Been a while, so let’s have a look at M’s prompts. I used to do a lot of these and want to do more this year. This one is from January, but I liked the title, and have been dabbling for many months meaning to get to it. If you’re reading it now I guess I finished it. Kind of. TBH I just wanted it out of my drafts. I think the idea is an interesting one, just lost momentum along the way. Anyway, it’s a draft but as far as I am going with it – it is done. Woohoo.
The Expatria drifted slowly through the inky black of space, Jupiter’s shadow cast across her massive bulk as she rounded the pale moon of Europa and engaged her sub light drives. At over five million tonnes she was the largest of the Heavy Weight Class ships to leave the Martian shipyards, and she was bigger even than the Federal battle cruisers that patrolled the region.
Even in the dark of space she seemed to spark and flicker as light struck the long curves or her upper decks, her gigantic storage tanks buried deep within the bulge at her centre and lower sections waiting to be filled. The distinctive yellow and black Martian livery marked her unmistakably as a Dreamlifter, and as she slowed the small fleet of support vessels about her sprung into life, preparing her for action.
The bridge sat high on the front of the ship, three sides open to the dark of space, and standing on the deck looking out across the surface of the moon, Captain Staines issued his orders calmly.
“Bring her around ten degrees to moon side, nice and easy, ensign. And keep up 10 miles above surface.”
“Yes sir,” came the response from somewhere behind him, and he felt the ship turn slowly, almost imperceptibly. But with 25 years on these birds he could feel her every movement in his bones.
“Engineering, what’s our status?” Staines asked.
Behind him, there were thirty crew sat at long arrays of display banks, arranged in three rows that ran the width of the bridge. Pale green light flickered across their faces as the ship continued to move slowly then came to a halt, hanging above the moon surface.
An angular featured, thick set engineer, his yellow EngCore colours displayed in thick flashes on the shoulders of his dark blue uniform looked up from his display.
“Captain, readouts confirm that all systems are green-for-go, and we are now within harness range of the spike,” he said. His voice boomed across the bridge like approaching thunder and a passing service robot scuttled for cover.
The feint hum of the sub light engines filled the air as they held the Expatria in place against the massive gravitational pull of Jupiter in the distance, the slow hypnotic swirl of the planet’s surface distracting him while the crew waited on his orders. She was a thing of true beauty, and something to be feared if you were foolish enough to stray too close to her.
“Engineering, initiate harness protocols and prepare for harvest.” Staines said, turning back towards the crew. “Time to go to work.”
Barnabas threw a boot across the cabin at Lafayette as she stirred in her bunk.
“Hey, come on!” he shouted as she rolled over, swearing into her pillow. “We’re green, and we need to get our arses in gear.”
Lafayette opened her eyes slowly, and instinctively reached for the bottle next to her bed, noted it was empty and let it fall to the floor as she sat up, tossing the boot back across the room.
“Eat my balls,” she said swinging her legs out of bed and into her her boots.
“Nice,” said Barnabus, “you talk to your mother with that mouth?”
“Thoughts of what I do with my mouth should never even enter your head,” she said, rubbing her eyes and running her fingers through her long dark hair, pulling it into a tight pony tail. “We got a confirmed spike?” She asked.
“Big one apparently,” Barnabus answered as Lafayette got to her feet. She straightened the red overall she had fallen asleep in the night before and pulled the black belt tight around her narrow waist.
“What we waiting for then?” She said, brushing past Barnabus and stooping down to pass through the low cabin doorway.
Barnabus smiled and set off after her. She was one hell of a drinker, but she was an even better harpoon operator, one of the best, and talk was that there was a big one out there.
The clank of boots on steel echoed as they passed the rough the long, dimly lit corridor that ran from the crew quarters low on the stern of the Expatria. On each side service routes branched off and snaked throughout the bowels of the ship, and it was down one of these that Barnabus and Lafayette headed.
“So exactly how big are we talking?” Asked Lafayette without looking back at Barnabus who trailed behind.
“A Neptune event big, apparently,” replied Barnabus, “maybe even bigger. It has be something special to bring us this close to the planet, I reckon.”
Lafayette smiled to herself. Big haul meant big pay, and the Guild paid the best rates in the sector. They held a tight grip on the shipping lanes that crisscrossed the galaxy, and they couldn’t do this without controlling the dark matter that fuelled the faster then light engines that made crossing such huge distances possible.
