Chapter 11

Virgin Territory

The room was silent, save for the soft murmur of the monitors, and the occasional friendly beep.

Barth Vapour opened his eyes a crack, and squinted out at the bright white ceiling above him. It was too bright; his helmet had been removed, and with it the myriad of filters through which he normally viewed the world. He closed his eyes again and listened.

Where am I?

He reached out with his senses, feeling for the Source from which he drew his strength—and recoiled in horror. It wasn't there. What did that mean? Was he awake? Or was he just elsewhere?

He reached out again, concentrating hard on the white ceiling which was all he really knew of this place. The Source—the code which generated the virtual world of the Array—should have been there, shimmering and green. Vapour felt nothing.

And yet, something was there. He could feel it, like an itch in the back of his mind, a splinter wedged way back out of reach; he couldn't touch it, or see it, but he knew it was there.

He relaxed, allowing his consciousness to expand. One by one, he lowered the mental shields which had built up over the years.

Detecting the Source was easy once you knew how; it was like those puzzle images which just looked like white noise until you learned the correct way of looking at them, of focussing without focussing, and then the image was suddenly there and you said "Oh, a sailboat!" and went on to the next one. Some people could see them easily, and some people would never see them, no matter how long they spent staring at them. And sometimes, although you could easily lock onto an image you had already seen, a new image would require a bit more effort.

The Source was there, but it was different from the Source which Vapour had stared at for most of his life. In order to make sense of it, in order to focus, he would first need to open his mind, make himself receptive. Only by losing his focus would he regain it.

Gradually at first, creeping around the edge of his vision behind his closed eyelids, the green hiss appeared—except, he realised after a moment, it was not green at all, but blue. It registered on all senses at once; it smelled blue, it tasted blue, it felt blue. The blue hiss grew louder, like a distant wave breaking on the shore then rushing, leaping, boiling up the sand towards him. It washed over him—and there it was. The Source. The same, but very different. He could see the entire room he was in, all delineated in blue code—but the code was strange and alien, and he could not even begin to make sense of it.

It would take time before he was proficient in its use. Time during which he would be vulnerable.

The room was empty—it seemed to be a small medical bay of some kind, although the equipment was alien to Vapour, and there was no sign of the medical 'bot which would have been in attendance in an Imperial sickbay. Vapour opened his eyes. It was bright, but not as brilliant as he had first thought. Once his eyes had adjusted to the light, it seemed barely brighter than what he considered normal.

He looked around for a while without moving, taking stock of his situation. He was naked, he realised, covered only by a thin, cool sheet. Not only had they—whoever they were—removed his helmet and his stillsuit, they had apparently also removed his prosthetics. His arm was missing, and his legs—well, they had been useless anyway, the prosthetic limbs severed just above the knee in his light-rapier battle with young Lurk Splitwhisker the day before...

Before what? What had happened? He had been on the Devastator Station, the countdown to the firing of the weapon and the end of the Rebel Coalition was reaching its final seconds. Young Splitwhisker had done something, tweaked the Source in some way, and everything had gone green. Green, then black.

He took a deep breath. He blinked, and took another. The air was cool in his lungs, but something was different. The discomfort had gone, the congested feel that came from trying to breathe through scarred, damaged lungs. It was gone. His lungs appeared to be whole again.

Interesting... he thought.

He lifted his left hand to examine it, and was surprised to discover that his bright pink teddewok, Boadicea—a gift from one of the Imperator's many great grandchildren—was clutched in his tightly curled fingers. He turned her over, and read the white words across the front of her black T-shirt: STIFF HAPPENS. He grinned, briefly but savagely. Then, carefully, he placed the stuffed animal on the bed beside him, and lifted his hand to his face. He clenched his fingers into a fist, released them, clenched again. His grip felt weak, but firm.

It would be enough. It had to be.

Vapour rolled over onto his right side, pressed his hand against the mattress, and sat up.

