Check out Adam Christopher’s The Burning Dark, available March 25th from Tor Books!
All is not well aboard the U-Star Coast City. The station’s reclusive Commandant is nowhere to be seen, leaving Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland to deal with a hostile crew on his own. Persistent malfunctions plague the station’s systems while interference from a toxic purple star makes even ordinary communications problematic. Alien shadows and whispers seem to haunt the lonely corridors and airlocks, fraying the nerves of everyone aboard.
Isolated and friendless, Cleveland reaches out to the universe via an old-fashioned space radio, only to tune in to a strange, enigmatic signal: a woman’s voice that seems to echo across a thousand light-years of space. But is the transmission just a random bit of static from the past—or a warning of an undying menace beyond mortal comprehension?
THE RELIEF OF TAU RETORE
This is how the shit went down. Lemme tell you about it, right now.
We came out of quickspace at oh-fifteen, which, even pushing warp as we were, was still too damn late. And when we popped back into the universe above Tau Retore, there was already a gap in the arrowhead. One ship hadn’t made it—engine burnout in quickspace, or some such. That can happen, and the loss—hell, any loss—was a shock. But we had a job to do first and my crew was fast, filling the gap without even needing an order, sliding the pack of cruisers together just so. It was pretty sweet, lemme tell you.
So, formation tight, one ship down. We spin down into planetary orbit, braking hard so the cone of warp exit didn’t knock the goddamn planet off its axis. That’s why you don’t pop quickspace until you’re far off out into the unknown. It’s bad enough pushing just a spaceship through the gap between now and now, but, trust me, you don’t want a planet dragging in your wake. The whole universe shakes when a single mote of dust leaves it to fly quickspace. Shove a spaceship through the hole, the universe shakes, gets mightily pissed off, and then gives you a smack at the other end. Universal punishment. God doesn’t like you messing with his shit, that’s for sure. That’s what the quantum dampeners are for. A whole planet? Forget about it. They don’t make dampeners big enough for that.
We came in hot and close, but we were too late. They were there already, on the other side of Tau Retore, and we couldn’t see the main body, but we could see its claws stuck deep into the mantle of the planet, the liquid interior spilling out around the talons like hot blood. And the claws. Jesus. Shit, man, I’ve seen them do it before, the way they crack a planet open, then spin it—spin it!—like a spider. Don’t know how they do it, how they find the sheer mass to build machines as big as moons. At the heart of a Mother Spider lies the guttering embers of a star, we know that much, and as the claws reach the core of their victim, the planet’s magnetosphere gets all fucked up to shit, and they siphon the energy off that too. That’s some crazy tech, way beyond what we got. And it’s an amazing sight, the death of a planet—a planet physically pulled into pieces by the biggest fucking machine in the universe. You don’t forget a sight like that, not in any kind of hurry.
You could hear it on the bridge. The viewscreens were green with the shitstorm of quickspace, then they flashed, then we’re almost in fucking orbit around Tau Retore and that thing sucking the power and the life out of it. And everyone, everyone on the bridge of each of the twenty-three ships left in the arrowhead cries out in horror, and the captains give their pilots the command to decelerate and change course to deflect the nose of the warp cone past the planet, but they’re already doing it and cursing blind as they do. Because in front of us there’s a Mother Spider eating a planet, and the planet is bleeding. And on our ships, the comms channel is choked with one hundred people shouting in surprise and praying to whatever gods or goddesses they hold dear and precious.
I mean… Jesus…
We were too late to save it, really. We knew it, but that didn’t mean we weren’t going to try. So the arrowhead is in formation and we push the warp cone up just as it fizzes out over Tau Retore’s north pole and we slam it toward the Mother Spider. If we can take that out, then the planet will at least stay in orbit, and if it stays in one piece, then when this whole crazy shit is over they can send out some terraformers to reconstitute the landscape and restabilize the core while whoever is left alive goes on vacation to Elesti or Alta or somewhere nice with beaches and sunsets.
Now things start to get interesting, because the Mother Spider has seen us. It’s weird, it really is. I don’t think the Spiders have actual spiders wherever they’re from, but they sure as hell built their whole space tech around them. You know those little spider egg sacs, those balls of web on a leaf that you flick and then they break and about a million of the shits swarm out over everything? Just like that. The Mother Spider’s still chowing down and we’re flying toward it—and the U-Star Boston Brand is right in front, leading the charge, because I’m goddamn Fleet Admiral for the day and I want to get there first—when the main body splits, kinda like one of those paper folding games that girls make in school. You know, it’s a kinda pyramid, you stick your fingers in, and it opens up, like a flower, and there’s writing and jokes and suggestions about who loves who.
