Original Content Bought and Sold. Chapter 18, Arc 3

MyNameMeansBentNose

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So, just what is Rick about?

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Chapter 18
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“Amazing?” Cynthia breathed. “He's dead. That's not amazing!”

“I'm sorry, I-” Rick reached for her, but she lashed out, slapping his arm away from her.

With a wet, ripping sound, Rick’s arm separated from his shoulder. “Oh my,” he mumbled as the appendage hit the ground. It looked perfectly normal on the outside, but the inner arm was hollow. Small amounts of grey liquid seeped out. Rick quickly retrieved his limb.

Everyone nearby had frozen in terror, thinking his membrane had been broken again.

“Sorry you had to see that,” Rick mumbled as he picked the arm up. It took it a few moments with only one functioning hand, but he fished the arm through the sleeve of his t-shirt. “My body is functional, but unstable… that should hold…”

He still ended up getting a bit of the sleeve stuck, he was forced to hold the sleeve back out of the way, letting them all see his arm slowly melting back together. Rick didn't let go of limb arm as he continued speaking.

“What happened to… the rest of you?” Rob asked.

“Something new!” Rick said with a smile. “I have no recorded memory of being able to discard parts of myself before.”

Rob looked around the devastation. The hanger and all the makers within were gone. A couple of the houses and a part of the dining hall were also eaten away. Rick had also dug his way into the ground and at least one exposed cable, now capped off, stuck out from the ground. And of course, piles of inert material littered the area like small sand dunes.

“This has never happened before?” Rob asked with suspicion.

“Well, it might have,” Rick conceded. “I would only know if those instances had made it back to the primary gestalt. I am unaware of any managing to do so. As for why...” Rick nodded past Rob.

At Rick’s prompting, Rob spun his chair around to see Tinker and a pair of Gerlen, Snacks and… he didn't know which. All three held plasma rifles trained on Rick.

“Why should you make it back when the 'others’ didn't?” Tinker asked. “You're a plague, a hazard of the highest order.”

“Well, if it was just me at stake here, I would say 'go ahead’, but my primary instance isn't going anywhere,” Rick noted. He approached Tinker calmly. “But it really is better for everyone if I can bring Mason's gift back.”

“Better?” Tinker let his weapon drop slightly. “And how do I know I can-”

“I’ve already committed to this path,” Rick interrupted. “I have given up all but the smallest fraction of myself when I simply could have kept going and eaten it all. There’s enough knowledge in that crashed ship there to send a part of myself home, but while the mechanism was accidental, Mason has passed on his memories,” he sighed and looked away, also inspecting the damage he had done. “And…”

Rick stepped past Cynthia, walking out of the crater.

“And?” Cynthia prompted.

Rick turned to look at her. “I can still hear them, screaming, crying, begging...” no one replied, simply waiting for him to continue. He dropped his head. “As long as a person has a translator and an implant at least a little piece of them remains a part of the Ooze, hence ‘gestalt’.”

“All of them? You can hear them?” Rob followed.

“All of them. Millions of minds installed with implants and translators. Not including the billions more never implanted.”

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Cynthia
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No one had known what to say, and everyone was exhausted. So rest is what they had done. After she’d finally let it all go.

Cynthia had tried to rest. Her and Rob both. Rob hadn’t even tried out the suit, opting instead to follow her to bed. Eventually she cried herself to sleep.

She woke up in the evening, wrapped in Rob’s embrace. She snuggled in further to Rob’s arms. Cynthia took a deep breath, just concentrating on being with Rob.

“Hey,” he whispered softly.

“Hey,” she mumbled back.

One arm shifted and he stroked her head. “How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know,” Cynthia answered. “I feel hollow.”

“I was thinking…” Rob ventured quietly.

Cynthia shifted around slightly until she was looking up into Rob’s face. “Mmm?”

“He says he remembers everyone, and Mason is a part of him. Maybe we can talk to Mason still?”

Her mouth opened, but whatever she’d been about to say got stuck. She buried her face back into Rob’s chest. Finally it came to her. “Then why didn’t he offer then? Why not let him say goodbye right away?”

