EPSILON DELTA, PART EIGHT: The Arm of Fate
“Wait, wait, I want to hear more of the cute girls flirting!” Alice pleaded. But it was too late. Even as she spoke, Alijda was tapping the button turning off communications to the planet. Alice made a pouty face at her. “You’re no fun.”
Alijda sighed. “Alice, sweetie, roomie, we’re trapped on a space station with a freaky magical cyber arm. Priorities?”
Alice crossed her arms. “Alijda, doom and gloom, also roomie, one of my priorities is staying sane. Pretty girls who want to kiss? It’s a sanity branch, showing me love can survive in a screwed up multiverse.”
Alijda matched her pose, not backing down. “You DO realize Beam’s attention makes Rose uncomfortable, yes?”
Alice couldn’t help but smile. She liked how Alijda challenged her opinions. It had been like that since their first encounter. Actually, no, what she liked even more about Alijda was how the teleporting woman would challenge, up until the point she realized that Alice wasn’t going to budge, then back off. There were even times when Alice yielded to logic. On occasion.
“Two girls can be good friends and share sexual pleasure stories without being actual make-out girlfriends,” Alice fired back. “Look at us!”
Alijda’s cheeks tinged a shade darker. “That’s different. Rose is half our age, she’s still figuring herself out. Also, I maintain that I really didn’t need to hear that vibrator story.”
Alice’s smile widened. “Ohhh, yes, you did. You were whining so much that afternoon about how you chase all the good guys away, how you were never going to find anyone, and how you’d never know the pleasures of a relationship again. You needed SOMETHING to take your mind off of it.”
“Most women would have suggested a day at a spa!”
“Most women didn’t find themselves alone on a space station for soooo looooong. Did you even try using one that way?”
“Oh, for–” Alijda closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, and seemed about to turn away, when her posture straightened. “Wait. That’s it.”
Alice also liked when Alijda surprised her. “Really? Should we find you a–”
“NO. Stop, Alice, those images, Gods. I meant, you know this station. You know where to go to evade the sensors, yes?”
Alice shrugged. “I used to simply turn off the ones in my bedroom when I wanted–”
Alijda grasped her shoulders. “Please focus. Fo-cus. If this arm is smart, it’s going to be hiding somewhere. In a place where, even if we get all the sensors working, it’ll still be shielded from detection. Possibly even from force field confinement. Where would that be?”
Alijda’s line of thinking clicked. “There’s a few places that would work.”
That’s when the station vibrated, some red lights lit up on the console, and a warning klaxon sounded.
Alijda glanced around, then back to her. “Does one of those places also let the arm do something like that to us?”
Alice nodded. “I know exactly where it is.”
Their first major stop was auxiliary control.
“I should be able to pull something together here that’ll neutralize both the Army’s tech parts and its magical occulty parts at once,” Alice remarked. She dumped all the items they’d picked up en route onto the floor.
Alijda sighed. “Can you not call it ‘the Army’? It’s one cyber arm, not a platoon.”
Alice grabbed the nearby toolkit and sat down to begin sifting through the assemblage of parts. She’d had something in mind ever since discovering that magic and science were blending together on that world of scale, her last Epsilon mission. She’d never thought she’d get the opportunity to build the thing.
“Army needs a name,” Alice countered. “Do you have a better one?”
Alijda’s grumble implied she didn’t. She turned towards Mr. Smith instead. “What’s the situation with these new alarms?”
“Automated,” came the computer’s reply. “Orbit is now decaying due to internal interference. I’m prioritizing the stabilization systems over everything else, save necessities like life support, so communications are down. You have approximately ninety minutes to regain control.”
“Of course. Any clue as to why the Station wants to kill us again?”
“Never easy,” Alijda mumbled. She looked back at Alice. “Can I help you build?”
It had been months since the vague blueprints had been a thing in Alice’s mind. But now that she was focussed on it, she found she could pick up where she left off. Much like remembering the next line of dialogue in “Back to the Future”, once given the right prompt. That was simply how her mind worked.
“Sorry Alijda, hardware thing here, not a hacker thing,” Alice said. “Would take longer for me to explain than to simply do it.” She snapped on a pair of goggles and began to solder. “We could talk about Kat though, that’d help.”
Alice wasn’t looking up, but she suspected that Alijda rolled her eyes. “No.”
“Totes serious,” Alice insisted. “I can work better if I’m not consciously thinking about what I’m doing. I’ve had Ziggy or Smith play music to me in the past, but the computers are kinda preoccupied right now. So come on, what did you two talk about when getting the power for Beam?”
