Three Million CE - Episode 7
Three million years was a long time. An awful long time. It was so long that Doyle Tingler believed his brain fully incapable of processing the implications of its length, and so did his best to spare the poor thing that unpleasantness. Doyle vacillated his thoughts between two subjects. The first was his quest to find his girlfriend Kirsten, who ran off to join the Nikola’s Children cult shortly after Doyle had proposed to her. Three million years crammed in a stasis chamber with Sarah the security officer–his friend’s would-be-kidnapper–had not dulled his desire to complete that quest, though thinking about how he might go about it now, given his current predicament, tended to darken his mood considerably. The other subject towards which Doyle more frequently steered his thoughts was, much to the chagrin of those around him, thinking of and listing all the films, television shows, and books he knew of that resembled his present situation in some way. “Red Dwarf,” said Doyle, staring absentmindedly at the ceiling. Sarah put her face in her hands and sighed dramatically. “You’ve said that one.” “Have I?” Sarah nodded emphatically. She put down the small black book she had been writing in before Doyle had interrupted her, and launched into a nasally voiced imitation. “Dave Lister, after being put in stasis for smuggling a cat aboard the deep space mining ship Red Dwarf, finds himself resurrected in deep space three million years later and…” “It’s odd, isn’t it?” interrupted Doyle, ignoring Sarah’s mockery. “I mean that it was also three million years.” “Whatever,” Sarah said, rolling her eyes. “Except in that show Lister was the last human alive, so it’s not exactly like this, since there’s two of us. We do have an android, though,” Doyle added, thinking of Desmond, the artificial intelligence that had piloted the Nikola’s Children ship–the Ark–for three million years before crashing it into a planet and copying himself into the robot body they found abandoned there. Doyle shook his head. “But no holograms. What about Farscape? Have I mentioned Farscape yet?” “You mean the show where John Crichton finds himself flung to a distant corner of the galaxy where he has to navigate the socio-political fabric of several unfamiliar alien races as he searches for a way home?” asked Sarah. “Yes,” said Doyle. “Never heard of it,” said Sarah. She returned her attention to her book. “That doesn’t fit, either,” said Doyle. “It didn’t take place in the future. Also in Farscape there were aliens, but I think everyone we’ve met so far is essentially human, give or take a few million years of evolution. Zuli says it’s a widely held belief that all known life originated from a common source. I suppose that would be Earth, though I gather that’s a religiously contentious opinion nowadays. “No, Farscape is close, but I feel like I’m forgetting something even better…” Sarah snapped her book shut and stood up. “Well, be sure not to bother me with it when you’ve figured it out.” She pushed past Doyle toward the hallway that led to her quarters. Bae, the tiny rhino-pig that had been napping at Sarah’s feet, woke up and stretched lazily, then trotted after her. “Oh, I know! Planet of the Apes. Not the new ones, but the old Charlton Heston one. Or the Tim Burton remake. Except those were all on Earth,” Doyle mused, following Sarah and Bae into the hall. “Leave me alone,” said Sarah, quickening her pace. “Maybe the Culture books by Iain M. Banks. Or Dune. Didn’t that desert planet with the sand worm remind you of Dune?” “I’m not listening,” said Sarah. “Oh! Did I tell you about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy yet?” Sarah screamed. Zuli leaned back in the captain’s chair and frowned at the patterns that danced across the large curved screen in front of her. She had agreed to help Doyle find Takkah IV, where he believed the Ark had been taken, but to do that they would have to find someone who knew more about the Orubus Belt–an area of space not widely renowned for its abundance of friendly encounters. “I’ve zoomed the sensors out,” Desmond said. “You see those jiggly patterns in the upper left? It’s radiation that the ship’s computer calls non-random chatter. And it’s at a volume that indicates a totally massive communications hub of some kind. Like a station or an inhabited star system. Might be a good direction to head, see if we can get close enough to decode some of it and listen in.” “Very well,” Zuli said, glancing over at the large robot. A snaking tendril of cable connected Desmond’s arm to a console against the wall of the bridge. “I am grateful to you, Desmond. Your interface to the ship and your instruction in its operation has been invaluable. It is just too bad the ship computers did not contain more information about the Orubus Belt.” “Nobody ever mapped this part of space out, eh?” asked