He stormed down the steel corridors, furious for having been awakened – and so rudely at that. Red lights flashed around him, hounding him every step he took. They only tracked him, coming to life the moment he drew near, and then disappearing the moment he left – ensuring he couldn’t ignore the warning no matter where he went.
Worse yet, was the siren. Even if he somehow could outrun the red lights, the siren echoed through every nook and cranny of the entire ship. He had stuffed his ears with strips of his uniform to endure his trip, but even with the sound muffled, he wondered if he could keep his sanity long enough to reach his destination.
He knew the only way to stop the alarms was to go to their source, and to confront the computer mind that gave them life.
The polished steel walls seemed like a maze, but he knew them well – probably too well. He navigated his way with ease, every little nick and scratch a landmark.
He took a shortcut through the stasis chamber. Out of habit, he made a quick inspection of the many cylindrical tubes lining the chamber walls, and was satisfied to note that only one in ten of the tubes displayed readings beyond optimal parameters – none were malfunctioning. As ever, one tube in particular drew his attention. But thankfully, all vital signs were normal, stasis systems ideal. His small fingers cleared a trail of dust from her tube, revealing the angelic face within. She seemed all but lifeless within her glass canister, like a doll on display – her oxygen deprived skin porcelain white, and her bright blue eyes, sparkling like multifaceted gems. Etched in her stasis tube’s glass was her name – XF601 – GEMINI. It was the only thing he knew about her. But somehow it was enough . . . enough to build a fantasy love affair that had lasted many years.
As he often did, his mind drifted as he gazed upon her, dreaming what it would be like to actually meet her, to learn the real identity behind those blue eyes.
The siren blared . . . waking him from his dream.
As always, he resigned himself to the fact that they would never meet, and he would have to be content loving the woman he imagined her to be. He gave her one last look of longing, and then moved on.
He neared the end of the chamber, where the empty tubes were stacked, then paused once more. He turned, his own gem-like eyes falling on one of the empty tube’s transcriptions.
XM591 – RAPHEAL
He stared at the writing as if lost, his mind drifting to another life.
Once more the siren brought him back.
His head starting to ache from the constant blaring, he continued on, pleading with the Old Gods to end the cursed sound.
When at last he reached his destination, his curses had become a string of foul profanities directed at all the Gods, Old and New.
The doorway he came upon was larger than those he had passed, and opened into a vast, dome-shaped chamber – the walls all made of the same polished steel as the corridors. The chamber door was half open -- a scrap of bent metal jammed in its track. He looked at the doorway and grunted, remembering how he fought for a full standard day to pry the door open the last time it was shut. His “repair” wasn’t very sophisticated, but it had kept the room accessible for over three standard years.
He stomped into the room, growing angrier. In his sleep he had been free of this ship -- its steel walls and malfunctioning equipment. In his sleep there had only been peace. All he wanted was to fall back into it. To dream of his long lost life, or of the life he could possess; a life in which he wasn’t alone, spent with the woman he loved.
“Why in the dead did you wake me?” He asked of the empty room, screaming to be heard above the wailing siren.
The siren stopped, silence was his only reply.
He hoped the ship wasn’t simply having one of its moments. Sometimes he wondered if it felt as lonely as he did. And if so, could that loneliness drive the machine towards insanity?
There were many things he could repair in the ship, he just doubted the ship’s emotional state was one of them.
One could say the ship was sentient, artificially intelligent (though he was reluctant to credit it with the intelligent part). Among his people, it was a highly prized piece of tech, which they had stolen from a distant, alien world. Once the language barrier had been overcome, the ship was virtually self-sufficient, and operated on voice command alone.
It named itself Argos.
That was ages ago . . . now its communication was limited to a Delphinian program that interpreted its data then projected it onto a common holo-screen -- in the rare occasions when the holo-screen was actually functioning, which, at the moment it wasn’t.
The being put his hands on the wall. Glowing buttons appeared wherever his fingers met the smooth steel. His fingers were thin and tiny, and danced rapidly on the console. He had to stand on his tiptoes to reach many of the buttons, his full height no greater than four standard feet.
