The Space Horsemen
by Prospero Pulma, Jr.
“My decision is final, Captain.” Admiral Guenz glared at Captain Loyola. “FES-15T is to investigate the lightshow in Sector 10.”
Even though he was near Mars and the admiral was in high Earth orbit, Captain Loyola still averted the admiral’s burning gaze. Speaking like a cadet on his first day at Space Academy, he spoke: “Admiral, we’re a transport, not a recon ship.”
“Would I be sending a space cow if I had better ships for the mission? As things stand, all my cruisers, corvettes, patrol ships, recon ships are busy checking bandits or too far away to reach Sector 10 in time.”
Loyola cringed. He imagined the bandits — in non-federal ships that had traded laser fire with federal ships over potential space colonies and mines — laughing at his ship’s four light laser cannons.
“Patrols report no bandit activity in your path. A patrol ship will start shadowing you a day from now.”
The admiral’s concern for FES-15T encouraged Loyola to point the Commander of Space Command to an alternative. “Admiral, we don’t have a recon ship’s sensors.”
“Improvise!” the admiral yelled.
Loyola shuddered. He killed his thoughts of bringing his ship’s insufficient speed and armaments to the argument. “Yes, sir.”
“Let your electronics engineer prove he’s worthy of his title. This mission is Priority 1 for the federal government. Be a good captain. Work with me in pleasing the feds.” The admiral’s hologram vanished, darkening the conference room.
Loyola sat in the darkness before he reread Space Command’s order. The command was redeploying FES-15T to an outlying corner in the asteroid belt called Sector 10 to investigate stationary flashes of light detected by amateur telescopes but undetected by deep space telescopes.
FES-15T had sent an unmanned delivery vehicle loaded with ten tons of supplies and a new rover vehicle to New Gaia on Mars six hours ago. The delivery was its twentieth mission, five more than the regular number of deliveries.
Since then, the ship’s communications had clogged with men announcing to family and friends on Earth and federal space colonies their upcoming furlough. Even Loyola had called his wife and son to start packing for AquaWorld. With the new mission extending their deployment, he thought it wise to review the manual on handling a mutiny.
* * *
Captain Loyola read the latest report on Federal Earth Ship-15T’s course on his palm-sized computer that received updates from the ship’s systems. “Luna,” he yelled, “send message to Space Command: FES-15T leaving Sector Two.” In a voice imperceptible to Luna he said, “Damn you, Admiral Guenz.”
Luna, the captain’s computer, replied in a saccharine feminine voice. “Message sent. Awaiting new command.”
Loyola shifted in his captain’s chair set on a center platform in the bridge to glance at the navigator. “Thanks for the update, Lieutenant.”
“I’m just the button pusher here, Captain,” Lieutenant Pio replied from behind the navigator’s table. It was projecting three-dimensional images of FES-15T and other celestial objects. “Becky is doing all the flying and reporting.”
FES-15T was Becky to her crew but “space cow” to the men who had gawked at her cargo deck. It could hold three unmanned delivery vehicles and five thousand tons of cargo. She was also “space cow” to the men who laughed at her boxy hull or watched her plod through outer space while most ships were zipping past her.
“But you’re the man by the navigator’s table.” Loyola glanced at a figure hunched before the electronics engineer’s computer. “Lieutenant, since you’ve cut me from your electronic eyes and ears, might as well tell me what’s around Becky.” He watched the lieutenant move to his backup computer.
Seconds later, the electronic engineer’s head popped out from behind the computer. “Zero contact for federals and bandits, sir. Becky is clear for the next six hours,” he said.
“Luna,” Loyola yelled, “send message to Space Command: Zero contact and no projected contact in the next six hours.”
“Message sent. Awaiting new command.”
“Zero contact. The bastard wasn’t lying,” Loyola murmured as he strode to the electronics engineer’s station. Peering over the engineer’s shoulder, he said, “I’ll adjust your shuteye, Lieutenant, and toss in three Pro-Sleep pills and a day off, exactly what the doc recommended to flush out X-Sleep.”
“No more sleep meds for me, sir. Just long, natural sleep,” Lieutenant Francisco replied.
Loyola watched Francisco move to the engineer’s primary computer with the swiftness of someone who had just started his shift rather than someone who was in his thirty-sixth hour of emergency duty. The engineer’s vigor could not have come from living on only a maximum dose of X-Sleep in the past day and a half.
Francisco brought Becky’s sensors to a level just below the resolution of a reconnaissance ship’s systems.
“Complete your modifications then get your long, natural sleep.”
Loyola’s computer lit up with a reminder that he read into the intercom. “Next duty watches report to your stations in fifteen minutes.”
“Starting test, sir.”
“Run it and then get your shuteye.”
Francisco’s computer fed an image of a pockmarked asteroid shaped like a deformed ball to the monitor hanging over his station. “That asteroid’s ten thousand miles away, sir.”
