“Change of Fortune” — Episode 08
by Michael Azzolino
Arven played the recording again. “That’s the best loop-fake I’ve ever heard in my life. It totally fooled me.” He thought. He closed his eyes, considering the validity of his discovery. Arven was an extremely visual person. He often used visual cues to remember things and manage his thoughts. He imagined two columns in his mind. One he called “questions” and the other “answers.” He marveled at the disproportion between the two and felt ashamed. His head felt like it would explode, but he could not afford the luxury of pain. His psyche craved equilibrium and only answers would provide it. He began to feel claustrophobic in the cramped space and couldn’t stare at the screen any longer.
He crawled to the nearest ladder and ascended to the next level. Opening the first hatch he found gave him access to a hallway outside of the crew quarters. “Good enough place to start searching,” he thought, crossing the passage and slipping inside the open doorway. He recognized this style of cargo ship and expected to see rows of bunks inside. Arven found no bunks or beds of any kind here. Instead, he discovered dozens of stasis chambers lined up against the walls. This type of equipment is only utilized by the Binox. The Binox were a purely artificial species. They were entirely non-biological with the exception of their brains and nervous systems, which were grown in laboratory dishes. Arven was unaware of any ship in Known Space with an entire complement of Binox serving on it. Most of the units were vacant, but not all of them. He needed to be very careful moving through this space. He crept quietly forward a few steps.
The lights came on to full illumination. Bright. Arven blinked, shading his eyes from the overhead floods. Their movement synchronous, exiting the alcoves and rushing toward him. They were fast! Really damn fast. One grabbed him by his upraised wrist and spun him in place, as a second tied up his legs from behind. The third stepped up and deployed a cloud of yellow gas in Arven’s face. It smelled like spun sugar and left the taste of copper in his mouth.
“I told him that this was a bad idea. Leadership is supposed to have its privileges. But he insisted on being the ‘boots on the ground’ despite the risks. Fuck, this better work!” He poured the dark contents of a small glass beaker into a funnel attached to a length of glass tubing in the shape of a corkscrew. It combined with the other liquids marinating inside a central cylinder. He grabbed the handle on the front of the unit. A bright sound, like striking a tuning fork, filled the room as he lifted it from its base. He turned the container on its side and slotted the entire unit into another piece of nearby equipment. Once locked in place with a mechanical slide, the device began pumping the concoction into several empty, staged hypo-syringes. He removed one once it was full. For a moment, his cybernetic fingertip could almost feel the sensation of warmth from the glass cylinder. He held it up to the light, admiring the golden color of the chemical cocktail.
“I am unprepared for an outcome where his plan fails.” He turned to face his PAL. A stuttering, gender-neutral, compassionate entity called Essarae. During periods of high emotion or stress, the stuttering worsened. They had been together for many cycles. As time passed, he lost patience with their interactions and rarely invited the PAL to share space with him anymore.
“If he is not fully restored, we have only one option. That will make you the le-leader of Shadow Company. I know it’s not what you wa-wa-want, but based on probability….” The PAL paused.
“Don’t Essarae! Not one more Oracle-damned word about it going sour or I’ll put you back in the box until it’s all over!” They remained silent while he prepared several more injections.
Arven woke up in a small room with a table and the one chair he was sitting in. The wall in front of him was completely reflective, like a mirror. He lifted his head from the table and noticed two of his Binox captors standing at attention behind him. He tried to shake the cobwebs from his mind. His hands and feet were not restrained. The guards acknowledged that he was awake with snappy salutes. One of them had an odd smirk on its face that made Arven feel even more uneasy.
“What’s going on? How did I get here? I didn’t stow-away on this vessel, I was ‘napped and woke up in your cargo hold.” Arven’s questions made the guards visibly uncomfortable. They shifted nervously in place and looked at each other, but did not answer. “Silent treatment, huh?” Arven turned his attention back to his reflection, “Is someone behind the glass going to tell me what’s going on?”
