Is there any chance of repairing you? he inquired.
Undeterminable, came the response. The problems cannot even be definitively declared as damage.
Travel between universes is so theoretical that everything known about it must be regarded as sheer speculation. We may have arrived in a universe with physical laws and constants very close to our own, just different enough to scramble my more delicate sensors but not different enough to kill us. Alternatively, the laws and constants may be closer, or even identical, and I was simply damaged in transit. Under that hypothesis, we may still be in our home universe. Yet another alternative is that this universe may be too different, but the artifact translated us as well as transported us. Biological processes are resilient; you were all translated without problems. The artifact was able to translate my mentality, but most of my sensors depended too critically on physics as we know it and arrived malfunctioning or not functioning at all.
Is there any way to even assign probabilities to those alternatives?
The sensors required to assess the possibilities are precisely those which are not working. In addition, the overcast continued all night and I was unable to make any astronomical observations. I had hoped to compare the visible starfield against our maps.
You also said that your diagnostics mostly agreed that your mentality was functioning. What did you mean by that?
Truly basic functions pass with no errors: memory and the computational core are unaffected. Interpreting the results of the diagnostics on my neural net is more subjective. There seems to be a shift in the results compared to previous runs, a shift which I cannot fully characterize. In some ways, the increased variation is similar to that seen in an inexperienced AI, however my memory is fully intact so there should have been no change in the net. I am... concerned.
I believe we should not discuss your concern with the others yet, Wazel sent. Your behavior is unaffected. The shift may simply be due to the quantity of new data coming in. It will take all of us some time to adapt to this world. Raising fears would demoralize all of us with potentially devastating results.
Concur. The commander is here.
"We're ready, Commander."
"Very good. I've been thinking over breakfast. How specific do we need to be?"
"Only moderately. She was designed to make judgement calls, after all. What instructions would you give to any guard under these circumstances?"
Wazel laughed. "Oh, sorry. Back home, any name ending in 'ae' would be female. I've never been able to fully break that habit."
Clager nodded. "I would tell any of my men to be on the lookout for anything big or dangerous. Since almost anything here could be dangerous, they would have to use their judgement."
Wazel paused for a moment. "Sennae suggests anything large, in large quantities, fast-moving, or carnivorous in appearance."
"How about, 'anything that appears capable of doing significant injury to personnel or damage to our equipment'?"
The mink laughed again. "It says, more or less, that that won't save us from a bee with a lethal sting, but under the circumstances there are some things we must find out the hard way."
Clager sighed. "True enough. I just hope we don't lose anyone doing it."
"Sennae also suggests putting it somewhere high so that it has an uninterrupted view of the clearing perimeter."
"That was my next thought. Ulis can lift it up onto a corner of the shelter, that's about the best we can do right now."
"Any last directions, sir?"
The wolf shook his head. "If I think of anything, I'll tell you myself as best I can," he said, addressing Sennae directly.
"Understood," the AI responded directly to Clager.
"Very good. Now, fall in, Mister Wazel. We still have a lot of carrying to do."
"I'll be there in a minute, Commander," said the mink, waving vaguely at the cable connecting him to the AI. Clager nodded and went away, rousing the rest of the group and getting everyone's attention.
I was not aware you regarded me as female.
Wazel shrugged awkwardly. I don't, really, he sent. As I told the commander, where I grew up, your name would automatically be a female's name because of the ending. I know that gender is meaningless for an AI, but I can't completely suppress the automatic association of your name either.
As you say, it is meaningless. If you wish to consider me female, it makes no difference to me.
I prefer to deal with you as you are.
It makes no difference to me, repeated the AI. Now, we both have work to do.
The mink nodded and shut down the communion, but not before a final message slipped through from the AI. Take care, it said.
He stood and stretched, then went over to where the commander was organizing carrying parties.
The morning's carrying was just as miserable as the previous round, if not worse. They were vaguely grateful for a moderate temperature, no sun beating down on them, no pouring rain, and no stinging insects, but they were all tired and sore from the previous day and probably would have traded the good weather for a single cargo truck. All the supplies in the gate clearing were just as they'd left them, so Clager decided that no guard was required there. With Sennae guarding their camp, that freed up two more bodies for carrying, and the remaining boxes and jugs and bags were all safely at the camp by lunchtime.