Loyola stared at the image. “Our old range.” Before Francisco’s upgrade, Becky’s sensors could detect and identify objects from ten thousand miles and calculate their trajectories relative to her path, but they were blind to the objects’ composition.
“Watch.” A colorful graph replaced the space rock. Francisco read the accompanying caption. “S-type.” He shifted to an apparently empty spot. The system displayed the gross image of another asteroid. “That’s 250 thousand miles away.” And its spectral representation is “M-type.”
Loyola patted Francisco’s shoulder. “The recon guys will be envious of your upgrades.”
Loyola heard the door sliding open and boots pounding on the metal floor and stopping behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and smiled at the second watch. “In a minute.”
“Aye, Captain.” Commander More spread his feet a foot apart and clasped his hands in front of his body. The two sergeants at his flanks assumed the same stance.
“The stars of my upgrade, sir,” Francisco said. Several images of infrared and ultraviolet light replaced the M-type asteroid on the monitor.
“Spectral analysis, sir. We’ll have a good chance of knowing what we’ll be meeting out there. And this...” Francisco keyed a command.
Loyola beamed as he read a sign in neon declaring that the sensors were preparing to transmit data to Space Command. “Data link.”
“With a little help from Luna, Admiral Guenz in his little high chair will see what we’re seeing.”
“You will get a commendation for this.”
“Integrating modifications into system,” Francisco declared.
“Good.” Loyola clapped the lieutenant on the shoulder before facing the executive officer, junior electronics engineer, and junior navigator standing behind him. “Sergeant Martin,” he addressed the junior electronics engineer, “see how Lieutenant Francisco’s upgrades work.”
“Aye, Captain.” Sergeant Martin saluted and marched to Francisco’s station.
“Sergeant Cruz,” Loyola nodded at the junior navigator, “to Lieutenant Pio.” The captain’s computer bleeped. He read the fresh report on Becky’s position. “Luna, send message to Space Command: FES-15T in Sector Three.”
“Message sent,” Luna announced. “Awaiting new order.”
“Stand by for change of watch.” Loyola motioned to his executive officer, Commander More, to follow him to the captain’s chair.
“We will be on site in twelve hours, Commander. I can hibernate in my cabin while you run Becky, but the admiral ordered me to supervise the recon.” He backslapped his steady right-hand man and told the crew that their diversion to Sector 10 would mean a longer vacation when they returned to port. The men stopped grumbling after that.
More snickered. “Prerogatives of command, Captain. My ego is not bleeding.”
“Present speed and course will put us on site in twelve hours. A long shuteye for me, a short one for Francisco.”
“Twelve hours unless we encounter...”
Captain Loyola gave the commander a sharp look. “Yes.” He watched Francisco pointing at his monitor and computer while kneeling beside Sergeant Martin who had taken his chair. He frowned when he glimpsed the lieutenant’s hand resting on the armchair, right over the sergeant’s hand. “Lieutenant, get your sleep.”
* * *
The klaxon rallying men to their battle stations screamed through the plump pillow that Loyola had put over his ears. He checked the time. Six hours into his sleep time. Somebody banged on his door. He threw off the pillow and straightened his uniform. He had been sleeping in it. Then he stepped into his shoes.
Loyola went out into the passageway. There was no crewman at either end, but men were shouting in the other passageways. His battle station was on the bridge, three levels above.
The captain’s cabin was normally at a level below the bridge. On his first day of command, Loyola saw the bed, couch, mini-fridge, and shower in his designated quarters. He moved two decks down to what the men called the steerage. He liked the single bed and desk in an enlisted man’s room. Looking up, he remembered why the captain’s quarters had been situated a short sprint away from the bridge.
The klaxon continued nagging the crew to rush to their stations. Loyola started running. He paused after conquering the second level and glanced at the catwalk above him; it was shuddering from the rapid footfalls of someone wearing sneakers and a red tracksuit. Only one person on Becky wore that sports apparel, and only one person ran around the ship for exercise. He stepped on the third level’s landing in time to see the runner entering the bridge.
Loyola sprinted into the bridge. Glancing around, he saw the lieutenants manning the primary systems, the sergeants at the backups, and the commander in the captain’s chair in Loyola’s absence. Everyone was in place in battle status, but their eyes were fixed on Francisco’s monitor. “Commander, sit rep.”
More jumped out of the chair. “We’re in Sector Six, Captain. The contact is not a bandit. ET has found us.”
Sergeant Cruz was guiding Becky back on course after maneuvering past an asteroid. Sergeant Martin was feeding him the trajectories of nearby asteroids when the sensors captured a sudden flash of light at the edge of their range. Becky was leaving Sector Six.
“The sensors, Lieutenant?”
In his tracksuit and sneakers, Francisco stood out in a room full of crisp uniforms. “They’re partly blind to it, sir.”
“Got your long, natural sleep?”
“Five hours, Captain. I was on my first lap when the klaxon sounded.”
Thirty-six hours awake, five hours asleep, and still have the energy to run around the ship. I should take up running, Loyola thought.
