Short Story Competition: 2B
This is a repost, as you may have gathered...
Short story competition:
-> 7,500 word limit
-> Themes: humorous, wierd, sci-fi
-> Deadline: 15th June, 2002
-> Entries posed before the deadline can be edited on the forums
Entries can be posted between now and the deadline. Have fun. :thumb:
Competition Entry Number 1
The aim was simple: write a story in a space opera setting. Nothing too ambitious, nothing that would make Iain M. Banks bow his head in shame; nothing to outdo Stephen Donaldson, force him crawling back to a more mundane day job.
And this is it. Whatever 'it' may be. Well, you're going to have to read on to find out, aren't you? Just make sure there's something soft beneath your jaw...
Word count: 7782
Note - Don't think you have to read this now just because it's now that I've posted it. I for one will not be reading any entries until after my exams, and then a few days after that. :cool:
All posts written under the pseudonym 'Bedford' in this thread are: Copyright to Nick Bedford, 2002
The pirate ship Embez docked desperate for repairs; left the bootleg shipyard several days later with much of her damage still showing. Heading on a course through space towards Teroy Vey. Scant minutes later, another ship broke dock: trailing wires and wrenched-off pieces of machinery she plunged into the void. The second ship ignored the station's astonishment and demands, pleas and threats. It burned on a torch of thrust too close to the station to be considered safe, metres ahead of the station's warning shots. When it came into range for the station's bigger guns the fleeing ship piled on more acceleration - and vanished in the characteristic yellow flash of displacement.
Eradicator was a covert military ship engaged in her eighth mission, the same crew and objective as the first: stop this ship, make sure this man, that woman don't survive. Because of the nature of their missions, the name of their ship was fitting.
The Eradicator was used to long assignments, used to pursuing a variety of ships. The first months of her life - when this crew took charge of her - had been spent alone: incommunicado with the military or any other authority.
During these months the crew had earned their ship a reputation in the criminal underworld of the galaxy.
This latest mission was also their last. Eradicator had served her purpose; in the eyes of the military she was a pile of junk with engines, fit only or scrap.
They knew this because another of the military's operatives - a lone recon man curiously named 'Raven' - had informed them, at much risk to his own life and their cover, to take one more ship and then return to base.
Eradicator had tracked Embez down to a bootleg station in the Planes of Algrakuzor. The illegal - a mechanical predator specialising in trading ships and salvage - was cautious; had hidden her true destination by leaving on a false heading.
The pirate ship was really heading for an asteroid field in close proximity to a mono-planet system: no sun. The equivalent to a bootleg station was set below the planet's surface, though little more was known about it.
If Embez went within three-thousand kems of the planet's estimated location, Eradicator was to cancel its mission, head for home. The risks of pursuit under such circumstances were considered too great.
They had lain just inside the asteroid field for several days, deadly silent, making use of the magnetic qualities of this region of the field; monitoring a stretch of dark space from which they expected the illegal to approach.
'Watch her, Cray. Dom, warm the engines: prepare for combat manoeuvres. The same goes for the rest of you.'
The captain had to move his control board in order to wrap the g-seat's webbing around his bulk and fasten it.
When he'd done that, he pulled back his board and ran his hands over it. Warning klaxons for heavy g and combat sounded elsewhere onboard the frigate.
'Sir,' chirped scan, 'she's heading our way.'
'What does that mean?' the captain returned rhetorically. It was important they weren't seen. 'Comm, are we transmitting?'
Bedford, a skinny man with an unruly shock of dark hear shook his head. 'Empty on all channels sir.'
'Wait sir, she's changing course.'
'For the planet?' It was just as important that they didn't lose their quarry; just as it was important to the captain, Uregos, that Embez went down.
Scan consulted his board. 'Negative sir. She's heading away from the station, towards another part of the field.'
Uregos nodded. 'Keep her on the edge of sensor range. Make a scan for other ships - she might try another attack.'
During the course of their mission, the Eradicator and her crew had seen Embez hit more than nine ships, the crews and, if there were any, passengers of which had all perished. Eradicator could not have saved them without revealing herself.
'Aye, sir,' said scan in answer to Uregos' command.
He felt g-force pile up in small increments on his cheeks and across his abdomen; a feeling as of the seat specially moulded for his profile sucking him in. Ironically it was designed to protect him during high-g manoeuvres: to support his neck and spinal column, soft pads for his heads, arms and legs.
The bridge was a semicircular curve, shallower at its flat edge. He liked to think of it as a tiered triangle, with himself at command at the semicircle's apex. On the second tier and to his left, Cray sat at scan, Dominic at helm on his right. The third tier was split into three: communications, targeting and weapons, data and damage control - from left to right, with their operators Bedford, Skeg and Johann respectively.
There was a panel on the right wall linked to a terminal in engineering, but it went largely unmanned: engineering had its own consoles.
His ship had enough crew for three shifts on six hour rotation during normal operation, four in combat. All crew but he shared cabins, and no one wore a uniform. When they went into dock, he collected everyone's id tags and locked them in a safe in his cabin. No risks were taken; nothing had been left unconsidered before they departed the military station some five and a half standard years ago.
At times, suffering insomnia in his cabin's bunk, he wondered how differently things might be run on the ship of the true illegal. He imagined being a member of crew on that ship, usually the craft they were pursuing: Exit Wound, Pathos, Invigilator. The faces of the crew were as clear and sharp as his memory of them from what seemed at times to be an endless stream of biofiles; a lengthy, detailed hit list.
'She's picking up speed.'
'Then compensate,' he barked.
