Thursday, 5 March 2009

Commanding The Kingfisher (Final Part)

22nd March

Jessa was jolted roughly awake as the ship changed its course. Why aren’t the dampers on? she thought groggily. Christ, I hope it isn’t Thursday. Wait. What the Hell am I talking about? Angrily she shook her leaden head, trying to knock loose some sense.
Instantly she regretted the move. Her head hurt far too much, and the recollections that flooded in almost made her wish she hadn’t woken at all. Keigh, the navbots, Harlan, the R’Dokken: how much pummelling could the human mind take before it just lay down and surrendered? And shouldn’t she be dead already?
Apparently the universe wasn’t quite finished with her yet. There was nothing to be done but to open her eyes and work out how life would be screwing her this time.
At first glance it was immediately obvious that she was no longer on the Kingfisher. The bulkheads were the wrong colour, a filth-streaked maroon rather than matt grey; and they angled strangely, not perpendicular, and shifting at various points that confused the eye.
Jessa herself was strapped down to a crude acceleration couch; the hair floating on either side of her confirmed she was still in zero-g. She tried snapping her wrists back to free her from the couch’s restraints, but the straps remained defiantly tight. She was a prisoner. The R’Dokken wanted her alive. It was a realisation that brought her no comfort whatsoever.
Twisting her torso as much as her bonds allowed, she craned her neck to study her surroundings. She could see another couch opposite her; recognised the pale, unconscious face of its occupant as Gallagher. His severed calf was capped with some kind of plastic medical seal. Next to him was a third couch, on which lay a blonde woman Jessa didn’t recognise; although her bloodied jumpsuit claimed she was an engineer. The woman was missing both arms and a section of her lower jaw; all of which had likewise been sealed with blue plastic. Jessa could make out a fourth couch next to hers, but the strange jutting of the bulkhead made it impossible to see the occupant’s face. The faintest scents of disinfectant and blood circled her nostrils.
“I was wondering when you were going to wake up,” said a voice Jessa recognised.
Rage grabbed her immediately. Not the hot explosion of a lover’s anger, but the freezing stranglehold of pure, focused hatred. She didn’t want him flinching at her indignation; she wanted him dead.
“Get me out of these restraints,” she said, every word sharpened and frozen.
Harlan floated into view from somewhere to the left. He was soaking wet, and a breather mask hung from around his neck. Obviously he had just been visiting his new friends. His severed arm had been replaced with a rudimentary artificial limb of dark red metal; studded with spines.
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked, his eyebrows raised quizzically.
“Because then I’ll be able to connect your urethra to your saliva glands, you treacherous son of a bitch.”
“Ouch,” Harlan said, his face slashed with an arrogantly superior grin.
Now she did feel begin her fury beginning to heat up.
“You bastard,” she snapped. “How can you stand there and look me in the eye? You sold out your fucking species, Harlan, not to mention me; you should be choking on your own shame right now.”
Harlan’s smirk vanished.
“Contrary to what you’ve always believed, darling, the simple fact that you are angry with me does not necessarily mean you require an explanation. Or an apology.”
“Don’t twist this into some kind of domestic!” she shouted, “People are dead, you two-faced bastard. What did they offer you, huh?”
“Well, they gave me this shiny new arm,” he said. The appendage whirred as he waved it at her. “I tried explaining to them that the spikes would be hell on a night, but, you know. When world’s collide.”
“You’re still joking?” she spat in disbelief. “You can’t even take this seriously, can you? You’ve killed God knows how many people; our friends, and you-”
“I will NOT have you judging me, Jessa!” he bellowed suddenly. Despite her anger, Jessa found herself jolted with surprise.
“You think I’m doing this for a pat on the head?” he said angrily. “Look around you, honey. This galaxy isn’t big enough for us and the R’Dokken. The bastards are everywhere. XI have no idea; no-one does, but those bastards have been colonising for centuries more than we have. If war breaks out; we lose; end of conversation. And the only thing that’s stopping them is that they’re not sure that . They’d much rather avoid outright combat, as long as their convinced they’re winning the cold war.”
“And that’s where I come in. I’ve been doing it for months; feeding them just enough scraps to keep them satisfied, and just enough misinformation to keep them worried that we might be stronger than we look.”
He looked at her straight in the eyes.
“So, you tell me, Jessa. What would you prefer? The odd ship going missing here and there, or the end of our entire civilisation?”
“Is that it?” she asked, dumbfounded. “Is that the best you can manage? Even if I bought this crap about buying peace with the R’Dokken; it doesn’t justify what you’re doing. For Christ’s sake, look at you, Harlan. Listen to yourself. You’re enjoying this. Our friends are dead, that or crippled; and you’re strutting around like you’re some kind of secret agent? I’d have more respect for you if you’d at least admit you’d been bought.”
Harlan sighed, and pushed himself off the deck to glide toward her.
“You stay the fuck away from me!” she warned him.
“Please, Jessa; I only want to show you something.” He reached under her couch. There was a pair of clicks, and then her uncomfortable slab was floating. Harlan grabbed the couch, and pulled it effortlessly toward a cargo entrance ramp that formed the right bulkhead. She felt the couch tilt until it was perpendicular to the deck, allowing Jessa to see out of the small porthole in the ramp.
There, a few thousand kilometres away, lay the Kingfisher. It had been mauled almost beyond recognition, barely a square metre of its hull was not blackened or buckled or missing entirely.
“Take a good look,” Harlan said softly, moving to stand beside her. “I’m not responsible for the nature of her demise. Only the location. You can thank Gabe for everything else. You’re a doctor, Jessa; how many more R’Dokken would our captain have to have killed before you’d have accepted the Kingfisher as a reasonable price for having it all done with?”
“So now you’re arguing it was a humanitarian effort?” she said, although with a fraction less rancour than she had managed before.
Harlan shrugged. “That gas you inhaled knocked you out for over six hours. It took me almost exactly that long to persuade the ‘pedes who run the mining op out here to let you go. Fifteen cargo ships like this one, each of them carrying eight or so survivors.”
“So one hundred and twenty of us got out,” Jessa said coolly, “Out of two hundred and fifty hands.”
“Do you even know how many people the captain had executed?” Harlan asked her. “I lost count after the first dozen. And a lot of the crew died in the battle. The message I sent on that spacewalk requested casualties be kept to a minimum; but no-one told that to security. Maybe if the captain surrendered, but…” With a final shrug, Harlan dismissed the subject.
As Jessa watched the vessel that had been her home for the last four years shrink into the void; she was suddenly struck by how small it was, how insignificant against the backdrop of a hostile universe.
As if to make the point, a pair of torpedoes, fired from somewhere to port, raced into sight; their bright burn trails scorching her peripheral vision. She blinked, and when her eyes sprang back open, the Kingfisher was gone, swallowed by an expanding explosion of billowing plasma.
“Strange as it may sound, I think I’m going to miss her,” Harlan said to himself.
“It’s your fault she’s dead,” Jessa pointed out, her gaze still fixed on the conflagration outside.
“Who said I was talking about the Kingfisher?” he said, kicking off against the bulkhead. “I’ll be back in a while to strap your couch back down; but right now I think my two former women need a moment together.”
“And what happens then?” she asked.
“We dock with a R’Dokken void-runner, then we rendezvous with the Hammerhead at Quosium.” Harlan voice replied. “We’ll exchange you and the rest of the crew in exchange for some juicy compensation for Gabriel’s… indiscretions.”
“What about Gabriel?” Jessa asked. “Is he still alive?”
“As much as he was last time you saw him. Keigh too.”
“So where are they now?” she continued. “It’s hard to imagine the R’Dokken just handing him over after what he’s been up to.”
She couldn’t see her husband of course, but she knew him well enough to be able to hear it when he smiled.
“Like I said, sometimes you have to make the aliens feel like they’re winning.”