The Mother Spider opens and more Spiders come out—little small ones, half the size of our U-Stars, coming out of these shells that they shuck off like cocoons, and then they unfold their legs and head toward us. There’s some more swearing but I order comms silence. Then—Bang! The ship that filled the gap in the arrowhead? Gone. These Spider babies are like their momma. They don’t have weapons; they have claws. So they close in and latch on to your hull, and start chewing it up, and with so many of them swarming—hundreds, thousands maybe—they take just a second or two to reduce a U-Star to particulate matter. I don’t know whether they ever developed projected energy, or even projectile weapons. Maybe they just think eating enemy ships is funny. So: Bang! U-Star Gothamite is history, nothing but metal and vapor. But we’re in comms silence now, and that seems to keep everyone cool, I guess because they’re now looking at me for instructions and trying not to think about how a U-Star can be taken out just like that. It takes the responsibility off them, let’s them disengage, the conscious mind giving way to training and experience. Which is good for battle. You need your cool, and you don’t need your emotions. Plenty of time for that later.
Of course, I’m standing there watching the other Spider babies getting too close and I’m as angry and scared as the rest of them, but nobody knows that. I signal my pilot and then hit the comms, ordering the arrowhead to break up. So long as everyone stays the hell out of one another’s way and shoots at the right thing, hunting season is officially open. The Spiders are going straight to whatever hell their creepy insect intelligence believes in.
I can see the arrowhead split on the screens to the left and right. About a dozen ships on each flank peel upward and apart like an aerobatic display, and a few seconds later the same screens are filled with flashes and sparks and flames as the Spider babies are put into the grinder. I let myself smile, just a little, because I know that everyone on the bridge isn’t watching the fireworks outside, they’re watching my face, waiting for their orders. And if I smile—just a little—they’ll smile too and they’ll do their jobs just another one percent better than before. That’s leadership, yessir. You gotta show and project it to everyone. They’re depending on you, and this time it’s not just the arrowhead; it’s Tau Retore. That’s a whole planet with a giant machine Spider trying to crack it open to make a galactic omelet. We’re here to save the day again.
I’m smiling because, although we’re still blasting toward the center of the big Mother Spider, right about where the main body splits to spit out the babies, I see the U-Star Stripes and its twin ship the Stars swing in ahead, rocketing in from underneath the Boston Brand. I smile because when the Stars and the Stripes are flying side by side, they’re cool as shit. Those are the cruisers that everyone wants to be assigned to. They’ve got the kudos, the cachet, the shiniest damned paint jobs in the whole of Fleetspace. But, I mean, what a mouthful. The U-Star Stars? Huh.
So the Stars and the Stripes pull up ahead, and the screen goes pink automatically as the pair empty all their torpedo tubes at once at big momma’s belly and the Boston Brand’s AI doesn’t want its crew to go blind. Ammo spent, the two cruisers curve off out of the way. It’s going to take a few seconds for the missiles to hit, and that’s when I decide to give them a little push on their way.
Now, you gotta understand, I’ve got no rep in particular. I don’t take risks. I do things by the book, and I know how to lead, and I get results. And that’s what counts—boy, does the Fleet need results. And true, there have been those who have taken risks and acted with rash strokes of genius, but those guys are mostly assholes and mostly dead.
But look. When you see a Spider up close, it’s one thing. When you see a Mother Spider with twelve legs, each ten thousand klicks long, eating a planet like it’s a goddamn apple, it affects you. Something stirs in the back of your brain, like you’re watching a movie or having a dream. So sometimes you get ideas, and then you know what it’s like to be one of those assholes, and you start hoping to hell you’re not about to find out what it’s like to be one of those dead assholes.
I think somebody on my bridge says something but my head is buzzing and my ears are full of cotton wool, and not just because I’ve got a pink-tinted Fourth of July show outside. Do they still do that back on Earth? They must. I haven’t been back in… Well, I’m not that old, but sometimes a five-year tour on the edge of the galaxy can feel a lot longer. Could be worse. There was this friend of mine, commander on one of the really big ships. “Wraiths” is what their crews call them, these ships that stay out for so long, hiding like an old-fashioned submarine just in case the Spiders pop up. After his last tour, he found me at Fleet Command and he said to me, Ida, he said…
I’m sure somebody says something but I’m on the first pilot’s back, pulling his position around and grabbing the sticks. Maybe it’s the other pilot saying something, but then he sees what I’m doing, and looks at the screen ahead, following the green trail of the torpedoes through the pink wash—and that looks fucking freaky, I tell you—and he grabs his sticks and nods. That’s it. He sits there, and nods, and looks ahead.
