a short story
Gary Baker, August 2013
Ship Captain: Farah, to the bridge,” came the light, airy female voice over intercom speakers. “Attention Vassals: would Captain Farah please return to the bridge?”
It wasn’t a question; but then again it never was. Not with her.
With a heavy sigh, Ship Captain Julian Farah thrust himself the rest of the way up the corridor ladder and into a long, open passageway. He stood there for a moment with his hands on his hips, letting the gritty scales of the powersuit bore holes in his palms while basking in the blue-green glow of ever-present LED lighting.
That echo was getting annoying, he decided, and so finally began his walk back to the head of base command. As he made his way down the passes, he kept a close eye on the piping and electrical mechanisms inlaid with cubic gearboxes and circuit breakers every few meters. So far none had been showing any signs of decay, instead appearing practically the same as the last time he’d done this walk, one full rotation ago.
Two further repetitions of her call later, the captain found himself at the base of another flight of eighty-degree stairs and looked up with another sigh. How long had he been doing this? How long had they all been doing this, so far out here in the middle of ‘no man’s land’ where nothing could exist naturally and where even the smallest of charged particles could tear a non-reactive stone limb from limb?
He wrapped his fingers around the banisters on either side of the steps and felt the familiar zing of static electricity course through his covered skin.
Just another perk, I guess, he mocked in deference to the marks he was beginning to think would never fade from his hands and joints.
Farah began his ascent as yet another echo of her voice grated through his ears like the Tin-man whine of mosquitoes caught in a contained metal cyclone. “Ship Captain: Farah, please report to the bridge.”
Teeth grit, he glared at the end of the ladder passageway as though she were standing right there at the top in the desolate terrain of metal wiring, piping, and heavy crystallized noble gas paneling. “Hold your horses, dammit, I’m coming!”
He then proceeded to launch himself up the climb, using the lesser gravitational pull to help him practically fly as he leapt over handfuls of stairs at a time. At the top he quickly glanced back the way he’d come and once again, as always, felt the cheerful appreciation that he didn’t have to do that back home, planetside.
Eventually he began passing door after door, each built with complimentary glowing scanners to the right side at about eye level. The blue-green glow lifted into a much less natural stark white and there at the center of it all he met a massive double door in the cross section of a three-way joint in the halls.
He didn’t even have to punch in his code; she was waiting for him.
The doors sliced open with static pops, to reveal two more tarnished silver panels as they opened less efficiently. Typical for age-old equipment that hadn’t seen updates in quite some time, now.
As he then stepped onto the bridge Farah took in the usual seating arrangement: Jukifa at the forward scanners, Mran relaxing beside seemingly static panels of sector displays, Du flipping wooden pegs into the open air above his seat at the main helm commands, and Yerthei beside the aft directive command post where she had the easiest access to the intercom system.
And beyond them all stood the screen that had been made to appear as a window to the outside, where he could see the immeasurable beauty of where they really were.
Distance was irrelevant, yet it appeared their craft had not moved much since the last time he’d allowed himself to look out there. The class-3 blackhole still loomed like a thumb-sized black star at the center of a disk of light beneath them, launching out even larger plumes of charged particles in the quasar pillars as though the black star were reaching out a limb to grab them from beyond it’s gravitational pull.
It was impossibly beautiful, as he always admitted, but the very idea of them being this close to something as tremendously deadly as the black hole, or even the ejected smoke-like energy, kept him further than long arms distance at all times.
Quite literally, they had all been stationed at the edge of space, where not even light could escape the whirling current of existence draining into who knew where. Yet for some reason energy was as abundant here as rock was on a stone meteor, and so they had been sent out to mine it.
“God, I can’t wait for the replacement vessel,” Farah grumbled while pouring himself what had once been top shelf bourbon into an iced glass from the cabinet beside the chair he often called his throne.
Du laughed and caught the pegs one after the other, five in all. To think that at the beginning of it all, the kid couldn’t even keep one peg off the flooring for very long. “What’re you gonna do with your payload, Cap?”
