The crew of Starfire quickly assessed the situation - Captain Marcus' suit was torn and his shoulder had been lacerated by the cusp of an exposed piece of machinery when the suddenly-insane Chikar had hurled him into the assortment of exposed electronics
Chikar, during his abrupt exodus, had made an absurd amount of noise, and they all knew that it would undoubtedly be only minutes, if that, before more 'players' of this vast and twisted game would arrive to seal their fates.
"We've got to get out of this corridor..." Mumbled the captain, rather unintelligibly. The ship's engineer, Jules, looked with sympathy as he observed the wickedly sharp point that had stabbed Marcus. He was impressed that the injured man was maintaining as much mental and physical integrity as he was.
The first officer, Amara Var, agreed.
"We need to find a place where we can hide and do something about the captain." She said to the crew.
"We could climb the connecting shaft five meters down the corridor from here, it leads to a small service room where we could find temporary security." Suggested the ever-helpful android assistant engineer, Amy.
"Right then, let's do it..."
"I'll help the captain." Said Jules, as he moved to assist the afflicted captain Marcus.`
The man made a muffled thanks to the engineer as Jules helped him to move down the corridor to the open shaft above their heads. The ceiling of the access and repair corridor was low, only about a meter tall, so it was no great effort for any of the non-injured crewmembers to climb into the tiny room above. It was with some difficulty, though, that they finally got the captain into the room from below. The Starfire's beleaguered crew was soon garrisoned in the small maintenance facility, and their thoughts turned to their leader.
"What should we do about the captain?" Asked Amy.
They conferred briefly, as Jules applied first aid to the captain's shoulder.
"Let's put the Captain in Amy's suit, he might need a vacuum-tight suit to get through the hangar bay." Said Amara.
"We'll he fit?" Asked Jules skeptically.
"I think so. I must point out however that although endowed with some measure of elasticity, my envirosuit will nevertheless be a tight fit on the captain. He won't be very comfortable."
"Better uncomfortable than..." - Amara looked for an appropriate word to describe what had happened to the poor crew of this ship, whatever it was - "than a game piece."
"We'd better hurry, whatever is in the air that got Chikar might get in through this wound." Said Jules, as he finished using the clotting salve on the captain's wound.
"Right." Said Amy, as she unclamped the gloves of her suit.
Jules and Amara began to do the same to Marcus, so as to have him back in a sealed, untainted environment as soon as possible.
The android unsealed the main fastener of her envirosuit and stepped out of the polymerized bioshielding material. She turned around and passed the suit to Jules and Amara, who promptly switched the suit's air packs while the captain held his breath. As soon as Amy's helmet was in place over his head, Marcus exhaled deeply. Soon, Marcus was rather tightly wedged in his assistant engineer's protective suit.
The captain spoke, some feeling returning to his voice.
"Thank you..." He said. "We've got to
Amara nodded at the instruction.
"Do you think you can walk?"
"Probably..." Said Marcus, sounded unconvinced about it. He braced himself on the wall and stood up, leaning against it.
"Remind me not to tackle anyone bigger than I am in a tunnel bristling with... so much... pointy stuff again... ok?" He said, as he used his good hand to rub the injury under the suit. It was tight around the shoulders, and that did not good for the comfort.
Amy, standing in her grey, pocketed jumpsuit, looked down the descending shaft. She heard the noises of irregular footsteps and thumps from the hall.
"Someone's coming." She alerted her crewmates.
"How far?" Asked Jules.
The android ducked her head down the recessed shaft and saw someone crawling towards her. She pulled up before the Artican crewman, who was preoccupied with avoiding sharply protruding bolds on the flooring, noticed her.
"About five meters." She whispered.
"How many?" Marcus asked.
"We can easily take him. As soon as he passes under the corridor..." Said Amara.
"No, there could be more further down. We'll see if he passes by on his own. Quick, find something to sit over the shaft..." Said the captain.
Jules spotted in ideal plastic plate sitting idly in the maintenance room's corner, and they placed it over the shaft as quickly as silently as they could. They sat tensely as the awkward hand-and-kneefalls of the crawling searcher passed beneath their position... and moved on. They breathed a collective sigh of relief.
One by one, the crew-members lowered themselves into the now-empty corridor below them.
