Sunday, September 14, 2014

1/7/13 - (Faraj) My Kingdom - pt. 4

Faraj al-Ǧazāʼir stands in front of the Zero Room's central engine, mostly-naked and totally-unafraid. 

The strange, globular array of dark grey metal is shuddering as it warms up. Warning sounds shriek out of the alarms, and every door leading here slides shut. Lights come on, screens tick away numbers, and the floor beneath his feet gets strangely cold. 

There's a hiss of sorts, and then things finally slide into motion. The main mass slowly changes from an irregular, almost-cancerous lump to a tall, shimmering pillar. Bulbs of silvery-blue matter churn into being, seemingly from mid-air, and start to slowly orbit that pillar -- motes of light either holding them in place, or else sending impulses back and forth. 

Inside that shimmer, there is a growing light -- a strange, dappled light that comes from somewhere else, bringing vast energies along with it. That immense power is evident from where he stands, and every inch of his being is vibrating in sympathy with its puissance. 

He stares into that light, now, holding up his hands as he does. 

And he speaks a single word...

* * *

"Intercourse," Faraj says, looking dejectedly at the crushed, doll-like human matter that's floating in front of him.

"That's what they !@#$in' said to me, too," Dr. Fuller adds, scanning what's left of his autopsy patients and not liking what's on the screen: "I come back from a !@#$in' coffee break to catch up on my !@#$in' paperwork and they're floating out of the !@#$in' theater like they own the !@#$in' place."

"I'd have appreciated a call," Faraj chides, amazed at the work that Martian tissue-compression gun did to the corpses -- now little more than dolls.

"Well, I'd have !@#$in' made one if my night nurse hadn't had a !@#$in' seizure right the !@#$ in front of me, wouldn't I?" Fuller snorts, putting the scanner away: "First do no harm, what?"

"Agreed," Faraj says, looking over at Doctor Heila as he floats nearby, unconscious and under guard. A trickle of blood pools up from the back of his head where Specialist Charleston smacked him -- averting the madman's aim at the last second, so that his gun struck the two dead men, rather than Faraj.

"Not yet, no," Brightstarsurfergirl chuckles, somehow knowing her commander's thinking of finally spacing the short, Finnish supervillain. 

"Is that prophecy, or a suggestion?" he asks, slowly walking over to her.

"Yes," she giggles, tapping him on the nose, and he can only smile at that.

"Thank you, by the way," he says to Charleston, who's been hanging nearby with the guards, making sure Dr. Heila doesn't so much as curse: "I'm glad you disobeyed my orders."

"I still couldn't sleep, sir," the kid sheepishly grins: "I thought maybe I'd follow your advice about taking one last tour of the ship. I didn't expect to be involved in something like... well, this."

"Yeah, well, you're !@#$in' involved now, son," Dr. Fuller says, waving over to him and getting out a spare pair of sterile gloves: "Help me get these two back to the !@#$in' medical wing. I'll !@#$in' tire you out."

"Will you be seeing to Doctor Heila, then?" Faraj asks.

"!@#$ him," Fuller snorts: "!@#$in' toss his tiny !@#$ into the security wing, I say. I'll come by to !@#$in' check up on him once I've dealt with more important !@#$in' matters."

Faraj can't disagree with that, and indicates to the guards that they should do so. And, once the various groups of people are in motion, he looks to Brightstarsurfergirl: "You know what this means."

"Yes," she says: "She can be here in eight hours."

"I thought it only took her six?"

"It'll take another two to pick things up along the way," she replies, giving him that special grin. 

"Well, then let's recall Hanami," he smiles, glad to see they're thinking alike in this matter: "And tell her she'll need to retrieve some things for me."

* * *

He can see them coming towards him, now, down that channel of dappled light. 

They appear as insubstantial objects, made of energies he can't comprehend. They float end over end through the expanse, getting larger and more certain as they draw nearer. 

Strange things, these -- like the potatoes his mother served at their table for dinner, only made of light. They rise and fall as they travel, the space before them becoming fogged with luminous mist as they observe him. 

As they come, he can begin to make out words: "intercourse," "vetanda," "sub-dimensional," "adumbrate," "krasis," "hypo-real."

And, holding onto the object at his neck -- the only clothing he has on -- he begins to try and understand what they are saying to him. 

* * *

"So let me get this !@#$in' straight," Dr. Fuller says, having yet another hit of the suspicious, black-brown murk he refers to as 'coffee': "Those people that got !@#$in' killed in the Zero Room, they weren't !@#$in' killed?"

"No, they were," Faraj says, looking around the table at the crew he's assembled to talk about what happened last night: the Doctor, Walker In/With the Darkness, Brightstarsurfergirl, Hanami, and -- from his cell -- Doctor Heila: "I'm saying that whatever we're dealing with, here, is so powerful that trying to reach out and speak through us is... well, it's like an elephant trying to talk through the mouth of a monkey. The trunk does a lot of damage going in through the back."

Hanami and Brightstarsurfergirl both giggle at that image, Heila grouses, and the Martian is just confused.

"You see, as Dr. Heila discovered, yesterday, before he tried to kill his superior officer-"

"I've apologized three times already," the supervillain insists: "How many more times must I grovel before I can earn my freedom?"

"We're getting to that," Faraj says, holding up a hand: "So I feel that this force that has been trying to contact us, it's tried to speak though us, but the shock has killed the crew members it's attempted to do this with. And it's also tried to speak to us directly, but also failed because we can't really perceive them."

"The !@#$in' ghosts," Fuller surmises, nodding as he has another hit: "One word and a bad !@#$in' feeling."

"And since their language skills are limited, their word choice is questionable," Hanami adds: "They want to speak, but the word they choose, while acceptable, is usually used for another thing."

"'Intercourse,'" Heila snorts, nodding: "I made any number of colorful mistakes while learning English as well."

* * *
"Forgive us," the luminous being floating before Faraj says: "We did not understand the depth of our error until it was too late."

"Yet you have done it several times?" he asks, thankful that his neck-guard is making their different languages intelligible to one another.

"Many of us were sent, but the way from our space to yours is difficult, and stretched out in time. We did not realize what we were doing until we were here, and our perception of time is such that we could not alter our plans swiftly enough."

"But there's something else, isn't there?" Faraj demands of his guests: "Something that keeps you coming back here to talk to us, when we open the machine?"

"Yes," the being admits after a short time: "Your bodies. We find it of interest to be inside a form like yours. And I am sad to say that some of we emissaries have succumbed to the temptation, even after we knew it was harmful to you."

* * *

"So why did this zombie thing only happen last !@#$in' night?" Fuller asks: "Change of !@#$in' tactics?"

"I don't believe that it did only happen last night," Faraj says, nodding to Hanami: "That's why I had Hanami retrieve the bodies we've sent out into space, so far."

"What?" Fuller gasps.

"Normally, when you'd finish an autopsy, you'd put them in a container for burial," Faraj says: "And those would go down to the ejector, which is totally automated. So we'd have the funeral service and shoot them out into space, and no one would hear or know anything was wrong."

"But last night I didn't have them in containers," Fuller admits, somewhat sheepishly: "I figured since the funeral wouldn't be for another day, it could wait."

"Somewhat inefficient," Hanami teases him, somewhat robotically.

"I don't like !@#$in' sending them down there until it's !@#$in' time, you wee tin !@#$," he snorts back: "Kind of cold and !@#$in' lonely down there, you know?"

"!@#$ you !@#$hole," Hanami replies, smiling, and then realizes it was the wrong thing to say.

