8 min read

Stardrive Engineer – 1

Stardrive Engineer – 1

About this series

Want to learn how Benevolency stardrives work? Want to learn more about the Tekk Plague virus? Want to learn about both in the midst of a starship battle? You can in this exciting Benevolency Universe short story about Xam Chen, a stardrive engineer (and starkat owner!) pushed to the breaking point and beyond.

This story is a tie-in to the Outworld Ranger series.

Xam Chen leaned back in his cozy recliner and propped up his broad feet. He opened a new planetary romance by his favorite author inside a window within his heads-up display then took a bite of his half-eaten Snickerdoodle Plus. (It contained all the vitamins and nutrients a grown man could ever want.) Smiling, he sipped from a steaming cup of black tea, then sighed contentedly.

Using a directed thought, Xam silently voiced a request to his 7G chippy. "Melody, play some Venusian jazz, piano only."

A chippy was a personal computer system embedded in a person's left temple. It connected to the brain through a complex neural web installed during infancy. Everyone had chippies. The poorest of the poor with their 2G models all the way up to advanced ones like Melody and the rarest of the rare 8G and 9G models. Even Luddites sported 1G's.

Melody’s reply went directly to Xam's auditory nerve. "You've got it, Xam."

As the light, multi-harmonic jazz began to play, Xam's yellow-furred starkat jumped up into his lap. Kritter yawned, arched her back into a stretch, then balled up. Her two-foot-long tail whipped out and wrapped all the way around her tiny body. With a belly full of Tuna-Tuna, she was enjoying a perfect day.

The ship's stardrive hummed along in time with the starkat's purr. Only an enger like Xam could feel the soothing vibration of a stardrive. He could sense the slightest alteration in the thwum-thwum-thwum oscillation of the hyperphasic engine. Even the smallest change could wake him from the deepest sleep. Right now, if a machine could be considered happy, then his stardrive was.

Xam settled deeper into his chair and glanced at the opalescent clouds of hyperspace rolling past the large window that took up half of the outer wall of his cabin. Thanks to his unique skills, Xam had the second-largest cabin on the ship. Aside from his plush recliner, his furnishings were spartan. Despite a small fortune in his savings account, he had few possessions. He was content with his work and his extensive book and movie collections.

As chief engineer, Xam tended the Consummate's stardrive. Being a stardrive engineer was the only job he had ever done. It was the only job he ever wanted to do. It was a role for which his people, the engers, had been genetically altered to perform, thousands of years ago.

The Benevolence had modified humanity into several specialized branches, each designed to meet one of the complex needs of a spacefaring civilization. Today, untold trillions of humans and their variants stretched out amongst the stars of the Milky Way.

The stocky-framed, gray-skinned engers, however, only numbered five or ten million. Like the stardrives they tended, engers were dying out, poisoned by the same Tekk Plague that had wiped out the Benevolence, bringing all humanity to the brink of destruction.

More than ninety percent of those engers who had survived the plague were rendered infertile, and most of the babies they did have suffered unpreventable defects. If not for their considerably long lifespans, they would've all died out already. So, while Xam's services had always been in high demand, the need only grew greater by the day.

With keen minds and nimble, multi-jointed fingers, engers were perfectly suited to perform their role as humanity's top technicians. What's more, their thick, rapid-healing skin made them highly resistant to burns and radiation. Most important of all, microscopic protrusions on their palms allowed them to directly interface with machines using biomechanical nanites generated by their nervous systems. Enger nanites, or engnites, could penetrate and interact with any electrical system while maintaining a short-range neural link with the enger’s brain.

Engers interfaced with and repaired critical systems from medical bays and power plants to planetary defense grids and communication arrays. But they were specifically designed to work with engines, from magnetic drives of aircraft to ion drives used for short-range spaceflights to the truest works of art humanity had ever possessed, stardrives.

Designed and constructed exclusively by the Benevolence itself, stardrives were beyond human understanding. No one knew how they worked, not even the galaxy's top scientists. Where ion drives could speed ships up to eighty percent of light speed, at best, stardrives allowed ships to enter hyperspace, an alternate dimension where space was condensed, allowing vast distances to be crossed in a tiny fraction of the time it would take to do so in real space.

A stardrive could also take a ship into wraith-space and dull-space. Traveling to wraith-space was dangerous but necessary for harvesting flux crystals: the key component to all modern power storage systems, from the minuscule batteries inside chippies to the giant blocks used in battleships. Dull-space was the useless opposite of hyperspace, with the space between everything expanded.

Two other dimensions, flux-space and echo-space, were critical to civilization even though starships could not travel to them without being destroyed. Flux-space served as a primary power source. The energy gathered from there was stored inside the flux crystals. Ultra-condensed echo-space was used for long-range, faster-than-light communication.

After the Tekk Plague, the scarcity of engers dictated that they work exclusively with humanity's slowly failing, irreplaceable stardrives. Gizmets, talented humans, and repair cogs could service and maintain almost all the remaining technology within the Terran Federation, except for the stardrives. Maintaining those was the purpose for which the engers had been created, and only they could do it.

Few of them minded. Xam, in fact, relished life on a starship. Cities teeming with their masses made him itch, and the open spaces of planetary wildernesses made him feel exposed. Enclosed within a ship speeding through the dark of space, that was comfort, that was home.

Thwum-thwip-thwum. Thwup-thwum-thwum.

Something was wrong with the stardrive.

Xam dropped his Snickerdoodle Plus and banished the novel from his HUD. Kritter perked her ears up and grumbled. After twenty years with Xam, she knew when an engine didn't sound right.

