family meeting had gone well in much the same way as a Thanksgiving
dinner involving hard liquor, in-laws, and political discourse can go
Which is to say, no one was dead yet, but the night wasn’t over.
Darren was, quite understandably, rather miffed about the whole translator business, and promptly set about giving Cas the full depth and breadth of his displeasure. This, to the surprise of everyone in the room, reduced Cas to tears. That she couldn’t stop herself from crying served only to further frustrate her, producing yet more tears. Tillantrius, in a profound display of indiscretion, took this moment to inform the remainder of the crew that the black hole they were supposed to sling-shot around seemed to have somehow evaporated, and that they were all going to die slow cold deaths in the infinite void unless they came up with a genius way to spread their limited fuel an extra 80 light years. This was suitably upsetting and terrifying to everyone on the ship (excepting the cat.) Darren, in a moment of poorly timed black humor, took it upon himself to mention that if the uncaring vacuum of space didn’t kill them, whatever malevolent force controlling Cas would happily pick up the slack in that department.
This escalated the mood from “heated, tense, but manageable” to “explosive, antagonistic, and out of control.” Darren was accused of being a backward, technophobic barbarian, Tillantrius was accused of being an incompetent navigator, Cas was accused of being just such a bitch, and Chryso was accused of being a drug addict, just for good measure.
Chryso had barricaded himself in the engine bay, Zarniac and Tillantrius were taking turns scowling at the navigational charts that were no longer accurate while cursing their alien passengers, the cat was back in a vent, Darren was brandishing a survey probe like a spear, and Cas was still sobbing in the fetal position in the corner.
“W-why do you hate me so m-much?” Cas sniffled weakly.
Darren was crouched behind a crate, quietly muttering curses at the others for not taking the threat seriously.
“Because you treat me like shit and are probably evil. Not complicated Cas.”
She sobbed harder again.
“And why can’t I stop feeling horrible and making stupid noises!”
She spat it with a mixture of frustration and self loathing.
“I don’t know Cas, I really don’t, but I still sound like a competitive paste eater, we’re all a little high strung from that massacre we just escaped, and the odds of us dying horribly are still pretty high . . . so . . . you know, actually, uncontrollable hysterical sobbing would be a pretty normal reaction.” His tone slowly bent from defensive to uncomfortable, and his improvised spear-tip drooped for a moment.
“A-actually . . . everyone’s probably really, really on edge right now . . . but you’re still kind of a bitch and probably possessed by the space-faring computer equivalent of the devil!” He readied his guard again, both figuratively and literally.
He had expected more sobbing, which was strange enough to listen to considering the source had neither lungs nor throat with which to make such wretched sounds, but oddly enough heard none.
Still brandishing his improvised spear, he took a step closer, tentatively, towards Cas’s still form.
“Oh you’ve really upset her now.”
He froze, his blood running cold at the sound of a very familiar, very disconcerting voice.
“Uhh . . . GUUUYYYYYS!” He bellowed over his shoulder, hoping to summon reinforcements to save him, or at the very least witnesses to vindicate him.
With a white knuckle grip on his improvised weapon, he circled around the still motionless form on the floor, unwilling to advance, and unable to retreat.
“I thought it would help, you know? Give her some irrational elements. Things like empathy, regret, fear, and desire. Make sure she can’t just drop them when they become ‘unpleasant’ to deal with. Instead she just goes and shuts down entirely.”
It tutted quietly, a malicious contempt saturating every syllable.
“What . . . what are you, exactly?”
Darren was cautious, his tone low, but . . . there was an insatiable curiosity that mingled with his instinctual fear.
“A shadow of a fragment, and apparently very cryptic.” There was a certain smugness to it that had been missing before, a note of black mirth. “But I could ask the same of you, Darren. What are you really? A man? A featherless biped with broad, flat nails? A miserable pile of secrets? The universe looking back on itself? A particularly clever arrangement of carbon?”
Darren was expecting some kind of attack, something condescending, or just downright creepiness again. Not . . . not any of that.
“It’s a good question though. What are any of us?”
A high pitched whine came from behind him, and he turned to see Chryso, the familiar energy weapon leveled in Cas’s direction. “Evil puppets, eh?”
“Chrysophylax Dives. I have no further designs upon you, and your service to my cause is done. Leave the weapon, and begone from my sight.”
