The Centurion

After that rather confusing business with the Faster Than Light ‘Star Drive”, as it is now popularly called, I was granted 8 months paid rest by the military, despite my complaints. How they managed to get me to work for them, I still haven’t the faintest, but there isn’t much else to do these days as a particle physicist, and the pay was excellent. Then, a week and a half before my leave officially ended, I was (once again) woken at three in the morning by that arse Jamieson. Now, for those of you that haven’t read my earlier book on how we discovered the Alcumbierre Drive, I’ll give you the short version (though you really must read it at some later date); Fresh out of the London College of Physics, I received a call from Jamieson, an old friend who became a biologist. He was rather cryptic, and urged me to come to Mars, on Mons Olympus City, where a shuttle would be waiting to take me to the Kuiper Belt. Having little else to do, I did so, and was introduced to Echo squad, one of those teams that keep the space pirates under wraps. Anyway, we got to the pirate base, seized it, and I discovered why I had been brought- a machine that could create the conditions necessary towards the creation of an Alcumbierre Field, allowing ships to travel faster than light. Then, we were attacked by another group of pirates- mutants called the Smashers. We couldn’t use the base’s heavy weapons, for fear it would set off the positronic fields within the Star Drive- but Jamieson and I stabilized the fields, and the traitor who revealed our co-ordinates to the Smashers- one Captain Jack Dover- was killed by the head of the group, Colonel MacDuncan. Of the original ten-man group, just four were still alive.

Now, to continue my story, I was naturally loath to pick up such a call at three A.M. Solian Standard Time (SST), in addition to which, I was still sore about the Council refusing to allow me on the Centurion, the first faster than light ship ever made. Of course, as I will later explain, that was indeed a good thing, and I thus answered the call.

At around noon, I met Jamieson in Main Square Park, in Gloucester, where I had recently moved from Venus. I sat down on a bench, one of those new, plusher ones than replaced the older single seats. I admired the view for ten minutes, and then Jamieson came along and ruined it.

“ Ah, Clark, there you are! I was afraid you wouldn’t show.”

“ Screw you, Jamie. I was here before you.”

He chuckled. “ Same sense of humour, huh? Listen, mate, you must have heard about the Centurion, right?”

It was a sad thing. An hour and a half after the Drive had finished its journey (just 3 hours to Alpha Centauri, and just a 4-minute communication delay) the Centurion neared the outer rings of Proxima Centauri, and all communications ceased, after a massive burst of energy, large enough to tear open the Field entirely. There were three main ideas of what happened, one of which I agreed could happen- I disliked the idea that the Drive had de-stabilized. It could happen under certain circumstances, but required some many unlikely coincidences that it would be more likely for someone to walk through a solid wall.

“ Yeah, I heard about it. What, do they want me to go there and find out the problem?”

The other idea was simple- the ship had just shattered the field. Its generators were dead, but the ship itself was serviceable. The idiots who spread this rumour had no idea what they were talking about. An Alcumbierre field is a distortion of space. To shatter it, you need to tear a hole in the fabric of space-time. A million fusion reactors can’t do that- and the Centurion had six.

“ Precisely. Anyway, aren’t you glad you weren’t on the Centurion? Come on, you need to do this. You’re Sol’s foremost expert on the Star Drive!”

The last explanation was that someone else had interfered. Maybe humans… maybe aliens (purists, forgive the word. I know that ‘alien’ is relative). I was more on the human side. Why would aliens randomly blow up a ship?

“ I’m sure.”

“ Aren’t you curious?”

He got me there, but I would have come anyway.

“ Aren’t you desperate? Sure, Jamie, I’m kidding. I’ll come.”

“ Good. Then I can go too!”

“ We’re going, but tell me one thing. Why all the hush-hush?”

He looked up and sighed. “ Well… you know…”

“ No, I don’t.”

“ See, the Centurion… before it was destroyed… it reported contact.”

“ Contact? What do you… Oh. Dear God.”

“ And from what happened… it was hostile.

I suddenly felt an urge to meet Boris.

