Warped: Seven – So, Who Are The Proctologists Of This Galaxy?

Warped
by Andrea Speed

Seven – So, Who Are The Proctologists Of This Galaxy?

The coordinates for the area technically didn’t exist, which seemed to be more a theoretical problem than a practical one.

Of course the area existed. But it was just beyond what was considered a properly mapped area, so in official techno-speak, it was a “potential territory”, not yet exploited by the system or mass marketers. But on the good chance that that would encourage people to go looking around before they could stake a claim, these “potential territories” were usually flagged as dangerous for some reason. This one actually had a couple of good reasons to be flagged dangerous: it was the home of a blue giant star – lots of radiation, intense heat – and the neighboring system contained a rather large pulsar, and pulsars were never any good; they always fucked things up.

But it was all suspiciously convenient, wasn’t it? A strange area of space with just enough wrong with it to keep everyone away; a place where these mysterious “others” cropped up. Hardly seemed like a coincidence.

war10.jpgIt was a long trip, so Dar ignored everyone else, and stuck to the chores she had to do. Keeping the ship going, and decrypting the messages they had intercepted. The communication from the others (and that’s what she was calling them, in lieu of any other name) was more encrypted than that from the MoSys ship, although even they were using a non-standard encryption system. So far, all she had was one sentence of the MoSys transmission – “We didn’t break the deal.” Interesting. So whoever the others were, they knew them well enough to have some kind of contract with them. She mentally ran through a list of all aliens that had treaties and contracts with MoSys, but none had the technological level necessary to do that.

That she knew of. Ah, now there was a spanner in the works. Was there anyone even potentially capable of such a thing? The list was incredibly small, and purely speculative. The problem was, most races had a very specific way of constructing ships, and as such there was a general species uniformity to the design. No one had a vaguely bug shaped ship of those particular dimensions, or any bug shaped ships at all. So there was a new structural design … or a new player on the field. But not so new that MoSys didn’t know about them.

She would have talked this over with everyone, but depending on who they were, they’d hyperventilate and panic, or start screaming that they should get the fuck out of here and leave it, which was honestly just a variation on the original theme. She just wasn’t in the mood for it. As it was, they were complaining enough anyways.

There were many puzzling anomalies before they entered the system. Mainly it was a radiation blast furnace, screwing with the frequencies all across the range; it was like a deliberate communication dead zone, although there was a good chance ansible communication could work here … if it was set up for ansible. Which it wasn’t, of course.

The system also seemed to be a big nothing, with the vast, swollen blue-white orb of the system’s star taking up such an inordinate amount of space she picked up its gravity as soon as they hit the system. No, it was no singularity, but you didn’t want to be an underpowered skiff in this zone.

The system may have had planets at one point, but the star’s gravity had probably made their orbits unstable, and that was probably why there was a huge debris belt around the blue giant, a vast ring of disintegrated rock and dust that seemed to spread out like a fog inexplicably existing in raw vacuum. It would have been a natural mining site, only most of the rocks had been pulverized, meaning that any ore that potentially existed in them was nothing more than little fiddly bits that might acne scar your hull, but do little else.

She was scanning it for metal when she picked up the blip.

It was quite funny, actually, and if it hadn’t been so odd, she might have ignored it. It nearly registered as something, then didn’t; when she ran a scan over the quadrant once more, it came up clean. Maybe if she was a computer, she’d have accepted it as a scan error and moved on, but she didn’t make scan errors. Something had picked up her scan, and adjusted to mask itself. There was something in the debris belt, beyond rocks and dust, that really didn’t want to be seen. Too bad.

She moved the ship under the worst of the debris field, calculating that most people would come from above on a direct intercept vector, which she didn’t want. They could be armed for all she knew, and she didn’t want to give them a free shot – especially if they were the singularity firing people. Of course if they were, they’d be totally screwed, but what could you do?

The crystalline composite that made up the ship was well suited to taking micro meteor impacts, as well as being pelted by dust and pebbles at speeds that could actually do some damage. The radiation and heat was more of a potential problem, although they were good for a little while. Still, they’d eventually start to roast, beyond the ability of the cooling system to handle it.

As far as she could discern, the approach set off no alarms or automated weapons systems. She still couldn’t pick it up on scans (good cloak), but she could eventually see it, even though it wasn’t all that easy to find with the naked eye. It was black, pitch black, appearing as a mote among a hundred ones against the bright backdrop of the star. Except this one was much bigger than every other one, and was a strange ovoid shape that almost looked familiar.

As soon as Bruno was able to process the scene, he asked, “Is this wise?”

“I doubt it. But we’ll never know what’s going on if we don’t investigate.”

“Ya know, I could live wit’ that.”

“I couldn’t.” She opened up an internal channel, and said, “Khal?”

