The gennies were grinding. It wasn’t bad yet, but they had been buzzing thirty minutes ago and in another thirty, the Dockship Sitting Bull would be no more. After about an hour of solid grind, one of the blades that turned in the massive gravity generators would snap under the pressure and send itself flying through the hull of the generator, the generator room and probably the hull of the ship itself.
Chloe didn’t hear the grinding. Chloe was well immersed in the newest book she had gotten just this morning. It had been morning for her, anyway, as that was the just before her shift began. The newest book was Stephen King’s Dark Tower III. Since the ban had been lifted on print books three years ago, she had been consuming any and all fiction she could. Her roommate Tanya chided her about wasting time with fiction, saying it was never a worthwhile endeavor to read lies. Chloe knew different. There were times when truth peaked out at you between the black letters on the synthetic paper.
Plink! A shard of metal embedded itself into the railing of the G.O.D. The generator observation deck was really nothing more than a raised platform with mesh steel grating. There was a terminal on one wall, a card table in the middle and two chairs. There was never any more than one person here at a time, but somebody had put the extra chair there for a reason, long before Chloe was assigned genny duty.
Chloe put the book down on the card table and walked to the railing. It was only a three-inch portion and that was still considered safe. Four inches or above and you had to report it. Assuming that four inches didn’t ream out the back of your skull that is. Chloe slid down the ladder to the generator floor. The real reason for the G.O.D. was simply that the floor around the generator room was constantly vibrating and you couldn’t stand on it for more than a half hour without getting sick. Chloe’s shifts were twelve hours long and sometimes with two meals served. If she had to sit on the floor of the generator deck, she’d lose half her body weight before she was reassigned.
Chloe walked to the end and looked up at Old Chuck. He was the oldest genny they had and he still chugged along, day in and day out. He had had all his blades replaced more than twice and each blade wasn’t due to be replaced until it hit the fifty earth year mark. Old Chuck was older than her grandfather and was probably going to outlive her. She had no doubt it was one of his blades that had spit at her, but she didn’t fault him for it.
Chloe walked to the grease tank and grabbed the hose. She had greased Old Chuck twice in the last three days and that was bad. The three other gennies hadn’t been greased in a week and here was Old Chuck, wheezing and begging for some of his juice; just something to take the pain away.
Chloe shoved the four inch wide hose into the receptacle and thumbed the ‘deposit’ button. Three hundred gallons of Molybdenum in a little under three seconds. Old Chuck stopped his whining and sounded just as young as the other three. Chloe had named the newest of the gennies, Dora. The second newest was Jimbo and the third newest was, aptly, Jenny. Old Chuck was older than all of them and was, in fact, one of the first gennies ever made.
It wasn’t so much the materials that made the gravity generators work so well or the concept, but more the combination of the right materials and the right design and the host of a billion other x-factors that couldn’t have been repeated had it not been for the keen notes of a man named Jacob Glasskey.
Glasskey was a physicist first and foremost, but energy was his hobby. In the late 21st, Glasskey had been toying around with new fuel sources for the existing plasma ships. They burned plasma and used it to power every single device on every single ship from the lowliest Mosquito class scouts to the Raptor class battle cruisers. They all had the same engine, the same mechanics and the same rate of burn per metric ton. The problem wasn’t that they weren’t fast and the problem wasn’t making plasma. The problem was producing enough plasma to send those boys on long trips and them having enough fuel to come back on. Glasskey had tackled this problem with the way any good physicist would. In 2084, he patented the first gravity current generator.
The grav genny could sit inside the gravitational field of a planet or a major satellite and use the currents of gravity to turn the massive turbines inside the generators. He designed the units with nickel core iron blades to react best to the gravity and shaped the blades to turn under the least amount of gravity possible. Even if Sitting Bull was dead still, she could produce enough power to get her the short trip to and from Earth. But as it was, like with all other Dockships, she rode the thin line of gravitational pull between the Earth and the moon, using the pressure of each to produce more than sufficient electricity which can be converted and scaled into the massive amounts of plasma that powered the largest battleships.
