Captain Ortega watched Ensign Trell filling the crystal carafe with chilled water from the ship’s hydromill. Calen had ordered him shackled to the door on the opposite side of the ship’s medical bay. He had agreed to it on the condition that Doctor Rogers’ robotic body be similarly shackled to the medical chamber’s single bed.
The medical chamber was a small room, and built with the assumption that only one of the ship’s standard set of two crew members would be injured at a time, since any disaster large enough to incapacitate two Morcalan’s at once would probably be severe enough that everyone on the ship would probably be dead anyway. Ortega wasn’t close enough to the bed to interfere with the procedings, but he was close enough to see that Trell had enough sense to shackle Doctor Rogers’ body more securely than he had been.
“Is it true that the two of you are destined foes?”
“Excuse me?” said Ortega, turning from Doctor Rogers’ body. Ensign Trell was standing away from the robotic shell, holding the carafe.
“Destined foes,” said Trell. “It’s… I don’t know if other humans have a word for it. An enemy that you can share your life with. A foe who’s destiny is so entwined with yours that you can rely on their presence more than you can count on your closest friends.”
“I wouldn’t say that, no,” said Ortega. “Though it is true that Rogers is a greater repeat offender than any other I’ve arrested. I’ve discovered his plots dozens of times.”
Trell nodded, looking at the metal body on the bed.
“So you’ve… never hated someone so much that you can’t imagine your life without them?”
Ortega laughed and shook his head.
“No, no I can’t say that I have. I’ve never heard of that before.”
“So it’s true, then,” she said. “I thought it was just xenophobia, or maybe planetary pride.”
“The emotions of Morcalans are said to run deeper and fiercer than that of any other human,” said Trell. “Great poets speak of how our love and hate are stronger, and how our laughter and tears have more meaning and purpose. Other humans experience emotions, but we live them.”
“I don’t think that’s true, actually,” said Ortega. “I never met a human who didn’t have great emotions. Some just don’t express them. I will say, though, that your people do seem to live more… theatrical lives.”
“Only a great fool mistakes our lives for theater,” said Captain Calen from the door, stepping around Ortega as she entered the room. “We’re not actors on a screen, going through our daily motions. You get enough of that from other societies. I’ve set our course through the Egression Belt. With luck we’ll avoid attention. There aren’t enough asteroids to cause a steady cover… there aren’t even enough to cause any real danger, I’m sad to say. But I found three rocks large enough and with trajectories steady enough that we shouldn’t be seen even if the Dyson Forces look for us. Not that they’ll have much reason to.”
“I’m ready to revive The Soul Survivor on your order, captain,” said Trell.
“I still say this is a horrible idea,” said Ortega. “It’s a move of desperation that will add to our problems instead of alleviating them.”
“Captain Ortega, you are my insurance against that,” said Calen. “Your people may live lives bereft of the great antagonisms known to mine, but you still represent a great familiarity with this monster. If anyone can spot the Survivor’s deception, it will be you. Now, will I have your cooperation or will I have your tongue to keep you from speaking up further? This chamber is capable of acquiring either, and it’s your choice which it will be.”
Ortega recognized the look of determination in Calen’s eyes. It was a look he had seen… and, he was sure, a look he had displayed…whenever the final point of desperation had been reached with an uncooperative crew member. Knowing the reputations of the Morcalan people, he was sure that the threat wasn’t empty. He knew it was a bad idea, but it was going to happen no matter what he said or did.
He opened his mouth to agree, but Calen had already seen it in his eyes. She turned toward Trell.
“I’m ready,” said Calen. “My Maelstrom Ray is charged, and I’ve not faced nearly enough death today. Pour the water into his dome, and wake this monster. Be he robot or soul, he lives again on our ship!”
Trell tipped the crystal carafe into a hydraulic opening at the robot’s shoulder. She took the container, moist with condensation, back to the hydromill as Ortega heard the all-too familiar sound of the machine beginning to pump the cold fluid. Slowly, the dome at the top of the robot begin to fill with water as Trell filled the caraffe a second time. She poured the water into the machine again and began to return to the hydromill.
“That should be enough,” said Ortega.
Calen glared at Ortega who shrugged.
“It doesn’t take as much water as it looks like, and it doesn’t need to be full for him to be at full capacity. Believe me, you’ve got more than enough in there already.”
Trell looked at Calen, who eventually nodded. She set the carafe onto a medical counter as more and more water began to pump into the dome. In less than a minute, the noise from the hydraulics changed and the water beneath the dome began to churn.
The robotic body lurched forward with a speed that seemed impossible given its bulky frame, but the restraints on the medical bed held Doctor Rogers in place. After struggling for a few moments, he settled down. Even without eyes, Ortega could tell that Doctor Rogers was staring at him.
“Am I addressing The Soul Survivor?” asked Captain Calen. “Are you awake?”
Ortega heard the crackle of speakers activating within the robotic body. A cheerful, likeable voice crackled to life, one that Ortega could tell had been selected to make Doctor Rogers appear reasonable and nonthreatening.
“Yes, I’m awake, thank you!” said Doctor Rogers. “I see you’ve got Captain Ortega as well. Do we have you to thank for rescuing us?”
“You and the Captain broke onto my ship,” she said. “We decided not to cast you out into the void again.”
“Deciding to go with a friendly Alto instead of your usual commanding Barritone, Rogers?” asked Ortega. “It’s an interesting voice that you’ve picked for yourself.”
“I’m glad you like it,” said Rogers. “Am I to assume that we’re going to be taken somewhere secure? Or at least, somewhere on the way that you can drop us off?”
