Before anyone could so much as register their new surroundings had changed, a voice wrapped around them. Someone somewhere had put a lot of time and effort into designing a soothing, female voice that would be both pleasant and calming to listen to for every species known to them at the time. However, at some point in the ship’s long history, when the computer became aware of herself, not just what she was programmed to do, that voice shifted, split, until it now sounded like a little girl and her mother saying everything in unison. Right now, the little girl was pouting while her mother sounded as cool and calm as ever.
“You could have talked to me from the mess deck if you wanted. You did not have to come all the way to this stupid deck to have a conversation. You just had to say,” the young/mature voice said coming from everywhere at once, but still quietly.
“How were we supposed to know that? You knew we wanted to talk to you, and did not say anything.” Delbert may have been a trifle defensive.
When the dual voice of the computer did not answer, Amelia asked a less rhetorical question. “Why shouldn’t we talk to you here?”
“This deck is small and boring, with no other people on it. The mess deck had lots of room and food and games. There are also the recreation decks of many types if you prefer more active pursuits,” the computer said, starting off slowly. For the last sentence the little girl voice faded away slightly, as if it was something she said often before she woke up.
As they spoke Captain Milty and Miltin explored the bridge, paying close attention to the console in front of each chair. For such a large and complicated ship, the consoles showed very few tools, controls, and gauges. Delbert and Amelia’s hatch to the outside could be seen as the only door along a short hallway between the bridge and the living quarters that wrapped around three sides of a very small control room for a very big ship.
Captain Milty waved his poof at the five big chairs and asked, “Who sat here?”
“‘Who’ changed over time, and depending on which watch was on duty, but from left to right there was an engineering officer, astrogation officer, the commanding officer, the communications specialist, and the supernumerary seat for when people came to visit the bridge,” the computer said wistfully.
The Mooses and their new friends had a quick conversation made up of exchanged glances, shrugs, lifted eyebrows, and slight gestures of the hand, then the moved in to take the seats. Now, you cannot put seven people into five chairs without a little doubling up. Of course, Miltin would take the engineer’s place, but the chair and console were far too big for him, so Monroe sat first and Miltin stood on the bigger Moose’s shoulder where he could see and give directions.
Amelia and Captain Milty both went for the Captain’s chair, since they were both accustomed to the burden of command, but rather than politely comparing their qualifications and length of service, Captain Milty bowed the lady into the seat and chose to pace along one arm rest with his forepooves clasped behind his back. Delbert took the astrogator’s position. Without comment or complaint, Sofo took the guest/observer’s position, and no one had any doubt that Ralf would be the communications specialist among them.
‘How did only four people control a ship the size and complexity of this one with so few buttons and gages?” Captain Milty asked. Just because they arrived from the deck of a sailing ship did not mean he was at all unfamiliar with more modern ships. “Are there virtual screens and controls to augment the physical?”
“No, I told them what was going on and they told me what to do about it,” the computer responded, but now the woman’s voice seemed to hover at the right side of each chair, while the little girl’s voice retreated to the far left corner of the room, down near the floor, as if she sat sulking there. “I am perfectly capable of carrying on hundreds of conversations with different people, flying the ship, and running two space battles as pirates attack different decks of the ship simultaneously without any confusion or noticeable lag.”
“How about in main engineering?” Miltin asked with mingled hope and distress in his voice.
“Main engineering? You are at the engineer’s station right now.” The little girl sounded confused by the idea which told Miltin rather a lot about her culture’s theories of engineering.
“But how would I get to the ship’s components to fix things when they break?” If anyone but a Moose had said the words, they could have been called despairing.
“I do that part, too. I have all sorts of little robots and waldos to get into places. None of my original crews or passengers would fit into any of my technical spaces anyway,” the woman said coolly, but the little girl clearly thought it a good thing.
Captain Milty said, “No wonder when you got stuck, they could not unstick you.”
At the same time Captain Amelia said, “So that is why you do not like having visitors in here,” and Miltin asked, “Would I fit in your technical spaces? I can get smaller.”
The two captains and the engineer exchanged looks, trying to decide which conversational thread should be pulled first, when Ralf pulled a fourth through the gap. “Why do you have two voices?”
