“I—my name is Amaranth Benedicta.”
Amaranth. What was it the Outsider had said about her? A missionary. Trained for hardship.
“I did not see you once in the last world,” growled Arokht. His head pounded sullenly. “Where were you? Hiding?”
“I...was with Chaete.”
“Chaete?” The name seemed familiar, but Arokht’s pain-hazed brain couldn’t quite parse it.
“The...” The purple alien hesitated. “The one who died.”
Recognition. The worm. Scraps of mangled flesh. Arokht felt a flash of irritation. Too weak to survive the first battlefield! Arokht abhorred weakness. After all his efforts, its death had dragged him back to square one. The contestants' annoying frailty was another apparent flaw in his plan -- but it was the only one that made sense. He couldn't think of any other way to force the Outsider's hand.
A line of old Iceworlder propaganda drifted into his memory, impressed into his brain before he had even been decanted from his growth tank. It is the duty of all good Iceworlders to stamp weakness out wherever it might be found… but not here. Here, he had to protect the weak, in defiance of all logic.
“Did you kill her?” he demanded.
Amaranth drew back. “No! Who—why do you care?!”
Arokht felt another surge of irritation. “If you have killed another contestant, I want to know. I would think this is obvious.”
Amaranth stiffened, her fingers curling. Threat posture in hominid species, Arokht recalled. More conditioned knowledge floated dreamlike into his thoughts. Indicative of anger or distress, signifying hostile intent. He didn’t bother reacting -- if it came to a fight, even wounded as he was…
But then the alien mastered herself, evidently forcing herself to relax. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Arokht,” said Arokht. Identifier ORSHA-NAVRA-TEUREKT-22874; field director echelon 2, he managed to avoid reciting. Preconditioned responses. “I am an Iceworlder.” Fourth Army of the Ohrsohk Lance Fleet. “I am trying to regroup with the others.” An alien who bleeds blue slime and another who breathes fire, and a third with many voices. “Have you seen them?”
Amaranth shook her head. Human body language, came Arokht’s conditioning. A negative.
He shifted uneasily, making the motors in his armor buzz like metal bees. Square one. He’d managed to enlist Mary-Santos’ help in locating the other contestants, but this ship was so enormous, even this small city of scavengers had yet to map its full extent. The others could be anywhere. Where were they? Where was Ani--
“Disappointing,” he rumbled. “Nevertheless, you will stay with me.”
Mary stepped forward, sensing a break in the conversation, and began to speak to Amaranth. She seemed to be making overtures of friendship -- Arokht left her to it. He was busy scanning the Grand Hall, searching the sea of faces and facial appendages on the off chance that he would spot one he recognized. This seemed to be a natural meeting place; surely the others would have made their way here? But no; he and Amaranth were alone, it seemed.
A tremble in the ground interrupted his search. Arokht glanced down, then around the cavernous hall, immediately on guard. An explosion?
Golden lights followed the tremor, suddenly flaring from high up in the hall’s vaulted roof. Arokht’s eyes flicked upward. The tremor must have been the result of some shipboard power plant coming live, then. This sort of thing must happen all the time --
The crowd roared. The crowd surged. Arokht jerked half a step backwards, bristling. Adrenaline coursed through his battered system, and he twitched his gun arm upwards as his inner soldier shouted attack, attack --
But his inner tactician whispered no. Look closer.
This wasn’t aggression. It looked like panic -- but no, not quite that, either. Excitement. Astonishment. The crowd exploded, rushing to their homes and tools and instruments like they were all competing to get there first. Quite a few collided with each other. Only Ak’kubal^ut and Mary were still, for relative values of stillness.
Ak’s many-jointed legs clattered on the floor in anxious typewriter rhythm. “Mary! Must get we to M-type rooms! If awakened this the machinery-”
Mary put a gloved hand on its face, cutting off its babble mid-sentence. She spun towards Arokht. “Arokht! Could one of you have done this?”
It’s just lights, thought the bemused Iceworlder. Aloud, he said, “The coincidence cannot be dismissed.”
Behind Mary, Ak’s legs continued to tap their frenetic beat.
Mary turned back towards her partner. She cupped its hooded head in her hands. “Ak, we need to focus. Whatever did this is more important. It'll be the real key to your questions, not some machines starting up. And since we know we're looking for a lost individual, someone who seems not from this world...we have a leg up on everyone else.”
“Yes, yes. But must take I readings, and-”
Mary put her hand back on its face. “Yes. Of course. We'll get everything we can out of our computers before setting out. Come on,” she said, already moving.
She jogged down the hall, Ak’kubal^ut close on her heels. Arokht limped not far behind them.
