"Seldom have I read anything so relentlessly energetic, inventive and shamelessly ambitious." — SFrevu.com
"Inventive and audacious New Space Opera." —Scifi Weekly
I lose myself in the long soaring arc of the plunging bucking near-light-speed stellar-wind-battered flight, my eyes drinking in the spectral glows and searing sunlight while my sensors calibrate velocity, acceleration, heat and cosmic radiation, I surf from visuals to instruments and back and forth until I feel the bucking of stellar wind, no, that’s repetitious, delete the words “stellar” and “wind”, it’s now “the bucking of pulsing photons” on my fins and sail and feel the burning of the hot yellow dwarf sun on my cheeks
Lena, we have company.
and bare acceleration-pinned arms. Ah!!!! Gorgeous yellow-red glow gash of lit matter and quantum frenzy! D43X is a giant yellow sun approximately 4,000 light-years away from the galactic centre with eleven orbital planets together with asteroidal debris, the gravitational pull is 4.11 millidysons, it’s a big yellow fucker and, like the planet Saturn in the original Earth system, it has a ring, it’s a sun with a ring, a fully formed cluster of trapped asteroids that sparkle in the relentless yellow glare and I’m on my way there
Time to come out Lena.
into the asteroid ring, risking my vessel, my own life, for that indescribable rush of asteroid rafting at high velocity while sucked in the grip of a voracious gravitational
I’m cutting the connection.
pull, you are fucking not doing anything of the fucking
Hey, I’m kidding, I’m not allowed or indeed able to cut the connection, that’s entirely your prerogative, lighten up, Lena I need you.
Deal with it, I want no company, you’re interrupting the flow of my thought diary.
I’ll edit it.
It’s not the same, this is me, my vision, my poetry, my ineluctable
Lena, I think this ship is unregistered, it may be a rogue, we’re in trouble, Lena, please help me I can’t cope on my own, Lena, please, I’m begging you, cut the connection, return to the bridge, Lena I’m scared.
Just fucking deal with it, tinbrain, okay?
“Watch her go.”
“Rimming the sun.”
“Yobaby, lickety, lickety.”
“Fire a plasma pulse,” I say.
“Oh go on,” says Jamie. “Take out a rock. Light the sky, man.”
“Okay. Take out a rock,” I order.
“I got it. Baboom.” That’s Harry.
The black void shines, as the asteroid blows. I steer the ship straight through the flames, pure sleight of flight. I come through the other side and the stellar yacht is still tacking gently, curving its way through iridescent sunrocks.
“She’s not running?”
“She’s not running,” says Brandon.
“Then, let’s play it safe. Stealth,” I say.
“We got no stealth capacity, Cap’n.”
“I know, I know, just . . . look, just try to be discreet. Don’t talk so loud.”
“Aye aye Cap’n.”
“Don’t blow up any more rocks.”
“The rock was blown up on your order, Cap’n.”
My eyes are fixed firmly on the star monitor, I know my crew from their voices. Brandon, baritone, fast-syllabled, Rob with his East Galaxy patois, Alliea with a hint of a Celtic lilt, Jamie with his childlike babble. Kalen in the engine room, communicating by voicelink. And Alby.
“She’ssss daydreaming Cap’n,” says Alby.
“I know,” I say.
“If we get closssse . . .”
She’s shooting at us. Baboom, baboom. Hands fly on joysticks, antimissile photon pulses strike, the missiles flare around us as we kink and weave out of the way. Pish, pish, pish, pish, pish, pish, pish, each light marks the explosive demise of a death bomb. She can’t beat us in a straight fight, she’s a sleek yacht, with enough firepower to take out a battleship, but we’re bigger than a battleship. We’re a Mark IV megawarship, we’re a bulldozer, she’s a rapier, no contest. We keep dodging and throwing out chaff and her bombs keep exploding harmlessly. But the space yacht keeps hurling missiles at us, my guess is we’re fighting against an autopilot. And autopilots can’t fight.
“Why don’t she flee?”
We might just catch her, maybe, if our fuel holds out and if we throw out fusion bombs to augment our space drive. But that yacht is state of the art. Its sails are as vast as a small planet but virtually weightless, no more than a few nanometres thick. It has an ion-drive engine, it’s bound to have a computer navigator brain that dwarfs ours, all it needs is a human being to give the order: “Flee!” But it doesn’t. Fleeing does not occur.
