Chapter 10

Through the Ring

 

As Tesla Prime raced toward the Ring, a weary restlessness gripped the crew.  In their own way, each grappled with this new reality, this realization that everything was missing.  Exhausted, they needed rest.  But sleep was a luxury that Thomas could not afford.  Above all, the crew depended on him, his wisdom, and his strength.  Now, more than ever, the confidence he had in himself was shaken.

What the hell did I do, thought Thomas as he stumbled down the hallway of Tesla Prime, still in a daze.  The walls shifted and Thomas fell against the bulkhead near a window.

Just a moment to clear my head.  Was it … a dream?  Thomas reached up and scratched his lip trying to peel back the memories of the encounter.  The purple goo on Thomas’s lip had dried and crumbled.  He scratched off several flakes, which drifted to the floor.

“Apparently not a dream,” he said.

Although there was no night and day aboard Tesla prime, the crew still followed a 24-hour clock.

“CLARA, what time is it?”

The air inside Tesla Prime was still.  The hum of the ACE engines reverberated through the ship.  Thomas stared out the window into space.  What once had been such a beautiful sight now seemed an eternal prison, a personal hell, a void.  There was no joy in this.  No light in this darkness.

“04:20, Commander.  Would you like the crew status?”

“No.”  Thomas felt like his head was being squeezed through a child’s play dough press.  He pushed off the wall and staggered forward.  Thomas touched his forehead and reached out for balance.  Daxman’s right, thought Thomas.  What hope do we really have?  This crew is the last remnants of humanity.  And once the food runs out, then what?  Back to Saturn to live out the rest of our days?

“Hello, Commander.”

Thomas glanced up.  Julie stood in front of him smiling.  Her joy transformed into concern as she stared at the Commander’s pale face.  “Commander, are you okay?  You look horrible.”

Thomas lifted himself and straightened his back.  “Everything is fine, Julie.”  Thomas forced a smile.  “How are the translations coming?”

“Good.  Dax is helping with parts.  I hope you don’t mind.”

“No, that’s good.  It’ll give him something to do.”  Thomas swayed from side to side and put his hand on his head.

“Commander?  Are you sure everything is alright?”

Thomas grimaced.  “Just going through a rough patch.”  He patted Julie on the shoulder and stepped around her.  “I’ll be fine.”

Thomas continued down the hall.  Julie watched in concern until he was out of sight.

He leaned against the wall for a moment to catch his breath.  From his pocket, he pulled out a small hand towel, and wiped the sweat from his forehead and resumed his journey.

Each step was a test of balance and persistence.  One foot followed the other as Thomas made his way across the ship.  The spacecraft chassis enveloped him, holding in the filtered life-sustaining atmosphere, but this wasn’t home.  Another foot followed the last.

This is where we’ve lived for the last twenty-seven years but this isn’t home. 

He took another step.

Home is where your loved ones are.  Home is where you’re loved.  The only place you can call home is that place where you are loved. 

There it was, his moment of clarity.  We must go home.  We must go through the Ring.  There are no other options.

Jack’s voice rang out from the CommSys, from the speakers embedded high in the recesses of Tesla Prime’s halls.  “Hey boss, I’m in the cargo bay if you want to see it.”

“Okay, I’ll be right there.”

Fighting back nausea, Thomas staggered forward.

* * *

Thomas stepped cautiously into the cargo hold and surveyed the room. Near the loading dock, two-meter cube boxes were stacked and secured to the walls.  He remembered the final days on the surface, loading those containers with exotic soil samples from the polar regions of Proteus.  Thomas continued his search.

“Jack?  You in here?”  His voice echoed through the large room.  There was no response.  Something’s wrong, out of place, he thought.  The core samples from the Spelix cave expedition, they should be here, he thought.  I’m sure of it. Thomas then noticed something even more surprising.  The twenty-foot lattice boom of the loading crane, that he had personally operated, was also missing.

“What’s going on?  CLARA, where’s Jack?”

“Mr. Crayton is in the Cargo Hold.”

Thomas glanced around again but there were no empty places to hide.  The boxes were flush to the wall, no spaces between them.

“Hey boss,” came Jack’s voice from the corner of the room.

Thomas gazed in the direction of the voice.  Nothing.  “Jack, where are you?  What’s going on?”

“Here,” replied Jack.

The Commander stepped toward the corner from where Jack’s voice came.  “Jack, where are you hiding?”

“Take a gander over at the outrigger and winding drum,” said Jack still invisible.