"Let's get moving down this way to the hangar bay." Said Marcus, gesturing down the length of the corridor.
Ahead, it became more narrow, but was mercifully taller.
"Does this ship have internal sensors?"
"Not in the service passages." Replied Jules to the question of Amara.
"Odd, that's the first place someone would hide." Commented the young captain.
"The Articians believe their crews are very loyal." Said Jules, as he walked with the group single file.
The mechanical noises of the ship's bowels echoed down the deserted passage, and the low-power sodium lights cast things in a dim and subdued orange glow.
They spoke little as they passed through the murky access-way's seven intersections with larger corridors uneventfully, they soon arrived at the final stretch to the hangar bay. In the entire passage, they'd not had a single encounter with one of the puppet crew. It seemed destiny was smiling on them.
Marcus, feeling somewhat better, had been restored to his place in the lead of the line of crew. He saw their final obstacle. A solid blast door, with red universal indicators showing the hangar bay open to space beyond the alloy barrier.
"This the outlet to the hangar bay?" Asked the captain.
"The bay is right though that door." Replied Amy.
"Now, will it be locked?" Wondered Marcus aloud.
They'd neglected to carry along the plasma cutter, too preoccupied with evading pursuit. If it was locked, it could be a serious problem.
Thankful once again for the versatile envirosuits, and hoping that the door was unlocked, Marcus reached forward and pulled the hatch level downward.
It was at this point that Marcus realized that he'd made a mistake. Yes, all of their number who needed enviro suits had them, yes, they had sufficient air... wait, the corridor in which they were in was still pressurized....
The emergency hatch popped violently open, and a blast of expanding air rushed out into the empty docking bay, throwing the crew out of the hatch and into the hangar.
It was a mixed blessing that the bay was equipped with artificial gravity - as the crew were blown out into it, the force field pulled them down to the deck and saved them from the fate of being carried by their momentum through the huge, gapping bay doors and into space. On the other hand, it felt about the same as a three meter fall.
The crew landed with a thud in an ungainly pile on the metal deck-plates. Marcus felt a surge of sharp, renewed pain from his shoulder, which had become the resting place for Jules' right leg.
As he became aware of the world around him again, he realized that the uncomfortable position in which the crew was configured was the least of their problems. They'd landed right in the middle of a gaggle of startled Articians, clad in blue vacsuits. None of them were armed, but Starfire's crew was outnumbered five to one, and none of them were in a position - literally - to get their weapons in a timely manner.
The puppet Articians looked stunned, waiting to receive orders from their overlords.
Perhaps there was a chance to seize upon the temporary lack of resistance. Marcus wrested free from the crew pile as his comrades began to do the same, while the stupefied drones calmly stood by for word from their masters.
Unfortunately, it was not to last. Just as they'd all gotten on their feet, the puppets suddenly rushed onto them.
In less than a second, they were surrounded and totally hemmed in by the ungainly attackers.
The fleshly automatons collied with the captain and his crew, and hindered their efforts to get to their weapons.
Marcus tried to push his hand down to the holster at his belt, but no less than three blue gloves grabbed his arm and restrained him. His agility was rather impaired by the tightness of his appropriated envirosuit, and he saw Jules and Amara were already effectively trapped in the sea of polymeric suits. Amy was in about the same position as he was.
Desperate, he turned suddenly and ducked under the mass of arms and bodies attempting to grab onto him through their clumsy suits, his helmet clanking against the environmental systems controller on the closest drone's suit. Submerged deep in the melee where he couldn't be easily reached by the failing arms, he stretched the limits of his taunt envirosuit and grabbed his laser from its holster.
Before he could make use of it, A rather obese puppet Artician saw him. To the detriment of Marcus, the abomination needed no orders from the overlords to know what to do. He simply threw his substantial bulk on the captain.
Practically encased in a sea of blue envirosuits, his limbs pined completely, he saw one of them take his laser and aim it at him.
Marcus wondered wether or not this would be the final moments of his life. Shot by some insignificant puppet in a game that was played with human lives by uncaring masters who saw nothing immoral about the whole issue.
It was not to be that way. The captain received the first indication of that when his suit radio came to life.
"Stand up." Said the voice, as the other blue-suited pawns removed themselves from their positions atop or beside him.
Marcus stood up slowly, and saw Amara, Amy and Jules being restrained by the 'players'.
