Disclaimer: This stories contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|Pandora's Innocence||Part I
"Faster! We're almost there!" Sabrin Payne's voice echoed sharply through the long corridors as he dragged his best friend Tallas Anderholt by the wrist through the long corridor as fast as their aching legs could carry them. His normally bright blue eyes were dull and shadowed by lack of sleep, his dark brown hair matted and unkept, his clothes torn and stained by the street. Tallas looked much worse; a cut on his forehead had left a messy streak of dark red in his otherwise dusky blonde hair. His fair skin was sallow and he was wincing visibly with every step.
Behind them he could just discern the rapid footsteps and veiled voices of their pursuers, drawing closer.
Only three days ago, they had been two unremarkable 22-year-olds living in the city of Raal-Dakhir, the domed capital of Astral-Ishasa, finishing their first year at the Imperial Fleet Academy. Both were orphans, and as with most such children they had accepted indoctrination into the Orion Imperial Guard at the age of 14. Long ago the politicians of the Orion Empire came to recognize that individuals without familial connections were more...malleable than most and implemented the programs to "encourage" their entry into the armed forces. As for the children, growing up within the impersonal confines of state wards without the resources and credentials of their parents to back them, the Imperial Guard held an undeniable attraction against a life of menial labor and obscurity.
Although Sabrin and Tallas dreamed together of reaching the stars and escaping their paltry lives at the ward, Sabrin excelled at the training programs while Tallas struggled. It was not that he was physically incapable, but his inability to concentrate on schoolwork and his tacit resistance to authority ensured that he could never ascend the rigid Imperial hierarchy. It was therefore surprising when both of them were placed on the officer track. Tallas knew that Sabrin concealed his surprise as a friend, but he himself wondered how that could have occurred. He experienced no miraculous increase of ability over the next year, but with Sabrin's consistent help he managed to fare not too badly.
Everything changed on the late night when they celebrated the conclusion of their last exams at their favorite restaurant in the city. Walking home on the nearly empty streets, Sabrin paused briefly to make a call and Tallas walked out slightly ahead to an intersection. Looking around, he noticed a small plain envelope on the sidewalk. Curiosity compelled him to pick it up. The top was torn open, and inside Tallas found a small datadisc. Maybe somebody would've reported it lost, he thought. Maybe there'll be a reward. He smiled a little; they were always scraping for spending money.
"Hey, what's that?" Sabrin asked as he caught up to his friend.
"I dunno. It was on the sidewalk," Tallas replied, putting the disc in his coat pocket.
"You're taking it with you?" Sabrin asked, not really objecting. The two of them fell back in step towards his dorm room. Since his assigned roommate had moved out of the room some months back the two of them had studied there frequently, falling asleep together more than once. Tonight though they were looking forward to some illicit alcohol and not taking the anti-intoxicants until morning.
The shrill tone of the communicator was like a pneumatic drill inside his skull. Groaning, Sabrin pushed his weary body into a sitting position and checked the time. "0715 hours -- the sun's not even up yet," he muttered under his breath, glaring at the intrusive machine responsible for the pain in his head. Behind him, Tallas made some incoherent noise and flipped onto his stomach, drawing the sheets over his head. Sabrin walked to the monitor and pressed the 'receive' button. The static-filled image of Miranna Yuko appeared on the small wall-mounted screen. She lived a few floors up in Tallas' dorm complex and was a specialist in information systems.
"Mira? You know what time it is?" Sabrin complained.
"Where the fuck's Tal? They're crawlin' all over looking for him!" Miranna whispered in an urgent voice. She looked around her furtively, as though she were afraid of something.
"He's still asleep. We went to bed late last night." Sabrin said groggily.
Under ordinary circumstances Miranna would've jumped at that opening, but this time she didn't even bat an eye. "The Imperial police are here! They've sealed the building and searching floor by floor; roundin' everybody up, interrogating them about Tal. I'm hiding this signal in a maintenance feed but they'll get here any second now."
The severity of the situation began to reach through to Sabrin. He noticed Miranna's disheveled clothes and unkept hair, a far cry from her usual carefully manicured perfection.
"You two have to get out of here! As chummy as the two of you are somebody's gonna tell them about you, and then they'll be batterin' down your door! I don't know what the fuck he did but there's some serious shit going down here!" Miranna looked at something beside the screen. "Fuck, I'm losing the signal. Get out Sabrin! Take him and--" the line went dead.
At that moment Sabrin saw a police cruiser appear across the quad, followed by two more. A cold sweat broke out over his body as he leapt back to the bed and practically dragged a confused Tallas out of bed. He ransacked the dresser drawers, tossing clothes at his friend. "H...hey! What's gotten into you? What time is it?" Tallas protested.
