Authors: E. R. Mason
Tags: #romance, #adventure, #action, #science fiction, #ufo, #martial arts, #philosophy, #plague, #alien, #virus, #spaceship
All Rights Reserved
All characters in this book
are fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is
I should never have signed on the
Electra. Every now and then you get that little twinge inside that
tells you you're not making the best possible choice, but with
persistent rationalization you coerce yourself into ignoring it.
Later, you promise yourself you'll never ignore it again. The human
mind is probably more dishonest with itself than anyone else, and
the older we get, the more devious it becomes.
If I had waited on Earth longer I
probably could have pulled bridge officer on something small.
That's what I should have done. It still would have been
interstellar, mind you, no monotonous yo-yos going intersystem. The
worn-out crates they use for that are so over-programmed a chimp
could sit in the center seat. Two big buttons Send/Return. Human
It had been a very comfortable
year. It had been getting near time for me to find the right two or
three month cruise that would supplement my dwindling life support
credits. A poker game had accelerated the requirement. So, under
less than optimum circumstances, I had convinced myself that a
position with Security/Rescue on this particular chart-maker cruise
would be the best way to replace value lost in an indiscrete
twenty-hour poker game.
If only I had waited until I
sobered up. There should be a sobriety test on home terminals so
that you can't sign yourself up with the foreign legions of space
when you don't really know what you're doing at the time. You can
back out, of course, but it looks pretty bad in the employment
history. Don't get me wrong, I like working Rescue. When
Security/Rescue positions open up they don't last long. You get
most of the EVAs. Your routine duties on board are easy and
minimal, and when you do get called in on an emergency, it's
usually to save someone who did something really stupid. I have
found there to be nothing more exhilarating in life than rescuing a
friend. The feeling of euphoria that comes with such an act is
proportional to the amount of risk required to get the job done. It
takes quite a bit of pull to land that kind of security position.
For me, this one was a step down. But like I said, the openings
don't last long.
So basically, someone with an
inside straight had brought me to the Electra. Sitting in the
high-back seat by my terminal with one foot propped up on a corner
of the console, I was trying to comfort myself that it would only
be a six month consequence of poor judgment. Aces over eights. The
dark gray, thin-shelled stateroom walls were not reassuring. They
are tangled with conduit and cable track, the ceilings are low, and
there is a perpetual drone that lingers within unibody
construction. Although there is a private adjoining bath, with
shower, it is equally mood conservative. The only mirror is
There is, at least, gravity. Only
the big drafts have it. Nobody takes the grav for granted, either.
Every time gravity field generators fail on a ship, you get a lot
of sick people who would sell their soul for half a positive
The bad thing about charting tours
is that you never go anywhere. You set course for an empty sector
of space, stop at an assigned point, scan everything for light
years around, and then continue on to the next sector. You never
see anything but distant stars, mostly. You spend your entire trip
in a vacuum, literally. And there's a funny thing about
extra-system travel. When you get so far out that there are no
longer any colorful balls hanging reassuredly in the nothingness,
you suddenly become much more aware of just how alone you really
are. The depth of it becomes much more apparent, and it will cause
a tingle of fear to run up and down your spine if you dwell on it
too long. No emergency rescue vehicles will come for you if there
is an accident. The stars are densely packed in every direction,
but they are hopelessly out of reach. In fact, you always have the
feeling that you will never even reach your destination. The
clusters never seem to get any closer, right up until you drop to
sub-light. Then, if you are fortunate enough to be close to a
system, you find yourself invariably surprised by the massive,
erupting fireball at its center, and the assortment of planets that
usually pay it homage. There is no sound to choreograph a solar
system, but inside you can feel-hear the rumble of
So I, Adrian Tarn, breaker of
rules, romanticist-unreliable, found myself in a sterile stateroom
alone, thinking about the unopened pint of bourbon I smuggled
aboard, located only inches away in the second drawer on the left
in the psychologist-recommended beige metal desk, imitation wood
grained top, that houses the integrated PC that was staring back at
me like a disinterested observer. A drink was out of the question.
When you're on call, plummeting along well beyond the speed of
light aboard the QE2 of space, you do not assume all will go as
expected. So I leaned back and continued to wait for R.J. to show
up for his usually absurd chess game.
R.J.'s game is beyond the
understanding of mortal men. He opens in such a way that his
deployed pieces remind you of farm animals that have escaped their
pen and are running amok with no particular purpose in mind. Once
you have achieved a small point advantage against him, you should
be able to trade him down to oblivion, but somehow in the middle
game he always comes up with a hurtful collage of brilliant little
gambits and suddenly you are the one in trouble. Then, in his end
game, he lingers himself to death. When his king has finally
fallen, he always takes great pride in explaining his unnecessarily
complex closing strategy. You remind him it didn't work and his
trademark reply is, "Yes, another great idea destroyed by a simple
set of facts." I have this secret fear that one day his
unfathomable end game will come together and I will never beat him
R.J. is an inspector on this
cruise, part of the Procedure Adherence team, one of the people
responsible for making sure things are done by the book. R.J. Smith
will stand over you, scratch at his short, reddish-brown beard with
one hand, and droll, "Ah yesss, yesss, yesss," in a W.C. Fields'
kind of pantomime. You’re dead serious, but you can't tell if he
agrees with what you're doing or considers it a total joke.
