Featured

See the Book!

Screams of the Hypes

~~~ Novelette ~~~

Amazon

ISA Mercon
International Space Agency Warship
Jovian Equatorial Belt - 2061 C.E.

“This is ISA Warship Mercon directing unidentified vessel moving on Jovian spin-wise vector twenty-three degrees south by minus thirty-eight degrees ecliptic. You are to make your instant elevation cloud top prime and move to a stationary position at the coordinate packet side-banded to this transmission. Comply and prepare to be boarded or you will be fired upon.”

Screaming winds of the eternal storm managed to penetrate even to the bridge casting an unnatural aura over the encounter. As a captain of wavedrive class starships for the past six years, there was very little that surprised Arlonious Tafton. This chance discovery was proving the exception. He didn’t like this damned planet, they’d lost too many vessels here in the relatively calm upper reaches of this killer’s atmosphere. However, Tafton was a professional and his concerns rarely tainted the clarity of command, “Ensign Blover, how is it their presence was not known to us earlier?”

The ensign never looked up from his station, “Sir, they are near impossible to detect much less secure a lock on. Most likely they were floating with zero relative motion to the surrounding storms centers. Our sensors first classified the bogey designated Sierra One as a floating proto-biomass. AI classification currently rates their hull type as ‘unknown’ but most definitely synthetic.”

Lieutenant Casowry broke into the subsequent moment of silence, “Action, sir?”

Captain Tafton looked with surprise at his executive officer before softly replying, “Patience Lieutenant.”

The planet they call ‘Jupiter’, is nearly three times the mass of all other planets and debris in the solar system combined. Mercon was pushing its way through the uppermost reaches of a swirling storm of brown and red cyclones that, even here on the edge of space, surrounded the starship while extending deadly fingers of hot, radiation-laden gas out to the stars far enough to fit several Earth-sized planets beneath their arches. Lightning played within this chaos, running from cloud-tip to cloud-tip, leaving a strange flickering glow upon the bridge.

The captain’s response was firm, “Make ready tactical torpedoes. Ensign, bring us ….”

The unknown ship was gone. It didn’t accelerate. Not even the quickness of a wavedrive could have accounted for such an instant disappearance. Ensign Tafton took pride in knowing his job, “Signal is lost but there were two milliseconds of secondary electron emission in the path they took through the storm tops.”

“Lay in the course, Ensign. All ahead but safe harbor.”

“Aye aye sir, all ahead, safe harbor. We are in pursuit.”

The tiniest of shudders shook the ship and the storm clouds were gone. They found themselves in a channel carved into the cloud cover of the great planet, “Sir, I have a clear residual graviton stream to follow.”

“Retain ‘unknown’ classification. Continue pursuit. Fire missiles as you lock on.”

“Aye aye, sir. Fire missiles as we lock on.”

“All missiles, release success.”

Then a minute later, “All munitions reporting negative impact, sir.”

“Ready tactical nuclear one, three and five. Fire as you bear.”

This required authorization, “Nuclear release approved, tactical officer confirmation.”

Sailing onward to the center of a cloud-free channel wide enough to float an Earth-sized planet, the unidentified starship’s path became obvious. In the distance, towering high above even the fearsome cloud-tops of this gas giant lay a swirling cyclone of angry red and black clouds. They were on a side-approach to the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, a storm column laced with high energy discharges, glowing with the photon emission of ions accelerated to near lightspeed. An eternal tornado, wide enough to pass three Earth-sized planets down its gullet without touching its churning outer edges.

“Well that explains the trough we follow,” Captain Mercon commented to no one in particular. “We’re in the cloud-wash of that thing.”

Fear laced the ensign’s announcement, “Sir, we have AI confirmed detonation from weapon’s release but no noticeable effects, not even in the surrounding cloud banks.

“Shall I break off, sir?”

“Ensign, remember your station. Refrain from suggesting actions.”

“Intruder visual, sir.”

The captain pulled up a greatly magnified image with the ship’s AI enhancing its smallest details. Directly ahead lay the roaring storm column, its image crisp and clear but the bogie remained out of focus although obviously still on course. He watched it slam into the storm wall leaving little more indication of its collision than a pebble thrown into a raging river.

“Follow bogey, lay in a course for that exact entry point. Sound collision.”

Beads of sweat on Lt. Casowry’s forehead were the only indication of his fear, “Sir, that’s obviously not a Mars Confederation vessel. I suggest we break off.”

White, straining knuckles dug furrows into the arms of the command seat but not a word sounded on the bridge as the ship flung itself against the storm wall. A last second’s hallucination materialized from a spot ahead in the form of a black fog growing in their path. The shuttle hatch alarm sounded and, faster than the ensign could react, an unnatural fog enveloped their ship and they slammed into the wall.

***

A million shards of human-manufactured materials flared in a brown smear on the inside shell of the cyclone. It existed for less than a second before a smudge of black fog materialized, somehow retaining an oblate cohesion as it churned and boiled in its emergence from the swirling wall of clouds.

Clear of the storm wall, the cloud dissipated and in its place a silvery shuttle took form. Not the smooth sleek shape of a starship but a boxy, sharp-cornered, purely functional design. The shuttle’s AI began repairs even as the fog dissipated. Power levels stabilized from the overload and ventilation pushed a life-sustaining high-oxygen and nitrogen mix through the cabin.

ISA Lieutenant Nichols Alsoi was the first to recover. Training kicked in and his eyes called up shuttle status, a moment later he nodded and turned to look for the others. Words formed unconsciously on his lips, “Only four?”

Engineer Jack Arlow groaned, “Not exactly my first thoughts after having gone through all that. Where’s …. Hey Jerry, you made it!”

Spacer Jerimiah Johnson was on the deck resting cross-legged in a corner, the body of that annoying, slim brunette lay across his lap while he held his hand to her head, “Sara needs help. She skull-butted something and has a broken leg.”

“First time I’ve ever seen the great ‘Sara Prakset, Journalist’ with her mouth shut.” Whined the engineer.

Alsoi’s eyebrows knotted in disapproval, “Enough of that Mr. Arlow, get up and make yourself useful, we aren’t out of this yet.

“It appears that only four of us made it. I can’t locate the Mercon or any other shuttles.”

Jack Arlow let out a low whistle then held his head from the pain that flared as he rose, “Cheez on a crutch. Four? Only four of us out of a crew of four hundred and thirty-eight?”

“Plus, the journalist,” Jerry added. “Hey, you got the forward display working. Good job but where’s all the jetsam? Shouldn’t we be in the middle of the debris field?”

The forward walldisplay panned its view as Lt. Alsoi replied, “Good question. Nothing around and look where we find ourselves.”

“We ain’t in Kansas no more,” Jack grumbled.

Jerry looked at the engineer, “Where the heck does he come up with these sayings?”

“Clam up and take a look around,” the lieutenant’s command voice filled the cabin. Their shuttle traveled within a cylinder or more accurately a long tube, its sides were rotating angry walls of discharge-laced storm clouds that managed to reveal a small circle of distant stars at one distant end of the tube and fade off into some invisible destination far below.

“Think that’s sexy? Look over here where my marker’s pointing.”

In the near distance lay the mysterious vessel they’d fired upon, tracking as close to the storm wall as possible as it came on in an indirect but obvious approach pattern. Eventually, the strange vessel began taking shape. It was black, not a dull light-absorbing black but shiny with fine rainbow Lissajous ribbons of light dancing over the skin. Its surface took on details, sleek like a black teardrop at times, then rippled like the shallow guidance channels of a hypervelocity missile before transforming on to a thousand other patinas. Then a spinning, black jet emerged from its side visible only by portions of the distant storm wall it occluded and the play of rainbows across its surface. The cloud expanded, increasing its density as it neared.

“Oh shit, this is it. No more for us, Betty.” Jack whined as he mindlessly backed off from the approaching threat. Like a bad dream, it was upon them with impossible speed, spreading out until it engulfed the shuttle. “Cheez Lieutenant, get us outta here!”

Lt. Alsoi was already lunging for the controls but, just as rapidly, a patch of black mist entered the cabin, defying the solid walls of their shuttle as though the plastisteel barriers were no more tangible than a sunbeam and settled over the control panel where it solidified to a hard, silvery surface.

“Pry it off.”

“I’m not going anywhere near that stuff. You too, back off.” Alsoi’s eyes moved to the walldisplay, “Even if we could run, there’s nowhere to go unless you want to try that stormfront again. Besides, it hasn’t tried to hurt anyone so far.”

“That so? How about what it did to our ship?”

Controls blocked, the mist somehow permitted the visuals of the walldisplay to continue as it drew the shuttle towards the mysterious black object and, as they approached, they began to appreciate its huge proportions. A portion of the ship’s black-skin lightened as their shuttle approached the great vessel. To their surprise, the ship’s skin enveloped them, sucking the entire shuttle in like waves of water flowing over a rock passing through a waterfall.

Then the mist was gone.

They were in a huge chamber that was an obvious docking bay complete with light gray walls but no clear source of illumination. Alsoi noticed the control panel was now free and lunged for it.

“Nothing, no response at all. AI’s dead. Can’t even fire the bootstrap sequencer.

“Quick, weapons locker …”

The shuttle’s hatch shot open without the expected sound of sliding metal or shush of air pressure equalizing to a new environment. Two humanoids entered but their general shape is where the resemblance stopped. They had no external distinguishing marks but were shining black like the ship itself with the same narrow, contiguous rainbow patterns dancing across their surfaces.

A deep voice, amplified and obviously accustomed to command, rang out at them, “I’m Gunnery Sergeant Arlington, you can call me Gunny or Sergeant Arlington. We’ll do the rest of the formalities later. You and you, leave now with the corporal. Do as Prachert instructs or you will suffer for it. We have no time to play around.

“You, the cute one holding the girl, continue as you are. Hold her and do not move no matter what happens in the next few moments.”

The shock of hearing his own language didn’t stop Jerimiah, he was about to object until he somehow sensed the figure’s attention focused on him. Suddenly he suspected opening his mouth wasn’t a good thing so he clamped it shut and gave a small nod of compliance.

“Good, not as dumb as you look. Now, don’t move.” A fine black mist materialized mid-air between the menacing figure and Jerry. It thickened as it drifted with the grace of pollen on an air current over to the still-unconscious journalist. Jerry stiffened the slightest but caught himself before the figure could release a reprimand. The dry mist settled, covered the injured journalist’s leg then disappeared.

“Not good.” Jerry twitched in spite of himself as the sergeant’s low voice surrounded the spacer. “It’s a spiral compound fracture, the girl’s lucky to have passed out.

“I’m gonna sedate her and immobilize the leg until we can get Doc to look it over. Lucky for her the doc’s with us, never really trust autodocs myself.” Once again, more mist appeared and settled onto the injured leg, this time encasing it in a think black sheaf. A second patch of mist followed and floated around them, avoiding the spacer as it encased the girl and gently lifted her body.

“You waitin’ for Sunday, Spacer? Release and step back.”