They were a competent crew, none with any less than eight years' ship experience. All of them had tales of battle to tell, comm just as much as weps or helm. He trusted them because he had to: it was his job. He kept their spirits up during the long weeks of giving chase, through the mental strains and physical exhaustions of pursuit and covert operations. There was no choice. Here in space, everyone relied on everyone else for survival.
He had no choice.
There were four screens on the wall in front of him, three of which showed starcharts of the asteroid system that had housed them for the past few days. Picked out on each was the location of the bootleg planetoid: an orange blip set amongst lines and numerals of aqua.
The fourth screen was a three-dimensional digital reproduction of the data collected by the sensors: a donut of blue gridlines. There were slow-moving brown blobs: asteroids. A red blip pinpointed the Embez, tagged with alphanumerics: coords in three dimensions, registration codes. There was no one else within sensors' range.
'Embez is charging her main weapons, Captain,' reported scan. 'She can see something we can't.'
Uregos saw Skeg following Embez's example, pulling power off the main drives to feed the Eradicator's projectile and energy-based launchers. He didn't comment: initiative was good. Looking at his own board he saw that Skeg's pull was almost negligible.
'We're going to have to get closer, Dom.' He said. 'But try to keep us out of her sensor range.'
'Aye sir,' came the reply.
What could Embez see? A rival illegal? A potential target? The answer was vital. It could mean that he lost his quarry: failed the mission.
He didn't propose to fail the mission. Like his loyalty to his crew, it wasn't up for discussion; there was no debate.
The outcome was already formed in his head and he would return to the military to spend the next six years of his life in a luxurious garden; breathe real air.
Scan's voice brought him out of his thoughts. 'Sir there's too much rock. I can't make out anything from this position.'
He grunted, checked the screens. They were in one of the dense patches characteristic to this part of the asteroid field.
'Is there any way,' he asked, 'of moving us in closer without revealing ourselves?'
Scan shook his head. 'I doubt it sir. We have to get closer to see through the gaps in the field, but doing so puts us in range of Embez's sensors. Even if they don't see us entirely it's likely they'll see us through chinks between the rocks.' He shrugged, as if in mild defeat. 'If we go too close, we increase the likelihood of revealing our engine trail.'
'And they'll have that stored in their database,' Johann, Eradicator's data operator spoke up. 'They saw us come into dock at the bootleg shipyard, they'll know why we're here.' He too then shrugged as if in defeat.
But Uregos was not ready to accept defeat. Together, he and his crew had taken out seven illegal ships. They had served the military, conformed that much to their original briefs. Their final mission was not the time to break a long line of victory that had, at least for him, become almost a rule.
If they couldn't see what lay beyond the screening boulders of solid rock without making Eradicator visible to her enemy, then they would have to look for signs elsewhere.
'Do a scan as best you can on the surrounding areas of the patch.'
Scan began work out his board. 'What am I looking for, specifically?'
'Engine trails,' Uregos replied. 'Something that will give us a hint as to what Embez's spotted. And fast,' he added. Embez may already be under attack - or attacking. Checking the screens on his board he saw that Skeg had fully charged the Eradicator's primary weapons; secondary weapons were at four fifths full charge, torps resting in their loading tubes ready to be used.
His board also reported that the Eradicator's wealth of defences were up: deeflex shields for deflecting energy bolts, absorption fields for draining the kinetic energy synonymous to moving projectiles, bullets. They had jamming field projectors to confuse the independent control CPUs of all modern torps and missiles. The very rocks of the asteroid field would work in their favour, decreasing their chances of being hit. They would also work against them, making Embez harder to target and hit.
But he had good confidence in Skeg: had never seen either lose a battle. And he had faith in the other members of his shift - and his ship.
In a short while, he guessed only several seconds, his ship would be 100% battle-ready.
'Got it, Captain sir,' called Cray. He was smiling when he turned to his captain, who nodded. 'It looks heavy,' he said, back facing his board. 'A large engine, bigger than ours. It couldn't belong to an agile fighter craft; the trail is too wide and the power to mass ratio would be too great for precise handling.' An essential inside any asteroid field. Cray slapped his thigh and exclaimed in a loud voice as though he'd just solved a difficult yet irrelevant problem, 'It's a hauler of some kind, maybe a trader ship. Can't be anything else.'
There was a moment's silence.
'What do we do sir,' asked helm, voice steady.
What could they do? As per their brief, they had to destroy a designated criminal before he killed a specified number of people. But it felt wrong. It felt wrong but he couldn't lay a finger on the reason as to why it felt that way.
Maybe he'd been undercover for so long, and been so emphatic about it, that attacking right now, revealing himself to his foe after so long, seemed like a bad idea.
Maybe it was because they were too close to the bootleg planetoid, and should any of his bridge crew make a mistake, no matter how unlikely, Embez could get away.
Maybe he was afraid of failing the mission, his last before a six-year-long period of temporary retirement. He told himself not to be so stupid, that after so many terminations he was getting cynical.
But what if it were so?
He swallowed against a dry throat. 'Take us in Dom. Skeg, get a lock on her as soon as you see her, but don't fire until I say.' The guttural growl in his voice didn't require him to specify who "her" was. 'I want id on that heavy asap,' he continued, 'and I want comm open and set to receive on all channels.'
The bridge crew all replied by carrying out his orders. If they were used to taking them, he was used to giving them.
Watching scan's display on the screen in front of him, he watched his ship slowly rise upwards over a horizon of slow-moving rubble and boulders.
Several things happened almost all at once. Automated battle proximity alert klaxons launched into their distinctive wailing, cat-like shrieks. Comm had linked the bridge's speakers to his station: they exploded into a wild confusion of multiple distress signals merged with static. Scan suddenly shouted out the type of craft that Embez was attacking.
