“…beautiful descriptions of cosmic phenomena and alternate dimensions….a great read!”
an excerpt from
Children of the Old Stars
by David Lee Summers
Copyright © 2014 by David Lee Summers and published here with his permission
THE FREEDOM TO SEARCH
Some stories begin with a battle. Even more end with one. Still, there are other stories where the battle occurs before the tale begins. We can only imagine the terrible fight in which Ahab lost his leg to the white whale. We know it was a transforming experience—almost a spiritual conversion. What else could cause a man to lose himself to a quest?
The war-weary planet of Sufiro hung, healing, in the black stillness of space—a blue-green marble spotted with brown continents and white clouds. On Sufiro, Clyde McClintlock sat bored in a pristine white room with perfectly smooth walls and rounded corners. The plastic furniture, a bed, chair, table, and toilet, were as white and featureless as the walls themselves. At the front of the room was a transparent force field, which looked out into an equally pristine white hallway. Clyde picked up a new, crisp book. The book was a mystery novel, but every time he tried to read, images of nearly translucent silver spheres reflecting the planet Sufiro’s blue-green oceans would enter his thoughts. People called those spheres the Cluster. It was a benign name for a potent force.
He carefully returned the book to the center of the table, adjusting it precisely. Standing slowly, he put his feet against the back wall. Methodically he paced the distance from the wall to the force field. The cell hadn’t changed size; it was still exactly ten paces. Again, McClintlock picked up the book, opened it to the first page, but threw it down almost instantly, activating a button on the edge of the table.
A hologram of a professionally dressed woman materialized on one side of the cell. It was a news holo, originating from Earth. The woman’s voice was a forced calm, but held a note of hopelessness. “Humans have now lost over 100 star vessels to the mysterious Cluster. All of the races of the Confederation claim losses on the same scale, including the Titans. So far, no Cluster appears to have attacked any planets, though there have been sightings reported over various frontier worlds, including Earth’s key mining colony, Sufiro.”
Clyde McClintlock slammed the button, shutting off the hologram. “Don’t tell me about the Cluster. I already know more than I want to,” he grumbled to no one.
At one time, Clyde McClintlock had been a colonel, leading the armies of the continent of Tejo on Sufiro. Tejo had supplied the mineral, Erdonium, to Earth to help combat the Cluster, wherever it appeared. As the Cluster appeared more often, demand for the rare material increased. To supply the ever-rising need, the Tejans resorted to using migrant labor from the other major continent on the planet, New Granada. Money was short and competition for trade, fierce. As such, the migrant laborers were paid only enough food to survive and clothing that was little more than rags. Even to Clyde McClintlock, whose job it had been to keep the migrants from rioting, it seemed little different from slavery.
The demand for Erdonium continued to grow. Clyde had been ordered to send an invasion force to New Granada to get more people to mine the mineral. It was during the invasion that a Confederation Commander, John Mark Ellis, had destroyed his supply train. Shortly after that, the Cluster had appeared in the sky. It was while the Cluster was in the sky that he had the vision.
In one instant, he had seen, and more importantly, understood, all of the pain and suffering his government had caused. More to the point though, he realized how to end it. In one stroke, Clyde McClintlock led a military coup and seized control of his home, Tejo. Peace between the two continents was made and the migrants were sent home. McClintlock had no ambition to run a country. Even more, he did not want to go down in history as another tyrannical militant who ended one type of suffering by imposing another. McClintlock turned control of Tejo’s government over to the people. The people promptly arrested him.
Beyond arresting him, though, the people weren’t quite sure what to do. Clyde McClintlock had violated the most sacred law of any military officer. He had attacked his Commander-in-Chief and childhood friend, Rocky Hill. On the other hand, no one questioned that it took just that kind of extreme action to save Tejo from the self-destructive path it had been on.
While imprisoned in the capital, Tejo City, McClintlock had heard that Caroline Chung of the mighty Mao Corporation had been elected to lead the people. McClintlock waited impatiently, hoping she would decide on a course of action—any course of action—soon.
Sitting alone in his cell, McClintlock was bothered. He was not bothered by the ultimate outcome of the decision. In a way, he almost didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, death would not be too high a price for betraying his closest friend. Instead, he was bothered by the clarity of the vision he had received. It occurred to Clyde that the Cluster might not be the evil that people had claimed it was. Instead, it might be quite different. It might hold answers; answers to many of the deepest mysteries.
Clyde retrieved some paper from the drawer in the table and began to write…
* * * *
Roly-poly, furred beings with deep, black eyes performed the ceremonial dances and sang the ritual chants that made their vessel traverse space. In another part of the ship, a detection algorithm was danced. The beings, called Titans after their home world, sensed an ancient presence. The presence took the form of silvery, translucent orbs—a large one in the center, smaller ones around the outside. “It is the intelligence,” said one of the Titans, continuing to dance.
