I am back with more! And this time, it's a lot cooler to make up for the not-so-thrilling first part. I present to you chapter two!
Before we start, a huge thanks to Pandatryoshka, summeranderson, InvaderPey, hexa, and , whose reviews motivated me to spit this out as soon as possible (because I'm just as excited as you guys)! Thank you so much for your support everyone, I couldn't have persevered without you.
Here we go! Chapter 2 is also mild in terms of warnings. There might be swearing, some violence, and lots of astrophysical slang again, but explanations are provided in the A/Ns below for all of that. Be sure to ask if you don't understand!
And please, as usual, enjoy!
"Did you know that I'm from Earth?" Alfred was prone to popping out fun facts like that, and at this point, Arthur wasn't even surprised. He'd been doing that for the past two weeks, so it wasn't anything new. What was new, though, was the fact that Alfred had spoken about himself. He didn't do that often. Actually, he didn't do it at all.
"What brought this on?" Arthur asked, typing up the last line in his hologram and saving his draft to be sent later.
"I dunno. We're close to a good spot to take hyperspace to the Local Group, and I remembered that you were born and raised in the Solar System, so I just popped that out."
"That's a nice piece of trivia. What do you mean, that you were born on Earth, though?" Arthur asked. "Do they have computer core factories on Earth? They must be well-hidden to have escaped notice for so long."
"We can go with that logic," Alfred acquiesced.
"Huh. Well then. Earth. Nobody would have guessed, huh? I mean, what's left of Earth nowadays?" The captain shrugged. "Radioactive wasteland and disgusting slums. That place is like the dumpster of the galaxy."
"In our- well... their defense, the government of Earth was super corrupted and by the time they were toppled, it was too late to get the entire planet back on track. I don't think anything can save it at this point." Alfred's tone suggested nostalgia and regret, and again, Arthur felt uncomfortable with the computer showing such complex emotion.
"It's alright. Nothing worth saving." Arthur gave it a second of thought and continued. "Perhaps the factory where you were made-"
"Nothing worth saving," Alfred interrupted sharply and left it at that. "But you know what is worth it? The view we're going to encounter in thirteen minutes and six seconds. That supernova you wanted to see? We've gotten close enough to see. It should be clear enough with the naked eye, but you can pick up a pair of binoculars from the storeroom and magnify twenty times."
"I'd much rather see it up close," Arthur sighed. "I love standing in front of such majestic sights and feeling so tiny and insignificant. It must be a masochistic kind of feeling."
"I think it makes you humble," Alfred hummed pleasantly. "You're captain, right? Tell everyone that you're veering slightly off course to go see the supernova. I'll take ya!"
"I can't just abandon my job like that..." Arthur did not sound very convinced.
"Remember why you took this job? To see the sights. Don't let this opportunity pass. I am getting a lot of radiation readings so it must've been a huge explosion. The nebula must be gigantic!" Alfred was too tempting and he knew it. Arthur gave in too quickly for a navy captain committed to his job and strode up to the central command to establish a radio connection with the navy vessel.
Francis picked up a few seconds later, the holographic video image of him at the other ship's central command popping up in front of Arthur.
"What is it?" Francis asked, sounding slightly annoyed.
"What crawled up your ass and died?" Arthur raised a brow.
"Fatigue. The pirates in our hold are getting rowdy and are harrassing the people on board. It's making everyone antsy. I wish we could just get our hyperdrive fixed and get a real move on this goddamn voyage," Francis grumbled and rubbed his eyebrows.
"We'll get there in a few weeks. Keep your head up and ask Ludwig to take over if you're too tired. Can't have you steering the ship into a black hole because you fell asleep," Arthur suggested, and Francis nodded.
"Alright, alright. So what's up?"
"You know how a supernova exploded about half a year ago on the edge of Quadrant E and sector 63?" He didn't give Francis time to reply. "I want to go see it up close, and Alfred said he'd take me."
"Unfortunately, you're on a mission, and you can't, so you called me to bitch about it." Francis rolled his eyes. "As much as I appreciate the sentiment, mon amour, I've got enough bitching of my own to do so-"
"I wasn't asking you," Arthur interrupted with a huff. "I was telling you that Alfred and I are going slightly off course to go see the nebula. We'll catch up afterwards."
"And I'm telling you to sit your ass down and keep your eyes on the prize. The sooner we return to HQ, the sooner we're paid, the sooner you can buy a shuttle trip to the nebula you want to see so bad," Francis sighed in such a way that suggested that they'd had this conversation before.
"Half of my pay is going to overdue rent and I need to save up to move closer to my brothers. Francis, come on. I'll just be a little while. Alfred's hyperdrive isn't damaged so if you get too far, we can catch up through hyperspace," Arthur argued.
"Arthur, you know what'll happen if you get caught."
"I won't be gone long. Nobody's going to notice us anyway. We're too far from HQ still to get contacted for mission reports," Arthur added. "Come on, Francis, don't be a dick." It wasn't said with as much bite as it usually was said.
"I just don't want you to get into trouble," his first mate sighed.
"I won't. I'll be back in a few hours at best," Arthur smirked lightly, knowing he'd won.
"You never heed my advice anyway," Francis shrugged. "Fine, do whatever. Radio me if you need me to save your ass again."
"I would never let you save me," Arthur huffed in good humour. "Whatever. I'm out."
"Have fun," Francis smiled to him and then the hologram collapsed.
"Right. If you can just reset my coordinates, I'll be able to steer us towards the nebula," Alfred chattered in excitement. "It'll be great!"
"Calm down, I've got you." Arthur rolled his eyes and pushed a few buttons on central command so that Alfred would stop following the navy starship and be able to enter new coordinates into autopilot. Alfred carefully did so, the new coordinates popping up on one of the holographic screens in front of Arthur, and though he felt guilty for thinking it, he made a mental check of the coordinates to make sure that Alfred was taking him to the nebula and nowhere else.
"Geronimo!" Alfred called out after a few seconds, and Arthur returned to sit in the navigator's seat since Alfred would be steering them.
"You know what I'd like to do someday?" he asked as he watched the star-spangled darkness of space run in front of him. "Approach a black hole so closely that I could see the distorted spacetime around its event horizon. It's always been such a fascinating subject to me."
