One in A Million is going on hiatus for a while. I have sort of run out of steam on Caleb’s adventures, so we will leave him and the other 7000 humans at Nexus Station for a while before embarking into the wider Spiral hegemony. Thanks everyone who followed along!
Nexus Station orbited a rogue brown dwarf in the depths of interstellar space. The brown dwarf careened through the galaxy at just over five percent of the speed of light. According to Max it was hurled out of its native binary system — it would have been trinary had the brown dwarf ignited — when the other two stars merged to become a black hole. It was stripped of its moons in the process but still possessed a cloud of ice, stone and organics. These were the material from which Nexus Station was made and the resources it drew upon for survival.
Caleb had thought the Hegemony ship was massive but Nexus Station dwarfed it. As they watched the approach to the station in the viewing cafe Caleb experienced a true “That’s no moon” moment. Nexus Station was even larger than the Lego block torus in the outer Earth system, but instead of each piece looking exactly the same Nexus Station was made up of millions of cubs, spheres, tori, hammers, ships, domes, rings and mobius strips. It had the look of something that had been cobbled together over long eons by many different beings, and in fact it was.
“Nexus Station is the headquarters of the exploratory arm of the Spiral hegemony,” said Max as their ship waited for docking instructions. “The station is over one million years old and houses approximately nineteen billion sentient beings, and not all members of the Hegemony. Many different species use Nexus Station as their homes or a trading post. Some have even evolved on the station itself, such as the ghilograbagi.” Max paused and then added, “Known colloquially as shaft rats. Unpleasant people, by and large.”
“How long are we going to be here?” Caleb asked. His eyes were locked on Faith and Maxine, who stood alone together halfway across the cafe. “When will we know our assignments?”
Max, apparently disappointed that its Nexus Station TED Talk was over, said, “Not long. No more than twenty full cycles for you. In the meantime your duties on this ship will continue but you will be provided opportunity for, as you would put it, shore leave.”
“Shore leave?” Caleb smiled despite himself.
Nexus Station, as it was roughly translated, was one hundred and fifty light years coreward of Earth. The Hegemony starship would reach it in a little less than a month. During that time, Caleb split his time between his maintenance duties, additional orientation classes accompanied by Max, and occasional awkward lunches and dinners with Faith.
Obligolkulat rearranged the schedule so that Caleb and Nel were no longer working the same shifts. “I don’t care if you trade fluids,” the heptapode said, “but if you guys get caught in the shafts one more time it’s going to be my hide. You humans are basically along for the ride, but I have an actual job.”
It did not matter much. After the telethreesome with Allie, Nel seemed less interested in Caleb. Or perhaps it was leaving the Earth system. Maybe she only engaged with him because it was new and different, but heading back to the heart of the Hegemony distracted her. He could not tell and was not especially bothered by it.
Max was an ever present irritant, however. The insectoid robot seemed to find him whenever he was between shifts or walking alone in the corridors of the ship. “It is important that you understand the nature of the Spiral Hegemony and your place in it,” he would say, and then go on and on about protocols and bureaucratic processes. The robot seemed genuinely concerned for Caleb upon their arrival at Nexus Station, but Caleb could not bring himself to care. After all, there was nothing in the wide universe he could do about what was to happen there.
Faith was another issue. As soon as they left the Earth system, she sought him out, sitting with him in the cafe but not saying a word. As time went on, she joined him more often, making small talk about the future or life on the ship. She never brought up their romantic relationship. Nor did he.
With only a few days remaining before the ship reached Nexus Station she asked in the middle of dinner, “Do you think we will end up on the same ship?”
Caleb looked up and saw her eyes were wide, wet and, he thought, scared. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
She took a halfhearted bite of whatever food equivalent they were serving the human crew members that day. When she had chewed and swallowed it, she asked, “Do you want us to?”
Caleb stared at her and something became hot and churned in his chest. “Yes,” he said without truly understanding why.
Before the ship left Earth’s system, Caleb and Nel spent a couple hours with Allie via Caleb’s display. As usual, after she climaxed inside Caleb, Nel left satisfied and aloof without anything that could be called post-coital bonding. Once she had slipped out, Caleb shifted on the couch to face Allie. She was working her way toward her usual extra orgasm.
“Thanks,” she said. “That was fun. Different, but fun.”
He sipped from a half full glass. “Yeah,” he said. “Connections won’t be as easy once we are a few light years away. I wanted to screw around one more time.”
Allie stopped playing with herself and stared through the display at him. She closed and crossed her legs and leaned forward on her couch.
