Another Hole Inside The Hollow Mars

 

Robert checked for the fourth time that hour that nobody else was in the office, and put his hands to his typewriter. The ink ribbons had mostly run dry, and Robert had spent the better part of the morning cracking open gel pens and rubbing them all over the ribbons, in what would have looked like a bizarre typographically-themed Satanic ritual to somebody who had no context for it.

“Wait,” pondered Robert aloud. “If oni can’t read or write, how come they have typewriters?”[1]

He decided that he didn’t care, and loudly cleared his throat to prepare for writing.

He then lifted the typewriter off of the enormous manuscript of The Forever Endeavour that it rested on, and quickly flipped through the massive tome to see where he was up to.

“Hmm,” he said. “So Admiral Zolyon just jumped from Null Point to the Outer Zone, which should take…four…milliparsecs per second…but he does have the Quorom Singularity on board the Gambrion, so…”

He flipped a few hundred pages back, to the previous chapter.

“Ooh, no,” said Robert, running a hand through his hair. “No, no, that won’t work. There’d be way too much Null Static, he’d have to stop to discharge at a black hole nearby.”

Robert wracked his brains, trying to remember if there were still black holes in the Null Point’s sector, or if General Korax had exploded all of them by this point in the story.

He leafed through a part of the book looking for parts of the relevant story thread, but after not finding anything after a few minutes, he figured it was probably fine to assume.

“Uhh…new character!” said Robert.

He closed the manuscript, accidentally crushing several flies who flew too close to its edge, and hauled the typewriter back on top of it.[2] Fitting a blank sheet, Robert wrote:

 

PART VIII:
CHAPTER ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-SEVEN

“It is the moral obligation of the noblesse oblige to engage in the bushido of the soul when confronted by the winds and hardships of the masses.”
- Tethrus D’Matsukodon, Archon of the Battle-Planet, in ‘Ways And Thoughts vol. IV’

Vice-Captain Stern Holloworthy III of the starship Invictus was only fourteen years old, but had taken smoothly to the post assigned to her by her father, the Royal Dutch-Count Engsbry Holloworthy VI. She was tall for her age, with piercing brown eyes and a short crop of blue hair that fell smartly to the sides of her scalp. Her skin had been hardened by the harsh training of Battle-Planet, where all Navy cadets in her sector went, and her mind was much the same.

In fact, her eyes weren’t so much just brown as they were russet coloured; but the russet colour of a russet apple rather than a russet potato. Stern liked apples, as much as she could get them, but her mind was far from Earth-fruit right now; not to mention the fact that they were relatively difficult to come by out in the Far Way of the galaxy. But there was a war, and wars warranted attention far more than apples.

“Vice-Captain’s on the bridge!” shouted a Mzzndroki private, saluting with all three of his hands.

Stern stopped at the command centre in the middle of the bridge, the blue walls of its holograms humming from her touch.

“Where are we?” Stern asked.

“Somewhere past Lost Hope,” said her helmsman, Zachary Ostthrott, a tall, classically handsome black man with grey eyes and a short-cropped afro.

“Lost Hope’s still under siege?” asked Stern.

“They broke through,” said Gunnery Chief Herns-Bergstrom.

“Damn,” said Wethers, the science officer.

“How’s the M-Drive?” asked Stern.

“Stream’s fine, Vice-Captain,” said Zachary. “All points heavy on the q-waves, but that’s no surprise given our position.”

Stern nodded curtly. Zachary didn’t need to tell her that they had to stay low and stay quiet, because all they needed was one misaligned Henricks barrel and they’d fall right out of the stream. That would damage most ships beyond repair at the best of times, but here, it could absolutely not happen.

Not in the heart of Zarnifex’s empire.

 

“Hmm,” said Robert, leaning back in his chair.

He stared out the window, casually watching a pair of oni in the street rush at each other with claymores.

“I really should expand more on the M-Drive a bit,” he said. “People won’t believe how the stealth works unless they know it well enough.”

 

She brought up a holoschematic of the M-Drive, and honed in on the catalytic meson regulator.

“We’re dropping a lot of quarks,” she said, concern in her voice.

“Zarn’s scout’s’ll pick up on that faster than a Zobdoolian serving-wench crosses a bar,” said Herns-Bergstrom.

“Indeed,” said the Mzzndroki private, whose name was Brorthf Forzz’dbl. “Vice-Captain, I can feel the ship tilting slightly off-centre. We may leave the stream if we don’t recalibrate.”

“We can’t afford to recalibrate right now,” said Stern. “We’re not in the right quantum state, and if we phase shift-”

There was a sudden beeping, and all the holograms on the bridge turned red, adding a bright tinge of danger to the steely-grey chamber.

