Commander Seres stood straight and proud on the flight deck of the Icaran. He was a tall man for his caste, well over two and a half metres, with an athletic build, a shaven head and – despite the years of hard service – a face that was craggy rather than ravaged by war and time. The life of a dog soldier had been good to him and his exploits had earned him the respect of the Icaran’s crew and their agreement to his leadership.
It was only a small transport and research vessel connected to a larger city ship but it held three hundred men and women and even a few children, all under his command. It was a position he had never hoped for in the early days but now, after a decade in charge, he had grown into the habit of salutes and respect without having to earn it in battle with someone, or something. The men and women he saw every day were more than his battle brothers from a former life: they were friends, and they were family. Leadership was sometimes lonely but he could, through the framework of the ship’s hierarchy, form lasting relationships with both the young and the old like himself. It gave him a sense of satisfaction he had never had in a battle group; the sense that he could be part of the next generation.
The flight deck was gunmetal grey, the flooring a steel meshwork on top of rivers of cables and pipes that regulated the thousand systems the crew relied on for air, food, energy and their transport across the galaxy. Long and thin, the deck’s edges were lined by consoles where the crew controlled the various parts of the ship. Three technicians on either side and the two pilots at the head, at the tip of the craft’s fluid angularity. Its shape seen from above was reminiscent of the flying lizards that Seres had seen on a primordial planet years before.
The pilots moved deftly in their tasks. They were genetically enhanced to improve their reactions and control the three hundred metres of space ship. They were wired into the engines and steering as well as each other. One knew instantly what the other was doing; although they could turn the systems off when not aboard, it was vital that if something befell one pilot during active service, the other knew. The skill of these men was beyond value, their brains controlling the rapid movements and minute course changes required along any flight path.
Seres stood just behind them. He had always found their type fascinating. Unlike many who had been enhanced genetically either before or after birth, they showed no physiological difference to other mortals. He himself had been gifted a developed skeletal structure, the ability to shift his size and probably still his shape if he concentrated hard enough on the task, as well as his abilities as a soldier. Even when, after seven hundred years, he had finally retired that portion of his life, he kept the size and musculature he had become so very used to. In contrast the pilots looked just like any other men; the only change was in their minds, their processing power dramatically enhanced to give them the ability to control a million tons of fast-moving cruiser. Connections made and fused in an organic computer that matched even the greatest minds of humanity. Seres had been told the rumour that their actual intelligence, their cognitive powers outside the realm of the flight deck, was lessened slightly. He thought it had some merit, pilots being often the last to click when an idea or a joke was being batted around, although their position prevented any attempt to take advantage of that loss of intellectual pace. They were treated with respect. And in any case with their training it didn’t matter and as long as they did their duty by the crew and the ship, Seres didn’t care.
The jump through the dimension drift was going without a hitch. With the latest anti-matter engines aboard the ship could halve the time it took to drift to their next port of call. It was a luxury at last to have no reliance on inhabited star systems or the power capacitors of the colonised stars, the reserves being enough to voyage for over three years before the habitual refuelling at any one of a thousand ringed planets to have begun the production of refined antimatter.
He paced between the rows of computer terminals that lined the path to the cockpit proper where the two pilots sat. Technicians monitored the gravitational pull of the objects in real space, as they called it. Real space didn’t seem to be the best way of describing the universe that they lived in. They lived in ten dimensional space time rather than three dimensions that were visible to the human eye. Although this was the only other element they could traverse through, and even then at great care. Seres didn’t like to dwell on it, but every drift into the blackness of the dimension jump left him thinking of those who went away and never reappeared. The darkness of space travel was a painful step into the unknown that he did not like to endure for long. The view screen at the front of the ship revealed nothing but the blue glow of the space-time bubble around the ship, effectively giving them a zero mass.
It was nearly impossible to see into the dimension drift, although occasionally he thought he saw shadows at play behind the energy that shielded them. Shapes and patterns that his eyes and mind turned over and tried to make sense of, but never could. At any rate, without the bubble they would immediately be expelled, most probably in a billion pieces. Although gravity was experienced in this dimension, energy could not be, thus the need to remain within the bubble. He had gone through a phase of having the computer simulate the star systems they were passing on the view screen, but in the end he would always turn it back to the blue glaze.
His presence on the flight deck was in order to be one of the first to see the star they were travelling to. It was his relief, his moment to exhale and briefly to assume that he and his crew were safe again, at least until the next foray into the unknown. Like a swimmer coming up for air, he was suffocated by the confines of the dimension jump and longed for the colour of the universe proper.
‘Coming out in five, four…’ the co-pilot began. Seres listened to the rest of the count with his eyes closed opening them only when the Pilot remarked ‘oh dear’. He was sorely disappointed with what he saw.
