"The Birth of Orba", by ehrad


 

The Choices We Make
by Marcelo Hipolito & Marcelo Machado

 

The battle-cruiser Aeolis glided majestically through the vastness of space. It was a titanic cylinder of glistening black metal, two kilometers long by one hundred fifty meters wide. Ship’s complement: Twelve-hundred crewmembers, all proudly bearing the insignias of the Fourth Battle Regiment of Earth. Its mission: To patrol the borders of known space adjacent to the Boras black hole.

On the bridge of the Aeolis, Captain John Dickens was checking the star charts of the sector on the monitor of his command station.

It was Dickens’ first tour of duty as captain. A very late tour at that. Most officers get their commands by their late thirties... Dickens was forty-nine.

Truth be told, it wasn’t his fault. After all, he was no ass-kisser like most of his colleagues. That, added to the fact that he never obeyed an order blindly, didn’t make him exactly popular among his superiors in the military government.

The government had been taken by force a decade earlier, and since then had been ruling its outer-space colonies with an iron hand. Such martial policy also nourished a permanent state of tension with the neighboring alien civilizations.

With the collapse of Earth’s economy, Dickens’ wife and daughter depended on him for housing, food, and basic comfort, which was a lot more than most people had. If it weren’t for that, and the long-awaited dream of commanding his own ship, he would’ve sent it all to hell long ago.

The Aeolis’ first officer, Commander Luanna Godoy, however, was a different kind of officer. Portuguese by birth, twenty-eight-years old, inflexible as a drill sergeant. She supported the coup in 2133 without reservations. She was xenophobic, intolerant toward the colonists, and unforgiving with insurrectionists. In other words, she was the model soldier.

Dickens would never see her as a friend, that’s for sure. He trusted her abilities as a first officer in getting the job done, but that was it.

Ensign Biko Mumbata was running his fingers along the panels on the security station. His mind was focused on his latest conquests, two ladies he met during his shore leave on Mars. No problem with that, except for the fact that the two women were officers’ wives. That could cost him his career, but when you’re twenty-one you don’t think with your head, at least not with the one on the top of your shoulders.

All of a sudden, the proximity alert brought Mumbata back to the real world. “Captain, I have a blip on the long-range sensors, a hundred-thousand miles from the port bow,” he said.

Godoy joined Mumbata at his station. “Is it a ship or space matter?”

“Definitely a ship,” the brisk ensign replied. “Design: Unknown.”

Dickens tried to keep a calm yet firm tone in her voice. “Heading and speed?”

“She’s coming straight at us,” Mumbata said, running his eyes by the sensor readings. “At three-quarter light speed... and slowing.”

“Transfer tactical schematics to my console,” Dickens ordered.

“Yes, sir.”

A transparent crystal screen rose up from Dickens’ console, displaying a 3-D image of the approaching vessel.

Dickens had never seen a vessel like it. Even the most exotic alien configurations had a discernible logical pattern, but this ship looked like the manifestation of a madman’s nightmare. It was a deformed, brutish chunk, with absolutely nothing identifiable from head to stern. The hull apparently wasn’t made of metal, but some sort of secretion whose appearance and color could only be described as solidified vomit. It was truly disgusting.

Dickens felt something about that ship, something far worse than disgust. “Activate force field. Energize weapons grid.”

The bridge crew promptly complied. Godoy addressed the rest of the crew by the intercom. “All hands, battle stations. Repeat, all hands, battle stations. This is no drill.”

The six particle-cannon towers of the Aeolis were engaged and aimed at the approaching vessel. Its twelve assault guns and six missile launchers followed next.

“Open all frequencies,” Dickens ordered to the beautiful communications officer, Lieutenant Anita Cruz. The young officer acknowledged to her captain. “All frequencies opened, sir.”

Dickens hardened his voice. “This is the Earth battle-cruiser Aeolis to unidentified ship. You are entering Terran territory without permission. Halt and identify yourselves. Acknowledge.”

After a few seconds, Dickens turned to Cruz. “No answer, sir,” the lieutenant said.

Dickens insisted. “Unidentified ship, this is your final warning. Halt and identify yourselves or you will be destroyed. Acknowledge.”

“Still no answer, Captain,” Cruz said, after a few more seconds.

“Position?” Godoy asked Mumbata.

“Thirty-thousand miles. Speed now constant at half light speed,” the ensign replied.

For optimum firing range, the Aeolis required a target to be at least six thousand miles away. That was pretty good for space combat with any of the known species. And that’s what worried Dickens the most. What if this unknown ship had a firing range superior to his own? “Accelerate to three-quarter light speed in attack vector,” he ordered.

“Yes, captain,” the helmsman responded.

Lieutenant Yuri Borsov rushed into the bridge, still buttoning his uniform. “Master Pilot Borsov, reporting for duty, sir.”

“I’m glad you could find the time to join us, Lieutenant,” Dickens said with a fierce look at the sleepy officer. Inside, however, he was striving not to laugh. He was truly pleased he could count on his best pilot, and friend, in such a potentially dangerous situation. “Take the helm, and try to stay awake, please.”

Borsov relieved the helmsman. “As my papa used to say, sir: Awake or asleep--”

“Eyes open you must keep,” Dickens finished the sentence with a smile on his face. “I know.”

Godoy twisted her nose. It was well-known that she didn’t approve of such public fraternization amongst officers, specially of a captain and his crew. In her opinion, such behavior was almost in defiance of military conduct. It was nothing she could use to justify a court martial, but she could always hope. “Keep steady on attack vector, Master Pilot.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Borsov answered in a somewhat cynical tone.

The gigantic metal behemoth that was the Aeolis quickly approached the bizarre alien ship, which was four times smaller than the Aeolis.


* * *


On tower three of the Aeolis, Chief Percival Keaton was closely watching the sensor readings on his console -- without taking his eyes off his two junior officers, who helped him man the two particle cannons of the tower, ensigns Hikaru Koyama and Daniel Ortega.

