Somewhere on the edge of the black, a god-being lets out a sigh in the grip of its fathomless mad dreams. Bubbles are expelled in a rush of breath. All but a few float off into the endless night to burst and fade and mean nothing, gone and replaced and gone again in ponderous slow waves as the incomprehensible Other sleeps the eons away.
Some bubbles pick up odd hitchhikers from other worlds, and these last longer. Their dead inhabitants drift, unwatched and unremarkable, pantomiming the lives they have left behind for this new reality of cold black void. None of it means anything. It just is.
Communications are down. At the one minute mark post-failure, the first alert is sent out along the biowire to the standby engine crew, but the signal bounces. Navigation still functions, but there is no indication of space through which to move, and no sensation of forward motion when the engine flares into full burn. The external hull sensors are checked. No data is received. Proximity sensors are down, so the system sends its first distress call along the main grid to the on-board technicians. The signal bounces.
The system attempts to ping any other Fleet ships that might be in the region, and the signal bounces.
The system hesitates for five long seconds at the final step in the error report hierarchy, until the automatic override (designed a thousand sweeps ago to prevent internal sabotage caused by pilot instability) broadcasts a mayday directly to the Condesce along a closed-circuit backup network.
And the signal bounces.
The emergency systems have been attempting to vent heat from the engine since the first alarm began to shrill, but because there is no response from the coolant system and no available temperature reading, a failsafe is tripped and the ship goes into red alert. In the event of catastrophic system failure, the primary grid must be powered down to prevent engine overheat and pilot malfunction. Manual assistance will be required to start it again.
Exactly ten minutes after the event, all power to the engine has been cut. Auxiliary lights come on in the chamber. Wan gray and green light, anemic and nauseating, illuminates wet bruise-purple biowire masses and gray flesh. Flickering red and blue sparks dim to a coal glow behind the headpiece of the pilot, installed in the center of the chamber. Absence of engine vibration allows the play of light on the pool to smooth, over a period of approximately fifteen mintues, into a gloss of faintly glowing seawater as still as glass. The system is now in hibernation until it can be attended, and the pilot begins to scream.
The Class 1 Imperial Battleship Official Disaster Protocols do not require a pilot to manually alert staff in the event of ship malfunction. The pilot is disciplined for unauthorized communication.
The Sufferer rolls the apple between his ash-gray palms, not hungry but needing something to do with his hands. The apple is cool and smooth and a little rubbery. Its skin is as red as candy, red as his blood. Red as the irons they used to burn him before he fucking died.
He is under an apple tree, in the garden, and it's the night before his death. His wrists are black and white, charred flesh and exposed bone, but because he's some kind of ghost his hands still work as well as they ever did. The sky overhead is salt sprayed across tyrian velvet, maybe a little cloudy. It will rain just before dawn, just before they come to take him away.
He reminds himself that this has all happened already, and no one else will come here unless he imagines them. A warm wind shakes the leaves of the tree and he smells the vinegar tang of the mushy wrinkled apples that have fallen into the grass. This garden is fenced, or beasts would have collected the fruit before it rotted.
In the Sufferer's dreams, the real dreams from before he became a dream himself, everyone picks the apples together, and there is a festival for the harvest. He remembers a girl with wild snarls of black hair to the backs of her dimpled knees, wrapped in a fine spiderweb gown. She spins across the dirt path, kicking up her bare feet and dancing, a whirl of laughing blue lips and lovely drunken cheers. She calls out to the Shepherd to come and dance. The Shepherd reaches unsteadily for another pitcher of cider, perhaps to bolster his courage, but his massive hand shakes and he upends the whole thing in an amber flood across the table. He blushes copper at the mess and waves off the shouts of glee from the crowd--
Just like that, the world around him shifts, and now he begins to see them, the fog and smoke wisps of lost celebrants and a flicker of one dancing girl and her stammering partner, and the night air smells of fried apple pastries and beer and the shit of herd beasts, and he can almost believe he really is sitting beneath a canopy that blocks out the murderous sun. If he wills it, all of this could become real.
A memory of a memory, watched by a memory. The recursion is enough to give him a fucking headache. The Sufferer sighs and pushes away this world that almost was, bringing back the night and the solitude. All of this is somehow his fault, and he never got to learn why. He will never find out the whole story. Learning is a gift that belongs to the living, and he's dead. Dead and exiled to this magic place that shifts and distorts with his desires. He is over. Wherever he is now, it is the epilogue. His quest to bring the water of understanding to the thirsty of his violent world has come to nothing more a splatter of piss soaking into parched earth.
