Recently while archaeologising some of my clutter, I found a yellowing, poorly-photocopied pamphlet which turned out to be issue 17.1 of Sirius Moonlight, the St.Andrews University Science Fiction And Fantay Society magazine was back in the 1990s. Why did I still have this? Because I had a story published in it.
Some painful OCRing later and here it is for your enjoyment. It’s not actually that bad. It’s typically overwrought student prose but I’ve seen much, more worse.
Dating this is tricky as the issue contains no actual dates and the issue number itself bears no relation to reality. There is a review of SeaQuest DSV in it, so I’d tentatively put this sometime in the summer of 1994.
Endlessly fleeing; the ultimate cowards. Rejoicing in their Terror, the glorious Terror of the Collapse, the People flee outwards, away from the Centre of the Collapse. Already, many billions of the weaker, less able People have been too slow and have dissociated in the heat, but there are several trillion left, and the People do not look back.
One such member of the People, fleeing, a coward, cruises outwards, his tube-shaped body gripping the surrounding material with magnetic fields and forcing it backwards. He stares ahead with powerful vision, picking out several other People ahead, fleeing with him, and he searches for a Predator, those unholy creatures that stop the People’s Flight so that they fall behind and are lost. There are none; his Flight is safe. He identifies several of the People ahead to be female; however, he had recently mated, and so does not pay much attention. He does not think of his recent mate; after the union, she fell behind, and so vanished. The People do not look back.
The ship slowly sank through the dense matter surrounding it. Unusually streamlined, it had been specially designed for the job it was doing: investigating the interior of a contracting protostar. It had unusually powerful momentum-change engines, and a short-range jump-drive, but no hyperspace capability. This ship was not designed to travel between the stars, only through them.
Inside, the three-man crew were watching the automatics and not doing very much else. Alan Eddison, the stellar physicist and ship’s engineer; Arath Fallalion, the nominal captain and xenotelepath, necessary for communications to the mother ship far above: and Sealight, the pilot, the only one that was really doing anything. This was to hang suspended in the pilot’s cradle “watching” the dials via a nerve-link cable connected via the implanted socket just to the back of his right pectoral fin.
“The pressure’s just passed the fifty atmosphere mark,” he said, his computer-synthesised voice coming over the bridge’s intercom speakers. There was a pause for a few moments, punctuated only by a gentle hissing sound as the water sprayers that kept his skin moist started up again.
“What’s the outside temperature?” Alan asked him. He was sitting at a workstation trying to correlate the conditions the ship was passing through with a theoretical model of the protostar which they were investigating, and failing. This protostar was very, very weird.
“Six hundred and twelve Kelvin, to three esseff,” Sealight’s answer came back a few moments later. “It should be higher than that, shouldn’t it?”
Alan found the relevant point on the workstation’s monitor and stared helplessly at it. If he had a pencil, he would have thrown it down in exasperation at this point, but he didn’t, so he just swore. “Yes! It should! The pressure should be much lower, as well!”
Arath was curled up at her console, with the telepathic reinforcement belt wrapped around her middle, where her brain was. She had just finished giving her sister up on the mothership a status report and was resting. She looked up at this point.
“You did say earlier, that you would be sad if the theoretical model was completely verified, because that would mean that there would be no point doing any more research, didn’t you?”
Alan glowered at the small figure. “Okay, maybe I did. I didn’t want it to be this different, though. Nothing tallies in with the model.”
Arath gazed up at him with her small, brown eyes for a moment, and then thought of something. “Sealight, how’s the external radiation?” Her voice was quiet, musical and sounded very human. Arath’s race, being telepathic, were always good at learning somebody’s language, down to the last idiom.
Nothing was visible, but Sealight shifted his attention from the internal cameras to one of the external sensors. Slightly alarmed at what he saw, he checked the internal radiation sensor and then relaxed.
“High. Not at all healthy for any length of time. The shields are coping fine, though.” Then, as the on-board computer silently prompted him, “Isn’t it time for another sample, Alan?”
Alan glanced at his monitor again. “Oops. You’re right.” He tapped a few keys, and said, “Ready.”
Sealight checked all his sensors. “Okay. Five, four, three, two, one, now…” As he said now, he dropped a section of the force shield protecting the ship at a point next to one of Alan’s machines on the outer hull for a moment. The hot gas slammed through the hole in the shield into the near-vacuum inside, causing the ship to lurch with a loud Bong noise, and at the same moment, Alan pressed pressed a key that caused said machine to take a sample. Both Alan and Sealight wished that there was some way of integrating the two tasks, but Sealight had. spent a lot of time getting to know the rather non-standard equipment aboard the ship and adding that function would have changed things considerably.