Unable to initiate the monitor manually, he switched his strategy; forming his hand into a fist, he tried pounding the blinking symbols into submission. Receiving little more than bruised knuckles for his efforts, he gave up on the console and dropped to the floor, his little fingers brushing through the dust until there was a sudden “Click”, and a section of the metal floor levitated upward. It hovered before him as though weightless, then he pushed the panel away and dove headfirst into the pit of multicolored wires and blinking lights.
A geyser of sparks soon filled the maintenance shaft and the ship's monitor flickered to life.
A crackle of energy, followed by more sparks, and the monitor brightened and expanded, the words upon it stretching horizontally to unrecognizable dimensions. Gradually, the image stabilized. Though the words remained unreadable; scrolling down the screen faster than any living eye could read. After some grumbling from below the bridge, the list slowed, becoming comprehensible at last.
“There, should give me a little time,” the being said, before scampering back out of the maintenance shaft.
He moved quick, freeing his small form from the tangle of wires, and scrambling to a stand. A pair of emerald green eyes darted to the monitor. The eyes were even facetted like gems and sparkled in the dim light of the console.
Line after line beginning with the word WARNING, slid down the screen, detailing the ship's major hull defects -- which may as well have been a cabin by cabin breakdown of the ship's exterior, for it appeared that every exterior room had either been lost to the vacuum of space or soon would be.
Not that he wasn't aware of every last crack in the ship -- having patched most of them himself. Those he couldn't repair had been sealed off to the extremes of space by welding the cabin doors shut, leaving the rooms forsaken.
After a structural illustration of the entire ship came into view -- the elliptical exterior highlighted in blinking red lights -- the hull report faded off screen, immediately followed by a status update for the life-support systems. The only words to follow were -- Status unknown. In order to keep the crew alive over all the years the Captain in Transit had cannibalized non-essential systems, turning the life-support into a mass of rerouted wires and cables, their functions no longer recognizable by the ship's own diagnostics.
"Come on, Argos," he declared, his voice gruff, his vocal chords stiff from lack of use. "Tell me something I don’t know."
Growling, his eyes flaring in anger, the being deleted any internal ship readings as soon as they appeared, no matter how insistently they flashed "WARNING". He had long since learned to stop jumping any time he read "failure this" or "danger that". Having kept the ancient vessel moving through space the last seventeen standard years, he knew there was little the computer could tell him about the ship that he didn't already know. The majority of the warnings he had already dealt with to the best of his abilities -- and dwindling resources. Those beyond repair simply had to be ignored or avoided. As long as the ship continued to move through space, and its cargo (living or otherwise) remained safe, the barrage of warning lights didn't faze him one bit. It all appeared to be standard stuff, certainly nothing worth waking for.
“What gives, Argos? You have something to say then spit it out.”
The reports switched to the external sensors, and the probes.
The first thing he noticed was the abundance of new data, and the lack of a correlating time frame.
“Argos, exactly how long have I been sleeping?”
Part of his job as Captain in Transit was to observe external readings once every ten-day. What he saw now was enough data to span over three such time periods.
Argos sent him another warning –
It suddenly made sense.
His last ship repair had been a warning he couldn't ignore. The ship transported a number of dangerous items, one of which required a constant supply of energy to keep its destructive power contained. The barrier field had been on the verge of failure, requiring him to reroute numerous other systems to keep the field maintained – which was no easy task, considering the limited functioning systems, and jumble of power feeds sprouting from the ship's core in a seemingly random manner. One of the functioning systems that he happened to reroute had been the ship's internal chronometer, which -- in his exhaustion -- he forgot to reset.
In his seemingly endless drifting through the void of space, time itself seemed to lose meaning without the ship's internal clock to dictate its passing. The ship's clock was the only thing that kept him grounded to life, allowed him to maintain a daily schedule in an environment where stars abounded but never rose nor set, merely faded from his view-screen.
