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Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2008-11-13 03:18pm
October 5th, 3200,
Imperial Frontier Concession,
Captain Richard Hawke stretched out in his leather-lined captain’s chair, bored with the constant watch of the ship sensor holotank. Cutting in through a lightly-inhabited mining system was going to cost him time on his run back to Bridgeport, but he was lucky enough to have been given the head’s up on the changed patrol patterns by the Imperial Navy. Probably, he reflected ruefully, the change had to do with his present contract running civilian electronics out to beyond the Frontier line. Everyone knew the Bogs were paying top dollar for that sort of thing, but Hawke kept enough plausible deniability in his exchanges to avoid the firing squad if it came to that. Though running through an asteroid field in a backwater system was his precaution against having to test it...
The wait was also making the idea of opening up dinner more palatable. He had a pack of the common prepared spacer ration beside him, and reluctantly opened it up. Inside the vacuum-sealed pouch was some quinoa grain with chunks of what the package assured him were chicken, He pulled off the plastic spoon from the back and dug in. Genetically engineered to provide a full third of a day’s nutritional value, they were readily available cheap and in bulk, but without any taste. Munching on the rather tasteless meal at least gave him something to do other than twiddle his thumbs and watch the autopilot.
So it took him by surprise when a sensor alarm interrupted his lunch. He nearly dropped the pouch to the floras he swung in his seat to stare at the data coming in. It took him a second to orient himself; the ship was the center of the display, of course, but there were a multitude of asteroids surrounding it. An expanding red circle radiated out from one of the nearby green asteroid symbols, quickly drawing his attention. It was well within range of shipboard energy weapons, so if it was a threat...
“Alright, God blast it, what is it?” Hawke demanded of the computer. In response, the dumb AI regulating the ship’s systems expanded the local view, and flashed a new set of data in a corner window. The readout listed exotic elements and manufactured alloys, concentrated in a shape...
Hawke whistled. There were faint, very faint energy readings coming from down there. Whatever it was, it screamed artificial. Maybe an opportunity. Enough to take the ship in closer for a look.
He triggered the ship intercom to let the small crew know what was going on. “This is Captain Hawke, we’re taking a look-see at an anomaly, we’ll be back on course shortly.” It was a matter of courtesy only, and he did it mostly for the two passengers he had taken on.
Taking over manual control meant he had to wander over to the navigation station, which reminded him that maybe he needed to hire on another crewman at their destination. The ship was pretty automated compared to most small freighters so he’d done without for a while, but the profits from this run ought to let him get someone to handle navigation full-time. Putting that thought aside, he logged in the console to adjust the course, just a tad. They’d need to swing a little closer, but he could have the computer calculate a return trajectory with minimal effort, bringing them back on their original heading out of the system.
Hawke thought he could feel the power surge to the engines as the ship changed its course, though he knew it wasn’t supposed to be possible. Thankfully the Belt settlements were all on the other side of the system, and gendarme patrols rarely ventured out this far, so the sudden spike wouldn’t give away his position. Then it was just a waiting game as the ship inched a bit closer and his sensor picture improved. He went back to his comfortable chair, and spent several minutes tapping his fingers against the rest before the first high resolution sensor scans of the anomalous area came in.
Hawke whistled. There was, quite clearly, a structure poking up on the surface of the asteroid, some of it buried within. Computer was estimating... multiple kilometers. Over two miles, and more Hawke calculated. The computer still couldn’t identify the hull material but it was clearly not natural, and the size was up there with the largest megatankers in Imperial service. Was it alien? How long had it been there?
Hawke gritted his teeth. Salvaging a simple megatanker would bring the crew responsible billions of florins. If it had alien technology, could be trillions. On the other hand, he didn’t have the crew or equipment to explore the hull properly. And he had passengers and cargo that needed to be on Bridgeport as quickly as possible. If he could have secured the find he would have considered spacing the passengers, filthy Bogs anyway, but his cargo was destined for... influential people. People who would not be particularly impressed with his stroke of fortune, if he broke their contract. The sort of people who could and would put a death mark on him and carry through... not for the last time he thought maybe getting involved with the Camorra was a bad idea.
But he shrugged. He couldn’t make the claim effectively anyway, so it was a moot point. But maybe... Yeah, Alfonso had tipped him off about the change of patrol patterns. And the Soccorso was outfitted for recovery. And he might actually honor a claim for a finder’s fee. Most of the others he knew who might be in a position weren’t so... honorable wasn’t the right word, but Rapisardi honored his debts. He would have to wait until he was out of system to engage the FTL coms, so it was going to be a few hours anyway. Enough time to get in a little closer, record all the data he could, and make sure he actually had something.
And at least the daydreams of wealth would give him something to distract himself while he finished his time in transit. Something rather more appealing than spacer rations...
The imaginary world faded back into the bleak reality once again. Sometimes, the creature didn't know why it bothered to keep on going. But those times were quickly overwhelmed by the preening, terrible need to survive, the meticulous plans of escape which had never realized. The body should have died more than two thousand years ago. Yet, after a fashion, it lived. And so to keep its sanity, it dived into a virtual world again and again, and lived out a thousand lives for ten thousand years.
Something had come near. Certainly within energy range. It could, at the flick of a thought, destroy the offender--it had certainly dealt with several incoming asteroids over a long period of time, preventing the one on which it was crashed from being heavily damaged. This was suitable and necessary even though it expended more and more of the precious emergency energy batteries. Eventually they would run out, and it would die, but its' body's maximum lifespan, long exceeded, would give out first. No comfort.
The sensor data revealed that the object was under power. That changed things instantaneously. Stealth was called for; the ship might be a threat. Therefore the most sophisticated sensors, which operated in the psychic realm, were utilized. Life existed. The emulators driftily compiled surface data. Human.
It glanced off the surface thoughts, discerned that the ship was weak and helpless, and quickly calculated the range for the remaining tractor beams. But that was to great, and the course would not change to allow it. The creature increased power usage throughout the ship and dropped any covering screens which might conceal it. This was the appropriate response.
The lure worked. Not close enough to bring in, but the ship had recognized them, seen value. That much could be told by the emulation sensors. The creature was content; it had been recognized by humans. Others would be along soon enough. They had finally developed, finally come to the point again where they would race unimpeded amongst the stars.
The creature began to prepare all the resources at its disposal, to test the mettle of the new breeds and new races that surely would have appeared in the past millennia, and to impress them with its power if they were equals so as to preserve her own life, and to find the best if they were lessers. There were again options and there was again a future beyond the slow death in the ruined ship. These motivations brought a strange sort of confident happiness to the creature, and anticipation of an escape from the eternal prison. Now it was merely an issue of waiting for events to enfold.
Hawke yawned as the connection went through. Real time conversations across interstellar distances were made possible by the wonders of hyperspace and had been taken for granted for a thousand years. With a window of several light-years between Imperial patrols and ensconsed in the alternate dimension of FTL travel, it was safe to call up Captain Rapisardi. If only the other Captain was available and would take the message...
It took the computer a bit to locate the other ship. It had to bounce from relay to relay, looking for the slight FTL contact tag of the other ship, and then adjust its signal direction to reach the general area of receiver. Once the two computers had contact transmission would be instantaneous, but making the initial tag was going to take a while. Hawke pondered going down to the galley to get another one of the spacer rations, but decided against it. Just in case the computer managed to get the connection with the other ship more swiftly than he anticipated.
After several tense minutes, with Hawke absentmindedly drumming his fingers along the armrests, the computer finally registered the tone of a full connection. The holotank before him switched to communications mode, and Hawke was greeted with the grizzled visage of the veteran Captain Alfonso Rapisardi. The older captain’s image nodded politely, a clear invitation to state his business and be succinct about it.
Hawke had always appreciated Rapisardi’s directness, and so responded in kind. “Have a tip-off for you, Alfonso. Huge find here, we’re talking billions, maybe more. I don’t have the manpower or resources for it, but you do. So, finder’s fee?”
The constructed image of the other man didn’t flinch, though Hawke assumed the flesh and blood Captain Rapisardi did. “You can’t come back for it yourself, and you know as well as I do my competitors out here would knife you in the back. I’ll give you 2% of whatever we find, if your tip pans out. I’ll be doing all the work, and if the haul is as you say, that’ll be plenty for your luck.”
Hawke shook his head. “Not good enough. I’ve got sensor data and logs, I know this thing is huge. Megatanker huge, maybe larger. I can give you direct coordinates and everything else you need for a rapid look-over. That’s worth at least a tenth-share of whatever you find there. I could get more if I leave the sector...”
Rapisardi’s holographic representation did seem to look bemused. “And how many warrants do you have in the Algarve sector? No, you go looking around for a crew that can pull this off, you’ll attract attention. Imperial attention. And they’re getting pretty serious about the Bogs now. Don’t want ‘em causing trouble with those alternate universes or whatever on the other side of that rift they made. And you owe me. Your luck came because I warned you about the change in patrols between Vandervaan and Bridgeport, I’m thinking, and that also means I have a fair idea of where your find is.”
Hawke shrugged, conceding the point. ‘Still... it’s a big system. Going to take you a long while to find anything without my sensor logs. So, maybe 5%?”
‘”You’ve got my interest,” Rapisardi finally replied. “A five-share it is. Let’s have a look at these sensor readings you’ve got.”
Hawke directed the computer to transmit the files he had already collected together over to the Soccorso. It contained his sensor logs as he approached and swung by the object. That should be enough for Rapisardi. With a full salvage and repair crew and a ship five times the size of his Samantha, the other captain would probably be able to restore the old vessel to operating condition and claim the whole thing as salvage. Even if not, at least Rapisardi would have the time and manpower to loot it thoroughly, and he’d get his share in the end. The older man had made a reputation for being honest dealing with thieves, and smugglers, and privateers and the assorted shady community out on the Frontier.
After a lengthy break the hologram activated again. “I’ve reviewed your data. If you’re not cooking it, this is the big time. I’m setting course for the site immediately. If this is some kind of scam or waste of my time, Hawke...”
“Why the hell would I do that?” Hawke shrugged. “Half the smugglers in five rayons rely on you and your ship for emergencies, including me. You’ve got the unaltered data and it’s just what it says. Something huge down there. I’ll take your thanks for coming to you, and my finder’s fee when you’re done, and that’s that.”
“Should be there in twenty hours,” Rapisardi responded. “Keep the comm link in case we need to talk further. I’ll look forward to buying you a round back on Bridgeport if this pans out. Rapisardi out.”
And that was that, Hawke thought. He went back to daydreaming about how he was going to spend his money. Idly, he hoped everything went smoothly for Rapisardi. It’d be a shame if the old man got into trouble with gendarmes or something worse, and not just because Richard Hawke would lose his prize money. But the logs were pretty clear, that thing had been down there for ages, and the system gendarme stayed away from that side of the Belt, so what could possibly go wrong?
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2008-11-13 11:10pm
October 9th, 3200,
Imperial Frontier Concession,
The bridge of the ES Soccorso II was a hive of activity compared to that of Hawke’s Samantha. A civilian variant of the KuK Kriegsraummarine light repair tug, the Soccorso massed over a million metric tons and could bring in a light freighter like the Samantha inside its partitionable interior bay to make repairs in a pressurized environment. This was managed with a crew of only 28 thanks to the extreme automation features and Captain Rapisardi’s cutting corners on damage control, but there were four men on what was a proper bridge rather than a command pit. At the center of things was the seventy-year veteran of space, grimly looking on the main plot as the spacer who filled in at navigation carefully plotted a course through the asteroid field that Hawke had cleared days earlier.
“There it is, it’s a freaking planetoid.” Beside him his grandnephew and first mate, Bernadino Rapisardi, pointed out the obvious. The plot centered on the now detected asteroid, the size of the Belter capital Ceres in the Terran system, and a projected path was generated by the holotank, zigzagging around obstacles and small debris.
“Aye, a planetoid,” the older man responded. “Hawke’s logs should let us find this thing quickly, if it exist. If it doesn’t, I’ll have it out of his hide.”
Bernadino nodded with his customary energy. “At least four kilometers long, it’s got to be a megafreighter and worth billions. We’ll be rich, enough to buy our own planet.”
“Let’s see before we start counting the florins, boy,” Rapisardi rebuked. “Salvage is a chancy business and I’m sorry those Venetian pukes at San Marco didn’t pound that into your head. Been disappointed too many times to get excited before we have it in hand, and when you take over you’ll experience the same.”
The repair tug inched forward, slowly, into the asteroid field and towards Hawke’s planetoid. There was nothing unusual about that, at least, rocky crust and built up interstellar dust with a nickel-iron core, dime a dozen in space and while potentially dangerous, it was more than stable enough to land on. Rapisardi debated about sending out a probe, but recovering them was always a pain in the ass and the ship would be in close enough to make out details soon enough. Instead, he relieved his tension by pacing the bridge, as he frequently did. Bernadino knew enough to keep out of his way, and instead took a station to examine some of the raw data coming in.
Once they were able to get a view, though, what a view it was!
A distinctive, 100km long canyon near the equator was the first feature to line up with Hawke’s data. The holographic recreation of the planetoid showed the canyon as an angry gash in its side, something suggesting extreme violence and out of place with the inert nature of the body. It would have taken a huge amount of power and force to create such a feature, and Rapisardi felt momentarily disappointed. Nothing could have survived such an impact intact, but then what had Hawke picked up earlier? Any pieces of a ship crashing in at the speeds such an impact implied would have been obliterated. No question.
“That can’t be right,” Bernadino said aloud, as he registered what the sensors were reporting. There were mountains near the gash, which looked as if they had had their tops literally sliced off, and collapsed back down on them. That was simply impossible. An impossibility staring him in the face...
They found the ship, finally, at the end of the canyon. A smashed up, long cigar shape, with considerable rock and dust built up on it, maybe a whole 5km still easily apparent from the surface. Two smaller structures, shaped the same way but smaller, were attached to the hull in a V upwards, and two further similar structures were strewn well back on the asteroid’s surface after having gouged even more deeply into the rock. A lengthy and intact shark-fin of a gravitic vane, at least 1.5km high, stood straight out of the top of the hull, while two more, very battered but intact, stood out from the main cigar structure at right angles, somewhat buried. The implication was both obvious and again impossible, and Bernadino ran a quick calculation, which showed them in just the right place to have bisected the mountains beside them.
“Mother of God,” the First Mate swore again. Whatever the ship was made out of, and sensors refused to identify it, it was tough beyond imagining. It had to be, to come out that intact in a cee-fractional impact with a small planetoid. Whoever had built it was beyond human. Beyond anything humans were even capable of thinking, and suddenly he felt a chill. The surface resolution was coming in, more detailed now, and he could make out gashes and pockmarks pitting the surface of the main hull, damage that had nothing to do with the impact, and the thickness of torn, buckled, and melted plates which could serve only one purpose. He recognized the patterns, and his knees went wobbly. “Sweet Christ, it’s an alien warship. And that powerful! Dear God, what if there are more of them out there, we wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Get a grip,” his great-uncle responded with characteristic gruffness. “It’s real, alright. That out there represents nothing more or less than trillions of florins for the taking. Pay attention to the rest of the analysis, Bernadino. That buildup of rock and dust means it’s been here at least 13,000 years. Whoever or whatever built it is long dead.”
“Yes, yes, that’s right,” Bernadino responded, color now coming back into his pale face. “But what... a race that could build this ship... it could crush the Empire like an ant, without even noticing.”
Captain Rapisardi shrugged again, completely unmoved by the larger implications. “And Christ could show up tomorrow. What I do know is going to happen is that we are going to go down there and get that ship operational. We are going to take it back to Bridgeport and be rich as Croesus. And maybe that’ll help the Empire stomp on the Bogs and the Cats and anyone else who needs stomping, and that’s going to be bad for a few of our friends out here, but I’ll be too stinking filthy rich to care.”
“I’ll work with Spacer Brown here to plot the landing, sir.” Bernadino meandered over to the navigation console, trying to put on a show of competence and initiative. It would be tricky landing the ship, given the uneven nature of the planetoid’s surface, and detailed scans were going to be necessary...
The Captain continued pacing as they approached. Alfonso was comfortable enough with his life as an old salt, but what man could pass up the lure of wealth on the staggering scale represented by that wonder-ship? He was worried instead about whether or not it would possible to get it out of its tomb on the planetoid with his small crew. Who knew what sort of systems an alien warship would operate on, and given its position towing it out would not really be feasible without carving away enormous amounts of rock. On second thought, he decided he might just have to settle for looting it silly. Grabbing whatever looked valuable and portable, and taking it on to Bridgeport. Could get a reward from the Empire if he gave them the location, but that was millions of florins against trillions. And who knew? Maybe he could get it operating after all.
But it would take every hand he had, that much was sure. A thorough looting of such a huge ship would take days, maybe weeks, with his small band of spacers. Meant he could only leave a skeleton crew on the ship. Maybe just the missus and a spacer to keep the lights on. Well, that ship had been down there for 13,000 years so there wasn’t any real threat from it, and only Hawke knew where it was. Richard knew better than to try and cut a deal with his rivals, too. And if the gendarmes came around, well, they’d probably boot them out of the system but he could still file a claim for some compensation over the site.
He’d address the crew before going down, let them know what he wanted them to. First he’d need to speak to Gunther, his Second Mate. Old Jozef could stay aboard the ship, he decided, which meant his assistant engineer would have to be called into conference as well. Bernadino could lead a party, he would, Gunther would, with Maria and a couple of the best technical specialists in their own group to be called to troubleshoot as needed. That would work well. Might as well even bring along Chand, his education might contribute something more than the usual paperwork. Everyone was going to be earning a share, that much was clear.
He trigged the ship comms from his seat. “I know you’ve all been waiting, so I’ll keep it brief. This is the real thing. You’re all looking at a huge payoff here if we do it right. And that will mean paying strict attention to orders. Remember you’re only rich when we get a haul into Bridgeport, and don’t screw up before then or so help me God I’ll have your arse. Mate Eckhel, Engineer Kozlewski, Assistant Engineer Lauwens, join me here on the bridge now.” With that he turned it back off, and reclined in the bucket-shaped seat, and stared at the picture of the crash site being displayed by the holotank.
It would be some hours before they could set down on the pseudo-Ceres. Time enough to ponder all the details carefully with his officers. To make contingency plans for looting the ship quickly if the gendarmes showed up, or covering up the find and selling the location to the Imperials. To assign all the spacers to each team as suited their abilities. And, perhaps, just enough time to dream about what he’d do with a trillion florins.
On the ship.
She sighed in an almost orgasmic release of anticipation. A much larger ship had landed, and there it was, ripe for the taking. Ripe for conquest in a way that she might not have dreamed of before. Less than fourty in crew, and slow and civilian, but all this she had expected. Her psychic sensors faced threat only from one being, a woman of perhaps fell potential, perhaps real determination, but her powers were hopelessly weak in the face of the sophistication of the sensors. She would merely feel an uneasiness at a presence she could not grasp, as the ship settled in.
In her own shattered hull, the surprises, the challenges were waiting. She was happy, she was filled with anticipation. Thirteen thousand years had been spent in that form, drifting away until only whispers remained. Whispers and fantasies. Now it was time to make this all a difference, to change everything, to break out of the prison of thirteen millennia, here in the caves of ice. Weary of the night, weary, so weary... This world would finally end.
She had completed sufficient repairs to reactivate atmosphere to most of the ship to provide a welcoming environment, and deactivated all the internal security measures, for the moment. To provide plausibility, aimlessly circulating and working repair robots had been prepared, all of which was intended to conceal the nanites which actually coursed through the ship like blood and maintained many of the vital systems that had been required for her continued survival, such as it would seem that they had just mindlessly continued on their routines for millennia. They were ubiquitous, and now doubly useful.
All the preparations, then, were made. So she waited. It would be the game of her life; there were few females over there, but she would test them all, and refashion one of the males to suit her needs come to it. Thirteen thousand years could scarcely begin to prepare for this, and yet at the same time, there was so much that had been lost, so much that had been wasted. These halfbreeds, the sad remnants, would have to be that from which she built a new life and existence for herself.
If they took the bait, and stepped into the trap. And she made it a very welcoming trap, indeed. Greed was in their hearts, and she would soon test her mettle against its desperate foolishness, and see if any of them showed more sophisticated emotions. Or if they would die with their gold. That would be the first test, to sift apart the ones who could think and value their lives more than the riches they had found. The others would follow. All would follow in due time.
They reached one of the great gashes in the hull, and entered through it, establishing a portable airlock around one of the sealed doors, and then cutting it open with plasma torches which nonetheless took more than an hour to achieve the cut. Then, slowly, the parties began to enter the hull. For the sensors woven into her to hear their footsteps was delightful. It was the first genuine, complete contact from the outside in countless thousands of years, after all. And from her position in the centre of the ship, more than a kilometre away, her terrible, delighted screech at the feeling and the knowledge never had a chance of reaching their ears. The cameras tracked, and observed, and she calmed and waited. No sense in flushing the game while they still had a chance to escape. No reason to be anything but perfectly cautious on her own part, when she had waited so long for this perfect moment. No sense... Left all? But nonetheless, it would be done. It had to be. It was the way of things, and it was the only test that could matter, could resonate deep in her soul and tell her of the future that she must live.
And nothing mattered anymore, except for that. Except to survive--and escape!
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2008-11-16 03:47am
The airlock door opened with a shichk sound, and with it Chand Mayland made his first step onto the ancient, alien vessel. His skinsuit sensors, integrated microcircuitry in the synthetic material sealing him off from the outside environment, registered the pressurization and sampled the atmosphere. Inside his clear bubble-helmet a HUD flashed, telling him it was safe, indeed, that it matched the norms of any human ship and no toxins were immediately detected. Before he could process that he felt himself shoved forward from behind, and stumbled face-first onto the deck.
His suit’s comm buzzed as he saw the hulking figure of Spacer Serrano bound past him. “Outta my way, mariposa,” the other man barked, having contemptuously pushed aside the slightly built Chand in the rush to get ahead. “Have to get up with the Captain before they take all the good loot, and I’m not letting you slow me down.”
As Serrano hurried on, an arm emerged beside him in offering. He clasped it, leveraging himself off the floor. “Jose’s a dumb animal,” his samaritan (after a fashion) commented. Assistant Engineer Maria Lauwens was in charge of the group coming through, and saddled with a couple of other laggards. “You okay?”
Chand stepped forward again, gingerly. He hadn’t felt any pain and the suit had no indication of anything damaged or malfunctioning. “Yes, I’m fine.” He swallowed down a rising resentment. Serrano was typical of the crew, an uneducated, unrefined brute who blew through all his pay as soon as he hit port. Chand had lost track of how many times he had needed to bail out Serrano from jail, or handle other crew indiscretions, without the slightest hint of appreciation or thanks.
He fell in with Maria as she led the way forward into a corridor leading out from their newly formed entrance. The ship’s hull was made out of some metallic-looking substance, a dull blue-grey in the low light of the ship. There was rubble strewn around the halls, pieces of unidentifiable debris mixed in with fragments of the hull, but the integrity of the passage wasn’t impacted. It was like walking through any number of space stations or larger passenger liners that Chand had been on, and the sense of normality was frankly disturbing. “I would have imagined something more... exotic,” he mumbled. For an alien craft thirteen millennia old, there wasn’t much striking about it.
“Come on you apes, let’s keep moving,” Maria encouraged her group, including Chand, to step up the pace. “The Captain’s waiting for us up ahead, says he may have found a room worth opening and he needs our equipment.” Behind her, four Spacers lugged an array of plasma torches, terminal linkups, and toolboxes, just the sort of stuff needed for heavy work.
Chand looked back at them, always somewhat nervous when someone was behind him, but none of them were bastards like Serrano. He noticed the slightest figure, one of the new recruits still apprenticing and assigned to Maria, like he had been, to keep her out of trouble. Rachel... Ling, that was her name, and she seemed to be straining even with a light load of plasma torches. Another lost soul on a ship full of them. “Is everything okay?”
“Something doesn’t feel right,” she responded to the voice in her helmet. She shifted her burden, and tried to move a little faster. “I don’t know what it is,” she whimpered, “but there’s something about this place that makes me so anxious.’ It was like being around her mother-in-law, she thought to herself, a vague sense of malevolence and barely hidden threat. But there was nothing to trigger it, no center or source, and she tried to dismiss the feeling. “I’ll keep up sir, you can count on me.”
The Supercargo wasn’t that interested in her reply, though, and satisfied himself with her final positive answer. He fell back into his own head while walking mechanically with the rest of the group. It was a long corridor, evidently, though with a ship 5-6km long, getting around was going to be a lot of walking...
Then ahead came a noise, and with it, skittering down the corridor, a six-limbed monstrosity of metal, curved parts contrasting with sharply and somewhat poorly welded replacements lumbering along, suction cups on the limbs for secure position, and four multifunction repair devices on the arms. It moved into view steadily and methodically, and stopped for a moment to cast a laser sight eye over them--it was the size of two big men at least--before trundling calmly along, a wake of tiny little probe-bots following it like a gray sea for a moment before the corridor was again empty.
The crew members started at the sight of the machine, and one of the older spacers pulled out a plasma torch, as if to use it as a weapon. Maria waved her arm down to tell him to cut it out, which he did even though they parted in the corridor to allow the machine a wide berth. The probe-bots followed, a curious sight for even the most jaded crew, and not as threatening as the larger, sturdier droid. Rachel, overcome with curiosity despite her anxiety, bent down to examine the smaller machines. Before she could do anything foolish, one of the older Spacers pulled her up by her shoulders.
“That could be dangerous,” Israel Grunbaum warned the section. “We don’t know what either of those robots do. First lesson of shipboard life, Rachel, don’t touch something you don’t know about.”
Fair advice, thought Chand. With the disappearance of the robots and their resolute lack of hostility, the group bunched back up together and moved on. The encounter bothered him, though. If repair robots had survived, what else might have lasted aboard the ship? The Captain hadn’t said anything about the robots, or about the air and pressure being restored, and the two elements were troubling. And at a basic level this simply felt so completely sordid. They had made a historic discovery, and were now breaking into it with the scum of the spacelanes like Serrano to loot it as thoroughly as possible. He shook his head, slowly, and lost himself in his thoughts. This was not how his life was supposed to go, but then the family business going belly up and his father shooting himself afterward had drawn him away from the path to the lesser nobility. Not before insuring he had enough education and gentility to stand out as an easy mark to the likes of Serrano or that foul little smuggler Nikolaus Steiner.
Despite his self-pity, he kept up the pace, and continued to observe. Even in the dim light he thought he saw scratches above the arches of the corridor, and squinted to see them a bit better. Did they resemble... Devanagari? That couldn’t be right, and he dismissed the thought as quickly as it entered his head. But in some respect, they did. It certainly seemed to be an abugida, and a familiar one at that. Yet at the same time the script was not immediately comprehensible, and so it surely must be a coincidence, such as how Ma meant 'mother' in Mandarin. And so with that thought shuffled aside, they pressed onward through corridors that showed signs of extensive damage.
Maria was now able to see that the idea that the ship was undamaged internally, that it had survived the crash intact, was a bit of a misnomer--rather it had tremendous spalling damage, the sort of damage which is caused by incredible shock forces, causing flaying of the internal armor. Many compartments were penetrated by microfragments and there were shards of the advanced, unknown metals strewn about here and there. But the ship seemed intact despite that; like an old ship of the line, she had seen many splinters off her hull, which had perhaps butchered her crew, but the basic structure remained sound despite the enormous shock damage of the impact, and doubtless the battle before.
Beyond that in turn they finally heard voices, and arrived shortly enough to see that a room had been entered by the Captain. With many of the other team crowding around, everyone was ignoring the chairs, seemingly human-sized, which had crashed and broken in one side of the room, with their cushions eroded away and only metal frames remaining, and the desks and other strangely human-sized appliances that were evidence in what looked like a bureaucratic area, complete with the remnants of shattered monitors. One might wonder if the ship had at least been the home of a very humanoid set of aliens, perhaps like the distant Talorans of another great Empire in another universe.
For the men present, however, there was something far more urgent, which had indeed completely attracted their own attention. Made out of very heavy and indeed it seemed unbreakable materials was a rather substantial and obvious vault door. And naturally, it had completely consumed the interests of the crew, in a very straightforward way. How could the vault hold anything other than untold riches in this mysterious ship which, even if they failed in salvage, would make them all as rich as the Emperor himself? It had to, and that, then, was the reason Maria's team had been summoned.
Yet, for all that, there was a palpable air in the room, that of habitation. A fair bit more of the Devanagari script was visible, and there were a few small maintenance robots trundling through the intersecting passageways outside, politely ignoring the gathering of humans. It seemed like the prior occupants had scarcely left.
Captain Rapisardi noted their arrival with a friendly wave. “Looks like we’ve got a promising find here. Maria, I’ll need you to break out the plasma torches and get to work on it.”
The assistant engineer acknowledged the order, and set her team into position. Rachel and Chand stood back as the more experienced spacers, led by Israel, took up their positions. They were limited to handing the true engineering supplies and tools as required, and in particular Chand felt his uselessness keenly. The stares and snickering he imagined coming from the large assembly of crew looking on grated on him. But, there was something that was bothering him, and the moment of pause as he stood around crystallized the thought. Air, pressurization, lighting, despite the damage the ship seemed active. Power was still on, and repair bots were around.
Maria voiced his thought to the Captain. “Sir, this ship is obviously still active. The air and pressure were stabilized before you came in, wasn’t it? These repair bots have had thousands of years to restore that much, and what else have they restored? How do we know they haven’t gotten to the automated defenses too?”
“I was going to say...” Chand chimed in, now that someone else had brought up the subject. “If there’s treasure in here, maybe it’d be best to just take that and leave the ship to the authorities? They’ll be better prepared to deal with any defenses the ship might have open, and we’ll still get a huge reward.” The conversation with Rachel came back to him, dimly. Wasn’t she a telepath? “We can all retire wealthy men without risking our lives here.”
The Captain turned his direction, and Chand would have sworn, helmet or no, that he was being given the evil eye. “If there are automated defenses, and they be active, why haven’t they turned on us yet?” The rhetorical question obviously scored points with the assembled crew. “I’ve seen no sign of any threat or danger, and those harmless repair bots give us an even better opportunity to salvage the whole thing. I’ve got no mind to scurry to some self-important puke in livery to get bought off with a paltry million florins, or whatever they might decide, when we can have this whole ship. I don’t think the rest of the crew is willing to trust the generosity of the Navy.”
There were catcalls from most of the spacers around. Chand could recognize the bulking form of Serrano, so menacingly, pointing at him. Beside him the slim form of Nikolaus Steiner was clearly laughing. Other crew, too, seemed to be shuffling in a threatening fashion at the voice of reason. “I’m not saying we leave now, but let’s... we need to be careful, there’s no telling who or what built this ship, or how they thought to handle intruders...”
“You worry too much, boy,” the Captain dismissed. “You’ll get your share, long as I don’t have to send you back to the ship for cowardice. Maria, look to your own responsibilities,” he addressed the Assistant Engineer. “You’re scaring poor Chand here with that speculation.”
“Captain, he has a good point,” Maria replied, but hesitantly. “We do need to move a little more methodically, toward that central power source we detected earlier. Once we have control of that we can explore the rest of the ship with more safety.”
Whatever reply the Captain would have made was shut off as the plasma torches finished burning through the vault doors.
The metal fell away with a terrible clang, and the lights cast inside the dullness of the interior, which was blacked. A rush of dreadfully stale air drifted out, and inside, then, was the first of the aliens. It was, to Chand, immediately recognizable, having been mummified to incredible precision in a room that clearly the worker bots had not had access to. Nonetheless, it was also crushed to the point that it had clearly been killed in the collision and not in the subsequent period from starvation; a small mercy. But the six arms were visible, three pairs, the head, feminine but still sharp and harsh, eyes gently closed. The smashed torso was long, and provided few further clues. The upper body seemed almost human, the hair having once been blue. The lower body, neatly desiccated even though it had been equally smashed into the immense bulkhead on the far side of the racquetball sized room, was that of a snake's, immense, seven or eight meters long and coiled in a last reflex of death, vibrant green scales preserved in the dead atmosphere where they had fallen off the corpse as it was mummified in the dryness. The crew, then, had literally been Nagas.
The salvage crew, however, could scarcely care about the dead. Some of them gave shocked expressions, and muttered. A few of the more religious crossed themselves like they were encountering a demon itself. The rest quickly realized that, stocked in aisles and shelves along the outer edges and reaching to three times any height they could obtain even in the weak gravity of the planetoid, the shelves were stocked with, neatly sealed in plastic and organized systematically, the sundry personal valuables of the crew. In some places these looked like momentos, books perhaps or other things which had decayed into piles of dust while others, resilient like the flesh of the creature, were still intact and the devanagari-like script was still readable. There were, preserved in the dry air, some ceremonial swords, too, wicked and traditional-seeming.
But these they all ignored, and with good reason, for the quantities of jewelry was immense. Dilithium crystals, the finest gems in the cosmos with their unique, unreplicatable structure--unlike Diamonds, they could not be made, the number in the universe was fixed, and regenerative processes for them made them highly radioactive--were set in strange, shiny white-silver metal, finer and more lustrous than platinium--and more mytag crystals were there too, incredibly valuable for their efficiency in hyperlight communications, but being used as mere jewelry by the people of this crew, and vibrant firestones besides.