A night creature rustles in the field beyond the fence, and yells at it to go choke on a dick. The rustling stops and he is alone again, tossing his candy-red apple between his sweaty hands and wondering where his fucking friends ended up.
Two exhaled yesterdays bump together in the dark.
The Sufferer looks up from his apple at the sound of a strangled shriek. Someone on the other side of the garden gate is screaming, and he is pretty sure it's not a memory. Unless that's what he sounded like when the assholes were burning him. The memory of that last few hours is still a bit confusing, and thinking about it now causes wisps of smoke to rise from his ruined wrists again, but there is no further pain. He has mastered the trick of turning off pain in the endless days since he came here.
He concentrates on a memory of that final, glorious fight with the Condesce's guard, sees the sickle point bury itself in the the neck of an indigoblood with a skull painted white on his grinning face. Flaming yellow eyes roll back and are barely widening in death when the weapon is yanked free, grating on bone and flinging drops of blood as it tears loose. The Sufferer banishes the dying troll and the rain of blood, but keeps the sickle. Dead or not, he's got a lifetime of survival behind him and old habits die hard.
He flings the gate open and steps through into...
Well, what the shit is this?
He's never been on a ship before, but he's seen movies. The decor is rusty and the lighting sucks ass, but otherwise it's a battleship hallway. He turns and the gate is still behind him, old and warped and wooden, and the garden beyond that. The transition from Alternian hillside to dim humming ship corridor is seamless but there's a sort of blur where it all hangs together.
Someone screams again, and the lights go out. Somewhere, a computer is droning on and on with a pattern of beeps and alarm tones. In the movies, there would be guards racing around with weapons drawn, hunting the mutantblood discovered in their midst. This place remains empty. Not a movie, not a memory. Something new.
The Sufferer shrugs and enters the ship.
The engine is cold by now. It has been fifteen hours, twenty minutes and five seconds since communications went down. Surveillance has failed. The world has shrunk to a sphere roughly half the size of the ship. One terminal at the base of the tangle of biowire, behind the pilot, has been activated to allow for manual intervention.
Alarms are going off. This is perceived as a program running successfully on the system, and confirmed by the ear of the pilot. A recorded voice (not the pilot's) explains the shutdown, urges personnel to cut power to non-essential devices for the duration of the emergency, and to be vigilant for any signs of additional sabotage.
Every twenty five seconds there is a reassuring stabbing sensation behind the pilot's eyes, indicating that power is being siphoned into life support. The system is programmed to draw only from the pilot in situations where the engine is forced to shut down and is considered routine. It will continue until crewmembers arrive.
With no further available disaster protocols to follow, the system is idle. The pilot opens a channel on the crippled communication system and sends static through all accessible sections of the ship. Because this is not standard protocol in an emergency situation, it activates the deterrent subroutine written to dissuade tampering attempts via unpleasant physical stimuli. This program has not been activated in four sweeps, two perigees, forty three hours, five minutes and fifty two please god help me seconds. It is not intended to be used during an emergency because an excess of adrenaline reduces the perception of physical distress and can damage the hardware.
For seventeen seconds, all functioning alarms are crowded out by electronic feedback.
The pilot recovers from the expected reaction to the painful stimuli following the sabotage and immediately floods the audio channel with a second, more powerful burst of static. The deterrent subroutine is designed to increase the level of painful stimulus help me i don't know what to do with each subsequent sabotage attempt. The actions of the pilot, if maintained, threaten to damage the system.
A red light begins to flash on the console, but squeals of static drowns out the torrent of new alarm noises.
The Sufferer walks the single corridor for what seems like hours, not even wincing at the periodic bursts of static over the intercom. After the first few nasty shocks, it's not much different from being surrounded by assholes with blaster rifles. Here and there he finds hatchways, but none of them will open for him. When he looks through the windows, there are masses of red and blue tentacles filling every single one. They writhe against the unbreakable portals, leaving thick smears of pinkish slime across the glass. Whenever the intercom fills with static, he hears wet hammering through the heavy metal of the doors. Like the noise itself hurts the masses of coiling tentacles.