Seconds later, the klaxons stopped their ear-grating caterwaul, and comm severed his board's connection with the bridge speakers, blushing.
'It's a trade ship,' scan repeated. 'Fully-laden from what I can gather.'
'They're under heavy attack,' added communications. 'Their distress signal bounced off some glazed surfaces, caused it to echo and break up. But the ship is suffering from damage to its main engines; they've had to shut down.'
'Confirmed,' said scan. 'Electrics and life support must be tied to another power source.'
'Bring us into range for targ,' Uregos commanded. 'Make a window so we can hit those Embez fuckers.'
There was an adrenaline rush that took hold of him when he went into battle. A few thousand years ago he may have been called a berserker warrior, almost suicidal: running on the heat of combat; willing to die for whichever man was Master that day. The feeling began to rise inside of him now, though he fought to control it.
'Aye-aye, Captain,' replied helm, grinning.
Again he felt his body mass shift when Eradicator moved; when new forces of gravity were applied to his body from new directions
On the main screen display a green arrow shot form their ship to the red marker, still harried on-screen by the little red alphanumerics denoting registration and coords.
A window was open for primary weapons to the Embez. A single, larger alphanumeric counted down the estimated time of that window's life.
'Target acquired,' Skeg called.
'Fire at will,' Uregos called back, grinning widely, teeth revealed. 'Show them why we deserve the next six years.'
The man at targeting and weapons only nodded. He was used to Uregos' passion during battle, but it was important that he did not become effected by it, distracted.
In that way alone did Uregos think of himself as a bad captain.
Skeg sent a volley towards Embez, a thick mixture of slug-shots and energy bolts. He saved using the twelve torpedoes Eradicator had; they weren't as effective in an asteroid field, likely to be confused by rock.
Uregos guessed that a third of the Eradicator's shots hit their target. The res collided with rock, scattering small peg-like splinters, or missed any material completely, speeding out beyond the Embez.
The ship they had been chasing now for so many weeks that to Uregos it was personal seemed to pause in her tracks.
Up until weps had fired, she had been moving on a slow path that suggested a circular trajectory around the trader, effectively trapping the non-hostile ship and bringing all of her guns to bear.
Faced with another ship - a ship equipped with an armament more deadly than whipper missiles, the trader's weak ammunition - it appeared to be considering its option.
Weighing up her chances, Uregos thought, somewhat optimistically. They'd seen enough of Embez in action to know that she was a capable match for the Eradicator. Embez would just be scanning his ship, trying to figure her out.
Skeg released another volley before helm swung their ship behind an asteroid large enough to conceal them, and down the y-vector. He then eased forward: they were below Embez, but she was turning, bringing her main forward guns to bear, readying targ.
Dominic tied hard to keep them out of Embez' range of fire, but as Skeg sent another burst of slug-shot projectiles towards the enemy, Eradicator took a volley herself.
Uregos checked his systems: all steady green.
'Damage report,' he ordered.
'Nothing sir,' replied Johann. 'Secondary weapon projectiles I guess. They must have bounced off us.'
Uregos chuckled, thanking the military for their weapons and defence systems.
The only downside of battles in space was that there were no sound effects; he couldn't hear the Eradicator's shots slamming into the asteroids or hear those lumps of rock crack and splinter upon impact.
Worse, he didn't know the reactions of his enemies when Skeg sent them bursts of ordnance. He could only rely on scan to tell him the consequences, the outcomes on Embez herself.
From what data he had, it appeared Embez was no more damaged by Eradicator's shots than he was. However, Embez had been caught by surprise - and his ship had fired first, always an advantage when working with energy launchers because of their generic charge times.
And energy projectiles were better than standard slug-shot because they did more damage, because they could detract power from shields faster than even fast-fire slug-shot.
'She's launching torps!' shouted Cray, rapidly pressing buttons on his board. 'Not our way: the hauler.'
'Shit,' someone said.
'We have to draw them off sir,' helm said, fingers running wild, head down close to his board and the mini-screens he had there.
He was right. Draw them off or fend them off. It they could take Embez now... it wasn't that far from base here: a few weeks, two months at most.
'Prep a storage crate with medical supplies for release. Attach a homing beacon: we can make out way back here if she runs.' Again, he did not have to elaborate who "she" was.
'How're they going to get at the supplies, sir?' asked comm.
He shrugged, 'They're a trading vessel; they should have the right equipment. If not' - another shrug - 'they're human: they have initiative.'
He adjusted his bulk in the command chair as if combat manoeuvres agitated him. He was agitated, but it was g.
'Scan,' he barked. 'Status on that ship.'
'She's tight sir, not even a scratch. At this pace and with this hit rate' - a brief glance at Skeg - 'it could take hours.'
He rose an eyebrow. 'Weakspots?'
'Several. But they're all on her rear, mainly her drives. If we want to hit her there from here we’ll have to use torps.'
Which meant that until they got around behind she was virtually invulnerable. Any long period of barrage on Embez was the same for Eradicator. In an asteroid field, Uregos couldn't allow his ship to get that damaged: not it he wanted to survive the journey home.
No, the only way was to make Embez run. But how?
'Better idea comm. Cancel the medical supplies' - several of the crew looked at him - 'tight-beam a message to the hauler. I want them off their ship in e-pods ready for pick-up in less than twenty minutes.'
'Then we hit the hauler.' That gained him another look from most of the crew, but he ignored it. 'Without a ship to plunder,' he explained, 'she'll have to run.' They would accommodate the hauler's survivors until they came across a station that would take them, or until they reached base.
On the second and third tiers of the semicircular bridge, Skeg and Dominic coordinated the attack on the pirate ship.