Stern let out a short, quiet sigh of relief as she realised that they hadn’t dropped out of stream.

But what had happened?

“Status report,” she said, resisting the urge to rub at her temples.

“The private was correct,” said Zachary, “we’ve tilted further off-centre than before.”

“How?” asked Wethers, the science officer.

“I am analysing the data,” said Brorthf.

“Did somebody on this bridge phase shift us?” asked Stern sternly.

“Quite the opposite, captain,” said Brorthf. “We were temporarily phase-shifted from the outside.”

“…how?!”

“Could be Wave Smugglers,” said Ensign Savos.

“Not in the middle of Zarn’s stomping grounds,” said Herns-Bergstrom, “not even they’re crazy enough to try it.”

“Our q-waves are unaffected,” said Brorthf, frantically typing to try and find the information.

The keyboard responded quickly to his dextrous fingers – it was a special keyboard, installed specifically for his Mzzndroki hands. It had been difficult to convince the higher-ups to allow it, Admiral Hallifrax in particular, but Stern’s direct superior, the decorated Captain Percem, had been able to convince the man after a stringent series of tests showing the added capabilities it afforded Private Brorthf when he was performing his duties as Executive Private on the bridge.

“Wait,” said Zachary, standing up. “I may have the answer.”

“Go on,” said Stern.

“The M-Drive works because space itself is decompressing without actually decaying, right?”

“We know how the M-Drive works, Zachary,” said Stern.

“Right,” said Zachary. “But Engineer Taggart McFarlane has jerry-rigged our M-Drive to bounce q-waves asymptotically instead of logarithmically.”

“Not to mention we have ceramic drivesides,” added Herns-Bergstrom, “since we upgraded from the Invictus’s original metal ones when we docked with Murphy Station back in Inner Sector 12.”

“Thus, if our q-waves are unusual, and we’re running quiet as we can…” began Brorthf.

“…then a small ship could dodge the phase barrier without disrupting our stream boundaries,” finished Stern, comprehension dawning on her youthful face.

“Vice-Captain,” said Ensign Savos, “I’ve got movement in the aft section of Deck Thirteen.”

“Have a security detail and a science team meet me in the Armour Room,” said Stern. “Zachary, with me.”

Zachary stood and followed Stern as she left the bridge. They turned the corner together, and stepped into a grav-lift, Stern pushing the button with the small number ‘13’ on it in sans-serif writing.

“Vice-Captain,” said Zachary, “our ship is fitted with the most advanced M-Drive in the High Navy, and we calibrated it to the eighteenth percentile. The only way a ship could have gotten through our phase barrier is if it was roughly the size of an adult human.”

“No ship is that small,” said Stern. “It’s probably a proximity bomb. Security will have to disable it.”

Zachary nodded.

“How are you?” he asked.

“Tired,” said Stern, rubbing at her eyes. “With the Captain gone- well, out- I have to do everything.”

“Not everything, Stern,” said Zachary.

“Thankyou, Zachary,” said Stern. “This war, it’s so – it’s so wearisome. It wears you down, Zachary.”

Stern knew she didn’t have to tell Zachary about that: Zachary’s parents had died in the Fall of New Garden, when the Raktyls had stormed the planetary defence systems with their plasma void eliminators. Nobody on that planet had survived the deadly assault, save for Zachary, who managed to phase shift to the zero-pod carrier Dominance of Dawn, using a cobbled-together Meson Cascader that he had created for a science project at the Nova Academy. He had failed to widen the cascade bridge enough to encompass his parents, however – a single miscalculation, made from exhaustion, which haunted him still.

“We’ll beat them,” said Zachary. “We have to, Vice-Captain. Humanity’s not beaten into the dust just yet.”

“The dust,” said Stern. “But the quality of humanity is in our dust. The dust we breathe adds impurities to our lungs, but it’s the impurities of this physical life that keep our minds from floating away into solely dreams. That is man! Between heaven and the cold dirt, striding with purpose amidst this dark cosmos.”

Zachary swelled with admiration for his Vice-Captain; though she may be young in years, Stern Holloworthy III certainly pertained to wisdom beyond them.

The grav-lift came to a smooth halt on Deck Thirteen, and Stern and Zachary walked out of it. They came to the Armour Room, where the science and security teams stood.

The security team was dressed in purple armour with pulsating blue dots of light that adorned its metallic sheen. All were human, save for their captain, who was a Dorplakt. The science team was a mixed bunch, for the Invictus had lost most of its science faculty in the Battle of the Kaptic Arch. There were two humans, both originally from Zeel’s Light, an obscure colony in the Kayus system; they were xenobiologists. There was a Maldralee neurostatistician, a Quemp who was his hive’s foremost expert in phasic longitudinal disparities, three Ahkem-Vol physicists sharing a body, and Wethers, the science officer.