"We're still working on social situations," Brightstarsurfergirl explains, patting Hanami on the shoulder: "Some things take longer to come back."

"No !@#$in' kidding," Fuller mutters. 

"So to be clear," Dr. Heila says, quite bored by the interpersonal matters: "The power I realized has been withheld, it's been withheld on the other side of the Zero Room's engine. And there are things coming along with that power, trying to speak to us every time we try and access that power?"

"That would seem to be the situation, yes," Faraj answers: "If we are correct."

"Perhaps they want to trade for it?" the short supervillain cackles: "If so, I am certain I could make a deal."

"That's part of what I'm counting on," Faraj replies, but the nature of his smile makes Dr. Heila wonder what he just got himself into.

* * *

"I understand," Faraj says: "And for our part, we are sorry that we have been disrupting your own universe. We inherited this machine from the beings who built this spacecraft. Its intricacies are beyond us. We did not know how it worked."

"We are not certain of how it works, either," the being states: "But we have often been victimized by things that reach into our reality to siphon power away. Once we would have destroyed you. Now, we merely seek to understand what we do not comprehend." 
"Then we are of one mind," Faraj says: "I would have sought to stop this thing from happening to my people, but I see now that we have each brought the mistake upon ourselves."
"Then, as we have both admitted that we misunderstood one another, and there is no animosity on either side, is there any further need to converse?" the being asks.

"Perhaps," Faraj says, holding up a hand: "I have a proposal for you. One that I think might benefit us both..."

* * *

"You're not !@#$in worried?" Dr. Fuller asks as he watches Faraj rummage through his things, clearly looking for something.

"No," Faraj says, finding it and smiling: "I'm not."

"Well, I am," the man says, floating a bit closer: "I think you're !@#$in' playing with !@#$ing fire, here, Faraj. I won't want you getting !@#$in' burned."

"I won't," he says, putting that something on: a tight, black choker he hasn't worn since before he was flung into jail, in Morocco. 

"But-" Fuller tries to say, but is silenced when Faraj spins around, takes his head in his hands, and kisses him -- full and hard, and for quite some time. 

"No worries," he says, finally breaking away from that kiss and looking the man in the eyes: "No regrets. No concerns. No fear."

"I can't help but have them," Fuller admits: "I'm trying to be !@#$in' professional here, but..."

"No fear," Faraj insists, as gently as he can: "We have a job to do, you and I. And when these things are done, I'm yours. But for right now, I have to go make what might be the most important diplomatic overture in Earth's history. 

"And I can't do it if you're hanging on my arm, worried that they might kill me."

Fuller sighs, nods and then -- before Faraj can say otherwise -- kisses him right back.

"I'm yours," the man says, when they break off: "I don't care who I have to share you with, either. But you !@#$in' come back to me, out of that !@#$in' room, or I swear I'm !@#$in' coming in there after you."

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Faraj says, and then heads out of his cabin, not worried about whether the doctor follows or not. 

On the way to the Zero Room, he sees Brightstarsurfergirl floating beside the tunnel to it. No one else is in the area, as per his orders, so he doesn't feel the least bit self-conscious about taking her in his arms and kissing her, just as full and hard as he did the doctor in his cabin. 

"Any prophecies, now?" he asks, afterwards.

"You will succeed," she says, stroking his cheek: "But victory brings its own defeats."

"I know," he says, kissing her once more: "Bring them on."

And then he's in the tunnel, pulling his clothing off in expectation of what comes next.

* * *

There's a moment when Faraj thinks his proposal has been discarded. And who would blame these creatures for saying no? It is, after all, rather a lot to ask.

"Yes," the being says, finally: "We will agree."

"That's excellent," Faraj says: "I knew we could come to an understanding."

"But we will require some things of our own," the being says: "Certain assurances. Guarantees against further exploitation or perfidy."

"You'll have them," Faraj says, stepping forward and extending a hand to the being. 

When it touches him, it's like being on fire from the inside out. He is it, and it is he, over and over again. 

And ever so intimately, their pact is sealed with their joining. 

* * *

It's late at night, now, and Faraj stands before his cabin window, looking off at the Moon. From here, he can almost make out the Alpha Base Seven Memorial, even without a telescope. Or maybe it's just wishful thinking. 

Right now, he doesn't care. He's sure that's what that black dot is, and in his mind that makes it real. And that's all that matters, here and now.

Behind him are Doctor Fuller and Brightstarsurfergirl -- locked in a passionate, free-floating embrace. He wasn't sure that was going to go as well as it did, but he soon found they needed only a little coaxing to enjoy each other, with or without him. He'll go back to them, eventually, but he needed a break to think, and reflect. 

And he has many things to reflect upon, right now.

He thinks of the power the extradimensional beings have promised them, in exchange for access to this universe, and the strange sensations it provides. 

He thinks of his crew, having to adjust to serving alongside the occupied bodies of their friends and colleagues that Hanami brought back from space, now home to those beings from beyond.

He thinks of Dr. Heila no longer alone in his skull -- sharing a mind with the more loquacious of those entities, just so they can keep a channel of communication open at all times. 

He thinks of the expression on Director Brilliand's face when he told him the Zero Room was operational, but refused to tell him why or how -- all but daring him to come up here, himself.

He thinks of these things, and realizes that this is all just a part of a large and intricate plan -- one that was mapped out long before his birth, fated to feed into an even larger, much more intricate plan beyond that. 

And win or lose, live or die, he will play his part because that is what he is here to do. 

He will live through this. He will win the battle to come. And he will take what he learns here and go back to the Viridian Sea -- this time not as a wayward astronaut, but a conquering hero. 

He will have his kingdom, one way or the other, and !@#$ anyone who stands in his way.

 (SPYGOD is listening to My Kingdom pt 4 (Future Sound of London) and having a Dark Island)

Monday, September 8, 2014

1/7/13 - (Faraj) My Kingdom - pt. 3

"Ah, Charleston," Faraj says as he glides around a corner, seeing one of the technicians he "volunteered" to be in the Zero Room, tomorrow night.

"Sir," the young man says, giving as crisp a salute as he can at the weird angle he's currently at.

"Shouldn't you be in your cabin, Specialist Charleston? You've got a big day, tomorrow."

"Yes sir... it's just, well..." the kid stammers, trying to smile.

"Can't sleep, either?" Faraj asks, slowing down his pace: "I like to walk the ship, at night, just before I go  to bed. Every walkway, every passage, bow to stern. I find I can't sleep if I didn't make a quick check on everything, just to be sure it's in good hands."

"That's... well, that makes sense, sir."

"You're worried about tomorrow?" Faraj intuits.

"I... yes, no," Charleston spits out, shaking his head: "I mean, I am. But I'm not. Sir."

So Faraj smiles, twists around to face the young man, claps a hand on his shoulder, and asks: "Do you have confidence in yourself?"

"Well, yes-"

"I want to hear a real answer, Charleston," he insists: "Don't tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what I need to hear. Now, do you have confidence in yourself?"

"Yes. Yes, sir," the kid says, trying to look him in the eyes. And that fearful look there -- the look of a man who's convinced he's going to die -- bothers Faraj to no end.

"Do you have confidence in those around you?" he pushes.

"Yes sir."

"Then you will be fine," he tells the young man: "Just do what needs doing. Trust in your comrades to look after you, and you look after them, and we'll all get through this. Alright?"

"I know we will, sir. It's just that..." the kid looks around, hoping no one can hear them: "Sir, it's... this is going to sound silly."

"Tell me," Faraj demands, thinking he knows what the kid's going to say.

