23
Nov
09

Cygnus Belle – Part 4 of 4

The ship sped on, back on course for the target world and the mood of her compliment drifted through numerous shades as if shifting with each crossing of a planetary orbit.   First, there had been tension with the uncertainty of other chance patrols or even a determined pursuit; then the mood had relaxed and become almost leisurely as the distance between the Belle and the outer screens of ships lengthened with each second.   Finally, the tension and awe had returned, suspenseful accompaniment to the objective’s approach, everyone suddenly aware that subsequent execution of their duties would have a critical effect on the outcome.   Moreover, as usual, Lady Luck had yet to declare her side.

To Perry, though, Lady Luck held no significance.   His own actions, in recovering from an unforgivable delay, had saved the ship.   The Commander’s words had inspired him greatly and he had largely forgotten the total annihilation of the enemy crew.   Only now, in the sanctity of his bow turret, did any reticent thoughts choose to invade.

Defiantly, he shook them off, reminding himself that those men had died instantaneously.   In becoming nothing, they had felt nothing.

From the moment the alarm sounded, he was gratefully safe from such reverie, and devoted his attention solely to the target board in front of him.   The contacts encroached on the flatscreen display, clustering like bees, and his fists tightened over the paired triggers that tethered his reflexes so securely to the ship’s defence.

In they came.   Over a hundred asteroids; implanted with a sensor array and an inexpensive set of rocket motors, they had been vigilantly hovering in their scattered sentry posts for decades.   Now, their computer-intelligences grasped the notion of a threat to their ward, and they steered their massive bodies to intercept the interloper.   The anticipated impact would be mutually destructive, but their human co-ordinators were safely housed in great fortresses below the verdant surface of Psalms; they were men who would doubtless pray on behalf of the poor foes whose lives they had extinguished.

The swarm of rocks approached from all angles; port, starboard, high, low.   The Belle would depend upon her stately grace and manoeuvrability, as well as her gravitic deflectors, for survival; she would also look to her sharp-minded gunners to seriously thin out the lumbering hordes long before any reached her.

So Perry set to work, keying in as many targets as possible, locking them in an appropriate order of fire according to their estimated time of strike.   The computer automatically filtered out any targets similarly acquired by the other turrets.   Voices chattered over the comm, but they were muted, intended for ears other than his – Engineers, Helmsmen, the Screens Officer.   Aron Perry fingered the smooth pip of the locket about his neck, then returned his mind to the task at hand.   He was ready.

Target markers illuminated on the flatscreen, Perry’s turret swung and a bead crossed to intersect with the digital marker; Perry’s thumbs pressed hard, twice.   The cannon flared with broad beams of white and the turret interior dimmed in answer.   The target marker splintered and vanished; on came the next.

Lights played in Perry’s head and his eyes only rarely sneaked glances at space beyond his revolving bubble.   The advancing contacts appeared to disperse, their numbers dwindling comfortably.   The ease of the operation astounded him, threatening to intoxicate him; he laughed and saw Myranda’s adoring face.   He fired again.

There! His eyes caught a light, tumbling towards the ship from space – too close! Panic forced him to spin the turret manually, searching out the mark with his naked eyes, while cold sweat danced over his brow and his heart beat the time.   There was nothing to be seen.   He looked down; nothing on the board either.   It would’ve hit by now.

Then he saw the locket, spinning its loose pirouette from about his neck, hanging rebelliously outside his gunner’s tunic; he recognised its sickening reflection, goading him in the clear surface of his turret’s bubble.   Thumping his chair, he switched the turret back to automatic and saw the first real threats seeping through the Belle‘s phalanxes of fire.

A boulder loomed in his vision like a train from a tunnel and he knew he would never shoot it in time.   His hands slipped from the triggers and he threw his arms up wildly, as the boulder grew to a small hill and brutally smashed its way through the straining shields into the Belle‘s starboard hull.

The first to reach Perry was the searing wave of heat, radiating from the friction of the rock’s passage through the shields; next was the impact itself.

The explosion sent the turret and his chair within it into frenzied revolutions, while Perry’s body arched and twisted like a smoking ant under a magnifying glass.   His thrashing limbs struck the walls of his turret and a fire sprouted from his fingertips and his feet, blasting its way up through him until its sheer volume seemed to force his brain from his skull in smouldering fragments of consciousness.   As he embraced oblivion, Perry’s burning mind reflected on how easily his hand slipped through the metal shell behind him, and wondered at the force that had turned his walls to liquid.

 

***

 

 

“Bow gun’s out!   I’ve two more targets in that sector!”

The panic in Sensor Officer Chapell’s voice was decidedly unseemly, but Hensa let it pass without a reprimand.   He stroked his chin as if the game had the pace of chess, then smiled with a confidence that spilled over into his voice.   “Jettison the Bottle, Mister Kamov.”

