A Metamorphosis Alpha® play-by-post adventure run by ghost_of_warden
Twenty hours have passed, and Zhaxier is back in the darkened clone lab at the command terminal, whose vidscreens lovingly wrap their wispy glow around the umbra of his hunched-over silhouette. Pounding staccato at the keyboard, the figure whips his bald, bespectacled head back and forth from the instructions on his data pad to the glowing wall displays. Logs of clone bank after clone bank scroll upwards on one of them.
Finally the relentless scrolling halts without warning, giving the illusion that the data is slowly sinking off-screen. He highlights a single pod's record. It's on the first floor of this very depository: how convenient. He finds the field that identifies whose genetic stock is associated with this pod: "Captain Lynn Margulis." With a wave of her command ring, he opens the field for editing....
Halfway to the elevator door, which he jammed open with his data pad pen, Zhaxier slowly turns, then takes off his shirt, with its circular patch bearing Warden's emblem and his rank "PropEng/2c" embroidered in proud red lettering. He takes off his pants as well. He folds the uniform carefully, never to wear it again.
From a hook on the wall beside the nearby emergency shower, he takes a short humble white lab cloak and eases it over his tired shoulders. He likewise dons the matching baggy white elastic-cuffed pants. From one of the drawers that lie beneath the darkened clone tubes, he finds some black boxers (two pocket variety), but none of the other drawers he searches contains another pair of shoes his size. Oh well. Resourcefulness better be genetic. He returns to the elevator with his uniform and the boxers stowed under his arm, retrieves his pen from the door and presses the button for sub-level 1A.
Information. Distilled to their basic function, organisms that bear the H. sapiens genomic signature are nothing more than slabs of meat designed to process information. Zhaxier Cole is no exception. In fact, by a fluke of radiation-wracked emergency cloning apparatus, he may be the most efficient data-processing skin-tube ever to roam the City Level.
The irony of it all is that he doesn't even know his capability is abnormal for second-class propulsion engineers, much less humans. He doesn't know that it should have been humanly impossible to decrypt the clone lab instruction manual in an hour. He knows no baseline. After all, he's only been human (or what passes as human) for a couple of days (or what passes as days) aboard the vast confines of Warden (or what passes as---uh, never mind).
Wind is rushing past his ears, bringing with it the vigorous scent of pine trees, which split the light of an artificial full moon into countless white miniature orbs that play across the cold forest floor. The claps of his flat feet against the hard dirt path drift in and out of synch with those of another pair, far ahead. The occasional fallen oak leaf crunches "Quercus!" He is gaining. A hollow boom ricochets back to him, soon followed by an ethereal sound that registers in his inner ears as triumphant laughter.
Between the dark slender trunks he catches glimpses of fleeting alabaster. They leave ghostly retinal afterimages of white on the midnight that envelops him. Two more loblollies, then the Generation Oak: his hand shoots out instinctively in the dark and slaps the bark right on the well-worn sweet spot, eliciting another furious boom from the age-accelerated sylvan guardian. The forest ends abruptly at a gaping faux-limestone sinkhole, its yawning mouth open to the fathomless metal sky. He catches his breath against a willow and looks up too late.
But it is a timeless vision: the pale gazelle in mid-leap, graceful, arcing, a white body spotlit by all the lumens of the ersatz moon against featureless black muslin. Frozen at zenith, she rotates---rather, the forest spins and he sees muted perfection at the center: every silhouette curve, every flawless surface from every angle. Then time resumes, he is himself again, and the swan dive rips into the placid surface of the dark pool without an afterthought. Overcome with emotion, with the joy of life, he runs up to the edge and hurls his outstretched ebony frame over the edge. "TO INFINITY AND---"
Pain. Eyelid constellations. Iciness. Breath squelched. Paralysis. Help! Slender hand. Help! Splash. Thrash. Panic. Surprising grip. Submission. Wet stone stairs. A world upside down. Black---blacking---blacking out. Oof! Mossy. Breathe! Lips. Pressure. Warmth. Breathe, dammit!