As he did so, the friendly beep changed tone, became faster and more urgent. If anybody was monitoring him, they now knew he was awake. Vapour turned to face the door of the small room; he adjusted his sheet slightly to protect his modesty, and waited.

Time to meet his new—what? Captors? Benefactors? He would know soon enough.

The door hissed open.

Ensign Pi Larfin was deeply engrossed in her novel—an antique form of storytelling which her brother had given her as a graduation present—when the alarm sounded. She looked up at the console, and tapped the flashing light.

It was the man they had taken to calling Rip. He was awake.

Larfin tapped the communicator badge pinned to her tunic. "Pi Larfin to Doctor Brusher, please report to sick bay three; our guest is awake."

After a short pause, Doctor Cavity Brusher's voice responded: "On my way, Ensign Pi." She sounded as though she had just awakened—which, of course, was the case.

Larfin stood. Carefully she marked her place in the book, and put it away in a drawer. She tapped a couple more buttons on the console, getting a readout of Rip's status. Heartbeat was good, blood pressure good. There was some slightly unusual brain activity, but nothing to be concerned about. His blood chemistry was unchanged from earlier readings—although it was different in several key respects from the human norm.

Idly she rubbed at her nose ridge. Needless to say, the "human norm" wasn't the only standard to go by.

The outer door hissed open, and Doctor Brusher strode into the monitoring room. She was in her early forties, and the cascade of coppery hair which fell around her shoulders distracted attention from her attentive blue eyes. Like the Ensign, she wore a blue tunic; the communicator badge pinned to her tunic, midway between breast and shoulder, was the stylised logo of the United Planets Foundation.

"How is he?" she asked.

"Readings are normal, Doctor," said Larfin. "Blood chemistry has not changed."

Doctor Brusher nodded. She consulted the timepiece on her wrist, and frowned. She tapped her communicator badge. "Computer, is the Captain awake?"

"Negative, Doctor," replied the softly modulated voice of the ship. "Captain Pilchard has been asleep for four hours and seventeen minutes. Would you like me to wake him?"

"No," said the Doctor. "Please inform him when he wakes that the patient in sick bay three has come out of his coma and is conscious." She hesitated. "Also, please order a security detachment down to sick bay three." One could never be too careful.

"Confirmed," said the computer. "Message logged. A security detail is on its way."

"Well," said Doctor Brusher to Larfin, "let's go meet our guest." She picked up a medical quadricorder from the shelf where they were stored, and stepped towards the door of the private—and secure—room.

"Computer," she said, tapping her badge again, "please unlock this door."

"Confirmation required," said the computer. Its synthesised voice had not changed, but to Pi Larfin it always seemed to sound more brusque, less friendly, when demanding a security clearance code.

"Code Cavity one unlock alpha," said Doctor Brusher.

"Confirmed," said the computer. It beeped. The door hissed open.

Doctor Cavity Brusher stepped forward into the room, and Ensign Pi Larfin followed her.

Their guest was sitting up on the bed, the top sheet wrapped around his waist and draped over the stumps of his legs. He faced the two women.

Beside him, also facing them, sat the small pink teddy bear which had appeared as mysteriously as he had. Pi Larfin had the sudden eerie feeling that it was looking into her soul, judging her sins. She shuddered. She was not a particularly spiritual person, not prone to flights of fancy or superstition, so this sudden anxiety surprised her.

"Where am I?" the man demanded. His voice was deep and rich, and it made Ensign Pi feel all tingly in places which hadn't tingled in far too long. "What is this place?"

"How do you feel?" asked Doctor Brusher, ignoring his questions. She approached him, and held out the quadricorder to scan him. He glanced down at the device in her hands, his eyes narrowing. Once he decided that it was not going to do anything dangerous, he looked back up, meeting the Doctor's gaze.

"What is this place?" he repeated.

"You're safe here," she told him. "I'm Doctor Cavity Brusher, Chief Medical Officer of the USSS Ender's Prize. You are in one of my sick bays."

He stared through her for a moment, his eyes losing focus as he processed this information.

