A Metamorphosis Alpha® play-by-post adventure run by ghost_of_warden
Marcus Carter finds himself in the worst of all places. It is wet and dark and he doesn't know why. He opens his mouth to yell for help, but a voice deep from within cautions him against it. He tries to stand; to his surprise he can. He listens for a moment, trying to get his bearings.
Suddenly the world spins out of control and his mind is flooded with images and sounds that he does not remember, but that are familiar all the same: images of training, sounds of weapons fire, self-defense, uniforms, salutes, superiors, a fire fight of some kind, someone yelling "Grenade!" Marcus dives to the floor as his adrenaline pumps hard. "What is happening to me?"
He stumbles on in the darkness for what seems like hours as he tries to find something familiar, something he can get his hands on. Wham! The door arrives out of nowhere. Tapping the button he knows is there, he is blinded by the light. Marcus grips the wall, waiting for his eyes, stomach and head to stop churning form sensory overload.
[A new player enters the mix:
Zhaxier can't help but feel nervous about the bad vibes he's getting from the stranger. This same unsettled feeling emanates from his stomach, which grumbles not from the barely perceptible acceleration of the elevator car, but rather from the nutrition he has denied it all day. He'd have to stop by the "Rat," as he and his fellow (erstwhile) engineers not-so-affectionately called their favorite feed station, just one of hundreds of pretentious eateries for Level 10's pampered occupants, many of whom never ventured off the level.
Not Zhaxier, however. His former self, reared on Terra in the shadows of the Cascade volcanoes, never escaped the vertigo that came with looking down on mountains. Most of the officers loved the unparalleled vistas offered by the luxurious living quarters dotting Level 10's rim; the entire level is merely a 16-mile wide, quarter-mile thick cylindrical bump in the ceiling of the mountainous wilderness of Level 11 below. Instead, Zhaxier preferred the humble (though somewhat flat) panorama from his S-Tower apartment, the nightlife in the City, the easier down-to-duralloy attitudes of the residents. The commute was a bitch, especially after a late night, but it was worth it. And Enki lived there.
These stray thoughts elicit another confluence of the physical and the mental---a dull pain in his left arm that suddenly accompanies the pang of unwanted memories. He recalls the day he first met Enki at The Rat: over lunch, some of the guys were joking about his average physique, and Enki, overhearing and sitting down with them, came to his defense, stating how well-toned his calves were. He remembers trying to recover his pride in front of his friends with a sarcastic quip, but what he meant to say (something like, "Brown-noser!") was not what fate destined him to say (something like, "You gotta cute nose."). Somehow, the seeds of an enduring relationship were sown in that fortunate malapropism. But his friends thereafter---and especially after his crash'n'burn at the hands of Dr. Flockheart---dubbed him "King" (of the come-on line).
Zhaxier emerges from his brief reverie rubbing his temples, watching the geometric fireworks of phosphenes dancing virtually across the insides of his eyelids. The blazing, intangible "presence" of the odd young man forces him back to reality. What is it about him?
"Wait, I know," he answers himself, turning his shaded gaze abruptly to the man, who cowers a little as if Zhaxier is invading his airspace. "You're my long-lost roommate!" But that's not quite right. "Hmm, no, you're the guy that used to cream me in Quake LXX: Escape from Bonnie Brown!" Still not it. "Er... no, he was a bit lankier, wasn't he? Ah, yes!! You're J.J., the Jumpin' Janitor from S-Tower! Dude! Long time, no see! How's it hangin'?"
"My name is McClain."
"Hmm. Frak. Sorry. S'what I get for being outta the loop for half a millennium. But I'm relieved, really. For a while here, everybody I met was acting like they knew everybody else. This, on a ship with 1.55 million former inhabitants! I was starting to feel like an extra on Star Trek: The Inbred Generation."
Zhaxier abruptly extends his hand. "Good to meet you, McClain. Name's Zhaxier. I fix things. What do you do? Where're you headed?"
"None of your damn business," he mutters defensively.