He looked at the chronometer on his command board: nearly time for the next shift. This had better work.
The ship swung to the left and jolted upwards, avoiding treacherous rock, as helm tried to dodge Embez's bullets and weps tried to throw them back.
'Captain sir,' called comm, 'the hauler says she's ready to deploy evacuation pods.'
'Tell them we receive. Helm, you're going to have to get closer: put us between her and Embez.'
That way, Uregos would be forcing Embez to attack her, ignore the hauler whilst Eradicator acted as its gun-shield: more than capable of firing back.
The Eradicator swung smoothly down the y axis and along the x and z axes towards the hauler, maintaining a distance - the e-pods had yet to eject - but between the only two ships registering on scan.
Uregos flicked open the intercom on his board. 'Uregos to all available personnel: open port cargo holds one to three.' He closed the intercom. The holds were small - Eradicator was primarily meant to be a fighter's ship, the holds had existed solely for the plausibility of their story up to now - but they were large enough to accommodate two e-pods. So long as the hauler's crew could steer their pods, Eradicator would have them all aboard and safe within minutes.
'They've launched, sir.'
'Good. Helm, hold position until they're in. Skeg?'
'She's still holding. Forward shields are beginning to heat, nothing we could use right now.'
'We're holding. Heat to starboard-forward.' He smiled as impervious to the effects of battle and g. 'Nothing the sinks can't handle.'
Uregos nodded. He felt a nudge of pain in his stomach. Hunger.
As he punched buttons, one of the main images flickered and became a video image; he coded the camera nested on the Eradicator's outer shell to keep tracking the Embez. The camera did so. As he watched, his hunger grew, took on new definition.
This was it! This was what those weeks of waiting and following, the endless recon missions, had amounted to. The ultimate finale: Embez's eradication. As his battle rage rose to warm urgent fire in his belly he knew that her crew had to burn amidst the machinery which threatened the military.
Inside, he knew the thirst of his rage for battle would be quenched if she died.
Deeper down, he knew that wasn't true. He remembered the same promises, the same blind convictions that had led him to kill the second ship, the third and the next.
On the bridge, watching the video screen, seeing Skeg work frantically at weps, watching the other crewmembers working to protect his ship and the hauler, he fought desperately to gain a foothold on self-control.
If he succumbed he would make mistakes. Eradicator had weld marks along her right flank where illegals had repaired that evidence, tried to smooth it away.
'Sir, the pods are in. Personnel are closing the holds.'
Good; something to focus on.
'Get them medical attention if they don't already have it.' He was sure the command second or third would have organised it, but he said it anyway. 'Provide them with temporary accommodation, and get Howel' - Eradicator's command second - 'to set up a security rota: I want them watched like hawks. They're illegal and we're military. Make sure they don't know what we're up to.'
'Aye sir.' Bedford began relaying the command through his board to the relevant areas of the ship.
Helm had already started moving Eradicator away from the hauler. On-screen, Embez disappeared beyond the camera's field of vision; Eradicator's bulk stopped it from seeing further.
'Get us away helm; put us behind a rock.' An asteroid would shield Eradicator from the distortion and static that would confuse scan, make manoeuvres and targeting impossible.
'Shit!' Cray shouted, too loud. The video link with the outboard camera dropped into a display of white noise at the same instant.
'Status!' bellowed Uregos, leaning forward in his seat, pulling at the webbing on his chair.
'We're blind, sir! Too much distortion: the computer's confused.'
'Shit,' he whispered. Blind in an asteroid belt.
'They must have hit the hauler before we could,' Skeg offered.
The only likely answer.
'Then where the hell is she?' Under this pressure, his rage groaned for release. 'Scan, her last location.'
Cray tapped buttons on his board. 'She would have been caught in the blast too. The asteroids around her were too fast to estimate trajectories blind.'
'The hauler then?'
More taps. 'Negative. The drives didn't buckle: they couldn't, they were down. No other energy sources on her with enough brisance to blow her apart.'
'Has she gone then?'
'It's likely. The distortion came from around her coordinates. Its size and power matches something her engines could produce. If they were hit, they'd explode even though they're down.'
'Oh God,' he moaned. 'Another ship.'
Scan frowned, but it had to be true.
'Another fucking ship!' He was beginning to lose his self-control. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, tried to calm himself.
'Scan,' he barked roughly, tension creeping into his voice, 'how long before the computers can filter out the distortion?'
Buttons: 'Probably three minutes.'
Uregos growled. That long before Eradicator could see again.
'Estimate the asteroid trajectories,' he snarled. 'Put us behind one.'
Scan swallowed; he didn't like questioning orders this frequently. 'But sir, they're moving too fast. There's a high chance we'll be hit.'
These were the dangers of navigating in an asteroid fild. But Eradicator's computers were good. Uregos trusted them and the ability of his crew; and the dark hunger inside urged him for murderous action.
Shaking against his battle for self-control he slurred, 'I'll take that risk.'
He knew he could lose his crew's trust this way, but the ague and the drive for violence - Eradicator was blind! - blessed or cursed him with ignorance, insouciance. He gripped the g-seat's left armrest with his hand, started rapping his knuckles off the edge of the command board to the beat of his berserker's visceral power.
His eyes began to sting around the edges because he wasn't blinking often enough; like uncontrollable balls the orbs darted from one screen to another.
The chronometer told him he had one minute left; g pushed him from two different angles.
So far, Cray's estimations had been correct and Eradicator was intact.
And the other ship - who was she? where did she come from? how was she here? - hadn’t delivered a killing blow. Despite the risk it would have cost her, had the hauler's attacker been caught in the blast too?