Jerry jumped at the command then scrambled back and up with the pain of stiffened muscles flowing across his back, “Thanks Sarge, I was gettin’ a bit stiff.”

“Get outside with the other two and I ain’t your ‘Sarge’.

“They listening out there, Pratcher?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Okay, on yer feet. All of you, you hiding any weapons?”

“No?” The gunny hesitated a moment, “How about that, they’re honest.

“Okay Pratcher, we can unsuit.” The black figures dissolved in an instantly dissipating puff of black smoke.

Jack, ever the wise guy, commented to Jerry, “Hey, it’s a girl!”

“Last two times I checked, Spacer. Now …”

The gunny’s growl interrupted, “That will be enough from you buddy and you too, Pratchert. He meant nothing by it.”

“I’m Lieutenant Nichols Alsoi of the ISA Mercon.”

“Don’t really care, Lieutenant. You guys fired on us. Far as I’m concerned, you ain’t friends. You are uninvited intruders and more trouble than you are worth but I’ll let the captain deal with that. Now button up, you ain’t gonna learn anything from us. We have orders. Follow me, don’t touch anything and don’t try to run. Pratchert, fall in behind and make sure our invalid doesn’t float off.”

A passthrough formed in the bulkhead from a section where no obvious portal existed an instant before. They entered a decorated, almost ornate passageway, quite unlike any military vessel Alsoi had ever served on. The deck looked like hard steel but was soft and comfortable underfoot. Nearly all bulkheads had active picture-like walldisplays but without any obvious circuitry. Turning a bend, they passed through a panorama of the churning storm tunnel. No visible sign of their shuttle or ship remained.

“It’s gone, Lieutenant.” Came Pratchert’s voice from behind, “Your shuttle is downtime by now at …”

“Pratchert, button it or you are on report.” The gunny had just enough time to blast out the words when two of the strangest but also most beautiful animals Alsoi had ever seen came racing around the corner. They charged in. Massive, shoulder high, muscular roadrunners but sporting arms and hands instead of wings. They screeched to a halt not two paces ahead of the group. One looked at the gunny, flashing a set of sharp white teeth set in a broad, flexible muzzle. The other whipped a multicolored tail with a spatula-like plume of feathers at its tip forward to balance its abrupt stop. It turned to the stunned lieutenant, staring at him with cold, golden eyes and opened its mouth when …

“You birdbrains were told to stay outta here. Not a peep outa ya. Git back upcountry.”

The animals turned, looked at each other and decided to leave. They were gone in an instant but not before leaving a defiant call of something that sounded faintly reminiscent of birdsong.

“I swear this should not be this difficult. Lucky for me this is where I dump you. Inside. Now.

“Stay put until we return. We’ve got business but it shouldn’t take long. Look around to your heart’s content but don’t make a mess or you’ll end up working it off. Food, entertainment and terminal access to ship’s services are available. It’s a bit different from what you’re used to but most of you are smart people, figure it out. There’s no lock on the door but, once again, stay put. Even if you decide to ignore our hospitality, there’s nowhere to go and you just might find yourselves breathing vacuum.”

They were pushed into the room and the door closed without further ceremony, then reopened, “Oh yeah. Doc’s on his way down to help yer friend. Be nice to the Doc, you may need him someday. Never piss off one of those guys, ain’t healthy.”

The door closed and Jerimiah started exploring the room, then stopped, “Hey, what’d he mean ‘almost all of you’? Was that an insult?”

Their quarters were obviously empty office space with a forward waiting room, a middle room with a plain desk and behind it a longer one with four beds and a small mess-station. Jerry tried the door and nearly fell over himself when it opened.

“Hey Lieutenant, we’re outta here. They really didn’t lock the door.”

Alsoi walked over, silently pointing to a small strip blinking along the edge of the door frame, “They’d know and I don’t think they really care. However, our warden might be a bit upset with you and I’m not sure I’d want to piss off the gunny. Anyways, not yet.

“Like he said, where can we go? You all saw this ship? This thing’s huge, a battlecruiser. We’d be lucky to find our way back. Now, before you say a word, I can see it in your eyes, don’t even dream about the four of us taking over. We have to wait and see what happens.”

The room announced, “Doctor Silas Metrix requests entry.”

“Come in,” Alsoi replied and a very fit, deeply tanned young man of perhaps twenty years entered.

“Hello, apparently a Ms. Prakset has a compound fracture. We also discovered a second, more serious problem. We’ll deal with them but before I start on Ms. Prakset, since this is the first time you’ll be coming in-system, I’d like to take a scan of each of you. This will take no time at all, who’s first?”

“One minute, please. Are you a doctor or just an intern?  You look awfully young. Where did you get Sara Prakset’s medical records? It’s obvious, she has a compound spiral fracture of the tibia. That’s not a quick fix.”

“I’m busy … oh, since you’re new here. Yes, I am a medical doctor. Have been one for years. I learned about Ms. Prakset’s fracture and other problems from the NullBot survey performed earlier. They’ve already started treatment by ensuring there is full blood flow to the foot and no air exposure to the open wound. Now, if you will let me start, I’d like to complete my work here. There’s much to do.

“Now, all of you, please stand still a moment. That’s …. it. All done.”

“What survey and what’s a ‘nollbrot’?

“Ask one of the others later or, better still, look it up for yourself. Ah, I see she’s still asleep. Looks like she’s going to wake in a minute, thirty-seven seconds. We’ll spare her the pain.” The doctor seemed to concentrate on a distant section of the bulkhead for a moment.

“Done. Now, allow me to practice my trade.”

He held out his hands, palm-to-palm, and that apparently universal black mist formed between them then floated over, thickening as it went until it formed a liquid coating from knee to the tip of her toes.

“Very good, we’ll let them work a moment. In the meantime, I’ll address the genetic disorder. This is a Genobot projector, I’m sure you’ve heard of them so don’t become alarmed. I’ll just …”

Lt. Alsoi leaned forward, grabbing his hand, “One moment, Doctor.”

“Oh, still not sure? I’m sorry. It’s quite safe. An everyday procedure, I assure you. In any case, it’s done and I’d really rather you restrain yourself from touching me again.”

“Doctor, please explain your actions with greater clarity and move a little slower. This is all new to …”  He stopped mid-sentence, noticing something moving over the journalist’s leg and foot. The fracture’s bulge moved, twisted, pulled, and realigned the foot. The patient never seemed to notice.

“Nicely timed. The young lady had a predisposed genetic tendency to late cerebral cancer that would have begun causing problems in roughly seven years. We’ve fixed that and added some longevity maintenance and … I’m done.

“Good day.” The doctor rose and moved for the door.

Lt. Alsoi rushed in front of him, remembering his request not to be touched, “What about the leg? I thought …”

A puzzled look flooded over Dr. Metrix and he twisted to look back at his patient. The journalist was sitting up, a smile on her face as though she’d just awakened from a good night’s sleep, “I haven’t had a ….

“Why’re you all staring …” She slurred a bit as she tried to stand then seemed to remember, “The attack, what happened?” 

“There, you see? All is well,” Dr. Metrix flashed his most professional smile and left.

***

Scarcely a half-hour passed when their door opened and SSgt. Arlington barged into the room, “Heads-up people, your chief babysitter’s on deck. We have an upcoming event Captain Tafton wants you to see. Non-attendance is not an option. Follow me.”

The Gunnery Sergeant led them out and down a new passage. He wasn’t in a talkative mood and Lt. Alsoi mused that if the gunny considered this babysitting, he wasn’t surprised. NCOs were alike, no matter what service they were in or the title they carried.

Scenes of a beautiful tropical jungle filled the passageway’s bulkheads, even playing across the deck and overheads, making their trek more like a stroll down a manicured woodland trail, mildly scented in exotic aromas. Breezes washed over them, a bit warmer than he would have liked but somehow calming. He was wondering why they kept it so warm when they came to a broad passage holding the first of several glideways.

He’d seen glideways before in the orbiting Skyport but those were crude compared to the simple elegance of the moving deck they now trod upon. Many people were on the transport, traveling in both directions. This glideway somehow keyed to the individual allowing some to simply stand while lazily moving down the corridor. Others travelers sped by, moving quickly whether they walked, jogged or chose to stand in place and let the glideway do all the work. At one point, he was astonished to see a traveler rise above deck level and disappear into the overhead like an apparition passing through a wall.

He stopped to stare in the wonder of how this might operate and thought, Solid walls apparently have no meaning to these people. Such technology. Why do they all carry sidearms? Come to think of it, even that doctor sported one. An unheard-of practice when on-board ship even in a combat situation.

Where’re we going? I’d sure like to move a bit faster than this.

 Suddenly he accelerated past the Sergeant, “Yo, just where do ya think you’re going, Mac. Lieutenant or not, you are to follow me. That translates to, no charging ahead.”

“Sorry Sergeant. Guess I got carried away.”

A snicker rose from someone behind but he didn’t turn to see who the culprit was.

They entered a new passageway displaying a lightly wooded ridgeline. Off in the near distance was a cliff edge bordering a broad gorge. In its center a churning river, the obvious creator of the gorge. Huge animals moved along the valley floor. Some were thick-skinned like furry elephants but most looked like fluffy or brightly feathered birds of huge proportions. There were very few wild animal screams, all he heard was birdsong. Well, not exactly the familiar patterns of home. These calls and their melody were so much more complex then birdsong.

Then, down in the river …

A hard tap on the shoulder brought him back to the reality of SSgt. Arlington who said, “Yeah, I know. A thousand questions but not yet. We get off just ahead.”

Passageway walls here transformed to exotic wood paneling. Unusual music filled the air, quite pleasant but strange. Something he’d never seen on a starship lay ahead, a set of ornate wood doors that opened as they neared the end of the passageway.

They entered a broad room with subdued lighting. Gunny directed them over to what looked like an honest-to-goodness lounge area. Then a human waiter approached, thoroughly astounding Alois, this was a luxury typically restricted to the most expensive restaurants on Earth.

The waiter smiled and said, “Welcome to the Nolen Lounge.” Then looked at Lt. Alsoi expectantly. Shocked, Alsoi discovered he suddenly knew everything on the menu. He looked to the sergeant and was about to ask when the non-com spoke with obvious amusement, “Of course you can order. We have time, the captain decided to remain on the bridge until we exit and is sending someone in his place. For now, I suggest you keep your eyes tuned to what’s happening outside, you’ve been through it before but you ain’t never seen it this way. Look outside, see those glowing strings just twisting and spinning down the center of the tunnel? Helps if ya squint and look to the side a bit rather than right at ‘em. Dr. Freeman says it’s some kind of photon emission from gravity particles snapping into different energy states or something like that.”

Their vessel traveled inside the cyclone walls of the long storm-tunnel, it was impossible to determine the direction or speed of their movement but they did seem to be on an inward course towards the tunnel’s center. He stared across to the center of the storm-tube and could see nothing until he looked away. His peripheral vision caught a glimpse of a pair of very faint strings, glowing under a white-blue light as they spun, twisting about each other off into the distance following the very center of this massive tube formed by the spinning storm clouds.

