SECOND PLACE WINNER Submission by By Bryan Ericson
Heavy Weighs History's Burden (working title) Part 1 of 3
Introduction: this story takes place in three parts. The first occurs several years before the defeat of the Orion guardian. The second takes place in the days following the Guardian's destruction, and the third occurs many years later, just as the Antarans begin their takeover of the Orion sector. The following fiction covers approximately the first half of the first part of the story. It's a good bit longer than 6,000 words; sorry about that, but I wanted to get that last scene in, because I like it quite a bit. ;)
Part I: Draconis
Reilley cried out and squeezed his eyes shut. Hell exploded around him. A wall of blinding heat, bone-crushing light, and immovable thunder wrenched him from his seat and spun him through the cabin. He rebounded from bulkheads and collided against control surfaces, arms locked around his head and knees clenched against his chest. His face was burned and his eyes were blind. He screamed and gasped, but no air reached his lungs. The tiny amount of air in the ship had already boiled away into open space. He was drowning. Flaring panic forced his eyes open, but he could see nothing. He blinked and squinted, and realized he could see from the corners of his watering eyes.
His helmet; where was it? He turned his head from side to side, searched the small cabin with his limited vision. He saw a blurred sphere that could maybe be his helmet, and he pushed off towards it, but was thrown off course by a gravity that hadn't been there moments earlier. The ship is spinning, he realized.
His cheeks began to burn from the coldness that filled the cabin. He blew out the last of the stale air in his lungs and pulled himself across a bulkhead towards the sphere. Strange gravities tugged at him from all sides and he began to feel a warm detachment from lack of air. He saw his hand reach slowly out across a dreamy distance and grab the sphere. He pulled it to himself and turned it over. He was startled by his own warped reflection in the helmet's faceplace for a moment, then he lifted it and pulled it down over his head. The seals locked into place and his suit inflated itself. He breathed in. The dry, sterile air smelled sweet as a springtime rain. The rebreather echoed his own breath sounds, far away and faint through the ringing in his ears.
Reilley lay on his back for a moment. It hurt to breathe, and he wondered if one of his ribs was broken. The cabin of the ship was destroyed. Small globs of melted metals and plastics were stuck to bulkheads, or rolled and bounced in the shifting gravities. Corners were melted, and every surface was blackened. Near the stern, Reilley saw a spinning starfield through a breach in the hull; its edges still glowed a faint red. He staggered up onto his knees and looked for the breach's twin, and was surprised at the size of the rent in the zortrium hull. Here was where the Elerian beam had penetrated the ship. Reilley's scalp itched inside his helmet.
In the bright shifting starlight, a dark figure crouched and moved towards him. The Master Spy pulled himself along the bulkhead, swaying against the tides. He bent towards Reilley and signed, Are you hurt?
I'm OK, Reilley signed back. The Master Spy offered a gloved hand, a sign even older and more primitive than their hand signals. Reilley grasped it and rolled to his feet. The two made their careful way to the larger breach. The Master Spy pulled his apprentice to the very edge. Reilley looked down and saw the universe spinning beneath his feet. Draconis, little more than a bright blue point, rotated past. To one side of the planet, a brighter point moved relative to the spinning background: the Elerian patrol boat. The Master Spy pointed to it before it disappeared.
Automatically, Reilley began to count. He glanced up at the Master Spy. Pinpoints of reflected starlight danced across his faceplace. He counted twenty seconds before Draconis came back into view. The patrol craft was closer. It would arrive in minutes. The Master Spy dropped to his knees, waited for a few seconds, and swung down and out through the hole, timed perfectly so that the destroyed scout craft was between him and the Elerians.
Reilley knelt and waited. The stars marched by, and briefly he wondered if the Antaran attack fleet was visible; but no, the Antarans would not arrive for days. He forced his mind empty and watched for the patrol boat one final time. It spun into view, slid silently past, and Reilley dove out through the breach into empty space. He twisted and used the thrusters in this suit to stop himself near the Master Spy.
The stealth sheathing over the hull of the scout craft had bubbled and run like soft plastic. Reilley saw a second hole through the stern of the ship, near the engines. Lucky, he thought, the fuel units hadn't ruptured.
The pair turned to face each other. The Master Spy reached for his apprentice's hand and pulled him close. He leaned his head in, and their helmets tapped against each other.
"The Elerians will be here soon!" the Master Spy shouted. His voice was thin, almost as distant as the stars.
Reilley pushed his helmet tighter against his master's. "How did they find us!" he called back.
The Master Spy twisted himself, so that the flattened sides of their helmets were pressed together. "I don't know," he said. His voice was louder, closer, but echoed oddly as if he spoke inside a long, narrow room. "We must wait." He released Reilley from their embrace and they drifted apart.
