My response to a flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig, to write 1500 words of space opera in honor of May the Fourth. It so happens I love space opera, although I’ve seen very few good examples of the genre lately (I have been dodging The Last Jedi like a healthy man dodges plague victims). My little piece below is based on an (as yet) unpublished space opera universe I’ve had rolling around in my head for decades. If I ever get the Divine Lotus series finished (and that is a long, sad tale) I might just turn to the universe of the Consortium, Shareholders, and the Perimeter.
Copyright 2018 Douglas Daniel
“Damn Shareholder,” Rong muttered. He leaned against a tree trunk and wiped sweat from his face.
“Shut your mouth,” Teal told him. He was drenched in sweat, as well; this world reminded him strongly of Novo Brasil. “He hired us, he gets to set the agenda.”
“Indeed, Citizen Xiang,” the Shareholder said, from twenty meters away. He spoke without turning around or looking up from the ruined wall he was examining with a sensordoc. “I beg your patience—this will not take long.”
Teal gave Rong a sidelong glance. “Enhanced genetics, tooler. Don’t forget it.” Rong glowered, but clamped his lips tight.
Maria appeared over the rise beyond the wall, pushing aside vines and creepers. “Shareholder Mann, there’s more ruins on the other side.”
“No matter,” Mann said. He snapped the sensordoc shut. “I’m picking up no ipinsotic traces at all. Nothing. This location’s a waste of time.”
Teal resisted the urge to calculate the cost of the fuel they had burned getting here. “Your orders, sir?”
“We go on to Mackason IV,” Mann said at once, with asperity. “The reports can’t all be wrong.” He seemed as if he were about to say more, but he stopped himself. “I want to lift as quickly as possible.”
“We’ll be in the air five minutes after we close the hatches, Shareholder,” Teal said.
It wasn’t until they were well on trajectory for the jump radius that Mann sought Teal out. They were alone in the Pleasant Virgin’s cockpit, with holographic readouts flickering around them. Mann settled himself into the chair at the astrogator’s station and regarded Teal. “All in order, Captain Xiang?” he said.
“We’re fifteen hours to jump,” Teal said, “and the ship is operating normally.”
“Good,” Mann said. His regard of Teal sharpened. “But not all of your crew appear to be happy.”
“Well, Shareholder,” Teal said, “with all due respect, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about human nature. We’ve hit eighteen worlds in fifteen systems in the last month, and so far every one of them has been a dry hole. For whatever it is you’re looking for. Frustration’s bound to show itself in this sort of situation.”
Mann said nothing for a moment. “You knew that the exact nature of this mission would remain confidential, captain.”
“Indeed, Shareholder, it was made very clear to me,” Teal said.
“And we Purcells hired you and your crew precisely because you have a reputation for keeping secrets.”
“It’s a point of pride with us,” Teal said.
“Well, then, captain, I would appreciate it if you had a word with your people,” Mann said. “The House of Purcell needs your discretion, and your very fast ship, to complete a task of some urgency. To help us complete that task, we are paying you a handsome sum. Surely enough to quell any ennui you and your people may feel.”
“Yes, Shareholder,” Teal said. “I will speak to them.”
“Pilkin’ bastard,” Maria said, running a hand over Teal’s bare chest. “Never was a Shareholder worth the skin holding ‘em together.”
“That may be,” Teal said. He enjoyed her touch; their lovemaking always put him into drowsy contentment. “But he is paying the bills, and without this job we might be scratching for a commission. Things are hard at the moment.”
“In this quadrant,” Maria said. “T’other side of the Volume, there’s plenty of opportunities.”
“I’ve heard it all already, pretty puss,” Teal said. “And maybe once our coffers are full, we’ll head that way. But we have to finish this job first.”
Maria raised herself up on her hands, looked down on Teal. “D’you have any idea what he’s looking for?”
“No,” Teal said, fim, “and I don’t want to know. It is not our business. We were hired to haul him about and keep our mouths shut. As long as I’m captain, that’s what we’ll do.”
Maria stared at him, solemn. “So be it, then,” she said.