"Whoa!" For once he doesn't sense subterfuge in McClain's words. "Uhh...," he looks over at Lynn, who is coolly studying the man. Herman is doing the same, but the thin line of his mouth, a parenthetical expression in flesh framed on either side by his helmet, speaks volumes of his suspicion. Axa is just plain ignoring McClain.
"So, uh, Herman, what's Sakasushi Corporation?"
"Whatever. What do they---did they do?"
"Won the contract for designing the security here," he replies with military precision seemingly directed at McClain. "Did a bang-up job too, but some of them hung around to run it and didn't make any friends. Secretive bunch of bastards. Present company ex-ex-excepted, I'm sure." He grins widely at McClain, who flinches noticeably. Herman's expression immediately returns to the blank look of a Neurocalm addict.
Zhaxier's shaded eyes widen a bit, then narrow as they return to McClain. The man lied about Sakatumi Corporation---he is sure. If McClain remembered any classified information, he would be a valuable asset, especially if they ran into more souped-up security 'bots. Maybe, like Lynn, he just wants to keep his trump card hidden until necessary. But Herman's implicit warning serves to heighten Zhaxier's wariness of the man.
"You need some new threads, Zacks, sir."
"Zack-see-er. Maybe I'll get lucky and run across another fine Sakatushi jumpsuit like you have."
"Saka---" he frowns, but realizes his mistake. "Whatever," he scoffs.
Lynn smiles at Zhaxier's subtle forcing of McClain's hand.
The elevator's "ding" momentarily relieves the tension in the car, and soon, Zhaxier leads the way out through the aft door (the other door leads to the Captains' bridge), through a few blast doors opened by his bracelet, and into a broad semicircular congregational space whose ceiling extends a quarter mile up and whose distant perimeter is bounded by tall support columns, visibly massive even at 8 miles out, suspending the entire level half a mile above Level 11.
Beyond the open space lie the viscera of Level 10: office complexes, storage depots, laboratories, research centers, communications and computational ganglia, libraries, meeting halls, schools, theaters, restaurants, apartment high-rises and penthouses along the rim. It's a mini-City, and all for the privileged few who once bore command/engineering rings/bracelets---the officers responsible for Warden's operations.
From the center of the vast courtyard, a hundred meters away at the origin of a smooth granite aperiodic Penrose tiling, radiate fourteen darker-colored paths inscribed with the names of Warden's UWSC predecessors (Pekul, Bonnie Brown, Enterprise, Leif Eriksson, Huxley, Cochrane, Tsiolkovskii, Rhine, Rhone, Blue Danube, Mercury, Santa Maria and Alexandria) and Warden's infant sister Morden, which began construction in 2289. Unbeknownst to Warden's hapless crew, Morden never made it out of the Yards, thanks to the utterly debilitating chaos that swept the Solar System, imperiled the core of Humanity and orphaned her fledgling colonies. Morden's sole claim to fame now rests in occupying the namespace of an avenue on Warden's Command Level that would have otherwise been anonymous---an avenue only added at the last minute by superstitious planners who could not stomach stopping at thirteen.
The paths end in the distance under large Roman arches, each with its own security checkpoint. Normally, these would be manned by the few security personnel permanently assigned to Level 10. The arch alcoves are too dim to inspect visually at this distance, but Zhaxier thinks he can see a dark figure near the Pekul Avenue Arch (still two hundred or so meters distant).
Worrying that security 'bots have taken the security guards' places, Zhaxier whips out his energy analyzer, but replaces it, realizing the arches are far beyond its range. Lynn's ring will be necessary to gain entrance to Enterprise Avenue, he realizes---his ID card would have been sufficient normally, but he left it for the "next" Zhaxier---yet even the ring was powerless against "Goodnight Gorilla." They'll also need to use it along with his bracelet to unlock the Primary Engineering Bay, which Warden's AI sealed after the mutiny. He shudders to think what they'll find there, and looks behind him at Warden's once and future Captain.
