Authors: Andrew M. Crusoe
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Philosophy
THE OUTPOST FOR WAYWARD TRAVELLERS
After a few minutes, they arrived at a huge semicircular door at the end of the hall, and Asha pressed her thumb to a plate beside it. When the door rolled back a moment later, several details flooded Zahn’s senses at once.
The sheer expanse of the room spread out before him was stunning. The cavern was so large that he was convinced that the entire Ashraya Observatory could have fit inside. As he stepped in, he noticed that a thousand oddly shaped objects were arranged neatly around circular platforms. Above him, the ceiling formed a dome which was illuminated by a brightly glowing orb embedded in the center. It reminded him a bit of Navika’s nucleus, but it was brighter and perhaps not as elegant.
Then the smell hit him. The air was clean, but it was filled with a strange scent that was a blend of molten metal, wildflowers, and what almost seemed like a hint of freshly squeezed fruit juice. It was one of the oddest combinations of smells he had ever experienced.
Compared to the sights and smells, the sound of the room was rather mild. Every few seconds, he heard a hissing noise. The low hums of nearby floating spheres were also audible, but overall it was much quieter than Zahn expected such an outpost to be.
“Are you coming?”
He looked to his left and saw Asha studying him with a puzzled look on her face. In this light, he noticed that her olive skin had a hint of a reddish hue within it, and her eyelids had a dusting of gold on them. Then, a wave of embarrassment washed over him. He’d completely lost track of time taking in the sight of the room and wasn’t sure exactly how long he had been standing there.
“Oh! I’m sorry, this place is just—”
“Empty? I know. My father has been concerned about that, too. Follow me. This workshop can be a hazardous place. My father has summoned us to the observation balcony.”
“Balcony…” Zahn looked up and noticed a balcony high above them that wrapped around the entire chamber.
Asha waved Zahn into a small elevator that was inlaid into the wall beside the huge door they had just come through. Oonak was already inside, and after taking a mental note of what the elevator controls looked like, Zahn stepped in.
“Please don’t say anything about how empty this place is to my father. He’s been rather sensitive about the subject lately. My father may not like it, but we just don’t get the traffic we used to. Now that the marauders are getting more numerous… Anyway, don’t ask about his customers, all right?”
“Okay,” Zahn said. “So how long have you lived here, Asha?”
“Most of my life. We came here when I was very young.”
The elevator made a chirping sound as the doors opened.
“Here we are,” she said.
Zahn stepped out and noticed how the balcony wrapped around the edge of the massive room, except at three places where there were gaps. There the quality of the wall changed, and he wondered if they might be massive doors.
Asha led Oonak and Zahn over to a large oval table made of stone. The table was already set, but Zahn couldn’t see any eating utensils at all. All he could see were what he guessed were dinner plates arranged on the table.
Zahn noticed Asha looking at a flashing device on her wrist.
“Interesting. It appears your ship is resisting us moving it, but we need to bring it into the workshop to repair it.”
“I will notify him.”
Zahn watched as Oonak used his wristband to talk to Navika and update him on the situation.
“While you wait for your ship to arrive, you may sit,” Asha said. “My father will be out shortly.”
Just moments after they sat down, Asha disappeared behind a door, leaving them alone. From where he was sitting, Zahn saw how three narrow columns in the center of the room reached all the way up to the ceiling. Despite being colorless, Zahn thought he saw blue and green hues glisten on the edges of the columns, and he wondered if they were used for anything beyond supporting the dome above them.
Asha appeared again, this time carrying a large bowl of dark green food. It was cut into cubes, and when she set the bowl down, the cubes vibrated like jelly.
“Help yourself,” she said. “More to come.”
Zahn’s stomach overpowered his hesitation, and when he grabbed a piece he was relieved to discover that it had a smooth texture and tasted slightly sweet. He also used that opportunity to take a picture of the cubic snacks, as well as some of the incredible architecture around him. He noticed that Asha looked interested in the photodisc, but before she could say anything, Oonak spoke.
“Asha, are you and your father the only people who live here?”
Asha’s expression darkened.
