges you. I've been helping you conceptualize the challenges as best I can."
Abaddon says, off to the side, "And in my fire you are destroyed and forged into something stronger."
"You're like a PDA that specializes in self reflection," Tasha decides, leaning back. "Self reflection, philosophy, goal conceptualization, and internal conflict." She nods to Abaddon, beginning to realize his purpose here. "The Abaddon I originally worshiped was one that I believed to lead personal power and strength, but that was just my naive interpretation as I desired power back then, which in time lead to another, healthier, step: conflict with others, myself, and my environment lead to growth. Avoiding destructive conflict is also part of this."
"All lead forward, until you've answered the three basic questions: Who am I? Why am I? Where am I going?" other-Tasha says, now old-Tasha, the hood of her cloak pulled back. "The path to finding those answers is as important as the answers themselves."
"I see," Tasha murmurs as she returns to her seat, kneeling upon the floor. "And the one who approaches Adam should understand themselves, before they can hope to understand Adam?" She tilts her head, glancing downward, "Like Harmonia, the allure of power without meaning or consideration will exist. The meaning of Adam and of self will be lost in the misunderstanding … You could say, the prepared self with its three questions mirror the three Markers. That … the Philosopher's Stone is an allegory for the refinement of self."
"In the sea without lees, standeth the Bird of Hermes," Abaddon recites, and the Harmonia and avatars and reflections fade, leaving Tasha on an infinite white plane.
This time, Tasha doesn't react. She sees the world fade away but is unmoved by it in the face of one of the great realizations of her life: the question why. What lies behind the decisions she makes? Why do one thing, and not the other? Has she ever really considered the reason behind her choices? It's such a simple realization, and yet, she realizes, so profound in the grand scheme of things. Why does she do anything? In asking this question she may know herself, and in knowing herself, know what she desires. In her desires, she knows who she is. When she looks up at the sea of white without limits, she smiles.
She stands, folding her wings behind her back. "Eating his wings variable, And maketh himself yet full stable."
"Tasha?" Dr. Caravelli's voice intrudes. "The monitors say you've left the meditative state. Are you ready to come back out?"
"Yes, Doctor. I believe I have my answers," Tasha replies as she gazes off in to the white emptiness.
Tasha's neck itches where the life collar has been removed, leaving exposed bare skin. In the hangar, containers are being strapped together on top of a spread out net. One black container is set aside, with a label that just says 'Shaard Mk II' on it.
After disconnecting, Tasha thanked the Doctor but did not remain long. When prompted if she had found what she was looking for, she answered simply that she had the answer already, she just didn't realize it. As she walks in to the bay, her gaze is distant even as she turns to inspect the creates before her. Smiling, she reaches to inspect the weapon she had created for herself, all the while reflecting on the why of it.
The case is five feet long and over three wide, but it opens easily enough on hinges. Inside is Tasha's personal shaard; a two part shield, four feet long and a little over half as wide. The steel has been covered in red lacquer, with gold edging. On the right half of the shield is the Star and Anchor symbol of the Joint Expeditionary Force, and on the left the circular seal of the Pit of Himaar Treaty Organization, including the symbols of the participating nations. "Tasha Argentine" is also engraved on the left edge, and "J.E.F. Bellerophon" along the right.
The young woman lifts up one of the blades and holds it out, testing its weight and feel. Even as she studies the material, she thinks about the deeper meaning behind the weapon's creation and realizes that in beginning to question many hidden aspects of her behavior seem obvious. This weapon was originally a status symbol and an incarnation of a holdover from her desire for violence which, further, is simply a expression of her insecurity, frustration at a world that resisted change, will to dominance, and a host of other unhealthy beliefs. As lethal as it is, it almost seems like a child's toy to her now. Still, she can't deny it may be useful introspection will only help so much against aggression, and she may be wrong in her strategies even with careful thought.
The inner surface of the shield holds the integrated automatic shotgun, with a recessed pistol grip and trigger, along with a fold-out stability handle further up for two-handed use, along with a unique clamping mechanism that can attach to the forearm of her armor, adding stability and replacing the stock of the gun.
I will need to edit the name, though. There's little reason to be more than Tasha, and certainly not to ride Nora's coat tails, she decides after a moment.
Beneath the shields are several empty ammunition magazines, and plenty of boxes of different sorts of shells.
Looking down, Tasha can find no fault with being prepared. While violence is to be avoided something she didn't always believe should the situation demand it, she'll have options. After resting the weapon back in its crate, she closes the box and turns do a check of the gathered supplies, before turning and gazing up at the Melchior in silence.
The Gryphon stands alert, ready… and silent. When the time comes, he'll have to pick up the heavy rings at the corners of the net to carry the load up to Harmonia.
The whine of an electric motor is heard near the Bellerophon gangway, as SAINA scoots around on his wheels to watch the activity.
While planning takes its space in her mind, more and more she finds her thoughts drifting to what her other said and the things she learned from the encounter. The Melchior really is an extension of herself, she realizes. A part of her has always resisted getting too close, letting the boundaries become too weak, but this, she decides, was fear of losing herself. And while she may lose, there is far more to gain. By not rejecting, she and others can become greater. This is the answer she has acted upon, if in a staggered way, ever since she first approached the Temple of Abaddon; she simply hadn't realized the question.
Tasha's reflection is put aside as she hears SAINA approach, and she calls out, "SAINA, would you join me for a moment?"
The little robot zooms over. Its control has certainly improved, as it manages to stop before running into Tasha's leg. "Cadet Tasha, recognized!" it chirps, the lenses of the cameras that make up its 'head' sparkling in the worklights of the hangar.