Caleb froze like a rabbit under the shadow of a hawk, replaying what he had said in his head to discover where he had gone wrong. He was too slow.
Allie rolled her eyes, took a drink of her own, and threw herself back into her couch. “Whatever, Caleb,” she said. “I’m sure you won’t be at a loss for screwing on Alpha Centauri or wherever.”
“I just meant–”
“Don’t,” she warned. “I know what you meant, but fucking Christ, Caleb, could you at least pretend to have feelings every once in a while?” A tear escaped her eye and she nearly clawed it from her cheek.
Caleb’s chest hurt from the beating of his heart. “I have feelings,” he said quietly.
Allie’s expression went from one of irritation to frustration and finally to pity. “I know,” she said. “I know. It’s not your fault, but you fucking suck sometimes, Caleb.”
Caleb exhaled. The pounding in his chest lessened a little. He sat back with his own drink in hand and just stared at Allie in the display.
She cried a little and then smiled at him. They sat drinking together in silence for a long time.
“I thought you were dead,” said Ali. ‘When you never called back I figured some space monster had eaten you or you got sucked into a black hole or something.” He took a drink from a bottle of microbrew beer Caleb did not recognize. “Are you going back there?”
“No,” said Caleb, “they are releasing a fleet of drones to explore it since they can gather a lot more information in a short time. It will be years, though, and we’ll be gone in another couple weeks.”
“Gone?” Ali tried to look nonchalant when he asked, but failed.
“We are leaving the system and heading –” he waved his hand vaguely “– out there. There is some sort of hub where ships converge. They are going to split us up among hundreds of vessels.”
“Split who up?”
“Us humans. The Hegemony has a huge fleet. Some ships are for exploration. Others are for trade. There are even military vessels, according to Obligolkulat.”
“How long are you going to be –” Ali waved his own hand around “– out there? Five year mission?”
Caleb shrugged. “At least a year for me but it might be longer as far you are concerned. There’s time dilation and other things that make it hard to figure out.”
“Oh,” said Ali. Changing the subject, he said, “what about your girlfriend? The accountant, not the alien.”
“Economist,” said Caleb. “I don’t know. We won’t know our assignments until we get to the hub.”
Ali made a face. “You haven’t talked to her since you got back.”
“No,” said Caleb.
Caleb stared at him across the radius of the solar system, annoyed.
“At least go see her. She said she wanted to talk before you disappeared for nine months. I am sure she has forgiven you for inviting her to an alien threesome by now.”
“Fuck you, Ali.”
“Love you, bro.”
It turned out that there was no need to blast a hole in one of the containers, as Caleb had thought there might be. When they approached a lone unit tumbling peacefully in its orbit of the torus and examined it with their whole sensor suite, they found numerous access points. They ranged in size from immense — one whole end would open on command — to the nigh insignificant. It was one of these latter that Chief Jaskarr determined would be their entrance.
The trick of opening the access was simple: blast an electromagnetic signal at it ranging from the low end of the wavelengths to the high. Eventually they landed on the correct wavelength and focused on it for a short time and the orifice opened like an uncurling snake.
“Let’s hope it works the same way coming out,” said Caleb as they passed through the opening.
As they passed through the ship shuttered and jolted before the inertial dampeners took control and accommodated the weird gravity inside the object. Each interior face of the cuboid was its own “down” they discovered. While they might have navigated in the exact intersection of the gravitational fields, they could not because that is where the “sun” was: a long tube of power emitting light and heat on each of the faces.
There was a purple cast to the atmosphere inside the container and clouds boiled close to the surfaces of the faces. Gravity registered as three times that of Earth. Each of the faces was homogeneous in terrain, but different from one another: there was a face of low jagged hills, a face that seemed a sea, a face of wide open plains dotted with gnarly copses of what Caleb’s mind read as trees, and a face afire with volcanic activity. The “end faces” as Caleb thought of them were clear and appeared to hold the mechanism that emitted the sun tube.
Caleb walked over to where Legiat-Gumor was focusing sensors. “Are those animals?” he asked.
“I believe they are,” said the alien with a head shake that Caleb guessed approximated a nod. “It appears they are some sort of herd animal. They may be sentient. See, they are moving in an organized manner and appear to be clustering and communicating.”
Caleb frowned. “That’s weird. Why haven’t they exhausted the resources of the container? Evolved into a space faring civilization, or destroyed themselves. It’s been a half billion years.”
Chief Jaskarr approached him. “Perhaps they are merely slowly evolving beings–”
“Of, shit,” said Caleb. “Get the fuck out.”