"Tal we have to get out of here! The police are coming!" Sabrin yelled while frantically putting on his clothes. Thankfully he was nearly the same size as Tallas and so mixing clothes was not a problem.
"Police? What're you talking about?"
"They've sealed off Lakadia. They'll be here any minute. Why're you just sitting there?! Move!" Sabrin's outburst startled Tallas into numb action.
"Wait, wait...this can't be happening. You're joking, right?" Tallas asked in disbelief.
"Does it look like I'm joking?! Grab some extra clothes." Sabrin rushed around apartment and stuffed anything he thought could be useful into his backpack. "What the fuck are you waiting for?! Go!" he shouted at Tallas.
"But what..." Tallas' mouth went dry when he saw an Imperial patrol cutter descending through the sky outside. "Well m...maybe we can just turn ourselves in. They'll understand--"
"Tal." Sabrin interrupted Tallas' babbling, his eyes confirming what they both knew. If this was so serious that they were bringing in Imperial Guard units the inquisitors would never believe that the two of them were innocent. Even if they were exonerated of the accusation, whatever it was, they would be branded for life anywhere in the Orion Empire. "Grab whatever gear you can find," he tossed Tallas his backpack.
Five minutes later the two dazed young men were charging down the stairs, taking the steps three and four at a time. Their footsteps sounded like thunder richoceting off the confined walls. They took one of the side entrances, facing the small park which occupied one corner of the campus.
As they were stumbling deeper into the wooded path, Tallas dared a look back at his unravelling life. A number of men in the gray Imperial Guard uniforms were gathering at the dorm's front facade. Shortly they will discover their absence from their room and that they had left in a hurry, and then the hunt will begin. Tallas felt like someone else, witnessing this drama play out from a detached perspective like a movie. His dark brown eyes were wide open, darting from sight to sight like a butterfly in a field of flowers. He had a feeling everything he saw now would be for the last time.
The next three days were a living nightmare, as the two of them raced ahead of the Imperial police through the tangled warrens of the inner city. Once they left the relatively open area of campus it became easier to hide, but their margin ahead was dwindling and their bodies were showing the strain. They had barely slipped past the last checkpoint at the spaceport gates by stowing away in some cargo containers, but Tallas had taken a grazing stunner hit when they were discovered and were forced to flee into the utility sectors. The charge of potent energy had left a charred burn on his back and its fire was spreading wider across the left side of his body. The spaceport held the slim chance that they could find their way onto an outbound vessel. Both of them knew that it was their last hope; the citywide scanners would soon be calibrated to their subdermal ID chips and then there would be nowhere they could hide for long.
But, amidst all the interference in the spaceport they still had something of a chance. Their hands and knees were bruised from crawling through the maze of utility corridors, whose walls were heavily shielded to allow access even during disaster. Then they had snuck through the catwalks near the dock power manifolds, hazarding the radiation for it masked their signals, and barely managing to avoid the search teams. Now finally, they were making a run for the closest of the twelve docking bays.
Sabrin's chest hurt from being short of breath and his vision was blurry from exhaustion, but he never lost his grip on Tallas' wrist as the two of them kept their unsteady run down the stark metal corridor. Twice their stumbling feet sent them sprawling onto the floor, but somehow one or the other dragged them both up through the shooting pain and they would start forward again. Tallas was visibly suffering from the stunner hit, his movements growing more uncoordinated and dragging.
"Go on ahead by yourself," Tallas had said to him the previous day after a particularly close call near a mass transit hub. "I'm the one they want. I'll delay them long enough so you can get away."
Sabrin's only response was "Don't be stupid," before he dragged them both on.
Now, his tired body slumped against the reinforced hatch to the docking bay and his grasping hands found the release latch. The hiss of the armored doors opening was like a sigh of relief to Sabrin's ears, and the two of them staggered onto the glass-enclosed catwalk stretching through the middle of the cavernous bay.
Looking around him, Sabrin saw only three spacecraft berthed along both sides of the catwalk. He cursed to himself as he saw two 250-meter Imperial destroyers, their armored hulls gleaming in the harsh floodlights. The other vessel was relatively small and ovoid, bearing markings he didn't recognize. Arm over each other's shoulders, they struggled to the extensible connecting bridge. Sabrin heard the voices of their pursuers growing louder and more excited behind them. Releasing a coughing and wheezing Tallas, who slid to the floor clutching his injured side, Sabrin looked over the external airlock controls, trying desperately to clear his mind and recall the endless hours he spent in those space sims and pouring over procedural manuals. Almost all human interstellar vessels shared basic control sequences for ease of translation in foreign ports. Sabrin's trembling fingers flew over the colored touch-buttons, trying one combination after another. If he could just trigger the emergency protocols...
