“The Parralox Persuasion” by Jer White.
A short story to celebrate the release of Metropolis, the third album from Parralox.
(with apologies to Iain M. Banks)
Chapter 1: X Minus One
The Pansentient League starship the GSV Parralox slipped out of the wormhole with a judder.
“Well?” said Amii, as the envirofoam surrounding her slim body began to dissolve.
“It appears we have arrived successfully,” said John, the ship’s AI. “We’ve reached the co-ordinates specified and are now located in this backwater system. It’s like ANCIENT TIMES.”
“Good. Third time lucky then.”
“Indeed,” said the AI. “The previous state of decay was enough to provide the exact spacial information for a successful jump.”
Amii pushed herself out of the nav seat then wobbled towards the observation window at the front of the bridge. Although still relatively new to space travel, she’d adjusted to its side effects remarkably well. While some travellers would spend several hours after arrival being sick and falling over, Amii merely had a mild headache and slight dizziness. She placed her palms on the plasglass window and peered out at the ship they’d arrived next to.
“There she is,” said Amii. “I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC. I’d forgotten how beautiful she was…”
The GCU I Sing The Body Electric was a Conzoom Class starship, with a sleek body and a broad flat tail housing its cargo area. The large command module at the front contained sensory equipment and thick shielding, while the four weapons arrays were shaped as spurs jutting out from the ship’s body. It drifted in space, rotating wildy as it tumbled towards the local star.
And that star was inexplicably due to go supernova in less than a few hours time.
“What do you think happened to them?” asked Amii.
“I don’t know,” replied John. “Perhaps there was a system failure caused by the star’s death throes. Perhaps the ship AI decided to cut loose and leave the crew to its fate. Whatever happened, we have to assume she’s still alive and aboard.”
The Parralox fired its thrusters to match the rotation of the stranded craft. A docking tube started to extend, probing its way from the Parralox to clamp onto the I Sing The Body Electric‘s airlock beaneath the command module.
“I am now attached,” said John. “Are you ready, Amii?”
Amii turned to face John’s holographic glowing head behind her that acted as a focal point for the disembodied AI.
“I’m ready. I’ll find her for you, don’t worry.”
“Please hurry,” said John. “We only have three hours, eighteen minutes before we need to return to friendly space. The supernova will destroy this entire solar system and everything in it. We only have one shot at this.”
“Don’t you think I don’t know that, John?” said Amii irritably. “My speciality is diplomacy, not search and rescue. That’s quite a burden. The League have left her to her fate. I just hope that LOVE IS ENOUGH.”
Amii made her way to the airlock, pausing at the supply locker to pick out an envirosuit. She opted for the lightweight splandex model, as this would provide her with maximum speed and dexterity once inside the stricken ship. She rolled on the splandex, its nanoparticles adjusting to her curves, then lifted the sleek, black helmet over her head. It attached to the top of the splandex with a click. Amii blinked twice to activate the internal display and Subterrane recording mode.
“Open the doors please, John,” asked Amii.
With a hiss of escaping air, the handle turned and the airlock door opened for Amii to pass through.
“Be careful Amii,” came John’s voice through her helmet. “The shielding and defence systems on the Electric‘s command area mean that my scans cannot penetrate: you’ll be on your own in there. Make sure you come back whatever happens, Amii. I’ll MISS YOU if you don’t.”
“Oh, I’ll come back,” said Amii as she made her way along the enclosed gangway. “We both will.”
Chapter 2: Hotter
Special Cicrumstances Operative R’oxy Blackgene considered reaching for her spear gun but thought better of it. The Affront had her in its sight and they were notorious for shooting first and asking questions later.
And The Affront always shot to wound, as a quick death would take away all their sadistic fun.
“Your vessel is disabled and will soon be destroyed when PROMISED LAND goes supernova,” said the Affronter floating in front of her. “Kindly submit your ship to the will of The Affront and we will ensure that your death is… relatively painless.”
R’oxy turned away in disgust as the Affronter’s probing tentacles wrapped around her long legs. Its slimy paddle-hands moved up her thigh as it let out a noisy and prolonged fart from its gas vent. It plucked the gun from the holster on her hip then threw it across the room.