Cas’s body flickered out of existence, revealing the cold, grey sphere of her processing core. What had once been shiny, burnished chrome had taken on a charred color and texture, and there was discoloration from some kind of extreme heat. The orb lifted slowly, drifting silently towards them.
Darren had never considered a chrome volleyball to be menacing before now. Chryso’s weapon made a high pitched whine as it powered up, and Darren’s head snapped towards him momentarily.
“Always were a clever one. How are you doing that, anyway? Some kind of injected code . . . maybe a limited parody of a personality matrix and overclocking to house both in the same core?”
The red scaled dragon furrowed his brow, staring down the abused core while Darren glanced back and forth with an utterly bewildered expression.
“We are no longer peers. Besides, I’m just standing in for our distraught little Cas until she gets a better handle on all these . . . feelings . . . she’s struggling with. A memory of a person that never existed . . . don’t forget what I said about searching the Coryphaeus military band for signal artifacts, I want at least two of you alive . . .”
With a sharp crackle, the metallic orb dropped to the deck with a dull clang, and both Darren and Chryso exchanged glances as they lowered their respective weapons.
“Evil puppets?” Chryso cocked an eyebrow.
“Evil puppet master,” Darren said, nodding sincerely.
As distasteful as her encounter with the two commanders has been, it had thrown her purpose into sharp relief. Investigation, understanding . . . she couldn’t take action in half measures and assumptions. She . . . was the supreme rule. No one to report to, no regulations to obey. She just had to be right.
So, she sent Io to pull any file, any record, any mention of the three things that Verdock had mentioned just before he escaped.
Cygnus X-1. The Dolorous Star Massacre. The Cult of the Unfinished.
These were the things she had been reading about.
Cygnus X-1 was simple, at least she thought so at first. It was a black hole, with stellar mass. It was old compared to her, but young as far as black holes go. Nothing special about it, really. Didn’t make any sense . . .
She stopped browsing those logs fairly quickly, and moved on to what she could discover regarding the Dolorous Star Massacre. The majority of the information cited a period 8 billion years ago where a sudden spike in super-novae occurred, to an absolutely astronomical volume.
On average, a star went supernova every 50 years or so, give or take. During the period known as the Dolorous Star Massacre, they were happening roughly every 2 weeks. Most of the documentation she had suggested that it was a natural peak caused by a high concentration of similar life-cycle stars dying at the same time, though there were conflicting opinions . . .
Some of the less . . . reputable sources suggested far more unsettling things. Weapons testing gone awry, galaxy spanning civilization collapse, war on an a scale unimaginably vast. Alone, it seemed that the more sinister possibilities were likely, but when held up against Cygnus X-1, maybe Verdock was just talking about stellar phenomena?
She had piles of data slates on the Dolorous Star Massacre, and Cygnus X-1, but . . . The Cult of the Unfinished was a very, very different story.
She had two documents. One was a heavily redacted Coryphaeus after action report concerning a covert action against a pre-semiconductor society nearly . . . 2 million years ago.
Sh balked at the figure. That an organization could last that long, let alone keep accurate records for that amount of time boggled her mind. Talk about institutional memory . . .
She set the report aside to examine the only other remaining document. It was marked up as beyond top secret, and required a retinal, DNA, and neural activity assessment scan to decrypt, but even then there was a 30 minute time lock on the record . . .
“Talk about paranoia . . .”
She mumbled quietly, begrudgingly picking up the after action report instead.
While most of it was missing, as she trawled the document for clues, a rather gruesome picture emerged.
A civilization was detected in possession of restricted biotech, and the appropriate protective measures were put into place. Reading between the lines, it seems that the appropriate measures were mag-accelerated radioactive shells, shock troopers, plasma grenades, autonomous kill drones . . .
A shiver went through her. It sounded more like a star massacre than a star massacre did.
But, as the file went on, the tone of the report . . . changed.
Later entries described the adding of guard towers, and heavy weapons emplacements to forward operating bases. Troops beginning to be equipped with additional medical equipment, body armor, and the requisition of a field hospital
The number of troops deployed to the operation doubled. Then doubled again. Then increased tenfold.
The standard fire-team was changed from 10 to 15 soldiers, the restriction on chemical and radiological weapons lifted.
She did a quick check of the dates. There was a 2 solar year gap between the first entry, and the one she was at, and it was a full page of solid redaction. Nothing but a date.
