Literary Challenge #38 : We'll Always Have New York
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Join Date: Feb 2013
02-17-2013, 12:57 AM
Captain's Log. Stardate: We don't even know anymore. These are the journeys of the starship
, its ongoing mission to discover new wonders, reinvent the old - and in this case, get remarkably lost on a world that is no longer our own. It all seems so alien now: the blinding snow, the tips of old marvels sticking slantwise from the compacted ice, but at one point this was New York, and in bits and pieces, through observation, good science and a fair amount of wild guessing, we have put it all together. Now we just need to get home, and in a state that's worth going home to.
Perhaps I should explain more clearly.
The Compulsion was on its way back to Sol system after completing a scientific tour of the Delta Volanis cluster, a successful if lengthy mission which my crew were eager to be done with. We had calculated a timestamp map of the death and collapse of a local star, deactivated a poorly-contained and hastily-ejected warp core which had landed on a pre-industrial world, and retained several intriguing (and, according to my second science officer, "adorable") biological samples from an uninhabited rogue planet. We were worn. The duty officers were longing for wide-open vistas, the loving arms of friends and family, and free time. That is their right - but I do not share their sentiments. I do not think I can. I am their captain, and the Compulsion has become my home; as such I regarded the end of the mission with a kind of melancholy. Here I would be forced by regulations to meander on a world that did not belong to me, or maybe had once, a long time ago. I cannot remember. I never will.
My means of taking my mind off the matter was work, as it had always been. I was reviewing the findings from our tour of duty when the announcement sounded that we were approaching Earthdock Station and our short transwarp journey was soon to be ended. I looked up through the windows of my ready room and could see it: the open space before us, the imagined stars, the boredom, the hunger, the long and empty hours.
There was a jolt. The entire ship seemed to stretch out, to the width of a hair and the length of the universe. I was lifting my hand to my communicator and my elbow stretched out into infinity. I thought: something went horribly wrong with the transwarp circuit. I thought: we debarked into an active black hole. I thought: I'm going to die here and never know half of what I seek. I'm dead; this is the prelude. And then the universe snapped back into position, my hand slammed against my communicator and before I could so much as register the world before me, I was jabbering out those eternal words: "Status report!"
"We've encountered some sort of massive transwarp disruption, Captain." Osroe Judun, my chief science officer, kept her voice carefully calm in this crisis - but could not control its pitch, which was high and panicked. "Source unknown at this time. We appear to be intact, with full hull integrity and only a few bumps and bruises from the jolt. But sir-"
"I know," I said, "I can see it."
There was no way we were in the Sol system. We had been shunted out of transwarp directly above an ice planet orbiting a cold and distant white star. There were signs that it had been inhabited once - several space stations, likely huge and impressive in their prime, squatted listing in space around the world, slowly completing their decaying orbits. The planet itself was an impenetrable ball of wind-scored white ice and tempestuous clouds of sweeping snow. I was immediately at my console, tapping in commands to begin a preliminary analysis of this world; there is at times too much of the scientist in me and not enough of the captain. I had just finished confirming the presence of a breathable - if unpleasant - atmosphere when my chief tactical officer hailed me over private comms.
"Sir, I think we have a problem," grumbled Lyell. "Some of the cargo shifted and a bunch of the specimen cases cracked. We've got most of the little flightless bird guys, and none of the water monsters leaked, but those big carnivores? Ambush hunters? With the teeth? Unaccounted for. This is why we got most of the birds, I figure." Lyell was rough on the protocol at times - comes from the Maquis background, I always figured, and the hoops she had to jump through to overcome that fact - but she was scrappy, determined, and could do a lot with a little. We sparred, but I trusted her with my safety. I quickly determined how far the beasts could have gotten since the crash, using the data we had already gathered on their planet's indiginous species, and ordered a lockdown of all threatened areas. I trusted Lyell to get the ship back to sane condition, and redoubled my efforts to the more immediate problem.
Though the planet showed signs of habitation in the past, there were few power sources still active. What was there was distributed very widely and putting out a lot of energy, however. Preliminary scans showed seven major landmasses beneath the ubiquitous coating of snow and ice, and each source was located on what would have been a major population center, judging by the structures present beneath the frozen crust. Something was awfully familiar about the shape of the land and the distribution of the structures - though with my own dilapidated and borrowed memories, this was hardly an unusual feeling. Try going through your life cobbling together a personality from scraps of memories stolen from unwilling victims and see how much deja vu you can stand, gentle reader. I was far more interested in those energy readings.
