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“Earth may be dead to us, but there is still hope out there, in the stars, in the darkness that separates them, in the furnaces inside them, on the planets that orbit them, in the nebulae that birth them, and in the galaxies that bind them!” – Filidor Trump, to the Post-War United Nations, Nov. 2, 2111.
Chapter 1: Into the Dark
The fusion engines shot the vessel into the dark rift outside of the plane of the solar system. Only darkness would hide it from destruction. The Ethiopia was fleeing, it’s inhabitants deserting the only home they had ever known.
What was left of that system was dust and debris, gyrating steadily in an orbit that would take it all spiraling into the fiery maw of Sol. The Manu had done this, they had come out of the darkness just as the Ethiopia was now rushing in, hungry and angry and filled with hate, screaming into Humanity’s proper and destroying everything in mere days. Hundreds of human bodies would hang for thousands of years in the black void between the planets, little rarefied reminders of war and death. The Space Stations, once glittering jewels of Humanity’s dreams and hope now crashed into the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, fiery desiccated wrecks unable to keep stable orbit. The great arch and sky elevator of Venus, once the greatest purveyor of raw materials for fusion engines, lay cracked and broken on its seething surface. The Capitol Asteroids of the United Colonies had been blown open like walnuts in a nutcracker, their inner cities exposed to vacuum, their populations internally combusting from the lack of pressure outside their bodies. There was nothing left of the Great Dream of Filidor Trump.
The crew of the Ethiopia did not know whether or not anyone else had made it out alive. As a United Colonies Space Patrol vessel, it was built more for speed than for engagement, and despite it’s rather large size, it’s fusion reactors (which took up more than half the ship) could theoretically propel it at one percent the speed of light.
They were putting that theory to the limits now. Captain Larson and his crew of forty-five careened into unknown space and unknown times.
. . .
A chime sounded, notifying Captain Larson that it was due time he hid the whiskey. A moment later, the door slid open and Commander Wilhelm Filch stepped into the Captain’s ready room. His coverall looked as clean and as prim as ever, an ironic contrast to the dirty and stricken uniform of his old and tired counterpart.
Larson was old, and he was tired. He was a year away from retirement when the Manu hit. As tradition had dictated, it was customary he take on a young UCSP officer as his number two to groom for the job. But God, he hated the kid. He was too happy, too like Larson was when he was that age. It was just another poignant reminder that he shouldn’t be here.
“Sir, look at this.” Filch strode over to the desk, his straight back and tall, well-built frame betraying nothing of the stress he was currently under. His amber eyes and walnut hair were perfectly groomed and the small handheld data tablet he firmly held in his big, strong hands looked well-kept and unmarred.
Maybe Larson should just shoot himself now and be over with it. This kid was better for the job anyhow. Still, some small defiant spark inside of him, one powered almost completely by spite, made him lift his tired spindly arm and take hold of the small data tablet.
He took a glance, and then looked up at the bare, utilitarian room. All it held was his desk. Everything else had been removed on his order. He refused to live better than the others in these trying times. He looked again. The data tablet showed a screen of stars. One was brighter than the others, larger. Closer.
“They couldn’t have…”
“They didn’t,” Filch agreed. “The Manu didn’t track our vessel. This is a straggler. Just one of them. It’s following us.”
“How? We keep rotating our thrust vector!” Larson exclaimed in frustration.
He was referring to the fact that far away, a fusion torch flame from a ship could only be seen if the observer was directly behind the ship, otherwise, the ship was practically invisible to all electromagnetic scans at long distance. Since the Ethiopia really looked like just a giant cone with a fusion torch on the large flat back, to keep from being located, the ship fired the fusion thruster but kept it at an angle to the long axis of the ship and also rotated it around this axis so that no observer from any angle would ever see it for very long, and one directly behind in pursuit would not see it at all. While this produced stealth, some of the thrust was spent on lateral instead of forward motion and the ship was forced to move more slowly. However, it was what had kept them alive for this long.
Larson could thank Filch for that tactic, he’d come up with it after viewing the attacks at Venus. Smart bastard. Larson sighed exasperatedly and dropped his head to the desk, wishing he could drink more and think less. Filch continued.
“I think what happened is that some of the stray photons from the fusion torch rebounded off the nearby Kuiper belt asteroids and were picked up by this one Manu. They have very good eyes for that sort of thing, you know.”
“To hell with it,” the Captain cursed. He looked up and motioned Filch to take a seat. There was no avoiding this now. Filch grabbed one of the fold-out chairs from the side of the room and set it out on the other side of the desk and then sat down primly. “Can we outrun it?” Larson asked.
“I did the calculations with Lt. Commander Vorland at tactical and he concurs. We won’t last very long.”
“What about decoys?”
“Well damn it, son, why did you even come in here and tell me if there wasn’t any hope left anyhow?” Larson lamented. He sat back and slapped his hands on the table. “Why not just let me sit here and die in peace?”