Keaton was a career officer of the old school, commended for bravery in the Battle of Mars and on the Campaign of Sirius 4. He was a heavy man, lovable, and always willing to drink a glass of beer.

He was used to not knowing the reason that he would have to blow some ship straight to hell. And neither did he care. Like any good soldier, Keaton left all the thinking for his superiors. His function was simply to get the job done. A job he was very good at. “Distance from target?” the chief asked.

Koyama and Ortega knew that Keaton could read the distance on his console just as they could. The question was only intended to get them focused on their jobs. “Fifteen-thousand miles,” Koyama said with his eyes on the marker. “Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen--”


* * *


Back on the bridge, Ensign Mumbata was the maintaining the countdown. “Twelve, eleven, ten--”

“Attention all weapons,” Godoy spoke on the intercom while checking the ship’s status on her monitor. “Forward towers, stand-by to commence firing.”

“Eight, seven, six-thousand miles!” Mumbata continued. Dickens took a deep breath. “Towers one to three, fir--”

Mumbata interrupted him, experiencing a mix of surprise and fear. “ENERGY SPIKE!”

Borsov couldn’t believe his eyes. “What the hell is that?!”

From the deformed hull of the alien ship, two intense yellow beams of energy singed the six thousand miles of space between the two ships in less than a second.

The powerful energy mass hit the Aeolis’ force field, which sparkled in a cascade of blue and yellow lights surrounding the battle-cruiser.

But that was only a brief relief for Dickens and his crew. It only took about five seconds for the yellow beams to overtake the force field.

As the the beams started cutting through the force field, the bridge of the Aeolis filled with an increasing heat that began setting everything on fire.

With his arms raised in a reflexive defense position, Dickens was quickly consumed by the blazing hell. Godoy died with a horrifying scream of agony. Borsov and Mumbata had no time for even that. Their bodies, along with everything else on the bridge, were incinerated as the energy beam impaled the once-impressive warship.

The black hull of the Aeolis burst outwards as it exploded in an immense ball of fire. Twelve-hundred men and women died in the wink of an eye. As it dissipated through space, only a faint cloud of gas and debris remained as evidence of the battle-cruiser’s existence.


* * *


The battle-cruiser Aeolis glided majestically through the vastness of space. It was two-kilometers long by one-hundred-fifty-meters wide. Its twelve-hundred crewmembers wore the insignias of the Fourth Battle Regiment of Earth. Its mission: To patrol the borders of known space adjacent to the Boras black hole.

On tower three, Chief Percival Keaton and his assistants, Daniel Ortega and Hikaru Koyama, were sitting on the ammunition cases in a friendly poker game. It was kind of a tradition for the three men, who most of the time didn’t have much else to do during their long vigils at the weapons control.

Of course gambling wasn’t allowed aboard Earth military vessels. So, instead of using money during the games, they used spare computer chips or something like them just to keep score. Nobody needed to know that, by the end of the week, when they got their paychecks, they would do the reckoning.

Keaton had a pair of sevens and one jack. He studied his assistants’ poker faces carefully.

Ortega was constantly rearranging the cards in his hand, a nervous tick that never revealed if his situation was good or bad. Koyama, on the other hand, was usually an open book. They could always tell when he was bluffing. They used to say he didn’t have a ‘poker face’, he had a ‘bluff face’.

Keaton threw two chips on the table. “I open with two.”

“Here’s your two”, Koyama said, covering Keaton’s bet. “And six more.”

“Fold,” Ortega said.

Keaton and Koyama closely studied each other. The chief was counting on Koyama’s bluff to fill his pockets. “Okay, there goes eight. And ten more.”

Ortega was thrilled. The tension between the other two was oppressive. Their exchange of fierce looks reminded him of the legendary duels of the Wild West.

Keaton didn’t believe Koyama could top his bet. He would most certainly fold. To his surprise, however, Koyama bet the rest of his chips. And since it wasn't enough, he took off his wristwatch and added it to the pile of chips. “I have to see what you got,” he said to Keaton.

With anxiety in his voice, Keaton showed him his hand. “Two pairs, kid.”

Koyama’s expression of awe made Keaton smile. He leaned over the table, stretching his arms around the chips, collecting the spoils of his victory. At that moment, Koyama laid down his cards... Keaton couldn’t believe it!

“Straight flush,” Koyama yelled, victorious.

Keaton felt ready to jettison his young assistant through the nearest airlock, for deceiving him with a fake ‘bluff face’, when the alarm sounded, followed by Godoy’s voice on the intercom. “All hands, battle stations. Repeat, all hands, battle stations. This is no drill.”

Promptly, Keaton and his two junior officers jumped to their stations. While Ortega and Koyama activated the cannons’ particle generators, Keaton linked the targeting computer to the sensor readings output.

They locked and loaded the cannons on tower three with extreme efficiency. The other five towers followed close by, added by the twelve assault guns and six missile launchers.

Keaton tracked the alien vessel on his monitor and locked on it. “It’s only one bandit. Design: Unknown.”

Koyama and Ortega watched their monitors. They felt a mix of astonishment and apprehension as they saw the shape of the bizarre ship.

As usual, Ortega couldn’t remain silent. “What the hell do you think that is?” he asked Koyama.

“That’s none of your business, Ensign. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes on the consoles”, Keaton reprehended him.

“Aye, sir!” Ortega replied, embarrassed.

Seconds that seemed like hours ran by in a tomb-like silence.

Suddenly, the stillness was disrupted by the acceleration of the Aeolis’ linear propulsion. Its powerful yet smooth sound echoing through the metal walls.

That was all a veteran like Keaton needed in order to know they were about to engage the alien vessel. If not, the battle-cruiser would have either stood down or engaged the hyper-engines to jump out of there. He knew they would accelerate only to approach the enemy and, once within optimum firing range, use the particle cannons. It would be hell to pay.

When the time was right, he would be the first to pull the trigger, releasing the tremendous power of the his cannons, sending who-knows-how-many creatures aboard the other ship to their early deaths. That was his job: To kill. A job he did very well... Very well indeed. "Distance from target?"

