Elius Ten is dark. They said it would be dark, but The Academy never told them what the dark could do. The cold, deep, creeping darkness that seeped into every disquiet, every restless space inside your head. The dark made you feel lost – disconnected: not knowing where you or anyone else were amongst the infinite expanse of space. Like sailors overboard adrift in the black of night on a strange and foreign ocean. The monotony of repetitive tasks edging into a suffocating meaninglessness. A tightness that would gather in your chest at times from this boredom accompanied by a teasing despair. That is what the dark could do on Elius Ten: the unsung Geo-lab/space Lighthouse stationed off the Kuiper Belt in the farthest reaches of the Milky Way.
Few people held this post for more than two rotations. The small crew it did keep were aptitude tested yet that is, of itself, indefinite. Too many causes for the mind to become unhinged closed in on those prone to the symptoms of working deep-space deployment. Even with specialist military training, rumours of ghosts in the galley and crew losing or misplacing time were common. Most adapted to the forty-eight-hour deep-space cycle: thirty-six hours’ waking time with twelve hours sleep. Days bled into nights strewn into weeks that yawned into months. Before long, a rotation had passed and you were a year older. Deep-cave dwellers of Earth were perhaps the only ones who could compare their altered sense of time.
Nancy Culhane scrutinised the crow’s feet circling her eyes in the Captain’s quarter’s bathroom mirror. Would her partner remember her? The artificial daylight struck a further harshness over her stern features. She looked as cold as the millions of chunks of ice out here they were examining. Eon II had been discovered half a century ago yet Elius Ten still floated about on the perimeter of the Kuiper Belt collecting samples of space-rock. Today’s dailies showed their rotation review was due within the coming three months, yet the central register had her crew up for transfer to Eon II four-and-a-half rotations ago. Bureaucrats. Echoes of her Duty Sergeant musing that they’ve been forgotten, haunted her thoughts.
A picture of a gracious thirty-something woman holding a young child in her arms and smiling was wedged into the mirror’s frame. The Captain readjusted the brim of her hat with two sharp pulls. Soon their child would be a teenager. Messages to expedite requests the crew of Elius Ten be relieved had repeatedly gone unanswered. Her contemporary, Captain James Wyatt, had sent coms to inform Culhane that three of the older sites had been decommissioned and were now galactic prisons. “Russia, The UEU, America and China are up in arms about who owns the new worlds. We could be stuck in space for some time,” the transcript read. “There is also an uprising among some of the Military blocs. Some political factions don’t want Operation Genesis to succeed. Beware of pirates pretending to be one of us.” She re-read Captain Wyatt’s com and gave small thanks the last supply shuttle had left them in surplus.
Beyond the starboard platform the Kuiper Belt glistened in parts. Solar winds blowing just enough light around the back end of the Milky Way reminded the Captain of that archaic Beatles Song, ‘Lucy in the Sky with …’ – what was it, diamonds? With diamonds. The familiar chorus of electronic beeps and hums that delivered the station’s observation data were soothing in the early hours of what the Captain remembered as an Earth night. Crickets, cicadas, and humidity. Something she thought she would never miss. Out here there were no crickets, no cicadas, no humidity. Artificial landscape murals, lights, and sensors masqueraded to distract you: your real companions being solar wind and large, icy rocks, some of which held the new fuel. Scientists from The Space Mining Agency had developed a technique that created energy from the asteroids and dwarf planets of Earth’s solar system. Now they think they’ve struck oil – or its second cousin. Elius Ten had their standing orders: Explore and examine possible fuel TNOs and KBOs. Monitor and destroy possible asteroid threats.
From the bridge, Captain Culhane levered a large mug of fresh, hot coffee from her lieutenant’s desk. Neptune loomed through the circulating steam trails. One thing the Captain admired about the vintage design of Elius Ten was her 360° kaleidoscopic view. Large floor-to-ceiling windows encircled the central column of the quad module structure, resembling a lantern room from an 1800s Earth Lighthouse. There were even vintage cog gadgets in the observatory. Sometimes the solar wind in the gamma belt, racing at times then slow the next, clashed with the magnetic fields, showering in through the starboard observatory windows. The Space Aurora like the majestic Northern Lights of Earth. This distinct lightshow reminiscent of all the colours of an Earth rainbow. As magnificent a sight as this was, it was also extremely dangerous. Category five Geomagnetic Space Storms could destroy entire satellites. Smaller shockwaves created asteroid showers from hell. For this reason, Elius Ten boasted four bulky photon batteries upon each of its axes: NEOCam always on guard for potential threats. The Captain couldn’t remember the last time the cannons were fired. She opened her shift log and entered in a maintenance request for them. Aft of the stern, the Captain noticed soft orbs of light. She unclipped a set of space sights and peered out the long, tall window. Nothing. She began her rounds.