Chloe put the grease hose back onto the hook and walked back to the ladder. When she got to the top, she found that her shift was over. She had read through most of it and hence, her twelve hours was done. This was reason alone for fiction. Chloe picked her book up and opened the reinforced door to the G.O.D. area. From there she stepped on the conveyer belt and watched as her three counterparts did the same. There were four genny rooms and four gennies in each room. The ship could run on a single genny and could produce more than enough plasma given the optimal set of circumstances. Tanya was first in the line of observers going off shift. Behind Tanya was Michael Wilson, a new guy. As Chloe watched, he absently scratched at his behind. He looked exhausted and that was likely the case with the current circumstances. He had pulled a double and was now running on less than two hours sleep in the last twenty-four. Behind Chloe was Hector, the seasoned veteran observer.
“I heard Old Chuck whining in there. He spit any?” Hector asked. Hector was by far Chloe’s favorite person on board. He knew how to do nearly every job on board and was well able to do every job if he needed to. Chloe had heard that he had been part of the original crew of Sitting Bull and had fallen in love with the ship. Chloe couldn’t relate these days, but Hector had seen the ship when she was shiny and new. Chloe smiled at the thought of Hector, his silver hair and silver handlebar mustache. If he wasn’t old enough to be her grandfather, Chloe might have considered him for a duty-mate. Tanya stepped off the end of the conveyer where Mosquito Jim was waiting on her. Mosquito Jim was one of four fuel pilots onboard the Bull. Their unenviable duty was to pilot the refueling hose out to the waiting ships and dock. If he messed up, ever, it wouldn’t just be his own ass he’d have messed up. Mosquito was a good guy though, named for the Mosquito scouts he used to pilot when the solar system was still considered uninhabited. Tanya liked him well enough and after all, he was her duty-mate. Duty-mates were encouraged aboard duties that ran longer than an Earth-year. No kids, obviously, but the government made that pretty clear with the implants. They did seem to have a handle on the idea that the crew would engage in copulating despite the rules. It was always better when the government rolled with the ideas rather than against them.
The errant butt-scratcher stepped off the belt and headed off to the barracks. Chloe stepped off herself and walked into the common area. This was the meeting place of the Bull; every section started or ended from here depending on your duty assignment. They had just gotten off generator observation. The portal to Chloe’s right went off to the barracks. The next in counterclockwise fashion went off to the fuel pilot’s staging area. The next portal was to the commissary and the one next to it was the portal for the ships computers and the actual deck of the ship. The final and largest of the portals went deep into the guts of the ship for plasma storage and the engines. The common area had a few tables set up to lounge about and a few old, ratty and yet comfortable chairs.
Chloe sat down in one and opened her book. In a little while she’d go get something to eat and after that she’d probably head off to bed, but right now, a hero named Eddie was helping a kid named Jake cross worlds in her book. Paper, even the cheap synthetic crap, was slow to produce. Chloe had one real paper book in her room for smell alone. She loved the binding glue they used and could all but sleep with a book over her face.
On the one couch in the common area, Tanya had sat down next to Jim. He had one hand inside her shirt and was obviously unashamed of what he was doing there. Chloe sighed and tried to bury herself in the book. Before she could finish the first sentence, Hector sat down in the chair next to her.
“Ola Chloe. Yo quiero?” he asked her. He was holding a sealed pack of food from the commissary. He claimed to know which packets held meat and which were just vegetables. It was always a special treat to get meat out of one of the M.R.E.’s. He had been teaching her Spanish since she had come on board a few months ago and she found it interesting. English was the standardized language for all ships, but Chloe liked having at least one level to connect with all people on.
“Si. Donde estade los banos?” Chloe said. She knew she had just asked for the bathroom, but it was her only complete phrase so far. Hector smiled and giggled. His voice had a silvery tone to it that made Chloe smile. There would always be room in her heart for Hector, duty-mate or not.
“Is that the newest one?” Hector asked. He dropped the M.R.E. into her lap and opened his own. He tore open the top and pulled the fork off the side. He glanced in and inhaled deeply. “Jackpot! Hamburger and gravy.” He said. Chloe’s stomach yearned at the thought of the most coveted of all M.R.E.’s. She was most likely stuck with protein added beets or something of the kind.
“Yeah, this is the newest in the series. Have you started the first one I let you borrow?” Chloe asked, replacing her bookmark. She tore open the top of her M.R.E. and looked down inside. It was cubed chicken with lemon sauce. All of the meat they ate was synthetic, but the hamburger was the only one that tasted like the original stuff. The chicken always tasted too sweet like the worst possible dessert you could imagine. Hector chewed on the hamburger, savoring it like it was his last meal and nodded.