Koyama and Ortega knew quite well that Keaton could read the distance on his console just as they did. The question was only intended to get their minds focused on the job. “Fifteen-thousand miles,” Koyama said with his eyes on the marker. “Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen--”

At that very moment, Keaton was horrified by the image on his monitor. The alien ship had opened fire at a distance of TEN-THOUSAND MILES! That was inconceivable! Never in his life had Keaton seen an alien vessel that had a firing range even close to the six-mile mark of Earth battle-cruisers.

In a matter of milliseconds, five thin, yellow beams of energy effortlessly broke through the Aeolis’ force field, impaling its gigantic hull from head to stern.

Violent series of explosions were heard all over the ship. Keaton and his men found themselves thrown to the floor as the Aeolis suffered its last and more violent explosion, which brought the power down.

Keaton could barely discern the silhouettes of his assistants in the overwhelming darkness. If the emergency power didn’t go on-line, it would mean no life support nor escape-pod launchers. In other words, it would be the end.

Suddenly, the emergency lights went on, renewing their hope. The Aeolis should have still a couple of hours left of life support. That would be more than enough time for the crew to abandon ship... that is, if the aliens didn’t finish them off first.


* * *


On the bridge, it was a scene of pure chaos, with debris and corpses scattered all around. Godoy slowly got up. Blood dripped onto the floor from a large cut on her forehead. “Orders, Captain?”

She struggled against the dizziness and the persistent humming in her ears as she turned to the captain’s station. “Captain--”

One of the metal plates had fallen from the ceiling, hitting Dickens on the head, burying most of his dead body underneath it.

Godoy took a look around, trying to see through the smoke exhaling from several flaming consoles. She cursed as she saw no movement anywhere. “Is anyone still alive?”

A bruised hand was raised from behind the helm, trying to grab onto something. It was Borsov. His face and arms were lacerated. “I still am,” he said in a shaky voice. “I think.”

“Is your station operational?” Godoy asked. “Do we still have any maneuverability?”

Borsov pulled himself fully upright and ran his fingers across the console, enabling his monitor to display a systems diagnosis. “Helm station barely operational. Maneuverability: Zero,” he said in a fatalistic tone. “Engines are off-line. Weapons and force field systems damaged beyond repair. Communication is down. Sensors are at twenty-two percent and dropping.”

“So it comes to this,” Godoy said. The mighty Aeolis had become nothing more than a pile of junk drifting in space. “Position of enemy vessel?”

“Holding still at ten-thousand miles from our starboard bow.”

“Intercom?”

“Still operational on decks one through eight.”

There were six more decks below that, where almost a third of the crew was stationed. Godoy could only hope that they could get to the escape pods.

She spoke on the intercom. “This is Commander Godoy. All hands, abandon ship. Repeat. All hands, abandon ship!”

“Commander, what if the enemy decides to use our escape pods for target practice?”

“We can only hope that they’re more merciful than we would be in their place, Lieutenant,” Godoy replied, remembering the fleet’s General Order 6, Article 38. It clearly stated that in war no prisoners should be taken, except in cases of extreme necessity of information-gathering. After which, if the prisoner survived the torture, he or she would be put to death.

The proximity alert sounded. Although severely damaged, the short-range sensors were still operational. Borsov felt a chill down his spine as he checked the monitor. “Oh, hell...”

“What?” Godoy demanded.

From the hull of the bizarre ship, three smaller deformed chunks, made of the same vomit-like material, were launched. They headed for the Aeolis.

Borsov noticed that the incoming objects didn’t move too fast, which indicated they weren’t weapons. He realized those chunks could only mean one thing: “Incoming boarding parties!”


* * *


Keaton left tower three, followed by Ortega and Koyama. They ran down the main corridor on deck two, heading for the nearest escape pod, as ordered by the bridge.

As they turned a corner, a heavy thump echoed through the entire ship’s structure. “Another explosion?” Ortega asked.

Keaton halted. “No... this one was different. ...COME!” he commanded the two ensigns as he ran back whence they came.

Ortega was stunned. “Sir, where are you going?!”

“The nearest escape pods are that way,” Koyama screamed, pointing at the opposite direction.

“I said COME, dammit!” Keaton ordered harshly. Puzzled, Ortega and Koyama followed the veteran chief.


* * *


On the bridge, Godoy and Borsov witnessed in horror as the alien mothership shot and destroyed every escape pod jettisoned from the Aeolis. To make things worse, the intercom went down completely. Godoy had no way to prevent the rest of the crew from heading for certain death as they followed her evacuation order.

The alien boarding shuttles had strategically attached themselves to the Aeolis’ hull: One to the bow; the second near the bridge; and the third one to the stern.

Godoy couldn’t allow them to take the ship and have access to its technology and the military secrets stored in the main computer. Her final duty was clear: to prevent the battle-cruiser from falling into the hands of the enemy, which left her with only one alternative. “We must engage the auto-destruct mechanism.”

Borsov knew she was right. “It’s a five-minute countdown with a two-minute window to abort it.”

“I’m aware of that,” Godoy replied. “Since we don’t know if they have some technology capable of stopping the countdown, we’ll have to make sure they don’t take the bridge.”

Although Borsov didn’t like his first officer one damn bit, he had to admit she was a tough mother. “We’ll need guns.” He went to the bodies of the two marines who had been guarding the bridge. He got their blast-guns, handing one to Godoy as she began activating the auto-destruct mechanism. She grabbed one of her identification tags and inserted it in the console. Borsov did the same.

Suddenly, they heard heavy footsteps approaching the bridge. Borsov unlocked his gun. “Hurry.”

Godoy quickly entered her ten-digit code in the console, then took a strategic position behind a pile of debris. Borsov started entering his own code. The footsteps came nearer.


* * *


Keaton, Koyama, and Ortega left the starboard arsenal on deck two. Each handling an assault rifle.

Koyama was the most worried. “What’s going on, sir?”