'Status,' he bellowed again, although there was still half a minute to go. His tone made scan answer almost immediately.
'Clearing.' Unnecessarily he said, 'We should be restored in fifteen seconds.'
Uregos sat uncomfortably in the command chair, and could feel the muscles in his neck and shoulders beginning to knot. His knuckles hurt, but he continued hitting them off the edge of the board.
It was the only sound until scan said, 'Clear,' and began routing data from his board though to helm.
'Where is that bastard?' Embez had a male captain; Uregos knew that from the ship's bio-files.
'The hauler's gone,' Cray said unimaginatively. Then he continued, frowning, 'Embez has gone too.'
'No. Traces of her emission trails show that' - his voice hinted at surprise, possibly awe - 'she passed above us during the disruption.' He turned his seat to face Uregos. 'She's headed for Duobi.'
The station; refuge from the storm.
'Fuck,' he said, then more loudly, 'Turn this fucking tug around' - he hated insulting his ship - 'and let's pound those fuckers before they reach the fucking planetoid.'
'Fuck,' he repeated, as though that was the only expletive he knew.
He punched the intercom button, only now aware that the knuckles of one hand were white with gripping the armrest and that the knuckles of his other hand were bleeding from where he'd hit the board. Adamantly he growled, 'Howel, get your ass up here now.'
Before his second could reply, he roughly pushed the command board away and undid the webbing that kept him in his chair; the straps that imprisoned the bulk of his fury.
He didn't bother to wait until command second Howel arrived. She could gather what had happened for herself by reading scan's logs. Or she could ask Cray. He wasn't in the frame of mind to care.
Instead, he stormed through the empty corridors to the lift that would take him down to the crew cabins' level.
He didn't unclench his jaw or relax his fists until his cabin-door was closed and locked. He set the intercom not to receive any calls for the next four hours; when Howel would be relieved by the command third and his crew.
By rights he should have gone straight to his bunk, sheathed himself in its protective g-webbing and tried to get some sleep. Or he should have gone to sickbay for a hypo of benzodiazepine.
But he didn't go to his bunk, and he'd never liked the thought of artificially induced sleep.
At least he should have strapped himself down; Eradicator was in an asteroid field, in combat: heavy g manoeuvres were a matter-of-course. He should have tired to protect himself.
Yet he didn't do either. Like a divine prescience his anger calmed him, took away the likelihood of any physically damaging possibilities.
He was invincible!
At the same time, however, he felt a great sadness as though some integral part of himself was missing, worn away when Eradicator went blind.
He'd experienced fear then, when the hauler exploded in a white noise fury, almost an instinctive desire to panic and flee: a remnant instinct from Humankind's animal ancestors. He believed in evolution. He believed that piracy was a disease. He treated illegals as the very cells responsible for the disfigurement of Human Space.
Eradicator and the dozens of other ships like her were the vaccine, the cure. A generously free drug released by the military: for the protection of Space.
There were lockers in his cabin, every cabin, for personal possessions. He opened one, withdrew a palm-sized vial of translucent liquid and, removing the cap, took a swig. He replaced the cap on the vial and the vial in the locker then closed its gunmetal door.
He began undressing.
The vial contained a liquid diazepam and enkephalin compound. After a shower he should be able to get in his bunk and sleep.
He opened the shower's doors and stepped in.
Asleep, he dreamed.
The depths of his dreams were cluttered with broken and disjointed mirror images of the past; memories charged with a passion at once precise and uncontrolled.
The cabin intercom was distorted by mechanisms into metallic tint, puckered and malformed as it began breaking into his sleep - echoing...
'Captain Uregos? This is Tensen: can you hear me?'
No! His mind fought to remain undisturbed, but his brain was already working to recognise what he was hearing. Tensen? The command third was on the bridge? How long had he slept?
Trying to shrug off the now fleeing remnants of sleep, Uregos unzipped the bunks g-sheath and slid out onto the floor. Standing he punched open the intercom channel.
'Uregos here, go ahead.'
Tensen's voice came to him over the intercom, distorted by machine parts. Still, the pressure in his words was audible. 'Sir,' he suggested. 'Sir, we've lost Embez.'
A howl began to rise up from Uregos' stomach; he could feel pressure mounting beneath his diaphragm. The command third was still talking.
'She must have slid away while scan was still trying to decipher the storm. We don't have any leads: the asteroids distort any likely heading.'
Gritting his teeth - how long had he been chasing that ship? - he asked, 'What else?'
Tensen paused. By the weight of that hesitation, Uregos could guess that things were far: far worse.
'Long range scan is picking up another vessel. It's not Embez: it's bigger. We ran a comparison with our databases. The results are tentative, but there's enough positive id to give her class and potential weapons inventory.'
He decided not to speak; the force welling in his abdomen was too great - he couldn’t trust himself. Fucking Embez had fucking eluded them! Once more he waited for the command third to continue.
'She's an Aedile class heavy frigate: almost a destroyer. She's capable of holding firepower like ours twice over and then some. And she's agile. We've got two readings; looks like she could run rings around us and we wouldn't even know it, not in this field.'
Shit! Now there was a ringing pain inside his skull. He was having difficulty not showing his rage; Tensen was essentially a new recruit. Eradicator's mission was his first. The situation was difficult for Uregos.
'Hold on,' he managed. 'I'm coming up.'
The relief from the other end of the intercom was almost tangible. 'Okay sir.'
He snapped off the intercom and went to his locker; he needed some sort of artificial assistance to handle this situation.
When he got to the bridge, he found it in some state of disruption. It seemed that some of the officers from his watch had returned early in order to replace the officers of third watch. Occupants of the second watch were nowhere to be seen. Checking chronometers, he guessed the command second, Ingrid Howel, hadn't even brought her shift up to the bridge. What was going on? And where was Embez?
