Saturday, September 25, 2021

Extremus: Year 11

Eckhart Mercer stands in front of the white door, waiting to walk through it, and leave the executive infirmary. The AI system is pretty sophisticated. It will open automatically, but also knows when someone is not quite ready for it, and it will remain closed until such time that the user’s body language suggests that they’re ready, or if they open it themselves. He takes one last look in the mirror on the wall to his right, just to make sure nothing gives it away. He knows nothing on his face does. If anyone is going to recognize him as an impostor, it won’t be because of the flawless plastic surgery. It will be because he’s unfit to lead as captain, and everyone will be able to see right through his impersonation. He looks like Captain Yenant, but he still doesn’t feel like him, and he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to pull this off. Yenant has left big shoes to fill, and even though he’s not dead yet—just in a coma—it’s looking like he’ll never recover. He’s been under for a week, and they just can’t wait any longer. The Captain is afforded the time off, but that time has passed, and people will start to get suspicious. Mercer takes a deep breath, and finally leaves the room.

It started out rough, but over the last year, Mercer has grown used to pretending to be the Captain. No one seems to suspect a thing. Nothing has gone wrong, however, which is probably what’s been making it easier. He hasn’t had to make any dire decisions, or prove himself in any significant capacity. The attempted assassin has yet to reveal themselves, but Mercer is keeping an eye out. He synthesizes his food himself, and has it analyzed by a closed AI for every single meal. He hasn’t been having meals or drinks with anyone, which is a little out of the ordinary for Yenant, but it’s just too much of a risk. It’s not practical or safe for him to test for poison while people are around. The idea is to catch whoever is trying to kill the Captain, not let them succeed in killing the Lieutenant.
At the moment, he’s in the engineering room that’s designated to monitor the Frontrunners. “I hear there’s an issue with one of them,” he says.
Earlier this year, August Voll was promoted to full Second Temporal Engineer, leaving the second apprentice as the one and only primary apprentice. Vesper Yordanov’s current responsibility is to exclusively monitor the frontrunner ships that are flying ahead of Extremus to protect it from micrometeoroid strikes, and make any adjustments necessary. There were never meant to be so many people on the temporal engineering team, as the original mission parameters didn’t consider that it would become so vital to the safety of the crew and passengers. Department leadership is presently deciding whether even more people need to be trained in the discipline. It’s the most difficult one on the entire ship, and it’s pretty important that anyone selected to even make an attempt at taking that educational track be born with genius-level intellect.
It’s not one of those fields of study that anyone with enough time and patience can explore. Even the other engineers are mostly not capable of switching over, as it requires a much deeper understanding of physics. Perhaps if the general population of the stellar neighborhood were made aware that temporal manipulation was real, educational resources could be devised to increase their numbers. As of now, the only way to learn is directly from someone else, and decent teachers are rarer still. Valencia Raddle was chosen for the position in the first place because of her aptitude as a teacher. It’s unclear whether August or Vesper will be able to successfully fill her shoes in that manner. “Not a problem,” he explains. “I just need authorization to swap the apex.”
“What do you mean by swap?” Mercer asks.
Vesper appears to believe as if the captain of this vessel should already understand what’s happening here. As the lieutenant, however, Mercer’s duties often take him in so many directions that it’s difficult to keep up with everything. Captains are also chosen quite carefully; for their predisposition for leadership, but also their ability to retain massive amounts of information. A lieutenant is decidedly not next in line for the chair. Mercer’s real job is to coordinate between departments, including the executive crew. As an executive herself, Valencia enjoys a direct connection to him, and therefore requires no such liaison. Mercer is now showing the tip of his cards, and Vesper isn’t sure what to think of it. “Is this a test, sir?”