Twenty minutes was the quickest lap-time around the internal perimeter of Elius Ten. Launched together with Beta Eight and Delta Four, this satellite received extensions and modifications after NASA’s last century space explorer, Voyager, returned data of a new galaxy. It discovered a younger sun, aptly named Sól, with three new worlds. Eon II, identical to Earth, was colonised with civilians first. The other two planets lacked sufficient solar energy for sustainable life. Culhane scanned herself into platform two. Captain Culhane, the station intercom announced. Her eyes were met with her Lieutenant’s.
“Anything new to report, Rachel?”
The Captain noticed a lump of gaff tape rolled into a ball on the floor. The young lieutenant shrugged and revealed a makeshift bat. “I got to 35 not out, Ma’am.” Five of the other soldiers grinned in unison. What were they supposed to do out here anyway? Trained space combat soldiers on what was now a navigation port for passing civilians: an abandoned playground for end-of-career scientists. She pressed her lips together.
“Keep your dailies logged,” she said. “Pirates were reported on Delta Four attempting a jailbreak.” Culhane ignored a small spot of light in her left peripheral vision. She had seen it there a few times now and was mindful of its implications. Strange markings had started appearing and disappearing in her quarters. “Explorer reported an exit disturbance. I am sending Screaming Phoenix to Haumea at ten-hundred hours.”
The soldiers jumped to attention, “Yes, Captain!”
“We are also relieving Dr Brody. His replacement will be here within the light fortnight.”
“When are we being relieved, Captain?” Sergeant Hill asked.
She looked at the younger man, his sad yet hopeful eyes hungry for an answer. She could say nothing.
They exchanged salutes.
In the observatory on the starboard platform, Dr Adrian Brody had been trying to decipher rune-like markings from something that had hit the stations drone, Explorer. He was working furiously on it for what he thought was perhaps a few days. His shift log registered seven. The older man loathed the invasive technology of the frontier space stations: constant scanning for elevated heart-rate, waking cycles, sleep cycles, productivity patterns. He wondered if the dratted thing knew his bowel movements. Dr Brody withdrew his pipe and blew a large plume over the camera. “Track THAT, you infernal monstrosity!” Finally, Explorer brought him something he could invest his intellectual rigour in. Two chunks of shrapnel that resembled brass were clamped to the Doctor’s workshop bench. So far, it had blown everything in his lab. A strange metal combination that was somehow emitting its own power source. He had discovered most of the object’s properties, bar a few, and was amazed at what it could do with a magnetic inducement. Brody saw his mug vanish then reappear within half an hour when the object was set up within a small controlled magnetic field. This was by accident. The mug had reappeared above his desk and plummeted to the floor with a ferocious smash. After this he decided to encode his notes and observations. A strange thought had crossed his mind, yet he dismissed it as ludicrous.
Down the corridor a small light in the wall blinked. He looked up to the door panel to see his Captain approaching. Adrian moved fast, placing one of the alien objects into a hidden vault. Captain Culhane, the station intercom announced. He buzzed her in.
“Good evening Captain,” he said.
Nancy started at the sight of two Dr Brody’s standing in the room. “Good evening, Doctor.” What just happened?
He rushed up to her, unrolling a sheet of plasma paper and began to theorise what he thought was a particle and energy interruption that cut out Explorer’s communication systems.
“We don’t know what just happened,” he began. “That’s the exciting part — there is something new here!”
Now there was only one Dr Brody standing in front of her. Culhane searched for the orbs. Light in space is riddled with optical illusions, her deep space training reminded her. She drew in a slow deep breath through her nose.
The man shifted his weight, the synthetic paper twitching at the corners in his hands.
“Dr Brody,” the Captain pressed, “what typically causes com failure in space?”
“Ah, m-many things, though there is a significant correlation between satellite anomalies and elevated electron flux, oh, ah-and a clear magnetic local time dependence of anomalies related to surface charging.”
“In layman’s terms, Doctor?”
“Solar energetic particles and cosmic rays can penetrate the electronic components on a spacecraft.”
The Doctor shrugged. “Shrapnel, from a TNO, possibly out of the albedo of Haumea.” He pointed to the bronze-coloured object sitting on his work bench. “There is something else, Captain,” the older man said. “Look here.”