“Shield stable… pressure inside the shield is falling,” Sealight reported. The hot gas next to the hull would diffuse out the shield, but couldn’t diffuse in again. “Hull temperature rising, but within limits. How was the sample?”
Alan ran a program that took a preliminary glance at the sample. “That’s odd…”
“Okay, odder. There’s quite a lot of solid material in there.”
“Solid? Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. Very small grains of grit. I can’t do any more analysis until we get back to the mothership, but it’s definitely solid.”
Sealight’s face was unreadable, as always, because he didn’t really have one, but his voice synthesiser was very sophisticated. He sounded worried.
“They’re not going to get much bigger, are they? Our shield’s not designed for solids…”
Alan shrugged, and glanced at Arath, She was ‘captain’, and so made the final decisions.
She thought for a moment. “Sealight, can you see anything ahead on radar?”
“Haven’t looked,” Sealight replied. “Hang on a sec… Nope, nothing. There’s some faint swirls visible, but nothing really solid.” Out of curiosity, he increased the range of the radar up to maximum. It was less accurate, but saw further, and the feeling of looking into fog which he always got down here was strange.
“Should be safe, then. Really. You should be able to think of that yourself.”
Sealight didn’t reply.
“Damn. You’re right,” Alan said. “Odd, though.”
Arath blinked. “Very. It shouldn’t be here, should it?”
“No way. There may be some asteroidal dust further up, but not this dense… By the way, Sealight, where are we?”
Alan and Arath both looked around in alarm. Sealight appeared to be all right, but his long, streamlined form never did much out of the water, anyway.
Arath said: “Sealight, are you all right?”
This time, the speakers came to life again. “Oh, sorry, miles away. There’s something solid out there. Lots of solid things.”
“What!” Alan said in extreme surprise. Arath was just as surprised, but her race didn’t make loud noises in moments of stress, so she didn’t say anything. Her mind was working, though.
“Spacecraft?” she said slowly after a moment or two.
“Damn them!” Alan muttered. “That’s why all the results were wrong! The bloody Commonwealth Fleet’s in here!”
“No. Not spacecraft,” Sealight said. “I don’t know what they are. They’re moving, but there’s no trace of a MC drive.”
“Can you get an enhanced picture?” Arath replied.
“No, Too much gas in the way. They’re just fuzzy blobs. I can go closer if you want.”
Arath sighed. “No, don’t bother, just yet. I’ll see if they’re ships or not first.”
Alan and Sealight knew what she meant. She was going to send a telepathic ‘probe’ out to see if there were any crew on board. To do that, she would have to break contact with the mothership, though.
“I’m telling Sennil—” Her sister. “—right. Here I go.”
There was a long pause, broken by Sealight’s water sprays turning off again.
Then Arath suddenly stiffened. There was another pause, but a different one. Alan was staring at her in silence. Sealight was doing the same through the interior cameras
She spoke, slowly. “They’re not ships…”
“They’re alive… No, intelligent…”
Alan let out an explosive breath.
Yet another pause.
The she shook herself, obviously breaking contact.
“Yes. Alive, and intelligent… and strange! The weirdest creatures I’ve ever come across, Hang on, I’ll have to tell Sennil… she doesn’t believe it… who would? …she says to forget the protostar probing, we can always do that again later. These things take priority. Sealight, can you take us closer?”
“Wilco.” There were a few faint jolts as the momentum-change engines started up, but no acceleration was apparent through the damping field, which kept things at a comfortable quarter-gee inside.
Alan glanced at one of the viewports, which was completely filled with a bright red glow from the gas outside. It was so dense that they were completely useless for seeing by; however, they cast a lot of light inside, provided you liked your light a satanic red. He looked down at his workstation, and quit the current program. He didn’t think he would be doing any more research for a while…
“How long?” Arath asked.
Sealight grunted, “Nearly there… right. We’re a few hundred metres away from one. It’s moving! Eighty kilometres per hour, straight up. They’re all doing that. And there’s a strong magnetic field, too… I can’t tell what it does, but it might have something to do with propulsion.”
“Okay, hold it there,” Arath said, and made contact again.