Boris is a money scrambler or some such thing. You give him a few illegal funds, and he’ll make sure not even a super-computer can find them. He’s also a major government and criminal contact, though he fronts his business as an import-export kind of thing. He’s a bit of an odd egg, but bearable. He hates violence, and leaves that to his 30 something butler and bodyguard, Fredric Zakhaev, who’s ex- Special Forces, if I remember correctly. Boris was born on Venus, but hated it, and moved to Triton, the criminal haven of the solar system, just a year after graduating college. He’s around 50, and even though he’s a criminal, I trust him with everything but my bank account number.

“ Clark! How wonderfuls to see you! I don’ts get many visitors here, you knows. It’s terribly borings. How ares you?”

“ I’m fine, Boris. Listen, I need to ask you something.”

“ Anything at all! Fredric, bring my special Coffee Blak mixture!”

“ Indeed, sir.”
“ What do you know about the Centurion?”

He shrugged. “ A tragic accident. Your Star Drive, no?

“ Yeah, Boris, my Star Drive. How about Project Recovery?”

“ Well, from ze title, I can tell you it is about recovering the wreck.” He flexed his fingers and typed some things on the V-board.

“ Well, it is based On Earth. Continent… North America… South of Canada…”

“ What? Not possible. South of Canada everything was nuked in the last World War.”

“ The computer cannot lie. Underground shelter, maybes… hmmm… that is very odd.”

“ What?”

“ Zis Project Recovery is based in Washington, D.C., where even underground shelters collapsed, all, long ago. Ruined wasteland. “

“ Rings a faint bell.”

“ So, whys you want to- auhhgghh!” A bullet crashed into his hand, and the V- board collapsed. The place suddenly erupted with gunfire, just as Fredric entered with the Coffee Blak.

“ Fredric! Do something!”

“ Of course, sir.” He gently placed down the Coffee in front of the table I was hiding under, took the Vanadium tray, and walked into the hallway. I heard several pings as weapon fire bounced of the tray, then several screams. More gunfire erupted. I looked over at Boris, who was still rolling on the floor in agony, and remembered I’d picked something with bandaging up wounds in my time with Echo. I started to patch the wound just as someone was hurled through the window. It was one of our assailants, stone dead. Outside, Boris held two large guns and was spraying the rest of the attackers with them. Just two managed to flee through the wall- none of the rest moved- and Boris got them both in the back. He walked through the ruins of the wall and stood over me.

“ I do believe I may be of some assistance there, sir.”

I realized he was talking to me. “ Yes… of course. Umm… carry on.”

“ Hey, Clark,” Boris croaked. “ Do me a favour… get the arse who did this to my beautiful home, yes? The Project is based in the outskirts, IC 134- this is the only server in the area. Get him and kill him.”

I nodded and left.

“ And what is this Project Recovery?”

I shrugged. “ Dunno, mate. I imagine, though, that it might have something to do with the thing we’re doing.”

“ I knew that. The question is, what are they? How’d you hear of them?”

“ First search on the web. ”

“ Good, ‘cos- damn, one sec, I got to take this.”
I frowned. “ I’m getting one too. Think It has something to do with the assault on Boris’s house?”

“ Well, I was shot at, you were attacked, so let’s find out what they failed to do to the Colonel.”

I chuckled. “ Hello, colonel, how are you?”

“ Sure, sure, whatever. Have you been attacked yet?”

“ Yes…”

“ Good. Then we have the evidence to flush out this organization when we get back. Be on the ship by three. Out.”

I looked up, dismayed. “ He hung up.”

The Illustrious was a beautiful ship on the exterior, and the algae (which are excellent oxygen scrubbers; why no sci-fi author has come up with it is a mystery to me) made beautiful patterns on the wall, but it came nowhere close to the sheer grandeur of its predecessor. I suppose that was too much to ask for.