“Why?” asked Jaskarr.
“Spacetime. Get out.”
The aliens looked at Caleb and then looked at Jaskarr. The Chief seemed to consider his options then told the ship the exit the container as quickly and safely as possible.
Once they were safely outside, Caleb said, “When is it?”
Chief Jaskarr said, “We were only inside for a few hours.”
Max spoke up then. “It appears at least point seven six nine of an earth year has passed.”
“Space and time are the same thing,” said Caleb. “Whoever built this thing obviously has complete control over gravity and spacetime. It’s a zoo, meant to preserve things. They slowed down time inside, and so we just jumped forward.”
It looked like an unfinished brick torus, as if a child has started building it and given up three quarters of the way through. A cloud of disconnected elongated cuboids orbited it like so many discarded Legos.Based on the data they had collected and what he saw now in the shuttle’s observation chamber, Caleb guessed each shipping container-like piece was 100 kilometers wide and tall and four times that in length.
Chief Jaskarr and the others had briefed him on what they had learned about it so far, which was less than Caleb had expected it would be. There were terabytes of readings, images and analysis, of course, far more than Caleb could ever digest. Luckily he had Max: the robot’s behavior had changed to be less “freshman orientation counselor” and more of “digital assistant.” Even with all that information, it was clear that they did not actually know much. It was old, perhaps a half billion years or more. The individual pieces were made of iron, nickle and silicates, all materials that could be mined from asteroids and rocky planetoids. The units were also identical in structure, all eight million of them, suggesting they had been created by a factory process of some sort. Finally, the inner ring of the torus, which should have after 500 million years become the core of a planet made of the shipping containers, was maintained by an electromagnetic field. The source of the field was unknown, but Legiat-Gumor (a purple rubber mask alien that spoke out of a blowhole) posited an explanation involving micro-blackholes that Caleb did not understand.
“So, Earthman, what do you make of it?” asked Chief Jaskarr.
“No idea,” said Caleb. Jaskarr evoked a grating, scoffing sound but Caleb ignored him. “I could not begin to understand the purpose of this thing–” more scoffing “–without getting inside one of the pieces.”
Jaskarr looked at him and did not scoff this time. The other aliens turned their attention to him, too.
“There’s a lot of math here I don’t understand,” Caleb said, “but I can add. Max, bring up the mass and gravity numbers we talked about.”
Max linked with the display covering the floors and walls and data appeared in tags attached to the cuboids.
“These things are identical in size and shape but very slightly off from one another is mass. And if you put them all together the mass doesn’t add up to the gravity we’re seeing.”
Legiat-Gumor asked, “And?”
“And that means they are hollow, and there’s stuff inside them, and the stuff isn’t the same in all of them.”
“So what’s in them?”
“No idea,” repeated Caleb with a wicked smile, “but I think we should dig into this Neptune sized box of chocolate and find out.”
Caleb walked out of the cafe with his expeditionary pack slung over his shoulder. It was about the size of a kid’s school backpack but heavier. It included clothes, tools and emergency supplies, everything except the vacuum suit he would be wearing when exploring the structure.
He was a half dozen steps down the hallway when he heard the cafe door slide open again behind him, then Faith’s voice call his name. He stopped walking but paused before he turned around, trying to order his thoughts and prepare appropriate responses based on what she was likely to say. Finally he turned.
She was standing with her hands at her sides, alternately balled into fists and wiping them dry on her uniform. Her jaw was set and her chin high but her eyes were not hard. “I just wanted to say good luck,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said.
“And,” she said then paused and exhaled. “And be careful.”
They stared at each other for a long time and finally Caleb nodded and started to turn. Faith said, “When you get back maybe we can get together and talk.”
Caleb froze mid-turn. He had not expected that and had no answer so he just said, “Okay.”
“Okay,” she answered.
“Okay,” he repeatedly stupidly, then finished his turn and walked down the hallway.
Caleb mulled Faith’s words while he made his way down hallways and went up lifts and crossed decks until he arrived at his destination. He touched the pad next to the door and a moment later it slid open. Nel greeted him with her alien smile. She cocked her head as she drew him inside. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he said vaguely while he laid his pack down and took the glass Nel offered him. “Do you want to talk?” he asked.
Nel laughed, a strange sound that could have come out of a baby goat. “No,” she said and leaned in and licked his earlobe.
“Me neither,” he said and took a swallow from his drink.