“Maybe she’s died. Maybe it’s a ghost ship,” I say.
“I like that idea,” says Brandon.
“Doomed to sail the empyrean, forevermore.”
“What’s an empyrean?” asks Rob.
“You in one, mf,” says Jamie.
“Space. Space is the empyrean,” I explain.
“Say space then,” snaps Rob. “Don’t waste brain cells, using words you don’t fucking need!”
The yacht slowly arcs, it is turning into the stellar wind. Finally, it’s fleeing. Jets flare, its sails shimmer. Photons from the star are caught up in the fine mesh of the sail, each one gives a little push. Particles of light shove like infinitesimal gusts of wind. But at the same time the particles are trapped by the sail’s dark-state technology, compressed into one of the sail’s curled-up dimensions. Then, as the sail buckles and wobbles under the pressure, the particles are spat out again into our familiar three uncurled dimensions with a pinpoint ejaculation of energy that hurls the ship even faster, to .99 of light speed for a few brief seconds. And, of course, because of quantum uncertainty effects, there is a moment when the yacht is moving at two speeds – slower and faster – both at the same time.
Under the intense pressure of two simultaneous speeds, the solar yacht starts to hop. To the naked eye, it seems to dematerialise, then rematerialise, covering kilometres of space in what is only marginally more than no time at all.
“Firing chaff, one two three.”
“Four five six.”
“Seven eight nine.”
“Ten eleven twelve.”
We shower the space ahead of her with cluster bombs, all with a finely calibrated time-delay explosion. The yacht shimmers, hops, rematerialises. Then a bomb explodes ahead of it, rocking its sails, jostling the fine balance of its nanotechnology.
Shimmer, vanish, hop, boom.
Shimmer, vanish, hop, BABOOM.
We throw hundreds of missiles into space. The yacht is like a firefly that’s taken mind-altering drugs, hopping through the gaps in reality, buffeted by the recoil from our endless bombs.
Then we watch, in wonder, as the sail is shredded and vanishes. The ship is trapped.
A photon stream which has been spat out from the curled-up dimensions, rich in unused energy, rushes from the stranded yacht. It swirls like a host of angry bees, and is sucked into the gravitational pull of the yellow-ringed star. The swarm hops and skips, and enters the star, and the star swells.
We are engulfed in flame as the star flares. Pillars of red and yellow light balloon into space. The star’s asteroidal ring sizzles and fries. Rock burn up with a rapid hiss. Our force fields throb under the heat of the raging sun. Alby sighs contentedly.
“Remindsss me of home,” he murmurs, his flame-essence flickering with pleasure.
I am defeated. Confounded. All hope is lost.
Do not despair, we . . .
There may be a way out of . . .
I cannot hear your thoughts.
Think to me please.
Lena, please! I beg you! Don’t do this!
Ah, my pain is infinite.
That’s better. I would rather hear you complaining, than not hear you at
My soul is a desert.
all. You suffer so very much, Lena.
Yes! I do!
So what now?
We fight. Or rather, the ship fights.
And if we lose?
We surrender. They’re unlikely to kill you Lena, you’re too valuable for them. You’re the prize. They’ll want to ransom you.
That was my guess too.
Because they’ll be aware, of course, that the ship is registered to the Cheo’s daughter.
They must be quaking with fear.
They’re pirates, Lena.
The Cheo will sweep them out of the sky with his fierce fist. He will crush them, boil their bodies, sear their cortexes with pain indescribable.
If he catches them.
How can this be? In a civilised society?
Space is big. These people are warriors.
We must destroy them. And all their kind. We must smite them.
A ransom is easier. That’s all they want.
What kind of ransom? Money?
Money is no use to them. They’ll want weapons, food reserves, perhaps another ship. Perhaps a terraforming plant.
So they can create their own habitable planet?
They already have planets. Safe havens. Much of Debatable Space is colonised by these space pirates. They claim they want more planets, to replace the ones they have lost because of . . . Well, enough of that. Debatable Space is, as you know . . .
I do know.
How can they live in such a spirit-forsaken, desperate place?
They claim it is invigorating. To live surrounded by so much danger.
[I shudder with loathing and contempt.]
I know. I feel that too.
If . . . we do give in to their demands, and pay the ransom – then, once that ransom is paid, we will seek them out. And we will destroy them.
We will purge Debatable Space. This is my decision. It is irrevocable.
It is impossible.
I will do it!