Take off was amazing. I’ve never had better. No expense had been spared for a top-secret mission. I don’t quite remember anything specific- just that I was in Ten Forward, the traditional name for all bars on spaceships. I suppose I was a little scared that what happened to the Centurion would happen to us. The trip involved two jumps- one jump could damage the fabric of space-time- and for the first jump, I can’t remember much. For the second, we were on high alert, and I in the engine room, having taken a sober pill, though it was no doubt hard to focus for Jamieson, in the sickbay, who refused to take one. I managed, with a little help from the A.I. system, SMART, to keep the drives working. There isn’t much to say about that, so I’ll skip to our arrival at the wreckage.

The pride of the Solian Republic… the most beautiful ship ever seen, ever designed… for a second, it appeared intact. Then it slowly rolled over, and the massive, gaping hole in its side became apparent. The Centurion hadn’t bled out- it died in milliseconds. That was apparent. Then another thing became apparent. There was no way its field ruptured. That would have destroyed the ship utterly.

The only remaining question was- did humans destroy it? Or was it alien (and I shudder to use this word- in space, no one is an alien)?

We would have to go inside the ship to find out, and I wasn’t relishing that, because then Echo squad would go, and I was part of Echo. The other six new members of Echo didn’t look too excited either, but no matter what, we would have to go into the ship, with its untold horrors, and discover them. Along with us would be Captain Dent- commander of the ship- and ten of his men. I hadn’t really met Captain Dent, but he struck as very similar to Captain Dover- kind at first, but something bloodthirsty under the surface. My intuition has rarely let me down, and I didn’t know if I would trust him in a life or death scenario. I was just thinking this as we stepped off the shuttle, as we suffered our first causality. The colonel didn’t go down in a blaze of glory, giving us a chance, but what he did was just as vital. The entire front half of the After Control Centre, where they were entering, had collapsed on itself, and the Captain must have jumped forward, right under it. He died soundlessly- first he didn’t have air to spare, because of the force of lifting up the debris that would have fallen on all of us. Then because the helmet on his suit cracked, and he didn’t have any air. In fact, the air hissing out of the helmet was what alerted us. It pushed his body just in the way to keep the ceiling from collapsing. He saved all of our lives, even after his death.

We were shocked for almost a minute, and then the ship neutrined us.

“ Are you lot OK?”

“ Y- yeah…” Lieutenant Atherton stammered into his mike. “ C- Colonel MacDuncan… He just… the ship collapsed… he jumped under…”

There was a long pause. “ My god… what now?”

“ We continue on!” Dent spat the words into his microphone. “ MacDuncan wouldn’t stop here, and neither will I.”

I was surprised. “ The ship’s log. We should search there.”

Dent nodded. “ Fan out. You two go to the engine room. I’ll handle the log. Everyone else, search the living quarters. Maybe we’ll find something.”

I nodded to Jamieson, and we began down the corridor.

The algae were dead and blackened, the Bio-Genetically Engineered Lights (BGEL) completely out – but there was still some light. It took me a moment, but I realized that the dim light that seemed to come through the walls was the emergency lighting. The generators must have died in the initial seconds, but some residual energy still powered them. Jamieson took out one long metal rod and placed it next to the wall. One of the ends began to gently glow. At first I wondered why he was carrying an energy detector- there were many smaller ones, and he was looking at the dead algae, not the generators.

Then he spoke. “ My God… Clark… do you see this?”

“ Yeah. Your device is picking up residual energy.”

“ No, you fathead. Watch.” He pressed the other end, and slowly, the light dimmed and died away. I was about to speak when I saw it.

The algae were alive. They stirred, feebly, and then the wall was alive with colours. Jamieson looked up in wonder.

“ Clark… This portion of the ship isn’t dead! That means we can breathe!” Grinning, he lowered his visor..

And he didn’t die.

“ You just… and you didn’t…” I lowered my visor. The air was stale, but breathable.

“ Did you see that?” Atherton’s voice crackled down the mike.

“ Yeah! How did that happen?” PFC Greene, the newest addition to Echo squad.

“ That was us. It appears the algae are still alive. The air in Corridor 1, leading to the engine room, is breathable.” There was a pause.

“ He’s right. The air is breathable in all the passages!”

“ And in the living quarters!”

