[OC] Emotive-Agonist, Chapter 08

Emotive-Agonist, or: Things are Really Weird and Vaguely Alarming, Chapter 8

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The light blade blazed ahead of her, elongating in a way that Remy would have found absolutely terrifying if she’d been watching the blade come at her. Enough light shone off the blade to brighten the mouth of the alleyway for just an instant, and then it was out of sight, carrying the light with it.

Remy swung herself around the corner a second later.

Outreach taught you to hug a wall, to hold yourself there with your gun in hand and prepare. But Remy didn’t have a gun, and she didn’t have a way of hearing a scuffle without a partner. Maybe if Trevor were trained to alert her to fights, those tactics would work. For now, they wouldn’t, and if someone shredded her with bullets, well that was just life.

The light blade hung at the end of the alley, waiting for a command from her, and she frowned. There was no one there. There was nothing there.

Creeping further into the tunnel, Trevor at her side, she looked all around her. Peering into the dark, she saw nothing that could be considered out of place. There were no garbage bins (Census had long ago learned how to take all waste and recycle it into something useable), just some stray rubble and long-abandoned contraptions that looked more or less like bikes.

The alley wasn’t long, and when it ended, it did so abruptly by way of a wall that went up at least fifty stories.

A frown worked its way across Remy’s face, and she turned slowly, surveying the alley again.

None of the buildings had fire escapes (the very idea was absurd to anyone on a Census ship), and she would have felt the vibration of one being pulled down if they’d existed at all. There were windows, but these buildings were solid sheets of metal and glass. There were seams between the sheets, but they were so smooth as to be unnoticeable. You couldn’t use them as footholds.

Paranoia made her check some of those seams anyway, her fingers searching for scratches left behind by claws. She found none on the three walls enclosing her, nor did she find any kind of slime or sticky residue left behind by creatures that adhered pieces of their bodies to surfaces to achieve movement.

What the hell? Her frown deepened. Yes, she was only one person, but she was a damn observant person. A shadow had moved, and Remy had learned long ago not to doubt her senses. While other people—Zenia, she thought idly—would convince themselves they’d seen nothing, Remy didn’t even bother. She knew she’d seen something, and that something was now gone.

She wasn’t alone.

Most logical conclusion: drones. Least logical conclusion: living creature, possibly an Incaran. Okay, no, that wasn’t the least logical. She could extrapolate some pretty crazy conclusions, but an Incaran was the least logical within the realm of reason. She doubted the ship had been bathed in some kind of radiation that seared bodies together into haphazard flesh monsters that continued living by consuming the meat of other living things.

That, actually, might make a really awesome terrible holo.

She looked at the light blade, at the elongated lines of its blade, and squinted ever so slightly.

Spin.

The entire thing whirled about at a dizzying speed, and she grinned. Now that was awesome. If she could get another light blade, if she could tag it to her DNA like the Bad News had, she could use one as a weapon and one as a shield.

Bend? It was more a question than a command, but to her delight, the blades slowly curled into something more scimitar-shaped as they continued to whip through the air. Oh. Oh, now that was a good thought. Whip.

The blades stopped as if they’d never been moving, reeled back, and whipped downward. She felt the tiny burst of air against her cheeks, and she looked down at Trevor with a broad grin, nodding at him as if to say, “This is great, isn’t it?”

Trevor didn’t look at her, too busy sniffing something on the ground.

Smile fading into a look of wary curiosity, Remy knelt beside him in a crouch, flicking her eyes over the sides of the buildings again. She was going with the shadow being a drone, and rogue drones, while rare, were nothing to dismiss idly.

What did you find, boy?

Remy reached out, gently pushing Trevor’s nose away from whatever he was sniffing. Something… dark. She ran her fingers over it. Dark, wet. A little sticky. Bringing her hand to her face and urging the light blade closer to use its haloing glow to see, she inhaled deeply. Her nose wrinkled. Petroleum. Heavy petroleum, lightened by something vaguely sulfuric. Ink? Ink mixed with something else?

Light fell across her fingers. Dark blue liquid stained her skin, and she sucked in a breath. Her stomach turned over.

No. Not ink.

That was blood. With the realization that it was blood came the realization of its origin.

Shit shit shit shit.

Not a drone.

Remy lurched to her feet, frantically dragging her hand over her thigh to wipe the blood off on her pants. She snapped the fingers of her other hand, and Trevor bounded after her as she burst out the end of the alley and took off sprinting down the street. Running had never been something she enjoyed, and since she danced, aside from cross-training, she’d never bothered using running as exercise the way other people did. But she didn’t need to. Dancing had made her legs strong and her lungs efficient. She all but leapt down the street, counting out her breaths to keep them steady and even.