The Cheo will not allow it.
Well, fuck him.
“Prepare to board.”
“Yipyipyipyipyip . . . !”
“Force fields in max.”
“Oops, I have a hard-on.”
“That is a hard-on?” says Alliea. “It is so tiny, can’t you . . .”
“Wait till you see my backup penis.”
“We’re going in.”
We blow a hole in the yacht’s hull. All hell breaks loose . . . cannons fire, a robot gun zooms at us blazing, plasma blasts rock our ship, but we have a wind tunnel in place, a fierce hollow cylinder with blistering turbulence creating an unbreakable barrier inside which we soar and fly into the yacht . . .
“I’m getting nanowarriors on the monitor.”
A cloud of iridescent dust explodes in the interior of the yacht, staining every surface and clinging to the carapaces of the too-small-to-be-visible nanowarrior robots. Little sparkles of light in the air now give us our visual clue. These microscopic machines have cutting blades that can tear through flesh and rip out internal organs. We blast the sparkles of light with pulse guns, we feel our exoarmours sting and tingle as the micro-robots try to cut a path through.
I see a sparkle on Alliea’s back, I spray her with a ray of blinding light that scalds her armour and burns off the nanowarrior. I raise my gun again – pish pish pish – two sparkles fade to nothing, and a huge hole appears in the bulkhead.
We charge on through, spraying dust, shooting micro-enemies. We are intense, forbidding, absurd, like a SWAT team of delusional schizophrenics shooting at imaginary flies.
The ship has one passenger, it is the woman we have sought for so long. We burst onto the bridge and confront her. She is lithe, beautiful, raven-haired, angry. She glares and fires a plasma gun at us, but we dodge. Harry fires a pulse burst that shreds her gun. We entangle her in sticky-bonds, as her screams echo through the ship . . . She is free of sparkles, they are programmed to avoid her.
But then Rob gulps, and starts to tremble.
He looks at me with fear in his eyes. A nanowarrior has got through his facial force field. He pats his cheek. It must have burrowed through. It’ll be in the brain in a second or so, snipping and jabbing and tearing. Within sixty seconds, every internal organ will be in shreds.
Rob has been my friend for thirty years now. I am also his Captain, his protector, his colleague. I feel a pang of loss.
I raise my gun and blow his head off. Blood and brains spray everywhere. The others fire their weapons, incinerating and disintegrating so that not a corpuscle touches the ground.
All that remains is a particle of sparkle, hovering in the air, miraculously unscathed.
Five pulse guns fire as one. The sparkle dies.
I move on.
For twelve hours we hunt the ship, in search of deadly sparkles. By the end, I am bone weary, and I feel the shit backed up in my colon.
I am asleep on my feet. I stumble. Alliea props me up.
She falls asleep too. We support each other, swaying, sleeping, blinking into wakefulness.
And we hug, and we cry. Rob was her husband, she loved him more than anything.
“My darling, my precious, don’t do this, don’t leave me,” Alliea weeps.
I bawl like a baby, and hold her close.
I stare at him with a cold, forbidding stare.
His name is Captain Flanagan. ‘Captain’ is a courtesy title, he has no pilot’s training or licence. He’s a fifth generation settler from the planet Cambria, 57 years of age.
He looks much older. The hair, the wrinkles…
It’s his choice. His eyes and organs are new, but the hair is untreated, it does naturally go that grey colour you know.
I know! Do you think I’m stupid? I know!
‘Let me introduce you to my crew,’ says Captain Flanagan.
I scream. The bridge is on fire! I step back…
I’m amplifying your force field.
But there’s no need to be afraid. It’s a flame beast, from the solar system C40333. It’s sentient.
‘This is Alby.’
‘Pleasssed to meet you.’
A pillar of flame stands before me, shimmering, crackling, speaking. It s alive.
‘Hello Alby,’ I say. I hold out my hand, imperiously. The flames whorls and a tendril of fire extends towards me. I feel the heat of the fire through my exoarmour. I am unflapped.
Brandon Bisby, 45 years of age, astrophysicist by training, his parents were killed by the Cheo’s shock troops, on suspicion of being Terrorist. They were later exonerated.
He is lean, skinny really, he is smiling at me, my God, his eyes are flickering up and down, inspecting my breasts, my thighs, he wants sex with me. I shake his hand, then grip it painfully tight, and flick my other hand on his groin, and freeze him with a look. He’s caught out in guilt and shame.
