"Are you sure she dissolved?" the Sentinel Fortress asked, its voice resounding through the Void Dancer.
"As sure as I could get." I said slumping on the edge of the seat of the navigation console on the bridge. My ship had moved from the day to the night side of the Sentinel Fortress while I retold my story. The Fortress mostly listened, I was only occasionally interrupted by Pentyl who was adding some details I had forgotten to mention or to tell things from her own perspective. "It didn't help that I was half a sleep when I saw her vanish." I added.
"hmmm..." said the Fortress which was fond of using Terranoid speaking patterns when talking to me it also loved to use my ship as its personal loudspeaker so that for a moment the whole Void Dancer was purring in a deep resonant tone. "Describe again how it looked."
"She just sort of faded away." I said shrugging.
"How quickly?" the Fortress asked. "Was it a sudden? Like with twisting?"
"No. Not like twisting. Slower and there was no distortion to the image."
"How about the light? Any changes there? Did she become brighter or darker perhaps?" it asked.
"No. Just fading becoming more and more translucent. There was also neither expansion or dispersion like with the ancient teleporting devices." I said shuddering thinking about the ancient decompiler/compiler machines of old that killed the individuals it was meant to 'transport' to then push them together making a mostly identical copy at the destination.
"Most fascinating." the Fortress said.
"So do you know what caused this?" Pentyl asked her voice laced with slight impatience.
"I've no clue." the Fortress replied.
Pentyl condensed into her female travel form only to make some dramatic gestures. "Well great! That little trip through the clouds of madness was certainly worth it." she gesticulated a bit more. Her enthusiasm for body-language slightly overpowering her annoyance.
"I think it was." said the Sentinel Fortress which was low-level 'hmmmming' as it thought about something. "Me never having heard of something is actually something that doesn't happen all that often. So this helps us with narrowing down our possibilities." the hmmmming became a bit more pronounced.
"Our possibilities?" I said wondering when this had suddenly become a problem that personally included the Sentinel Fortress.
"Yes there are now two most probable causes for Kira's disappearance. The first one is that you James have gone crazy..."
"Case closed then." Pentyl said.
The Fortress chuckled shaking the ship to its molecular foundations. "It also appears to be the most likely explanation. However my scans show that James is not insane. Or at least not more insane than all the other times he's been here. By the way James, you'll need to go into rejuvenation within a decade you are starting to show signs of attrition. But back to the point. Kira has gone which has been verified by you Pentyl. I know Kira and I know that she is prone to sudden departures but she always does that in plain sight. She never sneaks of, she just leaves. It also covering all her tracks? Does this sound like Kira to you?"
"No." I said.
"Faaaar to much work." said Pentyl. "Even if she tried she'd get bored half way through and just go leaving things half finished."
"So. We can agree that what ever happened to her may not have been completely up to her."
I felt a cold fear gripping my whole body. I had dismissed the crime angle a long time ago, but now the possibility seemed to be among the more plausible again. "But who would do that to her?" I said standing up gesticulating. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Pentyl quietly repeat my motion trying to add it to her repertoire. I closed my eyes to block her out for a moment as I felt anger creeping in to keep my fear a bit of company.
"I don't think anyone did that to her." said the Fortress voice now calm again. "This is not a crime pattern. What I meant was that there may be something that we are missing that might have lead to her dissolving that was not completely under her control. Like your depressingly under-evolved cells James, you don't want them to suddenly go to shit and slowly ruin your body until it fails even its most basic functions. But it happens anyway. Maybe something roughly similar happened to Kira."
"How would that even be possible?" I asked trying not to be offended by what the Fortress had just said about my cells. "Kirra is a Terranoid just like me and we don't usually suddenly fade into nothing."
"Really? How closely related are you to each other?" the Fortress asked.
"Not at all?" I said being slightly caught of guard by the sudden incest question.
"Oh James..." Pentyl sighed behind me hiding her face in the palm of her hand.
"Of course you are." said the Sentinel Fortress. "You belong to roughly the same species after all."
"Roughly?" I said wondering if I was still in the broken reality of faster than light travel.
"If I remember correctly you and her are roughly 98.8% genetically identical. You are from the same species but actually removed by for your kind very large amount of generations." Pentyl snorted in the background. The very idea of genetics was to her ridiculous, deeply amusing and slightly offensive. "Also, as I stated before, I have never heard of a phenomenon like the one you just described ever happening to an organoid. Additionally, although I may very well be incorrect, I can also not see any way in which you could use your genes to produce such an effect. At least I have nothing about that in my data banks."
"So?" I asked feeling more and more lost in this conversation although I found some solace in the Sentinel Fortress's efforts to help me out.
"Wait." Pentyl said suddenly serious again. "You have never heard this happening to an organoid?"
"So you know of instances like these happening to other forms of life?" Pentyl asked.
"I seem to remember that there are a few cases of this kind of desubstantiation among crystalline life." The Fortress said.
"Crystals can do that?" Pentyl asked.
"Something that appears similar." the Fortress said.
"Any idea why and how they do that?" I asked.
"I never had the inclination to ask them about it." the Fortress said.
"Why not?" Pentyl asked.
