Among the many cool things on the Fantasy-Faction forums is a monthly writing contest, where the moderator provides a writing prompt (which can be anything from Space Opera to the color Blue) and people submit short flash pieces (ranging from 500 to 1500 words) matching the theme. I’ve found it fun to try to come up with story experiments based on these prompts, and I plan to start re-posting these on my blog after each contest concludes.
I actually referenced snippets of the story below for my earlier blog post, On the Use of Dialogue Tags In Fiction, and with the contest now concluded (congrats, JMack!) I thought it would be fun to post the story in full. I’ll likely continue to post these writing experiments on my blog as the contests wrap up, as well as a brief explanation of where each story came from.
With “Hitting the Arch”, the prompt was “Space Opera” and that, of course, got me thinking about my favorite recent space opera, the Mass Effect series. That, naturally, got me thinking about the words in the title – mass and effect, which refers to the fact that the ships in that series use ‘Mass Effect’ drives to travel between star systems. While what a mass effect drive actually DOES is never fully explained (beyond handwavium), it did start me thinking about a drive (or engine) that literally ran on mass. Sort of like “Mr. Fusion” from Back to the Future, where you can insert anything and burn it for fuel.
Once I had the idea of a spaceship reactor that could burn anything, I then focused on the other common aspect of space operas (spaceship combat!) and wondered what would happen if a ship burned all of its mass (fuel) but still needed to get somewhere, urgently – a matter of life or death. That idea was the kernel of this story. Enjoy!
Hitting the Arch (Space Opera, first posted on the Fantasy-Faction forums) – 1,050 words
When the enemy bombardment finally stopped, it left Captain Diego Harker’s scout ship drifting in the void. He ran his hands through his black hair and waited. They had evaded the enemy fleet. Now, they had to warn their own.
“Give me our energy reserves.” Together, their shields and engines had burned unprecedented mass. His ears still rang from the impacts, but they were alive.
“We’re empty, cap,” Carter said. Diego’s XO was all bare skull, bent frame and hard eyes. “It’s all burned.”
Without the shielding from their universal reactor, any further impact would turn their ship to scrap. That had been a big enemy fleet. “Suggestions?”
Laster spoke first. “We can burn anything for fuel, right? Let’s burn our rations.” He was nineteen, fresh out of gunnery school. He shaved his head to look like Carter and that pissed Carter off.
“That much mass would get us two burns.” Carter steepled his meaty fingers. “Three, if we’re lucky.”
“Not enough.” Woo rubbed at his eyes. The math to elude the enemy fleet had almost finished him. “To hit the archway we need at least thirty, and what would we eat?”
“Each other,” Laster quipped. No one laughed.
“What about our bulkheads?” Woo asked. “Can’t we pull off some scrap?”
“You pull anything off the inside of this ship, you’ll kill us all!” Mainard was a good engineer, but he had a temper. “We’re built lean. Nothing here can burn.”
“If we don’t close the archway,” Diego reminded them, “the Imps will bombard Ariadne and God knows who else. Woo, how’s our path on the arch?”
“What path? We can’t path without mass.” Sweat glistened on Woo’s forehead. “With the frequency this particular archway jumps around, we’ll never hit it.”
“So we guess,” Carter said. “Burn once a day, split the difference between the archway’s position today and tomorrow.”
“That’s a sixteen percent chance!” Woo snapped.
“Do it,” Diego ordered anyway.
It didn’t work. The archway skipped five times in twenty hours. Diego and Carter split a ration inside Diego’s tiny cabin.
“We need more mass.” Carter chewed. They both knew what that meant.
Diego saw no other options. “I’ll tell the crew.”
“They’ll mutiny, cap.”
“They won’t. We owe them the truth.”
“At the cost of Ariadne?”
“I’m not feeding anyone to this ship without explaining why. I’ll lead by example.”
“Don’t be an idiot. You go last if you go at all.”
“I’m not killing my crew in their sleep!”
“They’ll understand when it’s over.”
“We’ll draw straws.” They broke the news on the bridge when they rationed out that day’s water.
Woo had already figured it out. Mainard looked like he was going to blow chunks, but he didn’t. Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing.
“But, a human … a body, I mean. How many burns do we even get?”
“Eight to ten,” Woo said.
“You said we needed thirty.”
“Learn to multiply.”
“Enough.” Diego held out the straws. They were actually strips of Crack-Seal. “If the Imps were gunning for your families, would you give your lives to stop them?”
Woo nodded. Laster did too. Mainard didn’t. “There has to be another way.”
“Name it.” Diego waited a bit.
Carter drew the short straw. If mutiny was on the crew’s mind, Diego trusted no one else to watch him while he slept. They all went to the reactor room together.
“I’ve got a daughter,” Carter said before he stepped inside. “On Ariadne’s moon.”
Diego’s throat went dry. “You never said one word.”
“Didn’t matter then. Her info’s in my file. Tell her I died saving the universe.”
Laster sketched a salute. Mainard and Woo did too. Diego just squeezed Carter’s shoulder. “She’ll know.”
Carter’s body bought them nine burns. Diego didn’t sleep that night. No one tried to kill him.
Now two days from the archway, Diego conferred with Woo. They had hit forty-two percent. The archway moved that night and Mainard drew the short straw. There was a scuffle.
“You can’t do this!” Mainard shrieked. It took Laster and Woo to muscle him to the reactor room. “It’s murder!”
“I’m sorry.” Diego snapped his holster open and made his face a mask.
“My wife’s on Ariadne! Our son!”
Diego opened the reactor door. “They’ll know.”
Woo lost his grip and Mainard got an elbow free. He almost took Laster’s head off before Diego shot him in the face. Mainard’s body bought them nine burns.
With one day left, they got lucky – seventy-four percent on the archway. Laster pushed away the straws.
“You don’t need me.” He was too calm for nineteen, too ready to die. “You need command and navigation.”
Diego shoved them at him. “Draw a straw.”
“I’m married too, sir. The Imps will bomb her back to the dark ages.”
“Captain.” Woo grabbed his hand. “We’re close, the math is simple. You do the burns. I’ll draw for you.”
Laster moved. Diego blocked him. “I said draw.”
“Put in it my report.” Laster held Diego’s eyes.
Laster bought them nine burns, close enough to warn the archway ahead of the enemy fleet. Diego sent his report with a Commendation of Valor for all his crew, even Mainard. Then he sent a message to Carter’s daughter.
As drones towed them in he and Woo sat on the empty bridge. The garrison captain guarding the archway had known Imps were in the system, but no one had known just how enormous the enemy fleet actually was. Retreating through the archway and collapsing it was their only option. That would keep Ariadne safe for decades.
“Captain,” Woo said then. “You’re from Helio Two.”
“Two sons. My wife is dead.”
“If this archway leaves the network, it’ll take two-hundred years to get back there at sublight.”
Woo sat back and interlaced his fingers behind his head. “I’m never getting married. Too much to lose.”
“They’re worth it. They’re the reason I can do this.”
“Then I’m having five.” Woo forced a false smile. “If two got you through this, I’m hedging my bets.”
A rescue ship soon docked. They boarded. Together, they went through the archway one last time.
Diego never saw his sons again, but they knew.