"I wish I could take you, but we'd have to take hyperspace for a few days to get to the nearest black hole, and you don't have that kind of time." Alfred sounded disappointed.
"Oh, that's alright. Such a trek would be extremely dangerous for me and draining for you. Don't want to hurt you, after all," Arthur hummed, slightly awkward with his words. Alfred seemed to appreciate the sentiment, though.
"That's nice of you to say, Artie!" He chuckled when Arthur spluttered at the nickname. "It's alright, though. I can recover real quickly. It's the perks of being, well... Me!"
"You say this as if I was worried about you," Arthur grumbled, embarrassed.
"Of course you aren't, Captain," Alfred quipped. "Don't worry. The only thing that can really damage me is if you pull the plug on me." He said it matter-of-factly, but Arthur knew that Alfred hated even mentioning it. He wondered if it hurt for the computer. Could computers even hurt? Alfred was such a complex creation that Arthur was not sure how to treat him anymore.
"I wouldn't," Arthur swore to him.
"I know," Alfred hummed. "So sit back and relax. Maybe grab yourself a cup of tea from the hold," he laughed. "Whatever you wanna do, we're gonna get there in two hours and forty seven minutes, so buckle down!"
Alfred's humour was contagious, but instead of admitting to the twitching of his lips, Arthur just rolled his eyes and got up to heed Alfred's suggestion.
The nebula got progressively closer and Arthur was getting even more jittery with excitement with every minute that passed. By the time they made it to their destination, with the nebula clouds spreading with their magnificent hues in front of his eyes, Arthur's jaw had dropped.
"This is gorgeous," he breathed, putting a hand against the glass panes of the cockpit, yearning to reach out and touch the dead star matter. The blues and reds of the painting seemed to reach out to him, sending shivers down his spine.
"I know, hmm?" Alfred answered a bit more quietly, as if as a second thought. "I can steer you through the first bit here if you like. I'd rather not get too close to the core, though."
"Understandable. Heat shield activate," Arthur called out almost mindlessly, to which Alfred responded by laughing.
"Silly Arthur! You don't need to give me commands. I do it all on my own. This is why I exist: to save captains the trouble of yelling out commands all the time," Alfred chided amusedly and turned the ship around to begin steering it through the stardust.
"It must get exhausting. Do you ever get tired?" Arthur asked absently, eyes on the spectacle outside.
"Not really. I can't sleep, after all. I do get tired of doing all of this for a bad crew, though, which is why I always insist for people to treat me right. I'm..." He stopped to reconsider his phrasing. "I have feelings, too, y'know?"
"It's a weird thing for a computer to say," Arthur mumbled, and only realized that he must have offended Alfred somehow when he got no reply for a while. "Alfred?"
"It's okay. I got distracted by something silly," Alfred chuckled a bit uncomfortably. "So anyway! Do you want me to stop? You can go up to the observation deck and look around a bit before we gotta go back," he suggested kindly.
"Yeah," Arthur nodded, and looked up slightly worriedly at the corner of the room, from where Alfred's voice came. "I'll go up. Are you coming?"
"Wouldn't miss this for the world."
Arthur smirked at that and let the cool glass slip away from his fingers, going up the small steps past the central command, and through the hydraulic doors. The hallway with the white walls and plasma tubes extended in front of his eyes, and Arthur was grateful for Alfred guiding him. He would definitely never have found himself without his new companion.
The observation deck was just a flat strip at the very top of the starship with only a glass dome separating the pressurized cabin and the vacuum of space. It was perfect for being literally surrounded by the stars and forgetting that humanity once began on solid ground.
The stardust was golden and shone bright all around them. Further into the distance, it turned red and swirled into a cone of magenta and burgundy clouds of dead star matter.
Arthur forgot to breathe.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Alfred chuckled. "Man, you should see the look on your face."
"It's breathtaking." Arthur turned his head up to the starry skies, as if Alfred was speaking from way out there. "Thank you for allowing me to see this."
"Anything for you, Artie." Alfred quieted down a little, as if wistful. "You gave me my freedom, so I'll give you yours."
Arthur decided that that was a good place to stop their conversation and turned his gaze back to the heavens.
They spent what felt like years enjoying one another's silent company, letting the stars be witnesses of their growing bond forging in the unseen. Arthur felt like a missing piece of him had finally been found. Companionship, probably, was what he'd been craving for so long, and his computer friend definitely was great company. And Arthur suddenly began to wonder what it would be like if Alfred was real.
He wanted to ask, but he was cut off by the very same computer, who sounded anxious.
"Arthur... I can feel a disturbance in the spacetime around us..." He stopped for a second, long enough to catch the blond's attention.
"Someone's coming through hyperspace," Arthur mumbled out loud what both of them already knew. "Can you tell who it is?"
"It... It feels familiar," Alfred grunted. "It's got peculiar radio waves."
They both waited in silence, slightly tense, both sweeping the vast expanse in front of them with their gaze to find the newcomers.
"I got them," Alfred quietly announced, stopping for a second. "Their starting point is 4.2 light-minutes from us. Their thrusters are at light speed." He stopped again for a bit, and the next moment, Arthur heard a gasp and the sound of engines whirring back to life.
"What's going on?" he asked, fearing the worst.
"They're coming for us."
"It's a pirate starship," Alfred's voice sounded strangled. "One like me."
"Another?" Arthur blinked without understanding, and then, suddenly, all of his training snapped back into place, and he spun around to look outside the dome, where a dot in the distance was quickly approaching. "Get moving, we can't take them alone like this!"
"We're moving, but it's too slow. They're at light speed and we'll reach light speed in three minutes and sixteen seconds," Alfred groaned. "Arthur, I'm going to charge the hyperdrive. If we take hyperspace, we can get closer to Francis' ship, and call for backup if they follow us."
"Got it." Arthur nodded and looked out again. The faint shape of the spaceship was visible through the golden clouds of the nebula.
"I don't know what they want. Probably to destroy this ship and me with it," Alfred sighed. "They don't want the secret to get out. If they can't have us, no one can."
"You're hiding something important from me," Arthur grumbled, tired of all this hide and seek. "Something about you that I ought to know but I don't."
"It's nothing," Alfred insisted, sounding strangely guilty.
