Behind them the inky black emptiness of space stretched away, an infinite void punctured by the pinprick of distant, long dead stars. Except of course that it didn’t. It didn’t stretch away behind them, or in front of them or to the side. When something is everywhere and all at once, direction and distance become meaningless concepts. On board the ship there was no sense of movement, their serene passage through the limitless nothing impossible to detect in the soundless artificial atmosphere generated by the enormous bio-hub machine, or the heart as the engineers referred to it. Some saw the true beating heart of the ship as its vast engines, supplying the movement without which the crew, surprisingly small in number for such a huge and complex vessel, would be cast away, stranded for ever without hope of rescue, a speck so vanishingly tiny as to render the rustic hiding place of the fabled needle child’s play to uncover by comparison.
The apparently sublime transit of the ship belied the activity on board. It was true that things were relatively peaceful now. If you compared the situation with the chaos in which the crew had found themselves just the day before, the atmosphere was positively laid back. But only if you made that comparison. There was still damage to be assessed, repair droids to be directed and overseen and of course the human wounded to be patched up, knocked out or consoled. The commodore smiled to himself. When he considered the technological wizardry which made their precarious existence here even remotely possible , and when one added to that the trauma and extreme danger through which they had just passed, it was fairly amusing that a cup of tea and a warm smile were still the medicine most appreciated by those injured in the high tech melee in which they had so recently been engulfed.
He sent a tele-P message to Lieutenant Koscielny, requesting an entirely unnecessary status update. He knew the young man was perfectly capable of carrying out his duties. He had stepped in when the skipper had been taken out, and performed with a calm assuredness belying his youth and relative inexperience. In any event he had Flight Officers Mertesacker and Arteta alongside him on the holo-bridge and the commodore was supremely confident that they could guide almost anybody through any situation, even an ambush from the most notorious pirates this arm of the Galaxy had ever known. Things had changed so much since he’d first taken command of an Interplanetary Exploration Starliner. The fall of the old system and the rise of the pirates had altered the life of a space-farer for ever. Even a craft as well managed and run as the IES Ashburton Grove had suffered from the spate of defections and desertions which had decimated much of the fleet. The problem was that these anarchic buccaneer crews could earn such fortunes. Never mind that men who deserted to the rogue ships often found themselves arbitrarily confined to the brig, sometimes for months at a time or that former captains could be forced into airlocks and jettisoned into space after only one brief voyage, feeble greedy men were the same the universe over. The pirate fleets paid no heed to the lack of any moral or defensible basis for their entire rotten existence, still they found many weak willed and willing recruits.
The commodore had lost at least two captains and many lower ranks to them in the past few years, but this crew, carefully nurtured over the last couple of Earth years had shown a unity and strength of purpose, even during the attacks which had nearly ended their voyage on many occasions in these past few months. There were a few hot heads he’d needed to calm, some, daunted by their situation and the apparently overwhelming odds they often faced needed an arm around the shoulder and patient encouragement, but in the main this disparate group of individuals assembled and forged into a fighting unit by one of the most decorated and respected men in the star fleet had, when it mattered, shown they could fight not only for themselves but more importantly for each other together.
Lieutenant Koscielny received the message via his neural implant. Blinked rapidly four times to acknowledge receipt and ran through the familiar check list before transmitting his response. He turned to Per and, employing plain speech, said to the tall blond man apparently seated next to him on the holo bridge,
“Arsene. Checking up on us”
But he was smiling. Per had said to him not to be surprised if he was contacted directly. The commodore always knew how to instil confidence in his younger officers and the tele-P message was a simple and immediate way of letting the young man know he was there, thinking of him, available to help if he needed support. Of course they weren’t actually sat next to one another. Ever since the recent attack which had damaged the outer deflector shields and nearly penetrated the hull, the crew had all been in their cabins. These doubled as escape pods or ‘coffins’ as they were known throughout the fleet. The crew manned the virtual bridge via the hologram simgen hub which gave piloting the giant starliner a pleasing old fashioned feel. The ship was of course doing all the essential work of maintaining the engines, keeping the human crew in oxygen and ensuring they were on the appropriate trajectory, but mankind was a stubborn race and the illusion of being in control remained important.
The psyche injury suffered by Captain Tommy V hadn’t been serious but the position he held was sufficiently high profile that the Commodore couldn’t take any chances. They’d taken a few hits from smaller pirate vessels earlier in the voyage and the leadership the crew needed to keep them strong through the difficult part of their voyage simply hadn’t been there. The commodore knew his captain was still a very capable officer and felt sure that his time on the recuperation deck would see him come back stronger than ever. Flight Officer Vassiriki Skullcrusher Diaby who had famously killed one of the galaxy’s most notorious and evil pirate captains in hand to hand combat (or rather foot to head combat) was recovering from wounds he’d received on a previous flight and the two were discussing their hopes for the next stage of the voyage.
“It’s strange to think that my injury would once have been seen and treated so differently from yours” the Captain was saying
Skullcrusher shook his elegant, shaven head, rueful as he contemplated the folly of their antecedents “I know, it’s crazy. A tiny bone in your foot snapped when someone dropped something on it and everyone agreed you had an injury, a wound which deserved sympathy and care. However, a tiny part of your self confidence or motivation snaps under pressure of life and work and you were weak and no good, washed up. Thank the stars we live in more enlightened times.”
Tommy V laughed out loud at this. Of course it was true that back in the dark ages psyche injuries were not accepted as a perfectly normal medical phenomena, but Skullcrusher’s ironic and quasi religious call to thank balls of gas floating in space for their deliverance from such barbarism amused him. He drew a lot of strength from the taller man. His injuries had been horrific and yet he maintained his dignity and optimism and a strong belief that one day he would return to the fray. A natural warrior he would be in the midst of any fight should they be attacked again. Tommy shuddered as he remembered the time when a particularly nasty group of renegade star troopers known as the Barcodes for their unusual mode of dress had telelocated aboard in an audacious attempt to take over the ship. Vassiriki Skullcrusher had lifted the most violent and odious of the pirates from the deck by his neck and literally torn him in two flinging the black and white striped body parts to the deck with an exaggerated disdain which had terrified even his fellow crew members. Only the furious determination of the corrupt ex government official Fatman Dowd who protected the retreating barcodes until they escaped the bridge back to the telelocation deck had prevented a massacre.
“Do you think it’s true what some people say?”
“What’s that Skipper?”
“Well I heard this theory that there are infinite universes parallel to our own where all possible lives are lived in similar and yet subtly different ways.”
“Sounds like sci-fi bullshit to me Skip”
“Yes but, imagine if it were true. Imagine if somewhere out there in another time, another place there could be another you another me, heck maybe even another Ashburton Grove with all of us in it just living somehow subtly different lives. I don’t know maybe you are the skipper there and I have the blood wounds, or maybe we aren’t starliner crewmen at all maybe we’re a different kind of team all together. Wouldn’t that be cool? ”
“Keep taking the tablets Skipper” Skullcrusher laughed, “you and your crazy ideas. ”
Alone in the dark the giant ship slid inexorably onwards, leaving behind no ripples in the emptiness it’s crew confident in themselves and their leader, their mission seemed unending, yet their faith in the ultimate reward was never in doubt.