Say Hello to Mother

A promising young researcher is assigned to a top secret facility housing the Empire's trump card in the Æther War.

Doctor Wali Kotho woke with a start. The shuttle must have been coming out of spacefold. He always hated going offplanet, but now he was going to be stuck on a research station out in the middle of nowhere. Only it was not punishment. No, it was a great honor, in fact. His work earned him a spot on the most critical project in all the Empire. He would be working with some of humanity's greatest minds. If only their efforts and talents were not being devoted to the war...
It was true that war was perhaps the greatest catalyst for scientific advancement, but that did not mean Doctor Kotho had to like it. Not 'Doctor'. Hauptmann Doktor. How he hated it. How he hated the uniform he was wearing. Was there no other way for him to serve humankind?
It was not like he had much choice. Getting the money for research as a civilian was nearly impossible. The Empire favored military scientists. Thought they were more loyal, more reliable. Anyway, a talented scientist could not remain a civilian for long. You were 'encouraged' to demonstrate your patriotism by joining or you would find your career dead before it even started. And that was if you were lucky.
Doctor Kotho felt he was betraying his ethics by giving in, but the work was too important. If he had to sell his soul to help humanity, so be it. His hands would be stained with blood, but by sacrificing himself, the next generation would not have to. That was what he kept telling himself. Some days he almost believed it.
Trying to take his mind off his guilt, he looked around the cabin. There was not much point in it, though. He was the only one there. Perhaps it was better he did not have anyone to talk to in the mood he was in. He would probably say something that would get him thrown into prison. Being sentenced to hard labor on some asteroid would put his triple doctorate to fine use.
A light on the overhead blinked and the intercom chime sounded.
"We are on final approach now, Herr Doktor," the pilot announced. "We will be landing in ten minutes."
Doctor Kotho could feel the butterflies in his stomach. This was it. All those stray thoughts of ethics and guilt went right out the window.
Those ten minutes passed like ten seconds and the shuttle touched down in the station's hanger. The light on the overhead turned off and the intercom chimed again.
"We have arrived, Herr Doktor. Please disembark at once."
Apparently they did not want him hanging around. He had to steel himself to face whatever was waiting for him out there.
When he stepped off the shuttle, he was surprised to see two general officers waiting for him. One was directly facing the shuttle's exit. From the uniform Kotho could tell he was a highly decorated general in the Science Corps. His uniform hung loosely from his thin frame. He might have appeared frail if not for his piercing eyes. It was like a hawk staring down a mouse. He had a predatory grin to match, as if he had just found an easy meal.
Kotho promptly saluted, which caused the general's grin to quickly drop.
"Put that away," he growled. He looked down at himself contemptuously. "I don't like wearing this ridiculous outfit any more than you do. Kotho, is it? If it isn't already obvious, I'm Doctor Werner Vijayaraj, the director of this project."
Werner Vijayaraj? Could it be?
"The Werner Vijayaraj?" Kotho asked.
"The Doctor Werner Vijayaraj," the general corrected. "Call me Doctor V."
Werner Vijayaraj was a legend in scientific circles. While he was still an undergraduate, he upended long-held theories, proposed equations that vastly exceeded his supposed academic level, and generally raised hell far and wide. Then, the moment he got his doctorate, he vanished, never to be heard from again. More than thirty years had passed and the shock waves still had not settled.
Doctor V seemed to know Kotho was thinking about his reputation, which seemed to be just as good as all the flattery in the world. These thoughts, however, were stopped short as Kotho took notice of the other general officer there. He was a pudgy, disheveled-looking man who thought nothing of nipping at a flask during duty hours in front of everyone. There was no mistaking the royal purple on his collar and the piping of his uniform. A political officer, the Emperor's own eyes and ears.
Seeing Kotho's discomfiture, Doctor V gave a brief, dismissive glance at the political officer. "What?" he asked. "Don't worry about him. Generalmajor Ilov knows his place here. Don't you, Tovarishch Arkady?"
Generalmajor Ilov simply sighed heavily and took another sip from his flask. Doctor V showed him all the consideration one would give to week-old roadkill.
"He's a pathetic excuse for a Russian," Doctor V said. "An alcoholic through-and-through, but he can't handle vodka. Drinks that liquid shit kvass all the time."
