Space is an empty inhospitable place. It’s full of gravity wells and wormholes, collapsed stars, meteorites, radiation, energy waves, particle waves, warped areas of Spacetime, asteroid fields and dark pockets where stranded ships are doomed to die in. As a matter of fact space is to be avoided at all costs unless you have a spaceworthy ship and enough fuel to run it.
Fuel is not just necessary to make the ship travel. Given a sufficiently high burst of initial thrust most ships will drift in the right direction at a decent enough speed and a pilot who understands space can make clever use of gravity wells to slingshot where he needs to go so he can conserve fuel and cut down his journey time. Fuel is used for other things. It powers the ship’s onboard devices. It maintains life support so we can have oxygen to breathe. It runs the generators that spin the hull so we feel that there is gravity on board even when there isn’t. It is the life force behind our scanners and weapons systems. And it is what keeps the shields that protect us from the radiation of space, humming quietly.
Fuel, in other words, is what actually keeps humans alive in space. Although we drink water and breathe oxygen we actually run on fuel. Our civilization runs on fuel. Take fuel away from us and we revert to protozoan tethered to a rock and helplessly looking up at the sky.
When I say “fuel” I actually mean Xelium. The great Terran intergalactic empire is a Xelium-based empire. We’ve all grown up with stories of how Xelium was first discovered deep within the crust of the origin planet. How it changed chemistry forever and made space travel possible. How it was so plentiful once you knew where to look and how to look and how to mine it that it would last us until the heat death of the universe. Xelium is, was and always would be the backbone that made us stand up, gather ourselves and launch our might into the sky.
And now, here, we are running out of Xelium as we burn our way through space. I have a brief image of gold fish being carried in a plastic bag with a tiny hole in it. Their projected lifespan measured by the rate at which the droplets escape through the tiny hole.
We don’t have a hole but we can’t navigate this ship in any other way apart from burning fuel. None of us is a pilot who’s good enough to get through space using all the other smart means of speed augmentation clever pilots know how to use.
It’s a predicament that bums me. I have come too far already to turn into a popsicle. My blood boiling in my veins as gravity and hull pressure fail us. My brain dying for lack of oxygen. My body, frozen in space forever. I shake my head to make the image go away. I think wryly to myself that I am making this all about me.
I drop to the floor and do some push ups. I start light and begin to go faster, deeper, changing my grip to work triceps more, then chest, then a wide grip for that extra challenge. Then the plank.
The activity works up a healthy sheen of sweat and clears my head. I think of what Tessa told us.
“I am a doctor,” she began. “I was part of a Corp Assignment to help indigenous people on GT-designated planets. Our job was to make sure local populations were fit for mine-duty. We got to the planet surface but something happened to our ship. A week in we lost all contact. Without communications relay we were stranded. Without a mothership we had no eyes on the planet. The tribes people caught us. My comrades ….” she faltered at that point.
Continued: “We … they took us the same place they took you. We became part of their ritual sacrifice. The feasting afterwards ...” her voice was tight with remembered horror. Her eyes glassy with fear. “They ate them! They ate my crew!”
I asked her how she had been spared. “I’m a doctor. They saw some value in that. Kept me round to tend to their sick. They watched me all the time. If any of their sick should die, they said, that would be it for me. It’d mean my magic had failed and I was now to be shared amongst the tribe like my crew had been. Shared! That’s what those savages call eating human flesh!”
There was disgust and horror in equal measure in that voice. I could understand that. I too remembered all too clearly the prickling feeling of icy cold fear at the nape of my neck the moment I realized that we were in a box of sorts, surrounded by people who saw us as lunch.
In getting out of there we’d been lucky. Things could have gone the other way so easily. The thought made me shiver.
The moment I feel locked down by fear I need to do something to help me deal with it. From where I was I asked Reed to run a full area scan and run diagnostics on the ship. I wanted to know which systems we could safely shut down to conserve power and extend our fuel. I then set off to check on the Regulators.
Sam and Raynar were back in their cells. Angry glares on their faces.
“You’re back!” Sam spoke up first. “How about letting us out of here? We can help and keeping us locked up when we all are going to die is not clever.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” I said softly, my eyes taking in Raynar. The bruise on his face where I’d hit him last was fading. It somehow made him look even angrier. “How about you big man?” I say to him, “Do you want to help also?”
He lets a sneer cross his face. “You took me by surprise last time. It won’t happen again.”
“You will refuse to be surprised?”
“You know what I mean. You got in a lucky punch is all.”
Maybe it’s the way he said it, or maybe in all this tension and the impending feel of doom and helplessness this became just the release I feel I need. I use the control on my wrist to drop the field generator on their cell just long enough to enter. Lock it up behind me.