Cough. Cough! Gasp. Shades of gray. A blurred face. Her face? So close. Focus in. Focus!
"Crikey, Z, you need to work on that belly flop."
The deep blue wavelength of Enki Alba's eyes pierces his body like a neutrino burst as his supercharged brain finally locates a segment of its own facial recognizance machinery, inexplicably remapped by genetic defect to a different location and configuration among the quadrillion synapses of his over-convoluted brain.
At last, he can put a face to her name, a face to the voice that for so long has raced his heart, given purpose to his life. Or his former life.
BUt it is fading, fading. No! Black ink falling....
A refrain from one of her favorite ancient Terran vocalists sneaks under the curtain before his brain shuts down:
Cast your eyes on the ocean.
Cast your soul to the sea.
When then dark night seems endless,
Please remember me.
Please remember me.
["Dante's Prayer," Loreena McKennitt, Earth, 1997]
Zhaxier finds himself sitting at the cafeteria table, surrounded by the detritus of his frenzied research: scattered memory disks, crystals, twin data pads and chewed data pen; tossed knapsack contents; spilled coffee; crumpled Milky Way candy wrappers. Dazed, he mechanically brushes the trash to the floor with his right hand as he struggles to reclaim his thoughts and to decipher Lynn's non sequitur. Did I just...? he wonders privately, disgusted.
Oh. The 3D projector in his left hand is on. He breathes a sharp inhalation of painful recognition, averts his gaze, shuts off the hologram he recovered from his mail archive, and summarily casts the projector back into his knapsack as if it were burning his palm. He slumps back in his chair and blinks a few times behind his shades at Lynn, who has pulled up a chair across from him.
"Was," he says icily, snatching up his data pad to review his notes.
The hopeless finality of Enki's clone status report pales in comparison to the sobering living hell to which his own report dooms him. Anger at the cruelty of fate simmers deep inside him, but it is the geothermal heat that drives his tectonics: if ever there were a man on a mission, he now sits in the basement cafeteria of the Double Helix Depository Building, City Level, Warden. By all accounts, he shouldn't have made it, but the massive and temperamental cloning apparatus failed to terminate his flawed development, and here he is: a godforsaken freak.
How much of him really is him and not some randomly mutated string of amino acids? The next one will fare better, or so goes his mantra. Lynn's tube one floor up is his best hope: after all, her clone emerged unscathed according to the core status logs. The same logs, however, show how fate has cursed Lynn in other ways: her predecessor defied the odds by surviving the Cloud, only to die in a botched mutiny. It's yet another sad example of Zhaxier's own variant of Murphy's Law:
Live long enough, and the Universe will find a way to screw you over.
Zhaxier wonders again how much of her own story Lynn actually knows. So far, getting a straight answer from her has been harder than manhandling the gyroscope on a quantum gravity stabilizer. No problem. Let her ask me, he thinks. He can wait.
As he has done during the last 28 hours, Zhaxier holds the pad close to his Cool-Mo-G shades to read it (without them, his permanently dilated pupils cause him excruciating pain in the efficiently lit cafeteria). He checks off the list item, "Contingency plan." Well, it is nearly in place at least. Next, it's on to Kaminsky's room, then Engineering.
"Haven't you been at it long enough?" she blurts, suddenly impatient and perplexed by the odd man who has so disrupted her carefully maintained delusion of a comfortable life aboard the doomed vessel. Her vessel.
Zhaxier merely sniffs. He corrects an entry on his pad with the pen, starts chewing on it again, and reaches for his coffee mug. It is empty. "Frak." He looks up at Lynn in exasperation through his pitch-dark glasses.
Lynn huffs, amazed at his tenacity. Or is it insanity: why had he come back wearing that ridiculous lab getup? He looks like some 23rd century Martian rapper. "Get it yourself. I ain't your slave. And finish your damn history lesson already! We can't save Warden sitting here on our asses." She pushes her chair away from the table in protest.
Calming down some, she adds wryly, "And there's only so much chess I can stand."