And there was gold and platinium, both having largely lost their value but for the wise collector completing these beautiful and intricate pieces, brooches and brocades and rings and necklaces and tiaras, all the finery that one could imagine from an Imperial storehouse, and the remnants of fabric which had once had that strange metal and those valuable crystals woven into it besides, and some incredibly rare Jade, still formed by hard to replicate processes, and the same with opals, completed the whole semblance of dazzling wealth, which reflected so brilliantly that the moment the searchlights of the crew were swung onto it, it lit up the entire chamber in perfect brilliance, like the light of day except glittering and glimmering with wealth, and seeming to make the corpse against the far wall all the more sad.
It was the unique nature of that strange solid metal that attracted attention, and indeed, it consumed Maria far more than all the other wealth put together. For Chand, it seemed vaguely familiar, and though he held his tongue in uncertainty as Maria brought a scanning device forward to one of the shelves merely containing bars and coins of the stuff, like it was meant to be currency. And it was, as she paled, and uttered in stunned disbelief: "That's latinium. Latinium.... That's solid at room temperature! These aliens found a way to alloy latinium so that it was solid at room temperature!"
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2008-11-16 07:18pm
Her exclamation went mostly unnoticed as the crew crowded into the room, grasping for the glittering jewels and gleaming wealth stored among the shelves. They had brought along a number of containers with them, some suitable for vacuum sealing hazardous materials, others for handling live weapons, but the most ubiquitous method of transporting loot were simple burlap sacks from the cargo bay. Two dozen men surged into the room with the large brown bags in hand, clawing forward, pushing, shoving, and rushing to get at the most attractive pieces of loot, without the slightest consideration of anything else. Chand and Maria were pushed up against the wall, pressed up beside the corpse and away from the shelf of latinium. Both simply stood speechless as the frenzy took over even the most sober of the crew, and for safety’s sake did nothing to interfere.
Chand watched as Serrano bodily threw two men aside to get at the dilithium jewelry first, and began shoving artifacts off the shelf and into his bag with both of his enormous paws. On the other side of the room, the valuable books and manuscripts that had survived thirteen millennia were subjected to a rough pawing and tossing about, as they were handled by spacers concerned to find any value in them. Chand despaired for the damage that was going to be done to such invaluable works by the clumsy grubbing of the brutes. The scene of farce was highlighted further as Nikolaus grabbed one of the ceremonial swords, pretending to examine its balance, before sliding it into his sack as though it were baguette. Chand shook his head slowly, and sadly looked back at the mummified Naga, and felt deeply ashamed at the whole incident. The poor creature’s tomb was being rifled through by ignorant rabble in a greed stricken frenzy, and if it had avoided being defiled it was only because the easier, more prominent loot was drawing their attention.
Maria shifted beside him, and it drew his attention back to the entrance where Rachel had been pushed down to the deck and was in danger of being trampled as the crew poured in, and shoved their way out with loaded bags to grab more. She pushed ahead suddenly, breaking through the flow around the room by the simple expedient of putting her shoulder forward and not stopping. Serrano, already stepping back out with his bag of loot, was caught by surprise as the much slighter Assistant Engineer brushed past his back and stumbled forward, trying to catch the spacer in front of him to keep from falling. Instead his moment sent both men sprawling forward out of the door, with Maria gracefully stepping around them to reach Rachel’s side. She extended her hand and they both left the room as Chand watched on against the wall.
The looting went on. Serrano and the spacer he had tumbled over got back up, and began fighting over the contents of their bags, which spilled out onto the deck. Nikolaus was using one of the ceremonial swords to wave other people away from the shelf with the latinium artifacts, as he shoved smaller pieces into his skinsuit’s flaps. It only a few more moments before the whole thing became a free-for-all, and Chand shrank even further up against the wall in fear and anticipation of the violence in the air.
He heard the discharge first, and drew his eyes over to the door as he saw the superheated air fly across the room towards the ceiling. Captain Rapisardi strode forward, smacking Serrano and the other crewmen with his offhand as he passed by, and menacingly waving the plasma pistol he had fired the warning shot with. Behind him, in train, Rachel and Maria followed; they had gone to get help, and the Captain had decided that restoring order was necessary.
“God damn it, control yourselves,” he bellowed over the link at everyone. “All the loot will go back on the ship and any man caught trying to steal from the pot will lose that much out of his share. I want order, damn it. We do this orderly, and thoroughly, not like a packing of raving idiots. Gunther and Bernadino will watch over you all, if you can’t control yourselves.” The two mates appeared beside him, this time carrying the military grade rifles that were normally kept in the weapons locker aboard ship. They leveled them at the crew, no joking around with vague threats there. “Now we’ll reorganize and do this professionally, and for starters all of you can leave and bring what you have in the bags with it. We’re going to adjust the bags, send some of it back to the ship, and get everything we can. Now, any questions?”
The rifles made a convincing argument in favor of authority. Chand seemed to feel the tension, which had built up to such dangerous levels, drain away. He looked down at the corpse, perhaps spared indignity now that the situation was under the control of the officers. The crew collected themselves and filed out, herded by the guns of the mates rather than any real sense of shame or discipline, and contempt filled him. And once again he despaired that circumstances had conspired to put him in such surroundings, where his education and refinement and intelligence counted for so very little.
He reluctantly departed as the treasure-room emptied, standing alone by the doorway as the process of orderly accounting for the loot began. The Captain was at the center of things, with the two mates still covering the men, as the spacers came forward with their bags which he checked with the help of Maria. The contents were quickly sorted, and combined, and put aside for conveyance back to the ship. It took time, but it beat the unconcealed chaos that had prevailed in those moments of wild greed. This systematic looting under the direction of the officers continued for the next two hours.
Maria had in the end won out. After the looting of the purser's office--it certainly seemed it had been one, after all (had the Naga been the purser? The corpse was left quietly where it lay)--they pushed on deeper into the ship, looking for the main power sources, so they could gain control over them and thus over the ship. From there, finding a way to restore primary power and get the ship out would be feasible, but more importantly the entire ship could presumably be secured by securing the only sources of power left aboard.
Here, deeper in the hull, though, the level of preservation had changed. There was decay and corrosion, and the drip of water in places, like the backwash of atmospheric circulation or even a damaged but active plumbing situation. The euphoria in the crew from the looting began to fall away, with the only lighting provided by the lamps they carried with them, and despite the damage, the tiny robots got more and more numerous until it was hard to avoid tripping over them. It was a telling reminder that even this ship was not immune to decay.
Then Maria's radio crackled. The captain's voice boomed through. "We're in an area of hydroponics bays which appear to have overgrown, probably maintained by agri-bots." There was a pause, and then: "I want you to come up here with Chand, because I need him to see this and give me his opinion on it. His book learning might be useful after all."
"Of course, Captain," Maria answered, and glanced back to Chand, who could only shrug.
"I have found more than a few things odd about this ship," he finally offered as they started moving forward quickly toward the transponder signal from the Captain's group. They were less afraid of the tiny robots now, since several men had bumped them without trouble.
"Yeah.... It's pretty obvious some of the crew survived the crash, for one. Probably that poor creature was sealed in the safe and killed on impact, but the robots are clearly operating on long-term maintenance routines tailored to keeping the atmosphere habitable, and there's intentionally more of them here to deal with overgrown hydroponics bays. Whoever was onboard this ship not only crashed but decided to try and make a go of living aboard the ship indefinitely. And why not? The thing is the same size as the hab platform I was born and raised on. They would have heard comms transmissions at FTL at some point in the recent past if they were still alive, so, yeah, they're dead now, but this might not just be a wreck--a small community could have lived here for ten thousand years."
"Why wouldn't their own people have been able to find them?" That was something that bothered Chand intently. If a race as powerful as the ship indicated had existed, where had they gone? That they might be around still was troubling, but the thought that they had been driven extinct was hardly more comforting.
Maria shrugged indifferently. "Maybe they didn't want to be found. Lots of reasons for that. Mutineers, perhaps. Could explain the damage, pursued by other ships. Something like that."
They reached the hydroponics bay that the Captain's team was in soon enough. Captain Rapisardi was standing under the brilliant, sun-imitating lights high above... In the middle of an orchard. The forest was scented with persimmon, lychee was growing recognizably, there were apples and pomegranates, lemons and limes, pomelo, apricot and peach, vaguely pear-like fruits and cherry plums. The walls had been knocked out in places to make more room; the orchard was dense, and lush, and the somewhat exhausted men were innocently eating the fruit with no idea of what it really meant. A few agricultural robots trundled along maintaining the incredible bounty, while the atmosphere hung wet and heavy and humid.
Chand and Maria removed their helmets, following the rest of the crew in their naïve astonishment at the sight and smells of the orchard, no longer worried about hostile atmosphere or depressurized bays. Maria and the rest of the group began sitting down their equipment, taking a much desired rest and leaving Chand to marvel at such an unexpected, and altogether telling, sight.
The crew was too thoughtless to think through the implications of the fruits; Captain Rapisardi, however, was at least capable of this, and even as he quietly ate an apple, he gazed thoughtfully at Chand, pistol holstered at the ready but much less concerned about violence. "So, boy, these are all Terran fruit species. What does that mean? What's the lay of this ship?"
"No more mysterious than it was before, Sir," Chand answered, closing his eyes in thought for a long moment as he tried to put the enigma in hand. "That corpse we saw in the great safe was a Naga, a mythical creature of Hindu superstition. And it's half snake and half human--nothing like it should exist--it's a chimaera, a humanoform just like Vulcans, but more extreme. We know that an ancient alien race has visited Earth before. Otherwise Vulcans and Betazeds and so on wouldn't exist. There have been mutated or engineered plants from Earth found on some of those worlds, too. I think that we've found the wreck of a ship of that race."
"The only thing that makes sense," Rapisardi agreed after a moment. "I want you close by when we get to the reactor compartment, or whatever it will be where the ship still produces power. I'm not dim, boy, and I saw that the writing is like your Indic script. You can read it?"
"Not this, Sir. Though it is very similar to devanagari, and it might be close to Sanskrit, the old religious tongue. If I spend some time at it I might understand some of it."
"Good enough," Rapisardi answered. "Alright! We've moving forward to the reactor room now! Enough of a break."
And so they carried on, Maria's group trailing the Captain's, pressing out of the room and quickly reentering a part of the ship that was again drier and better preserved. It was only the area around the hydroponics bays that was so dank and dark, it seemed.
Then everything went to hell. As they passed one side corridor, the men of the Captain's group up ahead saw something suddenly lunging from down it, lavender beams on it sweeping in beautiful arcs of burnt ozone through the atmosphere, slicing and charring at the walls before focusing. It looked like it was half bone and half cybernetics without any flesh at all, just a few tufts of fur, and was the size of a Kodiak grizzly.
The crew tried to scatter in panic while the Captain and the two senior spacers in the group--he had weapons distributed to the very most reliable and oldest, essentially the noncoms of the civilian crew, to prevent himself from being alone with the rowdies the bulk of the crew had proved to be--brought their guns to bear and opened fire. The bony mass of a mixed group of bone spikes and metal spikes from the hideous cybernetic beast repulsed the solid shot of the rifles, though, and scarcely charred from the plasma pistol. The beams, conversely, neatly intersected to slice apart a hapless spacer, chopping his body in two and leaving him to die with his organs oozing out from above and below. Another was killed more quickly by a slicing strike from top to bottom, literally bisected by the arcing beam.
To their credit the Captain and his assistants kept firing in the futile effort to stop it even with the fear evident on their faces. Maria's group had stopped frozen as the event came together in the space of a couple of seconds, but Maria herself saw what was happening, saw the Captain's pistol doing damaged, and turned and grabbed a plasma torch, no matter that it was so heavy, from one of the men lugging them and stepped forward in intelligent determination.
A third man, running, was pursued by the hideous monster as it skewed its way off the walls in a thunderous scream of metal and bone scraping along metal and pinned it down, even as the beams tracked toward the mates. Bony jaws with barely visible flesh on them tore into the man's stomach, grinding down morbid excess as he screamed more horribly than anyone could imagine. Maria darted forward, nimble despite the weight...
..The beams tracked for her, abruptly, saving the Captain and the other armed men, but they didn't track fast enough as she brought the plasma torch up and activated it point blank into the creature. The wave of heat at that range was enough to singe her as it burned and melted the bone and metal alike, flash-frying off the cutting beams and striking deeper into the creature. It thrashed terribly and then, its organic parts burning, dropped in a heap onto the floor, the spacer caught in its jaws released to collapse like a sack of flour before it.
He continued screaming horrible, though, and everyone, the Captain included, watched in blank horror as his skin began to melt and dissolve, sizzling away as he writhed and thrashed in agony right up until the moment his body dropped dead, mercifully quickly as some kind of acid melted through every bit of organic material in him except his bones, and even those were starting to fizzle and decay as his body completely collapsed, a living man turned into a puddle of black ooze and some decayed bones on the floor in the space of thirty seconds.
The remaining members of the two teams fell into quivering silence, but Rapisardi's eyes were focused on Maria. "Knew I made a good choice in taking you aboard," he finally said. "Get those shaped blasting charges and rig them up to the rifles. We can use 'em like grenades. Distribute the plasma torches--you can keep your's--to the men who've fought before. I'll put my plasma pistol on overcharge setting--give me a few spare powerpacks."
He activated his suit’s comms selection through the HUD and quickly began speaking to the other two groups, ordering them to combine with their own right ahead, and repeating the orders and instructions for them.
"Go forward? After that?" Chand stood incredulous, fighting the urge to vomit.
"It's five hundred meters to the main power sources, boy," Rapisardi answered flatly, "and two thousand and five hundred meters to the airlock." That silenced all further opposition, and even Chand didn't particularly feel like risking himself to such attacks for five times longer. They might, after all, be able to shut down whatever was signaling the things when they got there. Assuming they weren't just randomly roaming around the ship....
"We can combine the electric quick-rechargers with null-grav grab pulls, Sir," Maria offered. "Make shock prods with enough power to short out the electronics on those.. Cybernetic things." She was panting hard and more than a bit scared, but too eminently practical to be given over to the urge to vomit, particularly when outsiders were starting to respect her for once like she would have garnered even as a woman amongst other Belters. "Rig up some flamethrowers, too. They got parts that can burn."
"We'll get on it when the teams combine for safety," Rapisardi noted, and then waved them forward, the color having returned to his face. After seeing the wonders of the purser's safe, he was not about to turn back now.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2008-11-16 11:50pm
They spent about thirty minutes in one group preparing themselves for the dash while the plasma torch armed personnel stood guard on the outside of the formation. It was a weak imitation of any sort of military stance, and the weapons were jury-rigged and of marginal effectiveness against the hideous armoured and bony creatures. Then the Captain waved them on again, and they moved at a quick dash through the ship. Despite the sometimes tangled condition of the corridors and the confusing need to keep moving in a straight line despite the fact the open corridors did not go in such a line, they made very good time, traversing three hundred meters of absolute distance in twenty minutes. These corridors were however, excellently maintained. There were no debris, the lights were on, and the larger maintenance bots were again visible in some numbers, one of which, for instance, blocked the corridor they needed to go down as it trundled along, apparently replacing light fixtures.
"We'll go around it," he finally ordered in disgust, and rather randomly chose the left direction. They soon found themselves at least fifty meters off their path, everyone growing more nervous, as they arrived before an immense door once more. Considering that the last of the major doors had led into the purser's office, and it might go in the right direction, anyway, the captain waved over Maria and her team with plasma torches to cut through it and see what was inside. They would just have to walk even further out of position if they wished to avoid drilling through, after all.
When the doors collapsed inwards, though, they had clearly found something else. It was a huge room, covering the whole fifty meters they had just traversed in width. The ceiling, high, revealed a large collection of gear, odd concentrations of dead machinery connected by what looked like they might be superconducting conduits. It was a secondary generator room, or something else related with the power sources they were approaching, though it was quite dead; there were no lights on. The crew pressed on through the dark toward the far side, sweeping their lights around, hoping to find another door that would lead out.
On the far side, they found a door, alright, but it was not simply closed that the heavy bulkhead doors to the apparent generator room. It had, itself, been welded shut. Plasma torches cut without even a need for a command as the need to forge their way forward was acutely felt. Their cutting was again finished, and they ducked clear of the sealed doors and lights were shone inside the room, which at once lit up. What was inside stood as simply incredible. The walls were covered in gold plate, and dilithium crystal studded the ceiling on jury-rigged panels. Clearly, someone had spent an enormous amount of time preparing this room. It had once been used to store things for the ship's operation, surely. Now it was being used as a tomb. Each of the storage shelves had been coated in gold leaf and had a body laid out on it, mummified.
They were human. Tall and finely dressed, with jewels around their necks and fresh grave-goods laid out. And indeed a maintenance bot was silently trundling along, removing plates of rotted fruit and replacing them with fresh ones in timeless ritual. Many of the bodies showed signs of crushing damage, in fact almost all of them did. Though a few just ahead in the centre on raised biers were immaculate, and a few others showed signs of violence. In the exact center of the room there was a little bone-temple, an ossuary built out of the remnants of those who had been smashed into unrecognizable pieces--most of the bones were fragments--or not recovered until the corpses had already decayed. The scent of the room was rich with the ancient smells of frankincense and Myrrh, of fine old resins and a bit of leather. There were probably several hundred in the room. It was clear that Maria's speculation that some of the crew and their ancestors might have survived for thousands of years on the ship.
But they were all human, and what that told, was nearly unfathomable.
Despite the urgency, despite the omnipresent fear, the intruders stood stunned for several crucial moments as they took in the sights of the tomb. Chand, impulsively, stepped forward to get a better look at the mummies as his mind processed this addition to the fantastic nature of the ship. He stepped past the threshold wielding his own light and made his way to the first of the central biers, to what seemed like the best preserved specimen. The service bot to his left continued removing trays as though nothing had changed, and so he relaxed a bit after being momentarily seized by fear at his own impetuous steps.
The dry, brown flesh of the mummy looked as fragile as parchment but it was intact, underneath a burial shroud of what looked like some form of silk. He leaned in with his light, trying to get a better idea of the appearance of the woman in life. At least, Chand presumed it was a woman; the tight skin of the mummy’s face distorted its features, accentuating its nose and drawing in its cheeks, and there were no breasts really evident, but a wig--or was it real?--of lengthy black hair seemed to betray its sex, as did the presence of jewelry around its neck and attached as earrings. The features did look vaguely Indic, he thought, and the color of the skin made it clear the mummy was neither European or African or Oriental in life. But, beyond question, it was the mummy of a human being, and Chand stepped back lest he accidentally disturb the dignity and repose of the corpse.
Behind him, the first few members of the crew stepped forward. Maria and two of her spacers, wielding plasma torches and regarding the service bot warily, forming a bodyguard of sorts as Captain Rapisardi followed. Their leader stopped in contemplation of the shelf of bodies beside him, laid out on gold-leaf with seeming care and with grave goods heaped on top. There was obviously jewelry on all the mummies, and some were wearing ceremonial outfits beneath their burial shrouds incorporating gold and silver and yet more valuable jewels, if not so great a haul as the purser’s vault than certainly still a vast fortune in wealth. The gleam of that wealth was also attracting the rest of the crew, reigniting their avarice as they inched closer and closer to the entrance.
“Pay attention behind, you damned fools,” one of the mates cautioned over the full group comm-link, and the shout made Chand look back at the scene behind him. The spacers’ anticipation, save a few hardy souls at the very rear watching out for attack, was growing. He thought he saw on slim figure among them shivering, perhaps in fear or being crowded out, or maybe their sudden surge of emotion had overwhelmed Spacer Ling? Even the Captain could feel it, despite his own investigation of the mummies, and turned back around to face them
“Alright boys, there’s more loot here,” he conceded to them. “ And it can be carried about but we can’t have another frenzy like the last time.” He did his best to assume a warm, fatherly tone with the group. “Let me figure out how to apportion things and we’ll take a little break to collect the wealth here, and be on our way as quickly as we can. The sooner we reach the main power chamber, the sooner we can take everything of worth without having to worry about those horrors.”
Maria and her group of bodyguards stepped forward to reinforce the Captain’s request for order. Chand could see the crowd recede a bit, could pick out the brute form of Serrano at the front backing up warily, like a wolf confronted with a torch. But Chand didn’t like where this was heading, one bit, and took the opportunity to contact the Captain privately.
“Sir, we shouldn’t descra....” He caught himself, barely, using a word he knew would raise the Captain’s hackles. “That is, someone went through many pains to set up this tomb for honored repose of the dead. You saw the hydroponics garden, it is possible those people or their descendants might be around in some form or another, or left those... monsters to guard their dead. Disturbing this chamber might be a very bad idea, sir.”
The Captain turned his back to Chand, examining the mummies on the shelves again. “A wee bit late for not disturbing the chamber, boy. If there’s anyone still alive here I doubt they’d appreciate us burning open the entrance to the chamber. And to hell with them if so. I’ll have a measure of vengeance for my crewmen if there’s any to be had, and if not these bags of bones aren’t going to miss the shiny jewels on top of them. If they be humans, what manner of man would craft a creature like we saw, would turn it loose to rage around at anyone who came on board?”
They were humans, Chand objected inwardly. And the thought of desecrating their bodies was repulsive. Was he going to be nothing more than a grave robber? “These corpses had nothing to do with the attack on us, Sir. Would you want someone to dig up your corpse and steal the suit on your body because you forgot to turn off the defenses on the Soccorso? This is too much, it’s too much to do in the name of greed, and we need every minute we have to insure our own survival. Don’t let the crew fight over this site like rabid dogs, or impugn your own honor by acting like some greed-crazy Jew. It’s just wrong to rip up the dead and dishonor their funeral customs, and I won’t...”
“Enough,” the Captain cut him off with an irritated command. “You’re right about that much, the crew would just tear them to pieces in their present state, and it’d cost us time.” Rapisardi turned on his speaker to address all the crew. “We’re heading on to the main power supply and that’s that. We don’t have the time to stop for long, not long enough to do this right. And when we secure control over the ship I think the authorities will want us to keep this chamber here in one piece for the eggheads and archeologists to go over. I expect there, a lot of historic significance here, after all,” he said, sarcasm in his voice evident. “Clear out, you lot, we’re moving on!”
Chand stepped forward, obedient to the command but deeply dissatisfied. Maybe the Captain wouldn’t come back later to tear the dead apart. Though the crew was another matter, if this ship was salvaged, assuming the horrors didn’t kill them all, they’d try and sneak back and take stuff for themselves. He was sure of that. He shuddered to think what a brute like Serrano would do the corpses, though in truth the intelligent but amoral Steiner might be worse. Even the spacers who hadn’t made a sport of tormenting him were usually on the impatient and greedy side, and would not be moved by sentimental concerns for propriety. And there simply wouldn’t be the manpower to crew the two ships and provide a guard for the tomb and other sensitive areas, so that meant, unless he could convince the Captain to seal the chamber again, it would be looted. Desecrated. Though that was something of a concern for later. Much later.
“Perhaps the Vedas really did describe an interstellar war,” he said aloud, to hear his own voice as he walked. There were none of the Naga in sight in the burial chamber, only what appeared as specimens of humanity. Inside a spaceship 13,000 years old, before the earliest human cities had existed and before metal-working had become commonplace. How could this be possible?
Maria was asking him, and Chand was embarrassed to see that his own comms had still been engaged. He recovered quickly, though, to respond to the Assistant Engineer without giving the appearance of being discomfited. “The Vedas are the oldest Hindu scriptures, mostly hymns to the gods and instructions for particular types of sacrifices, and so on. They do make mention of wars fought between the gods where human fighters wielded weapons of incredible power, and some of the descriptions superficially resemble nuclear weapons or spacecraft. And there’s a small but... insistent group of Hindus who claim those weapons were exactly that.”
“Then how’d we go from flying spacecraft to stone axes?” The incredulity in Maria’s voice was obvious. “This is weird, and all those bodies were human,” she conceded, “but maybe we’re leaping to conclusions. How do we know those people were the real crew and not those snake-things? Maybe they were just slaves who survived the crash, when their masters didn’t? That makes more sense than believing that human beings had ships like this thousands of years ago, and forgot about them.”
“I don’t know,” Chand replied. “You saw what I saw. They use some kind of script that looks like devanagari, there are those genetically engineered creatures that look just like Naga, and now those human corpses arrayed in burial and each provided a fortune in grave goods to rest with. I doubt slaves would have the run of the ship that way, even after a crash, or adorn their dead so finely. I’m not sure how this can be reconciled with human history, but if we do get out alive I intend to do my best to find out.”
“No dreams of owning your own planet with a harem of women and pools of wine, like the rest of the crew?” Maria needled him, playfully. “You always were the odd one out, and coming from a Belter woman that’s saying something. In a good way, compared to some of the riff-raff we have.”
Chand declined to respond and Maria had to return to her vigilant watch for any sight of the horrors. Though she marked it as a bit of a pity she hadn’t spoken to him much beforehand, since he was at least educated enough to be polite and extend her the respect she had to earn from the rest of the crew. Granted, her own interests were more masculine than his, and he’d never given her the slightest interest in being interested in her, unlike... every other male member of the crew, except her superior Jozef, who was far too old, Grunbaum who was as religious as he was sober, Ling who was also female, and the Captain who had his own wife aboard watching. She regrettably concluded that shipboard rumor was accurate and he probably was homosexual.
Unfortunately, she would never have the chance to ask him about it, either, for at that moment long, snakelike articulated robots blew their way out of several of the airducts around them, dropping in on the crew literally, each one spasmodically flexing and coiling around someone in a heartbeat, while their robotic fangs lunged out. The crew scattered to the point that of the six, only one succeeded in clamping into its target and injecting it with the horrifying acid like the others had.
The shock-prods came in handy too, delivering enough electricity to the robotic beasts that they uncoiled and flopped uncontrollably, well, the four they were able to get in time. The other two continued to constrict until they had crushed the men under their compressing coils into a fruit pulp. Maria realized that the moment they were free they'd strike again, and opened up with the plasma torch almost at the some moment as one of the other spacers wielding one. The men in their grasp were certainly dead, after all. Even as the smell of burning flesh permeated the air, she wondered how the hell it was possible for them to have gotten past their scanning equipment, but the ship's material was almost impervious to it, anyway.
Before they could respond to the loss of another three men or consider the fate of their efforts, one of the previously quiescent maintenance bots had turned suddenly and with its powerful drill bored straight into Chand's stomach as he fell back from the snakes from his place beside Maria. She could only watch in stunned horror now as his face turned ashen and the grasping claws of the robot clutched at him and hauled him off down one of the side corridors. For all that the crew hated him, there was a basic human instinct there, and a few lunged to pursue, but then the thunderous sound of the charging approach of not one but two of the spikey cyborg beasts forced them back to their own task for survival.
One of the mates opened up with a rocket-assisted breaching projectile from the tip of his rifle, and this blew off one of the legs, leaving the beast to skid forward even as Maria stepped up to his side and incinerated it in a terrible burst of plasma before it could lunge at the mate's ankles. Behind them, though, the cutting beams on the other of the cyborgs had sliced one of the torch-armed men in two and then it charged straight into another, not even bothering to inject him, but instead merely crush him into the wall with such terrible force as to rupture his torso, organs drooling out of the cracked flesh and bones protruding. The creature raged, and swung for its next target... And then vanished in a flare of plasma.
Rachel Ling, trembling but with certain eyes, held the plasma torch of the fallen spacer, having hefted it enough from where it fell just enough to fire it into the beast next to her. Grunbaum gently took it from her and gave her a pat on the shoulder as he helped her away from the crushed corpse and the charred and melted remains of the cyborg alike.
Everyone worked to catch their breath, panting. Everyone except Maria. "We'd lost six men this time, Captain! And Chand being dragged off while still alive at that--god knows what will happen to him. We need to get out of here. The haul from the vault will make those of us who survive all billionaires anyway. Come on!"
"You're right," Rapisardi sighed, gravely shaken. "Alright, we'll start back. And loot those damned mummies for a bit of vengeance and more coin while we're at it. Damn you pack of rats, the women being the most courageous of the lot." Furious at his inability to claim the whole prize, he started to lead them back; but at the last intersection before the entrance into the burial ground for the humans of the ship's crew, two more of the horrible spiky cyborg beasts awaited, spied by Maria as she looked around the corner. They stood waiting, and pawing the ground, as she piped the feed back into the Captain's helmet and whispered softly.
"Look. We're not going to be able to get back through the chamber, Captain. We're going to have to work our way around."
"We could rush them..."
"Those cutting beams will slice us all into little pieces if we step into the corridor, Sir, the way they are. No we can't. We need to go around. I know it's another kilometre, but getting out of the ship fast only matters if it keeps us alive."
"You're right. We'll cut across and keeping going ahead, then, try to double-back to the left later. How do we make the dash?"
"Covering fire from the flamethrowers should confuse whatever seekers they have, Sir.... I think."
"Then let's get on it."
They were fighting for their lives, now, but some of them might not believe it. They would soon enough. Maria tensed, waited for the men with the improvised flamethrowers to come up, and wished that Chand was still alive.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2008-11-17 03:51pm
The first thoughts of consciousness for Chand were vague, irritated. There was an itching sensation in his stomach; and then white light burst in, flooded in. The usual thoughts, up to and including am I dead ? flared through him, but instead the feeling of a plastic lining over his body brought him back to his senses. Desperate for air, he batted at it and found it falling away easily, and the roof of the wrecked ship above, while he was in a box, the lid now opened, that glowed on the inside. He sat up, naked, and forced himself to focus and look around, a sharp welt of red flesh visible where he had been speared through by the hideous power drill, but no ill effects, not even any pain in evidence.
A change of clothes had thoughtfully been provided on a rack on the far side of the room, or perhaps several, but the most obvious feature that was present beyond the clothes was a brilliant golden statue of a goddess with four arms, seated in a golden throne, rigid and hieratic. It dominated the room, with excellent and exquisitely lifelike features, and indeed was of an absolutely lifelike size and imagery. The light diffusely came from the edges of the ceiling, and nothing else was in evidence.
His sense of bewilderment and fear was momentarily overwhelmed by an intent curiosity. Chand stood up carefully, climbing over the top of the box, or whatever it was. He took another look at the golden statue, somewhat mesmerized by it, but his modesty won out and he headed over to the rack to grab the clothes on top it. They felt silken to his touch, but it was exotic fabric indeed, decadently sensual, though that was a sensation far outside any experience he had had for a long time. He slid the thin top over his chest first, before slipping on the pajama style bottoms. Where am I? The question dominated his thoughts.
As he finished dressing, the statue split open and began to fold up together, revealing under it a sharp nose, sharp-boned woman, still definitely woman, yes, but with a hawkish and predatorily beautiful face, high, dark eyes and long hair back, and the light tint of her skin suggesting she was, in fact, very closely related to Chand in ethnographic terms; of the purest of high castes of India, or outright an admixture of Caucasian and Indian. In a tradition older than time itself the third eye of her forehead was marked, though in vibrant blue rather than a darker colour of henna. She was wearing a long, robelike coat over her own rather sparse spacer's vacsuit, though no helmet was noticeable. Golden bracelets on her wrists were fused into the chair, as though she were a prisoner, until at the last moment they unlatched and released her, letting her stretch her arms.
Her hair was long and held back in a gold brooch inset with dilithium crystals to pull it back tautly before allowing it to fall, and blue-dyed nails followed together on the long fingers of all four hands that she had, being very much actually four-armed, as advertised by the statue. She stretching from her repose and stepped up with the aide of one of the pairs of hands, both being seamlessly integrated. "Chand, your name is? Respectable enough. I'm going to keep you as a concubine."
The voice hung smoky and confident in the air, from a figure who was at least one and three-fourths meters tall, and really, incredibly beautiful. And very nearly a goddess.
Chand was not unaffected by the sight before him, despite the speculations of the crew. In truth there was some overpowering effect the woman had on him, and he tried hard to resist the temptation to simply throw himself on the floor before her. He shook his head, trying to retain his grip on reality. Maybe he had died after all. "Flattered," he found himself replying, with cracked voice. "Uhm, who are you? And where am I?" He was flustered, and embarrassed at asking such prosaic questions. But then, he needed information.
"You are on the Sarasavsat Cruiser Nyapasurna, and I am the Captain, Her Ladyship Jhamraste Sarpuradi, and, I will admit, the last survivor of the crew entire." She stepped closer to him, unconcerned by the prospect of resistance, and placed her lower pair of hands on his hips, smiling very gently. "Whereas you are the first trespasser to show any signs of deeper ethical thought."
Chand knew he should be alarmed by the woman, would have flinched from the contact normally, but something in her demeanor kept his normal flight instincts at bay. He wasn't relaxed exactly, but he fought hard to master any displays of shivering or other signs of fear. The Indic trappings of the ship, and its captain, were undisputable at least. But only a small part of his brain was processing the implications. "Me?" He found himself deeply interested in the ali... in Jhamraste's opinion. After all, his life depended on it. "What have I done to show that?"
"You talked the Captain out of desecrating the tomb of my officers. That was the first test in seeing if any of you are worth redeeming. That, and I can easily see in your mind and see that you're both refined and at least somewhat decadent. Altogether, the first--and only--worthwhile creature I've found in a while. Though it will be interesting to test and see what you're really capable of being In short, are you an animal, or a human? In the meantime, of course, we have the little band of grave-robbers you carried yourself in with, invaders who would defile a Sarasavsat warship, for me to deal with. It's been a nice challenge, fighting them. I haven't tasted real blood in thousands of years... Locking myself into a virtual reality world to avoid complete insanity when I ended up the last one alive, my body often taxed to the limit by the efforts of the nanites in it to repair the damage. But at least your language was trivially simplistic to learn from your minds, and some of you do show real potential..." Her lower arms dropped away, and she stepped, unhurried, to the far side of the room, pacing.