Filch swallowed hard and ignored the last comment in the way that only young men who still have dreams can. Larson was his commanding officer, there was no way he was losing it or could be fallible in any way. Especially not when their lives were on the line. “I looked at some alternatives to dealing with this situation,” he began with a hidden but clearly anticipatory note. Filch had been wanting to confront one of the bugs head-on. He thought all this running was nonsense, since these were, after all, just space-bugs. They could be beaten just like any other infestation!
“I did some calculations,” he continued tentatively, gauging his words by the minute changes in the older man’s expression, “and I think we CAN make it to the Kuiper belt in the plane of the system if we change our thrust vector and increases it’s magnitude to two gee’s. It’ll take about a week of travel, but we can stay just ahead of the Manu, and get into the belt first. It’ll give us a chance to stage an ambush.”
Larson had looked hopeful up until the last sentence, when he balked and would have laughed except for the utter desperation of the situation. “An ambush? I liked your idea until that part. That’s suicidal. Can’t we just hide from it?”
Filch frowned, crestfallen. Despondently, he said, “We could.“
“Make the arrangements. Hide us in the asteroids. Do what you have to.”
“May I speak freely?”
“No. Now go.”
Filch kept his face stoic. He got up and left.
Larson opened a desk drawer and withdrew the hidden cup of whiskey. They were all going to die anyway, right?
. . .
Commander Filch stepped onto the elevator that ran down the levels of the Ethiopia, his ship. The elevator descended down one long, pressurized glass shaft that had been welded haphazardly to the side of the ship long after leaving the shipyards allowing him a large, panoramic view of the starscape. He stifled his resentment at being turned down for an attack. They didn’t have weapons but they had grappling hooks. They didn’t have armor but they had heart. He shrugged angrily.
It had been weeks since any of them had had a good meal. The ship, normally outfitted for only a month at space, had been running on rations for three. Resources were low and tension was high. People were saying the Captain didn’t have what it took to lead them on, some, mostly in engineering, were even calling for an insurrection. But how could they, now, when there was a threat right on their back doorstep?
They had already fled once. And killed thousands by doing it. The Ethiopia had been stationed over the Mars colony when they had first received reports of the attacks on the Capital Asteroids, the center of power of the United Colonies. Instead of staying and trying to protect Mars colony or even evacuate it, Admiral Rameses had ordered all UCSP ships to flee from orbit and regroup at Jupiter, going up and over the belt in an attempt to rally forces. It was unfortunate, to say the least, that the United Colonies had never invested in the creation of warships. Why should they? With no internal rebellions, no enemy governments, Earth and its war-torn and divided nations history, and no other intelligent life discovered (until now,) it was not even necessary.
So Mars colony, with all of those young and brilliant minds, with the only three Universities in all the United Colonies, with its history, its innovation, its rank as the first colony established by Filidor Trump, the savior of mankind, and it’s doubly important place in history as the place where Trump breathed his last, was blasted to rubble by the Manu as those who protected it had fled into darkness.
And Filch had watched, helpless, as his old friends and comrades were burned alive by the fusion fire of the Manu. He had listened to the calls for help and the SOS beacons radiating outward in an explosion of desperation from the surface as the Great Domes were breached and people started to die. A little part of him, that child inside that dared to dream, had started to wither then. It was a force of will to retain his hope, his demeanor. But he had to, for the crew.
Once outside the ecliptic, Larson had adjusted to head to Jupiter system when the message came in that it too, had been attacked. Nearly hands were reported lost, along with nearly 90% of UCSP vessels. It hadn’t been long until reports were coming in from all over the dark above the belt where ships like Larson’s were on their way to Jupiter. Ships were being systematically tracked down and eaten by the Manu. These space-bugs, they ate metal and machines, and their hunger could not be sated.
After only a day, Larson decided instead to retreat out of the system. Filch had been flabbergasted. But he had convinced himself it was only to regroup, to come back swinging. It was obvious now that that couldn’t be true. There had to be a reason. Larson was no coward! He had served the UCSP admirably all his life and Filch had been honored when he was assigned to him.
The Commander stepped off and into engineering, the grungy, dark part of the ship where twenty men worked to keep twenty-five alive. Normally, the excess heat from the fusion engine was ejected into space but the thermal relievers had recently broken down and so a lot of it was spilling into this deck, making it hot and muggy. Men worked with their coveralls unzipped and wrapped around their waists. Sweat glistened and struck the floor in a regular beat. The deck was a tangle of wires and ducts, large computers and grimy people. In the center of it, if one could manage to wrangle one’s way through the maze of circuitry, was the fusion reactor, a great, glowing fireball of Man’s greatness that blazed like a brilliant nova as it shot raw material out the back of the ship at speeds comparable to that of light itself.
While the engineers were normally muscular from the work out of keeping a fusion engine going during patrols, now they were haggard, slack, and malnourished. This was a war of attrition. Still, Filch tightened up his coverall in a show of smugness only an officer could perform, and made his way into the tangle.
