by Craig C. Willms
The very idea of a planet inhabited by human beings thousands of light years beyond the most distant Orrian colony was not only preposterous it was simply impossible. Humanity spread outward from Orr; it couldn't just appear at random.
In the blink of an eye, every notion Orrians had of themselves and their place in the universe had changed. It was as shocking as it was fascinating. The weeks that followed the return of the survey pilot, young Deppopio, were the most exciting in all of history.
A pale blue planet the locals called Earth became the focus of the world. It overwhelmed Orrian society and soon threatened to forever alter an ancient and beloved culture. Many tried to explain it all away by declaring Earth a rouge Orrian colony separated from the homeworld by centuries of isolation. Theories such as these were quickly swept aside as all the evidence pointed to an entirely independent origin. The primitive, yet incredibly complex people of Earth proved to be an endless flow of discovery.
For the curious billions on Orr and her colonies, Earth was a treasure, there was something for every one. Everything about the Earth was equally tantalizing and frightening. The planet itself was like none they had ever seen. Mother Earth was the most biologically rich world ever mapped. What a prize Deppopio had brought home with him. There had been no event in Orrian history to compare it to.
Still, not everyone was so delighted. By using the same low frequency radio band transmissions that led Deppopio to Earth, billions of Orrians witnessed the wretched behavior of ‘the primitives’ in living color. The brutality and cruelty on daily display was enough to make even the most hardend Orrians utterly horrified.
As time passed, more Orrians became sickened by the drama that unfolded before them. Twentieth century Earth was bloodiest era in all of human history. It was clear that the citizens of the blue planet were not the lost brothers and sisters many had once imagined. There were those who sought to protect the Orrian culture from being contaminated by the primitives and their violent ways. They were able to persuade the High Council to put a stop to any attempt to make contact with the natives or their murderous governments. Despite continuous efforts by sympathizers of every stripe the ban on contact with Earth withstood each challenge. Nothing had happened to change that. Until now.
* * *
Every fledgling Galactic pilot dreamed of a mission like Deppopio21; Dakkalia was no exception. Did he ever really expect it would happen to him? Not likely. He understood one simple fact; the galaxy was extraordinarily vast and life exceedingly rare. Still, some of his close friends had made truely remarkable discoveries. Had these happened before Deppopio’s time they would have captivated the world for decades. But Dakk had not been so lucky the first three times out. The promise of glory had eluded him. Empty handed and thoroughly humbled he returned home for the last time. There would be no Dakkalia4.
Or so he thought.
He found himself persuaded to take one more shot at glory; he agreed to a fourth mission and nothing would ever be the same...
Nothing from his previous assignments could have prepared him for what he was about to behold. On the first day out he encountered something that rendered Deppopio’s discovery entirely trivial by comparison. He found himself caught in the crossfire of an ancient war being waged on an intergalactic battlefield with weapons beyond all imagination.
His first reaction was to run home - to sanity. Only a sense of duty compelled him to stay. When he realized his tiny jumpship had gone unnoticed within the interstellar apocalypse he decided to learn whatever he could. Tucking his little ship among the battlefield debris, he focused the ship’s entire sensor package toward the firefight.
When it was over there were but two ships intact. One was a battle hardened warship and the other a set of lightdrives with a sensor array strapped to it’s back. His only comfort was in the fact that they still didn’t know he was there. It meant he possessed the one thing that could save his life: the element of surprise. It was imperative it stay that way.
He watched intently as the warship moved from one debris field to another. At first, this behavior confused him; what were they looking for? Without provocation, the warship fired its forward weapons rendering its target into dust. Again, the next crippled ship came under another torrent of devastating blasts. Suddenly, like a slap across the face he realized he had been a fool. How could he have missed it? Life signs. They were looking for life signs.
Terror would not adequately describe the feeling that welled inside him, a word for it did not exist. He watched in perfect silence as the warship fired volley after volley into each of the crippled ships until they were reduced to nothing but flecks of dust. It was clear that the victor had no intention of taking on prisoners; the stranger from the planet Orr would be no exception. If he was going to live, he had to get out from behind this drifting death trap.
He searched his memory for a basic physics lesson learned a lifetime ago at the Academy. The theory held that a standard emitter array could provide a decent magnetic pulse. The pulse, when reflected off the hull of the damaged ship, would provide just enough push to clear the debris without forcing him to engage the ship's thrusters and drawing attention to himself. And yet, to get away cleanly he'd still need a diversion - something loud and brash was called for. He had just the thing…
He prepared a pair of standard mining charges to detonate against the hull of the crippled warship. It would make a fantastic explosion. The timing of events would be critical. He would need enough time to charge the lightdrives from a cold start. During that process he would be completely vulnerable. If by some miracle it all worked as planned the chances of tripping the light barrier before being ripped apart were slim at best. He set the acceleration path to break the plane of the local solar system to minimize the danger of colliding with one of a million pieces of battle debris. It was a standard maneuver that carried with it no assurance of safe passage.
When it was over and he found himself waiting in the unforgiving silence of intergalactic space with the incomprehensible scene playing over again in his mind eye… First, the tremendous flash as the mining charges fractured the hull of the burned out warship. Then, the eternity that passed as he waited for his lightdrives to heat up. There was the moment of sheer panic as the warship approached him. Finally, the premature sense of relief as he broke out of darkspace alive and in one piece. But even in victory he knew enough to watch his tail. He was ready when the warship blasted right down his own warp trail. This set into motion a series of events that led him in and out of the void forty times, and still he was no further away from his pursuer. In a sense, he was right back where he started - entirely alone and paralyzed with fear.
The time was now to make the ultimate decision. He cleared the console; the General Theory of Chaos was brushed aside. A new, untested theory would take its place. Untested because no one had ever been willing to "ride the rim" and risk teetering on the point of no return. He smiled nervously; straddling the event horizon of a black hole was theoretically possible and really, what did he have to lose? If it worked he would escape and be free at last from the grips of this horror. If it did not, then he would die. By doing nothing he was already dead. The choice was made. He laughed boldly; yes, he would be the first to "ride the rim". He would be the first to be perched precariously on the edge. Lean one way and disappear forever, lean the other and live another day. His only consolation was knowing that if he slipped he would take them with him. That was good enough. Either way it would finally be over.
He thought of home. He tried to imagine what would happen if he made it back. Were the Orrian people prepared for this? It was all so incredible. Yet, perhaps the most startling thing of all was that the barbarians chasing him across the galaxy were not strange and hideous life forms. They were not strange at all; they probably even had names to go with their human faces.