Thomas turned and searched where he knew the loading crane should have been.  Nothing.  Then after a moment of waiting, he saw it, the slightest shift.  The back wall began to shimmer as though the air between him and the wall were on fire.  Suddenly the crane flickered then popped into existence as if it had always been there.

“How in the…?”

“Half a sec boss.”

Boxes began to shimmer then appear, filling the empty spaces around the room.  With a final command, Jack himself materialized.  He tapped Thomas on the shoulder and Thomas spun around in shock.

“I see you’ve got the lightbender technology working,” said Thomas.

“This old dog’s still got some tricks up his sleeve.”

“As it would seem.”  Thomas smiled at his embattled engineer.  “So, tell me, how does it work?”

“Well, see this thing over here?”  Jack sauntered across the room to a machine the size of a large coffee table.  Golden orbs covered the top of the machine.  Clear tubes connected the orbs in a daisy chain pattern. Lights flashed along its sides.  “This here’s the EMR redirection device.  The idea’s simple.  It takes light, or Electromagnetic Radiation, and moves it around stuff.  So when you look at somethin’, you’re really seein’ the light from the somethin’ that’s behind it.”

“So when I was looking at you, I was really seeing the redirected light from behind you?”

“That’s about right.  It sends out EM bubbles around selected objects.  I just need to plug in the right coordinates and poof.  Like she just ain’t there.”

“This is good, Jack.  We are going to need all the help we can get.  So let’s test it out on the ship.”

“Eh, reckon that dog won’t hunt.” Jack shifted tensely.  He expected that Thomas might be expecting more.  “It’s not strong enough to cover the whole ship.”

“We have plenty of power in the ACE engines.  Why not use those?”

“Oh fer sure.  No doubt the ACEs could do it.  Problem is throughput to this here device.  It’ll cover us some.”

“Some?  That’s not good enough, Jack.  It’s all or nothing.  If these Regulans see us, even some of us, we’ve lost.”

“I ain’t a miracle worker boss.  The pipe’s only so big,” said Jack.

“Patch it through to CLARA.  We’ll make the best of it.”

“Right.”  Jack stared at Thomas for a moment and then turned.  He connected the lightbender to CLARA’s mainline.

“Jack, one more thing.  If we do get into a fight, do we have anything we could use as a weapon?”

“Hmm, weapons, you say.  Let me think a minute.”  Jack glanced around the room.  He focused on a workbench near the corner and ran through his mental list of equipment supplies aboard Tesla Prime.  Hydraulics, an old RTG, some tubing, sheets of metal, propane, cabling.  “I could build ya one hell of a nasty flame thrower,” said Jack.

“No, I mean for the ship.  If we come in contact with one of those Regulan ships, we will need something to at least hold them at bay.”

“Oh,” Jack scowled and pulled his gray hair back with his hand. “I don’t reckon we have anything like that.”

“What about that laser, the one we used for mining on Proteus?”

“Hmm,” Jack thought for a moment. “Might work.  But it ain’t more than a water gun against a space ship.”

“We need something Jack.  Anything you can pull together.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“We need more than ‘seeing what you can do’ Jack!  Our lives might depend on it!” growled Thomas.

“I said I’ll try!”  Jack glared at Thomas.  “I can only do so much by myself.”  Jack turned and marched toward the workbench in the corner.

Thomas glanced around the cargo bay as Tesla Prime continued toward the Regulan Ring.  This isn’t going to workA rock cutter?  A half-cloaked ship?  A bunch of scientists and engineers?  We will never be ready for this.  Thomas knew it and so did Jack.  He just wondered if anyone else did.

Thomas left the room.

Jack stood in front of the workbench and stared at the data pad.  The screen showed the results of his last test on the lightbender and Tesla Prime.  The result blinked ominously – FAILED.

Jack hurled the data pad across the room.  It exploded against the wall, scattering bits of plastic and circuitry in all directions.  Jack slammed his fist on the workbench and then grabbed the sides.  He lifted the table slightly and slammed it back down against the metal ground of the cargo bay.  Tools scattered and clanked to the floor.  “Dammit, Samuel.  If only you were here,” said Jack.  His lip trembled as a tear broke free from the bounds of surface tension and fell from his nose onto the metallic table. Placing both hands palm down on the table, Jack stared at his blurred reflection.

# # #

November 7, 1990 – New Orleans, Louisiana

Five boys stood at the end of a narrow alleyway.  Trashcans waited outside closed doors.  The ground was wet.  The air was dank with a musty stench.  A young Jack stood in front of his older brother, Samuel who had been knocked to the ground unconscious.  Samuel’s lip was swollen and bloodied.  Jack stepped between Samuel and the three boys that were looking for trouble.