“Yeah, I just can’t get into it. When does it get interesting?” he asked. He forked another wad of meat-like substance into his mouth.
“Book two. Just finish the first one and I promise you, you’ll enjoy the second.” Hector smiled and Chloe noticed there was a spot of gravy on the corner of his mouth. She reached up, dabbed the spot and then licked her finger. She savored the flavor of the gravy for a moment, probably far more than she should have.
“I have a whole mouth full where that came from,” Hector said, showing the chewed portion of the hamburger. Chloe wrinkled her nose and swatted at him. The intercom bonged and everyone looked up to the ceiling mounted speaker.
“Attention: all crew members report to stations, repeat, all crew members report to stations.” Chloe cocked a look at Hector who just lowered his eyes and nodded. Tanya and Mosquito Jim stopped what they were doing. In a stark reversal, the common area emptied and everyone went to stations. As Hector and Chloe got onto the incoming conveyer belt, the four genny rooms filled up. Delores Carter was on duty in room three, the room Chloe had been in. She came tearing out of there.
“Hector, Chloe, take room three! I’ve got to go up to the deck.” Delores rushed off in a typical Delores rush. She was generator room supervisor and most times just a Jack-of-All-Trades. Hector and Chloe went into room three and sat down. Of all the emergency positions, generator observers were probably least on the list, but protocol was protocol.
“What do you think is going on?” Chloe asked. She had left her book in the common area and that was okay because aside from Tanya, Hector was her best friend on the Bull.
“Fleet is fueling up. Has to be.”
“Why would the fleet be fueling up all at once?” But even as her mind closed around the question, the answer slipped from Hector’s lips.
“Jellies.” Jellies were, so far, the only other form of life in the Earth solar system. They lived in the gas giant of Jupiter and were, by and large, some of the strangest life-forms encountered by humans. So far as studies had shown, Jellies were of a single intelligence but of multiple bodies. They could swarm into gigantic bodies that could move through space. They launched from Jupiter using gravity pulls from the larger moons orbiting the planet. In single form, they were mostly harmless, but when amassed, they could be devastating. Now the fleet was either responding to a threat or was about to create a threat themselves.
“Do you think they’re going to invade Jupiter?” Chloe asked. Her voice sounded childish and far more scared than it should have.
“No, most likely the Jellies have been spotted headed through the asteroid belt towards Mars colony. The fleet is either responding to that or is perhaps getting ready for an attack. We can’t land on a gas giant and really, so long as the Jellies stay there, we have no reason to do anything to them.”
“But I heard they had attacked the miners in the asteroid belt?” Chloe asked.
“Well, what we consider an attack, they might only consider a probe. The report I heard said that the Jellies had eaten through the hulls of two or three ships and had killed about a dozen miners. If they were just trying to analyze us but didn’t know the harm they had on us, then we can expect they aren’t hostile. But if they are truly just one intelligence, then what’s to say that they don’t consider us a foreign presence in their solar system.” Chloe nodded. She had heard both these arguments and a dozen others. Some people wanted to contact the Jellies and some wanted to kill them and others wanted to just remain oblivious to them.
Some believed that the way the Jellies traveled through space was enough of a reason to believe in their subversive and hostile nature. Pulling off from a massive clump of the primary being and hurdled through space as a chunk of what appears to be ice. Some even wondered if all comets themselves might be nothing more than massive frozen jellies just waiting to hit a planet and take up residence. These beliefs were first begun around the time that Hale-Bop crashed into Jupiter and returned one body of Jellies to the primary.
The feeling of worry that was present in her heart must have shown on her face. Hector put his hand over hers on the small table. Chloe nearly said something to him then, but the door to room three opened and in stepped Delores.
“Okay, I have to give this speech twice more, so listen up: The fleet is mounting and all Dockships are set at full capacity. We don’t know when we’ll finish but we have to be ready to refuel the entire fleet if need be. You will not be taken off shift until this is over. Understood?” Both Hector and Chloe nodded. Hector spoke up for both of them then.
“Delores, where is the fleet going?” Delores shook her head and looked away.