The blue suited figures removed their weapons and aimed them at their former owners.
"Get into one small group." Said the monotone voice.
Under the circumstances, they saw little other choice, and moved as ordered.
Amy looked at the Artician who'd made it his duty to cover her with the appropriated weapon. Assessing the situation, she concluded that if she attempted to flee, the man - in ignorance of her android nature and location of her critical systems - would probably not be able to kill her with one shot. But the risk of the others firing on her, or, worse, her crewmates, was to great to risk an escape attempt at this time. She hoped a better opportunity would manifest itself.
Now neatly herded into a bundle, the crew was ordered forward by their captors to the bay's airlock.
To Marcus, being shot a moment ago seemed preferable to what now seemed inevitable - they'd be brought back into the contaminated atmosphere of the ship, and probably be forced to remove their protective helmets.
The idea of undergoing what Chikar had gone through seemed worse than death. No, it didn't seem worse, it unquestionably was. Things looked bleak indeed, and he contemplated making an escape attempt while they were still in vacuum. Worse case, he'd be dead, Best case, he'd have escaped. It ranked slightly above becoming one with the ranks of mindless minions of the overlords, but something told him that it wasn't the best choice right now.
They were stuffed into the airlock with eight vacant escorts, and Amara watched forlorn as the sliding doors closed out the last sliver of inky, starless blackness beyond the open hangar. It noiselessly sealed and the low hiss of re-pressurization faded into audibility....
Chikar's body walked forward in a line with a baker's dozen other commandeered beings, heading off to kill - or be killed by - one of the battle groups of the 'overlords' of the macabre games taking place on the inert hulk of the ALV Insidae. His mind, meanwhile, was disconnected, cut off from any sensory input and trapped in an internal void.
It was a terrible feeling, he saw something less than darkness, heard something less than silence. And he felt absolutely nothing at all. He could not imagine a worse sensation that this one, even death seemed preferable.
Then, so slowly that he could just barely perceive it, he heard a sound. It was quite faint, but regular enough that he could piece it together. A regular thumping sound, subtile and muffled.
It grew a little louder. Chikar focused his attentions on it, as there was nothing else that could possibly distract him. He tried to place the sound, but it was still too minute, too subdued to be recognized. But it was getting louder.
Then, something distracted him from the regular thumping of the patterned noise. There was light.
Not much, but there was light. Just a little dim flicker in the center of his ordinary field of vision, but it too was expanding and brightening, its contrast increasing as the sound turned into the sound of marching feet....
The bowels of the Insidae into which Starfire's captive crew was being directed had seen considerable modification since they'd been built. Strange, almost organic growths of machinery jutted from the otherwise plain and conformist walls.
"Captain, this isn't Artician technology..." Remarked Jules over the suit radios.
But the captain was too preoccupied with a rather puzzling question to pay much attention.
Marcus wondered why their captors had not simply removed their helmets and allowed them to be integrated into their ranks. Did the so-called overlords have something more sinister in mind? He was hard pressed to imagine what it could be.
Before he had more time to contemplate such fates worse than death could ever be, they arrived at the location that had been the destination selected by the masters of cyan peons escorting them.
It was a large room, totally consumed by the gilded fibers of the alien technology that they'd seen in patches on the journey here. It seemed to grow from the walls like some metallic, fungal ivy. In places, larger blobs of the invading technology connected vines of cable with the mechanisms that empowered them.
In the center of a tangle of gold-colored wires was the most interesting feature of the room - two large tanks, filled with murky green fluid.
The crew cringed as they saw the contents of the well-wired receptacles.
In each container was suspended, amid much intertwined machinery, a backlit human form.
The lighting was too poor for them to make out the race or gender, but they were unmistakably human. Or, they had been at one point.
The bodies of the persons within the containers were connected with the machinery in the tanks in numerous places, and a web of cybernetic parts covered much of their skin.
Marcus was newly inspired as to what terrible fate was intended to them. He shuddered at the thought of spending his existence in a tank, his body mingled with the hideous mechanical organism before them.
Mercifully, he would not be left wondering about such unpleasant possibilities for his retirement from the salvage business.
"We are the Overlords."
The voice came from some machine embedded in the transparent walls of the right-side tank.
That was illuminating.