Desmond. “I imagine someone has,” said Zuli. “Just not where I am from. People outside the Belt tend to view it as a forbidden zone of sorts. A place that only criminals and fools have any interest in.” “Which one are you?” asked Desmond. Zuli smiled. “I suppose I might fit into either category, depending on who you ask.” After a moment of silence, Desmond spoke again. “Can I ask how you came into possession of this ship? I’ve found some old crew manifests, and there’s no mention of the name Zuli.” “Zuli is a name my mother called me. My full name is T’chaka Zulinaar,” said Zuli. “But you won’t find any mention of that name either, I am afraid.” “In the crew photos and video logs, they have… I mean, they look rather… well, they don’t look anything like you,” said Desmond. Zuli pushed her hands through her short white hair, and looked away from Desmond with her striking orange eyes–feeling a little foolish at how self-conscious the robot made her. “My people have never been technologically inclined. We have no ships of our own. In fact until a few hundred years ago, my people had not been aware such a thing was even possible. We believed we were alone in the universe. “One day, emissaries from a race calling themselves the Igidi landed on our planet, ending centuries of philosophical and scientific debate and disabusing us of any notion that we were somehow special. The Igidi came under the guise of friendship, offering to be our guides and protectors as we established ourselves within the greater interstellar community we had been ignorant of too long.” “But they had ulterior motives?” Desmond guessed. “Yes,” said Zuli, feeling the memories of how she left her home planet weighing heavily upon her. “Let us suffice it to say, for now, that this ship is a mere drop in the ocean of recompense owed my people by the Igidi. And its original crew is… well, is no longer in need of its facilities. “Due to the hasty nature with which I acquired it, aside from basic navigation and communications, I am largely unfamiliar with the ship’s systems. That is why I am so thankful that the Prophets led you to me.” “I see,” said Desmond. Thankfully, he seemed satisfied for the time being with her vague explanation and didn’t press Zuli for further details. “For now, I agree with your recommendation,” said Zuli. “I will plot a course in the direction of the ‘non-random chatter.’ Please have the computer alert us once it is able to decipher something.” Desmond nodded his head, featureless except for the glowing blue dots where a human’s eyes might be. “Aye aye, captain!” Having been rudely snubbed by Sarah, who had locked herself in her quarters, Doyle decided to do some exploring. He called Zuli up on the ship’s comm system and asked if she knew of any books on the ship he could take a look at, with the idea to put his translator cells to the test and possibly learn more about what had transpired over the last three million years. She informed him that the ship did indeed have a library, and gave him rough directions to get there. He thanked her, set off, and quickly found himself utterly lost in the ship’s many identical corridors. During his vagaries, Doyle came across some curious rooms–there was one that looked like a medical lab, with a gurney sitting beneath a hanging gun-shaped contraption that looked like something out of a Bond movie; there was a completely dark room, shunning all external light to such a degree that at first Doyle thought he was looking at a black wall–an idea quickly refuted when his hand passed through the blackness, completely vanishing at the wrist; there were closets storing various bottles and jars that Doyle couldn’t identify; a football-field-sized room filled with dozens of raised platforms at different heights–perhaps an arena for some futuristic sport, thought Doyle; but most of all he passed unoccupied quarters, storage rooms filled with crates and bins, and plain old empty rooms. Doyle wondered what Zuli had been doing all alone on a ship that was clearly built to house hundreds of crew and passengers. She had told them she “inherited” it, and that while she entertained guests on occasion–such as the madman who had tried to kill Doyle and Sarah after they first arrived–she invariably ended up on her own once her guests achieved whatever goal they had enlisted her help for. Or gotten themselves blown out an airlock, Doyle supposed. How long had Zuli had been at it–this life of nomadic virtuousness? And, whatever the answer, how had she survived that long? There must be more to her than the meek, pale-skinned delicate woman she appeared to be. Doyle pushed the thought aside as he slid his hand over another door’s access panel. The door slid open to reveal what looked like a theater–a dozen rows of seats lined up, facing away from the door. But the floor was level, not angled as Doyle would have expected, and