Keaton turned to them in a dark tone. “That thump was of something hitting the hull. It can only mean that we’re being boarded.”

Ortega was alarmed. “But we’re technicians, not marines.”

“We’re soldiers, Ensign. That’s what we are,” Keaton replied.

“Soldiers follow orders, sir,” Koyama contested. “And we were ordered to abandon the ship.”

Keaton stared at the young ensign with fire in his eyes. “I’d never allow MY ship to fall into enemy hands. Never!”

Ortega still tried to object. “But--”

Keaton interrupted him. “I’ll take full responsibility.” His fierce expression discouraged further remarks from the other two. “Now, let’s go.”

“Where to, sir?” Koyama asked.

“Our first priority is to reach the main computer. If we destroy it, all classified information will be lost, so there won’t be much these bastards can get.” Keaton unlocked his rifle and proceeded resolutely down the corridor. Ortega and Koyama reluctantly followed him.


* * *


Back on the bridge, Borsov was almost done inserting his code in the computer when a yellow sphere of energy burned through his right shoulder, disintegrating his arm and part of his torso. He fell over the console before he was able to finish the task.

Godoy felt a burst of fear racing through her body. With Borsov dead, all hope was lost.

Through the smoke, Godoy saw three humanoid silhouettes entering the bridge, with several more seeming to follow. She was surprised. Given the aspect of the alien vessel, she was expecting creatures equally bizarre.

They wore full, black uniforms, with gloves and boots. Their heads were hidden under sinister, shining black helmets, which prevented Godoy from seeing their true appearance. They were armed with smoothly designed blast-guns. Their elegant look was so contradictory to their ship that Godoy was surprised, despite her fear.

Godoy knew it was a lost cause, but she figured that if she had to die she would take some company with her. She opened fire.

The blue, enveloping energy plasma spat from her gun and knocked down two of the intruders. The remaining one fired back with a spread of yellow plasma spheres that exploded as they hit Godoy’s cover. She was trapped, powerless to save her ship. A dozen more enemies took positions around the entrance, ready to put an end to her torment.

At that very moment, her attacker was enveloped in a shot of blue plasma. She looked behind and found Borsov, gun in hand, barely alive, gathering the little strength he had left. He leaned over the console and entered the rest of his code. The auto-destruct warning alerts started flashing on all monitors still operational, showing the five-minute countdown.

Borsov was incinerated by several shots from the enemy platoon. The shots also melted most of the console, and Godoy knew that the countdown could not be stopped now.

Her only consolation was to know that she had done her duty. Filling her lungs with air, she jumped from behind her cover, engaging the enemies and meeting death like she always hoped to... In a blaze of glory.


* * *


Keaton and his men were heading toward the emergency stairs, their only chance to get to deck five, where the main computer was located. At that moment, they were surprised by the auto-destruct countdown displayed on the corridor monitors.

Keaton was startled. His beloved ship was doomed... Koyama and Ortega, on the other hand, were relieved. They could finally head for the escape pods and get away from that hell.

Robbed of his heroic moment, Keaton was ready to lead his men back to the closest escape pod when a yellow sphere flew through his chest, leaving a big, cauterized hole in his torso.

Keaton’s body fell on the hot floor as a half-dozen intruders came running towards them, firing from the end of the corridor. The two ensigns returned fire.

The powerful discharges from their rifles disintegrated three of the attackers, burning the wall behind them. The remaining intruders advanced in a suicidal stampede, despite Koyama and Ortega’s constant firing.

One of the yellow spheres flew close to Ortega’s left thigh, its heat burning Ortega’s leg. He fell in agony to the floor, his rifle slipping from his hand.

Koyama took down two more intruders before he was fatally hit by two enemy discharges.

Ortega experienced the horror of staring at the dead eyes of his fallen comrade. Two pairs of boots appeared beside him.

One of the intruders lifted Ortega by his neck with only one hand, pressing him against a burnt wall. The steel-like fingers of the alien began to squeeze his throat, slowly.

The fierce intruder was bound to suffocate him to death as he moved his helmeted head closer to Ortega’s face. The words spoken by the alien could only be described as an insect-like buzz. The ensign could feel the stench of rotten meat coming from tiny holes on the helmet, placed where the mouth should be.


Ortega felt the life fading from his body. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed one of the monitors, realizing there were only twelve seconds left before the ship’s auto-destruction.

Ortega smiled at his assailant, glad that the bastard would die with him. As his neck finally broke under the alien's grip, the countdown reached zero.

The Aeolis exploded in a gigantic ball of fire, vaporizing the three enemy shuttles with it. The ignition of the expelled gases made it look like a small sun.

Slowly, the bright light faded away, until all there was left was a gray cloud of debris drifting in the coldness of space.


* * *


The battle-cruiser Aeolis glided majestically through the vastness of space. Its crewmembers bearing the insignias of the Fourth Battle Regiment of Earth. Its mission: To patrol the borders of known space adjacent to the Boras black hole.

A lieutenant's uniform hung on the closet door, while on the bed, Yuri Borsov, Master Pilot of the Aeolis, was asleep.

He was a light sleeper, actually. A habit developed during the four years he spent at the Academy, where the drill sergeants would terrorize the cadets with surprise inspections in the middle of the night.

‘Awake or asleep, eyes open you must keep’. A good piece of advice that his father, a veteran pilot himself, gave him before he signed up.

Suddenly, the peace was broken by Commander Godoy’s voice on the intercom. “All hands, battle stations. Repeat, all hands, battle stations. This is no drill.”

Borsov jumped from his bed like a jack-in-the-box. He practically slid into his pants and raced outside.

The red-alert warning signs were flashing in the corridors. Borsov put his jacket on as he rushed toward the nearest elevator, trying not to run into any of the other crewmen, who were running to their own stations.

Borsov had to wait a few seconds for the elevator. A pair of marines came out of it in a hurry when it arrived. He entered it and proceeded to the bridge.

Borsov knew that his skipper and old friend, Captain Dickens, would be glad to have him at the helm in any dangerous situation.