Minutes later and after a few bruises to the head from overhanging coils, Filch found the man he needed to see, John McCrickard, a.k.a The Forge. He looked like Vulcan incarnate himself with his fiery red eyes, orange beard and hair, and rather protuberant, yet strong belly. It was smaller now from the rationing, but he still maintained that inner fire. Filch liked that about him. The two had become friends after Filch had jokingly greeted the Head Engineer in an Irish accent and The Forge had promptly hit him in the face, knocking him out cold for a good five minutes.
As it turns out, The Forge does not have an Irish accent, and considers himself Canadian in ancestry, and as a Canadian in good spirits he let Filch off the hook with only a slap on the back, but that to was pretty damaging to the young Commander!
“I see you want something,” The Forge said in greeting, grinning under his beard. Filch had interrupted him while he was installing a newly repaired EPS conduit. Filch had learned only to interrupt that if absolutely necessary (he had another bruise to prove it.)
“Did you receive the report I sent you on the problem?” Filch asked cryptically, quietly.
“I garnered you wanted it a secret, from the crew?” McCrickard said loudly, on purpose.
“Yes but only until – “ Filch noticed eyes upon him. But they weren’t curious eyes. They already knew. “McCrickard, this was classified!” Filch whispered harshly.
“Everyone already knew, sorry to ruin your day,” The Forge replied. “What can I do for you?” He kneeled against a neighboring duct.
Filch closed his eyes and forced himself to calm. The first thing he learned on this ship was that fighting over every violation, big and small, would eventually cost him his life. People didn’t take to change, especially on such a vessel with such a small crew, and they invented and followed their own codes of conduct that served just as well in performing duties for the UCSP as did the codes set forth in the Academy. One of those unofficial rules was if you keep secrets, you may wake up in an airlock.
“The Captain has decided that we need to adjust our course and hide in the Kuiper belt. It should take a week at – ”
The Forge patted the air with a hand. “I know,” he said. “I figured the Captain’d do that. He never was one for confrontation. It’s why he stayed a Captain for so long!” He chuckled.
“I’m sure that’s not the reason. The Manu have never been beaten in any battle and it’s not surprising he doesn’t want to engage one here,” Filch shot back. “We don’t have the resources or weaponry to take on even one!”
“Son,” McCrickard said, stroking his beard, almost echoing the Captain himself, “The things are the size of school buses. We’re much larger than that. All’d take is a good ramming and I bet you we could break one of those suckers open like they did the Capitol.”
Filch almost nodded. But he couldn’t contradict the Captain in public view so easily as The Forge could. It would be inappropriate! He wasn’t completely under the spell of the Ethiopia just yet. “I’m sure he’ll take your concerns into account,” he replied, formally.
There was silence for a moment as the two switched gears mentally and became friends.
“Did you see the vid I sent you?” The Forge asked.
“The new UCSP Radion? Yeah,” Filch said enthusiastically, “It’s the first ship with a Quantum Froth Engine and it’s twice the size of this piece of junk!”
The Forge smiled and leaned forward conspiratorially. “I heard it even has the first weaponry developed for space warfare. A MAC gun,” he whispered. John was referring to a magnetic accelerator cannon. They used to be installed in some of Earth’s orbital platforms during the second war period after the death of Filidor Trump. They hadn’t been seen since, the technology thought to be lost.
Filch stood back. “MAC Gun? They’ve never put one of those in a ship before!” He exclaimed. “Why, I’m not even sure if any are left in working order!”
McCrickard leaned back and laughed wholeheartedly, drawing stares from other engineers working dutifully under him. They seemed not to care that he had paused from work to banter. They knew if they tried they same, though, he’d ream them so hard they wouldn’t get up the next morning.
“You sound like a little boy, Commander! Of course they have them! I once saw one on the UCSP Stargazer back in the day.”
“The one that blew up due to a fusion reactor breach around Jupiter Station?”
“Yep, that’s the one. I served on her twenty years ago, before that debacle. And I tell you something: It wasn’t the fusion reactor, it was that gun. It is volatile as anything! They were test firing it for sure, I guarantee you. “
“Why would they be test firing?”
“The Stargazer was built just to test that weapon. Did you grow up in a bucket or something? The technology was slowly being adapted for space warfare,” John said.
Filch looked at his watch, straightened his coverall and his voice changed. “I can’t vouch to any of that,” he said. “I’ve never seen a MAC gun before. But let’s hope the Radion got in a few shots before it was destroyed, then.” Now back in his officer formal voice, Filch and The Forge realized their time as friends had temporarily ended again and both said their cordial good-byes.
Filch headed for the bridge.
. . .
The Manu that was following them had no name in the human sense but if he had been given the choice of one, he probably would have chosen Nebuchadnezzar. He was very, very hungry. He sped on through the dark night, drowning himself in the exact ecstasy of blasting the heated flames of Her Justice into the void, speeding along at ever increasing speed. The human infestation here did not know just how powerful the Manu were. It was time to show them.
In a blink of an eye, Nebuchadnezzar disappeared.
. . .