The Outreach branch wasn’t far. A glance at her computer said it was a quarter of a mile away. Now a fifth. She didn’t glance behind her, partially because she still didn’t want to consciously acknowledge that something else was on the ship with her, partially because it would slow her. The light blade had her back anyway.

She really needed a manual on that thing.

Ahead of her, space opened up not to accommodate more lanes of traffic but rather to allow the Outreach building to have a massive, sprawling park in front of it. Unlike human cities, Census went to great lengths to ensure even amounts of living and green space existed—partially because plenty of species required the green spaces. The grounds were (unsurprisingly, given the ship’s bizarre systemic schizophrenia) well kept. Remora trees heavy with their rainbow leaves cast heavy shade across the broad, flower-lined path leading to an entry that was meant to be stately, awe-inspiring, and perhaps a little ostentatious.

Remy didn’t take that path. She didn’t trust the part of the building that allowed civilian access.

Instead, she veered sharply to the left, following a twisting path through gardens on the left-hand side of the building. She glanced at her reflection in the glass beside her and then beyond herself, using the glass as a mirror to scan for anything out of place. No moving shadows, nothing following her.

Didn’t mean anything. Just because she couldn’t see something didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Ahead, the path turned in a broad arc away from the side of the building. The fastest path was a straight line, so she vaulted over the flower bed between where she was and where the path curved back around. Her jump wasn’t quite long enough, and she came down just inside the flower bed, crushing the pretty orange and yellow plants beneath her foot.

As she ran, she pulled up her badge on her computer.

There was, on every Outreach building, an employee access around the back. If you didn’t know where it was, you’d never find it; as far as most people were concerned, it was just another glass pane. But it wasn’t. It was the fifth pane from the corner, and Remy reached ahead of herself, waving her arm wildly at the door.

It slid open, and she threw herself inside, rolling into a crouch in a hallway that slowly began to illuminate. She spun about on her knees as Trevor bounded through the door and the light blade zipped in after.

The door shut, leaving her panting with her dog on the cool floor.

At least the air conditioning was working.

Boneless, exhausted, all the adrenaline leaving her in a sudden rush, Remy lowered herself to the floor and laid there, arms and legs spread wide. She stared numbly at the ceiling.

At least it recognized the ID, she thought. At least it recognized me.

Reality picked that moment to shove its way into her head, reminding her that she wasn’t alone, and while the employee only section of the building was safe, it wasn’t impenetrable. She couldn’t leave her safety to chance, not while an alien might running around the ship, too. There was some solace in the slow warming of the lights, but not enough to diminish her paranoia.

Figures. Irritation soured the thought as she forced herself to her feet. Sweat covered her overheated body, and she took a moment to shrug out of her jacket. She draped it carefully over her bag and glanced about the entrance.

No need for any fancy reception here, but there was a desk to her right where an agent usually sat and greeted employees when they entered. Remy went around the desk, dragging her fingers over the glass surface. No dust. The people really had disappeared. Hell.

She kicked the awkwardly shaped chair out of her way, standing behind the desk. Her personal computer interfaced with the one in the desk immediately, waking the desk terminal from its slumber. Three hard light screens spread across the space in front of her and above the desk while a human keyboard appeared on the desk’s flat surface.

Yeah, this ship was definitely downloading information. It might not allow any signals to get out, but it was definitely taking them in. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about being locked out of any systems or having to explain her species to the ship when she eventually found a way to talk to it.

Accessing the building system settings, she activated tier one security, locking down the employee section.

A flicker of light rippled across the wall, and she glanced briefly toward it, feeling relief as the force fields turned on all throughout the building. Exhaling heavily, she turned her blood covered left hand palm up, looking at the blue flecks under her nails and staining her skin. Revulsion shuddered through her.

How the hell had this happened? Had the ships the Bad News mentioned beaten her here? No, wait, she needed to take a few more steps back. Maybe this wasn’t Incaran blood. Sure, the smell of it was ingrained into her. She’d ensured that while she was still at Academy, but that didn’t mean anything. A healthy dose of skepticism would do her well.

No, it wouldn’t. She needed to stop being skeptical.

Eugh. She needed to make a decision, come up with an action plan, and just go with it. Eliminate all the variables. Find a solution.

