Behind the White Star
The light of the white dwarf glinted off the dome structure. It was made of a smooth gray granite, as large as a small battle-cruiser. A platform extended from the only opening.
The Chanticleer orbited at a respectable distance.
Gordon waved the beacon at the strange satellite, coaxing from it a satisfied hum and blue-green light show.
“This is the place,” he said.
“Bring us up to the entrance,” Phoebe told Collins. “We’re going to have to go in on foot.”
Collins complied. He upped the ship’s anti-radiation field, just in case.
Gordon tossed a spacesuit at Collins, smacking him in the face.
“It’s good to get out into space again,” Gordon grinned, slipping on his own suit. “We’ve been spending too much time on obscure Olar Cluster planets.”
“Hopefully those dumb lizards went easy on the booby traps this time,” Phoebe said as she fastened her helmet.
Collins frowned, but donned the suit.
The door on the side of the hull opened, baring the control room to cold space. The forcefield trapping in the air shimmered around the edges of the doorway. Gordon stepped up to the threshold. The platform was right next to the ship and a few feet down.
“Alright, let’s go for a w- whoa, whoa, WHOA!” Gordon exited the artificial gravity of the Chanticleer and dropped like a stone, landing spread-eagled on his stomach.
Collins and Phoebe looked down at the groaning man. “I’ll lower the ship,” Phoebe said.
Moments later they helped their companion to his feet.
“Jesus, who puts artificial gravity on a thing like this,” he said.
“I think they set up another challenge.” Collins pointed through the entrance. “Look.”
The domed room had no floor. Instead, a series of floating platforms spun around the center of the room in varying circles. A center platform housed a thick, jewel-encrusted pillar.
The crew entered the dome, taking in the obstacle course with some reluctance. Phoebe’s boot dislodged a piece of rock from the edge of the platform. She watched it tumble into space.
“The gravitational field probably only goes ten or twenty feet down,” she said. “But the momentum would be enough to propel you pretty far.”
“What if we destroyed that generator up there?” Gordon suggested, indicating the machinery housed behind a bubble on the roof of the dome.
Phoebe shook her head. “It’ll likely be protected somehow. We might end up blowing this whole place away. Someone is gonna have to jump it.”
Her words hung in the air. Collins felt the other two’s gazes on the sides of his face.
“What?!” he pleaded. “Why me?”
Gordon folded his arms. “You’re clearly the most agile here. I’ve seen you make jumps like these a bunch of times.”
“They’re not moving that fast,” Phoebe said. “What is that, like…” she paused to count, “five jumps?”
Collins whimpered as he looked down at an ocean of stars. “If I fall, you guys could come get me in the ship, right?”
His two friends looked at each other. They each placed a hand on his back.
“Maybe?” Phoebe said.
They shoved him forward, sending him screaming onto a passing platform. It carried him counter-clockwise from the entrance.
“What the hell is wrong with you guys?” he protested.
“You’re doing great!” Phoebe told him over the voice comms. “That was the hardest one!”
The platform he had landed on was the only one in the outer ring. The next level was little more than a yard away, but it was moving in the opposite direction. It had over a dozen evenly spaced platforms.
Collins was on the other side of the room now. “You’ve gotta be kidding…” He braced himself and jumped. “Me!” He landed on the next level.
“There you go, Collins!” Gordon said.
Collins ignored him, focusing on his next target. And… jump!
Phoebe gave an encouraging cheer. “Only two more left!”
He was starting to shake. “I think these aliens had longer legs than we do,” he gasped. He jumped again, landing safely.
One more ring lay between him and the center. There were only two platforms, orbiting the final pillar opposite from each other.
Collins took a few deep breaths, aimed, leapt…
The platform swept under him and he missed it by inches. His foot caught the edge. In desperation, he launched himself forward for the center structure, barely grabbing hold of the lip. He dangled by his fingers, legs kicking at empty space.
There was silence on the voice comms.
“Collins,” Phoebe said. “Are you alright?”
“You’ve got this,” Gordon said. “Swing yourself up!”
With an embarrassing amount of effort, Collins pulled his body onto the platform. He tried to catch his breath.
Gordon cleared his throat. “Any day now, buddy.”
Collins shot a glare back at the entrance, but pulled himself to his feet.
“What do you see?” Phoebe asked.
“There’s an inscription and… what looks like three buttons.”
“Well, translate it.”
Collins hit the hot key on his suit’s bracelet. The ancient writing shimmered to English on the inside of his helmet.
“It says, ‘Choose correctly or this container will seal for one millionth of a galactic rotation.’”
“Yeah, that’s about two hundred years,” Gordon said. “So let’s be careful about this. What are the three buttons?”
The selections were in a row underneath the message, each a bar of a different metal.
“One says copper, one is aluminum, and the last is silver.”
Across the room, Gordon tapped his foot. “And?”
“And… that’s it…”
“Are you kidding me?” Gordon groaned. “We just gotta guess?”
“Hang on.” Phoebe looked around the room. Then started to pace. “Copper, aluminum, silver… copper, aluminum, silver… copper, aluminum… I’ve got an idea!”
She activated the holo-device on her wrist, opening the encyclopedic database. “Collins, there are a number of colored stones on that column. I need you to count how many of each there are.”