Lt. Commander Peter Vorlond shoved back the bangs of his thick blond hair and sat back against the tactical console chair. It had been a long shift and he was hungry, irritated, and worse, unclean. They had been conserving water and he hadn’t been allowed a shower in three days. He knew he smelled like ass, but so did everybody else and so it shouldn’t bother him. Still, it irritated him just to move around in his coverall and feel his own stickiness.
He had complained to Captain Larson formally and informally and both had gotten him nowhere. And now he was forced to work longer than the others working out the logistics of this crazy, hopeless plan of Commander Filch’s that involved hiding from a Manu. Hiding! Every single ship that had been flitting through the darkness above the belts in near radio silence had been systematically found, dissected, and summarily eaten, the people inside exposed to the vacuum of space!
It was nonsense, all of it. Between Captain Larson’s increasing absence on the bridge and Filch’s reluctance to acknowledge that they were in fact under siege in their own vessel was beginning to really wear down on Peter. And to top this all off it seemed like all he was going to be doing in the next week was grinding down more on everybody, including himself, to prepare for this close confrontation in the Kuiper belt with the Manu.
Peter sighed and queued up the EM sensors on his computer screen. While he waited for them to run their scan, he looked around the bridge. Located at the tip of the cone of the Ethiopia, it wasn’t large, nor well appointed. There was one central chair for the Captain that had what possibly used to be cushioning. The room itself was circular and at regular intervals in the wall were kiosks cut out of the material complete with the most uncomfortable, utilitarian seating imaginable. The Captain’s chair could swivel to face any of these kiosks, and view what his subordinates were viewing. A holographic projector lay broken to one side of the door leading to the elevator. It had previously been used to view three-dimensional views of the star-field they were in but had broken down years ago. The UCSP was more about building new, grandiose ships than resupplying old ones. In fact, most UCSP ships, after leaving dock, were within a matter of years modified into ghastly amalgams reminiscent of Frankenstein’s Monster, discolored and asymmetric creations of new and old technology hastily applied by non-experts looking for a quick fix. Thankfully, the Forge had been with them for years and had kept any such horrific alterations from occurring to any great extent!
A ping sounded and the ship’s old computer, built into the very molecular bonds of the material of the ship, and brought up a scan of nearby space in the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Peter gave it a cursory overview before swiveling about in his chair and moving to another kiosk he had set to analyzing just how much power needed to be saved this week for use of the maneuvering jets for a prolonged hide-and-seek game. After viewing how the program was modeling, and nodding to himself with satisfaction, he moved back and looked again. Something had seemed off to him.
The cosmic background radiation temperature was reading as two Kelvin. Normally, this radiation that pervaded the entire universe, these low-wavelength relic photons of the Big Bang, read a temperature of two point seven Kelvin. According to theory, in an expanding universe, this temperature should steadily drop over time. But not over the timescales comparable to a human life, much less a single day!
“EM sensor must be busted,” Peter muttered. The bridge was empty. Nobody knew he talked to himself. He brought up a diagnostic on an adjacent kiosk and set it to running, and in the mean time, programmed the original kiosk to run a concentrated thermal scan. He went back to ruminating over his power modeling for the engagement with the Manu. A few minutes later, he stood, put his fingers to the bridge of his protuberant nose, the only reminder of his Jewish heritage embedded in his Aryan features, and let out a long sigh. He was just so tired. Still, he sat back down and looked first at the diagnostic. All was accounted for; the sensors were in working order.
He switched to the thermal report. The temperature in local space was now 1.9K. It was actually decreasing before his eyes! The blackbody radiation had taken over fourteen billion years to cool from temperatures that couldn’t even be imagined to only a few degrees above the absolute zero and now it had dropped almost an entire degree in the span of a day? It just couldn’t be. Where would all the energy be going? Unless the Universe were suddenly expanding exponentially faster than before, it was not possible. And indeed, all the stars around showed normal redshift, indicating they were moving away at the same speeds as before. The Universe wasn’t broken; it was he. He ran a longer range thermal scan and brought up the results in mere minutes. A light year away from the Ethiopia’s present location, the temperature rose steadily back to 2.7K.
Peter frowned. It was only local space, then? This was just the kind of mystery he loved, the kind of mystery he had been seeking to solve when he signed up for UCSP. It seemed obvious that energy was being taken out of the local medium. But for what? He switched off his power modeling and instead ran a quick calculation of just how much energy had been liberated from the vacuum. Just as the sequence was finishing, another kiosk on the far end of the bridge chimed, indicating a need for his attention. He swiveled over and looked at the readout.
The Manu in pursuit of them was now nowhere to be found. Simply gone, disappeared into the darkness. The mystery temporarily overwhelmed by the cautious hope of evasion, Peter quickly tapped in a set of instructions. He knew it was possible the Manu had started alternating its thrust vector just as the Ethiopia had, so he had to be sure it wasn’t just hiding out there. But why would it be? It was stronger than they! A focused thermal scan in the cone of space with it’s tip at the Ethiopia and extending out to include the last known location of the Manu brought up no temperature spikes indicative of a living being, just the same curious steadily decreasing temperature of the vacuum.
