A Young Adult Science Fiction Story

Tankers

  By Robert Lee Beers

            Gramps

 

It was the bugs who started it, that’s what my grandfather said. When it comes down to it, I suppose he was right, attacking and eating a class 3 exploration vessel’s crew isn’t usually considered diplomatic at the best of times.

We call them bugs. The scientists use another term, but bugs is what’s stuck in the brains of the people fighting this war. The Magellan, real original name, right? The Magellan was just entering the outer rim of Andromeda when it was attacked. It seems that they only had enough time to squeeze a nanobeam back to our galaxy before the lights went out. Based on what the news showed, bugs was the best anyone could do. The things are about man high with a whole bundle of appendages coming out of a hard, segmented carapace. Some of the appendages act like tentacles, some have grasping finger-like ends and some have what look like nature’s way of making a syringe. Whatever they are it’s a hell of a lot more than six or eight.

The head looks like one of those ancient photos of what my grandfather called an auto-mobile, well the front end of one. Above the mouth pieces, which are also too many, the things have a lot of eyes. Two main round ones with faceted lenses, and a bunch of smaller ones lined up on the outside of the mains. And then ringing the brain case are the feelers or antennae. Frankly, the whole thing is enough to give a scorpion nightmares. I don’t know, I just kill the things.

I’m a tanker, but not in the way gramps meant the term. It took us 34 years to get the tech down to where we didn’t lose a member of the team when we swatted a bug carrier. You see, being in the tank means you’re submerged in a sort of embryonic fluid that interacts with your system without needing needles and tubes or even wires. It takes a team of six to keep one system going, and before they perfected the system, feedback would generally incapacitate or even kill one out of six with each strike.

The tank links our minds, kind of like hooking up a handful of processors in parallel. The end result is an organic quantum processor that operates at a speed the big boys upstairs have yet to classify. At first they were using it to speed up the process of weapons and transport development. They had to because the weakest thing the bugs had was more than a match for our biggest battleship. It took one third of that 34 years to drive them back to the outer rim. And then, during one session the accident happened.

            When I say accident, I mean someone was killed. The brain boys, on the other hand were as excited as hell. You see, the team had somehow open a pathway through subspace, something the tech was not intended to do. They babbled something about frequencies of dimensions and planes versus threads using particles or waves, and all the while one of the tankers was sizzling away like bacon in a pan.

            After about a year, they figured out how to send a pulse along the pathway. The head squint called it nearly X-Class in strength. I had no idea what that meant back when gramps told me about it, but now I know. The EMP pulses that are generated by a solar flare range anywhere from A Class, meaning normal background radiation, to X-Class, meaning,  “Oh my god we’re all going to die” levels.

What the tankers were able to send was at the lower X-Class level, and a portion of the feedback cooked one of the team. It also fused the bug vessel they were checking out into an exotic metal asteroid with bits of carbon here and there.

So, the brain boys had invented a weapon, but for every bug carrier it took out, we lost a tanker. Seeing as the bugs outnumber humanity by a factor of about a gig to 1, we’d be dead before they were inconvenienced. Like I said, it took 34 years to figure out the problem. For fourteen of those years, I was just a gleam in my daddy’s eye. I went in to the tank when I was eighteen. I was lucky, I only got zapped instead of cooked, and the third time it happened, I nearly went over the wall.

Oh, did I not tell you? Tankers are also condemned criminals. I earned my ticket by thinking it was okay to eat a rabbit I took down with a rock. Gramps had warned me, but I was so sick and tired of government issued beans and lentils. And I was never one to take the easy way out and kill my frustration by visiting the local mood parlor. They say the smoke is actually good for you, but all those empty eyes and stupid grins told me there was something else going on.

Do you know what a drone is? Well, yeah, if you’re thinking about those hovering eyes of big brother we see everywhere, but no, I’m talking about its use where people are concerned. Gramps used the term when he talked about the people who just went along to get along. They never bothered to read beyond what the schools taught, and so they never did much more than just becoming another cog in the wheel.

Gramps was different. Maybe that’s why I like him better than Dad. Dad was always more concerned about not being seen as a trouble maker, and when mom passed, he got worse. Our living block was on the outer edge, so I used whatever free time I had from household chores and homework, which didn’t take much, I’d read past the senior level when I was a sixer. The teacher said I was one to watch and if I did well, I might be considered for one of the academies. When I told Gramps that he said we needed to talk.