Reilley closed his eyes and focused on himself. Breathe in, out, in, out, the rebreather echoed every breath. If one spent enough time in space, he reflected, the echo of the rebreather could become as wholly a part of oneself as a heartbeat. He opened his eyes again. The distant stars were painfully bright.
The wait was years long. Slowly, Reilley grew aware of a general brightness that filled the void about them. For a moment, he thought that Draconis had grown brighter, then realized the Elerians had arrived. They were directing a light on the far side of the dead, spinning stealth scout.
The Master Spy withdrew a cutting laser from a pouch in his suit. From another pouch, he withdrew an emergency bottle of compressed air and tossed it gently up and away. It's black casing was nearly invisible, and Reilley could see it only where it eclipsed the stars behind it. Then it passed up and out of the shadow and into the cone of light from the Elerian ship, and it was plain to see. Reilley squinted at it. One side of the bottle glowed red for an instant, and then it silently exploded. He caught a glimpse of two separate red beams, needle thin and painfully bright, as they passed through the expanding cloud of oxygen. The Elerians, he realized, had shot the bottle. Reilley patted the pouches of his own suit and realized he had nothing to use as a weapon.
The Master Spy groped for Reilley again and pressed his helmet onto his apprentice's. "There are at least two!" the Master Spy shouted. "Our attack must be swift! When I signal, grab the ship as it spins past you! I will hold you!" He pulled his helmet away. "Wait!" Reilley shouted, but the Master Spy waved his arms: go!
Reilley grabbed for an engine's rocket nozzle as it passed by. The jolt sent a shock of pain through his shoulders, but tightened his grip and did not let go. He felt the weight of the Master Spy, arms wrapped around his ankles, as they whipped around into the glare from the Elerian ship. The suit filtered the glare, and he saw three tall, thin figures in ornate, armored space suits. Two of them were manipulating a bulky machine towards the scout craft, but the third was close, almost to the stealth scout. His arms trembled and his grip began to slip.
The Master Spy's weight vanished, and he looked down in time to see the Master Spy twisting in the spotlight, aiming the cutting laser in the direction of the two Elerians. He looked up again and saw the surprised expression on the blue-tinted elfin face of the third Elerian through her visor, and then he was past her, spinning around into the dark again. The passage through the dark lasted a handful of seconds. Reilley listened to the pounding of his own heart until he swung back into the light. One of the pair of Elerians floated in a limp underwater dance, a still-glowing hole burned neatly through the center of her armored space suit; the other had a small weapon aimed in the direction of the Master Spy, who fired the cutting laser from near the nose of the Elerian craft. The third Elerian spun into view, and Reilley stared down the length of her arm as she raised her weapon towards him.
Instinct took over; Reilley tucked his legs and twisted his torso to avoid the shot. The force imparted by his spin made his feet impossibly heavy. The muscles in his abdomen clenched and he grunted into his space suit. He watched with perfect clarity as the Elerian pulled the trigger, her narrowed blue eyes in the background, framed by her helmet. The beam burned a hole through his calf muscle. He grunted again, but the sound was lost in his suit's screaming alarm. He felt his grip weaken, felt the bumpy, melted metal slide through the thin layers of his suit, and clenched his fists with all his strength. The inside of the helmet went dark and silent as the suit diverted all its attention to repairing itself, and his vision went dark as he passed into shadow again.
The thought went through his head that his life was now measured in seconds, and he felt his grip loosen again. He shouted into his helmet, but he was the only one to hear it. He needed cover. His legs were the weight of mountains, but terror forced his knees up to his chest. Holding on by fingertips, he swung himself up into the nozzle just as he passed into the light of the Elerian ship again. He pushed himself down against the slick zortrium plating, tried to guess when the Elerian would rotate past again. Wait, he thought to himself into the silence, wait...
He pushed off, erupted out of the nozzle. The Elerian's shot passed centimeters above him; she had held the trigger down, waiting for him to pass around through the beam. She swung her arm down, but not in time; his helmet struck her chest and she spun backwards. Her feet came up and struck his thighs, and Reilley grabbed her around her waist with one arm and caught the weapon in the other as she brought it down towards him. He struggled with her, and he forced the weapon inwards towards her chest. A trained member of a warrior clan, she could not match his raw, desperate strength.