Thought captain Marcus, as his worries about joining them in their tanks evaporated and were replaced by renewed anxiety over their future.
"You have violated an area being used for controlled strategic testing and exercises by the Quadrikin bureau of Combat operations!" Said the synthesized voice of the left tank's inhabitant.
"We didn't mean to violate anything, we came to see if there were any survivors on what we thought was a group of wreaked ships floating in space." Said Marcus, hoping that they were listening to his suit radio frequency. They were.
"Our cloaking field briefly malfunctioned. It is not the fault of the Quadrikin bureau that your curiosity or misplaced concern for persons not under your command brought you here."
"What exactly is going on here, anyway?" Asked Amara, piping in.
"These ships have been commandeered by Quadrikin interests to test new strategies in close-quarters and space combat situations. Obviously, you can see that the benefit gained by this advancement easily outweighs the small value of these ships and their crew to their originators." Said the left overlord, defending their actions without remorse.
"Small value? This ship alone had a crew of almost two thousand! And the ship itself is probably worth a hundred megacredits!" The first officer said, deeply offended by the small value the 'overlords' placed on sentient life.
"I am well aware of the crew complement of this vessel, if it pleases you to know, we have used about nine thousand members of inferior races and species and a wide range of military and civilian craft in this exercise. About a quarter of the experimental subjects and half of their vessels will be destroyed over the course of our inquiries, but already we've made great headways in strategic concepts. Surely, one could not overestimate the value of knowledge."
"At any rate, it is very large compared to the tiny of any one life, or group of lives." Said the overlord situated on the right side, agreeing with its companion.
"How can you place such a trivial value on life?" Asked the captain, regaining control of the conversation.
"We of the Quadrikin were once like the inferior races, placing high-minded and idealistic values on life. But we have come to realize that the value of a life is only what it can do for the whole, the super-organism. An individual has no value other than what it can do for the greater good, and for the advancement of its species above others."
"We attempted to use only otherwise useless beings in our experiments, as far as practical concerns would allow. We've set aside those we found to be of exceptional usefulness, we will return them to their business when the exercise is concluded."
Amy considered the philosophical perspective of the Quadrikin overlords. She decided to pose a question to their captors.
"What you say implies that the only true value is that of the super-organism, the collective of beings. Is my understanding correct?" The android asked.
"You grasp the basic concept correctly."
"But the 'whole' is intangible. It is a concept, an idea. Were it not for individuals, it would not exist. It could not exist except through what you consider essentially valueless." Said Amy.
"No, that reasoning must result from some flawed idea that has been engrained in all of you by your respective inferior, individualist cultures. Do you deny that multicellular organisms are superior to single-celled organisms? Of course not. No thinking person would. And likewise a union of organisms is superior to a single creature. The cells may give tangibility to the an organism, but it is alive itself and far greater than the sum of its parts alone."
"But the super-organism of which you speak is made up of individuals which..."
Her speech was interrupted by the other overlord.
"Our philosophers have a saying - 'A cell cannot comprehend the body.' That is enough for the vast majority of our people, and we have no further time for discussion of our principals. You will have to be satisfied with that explanation, and will all join the exercises. Now that you hopefully have grasped the rudiments of why your lives are being used for an important purpose - one more important than you might ever have hoped to achieve otherwise - we expect you will be cooperative and not attempt to resist the effects of the mind-separation agents in the atmosphere."
The crew now felt truly doomed. There seemed to be no forthcoming salvation for them, no bizarre deus ex mechana to save them from the unpleasant eventuality of being sacrificed on the Quadrakin's collectivist altar.
TO BE CONCLUDED
Hm, let's review the results of your choices in the interactive part 2.
Marcus was indeed inhibited by the tightness of Amy's suit, and it seems to have prevented him from being able to make use of his weapon before being subdued in the hangar bay. Most unfortunate. However, if he'd been in a repaired suit, it might not have survived the ejection from the corridor and he could have suffured a breach in his suit and decompressed. The world may never know...
I am curious, though, if anyone still reading would like to tell me which character they like best. If you don't have an account at this web board, feel free to email me at email@example.com
Remember, this will help me make important descions as to who gets eaten by hamster mutants on Yoltar 8.
Which Starfire character do you like the most?
Nobody - I'm rooting for the Overlords.
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