Authors: Benjamin Schramm
In the black void of space, a single speck of light burst to life. In the lonely expanse of nothingness the point quickly grew without restraint. Arcs of silent lightning reached out from the expanding point. Like hands clawing at the unending night, the lightning tore and ripped outward. The point of light expanded to create a large rectangular stillness in the turbulent storm of electricity. As the window of light reached the desired size, a form slowly emerged. Unnaturally angular bits of metal pushed forward out of the Wall. Once the battleship of the Commonwealth cleared the transparent window, the Wall collapsed without a sound or trace of its existence.
“Jump complete, captain,” a woman said in a gentle voice. “Starting sensor sweep now.”
Johnson merely nodded at her words. He silently cursed his luck as the crew went about their duties. When he joined the Navy, his head had been filled with notions of action and adventure. It had never crossed his mind that he would spend most of his time patrolling the Commonwealth. For the last year the routine had been the same: jump along the assigned path, take readings, report in, and do it all over again. It was a never-ending cycle without end.
“Sector is clear, sir,” his second in command said in a forceful voice.
From the tone Johnson instantly sat up straight. Jamaal was a stern man who ran a tight ship. Even though he was his superior, no one was immune when he used that formal tone.
“Another day,” Johnson said sarcastically, “another patch of empty space made safe for the citizens of the Commonwealth. Or the few particles of dust living out here.”
“The work we do
important,” Jamaal said flatly.
The two of them often sparred over the merit of their assignment. In Johnson’s mind, it was more of a prison sentence than a duty assignment.
“Important or not, we are finished here,” he said, suppressing a yawn. “Plot us a course to the next coordinates.”
Before Jamaal could reprimand the captain, the communications officer quickly thrust his hand in a gesture to silence the room. The bridge instantly fell silent. The studious look on the com officer’s face instantly betrayed he was receiving a transmission from command. Johnson couldn’t help but lean toward the man. Command had never bothered them while on assignment before. Maybe for the first time in his career, he would see some action.
“Course change.” The communications officer spoke with a voice that conveyed there would be no refusing the orders. “Head to Lintilä at once.”
“Lintilä?” Johnson asked with a raised eyebrow.”
“Never heard of it, sir,” Jamaal said with a shrug.
“I’m getting coordinates now . . . it’s definitely a rim world,” the navigations officer said, watching her display. “Close too.”
“So what’s the emergency?” Johnson asked, eagerly.
“No emergency,” the communications officer said, leaning back casually in his chair. “Just a routine check up, sir. Storms on the planet prevent them from contacting the Commonwealth directly. So, once in a while a ship has to visit them in person. We were the closest.”
“Glad to be of service,” Johnson said in disgust.
Johnson splashed his face with another handful of ice-cold water. Every crewmember had a schedule. They got up at the same time. Worked the same hours. Ate at the same time. Were relieved by the next shift like clockwork. Had their time for relaxation in the same periods. Were in bed by the same time they had been the day before. That was for every
As the captain, it was his duty to be on duty whenever he was needed. Normally, that meant big events. That would have been easy enough to manage, to shift his sleep schedule around important arrivals. However, Jamaal wouldn’t hear of that -
was important to his second in command. Just about every time Johnson thought he could skip out on some mundane event, Jamaal would remind him of his rank and put an end to any dream of a decent night’s sleep.
They had gotten their orders to visit Lintilä a little under nine hours ago. Naturally, he was expected to be on the bridge when they arrived. It didn’t matter that the rest of the bridge crew were on break, or asleep. He was the captain. In all his years of training, he had never found a way to survive the erratic sleep schedule. He marveled at the other captains who made it all look so easy. Holding still, he cursed his fate. His stillness let the stall know it was not needed, and the lavatory sunk into the floor.
Johnson had never understood why the stalls did that. They rested in the floors until they were needed. When he stood still over them, they would gracefully rise out of the floor. Once he finished, standing still a second time sent them back down. All that effort could be avoided with a simple door. The rising and falling seemed needlessly complicated. He knew his preoccupation with the stall was the result of being awake nineteen hours straight. Still, he couldn’t find a justifiable reason for their design.
“Captain to the bridge,” Jamaal’s voice called from the public address system.
That man never seemed to need sleep. As he trudged to the bridge, he tried to recall a time when he had seen Jamaal in any state besides chipper. Early morning or dead of night, Jamaal was always ready and awake. As Johnson walked down the gleaming white halls of the ship, he tried to focus his weary mind.
Forcing his mind to work, he recalled what he had learned about their destination over the last nine hours. Lintilä was a run of the mill rim world. Settled over fifty years ago, it had a population of around ten thousand. It had no natural resources of note or other redeeming qualities. In fact, the world was downright ugly.
By day, electrical storms ravaged the surface, making use of even the most basic technologies problematic. By night, it was a solid black nothingness. Being so far out on the rim, there were very few stars to brighten the night sky. No moon either. Once the sun had set, they had to use artificial light or be completely blind. Why anyone would intentionally settle there was beyond him.
“Glad you made it.” Jamaal greeted him as he entered the bridge. “We are about to make the final jump now, sir.”
“Let’s just get this over with,” Johnson said, trying desperately to sound alert.
The bridge crew all saluted. He saluted back, hiding his annoyance as he realized not one of them had been the same crew he had awoken with.
“I warned you to take a nap, sir.”
Ignoring him as he took the captain’s chair, Johnson noticed a cup of tea resting on a small table immediately to his right. Raising his eyebrow, he shot a glance at Jamaal.
“Green tea,” his second in command said without turning. “Personal recipe, sir. Thought you might enjoy a refresher.”
