A Ceiling Full of Stars
by Steve Thorn
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Chris motioned for the chairs to recline all the way back and the room darkened around them. As the darkness became nearly impenetrable Chris spoke aloud the four-word command that gave him open access to the battle room, prompting giggling from Alex. The ceiling began flashing in red and white bars.
“What the heck are those?”
“Those are a warning that we’re going to look at government secrets.”
“Cool.” He could hear Alex squirming down lower in the chair, making himself more comfortable.
The visual klaxons faded out and the ceiling went black once again. A moment later the blackness shifted into a view of deep space. The lavender swirls of the Milky Way appeared like brush strokes across the ceiling and sparkling stars popped into focus throughout them. Chris and Alex both whistled their amazement in low tones.
“Is Mom out there somewhere?”
“She sure is. Let me see if I can do this right.” Chris settled his head back a little more secure into the headrest and could feel the tanglies come out and snake through his hair, softly attaching to his scalp. Mentally he asked to see the location of his wife Alexa, except that for the battle room intelligence he had to use her military ID number.
The stars zoomed past them, banking to the right and disappearing into the floor. Different star-like objects were projected above them as larger balls of light. The longer they looked the more detail they could see. Some of the objects that flashed were actually the organo-steel hulls of mighty warships floating through space, reflecting starlight from their smooth mirrored surfaces.
One of the blips of light was haloed in a soft green. “That would be her command ship right there.” Chris was trying to see if they were flying in any specific formation, but the picture seemed chaotic to his non-military senses.
“Dad?” Alex cocked his head over to look at his father. “Why is Mom out there?” He stopped himself. “I mean, why are there only girls out there fighting?”
“Well, it’s not really girls out there fighting, they’re women. Since the draft started up, any female over fifteen years old is considered a woman and is sent out to fight.” Chris knew he hadn’t answered Alex’s question, so he started again. This is a night of truth, he reminded himself.
“Since before I was born there have been people out exploring planets and looking for alien life. They had some minor successes. They found some basic plant life, and some planets that had the right soup for life in their oceans, but we never found developed life like ours.
“Around the time you were born, there were messages sent back that a mining rig looking for rare mineral deposits in deep space had come across a very strange object.”
Chris was locked down to some extent by the tanglies but he could shift his head enough to look over at Alex. “They found a star with a very strange signal. They thought at first it was a pulsar of a kind they’d never seen before. It kept blanking out as they approached it.
“As they got closer they could see what was blocking the star. Some alien intelligence had built strips around it. They were bands of metal that circled the star like big hula hoops, but there were many of these bands, and they circled it in different directions and at different distances.”
“What were the bands for?”
“The aliens had made their own land, in a way. These strips had land and oceans on them, like those maps where you see the Earth all flattened out. They could fit more water and land on these long strips than we have in the whole solar system.”
Alex looked a little confused. Chris mentally called for star Burstein/Buckell 42 and the ceiling shimmered for a moment then nearly blinded them as a huge star appeared. It dimmed slightly and the bands orbiting the star came into view. It was a beautiful sight as the bands rotated around the star at different angles and directions.
“That was the last transmission we received from the scout ship. Over the next few years we lost contact with four automated ships that went too close. The fifth ship was able to send back a transmission that gave us a clue to what was going on.
“That last ship had a human crew with a slightly higher ratio of women on board than usual. They had enough time to send a message back that all the men had been taken over by something and been sent into a killing rage.”
“The next ship was more cautious and completely crewed with women. They made contact. Through what we could interpret of the aliens’ odd mental language, the aliens called themselves the Grua, and they were intent on destroying anything that trespassed into their domain. To this day we don’t know if we woke them from a deep sleep or they were just biding their time.
“We had settled on planets within what they considered their domain. Our colonists had been there for years, and generations of families lived there. But after destroying our latest scout ship they flew out from their home star and destroyed all our colonies in that sector. And they didn’t stop there. They just kept coming.”
Chris was afraid of this, he had said too much at once and now Alex was scared. “What, buddy?”
“Can you turn off that star, it’s making me dizzy.”
A lump hitched itself into Chris’ throat. He could only nod, stifling an involuntary sob, and thought the star away; bringing back the view of Alexa’s remaining fleet.
“What do they do to all the guys?”
Chris took a slow breath and tried to speak through his tightening throat. “We don’t know that either. Somehow, when they get close enough, they can do something to all the men and make them follow their orders. We can’t even send our unmanned warships at them because they have some strange defense against them also.”