He paused. Turned his massive head back. Glared significantly at Amaranth, who sighed and came running after.
This ship makes no sense, thought Arokht, not for the first time. Gods, but this place was a maze! Left, left, right, up right down down left. he two scavengers led the two outworlders through the labyrinth with the confidence of long-time residents. Though Mary had started out in the lead, Ak had shortly overtaken her in its excitement. Arokht saw doors set too high up in the walls for even him to reach, smooth screw-shaped ramps like stairwells that ran straight into ceilings. Was this ship designed by children?
Everywhere, lights glowed. The old ship was waking up in fits and starts. Ancient metal organs thrummed with new power, their mechanisms vibrating the walls. People darted from room to room, performing arcane operations on lumps of exposed technology or slicing away ancient bulkheads with fusion cutters to make them exposed.
“Hurry,” said Ak. “Hurry, hurry!”
Down the ramp, around the pit, into a narrow corridor where water pooled on the ground, cold and stagnant. Ak’kubal^ut waited impatiently at the end, next to a circular portal. Something bright lay beyond.
“Through here. Room L21-M28-14b. Hurry!” it called, bustling through.
Mary followed Ak inside, extending a hand to help Amaranth up: the entrance was raised at waist-height, no problem for Ak and his long legs, but something of a climb for stubby humans. Arokht came last, squeezing his massive form through with some effort.
The room was--
Well. Calling it a room would have been an understatement.
The first thing Amaranth noticed was the scale. The chamber was a vast sphere equal in scope to the Great Hall, the entirety of its inner surface tiled in smooth hexagonal panels that pulsed and glowed in kaleidoscope hues. Ringing its circumference was a broad walkway of white metal. It was this that Amaranth and the rest of the group had emerged onto, having passed through the portal.
Amaranth looked up. The massive arching dome of the roof made her feel like she was trapped under the largest bowl in the universe. Amaranth looked down and immediately regretted it.
“Good, isn’t it?” asked Mary, as Amaranth stumbled backwards to lean on the wall. “Wow. I thought I was used to it, but that was before the power came on!”
As Amaranth carefully looked anywhere in the chamber but down, the second thing she noticed was the machine. Wheel-spoke catwalks radiated inwards from the walkway to meet another circular path, and in that central gap floated another sphere. Its mirror sheen gleamed. Bands of metal whirled around it like the arms of some enormous orrery, or the orbits of an impossibly huge atom.
“What was this place used for?” whispered Amaranth.
Mary grinned cheerfully. “I’ve got no idea.”
Lesser machines surrounded the great one, Amaranth saw. Silvery computer consoles, arrays of lights, complicated windowed control panels that flashed and extruded darting caliper arms. These machines had parasites: bulbous, insectile things in precisely the same shade of red as Ak’kubal^ut’s carapace.
Ak itself skittered around and around the great machine. It prodded its parasite-probes, sometimes detaching one to attach it elsewhere (they flailed crustacean legs, refusing to let go), sometimes tapping its claws on the glowing scrolling screens. It seemed to know what it was doing.
“Mary!” cried Ak, without taking its eyes off its work. “Need I your assistance!”
Mary jumped. “Coming!”
She hurried off, tools clattering on her belt, leaving Arokht to lumber into her place. He seemed distinctly unawed by the sights around him. Amaranth watched him sidelong, taking in his scarred armor, the crude repairs, the accumulated mud and dried gore encrusting his joints. Just what had he gotten into back in the Valley? It looked like he’d survived by the skin of his teeth. Assuming he had teeth.
As Amaranth watched, one of the eyepieces in his helmet flickered and sputtered out for a second. She scrutinized the blank expanse of his faceplate curiously. Was it just her, or was he staring at Ak with what looked like unsettling intensity?
Arokht had a lot of questions about Ak’kubal^ut. That the alien’s biology was also ammonia-based, he could accept. (It survived because that red shell of its was a synthetic construction, designed to withstand the flesh-boiling temperatures that humans thrived in, and the body beneath had been cybernetically modified so radically that magnets stuck to it.) Indeed, Arokht was grateful for that little quirk of nature: it meant the medical suite aboard Ak’s ship was equipped to handle the needs of Iceworlder biology. Ak was now the dubiously proud owner of a slightly-bloodstained lump of tungsten carbide. Combined with the medical nanotechnology stuffed into his veins, Arokht’s makeshift surgery meant that he now felt only marginally better than he looked instead of equally awful.
But that left the problem of how familiar Ak seemed. Arokht had never heard of a ka^tul, had never faced one in battle, yet something tickled his thoughts whenever he looked at Ak. He sifted through accumulated decades of memories, searching. Where have I seen this before?