Talking, with Gramps meant walking, walking out into the greens, that miles wide belt of nature that surrounds every city on the planet. About three or four hundred years ago it was decided that, if humanity was going to survive as a species on the planet, they had to partner with it. That meant giving old mama earth breathing space, so every major city had to be surrounded by an area of wilderness at least three times the area of the city. Seems that having growing trees and bushes as well as grasslands did a better job than atmoscrubbers ever could. They also created a place where various animals could live, but that’s a tangent I don’t need to get in to right now.

To get into the wilderness we had to commit a misdemeanor. If we were caught it meant either a fine, a lashing or several hours of community service which was almost always sewer work. If I had a choice, I’d take the lashing. I’d heard said that the ladies like a man with a few scars anyway, but since the population control folks keep the sexes apart most of the time, I’ll have to work on rumor instead of fact for that one.

The tiny crime we committed was squeezing through a loose spot in the barrier between the city and the wilderness, and then making our way from the fence to the trees without being seen by a guard or a drone. As Gramps said, if you have a mind for figures, you can usually get the job done. The drones and the guards work on schedules, and the ground between the trees and the barrier isn’t flat. Learn the schedule, know how to count and its job done. And, once you’re in amongst the trees, no drone can look down from above and see you if you are not stupid enough to start a fire. You do that and you’re in the tank for sure.

“Okay, lad,” Gramps said, as we stopped on the bank of the first creek in from the tree line, “We’ll sit here and chat for a bit. Is that all right with you?” Gramps never, in the entire time I knew him once ordered me to do anything. He always asked, and if I refused, he never brought it up again. I learned real early that refusing was a stupid thing to do.

“Sure thing, Gramps,” I said. I also didn’t ask him what he wanted to talk about. I’d find out, whether I asked or not, and he considered my asking to be bad manners, another stupid thing to do.

He chose a spot and then so did I.

Gramps never bothered with what he called beating around the bush. He went straight to the point, “You have a problem, lad. You’ve attracted the attention of the authorities.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about right then, and I told him so, “But Gramps, I haven’t broken any laws, except maybe coming into these woods. What do they think I did?”

He laughed at that, a soft, almost sad laugh, and then he told me what he meant, “No lad, what you did was probably worse, at least worse for a man’s soul. They think you’re good material for them to use. They mean to train you up to be one of them.”

“But I don’t want to be one of them?” I objected. At the time I was twelve, I think. Mom had just passed a year back.

He smiled and nodded, “I know, lad,” He said, “But they’ve got their eye on you. What was your last testing, how did you do?”

“I aced it,” I said proudly. Actually it had been almost too easy. It was as if the classes were being made as easy as possible. I actually had to search the library archives to find answers to all the various questions the text books brought up. Rarely did any of them mention why a thing had happened or what it’s happening had resulted in. It was the same with the numberings, why did some numbers not resolve? And if they did not, was there a pattern to them? It seemed to me that anyone with any curiosity would want to find out why. Gramps had begun to show me where some numbering systems actually used letters and symbols to take the place of whole strings of numbers as well as signal what you did with them. It was almost like a language all its own. I found out about a year after that it was called calculus and it was a type of language.

Gramps nodded as he said, “I know you did. You father got the notice. You also finished the test too rapidly. It made some of the educators uncomfortable. What do you think you should do about that, lad?”

I had some trouble digesting what he was telling me, doing good was a bad thing?

I told him how I felt and he chuckled as he nodded.

He said, “Well, I should have expected that reaction. Boy, you are a sponge and you absorb every lesson you are taught. I doubt I have ever had to repeat anything I’ve told you. So, tell me this, why do you think I’m here talking with you and not your father?”

I thought about that, and then I said, “You think dad agrees with the government, but you don’t.”

He nodded again, “Right as rain, lad. I’ve known men, and women, rare creatures that they are, who have accepted the invitation to enter the bureaucracy, and in to doing have surrendered their soul. What came out the other end was no longer human.” He almost sounded like he was speaking more to himself than to me at that point.

“They turned them into bugs?” I gasped. You see, Gramps had never teased me, not once. I’d learned to always take him at his word.

He didn’t laugh at me, that wasn’t his way. He just shook his head and said, “No, I mean inside,” He thumped his chest, “Here, the part that makes you human, the compassion, the empathy and the heart. You work for the authorities long enough, and you come to accept that as the way things should be. People stop being people, individuals with dreams and ambitions and they become tick marks on a form. No longer human,” He pressed, “But a form shifter. That’s what bureaucracy means, lad; government by desk.”