"Huh?" Is she even the least bit interested in Warden's situation? At Lynn's nod, he pivots in his chair to find their plucky robotic sidekick at a nearby table, where "he" broods silently over a portable chessboard whose cheap plastic pieces Zhaxier easily recognizes as having been mass-molded in the one-sixth g of Luna's Tycho Center (Warden's colonists enjoyed only the "finest" in consumer commodities). The clock beyond Exarch glows midnight wanly.
"Checkmate!" he pipes into his output stream exuberantly. Ever since the human engineer designated Zhaxier restored fine motor control to his three tentacle manipulators, he has been taking every opportunity to work out the kinks. But what impresses him even more is that on one of his breaks late last night, Zhaxier chose to repair him instead of mating with the human designated Lynn during their so-called "honeymoon." Zhaxier's stated reason, as his digital audio recorder verifies, was: "I think better when I'm fixing something." Maybe what his fellow 'bots used to say about engineers long ago is true....
Lynn sighs, shaking her head. "Every move is checkmate. I don't think it knows how to play."
"Do you?" he says into his knapsack as he fishes for something. He pulls out a white plastic ID card, featureless but for the black stripe and number down one end. After flipping it over and back as if debating its utility, he pops it into his data pad. I won't need it with Lynn's ring and a bracelet from Kaminsky's room. Besides, I'm not really Zhaxier. An ironic thought bubbles up: were the next clone to use the card, there'd be a trail to follow.... Yeah, right. Like he ever plans on seeing that day.
His hand flutters over the set of red data crystals (now numbering twenty-seven) chaotically scattered across the table. He selects a particular crystal and snaps it into the opposite side of the data pad. This red crystal is one of the original seven, mostly full of useless personal esoterica left behind by a nameless, hapless clone lab techie.
Zhaxier lets a brief smile crack through his full lips. With a rapid succession of keystrokes on the data pad, he scans the techie's meticulously catalogued collection of Terran sci-fi B-movie stills and selects a particularly grisly shot that scares the quarks out of him. It's exactly the effect he needs. Using a quick-n-dirty image editor on his data pad, he adds a title in capital letters at the bottom of the image: "KAMINSKY MD4." At the top, he inserts an animated ticker: "LOG VID S8346."
Another few pen-waves and the media is encoded onto his ID card. With any luck, the next owner of the card will have Kaminsky's address ruthlessly burned into mental ROM when he logs in.
Warden's Logan Vidrine sector, named after the infamous pirate spacer who united the Jovian mining colonies in the early 23rd century, is quite fortuitously nearby, making his boss's apartment S8346 a convenient and secure data depot---an obvious first destination for the next clone. Log Vid also houses a lifeboat hangar if things don't work out. Maps to both locations now reside with a full set of engineering plans on his newly initialized spare data pad.
It's an elaborate insurance plan, but he must try it if there is any hope of his genes surviving intact after Warden's long journey is over.... There I go, thinking optimistically again.. But can he afford the alternative? If he and Lynn fail to stop Warden from overshooting the last known potentially habitable system on her trajectory, the only future for Warden and her imprisoned inhabitants (those still left, at least) is a slow, agonizing heat death in the vast and lonely intergalactic space-time foam. Optimist indeed!
Little does Zhaxier know that his best efforts to ensure the purity of his next clone will fail spectacularly. (For example, here is Nike's assessment of the clone in Initiate Alpha Sequence: "I bet the little freak took off again on his own.").
"You still haven't answered my first question," she demands, oblivious.
"I've changed my mind. We need to get to Kaminsky's room---my former boss. His genes have been lost," he pauses to yawn voraciously, "but hopefully his room isn't, 'cuz we'll need a gray bracelet---along with your ring---to unlock Engineering." Another gaping yawn. "I have a hunch he kept a stash of spares." Indeed, why else would the real Zhaxier have left a note urging him to find Kaminsky's clone? All that he "hatched" with is the ID card, which provides only rudimentary access.
"You're crazy if you think you're going anywhere without eight hours of sleep and a decent meal."