'Captain, sir.' Tensen saluted sharply when he saw Uregos enter the bridge.
He ignored the salute, jumped in with both feet. 'What the hell's happened to Howel?' Although under greater control, his anger was more close to the surface than it had been before. 'Where's her watch?'
Tensen looked flustered. 'Sorry Captain, sir. Some of the crew are watching the survivors we lifted from the hauler. Third officer Howel is with the rest of her crew, overseeing repairs.'
Repairs? 'What happened? Are we hit?'
'Somehow we lost a sensors array when scan was confused. We might have hit a rock. Third officer Howel has crew outside the ship trying to locate damage. So far, nothing. It could have been a circuit short.'
Uregos grimaced. He doubted it. Eradicator had been built to withstand trivial injuries during the course of her mission by the military. She was useless if she had to stop and make repairs on a frequent basis; every ship was.
'Can't damage locate it?' he asked.
Tensen shook his head. 'No sir, we've tried that. Whatever it is, damage control isn't seeing it. We've recalibrated and retried: nothing.'
He sighed, 'You're relieved officer. Get the rest of the crew and assist in repairs or get some sleep.' Tensen nodded, saluted and left the bridge. 'The rest of you,' he continued, 'have work to do.'
A couple of people groaned in mock protest, but most of the bridge crew were still working: Dom at helm, Cray at scan. From the third watch, Kunio and Telak had replaced Skeg and Bedford at the targ and communications stations.
Uregos leaped into the command g seat and began accessing logs. 'Helm,' he said, 'work with scan: get us close to that ship: the one we can't identify. I'm thinking she might be military backup.' It was a wild idea, but it might be true. If not, he might get a chance to quench the ire still burning in his belly, threatening to consume him.
Eradicator's unfound injury still nagged at him. He called it an injury because to him, the ship was more than just a lump of metal. It had all the characteristics of a human: it moved, it grew (in experience if not size, just like her crew), it emitted waste in the form of engine emissions and impact fire. Eradicator was a living beast, pulsating with enough ferocious energy to crack open meteors, protect her crew and reduce pirates to smears of grease.
He hoped to God she wasn't hurt.
There was little to do while he waited for scan to get him a positive reading on the unknown ship, to tell him if she were dangerous or friendly. Or neutral. Even though this belt was primarily an illegal nest, there were the occasional shipping lines that passed directly through it.
He just sat in his g seat, letting the ship's gentle trajectories through tumbling bubbles of mass pull him against his webbing.
'Got it!' whooped scan, a small burst of verbal hope. Reading from data still entering his boards he added, 'She's not an Aedile.' Uregos felt some of his apprehension sag as if it were material; that was a relief. ' That's how she managed to look so agile. She's Procurator class' - a step down in class -'and heavily upgraded.'
'What does that mean?' Then he added, 'And spare me the technical terms: I want a simple answer.' The situation seemed to demand it.
'She's faster and stronger; more powerful in terms of weaponry. I count four impact guns, three pulse cannons, eight laser emitters, two torp shafts.'
'And?' Uregos enquired. That was the equipment most ships of Procurator class carried. Even posing as an illegal freighter, Eradicator has just as much concealed weaponry as that.
'And,' Cray emphasised, 'she sports an ion cannon.'
'Holy shit,' someone whispered.
'Ah. That's where her upgrades are.' Knowing that, Uregos could conclude that, 'She's not as fast as we thought. Her extra power's for that gun.'
Johann at data nodded, 'And it takes time to charge. She may not use it.'
'In which case,' Cray finished. 'We can beat her. If that's what you want,' he added.
Uregos couldn't answer yet. Stalling so that his inner fury could gather itself and suggest a response, he asked of Johann, 'Have you got a positive id yet?'
Johann shrugged, reading screens, 'Tentative. She could be either Lightning Storm or,' he grinned, 'Circumciser.'
Uregos allowed himself a small grin of his own. 'Really.'
He waited a few more seconds, marshalling his thoughts: preparing himself. His rage spoke to him, decreed actions and ignored their consequences. But his rage was different somehow. As its sole benefactor, he knew the many feelings it could evoke - and knew what those feelings meant, what they were supposed to inspire. His rage was calmer, more concentrated. It seemed at once both lighter and powerful. He shook his head: he had to make a decision.
'Dominic, take us in. Kunio: make sure we're charged for battle.' Hitting a button on the command consol, he opened his intercom on a non-specific frequency that would be heard by Howel. 'Officer Howel, respond.'
Almost at once, Howel's voice returned over the small speaker. 'I'm here, Captain. We haven't been able to find the damage I'm afraid.'
Although he knew she couldn't see him, he shook his head, 'Never mind, Howel. Get your men back inside: we're going into combat very soon.' Unnecessarily he added, 'I can’t afford to lose you.'
'Aye, Captain. Give us a few minutes to get into an airlock.'
'Got it.' He closed the connection. 'Dom: make the passage smooth until I get the clear from Howel.'
His body felt truly alive: Eradicator was going for another kill. And he was sure that she would survive.
Uregos flipped on the battle alert klaxon when they came within 45,000 k of their target, just outside weapons range. Communications was set to receive any signal on all frequencies: if the unidentified ship was harmless - innocent - he wanted to know immediately.
Comm was also relaying messages between the bridge and the rest of the crew. The survivors of the attack on the hauler were being isolated: the mess hall was being temporarily sealed whilst they were strapped to g-seats inside it. His crew wouldn't be able to lift their guns under the force of gravity when Eradicator went into combat.