He was just about to send out an alarm to Captain Larson when his new modeling program finished and produced results. Figuring a minute late was just as good as a second, Peter looked. The amount of energy liberated from the vacuum was simply enormous.
“There’s enough energy here to take one of our ships to a half the speed of light!” Peter exclaimed to the empty room. What in Trump’s name would ever need so much energy? And where was it? No time to think now. He had to go see Captain Larson.
He stood up. Alarm klaxons sounded. Red, blaring chaos erupted from all over as lights flashed and screens blazed warnings. Peter shook off his surprise and turned back to his screen. There was a feed from the star-field outside.
There, out of the quiet, foreboding deep, swam the Manu. It was horrible to look at: It was an ovaloid coated in the chipped remains of destroyed asteroids; fusion fires seethed in between the cracks of it’s rock armor, and one beady red glaring eye made of searing nuclear flames stared hungrily back at Peter and the Ethiopia. It’s maw opened and inside Peter saw the heat of an entire star churning and gyrating wildly within.
Humanity’s greatest enemy had traversed all those millions of kilometers in just seconds.
Peter gaped, speechless. Had the Manu just travelled faster than light?
. . .
Larson woke from a nightmare to a nightmare. His quarters were cloaked in a red pall and sweat poured from his scalp. Without thinking, without realizing, he had jumped out of bed into his discarded coveralls and pulled them up half way before he got even got to the door.
He stumbled down the hall towards the elevator, more lithe and young forms flitted past as if he were no more than rock in a stream. Screams sounded from adjacent halls and the sweet pungent odor of fear pervaded every nuance of his senses. He reached the elevator just as it was closing and stepped in with five others.
“Bridge!” He ordered, and the ship recognized his rank and over rid all other commands, bringing him to the top in a matter of seconds. He nearly stumbled out as he zipped his coverall in the process and leaped into the Captain’s chair. Years of experience took over.
Lt. Commander Vorland, the only man on the bridge, pointed to a screen. For a second, both Larson and Peter looked exactly the same. But then Larson snapped out of it.
“Where in Filidor’s Dream is my damn Commander? Vorland, get on tactical! How close is it?”
Filch tumbled out of the elevator just then along with three other officers. The Commander took a post next to the Captain’s chair and the officers took their seats at the computer screens.
“I want evasive maneuvers!” Filch screamed at one of the trembling officers, and then turned to the next, barking out orders.
Outside, the Manu came in for a swoop and unleashed gouts of fusion flame from his maw that licked the side of the Ethiopia. In the Bridge, temperatures rose and conduits burst, steam billowing out angrily and obscuring view.
“Get us out of here!” Filch ordered, but then Larson countered that with a quick but decisive “No!”
Filch turned and regarded the Captain with what was almost an indignant glare. The Manu swung away, preparing for another strafing. “We can’t run. Lieutenant, I want you to vector us so we lance straight into that mother as he turns around!”
“But we’ll never survive!” Filch whispered harshly into his ear.
“Get off me, son. You wanted this. Now you get it!”
“I wanted an ambush! We can’t take these things head on!”
Larson turned to the scared young man and shouted, “We have no choice, Commander! Now shut the hell up!”
. . .
Down in engineering, The Forge laughed maniacally. “We need more power, boys, we’re going to ram the fuck!”
Engineers skidded back and forth down the damp, convoluted passages, using biofoam to patch EPS conduit leaks and fire extinguishers to quench the roaring flames spilling out from all areas. In the center, however, the fusion generator roared like a chained beast, eager to be set free, just like the Forge himself!
“Bridge,” McCrickard screamed, “Are we in position?”
“Roger,” Larson’s voice shot down from the ceiling speakers. “Engage!”
. . .
As Nebuchadnezzar veered away from the craft and began his swoop around for the next strafing run, he found his prey coming right towards him, point first, engines roaring behind it. His eye widened in fear as he realized how large it was and he had only seconds to alter his thrust vector.
It missed a head-on collision but the front grazed across his side, shearing off chunks of his rock scales and sending streams of plasma previously locked in by his rocky exterior spiraling into outer space and causing his body to spin wildly, like a bottle rocket with no fins. He howled into the silence to his brethren, but they were too far from him to hear those telepathic cries. His one angry eye focused on the spinning, gyrating ship tumbling away from him. He shot angry spouts of fire from his mouth but it only made his spin worse.
The prey fired it’s engines again and fled from him, as he sailed, out of control, his shell breached, and his unquenchable fire within, the fire that had fueled him through ages and had protected him in many battles, betraying him by spewing out at random and increasing his rotational inertia until he was unable to retain consciousness from the searing tidal forces trying to tear his rocky, raging form apart.
Nebuchadnezzar roared one last time in defiance, but nobody heard him.
. . .
