Today, Future War Stories, is one year old, and it as been a great year! Nigel and I want to thank everyone for reading and commenting. We look forward to another year....enjoy the read of another of my short-stories.
This is Sierra 320, we need immediate evac! Now! Does anyone hear me?! Sierra 3-2-0 is under fire, many wounded and in deep serious…evac now! Sierra 320 to anyone…anyone…
In a panicked uncontrolled reaction, Donovan Powell, bolted from his warm bed, to the floor with trained reflexes, pulse racing, with his nightmare still fresh.
“Lang?” He called out to the AI unit.
“Mr. Powell, are you okay?”
“Yes...”He fumbled around his confused brain. “I think so...” The terror was still fresh from the nightmare. With a firm shake of his cloudy head, he tried to refocus.
“What is our status?”
“All systems green across the board.”
“Start a shower, and prep a tray with strong coffee.” He gathered up his bedding, and recomposed himself. Every night, he relived the war, despite the distance of hundreds of light-years.
He cursed at the lack of control, but he was thankful that no one else was on the station to see it. His only companion was the artificial intelligence, Lang, both lived on station #661 owned and operated by the Bokai Company.
He manually checked the position of his metallic home, tittering on the edge of the SS433 quantum singularity, collecting the jets of plasma ejected from the overloaded core. Once the little voice in his head was satisfied, he tried again to regain mental control over his swimming emotions.
“Desired temperature has been achieved, Mr. Powell.” He nodded to the disembodied voice, and started to strip. He passed by the mirror in the bathroom, and the very sight of himself stopped him cold.
Deep grooved scars wrapped around his body, most were faded, but the war never did. Every night, he was back on Solaris, fighting…over and over.
“Please do not waste water, Mr. Powell.”
“Thank you, Lang.” Powell was snapped back to reality.
“Status report is due in two hours.” He ignored the vaguely human voice of the machine, allowing the running water to drown out this metal world, that he lived in for the past three years.
The company had constructed collector stations that used Dr. Bussard’s design for EM fields, coupled with the Blandford-Znajek Process, to attraction and harvesting these gases into storage spheres. Long lines of metal spheres stretched out for hundreds of mega-statute kilometers away from the station.
It was not called ‘661’,Powell had learned that the first day, when he discovered the the graffiti on the walls which christened it “Purgatory”.
A place between heaven and hell.
Once he was out of the shower, he checked the countdown to the arrival of the tanker Edmund Fitzgerald. His only human contact during his contacted time here was when the tankers came for the spheres, and that is the way he wanted.
“Lang, any messages for me?” Powell asked while under the hot air blower.
“Any from Machiko?”
“No, but there is one from a lawyer-”
“Trash it, Lang.” He barked at the AI. “I know what he wants.”
“Of course, Mr. Powell.”
When Powell was shipped back Earth-side from the Solarian War front, he was drummed out of the service, and back to a life he barely knew. That’s when it all went wrong.
“Not many jobs for vets with traumatic war neurosis.”He muttered to himself as he slipped on another company uniform and heavy boots…on to the work.
* * *“Containment sphere PLMP-917 is filled and ready, Mr. Powell.” Lang synthesized. Powell’s primary job, besides overseeing the Lang AI, was to pilot a remote tug that transferred the spheres to the pickup area.
He slipped his hands into the gloves, placed the visors over his eyes, then with an artificial feedback tactile sensations, he ‘felt’ the tug’s docking assembly capture the massive sphere. With a flick of the wrist, Powell piloted the tug to several thousand mega-statute kilometers out.
“Safe distance achieved.”
“Thank you, Lang.” Powell said with mocking tone while, unlatching the tug from the sphere. For hours, Powell moved the spheres from the Bussard collector to the cargo sector, over and over. It was boring work that demanded close attention, and it left him exhausted most days.
After the 12 hour shift, Powell crawled to his quarters and laid down.
“Amber Ale, very cold.” He spoke, and behind the headboard, the food slot opened. After unscrewing the lid to the cylinder of beer, he relaxed while his free hand groped his night-table for a hexagon-shaped object. With a push of a button, the small drape grey room filled with a warm yellow light. Projected was an array of pictures from his former life beyond the cold confines of 661. He cycled through images of his wife, family, and then halted on a group image of his unit on Solaris…Sierra 320.
When he examined the dirty faces of those soldiers, his emotions wrecked into the jagged bitter memory. The cold beer forced down a lump in his dry throat, while his right hand shook like he was pumping rounds through his SA97 carbine. He slammed down the hexagon projector, cutting off the image.
“Mr. Powell, are you okay?” Lang broken in to his private moment.
“No”, he tired to regain his voice, “but there isn’t a damn thing you can do.”
“Was that your unit on Solaris?” It asked.
