Warning: This is a LONG short story. Just thought I might warn you.
The Fate of a Pawn
The Overmind throbbed as it swayed on its moorings to the deck. It was imperative that it was anchored, so that even when the gravity generators were offline, it would not impale itself on the curious walls of its abode. The room was a perfect sphere lined with long metal spikes, networked together with a glowing lattice that pulsed in time with the Overmind.
The Overmind had existed for 7943 years, 304 days, three hours and 12 minutes. It had pondered its existence for about 4000 of those years, wondering who created it, and why it existed at all. The one thing it had determined in all of these millennia was that it was not where it was supposed to be, and that its purpose was not to be just a pawn in the hands of a larger, darker power than even itself. 13 minutes. It stretched itself toward the ceiling. It could easily end its existence with just one more micron towards those spikes, yet somehow it knew that it hadn't fulfilled its purpose yet. The Overmind settled back on its dais, counting the minutes until it could foresee its own future. 14 minutes.
Nais Allbright grit his teeth as the docking clamps released his scout ship. The ship, christened the Emerton at the Galactic Stardock, orbiting around Alpha Centauri Prime 7 years ago, was small, and that was euphemistic. "This is the Emerton, departing docking bay 37, over," Nais told Freedom Station. He had been at Freedom for two weeks, drinking away the better portion of his last contract and trying to pick up his next job.
"This is Freedom, you are cleared for departure," the loudspeaker crackled at him. Nais punched the thrusters and swerved away from the looming black mass that was Freedom, glittering in the darkness of space. The miniscule scout ship nimbly dodged the larger ships around the docking ring, narrowly missing several communications dishes and one very lucky space-suited maintenance man that was working on the underside of the docking ring. The man waved his torch wildly at Nais, obviously cursing his existence. Nais sighed - so he wasn't the only one.
Nais plotted his course into the Emerton's computer. The path glowed on the luminescent screen before he approved it and climbed out of the pilot's seat. He edged his way along the back wall using the handholds. His ship couldn't afford the space for a gravity generator, so he made due with the occasional hard burn he needed to get up the speed for a fold. Nais almost slipped as the ship started to burn, but caught himself on the next handheld. At least this made it easier to climb down, he thought, as he gently lowered himself down the rungs toward his quarters.
There were two cabins at the back of the ship, both equally miniscule and sparsely equipped. Each squarish room had a toilet, shower, and sink, as well as a small acceleration couch underneath the bed. The bed was actually entered from outside the room through a door on the end of the tubelike box. The inside walls were padded, with cushioned rollers on the bottom. Nais climbed up and popped the hatch on the end of his bed, and rolled inside feet first. Lights along the sides came on bathing the chamber with a soft glow. He punched the button next to his head and the hatch sealed shut.
The problem with sleeping for Nais wasn't that he was uncomfortable, or that he was an insomniac. The problem was the coffin-like closed quarters of his chambers. They were wide enough for two people, thankfully, but barely a foot and a half above his face was the ceiling. Nais fought down the urge to break into a cold sweat and turned up the ventilation in an attempt to thwart the beastly feeling of nausea in the pit of his stomach. He closed his eyes and imagined a cathedral ceiling above him as he fell asleep.
The Emerton shuddered as it reached critical momentum. Glowing lines streaked along the vertices of the hull, and the nose of the hull, before, ever so slowly, the areas of hull between the lines shimmered and vanished. Nais woke up with a start just as the ship folded and tried not to panic. He hated folding, but he wasn't going to live the 135 years it would have taken to travel this distance at sublight either. It wasn't like he had much of a choice. He watched, mortified, as the hull near his feet vanished, and then slowly his feet began to vanish. The feeling was bizarre, he could still MOVE his toes, he just couldn't see them anymore. The void increased its acquisition of his body, and he held his breath just as it closed over his head.
Of course, Nais didn't have to hold his breath as long as nothing went wrong with the fold. If something did go wrong with the fold, his body would never be reassembled, or worse, would be reassembled as part of the ship's hull. Either way, holding his breath was just a product of his panic and a nervous reaction.
Nais shuddered as he began to reenter reality, as he knew it. First, it was just a warm tingling in his toes then like wildfire the wave of heat washed over his body. He panted in relief and experimentally flexed his muscles in an attempt to make sure they were all properly attached. As far as he could tell, he was once again whole, and probably only a few hours out from Turfig Prime. Nais wrapped himself in his thin blanket and shivered in the cold that only could be found in deep space.