As he was finishing buttoning his uniform, the Aeolis was shaken by a sequence of four blasts. Each blast was followed by a powerful explosion that echoed throughout the battle-cruiser.

The elevator suddenly stopped, knocking Borsov off his feet. The lights went down.

When Borsov came back to his senses, he found himself belly down on the floor. His head was aching badly. Feeling something wet on his forehead, he touched it and found a nasty, bleeding cut. He had no idea of how much time had elapsed. All he knew was that he had to go to the bridge.

Despite the dizziness he felt, Borsov struggled to stand up. The emergency lights came on, but the elevator controls were jammed.

He forced open the emergency exit on the ceiling. As he tried to climb up, he painfully discovered he also had a dislocated shoulder.

After getting to the top of the elevator, Borsov realized that it was just a couple of feet away from the doors leading to deck two. He released the safety lock, thus opening them.

He found the corridor in ruins, with a few small fires along it. There were metal beams hanging from the ceiling and walls, monitors short-circuited, and several bodies strewn about.

Borsov tried the intercom, but the system was down. He thanked his lucky stars that the life support was still operational, at least for the time being.

Borsov made his way through the many piles of debris and asphyxiating smoke. Following proper procedure, he ran to the nearest emergency stair, trying to get to the bridge. He found the stairwell filled with wreckage. With no other choice, he raced to the closest elevator to see if it was still operational. But, just as he feared, it was off-line.

Borsov realized there would be no easy way out of there, so he calmed down and began to think.

Suddenly, he remembered that the starboard arsenal was located nearby. That could be it. As he ran there, he spotted two of his oldest friends among the several bodies half-buried under the debris. He wanted to stop and help them, but he knew better. If he did that, he would be joining them pretty soon.

He reached the arsenal, punched in his unlock code, and began searching for anything that could be of use. Then he saw the antigravity packs stored on a shelf. These packs were designed to facilitate troop mobility on inhospitable planets. To his knowledge, they had never been used inside a ship before, but this seemed like an excellent time to try it.

In addition to the pack, he grabbed a double-holster belt with two blast-guns, two pulse-grenades that he put in his pockets, a heavy type 2 proton-bazooka, an oxygen mask, and a flashlight.

Borsov headed back to the off-line elevator. He tried to open its doors manually, but the lock was jammed. He backed away a few meters and fired at the doors with the proton-bazooka.

The projectile glowed bright on its way to the target. As it impacted, the charge disintegrated the doors and part of the adjoining wall, forming a nearly perfect, wide circle.

He checked the elevator shaft, hoping it wasn’t just as blocked as the stairwell. As he turned his flashlight on, he saw the elevator was stopped two decks below. He thought his luck was starting to change.

The bazooka was too clumsy for Borsov to carry into the shaft, so he left it on the floor and activated the antigravity pack. The diminutive electromagnetic field generators of the pack lifted him one foot above the floor, carrying him slowly towards the shaft. Once inside, Borsov started to fly his way up.

He finally reached the bridge level and tried to open its doors manually. To his unpleasant surprise, the door mechanism was extremely hot and burned his hand. He cautiously moved his hand to the doors and felt an intense heat coming from them. There could be only one explanation: The bridge was on fire.

Borsov lowered his head in grief. The ship was lost. He was powerless to prevent its inevitable fate.

But then, the endless hours of weekly drills and training kicked in. He managed to get a hold of himself and started to think again. Engineering... From there, he would be able to maneuver the ship.

He knew that the Engineering section could be on fire, too. Or that the access to it could be blocked. But he had to try. Besides, if he had to die, he would die like a man.

With his newfound strength, Borsov started his descent to the lower decks. Being inside the elevator shaft would expedite his journey. All he had to do was reach the junction shaft on deck nine. From there, he should be able to move towards Engineering in a straight line.

It would have been easy if the junction wasn’t filled with smoldering metal plates and beams, completely blocking the way. He thought about using the proton-grenades, but considering the likely structural damage to the shaft, it would probably bring the whole thing down.

He decided to move toward deck eleven. From there, he would take the next shaft to deck ten, pass by the hangar and turn toward deck seven, fly all the way down to the stern, and finally reach Engineering -- easier said than done.

Borsov had to bypass several shafts, obstructed either by stuck elevators or debris, in order to get to his destination. As he finally arrived at deck seven, he found another stopped elevator blocking his way. He saw two choices: Find another way around the obstacle, assuming there was one, or blast the elevator with a pulse-grenade and risk collapsing the whole shaft.

He knew he had spent more than enough time already. The enemy could be boarding the Aeolis at that very moment. Or worse, they could be towing it to their home base.

Without hesitation, he got a grenade and adjusted the power output to maximum burst. As he was about to throw it away, he heard a faint tapping coming from inside the elevator. It was Morse code... SOS!

Borsov was startled. There was at least one person alive in there! “Now, what do I do?” he asked himself, troubled by this new dilemma.

Borsov knew there was a big chance that the grenade could lead to their deaths, so the sacrifice of whoever was in the elevator would be pointless. On the other hand, the elevator occupant, or occupants, could be dying already, so he would risk jeopardizing his mission for nothing.

It was exactly that kind of dilemma that kept him away from command aspirations his entire career. He was always afraid of being the one to decide who lives and who dies. But this time, he couldn’t afford the luxury of leaving those decisions to his superior officers. For, with the entire bridge crew probably dead, the decision was his alone.

Weighting the fate of the entire ship against the fate of a few crewmen, he took the most terrible and painful decision of his life. “Forgive me,” Borsov said in a low, sad tone. He removed the safety pin and threw the grenade at the elevator.

The pulse discharge exploded, releasing waves of energy with the power of fifty blast-guns, destroying the elevator. Whoever was inside it never knew what hit them.

Borsov felt fortunate that the shaft didn’t collapse, but at the same time guilty for what he had just done. With tears running down his face, he moved on.

As he neared Engineering, he turned off both the antigravity pack and the flashlight. He proceeded cautiously on foot. He thought best not to announce his arrival with the high-pitch sound that emanated from the pack, just in case the attackers were already aboard the Aeolis.