Tormenting the Generalmajor had apparently become boring to him, because he made a gesture that dismissed everyone gathered around them. He then motioned for Kotho to follow him. He did not say anything for a while and Kotho did not dare speak up himself.
"I read your doctoral theses," Doctor V said. He continued to walk a few more steps before adding, "They were all pedestrian tripe."
Kotho had gotten used to the praise heaped on his theses, so he was taken aback by such a blunt dismissal of his work.
Before he could take too much offense, though, Doctor V continued, "But they were the least pedestrian of all the tripe the Directorate pushed on me, and that's why you're here." Doctor V motioned for Kotho to follow once more, as if he had not been following for the past few minutes. "Come, we have much to do and I can't have you wasting my time. You've come to work on Æther technology, but do you even have the slightest fucking clue about it?" He looked at Kotho over his shoulder, but immediately went back to looking straight ahead. "No, of course not," he mumbled, more to himself than to Kotho. "The Empire's greatest secret. No one coming out of the universities have any idea. Not even the theory of it. Everything top secret, bottled up in these blacksites." His grumbling quickly gave way to a more upbeat attitude as he switched gears and said, "But this, my boy, this is where it all began." He stopped and turned to Kotho, asking him, "You want to meet her?"
"Her?" Kotho asked.
Doctor V grinned and continued to lead him through several layers of security until they reached a door labeled 'Core A-01'. Passing through the three-layer door, they entered a large hemispherical chamber with numerous terminals forming nine rings around a central inner chamber. Numerous projected displays were filled with all manner of charts, graphs and raw data feeds. Kotho did not have any time to figure out what data was being processed, though, as Doctor V made a beeline for the inner chamber.
Gesturing to the inner chamber, he told Kotho, "Say hello to Mother."
Kotho looked inside the chamber, but nothing could prepare him for what he saw. There was a wealth of speculation about the source of Æther technology. Even though it sounded ridiculous on the surface, Kotho half-believed the Empire had come into contact with an advanced alien race but kept relations secret to avoid a panic among the general population. However, there was nothing alien about what lay in the chamber, at least not from looking at it.
It was a young woman suspended in midair, naked except for the countless wires, pipes and tubes streaming from her body. She looked like an ordinary medical specimen, except for a greater density of electrodes attached to the body. Kotho did not have much time to wonder about the connection of this woman to Æther technology when Doctor V started talking again.
"We call her Tara Ma," he said, fondly caressing the clearplaz walls of the inner chamber. "All Æther technology flows from her. At the core of every Æther Drive is a clone of her. We grow them here. A lot quicker than what we used to do."
"What did you used to do?"
Doctor V glanced at Kotho with a pervy grin on his face. "She's female. Use your imagination."
"You don't mean--"
"The team was much smaller back then. Less bureaucracy, less red tape. No one looking over our shoulders."
Doctor V nodded to a group of technicians clustered around a young female scientist who was giving them instructions. She did not look like she was even twenty yet.
"Look at the girl over there. See the resemblance?"
Kotho was still trying to wrap his head around what he had just been told. Looking at the girl, he could see that she had the same tawny skin and jet-black hair as Doctor V, but none of the hawkish aspect of his face. Quite unlike Doctor V, her face was rather pleasant, in fact. Gentle and brilliant at the same time.
"Leutnant Doktor Ameera Solangi," Doctor V said. "A prodigy, but that's no surprise. She gets the name from her foster mother, my colleague. Bastards transferred her out to another facility, handles another stage of the Project." He called out to the girl, "Ameera, come here."
The girl took her leave of the technicians and hurried up to them. She looked even better up close. Kotho had to make a point not to stare, especially with Doctor V right there next to him.
"Yes, Herr Doktor?"
Her voice was as pleasant as her face, but once again, Kotho was careful not to let himself to be taken in too much. He did not know if Doctor V was the overprotective type and he did not want to find out.
"Ameera," Doctor V told the girl, "this is Doctor Kotho. You will be working under him from now on. Be sure he gets up to speed before the week is out."
"Yes, Herr Doktor."
Doctor V nodded approvingly. "Good girl." He then put his arms around both of them, looking back and forth between them as he said, "You two have fun. But not too much fun."
He had a jocular tone and a smile on his face, but his eyes transmitted an unmistakable threat. If he put that threat to the test, Kotho got the distinct feeling that getting sentenced to hard labor on some asteroid would be mercy by comparison.