VOID — I am going to leave this up in the spirit of real time writing, but very momentarily after posting it I realized I don’t like it. The intent was to show a kind of visceral compassion for Caleb as he went off to his uncertain future, but it ends up way to porny. Obviously, I have no problem with sex scenes or even Penthouse Letters level fantasies if that’s right for the story, but this isn’t right for the story. So expect a new Chapter 18 tomorrow, and in the meantime enjoy this example of Terrible First Draft.
Faith stopped Caleb in the corridor outside the cafe. “I heard you were going out to the structure,” she said.
Caleb looked at her.
“I just wanted to say good luck,” she added with an embarrassed turn of her head. “And congratulations. It’s a big deal, I guess, based on all the talk I’m hearing.”
He exhaled. “I didn’t know.”
Faith smiled weakly. “I suppose you wouldn’t,” she said but then grimaced at her own words and added, “I mean, on the inside you probably don’t hear what people are saying.” She stumbled over the word “people” and that almost made him laugh.
“It’s not that,” he said. “I just don’t talk to many people.” He gave that last word just enough emphasis to make her blush.
“Right,” she smiled, “Caleb the loner.”
He blushed, too. “I guess. Sometimes. Other times I really do like company.”
Faith’s blush deepened and she opened her mouth to speak.
“This must be Faith,” said the honey dripping voice of Nel from the cafe as the doors slid open. The shapely alien sauntered up to them, eyes flicking between Caleb and Faith. “I’m disappointed you never introduced us,” she cooed.
Faith’s eyes darted between Caleb and the alien. He could see her doing some sort of calculus in her mind. After a brief moment, Faith exhaled and suddenly smiled at Nel. Caleb swore he saw Faith glance at him, challenging him, before she turned to Nel and said, “I am too. I heard such lovely things.”
Caleb froze as the two women began to talk about him as if he weren’t there. In that moment he realized just how right Obligolkulat had been. The entirety of his perceptive powers and discerning intellect fled him and he just stood staring dumbly.
Faith and Nel eventually turned their collective attention to Caleb. “Do you have time before you leave on assignment?” asked Nel.
“We thought we could get a drink and maybe dessert,” added Faith, grinning.
Caleb considered his position with what faculties remained to him as blood rushed from his brain southward and said, “I’m not due on the shuttle for another few hours.” He swallowed. “And I could use dessert.”
Nel all but purred like a cat and Faith took first Nel’s hand and then Caleb’s. “Then let’s have that drink,” she said, “and toast new adventures.”
Ali raised his glass — vodka tonic undoubtedly — and drank. He was in his living room on his couch in shorts and a T-shirt that should have long since been retire. Te late day sun streaming in through the window. Caleb raised his own glass — a poor approximation of a whiskey and coke — from his own couch on the Hegemony vessel and drank. “To new adventures,” said Ali with more than a little melancholy. “Yeah,” said Caleb back at the display.
They sat in silence for a few long minutes, staring at one another from across nearly one percent of a light year. Finally Caleb said, “ I’m not very good at this. I know I’m not. But I just wanted to tell you that I–” He stopped. It wasn’t that he did not know what words to say. He did not know what words he felt. He knew he should be missing Ali, and fearing to never see him again. He should even be fearing his own death, far away from Earth on some strange alien structure. While he knew all those things, he did not feel any of them. “I miss you,” he finally said.
“Me too,” said Ali. His eyes were pools of welling tears and he quenched his rising sob with a drink.
They stared at each other for a few more minutes before each signing off. Caleb sat on the couch staring at the empty space where the display had floated, the drink growing warm in his hand, for a long time before the display appeared again. It was Allie on her own couch wrapped in a fluffy robe and holding a full glass of red wine.
“Hello?” she said, drawing out the word.
Caleb blinked. “Hello,” he said and saw her blink then smile as her own display revealed him.
“I got your message,” she said and took a drink. By the way she held the glass he could tell it was hardly her first that afternoon.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” he said and took a luke warm sip of his own. “I didn’t know if I’d get you before I left so I–”
“Never mind!” she said with a smile. “I get it. You are off on a big adventure, even beiger than just floating around in space and fucking hot alien chicks.”
“Come on,” she scolded and took another drink. “Tell me you haven’t fucked one alien yet? You’ve been gone for weeks.”
Caleb relaxed. It was Allie. Of course she would want to know. “Okay.”
Allie nearly squeed. “I knew it. Excellent!” She put her glass down on the table in front of her and threw herself back into her couch. As she did she let the robe fall open, revealing the dark and luscious curves of her body. She opened her legs and reached down with supple fingers.”
“Tell me all about it,” she said biting her lip, “and for god’s sake pull that cock out.”
Caleb did, and did.