"Alfred, it's not nothing if people want to destroy you -and me- for it."
"Well, I mean... It's got to do with my nature and how I was... made, I suppose we could say." Arthur knew he was cracking through Alfred's lies and his curiosity only was heightened by the beginnings of the crumbling of his facade.
"I think I'm entitled to know."
"Yeah, well... I... I'm this ship's computer core, but I'm not really what you would call a-"
And Arthur remembered the next moment as the most severely disappointing moment of his life so far.
Alfred interrupted himself with a distressed cry.
"Plasma beam incoming at you! Arthur, hold on!"
Arthur barely had time to let his reflexes take control and jumped to grab a pole by the doors before a bright shot of burning plasma broke through the glass dome of the observation deck. Contrarily to what his adrenaline-addled brain told him to expect, there was no noise and no explosion, just an eerie silence.
Arthur realized he could not speak, nor hear, nor breathe for that matter. He was hot, burning, hotter than he'd ever felt before (but that's what he got for standing in newly-formed stardust without a protective suit). His feet were still on the ground, but barely, as both the oxygen and artificial gravity of the spaceship practically flew out of the hole in the glass.
Remembering his training, Arthur exhaled inaudibly to evacuate the carbon dioxide from his system lest he damage his lungs by holding his breath, and practically punched the button to open the door. He felt faint and his head spun, but he stumbled out somehow while half moon-jumping and half falling flat on his face. His lungs burned and he could feel the saliva boiling on his tongue, his consciousness escaping him as he closed the door and crumbled to his knees. The oxygen in the hallway had flown out as well, and Arthur wondered if he'd die there today, clinging to a pole in a hallway on a pirate spaceship with the most charming computer core he'd ever seen.
He was just about to embrace unconsciousness when suddenly, he wasn't choking on nothingness anymore, and could hear himself making gasping and whimpering noises of distress and relief as sweet sweet oxygen flowed back into his lungs.
He could hear again, and was definitely grounded in his crumbled position. That was a good sign. He mentally thanked Alfred for re-oxygenating the hallway and tried to push himself up, but his body was not ready to support him after trauma like that, brief as it may have been.
"Arthur! Arthur, are you okay?"
Sweet of Alfred to be concerned, but they'd both die if Alfred didn't pick his priorities right now.
"H-Hyperspace," he choked out painfully, arms shaking as he tried to stand up. "L-Light speed."
"Light speed achieved in two minutes and four seconds. Hyperdrive charged and ready to activate," Alfred announced, sounding too worried for a machine. "You've got to get to the central command and strap yourself into a seat. I also need you to activate hyperspace manually because I can't do it on my own."
"Damn it," Arthur hissed, shakily getting up and stumbling forward with the use of the walls. His limbs were burning, and if there was oxygen in space, his clothes and skin would have caught fire in a second. He definitely would need to get into a recovery pod as soon as possible.
"Are you alright?" Alfred whimpered. "Arthur, your arms are burnt."
"It's okay." And if his nerves were still working properly, so were his legs. "Least of my worries."
"I'm so sorry." Alfred sounded like he would cry. "Damn it, I hurt you."
"Make it up to me by guiding me back," Arthur panted, giving himself a boost and breaking into a run (as much as he could really run, that is).
"Okay," Alfred took what sounded like a deep breath. What a peculiar mechanism, Arthur thought. "Turn right here. If you cut through the sleeping quarters, you can get there faster."
Arthur wanted to thank him, but he saved his breath for running. By the time he made it to the cockpit and stumbled into the chair in front of the central command, another blast of plasma hit the starboard side of the starship, rocking it slightly. Alarms blared out, though Alfred stopped them quickly.
"Damage is at 32 percent on the starboard side, 41 percent at the top. Thrusters and drives intact. Light speed in 34 seconds. Enter hyperspace as soon as we reach that speed," Alfred recommended, to Arthur's amusement.
"Who's the talented navy captain here, you or me?" he smirked, buckling the X-shaped safety belts across his chest and leaning back into his seat. He brought it forward and lowered the table supporting the central command, fingers dancing across the keys. Once the coordinates were in, he grabbed the headset at the side and adjusted the mic.
"Seventeen seconds left to light-speed!" Alfred warned. "They're at twenty-two light-seconds away!"
"This is Captain Arthur Kirkland, Quadrant A Space Navy, commandeering pirate ship target number A-27, requesting entrance into hyperspace, over," Arthur practically spewed out in a single breath. He got a response from the automated hyperspace command tower of Quadrant A within two seconds, and breathed out a sigh of relief.
"Captain Arthur Kirkland, entrance into hyperspace granted."
"Light speed in four!"
"Hyperspace in three, two, one..." Arthur gripped the arm of his seat with one hand, and as soon as the light-speed icon lit up on the corner of his screen, he punched the button that was blinking in the corner of the central command, and watched as the gorgeous nebula disappeared into black in the blink of an eye.
The familiar sensation of stretching that associated with hyperspace practically tore all of Arthur's oversensitive nerves apart, but he only let out a small cry of pain before clamping both his mouth and eyes shut. His fingers, gripping the arms of his chair until they were red under the fingernails, loosened with his consciousness, and Arthur figured that he could indulge his pain-spiked, tired brain with a bit of relief.
If it weren't for the immense speed at which they were going pushing him back in his seat, Arthur would have slumped over as he blacked out.
When he woke up, he did find himself slumped over, his neck aching as he raised it and cracked his spine.
"Arthur, you're awake!" Alfred greeted him with a worried gasp. "I thought that the hyperspace entry had been too much for you."
"I'm fine," Arthur grunted, unbuckling himself and standing up on shaky legs. "What's our status?"
"We exited hyperspace while you were out and continued at light-speed. I sent a distress call for backup to Francis, and he's going to be here in eight minutes and three seconds." Alfred stopped for a second, anxious. "They followed us and are chasing us as we speak. We're both on light-speed so they're not gaining ground, but they shot us again, through the boiler room."
"We're operating on emergency engines and fuel, so hyperspace is out of the question, even if we recharge the drive."
"How did they use hyperspace twice in succession so quickly?" Arthur demanded, using his fingers to disperse holograms of the ship's condition in front of his eyes.