“And who else is on duty, have they said?” She asked.
Barnabus hurried to catch her up. She had a competitive streak for sure, in fact it was more than just a streak, it was a compulsion to be the best and when you were trying to harness pure dark matter it helped to be motivated.
“It’s you, Jones and Metlichok,” Barnabus answered. “And me and Zulu on radar.”
Lafayette bristled as she slowed and looked back at Barnabus, who was now a little breathless as he struggled to keep up with her.
“Christ, are you fucking kidding me!” Lafayette snapped. “Those jokers nearly got me toasted at Caloris Basin. Jones is a bag of nerves and Metlichock doesn’t give a shit about anything the money. It makes him reckless.” She scrolled through the display on her watch, checking the ship comms for details of who was on duty on the bridge. “I need to see Staines. Is he on deck?”
“And how do you think that will go down exactly?” Barnabus asked. “This thing is big, big time big, and like them or not they get the job done. There are millions of cubes of DM, just waiting to be ‘pooned and you can’t play nicely with the other children. Not a good look on you, you know.”
Lafayette knew Barnabus was right, they wouldn’t change the crew, and this made her angrier still.
“Well they can still eat my balls,” she snapped.
Barnabus grinned. “You seem rather obsessed with having your non existent balls eaten you know.”
“They’re metaphorical, thank you very much. Metaphorical balls. Big hairy ones.”
“Even so, you know, you really do seem very keen to…”
“Okay, enough, enough,” snapped Lafayette, pushing through a set of heavy double doors, “let’s just go to work shall we.”
Barnabus smiled as he followed her through the doors into the wide, low room ahead. “Okay, if you insist.”
“Are we ready to engage?” Captain Staines asked as the Expatria hung above the surface of the moon, her huge shadow cast across the surface. He looked unusually nervous, and strode back and forth across the bridge, his hands his hands dug deep into his jacket pockets.
“All service online and ready to proceed Captain,” came a voice from behind him. “Estimated haul…”
There was a pause and the voice trailed away, a tone of disbelief left hanging in the air.
“Yes?” Prompted Staines
“Sir, it’s of the charts. Readings spiking all over the place.”
Staines turned slowly and faced the room. The dim light of the computer banks lit the pale faces of the crew that sat behind them.
“Is there a problem Ensign?” The captain asked, his voice prickling with frustration. He needed this haul, it was critical to the success of their mission and the Shipping Guild were on the comms hourly asking for updates.
“No sir,” the Ensign replied, “Ive just never seen anything like this.”
Staines fixed him with a stare and waited.
“Sorry sir, no problems reported, we are ready to engage.”
“Then do it.”
The Ensign punched in release codes and a red light lit up the room. A ship wide alert barked out. ‘Extraction protocols live. All hands to stations.’
“Thank you Ensign,” said the Captain. “Comms, send a message to the Guild and inform them harpooning has commenced.”
A wiry haired operator responded sharply. “Yes sir,” he said, looking up, and then returned to his screen, fingers flashing across the flat panel in front of him.
As he punched the ‘transmit’ button all hell broke loose.
In an instant, the Expatria was rocked sideways, and Captain Staines was thrown across the deck and send crashing to the floor against an instrument array that sat raised to the side of the bridge. A screaming whine filled the air as the sub light drives fought to right the ship and lights flashed and flickered as the crew were tossed from their positions and strewn across the brdge.
Horror flashed across Staines’ face as he fought to gain his footing, leaning against the console against which he’d been thrown.
“What the hell was that!” He shouted as a second shudder ran through the ship. A mix of alarms and shouting rent the air as the crew scrambled to regain their positions.
“Massive overload!” Shouted an ashen faced engineer. “Tanks at 98%. Auxillary hold engaged. Integrity steady but outlet manifolds under sever stress Captain.”
Staines scrambled over to his chair on the opposite end of the deck and threw himself into it, pulling the harness straps tight over his shoulders.
“Get me Lafayette on comms now! He barked. “And put radar on heads up. I need information.”
A holoscreen appeared in mid air about a metre in front of where Stanines sat. It flickered for a moment and then the flustered face of Barnabus appeared on it, no longer sporting it’s usual broad smile.
