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What are you afraid of? Part 2
Jane stepped out of the tunnel and into the coliseum. She gasped. The seats and stands in front of her fell away to reveal a cavernous arena. Lights and cameras on wires reached up to stories higher than skyscrapers. The seats stretched to her left and right around the arena to the other side where she could barely make out the spectators. This coliseum could surely fit millions of people and dwarfed anything back on Earth. Jane didn’t realize such a construction could exist.
Gunter stepped up behind her. "Haha, largest structure of its kind!" He bragged.
"It's enormous..." Jane whispered. Her hand reached out to grab the railing and steady herself. She felt out of place, every species that surrounded them in the stands was grouped with two or three of their own. But Jane was alone. The only human here. It was an entirely different world. She looked at Gunter. "I can't do this."
"I don't belong here. I don't understand any of this. I--" She tried to say more but struggled to continue against the tightness in her chest.
A worried expression flickered across Gunter's face before being replaced by a reassuring smile. "I know this may seem a bit overwhelming. And..." He cast his eyes down. "I know you didn't ask for this. But you're at the forefront of something new! Your species is on the cusp of breaking into the greater galactic community. And, yes, I may have cheated a bit by bringing you here early. But you have an opportunity to introduce humanity in a spectacular fashion!" Gunter's smile brightened and his chest swelled. "So, what do you say?"
Jane forced herself to breathe. Things weren't as bad as they seemed. If humanity was really an up-and-coming species in the galaxy then the world would soon rapidly change. Back home should have given her left arm to be at the forefront of that. She didn't trust herself to speak, but she nodded.
Gunter placed a hand on her shoulder. “Come, the cafeteria is this way.” He led her through the tall hallways that flanked the stands. Gunter’s normal boisterous-self seemed subdued. Jane wondered if he was concerned about how panicked she had felt or if the tournament drawing nearer was distracting him.
They turned left at an archway and stepped into a room that Jane assumed must be the cafeteria. The room was large and open. There were rows of tables and benches that stretched from wall to wall and a buffet-style serving area was set up in the back of the room. It seems some things don't change. Gunter smiled, “Wait here and I’ll get you something to eat.”
Jane sat down on one of the benches at the table Gunter indicated. A few tables over there was a group of aliens talking over a meal. They look like giant ants, Jane thought, with more body sections and rounder heads. Each of their hands had three digits and two thumbs. One of them noticed her looking and she quickly averted her eyes. She didn’t want to bring any more attention to herself than she had to.
Gunter arrived with food and sat back down at the table. He handed Jane a hot bowl of something that smelled good. His bowl was large and full of plant matter. Jane paused a moment as she tried to think of a tactful way to ask about the other aliens, she said, “What kind of people are those?” subtly pointing to the group she had noticed earlier at the other table.
Gunter turned to look, twisting his whole body and staring. Jane rubbed her temple and tried to look somewhere else. Gunter turned back and said, “Oh the Malkens! Bunch a Greed-Firsts.” He smiled. “Just pay them no mind, they really do only think about themselves. It makes them unbearably competitive though…”
One of the insect-like beings got up and sauntered over to their table. He sat down next to Gunter and across from Jane.
Gunter did a double-take when he recognized the Malken. “Skytter.” He said cooly.
“How’s it going big guy? How are the laughs?” Skytter chuckled to himself but to Jane it sounds more like crickets chirping. He looked at Jane. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your lusty new friend?”
Again, with these sexual references. Could humanity really be the deviants of the galaxy? Are all other species just prudes? Jane was beginning to doubt this "Lust-First" designation.
Gunter laughed, perhaps a bit hollower than usual. He said, “Jane this is Skytter. He won last year’s tournament and will be competing again this year.”
“Yes, that’s right. One can only hope that the crown goes to a worthy champion.” Skytter eyed Gunter. “And not someone from a backwater system who was entered at the last minute.” He said testily.
“I haven’t broken any rules Skytter.”
Skytter smiled deviously. “Gunter, baby. You know me better than that. I’m not accusing you of breaking any of your precious rules. I’m accusing you of ruining my long-time strategies by bringing in unknown variables.” He looked at Jane. “I’m sure you're lovely dear but I take this very personally you see.”
Jane felt like she was being put on the spot. She stammered, “I’m really not much of a threat. I-I don’t even know how this tournament works.”
Skytter pantomimed shock. Rolling his head back like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Gunter quickly said, “I was just getting to that--”
Skytter cut him off, “No no no, this is too much Gunter. An uncontacted species that doesn’t even know the rules? An unknown unknown?!”
Gunter stuttered. "Well, I-- you see-- it's just--"
Skytter continued, “Well I won’t stand for it. Jane,” he said laying a hand on the table, “I can’t have you throwing just anything out there. I insist on explaining the rules. And who better,” he looked at Gunter, “than the current champion?”
“Fine.” Gunter snorted. The he looked at Jane. “If he leaves anything out I’ll let you know.”
“Splendid.” Skytter remarked. He turned to look at Jane and smiled. “First things first, there are three trials. Before the tournament starts you submit one monster per trial--”
“Two for the last one.” Gunter interjected.
“What? Since when?”
“Since last week. Do you even read the tournament announcements?”
“More last-minute changes.” Skytter grumbled. “Alright, two monsters for the last trial.”
“How do you submit monsters, exactly?” Jane asked.
“They scan your mind.” Skytter said simply. “And you have to type up a short description too for… documentation reasons, I guess.”
Jane glanced at Gunter but he just shrugged. Skytter continued, “The first trial -- this year -- consists of a single-family dwelling inhabited by six Avatars. Two parental figures and four offspring." He paused and his smile got wider. "Though you’ve probably got a lot more siblings yourself eh?”
Jane sighed. Another Lust-First jab. Maybe she'll ask Gunter to see what kind of research he did prior to abducting her. But it's probably better to save that for another time. She looked at Gunter. “What are Avatars?”
Gunter smiled. “They are androids created for the purpose of being the victims in this tournament. They are called Avatars because -- in order to ensure a fair outcome -- they incorporate the minds of all sapient races, er, that is,” he winced, “except uncontacted races.”
"So, they're robots with neurologically engineered minds that are subjected to the worst horrors in the galaxy?"
Jane was shocked. “Isn’t that unethical?”
“Well technically they’re barely sentient and are little more than puppets with an autonomic nervous system, and,” he added, “they can’t feel pain. If that makes you feel better.”
Skytter jumped back in, “The alternative is scaring real sapients and, of course, we couldn’t do that. Not since we found a way to make the monsters feel so very real.” He grinned with a gleam in his eye. “Malken monsters often inflict psychological pressures and attacks on their victims, which is only really achievable through special programming of the Avatars’ minds.”