"That name means nothing to me," he said at last. "How did I get here?"

Doctor Brusher held up her hand. "Please," she said, "I'd rather you spoke to my Captain. He is keen to initiate an exchange of information."

"So I am to be interrogated," he said flatly. His eyes narrowed again.

"No, not at all," said Doctor Brusher. "We are not your enemies; however, your—presence—does raise a few questions which we would very much like to resolve."

"You are not my enemies?" he asked. "How do you know that I am not your enemy?"

"We don't," said Doctor Brusher. "Which is why the door is locked, and a security detail stands guard outside." She smiled. "Sorry, but you did ask."

"Indeed," he said.

They studied each other for a moment.

Apparently forgotten by both of them, Pi Larfin stared surreptitiously at the man. He was disfigured, of course—a triple amputee with one remaining arm—and scarred heavily, but there was something about him which fascinated her. Perhaps it was just the voice—but she sensed an aura of power around him that went beyond anything she had ever encountered. This was a man who was used to having his own way. He had the potential to be dangerous—of that, there could be no doubt—but Larfin had always been attracted to dangerous men.

"Very well," said the man. "I shall be a patient patient, and await a visit from your Captain."

"Thank you," said Doctor Brusher.

"May I ask, though, where my arm has gone?"

"Ah, yes," said the Doctor. "It is—nearby. We thought you might be..." she paused to consider her words. Finally she shrugged. "Again, I think that is a question best left to Captain Pilchard to handle."

"And my lungs? Or is that a question for your Captain too?"

"Your lungs?" The Doctor consulted her quadricorder. "Oh yes. When you—arrived—our preliminary scans revealed extensive tissue scarring which must have made it quite difficult for you to breath without your, uh, environment suit. We could not imagine any reason why you had not had the damage repaired long ago—but by the same token, we could not imagine any reason to leave the injury untended. The tissue regenerator repaired most of the damage; it is estimated your lung capacity is now almost back to one hundred percent." She looked him in the eye. "I hope this has not caused any offence?"

He raised one eyebrow—Larfin thought the gesture looked very Hephaestan—and shook his head. "Offence? No. You have my thanks—something I have not given in a long time. I have not breathed without discomfort in over twenty years."

"You are welcome," said the Doctor. "In fact, it was Ensign Pi here who guided the regenerator."

Larfin blinked in embarrassment at the sudden attention.

"Thank you, young lady," said the man in his deep, deep voice.

"My p-p-pleasure," stammered Larfin. She felt her cheeks flush hotly; a flutter of excitement stirred deep in her belly.

"May we ask your name?" asked the Doctor.

"I am..." the man began. He trailed off thoughtfully, then continued: "My name is Mannequin Splitwhisker."

Larfin felt a sudden, terrible urge to burst out laughing. Splitwhisker? She clapped her hand over her mouth and pinched her nose tightly. She felt her eyes begin to water.

The man—Mannequin Splitwhisker—was looking at her. She thought she might die of embarrassment, and she struggled to regain control.

"Sorry," she said after what felt like an eternity, but could not have been more than a couple of seconds. "I felt a sneeze coming on."

"Indeed," said Mannequin. His tone suggested that he knew exactly what she was thinking, and that he had seen her reaction many times before.

"Go take a shot of anti-histamines, Ensign," ordered Doctor Brusher brusquely, and Larfin cringed. She knew that the Doctor was the butt of more than a few jokes—most involving dentistry—because of her own name, and that she would not be particularly sympathetic to Larfin's excuses.

"It's okay, Doctor," said Larfin meekly. "It has passed now. Sorry."

"Very well," said the Doctor, her eyes narrowing briefly. "But we must go now anyway." She turned back to Mannequin. "I would recommend getting some sleep, Mister Splitwhisker," she said. "It will be several hours yet before Captain Pilchard is ready to see you. The Ender's Prize is currently in the middle of its night cycle."

Mannequin nodded. "Sleep would be—desirable. Thank you."

