Warped: Two – The Silence of the Meatbags

Warped
by Andrea Speed

Two – The Silence of the Meatbags

What Kvec didn’t get about the meatbags was the silent hatred. Why didn’t they just say “fuck off” or whatever? Why the stewing? They had so many words at their disposal, so why didn’t they use them? The Nyorai didn’t land; if someone saw the ship, they’d report it for not having a proper beacon, if they didn’t recognize it on sight. So they’d gone down in a shuttle, and now, on their way back, Gen was alone in piloting it. Not that it was that difficult to pilot a shuttle, it was mostly automated anyways, and Dar could always link up to it remotely and fly it if need be.

war2.jpgKvec couldn’t sit up in the pilot or co-pilot seats, as they were made for smaller humanoids, and he knew he’d just break them. So he sat off to the side, in a special troop “jump” seat, built to take his frame, while Khal was curled up on the floor in a semi-fetal position. He thought he was unconscious, but occasionally he giggled, so obviously not.

Gen was fuming silently, and had been since they left the bar. Why? Khal had done his job, and now he was done. He could get wasted if he wanted to, although it was more like he needed to – that’s why they wanted to “rehabilitate” him, right? He was damaged goods. They were all damaged goods, or they wouldn’t be here.

But Gen didn’t like it. He tapped his fingers on the console, sat rigidly in his chair, and fumed, radiating a general ill will that would have woken most empaths up from a deep coma. But Khal was far too stoned to care, and therefore that was probably a mercy.

He didn’t understand why Gen didn’t get along with Khal, who – drug addiction aside – was the easiest to get along with. He was a Negotiator model, after all; they were made to be agreeable and adaptable. But Gen got along with no one, having a general antipathy for anyone who wasn’t him or her (both were applicable to Gen, since they were a GenAlt). That was the fault that doomed Gen, the inability to abide anyone, and that had to be the most basic qualification of a GenAlt. Khal just felt too much and couldn’t turn it off, hence the drugs.

What was his malfunction? Well, first of all, thinking of himself in any capacity. Or herself. Kvec honestly didn’t know what was applicable, it was the crew that just decided to call him a “him”, since Kvec didn’t like “it”. And he should have liked it, or at least not cared, because the Elite Guard had no wants, no desires, not beyond their basic need for solar radiation. They were separate parts of a greater whole, a network of crystalline. So what had gone wrong with him?

Dar’s voice filled the cabin. “So how’d you do?”

Could Gen’s posture reveal more disgust? Weird. “We have enough credits to do that whole mining thing, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Khal?”

Khal just laughed, and then waved up at the ceiling. “’m really good, thanks.”

“Oh yeah, you’re excellent junkie,” Gen sneered.

That just made Khal laugh, and Dar had simply shut down the connection, as she had no patience for Gen in one of his (her) moods. Kvec thought of punching Gen in the back of the head, and Khal picked up the image and started laughing even harder. Khal was easy to have a “conversation” with, probably because he was an empath, and accustomed to reading signals that other people couldn’t. He could also “send” images easier than anyone else, as other people found it harder to focus total concentration on a single visual image. As a result, he talked to him most of all, and knew him best. Khal was a conduit for most of them, which was just another reason for him to take drugs.

They were out of atmosphere now, and he could now see the Nyorai in stable orbit just beyond the planet’s protective ring of defense satellites, hiding in a sensor shadow so the docking facility on the other side of the planet didn’t pick them up. They liked their tax money here in Newall, as they did in any MoSys world. They had to pay for those satellites somehow.

The Nyorai was one of the few crystal ships currently in existence, one of the first of the synthetics judged adequate for space flight. Unlike him, it was a cloudy, semi-translucent white, making the whole ship look like it was carved from ice, an ethereally beautiful and delicate ornament abiding peacefully against the black backdrop of open space. It also had the shape of a spearhead, triangular and dominated by sharp angles, until you reached the back, and two thin “arms” grew out from the base and turned inward, barely concealing the cold fusion drive from view. It was made to be separated from the ship in case of meltdown, but that really wasn’t an option for them. They could hardly pull into a MoSys reconstruction yard with a stolen ship, could they? Their phony beacon wouldn’t fool them for long, no matter how good Dar was at reprogramming.

Gen was a poor companion, but a good pilot, and maneuvered them smoothly inside the docking bay, which appeared as a gaping hole in the belly of the ship as soon as the bulkhead retracted. The interior of the bay was like an ice cave – but then again, the entire ship was like an ice cave. According to Khal’s companion, it was beautiful, and maybe it was, but when you saw it all the time it became commonplace, even banal. Lights glowed and moved constantly with semi-translucent walls, flashes of green, red, and blue moving so fast they were almost subliminal, cyber-synaptic impulses translated into forms of light.

Gen started shutting the engines down as the braces grew out of the floor and clamped on to the side of the shuttle, atmosphere flooding the bay with a barely audible hiss. “Oi, Kvec, boss wants to see ya,” Bruno said, coming over the shuttle’s intercom.

Kvec gave a “thumb’s up” sign – Khal told him that meant yes or okay to the meatbags – and Gen reported with a sigh, ”He’s going, as soon as he takes the trash out.”

“Huh?” Dar might have given the interface a funny accent and a rather foul vocabulary, but Bruno still had an inconstant sense of humor. ”What trash? What d’ja bring back you weren’t supposed ta?”

“He means me,” Khal reported from the floor, still giggling.

