Your Passport to the Future
First of a Series
by David Heller
The forty young graduates stood at attention in front of a deserted wooden reviewing stand.
Light wind played across two blue and gold flags planted on either side of a small wooden speaker's rostrum. The rostrum appeared lonely, standing naked in front of the reviewing stand, as if it were waiting for a speaker to fulfill its destiny.
Jake's legs were fatigued, and he shifted his weight imperceptibly from one foot to the other. "Where are they?" he thought. As if on cue, an aged, bent man wearing the blue and gold of an admiral, appeared from behind the stand and walked slowly to the rostrum. He stepped up and blew into the microphone. Two gigantic speakers mounted on poles at the top of the stand squealed and screeched. The admiral reached below the rostrum, then brought his hand up and tapped the microphone. "Testing. Testing, one two three. Testing." He paused to adjust the microphone. "Gentlemen," he wheezed, "can you all hear me?" His voice bounced and echoed off the deserted hangars at the far side of the field.
They were all stunned. His words rang in their ears. No one answered. "Well, very good, very good." He cleared his throat. "I'm glad that you made it." His words were slurred, as if he were on medication, or very old and tired.
The admiral continued, and a tremor of pride entered his voice as he praised their accomplishments and explained their mission. "You young people are our hope for the future. You are the best this society has to offer. You are making a great sacrifice. I praise you, I salute you, and in many ways, I envy you." His voice became loud and strong. "Your individual missions will vary. Some of you will resupply our settlements at the fringes of the galaxy. Some of you will engage in battle, and some of you will be the fathers of new and better worlds.
"All of you" -- he paused to clear his throat and lower his voice -- "every last one of you, will travel forward in time, never returning to this special place in the universe.
"We are all time travelers." His voice was calm, patient and filled with concern. "Most of us wander through time as I have done, in the company of our fellow beings. This afternoon you will leave us to awaken hundreds of years in the future . . . our future."
The little admiral walked toward the line of cadets. He paused for a moment to say something to the sergeant, then walked slowly up and down the ranks shaking each man's hand. He stopped in front of Jake and smiled. His eyes seemed alive and young. "Well, young man, I've heard a lot about you." Jake's heart beat faster. "How could he know about me?" he thought. They shook hands, and before Jake had a chance to speak the wizened admiral said, "God-speed, son," and moved down the line.
Jake lay in a foam-filled container, looking up into the faces of three hovering attendants. Their noses and mouths were covered by white surgical masks. An intense white light scorched his eyes. A strange numbness crept up his legs. His eyelids became heavy, then closed.
Millions of cilia-like fibers flowed over his body. Each pass lifted more of the gelled silicone casing from his skin. A blast of high-energy ion particles bathed him in blue-white light. The small enclosure sparkled with blue flashes of energy, smelling of ozone. Gradually, semi-darkness returned. A dull humming sound filled the room, and Jake rose slowly from the stainless steel slab like a dead man rising from his coffin.
His bare feet touched the cold metal deck. He flinched, just beginning to realize where he was. He stood, rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, nodded to clear his head, and surveyed the room. "Oh, no. Not a transport! "
Jake arrived at the Situation Room in a daze, assaulted by pulsing bright lights and the repetitive scream of a high-pitched claxon. He stepped from the cylindrical elevator hatch and entered.
A small illuminated button pulsed bright red in the center of the control console. He raced forward and slammed his hand against the panel; the lights stopped flashing and the claxon ceased its wail.
"It's about time." A pleasant baritone voice startled him. "I've been waiting for almost 30 minutes. You know, we've got an emergency on our hands. Sit down, Jake. We'll talk it over."
Jake collapsed into one of the two contoured chairs facing the console. "OK, what gives? What model are you anyhow?"
"I'm CLIDE," the voice answered. "That's short for Computer Linguistic Information and Data Embryo. The embryonic part means that I'm a bit underdeveloped. However, I have been programmed to learn. As I work with you, I'm sure to pick up all sorts of nifty data."
Jake was disgusted. "Are you telling me that you're a MOD-I?"
"Correct, Jake. A MOD-I it is. One of the best units ever developed by R&D."
"Listen, CLIDE," Jake said, "I don't want to hurt your feelings, if you were programmed to have any, but the MOD-I was outmoded before I was born." He shook his head in disgust. "Star Fleet discontinued their use more than two decades ago. How did I ever get stuck with you?"
"It could have been that time you caught Plasma-Ray instructor Squigglie sneaking onto the base with the Fem-Android, Nurse Elems." CLIDE suggested innocently.
"How did you know about that?"
"It's all in my data banks. I've got a complete dossier on you that goes back to your birth. It's always good to know who you're working with."
Jake tapped his fingers against the panel. "OK, what class vessel is this, and what's our situation?"
