The Universe Between: Chapter One


By Scott Reeves

1. Lions, Tigers and Bears

The  United Earth Ship Exeter crouched in a tight orbit about a small planet at the edge of a system designated only as G313M.   Its vast sensor array was not focused beyond the vicinity of the planet. All  nonessential  systems on the ship had been  shut  down.   Power dampers  had  been  deployed  around the ship to  absorb  any  stray emissions.

Exeter did not want to be found.

Vice-Captain  Hugh  Mothram sat on the edge of his seat on  the command deck of the Exeter. Outwardly he appeared calm, a facade he had to maintain for the benefit of his crew. Inwardly,  however, he was extremely tense. He had to fight the urge to stand and pace the bridge to work off his nervousness. Instead,  he looked once again at  the data flashing intermittantly across the sensor log  at  his elbow, searching for the telltale flashes indicating either the ship for which Exeter waited, or signs of the enemy from which she hid.


He  looked around at the strain on the faces of his  crew.  How much more of this tense waiting could they take? None of them liked being in territory which the Banshees had forbidden humans to enter. The  longer  Exeter  was  here,  the greater  the  chance  of  being discovered.   But orders were orders,  and they had been ordered to wait at G313M for two days. So wait they would.

Mothram  glanced  at  the chronometer,  though he knew  to  the second  how much time remained before he could give the command  to leave: over thirteen hours.

There  was  a low buzz of conversation among the  officers  on duty. Light-hearted bantering and laughter traveled the bridge,  at odds  with  the almost palpable tension that hung so thickly in  the recycled  air.   Chet Rickman,  the pilot-on-duty,   appeared to  be giving  little attention to his monitors,  though Mothram knew  that his fingers would be gliding over the acceleration pad at the first sign of trouble. Likewise the engineer, Logan White, was engaged in quiet conversation  with  his  assistant,   but  would  be working feverishly on his control panel at the first hint of an energy leak which could betray them to any Banshees that might be in the area.

And  beneath it all was the high probability that none of their precautions would hide them from the Banshees.   Humans in forbidden zones,  no  matter  how well  equipped,  were never  able  to  hide themselves  from the Banshees for long.   Mothram was surprised they hadn't  already been discovered.   He had an uneasy feeling that the longer they were hidden from the Banshees,  the greater would be the punishment  when they were discovered.   And it wasn't a question of whether they would be discovered, but when.

Mothram  turned to the young woman sitting quietly in the  seat next to his. "Let's get some coffee," he said to her.

She nodded,  and they both stood.   Mothram strode to the door, followed closely by the young woman.   Ordinarily,  the Vice-Captain would not be seen leading females off the bridge,  which could lead to speculation among his crew.   Especially women as attractive  as this one.  But  Marah Finnis was the Earth  Council  Representative assigned to the Exeter.   It was acceptable for him consult with her in private.

At  the  door Mothram,  ever the gentleman,  stood  aside  and motioned for Marah to precede him.   As they walked down the  wide corridor  towards the mess hall,  he carefully kept his eyes off the tempting  sway of her hips.   Several crewmen turned their heads  to watch  as  she  passed.   Mothram looked sternly at  them  and  they quickly continued on their way.   He could understand their leering, because  Marah was extremely attractive,  with her long blonde  hair and slim, well-proportioned figure just blossoming into  womanhood. But Mothram was never sure whether he could not tolerate men staring at her because of some old-fashioned chivalry within him, or because he  felt more than just a fatherly responsibility for the  seventeen year  old.   It was a question he didn't feel comfortable pondering. He just told himself that he was Vice-Captain and she was crew,  and left it at that. Any other relationship under current circumstances would be inappropriate, not to mention against regulations.

Not only was Marah the Exeter's Earth Council Rep, she was also Enhanced. Meaning she had a computer chip connected to her cerebral cortex. This gave her a perfect, eidetic memory, as well as instant access  to  the entirety of knowledge collected over  thousands of years  of human civilization.   Each generation,  only a handful  of humans  were  allowed  to  undergo  Enhancement.    Candidates  were selected  before  birth,  and  sometimes  before  conception, after careful analysis of family genetic history. Shortly after birth, the chip was  implanted.   The Enhanced child then  underwent  rigorous training,  a large part of which consisted of indoctrination by the government, if not literal programming, until they were loyal agents of the  United  Earth government. Rumours abounded  that  Enhanced humans were actually bred, and were part of a larger, darker,  ultra secret plan with unknowable goals.   Mothram gave little credit  to such rumours.   The  Enhancement  program was frowned upon  by  the general public, but  it  was  a  carryover  from  the  time   of Reconstruction. Like  so  many  things  from  those  days,  people mistrusted it.

