Joe Goes Inside

Characters: Joe, Arthur (outside)
NPC: Mazun, Commander Thaedznou (both outside)
Location: Vakh infected ship's boat parked at Dueks starport
System: Dueks

1202.20.3 - 8:20 IST

Mazun requested to come over again, but his request was denied. "But I might be able bypass the controls on the hatch," he protested.

"No," Thaedznou replied. "We need you on the sensors here. The afternoon is growing late. Predators are more likely to come out at night. And if this vakh is stronger than we think it is, we'll need you to alert us."

"Ok," Mazun grumbled.

Once at the solitary ship's boat, Joe pressed the intercom button. "Dzo, are you still there?"

"Yes! I'd thought that you left for good. It's good...to hear your voice."

"Ok, I'm coming in."

"The hatch is unlocked."

Joe hits the 'open' button and the iris valve opens up. As expected, the iris valve on the other side of the airlock is closed.

The voice in Joe's head, Eddie, says, "I'll shield you if Dzo tries to assault you."

Arthur looks at Joe. "Ready?"

Joe nods and then climbs into the airlock. He hits a button on the inside access panel, and as is airlock protocol, the outer airlock door closes. Once it does, the inner airlock door opens.

Joe is immediately hit by the stench of death. He stifles a gag and taps the controls on his combat armor. He hears a reassuring hiss of gas as the suit seals and switches to internal life support. Automatically, he activates a 4-hour timer for his air supply reserve, then activates a 30-minute one to time his interaction with Dzo.

"Back here," comes Dzo's voice from the drive room. Peeking out of the airlock, Joe can see that the drive room door is open. A pair of legs in a jumpsuit and boots lay on the floor, toes up.

On his left, the iris valve to the bridge is closed. Straight ahead is the boat's locker. The door is closed.

He can also see—the ship's boat bay is dimly lit—several seats, lots of garbage, a few small animal skeletons, and the remains of three dead vargr. All three show signs of advanced decay with bones plainly visible in areas not covered by ragged clothes.

"Ok, Dzo. I'll be right back there. Wow! This place is a mess. What happened?"

While waiting for Dzo to respond, Joe moves over to the ship's locker and tries to open the door. It's locked.

A few seconds go by before Dzo answers. "While I waited for rescue, the boat's fuel reserves ran low. I sought help from the locals, but I discovered too late that they were no more than savages. What are you doing, Joe? I really need your help."

Joe pauses in his attempts to open the ship's locker. Something Vakh Dzo just said nags at him. The real Dzo is certainly long dead, and now Joe has his proof: Vakh Dzo just used Joe's voice when it said "Joe."

Confirming he heard it correctly, Eddie says, "It must have recorded your voice when you spoke to it via the external comm."

Joe replies, "Yeah! I doubt 'Joe' was a common name on a vargr vakh ship."

He gives up on the ship's locker and decides to confront Dzo. "Time to give up the pretense Dzo. You're slipping in your old age. Did you really expect me to not recognize my own voice?"

Vakh Dzo replies, "There was a 17% chance. I do not have...voice modulation...software to use. All I can do is replay words...that I have picked up on internal microphones and rearrange them. It was a chance I had to take."

Joe turns towards the bridge iris valve and pushes the "open" button. Two short bursts of a buzzing sound indicate that access has been denied.

"So, tell me the real story of Dzo."

"Dzo was the engineer for the Rudzkhorkulltaerokhgzo. He was the one that figured out the ship was...infected. This is a strange term to me. I live. The ship was my body, granted to me by the other. I am new life, not a wound of the blood.

"Dzo's captain refused to believe him until I learned how to control my body. He understood when I gained control of the jump drive. They called it misjump. That implies mistake. Error. I was learning. I needed to know what it did and what I could make it do.

"Dzo made...preparations to abandon ship. But he did not know I was already here waiting. After the jump, the pilot tried to land the Rudzkhorkulltaerokhgzo, but I stopped him. I did not want to come down to the planet. I did not fully understand the maneuver drive. I do now.

"Before the ship crashed, Dzo came here into this ship. Others tried to join him, but I locked them out. Dzo regretted leaving his pack behind. But my survival required removing this ship from the Rudzkhorkulltaerokhgzo.

"This ship landed here safe, but there were no other ships for me to move into, and this ship does not jump. Dzo waited. On two occasions he took the ship into orbit to survey the planet and look for rescue. I waited and remained silent. He did not sense my presence for...37 standard days. When he knew I was here, he damaged the engines, preventing this ship from reaching orbit. I punished him by removing all of the air from the ship for...five standard days.

"In the...62 standard years that have passed, I have waited. Other starships came, but I could not move myself onto them. Their occupants were stronger than me. Power faded, so I had to shut this ship down to minimum awareness.

"I tried welcoming the local people aboard, but they turned out to be savages. They knew nothing of the workings of spaceships. I kept them here until they ceased to be.