“Ooh, yuh huh, sure, a ‘nothing’ that’s got you all bitter about relationships again. What, did you hope Rose would pick me to go to the planet? Giving you two more quality time together? You shoulda described me better than ‘walking encyclopaedia’, that’s not really a selling point.”
Alijda let out a breath of exasperation. “I was trying to sum up your skill set as best as I could. I was NOT trying to– look, don’t even start with me, okay?”
“Okee dokee. If you’re sure?”
Her roommate remained silent, but now it was the sort of silence that felt uncomfortable enough to warrant a follow up. Maybe? It took a couple minutes, but at last Alijda continued with, “It’s just… Alice, am I an egomaniac?”
Alice started splicing the necessary wires together. “I didn’t notice any huge, framed pictures of yourself on the walls of your home.”
“I don’t mean like that,” Alijda grumbled. “I mean, in how I make things about me. Because of how I shut other people out. Doing that, all I have is me, so everything becomes about me, and that shuts people out even more. A feedback loop of me, me, me.” She stamped her foot on the ground. “Damn it! I’m an uncaring bitch who should have died years ago.”
Alice spat the paperclip out of her mouth and looked up. “WHOA. Back up. That’s the depression talking. You do care. You jumped through a doorway to be with me, up here, now. You didn’t have to do that.”
Alijda shrugged, looking sullen. “Yeah, well, maybe I’m trying to find new, more exciting ways to die. It’s been all downhill since plummeting into the Thames on my first Epsilon mission.”
“Oh, stop. I’ve never been keen on black humour, and that silly show ‘A thousand ways to die’ is fiction. I hope you’ve never watched it.” Alijda didn’t even react to the random reference. Thrown off by that, Alice looked back down at her work. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to send you to the dark places.”
“I know. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry too.”
“Remember, deep down, I don’t think you want to die, Alijda. You want to stop hurting. Totes different. We’ve had that argument before, yes?”
“Yeah, yeah. Things are always an argument with us.”
Alice looked back up. “Oh no. No, honey, they’re really not,” she countered, with a sincere smile. She hoped.
This, Alice granted, was something she was lousy at. Appropriate reactions and proportional response. Maybe she should have quoted Monty Python there. Maybe adding ‘honey’ had been stupid. She hoped she didn’t sound glib. Please, her friend had to know by now when she was being serious. Right?
Alijda simply smiled back. There was another protracted pause. Unable to gauge the uncomfortableness of it all this time, Alice kept working, glancing up every so often.
Alijda finally crouched down. “I’m reminded of how you’ve read Kat’s info file.”
“Yuppers. Yours too.”
“And you remember everything you’re exposed to.”
“More or less. Junking a lot of my hell dimension memories helped free up space.”
“Then tell me, what do you know about Kat’s childhood friend, Fate?”
Alice shrugged. “Aside from her vanishing? Not much. Why, did he tell you about her?”
“Sort of. In passing.”
It felt like there was more to say there, but Alice wasn’t sure how to prompt. More to the point, she was finished building. She banged the last piece into place. “Done. We have an EMP.”
Alijda blinked. “You’ve been making something that generates an electromagnetic pulse?”
“Nope.” Alice shook her head, then flicked her hair off her shoulder with a wink. “This’ll create an Electro-Magical Patch. Press this end against Army, hit the trigger, you’ll render our target inert in both sparks and spells.”
“Meaning it needs to make direct contact.”
“Well, yeah. That’d be where your teleporting comes in. Also, we have the cliche one shot only, so make it count.”
“Right. Okay, let’s get to it then.” Alijda pushed herself back to her feet. “Lead the way.”
Alice nodded, holding out the EMP device. Alijda took it, then reached out to touch Alice on the shoulder as she walked by. “Also, thank you. Really. I mean that.”
“Sure,” Alice said, blinking in surprise. After all, it was just a tech gizmo, nothing to get overly dramatic about.
The ventilation systems on the Station weren’t large enough for a person, and there were very few sensors there. But, Alice reasoned, Army could fit in many of the ducts. And while the vents could be closed off to impede it, there was a manual override.
Army had to be near that room, the override room. The terminal there could be configured to manipulate other overrides on the Station, affecting their orbit. Thus, their plan was to shut the ducts, and when Army went to trigger the override and escape, nail it.
Unfortunately, she and Alijda had needed to waste time setting the commands up, because if Army was tracking their location on sensors, being direct could tip their hand, while splitting up might equally allow it to keep them separated. Fortunately though, they were able to route the necessary shutdown to a room near Army, meaning Alijda wouldn’t have to teleport into a live video feed. She was never a fan of doing that.
“I’ve been thinking,” Alijda said slowly as they finally approached their destination.
“Do tell,” Alice encouraged.