“Leave’m alone!” growled Jack as he raised his fist in the air.

The boys laughed together.  The leader, a taller boy with a hint of hair on his upper lip, spoke, “Whatcha gonna do?  Cast a spell on us?”

One of the other boys giggled, making hand-waving motions.  “Yeah, Jonathan.  Like his mommy, the voodoo gypsy.”  All of the boys laughed together.

“No, no” said the other boy. “His mummy mommy!” The boys burst out laughing.

Jack’s eyes flared with anger.  “I reckon I jis’ might,” snarled Jack.

The biggest boy stopped laughing.  Jack lunged for him knocking him to the ground.  The other boys were wide-eyed and stunned.  Jack rained down punches with his tiny fists as marks of red appeared on Jonathan’s face.  The smaller boys pulled Jack off Jonathan and threw him to the ground.  Jonathan stood slowly and wiped his bloody lip on his sleeve.  Jack picked himself off the ground.  He regained his footing in defiance and raised his bloody fist into the air.

“Okay, let’s put this dog down,” ordered Jonathan.

The three boys ran at Jack and knocked him to the ground.  As Jack lay helpless on the cold stone, punch followed punch, kick followed ruthless kick.

Jonathan smiled like a vampire on a blood binge as he swung his foot through the air.  The crushing impact of his steel-toed boot, shattered one of Jack’s ribs.  Jonathan reloaded.  His comrades continued their onslaught.  Swinging legs found their marks in Jack’s back and sides.  Jonathan prepared for another strike.  He pulled his leg back and swung again with anger and fury.  The steel-toed blow struck the side of Jack’s head and split open his skin.  Jack fell into blackness but the blows continued relentlessly.  Kick followed kick.  Punch followed punch.

Samuel stirred.  “Stop, please.  Don’t hurt him.”  Jack lay lifeless on the cold floor of the alleyway.

Jonathan held back each of his henchmen. “This dog’s had enough.  Let’s get out of this place.”

Jonathan and the other two boys ran out of the alley and disappeared into the night.

Samuel crawled over to Jack and cradled Jack’s head in his arms.  Blood flowed from the side of Jack’s head.

“I’ll get help little brother.”  Samuel tried to scream but his voice was weak. “Help,” he whispered. Jack was hurt and needed to be taken to the hospital but Samuel’s voice was too faint.  He didn’t have the strength to stand.  “Please someone help my brother.  Anyone!” screamed Samuel faintly.  Samuel started crying.  “Please, someone, anyone, help my brother!”

After several hours, two tourists found the boys.  The women called 911 and the brothers were taken to the Children’s Hospital on Henry Clay.

Over the next several weeks, Jack recovered from his numerous broken bones and injuries.  During that time, Samuel never left his side.

* * *

Present Day – October 13, 2068

Outside Thomas’s Quarters

Thomas strode out into the hallway and the door to his quarters slid closed behind him.  As he marched down the hall, he thought anxiously for the right words.

“Sophia,” he mumbled to himself, “it’s important, no, it’s imperative that the crew maintains good, no, what’s the word, effective, yes, effective communication.”

He stepped into the GravLift, dropped down one floor and continued his rehearsal.  “As Commander, I set the precedent through my actions.  We are both adults.  We both experienced something that was alien in nature, out of our control, and certainly we can have a mature conversation about it.”

Thomas stepped off the GravLift and paced down the hall toward Sophia’s room.

“After much thought,” he continued, still rehearsing quietly to himself. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it was no one’s fault.  We must put this incident…  No.  We must be objective and put this incident behind us.  It’s the right thing to do.  I’ve made my decision.”

Standing in front of the door to Sophia’s room, he clenched his fists and held his arms against his sides.  He closed his eyes.  The door to Sophia’s quarters slid open.  Looking at the ground as she walked, Sophia recoiled in surprise and glanced up.

“Oh, excuse me,” she said.

Thomas gazed into Sophia’s blue-green eyes.  His heart pounded.

“Oh, sorry.  I didn’t mean…”  He stumbled for the right words to say and stalled with a timid apology.  “No, it was… um… my,” said Thomas uneasily. “I’m the one to blame.”

For a moment, time stopped.  He gazed at her.  He noticed the way her bangs partially veiled her eyes.  Thomas watched the way her tongue moistened her lips, the gentle lean in her shoulders.

Sophia looked away. “I was just on my way to the Hydroponics Lab.”

“Oh, of course,” he said returning from the moment.

“So if you’ll excuse me, Commander.”  Sophia sidestepped him and dashed down the hall.