Doctor V walked off, shouting at some technicians along the way. With him out of the way, Kotho turned to his new subordinate and extended his hand to her.
"Doctor Solangi, pleased to meet you."
She smiled and accepted his hand. Her grip was stronger than most women, but not too strong. It was carefully calculated, which said a lot about her.
"Please, Herr Doktor," she said, "my mother is Doctor Solangi. Call me Ameera."
"Then call me Wali."
"Oh, but I couldn't possibly, Herr Doktor."
"Please, Ameera. Formality just gets in the way. Inflates egos."
Ameera smiled and nodded. It seemed they had an understanding, which would make their working relationship a lot easier.
"Thees is wery sweet," a slurry voice said.
Kotho turned to see the political officer from before, Generalmajor Ilov. He hastily went to the position of attention. Just because Doctor V thought nothing of military protocol did not mean the Generalmajor thought the same way.
"Generalmajor," Kotho said, the closest thing to a proper greeting as he could manage not knowing the time.
Seeing Kotho standing at attention seemed to take the Generalmajor off-guard.
"What?" he asked. "You treat me like a superior officer even after Wee practically told you to treat me like sheet. You that afraid I'm going to report you? Send you off to some asteroid or sometheeng like that?"
Actually, that was exactly what Kotho was afraid of. However, the Generalmajor did not seem too intent on turning the thumbscrews. Instead his attention was devoted to that ever-present flask of his. In a curiously gesture of generosity--something political officers were not known for--he offered up his flask to Kotho.
"No thank you, Herr Generalmajor."
The Generalmajor shrugged and took a sip for himself.
"You might think I am big scary because I am the political officer," he said, "but if Wee complains, I'm the one who will get sent to an asteroid somewhere. I am just wanting to warn you." He looked Kotho directly in the eyes and said bluntly, "Watch your back. Wee is a megalomaniacal, windictive son of a beech. I hear you're pretty smart. Make sure you don't steal his thunder. If the uniwerse doesn't rewolwe around him, he blows up like a supernowa, then collapses into a black hole that sucks everytheeng down the sheeter."
"You've had too much to drink, Herr Generalmajor," Ameera said.
"You don't know what too much to dreenk is, leetle girl," he said dismissively. He then rested a heavy hand on Kotho's shoulder and gave it a light pat. "I'we warned you, Herr Doktor. Now I'm going to go take a peess."
With that the Generalmajor waddled off, barely able stand up straight. He was a far cry from the usual political officer, but it seemed that nothing was ordinary here. That could be a good thing and it could also be a very bad thing. Maybe a little of both.
"Don't worry about him," Ameera said, "Herr--I mean, Wali. He stays out of the way most of the time. I think he's just lonely. Everybody hates political officers and on a research station like this, it's even harder for him to find anyone to relate to."
Kotho could not help being amazed. She was probably the only person in the whole universe who could possibly sympathize with a political officer. No one else would, not other political officers, not even their own mothers. How someone like this could share 50% of Doctor V's genetic material boggled the mind.
"You're too kind for all the politics here," Kotho said. "I can only imagine you get it from your mother."
"Nothing," Kotho said hastily, realizing he had overstepped his bounds. Before Ameera could think on it any further, he changed the subject. "Tell me about the test subject, this Tara Ma. Doctor V didn't go into the details."
Ameera turned to the inner chamber, placing a hand on the clearplaz, much as Doctor V had done earlier.
"They found her twenty years ago," she said, "and in all that time, no one really understands what she is. DNA tests confirm that she's human, or at least so close to human genetically that she's basically the same thing. That's how we were able to gestate clones of her so easily. And yet, she's not, not human."
"How so?"
"She can't be. She has these... powers. She's bursting with this energy that makes the impossible possible. It's almost like there's nothing she can't do. You can't help being affected by it, by just being around her.
"I know what it does to me. I'm supposed to regard her as a test subject, rationalize the phenomena she produces, but I want to just fall down and worship her like the goddess she is."
There was the faintest trace of mania in Ameera's eyes as she said that and it sent a chill down Kotho's spine. A woman of her brilliance revering the test subject so... It could get ugly if she ever decided to take offense to what was being done to the object of her reverence. And if she ever found out the truth about herself...
Kotho had to redirect the conversation before his apprehensions got the better of him.