Gabriel’s mind re-booted before his eyes did. He wasn’t sure why, but he had been expecting a headache. Certainly there hade been a great many in the recent past, or so he seemed to recall. Things had apparently improved since then, his brain felt surrounded by mist, rather than fire.
More had gone than the pain. The earlier cramped imprisonment of his thoughts had lifted as well, leaving Gabe feeling finally, luxuriantly free. It he could have stretched with his mind, he would have done; it felt like he had been asleep for days.
As the feeling of elated freedom subsided, Gabe began to realise more had changed than he had realised at first. His mind seemed almost crystalline somehow, thoughts did not so much rise and submerge as freeze and shatter. Suddenly the expanse surrounding his consciousness seemed less like liberation, and more like isolation; an endless plain of windswept ice that had swallowed him whole.
And all around him he could feel someone, something, breathing down the back of his mind. Something watching. Something hungry.
“Is the procedure complete?” he heard someone say. Gabe didn’t recognise the voice, or even the accent. Something about it was-
“It is,” came another voice.
“Then you may reactivate your sight,” the first speaker responded.
Without wishing it, Gabe found himself obeying.
Gradually his vision swam back into focus as his eyes adjusted to the green tinged light which surrounded him. The image that greeted him was wrong somehow, fractured. It was if he was staring through broken glass, except that the breaks were not the chaotic web of a shattered pane, but in regular tessellation.
But he was still fully capable of seeing the two armoured R’Dokken that stood studying from across the small, bare room.
Automatically he tried to leap to his feet, but his body would not respond. In fact, he couldn’t feel his body at all! He was left helpless and numb before his foes.
“Are you in there, Captain?” one of the creatures asked him.
His confusion at the question was ripped aside as his thoughts froze with horrified understanding.
The R’Dokken wasn’t using a translator.
That could only mean-
A child’s scream made Gabe glance to his right, although he felt no control over his neck. There, held in the thick tendrils of a third alien, lay his daughter; kicking and screaming as she was lifted from a barbaric-looking capsule, all black curves and illuminated probes.
“Keigh!” he shouted, thick with desperation and compassion, but no sound came. The presence inside his mind radiated amusement. Still trying to watch his helpless child escape the clutches of the R’Dokken, Gabe felt his gaze wrenched down to his own body.
It was no longer there. Instead, a seemingly endless line of armoured ridges greeted his horrified eyes. Thin, sharp legs rippled as they registered the cruel mockery of their owner.
“He is here. I feel his fear,” said his voice, in response to the earlier question.
God, what had let happen here? He had driven himself and his daughter into the clutches of the enemy.
Keigh, I’m sorry, was the only thought he could form.
“Excellent,” said the first alien. “Get the human spawn to the shuttles; we have no further need of her.”
“Daddy?” Keigh cried through her tears; then she was swept from the room.
“I now address you; Captain Merriman,” the alien continued. “I am sure by now you are aware that there is no way for you to respond. You are however required to listen.”
What else could he do? Desperately he tried to galvanise the alien’s muscles into action, control its body as he had done Keigh’s.
Oh, God. Keigh. How could he face what he had done to her? What she had been forced to endure.
With crippling certainty, Gabe knew whatever was to follow, he deserved it utterly.
The alien continued.
“Know also that your current… host can hear your thoughts. We have questions. Questions which you will answer. The most specific regard our companions who stepped aboard your vessel at Kellarealm Starport; but we have a great many more general questions for later. Defence codes, fleet movements, and other topics of a similar nature.”
Without the translator mangling the creature’s speech it was all too easy to make out its harsh glee.
“And you will tell us, Captain Merriman. Ordinarily I would provide descriptions of the torture methods available to us. However, it is our experience that humans rarely respond to the threat of pain, only its application.”
“Perhaps we should, as your people say, “cut to the chase”?”
There was the sudden roar as pipes above began to blast out saltwater. Each R’Dokken shed its suit, and Gabe felt feeling returning to his, no, its body. Above the sounds of the rising water, he could make out another noise, a loud vicious buzzing. His captor glanced up to show him the source of the sound; an ugly-looking buzz-saw heading inexorably towards their shared midriff.
Davis’ words floated into his thoughts “The R’Dokken sense of self-preservation is markedly less pronounced than our own”.
The saw bit into flesh just as the salt water reached the wound. As the brine flowed into the ever deepening gash, and Gabe was shredded by agony beyond description, he found he was denied even the capacity to scream.