“Mind if I join you, Sergeant?” A middle-aged woman appeared, touching the sergeant’s shoulder ever so lightly.

He stood, almost stumbled as turned to the new speaker. The gunny looked uncharacteristically nervous, “Ugh, no. Of course not, ma’am. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you’d be here.”

“Now Trent, this is silly. How many times must I ask you to relax? Lord knows we’ve known each other long enough.” Then, turning to the others, she smiled, “Hi, I’m Hailey Sharpe. I’m sorry for all you’ve had to go through. We’ll try and make your transition as enjoyable as possible.”

Lt. Alsoi had taken a cue from the sergeant and was already standing. He looked over at the still nervous gunny and raised his eyebrows as he silently mouthed, ‘TRENT’? For a flashing second, the man stiffened then smiled wickedly at the lieutenant who was trying to pull Jerry up to his feet. In frustration, he turned to Ms. Sharpe and replied, “I have no idea what ‘transition’ we may be taking but I’m Lieutenant Nichols Alsoi.” He gave a knowing smile to the sergeant, obviously they shared embarrassing first names. At that point, he made a mental note, noticing even Hailey was armed.

“Allow me to introduce Journalist Sara Prakset who was a guest on our ship. She’s been uncharacteristically quiet, most likely still suffering from the injuries your people were able to correct, we all thank you for helping Sara.

“Jack Arlow, Ship’s Engineer is standing next to me and finally Spacer First Class Jerimiah Johnson, WHOM I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO GET TO SHOW PROPER ETIQUETTE BY STANDING UP.”

Jerry’s face went red as he stood, “I’m sorry Lieutenant. Ma’am I’d like to apologize, it’s all been ….”

“No need, Mr. Johnson. We’re a small community and remain informal so if you’d allow me to call you Jerimiah then I’d love for you to call me Hailey.”

“Thank you, Hailey. My friends call me Jerry. Please do.”

The lieutenant motioned for Jerry to be quiet and turned to their new host, “You’re obviously a person of authority. I’d like to know why you first destroyed our ship but then go to such pains to rescue and help us. Are you part of the Mars Coalition? If so, will you allow us to return home in a prisoner exchange? I’m sure you can bargain quite handsomely for the freedom of our journalist, she’s well known if you haven’t already heard of her.”

“Mr. Alsoi, did you see us attack you? Of course not. Not even though your captain chose to fire on us not once but two times. It was your captain’s decision to follow us into the Tippler Cylinder. Despite this, you are here alive and well solely because of our good intentions.

“As I said, I regret what happened to your shipmates but we are not part of your conflict with the colonists on Mars and Venus. You are not prisoners and if you agree to not cause mischief and to stay away from any areas we designate as ‘off limits’ then you may have free roam of our ship except for a few areas that could prove harmful to you.

“As for a prisoner exchange, there are some things you must first see before we discuss such actions. Let me assure you, we fully intend to return you to Earth but, more on this later.”

Hailey gave Lt. Alsoi a warm smile as a chime filled the cabin, “Watch outside now, the captain will alter course any second.”

The only sign of their ship changing course was when the spinning strings swung off to the side. This was no surprise to Lt. Alsoi, wavedrive vessels used a reactionless drive whose field inundated and surrounded everything within it, activating every sub-electron particle to higher energy states that allowed the electron’s bound graviton sub-particles to link to gravitonic radiation, the waves of gravity that saturate the universe. Since the field carried every sub-electron particle of cargo, ship and its personnel like a surfboard rider, passengers and cargo never felt a jolt or acceleration and the relativistic limits of infinite mass-change and lightspeed barriers inherent to Einsteinian Physics no longer mattered.

Details in the tunnel wall clarified with their approach. They were drawing near, heading for what appeared to be a knot of clouds laced with flashes of savage energy. Lt. Alsoi asked, “I thought we turned away from the glowing strings. There’s a bundle of them over there leading into that maelstrom, same spot we’re heading for.”

Alsoi glanced over at Hailey and thought he saw something tiny disappear from her shoulder then decided he was seeing things.

Hailey replied, “You’ve good eyes, Lieutenant. That’s a kink in the string and, because of it, we have an exit portal from the Tippler Cylinder. The passage will be turbulent but we’ve little choice, there are only a few exit points. Now, hang on to something.”

A new chime sounded and they hit the storm wall. The ship jolted twice and shuttered. Alsoi was about to comment that he’d never felt a wavedrive powered ship react to anything but the view outside stopped the words from ever forming.

They were outside, once again in the hard vacuum of space. The tumultuous bands of the great gas planet were to starboard but there the resemblance to their familiar universe ended.

A set of rings, rivaling even those of Saturn, arched above them until they disappeared behind the far horizon. Eclipsing even the grandeur of the rings was an immense star-studded dome. Several moons, all of them much too close to the mother planet to survive, glowed brightly in their reflection of the distant Sun, but the immensity of the distant starfield shamed all.

Billions of stars set in a velvet black vault surrounded them in a contrast that can only exist in the vacuum of space. Stars spread across a great streak of space that was wider than the familiar Milky Way. A decade of life in space had not prepared Lt. Alsoi for such a spectral display, an expanse so grand he felt an urge to squint and protect his eyes.

Hailey simply smiled as she took a sip of her tea. She’d been here many times before and was witness to even grander displays.

***

It screamed directly into Lt. Alsoi’s psyche, a directive commanding him to attend his battle station. To his surprise, he found he knew where to go. It felt like he’d always known just where his station was and how to get there.

The others must have also received a call, they were up, standing, sending questioning looks over to the lieutenant. Pale-faced and shaking, Sara blurted out, “Why do they want us to arm ourselves and await orders? How do I arm myself? How did they get inside my brain?”

Alsoi was already on his way out the door, “Not sure what’s going on but I’ve been ordered elsewhere. We’ve no choice. Comply with your command.”

The passage was strangely empty as he quick-stepped down a familiar section then turned into a completely new area of their ship. The information he needed was always there in his mind as though he’d been this way a thousand times. He knew this was the right way, he knew how to get there but he had no concept of what waited ahead. It was then he realized that the deck was speeding him along. Accelerating as he moved, pushing him forward at a speed that doubled his quick-pace step. Without warning, the glideway abruptly dropped him into the deck. There was no feeling of falling, his pace continued uninterrupted but his heart nearly stopped with the vision presented. As though in a vid, he passed through decking that had no more substance than a cloud but its surface flashed by like a swimmer jumping feet-first into the ocean. A quick, blurred vision of the darkened plastisteel innards of the deck raced by and he was descending from the overhead of the passageway that had been below. Never slowing, that deck also careened past. Then again and again and again. He lost count by the time his downward descent ended and the only sensory confirmation that he had reached his destination was visual. He followed a passageway through a portal in the bulkhead that opened as he approached and entered a huge hanger, an officer standing in the distance was his obvious destination. Many crewmembers were already there but others arrived after him, magically materializing through the hanger bulkhead, deck and overhead with no more obvious resistance then if they had just passed through a vid image.

“Where’s yer sidearm, mister?” A stocky man in what Alsoi now recognized as a naval officer’s uniform addressed him, “You’re outta uniform, Lieutenant. Ah, shoot. So, your Lt. Alsoi? She sez you’re flight qualified, that’s why the call-up reached you. Well, you’re not fighter qualified with our technology so direct yourself over to Commander Pearson’s flight. I’m moving you from fighter pilot to a navigator’s support position on a Wraith Gunship. They’ll give you the basics and show you how to brane-skip. There’s nothing like learning on the job. Move it, they’re outbound in a minute.”

Alois somehow recognized Commander Pearson who, without a spoken word, directed him over to three others standing next to a bulkhead. They turned as he approached.

“You haven’t had time to grow proficient in hive communications so let me introduce myself. I’m Commander Markly. Stand here in column directly behind the others, you will be last to load, just keep your arms and elbows tucked in.”

Markly briefed him rapidly as he positioned the lieutenant at the aft end of the group, “We are here to stop a brane breech. On this one, you’re along for the ride. Don’t touch anything even if you feel like you understand the ship. You don’t. All you can do is watch and learn. Do anything more and you’ll get us killed.

“Now stand. Our gunship will be forming in a moment. There behind Yohanson and to the left. Good enough. It’s a bit unnerving the first time but don’t worry, the Wraith Birth will take care of everything, see it’s already started.”

Alsoi became aware of a countdown sequence, it was more like a bit of an afterthought or memory rather than something he was concentrating on. He grew tense as the countdown neared its end.

The usual black haze formed in front of the group, thickening as it rolled towards them. Alsoi chuckled to no one in particular, Every damn thing with these people starts with black smoke. Nothing is solid. What the hell is this universe coming to?

To his astonishment, this time he found he knew the answer. It wasn’t smoke at all, they were NullBots. Autonomous, programmed robots whose name derived from the nullification of electron sub-particle bonds to release gravitons that were the basic constituent of each NullBot, constructs of pure energy bosons rather than the fermion base of matter familiar to humans in the form of electrons, atoms, and all the material elements.

NullBots so small that when millions of them clustered together, they became nothing more than a tiny particle of smoke. Smoke particles whose capabilities and intelligence increased as more-and-more individuals clustered until the smoke became a dense cloud capable of stopping even the passage of energetic photons.

The NullBots were programmable as individuals or as a swarm and, as the cloud grew denser, the being’s intelligence increased until it became solid enough to function as a semi-intelligent drone or eventually an autonomous entity that may even achieve a state of self-awareness, capable of learning, self-programming, and replication – sentience.

Then he thought, NullBots? Yeah, right. What he said, NullBots. What’s a …

The haze morphed into a shiny, solid-black wall just before it reached the pilot and copilot standing at attention two rows before him. Rainbow colored lines thrashed across the black surface as it steadily glided towards them. No one stepped back or flinched but stood firm in its path. Alsoi clenched his jaws and promised himself he wouldn’t budge a muscle.

The wall flowed over and around the first two, they disappeared like figurines dipped into a bowl of thick, black lava. They were gone and he was next. He didn’t move but he couldn’t help but close his eyes and only opened them when he sensed the commander communicating, “Hey Newbie, wakey wakey. You managed to survive.”

Years had passed since anyone last called him ‘Newbie’ but there was no malice in their calls. His eyes snapped open, “Christ on a toadstool, we’re in a boat.”

“She’s not a ‘boat’ Newbie. You’re in the deadliest vessel know to humanity, a Wraith Gunship. Crewed by four, with elbow room to squeeze in excess baggage. That’s you, in case you’re wondering. Now sit back, watch and learn. No questions. If you want to know something ask your Hive. We’ll jaw about it later if we survive.”

He was about to ask what his ‘Hive’ was when he noticed he was no longer standing but seated. That is, he was in a seated position, could feel something beneath him but physically, there was nothing. They were in an egg-shaped, light-grey cabin, suspended mid-center of an oblate spheroid just large enough to hold them in the same relative positions with pilot and copilot up front. Controls flashed into existence beneath the pilot’s hands then disappeared as the adjustment completed. The middle two crew members were busy staring off in the distance. He wondered why and it came to him they were calibrating a weapons system, reconfiguring it.

