Long Fall — Chapter 09

Tonight, we’ll be taste-testing the ninth chapter of Biotech Legacy: Long Fall. Ready?

Update: If you’re just joining Biotech Legacy: Long Fall, you can find all of the other chapters right here at the Oktopod Blog.

The previous novel, Biotech Legacy: Stars Rain Down, is currently available exclusively through Amazon.

Visual reference for this chapter can be found by clicking on this very sentence.

Ready yet? Good! On with the show.


Chapter 09
Termination Shock

The Beagle hurtled through the solar system’s far reaches. The ship was a Maguro Class Shuttle, shaped rather like a squared-off shuttlecock, with a short body covered at the aft in feather-like spines that trailed out behind it. The forward section was bisected by a ring of glass, behind which sat her bridge.

The bridge was particularly small as far as such things went. Marco Esquivel preferred to think of it as cozy, but he always had been one to look on the bright side of life. His most recent silver linings were his perfectly adequate job, and his recent promotion to commander of a very sweet little interplanetary shuttle.

Sure… the Earth was toast and everyone left on the surface were at each other’s throats, but Marco had it pretty good, all things considered. With that thought in mind, he resettled in his command chair and admired the piece of furniture for a moment, a sleek thing with swooping curves and the most comfortable padding he could recall sitting in.

He was out there in the dark away from all the problems, the shooting, and the madness.

“Gentlemen, I want you all to take a moment and reflect on just how good we have it.”

“All both of us?” Nils Jansen asked.

“All both of you,” Marco replied emphatically.

Jansen was trying to undermine his authority again. If Marco didn’t know his subordinate’s middle name to be Alvis (of all ridiculous things), he might suspect it was mutineer instead.

Marco shook it off and stared out the front viewport. The glass was some kind of resin produced by Legacy, amber colored and with a faint hexagonal imprint from the manner of its excretion. The material gave an impression that, despite the ship’s canine name, he was sitting inside of an unusually corpulent house-fly.

But at least it was his corpulent house-fly.

Through the viewport, the stars sat maddeningly still. Marco really didn’t feel like he was travelling all that fast at all, even though they were going some percentage of a percentage of the speed of light, or uber wikiwiki fast by his own rough and linguistically tortured estimation.

He sighed. “At what velocity do the stars start to streak like in sci-fi movies?”

“Like warp two, maybe three,” Jansen said. The man was so pathologically unhelpful that Marco wondered if he came from a long line of DMV workers.

Marco shooed that thought from his head as well, and tried to steer his crew back on track. “Faster than light? Would that do it?”

Larry Hopkins, who had been silent for the past four hours, suddenly let out a strange, high-pitched growl. He sounded like a girl scout who just discovered that her best friend had stolen her cookie territory, and the sound was all the more surprising coming out of a man who looked like a young and doughy Tor Johnson. “You can’t travel faster than light, you frigging morons. It’s not physically possible. Did you pay for your diplomas? The closer you are to c, the more energy you need to accelerate, until it reaches infinity. Infinity. You do know what infinity is, right?”

Jansen was giggling already.

“And even if you got close, they would never look like streaks of light. Never. Never ever. The stars would disappear, and you’d see a faint glow ahead of you. Oh. And hello X-rays.”

Marco inspected his cuticles.

“Idiots,” Hop grumbled in sotto voce. He chased the epithet with a noisy sip from his coffee cup.

Once upon a time, Marco and Jansen had taken turns intentionally pissing Hopkins off. It started when they were first stationed aboard the Copernicus Orbital Observatory together, but it became their official passtime when the satellite became their prison. They had watched the world below them burn and had nothing but childish antics to leaven the mood while they patiently waited to die.

They didn’t die though, and three years on, Marco and Jansen simply did it by instinct, as naturally as a cat toying with a terrified lizard.

Marco leaned forward in his chair and draped an arm between his legs like a lounging orangutan. An orangutan with a command insignia on his collar. “Crewman Hopkins, what’s our current ETA?”

“We’re twelve minutes out, sir.”

Marco could’ve easily checked on his own console, but he liked to make Hop feel useful. It was just good management.

He checked his cuticles again.

Jansen said, “Marco.”

“Call me Captain.”