See? That’s leadership, right there. He trusts me and is ready to follow me into hell if need be. Which actually isn’t far from the truth, because I count to three and open quickspace right there, with the torpedoes in front of us and the Mother Spider in front of them. The warp cone pops ahead of our nose, and the screen goes from pink to blue.
Well, it’s crazy and suicidal, and now people really are standing up and shouting at me, and the comms kicks into life with so many people all screaming at me that it sounds just like the wild roar of the universe.
But it works. The warp cone shunts the torpedoes forward at a speed way, way, way beyond their design tolerance, and when they hit the big fat Spider, they don’t just explode, they go fucking nova, the energy spilling from our warp cone the same as throwing gasoline on a barbecue. You ever done that? Well, next time you’re planet-side and can afford to take a trip out somewhere natural and you don’t mind a little smoke. But this, it’s like a new star has just sparked up, right over Tau Retore, right in our flight path. If there’s anything left of the Mother Spider
(The star falling and burning as though it were a lamp and then they died one and all and)
we never found it. The only shit left was a few trillion tons of scrap metal and a high percentage of helium floating in high orbit around the planet.
But we’re still heading right into this fucking mega-explosion and the warp cone is decaying quickly, so I give the order and we pop quickspace for just a second and fly through the explosion, and then the second pilot—promoted, needless to say—kills the engine and we slide back into space just a million klicks north. Of course we cooked the engines and the nav computer went offline to run a diagnostic, or maybe it was just really pissed off that we popped quickspace without telling it first and it went into a sulk. It was a rough ride too, and something burns out in the control console in front of the pilot and then there’s a bang and something pings against my leg, but I don’t notice, not yet. We’ve got enough juice in the tank to turn her around and coast back in. All the baby Spiders have been mopped up too, with only a few U-Stars damaged. One of which was the Stripes, and already someone has cracked a joke about scratching the paint job. Goddamn boys and their toys.
And you know what? We were in time. Tau Retore took a fucking pounding, but they’d been clever and got nearly everyone evacuated just as soon as the Spider appeared in the system. Just about the whole planet was saved, almost three hundred million of them.…
Now, that’s a result. We actually won something, and won it big. I mean, I don’t know if you heard, but things… well, things are not all rosy in this great and wonderful war. The Fleet is mighty and the Fleet is all, but, the Spiders? They might not think like us or act like us, but, goddammit, there are so many of them. I mean, it seems like we’re taking one step forward and two steps back all the damn time and…
So guess what? I’m a hero. A genuine, bona fide heroic sonovabitch. So then I call up the commander of the U-Star Castle Rock, which I see up ahead, and I ask her about how many medals she’d like to have, and then someone says my leg is bleeding and…
“Hmm?” Ida paused, hand reaching for the cup. His head was a little light but his throat was dry… if someone would just be so kind as to pour another shot of the strawberry liqueur, that would do nicely, very nicely indeed. He rolled the thought around in his mind and glanced at Zia Hollywood, seeing nothing but his own reflection in her mining goggles.
“Shut the fuck up.”
Zia’s lips hadn’t moved. The woman’s voice was coming from the other side of the table. Ida frowned and turned his head too quickly. The room spun in surprising and interesting ways.
“Excuse me… Serra?”
She’d called him Abraham. He hated that.
Serra shook her head, looking at him with a mixture of disgust and pity. It wasn’t a pretty expression, no matter how perfect her olive-skinned face was. She stood up and pushed her chair back, looking away.
“Come on, let’s go.” Serra’s voice was almost a whisper. Disgust was now outright embarrassment. Carter, her inseparable lover, six and a quarter feet of military might wrapped in tight olive fatigues, nodded and muttered under his breath, but Serra was already stalking away from the table. Carter stood and threw Ida a look you might call dirty.
And then they were gone, and Ida was left with the two VIPs. Fathead’s permanent grin was as wide as ever, and oddly hypnotic to Ida’s pickled brain. Zia’s face was set, expressionless, and he noticed she hadn’t had much of her drink.
Ida’s head settled a little, and he glanced around the canteen. It was late now, but a couple other crewmen of the U-Star Coast City were still here, backs turned to Ida’s table, apparently happy to keep out of the way of the space station’s guests.
Zia Hollywood said nothing as she stood and tapped Fathead’s shoulder. She walked off in silence, leaving her big-haired crewman to pull Ida’s empty cup away from him before picking up the red bottle and the bag it came in from the floor and following his boss out.