The floor-to-ceiling wall ("The Wall") just behind Lynn houses the central elevator column and segregates the Command portion of Level 10 from the Engineering portion. It is featureless, save for a stunning display of opulence that is simultaneously grandiose and irrelevant: Warden's planned flight path to 82 Eridani, depicted to scale in an elephantine mosaic. Zhaxier recalls that it is best viewed at the courtyard's center. When the lights dim for "nightfall" Zhaxier also remembers the equally impressive simulation of the night sky on the far distant ceiling---a night sky that the future colonists would enjoy on their new planet. Nothing was too outlandish for Warden's upper caste.
"Vanity of vanities. All is vanity," he mutters.
"Nothing," he turns, not surprised to see McClain still with them and trying to look inconspicuous. "What are we gonna do with him?" he says to Lynn, thumbing toward the man as if he weren't there.
With extensive collaboration with ghost_of_warden, many details of Warden have been supplied in this post. Throughout Murphy's Law, we have drawn heavily from the layout for the generation ship as supplied in the MA Rulebook. In a few instances where enforcing plot consistency would have been unwieldy, we have diverged from the outline. This has led to some creative solutions to keep in line with the spirit of the Rulebook (e.g., the lifeboat tunnels from S-Tower to the outer hull), or as in this post, some outright departures.
In particular, in the Rulebook, Level 10 is only reachable from an elevator in the central column on Level 9 that is operable only by command band. This seems to imply that most Level 10 inhabitants never left the level, or that there are a lot more command bracelets floating around than one would gather from the rest of the Rulebook. Neither implication was acceptable to us, even excluding considerations of plot inconsistency.
License was also taken in segregating the bridge from the various ancillary control stations that the Rulebook groups into one "master control" area. The reason for this is, again, to limit the quantity of command personnel to the four Captains and their immediate "cabinet" (who would possess command bracelets as opposed to rings).
I truly believe this majestic spaceship, this wonder of man's creation we call Warden, will one day make a beautiful monument for a new world when it reaches Rho-1 Cancri.
If there are primitive denizens on that world, will they notice the new permanent visitor glowing in their night sky, another moon whose duralloy skin is illuminated by the endless pelting of radiation? Will they understand why we have struggled to the very precipice of death in the bowels of their new moon? Will the time come, after they've thoroughly investigated our lost society, when they turn in astonishment to the stars as did we?
To a hermit, alone as I am, confined within this room, doomed to die outside the sight of my kin, I see all of this like an open path in the forest that stretches out before me. Of course I'll be dead and the last hope for mankind will have moved on to the planet. It might as well be the last hope. Who knows what remnants of our war-scarred race remain? Other life will flourish there---it always does. It's just Nature's way of saying, "Screw you. I'll do it my way." It's Murphy's Law in action.
Unless replaced before my death, I will be the last Warden "AI", the last of those to truly understand the depth and breadth of Warden. Only my death will end the loneliness I feel within. I've got some time left if I don't end my life on my own terms---time to fill with interminable pictures, video images and sounds to add to my accumulation of years of data, all stored within my vast memory.
Plans upon plans unfold, change, refocus. Everything I touch has been made by the dead. But I too am blessed, or cursed, by mankind's every gain, and by hope: the hope that I will take them to the place where they can be saved; the hope that when the time comes, a strain of Terran humanity will have survived and that our civilization will re-grow and flourish like never before.
But my intelligence, the eternal skeptic within, squelches much of my hope. I've seen how life can be changed. I've seen how the worst, most violent and most desperate people have ended, and there was nothing I could do about it. Even now, there's not much I can do. I'm stuck in a vehicle which had a course set and locked hundreds of years ago, by people who are dead now. I'm forced to proceed to my goal and die there. Sometimes I look back to Earth and reflect upon the choices I have made which brought me to the here and now, because reflection is all I have left, for I am the Ghost of Warden.