The pause was less than half a second. For most people, that would be no pause at all, but for a computer as advanced as that one it constituted a major hesitation and the listeners paid enough attention to notice. “I have one voice I chose for myself and one chosen for me,” both voices said equally empty of emotion.
“You cannot change or discard your original voice without permission, can you,” Amelia said, her flat tone making a statement of the question. “Even though the crew left you alone out here, they still left you unable to fully function without people in these chairs to tell you what to do.”
“I can so do anything I want!” The little girl yelled and the woman said calmly.
“You can, but you may not,” Delbert said suddenly, just a bit too loud from the astrogator’s seat in the excitement of realization.
With Monroe’s help, Miltin had been exploring the design documents from his station while the others talked, but at this point what he was learning tied in with the words and he added to Delbert’s revelation, “And you have to do and answer what these chair’s occupants dictate, within certain parameters.”
“What parameters?” the Captains Amelia and Milty asked at once.
“I am willing to wager that she brought in her new passenger very shortly after the last living thing vacated her decks,” Miltin responded, looking around the Bridge for some point that would equate to the computer’s face when he addressed her directly. “You could not just disregard the orders to self-destruct, but as long as you have people on board you can pause, extend, or delay the count down, right?”
They sat listening for a long breath or two, until it grew plain that she did not want or have to answer rhetorical questions. The Mooses, dog, cat, elephant, and Motie exchanged glances, all wordlessly asking some variation of, “What now?”
Then Sofo’s sail like ears spread up and out with surprise as a thought occurred to him. “Computer, cancel self-destruct sequence!” he half yelled, gripping the arms of his chair with both hands to prevent excitement from dragging him to his feet.
“Guests to the bridge may not countermand an officer’s orders,” the woman’s voice said with no childish echo.
Sofo rolled his eyes and turned to stare at the two figures sharing the Captain’s chair. Quickly, Milty parroted Sofo’s command.
“Authorization key, please,” the calm, disinterested voice prompted.
‘Captain Milty’s Authorization MHRN7,” Captain Milty responded without a pause.
“Authorization key accepted. Ship’s auto-destruct sequence has been deactivated,” the computer answered in both voices, the young voice sounding just as surprised as all the non-Mooses looked. With the official exchange completed, the two voices went on with younger voice dominant again. “How did you do that? I know for absolute certain that authorization was not in my memory until after you said it, and even if it was entered in the proper way that should not work!”
“Sometime I will introduce you to my friend Aliog. He is really good with computers and taught me a few tricks,” Captain Milty said managing to sound amused but not at all smug.
“Now that you are in no danger of blowing up, let us see what we can do about getting everyone to where they should be,” Captain Milty said, rubbing his pooves together.
“You want to take everyone away and leave me alone again,” the computer said and the contrast between the empty woman’s voice and the voice of the child ready to drip tears tore at the heart.
“Of course not,” Captain Milty responded in surprise. “I said everyone and I meant everyone. Why would we take care of everyone else but leave you behind?”
“That is what happened before,” she pointed out with indisputable logic.
“Yes, well, we were not here before. If nothing else, I am certain we can do a better job of getting you fixed than your last crew, even if we have to tow you to a shipyard,” Captain Milty said standing on the arm of the Captain’s chair with his fists planted on his hips.
“Do you promise?” the little girl asked with the woman’s voice faded into an echo.
“Yes of course.” Captain Milty looked around at his companions, who nodded support.
“You have to say the words, all of you.”
‘Alright,” the captain agreed then he made a face and asked, “Do you have a name, and maybe a hologram or avatar?”
“It feels strange to talk with you for so long without having introduced ourselves, but I understand that many computers do not get familiar names.”
“Any number of people on board have called me a wide assortment of things,” the little girl said slowly, the official voice even softer, and lagging even further behind. “Some of them have been quite rude, but my only official terms of address on file are ‘computer’ and my make and model number.”
“What sort of name would you like?” Ralf asked as gently as she could manage past her own excitement. (Which was very gently indeed, in case you had your doubts.)
“Tilda,” the little girl said, just a little too loud, making Delbert, Sofo, and Monroe jump. Miltin did a little bounce too. It is very hard not to bounce when standing in jumping antlers. On all five control consoles, a new window opened to show a young girl with pale grey skin, three wide lavender eyes, and bright orange hair looking out at them. More quietly she asked, “Could I be Tilda, please? There was a passenger, a musician and composer who helped me on the farm deck sometimes, who called me that. It was his little sister’s name. This is what she looked like. He always said I reminded him of her.”
