They’d taken the wrong exit out of the wormhole, that wasn’t in dispute. Lieutenant Berein just wasn’t sure how it was his fault.
“Second on the left, Lieutenant! Second on the left!” Captain Tarc’s frustration showed on her face (at least, Berein thought the blue-and-green sunburst pattern was frustration. He’d only been on the ship three months and he hadn’t entirely got the hang of her chromatophores yet. But whatever it was, she wasn’t happy). He could sympathise. This was a pig-in-a-poke mission if ever he’d seen one. He supposed one didn’t get to be captain by asking too many questions but on the other hand, being chosen to transport a top-secret cargo on the sly was unlikely to be a good thing. And now they were lost.
Well, they weren’t lost exactly. The navicom was very definite about where they were. What it couldn’t do was tell them how to get to where they were supposed to be, or not before they all died of old age anyway.
“I don’t know what happened, Captain!” he said as he pummelled the panel keys in disbelief, hoping to somehow hit a combination that would make it all go away. “I set it to take that exit.” Pummel. “The exit it sent us through isn’t even on the chart!” Pummel. “And the odd thing is…”
“What? What is the odd thing?” I-don’t-like-surprises pink – Berein was sure of that one – chased the sunburst from Tarc’s face.
“There’s no way back in.”
There was a perplexed silence.
“How can there be no way back in?” said Lieutenant Juna from the security panel next to Berein’s. “There’s always a way back in!”
“I’m telling you, there isn’t a gate!”
“This exit is not on the charts and does not have a gate? So what you are saying is: we took an exit that does not exist?” Tarc was still not enjoying the surprise, if her skin was any indication.
“Unless…” said Ensign Renesco, and even from across the bridge Berein could hear Tarc’s muttered ah no, “it just doesn’t exist yet.”
“We have not travelled through time, Ensign,” said Tarc, as she massaged the exasperated colourless spot between her eyebrows. Renesco was obsessed with time travel. When Berein had joined the crew, he’d been warned not to get the man onto the subject if he could avoid it, but the only way to achieve that seemed to be to avoid Renesco altogether. “As I have said on many previous occasions. It is not possible to travel through time.”
“Maybe it was a redundant exit and we accessed it by mistake?” said Juna. There were a few redundant exits around the system, ones that had been put in just in case but never used, that didn’t have a gate because no-one had ever gone through them to make a gate. They’d been sealed, of course, but popular imagination being what it was, there were always rumours of ships disappearing that way. When Berein had been growing up, one of his mother’s favourite entertainment shows had been a serial about a ship that had been sucked into a redundant exit – not the only thing that sucked about it in Berein’s opinion, but he’d wisely kept that to himself – and was trying to find a way back home.
He consulted his panel. “It could be, but we’re twelve thousand light years from anything interesting. Or anything much at all, in fact. I don’t know why they’d put an exit in here in the first place.”
The oomph went out of Juna’s enthusiasm. “Twelve thousand light years, really?” she said in a small voice. Belatedly Berein remembered that she was getting married in three – or was it four? – months’ time. He made a mental note to stop forgetting that other people had lives outside the service.
“Perhaps it’s a top-secret military exit,” he said, feeling he ought to make a contribution. “And the gate is there, we just can’t see it.”
Juna perked up a little. “Ooh, and they use this area of space for testing or something!” She did like a good military conspiracy story, the more disparaging the better. Sometimes Berein wondered why she’d joined up at all.
The sunburst had started creeping back onto Tarc’s face, but before it could establish itself it was overtaken by the bleep of the communication system.
“Uh, Captain, this is cargo bay two,” said a voice from nowhere in particular. “We’re having a bit of an… issue… with the cargo.”
Tarc’s face turned pink again.
Berein had a feeling it was going to be doing a lot of that.
When Berein, Tarc and Juna – Tarc had left Renesco in charge, more to get away from him than anything – arrived at the cargo bay the security guards met them at the doors, looking unhappy.
“What is the problem?” said Tarc.
They exchanged a nervous glance. “We think it’s trying to get out.”
Tarc – and Tarc’s face – face didn’t seem to know what to say to that. She led them into the bay, where a plain grey coffin-like containment box lay on its own, lost in such a big space.
“OK, we’re all thinking it,” said Juna, after a delicate pause. “Is there a person in there?”
They all looked at Tarc, but she shook her head. “I was not told what is in there, though I asked. I was told only that it is not dangerous.”
As if to give the lie to this, whatever was inside the box chose that moment to throw itself against the lid with a thump that gave them all a start. The guards raised their plasma rifles.
“Should we open it?” said Juna. “It looks like it’s going to open itself sooner or later.”
“Perhaps an alternative method of containment would be more advisable,” said Tarc.
“Or getting it off the ship, at least,” said Berein.
Helpfully, the contents of the box chose that moment to take the decision out of their hands by whacking the inside of the lid so hard that it popped open. They braced themselves, but nothing emerged except a gentle reddish glow.