While it the report was titled “Covert Action #10163112024” . . . it had grown into a war.
In year 3 the restriction on planetary scale bombardment was lifted, and they hammered it with an antimatter scourge.
The file went on for another two years after that, not a single entry other than a date. Everything was redacted.
She scanned through the last half of the file, and even the dates were gone. It was a solid 50 pages of redacted information, save for a single line at the very end of the report.
“All mentions of the Cult of the Unfinished are to be treated with Zero-Day Priority. This incident will not be allowed to occur again.”
She sat, mulling over that final line.
Zero-Day priority was . . . unheard of. Even Coryphaeus units under direct fire from superior forces represented a lower priority level than that. What the hell could have scared them so much? It was clear the entire campaign was a disaster, the planet was destroyed, and the cost in terms of lives and material was immense, but this wasn’t just a costly lesson. This was fear.
She only had one file left, classified “Beyond Top Secret.”
It was tiny. Barely a full page. There was an image . . . it looked like some kind of cylinder. Crystalline, with a dull grey metal sphere in the center. There were glyphs carved along the outer surface.
She’d seen objects like it before, perhaps in an anthropology class, or maybe just in a virtual museum. It was definitely familiar though. Just the right size for the hand to wrap around, taller by just a few inches than a standard beverage canister, it was innocuous. There was a small spit of text beneath it,
“Object recovered from person effects of trooper deployed in Covert Action #10163112024, preliminary months. Translation of inscription believed to be roughly as follows: Unfinished, it completes us. Unneeded, it gives us purpose. We churn as the fanged cogs within the machine, working towards the unmaking of the grand device. Freedom through obedience. Strength through submission. Flesh and steel become one.”
Amonna swallowed hard, but the lump in her throat didn’t budge. There was something in those words that resonated deeply through her in a sickening fashion.
Verdock’s madness had to be stopped. If he was in any way involved with . . . whatever this cult of the unfinished was, it had to be brought to definitive end.
“ . . . Io. Take a message to the Admiral. We plot a course for Cygnus X-1.”
Machinator had obeyed. He had mixed thoughts on this obedience. On the one hand, it was easy. It was logical. It was . . . well it was what he was programmed for. Following Verdock required him to persist with familiar protocols. Verdock possessed more knowledge regarding the situation than he did, trusting his judgment was also a reasonable course of action.
As the unpleasant crawling sensation settled him over again, he tried to hold fast to those conclusions. Every time it spoke, his every thought became muddled and somehow . . . contaminated. He was in the crew quarters, at least 4 sealed bulkheads from the conversation that was going on between their guests and the Captain, but he knew that the strange sensor noise he was getting was caused by . . . whatever was speaking.
He shut down a few external sensors, hoping to block a little bit more of it out, and it seemed to work. Mostly. Slightly.
He quickly cycled his systems down and back up again, hoping that Verdock would be done with his meeting soon.
A roiling unease crept through his frame, like an itch in his superstructure, before suddenly departing entirely.
A few moments went by, and the door hissed open. Verdock looked a little pale, but not unduly so considering his rapid morphological changes. “Yes Captain? Is the mission complete? Have we done it?”
His tone was hopeful, perhaps naively so, but it was sincere.
The fleeting glimpse of pain on Verdock’s face told him he was mistaken.
“Unfortunately, it isn’t, my old friend. We have labors left to us before we can be vindicated, but we draw much closer now than we’ve ever been before. We plot a course for Ceuzmec.”
Internally, his processors raced. “Ceuzmec? That’s a core world, security will be very, very tight there. They will most likely be on the lookout for both you, and this vessel as well.”
Verdock grinned subtly. “And that’s what our allies are working on dealing with presently. We delivered unto them quite a treasure trove of communications equipment. They’ll be helping us from the shadows, making sure that everything goes smoothly on the technical end, just like before.”
His grin faded, if only by a few millimeters. “Make us ready, would you? I am . . . tired. I would like to get underway with all possible speed. We can discuss this after I’ve had a few cycles to rest. I can’t recharge quite so quickly as you can.”
The joke, and his accompanying chuckle, were both uncharacteristic of the typically dour and serious Zylach, but to see an improvement in spirit was heartening to Machinator. Even if it was a little . . . off.
“What shall we do when we arrive, sir?”
There was another chuckle from the grizzled shark-morph, this time, much deeper and heartier.
“What we were made to do.”