"I saw a ghost."

Faraj nods, and looks around, and then gestures the young man closer, so they can speak quietly: "Tell me what happened. Exactly."

"It was just after the last Zero Room test. We'd gotten Rickman and Jones' bodies out of there, and we were just going our own ways, and I turned a corner... and, well, the hair on my arms stood up, all of a sudden. My mind went blank, and I felt so scared. And I knew someone was there, even if I couldn't see it."

"Was anyone else with you?"

"No, I was all alone. And then I... well, it was like I saw someone out of the corner of my eye. But when I turned to look, they were gone. But I knew someone was there, sir!"

"You may have been rattled by their deaths?" Faraj suggests, holding up a hand to get his subordinate to keep his voice down.

"Sir, I've been here a while. I've seen ten people die. It didn't bother me any less yesterday than it did the first time I saw it."

"A delayed psychological response?"

Charleston raises his eyebrows, and then shakes his head: "Sir, with all due respect, you're talking... well, you're talking stuff. I felt one of those things. And just before it went away I heard it say something."

"What?" Faraj asks.

"I think it said 'in their course,'" Charleston tells him: "Or maybe 'intercourse.' I'm not sure."

Faraj nods, all too aware of which it probably was.

"Specialist, I have a special task for you," Faraj says, putting his hands on the man's shoulders: "One that should fall well within your capabilities."

"What's that, sir?"

"Go to your cabin," Faraj orders him: "Get some sleep. Approach tomorrow with confidence and good spirits. And be ready for anything."

That doesn't ameliorate the worried look in the kid's eyes, but it does at least put some semblance of a smile on his face. He salutes, says "yes, sir," and then heads back to his cabin.

And Faraj taps his beard and considers this, thinking a piece of the overall puzzle has just fallen into place. 

* * *

"Impossible!" Dr. Heila shouts, pounding his workstation, eyes crackling with rage. Everyone else in the room starts and stares at him, but quickly look away when he returns the look.

He's spent the last several hours trying to crunch all the numbers, work out all the variables, and run all the possibilities. And each time he does it -- carefully checking and rechecking all his work -- he comes up with same exact conclusion. 

The Zero Room should work, as they've got it configured. It should be producing enough energy to run the ship, and fire up its propulsion. It should be containing its energy safely, so as to not be killing random crew members within its walls as it's turned on.

It should, and yet it isn't. 

Something is clearly not right. It should work, but it doesn't. And everything he's seen and experienced point to one thing being at fault when a thing should work, but doesn't.


Someone is deliberately setting them up to fail. Worse than that, someone is making him to look like a fool, and getting him in trouble with the meddling bureaucrats he has to please in order to stay out of jail.

Well, he is not taking the blame for this. And he is not going back to that prison. Not in a hundred million years, thank you very much.

He looks around the room, considering each person in here in turn. Then he very carefully takes out a fresh notepad, looks around once more, and begins to run the calculations on who has been messing around with his work. 

He is going to find out who's meddling with the Zero Room, and how, and then he is going to !@#$ing kill them.

* * *

A few station checks later -- and a couple glaring errors fixed, either by his own hand or someone else's -- Faraj is about ready to consider calling it a night. But something tells him otherwise, and he reluctantly listens to it, changing course and heading for the medical area. Maybe Doctor Fuller needs to see him about some emergency, or maybe he really needs to welcome the man into his bed, again.

(Either could be important, but only the latter would be truly welcome at this point...)

"You're thinking naughty thoughts," someone giggles above him. He smiles and gently turns around in mid-step, not surprised to see Brightstarsurfergirl floating above him, having crept up as silent as always.

"A Commander's prerogative at the end of a long day, I think?" he says.

"What's wrong with the rest of the day?"

"It tends to get in the way of things."

"You've never let that stop you before," she teases, looking on down the hall at where they're both going: "But your restraint is amazing."

"Why would you say that?"

"I can feel you moving in your mind," the silver-skinned girl explains, her red hair floating behind her like a wild, ripped sail in slow wind: "You'd like to cut people's inefficiencies out of them. You'd like to reward their efforts, too, and know them much more completely."

"But chopping off heads, having drunken sing-alongs, and having sex with my crew isn't going to impress my Director, I'm afraid," Faraj sighs: "Wrong place, wrong time, wrong culture."

"You'll be back there, again," she promises: "Soon."

"Will I really?" he asks, hoping she doesn't think he doubts her foresight.

"You will, Faraj. But first, we have to deal with space monsters."

"Isn't that the way of it?" he smiles: "I told that idiot we needed more help-"

"Not that space monster," she giggles, pointing ahead of them, at the junction leading to the medical unit.

He's about to ask what she means when he begins to hear screaming, up ahead. And he knows what kind of screaming it is -- the kind that comes when the human mind sees something it simply cannot process.

"Clear the deck!" he shouts, all but rocketing towards that area: "Sound the alarm!"

They do, and someone does, and when he gets to the scene the screaming is joined with loud noises and general confusion.

And horror, pure and simple.

* * *

"What, this?" his shot-sword tutor, whose name is Nakeen, chides Faraj as he stares at the obscenity they just dispatched: "This is nothing, Faraj. This is horrible, yes, but compared with things I have seen? Nothing."

Faraj does not believe him. 

He's been in three battles, so far, since he joined the Living. He's fought swarms of the Unknown Army, in deserts and small towns. He's killed many of the enemy, both near and from afar, and been glad to take the battle to them, and then follow up after they routed.

But this? This was something new. 

He'd heard the others tell tales of skin-vapor -- a terrible weapon that painlessly dissolved skin, cartilage, and tendons, and turned living things into twitching, steaming piles of bones, muscle, and offal. The enemy liked to blow the thick, floral gas onto battlefields, gladly sacrificing their own people just to kill the Living. 

But the dosage could be adjusted so that the flesh merely became pliable, rather than wholly evaporating. In such cases, stricken creatures could be physically altered by skilled hands who knew what to do, and how. 

And when you used the skin-vapor on several beings at once, one could meld those beings together, into one, large organism, and make whatever alterations you needed to...

That is what they had just dispatched, today: a massive, misshapen creature that had once been at least twenty men and women. Their heads had become its fingers, their arms its chest, and a score of intestines had become long, lashing, and biting tentacles. Those tentacles had been attached to where a head should have been, and whipped around like lightning -- seeking to snatch warriors off their feet and drag them underfoot, so as to stomp them flat with the massive legs made of those people's trunks.

"You mustn't let this get to you," Nakeen says, curling a warm, strong arm around Faraj's neck and shoulders as they watched the thing be consumed by fire: "This is what the enemy does, Faraj. It wants us to be afraid. It wants us to be horrified. It wants us to say 'oh, this is terrible. Surely we cannot fight a foe such as this. Surely we must surrender, or worse things will happen.'"

"I will not surrender," Faraj insists, still uncertain how he feels about a man being so affectionate towards him, but being willing to put a hand on that arm: "I will not be afraid."

"But you are horrified."

"I am trying not to be."

"That's all you can do, really," Nakeen replies, breaking away from the embrace and kicking one of the nastier remnants of the thing into the fire: "There is one good thing, and that's that the Unseen Emperor has a very limited imagination. He may show us horror and fear, but it's the same kind of horrors, over and over again. After a time, you will come to expect them, and then they will lose their horror."

"That is good to know," Faraj lies, wondering how long it will take him to consider such a thing not worthy of such feelings. 

"Oh, and keep quiet about the 'trying to be,'" Nakeen winks: "You show a lot of promise, and I'm starting to like you. I'd hate to have to take your head off."