The big man grinned and sipped at the bourbon. “I’m gonna take a long vacation to a human world,” he scowled at the glass of amber liquid as though it had bit him, wondering just when it had gotten to be so bitter, “now those are beautiful spots to relax.”
The helmsman turned his chair to face his superior officer and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “They always do get the prettiest planets -- something about their frail biological makeup that doesn’t allow them to live anywhere else.”
“I hear that,” Farah leaned back and let himself become one with the cushions, “if you ask me, though, I’d say let them have those worlds. That way we never have to live without glamorous oases of plantlife and liquid water, nor do we ever have to worry about taking care of them.” He dropped the last gulp of bourbon and poured himself another half glass. “Think about how fast our own people would turn all that into raized flame gardens and military shipyards.”
Jukifa shook herself lightly to stay awake and sat up with a soft clatter. She then peered at the blinking panels in front of herself and scowled.
“Don’t you think it’s odd, though,” Du began again, “that their species has evolved more than once on completely separate solar systems?”
Farah tilted his head wonderingly, and watched distant constellations blink all about the spatial view before him.
“I mean, think about it,” Du continued, “planets as far apart as either end of this gravitational pull, here, each as beautiful as any nebulae out there but on a much-smaller scale, and each one somehow sprouted little meaty humans that walk about thinking themselves so wise, when really all they do is help to recycle. The planets have never seen any sort of contact between one another, and each respective species has yet to evolve much of a brain to decipher interstellar travel, thus negating the possibility of colonization.” A long pause drew out as Du settled down in his excitement. “What makes this even possible, I wonder?”
“Maybe they’re the stewards,” Farah pointed. “Even the Sh’tuir have a purpose in the grand scale of things.”
Yerthei suddenly snapped out of her seat and glared at the captain with fierce crimson eyes. “The Sh’tuir are nothing but overzealous barbarians given interstellar flight. All they do is roam around wiping out whole systems of planets and species alike merely because the ones to die have answered one particular question.”
Du shrugged. “She’s got a point, Cap.”
“But think of it this way,” the captain set his glass down with a thunk. “Had the Sh’tuir not found the arc on their world don’t you think they would have eventually done the very same thing?”
Yerthei blinked. “That’s different.”
“Is it?” Farah waved a broad hand at the scene of starlight and darkness before them all, “I say that out of all those stars out there, even with the relative rarity of life, should there not be at least one species bent upon total destruction? Can there not be supreme balance across the whole of the verses?” He reached over himself to pour another half glass, then swirled it before taking a deep inhale over the edge of the glass. “If there are such species out there as those who seek out new life to help it prosper, I think the forces of life would demand that some other species should exist to cull the herds, if you will.”
Du gave a curt grin, before sheepishly dropping it as Yerthei glanced over. “Survival of the fittest, as dictated by the massive.”
Farah nodded. “Exactly.”
Finally Mran pinched her lips and pushed off from the screens. “But the Sh’tuir are mammoth beings barely capable of intelligent thought, we cannot forget that, and in times of galactic arms races the larger brains often wield greater results. Had those brutes not been at war, using incredible devices of destruction, they never would have stumbled upon that arc.”
“And thus would probably have been the first to die by hands akin to their own,” Yerthei smiled. “I, for one, will shout with praise to the first race to stop them. They attack without fear, using sheer numbers to win, using weapons they cannot understand to decimate entire populations and steal their technology.”
The captain saluted her with the lift of his glass and smiled. “Which, I will remind you, is a valid strategy. How many of our own generals used that very notion to gain as high of ranks as ours in the verse?”
Suddenly the bridge dropped dead silent.
The frozen silicon sphere submerged in Farah’s glass clinked loudly, sensors seemed to have been turned to full volume, and graphs displaying specific sectors rotating invariably hummed like live wires.
It was Yerthei who spoke up and broke the sullen void. As usual. “And yet our race lost to the likes of them at the onset.” She had sat down when the silence broke out and now peered at her superior officer like an invalid, mixing sorrow with pity and dread as one tumultuous solution. “Or have you forgotten?”