“You

 

There was a knocking at Robert’s door.

“Go away!” said Robert. “…move your own fires!”

“It’s not about a fire,” said the voice.

“Then just punch it until it goes away!” said Robert shortly, wanting to get back to The Forever Endeavour before he forgot how the M-Drive was going to shunt the Invictus to its next destination – a mysteriously traversable wormhole.

This didn’t work, because unfortunately Robert was not talking to a Fejan, and the door to the Police News Fire Offices swung upon. A brownish-yellow oni in stained dungarees stepped in, his knobbly head protected by a wide-brimmed hat. He held a pitchfork in one hand, but it thankfully had clumps of dirt rather than blood on it. Either he committed violence exclusively against the soil, or he was a farmer.

“Good afternoon, sir,” said the oni, putting his hat in his hand, where he scrunched it vigorously. “My name is Long, and there is a problem with my farm.”

“Is it being stolen?” asked Robert. “Is it aflame? Is something newsworthy happening, like you’re growing cabbages that are shaped oddly like people’s heads?”

“Well, no,” said Long.

“Then come back later!” said Robert.

“Yes, sir,” said Long, “only I’m worried about the tunnel.”

“…what tunnel?” asked Robert.

“The one under my farm, sir,” said Long, bashing Robert’s desk with a windmilling arm for what he perceived as friendly emphasis.

“…you don’t have to call me sir,” said Robert, climbing back into his chair.[3] “I’m Robert Island, Police Fire News Chief.”

“…really?” asked Long.

“Yes,” said Robert, adjusting his badge, buffing it a little with his shirtsleeve.

“My name’s Long Island,” said Long. “What a strange coincidence! We may be distantly related! I’m sure someone in my family had tiny beady eyes and palid hairless skin! Wish I could remember who it was, though.”

“Let’s see your farm tunnel,” said a mildly offended Robert, getting his coat.[4]

“Oh, it’s not mine,” said Long as they began to walk out of the office. “I think it belongs to a gang.”

“Why would a gang put a tunnel under your farm?” asked Robert. “Did they want to surreptitiously disrupt your potato production?”

“I knew it!” said Long, shaking his fist.

They walked a few blocks, dodging brick-missiles as two large groups of hairy, leathery pensioners flung hard objects at one another, screaming obscenities. Noticing a flaming wooden beam, Robert carefully kicked it a few times so it was out of the way, to Long’s obvious approval.

“It’s good we have a Police Fire News Chief who can get things done!” howled Long, bashing his pitchfork against a nearby building. “Apart from stealing typewriters, anyway.”

Robert pulled at his collar slightly.

“Here it is!” said Long, scratching himself under his dungarees as they came to his farm.

It was a wide patch of deep, rich-looking dirt, with many vegetables just poking out of the top, on a lot nested between two ramshackle buildings.

Robert and Long picked their way between rows of sorry-looking cabbages and carrots, that had clearly been treated with love, care, and a complete absence of agricultural knowledge.[5] Long tenderly heckled a withered pumpkin as they passed, and gave it an encouraging kick.

“So,” said Robert, stopping at an irregular hole that opened into the ground. “When did this appear?”

“I don’t know,” said Long, “but I only found out about it half an hour ago. I was tending the carrots when suddenly, a bunch of my farm wasn’t around anymore, and then I found out that it had just gone about three whatsits lower.”

He stretched his arms out as wide as they could go, which was almost as wide as Robert was tall.

Robert tilted his head, staring at the sunken dirt, which appeared to have fallen down into a subterranean[6] tunnel.

“Long,” said Robert, “do you plant bits of paper?”

“No,” said Long. “Good idea, though! Thanks!”

Ignoring this, Robert jumped down into the tunnel, the collapsed dirt breaking his fall, and pulled the piece of paper out.

Unfolding it, Robert cast a careful eye over the paper, in case it provided any clues.

It was a crayon stick-figure drawing of a group of oni, all carrying mushrooms that were larger than their heads. They were crouching and sneaking under a wavy line, and above them were wobbly skyscrapers and smiling oni going about their business. It looked like the sort of work that a demented Space Dan would produce in Heck.

“Smugglers,” said Robert.

“Smugglers, smuggling my vegetables!” said Long. “…wait, no, those fell in there.”

 

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[1] Social prestige.

[2] He had already spread his notes for the next act out across his entire desk.

[3] After swiftly grabbing errant notes about the High Councillor of Exboidon II.

[4] Well, it was a coat, and since nobody else in the office had claimed it, Robert was doing so now.

[5] And also a pitchfork.

[6] Though, technically speaking due to the hollow Mars’ planetary geography, it was sur-submartian.