the front row looked barely three feet from the wall at the far end of the room, leaving no space for a screen. Doyle stepped inside and peeked over the closest row. Each seat had what looked like a headset resting on it, attached to one of the armrests by a thick black cable. His mind started racing. Could it be some kind of virtual reality headset? It would explain the lack of a screen. He picked up a headset to inspect it. It didn’t look like any virtual reality headset that Doyle had ever seen. There was no goggle-shaped housing for the optics. It looked more like a hairnet of criss-crossing metal strips, with small cylinders jutting out wherever the strips intersected. Doyle’s bemusement grew as he sat and hovered the headset over his head. It can’t be virtual reality if it doesn’t cover your eyes, right? Doyle wondered for a brief moment if what he was doing was wise. Fuck it, thought Doyle, and rested the metal contraption on the nearly non-existent hair covering the top of his head. The headset hummed to life. Doyle heard clicking and felt pinpricks of pressure on his skull as the tiny cylinders clamped down. The room went hazy, and then Doyle was plunged into darkness. Disoriented, Doyle felt like he was falling. He waved his hands in front of his face, but saw nothing. Nothing but pitch blackness in all directions. Panic gripped his mind, rising in him like a swelling tide. And then, a blinding light, and Doyle was standing on a pool of water. Looking down, he saw a vast city of smooth gray skyscrapers and interweaving highways miles beneath him. Water rippled from his feet when the sudden sensation of height made him stumble. He crouched and ran his hand over the water’s surface–it felt smooth and dry, but more ripples shimmered out from the path he traced with his fingers. It felt smooth and dry. He could feel! He lifted his hands–they looked like his hands–and brushed his cheeks. His graying beard-hairs tickled his palms. He looked down and saw he was wearing the same clothes he had put on that morning. A woman’s voice echoed in Doyle’s mind, but the language was alien to him. After a moment, it repeated. Shit, thought Doyle. Why weren’t the translator cells working? Zuli had mentioned when they first arrived that they wouldn’t work on Desmond because he was a computer; perhaps that meant the translation didn’t work in computer simulations either. Whatever the reason, Doyle had no way to communicate with the program. “Uh, I don’t understand,” said Doyle. “Can you understand me? How does this work if I don’t know the language?” A white rectangular slate bearing an array of photographs materialized, floating in front of Doyle. There was a photo with a palm tree hanging over a sandy beach with deep blue water stretching off to the horizon, another that looked like the inside of an office building, one that showed a person pumping his fist triumphantly at the apex of a snow-covered mountain, and a dozen more each showing a different scene. Doyle found that when he waved his hand an inch above the slate, its surface panned in all directions, revealing new photos for each one that scrolled off the opposite edge. Doyle grinned, grateful for the language-agnostic interface. He continued panning around the photos. There were hundreds of them. Glowing jellyfish suspended all around in an underwater scene. A man decked out in metallic armor, holding a rifle. A deep, purple sunset against a blood-red sky. Doyle felt a tinge of excitement run through his body. So many possibilities! He stopped scrolling when he spotted the photo of a woman’s lips, slightly parted, teasing a hint of white teeth and pink tongue. The mouth was positioned innocuously between a photo of dense jungle and one of a group of free-falling skydivers. Light reflected off the glossy red lipstick. Doyle looked down at his legs, and poked one of them with his finger. The pressure felt so real. He wondered how far the headset’s ability to simulate physical sensation might go. But was this okay? Could he do this? An unwelcome memory surfaced in Doyle’s mind. He had been visiting his parents for the holidays. Everyone had retired for the night, and Doyle was alone in his old childhood bedroom, watching certain videos on his phone to help him… relax. In the fits of his relaxation, he unwittingly activated a feature on the phone that wirelessly transmitted its contents to the nearest television set. His parents, who had been enjoying their nightly ritual of watching the news in bed before going to sleep, had taken quite a while to recover from the sudden unwelcome interruption. Would Desmond, an artificial intelligence, be judgmental? Doyle didn’t think so. And Doyle didn’t care what Sarah thought of him–she made it generally obvious that she despised him anyway. Zuli, though, was another matter. Doyle didn’t know how he felt about her–she seemed wise, respectable, and