The pair moved across the room and up a short staircase to where the observatory’s Spitzer IV telescope sat. Dr Brody’s note-disc lay in the observer’s chair with coordinates facing Haumea. The Captain leaned in to look through the eyepiece.
“See that mass of cloud out there changing colour?”
Culhane squinted against the rubber.
“I’ve been watching this nebula for a while now, it being the closest to us. At first I thought it was debris from that last training exercise. The nebula is growing dense at incredible speed. I can’t find why.”
“This is the nebula that Sól was discovered in?”
“Yes.” The Doctor watched his Captain carefully, then added, “There is immense heat. And it has been escalating with force since Explorer returned.”
“What did you find?” she asked.
“This,” the Doctor said, returning to his bench to collect one of the two pieces pulled from the drone.
The Captain looked out at the strange nebula, wondering if the spotted lights she kept seeing had anything to do with it. This wouldn’t explain her hallucinations though. The fluorescent swirling mass sloshed about inside the eyepiece like an oil fire with a life of its own. Dr Brody stood beside her with the bronze-coloured piece in his palm. The Captain watched it hover above the Doctor’s skin, like he was not holding onto it at all. White orbs appeared in the Captain’s peripheral vision. Then she noticed a blue glow around the objects edges.
“Doctor, do you see that?”
“A kind of magnetism.”
A low vibration rattled through the lab. The Captain scanned the room then the LCD station monitor. Nothing registered. She felt the strange vibration through her shoes and now there was a ticking sound – a full-bodied timbre – thock, thock, thock – foreign to their familiar metallic staccatos. The Captain’s shrewd instinct followed the sound to the Doctor’s well-hidden safe. He stood by feebly as she moved wall panelling to reveal the second bronze piece hovering inside a containment safe. It had peculiar hieroglyphic marks on an octagonal shell. Just like a tortoise shell, the Captain thought. Bright blue lights pulsed in time to the ticking. A circular module extended from its base. It began to spin. Fast.
“Captain, do you copy?” Culhane’s personal com scratched.
The object in the doctor’s palm suddenly became hot. As the piece fell from his hand, a large crack split across the containment safe. The vibration intensified, breaking glass and lights in the lab. The Captain’s head began to swim. Vertigo dropping her to a knee, she watched the Doctor retrieve the now white-hot object with a set of tongs.
“Captain, report to the bridge. Over.”
The spinning piece was hovering above the vintage sundial at the Doctor’s waist when he placed the white piece into its centre. Culhane watched the two pieces fuse together. A high-pitched frequency pierced their ears. Her personal com sparked and blew out. The object started to shake violently then burst about the room against the walls, ceiling and floors.
“Adrian!” the Captain yelled above the noise. “Lockdown! Now!”
“Nance, it’s a time-displacement reactor!”
The room began to blur. The object soared over their heads carving intricate symbols into the ceiling and walls. It sped past them in random directions. The Captain crawled towards Brody and pulled him to the floor. She pointed to the lock down safe-room thirty meters away. Parts of the walls and ceiling that had been gouged out were now floating in the middle of the room. Sparks of bright blue and purple now bounced about the walls. Nancy Culhane took one last look and hoisted herself and Brody through the air-lock safe-door. It hissed shut with a loud chunking seal. A blinding flash of light – Captain Culhane woke with a start in her quarters.
* * *
The station’s server intruded into the Captain’s waking consciousness with requests for her shift log entries. The robot also informed her she had exceeded her sleep allowance. This would be detrimental to her performance, it said. She ambled into her bathroom and began to scrutinise the crow’s feet circling her eyes in the Captain’s quarter’s bathroom mirror.
“Captain Culhane, do you copy?” her personal com rustled. Wasn’t that thing broken? The small unit vibrated with the volume on top of her bedside table. She watched it fall to the floor.
“Report to the bridge. Over.”
She got into the shower. Hot water streamed over her face. She palmed it away from her eyes thinking about the absurd dreams she was having. Strange dreams even whilst she thought she was awake. Symptoms of deep-space sickness were part of her training: she knew what she was experiencing was borderline. The Captain also knew how to pass her psych evals. She got out, got dressed, adjusted her cap with two sharp pullsP. The picture of her partner with their little girl the last image she kept as she marched towards the bridge.
Three hundred metres around the interior perimeter was Dr Brody’s observatory. She stopped in front of it. His daylight sensors lit up his lab as usual as she watched him through the glass windows. She buzzed herself in. “Captain Cul –“
“Good evening, Captain,” the scientist spoke over the station’s computer.