No problem, CLIDE began. "You and your assistant, 7EN4, who is currently being revived, are aboard Eggtube Transport 2DELTA76. Your mission was to have been the safe transport and off-loading of supplies on Nystrum IV. However, as you may have surmised, we seem to have encountered a little problem." CLIDE paused, as if afraid to continue.
"Well, my long-range scan has picked up something unusual in quadrant A23, now exactly 27 Earth minutes distant. The signals are taint, but it's beginning to look like Gammalon pirates."
"So, you're not sure yet." His face turned red. "If you weren't sure there was a threat, why did you wake me up? Why didn't you just take evasive action?"
"Jake, Jake, Jake." CLIDE sounded as if he were lecturing a truant schoolboy. "Article 710,99 specifically states that a human will be present in the Situation Room in the event of any potential danger. Jake, it's just the way I'm programmed. How can I help it? It's just the way l am."
"All right, just give me the armament list and status."
This was a command that CLIDE was well prepared for. He proudly listed the freighter's readiness status. "Two 2000 series photon rays forward, two 1000 series photon rays aft, and a MOD SLP/65 evasive electronic countermeasures set. In addition to these armaments, the Eggtube transport is capable of sublight hyperwarp. All equipment in green status."
"Is that all? I just pray that we're not really going to have to face Gammalons. CLIDE, this is my first mission. I don't want it to be my last."
* * *
Brazt was crunched into a tight ball, squeezed behind a jumble of steaming pipes and wires. His flesh moved, tightened, then convulsed. The contractions were more regular, sharper, excruciatingly painful.
His breathing became faster. His twin hearts pounded a syncopated rhythm, pushing green life-liquid in powerful surges through his contorted body. The final moult was always the most painful, the most dangerous. Brazt's thin body shuddered.
He was barely conscious. He fought to retain his senses. If Clazon found him defenseless, he was dead. And he was so close -- so close to total control and absolute power.
He hissed the name Clazon. Hate would keep him awake. The ugly, misshapen image of Clazon twisted and turned in his fevered brain. He looked contemptuously at Clazon's form from all angles. Gaunt, thin arms and legs covered by translucent blue-tinged flesh, a soft stomach, and cruel gray multicelled eyes. Then his mind's eye focused on Clazon's power. Three slim appendages at the end of his thin wrist. The smooth fingers were broad at their tips and, if Clazon's victim were lucky, white beams of vaporizing instant death spewed from their ends. If Clazon was in an ugly mood, and that was often, the poor underling would squirm and scream at Clazon's feet, engulfed in burning pain.
Brazt shuddered, remembering his experience under the beams. Soon, when Brazt's moult was finished -- if they didn't find him -- Clazon would feel the pain of his fingers. "They will cringe beneath the sting of my power." His thoughts were interrupted by a wailing alarm. "We've encountered an alien vessel. I'll be missed on the bridge." He willed the moulting to go faster.
* * *
"Don't worry." Jake spun around. "With me on board, we'll make it through unscathed." The voice sounded as confident, in a high, youthful, idealistic way, as his old Nursery Group teacher organizing games.
The girl stood straight, as if on parade, hair and uniform unblemished and unwrinkled. She was tall, almost as tall as he, and for some reason his heart sunk to his boots.
"Who, or rather what, are you?"
"Name's Lisa Rome." She walked up to Jake, formally saluted, and sat down stiffly next to him.
"Well, Lisa Rome, welcome aboard. I just hope you know your stuff. CLIDE's been telling me we're in for a little trouble." Jake kept it formal; he felt that this might be a tedious relationship. And, as if to prove him right, she replied smugly, "Don't worry, ensign, I know my stuff. I graduated head of my class."
"CLIDE." Jake purposely turned away from the girl. "Have you made positive contact yet?"
"No Jake, I should have positive I.D. within 10 minutes. Current data reinforces my initial report. Gammalon pirates."
"OK, CLIDE, just let me know the minute you have the situation firmed up." Jake turned to Lisa, briefed her, then inquired, "You said you graduated head of your class. What's your specialty?"
"Nice of you to ask, ensign."
"This is going to be a long voyage . . . I hope. Try Jake, OK?"
"Sure, Jake, anything you say. . . up to a point. Electronic warfare and countermeasures is my strong suit, but I studied gunnery as well as medicine, with some omni-biology courses.
"I hope we won't need your medical skills in the near future. But, if these are Gammalons, I'll be counting on your E.W. expertise. I understand their electronics are fairly sophisticated."
"You understand correctly," she said. "Their radar, if you can really call it that, operates in the violet spectrum of the light band. They'll use deceptive jamming as well as pulse-node frequency-agility tactics. Very difficult to counter. What type of equipment is this scow fitted with?" "CLIDE tells me our great ship has a MOD SLP/65 set onboard. What's your assessment?"
"It's not going to be easy. But it's not impossible." She shrugged her shoulders. "I'll do my best."