Markley turned back to check his crew and announced, “Heads up. We’re next.”

The walls of their Wraith disappeared, he had a moment’s glimpse of the hanger filled with shining black eggs and then they were gone, replaced by a spectacular panorama of stars and a Milky Way that was much too bright as it streaked across the sky beneath their feet. Jupiter and its strange rings were gone and a portion of the port-side view was nothing but a black hole in the starfield.

“That’s Athos, our mother ship. She’s absorbing photons and any other radiation that impacts her, stealth mode standard combat status.

“I’m Thompson, the navigator. You’re to learn from me so pay attention.”

The stars began jittering, vibrating ever so slightly and the black ‘hole’ in space that was their mothership rapidly shrunk in size until it disappeared completely. A visual plot popped into Alsoi’s brain accompanied by Thompson’s voice, “That’s our course, destination the far edge of the Oort Cloud roughly thirty-seven point five degrees above the ecliptic. You can plot course alternatives using your navigator’s app, directions will come to you as you use it. If you run into problems, ask our gunship. She answers to ‘Matilda’.

“Our objective’s a bit more than a light-year out gathering high atomic weight elements from the comets in the jetsam of the cloud. They’re preparing for a strike. Not sure what they’re gonna try this time, it’s always a little different. Our job is to make sure they don’t get lucky and succeed.

“Gonna take us an hour to get there so you have time to meet Matilda and learn how to be a Nav-Assistant. Yeah, you heard right, an hour. Normally it would take longer to get out there because of the high in-system gravitic wave-chop from all the planets but there’s a relatively smooth region where Jupiter’s huge gravitational field swamps the gravitic waves from all the other sources in the solar system. This is a region with smooth sailing and we’ll use it to accelerate as we climb up and above the ecliptic of the solar system where it’s still a bit bumpy but we’ll be able to accelerate to ‘9c’ or nine times lightspeed. Our target’s only moving at roughly 0.3c as their ram-scoop gathers jetsam so it’s a good time to hit them. As we enter striking distance, we’ll luff the wavefront and hit them at near zero relative velocity, with any luck they won’t be expecting us.

“Any questions, ask Matilda. She’s a new ship but don’t worry about her short AI Training cycle. Wraith ships don’t go through lengthy programming since we learned how to store ship’s personality between instances of their materialization. Oh shit, you didn’t follow that, did you? Athos, our mothership, said you were behind technically. It’s not a problem, Matilda will bring you up to speed.”

The voice and image of a pleasant and very athletic young lady came to him, “Good morning, Lieutenant. I’m the avatar for Matilda and I’m very anxious to help you get up to speed.”

Lt. Alsoi realized he was a slow learner. Matilda tried but failed several times to dump the lessons into his brain but his background was simply too primitive for a straight data dump. Eventually, she zeroed in on a threshold that, with a little pain, she could convey concepts simple enough for him to understand.

He learned about the drones they manufactured called NullBots. Solid creatures composed of boson energy bundles rather than the fermion-base elements that made up his familiar universe. NullBot individuals small enough so that their passing through an atom was less difficult than a ship crossing the empty space between planets of the solar system. Like the enormous release of energy when the bonds of an atom split, NullBot bosons emerge with an even greater energy release when an electron splits into its graviton sub-particles. Gravitons, the dark matter particle equivalent of the gravity waves that form the basis of the universe and travel through it at hundreds, even thousands of times the speed of the energy that humans call light particles or photons.

Alsoi was surprised to learn his body already harbored colonies of NullBots from the seeds first planted when Gunny Arlington infected them with the black haze during the shuttle rescue. It was then the NullBots first replicated inside of him and began cruising through his body. When they encountered defects, the NullBots repair or eliminate them. They destroyed harmful aliens to the body such as predatory bacteria and viruses by breaking them down to their sub-electron particles and creating new NullBots. They repaired any genetic defects of his DNA. The lieutenant was now part of a network of instant gravitic communications between those traveling on the Athos and its AI centers. Faster-than-light Hive Communication’s links for data storage as well as the sharing of information and commands, all instantly transported directly to the visual, conceptual and storage areas of his brain.

Multicolored points of starlight performed their jittery dance as Matilda and forty-seven other Wraith Gunships and Foxfire Fighters sped outward, rising high above the ecliptic of the solar system and outward until Sol was little more than a bright point in the heavens. Then they readjusted their gravity-links and luffed inward, dumping velocity for a rendezvous with the invader.

***

Alsoi’s head ached from the force-fed information dump. Stretching stiffened muscles, his tired eyes relaxed by looking out into the infinite expanse of the universe that began just outside the protective but strangely pliant, invisible walls of their gunship less than an arm’s length away. The others were busy. For now, his job was to watch and learn. Boring. His eyes strained to see if anything outside had changed and widened in surprise as they registered on an obviously immense object, lying dead ahead on their course.

If this really is our solar system, then why have I never seen or heard of anything like this. Even at this distance, we would have sensed an obvious breach in the fabric of our universe as dramatic as this.

What appeared at first to be a jagged rent in the fabric of the universe ran across the heavens ahead. It was a window and through it peeked a wall of blazing hot stars and gas shining with a brilliance dimming even the splendor of the skies he’d first seen on their exit from the Red Spot of Jupiter a few scant hours earlier. The materials he’d just absorbed allowed him to speculate on the phenomenon.

I thought this was all theoretical but there it is. A rough window or more like a tear in the fabric of space, perhaps a cosmic string ripped open, revealing another dimension. No, that’s not right, Matilda calls it a ‘brane’. I guess ‘dimension’ is close enough. The paper said that a few years ago such things were only a concept, an artifact of string theory physics. Yet, here one is and we’re heading right for it. What could possibly be on the other side of that jagged tear? Is it a window into the heart of a star cluster or perhaps the center of our galaxy?

Visuals and broadband frequency analysis of data gathered by millions of autonomous sub-microscopic drones scouting ahead of the strike force and enhanced by Matilda combined into a targeting display that solidified before him. Highlighted near the edge of the jagged rip was their target. It was another great ship or perhaps an animal. A shape-shifting, obviously alien and rather repulsive dull-black form constantly churning as it moved forward, flinging out long tendrils across the heavens ahead of it with the curling, groping motion of an octopus clawing its way across some nonexistent sea floor. A huge, churning sphere of pure energy followed behind the alien ship planting in Alsoi’s mind the vision of a spider on a web dragging its mummified prey behind.

Matilda’s contact broke his fascination, You are correct, the thing it drags is an energy bundle. Similar past encounters suggest it is creating the bundle from local debris it converts into pure energy but how they intend to use it we have no idea. This is something new. We don’t know how they will employ this but probability-based analysis of past encounters suggests they will use it as a weapon against us. They move fast and our attack group from the Athos is the only asset we have in striking distance. It was pure chance that our encounter with your ship forced us to return as soon as we did. There will be no second chance. Pay attention now, the fighter wing is about to go in.

Single pilot Foxfire fighters led the initial wave. They sailed in hot and heavy leaving ion trails in their wake that fluoresced in the deep purple of high-frequency energy as they tacked across gravity wavefronts, dumping both speed and energy in a swooping direct assault of the alien mothership. No enemy fighters rose to meet them. Instead, flickering strings of light whipped out from the alien, streaking far into space before their tips sheared and went spinning onward like a boomerang of pure lightning launched towards their target. The fighters replied defensively with staccato bursts of photon bolts that flew across the gap like strings of fiery pearls that struck, discharging and releasing the energy of the alien whip in fantastic bursts of visible light and gamma rays that appeared on the enhanced displays of Matilda surrounded by flashing aurora borealis bands of released deadly energy.

A mind-numbing flash darkened Matilda’s displays, they quickly recovered. Ahead and to the side of their trajectory was a wickedly throbbing hot spot that persisted as its energy wave washed over them. Pure energy released from the ripping of atomic bonds and dark matter that sailed out across the void, washing over Matilda in a chaos-driven tsunami her sensors interpreted as a screeching wail. The stars returned along with a nebula of glowing particles where three of the Foxfires existed moments before.

“Ah, poor Jimmy. Caught in the energy burst of …” The copilot began under his breath before the pilot’s reprimand descended upon him.

“Stay focused, we’re up next.”

Their viewpoint shifted as the Wraith swung around, avoiding the worst of the plasma’s hot energy particle cloud. Alois watched the navigator plot an impossible course that jigged across the intervening void, narrowly avoiding the attack patterns laid out by other wraiths sailing in from all directions, every one of them hoping the fighters managed to clear their path to the target ahead.

“Drones armed and primed,” the steady voice of the weapons officer sounded off in their minds as the cabin around them wailed under the onslaught of high energy particles and stress.

Alois queried Matilda’s status, its reply instantly returned, “I am preparing antimatter weapons systems composed of drones, essentially dumb NullBot entities capable of only the most basic programming. They form energy packets, essentially armed torpedoes that attack by turning on each drone’s replication cycle. The weapon’s master will arm and release them after laying in the signature of the target.”

The bombardier released the antimatter drone torpedoes, one by one they came to life instantly identifying their target. High energy drives linked to the crests of the local graviton waves and the torpedoes left, streaking out across the heavens in less than three milliseconds. Upon entering sensor range of the first sizeable chunk of matter or antimatter matching the profile of their target, the drone torpedoes fragmented releasing billions of tiny, dumb NullBots programmed only for one task. They ripped into the atom-matrix of anything contacted, tearing at it on a sub-atomic scale by shredding its atomic bonds and ferociously cracking even their target’s electron shells releasing deadly bursts of protons, antimatter, and gravitons that instantly rephrased into new, weaponized NullBots. NullBots that reformed, continuing onward to repeat the reproductive expansion until they consumed the entire target.

Atomic fires flared across the Oort Cloud from successful strikes. The surviving Wraiths jigged and swooped inward, pressing their attack as the alien vessel lashed out in defense and put up energy screens before their drone torpedoes. When a torpedo struck the alien energy screen, a blast followed as it converted torpedoes into incoherent waves of dirty energy. Its defenses were massive but the alien was taking damage. Still, it suffered little compared to the losses inflicted upon its attackers as Wraith after Wraith flashed into pure energy leaving behind only clouds of angry radiation that sublimed into nonexistence nearly as rapidly as they formed.

A tsunami of chaos and helplessness washed over Alois. Greater than any fear of death, he screamed in frustration.  They were losing and all he could do was sit and watch.

Commander Markley’s rock-steady command voice managed to cut the chaos. He called out to the last four surviving wraiths of his flight, “We’re the last hope, forget the safeties and take your loads in to point blank …”

Blue fire materialized as a searing lens of energy in the cabin next to Alsoi. It immediately sent a blinding flash across the cabin that cut into the commander and his copilot instantly converting them to vapor and ionized gas. Alsoi sensed his NullBots clamp his air intake. They began creating oxygen within his body using matter conversion, pumping the life-giving gas directly into his bloodstream to replace the function of his airless lungs. The lieutenant’s attention never veered from the deadly lens of fire filling the cabin, so close to him he could sense its evil intent.