Alright. She’d test the blood just to make sure, but she’d function as if she were trapped behind enemy lines. That meant she needed to reinforce her position—done; nothing was getting through the force fields—and get as much information as she could out of these computers.

First, though, she needed to sleep. The blood could wait. Everything could wait. She was no good to anyone, least of all herself, if she was too exhausted to function.

Dragging herself away from the computer, shutting it down with a dismissive gesture of her wrist, she started down the hallway. Now, she felt the fatigue. Just lifting her legs to walk took a phenomenal amount of strength. Without the adrenaline, she was wasted.

At the end of the hall, she called the elevator. Took it three floors down. Shuffled through a bulkhead door separating the elevator hall from the rest of the floor, pausing only long enough to make sure the force field flickered in place over a metal door as thick as her arm.

Satisfied, she stumbled her way to the barracks. Thank God Outreach uses a standard layout for these buildings, she thought blearily, stumbling up to a door. She slapped it open and tumbled inside, a relieved smile spreading across her face at the sight of the beds. Sweet, sweet beds, with their hard as cement mattresses, flat pillows, and paper-thin blankets. Nothing sounded better.

Even as tired as she was, even with the door locked behind her, and Trevor and the floating death blade, the unimpeded door spiked her anxiety. That flare of fear was enough to motivate her.

The room was sparsely decorated, but all of the rooms in the barracks were. Six people could fit in the room, the bunk beds lined up neatly against the back wall and separated by desks. Perfect. Like the desk up front, these were more like tables than desks with glass tops and nothing between the supporting metal legs but reinforcing beams of metal stylized to look like the hands of different species.

Remy pushed the chair in front of the first desk out of her way and dragged it forward. She leaned the desk against the door, dead in the middle, her sludgy thoughts insisting that if someone were to open the door, the desk would fall forward and squish them. The other desk became more barricade than trap, and the chairs she placed between the two, not cognizant enough to realize the desk wouldn’t fall forward anymore with the counterweight.

Didn’t matter. It helped her feel more secure.

That done, she collapsed on the rightmost bed on the bottom, tucking herself into the corner. Trevor worked himself into the space between the bend in her legs and the wall, his warmth a gentle comfort.

Guard, she thought distantly.

The last thing she saw was the light blade taking up position in front of the door.

Good death light.

And then she was out.


Remy woke suddenly, fear spiking through her hot and cold. Training took over, and she flung herself out of the bed, hands raised defensively. On the balls of her feet, she looked for trouble—and found none.

The light blade hovered where she’d left it, and Trevor gave her a cranky look from the end of the bed.

Letting out a heavy breath, she deflated.

They’d survived their first night. That was good.

Twisting her wrist, she checked the time. 0921. Later than she usually slept, but given her previous day, she wasn’t surprised.

Alright, she thought. Game plan. First, I’m disgusting. I need a shower.

Her stomach grumbled, her insides bubbling uncomfortably.

Then Trevor and I need to eat. Can’t do brain work without food. After food, start blood analysis. While that’s happening, research. Figure out what the hell is going on. Figure out why the avatar hasn’t manifested. And locate another light blade.

She studied the hovering weapon, relieved it had stayed in place while she’d been sleeping.

Maybe locate a bunch more light blades. And find a light blade user guide in the weapons files.

Plan decided, she put it into action.

Now that it was daytime, she felt almost silly for barricading the door—especially when she noticed what a shit job she’d done. Shaking her head at her tired self, she pushed the chairs and desks aside, grabbed her bag, and made her way to the shower.

Once she was clean and dressed, she took herself and Trevor to the cafeteria. No horrific smells wafted from it, but that wasn’t surprising. Anything that could have decayed had done so a long time ago, so it wasn’t—or not.

Remy scowled at the empty cold storage unit. It had been cleaned out. Drones, she thought. The drones were definitely still working. Or the thing in the ship had gotten in here and—she cut off that line of thought. There were ways to bypass Outreach security; not even Census’s golden child was arrogant enough to think its systems were completely impenetrable, but without a good deal of knowledge about how Outreach built its security, a breach was incredibly unlikely. Unless someone had brute forced their way in. Two hundred years—no. No, that was dumb.

She’d seen no people, which meant no personal computers, which meant no access to onboard computers unless you hacked those, too, and there wasn’t an AI in the galaxy that would tolerate that kind of invasion.

She had no intention of eating in the cafeteria. That would be time wasted. So she grabbed a nonperishable alien stew, squinted her way through the ingredients, and had her computer check it against what it knew about canine biology. That can didn’t pass muster, but the next one she grabbed was deigned safe. Stuffing that into her bag, she checked the faucets on the wall.

