12 min read

Stardrive Engineer – 2

Stardrive Engineer – 2

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 didn't have time to wonder how a single volley of laser fire could penetrate the shields. He had a job to do.

Besides, he was relatively safe.

The Consummate was a cargo ship, which meant the attackers would almost certainly be pirates. Worst case scenario, they would disable the ship, come aboard, and take what they wanted. The surviving crew members, assuming they surrendered, would be spared for ransom or slavery. Meanwhile, he was in the most highly armored portion of the ship. A weapon strike powerful enough to destroy the stardrive would take out the entire ship, which was the last thing any pirate would want.

"Chen!" Captain Varga yelled to him over his comm. "Get us back into hyperspace! Now!"

Xam didn't bother to reply. Varga was shouting at him because he felt powerless to do anything else.

"Xam, would you like me to send him an automated reply?"

"If you have one that fits the situation."

"I do, Xam."

"Thank you, Melody. That would be perfect."

In the old days, before the Tekk Plague, a captain could don a neural interface circlet and directly interact with an entire ship. He would know everything happening in every system across the vessel— no yelling necessary. The captain’s brainpower would assist the ship’s AI and other critical systems, boosting their capabilities. But circlets, high functioning ship AI systems, and captains who knew what's what had gone the way of stardrives and engers.

Now, sadly, captains were reduced to blustering at their crews to feel useful during a battle. Unlike Xam, who had a critical job to perform.

Xam placed his palms flat against the black cube and closed his eyes. He blocked out everything else — the stomach-wrenching lurches as explosions rocked the ship, the sirens and alarms as section after section took damage, the frantic lights blinking on the wall — and opened his mind to the stardrive.

His primary job was to maintain the stardrive, to keep it healthy. He could fix minor problems and even attempt extensive repairs, given several weeks of effort. There wasn't much he could do for a failing stardrive, which he feared the Consummate’s had, inexplicably and suddenly, become.

Though scientists could find no evidence one way or the other, engers believed that the black cubes were not machines at all but living organisms. Engers saw themselves as tending the drives much as a gardener would tend plants within a greenhouse.

The youngest stardrives were now at least a hundred years old, and all the care and maintenance in the universe could only delay the inevitable. This drive, however, had not shown any signs of an impending failure. Xam had been confident that for this one, the inevitable was at least twenty years away. Clearly, he'd been wrong. But how?

"Is it bad?" Melody asked.

"Worse than I expected."

Human scientists were trying their best to figure out stardrives, but they didn't even have a clue what powered them. Unlike all the other ship systems, the stardrive didn't depend on the flux battery, the fusion core, or any other fuel sources.

When researchers dismantled drives, they stared in bewilderment at the turquoise goop they found within the cubes. Composed of unknown elements, this sludge defied all means of analysis. And it smelled acrid and cloying, like nutmeg and cloves boiled in vinegar.

His mind now bonded to the Consummate’s stardrive, Xam saw what only an enger could see: a three-dimensional web of organic, octagonal cells, unevenly distributed and linked together by twisted fibers. Each cell consisted of a crystalline nucleus and organelle structures of unknown function suspended within a cytoplasmic gel, all contained within an octagonal membrane.

The nuclei thrummed as they vibrated, not in unison but in an outward-flowing wave pattern that emanated from a thick cluster of cells at the center of the web. Pulses of light raced along the fibers from cell to cell.

Whether this was what the turquoise goop looked like in another dimension or whether it was merely the representation the engers were designed to see so they could work with it, Xam had no idea. Unlike scientists and philosophers, he didn't waste time pondering the unknowable. He wasn't a thinker or a maker. He was a fixer.

Xam's face creased into a deep frown as he surveyed the surreal network of cellular structures. The gaps where cells had died over the years and had been pruned away were precisely as they had been when they had departed Cassius B. Now, over half the remaining network was in distress, and a massive portion of that was dying. Due to the number of failing cells, the stardrive was below the threshold needed for operation.

For a stardrive to fail so quickly, with no warning signs…

There was still hope, though. If he could repair enough of the distressed cells and trim out the ones beyond saving, he might be able to improve the operating efficiency enough to get them back into hyperspace so they could escape the pirates.

An explosion rocked the ship, knocking Xam across the chamber. He crashed into the wall then dropped onto the floor. Leaping up, he rushed back to the cube.

"Melody, activate maglocks."

"Consider it done, Xam."

As the magnets on the bottom of his boots activated, rooting him firmly in place, he projected his awareness back into the cube. He groaned in despair. It didn't make sense, but more cells had died — dozens of them in mere moments. The drive was rapidly approaching critical failure. Once that happened, nothing he could do would fix it. All the cells within the cube would wither and die within days.

Ignoring the erratic motion of the Consummate as the pirate ship continued its bombardment, Xam focused. If the dead and dying cells remained, they would disrupt the rest of the system, their dysfunctional links draining energy from the network. Careful to keep his thoughts precise, he directed his engnites to clear out each of the cells he couldn't save. Then he snipped off the unnecessary threads and used them to build new, more direct links between healthy cells.