In the eternity that passed in less than a heartbeat, the blue fire directed a second blast of energy at the navigator and bombardier seated in the second row. Everything inside the gunship was breaking apart or vaporizing including the two officers who flashed into an expanding vapor cloud as rapidly as the pilots. Alsoi fell back in fear, slipping on a sidearm that landed beneath his foot. He tumbled to the deck fighting the blazing grip of an alien mind clamping around his consciousness. His hand gripped the weapon, he’d never fired one but pistol designs optimize for the human hand and his fingers folded by instinct around the grip. He brought the weapon up and fired. The blast broke the searing grip warping his consciousness. Better aimed, his second load struck the ethereal lens dead center. Quite unexpectedly, the thing shrieked, its squeal playing across Alsoi’s nervous system, ripping sensitive nerves like the amplified shriek of fingernails scraping across a chalkboard.

Then, it was gone.

Battered, shaking, and mind numb, Alsoi knew if he stopped he would never move again. He crawled forward through a cabin filled with the aerated mush of dead NullBots, body parts, and vapor-converted human remains, pulling himself to the front of the wraith. Matilda was barely responding, she was sluggish but seemed to be slowly shaking off the effects of the attack, self-repair was underway. For the first time, Alsoi linked directly to the gunship, his mind ripped through systems he didn’t understand and past those too badly damaged to be recognizable. His understanding of the ship grew as he grasped mentally at its controls and found what he was looking for. Weapon’s control was operational but the raw dark-matter reservoir used for the antimatter torpedoes was gone.

The concept rammed into his brain like a weapon system charging, Matilda was coming around and the words clashed in his mind, Use the remains strewn across the cabin. Help me direct the weapon charging sequence.

Weak as she was, he recognized Matilda. Alois concentrated, directing the free-radical NullBots spread across the cabin to gather the atomized remains. Then he used the command channel to search out the universe around him. They were spinning, out of control but on a course that would graze the alien. He plotted a firing point without regard for safe-distance, completely disregarding weapon’s release protocols. The ship yielded firing to him as it focused its few remaining resources to reshape a damaged antimatter torpedo into a crude NullBot energy casing.

Alsoi didn’t wait for the ‘ready’ signal from the ship but fired as they came to bear. The torpedo ripped out across a section of space with a ferocity that would have made a stellar furnace blanch and released its load before the casing could complete sublimation into pure energy.

Its load of NullBots matured in the billionth of a second it took to reach their target. Already high in the energetic phase of their reproductive cycle, they ripped into the alien, splitting its sub-atomic particles, converting them into antimatter, the process releasing waves of energy that regrouped into gravitic particles pre-programmed to create new, highly active deadly NullBots.

The skies experienced no dramatic blast of released energy. The alien simply disappeared, consumed in its entirety. As it died, the window to another brane of the universe closed leaving one Wraith gunship and three foxfire fighters alone in the familiar starfield of their universe.

***

“If I were to label you a survivor, Lieutenant, I would place myself in danger of being ridiculed by others for extreme understatement.”

Invasive. Unwanted. Undeniable. Each word slammed into him, clattering through his mind with a life of its own.

The first challenge, open your eyes. It was hard. He couldn’t. Pain racked his body emanating from each muscle’s twitch and …. and he couldn’t feel anything beyond the agony. No sensory input, nothing.

More words slashed across his psyche, he ignored them in his growing panic and willed his eyes to open.

Nothing, can’t see a thing. Wait. No, not right. Hallucination? White filaments of mist bending, twisting. Can I move my arm?

The cloaking mist slowly cleared and something shiny flickered. He strained to move his arm.

“One more minute, Lieutenant. Everything’s fine.” The voice was female, soothing and oh so clear. His world shuddered. He tried moving but couldn’t, the voice was back, “Patience, everything is okay. I’m going to cancel the field and you’re going to feel weight and then some pressure on your back. It’s okay, we moved you to a bed. You are safe and I’m going to cut the field in 3… 2…1.”

He was falling. He shut his eyes but the sensation had already passed. Somehow, he sensed a bed and clean sheets. He chanced to open his eyes and recognized a man hovering over him.

“Lieutenant, you back with us, boy?”

Yes. Yes, I am and … I don’t know you. You wear a captain’s bars but …

“Lieutenant, you have to speak out loud. Use your lips. Come on, it shouldn’t be this hard. Buckle up, lad and gather …”

“What? Wha ... Who are you? Where am I? Ugh, I’m sorry sir … Captain that is. I just …”

“That’s more like it and I’m not a captain or even an officer. I work for a living and right now you are my biggest problem and that’s not a good thing to be.” The man turned a brief, angry glance to someone out of Alsoi’s sight.

“I wanted to be the first one you saw when you wakened. I can’t imagine how you could not remember my handsome face and sparkling disposition. Gunny Arlington, your ex-babysitter and still a Gunnery Sergeant by the skin of my teeth after Captain Arlonious Tafton chewed me out.

“What kind of a gung-ho Joe are you anyway? I give you guys a little freedom and you go running off with a flight squadron and end up getting people killed. I should …. What?”

The flight nurse was tapping the bar on her shoulder, “See that bar, Sergeant? I think it’s time for you to leave. I told you not to upset my patient. Not another word. Out.”

The nurse returned her attention to the patient, “I apologize Lieutenant Alsoi. That was not supposed to happen.”

Alsoi was too tired to move his head and follow the sergeant’s departure. A familiar face came into view, Doctor Metrix. As usual, he was babbling about something, “You should expect to feel lethargic and confused, your cycle was interrupted. You’re going back into regeneration. I apologize for waking you but the sergeant said it was important. Now sleep. You’ll feel much better afterward. One good thought, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know we’re almost home.”

***

The room came to life with the entry of Captain Arlonious Tafton. Three HiveBot drones, little larger than a fly themselves and quite different from the NullBots, buzzed by his head on a direct path for an honest-to-goodness insect that had somehow managed to survive inside his office. The chase stole the captain’s attention for a moment, the insect fought hard but the end was inevitable. Just a bug that was now gone but even so, he admired anything that showed a determination to survive and stay the course.

Three officers and Gunny entered from the opposite side of the oval chamber whose bulkheads and overhead displayed a complete panorama of the star-studded universe as though they were assembling around a conference table located on the outer skin of the vessel.

“Be seated,” the captain didn’t bother to look up at the others as he took a pen from his pocket and set it on the table. It glowed, stood on end and the necessary procedural guide, as well as the captain’s own notes, appeared, perfectly arrayed on the surface before him.

“We are here convened to initiate proceedings against Nichols Alsoi, former Lieutenant of the International Space Agency, Earth. Bring in the defendant.”

A passage opened on the opposing side of the room and two Spacer Ratings led Alsoi in.

“Let him sit, he’s still recovering.”

“No sir, if I’m to be tried under court-martial, I will stand …”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Lieutenant. You’ve just emerged from a medical tank. Sit. It is necessary you be of clear mind so that you understand the severity of your actions and the resulting charges.

“Nichols Alsoi, ISA Lieutenant, you are charged with entering a restricted action area, boarding a CS vessel illegally and causing the death of said vessel’s crew. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty, sir and I object. This court does not have legal jurisdiction over me.”

“Be it entered in the record that a ‘not guilty’ plea has been submitted. The court recognizes the defendant’s objection of non-jurisdiction and declares the objection overruled since the defendant is no longer in ISA legal jurisdiction but is a guest of the CS.

“Lieutenant Alsoi, to your right is Commander Alcaise Brown. She is your legal counsel.

“Lieutenant Jonah Rogers is acting prosecutor. For the record, please repeat the case against Lt. Alsoi.”

“Lieutenant Nichols Alsoi did enter a fleet restricted area under false authorization where he was assigned to Wraith Gunship Matilda as a navigational observer. The gunship’s mission in attack wing three was to locate a brane intrusion and destroy all enemy craft before they could assemble for launch. The wing located the intrusion and with Foxfire Fighters flying cover, initiated their attack. Upon the commencement of the action, brane warriors boarded their gunship. Lieutenant Alsoi managed to obtain possession of a sidearm without authorization. The crew perished but not before they selflessly destroyed the enemy vessel in heroic action.

“The Wraith Gunship carrying Mr. Alsoi was disabled but later discovered in a sweep of the sector with two survivors rescued. It was then revealed that the weapon held by Lt. Alsoi had been discharged a total of four bursts, thereby initiating the submission of charges.”

“Lieutenant Alsoi, have you anything to add to this description.

“Lieutenant, I will not repeat myself. You are ordered to remain seated. Do so.”

“I’m sorry, sir. The exact circumstances of the encounter are not entirely clear but I recall things a little differently.”

Alsoi reviewed his mission from memory. He found he could recall an amazing amount of detail but there were still unclear areas particularly around the incident where he found the weapon and discharged it.

“Sir, I wish to emphasize that I was in fear for my life. I had no knowledge of what that lenticular blaze of energy was, I only knew it was responsible for the deaths of my shipmates. My discharges went to that strange apparition. After that, the torpedo run and release were all instinct. I was having difficulty breathing and didn’t consider what occurred in my surroundings much less how I knew what to do.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.

“The court recognizes Commander Brown.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ve received notification that the other survivor has completed second plateau regeneration and now capable of testifying. I would like bring it into chambers to offer testimony.”

“Do so, Commander.”

The wall again opened for the entry of a comely Lieutenant.

“State your name, rank and function for the record then please be seated.”

“Lieutenant Matilda, cs708861. My function is Wraith Gunship but I’m currently installed in this frame because of limitations imposed upon entering second plateau regeneration.”

“Log into court records that Lieutenant Matilda is temporarily assuming the form of a female second lieutenant in appropriate uniform and in accordance with its rank.

“Lieutenant Matilda, your NullBot mass is considerably reduced in this configuration. Please validate the accuracy of your memory of the incident and intellect logic level.”

“Sir, archived and active memory storage is ninety-eight point three one seven accurate to a six-sigma probability estimate. Intellect is sixty-seven point two one Kessler, the majority of loss is incurred within wraith operations and navigation. That is an area not needed until I reform in Wraith containment.”

“Approved, you may proceed as a valid participant and expert witness. Please summarize the timeframe from the initiation of your weapons delivery run.”

“Yes, sir. I reviewed the testimony given by the defendant and agree but for the following exceptions.

“My attack initiated at eighteen hundred forty-seven hours point five hours. Three Foxfires led the way and the Wraith Squadron was in the final stage of a Lissajous IV Defensive Weave attack pattern. Lieutenant Alsoi’s station was located at the rear of the cockpit. Weapons were arming when a brane warrior boarded, immediately discharging lethal fire by first targeting the pilot and copilot., the alien directed a second salvo at navigation and the weapons officers. All four crewmembers ceased life function despite extensive rejuvenation attempts by their NullBot nervous system components.

“The lieutenant’s NullBot interface was in its growth and adaptation stage, as it is now. Despite this impediment, he sensed a personal handgun underfoot that had ejected from the navigator’s holster and recognized its function. His reaction was swift and correct as he discharged four bursts at the brane boarding party.