“What the fuck is going on down there?” Stains demanded.
A control panel behind Barnabus sparked and cracked, lights flickering and the hiss of escaping steam mixed with the shouts and cries in the background.
“It’s a Beluga sir,” shouted Barnabus over the din, “a huge one sir, like nothing I’ve seen before, and it’s pissed.”
Captain Staines shook his head. As critical as the ‘pooners were, their superstitions, folklore and spiritual view of dark matter defied all sense or logic, and he knew better than to diminish the very thing that seemed to allow them to harness it.
“Just tell me what you’re seeing, Barnabus,” Staines said calmly.
Barnabus flinched as a heat duct came crashing down and collapsed behind him.
“This thing is after us Sir, from the minute I locked on and issued coordinates to Lafayette it was like it knew we were here and it came straight for us. We didn’t need to try and hit it – it came to us.”
Staines took a deep breath. “Have you unlocked targeting?” He asked. “Have we disengaged.”
“Yes Sir,” Barnabus shouted in terror, his eyes were wide and Staines could see him shaking. “But it’s still after us Sir. It’s a Beluga Sir, and it’s still coming down the system, I can see it, I can feel it!”
There was a loud scream from somewhere behind Barnabus and the screen fizzed and went black. The Expatria rocked and a cacophony of alarms sounded. Staines unstrapped himself from the chair and stumbled towards a door that lead from the bridge.
“Keep her steady!” He shouted and he pushed through the doors. “And keep all channels open on me. I’m going below deck.”
Lafayette righted herself from where she lay on the floor, her head was spinning and there was the metallic taste of blood in her mouth. A searing pain shot up her right leg as she got to her feet and looking down she could see the blood seeping through her coveralls.
“Barnabus! Barnabus!” She shouted. Everywhere was thick with steam and smoke, and the sparking radar consoles threw red and orange shadows across the room. Small fires crackled and hissed and there was a pungent smell of melted rubber in the air.
Barnabus didn’t respond. She called out for Jones and Metlichok, but again, no answer. She tapped the comms piece in her ear, but there was only a feint crackle of static.
“Christ, where are they,” she said leaning against the radar console. It was somehow still functioning, and the usually green screen was awash with the small white streaks that indicated dark matter. Usually there would be a couple at most, but now…well now, there was very little else.
All she could remember was being told it was a big one, and Barnabus looking terrified and then….Nothing. Just this. This complete and total shit show. Lafayette attempted to move in the general direction of the thick double doors that guarded the harpoon bays, but pain flooded through her and she stumbled forward, collapsing once more onto the floor. Her head was spinning and there was a darkness in the periphery of her vision. Realising she was losing consciousness she attempted to drag herself to the door, a thick streak of blood trailing behind her.
Reaching out a hand through the smoke, she grabbed the leg of what she guessed to be one of the heavy tables that stood either side of the entrance doors. Her fingers were bloodied and her breathing was heavy.
“Over here,” came a voice. A familiar voice. It was calm and kind.
“Barnabus!” Lafayette shouted. “Barnabus, where are you. I’m hurt, I can’t…”
“This way, just a little further,” it said, “keep coming towards my voice.”
“Where are you?” Lafayette said, panicked. She was dizzy from the pain and everything now seemed so very dark.
“Just a little more,” said the voice again. “It will all be over soon.” She could hear it, it sounded like Barnabus, but there was something different, she wasn’t so much hearing it as feeling it deep inside her, resonating.
Lafayette pulled herself forward and dragged herself upright using the leg of the table, and sat up against it, breathing heavily. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, though in the smoke it was hard to be certain. She knew it hurt like hell though, and she knew she had lost a lot of blood by the thick red trail she had left across the floor.
“Are you ready?” The voice asked.
“It’s time. It’s over,” the voice continued, “it’s time to join us.”
Before her, the smoke cleared, and Lafayette felt cold creep over her skin. Small pinpricks of light swirled before her, soon joined by more, dancing and flitting back and forth. Her breath misted as she breathed heavily, and slowly the lights took a familiar form. It was Barnabus, formed by the shimmering lights. His eyes were dark, and as he reached out a hand she felt the cold seep deep into her bones.