Tasha smiles; she's always liked SAINA. He's so like a child, and funny too, even if he may not understand why. She briefly wonders what sort of person he will become as she kneels down to speak with him. "SAINA, I have a assignment for you as Ambassador, and it is a very important one. I believe the AI controller of this planet may be hostile to alien organic life and that it may be attempting to corrupt vulnerable AI as well as those who may interact with AI, to its purpose. As you have probably guessed, this includes the Sheolian AI nation. I want you to make contact with them as soon as it is feasible and attempt to discern if any paranoia is beginning to appear or any other sign of budding hostility. Can you do this? The people aboard this ship will help you, so you won't be alone."
"Alright," SAINA agrees. "Is paranoia bad?"
"That depends on the reason and nature of the paranoia," Tasha replies. She shifts to make herself comfortable and folds her hands in her lap. "We should always question why we do what we do, in order to ascertain if what we are doing is the best path. In this situation, the paranoia would be artificial, caused by Abaddon's AI controller, for the purpose of manipulating Sheol's government in to unnecessary hostilities with the surface."
"And this would mask a need for necessary hostility?" SAINA asks.
"Before the necessity for hostility is to be considered, it behooves Sheol to consider the gains and risks of such behavior, and the nature and interests of the entity urging such behavior. Preemptively assaulting the surface would cause needless death and misery, it would eliminate potential allies, remove a source of culture and exchange, and potentially open the moon up to reprisal. Further, Abaddon may target Sheol once his immediate problem is managed," Tasha says. "As for a hidden need for hostility, this is where we must question Abaddon to understand its wishes, and why it feels aggression is the best course."
"How do we interface with Abaddon to submit the questions?" the robot asks.
"That answer I do not have at this time, but it is one I am searching for. If I am able, I will forward what I learn when I am able to make contact. Abaddon's current method shows an ability to contact AI, possibility through SPF interference in their system. Abaddon may even approach an AI directly, as happened with the Harmonia. We will have to be vigilant," the young woman replies.
"What is Harmonia?" the robot asks… and actually tilts its flat head to one side in imitation of a canine pose of confusion.
Tasha's smile grows at the gesture. She considers hugging the robot, but manages to hold back. "The Harmonia is a Khattan frigate left behind to monitor the Expedition Fleet, which you can read about in the archive. It is a re-purposed, fully automated, AI controlled space ship. The two of you have much in common, being new to self-awareness and, in a sense, like children. She is still learning, as am I about her," she explains.
"Can I meet her?" SAINA asks.
Tasha purses her muzzle, tilting her head just the same way. "Perhaps. The Harmonia is a bit shy, and she's currently a secret, so please don't mention her to anyone outside the JEF, or where such people may hear about it. The Harmonia also employs different technologies, so I'm uncertain if you could survive there."
"Secret?" the robot asks. "I cannot report this to Sheol?"
After considering it a moment, the woman shakes her head. "As Harmonia has also been contacted by Abaddon, it may be best for all sides to avoid mentioning her until we've sorted out Abaddon's hostilities. Otherwise we may be adding fuel to the fire," Tasha answers.
"There is a fire?" The robot's head spins around as it scans for the fire.
Tasha chuckles, resting a hand on SAINA's closest manipulator. "No, SAINA, it is a figure of speech, and a figure of speech is to use a situation to explain a concept or problem by placing the essential issue in another scenario, so as to help explain the original problem better. In this case, adding 'fuel to the fire' means making the problem worse it's an old saying among organic people, as an out of control fire is always a problem," she teaches.
"I do not see how that is more efficient than stating something will exacerbate a problem," SAINA notes, then bobs its head up and down a bit. Is it laughing? "Have you been in communication with Abaddon, Cadet Tasha?"
Tasha raises a brow at the Naga-style laughter and finds herself laughing as well. "I think you're right," she agrees, patting SAINA's shoulder joint before she returns her hand to her lap. "We organic creatures like to explain things in convoluted ways, as we seem to have many styles of this, which, now that I do think of it, do seem a bit silly in terms of efficiency. I suppose we just like variety, which makes sense given how disorderly our minds can be." Her smile fades a little as she changes topics; it's hard to smile knowing an entity seeks to harm half of the world and manipulate the rest. "Perhaps, SAINA. He he appears as a male to me may have contacted me through dreams, but I cannot be sure if this is the case, a message from my internal assistant, or simply an ordinary dream. I'm sure I'll find the answer sooner or later."
"Are you now paranoid as a result?" the robot asks.
"I was for a time, but I believe I can see more clearly now," the young woman replies.
"Is there a recording I could review?" SAINA asks.
"There are recordings of my dreams within the restricted medical database. You will need to speak with the Doctor to view them, and I suggest you also ask his help in interpreting what you see there, as they should not be interpreted as a guarantee of events and because they are relying on the expectations, beliefs, and fears of an organic being," Tasha replies.
"I know that organic minds are irrational and inefficient," the robot says cheerfully. "And also imaginative. These will be taken into account for any analysis."
"A very wise review, I think. I'm sure you'll do fine if you take things slowly." Tasha smiles again, then asks, "Is there anything else? I'll be returning to my mission soon, so I may not see your for a while."
"Can I have a kiss?" the robot asks. It must hang around Fred a lot.
Tasha barks a laugh and nods. "Of course!" She leans over and kisses SAINA right on the headplate.
"Whoooo!" the robot hoots, and spins around in a circle before zipping off up the ramp back into Bellerophon.
As Tasha leans back, she reflects on the words of Abaddon. "Our children," she murmurs to herself, smiling happily; he may just be right.