“Lieutenant Alsoi’s aim was true and the threat eliminated but the cabin was filling with a mixture of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and halogen gas. Despite being in the process of succumbing to these gases, Lieutenant Alsoi managed to initiate a link to weapons and force a release of the fully armed torpedo spread before wraith targeting could fully recover.

“Lieutenant Alsoi’s instinct was off in its targeting by sixty-two thousandths of a second but was sufficient to effect a hit on the brane vessel. The vessel was completely destroyed so our mission’s secondary objective to obtain samples and lifeforms were not accomplished but the primary goal of stopping the attack and sealing the breach was met.”

“Lieutenant Matilda, please explain why you chose to reveal weapons discharge methods to an outsider.”

“Lieutenant Alsoi had, and retains, full clearance that was issued upon ship’s system recognition of his pilot’s qualifications, emergency directive AL32.322 covering a category one brane breach. His actions were legal, authorized by central programming and responsible for the success of the mission.”

Captain Tafton sat back and looked up into the stars for a few moments before turning to the prosecutor, “Have you any rebuttal or commentary.”

“In view of this testimony, prosecution withdraws all charges.”

“Then court-martial is adjourned. Gunnery Staff Sergeant Arlington you will accompany Lieutenant Nichols Alsoi back to his quarters. He will receive notification of his next assignment at the appropriate time. Be aware that Ship’s AI has accepted his induction into the CS Fleet and he is officially an officer and a gentleman by act and actions. Congratulations Lieutenant Alsoi.

“Gunny, you and the Lieutenant will remain. The rest of you are dismissed.”

As chambers cleared, the captain stood and crossed over to the bulkhead, it opened as he approached. Alsoi was amazed to see an old-fashioned drink dispenser and a glass drinking service, “You’re surprised? It’s one of my few personal vices, Lieutenant.

“You too, Trent? The usual?”

“You’re suddenly informal, Arlonious.”

“It’s not every day that someone achieves first entry as a full Lieutenant into the CS. What’ll it be, and may I call you Nichols?”

“I’d be honored, sir, but I’m also a bit confused. Hey, you guessed right. I haven’t had a single malt in months. Thank you.

“I never expressed a desire to join you and I haven’t been sworn in. What right have you to shanghai me?”

 “You will not be brought into service against your will and, until you are voluntarily sworn in, you cannot issue binding orders. This induction is an honor extended to you by me and that of Athos, our ship, and it's underwritten by Gunship Matilda. Your actions prove your worth and I’d certainly like to be your sponsor should you accept induction.”

“Thank you, but I already have a valid oath of allegiance to the ISA.”

“Lieutenant, that oath is no longer valid. The ISA does not and it has never existed in this universe.”

“I don’t understand. How can you say it has never existed?”

“We’re not at liberty to disclose that information and neither is gunny so don’t attempt to trick the answers from him. These things you must discover on your own else you will never truly believe but don’t worry, discover them you will.

“Now, we all have other duties. Thank you, gentlemen. You are dismissed.”

***

“I’ll be back.” SSgt. Trent Arlington was in a vile, dark mood ever since the captain chewed him out for berating Alsoi in medical and he was doing the most natural, most logical thing to remedy the situation. He was taking it out on Corporal Prachert, “You sit with the young’ins and keep an eye on ‘em until I return.”

“One of these days, Alice.” Jack Arlow whined under his breath, “One of these days. Pow, to da moon.”

Corporal Prachert turned a puzzled looked at Arlow.

Arlow’s comment didn’t faze Spacer Jerry Johnson, he’d known and worked with the engineer for years. He knew Jack could never keep his mouth shut, “Arlow you are the weirdest engineer I’ve never met and yes Ms. Prakset, I did say ‘never’ so don’t go pushin’ none of your grammar Nazi tactics on me. Don’t know what you're griping about, it ain’t that bad. We’re back in the lounge.

“Well, except for the lieutenant.

“This is rather awkward, Corporal, would you mind if I call you Molly? Prachert and Prakset are just too close for me to keep track of.

“Look, you can tell us, is Alsoi dead? What happened.”

Molly Prakset had known this question was coming and dreaded it, “Can’t say a word, Jerry. Let’s change the subject, okay?”

People passed by and were friendly but none stopped to strike up a conversation although some stared at them longingly, obviously wanting to speak with them. Everyone apparently knew the survivors by name but, when asked, refused to answer questions about their lieutenant, where this strange ship came from, what would happen to them or where in the universe they might be, they all received the same answer, ‘wait until we’re home’. When asked how long that would be the answer was ‘a few hours’.

Sara Prakset, ever the practical journalist, broke the short silence that followed, “Now you know how I feel. I’m way behind all of you on current events because of my leg injury. I’ve obviously missed a lot I. Could we all just sit a little while and bring me up to date on what’s happening?

“One minute though, I’m not doing this dry. Hey, hey you. We’d like to order,” she waved to a waiter who immediately came over. That’s odd, I don’t have to ask for a menu, I already know what’s available. Fantastic, I haven’t had one of these in years and … “Hey, you’re already writing down my order?”

The waiter stopped, looking a bit shocked, “Oh, I’m sorry. Would you rather I wait before writing your order or perhaps I should not input it to the tablet at all?”

“No, no. That’s all right, I guess it’s just that …. How is it you know what I’m ordering before even I do?”

“You told me, ma’am. You desired several items but decided on this one red wine mixer, an excellent choice if I say so.”

“Neat trick. Say, where are you from, anyway?”

“I’m from the Station, of course.”

“No. Where were you born? Where’d ya grow up?”

“Oh, I apologize if I gave you the wrong impression. You could have downloaded my registry at … oh dear. You don’t know how do you?”

Sara’s blank look said it all.

“I’m a synthetic, ma’am. A Bot, if you wish to use the vernacular. Properly designated, I’m a third generation NullBot Hive Entity. I currently serve as luxury support for the lounge but I can do many things including critical care and programming for alternative hive interfaces. I do like to change regularly, keeps me from getting bored. Now, if there are no more questions, I’ll retrieve your orders … ugh, unless your friends would also prefer to vocalize them to me. No? Thank you.”

They spent the next hour bringing Sara up to date, interrupted many times by her questions and the waiter magically bringing over additional refreshments whenever they seemed to get the craving. Sara was feeling loose, a bit tipsy but never bad enough to lose control or stagger. Eventually, the tension of all they’d been through began to surface, “We’re in a bad situation and I feel a little guilty.”

Jerry’s gaze went to the surrounding starfield panorama, “That’s a normal reaction but you shouldn’t feel guilty because you survived. Remember, we ain’t outta this yet. We don’t know how we’re gonna get home or what they intend doing with us.”

Corporal Prachert, ever in control of the situation, sat forward, “You’ve been pretty damn lucky. Want to know where you are? You’re alive. You survived. Sara’s broken leg would have been fatal in any other disaster situation back from where you came. Instead, she’s up and walking around as though the injury never occurred.

“You should be feeling pretty good. You’ve been treated with courtesy and respect.”

Jerry plopped back onto the cushion and let out a loud grunt, “That’s because they know we can’t do nothing about it. We’re screwed.”

 The corporal replied, “Bull, there’s always something you can do but if you’re planning anything violent, forget about it. You can’t win. Anyways, consider this. We would never have rescued you if we intended to harm you. We even took a risk. After we saved you, we could have simply shut you up in a cargo hold or closet to live on bread and water. Maybe even left you right where we found you, that would have prevented all your griping.

“Look, you need to play along with us a while longer until you can get in front of someone with real authority. Someone who will clearly show you what’s going on from our perspective. I know none of this makes sense but give it a chance.

“Believe me. I like you and I’ve thought about telling you everything. The worst thing is if I were to tell you the truth right now you wouldn’t believe me. You have to see and experience a bit more.”

“Are you guys busy or can I join the party?”

They’d all been feeling down but recognized Alsoi’s voice and nearly jumped to greet him, “They refused to tell us where you were and what happened, we were thinking the worst.”

“Long story, minor problem with the captain but we have a little time so let me bring you up to speed.”

SSgt. Arlington used the pause in conversation to speak up, “If that will be all, sir, I’ll get on with my duties.”

Alsoi gave Gunny a strange look, leaving Jack Arlow the opportunity to speak up first, “Whoa, major attitude shift, Gunny. Did the world just turn over? Now I’m really anxious to hear what happened.”

A worried look came over the lieutenant’s face, “Gunnery Staff Sergeant Arlington, for as gruff as you are, you and Corporal Pratchert were our rescuers and our first friends here. I certainly hope you don’t feel a need to be so formal.”

“Sir, that relationship between me and the captain goes back years. I don’t really know you but the captain made very clear your contribution to the …”

“That’s not important, I’ll update the others. Now, if it’s possible with your duties, could you take a little time to sit down and join us for a friendly drink?”

“Yes, sir. Lieutenant.”

Jerry raised his eyebrows and let out a low whistle, “Things become more and more interestinger. Where should we start?”

Jack Arlow sat forward and nodded towards the star-filled panorama, “This should be a good place. Has anyone else noticed that blue star dead ahead of us is now a small blue disk?

“I suspect our destination is in sight.”

***

The blue star became a disk, became a planet, and grew until they could distinguish a second silvery disk, about a quarter it’s diameter, next to it.

Gunny Arlington broke into their fascination, “Hailey’s comin’ again. Now’s the time to ask questions but don’t get pushy and for God’s sake, don’t be disrespectful. You guys are getting’ the royal treatment so earn it. Hear that Johnson?”

“Sometimes you bring back bad memories, Gunny. Are you sure you aren’t an Earthling?” Jerry’s wisecracks were famous back home but the gunny wasn’t fazed, “Never said I wasn’t. Born and raised on Earth, live there now.” With that he sat down, his beer arrived but he would only smile when they asked questions about his home and the planet ahead.

Hailey arrived as they were passing by a familiar moon, only the engineer seemed to be uneasy with the satellite and asked Hailey, “What’s with Tycho?”

“I told Gunny you were sharp. The splash rays from the crater are still relatively new and clear.”

“The hell with the lunar crater,” Sara interjected. “Where are we and what’s that planet?”

“What’s the matter, Sara?”

“The planet’s nothing but water and a few small islands. Something … something else isn’t right. Oh, I see it now. Even with all the water, there are so few clouds and no snowcaps at the poles.”

Hailey smiled, “It’s so nice to have a good lead-in.

“Look, there goes our fighter escort. Nothing to concern yourself about, they’re clearing a corridor ahead of us for landing.”

Two very small, black ships went racing ahead. They entered the atmosphere much like any wavedrive vessel performing unexpected turns, flips and even complete direction reversals showing no concern for inertial stress or frictional heat buildup on the craft since the wavedrive’s field accelerated air molecules away from the path ahead leaving them to fly in a localized vacuum in any environment whether it be the vacuum of space, the waters of the ocean, or the atmosphere of a planet. As they descended to the point that the curvature of the planet was about to disappear, the ‘fighters’ began flying a weaving, bobbing pattern ahead of the starship’s path.