It took him a pregnant moment to grasp altogether what she was saying. He began to object; it was only common decency that had made him stand up to the Captain about defiling the corpses. But then, no one else in the crew had, and there were plenty among them who would have gladly ripped apart the bodies for the gold they carried. His old feelings of shame about the company surged to the fore, but then he recalled Maria. There was also Rachel, who had signed on, like him, to escape a terrible situation. Israel wasn't a bad person either. "There will be more tests for the rest of the crew?" He could see better, at least, to bother reasoning with her about the lives of the crew. She was clearly anticipating the challenge, the blood, and her promise of testing him as to whether or not he was 'an animal, or a human' left more than a bit of a slight thrill within his veins.
"Yes. I have two needs. The best from either test I will let go.... The rest will sate them. That is the honourable way, to let the best have their lives when they've been tested and proved they're the finest among all the specimens Dharma has sent to me. Perhaps, I suppose, some will even prove themselves human. Then there will be those who sate my needs--and unless you can prove yourself better still, Chand, you fall into that category, in one of the ways--and the rest, well, they will mostly die in the testing of their will or the will of others, anyway."
She keyed open the door with abrupt decision. "Come on. There's a few things for us to do while I handle the details of the pursuit." She turned, and offered a sly smile. "I mean, do you really want to hold false sentimentalities for those who treated you so basely? We are all human here, even if your blood has mingled with lower castes and been polluted. Let yourself have some revenge. Even my concubines will receive many chances for that, when I escape from this prison of my solitude."
Chand walked forward, toward the almost mythic figure and her beckoning doorway. He wanted to feel as if he held no free will, but he was consciously choosing not to resist. He told himself it would be foolish and suicidal. That he could only mitigate the disaster by cooperating. And he knew they were lies. He wanted to know more. He could feel the attraction, the fascination that Jhamraste held for him. "As you say, Ladyship. I have a great many questions for you, if you would indulge me..."
"Good. There is plenty of time for answers," her smile turned lazily as she stepped into what seemed to be a private room with a mix of sleeping quarters and readouts and displays. "I imagine your people, for that matter, appear to be the heirs of the survivors of Earth from the base treachery of our nominal allies in the last days, and the battle we fought over the planet.... It is that conflict my ship escaped from, and I thought I folded through time and space to another universe. But I can see that somehow or another Earth now exists in many universes, or perhaps always did. I have seen in you the evidence of this, and I will learn about it as much as you learn from me the true history of the human race. It is... ...Relieving, to finally have new information enter my mind, instead of merely the sophisticated daydreams of computer fantasies."
He advanced somewhat eagerly now, following her lead freely. "I look forward to learning, and telling you what I can." He was stating nothing less than the complete truth. "Uhm, perhaps it would be easiest if you started with Earth? This ship was, we gathered, at least 13,000 years old and it seems impossible, from what we know of our prehistory, that such advanced technology could have existed at that time." And then he thought again. "And uhm, universes? You know about the portal?"
"My dear, you were born in the ruins of my people, and I, well, I can see inside you and all the others. I have been learning from your minds even as you approached close to me, and now, I have a good idea of the most of you. Already I am enlightened, and things can only grow from here. Let us sit together, and play chess, and you will learn what you need to know of my world, and of our glories..."
They lost one man getting past the guardian cyborgs on the approach to the tomb room. More of the robotic snakes dropped out of the air ducts as they entered the corridor to dash across it, and one had plunged its acid-spewing fangs into the skin of a man's leg before it could be killed. They were all dispatched, however, and with a party of eighteen survivors when they had started with twenty-eight, they moved forward. Pushing along through the great hull, they did not seem to be further pursued by such monstrous creatures, and finally reached what looked like a major corridor so that they could double back.
Pressing along it, they quickly proceeded down the hull, only to find that they had passed through a longitudinal bulkhead; they were quickly traveling, though vaguely in the right direction, well away from the actual path they'd taken before. Now they were running, to, into marks along the corridors, like small arms fire had been exchanged heavily in these areas. "Signs of a mutiny?" Maria mused, letting the Captain hear it.
"Doesn't matter much now, the way whatever is left is attacking us," he answered flatly, clearly letting a bit of his own frustrated terror show through. They could well get back to the ship and still be impossibly rich, but they'd have to survive to do it first, and that would be the real challenge. Then, ahead, a sealed blast door set. The lights were on....
Maria nervous stepped up and, recognizing what seemed to be a control, slammed her gloved fist into it as she slung the plasma torch back, the weight staggering her shoulder. A yellow light started flashing above as a klaxon droned and incomprehensible words came out.
"I'm going to guess the other side is in vacuum from damage, Sir," she reported grimly. "And that's a sealed transverse bulkhead on a military-grade vessel. No way a plasma torch would cut through it in a million years and a thousand power packs."
"Can you force it open electronically?"
"Tell everyone to get up close. If I can, there's going to be a backup of some sort activated to keep the corridor system from venting entirely--this is a warship, and so there might be damage control access but they're generally pretty ruthless about letting people die in loss of atmo situations, Sir."
"Try it," he answered through the suit comm, and turned to bring everyone together. "We should be able to escape by walking out along through one of those cutting beam paths to the exterior and signaling for the Soccorso to come 'round for us, after all. Easier than I thought," he added for the crew's relief.
Maria bit her lip and started pressing buttons randomly. Abruptly a forcefield activated behind them, startling the crew, but it made her enthusiastic. She plunged her hand down on the same main button that had previously triggered the alarm. The blast doors flew open with such a rush as to seem like they were traveling damn near close to supersonic--isn't that rather dangerous as hell? Of course I guess they want to make sure they close fast in combat...
"Hmm. It's not under vacuum ahead anyway, but atmo is stale and dead and... Damn, that corridor was flash-fried. No wonder it's stale, it's really just cooled plasmas. We might still get somewhere here, sir."
"Then we move on," Rapisardi replied, and pushed ahead with the mates to flank Maria as they walked down the tangled, melted, and cooled corridor... To come face to face with a wall of blackened, charred metal that flowed organically at a curved angle across the corridor. Groans filled the open comms from the surviving spacers.
"Molten metal splashed across the hull by the outer bands of an energy beam," Gunther was quick enough to recognize. "That's actually a good sign, I believe, Captain..."
"On it." She brought up the plasma torch and engaged in it. It cut smoothly through the thin band of molten metal, soon blasting out a large enough section for them to all step through as the air disappeared with a brief, sucking puff. But beyond there was only darkness. As they nervously climbed into the beam's circumference--an area of several meters in diameter--and slipped and slid down toward the base, their lights vanished into the gloom.
"Damn. It's buried by the ship's impact."
The feelings of hopelessness seemed to surge again.
"We can keep going, though," Captain Rapisardi again did his best to infuse the crew with some confidence. "We can cut through to the other side, and since it's a separate sealed compartment area, there will need to be at least one other access point in it through that longitudinal bulkhead and back into the centre of the ship. And when we're there we can travel directly across to the Soccorso. With luck and God's grace, the section up ahead will be dead with damage, too, or even in vacuum, and we won't need to worry about further attacks."
"Right Sir," Maria answered in grim practicality, and raised the plasma torch again. It didn't activate. The belter cursed under her breath and started to change out powerpacks while one of the spacers stepped forward with his plasma torch. They were the only weapons that worked reliably against the spikey cyborgs with a one hit kill, but using them for that and for cutting through such heavy walls of incredible material was rapidly depleting their battery packs. She only had one more after this one, and even if the others were better off... Well, we'll just have to get out before we run out. Somehow.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-05-26 05:35am
Maria Lauwens was relieved to find out that the upper section of the beam’s circumference that they’d crawled into, parted as easily to a plasma cutting torch as that of the area they’d blasted through. But more importantly, there was no atmosphere on the other side, which was even more positive, not even plasmas. That implied that the whole section might have been vented. “Captain, we’ve got vacuum on the other side. It’s probably all dead.”
“Alright, Maria. Go ahead,” Captain Rapisardi answered as he herded the rest of the crew through and Maria and the mates, taking point with plasma cutters, thrust their way through the gap into the corridor ahead, blackened, charred, and twisted by the nearness to the shot from the enemy ship so many aeons ago. There was a blast door ahead, but it was half-open from where the power had apparently died. Ahead, however, the corridor was not charred or seared. It had happened after the battle.
Gunther took a long look ahead. “’Wonder why this section is depressurized,” he muttered.
“Probably they just don’t have enough repair bots to finish any kind of major repairs,” Maria answered.
“Keep on moving up there!” Rapisardi’s voice broke through. “Let’s take advantage of the vacuum while we can.”
“Roger that, Captain.” Maria shrugged drolly and started forward at a dog trot, the best she could manage with the heavy plasma cutter and powerpacks firmly affixed to her body. There seemed to be little in the way of prospects for finding anything alive around here, and the corridors took on a regular sort of organization which seemed to resemble a habitation section.
“Maybe we should check some of these habs out?” Bernadino hesitated to offer. “I mean, if we’re safe here, maybe we can find something useful?”
“Maybe,” Captain Rapisardi answered. “But I don’t want to waste the plasma charges to force the doors.”
“We could see if a crowbar can do it?”
“Alright, hold pat and rest for a moment,” Rapisardi ordered. “Serrano, try to force open that door two ahead to the right, for luck. Maria, if anything happens…”
“On it,” Maria shrugged grimly. I’m starting to agree with Chand that they’re all utter idiots. …The poor bastard.
Sorreno, grunting in his space-suit, succeeded in making first a crack in the door, and then more of one. Nothing else came out, and everyone sighed a little in relief at that while Sorreno played a light around inside. “Looks like a barracks, Captain, fer Marines or something. Maybe weapons inside?”
“Doubtful. If it is marine spaces, they’d have an armoury nearby, though,” Gunther suggested as Rapisardi listened to the both of them.
“Well, we’ve got plenty of oxygen in the suits. Let’s look around a little bit. Weapons would be nice. Gunther, Maria, you take your groups and fan out into the lower decks. Bernadino, stay with me; under no circumstances are any of you to go into areas that still have atmosphere, however tempting.”
“Got it, Captain.” Maria gestured, in the lead now where Gunther would have been, as they turned to a nearby accessway and clambered down the ladder to the lower deck. It was more of the same, and Maria forged forward through the corridors. The progress easily lasted for ten minutes before she stopped abruptly, holding her hand up.
“The side corridor’s scoured to pieces. Might be something along it….”
“I’ll cover you,” Gunther offered readily, and rolled out to the left as Maria took the right… And stopped short.
“Jesus!” The Belter woman dived back under cover as Gunther dropped to the deck. She edged back… “Holy hell, it’s a combat walker someone managed to wedge through the big arterial corridors. …And it looks like there’s something, someone, inside of it.”
Gunther rolled around and took it in, prone on the melted and scarred deck. “Goddamn, you’re right. I guess there really was some kind of mutiny…”
“..And someone vented the compartments one side or the other held to space? Yeah, looks like it.” Maria pushed herself up, noticing a thin carbon ash was now sticking to the outside of her suit. Her expression took on a visibly disgusted tone, and Gunther winced.
“That’s probably what the guns on that walker made of a couple of men, isn’t it?”
“Charred to fine ash? Probably, the way these bastards did things. Let’s go see, though. If it’s still got power….”
“Yeah. I’ll call it in to the Captain,” Gunther replied, boosting power on his comm. “Captain, we’ve found a combat walker wedged into one of the cross-corridors here. Might be able to break it out if it still has power. It looks intact. Some corpse inside of it, though, but Maria’s checking it out right now.”
“We’ve found a store of weapons,” Rapisardi answered eagerly from the other side. “Looks like the armoury was blasted open in some fighting and there’s still some weapons in here. We…. Mother of God!”
The Captain swore of abruptly as Spacer Brown screamed in agony as he was torn in two. Serrano, holding the weapon, looked up in shock as the lavender-coloured beam finished its merciless slicing. He was standing almost in the opposite direction of Brown, facing the wall, and had been pulling the trigger to test the weapon on the Captain’s order.
“What the hell happened!?” Rapisardi barked as Brown’s corpse ceased to twitch.
“Look at the emitter, Captain,” Steiner interrupted with a casual gesture, unbothered by the death, and pointed to the gun Serrano was still holding and looking dumbly at. “It’s tracked all the way back, damn near hit Serrano to slice up James like that. These goddamned bastards got auto-track and lock weapons and all that. Press the trigger and it’ll sweep until it finds something moving, then chop it up, don’t even have to move t’gun.”
“How did they manage to use them safely, then?” Bernadino demanded.
“Everyone was supposed to be in combat suits with IFF transponders, I’d suppose,” Rapisardi answered bitterly. “Hell of a thing if I’ve ever seen it, though. Any way to lock it down?”
Steiner snatched up one of the guns and looked over it thoughtfully, then crowed in triumph. “Yeah! There’s a little pin you can slide in place which manually fixes the emitter forward. Got it.” He confidently swung the weapon toward the wall and pulled the trigger before Rapisardi could get him to stop, but this time the beam fired true and bored its way through the wall with a hiss and sizzle and spurt of vapourized metal.
“Captain? Captain!?” Gunther was still desperately trying to get a response on the comm as he listened to the chaos of what was happening in the armoury.
“We lost Spacer Brown. Their guns have auto-tracking features so that they’ll home in on the nearest target no matter where they’re pointed. There’s a manual lock-down feature, though. Make sure it’s attached before you use the damned things,” Rapisardi answered with grim tiredness left in his voice.
“Understood, Captain.” Gunther glanced down the corridor. “Maria?”
“I heard it,” Maria answered from where she was supervising Israel and one of the other men in pulling the desiccated corpse of a man with four arms out of the cockpit of the small walker.
“The hell…” Maria muttered softly. His clothing was comparable to that of the mummified people entombed, as well. Clearly one of the more important men on the ship. “Did we really look carefully at many of those bodies? Are they aliens after all?”
“No, they’re not,” Rachel Ling abruptly exclaimed. “I… I can feel a malaise hanging here that’s human.” She then shrank as all the eyes in the party were on her through their suits.
“Fucking psycher…” someone muttered over the coms.
“Silence! Telepaths are human, and just as much people as we are.” Maria looked firmly over to Rachel. “A death sense. Isn’t that, well… Impossible?”
“Not with the recently dead. Never seen mummies before…” Rachel answered weakly. “And they’re so strong. All of them were so powerful of telepaths, I can feel it, like it distorted everything around us, lingers in their minds. There’s some kind of presence here, and the best I can tell is that it has to come from the corpses.”
“How powerful…” Maria paled as she looked down at the body.
“Like the most powerful telepaths in existence, Ma’am.”
“Could this sense be caused by anything else?” Maria looked back up, licking her lips slowly, for they were abruptly dry.
“…Maybe if one of them was still alive, somehow,” Rachel swallowed. “I wasn’t sure before, but now, seeing the corpse, I’m sure they were telepaths. I’m not sure if one is alive, though. I’ve heard of telepaths sensing death-emotions before but I didn’t think I was that good.”
“Well, that goes together with something.”
“What’s that, Maria?” Gunther walked forward, gently offering a hand to the quivering Rachel in a rare gesture of kindness to calm her.
“There ain’t any controls in the cockpit here, not even a jack for a neural net hookup. Rachel, could you come here, please?”
Rachel nodded and stepped over to the walker, around the body, and climbed to the back of the cab. The two women were small enough compared to the intended height of the occupant that they could somewhat fit in by each other, space-suits crushed up together. “What can I do…?”
“Get in, and see if you can feel anything,” Maria answered, jumping down below the stuck walker.
Rachel obeyed, sliding in and positioning herself into the seat in the immensely tiny cockpit. She settled down carefully, and stretched out with all her ability…. And was suddenly dazzled by the knowledge flooding her mind as running lights activated and servo-motors whirred through diagnostic checkups.
“Figures.” Maria smiled a bit proudly.
“How the hell does that work?” Gunther answered over the comms. “Telepathy influencing machines like that is impossible.”
“It isn’t impossible now, apparently. I’m going to guess that they designed it that way so that slaves or underlings or whatever couldn’t activate them. Just a guess, but I get the feel that all these diffusions of different kinds of humanoforms on this ship suggests there was some kind of caste system like the Indics still have. I don’t know as much on it as Chand would have, though.” She shrugged, and sighed. “Rachel, do you think you can control it?”
“It’s teaching me, Ma’am. I’ll need a few minutes.”
“That’s kinda creepy,” Maria muttered. Who built this stuff to last for more than ten thousand years just sitting here?
Sounds could be heard coming down the corridor they’d approached down, however, and Gunther detached a few men to face that way; they were nearly shot by Bernadino and his men, before Captain Rapisardi’s voice barked out: “That’s Gunther, damn it all!”
The reunion was quick, but Rapisardi’s remaining men had brought extra rifles and power-packs with them; the procedure for changing those was unsurprisingly idiotically simple, as it was in most armies. Rapisardi took charge of the situation, taking the jammed walker well into view, and promptly asking: “Why’d you put Spacer Ling in it, exactly? She doesn’t have the experience.”
“She’s brave enough, Captain,” Maria answered. “And more importantly she’s a low-end telepath. Just enough to control the vehicle. As some kind of security measure it uses some kind of machine-brain telepathy interface, damned if I know how it works. But it does, no controls but it opened right up for her. She thinks all of the important members of the crew were telepaths, and I agree with her. They were probably thinking of keeping heavy weapons like this out of the hands of their servants or slaves, maybe, by making them only work with people who were psychers.”
“I’ll be damned,” Rapisardi muttered, and then addressed Ling: “I’ll forgive you for not revealing that you’re a psycher to me if you show some steel in handling that thing, we’ve got a real chance of getting out of here alive now, and you’re crucial to it!”
“Th-thank you, Captain. You won’t regret putting your confidence in me,” Ling answered, sure, but still unsteady.
“Good. Now let’s see about getting off this hel…”
Down every one of the surrounding undamaged corridors the lights progressive began to turn on, filling the area with brilliance and intensity of light as they hadn’t see the entire time on the ship. In the same moment, vibrations filled the floor, a distinct sort of vibration which is caused by fans. A flurry of dust quickly obscured their view and the faintest hints of sound started to reach them.
The spacers looked amongst each other in stark horror. Something, someone, was repressurizing that block of the ship, in a deliberate, purposeful, and controlled fashion.
“What’s been intentionally depressurized, can be intentionally repressurized,” Gunther muttered with an almost medieval look of dark suspicion as he reached for one of the ship’s rifles that Rapisardi’s group had brought down for them. “Captain…”
“I.. I think we’re being hunted.”
Maria swallowed, and nodded in the affirmative with her suit facing Captain Rapisardi’s. “It seems pretty inescapable now,” she softly added. “And Spacer Ling had some evidence for it anyway.”
“Spacer Ling?” Captain Rapisardi looked down severely toward the walker. “What’s the evidence?”
“I feel something in the air, I have since I arrived. I think it’s maybe these bodies here, some psychic aftertaste from their deaths.. Maybe. I’m not well trained. There’s another possibility, though. That possibility is that these sensations of malevolence I’ve been getting… Are from a powerful telepath who’s still alive onboard.”
Rapisardi answered by going through the melodramatic gesture of rechecking his rifle. “Well, at least we’re armed now. Guns distributed to everyone?” He glanced around to confirm it.
“Yes Captain,” Gunther replied. “What next?”
“Well, we don’t just stand around getting older by the second while they creep up on us. We’ve got to move out and keep moving from here on out. Spacer Ling, can you fight with that blasted thing yet?”
“Yes, Captain. I’m finishing up now.” “
“Then let’s get out of here. Does that transverse corridor at the junction with the walker stop anywhere?”
“Yes, it does look to go straight through,” Maria answered.
“Then let’s go.” Rapisardi pressed ahead, shimmying between the legs of the walker and out into the transverse corridor, followed progressively by his nephew and their own men. Gunther’s group was starting through next when suddenly, on the far end of the burnt corridor the walker had once defended, an entire pack of the deathly cyborg direwolves—the name was dredged from Maria’s memory with a shock of recognition—charged, snarling, the weapons on their backs tracking, into sight heading right for them.
“RUN!” Bernadino, who could still see, simply shouted, and his group started to press ahead as the captain tried to make some sense of it, and the rest of the spacers squeezed through the Walker, all apparently willing to leave Rachel to her fate.
Then the walker opened up. A quad anti-personnel cannon set was its only armament, but as Maria ducked beside one of the legs she could feel the searing heat as fat white bolts lanced down the corridor and superheated the fresh atmosphere, the cyborg direwolves vanishing in controlled bursts of fire, burning brilliant white as they were carbonized to dust and the melted metal parts flung down the corridor with wild intensity, refracted portions of the bolts searing even deeper gouges in the already battered walls.
But more of them were coming, and the robotic snakes that had attacked before were now also forcing their way out of the vents with the section opened back into communication with the rest of the ship. “Maria!” Rachel shouted a bit frantically. “The legs are stuck into the walls of this corridor, blast them free, I’ll cover you!”
“On it.” Maria wasn’t going to leave Rachel, not now, not come hell or high water, and she coolly raised her plasma cutter and opened up on the melted and shattered metal of the walls where return-fire against the walker had presumably shattered them ages ago, while overhead those fat white energy bolts tore their way through the attacking creatures and robotics, Maria grimly pinning her hope in Rachel being able to take them down before any cutting beams could reach them.
In the front of the fleeing group, though, there was more trouble which brought them immediately to a halt. Another group of direwolves rushed to attack, but this time, Serrano and Steiner looked to each other, and by silent agreement, decided the time had come to fight back. They leveled their rifles and opened fire without even bothering to take cover. It was a race against time until the automatic tracking beams, like the one that had killed Brown, reached them, after all. The faster they shot, the better their chance at living, even as the rest of the spaces recoiled in blind fear, except Gunther who raced to aid them, having military experience when most of the others, ultimately, were now just terrified civilians.
They somehow blasted their way through the direwolves without getting killed, and the two pressed ahead with Gunther in support… Just for some more of the maintenance robots to burst out of concealed access hatches in the corridor, firing blue coronal weapons which seemed like stun guns, and grasping the two men. Gunther leveled his rifle and fired despite the danger of hitting them; one leg was blasted off the right of the maintenance bots as the men struggled and cursed, but it limpingly managed to drag itself out of view anyway.
“God Damn It!” Gunther swore vigorously as Rapisardi brought the rest of the men up, even as the sounds of a firefight being held by Maria and Rachel continued. “We lost Steiner and Serrano now, too, though they blew a course out for us. But the maintenance robots carried them off just like they did Chand.”
“Christ all, we’re losing everyone now. But it’s a chance, at least! A chance! Let’s hurry while we’ve got it!”
“What about Lauwens and Spacer Ling, Captain?” Gunther demanded.
“They longer they stay there, the better the chance we’ve got.”
“You…!” Gunther clenched down on the word bastard, and before the Captain could furiously reply to the dissension, the mechanical servoes of the walker echoed through the corridor, anyway. Maria had just managed to burn through the walls enough to free it, and Rachel was now backing it down the corridor, sweeping fire for a while until it seemed like even the cybernetic direwolves had had enough, and they were left in strange silence.
Maria, hanging with one arm onto a ledge behind the cockpit door, plasma torch slung from a handrail and her other hand holding one of the ship’s rifles, looked with bitter eyes through her suit toward the Captain, but didn’t speak.
“Let’s hurry. The power packs on this thing won’t last forever, and neither while the ones in the rifles. Getting them just meant that whoever is behind this satan’s playground decided to stop holding back. We’ve got to move while we’ve got the chance, the Captain’s right there.” Another glance. “Come on!”
By sheer force of personality, Maria realized, she might as well now be running the show. The Captain and his men were increasingly falling apart under the stress, and a ruthless part of her was wondering how long it would be until they ceased to be an asset, and started to become a liability, for the survival of herself, Rachel, and those precious few of the rest who seemed able to think on their feet. But what kind of inhuman madhouse was it, really, a satan’s playground indeed, to make her think like that? She shuddered, and grimly held on a bit tighter as Rachel resumed backing the walker down the corridor, and they started their race across the vast ship to reach the Soccorso. But they’d lost three more of their number, and there weren’t that many left…
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-05-27 03:53am
The hours passed comfortably as Jhamraste defended, wore away on Chand’s attack, and then systematically began to drive back against him, wearing down every attempt at breaking out and reestablishing some momentum, and inexorably, inexorably, pushing in until she succeeded in bringing him to a decisive checkmate. It had been a joy to play against another living being, and she studied his play with the seriousness of an old priest scrying upon bones. It would tell her as much as her telepathic powers did about him, in the end, and that was virtually all of his existence.
"You appear to have some innate ruthlessness after all," Jhamraste commented with a soft sigh as she finished the effort on the eight-sided chess board with its two types of spaces, squares and triangles, and quietly took Chand's King--of a very different styling than the usual, of course. "You mastered the game very quickly despite the differences with your own version and showed all the decision required to perhaps ultimately beat me after many years of practice and improvement. Also." Her face glanced up and she smiled. "I've been scanning my way through your brain, and I sort of like what I see. You are better bred than anyone else here, and I think I will need some help to survive in this world, anyway, assuming we can't reactivate the ship and find some tylium deposits. Which probably won't happen. You may be my guide, then; if you prove yourself worthy of it, that is."
"I will explain how, my darling, quite succinctly: You must, like me, become a hunter. And if you can hunt without mercy in your heart, then I will find you worthy of such a role. Are you, perhaps, interested in the endeavour?" A vague smile flicked across perfect lips.
The smile did it. A subtle gesture hinting at the revelation of mysteries, the indulgence of the body and the intellect, a promise of a future far beyond what the simpletons who had surrounded him could conceive of. The few members of the crew worthy of his consideration were beyond his ability to help in any case. Here he had not just the prospect of survival, of the life he had lived the past decade, but of an extraordinary existence.
"What did you have in mind?" With that, he signed his soul over to the creature... to Jhamraste.
“Kill. Hunt, kill. Destroy your inferiors." Jhamraste answered softly. "Prove yourself worthy of the elevation that I offer you. I have captured Steiner and Serrano; one is strong, ruthless and stupid; the other is ruthless and intelligent. You will need to kill them both. If you can do so--don't worry about your own injuries, I will fix those--then I will reward you amply. I am winnowing the others, of course, to see who the best are, but that's not important right now. So. Will you?"
She could not have chosen better to stoke Chand's willing descent into her world. Serrano was a vile brute who had threatened and insulted him constantly since he had signed on for service with Rapisardi. He was an inferior, more of an animal than a man really. Steiner had the intelligence of a man but nothing of morality, a rapist and murderer just a little too clever to have ever been caught. He too had threatened Chand, and once in a deserted corridor had threatened personal violation. They both deserved to die.
"Just so you understand...." Jhamraste trailed off a bit ominously. "I am not going to save your life. Nikolaus Steiner is... Well, I can make him acceptable to me for long enough that he will be useful in your place, if you fail and he wins, until I can escape and find someone else more suitable. Serrano is a brute, I'll just kill him myself if he wins. But if Steiner kills you, he will do, for a short while. So remember, you're not just fighting a man who has insulted and tormented and threatened you. You are fighting your... rival." Her voice hung sultry and tempting over the last word.
Naturally, Jhamraste was no creature of sentiment. He understood that well enough after only a few hours in her company. The caution had put him in a more primitive state of mind, though. He would find and kill Steiner to prove himself worthy of Jhamraste. He would win the prize that this cruel goddess offered by destroying his enemies. The memory of that threat in the hallways came back, and he embraced the frustrated rage he had felt then. "I understand your terms. When do we begin?"
"Oh, I think right now is fine." Jhamraste jumped to her feet, and gestured with her lower right arm. "Come, follow me, Chand." She walked out of her suites and after crossing through a few corridors with Chand at her back, paused by the vibrating intensity of a forcefield which surrounded a corridor junction in which the two captured men had been rudely deposited. Now, then, they would finally see their tormentor.
He looked on with some satisfaction at the well-deserved confinement of the two men, and enjoyed the shock in their eyes as they took in first Jhamraste, and then himself. Both looked a little worse for wear, and Serrano wore his dumb-beast sense of disorientation as he expected. Steiner recovered his wits in fairly short order, which neither surprised nor intimated Chand. Serrano might have a hundred pounds of muscle on him, and more, but Steiner was going to be the more dangerous man, and he had known it as soon as Jhamraste had made her proposal.
"I am Captain First Rate Jhamraste Sapuradi, commanding officer of the Sarasavsat cruiser of war Nyapursna and you have desecrated the graves of my fellow-officers, my loyal purser, and numerous others in a crime of the severest sort. How I remain alive is not presently within your capacity to understand. Since I am however fair, there is to be a trial by combat. Three men enter," Jhamraste smiled vaguely, "One man leaves. There are guns scattered around the area in which you three will be confined for the little affair, use them as you see fit. That said, you are not going to start right next to each other." The forcefields dropped in all the other directions. "You will instead spread out, do you understand? We'll begin when you are far enough away from each other and this place, where I shall put Chand in, as to satisfy me." A pause. “Well, if you get out, a reward may be in the offing, as well.” The tone of her voice offered a hint of what it might be.
Steiner and Serrano glared at each other, and then at Chand and Jhamraste. They seemed to reach some common conclusion, and began running down different corridors, their boots beating down the halls and fading away until Chand could no longer hear them. He looked up expectantly at his new mistress and sensed her approval at his questioning stare. She nodded, smiling wickedly and lowered the force field. He spared her no further glance as he started down the corridors after his enemies, his prey. The heady desire to prove himself filled his heart and he had to concentrate to force its intoxication to work for him instead of to delude his efforts with blind rage.
He took a branch on the right, the one he believed Serrano had headed down. For all of his newfound bloodthirstiness he knew the powerful brute was still a dangerous foe and so stepped lightly, trying to keep his weight off his feet and thereby limit the warning of his approach. He could feel tension growing in his stomach as he slinked down the corridor, past doors long closed, and in the eerie stillness could imagine himself the only thing alive. But that was foolish, and a bellowing far ahead, echoing through the corridor, reminded him otherwise. It also prompted Chand to look around for anything he could use as a weapon, anything at all. So far he saw no sign of the guns that Jhamraste had said would be provided, but he had not explored away from the path leading further into the bowels of the ship.
A fist sized chunk of rubble, material ripped off from the walls or ceiling or who knew what, caught his eye. He bent down to pick it up, felt it, hefted its deceptive weight. He pocketed it in a fold of his jumpsuit against need, but decided to try his luck with one of the rooms in this habitation ring. A few meters further down he saw a pipe jutting from a hole in the wall next to a nearby door, and he grabbed the extended bit of circular metal and pushed downward. He jiggled it upward, and with enough effort finally caused sufficient fatigue to break off the pipe. He examined the jagged edge it produced, a suitable weapon in its own right but he hoped merely a key to a much better method of dispatching his hated prey. He would be the hunter—no, he was the hunter.
"Give me a lever..." he whispered, in ancient Greek, while jamming the blunt end into a small opening between the two halves of the door by his side. He pushed it down, putting the strength of his back into it. To his mild surprise the doors did slide open under his exertions, but what he saw inside disappointed him. A cursory search turned up no sign of a rifle or a pistol, or even a blade, only one of the beds fitted to the form of the Sarasavsati with four arms, and various debris that might at one time have been personal effects. He shook his head with irritation; this was wasting time and he had no idea what Steiner and Serrano were up to now. He'd stalk them ahead, scout out, and then see if he could take either unawares. The solid weight of the pipe felt reassuring there; he would see then what he could do.
He continued down the corridor, now armed. He heard sounds of violence up ahead, shouting and grunts and heavy movement, the bangs of objects being tossed around. There was a central area the corridors led into, he realized. Serrano and Steiner had run into each other, probably hunted each other first, holding him in contempt. It was a slight he intended to make sure that they both regretted.
His branch like the others led out into a great hall, presumably itself a connection between different parts of the habitation decks. It was strewn with rubble, maybe bits of old repair robots or perhaps other electronic equipment, and other more unidentifiablebits of debris piled up sufficiently to offer a good deal of cover. It seemed as thought Serrano had covered his former leader in the far side, using his physical bulk to push the smaller, smarter miscreant away from the exits. As he crept closer though he could see bloodstains in the hall, and hiding behind a pile as he kept more closely to the scene he could see blood trickling down from Serrano's face. He certainly wouldn't have put it past Steiner to go for the bigger man's eyes with savage intent, friends or not as they’d been before.
A disturbed bit of metal sounded with a clattering in the hall as it rolled down from the pile Chand was crouching beneath. Serrano abruptly turned halfway, leaning his head over his shoulder as he tried to discern what new threat emerged. Chand crouched further back behind his bit of debris but it was too little, too late. Serrano growled as he turned his back on Steiner. "Our little mariposa has come out to play! Damn you Nikolaus, I'll finish you after I tear his head off!" With that the big man bounded forward, determined to crush and destroy the distraction that had thrown off his final tussle with Steiner.
