Cosmic Discord (a sci-fi serial)

Cosmic Discord

Anachronistic space adventure.
A work in progress.
New parts approximately once a week (no promises).


1

It should be easy to lose oneself in the infinite night of space.

We thought ourselves hidden, the Silent Symphony moored inside some asteroid in a backwater planetary system of no consequence. It was not so.

Two weeks in and tempers were running short fuses. Masters Blake and Cameron had knives drawn, eager, when Harriet cried alarm.

We four below ran to the portal. A shadow occluded the pinpoints of distant suns, a heinous and familiar silhouette. We were not as well-blended with the scenery as we had wagered. The Dismal Outlook had found us.

Blake groaned. "Well, this is exceptional misfortune."


2

"Seems to me a blend of exceptional misfortune and felicitous intervention," Doc replied, "you two were fit to kill each other."

Blake shrugged and sheathed his knife. "It all ends in the same place, Doc."

"This isn't over," Cameron snarled.

"Maybe, but more interesting sport than baiting your good self stands outside our very window. I suggest we concern ourselves with that. What say you Quiet Jim?"

Quiet, they called me. Thoughtful, I would have preferred.

"I say survival is no sport, Master Blake. We must be serious about our business; the Silent Symphony's cargo is too precious for games."


3

"Quite so, Jim," Doc nodded, "well said."

"Pay Mister Blake no heed, Quiet Jim, the tomfool hasn't a serious bone in his body. We'd be better situated spacing him, if the Symphony's crew weren't so drastically reduced already."

Cameron was right, about the crew at least. We were five from fifteen, and me no more than cabin boy. Between us we barely had the blend of skills necessary to run and maintain our little wonder of a frigate.

An external transmission, a woman, fuzzed through the intercom, "Stand by, Silent Symphony, and prepare to be boarded."

"Exceptional misfortune." Blake repeated.


4

"If we get away," Doc said, "maybe we should rename the ship such."

It would fit her well. Our maiden voyage had been nothing but one exceptional misfortune after another.

"No chance, sawbones." Harriet clambered through the ceiling hatch and down the ladder. "Silent Symphony she was born and so she shall remain."

Harriet was not crew, though she had proven herself more than capable since our predicaments began. It happened she was also the root of said predicaments.

"Did you hear her?" she said. "Pitch perfect blend of authority, arrogance and pomposity. How did my bitch wife find us?"


5

"Doubtless the same way she always finds us."

Harriet narrowed her eyes. "Don't you look at me like that Mister Cameron. If your brain weren't entirely the most undeveloped muscle in your body you would realise what a sloppy supposition that was. Why would I abscond, only to leap straight back into her lap?"

"I don't know. Why would you marry the royal bitch?"

"Firstly, the only person aboard permitted to call her that is me. And secondly," she shrugged, "touché."

Doc interrupted, "As interesting as fabricating explanations and doling out accusations is, mayhap we should concentrate on our escape?"


6

As my crewmates scrambled to the flight deck, I lingered by the porthole. The capital ship was too far out to observe any detail, and still it was enormous, dwarfing any of the nearer meteors. Ours was a heritage of war and violence, the Dismal Outlook an unequivocal manifestation of that belligerent disposition.

It could berth a thousand ships our size. More.

Just one of its fusion torches could effortlessly incinerate us, and it had hundreds.

Its intentions were unlikely so brutal, I suspected, inclining more toward capture. An advantage of sorts, though it was barely any advantage at all.


7

"This is an assuredly malign circumstance," Blake said.

 I joined the others around the chart table.

"Discord to our Symphony," Doc agreed.

The holo-display illuminated our faces green. It showed the system we were hid in, the glamorously dubbed TZ771: bloated red sun; dust-blown planetoid with no atmosphere; asteroid belt, with flashing cursor to illuminate the damned rock we currently inhabited; cumbersome five-ringed gas giant; and furthest out, our nemesis, mighty Dismal Outlook, harbinger of futures unpleasant.

Three tiny pinpoints slid past the gas giant, trajectories tracing back to the capital ship.

"Missiles?" Cameron asked.

"Misery," Harriet replied. "Assault ships."


8

Harriet slapped the table. The green projection shimmered, the instrument readings blurred, and the three incoming markers shivered before resuming their steadfast course: harpoons thrown true and strong.

"To your stations, gentlemen," she commanded.

I have mentioned she was not originally of our crew. Well, capricious fate (and exceptional misfortune) having divested us of our true captain, indeed of all officers, she had adopted the role. Not without eliciting contention, naturally, from Masters Cameron and Blake, each claiming themselves more eligible. But since Doc and I were inclined toward leadership both competent and rational, we had voted in Harriet's favour.


9

The Silent Symphony hummed to life; not in sound, but in sensation. She purred softly through our very souls, subtle as a rumour and twice as deadly.

Masters Cameron and Blake disappeared below decks to the gunnery – a caution only, conflict had no part in our plans. The break from the pair’s constant squabbling was a pleasing bonus.