“How the hell do you know that?!”
“It is standard operational procedure for me to pull the company file on-”
“I don’t want to talk about this, Lang! Do you understand?!”
“Yes.” He remained still until the tortured silence was broken by the dispenser tray opening by his bunk. His eyes filled with the welcome sight of another cold can.
“I believe that this is in order, Mr. Powell.” It uttered.
“Just make sure this remains behind us.”
“There is no one to tell, Lang.” He cracked open the beer and took in its unique taste.
“Good point, Mr. Powell.”
* * *
Days of boredom caused a deep well of depression to set in. It didn’t matter how many games of chess he played with Lang, he was starting to longed for human contact, despite what had happened.
It was funny to him, darkly funny, because the whole reason he even applied for this job was to escape society and that war…now he wanted to talk to someone besides Lang.
The work continued, as it always did. He mused, while another tank was being filled, he watched the gauges, but soon, he drifted off into thought. Powell faced the same enemy every night; no matter how far he was …it stalked him like a jaguar.
Powell knew that he had done this to himself. The cold hard reality was that his family had served in the military for generations, and it was his turn. By the time, he made sergeant; the situation on Solaris had broken out.
With trillions of energy-hungry people, the Kriexane fields on Solaris looked to be the next magic solution to providing the quick and easy answer, and the governments raced to Solaris… then came the war
He couldn’t look into his wife’s eyes, when he boarded the rail for basic, he could feel the rings of disappointment and worry that still haunted him today. It was one thing to screw up your life, but quite another to do that to another person that loves you. He though.
He stopped focusing on his job and retreated back to that moment when the war ended for him…the brass had ordered his unit to outflank the enemy and take an important supply point, by crossed the Natalya Plains. But they were waiting for them. The enemy had mined it and zero’ed in with mortars, and when their armored vehicles came rolling across the open terrain, Donovan and his soldiers fell into hell.
The shells and mines ripped into the vehicles, and torn the soldiers apart. Powell survived the crash, and was forced into a desperate fight, while care for the wounded, all while under enemy fire. One after another, his fellow soldiers died, as he desperately tired to save them. Powell screamed on his radio for any help, but it took seemly forever for an air-lift out. After that night on the Natalya Plains, he was labeled by navy psychologist to have “survivor’s guilt” and was “unfit for duty”. His government was obsessed with controlling the heavy fuel of Solaris, and since he couldn’t fight anymore, he was nothing to them. He wished that he had been a Roman Legionnaire, because, they kept their soldiers away from the general population for years until they were fit to reintegrate. All Powell was shipped home, was little more than his boots and a bottle of pills.
He shook his head, and refocused on the readouts.
“Containment sphere PCGT-612 is filled and ready to be moved, Mr. Powell.” He nodded to the always-seeing-eye, and slipped his hands into the control gloves.
* * *
The Purgatory station was vast; however, most of it was consumed by the machinery of the collectors, and not accessible to the single human occupant, the comfort of Powell was secondary to the harvesting of the black hole. Within the long dark hallways and corridors, Powell ran. He ran like he did in basic, like he did on Solaris, and it seemed to one of the few things that suppressed the screaming in his head. He ran everyday and prayed that the voices tired before he did.
“Mr. Powell,” Spoke Lang, “there is a call for you.” Donovan stopped running and gathered his breath.
“Okay,” He mopped the sweat from his head, “from whom?”
“Thadus control, Mr. Powell.” That got Donovan’s attention. Thadus was the main hub for the company! And they only called when there was a problem.
“Lang, connect the call down here.” Powell worried about his appearance while he readied himself for whatever would come.
“Connect,” he spoke to the wall monitor. The wall flickered into a stable blue image of a sour looking man in a freshly pressed corporate uniform.
“Powell,” he gruffly, “you need to ramp up production by another 40%.” That figure shocked him. Powell was aware that the system could only handle so much, and there was little room for excess.
“But sir, the safety devices on the storage spheres would not holding up-”
“Listen to me, Powell” the uniformed man pointed seemly through the 3-D projector to his chest, cutting him, off. “The company needs every mining station to ramp up production to keep up with the Solarian War demand!”
“But Sir, I must protest-!”
“No excuses, Powell! Your shares are at steak! Get it done, and ready for the Edmund Fitzgerald!”
“Yessir!” He mocked a salute.
“Thadus Control out.” The screen popped back to black, and he rubbed his head….will that war never stop haunting me?
* * *The following relative morning, Powell rolled onto the cool metal floor with the words of that company rep echoing in his head. Powell was all too aware of the bitter and bloody war over the Solarian Kriexane deposits. The war demand fueled the development of stations like purgatory. This was a golden opportunity for profit for his employer…and they would jeopardize him and the station to achieve it.