"I certainly hope you've never told Doctor V any of this," he said.
Ameera blushed and chuckled weakly. "I wouldn't dream of it. I don't even know why I'm telling you."
"I must have one of those faces."
"You do," Ameera said thoughtfully. "Most of the other scientists here are either slaves to their work or slaves to Doctor V."
"That's got to be the single unkindest thing I've heard you say about another human being, this coming from the young lady who can even take pity on a political officer."
Blushing again, Ameera said, "It's true, though. I may try to be nice to other people, but I never lie."
"I'm sure that goes over really well in a place like this."
Ameera changed the subject on him, apparently not liking the course of their conversation.
"You know Doctor V calls her Tara Ma," she said, looking back at the test subject, "but I have another name for her."
"And what's that?" Kotho asked.
"I call her Hawwa."
"Hawwa? As in Adam and Hawwa?"
"One and the same. She's the Source, the Font of Life."
There she went again, talking like some religious nut. There was nothing wrong with a scientist entertaining a little spirituality, but this was too much, especially for someone who was praised as such a prodigy by none other than Werner Vijayaraj. Kotho could not understand it and it made him uneasy. He was torn between attraction and repulsion. And this was the person he was going to have to work with.
Completely oblivious to his internal turmoil, Ameera continued, "I want this war to end quickly. It's a waste to use her power as a weapon. We can do so much more. We could do anything. We can reach the next level."
"The next level?" Kotho asked, momentarily distracted from his thoughts.
"I'm talking about the evolution of the species," she replied, "and not any baby steps either. I'm talking about a great leap, like going from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens within a generation or two."
A grin crossed Ameera's lips, the same sort of grin Kotho had seen on Doctor V.
"She makes the impossible possible," Ameera said. "You'll see."
Then it happened. The test subject... Tara Ma's eyes snapped open. Kotho jumped in surprise. Her eyes were all black, like beads of polished onyx. Trapped in her gaze, Kotho felt dizzy. His stomach lurched. His knees gave out and he started fall, but before he hit the floor, he saw Ameera, whose eyes were the same onyx-black. She was still smiling.

* * *

Drowning in darkness, Kotho was suddenly overwhelmed by a flood of light. He awoke to a blazing white fluorescent light overhead. The ceiling and walls were an uncomfortable polished white, featureless and sterile.
A steady beeping drew his attention further down to a holoprojection displaying vitals. His vitals. It was then that he realized that he was in some sort of infirmary.
"He's awake, Herr Doktor," a woman's voice said.
Kotho looked over to see a nurse standing at the foot of his bed along with Doctor V, who was now dressed in a lab coat instead of his uniform. The Doctor looked mildly annoyed.
"I can't believe it," he grumbled. "Your first day on the job and you pass out. Are you anemic or something?" Shoving his hands in the pockets of his lab coat, he looked off to the side and asked, "Are you sure you don't know anything about this, Ameera?"
"No, Herr Doktor," Ameera replied. "We had just started talking about the test subject, when he fainted."
Kotho looked to his right and saw Ameera kneeling at his bedside, holding his hand. She did not look like she was lying, for whatever that was worth. Did she not remember? Did she really not remember what happened?
While Kotho was trying his best to read Ameera, Doctor V had apparently gotten bored and was walking out of the room.
"Don't let it happen again," he said, not bothering to look back. "If you can't do your job, you're no use to me. I'll have to settle for a replacement even stupider than you." As he was walking, he added, "Ameera, come along. You're getting a little too familiar with Doctor Kotho."
"Yes, Herr Doktor," Ameera replied obediently.
She gave Kotho's hand a slight squeeze and then left the room along with Doctor V. The nurse did not stay much longer either.
"You check out just fine, Herr Doktor," she told Kotho. "You are free leave whenever you're ready, but feel free to rest here as long as you need."
When the nurse left, Kotho stared at the ceiling, going over all that had happened in his mind. Just what on earth was Æther technology? Did anyone--even Doctor V--truly understand it? What were the consequences and what did those consequences mean for the Empire, for all humanity?
The image of Tara Ma's black-eyed stare burned in his mind. Kotho knew he had to find an answer to those questions and if it was necessary, he would have to find a way to put a stop to Æther technology before it was too late.
Maybe they had already passed the point of no return. What then?