The Lieutenant raised no objections, either because he was an absolute model officer, or perhaps because he had sided with Shaun over the original argument.   He triggered the separation, and they almost felt the cramped vehicle being wrenched from the ship’s gut.   “Lifeboat engines to maximum.”

“Nicely done, Lieutenant,” Hensa commended him quietly; it had been no more than he had expected.   The Commander settled easily back in his chair as the mines on his display chased the bright blotch that was the Belle‘s only infant.

Moments later, with just her nose ungraciously bloodied, the Belle successfully launched her precious load at the still distant globe of Psalms.   As the bomb was blown from its housing and sailed cleanly away, Commander Hensa swore his vengeance complete for the damage done to the Empire’s –  his – grand old lady.

Kamov issued the verbal countdown for H-1 ignition on the bomb.   When those seconds had elapsed, not the most powerful of Trinity weapons could prevent the bomb’s detonation.

“Amen,” said Hensa as Kamov’s commentary concluded and earned himself an appreciative smile from the first officer.   He addressed the Operations Bridge over the comm.   “Turn her about, Mister Kamov.   Prepare to engage the homeward program.”   He paused, stroking his chin, then stood from his chair, wandering over to his Sensor Operator.

“Relay aft camera output to all internal screens,” he advised the man quietly.

“Aye, Sir!” the man snapped eagerly.

And they were witness to heaven’s most glorious display yet.

 

***

 

 

The bomb saw very little of the real universe, unleashed from its kennel within the ship.   At completion of countdown, it faithfully made the transit to the first level of H-space and proceeded to the molten heart of the living planet at approximately one million times its launch velocity.

At the exact moment of re-entry into normal space, it detonated.

Exploding between two universes, the bomb ruptured the curtain separating one from another, flooding the broiling core with expanding hypermatter.   As the tremor of the blast sought the crust, the magma collapsed in a ballooning wave of energy.   An ethereal ring of fire overtook the concussion wave, devouring the very substance of the world around it.   The globe became a sphere of diamond and gold, galloping outwards like God’s chariot until space itself was a glorious conflagration across the entire spectrum, that dazzled from every screen inside the Belle, burning its astral radiance as a permanent rainbow-star in the minds of its humbled audience.    It was a flowering garland of fiery gems; a vision to still the heart of Man.

And Hensa thought, Today, we have destroyed the Universe.

 

***

 


Painful consciousness seeped in and Perry awoke to a gallery of discomforts, the least of which was the booming voice, somewhere far off, announcing that someone or somewhere had been destroyed.   He thought perhaps the message referred to him.

Blood filled his swollen nostrils and his throat gulped for air; his ears were shrilly whistling and he couldn’t open his eyes.   His body was alive with pain and shaking with the fierce cold; he was weak and nauseous and his – right? – arm and leg, such as he was aware, were locked in some fearsome vice.   A universe of agony rewarded an experimental tug to free his arm and brought a swimming vision of molten walls, his arm cutting through thick fluid and blackness.   The horror of his survival forced a fit of sobbing and a descending weight of pain and despair.

Alone, in cold, emotionally debilitating silence, Perry cast his mind back to the Trinity naval crew that he had melted away into space.   Their disintegrated forms carried his thoughts to the people of Psalms, military and civilian alike, for whom time was forever arrested and for whom life was no longer trial nor blessing.   Although the captain had explained the bomb’s function, the sheer scale was beyond human imagination, even in its dulled condition in Perry’s battered skull.   Perry was left to contemplate the smaller scenes: laughs and smiles that died in a wave of superheat, men melting to oblivion in mid-stride over a land that had boiled away to gas, gently sobbing babies evaporating in the arms of their loving mothers.   Not one would know their death; not one would know another thought.

The Belle had preserved even this crewman – the pathetically charred doll that had nearly cost her very existence.   “I’m sorry,” he whimpered in frantic succession, slowly falling into tearful moans.

He was still crying when they found him, but their presence and their efforts to cut him free were an offence to his crippled senses, irretrievably immersed as he was in the arrested lives of over four billion humans.   “Leave me!   Get away!” he screamed, his words only barely intelligible to the watching officers and the men who worked to save him.   “It’s God’s punishment!   They’re all gone!   We deserve to die for what we’ve done!”

Lieutenant Kamov started towards the invalid, poised to strike him with his glove and snorting like an angry bull.   “Enough, Gunner!   Where’s your honour?!”

Hensa stayed his first officer with a hand at his elbow.   He said softly, “It’s alright, Lieutenant.”   His eyes roved over the mangled wreck of the turret interior, the dull backdrop of space beyond the pressure shield, the horrid mask of flesh and blood where the man’s face had once been.   He thought back to the spectacle of Psalms; he thought of the rim of that jewelled crown, advancing two centimetres every Martian year, chasing the Cygnus Belle back home.   He felt its magnificence blazing silently somewhere inside him.

“He never saw it.”   Val Hensa brushed an imaginary speck of dust from the smooth black velvet of his uniform.   “He never saw it.”

 

SAF

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