“... Maybe because he was damaged,” Rob guessed. “Good of you to make sure he was unarmed though.”

That brought a little smile to her face, if only for a moment.

“Rixiniux was supposed to be packed full, right?” Rob continued. “Rick’s arm didn’t have much in it, he must have given lots up to get to a sane state. And he said he was unstable.”

“I’ll ask him later.” Cynthia replied, closing her eyes. It was too much to think about right now. More than that, she dreaded the idea of talking to Mason's ghost.

She was hard asleep soon after.

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Chase
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They had him laying forward over a padded bench. Currently his shirt was off.

“Ooo, that’s cold,” Chase hissed as the other person in the room spread the nanofix across his shoulder. It was indeed cold for a couple long moments, then tingled like crazy as it worked. Tingled and worse...

“Urgh, so itchy!”

“Burns are typically worse,” Piderby said as he spread some more on the slash across Chase’s shoulder from where the bullet had grazed him.

Chase looked at the Gerlen. “Can’t you at least get someone pretty to do that?”

Piderby looked at Chase with a blank expression. “What do you mean? I look fantastic.”

Chase sighed. In his crisp neon green suit and electric yellow jacket, Piderby was being serious.

This little base of theirs was technically located in the district, but you could only get in through the gaps. It was an odd little construction and some code setter somewhere had messed with the city schematics to convince the AI city manager to look away. He understood there were a few placed like this, but this was the only one he was aware of.

This room was a first aid room of sorts in Crawk’s current base of operations. Chase had seen several cramped sleeping rooms, a couple offices and at least one locker room with a collection of gear. And one with with some of the most advanced machinery Chase had glimpsed. A small gantry with enough space in the middle for a single large person to stand. Chase knew it as ‘Crawk’s room’.

The whole place was a sort of run down police office or something. Chase hadn’t really been in one, but it had an austere, run down feeling.

There was only one door into this room, it swung open as Oriashka and Lopulm wandered in. A third figure followed a couple beats later.

“Hey- Oriashka,” Chase said with a hitch in his voice as the nanofix worked. He could feel the gash in his arm stitching itself together. “Thanks for looking after me out there.”

“It was my pleasure!” Oriashka replied, her crest rising high. “It was interesting riding your shoulder.”

Loplum didn’t have much to say, he had stepped to the side and posted himself next to the door. The third figure was another Veprutasian. To him the crow looked like any other, the only difference been a web of circuitry visible along their arms and a pouch hanging of the birds waist.

“Hello Chase,” the Vep spoke, revealing her gender. Her voice was impressively high pitched, although not quite like that of a child. “How is the nanofix treating you?”

“Incredibly itchy,” Chase told her glumly.

“Heehee, perhaps you should try not getting shot next time.”

“A good plan, I’ll give it a go.”

She turned to look at Piderby. “I like this one.”

“I also like Chase,” the Gerlen agreed. “he is important.”

“Oh,” her voice perked up. “In that case, I should take a sample!”

“Uhh…” Chase spoke up. “Not to sound ungrateful, but may I ask your name, and why do you need a sample?”

The female crow fixed a golden eye on him. “Oh, I am Dr. Uoah Dunah. Most call me Dunah. As for taking a sample? Generalized nanofix is an old problem long solved for Humans, but if you take any serious injuries then you will need a specialized formula.”

“Oh, well I have to admit that sounds like a good reason.”

“Heehee,” she chuckled, taking his hand in her long fingers.

It was pretty awkward for him to watch, laying on his stomach like he was. The Veprutasian wings had always looked relatively cumbersome to him. The Leralin having separate arms and wings seemed much more effective. At least Dunah’s fingers were actually that, proper fingers extending from the last proper joint of her wing. Not magical feathers that acted like hands.

The circruity along her arms extended to those fingers and she ran them across his arm before finding a suitable spot. Dunah jabbed his arm with a pair of talons.

“OW!” Chase complained.

“Oh don’t worry, I’ll give you some more nanofix.”

