Sunday 17 April 2011

Less than Dust

Rafi hung suspended in the pilot’s chamber. He was so tightly integrated with the Argus that he thought he could actually feel the chill of space jealously licking her hull.

He took the ship through a lazy, looping curve, nothing that her sleeping crew would notice, and he watched the tiny heat gradient spiral away behind them through the ship’s cutting edge sensors. It was a temperature differential so slight even the previous generation would have been hard pushed to pick it up from the surrounding vacuum. The Argus was the pinnacle of stealth tech. She was the pinnacle of so many technologies, a triumph of human ingenuity, their future.

An alert flickered across Rafi/ Argus’s consciousness; an incoming communication was insinuating itself into their datasphere, trying to get their attention like an insistent itch at the base of his skull. Red priority. He initiated the defrost procedure for the rest of the crew and sanctioned the Key drive warm-up; whatever the content of the message, a Red required immediate action.

He scanned the message. The Strangers had struck the home system. The Atlas collective were in trouble. Rafi reprocessed the communication, disbelieving. The Atlas collective were crying for help, all hands on, a Red priority return to Earth.

The Atlas was the only Titan class warship, the biggest structure ever built by humanity, its mass was greater than the moon’s. It was high command, the sol system’s last line of defence. Its personal fleet was a third of the whole Astral Unite Navy. That it needed help was almost unimaginable. That it was an all hands return was terrifying. He bumped the information down to the waking crew, he had no time for them to install, he had to move now. Almost a second had already passed since the communication had first touched the Argus’s sensory net.

Rafi/ Argus initiated a Keyhole event. The Key drive felt like triumph. It was exultant glory, it was unrestrained passion, it was fierce, unbridled joy. It leapt them across the galaxy with acceleration like pure emotion. It was the most dangerous thing ever invented.

Earth was only a heartbeat away and yet he had never been back. So many years since he had left. No, he could admit it now, since he took the easy option, since he ran away. From his parents, from responsibility, from Laurie.

The home system was in turmoil and The Argus exited Key space in evasive jump mode, hopping in-system using a more conventional drive, charting a randomised pattern to minimise the chances of being hit by enemy ordinance.

Rafi ran the numbers. It was bad. The Stranger fleet had never been estimated at this size, even spread among various systems. The Atlas was clearly in trouble, doomed, and weapon effects stretched from planet to planet. From the insulated pilot’s chamber one aspect of Rafi/ Argus watched the internal cameras with horror; there still hadn’t been enough time for the crew to install themselves and they were helplessly exposed as the ship sliced through detonation peripheries.

Rafi saw crackling effulgence rip spasmodically across the Argus’s interior. Lines of blue brightness jerked through air like the thrashing legs of a spider beneath a child’s cruel pin. They say electricity arcs, such a clean word: a curve, simple, sane. And It may arc over small distances but this surging violent tree was alive and broken, grasping at everything; reaching out with sharp, twitching, angry angles; fierce fingers stroking casual fire across the crew; the ghost of a searing touch; a million hot needles pushed under their skin.

They were dead, and he wouldn’t be far behind. Rafi knew the Argus would be dust in a few short seconds. Other ships would arrive over the next few minutes and suffer the same fate. Communications were out, system-wide, the Red priority was the last thing to get out. The home system was lost, and the rest of the fleet would be too.

Then the Argus picked up a Keyhole event just off Jupiter, another AUN ship to the slaughter house.

Rafi made a decision. The Argus’s last action would be a final Keyhole event of its own, straight into the one just appearing. Two Keyhole events on top of each other unleashed apocalyptic energies, a rift event: the fabric of space-time torn apart, on a system scale.

Any craft in-system would be atomised, the remains of the Atlas collective, the Argus, this unknown newcomer, the entire Stranger fleet. Within seconds any planetary masses, any moons, would be torn apart, broken down further and further until the entire system was nothing but a violent maelstrom of particles, remaining impenetrable space for centuries unknown.

Any incoming ships further than a few microseconds out would see the storm in time to avoid it. The UAN, humanity, though decimated, would survive. And the Strangers would no longer be a threat.

Destroying the home system, destroying Earth, destroying his past, was the hardest decision; saving humankind took no decision at all. The Key drive was agony and ecstasy, beauty and chaos; it was a love song to the universe, it was a funeral dirge.

Recommended reading: The Egg by Andy Weir.
A great philosophical idea built into a flash fiction.


  1. Two things stand out for me in this story. First I like the conflicting ideas: the end seems to power that home with agony/ectasy, beauty/chaos, love song/dirge; but also the central conflict running away and returning home. Secondly, I like the running commentary from the Rafi: "the most dangerous thing ever invented".

    Great voice throughout.

  2. Thanks Aidan, glad you liked the dichotomy in there. =)

    I thought about how often something is so near to us, within our own town, say, and we don't visit it. I hardly ever went back home when it was only half an hour away... and now my parents live in an entirely different country... we so often don't take the opportunity when we can.

  3. You certainly know your stuff John.
    This is such very very good sci-fi, a riveting read, I would be happy to read the story of the build-up to this, the starting of the war, and the aftermath of Rafi's actions, the story of the ones left to carry on.

  4. Thank you, Steve. I love so much genre fiction, but Science Fiction will always be at the top of the pile. =D

    I certainly have ideas for a follow up or two, we'll have to see. =)

  5. Hi there John -- great job on this story.

    It has a beginning, middle and end. It's dramatic, and it has a deep sense of environment, history, and tech, all put across in a small number of words.

    It rattles along as well.


  6. Thanks, Stephen. =)

    I'm glad all the parts ended up fitting and working well together, a lot of editing went into this one. =)