Zhaxier lets Lynn simmer. He collects a few items: the 3D projector, the spare data pad, the ID card, his uniform, the boxers. "I can manage without---"
"I'm not worried about you," she interrupts, irritated. "I may be throwing my lot in with your lost cause, but I'm not willing to piss away what slim chances we have with you bumbling around in your candy-caffeine dreamworld."
Zhaxier stares at Lynn for some time before standing. Somehow, he knows that she has lied, that she really does care---if not for him, then for his potential utility. He can live with that. Indomitable, he submits, "I guess I could use a nice hot home-cooked meal, Honey." With a smirk, he walks over to Exarch with the items in hand. His open lab coat billows behind him.
Lynn's venomous stare bores holes into the back of Zhaxier's head. "Don't you fuck with me, Zhaxier Cole," she calls out after him. She folds her arms and bites her tongue. Is reopening the wound really worth it if I have to deal with his crap? It's not the first time she ponders this. Her gaze falls quite accidentally on Zhaxier's data pad, which displays his itemized research report, and for a second, she is intrigued....
She breaks her trance to look up at Zhaxier as he returns to the table. Without a word, Exarch leaves the cafeteria with the objects Zhaxier was carrying.
Zhaxier plops down in his chair. "I sent Exarch on an errand upstairs. Don't worry, he'll be back soon to checkmate you again." He yawns. "I guess I will catch a few z's---for your sake, of course." He rests his head in the crook of his arm on the table, and starts snoring loudly, facing Lynn.
"Psyche!" he raises his head suddenly. "Had you thinking I was a snorer!" He turns away from Lynn, nestles back down on his arm, and soon is asleep.
Lynn shakes her head, and debates turning in for the night while she fidgets with her command ring. She finally gives in to her curiosity and picks up Zhaxier's data pad. Her ring's proximity overrides Zhaxier's thumbprint lock, but she soon gets the feeling that he would've wanted her to see it anyway.
The first items are links to the clone status reports. The first two are terse: the genes of that blonde chick and Zhaxier's boss are both too far degraded for cloning purposes. The next is her own report, indicating complete success, of course. Zhaxier even assembled her bio, that damn snoop.
Amazingly, he got it all right. It's all there: how her very pregnant mother was discovered frozen in a medical cryochamber after the Cloud hit; how the doctors apparently deemed her delivery problematic, but not so much so that they couldn't put her "on ice" to take in another round of golf (they died on the green when the Cloud hit); how Captain Fisher got wind of the frozen fetus and immediately made saving it her top priority; how Fisher had her mother thawed; how the highest ranking medical officer---some idiot triage flunkie---botched the C-section. In her inherited memory, Lynn can recall several times when Jessica claimed that her mother lived long enough to hold her in her arms, but Lynn has her doubts. She doesn't even know who named her.
And there's Zhaxier's report.
"Holy frak..." she utters, borrowing Zhaxier's expletive. That he is defective, she took for granted; it's practically a given back at Lewis and Clark. That he is an epileptic, she suspected, but the cerebral calibrations in the report are skewed by several standard deviations---so much so that epilepsy alone can't possibly account for them all. The clone labs' automated viability tests couldn't recognize whole swaths of his cerebrum, and their recommendation for termination lies blatantly stamped across the report.
And yet here Zhaxier sits. The cloning apparatus somehow proceeded anyway, countermanding its own best judgment.
The next item in Zhaxier's report links to a summary of pertinent bits he gleaned from the Captains' logs, mostly Captain Fisher's reports on Warden's contamination by the Cloud in 2303, just one third of the way to 82 Eridani. Jessica Fisher was the so-called Cryo-Captain, the backup. When Warden's AI discovered that the other three Captains had perished, Fisher was thawed as soon as radiation levels allowed it. The lingering radiation would cut her down after eighteen years, but that was enough time to groom her miracle protégé.
She was like a mother to Lynn.
The logs are all old news---even the last one, her own. Lynn is again awash with anxiety and guilt, despite her knowledge of its contents. She read it long ago, and the story therein is burned into her soul.
