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)

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