“I am here now.” I say and with a low growl he lunges at me.
Fighting in a closed space takes a special kind of skill. You have to be aware of every tiny inch around you. How the walls and furniture eat into your floor space. Where the corners are in relation to where you’re standing. How your reach versus your opponent’s. It’s rhythmic ballet merged into a puzzle, merged into a battle. You’re solving for space and motion even as you’re probing for strengths and weaknesses. Raynar was Regulator-trained. Fast and strong.
But speed and strength are only one component here. Spatial awareness and puzzle solving are also key. As is the ability to sense the rhythm of your opponent’s movements.
I fully expected Sam to join in. I was prepared to take on both. She didn’t move a muscle. And after a minute or so of my elbows and knees doing damage Raynar was ready to concede defeat.
“You didn’t let us die back there with the Cannibals,” Sam said eventually. She was darting her eyes from me to Raynar, lying on the floor groaning and wiping blood off his face.
“I am not a monster. I do only what I have to.” I don’t really need to explain myself to her of all people.
“If we promise to not cause trouble. Really. Will you let us help? Raynar doesn’t mean to be an ass. He’s just mad you beat him so easily the first time. Now I think he’s beginning to get it was no fluke.” Her voice, as she says this, is pointed. Raynar groans some more but props himself on one elbow on the floor. His face ain’t pretty.
“You did not get lucky,” he says finally. “Sam is right. You need our help and we need yours to get out of this. We get to civilized space we’ll hitch a ride to our base. You can just take off.”
I look at them both and the exchange is real enough to make us all realize that we have no choice. If we don’t work together we may not make it at all.
“OK,” I concede dropping the field generator and leaving the cell open. “I will explain this to the rest. At the first sign of trouble -”
“There won’t be any. Really.” Sam cuts me off. She looks at Raynar. He nods quickly and puts out a hand stained with his own blood.
I take it.
The ship’s comms beep once and then Reed’s voice comes through: “Sef, we need you in sick bay.”
I turn to the two Regulators. “Get to the bridge,” I say, “See what you can do to help improve fuel efficiency.” I turn and run to the sick bay.
Ellie is strapped on a medbed with probes active around her. Tessa has her back to the door, her eyes glued on the monitor readings.
“How is she?”
She turns at my entrance, eyeing me up. “Not that well,” she says. “I’ve been scanning her for concussion but her neurals are normal. Her vitals also read normal.”
“It’s her brain waves. She’s in Theta. Deep Theta. It’s like whatever was in that incense we were breathing down there affected her the most.
“I don’t know. This ship doesn’t come equipped with neural neutralizers or a deep diagnostics med lab. I am doing what I can with what I have. I have her brain mildly sedated to allow cross-messaging across associative neural centers. It will seek to reach homeostasis on its own. Balance its processing by making sense of input. That should help snap her out of it.”
She shrugs her shoulders in a most undoctor-like way. “It’s the best I can do with what I have here,” she motions at the ship’s primitive sick bay.
“OK,” I feel frustrated, helpless. Angry. I fight down the red tide rising inside me. Turn to leave. “See what you can do to help her,” I say unnecessarily. The ship’s comms interrupts me again.
“Sef?” It’s Reed’s voice. “You’d better get to the bridge, we have company.”
I start running to get there as fast as possible, wondering what gods I've irritated in my life and why are they now irritating me.
What is it Reed?” I gasp as I am running, out of breath already. I wonder if the life support systems of the ship have started to slow down. Is its atmosphere thinner? I shouldn’t be out of breath so fast.
“A ship. You asked me to scan the area. We’re picking up a ship approaching us.” Reed’s voice sounds preternaturally calm. I have learnt to read people. Understand how they function under pressure. So far Reed has been a really cool customer. He focuses on the things he understands and uses his own enhanced body to work out solutions.
He filters out everything else. Things he cannot control he simply tunes out. It’s a remarkable capacity born out of his work in systems that run on pure code. The calmness I sense however is odd. Even for him.
“What’s going on?”
I get to the bridge seriously out of breath. Sam and Raynar are both there, bent over instrumentation, looking at the telemetrics coming in.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Raynar finally murmurs.
“What’s going on?” I ask again.
“The ship Reed spotted,” Sam is the first to reply. “It’s one of ours. No doubt about it. But it failed to respond to all of our hails.”
“Is it getting ready to attack?” I ask, “Are its weapons systems going hot?”
“No, that’s just it.” Reed finally says. His voice is perplexed. “I’ve run deep scans inside it. It’s moving our way but there are no signs of life.”
“Reed thinks it’s drifting,” Sam adds. “It’s a ghost ship.”