“I assume the crazy antics are part of their clearing routine but we’re up way too high for interference. Just what is their purpose?”

Hailey’s only answer was, “No, we’re not too high for this planet.”

They took a long, easy glide to the surface even though a direct dive would have been just as uneventful. Not even a sonic boom marred their passage since they created no shockwave. The long glide did, however, give the fighters time to deflect several long-necked animals that were larger than the fighters, much larger if you considered their bat-like wings. They reminded Sara of brightly colored, flying giraffes with translucent bat-wings.

The terminator between day and night sped by as they flew over their first landmass. The night was impossibly dark, lacking even city lights to shine into the heavens. Then once again daylight and the craft level slightly in its final descent. On the horizon lay a white beach shoreline marking the separation between sea and mainland. A view of the landmass showed this to be a wild planet with jungle extending as far as the eye could see inland.

Finally, they were low enough to resolve animal life. The journalist nearly shook in her fascination, “There’s so much life. I’ve never seen …”

Hailey set down her drink and joined them, “This world is tropical, has been for hundreds of millions of years. Stable with little or no radical swings in temperature. Its subtropical climate extends as high as fifty-seven degrees above the equator. That’s why there are no polar ice caps and, except for the highest peaks, no snow or ice. The world’s a zoological paradise, species are relatively stable, ever so slowly evolving for hundreds of millions of years.

“Homeport, just ahead.”

A clearing in the jungle with a few buildings at its edges marked the landing pad. It lay in the foothills of mountains with a gorge and steep cliffs bordering its northern side. Inside the gorge ran a broad, strong flowing river.

Sara Prakset leaned forward to touch Hailey’s arm, “It’s beautiful. The entire planet’s a paradise and you have the most beautiful homes, perfectly nestled in the landscape.”

“Homes? No, where …?”

“Silly, men. They always miss the important things. Over there, Jerry. Don’t look for contrasting colors and hard round edges. Look for structures the same color as their surroundings. Soft flowing designs that nestle into nature.”

Lt. Alsoi replied “Ah, I can see them now that you point them out. Many more than I would have expected.

“The military berm first caught my eye. It’s that defensive earthen wall surrounding three sides of the compound, the cliffs above the river protect the forth side. They loaded the berm with high-tech gear, most noticeably the autosentinels guard towers spaced along the top. I know military armament but this tower design is something I’ve never seen before and it looks lethal.

“Judging by the design of the autosentinels, threats obviously exist on this world and they are both big and deadly. Ms. Sharpe, your paradise seems to have a very dark side to it.”

SSgt. Arlington appeared, “You’re gonna have plenty of time for sightseeing. I’m to take you to Captain Tafton. He’ll provide the introductions and address all your concerns. Follow me.”

“Us too?”, Jerry asked.

“Of course, all of you unless you want to get right to work. I can deal that out too if you want.”

They entered a world of sunshine, warm temperature and humidity. In spite of the heat, Sara felt invigorated and unconsciously began pulling in great lungfuls of wonderful air. Then she noticed the sounds. Birdsong filled this new world, rich vibrant calls echoing from everywhere.

“Hey. Easy girl.” The gunny tapped her shoulder, “You wanna limit that heavy breathing until your body adjusts. The air here has twenty-two percent more oxygen in it and gravity’s only ninety-four percent of what you’re used to. Doc said I should warn you, you’re gonna find you’re feeling much better but you have to give it some time or you’re gonna end up with a doozy of a headache.”

They followed a well-groomed path over a peat-covered forest floor to the edge of the river valley. People were waiting on an overlook of the gorge. As they approached, a figure in light summer-dress uniform turned and began walking towards them but Sara’s eyes were on the skies behind the man. Bright, multicolored birds with long tails filled the heavens and valley below, swooping climbing and darting across the gorge as they called out impossibly complex melodies. Then she noticed that not all the flyers were birds. Most of them were brightly colored but these strange creatures looked and flew differently, their flight looked absolutely wrong. Their wings just didn’t work right. Soft down or maybe even fur covered bodies with long necks, a round head, and long, pointy beaks. Their screeching calls sounded nothing like birdsong.

“Good morning, Lieutenant. Nice to see you again.” The uniformed man called out.

“Good morning to all of you, I’m Captain Arlonious Tafton. I want to apologize for not greeting you sooner but I’m confident Gunny took care of your needs.

“First come this way. You too, Lieutenant Alsoi, and please hold off on your questions I need show you a few things if you are to believe your circumstance.”

The captain led them on a walkway that eventually took them out over the gorge. Solid railings provided safety but even the Lieutenant needed a few steps to become accustomed to the transparent flooring. The shores of the river far below harbored herds of creatures. They traveled on two or four legs, living off the lush grass or leaves of the trees. A giant animal was swimming upriver. At first sight, Alois thought it was a huge reptile but then he noticed it had a long, smooth tail and flukes that drove it forward with amazing speed.

“There’s going to be a lot to take in so I’ll let you lead the questioning,” Captain Tafton offered. “Tell me. How do you like our home?”

“It’s beautiful,” Sara answered immediately. “Where exactly are we?”

“You are on Earth. I know that’s not the answer you were expecting but … ah, I was hoping you would have a chance to see this. Look upriver, on the northern floodplain. See the herd? Several predators are tracking it. Focus on that clump of boulders at the base of the fallen Sequoia tree and watch for movement.”

Jack’s eyes suddenly opened and the captain smiled, “Saw it didn’t you, ah I’m sorry but we haven’t completed introductions.”

“Jack Arlow, Ship’s Engineer First Class, sir,” Jack snapped to with a salute.

“You need not salute me, Mr. Arlow. We are not in the same service and our governments are not allies but I thank you for the honor.

“Watch the boulders closely, there’s a predator in there. They move very quickly and are masters of camouflage.”

Sara let out a small squeak as something dashed out of the foliage. Running on two massive legs, a long tail trailing behind, it seemed to fly across the clearing before launching an impossible leap that landed on an animal that managed to sense the danger only at the last second. The victim was also on two legs but dropped to four just before the predator struck. A thick skin-covered horn extended out from the top of its head, arching back over its brightly-feathered back. The victim let out a tremendous trumpet blast of sound that rang in their ears even at this great distance. Then the predator struck, ripping out its throat in a single savage motion. The entire river valley erupted in frantic calls echoing from the cliffs.

“Where the hell are we. This isn’t Earth.” Jerimiah’s voice lifted above the blood-curdling screams still rising from the distant riverbank.

“It’s time for an explanation.

“Welcome to Cretaceous Station. This is a research colony that is the home and birth planet of three nearby star colonies. They are …”

“No such thing exists,” Sara Prakset rudely interrupted.

“Oh? But they do. You can someday see for yourself. You are witness to our world, our technology and …”

“Earth has no colonies beyond those on Mars, Venus and the Belter’s Biosphere. Even they can’t get along.”

“Yes, I know about the conflict. A sad situation but your eyes give proof. Here we exist and we are not a participant in those problems. Now please, no more interruptions. Let me explain.

“First of all, we cannot send you back to your Earth. It’s not impossible, we occasionally return to our installation on Europa but we cannot chance discovery.

“You each have a choice. You may leave Cretaceous Station at any time. Go anywhere in the world you wish. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend it. As you saw in the valley, this is a savage world with horrors surpassing those just witnessed.

“You may also choose to leave and join a remote colony located a distance north of here. They have survived for more than a century and are doing quite well but they are purists and prefer to live off the land rather than advance civilization.

“Finally, you can join us on our quest for the stars.”

Jack Arlow spoke up, obviously upset, “You don’t want to be discovered. Is that why you fired on us?”

“We didn’t fire upon you. We didn’t even return fire when fired upon. I attempted a rescue of your ship but was only able to save your shuttle. That is why you are here, alive today. I believe Lieutenant Alsoi can confirm that.”

“Aye, it’s as he says.”

“Thank you. Let me explain how you arrived here.

“Our universe is several billion years old. There was a time when no matter existed, all was energy restricted to a single point. Even then the universe had creases in its ethereal fabric, physicists call them cosmic strings. Quite nasty things that you’d do well to avoid. You see, they’re the width of about two protons. So much smaller than an atom in width but they extend for billions of miles and possess an immense gravitational pull.

“Now jump ahead a few billion years. As our solar system formed, it encountered a cosmic string tangled with a very tiny black hole that anchored it here in our system. Forces clashed, the string began spinning but was unable to break free of the black hole. Eventually, the opposing forces balanced into a high gravity, stable artifact.

“The high gravity artifact began sweeping up nearby matter, eventually forming into the so-called gas giant that we know as Jupiter. Jupiter is not a planet, it contains no solid material. It’s a ball of vapors held captive by a microscopic black hole and sustained from collapsing to a single point by Hawking Radiation. The complex interactions of gravity between the cosmic string and black hole drive the immensely dense string in an unbelievably rapid spin.”

“Bull,” growled Jerry.

“Not sure I believe it all either, young man. Believe it or not, it gets better.

“Back in the late twentieth century, Doctor Frank Tippler theorized that an infinitely massive, long cylinder spinning along its longitudinal axis creates a frame-dragging effect that warps spacetime. The energy release tilts both space and time, forces the time component of a space-time diagram to point backward or forwards along the temporal axis.

“Any of that sound familiar? The spinning, immensely dense cosmic string we tracked inside the cyclone is a natural ‘Tippler Cylinder’.

 “As we passed through the cyclone wall of the Red Spot, we entered a volume where the closer we approached and traveled along the cosmic string, the more rapidly back in time we progressed. Our exit brought us out here. Sixty-four or so million years earlier than the timeframe you were born into. Several hundred years prior to the extinction of more than eighty percent of all life on Earth.

“You now reside at the end of the Cretaceous epoch. Welcome to your new home, Cretaceous Station.”

Sara couldn’t believe her ears and had just adsorbed the initial concept, “You’re kidnapping us?”

Alsoi still wasn’t sold, “None of this makes sense. You said there’s been a remote colony here for several hundred years. How did you get here then? We’ve had wavedrive capability for only twenty-five or thirty years.”

“That’s right. It was the first interstellar ship that had the misfortune of discovering the true nature of the Red Spot and the good fortune to survive. They landed, … wait. Our director’s coming.”

All eyes turned to Hailey Sharpe as she approached, “Morning, Captain. Have you explained the situation to our new arrivals?”

“I was right in the middle of it ma’am. I must say I didn’t expect you’d be here.”

“Oh tush. Do you really think I’d pass up the chance to meet people from my own time frame? I had a wonderful flight just listening to them discuss home.”

Alsoi picked up on it right away, “You are from our time frame but the station’s been here for hundreds of years. Did you just …”

“No, Lieutenant. I was only fourteen when my family arrived.”

“But ma’am, that doesn’t make sense either. Just how ….”

Captain Tafton broke in, “Mister Alsoi. You should know better than to ask a lady how old ….”