“They aren’t going anywhere. The fleet is getting primed for defense, not attack.” Delores turned and walked from room three. Chloe knew that had Hector not been there, the same information wouldn’t have been passed on.
“So are we being invaded?” Hector shook his head.
“No, just because they are poised to defend doesn’t mean the Jellies are invading. There might be a large Jelly just now heading our way that they want to get a heads up on.” Hector was lying and Chloe knew it. The entire fleet wouldn’t be called in to handle one large Jelly. Chloe scooted her chair over the wall terminal. “What are you doing?” Hector asked.
“I can monitor the ship from here.” Before Hector could respond, Chloe had brought up the ships external monitoring cameras. Every station had access to these for similar reasons. The crew had to monitor the load and be prepared for how much production was required.
The screen showed the external hull of the Bull. The Bull itself was a horseshoe shape with hoses on one side of the horseshoe and the fuel cells themselves in between the two bars of the ‘u’. The first external camera showed the generator side of the horseshoe. Arrayed on the generator side were no less than a dozen Raptor class ships. Chloe pecked at a few keys and brought up the fueling side of the horseshoe. Chloe gasped and thought that perhaps Hector had as well. On the fueling side, there were four Raptor class ships being fueled and another two dozen waiting in line. The Sitting Bull was one of four Dockships and was often the least used. This meant that the other four ships must be seeing two or three times the number of ships. To see this number of ships who were just going to hang around Earth orbit for defense meant something had happened and that something was possibly the worst thing that anyone could have predicted.
“Zoom the cameras on fuel side to as far as they can see,” Hector said. Chloe punched in the command and watched as fuel side zoomed for a minute or more. These cameras were equipped to be very sensitive as they were often used to guide ships into dock with the Bull. In the vastness of space, things were not still.
Eclipsing binaries often wink and occasionally meteors strike planets and sometimes a supernova is visible from a weak lens like the camera, but what Hector and Chloe were looking at was something beyond such an idea as even the most unusual space movement. Clusters upon clusters of Jellies were streaking through the short space between Mars colony and Earth at tremendous speed. Chloe punched in the zoom command again, but the terminal signaled an error. She had expected such, but she had to try. Chloe moved the cursor over one of the objects and selected it. Chloe input the command to estimate object size. This was often important for determining if it was a Raptor class ship from afar or a very close Mosquito. The computer returned an estimate that the biggest of the objects was roughly twice the size of a Mosquito. Chloe calculated their distance and rate of travel. The computer popped up another error on speed of travel and distances both.
“What does that mean?” Chloe asked.
“It means it can’t calculate their speed or distance because they’re changing too fast. They’re moving faster than Mosquitoes.”
“How long?” Hector pursed his lips and stroked his mustache.
“Three minutes, maybe less.” Chloe’s head felt light. “Let’s get these four greased up now Chloe.” Chloe nodded and they both descended to the floor. Chloe ran to Old Chuck and popped the hose in with practiced grace. Hector had started on the other end and was making his way down the line. There were four hoses and all gennies could be pumped at the same time. When they were finished and the hoses were back in place, Hector and Chloe returned to the G.O.D.
Hector walked to a wall plate and pulled open a door that Chloe hadn’t known was there until that moment. From the hidden locker, he pulled two belts and a cutting torch.
“What are those for?” Chloe asked.
“These,” Hector said holding up the belts, “are precautionary. And this,” he said regarding the torch, “is mandatory.”
“Mandatory?” Chloe asked, hitching a belt to her waist.
“Don’t ask,” Hector said, finishing the tightening of his own. He walked to the railing closest to the terminal and hitched his belt to it. Chloe walked over and hitched her own next to his. There was a four foot lead on each belt and an emergency release. Hector reached over and punched up a screen that, like the locker, Chloe had never seen before. On the screen were four green squares and a number in each square. Chloe opened her mouth to ask a question but Hector put his finger to his lips. He looked up and around, straining to hear something. Chloe did the same. For a very long ten seconds, there was nothing. Then, a sound, brief and muffled, came from somewhere near the common area. It sounded like a meteor striking the hull, but far less solid. It sounded solid from the onset, but then muffled itself.
Another sound, just like it, but larger came from somewhere near the barracks. Then, the sound of weapons fire began to filter into the generator room. Chloe felt her heart pounding. It was a capitol offense to fire weapons that near a Dockship, but Chloe knew they wouldn’t have done it unless it was necessary.