The weapon touched the Elerian's chest, and Reilley coldly noted that the beam would not harm him when it passed through her body. He glanced up, looked through the Elerian's visor and into her eyes, and nearly let go of her. He recalled shouting and jumping on a beach and swimming in a purple sea with her sisters, her mother's burning, fierce pride on the eve of her initiation into the clan, the awe she felt the first time she saw her homeworld suspended against the veil of stars. The pounding of her heart mixed in his ears with the pulse of his own, and felt her sudden terrible, shameful stab of doubt about whether heaven really existed. Through their suits, he heard her faraway, fearful cry. She trembled, and he pulled the trigger. Her back arched and her legs kicked his chest.
The beam, hot and needle thin, boiled her organs as it passed through her. Her eyes opened wide and Reilley turned his head. He pulled the weapon away and a small blue jet of vaporized blood puffed through the hole in her armor. Her suit began to expand from the internal pressure, and the Reilley unwrapped himself and pushed her away. He thrust off towards the patrol craft. The other two Elerians floated limp beside their machine. He looked back once and saw the Elerian's body tumbling away into the darkness, arms and legs waving without grace or dignity.
His leg was numb where he had been wounded. He looked down, saw the suit was still trying to close the hole. A small repair kit resided in a pouch; he pulled it out and pressed a patch around his calf. The suit returned to life, his leg began to warm, and pain began to flow like melting wax. The suit injected his leg with painkillers, and Reilley began to relax. His thundering heart began to slow, and he looked for his master.
The Master Spy was floating near the bulk of machinery between the two floating Elerians. He held the helmet of the nearest Elerian. Her short, dark hair flapped about her face as if she stood in a light breeze. The Master Spy finished with the helmet, flung it away, and turned to the machine. It was a portable salvage device, a common machine used by many races. The Master Spy touched its control panel and pushed off towards the Elerian patrol boat as the machine began to thrust away into the dark. The two Elerians, tethered to the machine, were jerked along behind it. It anchored itself to the spinning scout ship with a green-tinted tractor beam as it passed, and the four shapes faded slowly out of the cone of light into the dark.
Reilley grabbed a handhold on the surface of the Elerian ship. The hull was crossed by dark streaks and covered with red warnings and symbols; the Elerian equivalent of "No Step". He pulled himself across the hull and through the open airlock. The Master Spy joined him a minute later, and closed the airlock behind him. The cabin began to pressurize, and the two spies removed their helmets. The interior of the patrol craft was nearly empty, with only two seats for the pilots in the small cabin at the bow and a row of troop harnesses along the port and starboard bulkheads at the stern.
Reilley bent and unsealed his boot. His calf throbbed and burned, and he saw a long blackened cavity in his calf muscle when he rolled up the leg of his suit up to inspect his wound.
"Not so bad," the Master Spy said. His voice was soft and liquid. "Here." He withdrew a small canister of synthetic flesh and sprayed some into the wound. It was frigid and Reilley flinched. It expanded like a thick pink foam to fill the cavity. It was made of a protein gel, and would act as raw material for Reilley's body to draw on as it healed itself.
Reilley watched the Master Spy's face as he straightened. It rippled and shifted and changed color slightly, possibly indicating agitation or exhaustion. He had not been with his master long enough to completely recognize all the Darlok's moods.
"You did well," the Master Spy said. "I did not see the third. She would have killed me."
Reilley nodded at the compliment and said nothing for a moment. Then, "How did they detect the ship?"
"I cannot understand it, either. There was no male to focus their minds, and their scanners could not penetrate the stealth sheathing. Perhaps they became lucky. I have seen it happen before." He shrugged inside his suit. "It is good to know that they cannot contact our minds, or they would have known our hiding place."
"No," Reilley shook his head, "the protection isn't complete." He ran his fingers through his hair, felt the bumps and ridges of the device beneath his scalp that theoretically shielded his mind from Elerian telepathy. He described the last moments of his struggle with the Elerian warrior. His voice wavered. "I lived her final thoughts with her."
The Darlok bared his teeth. "Perhaps her fear gave her strength," he said. "This is useful information to know. We must avoid any close contact."
Reilley squinted at the Master Spy but said nothing. The mission was over; there would be no further contact with any Elerians. Without the stealth scout, Draconis was unapproachable.
The Master Spy pushed into the cabin of the patrol boat and positioned himself to examine the control surfaces. They were covered with hundreds of buttons and switches, each marked in faintly glowing Elerian script. Several viewscreens displayed various views from the exterior of the patrol craft. One of them, the stealth scout, still spinning within the grasp of the tractor, faded from view. Reilley watched his master as he traced each label with a long finger, the way a child reads a story book.
"I cannot control this craft," the Master Spy said. "Our only option is to summon help." He reached out a long, narrow finger and brushed a control surface. Several indicators began to flash red. "One of the incoming fleets will take us to our destination."
"But..." Reilley began. If an Elerian battle fleet answered their distress signal, they would be discovered and put to death. The Elerians had little love for spies.