Lafayette struggled, but she was powerless to move, and as the sparkling hand touched her shoulder she felt her lungs fill with suffocating cold, like she was drowning. She looked down and watched with silent horror as her legs began to turn to dazzling specks of light.
“Come home now, Lafayette,” said the shape before her, thin silvery lips smiling at her. “It’s over now.”
As Captain Staines crashed through the doors, Lafayette screamed, a desperate silent scream, and as she raised a hand before her face he watched as she dissolved into starlight before him, and then, in a moment, she was gone. In a final crescendo of existence, her light swirled high up into the room, hanging from the ceiling and then, it tumbled slowly downwards, settling on the bloodied floor around him like fine snow on a still winter morning.
For a while he just stood there, motionless, heart racing. The room was cold and dark, it was silent, and it was empty. As he stared to where Lafayette had sat only seconds before, the silence was broken by the sudden clicking of fans kicking into life as the ventilation system came online, and the room quickly cleared of smoke as it was sucked from the room.
A small ping sounded behind him and he turned to where one of the radar bays still glowed green. White lights moved across it, darting and swirling back and forth and as he watched they formed a familiar pattern. It was Lafayette, unmistakable.
He reached to touch the screen and the image flickered for a moment, a thin smile across her face. He knew she could see him, just as he could see her, and then again , for one final time, she was gone.
High above the Moon of Europa the Calista circled the wreckage of the Expatria as she drifted slowly in her lifeless orbit, a mile long gash in her side a reminder of the explosion in her tanks that had ended the lives of so many.
From his vantage point on the deck Captain Staines looked down on the graveyard of a ship he had once commanded. Even now, years later, the nightmare of those final moments still haunted him. His nights were filled with the silent screams of the thousands that had perished in the cold of space as he watched, helpless, from the small round window of the lifeboat.
“Are we ready to engage, Ensign?” He asked, his voice wavering.
“Yes Sir, all systems green-to-go.”
“Radar, please confirm status,” he prompted as he turned in his chair to his holo screen.
“Yes sir,” came an enthusiastic reply. The operator was young, barely out his teens, and Staines could feel the excitement in his voice.
“Engage,” ordered Staines. His stomach lurched.
Red lights flashed across the bridge and the hum of the harpoon’s cycling up could be felt throughout the ship. Staines switched his screen to monitor the radar and watched as the small pinpricks of light on the screen blinked out, one by one, and the monstrous containment tanks began to fill slowly.
“All systems normal,” sounded a confirmation from the arrayed banks behind him. “Tanks at 15% and rising. Pressure levels normal.”
Staines breathed heavily, his focus on the screens as the tanks continued to fill.
As the gauges continued to creep slowly upwards across the screen there was a brief flicker on the radar, and then another.
“Radar, report,” he ordered.
“All systems normal Sir,” came the response.
“Engineering, report,” Staines said, sitting upright in his chair and pulling his shoulder straps tight.
“All systems normal sir, containment at 100 percent. No anomalies present.”
Staines continued to watch the screen. It flickered again.
“Radar, report!” He demanded.
“Sir, all systems normal. She’s a big one, but nothing we haven’t seen before Sir.”
“Engin….” Staines’ voice trailed away as the screen flashed from green to an incandescent white. Brilliant pinpricks danced and swirled before his eyes. At first they were random, a confusion of brilliance, and then slowly they began to take shape.
Staines tried to speak but his voice was caught n his throat. He felt unable to move as before his eyes, there on the screen was a face he had seen is his dreams every night. It smiled at him, like a long lost friend, eyes full of wonder and compassion, and then, as the gauges on the side of the screen continued to rise a pained expression crept across her face. The pain turned to a contorted grimace and she mouthed silent exhortations, the remnants of long lost fingers clawing at the edges of the screen.
“Tanks at 50% Sir, anomaly 99% harnessed,” came a confirmation from a dark haired Ensign sat off to his right. “Initiating shut down protocols.”
Her eyes now wild, Lafayette stared out at him, her empty mouth wide in a pained grimace. Tears spilled from her eyes and ran down her starlit cheeks as the hum of the harpoon’s fell silent and slowly, pinprick by silvery pinprick, her image faded from the screen and all that remained was the pale green glow of the radar.
Lafayette, she had come home at last.