“Have they detected us?” asked another.
“Unknown. The intelligence is diminished without appendages, but its power is still great,” said the first Titan.
The other Titan called to those controlling the ship, “Take steps to ensure we are not detected.” With that command, the Titans’ spacecraft vanished into a dimension perpendicular to those normally sensed.
* * * *
Frail wisps of gray smoke drifted silently past shimmering, iridescent, silver spheres hovering over a tiny foldout desk. The spheres seemed to cling together impossibly. Commander John Mark Ellis of the destroyer, Firebrandt, sat transfixed by the image, asking himself questions. The commander sat back in a frail metal chair and lifted the smoldering, brown cigar to his chapped lips. As he sucked in the warm, fragrant smoke, he thought of the terrible damage caused by this lovely cluster of spheres.
Ellis exhaled smoke forcefully and a deep frown etched itself onto his face. With a rumble, deep down in his throat, he sat forward, touched a button on the projector base and changed the hologram. Where the cluster of spheres once hovered, now stood the image of a man who looked very much like him. Both men were over six feet tall and somewhat stocky, each with muscles built up from years of military service. Unlike the commander though, the man in the holographic image was clean-shaven. The image was one of Jerome Mycroft Ellis standing on the bow of a sleek hover boat in the Atlantic Ocean of Earth, his hands on his hips, hair blown back by the wind. Ellis felt his own deep brown eyes grow moist as he thought about his father lost to the cluster of spheres. Ellis’ father had not done anything to the spheres—he didn’t even try to communicate—yet the Cluster sliced his ship open just as easily as a human would a can of soup.
Ellis, placing the pungent cigar in a small, black ashtray, turned as he heard a knock on the bulkhead next to the alcove where he sat. “Yes,” said Ellis, with an edge to his voice.
The commander heard the soft rustle as the green curtain was pushed aside. The strong, youthful face of his first lieutenant, Frank Rubin appeared. “We’re almost at the final jump point for Titan, sir,” said the lieutenant in an almost unnaturally booming baritone.
“I’ll be on the bridge momentarily,” said Ellis, scratchily. He cleared his throat and reached behind him to the tiny bunk and grabbed his blue uniform coat. His attention was dragged back to the image of his father. The commander sighed and turned off the holo projector at its base. In one fluid motion, he grabbed the cigar, took a puff and dumped it down the incinerator chute while folding the tiny metal desk back into the wall. He tossed on the coat without ceremony, without bothering to button it. Taking five steps, he found himself on the bridge of the tiny vessel.
As Ellis entered the bridge, he did not sit down immediately. Rather, he stood just behind his black, leather command chair, his jacket rumpled, the single epaulet on the left shoulder hanging askew. His fingers reached out, almost caressing the top of the chair. For a long moment, he stared at the holographic viewer, then down to the right at the communicator—a thin, pale fellow named Weiss—working at his station. Ellis scanned left where Commissioned Officer (B-Grade) Francis Rubin had just settled in at the pilot’s console, slightly forward and to the left of the command seat. Allowing his gaze to wander, he smiled at the gunner, a blonde-haired young woman named Adkins. The smile she returned lit up her face.
The commander returned his gaze to the holographic projector. On it, a course projection seemed to stretch out through the stars to a flashing purple sphere. That was the point at which the ship would inject itself into fourth dimensional reality and return to its home base at Saturn’s largest moon, the enigmatically shrouded Titan. Ellis inhaled deeply, smelling new plastic, dust and sweat mingling with old, stale cigar smoke. He examined the light gray metal and plastic of the bridge as though it would be the last time he would ever see it. Finally, he eased around the black command chair, letting his hand trail on the armrest and settled into the not-too-comfortable chair.
“Are you looking forward to going home, sir?” asked Adkins cheerily.
Ellis took a shuddering breath and felt a slight lump form in his throat. “I’m going to miss this ship,” he said carefully. “My first command.” He sighed to himself.
Rubin turned, looking at his commander. “After our mission at Sufiro, they’d be crazy not to confirm your promotion. The only way to end the war with the Cluster is to be able to talk to them.” The B-Com smiled reassuringly. “At Sufiro, you showed that might actually be possible.”
The commander scowled. “As far as I know, my ‘communication’ with the Cluster might have been nothing more than a bad dream.” Ellis’ scowl melted into a whimsical grin. “It may have been nothing more than an undigested bit of meat. There might have been more of gravy than grave to that vision.”
“More like a nicotine hallucination,” chided Adkins, deliberately ignoring the allusion to Dickens.
The commander—a naval traditionalist—scowled at the gunner.
“More like a nicotine hallucination, sir,” Adkins hastily corrected.