Somewhere in the darkness, the artifact screamed. It had been screaming for as long as it could remember; ever since the silver creatures had wrenched it from its home in the rock. He had bellowed with rage at the shining monsters, but they had not heard, or else had chosen to ignore it. They had clutched him in their ridiculous thin appendages and stolen him away to their metal lair. There they had become pink rather than silver, and ridiculously soft and ugly. It had hated them even more then; hated them so much it had sung with the screaming. Soon enough, they had come to answer his song, and the fleshlings had died in agony and terror. The artifact was pleased.
But after a little while the long creatures made of steel had arrived, and it had found itself stolen once again. Once more it began the song, but this time there was nothing to hear. He was left with nothing but his cries, and the many-legged creatures were as deaf to them as the pink things had been.
He spent some time underwater, and saw his new captors change; grow smaller and more delicate, but no less hateful. Then the pinks had him again. And all the while he called out to the void for rescue, for deliverance. Nothing ever came.
And now here it sat, again at the mercy of the hideous coiling creatures. Once more alone and submerged, where its screams sounded strange and hollow.
But although it had almost given up hope, it refused to give up its call. One day, one day soon, it knew that it would be answered.
And then the long creatures would die. The pink things too. Every single one of them. And when that time came, he could finally stop screaming, and instead, he could begin to laugh.

The End

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