Quantum Zoo: “Skipdrive”

Morgan Johnson wrote the story that inspired the cover for Quantum Zoo. Here’s the opening to his action-packed adventure.

Lavender and orange nebula cloud against starfield

When we found the things floating in the darkness between stars, we should have been more afraid. Instead, a giddy joyous wonder gripped the world like a fever. Every news feed shared the pictures of the two massive creatures spinning slowly somewhere past the Oort cloud and speculated wildly.
 
“Proof of alien life at last?” asked the Gawker News Network.
 
“17 Amazing Facts Scientists Have Learned About The Spinners,” offered Huff-Feed.
 
“Russia Sent A Probe To Chase Comets. You Won’t Believe What They Found Next!” was Google’s attempt to capture eyeballs.
 
We couldn’t read enough, know enough about those dark shapes.
 
Here is what we thought we knew: at the extreme edge of our system, just past the distant ring of ice and dust that marks the blast radius of our own sun’s kindling — the accretion disc — life was waiting for us. Alien life forms the size of humpback whales floated in the black. Encrusted with rock and ice, they looked like nothing so much as a mad child’s drawing of a cuttlefish. The first two we found sported tentacled limbs floating motionless in space and eyes larger than a man placed in a ring around a cavernous mouth.
 
The very best radio telescopes and laser rangers were trained on the lurking things. Each day the news was full of speculation. Did they have hearts or brains? Were they alive? Were they explorers from an alien world? Could they be dormant, awaiting an intelligent culture to wake them up?
 
Seriously, we should have known better.
 
The narrative the media settled on was predictably optimistic: the things were organic, living ships sent by a benevolent alien race to explore the galaxy. They were probes of a sort, like our Voyager, taking a message to the stars.
 
Of course we had to have them.
 
And of course, once we found two it took little effort to find more. While our ship — my ship — was being outfitted to race out ahead of the Chinese and the Pan-African ships to get our hands on the beasts we found more. Lots more.
 
Some days it seemed that wherever the astrophysicists looked they saw another Lurker. Once the eggheads knew what to search for it was easy; they found dozens. Some of the Lurkers were as small as a car while the largest would have given the largest dinosaurs a run for their money.
 
photo of a whale underwaterThere were contests to name them on board the U.S.S. Melissa . The smallest one — the thing that looked like a turtle with eight limbs and no head — ended up with the name Raphael. Private Corrigan won the lottery and came up with that one.
 
Our Chaplain, a bubbly Unitarian from Hawaii, she named the largest Leviathan. Everyone groaned at that. Too obvious. No art.
 
Sardines being sardines, the rest of the Lurkers ended up with names spanning a breathtaking range of vulgarity. It’s the Navy, after all. We may have been professionals. We may have been seasoned combat veterans of the Pluto Conflict. But if you show us a life form fifty yards long shaped exactly like an erect penis, well, we’re going to name it the Cock Rocket. Can’t be helped.
 
No, I didn’t take part in the name lottery. Whoever won had to stand up and shout the name for everyone in the mess to hear and I just haven’t been comfortable with attention since the accident.
 
But I dreamt up some good ones.
 

* *

      
The U.S.S. Melissa was the last of the hive ships. The only survivor of the Pluto Conflict, and even then just barely. Trust me, I have the livid purple and silver scars to prove it. When she was built the idea was novel: a modular ship, constructed in space, that could be whatever you needed it to be. She looked from the outside like a squished shiny orange. Looking close you’d see that her surface was covered in hundreds of hexagonal doors in all sizes like winking eyes. Airlocks, of course, leading to maintenance bays and cargo pods and fueling hubs and every sort of service a growing space fleet needs. On the inside it was a different story.
 
My grandfather served in the Navy, back when that meant boats in the water and not hurtling through the void. He had photos of his time on a submarine, which was basically a long skinny spaceship that moved under water. Weird, right? He used to complain endlessly about his time serving — not that it stopped mom from following in his footsteps. The food was terrible. His shipmates were dullards. The boredom scraped away civilization, leaving behind a yearning raw ache where your heart should be. But mostly he complained about the space. Grandpapa was a tall man, over two meters, and he spent his entire service ducking and running back and forth through narrow corridors, the air slick with condensation.
 
His stories sound like luxury now. I pull up the vidcaps of his chats with us sometimes — I don’t know why, just sometimes being miserable and feeling sorry for yourself is better than feeling nothing at all — and there’s a part where he gets off on a tangent about a particularly awful ship he crewed and he says, at the end, at least you’ll have it better.
 
It always makes me laugh.
 
The Melissa is the third ship I’ve served on. As maintenance chief, I know her every bolt and plate. Her bundles of wires are more familiar to me than the mangled reflection I see in the mirror. I love the bitch. So when I say that she is the most uncomfortable ship in the Navy you should know I’m not exaggerating. The eggheads that put her together forgot to include space for a crew at first. Fills you with faith, doesn’t it? One hundred and sixty-three atmo-locked reconfigurable independent bays mounted around a central spinning hub, outfitted with conventional drives. The outer bays are each separate and flow around each other so that the docking hubs on the inner ring can get cargo or personnel to the correct bay as quickly as possible. She was designed to outfit and supply and repair an entire fleet at once.
 