Ellis nodded, grinning mischievously. “All I saw were scenes of the conflict at Sufiro. There was nothing I didn’t already know about.” The commander shook his head. “I had a few vague impressions.”
Rubin took a deep breath. “Quite frankly, sir, it sounds like you’re trying to talk yourself out of believing the communication even happened.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” cut in the thin voice of the communicator. Weiss turned, holding a hand to the scar on his forehead where a communication’s chip had been implanted. “I’m receiving an EQ distress call.”
“On speakers,” barked Ellis.
Sound from the speakers reverberated suddenly from the walls of the tiny ship’s bridge. “…stumbled across a Cluster ship in orbit of star 1E1919+0427. We have attempted neither communication nor scans. We request assistance from a Confederation vessel. Repeat—this is the Mao Freighter Martha’s Vineyard calling for immediate assistance. We have stumbled across…” Ellis reached to his own control pad and cut the speakers. He sat stunned for a moment. The Martha’s Vineyard had been a sister ship to his father’s now-destroyed freighter, the Nantucket.
“Analysis,” called Ellis, sitting up in his chair.
Rubin looked up from his station where he had already been performing calculations. “We can reach 1E1919+0427 using nearly the same jump point as for Titan. It’s almost in a straight line between here and our own solar system.”
Weiss still looked at Ellis, his hand on his forehead. “Titan control confirms we are the best-positioned ship to make an immediate response. Although there are more heavily armed ships that could be there only an hour later. Titan control says it’s your decision.”T
he commander tapped his fingers rapidly on the armrest of his chair. After only a couple seconds he looked at Rubin. “Proceed to the jump point for 1E19…” Ellis shook his head, not remembering the string of numbers.
“1E1919+0427,” stated Rubin, his deep voice giving the impression of confidence. “Aye, sir.”
“Full speed.” Ellis turned his attention to Weiss. “Inform Titan control that we are going in.” As Weiss returned his hand to his forehead, Ellis turned to Adkins. “Better make sure those guns are set, though I hope to God we don’t have to use them.”
Adkins nodded curtly while Ellis returned his eyes to the holo viewer. In the image, he saw the course projection move over slightly and a new purple sphere appear, slightly closer than the preceding one. After Rubin made the course adjustment, he reached over to the intercom switch. “This is the Executive Officer, we have changed course and are engaged in a rescue mission. All hands to battle stations. Repeat—this is the XO, all hands to battle stations. Prepare for jump in two minutes.” Rubin looked at the holographic chronometer readout floating in his workstation window. “Jump in two minutes … mark.” As Rubin spoke, the computer automatically registered the call to battle stations. An alarm bell sounded as lights went red, drawing people’s attentions to their stations.
Automatically, Ellis checked readouts on his own console. He tried, in vain, to remember if he had secured the volume of Emily Dickinson that he had been reading before he had become absorbed in pictures of the Cluster. He shook his head, knowing he didn’t have time to worry about it even if he had forgotten.
Rubin looked around at Ellis. “We are at the jump point,” he said tersely.
Ellis took a deep breath and gripped the armrests tightly, his knuckles showing white. “Jump!”
Reality exploded as the Firebrandt leapt from the confines of three-dimensional existence, riding a gravity wave through the dimension of time. Light swirled in twisting silver intensities becoming loud voices that called Ellis’ name. The commander looked around, his mouth agape, to see himself surrounded by Clusters, which melted themselves into the stars of the holo viewer. Ellis was wrenched hard into his seat as reality reasserted itself. Grabbing the armrests tightly, he clamped his mouth and eyes shut getting control of the nausea that inevitably followed the jump.
Ellis slowly opened his aching eyes, looking back to the screen as the other members of the bridge also recovered from the jump. In the center, he saw two yellow stars, nearby. On the surface of the larger, was a vast group of dark spots, covering nearly an eighth of the surface area. The commander pursed his lips, realizing they had jumped in near the star system itself. The screen had automatically damped itself. He shook his head; he thought he had seen many stars on the screen as they came out of the jump.
The commander looked to Weiss. “Where’s the Vineyard? Are they still okay?”
“Communication’s established,” reported Weiss. “Transferring coordinates to Mr. Rubin’s station. The Cluster is still there, still quiet.”
Ellis nodded to the pilot. “Approach,” he ordered, his voice hushed. He took a deep breath and fished around his rumpled coat. Finally, he located a cigar, thrust it in his mouth and lit it, ignoring the sour look that appeared on the communicator’s face.
The ship pivoted on one axis turning away from the double star. He watched, transfixed as the silver orbs of the Cluster came into view one by one. The Cluster appeared to move hypnotically to the center of the screen. Ellis knew it would be impossible to see the black, Erdonium hull of the freighter. “Mark the freighter’s position,” ordered Ellis, shaking his head, trying to regain concentration.