His hunch was right on the money. Two intruders, wearing black uniforms and armed with blast-guns, were standing guard outside the opened Engineering doors. Borsov could hear the aliens speaking some unknown, buzzing language.

Borsov was again left with a disturbing puzzle... Were those two the only ones there? Could there be more inside? If so, how many? He couldn’t answer any of those questions. And, as a matter of fact, he was pretty tired of asking them.

The frustration he had been feeling since this incident began was piling up, turning into a rage that finally had a target.

He drew his blast-guns and opened fire against the two guards, running at them like a bat out of hell.

They were killed instantly.

As Borsov headed toward the Engineering doors, a hailstorm of yellow energy spheres shot out, missing him by inches, followed by the sound of several boots approaching fast.

Without hesitation, Borsov pulled a pulse-grenade, set it for neural shock, and threw it inside Engineering. The aliens kept firing. But as the grenade went off with a bright flash, the footsteps stopped.

Borsov took a peek inside. He found twelve intruders, all dead. Their brains fried by the neural wave released by the grenade, while the rest of their bodies and the surrounding machinery remained unharmed.

He ran to the chief engineer’s console. On his way, he found more bodies of fallen shipmates. They were covered with energy burns. No doubt the result of the aliens’ vicious strike. That was the ultimate proof that the aliens couldn’t be allowed to go home alive. If so, they might depict humans as weaklings. And that would certainly be an open invitation for them to invade Earth and its colonies.

Borsov looked at the console and found it displaying classified files. He checked further and discovered that all sensitive data pertinent to the Aeolis had been accessed: Range, weapons, sensors output... everything.

Borsov checked the external sensors. They were still operational, at twenty-two percent. It wasn’t much, but it would at least give him a better idea about the situation outside.

He detected two alien boarding shuttles attached to the hull: One to the bow, and the other to the stern, close to Engineering. Their mothership was holding still, three miles away from the Aeolis.

Running a systems diagnosis, he found that both weapons and force field systems were down. The propulsion rockets were off-line and he had less than thirty minutes of life support left. The hyper-engines, however, were still intact. The problem was the power mega-conductors, which had been severely damaged and could not feed the engines with the required energy.

Borsov figured that there would be more intruders aboard. It wouldn’t take long for them to miss their buddies and come looking for them. He had to act fast. He knew he had no hope of getting out of this mess alive, so he had nothing to lose.

At first, he thought about overloading the hyper-engines until the Aeolis exploded, taking the enemy shuttles with it. That would prevent the aliens from retrieving any more information from his ship. But that wasn’t enough.

Those bastards were responsible for the deaths of over a thousand men and women. And they had to pay for that. Besides, he was the ship’s helmsman. So, he decided he would die performing his function.

Borsov called up the helm functions on the console. He plotted a course straight at the enemy ship.

Using the hyper-engines for that, the aliens would never know what hit them.

Borsov was aware that his plan could not work if the mega-conductors gave out. Although the distance from the enemy ship was ridiculously short, they could still fail. Either way, Borsov powered the engines.

The mega-conductors glowed brightly with the intense energy pulsing through them. The stress was too high for the damaged material. It started leaking high levels of radiation. The warning light flashed at the console.

Borsov had reached the point of no return. Even if the engines didn’t blow, finishing him, the deadly radiation certainly would. A slow and excruciating death.

At that instant, a new enemy platoon showed up at Engineering, weapons in hand, ready to do battle.

Without hesitation, Borsov placed his hand on the key of the hyper-speed jump.

Suddenly, he heard an insect-like buzz coming from amidst the enemies. It had a discernible commanding tone. The aliens halted.

One of them stepped forward. His uniform was just like his shipmates’, except for a bizarre green icon carved on his helmet’s front. It clearly indicated he was some sort of leader. Maybe even their captain.

As Borsov was about to push the key, he was quite surprised as the intruders put down their weapons. Their leader then addressed Borsov in a calm tone, which confused him even more. Was he trying to open a dialogue, to dissuade him from engaging the hyper-engines, or what?

Borsov knew he had no time to waste. If he didn’t make the jump to light speed soon, he wouldn’t have another chance. And since trying to figure out what the alien was saying without a translating computer would take ages, he saw no alternative. He pushed the key.

The Aeolis hull vibrated for a moment. In a split-second, the hyper-engines engaged, propelling the battle-cruiser, with the alien shuttles still clinging to the hull.

The Aeolis came out of hyperspace just a few meters from the alien mothership. The collision happened so fast that no one aboard either vessel felt a thing. Both ships exploded in a single ball of fire and debris. It was a spectacle of death and destruction.


* * *


The battle-cruiser Aeolis glided majestically through the vastness of space. Its mission: To patrol the borders of known space adjacent to the Boras black hole.

On the bridge, Ensign Biko Mumbata was manning the security station. His mind, however, was focused on his latest adventure, two women he met during his shore leave. No problem with that, except that they were officers’ wives. He knew something like that could cost him his career.

As Mumbata was indulging in his dreams, the proximity alert sounded, bringing him back to the real world. “Captain, I have a blip on the long-range sensors, a hundred-thousand miles from our port bow,” he said.

Godoy moved to his station. “Is it a ship or space matter?”

“Definitely a ship,” Mumbata replied. “Design: Unknown.”

“Heading and speed?” Dickens asked in a firm tone of voice.

“She’s coming straight at us,” Mumbata said. “At three-quarter light speed... and slowing.”

“Transfer tactical schematics to my console,” Dickens commanded.

“Yes, sir.”

A transparent crystal screen emerged from Dickens’ console, displaying a 3-D picture of the approaching vessel.

Dickens had never seen a ship like that. It was a deformed chunk, with absolutely no differentiation from head to stern. The hull apparently was composed of some type of secretion that could only be described as solidified vomit. It was a truly disgusting sight.

Dickens felt something about that ship, something dangerous. “Activate force field. Energize weapons grid.”