From the inner ring it’s quite beautiful, like a giant beehive spinning before you, every hexagonal cell full of boxes and tanks and grease-covered half-naked grunts taking machines apart. When Nicolai and I were still together we’d go stand at the edge of the ring, thirty feet of empty space stretching between us and the spinning rooms full of busy little workers.
 
A marvel of human ingenuity, to be sure. But they forgot living quarters. They forgot lavatories. They forgot a mess hall. So at the eleventh hour, when colonist aggression grew out of hand, they carved out living space on the edge of the inner ring. Rooms little bigger than coffins. Showers so tight you couldn’t sit, let alone shave your legs. They put the mess hall in one of the smaller rotating bays. You ever try to eat while every thirty seconds your entire room jumped in a new direction? I swear every sardine aboard the Melissa lost weight on that tour.
 
I personally lost about forty pounds of bone and muscle and skull when the bay I was in was imploded by a crazed colonist ship on a suicide run.
 
She was an extremely useful ship, the Melissa, and that’s why we were picked to go out to the edge of known space and to stuff our little beehive full of those lurking things.
 
We were all set to go, too, and then China and the Pan-African Alliance announced they were sending their ships — their closer, faster ships — to fetch the first real alien life humanity had ever encountered. So the plan had to be changed. We needed the Russians. Our old allies from the Conflict were the only ones with a ship fast enough to get there in time.
 
The Russians could get there but they had no place to put any specimens they caught. We could hold all of them, but would take weeks to get there. The solution was obvious, like chocolate and peanut butter.
 
Through the center of the Melissa they drove the Russian Kerensky-class corvette, the Chernobog. From a distance the two ships together looked like a pencil stabbed through an orange. We were in a hurry so we worked double shifts. Triple shifts for those who could take it. Grafting the two vessels together in an unholy amalgamation. The engineers were pretty sure — really — that the Hoffman-Streibling Drive wouldn’t just tear the two ships to pieces. But there was that chance. The skipdrive had only been used a handful of times before.
 
Mostly I was worried about Nicolai. He was mustered to the Chernobog — the “Chorny” — and it’d be the first time I’d see him since the accident, since half my face and skull were ripped off when the walls around me crumpled inward, since I lost an arm and a leg and a few ribs to boot. No one knew that I’d been tied down in that empty cargo bay, that I was wearing my one set of stockings and nothing else, waiting for Nicolai to show up and take me again on the warm steel floor, our sweat making us slide and bump and clutch each other tight to keep from drifting apart.
 
Maintenance Chief ElizaHe was late. Or I was early. I’d handcuffed myself to one of the safety rungs in the starboard wall. It wasn’t our first time. Hell, at that point it wasn’t our fiftieth time. The crew quarters could fit two people snugly, but unless those people were contortionists they’d have no luck getting busy in those cramped berths. It was an open joke. A handful of the smallest repair bays — too small for even the vipers the Navy prefers for ship-to-ship conflict resolution — were reserved permanently for R&R.
 
When the crew first began using the R&R cabins people snickered and made jokes, but as the Conflict dragged on and the colonists dug in, it  lost any humor . At best you’d see the cold glare of jealousy in someone’s eyes across the mess as you reserved your room.
 
It was our turn then, in the R&R cabin. The fighting had died down. The Collies had been quiet for days. Either planning something or hashing out terms of surrender, everyone agreed. Suicide mission hadn’t been on the list. Kamikaze strikes weren’t a thing you did. Ships were too precious, too few, to waste them. No one knew why they did it. One minute we were at a semblance of peace, stretched out better than naked in a dimly lit brushed-steel cargo dock waiting for our too-handsome-for-us Russian/Californian lover to engage in some conventional thrusting and the next minute a ship piloted by a starving madman tears open your world and pins you to a wall.
 
In the end, no one mentioned the stockings or the handcuffs. They patched me up with the cheapest cybernetics the Navy could get away with, gave me the minimum mandatory leave, and sent me right back up into the black.
 
Only now no one looked at me the same and my lovely Russian paramour had been assigned away as a liaison to some Red Navy boat.
 
* * *

 
The captain gave a big speech before we made the skip. Everyone was nervous about the new drive — the Hoffman-Streibling Device. It collapsed space or pushed holes around space or did things that didn’t make sense, no matter how many times someone sketched them on napkins. The short version was, the captain explained, that the drive would throw us across space-time like skipping a stone across a pond. The journey would take hours, not weeks. Then he rattled off a lot of optimistic nonsense about duty and science and frontiers of knowledge but I lost track of the narrative because at that point, in the largest bay, with all the crew and personnel huddled together, I caught sight of Nicolai.
 
I swear I could feel the seams of my flesh burn. The purple scars that marked where my skin ended and the flexsteel began ached and throbbed in his presence. He’d grown even more beautiful, something in his face was meatier. He’d put on muscle and changed his hair. He no longer looked like the prettiest sardine in the can but rather like a movie star pretending to be in the Navy for a scene.
 
He studiously ignored me.

* * *

To read more of “Skipdrive,” pick up a copy of Quantum Zoo.
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES

For more Quantum Zoo samples:
Serpent’s Foe
Demon Rising
Echoes of Earth
A King in Exile

For a list of the 12 stories in Quantum Zoo, click here.

 

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