"Likewise," Faraj says, forcing a smile, which is met with a broad, beaming grin that, for a brief second, takes his mind entirely off the thing he's just seen. 

Nakeen dies in battle, ten days later. Faraj claims the man's shot-sword for his own, then and there, and fights twice as savagely in his honor. And in time he learns the true secret of this struggle: he may feel fear and horror, but he must lie to the others about it so convincingly that eventually he fools himself.

Maybe that's all that bravery really is, in the end.

* * *
The last time Faraj saw Specialists Rickman and Jones, they were lying on autopsy tables, staring back up at him with white eyes and silent, terrible screams. And there they should have remained, at least until their funeral.

But here they are, stumbling through the air in front of the medical bay's door -- naked and raw. Their roughly-sewn-up, postmortem incisions are leaking beads of foul, bodily fluids as they go. Their eyes are moving with a strange intelligence, their mouths try to form words with no lungs to make them. 

And their liquified brains churn and pulse in their opened skulls, forming strange, curling structures in the weightlessness. 

The scene around them is one of fear and bedlam. People have fainted, others have vomited. Shimmering bubbles of sick and urine float through the air, making it harder for people to navigate.

"They just came out of there..." the one, still-conscious door guard stammers, pointing. He's clearly voided his bowels, and his one more shock away from joining his counterpart in unconsciousness. 

"No one approach them!" Faraj orders, waving a hand to those with more sterner stomachs: "If you don't have to be here, be somewhere else! Guards, keep everyone back!"

As soon as he says those words, the two dead men fix their eyes upon him. They turn their bodies just so, and begin to approach. 

Faraj stands his ground, keeping his feet on the grab-pads and lifting his hands up, showing there's nothing in them: "My name is Commander Faraj al-Ǧazāʼir. I am the leader, here. Can you tell me who you are, and what you want?"

The dead men keep coming towards him, their eyes fishing around wildly, their mouths trying to form words. 

"Please!" Faraj insists: "I believe you are trying to tell us something. I believe you have been trying to tell us something all along. Tell us, if you can!"

The bodies come closer, and then Faraj thinks he can make out what they're saying...

"You traitorous mulkku!" someone shouts from directly behind Faraj.

He wheels around just in time to see Dr. Heila standing there, holding a weapon he thinks might have been checked in with the Martian delegation. Some sort of energy beam that compresses matter to a tenth its size.

And it's aimed right at his chest. 

"So you'd blame me for your own sabotage, eh?" the insane, high-haired man shrieks, preparing to fire: "Well, suksi Helvettin, paskanaama!"

The short, Finnish mad scientist pulls the trigger. The weapon turns on. The lights in front of the barrel whirl and spin.

And then...

(SPYGOD is listening to Future Sound of London (My Kingdom - Live) and having a Plevnan Morko.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

1/7/13 - (Faraj) My Kingdom - pt. 2

The next stop on Faraj's itinerary is the Zero Room, itself -- the root of all these problems, but also so much potential.

Amazing potential, to say the least.

While its real name is going to be something inspiring and forceful, the crew have playfully christened this unfinished spaceship The Egress. That's because the Imago were planning on using it to exit Earth before a certain approaching danger could arrive and destroy everything in its path. And, as one might expect from a race that claimed to be untold billions of years old, it was going to be a technological masterpiece -- fueled by a science undreamt of by human minds, and capable of things that would truly stagger our imagination.

Things that could, conceivably, turn the tide in the awful battle to come.

Unfortunately, the Imago were nowhere near completing the machine. When the Space Service got up here, they found a depressurized hulk, just barely holding its place in orbit. It's taken them this long to nudge it up to a more stable location, construct habitats and workstations, and to even begin to comprehend what makes it work.

And that comprehension has cost them dearly in time, materiel, and lives.

There's one stable point in the whole Zero Room -- one area where the great, amorphous things moving around and outside of the room do not cross or shift into. That's what they've extended a slender, cautious tube into, and made their door. And every time Faraj takes it, and looks outside at the massive, exterior parts of the room swirl and swim by -- he can't help but wonder if this will be the moment they change their course and crash into that passageway, killing him outright or sending him spinning into vacuum.

But then, any trip up into space -- the most hostile environment known to Man -- could end in death at any time. It would come from a micro-meteoroid through the cockpit, the hull, or the engine. It could come from a systems failure in propulsion, environment, or guidance. It could kill quickly through a massive explosion or environmental failure, or a crew could die slowly when they were stranded in space, or sent hurtling out too far to ever be rescued.

Anything could happen up here. Death could come at any moment, in any way. And to worry about it was as useless as it was stupid.

Which is exactly what he's counting on his people understanding when he stands in front of the people who've been working on the equally-strange and amorphous insides of the Zero Room, a few moments after he enters it, and announces who he'll need to have monitoring it for the next test, tomorrow evening.

Counting? Make that demanding. He won't settle for any less -- not now, not ever.

And they should know that by now.

* * * 

"Friend from Finland, I do not think these figures match up," the reptilian Martian says, effortlessly clambering across the cluttered ceiling of the flight deck to the short man with tall, shock-white hair, who's been excitedly going over his stacks of notes for the last half an hour. 

"Haista Vittu!" Dr. Heila curses, hurling a handful of notes at the alien before he gets there: "I do not need you to tell me I am wrong, you lizard thing! I know I am wrong! I have known we are all wrong, all along!"

"Friend from Finland, I do not think this is helping matters," Walker In/With the Darkness says, holding its paws down in supplication as the crumpled notes float by his face: "We are as one, here. Let us reason together-"

"I'll add reason to your face with my foot if you come any closer!"

"That's not a good idea," Brightstarsurfergirl giggles, poking the Finnish mega-genius in the back of his head with her finger. His eyes crackle as soon as she does, as that playful gesture makes him even angrier -- only at her, now, which was probably her intention. 

"You silver huora!" he hisses at her: "Get behind me with your fiendish woman-parts sorcery! I will have nothing of it!"

"Did someone forget to give him his meds, again?" one of the other technicians asks, not too quietly, from where he stands by the big window, overlooking Earth. There's some chuckling, but it falls silent as the white-haired man's crackling eyes fall upon him.

"Come here, fat-mouthed slob person," the mega-genius cackles, beckoning evilly: "Come here and taste my shoe. All my medicine is ground underfoot with it. All of it!"

"All of what?" a commanding voice booms across the room. Everyone who can salute or stand at attention, does, and those who'd lose their place and go flying across the room with that much motion just stare at him, awaiting orders. 

"All of his medicine, Friend from Afar," Walker In/With the Darkness says, skittering over to where Faraj is floating into the flight deck: "I believe he fed it to his shoe."

"I do believe he's serious about that," Faraj says, touching down on the nearest grab-pad and making his way over to the man: "At least, he had better be serious about having a good reason for not having his work done."

"He does, you strutting peacock!" Dr. Heila all but shrieks, flinging his pen at the man: "You're asking me to understand a paska-machine that doesn't have a perse we can look up to find how it works! You're demanding it! And every time I find out something more, you schedule another test, and more people die!"

"I think that's an accurate assessment of the situation," Faraj says, carefully catching the pen as it sails by his face: "But you've left out one important detail, Dr. Heila."

"And what could that possibly be?" the white-haired man shouts, waving his arms about as if awaiting truth from on high.

"The errors in computation you've made are what have led to those deaths," Faraj says, coming closer and towering over the short man: "If you had been correct to begin with, no one would have died. If you had learned from the error and fixed the problem, there wouldn't have been any further deaths. And now, twenty attempts later, and forty-three deaths later, you're still wrong, and still blaming me for accepting your word that this time will be different."