So that was his secret. Taking the cup, Johnson studied the odd-colored liquid. It was all he could do not to immediately spit it out after trying a sip. As he returned the cup to the table, he realized some secrets were best kept hidden.
“Jump drive ready,” the navigation officer reported. “Capacitors at charge. Awaiting your orders.”
“Very well,” Johnson said. “Let’s see Lintilä.”
He braced himself. A large portion of his training was solely based on dealing with the Wall. Even the most hardened of captains admitted the Wall always worried them. However, having a proud captain of the Navy show fear at something so common was unacceptable. It had taken weeks for him to find a way to appear stalwart as his heart pounded in his chest.
After an agonizing wait, it finally came. A pane of nothingness slowly cut through the bulkheads at the far end of the bridge. Through the still surface he could clearly see the blackness of space. It was as if someone had cut the ship cleanly and the front section had been removed. As the Wall edged closer, the ship continued to disappear. He knew from his training it was harmless, but the sight still set his stomach on edge. He wondered for a moment if the upset stomach was perhaps due to the tea.
He knew the Wall would pass over him and he would feel only a slight tingle. With that tingle a vast distance would be traveled, and he would finally be able to get some rest. However, despite that knowledge, the idea of being sliced into two parts on either side of the Wall terrified him. Johnson resisted the urge to shut his eyes as the clear window reached him. Staring down, he watched as it passed over his legs, replacing them with the blackness of space. With a deep breath, he waited for the Wall to pass.
After a seeming eternity, the Wall cleared the bridge and continued down the length of the ship. Johnson let out a nearly silent sigh of relief. The sudden sound of something shattering broke his temporary calm. Turning, he found the teacup had slid off the table and crashed against the floor plating. As he studied the remains, he realized he was feeling a slight tugging toward the right. It felt as if the bridge was leaning toward the fallen cup.
“Report!” Jamaal demanded.
“Unexpected gravity well, sir. We are attempting to adjust . . .”
Before the navigation officer could finish her sentence, the pull suddenly became more evident. The once level floor was now at a clear incline, and it seemed to be getting worse. Jamaal, who had been standing, fell toward the right of the room.
“What is going on?” Johnson asked as he leaned to the left, resisting the sensation of being off kilter.
“There is a large mass to our starboard,” the navigation officer said in a panic. “It’s a moon!”
“A moon?” Johnson asked incredulously. “Impossible! Lintilä doesn’t have a moon! Put it on the monitor.”
The main monitor sprang to life. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The ship had jumped right next to a moon that wasn’t supposed to be there. The ship was struggling with all its might to pull away from the gravity of the object.
“Status!” Jamaal demanded.
“Gravity increasing slowly,” the navigation officer said. “As more of the ship exits the Wall the more we feel the effects. It’s taking a lot of power to maintain our position.”
“Are we going to crash?” the tactical officer asked frantically.
“Doubtful,” Jamaal said thoughtfully. “We should have enough power to escape the gravity well of a moon once we clear the Wall. But why is there a moon in the first place? Why didn’t the navigation network warn us?”
“Contact,” the tactical officer shouted.
“Who?” Johnson jumped to his feet at the unexpected phrase.
“Seven . . . ships?” the tactical officer asked slowly.
“You’re asking me?” he tilted his head, not understanding.
“I’ve got seven contacts. They are registering as . . . asteroids, sir.”
“Save the drama for when we are in real trouble.”
“Sir, they are headed right for us.”
The monitor changed its view to show seven objects approaching the ship. As the view magnified, it was clear the seven objects were not natural. Their surfaces had the craggy appearance of rock exposed to the harshness of space. However, they were shaped unnaturally. They each looked like a crude V with the two prongs pointed toward the ship.
“Let’s not wait for them to make things worse,” Johnson said, eyes fixed on the monitor. “Open fire. Take them out.”
The tactical officer nodded. A few moments later, a second set of seven objects appeared on the monitor. The new objects were surrounded by a light blue halo as they moved. The monitor added the halo so the crew could see the projectiles as they arced toward their targets. For some reason Johnson couldn’t explain, he started to hold his breath as the projectiles neared their targets. His eyes widened as the ‘asteroids’ changed course and avoided the projectiles.
“Those are no rocks!” Jamaal said. “Open fire. All batteries!”
“I can’t sir,” the tactical officer said, obviously frustrated. “We need most of our power just to resist the pull of that blasted moon.”
“Then fire with what you can,” Johnson said quickly. “I want those things taken out!”
A small smattering of weapons fire arced from the ship toward the seven targets. The projectiles were easily avoided. The shots from their energy weapons seemed to have no effect at all, but three of the ship’s missiles cleanly impacted, destroying three of the objects.
“Got them!” Jamaal shouted triumphantly.
“Contact! . . . A
of contacts!” the tactical officer stammered.
The monitor pulled back from its close magnification, revealing dozens upon dozens of the objects. Johnson found he couldn’t count them all without losing count. He couldn’t be certain if it was the sheer number of them or his exhaustion. The horde of objects approached at an incredible speed. Nothing could hit them. They nimbly avoided everything and anything the ship could muster.
“This is impossible . . . ,” the tactical officer muttered. “They are moving too fast. Their speeds, they should be impossible! They’ll be in . . .”
Johnson waited, but no other words came. Quickly crossing the slanting bridge, he put a hand on the tactical officer’s shoulder. An odd gurgling sound softly wafted to his ears. Quickly pushing on the man’s shoulder, Johnson turned him around. The tactical officer was in some kind of seizure, white foam seeping from his mouth.