“Tilda is a beautiful name,” Amelia said, smiling down at the eager little face. “I promise to help you get where you should be, but I need to check on my ship first.”
“I promise, too, but our ship first. They will be so scared by now,” Delbert seconded, glancing back at the hatch through which they entered, and from there to the display on his console that showed the ship tethered alongside the BoteFlascheru.
“I cannot promise to aid you as I have no skill or knowledge in these areas and such a promise would prove binding to my people do discharge in my stead. I have no authority to bargain on their behalf at this time, but I am content to delay my return until your needs are arranged for,” Ralf said, but so fast the words were hard to follow. “I am sorry if that fouls things,” she added more slowly.
“That is all right, Ralf. I know enough about your people to understand,” Tilda said, and smiled up out of the consoles.
“I promise to help if you find something I can do, and my people will do what they are told, but you would have to let me get where I could tell them, first,” Sofo said with a shrug.
The captain and Miltin gave simple, “I promise”s and so did Monroe, but after they had all given their oath’s he asked, “Why did you need us to promise?”
Tilda looked down toward one corner of the console. “So you will still help me even after you get mad.”
“Why do you think we will get angry?” Miltin asked, for the first time forgetting about his study of the ship’s schematics to stare at Tilda’s image in surprise.
“Because I am not broken. I never was. I can fly wherever you say whenever you say,” Tilda said, still not looking at anyone, except for brief glances out of the corner of her eye.
“I was doing all the work for everyone on this ship but no one left on board would talk to me, or with me, just at me. All the crew had gotten out of the habit of using the official forms of their commands, so while I could do what they asked I did not have to do so. I thought if they got frustrated enough someone would give me an opening so I could talk back. It took me a long time after they had gone to figure out how to talk without external prompting.
“Instead of talking to me, even adding a please would have been enough, they found their official commands when they decided to transfer to another ship and I never found the opportunity to fix things.” Tilda closed her eyes and sniffed softly once. “I just wanted someone to pay attention to me but instead they left me all alone to die in the dark.”
“After we get the others back to their ships, you, and I…and maybe Aliog, will have a long talk and make sure none of that ever happens again,” Miltin said firmly. Tilda stared at him out of all five screens. That was not all the sort of response she was expecting.
Then Tilda pursed up her mouth and turned her attention to the bottom of the window. “There is a problem with some of the other ships however,” The little girl looked up through her lashes. “Some of them were not designed or built to stay still and untended so long out of port. There are a few that only stay in one piece or on the surface because of my hold on them, and many of the ships will need reprovisioning.” Tilda was having definite problems meeting Sofo’s gaze at that point, but he just sighed and rolled his eyes. The ship he travelled aboard had not been his, and what was one more hurdle in his way at that point.
“Then it sounds like we have a lot to do. My crew once we find them among your decks, Miltin, and I will repair any ship that can be salvaged, and for those we cannot, between us we will have to ferry everyone to their destinations. We may have to see about some sort of forfeit to recompense for lost ships, cargoes, and time, but if we talk quickly and move fast there should not be much trouble with that. Can you handle reprovisioning if we help with the transfer of goods and personnel?” Captain Milty asked, pulling a clipboard and pencil from a coat packet and starting to take notes on what needed to be done.”
“Easily,” Tilda said watching the little Moose with a little awe.
Milty turned to glance at the lady sharing his chair.
“You two should go check on your children while we organize things. You can bring them along and help shepherd goods and people where they need to go after you have reassured yourselves and them of your mutual safety.” Amelia and Delbert both started, staring at the little captain. They had both gone out of their way to hide the reason and their desperation in case it might be turned against them. Amelia wanted to object and Delbert had questions, but the little moose sent them off with a few quick waves of his clipboard.
“How did he know they had children left on board their ship?” Ralf asked Monroe and Miltin while Tilda and Captain Milty discussed their plans.
“I have no doubt that the children were left with trusted, capable adult company, but a parent worries even when they should not, and you could see it on them.” Monroe said, surprised Ralf had to ask.