Dr. Heila looks up at Faraj, grimacing. But when Faraj doesn't so much as blink, the grimace fades, and he slowly looks down and away. 

"You're asking me to do the impossible," he mutters.

"You told the Terre Unifee's science council you could make this work, in exchange for your early release," Faraj reminds him, putting a heavy hand on his shoulder: "You also promised them you would take your medication-"

"I can't work with that paska in my head!" the short mega-genius hisses, tapping his forehead with both hands: "It's like making hand-sex with my hands tied behind my back! How can I do this?"

"You'll find a way, I'm sure," Faraj says, putting another, equally-heavy hand on the man's other shoulder and looking at all the other people on the flight deck: "We will all find a way, together. Failure is not an option, here. We will do what we have to, sacrifice what we have to, in order to make this mission succeed."

"Easy for you to say, you-" Dr. Heila begins to say, but falls silent as Faraj looks down upon him with that look. 

"If you think this is easy, you have it quite wrong," he says, looking up and around: "We have a funeral, the day after tomorrow. Specialists Rickman and Jones will be consigned to the darkness, beyond. Before then, tomorrow night, we will be turning the room on once more. 

"Let's see to it that we only bury two people at that funeral, shall we?" he finishes, patting the short mega-genius on the shoulder: "And let's be sure to take our medication. Throwing a pen at your superior officer isn't going to look good in my final report."

The fellow hisses and sputters as Faraj walks away, heading over to where Walker In/With the Darkness is hanging from to take his report. He might do more, but Brightstarsurfergirl pointedly stands between him and Faraj, pointing her finger -- first at him, and then at his workstation.

He doesn't much like that, either. But after a time, he stops sputtering and cursing, and looks back over his notes, and begins to work as though there had been no interruption at all. 

And he does that all through the night, not noticing another thing. 

* * *

Faraj's office, such as it is, is not far from the flight deck, itself. He told everyone it's because he wanted to be as close to the action as possible, but the truth is that, whatever purpose this small, otherwise-featureless room may have once had, its view actually rivals that of the flight deck, itself. 

And at times like this -- having to talk to his superior officer, at the end of the day -- he needs that view as a drowning man needs a lifeline. 

"I know the man's a handful, Faraj," Director Guillaume Brilliand insists, his holographic image rising from the communicator on Faraj's makeshift desk, near the door: "But he is the most gifted xeno-technician we've ever dealt with. Give him a few minutes with most pieces of alien technology and he'll figure out what it does. Give him a few hours, he'll know why it works-"

"And in a few days, he'll take it apart, put it together, and make improvements," Faraj finishes for the wasp-faced, bespectacled man: "I know these things. So why isn't he doing that, here?"

"Well, he is operating at a distinct disadvantage," the Director admits: "He's brilliant, but he's also insane. And the medicine he's on to make certain he doesn't do reprehensible things to your crew, or, worse, the ship itself-"

Faraj holds up his hand: "That's the problem, Director. He has not been taking his medicine. He's bragging about that fact, in fact. And all I've got from him is excuses, insults, and dead crew members."

"Well, I think you had better make certain he gets on his regimen as soon as possible," the man insists, adjusting his necktie: "The last time he went off them... well, let's just say it was messy, and not easy to contain."

"I know. I read the file. That's why I didn't want to work with him."

"But yet you will work with this person from Mars?"

"Yes. Walker In/With the Darkness has proven himself to have amazing insights into the nature of what we're finding up here."

"I wonder why that might be," the Director sniffs.

"Because his people have had a lot more time in space than we have," Faraj insists, not liking the man's insinuation: "They were a space-faring people before we even appeared on the scene. If this thing that's coming hadn't ruined their world, they might have even landed here."

"I know this, Faraj," Director Brilliand says, holding up a hand: "And I've told you before about this tendency of yours to romanticize things, and not see them for what they are-"

"I can see clearly, sir," Faraj insists, standing up and looking down at his superior's image: "I am here, heading up the world's effort to stop this thing before it gets past the orbit of Mars. We have the Martians' blessing, and can count on their aid, in this matter. The Venusians are on board as well, as much as they can be.

"But to make this scheme work, we have to get this ship operational. There is no time to get anything else ready. And to make this ship operational means getting an engine to work that is clearly unfinished and dangerous. 

"And what have you contributed to it?" he asks, leaning in a little closer: "Competent men, and all the materiel and transportation I need, yes. But all we have to interpret what we're dealing with is a madman who used to make contact with extraterrestrials, kill them, steal their technology, and rob banks in Helsinki with their wares. Not exactly the best choice for the job."

"You'll have to make do with what you have, Faraj," the Director says: "It doesn't have to be perfect. It just have to be mobile. If nothing else, we can fix it to explode and launch it right down its throat."

"Provided that would even work," Faraj says, raising a very tall eyebrow at this new strategy: "What makes you think this is an option?"

"We have our sources," Brilliand says: "And speaking of which, mine tell me you have a test to prepare for, and a funeral to arrange, so I'll leave you to that?"

And then he terminates the conversation without another word. 

"Lovely," Faraj sighs, turning his end of the communication off and wishing he could just fly down to France, meet the Director in a dark alley, and decapitate him before he did anything else stupid.

However, that would certainly be a waste of effort. He's sure the fellow probably did ten more equally stupid things, just after hanging up, so that one, bloody act of noble rebellion would do no good.

But he pats his sword as he looks out the window, thinking of times gone by, and the solutions they required...

* * *

"So you're the man who fell into our battle?" the tall, large, and mostly-naked man asks, pouring a thick, clear liquid into an earthen mug. The smell is potent, even from here, and promises refreshment. 

"I... my name is Capitaine Faraj al-Ǧazāʼir," he stammers where he kneels in the sand, between two equally-large, also mostly-naked men, all under the shade of a thick, colorful tarp: "I will tell you nothing-"  

"He keeps repeating that, Leader," the man on Faraj's left says, not without some humor: "I think it may be a prayer of some kind."

"Is it?" the leader asks, coming closer so Faraj can get a good look at him. Like the others he has his hair and beard incredibly long, and wears only a pouched leather belt, strung with many things, and a red shoulder cape that seems to glow under the half-light. He also wears a black choker around his neck -- just like the one they forced onto Faraj, after the battle -- and carries a strange weapon that looks equal parts gun and sword, sheathed at his belt.

He's no different from the others, this man. But something about how he carries himself -- the look in his eyes --  reveals him to be the absolute leader, here. No rank or insignia is needed.   

Faraj looks up at him with all the defiance he can muster, which isn't a lot given how blooded and battered that fight left him: "If you want to see me pray, tell me which way Mecca lies."

"Mecca?" the man asks, looking out the sides of the tarp at the dark, blue-green sky beyond -- its depths studded with bright, pulsing lights, orbited by irregular specks: "This is a land I know nothing of."

"What are you, an apostate? You speak Arabic, so you must know."

"Ah, I see," the leader says, kneeling down to look his guest in the eyes: "We are speaking a language, you and I. You hear mine as yours, and I hear yours as mine. That's part of what the Neck-Guard does."

"What's the other?"

"It reveals you to be our friend, or an enemy," he says, extending the mug: "Black is good. Red is not."

Faraj looks at the mug, and then at the man, who smiles at him: "If you knock that mug away, I'll make you lick its contents up out of the sand. Trust me, you don't want that."

"Why not?"