Chand stood up, giving his best impression of cower even as he reached into his pocket for the bit of whatever he had taken earlier. He had an idea, a gamble, and as he fell back he also gripped the ball of metal tighter in his strong right hand even as he dropped the pipe. He could see the leering hatred on Serrano's face as the bigger man closed, and it was a desperately dangerous few moments as Chand let him get closer still so he could strike, where momentum would carry him forward despite...
He hurled his projectile with all of his mightaimed straight at Serrano's head. The dark ball slammed into the forehead of the brute with a sickening crack, though that did not stop the giant as he kept carrying on forward across the floor. Instead it caused him to bellow and clasp his hands to his hand, a few precious moments of distraction for Chand to act. He was nimble, at least, and had been involved in plenty of the school sports expected in the respectable public schools thorugh which he’d been raised. It was his only training, and gave him his only chance as he grabbed up his pipe in time with a stride that brought him closer still, swinging it around to be clasped in both hands before taking it up like cricket bat and slamming it into Serrano.
Years of repressed rage went into that terrible strike, and the ox-like spacer folded in despite himself. That just made it easier for Chand to bring the pipe down on his head in a two-handed berserker swing, which clubbed even the massive Serrano right down onto the floor. Chand saw red, and kept slamming the pipe down and down, over and over again until his enemy's head was a mushy pile of mangled bone, blood, and brain, with a strength that in the end awed even himself in that moment, crushing in the big man’s skull like he’d barely thought possible.
"Bravo, bravo!" The mocking call from Nikolaus Steiner brought him back to his senses, after a fashion. Chand peered further back down the hall and saw the weasel-like assassin standing back up. He stood a little unsteadily, and seemed bruised on one side but otherwise intact, and he had lost none of his arrogance. "I underestimated you a bit. So did my poor friend. Not even he would have been stupid enough to charge like that if he'd thought you'd really be able to do that." He shook his head. "Bit of a waste, he was a good bit of muscle if not too bright in the head. Still, it means I've just got to kill you and I win this little contest. And then I find that cap'n or whatever, and I show her a good time, neh? I'm gonna look forward putting that four armed bitch through her paces..."
Chand almost chuckled at the thought. Steiner had no idea what he was dealing with. But the little lizard-clever monster was moving warily, cautiously, having abruptly decided that he represented a real threat. And the smell of blood, the adrenaline moving through his veins, was unbalancing him. He picked his pipe back up. No great cleverness, no subtlety in killing Serrano, just a bit of luck. This was personal. As far as he saw Steiner wasn't armed either. So Chand brought himself back up to a full stand and advanced on his remaining enemy. His rival. As he approached, he broke out into a run, and brought the pipe up again, intending to break Steiner's head open as he had done with Serrano.
Steiner let him close, his eyes narrowing in full resemblance to a dangerous stoat. He stepped out of the way with frighteningly quick reflexes, and jammed a shiv into Chand's stomach. He felt the sudden sharp pain and felt sticky wetness flowing down his belly and shouted in the pain even as he swung the pipe futilely, passing by Steiner's head with inches to spare. The other man shoved a fist into his head and Chand went down to floor, still clutching the pipe but feeling very, very limp. For some strange reason, though, there was no feeling of despair, or hopelessness, or failure. The maddening pain and loss of strength and control, merely strengthened his resolve, and in that moment he perfectly understood what it was to desire to kill.
Steiner slammed a knee into his chest, crouching down to lord it over him. "You got lucky, butterfly. And stupid." Steiner brought the shiv up to his side, angling it for a strike to get under Chand's rib cage. "You shoulda known better. I'm a killer, and you're just a fancy schooled, white-gloved little faggot. You was never gonna make it out here, and now I'm gonna kill you and have me some pussy."
The shiv struck home even as Chand slammed the pipe forward with his left hand into the side of Steiner's head with an incredibly abrupt, vicious moment which seemed to injure his muscles and leave his bone sore even as he struck without hesitation. The force of the blow staggered Nikolaus, and he wasn't prepared for Chand to roll him over with an equally sudden exertion of energy summoned up by some unknown fighting instinct now raging within. The shiv was still lodged deep in Chand's chest, denying Steiner his weapon even as his opponent brought his pipe forward.
“Fuck you in the ass, you little..." Steiner's defiance was cut short as Chand brought the pipe down onto his throat and pressed in hard. The formerly mild-mannered supercargo intended to strangle the fucking waste of human life below him, even as he felt his own life-blood leaking out slowly from the wound Nikolaus had inflicted. His teeth ground together as he continued pushing in, until Steiner's eyes bulged out of his sockets.
Chand leaned in, close enough that Steiner could hear him. "I do like a cock in my ass, but your's isn't anywhere big enough." With that last taunt, he gave a final push and could almost hear the snap as Nikolaus' windpipe cracked. The effort exhausted him, and he slumped down over the body of his rival not long after, and let his eyes close into darkness.
Two hands grasped Chand firmly, and pulled him up with a start, as Jhamraste looked down with a soft smirk on the abruptly waking Anglo-Indian man. "Welcome back to the land of the living, Mister Mayland. You acquitted yourself well--hand to hand. I approve of that very well, you've got the killing instinct in you and you won't soon lose it. So. You're mine, now; my.. guide, to the outside world. Consider the honour fairly won."
Chand was groggy, and surprised that the pain was gone, and so was the tension of immediate danger. He found himself looking back up at the strange, alluringly exotic and commanding form of Jhamraste. And he was pleased, deeply pleased with the way she looked at him and with the knowledge that he killed Serrano and Steiner. "I am yours, yes." He shook his head, trying to clear out the fog in his mind. "What happened after... where am I?"
"Back in the room where you first woke up. Both times you died, but your body was fresh enough, so to speak, to be easily revived by our technology," Jhamraste answered... And drew his naked body up and against her's, clasping him firmly in all four arms. "I trust that does not disturb you..? Steiner and Serrano are both dead, and you won."
He felt her supple, toned but still feminine curves up against his body, could seem to smell her subtly perfumed skin. His senses were more keen, more alive than ever before now that he had been through mortal danger and cheated death. He felt himself stirring in a way he had not in a long time. "No, my lady. I hated them, and now they are dead by my hand. I feel... better than I have ever felt before. Exhilarated."
"Oh very good," Jhamraste laughed softly, and drew Chand in closer. "Now you're a real man, a proper warrior, a hunter who's tasted blood. A person whose erudition is matched with other real capabilities. And I see the beginning of a creature in you.... Worthy of respect. And certainly..." She dropped her voice, and whispered softly. "Of bedding me." Not bothering with further words, she kissed Chand at that moment, engulfing him, hovering over him with her greater height, drawing him tightly into a passionate embrace.
He kissed her back passionately, driven by primal needs and the sudden surge of life. Every sensation seemed heightened, from the sweet taste of her lips to the amazing tactile sensation of being held tightly by two pairs of arms. He felt desire building quickly inside of him, but it was pleasurable to let it build, to deny it and let it sweep to greater heights still. As his tongue probed inside her warm mouth he leaned his body in closer still, rubbing right up against her and making his arousal perfectly clear.
She smiled into the kiss with heady, brilliant delight, arms swinging him off his feet and around, so that they staggered together, back into a nearby room; the door was open, and a sumptuous bed consisting of piled pillows was there for them to both fall into together, Jhamraste guiding, leading, and controlling; but not stinting from sating the needs of the man she's ensnared as they engulfed each other in the intensity of the moment. Jhamraste's machines, after all, didn't need constant supervision to go on killing.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-05-29 06:38am
“They’re coming down the right access tube!”
“RACHEL!” Maria screamed as she dived behind a central support column and squeezed off a pulse from her rifle.
The walker jogged ahead, turret pivoting, and white searing flashes of fire tore across the accessway. Six Direwolves were blasted to pieces. But even as they were, a writhing horde of the robotic snakes with their acidic venom dropped across the passage in front of them. The crew fell back skittishly. Only Gunther, after all, had had combat experience, and the Second Mate quickly grabbed one of their demolition charges and set it. He flung it forward and they dived down for cover, while the blast tore through the corridor and smashed out the slithering snakes.
And then they were running again. The problem was that all the doors were closed across the huge longitudinal bulkhead they were being forced to move aft along. They had gotten through the first one by dint of fact it had been seriously damaged already. But the bulkheads were made out of a material which Rachel thought even the guns on the walker couldn’t penetrate, and they were trying to reach another escape.
Except there was none to be had. Each time, now, that they’d moved along the second interior longitudinal bulkhead, the doors had closed just as they’d reached them, and Direwolves and robo-snakes had attacked and sometimes gas had been vented into the compartment or automated defensive turrets had opened up. There seemed to be absolutely no escape whatsoever from the relentless surge, and their numbers had dwindled further.
We can’t go on like this. Maria grabbed her gun up in both hands and jogged over to Captain Rapisardi. “Captain, look. This isn’t working, we’re not going to get out like this. We’re just not.”
“So you say we’re trapped? You, giving into despair too?” Alfonso looked furious. “I say, we will manage a way out!”
“We can’t melt our way through armour ten meters thick which can get the better of a collision with a planetoid! Captain, there’s one chance we’ve got, I’m not giving up. I mean, we’ve got to double back, we’ve got to get to that damage corridor the energy weapon made again, we’ve just got to turn around and go back. I’m certainly it was the same corridor both times, when we ran across it, and when we punched through the charred plate of the first bulkhead.”
“It’s buried under a mountain!”
“We can fully recharge these suits with enough oxygen to last three days. The cannons on that walker are kilotonne range at full power, Rachel says. We’ve still got demo charges. We can get back to it, we’ll bore into the rock with the guns of the walker, create a tunnel until we use up the energy batteries in it, and then we go into the tunnel, set the demolition charges, and blow it closed behind us to prevent pursuit,” Maria proposed frantically, trying to catch the Captain’s attention and support before they were again attacked. “Then we can start using these weapons like drills, drill our way up. We’ll network the suit coms and boost power, find a way to get a message to the Soccorso. Her drills would easily cut the rock. It’s a chance, and we don’t have a chance trying to melt our way through a bulkhead which could probably laugh at the guns of a superdread.”
“Gunther?” Captain Rapisardi, weary, weary in the extreme, looked to his Second Mate, ignoring his quaking nephew.
“It’s the only way out now, Captain, she’s right. We get out and pray and if the Soccorso hears us, we live, if we don’t, suffocation is better than being melted from the inside out by acid. I say we do it. Even if only one of us gets out alive, Captain, they’ll get the fleet back here and these lunatics on this ship or mad AI or whatever it is will burn in hell with the rest of us.”
“Alright. We’ll do it. Maria?” Alfonso looked to his assistant engineer. He’d started using her first name in the stress; then again, they’d all fallen largely to a first-name basis as the stress went on.
Maria Lauwens simply gestured to the first major access hall to the right. “We’ll just take it, turn right when we get to the end and follow it until we get to the damaged bulkhead section. No point in literally doubling back; I’m sure it’s crawling back there.”
Alfonso took a hesitant, weary grasp backwards, and nodded tightly, as though he could already see the beasts. With the speed they came on, maybe he could. “Let’s do it! We don’t have any time to wait!”
Rachel, as usual, manoeuvred the walker with the most intense of concentration—it was designed for far more powerful telepaths than she was, she knew it, and it was draining her strength and sanity to operate it—up into the point position, and Maria, sweating profusely in her suit after the latest bout of hard exertion, reached up and grabbed a handhold by which she pulled herself onto the entry platform for the walker, riding to protect it from the rear or swing her gun around to add to the firepower.
“Hang in there, Rachel, we’ll make it,” she offered through what had turned out to be an automatic two-way intercom.
And Rachel realized through her strained senses, that Maria actually meant it. She intended to get out of the ship, and succeed in blasting clear of the rock or contacting the Soccorso. It wasn’t false bravado. Somewhere inside, the belter girl, from a culture legendary for its promiscuity and blasphemy toward God—i.e., atheism—in the Habsburg Empire, had found the strength that almost all of the others lacked. By this point, it was pretty much her, Gunther, and Israel Greenbaum who were keeping the survivors from degenerating into a total mob, and Maria seemed the most unlikely of the lot.
It encouraged the Chinese girl to hold her ground and keep straining, and draining, her mind to operate the walker as best she could, even while that malevolent sense, entity or ghostly presence, lurked on in the background. She knew that even then, they were unquestionably being stalked, and there would be no escape from the stalking until they had also escaped from the ship. But the ship was clearly dead, or else this hideous thing would surely have spread. She could feel that, too. If they could just escape it… There could be no pursuit. All they had to do, was find a way out.
“It’ll be fine, Maria. I will,” she answered, with her own renewed sense of strength and clear purpose. But everything around them seemed, for a change, so quiet.
“I trust you.”
Rachel closed her eyes and sighed softly at the words, the sight picture through the telepathic interface somehow still perfectly clear; it just felt better with her eyes closed. And then, like the bleedoff from an image of hell, she saw something, something of the malevolent entity behind the attacks. A twisted, half-rotting half of a corpse, yet still alive, entangled in machinery. Somewhere. Or was it her own delusional mind playing tricks on her as the stress drove her mad?
Or worse. Is this another victim? Rachel realized, chillingly, that they were not necessarily the first to find this hell-ship. Human corpses, four-armed corpses, Naga corpses. Who was the original crew? Where had they come from?
The next flash of insight was supernatural, and it was cold. A memory, roiling away from something ancient. The ship they were on. Intact, and in orbit of earth. It was no speculation—it was a picture out of the grave—and she started to speak to tell Maria of it.
Then, hovering silently, a light repulsorcar turned one of the corners in front of them, slow, almost wobbly. It was an armoured repulsorcar, and the turret on it was certainly active. Inside the screened viewing ports, the systems on the walker helpfully magnified the fact that the crew was mummified corpses. But Rachel knew already that just meant it was under remote control, not something literally out of hell; and that the entity on this ship, in some fashion, still lived and breathed, even if it shouldn’t have for ages.
And, of course, she knew what must happen. The turret on the repulsorcar opened up. And she did too. The bolts were searing the corridor with their passage, and intersected several hundred meters ahead with a force which smashed in walls into some of the machinery rooms to either side, even as it sent spacetight doors slamming shut all over the sector due to the energy sensors being off the scale. But before the ones in front of her closed, Rachel fired again, and the last sight of the repulsorcar as the heavy doors closed all around them, was of its violent explosion plunging out toward them.
“Fuck. Now we’ve got to blow through a dozen of these doors,” Maria muttered to herself as she leapt down and went for the first with her trusty plasma torch and started cutting. Fortunately they weren’t armoured bulkheads that would have laughed at even the plasma torch, just interior spacedoors dividing a single armoured citadel inside the ship into a series of smaller spacetight citadels; otherwise they’d be trapped here until the Thing got to them.
But they were almost out of powerpacks, too.
The grueling work took another two hours to move four hundred meters. At the very end of it, then, they were regaled with more shattered corridor where the repulsorcar had been taken out. At least the lack of gas attacks—probably because the sections were sealed—had let them recompress and filter enough oxygen into their breathing tanks that they really could last a full 72 hours once they were sealed inside the rock tunnel Maria had proposed. That, at least, was something in the way of progress, as the shattered remnants of the car, still smoking hot, was delicately passed and they set charges to blast their way through one last set of spacetight doors to reach the maintainence corridor running along the outermost longitudinal bulkhead. Maria had gotten a pretty good sense of the ship, and it was clearly subcompartmented and armoured, with distributed systems, to shame even the paranoid Imperial Navy’s armouring schemes, let alone a civilian ship.
So much of it, in fact, was operational that for all Maria was certain they were going to get out of the ship alive, she was merely using that to mask her real fear, which was that a couple of the weapons batteries would turn the Soccorso into a minor amount of floating plasma. But if they let us land—why? Descerate and tear up the ship for.. What? She was stepping back to the walker when it hit her. Their ship might be an invincible fortress worthy of Satan’s Palace in Hell, but whomever was here, the descendents of the original crew doubtlessly, don’t have a way to leave it.
“They’re not after us,” Maria whispered softly. “They’re after the Soccorso.” She turned back to Alfonso with her eyes brilliantly afire, realizing instantly just what she’d figured out, and the importance of it. “Captain! They’re not after us. They’re after the Soccorso! They’ve lured us away to take the ship so that they can escape on it. These bastards haven’t seen a single bit of the outside world in thousands of years—this isn’t about us, or about this ship. They want our ship, so they can get away, try to go back to their homeworld or wherever they’re from, or God knows, just see the surface of a planet again.”
Alfonso Rapisardi paled, thinking of a capture squad making its way to the Soccorso while they were relentlessly hunted. Is that why Sorreno and Steiner were taken alive? To lull Jozef into letting a party aboard? Dear God! “Bernadino,link all the comms together and get a message through, now. This is as close as we’re going to get to the Soccorso while inside the ship.”
“Right, Captain.” Rapisardi’s nephew furiously worked at the controls, interlinking all the suit comms, and trying to desperately make some kind of contact. But instead of the welcoming voice of his aunt or old Jozef, blaring out over all the comms on the jammed channel was a cool, melodically feminine voice:
“Five… Four… Three… Two… One…”
To say that everyone’s hearts stopped beating all together was not that much of an exagerration. But it wasn’t death, merely terror, as the final result was another explosive release of nerve gas into the corridor. Everyone was an old hand at that, at least; the rechargers on their suits were flipped over immediately to go to stored oxygen.
A brief, unsteady silence ensued as Bernadino shook his head mournfully. “That’s all I got. The channel’s completely whited out by static now. They’re screwing with our heads, too…”
“Well, at least that solves the question of whether or not we’re facing something sentient. At the very least, it’s a high-end AI, and I’m pretty damn sure there really are survivors, Captain, and they’re really trying to get off. Nothing else makes sense. We’ve got to…”
Alfonso Rapisardi looked to Maria and shook his head. “No time for making new plans. We’ve just got to get out of here. Once we’re secure, we can try to find something else, some other plan, but…”
“Yeah. Alright, Captain.” Maria swung back up on the footrest behind the Walker’s control compartment, and they started off again.
Then Rachel softly spoke. “I’m not sure you’re right, Maria,” she said. “I think at least one of them is an original member of the crew, and I think they want the Soccorso not to escape, but to help free their ship.”
“Maybe. But I guess it’s all speculation now, maybe meant to drive us mad, too,” Maria answered. “…Could they be influencing us?”
“Yeah, yeah they could. Yeah, yeah.. she could.”
Rachel’s calm and collected use of a female pronoun to refer to their harrowing enemy, in the singular, sent a sharp chill down Maria’s spine, and she re-checked her rifle rather than answer. It was, after all, all pointless speculation. Soon enough they’d either be alive, or dead, and for the moment they were stuck in a hideous state between the two.
Then, a charging horde of at least twenty Direwolves tore through a corner and came charging down the maintenance accessway toward them. Rachel at once opened fire… And the shots were harmlessly dissipated off a security forcefield in the corridor. The forcefield, like the protection of an army by a rolling barrage, moved forward ahead of the Direwolves, protecting them until they were right on the party of sailors, who could only tensely prepare their weapons until finally Rachel’s consistent fire collapsed the shield and they were able to open up on the Direwolves.
With the guns of the Walker engaged they rapidly fell, but at the same moment at least a hundred of the snakes surged out of access panels and maintenance tubes and struck into the midst of them. It was by far the greatest number, and in particular, many surged around Alfonso Rapisardi, grasping him intensely firmly, and rolling around him.
But the fangs didn’t bite. Maria spun on her platform, slicing another Direwolf apart, and then took aim, before pausing, realizing that the Captain wasn’t already dead from the acid venom. The things were smart, under some kind of security computer’s control, and there was a specific purpose to this attack. As man after man was otherwise killed in the melee, however, she quietly saw a cluster of maintenance robots trundling into the fray, and remembered Chand, Steiner, and Serrano.
Maria knew then what the most important target was. “Oh no you don’t,” she whispered softly, and opened fire, blasting the first of the maintenance robots apart systematically.
But the snakes, writhing their mechanical bodies, rolled the Captain toward the other maintenance robots. Maria blasted another, and another, and another. And there were two left, and the Captain was there. Trembling, she raised her gun, fired again, raked the beam along another maintenance robot, wrecking it thoroughly.
Then she shifted to the other one, and saw Alfonso Rapisardi in her gunsights, a human shield against her firing on the last, and truculently successful maintenance robot. The Captain looked back to her, and in his eyes she saw it all. Now it was her task to get them out alive, if any of them could manage it.
Lowering her gun tiredly, she realized that the battle was over. Most of the snakes had retreated, but a few torn up men, and a few puddles of acid and bone, showed that their numbers were much reduced. Rachel, trying to keep herself composed in the cab. Bernadino, Gunther, Greenbaum, and six others.
The salvage crew had started out with four officers, poor Chand the supercargo, and thirty-five spacers. There were now three officers, and eight spacers. The beast had killed three out of four, or taken them off for god knew what; Maria felt, boiling in her blood, an unusually violent sense of hate out of a practical and generally compassionate belter girl’s psyche. It had all come down to being very, very personal, now.
And then Bernadino spoke up, the fear and terror finally having gotten to him. “I’m in charge now as the First Mate! And this can’t go on, men, so we’ve got no choice. We’re going to have to lay down our weapons, wait here… And hope for some kind of mercy in surrendering. There’s no chance of our getting out, no chance of rescue, the Soccorso might be taken and if we keep trying to escape or fight we just are going to all su-suffer and perish!”
Maria flicked the safety back off the brutally lethal beam rifle she was holding, and levelled it at Bernadino without even thinking about it, gloved finger resting easily on the trigger. “If you want to surrender, you stupid fucking coward,” she spoke, not even raising her voice as she did, and it carried all the more menace for it, “then you can surrender to the devil, straight down in hell where you belong.”
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-05-30 12:11am
Awesome story keep it up!
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-06-02 07:01am
“I am lawfully in command, you arrogant belter whore!” Bernadino Rapisardi screamed back at Maria with terrible desperation. “And we’ve got to surrender and try to find our lives! There’s something intelligent over there—it will listen to us if we give up our weapons, and wait here for it… There has to be a way.”
“You stupid shit. Do the Cats take prisoners? Sure, then they eat them. And that’s exactly what this is like. A Cat hunt. You got that? Whatever we’re facing they’re treating us just like the Cats treated humans before the fleet blew some decency into them by charring their homeworld to the bedrock. That’s the kind of mentality we’re facing—we’re being hunted. And if we sit down, we’ve finished the game. They’ll come and kill us.” Maria breathed heavily, not letting her finger up from where it rested against the trigger.
“But they might not,” Bernadino insisted, trembling. “Anyway, we’re all going to die then no matter what we do. We can’t escape now. We can’t. They’ve probably already taken the Soccorso, hell, oh god, eaten my aunt…”
“We might die,” Maria agreed. “Hell, we’ll probably die. We might make it out, though. Might disable their systems. And even if we’re going to die—well, belters are often accused of being sensualists, and it’s true. I mean, hell, I think this is driving me crazy but for the moment it’s still better than being dead. If you’re the praying type—how long has it been since you’ve confessed to a priest?”
There was a quiet, uncomfortable shifting in some of the survivors.
“So, let’s try to delay our judgement before Saint Peter for as long as we can, okay? Just personally I want to keep breathing for as long as I can, and I have to fight tooth and nail for another couple hours, that’s better than sitting down and dying now. And maybe God will have mercy on us, or maybe we’ll get lucky, and we’ll still be alive at the end of the day. At least we know we can try and achieve that. Would you rather put your fate in the hands of whatever has been ripping us apart, or in your own? If we push on hard enough, if we blast out of the hull, we might live. We might find a shuttle. Something. We’ve got the power and the ability to do it. But do you trust in the ability of what’s been hunting us to be merciful?
“Well, if you do, then Rachel and I will go on by ourselves,” she finished.
Gunther stepped toward the Walker. “No, Maria. You’ll have me with you, too.” The addition of the Second Mate brought some renewed respect from the rest of the crew. Bernadino, though, just screamed in rage:
“You fucking bitch ! If you keep fighting they’ll damn the rest of us who just want to surrender! We’ve got to do it all together!” His expression turned particularly vile: “To think I put my dick into such an arrogant, mannish slut.”
“Bernadino,” Maria answered with a shake of her head more exhaustedly exasperated than anything else. “I only fucked you because I wanted very glowing efficiency reports for when I moved up to a cheng rating. And if I walk away right now, and you get ripped apart, I truly will not give a fuck. If you want to die, die. Who’s gonna come with me and live?”
Israel Greenbaum quietly stepped forward alongside the Walker. Following him in turn, one by one, all of the rest of the men except for Bernadino, who stood there quivering.
“Well, that seems to answer that,” Maria commented softly. She slipped a hand onto the railing to secure herself, aiming the gun one-handed at Bernadino. “Rachel,” she spoke through the comm. “Let’s go.”
They marched away from the scene of the latest ambush, and left Bernadino screaming incoherent insults and desperate invective at them as they disappeared out of sight. A couple minutes later, very faintly, real screams were heard, and the growling of the Direwolves, and that was that. Maria didn’t even look back. They continued on for some time without further attacks being brought down against them.
“So, Gunther, I guess I’m in charge now?” She finally bothered to ask.
“You’ve got a talent for it,” Gunther answered. “I barely made Petty Officer in the Navy, so, yeah. I trust your judgement quite well now, for a woman you’ll do as fine as we can hope for right now.”
“Thank you,” Maria turned to the comm again. “Rachel, what does it feel like out there?”
“It’s someone,” Rachel answered. “It’s someone. Not the dead, but alive. The most powerful telepath I’ve ever felt. She knows I’m here, she’s watching me, but she ignores me, doesn’t talk to me. She could—she’s strong enough to broadcast words that far easily, even through the interference I feel is all around us. I think it’s very intentionally artificial interference—almost like these people found a way to armour against telepathy. And she’s delighted now, but not for good reasons. It’s a horrible sort of delighted vengeful streak, like someone at a public execution.”
Maria had a moment of intuition about what that public execution just might very well be, and she didn’t bother sharing it with Rachel. Timing’s just right for that to be the Captain, a little dark voice commented in her head, a maudlin sort of pessimism for her usual eager demeanour. Well, an eager demeanour that had existed before this madhouse. Now, she felt like she’d seen more combat than the average soldier, and indeed, she probably had seen more. It wasn’t a good feeling, when the length of time spanned by that experience was about one single day, all told. Have I really been awake for twenty-eight hours? She forced herself to think: Twenty-eight and a half. Christ. It’s been that long? But one way or another it’ll be over in less time than it’s been since it started. It was a cold comfort to someone who very much wished to go on living.
And then they arrived at the breach in the first interior bulkhead. Maria had figured out that the open hatches, had led them on a circular route even before the attacks began, crossing over the ship before doubling back to the reactor. More to the point, there had been somewhat more damage in that area, more debris, it might be hard for the operators of the ship to seal it up as thoroughly as these sections whose preservation, unused since the crash, was better despite the combat damage.
And what combat damage it was, that had nearly punched through the longitudinal bulkhead to leave just a carbonate film behind, and even that had stood up to four minutes full power on a plasma torch! And all of that after piercing the outer 20-meter armour hull of this immense behemoth; Maria remained deeply impressed by the incredible engineering of the hull and the stupendous technological superiourity that it represented.
But she was still an engineer, and a close inspection of the damage showed her an avenue of exploit. The beam had been coming up from below, relative to the plane of the ship, and that meant that the top of the beam had reached into, and cut into, the floor of the deck above with backwash. And that should be very close, indeed, to the original course they’d taken through the ship, if they could just force themselves up one deck. Rachel had even demonstrated before that the walker could ascend a fairly steep slope, so if they blew some of the upper decking down, it could walk up to the next level effectively. And the Intelligence controlling the ship would be unable to stop them.
“Alright, Israel, get your plasma torch. We’re going to start cutting into the upper deck where we can see it’s partially burned through. I’ve kept a recording of our track through the ship on my cyber-storage unit,” she tapped her neck, like most Belters she had some augmentation, “and I am sure that we can punch through here. Trying to escape the ship through the beam’s path won’t work, we can’t be sure we won’t just be trapped there to suffocate. But up along our original course, there was so much debris that it should hamper closing off the spacetight sections. We might be able to fight our way back to the Soccorso, and I think that’s maybe why the thing we’re fighting, why they’ve been funneling us horizontally, not letting us move vertically very much; they’ve been keeping us on a couple decks in good preservation so they could trap us where the old automated systems still work, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. So we’ve got a plan, we’ve got a reason. Gunther, I want you to supervise setting up blasting charges to drop a ramp for the walker from the bottom, string charges of course; we’ll need them on top, too, so Israel and I will cut a way to haul ourselves up through to set those. Rachel, you’ll stand guard below—Fredrick,” she addressed one of the crewers, “You come up with us with your rifle and cover Israel and I.”
Even as she leapt down and headed over with Israel to bring their plasma torches up again, the rest of the crew got into action with a more trusting air, believing that the plan might work. But it was born of the desperation, primarily inside of Maria, that she did not intend to suffocate, simply having chosen her own burial ground, should Bernadino’s fears have in fact been right. They would, indeed, end up getting to the Soccorso, and by breaking out of the area that the hunters on this ship wanted them in, they’d manage to win out against them after all. That was the hope that for a moment filled Maria and pushed her onwards as the plasma torches screamed.
They succeeded, though, in burning through, and Maria climbed up on Israel to grab her suit hands against the hot—they were insulated—edge of the cut, a crazed smile touching her lips at the thought that as she straddled Israel’s shoulders with her legs that it was probably the closest he’d come to a woman’s privates… Well, possibly ever. I don’t think he’s married. The deck above was less brightly lit, and there was no immediate response, which was a considerable relief, as she locked herself in with a cord, and reached down to haul Israel up in turn.
“Alright,” she togged the suit comm. “Start hoisting the remaining charges up. Any sign of hostile activity?”
“Not yet,” Gunther reported as a couple of the men started shifting the charges over, Israel hauling them up as Maria placed them as carefully as she could in coordination with the placement of those below by the rest of the crew. And then, of course, terribly, the attacks started again.
It was the same as before, and Rachel felt the repetitive exhaustion coming down on her as she concentrated with all of her ability to blast through them with the guns of the Walker, now not simply having to hold them off, but to actually defeat them, delay them for long enough for the charges to be set above as well as below. In the meantime, Gunther turned his attention to saving the men:
“Come on, smartly with you, up to the next deck! Jacob, help the others up!” He stayed below to see that they made it, the ordered sailor going up first to help the others with purely the strength of his arms, while Gunther opened fire with his gun to support Rachel. They tore through the attacking Direwolves terribly in their stand, and it seemed that they might actually pull it off, when the thirteen thousand year old powerpacks on the Walker finally decided they’d put out enough rounds of ammo.
Rachel nearly fainted from the release of no longer being linked into the system. It was a delight, a merciful, blessed delight, which lasted for a split second until she realized exactly what it meant for her future survival. Then she grabbed her rifle and slammed the hatch open.
“Get going!” Gunther screamed, the cyborg beasts surging forward again. “You can leap up from there! Go!”
“Like Hell I’ll let a lady say that,” Gunther answered, and kept firing.
With tears in her eyes, Rachel leapt, and was caught in Israel’s strong arms and hauled up to safety. It was over within seconds, and Gunther kept firing coolly until the very last, upholding in death the traditions of the Habsburg Navy he had not quite managed to fit in with during his life.
“The only hero out of the lot of us,” Israel murmured rather wretchedly, before looking to Maria. “Do you still think we can get out?”
“We’ve got the rifles,” Maria answered, haggard, and more than a little bit dispondent, seeing all the support Gunther had given her. “And see that next junction up ahead? We passed through that earlier, look at the debris cleared away, hell, I think some dropped jewelry. So there we go.”
Maria stepped past Israel and put an arm on Rachel. “C’mon. He died for you, you know. Don’t just lay there. You’ve got to get up and keep on going so that you get out. You owe it to him.”
“Ah-alright.” Rachel pushed herself up, relieved, even though she felt guilty about it, relieved simply to no longer have to strain herself to control the Walker psychically as she had been doing for.
Nine survivors pushed onwards from where they’d made it up to the next deck, reached the junction, and headed back toward the Soccorso. Over the next hour, they crossed through jammed open blast doors and traversed a solid half a kilometer of hull thickness retracing their original route. They could barely keep on their feet, but they had to, and it was only maybe another two hundred meters to reach the point where the Soccorso had found access through one of the old ship’s bays into the hull.
Nobody, by this point, though they’d get out with another fight. The false hope of imagining that was anything other than the Intelligence in the ship repositioning her forces, was certainly no longer present. Maria knew it, and she had a pretty good idea what she was going to do when it happened, as it ultimately did. As it had to, because they weren’t going to let them get away without a fight, not now. Not when they could spread word of the madness that they had been inflicted upon them.
When they turned one corner, and saw the growling direwolves, and armed maintenance robots, waiting in a packed, patient mass for them, Maria just took one exhausted look. “Access tubes!”
Somehow, with the mass just twenty meters away, they all made it into the narrow and confined access tubes alive, and unhurt. Maria, the last up, knew why, and laughed maniacally as she did; they simply hadn’t attacked. Not trying to kill us, just to keep us from escaping. The fucker in charge wants to keep the game going as long as possible.
“Don’t the access tubes have the ss-snakes?” One of the crew nervously asked as they settled in.
“Yeah they do,” Maria answered. “But there aren’t nearly so many of those, might not even be any here, and at least that’s one kind of enemy, instead of four or five at once. Nothing else can fit. Let’s go.”
