Train

Year: 1,988,405 A.D. (Gregorian), W.Y. 127 (Shango), C.E. 13 (Qareen)
Location: nr. Darkworld Franklin

1

The walk to the captain’s office had been one of twisting corridors and low ceilings, of narrow passages surrounded by displays and components, and of glimpses into small rooms where the floorspace could maybe accomodate two standing to work at a machine. After what felt like a kilometre of this, she had finally arrived at the office, which was seemingly the only room on the ship that was of sensible dimensions for a Shango. The captain, naturally, was a large-built and tall man in order to compensate for this.

“Welcome aboard the Shango Federation Ship Total Wipeout,” he said, “Captain Ilrap. You are…”

He said this whilst remaining sat. He invited her, in turn, to sit.

“Kolliq, Kolliq Derro. I’m applying for the-”

“Tracklayer role. Yes indeed. Been a difficult role to fill.”

The Total Wipeout, it transpired, had gone through three different tracklayers in the previous year.

“The first guy was simply not good enough. Half of his time here was spent off-ship, because of the damage we took. The second guy had some extremely rare condition that caused him to react to flashing lights – can you imagine? Can’t gaze at brief flashes in the midst of a space-based battle? Ridiculous. Why he hid that from us, when it became so obvious…”

He gazed at the desk in silent annoyance for a few seconds, then continued.
“And recently we’ve been using an AI, but they’re just not quite as up to the task as a human. Great defensively, but they can’t position for firing. What I’m saying, Ms. Derro, is that after all of this, this ship is very, very much ready for a highly competent tracklayer. You have to be capable. So are you ready to proceed?”

“Yes.”

The desk shifted in appearance underneath his hands, transferring from its previous wooden look to a display of a timeline, instantly recognisable to Kolliq as her Utilisation Statement. The U.S. contained few gaps, although it did contain a broad theme to it.

“I see you have extensive experience in civilian piloting,” the captain noted, “it is a fairly low-pressure environment, most of the time.”

“It can be. I would also note, though…”

She reached over, highlighted three small bits in orange, and pulled them away from the long timeline bar in the display.

“…I do also have racing experience. Requires some originality and spontaneous thinking to do that, especially in the laned sublight series I’ve competed in.”

The captain nodded, and drew the blocks across the table towards him. A series of statistics unravelled in sprawls of architect lines as he did so, great stacked rivers of information torrenting outwards in the Federal language of Umbekkr.

He gazed over it, taking in statistics and reports and gently bumping away offers to be told more. When he looked up again, he gave a confident smile.

“Well, Ms. Derro, this does seem to qualify you. Of course, we would never let you, or any other candidate, into a battle situation without a thorough assessment. Even if there is an ever-escalating war on.”

Kolliq nodded. The view on the screen behind showed the surrounding space, which, given that it was a mere few parsecs from Darkworld Franklin, was unlikely to face a direct attack – yet. The way the war – the wars, plural, in fact – had gone, it would not be long before even this area of space would be under attack.

2

What surprised Kolliq at first was how they actually gave her the ship for the assessment, with a First Pivot on standby. They had also not limited superlight speeds. They had a lot of confidence in her.

She settled into the booth, where the controls were arrayed in front of her, and the screen in front showed a genuine, front-of-ship view, although the fractal mass of screens around it showed numerous other pieces of data that she was tempted to get distracted by.

The first task was simple enough – fly off from the current, static position near Franklin to the mocked-up battle sight a parsec away. The burst of speed from the ship – it was not a small machine, and it was tempting to think in terms of Darkworld physics, or even planetary terms – was surprising enough, but the middle circle of screens had one indicated an ETA to the site, and listed it in mere Earth minutes, rather than the leisurely courses she had piloted in the past. Even the racing machines couldn’t quite touch this.

As soon as she reached the site, the enemy ships (pure focused AI constructs with membrane-attuned self-preservation protocols) opened fire immediately. Shield energy drained slowly but surely. She looked down at the railed course plotted in front of her, bumped a holographic points symbol onto the track, and from there extended two fingers from it and, with a fluid wrist action, sent those rails curving back on themselves, twisting and turning away evasively. Some damage had been done, but it was easily survivable. She continued, for what felt like several minutes but was probably less, to evade and duck various laser and uvaser fire, and eventually decided that she had to fight back.

