1.5 Ohu's Stronghold (II)

The crews' quarters were unadorned, with nothing more than padded benches for sleeping. She wondered when she would next be able to sleep in a real bed. There was dust, but it was not as bad as she had expected after the outer corridors. The bathrooms had running water, although the pressure was very low; something to look into.

Since there was so little to look at in quarters, started wandering around. Eventually she found the administrator's office, or what she thought was the administrator's office. It had a large anteroom with plenty of colorful padded benches and a fountain (currently dry).The office itself was not itself very large, but it had a desk and some benches, and also monitors on the wall, some of which were on. As she watched, one of them suddenly came to life.

"These must be connected to the command center monitors," she said to herself. Some the monitors were relatively stable, showing various graphs covered with cryptic symbols. Others, like the one that had just blinked on, were constantly changing. The new one seemed to be going through different pages at a prodigious rate; it did not look like it was being done automatically, however, occasionally a little circle would fly around the page and click on various things. The rate at which the screen changed was much faster than Katja could read Ylfae; she could only pick out words here and there.

She turned her back on the monitor and brushed the dust off the desk. It was not merely a desk but some kind of console in its own right: there were buttons with various symbols, again cryptic, written on them. Tentatively she pressed one. The whole desktop sprang to life. On the left there were the same kinds of graphs shown on the monitors. Some of these were more clearly labeled than the monitor graphs were. One was energy use for different sectors of the station; another was air quality at several different monitoring stations; another seemed to say something about planetary conditions. Others remained cryptic. She found, however, that she could move the graphs around the desktop simply by moving them with her finger.

On the right side of the desk was a more complicated affair. There was just a long list of things in Ylfae script. She picked one at random -- it was called "Elemental Composition Analyses" -- and touched it. When she did the list became a different list, she pressed one again -- "41" -- and a report came up in the center of the desk consisting of various charts and graphs. There was a little green sign flashing in the corner. It said: "Update reports are past due."

"Past due by quite a bit, I'd think," said Katja. She supposed that the report was some kind of report on element 41 (she could not, off the top of her head, remember anything about element 41). Old mining surveys, perhaps.

It took her several minutes to figure out how to back out of the list and get back to the original list. The names were mostly boring and sometimes unintelligible: "Archived Water Usage Reports"; "Potential Computer Resource Abuse"; "Countervailing Oneiric Indications"; "Interstitial Network Analyses"; "Semiotic Simplification Project"; and so forth. She touched the "Countervailing Oneiric Indications" label, and another long list showed up, this one consisting entirely of strange symbols. She touched one and got nothing more than charts with additional obscure symbols.

She closed out and focused on the left side of the desk. Quite by accident she discovered that moving a graph in a tight circular motion changed the desktop completely. Doing this with the energy use graph led to a desktop filled with real-time energy use reports for different sectors of the station. Unsurprisingly, all sectors were (allowing for minor fluctuations) at standard maintenance levels except for the central sector, where both central command and the Administrator's office were located. Trying to get anything more specific brought up requests for passwords, which were somewhat strange screens consisting of several concentric circles with more of the cryptic symbols and various rows of boxes on each side. She backed out and started experimenting with some of the buttons: this one desensitized the desktop so that it no longer registered touch; this one seemed to bring up an intercom and communication system; this one brought up another password-protected screen, but seemed to be concerned with various administrative functions like menu organization and (Katja supposed) password changes; this one brought up little versions of all the wall monitors on the desk. The once-active monitor was now simply a single symbol, and most of the other monitors were just showing minor functions.

"How is everything?" said a voice, and she looked up to see Kubiri's good-humored monkey-face peeking around the edge of the doorway.

"I think I am settling in quite nicely. How have you been doing?"

"Quite well. The major problem to solve was how to break the password system."

"Do you manage to do so?"

"Cryptography is an essential diplomatic skill," he replied. "None of it was very difficult, once I had determined how the rest of the system worked. Security systems have to be usable and appropriate to what they guard, so once you know the system in general and who would be using it, the greater part of the work is already done. Once I managed to maneuver around the password protections, I was able to look at the underlying programming language, and it was quite simple from there."

