A Metamorphosis Alpha® play-by-post adventure run by ghost_of_warden
The recent load borne by the centuries-old escalator in the foyer of Synthetic Corporation headquarters has taken its toll on some very tired mechanisms. Though its designers over-engineered the system with hyper-efficient superconducting power coils, a moving stair cannot exist without moving parts, and where parts move, there is friction. Force directly applied to these moving parts can only increase this friction.
After half a millennium of lifting only its own metal skin, the SynthCorp escalator has just lifted half a ton. Something snaps inside its sealed, oil-encased maintenance-free bowels. Metal shards catch and seize up some gears, which strain to eject the foreign bodies before the torque slowly amassing behind them shears the gear shafts clean through.
The escalator's twin proceeds ever downward in the opposite direction. So engrossed is it in its own machinations that it never notices its frozen partner, never shares its burgeoning mortal fear.
"Since the muties are the seed of sin, why do we make no effort to wipe them out? Would not that be an act that would speed the Plan?"
The old man considered a while before replying. "That is a fair question and deserves a straight answer. Since you are to be a scientist you will need to know the answer. Look at it this way: There is a definite limit to the number of Crew the Ship can support. If our numbers increase without limit, there comes a time when there will not be good eating for all of us. Is it not better that some should die in brushes with the muties than that we should grow in numbers until we killed each other for food?
"The ways of Jordan are inscrutable. Even the muties have a part in His Plan."
Time for some mood music from the strategy/rpg game UFO: Aftermath.
Zhaxier arrives in the food court wearing a general purpose navy blue crew uniform. His beloved but overworn (and rather muddy) Air Mercers have been replaced with standard issue shoes. He finds everyone sitting at four small tables lined up in a row near Pancho Villa's Tortilla. Herman and Marcus sport new fatigues; Lynn, a trim new bare-backed officer's uniform. All but Axa and Zilon are busy digging into various proteins reorganized into salads, enchiladas and porkalope burgers.
Having no memory of having ever eaten in the SynthCorp food court (the previous Zhaxier preferred The Rat over on Enterprise Avenue, near the Primary Engineering Bay), Zhaxier holds low expectations, but his irisless eyes widen when he spots Big Ed.
Lynn looks up as Zhaxier passes, then stands with her empty plate to get seconds. Actually, it's only a pretext to corner him alone. Zhaxier has made a bee-line to the pizza parlor far across the court, and is punching in some slices.
He acknowledges her presence only with words. "I shouldn't be doing this. I'm really going to regret it."
She crunches up her brow, trying to fish for an answer, something to get Zhaxier out of what she perceives is another funk. If only he'd open up and talk about it.... She reaches for his arm and starts to say something she hopes she won't regret, but the microwave beeps first.
He quickly pulls out his plate and turns to her. "But what the frak, eh? This me has never tasted the real thing, so how can I really desecrate the memory?" He lifts his mega-slice and takes a massive bite. "Mmmm. Nice threads, by the way," he continues with his mouth full. "Does 'Momma' approve?" He jerks his head toward the distant table, where Axa sits straight-backed, looking even from this distance rather uncomfortable.
She blushes for several reasons, then catches herself and huffs a laugh. "What's that?" she nods toward his pizza. "The Special?" At his nod, she enters the code and waits for her own slice. What he said about memory continues to reverberate with newfound significance. "You... had me worried in the showers. Like you saw a ghost," she offers searchingly.
He stops chewing momentarily, then continues with another bite. "Yeah, that's an understatement," he says apologetically. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" she replies timidly. But the microwave rescues her again. At the beep, she pulls out her plate but, distracted by Zhaxier's unplaced apology, she holds onto it too long and burns her hand. She drops her plate.
Time seems to crawl as Zhaxier sees the overheated pizza slice separate from her plate and slowly spin in its descent. He seems to have all the time in the universe to position his own plate underneath Lynn's pizza, and catch it. Time resumes, seemingly at breakneck speed, as the plate clatters noisily to the floor. Heads turn back at Pancho Villa's.