A strong aroma of coffee filled the air when she entered. She noticed his mug of fresh brew blowing steam puffs from his workbench. Culhane scanned the entire room, looking for the marks and gouges from the vision she had. She wandered around the lab, poking into nooks and crannies searching for proof perhaps that her vision wasn’t entirely a vision at all – that her sanity was sound. Dr Brody had climbed up to the space telescope and was too busy with its controls to notice the Captain’s odd behaviour. Culhane couldn’t see anything and had started to run her palms over the walls where she had seen distinct marks carved from the alien object. As she approached the vintage sundial in the centre of the lab, Doctor Brody called out to her:
“Captain, come and have a look at this.”
She climbed the few steps to peer into the eyepiece the Doctor was motioning to. A magnificent nebula came into focus.
‘Helix,” she began, “the birthplace of Sól?”
He adjusted the declination. “Do you see the swirling lights?”
The image was hypnotising. Yes, she could see swirls of light. Orbs of light. She nodded.
“The white dwarf, Fjór. There is a mass expanding from it.” The Doctor’s tone was solemn.
“Is that something to be concerned about?” the Captain asked.
“Well, not usually.”
She stepped up to look at him.
“There is a potent magnetic ring developing. Its thermal core is altering. A lot. More than it should be.”
“What does this mean?”
The burrow of his usual frown deepened. “Captain,” he started slowly, “what you are witnessing is the rebirth of a star.”
She scoffed. “Stars take billions of years to form.” A beat. Some political factions don’t want Operation Genesis to succeed.
Dr Brody was silent. “Indeed,” he spoke suddenly. “Look for yourself. If a humankind could interject and accelerate the nuclear fusion process, the energy released would be …” he drew deep from his pipe.
The Captain turned to leave.
“I see them too, Nance.”
The observatory door hissed shut. Nancy noticed the Doctor’s mug was gone.
The Captain’s footsteps clapped with a solid rhythm along the final corridor towards the bridge. She heard loud, sharp voices. A red, pulsing glow bleated around the entrance. Her tech officer was hunched over the control panel with his nose in the emergency manual. The station’s engineer was missing. Nancy skimmed the emergency-brief screen. A pre-shock had hit the belt and the station not ten minutes ago. She scanned the outcomes and landed on the worst.
“Port quarter, Ma’am, some kind of shockwave hit us. Burst something down there. Andy’s gone to try and seal it.”
“Screaming Phoenix – Where are the troops?”
“Deployed, Captain, ten-hundred hours.”
Culhane stared at the instrument panel, running the decision-tree method through her head. When did she despatch the soldiers? When are we being relieved, Captain?
I’m sending you to Haumea at ten-hundred hours. Yes, Captain! She punched the station p.a. com.
“Mr Grady, this is Captain Culhane. Report your location.” She turned to the Private, “Initialise pressure test in the port quadrant. Seal safe areas.”
The young man nodded, checked the manual and proceeded to run the test. A few minutes passed without notice from Grady. Culhane watched the pressure test move through the final sectors. The gauge wavered about the solar-power module, stopped and blinked.
“Grady, your location.” Reverberated between the scattered intercom units throughout the station.
“That’s an ammonia leak,” the young Private whispered.
Culhane went to the security cams. “Station: camera’s port quadrant. Stream.” Images flooded the screen in front of her. Blank hallways and passages. Empty rooms. Vacant hangers. Then a blip. Panel five. “Stop, hold frame.”
Grady was going through the isolation process. “Vacuum valve is closed for panel five,” the Private reported.
She watched Grady labour with the hatch. He staggered.
“How long has he been exposed?” The Captain asked.
“Elius Ten, this is Screaming Phoenix, request approach vector for port wing docking, over.”
The young private fumbled with the emergency manual.“I, I don’t know Ma’am – maybe ten minutes?”
“Damnit. Get some iBOTs in there now!”
“Right away, Captain!” He ran to the despatch computer terminal. Thick drops of sweat fell from his face onto the small, innocuous screen, smearing the interface. His hair a thick wet mat over his forehead. “Please don’t be dead, Andy,” he murmured. He hit execute. Two iBOTs discharged from the port wing enroute to Grady’s location.
“Screaming Phoenix, this is Elius Ten. Negative on approach. Em code Orange. Stand-by.” The Captain released the com mic.
Lieutenant Rachel Blazely tapped her fingers on the dash panel. Emergency code orange was bad. Some kind of leak. All the Captain had on-board was the engineer, a petty tech officer and that loopy scientist. She checked the space weather readings. At present: all clear. Their mission to engage possible foreign matter from Haumea had returned negative. The crew only picked up recognised signals from the Space Armada, the closest ship being a galactic destroyer HMSS Starlight just off Jupiter. The on-board infrared did register a particle wave pass ahead of them through their sector about fifteen minutes ago.