"There was no reason to, every once and a while certain Crystals would to that and please don't let this get your hopes up to much but they also usually reappeared. It looked like some form of travel or something. They do know how to travel faster than light and many have the innate ability to do something very close to twisting. It was just one of the many strange things that the Crystals do and I was not curious enough to bring about the patience to ask them." the Fortress said. This last statement was a monument to the problems of communicating with the Crystal sentience of the Universe. The Sentinel Fortress was billions of years old, having watched over its tiny bit if open space longer than many of the stars of most contemporary high civilisations had even existed and even for this artificial intelligence talking to the Crystals was a test of its patience.
"So what are the chances of Kira suddenly turning into a Crystal and vanishing." I said feeling slightly irritated.
"Close to none." the Fortress said. "But it means that there are at least sentients that show the kind of behaviour that you are talking about."
"If we have to talk to Crystals," Pentyl said, "to understand what happened here Kira may as well be dead."
"Kira is not dead." I shouted turning around to face Pentyl. "She. Is. Not. Dead."
Pentyl wavered for a moment. "No one said that. We just need to look for a way to find out what happened to her without having to attempt to talk to a Crystal. There are institutions specialising in this kind of work. Maybe there is someone out there that knows something about that."
"hmmmmmm..." went the Fortress shaking the ship with its thoughtful bass. The rumbling went on turning into an awkward background noise. I had never known the Sentinel Fortress to go into its deep thinking mode for so long.
"Is it broken?" Pentyl asked after while.
"I doubt that. Although considering the recent past that would not surprise me all that much." I said.
"Oh quit your moping. We are..."
"Quit my moping?" I shouted. "Fuck you! My girlfriend vanished before my eyes and you tell me to stop moping? Really? She was everything to me. She enhanced my life. She made everything that happened more. More interesting. More exiting. More real. Since she's gone a part of me has been ripped out out. The thought of never seeing her again is killing me. Wherever I look I see her. I see her influence. I can sense her curiosity. You know what keeps happening to me? When I look at things, when I hear about things I instinctively want to tell her about it. Because I know how much she would love it and because I wonder what she would make of it. For these moments I forget that she is gone only to remember that there is no one there any more. Actually. All things considered I've been a fucking mythical hero. I am pulling myself together not giving in to the emptiness I feel inside, instead concentrating on all the possibilities that are out there that might lead me back to her. So please excuse me if I mope a bit." I glared at Pentyl's slowly shrinking form.
"I'm sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. What I wanted to say is that we are not standing still, we are moving forward towards a solution. Even if it doesn't look like there is any lead right now, we are gathering information and it will make sense sooner or later. It will."
I kept glaring at Pentyl but without much conviction. Another side effect that Kira's vanishing had on me was that there was hardly anything left of me to burn in anger.
"hmmmm...?" the Fortress changed in pitch slightly upwards. "I think I have a lead." the Sentinel Fortress's words took a moment to take root in my mind.
"You have?" said Pentyl being slightly faster than me in expressing her confusion.
"Yes. It is good that you have come with James Pentyl else I would not have considered this path. There is a place in this universe that has been very active in the research of energy-matter conversion, especially when it comes to sentient matter." the Fortress said.
"No." Pentyl said flaring up going so hot that she practically became invisible blasting me with a wave of heat that activated the Void Dancers emergency fire response protocols directing its fire control beams at Pentyl removing energy from her. "No." she repeated apparently not fussed about the ship starting to drain her life from her body.
I established a conscious link to the ship's system as fast as I could forcing it to stop its standard fire fighting action. This was complicated by the ship's system suspecting that I was going insane overriding my override. It took me some precious seconds of careful negotiations with the fire-control system to reach a compromise that would keep both Pentyl alive and me in control of the ship.
"You cant be serious." Pentyl seethed still seemingly oblivious to the rays counteracting her heat radiation.
"I do understand that this is something that you are not comfortable with Pentyl. I assume that you were alive during the war."
"I was." she said. "I fought and was almost killed during the war."
"So you are familiar with 4L-Universal Multi Industrial Alliance consortium." It wasn't a question.
"I was prisoner on a Zohkin Mining extraction camp." Pentyl said voice held flat by rage.
"The 4-LUMIA consortium is the leading force in matter/energy conversion. While I have mostly educated guesses and borderline rumours, if anyone would know about what happened to Kira it would be them."
"You can't be serious." Pentyl said.
"How can they help us they hardly made Kira disappear." I said.
"They most probably didn't but they are a multi-galactic concern who have been deeply involved in technologies which would allow for a phenomenon such as the one you witnessed James."
"And you suggest hat we just walk up to them" Pentyl said sarcasm billowing through her, "and ask them for their help which they will the graciously grant us? Them? They have not even apologized for what they did during the war."
The Sentinel Fortress waited for a moment to see if there was more of Pentyl's anger coming. When she remained silent it continued. "No. I am not suggesting asking them for their help. What I am suggesting is that they never stopped working on sentients."
Pentyl and I were at a loss for words.
"What I am suggesting is that we go seek out 4-LUMIA and find out what they have been doing in the last few centuries. That way we may be able to find Kira and you Pentyl might even get revenge for what was done to you and yours."
The Sentinel Fortress let that sink in. I was having trouble coming to terms with the enormity of the Sentinel Fortress's idea while Pentyl was losing her form cooling down slowly, obviously as confused as I was.
"Did you just say that 'we' are going after 4-LUMIA?" I asked.
"Yes." the Fortress said. "I am coming with you."