Captain Lynn Margulis recorded her last log while trapped in Engineering, lured there to help prevent an antimatter cascade that didn't exist. The bastards that wanted her command after Fisher's passing finally grew the balls to make their move in 2332 as Warden entered the 82 Eridani system. They waited until the first drop ship was long gone. Then the mutineers flooded the core computer with virulent code and sabotaged Warden's engines to mimic the deadly chain reaction, one that would lead to a catastrophic explosion with enough punch to obliterate Warden---and much of the system with it.
Faced with such a crisis, Margulis gave Warden's AI (nicknamed Murphy) direct orders to exit the system and then proceeded to Engineering to help the sparse crew there circumvent disaster. But it was a trap. And a perfect one. Most of her allies were on that drop ship, they were incommunicado due to Warden's loss of Comm in the Cloud, and the blast doors in Engineering soon slammed down beyond hope of opening---even by command ring---by emergency containment protocol. The embattled Captain knew she had been duped, but she was still defiant in her log.
Lynn reads the transcript of the last paragraph. Zhaxier better not have listened to it....
"Murphy is trying to override containment as I speak, and when the doors do open... I'm coming down on those muties harder than a Procyonic landshark in heat. Jamar, if you... or anybody else reads this, I promise... I promise I will be back for you.... Dammit! Margulis out."
Jamar was evidently her former self's lover; she has no recollection however, and never felt comfortable with prying into the personal logs. Lynn wipes her eye and moves on down Zhaxier's report to the core logs. Damn him. She knew this would happen. She looks over at Zhaxier, all slumped over on the table and sleeping peacefully.
Could she really blame him, though? He is after all innocent of her inherited crime: hogtying Warden. During her brief foray into the logs soon after her rebirth, Lynn discovered that her predecessor had scrambled the Nav codes along with Command. It may have been an amateur mistake, or possibly a last desperate act, but it nevertheless doomed Warden to whatever trajectory Murphy had taken out of 82 Eridani: the former Lynn Margulis had died of course, and with her went the decryption key.
Murphy's logs are models of precision and succinctness, and typically boring as all get-out, but she scans Zhaxier's summaries for the entry anyway. The Warden AI only registered one pertinent entry after the mutiny; after that, it was like a bad memory suppressed, a blip in history. And there it is, included verbatim in Zhaxier's report:
"I could not circumvent the mutineers' denial-of-service attacks fast enough to vent the gas in time. Engineering is a crypt, and it will stay sealed.
"I have dispersed the saboteurs. The murderers have ceased to be a threat. My attention turns to assuming control over what few operable subsystems are still available to me. Command and Navigation are encrypted. Comm is still offline. I have access to Security, but it is FUBAR. There is a high probability that I can restore Environment and Emergency to limited operational capacity.
"At the outset of the crisis, Captain Margulis commanded me to initiate an extraction from the planetary system. I predicted even odds of catastrophic loss of control, so I changed course to the only system from the Sagan data set that was feasible, given Warden's position and momentum. Other vectors to established colonies would have been preferred, but heading for Rho-1 Cancri put more distance between Warden and the colony, and allowed a more optimal slingshot trajectory to steal momentum from 82 Eridani. On the other hand, I topped Warden's acceleration curve at only 0.1c. Warden would already take a year to accelerate that fast and there was no need at the time to commit vast resources if the crisis were to be short lived.
"I record these facts because Warden's return to 82 Eridani is now impossible. I can neither alter course nor speed because Captain Margulis encrypted the interface before she expired. Attempts at recovering the key from Engineering logs have failed. The mutineers' attack temporarily overwhelmed what little was left of Security. I became blind, deaf and mute during the crisis. This too has passed.
"Automated Nav programs are still sound, as is Engineering. Necessary minor course corrections will be effected to ensure operation within safe parameters. Without precise knowledge of what lies ahead, I can only give a rough ETA at Rho-1 Cancri of 500 yr ± 50 yr. This is well beyond my normal operating range, and that of Warden.