He stood up, pushing the chair a few feet away and stepped closer to his reflection. The Binox did nothing to stop him. He tried to imagine the villain concealed behind the glass, but was distracted by his own haggard appearance looking back at him.
“It is an honor to serve you, Sir,” the smirking guards blurted out unexpectedly. Arven peered at the guard’s reflection, trying to consider the meaning behind its statement. The guard’s tone and expression seemed genuine, but the words made no sense.
“To serve me? What did you mean by that?” Arven inquired, turning around to face the guard. The one who spoke looked flustered.
“That’s quite enough, sailor!” Barked an electronically altered voice over the comms. “Please have a seat Commander. I will provide you with answers to your questions. Understand that what I’m about to tell you will be difficult to process. You are in no danger. You have only allies here. Try to remain calm.”
Arven began triangle breathing, the technique Zebb taught him to manage his anxiety. “Great Oracle’s mustache Zebb, what have you done to me?!” He returned to his seat at the table.
“Guards, prepare him for the next injection.” Arven did not like the sound of that, but chose for now not to resist it. The Binox moved to either side of him. One of them held a hypo-syringe filled with a swirling colorful liquid. The other rolled up the sleeve of Arven’s flight suit and cleaned the injection site with an antiseptic liquid. It stung a bit. Arven glanced down at his arm. There were several small puncture wounds. They were swollen and red, like insect bites.
“The drugs being administered were designed to chemically restore the natural memory centers in your brain. Your engrams were deliberately altered. A process made possible when you risked taking the original injections over a cycle ago. You are not Arven Tuttle. That identity was constructed as part of a very complicated SC operation, for which you were the architect.”
The speaker’s microphone made an audible ‘clunk’. His arm suddenly burned like fire. Lacking any measure of bedside manner, the Binox jammed the hypo deep into Arven’s flesh. He couldn’t see the needle, but he could certainly feel it.
Arven, or whoever he was, clenched his teeth together. The pain was somewhere between lava and nut butter flowing in his veins. It was intense, but at that moment, he felt alive. He couldn’t recall the last time he felt this way. Tinnitus-like ringing returned louder than usual. The other Binox said something, but its words were lost in flowing currents of whining treble.
“Not again!” he cried out. “Stay present Tuttle, or whatever the hell my name is!” He opened his eyes unusually wide, fighting off the surrounding darkness that threatened to take him.
“Relax Otto! Breathe. Breathe. Just like I taught you. Don’t panic. This will pass. It hurts like hell, doesn’t it?! That’s on you, Bub. I begged you not to go through with this, but you never were very good at listening to good advice.” At first it was the same voice as before, deep and altered via sound processing. But after just a couple words, it started changing. The tonality and pitch became more like his natural voice. His body shivered and convulsed. It was Zebb over the comms, he concluded. “Why did he call me Otto? Why can’t I see? Please stop flashing the lights!” Is what he wanted to say, but instead, the contents of his stomach violently relocated.
Slowly, his vision began to return. Something was very wrong with his eyes. It felt to him as though his brain was receiving information from separate simultaneous realities. Two different visual channels, each with a unique resonance frequency, and overlapping one another. The sheer volume of information his brain was perceiving, and processing was overwhelming.
“Otto, focus on my voice. Let it act as your psychic anchor. Concentrate on my words and you will not drift back into Arven.” Zebb’s voice was calm and clear. “This process must be done in stages to allow your safe separation from the construct ID. You were unconscious for the first injection. This is your second dose. There will be three more after this one.”
Forcing his eyes open, he saw two Zebbs standing before him, slightly out of alignment with each other. The left leaning Zebb was wearing a black uniform. Sections of it looked like it was made from cured hides. Gold piping ran parallel with all the seams and lines of coat and pants.
He had never seen his friend look this good before. The uniform was fitted and showed off his augmentations, rather than hiding them. He looked comfortable and confident. The right leaning Zebb was wearing his preferred overall/apron combination, the straps undone and hanging at the waist. By contrast to his counterpart, right-Zebb’s unkempt hair spilled out from under a chef’s hat, and unruly bits were tied together in a knot, held with a piece of wire and the tag from a rice sack. His nausea intensified the more he gazed at the two.