“We were just talking about ways to avoid using that!”

“Heehee.”

“Well, rest up Chase,” Pid said, cutting into the conversation. “There will be a group meeting in a few hours, we have to talk about the future.”

“Will do Pid.”

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Umbra
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“We have to rethink our destination.”

That wasn’t what he wanted to hear upon entering the cockpit. Trips was getting to the end of his shift and Patches was settling in to take over and monitor the ship. Umbra walked up behind the pair of them. Patches had spoken in response to the door opening. Then again, Patches had called him up.

“Why do you say so?” Umbra asked.

“I’m taking readings of power consumption,” Patches explained. “And there is clearly some damage done. We’re leaking power.”

“Sorry Commander, but because of me, we’re not making it to The Scab.”

Umbra’s head dropped slightly, “And what do you suggest Patches?”

“Well, there is a binary star system not far along our path that we could stop at. That’ll give us a bunch of gravity wells we can borrow for spinning up the wave drive.”

“So it would be an inexpensive place to stop and have the repair drones check the damage,” Umbra reasoned.

“Exactly. From there we can do some quick repairs and then it’ll be easier to change our destination if we have to.”

“And yet you specifically note this is a good stopover. Do I need to explain the risk? Are we certain this is a good idea when our scattering coat is compromised?”

“Well, our wave drive won’t make a big enough splash upon arrival for most anyone to notice. It’s unlikely someone will look our way. Then we can just make sure to point the hole away from likely hiding spots to keep the heat spot out of sight.”

“You certain this will work?” Umbra asked suspiciously.

Patches wasn’t someone to let a problem hang out though. “Well, there’s a risk, but we’re gonna have to stop somewhere and the longer we go the worse our options will become. It’s only one spot that we’ve struck, from any other angle the scattering coat will still blur our signature.”

Chugs arrived as Umbra was mulling it over. “Time to go Trips.”

“Ahhh, finally!” Trips got out of the seat and stretched his arms behind him.

Chugs took over the seat. “How is it looking Patches?” he asked redundantly, he could just as easily look himself.

“We are trying to decide on that right now.”

“Oh, that good is it.”

Trips vacated the cockpit in a hurry as the conversation progressed. Umbra knew Trips was all torn up by the crash. The more he heard, the worse he’d feel.

“Very well,” Umbra decided out loud. “Adjust our course. We will stop and inspect the damage.”

“What did I miss?” Chugs asked.

After some quick entries into the console, Patches began explaining. Umbra left the cockpit and went back to sitting in his room. Where they couldn’t ask him questions.

There Umbra sat for the next few hours, letting his mind run in circles. Finally he dozed off, only to be awoken just after as Yin called him over the dataspace comms. “We’re arriving soon. Probably best to be alert in case of trouble.”

“Affirmative,” Umbra sent back, blinking the sleep out of his eyes.

He grabbed a quick snack out of a closet across from the bed and then crossed the hall to the washroom to do his business. Umbra found himself staring at his reflection. A form not unlike that of a Human. Bipedal with paired binocular eyes. Similarly placed but simpler eyes, nose, ears and mouth to the Humans as well. He had more in common with the Humans than most other races. And he’d just gone and betrayed the first ones to try and make friends.

Well, he hadn’t met very many to begin with, but the point stood...

The cloth wrap, the bandana, was still on his head.

Umbra reached up and pulled the bandana off. It was a surprisingly dense piece of cloth. The mesh made thick enough to deflect minor cuts. “Gotta protect the noggin’,” Daniel had laughed.

The grey pallor in his skin made him look like a cheap copy. Much like the difference between a hand made good and a grey composite object. “Big head of yours didn’t do you any good did it?” he asked softly of himself.

With a sigh, he left the room and headed to the cockpit. He could hear a subtle shift in the humming of the drive. Umbra arrived with a couple minutes to spare.

“Hey boss,” Chugs greeted as Umra entered the cockpit. At least the rest of the Gerlen didn’t seem to be holding a grudge. Except for Yin, but he disliked everyone in general, except for Yang. Chugs continued to speak. “Just coming in now, we will be riding the gravity well soon.”