Normally, to keep sane, he liked a vigorous day that emphasized discipline by way of extreme fitness. The routine served dual purposes. First, it kept him healthy and physically fit in an otherwise stagnant environment. Second, it kept his senses sharp, alive, giving him something to focus on even if it was physical pain.
He couldn't remember his last session of physical fitness, of which his scrawny arms and legs would attest. He mostly remembered wandering the ship. No specific memories, just visions of a nightmarish maze of recurring steel corridors. At one point he felt so familiar with the maze he began to think he could even escape it. He must have wandered for days before he came to the realization that he truly did know the way out, and that it couldn't be found in any of the ship's twisting corridors. He wasn't even sure how much of his wandering had been done while awake or dreaming but finally he simply gave up. There was only one way off of Argos. He rested his head on the smooth steel floor and at last found peace.
Then he was awakened by Argos.
Even when the ship's clock was functioning, the being didn't know exactly how long it had been since the fleet disbanded and he had entered hibersleep.
He only knew that there had been seventy-five Captains in Transit before him – a fact he knew well, having counted the empty hiberpods on numerous occasions.
The burden of Captain in Transit was his until death. At which time the seventy-seventh captain would awake from their slumber to suffer the burdens of a decaying ship and fruitless mission. Should they fail to find safe harbor for their cargo, the cycle would continue until the tenth generation, failing at long last with the death of the final captain in that rotation.
Perhaps his entire race would die at that time. In all his long hours of wandering through the computer's memory, the last recorded contact with another member of the fleet had been over a hundred standard years ago. Even that hadn't been much of a contact, merely a drifting vessel with its warning signal blaring through the galaxies. The Captain in Transit who had come upon it, confirmed the warning transmission was Makiian, then detonated it the moment he came into range.
Where the rest of the fleet ended up was anyone’s guess. When they disbanded, the ships set out in opposite directions throughout the universe. He doubted much of the fleet remained any longer. Considering the troubles he had dealt with in his rotation alone, it wouldn't surprise him if Argos was the only one left. Space travel was dangerous enough without every world being filled with the undead plague.
Smallings. Half-men. His people were known by many names throughout the worlds. But to themselves they would always be known as Delphinians, or in the shorter form -- Delphins. Named for their fallen home-world, Delphi.
His people had always been builders and inventors, their nimble fingers and sharp minds had birthed some of the greatest technological advancements in the universe. But after the Mage-lords conquered the worlds, technology itself became banned. His people became hunted, their technology threatened with destruction. Forced to abandon their home-world to the Mage-lords, they no longer had a planet but a fleet. Space became their new home.
They may have been great inventors, but after the Age of War they were even better pirates. While all other races forfeited their technologies, his kind continued to thrive in theirs, traveling the stars in the old way. Though slower than the Gate, they moved invisible to even the Mage-lords. They never stayed on solid land for more time than it took to fill their hulls, then, before the Mage-lords stormed through the Gate their fleet was well beyond the power of their so-called Oneness.
The elders used to talk of a time when the planets were ripe for plunder and a single Captain could see a hundred conquests in a lifetime. Now, after reading through the logs of his predecessors, there hadn't been a living planet in well over two hundred standard years. The Plague had seen an end to all plunder, sweeping through the planets at a rapidly accelerating rate.
In the beginning, the Fleet had fared better than the worlds, being untethered to the Rift like the rest of the races. But even his race of drifters had not been immune. The first time they encountered the Makiian Virus, many ships were lost before comprehension set in. Once they figured out that even their weapons were no match for this dark version of the Oneness, they quarantined the infected ships then fired upon them.
For a time they sought to study the virus with their technology. But even their greatest scientists were baffled, for it was birthed by the Oneness, something his people typically fled from, not studied. In their arrogance they had always thought their own science was the superior path, and therefore had never bothered to study the Oneness.
Because it was so highly contagious and foreign to them, all thoughts of studying the virus were abandoned. Any contact forbidden. Infected worlds could not be set upon, to do so was an act of war against the fleet. Many ships were lost in the beginning, before they knew what to scan for.