Alex chuckled. “We do send unmanned ships, Dad. They’re all wo-manned.” He giggled at his own joke and Chris couldn’t help but join him. He could feel the tears welling and kept his eyelids from squeezing them out.
“So, are all the guys here at home, on Earth?”
“Almost. We’ve been able to get almost all the men back to the Solar System. We help out any way we can, but mostly we’re trying to take care of all the children, because all the moms are out there fighting for us.”
Chris wanted to tell him that they had been losing the war since it began, that the men and children were back in the Solar System because there was nowhere else to go. The women were fighting in the dark between the stars to keep the Grua at bay, but the cost in lives was enormous. He just couldn’t bring himself to unload so much weight onto his son’s shoulders all at once.
“Would you rather be out there fighting?”
Chris could feel the doubled edge in that question. “Well of course I would. I’d rather be out there fighting alongside your mother to make sure you’re safe. I’d rather be out there in that big blanket of space sending those bastards back to their star.
“But I also wouldn’t trade one second of my time with you. Right now is one of my happiest moments, Alex. We get to sit here and talk under a ceiling full of stars.”
“I’m getting sleepy, Daddy.”
Daddy. That single word that he had not heard in years from Alex nearly shattered him. “It’s all right, baby. You can sleep. We’ll just watch the stars... until you fall asleep.”
He could hear Alex breathing a little heavier as he started drifting away. Chris watched the green halo that marked his wife’s ship as it tunneled away from the stars she had navigated through for years.
He lifted his head enough that the tanglies detached themselves and retreated back into the headrest. In his pocket was the broadcaster that had played his wife’s last message, he retrieved it and placed it into his ear, triggering the message to play once again.
Alexa’s voice began in a harsh whisper but she couldn’t hold it long before emotion took control. It was a rushed message and she was trying to get him so much information in a very small amount of time.
“Chris,” she began. “This has to be quick before we lose all bandwidth or I won’t know if you’ll get it in time.
“God, I love you guys.” Her voice cracked as she thought about their son. “Tell Alex how much I love him and how much you both mean to me.”
She cleared her throat and quickly gathered her courage. “You know why I’m sending this emergency blast. They’ve broken through, and we can’t hold them back. The Grua are on their way, Chris. The Senate has initiated Program Coda. All insta foods will be poisoned. Everyone at home will be dead soon.”
Alexa had told him of Program Coda when the situation had started getting more and more desperate. The world government had secretly decided that global suicide was the only alternative to the men’s ending their lives in slavery under the Grua.
“I can’t say I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath that sent chills down his back. “I would rather know you and Alex are at rest instead of being controlled by those bastards. I’ve seen too much of what they can do.”
The sadness in her voice was nearly a physical blow as it whispered from the broadcaster directly into his brain. “We can’t save you. We can’t save any of the children, baby.”
“Go to the Battle Room and activate it. Use my code, ‘mother, daughter, sister, wife’. You can show Alex where his mommy is.
“But there is also something else in there you need to get first. Give the command ‘blastoff’. A pocket will open by the third dolphin shelf. In it is a small vial of poison. I have one, too. Commanders can’t be taken alive: too many secrets. There’s enough in there that you and Alex can split it. It won’t be instantaneous when it’s weakened, but it will be painless.”
He could barely discern a whimper attempting to break through her pauses. “You can make him comfortable at the end, baby. Make it so he leaves happy.
“God, I miss you. And I’ll never see you again. We’re running away.” All control left her then. “We have to run away, Chris. We’re leaving and not coming back. I have to save what remaining colonists I can while the Grua are focused on Earth.” She was silent for a few seconds. “I wish I could hear you tell me you love me one more time. Goodbye, my love.” The recording ended.
They would not be back. They would run until they could find safety somewhere, anywhere.
He pulled the broadcaster from his ear and dropped it to the floor, feeling a heavy yet relaxing weight settle into his arms and chest. It was silent in the room. Alex had stopped breathing.
Chris had poisoned his and Alex’s dinner. How like Alexa, she knew him so very well. She knew Chris couldn’t let their son die by someone else’s hand, even though he could only delay the result by a few hours. He turned his head slowly to see Alex resting peacefully. He didn’t stop the tears this time. They would end with him this night.
Copyright © 2006 by Steve Thorn