It was strange,  serving with Marah.   Technically,  he was her superior.   She  had to follow his orders unquestioningly.   She was his advisor only;  he could ignore or follow her advice as he chose. But in actuality, she had so much power on the Council that she was, in a way, his superior.

But  Mothram was glad Marah had been assigned to his ship.  She had had an instant, shy attraction to him, which she easily hid from the crew, but which she could never hide from Mothram.   He had been able  to exploit this attraction so that on occasion he was able  to glean  facts from her about goings-on in the government to which  he would not ordinarily be privy. Becuase of her Enhancement,  she had a  security clearance that dwarfed Mothram's.  She was chock-full of state secrets.

Not only that, he had a genuine affection for her, and they had become close friends in the year she had been a member of his crew.

Rather  than  going directly to the mess hall,  Mothram took  a roundabout course  in  order to stick his head in at  several  duty stations.   He  always had the intercom to keep in touch  with  his crew,  but he made a habit of being in the physical presence of all of his men,  several times during each watch.   Not only was it good for morale,  it made him appear more readily accessible to his  men than  if he were merely a voice speaking to them from  the  bridge. Made the necessary, professional distance between commander and crew appear not quite so wide.

Exeter was a small ship,  with a crew of only two hundred,  but it took about an hour for Mothram to make the rounds.   Finally  he and Marah arrived at the mess hall.   Most of the off-duty officers were sleeping this late in the shift, though Mothram didn't know how they could  relax given the knowledge that the Banshees could  come calling any time.   So the mess hall was practically deserted at the moment.  He nodded  to his few officers who were  quietly talking among themselves. After pulling coffee from the dispenser in  the wall, he and Marah sat down at a table in the corner.

He took a thoughtful sip from his cup,  and carefully sat it on the table in front of him. Marah did the same.   She sat staring at him with her characteristic wide-eyed gaze. He always felt slightly uncomfortable when she did that, looking so young and innocent.   It was deceptive.  Her Enhancement and training gave her the  maturity and wisdom of a person three times her age.

He sighed. "Ah, Marah.   Who do you suppose we're waiting for? Who  could be  important enough for the Council to risk  our  lives sitting  in Banshee territory for two days?   And more to the point, what  the hell was this person doing deep in Banshee territory?   No one can possibly stand in downtown Bansheeville and survive.  We're probably waiting on a ghost.   Ghosts and Banshees."   He shook his head  and took another sip of coffee.   Then he looked directly  at her. "I hate it when the Council keeps me in the dark like this."

She  smiled,  knowing he was asking her for  information.   She shook her head. "Sorry, sir. For once,  you know as much as I do." She quickly took a drink of coffee to cover her laughter.

He ignored her playful remark,  thinking of the Banshees.   Not much  was known  about them.   It wasn't even  known  whether  they consisted  of  matter or energy.   Popular belief said they were  a combination  of  both,  but were predominantly energy.   Humans  had first  met  the Banshees six hundred years earlier.   They were  the first  non- human  species humanity had found in a thousand years  of space exploration.   It wasn't known where they came from, how long they had  been in space,  or how much of the Galaxy their  "empire" spanned. And  the Banshees showed no interest in communicating with humans. They destroyed most humans that wandered into areas of the galaxy  which the Banshees didn't want humans to enter.   The humans took this as an emphatic "Do not enter." Hence the forbidden zones. Humanity  had only explored a small portion  of  the  neighborhood around  Sol.   Much  of that space consisted of   forbidden  zones. Though why these areas were forbidden was a great mystery.

And  humans  were helpless to resist.   Banshees could  destroy humans as easily as humans could swat flies. The few people who had survived  encounters with a Banshee had reported that the  encounter had been "unpleasant in the extreme."   Banshees apparently emitted some type of energy field which induced a heart-pounding terror  in humans, as well as causing them to lose all muscular control.

"I don't like it,  Marah,"  said Mothram.   "Something is going on. Something the Banshees are not going to like. At all."

"Look on the bright side," she said.   "At least we're right in the middle of it. When it happens, we'll be the first to know."

"Wonderful." He sipped his coffee.

"Hey,  you're the one--"  Marah began.   She was cut off by the loud ringing of the alert klaxon. They looked at each other.

A voice called out over the intercom,  "Captain to the bridge!" but  he and Marah were already up and running.   They burst onto the bridge minutes later. "Report!" Mothram snapped.

"Slivership  approaching,  sir,  thrusters only,"  Rickman said into the noise of the klaxon.

"Shut that damn thing off!" Mothram yelled.

