Firing of the Crucible

By Michael Eves Shaffer

Sci-Fi, Action & adventure

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246
9 mins

 

The mass of rock slowly tumbling through space was small on the galactic scale. It was roughly oval and around its widest, it was a little over one hundred kilometers in diameter. Nothing remarkable about it or its movement against the vast splendor of the Milky Way behind it.

Then it shimmered.

Viewing it, one would swear that its surface had become liquid. Until one realized the effect had spread to the surrounding space in an oval sphere that was rapidly spreading. It looked almost as if the asteroid and stars were being seen through a clear pool that someone had dipped their finger into. Only the ripples increased in number and strength rather than dissipating. Soon bright streaks of light started to appear at the very center. Little jags of light caught from the stars that streaked towards the edges. A bulge in the Aether, the fabric of space, became noticeable, more sensed than seen. Quickly the bulge grew, creating what looked like a bow wave. The effect on the rock was to send it on a new trajectory, shooting away from the point of the disturbance at great speed. The bulge grew rapidly but seemed to slow down the larger it got. After a short time, the bulge was several hundred meters in diameter and the expansion slowed almost to a stop. There it seemed to pause for several seconds, and an observer could sense something straining. The rippling was gone, but space was stretched around the bulge. Taut and strained like a sheet of clear plastic wrap. The light of the stars behind it pulled into the different colors of the spectrum by the strain of the fabric of space.

Suddenly the very center of the disturbance erupted in a spray of colors, spikes of bright but oddly hued light flashing out. A hole appeared. A hole behind which could be seen a shimmering existence. Sliding very slowly out of the hole, came the rounded point of something massive. It was soon evident that this was the nose of some ship as it was obviously an object of crafted metal. As it eased through the hole, the sides of the hole seemed to be slowly forced wider to allow the ship to slip through with scant distance between the edge and hull.

As more and more of the massive ship came through, details became clear. While the nose was clean and unblemished, it soon became apparent that the rest of the vessel was not so lucky. Long burn scars showed up, along with scattered gashes that were partially patched over. No atmosphere leaked but in several areas sparks still attested to damage not yet repaired. There were multiple places along the hull where there had once been pods of some sort, but they were gone now with emergency plating visible behind the holes where they once had been. This was a heavily damaged ship, barely limping along.

As more of it exited the other space it became evident that it was a relatively “simple” design; a long, flattened tube shape with a rounded nose. It also became visible that the exit was not a smooth one. The massive craft jerked and shuddered as if it was being buffeted from all sides by high winds. Several times it stopped to stabilize before continuing its slow emergence from the other space.

*************
Roh Ceeda's small-framed body was taut and straining in her control couch. Her shimmering gold one-piece jumpsuit hugged her body, outlining the titanic struggles of her muscles. Sweat stains spread from under arms and the straps that secured her to the couch. Her feet and left hand straining at flight controls, her right hand flashing over the computer controls in response to each new alarm. The sweat on her light blue face streamed in wild patterns as gravity waves washed over her and everything in the ship. A wisp of her bright red hair had escaped her skull cap from behind her ear and was twisting in the gravic waves, drops of sweat being wrung from it. Her mind was extended beyond anything she had ever attempted before. Her senses were thrust so deep into the Aether, trying to sense the ebb and flow of it as they Transited, that the only thing keeping her anchored to her body and not just floating away forever were the regular klaxons as something else broke under the gravic assault on her ship and body. A good portion of her mental focus was keeping her body from being torn apart in the face of forces that could rip metal like paper.

A new alarm snagged her attention, and she paused the Emergence to check on it. It was the alarm for the stasis units which protected the rest of the crew. As she accessed the data on what had failed the fear rose in her throat. If the wrong ones failed, then this last desperate gamble was for naught. Reading the data, she sighed in relief when it showed only seven of the pods that housed general crew had failed, instantly killing the crew members inside. Immediately she felt sorry for that relief. While the general crew was not critical as long as there were enough to run the ship, they were sentients. But then she shook herself as she didn't have the time or energy for relief or ill feelings; she had an extremely dangerous Emergence to complete.

Reaching back out with her mind into the Aether around the ship she again searched for the Song it sang. As she picked it up, she took control of the vessel again. For whatever reason, her mind suddenly cleared and she heard the thrum of the universe. Her body and mind moved in time with it. The ship eased forward slightly faster and smoother. An unoccupied part of her mind quipped “sometimes a terrible distraction brings the greatest focus.”