Jane was confused, “So do everyone’s monsters fight to scare the Avatars the most?”
“No no, the monsters go one at a time. Their performance is judged by carefully selected metrics in Avatar programing, by audience popular vote, and, of course, by a panel of judges. The scores are tallied up and at the end the winner is crowned Fear King, or Queen, I guess.”
“So, it’s like a talent competition to be the scariest?”
Skytter hesitated. “Uh, I guess you could put it like that. Except for the third trial: The Arena. That’s just a straight up death match between two randomly selected monsters.”
Gunter chimed in, “Haha yes the Arena has been a wildly popular recurring trial ever since it debuted during the tenth anniversary games!”
“So, I should pick scary, strong monsters for that one?” Jane reasoned. Her mind began churning with ideas.
Skytter grinned. “Yes, I can imagine your monsters might have very strong… childbearing hips.”
Gunter snickered. “Hehe, no it would be some male blinded by lust rage.”
“Actually, I think--” Jane started.
Skytter laughed. “They probably do battle with their genitals in some kind of mating ritual.”
“I’m not sure you have the righ--”
Gunter snorted with laughter. “And they probably enjoy it waaaaay too much.”
“Could you not--”
Skytter pounded on the table, crying. “I can just imagine them bludgeoning each other to death.”
Jane threw her hands in the air. “Just -- just tell me where to go to make monster submissions!” If they weren't going to take her seriously she'll just have to show them what it really means to be afraid.
Jane turned to see an alien she didn’t recognize standing about ten feet away. The alien said, “I’m from the engineering department. Something has come up with your monster submissions. Can we speak privately?”
“Of course.” Jane said. She followed the engineer a little way into a nearby, empty luxury box.
The alien pulled up some information on her datapad. She said, “You submitted something called an Eldritch…S-Shoggoth...? That you described as ‘A 5th dimensional being that appears as an amorphous ball of black slime covered in proto-eyes. Its edges are difficult to make out due to its higher dimensional nature’… da da da… ‘can form its body into limbs and tentacles at will’… da da da… some other more terrifying things...yeah.” The engineer looked up. “The fabricator that tried to make this broke. We’re not entirely sure why, but I don’t think it can work in higher dimensions. No one's ever tried to do that before.”
Jane shrugged, “Shame.”
“So, I took the liberty of going through your other submissions before we fed them into the remaining fabricators. Most of these monsters are" She paused searching for words, "...something else. I'm not sure we can fabricate any of these, at least, not in their current form."
Jane chuckled. "Sounds like these fabricators are pretty limited."
"We've literally never had these problems before." The exasperated engineer said. "All of your submissions are either too big, or too complex, or too unnatural. And, um, what are 'memetic hazards'?"
“Ideas that can cause harm to anyone who is exposed to them, usually through loss of sanity or autonomy.”
She just stared at Jane.
“Like a picture that makes you want to murder your friends or something.” Jane offered.
“Aren't scary things usually more tangible?" She asked.
Jane thought, a certain basilisk would like to have word with you, but she said, "Do you need me to submit different monsters? Am I allowed to make substitutions?”
“Yes, yes, of course, I'll just mark it as an engineering requested change. Follow me back to the submission room.”
From inside the cafeteria the announcer’s voice was muffled and difficult to make out. Jane, Gunter, and Skytter instead watched the tournament through a large display on the cafeteria wall. The setup is remarkably similar to televised sports event on Earth, Jane thought. There were even two event hosts smiling at the camera sitting in a booth that overlooked the arena.
The alien on the left spoke first. “Hi my name is Woggurfird’th of Annenonia and this is my co-host Polokjammn Rigng Weasxco the Third and you’re watching the sixteenth iteration of the Fear Games!”
You've got to be kidding me, Jane thought, this is going to be way too hard to keep track of. The one on the left spoke again, Jane mentally categorized him as ‘Skinny Host’ while his partner was ‘Fat Host’. Skinny host was saying, “... and that's just how many beings are physically present! This tournament is also being broadcast live throughout the galaxy to hundreds of billions of spectators!”
“Right you are,” said Fat Host, “and for those of you just tuning in, we are minutes away from the first monster being released in the terrible, first trial.”
“Yes, the aptly named Family Dwelling Trial.” Said Skinny Host placing emphasis on each word.
“I know this trial has a special significance for me because I grew up in a house that looked remarkably like the one you see in the arena center right now.”
“Is that right?” Skinny Host asked with a well-manicured incredulity.
“It’s a true story. And I imagine the intention is for this trial to hit a little, ‘close to home’ shall we say. Haha.”
“Haha. I’m sure the competitors today will get your hearts or other organs racing. It’s almost time to start so let’s tune in to the arena.” The camera faded to a close up of the outside of the dwelling and then several shots of its furnished interior.
The announcer's booming voice could be heard through the display. “The first trial begins! Avatars take your stations.” Six bipedal figures could be seen entering the house. Five went upstairs into their respective bedrooms and one stayed downstairs and turned on the display there. Jane assumed that was one of the parentals who was watching whatever the equivalent of late night television was.
The Skinny Host’s voice could be heard. “Uuuup first is a new nightmare submitted by a Freejon…”
“Anger-First species.” Gunter whispered. “Their monsters typically aren’t very subtle, but this one is new so it might be different.”
“...called a Gunwich.”
Jane peered at the display as the scene switched to one of the rooms on the bottom floor. The room was dark but a large shape began materializing as if it was phasing through the wall. The Gunwich, Jane presumed, was a hulking bipedal beast of red and black fur with a face roughly where it’s belly button should have been. It would have been cute, she thought, if it weren’t for the unsettling, Cheshire-like grin it wore on its face. It cast an aura of malintent.
The creature made its way to the seemingly oblivious Avatar on the ground floor and stood menacingly over his shoulder, hands poised for action.
Gunter leaned towards Jane. "It's probably going to rip his head off." The crowd too seemed to anticipate some violence. Their restless chatter fell silent. Jane said, "That might be gross but it wouldn't be that frightening."
Gunter rolled his eyes. "No need to act tough. We'll see what happens soon."
At first nothing happened. Then the Avatar started to fidget. He began growling and shouting at the television. He stood up and started yelling at the top of his lungs. Jane couldn't understand a word he was screaming.
Skinny Host spoke up. "It looks like the Gunwich is inducing a state of rage in the Father Avatar."
"Certainly fitting for the Freejons." Fat Host remarked. "But the creature will have to do more than that if it wants to win the crowd."
The display switched to show a shot of the crowd, some of whom already seemed to be booing the performance.