Mackason IV, from a descent trajectory, looked much like many another Earth-type world—ocean blues overlayed with white clouds, green-brown landmasses here and there. A cyclonic storm occupied a quadrant of the main ocean, but it was too far away to affect their chosen landing site. Teal took the Virgin in fast, not caring if they left a prominent re-entry trail.
They landed on a rocky plain, in a level area between jagged hills. Even coming in they could see the ruins that covered the land between the high ground; as they landed Teal saw broad roads and the bases of broken towers. Mann, leaning over his shoulder to stare at the displays, gave off a palpable air of excitement. “This is more extensive than anything I have ever seen before,” he said, transfixed.
They all hit dirt, Rong, Maria, Chris, Mann and Teal. Mann had his sensordoc out at once. Even from several feet away, Teal could tell the readout was exploding with data.
“This is incredible!” Mann exclaimed. “The readings are off the scale! This is what we’ve been looking for!”
“Rong, Maria, fetch the containment vessel,” Teal said. The two of them hurried back into the ship.
Mann led Chris and Teal through a broken archway, and down a flight of steps. At the bottom was a sort of small amphitheater; scattered in the dust that coated the amphitheater’s floor were scattered lumps and shapes, most of which were hard to make out.
At the foot of one pillar, however, something glowed ochre. Mann approached it; it glowed more brightly, while the sensordoc’s readout became even more fevered.
“There!” Mann cried, pointing. “An active device! It’s what I’ve been looking for.”
“Doesn’t seem much,” Chris said. The femman knelt down, extend a hand.
“Don’t!” Mann yelled.
The warning came too late. Chris touch the device. There was a flash of light, and then a scream. Teal, squinting past a hand raised against the light, glimpsed Chris afire, screaming. In the next instant, the femman was simply gone.
“The fool!” Mann cried. “The utter fool!”
They got the device in the containment vessel using hand-grav tools. They sealed the vessel; then, with a smug Mann leading the way, they secured it in the Virgin’s front cargo bay. “We are all rich now,” Mann told them.
They lifted ship at once, with Mann in the crew mess preparing a report to his superiors. Teal was happy to retreat to the cockpit to put the Virgin on a trajectory for the jump radius. He still didn’t know what they had found, and he wanted to know even less than before.
He had just finished setting the jump coordinates when he heard a muffled thump. The sound was strange to him. Then the security display popped up a flashing alert, weapon discharge- crew mess.
“What the hell?” Teal said. He climbed over the seats and slid down the ladder to the crew level.
He burst into the mess and was confronted by a scene of blood. Mann lay on his back on the middle deck, his eyes staring sightlessly at the overhead. Rong stood over him, a slug-thrower in his hand.
“Had to do it!” he yelled at Teal. “The Sheffields– they’re offering a million! A whole million! The Purcells are nothing compared to the Sheffields.”
Teal yelled in rage and threw himself at Rong. The man had no time to bring his weapon to bear on Teal before the captain was on him. He fired another shot, but it missed Teal and caroomed off one of the bulkheads.
Old training kicked in for Teal; without thinking he batted the gun out of Rong’s hand, then drove punches into the man that first stole his wind, and then his life. Rong’s body fell over Mann’s and lay still.
Teal, panting, sensed rather than saw Maria in the mess’ open hatch. “He’s ruined us!” he said, his hands clenched in unspent fury. “Ruined us!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Maria said, “it probably depends on your point of view.”
Something slammed into Teal. It threw him into the bulkhead. He slid down, slumped against the compartment wall. He couldn’t move; the stink of burnt flesh rose up into his nostrils.
“What…?” he gasped.
Maria came amd loomed over him, the quantifier in her hands crackling with residual heat. “The Sheffields– what a joke. The Voronovs will pay far more. And it will all be mine.” Maria lifted the quantifier.
Maria reset the jump destination. It would take a week to reach the Voronov base where she was to meet her contact– a long ride in an empty ship. To top it off, she found she was actually sorry that Teal would not have understood why she had to do this. It would have been better with the two of them.
However, three million Consortiums bought a lot of consolation.
Maria sat back in the command chair, contemplating her future. She smiled. It was indeed time to examine opportunities on the far side of the Volume.