by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Fantasia Divinity Magazine, December 2017
Alarm bells rang out and lights flashed red from the corners of the buildings on either side of the street. A mechanical turret rising out of the middle of the mountaintop base swung around and cast invisible laser beams, searching for the intruder, but Rikkita threw herself to the ground and spread her wide, bushy tail over her back. The fur on her tail was ultra-dark black; it would confuse the algorithms processing the data from the lasers. As long as she held still, she was safe.
The alarms were only an automated safety system. There were no sentient guards here, neither biological nor robotic. At least, that’s what Rikkita’s intel suggested. Of course, her intel also gave her an access code that blew this whole place wide with blaring, screaming alarms.
Rikkita’s small pointed ears flattened against her head, trying to shut out the screech of the alarms. It would all be over soon, and she’d crack that door code the old-fashioned way.
A few deep breaths later, the mountaintop base fell eerily silent. Rikkita peeked out from under her wide tail. Everything was dark again. Perfect. She skittered back over to the door into her cousin Alvo’s hidden headquarters. She reached a paw into her pocket, pulled out an antiquated computer pad, and hot-wired it into the door’s access panel. The antique software on the computer pad set up a protected shell where Rikkita could test different passcodes without fully entering them into the system.
First, she tried the name of the planet where her cousin and all the rest of their family used to meet up on vacations — a world called Lottie III, whose aquatic otter-like inhabitants had built the best waterparks in the Western Spiral Arm of the galaxy. Alvo had been happier on those vacations than anytime else. But it was not the password.
She tried the names of each of Cousin Alvo’s pets from their kithood — Qui’Laia the dragonfish; On’no’ni the tapestry-spider; and George the creature he’d bought from a human merchant. The human had called it a squirrel, and it was damn creepy. It had looked like a miniature sub-sentient version of Alvo, and everyone in the family was relieved when it had died.
None of the pet names worked, but thinking about George reminded Rikkita of Alvo’s favorite game from back then. The human merchant had told him that squirrels collected and hoarded acorns. So, Alvo had created a game where all the cousins collected and hoarded treasures — little plastic baubles, trading cards, costume jewelry — and called it “Acorn.”
That password worked. Rikkita unhooked the computer pad and input the code directly into the door. It swung open on its mechanical hinges. Lights on the inside turned on automatically, welcoming Rikkita into her cousin’s abandoned lair.
Rikkita entered the room, taking slow cautious steps.
“Welcome to the treasure trove!” A flickering blue hologram of Alvo spread his arms wide, as if he were surrounded by piles of gold. But it was just a small room with plain walls and a tacky paisley-patterned carpet.
“This is a recording, isn’t it?” Rikkita asked.
The hologram of Alvo twitched his wide bushy tail. “If you’ve located this dwarf moon in an uninhabited solar system, made it past the drone ships in the moon’s orbit, located my mountaintop base, and infiltrated the base’s defenses all the way to my headquarters, then you’re either very clever or one of my cousins.” The hologram flashed a bucktoothed grin. “Or both! Hi, Rikkita.”
Rikkita laughed in spite of herself. “This was all just a big game of Acorn to you, wasn’t it?” She shook her head. “And you’re still just a recording.”
“Actually,” the hologram said, surprising her. “I’m an interactive AI set up by your cousin, Alvo, to mimic his own behavior.”
Rikkita was furious — her cousin had disappeared on the family, leaving a trail of clues through half a dozen star-systems. She’d been chasing him down for years, ever since Aunt Ido took sick. Alvo’s connections would buy her better care; with attention from the scientists at Wespirtech, Ido could be cured instead of merely treated, managing symptoms and slowly wasting away.
Still, the idea that Alvo had been playing a kit’s game with her all along tickled Rikkita, and her tail flipped happily. Now that she was here, her cousin would finally listen to reason and come back to the family.
“Your mother’s sick,” Rikkita said.
The blue hologram skewed with a burst of static, and then Alvo said, “I don’t have a programmed response for that.”
“Dammit, Alvo!” Rikkita swore.
“In the hangar on the far side of the base,” the AI of Alvo continued, ignoring her outburst, “you will find a spaceship programmed with the initial clues for the next leg of your journey!”
Rikkita muttered under her breath, “I can’t keep chasing you forever.”
“It’s stocked with all the supplies that you’ll need. Of course, if you’d rather, you’ll find that this mountaintop base is stocked with enough treasure to make you very comfortable and fund whichever adventures you’d prefer to pursue.”
Rikkita skewed one ear, giving the hologram a sidelong look. “You always were a weird one, Alvo.” She pulled a blaster out of her belt and shot the holo-generator in the ceiling of the room. “I will take that ship, and whatever treasure fits on it.”
Now that she was inside the base’s headquarters, it was easy to shut down the alarm systems. Rikkita spent several days hauling the easiest to liquidate treasures — rare mineral composites, precious energy crystals, and ultra-fast computer processors — into the cargo hold of the ship Alvo had left for her. She left the buildings full of ancient cultural artifacts from across the spiral arm, stolen art, and stacks upon stacks of hardcopy of secrets gathered from high level officials at all the biggest starbases alone. She wasn’t interested in dealing in blackmail.
When the ship was all loaded, Rikkita reengaged the base’s security systems. Who knew, maybe she’d come back some day.
As she flew away from Alvo’s treasure moon, Rikkita found herself studying her new ship’s computer banks, looking for Alvo’s clues. Sure, she had obligations right now. But once Aunt Ido was set up with the Wespirtech doctors, and the rest of the family was properly cared for with the rest of this load of treasure… Well, someone would need to find Alvo and tell him how his mother was doing.
Besides, Rikkita wanted to know what other surprises Alvo had waiting for her in this epic game of Acorn.