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.)

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