Her tone was practically enough to refreeze the condensation on the surface of the silicon ball, yet Farah glared back just as coldly. “Believe me,” he reached a hand up and drew down his scalesuit collar to reveal a long slash through the upper stretches of his moist gills, “I’ll never forget what they did.” His eyes lost focus and the captain watched aimlessly as vivid details came back to him, remembering the onslaught, the carnage, and the raw, horrendous pain.
He inhaled deeply while the others of the bridge looked on. They had all figured out by now that he’d once been a war hero or something akin to it, if not from his tact then from the way he made sure to stay fit and physically capable at all times. At some points in the rotation others would even join him to break off the ice-like cramps from their joints.
Finally he grit his teeth and looked up at Yerthei directly. “I was planetside when they came at us. We were caught so unaware that nothing we did could have prevented what came next or thereafter.” Farah tore the glass through the air and dropped the contents into his throat as fast as his muscles would allow, then poured one final topper. “So don’t tell me brute force isn’t a valid strategy in times of war and invasion.”
Again Yerthei was the first to speak up, her fearless tongue ever-present and always on the cusp of greatness. “But that’s just it, Captain: our species survived. We ‘met our makers’ as some would say, and lived to tell the tale.” A reassuring smile sent shivers down Farah’s spine before she went on with a more consoling tone. “Were we like them, we would have been wiped from existence just as easily as every other species standing in their way; but we were different -- we had the evolutionary advantage of having learned to use the arc devices long before the Sh’tuir ever arrived.” She shrugged, “sure we lost countless members of our race, including our home planet, but they missed the large masses that had been able to disperse into the oblivion of space and seek safety in shadow.”
Her lips rose with a caressing smirk, “and now look at us, Captain. We are almost the size we once were, and still have not been seen by further attacks.”
“Um,” Jukifa turned to Farah and Yerthei respectively, “I don’t mean to intrude, but we have a situation.”
Instantly Farah was all ears, “what is it?”
Her eyes back on the screens beside her, Jukifa tapped away a few keystrokes, then swiped a copy of what she was looking at to the main screen. There the event horizon had been zoomed in enough to cover most of the view, with a thin trail of deep crimson red ribboning like the time lapse of a planet near the lightless void.
Farah scowled. “What am I looking at, Jukifa?”
She turned to him again and nodded curtly. “That there is a class-7 star entering the event horizon.”
He waved it off and shrank back in his chair. “So have all sectors retract all antennae thirty-seven cables.”
Now it was Mran’s turn. “But that’s not all, sir. We also have a class-11 star entering the event horizon as we speak, trailing a sister star at class-8 behind that.”
It was as though Farah had finally been given the reason for the outpost being manned in the first place, some cosmic uncertainty assimilated somewhat further into the realms of the known. Captain Farah leaned forward and dropped a heavy hand onto his throne intercom link, hailing all ship sectors at once in an emergency broadcast.
“Attention all hands: this is Ship Captain Julian Farah speaking. We need all able bodied crew to get all antennas retracted immediately and have all loose crates bolted in place. This is not a drill, I repeat we need all equipment secured after getting all antennas securely taken in.” He lifted his hand from the comm link and looked to Yerthei. “I need an ETA on that energy surge immediately.” He then turned to Du with grim determination. “On my mark, I want us dropped into hyperspace for the duration of the blast. Stars that large won’t go without a fight, and we’ll be on the receiving end of all that rogue energy.”
Just then the doors jolted open and a thin figure strode in and stopped before reaching the bridge railing. “Captain, the subspace coils are online and ready for testing.”
He almost laughed aloud. Perfect timing. “Forget the testing, ready your crew for an official go. The wave may just provide the energy we need to stay in hyperspace and gather real time subspace signature readings. Dismissed.”
“Captain, ETA for the primary wave is three minutes and counting.”
Alright, he turned back to the wall panels. “Bring us back to live footage.” Instantly the black hole returned to view where they watched with anticipation for the electron burst from the quasar emissions that would come as a massive surge was ejected in their direction. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s do our jobs and get this over with. Maybe now we’ll have a tale to tell the folks back home when the replacements arrive.”