By this point the Father Avatar was throwing and smashing the furniture around him. One of the Avatars that was upstairs, presumably the mother, had gone downstairs to see what all the noise was. The Gunwich was standing at the bottom of the staircase smiling creepily at the Mother Avatar, but she didn't notice and walked right past. Once she saw what the Father Avatar was doing she began screaming at him.
Jane watched passively for the rest of the trial as Gunwich-induced rage caused the Avatars to violently attack their surrounds and eventually each other. She thought that it was okay as far as action-horror goes but not the thriller she was expecting. The crowd had a different reaction.
The camera was panning around the stadium picking out their reactions.
"Look at that guy!" Gunter pointed.
On the screen was a goat-like alien sitting with both arms above his head. He was drooling gratuitously and staring blankly into the arena.
The television hosts were chuckling. "Looks like he's dazed and confused." said the Fat Host.
"Haha, it might be awhile until he can be shaken out of his frightened stupor."
Gunter laughed along with them. "Haha, talk about a debilitating fear reflex." He slapped Jane on the shoulder.
Jane was bewildered. This was a fear response?
The display switched back to the amused hosts. "Ho ho, at least three members of the crowd have fainted from fright!" The Skinny Host said ecstatically. "A performance that started slow, finished strong. And may end up being one of the top two first-trial monsters we see here tonight."
"Right you are," said Fat Host, "it takes a pretty good show to get a reaction like that from the crowd. The judges of course, will withhold their scoring decision until the end of the first trial. But I would not be surprised if they were floored by this display."
Gunter smiled and nudged Jane. “Haha what’d you think of that?”
“Meh.” Jane shrugged.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I was expecting more.”
Gunter grumbled. “Well there’s plenty more coming.”
Each monster that ran through the first trial proceeded to be less impressive than the ones that came before it. And every time the crowd would recoil in fear and the announcers would sing praises about the frightening capabilities of the monsters. One of the competing creatures--from some species called the Walns--was a gelatinous blob that slimed the furniture and "chased" the Avatars. What's even scary about that? You could just walk away from it. Jane decided she was surrounded by pansies.
Gunter smiled at Jane. “Now’s your time to shine.” At the same time Skytter sat down on the other side of Jane and said, “I heard you weren’t impressed by my Klikleer.”
Jane said, “Well I just didn’t find your monster that scary, but lots of other people did so I’m sure you’ll do well.”
Skytter snorted. “Yeah okay, let’s see what you got.”
The lights dimmed in the stands and the camera focused on the dwelling in the arena. The furniture and the fixtures and the entire house were immaculate as if a dozen monsters hadn’t just torn through them. The Avatars themselves were in their usual positions.
A shadowy form descended from the ceiling. A black bipedal figure with an elongated head and a long tail. It moved with an unnatural gait, stalking forward looking for prey. No eyes could be seen but it had sharp teeth in its mouth. The creature stalked in the second-floor hallway and paused before the room of one of the children Avatars. Then it ever so delicately reached out a hand and opened the door.
Skytter whispered, "What, is it going to give him some goodnight kisses?" He snickered.
Jane rolled her eyes. Gunter said, "I wouldn't want to be within thirty feet of that thing. It makes me feel uneasy just looking at it."
The monster approached the child's bed. Its hunched body leaned over the child's sleeping form, jaws opened wide and thick globs of saliva dripping onto the bed. Suddenly a smaller proboscis like mouth shot out of the monster's larger mouth and took an enormous bite out of the child's face. The sound it made was sickening.
"What the hell?" said Skytter. He shrunk back from the display and into his chair.
"I certainly wasn't expecting that." remarked the fat television host.
"It's just so grotesque." Said the Skinny Host. "I see a number of audience members who appear to be averting their eyes."
At the sound of the face-munch the Mother Avatar bolted upright in her bed. Either dozens of monsters had left an impression on her or she just had a natural paranoia for things in the night that go crunch. She quickly moved out into the hall and pressed a hand against the ajar door of the child's bedroom. She gasped. She gurgled.
A long and sword-like tail had pierced her abdomen. The beast hissed.
"Wow! Gruesome." Said Fat Host. "It looks like two members of the audience have lost consciousness and at least three have triggered some sort of biological voiding response."
The camera panned to a group in the crowd covered in some odd colored liquid that was still spraying from the mouth of one of the aliens. One of its many mouths it seemed.
"Woah, it might be hard to clean that out. This show isn't for those with weak constitution that's for sure." Said Skinny Host. "Say Woggurfird’th, what's this monster called again?"
"It is called 'The Xenomorph', though I don't know if it's going to do any morphing. I am expecting it to go on a rampage."
And rampage it did.
The Xenomorph stalked through the house blending in with the shadows. It somehow avoided the main cameras that had been installed in the house and was only ever seen on the edge of the screen. But before the trial ended, each of the remaining avatars met a death more gruesome than the last. It was clear to everyone, even before the judges had awarded a perfect score, this was something new.
The Skinny Host was saying "...and nothing, I mean nothing, has gotten a bigger reaction from the audience in all the tournaments I've seen."
"A record number of people have had to be carried out of their seats." Fat Host chimed in. "I'm still getting the figures but it's at least several dozen if not almost a hundred. The strong showing we saw from the Gunwich takes a distant second to this Xeno-monster."
"And while some in the audience might be faltering, our broadcast viewership is up twenty eight percent over last year and growing. Can you imagine what the Arena numbers will look like?"
"The real question tonight," said the Fat Host, "is what will the next trial hold in store?"
"Haha congratulations Jane!" said Gunter jubilantly. "I knew you'd do well!"
Jane blushed. "Aw thanks Gunt--"
"Don't bother expecting to do as well next trial." Skytter cut in. "I know a fluke when I see one."
Gunter smiled, "You're just jealous."
"I-- I am not!" Skytter stammered. "But nobody could come up with something like that monster..." He shuddered. "And still have anything left for the remaining trials."
"We'll see." Jane smirked.
"And we're back folks! Ready for the second trial after the harrowing finish of the last trial. Polokjammn here will describe the situation."
The Skinny Host turned to face the camera. "The second trial will take place in a labyrinth. A terrible twist of corridors where all paths seem only to lead back to the center. Five intrepid adventurers, our beloved avatars, will be wandering the labyrinth when our contestants frightening creations are let loose."
“And now” said the Fat Host. “Let us begin.”
“Our next monster from our mysterious Human contestant is The Heart of Darkness!”
The five intrepid adventurers had begun analyzing the various runes carved into the walls of the central room. The heavy stone floor began to slowly open, grinding loudly against itself. The Avatars, for their part, looked as shocked at the development as they had for every prior contestant. The crowd in the coliseum scooted to the edge of their seats as they eagerly awaited the reveal of the monster.