“Yes,” she said. “It wasn’t always that way, though. There used to be more, back when it was safer, before the marauders came. Now we rely on the pods to help us. My dad started building them when less and less people would stay and work.”
“You mean those floating spheres?” Zahn said. “We saw one when we first arrived. Oonak thought it was scanning us.”
“It was,” Asha said.
Zahn heard a quiet chirp, and Asha looked at her wrist again.
“In fact,” she continued. “I just received a report back from one of the pods. Hmm. Is there anyone else in your group?”
“No, just me and Oonak.”
“Well, I’m detecting a life signature within your ship.” Asha frowned. “Sometimes I wonder why I even trust those pods. That pod must be malfunctioning. I’d better go and examine it. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Oonak said. “Navika contains a life pattern because the ship contains an individuated consciousness within its core. You are seeing a life pattern because Navika is indeed alive.”
“Oh.” Asha considered this for a moment. “Then is the ship a spacefaring organism of some kind? We’ve seen one or two of those over the years. They’re quite rare.”
“Navika’s origins are privileged knowledge and nothing to be concerned about, I assure you. What is of concern right now is the future of our mission.”
“Well, it looks like we’ll be able to repair the cloaking field in a relatively short amount of time.”
“What about the timespace components?”
“Given your ship’s unique qualities, I’m not sure we’ll be able to repair its timespace drive. Perhaps my father—”
In the distance, they heard heavy footsteps. “Oh, here he is.”
They looked up and saw a tall, muscular man with the same hint of a reddish hue in his olive skin that Asha had. His hair and beard were jet black and short, and his eyes were a darker brown than Asha’s. He was wearing a graphite jumpsuit covered in zippered pockets, and he was holding two huge platters with at least a dozen small bowls on them, each containing a strange food Zahn had never seen before.
The man set both platters on the table and eagerly offered his hand to Oonak, who was closest. As he did this, Zahn rushed to put away his photodisc. He didn’t know how this man would feel about him taking photos of the place.
“The name’s Yantrik. Welcome to Outpost 33, or as I like to call it these days ‘The Outpost for Wayward Travellers’, although it’s had different names throughout the years…”
Yantrik’s voice was gruff, but there was a warmth behind it that was assuring. He was instantly likable.
“Pleased to meet you. I am Oonak of the Confederation.” Oonak stood up and bowed slightly.
“Welcome, Oonak! And who are you, son?” Yantrik flashed Zahn a charming smile which fit his angular face perfectly.
Zahn winced. He hadn’t been called ‘son’ in years.
“Please, just call me Zahn. This is quite an impressive place you’ve got here.”
“You think so? Well, it does the job, although it’s old. Older than you could guess, but what can I say? It’s home. Anyway, help yourself to some of this. I enjoy making food for guests.” Yantrik gestured toward the fresh bowls of strangely colored food on the stone table.
Oonak took a handful of some orange berries, sat back down, and chewed them thoughtfully for a few moments before he spoke again.
“Yantrik, are you familiar with timespace drives?”
“Are you kidding me? Rebuilt one when I was a kid.”
“Good. So you can repair my ship’s drive?”
“Not a chance. At least not without the right materials and plenty of time.”
“Do you know how long it’s been since a Confederation ship stopped by? I don’t have the right materials to fix such a complex timespace system. Add to that the fact that I’ve never worked on a drive from a ship as unique as yours before.”
“Such as?” Zahn said.
“Well, the timespace field resonates with the hull itself—which appears to be a single crystal, I might add. Anyway, I haven’t seen anything like it in years, so I’d have to reverse-engineer it and study it first. I suspect neither of you would want to stay for the length of time that might take, assuming I could even complete a repair at all.” Yantrik looked out onto the workshop floor and took a deep breath. “Timespace drives are tricky. The question isn’t whether I could, the question is, would you really want to give me a dying candle and risk me inadvertently transforming it into a fireball?”
“No,” Oonak said. “If my ship is too exotic for your level of experience, then perhaps it is best if you refrain.”