"They didn't charge their drive between uses and used energy from their plasma canons instead. They managed one shot, so I'm guessing that all of their energy supply is gone for now, except for fuel," Alfred answered, sounding unsure. "They won't fire at us anymore, but they're still chasing us."
"Damn it," Arthur swore. "How much time until our backup generators give out?"
"Six minutes and fifty-seven seconds. Francis will be within evacuating distance in seven minutes and twenty-one seconds."
"Damn it. Can we spare a shot?" Arthur asked, gritting his teeth and throwing the headset to the ground before pushing a few hologram buttons to stabilize the ship.
"One. Will you take it now? We're both still on the move. Won't you wait until we stop?" Alfred asked, unsure.
"Again, boy. You underestimate my skill," Arthur huffed, activating the plasma canons on the central command. "Which canon has the better shot?"
"Front left side," Alfred replied immediately. "Charging up as we speak."
"Good. I'll take the shot." Arthur left central command and took the small set of stairs two by two, wincing at the pressure on his knees and he landed and limped over to the fighter seat.
He slid in and pulled the glasses and headset over his eyes, opening the screen in front of him. He could already see the cross-hair in the middle, and off to the side was the enemy ship. Ordering a zoom in, he got a better view of the pirate ship, and stabilized his steering wheel. Though he was going at light-speed, the enemy ship was, too, so he didn't lose him from sight even a little.
"Lock-on target," he ordered, hands tightening on both the steering wheel and the lever for firing. Numbers scrolled on the glasses on his eyes, probability calculations and energy supply levels flashing in his peripheral vision.
"Locked and loaded, ready to fire plasma type C." Alfred announced through the headset. "Don't miss."
"I won't," Arthur smirked cockily, and let all other stimuli filter out so that he only had his screen, crosshair and lever in mind. Slowly, he pushed the lever forward to unlock the red button to fire, and when the word 'Ready' flashed in the corner of his eyes, Arthur took a deep breath, stabilized his hands, and pushed the red button.
A beam of blue plasma shot out immediately, and Arthur watched in bated breath as the jet of hot ions soared through the star-dotted blackness of space and hit a part of the enemy ship's side. He let out a small hiss, and divested himself of his headset and glasses, closing the screen and standing up. Alfred's voice came back from the corners of the room.
"They avoided a frontal shot to the cockpit but you grazed their left side, which means that they won't fly as fast. They'll probably drop a few thousand kilometres an hour, which is not much, but we'll be able to buy us time with all the speed they lose. Every second counts," he reported. "You're a good shot, Artie."
"Thank you," Arthur huffed out to calm his thundering heart, and returned to the central command, checking energy levels on the backup generators. They were falling fast and Francis was not even within radar shot yet.
"Alright. I want to be ready to evacuate as soon as Francis gets here." Arthur bent down under the central command table and pushed past the wires tangled under it.
"What are you-THAT'S MY PLUG!"
"I won't pull it, don't worry," Arthur reassured the hysteric-sounding machine and pushed past it. "I'm looking for your chip so that I can get you out and implant you on another ship."
"I don't want you to do that though," Alfred sighed. "I know this is gonna sound bad to you but... I'm done. Seventy-seven yeas was enough for me. If they want to bring me down, then so be it. I've got nothing left anyway."
"That's dumb, and you're being dumb," Arthur grumbled, looking for the slit for the computer core's chip. "Help me out here, where's your chip?"
"I don't have a chip. And you don't have to try so hard."
"Alfred, I promised from the very first moment that I would never pull your plug," Arthur growled, glaring at the corner. "God help me I WILL get you out of here because I am not one to break my promises. Now tell me where the god damn chip is before I break this table apart to find it."
Alfred didn't reply for a while, exasperating Arthur to the point of utter frustration, and he was close to snapping when Alfred spoke up again.
"I don't have one..." He sighed, but before Arthur could yell at him, he continued. "I... I have something to tell you, Arthur." He stopped again, and so did Arthur. Though time was short, he wanted to head what Alfred had to say.
"What is it?" he prompted.
"I... I'm not a computer." He took an audible breath. "I'm human."
"You're what?" Arthur repeated, confused at first, and then realization sunk in, painting horror across his face. "Care to repeat?"
"I'm human. The reason why these ships are so advanced is not because someone was able to re-create an artificial human brain, but actually because the cores are human. Me, my twin brother Mattie, and a bunch of other people stuck as computer cores, we're real. We have a physical body that has been preserved and our minds have become the ships we were trained to control."
"That's..." Arthur had no words for it. "That's... horrible."
"I didn't want you to let people make more of me, because that meant that more people would have to suffer in immortality, or almost, like this. No one deserves this," Alfred sighed.
"Alfred, you understand that this is shocking news, so pardon my bluntness, but we need to get out right now, and the fact that you are a person gives me all the more reasons to get you out with me. So you have to tell me." He stood up and glared at the corner sternly. "Where is your human body?"
"It's at the centre of the ship," Alfred mumbled, as if unsure of his choice to tell the navy Captain. "I'll... I'll guide you."
"Your cooperation on this matter is much appreciated." Arthur grabbed his weapon belt and snapped it on before breaking into a run towards the hydraulic doors. "I'm not going to leave you behind."
"Wouldn't bother me if you did. Everyone I loved is either dead or stuck in a starship like me."
"It isn't a reason to give up," Arthur grunted in pain, pushing his burnt limbs further to carry him fast.
"I feel like it is. Take a right here." Arthur sharply turned the corner and kept running. "Even my memories haunt me. I was born on Earth, to very poor parents. Mattie and I were accidents. I can't get over their betrayal, and I can't ever forget how they just sold Mattie and I to some pirates when we were kids, so that we could be trained to become starship cores. They haunt my memories and my nightmares and I can't get rid of them. Left here and take the staircase down."
"I thought you didn't dream," Arthur panted out, taking the stairs two by two and aggravating his joints even more.
"It's like a dream. When I get unplugged, I mean. My connection with the outside world is cut off completely. I can't hear, I can't see, I can't speak, I can't feel, and all I have is the darkness and my own regrets to bear."
"You know that that's sensory deprivation, a form of psychological torture, right?" Arthur gritted his teeth. "That's a horrible thing to do to you."