"Damn that's hot. Thanks," she says, startled. She knocks skulls with him as they reach for her plate on the floor. "Ow!"
"Better quit while you're ahead, Lynn," he says, reaching for the plate, sneezing, then grabbing it. "Sorry," he says again, thinking the better of wiping her plate clean. Sniffing, he explains, "Always happens when I bend over." He hands her another plate and adds, "S'one defect I got from my parents, not some frakkin' clone tank...." He momentarily stares through opaque lenses at the Big Ed's sign, with its trademark caricature of the smug, burly, toothpick-clenching Italian.
"Hey," she says, gingerly transferring her pizza from Zhaxier's plate to her own, "don't go there. If it weren't for you, I'd still be in the village, pretending not to care. But I do care now, Zhaxier Cole. And you and I are going to see this thing through, right? Right? Don't go buggin' out on me all on account of some goddamn frakked-up genes, which you can't change."
With that, she deftly picks a crispy disk of pepperoni off his pizza and pops it into her mouth. She winks as she sucks her forefinger and then her thumb. And to top it all off, she flashes him a good helping of coyness before she returns to the others.
He works his jaw to shunt his sudden anger at having been read like a picture book. Lynn is the obvious path of least resistance; it's far easier to get angry at her than to direct it inward, to face his own reflection in the mirror she holds in his face. But the truth is (and he knows it ex post facto, thanks to his hidden mutation) that he is disgusted at his self-disgust, and he has no one to blame for that---not Lynn, not the Supreme Fascist---but himself.
Lynn's comment still stings. Only his respect for her, as a Captain and a friend if not his nominal spouse, keeps him from telling her where she can stuff her Pure Strain genes. That and the fact that she just pilfered a pepperoni off his Special. Enki used to do that. He soon realizes he is still standing there under neon Big Ed. "Yeah, uh, good eating to you too, Lynn," he calls belatedly after her. Reluctantly, he heads back to the group.
He finds the others quiet, save for Zilon, whose chatter continues non-stop. McClain, Axa, Lynn and Herman occupy the seats on one side of the cojoined tables; Marcus sits at the end next to Herman and Christmas; Zilon sits opposite Lynn and next to Christmas. That leaves a block of three seats at the other end, and Zhaxier takes the middle seat, out of reach of Lynn's arm and opposite McClain, who is tackling a heaping plate of diced tropical fruits and flowers (Zhaxier recognizes cantaloupe and hibiscus).
McClain pauses in his meal to study Zhaxier a while. When he finally speaks, it is softly, with an introspective slant. "So, you're the engineer in Captain Margulis' little conspiracy. You probably dabble in equations. May even be a numbers-wannabe like the...." A flicker of worry crosses his tired brow as his head twitches slightly toward Axa. He squints his eyes tightly and with one hand rubs his eye sockets, then his nose. Refocusing on Zhaxier, he draws a labored breath, then points his fork at him. "You and I are alike in one respect, Zhaxier. We're both driven by deep-seated anger."
For a moment, he is reminded of Biff's overweening appraisals at the central elevator, but McClain's assessments have more of a leading quality. Zhaxier cuts him off at the pass. "What is this!?" he explodes, causing Zilon, two chairs away, to halt its verbal spewage mid-stream and whip its head owl-like around toward him. "All Hands Psychoanalyze Zhaxier Day?" he continues, glaring accusingly at Lynn. He returns to face his latest shrink. "Don't point that thing at me, McClain, or whoever you are." He regrets it almost as it leaves his mouth.
He calmly puts down his fork, carefully weighing his options. His narrowed eyes seem to size up Zhaxier once more, then he says, "So where'd you get the new duds?"
"Showers," he says to his lukewarm pizza.