Cavity Brusher turned and shooed Larfin out of the small room. The Ensign stepped through into the monitoring room. There were two burly men—dressed in the red tunics of Security—standing impassively against the outer door. She nodded to them and smiled; true to their profession, they stared straight through her.

Doctor Brusher paused in the doorway and looked over her shoulder at Mannequin. "This door will, of course, be locked," she told him. "I'm sure you will understand that we do not mean our precautions as a personal judgement against you."

Larfin heard him reply: "In your position, I would doubtless do the same. Good night, Doctor Brusher."

"Good night, Mister Splitwhisker," said the Doctor. She stepped through the doorway, and the door hissed closed behind her. "Computer, lock this door; code Cavity one unlock alpha."

"Confirmed," said the computer.

"What was that, Ensign?" said Doctor Brusher sternly.

"I'm sorry, Doctor, I was nervous and I just couldn't help myself and it won't happen again," said Larfin, her words tumbling over each other in their haste to escape from her mouth.

"I expect a certain level of professionalism from my ensigns," said the Doctor.

"Yes Doctor," said Larfin. She met the Doctor's stare.

Satisfied, Doctor Brusher nodded. "Okay, no harm done. And you're right, there is something—imposing—about him." She glanced at her timepiece. "Your shift is up in about three hours. Monitor him, make sure he remains stable."

"Yes Doctor," said Larfin.

"I'll leave the Security detail here in case he causes any trouble," continued the Doctor, "but I doubt we'll hear a peep out of him tonight."

Larfin nodded.

"I'm going back to bed. Good night, Ensign Pi."

"Good night, Doctor Brusher."

Barth Vapour, Hard Lord of the Stiff, gazed at the door thoughtfully as it closed behind the two women.

During their conversation, he had cautiously extended his feelings, exploring the nuances of this alien yet familiar Source which surrounded him. It behaved in ways subtly different to anything he had seen before; so far those subtleties eluded him, but it was only a matter of time before he regained his full mastery. Until then he could look, but not touch.

Doctor Brusher's code had shown all the signs of a strong-minded, strong-willed woman. Even once he learned how to apply his Stiff abilities in this new place, she would not be easily manipulated. The Source could be used to subvert the will of the weak-minded; she would be a tough nut to crack. In fact, he suspected that she hid much of herself—both physically and psychically—behind masks of her own making, which made him wonder whether she was used to spending time around Source-sensitive people. She was a woman who would not give up her secrets easily.

The young Ensign, on the other hand—oh, she was a delight. All her thoughts and emotions seethed and roiled just beneath the surface, easy to read. Fear, fascination, lust—that last had surprised him; it had been a long time indeed since he had inspired lust in anyone—all were right there, on display for anybody sensitive enough to see them. He had been tempted to caress her emotions through the Source, but had been surprised to discover that his voice alone had been more than enough to distract her and throw her into turmoil. Part of her wanted him. Part of her mind wanted him, too, and he knew she would dream of him when she finally slept.

Vapour knew from long experience that his birth-name had the potential to evoke amusement. His childhood had not been a happy one. When Doctor Cavity Brusher—she should be a dentist, his mind interjected—had asked him his name, he had tossed out 'Mannequin Splitwhisker' to see what reaction it got. He had not been disappointed. Doctor Brusher had not reacted at all—he suspected she was probably inured to such petty details as an embarrassingly awful name—and young Ensign Pi had barely held back a giggle.

Ah yes, just delightful. He looked forward to having some fun with her before he left this place.

He wasn't entirely sure where this place was, of course, but from what he knew of the Array, and what he had seen so far, he assumed he was in a simulation other than his own. The Array was an artificial reality, generated by the Source and imposed upon humanity by the Machines for reasons unknown. What was known was that there were multiple simulations running, each based upon some particular form of popular culture borrowed from humanity's own 'Golden Age'—and that finally, after several centuries, the boundaries were beginning to blur.

He didn't know how it had happened, but Barth Vapour was in virgin territory: where no Stiff had gone before.