There were more sounds then. The sounds of firing and the muffled hits increased. A cacophony of hits resounded across the ship. The firing increased outside and a few of the hits rang far too close to the Dockship for Chloe’s liking.
“What’s happening?” Chloe yelled above the din. To answer her question, something struck engine room three. For a split second, the pressure changed and Chloe felt the vacuum of space. Then the vacuum stopped and the room was back to echoing the sounds of the battle ensuing outside. Chloe scanned the dark metal walls for any signs of damage. She was sure they had been hit, but where, she couldn’t be sure. Hector flipped on a pen light at the end of his torch. He ran the small circle of light over the walls of the generator room. As he came to the corner between the hull wall and the wall between rooms three and four, Chloe felt her heart skip.
Extending three or four feet into the room from the hull wall was a tendril of a Jelly. It appeared to Chloe as nothing more than a lengthy section of primordial ooze that was somehow grotesquely erect in the gravity of the ship.
“It’s just a piece. It’s sealing off the hole in the hull. Brace yourself, I’m gonna toast it.” Hector whispered this as though the Jelly could hear him and then, Chloe understood that it could hear him. The tendril regarded him with an unsteady attention.
Hector sparked the oxygen burner on the end of the torch. He adjusted the gas levels and then arched a stream of nearly pure acetylene. The flame struck the Jelly with a hiss. The Jelly recoiled and began to spread itself against the wall. Hector followed its progress with the torch, evaporating the remnants of the Jelly. After a few moments, the Jelly was reduced to the hole it had come in on. Hector let off on the throttle of the torch and looked at Chloe.
“We’re going to need a meteor patch!” He yelled. It wasn’t until he let off on the torch that Chloe noticed the noises had gotten louder. It was mostly torpedoes that were being fired now and Chloe could hear their cataclysmic explosions far too close to the Bull. Chloe didn’t need to be told that the big Jellies were here now and the Raptor ships were fending them off.
Chloe reached beneath the terminal and found a dusty box full of magnet patches. They were nothing but a piece of low grade aluminum with a magnetic place holder welded to one side. The magnet was placed over the hole and the aluminum was melted into it. They were temporary at best and Chloe knew that they might need the whole box. She put the box on the table and unhooked her latching to the rail.
She slid down the ladder and walked over to the wall where they had been roasting the Jelly. She could see that part of it was beginning to melt and soon enough, another piece of tendril was sure to be stretching its way into the generator room. The hole was just above her head on the wall behind and to the left of Old Chuck. Chloe slapped the large metal plate as best she could over the small hole that the Jelly had punched into the skin of the ship. She stood back and Hector moved up to melt the patch in place. He readjusted the levels of oxygen in the torch and got it back to a nice blue flame. He brazed the hole and within no time, there was no trace of the Jelly.
Chloe was headed back to the ladder when an explosion rocked the genny room. She went sprawling across the floor towards the ladder. Chloe looked back just in time to see Hector land torch first into the Molybdenum tank. The grease was pressurized and within seconds, the floor was coated in the lube. Chloe tried to stand and found that the floor was far too slippery to stand on. Instead, she crawled to the ladder, Hector close behind her. It was a struggle to hold onto the ladder and after a few close misses, she found that hugging the ladder all the way up was the only way to do it.
Once she and Hector were back on the G.O.D., Hector was at the terminal, staring at the four green squares. They were still green and Chloe didn’t need an engineering degree to guess that was a good thing. Chloe looked at the generator floor and saw the mess of black grease still sliding and running everywhere. The tank that Hector had punctured was now empty and that was both a good and a very bad thing. There were only two tanks and he had hit the larger of the two.
A small beep emanated from the terminal and the both of them glanced over at it. Square one was red and flashing. From room four, Chloe heard another sound she had never heard from the beginning of her time aboard the Bull. It sounded like an airlock depressurizing. Chloe knew that such a thing wasn’t possible in a generator room, but that was what it had sounded like. Hector grabbed the lead on her belt and tightened it. Before Chloe could ask, Hector punched a function key. Square one went out. A single click from generator one then an airlock did open; just beneath it. Dora the generator fell a good distance from the ship before she exploded. The airlock had opened and closed so fast that only a dip in pressure coupled with the presence of the vacuum could be felt. Chloe felt a sense that perhaps there was some kind of preparation that had been made for this attack and that she, and most likely at least half of the other observers, hadn’t been briefed.