"They're in this bay sir," a faint voice from the hatch. Come on damn it! Sabrin cursed in his mind as the airlock refused to open. Please, please, his mind pled for the both of them as tears rose to his eyes.
Suddenly the inner and outer airlock doors slid open, startling them both. "They're at the farship!" The pounding of booted feet was deafening to Sabrin as he pulled himself and Tallas through the doors. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a gray-uniformed Imperial officer skidding into view, a rifle at the ready. Sabrin's eyes widened as he seemed about to fire, but then the airlock doors closed as quickly as they had opened and all he could hear was a distant thud.
Sabrin let out his breath in a whoosh and collapsed back against the floor. More thuds transmitted themselves through the airlock and he realized that the police were attempting to blast their way through. His frayed mind wondered absently why they haven't overridden the airlock controls, but he was too relieved to dwell on it. He felt a slight movement beside him and he turned to see Tallas' characteristically unruly hair, dark with grime. Slowly, his friend turned to him with a glazed quality to his eyes, and smiled slightly.
"I didn't think we'd make it this far," Tallas whispered.
"Neither did I," Sabrin answered with a small chuckle.
A few moments passed, Sabrin couldn't tell how many, before they both managed to regain their senses and shakily rise to their feet. "We should get to the bridge," Sabrin whispered and Tallas nodded agreement. There was no way now they could simply stow away as they had originally hoped, and so their only choice was to parlay with the captain. Who'd almost certainly turn us back over to them, Sabrin's thought gloomily. Maybe they could commandeer the ship or...something. Whatever does happen though, they'd gone too far to give up. Looking around, he saw that the corridor was sleek and gently curved, with wall panels made from a dull blue alloy and dimly lit by two rows of lights along the carpeted floor. A few doors lined the outer wall, and he reasoned that the corridor ran along the outer row of rooms in the ship. After about eight meters they found a vertical shaft mounting a ladder. Knowing that the bridge was usually by custom on the uppermost deck, they wearily ascended the thin metal rugs.
Two decks up Sabrin himself in a small chamber with two large open doors. The one to his right led to another corridor, while the one to his left led to a room with a large, translucent, free-standing display showing a cross-section of the ship. That should be the bridge, he thought as he cautiously approached.
"Hello?" Sabrin's voice was loud though a bit hesitant. He felt Tallas draw a bit closer behind him, partially leaning against his back. "Hello?" he tried again. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he saw a standing figure, backlit by what was visible from the windows behind him. Just in time he spied the small blue spark and react, pushing both himself and Tallas to the floor. Above them a blinding shower of sparks exploded from the wall, which both of them had been standing in front of a moment earlier. Amidst another spray of sparks Sabrin blindly grabbed Tallas and withdrew behind a doorframe. The blue spark was the prefire charge of a plasma gun at maximum setting, which the unknown man was holding in front of him. Another bolt of blue energy slammed into the wall, followed by another.
"We're not dangerous!" Sabrin yelled out, "We just want to talk!" The only response was more plasma fire, sizzling the air around them and charring the tiny hairs on his exposed skin. The air was growing thick with the acrid smell of composite alloy as the wall began to melt under the barrage. Sabrin's every attempt to peer out was met by more weapons fire. "Any ideas?" He asked Tallas.
"Uh..." Tallas tried to think through the pain from the stunner. There was no way they could go around the attacker; the bridge was a dead end. Nor did they have much hope of rushing him, especially with him in his physical state. His eyes flittered around, and settled on an open control panel on the far wall. He didn't know how, but a spark of intuition struck him. "Wait...see that?"
"On the far wall. That round thing attached to the access panel. We need to destroy it."
"Why? What is it?" Sabrin dodged a small molten piece of the disintegrating bulkhead above him.
"I don't how I know this, but I'm pretty sure we have to destroy it." Tallas attemped to find the answer to their questions without success.
"Will that stop him?" Sabrin asked doubtfully.
"Maybe...I'm pretty sure..." Tallas winced from the burn and sank a bit more against the wall. "That's not a very good answer is it?"
Sabrin mentally assessed the situation: he didn't really have any passable suggestions of his own, they couldn't go back, and soon the bulkhead between them and the gunman will buckle. He looked deeply into Tallas' dark eyes and saw no delusion in those familiar brown depths. It was not very rational, but at this point it hardly mattered to him. "Better than any idea I have," he shrugged and looked to the panel. He estimated that it was nearly twenty meters away, with minimal shelter in between. This is gonna be tricky.