“Approach starboard,” she said to her sergeant.
“I know,” she smiled, “we’ll just cruise over for a look-see.”
“Lieutenant, wait, there’s something coming.”
Rachel looked over to her radar-operator. “What you got, Brent?”
A fluorescent mass filled her screen. Warning lights blinked. Radiation level metres in the ships panels began to clip. She checked the patterns again. “Space storm wave, incoming hot – real hot. It’s gonna hit us.”
“If we don’t dock, it’ll blow us out past Pluto,” Sergeant Hill warned.
“Or apart,” Rachel muttered.“Screaming Phoenix to Elius Ten – request em dock starboard. Incoming Space Storm wave, over,” Rachel’s com scratched. The static increased. “Elius Ten, do you copy?”
“Get us closer, Rachel. If the shields go up, we have a chance,” Hill said.
A large swirling mass emerged from around the small moon the shuttle had just exited. An accumulation of solar plasma, electrons and wind broiled up behind them like an Earth tsunami.
“Damnit! There’s something else out there,” Brent reported. “Unknown object. Heading right towards us.”
Hill gaped out of the front of the shuttle. “It’s some kind of ship!”
“It’s right on top of us!” Brent yelled.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Screaming Phoenix: recon shuttle, exit trajectory Haumea to Elius Ten. Imminent collision, six aboard. May-day!”
The coms went dead.
Inside the command bridge both the Captain and her tech officer were tense. Spektr-RG showed an unknown incoming solar pulse wave. A big one.
“Captain, we should execute ét arma.”
“No. The shuttle is still out there.”
“We’ve lost coms. Elius Ten will suffer significant damage –maybe even terminus …”
“Private, what is the storm-wave source point?”
“Erm.” He ran his lanky fingers over the DSN Milky Way. “Deep Space Network registered it somewhere in … Helix.”
“It has begun!” proclaimed Dr Brody upon entering the command room.
“ETA impact, Private?”
“Less than fifteen minutes, Ma’am.”
“Ping the shuttle. Get them starboard bow. Ét Arma progression start astern,” the Captain directed.
Andrew Grady appeared in the elevator. “Cap’n, that ain’t no geomag wave a-comin.,”
The crew of Screaming Phoenix were not going anywhere without a fight. Lieutenant Blazely identified an outline of what looked like an archaic vintage airship. Rachel banked the shuttle hard. Brent read the shockwave as a proton one: capable of overloading all their on-board circuitry.
“It’s a proton shock,” Brent said, “mostly.”
“Watch for sparks,” Rachel ordered. “This bastard could cook us.”
“Forward thrusters.” Sgt. Hill flipped a switch.
The shuttle jolted forward. They had enough fuel to make it to Elius Ten. Outside, long bolts of light flashed past the front of the shuttle.
“Right engine stall,” Hill said.
“Engines go?” Rachel pressed.
“It’s ghosting. I can’t get a reading on or off.”
“Go engine ignition system manual,” Rachel said. “Override!”
Elius Ten came into direct visual. Orange lights flashed in the solar power module. Bloody ammonia leak, Rachel thought.
The strange thing about space was the silence: everything would be peachy for some time –then BOOM! Chaos. You don’t hear things coming. You don’t hear the engines roaring. You don’t hear the cannons firing. Like a sitting duck waiting to be picked off by some hidden predator in this unnatural vacuum. The tiny pockets of air within the shuttle, spacesuits, and inside Elius Ten being the only places sound would dwell of its own accord. Everywhere else it was light and radio that transformed this sound. Being in deep space did your head in.
Rachel took a quick glance at the radar screen with all its infrared and fluorescent lights flashing and wondered how loud that would actually be on Earth: at home.
“Elius has pinged us Lieutenant! They’re puttin’ up their shields from the stern up.”
“Copy that. Return ping. Where’s that bogey?”
“Bird astarboard, coming in hot,” the tech officer announced. “Ét Arma stern, port quarter, port beam.”
The Engineer hoisted up his space sights. Bolts of brilliant light flashed past. He sighted the shuttle. There was another ship out there. Where the hell did that come from? The station began to shudder. A deep seismic vibration trailed close behind. Then Grady saw it. Why must the most beautiful things be the most dangerous?
“Prep EMP protocols.” The Captain commanded. “Run auxiliary power on my mark. Three… two… Mark.”