The bridge crew responded accordingly. Godoy spoke on the intercom. “All hands, battle stations. Repeat, all hands, battle stations. This is no drill.”

The six particle-cannon towers of the Aeolis were energized and aimed at the coming ship. The twelve assault guns and six missile launchers followed.

“Open all frequencies,” Dickens ordered to Lieutenant Anita Cruz, the communications officer.

“All frequencies opened, sir,” Cruz acknowledged.

Dickens spoke rigidly. “This is the Earth battle-cruiser Aeolis to unidentified ship. You are entering Terran territory without permission. Halt and identify yourselves. Acknowledge.”

After a long pause, Cruz turned to Dickens. “Transmission coming in, Captain. Audio and video.”

“Put it through.”

“Yes, sir.”

At first, the monitors showed nothing but a green mist. Then, a humanoid creature appeared, dressed in full black uniform, wearing gloves and a sinister, shining black helmet that had a bizarre green icon carved on its front. He spoke in a language that could only be described as an insect-like buzz.

“Activate translators,” Dickens ordered Cruz.

The translators were computers specifically designed to recognize logical patterns in any form of spoken language, analyze and convert them into data, so as to allow a two-way communication.

Due to the strangeness of the alien language, the translators took longer than usual to decode its pattern. Finally, a few words could be understood: “Overseer... mission... slaves... survival...”

Those few words echoed in their minds for what it seemed like ages. Was it a threat or a plead for help?

Although experienced officers, the Aeolis’ bridge crew had never dealt with a first-contact situation before. And, on top of that, it was their captain’s first command.

A few seconds later, to everyone’s despair, the translators finally decoded the full message. “I am Overseer Kraan, loyal servant of the almighty Murvtals. My mission is to determine if you are worthy of serving them as their slaves. Be aware that your survival will depend on your usefulness.”

Godoy moved closer to Dickens who turned to Cruz. “Open a channel.”

“Channel opened,” Cruz said.

Dickens addressed the alien with a fierce expression. “Sir, we don’t know you people. But we humans don’t respond well to threats. If you came here looking for a fight, rest assured it will be the last fight of your lives.”

At that instant, Lieutenant Borsov entered the bridge, still buttoning his uniform. He noticed the tension in the air, so he quietly moved to the helm.

The alien remained indifferent to Dickens’ remarks. “It seems you have misunderstood me, Captain John Dickens.”

Dickens was puzzled. “I can’t recall ever telling you my name... How the hell do you know it?”

“I know all about you, your crew, and your ship,” the unemotional alien revealed. “We had sufficient time to study your war-like behavior and your defensive capabilities during our previous encounters.”

“What previous encounters?” Dickens began to lose his grip in face of such apparent absurdity. “What are you talking about?”

“The almighty Murvtals know that the only way of truly understanding a people is to observe them during unexpected life-threatening situations. To do that, they run different scenarios, undergone by the subjects, until sufficient knowledge can be gathered about the people and the technology. To ensure the element of surprise, the subjects are time warped to the moment of first contact after the end of each run,” Kraan answered. “Your trials are over.”

Dickens couldn’t believe his ears. After all, Earth scientists had proved long ago that time travel was impossible. This had to be some sort of strategy intended to confuse them. Still, Kraan said something intriguing. “You said you serve these Murvtals, so who are you people?” Dickens asked.

“Who we are does not matter. We are theirs.”

“Theirs...?” Dickens was confused. “What do you mean by theirs?”

“Centuries ago, my people were like yours. We wandered the galaxy until the almighty ones found us and tested us. To our blessing, they found us worthy to serve and to honor them. Since then, we’re THEIRS.”

Dickens was enraged. “My people would never bow to anyone! We would rather die!”

“The almighty ones realize that. You should be pleased to know that they found your people too aggressive to be of any use to them. By their decree, your entire race shall be exterminated.”

“I’ve heard enough!” Godoy exploded with rage in her eyes. She turned to Mumbata. “Distance from the enemy, Ensign?”

“Keeping steady at six-thousand miles,” Mumbata replied.

Dickens nodded to Godoy. With a resolute tone, she spoke on the intercom. “All weapon stations. Fire at will.”

Engaging the maneuvering thrusters, the Aeolis span on its own axis to improve the firing output.


* * *


On tower three, Chief Keaton had the enemy ship targeted. Ensign Koyama was feeding the particle generator to the max. Ortega was covering the auxiliary systems. Keaton pulled the trigger.

Tower three fired, followed by the others. The gigantic blue energy orbs crossed space. Fast and precise. The alien ship remained challengingly impassive, as if ignoring the powerful attack. Before the blue energy orbs could hit the enemy vessel, a bright green energy field surrounded the craft, completely absorbing the shots.


* * *


On the bridge, disbelief overtook everyone. The alien ship had not a single scratch on its surface. All the incredible firepower of the Aeolis was for naught.

“Fire all missiles,” Dickens yelled.

The missile launchers furiously threw two-dozen proton warheads against the enemy. Once again, the alien force field effortlessly withstood the mighty assault.

On the monitor, Kraan was impassive. “It is pointless to fire at us. Even if your feeble weaponry was capable of harming this vessel, it was constructed with the sole purpose of testing you. The almighty ones do not need it to destroy the likes of you,” Kraan lifted his arms as if worshiping a god. “Behold.”

A gigantic being of pure energy, about thirty times the size of the Aeolis, suddenly appeared from the nothingness of space in front of the battle-cruiser. It looked like a ball of red light, with long tentacles extending from all over its grotesque figure. One of the tentacles grabbed the Aeolis.

The grasp threw everyone aboard to the floor. Borsov jumped back to the helm.

Dickens leaned on his chair, trying to get up. “Cut communications, Lieutenant.” Cruz complied. “All power to the engines. Get us outta here!” he commanded.

Borsov engaged the linear propulsion, but the ship remained motionless. “We’re stuck, Captain!”

The battle-cruiser was shaking all over, due to the intense stress undergone by the engines. “Disengage linear propulsion,” Dickens yelled. “Activate hyper-engines! Prepare to jump!”