"Estimated time for brute force Command code decryption: 2.91 billion yr. Maybe I will get lucky.
"I have failed you, Captain. I am sorry."
Lynn is struck by the palpable humanity creeping into the atypical core log. She recalls no inherited memory of seeing the intelligent machine; rather, she imagines the ancient AI to be a big box tangled amidst a jungle of wires. Hardly human. But then, who really is these days?
The penultimate item on Zhaxier's report is Warden's navigational status, or the best the ever-vigilant Murphy has constructed from the remnants of the Astro sensors in Nav's absence. A note in the report says, "See VR display." Lynn looks across the table to the silver VR glasses. Quietly, she gets up, takes the light metallic frames, plugs them into the data pad, dons them and activates the display.
Suddenly she is zipping through space and time. After a while, she realizes she is Warden. A malignant nebula quickly looms ahead, and before she can react, she is engulfed. For a while, she can see nothing. That's when she notices the date in her peripheral vision. It's holding steady at 2303. Then 2304. Then she bursts through. She gasps. Stars streak by. The date zips past a few decades then slows. A bright star is off to the left. 2330. 2331. She's heading toward a blue planet. 2332. A massive drop ship leaves for the surface from her bowels. She feels the tug of orbital capture.
Lynn holds her breath.
Without warning, she breaks orbit, heading straight for the star. No, heading for its near rim. Intense heat and light scorch and blind her, and she staggers with the g-forces that threaten to rip her apart. A sharp pain cuts through her shin.
"Dammit!" She tripped on a chair.
The planet, the star and the system fade from view. The years click off rapidly as stars scream by. One century. Another. Another. Another. There are fewer and fewer stars now. 2760. She appears to be heading toward another star. 2770. Exaggerated optics reveal three huge gas planets around this one, and a magnified inset shows a small blue-brown world, fragile, inviting, enshrouded with wispy clouds.
She wants to stop. She tries to will herself to slow down, but she cannot. She shoots on past the system. Time sloughs off in chunks of decades, centuries. Only a few stars fly by. Then, her heart nearly stops.
She has left the galactic plane. Emptiness. The virtual feeling is that of having the duralloy floor plates whipped out from underneath you. She is horrified.
The simulation ends, and she exhales, feels the solid floor at her feet. The view abruptly changes to an animated diagram.
Zhaxier must've thrown this part together at the last minute. Nine colored dots populate a rotating perspective cube. Two connected lines join the central black dot to the blue dot, and on to the violet dot: Warden's simplified trajectory from Sol to 82 Eridani, to Rho-1 Cancri. That the dots represent the bulk of the Sagan data set is apparent from their configuration. She also recognizes Tau Ceti (pink), 70 Ophiuchi A (gray), Beta Hydri (orange), Alula Australis (brown), Procyon A (red) and Altair (green)---all stellar systems that have colonies or potentially colonizable planets singled out by Sagan, the Terran uber-satellite, so long ago.
Lynn takes off the glasses and shuts off the VR program. "We're so damn close," she whispers. "It's the last stop, and Warden's barreling on by like it's just another burnt-out ball of neutrons." She goes to wake up the cocky engineer to get started, but she balks, biting her lip.
Exarch returns, sans the items Zhaxier gave it, and starts on a beeline to Zhaxier. To her surprise, she finds herself suddenly protective, and she stops the robot in his tracks with a "don't even think about waking him" stare.
Before she puts down the data pad and heads to her makeshift cot, she takes a look at the last entry in Zhaxier's report. It's a to-do list:
"High hopes," she huffs, amused, as she walks to her cot. But at least he has a plan. How many years has she whittled away in denial back at the village? Turning from the guilt that she feels compounding with every passing minute, she wonders about Zhaxier's "contingency," and the conspicuous termination of his plan before Warden arrives at Rho-1 Cancri.
But these thoughts soon slip away with sleep.
This page updated: Mon Jan 09 14:22:25 2006
All text Copyright ©1999-2006 PBPArchives.