“A wise choice. Asha tells me you came in through the old ring gate. You’re playing with fire, you know. Partly because they’re older than most of the civilizations around here, but mostly because of the kinds of nasties you can meet while using them. The marauders, who make their way by attacking anyone who comes through, are only one example. Now that I think about it, you’re lucky you haven’t run into the Vandals yet. You’re even more lucky Ashakirta detected your ship when you two came through, otherwise we most certainly would not be having this conversation.”
Zahn turned to Asha in surprise.
Asha smiled slightly.
“Oh, don’t let her fool you. She has talent, and not just in piloting. Anyway, I feel horrible whenever she has to go out instead of me, but she was already in the area when you two came through, so she was able to get to you both faster than I could have.” Yantrik turned to Asha. “Why were you out there this time, anyway?”
“I was just on my way back from helping one of the asteroid miners repair her ship. She seemed rather ill, too, so I brought her some food from the greenhouse. When I left she was still sleeping, actually.”
“Asha, I’m glad that you’re doing jobs on the side, but we talked about this. Sharing is fine. But please check with me first before you give our food away, all right?”
“Sorry, Dad. She was pretty sick and you were busy.”
In the distance, Zahn heard a sound that reminded him of white noise and soon realized that it might be the ship being scrubbed clean.
“So, Yantrik,” Oonak said. “When you spoke of the Vandals, were you referring to the Vakra—”
Yantrik cut Oonak off in a blink.
Stop right there,
Confederation man. Whatever you do, do
say that name. It is not acceptable in civilized society, especially not on my outpost.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you. I just want to confirm that we’re talking about the same enemy.”
Zahn’s eyes were wide.
“Are you referring to those who are rumored to steal entire star systems?” Oonak continued. “I’ve heard them referred to by many names, but those of the Confederation have a specific name for those who corrupt space as they do.”
“If it’s the name you were about to say, then you should remember my words. It is
acceptable to speak, Oonak. Calling them the Undying Vandals describes them well enough.”
“Who are these vandals, Oon?”
Oonak turned to Zahn. His face seemed tense as though he were holding something back, and then he spoke in carefully measured sentences.
“They are the last great adversary to the Confederation. For millennia, most believed that they had finally been wiped out, but we were mistaken. They returned even stronger than we anticipated. More and more, entire star systems have been plucked from their rightful places in the galaxy and enslaved, creating great chaos. I have even heard of star systems purposely causing their star to go nova moments after evacuation, just to prevent them from consuming yet another star.” Oonak paused. “Zahn, they are the living nightmare that the Confederation must extinguish.”
Zahn seemed lost in thought for a moment.
“So,” Zahn finally said, “do you think they were the ones who attacked you back at Avani?”
“Quite likely, and that is the prime reason why we must reach the Confederation Council as soon as possible. If they have spread as far as your system, billions more are in danger.”
Zahn turned to Yantrik. “So, when will our ship be ready?”
“My my! Look at this one. Getting right down to business, not that I can blame you. If the Undying Vandals truly are meddling with your planet, you’d best get all the help you can. Lucky for you, your ship should be ready later today.”
Yantrik took a deep breath and raised his eyebrows, realizing that he might be alarming Zahn more than necessary.
“In any case, don’t worry so much, Zahn,” he continued. “Your ship is out of your hands now, and if you remember anything, remember this: you gotta know the difference between what you can change and what you can’t. Otherwise you just go wasting energy and frustrating yourself. You got me?”
“I suppose that’s good advice for any traveller,” Zahn said.
“Yantrik,” Oonak said. “What do you and Asha know about the galactic gate network?”
“Not too much. Until you two showed up, we thought it might have burned out once and for all. Last time anybody came through there was a long while ago. Didn’t stop somebody from trying to trade a gate map for repairs to their ship a while back, though. Can you believe that? Sorry, but star maps are not my preferred method of payment. I mean look at me, Oonak. Do I look like an explorer to you?”
“Right, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to pay with them. Anyway, sometimes I wonder if I’m too nice. If someone’s hard up for currency, occasionally I let them pay in knowledge, although I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do that.”