A quick glimpse inside his room showed him asleep – or perhaps passed out – his limbs akimbo, mouth open, lights on and Blue in her tank. If he was still on the drugs he had been earlier, he wouldn’t be of any use. But it was worth a shot. “Khal!” He didn’t stir, so she sent a burst of a very loud emergency klaxon throughout his room. He started, almost sitting up, but was unable to and in his general disorientation fell off the bed and hit the deck with a muffled thump. “Fuck!”

“Are you sufficiently awake now?”

“Enough to kick your metal ass,” he snapped, grabbing on to the bed and hauling himself up to his unsteady feet. “You want me to read something again, don’t cha?”

“I didn’t realize you were a telepath.”

“Ha,” he stumbled off to his bathroom and made an obnoxious hand gesture at one of the camera nodes as he went into his bathroom to urinate. It was the smart waste disposal units that were keeping track of all the drugs in his system and his declining health; it analyzed all the waste products for any pressing health or nutrition concerns, although she was fairly certain everyone ignored their alerts.

She waited until he stumbled out of the bathroom, wiping sleep drool from the side of the mouth, before briefing him on the situation. He looked at the camera node in disbelief, then started digging around in a cabinet for what she presumed was new clothes. “Great. Get us sucked into a black hole, Dar. That oughta be a learning experience.”

“So far the object has been dormant. I’m unable to scan the interior at the moment.”

“You’re hoping I can.”

“If they’re going to kill us, best to know ahead of time.”

He paused while changing his shirt. His torso was a chilling thing, narrow and pale for his ethnicity, the ribs clearly etched in relief. His veins were dark lines under his skin, placid snakes running down the line of his chest cavity and disappearing into his concave stomach. If he wasn’t an advertisement for taking better care of yourself, nothing was. “Yeah, okay, that’s a point.” He pulled his shirt on and closed his eyes, clearly trying to reach out with his mind.

She gave him a moment, watching a vein pulse in his temple, and a worry line furrow his brow. Finally, he said, “That’s weird.”

“Good weird or bad weird?”

He shook his head, opening his eyes and looking off to the middle distance, looking troubled. “Bad, I think. I’m getting nothing but white noise.”

“So it’s empty of biological organisms?”

“Er, I can’t tell. When I say white noise, I mean it. It’s like … static. I can’t get through.”

She had to parse that for meaning, as he wasn’t making sense. Or was he? “Wait. You’re saying that something’s actually blocking you from sensing whether or not there are higher organisms over there?”

He gave the nearest camera node an exasperated look. “That’s what I said!”

“The interesting thing is that’s impossible.”

He shrugged, rubbing his eyes and opening a drawer in his night table, where an entire pharmacy awaited him. He started to paw through it, knowing what he was looking for. “I know, but it’s happening. Don’t ask me to explain.”

That was troubling, but it was also curious. Okay, so perhaps he had a point that her curiosity was reckless, but honestly, if you couldn’t aspire to knowledge, you might as well be a data dump.

The Nyorai was made to be a “defensive” ship, since war was a negative word with bad approval numbers. What that meant was it had many capabilities commercial ships only wished they had, such as what was referred to as an “airlock facilitator” – translated from the corporate weasel speak, that meant they could force dock and open anyone’s airlock from their side. And if what they approached did not have an airlock, they could create one by biting right through their hull.

No armaments or defensive systems were triggered by their approach – as far as she and Khal could tell, which meant not at all – and while she found what looked to be an airlock on the stern side (?) of the station (she assumed it was a small station of unknown configuration; it also seemed to be made of an unclear black metal that seemed to have metallic flecks deep within it, like oil sprinkled with diamond dust), attempts at communication were met with dead silence. So she snugged the ship up to the stern, and engaged forced docking. Although it took a moment, she got the airlock in the station to respond and start cycling, so she didn’t have to send cerasteel monofilaments through its hull.

As she was having Bruno analyze the atmosphere, pressure, and gravity inside the station, Vani came out of her sleep cycle, and just in time. Vani was a Syshahi, a type of mammalian reptiloid (which seemed like a contradiction in terms, but wasn’t) that was known – somewhat derisively – as the accountants of the galaxy.

The reptilians in fiction were always more interesting. They were depicted as savage warriors or flesh eating cannibals or something along those lines, but the truth was more pedestrian. The Syshahi evolved pretty much like all other mammals, only their distant ancestors were a type of warm blooded reptile that had more than iguana level intelligence. They were standard bipeds, used to a slightly warmer, more humid climate (their planet was almost totally water – really all they had was the one large continent, and a smattering of small and insignificant islands), with almost no history of war or violence whatsoever. In spite of the popular prevailing theory, that only conflict could bring about scientific advancement, they advanced faster than Humans, having launched something into orbit by the Human equivalent of the twelfth century. Of course, the occasionally violent weather systems that plagued the planet during certain seasons, and the rather ferocious nature of many of their sea creatures probably spurred them on to think of some defensive measures.