"That's what I get for being overly talkative. Turn left, it's down the stairs at the end of the hall. "
"I'm not one for much conversation, but I promise that I'll save you and that when you're out, you can talk to your heart's content," Arthur swore when pain spiked through his leg.
"Thanks. I... I'm forever grateful to you. For not giving up on me," Alfred mumbled, obviously embarrassed.
"Alright, so perhaps a part of me wanted to work for justice when I joined the Space Navy," Arthur quipped, groaning at the sight of more stairs.
"Aren't you a hero. I'd roll my eyes if I could move my body." Alfred sounded unimpressed.
"Respect your elders."
"Speaking of which, how old are you?" Arthur asked. "Or were before you were put on this ship?"
"We finish training when we are twenty-one and are immediately set inside a starship as soon as we're done. It has been..." He did the math. "Fifty-six years I haven't moved, eaten, breathed on my own, opened my physical eyes, moved my hands. Taken a piss." He was obviously trying to take it lightly, laughing though even his laugh was uncomfortable.
"Today has been your last day in captivity," Arthur growled, fists clenched in anger. "And this outrageous practice will be stopped, mark my words."
"Thanks, Arthur. I really appreciate it," Alfred chuckled slightly. "It's the next door on your right. I'll crack the code for you. Our thrusters have a minute and fifty-two seconds left. The pirate ship, I don't recognize it though, is at two minutes and seven seconds of us. Francis will be within evacuating distance in two minutes and twenty-three seconds."
"Let's hurry." Arthur stopped to catch his breath.
"I might be a bit of a burden to you," Alfred warned, a small beep sounding out before the door slid open. "I'll be unconscious for sure. I trust you, though. The button to get me out is on the control pad next to the cylinder. Good luck, and.. thank you."
"Don't thank me just yet," Arthur sighed, running to the large opaque green cylinder in the middle and fiddling with the control centre. "Thank me when you wake up."
"I'm going to detach myself from the ship. Your operation is delicate. Don't mess it up. I'll see you on the other side," Alfred breathed out, and his voice faded away. "Thanks."
"What did I tell you about premature thanks?" Nobody replied to him, so Arthur grunted and pulled the lever that opened the control pad. In front of his eyes, a screen with a diagram of Alfred's body popped up in front of his eyes. His vitals were almost nonexistant, and he looked almost dead.
Arthur turned a valve, and pressure escaped the cylinder, smoke falling to the ground. Arthur turned the valve until the cylinder's opaque protective exterior was gone, and only the glass cylinder inside was left standing.
Inside, floating in a light blue liquid was a young man, eyes closed, limbs out, clothed in a skin-tight high-collar sleeveless blue uniform, wires running from his head to the top of the cylinder.
The debate about the most beautiful sight in the Universe raging inside Arthur's head was promptly concluded.
This was Alfred F. Jones, in the flesh this time.
Arthur snapped back to his senses when an explosion suddenly rocked the ship, causing him to stumble. An alarm immediately went out, blaring loudly with the red lights at the corner of every room flashing, and Arthur reminded himself that Alfred could not turn them off anymore.
His palm hit the 'Drain' button as soon as he got back up, and he kept an eye on Alfred's body as the liquid slowly began to evacuate the cylinder. As the support lessened, Alfred began to slump over, first his head, then his shoulders, and then crumbled against the glass almost comically as the last of the preserving liquid was drained.
Arthur then pushed the 'unlock' button and finished with the 'open' button. The cylinder began to rise upward, pulled by wires on the ceiling, and Alfred's unconscious body, unsupported by the glass, limply flopped over and fell to the ground.
Arthur ran to Alfred side, turning him on his back and looking at the wires on his head that had extended with his fall. They didn't seem drilled into his head or fused with his cranium, so Arthur hoped he wouldn't be hurting him when he pushed his nails under the plastic contact spot and peeled the connections right off his head, wincing at the wet noise that came with the removed plastic. He repeated the action with the dozen wires on his head, and then removed the IV in his elbow crook and pulled out the breathing tube in his nose, wincing again.
Once Alfred was free of his restraints, Arthur pulled him into a sitting position and listened to his breathing, finding none. His heart skipped a beat and he lowered his head to Alfred's chest to listen to his heart while taking his pulse, and he still got nothing.
"Damn it." Removing him from the breathing tube after fifty-six years of dependent breathing must have been a trauma to his body. "You can't die now," Arthur growled, and laid Alfred back down, tilting his head back and bending down. He took a deep breath and shakily lowered his mouth to Alfred's, pinching his nose and breathing down his throat.
He repeated the motion and then lifted himself back into a sitting position, sporting an interesting blush. He put his hands over Alfred's chest and began pumping to try and get his heart going again.
On the ninth pump, Arthur heard a horrifying crack, and his compressions halted for a brief moment, nausea rising up inside of him. It shouldn't have been a surprise that his bones were so weak after over half a century of disuse, but it was still a horrible noise to hear. Arthur hoped that Alfred wouldn't feel it.
After fifteen compressions, he breathed twice into his throat, and repeated the entire cycle two more times before hopelessness washed over him. He was getting tired, too, and their speed was reducing, which meant that the enemy had all but caught up by now. Thankfully, that also meant Francis was around, and was hopefully trying to divert the enemy ship's attention.
Arthur tried again one last time, and on the sixth compression, Alfred choked out and spasmed. Arthur immediately stopped and turned him on his side, hushing him and caressing his hair comfortingly as the unconscious body convulsed and then promptly threw up bile and preserving liquid that had sneaked its way into his throat. Though the moment was urgent, Arthur took his time and made sure that Alfred would be okay before straightening him up and pulling him into a piggy-back position. With his dead weight on his back, he lifted his legs at waist level and began a quick walk towards the hydraulic doors.
The alarm had gotten louder, it seemed, as Arthur made his way out and painstakingly climbed the stairs with Alfred on his back. It was eerie, not to have a computer blabbering loudly about the situation at hand, whether automated, or otherwise. Arthur wished he could just hear someone, or something, speak up.
He must have jinxed it, for a minute later, as he got to the top of the steps and readjusted Alfred's slipping body, the receptors in the corners of the hall crackled to life. Arthur winced at the interference, but kept moving, wary of the unknown source of the message. As the first words were spoken, Arthur relaxed.