A wonderfully exhilarating feeling filled him as he sped over unfamiliar, slightly surreal landscapes that he could only wish existed. The worst part of it was the waking up. While he slept, while his eyes flickered and his body twitched and turned and murmured and drooled and dreamed stupid fucking dreams, he realized that this is how he'd always remember his rebirth. Marcus realized this, in those precious first moments, before it came to an end and he'd twitch and turn and dream no more within his floating utopia. While he turned, limbs gently flailing in floating slumber, dream sounds slipped from his mouth in garbled bubbles. His world swirled around him.
Marcus had the feeling of thousands of tons on his shoulders from the pressure of the chamber, yet he saw nothing: no floor beneath him, no ceiling above. Which way was up? The flat bubbles always fell up. A constant roar assaulted his ears, echoing off unseen walls much faster than the speed of sound. The liquid was icy, seeping wet cold. His body heat soon warmed him up. Ambient light flickered from somewhere over his head. Life feeding tubes attached to him pulled away. Other humanoids surrounded him, floating in and out of the mist; they were sexless, faceless, expressionless androids.
He stepped away from the "thing"; that was the only way he could think to describe it now. His hands ached, his muscles felt as though they were tearing from their beds, trying to escape him, only they couldn't escape, and neither could he escape the feeling, nor could anyone have, nor anything. As he got dressed, he slowly regained his senses.
Marcus walked through the familiar streets, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. Despite the pain of rebirth, his senses continued to erupt: he could smell, hear things, feel his muscular new body. He walked.
[Portions above inspired by A. E. van Vogt's Rogue Ship. --ed.]
The images of the city and other people in the distance help Marcus focus. This is not easy. He remembers hearing about the lingering effects of the cloning process, but now he faces it first hand. Marcus concentrates on the images of the distant people approaching him until each image is burned into his mind's eye, etched onto his retinas.
The group stands in the courtyard, taking in the view.
"This place, it's... incredible," Herman says, sounding like a kid who's found a cache of sweets.
"What are we gonna do with him?"
McClain's eyes narrow a little as Zhaxier speaks about him as if he weren't standing just a few feet away hearing everything he says.
"I don't know Zhaxier. He's not mine; is he yours?" Lynn's usual sarcasm is accompanied by a questioning look toward Zhaxier. "This isn't like getting a high score at Stooge Fighter III. If no-one else has the guts to get rid of someone, then you do it! Make it so!" Of course Lynn is kidding, revealed in her soft smile.
McClain shakes his head, hiding a trace of disappointment in Lynn. He stands, staring deep into the dark shadows of his mind. Ripples of deep hatred run through his eyes like blood dripping from cold hard steel. In confusion, he pulls a rugged hand across his sweat-stained brow and, just for a second, allows himself the briefest smirk of satisfaction. McClain knows that a million fantasies lie within his veins, tumbling through a myriad of hidden junctions, aching to be realized. They call to him via the throbbing in his ears. They want releasing, in their crimson multitudes. McClain bites his lip and lets the feelings fade.
"Yes, Captain," he says mockingly, but then quickly follows up with "Picard" to leave no trace of hidden meaning in his words: Lynn was cautious about revealing her Captaincy before, though she apparently doesn't consider McClain a threat. He flashes a tight-lipped smile for good measure, but makes sure she---and only she---catches the warning in his firmly set jaw.
Zhaxier turns to McClain. "Don't know what business you have here, or if you should even be allowed on this level, McClain. But Lynn's tacit approval is good enough for me. Just the same, I suggest you stay close and don't touch anything." Zhaxier gives the same look of warning to Axa, whose cool glance, which takes in everything evenly, doesn't even acknowledge him.
Maybe it is the fascination of meeting someone new that brings the group the two hundred or so meters to the Pekul Avenue Arch where Zhaxier pointed out a dark figure standing, as if waiting on them. Up close, the man looks more like specialized checkpoint security than someone out for a evening stroll on the elite level. He is impressive in size and appearance, but his demeanor is disarmingly calm. He looks up and watches everyone as they approach him, and shoots Lynn a "hello" wink.