The ship shook violently and the expected star did not appear on the view screens before him. Nothing but a darkness against the stars. There was immediate panic as the Icaran was bombarded with what felt like asteroids; the lesser energy shields absorbed most of the impact but from the displays to his left Seres could tell they had suffered at least one breach. A massive jolt then hit the port side of the craft as it slowed to minimum power, sending a young girl in a blue jumpsuit flying from her station to land on the floor at Seres’ feet. He hoisted her up with his massive arms and sat her down again as a parent would a child. She immediately went back to her work as if nothing had happened. In the whole experience Seres would reflect later that she had been the best of his command crew, simply because he did not notice her fear while the others were yelling or calling for information or help.
‘Calm!’ he barked. The noise stopped immediately. Seres stood straight, running a hand over his shaven head.
‘Where are we?’ he asked the pilot, yelling the length of the ten-metre flight deck.
‘Exactly where we’re supposed to be,’ the rapid response came back.
‘Then where are the star and the planets?’ a technician wailed, standing and pointing at the shadows ahead of the ship.
Seres took a step and placed his hands on the nervous technician’s shoulders, his massive paws gentle on the technician’s neck, and leaning in, he whispered kindly in his ear. The tech, through fear and a feeling of calm exuded by his captain, ceased wailing and slumped into his chair, his eyes focused on his own screen, not wanting and not daring to look back up at the monster before them.
The space-time bubble had remained functional at its lesser extent. It was a failsafe to allow them to ride through just such a possibility. The shell surrounding the ship protected it from the bulk of any physical damage, although the concussion was still felt across all eleven decks of the craft and had obviously caused a tear in the cargo bay. Thankfully, the habitation decks had not been affected. Nevertheless the possibility of what they were seeing was not something any of them had prepared for.
‘There,’ Seres said. ‘Enlarge the centre section of the screen.’ Before them lay the star they had expected to see, black against the deep forever of space: no more the bright red giant but burnt beyond recognition.
‘Black Dwarf!’ Seres yelled over his shoulder.
The ship shook violently again as the picture loomed before the whole flight crew.
‘Sir, we have a gravitational issue,’ the pilot said. ‘The star is pulling us in.’
‘It can’t be,’ said Seres. ‘We arrived just where we should have.’
‘No, sir,’ the co-pilot explained. ‘Gravity permeates the dimension jump. Because of the explosion and subsequent shrinking of the star, no doubt we were pulled into space further along than we should have been. We’re ... we’re effectively inside the previous sphere of the star, sir.’
Silence greeted this terrifying prospect. Seres strode to the front of the ship and knelt between the two men, their hands still moving and eyes rapidly blinking as they fought to take control of the ship.
‘Give me the worst,’ he said softly.
‘Crash and explode,’ said the pilot bluntly. Visibly straining, he was sweating, making minute movements as the processors controlling the ship fired his synapses.
‘The best?’ asked Seres.
‘A similar first part, I don’t think I can stop it. We’re going to have to risk a landing, and then possible survival on the surface of the star for up to a month given the power we have available.’
‘Possible once we go down,’ answered the pilot. ‘We can try to calculate for a drift going through the planet. If we attempt it now and fail we lose all power, no controlled landing and probable death for all aboard.’
‘There are four, sir, they hold seventeen people each. The rest of the ship is designed to function as autonomous life rafts, but they would fail to escape from the gravity well of the star.’
‘Then we go for the best possible course,’ said Seres, standing up. Their odds of survival if they tried to break free now were low. They could try to jump back into a dimension drift, but without precise calculations they might find themselves lost, stranded or dead. There was no way to control the ship through the precise manoeuvres. He took a step back. ‘I’ve always wanted to walk on the surface of a star,’ he muttered.
Then, ‘all available power to the gravity field,’ he yelled loudly over his shoulder. They were going to need it.
The pilot fired a series of thrusters to try to steady their descent. The space-time bubble had burst by now, and recreation of it was probably impossible and would certainly have cost the ship most of the power that remained in reserve. Seres was concerned but he had got out of tighter spots than this. He stood upright in the middle of the deck. His knowledge of flight mechanics was minimal; the only thing he could do was be a leader right now. The right example and the right figure for adversity. That was the best he could be. He reached for the communications array for the ship and when he spoke, his voice was clear and firm.
‘Icaran,’ he said, ‘prepare for crash landing. Brace for impact, brace for impact. ’
As his command reverberated around the ship, Seres kept his eyes fixed on the surface of the scarred rock they were heading towards. The surface loomed black under the ship’s strong landing lights. The craft stuttered, the pilot fighting against the ever-increasing speed as they sped towards the massive ball of black, its surface filling the whole view screen until the pilot pulled up at the last moment. The ship’s pointed prow miraculously did not dig in, the hull bumping along the impacted carbon surface with minimal debris. With the force shields acting as a cushion against an otherwise fatal impact, they finally slid to a halt.