The access tubes didn’t prove to be much better than the corridors in terms of the directness of the path they were able to take. An hour and a half of crawling covering a kilometer seemed to get them no closer to the Soccorso, and may be further away, as strange noises, creaks and hisses of air constantly plagued them. They’d all be awake for thirty-one hours or more by that point, and fatigue was beginning to setting in, Maria relied on her cybernetics to inform her that the sounds were, in fact, real. Otherwise there’d have been no way to tell.
And it was dark, except for the lamps on their helmets.
“Heyy, down through this grate!” Frederick abruptly called out, as he’d been previously shuffling ahead at point, crossing over one of the access gratings nervously. “I see a body and… Jesus christ, it’s Steiner!”
“Steiner? How did he die?” Maria looked up with a frown. Did they use maintenance ‘bots to move the body this far? Why? …oh shit don’t be stupid Frederick..!
“He doesn’t look dead at all! No marks on ‘em! Maybe – maybe they just questioned him and let him go. I’m going down there.” And indeed Steiner, who had been strangled, looked quite spotless from two meters up.
“NO!” Maria screamed frantically, and futilely, in a useless command.
Frederick was already unlatching the grate with frantic hands, exhausted, and desperately hoping that he’d find some kind of proof of benevolence in their pursuers. He dropped down before Israel could grab his ankles.
And his screams as the Direwolves waiting the shadows charged into him and ripped him to pieces reverberated with the all the cacophony of Hell through the access tubes. Rachel, almost tiredly, but the smallest of the lot, shimmied past the men without even being told to calmly open fire into the open grate, slicing through a couple of the Direwolves and keeping them from leaping up to bite and tear at the bellies of her comrades, as they passed around and onwards. She had fallen into her role, as easily as Maria had into her own.
By now, they were so exhausted that they couldn’t even find it in themselves to be afraid anymore. She just patted Rachel gently on the back. “You’re the best shipmate I’ve ever had,” she offered simply, and the two of them pushed on together. There was nothing else to do.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-06-04 02:52am
Manhandling the Captain with methodical vigour, dragging its prize, one of the faithful little mainteinance bots trundled its way into a darkened room, and there, with mechanical precision, flung Alfonso Rapisardi to the floor, depositing the captain of the Soccorso to face his enemy. There was only some shadowed light, ominous, unforgiving. It highlighted, at the far end of the room. Jhamraste sat in all her finery, arms crossed, on a high throne. Chand stood at her side, for, to prove his loyalty, Jhamraste had expected nothing less than for him to witness what would follow, though his face was for the moment obscured in shadow. Two direwolves snarled ominously in the room, eyes glowing red, but unlike before, they did not instantly attack: They were under control.
"Captain Rapisardi," Jhamraste began as a preamble. "I have captured you, and brought you here, so that you will be judged according to the terrible crimes you have committed, in allowing the desecration of tombs, and in trying to loot and seize my ship from me, like a pirate; and so it is with piracy I charge you. I am the Captain, and sole survivor of the crew, of the Sarasavsat cruiser Nyapursna. For thirteen millennia I have made this ship my home; you came to loot it and take it from me. Defend yourself."
Rapisardi was confused, disoriented, and frankly terrified by the ordeal he had gone through, and much of what Jhamraste stated meant nothing to him. He gathered she was the master of the ship, and a freakish figure it was; and that he was being accused of piracy by the monster that had stalked and slaughtered his crew. He could sense that pleading for mercy would be pointless, and in any case he would never be inclined to that route. The bloodthirsty nature of the creature also made it clear that trying to call it a mistake, a misunderstanding, would be just as pointless as begging for his life.
"I don't give a damn what you are, or who you call yeself." Defiance at least felt good. "You're the fucking monster that's hunted my crew for sport. The laws a' fair salvage are known, even in those other universes we've heard of, so I'm not going over 'em. You wouldn't have needed an excuse anyway to act like a savage and sic your abominations on me and mine, so stuff your moralizing up your arse."
"You don't salvage active-duty warships," Jhamraste answered with acerbic humour. "We are however a little stuck here, I admit, and I'll shortly be using the Soccorso to free this vessel. Which does, as it so happens, give you an opportunity to spare the lives of yourself and your crew, a rather signal one as a matter of fact. Do you know what Tylium is?"
"And you provided us such a warning that it was occupied..." he began sarcastically. The abrupt change of subject left him momentarily confused, but he shrugged his shoulders. What the hell was Tylium. "Even if I trusted that you'd spare my crew I don't have any idea what you're asking for."
"Tylium is a waste product, a sort of highly radioactive slag which rapidly loses its radioactivity. Its quantum structure means it's partially bonded to a high-order dimension; there used to be supply dumps of it everywhere, refueling depots, because it's used in the fuel cycle of my ship; it's created by running neutronium through the distortion matrix of a zero-point energy field. We'd expel it, let it cool, and then re-harvest it to run the primary cycle in the ship's reactors. If you may imagine, part of the power of the Tylium-fueled generator is tapped to artificially sustain a zero-point generator beyond its usual singularity limits, in the fashion of a supercharger. This provides more power than it requires, as with a supercharger, and also lets us create more tylium.
“Not, however, more tylium than is degraded in the primary cycle of the reactor--it was customary in the old days to make up the difference by topping off from huge banks of solar-sustained zero-point fields which were just devoted to producing Tylium. I need more tylium to get the Nyapursna returned to full power, do you understand? Tylium is an unstable material which, when unrefined, will function as a natural superconductor of incredible potential, and which over a certain energy threshold, sucks energy through its structure out of higher dimensions to aide in the yield of explosions. When fully refined it functions in the described reactor role." She licked her lips and paused. "Does any of this make you think of a particular substance, Captain? The Asvins, if this is helpful, called it Nakauata or in fully refined form, Nakauatla. Perhaps those names are familiar where Tylium is not."
Rapisardi was no theoretical physicist but he was a competent engineer and ship's master, so he understood the gist of what Jhamraste was describing. It chilled him to the bones thinking of what a sadistic psychopath could do with such a substance, if her ship was returned to full functionality."I've never heard of anything that'd match what you're talking about, and I wouldn't tell a monster like you even if I had."
"Unfortunately, you're telling the truth, you don't know it," Jhamraste answered. "It is a pity, too, because it means I'm going to have to take the Soccorso and go looking for it if your precious little salvage ship can't free the Nyapursna on her own. Either way, it doesn't matter that much. You will not stop me; I am the last survivor of the High Caste, the purebred of Golden Lanka. And you, Captain Rapisardi, in the final accounting, have behaved exactly like what you are--the descendant of my slaves."
"And you behave like a demon out of hell," he shot back. "I've seen some inhuman freaks in my day, but none of 'em top you for being a psychopath murderer. So prattle on if it makes you feel superior you crazy bitch, but you'll get yours one of these days."
"Well, fine—as you’d have it, so let it be. I suppose we have both said enough. Certainly you don't need to worry about saying anything else ever again." Jhamraste laughed softly. "Consider that the punishment for your crimes will be fitting. I will, to use a reference I view clearly in your mind, not be able to make you as rich as Croesus, as you boasted when you came to steal my ship. But I .. can, on the other hand... ...Make you as rich as Crassus."
He started struggling in the grasp of the robot holding him, but his jerking was no match for the metallic grip holding him at bay. "I'll see you in Hell," he snarled, even as he continued vigorous squirming and shoving to escape.
"I have upheld the honour of my caste," Jhamraste answered with a self-satisfying monologue as two more maintenance bots trundled over to the one restraining Rapisardi. "I see no reason I will be punished for a novel sort of execution. It will, like the sufferings of all of your crew so far, be over in less than thirty seconds. You might even consider it a favour; your genes, after all, are still susceptible to innumerable, quite exquisitely painful, wasting diseases." Jhamraste leaned her lower right arm onto the arm-rest of her raised throne, and watched as one of the two extra maintenance bots, grabbed Rapisardi's jaw and forcibly pulled it down, ripping at his muscles as he tried to resist. The other, dutifully raised a steaming bucket of molten gold to his lips.
The dense, burning liquid scalded his lips and mouth as it was forced down inside. His tongue burned and his efforts to squirm free, to break his head away from the torment were mercilessly restrained. The molten gold slid its way down his throat, burning his esophagus as it passed through. The damage would cause him to go into shock, but as he tried to force air down he found himself suffocated as well. It was a terrible sensation, driving him to try and get down air without any impact and he went out of his mind with pain and fear as he saw death approaching, thrashing with renewed energy as adrenaline flooded his system. But it was all in vain, and his struggles ceased as his face turned blue and the lack of oxygen shut down his brain even as his organs exploded from the change in pressure, already dooming him even if he hadn’t asphyxiated.
"Well, it really is a rather effective way of killing a very greedy man," Jhamraste commented to the figure at her side, arms clasped together as she jumped up, unaffected by the killing and observing the bots trundling back, the one which had been holding Alfonso Rapisardi's now dead corpse, abandoning it to the floor. Jhamraste at once grabbed the pistol from her belt and fired, the gun scorching the floor as it carbonated the his body, and left the gold re-melted into a molten puddle on the floor. "Who had the gall of judging me by the laughable precepts of a religion created ten thousand years after I was born, no less," she added with an amused laugh. "Now, I think it's time, though, to stop toying. The rankings have been established; the chaff separated from the wheat. It's time we collected our subjects, and got on to the real business of this whole exercise."
She added, rather more softly: "First, though, I think it's time you found out precisely what that is."
Chand had watched the execution with a cold detachment he felt worthy of his devotion to Jhamraste and her brilliance. Rapisardi had been a fool, he knew that very well. Even if Jhamraste had warned them the greed-crazed crew and captain would merely have gone in better armed, with a definitive intent to end her and take the ship. He mourned for none of them. The objectives of his mistress, though, were a rather more crucial concern these days. "What have you been aiming at, milady?"
"Follow me, and see." Her voice, for a change, held nothing but sadness.
Maria, Rachel, Israel, three others. Six survivors left now. Joachim had been lured off, his screams echoing for minutes as god-knew-what happened to him, Andrew had been taken and melted alive by the robo-snakes when they’d finally showed up. But they had almost reached the improvised airlock.
That also meant that they had to leave the confines of the maintenance tubing and ventilation shafts if they wished to escape from the ship, finally. A day and a half of effort had brought them to the point where they might survive, the last six of the crew, and get out some kind of warning to forces which could properly deal with the vessel. That was something worth fighting for, right?
“Okay, check all of your improvised explosives and get ready. We’re going to drop them before we drop ourselves down into the corridors, since they may still be tracking us…” Maria reminded them, desperately wanting to avoid her remaining survivors from getting complacent.
“Right,” Rachel answered neutrally, checking the last of the improvised bombs made out of blasting charges that she had, and keying two of them. “Ready.”
“Israel.” Maria turned toward the Jewish man, and took a soft breath. “I remember your stories about being a track and field runner once, from much better times. You’re tall, you’re lanky, you’re the least tired of us and the fastest runner. I know this goes against chivalry and decency, but I’m not asking you, but begging you. If we get attacked, you run the last distance to the airlock, and we’ll stand our ground and make sure that you get out, okay?”
“Ma’am, I..” He faltered.
“If only one of us is going to get out alive, it would be you. And I want to make sure that happens, so you can tell my family about how I strong I was, so you can tell Rachel’s family that she died cleanly, so you can tell them that she was a brave and strong woman—I want you to tell about all five of us, and also about the Captain, and Chand, and hell even Steiner and Serrano. I want you to tell them about the Naga and about the mummified bodies and the fact there’s some intelligence controlling a ship that could take on the entire home fleet and win out here, that’s still active enough to defend itself like this.
“And you’re Jewish,” Maria continued in the same tone at first, but rapidly hardening as she did. “So you don’t believe in the Christian sentiment of forgiveness. So, like it says in the Torah, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Bring back the Navy, Israel, and chop the fucking bitch’s eyes out for all of us, come to it. I think we deserve that much.”
Israel nodded, and looked to Rachel for a long moment. “Are you alright with that?” He finally asked softly.
“Yes I am,” Rachel answered levelly. “I don’t want what we’ve been through to.. ever be forgotten, alright?”
Israel nodded. “Alright. Let’s go.”
Maria kicked the nearest grate in, and they threw their charges and then dived forward and back as the back-blast from the explosions rumbled up, scorching them more than a little, but no impairing injuries to be sure as the charges echoed around the corridor, and Maria was the first to leap down with her rifle at the ready. She dropped down to find the torn carcasses of several Direwolves with arcing, sparking shattered cybernetics, and advanced with her rifle levelled in the last distance toward the airlock.
The rest of them followed her, and ahead, around a corner, the direwolves were waiting a the junction which memorably led straight back to where they’d secured the airlock in a shattered old shuttlebay. This time, they didn’t run from them. “ATTACK!” Maria screamed, and opened fire. They charged, and the Direwolves charged them.
The six survivors blasted their way through the first group and reached the junction, just to find others hot on their heels and coming in from other directions all around them. It was exactly as Maria had feared. For any of them to succeeded in getting out, only one of them could get out. She dropped to one knee and lifted her rifle again as coolly as she could.
“ISRAEL GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN!”
And then, facing the three other directions at the junction, they started firing. Israel Greenbaum took one last glance back, and ran with all his ability.
The attacking Direwolves kept coming, until one by one, they ran out of charge in the energy weapons. Maria didn’t know how they’d done it, or even if Israel had gotten out—the sound of the intense firing and the screams of the direwolves had completely obscured anything else—but somehow they’d kept the Direwolves off them until they ran out of ammunition, rather than being overrun and torn to pieces.
Except. The firing came to a halt, and Maria paled. They hadn’t held them off, not at all. They’d just been lured to keep firing from the same position until all their ammunition was gone. The Direwolves advanced, now, growling, but clearly under control, smart enough to follow some kind of central directives. They weren’t attacking; they expected the group to follow them.
Rachel rose to run, maybe to see if it would still be possible to follow Israel. But it wasn’t; there were now also Direwolves advancing in that direction, and she paled at their sight, and hoped the brave man had made it out alive.
“I think,” Maria began as she rose to her feet. “That they want us to go back into the ship. And that we don’t have a goddamned choice except to hope we get a chance to spit in the face of whatever this montrous creature is before we die. I’m sorry, Rachel. I tried my best.”
“It’s okay, Maria,” the young Chinese girl answered. “You did more for all of us than anyone ever has, I think. That it wasn’t enough was never your fault. Promise.”
Maria shrugged, swallowed, and started to walk, her hand clasping Rachel’s, and the three other survivors shuffling along behind them. Godspeed, Israel.
They arrived, a while later, at a chamber in the hull, some distance away from the main reactors, and further forward, whereas the crew had been heading aft and were now off somewhere, god knew where, in the hull as Jhamraste brought them in. "They have been secured, actually, and are now being brought here," she commented softly, as she reached ahead to one large chamber, the doors of which opened, and she turned to Chand, for the first time evidencing some kind of sadness on her face as she composed herself, a sadness that echoed the tone that had earlier crept into her voice, and now formed together to evidence a collected sort of regret, not at what she’d done, but at the passage of millennia alone, save the ravages of time. "Chand," she whispered. "This body you're looking at is just a very sophisticated hologram. Please go inside, and see what's left of me, and you'll understand why I needed to test and torture the crew like I did."
Chand was only mildly surprised by the revelation, though she had certainly felt very real when she had held him, and when they had made love. He steeled himself for what he might find and stepped forward into the room, not sure what to expect. "I will stand with you whatever comes," he pledged, before opening his eyes and looking around.
The hologram behind him had vanished. In front of him was vast banks of computers stretching back for considerable distances... But most importantly, hideously, at the front, a collection of mechanical equipment encircling and engulfing the remnants of a woman. Long gray hair draped down her nude body from behind, and her skin was a hideous gray-green colour.. Where it was visible. Her body had been completely consumed by machinery that blended into it more or less seamlessly from below, while machines whirred and worked around her. The right third of her upper body, including both arms on that side, was absorbed too, as was most of her neck, with maybe a third of her head on the right also absorbed into the skittering machinery. Her eyes remained, however, and tracked Chand, while the two left arms were held slowly up toward him, and gestured weakly. There were numerous lesions on the body, and on one spot of the torso nanites appeared to be disassembling a tumor in real-time.
"Thirteen thousand and five hundred years," Jhamraste whispered, "Is a long time to remain alive. And I've been like this for the past twenty-five hundred of them."
He was shocked by what he found. The fusion of metal and flesh was unprecedented, even with the cruder and more blatant DNI jacks sometimes used on backwater worlds. She looked something like that horror story from one of the other universes, the Borg or whatever, as her sickly-pale body melted into machine. But she was more than that, terrible and ancient with an inexorable Will that had kept her alive, alone, for uncounted aeons, and not the mere dessicated carcass that stood before him. So he stepped forward, smiling, within arm's reach, to stroke her ancient hair. "I gave myself to you," he smiled, getting over his momentary surprise. "What do you need? Genetic samples to repair yourself? Blood and flesh to form a new body?"
"Yes, after a fashion." Jhamraste smiled tautly. "I will never be quite the same creature as I once was, but my nanites can perform some basic modifications to another body, and will infect it and bestow on it some of the same powers I once professed. Enough to make myself better than anything currently alive.... And, I will share them with you, Chand. I need one of the bodies of the women in the expedition, and I have cultivated them. Maria is the stronger, and so if she will kill her fellows, I will let her go, and take Rachel's body; and I will let Rachel go, and take Maria, if Rachel will prove herself that strong, and Maria refuses or is too weak in her instincts to survival.
“That is the final test I have planned for them, now that I have captured them. My own genetic material cannot be reproduced, replaced. That's why I'm like this. It's broken down--too many copying errors. My nanites are in an endless battle to fix enough of them to keep my alive and in the meantime their control broke down, engulfing in me and more and more machinery. Had you not come, I would have perished here, having spent... nine-five percent of my lifespan on this ship, and half of it, alone except for the realities on the computer I've lived out my existence in."
"Now, though it's but a fraction of the time I'll have spent here.... I know I will at least again be free."
He knew the two and in spite of himself was a little troubled; Maria had been kind to him, and Rachel seemed an innocent sort. But he had no doubt that Maria was the stronger of the two, and so would be let go, and that was enough to let him push his qualms to the side. Instead he concentrated on his love, the dark seductive intelligence that had ensnared him and to whom he had willingly bound himself. "It was a terrible ordeal, my lady, I don't doubt it. But soon it will end, yes. What do you need of me to bring this to fruition?"
"When they're brought here, Maria, Rachel, and the three others, you are to lead them inside of this room--don't worry, my body is shielded against attack--and explain to them exactly the stakes at hand. The strong survives, the weak, are material to be used."
He nodded. He had learned that lesson well enough in his own experience with the ancient Sarasavsati captain. "They will resent me, and refuse to accept the situation at first," he predicted. "They are attached to their norms, their morality, but it will fade away once they are faced with such a choice. I will make it clear to them what is expected, and what fate will befall them if they do not do everything to win survival."
"You may tell them, that the strongest of their number, shall have my word, that I will protect that person's life, for as long as they live naturally, and never once raise a hand against them, nor allow anyone else to. This, then, is the sacred word of the High Caste of the Sarasavsati, which is never broken."
: He smiled thinly at the offer. "It won't be appreciated. They won't understand what a boon you grant there." Chand shrugged. "If Maria survives maybe she will, eventually. Your honor demands you offer this reward even if it won't, or can't, be understood?"
"Yes. Who would I be, if I after treating them so poorly, I did not reward the one who had stood up to it all? Your morality is by contrast so very strange, when that of your ancestors, our's, was so straightforward."
"I'll try and explain what it expects, sometime. That will be important once we're free, I suspect. But suffice it to say that universal benevolence is expected, independent of circumstances, relationships, or emotional attachments." He shook his head at the foolishness of imitatio dei. "There's no room for revenge or exultation in destroying your enemies, for the justified pride in superiority. A philosopher once called it a slave mentality, but only now do I see how fitting that description is. Your morality is fit for a race of masters beyond mere trivialities of what we call good and evil, benevolence and malevolence, like that of our proudest empires of... well, I guess it isn't antiquity to you."
"No. A hundred thousand years of history before even my time now exist, it seems, only in the hallowed halls of these computers." A pause, and then, her wizened frame succeeded in speaking with some of the martial bearing of her holographic voice. "They've arrived, Chand. Go ahead and bring them in!"
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-06-24 08:21pm
Snarling, snipping at them, they had been herded through the ship, the five survivors of the crew of the Soccorso, save if God was with them Israel Greenbaum. There was nothing to do except hope there, and for Maria, to really seriously doubt that even if he did escape that they’d now ever get out alive.
The growling of the Direwolves warned of the consequences if they didn't march, hands tied behind their backs, in line, to where Chand waited, armed with a pistol, beside the twisted and disfigured, two-thirds eaten by machinery, living corpse, that was his lover, Jhamraste Sapuradi. She breathed slowly, locked in the ice of the machines that kept her alive, and her eyes tracking the captives who entered, quiet, her two exposed left hands, gently resting upon Chand's shoulder.
"I have waited an exceedingly long time for this moment," Jhamraste began to speak huskily as her eyes swept the group who, for the moment, was stopped dead in their tracks at the almost incomprehensible scene. A scene both of the impossible--Chand alive after the wound he'd taken, and a traitor--and the hideous, in the shattered remnants of Jhamraste Sapuradi, more like a mummy than a living being. "For you indeed did not board a ship abandoned. I am the last survivor of the crew of the Nyapursna, and now, you are mine."
The hideous figure before them would have chilled even the most experienced and heroic naval tar. The remaining crew of the Soccorso mostly fell far short of that standard, and all betrayed signs of fear and disgust, some of them subtle and some of them obvious. Even Maria felt the drying of her mouth and barely restrained impulse to break into physical action she associated with her tensest moments, but the sight of the once-mourned Chand beside the monster was also a source of growing anger as she adjusted to the scene, and understood precisely what it meant.
"Why are you toying with us?" she demanded of it, the tremble in her voice only barely perceptible even to herself. She already knew from the monster's prior behavior that expecting mercy was out of the question, and getting a few barbs in was better than just standing there waiting to be tortured. "Are you getting some sick thrill out of murdering people, you sadistic bitch?"
"Maria Lauwens, you're extremely intelligent. I have been trapped in this machinery for more than two thousand years," Jhamraste continued with remarkable calmness, "Because my DNA has deteoriated to the point where my body is constantly malforming into insane cancerous growths, virtually every single cell now, meaning I am laced with nanites which are repairing my flesh more or less as fast as it grows. The lifespan of the Sarasavsati high caste, of which I am a member, is at most eleven thousand years. I've exceeded it by almost twenty-five hundred years, and I don't have very long left. This is a warship, and there's no equipment onboard for cloning tanks, or the proper emulation software to handling the uploading of my sapient personality onto the computer cores.
"So, I need a new host for my existant sapience, for Me, if you will. And I have been testing you to find a suitable host. As it happens, you won the test, you are the best… And that means I won’t use you--for, it is our custom to pardon the one who faces a challenge and proves themselves the strongest. I will, in recognition of ancient custom and law, being a loyal Sarasavsat noble and officer to the last, let you go. Rachel Ling was next below you in capability, and she will be my host, due to this ancient custom, which compels I honourably accept the second-best. Once it was used for enslavement of enemy prisoners, but now, now I think it appropriate here.
“All you have to do to secure your own freedom, which I will render to you the moment I escape your Empire on the Soccorso, or return to this ship with fuel and vessels powerful enough for a salvage, is one final act to demonstrate your absolute determination to live. It will be a small thing for one of your absolute decision."
The fear faded, replaced by a crystal-clear sense of disgust as the pieces fell into place as to why the sadistic games had been played. "You're just afraid to die, so you're going to these lengths, this sadism, to live on. Thirteen thousand years wasn't enough? You said it, you are a cancer." She was speaking impulsively, giving vent to the feelings racing through her now that the gnawing terror had finally ceased for a moment, replaced with a fatalistic determination. "Maybe I'd even have helped save you if you weren't such a goddamned monster, found some other way. But you've sacrificed life after life and now you want to mind-rape Rachel." She defiantly extended her middle finger. "Go to hell. And you too, Chand. Fucking spineless Yang."
"It's the fundamental compulsion of any biological organism to continue living as long as possible," Jhamraste answered. "And I've spent all but five hundred years of my life trapped on this ship. So, yes, Maria Lauwens, that's how things are going to go. Our customs, our morals, our ethics apply here, and in them, the natural processes.... Are the basis of all morality. So. Secure your life." One of her hands whipped out to point at the three remaining men. "Kill them all, and I'll let you go. And if you don't, I'll give Rachel a chance to do it, and if she does, then you'll be my host, and not her."
"Do it, Maria." Chand genuinely urged the assistant engineer to take her offered salvation. "No one will blame you for surviving, at any cost. It's a natural reaction, beyond false notions of good and evil. Do what you have to do and she will spare your life. She has promised it, and her morality recognizes the unalterable bond of a freely given boon. How much of the rest of the crew has mocked you, insulted you, considered you less than dirt because you don't conform to their stupid idea of what you should be? You don't believe in the religious prattle used to control such petty minds, I know it. And you owe them all nothing, nothing at all."
Maria remembered Bernadino's shouted reproaches, but she shook them out of her head as she looked around at the remaining crew. They were tense, worried, but Rachel was looking at her with adoring, trusting eyes. She had led them herself, they'd fought together and seen their comrades die around them. Whatever animosities she had held were dead, and they’d all die here together, with a bond nobody else and certainly not the smirking Yang Chand had proved himself to be would ever possibly understand. “I just figure the game’s up,” she whispered to herself. Then, she jerked her head up and started to shout in the surge of rage that filled her in that moment of reflection.
"Shut up, Chand! You don't understand, and neither does that putrid corpse." She shook her head. "It isn't about religion or morality. We're human beings. We don't treat each other like animals. Or resources to be used and thrown away. I've been through hell together with Rachel and these men and I won't betray them now, not even to save my life. Some things are more important, whatever you think about us Belter sluts."
"Well, I am not going to be so arrogant as to assume I can make you change your mind," Jhamraste answered softly. "Your body will do almost as well as Rachel's. So, Rachel, the prize is your's to win. You can escape your appointed fate and be freed, or even serve as you wish at my right hand. Just execute those three men for me, minor intellects the universe will never notice, and you'll have beat out Maria for the prize of life."
"The blood of the high caste flows in your veins, that you have mind-sight like I do, even if enervated. Take up your birthright by striking them down."
Rachel shrank back in herself as she was directly addressed by the ancient, malevolent force she had felt with her mind for so long. But she looked up at Maria, standing so strong, and found her own inspiration. "I won't." She spoke quietly, softly, but with a hint of defiance. It was the same tone she had used in her last conversation back on her homeworld, with her in-laws. "You're inhuman. I can sense it, there’s no morality left in you. Maria is right. She saved my life for reasons you can't understand, probably never could understand." Her voice trembled a bit, fearing that she was dooming herself but still holding to her example. "You can't make me like you."
"No, I can't. But I can become you. And I will. And for all this senseless refusal of practical chances at survival, there will be a price, too; Maria's freedom." Her eyes flickered, where her head could no longer twist: "I'll make you part of my hareem, girl. And when I come back here and wrench the Nyapursna off the surface of this planet, and make myself the ruler of this Empire and others, you will not stand at my right side, but as a steppu-stool trod on by my boots. Nonetheless, I gave my word in front of Chand, admittedly not expecting this ridiculous outcome, that the life of the winner would be spared and protected by me forever, and I am honest. You are a very lucky woman, Maria Lauwens, for a coward."
"Chand, kill the men. Then we'll get on with the more important part of this operation."
Chand sighed in regret at this all too predictable outcome. He really had liked Maria, but she was too wedded to her understanding of the false world of Christian society and there wasn't enough time to break her out of it. Even as he let that regret express itself in his mind he pulled up the old Sarasavsati battle rifle that Jhamraste had given him just for safety, and turned it on the line of spacers behind the two women.
The cutting beam sliced the nearest one in half, and the rest attempted to run. Chand walked slowly forward, calmly butchering the two men as they edged away from the dire wolves moving to intercept. He was near enough to Maria and Rachel to sense their shock and revulsion, but he kept his face carefully neutral during the exercise. It was only a few moments, after all, and again proved his loyalty to Jhamraste… And he’d rather come to like killing.
"I tried to save you, Maria," he said calmly as he dropped the rifle down and engaged the safety. "Your life is spared. And the feeble of mind have been burned away. I'm sorry you didn't prove robust enough of spirit to embrace what Jhamraste offers you."
Maria fought down the urge to spit in his face, but just barely. "You're just as much of a murdering psychopath as that bitch in the wall," she said.
"Sociopath, perhaps, and only by the standards of your own society--not our's," Jhamraste echoed calmly, from her position in the wall. "Now, Rachel, if we can get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible, would you please walk through the partition in the wall?"
“Rachel, don’t make things that easy for her,” Maria interrupted crisply as the young Asian woman trembled sharply under the threat of her own impending demise. “Jhamraste,” she looked to the monstrous figure engulfed in the machinery. “I’m willing to negotiate to save Rachel’s life. I know of places in the broader cosmos, other universes, where uploading is possible. You’re a sick fucking bitch but I’m not going to make a principled stand at the expense of someone’s life; least of all Rachel’s. You want out of the Empire? I can take you there in the Soccorso.
“You can bring Dire Wolves along for security. We’ll run the gate, the security isn’t nearly as good for transiting from our universe to the other, I’ve got friends who work on the support stations. I’ll go to hyper straight out, they’ll never catch us. Bring along that solid latinum on this ship and you’ll have plenty of money to pay for someone to turn you into an AI. No extradition treaties with the Empire, either.”
“Thank you, but no. I can already see the details of this land in this land and the likely fate as a subject of experimentation, made all the worse for how kind and non-invasive it would be, cut off from the outside for the rest of my existence. Anyway, I want to walk on green grass again, and to see the sun of Earth overhead once more. These are desires worth taking the sapience of a mongrel to fill. Your plan offers little chance of success and requires me to trust you not to betray you, when wheels for how to turn me over the authorities already spin in your head, for all I will acknowledge that you would carry it out if no other means of saving Rachel availed itself to you. But that is not good enough. No, I am Power and I am agony and hate and I will not be denied.”
“Fine, then, you fucking monster. Then take me. Just take me and let Rachel go. I give myself to you; voluntarily.”
“No you don’t!” Rachel suddenly screamed. “Maria, escape her someday and live for both of us! I’m not letting you die!” And as she screamed, tears coursing hot down her cheeks, she bodily flung herself toward the partition in the wall. Grasping mechanical claws lurched from hiding to strike and trap, and her scream echoed in the suddenness of her act as she was dragged inside.
Jhamraste waited until the screams ceased to echo, and then smiled in haughty conquest. “My dear Maria, this body will shortly be dying as my consciousness is transferred. Before then, I will allow you to contemplate the magnitude of your failure.”
A maintenance bot trundled in, carrying Israel Greenbaum’s severed head. Maria stared dully for a long moment, and then turned back to Jhamraste while she was still present, and whispered hoarsely. “Sorry, bitch. Yeah, I failed. They’re all dead. But I can still avenge them, and I’m not going becoming a Yang at your side like Chand. Now, Rachel wanted me to live for her, but she’s not here anymore and won’t know one way or another. So, I’m not going to let you get to the Soccorso.”
She thrust a hand into her pocket, and even Jhamraste frozen in that moment as she abruptly concentrated in desperate force, holding off the procedure that she was about to initiate, forcing it to delay and throwing errors into it as she desperately reached out with all her telepathic energy. Maria screamed and sunk to the ground, fighting the compulsion which forced her to pull her hand back out of her broad and wide suit utility pocket, holding the brick of plastic explosive she’d surreptitiously kept in it.
“Not so fast, Maria Lauwens. Chand, take it from her. The procedure is underway and I cannot remain functional for long! Then get away from her!”
Chand darted forward and snatched the block from the immobilized Maria, and retreated immediately. The moment he’d brought his rifle up and flipped off the safety, Maria snapped to the ground convulsing in a seizure brought on by the immense power of the telepathic control, and Jhamraste’s body flagged, sagged, and collapsed in against the wall, with the nanites at once skittering out like a gray soup to consume and render down what remained of it. The deed was done, and the sole survivor was reborn.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-06-26 12:18am
The procedure had taken at least an hour, during which the rested Chand could cover the embittered and furious Maria, who knew that, effectively, Rachel was being destroyed by the operation. It was a terrifying moment, all the more for how it seemed impossible to intervene. Of the crew of the Soccorso that had boarded the Nyapurasna, she was now more or less the only one left. Chand's descent was long since completed.
The purgatory of waiting was not going to last forever, however; yet how it ended, none could quite imagine. In the end, the notice that the procedure was completed came not from any dramatic entrance or proclaimation. Instead, it was a feeble cry for help, repeated again in a sort of neurotic realization of personal doom echoing from weakly inside.
"Ch-Chand!? Please come back in here!" Rachel's voice echoed from deeper inside the computer facility, and it seemed almost like it was Rachel, not Jhamraste, from the hesitancy lacing it and the nervousness, a pleading tone evident.