Wilhelm Filch had been a Rockman since birth. He was the son of a wealthy mining family who lived on one of the three capitol asteroids of the United Colonies. He had spent his childhood wandering the large, spacious interiors of the capitol rocks, staring at the dazzling pillar buildings that stretched from one end of the great hollow chasm to the other, seeming to defy all laws of Physics. He had watched the great fleets of sky cars migrate across the city sky at night, each light in the far away buildings on the other side like the stars in the sky that he gaped at when he took shuttle rides to other asteroids. It had been a great, large, fantastical city then, one in each of the three rocks, each packed to the core with buildings, people, and warmth. The rocks even had an artificial rotation that induced gravity!
It had been a delightful childhood. Then, when he was fifteen, he did what all members of his family did at that age: enter into the Officer’s Academy for the UCSP. Most never did anything with the education but use it for politics. That was what his family did: Build a small military career and use it to gain a seat on the Senate House or in the House of the People. There was even one president in the Filch family history, and his grandfather liked to pretend sometimes that they were direct descendents of Filidor Trump, the greatest dreamer ever to live.
But he had chosen differently. He’d fallen in love with the history of the United Colonies, it’s predecessors and the power that the UCSP had had during the formative years: If it weren’t for people like Filidor Trump pressing on into the dark, colonizing and enforcing the law of Man, humanity would never have been able to find a self-sustaining form of life in space after the great wars on Earth. He wanted to be like those men. He wanted to explore, to become a Captain, and do great things. There had even been a time in his life, during his third year in Academy, when he had made it up in his mind to be one of the Captains of a generation starship and leave the system forever, bound for places unknown in times deep and far from his own.
But eventually he had settled on being a commander for a while, which was a great achievement in and of itself just coming out of the academy, and once he got his promotion, then he’d decide. He’d never actually been in a real confrontation of any sort before the Manu, and it still amazed him that his first instinct wasn’t to stay and fight like he’d been preaching earlier, but rather to cut and run. Was he a coward? A failure?
It looked as if Captain Larson may have more steel in him than Filch gave him credit for, and it looked as if Filch was a lot more green than he liked to think of himself as being. There was a lot of thinking to do. It seems like a man never gets such a good measure of himself as he does when he’s first put into battle. Still, there wasn’t time for that now as he looked over Lt. Commander Peter Vorland’s shoulder to the screen that showed the most recent anomaly he had found concerning the background radiation. They were safely away from the Manu now, and it appeared anyway to be dead or at least incapacitated for the time being, allowing them to continue heading for the Kuiper belt, where they could at least make a decision of where to go next.
“I just don’t understand it,” Peter muttered under his breath, not really talking to the Commander.
“Neither do I. There’s a very big physical problem here.”
“Right, this isn’t magic,” Peter agreed. “Whatever it is, it used the energy in this region of space to do something. And it was a lot of energy.”
“Enough to send a ship like the Ethiopia to almost half light speed,” Filch agreed. “What we need to do is link it to some other phenomena, because I don’t remember us going anywhere.”
“And all we have is the Manu,” Peter remarked, then sighed and shrugged in his chair. “He did just show up out of no where. It’s the most likely reason. But I just can’t imagine how the Manu’d go about something like that!”
“Well, it did come right after the energy drain. But I’m not sure it had anything to do with – ” Filch was cut off in midsentence by a voice over the intercom asking him to report to the Captain’s ready room. “Ah, I’ve got to go. Keep working on it.” He gave Peter a stiff pat on the shoulder.
“Wilco,” Peter said as Filch headed across the bridge to the elevator. He got in and went one deck below and stepped out and directly to the right into the Captain’s ready room.
Larson studied the man as he came in and took a seat. The man’s coverall was well pressed, his hair was nicely combed back, and in general everything about him seemed just the same as before. But something in his eyes was different, and Larson recognized it immediately, remembered it, actually.
“What did you require of me, sir?” Filch asked, almost hesitant but obviously expecting something.
The Captain had to hold firm in this rather crucial developmental moment for his Commander, but deep behind his commanding demeanor, he was tired. He felt like he was babysitting and it wasn’t just Filch but the entire crew. He wanted to drink but he couldn’t, not right now. He had to fix this first, this self-pity that Filch was going through. He went through it himself when he was a first officer, that feeling of being let off the leash and failing miserably. At least now he knew how his Captain had felt then.
Larson sighed. “Son, do you mind telling me what your thoughts were during the recent…incident?” He motioned off towards infinity outside his one porthole.
Filch shrugged noncommittally. “I…I don’t know, sir.”
Larson leaned back and steepled his hands. “I took your idea to heart, though it didn’t manifest in the same way,” he said. “You wanted to fight one, and we did that. We won.”
“I wanted to ambush one in the dark of night from behind an asteroid,” Filch interjected half-plaintively.
“So you did not think we could take one head-on.”
“No, well, I mean – ”
“You have all this talk about fighting back, and yet when confronted with it, you chose to evade.”
At this, Filch flushed. “I am not a coward! I just couldn’t think of any other way to handle the situation except to evade. I knew we didn’t have a chance but I just couldn’t think!” He slammed his fist on the table, broke eye contact and glared at the ceiling, eyes misting.