The station dumped them into the darkness. An eerie orange glow backlit the four souls left upon the bridge of Elius Ten. Captain Culhane’s strong, authoritative voice directed impact procedure checks, the tech officer’s voice trailing off with starboard quarter. Starboard beam. Culhane felt the vibration in her fingertips on the control dial. A sense of déja vú tipped over her like spilt wine. The crew locked themselves into their seats.
“Brace for impact,” the Captain said, releasing Canzonetta Sull’aria over the station’s P.A.
The large airship was the most absurd thing to see for the crew of Screaming Phoenix. Rachel marvelled at its sheer bulk of hexagonal panels and what appeared to be some kind of propeller at its stern.
“Space’s Big Golden Football,” Hill quipped.
“How is it propelling itself?” Rachel leaned closer to the cockpit window. “And how did it avoid detection? It’s not one of ours?”
“That is the sixty-thousand-dollar question.”
“What is this?” Brent said as the shuttle got closer to the airship. “Do they have some kind of lock on us?”
Rachel pulled back on the shuttle drive. The sudden resistance made the shuttle rattle.
“Brent, what are we dealing with?” Rachel asked.
“I can’t see anything. There’s no reading.”
Max, the crew’s gunner, stomped in and shoved his big paw between them. “Look,” he boomed, “my watch.”
The hands spun round on its face.
“What, it’s broken. Antiques are no good for soldiers, man. You should get with the times and tech,” Brent said.
“No, wait.” Rachel studied the watch. “It’s magnetic. The ship must be emitting its own magnetic field.
“We should kill power to shoot under the football,” Hill said. “On the other side we re-engage and make a rush for Elius.”
“What about the wave?” Brent protested.
“Look at that thing,” Hill gestured to the airship. “It’s massive. It’ll take the brunt of it. We can rush behind it.”
Rachel checked the distance to target metre dropping. 1200m … 1000m … 800m…
“Four-hundred metres – kill it!” she ordered.
The shuttle hurtled towards the strange airship. The crew held their collective breath as Screaming Phoenix dipped enough to glide under its immense hull. A few beats.
The shuttle jerked back into life to slingshot out from under the airship’s hull. Screaming Phoenix rocketed towards the last open landing platform. Hill watched the photon batteries firing off the stern. There were asteroids ploughing into the station’s shields already. The shuttle’s heat shield wasn’t designed to rebuff asteroids. Hill turned to Brent and got her to open up another monitor for rock projectiles.
“Rear gunner!” Rachel commanded.
“Ready to rock, Boss!” Max roared from the rear canon pod.
The first ripple from the pulse wave dislodged close to a kilometre of space debris from the Kuiper Belt. The propulsion shearing against the stations electro-magnetic light shields raining in over the structure like grinding wheel sparks: each rock tearing itself apart over the dome shields of Elius Ten. Smaller asteroids knocked out from their orbit slammed into the station’s platform sending tremors throughout the entire complex. Grady locked the photon cannon onto the incoming asteroids. He blasted at the larger rocks. Culhane logged into the second canon. She saw Screaming Phoenix approaching – and what looked like an enormous blimp behind them. Distress coms sent out to the Armada had not been verified: hope of them intervening was minimal as galactic pulse waves are fast– and catastrophic. They had followed procedure. Now they had to do their best to survive it.
“The shuttle’s in sight Captain!” the Private shouted above the shuddering bombardment.
“Keep the shield open!” Culhane ordered.
The Private shot flares from the last opening astarboard, amazed by the immense ship that had suddenly appeared without a trace. Its large hexagonal panels glowing like a brilliant Earth sunset behind the incoming pulse-wave. The young man watched the airship as it turned to port and what appeared to be some of its panels lifting out and up towards the incoming threat. Screaming Phoenix a tiny dot in comparison jetting into the hangar like a small bird escaping a predator.
“Lock shields in!” Culhane shouted.
Dr Brody watched the transformation, alongside the Private, which now presented one entire side of itself moving into a position resembling giant sails of a bygone era clipper ship. The huge golden panels rotating then stacking themselves upon each other in three distinct sections was a feat to behold. Grady rammed the shield lock into position behind the shuttle.
“Shields locked!” Elius Ten was now ét arma summa. The engineer peered out over his command post to survey the unfolding spectacle. Never in all his years had he seen such a marvel. The panels of the airship had extended out and up to face the incoming proton wave. On the other side of the ship, smaller sections had also extended out and rotated up from what seemed like a deck level: a counterweight cup shape that ran the length of the ship.