The dead cells dealt with, he turned his mind to the injured cells. Many of these were off-color, their crystal nuclei cracked and pulsing out of sync. If he hoped to save those, he needed to act fast. He would concentrate his engnites on one damaged cell at a time, allowing his awareness to zoom in and work on the delicate structures. The nuclei were complex, and it was, as they say, turtles all the way down. Each nucleus held its own network of cells nested inside, and there was no end to this pattern.

Practically speaking, he rarely went more than three levels down since he could only perform maintenance on the drive while in real space and going farther in produced diminishing results.

The first cell Xam entered went from damaged to a state of failure in an instant. Its cells winked out one after another like candles snuffed out after a Benevolence Remembrance Day service. He quickly backed out. Getting caught in a cell when it died was dangerous.

The damage had spread farther. Cells that Xam had been certain he could save were now dead, and previously healthy cells were sick. The drive had lost over ten percent of its capacity within a few minutes.

He watched in horror as cells continued to die.

It simply wasn't possible. During his long life of starship service, almost seventy-five years, he had never seen anything like it. Except once, as a young man. That couldn't be it. No. It just couldn’t be. It was impossible. But then dropping out of hyperspace directly into a pirate attack was highly improbable as well.

"Are you okay, Xam?"

"The drive is failing."

"I can see that, Xam. And I'm sorry for it.”

“There’s nothing I can do."

"With the drive, no. The rest of the crew need your help, though."

He took a deep breath, then nodded. "And I need answers."

With tears welling in the corners of his eyes, Xam released his mental bond with the stardrive and returned to reality.

Klaxons blared as continuous explosions reverberated through the ship. Kritter cowered in the corner, flickering her long tail back and forth nervously as she balanced herself between each of the ship’s convulsions.

Xam solemnly placed his left hand on the cube then touched his right hand to his heart, his forehead, then his mouth. "I commend you, stardrive, to the beyond."

Kritter mewled sadly as Xam bowed his head, allowing himself a moment of grief before refocusing his attention on how and why this tragedy had occurred.

"Xam, I reduced the magnetic grip on your boots to twenty-five percent. That should be enough to keep you from getting knocked about while not making it too hard to walk."

"Melody, link to the Consummate’s main computer and scan the stardrive vault for any signs of Tekk Plague."

"The virus detection system is offline, Xam."

"Damaged?"

"Disabled, Xam."

"On whose authority?"

"Captain Varga’s."

"When?"

"Twenty-seven point four hours ago."

"Was Captain Varga on board at that time?"

"He was not, Xam. He was planet-side, at Tooloo’s Cantina."

"How could Captain Varga disable the virus detection system without being on board?"Other than Xam, no one else had the authority to do that.

The Consummate’s computer took several moments to answer Melody's request. "Unknown, Xam."

"From what station with this order given?"

"The command terminal in cargo bay five."

Strange. That terminal should not have been able to access such a deeply protected system. "Download video of cargo bay five at twenty-seven point three hours ago."

"I can't find any video available for cargo bay five, Xam."

"Why not?"

"Monitoring in cargo bays four through seven is disabled, on Captain Varga's orders."

"Naturally." He sighed, frustrated and confused. "Where was that order given?"

"In the captain's quarters. By Captain Varga himself. Twenty-two days ago. And yes, Xam, I checked. He was on board and in his quarters at that time."

Twenty-two days ago? That was the day before the current tour began.

"How long would it take for Tekk Plague to disable a stardrive at seventy-seven percent capacity?"

"Give me a minute, Xam."

While he waited for Melody to figure it out, Xam wiped the sweat from his brow and slicked his hair back. He was ninety-six years old, which was middle-aged for an enger, and he'd seen a lot of crazy stuff in his time, but he hadn't seen anything like this, not since the first few years after the Fall of the Benevolence.

The stardrive on the Consummate had never encountered the destructive, nearly unstoppable nanite virus known as the Tekk Plague which had ravaged the galaxy a century ago. But only because this ship, like many still in service, had been quarantined, once people figured out what was happening.

By the time the Tekk Plague had faded from its initial, highly contagious stage, more than half of all stardrives, AI interfaces, robots, androids, and other advanced technologies had been irrevocably destroyed. In another century, all the stardrives and the engers who cared for them would be gone. Then humanity would collapse into an age of isolation, system-bound like the earthlings of long ago.

Quarantines, screening systems, and vigilance, not to mention a bit of luck here and there, were the only reasons humanity could still travel between the stars. And while modern machines were just as sensitive to the Tekk Plague as the old ones, the virus was seldom encountered in the wild now, given its short half-life.

Criminal organizations, governments, and terrorists sometimes used vials of preserved Tekk Plague to disable critical systems if they could find a way to bypass detection and shielding. But that was rare, given how essential the old technologies were to the continuation of humanity’s interstellar civilization. It was beyond unusual, absurd even, for pirates to use such a tactic. And against a commonplace merchant ship carrying foodstuffs and luxury goods… It just didn't make any sense.

