Monday, August 31, 2020

New neighbors


By Christopher Robin Negelein  Photo: NASA

Captain Rodimus took in the beauty of the starry void and would have smiled if she had lips. “Take us three degrees starboard, helmsman. Evergreen would have drifted downflow this time of year.”  Helmsman Lee nodded and customarily grunted as he edged the arcana wheel.

The shift was imperceptible, but the Captain noticed and put her wooden hand on the human’s right shoulder. “Perfect as always, Mr. Lee.” 

Another grunt. 

The charms in her neck gave her a smooth confident voice. One she imagined her original body had possessed.

The bridge windows gave a wide sweeping vista of the Flow ahead of them and to the sides. The stars foreshadowed by hundreds of distant bastions, floating living islands wrapped in hurricane winds with only one way in and out to ports where the Glass Manticore found its livelihood.

If the Captain had eyes, she would have blinked because something was nagging her like an itch she could not scratch. Her head swiveled left to the very edge of the starboard window. It seemed that down towards the deck, there was a small spot where the stars did not shine. Then half a star vanished. 

She reached for a speaking tube. “First Mate, would you look down on the vertical SB and Stern at 100?” 

Gabrel’s voice vibrated the pipe. “Yes, Captain. Looking now and I don’t see a ship. What am I looking for?”

The Captain nodded to herself. “Look for a lack of something, where there are no stars?” She glanced down to see the other  half of a star vanish.

“Yes, ma’am, I see it — and it’s growing. Growing fast!” The First Mate said, rising concern in their voice. More stars vanished, each one faster than the last. 

The Captain felt her own immediate panic and tamped it down. “Helm! Hard turn, port now!”

The crew scrambled to grab onto anything. The dark splotch on the universe vanished from its corner as the ship swung around. People caught unawares and loose objects slid around among curses and clatterings. The star field was clear and normal again. 

“Full speed!” She said.

Now forewarned, no one on the bridge was cursing with the sudden acceleration. The galley is going to be a mess, the Captain thought. 

“It’s no good, ma’am,” panic rising Gabrel’s voice. “The thing is catching up to us. It looks to ram us!”

Rodimus grabbed onto a nearby railing. “Brace for impact!” Bridge crew hugged whatever they had been bracing against before. Lee fought the wheel to make a blind evasive maneuver. There had been a time when the Captain could visualize the space around her ship like a third eye. But now the ship was like a part of her soul and she felt a danger, like a blade aimed at her spine. 

Too little, too late.

The void ship shook and groaned with the impact but there was no heart-rending snap or crack of a punctured hull. Also perplexed, Lee tilted his head. 

Realization dawned on her helmsman. “We’re being boarded or got a hitchhiker.” Regardless of the truth, everyone grabbed something or stumbled again as the ship deccelerated hard. 

Another voice pipe barked. “Captain, something is a’cutting through the aft hull. We’ve armed up every warm and cold body, ma’am!”

The Captain leaned closer to the funnel. “Hold the line, sailor! We’ll be there.” She pulled out her saber to the sound of everyone else also pulling out their weapons, swords and hand crossbows. 

Then the bridge’s port side wall exploded in a shower of splinters and shards across the deck. She felt the debris pelt her frame. 

No one hesitated, rattling swords weapons as shouts and challenges barked out of the voice tubes. The boarders were everywhere. 

Several of the crew charged the breach as cobalt blue beetles scuttled past sailors and onto the bridge, a wake of frost following behind them.  Like fast moving lichen, the frost spread across the room, making everyone’s breath, except for the Captain’s, steam in the chilled air. There were no screams from the other side of the portal, but a pool of quickly freezing blood pooled out of the dark hole a d onto the deck. 

Then a long bone-white blade pierced the darkness as followed by a pale hand fused into the weapon.  The figures were unnaturally skinny and pale, their armor matching. The helmets hid their faces behind elongated skull-like faceplates. They flowed in like a shifting snow drift.

Steel flashed as the crew crashed into the boarders. The Captain felt her people's desperation. The Manticore was not only their home, it was their last stand. There is no retreat in the void.

A sailor went down screaming, frost lining the edges of his wounds. The floor was already slick with frozen garnet blood. Another crew mate slid on the floor only to be skewered by the pale blades that didn’t shine like steel. The magics that gave sight to carved slits of her mask burned every detail into her psyche.

The bridge doors blew open, the handles shooting out like crossbow bolts. 

Passengers, all of whom were told to stay in their rooms, were thundering in a deadly chaos of steel, flesh, and fur. The Captain’s head swiveled as the fighting civilians joined the defensive circle the crew had found themselves in.

A landed noble sported a smirk and a dress that was fashionable, yet loose enough to allow for proper fighting. Her blade was already dark with a black ichor,  tinging her rapier with blue rime. “Permission to enter the bridge, Captain? I love your scarf, by the way.” Her sword darted back and forth like an angry wasp queen striking at invaders.

Behind here was a young reporter that had interviewed the Captain yesterday. While he was hanging back, he seemed to be a crack shot with his pistol. 

Then the thin stream of blood spurting from the chest of a robed man ignored gravity to transform into red spay of razor sharp scabs that made dark, pinpoint wounds all one of the invaders another boarders.  Another sailor collapsed onto the icy deck.

And then another human swung in from a rope that Rodimus had no idea where it had come from. With a smile and unnatural grace, the sharply dressed man danced among the boarders, cutting them down even as more of them came out of the breach. 

These passengers effortlessly joined the crew’s ranks to bolster the defense, the circle grew until it was no longer defensive but an offensive line, pushing back the invaders to a dark hole on the side of the hull.

We might get out of this yet, the Captain thought. 

That was when the giant blue insects scrambled back to the hole.. But instead of retreating, they  climbed up the wall to frame it in the breach.

They became an even darker shade of blue that made their carapaces iridescent. As if the room couldn’t get any colder, the temperature dropped even more. Even to the point the Captain admitted she felt the temperature through her wooden limbs as her long-term crewmates started to shiver.

Part of the darkness stretched out away from the hull. At first it looked amorphous, but took on the shape of a hooded figure that pulled away from the formless black. Once it was separate from the hull, the hooded thing stood taller than a Hamatar, but much slimmer. Two red embers glowed where eyes would be.  It moved long fingers possessing needle-like claws in the configuration of a spell. 

This, this is not good, the Captain thought 

“Yessss, you are correct, Captain,” said a whispery voice that emanated from the hood. 


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