"Please be careful," he heard Tallas whisper behind him.
"Aren't I always?" Sabrin turned his head managed a small smile. He waited to see a reciprocal reaction in Tallas before turning back towards the panel. He took a few deep breaths and tried to anticipate the interval between each plasma impact.
Sabrin sprang out from behind the bulkhead, rushing towards the opposite wall. He felt blue-hot plasma bolts slicing the air around him, but dared not pause to consider them. He leapt forward in irregular bounds, each step feeling like he was on the verge of falling. Finally he dove behind the bulkhead, and only then did he start breathing again. His heart was pounding and he had to rest a moment before he was able to stand up and examine his quarry.
Upon closer inspection he saw that the "thing" was some type of complex disc-shaped machine with blinking lights playing over its surface. It was attached directly to the circuitry at several dozen points, with what appeared to be optical data cables. No time for subtlety. Sabrin positioned his hands on both sides of the rim and pulled with all his strength, feeling some small satisfaction when he felt the cables ripping apart and protesting sparks flying outwards.
A few moments later, the plasma barrage stopped, filling the air with a thick silence. Sabrin caught Tallas' eyes, knowing that the same question was going through both their minds: Was it over? Slowly, carefully, Sabrin peered out from behind the charred bulkhead. The bridge was hazy with smoke, which was being rapidly drawn away by the life-support systems. Feeling a bit more confident, he stepped onto the bridge and saw the gunman collapsed on the floor on his side. It was difficult to tell in the dim light, but the man had a slim frame and closely cropped black hair. His face was youthful and actually quite handsome, with high cheekbones, a chiselled jaw, and full lips. What a shame, Sabrin thought as he felt for a pulse and found none. He looked around for the gun but it was nowhere in sight. He figured it must have slid somewhere when the man dropped it.
"The guy's dead Tal," he informed his friend, drawing Tallas' arm over his shoulder.
"Systems re-initialization complete." The voice from the ship's intercom made both of them jump a mile. The voice sounded male, though it had a strongly mechanistic quality. They were momentarily blinded as the bridge lights reactivated, bathing the room in a soft white light. All around them display monitors came back to life with schematics and readouts. Virtual controls phased into existence above previously dark consoles. Sabrin gaped at the sight around him. This wasn't some game they were playing now; they were in the command center of a real starship. The two young men looked at each other incredulously, consumed by a moment of giddiness at their childhood dream come true.
"Warning, airlock 1 integrity at 25% and falling," the computer's voice shook them back to reality. Shit, the Imperials! They were still docked at the Raal-Dakhir spaceport and only a couple minutes had passed, even though it seemed much longer. Carefully Sabrin helped Tallas into the chair at the starboard console before sitting down at the forward pilot's seat himself and strapping in. The console was different from the simulations he was used to, but he recognized enough of it to give him hope. Carefully, he extended his hands into the pair of nested rings which comprised the main guidance controls, and was relieved to feel the system respond to his presence. "Computer, full power to anti-grav thrusters," he ordered.
The ship lurched as it energized its anti-grav coils and tore loose of its moorings, sending the small group of Imperial police clustered around its airlock scrambling back to avoid the debris and backwash. Belatedly Sabrin remembered the umbilicals and released them, ignoring their torn remains falling a few hundred meters to the bay floor. Swiftly the starship rose, blasting through the hangar door with a single shot from the pair of tachyon cannons mounted on its ventral side. Atmosphere rushed violently from the rupture into Astral-Ishasa's naturally thin air, and Sabrin quickly flew the ship through before force-fields sealed the breach. Once they were clear, Sabrin looked back with surprise and saw a weak smile from Tallas, one of his hands on weapons control. "Thanks," he mouthed gratefully.
High above the red-and-brown world, Sabrin's commandeered starship rose steadily past the thin wisps of clouds. Its twin sublight ion engines took over from the anti-grav system, blazing silently as the scarlet sky faded into the blackness of space. Stay calm, it's just like the simulations, Sabrin thought, his hands shaking a bit as they coaxed a bit more power from the engines. At least he hoped that's what he was doing. On his left, a sensor display revealed three -- no four -- Orion warships trailing behind them. What the fuck was in that file? Sabrin asked himself for the hundredth time. They couldn't have mobilized half the plantary garrison to chase after a simple case of data theft. The nearest of those ships had closed to six light-seconds...
The ship rocked from an aft shield impact, sending Sabrin's heart into his throat. Two more followed in rapid succession, causing warning sigils to flash frantically above his console. As if I knew what those meant! Sabrin thought, sending the ship into a hard right. "Computer, shield status!" he yelled.