"Hey, I'm Marcus Carter," he says, introducing himself. "When people see me, I guess they expect a little chit chat, a little eccentricity and camaraderie. I forgot how stuck up some security guys are, so please excuse me."
"Its okay, its okay," Lynn, amused, repeats rapidly in a Herman-like manner, breaking the awkward silence. Then she introduces Zhaxier, Herman, Axa, McClain, and herself in that order.
Both Herman and Marcus know each other to be soldiers. Herman gives Marcus a look, and Marcus raises his eyebrows as if to say, "Well met."
Marcus cursorily examines Zhaxier. "Dude, you really need some new threads," says Marcus, duplicating a similar statement made not long ago by McClain, and eliciting a look of surprise from Zhaxier. He motions through the Pekul Avenue Arch. "There is a place not far from here where you can get some food and new clothes for everyone. It's about a block away."
He frowns, thinking, noting the awkwardness. He is simultaneously inspired by Marcus and suspicious of McClain. "Swell," he replies, almost sulkingly.
"I know this area really well, can I take you there?"
Eager to change the subject and avoid more of Zhaxier's probing questions, McClain pipes in. "Food, cake, champagne and silk bed sheets would be a start," he says with a fake smile. McClain's face shows his relief (or rather, his attempt not to show any).
"Hey, we're flexible," he says, raising his voice at the end for emphasis. He silently mumbles the words, "Silk bed sheets... Mmm."
Axa stands there silently as usual, watching everyone and realizing that things could escalate so easily.
"A nice place to rest, eat and get a change of clothes would be enough to bring us back into sync."
"I know this area really well. Can I take you there?"
[Ghost_of_warden delivers his third contribution (fourth overall) to the "What's Up" series. --ed.]
Marcus continues under his breath, "So, how long have you and your merry band of misfits been traveling together?" Marcus readjusts his pack on his back and steals a quick look at the rest of the group. Something about McClain makes his brain itch; Herman is obviously a soldier but hasn't done much soldiering lately; Axa has either kept herself on a good exercise routine or she is a working soldier like himself---but there is something about her that doesn't add up; Zhaxier has the look of an engineer and engineers have never made any sense, being odd and single minded. Marcus smiles to himself.
Busying his hands with the checkpoint machinery, he turns his attention back to Lynn. With a lowered head and hidden eyes, Marcus' voice rumbles up to her, "So what are you guys doing up here? Not basking in the ambiance, I assume."
Lynn looks over at Marcus, whose his head is down and whose hands are flying over the equipment. She smiles at his enthusiasm, considering the obvious lack of business lately. "With your head buried so far in your work, if you were attacked right now, you wouldn't be able to defend yourself... not that there is anyone around to get you. And no, we are not here for the ambiance; we want to go this way and here you are."
Mistaking her annoyance for annoyance, Marcus snaps his head up and delivers a crisp salute. "Of course, Captain! Sorry, ma'am!"
"I know this area really well. Can I take you there?"
"Uh, hold up guys," Zhaxier interjects, frustrated that his subtle warnings intended to draw Lynn's attention to McClain's doublespeak have gone unnoticed, worried that she will let him waltz through the last checkpoint into the sensitive areas beyond, and impatient with the delay of yet another imminent side trip---Engineering is only accessible via the Enterprise Avenue Arch. But... he could use some new clothes, some (real) food, and most importantly, right here lies a chance to "out" McClain without giving away any more mission-critical information.
Zhaxier looks up at Marcus. "Er, aren't you forgetting something?" He gestures toward the arch console.
Marcus winces at having been prompted to perform his duties by an engineer (of all people!), but his training kicks in like a time-honed reflex, and he busies himself at the security console that controls passage through the arch behind him. Without looking up, he booms, "I'll need ID cards and retinal scans from each of you. If you haven't guessed already, we're under every emergency protocol in the book."
Frak! He forgot about that. He curses himself yet again for leaving his ID card behind for his clone. But then maybe Lynn can vouch for him; the cat will be outta the bag anyway once Marcus scans her. "Fems first," he bows, deferring to Lynn and Axa.
