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Ready to jump back in to our latest saga? Then without further fanfare, here’s chapter 7 of our latest sci-fi tale. Remember, if you’re new to the tale, to start back with chapter 1, and you can read A Standard of Deviation and other tales like it in its entirety online.
A Standard of Deviation
But such wanton fantasies were to be quickly abandoned in favor of the present. I was wakened early by the sergeant at arms to flashes beyond the port bay window.
“Ma’am,” he called out as he shook me in a calm manner that hid the urgency of the situation. “You’re going to have to depart, immediately. The Scrappers have found the station.”
I glanced beyond the port and witnessed an apocalyptic panorama seldom seen by most humans. Line upon line of incoming Von Neumann machines where arrayed as far as the eye could see, stretching off like specks into the distance. Although they appeared to be hanging silent and unmoving, I could see the swiftness of the advance scouts in the front ranks as they tore apart the station’s defenders that rose to meet them. These drones represented the leading edge of an ultimate totalitarian state, far beyond any tin-pot dictator’s wildest dreams.
I briefly wondered about the race that had created them long ago. How fearful and paranoid they must have been to unleash something like this on the universe. Were they from this system? Did they exist any longer, or were they promptly devoured by their own creation? My curious mind was flooded with these and other questions that we would probably never know answers to. Already, I saw Scrapper “cleaners” patiently dissecting burned-out spacecraft and frozen corpses alike for eventual processing at some distant parent factory. Perhaps this is the natural final state of evolution in so many galaxies. Only the fittest make it out into the cosmos, only to later become so good at the art of reproduction as to spawn mindless killing machines… perhaps someday, your Von Neumann machines will meet mine. We’ll make a date of it, what do you say?
Of course, I knew immediately what I had to do. I had only done an emergency extraction with the Standard once before, from a distant supernovae research station around the recurrent nova T Pyxidis when it decided to blow its top way too early. I knew I would be one of the very first through the portal headed to an emergency roundup point that only a very few individuals knew in advance. The Standard was what allowed us to keep one step ahead of the Scrappers, and was far more valuable to preserve than any of our individual lives. This also meant that I wouldn’t be going through layers of security and hours of briefings prior to departure. I would simply be approaching the pickup point and utilizing a brief predetermined duress code used only in these situations to extract the Standard. Of course, any false application of the code or misstep on my part would be cause for instant destruction. Secretly, I’d prefer a swift disintegrated death to hours of mind-numbing briefings that would enlighten me to erroneous information about cultures I have studied up close for decades.
As I grabbed the Standard, I was escorted immediately to the first departing pod and slid through the awaiting gate, alone. Ordinarily, I never would have done such a trip solo and without a Minder, due to the attention it would draw. I also knew that I couldn’t expect an immediate drop off of the Standard on the other side, as not only were they not informed of my arrival beforehand, but they may well not even be in need of an update for many years to come. No problem, I’d had to babysit the Standard for brief periods before and it was no real biggie. I would just be another astro-academic gal carrying a brief case with several kilos of sealed lithium metal. We academics are expected to be a bit weird, after all…
I had never actually visited the particular system that I now found myself in. It was the closest I had ever been to the star system harboring Old Terra, a red dwarf known as Kapteyn’s Star. Red dwarf civilizations were rare, but where we did find them, what wondrous forms they took! The sentient species around Kapteyn’s Star was known as Burnham’s Wasps, a race of tentacled human-sized fireflies that lived in fairy-world spires sprinkled along the habitable zone of their homeworld. What a spectacle it was to watch the skyways aglow with them as we approached with the tempestuous star that fuels life on this world hanging eternally low on the horizon beyond. As was my typical custom, I opted to settle into a local dwelling semi-furnished to support human needs rather than stay insulated in any of the human-constructed bases.
I should have known.
I was just heading out to take some recordings of the local dialect when they captured me. Looking back, it all fit into place. No humans would have ever bothered to journey out to the high perch that I had found among the remote wasp-warrens to take samples… their approach should have alerted me. Honestly, I get so engrossed in my work at times that I don’t even notice such things; not even when I am carrying the Standard and the fate of mankind.
They were from the Vegan faction of the Magellanic Liberation Army. I knew of their plight and petty politics and how the teachings of their fearless leader Andrus Malenkov taught followers that the Standard was a gift from God, a revelation that ‘demonstrates’ Man’s primacy in the cosmos. Followers also believe that it’s human destiny to use the Standard to make a grand exodus to the Milky Way’s satellite galaxy in the Large Magellanic Cloud, thousands of light years distant. Hey, whatever puts wind in your sock and gets you through the day is fine with me. I’m not one to judge. Some alien species even worship trash and trinkets left over by Earth explorers, and “galactic cargo cults” are not unknown. But I also knew that while Malenkov and his cronies would love to get their hands on a portable Quantum Standard, I also soon realized from the fumbling way they captured me and then began to broadcast demands that they knew almost nothing about what to do with it.
To be continued…