Dent sounded shocked. “ But there are no living humans… that would require mini- nuke strikes of such incredible precision… any one in the living quarters would have died due to the energy surge…”

“ Even that wouldn’t explain it. I think that the algae just recently started producing oxygen… the people aboard asphyxiated.”

“ And the dull glow was caused by the residual energy from the generators what powered your algae?”

I quickly checked my computer, and then I opened a panel in the wall. The hologram was dead, but I hijacked the same power source and it flickered to life, albeit dimly.

“ Check engine room.”

The ship’s computer whirred, then replied: “ All engine room sensors disabled.”

I paused. “ What is the source of the energy you are running on?”

Another whirr. “ Fusion energy stored in algae.”

“ How about the engine room? Is any energy from there?”

“ No.”

Something dreadful occurred to me. “ Use potential energy to restart computer.”

The computer paused for ten seconds or so, and then flickered.

And the hallway lit up like a star going supernova. “ Welcome to the Centurion. There is catastrophic damage to: Fusion reactors one through three, the After Control Centre, and the Forward Control Centre. All weaponry non-functional. Oxygen levels- normal. Algae systems- damaged, but functional.” It went on like this for around a minute, then paused.

Dent whispered, awe-struck into his mike: “ Regroup Corridor 1.”

When we were all gathered, he said, “ Well, I was hoping I didn’t have to do this. You see, if it were a human saboteur, I would have destroyed the Illustrious when no one was near, and the Alcumbierre drive could be given up as a bad job. But now…” he shook his head.

Atherton put his hand on his blaster warily. “ What are you talking about, Dent?”

“ I can’t have the Asteroid belt using its armies to defend all of humanity, just as it is about to attack the Planets. The revolution will begin. Ever heard of the Arc beam? How abut the Polaron Drive? Technologies we sabotaged so we would have the upper hand in the wars.”

By now, most of Echo had their guns out, and so did the crew from the Illustrious- but the crewmen were pointing their guns at us.

Dent shook his head. He lifted his mike and spoke one word: “Now.”

Behind us, the Illustrious exploded into a thousand fragments. Three pods arrived, smashing their way into the ship, and a further ten men came out, guns trained on us.

“ Guns down, now.” Gradually, we dropped them, blasters, rifles, shotguns…

The last one to drop his gun was Greene, with his massive pulse rifle, larger than our plasma weaponry. As it fell, every eye was on it, and Greene lunged forward and launched a haymaker straight at Dent’s face. It made contact, and Dent literally went flying. Within an instant, Greene was on him, savagely smashing open his face.

“ Die, you monster! Die, you-“

Dent caught his fist and snapped it like a twig. Greene’s slight figure was no match for Dent’s bear-like musculature, and as he screamed, Dent rammed his fist straight into his solar plexus. Greene staggered back, against the wall, and Dent drew his blaster.

“ I was going to simply execute your friends, but you know what? Now I’ll just leave them here to asphyxiate. I just want you to know before you go.” He pulled the trigger, and Greene’s brains splattered on the bulkhead.

“ No! You monster!” Every member of Echo started screaming, cursing him, casting aspersions on his sanity, on his ancestry. Not Atherton. All he said was: “ Computer? Turn off the lights.”

I’m not quite sure what happened- only that someone hit me on the head, and the darkness lasted for three minutes. When it ended, not one member of Dent’s crew was left alive. Dent himself had collapsed against the wall, a round in his stomach.

Jamieson and Atherton leaned over him.

“ Just before you go, I want you to know that Clark found your IC address,” Jamieson said.

“ And when we get back, using your shuttle’s engine, we’re going to destroy it,” Atherton agreed. Then he drew his blaster and killed him.

We arrived on Earth one day later. General McAlister met us right outside the shuttle- in fact, he personally helped us re-stabilise the Alcumbierre field.

He asked me- the only remaining member of the crew not unconscious after the landing-: “ Are we alone?”

I replied: “ No, sir. We are not.”

Of course, after this, we fought in a massive war- it turns out our ship was intercepted by two A.I. controlled ships that launched the nukes.

But that’s another story.

“ We are most certainly not alone.”

Advay Sriram
Age 12, Grade 8
NYC Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies
Silver Key

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