Thursday, July 1, 2010


Note: This is an updated version of this story. The curious can still find the original version here.

“No, mom. You put the emotion-clause on the front of the statement so they know how it’s supposed to be interpreted.” Alex liked talking to his parents when he had the chance. He really did. His mother had taken it upon herself to learn Tslao customs some weeks back and had been trying to use him to relay messages to Shipmaster Tshalan to practice this.

As it turned out, Alex was not the best medium for sending messages and the Shipmaster did not want to hear about his family when she was out of contact with her own. His mother did not or did not want to understand this. After the Shipmaster’s initial poor reaction, he just made up replies that felt appropriate though perhaps too warm.

Their customs were strange and formal, despite the many similarities Humans and Tslao shared. The only mammals that the universe had yielded so far and evidence indicated they might share a root species a few hundred million years back... there were points in their evolution that made some people uncomfortable with their symmetry, but most of it was supposition. Alex had never paid much attention to it.

“That’s fine.” His mother may have ignored what he just told her. “Be sure to let her know she’s doing a great job.”

He nodded at his mother on the screen, eyes darting over to check the countdown timer and a wall of status indicators. “She knows. Look, mom, we’re about to go back into realspace, I need to go.”

He didn’t tell her about the anomalous reading on the Sheridan-Reyes SAPRAM. Something else at the destination point keeping a waverider drive warmed up. Probably a whole lot of little somethings, or one huge something. A stray thought notified the Shipmaster about it through his Amp.

“Ok Alex, you take care!” Before the video cut out she smiled the same smile as always, both a little proud and sad that her son had managed to become a scoutship pilot. Each trip out was at least a year long and communication back home was limited to FTL calls during a waveride, if there was time between briefings.

An idle question about the alien he worked with - about how the Shipmaster’s family was fairing - had caused his mother’s interest in their customs. They had far more tightly knit family structures and so were not allowed to contact them until the mission was over.

She didn’t speak to her family so that she could work uninterrupted. It was their way, but he could see it wearing on her, on occasion. Their way had never included being stuck in a sliver of metal with an alien barreling across space that was only loosely charted.

Almost as soon as his mother vanished from the screen, Shipmaster Tshalan popped up in her place. Their heads appeared about the same size, despite the Shipmaster being a bit shorter and proportionally smaller. Some people said they looked like dogs, and there was a bit of a similarity.

The flattish head, dense blue-black fur and nostrils set wide at the end of a short muzzle spoke very highly of it, not to mention their weird legs. Her ears and the antenna that ran over the top of them were folded down, as was normal. Alex thought they looked a little bit like eastern dragons.

“Pilot Sorenson. These readings are troubling. They were not present on the initial scan from the probe.” - Her mouth moved oddly as the Amp translated everything other than his name. It was easiest to let the respective computer interfaces translate. It must have made the negotiations for getting this ship and it’s mission set up far less onerous.

“Shipmaster Tshalan. They are indeed.” He tarted his speech patterns up a little bit to make the translation smoother. “The disparity of the readings would indicate a fleet action or significant stellar event.”

“Agreement.” They both knew the waveride could be ended prematurely, but neither of them were looking forward to sitting in empty space for several days while she ran through the emergency shutdown inspection. “I suggest as wide a course correction as is possible right now. In addition to this I will precharge the sublight engines to boost into an emergency waveride.”

As she said it, he began to alter course. Less than a minute until they arrived, it wouldn’t be much of a change but it would put them further away from the anomaly. “A wise plan. Course has been corrected. Entering realspace in fifteen seconds.”

“Live well Pilot Sorenson.” She shut the connection down. The ship would almost be dead in space if she was using the sublight engines as capacitors for the wave drives, with nothing but a handful of docking thrusters to shove the ship around with, but they would be able to jump back out in less than 30 seconds.

The Amp filled Alex’s brain with the surrounding space as they slowed to sub-light speeds. It was far, far worse than he expected. Ensconced in the darkened bridge of the Khshalvo, he opened the comm with his Amp and started yelling at Shipmaster Tshalan. Shut everything down, start the drives now. They needed to leave more than they needed to breathe.

It is important to point out that the human scoutship is legendary in its durability. Centuries of conflict had put humans well ahead of everyone else in hull material and kinetic buffers. Humans would kill each other with whatever was available, and they had some fine ships to show for it. A scoutship was the best example of this, armor and k-buffers rated for a ship more than twice its size.

The problem was that there wasn’t just a ship twice its size in the system they jumped into. There were hundreds in two full Ehom battle groups, the one the sensors had seen getting ready to leave and the one they hadn’t sitting almost in line with the Khshalvo’s current trajectory.

The first round from the Ehom capital ship’s gauss hit almost square in the nose, the forward shields dissipating it and failing as the scoutship shuddered from the impact. Alex’s mind lit up with more impact warnings and four things occurred almost in the same instant. The AI hijacked his body through the Amp, throwing his arms up to wrap protectively around his head. Autoinjectors mounted in the chair fired into his back and thighs, filing him with trauma stims. Nozzles mounted around the pit coated him with a thick layer protective of crash foam.

Then the second round from the Ehom ship impacted along the top of the scoutship, losing some mass and energy to what remained of the shields. It punctured the outer layer of armor, burnt off more speed and then slammed through the inner layer and into the bridge, filling with a devastating shock wave and boiling hot plasma.

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