‘Gravity got the better of the last section of the land, sir, I’m sorry.’ The pilot turned around, anxious not to have displeased his captain. Seres just smiled.
‘You have done the impossible, Haft. We are alive,’ said Seres. He looked out at the desolate waste of the landscape, wondering again how far he had come and what the chances were of survival to the next refuelling stop. He soon returned to his default position. They were stranded, with little hope of any rescue. He would order a distress beacon to be sent up, but the chances of anyone hearing it within a thousand years were slim. In cases like this it was up to the leader to show that life could continue, and the world was not as scary as it perhaps suggested itself to be. But then Seres took a long look through the view screen at their captor and realised they were dead. They just did not understand that fact. The black dwarf star should not be here. The chances of something like this occurring were infinitesimally small over a million years. Seres had been to this system before, albeit a thousand years before, but this now carbon heavy star should not be able to exist. The power drain and forced fusion as well as immediate cooling would require an event of such barbarous negligence that no human or indeed any other species would be capable. He was worried for his crew and for the ship. The circumstances were beyond dangerous and dire; there was little chance they would ever be able to find a way off this cold chunk of stellar ash. He almost smiled to himself; he now had the luxury to be as brave as he could ever be, with no consequences other than the inevitable. He turned to his crew with a flourish.
‘Is the gravity shield extended around the ship?’
‘It is, it is,’ said the calmed technician, ‘but it can be pushed out by a further five hundred metres with little effect on the power reserves.’
‘Excellent,’ said Seres. He paused. ‘Who wants to go for a walk?’
Much to his delight the waif he had placed back in her seat during the turbulence was the first to stand up. He walked to the exit, throwing his arm around the girl as he went.
‘Let’s go then,’ he suggested. He was even starting to believe his own confident lie as he took five strides towards the exit. He could feel the incredulous stares of his crew at his back. If he believed he was a dead man, maybe he could use that for just long enough to convince them they could live.
‘Commander Seres?’ Juval, his second-in-command, came running down the corridor as the captain with his three volunteers for the star walk were making their final preparations. Even the waif looked ready for the adventure, buoyed up by the joking and playful men he had at either side. His medical officer and the chief science officer had both been keen and volunteered immediately after their youthful companion.
‘Change your mind, Juval?’ Seres smirked.
‘Hardly, sir,’ said Juval. ‘I value my life and the command of the ship. Should you be incinerated in a solar sinkhole, we have no way of knowing how deep the burnout of this star goes.’
‘This is the work of those bastards though, isn’t it?’ the science officer chimed in.
‘I don’t doubt it,’ said Seres, turning back to Juval. ‘Now what do you want?’
‘It’s another ship, sir,’ said Juval.
‘What, in orbit?’
‘No sir, it’s outside.’
‘Impossible,’ said Seres. ‘We saw nothing when we landed?’ He looked at the waif, Sypo, who shook her head in confirmation.
‘Well, it’s a good thing I’m dressed up then, isn’t it?’ he frowned. ‘How far away is it?’
‘About a hundred metres,’ said Juval. ‘It has extended its own grav field over ours, taking some of the strain from our engines.’
Seres raised an eyebrow. ‘Keep ours ready to take the strain back should they fail to continue their hospitality.’
He dismissed his executive officer with a wave and finalized his preparations. They made their way through the air lock system that extended out underneath the nose cone, the hydraulics bringing them down to the surface. The doors opened to a sea of black glass, the other ship in the distance almost invisible against the alien scene. Stepping outside the men felt the effects of the gravity shields take hold and keep them firmly within normal gravity. The batteries would not last long though. Seres kicked at the surface. Like tempered steel with a glassy sheen: no dust flew up, even in the false gravity. Across the desolation Seres could see from the other ship a singular figure striding across the surface towards him. The ship was human and modern in design, although the markings were unusual for a transport. It had obviously had some form of modification done as the engine block at the back was at least three times the size of his own ship’s, which was itself three times the size of the transport.
The terrain was bizarre. The star had begun the process of turning into a black dwarf, a roaming lump of coal in space. Although black dwarfs would usually form over thousands of years the massive power drain had crusted the star completely. Seres guessed that it was no more than a third the size of an average planet, perhaps even as small as a moon. The problem was the gravity. Without the suits and the space time bubble extending from the ship to dull the effects they would all be much shorter; in fact, becoming part of the surface of the star. If the process went the wrong way this could get nasty. They had power to survive for a short while, but being crushed by a star collapsing in on itself to the extent it became a singularity would certainly not be how Seres would want to end his days.
The figure, dressed in human gear, was shorter than he expected and the suit, designed for a man of seven or eight feet in height gave the unlikely appearance of a baby in a romper suit. The visitor came to a halt a few yards before Seres, flipped the face screen to clear, and now Seres could see the small man inside.
‘My name’s Albert,’ he said with a thick German accent, ‘and we’ve come to give you a hand’.