Ida was alone at the table. His hands played at nothing in front of him. He wished the cup would rematerialize.
Well, fuck you very much.
Ida stood quickly, chin high, chest out, and he took a breath. He was better than this. He took a step toward the canteen’s serving bar. Then his knee protested, and he relaxed his stiff-backed posture into his more regular, round-shouldered limp. The servos in his artificial joint didn’t seem to like alcohol much.
Alcohol was forbidden on all U-Stars, and while the expensive liqueur had been brought in by the famous crew of the Bloom County, Ida wondered if there was some of the marines’ homebrewed engine juice around. Didn’t hurt to ask.
“Hey, can I get a drink, my friend? Something… special. Anything you recommend?”
The canteen server had his back to him. Ida coughed, but the man didn’t turn around.
“You’ve had enough. Any more trouble and I’ll be talking to the marshal.”
Ida blinked. “Huh,” he said, tapping the counter. No progress then. Four weeks on board and he was still Captain No-Friends. The U-Star Coast City was turning out to be a real nice place.
Ida turned, regarded the silent backs of the other crewmen still seated at the other table, and limped out the door.
It was late in the cycle and the station’s corridors were cast in an artificial purple night. Three turns and one elevator later, Ida was back in his cabin. He flicked the main light on, the autodimmer keeping it to a warm, low, white yellow. He tended to dim it during “daylight” as well, as the low light helped hide the nasty, functional nature of his quarters. What you couldn’t see, your mind filled in for you. He liked to imagine the dark shadowed corners were crafted out of fine mahogany and teak paneling. Just like he had at home.
Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland was called Ida by his friends. Nearly everyone on the station called him Abraham, or worse. Mostly they called him nothing at all.
But not her.
He smiled, limped to his bed, and lay back. The damn knee… Ida raised his leg and flexed it, trying to get the psi-fi connection between the prosthetic and his brain to re-pair manually, but his leg was heavier than he remembered and lifting it made him feel dizzy. He dropped his leg and sighed, and closed his eyes.
“Hello, Ludmila,” he said.
The woman’s voice crackled with static as she laughed. It was high, beautiful. It made Ida smile.
“How was your night?” the voice asked.
Ida waved a hand—then, remembering he was alone in his cabin, switched the gesture for another dramatic sigh. “It was… bah. Who cares how my night was. How’s yours going?”
The voice tutted. “You’ve been drinking, haven’t you, Ida?”
Ida’s smile returned. “Oh, maybe one or two.”
The laugh again, each giggle cut with noise. She was so very, very far away. “Time for bed?”
Ida nodded and turned over. “Yeah, time for bed. Good night, Ludmila.”
“Good night, Ida.”
The room fell quiet, and the lights autodimmed again to match the purple dark of the rest of the station. Ida’s breathing slowed and became heavy. Underneath the sound of his slumber the room pulsed with static, faint and distant.
Ida dreamed; he dreamed of the house on the farm. The red paint on the barn behind it shed like crimson dandruff in the sun and the same sun shone in the blond hair of the girl as she beckoned him to come with her, come into the house. But when he held out his hand to touch her, he was holding her father’s Bible, the one that sour old man had pressed into his hands the very day he’d first met him, insisting Ida read the damn thing each and every night.
Ida felt afraid. He would not go into the house. He looked into the sky, at the sun, but saw that the sun was a violet disk, its edge streaming black lines. He frowned. An eclipse? There hadn’t been an eclipse that day. He turned back to the girl, but she was gone and the door of the house was open, a rectangular black portal. Had her father sent her away already? Ida wasn’t sure… it hadn’t been then, had it? He and Astrid had another summer left, surely.
He took a step forward, and as he breathed the country air, the farmyard pulsed with static, faint and distant.
The static from the radio cracked sharply, and Ida jerked awake, dream forgotten.
“Can you tell me the story again?”
Ida shifted. His bed was soft and the dark was pleasant on his eyes. He lay on his back and looked up into nothing. His knee seemed to have sorted itself out and didn’t hurt anymore. He had a vague recollection of a red barn and a heavy book, but he shrugged the thought away.
“You mean Tau Retore?”
“Yes. Tell me again.”
Ida chuckled and turned over. The still, blue light of the space radio was now the only light in the room. Ida stared into it, imagining Ludmila, wherever she was, watching her own light in the dark.
“Well,” said Ida. “This is how the shit went down. Lemme tell you about it.…”
The Burning Dark © Adam Christopher, 2014