A tentacle first appeared in the gap. One of the female Avatars gasped. Soon a spikey leg appeared, then another. In short order a heaping mass of flesh pulled itself into the labyrinth. No less than six spines and four tentacles protruded from what appeared to be a large heart. The spines supported the heavy weight of the car-sized organ.
The Heart and the Avatars stood deathly still. Suddenly a tentacle snatched the leg of one of the Avatars and violently drug him across the floor. A voice came from nowhere, "In the estate I found him. Sitting calmly as though I knew what he had done. Whence the time came I would slaughter his woe to be found in that wretched place." Though it had no mouth to speak of, the Heart's words could easily be heard while it tried to pull the male Avatar free from the grip of his compatriots.
"It speaks!" exclaimed the Fat Host. Only Jane would recognize the accent as an older Victorian gentleman speaking very calmly.
"What in the galaxy is it saying?" muttered Skytter.
"No one knows." Said Jane.
After an extended dragging the Heart threw the Avatar down one of the twisting hallways. His companions shouted as they chased after him. In that same measured tone, "Frothing at the chance to save what once was a mother of mine. Shackled to the earth. Shackled in blood. Limbs tearing, I fought for this life and I shall claim it by force."
A tentacle snatched another Avatar and pulled it under the Heart's throbbing mass where spines began to--
The camera quickly switched to an in-studio shot of the show’s hosts who's mouths and eyes were wide with shock. The screams of the Avatar could be heard in the background.
"Jane, haha." Gunter said slowly. "What is this thing and where is it from?"
"Anger-First. Greed-First. Joy-First." said Jane. Never taking her eyes off of the screen.
She turned to look at Gunter, "But you've never seen a Lust-First."
The Heart echoed down the labyrinth's walls, "Eyes of a woman torn by love hath first wrought. Speaking of weeks gone past were some hour of thine day sacrificed to me. To me. To me thy blood."
"Tell me." Jane continued. "Has your emotion-based classification system ever considered a Fear-First species?"
Gunter sat quietly for a few minutes then he said, "It's considered impossible for Fear-First species to rise to sapience. It's thought that fear-induced conflict avoidance inherent in the species would prevent the necessary communication and collaboration needed to evolve higher intelligence."
The TV screen showed flashes of tentacles and gruesome violence punctuated by the screams of the remaining Avatars. The show’s host were discussing how this may be the shortest survival time ever witnessed for this trial.
Jane said. "What if that's wrong? What if there’s an entire race of beings who evolved beyond their fear? They were shaped by it, molded by it, but they conquered it again and again. What if fear is so normal to us that we've become accustomed to it? Yet being afraid is the closest we get to really feeling alive? What would our society create to satisfy that feeling? What would we be afraid of?"
Gunter and Skytter sat silently. The Heart ravaged through the labyrinth tearing down walls to get to the last Avatar.
"Literally hundreds and probably thousands have fainted." Exclaimed the Fat Host. "Millions more cover their eyes in anguish. And yet, broadcast viewership is up over three hundred percent!”
"I've got to tell you this is something we've never seen before in the history of this tournament." said the Skinny Host. "Emergency services are overwhelmed here at the coliseum by the flood of calls for audience members. I've even heard a rumor that at least one guest has been scared to death."
"Which would be a tragedy."
"But at the same time a never-before-accomplished feat of fear!"
"It's truly amazing what's happening here and the tournament is but halfway through." Said the Skinny Host.
"I do hope those of you at home have fared better than some of our audience members here. Stay tuned for the final and most exciting trial... The Arena!"
Jane took this moment to break the silence. "If you're concerned, my next two monsters are more of the traditional variety. Still scary -- for you -- but less abominable."
Gunter smiled and said, "What have I gotten myself into?"
“Without further ado let's go to the Arena. Up first, a deadly nightmare from Cretatious-5, Hraedor, facing off against the stalker of the NMLAN, The Other!"
The display switched to a view of a wide-open space. At either end were the monsters, both standing on two legs with fierce, alien looking beaks. They charged each other, and the crowd roared its approval. The battle was long and hard fought but eventually Hraedor was declared the victor.
Gunter smiled, "So given what I now know, what was your Fear-First impression of that match?"
Jane replied. "Two oversized chickens tried to peck each other to death and it took twenty whole minutes."
"Let me know when it's supposed to be good."
Jane watched as match after match proceeded. A rhino-like beast with a sword-horn skewered a half-alien half-monkey. An animated ball of clay suffocated an angry horse head. And a hawkish-headed alien fried something with noodley appendages with what appeared to be a small star. The crowd seemed only to be mildly entertained so far. Jane suspected they were waiting for something.
"Now," began the Skinny Host, "for this next match we bring you the meanest miser you will ever meet and last year's reigning Arena champion, the mistress of death herself, Olrah!"
The crowd cheered wildly.
"And in the other corner what I can only describe as nothing except muscle and teeth, Cerberus!"
Gunter leaned towards Jane. "Olrah is good. But I don't know about the other one."
Jane smiled. "That's cause it's mine."
The three-headed dog pawed at the ground. One of the heads snarled at the crowd. On the other side of the arena a lone figure stalked forward, revealing an emaciated alien form.
"She doesn't look that dangerous." Jane said.
A that moment the figure raised her arms in the air and began to chant.
"She might not be physically dangerous, " Skytter chuckled, "But her armies of the dead are."
Bony claws burst from the floor of the arena. Olrah's chanting grew louder. Skeletons of all shapes and sizes began to pull themselves out of the ground.
"Nervous?" asked Skytter.
"No." said Jane. She couldn't take her eyes off the lumbering beasts of bones that now prowled the arena. "Dogs love to chew on bones."
As if on cue Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell, pounced on the nearest skeleton and quickly tore it to pieces. The hound let out a playful yip and its tail began to wag.
"Dogs are so cute when they're having fun." Jane remarked as Cerberus was ravaging the undead army.
"Wait...," mused Gunter, "I think I heard of dogs during my human research. What are they?”
"Well, for example, that is a dog." Jane pointed at the hell hound. "They're animals that we've domesticated and keep as companions. Although they're usually smaller and they only have one head."
Skytter said, “You domesticated that thing?!”
“It’s really an exaggeration.”
Skytter sighed, “What will you think of next?”
“My what an utterly, and I know I’ve said this a lot, but what a frightening monster!” Exclaimed the Fat Host. “The Black Beast of Erdoeth, no stranger to the Arena, is one of the strongest--”
The double doors on the other side of the arena burst from their frame. A large shadow stepped into the light.
“Oh! And here's its opponent! Apparently this one is called ‘A Motherfucking Dragon’... (are we sure that’s the right name?) ... (yeah, that’s what’s written down)”
“I’m sure.” Jane said to herself. She grinned. The dragon was smaller than she hoped for, but it was still the size of a bus and larger than the boar beast.