A frog chose that moment to hop into the creek.

I watched the frog for a second as it skimmed through the water to vanish behind a rock, and then I murmured, “But I don’t want to be a form shifter.”

“Then you won’t be, lad,” Gramps said. “If I know anything, I know you have a strong mind and an even stronger sense of self.

“But what about Dad?” I asked.

“He will just have to think you’re doing a good job in school, lad,” Gramps said, “And he’ll be proud. Be satisfied with that,” He said, rubbing the back of my head.

Then he stood, “Well, “We’ve been away long enough. We don’t want to be seen as missing now, do we?”

I said, “No Gramps.”

♦          ♦          ♦

A month later I didn’t have to worry anymore about what my father wanted because he joined my mom. No one ever told me how it happened. I probably never would have found out, except for that day I overheard one of the unit agents having a talk with Gramps.

I was trying to figure out how to an escape velocity puzzle I’d discovered on a part of a text book I saw poking out of one of the recycle bins. It is supposed to be a small crime if anyone catches you digging through the bins, but I figured if the pages were already hallway out of the bin, it wasn’t really digging, was it?

I’d almost got to where I knew what the third integer was when I heard the voices coming from the balcony above me, “You the father of this man?”

That question never brought with it good news. I’d heard it asked often enough and in nearly all of its variables, father, mother, son, neighbor and so on. Regardless of the answer, bad news always followed.

Then I heard Gramps’ voice and my heart hit bottom, “Yes, I’m his father,” Was all he said. Gramps was the smartest man I knew, and he’d taught me a long time ago to never volunteer information to the agents. He also said to never lie, but let them ask before they got the answer.

There was a pause as if the agents were expecting more. They’d have a long wait if they were.

Finally another voice, this one was female, and I nearly made myself known as an eavesdropper by trying to catch a glimpse of that marvel of nature. I was at that age Gramps called hormonal and my thoughts and dreams more and more were centering on what it would be like to have one of them with me. But listening to this voice I quickly decided I never wanted to see her or have her see me. She sounded icy as if all the emotion had been drained from her and locked away somewhere frozen.

Her words were, “We need to know if you have seen this man, your son in the last few hours.”

Then I heard Gramps say, “I understand the need you claim, but I hear no question.”

Cold bloomed in my gut, and I thought, “Oh Gramps, don’t play with them.”

The male voice said, in a nasty tone, “This one is a thinker, Major.”

Another thought hit me, “Oh deity, they’re not agents but authorities!”

The Major’s voice said, in that same cold, emotionless tone, “Good, I prefer to deal with people who have a functional mind. I am so sick of the drones infesting these units, aren’t you?”

Gramps replied, “Conditions could be improved, I agree.”

The male voice snarled, “Why you—“

And then the woman rapped out, “Hold, sergeant! I asked a valid question and received a valid answer, delivered without any insinuation of insult. An opinion was asked for and delivered. If you lash a man for that, I will have you placed in to the tanks. Do you hear me?”

I had never heard an adult express terror before, and I never wanted to hear it again, “N-no, I mean, yes,” The sergeant stammered, “Major, I hear you.”

The Major said, likely to Gramps, “We are asking about the timing because we found a body near the evaporator complex that could be this man. If you had seen him within a certain time frame, doing so would eliminate the possibility the body was his.”

I already knew the answer. I had no idea why my father would be around the evaporators, even bacteria couldn’t live there, but I knew, inside, it was him just the same.

Gramps replied, “I understand.”

There was more silence and then the Major said, “You’re waiting for a question, aren’t you? Never volunteer information that isn’t asked, right? Very well, when was the last time you saw or were with your son?”

Gramps answered, “My best estimate is roughly four hours ago.”

The Major replied, “Then I must require you to come with us and identify the body.”

I heard Gramps say, in an almost inaudible voice, “I will comply.”

I heard them leave. They never walked past my spot, and after a long enough wait, I went upstairs to our unit. It was a long, long miserable wait and when Gramps finally made it back I saw he’d been crying. He looked at me and said, in this soft, lost-sounding voice, “I’m so sorry lad.”

And that was all we ever said about it. He never told me what he saw, and I never asked. Mom was gone, Dad was gone, and it was just Gramps and me. That is, until the day one of the bug scouts made it into our atmosphere.

                                                ♦          ♦          ♦