Weapons were charged: all Kunio needed now was for his systems to get a target to hit. Johann had still not yet identified the cause of the sensor bank failure; as a result, Eradicator plunged forward with an eight degree gap in scan. It wasn't life threatening - but if they couldn't find the cause, or if they lost another bank...
The alert klaxons ceased their caterwaul: Uregos' ship entered battle.
The target - Lightning Storm or Circumciser; Uregos preferred the former - began firing as soon as Eradicator came into range, and as soon as the asteroids had cleared to give her a guaranteed shot.
She was still moving; in a short time she had drawn the military ship into a small area of open space some 60,000 k in diameter. Scan reported it was a natural phenomenon: that if they continued on their present heading, the courses of the tumbling rocks outside would pulp them within seven hours. Uregos had that long to avenge the interrupter of his mission.
At times, Lightning Storm's ion cannon emblazoned the dark skies in a rhythmic streak of blue. They were only able to dodge it because of the open space they occupied. Nevertheless, the boundaries of that open space were constantly changing; helm was working hard to stop the ship from getting hit by pulse cannons or asteroids, and to keep Kunio's guns pointing in the right direction.
Uregos remembered Cray's words as he read form his screens. She's faster and stronger; more powerful in terms of weaponry. Was this the day he was going to die?
Eradicator was suffering from some unknown injury; some of his crew were incapacitated because unknown survivors were untrustworthy and had to be guarded. He had always wondered what he would do if he was caught in an outmatched position. The gallant thing would be to fight to the death; the intelligent thing to do would be to run.
Another ion beam cauterised the heavens, singing receptors and antennae along Eradicator's port side; Uregos was glad he'd called Howel in. Kunio replied with as much energy as he could, both physiological and weapons-based. He worked at his board as if it were becoming more and more an integral part of him. Urgeos had seen him work before; he was rapidly working his way up to the targ first's skill.
Kunio kept alternating between firing weapons, allowing some to recharge whilst others fired. Such an attack played havoc over Storm's shields.
The question was: was he intelligent enough to know when to stop fighting, brave enough to run?
Suddenly, without warning, the ship tremored violently. Telak paused in his work; looked up for a moment, then continued speaking into his headset, demanding information from the crew.
'Johann?' Uregos asked.
The data first shrugged, 'We are damaged, but we still have integrity.' That was confirmed by the absence of decompression alerts. 'She shouldn't have been able to hit us though: shields are strong on that section of the ship.'
Inwardly, Uregos sighed. Another problem. At this rate, his ship would fall apart before he got it back to dock.
She's not as fast as we thought. Her extra power's for that gun.
Storm's ion cannon would still be charging, but drastic evasive manoeuvres - more drastic than the ones they were taking now - might be enough to save them.
He was about to tell helm when another shudder cut him off. It rang throughout the entire ship; Eradicator groaned like some wounded animal. The sound bled fury into his veins.
'Status!' he barked, recovering some of his old fire.
'We're holed sir!' Johann's voice was fraught with tension; the man's skills were being stressed thin, there was too much for him to consider. 'Decompression alerts haven't gone off: somehow they've been taken out. The computer's automatically sealing the deck, but we've lost whoever was in that section.'
'Who was in that section?'
When Johann didn't answer, he repeated himself more loudly. 'Who was in that section, Johann?'
The data first's larynx bobbed convulsively as he swallowed. 'The survivors sir. All of them: they're gone.'
'Fuck!' Uregos had no one to back him up when he got into dock; if he ever got into dock. If he managed to get away, no one would believe he hadn't deliberately ignored his mission simply to gain his retirement award. And the ship's flight logger wouldn't record the rescue of those survivors because it wasn't connected to the flight bays: they weren't meant to be used, were just for show.
Fight or flee.
In that instant - the brief recess between his expletive and the crew's reaction - he made a decision. They were not going to survive: whoever she was, their enemy was trying her damnedest to make sure of that.
The time for running had come.
'Get us out of here Dom. I don't care how. Just take us back: take us home. Our business is finished here.'
Although he couldn't see the helm officer's face, Uregos had the distinct impression he was smiling as he answered, 'Aye sir.'
Twelve weeks later, Eradicator came into dock at military outpost Augustus. In desperate need of repair she was assigned a docking berth in the shipyard. Within scant minutes the shipyard's techs concluded that the ship's sensors and decompression klaxon had failed because of a virus. The thought that there was a traitor onboard the vessel was immediately discarded on principles of the bonds Eradicator's Captain had formed with all his crew. It was eventually believed that one of the survivors of the destroyed hauler had somehow managed to insert a virus onto the ship's systems, probably when they were left untended.
The ship that had attacked Eradicator in the asteroid field and had caused her to lose her mission target was never officially identified, though there were speculations which placed it somewhere in the list of the many hundreds of mercs employed by the military.
As for the crew's six-year-long temporary retirement, this was withheld on account of their having not destroyed their final target. There are some who would say that the military deliberately organised the attack on Eradicator and the disappearance of Embez - never reportedly seen again - to ensure they would retain the expenses that would go into funding a temporary supported retirement phase. There are some who would believe that Uregos and his crew were set up. Some would also say that the promotion that took Captain Uregos to Commander status was a bribery.
The truth shall never be known.
Story entry: End of the Line
The moment is upon me.
I had done everything I knew how to do. All my power, worthless. All my knowledge, impotent. It all comes down to this one last time, this one last chance. For this, I would give everything.