Upon seeing the boar, the red-scaled dragon reared up on its hind legs and stretched out its wings to their full width. It let out an ear-splitting roar. Jane could see the sound wave travel through the stands as the audience flinched in response. The boar, however, was unfazed. It merely dug its hooves into the dirt. And charged.
In response the dragon’s great wings lifted it into the air. Almost lazily, the dragon swooped down towards the charging boar and in one motion grabbed the boar by its meaty back and threw it into the stands. The boar’s flailing body looked like it was about to crush several dozen spectators before, at the last minute, it slammed into an energy shield and fell to the arena floor.
“Jesus tap dancing Christ on a stick!” shouted the Skinny Host. Jane tapped her neural translator quizzically.
The boar’s black sludge pooled around it as it struggled to get to its feet. The dragon was distracted, its attention focused on the spot where the energy shield had protected the crowd. Jane noted that the dragon seemed appropriately intelligent as she intended, but now was not really the time to be curious. "Finish him!" she shouted at the screen.
But the dragon continued staring at the crowd and the slight shimmer of the energy shield. It edged closer, it great wings flapping to hold it aloft. Claws outstretched the dragon tried to feel out the boundary of the shield wall when one of its wings clipped the shield above it. Energy coursed through the beast and with a blinding burst of light it fell smoldering to the ground. The crowd gasped.
"I certainly wasn't expecting that." said Skinny Host.
"The dragon was doing well but with a move like that the Beast of Erdoeth could turn this around." replied the Fat Host.
Sure enough Jane saw the cameras pan to the boar who was stomping the ground, splashing the sludge that had puddled around it.
Skytter laughed. "Not so tough, now are we?"
Jane scoffed. "It's not over yet." She watched as the dragon tried and failed to shift its legs under its large form. "Come on baby it's not over yet."
The boar beast let out a roar and charged. Sprinting across the open arena it would soon close the distance to the dragon. The crowd drummed with energy and its shouting rose to cacophonous levels.
The dragon raised its head to face its incoming foe and let a puff of smoke out of its nostrils. Then the dragon bared its teeth and let out a snarl. If it was growling it couldn't be heard over the din of the crowd. The dragon's chest swelled and it snorted again. this time a stream of black smoke bellowed forth from its nostrils. Jane smiled because she knew what was coming next.
Twin jets of flame erupted from the dragon's maw. The fire surrounded the boar beast and entirely obscured it from view. When the dragon's fire breath receded the boar-beast was still engulfed in flame. It continued to run, screaming, down the length the of arena. The fire was consuming the black sludge that poured from its eyes. The crowd went wild.
"It breathes fire!" shouted Gunter.
"Indeed, it does." replied Jane.
"Is there a group of humans who would dedicate their lives to dreaming up monstrosities?" Skytter through his hands in the air. "Because this is ridiculous!"
"Dragons are an older myth. Stories about them from many cultures have been around for a long time."
Gunter said quietly, "They are just a myth though, they're not real, right?"
Jane laughed. "We haven't figured out how to make them yet."
Skytter scoffed. You can't ask me to believe--"
At that moment the doors to the cafeteria were flung wide open. A throng of reporters and cameramen surged into the room followed by three stately looking aliens."
"The judges!" Gunter said.
"Jane the human." Bellowed one of the judges. "In all my years I have never seen a tournament as delightfully frightening as this very one."
Jane felt like the prettiest girl at the ball. "Oh, I don't know what to say."
"The utter madness your monsters displayed was truly inspiring. And that is why it is my pleasure--"
"Wait a minute." Interjected Skytter. "Aren't you three going to deliberate at all? There were dozens of contestants here today and you're acting like most of them didn't even--"
"Silence!" the judge declared. "Even without taken into consideration the audience vote, for which she was clearly a favorite, Jane won every trial by a landslide and in the process shattered the theoretical maximum fear we thought an Avatar could experience. Deliberation will not be necessary."
The judge turned back to Jane smiled. "Which is why it is my pleasure-- no, no, my honor, to bestow this crown upon you, Jane, queen of the Fear Games!"
Jane looked at the reporters. She looked at the crowd that was gathered around and their expectant faces. She looked at the cameras and the lights that shined down on her. She looked out at the expansive halls that wound around the enormous coliseum. And last of all she looked at Gunter. Jane smiled. Then said, “No. Not even close.”
[OC] Humanity's Place - Part 17 - Future Perfect
As always, for those who are new (or just want a refresher):
“Deidre, oh please, not you too!” Karen was screaming.
The empath appeared above her, looking shellshocked. Her trembling hands, streaked with blood, reached down to shake Deidre. “We can’t lose here, not when we’re so close! Please, please don’t- uh- what?” She frowned. “Y-you’re fine. Body, mind… it’s all there. What were you doing?”
“Winning?” Deidre replied, a weak smile on her lips.
“You-” Karen looked up at the ancient Vekt embedded in the wall. Yekej’s eyes were half-lidded, his mind obliterated. She turned back, gleeful. “You sneaky wonderchild! You did it! You actually went in there and beat the snot out of a station-wide jackass godbrain!”
Deidre chuckled, still on the floor. “Hee, no, just tricked him.”
“Oh, ridiculous girl, c’mere,” Karen said, pulling her off the ground into a hug. Then the empath’s body stiffened and she shoved away, pointing at a crumpled form nearby. “Wait! Nath! You have to help him!”
Deidre wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and rest. But Nath had to survive - for him, death meant oblivion. A clone might have his memories, but it would never be more than an empath. Drunkenly, Deidre weaved her way to the mindgyre and knelt beside him, scanning his body. The spark of life was still there, but barely. Surrounded by a stomach-churning assortment of his own appendages and organs, he looked like he should have been long dead, the victim of a tragic blender fight. Deidre’s bioresonance had kept him breathing, but it wouldn’t last forever.
She turned to Karen. “I think he’ll live. I need to reattach and regenerate all this” - she held out a shaking hand at the pieces - “but it’s going to take a while. Computer’s all you.”
Karen nodded and began walking toward Yekej’s wall. She stopped, looking around. “So… is there like, a port or something I should use?”
Deidre shrugged, trying to focus on Nath. “I didn’t build it.”
Karen sighed and turned back. “Like I did,” she muttered. “Okay, let’s just… get this jerk out, I guess.” She began yanking fistfuls of the glowing blue fibers out of Yekej’s body, trying to loosen the Vekt from his perch in the wall.
It took a few minutes, but she was finally able to pull him free, sending the ancient, brain-dead chroneticist tumbling to the floor. Left behind was a shallow alcove filled with connectors and jacks, some dribbling fluids.
“Cozy,” Karen said, examining the space. “Lemme test something.”