"I'll be Bach," he announces, getting up slowly as if in pain, but Axa shoves him back down. "What now, dammit?" he spouts, incredulously. "Does an XO need permission for a new uniform?"
She nods at Axa, who relents.
"No," she replies in typically measured fashion, "you need an ID card." She gets up roughly and heads toward the food court exit without waiting for McClain.
"Sheesh," he mutters as he gets up to follow. "Damn vats think they rule the ship." He shivers as he passes the Iguana Bob's, and soon disappears after Axa.
Herman waits until McClain is out of earshot. "Loco en la cabeza."
"What's a 'vat'?"
He feels that Lynn is holding something back, but files the thought for future collation. Moving one seat closer to her (next to Zilon), Zhaxier pulls out his data pad, displays the former XO's public database entry and hands it to Lynn. "I thought I'd do a little digging on our hitchhiker."
Lynn reads the sparse entry. "'Residence: R-Tower #R0872, City'? I really don't see how this is going to help, Z."
Christmas' ears twitch where she sits, a content ball of well-groomed fur. She opens her eyes slightly to peer at Lynn.
"Can't you do the Command thingy and get McClain's full record?" he says, looking hesitantly toward Zilon and Christmas.
"Can't. I'd need a hard link. Your pad isn't wired with the right protocol." She returns the data pad.
"Frak. There's a command terminal in Engineering...."
"If I may, what do you suspect about that human?" the cat speaks, startling nearly everyone. "Is he dangerous?"
"Uh, sorry... cat---uh, what's your name again?"
"You may call me Christmas. I daresay you will not find my 'record' on that tablet, but I assure you, I'm only tagging along for the food and occasional backrub." She smiles a Cheshire grin.
Zhaxier chuckles, instinctively trusting of the tabby. "Well then, Christmas, all we have are gut reactions at this point: I think McClain is lying; Axa thinks he is dangerous. He just used Lynn's last name without us revealing it, too."
Lynn stirs at his last remark, apparently not having noticed what McClain said before.
"And don't forget he was carrying a secure comm link that was turned on, and also had a Captain's ID card," he pats his breast pocket.
"And he c-could also be S-Sakatumi," he stutters. "Shifty lot, them all."
"If he poses a risk, then why put up with his presence?" she asks thoughtfully, lazily curling and uncurling her tail.
"Ever heard of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer? Axa's keeping an eye on him. At any rate, his obvious resourcefulness might yet prove useful, and as far as I am concerned, he is innocent until proven guilty." The last words she states with some finality, effectively killing the conversation.
"Right. Dessert anyone? After-dinner mint? How about coffee? We also have purified water, unpurified water <beep-beep>, sarbis beer, mead, tea and orange soda."
A short while later, Zhaxier is on his second helping of fresh(ly recombinant) white-chocolate macadamia nut cookies when McClain returns with his reluctant escort. McClain is wearing the same uniform that he selected, and it slightly unnerves him.
McClain notices Zhaxier's stare as he returns to his seat; he correctly guesses his thoughts. "I know, I know, but it was either Genericman or Rambo, and camo just looks silly," he says, smiling at Marcus and Herman, who frown. "On me. On ME! Sheesh!" He slumps in his seat, looking as disgusted as he is exhausted. But the others start to get up from the table.
"Ah, finished, are we? Please follow me to the sleeping quarters. You are of course welcome to stay as long as you like."
He sighs and stands once again, picking up his tray (still piled high with fruit and flowers) to take with him.
The robot continues as they proceed for the food court exit. "SynthCorp especially welcomes any Dividend Rewards™ members. If you are interested in joining Dividend Rewards™, please see a courtesy 'bot---that would be me!---at your earliest---" Something clicks loudly near its CPU housing.
It's the safety on her laser pistol. "Spare us the line of crap."
And now for some action music direct from The Matrix! Crank up the bass!