Doc was on sensors and I on shields, though neither of us had anything but hasty training for such.

“Well, honey,” Harriet stroked the command panel as it extended in a smooth arc around her, “ready to give them another run around?”


10

We slipped from our asteroid and broke for the centre of the system, a mouse skittering from the skirting boards, cats already bearing down on us, or in our case – the three assault ships.

The calm of our cabin belied the tension I was sure boiled within each of us. I dared not remove my hand from the console for fear the others would see it shake.

Harriet’s fingers flitted around the controls. She was as much a marvel as our ship, conducting the Symphony as though she were a solo piece and not an intricate concert of advanced technologies.


11

As a young boy envisaging space battles I saw shields as bubbles of safety, waiting to be popped.

Such a gross oversimplification.

In technical terms they were charged fields of interference and governed polarity differentiations. Harriet described them as wrapping the ship in smoke and cotton wool, obfuscating and cushioning incoming fire. Master Blake called them kata, choreographed patterns of electromagnetic force designed to maximise defensive possibilities.

What I saw on screen was more like a wire mesh. Lines of charge and probability under my unpractised command.

I was blowing bubbles with shaky hands. Praying to God they wouldn’t burst.


12

Laser fire striped space. Brief lines of light, cycling through colours, shifting wavelengths to test our shields, and me.

“Be not afeared, Jim,” Harriet said without looking up, her concentration full upon manoeuvring the ship, “this light show is good practice, they aim to cripple us, not hammer us into oblivion.”

“Slim difference, surely, if one of those beams hits us?” I replied, unconvinced.

“Low density beams, just looking to scorch us and short something important. I haven’t yet pissed her off so badly she wants me dead.” Harriet paused, “At the very least, she’ll want that pleasure for herself.”


13

Danger rioted around us like a pinstripe disco painted onto the black tissue of the cosmos.

My only comfort lay in knowing it was all guesswork.

Lasers, naturally, travel at the speed of light. If our attackers fired at where they saw us, our image also travelling at the speed of light, they would miss us twice over.

So they guessed. Their A.I.s studied our erratic evasive actions and ran the data against their bible of battle tactics. Predicting the future. Trying to outthink our A.I.

Or so they thought.

Harriet had ordered our traitorous A.I. thrown overboard weeks ago.


14

It is not entirely wise to operate a starship without an A.I.. They tap into its vast multitude of systems and coordinate a ship-wide harmony of performance.

But ours had been loyal to the Empress. An untenable situation quite incompatible with our newly accorded status as outlaws.

We were not entirely without aid, however. We had our oxymoronic D.I.s – Dumb Intelligences. Subordinate programs that keep a ship running in case the primary intelligence is compromised, hacked, or in our case, brutally annexed with fire axe and chisel.

It had screamed of punishments unimaginable, before we disconnected it from the intercom.


15

Harriet swung the Silent Symphony through a long corkscrewing curl.

“We are outcasts,” she said, “heretics. We must decide what to do with ourselves.”

“Escape?” Doc suggested. “Discourse on any species of future beyond the next few seconds might prove unduly optimistic.”

“You have no vision, Doc. You’re only saying that because you’re afraid.”

“I am undoubtedly afeared.”

He wasn’t the only one.

“But one of those beams strikes us true and we’re liable to need more than a plaster. We get into your wife’s clutches and the punishment will scar. Let us talk of freedom when we are free.”


16

“An impassioned speech, Doc. Inspiring, even. So let us win free. But thereupon we require a plan. Something beyond flee, hide, flee, hide, etcetera, etcetera.”

“But for now: flee?”

“Yes. For now: flee.”

It seemed to me their jousting lacked substance, empty smoke drifting in lazy circles, though in truth there was little else to do as we dashed in-system for the nearest planetary mass. We needed the gravity well to drop us into downspace.

I suspected Cameron and Blake were also quarrelling below decks. A far less attractive prospect than the cabin’s benign banter. There were probably knives involved.


17

This is how downspace was explained to me: Imagine existence as an onion. The top layer is ours, vast and slow. But you can shortcut through lower layers, where physics, time and space are not the beasts we know.

Mass – gravity – stretches the skin of the universe. Find a weak spot and punch through.

The ordnance splashing around us intensified. Quantum missiles with antimatter warheads. Viruses riding wide-beam static. Anything to shut us down. They felt their quarry slipping away.

Hunched over the shield console, tension biting my shoulders and burning down my spine, I dared not be so optimistic.


18

Doc’s console pinged, insistently, once a second. Restrained, yet urgent.

Sentiment echoed by Harriet. “Talk to me, Doc.”

My own console started pulling combat telemetry from a new source. Somewhere other than the three assault ships on our tail or the distant capital ship that had launched them, the Dismal Outlook. Somewhere in front of us.

Doc looked up, fearful, “Downspace rupture in-system.”

Harriet voiced the conclusion I found myself rapidly arriving at.

“It’s a trap.”

The assault ships were missing us on purpose, driving us.

From the star’s gravity well, a second capital ship tore upwards into real space.


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