Berein’s mouth had gone completely dry and in his peripheral vision he could see the plasma rifle to his left shaking ever so slightly as they sidled up to it, craning their necks forward as if the extra inch or two might make the difference between life and death in the event of an attack by something that could break through a containment field. Inside were the shattered fragments of what had once been a vacuum tube, and something that might have been a fuel rod except it was only a metre long and didn’t seem to have a definite shape. And it was pulsing red and orange instead of blue, the colours swirling in a way that made him think of a kaleidoscope, and also feel slightly dizzy.
“What is it?” said Juna.
“I don’t know,” said Berein, in a voice that didn’t sound entirely like his own. He wanted to touch it. No – it wanted him to touch it. He reached out a hand almost without meaning to.
Juna made a grab for his wrist. “I don’t think you should -”
She was right, of course. As soon as he touched it he wished he hadn’t. It was cold but it still seemed to be burning him and it was everywhere, making his blood fizz and sparkles dance behind his eyelids. And it was trying to tell him something that it didn’t have the words for. There was the fleeting sense of a formless existence, mindless but happy, and then being pushed into something and never quite being able to get back, and there had been others like Berein that it could speak to but nothing had ever come of it and then it had seen (this wasn’t clear, but it looked like a door opening) and –
The connection broke as Juna pulled him away a second, maybe two, later. He could see her mouthing his name and the words are you OK but her voice sounded muffled and distorted. In fact, his head felt muffled and distorted, as if every head-cold he’d ever had in his life had decided to revisit him all at once.
He shook his head as he tried to make sense of what it had told him. “I think this is what they use to make the wormholes,” he said, his tongue feeling woolly and not at all the right shape for his mouth. His ears were adjusting now and he rubbed his eyes, trying to clear the fog from his mind. “I think it came from a wormhole.”
“So what is it, what’s it made of?” said Juna.
Berein didn’t answer for a moment because he couldn’t think of a way to put it that didn’t sound completely insane, before realising that this was because there wasn’t one. “I don’t know. It’s not like anything I’ve ever heard about. It seems almost… magical.” He winced. Even to his own ears it sounded ridiculous.
“Yeah, let’s not get carried away,” said Juna.
“I don’t know how else to describe it. It was alive but it wasn’t sentient then, it just… was. They made it aware.”
They all looked at the box.
“Do you think they know?” said Juna.
“It tried to tell someone before, I think. But nothing happened.”
“So they do know then.” Juna sounded disgusted.
Tarc’s face was a speculative shade of peach. “How did it bring us here?”
“I don’t know exactly. It saw an open door, I didn’t really understand -” he broke off as Juna started to laugh.
“A redundant exit!” she said. “It saw a redundant exit! And it pulled us in along with it!”
Tarc frowned grape-purple. “If it was part of a natural wormhole and it can access redundant exits, perhaps it could help us to make a gate?”
“Maybe. I don’t think it knows how, though. It was always part of a larger machine before, it didn’t do it by itself. I don’t know if it can help us get back.”
“That’s the least of our problems,” said Juna. “We’ve made off with a top-secret military cargo. There’s a good chance they think we stole it. Even if we do manage to make a gate, they’ll be on us as soon as we come out the other side. If they work out where we went, they’ll follow us. Whatever happens, they’re going to want it back. And we’re not going to give it to them,” she looked at Tarc, half-pleading, half-defiant. “Are we?”
“No,” said Tarc, colours washing across her face one after the other. “No, we are not.”
They were silent as the potentially disastrous repercussions of this decision sank in, until something odd occurred to Berein. “What would the military want with it anyway?”
“Oh come on,” said Juna. “What does the military want with anything? They want to weaponise it.”
Tarc opened her mouth but then shut it again because Juna was, of course, completely correct. It could rip holes in space. Of course the military were trying to make a weapon out of it.
“We had better make the crew aware of our situation,” she said. “What we decide to do about our situation can wait.”
The crew reacted about as well as could be expected for the most part, which was to say not well at all. Understandable, under the circumstances. They’d been sucked into a redundant exit and now they were stuck thousands of light years from civilisation with no way back in. Berein might have laughed, if he hadn’t been so appalled.
Although maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. OK, the military were going to be wanting their cargo back and that wasn’t good but their crew was resourceful, they could take their chances, and who knew what the ‘cargo’ might be able to do if they could persuade it to help them. And if he had to be stranded, this wasn’t such a bad bunch of people to be with. Tarc was a good captain, he got along with most of the crew and –
“Hey, this is just like ‘Redundant’!” said Renesco. “I loved that show! There was one episode where they found a natural wormhole that got them home but it had a temporal flux in it and it took them back to before interstellar drives were invented, and they had to go back through it…”
He was doomed.
For this flash fiction challenge. I got ‘military sci-fi’ and ‘comic fantasy’.