Eventually, fruitlessly, Arokht grunted and shook the thought aside. This sort of rumination was unbecoming of an Iceworlder, and worse, served no practical purpose. Arokht chided himself. Didn’t he have a mission to complete? He would have time to indulge his curiosity afterwards. The Kuraght uhr Khtegra’s intelligence database would undoubtedly hold answers for him, and if the troopship didn’t, he could send a request up the line to the strategists of Ohrsohk Command, who had access to much more information than a simple Field Director.
Except I don’t have strategists any more, remembered Arokht, starting. Or a troopship, or support, or anything else. Only the mission.
Orders! He needed orders. His self-assigned mission sat uneasily in his gut. Giving himself commands felt dangerously close to mutiny. Arokht was a soldier, tank-grown for no other purpose. He needed an authority, superiors to command him --
-- but he had no superiors either, did he? He was alone. A gear popped loose from the war machine, his teeth suddenly finding nothing to bite, nothing to spin him and nothing to spin. He had no orders but those he gave himself, had no oversight or control, and with a lurch his yearning dropped away to be replaced by a sudden dizzy feeling like vertigo.
No control. No overarching commands or hard certainties. For the first time in this misadventure he finally had a chance to think, to really think about what his isolation implied, without anger clouding his judgement or an overriding vendetta consuming his thoughts, and he felt like he was falling off a cliff. But instead of the ground, what rose up to meet him was a wall of doubt and fear and weakness.
Everything he’d been trained and conditioned to hate -- everything he’d learned to despise in the lesser races -- it all came rushing up towards him with the inevitability of gravity.
Arokht shook his head, doglike. Then he stepped backwards and shook again, agitated by something, then doubled over without warning. The more reasonably-sized gun in Arokht’s lower arms clattered to the floor, the hands that once held it now clutching at his helmet. Metal scraped on metal. Amaranth watched the huge Iceworlder with the same sort of care a bomb disposal technician might have while facing down a nuclear device. Her own hands were halfway raised. Were they raised to help him or to defend herself? Her hindbrain couldn’t quite decide. On one hand, he was obviously in pain. On the other hand… this was Arokht.
Maybe if she was really careful…
Arokht looked up. He looked up like he’d just remembered she was there and saw her staring and snarled, and lurched to his feet like a drunken giant and took one plodding step towards her before suddenly rocking backwards as if something huge had struck him.
The huge alien sank to his knees. His fingers scrabbled at his head, palms pressed over his eyes. Amaranth backed away.
Arokht seethed. His thoughts whirled, caught between cold discipline and desperate, brittle anger.
Not her. I need her.
My weakness shames the Crusade! My species! And she saw it!
There is no Crusade here. The mission takes priority.
She saw me!
Forget the shame. Focus. Control yourself. Anger is not productive here.
He stilled. The twitches and tics plaguing his frame stopped. Amaranth could almost see the gears and levers of his mind shifting and locking into a new position. She couldn’t understand him. How could anything snap so rapidly between rigid calm and snarling anger?
The Iceworlder turned his head to look at her. That impassive helmet offered nothing about the face beneath, but the gesture seemed almost incurious, like he’d completely forgotten that he’d almost tried to kill her just a minute ago. Which really said everything about his character, didn’t it?
Arokht continued to watch her.
“Arokht,” said Amaranth, and swallowed. Life-threatening situations left her throat dry. “Arokht. What are you trying to find the others for?”
Arokht tilted his head. It took a few seconds for him to speak, like he was checking with an internal censor.
“The Outsider wants us to kill each other for its amusement,” he said. “I will not be its plaything.”
“And?” demanded Amaranth, her temper rising. “What about everyone else? Why are you gathering them?”
Arokht tilted his head the other way. “So we will not fight. We will not die.”
“I’m not saying I don’t believe you,” said Amaranth, “but you’re a giant bug in combat armor with a gun for an arm. You’re covered in blood and you look like you’ve been fed through a wood chipper and you nearly attacked me for looking at you funny.”
Amaranth stepped closer, brazen now, fed up with fate in general and uncaring alien agencies in specific. “You obviously aren’t here to make peace. What are you planning?”
Arokht growled. This insolence! This insubordination!
“I plan to be free of the Outsider’s game,” he rumbled. “The Outsider wants us to die. If we do not die, the Outsider will be forced to appear. When it appears, I will kill it. Then I will be free.”
She ran his words through her mind over and over again, trying to find the joke, because the alternatives were either that he’d lost his mind or that she had. He couldn’t be serious. He couldn’t seriously think...