Chand was mildly surprised by the pleading tone to the voice calling out, and briefly feared that something was not right. He started back slowly, still covering Maria with his Sarasavsati pulse rifle and reluctant to give the furious woman any room to maneuver. She was exceptionally clever and might well manage to find a way to kill them if he wasn’t careful, after all.
"I'm coming!" he pledged, stepping his way between rows of arcane computer banks to the wall and his waiting mistress. One look back at the still seething figure of Maria on the floor, having propped herself up to glare quietly and furiously, convinced him that the assistant engineer was never going to reconcile with her fate and he hardened his own resolve. If she caused any trouble he'd kill her, or have Jhamraste sic her own security at the slightest provocation.
He neared the procedure area, eyes peering into the dimness ahead. "I'm here, Jhamraste. What's wrong?"
"I can't walk," Jhamraste growled out in more evident frustration, at that point, having recovered from her own surprise. There was, only, Rachel's form, laying naked on the floor next to a table with machinery hooked up to it, that she'd fallen from while trying to stand up. "I can't. walk. And all the nanite diagnostics say the body's fine. But I can't. make it walk.. Something got fucked up in the transfer, or… or there was an issue with my brain."
He looked with concern down at her form, trying to see if there was any obvious problem and being completely defeated in that purpose. And her nanite sensors were surely better than his nonexistent medical training. "I'll carry you, then. It won't be that suspicious coming aboard the Soccorso. In the short term..." He spied one of the maintenance bots scurrying around in the background. "Can we rig something to give you mobility around the ship? Once we're into the Empire we'll have enough resources to figure out what the problem is."
"I'm not sure, I could have one of the robots carry me, but really, just me get back to the command console..." She sighed softly. "I think it's worse than that, Chand. It's that--in some twisted way, I've lost my mental capability to command my legs to walk. It's the only thing I can think of. I may be able to re-learn it, like a baby learns again how to walk, but feels like the entire section of my subconscious is simply missing. Eroded away. Maybe Maria’s interruption to the transfer did more damage than I thought." She grimly lefted a hand up, that with much more confidence. "Come on. I'll... I'll rely on you to make sure we get out of this." But she still seemed to be hiding some sort of inner weakness that hadn’t been there before.
"We'll need one of the dire wolves to cover Maria," he said, even he took the hand brought Jhamrate in Rachel's body to a sitting position. He lift her gently forward, off the table, with her nude form hanging her arms around his neck and supported by his left arm. The rifle dangled uneasily in his right hand, leaving his accuracy with it in serious doubt. "But what next, then?"
"Already on that. I'm still connected to the ship's computer," Jhamraste answered simply. "I guess that, we are just going to have to convince Maria to help us with engineering on the Soccorso. I can still conn the ship quite easily, even easier now that I have Rachel's knowledge of your technical devices. I've maximized her psychic powers, though they're nowhere near as strong as I once had." She ground a fist into the deck hard enough to hurt, though she didn't show it, and looked up to Chand. "But I'm free, for the first time in thousands of years, so we'll just deal with it. Maria’s not a bad person, anyway."
"We will." He moved forward, taking Jhamraste back up to the front of the room to confront Maria. He suspected already that his lover was going to have to use her psychic talents, or other forms of coercion, on the troublesome assistant engineer, and wondering at the last comment. But he left them unspoken, understanding how her sense of morality insisted that she do everything to live up to her promises. He gripped the rifle that little bit tighter.
Maria was still waiting on the floor, now covered by one of the ferocious cybernetic beasts that seemed capable of materializing anywhere. She started up as Chand dragged Jhamraste forward, then glanced back to the unblinking guardian beside her. "Rachel?" The question came out forlornly, more of a dirge than a hope, but still advanced in spite of the answer she expected, with hope about the odd circumstances crushed down as it appeared.
"Well, she had a last bit of revenge on me, which I won't begrudge her," Rachel's voice answered back. "It appears that in the intervening twenty-five hundred years, I've forgotten how to use my legs, my brain stem eroded away, the computers keeping me alive prioritized how to preserve my memories and let the basic subconscious commands, the entire section of the brain devoted to walking, cease to exist. Everything works, and yet, I simply cannot will myself to walk or thing about how I might do so. It is... Doubtless something that pleases you." The smirk of wry amusement cut a cruel line across Rachel's face, now Jhamraste Sapuradi's. “I might even allow the fact that your little stunt with the explosives screwing up the transfer could have been a factor.”
Maria's eyes blazed with hatred and she barely stopped herself from launching at the smirking fiend now wearing poor Rachel's body like a costume. She saw Chand's rifle quivering but knew too well the dire wolf wouldn't waver. "It's not nearly enough, you monstrous bitch," she spoke, bitterly, but the reproach was directed as much to herself as to Jhamraste. She'd failed everyone, finally.
: "Please set me down, Chand." She waited until she was curled up dully on the floor, supported on a pile of her own rubbery limbs, resisting any attempt at making them move, by her hands gently stretching out. Staring through a pretty face across at Maria, she smiled rather gently. "I need an engineer for the Soccorso--you ought know that my condition is no hindrance to my operating her when my nanites can easily reproduce inside of me a military-grade DNI. And there's still two people alive onboard her, who are now hostages to your good conduct."
That threat shook through Maria's mounting anger and despair before stoking her inward rage higher. They'd left Jozef and Ms. Rapisardi aboard, both of them effectively defenseless and helpless, and the monster was going to destroy them too. "There's nothing you won't do, is there? Chand, the Old Man's wife was like a mother to you! You've got to see, now. Just kill the monster, and save your soul from it." She was pleading, begging to get through her former shipmate, hoping to strike a core of decency left intact somewhere inside him. "It destroyed Rachel, consumed her, can you let her do that to more people?"
He had already made his choice, though, and shook his even before Jhamraste could begin to respond. "If you cooperate no one else will get hurt." The threat to Ms. Rapisardi should have shaken him, but it didn't. He felt cold, as cold as ice. "Their safety is in your hands now. I know you won't give up hating Jhamraste, not as long as you live, but does that hatred outweigh the chance to save two lives?"
"I give you my word of honour as a Sarasavsati noblewoman that if you aide me in getting the Soccorso out of Imperial space that their lives will be spared," Jhamraste added softly, staring dully over into Maria's eyes. "Even comfortable. Since I'm no longer in a physical position to try and lure some larger salvage ship here, not enough control over the situation when crippled like this, it's my intent to bargain my knowledge of this vessel and the knowledge in my person with the government of some other power that will respect me as I deserve. You, Jozef, and your precious Captain's wife, will all I assure you be given comfortable accommodations with whomever I might succeed in negotiating such an arrangement. Prosperous ones, even. Of course, you could still, if you really wanted, abandon your precious moral sentiment and help me directly. I'm not limited to only one lover."
Maria laughed bitterly at the offer. "You really are a sociopath. You destroyed Rachel, killed the men who trusted me to lead them to safety, and now you try to seduce me? I'm not a pathetic little Yang like Chand. I'll go along because you're threatening to kill more people." Grudgingly, she didn't have to add. "But you're going to decompress someday and I just want to live long enough to see it."
Jhamraste laughed and shook her head. "Still rather naive, Maria Lauwens, for all your determination and capability. Just ask yourself what the Evidenzburo would do if they caught me. Even then, I'd spend the rest of my existence in comfortable house arrest, directing technological development projects to bring your industrial base the benefits of Sarasavsati technology, a lynchpin in your nation's military development efforts which would mean that even the Director himself would come to me hat in hand, and I would live a life better than most billionaires in exchange for stringing out facts to them. That is one fate, I assure you, that you will never see me suffer. So you better get used to the idea of having me around.."
"...Despite all your Catholic moralizing sentiments, at the end of the day, your nation would try to be as ruthless as mine, including in preserving my life. They would just wrap it in hypocrisy, and this, I will never do."
"We'll see about that." The monster is mortal enough, she can be killed. Maria told herself that, and realized what she had to do. And then started running through old vacuum shanties she'd picked up as a child. "I'll cooperate to save their lives, and that's it."
“Thank you, Maria.” Jhamraste paused, and sighed visibly. “Just so you know, I kept all of Rachel’s memories intact so I could have a reference for living in your society should it be necessary. They’re a strangeness to me, the fabric of another being. I… Rather thought you’d want to know.”
Maria laughed softly and looked up, levelly, to Jhamraste’s eyes “You silly fucking desperate bitch. She was the sweetest, most honest girl I’d ever known. That explains your behaviour—you’ve been on the verge of tears the entire time, haven’t you? Suddenly gifted with the memories needed to know what a conscience is. Congratulations—you’ve got your body, then. But I can hope Rachel’s memories poison your brain until you finally end your own miserable life.”
Jhamraste stared back at Maria for a long dull moment as Chand looked on in concern, and then managed a faint, weak shrug. “No matter, I suppose. They just led me to extend a kindness to you. I’m not going anywhere, though. I fear you are optimistic about the level of change her memories induce within me.”
“I’ll have plenty of time to wait,” Maria snarled back, and then fell silent.
One of the maintenance bots trundled up slowly, carrying a robe of gold and black strange fabrics, cut to fit Rachel's body, that Jhamraste pulled around herself and tied them together, able enough with her hands. "Help up to the top of the maintenance 'bot, Chand. It can secure me, and I'll ride it out to the Soccorso while you and a few Dire Wolves here cover our dear engineer."
"Of course, my dear." Chand lifted her up gently, smiling as he took her form fully in his arms. The maintenance bot edged closer, slowly, allowing him to seat her securely on top of it. "Soon we'll be able to enjoy fresh air, and sunlight, and green grass." There was a wistful note to his voice. He had never been cut out to be a spacer.
"We will," Jhamraste agreed with a smile, and then, stiffened imperceptibly. In sensors still linked to her body through the ship, she had felt the approach of something energetic into the system. “Frack.” She switched to German: “We’ve got trouble. Looks like it’s time to change the plan again.”
The command bridge of the SMS Makedonien buzzed with activity as the ship slipped away from orbit. Below them was the main habitation settlement of RE-117B, built into the largest planetoid orbiting the anemic system primary. It was nothing special, a mining settlement with a corporate charter under a Sibirsk-based extraction company. The crew was still disapponted at being robbed of the opportunity for a bit of shore leave, but the emergency left no scope for delay. Those regrets were put aside as Macedonian surged to full military acceleration, on a course that would allow it to rendezvous with a three-ship division of system defense frigates previously engaged in training drills.
The master and commander of the ship, Kapitän zur Raum Richard Czerny, watched over the banks of computer stations below his command chair. The crew was humming with quiet efficiency, and he relaxed a bit as he saw everything being done without the need for his input. Rather than keep the Old Man's eye over everyone's shoulders he pulled up the transmission received from the outer system thirty minutes ago, and loaded it into the bridge holographic display buffer.
"XO on the bridge!" The cry of the sergeant-at-arms brought the enlisted seamen on the deck to momentary attention, as the second-in-command entered from private officer's lift at the back. They went back to their tasks just as quickly, and most missed the presence of Major Ernst von Rolheim striding in just behind him.
"Reporting as ordered, sir." The two officers had made their way up to the elevated command platform, and halted before the commander's chair. His XO, Leutnant-Kommandant Timmusz Aradahan, stood at his right side while the commander of the ship's marine company waited stiffly for the situation to be explained to him.
Czerny keyed the holographic display unit up. "We received this transmission shortly. You'll both understand after watching it."
The holotank began projecting in the thin-screen of yellow matrix lines and rapidly began forming into a flat representation of a broad camera angle. The message was being sent from an old communications terminal, obviously low grade civilian equipment. A figure emerged, a weathered older man, stocky with well over a century's build of muscle and greying beard, thick bushy white eyebrows, and a look of utter alarm on his face. He seemed not to have caught that the terminal was active for several moments, before his eyes drifted up and then he straightened out suddenly.
"This is Chief Engineer Jozef Kozlewski, of the registered ship Soccorso II. Outta... Bridgeport, right?" He seemed momentarily disoriented as he tried to remember where the ship was registered before giving up. "Uh, we're a salvage vessel and we came here into the outer asteroid belt to salvage a ship. Huge ship here, completely alien, maybe seven kilometers long, buried in this planetoid." He fiddled around with the terminal controls. "Attaching the coordinates here, and all our sensor data. The Captain left me and his missus aboard and said he'd be a few hours before checking in, but he's long overdue. We haven't heard anything for hours now, but before that we got bone-chilling transmissions about attacks. Fragments of comm messages from suits only, but there's something terribly wrong on board. We staked a claim but Liza here is worried sick about the captain and so am I, and our people. So if there's anyone out there, the navy, the gendarmes, customs service, please come out and help. We can't do anything ourselves now. I'm attaching all the data like I said, and God help us."
The transmission from the Soccorso faded, only to be replaced by representations of sensor scans of the planetoid. They weren't much in definition or detail, reminding Aradahan about the limitations of older civilian sensor suites. But what there was, was incredible. An unknown material, one the Makedonien's advanced weak-AI had been unable to recognize. Said unknown material, some kind of incredible armor compound it was readily seen, formed into a cigar shape six kilometers or more long, buried in an obvious crash with a planetoid the size of Ceres. There were structures that seemed bolted on to the hull, including one that was obviously a gravitic drive crane.
"That explains why we're heading out there hell for leather," Czerny commented. "Whatever that ship is, it's advanced beyond anything we're familiar with as well as being enormous." He cut the transmission short as it began cycling through sensor data. "It seems to have been there on this planetoid for thousands of years, undisturbed. This find may be of vital importance to the future of the Empire, and it is an absolute priority to secure it ahead of any interference."
Timmusz nodded his understanding. They were close enough to the Frontier that pirates and outsiders were a real danger, and Bogumil forces had been operating a sector over six months ago. Even civilians like this salvage crew would be a serious annoyance and it would only get worse if the site were swamped with treasure hunters. "Very well sir. Shall I return to the outer bridge and oversee navigation while you coordinate with the system defenses?"
"That's what I had in mind, Herr Aradahan." Like most Imperial vessels, the Makedonien was shaped around a heavy keel-box, with an outer armored shell attached top and bottom. The real combat and command center was inside the keel, protected by the armored shell and layers of stores, water, and fuel kept between it and the keel. Tradition though dictated that an external bridge be attached to the shell on the side intended to orient as the top, and frequently enough in peacetime some navigation functions were run from it. "We'll be joining with a division of system frigates on the run-in, the course has already been calculated and communicated with them, but you know how these periphery commands can sometimes be..."
"Aye aye, sir. I'll be sure to watch out for any problems with their seamanship." Aradahan had been with Czerny long enough to know he did not need to bother waiting for a dismissal, and so left to the private lift.
Czerny turned to the Marine commander, who had kept his rigid attention stance the entire time. "Major, you and your men will secure that vessel at all costs. We don't know what is going on in there, it could just be the crew broke down and mutinied, or we could be facing millenia-old automated defenses. I'll strip engineering to provide some technical support, and the frigate division will have some gendarme personnel who may be useful."
"Those will be useful, sir. My company has an attached combat engineer squad and they include specialists in reconstructing enemy computer systems. If the vessel is as advanced as you speculate though the more DNI operators we have on hand, the better. Experienced personnel will be useful. I do not believe it's something as simple as a mutiny among the salvage personnel, though. That wouldn't have rattled a veteran spacer the way Jozef seems to have been." He halted, organizing his thoughts for a couple of seconds. "We may be dealing with organized resistence aboard, which could present a serious threat not just to my men but to the Empire as a whole."
Czerny was temporarily taken aback by the prospect, delivered so levelly by von Rolheim. "What sort of creatures could still be alive down there? The scans indicate that ship has been entombed for thousands of years."
Ernest shrugged his shoulder. "They could have stasis pods. Or some other life extension technology, clone bodies, or some equivalent of those chronoton particles from that other universe. We could be dealing with silicon based life forms." Ernst von Rolheim, speculative fiction fan. Who would have known? But he saved the most disturbing prospect for last. "Or it could be an artificial intelligence directing cybernetic defenses. We have no guarantee the people who built that vessel have the same qualms about utilizing AI."
Czerny nodded reluctantly, but it made sense. "You can go in with full power armor, of course. I'll have the armory prepare nuclear charges to bring along as well, in case it proves necessary to destroy the ship. Looking at those scans of the armored material I'm not sure we have the firepower to do so otherwise."
"The engineers will know how to emplace them. In an emergency they should be capable of being detonated manually."
"A little paranoid, but..." The Kapitän didn't like where the conversation was going, but he had to concede that von Rolheim knew what he was about. "There should be some low level demolition charges in the weapons stores that can be modified with heavier warheads. Those should work for what you need. If there anything else you'll require?"
"No sir. With your permission I'll have the company assemble on the marshaling deck in marine country for a briefing."
"Granted." Czerny watched him depart, and nervously checked the astrogation display.
The Makedonien was continuing to build up momentum for the rendezvous with the frigates, but Aradahan had that well in hand. He considered ordering a microjump to speed up arrival once the formation had been established but quickly discarded the idea. The asteroid field around the planetoid made any jump into the area dicey, and it was difficult enough to accomplish this deep in a gravity well. Instead he ordered coffee, and left the navigation to his executive officer. It was good for shipboard brew, which made it slightly palatable by most standards held of the drink. But it was strong and hot and that was what mattered.
They had to decelerate to manueuver through to the planetoid, and that process took as long as the acceleration did. Timmusz handled it all superbly, and the dagger-shape of the cruiser soon slowly advanced over the still-grounded form of the Soccorso. Their own sensors clearly made out the trench caused by the crash of the unknown alien vessel, and confirmed all the details provided by the civilian ship's scans. It was a breathtaking sight, and also humbling for the master of the Makedonien. Whatever had built that wrecked ship needed to be taken deadly seriously, and he called down to engineering to confirm that the scuttling charges were ready for von Rolheim. He was more than a bit relieved to hear that they were.
It took another hour for the marines to finish assembling, fitting on their power armor, and moving stores aboard the assault shuttles in the boat bay. In the meantime a landing boat had been sent down to the Soccorso and brought back the communication records received from the salvage parties. Hearing them provided yet more cause for unease as the Imperial marines departed on what most were already treating as an assault mission to the planetoid below.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-07-04 02:52am
“So, we've got a problem, Chand," Jhamraste began softly after her outburst. "There's an Imperial Heavy Cruiser and four frigates coming toward us at a very high turn. It appears that for the moment there's no way we can escape without being detected, we'll have to pass through interrogation and a search of the Soccorso at the very least." She paused, and shifted uncomfortably. "And I'm not entirely sure about what we should do at this point, when it comes down to it. Maria is a serious liability."
He took a moment to adjust to the news, stifling an urge to swear aloud or otherwise give vent to the anger that suddenly welled up. He had to be calm, rational, and pragmatic to be worthy of Jhamraste, and despite having the universe itself taken away from them, it seemed, just as loomed like a promise. "You're right, Maria will try to betray us the first chance she gets. With the authorities on their way here it's too much of a risk. It is going to be difficult enough dealing with them without any distractions. And she's already shown that nothing will force her to give up on her designs for revenge on us. We can't afford to keep her alive if we are going to survive."
"I gave her my word of honour, however, so that's not an option. I can however power the main batteries enough for a few salvos. That would put paid to a cruiser and four frigates, but I... Honestly, I don't think we should do it," she said a bit unsteadily, and it was easy to read Rachel in that, more than Jhamraste, as she continued in a somewhat wane attempt to justify: "Firstly, it's going to attract far to much attention. The Soccorso would probably still fail to make it out, and Bogumil space is not my idea of a place in which to make our lives, we'd have to head straight there for even a chance of escaping after taking out that squadron."
"We have more of a chance there than dealing with the Empire if Maria manages to slip out on us or turn us in," he said softly. "And you have seen her behavior. You can even see into her mind. Unless we neutralize her somehow she will do anything to see us both burn. With a squadron of warships on the way we can't handle a distraction of the sort any carelessness with her would cause." He paused for second, and shook his head. "You could mess with her mind, but I'm not sure that would be better than killing her outright."
"Or, you know, if you're half Rachel, you'd just surrender right now," Maria spoke up softly, looking to Jhamraste. "You were right, you know," she added, thinking on the fly, "They'll never actually kill you. Stop now while you still can, and you'll live a comfortable 'nother two hundred years or so."
"Treated like a specimen in a zoo," Chand dismissed. "Did you survive thousands of years of imprisonment in your body for two hundred years of house arrest, or a cell in one of the Emperor's dungeons?"
"No, but I'm not killing Maria! Chand, you'll dismiss that thought from your had. There must be another way," her face fell in disgusted misery as she turned to look to the other woman, who waited with baited breath.
"And there is," she added softly. "I was holding it in reserve but it doesn't matter so much now." She stretched slowly. "It's called prana bindhu, and it will let be instantiate a second personality inside of Maria's mind, in control of her body, a simple retarded one without memory, an animal's personality rather than a human's. We can pass it off as insanity caused by the severity of the conditions on the ship, we'll hide aboard, pretend we were hiding from my own defences. Once they've finished interrogating us I can release Maria from it. And because it's being done through the Higher, the Hidden World, no telepath will see through it, and I can still execute it despite the loss of most of my telepathic abilities."
"And Maria, I did promise to you. So you can take that as sufficient proof... That you're going to wake up on the other side." She paused, and frowned. "This will be very unpleasant, seeing the world through the eyes of someone else for a while, but.."
"Just fucking get it over with, bitch," Maria interjected with a snap.
"Alright, Maria," Jhamraste answered softly, and looked to Chand. "You're going to have to bring her to me and restrain her in case she tries to resist." She visibly swallowed, a trace of nervousness, as the two personalities still seemed to war within her.
Chand noticed the change in Jhamraste, but avoided voicing his concerns. As it was, handling Maria was going to be difficult enough. "Alright Maria, don't make this any more difficult than it has to be." He brandished his rifle like a club in his hands, hoping but not expecting to deter physical resistance. The menacing form of one of the Direwolves hovered over the form of the engineer, a still more potent reminder that Jhamraste had only said that Maria would be kept alive.
Without hesitation, Maria uncoiled in a moment's thought from her senescent position and hurled herself at Chand, delivering a sharp kick for his knee as she simply let herself collide with him, hoping to knock him down. There was probably no real hope of escape, but the longer she distracted them and delayed it the less chance they had of succeeding.
He had been expecting the attack but the force of the blow to his delicate joint caused a good deal of damage, and he was just barely able to throw his weight on the other leg and keep from sprawling out in the floor. He uttered a guttural cray of pain, but the adrenaline already running through his system and the sharpness of the sensation of combat fed his resolve. He brought the rifle swinging down with the force of his arms onto Maria, over her arms raised up to block the blow, onto the side of her head.
She was not knocked unconscious by the blow but, clearly had a bit of physical disadvantage to Chand in sheer size, and crumpled under the blow, though she woozily pushed herself back up to slam her fist into Chand's jaw.
He took the blow and tried to avoid staggering by again putting all of his weight on his one good leg. Chand retaliated by bringing the rifle again, this time one-handed, but still slamming it into her head with the obvious intent of putting her down. "Bitch," he spat out. "Jhamraste said she wouldn't kill you, but she didn't say anything about head trauma..." Another blow, this time to her midsection with his fist, staggered her over and he brought the rifle up for another smack to the head to knock her out.
"STOP! You might damned well kill her!" Jhamraste screamed out sharply before Chand could deliver the blow. "And you will NOT dishonour me!"
"If you haven't noticed she's done her best to kill us both," Chand called back, but aborting the blow. "And she'll damned well keep on doing it as long as she's conscious. So if you can use your powers or have a Direwolf stun her or whatever, fine, and why haven't you done so already?"
“I don’t… I don’t want to hurt her.” She glared more seriously at Chand. “Just bring her to me now and I’ll take care of it.”
Chand grabbed Maria in a tight hug and slid his way behind her, hooking her arms with his own in a tight vice and pushing her forward to Jhamraste. "She's still a little disoriented, go ahead and do what you have to do before she can start fighting me again." And Maria was already beginning to try and squirm her way out of his restraining position.
"Now that's better," Jhamraste spoke irritably as she glanced to Chand. "Maria," she added rather quietly, "Is part of our family now." The statement sounded final, as though all ideas of slavery had simply melted away from her mind, and she reached forward to clasp the woman's temples in both hands, her telepathic powers instantly causing her to drift to sleep.
Then, concentrating, she instantiated into view the idea of a personality, harmlessly occupying Maria's brain, and primary, and it became real. Details were willed into existence by pure thought, and within a minute, she realized a blank-fazed, trembling, quivering Maria, silent with a thousand-yard stare.
“That's one problem taken care of," Jhamraste said as she finished softly. "Now we'll need to move the both of us to a location that looks like we could have successfully hid in it, while I work on programming the automated defences to provide reasonable resistance to the Imperials, and trick them into thinking the ship's defences were run by pure automatic."
"The purser's safe?" Chand suggested. "Only one way in to it, which we can secure with a couple of rifles, and there's enough material there to pile up and hide behind, at least."
"Excellent idea," Jhamraste nodded shortly, as another maintenance 'bot came up to heft Maria's body gently. "Well, let's be going. They're preparing to send down landers right this instant."
Chand gave the splayed form of Maria's body a significant look. Jhamraste had to know Maria wasn't going to ever give in, didn't she? But her word was her word no matter how much the engineer resisted. He followed on as they left, but with a growing sense of disquiet on the subject of Miss Lauwens—and Jhamraste’s sudden weakness.
The shuttle pilot whistled aloud as the immense bulk of the crashed alien vessel loomed ahead, and Ernst von Rolheim agreed in his head. It was a damned impressive sight, though seated in the back cabin with his headquarters sergeant and communications specialist, in full powered armored, he was quite out of view. But he had studied the sensor images brought back by an earlier flyover and could form a detailed picture of the great hulk in his mind. The great cylinder shape with its great flaring fins loomed ominiously in his thoughts, and he could only dread the power of the civilization that had created it. Listening to the few snippets of conversation picked up by the Soccorso had done nothing to put him at ease. He was certain that no mutiny or accident had claimed the crew, and with that in mind they were going to conduct the operation like a full-fledged assault.
Even through the bulk of the armor he could see some of the other marines in the bay fidgeting, or looking uneasy. He had shared those chilling recordings with the company when they had assembled on deck so they would have an idea of the seriousness of the situation. They weren't the army, after all. Every man here was a volunteer, with a twenty year committment and the training and education to go along with it. The sergeants were all forty year veterans, steady men with good heads on their shoulders, and could handle themselves without his watching over them. Promotion in the service was slow and only the best advanced when the rare opportunity opened, which gave them a finely-honed edge.
He just hoped it was honed enough.
The shuttle, the lead in a flight of a dozen armed assault craft, grounded a klick away from the entrance that the crew of Soccorso had opened. It ran against Ernst's better judgment to go in that way, but there was a chance that members of the crew were still alive and tracing their steps would let them find any survivors. The shuttle flipped into hover mode as it began descending on to the ground, with automated turrets tracking over the general vicnity. He waited patiently as the pilot manuevered the craft delicately and barely felt the slight jolt as the shuttle grounded itself on the rocky exterior of the planetoid. A red cabin light warned them to stay in place as the pilot adjusted the Alderson Field Generator, flipping it into the safety Langeston Field mode that would provide a permeable air interchange. Only once the light flicked to green did the hatch to the bay slide collapse down, and the point section surged out around the sides of the craft. Rolheim and his headquarters section followed them shortly, flechette guns held in anticipation and integral plasma cannons charged.
The dozen shuttle craft formed a perimeter soon reinforced by the emerging marines. The headquarters section established itself in the center of the perimeter, with Rolheim holding an impromptu council with his four lieutenants. "We went over it in the briefing," von Rolheim began, "but I want to reiterate our roles. Leutnant Ersazi, your platoon will cover the perimeter here against any attack on the shuttles. If we are cut off your primary responsibility will be to get word to the Makedonien and tell them to destroy this vessel. Leutnant Enfield, your platoon will secure the entrance to the vessel and hold on to one of our demolition charges. If required you will fight you way to the foreward reactor room and detonate it."
The two junior officers being addressed acknowledged the orders. "Will you follow us in, Kapitan, or are you going to be with Leutnant Fredericks?"
"I'll be with you as your platoon as you make the initial breach," Ernst answered decisively. A good officer knew when to lead from the front, and showing confidence now would keep awareness of the vague threat from becoming a shadowing morale problem. "And that brings us to you, Jan. You'll follow on the heels of Enfield and be ready to fight through his platoon to the command room we identified. Give your demolition charges to the section you trust best, I don't want them to lose them." The armored figure nearest to him raised his hand in a silent affirmation. Even inside their suits, nonverbal communication could be key to operations.
"I guess that leaves my platoon keeping the way between your advance and Enfield's perimeter clear of whatever?" Leutnant Blucher asked directly, to confirm what he already knew.
"That's right. Now get your platoons ready, and head out in ten minutes."
The march to the ship was uneventful, one kilometer in power armor and light gravity lasting a grand total of five minutes. The portable airlock the crew had established was still standing, completely undisturbed, when Enfield and his men arrived. They quickly dismantled the structure, with specialist engineers working to widen the breach in the ship created when the Soccorso crew had burned through a sealed door. It took them half an hour of diligent work with dedicated plasma torches, but then they were done two suits abreast could walk through the new entrance, which was enough of a margin of retreat and allowed for some heavy equipment to be brought through if required. And then they made the plunge inside.
The corridor they entered was deathly still, strewn with rubble from the crash but mostly intact, and looking as though nothing had moved inside of it for untold centuries. But they knew the civilian crew had been through here only days ago, and it put the entering squad on edge. They pushed on, urged by their comrades flooding into the ship to move forward.
"Look for anywhere we can establish a covered position," Enfield ordered, taking charge of the lead element personally. He had his most experienced sergeant on the other end of the push inside, with every confidence the man could create a suitable blocking perimeter. Some place where the rubble could be piled up enough to create cover would suffice, a chokepoint that could be defended against anything...
His sensors suddenly flared with alarm as they detected something approaching quickly. "I guess they don't want us to settle in," Enfield joked. He watched as the sergeant of the lead squad hustled his men into position at a bend in the corridor, preparing for whatever it was.
“Whatever” proved to be enormous wolves, some kind of cybernetic horror, with blazing beams slicked into the walls of the ships. Enfield watched as one of the creatures sliced off the arm of an unwary trooper who had failed to take cover quickly enough, right through the powered armor. Flechettes did nothing to the beasts, and the marines instead engaged with the integral plasma weapons on their suits. The bolts of superheated matter did burn through the hides of the creature, which was hardly a surprise since they were intended as weapons capable of destroying power-armor suits. But the wolves had uncanny accuracy and a penchant for aggression, racing right ahead into massed fire from around the corner to get the angle on their opponents. And sensors showed ever more of them flooding down the corridor from the interior of the ship.
“Fuck, Kapitan, we’re being attacked by some kind of hell-wolf with mounted beam weapons that slice through our armor like tissue!” It wasn’t the best report he had ever made, but he had other things on his mind, namely arming a plasma grenade to toss into the mounting pack of wolf-beasts. He risked a quick dodge around the corner to throw, and the metallic canister pinged off the wall into the middle of a group of three of the beasts lined up in the corridor.
The magnetic containment field of the grenade collapsed on cue, creating a sudden cloud of plasma that fried the central wolf and inflicted serious burns and damage on the other two cybernetic guards. That didn’t seem to affect them in the slightest, but more grenades followed. Sergeant Abrams had formed a team to keep them coming around the corner as a pair of soldiers fired suppressing blasts at the pack. More of them fell, and as soon as they had emerged they slinked back down to where they had come.
“I guess we’ve found our perimeter,” Enfield muttered. Two men were down, another was being helped back to the entrance by a mate. “Okay, set up here. We’ll set up stockpiles of grenades in case those monsters come back. I’m heading back to check on the rest of the platoon.” He left the position in Abram’s hands and made his way back past other armored forms, toward the entrance.
Kapitan von Rolheim was standing near the entrance, looking on as he conferred with Leutnant Fredericks, whose own platoon was marshalling nearby. When he got closer, he realized the Kapitan was holding a slivery metallic tube in his gauntleted hand. “They have these snakes that attack through the air vents,” Ernst answered when he saw Enfield, before turning back to Fredericks. “I would say we are dealing with a hostile encounter. I’m prioritizing preparations to just destroy the craft, but scans have revealed a single active computer core that may be controlling these things.”
“We’ve established a perimeter forward,” Enfield finally reported. “We were attacked by, well, giant wolves with laser beams.” He knew he sounded vaguely incredulous as the words left his mouth.
“I heard,” Ernst replied flatly. “Curious, and I hope we can secure this ship to answer the mystery there. Maybe the people who seeded humanoforms...” But that train of thought quickly ended. “I will still blow this ship to hell if it is called for and the odds of that just increased remarkably. Jonas, I want you to secure this perimeter tightly and be prepared for anything. I’m going to push ahead with Fredericks to that control room we’ve pinpointed, but if we lost contact you are to fight your way to the power plants and plant your charge. Blucher will have his own targets.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Enfield swallowed, and could only offer a silent prayer that such a sacrifice wouldn’t be necessary.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-07-05 07:08am
They arrived at the purser's safe without sign of any further trouble; Maria remained a drooling, thousand-yard stare ghoula of a being, the maintenance bots trundled along, and Jhamraste quietly sat atop the one transporting her, sometimes dully pulling at her lifeless legs. That was it, really, and by the time they arrived a substantial barricade had been built up at the entrance to the purser's safe by maintenance bots.
