PLUG IN BABY
So yeah, this is a story born of my lifelong love for space opera, and my somewhat more recent, but quite all-consuming, love of the band Muse. So each chapter will be titled after a lyric from a Muse song, haha. And be warned, there will be some explicit content.
I have the entire story planned and seven chapters written as of now. I'll try to update fairly regularly, but no promises. It all depends on reader interest, so review, fave, and/or follow (or do all three!) if you want to see more.
Far away, this ship has taken me far away
Far away from the memories
Of the people who care if I live or die
- "Starlight," Muse
Chapter 1: This Ship Has Taken Me Far Away
Lieutenant Commander Frank Langley stood in the atrium of Starbase M317789, hands clasped behind his back and gazing at the stars.
A great dome covered the roof of the atrium, supported by near-invisible nanofiber spokes. Through it, the deep black of space and the cold pinpricks of the stars loomed high above him, so sharp and bright he might as well have been outside on a spacewalk. Even better, the atrium walls could cycle through varying levels of opaque and clear; right now Frank had set them to maximum clearness.
The stars surrounded him on all sides, endless. Dizzying.
He revolved slowly on the spot, arms spread. From the bar at the other side of the atrium, the bartender shot him a funny look—or at least Frank thought it was a funny look. He couldn't really tell with these little Mytakkians. For all the world, they looked like meter-tall lumps of rock with beady black eyes and knobbly arms, no legs.
Weird creatures, but kind of cute. They were the only sentient species that populated the planet of Mytakk, around which the Starbase (which he'd nicknamed "Emma") orbited. A lonely planet at the very frontier of the Empire, constantly plagued by pirates and bandits, and with only sporadic contact with the rest of the Empire.
Until today, at least.
Frank stopped his revolving—he was getting kind of queasy—and checked the time. It appeared in blinking red numbers at the corner of his vision. 0813 Mytakk time. The rest of his retinal display was minimalistic, displaying only a map of the starbase and one or two status reports from the few soldiers he commanded. Here, they didn't have access to the stellarnet. The base relied on its own internal system.
0813. So the starbase's newest addition wouldn't arrive for another twenty minutes at least. Plenty of time.
To his left, a door whooshed open and somebody came running in. Even before Frank looked, he already knew who the person was—he could tell from the sound of their very loud wheezing. "Oh, hi, Prakash," he said.
"There you are, Langley!" Dr. Prakash Singh groaned, hands on his knees and panting. "Ran all over Emma looking for you, but of course you'd be here—shit! Change the walls back, asshole!"
Prakash had finally looked up—and he hadn't liked what he'd seen. Frank sighed, but hey, a green tinge had crept into Prakash's skin so he figured he'd better make sure his friend didn't puke. He walked over to the wall, rested his hand on its cold surface, and tapped his fingers on it in the sequence that restored the opacity.
A faint sense of regret rose inside Frank as he stared at the blank gray wall again, only a few shades lighter than the dreary Periphery Navy uniform that he wore. He didn't understand why Prakash hated space so much. For his part, Frank thought he'd die if he didn't lay eyes on something vast and distant and wild at least once a day.
"Anyway, what're you doing here, Prakash? Don't tell me we're low on freeze-dried fruit rations or something, because the next shipment's not due till—"
"No, I'm saying that sensors detected a Navy starship, a N'zurra-class light transport, approaching from Imperial space. It should arrive in, oh, I don't know, five minutes or so?"
"What? But I thought—"
"Nope." Prakash slapped Frank on the shoulder, hard, and then a huge grin broke out across his face. "Looks like we're getting our puppet early."
As Frank joined the personnel waiting in Docking Port A2, he wondered what their puppet would be like. Back when he'd attended the Academy in the Empire's Center, he'd seen his share of puppets, who looked like people—humans, Chesbennings, Nolians, Grissians, mostly—with funny-colored hair and eyes, but he hadn't interacted with them much. Had in fact taken them for granted, until he had been transferred to the Periphery and learned just how difficult life was without a steady stellarnet connection.
In an Empire this huge, you needed some form of faster-than-light communication. That was the stellarnet. And the stellarnet was maintained by puppets, psionically augmented organic robots (that was the official description at least). If there wasn't a puppet somewhere in the vicinity of a few miles, you couldn't connect to the stellarnet. You were blind to the goings-on in the rest of the Empire.
No wonder life at the Periphery was so lonely. Frank had never known until now.
Frank lounged against the docking port door, hands in his pockets. A few months ago, when the last supply ship had arrived, the puppet onboard had relayed a simple message to Frank: PUPPET SHIPMENT TO STARBASE M317789 ON IMPERIAL DATE 1.22.359992. And now the date had arrived.
Prakash stood beside him, shifting impatiently from foot-to-foot; the next highest ranking officer aboard Emma, Lieutenant Issamy Ywin, a tall female Nolian with mint-green skin, stood to Frank's left. The docking port was a nodule that jutted from the side of the space station's outermost ring. The door behind Frank led out to the stations' corridors, while the heavy airlock at the nodule's far end was where the docking ship would connect.
The nodule shuddered—the ship had docked—and a few moments later, the airlock hissed and slid open. The nodule's sprinklers sprayed aerosol disinfectant, then somebody stepped onto the riveted metal floor before Frank.
