A burst of light, a burst of sound, and I existed. Again.
The reaction was always the same. The crew of the ship stood with wide eyes, jaws hanging open slackly in shock. They obviously recognised me, their Captain. Well not their Captain per se…apologies, trans-universal travel tends to make one’s grammar a little confused. I stood patiently, and observed them, waiting to see who would make the first move. Chief Engineer Thompson pulled his pistol first and demanded I identify myself. I was not surprised it turned out to be him; he had turned out to be on edge and jumpy in virtually every previous incarnation I had witnessed.
“I wish to speak to your Captain, it is a matter of some urgency,” I replied calmly. Someone had obviously triggered an alarm, as two armed marines rushed in and forced me violently to the ground. I did not resist. Previous experience had taught me that the more violent versions of this ship had surprisingly low tolerance for the unexplainable.
I was dragged through the vessel by the burly marines, and made a point of noting my surroundings. Crewmembers watched with surprise, whispered conversations taking place between them. Their uniforms were of a familiar design, as was the layout of the ship itself. The technology within it seemed a little sub-par however, as though this particular vessel had not been crafted with the care and precision of others I had witnessed in my travels. Still, it always filled me with a sense of nostalgia, reminding me of my own ship, which at moments like this seemed an awfully long way away.
I was deposited in front of the Captain, and I looked up to meet his eyes.
“Who the hell are you?” he boomed angrily, drawing a pistol from his belt.
“I’m you, Captain,” I replied. I hated this moment. It always either went extremely well, or spectacularly badly. It looked like the latter was in store today. Examining his face, I concluded we did look very similar, although life in this particular universe had led to a few differences. He looked tired and haggard, his chin covered in a smattering of stubble. Faint scars covered his temple, and I wondered briefly if an event in my own life would have lead to an identical injury had I been less lucky.
He barked a laugh.
“What is this? An impostor, an infiltrator? You are the worst spy I have ever seen! Throw him in the brig, and get the Doctor to analyse him fully, I want to find out who he really is.”
I sighed, and allowed myself to be dragged away into the bowels of the ship. Of all the myriad possibilities, all the minute quantum changes, why in most of these different realities was I a complete bastard? Originally I had found it quite a sobering experience, to see how close-minded and unwilling I was from an outside perspective. Although I had to remember that these men, all the possible incarnations of Captain Samuel Elliot, were not me. Some were virtually identical, but all were a product of their world, their universe. Some had been jaded alcoholics, others borderline psychopaths, some artistic and introspective, and some calm and calculating to the point of disturbing. Sometimes the change had been severe, and I was not the Captain of this vessel at all, having been reassigned, killed, or never born in the first place. As far as I remember, twice I was a Samantha Elliot. That had been unusual to say the least. Was it a faux pas to find a female version of ones self attractive? That still bothered me to this day. The technology and politics varied enormously too. The ship was nearly always identical; the Scythe of Night, a high-end, Earth-built warship, but its origins and mission criteria were near infinite. I could not claim to have explored all possibly variations, although I admittedly had lost count. There was always one thing that remained constant, a universal marker if you will. That was the event and the scenario that lead us all here, to this point, and ultimately the reason why I had materialised in Engineering.
The brig was rusty and smelt awful. No change there then. Doctor Ansar entered, her attitude brisk and efficient, yet surprisingly apologetic. She sampled my blood, and analysed it quickly using a portable terminal. The result arrived with a chime, and her eyes widened. No doubt it had informed her that her Captain was sitting in here with her. I smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. She frowned, and commenced a full body scan. The probe whisked up and down, flashing pulses of neon light across my figure as it did so. I sincerely doubted that it would pick up the subdermal implants that made my jumps between realities possible; the technology behind those was far more advanced, the product of collaboration between several versions of this ship working as one. God knows what would have happened if they had been discovered. I would have probably been thrown out of the airlock immediately, under the pretence I was hiding explosives in my own body. Seemingly disturbed by the results, Ansar left the room, and I heard her scuttle away.
Minutes later, the door hissed open again, revealing me. Well, the other me. The marines from earlier flanked him, and they all entered the cell together. I had the distinct impression that this was going to hurt.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” barked the Captain.
“I told you already, I’m you,” I replied. There was no easier way of phrasing this conversation, I had long since exhausted all possible options, and decided to revert to the very basics.