She pulled a razor-thin connection needle from the alcove, a single neural fiber trailing away from it into the wall. She sighed, giving it a wary stare, then slipped it under the skin on her arm. “Yeah, MindCom says it’s a mind/machine link,” she said after a moment.
“Are you narrating this for someone else, or did you forget I’m trying to concentrate here?” Deidre snapped, surrounded by a twisting cloud of Nath viscera.
Karen looked back, ready with a snarky comment. It died on her lips when she saw what was happening to the mindgyre. “Ugh,” she said, trying not to retch. “It’s like you’re making balloon animals out of his-”
“Karen! This is not as easy as it looks!”
“Fine, fine,” the empath said, turning back to the wall. She pursed her lips and glared at the alcove. If her MindCom was accurate, the entire system was designed to be run by a sentient, organic operator. Deep down, Meridian Prime wanted to be a cyborg. It probably hadn’t been made that way originally, but Yekej and his people had had plenty of time to remodel things.
Karen stepped closer to the alcove and ran a hand along its edge. It looked like the station’s life support systems could keep any carbon-based organism alive in there indefinitely. Nano-active connectors would attach to anyone, and the appropriate life-supporting fluids would be provided. Karen drummed her fingernails. Hell, I could do it, she thought. Then she shook her head and laughed as a thought struck her. No, not for me. I know who would work a LOT better.
She'd need help getting them here, and that meant she needed her allies. She pursed her lips, considering the alcove. Meridian Prime may have wanted a permanent host to command it, but activating a few systems through her basic link couldn’t be too hard. Letting her MindCom figure out how to talk with the system, she set up a request for a communication broadcast. Once the connection chirped in the affirmative, she sent a narrow-band pulse to the only other MindCom signature she had the clearance to know - Deidre’s.
“Just ignore anything that shows up in your inbox, okay?” she called out.
“Mhmm,” was the strained reply.
A moment later, the link was accepted, and a chat window appeared in her vision. “Deid- I mean, Vera here,” a familiar voice said in her head.
“Hah, still don’t have the hang of it yet?” Karen sent.
There was a theatrical sigh from the other end of the connection. “You try changing names.”
“You’ll never be an actress with that attitude.”
“There a particular reason you’re hijacking Meridian Prime’s comm systems, Karen?”
“Yep. We’re in - computer’s open for the taking. Please tell my mom not to warp the fleet into the station. Looks like your twin mindwiped their leadership, too.”
A cheer came across from Vera. “You guys made it?! That’s great! Hang on a sec while I tell everyone.”
“You betcha.” Karen paused, waiting, then sent another message after a few seconds. “Any trouble out there?”
The reply came back after a slight delay. “You mean besides the weird time portal jumps? Not at first. A few ships near the end managed to take some potshots before we got Catherine in range, but Lerou and I were able to shield us. Fleet’s in our hands, now.”
“Time jumps?” Karen fought the urge to glance back at Deidre. “Uh, fill me in on those later. Right now, I need to know if you can get your Mahsk to open a portal here. I can send a video feed of my location.”
“No, sorry. I’m going to need some station maps and the computer uplink to go along with it - otherwise, there’s a chance he’d screw it up.”
Karen rolled her eyes. “Perfect. Okay, let me figure out how to get that stuff to you. Oh, and before you come here, I need you to get me something from the present. Er, future. Our present. Damn it, you know what I mean.”
“Heh, yeah. Whatcha want?”
“Not what - who.”
_ - _ - _ - _ - _ - _
It took longer than Karen expected, but half an hour later, the datacore was bathed in the shimmering cobalt energies of a temporal portal. Vera and her Mahsk stepped out first, followed by Catherine and Lerou. In the Captain’s hands was a thick metal disc overflowing with tubes and liquid-filled blisters. Like a bizarre garnish on a plate of chrome-plated pasta, Valerie’s head was perched atop the mound, an utterly perplexed expression on her face.
“What in all the worlds is going on?” she asked, her voice issuing from the disc below her.
Karen grinned. “Nice to see you too, Lieutenant Sona. Welcome to Meridian Prime.”
The simulacker’s expression changed to one of shock. “You jest.”
“Nope,” Deidre said from the floor, waving. “Hey Lieutenant.”
Karen couldn’t help laughing as the woman did a double-take. “Candidate Veronice?” Valerie said, flabbergasted. “But then who-?” Her eyes swiveled to Vera. “Did you find another of your clones?!”
“Better,” Vera said.
“I cheated with time,” Deidre said. “Long story. Fill you in later. Right now, I really need to rest.”
“She’s all tuckered out from killing a god and piecing Nath back together like a human jigsaw puzzle,” Karen explained, pointing at the unconscious mindgyre. He lay sleeping beside Deidre, all his bits and pieces back in their proper places.
“I must admit, I have never been so eager to be debriefed,” Valerie said after a moment of stunned silence.
“Well, in the meantime, Karen’s got a proposition for you,” Vera said, nodding at the empath.
Karen held out a hand to the glowing alcove. “I’d like to get you a new body a little ahead of schedule, Val. Wanna take Meridian Prime for a spin?”
Karen chuckled. “Okay, maybe I should give you just a touch of that debriefing now.” Quickly, she laid out the basics of where they were, how they’d gotten there, and what they were doing.
“Fascinating,” Valerie said when she was done.
Karen ran a hand through the nest of neural fibers in the alcove. “I know it’s a lot to take in, and you’ll probably need some time to-”
“I’ll do it. Absolutely,” Valerie interrupted.
“That was fast,” Karen said, surprised.
“The better part of my life has been spent in android frames. Most recently, I was confined to a medical closet as an immobile head. Short of getting my own body back-”
“She lost her body?” Catherine whispered.
Valerie continued without pause. “-I feel wearing the most infamous installation in known space as a second skin will be adequate compensation for my… troubles.”
Karen smirked. “You’re gonna use it to hunt down the dicks that stole Val 1.0, aren’t you?”
A slow, cruel smile curved the edges of Valerie’s perfectly rosy lips. “Payback is, as they say, a bitch.”
“Good enough for me!” Karen barked, walking over to the Lieutenant. “Let’s get you hooked in. Vera, if we wanna see some big temporal fireworks, we’ll need your Mahsk linked up with the system, and control turned over to Val here.”
“We were getting along so well, too,” Vera said, pretending to pout. “You know how to drive a fetch, Lieutenant?”
“Absolutely, Candidate,” she replied.
“Lerou, bring her over here,” Karen said, striding back to the alcove. “Places, people.”
“Wait,” Deidre said. She sounded exhausted. Her voice wasn’t much more than a wheeze, but it was enough to stop everyone in their tracks.