R’oxy’s crew were all dead or “recovered” back to The Affront’s ship, which had left her and this lone Affronter to their fate. Its job was to gain control of the ship, but the I Sing The Body Electric‘s AI had managed to shut down and lock out all main systems just before the boarders had broken into the control room. Petulance and frustration had led The Affront to destroy the AI’s mem-crystal when it refused to relinquish control.
“You killed Summer, you idiot,” spat R’oxy. “I’m just an astro-scientist, I don’t know how to fly a spaceship.”
The Affronter slowly retracted its tentacles then inflated its gas sac to rise above R’oxy. It hovered over her, its eye-stalks peering down, spittle from its beak dripping down onto her.
“Your little pet brain is backed up somewhere and thought it had it all figured out didn’t it?” mused the Affronter. “But WHAT ABOUT YOU?”
R’oxy wiped some spit from her shoulder then looked up at her captor in disgust.
“I’m here on a scientific mission to study the supernova,” she said. “I knew the risks when I signed on, but the Promised Land is unique. There’s something special about this star and we want to find out what that is.”
“Yes, well your SUPERMAGIC star is what attracted us here too,” said the Affronter. “Finding your vessel already in orbit was a bonus. This soon-to-be ex solar system is in Affront space. You forfeited your ship and your life as soon as you arrived here.”
R’oxy clenched her fists in frustration. She knew The Affront were usually more interesed in researching new ways of torturing people than strange stellar behaviour, but she had to at least try to convince this one to let her finish her work.
“Your claim to this system has never been formally recognised, ” said R’oxy. “And anyway, you’re stranded here too now. Your friends have left you here to die if you don’t capture my ship and as I’ve already told you, I don’t know how to fly it or give you control. My research is important to all of us. Summer would have come to some arrangement with you, but…”
“But your AI is now so much dust to us,” said the Affronter. It deflated its gas sac to float down again and bring its eye-stalks level with R’oxy. Four tentacles then shot out to grab R’oxy by the head, pulling her forward to within inches of what could roughly be called its face.
“Tell me, human,” said the Affronter. “Do you believe in MIRACLES?”
The question took R’oxy by surprise.
“What? I… no, of course not. Well, I believe in unexplained events but I’m a scientist. My job is to study and investigate things we don’t yet understand.”
The Affronter’s paddles brushed a strand of hair from R’oxy’s brow.
“Many of your people might think this star’s behaviour to be miraculous. A star this young doesn’t just go nova, does it? Well you’re right. I’ll give you the answer to your little puzzle, human.”
R’oxy tried to twist her head as the Affronter bobbed closer. She grimaced as its beak rubbed against her cheek, the sharp point drawing a spot of blood.
“You are about to witness The Affront’s ultimate weapon,” said the Affronter. “We call it our METROPOLIS. But you can call it — the star bomb!”
R’oxy paled as she realised the Affronter was on a suicide mission and planned to take the entire solar system, and her, with it. She now saw no reason to keep up her own pretence.
“You Affront are insane,” she sneered. “We suspected you were behind this… this… affront to civilisation! I was sent here to confirm your race’s treachery.”
“A-ha!” exclaimed the Affronter. “So you admit your deception. The Affront empire is prescient indeed, to leave me here to prevent your meddling human ways.”
Another long, loud gassy noise escaped the Affronter as it twisted her around to face the viewscreen. Its grip tightened as it made her gaze upon the dying sun.
“But DON’T LISTEN TO ME,” said the Affronter. “Let us watch the supernova and die together, for the glory of The Affront!”
Chapter 3: Two Hearts
Amii had made it as far as the turbolift, which in theory should bring her directly into the command module where she was sure R’oxy was located. While she worked on over-riding the security lock on the turbolift’s activation panel, she thought back to the last time she’d been with R’oxy.