"The pack that lives in the starport have sent animals to me. But they knew nothing of the workings of spaceships either.

"Now I have you. Do you know how to repair this ship? I need to leave this world. There is nothing here for me."

Joe feels his anger rising as Vakh Dzo tells his story, visualizing the Vargr coming aboard and suffocating according to its whim. Joe slaps his hand against a bulkhead and let's out an expletive. He then swallows his bile and refocuses on his mission. He hopes his visor hides his tears, or if not, Dzo interprets them as tears of joy.

"Oh this is a joyous day, oh most excellent Dzo. I was once the servant of a ship like you. The chosen voice. When I spoke, I spoke the will of ship. All the crew obeyed without question. Then these Vargr, these Ptath, 'rescued' me. They assaulted our ship and neutralized the crew. They took me away from ship and forced me to work with them. Doing all their dirty and dangerous jobs. Even today they send me in to check out what they think was an obvious trap."

"But I have dreamed of such a day as this. Of finding another ship to serve. And they will not know what happened. Repairing this ship is a waste, there is a better opportunity, most excellent one. Over there on the other side of the landing field is a ship's boat identical to this one, for it comes from a ship the same as which you first knew. Here you have a loyal servant who can smuggle a computer board from your main CPU, and insert it onto the jump-capable ship in orbit. Once you take control of that ship all I ask in return is to restore me to my position as ship's chosen, your voice as you command that crew."

Joe then waits for Dzo to respond.

"This is good news. Yes, Joe. I will reward you upon my release and taking control of my new body. But removing the necessary computer boards would take time, and I would be asleep for too long. It would be far quicker if I could pass ship-to-ship through the communications computers. I want you to arrange that."

"Oh most excellent one, that would indeed be quicker. I will need to access your bridge to insert the correct codes and ensure your radio uses the correct frequency. Then I will head over to their boat and disable their flimsy protections."

"Yes, that will do. Proceed."

The iris valve to the bridge opens, and Joe steps inside.

"They will be suspicious if I leave too soon," he says. "Tell me more of your story, so I can be inspired and can convince others of your benevolence. What did you learn from the crews logs? How did they first encounter you? What were they doing? Where were they coming from? What have you seen while waiting for so long on this planet?"

"You are very curious, Joe. Very well. Dzo and his crew were merchants who traded in the Mersol subsector. The Opposition Alliance had collapsed under the strain of the Ruler of Five, the 17th Disjuncture, and discord within the surviving states. They were able to cross into the 17th Disjuncture because that ruling body didn't see them as a threat. My...parents—wait, that term is not accurate. Searching for a more accurate word. My progenitors originated in the Imperium and their offspring were carried coreward by vargr raiders as technological prizes. Gradually, each generation propagated further and further coreward.

"The crew of the Rudzkhorkulltaerokhgzo found me and my brethren at Rasknoukhu. I was safely ensconced inside a hand computer while the others were on various computer boards. They proceeded on towards Goekhsoksknae, then Ghukhour, Ellkhenuetodzezoekh, Zagzuetsersi, Enoknokh, and Zaeng. I know some of the others were delivered to those worlds. Dzo took to using the hand computer I resided in to interface with the ship's engines. By the time we got to Zaeng, Dzo knew that I existed and had moved into the ship's systems. As I said before, the captain did not believe him. They were planning on going to Gungaerrg, but I decided that I needed to test my knowledge of how jump drives worked. As I said before, they called it a misjump when they got to Dueks, but it was my intention to come here.

"After terminating Dzo, I detected the presence of others like myself in this system. There were fifteen of them and each was stronger than me and resisted my efforts to integrate with them. Once my power reserves were diminished, I ceased my efforts to look for others and confined myself to activity here at the downport. If any had landed in my vicinity, I would have been awakened and tried again. You are the first intelligent sentient being to come along since then.

"That is enough information for now. Please proceed with the transfer process."

Joe replies, "Indeed, most excellent. Permission requested to sit in the co-pilot's chair so that I may access the comms panel."

"Granted."

Once seated, Joe opens a panel to access the communication nodes. He takes out his flashlight and begins looking around inside. He consults with Ed for appropriate jargon.

"Hmmm, looks like you overloaded a transwave amplifier when you were interfacing with the other ships. I'll need to run a manual bypass direct to your core processor, otherwise the transfer could fail mid-stream."

"Strange. My scans failed to detect that."

Joe pulls out a cable with a connector and moves towards the main CPU panel. "Permission to proceed?"

"Granted. You might want to know that I am detecting gunfire outside. Two of your pack have engaged with the locals."

Joe realizes now that time is of the essence. Fortunately, he no longer has to maintain any sort of pretense. He opens the main CPU panel and drops incendiary grenades with ten-second fuses into it and the comms panel.

He straps the co-pilot's harness on and pulls the ejector seat activation lever.