She carefully ran her probe over the outside of its mind again, looking for the way in she found last time… there. She extended the metaphorical tip of the probe down through the imaginary fissure in it’s persona and reached the centre; its well of being. She didn’t really like doing this. Her race never sanctioned making extreme mental contact with strangers except in times of necessity, because of the things it revealed, which was why she only communicated with her sister back on the mothership, but this was probably one of the times when it was necessary. She carefully examined its well of being…
Suddenly, she got an overwhelming urge to run, but managed to suppress it before she did anything other than leap to her four feet. This had happened before, with other creatures, but never so violently. Was what drove this creature’s life? Running? She curled up again and probed to find out why it was running.
She got something to do with something falling inwards. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t get it all. This happened occasionally. The mind-sets were too different. All that she had to do was wait and she would gradually adapt so that she could at least get the creature’s memory.
Alan and Sealight waited in silence, watching Arath at it. Humans were never really much good at telepathy; the most they got as a rule was minor empathy, without enhancement, and the occasional exceptions that inevitably came were incurably psychotic: Napoleon, Hitler, Tau Chan… Dolphins were rather better at it — their society was based around some degree of common empathy — but never got up to the level of races like Arath’s.
Alan knew that undue mental exertion would make Arath’s job harder, and so started up a game of Mah Jong on his workstation. That always soothed him.
Sealight could feel Arath reaching out with his own lumbering empathy, and tried to keep himself inside his own skull. To keep his mind occupied, he started taking pictures and doing analyses of the shape in front of him; the strange creature.
After a while Arath started getting somewhere. The creatures had two sexes, male and female, as usual. This one was male. Its memory was fairly blank; not a lot had happened to it, and being in a protostar is not very conductive to having a stimulating environment. It had very little time sense. Unfortunately, she could not find out what this thing it was fleeing from was, because it never though about it, except in an abstract sense… So, she pushed gently at various bits of it’s mind, trying to find out exactly what it was.
It worked. It slowly brought up all the little fragments of what it knew into the front of its mind, and she examined each one in turn and managed to put together the whole story.
She broke contact.
Alan and Sealight realised she had finished when she got up, took off the mental reinforcer, and shook herself.
“What happened?” Alan asked.
”Sealight, take us back to the mothership,” she said wearily, ignoring Alan. “We can’t do anything here.”
Sealight said nothing for a moment. “Wilco,” he said at last, and the ship jolted again.
“What happened?” Alan repeated.
Arath curled up again. “Forget ‘em. We can‘t help them.”
“Help them about what? What happened?”
“Look, forget it.” ed
Sealight found himself wishing for the _n_th time that he had a face that humans could read, as he tried to catch Alan’s eye with a video camera. The human could be remarkably tactless at times.
“You got something, didn’t you?” Alan said in exasperation. “What?”
Arath sighed. “Okay, you asked. Look. The protostar is collapsing, right? You said yourself that it’s already started fusing at the centre. In a few hundred thousand years, there’ll be a sun here.”
Alan looked blank. “So?”
“So no environment for these creatures.”
Alan shrugged. “In a few hundred thousand years? I’d hardly worry. By that time, they’ll have developed a civilisation, particularly with the Commonwealth’s help, and they’ll have colonies on other protostars. A hundred thousand years is a long time.”
Arath was silent for a moment, and then started again, in a words-of-one-syllable tone of voice. “About five thousand years ago, it started fusing at the centre, right? This stuff’s pretty dense. It’ll carry a shock wave.”
Alan finally got it. “Oh…”
“That’s why all these creatures are running as fast as they can straight up. Unfortunately, while eighty kilometres per hour is pretty fast for a fluid at fifty atmospheres, it’s nowhere near fast enough…”
Sealight diverted his attention from the piloting — he was flying at two hundred kilometres per hour until he was clear of the protostar creatures, and then would open up to the maximum velocity possible in this medium. “How far away is the shock wave?”
Arath replied in a fairly bland tone, “About fifteen years away…”
There was a very long silence. Sealight’s sprayers started up again.
Alan said quietly, “Will any survive?”
“Are you kidding?”
Sealight said: “Can we do anything for them? Take some to another protostar?”
“Alan, do you know of any other protostars like this one?”
“Er… no, not really. This one’s unique, as far as I know.”
“There you have it.”
Sealight: “They’ll all die?”
Alan: “How many?”
He cruised on, through the dense medium around him. He paid no attention to the small, hard object that came up from behind and visited him for a while; nor to the strange impulses that crossed his mind. He looked only onwards, towards his fellow People, who in turn would never see him, because the People never looked back.