The signatures were confused, to say the least, like a cross between a massive data storage bank and a holodeck. If it was data storage, then those industrious humans managed to condense an enormous amount of data into a very small space - I judged the source to be no larger than twenty by twenty feet on a cube, with enough room to hold the Compulsion's computer, the minds of all its crew and still have space for a cruiser or fifty. Whatever was providing the power would have to have city-sized heatsinks or risk boring down through all the ice it was inevitably resting on. There were fifteen in total, dotted like shy stars along the buried land, and just as I was judging what room could be cleared out so we could beam one of these things on board, Osroe hailed me again, with insistence.
"I've got news, captain, and it's... confusing. I just scanned one of the derelict stations on the far side of the planet. It's powerless, it's irreparable, it's suffered incredible damage, but it's unmistakeable." She seethed a breath so potent I could hear it through my communicator. "It's Earth, sir. It's Earth Spacedock. We made it back to Sol system just fine, sir. We're where we need to be. It's just the when that's the issue."
I was on the bridge in seconds. The gang was all there, my bridge crew - orphans, all of us, now in time as well as space. Osroe and Seichu were cuddled over the scientific consoles, jabbing fingers at odd readings here and there and talking over one another with crackling insistence. Lyell was screaming into a communicator like an old-Earth drill sergeant, organizing search teams and coordinating a relief medical team in case the worst did happen. T'Pame looked calm, almost bored, in that typically Vulcan way - I suppose she was having the least interesting day, being a combat engineer with nothing having exploded yet. I felt a brief spurt of pride from somewhere, someone I had eaten, before diving full-force into my command role and calling Osroe, Seichu and T'Pame to the front.
"Science officers, on task," I ordered. "You're absolutely certain this is Earth?" Osroe nodded excitedly, her loose blonde hair feathering over her dark Trill spots - but it was Seichu who spoke first. "We've arrived at the correct physical coordinates, sir, but at the wrong time. Tectonic shift matches no known Earth records and vulcanism is quite subdued. Given the state of the planet and its parent star, it's safe to assume that we've traveled forward in time - though the exact magnitude of the shift is as of yet unknown." Seichu delivered her report with clipped accuracy, hands behind her back like the consummate professional the ensign was becoming. "Osroe, that's your job," I ordered. I still remembered the paper on tachyon movement in temporal space that earned her a place on my crew. "Determine the magnitude of our jump. Seichu, you've no doubt noticed those energy readings below the ice crust - see what you can make of them, and if you can, link with their computers and gather as much relevant data as you can. T'Pame, you're up. I need a ship status report up to and during the transwarp event."
"Sir," she began. "Ship readings normal before entering transwarp. Upon review, there was a slight emission of subspace particles coming from a location within the ship. Transwarp event occurred approximately point eight-three-eight seconds later, relative time. It is safe to assume these events are related. I am currently working on determining the location of this particle emission, but it is difficult, given the relatively short timeframe and limited available information."
"Keep at it. Lyell? Animals?" She swiveled, holding one blue hand over her communicator as if hiding a conversation. "Still out there, captain. We've got three of them on the loose, and caught a growl over by engineering not two minutes ago. No attacks yet, but I have teams sweeping the ship and I'm replicating bait as we speak." She drew her hand away and began barking into her shoulder once more.
I leaned back in my chair, collating the information I had into something that made sense. We had experienced a transwarp event as a result of subspace particles emitted from inside the ship during transit. We emerged where we were going - Earth - but an unknown number of years in the future. My ship was full of deadly predators stalking the Jefferies tubes for inattentive ensigns. And in the intervening period, Earth had been abandonned and frozen over, becoming an uninhabited ball of ice and wind - save for those few, drattedly enigmatic data storage nodules squatting on its long-buried surface.