“Everything is a test,” Mercer answers, hoping to remain as stoic about it as possible. He is the captain, after all, and if this were a real test, Halan would act like this.
“Okay, I can explain. The temporal fields on the Frontrunners are just as unreliable as the teleporter field around Extremus proper. It’s not much, but it’s bad enough that some material does make it through the field, without being expelled to the future at all. This causes damage to the hull. We could probably leave them out there, and be fine, but you asked us to rotate them, and effect repairs on the one that’s out of service, replacing it entirely, if necessary.”
“Good. So it’s time to do that, right?”
Vesper is still a bit suspicious. “Right.”
“Then you have my authority.” Mercer pats him on the shoulder, and stands straighter, preparing to leave.
“Sir, I need your teleportation codes. A vacuum jump is considered too high risk to entrust to anyone but you...after the recall device fiasco of Year Three?”
“Of course. I’m quite tired, however. Could we do this tomorrow instead?
“Absolutely, sir, we’re not in any immediate danger.”
“Good.” Mercer takes a breath once he’s on the other side of the door. Things are falling apart. He has been lucky up until now, but that is all about to change. He needs to figure out how to get those codes, and so far, all attempts at reviving the Captain have failed. Dr. Holmes has been attempting some kind of neural interface to at least communicate with Halan, but those have failed as well. There’s only one person on this ship with any hope of bypassing the authorization, and his loyalty has been in question since he first stepped foot on this vessel. Mercer proceeds to Omega’s new laboratory, and prepares to explain himself to the man.
Omega takes one look at Captain Yenant’s face, and smirks. “You’ve finally run into a wall, haven’t you?”
“I’m sorry?” Mercer legitimately doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s probably a reference to a conversation he had with the real captain over a year ago.
“If I had been able to reveal the truth with anyone else, I might have bet on your failure sooner than this. I must admit I’m impressed you lasted as long as you did.” He pantomimes tipping a hat to him.
“I’m afraid that I do not understand your meaning. You see, I’m not—”
“Captain Yenant,” they say at the same time.
“You knew?” Mercer questions. “Oh right, genius. I should have guessed you would figure it out.”
Omega squints, confused. “What are you talking about? Did. Holmes not tell you?”
“Tell me what, that she outright told you who I really was?”
“My Dear Temporary Captain, she had to tell me. How exactly do you believe you look exactly like him?”
“Surgery,” Mercer answers.
“That’s invasive, dangerous, and though technically reversible, any additional surgery would have placed you in even more danger. The human body is not designed to be...jacked around that much.” He laughs, “no, it’s a hologram.” Omega takes out his handheld device, taps on it a bit, and evidently turns off the illusion.
Mercer instantly looks like himself again. He paws at his own cheeks as he’s looking at his reflection in the fridge glass, trying to gauge whether this is, in fact, the illusion. There’s really no way to tell, not with technology this good. “How could I have not known?”
“Honestly, I can’t answer that; I thought you did. We probably could have gone the surgical route, but neither Holmes nor I believed it would have to go on this long.”
“So my assistant, who’s masquerading as me?”
“If I had to hazard a guess, I suppose now I assume he also doesn’t know he’s a hologram.”
“What’s the power source?” Mercer pads clothes, and the back of his head.
“The ship itself,” Omega replies. “Wireless energy, produced by the fusion reactor. You have a new access chip in your neck, which generates the image. I’m very sorry you didn’t know about this. I feel like it would have made it easier, if you could return to your real form when necessary.”
Mercer sighs again, realizing that this epiphany changes nothing. He still doesn’t have those codes.
Omega detects that there remains a lingering issue. “Knowing this doesn’t help you with whatever problem you’re facing right now, does it?”
“The real Captain has codes, which I need in order to swap out one of the Frontrunners.”
Omega balks at this. “Why would that be necessary, what’s wrong with it?”
“Yordanov says it’s time for regular maintenance, because of all the meteoroid escapes.
As Omega is pulling something up at his workstation, he says, “it’s a highly redundant system; that’s what the Frontrunners were created for. If one of them doesn’t get the meteoroid, the others should compensate.” He pulls up a set of data that Mercer cannot understand. “There. I’m reporting no damage since they were dispatched, on any of the Frontrunners, or Extremus.”