"Because it won't taste good," he says, handing it to Faraj, and then getting back up again: "And you don't want the others' first impression of you to be on your knees, like a scavenging creature, licking through the sand for scraps."

"Why should I care?" Faraj asks, holding off on drinking what he's been given: "Who are they to me?"

"An excellent question," the leader says, looking out at the many others outside, all tending to each others' wounds, and sharpening their gun-swords: "You are nothing to me, or to any of us. And yet, when your ship crashed into the middle of our battle against the Unknown Army, you took up arms and fought alongside them. Why?"

"I..." he thinks about that. Why had he done that? 

He'd been dazed and sickened by his journey, and it had been all he could do to locate any land and bring the craft down as best as he could. And when he'd seen the others he'd landed amongst fighting those other people, there in that frenzied and maddening battle...

"Their eyes," he says, remembering the crazed look in the eyes of the ones he'd turned his service revolver against: "Something was wrong with them. They way they fought, the way they moved. They were clearly not in their right minds."

"Impressive," the leader says, and nods to the two men who've been flanking Faraj all this time. They leave his side and go with the others, leaving only the guards outside the tarp within striking distance. 

"You are Capitaine Faraj al-Ǧazāʼir," the man repeats, sitting down on the ground and getting some of the liquid for himself: "I can sense the first bit of that is a rank. You are a soldier, of sorts. You have taken orders and given them. You are prepared to give your life for your people, your cause. So what I am about to tell you should make some sense."

"I certainly hope so," Faraj says, not having any of the liquid until his host does -- something that makes the leader smile, just a little. 

"We are warriors, here," the man says, gesturing to the men and women outside: "Beings from the many islands of the Viridian Sea, all fighting a battle against a truly terrible army. You saw them, today, and you knew at once the threat they represented, much in the way one animal can sense the sickness in another."

"Who are they?" Faraj asks, finding this drink to be quite good.

"That is a question with two answers, and neither of them are of any comfort," the leader explains, looking straight into Faraj's eyes: "The first answer is that they are the Unknowing Armies of the Endless Empire. They have been joined with the Unseen Emperor, so as to become one mind, one hand, one soldier, one army. They have eyes everywhere, they can see from one end of the Viridian Sea to the other, and they convert both openly and in secret.

"But the other answer? They are ourselves, Faraj. They are our husbands and wives, our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors, our lovers and children. They are a foe made of people, like ourselves. When I say that they have been converted, what I mean is that a sickness has taken them. Over the ages, countless islands have fallen to it, so that vast reaches of the sea are black with rot and contagion. 

"At best, we can hold it at bay, as we have done today. At worst, all we can do is deny it victory."

Faraj looks into the man's eyes, and then nods, shivering. 

"This frightens you?" the man demands.

"Would it not frighten you?" Faraj asks, having some more the liquid to steady himself: "I believe your words, sir. Somehow, I know you are telling me the truth. And that is a terrible thing to consider. A plague that destroys the will?"

"A plague that replaces it," the leader corrects, standing up: "'One Mind, One Hand, One Army -- Endless.' You'll hear them chanting that when they come at you. And they'll shout it when they reveal themselves to be infected, maybe just before they explode their heart-bombs and send bone into your skin, there to infect you in turn."

That doesn't help Faraj at all, but he does his best to not show fear -- a thing that makes his host much happier. 

"The neck-guard is your lifeline," he explains, pointing to it: "Lose your cape, your shot-sword, your water, your manhood, but do not lose your neck-guard. Never approach another unless theirs is visible. If they approach you, kill them before they can speak."

"I will," Faraj says, standing up: "I understand."

"But you are afraid."

"I am, yes," he admits, looking out at the strange sky: "There's so much here that's strange to me-"

A smack across the face brings him back to the there and then. For a moment he almost strikes the leader, but the man's too quick for him, and there's a sword at his neck.

"Everything will be made clear to you in time," the man says, taking the sword away: "But first, let me show you something."

He marches him out of the tarp, and into the area where the others are. He then turns to one of the two men who'd brought him into his presence, and nods, quite pointedly. 

The other man nods back, and unsheathes his sword. At that moment, every single person in the camp stands up on their feet and looks right at him -- their eyes as hard as stone, as hot as fire. 

The man walks from person to person -- young and old, scarred and fresh -- and looks them in the eyes. Some kind of communication happens between them, perhaps, and he goes on to the next person, and the next, and the next...

Until he stops before a young man -- one who was among the last to rise. Faraj remembers him from the battle they were in. He screamed a lot, and not always from anger or determination. He ran and hid, once, and had to be urged back into the group. 

Something in his eyes is different. He's wavering in his steel, standing there before the other man. And before long it's clear the other man isn't going to move on, and is instead intent on standing before him, and looking him in the eyes.

The stalemate seems to go on forever, but at last the young man seems to collapse, somehow, and looks down. He closes his eyes and, in one quick motion, removes his neck-guard, handing it to the other man. 

The other man takes it, and puts it away. Then he takes the other man's head in his hand and kisses him -- long and tenderly. 

And then, a second after he breaks that kiss, he raises his sword up and, in one swift motion, takes the young man's head clean off at the neck.

Faraj almost gasps, but there's a hand on his shoulder before he can, and then the leader is whispering to him: "Fear is the real killer, here. They want us to be afraid. They want us to falter, and to doubt. So we don't let them have that victory. We remain unafraid, unfaltering, without doubt. And when we find it... we remove it."

"It's monstrous..."

"If he showed fear like that on the battlefield, he might make mistakes. If he makes mistakes, we could lose. If we lose here, we lose this island. And if we lose this island, so much more could be lost. 

"So which is more monstrous, to let him continue to be afraid, or to remind us all that we cannot be afraid?" 

"It's insane..." Faraj whispers back, watching as the others around the young boy take his body away -- their touch so gentle and loving, as if acting as a counterpoint to the slaughter they just witnessed. 

"It's your new reality," the leader says: "You will not show fear, stupidity, or cowardice. You will not tolerate it, either. If I see you being any of those things, I'll kill you myself. And if the day comes when I show any of those things, then do me the honor of taking your shot-sword and taking my head from my neck, before I bring you all down with me."

With that, he takes his hand off Faraj's shoulder. The man who just killed the boy is coming towards him, holding up the boy's shot-sword. 

"You'll learn how to use it before you can keep it," he says, smiling: "I'll train you tomorrow, after you've slept."

"If you get any sleep," the leader says, smiling a little: "Some of us might want you, tonight, as you're not uncomely. But remember, you can always say no."

"I can?" Faraj asks, looking at the sword he's being taunted with: "And no one will call me a coward and take my head?"

"Not for something like that," the leader insists -- some anger in his eyes at that suggestion: "This entire fight is about will, Faraj. It is about the right to say no. So yes, you may refuse all sorts of things, here. All but battle and my orders, of course."

And with that, he leaves to go back under his tarp, and Faraj is quickly surrounded by warriors -- men and women, young and old. They stare at him until he stares back, and then there's smiles and a welcome, introductions all around. There's a fire, and stories, and dancing, and other, less wholesome things, both away from the camp and right within it.

But even though things get ribald and strange, and the songs go on all night long, Faraj can't help but think of the utter defeat that he saw on that boy's face before the other man took his head. It's a look he'd seen many times, back on Earth, and one he'd sometimes seen on his own face. 

He'll have to learn to be careful about that, here, he realizes. To surrender is to die, in more ways than one. 

And whatever strange world Allah has seen fit to place him in, he will not surrender to it.