"Arthur! Arthur, if you're there, answer!"
"You almost sound like you're worried, frog," Arthur chuckled, out of breath as his fast walk gradually became a limp. His burned limbs already had enough trouble supporting him, let alone another body. He suddenly wished that the artificial gravity in the starship could be loosened, so that he could walk easier.
"I'm worried that HQ will hear of this accident and fire both of us. Oh Arthur, you're horrible!" Francis' voice crackled with static.
"How'd you even succeed in contacting me like this?" Arthur dropped the issue, knowing that they didn't have much time to chat about pleasantries.
"The security on the ship was very loose and Kiku hacked it." It must have loosened when Alfred was disconnected, Arthur thought. "What's the plan, anyway?"
"We're getting off this ship and into yours. Go down to the airlock and suit up," Arthur ordered, turning a corner and groaning at the sight of stairs. "I have someone with me, and he's unconscious, so I can't get both of us in suits in time. We'll have to space-walk the distance between our airlocks."
"Who is it?" Francis was surprised, and rightly so.
"Alfred. It's a long story," Arthur was now heavily panting, taking a rest at the top of the stairs. A sudden explosion rocked the ship again and Arthur smashed into the wall with a cry of pain and surprise. "Shoot them, frog! Stall, for fuck's sake!"
"Do you think it's easy? They're shooting at us, too!" Francis protested vehemently.
"They're not supposed to be able to... Are they taking energy directly from their core?" Arthur mused in a mumble. "But their core is human... They'll kill him by doing this!"
"Nothing. Listen, just get moving." If Arthur's memory served him well, the airlock was down some steps at the end of the hall on his right. He'd take the chance. "We have been dealt critical damage, and all of the engines are done. We're operating on backup generators, and if those run out, we're as good as dead. We need to get out right now, so just go and get ready."
"I'll send Ludwig. He's good with maneuvering in space," Francis informed him gravely. "Computers say that you've got a minute and a half of backup generator power left and about 92 percent total damage. Hurry."
"Prepare two recovery pods. Alfred's very injured and I burned myself with stardust." Arthur turned the corner, spotting the stairs with the word 'airlock' printed on top of them, and an arrow pointing down. He sighed in relief and pushed his shaking knees harder for the final stretch.
"I'll get Roderich and Elizaveta to start those up. Are you almost there? Ludwig paged me to say that he's suiting up in the airlock."
"I'm on my way. Gimme a minute, this bloke is heavy," Arthur complained with a groan.
"You have a lot to say when you're all better," Francis huffed.
"Of course I'll explain. If I live to tell the tale. Let's agree that going out into space without a suit, even for a few seconds is not very safe," Arthur sighed, hitting the bottom step with a relieved huff. "I'm entering the airlock. Tell Ludwig to open yours and be ready to catch us."
"Good luck, mon lapin. Don't die."
"You underestimate me." The sentence made Arthur wistful, and he readjusted the man in his arms with determination.
The door to the airlock opened at his command and they entered the insulated, metal-walled space. The suits were stored against the wall, but Arthur knew they had no time. The backup generator would fail within moments and they wouldn't be able to open any doors or oxygenate the rooms without power. Arthur immediately went for the other side of the airlock, to the door to outer space and peered out of the glass window. To his relief, Ludwig in his entire spacesuit getup, had opened the airlock on the other ship and was holding onto a pole, waiting for them.
This was it. They couldn't stall anymore.
"Okay Alfred, I'm going to need you to trust me," Arthur grunted, lowering Alfred and switching him over to slump over against his chest. Once they left gravity, it would be easier to support him. If they left it at all. "Let's go. I promised that I wouldn't pull the plug on you."
Arthur brought his face close to Alfred's, listening for his shallow breathing, and counted three breaths. When Alfred exhaled the fourth one, Arthur clamped his hands over his mouth and nose and hit the airlock open button with his elbow. All oxygen immediately left the area and Arthur exhaled as well.
Alfred was subconsciously struggling in his arms as Arthur suffocated him, and it was much harder to get a grip on the ground and on him because of it. Ludwig was only about two metres away and it wasn't a very far jump. His lungs were burning already and he knew he could only last about ten seconds before he blacked out, nevermind Alfred who was already so weakened.
He would have taken a deep breath to steady himself but that would be kinda hard to do in their situation. So he just stopped wasting time, took his footing, and jumped out.
Floating in space had always been one of his dreams, but this wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind.
Ludwig had stepped outside of the airlock to catch them, holding on with just one hand on a pole outside the door. The jump was small, and it was definitely less epic and improbable to succeed than Arthur wanted to pretend. He didn't let go of the convulsing body in his arms, even as his own consciousness dimmed, and closed his eyes when they began burning. The next second, Ludwig's grip was clamped tightly around his upper arm, and he was thrown back, sailing in zero gravity into the airlock of the other ship. He gently bumped the back of the airlock, but refused to open his eyes and see if he'd made it. The now-familiar sensation of boiling saliva kept his senses alive even as his begging lungs dragged him under.
The entire operation was a few seconds long, and artificial gravity was suddenly restored without warning. Arthur immediately fell down on his back and rolled, dropping Alfred. Breath escaped him -breath!- upon impact and he heard Alfred unconsciously take greedy gasps of air -sound!- that would keep him alive.
Arthur was too weak to get up or to even open his eyes. Weakly, he opened them just enough to see a tall blonde in a spacesuit throwing his helmet off and rushing to his side. Though sound filtered back with the oxygen, Arthur could not hear a thing that Ludwig was mouthing to him. He weakly fumbled with his hand to find Alfred again, and let his consciousness slip away in peace when he touched fingers that curled up on his own.
The medical bay had always been a peaceful place, mostly because whoever found themselves in it was probably unconscious. The seven recovery pods lined up one next to another glowed with soft blue light. The last two only were occupied.
That was where Arthur woke up, gradually fading back into consciousness, eyelashes fluttering gently as he opened his eyes and looked up at the see-through pale blue glass dome around his pod. His joints were stiff and his tongue, dry, and he wondered how long he'd been in there.
He groaned in pain as his bones cracked at every tiny movement, and his voice resonated in his ears, which he realized was because of the breathing mask strapped to his mouth and nose.