“Something Rose said, about the Station stabilizing once it had us. Yet now it’s in trouble again. Maybe that’s because some of us went to the planet? It has to be more than coincidence.”
“Ooh. Working theory. Maybe Army’s got internal memory, and you can hack it to learn if there’s something to that. You ready?”
The two women were now strolling nonchalantly past the override room. Alijda nodded.
Alice took a right at the next doorway, tapping the code she’d set up into the terminal there. Alijda vanished in a teleport cloud of purple smoke, back down the hall.
Alice then quickly ran back after her, to cut off any chance of escape if Army somehow got past Alijda’s teleporting by not using the vent. She saw Alijda run inside the room. Moments later, Alijda let out a shriek.
“What? WHAT?” Alice gasped, half expecting Army to jump out at her as she closed the distance, her stun grenade at the ready. The purple smoke of Alijda’s teleport dissipated enough to allow for visibility.
Alice peered around the corner. Army didn’t launch itself into her face. Instead, she saw Alijda lying on the floor of the room, with Kat standing over her. Kat?! It couldn’t be! Had Army learned to project holograms??
“OW,” Alijda said, rubbing near her bottom. “A little warning next time?”
“Communications are down,” Image-Kat said. “Or I would have.”
Alice caught herself up. “Magical projection from the planet,” she realized. “Using a variation of that spell that the Chris woman did on your last mission. Smart.”
“Thanks,” Kat said, glancing her way. “Listen, you two need to scan for–”
“Where’s Army?” Alice interrupted, looking to Alijda.
Kat flinched, looking over his shoulder. “You’ve got an army…?”
Alijda pointed up at the open grate in the ceiling. “Vent. Kat appeared between us as I was reaching out. Which made me scream and flinch back, so the cyber arm managed to trip the override… I jumped to hit it as it was trying to escape though. So I don’t think it got far?”
Alice looked up. “Leaving us with inert Army stuck in the ventilation. Good times.”
“Also a station falling out of orbit, so let me see if I can’t fix that,” Alijda remarked, pushing herself up off the floor and moving to the nearest computer keyboard. She began typing, as Kat returned his attention to Alice.
“You’ve been busy,” Kat observed.
“Nah, not really,” Alice said, firing off a grin. “Scan for what now?”
Kat shook off his confusion. “People. A person on the planet. Someone who’s not supposed to be down here, the same way that cyber arm wasn’t supposed to be here.”
Alice pursed her lips. “What, you mean you think someone fell through the multiverse cracks along with the arm? That’s not very solo-missiony. Are you sure?”
“We found a diary,” Kat explained. “Supposedly written by a women here who calls herself Destiny. Thing is, I recognize what’s in it. Not just the occult symbols, but some of the shorthand the writer was using.”
Alice peered closer. This scenario was a bit too weird. Was the image of Kat speaking to them under duress? “Blink twice if you’re being held captive.”
“Alice, I’m serious. I think that, somehow, it’s–”
“Oh my God,” Alijda gasped. She turned to them. “The computer. It’s…” She took a step back, pointing at the screen. “There was already a program in active memory to fix our orbit. I gave it a quick scan for viruses, then ran it. Look at what else it’s doing now.”
Alice took a few steps closer and leaned in to get a better look. One single word was typing and retyping itself, filling the screen with a single word, over and over.
Fate. Fate. Fate. Fate. Fate.
What happened to this Destiny woman?
VOTING CLOSES NOON EDT SATURDAY AUGUST 19th
PATHS NOT TAKEN:
With the cyber arm taking second place, the writing mostly followed that thread. If magic had NOT won the vote (thereby interrupting them), they would have caught (or deceived) the arm, using it to reinitiate contact somehow. The arm still being missing path would have had Alice’s focus be on sensors and/or occult research instead. (A tie, which was possible at one point, would have had them both initiate contact at once.)
THE ORACLE PROPHESIED:
The section for events you indirectly voted on returns. The “Fate” connection (misdirection?) was locked in place with Vote 3, “Beam’s memory is damaged” (focussing attention on the artifact). That’s why Part 4 had to close off Kat’s loose plot thread of “Fate” on his home world, and why I had him recognize the symbols. It’s ALSO why Rose’s decision of who to bring down to end Part 5 was KEY, thus why I felt I couldn’t break that tie, and got so crushed at the low vote total. Anyway. All out in the open now! More or less. 😉
Heyyy, we’re back to zero view days over this three-year-old site’s 247 posts (we’ve had two empty days in the last ten). A weekly vote for T&T still helps to get eyes on us… though really, better than that is sharing a link out to anyone you think might enjoy interactive fiction. No pressure though, I’m happy you’re still here, voting and morphing the story. Ciao for niow.