devoutly religious. She would probably disapprove. Then there was Kirsten. What would she say if she ever found out? Doyle sighed. “It’s been three million years,” he said out loud. “I think she’d understand.” He delicately brushed his finger against the bright red, swollen come-hither lips, as though shushing their owner to keep silent about the deep, dark, shameful secrets he would soon be baring. “The ship has managed to decode some of the transmissions,” said Desmond. “There are a few using the CIL.” Zuli nodded. The advent of translator microbes had slightly diminished the importance of the Common Interstellar Language, but the microbes only worked over short distances, and didn’t work on recordings or computers at all. The larger civilizations–and most of the smaller ones, including Zuli’s–at some point in their history adopted the common language as a new primary language, often abandoning their native tongue entirely over the course of a few generations. “May I listen?” asked Zuli. A crackle sounded through the bridge, followed by hundreds of overlapping voices, like the indecipherable thrum of a massive crowd. “Can you isolate any individual signals?” asked Zuli. “There’s a ton of interference,” said Desmond. “But I’ll see if I can clean it up a bit.” After a moment, the sound of the crowd faded, still audible but reduced in volume. “…engines have failed, all attempts to…” a lone voice rose above the crowd, swallowed by static before Zuli could make out the rest. Zuli glanced at Desmond. “…received your distress signal and are on our…” a woman’s voice this time, again fading to obscurity before Zuli could make out anything useful. “…something is preventing us…” more static cut off a man’s voice. “…out of time,” a woman’s voice suddenly leapt to the forefront. “Requesting urgent assistance from any nearby…” The panicked voice receded. Zuli leaned forward in her seat. “They all sound distressed,” she said. “We must help them, if we are able.” The quiet murmuring voices stopped, replaced by the familiar background hum of the ship. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” said Desmond. “The way these broadcasts are layered on top each other seems suspicious. I think they’re all recordings–I’ve detected repetitions. I don’t think we can trust them.” Zuli frowned at Desmond. “I cannot turn away from those in need,” she said. “It is the will of the Prophets. It is their…” she paused, searching for a better word than ‘punishment.’ “…their edict for me that I should live in the service of others, regardless of cost or danger to myself.” “The thing is,” said Desmond, “all these signals are now at a strength indicating they’re close. Like, really close. Like well within sensor range close. But so far the ship’s scanners are still coming up empty. Also if there really are thousands of ships in distress out there, is it really wise to rush headlong in to join them without knowing more?” “You speak much sense, Desmond,” said Zuli. “Do you think something is interfering with the sensors?” “There are some abnormal electromagnetic readings, but no indication that the sensors are malfunctioning,” said Desmond. “I cannot simply abandon these ships without knowing more,” said Zuli. Her thoughts turned to Sarah and Doyle. While her decree from the Prophets demanded she forswear her own safety, it did not compel her to–and in fact strictly forbade her from–endangering others. Now that she had rescued them, Sarah, Doyle, Desmond, and even Bae were her wards, and part of her duty to the Prophets was to ensure that no harm came to them. In that regard, it seemed to Zuli, Sarah and Doyle were very much in need of her help. She couldn’t believe all aspects of their story–such as their absurd claim to be from Earth three million years in the past–but she did sense that they were oddly out of place. They seemed like newborn babes in their naivete and unawareness of the way of things. And they both seemed to harbor such guilt over their current predicament–Sarah coped by insulting and ridiculing Doyle at every opportunity, while Doyle coped by pretending their relationship was a friendly one, often going out of his way to be kind to the girl. Such an odd companionship, thought Zuli, and yet she couldn’t help but find it endearing. Zuli shook her head clear, returning her thoughts to the present. “Let us proceed with caution. Reduce speed, and continue to scan for the ships or any sign that may shed light on the nature of their peril.” Zuli used the console on her armrest to start an outgoing hail. “Distressed ships, I have received your message. Please respond using this same frequency modulation with more details on your situation.” “I’ll monitor for responses,” said Desmond. Only a few millicycles passed before Desmond spoke again. “I’m picking up a signal matching your frequency modulation, it could be a response,” said