After a moment that seemed empty and devoid of any tension, as if Filch wasn’t even in the room, Larson said almost in a low voice, “I did not call you one.”
“I know,” Filch said. “I did.”
“But you just reasoned it out for yourself. You didn’t have the experience to think on your feet. You did what you thought was best. You did nothing wrong. That’s why you’re a first officer and not a Captain. That’s what I’m here for, to teach you.”
Filch locked eyes with him again. They were angry, angry at Larson, angry at Filch himself. They seethed, very much like the eye of the Manu that had just attacked them. “You’ve never had to deal with anything like this and yet when you were confronted with it, you fought back. You didn’t stand down. This has nothing to do with experience. You’re just better at it.”
Larson heaved a little and replied, “No, just because I’ve never dealt with this sort of threat before doesn’t mean I don’t know how to react to it. I’ve had drug traffickers, smugglers, and pirates pull the same sort of thing in my day, back when the United Colonies were relatively young. Granted, I’ve never pulled anything quite like this, but then again, I’ve never been trying to kill the person who was attacking me. As I say, it is only experience. You did the right thing within the confines of what you knew.”
“Well if it was experience that led to a head-on attack, why did you not advocate my ambush?”
“Commander, I don’t pick fights. I keep the peace. That’s why. Right now I’m just trying to keep everybody on board alive.”
“I don’t know what to say, sir. I feel like I have failed the ship miserably yet I also feel that I did what I thought was right at the time. It’s sort of conflicting.”
“I know. I went through the same thing too,” Larson assured him. “My first real command decision came at about the same time as yours. We had grappled onto what we thought were just some smugglers and we were getting ready to board them and confiscate whatever they had been running when there was an explosion off the port side of the ship I was on. The Captain wasn’t on the bridge and I thought we’d been attacked and so I ordered the engineers to gun the engines and rip away as fast as possible to avoid further attack.”
“Well we did, and it destroyed all of the grappling hooks on one side of our vessel and sent the other careening out of control into the dark. We received pleas for help but couldn’t save them because our ship wasn’t capable of matching their rotation rate so that we could grapple to them in a frame of reference where it appeared neither of us were moving. They died because of me.”
“But they did attack you,” Filch offered. “You had every right to defend yourself.”
“Ah,” Larson said, wagging a finger, “but I didn’t have to kill them to do it! The explosion hardly hurt my ship. They didn’t have enough capability to do any serious damage and I knew that. Yet I still got scared and tried to get out. What I should have done was continue boarding procedures and taken a few scorch marks. Then nobody would have died and justice would have been properly served.”
“What you’re going through is natural. Every first officer goes through it at some point or another. And every Captain has to ease their Commander past it. You’ll do this someday as well.”
“I’ll try to grow some balls, sir,” Filch said, and smiled a little.
Thank God this is over, Larson thought silently. “Good. You’re relieved.”
Filch left and Larson drank heavily.
. . .
Peter Vorland had grown up on Mars Colony, a dome carved into the rock in the shade of a great crater near the base of Mons Olympus, a bustling city with many tall skyscrapers that fought and defeated the sparse Martian gravitational pull, a place where the greatest minds in the solar system walked the streets and learning, understanding, an achievement were apparent in every graceful, soaring statue, every glass and steel building, and every school and University. It was truly the epitome of the Human Mind, an ode to the great ingenuity and curiosity of Man.
He had been the son of a rather well known Jewish professor from the Science University. His mother had died in childbirth with him, she was a full-blooded German, and this was where he got the majority of his features with the exception of his protuberant nose.
As a child he used to spend long days with his Dad hiking around Mars in pressure suits. His fondest memories with his father, whom he later estranged when he joined UCSP, were watching the Martian sunset as they hiked across some vast dusty expanse. It was like an orchestra of colors, rippling into each other with such familiarity that it was almost as if there were some sort of cosmic waltz going on in the sky. He thought if he listened hard enough, he might be able to hear the song the colors made as they danced with one another. His father always used to stop right when it seemed the sunset was just too beautiful, and ask something like, “Do you think the Universe is infinitely large?”
And Peter would look up at the stars just then coming out and wonder. Then his father would tell him.
“Well if it were infinitely large, it’d have infinitely many stars.”
“Right,” little Peter would say, catching on with excitement. He would point to the sky and exclaim, “But I see black in between. There must not be many stars then! So the Universe is not infinitely big!”
His father would laugh and say, “Well it is, spatially, but not in starstuff. There is only a limited amount.”
And then they would drift into a fanciful discussion about the great things like the Big Bang, the age of the Universe, cosmos, galaxies, and the like. It seemed that whenever his father saw a sunset on Mars, he felt compelled to talk about the great Mystery of the Universe. Every time, it started with the same question, and every time, he’d talk about the same things. Peter didn’t mind, he just liked the sound of his father’s strong, lecturer’s voice.
