|The Gate, Part Thirty-three
||[May. 16th, 2016|01:48 am]
Fatigue poisons accumulating in his aching muscles and unable to reach his crash couch, the acolyte swam against a series of desperate high-g maneuvers, the reliquary grasped tightly in two of his bifurcated tentacles.
The pykrete outer hull of the Amity groaned under the stress, and he imagined the water in which he was swimming suddenly venting into space.
He imagined the radiators outside, incandescent against the black backdrop. Gradually the water temperature rose as the waste heat of the communications laser being used as a makeshift weapon was unceremoniously dumped into the crew compartment; functioning, for the time being, as an emergency heat sink.
He’d be dead long before that became a concern.
He reached the locker containing his space suit when a 100 nanometer UV laser several orders of magnitude more powerful than anything the acolyte’s people had been able to manage carved a deep furrow in the outer hull, vaporizing the Amity’s communications laser.
Klaxons blared like whalesong, confirming the acolyte’s worst fears: the idiot mock mind had finally decided to scuttle the ship rather than allow it to be captured. He had very little time.
Cursing the mock mind, he made his way aft to the ship’s reactor. Ignoring multiple warning signs he opened the hatch and descended into the containment.
The only source of illumination was the ghostly blue glow of Cherenkov radiation emanating from deep within the core below, a labyrinthine nest of pipes. His three hearts pounding, the acolyte watched as his tentacles fumbled while manipulating the latch on a service panel, acutely aware of the fact that the only thing standing between him and a slow, painful death from radiation sickness was several cubic meters of water.
The mock mind protested feebly as he cut its power, halting the countdown, probably buying him a few minutes.
Emerging from the containment, he allowed himself a moment to catch his breath and collect his thoughts.
Just then the proximity alarm sounded and he heard a knocking against the hull: enemy boarding craft.
He’d run out of options.
Looking down at the nondescript calcium carbonate box, the acolyte opened the reliquary.
Inside was a copper ring in the shape of an eel devouring its own tail.
He slipped it onto one of his tentacles.
At that exact same moment six thousand light-years away Jacob was exploring the horror section of the newly-renovated video rental store in a small strip mall. Surreptitiously wandering the aisles, his imagination ran riot trying to discern the plots of the movies based solely on their cover art. A green monster emerging from a toilet. A terrifying clown with grotesque claws. A hairy alien with a shark’s rictus grin filled with needle-like teeth.
Peeking through wire shelves populated with similarly gruesome images, new carpet smell thick in his nostrils, he watched his father, older sister Keren, and her best friend Erin finally decide on a movie.
He snuck back over to the video game section and rejoined them as they got in line at the front counter. The rows of colorful snacks tormented him; renting movies was a rare treat, and his frugal father would never consent to wasting money on overpriced candy. They would make air popped popcorn when they got home.
Jacob braced himself against the January chill for the walk back to the car, snowflakes melting when they came in contact with his skin as he fumbled with his mittens on a string.
The acolyte had studied the ring extensively, written a treatise on its ecclesiastical significance, spent four tides training for this mission, but this was the first time he’d actually held it, touched it.
The padre had entrusted him with its protection. A Relic, well over ten thousand years old. A weapon in a war long ago. One of a kind.
It now spoke to him, inside his head it seemed. It told him what to do.
The acolyte donned his space suit and waited. His beak worked nervously as he caressed the ring.
The Amity was small, fast, and maneuverable, with an oversized drive and minimal armament. Roughly cylindrical with white hot radiators protruding from the stern like bioluminescent sea fan coral.
The ship was originally built to accommodate a crew of five, but the acolyte was the only one on board. The only one who made it.
Under thrust the habitable section was laid out like the inside of a flooded missile silo, with the drive section at the bottom, the acolyte’s crash couch in the cockpit up top, and the main waterlock amidships.
Carved out of the pykrete outer hull, covering its entire surface, an ice sculpture. An elaborate bas-relief depicting a significant period in the history of the acolyte’s people the Avatara.
A celebration of the early expeditions onto land and the discovery of fire, drawing parallels with space exploration, the ship's drive flame representing the primordial fire upon which their civilization was built.
Everything, from metallurgy, to chemistry, to the splitting the of atom, to space flight. The discovery of the Relics.
It opened up the galaxy to them.
Exposed them to new threats.
A massive explosion shook the ship. Through a ragged hole in the side of the ship the acolyte glimpsed chunks of pykrete bas-relief falling away against the ship’s thrust. The drive hadn’t been damaged; the enemy continued to exercise restraint.
The pillar of water above the breach drained out into space in a torrent and the water surrounding him began to boil in the hard vacuum, obscuring the visor on his space suit. Poking his head above the surface he could see the outline of the enemy through a fog of forming ice crystals. Unfamiliar alien shapes in lumpy space suits climbed through.
A moment’s hesitation. He raised a tentacle and an infinitely thin invisible blade of tidal forces cut a swath through them like kelp.
Alien blood dyed the waters red as they writhed in silence.
He had no desire to cause any living creature pain, to contribute to the suffering in the universe, but more than his own life was at stake.
The next ones through the breach fired their lasers as soon as they were clear.
Too late he closed his eyes. Violet afterimages as the ring effortlessly redirected the laser beams around the acolyte, so that they struck the bulkhead behind him, dissipating harmlessly.