Liquid poured out the taps, and she went down the line of them, turning them on and then off until she found water. Plenty of species needed water to survive, and the rest were convinced the hydrophiliacs were secretly monsters. According to them, intelligent life that regularly consumed a universal solvent was to be feared.

By that measure, humanity wasn’t abnormal. But when Zenia had casually told an alien in Academy that she regularly drank upwards of sixty-four ounces of water, that alien had been immediately convinced that Zenia was the kind of hardass with whom none should ever fuck. Given Zenia’s ability to destroy people in a sentence or two, that alien hadn’t been wrong.

Remy filled her two water bottles, dug through some storage to see if there were more, found some, and filled a third.

Armed with food and beverage, she made her way to the labs. While barracks and offices for lower-ranking officers were accessible by the main corridor, the labs were built like an endless maze. Each specialized room was connected to a network of other rooms offering storage and related equipment such that there was always an empty lab or six for the agent pressed for time. The interconnected rooms also provided a great deal of protection in case a branch was ever attacked.

She passed through several rooms, still not quite able to shake the fear that she wasn’t alone in the building. She was, she knew that, but there was no harm in using the fifth or sixth appropriate lab instead of the one off the main hallway. And she wanted one attached to an office for a higher ranking officer. Those were tucked away from that primary hallway for protection. While any computer station in the building could be counted on to lock everything down in case of an emergency, sensitive documents could only be accessed on protected terminals.

Setting her things down on a table removed from the workstations, she pulled out Trevor’s bowl of water from her bag. She filled it and set it down as she told the light blade to slice the top off the can of stew she’d grabbed for her pup. The blade did so, and she tested the edge for sharpness. Blood welled from her finger and she sighed. Figures.

Well, it wasn’t like she had any superiors to report to here. Arguably, there was the ship itself, but if it wanted to bitch at her for pouring canned stew on the floor for her dog to eat, it could manifest its avatar and do just that.

Trevor began lapping up the food immediately, tail wagging.

Remy, meanwhile, went to the first aide station, washed the blood from her cut and applied a biosynthetic glue to her skin, sealing it. She grabbed gloves while she was there and then returned to her things. A drop of water turned the cube from her food packet into a perfectly adequate burrito, and she forced it down with large gulps so that its plasticy flavor didn’t sit long on her tongue.

Her stomach gurgled a protest, and she patted it idly as she removed her bloodied pants from her bag. You got food. It’s not great food, but it’s still food. She’d folded the pants carefully to preserve the blood stains. Now, she unfolded them and held them up with a frown. The blue blood streaked across the dark fabric, hard to see but present.

The light blade came over at her mental instruction and sliced the patch of bloody fabric free of the rest. Destroying the pants didn’t matter all that much; she’d be able to find extras in here somewhere.

Moving from table to workstation, she waved her arm over the machinery to turn it on. As with the desk, her computer linked up to the local network immediately and provided her all the commands she needed. Most people could just talk their way through the process—lucky them—but she had to manually plug in commands.

Once everything was keyed up, she placed the bloody scrap under the spectrometer and walked away. The computer would manage the rest, picking apart the components of the blood and matching them to the species in the ship’s database.

She, meanwhile, had research to do.

Like all offices in an Outreach building, this one was undecorated. No one displayed personal effects, and the humans had all been shocked to learn it was somehow considered rude. So offices were relatively empty except for the prescribed amount of storage, a table, a desk terminal, and some chairs for people to sit in across from the desk.

Flopping into the singular chair behind the desk—it wasn’t made for humans, but its hammock-like structure was comfortable enough—she logged in.

And was surprised by dialog box that popped up midway through access.

Confirm Admin privileges for acting Admiral Remington, Harrison

Password:

Well.

She stared at the screen for a minute, rubbing her jaw loose. Then she exhaled heavily. I really am the only Outreach person on this ship. That was how this worked: as the people at the top of the chain of command were incapacitated, the next in line assumed that position until there was no one left. For organics, keeping track of the precise line of succession would have been impossible. For the ships, cross-referencing all personnel, their qualifications, their records, their time in service? That took no effort at all.

This unequivocal confirmation of her aloneness didn’t alarm her. Instead, it was rather comforting in its finality. There remained the possibility of civilians being on another level, but for now she was quite content to be sure that only she and some alien were in this section of ship.

Fabulous.

She’d make it work.