Sometimes he will say nothing, pull off his wire rimmed glasses and
clean them, completely forgetting that you're waiting for an
opinion, a pregnant pause that goes on forever. When he finally
returns to reality, he will invariably offer up some obscure
Confucius-like proverb intended to make up for having left your
consciousness hanging in limbo. When it comes to the one hundred
and fifty people on board this ship, I feel most at ease with
I had begun to give up on him when
his call icon suddenly began flashing on the screen in front of me.
I tapped the open-key and his smiling face appeared.
"Hey, I'm not there!"
"There is no up. We're in space,
remember? God, I shouldn't have to keep reminding you of these
"Ah yesss.., so true, but I know
something you do not, oh Great Seer of the very
I waited. R.J savored the moment
in silence. Finally I had to beg.
"We're coming out of light."
I sat up in my seat. "Why?"
"Sensors have picked up something
unusual up ahead. You haven't heard anything about this, have
"Damn it, why does PA always get the first
"And the last, usually."
"So what the hell is it that would
make them risk doing this? We're not even halfway to the
"Nobody knows. Only that they think it's
"No shit? Space junk?"
"If it is, it's awful big space
Before I could reply, a priority
call icon began flashing in the upper right hand corner of R.J.'s
"R.J., I gotta go. They're calling
"Not surprised, bye."
The stern face of Commander Tolson
abruptly replaced J.R's. Jim Tolson has the enduring demeanor of a
bulldog. He rarely bites, but you always have the feeling he could
at any moment. I have always thought he should have been an
"Adrian, report to the Bridge conference room,
"On my way."
The sliding doors to the Bridge conference
room slid open to two dozen wondering faces. As usual, I was the
last to arrive. Humbled, I took a seat on the right side of the
room, next to five other mission specialists, one of whom was R.J.
He smirked and shook his head.
The Bridge conference room is a barren,
impersonal place that no one ever uses unless directed to. It is a
socially sterile allotment of spacecraft, bearing few amenities for
human comfort. Diffused white light comes from behind the long side
walls. At the far end, a large view screen takes up the entire
partition. A black-mirrored, elongated, table sits in the center,
with very comfortable black fabric seats for use by the department
heads and Bridge Officers. A 3-D overhead projector is mounted
above it. Two dozen less elaborate seats are lined up against the
side walls, for subordinates who have been instructed to attend.
During normal staff meetings usually every wall-seat in the room is
filled. On this occasion only seven of us were being included.
On a ship the size of Electra, it is
extremely difficult to qualify for a position that places you at
the center table. Personnel records have become lengthy and
detailed over the years. Yours must pass countless computer
evaluations before a human eye ever sees your ID number. It is a
paradox trial of the inhuman mind appraising its creator.
Evaluation of the sentient by the artificial. One must always have
adhered to the computers preprogrammed point of view. One must
never have been caught at one's mistakes. Of course, everyone who
has ever lived has screwed up at one time or another, but bridge
officers and managers have the responsibility of preserving the
myth that it is possible to be faultless. Positions of these kinds
become filled by an odd mixture of unique people who unenviably
seem to spend their lives dressed formally and behaving as they are
expected to. They eat, sleep, and drink in proper ways. They never
deviate from socially prescribed etiquette, at least in public. For
all intents and purposes, career is their reason for living and
when they reach the fallacy of retirement, many of them linger for
a year or two and then die for lack of purpose. Quite a few of the
most exceptional people I have ever met have held these positions,
and ironically, a few of the worst I could ever have imagined.
I have never believed in blind allegiance to
documentation. I do not subscribe to the unwritten laws of social
etiquette, strict religious interpretations, prearranged marriages,
nine to five jobs that last for thirty years, motivational
speakers, military governments, or homes in the country with white
picket fences, one-point-seven children, a dog, a small vegetable
garden, and a wife intended to provide cooking and cleaning. I do
not believe man was meant to be compacted into an existential mold
and kept there. These are probably the primary reasons a position
as a Bridge Officer on a ship this size has never been offered me.
I have the dubious reputation of occasionally breaking all the
rules, when necessary, to get the job done. My lanky, six-foot-two
frame is decorated with an assortment of scar tissue, abrasions,
and little places where patches of body hair are missing,
testimonies to a certain unwillingness to conform. The artwork is
misleading, however. I have outlived many conformists, and even
saved a few along the way. And it is true some of the old injuries
came about because I ignored the ‘rules’, but a few of them signify
times I survived only because I did. I make the people who sign-off
on the crew lists feel insecure. They need a preserver of the myth.
But when there is a particularly tricky problem at hand, something
that must be accomplished despite bad odds and extreme liability,
I'm always the one who gets the call. They trust me with their
lives, but not their jobs.