Blinking, he looked away as he waved a tentacle over the invaders. Limbs evolved for land flailed and alien hearts pumped a geyser of blood into vacuum.
Space isn’t cold. Space doesn’t have a temperature and is in fact a near perfect insulator. But boiling necessarily expends energy.
And so the bloodied water began to freeze, from top to bottom like a lake in winter. Panic gripped him as he became trapped in the newly-forming ice.
The ring then informed him that the enemy was about to fire and, without any prompting, teleported him to safety just as the warship’s primary laser knocked out the smaller ship’s drive in an expanding cloud of vaporized metal.
Sunita developed a ritual where every time she boarded a plane she’d touch the cool, smooth paint on the exterior of the aircraft where the accordion-like canopy of the gangway met the fuselage. She found it strangely invigorating as she stepped over the threshold and entered a realm of constant pressure changes, recycled air, and engine noise.
The first time she did it was a fourteen hour nonstop flight to India.
The humidity hit her like a wall as she disembarked. Pretty much the exact opposite sensation.
They were serenaded by a chorus of insects as they descended the stair car in the middle of the night and almost immediately she began to sweat, but there was nowhere for the sweat to go.
Her mother scolded her and her brother to behave while they passed through customs under the gaze of humorless customs officers. Sunita watched the luggage carousel, fantasizing about a rental car with air conditioning.
Her eleventh birthday was in a week and it felt weird to be thousands of miles away visiting extended family in the middle of winter, except, she had to remind herself, it was summer here.
Playing Game Boy with nothing but the streetlights to illuminate the screen on the long drive to her relative's’ house.
At the end of a narrow dirt road they parked behind the only other car. Hauling their luggage up the staircase they greeted family and then shuffled off to their rooms. She was always surprised by the open air architecture, the use of concrete as a building material.
She was comforted by the whistling of the chowkidar as he made his rounds as she stared at the ineffectual ceiling fan, struggling with jet lag.
The only sound was the soft whir of the water pump in his suit. Teleported along with him a hemisphere of ice that cracked and flaked when he craned his neck, scattering chunks of ice in all directions.
Occupying half the sky was an azure blue ice giant. White wisps of cloud circled a dark spot over 16 000 kilometers in diameter, a planet-sized storm contrasted against the organonitrogen haze of one of the ice giant’s rising moons; a cryogenic world of liquid methane oceans beneath a thick yellow smog.
The moon rose, eclipsing the ice giant, and for a moment the austere beauty of the universe overwhelmed him.
In the distance twin specks of light, the vessels still locked in combat, connected by a glittering thread; snowflakes caught in the path of the warship’s invisible UV laser.
Breaking out of the trance, the acolyte instructed the ring to access the enemy’s network.
Their intrusion countermeasures electronics were woefully ill-equipped to deal with the ring’s assault. It interfaced with their system wirelessly (the lightspeed delay negligible), granting itself unrestricted access, rewriting code as it went.
Moments later the warship underwent explosive decompression as all the airlocks opened in unison, leaving the crew gasping with collapsed lungs as the air inside the ship tried to fill the universe.
It appeared out of nowhere.
Like a cross between a lamprey and a fungus, rhythmically fanning gills, no space suit, gaudy colours and no eyes, looming over the acolyte.
It’s “face” exploded into a nest of writhing tentacles bristling with the branching bony digits of a tool user.
And every arm adorned with a copper band in the shape of an eel devouring its own tail.
Three thousand antiaircraft guns lit up the night sky.
Like the cheesey fireworks that always accompanied the Saddam song on the evening news, he thought sardonically.
Invisible stealth fighters rained death down upon Baghdad to a soundtrack of air raid sirens and muffled concussions.
The clock said 3:08AM. Jafar lifted the receiver again. Still no dial tone. He prayed that his mother had made it to one of the civilian bomb shelters.
Grateful for his student deferment, he thought of all those who were dying right that moment.
The battle transpired far too quickly for either biological combatant to perceive, faster than nerve impulses.
The Relics clashed. Waves of deformed spacetime crashed against a hastily erected scaffolding of non-baryonic matter, frothing and swelling in vacuum. A maelstrom of negative energy density fed by an inexhaustible supply of zero point energy. Water molecules disintegrated into their constituent atoms as ice crystals were violently swept up in tidal forces like those around a neutron star.
For every strategy there was a counter, parry - riposte, effectively cancelling each other out. A duel of savants.
The drawn-out dance continued for milliseconds.
After many failed attempts the ring finally managed to conjure a Lorentzian traversable wormhole into existence in the middle of the Anunnaki’s brain producing a fatal aneurysm. Simultaneously, acting in concert, the copper bands around the Anunnaki’s arms succeeded in severing the ring from the acolyte’s tentacle.
The acolyte flashed stark white in shock before losing consciousness. The self-healing materials in his suit sealed the rupture before he lost too much water, and his severed tentacle, along with the ring, tumbled into the gravity well of the smog-shrouded moon below.
He came to just in time to watch the frozen corpse of the Anunnaki burn up in the moon’s thick atmosphere. The water in his suit had become clouded with his own milky blue blood, smelling thickly of copper. He favored his mangled limb as he manipulated the controls for the maneuvering thrusters on his space suit, aiming for the pair of derelict ships fourteen kilometers away.