As he took to his control chair, his mood was numb. A blank look overtook him as he stared out into endless infinity of black space, and his mind fought against the dense blackness. Out here, alone is what Powell had sought since the battle of Natalya Plains. Be careful what you wish for…Donavan reminded himself.
“Mr. Powell?” It asked.
“You have been motionless for 6.4 minutes. Is everything alright?”
“If there is something that you wish to talk about, I am fully rated for interpersonal communications and psychological proven advice.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He moved quickly to grab the glove controls and move a storage sphere, before the AI talked anymore.
Within a few minutes, another storage sphere was moved out, while another filled. The work kept his mind moving and the troubling thoughts out….for awhile.
“Mr. Powell,” Lang broke in.
“Please check, Storage Sphere PCFS-997, my readings show high pressure in the on the charging valve.” He rushed over to the right display monitor, and within a second, he had confirmed the AI’s findings. It was clear to him, that the sphere were about to burst and take the others with it.
“Lang, vent the plasma.”
“Working.” Powell watched the gauge continue to rise into red levels.
“I am sorry, Mr. Powell, but the storage sphere’s computer is not responding.”
Damn! He scowled, and shoved his hands into the glove controls.
“How long until critical mass?”
“About 120 seconds.” He moved the tug at full thrust to the sphere. The trick was for the operator to pilot the tug at enough thrust to reach the sphere, but too much, and he would overshoot it.
Donavon thought of all these variables, as sweat poured down his forehead. He knew if one sphere exploded, than so could the rest…and that much plasma could take out the station along with it, or be pushed into the black-hole.
His wet hands wrestled with piloting the small craft.
He pulled back on the tug, and fired a puff from the thrusters to slow it down.
With an expert hand, he whipped the crab-like remote craft around the massive sphere.
He cut the thrusters completely, and relayed on inertia for the rest of the way. “20 seconds.”
With a steady hand, Powell, pushed the arm of the tug toward the manual release valve. His eyes, hands, and experience all worked together to ‘feel’ for the valve.
“15 seconds, Mr. Powell.”
He cursed wildly when the arm missed the valve! His heart sank, and his stomach rolled!
“Lang, full emergency thrust on the tug, NOW!” While screamed out the words, he grabbed the sphere, and used the control thrusters to pull the sphere away.
“Emergency locks off, Mr. Powell.” That was he needed, he flipped up the red tab on the control stick, and pushed down…hard. The panel monitoring the tug lit up with alarms, and Powell pushed hard on the vehicle. In those seconds, he prayed that the distance was enough!
“Five seconds, Mr. Powell.”
Powell ignoring the computerized voice and pushed the thrusters, until the monitors for the tug blinked off. His hands froze up and he braced for the stock wave. But nothing came…and he shook himself back to his senses. With a flick of the wrist, Donovan replayed the video feed from the sensor, and saw the flash of light. He smiled as he replayed the video over and over…he was washed in the thrill that he had lived through it, while slumping back into the cool leather command chair.
“Excellent work, Mr. Powell!” Lang exclaimed. Powell pulled out his sweating hands out of the gloves, and wiped his forehead.
“Lang, you owe me a drink.”
* * *
He needed something stronger than beer, to calm his shattered nerves that night in the bunk. His mind raced with what had happened, and what could have happened. Powell reached over to his night-table and pulled out two items. One was a contraband bottle of Tennessee whiskey, and the other was the holo-cube.
That feeling of the Grim Reaper’s scythe had been on him before, and this felt the same. That cold chill of the grave swept over in his shattered psyche. It had been like that on Solaris…the military pushed them over and over to achieve victory, no matter what the cost…no matter the blood that was spilt. The company was the same way. He was tired of being the victim of someone else’s orders.
Powell had believed, foolishly, that if he got away from everyone and everything, that the ghosts of Solaris would go away. He had sacrificed two years of his life to recover from that horror, but he had fallen into a deeper hell. It seemed even here, on the edge of eternal, someone was here, ordering him to risk his life for another’s gain.
Donovan rolled away from the holo-cube and the whiskey. He didn’t need to get lost in bitter emotions and harsh alcohol….he needed sleep. No rest would come to him, the nightmare came to hunt him, and Powell tossed and tuned, until Lang injected an sleep aide.
* * *
The incident with the sphere, had made Powell jumpy, every time he docked with a sphere, his eyes flashed to the valve pressure gauge.
“There is an unusual reading coming from the ergosphere of the black-hole.” Lang broke in. Powell nearly jumped out of his skin, when Lang broke the silence in the control booth!
“What is it, Lang?!” He shot his angry toward the ceiling.
“It’s probably a piece of super-compacted matter.” Sometimes these smart AI are not so smart.
“It is a intercept vector to the station, Mr. Powell.” Then the hairs shot up on his neck, and his finger flew onto the input pads.
