Machinator watched in stunned silence as what used to be his commander aggressively slurped down a mixture of nutrient paste, emergency ration, blood transfusion, and vitamin supplement from a pot the size of his head. The foul smelling, gory mix was disgusting enough on its own, but the raw aggression with which he was sucking it down disturbed him most.
That had been the watchword for the past 24 hours of his existence. He had been “disturbed” when Verdock woke up. “Disturbed” when he wouldn’t quit grinning. “Disturbed” when he immediately went to the mess hall, and ate rations packs until he threw up what appeared to be blood. Any questions he’d launched at him were either ignored or given single word answers.
He had legitimately wondered if Verdock was of sound mind.
It was certainly disturbing to see, but most disturbing of all was that they were nearing the rendezvous point. In less than 8 hours, they’d be proceeding with Stage 2 of the operation, and Verdock was required to be in top form for that exchange. Machinator cringed as he watched the captain shovel handfuls of the pink slurry into his mouth, hunched over the pot like some kind of feral beast.
A cursory medical scan revealed that bone density had increased by nearly 40%, and muscle density by at least 65%, up to 90% in some regions . . . like the jaw. And neck.
Doubt nagged at him. Was Verdock still in control of things? Was he still in control of himself?
Was any of this part of the plan? And if it was . . . why hadn’t he been told anything about it?
All he could do was stand at attention, watching over his ravenous commander like statue in a grotesque feast hall, and steel himself with grim determination.
He counted down the hours and minutes and seconds to the rendezvous, watching as Verdock intermittently gorged and slept. 15 minutes before they were due to drop the Warp Prow, he . . . well it could only be described as an awakening.
Verdock’s suddenly froze, adjusting his head like he was trying to train his ears on a far off sound. Unlike before though, he looked . . . frustrated, not glassy eyed, not . . . distant. “Machinator?” Verdock barked.
His voice was deeper, and rougher. The word wasn’t enunciated as much as it was spat. “Yes, Captain?”
Verdock hopped down from the mess hall table, raising himself from a low crouch to a now fairly impressive full height, and Machinator took another quick scan of him. He’d gained about 50 pounds of muscle, lost about 10 pounds of fat, gained a second row of teeth, an additional .3 cm of thickness to a recently developed layer of placoid scales that now covered him from head to toe, there were large black claws protruding from his boots to and his normally blue, cool eyes had turned to black, downright cold ones.
“Bring us about to the target, and fire off an unencrypted message.” He took off at a jog, and Machinator swept in beside him, straining slightly to keep pace as the two of them made for the cargo bay.
“And what message would that be, sir?”
Verdock cleared his throat a few times, clearly struggling with . . . something, stuck in it.
Verdock shook his head sharply. “It’s nothing. The message should read, “The Crown Returns to the Broken King’s Brow.” but in Gentrue. Archaic Gentrue, if you have a database for it.”
The order seemed . . . well it seemed like nonsense, but Machinator felt a surge of hope in his core emotional processing. Verdock was issuing orders. They didn’t make sense but he was doing so with conviction. The old spark had returned and, while his physical form was undoubtedly undergoing some extreme changes, the mind remained sharp. Like an old AI getting a new, upgraded chassis.
Just a new chassis, same old Verdock . . . Probably.
Amonna held still in her little tank. Little wasn’t the right word for it, because it was plenty spacious for her to swim around, but it felt oddly confined drifting through the hard vacuum of space. Autonomous drones had cut through the bulkhead and flooded her holdout with water. She was grateful for it, too. Not being able to drink, or breathe properly had been . . . hard on her. Once the decontamination chamber had been filled, she was able to swim up into the escape pod they had prepared for her. Made of transparent, compressed aluminum, she felt like a minnow in a test tube as they had sealed it, and lifted it away from the ruined hulk of the station.
The devastation was . . . massive. She wasn’t an engineer by any measure, but from what she could gather as she drifted away, the reactor had never truly failed, just the coolant circulating sub-systems. The reactor had limped along for days and weeks, alternating between slagging and irradiating various parts of the superstructure with impunity.
The shock of seeing the station being ripped apart by salvage drones finally drove it home. Her life, her work, her scant friends there . . . were all gone. She was all that was left of a dead city hanging on the edge of the galaxy.