Once they trundled and walked their way inside, Jhamraste had them set herself and Maria down. Jhamraste took up a position by the barricades, laid on them like she'd propped herself there, and obediently another maintenance 'bot appeared down the corridor carrying a rifle that she snatched up, so that there were three to complete the barricade through the entrance they'd left open. That left Maria comfortably in the back of the safe, and Jhamraste and Chand manning the barricade as it were.
And then a group of about twenty dire wolves appeared after the maintenance bots had left. Jhamraste looked on for a long quiet moment, and then, commented softly, "It's pretty poor sport, as hunts go," before opening fire with crisp, disciplined movements of the beam, manipulating its auto-targeting feature through an apparent interface to do some pretty efficient and deadly work to the wolves, demolishing them in short order. She didn't give Chand the chance to join in, clearly considering it her prerogative to kill her own creations.
When she had finished, though, she set down the rifle beside her, and glanced back to Chand with that beautiful Chinese face of Rachel Ling's. A smile touched her lips. "You didn't abandon me when you discovered that I was going to be crippled. Why?"
"You offered me partnership, when you tested me. And in that test gave me the opportunity for revenge on the two members of the crew who had made my life a living hell for years. I had to step outside the moral framework of the Empire to take it, that you showed me very well. And in doing so there was no going back." He smiled as he stretched a bit, a relaxed, unguarded gesture, and continued:
"And you provided another framework, one that doesn't condemn me for being who I am, or shield scum like Steiner and even Rapisardi behind a facade of civility. I suppose I'm grateful to you for that. And you remain unique. A priceless survivor from another time, another age, unlike anyone or anything that exists elsewhere. I wouldn't see that lost regardless of what I had to do."
"Before the Deluge of Noah, that's all you remember, you realize?" Jhamraste answered smartly, and shook her head. "Well, now you know what civilization was like before God cursed it in the Fall, as you were taught to believe. Here we are in all our glory, the people who ruled all of Asia and Africa, and part of Europe and Australia besides."
A fond smile. "Kiss me Chand, and remember to lie well. We made our way back here, and held out until they arrived. Everyone else was taken, and the Second Mate Gunther, and Israel Greenbaum, volunteered themselves to go lead a diversion. I'll help you with that as I'm able, but I don't think they'll question me as a woman nearly so much, and I'm quite badly injured besides--some kind of neural disruptor to the spine, you see."
He leaned down to face Jhamraste, and brought his lips to hers in a slow, lingering kiss. The feel and taste of real flesh was so much better than the holographic technology they had used to make love earlier, even if it was an irrational feeling. He finally broke off contact, and stood up to face the corridor. "The wounded, left behind in this fortified position as the crew made a last ditch break for it. It will hold together enough."
"Alright then." A silence, for a few minutes, and then, softly: "If it works, we'll need to have to keep up appearances. I'll marry you."
"And I didn't even offer you a ring," he replied lightly. "Yes, we'll have to hide in the Empire and that means conforming outwardly. Making our relationship official. And it will even make for a nice story. The ship's supercargo, a gentleman, staying behind with the vulnerable females of the ship to defend them. And they later marry, despite the poor bride being from a repressed, backwater colony and afflicted with a paralysis. How... romantic."
Jhamraste laughed. "It will work out very well, Chand, very well indeed. Now, we wait."
“So you think you’ve found the command node for these things?” Kapitan von Rolheim sounded skeptical even over the internal suit link. For the past hour his command had been buffeted with mechanical and cybernetic horrors, fighting them off with copious use of plasma grenades and internal suit weapons. They’d slacked off over the past fifteen minutes, though the aft blocking detachment formed by Leutnant Enfield was still shooting away at some of the wolf horrors. And now he was hearing a hopeful note from the subordinate he had tasked to destroy the ship if necessary.
Leutnant Jan Fredericks felt confident of the data his engineers had uncovered. “We’ve run the signals intercepts through the assault shuttle’s computer and had it verified by the Makedonien. There’s a continuous low-level EM signal running from this room beside this forward reactor cluster...” He used his neural interface to drag up the schematics of the ship into his HUD, and sent the same image over the link network to Kapitan von Rolheim. “About one kilo ahead, and two decks up. It spikes every time we have a large group of the wolves show up, and it’s the only active signal and power-source on the entire ship. If this is some kind of directed response it has to be coming from that room, and if we can disable it we can recover this vessel for the Empire.”
Rolheim looked the file over, and drew out details on the signal detection. And the overlay with the attacks by groups of wolves was convincing. And it was obvious that securing that vessel was much preferable to just blowing it up, but making a push to the control room left him feeling uneasy. If anything happened it would be one fewer platoon and one fewer charge to carry out the worst-case demolition, but he wasn’t one to dither. “We’re going for that control room then,” he said decisively. “Get your platoon ready, and hand the atomic charge off to Leutnant Enfield. His platoon will be responsible for covering your objective if Case Omega is declared.”
While this was going on the wolves continued to press against the barriers established by Enfield’s platoon. There! The suit’s sensors detected the expected EM spike from the control room.
“I’ll put Hauptfeldwebel Kollettis and his squad out on point,” Frederick signaled. “Staying here with your headquarters, sir?”
“Ja, I have to,” von Rolheim confirmed, reluctantly. “I’m risking your entire platoon, and if it gets bogged down or worse I have to be in a position to decide what to do with the rest of the company. If we weren’t in heavy combat that would be one thing, but this is now an assault situation. You take charge of your platoon and lead it to the objective, just as if this was an exercise.”
“Understood.” Fredericks broke away and left the corridor, heading back outside into the open vacuum of the planetoid. His men were out there waiting in a wary, combat ready formation. He filled them in quickly on the objective, providing the same schematic view of the ship to their suit computers. “We’re facing a deadly enemy,” he acknowledged to them, “and there may be more horrors deeper inside this ship. But we are Imperial Marines, and we will take this objective and secure the vessel for the glory of the Empire!”
The required cry of urrrah sounded over his platoon tactical comm. Network. The point squad moved out first, heading into what looked almost like a maw gaping out of the side of the ship. Fredericks kept the simile to himself, and led the next squad in himself.
Pressing on down the corridors was unnerving. A rustling on one of the air-vents provided a sudden surprise as they were halfway down to contact with Enfield’s furthest patrol. Forewarned, the private walking beside Fredericks simply started firing his suit-mounted plasma rifle into the vent, vaporizing the tangle of metallic snakes that had started to emerge.
“Good shooting,” Fredericks commented. There were more such attacks on the way but the men were wary and gave them no opportunity to strike. The wolves, though, were another matter...
Kollettis coordinated a volley of plasma grenades down the corridor into the mass of wolf-monsters pining the blocking detachment Enfield had put in place. There was nothing more to do but advance through the carnage, with plasma rifles firing to smother everything in their way. The power-armored forms had to step over the prone corpses of the cybernetic war-wolves, and in some cases over the dismembered bodies of their fellow marines. Those wolves not vaporized in the initial volley of grenades were back up, unfazed by the violence of the assault and striking with their preternaturally accurate beam weapons. The close quarters of the fighting made it a nightmare of sliced limbs, shattered suits, snarling beasts with snapping jaws amid a measured, relentless, and almost suicidal advance.
Fredericks passed by the initial battlesite as Kollettis pushed the surviving half of his squad ahead. His stomach felt queasy as he saw the shattered bodies, exposed viscera and organs, the torched animal carcasses that looked like a vision of hell. At points blood, ichor, and other stains along the floor and wall created an unusual, vividly abstract mural of sorts. The wolves had retreated or been wiped out, scanners were picking up no sign of opposition ahead, but he was still dreading what the advance might cost. But there was glory to be won, too, and he hardened his resolve as he pressed the rest of the platoon to catch up with the point squad
“We’ve halted at a elevator shaft,” Kollettis reported back. “No sign of further wolves ahead, and it looks like we can make our way up the next two decks.” The power suits included a limited use jump back, and magnetic clamps for zero-gravity operations. “Shall we go ahead, sir?”
He paused for a moment to consider, but sent the affirmative. “Just secure a beachhead at the target deck. I’ll follow with the other three squads and we’ll switch point. Your men have deserve to hang back after going through those damn wolves.”
The veteran sergeant would comply with his orders without any extensive supervision, so he concentrated instead on figuring out the plan once he was on the same deck as the objective. They’d already gone about a third of a klick, through what had probably been concentrated defenses. But the damn corridors, like those of all spaceships, were just too small to send more than a single sixteen man squad in the lead. So, he decided, he’d lead the advance with Feldwebel Jorgensson, the least experienced of his sergeants, and keep the other two NCOs and their men behind to recover the situation if needed. Kollettis and his men would hang back and secure the exit; a reserve, under the circumstances, was a laughable concept.
The lift, it was obvious, had not been in use for... some incredible, impossible period of time. That didn’t mean it was safe, mind, but it was the fastest and easiest method to get to the objective. He ran a quick diagnostic on the suit’s systems, and decided to lead by example. He activated the jump-pack and pushed himself inward and upward, followed swiftly by a three man section flying through the black emptiness. He activated the metallic clamps as he pushed up against the walls of the shaft, and felt them safely engage on the metallic surface. It made him nervous to have to advance this way, almost helpless, and certainly feeling less able to be aware of his surroundings. But the climb at least went without incident, and he soon emerged two decks up and into a cluster of Kollettis’ marines.
“Nice to see you sir,” the Hauptfeldwebel remarked. Two wolf corpses were piled up ahead of them, burned down as the squad had consolidated itself. “They came at us a minute after we secured the position, but that has been it for opposition so far.”
“Good.” More and more marines were arriving from the shaft and spilling into the winding corridor. “Jorgensson’s squad, on me. We’re pushing ahead. Section Eins, take point, I’ll be right behind. The other two squads will feed in as they can. We’re reaching that objective and smashing the damn computer!”
Untangling through Kollettis squad did take a bit of delicate handling, though thankfully the corridors did open up around the shafts. Internal navigation had them heading down a side-corridor, taking a left from the main artery. The area looked the same as the parts of the ship below, indeed identical, the same eerie metallic blue corridors with the same vents and the same sharp turns. There was a shout from up above, where the three man section taking point had pushed ahead out of sight, and Fredericks ran to their aid with his plasma rifle at the ready.
One of the men was down, his armored leg severed nearly and lying in front of him, even as he grappled with a metallic snake droid coming down from a vent. The other two marines were firing into the prone forms of the war-wolves, and without a decent shot Fredericks instead turned and fired a lengthy burst into the shaft the snake had crawled in from. He bent down to grab the other end of the snake and crushed it in his gauntlet, which shut the attack machine off and allowed the injured man to smash its head. Fredericks quickly examined the amputated marine; fortunately the life support and sealant systems had worked like a charm, but he was going to require his own prosthetic replacements and was definitely out of the fight.
“You’ll be alright, and the service will make sure you get the best replacement limb,” Fredericks promised over the prone enlisted marine. “Section zwei, take him back to the shaft for evac.”
The other two members of the section did succeed in suppressing the wolves, and the follow-on of the squad with Jorgensson himself gave the push a renewed impetus after the pause to deal with the injured. It remained an eerily quiet advance even as snakes slithered out of nearly every air vent, and pairs of war-wolves attacked around every corner. The wearying toll of pauses as injured or dying men were shipped to the rear took its toll on morale even with Fredericks in the thick of the fighting, encouraging and cajoling them onward. It was with a great sense of relief that they reached the shuttered doors concealing the objective inside.
“Plan is...” Fredericks paused. “Okay, we toss in as many plasma grenades as we can and smother everything inside with rifle fire. Hope we don’t take out any key systems in the process but I’m not worried about it. Now blow that fucking door, Feldwebel.”
Breaching charges were detonated, vaporizing the barrier. Without a moment to spare the two sections gathered in front rolled in charged grenades and opened fire with their plasma rifles. Rows upon rows of computer stations and other equipment were shattered by the sudden assault, and a mass of wolves gathered in the center of the room were decimated. Fredericks led the charge in himself, the first man in the room, firing his rifle at the wolves while breaking flat-out for the cover of a computer bank. He popped up to provide a cross-fire from the door, and was joined as more armored marines made their way in. In a good few minutes of nonstop firing the room was cleared of everything except the Imperial forces.
“So this is what was causing all of these problems,” Fredericks muttered, as he located a terminal standing in the center of the room, still somehow active. He placed one of the breaching charges up against it, set it for a short fuse, and ducked behind another terminal for cover. The resulting plasma charge consumed much of the panel, though Fredericks took the liberty of smashing what was left with his armored suit. He checked his sensors, and the anomalous signal he had been detecting finally halted. “Objective terminated.”
He took a look around the room now that the tunnel vision of combat was over. Two bodies were sprawled in the front of the room, just in from the door; one of them was Feldwebel Jorgensson, and Fredericks cursed at the sight. He was down a sergeant, even if there was a Fahnekorporaal in the squad who could take over temporarily. Other men were standing around, trying to organize themselves back into sections and tend to minor wounds. A couple of them took the initiative to sort through the wolf corpses, shooting them in the head to be sure the monsters were fully down. “Fahnekorporaal Jenks!”
‘Yes, sir?” The next senior NCO in the unit stepped forward, away from the forming guard at the door.
“Make preparations to move out, including transport of the wounded. No reason to stick around here.” Fredericks, looked down at the remains of the console. Mission accomplished. And then he toggled for Kapitan von Rolheim to report. “Sir, this is Leutnant Fredericks. We have reached the control center and disabled the operating computers, over.”
“The enemy drones retreated several minutes ago and seem to have shut down,” the company’s commander told him. “For the moment it appears the opposition has ceased and condition Omega will not be set. What’s your status, Leutnant?”
“We lost sixteen men dead or wounded, sir.” That was a full squad, a fourth of his platoon’s combat strength. Enfield’s platoon had suffered similar losses, which made it a rather heavy action. “I’m preparing to leave the control center to evacuate my wounded. I request that my injured be allowed to depart immediately on the shuttles back to the Makedonien for treatment.”
“We’re already prepping the wounded from the earlier engagements to leave,” von Rolheim responded, “and yours will follow as they arrive down here. Your platoon will stay on the deck and begin sweeps of the reactor rooms for further hostiles, and provide security for a demolition charge I will dispatch for you. Directions in a moment...” The Kapitan trailed off, which was odd coming from him.
“Is there something going on?” Fredericks asked, impulsively. Had the enemy drones returned?
“Don’t worry about it, Jan. But I am getting reports from one of the squads pressing forward down the path of that civilian crew.” He paused. “We may have survivors.”
With the control computer down and all attacks seemingly stopped von Rolheim had ordered patrols to start pushing forward on the breaching deck, in search of signs of the missing civilian crew. Leutnant Blucher's fresh platoon took that duty, pushing by Enfield's exhausted men. From the original opening corridor squads had broken down into sections and taken the winding paths available, probing for any resistance by putting themselves on the line. It was dangerous, tedious work and the slaughter they had waded through earlier had not helped their nerves at all. Discovering the mummified corpse of a snake-woman had freaked Korporaal Siemens and his two men right out, and it was with exquisite caution that they probed further into what looked like some kind of broad office.
"Looks like a pile of those cyber-wolf things ahead," Gefreiter Rendulic called out. "Slaughtered, we've got a barricade... movement there!"
The marines with bulky armored boxes, barely recognizable as humanoid but their movements for all of their efforts to be alert were obvious. And even Chand could recognize a weapon pointed at his general direction. He nestler the reclining Jhamraste slightly. "Here they come, finally." With a good deal of care he waved an empty hand above the barricade, drawing the attention of the Imperials. "We're human! We're from the crew of the Soccorso!"
Siemens had followed the lower-ranking marine into the safe area, and took charge. "Raise yourself up slowly, hands empty and above your heads," he ordered, using the suit's external speakers. Rendulic's plasma rifle never wavered from the direction of the barricade.
Chand did as instructed, hoping some nervous soldier wouldn't kill him with a jerky trigger finger. "There are two more. They're injured, badly." Which was certainly the truth.
Siemens came forward, a looming mountain of metal and weapons. He could peer over the barricade and saw Jhamraste reclining on the floor and Maria lying against the wall further back. "What is their condition?"
I don't know..." Jhamraste--Rachel spoke, trembling. "I got hit by this blue bolt and I can't move my legs now." She gestured to Maria, as though she had been trying to be barely brave, but could now barely hold herself together. "Ma, Maria got dragged into this chamber a-and she's been c-catatonic ever since we pulled her out... That was the first thing that h-happened be-before the attacks started…
"How'd you hold out against those beasts?" It had taken a lot of firepower to deal with the ship's defenders, and most civilians wouldn't have the training to use the weapons needed for it. And most civilian ships wouldn't be carrying military grade rifles in the first place. But on second observation the two rifles settled into the pile of rubble looked very, very alien.
"We found these rifles in an armory or someplace of that sort, it was further ahead from the hydroponics bay," Chand answered quickly. "The machines and the beasts were playing with us, abducting people and dragging them off to who knows what, one at a time. We reached a point, after the Captain was gone, the First Mate decided it would be best to take us back here to the safe where we could fortify ourselves. I volunteered to stay behind with Maria and Rachel when they decided to try and fight their way out to a depressurized part of the ship, where they hoped the beasts couldn't reach."
He put on a false face of concern at that point. "Did they make it out and get help?"
Siemens was already making his report back to Leutnant Blucher, so he took a moment to respond. "We haven't found any other survivors yet. We're going to move you back to our entry point and check you out." And your stories, carefully, he didn't say. "We can have you evacuated if necessary for treatment. We'll carry the women with us."
"Thank you so much," Jhamraste spoke as the tears finally started flowing freely down her face as Rachel. "I didn't dream at all that we'd make it and, well, all the more I could want in the world is if Maria pulls through and.... thank you so very much...” It wasn’t hard to fake it when there was a suffocating pressure on her brain encouraging her to act that way anyway. Jhamraste was starting to wonder if she’s traded one prison for another, but she couldn’t conceive of the world being any other way. Her life before the shift to Rachel’s body seemed like a dreamworld inhabited by another being as the soldiers hefted her up.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-07-17 05:10am
The report from the ship's doctor stated rather unequivocably that the cause of Rachel Ling's disability was completely unknown. There was no physical reason for it, and direct electrical stimulation of the nerves did produce movement, but her brain seemed to have been rendered incapable of controlling her legs. This sort of effect had not been seen before, but was definitely real; the tests had demonstrated that was simply no signals to speak of traveling on the nerves between her legs and brain. Something had clearly, unquestionably caused her to be disabled in that fashion.
It was merely impossible to tell what. Otherwise she seemed find, with slightly enhanced mental activity suitable to a state of agitation, understandable in the circumstances. Some strange bloodwork was less well explained, and might be a side effect of the weapon that disabled her, as it was similar to the changes in white blood cell count which occur around certain forms of radiation exposure. The number of apparently dead cells in the blood was also high, high enough that the doctor had prescribed medications in an effort to stimulate healthy blood production, and others to aide her kidney and liver which should be processing them out, but apparently weren't despite the fact kidney and liver function were within normal ranges. Nonetheless it was not serious enough to be considered life threatening.
As for the cause of the engineering mate, Maria Lauwens, her condition was far less satisfactory. Physically there was no indication of any harm, but mentally her brain function levels were highly elevated, and yet nothing was happening. Psychic scans had been conducted which seemed to suggest a complete absence of thought. She was nonetheless passive, if sedated, and essentially reduced to the state of a basic animal or less, but not in a permanent vegetative state, for it was unquestionable that her basic neuron function was unimpaired.
It seemed to be a psychological development, and based on the report by Chand and Rachel of how it come to pass, some sort of macabre horror yet to be found on the ship, or destroyed, had rendered her catatonic in a purely psychological fashion; the brain function indicates suggested that a full recovery might well be mercifully possible, but no facilities existed on the ship to attempt to facilitate it.
Kapitan Czerny cleared the document from his perscom after reviewing it a second time. There was a lot that was apparently deeply strange about the condition of the women, but it wasn't his area to speculate about. The doctors had at least ruled out any contagion though the sector authorities likely would quarantine them, and the Makedonien herself. That would raise discipline challenges and he really should be preparing for them, but first he had a bit of business with the lone survivors of the boarding crew.
He knocked politely on the private recovery room that had been allocated to Rachel Ling. One of the medical nurses had confirmed that Chand spent almost all of his time in there with her, which made things a bit easier. "Kapitan zur Raum Richard Czerny," he announced through the door. "I am here to speak with Rachel Ling and Chand Mayland about your experiences aboard the alien ship and to take a formal affirmed statement in anticipation of further investigation of the situation."
"Please come in, Kapitan," Rachel's delicate voice answered, sounding rather recovered.
The door-handle was unlocked, and he pushed in easily. He saw Rachel reclining in the sanitary bed in the center of the room, with Chand seated beside her one the far side of the room and holding her hand. He closed the door behind him before speaking again. "Thank you for your time. You are recovering well, I hope?" Polite chit-chat would help reassure and calm Rachel, putting the both of them at ease.
Yes, such as it is, Kapitan, and thank you kindly." She smiled affiably, though the expression fell as soon as it had appeared. "I am just trying to get over... what I saw in there. Losing the use of my legs seems like I was blessed by comparison."
"The doctors seem to be puzzled about what caused your condition, but we can hold out some hope that further research will find a cure. Possibly it's an effect of the weapon..." He trailed off, dismissing it as an irrelevancy. "Well, I am afraid it looks as if yourselves, and Ms. Lauwens, are the only survivors of events aboard that alien craft. That is going to make the three of you a central focus of investigations into what went down. I do hope it won't be too tiresome or intrusive, but I'd say this is going to be a matter for the security services so it may be a while before you can be released. Standard procedure here is to take down a formal statement, as I mentioned, once you have been cleared by medical personnel. I have brought a recording device with me," he said, pulling out a thin spectrum recording platform out of his pocket and sticking it on the sink counter opposite Rachel. "May I take the seat over here?"
“Oh, certainly, Kapitan." Rachel smiled and stretched her upper body a little. She was, a delicate Chinese woman but certainly now a survivor of an event of unparalleled horror and at least with Chand's help had held up rather well.
Czerny dragged the chair a bit closer to the recording device, so he could easily access the equipment from his seated position. "Do either of you have any requests before we begin?"
Chand stirred by the bed, looking at Rachel while patting her hand. "Thank you, Kapitan Czerny, but I believe we would like to get this over with as soon as possible."
"Alright then." Czerny stood to activate the device, giving the date, time, and his own security number for authentication. He also swiped a part of the scanner that would take a small dermal tissue sample for DNA verification as a yet-more foolproof method. Finally, he got out of the way of the thing and sat back down in his seat. "Interviewing Herr Chand Mayland, supercargo of the registered ship Soccorso II, and Fraulein Rachel Mayland, crewer of the same. You are both hereby notified that this document represents a legal archive and that you are under obligation to tell the truth fully, without evasion or falsehood. Do you affirm your understanding of this responsibility?"
"Yes, I affirm that I fully understand my obligation to tell the truth without fail, evasion, or falsehood," Rachel answered.... Which of course was not remotely giving her word, by the formulation. Convenient, that.
"As do I," Chand followed.
"The penalties for failing to do so are listed under the Imperial Civilian Legal Statutes for Subjects of the Roman Empire, volume XIII and may include thirty years imprisonment and confiscation of property for basic malfeasance and carries the possibility of being implicated in further crimes," Richard concluded. "And with that out of the way, I would like you to give me an account of events you have experienced, from the moment that Captain Rapisardi and his bridge crew became aware of the alien hulk."
Chand looked briefly at Rachel before starting. "I was informed of the discovery at a meeting of the ship's officers on the 9th, around 1730 or so. Chief Engineer Kozlewski was at the meeting and can confirm details. From my understanding the Captain had been provided a tip by a... merchant in the area, Richard Hawke of the freighter Sara. We entered the outer asteroid field of the system to investigate and discovered the wreck of the alien vessel on the morning of the 9th. The Captain called the meeting to discuss salvage operations and I was there to cover the legal ramifications of staking a claim, and the Old Man decided that since all hands were needed I would also be assigned to help out with them. We landed the ship and began preparations to board in the early morning of the 10th."
"Why was Chief Engineer Kozlewski left behind?" Rapisardi leaving his wife Eliza behind was understandable, she couldn't have contributed anything to the expedition. But his most experienced technical mate?
"Chief Engineer Kozlewski.... Is kind of getting on in years," Rachel explained delicately. "Maria.. Erm, Assistant Engineer Lauwens, was basically the ship's sole engineer, and she had a college degree and all the fancy formal training and experience as a junior engineer on a regular passenger liner and so on. Real competent and responsible and just an awesome person. But the Chief Engineer... He's forgetful, and basically the Captain, bless his heart, kept him around because he didn't have anywhere else to go and they were old friends from a long time back."
"Jozef is over 170 years old," Chand added. That was the point most early prolong treatments began to lose their effectiveness and there was no doubt Kozlewski was getting senile. "We hired on Ms. Lauwens three years ago and she had been doing his duties the entire times. She was in charge of the most important teams, handling structural engineering and technical tasks, and oversaw our creation of the initial breach into the vessel."
"So noted." Czerny thought it odd that Rachel had responded before Chand; the supercargo was still an officer, while Rachel was just a crewer. But it seemed like Rachel and Maria had been friends, so that could explain it. "Unfortunately we aren't able to interview Ms. Lauwens at the moment. Can either of you tell us about her and her role in the salvage crew?"
"We weren't close," Chand admitted. "She was from a Belter colony, and had a formal education at an engineering school on her home settlement. We talked from time to time, mostly light conversation. There was no question of her competence which was all that mattered to Captain Rapisardi. She was also... friends with his nephew Bernadino, which probably helped. She handled all of the duties of the Chief Engineer, which mean Field operations, regulating the power plants and ship systems, keeping the hyperspace engines in good operation, and also created repair schedules and task plans when we had jobs with other ships. The Captain had to approve them but from what I saw he normally did so with only a little review. Rach... Ms. Ling had made friends with her and knows her better."
"She protected me from the men," Rachel answered with a nervous tremble in her turn. "She protected me from them when they wanted to... force me..." the voice dropped to barely a whisper. "And sometimes she'd sleep with them herself since she's a belter and, you know, but she didn't do it because she was loose but because she didn't mind it t-to keep them away from me. I only wish what'd happened to her had happened to me instead, she's the kindest person I've ever known.."
That much came as little surprise. Rapisardi seemed to have run with a rough crew, and Rachel looked pretty delicate, very out of place among them. And the reputation of the belters was legendary, if exaggerated. "That should suffice for now. You'll be interviewed extensively about your own background, and that of the rest of the crew, later. But since Maria may not recover I thought it best to include your recollections about her. Now, let's proceed from your entry to the vessel. What happened here?"
"Well," Chand began, "once we boarded the vessel we found sections were pressurized with a breathable atmosphere. There maintenance bots going around, but we encountered nothing immediately hostile. The captain took it as a good sign and decided we could possibly salvage the whole craft, so we pressed on inside. I didn't like the situation though and neither did Maria, but the rest of the crew, most of them anyway, were too blinded by greed to consider the implications of having parts of the vessel operational."
"It was very scary, and they were acting the worst I'd ever seen them," Rachel added hesitantly, being very careful to make sure that she didn't provide any more qualitative assessments. It would reinforce her impression as just a girl caught up in the whole thing, toward others.
"We discovered the purser's office, with a mummified snake-woman outside. It looked like an Indian Naga, a half-human, half-snake creature in Hindu legends. And there was a script in the ship that looked like it was devangari." He shrugged his shoulders. "At the time that made a big impression but I've stopped thinking about it since... well, the horrors. The crew nearly tore itself to pieces when we found that safe and its contents, and it got worse when we discovered what looked like a tomb, further down the corridors from the purser's. The crew would have ripped the bodies up if the attacks hadn't started there. The maintenance bots turned on us, abducting three crewmen, and attacking us in groups. But the captain had a store of weapons and Maria and her engineers could use the plasma torches to burn down the robots, so he was convinced to press on ahead in hopes of finding the bridge."
"That seems rather reckless," Czerny commented. But he had seen the treasures of the safe, and it made sense that the crewers would fall prey to avarice. Few men wouldn't when faced with the value of the ship. Evidently he hadn't had the sophisticated sensors to locate that secondary command station two decks above; he'd been heading in the wrong direction.
"It was," Chand agreed. "And I told him so, but it wasn't bad until we reached the orchard and hydroponics bay. That was when Maria was grabbed, and we chased after her. The direwolves first appeared there as well... The Captain insisted we go after Maria and the crew he took found her in another room, already catatonic. I stayed behind with the bulk of the men and the first mate covering the party there, defending ourselves. We lost the captain shortly after he returned, grabbed by more of the maintenance bots covered by wolves, and the command almost fell apart. The first mate though got us turned around, heading back through the corridor we had come. The snakes started pouring of the vents once we were in close quarters, doing hideous things to people..."
He shuddered, as if repressing the memory. "We got through to the purser's office but there were just too many wolves and too many snakes coming out of everywhere. So the surviving crew decided to take another way, through a portion of the ship that had been severely damaged and was confirmed exposed. But Rachel had suffered her wounds and Maria couldn't be handled on the way out, so it was decided to fortify the safe. I volunteered to stay with them, and he gave me and Rachel two of the rifles the rescue party had found searching for Maria. I thought, when the marines came, that Gunther had made it out and sent help..."
"Ms. Ling, how do your recollection of events match up with Herr Mayland's?"
"I can remember that everything is the same before I was wounded... Afterwards, it's all kind of fuzzy because it hurt a lot at first, and I can't remember whether or not it was the First Mate or the Second Mate in charge at the time we were left there, that's kind of hazy, but I don't doubt Chand is right about it being Gunther."
"Yes, the wolves got him before we pulled back to the purser's office," Chand said. "Bernadino was the captain's nephew, not an experienced hand, and was largely following the Second Mate's lead even before he was... well, lost. The confusion over who to follow after the Captain's death hurt our efforts to escape. Anyway, there were a lot of the wolves slaughtered by the crew in the area, but once the main group departed the office we were left alone in the safe. The snakes couldn't get to us and we could burn down wolves easily enough with the barricade protecting us."
"How long after entering the ship until you were left to yourselves?"
"Hmm. I partially lost track of time during that, horror," Chand admitted. "But it was about 1000 when we broke into the ship, and with steady progress bringing in tools and supplies, a couple of hours before we were pushing out, and it was nearly 1400 on the 10th when we found the tomb... I'd say early on the 11th when we were finally left on our own. Did we really spend three days alone? The constant threat and adrenaline and lack of sleep got to us, I fear."
The conversation continued, but to the distracted and hazy Jhamraste, the important thing was that the Kapitan didn’t seem suspicious. She had more important things to focus on, after all, like keeping herself from going completely mad.
As the days passed in isolation, the plan had come together with a certain degree of calculation fruition; Chand had announced their engagement to the pleasure of the crew, who delighted in something to do, and the interrogations with the Evidenzburo officers covered the same ground as the interview with the Kapitan had done. All of this passed by in a certain degree of haze on the part of Jhamraste, who justified it as the continuing traumatic experience of her injuries and what she’d seen, though she politely declined all help except that of the ship’s chaplain, with whom she had found a curious rapport, perhaps because of how complete his alienness was, or perhaps due to Rachel.
Rachel, Jhamraste; Jhamraste, Rachel. The names, the identities, spun around inside the body. You could not displace the link of the soul, Jhamraste hadn’t realized it at first, but now she knew; she was as interlocked into being Rachel as she was still herself. She was… Also Rachel, and with it came the bitter horrors of what had been done. There was no hope for her; her body was a chaotic jumble, she hadn’t improved and remained bedridden, each action secretly painful for her.. them?
In the end, she’d rested, focused and concentrated her strength, until she was healthy as she might think possible. Then, and only then, she entered into the Hidden World for the first time since she had bound Maria on the Nyapursna. She followed upwards the threads connecting her to the hidden world from the mortal realms of matter and energy, into the sphere of pure thought. There were two, and not one, and she followed that one to Rachel’s soul.
Fuschia and yellow and black and the colour of sound all combined in the August Calculus, as she tried to fathom what she saw. It was especially vivid by the standards of the High Caste, and more like what she imagined a Devaastra might have seen when they had lived, and where Nirrti still doubtless did, for after her performance at the Battle of Luna, after what she’d done to the fleet, there could be no doubt that she’d survived.
And the energy she sucked out of her own body sufficed to animate Rachel’s soul, at least for a brief while. Jhamraste didn’t hesitate, and proved as simple and blunt now, as she’d been grand and archaic before: “I want to live. Name your price.”
“I don’t know, Jhamraste. How am I to know? I AM YOU!” The voice seemed so alien from the little girl whose existence Jhamraste had sought to stamp out, and then, suddenly, wheeling in her head, she received the dreadful confirmation. She was both Jhamraste and Rachel; Jhamraste was controlling who she was, in a fundamental way, but only because she had come first into the gestalt being, had the age and the strength.
Pervasive helplessness fell through her. She felt herself fragmenting, Rachel’s innate strength in the Hidden World, the power of her soul eclipsed by Jhamraste’s but still strong enough to fragment their shared reality, to tear apart the creature that had been created by their union… Because she wasn’t a creature at all, but a spiritually schizophrenic monster, biology locking her to write the legacy of her continued life into Rachel’s track even as the track of Jhamraste tried to pull her back through.