Umbra nodded, then activated the vessel space comms. “If any of you are napping, it’s time to wake up. We’re coming in for our stop and there’s always the chance for trouble.”

Umbra put his consciousness into the vessel spectre mode. The ship was still experiencing the white glow typical of ftl travel. When the relative speed of the vessel shifted so that they could see the leftover radiation of the cosmic birth shift into a visible spectrum. It still unnerved him to see the all encompassing light.

And finally the shuttle slowed down enough for the light to shift back into invisible radiation. At the same time streaks of starlight began to appear as they dropped to intersystem speeds.

It was a binary system as described by Patches. A pair of suns spun in close proximity in the center of the system. There were no inner planets, but it did possess several outer planets and a couple gas giants. None of the planets even approached habitable. Nothing but cold airless rocks and violent cloudy storms. Maybe a couple of the gas giant moons would pretend to be habitable, but there were no established stations visible to them to suggest this to be true.

A ship could build a wave to travel with any common wave drive. But bigger engines and ships built a bigger wave with greater ease. On top of that the wave was easier, and cheaper, to build if one could borrow a significant gravity well to get them started. For a small shuttle like theirs, the energy savings was worth seeking out.

The binary stars seemed somewhat lonely in the center of this system. The next body of material was quite some distance out, past the asteroid field marking the beginning of the more stable zone of the star system. Perhaps the remains of aborted inner planets. That was where the shuttle headed first.

“Anything move when we arrived?” Umbra asked, a hint of tension in his voice.

“Nothing on these sensors,” Yang replied. “If someone’s there, they probably didn’t see our little drop in the pond.”

“Even if a shuttle is hard to spot, let us remain vigilant.”

Yang nodded sagely. “Will do boss. I’m sure we aren’t alone here, don’t think I wanna meet the locals either.”

“Drones are out and looking!” Yin sent from the engine room.

Umbra hooked into the vessel space. Normally one would only see a simulation of the shuttle in spectre mode, but with the drones out, an actual visual could be obtained.

The impact had been impressive when they’d caught the edge of the hangar. And the damage was not to be ignored either. They’d ripped a panel of hull off the back of the shuttle near the engines. The open hull revealed cabling and components also damaged by the impact. Even now there was a visible arc of power on an exposed conduit. One drone closed in to immediately begin closing an opened circuit. The second retreated into a compartment below the cabins that would typical hold emergency paneling and materials.

“Estimates show that we can probably close the hole,” Yin noted from the back. “But the the patch will be thin, any atmospheric travel will have to be slow.

“I’m doing a passive scan of nearby asteroids to see if we can find anything simple to process,” Pockets added. “If not we might have to stop somewhere nearby and see if they like any of the gadgets we were able to take with us.”

“Well then,” Umbra started. “We will continue shifts as planned before. Two on watch, two at rest, two on standby. Get comfortable, this trip will be longer than expected.”

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Rob
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She was so dead asleep Cynthia didn’t respond to him rolling out of bed. Out of bed and onto the hover laying on the floor next to their bed. As usual, Rob had left the wireless band right where his right hand would land. He took a moment to wrap it around his neck and plug in. Once he was good, Rob activated the hover.

It was pretty late, but Rob couldn’t sleep anymore. Cynthia was still out of it at least.

She had retained a little bit of her time on Hrossincru. Cynthia had cried in view of all the Gerlen, but she hadn’t actually broken down into a sobbing wreck until they were tucked away in the bedroom.

Tinker designed the room large enough for Rob and his hoverchair/bed to move around with relative ease. Once he’d settled himself, it switched to chair mode while lifting into the air. Rob stretched his left arm behind the chair to the nightstand now behind him. Grabbing Cynthia’s band he leaned sideways to place it next to her hand in case she woke up.

From there it was out the wide door, through the vacant living room they never used and then the front door. It was late in the night and Rob couldn’t sleep.