“Sophie, wait,” called Thomas as he jogged down the hallway after her.

She stopped.  Thomas caught up to her and put his hand on Sophia’s shoulder and she turned around, but she didn’t look at him.  She was afraid he would see.

“Do you want to talk?” he asked.

“About what?”

“About the other night.”

Not really, she thought.  What could we possibly say that would make it all go away.  Whether we wanted it or not, it happened.

“Okay,” said Sophia reluctantly. “What would you like to talk about?”

Thomas shook his head. “We both know.”

I know, thought Sophia, but what would you say, Tom, if I told you that I did not regret what happened. 

Sophia nodded. She looked up and met Thomas’s stare.  “It happened.  It’s done.  It meant nothing,” she said.

But what would you say, she thought, if I told you it was the best night of my life.  Would you love me?  Would you pull away?  Somewhere deep inside her she always felt alone and somewhere deeper was the feeling that she deserved it.

Thomas stared at her stunned.  “Of course.”  He cleared his throat.  “I agree.”  He wiped the side of his nose.  “We need to maintain protocol.”

Sophia nodded in agreement.

“Is that all, Commander?”  Sophia prayed that he would say no.  She wanted some sign of his true feelings.

“Yes, that’s all.”  Thomas shifted uncomfortably.  “I just want to make sure we are on the same page.”

“Same page, same sentence, same word,” said Sophia matter-of-factly.

He pressed his lips together and nodded.  “Good.”

“Is that all Commander?” asked Sophia uncomfortably.

“That will be all Dr. Belanov.”

“I’ll be in the Hydroponics Lab if you need me.”

“Okay,” he said.

Sophia turned and strolled down the hall. She stopped and glanced over her shoulder at Thomas who was glued to the spot.

“Oh, and thanks,” said Sophia as she glanced around the corridor and then back to Thomas. “I reviewed the surveillance tape of the Hydroponics Lab.  Thank you for taking care of me.”

“Thank Winnie,” said Thomas.  “She was the hero.  I was the clumsy oaf who didn’t know what to do.”

“You cared.”  Sophia revealed the slightest of smiles, a tiny sparkle in her eyes.  “Thank you.”

As she turned and walked around the corner, she whispered the faintest words.  “I khochetsya I koletsya.”  Sophia disappeared from view.

Thomas heard Sophia’s comment but had no idea what it meant.  He didn’t understand and time was running out.  He shook off his curiosity.

“CLARA,” summoned Thomas.

“Yes, Commander.”

“How long until we get to the Ring?”

“Thirty-nine minutes 42 seconds, Commander.”

“This is it.  Okay, patch me through to the crew.”

“Ready Commander,” responded CLARA.

“Everyone report to the Command Deck.  We’re almost there.”

Thomas jogged down the hall to the nearest GravLift.

* * *

Command Deck

Through the forward window, the Regulan Ring moved into view.  Larger than the Earth, it was an object of impossible dreams, of a grand and horrific scope.  A double helix ring formed a metallic circle.  The sun illuminated the leading edge.  The ring beckoned as two orbs spun around the center like sharks circling their prey.  At the Ring’s center, a blue eye stared at the sun.  The darkness in the middle of the eye marked a portal into the unknown.

“Oh my,” said Julie in disbelief.

Thomas turned away from the Ring and glanced around the room at his crew.  He could see the fear and tension in their faces.  He felt it too.  Daxman shook his head and turned away from the window.  He sauntered to the far end of the room and sat down in a chair in front of the life support workstation.

“Maker help us,” said Isaac.

“Okay, listen,” said Thomas.  The crew’s attentions were transfixed on the daunting portal.  “Excuse me.  Can I have everyone’s attention?”

Julie turned to listen.  Daxman stared out the window.  Stawford positioned Tesla Prime in front of the ring and watched a speech-to-text screen out of the corner of his eye.

Thomas paced to the front of the room and stood by the window.  “Can I have your attention, please,” said Thomas.  Everyone, except for Daxman, looked at him.  “I have something I need to say.”

Thomas wondered where to begin.

“I know this isn’t the mission that we signed up for and I know that some of you are scared.  We all had friends and family on Earth.”

He cleared his throat.

“I remember the last day I saw my father.  He died when I was five.  It was winter, February I think.  And a gunman had taken a group of teachers and students hostage at a local elementary school.  My dad was a police officer working in the area and when the call came in, he was one of the first responders.”

Thomas glanced around the room.