As the ship reached the end of the four long bulges that housed the three of the four still working engines, she again slowed the ship to a stop for a quick rest. Taking a deep breath, she hit a button and engaged the autopilot. She relaxed her hands and feet on the controls as the ship eased forward slowly. She turned all her attention not just on feeling the Aether but regulating it. Going beyond what the grav nodes did to hold the edge between places away from the hull, she forced it smooth and opened it a bit further. This level of Aether manipulation was extremely dangerous as she could feel her body's energy draining to critical levels. As far as she knew, no one had ever attempted this with a vessel of this size, but it was a necessary risk. As the ship completely exited the hole, the edges tried to crash back together. She threw her full mental weight, aided by the Aether, to holding it apart. Her body arched against the restraints, her eyelids squeezing tears out. She held it. And then slowly, she allowed it to start closing down on itself. Her body twisted in the restraints, her breath caught and then taken in a quick gulp. Emergency drugs were pumped into her veins to try and counter the stress. A trickle of blood seeped out of her nose and ears. But her efforts were rewarded as the hole closed slowly as she needed it to. She held until the rift was too small to see and only then did she slowly let go of her grip and slumped in total exhaustion, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Her mind went blank and black.

But only for a few moments. The rebound effect from that level of Aether manipulation roused her quickly back to awareness. Her mind felt sharp and full of energy. She knew, however, that it would not last long, and the evaluation of body told her she would likely be down for days once this snap-back dropped her.

As her mind fully re-engaged, she started clearing the alarms. No new ones from the stasis banks; only the seven that had failed. The rest were for systems that were known to be weak after the damage the ship had taken prior to its escape. Once she cleared the critical alarms and determined that the vessel wasn't going to fall apart immediately she triggered the awakening sequence for the crew. The ship was not going to fix and run itself!

She turned to the secondary alarms, and the proximity one sent ice running through her veins. Something of significantly more mass and size than her ship was moving away from them rapidly. Which should be impossible. There was no way the enemy had been able to follow them, much less been able to beat them to their destination. As she brought up the remaining sensors to get a read on it, all sorts of impossible scenarios involving how their enemy could have gotten here first ran through her fatigued mind.

The data finally started scrolling in, and her brain went blank, not able to process the impossibility of it. And then she started laughing. Not the easy laugh her race was noted for, but a racking, almost desperate laugh. The laugh of the condemned reprieved by a dead battery. Out of all the vastness of space, they had come out right on top of what could be a tiny moon drifting through space. As more details came in, her laughter faded and gave way to amazement. By what she was reading it appeared to be perfect for what their plans required. Her fingers reached out to the screen showing an image of it and caressed the screen, her face relaxing from the strain of the past hours into an almost childlike wonder. A tiny flame that had nearly gone out in her heart flickered back to life. They should have had to spend weeks or months finding one like this. And yet here it was, right where they Emerged. Perhaps they were in step with the Song!

She let out a very un-Dvane exclamation as she keyed in the commands to launch an automatic recovery vehicle. She looked around quickly to make sure no one had heard her even though she knew no one was there. The rebound euphoria had her giddy. She checked on the crew and saw they were getting out of stasis rapidly. Under normal circumstances, she would have chided them for pushing too fast through the procedure, but circumstances were not normal, and she was relieved they were doing so. She then pulled up the outside view on the main screens as she shifted the ship to orient towards their target. The star for the system was visible as a yellow dot, slightly larger than the surrounding stars. At this distance, even with maximum optical magnification, only the gas giants would be readily visible. Before she crashed from the fatigue of the Emergence she wanted to see this mythical system that she had only read about, so toggled in the long-range scanners to fill things in.

There they were. The four rocky inner planets, each still easily lost in the image of the entire system if not for the markers pointing them out. The four gas giants further out. Then the final rocky one of the primary system. Just like the records. She targeted the third rocky one out from the star and keyed magnification for that one. Suddenly a slowly turning big blue-green orb with white clouds over large sections filled the screen. Out of habit, she verified she was seeing real time, not recorded images even though she knew there were no recorded images of this planet. She was seeing their goal for the first time. It was there, and alive as far as she could tell as she could see artificial lights on the leeward side. Weight started to lift from her chest. There was still a chance, a small one, of salvation.

Behind her, the bridge doors hissed open, and the crew rushed in, with equally rushed requests for permission to take stations. They, like she, wore the one-piece jumpsuit that could serve as a space suit which was required wear during combat or Transit. Theirs though was silver with large, black symbols on the chest and back that indicated which station they manned. None wore the skull-cap that Ceeda now peeled off her head. If this were normal circumstances, they each would have waited for her acknowledgment and granting of permission to take their stations. In fact on other ships, they still might have waited. But this crew and she had been through too much together and knew that now was not the time to stick to protocol. Her waves of approval were at their backs as they were already keying their stations alive before they even fully seated themselves. Then Commander Plenk was before her bowing.

“Roh Ceeda, thank you for another successful Emergence. I humbly request permission to take charge of the crew for you and ready the ship for Your work,” he intoned very formally.