the robot. “Play it please, Desmond.” “Distressed ships, I have received your message. Please respond on this same frequency modulation with more details on your situation.” Zuli furrowed her brow. “I meant play the response, not my original message.” “Um, that was the response,” said Desmond. “Seems your message bounced back at us.” Frowning, Zuli shifted in her chair. Why would a distressed ship rebroadcast her message instead of replying? It seemed a purposely strange thing to do under any circumstance, aside from running a communications relay or signal booster. “Desmond, was the broadcast altered in any way? Perhaps amplified?” “Only in that it’s been layered in with all the other communications from the other ships.” Zuli had a bad feeling. “Desmond, I find myself now in agreement with your initial assessment. I believe we should leave this place. At once, if possible.” She hoped it wasn’t already too late. “Reversing course, full speed ahea… Um, that’s weird,” Desmond paused. “What is it?” “As soon as our main engine powered down, the broadcasts from the other ships just… stopped.” The knot forming in Zuli’s stomach tightened. She made the sign of the prophets, reciting a short prayer requesting their blessings. “Desmond, get us out of here.” “I’m trying, Cap. Something’s wrong with the engines,” said Desmond. A small light flickered on the bridge’s display, and a chirp signaled an incoming video comms request. Zuli looked at Desmond, wide-eyed. “It’s another ship,” said Desmond. “Came out of nowhere. It’s hailing us.” Zuli inhaled deeply, then slowly let the air out, trying to calm her frazzled nerves. “Very well,” she said. “Accept the request, Desmond. On screen.” Desmond instructed the ship to accept the incoming hail, then routed the video feed to the screen in the bridge. “Greetings!” exclaimed a wide-faced man. The top of his head was bald, but wild bushes of dark hair streaked with gray clung to the sides. Smokey glass set in a pair of brown-rimmed goggles obscured the man’s eyes, and he spoke the common language in a raspy voice. “I’m Captain Vesprent Bunko,” continued the man. “And you, my friends, seem to be in a bit of a pickle!” “Hello, Captain,” Zuli said. “I am T’chaka Zulinaar, stewardess of this ship. We are experiencing some engine trouble, but are working on repairs and should be back under way soon. Tell me, we followed some distressed communications to this location, did you detect them as well? Is that why you came?” The man chuckled and shook his head. “Don’t hold your breath on those repairs, honey. You followed a lure–but don’t feel bad, the communications you followed were replays from hundreds of other ships that fell for the same trap. Once you get close enough it activates a dampening field. That’s why your engines ain’t working.” Desmond activated the ship’s sensor array and initiated a scan, hoping to detect some sign of the dampening field. The scan kicked off, but was running much slower than Desmond had expected–it seemed that something else on the ship was tying up most of the computer’s processing power. “What do you know about the dampening field? Has it affected your ship as well?” asked Zuli. “Good question, toots,” the man replied. “I reckon the field only affects electromagnetic propulsion engines like yours. I guess whoever set it up doesn’t give a crap about old combustion-powered junkers like mine.” That explained why the maneuvering thrusters still worked, thought Desmond. It also gave him narrower parameters for his scan, which was still running slow. The process bogging down the ship’s computer was one with which Desmond was unfamiliar–it was the first time he’d ever seen it running. “I see,” said Zuli. “Do you know who set this trap? Was it you?” The man laughed. “Nope it ain’t mine, and frankly I never stuck around long enough to find out whose it is. I saw some of the other ships that did stick around, though. Or, what was left of them… “Look, babe, here’s the rub. I got a tow line that I can use to pull you out of the dampening field before the bad guys show up, but if I’m gonna help ya, you gotta make it worth my while. Know what I mean? So my question to you is, whaddya got to trade with? Any currencies? Valuable cargo?” Desmond’s scan uncovered some electromagnetic anomalies. He kicked off a deeper analysis, but the computer reported it would take over an hour to complete under its current processing load. Desmond inspected the mystery process hogging the ship’s computer. He found an open network socket, and probed it. The resulting data feed from the process appeared to be a video of some kind, with an ancillary channel for audio communications. “I am afraid we do not have any currencies,” Zuli said, shifting again in her chair. “There is some cargo that was left by the ship’s previous crew, but I do not know if there is anything of value. You are welcome to come