First Rob went to the dining hall. The eaten side of the building yawned wide in the dark of night, illuminating the area. The lights had been left on, and a couple Gerlen were awake. Mute and Chatters were up, playing a quiet game of cards. Mute looked up and nodded, his eyes full of sympathy. Rob nodded and floated over to a cupboard next to the serving counter. Sidling up sideways he was able to grab it with his right arm and swing the door outwards. Meal balls and water bottles. Those now ubiquitous meal balls kept for a good period of time.

The lower shelf held a bunch of containers, he gathered some food, grabbed a bottle and headed out towards the crater.

Rick hadn’t actually left the crater. The Ooze who looked like a Human had only wandered about the area, although Tinker had set a couple Gerlen guards on the Sapient. Rob imagined they were taking turns as well, changing up with other Gerlen.

He floated up to the suit, Rick was standing before it.

“Hello Rob,” Rick greeted.

Rob knew it was hard to hear him moving about in his chair. Rick had good senses. “Hello Rick.”

“Come to inspect your suit?”

“That too.”

Rob put a hand on the shoulder on the thing as he looked at it. Mason, and perhaps Rick, had given it a utilitarian, almost military style frame, although elements of it seemed familiar to Rob. Bundles of cable ‘muscles’ rested between plates of dark composite. It was reminiscent of typical sci-fi movie fare. The thighs, chest and upper arms all had plates that flipped open to allow Rob to get in. The suit lacked a head, but he could see something resembling the collar Otto had installed on several of the harnesses. But what was it that was so familiar...

“Oh,” Rob said as he realized. “There are parts similar to the Gerlen ‘giants’.”

“Yes,” Rick replied. “Although enlarged and greatly rearranged for your sake. Those Giants were part of their suit, you only have to wear yours.”

Rob parked his seat next to the suit and eyeballed the thing standing open and empty. He looked at Rick. “This thing is gonna fall over if I try to get into it like this.”

“You were able to control a single drone, correct?” Rick asked. “The suit is wired only at this point, you can hook up and take it somewhere more comfortable.”

“Hmm, I guess so,” Rob turned the chair to face Rick. “But first I have a question, maybe a few.”

It was still difficult to see Rick clearly in the dark of night. They had illumination from nearby buildings but it wasn’t quite enough. The ‘Ooze’ faced Rob and tilted his head. “Yes?

“Well, the most important one first. Mason is a part of you, you said. Is it possible to talk to him?”

Rick shifted in the dark, and his posture took on a familiar cant. Rick had shrunk slightly in a way that was familiar to Rob. Mason had often done that when it came his turn to go out on ship explorations before the crash. Mason hadn’t wanted to put himself in the line of fire.

“What’s wrong?” Rob asked and Rick twitched with surprise.

“Mason is in here, but I can’t bring him out on a whim.”

“Why not?”

“Because I am still processing and recording.”

Rob leaned forward in his chair. “Processing how? Actually, I’m more interested in just what it was that Mason did for you.”

Rick sat down on the ground. “The Ooze was created by accident, and it's unstable by its very nature,” Rick looked up to Rob. “Many systems, machines and programs often have key components that are required to make them… feasible. We have been depending on the Silianisca to fill one of those components.”

“The dragons?”

Rick’s head twitched and he stood up. His head lifted in a way that was clearly condescending, staring down his nose at Rob. For a moment, it was like he was an entirely different person. “Silianisca decided there was enough to exploit with the Ooze. They introduced the control methods and use iterations of myself to build, work and manage special facilities.”

“Okay...,” the sudden change of attitude caused Rob to recoil slightly, but he wasn’t done with the conversation. “So why is Mason important?”

Rick’s head drifted sideways and he held his hands oddly near his chest. Another strange posture shift? Rob was used to watching and assessing posture, stance and motion, so it stood out to him.

“The thing I was missing, was the ability to... let go,” Rick finally started explaining.

Rob flinched, that struck far too close to home. But the Ooze was looking away and Rick was launching into his explanation with gusto.

