The Orb

A Sci-Fi Book Excerpt by Alex G. Zarate

The Orb

by Alex G. Zarate

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God, no.

The words are soundless as Captain Drake watches the scene play out before him. The crew awaits further orders as the ship rises into the upper atmosphere. Each crewman remains patient, per the orders of a general.

The captain had no intention of disobeying a direct order. He knew that doing so would result in serious repercussions. He would never disobey a command from a superior and no one under his authority would disobey his orders.

They were called to a small town to render aid. As they approached, The captain reviewed the relevant details. He knew at once about the fire. It was a malfunction that created a spark as strong winds began. Most towns were protected from such things by drones or maintenance bots. This was a small town with an affinity for the simpler life.

There was minimal technology at their disposal. The available resources were no match for a sudden brush fire. Most people would stay away from such places. Even the captain knew how living an easier and less complicated life would be worthwhile.

Outside such communities the roads are covered in sensors. People have drones following them. An average citizen has implants along their arms, legs and eyes so they can remain connected. Anyone can access the unlimited data stream flowing in from in and out of the world. To the vast majority of settlements, living with embedded technology is… average.

To this community of historians and farmers, their preferred way of life is simple and rustic. But it is also less connected and close knit. In an emergency, it also proves vulnerable.

But everyone knows help is just a call away. The captain thought.

Even as the fire began to spread outside of town, The Bishop was underway. Captain Drake was preparing to send out a squad of drones. Each would begin fire-suppressant waves followed by hover-bots made to carry villagers to safety.

Before they were in range, the order came in. The ship’s artificial intelligence relayed the message and took control of the ship.

Lock down all launch bays immediately and return to upper atmosphere. Safety of ship in jeopardy. Order confirmation – General Elsor.”

As the ship began to lock down, the captain heard a faint voice. He opened all lines of communication resulting in waves of overlapping white noise. Each frequency began to fall silent. The lines clear, allowing the captain to hear a single connection make it through.

No! Wait! Help us!…”

The rest of the static goes quiet as all remaing comms close.

Captain Drake watched the command crew follow the general’s orders. All decks report immediate compliance. Maintenance locks down external ports with practiced ease. Soon, all crewmembers are returning to their individual stations.

The captain activates max privacy setting of his command station. As the view to his station blurs, he does the unthinkable.

External image.” Captain Drake orders.

The command is simple for any other mission. This time the A.I. displays a warning. The message from the general blinks. With a flick of his finger, the captain dismisses it. He orders the A.I. to delete his dismissal as soon as it clears his retinal display, taking a deep breath.

Do it, Bishop.” He commands the A.I., mouthing the words with care as he waits for the external view to show him what was happening.

In his mind, he was hoping to see some unexpected danger that they missed. Perhaps a satellite crossing their low orbit trajectory or a passing ship, unaware of the fire, on a collision course with them. Maybe there was a dangerous gas fissure along the outskirts of town and the fire was about to ignite it. The captain expects to see any number of reasons that would soon allow him and his crew to finish the rescue.

The image is activated at last and the captain peers hard into the display. At first, he only sees the land stretched out in all directions but as he takes control of the view, he sees the fire.

Magnify” He mouths, going to sub-audible commands.

The image magnifies. He sees the fire still outside of town as it engulfs the area with increasing ferocity. He increases to maximum magnification. A moment later he follows the path of destruction to the center of town where the population has gathered. He sees the gathered crowd using their limited technology to protect themselves. Men with sonic land movers arch their devices towards the sky, blowing holes in the smoke as it tries to draw close. Women and children frantically work atmospheric reclimators, pulling water from the air and raining every gathered drop on the area of gathered people, buying them time for a rescue.

There’s still time. The captain realizes just as he sees a flash of light streak past the image. He instinctively locks on and identifies it… a moment before detonation.

No. He mouths, all sound dampened in his command station.

The view is adjusted as it unfolds to protect his vision. The captain gapes at the scene as if he were watching the horror in slow motion.

Taking command of Protectorate vessel, The Bishop, was Captain Drake’s proudest moment. He worked his way up the ranks for years, hoping to send the announcement to his grandfather. He missed the opportunity by a few years but his mother told him every chance she could how proud she was and how proud his grandfather would have been.

No

The image before his eyes is slowed down. When the ceremony transferring command ended, Captain Drake was led to medical. Security implants. He received them on his temples, along his wrists and along his spine. Each served a purpose. At the time, the excitement of having control of a protectorate ship was intoxicating.

It took only a few minutes of time but when it was done, the captain had every system on the ship under his control. Being the captain of a protectorate vessel was an adventure he had long wanted to experience.

No

The object entering the atmosphere is familiar to him. He wanted to know everything about protecting the system from any and all dangers. Understanding what to do in any event was critical to his command. He studied every danger from microscopic nano-clouds to global catastrophes. He prepared himself for any eventuality so he could be the best captain in the fleet.