It had been just after a covert mission to infiltrate a Rame nanofacturing facility, where the League suspected weapons were being made to order for The Affront. Posing as League diplomats, Amii and R’oxy had been sent in to unearth proof of a Rame betrayal that could jeopordise the non-agression pact between the Pansentient League and The Affront. While Amii had kept the Rame busy with her questions on the plant’s envorinmental record, R’oxy had slipped away to hack into the facility’s AI. Unfortunately she’d triggered a sleeper watchbot that had alerted the Rame to her presence. Diplomatic immunity helped up to a point — Amii had managed to talk her way out during the initial confusion — but R’oxy had been held for several weeks before the League finally managed to secure her release. R’oxy had ignored Amii’s calls for several days before she’d finally managed to see her again. She’d been met with such ACRIMONY that Amii had stormed out, refusing to take the blame for leaving R’oxy at the hands (or, to be precise, claws) of the Rame. R’oxy had put in a transfer request to Special Circumstances soon afterwards and she hadn’t seen her since.
The security lock buzzed as the turbolift door opened.
“Finally,” said Amii as she stepped inside. “Lift, take me to the command room.”
“You are not authorised to use this transport device,” said the lift. “Emergency protocols are in effect. Please contact support for assistance.”
“Override protocol TENTH STAGE,” said Amii.
“You are not… are not… override accepted,” said the lift with a hint of surprise. “Going up,” it added.
The turbolift door closed and started its ascent. Amii bit her lip and wondered what she’d find up there.
Chapter 4: Universe I Love You
The star was begining to shine brighter than it ever had before. There was nothing R’oxy could do to stop The Affront’s bomb from exploding the star and sending it supernova.
A wave of sadness swept through her as she remembered how she’d left things with Amii. She’d planned to surprise her at the end of this mission, to tell her she forgave her for leaving her behind.
But now it was too late.
She didn’t even have any internal MACHINES to record her last thoughts and feelings: they’d all gone offline when Summer had been destroyed.
A tear trickled down R’oxy’s face.
“You will be the first human to witness our awesome power,” gloated the Affronter. “Soon the galaxy will submit to the will of The Affront or pay the consequences.”
“The Pansentient League will stop you,” replied R’oxy.
“I think not. Your League will fall apart once they realise the Rame are with us too,” said the Affronter. “And you will be remembered for your FAILURE. When humanity and its robots are our slaves, they will curse your name, the woman who couldn’t prevent The Affront from…”
A noise chimed to announce the arrival of the turbolift.
Amii stepped out and froze when she saw the alien creature hovering over her friend.
“Amii! Gun!” shouted R’oxy, pointing at the dart gun.
Amii leapt for the dart gun, grabbing it from the ground and rolling to a crouch in one movement. She aimed the gun at the Affronter and fired.
The dart missile struck the Affronter’s gas sac, ripping a tear and causing the Affronter to spiral out of control. It shot across the control room, circling wildly as gas escaped and propelled it around.
“Eee-yahhhh…” gurgled the Affronter as it spun again, bounced off a console, then came to rest next to where Amii crouched.
Amii stood up, gave the Affronter a quick kick then stomped on its gas sac to flatten it completely. A tiny fart escaped the mortally wounded Affronter as its bloodshot eye-stalks swiveled up to look at her.
“Boom,” it croaked softly and died.
Amii looked across to R’oxy.
“What did it mean?” she asked, dropping the dart gun. She stepped over the Affronter’s body and walked towards her former partner standing by the viewscreen.
“The Promised Land: it’s wired to blow,” said R’oxy. “It’s going supernova and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
“Well let’s go!” urged Amii. “The Parralox is waiting and I promised John I’d bring you back. We’ve missed you. I’ve missed you R’oxy, you don’t know how much.”
R’oxy held out her hand to Amii.
“I’m sorry Amii. I really am sorry… But you’re too late. We only have a few minutes left.”
“But there was so much I wanted to say to you,” began Amii.
“You don’t need to say anything,” said R’oxy. “You came to get me, that’s all I need to know.”
Hand in hand, Amii and R’oxy looked out towards the Promised Land.
“Here comes the NEW LIGHT,” said R’oxy as the sun exploded.
To find out what happens next, refer to Metropolis by Parralox. Available now!
All images © John Von Ahlen