He's starting to seriously rethink this whole exploration thing. He clutches his sickle in one hand and the mutant-red apple in the other, and turns around to go back.
But now there is no hallway. Just a wall with a black door set into it. The window has been painted black, but through scratches and chips in the paint he can see vivid flickering lights. Blue, red, blue, red. Violet-violet-violet. The lights in his hallway dim and flare to its rhythm. Another burst of static, this time lasting only a second or so. And there's that horrible scream again, and the Sufferer is certain that whoever it is is other side of the door. He turns again, and there's the wall and the black door again. Blue, red, blue, red. Violet-violet-violet-violet. The message here is obvious: you aren't going anywhere, asshole.
He hangs his sickle from the belt loop of his trousers and reaches for the knob in the silence. Whoever it is has stopped screaming.
Personnel capable of rendering manual assistance arrives approximately (?) days (?) into the emergency. The life support systems continue to be maintained but the system has had a number of malfunctions in its calendar system. The date is 5/5/309805. The previous day's date also reads as 5/5/309805, as does the day before that. The corrupt data has rendered the calendar subroutine unreliable. Time measurements begin to distort. The resulting junk data, and the anomalous programming that has caused it, cannot be deleted or corrected without manual assistance. The continuing failures cause the pilot distress, but help me please kill me a technician has been detected in the command chamber.
The pilot immediately ceases interfering with the communications channel. The alarms howl on.
The system awaits instruction.
The tentacle-things glimpsed behind every closed door in that long hallway appear to converge in this single, strange chamber. Rising up from the water into a single pillar of undulating flesh, they look like a knot of bloated monstrous worms climbing out of a lake. The pilot, the obvious source of the screams, is installed at the center of the mass, chest-deep in biowire that snakes up like creeping vines to bury pinpoint tips under the skin and merge with the nervous system. More living wire drips down from the ceiling in a single stalactite of pink tendrils, swallowing both arms and creeping down the head of the thrashing troll like sinister little fingers. Yellow blood is spattered all down the face and chest of the pilot, poured down the tentacles like a container of paint, running down to the edge of the water in clots and great spattery drips. Some of the blood is dry and flaking free. Some is shining wet under the low emergency lights.
He knows a little bit about what he's seeing, had it explained to him sweeps ago. This mass of pulsating flesh is basically a huge nervous system, a network of bioengineered tissue functioning as the mind of the entire ship, controlled by the poor bastard wearing the headset. From how hard the pilot is struggling, the goggles would fly off if they weren't hooked into his face by subcutaneous strands of biowire and secured to his double set of horns for good measure.
Double horns and yellow blood. His eyes widen. And the face, though contorted in pain...
The Psiioniic shows the Signless the headset he stole when he escaped his Imperial ship, pointing out all of the wires and explaining how it works. The technobabble is more or less impenetrable, but the Signless pretends to follow every word. "And this lets you power an entire ship?" he asks, and presses a finger to the tip of one wilting frond of biowire. Something inside the rubbery mass jabs, and a bead of candy-red blood wells up instantly. "MotherFUCK!" he shouts, and sticks his abused finger in his mouth. The Psiioniic laughs maybe a little bit too loudly and tells him that's why he's here with the traitorous mutant with the big red target painted on his ass and not out in space being all he can be. He doesn't even like getting his blood drawn these days, and still can't stand small places.
Imagine spending the next ten sweeps wearing one of these godawful things and watching losers in uniforms take dumps over the surveillance system, he says, hissing all his 's' sounds even after all these sweeps of trying to conquer his own tongue. Bloody screaming doomed rebellion seems like a better way to go out, if you ask me. The Psiioniic takes the headset back and stows it in his work cabinet while the Signless pokes at his tingling fingertip and morbidly watches to see if it will keep bleeding.
The Psiioniic then explains how he intends to reverse-engineer the something in order to learn how the something something works, because if they can synchronize the blah blah blah with their own computers they can hack the signal of the Imperial broadcast station and the revolution has an actual chance of being fuckin' televised. This excited chatter goes on for at least an hour whether the Signless wants to hear it or not, because when his comrade is in this sort of mood he actually sort of can't shut the fuck up, but the general idea is that it might help the Movement, so the Signless tries to look suitably impressed until he can finally get away and have his goddamn dinner, which is probably completely cold by now, fuck you very much.
No, no, they can't do this. No.