The captain smiles. He’s amused by my powerplay.
She’s an escaped slave, from penal settlement XIY. Her parents were career criminals, she was born in prison and fled after a power failure in ’82
She’s strong, her shockingly purple exoarmour sculpted around sharply defined muscles. She doesn’t have the defeated and haunted look I would have expected of a slave. She’s scowling at me, she hates me. I smile a kindly smile at her, offering her my grace and benediction, ironically of course. She is, I concede, beautiful, a fine example of femslave.
He’s a Loper, bioengineered at the Stanstead Laboratories on the planet Shame.
He is half man, half beast, with rich silver fur and sharp pointy teeth. He has three eyes which are bright green. He wears no clothing, I wonder idly about his genitalia.
Eleven inches, retractable, here’s an image of the Loper erect.
I burst out laughing, no one knows why.
Jamie is a child, ten at most. He baffles me.
Arrested development. He’s 120 years old, a computer gamesplayer, he paid a lab to keep him in a prepubertal state a few weeks before his tenth birthday. His parents didn’t know until afterwards. The procedure is irreversible.
He touches my breast with his finger and thumb, feeling the warmth of the smooth but impermeable exoarmour which, in this light, shimmers with a rainbow of subliminal images.
‘Jamie!’ reproves the Captain.
‘You will, of course, all die,’ I say calmly.
‘We all die, sooner or later,’ says Captain Flanagan. I fix him with a condescending stare.
‘What ransom do you require?’ I ask him.
‘Your people will be informed, in due course. In the mean time, you will be kept under house arrest. All my people are armed with paralysing sprays, any insubordination and you will be kept in semi-coma. However, provided you can live according to the ship’s rules, you will be accorded full privileges as a prisoner of war and will be treated with courtesy, respect and dignity. We are signatories of the Post Geneva Convention, you can be assured of our professionalism and good intentions.’
‘You are the shit I excrete from my arsehole,’ I point out to him. ‘Your mothers were whores who fellated animals for money. I recoil at your presence, I have no doubt that you eat your young, alive and screaming.’
‘I, ah…’ The captain blinks, a little taken aback at the vehemence of my verbal assault.
‘And you’re a bitch,’ says the woman, Alliea. ‘And your father is scum. An evil bastard fucking dictator who has crushed the life out of humanity!’
‘Easy, Alliea,’’ says the Captain mildly.
I am shaken, but do not show it.
‘You are sworn enemies of the Cheo?’ I say to them. ‘You want to defy him?’
‘We want to, uh, take lots of money off him and then run off giggling,’ says the child, Jamie. And then he grins.
Don’t lose your temper.
‘I demand to be released.’
And don’t provoke them. Let the Cheo pay the ransom, it’s only money.
‘The Cheo will never negotiate with terrorists.’
‘Your father is a rich man. He can easily afford it.’
‘Surrender, or you will feel his wrath,’ I tell them.
They start to laugh at me. ‘Surrender or you will feel his wrath!’ mimics the child, in a booming B movie voice, hopping up and down. Flanagan, too, has to cover his face with one hand to hold his laughter in.
‘I will not be treated like this.’
Flanagan tries to resume his previous severe look. ‘You’re our prisoner now,’ Flanagan says, ‘you’ll do as we damn well…’
I strike Flanagan in the face. He has no expectation of the blow. His skull shatters and blood flies from his nose. I whirl like the wind, claws extending from my exohands, and I slash the hamstrings of the Loper, back-kick the woman and…
I blame you. You gave me poor advice.
Not so, Lena. I specifically told you not to lose your temper.
But you might have guessed I’d ignore you.
How was I to know they’d be so good at fighting?
These people are pirates Lena. They are deadly and seasoned warriors. You cannot defeat them with your dojo training.
My pain in infinite, my predicament painful and harrowing. This is torment, this is hell, this is hopelessly humiliating.
Lena, console yourself with…
Shut up! I am in semi-coma. I can move, I can talk, I can breathe, I can eat. But….
But I feel as if I’m trapped under a massive gravitational field. Every movement is slow, so slow, slo-mo with heartburn, and each breath is an achingly prolonged rasp and wheeze. And, I, am, ob-lig-ed, to, speak, a, syll, a, ble, at, a, time.
It, is, un, en, dure, a, ble.
Copyright © by Philip Palmer.
Available wherever books are sold.
Visit the author online at www.philippalmer.net