The pale, opalescent clouds of hyperspace darkened to pink and orange then red. By the time he stood, only the black, star-dotted expanse of real space could be seen outside his window.

The stardrive was failing.

“Melody, what’s going on?”

“Aside from the stardrive deactivating, I have no idea, Xam. I’ll let you know if I figure anything out.”

A klaxon blared throughout the ship, and the starkat hissed. An urgent alert popped up in his HUD. With a thought, he opened the channel.

"Xam, what the hell's going on?" First Officer Delancey yelled, her voice shrieking into his auditory system via his chippy, which was connected to the ship’s communication system.

"No idea, ma'am. I'm on my way to Engineering now."

"Did you perform a diagnostic on the stardrive before we launched?"

Their ship, a hundred-ton cargo freighter named the Consummate, had departed Cassius B yesterday. Xam had performed his first diagnostic on the drive then. Before entering hyperspace two hours ago, he had completed a second diagnostic. Then he had retired to his room for an evening of rest. Once they were in hyperspace, travel was routine. At least, it was supposed to be.

"Yes, ma'am, I did. And again, before shifting. She was at sixty-eight percent health, same as she's been for the last three months."

"Then why the hell have we dropped out of hyperspace?"

"No idea, ma'am. And I'd prefer not to speculate until I've analyzed the drive."

Dusting the crumbs off his burnt orange coveralls, Xam gently tossed the starkat onto the bed. "Stay here, Kritter. And don't eat my snickerdoodle."

Xam buckled on his utility belt then left his room. He hurried down a long corridor and plunged into the elevator that awaited him. A moment before the elevator doors closed, Kritter dived inside and leaped onto Xam's broad shoulders. She curled her tail down his left arm the began to clean snickerdoodle crumbs off her muzzle. Normally, Xam would've grumbled at the starkat's predictable disobedience, but right now, he was far too worried about his stardrive.

The elevator reached Engineering, and the doors dilated open.

As a second klaxon wailed, Kritter dug her sharp claws into his shoulder. Xam winced as the vessel's AI system called out:

"Battle stations! Ship proximity alert! Class III agile frigate. Name unknown. Point of origin unknown. Hostile intent detected. Battle stations!"

The odds of dropping out of hyperspace and into an immediate attack were astronomical. The ambush would've had to have been planned. Only how could they have known that it would fail? And at this exact point in their light-years-long journey. It just didn't make sense.

Xam barreled into Engineering — ignoring the twelve crew members who maintained the ion drives, the fusion power plant, the flux battery, and the life-support system — and charged toward his station.

Though he was the highest-ranking officer in Engineering, in this situation, he wouldn't be interacting with the others. The stardrive operated under its own mysterious power, independent of the other systems, and no one else could work with it. So the rest of the Engineering crew would report to Chief Cantu.

While Xam's ideal day was one of leisurely reading and maintaining the stardrive, he didn't mind days like this, with the ship zigzagging through space, the ion engines screaming, laser beams and railgun bolts and plasma missiles streaking by or striking the shields, the fate of the ship in his hands.

There was no better test of an engineer’s skills than the trials of battle. In this case, their survival was dependent on reaching hyperspace, and that was all on him.

On a ship this large, the stardrive was housed within a nearly impenetrable chamber consisting of layers of titanium and diamondine. A control panel outside provided critical readouts for the stardrive's essential functions. With the drive failing, those readouts were useless. Xam had to go in and do the job only an enger could do.

He placed his right hand on a scanning pad while keying in a seven-digit passcode with his left. "Entry requested."

"Identity scan complete," an automated voice said. "Entry granted."

As the door to the chamber dilated open, Ensign Vith yelled, "Weapon systems powering up!" There was a pause, then she replied to a question Xam hadn't heard. "I don't know, Captain. The system should have been online, but for some reason, it powered down when we fell out of hyperspace."

Xam rushed into the chamber. The door thumped shut behind him. He pried Kritter from his shoulder, set her down, and tapped a button on the back of her collar. With a whoosh, a protective carbon fiber suit unfurled from her collar and covered her body, except for her long, prehensile tail. A bubble-shaped helmet deployed over her head. Kritter gave him a nasty look. She hated the helmet more than anything.

"It's for your own good. Now stay out of the way, please."

The stardrive was a glossy, black cube just over two meters across. Smaller ships used smaller cubes, but otherwise, the design was the same. The size of a stardrive was always proportional to the size of the vessel. Smaller drives couldn’t move larger ships, though larger ones could move smaller vessels, provided there was enough room for installation.

The drive was mounted on a table-high pedestal in the center of the chamber. Nothing connected directly to the cube, no wires or sensors. Instead, the stardrive linked wirelessly to a control box containing a tiny black crystal that resonated with this individual stardrive and no others. This control box allowed the stardrive to be operated from a terminal outside in engineering or on the bridge.

A red light flashed above the door, and the ship's AI called out, "Enemy fire incoming! Brace for impact!"

Combat data scrolled through Xam's vision. The enemy fired its railguns and plasma cannons and unleashed a massive volley of missiles. The Consummate’s shields withstood all that firepower with only an eighteen-percent reduction in shield capacity, so Xam wasn't worried.

Until he felt a strange tremor through the deck under his feet.

The enemy ship fired a single laser shot at them.


An explosion rocked the Consummate as the laser burst inexplicably struck home, piercing the shields and hitting with enough power to punch through the ship's diamondine hull, which was no mean feat.

"Shield failure. System off-line. Hull breach on deck twelve. Damage sustained on shield arrays two, three, and four. Emergency shields deployed… and holding at forty-three percent… thirty-nine percent… thirty percent…"

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