"Right," I decided, "Cull my previous orders. Away team. We're investigating those power readings the fast way. You, you, and you." I swiveled my chair around, pointing at excitable Osroe, languid T'Pame and fierce Lyell. "Seichu, you're welcome if you'd like, but if I recall correctly, you're not too fond of this kind of environment." The girl came from a hot world - high vulcanism, closest to the sun - and her people not only tolerated fire but worshipped it. While she was not as orthodox - or as violent - as the rest of her kind, she would not withstand this new Earth comfortably.
"Sir," she stated, looking up through the light-haze of her console screen. It was always hard to tell mood with Seichu - her features were humanlike enough, but her firey red-gold coloring made it difficult to read her emotions unless she told you what they were. "I will respectfully decline. If this is indeed the future of Earth, then it is no longer the place I have come to cherish. It has been overcome with the white evil, and even as I struggle to understand it, I pray for it, and long to light many fires for its salvation."
"Then you're our support. Monitor the security situation and be ready to beam us out if things go sideways. The rest of us, suit up - temperatures are below fifty Celsius out there. Lyell, suit's needed only if you want to blend in." The fierce Andorian smiled - she was already out of her chair, and halfway to the turbolift. "We meet at the transport room in five minutes. Let's be quick about this, people. Being stranded makes me nervous. I've grown to like all of you, and I would hate to have to eat anyone." I stood slowly, and smiled in a way that I hoped was open and reassuring.
No one looked reassurred.
I was first in the transporter room. My usual outfit - a moving, shifting, purring suit of living leather - was often enough to handle most environmental oddities, but this might be a little out of his usual comfort zone, so I had on a cold-weather skinsuit overtop. I had my mask down, and resembled the implacable force of mnemonic oblivion that my people might once have been engineered to become. Lyell followed - in Starfleet standard uniform, armed with phaser rifle and a handful of grenades. It figured; the Andorian was probably looking forward to playing in the snow. T'Pame was next, armored, with a small hand phaser, tricorder and portable repair kit - smart girl, that Vulcan, though ineffably serious. If this WAS Earth's future, then there would be some technology down there that we would recognize - and possibly repair. Osroe almost overstayed her time limit, appearing in a body-concealing suit of armor, with hand phaser and tricorder at the ready. The pretty Trill had invoked some archaic dress code and managed to get a miniskirt approved for everyday apparel; I figure she just forgot how to put on pants.
With a nod, a handshake, and one last look at our piece of the past, I said the word, and we were beamed down to the snow-crusted ruins of old New York.
Oh, how things change. I remember New York, from about five different angles - New York at night, running and giggling through the old subway stations; New York in the morning, a blur of businesslike efficiency. I had never been, bodily, but the people whose memories I ate, they gave New York unwillingly to me. It was unrecognizeable. We were standing on a shelf of compacted snow, immediately sinking up to our knees in loose white powder. The buildings, shining and new in my own world, had enjoyed time enough to turn brown and grey and list onto their sides, heavy with a coat of thick white snow. And the snow was still falling, obscuring the world in a blanket of rough precipitation, so that the old monuments looked like weathered giants in the distance, all grey and still and forlorn. Apart from the wind, it was absolutely silent; apart from the near-vanished sun, it was absolutely lightless. My New York was a bustle of smells and sounds and, most importantly, lights - lights that kept you up while you slept, lights that turned night into day, lights that followed you where you walked, spewing advertisements and watching for your safety and sometimes calling you by name. This was the graveyard where light laid down to die. It was hard to believe, looking at the place where humanity once crowded the thickest, that this world had ever been inhabited.
But Osroe had her tricorder, and was pointing off into the distance, between two buildings that had sunk into one another so close they appeared to be kissing. "That way," she said, her voice crackling over our winter suit comms, and after confirming with a tricorder reading of my own, we trudged off through the monuments of old glories like ants crawling up a thighbone.
We tried to keep level, but the city seemed determined to keep us on an upward path. Those few hard, metal plates our feet kept encountering - little metal stepping stones through uncertain terrain - turned out to be the very tops of streetlights, buried completely in the endless and unmelting snow. Both Osroe's readings and my own confirmed that the energy source was below us as well as ahead, but we figured it easier to melt or climb our way to it once we were almost on top of it than try a straight course at ground level. Our tricorders might have kept us on target, but we would have lost all other bearings, and might have found ourselves behind a steel or concrete wall with more ice to burrow through and more time lost. And a good thing too - because while all the other non-humans might not have recognized it, I've eaten a human or two in my past, and when the great needle shape of the Empire State Building rose from the snowdrift ahead of us, I recognized it for what it was - and mourned.