“Lang, get me a visual.” He barked.
“Processing the image and cleaning the background gravitation distortion.”
“Fine…fine.” He mumbled, as the he taped and pounded the various pads and buttons. What is going on?! For an object to get to the ergoshpere, it has to get pass the event horizon…that means power and piloting. Acid climbed up, biting his throat.
“Image established.” Powell turned every screen to the image, and when his eyes fell upon it, his fingers stopped, and his breathing got deeper.
The craft was unlike any seen in all of recorded human history, sleek, black, like a dart. He watched unbelieving what his eyes and sensors took him. He aimed the powerful sensor array of the Purgatory station toward it and set the data to bounce back to the deep line of satellites.
There on the main monitor, the black craft was changing its shape. The craft was morphing from the aggressive stiletto shape, to one more like one of those ancient sharks on Earth. His mind was threatened by the aggressive shape of the unknown vessel. He theorized that it had lengthened its profile to deal with the stresses of the crushing gravity. In a flash of white panic, Powell realized that no human ship had been able to achieve that!
He had no weapons on the Purgatory; there was no way that he could move the station while feeding from the nipple of the quantum singularity, not without ripping the station to pieces. He was firmly locked in its crosshairs.
If Donovan Powell was to be spared from whatever it was out there, it would be granted by whatever piloted that ship.
“Lang,” he cleared his dry throat, “what the hell is that thing out there?” “Unknown,” it spoke through the speakers on his chair, “it does not match any known craft on any record. My medical scanners show that your stress level has increased beyond acceptable limits, would you like a dose of nerve tranquilizer to relax you, or perhaps some transcendental monk chants?”
The alien vehicle’s movements felt Powell with the emotion of being spellbound.
“It is hostile? Did it return any of our greetings?” Sweating was pouring out of him in thick sheets down as the craft came closer.
“In answer to your first query, that is unknown, and the answer to your second, is no, all standard greets on all frequencies are not being answered.” Powell was moving around in his seat, like a he was being watched by a predator with you on its mind for dinner!
“LANG!” He yelled out. “Get the Fitz here! NOW!”
“Impossible, Mr. Powell, the Edmund Fitzgerald is still four weeks out, at best speed; it would the M-class freighter one week-”
“Get them moving here, Lang!”
His eyes never left the dark unwelcoming visitor, as it moved toward him at low speed, like a hunter with a captured wounded prey that had no where to go.
“Lang, what does the manual say about encounters with extraterrestrials?”
“Page 550, Section 0055, states that: Bokai Company is committed to the safety of its employees and stockholders, any encounter with any extraterrestrial biological entities is to be handled by specially trained company personal, please wait for their arrival on-scene, and avoid any contact with the EBE unless specially ordered by the Bokai Company.”
“That’s very helpful, Lang.”
“There is a message coming in.”
“Is it from that thing out there?”
“AND?!” He yelled at the machine.
“It is only one word: Confiscation”
“What the hell does that mean?!”
“I could define it if you wish-”
“I know what the damn word means, you stupid machine!” Before Powell could speak, his small surroundings were screaming in harsh red light and klaxon torn into his ears.
“The unknown vessel has increased its speed along with a build-up of energy in its forward section.” Donovan Powell didn’t need the AI to tell him that their ‘guest’ had powered up a weapon. There was nothing he could do. He was like a tree standing before a hurricane. With a push of a button, his chair swung away from the bank of monitors and from his cargo pocket, his hand took to removing a holo-crystal.
“Danger! Incoming energy beam!”
With a deaf ear to the storm of noises, he simply stared into the 3-D image of his dead unit, while he recalled a poem by Ota Dokan.
“Had I known that I was dead already…I would have mourned the loss of my life…
* * *
“Edmund Fitzgerald to Thedus Control, over.”
“Go ahead, Fitz, what’s your status, over.”
“Thedus, Station 661 is gone.”
“Repeat that, Fitz! Gone?”
“The station is nothing but debris, and the tanks are drained.”
“Are you sure, Fitz?”
‘Roger that, Thedus Control…triple sweep.”
“Any sign of the operator?”
“Scans report not a single trace of DNA.”
“Confirm that again, Fitz.”
“Yessir control rechecking the data.”
“Status on the blackbox, Fitz?”
“That has been located and downloaded…we are moving at sub-light to a secure satellite to transmit to you Thedus.”
“Report on repeat DNA scan. Fitz?”
“Still negative Thedus.”
“Secure any data you have on station 661 and lock it down…Code Alpha One, Fitz. Please confirm, Fritz?
“Confirmed, Thedus Control. Code Alpha One.”
“Plot a return trip to Thedus, Fitz.”
“Roger that, Thedus, we’re on the way back.”