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Has the Universe got you down? Reality is certainly crashing down hard around our main protagonist this week… remember through, we all have the means to shake the game up a bit, in our very own special way. If you’re new to the tale, be sure to start back on Chapter 1. Or hey, you can read A Standard of Deviation and other original tales of sci-fi by yours truly in their entirety as well.
Anyways, onward to Chapter 6:
A Standard of Deviation
David A. Dickinson
But that would mean that our monopoly on galactic trade would also be over.
I finally got a chance to sit down and read Lila’s message the night before departure from the system. I was back on the Lagrange point station which would serve as our departure area to the portal where I would pick up the Quantum Standard and head to the next system on the run. I had notes from our surface survey to organize, and I plugged in Lila’s transmission as the station slid into the shadow of the dead world.
“Hey, Kerr,” She began. I smiled a bit as I saw the familiar furnishings of our New Seattle apartment in the background, currently hundreds of light years away. I made a mental note to find ‘our star’ and snap an image it before turning in for the night.
“By now, you’re in full Professor Jovejoy mode, bravely going where no Librarian 3rd Class has gone before…”
I sensed a tremble in her voice, which was uncharacteristic of the ever-practical Lila. Usually, I was the emotional one. More often than not, I relied on Lila’s good sense to ground me in reality.
“I didn’t want to tell you this long distance, but it was the only way.”
A pause ensued. I resisted the urge to turn the player back off. Although I knew I didn’t want to hear whatever was coming next, I also knew that I couldn’t bear not hear it.
“I have brain cancer.”
It felt like something sharp and heavy had just landed between my eyes. Lila went on to tell me that it was inoperable, one of the few remaining types of cancers that was so in this day and age. She knew that I would insist she fight it, and she anticipated my reactions, which was the reason that she broke it to me this way. There was no way I could return early; the run had to be completed.
I resisted the urge to compile an immediate response, as I knew that I wasn’t in the greatest frame of mind.
I suddenly felt very alone for the first time on this run. Looking out the port as the empty husk of Bakleros slid silently by, I knew that the universe cared not for the fate of the Baklerians or Humboldt’s Leviathans. If they weren’t up to the task of combating fate, why should the tiny plight of Lila and me be any different? But I knew that just like the universe would never see the likes of the Baklerians again, that there would never be another Lila.
I departed the system as scheduled, going through the motions in a daze as I picked up the Standard along with my escort and went through the required protocols.
I wasn’t ready in any shape or form for the system we entered next.
You’ve probably heard of Von Neumann’s Species, or have seen the savagery that they inflict on unsuspecting systems replayed on countless holo-vids. Terra often evokes the threat of the Von Neumann’s as a prime reason that emerging species need to be part of the Confederation, and sometimes rightly so. A single-minded race of replicating drones, the Von Neumann’s were actually the first species that we made contact with way back when. Presumably, they were created by an ancient biological species that perhaps were paranoid about conquesting extraterrestrials like us paying them a visit. Or maybe they were simply a design that ‘escaped the lab’… In any event, researchers such as I have never really been allowed to analyze their culture (or lack thereof) very closely, as we have been at war with them almost since we’ve known of each other’s existence.
One of the great fears that humanity harbored upon discovery of the Von Neumanns was that perhaps biological life was an obsolete idea in the scheme of the cosmos, meant only to design the next step in evolution, which was machine intelligence. It was only technology such as the quantum gates that has historically kept the Von Neumanns contained in their local group of systems. We would trap and destroy their sub-light excursions, and in turn, they would find, overwhelm and destroy our secret portals in their system almost as quickly as we could install them. As long as we maintained a toe-hold in this system they could be contained, but probably never defeated, at least not until their energy resources finally gave out. I have never been to a Von Neumann-infested world, but the sergeant that met us at the gate informed us that a sightseeing excursion would not be advisable or even allowed during this particular stop, as a pitched system-wide battle was currently underway.
“But this portal is safe, correct?” I asked, worrying that I would never see Lila again, and that this exit might be my last.
“This portal is on the edge of the Scrapper’s Oort Cloud,” the sergeant continued, probably glad he wasn’t in the action himself and was, instead, shepherding frightened civilians like sheep. “They haven’t found it since it was erected just over a year ago. Of course, the average life-span for a portal in this system is only six Earth months…”
I took some solace in that statement as I dropped off the Standard and settled into my Spartan temporary quarters on the station. From here, the main star of the system shone like a cold, distant coin tossed into the velvet blackness. I turned down the cabin lights and scanned the sky for New Seattle with a visor-glass. There was no sign of the drama going on in this system, no flash of battle or explosion as the struggle between Von Neumann’s Species — or ‘the Scrappers’ as the Terran soldiers called them here — ebbed and flowed across the system. I knew that many felt the sacrifice of fighting the Von Neumanns was the price we paid for a Pax Galactica, an interstellar peace that the Confederacy exacted on all of the species under the umbrella of its protection. Did the Scrappers deserve to exist? Was this “Humanity’s Burden?” Did silicon inevitably replace carbon in a million other galaxies as soon as it was able to, or does an occasional species such as humanity manage to harness quantum tech and become the steward of its host galaxy? I could ponder these things as an academic until the Humboldt’s Leviathans came home, but part of me always loathed this game the universe played. If only there was a gate somewhere out there that could deposit Lila and me on a nice deserted planet on the Rim far from this mess, with lots of silver sunsets and blue sandy beaches…
To be continued…