It was a fine, fine thing once. An old structure, once falling apart, but reinforced and rebuilt with the finest technology of every time since its inception. Now it was a corpse. No one had cared, in incalculable years, to repair it. The windows were long-since smashed in by hail, or wind, or time. The spire, the topmost antenna - it had snapped off long ago, and a great drift of snow had built itself along the eastern side. It seemed a hermit drawing a blanket over itself. It seemed a monument to the dead city, the dead Earth. And it was where the energy reading was coming from, buried deep in the base of the structure, underneath the coating of ice.
We didn't even have to use our phasers. We simply walked up to one of the broken windows and crawled in. The floor had been an office, once. Chairs, of an awkward wheel-less design (possibly hover) were crowded against the corner, and the walls were coated in an iridescent substance like flash-frozen oil. T'Pame was on that immediately, taking samples, sending spurts of power that made the whole thing shimmer and glow like cuttlefish skin. When flickers of light and sound began to run over our feet, we figured it out: a massive holodeck, somehow condensed into a skin-thin wallpaper covering that took the place of an entire business-worth of supplies. More tools, more time, and more power spurts - T'Pame managed to get a few voices to synth, but they were broken and far-away, like ghosts rushing through the empty spaces. She withdrew her tools and shook her head. It was too far gone, too badly damaged to do anything.
We continued. The elevators were an obvious trap. They stretched down like the maws of great, confused worms, speckled at their perigee with spots of disinterested snow. Some floors were near-impassable, only on the stairs - the great glacier flow had oozed in through the broken windows and coated everything with deep ice. It got colder, darker, and more still the deeper we descended, if that was even possible. The outside changed hue, from lazy white to dirty grey to, finally, a deep glacier blue. Offices opened up into restaurants, clubs, entertainments, the tourist attractions that people loved New York for, back when there were people. There was nothing other than the white puffs of our own breath in the air and the deep, groaning cracks of the glacier world shifting around us.
The tricorders only registered that the energy source was on level when we were at the bottommost floor, what would have been the sub-basement - a total darkness, deep and cold, flecked with spots of drifting snow. Lyell had unshouldered her phaser rifle, breathing hard in compounded anxiety. T'Pame found what would have been a light fixture - something only slightly more advanced than what we worked with back home - and with some fiddling managed to get the whole system back online. The hum of power only underscored the tremendous quiet we had all grown used to - when the lights flickered it sounded like an avalanche, and we all stopped stock still until the tremor eased.
We were slow, we were cautious, we were nervous - but we met no one, no one at all, and it took us no time at all to reach our goal. As if it were possible twice in one day, time seemed to stop when we saw it. It was unlike anything we had expected.
It was a cube of hard, black, crystalline material, twenty-five feet on a side, glowing from within with a dull light that changed colors. It was like one huge cut crystal of smoky quartz, defined from within by a trillion trillion minuscule flaws, each glinting with the light of our instruments and sending tiny runners of excited luminescence back towards its shifting core. The room was warm here, warmer than we had expected, enough for me to withdraw the mask of my leather suit, even for Osroe to wiggle free of her hefty gloves. T'Pame, Osroe and I were immediately at our tricorders, taking readings, comparing notes and swearing at the impossibility of it all as Lyell took up position by the sole entrance and watched the quiet beyond for signs of movement.
I do not know how long we took down there - it was unlike anything I had ever seen. The whole block was like a massive computer condensed down into the smallest possible space. More, it was generating its own power, and efficiently. Even the waste heat was contained within the insulated space and reused. It used no fuel that we could tell, seeming to run on a perpetual reaction with no defined time of collapse. There was no sound, no input, nothing apart from the uncanny knowledge that we were inhabiting a room with an impossible amount of information and nothing else existed upon the Earth.
Before long, the purpose began to become clear. Allowing for a certain amount of storage space for a single consciousness, this box had room within it to store one billion, six hundred thousand such consciousnesses - with room enough to spare to run a continuous virtual simulation and contain all known scientific and cultural records that would have been generated between our time and this. The readings I had received which were so much like our own holodeck were confused by being looped back within its own program. The computer was creating a simulation for itself - and one billion people were living within it. Who knows how long they had been there? Who knows what they were doing in there? Free from all worries of hunger, death or disease - free even from time, capable fo speeding the progress of their civilization to the point where a century passes in the exhalation of our mortal lungs...