“Yes, Doctor Ansar informed me that you apparently have near identical DNA and physiology to me. So, that makes you…what? A clone? A weapon smuggled aboard by our attackers?”
“I am you, a different you, from an alternate reality,” I replied passively.
The Captain snorted, and signalled to the marine who punched me squarely in the jaw. That was not the first time that had happened either.
“Don’t bullshit me man! Insult my intelligence again and the punishment will be worse. Now, who are you?” he boomed.
“Tell me something…” I began, but with another flick of the Captain’s fingers, the marine hit me again.
“Tell me something!” I shouted, ignoring the blow. I tasted blood on my tongue.
The marine punched me in the stomach.
“You can’t move the ship and the instruments are reading nothing, correct?” I gasped. The marine raised his fist again, but the Captain stopped him with a gesture.
“You did something to my ship?” he asked in a low voice.
“No. You were hit by an unidentified exotic particle weapon from the enemy vessel, yes?”
There was no answer, and mercifully, no more beatings, so I continued.
“That weapon trapped you, every one of your crew and your vessel outside of space and time.”
The Captain snorted again, but less derisively this time. I realised he must be aware of the technology possessed by the opposing side.
“Ridiculous,” he added.
“Check the external sensors, check everything. Try and make an FTL jump. None of it will work, because you are outside normal space. All you will see is the hazy afterimage, the echo of the ship that did this to you.”
That part was true. No matter the differences between the vessels I had visited, the situation had always been the same. They had hung languidly in the middle of non-space, the only thing visible in the emptiness around them being the stark geometric lines of the alien vessel that had done this.
“So where the hell did you come from?” he asked me.
“You’re not the only ones trapped here,” I replied, wiping the blood from my broken lip.
There was a long pause, and the Captain stared at me hard, as if trying to dissect me remotely. Suddenly, he spun on his heels and exited, sealing the door behind him.
I hoped that he had taken my words to heart. Even the most close minded incarnation of myself had started to crack when presented with the evidence provided by his own ship and his own crew.
I waited in the cell for hours, and lay there quietly as the truth slowly percolated into the collective consciousness of the crew. For a brief time I felt the ship shudder, a vibration that spread out in a wave through the superstructure. The FTL engines were online, and someone was trying valiantly to leave this place. It would not work, of course. Discussion and analysis between several trapped Scythe of Night’s had concluded that the FTL generator required fixed points in real space to operate, as well as more conventional criteria. Like gravity. Just as I had closed my eyes, the door hissed open again. The Captain faced me again. He was alone.
“Why? Why would they do this?” he asked quietly.
“We don’t know for certain, but we have a theory. From what little we’ve ascertained, the enemy only lives for two of our years, at most. To them, the concept of a long life, such as we possess, is utterly incomprehensible. The concept of eternity is their idea of hell, and endless torture. They hate us, Captain Elliot. For crossing into their space by accident, for offending their religion or maybe they are even more xenophobic than humans, no-one really knows for sure. They want us to suffer. In their unique way, they have done just that. We are trapped here, outside time and space, presumably forever.”
He looked at me intensely, and said nothing for a long time.
“So what do we do?” he finally asked.
“Talk to us. You’re not alone here. The weapon they used has trapped all of us, every possible version of this ship and its crew. We are trying to work together to find a way to escape. We have already found a way to cross between ships, albeit in a limited way.”
Captain Elliot ran his hand through his thinning hair and smiled.
“How do I explain this one to the crew?”
“In whatever way you see fit Captain. They always understand.”
Several hours later, I was free. Under the watchful eye of this Captain Elliot, I finished recalibrating the quantum transmitter to allow cross-universe transmission, and uploaded several critical suggestions to the computer mainframe, including how one vessel had converted their FTL engines into molecular H2O assembler on a massive scale. Some vessels had assigned themselves support roles, fuelling and feeding others, allowing the endless work to continue in the fervent belief that we could one day go home.
“We’ll be in contact Captain,” I said.
“I look forward to it,” he replied, and shook my hand awkwardly, as if there was a chance that contact between us would cause an explosion. With a thought, I activated the implants buried deep within my body. The world around me became a dazzling white, and I shifted. I could have left at any time, of course, but I wanted to give them a chance, a chance to save themselves and in doing so, perhaps the rest of us too.
I existed again, much to the shock of the crew members around me. Chief Engineer Thompson pulled a pistol and began shouting commands. I smiled slightly. Some things never changed.