(SPYGOD is listening to Future Sound of London (My Kingdom, pt. 1) and having an Over the Edge IPA)

Friday, August 22, 2014

1/7/13 - (Faraj) My Kingdom - pt. 1

The Alpha Base Seven Memorial is quiet and still, but then, so is everything else up here on the Moon.

It's a simple thing, really -- even rows of smooth, black, coffin-like blocks, raised up three inches from the lunar surface. Each one bears the name of one of those lost in the silent but deadly conflagration that took place on 3/15, which wiped out the entire base in one go. Over 300 souls lost in the blink of an eye, the victim of an alien invasion they could never have seen coming.

It's a great and noble memorial. Somber and eternal. A solemn reminder of the sacrifice the Space Service calls upon its members to be ready to make at any moment.

But to Faraj al-Ǧazāʼir, the new leader of the Space Service, it reminds him of something else -- the mutable nature of the truth, and how it can and must be shaped for a greater purpose.

The world will never know what really happened here, that day. It will never know that some survived the initial onslaught, and tried to live under the nose of Deep-Ten. It will never know that the weapons platform's stricken commander, former Director Straffer, sought sanctuary here, after his lengthy fall through the vacuum, and engaged in a plan to knock those big guns out of commission.

And it will never know that, thanks to the cowardice and fear of some of its senior staff, that plan was ruined -- bringing death not only to the base, itself, but to billions of people on the Earth when Deep-Ten trained its massive weapons upon them.

Faraj does not like that this must be done. When he spoke with Straffer about what he'd seen at Alpha Base Seven -- how they'd dragged themselves up from  near-death, and actually stood a chance of surviving -- he was filled with admiration and pride. Was it right to bury the truth of their brave accomplishments, just to help their new narrative?

No, it was not. But at a time like this, when all hands were needed on deck, and all minds needed focusing in one direction, it was not the time to add complexities and complications.

So it was decided that the human failings of the dead would not be allowed to ruin the outlook of the living. The world didn't need to second-guess the motives and nobility of its saviors. The world needed heroes, now -- heroes and martyrs.

And if its betrayal at the hands of its so-called protectors had to be swept under a hefty rug of lunar dust, then so be it.

Faraj adjusts his stance, ever so slightly, looking over the horizon at the Earth as it rises into the light. A glittering jewel, blue and green and ever so beautiful. He'd only ever seen the slightest bit of that beauty on his first trip into space, so now, whenever possible, he sees as much of it as he can.

Rank does, after all, have many privileges.

He comes here, to this sad place, to think. He does this at least once a week if he can, and more if he can spare the time. Here, surrounded by black cairns raised to the dead, he can get out from under the avalanche he's been tasked with skiing just ahead of.

And there's a lot of things rolling downhill, right about now...

A beeping brings him back, and he scowls a little, turning his communicator back on: "This is urgent, of course?" he asks as imperiously as possible.

"You asked to be immediately informed when the latest autopsies were performed, sir," his newest communications officer stammers: "They're done."

"I see, thank you," he says, turning his communicator back off, again. He knew this moment would come, this day, but he was hoping for a few more minutes of contemplation, and planning.

No matter. The answers are not to be found here, but back where he came from.

"Brightstarsurfergirl," he says, knowing she can hear him, even through the vacuum outside of his suit: "I'm ready for pickup, please."

"I know," he hears her reply. It's not coming over his suit's communicator.

And she was probably already on her way. 

He barely sees the red and silver streak coming before it gains fullness and form, resolving itself into a girl with silver skin and flaming red hair, riding the cosmic waves astride a red, ruby board. She expertly pilots it right before him, coming just a nose-hair's distance away from the black stone that Faraj was regarding.

"Hop on, Spaceman," she giggles into the void, as if they were sharing some kind of joke.

"I think I'll step, thank you," he replies, doing just that: "A hop might send me a little too far."

"I'd pick you up."

"I know," he says, wrapping his arms around her waist and holding on tight: "Take me to the Egress, please."

And she does, chuckling all the way, as, even after all this time, that joke's never gotten old.

* * *

The ship floats in geostationary orbit over Pontianak, Indonesia -- just outside the atmosphere, not far from where the Imago's Space Elevator once stood.

What does it look like? Faraj has asked every single person who's approached it for their own take on it, and received many conflicting answers. A skyscraper that collapsed mid-construction is popular, as is that one optical illusion where three pipes become four. Other answers are more personal, and less coherent.

Clearly, it was going to be multi-dimensional. In its early stages, it looked something like a sled, but as the Imago built it up -- and out -- it became seemingly less functional, and more baroque. It grew spines and quills, gained curls and spirals, and developed a massive, violent shudder of a mouth in the front -- strange energies crackling between its hungry, steel teeth.

This is what they fly into, careful to avoid the deadly, streaming trails of plasma that slowly move from edge to edge like some lackadaisical gate. The theory is that the field should be covering the entire opening, but, given the state of repairs they found it in, after the Reclamation War, it wasn't completed, yet.

Going through this area always makes Faraj's hair stand on end, and yet makes him feel alive, which is why he insists everyone do the same. He needs to be certain they all understand the stakes, here.

He wants them to all feel the same sense of urgency.

Past the crackling field lies a great, open space, its surface dotted with structures as odd and overly-ornate as those outside. Between those strange, beetling and cuboid areas lie great, cylindrical conglomerations of clear plastic and steel girders, looking a lot like an overly-sophisticated maze for pet hamsters. These are the tunnels, workstations, and living areas made by the humans who've come here, so they can work on this alien ship in some semblance of comfort and safety -- however deceptive.

Behind it all, floating in the rear center of the ship, lies the great, ever-shifting conglomeration of wheels and spheres they've come to call the Zero Room. The very heart of the ship, so far as they can tell -- energy source and engine, all in one.

And the thing that's killed more men under his command than he's comfortable with.

Brightstarsurfergirl aims her board over to a simple, flat docking platform in the forward center of the open space, where a number of shuttecraft sit, awaiting their call to be refueled and sent home. At the far end of that platform is the sizable main airlock, where all traffic into and out of the innards of this alien ship must go.

As soon as the two of them are down, the ruby board vanishes, becoming nothing more than a wave of glowing particles. They slip and slide around the silver woman's body as if they were a swarm of bees,  eventually depositing themselves back into her hair, and hanging there like crystal jewelry.

"I never get tired of seeing that," Faraj says, winking, as they approach the airlock.

"That's why I never stop doing that," she replies, giggling a little.

* * *
Once inside the airlock, the avalanche resumes.

He's barely inside the clanging, close-quartered lockers before any number of people need him to sign something, look at something else, or listen to a report. The fact that he's getting out of his space suit does not deter them in this, but no sooner do they surround him than he gives them one !@#$ of an evil look. And they all quickly scatter, knowing this is not the time.

"I really need to get a Second," he reminds himself, aloud.

"You don't," Brightstarsurfergirl playfully chides him: "You need to be in the front. You said so yourself."

"I did, yes," he admits, easing out of the layer of thermal longjohns and reaching into his locker for his proper uniform: "But I'd forgotten what a mess command can be at times."

"Did you not command where you were?"

"Oh yes," he says, smiling as he gets into his tight-fitting, off-white station uniform: "But it was war, pure and simple. We planned, we fought, we recovered, we celebrated. Day after day, year after year.

"And never once did anyone have me fill out a report."

"I'm sure you would have killed them with your pen."

He smiles at that, and winks, finishing up securing his grip-shoes: "It's just possible."

She giggles at that: "How many ways can you kill a person with a pen?"

"Right tool for the job, my dear," he says, reaching into the locker to get his sword.