aboard and look through it once we are safely away from…” “Nah, ah,” said Bunko, cutting Zuli off before she could finish. “Service will be rendered after payment. What is that you’ve got there…?” Bunko’s head grew larger on the screen as he leaned forward and peered around. “Some kind of robot? What does it do? Does it work? You know what? I don’t even care, I want it. Just pop it out an airlock so I can scoop it up and I’ll have you outta that dampening field in a jiffy.” Desmond remained motionless and silent, unsure of how Zuli would respond. “The robot is decorative,” said Zuli, glancing at Desmond. “A statue of sorts, of little worth. But I am afraid it is not mine to offer. We have several matter replicators, however, capable of producing a wide variety of…” “Uh huh,” said Bunko. “I got some of those already. Give me the robot and I’ll save your asses, or don’t and wait for them to be ravaged instead. That’s my final offer. No skin off my back either way. But don’t take too long. See that ship that just popped up on your long range sensors? It’s gonna be here in under a cycle, and you don’t wanna be here when it does. Give me a hail when you come to your senses.” The communication feed from Captain Bunko’s ship terminated and the bridge’s screen went blank. Zuli exhaled loudly. “I do not trust him, I believe he set this trap.” “Maybe so,” said Desmond. “But he’s right about a ship on long-range. It’s quite a bit bigger than us, and coming in real hot. “But get this, I think I’ve detected the dampening field. If I could analyze it I might find a way out. But a process I’ve never seen before is monopolizing the ship’s computer, and I’m not sure if I can safely kill it. It’s exposing some kind of video communications feed, I was about to connect to see if I can figure out what it is.” Zuli furrowed her brow. “Can you put it up on the screen here?” “Sure thing, Cap.” said Desmond. “One moment…” Desmond connected to the communications socket on the rogue process. The view screen flashed back to life, and the sound of Doyle groaning suddenly saturated the bridge. Zuli stared in disbelief, speechless, at the image that had materialized before her. Doyle sat in a chair at the center of the screen, wearing a black dress with a form-fitting top and a tight skirt down to his knees, bound at the waist by a glittering sequined belt. His feet were clad in black high-heeled shoes with black straps that snaked and laced their way up his calves. Thick white makeup caked his face and beard. Two pale gray featureless humanoid beings stood like mannequins on either side of the chair, each with one hand on Doyle’s shoulder and the other on his arm, as though holding him down. “Doyle?!” Zuli exclaimed. On screen, Doyle started looking around wildly. “Zuli? Is that you? Oh thank God! Where are you?” A third being like the ones flanking Doyle appeared, approaching him with its back toward the screen. It held something toward Doyle–Zuli couldn’t see what it was, but from Doyle’s expression she could only imagine what horrifying form of torture it implied. “Doyle! What is going on?!” Zuli cried out, standing up from her chair. “Are you in trouble? Do you need help?” The being stopped, standing directly in front of Doyle and obscuring Zuli’s view of him. The thing leaned forward, and lifted the thing it carried to Doyle’s face. Doyle started grunting and groaning. Zuli looked away, toward Desmond. “Desmond, what is this? What are we watching? What are those creatures doing to him?” “I… don’t know,” said Desmond. “I think we tapped into some kind of virtual simulation.” The creature stopped moving. After a moment it turned and left the same way it had come, revealing what it had done to Doyle. Doyle’s pale white face was now punctuated with ruby-red lipstick, bright pink blush, and deep purple eyeshadow. The two beings on either side of him pushed his shoulders forward, then lifted him by the arms into a standing position. “Zuli, please, you’ve got to get me out of here,” sobbed Doyle. “I’m trapped in this fucking nightmare make-over simulation. I thought it was… Well, never mind what I thought. Just tell me how to get out. Is there some command? A hand signal? I’ve tried everything but it just loops over and over and over…” Zuli sat back down in her chair, exasperated. “We do not have time for this, Doyle,” she said curtly. “Desmond, kill the process. Run your analysis. How much time do we have?” “Aye aye, Cap.” said Desmond. The screen went blank. “A little over half a cycle ‘til the ship gets here.” The bridge fell silent. Zuli closed her eyes, and prayed for the Prophets to guide Desmond, to show him a way out of this trap. After a short while, Zuli heard Desmond move slightly. She opened her eyes and looked at him expectantly. “Let me show you the anomalies, Cap.” the tall robot said. “Anomalies? More than one?” “Yes,” said Desmond. The