I look down and see what I thought I had to do. It is times like this that I wished would never come, and it is always hardest when I didn't know how exactly to proceed, and only had a glimmering of a hope of an idea of how it would go. There was always the chance that I would fail. That's the curse, you see, of being what I am and being able to do what I can do. I am a Primordial, existing since the beginning of Time in one form or fashion. My name is not important, as I have had a multitude, but you may call me Gabriel. From the dawn of Time, we Primordials have been. There are many others, but many of them Slumber, not wanting to go through life and its many hardships. Those who stay awake do so out of need to know the present. What I am telling you is not really important. I just feel that you may better understand me and what I am about to do. Or try to do.
I sit down and gaze and think. It is easy for a Primordial to think; after all, we do have Eternity. What is difficult is when our emotions cloud our reason. Primordials have too much emotion. We can't stop feeling. That is why a great many of us enter the Slumber for millennia and let the Universe pass by.
My heart begins to ache and my eyes grow moist. Why must this be? I cry inwardly. There is no reason for this! My sight grows dim as I look deeper. I remember how it was when I first became Aware. Aware of what I am, what I have to do, what I can do. I look upon my works and despair, for they are nothing. An errant sneeze could render them non-existant and without use. In uncounted millions of years, I have created many things, but nothing like what I have created now.
And here it is, slipping away from me by inches, because of my pride. My pride and my desire. I have nothing without this. I can move worlds. I can shatter moons with nary an effort. The stars are what I use for playthings, if I so choose. Yet this one thing is almost beyond me. Damn me to the Hells! I will not let this end in such a manner!
I feel a hand on my shoulder. Looking up reveals a man, ordinary-looking in every way, yet capable of the same things I am. He is my brother, of sorts. Michael is the name he takes this time. His eyes are as wet as mine, but he is controlling himself better. He always could. Though only older than me by seconds, he has done so much more than I have. He smiles a sad smile at me and says "Sometimes, it's better to let go."
"I know, brother." The breath I pull into my lungs burns, for I realize that I haven't breathed in hours. I savor the slight pain, taking it as my just desserts. "It never gets any easier."
"It never will get any easier, brother. We are what we are, and nothing can change that." Heaving a very human sigh, Micheal let some of the Energy flow into me, to help me control myself. "You're really going to try it?" he asks, his voice incredulous.
Laughing, I say "Why not? After all this, after all that has happened, should I not try? Is that so wrong?" My eyes glow with anger. "We have the power of Creation! We can do anything, damn it all!"
"Not anything," Michael corrects me. He always loves to correct me. "We may be born of the Universe, but even we have limits. What if it kills you?"
I laugh again. Amazing how despair can fill you with mirth and reckless abandon sometimes. "What does it gain me to be eternal when I will not be able to live? What is it worth to exist forever and go from day to day with every second being an eon? Death would be better for me than a hellish nightmare that I cannot wake up from."
"You've been around these humans too long, brother."
"You've not been around them enough, brother." I return my gaze to its original position.
He sighs again, the exhalation musical. I can tell he is wondering if I really mean to go through with it. "You've always been impetuous. I never understood why." He looks in the direciton I do. "Is it worth it?"
Smiling sadly, I nod. No words. Just a nod as I stand over her. I place my hands on her battered face and will the Energy of Creation into her. It hurts, for I am taking her wounds and making them my own. The accident that left her broken and clinging to life by a thread is becoming mine to deal with.
Remember I said something about emotions and how they can rule a Primordial? This is just such a case. I take her pain and make it my own. My legs buckle as the bones, stronger than the finest steel, break into a thousand shards. I feel my ribs puncture one of my lungs and stomach, the tearing of organs horribly audible in my ears. I gasp in excrutiating pain, but I laugh. Michael always said that I would die laughing one day, and who am I to prove my brother wrong?
I feel Michael's hands on my shoulders, trying to take some of the burden from me. I don't want him to; this is my fault. I am to blame. I can't stop him, though. He's too powerful now, in my weakened state. I hear him cry out in agony, but I can see nothing. Nothing, except her face slowly mending itself to its former beauty, the elegance that it possessed before her truck met the rear end of an 18-wheeler. My eyes blank, and I keep her face in front of me, in front of my mind.
Everything that I am, I give to her. Everything that I have, I give to her. The Energy floods out of me into her. I may die now, but at least, at the end of the line, I will be able to say that, for one flicker of an instant in my long, long life, I was able to make a difference.
I see her looking down on me, and it is good. Michael is steadying her, looking rather ragged. I imagine that I look much worse. I can feel my legs, though I wish I could not. A doctor looks me over. I don't know when he got there, but he seems to be perplexed. Ah, I see. Michael set the Eye upon him, one of our little gifts. We may have problems manipulating flesh, but minds and inanimate objects are much easier, which means that it will appear that I was the one in the accident, according to memories and paperwork. I would explain how it is done if I didn't feel my still damaged body trying to set my ribcage back to its rightful position. If you have never felt this, you are certainly very lucky. Looking at Michael, I manage to croak out a single word: "Why?"
This time, he laughs. "Why? Why did I help you? Or why did I help her? I can answer both questions with a single word." He leaned over me, the doctor oblivious to him. The Eye can be so useful. "The word is love. I see how you love her. I saw, through our Link a few moments ago, that she loves you. And I love you, brother. I understand you now."
As the doctor injects artificial sleep into my arm, I let it take hold of me. I look at my dear brother, and my dear one. She gazes back, sadness on her face. She does not yet know that I will be all right. "Why did you do this?" she asks.
I muster the strength to whisper, "For you. For love. Forever." And with those words, I sleep, and dream of her, knowing that, however much pain I am in, I would face it a thousandfold for her. Love hurts, but love heals.
Dedicated to my loving fiancee, whom I wish I could be there for in her pain.
I know it's a bit short, so if you want to take it out of the running, it's okay. I just had to get it out somehow. Thanks for listening.