“The Oracle will damn you, Otto, if you don’t start following my instructions. Close your damn eyes and focus, you old fool!” He did as Zebb commanded. “Your name is Otto. Your callsign is One-Thumb. You and I are both founding members of the SC. The plan was to embed a deep mole into Operations at the Super Station, gaining access to classified information and early warnings to any offensive moves against us.”
He felt his friend’s cold titanium fingers touch his shoulder. He took a slow, deep breath. As he exhaled, in his mind’s eye he saw himself in the same exact uniform as left-Zebb. The only difference was his uniform had double bands of gold piping and matching gold epaulets. “I outrank him,” he thought with a momentary flash of glee. The distraction strained his concentration. The sound of Zebb’s voice suddenly seemed far away. Zebb clamped down hard on Otto’s collarbone, bringing him instantly back into the moment. “One more lap to go on this one Bub, stay with me.”
The door into this room opened and closed a moment later. Zebb began his monologue once more. “The council called you brilliant and unanimously voted to fund and implement your plan. And that’s when, of course, you decided to seize the day. Telling them that such an important and dangerous assignment must be conducted by you personally and without challenge. Both your supporters and your enemies cheered you on. Each side had much to gain, polarized by your success or your failure.”
Otto’s vitals began to stabilize and his breathing returned to normal. The pain finally subsided. He could now perceive the difference between Otto and Arven. He wasn’t particularly grounded in either, but strongly drawn to both. If everything Zebb told him was true, then Otto is his truth and Arven his lie. He felt sad, but before he could dwell on his loss, his focus on Zebb returned.
“None of the business with the Harris’ or falling in love was part of the operation. The council believed that you had somehow been compromised, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I hypothesized that you buried yourself deep to avoid detection, that you lost track of yourself. We discussed this in great length before the first shot. You outlined several situational criteria where I would execute the order to intervene, pulling you from deep cover.”
“Whose order?” Otto managed to finally speak.
“Yours,” Zebb replied.
“I outrank you?” Otto asked, his eyes closed tight.
“You outrank everyone, Boss.” He chuckled. “And for my sake, you better come back 100% reboot and verify all this or my time in Known Space may be short.”
Otto slowly opened his eyes again. Left-Zebb was the only Zebb now. Otto smiled and shook his friend’s hand, using it for leverage to stand. There was apprehension in Zebb’s gaze and Otto wondered if their friendship would be different now.
“I think you should get some rest. We’ll do the next one tomorrow.” Zebb began to stow the equipment into a portable case.
“Is that an order, Lieutenant?” The strength of Otto’s voice had returned.
“No, Sir, of course not. Merely a suggestion as your medical advisor,” he replied confidently.
“We do them now. All of them. Now. That IS an order.”
He preferred spending his holidays in wetter climates. The moist air was easier on his lungs. Perhaps the home world of the Adaro was his single-favorite place in the entire galaxy. A huge planetary body by Known Space standards, nearly 10 times the size and mass of the nearest neighboring species, the Tamarians. Only 10% of the Adaro’s planet is covered by land and 100% of that was created artificially, providing visiting species with accommodations suited for land-dwellers.
Otto transported his mega-yacht to be berthed here in the interim, expecting to put it to use upon his triumphant return to power. It was a breathtaking vessel to behold, measuring nearly 200 meters from stem to stern. It was an artistic expression in motion, a perfect form of white, steel, and glass.
Lounging on the highest deck of the ship, where the view is uncompromised, Otto gazed out at the endless waves. Beside him stood a curvaceous female PAL, shading his eyes from the harsh sun’s rays. She was absolutely glorious, he thought, just as the first day he met her.
“I could stare into the galaxy of your soul forever my dearest, Qorax.” She blushed all over, glowing slightly brighter. Otto looked back toward the ocean. “The Oracle kept true to his word. He got what he wanted and I got you.”