“Oh Captain, it’s all right. Lieutenant, I’m two hundred thirty-seven years old and now that you’ve had the Nanobot inoculations, you can also look forward to a potentially long life. They do more than help you communicate and access our hive library. They also monitor and repair your body. We aren’t sure of the ultimate lifespan yet.

“You will find that this is a very interesting place to live and grow old in. It’s rather like that old Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times’. You see, there are many ways to die prematurely here. I can only guarantee, you will not live a boring life.”

“Why then don’t you simply leave? You do have to contend with T. rex here and lord know how many other threats. Why stay?”

“Yes, I know you just saw a small T. rex. I’m sure there were several more, maybe dozens in the hunting pack down there. They are amazingly fast and cunning hunters.”

“So, leave. Start your colonies on a distant star.”

“We have started colonies but can’t simply abandon Earth. At least, we can’t just yet.”

Screeching and hollering interrupted Hailey’s speech followed by two muscular animals nearly as tall as the humans and looking very much like brightly colored roadrunners. They arrived, charging over a bush-covered hill with the obvious intent of catching a much smaller bird that was barely knee high and, even though brightly feathered, they obviously couldn’t fly. Alois immediately recognized the larger animals as the two big birds they’d first encountered on the Athos.

One spotted the humans on the lookout and musically called to the other. Altering their course, they charged only to brake at the edge of the cliff and cautiously walk forward with a very slow but graceful trot over to Hailey where they began bobbing up and down glancing alternately from Hailey to the new arrivals. Hailey smiled at her guests, absentmindedly running her fingers through the brightly colored ring of feathers on their necks.

The larger animal’s head swiveled towards the humans, soft and quite flexible lips on its head moved to reveal a set of quite intimidating canines and molars set behind a small beak where a nose might have rested. It extended an arm and paw towards the lieutenant.

Hailey tapped it on the neck, “Francis, not now. They haven’t met you yet.

“I’m so sorry Lieutenant but there’s  ….”

“But you said we could speak with them after we came home.”

The words floated in the air before the stunned humans. Quite obviously, the bird spoke and the sound seemed to emanate as much from its throat as it did the mouth and lips.

Jack Arlow blurted, “They are talking birds?”

“Surely Mr. Arlow, you’re familiar with parrots. Many are capable of more than mimicry, you may wish to look up the research on African Grays of the late 20th century. They reported small parrots retaining vocabularies of several thousand words, quite capable of employing rudimentary logic.

“However, these are not birds, they are intelligent animals we call Hypsilophodon.

“Francis, now manners please when greeting Lieutenant Alsoi.”

Francis walked over, again showed her teeth and extended an arm with a hand at the end of it that had four fingers and an opposable thumb. Alsoi simply stared at the hand. Francis looked puzzled and turned to Hailey.

“Lieutenant, Francis just offered to shake your hand. Please don’t be impolite.”

“Well, my apologies Francis. A handshake greeting is the last thing I expected.” The contact was firmly gripped although different from a human’s hand.

“Thanks. Is alright, Rootenant. We must go, important work.”

Hailey was chuckling quietly, “You’ve just met one of the natives. Francis is from a nearby colony of Hypsilophodon. They are not birds but, like birds, they are dinosaurs. They’re one of the smarter species in this world although I find it increasingly hard these days to define intelligence.

“Like us, they are omnivores, they still exist here at the end of the late Cretaceous contrary to the paleontological records of your world. They have an opposable thumb and use crude tools much like the apes and birds of your world do. You would expect them to be quite civilized after more than seventy million years of evolution but they are not.

“This species and so many others are intelligent but will never develop a creative civilization.

“Lieutenant, we all appreciate the help you gave so unselfishly. You were ready and nearly did sacrifice your life. Your actions were instrumental in turning back the latest alien attack but that wasn’t the end of the threat.

“You see, we aren’t the first humans to visit this early time. Way back in 2036 C.E the first starship to leave Earth crashed into the Red Spot and disappeared. We know they survived the transit and landed on an Earth that was nearly a hundred million years younger than the land you now stand on. They went on to the stars but a small contingent managed to return to Earth and their own time.

“In 2056 C.E. a leader of that original contingent returned here and landed at a nearby location creating our first outpost. I emigrated to that station as a child six years later and discovered a threat to our race that no one before me knew existed.

“Somewhere along the hundred or so million-year timeline between humanity’s first landing and my arrival, our people must have managed to upset an alien species. Certainly nothing surprising for our species. Strangely enough, the aliens aren’t even from our universe. So, why they care, how their species and ours first met, and what may have driven them to hate us so much remains a mystery.

“We do know they’re from another cosmic brane or dimension and they have enough hate in them that they wish to eliminate humanity. I don’t mean they want to kill off humans. After all, there aren’t that many of us here in this timeframe or even in the home world you came from.

“From the vantage point of your century, Homo sapiens as a species has been around for less than a million years. An extremely short timespan compared with the evolution span of most dinosaur species.

“Humans have had long-distance communications and telescopes for hundreds of years and yet the universe appears empty. A great physicist of your time presented a theorem called Fermi's paradox, that posed the conundrum that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand in our oceans. With so many stars, where is everybody? We should see some evidence of other life yet there appears to be no life in this universe beyond our species.

“The citizens of Cretaceous Station have had interstellar capability for more than four hundred years. Considering all our colonies, exploratory missions, and deep space interstellar drones, we have yet to find even a trace of another civilization in our universe.

“Oh, life abounds, even intelligent life like the Hypsilophodon but not the creative intelligence that invents, constructs civilizations and dreams of flying between the stars. We think we know why.

“In a few centuries, this Earth will suffer the blow of a cataclysm known as the K-T or Cretaceous – Paleogene event that will result in the extinction of more than eighty percent of the species. Even more devastating for future life, this planet’s climate will become unstable.

“Dinosaurs and the earlier life of this planet all enjoyed climate uniformity that changed very slowly. For billions of years, life evolved in a paradise-like, slowly changing environment with little challenge to their existence beyond their encounters with other species competing for the same food supply.

“The coming extinction will leave behind it a wild, harsh world. Temperatures and air composition will vary rapidly. Repeated ice ages will follow extreme cycles of hot climes that come and go in tens of millions rather than hundreds of millions of years. Life here will be stressed repeatedly to the point of extinction by extreme climate cycles. The future you come from is a relative bio-desert compared to the Cretaceous Era with far fewer species and a miniscule animal population.

“In your home timeframe, more than ninety-nine percent of all species to emerge on this planet will have already gone extinct and the surviving species will pass into the ages after only a million or less years of evolution.

“Yours is a world cursed.

“Yet, the curse brings a blessing. Us. Humans.

“The stress of species competition combined with the challenges of a hostile environment ultimately resulted in the evolution of a race capable of meeting the challenges using more than physical adaptation. We did it by redefining the meaning of ‘intelligence’.

“We alone have an intelligence capable of civilization and of dreaming of a future among the stars. Humans apparently are a rare and unique development in a very lonely universe. That brings us back to the aliens and their war on humanity.

“You see, we most likely are the only intelligent life in our universe just as the aliens are the only intelligent life in their universe. They see us as competitors and want to exterminate humans, not just all humans but all humans that have been and are yet to come.

“So, it is possible that the human species and its derivatives have existed among the stars for more than a hundred million years if our first expedition somehow managed to survive and evolve. We too are sending out colonies and if we survive then our ancestors will have inhabited and evolved on other stars for more than sixty-four million years by the time you are born. Our discovery of time-travel presents a unique problem for the aliens.

“Unfortunately, they have several potential solutions to the problem. They could completely sterilize our planet and ensure that life never evolves for the next sixty-four million years. If successful, then our species will never evolve and all humans, those past, present, and future, will cease to exist simply because they eliminated all life prior to the birth of our species. This solution encounters a big problem in that it's difficult to prevent life from evolving and potentially a new species could arise presenting an even greater problem than Homo sapiens.

“Alternatively, ….”

Lieutenant Alsoi broke in, “Nope. Doesn’t work like that. Haven’t you ever heard of the ‘Butterfly Effect’? You change a simple incident and it influences all future history.”

“Is that what you think, Lieutenant? Have you been listening? Humans first landed on this planet a hundred million years ago. We are here now and our future apparently remains the same.

“The researchers of Cretaceous Station had two hundred years to study this problem. Time isn’t a table of billiard balls where altering the path of one item impacts all the others. Time is more like a stream or a river. Throw a stone into the river and a few ripples occur but they quickly fade and the flow remains. However, build a dam or block it with a tree and you can alter the course of the river.

“We believe they will attempt a simpler remedy. Alter future evolution by preventing the dinosaur’s extinction. Life here will continue in abundance with dinosauria as the dominant clade slowly evolving in a climate-stable world for eons to come. The dinosaurs will not only survive but continue. Dominating and slowly evolving like they have for the past half-billion years. The climate stress needed to create our species will never arise. Humanity will never appear in the universe.

“The aliens would bring a much more peaceful future for the planet. These Hypsilophodon, we call them Hypes, are a sweet gentle race. Only one of many that may continue to slowly evolve and survive for ages to come.

“I’ve personally traveled ahead to the moment of extinction. The Hypes will still exist and be flourishing as a species. On that day their world will end abruptly. I witnessed it and heard the screams of the Hypes as they died with their voices rising to the heavens at the cataclysmic end of their species and so many others.

“If humans are to survive and evolve in the distant future of your birth than we must ensure the extinction happens. In saving our species, we will be directly responsible for the extinction of the dinosaur and so many other beautiful species.

“The concept haunts my nights. The memory of that visit rips my soul to this day and will continue until the day I die.”

Hailey stopped and looked away from them to the peaceful sea. Her hand rose and rubbed something from her eye when a tiny, ladybug-like being emerged onto her shoulder and began bobbing up and down accompanied by the faint tinkle of bells. Hailey’s quiet sob could barely be heard, “I’m okay Tink. Now, go back. We’ll discuss it later.”

Hailey took a deep, sobbing breath and returned to her guests, “I’m sorry. Tink’s my personal Bot. It’s been with me a long time and has grown quite sensitive to my mood swings.

“Today, though, the sun is out. Dinosaurs sing and flowers have begun their emergence in a world paradise. This is a fine day, a day of vast import for you. A day of decision.

“Will you join us on our quest to save humanity. A future where we guarantee the extinction of nearly all life on Earth leaving behind a cruel world of climate stress, repeated extinctions, and cruel death. If so, you will live with the knowledge that you are personally responsible for the loss of so many beautiful species and for ending a paradise.

“Our task continues after the extinction, for we must enforce the isolation and protection of our birth planet until that distant day when the cycle begins and the first interstellar expedition of humanity sets out for the stars only to find itself sent a hundred million years into Earth’s past.

“Or will you join the northern colony and live peaceful, exciting lives in this world knowing that you, your children and all your descendants will die in a hundred or so years along with the dinosaurs?

“The choice is yours.”

 

End Novelette --  

© Copyright 2018-2020, Terrence Zavecz, All rights reserved.

Webalizer Or Modlogan