The Syshahi were even vegetarians, if you didn’t count insects; they had no teeth, only a hard keratinous layer that allowed them to masticate vegetation and bugs. It didn’t make them the greatest chefs in the galaxy, but they were an intensely patient and curious people, and were the first to contact Humans. That was lucky, as they had no interest in conquest, at least in a physical sense – they took the old axiom “knowledge is power” quite literally, and made it a point to know everything there was to know. Sharing it was quite another thing. If they weren’t so perversely non-violent, Dar might have suspected them of being behind that singularity ship.

Vani was like most of her species: a smidge over five feet tall with a round, bald head (they had no hair at all), and mottled green skin that was lightly scaled, with a wide, lipless slash of a mouth and huge gold eyes that was each the size of her fist. She had no nose, just two small slits in the center of her face, and her ears were also flush against her head, crescent moon shapes partially covered with a small flap of flesh. Visually the Syshahi were hard to tell apart (by others), and this extended to genders too, unless they were naked. The women had small breasts and wider hips, but that was it beyond genitalia; they could all be rendered androgynous quite easily.

But they had a unique ability that could be quite helpful. First of all, they saw best in low light levels – their world was humid and warm, but not all that bright. Also, taste and smell were heightened and entwined in ways that Humans and other species couldn’t compete with. They could taste the air, judge gender by scenting pheromones, and tell you if any living being was in a place by tasting sweat, respiration, and skin flakes in the air. If Khal couldn’t tell them if this place was inhabited, Vani surely could.

At the airlock, she met with Gen (now female, thanks to his latest hormone treatments), Kvec, and Khal. Dar had no choice but to stay jacked in to the ship since a quick exit might be called for, but Vani had a MoSys standard cortical-optical node – she was one of their functionaries for several years – but they had used nanites to alter it, so it could only pick up Dar’s wavelength. She’d be with them in spirit if nothing else.

“Would you put that away?” Khal snapped at Gen. They were in their smart suits already, but Gen was cradling a rack gun like her life depended on it.

Gen glared at Khal through her faceplate. “No. These fuckos just killed a whole shipload of jackbooted MoSys PR people, remember? I’m not being caught short.”

“Iff you’re ssso ssscared, why are coming at all?” Vani asked. She couldn’t help the lisp, even with the implant that allowed her to speak alien languages. The way their mouths and throats worked, all the Syshahi lisped terribly. In fact to most people, their language seemed like nothing but a series of hisses and clicks.

Gen almost denied being scared, but couldn’t, because Vani had probably tasted it in spite of the smart suit. “If there’s something over there worth something, I’m not having you freaks cut me out.” As always, the promise of riches outweighed any sense of self-preservation with Gen. At least she was consistent.

The airlocks pressurized, and it irised open into the station. Through Vani’s eyes, she could see that the alien airlock was unlit, to the point that Vani’s eyes saw it as if through a grey veil. According to her HUD, it had an oxygen rich atmosphere, perfectly breathable to everyone on the team, and the gravity was within parameters, although a bit on the light side. Lights pierced the gloom as Khal and Gen turned them on, and it illuminated some kind of paint splashed on the interior airlock door. “Get closer,” Dar told Vani, and she obeyed. Vani was agreeable to a fault, but when she refused to do something, there was no making her do it; this was true of all the Syshahi. They’d only humor you for so long, then come to a complete and dead stop.

Vani retracted her helmet, which caused Gen to exclaim, “Germs, Vani! You could get alien syphilis or something!”

“My ssyssstem isss unique,” she said, and Dar heard her lips (mouth) smack as she tasted the air. It wasn’t arrogance; Syshahi had such odd immune systems as reptiloid mammals that it was difficult to infect them with anything that didn’t originate from their own planet. Humans keeled over and died when they sniffed an alien flower, but Syshahi could munch alien bugs all day and take a dip in a sewage pit and be perfectly fine.

Kvec leaned forward for a closer look, and Khal asked (probably for him), “What is that? It kinda looks like vomit. Someone toss their dried sushi?” With the light on it, it was purplish-black and slightly lumpy, like a bad attempt at stucco.

After clearly considering the taste of the air, Vani said in that inflectionless Syshahi tone that brooked no argument, “It’s blood, I believe. Blood of an alien with a high copper content.”

Dar saw, from Vani’s point of view, everyone staring at her in abject shock. Yes, they found the connection between the strange moon, the alien ship, and this bizarre station: death.

They had been inadvertently following a trail of bodies.

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