Grady stared out in wonder at the airship’s girth. It ran the length of their station plus some and would be not quite as high with its sails down. He wondered for a split second whether the mysterious airship would withstand this cosmic blast. Secretly he hoped it would. A small orb of indefinable light floated past in his peripheral vision.
Culhane blasted the last asteroid incoming to her sector. Her knuckles untangling themselves from the trigger grips in slow motion. An odd vertigo had wrapped itself around her head, then, as she tried to make sense of the radars and scanners. The station was in emergency power mode and she questioned herself that nothing more appeared on them. She looked outside the stations hardened galactic glass where space was suddenly empty: a foreign chill stillness had made its presence known. The galactic eye, the Captain thought. She turned to see Dr Brody, or rather him alongside another image of him, playing with that strange tortoise shell from her visions. The familiar blue glow knocking the heat from her blood. Elius Ten shook violently. Bright orange sparks spat from battery terminal one. Brilliant white orbs of light pulsed about the room then fell into sudden darkness. Culhane struggled against an unseen force holding her tight in the gunnery chair. The inside of the bridge now dripped in slates of grey and deep purple, morphing the computer screens, radars, and com station’s shapes into a surreal abstract installation. What appeared to be ten metres seemed more true to twenty metres now – her crew stretched further apart, hunched over distorted computer terminals or hanging as awkwardly as a shadow puppet from Earth. Just over the shoulder of Dr Brody two, which was to her an optical illusion from her visions, the soldiers ambled through the entrance. The young Lieutenant’s face lit up by an intense light.
“It’s hit the ship!” wavered around in the heavy air of the bridge alongside outstretched arms and pointing fingers.
The Captain pressed herself from the gunnery chair in time to watch thick burred beams of light strike through the starboard shield. Culhane eyed the tortoise object in the Doctor’s palm. Its light blue pulse not weighing with the same uncertainty as the Captain’s previous experience. It wasn’t spinning – yet.
Over port the sails of the mysterious space ship absorbed the brunt of one of the fiercest storm waves in the Captain’s many rotations. The sails angled into the onslaught, blazing with the rush of billions of particles smashing against them: scarves and ribbons of intertwining light sprayed out over and under the enormous vessel in wide arcs of blazing brilliant colour. Sharp, bristled beams that found gaps within the airships sails shot through into the space station’s platforms, obliterating the structure with ease.
“Captain! We’re losing our shields!”
“Captain! Power Failure in bow!”
“Brace for impact!”
A thick, bold beam pounded into the bow of Elius Ten curling the structure like a child with their fingers in fairy floss.
“We have to get out,” Grady grunted at Culhane.
“The fuel cell is still stable,” Rachel said. “We can fill the shuttle and make a jump to one of the mining cities on Saturn.”
“Armada colonies are on Jupiter,” Sgt Hill interrupted.
“Saturn is our closet safe port,” Rachel insisted.
“We could jump to Eon II,” the Captain said.
“Unauthorised,” said Hill.
“Shut up, Hill,” Grady barked.
“I second that,” said Brody. “While we have the airship protecting us, we’re wasting time.”
Culhane motioned to Rachel with a one-two four hand gesture. The soldiers raced out towards the hanger.
“Emergency detail,” Culhane ordered to the others.
“C’mon, old boy,” Grady grabbed the scientist. “We’ll need you a spacesuit too – right smart if yer want to live aye!”
Culhane’s hand clamped around Brody’s wrist, “The reactor – give it to me.”
A fierce jolt threw them into the stony floor. Intermittent flashing lights and bleats pulsed inside the command deck.
“No,” the Doctor said.
The tech officer returned with three space helms. “That was our O2 booster.”
“Move it!” Culhane roared. “Get your arses to the shuttle!”
They ran along the internal corridor towards the hanger where Rachel and her crew were initialising the fuel cell for Screaming Phoenix. Beams from the storm wave raced around the structure ploughing into the adjacent arterial. Elius Ten began to move then, its stabilisation systems breached. It wouldn’t be long before the entire construction would become unstable. Culhane stopped abruptly at the interchange unit. The young private and the scientist ran past.
“Captain! What are yer bloody doin’?” Grady called back at her.
Grady’s attention rushed outside to the airship. It had tipped, rolling slightly towards Elius Ten. Larger amounts of particles were flooding over it.
“We have no time, woman!” he screamed at her, seizing her arm and yanking them back along the last section before the hanger. Larger blasts rocked the platform shattering the reinforced glass in the quadrants alongside them. An explosion shattered the bow photon battery. With a wretched wrenching of metal the floor began to twist underneath them. Some factions don’t want Genesis to succeed.
