"Nebulonic Reflection" by Ehrad


Another Day, Another Voyage
by Nancy Wilcox


I just came off three days liberty at Choalalampur, one of the few ports that still serves alcohol. After such a liberty a man should be allowed three days shipboard recovery, but that's my opinion. Naturally, the people in charge don't agree; so here I am for the twenty-seventh time this year, up to my knees in disassembled UWISH (Unified Weapons Ignition System -- Hagforces). Trying for the twenty-seventh time this year to figure out why the starboard solid-pellet launcher sticks at one-hundred-fifty rounds, and freezes up. And occasionally holding my head and groaning a bit.

I've just sat down flat on the deck, to reassemble the little box with, believe me, forty-six little brass balls that have to all balance on top of these little rubber gaskets before it will close, when the air is split by a big, awful squawk, and then, "This is the captain. MV identifies rebel emanation from Nebula G42. We are assigned. We will jump in five hours. Repeat, five hours to jump. Off." I wince and hold my head again, first setting the little box down gently on the floor, and listen to my ears ring for five minutes. Why do I drink? It doesn't taste near as good coming up as it does going down.

I pick up the little box and start again; they all fell off when I picked it up. And through the hatchway pushes Sven. Sven is this huge blond guy with a terminally cheerful attitude. It hasn't terminated him yet, but I swear just one more hangover and he's done for. Have I introduced me? I'm a short little geek without a whole lot of hair. Most of the crew call me Codger. I don't want to know why, so I don't ask.

Everybody on a raider is a short geek, it's one of the requirements. Room is at a premium. Weapon systems get all the space, and people don't even come in second. That's fuel. A raider's interstellar and atmosphere capable; there are even a couple of two-man fighter planes in the starboard hold. It's a hot ship, lots of fuel, little shielding, and relies on speed and maneuverability. So what's a giant like Sven doing squeezing through these little hatchways and blocking up these tiny passages, you might ask. I did. He said he lied about his size. Having met a few recruiters, I believe him.

Sven fills up this six-by-four maintenance space like a gorilla fills a grav-chute. Doesn't matter how cheerful he is, when it's his floor you move out of the way.

"Hi, Sven," I say, mild as my head will let me. He gives me this big grin, and bellows, "Are you deaf now, too? I been ringing you for five minutes."

Oh. That means the hangover wasn't affecting my ears, just my brains. I wonder if I should be relieved. Then I wonder what he means by that ‘too' business.

"Was that you? I was at a delicate juncture with this box," I say, waving the damn box at him, and dislodging forty-six balls from forty-six rubber bases. Damn.

"Oh, man," he says, and grabs the box, turns it upside down, putting the six ball bearings in the indentations in the lid, placing the six rubber gaskets over them, and snapping the box shut, and handing it back. "Why don't you do things the easy way?" he asks.

"Thanks, Sven," I say and set the box down. What I do not say is, "Because now the printed circuit at the bottom is shifted so it won't mesh with the machine." Explaining stuff to these young guys is a pain, and I don't have the patience. Yes, you could do it that way if the printed circuit was the one that came with the box, which it isn't because that one broke three years ago and I'm still waiting for a replacement. And if the circuit in the gear body was the original one, which it isn't because it cracked eight months ago, and I replaced it with a spare games-manipulator circuit. And don't ask me what I did with the extra-sprinkles gizmo I took out of the soft-ice-cream machine. It's classified. Raider maintenance and supply has been flushing down the toilet ever since the big battlewagons got popular. Those things run on liquid circuits and, I'm pretty sure, happy thoughts. Wish I had a berth on one.

"The old man wants you up top when we jump," he says. Looking around at the mess, he adds, "Guess you better get this trash swept up first." Then he squeezes back through the hatchway, and he's gone. ‘Bull-in-a-china-shop syndrome', I think. If you can't step on it or knock it off, or break it some other way, why bother? I sigh and rub my aching eyes and start putting the UWISH back together. Without it operational, the raider is a real fast box full of soon-to-be-dead people, with no weapons capability at all.

* * *

Three hours later, having stopped off at the head to splash my face with cold water (the only pain-reliever allowed in this new age), I'm on the bridge. Why is it called a bridge? It doesn't lead anywhere, and it's not over water. It's just this little room stuffed full of command machinery and brass – the officer-type brass, not the metal. Metal is a scarce commodity in the new age, and nearly everything on the ship is plastic and rubber. Rubber trees grow well in space, and provide a lot of our atmosphere renewal too, them and rhubarb. Don't ask me why rhubarb. I don't know, don't care, and don't like the pies.