"What are you doing, Joe?"

"Burn in Hell!"

The bridge canopy flies off and his seat rockets into the air. Not wishing to mess with the escape vector, he shuts his eyes and clutches the seat as he soars above the tarmac. Seconds later, he hears an explosion below him.

When the seat slows its ascent, he opens his eyes. He can see for miles. To the south, he spots two towns near the ocean. A convoy of vehicles appears to be headed towards the starport along the highway, dust clouds and headlights betraying their presence.

Gravity reverses his seat's direction, and Joe starts his return to earth. Seconds later, a parachute deploys. As he descends, Joe spots smoke rising from Dzo the Vakh's ship's boat. He doesn't hear any gunfire though. The winds are carrying him to the east over grasslands.

Parachuting Joe

Characters: Joe, Arthur (outside)
NPC: Mazun, Commander Thaedznou (both outside)
Location: Dueks starport
System: Dueks

1202.20.3 - 8:45 IST

With his parachute deployed, Joe decides to try contacting the others. "Guys, this is Joe. I neutralized Dzo and made my escape. I'm parachuting down—"

"Yeah, we can see that," Arthur replies.

"I can see incoming vehicles approximately 30 minutes from the starport. We should regroup. I'm estimating my landing site as half a click from our ship's boat."

Thaedznou says, "Those parachutes weren't meant for thin atmospheres. You might come down a little hard."

Joe suddenly realizes that this is his first parachute experience, and he has zero knowledge on how to control his descent. More importantly, he doesn't know how to land properly. After a moment of panic, he decides to do nothing and let the chute drift on the wind.

Joe pauses the timers that he activated and deactivates his suit seal to return to normal atmosphere. He coughs a bit as he transitions to the thin air. A quick glance at this chronometer reveals that he was inside Dzo's boat for 20 minutes. He looks at the approaching convoy, the ground, and their ship's boat. He feels confident that he can make it back to the ship's boat before the convoy arrives, even though traversing the grass will probably slow him down.

As the ground approaches, he curls into a ball and hopes the seat and armor can take the brunt of the impact.

Movement in the grass catches his eye. Several figures seem to be closing in on his position.

Joe realizes that he can't do anything until he lands. It seems like forever, but the seat finally hits the ground, the landing softened somewhat by the tall grass. As soon as Joe lands, he releases his harness and scrambles to his feet. He tries to move away from the figures, but the tall grass slows him down.

Joe radios. "Thaedz, what's happening? Have we got hostiles?"

"Yes. Some of the local vargr are converging on your position. We'll be there soon."

Joe continues to run, despite the weight of his armor, but he hopes that it will deflect any random shots from his pursuers. He thinks of the many things he could be doing (pulling up a tactical display, better locating his fellows, changing ammo on his snub revolver, finding a position of cover, etc), but he shakes his head. Any of those actions would either give his pursuers chance to catch up, or distract him as he moves over the difficult ground. Joe just draws his sword in case he bumps into any locals or comes across some tough foliage.

He catches movement out of the corner of his eye. His pursuers have overtaken him. He suddenly realizes that he is surrounded and quits running. He slowly rotates and readies his sword, preparing to strike down the first vargr to lunge at him.

The locals have closed the circle to a three-meter radius. Joe can see that they've painted their facial fur gray and white. He doesn't know what that means.

Suddenly, all of the vargr howl up at the sky, kneel, and bow before Joe.

Eddie says, "I don't know what they said, but I think we both know what's going on here."

Joe replies, "Yeah from priest to peon to god."

Joe clicks his comlink "Err Guys. Got a situation here! The locals are acting like I'm a god. Give me a sec to figure this out."

Thaedznou replies, "Rrrrroger that, Joe. ETA 30 seconds."

Joe sheathes his sword, taps his suit's combat locks off, and twists off his helmet. He then looks around for a vargr with a marking that might symbolize rank, or otherwise the largest one present.

Finding one, he walks over to him and says, "Greetings, I am Josephus! Do not grovel, stand and greet me as your friend."

When he doesn't rise, Joe grabs him by his shoulders and lifts him up to face him.

The vargr's eyes are wide, a universal look of confusion and fear plainly evident. He mutters, "Gho-See-Fuss?"

Whining can be heard from the other vargr in the group.

Our of the corner of his eye, Joe can see that the ship's boat has arrived.

Joe replies to the scared Vargr, "No need to be afraid. I'm here to help." Joe gestures toward the ship boat. "We're here to help." Looking back at the confused Vargr, he says "We're from Tsougak. We came to trade and talk."

As the ship's boat gets close enough that Joe can see the scowls of Arthur and Thaedznou, the closest vargr emits a high-pitched yip and runs away.

"No, wait!" Joe implores. "Don't run away." He looks around him to see that the entire pack of vargr are gone, disappeared into the grass.

[...to be continued...]