"There are some password protected parts of this desk. Could you get around them?"

"Almost certainly," he said. "But I was thinking we might make a trip to the kitchens to see what they are like, and then to the ship to bring back any food supplies that would be useful. And, perhaps, have our first meal here in Ohu's Stronghold."

"That sounds like an excellent idea," said Katja, rising.

The kitchens, at least those nearest the crew quarters, were an entirely unextraordinary affair, consisting of something like a counter or workbench that was set entirely too high, a working sink that was absurdly small, a refrigeration unit that seemed to be broken (there was one for each kitchen, but they all seemed to have long since broken down), and a curious metal box that seemed like a toaster but was far more massive than any toaster Katja had ever seen. It looked dangerous, and Katja resolved immediately not to use it if she ever could avoid it. There was a pantry or pan-closet which was not completely empty; it had a handful of dusty old empty bottles and sixteen sealed plastic cylinders labeled as vinegar, stacked neatly under a low shelf where they were not immediately visible to anyone who looked inside.

They went out to the ship and returned loaded with packaged rations that would keep without refrigeration. Carrying it back to the kitchen made it seem like a vast amount, but when it was all piled on the high bench, the size of the pile was disappointing. Katja immediately felt something in her begin to worry about whether they had enough to live on for long. She asked Kubiri his opinion.

"A thought I've had," he said. "The ship was well-stocked, so we should be fine for a while; but we will need further provisions from somewhere. The planet is currently blocking any communication with the Portal, but as soon as that changes I will make sure to send word to Sylvenia."

They ate some kind of nutrient bar that tasted like cabbage. By this point, Katja was feeling a slow, dull ache just behind her eyes, which felt heavy. She had no idea how long it had been since she last slept, since Syylven tend not to wear timepieces, but it probably would not have mattered. It had been a stressful day. She took leave of Kubiri and went and picked out one of the bedrooms, but before she left the kitchen, she picked up one of the empty bottles that had a lid and a cylinder of vinegar.

The next morning, if you can speak of morning in a place that has no day and no night, she rose and prepared for the day as well as she could, washing her hair in diluted vinegar in the hope that it would be better than nothing. The water pressure was much better than it had been before. She put on her one change of clothes, and resolved to look for an Ylfae laundry on the station. Ylfae, she knew, did not run around naked, and even Ylfae must wash their clothes occasionally. She went down to the kitchen to grab another nutrient bar -- this one tasted like bitter tea lightly spiced with pepper -- and set out to find the Samar.

She found Kubiri tapping away on his tablet in the anteroom to her office. "How are you?" he said politely. "I managed to reset the password for your desk. Since this software interface seems to use a great many symbols, I created a file with a dictionary of all of them; it is open on your desktop. I think I've fixed the water pressure problem by shutting down one of the pipes; I also had to lock down a hallway, because it had been leaking and made the whole thing an awful swamp. Also, I've sent word to Sylvenia for food rations."

"Do you never sleep?" Katja asked, jokingly.

"Never," said Kubiri; "the Samar are not a sleep-cycle species."

"What do you do for rest, then?"

"The same things you do, more or less" said Kubiri, thrusting out his lips slightly. "We just never go unconscious doing it."

He showed her how to work the password system. The boxes to each side of the concentric circles changed the symbols on the circles; they had to be pressed in a certain order, and then the circles worked as a combination lock which, when aligned correctly, gave her full acccess to everything. As he was explaining something to her about the system, one of the monitors blinked on with a little noise like a gurgle; she would later learn that this odd sound was the standard sound that the Ylfae used for notifications, much as the Syylven used bell-tones. It was a communication. They read it and then looked at each other.

"How long do you think we have?" Katja asked.

"Perhaps a day."

She sighed. It just never stopped.

"Well," she said, "I suppose we should clean up some rooms for the representatives."