The Total Wipeout swung in, and began a corkscrew descent through the mass of ships, beam weapons and assembled ammo flinging outwards in maelstroms towards each ship, and at the end of the volley she suspected a sighting of the white blast of an alkahest ray. She flicked her eyes over the outer screens for confirmation but found none with just a glance; as she looked back, she saw a flash and a partial eclipse of the nearby star, a certain hit.

She curved the rails ahead into a sharp bank to bring the ship about, and just ducked most of a further fusilade; the Total returned fire, and this time she saw it, that milky-white fire that suggested a lack of shield energy. More flashes, more artificial asteroids shot past. As she continued to fire, more flashes; this time, two of them managed to collide, producing another flash and showering the view with debris.

One ship remained, and it continued to fire, hitting more often than not. The shields were running low.

Think, Kolliq thought. There has to be something you can do. She examined one of the other views and found the ship to be behind and above her, swooping in. She figured it out.

She switched the rails off, cutting the ship free from the pair of forcefield shackles it been bound by, threw the engines into dorsal-aft asymmetry, and with the ship powersliding through space on Newtonian physics alone, watched as the last white beam stuttered across the ship’s underbelly, flashes erupted across its hull and a rain of exotic material slammed against the camera view with such force that she instinctively flinched.

3

“Most impressive,” the captain said almost immediately afterwards, after a pause that was just long enough to qualify as dramatic. “That thing you did, at the end?”

“I took it off the rails and used the thrusters naturally.”

“That doesn’t necessarily guarantee directional accuracy, though. A tighter track could’ve turned the ship around faster.”

“Yes, but the unpredictability and impreciseness of the ship’s movement made the enemy’s targeting slightly more difficult.”

The captain nodded. “Well, it worked. I can’t argue with that.”

The main screen in the tracklayer booth flashed up the statistics, like a high scores board from an old arcade game. Six ships were eliminated in 7/492; not a result repeatable in real life, but a strong one nonetheless. Kolliq stared ahead, the concentration she had been under during the assessment proving hard to shake.

“That is definitely the best performance I’ve seen in the last year. You’re hired, if you still want it-”

“Yes, sir. When do I start?”

“We’ll probably get a posting as soon as we return to Franklin. Or to Rama, at least. Straight away, unless you especially need anything to work.”

Sure enough, she looped the ship back at maximum speed. With only a slightly longer journey time than the route out, they were soon back, the main screen showing the Federation capital looming ever larger as they approached. Kolliq actually lived – or perhaps now, used to live – several thousand parsecs from Franklin, on a planet just shy of one of the heavy-stellar-formation or HSF zones on the edge of the galaxy, and she had come there as a refugee from another planet whose star had very rapidly gone supernova; only Shango technology had saved anyone from such an event. But both residences had been backwards, “rural”, as it were, and did not compare to this gargantuan planetary sprawl of three trillion people, served by no less than a quartet of Darkmoons. As she skirted the ship around that artificial planet, towards the night side where city lights represented a mere fraction of the population living there. In the darkness, a mysterious circle of utter black where the stars were blocked out revealed the presence of Darkmoon Rama, and with the circles of screens confirming it, she locked in an orbit.

Once the orbit was set, she, the captain, the second-in-command and the first pivot headed back through the labyrinth of corridors.

“Any questions? You were very eager to take the role. Unquestioningly, in fact. The military does not tend to approve of such behaviour in non-critical situations.”

“Sorry, I-”

“Not a worry. It’s one of the very few mistakes I have seen from you, and it was a minor one. The point is this; that unquestioningness, we have heard it to be a Qareen quality. True or not, I’ll nonetheless make the point – except in an emergency, it is acceptable to use initiative, to question, to ask. You may have heard that the military demands discipline and obedience; that is true to some extent, but not absolutely.”