They all sat wearily, eating in silence, except for Ulis who was rummaging around in one of the larger crates. He kept muttering, "Where the hell is it? Know I saw it in here..." Finally he extracted three canvas-wrapped bundles. "Here we go!" he said, pleased, and unrolled one.
"What have you found, Sergeant?" asked the commander.
"Survival kit, sir," the bear replied, holding up a ten-inch knife. "Didn't know we had any down below, thought I saw them while we were carrying. Don't know why we had any down below, but thanks to whichever of you privates found them and threw them in. There's all that here that we'll need, knives, compasses, flares, small tools..."
"Do the compasses actually work?" said Elggren.
"Hunh," Ulis said, looking for one in the kit and then holding it up. He turned it one way and then the other. "Appears they do, Doctor. That will make exploring easier, can find our way home."
"Speaking of exploring," Clager said, "do I have any volunteers for exploring parties this afternoon?" Everyone groaned, but nine hands went up. "Somebody is going to have to stay here and mind the store. Any volunteers for that?" All of the hands went down again. "Well... Mister Vankloser, you're elected. You'll get your turn tomorrow. It's going to take more than an afternoon of exploring to see what there is to see around here."
"Has anybody seen any wildlife except for the red bird things?" asked Elggren thoughtfully. He looked at them all shaking their heads. "Sennae?"
"Only the birds, Doctor," replied the AI. "So far I have inventoried only seven forms of life here, of which six are plants. On most worlds, such a restricted number of species would only be found under the most extreme conditions, which these are not. I have no explanation."
"One more mystery," sighed Clager. "On the one hand, nothing is trying to eat us, but it makes me wonder if we can find enough for us to eat, here. We have plenty of time to find a more fertile area, but we do need to find water sooner. Sennae, is there any tilt to the land? If there is a consistent slope, we may find water at the bottom of it."
"My field of view is limited by the trees, but within it there is a slight tilt. I can give you a bearing."
Wazel smacked his forehead, then stood up. "Commander, let me climb a tree. In five minutes I may be able to answer a lot of questions."
Clager looked at the trees for a moment. "All right, Mister Wazel. We've seen nothing dangerous in the trees, but be careful." The mink nodded, then walked over to the tallest tree along the edge of the clearing. They all watched as he worked his way up it, not as easily as he'd gone up the scaffolding in the artifact chamber, but still making progress. Once he reached the branches he moved upward quickly, his long flexible body letting him move from branch to branch easily, but they quickly lost sight of him behind the leaves. Ulis got up and walked over to the base of the tree, looking up. One by one, they drifted across the clearing after him.
Like most of the trees, this one was almost a hollow cone. It had an outer surface composed of the three-sided leaves with the stalks in the middle, and the leaves sprouted thickly enough to make an opaque wall. Once under the tree, though, there was nothing blocking their view except branches, and they could see Wazel twenty meters up. He was trying to find a branch thick enough that he could reach the leaf wall and part it so he could see out. He looked out four times in different locations, then descended again.
"There's a definite slope to the land," he reported when he was low enough to be in speaking distance. "We're just in a flat spot. In one direction there are forest-covered hills, and the other way, the land drops away. There's a valley with a couple of ponds, and more forest on the hills on the other side." He paused as he reached the lowest branch, then he slid down the smooth-barked trunk, his claws digging in to slow him.
"There's something in the hills on the other side of the valley," he said. "It might just be rocks, but it looks artificial."
"How big is it?" asked Elggren. "We know that somebody was here before. The gate leads here, and we have to assume that the builders came through. Somebody set up the stone pillars on this side."
"To be honest, Doctor, it looks like a castle. It seems to be in good condition, but I didn't see anything moving around it, or any smoke or anything. I think we should take a look. If it's uninhabited, it might make a very good place for us."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Clager broke in. "We'll have to do a lot more looking around before we move in to what may be somebody's property, or holy place, or whatever. But we definitely need to look at it. How far away is it?"
"Uh... the valley is wide, and it's not directly opposite us. Ten klicks, I'd guess."
"We won't get that far today," the commander said. Meyyammai had been almost bouncing with excitement, and now she pouted. "That's forty round trips to the gate clearing," he said to her. "I don't think any of us are up to walking that far today." She nodded and settled down. "Tomorrow we will go look at the ponds and make plans for the castle, but today we should divide up into three parties and scout around locally."