"I’ve got the figure for you, Xam. Precisely twenty-seven point two hours."

"How long has it been since I finished my diagnostic before we departed Cassius B?"

"Twenty-seven point seven hours."

Xam stared at the wall in stunned silence. Just the thought of Tekk Plague in the ship chilled him to his core. That someone would use it as a weapon, much less to attack an ordinary government supply ship…

Raw anger began to well within him, so he took deep breaths to maintain his composure.

“Melody, what's the half-life of Tekk Plague?"

"All known preserved strands are viable for up to eighty-four minutes."

"List all critical ship systems onboard that aren't shielded or immune to Tekk Plague."

"The stardrive is the only critical system onboard the ship susceptible to Tekk Plague. All others survived initial exposure or have been adequately shielded.”

The stardrive itself couldn’t be directly shielded.

"Is the sensory deprivation chamber in my compartment functioning?” His immersive was brand-new and didn't possess antiviral shielding.

"I'm attempting to access the chamber in your crew compartment," Melody said. "Xam, your sensory deprivation chamber is nonfunctional."

The rage burned hotter, and his desire to contain it weakened. "I need a list of all crew members onboard the ship twenty-seven point four hours ago."

He needed to know who had disabled the virus scans — scans that would have alerted him to the presence of the virus before he had entered the stardrive’s protective chamber.

A stream of names scrolled through a window in his HUD. Four names caught his eye: First Officer Delancey, Lieutenant Carter, Ensign Zed, and Sergeant Brock. He dragged those names to the side and dismissed the rest.

Just before he had returned to the ship to run his habitual preflight diagnostic on the stardrive, Xam had eaten dinner with those four people.

One of them had somehow infected him with the Tekk Plague and used him to murder the stardrive. Without any evidence to the contrary, he had to assume that Captain Varga was in on the plot. Varga had deactivated monitoring in the cargo bay where a terminal was used to disable the virus scans.

Xam could think of few crimes worse than killing a stardrive. He slammed his fist into the wall as rage stormed through him like the Great Crimson Eye raging across the surface of Antek III. What he wanted to do right now was toss all four of them into an airlock, slowly pump out the air until one or more of them confessed, and then space the worthless traitors into the void.

Xam tamped down his anger as best as he could then beckoned to the starkat. Kritter bound up onto his shoulders and wrapped her tail down his left arm. She nudged his cheek with the cold bubble of her space helmet.

He tried to smile. "Come on, Kritter, let's get to the bottom of this."

Kritter bobbed her head and piped a sharp meow. She always agreed with him when he felt passionate about something.

“Don’t you want to help the crew, Xam?”

He glanced at the readouts showing the ship’s current condition. “There’s not much I can do for them now, Melody.”

"I'm studying those four people, their habits and their known activities. I'll let you know if I figure out anything."

"Thank you, Melody."

He exited the chamber and stepped out into the screams and chaos of Engineering. Acrid smoke from suppressed fires mixed with the sweet-scented fire retardant still misting from the ceiling. One crewmember was slumped on the floor beside her station, moaning as a medic tended her injuries. For the most part, Engineering was in decent shape, considering the way the battle was going.

At times like this, Xam struggled to understand his human kin. With the ship's primary information and communication systems functioning, with status updates projected in their HUDs and on their console screens, all their shouting and overly frantic activity only caused unnecessary chaos. Calm, measured forms of communication were available, and far more effective.

But maybe his response was partly due to his age. Most of his fellow crew members were under the age of thirty-five, and he had a lot more battle experience than they did.

Wiping blood from his brow, Lieutenant Cantu, second in command in Engineering, noticed Xam. The wiry man's shoulders sagged. "So that's it? No hope of jumping to safety in hyperspace?"

"I'm afraid not, friend Cantu. The stardrive is dead."

"I am damn sorry to hear that, Xam. Damn sorry."

Xam remembered that this was Cantu's first battle. "Do you have your side-arm with you?"

Cantu tapped a holster on his leg. "Always."

"Hide it somewhere close by. Keep it out of sight, and surrender peacefully, unless the pirates don't intend to take prisoners."

In slave markets on certain planets, the ship's crew could be worth almost as much as the cargo. And most of the crew would survive since the pirates wanted to capture the ship as intact as possible. Engers like himself were always spared since they were so valuable.

Of course, the most valuable thing here was the ship's stardrive, which could fetch several fortunes on the black market. But that was no longer an option for the pirates.

Xam started to walk away, but Cantu stopped him. "Hey, wait! Where are you going? We could use your help."

"I’m sorry, but there’s something I need to do."

"We were betrayed, weren't we?"

Kritter nodded along with Xam.

"The cargo on this ship isn't worth the destruction of a stardrive."

"No, it's not, friend Cantu," Xam seethed. "Nothing is."

Cantu flinched, having never seen Xam angry before. "Good luck, sir. And if you find the bastards responsible for this, make them pay."

Xam nodded. He certainly intended to do just that.

💬
Leave a comment below!