“You’re going to be helping us,” said Calen. “Emperor Dyson’s forces have conquered Morcalan space and are planning to move on from here very soon. We need your legendary mind to formulate a scheme capable of retaking the entire system before he becomes too well entrenched.”
“That’s a tall order,” said Rogers. “The strength of Dyson’s forces are traditionally defensive.”
“That’s what I told them,” said Ortega.
“Did you also tell them that Dyson’s forces tend to provide their own superstructure over societies, leaving the preexisting cultures and infrastructures largely in place?”
“No,” said Ortega. “How is that relevant?”
“It means that for all of the would-be Emperor’s strengths, he fails at integration and assimilation. …or succeeds at it, depending on your point of view. Alien technologies that don’t mesh with his own miraculous wonders are not useful on his timescale. He’s trying to conquer as much as he can before he’s noticed, and then as much as he can before he’s stopped. Most of the circles I listen to are of the opinion that after the war ends, business will resume as normal.”
“You haven’t made any contingency plans for him?” asked Trell.
“I can operate in a post-Dyson society just as easily as in a pre-Dyson society. And I doubt that I’ll need to… in my professional opinion as a working megalomanic, he lacks staying power. He’ll have to rely on preexisting soldiers and police forces to maintain his order. I don’t know how many non-automated troops he actually has in his army, but it can’t be nearly as many as it appears to be. It’s a well executed ruse, but a ruse is all it is. Hmm… Captain, it’s wonderful that you’ve added extra security measures on top of the standard Morcalan military security suite, but they don’t add much. Well, not much to me.”
“What?” asked Calen.
“He’s trying to access the ship’s network!” shouted Ortega. “Shut down the network!”
Trell spun in place and reached the nearest terminal. Captain Calen simiply activated her Maelstrom Ray. The mighty weapon launched a barrage of tightly focused plasma, electricity and light, impacting Rogers’ body. The robotics and hydraulics sputtered and sizzled before a painful noise heralded the final, grinding halt of the essential moving parts within the form. Most of the water in the dome-shaped helmet vaporized. The dome itself cracked and water spilled out of it, onto the floor.
“I apologize for killing your great enemy, Captain Ortega,” said Calen. “That right should have been yours. Still, I’m glad we attempted to deal with this devil. A weak one though he may have been.”
“He’s not dead,” said Ortega. “You just broke his dome.”
“He needs the dome to live,” said Calen. “And judging by the sound of it, his internal robotics suffered soundly.”
“This isn’t his first body,” said Ortega. “He can transfer. And even if he couldn’t… his bodies tend to be miracles of engineering. The last three bodies he’s used could repair themselves even after facing severe mechanical failures. The last one replaced the reinforced glass of his dome with a sort of shatter-resistant, self-repairing crystal. I imagine the dome’s already regrowing if this body’s anything like the last one.”
“Are you saying that he lives again and again as long as he eventually repairs and gets moisture into that dome?” asked Calen. “And he might well attack the ship’s network as soon as he comes back online. Trell, let’s take Captain Ortega’s advice and keep his dome free of any contaminating moisture for the rest of this escapade.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Trell, though she didn’t move from her position at the terminal. She tapped the screen and the keyboard curiously, trying to work through something strange.
“Is there a problem, Trell? This corpse won’t move itself.”
“Sorry, Captain,” she said. “The computer is reacting strangely. Any functions that require my clearance are denying me access.”
“We can reset your clearance after we make sure the ghost is buried and not coming back, Ensign.”
“I think it’s too late for that, Captain,” said Ortega. Calen turned to yell at the Astroguard captain but stopped when she saw him. He looked like he was on a battlefield instead of chained to a door. His eyes were quickly covering the room, like a tactician reevaluating a situation.
“What are you getting at?” she asked.
The loudspeakers in the room crackled to life and Ortega tensed.
“He’s already worked out my move,” said the voice of Doctor Rogers, speaking in the richer tones that Ortega knew so well. The speakers of the ship crackled as the voice adjusted to account for unexpected differences in the wiring and continued. “Captain Ortega is a great fool, but his experience on a battlefield is second to none! He knew I was already attacking the ship’s network, and that I had already cracked the security. He knew that I would not have announced such a thing unless it was almost certainly too late for you. This Morcalan Scuttler, Captain, is an ideal vessel for myself. Everything seems to be designed for rerouting, custom repairs, and cross-system cooperation. The water system on this ship was configurable enough that my autonomous virus was able to fashion a crude imitation of my usual robotic form. Not just a primitive copy of my mind, Captain, but my soul itself will live within your ship… which, ultimately, has become my ship.”
“Access Code Toten Toten Gamma Seventeen!” shouted Calen.
“Access Denied, Captain,” said the voice of Doctor Rogers. “I’ve been working in the Morcalan system long enough to know that I needed to disable the self destruct functionality before I did anything else. You people love a dramatic death more than life itself!”
“You’re delusional, Rogers,” said Ortega. “There’s nothing in the water systems that can hold your mind. Something about your software allows a complete transference of your mind. It’s a miracle of software and technology at work, but it would have functioned without changing the ship’s water system. And there’s no way that you’ll keep hold of this ship for long.”
“The science behind the transference of my life force would, of couse, be difficult to explain to one such as you,” said Rogers. “Perhaps I could begin if you sat through a number of lectures I have on mathematics, biology, physics, and psychology first to give you the grounding necessary to understand my work. Unfortunately, you don’t have the time.”
The ship’s artificial gravity ceased functioning, heralded only by the minor sensation of nausea that accompanied the alterations of gravity wells. The lights in the room flickered off, leaving only inadequette emergency lights. And finally, the gentle sound of the air system running in the background went silent.