Collins turned to the pillar. It was covered with large precious jewels, some red and some yellow, scattered haphazardly over the surface. He started counting.
Phoebe kept searching through the database. “How many you got so far?”
“Thirty-two yellow gems and counting! There are way more red ones.”
“Okay, you can stop now,” she said. “It’s obviously silver.”
Both men looked at her.
“Do you maybe wanna double check your math?” Gordon asked. “How could you possibly know that?”
Phoebe rolled her eyes. “Look, it isn’t hard. This room represents the atomic structure. The platforms are electrons, and the jewels are protons and neutrons. Silver has way more of each, it’s not even close.”
Collins’ hand hovered over the silver button. “You sure? I mean, two hundred years…”
“Just do it.”
He pushed it in. There was a click. An invisible hatch next to Gordon’s foot slid open.
“Oh.” He bent down and removed a reptilian gold idol. “I guess they didn’t want to risk someone dropping it on the way back.”
“Yeah, great,” Collins said, eyeing the series of gaps he had to cross.
He passed each level, this time with considerably more caution. After a few failed starts, and some exasperated encouragement from his friends, he finally cleared the final gap.
“About time,” Gordon said. “C’mon, I want to get out of this damn suit.” He glanced at the white dwarf. “And I’m not sure how much I really trust theChanticleer’s radiation shield.”
The crew climbed aboard the spacecraft and cast aside their suits. Gordon stowed the artifact as Phoebe pulled them away from the structure.
“That was stressful,” Collins said. “I don’t think-”
He was interrupted by a short tone from the ship computer. Phoebe turned to the offending holo-display.
“Someone just warped in.”
Gordon bristled. “You don’t think Cluster Peacekeepers tracked us here, do you?”
Phoebe reached out and spun the display around to the radar view. “They must have, there’d be no way to find this place without a homing signal. We need to longstep immediately.”
Pip. Pip. Pip-pip-pip.
The crew froze mid-panic. “Wait,” Collins said. “Six ships?”
The sound filled the room as the radar counted off hundreds of regional warps.
Realization dawned on Phoebe’s face. “Oh, no. Not these guys again.”
“They’re calling us.” Gordon accepted the transmission and an alien figure appeared on the main holo-projector.
“You stupid humans!” it barked, mandibles twitching with delight. “Did you really think you could steal our possessions so easily? We knew you might attempt to take our Buzlamite. At your size we could easily hide dozens of trackers on the hull of your ship.”
Gordon leaned towards his companions. “Who are these guys exactly?”
Phoebe glared at him. “Are you serious?! This isn’t the time to joke around.”
“What?” He put his hands up in defense. “We’ve pissed off a lot of aliens, I can’t keep track of them all.”
“They’re the microscopic ant people from the first act,” Phoebe hissed through gritted teeth. “You stole their energy cells, remember?”
Collins tapped his foot as he looked out into space. “I think I see them, guys. If their ships are sized for ants, there sure are a lot of them.”
A hazy cloud obscured a large patch of stars. The alien’s voice crackled through, giving the translator a run for its money. “We number in the thousands! We are too small to shoot and too numerous to flee from. I will give you one chance to return what you have taken.”
“I don’t suppose you two have any Buzlamite lying around?” Gordon asked.
Collins gaped at him. “You’re asking us?”
“Just checking. I got this one.” The man pushed Phoebe aside, taking over the controls. He activated the recorder on the panel.
“Come get us, space bugs!” he said, flipping the ship around and maxing out the accelerator.
Phoebe balled her fists, restraining the urge to pummel her crew mate. “What the hell are you doing, dummy? We don’t have time to longstep, they’re right behind us!”
Collin’s eyes darted between Gordon and the radar. “They’re closing in…”
“I know what I’m doing,” he insisted. “Phoebe, I’m going to pass under the dome, I need you to compensate for the gravity.”
“What are you — oh!” Phoebe bent over the copilot panel, gripping the vertical accelerator. The dome flew towards them in a dizzying barrel roll.
“Get ready!” Gordon leveled out the ship, aiming as close to the dome as he could. “And… now!”
The Chanticleer skimmed within feet of the floating platforms. Phoebe slammed on the thrusters, pushing the ship up just enough to fight the effects of the gravitational field.
The ant-face leered through the hologram. “You can’t run, you dumb apes. You are no — AIEEE!”
The swarm of tiny ships passed through the gravitational field. One after the other they were flung away from the dome.
Gordon pointed. “Collins! Longstep, now!”
Collins’s eyes widened. “What? Where?”
He hit the controls. The longstepper rumbled by the engine room. There was a stre-e-e-etch and a snap as the Chanticleer warped a few dozen light years away.
Everyone slumped in relief.
“Once they get their bearings, it should take them a while to pinpoint our location,” Phoebe said. “As long as we don’t stay still for more than a few hours we should be fine.”
Gordon stood up, hands on his hips. “What, not even a thank you?”
Phoebe and Collins looked at each other
“Go fuck yourself, Gordon,” Phoebe said.
He laughed and sat back at the controls. “I’m taking us to station Marduk. I know a good place we can get this hull scrubbed of tracking devices.”
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I’m currently developing a story arc using these characters. I hope to release it in episodes like this one. Follow for more!