Perhaps someday… He mused. I’ll honor the memory of my grandfather by saving a fraction of the lives he did.

No

It’s no larger than a small shuttle and nearly twice the size of a probe. He watches it speed through the clouds towards the center of town. In the time it takes him to think a single word, he knows it is too late.

Taking command of The Bishop was what he always wanted. He didn’t mind how the A.I. from his prior command of an engineering vessel had technical difficulties requiring constant maintenance. He dealt with every challenging step of his command with determination and pride. His grandfather would be proud and no matter what happened, he knew he would someday protect others.

No.

The flash of light fills the world and Captain Drake watches in horror as a new fire ignites, made up of exploding buildings, homes… and people.

Captain Drake opens his eyes, the room around him coming into focus. The failed mission, now over a week past. He has not dared tell anyone what he witnessed. But with each day that passes, he knows that his promise to his grandfather wasn’t kept.

He knows what he must do and feels himself shudder at the thought. Around him, the walls of the room change from a deep crimson to a lighter beige. The Captain begins moving towards the door, seeing the clarity of each panel around him and the radiance of color both actual and projected.

Behind him, the bed grows dull and blurs into a field of grey as if a wall had appeared to conceal it. He takes another step and the room grows brighter. The walls and ceiling continue to lighten as he approaches the door. He pauses, looking down to his hands. The outstretched fingers turn back and forth, from knuckles to palm scrutinized as if he were looking at the hands of a stranger.

Log.” He whispers and glances up as a glowing blue line appears. It stretches before him the length of his shoulders like an imagined horizon line coming into reality.

The Captain takes another moment to collect his thoughts, certain that his words will remain in existence even if his life comes to an end.

There is fear we must endure in our lives.” He begins, seeing the blue line vibrate with each word, recording his voice and image. “Fear of the unknown, fear of losing what you have…” The Captain pauses, thinking of what has happened and what is coming. “Fear of the truth.” He says with a sigh, turning to face his room again and ignoring the blue line as it follows him.

The glowing blue line records his words, spiking like static at his voice, making him think of a heart monitor. The line ends its movement as he falls silent and in his mind, he hears a long-ago tone that filled him with dread.

I am Captain Drake and I know fear.” He looks to the eye-line of the log recorder and says the words he thought would never come from his lips. “I formally resign my commission and request leave from my military service, effective immediately.” The words activate multiple sub-commands as the captain sends it out with one gesture, knowing if he held out for another moment that he may not send it at all.

Forgive me.” He says to the empty room and turns to face his quarters, activating drone maintenance to begin packing his things.

 

Chapter 1

 

It took a year to find another ship and to the surprise of friends and family, Captain Drake chose a civilian vessel to command. No one understood the reasons he gave and he offered little clarification. Prior to announcing his departure, he meticulously wiped the logs of what he witnessed. Questions were asked often and he did his best to maintain appearances. One answer was as good as another but no answer was the truth.

I just thought it was time for a change.” Was a common reply. “My experience in the service will serve me well with other opportunities.” Was another.

Lies. He would tell himself. Lies are all I can offer. If I don’t get away that’s all I’ll have left in my life.

He realized he was looking for an escape. Any escape from the familiar and from his failure.

The Mary was the answer. A civilian vessel bound for deep space and scheduled to return in seven years. Even better, with a destination taking them far from the home system, they would be on a suspension rotation, making the time they spent seem longer.

Time Dilation was the term used for these missions. Salvation was what it sounded like. A chance to go somewhere with no familiar faces and no one interested in his reasons for leaving the military. With luck, by the time he completed this tour of duty, he would be able to come to terms with the horrors of his past.

Begin personal message.” The captain says, making a final walk around his home.

I leave this for my friends and family. I am sorry for skipping out on the farewells. I didn’t want to make a fuss so I lied about my departure being next month. I hope you can forgive me. I’ll return in a few years with stories of exploration and a little self-discovery. I will miss you all and leave this as my personal goodbye without the hugs.” The captain looks around the room and thinks about what to say, knowing he may be gone for a decade.

I made the choice to have a military career before grade school.” He says, knowing he should mention his life and reasons for his departure. “My grandfather was the pride of the family tree, commanding both respect and admiration from all who came in contact with him.” He recalls countless events he would see his grandfather attend and the people who would stop mid-conversation to look in awe at the man. “As a toddler, I can still remember playing with the ribbons on his uniform.” Each memory comes to him with vivid clarity and he can still feel the strength of presence the man held. “I remember the time we attended The Ceremony of Freedom.” He says, thinking about how important every memory feels now. “Gramps held me in his arms for hours while we watched the new pilots performing maneuvers outside the atmosphere.” He chuckles to himself. “It wasn’t until later that I realized none of the other parents had held their children up for the entire ceremony. Gramps held me up until the last ship was out of sight and the colorful swirls of light had subsided.” The captain grins, recalling how several ships left trails of mist that formed into stars, splashes of light and amazing designs in mid-air. The ships then maneuvered around each floating burst of color as if gravity had lost meaning. “I’d always loved our family outings. I also loved him.” The captain stops walking, seeing the streaming light ahead. An ache of loss grows in his chest as if the funeral had been recent, rather than decades ago.