If it were possible for a meet-n-greet robot to react to fear, Zilon's knee casings would be shaking. Without protest, it leads the way out of the SynthCorp food court into the second-floor foyer where it first encountered the pushy humans and their pleasant cat. Stopping just beyond the food court, it points to a cluster of nearby elevators which provides access to the upper levels and their sleeping quarters. Its job complete, it stands aside at the balcony railing and scans the main foyer below.
It notes without comment the rather frazzled-looking, wizened old human male who suddenly barges noisily into the atrium below from the street. A second human (female) enters unassumingly thereafter. The first human darts around, agitated, as if looking for something, or someone. When he spies Zilon and the humans on the balcony above, he grows livid and storms toward the stationary escalator.
From their vantage point near the food court entrance, McClain and the others can see almost the entire foyer below, including both escalators, but McClain's ever-watchful eyes are the first to notice that the escalator they took has stopped. He walks to the front of the group to get a closer look.
Zhaxier notes the old man's consternation with some amusement and empathy: given the man's age, he must've had plenty of time to experience Cole's Corollary at its damned finest. He eyes flit over the woman only briefly---though they would've likely preferred to linger longer---before McClain's remark raises a mental red flag.
He turns back to say, "Hey, somebody flip the up-alator back on. Professor's likely to bust a knee joint."
It is something he likely would not have noticed in time had McClain not called attention to it: only one escalator has stopped.
With an eye for engineering honed both by many years' experience (in a former life) and boosted beyond human capacity by an unknown genetic mutation, Zhaxier immediately spots a slowly widening bulge in the faint isophotes striping the mirror-smooth duralloy base of the escalator, halfway up its extent. Such distortion could only be indicative of an alarming buildup in the escalator's innards of a potentially destructive force checked by an ever-weakening dam.
Seeing no apparent emergency shut-off button, and thinking he has no time to fish out his engineering hand unit (which might be able to remotely disable the escalator's power source), Zhaxier dashes for the top of the escalator, shedding his pack along the way and yelling, "Get BACK!" But the newcomer climbs only faster.
McClain tries to dodge the approaching madman and fails. "Not the face! Not the face!" But he gets a face full of fruit anyway as Zhaxier clips him, sending him spinning to the floor and flipping his food court tray high overhead.
After his body check to move McClain out of harm's way, Zhaxier notes the metal tray slowly arcing above him. For a moment he is back at The Hole in downtown Seattle, doing a gnarly trick to impress the skater chicks.... Instinctively, he plucks the polished tray out of the air and jumps onto the rail between the escalators. He is amazed to find that he has all the time in the universe to land on the rail with the skateboard-tray underneath his feet. In a fraction of a second, he grinds down the steep rail and hurls himself at the stubborn old man just as the midsection of the doomed escalators explodes with a deadly burst of shrapnel.
Being the closest to the explosion, Zhaxier takes a slug or two of hot, tortured metal in his back before he lands hard atop the old man on the shiny cold floor some distance from the bottom of the ruined escalators. He rolls away painfully and immediately wishes he hadn't. "Oh, frak!" he winces weakly. His eyes instinctively squeezed shut, he reaches up to resettle his Cool-Mo-G sunglasses, but doesn't get there before the acute pain of a punctured lung arrests his movement.
"Professor?!" she cries out, rushing over to her mentor's side and kneeling. His spectacles are askew on his nose and his clothes are dishevelled, but he does not bear obvious signs of injury. She shakes him by the shoulders and elicits no response. Her face drains of color as she panics and turns suddenly toward the Professor's dark assailant, whom she starts pummeling with fists too soft for the job. "You bastard!" she sobs. "You <punch> killed <punch> him!"
I can't see everything aboard Warden. Some parts are as dark to me as my imagination. The screens of some of my cameras are a mass of yellow and blackish purple. I want to laugh, but its only the drugs, and even while I feel euphoria, I am aware that down under all the layers of emotion is a small kernel of absolute terror. It is too fathomless to be felt directly. I am only aware of its presence as if it were an anesthetized tooth being drilled, or the mirage of a severed limb. It is unnerving, and makes me queasy, but the drugs blunt the effect. It is not there, and yet it is---just like thoughts of death.