* * *

The pair of them head from the lockers -- him walking slow and sure on the grab-pads, her sauntering along as though she were back on Earth -- and go through what used to be the central command area. It was everything to everyone when they first arrived here, but is now more of a storage area and repair bay. And, once through that, they enter a long, reinforced tunnel that leads to the rest of the complex. 

The place is a hum and hive of activity. New white-suited workers are arriving every day, it seems, all ready and willing to throw themselves into this project. And no one is leaving until the job is done. 

As Faraj's main job is to make certain the job is done -- preferably well ahead of schedule -- he considers this good. But he also realizes that too many people is sometimes much worse than not having nearly enough. 

Although, given how things are going in the Zero Room, having too many people may not be enough.

A pair of guards are tethered outside the medical wing. They nod as he approaches -- saluting might send them spinning, here -- and one of them makes ready to let him in. 

"I want you to go to the flight deck and check in with Doctor Heila," he tells Brightstarsurfergirl: "See if he's gotten anywhere on the problem I set him upon."

"He hasn't," she says.

"Oh," he says, scowling: "You're there, now, too, then?"

"I am," she giggles: "Should I hit him or kiss him?"

"I'm sure you can find some way to impress the seriousness of the situation upon our good xenotechnician that doesn't involve sex or pain," he replies, not happy to hear this: "But if you'll concentrate there, I need to be completely here."

"I'll do that," she nods, and fades away into nothingness -- doubtlessly going to join herself on the flight deck, though whether it's all the same person, or ripples on the pond of spacetime, is something Faraj realizes he'll never know. 

* * *

The medical bay is large, with strap-beds up against the walls and large amounts of equipment. One poor fellow's being treated for what looks like a compound fracture, and the nurses are having a lot of fun getting him to sit still and stop groaning. One sideways look from Faraj is all he needs, and he straightens right up.

"He's in there, sir," one of the nurses says, pointing to the suite they've started using for autopsies. Faraj nods and walks over that way, taking care to open the door as slowly as possible.

Behind that door, Doctor Fuller is floating over the two tables his subjects lay on. The middle-aged, whip-skinny fellow doesn't even look in his direction before speaking, his voice a Scots brogue so slick and thick it's a wonder he can be understood: "About !@#$in' time you got here."

"I was held up."

"You were !@#$in' paying your bloody respects is what you were doing," he says, looking down at the two men's heads.

"You have a problem with that?" Faraj asks, stepping off the grab-pads and floating up beside him.

"Only when it gets in the way of my !@#$in' timetable."

"I thought you liked that?"

"Whatever," the man says, rolling his eyes: "I got the results in. All the bloodwork, makeup, DNA scans... all that !@#$. And what that tells us is bugger all."

"Exactly the same as the others?" Faraj asks, looking at the terrible expression on the faces of the two corpses -- their eyes white and starting, their mouths open in a silent scream.

"Exactly," Fuller says, reaching down and slowly pivoting himself around, so as to be looking directly down at their skulls: "And this time I managed to take special !@#$in' care while removing the skulls for inter-cranial !@#$in' examination, so I didn't !@#$in' lose half the !@#$ brain like those first few times."

"What did you find?" Faraj asks, pivoting himself likewise, so as to get the same look.

"!@#$est thing," he says, reaching down with both hands and gently removing the skull top from one of them, revealing what looks like a blob of swirling red and coral matter: "You see that, there? That stuff that should be !@#$in' solid?"

"I didn't think brains were solid?"

"Well gold star for you, sunshine. They aren't. But this !@#$ here is a liquid. Totally watery."

"And that's unusual to say the least."

"!@#$ straight it is," Fuller says, closing the skull back up: "If we weren't in zero G it'd be sloppin' all over the !@#$in' table. And I did a check on it. Know what I found?"

"Not what you were expecting, I take it," Faraj smiles.

"The DNA? Completely !@#$in' inert. Not a single !@#$ chromosome anywhere to be found in that mess."

"That is unusual," Faraj agrees, looking closer at the horrified expression on the nearest man's face: "So whatever happened to them in the Zero Room, and no one's still sure what happened at all-"

"Because it happens so quick no one sees a !@#$in' thing, and then they're just screaming and floating away."

"Right. And all the portable surveilance cameras go blank just around them, as if they were giving off a great deal of electromagnetic interference."

"Which would not do this to a person, by the !@#$in' way," Fuller insists: "Bake your !@#$ brains? Maybe. Liquify them into !@#$in' soup and nuke your DNA from !@#$in' orbit? No."

"So whatever happens, it does... this," Faraj says: "And it only ever happens in the Zero Room, while we're testing what's in there. And never the same time, or the same way, or the same position."

"Something in that room's !@#$in' killing people, Faraj," the doctor says, leaning forward: "As your ship's doctor? I'm telling you to stop !@#$in' around with it."

"And I'm telling you that if we want to get this ship out of orbit, and off to fight the thing that's coming, we have to get it working," Faraj sighs.

"Then at least do it by !@#$in' remote or something!" Fuller shouts: "Get everyone out and turn it the !@#$ on then! Watch it on the !@#$in' cameras, have a !@#$ robot do it. !@#$, get that silver tart to do it. I bet she'll be fine-"

"We can't do that,' Faraj says, holding up a hand and looking the man in the eyes: "We cannot send signals into the Zero Room. We cannot run things by remote. They have to be done manualy, in real time. And for that, we need people."

"So not her, eh?"

"I'm hesitant to send her in there," he admits: "If something goes wrong with her, who knows what might happen?"

"Yeah, as opposed to these other poor !@#$ers, here," Fuller sighs, realizing he's not winning this one.

"I share your concern," Faraj says, floating close and putting his hands on the man's shoulders: "If there were any other way I could do this, I would. But we are so close to realizing how to work this machine, and so desperate to get it working. And running out of time."

"I know," Fuller says: "But as your ship's doctor? I have to say this is a mistake."

"I agree," Faraj sighs, turning to go: "But we must continue."

"Aye, we must," Fuller mocks him, however gently: "You'll be wanting them send into space, then?"

"Yes, please," Faraj says: "Clean them up and we'll convene a funeral at 1200 hours, tomorrow-"

"Have to make it the day after," Fuller sighs: "I checked. The ejector's on the !@#$in' blink."

"Really?" Faraj asks, smiling a little: "I'll have to talk to maintenance about that, then."

"Aye, you might," the doctor says, also smiling a little: "You busy, later?"

"I probably will be, yes," Faraj sighs, knowing what the man wants -- and what he wants too, !@#$ it -- "But I'll let you know if anything comes up?"

"Aye, do that, then," Fuller says, letting the pun slide without comment: "Oh, one other thing? You might want to keep an eye peeled. It seems we've got ghosts."

"Ghosts?' Faraj asks, turning around before he gets to the door.

"Got about a dozen reports in, last few days. People are saying they're seeing people one minute, and then they aren't !@#$in' there. Just vanishing, they are."

"What sort of people?"

"Can't get a good look at them, apparently," the doctor admits: "There and gone. Though I got one person what's sworn they !@#$in' said something."

"What?" Faraj asks, intrigued.

"'Intercourse,' if you can !@#$in' believe that," Fuller chuckles.

"Well, at least they've got healthy libidos for being dead," Faraj smiles, wondering what this means but hiding his concern: "I'll keep my eyes open."

And with that he's out and gone, thinking he knows what's going on, here.

And not liking it a single bit.

 (SPYGOD is listening to "My Kingdom" (Future Sound of London) and having an Orion Zero Life)