Had he lived to see me grow up and take command I’m sure he would have been proud. Each ship I commanded gave me a sense of pride for the military to which my grandfather served his whole life, and every mission I undertook gave me a feeling of respect for what he did for us all when wearing his uniform.” The captain feels his breath shorten at the realization that only his grandfather would have been able to advise him on what to do or how to move on. “He had a long and distinguished career. The stories of his life were the stuff of legend.”

Legend. He thinks. You can’t live up to a legend.

However,” he continues, doing his best to maintain a steady tone. “After serving many tours as a captain of various military ships, I’m not sure how he would have felt with my decision to take a civilian assignment.” The captain completes his rounds and heads back downstairs, gesturing in the air before pointing to the circle of items in his living room.

Various slots open along the floor and ceiling, releasing an assortment of helper-bots. Some resemble small humanoid figures. Others look like metallic bugs with extra limbs. The bots immediately scatter throughout the house. Several begin the search for anything that may have been missed to be logged and categorized. A dozen begin sorting through the stacked items in the living room. The bug-like bots begin positioning them as carefully as possible. The captain watches the machines as they go to work before turning once more to the recording.

This is my last batch of possessions.” He says, gesturing to the stack of boxes containing his most memorable items.

Some are gifts from friends or family and others are personal mementos. He looks to the small box where an old pendant is stored with a picture of him and his grandparents from many years ago. A bot picks it up and repositions it along another set of boxes.

The captain sighs.

I’m trying not to think how different things must be in the military compared to civilian ships.” He tries to sound confident as he ponders the shock he will feel, knowing the orders he was accustomed to give will now be made as someone holding a job, rather than a command. “I assume I’ll need to prepare myself mentally to do away with the constant discipline of military protocol. I’ll have to think of ways to make this assignment go smoother. I also assume that my biggest hurdle will require more attention to diplomacy during missions and less paperwork and oversight.” Oversight. He recalls the aftermath of the ‘incident’ and the endless oversight committee messengers, guiding him to what the official story would be as well as providing him with prepared statements. By the time he knew he needed to leave the service, the oversight for the most horrific event he ever witnessed ended up being treated as if it were a publicity stunt for safety measures and improved technology for our food producers.

The notion of oversight will likely be replaced by a need for profitable results in every mission. He thinks, knowing how foolish it is to assume anything.

I’m also feeling a lot of stupidity in my assumptions.” The captain says after a long pause. “Preparing myself to captain civilians feels as pointless a notion as preparing myself for the breakup I had in junior high. I asked Gramps for advice when I saw signs of the breakup coming and he told me that by the time I realized I was approaching a painful breakup, any preparation on my part was already too late to make a difference.” The captain pauses, remembering how wise his grandfather had always been, wishing he could speak to him again. “He was right. It took me more than a month to get over being dumped by Veronica. Damn the man was smart.” He chuckles, realizing some of his friends will listen to his message with their children. “Scratch that last statement.” He says, knowing it may be deleted, but if anyone ever plays it back, a little extra effort will allow the person reviewing it an option to include deletions.

The opening for captain was brought to me as I gathered my things to leave The Bishop. General Forks came into my quarters and said he remembered my interest in trying something new.” The captain gestures to the door and sees the timer for departure materialize above the door. Almost time. He thinks, looking back at the stacks of items he will take with him to a new ship… and a new home. “You know, after so much time under the thumb of the chain of command I think I might like taking an assignment to a vessel of observation and exploration.”

The captain walks past the stacks and considers grabbing something to eat, activating the wall by the kitchen to see what is available. “Prior military assignments did little for my authority and I found all decisions to be second guessed. Often overridden by higher-ups.” Waving past the fresh vegetables to the snacks, the captain realizes it would be best not to eat anything prior to travel. Getting sick on arrival might give a wrong first impression. He thinks, waving an arm across the display and seeing it go back to a blank wall with a painting of an ancient aircraft carrier from centuries past.

Despite thinking how a ‘civvie’ ship would make things less hectic, I still feel nervous. He thinks, staring at the image and wondering how much simpler times used to be. I guess all captains feel that way about new assignments.