He saluted. A slim young man, human for all appearances, but the hair peeking from under his cap was a shocking shade of blue, as bright and clear as the sky. And his eyes, hidden behind glasses (actual glasses! Frank had never seen anyone wear glasses outside of historical drama programs), were the same shade.
His expression was impassive, his hand held to his forehead at a stiff angle. He wore a Navy uniform, Frank realized. Dark blue, with a high collar, epaulettes, and peaked cap. The Center variant officer's uniform.
As Frank stared, the young man's pouty mouth turned down in a frown and his eyebrows drew closer together. Then he heard a cough and realized that Issamy had saluted, though she looked about as perplexed as him. Heat flooding his face, Frank snapped his hand up.
At least Prakash wasn't violating any procedure, since as a civilian he didn't need to salute. Lucky bastard.
But still! By all appearances, this young man was a puppet. Frank had even seen puppets like him before—slim, pale, blue-haired human males. Then why was he wearing a military uniform? Frank had never seen a puppet wear anything besides their usual costume of a skintight suit covered with psionic amplifiers, blinking bright lights like dozens of eyes.
"Lieutenant Junior Grade Zerachiel," the puppet said, his voice quiet but laden with distaste, "reporting fit for duty, sir."
And he even held a rank. Frank's eyes slipped to the two black pins on the puppet's collar, and forced himself to say, "Lieutenant Commander Frank Langley. And this is my first officer, Lieutenant Issamy Ywin. Uh...welcome aboard Starbase M...M." (He didn't remember the string of numbers.) "Lieutenant."
He dropped the salute. Issamy and the puppet—no, Lieutenant Zerachiel—followed suit.
Zerachiel's eyes narrowed. "This starbase is called M317789, sir."
"Yeah, I knew that," Frank said quickly. Behind him, Prakash snorted.
"May I be allowed to report to my quarters?" Zerachiel said. "Or are you going to give me a tour, sir?"
He had a bag with him, Frank noticed. Surprisingly small. But then, he supposed a puppet didn't need that many things.
"Wait, waitwaitwait!" And then Prakash shoved his way forward, stepping in Frank's way. Thankfully Prakash was about a head shorter than him, so Frank's view wasn't blocked. "First things first. We have to set up a stellarnet connection, right?"
Zerachiel's frown deepened. Damn, his lips were surprisingly full and soft-looking...and Frank mentally slapped himself for thinking such things about a puppet.
"Right? I'm the, um, the chief science consultant aboard Em...Starbase M," Prakash said, waving his hands around like he did whenever he was flustered. "So if you'll just tell me what I need to do..."
"That won't be necessary." Zerachiel started walking, his boots clicking against the metal floor. "You see, I'm not here to set up a stellarnet connection."
"What?" Prakash practically squawked. Even Frank jumped, surprise lancing through him.
"But that's why you're here, isn't it?" Issamy demanded.
"Incorrect, sir." Zerachiel continued walking. He passed Prakash and was almost level with Frank now. So close... And he was so short. Barely went up to Frank's shoulder. "You see, I was assigned to Starbase M317789 as Commander Langley's aide-de-camp. That is all. Nothing more, nothing else."
And he walked past Frank, passing so close that his elbow brushed Frank's side. Something leaped through Frank's stomach at the touch, and twisted.
"My aide-de-camp?" Frank echoed. His voice sounded like it was coming from far away, not his own mouth.
"That is correct, sir." Zerachiel kept walking, heading toward the nodule door.
"B-but the stellarnet—" Prakash sputtered.
"I am not connected to the Puppet Network, so you see, I cannot lend Starbase M317789 a stellarnet connection. Do forgive me in that regard."
He had quite a strong Center accent, Frank noticed dully—almost strong enough to be the characteristic accent of Imperia, the seat of the Empire's government. Clipped and precise and enunciated carefully. Frank focused on the accent, on the sounds, as opposed to the words, because he didn't quite want to face what they meant.
For the past three months, he and Prakash—Prakash especially—had looked forward to the puppet's arrival. Had looked forward to a chance to finally get some connection, however weak or slow it might be, to the Empire's Center. Frank had accepted his banishment to Emma with good grace, but all the same, there were times when he missed not having a constant newsfeed crawling across his vision. Or the favorite dramas that he (and her) had once enjoyed so much.
Instead, their puppet wasn't really a puppet. He was a military officer (a military officer! Frank still hadn't quite wrapped his mind around it) and apparently was going to serve as an aide-de-camp, which Frank didn't really need because he already had very few duties as Emma's commanding officer.
Of course he felt kind of deceived, kind of betrayed. Kind of disappointed.
But... He turned around and glanced out into the corridor, down which Lieutenant Zerachiel had disappeared. He had to admit there was something about the kid—his Imperian accent, his sharp but pretty face, his graceful yet controlled stride—that appealed to Frank. A lot.
Prakash was sputtering indignantly, red-faced, and Issamy was sighing and shaking her head, but Frank was just standing there, arms by his sides and feeling strangely zen. And feeling like he was, for some reason, looking forward to seeing more of Lieutenant Zerachiel.
Not much slash now, but it'll start moving soon enough...
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