“Sure. Captain Marco, we’re not going really insanely fast, are we?”

Jansen could also have easily checked that information on his own screen, but he liked to make himself a damn nuisance.

“No, Jansen. We are not going, quote really, insanely fast close-quote.”

Jansen wasn’t listening to him anymore. He was gaping like an Old Danish Pointer, the entirety of his feeble brain consumed by something out the window. For a second, Marco could swear on his mother’s ashpile that Jansen’s arm was about to raise up and literally point, like a hammy child actor in a horror film.

Then Marco looked. The sky was glowing deep red in the distance. “Hopkins, uplink with…”

“The fleet,” Hop interjected. “Already sent, including full sensor log.”

Marco despised being cut off. It reminded him of long afternoons with his little sister.

“Well, then… good work, Crewman Hopkins.”

“And now comms are glitching out,” Crewman Tor Johnson said. He smacked his monitor, but it apparently didn’t produce the result he wanted, so he smacked it again.

Jansen suddenly showed sparks of caring about his job. His fingers flew through interface screens, comparing graphs and figures of things Marco couldn’t make out. “I think I know what it is,” Jansen said.

Silence.

Marco’s impatience got the better of him. “Well what the fuck is it, technician?” He motivated his subordinate using a firm tone, and empowered him by properly acknowledging his position.

“I think…” Jansen said, “It’s… Gah. I can’t think of the word.”

Marco’s eyes tightened. His lips scrunched up and twitched.

Jansen started tapping the metal casing of the console and said, “It’s right on the tip of my damned tongue. You know the feeling. Ag. It’s right there.”

Marco could strangle him if he were just a few meters closer.

“Heliocrash?,” Jansen finally spit out. His face said he was anything but confident. “It’s like… our sun creates a bubble within the interstellar medium, and the… damned thing I can’t remember the name of… it’s where the solar wind mashes up against all the stuff outside.”

Hopkins sighed, placed fingers on either side of his nose, and shook his head for a very long time.

“And?” Marco said.

“Well, if I’m reading this right, something may be exciting the particles that sit along the… thing.”

Marco stroked his goatee. “Intriguing,” he said. “How far away…”

“The heliopause,” Hop said haughtily, “is forty-two AU away. What we’re seeing is just under six hours old.”

“Hmm.” The light show was interesting, but all Marco could think about was confining Hopkins to his quarters for breach of fleet etiquette. The punishment seemed a little steep though; their quarters were small storage lockers the size of a shower stall, like one of those old Japanese capsule hotels. They were human kennels.

“Dangerous?” Marco asked, preventing Hopkins from cutting him off by only speaking in single words.

Hopkins said, “Unknown.”

“Meh,” Jansen said, as he so often did.

Marco had to admit that Jansen made a compelling case.

“Well, the mission awaits. Resume course to Charon, Crewman. Full steam ahead.”

“I never stopped the…”

“Just let him have this,” Jansen said, his voice full of pity.

And so The Beagle hurtled on.

It and its intrepid crew arrived at Pluto and its near twin Charon without incident, the two bodies glittering dimly against a starry background. Hopkins pressed at a few panels in front of him, took hold of the flight yoke and guided the ship around toward Charon, which looked rather like an old and mistreated golf ball.

Pluto sat beyond, the larger of the two by half, a mottled white and reddish-brown ball of speckled ice. Marco found it awfully pretty, especially for an object that had received so much abuse at the hands of the Global Aerospace Foundation. It had long-ago been downgraded from planet to dwarf planet, then the GAF took charge and reclassified it a large dwarf planet, a moonlike planetoid, and finally part of a binary outer orbit object.

The resulting acronym was surely no coincidence.

The Beagle approached Charon slowly and came to a stop a few hundred meters from the surface. They sat there for a few seconds in silence, then the ground visibly rumbled, cracked, and split open. It was a hatch, a perfect circle split into four parts which then folded outward.

“Crewman,” Marco said, “commence docking procedures.”

“Aye aye,” Hopkins said smartly, adding under his breath, “Jagweed.”

Marco grimaced but held his tongue. He’d need to consult his command pamphlet about chronic insubordination later.

The shuttle swooped in and gently set down in a marked landing bay while the hatch closed behind it. Sensors showed the room’s seal had been re-established, and the environment checked out.