Rickman flicked a button on his control panel. The klaxon shut off, leaving Mothram's ears ringing in the sudden silence.   Rickman touched another button, transferring the view on his monitor to the large  screen at the front of the bridge.   Over the horizon of  the cratered  planet they were orbiting,  a small, smub-nosed ship  was hurtling towards Exeter. The picture was slightly fuzzy, crackling with static. Exeter was using old-fashioned computer-enhanced video cameras, since her sensors were at a minimum.

Rickman turned to look at the Vice-Captain.   "She's hailing us on tightbeam,  sir.   Ordering us to break orbit and run as soon as she's docked."

Mothram nodded.   "Extend docking ring."   He walked quickly to the exit. "Finnis, with me to the docking bay. Rickman,  bring all systems back up to full power,  and fly like hell the instant  that ship is docked."

"Yes, sir."

The  doors shut behind Mothram.  He and Marah pounded down  the corridors to the docking bay,  to greet whoever was about to  come aboard.

They   arrived at a long,  narrow hall that was lined with  six airlocks, three  to  a side.   There was a soft  metallic  clanging sound, and the ship jolted ever so slightly. Then a light above the middle  airlock on the right flashed green.   Mothram moved over  to the lock and pressed a button on the wall.   The thick metal  hatch popped up towards the ceiling with a hissing rush of air.   A tall, thin  man with a pale face and bald head stood in the middle of  the airlock.   He held  a neural shunt cable in his hands,  one end  of which was connected to a small socket in the back of his head. Upon seeing Marah, he held the unnattached end towards her.

"Hello,  Marah,"  he said.   "Quickly now.   No time.   They're coming.   Stick  it in.   Quickly now!"   He shook the cable at her. Marah took the free end. She brushed her long hair aside,  exposing the back of her slender neck.   At the juncture of her neck and head was a socket identical to the man's. Mothram watched as she plugged the shunt cable into the socket.

The man nodded, and closed his eyes.   A moment later,  Marah's eyes closed. Her  head lolled on her shoulders.   Then  for  long moments  nothing  appeared to happen,  but Mothram knew the man  was dumping  information  into  Marah's head through  the  shunt  cable. Mothram felt a sudden jerk, and then a steady acceleration as Exeter left orbit. Soon she would make the transition to hyperspace, headed for home.

Marah's  head raised and her eyes opened.   The man opened  his eyes, and Marah nodded at him.

That's when all hell broke loose.

The intercom chimed and Mothram heard a shouted "Captain--" and then  he felt as if someone had kicked his testicles.   He  doubled over.   A  loud screeching sound began drilling into his  head,  and quickly  became  a whining moan.   He saw Marah staggering down  the corridor,  and  the  man  was  listing against  the  airlock  wall. Suddenly  the  Banshees  were there in the corridor,  shiny  bright ethereal  presences,  whispy smears of glowing smoke drifting  above the  deckplates.   The deck seemed to turn sideways,  and his vision began  to come and go,  as though a strobe light had been turned on. Fear slammed into the base of his spine and transfixed him. He felt as  though he were having a heart attack.   And over and over,  that sensation  of his testicles being pounded to a pulp.   He opened his mouth to scream, but all that could be heard was the screeching moan produced by the Banshees.

Mothram  fell  to his knees,  and then crashed to  the  ground, fighting for breath.   He watched helplessly as the Banshees  moved toward the man in the airlock. They surrounded the man. One of the Banshees sent out a wispy tendril which seemed to disappear into his head.   The  man's knees went limp,  and he would have collapsed had his head not been "impaled" on the Banshee.   His eyes widened,  and his face contorted in agony.

Mothram  was awash in pain,  but he fought to crawl towards the man, to offer his vain help. An inch. Two inches. His muscles gave out. He twitched once then lay limp on the deck, conscious but unable to move. He finally managed to look up to see more of the Banshees "impaling" the man. Suddenly the Banshees began to spin.   Mothram's eyes widened as the man  was ripped into four ragged bloody pieces that slammed  against the wall and fell slowly to the floor.   The Banshees drifted out of the airlock. Coming towards Mothram. As they came closer his pain rose and grew in him until it was all that existed. His body writhed uncontrollably,  and  he screamed at the top of his lungs but  heard nothing.

     Then  they  vanished,  disappearing  as suddenly  as  they  had appeared.

Mothram's  ragged  scream echoed in the corridor,  but   was quickly silenced  as his stomach heaved and its contents  spattered wetly  onto the deck plates.   His muscles felt suddenly  atrophied, and his head dropped limply onto the vomit-covered deck. "Ah, god," he sighed heavily.

To be continued

Copyright 1997 by Scott Reeves

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