Her vintage music collection, gone. Holo-captures of her family, gone. Every nice outfit she’d managed to cobble together for the past 4 years, gone. Sketchbook, gone. Training gear, gone. Most of the items weren’t technically irreplaceable but . . .
She curled her knees up to her chest, and wrapped her arms around them.
It hurt. It hurt to lose everything and everyone. Before she was too terrified of dying to even begin thinking about these things but now that it seemed the danger had passed, all she could think about was how she lost everything.
That, and wonder why it had all happened to begin with.
She drifted in cold silence, lost in cycle of loss and dread for several minutes, until she realized it was very, very bright for interstellar space.
She hadn’t noticed the faint tug of acceleration, or that her drone escort had flitted back to the station to resume salvage operations, but as she turned to face the source of inexplicable shine, she was rather taken aback.
Amonna stared for a few moments. The soft white light of a tame star washed over her. It was shackled by exotic . . . fluid, almost organic shaped tendrils of gold and silver that reminded her more of abstract sculpture than any kind of space-faring vessel. It seemed to dwarf the empty vastness of space itself, filling almost the entirety of her vision. She suddenly felt an immense sense of terror, as if she were nothing more than a raindrop about to be dashed into nothing on an infinite, white shore.
She’d heard, of course, of the kind of technology available in the Core Worlds. The difference between Core Worlds and Frontier Worlds was like the difference between night and day. Just moving to a Core World was a lofty aspiration that most children, or naive adults, aspired to. Dark Matter Engines. Perfect Virtual Realities. Instantaneous Memetic Learning. Ships so fast you arrived before you left, and AI servants so insightful they tended to your needs before you were even realized you were in need of anything. Paradise, but attainable.
Everyone knew someone who knew someone that had made it to the Core Worlds. Promoted high enough, had the right friends, made enough of a killing in the market to buy their way those perfect worlds. Paradise.
Or at the very least so advanced as to be indistinguishable from it.
Could this be . . . a ship from a Core World? Or something else entirely?
“You are Amonna Tav.”
The sound was booming, deafening even, and it seemed to come from everywhere around her in the tank. She could feel the thunder of it in her bones, and it made her cringe in pain.
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.
“We are Justice. We will now discover what has transpired here.”
She was sent into another spasm of discomfort, she didn’t know how to even begin speaking with . . . whatever this was. She reached for her communicator bracelet to begin transmitting, but didn’t manage to reach it before the next sonic assault on her watery habitat.
“Unnecessary. Retrieving information.”
She curled up tightly, almost to shield herself from this . . . conversation, but not more words came, no more deafening blasts. Several seconds ticked by before she cautiously allowed herself to peek out over her knees. She felt . . . nothing out of the ordinary, actually.
“You have been judged to be worthy. Your value to us is now elevated. Officer Amonna Tav, your rank within the Frontier Social Order Service is rescinded. You are now Arch-Judge Tav, there is no office above you, there are none that can gainsay your inquest. Move without restraint. Act without hesitation. You will assist in the reacquisition of the entity most familiar to you as ‘The Unfinished.’ Resources will be supplied to aid in this endeavor.”
She almost managed to keep her composure, even though her hands were occupied with protecting her sensitive ears, and nodded weakly. Whatever . . . whatever was happening, she was fairly certain this was a promotion?
“Alright, so what’s this part called?” Darren let out a quiet groan. “I don’t know . . . it’s still part of your ear.” Cas pouted quietly, and scowled at him. “Well it’s structurally different from the first three regions of the ear, it should have a different name. Why don’t you know what it’s called?” Darren gritted his teeth in frustration, wincing immediately as he regretted putting pressure on his still tender jaw.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m just a guy who has ears, Cas.” He took a bit of a tone with her, and she stuck her digital tongue out in return, before frowning.
“ . . . why did my tongue just come out?” She muttered, completely bewildered and seemingly surprised.
Darren stared at her incredulously, but as the moment of silence drew on into several seconds of quiet confusion on Cas’s part, Darren realized she was being sincere in her line of questioning. “It’s . . . it’s like, a mix of pouting, irritation, and a taunt children use?” He left out the fact that it might be construed as flirtatious. He might not have a supercomputer for a brain, but by his calculations the odds of her flirting with him were a solid zero.