The August Calculus described precisely the realm of pure thought which was the Hidden World. Jhamraste, through the haze, tried to again comprehend the influence of the peculiar geometry of a world divorced from matter. But there was to be no triumph there for her… Just the knowledge that the triumph was impossible.
“But why,” that voice, hoarse and young and scared again, drifted through the thoughts, “Do you need to triumph? You want to live—Jhamraste Sapuradi, so do I. You animate me now and I see what’s become of us. Two souls fighting for one body. My god, Jhamraste, but how could you have understood what I can see through you now and yet remain so evil? Doesn’t the divinity of this place affect you in the slightest!?”
The shade of Jhamraste quailed, and turned away, silent. She had heard words like that before, repeated by one of the acolytes of Nirrti, and they shamed her now as she stood on the edge of her own doom. So this was the illumination that the searchlight, the power that the ability to project from the energy of the Hidden World, had given the Devaastra to see within it. She could feel herself, in two souls, able to triangulate across vast reaches of the sapient conception, and even with a faint shudder to see the active sweep of a great power, lurking, seeking, that she know so well, retreating at once to the strangely comfortable embrace of the extant shade of Rachel Ling. And in doing so after so many millennia, she saw things as the Devaastra did, and knew how the August Calculus was used by them to delete life at will, and pierce the boundaries of reality, understand and ken with perfect knowledge the prescient vision of the future.
And for one hateful, hateful moment, Jhamraste Sapuradi exploited the August Calculus and saw the future, saw her own salvation inherent in the intentions of others… And her own madness. For she knew that she was being pulled apart, now, that there were two souls, one above the other, yanking, pulling, a body with two masters and a destiny that contained two fates. She would not merely die but die in madness, the fate worse than all she had known before, the loss of her control over her own faculties as the imprint she had secured began to fade.
There was but one way to avoid it. She now knew precisely how to manipulate the symbology of the August Calculus to overlay Rachel onto herself. But it would require Rachel’s consent, and it would do something far worse.
Jhamraste would lose the power which only moments before had illuminated her. She could never again triangulate to see as the Devaastra saw.
“You’re killing our shared body with the power you’re using!” Rachel’s voice was sharper and more desperate. “We both know what you have to do now…”
“And lose all I have seen!? Why do you even desire my continued existence? You’d have your chance to spin the wheel of dharma again!”
“Not if you tear us apart in this madness, you’re fraying us in the Hidden World as well as the mortal—you are not a Devaastra, Jhamraste. And you’re not truly Jhamraste, and I’m not truly Rachel anymore. We’re two aspects of the same being. Yet you’re desperate to live—I’ll overwrite. Let me; I will.”
A croaked, hoarse whisper echoed through an ancient mind: “Why?”
“This world of pure thought is the loneliest thing I can imagine,” Rachel thought back across the veil of reality: “I can see creatures here.. Lost in the imaginings of their own power, for all time, having become pure thought and thus only ghosts. Perhaps to be reincarnated but you’ve given a spark of me life in this realm. Jhamraste. You wanted life. You killed me, in a sense, for life. Don’t squander it now. If you let our souls overwrite, we’ll in some sense become one person, but at least she can sit out in a chair in the sun and smell the flowers, don’t you think? Here is your chance—give it up. Choose life.”
Jhamraste closed her eyes and nodded tautly. There was still the Nyapursna to be seen to, the restoration of Maria—and in a flash of insight Jhamraste realized, as they moved closer together, Rachel’s hidden reason in helping her now, for nobody else could free Maria from the prison in her mmind Jhamraste had created—and all of these other tasks. And she had wanted to escape the ancient ship, to breath again the air of a planet. She surrendered herself, and Rachel overwrote her to the depth of the power and memory of her soul, stripping away the old mad layers at the top and pressing down into the ruts until the limit of Rachel had been reached, and what remained was Jhamraste, Jhamraste the proud noblewoman, before ten thousand years alone had driven her mad.
That she was still a ruthless tyrant, one might doubt not, but above those layers was the simple series of the incarnations of Rachel Ling and the lessons in strength and compassion she had learned, and they took the edge off what remained of the old warlord. And when it was all said and done and Jhamraste collapsed back onto her bed, unconscious and long to sleep to the concern of the nurses, she was not Jhamraste. But nor was she quite Rachel. She was a creature between them, with their shared memories, and now, their shared legacies in the Hidden World pulling her down a track which had recombined itself by each arcane component until they fell between Rachel and Jhamraste; closer, certainly, to Jhamraste, but far off the course of the old monster.
It was a relief, and she slept fourteen hours before flickering her eyes open to smile to the relief of the terrified Chand, and reach out to squeeze his hand.
“How are you feeling?”
“Much better, my love,” she answered simply. “Like I finally have a clear mind again.”
But lurking at the back, like the teasing lace of a young girl’s dress amongst the daffodils, a laugh that seemed to carry winds of coriander and parsimmon, a gentle admonishment. But I certainly think we should have to work for our legs, again…
Jhamraste tried to concentrate on her legs, and again, they refused to move, though her hands, finally, clenched to Chand’s with a happy intensity and lack of forethought. She laughed, and no longer cared that she was a paraplegic. It was, after all, all and none of what she had ever known, and the woman left in the place of the two that had been before, found herself strangely contented with her lot. She pulled herself up into the embrace of her intended, and found even the cold brilliance of the August Calculus a fading memory against the warmth of another human body.
The green-yellow beams flickered out of the ship, charged with a cargo of pure anti-protons, and nipped away at another dozen ships of the Old Enemy, destroying them all. Thirty-one kilometers of armour and muonic trinium encased in a layer of neutronium one atom thick, drifting through the shattered ruins of hundred-score ships as the guns fell silent. It had not been a battle, but an execution of the already dead.
On the gratings of the top-bridge the figure, rakish and painfully lean, a brilliant redhead in black robes of mourning, barefoot on the deck of her flagship, was only the outer form of the one yet worshipped as the incarnate Goddess of Death and Destruction, the pestilence-carrying Lady of the South. And within, all the multitudes of the power of the mastery of the August Calculus. And within those, in turn, the slightest thimble of a warbling cry.
“Prince Daramy, you have the bridge.” She concentrated on it and reviewed what had been felt as she walked to the lift to head below, and the Lord of the Nagas took the conn. There had been a strange disturbance, like that of the creation of a fledgling, like the operation of the August Engine. And indeed she fancied that it might be the operation of the only August Engine to remain beside the one on this ship; but that had vanished was as far she knew still shielded from view by the ineluctable mechanism of the conservation of causality. Then, she had a more coherent and much better understanding of it.
A smile touched her lips as she returned to her quarters, waterfalls gently trilling through their cycles around a single spartan bed onto which she folded her body: It was big enough for two only that she’d be always reminded that she was alone, as if she needed the help. Symbolism, though, had long since proved to have its own power…
“No, I won’t hunt you, Jhamraste Sapuradi. If you have transformed yourself into a creature desiring the touch of another more than the August Calculus, then you, certainly may rest.”
Nirrti decided that there was indeed something terribly liberating in forgiveness as she mulled on the tastes of the experience, and wondered how she could have been driven so far as to have once forgotten it.
Now, it seemed almost addictive.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-07-19 07:21am
The ship's chapel was adorned like any small town Catholic church, with rows of pews facing an altar and nave, flanked by tables with normally lit incense burners and candlesticks. The lighting, normally subdued and supplemented by candles, was turned to full power and a breeze artificially generated to provide a lighter and airer atmosphere for a rare event. Bouquets of flowers joined the decorations of the chapel, manufactured silk rather than the real affair, for the vessel was still orbiting an undisclosed Evidenzburo quarantine station. But it was as light and cheery as the Kapitan and the ship's chaplain could arrange, for the sake of the crew as much as for the wedding party. It would be a break in a tedious routine to celebrate the sacrament of marriage, and that alone insured a large audience despite the bride and groom both having no one to invite, even if they could.
The officers were in their formal dress uniforms, midnight black tunics and sharply creased pants, with touches of color in golden epaulets and the red-colored cravats of the sector fleet. All of them boasted the ceremonial straight swords, sheathed in their gold adorned scabbards, all of them individually made by master craftsmen to a naval pattern. Th ratings wore their black shirts and white pants with some pride, and both officers and men went without their headgear, berets for the men and peaked caps for the officers. It made an impressive assemblage as he waited for the entrance of the bride; lacking other options, she had asked him to fill in for her father, and so he was giving away Rachel in holy matrimony. It was an odd echo of the wedding of his daughter, so many years and parsecs away.
She had asked the Marine corpsman who had first treated her to have the honour of wheeling her in to where the Captain would take over where, in a wedding of an un-disabled daughter he might walk by her side. It was a slightly sad touch, though Rachel had done the best with it, the white dress complete down to gauzy veil, sewed up carefully by volunteers from the ship's crew, and the corpsman himself handling the whole thing as gingerly and delicately proper as he could manage. One of the officers had volunteered a fine quilt his wife had sewn him for the sake of covering the lower part of her body delicately, and she did truly look resplendant.
There was an inevitable delicacy about her, and it was certainly possible to pity her position in the extreme, but on the other hand she seemed happy enough with her lot, an example of a true Christian spirit, for all that she remained very reserved and quiet. Then again, who wouldn't after what she had seen? This was, for the two survivors whose minds were whole, perhaps the best fate that they could have fallen upon, and probably the best thing for them.
Czerny dismissed the corpsman with a nod, and took the handles of the chair and applied just enough force to wheel it at a stately pace down the aisle and its red carpet. The audience looked on with anticipation as he passed by, no tears forming among the company but some degree of emotion inevitably present. The culmination of their ordeal had been adopted by many of the men as symbolic of their own lengthy detention. Surely the performance of the sacrament would grant a little bit of luck to bringing that to a close... Sailors were, of course, a superstitious lot. And the reminder of normality would have an impact on even the most hard-bitten volunteer among the tars.
Chand was already waiting at the altar, with the ship's chaplain in his full clerical robes for the occasion. The groom wore the standard formal dress, a royal blue doublet of high-standing collar, with white lace cravat and red cummerbund above black trousers, the Imperial equivalent of the male tuxedo in other universes. The service would begin, very shortly as Rachel was wheeled into place beside her husband. The captain halted, placing a fatherly hand on her shoulder for just a moment before retreating to his assigned place observing at the side. The ringbearer was beside him, as was the doctor that Chand had somewhat arbitrarily chosen as his best man.
The priest began the ceremony, and already Czerny was considering the toast he would give at the reception afterward. He had at least a handsome gift to provide the new couple...
As it happened his toast was warmly received. The attending officers and men raised their glasses high, as they had done through the round of salutations to Chand and Rachel. There was certainly the happy atmosphere at the reception that came from a festive occasion lubricated by extra alcohol and generous portions of fresh food, made possible by the Evidenzburo station kitchens lending a hand. There was music from the ship's band, and there would be dancing, mostly jigs and the rest of nautical tunes but still a most welcome diversion from the boring routine of ship life. And as he shushed the cheers away, he broke his news.
"Thank you all kindly, and and to the happy couple I have something more than good wishes to give. After a thorough review the phantoms have decided that you can be released. Indeed, you'll be on a shuttle tomorrow evening straight to Earth itself for your debriefing. And while I know it's a poor honeymoon to spend more time signing legal disclaimers and having all the dire penalties of the Official Secrets Act explained over and over again, I've managed to arrange a little bit in compensation. Something that'll let you two take a well deserved trip to Durazzo or the Palmas while you're on the old homeworld, and have something left over to start a life together. The ship itself isn't salvage claimed, but after some discussions with the chief here we agree its only fair that you can keep some portion of the purser's safe you held up in. All the jewelry and other valuables found there will be given to you for your own use or sale, well absent the portion to Maria, and the government's agreed to pay a generous compensation for your secrecy and to the families of the rest of the Soccorso dead. So, let's hope you enjoy the new planet that should buy you!"
Rachel laughed marvelously, and then deliriously, clapping her hands together as she flushed vividly and looked up to Chand in brilliant delight. It was certainly the culmination of the moment, and the way she played it was perfect. So perfect that it seemed like it really was Rachel seeing dreams come true, and not at all Jhamraste Sapuradi simply getting her possessions back. Perhaps it was both, but regardless, the delight was vibrant and unrestrained in the moment and seemed to carry through as she dared to speak: "Kapitan, thank you so very much! I can only hope that your men receive the salvage take that they fully deserve off that monstrous old hulk--from yourself down to very single tar!"
"I don't expect we'll have to worry much about our retirements, but tonight, belongs to you and your new husband," Czerny replied. And as he did, white-liveried cook's mates wheeled in an enormous five-tiered wedding cake, each layer stacked above the other with sugar-crafted column supports, adorned with delicate flowers and vines on the sides and topped with reasonable facsimiles of the bride and groom sitting together on a pair of steps, as a kind of tactful reference to Rachel's condition. "It seems one of those phantoms on the station is a master baker," he said cheerfully, though God knew where that had come in handy for a spy. "So, Herr Mayland, please escort your bride and let's get on with the cutting of the cake. And then the ship's band has been eager to really get things going..."
Chand wheeled Jhamraste up to the waiting cake, taking an offered knife from the cook's mate and sliced in a neat vee shape into the bottom layer of the cake. He used the same knife to pull out the slice, resting it on a quickly offered paper towel before returning the knife to the custody of the mate and bending down to look his new wife in the face. "Soon, my dear, you'll have the green grass and blue skies of Earth," he whispered. And then, per tradition, he offered her the first bite of the cake. Jhamraste knew what to expect and so made a light show of taking the bite, getting icing on the side of her slips that Chand removed with his finger and then licked away. She blushed, and the sailors thundered their applause.
The mates then moved in to begin the efficient transformation of the structure into a series of cake wedges, individually plated and passed out in smooth, assembly line efficiency by the servers. There would be plenty for everyone, and quite a bit left over for the new couple to enjoy later. The band struck up a waltz tune and being heavily outnumbered, the female officers and some invited station personnel quickly found partners for the dance. Chand and Rachel stood by, watching with seeming pleasure as the slow dances continued on for half an hour and the cake made its way around the room. That was soon followed by the promised jigs, with the enlisted men showing off their fitness to old sea shanties, a marvelous and energetic display that captured the festive mood of the evening and added to it. Wine and beer flowed freely, the ship's band was rather good, and if the couple were barred from the dance floor they did not lack for company.
Eventually, though, even the most lively party hand to come to an end. The captain departed, and then more of the officers, for the watches could never end even while laid up in quarantine. Crewmen trickled in as they could, but more and more left as the hour grew later, and the band began to tire out. The alcohol remained immediately available but the cake, entered with such fanfare, departed from the room with the remnants of the hor's d'oerves. It was only as the party was on its last legs that Chand and his wife were approached by one final well-wisher.
"Bless you, Chand and Rachel," Eliza Rapisardi said quietly as she drew their attention. She was a short brown-haired woman, pleasantly built by Imperial standards, with a generous bosom and curvy hips, though all of her charms were hidden by her thick black mourning dress. Her veil was lifted, though, and her bloodshot green eyes were puffed a bit with crying. Shipboard rumor had said she had been a whore on Bridgeport when the Captain had picked her up, but she had always had a gentle, matronly air that had reminded Chand of his own mother, and she had treated him like a son. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it earlier, but it's been so overwhelming. I'm still grieving and I didn't want to bring my grief into your happiness."
Chand shook his head, overcome with genuine sense of pain he fought back down into place before responding. "Thank you so much, Signora Rapisardi. You were welcome at our wedding, and I am glad we didn't miss you. And if you ever need anything..."
"Oh, I don't doubt it, Chand. You've become a fine man, taking care of poor Rachel here, and arranging for Maria." He had always been the gentle, educated and poetic sort so it didn't surprise Eliza to see him living up to the finest charitable ideals with the two surviving women. Or that he had the secret reserves of courage to stay behind and protect them, back on that dreadful ship. "I just want to say how proud I am of you, and that I really do wish you and Rachel the best in your marriage. The government's going to provide enough for me to live on comfortably, so don't you worry about me none." She smiled a bit, though it was a forced gesture due to her grief. "Just send me word of when you heal, Rachel, and when you get blessed by children. I want to know, then."
Jhamraste looked away, troubled by the woman's words. Chand answered for them, face still grave. "We will, Misses Rapisardi. We will." Neither said anything else as the widow took her leave of them and left the room.
September 17th 3201 AD,
Earth – the Argentine Pampas.
"We can see the high mountains from here," the woman, Rachel Mayland spoke with a soft smile as she gazed to the west, speaking to the real estate agent from her wheelchair. "What did you say the history of the manor is?"
"It used to be owned," the agent—his name was Guillherme Hermosillo--answered, "By the Baron Johnathan Guteriez, but the family moved closer to the capitol and it's gone through a sucession of owners in the past decade. And of course, as I mentioned, we're at the exact center of no less than four square kilometers of the finest land in the western reach of the Pampas. I would say there is no finer estate currently on the market in all of South America, Madame Mayland." He was slightly curious at the role that his client's wife had taken in things, but it seemed clear that Chand Mayland had intended to indulge the poor woman--who anyway reputedly had claim to a full half share anyway of the money from the discovery of the salvaged Ssi-Rissan carrier--with the selection of a fine house for a convalescence which might be indefinite.
"That'll do finely, then, an old Baron's home..." They'd already looked around the inside, and it had the requisite basement. "...And with this utterly beautiful view of the Na.." She cleared her throat as though having caught on phlegm, "Andes. Chand, shall we buy it?"
He smiled indulgently, providing the earnest picture that the real estate man no doubt expected. "If you like this one best, dear... certainly." And it was, by far, best suited to their purposes. Relatively isolated, away from social swirl of engagements in the Rio de la Plata, with certain necessary structural features. "Shall we arrange a transfer of funds from the Banco della Durazzo or use a line of credit with one of our local banks?"
"Oh, a funds transfer seems reasonable. We can close it faster that way, correct?" She glanced curiously both to Chand and Senor Hermosillo.
The latter of whom who have preferred, perhaps, that they would take a line of credit: the bank would give him certain securing fees and he'd be able to charge processing fees. On the other hand, they really were rich enough, which meant the money for his fees would be good, and immediate in hand to earn interest on. And he'd spend less time on it, anyway. He nodded politely nonetheless "That's quite correct, Madame Mayland. Since the manor is unoccupied at the moment the title could be transferred as soon as the money is transferred."
"Darling?" Jhamraste looked across to Chand and smiled brilliantly. "I shall surely leave it to you, then."
"Right so," he said cheerfully, before pulling out his perscom from a pocket. "Can do it here and now, then, if you have access to your accounts and a secure transfer protocol. I think we've agreed on a reasonable price and fees, so unless there's anything else?"
"Certainly not from me," she replied.
The agent pulled out his own perscom, smiling broadly as he did, and together he and Chand made the arrangements. It was a routine affair, and after fifteen minutes mostly spent allowing the security filters to do their work, the deal was complete. Record of the deed change was deposited electronically with the local authorities, and the house now belonged to Chand and Rachel Mayland. Senor Hermosillo left shortly afterward, wishing them the best of enjoyment with their purchase, and congratulating himself on a job well done. That left Chand and Jhamraste alone outside of their new abode.
"Is it everything you hoped for?" Chand looked above into the clear blue sky even as he questioned his wife. It felt wonderful, after so long in the Outer Rim, to return to a real planet. To Earth, no less. And to Jhamraste, for all her troubles, no doubt incalculably better.
"It's perfect, and beautifully ironic. The last Sarasavsati in the homeland of our ancient rivals. I could certainly live here, even be buried here--no more suitable a conquest. But I aim to live forever, of course," she added quietly.
"So I'm on the homeworld and I think it to be the most marvelous thing I've ever seen," she added with a sweet smile. "Now all we need to do is have a very high security storage locker with automated pallet transfer station installed in a false cover in the basement, and I can restore Maria to control of her body."
"All?" Chand remarked ironically as he wheeled Jhamraste up to the doors of their new house. "It is structurally suited, no question. Still, I don't think she's ever going to be reconciled to what happened, whatever you hope. But as you will, in this matter..."
"It'll be a temporary holding cell," Jhamraste answered calmly. "I've figured out a way to make her cooperate." It had, it turned out, been ridiculously simple, and even bestowed a gift upon the belter woman.
Chand opened the doors to the new house, swinging them open widely where they stood on their hinges, before pushing Jhamraste through. "What do you have in mind?"
"There's several powers out there right now in the broader cosmos, reclusive, but still there, which have upload-capable technology. It's illegal to import, but breaking import laws for a single box in a single container is... trivial for those of our wealth. We'll put a Damocles sword over her head. We'll upload Maria and turn her into an AI. And then, if she wants to go the Empire, she'll get deleted for her trouble."
"And I don't need to ever even hurt a hair on her head, electronic though it may soon be."
January 22nd 3203 AD
They had been living in Gracious Ayodha, as Jhamraste had immediately deigned to name the manor in a slightly confusing style, for more than a year when they finally had the equipment in place. And below in the basement in her private little dungeon she had confined Maria for all of that time, with a copious read-only access to the outside world for her amusement and the restoration of her sanity, if it could be accomplished. Now, however, was the real test, and rather an extension of extreme trust, besides.
Their wealth and power had only grown as Jhamraste exploited her knowledge to the full extent that a lack of suspicion would allow, but where before the old Jhamraste would have been sadistic enough to leave Maria trapped in her own body for life, or imprisoned for life, there was nothing of the sort here. This creature that was left behind, could not countenance it and had made sure to arrange to the contrary from the very first. Now the plan came to fruition.
Jhamraste had comfortably parked herself in front of one of the computers and wired into it, a rather dull expression on her face as she proceeded to process through the neatly concealed nanites, which could fully emulate a host of cybernetic implants, lacing her entire body, turning every bit of her flesh into distributed computer processing. She was handling the equipment herself, and when it finished, she glanced to Chand somewhat duly.
"I've finished compiling her onto the mainframe without any issues," she commented rather tersely. "She should be there now, if she wants to talk."
"Rachel, Chand," a voice, distinctly that of Maria Lauwens, echoed through the speakers of the house a bit tersely. "Well, thanks, I think. That really was pretty fucking clever. Is really fucking clever."
"I take it you’ve discerned the nature of the implicit deal we’re under?" Jhamraste spoke without moving, though she seemed to evidence a trace of disturbance at Maria's calling her Rachel.
"Oh I'd say it's pretty obvious that turning me into a fucking AI eliminates my going to the authorities. Well, in most circumstances.” There was a pause, perhaps as the available data-files were scanned by Maria. “Shit, you've been doing pretty good for yourselves in the intervening time. Satisfied...Rachel?" The disembodied voice clearly was taking some pleasure in baiting Jhamraste with the reminder that she was no longer quite who she had been before.
"The honor of the Sarasavsati is in their word," Chand replied quickly, though directing his voice nowhere in particular. "You should be thankful that Jhamraste went to such lengths to uphold her integrity, after the threat you constantly posed to our escape. And now you're bound, as much as we are, by the antiquated prejudices of this Empire. If only you hadn't resisted so strongly to uphold them earlier..."
And in response, Maria suddenly appeared, as whole-formed and real as could be, in the middle of the room, the tractor beam mounts letting her, take a nervous step forward as she glanced to Chand, dressed in a simple jumpsuit. "Thanks for the projectors, I guess," she muttered in Jhamraste's direction before focusing her attention on Chand. "Was all the treason and murder really worth it?"
"You saw how the crew behaved," he said dismissively. "They were little better than animals. They marched right into Jhamraste's traps blinded by their greed, when any fool could have seen there was something wrong. I warned them, you warned them, and they still stumbled ahead with all order provided by the guns of the officers. For years those crude, violent ogres humiliated me and I enjoyed my revenge on them."
A flash of anger distorted his face as recalled all the indignities and threats levied on him. "Rachel's loss was regrettable, but it was necessary to preserve the life of Jhamraste. A being thirteen thousand years old, Maria! She defended the sanctity of her dead crew and found a body that could sustain her, her memories and experiences, for a while longer. And I have already learned so much of the real truth of humanity from her... her existence is beyond price."
He shifted a little. "And I love her. She made me into her equal, her partner. The trials she put me through forged a new, stronger person. I owe her everything for that."
"She made you an equal because she's just as much Rachel as Jhamraste," Maria snorted softly as her holographic form walked over to Jhamraste and peered down at the very silent figure. "Isn't that right? You're not even sure who you are anymore?"
"Not quite," Jhamraste answered, glancing up and coolly regarding Maria. "I'm both Rachel and Jhamraste. A composite being representing both, but more Jhamraste than Rachel. The August Calculus mandated that—the soul of Jhamraste was a more deeply carved engraving upon the Hidden World." She turned her eyes to glance levelly over to Chand.
"You haven't quite, I think, owned up to that fact but it won't hurt me if you do, love. In the end, Maria is right. I have two souls, and I know I do because I can feel and see both in the hidden world. That of Jhamraste.... Is older than Rachel. It's easier for my mind to run in the grooves of the patterns of thirteen millennia. But her physiology in part dictates how I think, as much as this nature threatened to pull me in two different directions. I could only avoid madness and insanity by fundamentally embracing my bifurcated personality and learning how to manage the impulses it's caused, to give myself a stable center, closer to Jhamraste than Rachel but still outside of the realm of either one. And in doing so, let Rachel overlay herself upon me. What you see, through that, is rather like the Jhamraste of old combined with Rachel. In truth I find either name comfortable these days."
"As Maria can see, though, the idea that this has in some way given me an overwhelming surfeit of guilt is rather wrong. I do regret my actions, but they were necessary for my personal survival and I paid the Empire back richly for its trouble by not setting the self-destructs on the Nyapursna, which I could have easily done, but which would certainly have been unethical. Thanks to that ship they'll probably save billions of lives in the next war with the Khanate."
"There will be more that she can contribute," Chand affirmed, dismissing Jhamraste’s admissions as hastily and nervously as he always did when she brought up the subject of her existence, fundamentally afraid of the implications for both himself and the universe. "Knowledge of science thousands of years beyond our own, which we will be able to harness for the general good. Not for purely humanitarian concerns, but the benefits of what happened on the Nyapursna will outweigh the deaths caused there by an incalculable amount. So yes, it is worth it."
Maria looked at the two for a long while, though more pointedly at Chand’s refusal to even countenance a subject which Rachel herself was willing to discuss, and then shrugged her holographic shoulders. The computing power of being an AI was growing on her rapidly. "Since these projectors surround the house, I'm going out on the porch. Always did want to see what Earth looked like, sooner or later." A pause, and her eyes drilled in on Jhamraste. "Try to be more Rachel, okay? She deserves it." Without further comment the hologram wandered off from the room in an almost resigned way.
Chand watched her disappear outside with some degree of relief, and quickly dismissed the whole train of thought from his mind. "Though on the issue of prolonging life," he began,"we've been approached in universe ST-3 to help introduce harvested chronoton particles to the Empire. Our patent on the solid latinum process has been especially important in the universe and has drawn the attention of the monopoly supplier there. The managers at the Mayland-Ling central office believe we can negotiate a deal to get a stake of their broader operations in exchange for helping them gain a foothold in our universe. It does represent a unique opportunity in any case."
"I've been aware of it. Have you scheduled treatments for us? I understand they effectively double life-expectancy, which would with the nanites give me, perhaps, eight hundred years--not a bad run and I believe the average lifespan of a Taloran, for instance." Jhamraste focused in on the personal aspects first as she mused on the subject, clearly thoughtful in her hoverchair by the computer interconnection.
"The shipment of particle containers should be released from quarantine next week," Chand answered. "With transit time from the rift, we should be able to have our first session at the end of the month. Our experience getting the import licenses is another thing that makes us a desirable partner for the ST-3 suppliers."
"It's proved trivially easy with the right connections. Especially since the computer controls for the solidification process are so intensive that the idea that we might need more efficient microprocessors on the assembly line seemed a given." Jhamraste smiled vaguely, because that was how she'd gotten the upload equipment past customs.
"The profit margin on chronoton particles—I understand they renamed them from metaphasic particles for marketing purposes—will be enormous," Chand noted idly. "One supply, one supplier, for a miracle that can cure disease and halt aging, even reverse the ravages of age. The demand is practically limitless. And to think it might have been kept out of the hands of everyone forever if it hadn't been for the mercenary dregs of that civil war they were fighting not so long ago." He shook his head.
"They have been pretty shrewd transforming themselves into megacorporation, though. Chronoton Holistic Anti-aging Medicines stands to be the wealthiest force in the multiverse, above even the interuniversal jumpgates themselves. I'm inclined to order our managers to do whatever it takes to get us involved with them."
"I think it's worth a substantial bit of risk, but in the long run we might actually be able to secure a controlling interest if we play things right. I'd go so far as to invite the heads of CHOAM here," Jhamraste added. "I'm best negotiating in person."
"You can be very persuasive, dear." He laughed softly. "Even a major stake in the chronoton particle trade would give us incredible power here and elsewhere. Enough to secure the influence that will keep us safe whatever happens. The sort of long-time benefit is worth whatever we have to do." He frowned for a minute, though. "Perhaps it's time to start looking into cybernetics again to solve your condition?” There had been several miserable failures with that already. “While these people might underestimate you, they are sell-swords and might not take a supposed cripple seriously. Developments in the Alliance market are looking favorable..."
"The positronic technology might work," Jhamraste agreed after a moment, frowning, concentrating. "I could do it with my nanites except I can't override their basic programming to achieve it, I think, now. I basically need to just cut my body off from my brain and have all commands from my brain interpreted by a positronic logic center which would then send the correct nerve impulses to my body. The rehabilitation period while the logic center interprets what those commands are that correspond to the correct movements, however, may be stiff even if it's self-intelligent. Which it would basically have to be…
“Basically, without understanding the underlying cause any better, which we haven’t been able to do, I think it's the only option." She privately didn’t speak the belief she’d developed that part of her soul was simply preventing her from walking, seeing how Chand had responded to any entreaty on her part to discuss the matter seriously. The man had established his narrative of what had happened and was not interested in further intrusions of reality upon it, lest it unbalance his new self-image. This creature, too, was far less willing than the old Jhamraste to… twist the minds of others.
"We should be able to make arrangements a little more above-board this time," he said, nodding in agreement. "The positronic technology has clearly matured, and so can be brought in under DNI regulations. We can afford to bring in specialists from the Alliance to implement it, if needed. Fortunately cost is no obstacle. And you'll be able to walk again..."
: "If it works," Jhamraste answered rather more cautiously. "And it's not that much of a matter. We can still go out into the fields and when you take me out of the chair and I lay in your lap...." A dreamy smile touched her eyes. "Which will shall have to do later today, though for the moment I don't begrudge Maria being alone outside."
"Perhaps we can go out this evening and watch the sunset?" Chand was smiling in anticipation. "I'll authorize our office in ST-3 to start making arrangements for a meeting with CHOAM, anyway. And have our people file the import license for positronic technology. Even if it doesn't work for this application we can find something valuable to apply it toward."
"Certainly it will allow us in collaboration with CHOAM products to gain a dominating position in the medical health technology industry," Jhamraste answered cheerfuly. "And yes, let's. The world, after all, is our's." But inside, Jhamraste thought darker thoughts.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-07-19 07:24am
It was some hours later when Jhamraste guided her hover-chair out onto the front porch of Gracious Ayodha. She rolled it up quietly to the side of Maria, who glanced up even though her computer eyes located throughout the manor had given her plenty of warning. It required very little computer memory to pretend to still have a body, after all, and the simulation was perfectly deceiving.
“Greetings, Maria. What do you think?”
“You’ve got a good taste in land,” Maria answered. “Of course, Felicity Yang loved her sister, too. Isn’t anyone in the cosmos who’s entirely lacking in good traits. Doesn’t change any of what you did, either.”
“No it doesn’t,” Jhamraste replied softly. “Do you find the future satisfactory?”
“A bit.” Maria smiled… And it was ruthless. “These holograms let me manually access the computer consoles connected to the planetary network, you know. It’s very limited for an AI, but it’s more than enough to alert the Imperial authorities.”
Jhamraste remained perfectly silent, and still.
“No, I won’t do it. Yet. Tell you what. If you ever murder, rape, torture, anyone, anyone at all. If you ever force me to do something against my will, if you ever conspire against the Empire, I’m reporting you even though it will mean my own deletion. Never mistake my willingness to let you avoid punishment so I can explore this new life you’ve given me as an endorsement for you to commit further crimes. You may think you’ve given me life but in the final assessment you’ve just chosen your own gaoler. I’ll be watching you like this house is my own private little panopticon. And I never have to sleep again.” She finished with a savage satisfaction…
…But it fell away as a weak and desperate whisper slipped through Rachel’s lips, in the voice of that young girl and with some strange quality that the AI disturbingly couldn’t make much of. “Thank you so much, Maria. You fought so hard for me, and now I trust you to be the conscience these hideous remnants lack.”
“Rachel!” The scream was flung out with a miserable, bitter hope as the hologram leapt up to embrace the girl in her hover-chair. It gave her a reason to live, for somewhere beneath the remains of the monster, the girl might yet feel, and hope.
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-07-19 05:21pm
I was wonderinng what Nagas are use for in Sarasavsati society?
Re: Sole Survivor (TGG). Co-authored by Chris Purnell.
Posted: 2009-07-20 05:13am
Tanner wrote:I was wonderinng what Nagas are use for in Sarasavsati society?
Will be explained ultimately, I promise, but not currently.