Yes, she realized. He could be serious. Understanding cascaded down her thoughts as realization slotted into realization. He got angry when people disagreed with him. His mood swung unpredictably, but it always swung to extremes. He knew, unquestionably knew he could kill the Outsider because the possibility that he couldn’t never entered his thoughts. Why would it ever? He’d never encountered a problem that he couldn’t roar and butcher his way past. His entire life operated in that context.
Oh, god. He’s a child. He’s a twelve-foot bundle of nerves and weaponry being operated by a child, because he’s never had a chance to develop emotionally...
I’m going to die here, aren’t I?
She could feel the laugh bubbling up in her chest, incredulous and hysterical. Here she was with a living war-machine-slash-child-soldier with aspirations to kill an eldritch god, who wants to gather up a team of probably-equally-misanthropic individuals as if absolutely nothing bad would happen if they were all in one place --
Amaranth jumped. Arokht spun. Faster than anything his size should move, Arokht leveled his cannon arm squarely at the great machine at the room’s center.
Ak’kubal^ut capered around the orrery, its carapace scorched and splattered with something orange: one of its probes had exploded. Mary stood prudently further away.
“Power surge!” it babbled. “Astrotempering signature confirmed! Relay wave-pattern isolated -- replicant pattern band --” it broke off into a long string of clicks and grunts as it turned and joyfully lifted Mary off the floor.
“Hey!” she yelped. “Long drop, two feet away!”
“Must send I word to Benevolent Constellate,” chattered Ak, setting her gently back down. “Must my people know! The Far-Travelers -- their vessel this is, undisputable proof -- chkai aa k’kgol, mn^ik’ch --”
Ak stopped, silenced by the hands that were suddenly clasped over its face. It vibrated.
“We still need to help our guests,” Mary said. “Can you wait a little while?”
Ak vibrated faster.
“It can’t wait,” sighed Mary. “Okay. Do you want to split up? We can meet up again whenever you finish sending. I’ll keep an eye out for you for whatever turned this place back on.”
Ak nodded vigorously. Mary had taught it how. Finding her again wouldn’t be a problem, given the tracking beacons they’d exchanged when they’d first partnered up.
Mary smiled. “Alright,” she said, stepping away. “Be safe.”
And then Ak was clattering across the bridge, legs cycling furiously as it first rushed between Arokht and Amaranth and then hurtled out the portal. It took Mary a minute longer to join them.
“Sorry about the wait,” she said. “Don’t worry about Ak, it’s just got some errands to run.”
“Alone?” asked Amaranth.
Mary laughed. “Ak’ll be fine. There’s a lot more than archaeology equipment under its shell.”
“Then we go,” hissed Arokht, stepping forward. “We must hurry. Where are the others?”
“Ah.” With a clatter of metal and plastic, Mary unclipped one of the many tools hanging from her belt: a flat, palm-sized rectangle. “Scavengers are a cutthroat bunch, but we gossip like no one else. Some of the more cooperatively-minded ones like to put out word of weird things going on, so they can all get at it together. You’d be amazed at the things our scanners and cameras pick up.”
A screen on the device lit up. Lines of white text scrolled down it. “I’ve filtered all the chatter that matches up to the descriptions Arokht gave me,” continued Mary. “They’re, er, very distinctive.”
“Just give me a moment to collate…” Mary muttered, pushing buttons. “Hmm. Multiple positive matches… movement in deserted sectors… yes. I think I’ve got an idea where to go...”
Being the only other human in the room, Amaranth could pick up the hint of uncertainty in Mary’s voice. “Is something wrong?”
“Nothing to worry about,” said Mary, her tone of voice now indicating that there was everything to worry about. “It’s just that getting from here to there will take us through cult territory.”
Cults, thought Amaranth. The Hans had said something about cultists when she’d first woken up, hadn’t they?
“Will they be a problem?” she asked.
Mary grimaced. “It’s the Wakeful Church. One of the biggest bands of cultists on this ship. Weird people. I’ve run into them before, and all I’ll tell you is that I’m glad Ak was there with me.”
“They will not be a problem,” Arokht growled. And once again, Amaranth heard the utter, unbending certainty in his voice.
Mary eyed him in all his five-ton, battle-scarred immovability, and snorted. “Not for you, I’d bet. How about I stay behind you and tell you where to go?”
Orders from an alien? Disgusting.
Mary-Santos is a vital mission objective, as is Amaranth. Both must be protected.
Must I shame my people further with this display?
Yes. These are extreme circumstances.
“Huh? Oh. Alright then. Keep in mind it’s a little hard for me to see what’s in front of you...”
The three of them left the chamber: Arokht in the lead, Mary behind, and Amaranth following. Behind them, the great machine spun on...
(This post was last modified: 05-18-2016 04:44 AM by One.)