bridge’s view screen activated, showing a top-down view of Zuli’s ship next to a much a smaller one–presumably Bunko’s–near the center of a large red circle. Outside of the circle, was a smaller red oval shape. “The larger circle is, I believe, the dampening field. It should be possible to nullify it by pulsing an EM wave at the right frequency, but finding that frequency will take some time.” “Time is, unfortunately, a luxury we are short on,” said Zuli, studying Desmond’s diagram. “What is the smaller shape?” “The other shape is a second electromagnetic anomaly,” explained Desmond. “It’s different from the dampening field–hard to get a read on it because it deflects almost every form of radiation in a really strange way.” “Strange how?” “It absorbs radiation on one side, then emits it on the other, almost like it passed right through, but a fraction of a nanocycle slower than you’d expect,” said Desmond. “The only reason I even noticed is because Doyle’s simulation slowed my first scans down, causing them to burst-fire like a machine gun. It made the timing discrepancies easier to detect. If the scan had been running like normal I probably wouldn’t have noticed.” Zuli considered Desmond’s explanation. Something about Bunko’s ship seemed odd to her. “Desmond, what is the nearest star system to our present location? Are there any stations or outposts nearby?” “The nearest star system is the one we passed seventeen cycles ago, and there are no stations or outposts that the long range scanners can detect.” Zuli nodded. Her expression hardened. “Desmond, please hail Captain Bunko.” “Cutting it pretty close, ain’t ya?” the grating voice of Captain Bunko accompanied his image on the view screen. “I was about to cut and run.” “I think you may find that difficult to achieve without your ship,” said Zuli. Bunko’s forehead crinkled above his goggles, and his mouth formed a bemused smile. “Oh? Are you gonna shoot me? That would be rather callous of you, considering that I am offering to help. And it would be rather foolish of you too, considering I’m your only ticket outta this mess. Besides, your energy weapons won’t work in the dampening field, and I’m pretty sure I could dodge any combustion-powered missiles you sent my way, assuming you even got any.” “Oh, we have some,” said Zuli, smiling sweetly back at Bunko. “This is an Igidi prime warship, Captain Bunko. Designed to wage war against entire star systems single-handedly, and fully armed with a wide variety of weaponry to ensure its adequateness at that task.” The smile on Bunko’s lips faltered slightly. “Well, regardless of all that, it’s still like I said. Shooting at me won’t do you any good. Look, that ship of yours sounds impressive. Maybe we can come up with a different deal to…” “Oh I have no intention of shooting at you, Captain Bunko,” said Zuli. She used the console on her chair to fire the maneuvering thrusters, rotating the ship slightly to expose its side toward the smaller anomaly. “You see, that is another thing about Igidi prime warships, Captain. They are extremely sensitive to cloaking technology. If your shuttle has the capability, you will see that I have a weapons lock on your cloaked ship, which I have detected just outside the dampening field. “Oh, and Captain Bunko,” Zuli glared at Bunko, still smiling sweetly. “I would wager that your ship is not as capable at deflecting physical munitions as it is energy scans, am I correct?” Bunko, shaking with rage, slammed his fists down on the console in front of him. “Wait!” he cried. “Damn it, wait just a millicycle.” “Captain Bunko, was it not you who just recently advised me not to take too long? I intend to follow that advice. Arming torpedo bays four through eight. Firing in five, four, three, two…” “Gwahahaha!” Bunko’s raspy laughter crackled through the bridge. “Oh, you’re good. You’re fuckin’ good, I’ll give you that. Look, I’ll tow you outta the dampening field. Just promise not to shoot. Gotta act fast though, we’re cutting it close.” “Thank you, Captain Bunko. I accept your terms,” said Zuli. “I will power down my weapons once clear of the electromagnetic anomaly. And be assured, this ship is fully capable of hitting a stationary target, even while you are towing it.” “Oh, I’ve no doubt of that!” Bunko’s laughter continued for a moment until the screen went dark. Zuli leaned back and sunk down into her chair, sighing heavily. “Can I say something, Cap?” Desmond asked. Zuli waved her assent at him. “That was fuckin’ badass!” cried Desmond. “How did you know the second anomaly was his cloaked ship?” Doyle asked. He sat across from Zuli at one of the mess hall tables. Sarah sat next to her, smirking at Doyle. “A lucky guess, Prophets bless me,” said Zuli. “It did not make sense that Bunko would be so far from any inhabited systems. It would take him a megacycle to get anywhere with combustion engines, and the fuel required to do so would not even fit in this ship, let alone his little shuttle. The only logical conclusion was that he had another more powerful ship nearby, and the second anomaly was the only clue we had. It was a bluff, but one that paid off.” Doyle, nodded approvingly. “You saved our lives again. I don’t even know how to begin thanking you.” “No thanks is necessary,” said Zuli, smiling warmly at Doyle. “My path is to serve others, in the name of the Prophets.” Doyle noticed that Sarah was still grinning widely at him. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and looked back to Zuli. “Were you able to get any information out of Bunko? Did he know anything about Takkah IV?” “No, I am sorry Doyle. Once we were free of the dampening field I prioritized our escape from the approaching ship.” “I understand,” said Doyle. It disappointed him that a possible source of answers slipped through their grip, but he couldn’t blame Zuli. He studied her from across the table, suddenly wondering just how old she was. The contrast between her short silver hair and youthful looking face beguiled him–she could be anywhere from thirty to sixty, he thought. Zuli noticed Doyle’s attention on her and looked away from him, blushing slightly. “You’re staring, Mrs. Doubtfire,” said Sarah in a monotone voice. Doyle narrowed his eyes. “What?” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” repeated Sarah. “Or no, what about Tootsie?” Doyle turned and looked frantically at Desmond, who had been sitting quietly at the end of the table. “You didn’t!” said Doyle. “I didn’t?” asked Desmond. “You did!” said Doyle. “I did,” admitted Desmond. “You were much hotter than Robin Williams, though,” Sarah said. “Dustin Hoffman, too.” “Wait, you saw me?” asked Doyle. “Oh sure, Desmond published a video of the whole thing for me.” “You published a video?!“ Doyle glared angrily at Desmond, who remained sitting quietly. “Did you ever see White Chicks?” asked Sarah. “Well, it’s been fun catching up, Zuli, but I really gotta go,” said Doyle. He stood up, violently knocking his chair to the ground before turning and walking quickly toward the exit. Sarah stood and rushed after him. “Oh and that other one, what was it? To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, something something…” “I’m not listening,” said Doyle, walking faster. Sarah picked up her pace to match his. “What about TV shows? What was that guy’s name… RuPaul? RuPaul’s Drag Race! That’s perfect!” Doyle screamed. “Are you certain?” Bunko didn’t know why he even bothered using video comms with the Takkah dark priests. The shadowy figure on his view screen lived up to his name–almost entirely shrouded in darkness. “Yeah I’ve seen images of the other ones you guys are hoarding. It was definitely a Constructor sentinel,” said Bunko. “And it was inactive?” “Yeah, busted like all the others. The chick said it was like a decoration, or statue or something. I had to get out of there to avoid the Corpseship, but I did manage to record her heading before I skedaddled.” “Send us your ship’s data,” said the dark figure. “Everything it recorded during the encounter.” Bunko squirmed slightly, trying to build up courage. His relationship with the Takkah Empire was a tenuous one at best. He knew very well what the consequences would be for outright defiance–he would never go that far. But he couldn’t just let it go without at least attempting to bargain. “I feel like maybe this information is worth a little more than the standard fare? Wouldn’t you agree?” he said tentatively. “It’s not every day I bring you a lead on Constructor technology, after all.” Bunko’s question was met with a long moment of silence. A bead of sweat made its way over the top of his goggles and streaked down the glass. Had he misjudged? He suddenly wished he had kept his mouth shut. “You will receive the usual payment,” the figure replied at last. “But should your information lead to the acquisition of Constructor technology, we will be amenable to the possibility of additional compensation.” “Good enough for me!” said Bunko, feeling both relieved and annoyed. “The data’s on its way.” “Make no mistake, Mister Bunko, the Takkah Empire does not tolerate insubordination among its vassals. I caution you against attempting such negotiations in the future. Other priests may not be as… forgiving as I.” The view screen shut off. “Fuckin’ creep,” Bunko grumbled as he prepared to transmit the data that he had doctored. He scrolled through the sensor output, grinning devilishly at his ingenuity. He had altered it just enough to keep Takkah of his ass–sending them on a wild goose chase. The priest could shove his “possibility of additional compensation” right up his shadowy ass, thought Bunko. They were gonna pay, alright. He’d make them pay a thousand times the usual fare, once he had that white-haired bitch and her robot.