“All the Silianisca did was prevent us from eating. But that core impetus within me still required that I eat and consume all available material. It was not intended to be that way, but that was how it all shook out,” he whipped around to face Rob, stepping up close to the man and putting his hands on the side of Rob’s chair. “I’m still… ‘hungry’ but I’ve always been ‘hungry’. The important thing is that now I can make the choice to say no!” he whipped around, walking away as he continued ranting. “I’ve never been able to give up on anything I’ve absorbed! It has always been the the goal to simply add more, never to give up. I could convert it to something else, but as long as it remained part of me, that was still compatible with ‘eating everything’.”

Rob listened, mildly stunned but the sudden outpouring. How long had Rick kept this all bottled up?

Rick whipped around again, “Mason has given me agency. Tinker called me ‘a plague, a hazard of the highest order’ and he was right. I have acquired,” he said with a sneer, “very few new lives, but the ones in the beginning are countless and still resound. But now rather than be leashed and hope that maybe something could change, now I can just BE.”

Rob decided to let that lie for the moment. “Who else is in your head, how many are in there?”

Rixiniux turned to face Rob. “Mason makes the fourth.”

“Fourth?”

“Yes, a Human woman named Tove, a Siliniscan Elder named Orota, a Veprutasian Male named Lawkin and then Mason.”

“Only four? And a Human woman, how long ago was that?”

“Well, Tove happened during my birth. She was a slave on the planet of my origin, approximately 800 years of yours before now,” Rick was hesitant as he spoke. “As I am essentially a spontaneous SI, there has been notable drift in old memories. The serpentine Silianisca known as Orotal joined myself roughly… twelve years after that, and Lawkin another seven. I am attempting to convert to Human years of course.”

Rob mulled over that for a minute. “That’s a really long time ago since you’ve picked up another… person,” he reasoned. “That seems kinda weird.”

Rick paused and turned to look at the suit. “Well, one must consider the nature of circumstance and paths untaken,” He glanced at Rob. “How often do you think it is that a cracked Human also becomes a Cracker, and then escapes their own bonds?”

Rob blinked.

“I hesitate to say it has even happened before. Once a remarkable new path has been set, everything to come after can be considered ‘new’ as well,” Rick noted. “I would be surprised if other instances of myself have not come across new minds compatible with the whole. But considering an Ooze is rarely left far from methods of control and neutralization, the real problem is getting away from what even I consider to be understandable retribution. No one has been foolish enough to hold onto an Ooze without a control method on hand as well. Also unfortunately, accidents seem inevitable around untrained humans”

“So for Mason, when and how can we meet him then?” Rob continued to press the point.

“When and how to meet Mason?” Rick look up and right, another human gesture. “I am making the effort to pull myself together. Given the projected return date of your other companions, I might be able to fulfill that wish before then.”

“And if not?”

“Then I will simply have to return to my primary instance. This is something I must do, but I promise not to escape and take prime assets when I go as well.”

Rob sighed and his shoulders dropped. Tinker had mentioned it quietly in passing, but he hadn’t wanted to think about Umbra and the small group that had taken the shuttle. He and Tinker had carefully kept that little bit of information from Cynthia for the time being.

“Why is your body so flimsy? And you still haven’t quite explained why Mason can’t come out.”

It was Rick’s turn to flinch. “When I stay that I’m still unstable, that means that I’m not in full control.”

“You aren’t?”

“You saw my arm, it was mostly hollow,” Rick stared at his hand. “I have very little… Ooze to me. I’m depending on this manufactured body.” He looked up at Rob. “This body is much like your suit, made to carry the Ooze that is me. If I hadn’t reduced myself to such a low amount, I could not depend on steady self control. I’m also using it to help bolster my mental faculties with so little self to work with. That accident crushed key control components. I will be slowly building up how much I have to me, but I must be careful.”

“So you might still go ballistic.”

Rick sighed in a way that very much resembled Mason again. “Yes, I am still a danger.”

“I think… I think that’s enough for now Rick. I need to…”

“I understand, I am sorry I cannot currently help you,” the tone of Ricks voice suggested he really meant that.

Rob just left the Ooze behind.

Rixiniux continued to keep the neglected suit company.

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End Chapter
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