“So...he lied? For what purpose?”
“The codes,” Omega suggests. “I don’t know what these codes are, but they would likely give him access to more than what he asked for. It’s not surprising Halan has locked everyone out of the teleporters that could potentially send someone to space, but they might do all sorts of things. Or...he’s just trying to send you to space. That was the plan all along, wasn’t it? That’s what Old Man was meant to do. Maybe they’re trying it again.”
“How would Vesper lock onto him?” Mercer questions. “Would he use his DNA, or would he just transport the man who looks like Yenant, and is standing right next to him.”
“The latter would be easier, and if he doesn’t suspect you’re an impostor, he would have no reason to do it any other way.”
Mercer begins to pace just a little. “Still, there has to be some way to shield The Captain...keep anyone from locking onto his location, just in case.”
“It’s already been done. Otherwise, anyone with the ability to request the ship locate him would uncover the ruse.”
“Yes, of course, that makes sense. So this should work.”
“So, what would work, teleporting you to outer space? I suppose it would.”
“If you have the ability to make anyone look like anyone else with a hologram, why couldn’t you do the same with, say, a robot, or even a broom?”
“What is a broom?”
“You know what I mean. It doesn’t have to be me in that room. He just has to think that it’s the Captain, and once he makes his move, we’ll know he’s in on it. He may be the ringleader, for all we know.” Only now does he see the flaw in his plan. “Oh no, but we don’t have those codes.”
“I can get you the codes,” Omega says with a shrug. I know how Yenant thinks.
“Can I trust you with this?” Mercer asks.
“You can trust me with anything. I long ago accepted how similar to my progenitor I really am.”
When the Ansutahan refugees were first brought to Salmonverse, they were elevated technologically, so they could enjoy the same amenities the galaxy had to offer at the time. They weren’t simply given such technology, however, at least not all of it. Some of it they were expected to learn themselves. The owners of Gatewood gave them the tools they would need to develop sufficient artificial intelligence, but it’s not perfect. Spawning a new lifeform has proven to be rather difficult. They have enough for the ship’s AI to make the necessary life-saving calculations for them, and for its constituent robots to effect repairs. They still don’t have lifelike androids, however; ones that are capable of passing even the most forgiving of Turing tests. The truth is they haven’t been trying very hard for this, because Extremusians won’t want to share their future home with another race. This is all irrelevant right now, though. Omega can make a bot look like Captain Halan Yenant, and Mercer can pilot it like a drone, and they should be able to maintain the lie for long enough to fool Vesper. They have to catch him in the act, or none of their interrogation tactics is going to do any good.
The next day, the bot strides into the Frontrunner monitoring room, claiming to be ready to provide the teleportation codes.
“Great. We’ve had a few more strikes since yesterday. We really should do it now.” Vesper hovers his hands over the keyboard.
“I feel more comfortable doing it myself,” Mercer says through the bot’s vocalizer.
“Very well.” Vesper seems unconcerned by this. He even walks around to the other side of the workstation so he can’t see the code.
The bot enters the override codes that Omega gave him.
Vesper smirks. “Perfect. Now we’re done with you.” He taps on a tablet, and spirits the bot away, just as they predicted he would.
Mercer steps into the room, holding a gun. “Who exactly is we?”
Vesper attempts to escape through the backdoor, but security jumps in before he can leave. He tries to teleport himself out, but teleportation has been disabled shipwide.
We? We! We are the true Extremusians, and we will not let you invade our planet! Not again!” He removes what suspiciously looks like a detonator from his pocket, and readies himself to press the button on top. “I die in service to The Oaksent, and you cannot take that from me!”
Before he can detonate, Omega transports him to the cold vacuum of space.
“What is the Oaksent?” Mercer asks no one in particular.
A sickly but awake Captain Yenant shows up in his hoverchair. “That’s the name of the fourth person who was missing after Airlock Karen activated the recall device.

No comments :

Post a Comment