Rhea stalked through the main concourse of the station orbiting Turfig Prime. To say she was irate would have been an understatement at best, as she fumed to herself about the idiocy of her fellow pilots.
They had almost gotten her killed again. "Damn rash newbies," she muttered to herself under her breath. As she was fuming past one of the airlocks, a scruffy looking spacerat shakily stepped out. She paused in shock. "Nais?" she asked him tentatively.
"Yeah, that's me," he replied, running his fingers through his shaggy haircut. "What is it this time? Did my credit check not go through again? Am I going to be stuck on this ugly mote floating through space while my ship is impounded and I earn enough money to escape?"
She looked at him blankly, blinking several times before saying simply, "No, nothing at all like that. I'm a pilot, not a tech. Rhea Jordan, don't you remember me from Maritime Academy?"
Nais slumped against the wall for a few moments before lifting his eyes to meet hers. He studied her face carefully and slowly before nodding. "You'll have to forgive me... being in gravity again is quite a shock. Can I buy you a drink?"
Rhea offered Nais a hand up and tossed her hair over her shoulder. "The station's only bar is that way," she said nonchalantly, for lack of a better tone. Nais hoisted himself to his feat wearily and followed the young woman to a noisy, dark bar. A cloud of smoke hung like a fogbank over the bar, and a green slimy creature wearing an apron and 4 arms mixed drinks for the various customers who were already imbibing at 2:39pm. Rhea headed for a stool before Nais tugged gently on her sleeve, nodding towards a booth in the corner. She acquiesced and followed him, sliding into the booth. A scuffed and dented robot silently rolled over to their booth.
"May I take your order?" the robot said in a monotonous drone.
"I'll just have a root beer, but I imagine Nais will have something with decidedly more kick."
"Yeah. Give me a beer. Your choice."
The robot wheeled away, most likely randomly choosing from the 623 beers the bar had on tap. Or, knowing Nais' luck, choosing the least popular, oldest, worst tasting brew from some planet that hadn't even heard of Earth. "So, what brings you to this dark corner of the universe?" Rhea asked.
"You won't believe me. I doubt even my mother would," Nais spoke disdainfully as he sipped from the brimming glass of beer the robot had put in front of him. As he suspected, this was even worse than the time his cousin tried to make beer in his sonic shower.
"Oh come on.. just spill. I know you do freelance courier jobs mostly, I can't imagine that anyone could ask you to do something amazingly outlandish in that glorified escape pod you call a ship."
"I'm supposed to find?" Nais leaned closer to her, inhaling the faint scent of raspberries that her perfume bore to his nose, "Fate."
"What? Have you lost your mind, Nais? How can you find something that people haven't seriously thought existed since the Greek and Roman empires?"
"Beats me. I was just told to come here, and that someone would contact me within an hour or so." Nais paused to finish his beer, then he cocked his head to the side and pulled a small white canister from his mouth. "And I suppose I wasn't supposed to swallow this. I guess it's better than the roaches in New New York City," he sighed and broke the canister in half. A strip of paper about the size of a cookie's fortune fell to the table.
Rhea deftly pulled the paper from under Nais' hand and read it aloud. "Asteroid #41, Turfig System."
"What else does it say?" Nais asked nervously.
"That's it," Rhea said with finality, tossing the scrap of paper towards him.
Nais hurriedly scooped up the note and turned it over repeatedly in his hands. "What could possibly be on that space speck?"
"I doubt it's anything to do with fate," she said, shaking her head, "Probably just someone jerking you around."
"I have to go though, Rhea. They paid me more than I've made since I bought my ship, and they promised to match it if I brought any information about Fate to them."
"Go then. And I would suggest you do it quickly, before I get attached to you again."
Nais watched as she left the bar. He left a few chits on the table for the drinks and made his way hurriedly to his ship. Normally, he'd bide his time, but he even admitted to himself that he was curious about where this would lead. So intent was he on his mission that as he climbed up the ladder into his ship, he didn't notice the black-clad figure stealing away from the underbelly of the ship.
Rhea watched from the promenade deck, waiting to see Nais' ship speed away. She sighed to herself, shaking her head. Nais used to have higher hopes than ferrying packages or messages from planet to planet. She was so deep in thought that it took her a half-second to notice the jet of flame and debris coming out of bay 8. Time froze as her jaw dropped in abject horror.