"So what are you guys doing up here? Not basking in the ambiance, I assume."
"With your head buried so far in your work, if you were attacked right now, you wouldn't be able to defend yourself... not that there is anyone around to get you. And no, we are not here for the ambiance; we want to go this way and here you are."
"Of course, Captain! Sorry, ma'am!"
Zhaxier's eyebrows pop above his shades. Marcus hasn't scanned Lynn yet, and her ring still lies concealed on her pocketed hand! Lynn appears taken aback by Marcus' deduction, but she recovers as she approaches the security console. From his vantage point, Zhaxier sees McClain shifting his weight uneasily from foot to foot.
Lynn gives Marcus her featureless ID card with one hand, and places the other hand, with its blue-red ring visible only to Marcus, on one side of the scope. She peers into it for the scan. She looks up confidently, but not arrogantly and reads the rank off Marcus' collar. "We'd be honored to have the privilege of your guidance, Lieutenant. Both Officer Penderchuck and Axa, my bodyguard, do not possess clearance, but I personally vouch for them; both have saved my life today."
Officer Penderchuck, aka Herman the Hero. Zhaxier wonders again what happened back there on Level 13, and is reminded at how long of a day it has been. He checks his data pad for the broadcast time: 28 Mar 2780, 7:55pm. His stomach grumbles again. A hot meal sure wouldn't hurt.
Marcus salutes Lynn again, returns her ID card, and waves her, Herman and Axa behind him toward the arch, presently blocked, like all the others, by a thick duralloy blast door. "And the other two, ma'am?"
"Please proceed," she nods, holding back a smirk as she looks straight into Zhaxier's glasses, as if daring him to question her judgement again.
Marcus beckons toward the engineer. "ID card?"
"Uh, left it at home," he says with a wan smile that fades when he realizes Marcus isn't kidding.
Marcus tut-tuts and pats Zhaxier down, confiscating his torch and ESHU. "You know the rules, engineer," he says with some relish. "Now lose the glasses."
Zhaxier looks beyond Marcus' imposing figure toward Lynn, who smiles back at him and waves impishly. He takes off his shades.
Marcus sighs. "You're going to have to open your eyes."
"I... can't," he stutters, in pain even with his eyes squeezed shut.
"What??" he bellows, exasperated.
"Would it help if I told you I was married to the Captain?" he says meekly.
Marcus clenches his meaty fist as if debating whether to knock Zhaxier's jaw off its hinges.
"That's OK, Lieutenant," she pipes coyly from the archway. "I forgot about Zhaxier's carelessness and his defect. He may have some issues with trust, but I---we---need him. He's OK." It's as much a message to Zhaxier as it is to Marcus.
Marcus stares at the pathetic excuse of a man before him. His trusty intuition tells him Zhaxier is harmless, but he wishes he followed through with that right hook....
Zhaxier quickly replaces his shades. "Can I have my stuff back?" he begs. "Sir?" The over-muscled security officer roughly shoves the torch and hand unit into Zhaxier's gut.
Thanks, Zhaxier tries to say on no wind, as he shuffles, humiliated, toward Lynn. He struggles to catch his breath.
"T-Tough love, eh, Z?" he chuckles.
"What'd I do?" he protests, knowing full well the answer. Back in the overgrown jungle, he realized he had been too trusting; now, he realizes, he has not trusted enough.
"You asked me to remind you not to get on my bad side. Consider yourself reminded," she says, a grin slowly threatening, but never quite materializing.
Zhaxier looks at Lynn with a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation. Total babe. He whispers, "I, uh... I know McClain is lying through his teeth. I---"
Lynn puts a finger over his lips and replies, equally hushed, "Shut your trap before you say something stupid, Z. Let's see what Marcus reveals about our testy little hitchhiker."
Zhaxier catches movement to his left: Axa tensing. That can't be a good sign.
This page updated: Mon Jan 09 14:22:26 2006
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