But eventually they adapted to the growing evil, even formed a sort of plan to combat it. Once more his people focused on technology, marauding the living planets and taking their secret reserves of ancient weapons and occasional ships. With the Mage-lords focused on shielding themselves from the horrors of the Rift, the Delphinians were free to plunder unopposed.
Their plan was to steal their weapons then leave the planets to rot. If the Plague ever found them in space, they would have an arsenal of weapons capable of sending it back into the Rift forever.
The years passed and the planets died, meanwhile lacking supplies (either bought or stolen) from the worlds, the fleet fell into ruin. Having nothing in their hoard of weapons capable of battling the ravages of time, they had to face the plague, or sit and die.
The Delphinians decided they would find a living world and make a stand.
That was the day the Captain in Transit went into hibersleep, and his mission began.
Many years later he awoke, and found himself in charge of a ruined ship and a mission on the brink of failure.
During his reign as acting captain he devoted a great deal of time studying the weapons in his hull. Unfortunately, the technology behind the weapons was ancient and alien, and for the most part, beyond his understanding. As for finding worlds, so far he had found thousands of them, all infected.
Because of these failures, perhaps a part of him had never wanted to restart the ship's chronometer. Maybe he had finally accepted the fact that he was lost, and his time was running out. All the blood and sweat that he put into his stringent routine and ship repairs had been for naught, and that his days as Captain in Transit would end as inglorious as his predecessors -- as would the poor bastards that had to follow him.
"Fine, will you let me go back to sleep if I fix the chronometer?”
The siren blared to life again, louder than ever. Every inch of the chamber walls were flashing red.
“Argos, enough,” he pleaded, falling to his knees. “Just tell me what you want.”
As suddenly as the alarm started, it stopped. The external readings reappeared, beginning with the probes -- there remained three that yet transmitted a signal, though all of which were but faintly detected. As it was so fond of doing, Argos also sent him a warning: Core power failing in probes 541, 783, and 777.Requesting immediate send-back for core restructuring. Communication loss imminent.
The Captain in Transit knew better. He had already set a limit to their search perimeter. Their signal was as powerful as it would ever get, as long as he kept them close they shouldn't wander off.
"Wait a minute. What happened to probe 363?"
Argos responded by redisplayed the previous warning.
"Fine," the Delphin growled. "Just get on with the one's we got."
Terrestrial Probe 541 --
Habitable zone binary system.
He had seen enough. Probe 541 faded off screen.
The next probe -- 783 -- sent a similar reading; Habitable zone, toxic atmosphere, vegetation nil, weather unstable, etc . . . More all too familiar data.
He expected nothing less from the final probe.
777 . . .
. . . habitable zone.
. . . oxygen rich.
. . . weather stable.
Life-forms. . .
. . . multiple readings.
The Captain’s thin, stick-like legs nearly crumpled beneath him.
“What of the Plague?” He begged of the ship, his gruff baritone voice strangely out of place in his seemingly adolescent frame.
. . . Makiian virus - 0%.
He recovered himself, his fingers once more flying on the control panel.
97,483.397 light years.
"Well, what are you waiting for, Argos?" he roared. "Set a course."
The star-chart of Argos’ course appeared on screen, already plotted and engaged.
“What’s the problem then?”
Gravdrive 59% efficiency.
With that amount of power, neither him, nor those who followed, would live to see the planet. He no longer felt the need for sleep. He finally had a real means of escape from his ship. His emerald eyes lingered on the screen a moment longer to make sure it wasn’t just a dream, and then he dove back into the maintenance shaft where he knew he would spend his next ten-day in the ship's bowels, feeding as much power as possible to the gravdrive.
Shortly after he left, another warning appeared.
. . . Makiian virus - .001% . . . .002% . . . .004%
It continued to grow exponentially, until there was a growl and flicker of sparks.
Then screen flickered and went blank once more.
Argos tried to access its emergency faculties, but they were nowhere to be found. The Captain in Transit had already rerouted all emergency power to the gravdrive. Electric currents flared in the ancient computer’s brain as it attempted to scream a warning. But lacking a connection to the physical world, it was a warning only Argos could hear.
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