Ceeda could feel the snap-back energy starting to leave her as she leaned forward with a small smile. “Commander Plenk, I suspect that if someone sliced off your head, you would pick it up and hold it up to me to ask permission to die!”

A small smile grabbed at his lips as he responded, “Sometimes even in the deepest of emergencies, old protocols are the most appreciated” still keeping his head bowed.

Ceeda's “fuf” was only slightly un-Dvane like. “Commander Plenk, you have my august permission to take charge of the crew and finish readying it for My work!” she intoned very imperiously. And then she slumped and started to unstrap herself. “And please have someone clean this chair. It seems some rude being has gone and sweat all over it.”

Plenk's grin was cut short as his eyes rose to see Ceeda's face. “Roh Ceeda you are bleeding! Your nose. And your ears!” His fingers flipped at the crew member nearest the medkit who immediately grabbed it and rushed over.

Ceeda's eyes creased in confusion as her hand came up first to her nose and then ears. She looked at the blood on her fingers for a moment as the crew member and Plenk started dabbing at the blood with bandages. Her mind turned inward for several seconds to scan damage.

When he saw her eyes look outward again, Plenk spoke. “Do you need medical assistance?”

Ceeda shook her head. “No, I just overdid it a little. This was a rather rough transit. I fear I will be down for a few days.” She shook herself as she felt the crash coming on. “I will be fine. Just get the ship ready. And the asteroid I grabbed for us.” She allowed herself a small smile at his look.

“You found an asteroid already?” he exclaimed in surprise as he glanced at the Emergence chrono. “We've only been out for 10 minutes? How?”

“It was here waiting for us,” she pointed to the reading on the sub-monitors including that of the remote retrieval unit that was already latched onto it, slowing its speed away from the ship. “Amazing, but true,” her voice trailing off a bit as she looked back up at the image of the blue-green planet.

Plenk's and the assisting crew member's gazes followed hers. The view of the world was rather unremarkable. Both had seen many planets just like it, and many more quite a bit more unique. Except in the one important aspect: this one supposedly had never existed. A kind of hush went around the bridge as all eyes took the time to look at it as well.

Plenk found his voice first. “So an asteroid we needed for an impossible plan involving a planet that doesn't exist just happened to be right here?” He glanced back at the Roh for her confirming nod. “Then the Aether Sings!”

The response from came from everyone on the bridge “And we Dance in step!”

After a moment, everyone snapped back to work. Plenk turned back to the Roh and saw that she was starting to slump in her chair. “Ensign Vanit!” he snapped, watching the Roh rouse herself out of the corner of his eye. “Clear the path for Roh Ceeda to her quarters!” He turned to the Roh and added: “If you are ready, of course.”

Ceeda nodded him a thank you and rose. “I think I am prepared to retire now. Commander, you have the bridge.”

Plenk snapped to attention and bowed as the Roh turned and followed the crew member off the bridge. As the bridge doors hissed shut behind them, he turned and sat in the chair next to the Roh's command chair. The smell drifting from it told him the Roh hadn't been kidding about sweating. After scanning the stations to see that everyone was doing what they needed to without him standing over them, he pulled up the log of the Emergence. He fast-forwarded it to the end and watched in real time the final closure. Plenk felt his jaw dropping at how slowly the portal closed. When it had finished, his gaze went to the closed bridge doors, awe written on his face. After a moment, he shook himself and busied himself with the many tasks in repairing the ship and preparing it to modify the asteroid.
*************
Ceeda followed the Ensign as he made sure everyone made way for her. Not really necessary as no one in their right mind would impede her, but his calls to make way also served to ensure everyone's head was bowed before she came into view. It wouldn't do for the crew to see her in the state she was in. As the captain of the ship, she had quarters that were relatively close to the bridge, so the trip was mercifully short. He waved open her door and bowed deeply, keeping his eyes averted more out of respect for her than for her rank she knew. Her crew was a superb crew. And the regret she felt at feeling relief that it had only been Venex who died when stasis units failed welled anew. As she passed him, she paused and laid her hand on top of his head.

“Please pass on that I am very pleased with everyone's performance. The Aether played a hard Song, yet we stayed in step.” She could feel him shiver at the unexpected contact and praise as she continued through the door. As the door slid shut behind her, she allowed herself to slump against it for a moment but only a moment. Peeling off her suit and dropping it on the floor, she headed to her bedroom. She looked longingly at the cleanser but knew if she climbed in, she would fall asleep in it. And there was no way she would let herself be discovered like that. Besides, she felt oddly proud of the dried sweat on her body. She had earned it. She climbed into bed and tapped the lights off.

As she snuggled down into the comfort of her bed, her thoughts drifted to the tasks ahead. But she jerked them back. Now was not the time to think of problems. Now was the time to accept the successes. She had found it! And with that, sleep claimed her.



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