Kvec went over to Khal, and helped him up to his unsteady feet. He had perfected the handling of the mammals, as they were so fragile they were easy to break, and it was difficult to understand the meaning of pressure when you didn’t actually feel anything – or at least not as the meatbags seemed to feel things. His “skin” was insensate, except to the radiation he needed to survive, and even then it was just a warmth he felt inside. He wondered what it would be like to touch something and actually feel it, beyond the basics of hot/cold or smooth/rough, but Khal had told him it was overrated. Then again, as a Negotiator model, Khal often told people what they wanted to hear.

Khal was the most fragile of the meatbags on the ship, in more ways than one. Beyond the possibility of being crippled by other people’s feelings, he was a slender patch of flesh pulled taut over a long, lean skeletal frame. He sometimes forgot to take adequate nutritional sustenance, exchanging it for the solace of numbing drugs, to the point that Dar had Bruno monitor his vital signs to make sure he didn’t turn critical. Vani had said that was sad, but Kvec wasn’t sure what she meant by that.

“You can take ‘im,” Bruno said, presumably to Gen. “’e don’t weigh no more than a scanner. Stop being a ass’ole and ‘elp ‘im, shiteface.”

“Don’t you talk to me like that,” he snapped, although it was another thing Kvec didn’t understand – Bruno talked that way to everyone. Bruno’s programming lacked what was called “tact”.

“I can make it,” Khal claimed weakly, pushing himself away from his grasp. He was upright for two seconds before falling forward and grabbing the shuttle wall for support, using it to hold himself up. “Uh, give me a second.”

Gen made a noise of disgust and levered himself out of the chair, headed for them. “Fine, I’ll take the fucking junkie. Go and see what the iron maiden wants.”

That was the curious nickname for Dar. He’d looked it up in the database, and found two specific old Earth references, one dealing with an ancient torturing device, and another with a rock band, but he didn’t see how either applied to Dar. Her cybernetic bits weren’t even made out of iron.

Maybe the corridors were beautiful, semi-translucent and smoothly carved into circular channels that ran throughout the ship like arteries within a giant beast. Lights glowed and streaked past, flickers of red, blue, and green deep with cloudy walls of thick crystal, and like always, he wondered if this ship was a type of “cousin” to his kind. Vani had said it was closer to basic structure rock crystal than his special kind of structure, but that just opened up more questions. For one thing, what was so “special” about him? They acted like he knew and they didn’t need to explain it, but he didn’t know. He was probably more of a mystery to himself than to anyone else.

He wondered if he should figure out some way to ask Khal about it. Well, when he was sober. Relatively. Khal was probably never technically sober, so waiting for him to get there would be the equivalent of waiting for the heat death of the universe.

He followed a narrow, serpentine offshoot corridor that seemed to dead end at a solid wall, but as soon as he saw a red flash out of the corner of his eye, the only sign of the scanner, the wall retracted within itself, and he entered what was known as the “pit”.

Nearly everyone had a sense of disorientation when entering this room, as the walls gave a three hundred and sixty degree view of the space around them, which was most often just deep black, with the distant glow of a sun or the reflected light of a planet. But they were close enough that Newall filled up what would have been the left side wall with its reddish orange glow, and the glaucoma white crystal floor seemed to be hovering in this void like a magic carpet. Off to the very far right was a tumor like lump of crystal, perfectly opaque, and if the window walls were at normal settings, he wouldn’t be able to see it.

It was the “coffin”, the place where the ‘facer spent most of their time. The ship was not flown or piloted manually; how could it be? No one had reflexes that fast, and the computer couldn’t weigh any variables that didn’t involve hard mathematics (so far, anyways – not for lack of trying). So the best pilot was determined to be a combination of the two: flesh and machine. So the ‘facer was a specially constructed amalgam of both, designed almost solely to fly the ships of MoSys, part of their brain organic, and part replaced with cyberneuro-wetware. Their limbs were generally replaced with artificial equivalents as well, simply because they spent so much time in the coffin their organic limbs had a tendency to wither to uselessness. Most of a ‘facers interaction with the crew was by voice alone, or by holograms capable of projecting any image that the ‘facer wanted you to see. The thing was, Dar hated the holograms, so when she did use them, they looked exactly as she actually looked – with half of a naked silver metal skull, ports and jacks visible, eye on the right side replaced by a scanner node. She just didn’t believe in obfuscation, even when it would make her easier on the eyes. Actually, most especially when it would make her easy on the eyes; she seemed to wear her alteration like a badge of honor.

“Thanks for coming, Kvec,” her disembodied voice said. “Bruno and I found an unusual communication on an unused emergency channel, and we thought it just might mean something to you.”

Barely a millisecond later, the pit filled with an unusual noise. It was like a high pitched tone, nearly a hum, except it modulated across the spectrum, hitting a peak before dropping down to an almost sub-audible thrum. He could feel it reverberating through his body – shit, he could feel it! He couldn’t feel anything – Cryers weren’t supposed to.

But as the feeling seemed to pour through him, filling all his hollow places, he suddenly realize he was getting images from it too; disturbing images. Crystal fragmented and broken, nutrient fluid spilling out over rocky ground, under the pale gaze of a dying sun.

He grabbed his head, trying to block out images, although he didn’t know how. It seemed to drill into his brain, cutting through him like a laser scalpel, and it didn’t stop until Dar shut off the transmission. “We thought it might be some kind of distress signal. Were we right?”

He gave her a thumb’s up. He could send her images, but the pain still seemed to radiate out from the center of his “skull”, and he didn’t feel like it. “We weren’t able to get exact coordinates, but we have a general location. Shall we check it out?”

He gave her a thumb’s up once more. His people didn’t talk; they didn’t make a sound.

If they were driven to do it, something was very wrong indeed.

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