"They will not find us immediately," the Master Spy said. He drifted into the troop compartment and halted himself opposite Reilley. "This ship will hide our life signs, and our minds are also hidden." He rubbed the top of his head. "The Elerians are not a curious people, my friend," he said. "And they are concerned with the Antarans. They will not investigate until after we have escaped." The Master Spy turned and began to strap himself to the bulkhead. "For now, there is nothing to do but wait." He fastened tightened the straps to his harness. "Wait," he said. He withdrew his data unit and began to tap its control surfaces.
Reilley wondered how the Master Spy planned to escape, but said nothing. He nodded and reached for his own harness. Secured to the bulkhead, he felt himself begin to relax, but the failure of the mission bothered him. They were to have approached Draconis only hours before the Antaran attack in the stealth scout, landed near their target as the attack began. As the Antarans destroyed the main Elerian fleet and bombed the surface, he and the Master Spy would infiltrate a minor research lab and duplicate all data on their objective. Physical security was weak, because the Elerians depended on their telepathy for detecting intruders; with shielded minds and disguised by the confusion of the Antaran attack, the mission had a high probability of success. But the plan was destroyed as plainly as the stealth scout vessel. The Trilarians had no means to extract them, and the Elerians would not bargain for spies.
Reilley wondered, not for the first time, whether it had been a wise idea to work for Trilarian intelligence. They hired spies from other races because the bulky machinery needed for them to live outside their watery environment was impossible to conceal, but they had little infrastructure to support a large network. A good deal of their intelligence data was faulty, and Reilley wondered how some of it was obtained. Their objective on Draconis was information on a portable timewarp facilitator designed for use by combat infantry, and Reilley often wondered why the Elerians would need such a device; they were able to mind-control entire populations and had no need for such a device. The Trilarian intelligence data made no sense to Reilley.
Reilley looked across the hold at the Master Spy. His head was bowed down, his data unit absorbed him. The Master Spy was the most able being Reilley had ever encountered. He was possessed of a ruthless competence, and his skill at penetrating alien computer systems was the closest thing to legend that Reilley had ever known. His operational plans were detailed to the extreme, wrapped layers deep in contingency planning, but he would not hesitate to abandon them if they became unworkable. He was, in Reilley's opinion, the perfect infiltrator. Why would someone with his unique abilities work for a second-rate intelligence organization?
Reilley let his thoughts run away, and he fell into a daydream. In it, he had run away from home and become a farmer on a tiny, insignificant world far from the warring races. He raised crops and sold them in a market in a small town. During the winter, he repaired small items brought to him by his distant neighbors and played games with his wife at night. The dream deepened and he fell into a light doze.
The Master Spy disturbed Reilley's dream. "The wait was less than I expected," he announced. Reilley raised his head and looked towards the control ship's control panels. One of the exterior views of the patrol craft caught his attention. It showed dozens of small starships drawing near, and further behind was a battleship. The shadows cast by the smaller ships on the hull of the battleship were tiny dots; one of them could have flown into the gaping maw of its main weapon. The frigates drew abreast and passed by, but the battleship slowed. Reilley found his mouth was suddenly dry. The battleship drew nearer until it filled the entire display screen, and still it came on. Portions of the behemoth appeared on other display screens. The inside of the patrol boat began to resonate within the fields projected by the battleship as it grew closer.
A squawk of static erupted from the communication console, followed by a query in a musical Elerian voice. The voice paused, then repeated its question. Reilley and the Master Spy glanced at each other. A minute passed, then the patrol craft jolted as its engines fired. Reilley jumped, then realized the battleship had taken control of the smaller craft. He watched as the patrol boat was maneuvered into a bay in the side of the battleship. The hull rang as the craft docked, and the engines rumbled down to sleep. A faint hiss reached the spies as the bay filled with air, and the hull popped as the outside pressure grew.
Reilley held his breath. For many long moments, nothing happened. The viewscreens showed the sterile bay around them was empty. He heard a low rumble from beyond the patrol boat's hull. Still the viewscreens showed no Elerian troops approaching the craft.
At once, gravity asserted itself, and Reilley's arms were wrenched upward by his harness as he fell. He disentangled himself and stood. Pain from his calf raced up his leg, and he slid down the bulkhead to the deck. The distant hum increased and grew closer as the battleship's engines powered up.
"We are on our way to Draconis," the Master Spy said. Reilley looked at him, but he sat on the deck hunched again over his data unit, staring intently at the display screen. Reilley pushed himself into a corner and sat with his back against the wall as the battleship's huge engines powered up.
[ CONTINUED... Part 2 ]