Anyway, the captain, a short, skinny little geek with a bad case of the grumps, grunts at me and waves his hand when I report in. "Sit in the second's chair, Codger," he says. "He's got the flu or something." Yeah, he has the same hundred-proof flu I have. I strap in, to the right rear of the captain's place, and I'm now in charge of weapons deployment. The guy at the console beside me – you guessed it, a short, skinny little geek – is Lieutenant Jones. He does navigation, sort of.

On the other side of Jones is the MV (Maiden's Voice). She's the only female on a ship with twenty-two men. I hear the tri-d daily dramas love it – they really go to town on what must happen on a raider lost in the stars, one lovely woman, twenty-two heroes. Ah!!! Huh. She's maybe fourteen, scrawny, pale, and not really there. She has the spookiest, emptiest eyes you have ever seen. You get used to her sitting in her chair, gazing at nothing, sometimes drooling. And then, suddenly the Maiden is looking at you with those eyes, and they're sharp and alert and it shocks me right down to my socks. She's like that now, her face is alive and she's looking at the instrument panels Jones has in front of him, showing our location against the galactic chart.

"Right there," she says, pointing. "Strong emanation. Breakout soon. Soon." She's biting her lip and Jones is punching in figures.

He turns toward me and rolls his eyes upward. I'm not fool enough to show I see him. He says, not to me, "Sir. The battlewagon won't be at jump point for ten hours."

The captain scowls back at him, "So?"

"Should we jump without it? If the breakout comes, shouldn't we have the big guns with us?"

Jones isn't real bright. Does a good job on navigation, don't get me wrong. And he's a natural at Hi-Lo, too. Almost as good as me. But neither of those things takes any people-smarts. Anybody else on the ship would've known better than to ask the captain something that stupid.

"No!" he squeaked. Probably thought he was bellowing, but nobody on board has the lungs to bellow except Sven. "Our orders are to go in and contain. That's what we do! Get us the best attitude on entry, I don't want to be more than half a solar from the perceived emanation when we come out!"

Jones sticks his tongue between his teeth and goes back to punching in figures. The MV goes back to showing him things on the screen. I rest my eyes for a moment, and wake up coming out of jump.

The MV is vacant as usual, Jones is checking attitude, and the captain is checking maneuvering systems. Red lights are all over my console, but they start coming back to green right away. I've got a yellow blinker on the starboard solid-pellet launcher, but I clear it because I know what it is. I'm not getting more than a hundred-and-fifty rounds from that piece of marginal patched-together cracker-barrel project no matter what I do, so who cares?

Captain has us on a sublight cruising speed toward the nebula, when the MV wakes up and starts giving Jones directions again. Apparently it's not in the nebula at all, looks like the location is some little system with a yellow sun, fairly close. It figures. Rebels like the yellow suns and water planets. And why wouldn't they? We like them too. After all, they're human just like us.

I remember when they were the Loyal Opposition. Then the new age started, parliament was dissolved, and Hagforces burned them out. It seems religious freedom goes only so far. You can worship the big nasties as much as you want, but when you figure out how to drag the hairy horrors through into our continuum, you've tipped the scales. None of them got off Earth alive, and those in the colonies had to scramble. Too bad they took the transfer formulae with them, along with the grievance. The young guys know nothing about it at all. They weren't born then, and new age history courses tell some other kind of story. That's how it usually goes. Every time I come back from a three-jump voyage we get liberty, and Earth has a new history. I don't understand how when we go out it's almost instantaneous, but coming back hauls decades. I just stick to spacer bars now and don't bother trying to figure things out.

But anyhow, now they're rebels, and we've found them everywhere. Mostly wretched, mostly hungry, always mad, nearly always on the verge of bringing in another new age. I think they're a lot more dangerous now than they ever were on Earth. I don't blame them, but we're told they want to bring chaos into the universe, and we have to stop them. So we stop them.

* * *

A half hour later, we come in over the surface of the fifth planet. Do a visual and a heat scan, find nothing. But the whole place seems to be tropical forest, and you're not going to find people who don't want to be found, in tropical forest. We go back out and orbit, waiting for the MV to come up with an idea. She does.