The thought of traveling past the furthest exploration point and going where only the oldest probes have gone make him think of ancient ships going from one part of the world to the other, unable to see past the water surrounding them, relying on the stars above and clear weather.

You know, after five consecutive tours, the thought of finding distant shores seems like I’m getting extended shore leave with pay.” The captain chuckles, turning away from the image of the ancient ship. “I know that this is not the farewell any of you expected but I hope you understand this was something I had to do. Take care and drop me a line if you get the chance. I’ll keep an eye out. Be well.” The captain puts out a hand to the recording hologram and the dancing light halts.

Compress and send to my family and friends exactly one hour after my departure.” The captain sees the acknowledgement light blink once in the display then turns away as it vanishes.

Taking command shouldn’t be the difficult part. He thinks, looking at the empty house and the stack of items he will take with him, leaving his home, his friends and his world. In fact, all things considered, taking command may be the easiest thing.

With a tap of the control band around his wrist, the captain brings up the information he will need for his trip. The command projects data into his ocular implant for private viewing. He reviews the scrolling text as he looks over to the archway leading to the kitchen. In one motion, he signals the bots to clear away so he can initiate the sync.

The Bexar Space Station is at the edge of the solar system.” He reads, taking a look at the shape and dimensions of the tourist destination, set up with hundreds of telescopes, viewing rooms and informational stations. “Archways can access travel codes for any and all authorized travelers.” He reads, thinking how even a child could travel to the station.

The captain links his own archway to one set up for tourists. The coordinates take a moment to process but after watching the image flicker a second time with data, the access light changes to a confirmation light. He looks down, checking his uniform out of habit.

Gotta make sure I’m squared away. He thinks, knowing the act is pointless.

His wrist vibrates as the ship’s A.I. makes contact.

The captain taps a few commands into the interface attached to his wrist and initiates the download of all secure files.

He is surprised to see that there will be a greeting of his senior officers and feels more at ease with the familiar process. He verifies the data packet receipt and waits.

I guess meeting with the senior officers is similar to the routine military ships go through. The captain ponders, looking at the archway and watching the data scroll through his ocular implant. Taking command in the military requires extra formalities. As the captain of a non-military vessel, I am, in effect, already in command and only have to set foot inside to make it official. There is a scuttling sound and the captain turns to see the last of the bots retreating to their individual charging stations now that the job has been done and he looks over to see all his belongings looking as if assembled like a three-dimensional puzzle resulting in a cube.

He looks back to the archway and waits for the connection, recalling the process from his past assignments. When taking command of a military vessel, he was always required to meet with the previously assigned captain to formally relieve him of command before taking over the ship. Sometimes there was additional oversight to witness the transfer. The A.I. was silent during the proceedings. This is the first time he ever dealt with an A.I. before a human.

Standing in his house facing the archway, he begins to review the protocol data from The Mary. The previous captain is shown to have already departed.

I don’t suppose he’s interested in seeing who’s taking his place. The captain thinks making a mental note of the first thing that is different in a civilian vessel. He sees the ancient ship in the kitchen area and wonders what his mother will say when she gets his message. Maybe she’ll start planning for my return party like last tour. He looks through the archway again and sees the indicator light flickering. Maybe not.

The connection is established. The archway shimmers and the kitchen area of his house is gone, replaced by an open arch leading to the station.

Once I arrive at the space station, it will be a simple matter of beginning the synchronization process yet again, but instead of turning the archway coordinates back home like every other tourist going to and from the distant space station, I will be linking to The Mary, who is already in deep space.

Deciding there is nothing more to do in preparation, the captain takes a deep breath and walks through the archway.

A moment later, Captain Drake steps out of his living room into The Bexar Space Station.

The sense of traveling from one part of the solar system to past its borders feels the same as if he had walked from one room to another. He feels a change in the air pressure despite the safety protocols first, then the temperature.

It feels a little cooler in here but otherwise, it’s like walking from one room to another. He thinks, looking around.

Technicians and tourists walk throughout the station, oblivious of his presence. Most are as uninterested in the captain as he is in them. The display console next to the arch holds a sign indicating the surrounding archways are for arrivals only.

Looking over the data on his interface, he sees the area he will have to enter for the portal departing the station into deep space.

The captain begins walking to the furthest portal, where only a few people ever venture. He turns a few times before noticing the archway tucked away from the main flow of people.

It looks as if it may have some accumulation of oil in some areas of the console. This information tells him two things: First, it is maintained every few months along with the rest of the consoles on the station, and second; it is rarely, if ever, used.

The captain steps up to the ebony portal and takes a deep breath as if preparing to dive into a pool.

The communications line to the ship activates.

The captain clears his throat.

Mary, synchronize link for my arrival.”

Identify.” A female voice replies.

Captain Byron Drake, assigned to Deep Space Exploratory Vessel, The Mary.”

 

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