“My father followed procedure and called for backup.  When the gunman heard approaching sirens and helicopters, he started killing the hostages.  My dad didn’t have a choice.  He ran into the classroom.  According to witnesses, there was an exchange of shots.  My father was hit in the left leg, shattering his femur and severing his artery.  As my father sat on the ground dying, the gunman turned back to the hostages.  My father pulled himself up onto his right leg aimed at the gunman and fired.  By the time police got inside, my dad was in a coma.  He died on the way to the hospital.”

Thomas eyes began to fill with tears but he did not waiver and the intensity in his voice rose.

“There are moments in your life that define you, who you are as a person.  And this…”

Thomas paused and pointed to the center of the Ring that was slowly growing in size.

“This is our moment!” said Thomas with the fervent conviction in the mission at hand.  “This is our moment to make a difference.  I don’t know what’s on the other side.  But if there is anything we can do to save our loved ones, we must try.  We must try.  This is our only option and we will do what we can.”  Thomas studied the faces of his crew.  He saw a flicker of hope in their eyes.  It was going to have to be enough.  “Jack, I need you in the engine room.  The ride could get bumpy.”

Jack stood tall.  “Aye, boss.  On my way.”  Jack disappeared down the GravLift.

Sophia stared at Thomas with admiration and nodded.  Thomas returned the sentiment.

Julie’s eyes were riveted on her Commander.  Thomas nodded to her reassuringly.  He knew she would need to be brave for what was in store but he couldn’t help feel such an adoring connection to her, like the daughter he never had.

“Okay, Mr. Sinclair, we’re ready.  Let’s fly.”  Stawford glanced at the display and nodded in agreement.  “Everyone else, inertial dampers might become saturated.  Strap in and let’s go.”

“I’ll be strapped down in my quarters,” said Daxman.  As he descended, Daxman glanced back at Julie before he disappeared from view.

Tesla Prime inched forward.  Jack, Julie, Isaac, and Sophia sat down in the chairs around the table and pulled the harnesses over their shoulders.

The ring grew and the black holes circled.  Drifting closer, details in the Ring revealed themselves.  Joints.  Patterns.  Points along the Ring.

Arcs of electric blue lightning reached from the opening and enveloped the ship.  Tesla Prime shook violently.  Designed to handle the shear stresses of atmospheric entry and impacts from debris circling Tau Ceti, Tesla Prime was wholly unprepared for the force of not one but two black holes.  Stawford navigated forward slowly as if pushing his ship into the eye of a hurricane.

“Hold on.  This is it,” said Thomas as he gripped the arms of his chair.

The ring pulled Tesla Prime inward.  Stawford tried to slow the ship but Tesla Prime slid forward into the Ring’s abyss as if sliding on an icy slope.

“We are crossing both event horizons,” announced CLARA.  The cold light from the Ring’s energy filled the command deck.  As pockets of plasma popped frenetically outside, Sophia closed her eyes.  Tesla Prime moaned as if the torture of this hellish zone was exceeding her capacity for pain. Thomas scanned the room for fractures.  Blue lightning sparked and forked along the hull.  A deafening screech permeated the ship like space itself was crying out in pain.  Tesla Prime shuddered.  Stars stretched to infinity as a panel beneath the astrometrics terminal erupted in a shower of sparks.  Julie shrieked.  With a robotic arm from the ceiling, CLARA suppressed the flare with a misty blast of carbon-dioxide.  The metal from Tesla Prime continued to groan, compressed and ripped beneath a trillion-trillion tons of black hole mass desperately clawing at the ships limbs.

“Mr. Sinclair, try to stay in the center.”  shouted Thomas.  CLARA relayed the message.  Stawford nodded as he read it.

Isaac prayed and gazed toward heaven.  “Lord,” he said quietly to himself, “As I confront the moment of my imminent death, comfort me in my suffering, give me peace from my fears, and surround me with Your loving presence.”

The light inside the command deck grew brighter as the crew plunged into the darkness of the watchful and waiting eye.  Tesla Prime shook and moans of bending metal vibrated through the Command Deck.  Thomas squeezed the arms of his chair, the tips of his fingers turned white.  Stawford closed his eyes and began to hum.  Sparks of blue then silver and yellow engulfed the ship.  Julie shrieked.  Space itself opened.

The infinite images of light and pulses of sound danced and bent through the room.

Space seized them.

Time stopped.

As the crew roared down the wormhole through the ripped fabric of space-time, Julie froze in terror.  Thomas’s eyes locked forward with fiery determination.  Isaac gazed toward the heavens praying that the souls of the crew would find salvation.  Stawford rested serenely, waiting for the opportunity to begin.

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