Weiss nodded and a bright red dot appeared near the Cluster. As the cluster of spheres grew on the ship’s holo viewer, Ellis couldn’t help but think of his father, who had, like the captain of the Martha’s Vineyard, commanded a Mao Corporation freighter. Desperately, he wanted to save this crew. In some small way, he hoped it would quiet some of the guilt he felt over his own father’s death.
At the same time, Ellis thought about the Cluster over the planet Sufiro. The Cluster’s presence had brought an end to a fierce war fought between the two major continents. The continents of Tejo and New Granada united to defend themselves against the Cluster. It had projected images of the war to Ellis along with a feeling of almost loving warmth. The commander took a long draw on his cigar, trying to reconcile the image of the Cluster as caring peacemaker with the image of the Cluster as a cold, unfeeling murderer.
“Mr. Weiss,” said the commander, exhaling smoke. “Tell the Vineyard to back slowly away from the Cluster.” He turned to the pilot. “Mr. Rubin, maneuver ourselves between the Cluster and the freighter. Let’s see if we can get the Vineyard safely to a jump point.”
Weiss and Rubin nodded in unison. “Aye, sir.”
“Shall I train ship’s guns on the Cluster, sir?” asked Adkins, running her hand through the short hair on the back of her head.
Ellis thought for a moment, his eyes still fixed on the viewer. “Not just yet,” he said thoughtfully. “But be ready. We’ll use them if we must.” Adkins nodded acknowledgment.
Still transfixed by the image of the Cluster on the holo viewer, a thought came to Ellis. He almost didn’t believe it was his own, it seemed so ridiculous. If the Cluster could communicate with him, maybe he could communicate with it. His only clue as to how lay in the fact that at Sufiro, the Cluster seemed to speak to his very emotions.
The bridge crew sat tense, watching nervously as the Martha’s Vineyard and the Barbara Firebrandt performed their excruciatingly slow ballet in space. The freighter gradually became visible on the viewer. A few words appeared in the field, indicating that Rubin had touched thrusters to bring the destroyer in front of the freighter.
As they crept toward the freighter, Ellis began to reason that he might be able to communicate with the Cluster if he emoted hard enough at it. “Bah,” he said to himself, smoke escaping his lips. “What am I, some kind of damned actor?” Still, he thought, what harm would come in trying it. Ellis took one last draw on the cigar and reached behind him, placing the butt in the incinerator. He sat forward, staring at the hypnotic image. He filled his mind with sensations of warmth, peace and love. He imagined projecting those images at the Cluster.
A flash of intense green light appeared on the screen followed by blinding white light. “Report,” barked Ellis, standing. Suddenly, Ellis collapsed to the deck, his head hitting the metal grating with a sickening thud.
* * * *
Mark Ellis found himself in a room, not unlike one in the house in which he grew up. The room was cluttered with things ancient and antique. On shelves, he saw Egyptian alabaster urns next to a brass sextant. A Roman shield leaned against a nineteenth century wooden icebox in the middle of the floor. Ellis turned, feeling a presence in the room.
Sitting on a bright red velvet couch, that looked to be French, was a woman with black hair and piercing green eyes. She seemed to be wearing nothing, but for some reason Ellis couldn’t get a clear view of her. Straight black hair covered her breasts and antiques obscured the rest. Only the unnaturally bright green eyes stood out clearly.
The commander turned at the sound of someone entering. “Dad!” he whispered, before he saw the figure. He had to steady himself on a treadle sewing machine as he turned. His father stood, just like Ellis last remembered seeing him, a stocky man, his hair cut short, wearing the trim suit of a Mao Corporation captain.
The woman stood and slunk, cat-like, to Jerome Ellis. She felt his arms, as though evaluating their strength. With a nod of approval, she kissed him lightly on the cheek. Mark Ellis sucked in air as he watched his father dissolve into ashes before his eyes.
“No!” he cried. He stood and tried to move toward the woman, but found his feet fixed in place. Instead, the woman turned toward him. Effortlessly, she moved heavy antique furniture out of her way. The commander sobbed, feeling helpless as she approached. However, as she came closer, he felt warmth and tenderness, much like the feeling he had at Sufiro. Ellis calmed down. The woman vanished, but Ellis turned to find her standing right behind him. Lithe arms reached out and embraced the commander. Terrified, he found his hands moving to the small of her back, as though under their own power. Continuing downward, his hands grasped cold buttocks.
By all appearances, her body should be supple and soft as she pressed against him. Instead, it was hard like marble and just as unyielding. A cold chill moved up the commander’s spine. He saw her lips approach his, almost in slow motion. As she pulled his head closer, he sensed raw power and intelligence. Desire to help her washed over him. Fear crept back through the desire, though, and he tried in vain to pull back. She planted a cold, firm kiss on his mouth.
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by David Lee Summers
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