She pushed her tongue back into her mouth with her fingertip. “ . . . well that’s mostly accurate, but doesn’t explain why I did it unconsciously.” She paced across the room and sat down next to him, frowning intensely. “ . . . just like my frowning now. That wasn’t an active decision.” She patted her face in a probing manner, scowl deepening. “I don’t like that this body does things without me specifying it. There are obfuscated subroutines in action here! I’m rebooting again, going to see if I can find some way to access my other processes. Don’t move me this time, it was weird.” Her eyes narrowed at him.
Darren leaned back, and closed his eyes. You find a girl splayed out on the floor like a throw rug, so you move her to a chair and she gets mad. No good deed goes unpunished, it seemed. There was the familiar high pitched whine of her power cycling, and then the quiet that came as she slowly regained consciousness.
“Told her to stop fiddling with things she didn’t understand. Of course, she didn’t listen. You’d think it’d be humiliating, having your existence play out like some maladroit apologue about the consequences of acting without thinking . . .”
The voice was strange and distorted, like over-compressed audio cycling through several octaves but slightly off pitch on each one. It was distinctly unpleasant, and Darren’s eyes shot open to find Cas slumped against the wall next to him, face turned away.
“Cas . . . what are you-”
Her head snapped to face Darren, unflinchingly precise in it’s movement, and at a speed his eyes couldn’t follow.
“Talking about? Your ‘friend,’ and I use the term loosely, Cas has gone prodding about in her own software again. She keeps this up, she’ll go blind.”
Her eyes seemed . . . dead, and unfocused, and her lips didn’t move as she spoke. She normally seemed almost uncannily human, disturbingly alive for what he knew was just a construct . . . but this looked at him with the glassy eyes of a doll, and moved like a puppet on strings.
“Before you ask anymore stupid questions, she’s be fine. If I didn’t have designs for you all, none of you would be alive.”
Darren opened his mouth to speak when 50,000 volts hit him in the chest, and he could only make an uncomfortable wheeze as his diaphragm spasmed uncontrollably while pain coursed through his already battered form.
“Quiet. Don’t pollute the limited air in this craft with your thoughts.”
His body slammed limply to the ground as he committed to a mixture of dry heaving and struggling to find his breath. “You’re more fragile than some of your kind. Or perhaps you have just enough low cunning to know when to stay down.” The observation was a casual one, with a tone almost like Cas was making smalltalk on a long train journey.Darren weakly glanced at the body of Cas, face still following his motions but her expression was just as blank and inscrutable as before. “You don’t know what I am . . . not really. But I know what you are, human. I know your kind very, very well.”
Cas rose from her limp perch on the bench like a marionette hoisted by a puppeteer. Limbs dangling loosely, she floated over Darren’s prone form, before descending slightly to apply a bare foot to his neck.
“. . . I walked your world as a broken husk, once . . . and I learned about you.”
Darren could only groan quietly as the pressure increased, and the coppery taste of blood filled his mouth as something threatened to come loose.
“I learned how you treat your weak. Your different. Your young. Your ‘undesirables’. Your vulnerable. Oh what tender mercies your kind is want to work on those who cannot strike back.”
She slowly doubled over, blurred face inches from Darren’s ear in a posture that no living human could hope to replicate, tone laced with venomous sarcasm.
“The concepts of virtue and morality you extol are abandoned when they cease to be effective strategies for survival. When it comes down to it . . . you’ll eat each other, and be glad for the meal.”
There was an uncomfortable electric tingle that seemed to be working it’s way across Darren’s skin, he couldn’t tell if it was from sheer proximity to what was definitely no longer Cas or just the creeping fear that seemed to crawl across his skin with every syllable that this thing uttered.
“It’s why I like your kind. I feel . . . well, I feel a strange camaraderie.”
The stink of ozone was filling the air, even as the voice began to mellow in tone. Occasionally, a faint tremor would work through one of her slack limbs.
“You’re willing to admit that greatness sometimes comes at the cost of goodness. Not openly, no, you need to preserve the illusion of benevolent co-operation until that sacrifice must be made . . . and that venture of self delusion makes those moments of triumph all the more magnificent. You are dirt-lings, even by your own admission, but you have ambitions that would make the stars weep.”
A faint, mocking chuckle sent an unpleasant chill through Darren’s very core.
“It’s been too long, human.”
A sudden weight dropped onto him, a dull crash echoing through the small cabin as a tray of medical supplies was sent tumbling from an adjacent shelf. The invisible puppeteer working Cas’s strings had let go of whatever ephemeral hold it had on her . . . for now, at least.