Back down, and I burn off a twenty K by twenty K chunk of vegetation. And there we are: a classic transfer structure, megaliths in two concentric circles, complete with three-ton crosspieces in place. No people, but after the burn-off there'd be nothing left of the priests but ash. There's something else though. It looks like some kind of black billowy cloud. The ship shudders and dips the minute I spot it, and the MV starts screaming and holding her head. I feel like doing the same. The captain, true to his conditioning, is unaffected. He pulls us up and away to a close orbit, cursing as he goes.

I think he's just furious about the situation. Breakout soon, my sweet mother! Breakout now. Breakout in progress and that was Nyarlathotep. Nyarlathotep is never first. Bish-pha-thera must already be out, and when Chthulu climbs out of the hole, they'll transfer. Coming into the universe is hard for them, I hear, but once they make it, they can move through our kind of space like a gamma ray on hypertense.

The captain keeps cursing and I shake my head and look over. Damn. The whole command board's red. That thing took out life-support and half the power vanes. I'm amazed he got us into any orbit at all. I look at weapons again. Still all out. We're toothless and the universe is about to find out what ‘Oops' means. By the time the battlewagon gets here, the dark gods will be shredding mother's Earth for their litter boxes. We have maybe two hours before the whole pantheon is on the move.

I get up, kind of shaky, and lurch out. The captain yells after me, "I'll send Sven up in a minute." I figure, the alpha fighter is fully operational and supplied, but only because I've shamelessly looted the beta plane for parts. The captain knows as well as I do that we have only one chance. I wonder if he knows how slim it is.

I'm nearly suited up when Sven gallops in, looking pale. I guess that god-scream got him, too. I'm still trying to shake it. I know he's off his game when he doesn't make some wisecrack before suiting up. I've got the power running and the pre-check done by the time he's belted in. Sven's the pilot – I'm weapons man here. And surprisingly, considering his size, he's a good pilot.

The captain takes us back into atmosphere, I've no idea how. Sven launches and that sickening drop in the belly hits me twice as hard as usual. I don't think it's the hangover. I think that god-scream is still affecting me, and that's a bad thing. The suit can block most of their psychic effects, but not all. I swallow bile and free up my trigger assembly, give myself a practice sweep while Sven brings us towards the burn-off.

Halfway through the practice sweep, there's the big goat-headed monster in my cross-hairs. He's stepping over fifteen meter trees, and gnashing sharp predator teeth. Probably screaming, too, but I can't hear anything through the suit. The fighter lurches, then steadies. It's made for this kind of action. I squeeze the trigger without ever thinking about it. The explosive charges rip right through his gut and he falls like a topped tree. I don't watch the stately collapse; coming right behind him, rising overhead, is that vague black cloud. It billows toward us and Sven banks to give me an edge-shot. He's fighting G and so am I, but the weapons system is working like butter. I switch to the condenser-dispersion ray, and it rains corrosive ashes all over the forest.

I should be happy, I guess. But where's Bish-pha-thera? I know it's here, it always opens. These things are not known for subtlety. It should be right on top of us, but I don't see it. Sven brings us over the burn, there's the stone circle, looking like an archeologist's dream, but it's standing alone. Where's the emerging nightmares we came to kill? Mother, they couldn't be out already!

From the emergence of Nyarlathotep to Chthulu takes at least three hours. It's been an hour and a bit since I made the burn. There is no way the pantheon is on the move. No way. So why am I chewing my lip bloody and looking at an empty circle?

We get in line of sight and report, and the captain calls us in. On the bridge, the MV is vacant, staring, drooling. No help there. There's no sign of movement in the forest, and we need major downtime for repairs. So we planet, and start repairing, waiting for the battlewagon. Which doesn't show.

* * *

We've been here eight days now, and we only need the power vanes reset before we can jump back to a near-Earth orbit. It'll be about another week, then, before sublight chatter will tell us what's up. The newer guys are fairly antsy.

But I figure, Earth will probably still be there, even if a new crowd is in charge. The thing is, the way time works in jump, there's nearly always a new crowd in charge whenever we get home, so what's the diff?

Meanwhile, for the twenty-eighth time this year, I'm up to my knees in disassembled UWISH (Unified Weapons Ignition System – Hagforces). Trying for the twenty-eighth time this year to figure out why the starboard solid-pellet launcher sticks at a hundred-and-fifty rounds and freezes up. There's this one component, a four-centimeter by eight-centimeter box, that has, I swear, eighty-nine little brass balls that have to all balance on top of these little rubber gaskets before it will close.



Story © 2003 by Nancy Wilcox nancywilcox@hotmail.com

Illustration © 2003 by Ehrad ehrad@eraduoncomics.net

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