The team got out of their seats and began to stretch and yawn. Marco plucked a device from his arm-rest, consisting of a metallic bead on an attractive silver chain, and snapped it around his wrist. It was what passed for a phone in Legacy’s fleet, and its like were distributed to all fleet personnel for communication, mission recording, and the occasional game. He technically wasn’t supposed to have taken it off in the first place, but who was going to report him?

Jansen groaned as he put his own phone on. “Ya know, this is how they track you, right? Government espionnage, man.”

Hopkins’ phone had never left his wrist. “I do know that, Jansen. It’s in the manual. And on the back of the box. And on the front of the box. In case you missed it, we’re in the military.”

“Psh. I never signed any enlistment papers.” Jansen looked to Marco. “Hey, we bringing the blasters along?”

Of course they weren’t. After The Europa Incident, The Beagle’s crew were only allowed access to the ship’s arsenal with prior authorization from Fleet Command.

Marco shook his head.

Jansen’s shoulders drooped.

Hopkins mumbled, “They’re not blasters,” but no one paid him any mind.

With that matter settled, they headed for the ramp. They passed the pressure suits still hanging in their lockers, glanced at them and kept walking. Fleet regulations required personnel to wear the fancy new skinsuits on all extra-vehicular operations, but even Hopkins was willing to thumb his nose up at that one. They’d all lived in similar outfits for six straight months, and that seemed to be more than enough for one lifetime.

The Beagle’s ramp lowered to the floor and they walked down into a small hangar bay. As they came out of under the shuttle’s shadow, Marco took a look around and marveled at the installation. Charon had been transformed into a big pair of eyes and ears attached to one very large cannon, less a boatman than a gatekeeper it seemed, and hidden right out in plain sight.

The defense platform had essentially built itself. Legacy launched a seed-pod at the binary-moon-planet-thing-a-doo, and it hit the surface, dug inside, and turned the insides into a surveillance and early response outpost. While the delivery method had been provided by the Eireki, the actual design of the installation was entirely human.

Marco somehow doubted any other design teams had worked together across a span of sixty-five million years.

“So what’s the job?” Jansen asked.

Marco tapped his wrist and a glowing screen popped up at the edge of his vision. The phone was always listening to the conversation, and had already prepared the mission brief for him. He flicked his fingers and made the image full-screen.

After a minute, Marco said, “Looks like a faulty memory module. Cron jobs aren’t executing on-time, and the whole system kernel-panicked a few times.”

“Easy one,” Jansen replied. “We’ll be back at Legacy for dinner.”

Lights dimmed, turned red and began to pulse. A klaxon started.

“Aww, what now?” Jansen moaned.

Marco brought his display back up and checked for local network alerts. “Incoming vessel detected,” he said with a hundred questions swarming his voice.

Heavy machinery moved all around them. Thousands of tonnes of metal and stone shuddered and shook the ground, then locked into place.

There was a flash of light, not blindingly bright but enough to surprise the three technicians.

Marco glanced back at the phone’s display. “Shit. We just fired on someone?”

Sparks exploded from the wall a few stories above them. Similar explosions sounded throughout the installation’s corridors.

The lights went out everywhere.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Hopkins said.

With that, they all turned around in unison and walked back up the ramp, and it automatically closed behind them.


So, this chapter brings back Jansen and his two comrades, whom I’ve always referred to affectionately as the three stooges for reasons that are no doubt obvious. It’s a bit peculiar to have a set of characters in a space opera who pretty much exist for comic relief purposes, but that’s just how I roll… peculiarly.

This one still feels like it needs a bit of editing. I’m especially worried about the Tor Johnson references, since he’s not exactly a common cultural icon for most people. We’ll see.

The other thing that’s becoming clear approximately 1/5th of the way into the novel is that I already have a lot of plot threads running concurrently. As planned, this is a complex story with a lot of moving pieces that are all designed to come together. I won’t blame you if you’re a little worried, but I have faith that this is all going to work, and I hope you do, too.

Next up is Chapter 10 (you’re totally surprised, right?), titled Invasive Species. You should be seeing that in 4-5 days.

Until next time,
~Chris

Copyright 2013. All rights (currently) reserved.

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