“What’s up, hun?” Karen asked, looking over.
“I’ve got a better idea of what to do with this place, now that it’s ours,” she replied, breathing heavily. “Take the fleet and station with us, yeah, but I don’t want to bring it back to Majikav.”
“No problem,” Karen said. “Where to?”
Deidre smiled weakly. “Well, I do have a test to pass…”
_ - _ - _ - _ - _ - _
The Gallio system was the center of the Drijstei Collective. An improbable stellar godsend jam-packed with habitable worlds, precious metals, and exploitable gas giants, it had been fortified over countless generations, evolving into a near-impregnable fortress. Orbital defense platforms fought for space alongside heavy gunships and swarms of assault craft, while nearly every rock in the system with a gravity well was occupied by shield arrays and sprawling security defense installations.
Top military strategists within the Colonial Empire had devised a scheme to take the system, a meticulous battle plan that incorporated economic warfare, political maneuvering, the aid of no less than four separate allied powers, three-fifths of the entire Colonial Fleet, and years of sabotage perpetrated by 93 covert planetary assault teams. Deidre’s presence, required as the ‘final exam’ of her training, was really just gilding the lily - the plan was intended to succeed with or without her help.
And so, when a vibrant blue portal hundreds of thousands of miles in diameter appeared in the middle of the system, staying open just long enough to disgorge some 87,000 warships and the long-lost station of Meridian Prime, it would have been hard to determine who was more surprised - the Drijstei or the Colonials.
Captain Gittel Mace, assigned to watch the system from its outskirts in a long-haul stealthship, was all too aware of the six years he had left before the Colonial attack was supposed to occur. Watching the mind-boggling fleet pour out of the rift in time, he had the sneaking suspicion his superiors’ schedule was about to be modified.
“Sweet skies. Clear the monitoring rotation,” he said slowly, standing up from his chair. “I want every probe switched to full recordkeeping.”
“Right away, sir,” his data specialist murmured. But the man didn’t move - he was too busy staring at the fleet.
“Today, Harveck,” Mace barked. “The rest of you - get me some bloody intel.”
The man jumped, snapping out of his daze. The bridge, quiet for so many years, suddenly became a hive of activity as the four other officers under Mace’s command scrambled to obey his order.
Miriam Kade, fingers flying over her own console, was the first to speak. “We have preliminary data on fleet composition and allegiance. Registration signatures identify every ship as-” She paused, frowning. “As belonging to a race called the Vekt, sir.”
“What in all the stars…?” he whispered. “Do we-”
“That’s not all,” Miriam interrupted, her voice hollow. “Their f-flagship, sir? It’s… um… Meridian Prime.”
Mace’s jaw dropped. His lips curled back in an involuntary, incredulous smile and he couldn’t hold back the laughter that followed. “That’s- hahaaaha, no, heh, that’s wrong, that has to be wrong. Hahahaha. Ahem. Mm.”
Miriam shook her head. “M-matches all known profiles, sir. Transponder codes are old, but they’re a match for the Vaunt records.”
Mace dropped back in his command chair, feeling lightheaded. “Here? Now? And it’s been missing for what? Two centuries?”
“Incoming transmission on all frequencies, sir,” Miriam said, a light flashing urgently before her. “It’s from the battle station.”
“Wonderful. Put it on the primary display.”
The image flared to life before them. It was of a young girl, no older than 18. Her eyes were branded with the brilliant azure dye of a mentalic Candidate. She looked exhausted, her face caked with blood and ash cut by trails of sweat. Her long black hair was frizzed into unkempt patches where it wasn’t plastered to the sides of her head. An inactive inhibitor gleamed dully on her right temple, reflecting the neon blue lights of the enormous computer complex around her. It looked like she was sitting on its floor.
“Hello, Gallio!” she proclaimed gleefully. “My name is Deidre Veronice, and I’ve come to conquer you in the name of the Colonial Empire. Resistance is probably about as futile as it’s ever gonna get. Please surrender. Thank you!”
She turned away, still smiling, but a woman’s voice came from off-camera to say, “They need a time limit, Deidre!”
“Oh! Uh, right!” the teenager said, shifting back to face the camera again. “You have… let’s say an hour to reply. After that, titan-class weapon systems start getting tested. Hope to hear from you soon!” She waved, and the transmission ended.
No one said anything for a moment. All eyes turned to Mace, looking for direction, and a part of his brain began screaming at him that after all these years in space, he’d finally lost it.
“What the hell was that?” he said at last.
_ - _ - _ - _ - _ - _
The ‘war,’ such as it was, ended seven minutes before Deidre’s deadline. The queen of the Drijstei Collective responded personally, agreeing to cede her worlds to the Colonial Empire. Deidre had a copy of the treaty forwarded to Admiral Kreslim with a simple message attached: "A+?"
“I can’t wait to see that reply,” she said, getting off the floor with a groan.
“You sure you should be up and about?” Vera asked. The familial concern in her voice warmed Deidre’s heart.
“I’ll be fine,” Deidre said, waving a hand. “I just need to - whoa.” Her head swam, and she sat back down.
“Ha. Told you,” Vera said, smiling.
“Yeah, yeah.” Deidre sighed and looked up at Karen. “Okay, well, this has been a pretty good day. I mean, the Vekt are ours, along with Meridian Prime and something like twenty empires' worth of other ships. I think it’s time to turn this paradox crap off before their mentalists muck it all up.”
Karen nodded and whistled to Catherine. “Mom? You ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” the mindgyre said, walking over.
“Remember, it needs to happen at the exact same time,” Deidre said.
Catherine smiled. “What are we, amateurs?”
Vera sat down next to Deidre and held her hand. “Think it’ll work?” she asked softly.
“I sure hope so, sis,” Deidre replied. “If it doesn’t, it’s only a matter of time before one of their chroneticists figures out what they can do.”
Vera broke into a grin.
“What?” Deidre asked, frowning. “That’s not funny.”
“No, no…” Vera said, shaking her head. “You called me ‘sis.’ We’ve got family, Deidre. Sane, awesome family.”
Deidre felt her eyes sting and begin to water. “Heh, yeah. Yeah we do.”
“All set?” Karen asked.
Vera and Deidre stared at each other, tightened their grip, and nodded.
“Okay, kiddos,” Catherine said. “Three… two… one.”
Deidre gasped as Karen blew into her mind, following the echoes she’d left behind and annihilating them in sequence. Every hint of her psychic existence, a lifetime of events and emotions, was chewed apart in an empathic whirlwind. Deidre’s memories, the biological connections in her brain, would be left untouched, but the mental fragments of her passing - the essence she’d left behind her entire life - were destined for eradication. No empath, not even herself, would ever be able to revisit those echoes, to dig into her past. Beside her, the same thing was happening to Vera. Catherine, working in concert with her clone, was scouring the girl’s mind clean.