Inside the hanger, Screaming Phoenix was fuelled and ready to go. Rachel tapped hard on the dash. Max waited for the remaining crew at the shuttles boarding door. The private raced through the opening, leaving the scientist at the hanger gate. Max eyed his approach, grabbed the boy’s shoulder and launched him inside the shuttle. The bulky gunner returned his gaze towards the gate awaiting the last three.
“Goddamnit ,where are they…” Rachel muttered.
“Radiation’s in the red!” Brent reported.
“Come on come on come on …” Rachel pushed through clenched teeth.
Two figures appeared in the entrance port for the hanger. Bright blue sparks spun around their feet and legs in small whirlwinds. They appeared to be fighting for the possession of something. Rachel leaned over the control panel to make out the Captain at the scientist’s throat. Suddenly the shuttle jerked backwards.
“No no no no no no …”
“Captain, what’s happening!?” Brent called.
The shuttle bent towards the exit, its landing gears gouging strange marks in the steel floor. Its engines fired.
“Goddamnit, what the hell is this!?” Hill screamed. “I have nothing!”
An explosion lit up the starboard quarter. Three particle waves pierced the external solar array. Elius Ten creaked under its torn load.
Brent ran into the cockpit.“The airship,” she breathed, “it’s coming at us.”
“Get the Captain onboard! Get them! Get them onboard the shuttle – Go!” Rachel shouted.
Brody fought Culhane with all his might over the tortoise shell. It had begun: the shell had started its initial calibration to induce a magnetic field. The next level was gravity, and for that it needed its primary fuel source. Culhane’s strength was incredible, yet he had to get the shell into the lab, onto the sundial. He had to help it synch up with the airship. He backed into the corner of the entrance, when a blast perforated the shields over the hanger. The sudden pressure – tore Grady off his feet. The emergency seals inside the hanger failed, sending crates and loose fittings out of the large tear in the hanger’s port landing. Culhane released the scientist to grab hold of Grady. Together they scrambled back inside the gate. The Captain kicked the stop valve and the gate hissed shut. The thick grey lips smacking tight, the rush of light blazing behind its porthole eyes at them. Max and Brent had clambered back inside the shuttle leaving Culhane, Grady and the Doctor behind. The shuttle bumped against the hanger wall before being sucked out into a sea of bright fuzzy light.
Grady glared at the scientist huddled into the door jamb. The bastard had just cost them their lives. The airship looked set to crash into them any minute now and this bastard wanted to play God with some alien artefact!
Grady hoped the shuttle got out. Perhaps they could make it to Eon II. If they weren’t already dead. He watched the strange blue light flickering about them: bright blue, purple and now yellow.
Culhane watched the familiar light pulse along the edges of the tortoise shell: underneath, it had a round extrusion that had begun to spin. She closed her eyes expecting a searing light and then to wake somewhere, anywhere, other than here.
Grady and Brody’s voices smeared into the familiar static.
Culhane took a deep gulp of air. The light hit.
* * *
A room, round, bathed in opaque light encircled the three humans. Culhane peered through the soupy light at what resembled similar hieroglyphics from Dr Brody’s tortoise shell. Grady, Dr Brody and herself were seated on a platform, shrouded in this bizarre mist: the scent of cinnamon wafting through translucent orbs of familiar white light. Culhane clenched her teeth. She heard ticking: dense, rounded thocks like a Grandfather clock. Grady raised a timid hand to point to their left. Three huge opal discs surrounded with shiny brass gadgetry popped in and out of the light: a gentle whirring spinning from an assortment of cogs placed in and around these enormous faces. What is this place? What happened to the shuttle? We’re still here, breathing, alive … this is nothing like on Elius Ten. This is not a dream. Culhane looked up high in the concave structure. Four large cylinders disappeared into the light. A smaller one had a lid releasing this thick white light into the room in timed plumes.
Brody nudged her then, hard into her ribs. A figure was approaching them. Thin, tall, in a trench coat, goggles atop their head. Culhane heard the squeak of leather then a face appeared before them.
“Madam Culhane,” the woman said. “The three of you are being sent back.”
“Back where lassie?” Grady asked.
The woman unbuckled a flap on her shoulder. She handed a small box to Culhane. “Good luck, Captain.”
“Wait!” Grady yelled after her..
* * *
“Commander, your hourlies,”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
HMSS Starlight was en route to Eon II with an astonishing discovery. On the outer side of Jupiter, they intercepted a coms.
“Captain! Something’s hit Explorer!”
Commander Nancy Culhane made haste for Elius Ten.
©Cath Piltz 2017