Later in his life, being raised in what was essentially a large college town had had him getting into things most kids didn’t until they were much older. At the age of fourteen, he had figured out how to manufacture fake identity chips so that he could go out to bars with college kids and drink. He hacked into the computer system of Arts University and placed himself as a student there with a high GPA and spent the majority of his teenage years pretending to be somebody else who was much older and much smarter than he. He even went to classes, just to keep up the act and very much did not consider his peers in high school worth his time. He had had three different girlfriends who were all older than he was, and they never knew it, even though they fell deep in love with his blonde hair and pretty eyes.
It had lasted until he was 18 and his father forced him to enroll in Science University. He was then pushed into living a double college lifestyle, essentially doing twice the work a semester, and he found he couldn’t keep the fake identity alive. It didn’t help that one of his girlfriends figured out the ruse when he didn’t attend her graduation ceremony with her and she very soon got his entire circle of college friends hating him. By the time he was officially a freshman in college, his entire old circle of friends from his previous life had graduated and what’s more, loathed him. Very few still talked to him. All his estranged peers never got to know him in high school and considered him a loner, so he spent the remainder of his college life studying, not having fun, not going out, and not enjoying the life a college man should. It was as if he were only allowed 4 years, to attempt to take 8 was some sort of karmic violation and he was being punished for it.
Feeling desperate when he graduated with no real job prospects, no real friends, no real loves, with only his father to keep him company, Peter had enrolled in the officer program of UCSP, figuring there was enough adventure out there in the cosmos to keep him occupied. Also, the uniform didn’t look bad on him either. He received top-notch marks during his one-year officer’s boot camp that was basically just an expedient version of what Commander Filch went through at Academy, and was placed on the Ethiopia as a tactical officer for his brilliance with computers and computer simulation. He was not on the fast track for executive positions within the UCSP since he took the college route, but he was planning on using this time to build a reputation as a sound mind and a good researcher with a solid UCSP background so that when he got out of the service in a few years, he’d be able to get a job in private industry. This was his second year on the Ethiopia, and he had grown accustomed to the routine. It was almost easy for him to forget what was happening outside the ship, so ingrained was he in what he did every day. As long as the routine didn’t change, it was almost as if the war with the Manu wasn’t even real.
He still daydreamed of being a developmental head of some research team for a private corporation in the Belt or on Venus, maybe. Even though both were gone. It could happen, couldn’t it?
A beep from the computer in front of him knocked him out of his reverie. He had been running a simultaneous program for rationing supplies on board Ethiopia while also seeing if it were possible, in any way, to utilize the more esoteric laws of physics and get something the size of a Manu to travel a light-second in seconds. So far it required large amounts of energy and acceleration that no life form could generate much less survive. He tried seeing if the local energy drain on the background radiation would fit the bill. It seemed obvious enough but surprisingly, the energy would only account for 10% of the energy required to boost that bastard to more than half the speed of light. Some piece was missing, and it titillated his mind. He hadn’t slept since it’d happened!
He queued up the report. To his surprise, it wasn’t his programs finishing up – it was a communiqué. From outside the Ethiopia, in the Kuiper belt, not too far along it from the section they were traveling to! It was encoded, and needed Captain-level decryption, but here it was, proof that the war wasn’t over! Peter hastily called Captain Larson on the comm.
Within minutes, the bridge was crowded with up to fifteen people, all waiting to hear good news, somehow catching wind even though no notice had been given. Commander Filch was there, along with the Forge. They were chatting excitedly off in a corner, trying to keep themselves separate from the throng of ensigns and officers. Peter hadn’t had time to leave his chair.
Captain Larson finally arrived to let everyone know that due to the authorization level of the code, nobody was in fact allowed to view the message and that instead he’d take it to his quarters on a data tablet. And he apologized profusely for it. Downtrodden people milled out slowly while Peter uploaded the message to a left over data tablet and then left the bridge to another officer for the next shift. He handed it to Larson, who was standing near the elevator shaking hands and giving reassuring pats as he left.
Larson took the message to his quarters and sat down at his desk, brooding. Half of him didn’t want to open the message. It couldn’t be good, after all. There weren’t officially any UCSP outposts in the Kuiper belt – it was too far to be economically viable right now! Where was the signal coming from then? He’d heard rumors among the other Captains that they’d shuttled supplies to the Kuiper belt and then dropped them off in the middle of no where, forced to leave directly afterwards. He’d also heard this’d been going on since the UCSP was founded.
He opened the message and watched as it was decoded. It was just a simple S.O.S., coming from a large asteroid hanging in the Kuiper belt not far from where they were headed. Interestingly, though this message was encoded, it was being broadcasted in broadband, as opposed to narrow band bursts so that the message only reached one ship. This was hitting everybody. Why broadcast such an SOS to everyone that couldn’t be decoded without authorization?
Maybe they were desperate but not quite that desperate yet.
He called the bridge.
“Lt. Commander Yosevich, would you be so kind as to change our course to these coordinates?” He gave the man the coordinates.
And then he sat back and closed his eyes, half-dreaming, half-fearing. Something didn’t smell right. But he had no choice, he had to act.
. . .