“So, was Dora rigged to blow or was that just preparedness for such times as these?” Hector bit his lip and turned from Chloe’s query. The screen still showed all green, but Chloe continued to hear the airlock sound from elsewhere in the Dockship.
“You know the new guy?” Hector asked.
“He’s Intelligence,” Hector said, still averting his eyes.
“Intelligence? On a Dockship? And how would you know?” Chloe could only think of two ways that Hector might know something like that. Either he had been briefed before Wilson’s arrival or…
“I’m his supervisor.” Chloe nodded as though this was just one more thing to add to an ever worsening day. Another question was poised on her lips and again, something interrupted it. This time, Jimbo the genny, signaled his time to go. Hector hit the function key and number two dropped out of the generator room. With Jimbo went the majority of the grease. So how did we know about the attacks? Chloe thought.
“Intelligence has known the Jellies were hostile since they consumed the miners. It seems they can process and thrive on carbon based life forms.”
Are you telepathic? Chloe thought, her mouth a wide ‘o’ of shock.
“Yes.” It was perhaps the simplest answer to the most complex question she had ever posed to Hector. A torrent of thoughts rushed through her mind then revolving around a single theme of how much she had thought about Hector and how much he had been able to pick up on. “Can you not do that? It’s noisy enough in here as it is.” Chloe knew some of the Intelligence agents were telepaths, but she had never met one.
“So what do the Jelly’s want?” She asked. She knew she could have simply thought her question, but the idea of someone actively listening to her thoughts made her queasy.
“So far as we can tell, they want two things:
plasma and Earth.”
“Oh so long as it’s just those two things.” Chloe said. She hadn’t intended on being so biting, but the idea of these things living on Earth made her want to puke.
“They can’t live on Earth, don’t worry about that. They think they can and that’s what’s making them dangerous now. They think so long as they can get down there that everything will be fine, but the truth is that we have a few things that disagree with them. Sodium for one is very bad for them.” Chloe nodded. She knew Hector didn’t have to tell her any of this and for the trust he was showing her, she was grateful.
“So then, they’re coming for the Dockships aren’t they?” Hector nodded, keeping his eyes on the screen. Another red square flashed and this time, before the beep sounded, Hector jettisoned Jenny the genny.
“Are they inside the generators?” She asked, suddenly feeling more than a little frightened.
“No, the gennies are bait. The fleet is draining the gennies dry and then we’re jettisoning them. The gennies have been loaded, over the course of several weeks, with some goodies for the Jellies.” Chloe nodded. That left Old Chuck sitting on the far side of the room. It was unlikely that they’d have any more small chunks of Jelly puncturing the hull. Usually the small chunks were just debris that traveled around the larger. Chloe had even heard that the small chunks couldn’t think like the larger ones.
“You want to say goodbye to Old Chuck? He’s probably almost done and I think everything is settling back down out there. We expected more, honestly, but I don’t think this is the only wave we’ll see this week.” Chloe looked out to Old Chuck. He stood there, stolid and sober. His blades would stop for good tonight and with them, Chloe’s time aboard the Bull. There’s little place for a generator observer without a generator to observe. It seemed too fast and far too sudden. Chloe had another five months of duty before she would be allowed to progress and most likely, she’d just be assigned a desk job on Moon Colony or Mars Colony. It didn’t matter. None of what had happened since the beginning of her duty on this ship had. She had watched over pieces of machinery that were nothing more than large bombs that were probably now floating in a stream behind the Bull. It seemed too empty somehow. The scope of what had happened.
A peaceful warm feeling entered her then, not quite like a thought, but more like a suggestion of the peace it carried.
“You’re about to take away the memory of this aren’t you?” Hector nodded. It wasn’t a big deal, really, and she might just be better off never having seen what she saw on this duty. “I guess then this is goodbye Hector,” Adios me amo, Chloe thought. Hector smiled his warm silver smile and closed his eyes. Chloe felt the world slip away then and, like Old Chuck, her memories and conscious thoughts of the Sitting Bull were gone. People, memories and threats come and go, but the duty goes on.