"Right. You'd better get acquainted with the equipment while I check system readiness, then I'll try to take a look at our adversaries on long-range scan."
* * *
"Ahggh . . . the pain." It spread from Brazt's hooved toes, up his calves, and sliced into his midsection like an upward-thrusting dagger. He doubled over. His skin turned a darker blue as air whooshed out of his collapsing lung. "Got to hold on," he gasped. He felt thousands of needles puncturing his stretched skin. He heard a tearing sound as the raw skin at the front of his head split open. The dry outer skin layer fell back in a straight line that raced up the front of his legs. He held back a scream as the two openings met at his groin and continued racing, as one large fissure, up his stomach and the center of his chest. His body jerked involuntarily straight.
He felt as if he were being flayed alive. The pain reached his hands. They began to shake. Smoke poured from his fingertips as the outer layer of skin began to dissolve. He looked in amazement as his fingers began to change in shape from thinly pointed appendages to fat, mushroom-tipped weapons.
Clazon's voice screamed at him from a wall-mounted loudspeaker. "Brazt!" Clazon spat out his name, making it sound foul and repugnant. "Brazt. You will pay! We have found a fat, juicy Earth ship. You will live to watch our carnage. Then, Brazt, we will make a carnage of you! Desertion in the face of the enemy. I'm going to enjoy watching you suffer!"
* * *
Jake punched a series of numbers into the command console, and the view-screen listed the battle hardware. A green light pulsed next to each red line of text, indicating all systems, GO and in full battle readiness. He punched another button, and the screen showed a long-range view of their sector and blurred view of quadrant A23 at the top of the screen.
"CLIDE. Let's see a readout of distance to target displayed on the right-hand corner of the screen."
Tension mounted as they approached the encounter, affecting even CLIDE's long-winded programming. CLIDE went into action without answering, and a string of numbers flowed across the screen.
"Well done, CLIDE. Now, I'd like you to put up our shields, start with low energy, and if we make positive contact, pull them up to full strength."
"Sorry, Jake, but this craft is not equipped with shields."
"Oh, brother. Did you hear that Lisa? No shields! We won't stand a chance."
She thought for a moment. "Maybe we can outrun them."
"Right." Jake turned his attention to the computer, impressed but irritated.
"CLIDE, do you have positive contact yet? We're running out of time. We'll be reaching point of no return in less than a minute."
"Sorry, sir." The computer's use of "sir" worried Jake. "But," CLIDE continued, "even though all the indicators point to Gammalon pirates, I won't have positive I.D. for another five minutes."
"By then it will be too late!" Jake exploded. "If they are Gammalons, we'll be forced to fight."
"Sorry, sir." CLIDE replied.
* * *
Brazt felt a shudder flow through the Dreadnaught as the battledrive engaged. The pain eased, and he sat up and looked down at himself. Dead skin flaked away from his body as he rose, exposing a smooth, radiant, translucent blue-sheened covering. He flexed his cup-tipped fingers, and latent energy snapped and buzzed, tugging to be released.
Brazt held his right arm forward, and pointed his fingers toward the double-thick hatch. He willed the energy to leap, and three beams of solar intense light shot from his fingertips slicing through the thick metal like a hot knife through butter. Smoke hissed from three perfectly round holes in the hatch's center.
Brazt leaned back and savored his power. "Soon, this armada will be mine, and Clazon will entertain me! Entertain his Lord in a method befitting my rank and status. Today ends his reign of insolence. Today marks the ascent of Brazton, the first Lord of Gammala!"
* * *
Lisa and Jake stared at the upper portion of the viewscreen waiting for the blur to change into a recognizable shape. Jake nervously tapped a pencil on the instrument panel. Lisa waited in readiness, her fingers poised before the knobs and switched off the E.W. console.
CLIDE excitedly broke the silence. "Positive I.D., Gammalons! Three of them. Two Regnaught Fighters, and one Dreadnaught. Relative bearing 247 degrees, range 500 kilometers and closing. Intercept at point ALPHA97 at 2145 hours."
"Show it, CLIDE! Put it up on the screen!" Jake was frantic.
The screen blinked, then showed a representation of three Gammalon vessels. Superimposed red lines moved slowly toward a point in the center to indicate calculated point of contact.
Suddenly, the Gammalon vessels vanished, and the three red lines swept aimlessly across the empty screen.
Lisa's fingers scurried across her instrument panel. "Deceptive jamming, Jake. I'm going to counter."
Jake gulped. To regain control of the situation, and himself, he said, "CLIDE, based on your last fix, when can we expect contact?"
"Still looks like 2145, sir. That will be in precisely 5.72 minutes."
"Did you hear that, Lisa? If we can't see them, we can't fight them. We'll be sitting ducks!"
She didn't answer. Her entire being was focused on the small screen and the buttons of her E.W. console.