They rounded another corner in single file, and passed yet another room that barely qualified as a cupboard.

“OK,” she replied, “how about this. When I was a civilian pilot, every room had hectares of space. This ship seems to have tiny rooms. Just wondering, why?”

“Well, it is a ship to fight battles in. When determining the lives and fates of quadrillions, of a whole galaxy, Ms. Derro, you should not be too relaxed about it.”

“I guess not.”

4

The SFS Total Wipeout‘s first mission after that was to head towards Darkworld Taurus, just inside the Intersection Zone, but still thousands of parsecs away; such a journey would take days, and involved Kolliq mostly bumping that small holographic infinity symbol onto the track and letting the sensors scan ahead, finding no fault in continuing onwards in its path for parsec after parsec.
Still, she found Captain Ilrap’s words to be accurate. Taurus, at mimimum, had at least a trillion inhabitants, but if it fell, then the further consequences could have been the half-dozen systems around it. That didn’t relax her, and lying on her bunk as those on the night shift strolled past did indeed add to the unease. There was no privacy on that ship; any mistakes, any embarrassments, were all very much public.

“It takes a few missions, but it’ll be OK,” the woman on the bunk below, Alati, had said. She could only nod and assume that was true. Alati claimed to have lost a friend on another ship, and assured her that it was losing others, rathering than facing actual death, that was the truly distressing thing. That, she doubted.

Still, the ship remained on its double-forcefield track, shooting forwards at the top speed of around 115 kiloparsecs per Shango year, as the dim reach of inertia insisted it should. She assumed it was inertia, anyhow; she had never been too strong on the physics of superlight travel, recalling vaguely from her education that it was some different form of physics. Different how, she didn’t know and didn’t find to be immediately important.

A week passed without relatively incident, and her job was at the point a somewhat narrow, unskilled one, merely scanning for potential obstacles in their path, even though the first pivot and the backup AI systems would doubtless catch them anyhow. For anything less than a planet, tractor beam or teleport would shift them out of the way too. The endless waiting seemed to heighten the potential danger impending, and she wondered whether she regretted her eagerness to take the job, or whether it would simply be easier to fall asleep for the rest of the journey, and to wake up in the chaos, too emotionally senseless to have to fear what was going on.

It was on day eight that the Total Wipeout began to approach the combat zone; having skirted around, above and below others, receiving messages of victory and the odd word of defeat (worryingly, Kolliq thought, the defeats and victories became increasingly even the closer they got to Taurus). This Intersection War – the third, if she remembered correctly – was perhaps going to go the way of the Shango, after two indecisive results that had not truly separated the sides or struck a crippling blow to either one of them. This one, she thought, had to decide it, even if it lasted her whole lifetime, as it had so far, even if they had to throw a trillion ships into the breach; after all, if the Qareen could simply be allowed to invade Shango space, then who else, what other galactic empire would decide to rule over and oppress them? The Dharans, she thought, would gladly enter the galaxy – if they weren’t already here, as rumoured – and seize it, and perhaps the Qareen’s claimed space too, if their rumoured power was to be believed.

The bridge was oddly calm as they got within twenty parsecs, or an Earth hour and a half, from the battle area.

“Preview shot and data from the Tactical Advance,” the data officer announced, and brought it up on the surrounding walls. Kolliq was tempted to gasp, but refrained. There in the picture, no doubt shot from the cameras fed to the tracklayer booth, were at least a dozen Qareen warships, and data indicated that there were hundreds gathered around Taurus. The fighting had begun an hour ago, and had proved relatively even, although Taurus itself had been bombed in parts, and shot with miasma beams in a bid to spread damage further into the Darkworld. This is what they will stoop to, she had been told, by colleagues, by friends, by the media; they were prepared to inflict disease on their enemies.

The Shango at least had the decency to kill as quickly and painlessly as possible.
There was also the suggestion that Shango reinforcements might tip the balance, at least numbers-wise. Still, the ship raced in, and it was not long afterwards that Kolliq, settled into the booth and ready to engage in the most dangerous computer game, saw the message “weapons engaging” flash up on her main screen.

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