What happens when we're dead? The irony, they say, is that all our questions will be answered then. We spend our whole life trying to figure out Truth and the only way we'll find out what it is, is to die.
Living my life in distress is at the same time the expression of the real distress and also the protest against real distress. Hope is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless condition. Hope, not religion, is our opiate. I know because I am the Ghost of Warden.
[Ghost's monologue takes more inspiration from Ken Mitchell's short story, "Fire and Brimstone," published in the July 1982 Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. --ed.]
Zhaxier's newfound pain lights up his body like a Christmas tree, a metamorphosis into something he isn't expecting to happen. He lies face down on the cold floor and is stunned to such an extent that the few punches the woman lands don't even register.
"Yeah, I know he ruined my fruit. He's an ugly, loudmouth sonuvabitch, but we can't stand around and watch him die."
Other words meet Zhaxier's ears only as garbled mumbles, but he does hear McClain's last remark and the curses directed at him from a woman he doesn't know. Reflexively, he turns over on his side and curls up in a ball, then unconsciousness takes Zhaxier Cole into its all-encompassing grip as a mother would her newborn.
Zhaxier wakes. The ambient light is only somewhat painfully dim. Squinting through his eyelashes, he sees a woman's face in silhouette, bending over the bed, staring at him. Zhaxier realizes he is in bed wearing only (pocketless) boxers. A light sheet covers him from his waist down and his chest is wrapped tightly. It hurts a little to breathe, but not as bad as he remembers. To the others, he looks very disoriented and confused.
SynthCorp apartments are modeled organically: each living space is a cluster of six connected, globular, domed rooms, each some twenty feet in diameter. The domes are linked by cylindrical corridors that carry life support, power, communications and other systems within their walls. In outward appearance, the living quarters resemble a cluster of grapes, even alveoli. Everything has a rounded, comfortable, ergonomic feel. Zhaxier's eyes refocus behind his Cool-Mo-G sunglasses to see Lynn, the old man he saved and his female companion, who now stands over him.
"Don't be alarmed. I'm a doctor. My name is Alexandra. Your life is safe in my hands, Mr. Cole." She is dressed in a patchwork of clothing that was once stylish aboard Warden. Her short brown hair almost hides her dark eyes.
"Had he known you are a Veterinarian he might have refused," he says wryly. "Perhaps it was that repugnant SynthCorp food that caused Mr. Cole to behave so irrationally in his zeal to save---"
Lynn interrupts. "Professor Clark, I can't speculate on Zhaxier's state of mind, but I can say that he goes through more than his share of clothes." She smiles, relieved at Zhaxier, who looks sheepish.
"I guess I owe you one, Mr. Cole. Do you know who I am?"
"Well, take no offense there, Skippy. I'm sure you're a real hot shot. I've just been kinda outta the loop with the... unconscious thing."
He glares at Zhaxier. "I am Professor Clark Asimov."
Herman, Axa, McClain, and Marcus sit uncomfortably together on a long couch. Christmas and Zilon are nowhere to be seen.
Herman looks at McClain and cocks his head, and you just know he thinks he's hallucinating. "Uh... December?"
McClain stares at Herman. "No, the damn cat!" He frowns.
In his typical straightforward voice, he says, "She said she had unfinished business in R-Tower. A task left undone."
"What of it?" she barks, looking at McClain.
He grimaces again with discomfort. "Nothing." He looks vaguely upward as if trying to remember something.
He eases himself up off the couch. "Welcome... to the Federation Starship, SS Buttcrack!" He turns to go into the kitchen to look for food, but not before twice slapping both hands against his lower cheeks.
What do you do?
This page updated: Mon Jan 09 14:22:26 2006
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