It was Seichu who interrupted us, signalling me through the communicator. "I have the results of some calculations Lieutenant Osroe began before she left," Seichu began. "Judging by the state of the Sun and the decay rate of Earthdock Station, I speculate that roughly forty-two thousand, eight hundred years have passed since our time of departure to the present date."
"Yeah," I said, half-distracted by a computational capacity reading that could not possibly be right, "that just about holds up with what we're finding here."
"Furthermore," she continued, "Security teams One and Five have found and recaptured the predatory lifeforms taken from the Delta Volanis rogue, and that has shed some light upon our predicament. The subspace particle emission detected by engineer T'Pame originated from the creatures themselves. Evidently it is used in their method of hunting, as they leap across brief windows of subspace through an as-yet unknown organic means to ambush their prey. The interactions between this localized region of subspace and the transwarp conduit caused the transwarp event we have experienced. Furthermore, we have been able to replicate this event in computer simulations. It seems the news is evil."
"Do continue," I said. I had dropped my tricorder for the moment - this concerned us all, but most importantly myself. I have never had much luck taking my usual nourishment from replicated food.
"The transwarp event did not send the ship forward in time as we had anticipated. It drastically reduced our speed relative to the progress of the universe - to, say, forty-two thousand eight hundred years. Roughly. There is no convenient anomaly present to send us back to our own time. If we replicate the transwarp event, we will travel the same distance in the same time, but we will only be able to travel forward into the future, never back where we belong."
I slumped against a patch of debris. I forgot to pick up my tricorder. I called Osroe, Lyell and T'Pame to me and delivered the news. And that's where we are now - lost, stranded in a dead future with no means of getting home.
There are four of us, discussing what to do. Given the eighty-six crew members of the Compulsion, their combined mnemonic output would sustain me for twenty-six years, four months, if I drained each of them dry and then killed them before they could turn. I might as well strip naked and stride into the snow. Who ever thought it would come to this kind of a decision? I would die before I did that. Who had to die to place that loyalty within me?
But Lyell has a suggestion. Practical, simple, leave the details to us eggheads - stereotypical Lyell. We screwed up. It was our mistake and inattentiveness that caused this to happen. So we put the decision out of our hands. If those people in the box - if they're still people - are advanced enough to do this, then they would be advanced enough to think of a solution to our problem. It couldn't hurt, right? What other options do we have? And even if there's no way to interface our machinery with the box, we have a Vulcan and a Mnemophage right here among us, psychics galore, ready and able to fuse our psyches with the alien minds of one billion, six hundred thousand collective maybe-humans living immortal, unchanging lives within an unbreakable future machine.
I am already pulling my suit away from my head. My hair draws away from my feeding tendril, the long tentacle of brain matter that permits a more selective transfer of memories back and forth between mnemophage and victim, as opposed to the gross involuntary sucking that happens with skin-to-skin contact. The air is cold on my bare, jaundiced skin - this spotty, always-hungry thing that I have become. Because even if I fail and die, I will be dead, and the Compulsion can live and continue and figure out another angle without the constant threat of their captain either becoming insensible or feeding on them, one by one.
I am touching the tip - the very tip - of my extruded brain to the smooth, cold surface of this all-too-human machine.
Everything I am given is taken away. Story of my life. Story of all of us. But we always have... I can't remember.
Light surrounds me. Noise. Smells. Someone is walking on the floor above my head. My feeding tendril is touching a filing cabinet. Someone is telling a replicator to make a minty raktajino. Someone is trying to sell me souvenirs. Osroe is laughing quick girlish laughter - I look to the side, and she is swirling, her blonde hair a banner. She is wearing a miniskirt, shorter than ever before, practically a belt. Absolutely against regulations, that.
"Sir?" croaks Seichu over my communicator, but I am too busy tucking my brain back into my hair.
"I think we're home, Seichu. Come on down. Light your fires." I try not to encourage the girl's burden of faith, but what do I care? I'm happy. And regardless of what she burns - we always have New York.
Cripes, that was long. Sorry.