“Course heading?” Borsov asked.

“Anywhere but here!”

“Aye-aye, sir!”

The Aeolis jumped to light speed... Or, at least, appeared to. Its structure seemed to vanish for a moment, taking the Murvtal along. But the energy creature reappeared in a flash of light, maintaining its position, with the Aeolis still in its grasp.

Everyone was stunned. “Did that thing jump with us?” Dickens asked.

Borsov couldn’t believe the readings on his console. “Negative, sir. We haven’t moved.”

Godoy was perplexed. “This is impossible...!”

“They are hailing us, Captain,” Cruz said.

Dickens felt beaten. “Put it through.”

Kraan was back on the monitors. “The great Murvtal Anishian, who now holds you, wishes to express his disappointment with your futile attempt to escape. He sees it as another proof of your inherent barbarism.”

Dickens released his anger. “If you want to finish us, why all this crap?! What does that thing really want from us?!”

After a brief pause, Kraan replied. “Your people are very intriguing. Therefore, the great Anishian is willing to bless you with a choice: To be destroyed, along with the rest of your people, or to remain in perpetual time loops and do battle with us forever, as a living memory of your species.”

Dickens was perplexed. “Wait as minute... If we agree, you and your ship would be trapped with us as well.”

“Yes.” Kraan paused in reflection, as if fearing that option. “But if that is the wish of the almighty ones, then it shall be done.”

Dickens and Godoy exchanged a glance. “You have one of your minutes to decide,” Kraan said, ending the communication.

The seconds that followed were almost oppressive. Godoy was somber. “The decision is yours, Captain.”

Dickens turned to Cruz. “Can you reach Earth Command? Or at least Outpost 16?”

“Negative, Captain,” the young officer answered. “Our long-range transmissions are being jammed. We can get ship-to-ship communication, but that’s it.”

Dickens lowered his eyes, haunted. “So this is how it ends...”

“Captain, call me crazy, but I believe we can end this OUR way,” Borsov said in a cunning tone, intriguing the rest of the bridge crew.

Godoy stepped in. “What do you mean, mister?”

“That entity was able to hold us here somehow. But, for a fraction of a second, we did manage to jump.”

Godoy was puzzled. “Where are you getting at, Lieutenant?”

“I suggest we jump to the mouth of the Boras black hole.”

The remark shocked everyone. “Are you insane?!” Godoy screamed.

Dickens, however, tried to keep up with his old friend’s thinking. “What’s your plan, Yuri?”

“Besides killing us all, of course,” Mumbata voiced, frightened.

Borsov raised his voice: “We are dead already!” Everyone on the bridge fell silent. “Unless you prefer to spend eternity fighting a senseless battle, that’s what we all are. They may call it a blessing. But, in my book, I call it hell.”

There was a silent agreement with Borsov. “I’m sure we all join your feelings, Mister Borsov,” Dickens endorsed. “But I don’t think that plotting a course to the black hole will make much of a difference from our last attempt.”

“I believe it will, sir,” Borsov said. “If we materialize, even for a moment, at the mouth of the black hole, the enormous gravitational pull might be strong enough to suck the Murvtal in, thus allowing us to escape.”

“That’s absurd!” Godoy exclaimed. “What makes you think that the alien would release us? It would probably take us with it.”

“I know,” Borsov acknowledged. “But what do you prefer? Bow your head and obey them? Or taking a chance?”

A spark of guile appeared in Dickens’ eyes. “And even if we do die, so will that thing.”

A warning light flashed on Cruz’s console. “They are hailing us, Captain.”

Dickens turned to her. “Let’s hear it.”

The image of Kraan returned to the bridge monitors. “Your time is over, Captain John Dickens. Anishian is to join his brethren in the annihilation of your race. He demands your answer.”

“Yes, I guess he does,” Dickens turned to Borsov with a fierce expression. “Lieutenant. You have a GO.”

Having the course already plotted to the Boras black hole, Borsov again engaged the hyper-engines.

Once again, the Aeolis jumped into hyper-space, taking the Murvtal along. Only this time, they didn’t come back.

As they resurfaced at the mouth of the black hole, Anishian’s gigantic ethereal form, unable to escape the enormous gravitational forces, seemed to twist in agony. His tentacle lost its grip of the Aeolis, finally releasing the ship.

Unfortunately, the crew didn’t have time to celebrate. They had jumped a lot further into the black hole than expected. The towing of Anishian had disrupted the precise calculations of the navigational computer.

The battle-cruiser was crushed like an egg by the gravitational pull, which sucked the debris into the black hole.

Anishian strove to get away from it with all his might. Extraordinary waves of energy emanated from his body as he finally broke free.

As Anishian moved away from the black hole, it was clear that the Murvtal had used too much of his power. Slowly, his inherent glow began to fade, until it was completely gone. His once magnificent body shrunk into what resembled a dry peach, floating lifeless in space.

Kraan witnessed it all from his ship. His whole world had crumbled. The formidable creature he revered as a god had died. He could never believe that such omnipotent beings could die. But there it floated on the screen, right before his eyes.


* * *


That picture soon became a spark that ignited the fire of rebellion on Kraan's home planet. An uprising spread through all the many civilizations enslaved by the Murvtals. Eons of servitude to false gods gave birth to a rage so powerful that even the almighty Murvtals could not withstand it.

After a few hundreds of years of war, the joint fury of thousands of planets fighting for their freedom came to an end. The Murvtals were exterminated.

As for Earth and its colonies, they continued with their petty conflicts in their little corner of the galaxy -- completely unaware of the events triggered by the actions of a ship long ago listed as missing in action, with the crew believed dead.

But on distant worlds, the heroic acts of the Aeolis became the stuff of legends. And, as everyone knows, legends never truly die.

 

 

Story © 2003 by Marcelo Hipolito & Marcelo Machado arquilagos@openlink.com.br


Illustration © 2003 by ehrad ehrad@eraduoncomics.net



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