The surgery was based on what her future self had said. Apparently, Deidre would one day discover a way to use her echoes to travel back in time. Any echo of any moment in her life would be fair game, and the laws of the universe would change to allow that. Deidre’s solution was radical, a stripmining of the brain, but it was better than what her future self had proposed. Rather than kill off the echoes by killing off their host, Deidre had recruited Karen and her mother to cut out the middleman and go straight for the source.
All they would need, she hoped, was a split-second when her echoes didn’t exist. A single, perfect moment where the laws of nature wouldn’t have to accommodate the possibility of a mental time-traveler. That would hopefully set everything to rights, and then she would stay the hell away from all things time-related for the rest of her life.
Bit by bit, the carnage slowed, and Deidre realized that Karen was keeping pace with Catherine, trying to time it so the last echo between her and Vera was destroyed at exactly the same moment. She felt hollow inside, felt a sense of sacrifice she couldn’t quite describe. It was as if she’d forgotten what it was she’d lost, and all she had left was the knowledge that she was missing something.
And then even that was gone.
She opened her eyes, shaking herself. It felt like she’d been scrubbed raw, had a peeler taken to the inside of her skull. Something was definitely absent, but it was so hard to articulate what, exactly.
“Is it done?” Valerie’s crisp voice boomed around them.
“Done,” Catherine and Karen said in unison.
“Commencing test,” she replied. A moment passed. “I… cannot do it. Mahsk’s portal will not function if its destination would invite paradox. It is… impossible to reach. Such a bizarre feeling.”
“It worked, Deidre!” Karen yelled, hugging her.
Deidre returned the hug weakly, still dazed by the ordeal. Then her eyes widened. “Vera!” she cried, twisting around, looking for her twin.
The girl was sitting beside her, a similarly-haunted expression on her face. “Geez. Glad that’s over,” she muttered, holding her head.
Deidre grabbed her and held her close. “I was so worried you wouldn’t be there,” she said softly.
Karen snorted. “What kind of melodramatic crap would that be?”
Vera patted Deidre on the back. “I was worried, too,” she whispered.
Karen knelt down beside them. “Sometimes, you’re allowed to have happy endings,” the empath said, grinning. “Besides, if Vera wasn’t going to stick around, then neither would every other paradoxical thing we did. Like… oh… stealing a Vekt armada?”
“Speaking of,” Catherine said, “we need to do something about those ships. I’m in control of them, but mentalists represent nearly 3% of the Vekt empire. Across Meridian Prime and the vessels of their fleet, that’s still hundreds of millions.”
“I believe we can enter into an alliance with them,” Valerie said. “They are ultimately fearful, their belligerence a front, not a way of life. With my omnipresence, I will work with you and their mentalic leadership to broker a long-term union.”
A wide smile crept across Catherine’s face. “Gods, imagine what I could do with this fleet.”
“You must, of course, do everything in your power to avoid relinquishing it to the Colonial Empire,” Lerou said.
Everyone turned to him, surprised. He blushed slightly at the attention. “It is imperative that we do not allow the galaxy at large to think mankind responsible for the downfall of the Vaunt,” he explained.
“He’s right,” Karen said, frowning at him. “Er, how much autonomy do you have right now, Captain?”
He smiled. “I have had complete awareness of my surroundings since Specialist Nath was incapacitated.”
Catherine took a step back.
He held up his hands. “Please, I would not think to interfere. Your actions have saved the lives of countless Colonials. It would be extraordinarily rude of me to take you to task for it. I merely wish to ensure everyone is aware of the danger in which we have placed our race.”
“Of course,” Catherine said, relaxing a little. She turned slightly to Karen with a knowing grin. “He really is cute,” she whispered.
“Mom,” Karen said fiercely.
“Here’s my proposal, then,” Catherine said, the smile still on her lips. “Through the Vekt, I will state that they found Meridian Prime in the distant past, having been suspicious for a very long time that some sort of temporal accident occurred in the system. All hands lost, all ships empty, of course. Very mysterious. I will announce an alliance between the H’tari and the Vekt, and state that Gallio was granted to the Colonial Empire as gratitude for services rendered by one Deidre Veronice, who was able to assist in the recovery operation.”
Deidre mulled it over. “Think they’ll buy it?” she asked at last.
Catherine shrugged. “I doubt anyone will exactly be in a position to argue. I think it bears restating that this fleet is enormous. Whoever controls it can make their own rules.”
“And that would be you?” Valerie asked.
Catherine looked at her. The simulacker’s head was ensconced in the glowing alcove just above the shell of flesh that was Mahsk, a seething mass of wires, gurgling tubes, and neural fibers snaking into the two of them. “That would be us, Ms. Sona. Between the Vekt and my H’tari, we will carve a bloody swath through mankind’s enemies.”
She turned to where Deidre and Vera sat on the floor. “One day, you two will be ascendant, and when that happens, we will join forces and conquer the galaxy.” She paused, her eyes distant - filled, no doubt, with visions of ships sweeping over empires. Then she shook herself and continued. “Until then, well, I’d suggest thinking of us as… friends in high places. Do you agree, Ms. Sona?”
An efficient smile turned the corners of Valerie’s lips. “I do, Ms. Givens.”
The mindgyre grinned. “Excellent.” To the rest of the group, she said, “The rest of you should probably return to the Crimson Principle - I’ll arrange a ship to take you. I seem to have a few on-hand. Oh, and don’t forget your poor Specialist.” She pointed at Nath’s still-unconscious body.
Vera got up and reached back for Deidre. “Can you walk?” she asked, fingers outstretched.
Deidre sighed and grabbed the offered hand, using it to lever herself off the ground. She fought the wooziness in her head, and managed to stay upright.
Vera rolled her eyes. “Like you’d tell me if you couldn’t,” she said.
“Ha, you know me too well,” Deidre said with a weary smile. She began making her way to the exit along with Karen, Vera, and Lerou. The Captain levitated Nath’s body beside them as they moved.
When they reached the door, Vera tore out the solidified metal blockade surrounding it with a kinetic blast. “So what’s next?” she asked as shredded fragments clattered everywhere.
“I guess we keep training, get to the point where they clone us,” Deidre replied.
“And how are we supposed to explain the fact that there’s two of us now? Interdimensional buy-one-get-one-free dealer?”
“That actually might be too close to the truth,” Deidre said. “But the galaxy’s a crazy place. We’ll think of something.”
Vera laughed and gave Deidre a one-armed hug as they walked, pulling her close. “Yeah, we will, sis. We always will.”
_ - _ - _ - _ - _ - _
Concluded (for now) here!