"Aft shields at 36%."
We'll have to jump. Sabrin realized that there was no way they could outrun the Imperial ships at sublight. However, if they had enough of a lead such as that their pursuers couldn't scan their jump parameters, it would be nearly impossible to trace their destination once they left the system. Unfortunately, Sabrin had only ever attempted an interstellar jump on paper. The last problem he did on the subject was to the star Mirfax, which he now figured was as good a goal as any. "Computer, extend the jump vane; initiate pre-jump sequence," Sabrin ordered. It's now or never.
From the belly of the elliptical craft, a slender, triangular blade unfolded from its position flush with the hull. Gleaming pieces locked into position to form a vertical, knife-shaped structure nearly half again the length the ship itself. Seeing this, the captains of the pursuit ships spurred their ships to the limits of their engines, knowing the price if they failed to capture their quarry. Two more energy bursts struck the aft shields, knocking the diminutive ship slightly off course. Data and figures were appearing in front of Sabrin almost faster than his vision could register them. "Jump vane fully charged, optimum velocity achieved." the computer informed him. Here goes, Sabrin closed his eyes and whispered a silent prayer as he initiated the jump.
The Belousov-Syden Drive was certainly a miracle of technology; a light-weight composite alloy blade that distorted space-time between two gravity wells, generating a point of "weakness" through which an object can jump through in the blink of an eye, crossing the vast distances between stars and galaxies. Whatever possessed Alexis Belousov -- and there were many theories -- to scrawl down the precepts of jump-point mathematics on the walls of his asylum cell back on Earth, had heralded a new era of interstellar exploration and colonization. Humanity had exploded from its paltry home system into a brave new world, bringing all its promise and fault with it.
The trouble was that Belousov's equations made absolutely no sense. No physicist afterwards could understand the principles of more than just pieces of what he had wrote; pieces of some improbably complex jigsaw puzzle that conformed in no way to conventional logic. Every computer simulation built around them had projected catastrophe -- an inversion event that scattered the ship's subatomic components halfway across the galaxy. It took the -- many say equally insane -- engineer and first jump-pilot Brannick Syden and a wild leap of blind faith from lunar orbit to prove it could be done. Still, only humans -- not computers -- could calculate the parameters for the jump based on the data that came out of Belousov's lunatic equations, but no one knew exactly why. Jump-piloting involved making a sequence of calculations, each arising from the previous one, and it was almost as if some sort of instinct guided humans to make the correct assumptions each time. Some thought it ironic that humanity's interstellar age was sparked by the ravings of a madman; others believed it prophetic of the insanity that pervades the universe.
It certainly feels like you've gone insane, Sabrin thought to himself as his ship disappeared and re-appeared six hundred light-years away. Five centuries of interstellar literacy and he had yet to find an author who could adequately describe what it felt like to jump. It was like being unmade -- like one's mind and body was unraveling around one's soul and then coming back together again. It was an experience he heard humans could never get used to, no matter how many times they jumped. Afterwards his body felt strange, like it didn't quite fit naturally the way it did before. Sabrin knew that it would pass, but now he understood why many people insisted on being sedated for jumps. Ahead, the blue brilliance of Mirfax shone out against the velvet darkness.
Unsteadily, Sabrin released the straps holding him to the chair and stood up, taking time to get used to his limbs again. "C...computer, what's our position?" he asked.
"12.8 million kilometers from Mirfax, bearing 114 mark 15," the voice responded.
"Any signs of pursuit?"
"None so far."
"Th...thanks..." Sabrin's voice faltered as gripped the back of the chair to steady himself. They'd actually done it! They'd escaped! His mind rolled the unfamiliar concept around as if it was a foreign object. Slowly but steadily, his body began to convulse as laughter issued irresistably from deep inside him, releasing the stress and tension of the last three days. Thank you, thank you merciful universe! his mind rejoiced as he turned to celebrate the news with his best friend. "Tal! Tal we got away!"
"Tal?" Sabrin's heart dropped through his chest as he saw Tallas' unmoving form in the chair. Rushing forwards in a wild panic, Sabrin pressed his head against the other man's chest and let out a sigh of relief when he heard a faint heartbeat. But when he tried to rouse his friend there was no response at all.
"Tal, come on this isn't funny, wake up!" Sabrin urged, tears building at the corners of his eyes. "Computer, where's the sickbay?!" he yelled as he picked up Tallas' prone body and slung him over his shoulder.
"Deck two, section four."
Sabrin didn't bother with any expressions of gratitude this time as he took off back into the corridor.