She typed in her password and, once the system was ready, started pulling up the ship captain’s logs. Going straight to the old admiral’s logs would be a complete waste of time. Whoever they’d been, everything in their logs was likely politics. If she wanted information about what had happened two hundred years ago, she needed to go to the person who’d seen the action.

A quick query pulled up the captain’s logs. There were a lot of them. The last captain, a one Sigzle Seltzle, had accepted the post several hundred years ago—an additional four centuries prior to whatever had happened two hundred years ago. She was staring into the past, and it was a little unnerving.

The captain wasn’t much of a talker. Their logs were intermittent at best. There were, however, ten logs made in as many days approximately two hundred twenty-three years ago. Those were what she needed, she was sure of it.

Except that attempting to access any of them pulled up a notification stating that play back (she sagged; getting voice-to-text was always a pain) required her to go to the Census Headquarters building. That didn’t get a groan. It got bugged out eyes.

What the hell?

To be fair, she’d probably need to go there regardless if she wanted to get the avatar to talk to her. CHQ buildings were built to house one of the many mainframes needed to run a ship AI. She’d need to go to the mainframes to get the avatar working again anyway.

But still: what the hell?

She was no hacker, but she pulled up an override prompt, plugged in her serial number and password—and got the same response. What the hell kind of information was in these logs that they were Secured, Mainframe Only?

Slouching in the chair, she propped her chin on her left hand and scowled. As she sat there, frowning, Trevor padded absently in. He circled her chair and she reached down, giving him idle scratches with her free hand.

Right, so the captain’s logs weren’t accessible. Pulling her hand from her chin, she tried to get at the admiral’s logs because why not. Same result. Oookay. She tried bridge station logs, and those were locked out, too. All ship sensor data, both internal and external, as well as access to civilian recordings made in that same two week time period were also blacked out.

Irritated, she slammed a hand on the surface of the table. It was her analog to shouting at the machine, to demanding what the hell it could give her. And as she thought that, she pulled open an interface unique to her. Grim had helped write it, and she hadn’t deleted it because she was only half as useful without it.

In a flurry of fingers, she typed the question:

What the hell can you give me if all these logs are locked down?

A hearing person could have just shouted the question aloud, and the ships’ computers would have processed the words and responded. She didn’t have that luxury—and she refused to let that slow her down. The more her instructors had insisted life would be easier if she could just speak to the computer and hear it speak back, the more she’d dug in her heels.

The more she’d shot herself and her career in the foot.

No one would accept a deaf woman on their bridge crew, her instructors had told her, thinking to use that as a weapon against her. And why the hell would I want to be a on bridge with crew members who don’t want or trust me anyway? she’d snapped back.

She didn’t want to be bridge crew either way. She was an artist. That’s why she’d been picked for Academy: she was an artist, not an engineer or a diplomat or career military. Because she’d been different. Because humanity had wanted to showcase the spectrum of their skills, from science to military to art.

Humanity had also wanted to make a point about disabilities, and the fact that they’d used her as their tool to do so still stuck in her throat like a bone. She needed to let it go, she knew that, but it still choked her.

Shaking her head, she flicked the open screens on her personal computer onto the terminal in front of her.

Grim’s frankly brilliant program pinged a computer the same way a vocal input would, and instead of having the computer speaking back, it prompted the computer to just open the relevant files. She could go through them at her leisure now that they were open.

Alright, then. She had crew, both Outreach and Census, and civilian manifests. Largely useless. She moved that aside, thinking she might as well sort through the manifests later, looking for oddities. She had a locations record. More useful.

The coordinates were ordered from least to most recent, and she took a long, slow breath. The first entry was dated over fifty thousand years ago. Mind-boggling scales of time aside, fifty thousand years ago was roughly when the Census had emerged as a functional organization.

How long has—no, I need to ask it that.

Confirm: how long has this vessel been in service?

The answer routed through her messaging system.

u undefined error: username unknown [today at 1121]

This vessel has been in service for 51,001 years.

Fingers trembling, Remy entered another question.

u Adm-Remington-Harrison-(act.) [today at 1122]

Why was this vessel commissioned?

u undefined error: username unknown [today at 1121]

This vessel was commissioned to enable the first galactic census.

A dialog box appeared over all her other screens before she could even begin to process that. “Analysis requested by acting Admiral Harrison Remington complete. Open file?”

Reeling, Remy reached out blindly. Tapped “yes.”

The report opened, the document only 3 pages long. The whole thing detailed the exact genetic makeup of whatever had left the smear of blood, but all she cared about was the third line.

Species: Incaran.


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