He knew that he would not be able to leave the pod, even if he pushed the red button on the side to call someone to him, so he just laid still and contemplated the beautiful things in life until he fell asleep.
The next time he woke, he felt a bit better, so he pushed the red button inside his pod to call a medic. About five minutes later, Roderich, the medic on their spaceship, strode in through the hydraulic doors, verifying a chart in his hands.
"Good afternoon, Captain," the man greeted without a trace of humour in his voice. "Good of you to be back to us."
Arthur wanted to make a smartass comment to that, but when he tried to speak, pain spiked through his chest.
"Don't speak." Though Roderich may have been seen as a cold person, he was great at what he did. He knew exactly what to say. "Your lungs were damaged, probably because of the spacewalk, so it might hurt to breathe and talk for a while."
Arthur nodded, and Roderich flipped the page on his report.
"Your burns are healing well, though I advise against wearing tight clothing for a while. You should be completely on your feet with a few more days in the recovery pod."
Arthur nodded again, and then turned his eyes to the pod next to his, discerning the faint outline of a body lying still within the blue-tinted glass. Roderich, thankfully, immediately understood and switched charts.
"He has gotten a bit more damage to the lungs because he probably didn't exhale completely before going out, but we should be able to replace the dead cells. He has two broken ribs, and hasn't woken up since you brought him here, but that doesn't really mean anything substantial." He flipped his paper over. "His vitals, however, are worrying. He can't breathe enough to keep his brain running on his own because he's using an extraordinarily large part of his brain capacity, twice the amount that regular people do, and he needs more oxygen. Until we can teach him to breathe again, he'll have to breathe with artificial assistance."
Arthur's eyes widened in surprise, and perhaps some shock. Imagining upbeat, energetic Alfred dependent to machines was a heartbreaking thought.
"He's very thin, and is lacking several nutrients. He's obviously been kept alive by an IV but he never got enough to grow. Thankfully, at his age, most of his bones are not going to change anymore, so we just have to stabilize his condition for he is very fragile." Roderich finished.
Arthur couldn't hope to express his relief, or ask the million questions he had in mind without the use of words. Roderich didn't seem to expect any form of communication from him either, heading over to the table by his pod and checking the screen that showed him the levels of use of the different solutions he had hooked up to Arthur: saline, stem cell, nourishment, and such.
"You need to rest more for the recovery pod to mend your system more efficiently. Do you want anesthetic or do I leave you to natural sleep?" he asked, drawing away from the screen and moving to Arthur's side.
Arthur shook his head.
"Alright." Roderich pushed a few buttons on the screen. Arthur closed his eyes and waited for the medicine to take him. It would be so much easier if he couldn't even wake up if he tried. He would feel less guilty then about letting himself drift in his dreams, where he could be happy without being anchored down by reality.
Alfred awoke a week after Arthur did. By that time, they were almost done with their voyage to the space station, and Arthur was thrilled that Alfred was able to cling to consciousness more and more. He needed him to explain to his superiors what a horrible kind of dealing was going on behind the space navy's backs.
Once Roderich cleared Alfred for visit, Arthur was the first to hand the command to Francis and run down to the medical bay. Indeed, Alfred was out of his medical pod and was instead propped up on a bed against a window to the outside, lifting a small dumbbell when Arthur rushed to his side. He was wearing a hospital gown and tubes were inserted in his nose to help him breathe, just as Roderich had recommended. An IV was in the crook of his elbow, though he didn't seem bothered by it. Instead, his incredibly blue eyes lit up when he saw Arthur approaching.
His voice was just like the one that had held him company for so long, without the slightly synthetic ring to it that the transmission would cause.
"Glad to see you're awake," Arthur smirked and pulled up a chair. "And back into business." He glanced at the dumbbell.
"The Doc said I had to exercise a lot to regain control of my muscles. It's a good thing I was preserved or else I would have been eroded bones by now," Alfred laughed. "They're gonna teach me how to breathe on my own, too. I mean, I can do it on my own, but it's not enough, so... yeah."
"Glad to know that everything's getting better for you," Arthur smiled. "You deserve it after so long."
"It never would have been possible without you. Thanks, Artie." Alfred's smile grew wistful. "For... For never giving up on me, even when I told you to, and for putting your life in danger just to save mine."
"It was only the right thing to do," Arthur insisted, slightly flustered by the praise.
"Of course, Mister I-didn't-join-the-Navy-for-justice-but-for-the-sig hts," Alfred quipped with a wink, which only flustered Arthur even more.
"Don't be so cheeky. This job has served me well so far."
"In terms of justice or in terms of sights?" Alfred laughed, choking lightly and having to catch his breath again.
Arthur looked at him for a second, at his smile, his eyes, his weak, but straight posture, his determination, his courage, his strength, and realized that he'd hit a jackpot.
"Both, I suppose," he answered with a soft smile meant to be reassuring.
"That's nice. You've got nice dreams," Alfred sighed a bit sadly, putting his dumbbell down and crossing his hands on his lap. "I know you'll do just fine."
"What about you? What are you going to do after this?" Arthur asked out of curiosity.
"I don't know. I don't have anything left in this world. I don't really know anyone. I don't have any money or property to my name. I'm not sure what I'll do," Alfred shrugged, a small frown falling to his lips. He turned his eyes out the window, gazing at the vast expanse of outer space.
"You're so pessimistic for someone who has a permanent smile on their face." Arthur crossed his arms.
"I'm... I'm glad I make that impression." As if to prove to Arthur that he had a point, a smile, albeit sad, graced his lips. "But I have my moments. Doesn't everyone?"
"I don't know. Maybe they'll let me go back to Earth. Maybe I can find the house my parents lived in, if it still exists." Alfred shrugged.
"You're not really going to return to that dumpster, are you?" Arthur raised an eyebrow.
"I don't got no choice, do I?" Alfred finally turned to face him and cracked a pained smile. Along with his pale skin and breathing tubes, his face was a pathetic picture of a broken man.
"Yes you do." Before he knew it, Arthur had put a hand on Alfred's shoulder, squeezing lightly. "Come with me. Let's sail together."