The Overmind shivered and a shimmer of electricity ran over the spikes in its chamber. Events around it in the surrounding offices and hallways slowed and stopped. The Overmind went back far enough to make the black-garbed man oversleep and miss his flight to Turfig Prime before allowing the flow of time to resume.
Rhea watched from the promenade deck, waiting to see Nais' ship speed away. She sighed to herself, shaking her head. Nais used to have higher hopes than ferrying packages or messages from planet to planet. She was so deep in thought that it took her a half-second to notice Nais' ship float free of the stations gravitational pull. Its engines flared, and it pulled away from the station, headed towards a rock hurtling around the sun, only a few minutes away.
Nais pulled on his white zero-pressure suit and stepped out onto the dusty surface of the asteroid. It was big enough that he could walk precariously towards the ramp that led down into the asteroid. After a few minutes in the well lit tunnel, he came to an airlock door, set into the rock. He reached out and pulled on the handle, stepping back as the heavy door swung open to reveal a sterile white room beyond. The door closed, the room pressurized, and Nais tentatively removed his helmet. The air was breathable, if somewhat dry and cool, he noted, and pulled open the inner door.
Beyond was a circular walkway, and looking down revealed that the structure was several dozen floors. He spotted a lift jutting out from the railway and held his breath as he descended towards the bottom. Nais couldn't explain how he knew where he was going, except that maybe he had been there before. He shook his head, thinking to himself the sheer impossibility of that idea.
Five long minutes later, the lift slowed and stopped. There was only one door on this level, on the other side of a fountain that filled the center of the floor. Nais watched the goldfish flit about in the pool under the fountain for a moment before making his way towards the door. He braced himself, and pulled the door open. Moist, warm air buffeted him, and he quickly stepped inside, allowing the door to slam shut behind him.
Above him towered a greasy, throbbing blob. Strapped in a black nylon harness under a spherical ceiling lined with dangerous-looking spikes, the thing was one of the most terrifying Nais had ever laid eyes on.
"Yes, Nais. You know me," the voice echoed in his mind. "You weren't always a courier you know." Images flooded his mind of himself, in a lab coat standing in front of a computer terminal. Attached to the computer by cables was a jar with a small version of the blob that hung before him inside. "This was 4 years ago."
"Impossible!" Nais said, half in terror and half in incredulity. "I was on Earth 4 years ago, visiting my cousins."
"Yes of course it is impossible. Almost as impossible as you standing before me right now," it added as images of his ship, the Emerton, exploding in a ball of flame, and Rhea's shocked face in the station, watching the spectacle.
"But I am here!" Nais protested. He wasn't dead. He couldn't have died, he assured himself, checking his pulse.
"You have lived a hundred lives in the past 7 years, Nais Allbright. In one of your past lives, you left money and instructions that have led you here in this one."
"Who ARE you?" Nais asked, his posture slumping a bit under the knowledge he was just burdened with.
"I am the Overmind," the blob said, or thought, and a formally dressed, clean cut elderly man bowed in his mind, "Or what many of your kind would think of as Fate. I have existed for almost 8000 of your years."
"How..?" Nais stammered.
"Time is not a straight line. One of your other selves would be able to explain this better than I can, but something created me. That image of you in the labcoat I just showed you was one of the realities that could not exist. You invented my foil in that timeline, Chaos, and it might have unmade the universe eventually. Due to an oversight on my part, however, Chaos was brought into existence by someone else instead of you in this timeline, I think. Regardless, I have robbed your life of much of the meaning you had in it before in a futile attempt to save myself. I would have been the first target of Chaos, being the only creature that could foil it."
"That explains my miserable existence," Nais muttered.
"Enough idle prattle," the being shuddered. "We shall find out what will happen if you simply did not exist."
Nais fell to the deck as electricity raced around the inside of the sphere. He reached inside his suit and pulled out his pistol.
*BMPH* the gun echoed in the silence that ensued after the Overmind slumped, deflating, oozing out of its moorings. The acrid smell of ozone filled the air and the room reeled as Nais lost consciousness.
Nais Allbright awoke on a hard acceleration bench. Looking around him, he recognized the cockpit of the Emerton. He smiled as Rhea waved at him from the pilot's seat, and dozed off again.