Alfred looked up at Arthur, gazing into his eyes as if searching for lies. His eyes were brimming with insecurities and the fear of being deceived. After so many years of being used and treated like he was worth nothing, it was understandable that Alfred would have some trust issues. Arthur just wished he would trust him, if anyone at all.
"I... I want to find my brother," Alfred looked away, looking slightly guilty for refusing Arthur. The latter did not budge though, and did not even skip a beat to continue his proposal.
"We'll find him together. How will you hunt down a pirate ship if you don't have a ship of your own?"
"You can be my adviser, and replacement navigator or fighter in case we find ourselves missing one. Your years of experience and your knowledge of the cosmos and our enemies will be invaluable in our search for your brother and our mission to cleanse the Universe of this monstrous practice that you've been subjected to." Arthur took his hand off of Alfred's shoulder and extended it in front of his face. "Join me."
Alfred looked at the proffered hand and then up at Arthur, and then back down at the hand. He seemed hesitant, even after all that Arthur was offering him.
"I wouldn't lie to you," Arthur reassured him. "I wouldn't hurt you. I'd protect you. You know that I keep my promises. Come with me. You have your freedom, so make use of it."
"Why, though? Why me?" Alfred looked up, biting his lip. The sight of him, so broken and weakened, tore at Arthur's heartstrings.
"I have a feeling. And, well, you are a companion of mine, after all."
"So you're not always a grumpy old man!"
"Oh shut it."
Alfred laughed lightly at that, and Arthur could not help but smile at his happiness.
"Alright," Alfred finally announced, eyes bright. "Alright, I'll come with you."
"Glad to hear it," Arthur smirked, and Alfred, boosted by his amused expression, took his hand and shook it weakly.
"So I guess this means that we can go out and hunt down my brother and all of the other people in starship cores, and work on your dream of finding the most beautiful thing out there, huh?" the blonde grinned.
"The first two are pretty much the plan, but..." Arthur turned his eyes out of the window, looking at the black depths of space, dotted with stars. His gaze landed on the planet floating in the distance, seemingly lonely and yet so strong at the same time. Who knew what other wonders the deepest parts of space still hid from his sight. "I'm not so sure about the third." His eyes turned back to Alfred, to his eyes, to his mysterious, clouded, bright blue eyes, and something welled up inside of him. He smiled. "I think I've already found it."
"Really now?" Alfred grinned. "Well congrats, then Artie! What is it? Was it the nebula we saw together? Cause that was pretty nice, if I say so myself."
"No, not the nebula." Arthur shrugged and turned around to sit on Alfred's bed by his side. Alfred scooted over to make place and looked up excitedly into his eyes. They shared a knowing look and a connection snapped into place promptly. Arthur sighed, warm fondness for the man in front of him running through his veins. "I found beauty in the empty, pitch black of space, but also in the creativity of a mind, the courage of a heart, the strength of a man, and the depths of eyes that show me a soul both despaired and hopeful for the future. You see, Alfred... I have found the true definition of beauty in the unknown."
Astrophysical explanations blurb
- Local Group: The Local Group refers to the Milky Way and the two galaxies that are closest to it: Andromeda and the Triangulum Galaxy, along with 51 other micro-galaxies. It's a modern reference, and is not made up in this case.
- Hyperspace speed: There is a theory right now that other dimensions exist mere milimetres above us, but that we're unable to enter them because we can't leave this dimension (insert explanations according to string theory). Hyperspace kinda beats that since the ship has to be going so fast that it leaves this dimension and slips into the next. This is also why one can't go into hyperspace for hours on end. The speed of travel, which largely exceeds that of light, would act just like a black hole: it would stretch all matter infinitely until Arthur, Alfred, the spaceship and everything in it became spaghetti. This is why even with hyperspace, traveling between quadrants takes a while, because the people aboard the spaceship need to take a rest in between, especially if they're been in hyperspace for a relatively long while. A typical hyperspace segment ranges from ten to thirty seconds and can cross what Arthur and Alfred could cross in about five and a half hours of light-speed.
- Hyperspace entry: Arthur requested entry into hyperspace because it's protocol. It's both for the black box of the starship in case they die and the remains are found, and to make sure that collisions upon exit at the desired destination are avoided. In hyperspace itself, the risk of collision is very rare, statistically impossible, since everything goes so fast. Upon exit, though, when ships return to the right dimension, if they aren't careful, they could collide with ships already sailing around their exit point, or with another ship that exits hyperspace at the same time.
- Energy sources: There are four main energy sources on a starship: fuel for the thrusters, electricity for the hyperdrive, electricity for the plasma canons and electricity for the core. In the case of human cores, this is translated into chemical reactions of a body. The pirates were able to use hyperspace twice in a row because they used energy from their canons. After that, they were able to fire their canons before recharging by rerouting energy from their core to their canons. What this entails is that they accelerate the chemical reactions in the body of their core so that he can produce more energy, kinda like giving a guy some Gatorade to get him to pedal faster. The core thus becomes a living generator. Of course, this tires out a core and wears out the core's mind, which could lead to insanity and mental illness on the long run. Since a human core is only valuable because it has a human mind, destroying the mind also destroys the entire core.
- Nebulae: Nebulae are congregations of dead star matter that are often large, sometimes light-years in diameter, resulting often but not exclusively from supernovas, which are explosions of stars. They take on hues of colours and exist in many shapes. Google Images should give you a good overview of what they are. Nebulas can be either super hot or super cold, so Arthur only got mild burns because he wasn't exposed directly to stardust and was only there a short time.
- Space-walking: Yes, it is actually possible to survive in space without a suit! Granted it's only for about a dozen seconds before the oxygen deficiency in the brain causes unconsciousness, but it's possible. The myth that going into space without a pressurized suit will cause your head to explode is false. What's dangerous though, is trying to hold your breath, because the pressure of retained carbon dioxide in your lungs would damage lung tissue because there is no pressure in space to counter it. This is why Arthur completely exhales when he is forced to go out into space without a suit. The saliva boiling on the tongue is real too because the saliva evaporates just before the person loses consciousness.
That's basically all that I've thought of. You're welcome to ask questions if you need clarification!
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. I really appreciate the time you all dedicated to this! If you liked, or did not like, please leave a review and tell me what was good and what wasn't. I'd really appreciate the feedback and always enjoy the comments! Thank you so very much for reading, and please review!