“Sergeant Martin got this, Captain.” He nodded at Sergeant Martin seated behind him. “First sighting at maximum range.” Everyone saw a light; it was broad and white. “Magnification one thousand.” At that distance and magnification, the light resembled sunlight at dusk: fiery but stained by dark rays.
“The spectral analysis, Lieutenant?”
“She... Sergeant Martin got this, sir.” Francisco flashed blank images on the screen. “It’s invisible to spectral analysis. Matches what the astronomers saw.” He resumed tracking the light. “Still accelerating. One hundred fifty thousand. Magnifying.”
Light and dark spots pooled in distinct patterns appeared within the light. Loyola looked as if he were staring at ghosts. He glanced at More. “Humanoids?”
More squinted at the images. “The upper part, Captain. They’re riding horses? Looks like horses. And they say that cavalry cannot operate in space.” He snorted. He was the only one grinning in a group watching an army of humanoids riding preternatural steeds.
“Data link ready to transmit to Space Command, Captain,” Francisco reported.
Loyola entered a password in his computer to open an authentication key. “Luna, open a data link.
“Data link opened. Awaiting new command.”
“Send message to Space Command. Information in data link First Light, Priority Code 1. Authentication key L-M-5-1-P-Z-7.”
“Authentication key valid. Message sent. Awaiting new command.”
Classifying the data link as First Light would put the information on the lap of the admiralty’s signals intelligence chief, ahead of thousands of messages coursing through all Space Command channels every minute. Becky’s transmission was the type that brought the joint chiefs of staff and the federal president and vice-president to confer wherever they might be.
“Lieutenant Pio, initiate evasive maneuvers at thirty thousand kilometers.”
“One hundred thousand miles,” said Francisco. “Magnifying.”
The engineer’s console warned of an inbound message labeled Low Restriction. With Francisco tracking the contact, the message went to Sergeant Martin’s computer. “Captain,” she said, “message from Command: Observe and report. Exercise maximum restraint.”
Loyola glanced at the images and wondered who should exercise maximum restraint. “Luna, transmit response: FES15-T to observe and report. Will exercise maximum restraint.”
At one hundred thousand miles, the sensors started magnifying the images for every ten thousand kilometers that the light advanced. The images went straight to the admiralty through the data link.
The captain’s computer buzzed with messages from within the ship. He handed it to More. “Captain, weapons, engineering, medical... everyone is asking about the light outside,” the commander said, returning the computer to Loyola.
“Luna, activate intercom.” Looking at More in the eye, Loyola said. “Only fools hide the truth when it is clear as daylight.”
“Intercom activated. Awaiting new command.”
The klaxon gave out a short, screeching sound before Loyola’s voice came over the intercom. “This is your captain. As the first to report a First Light, we are already heroes before we get medals and parades. General alarm stays until we confirm our visitors’ nature and intent.” He looked at the light and the mounted humanoids within it. “May we... I hope we will be living heroes after this event.”
Becky’s lights flickered before glowing at full power again. More called the engineering room. “Engineering says their systems are running at one hundred percent.”
The monitor flashed a new image. “Fifty thousand miles,” said Francisco. “Magnifying.”
“This is weirder than seeing little green men in spaceships, Captain,” More quipped.
“Forty thousand. Magnifying.”
Riders in glowing robes filled the light’s front. Horsemen holding banners packed the center of the leading echelon. At the spearhead was a rider, crowned and radiating red and white rays from his bosom.
“There are thousands of them,” said Loyola.
“Millions, sir,” Francisco replied. “It is a thousand kilometers wide, packed with humanoids. There can be millions of them if it is as deep as it is wide.”
Martin stood up and stared at the monitor. “It’s true.” Her hands trembled as she ran her fingers over the images.
“What?” Loyola watched in disbelief at Martin touching the images.
“It’s true.” She started sniffling.
“Be a soldier, Sergeant. ” Loyola stepped back when Martin turned around.
“I should have believed my grandma,” she whimpered. Her head turned to one side, then the other before she pushed Loyola aside and raced out of the bridge.
“Dammit, Sergeant.” Loyola started after her.
More jumped between him and the door. “Orders for gunnery, Captain? Please, captain.”
“Lasers against light? An asteroid has better odds of stopping that army than Becky.” He returned to standing behind Francisco.
“Thirty thousand. Mag—”
Every light and instrument in Becky died.
Loyola knelt beside Francisco. “You are the genius,” he whispered. “Explain the sergeant’s raving.”
Francisco replied in a thinner whisper. “My grandmother had stories, tales, I don’t know, from her grandma who heard it from grandma. They were only stories, legends.”
“Some legends are forgotten truths. I will bet my rank that this thing is not...”
Light flooded the bridge as if someone had pulled down the thick curtains in a dark room. More and the navigators ran to the window.
“Raise the shields,” Loyola said.
“Power’s out, Captain.” More replied. “Brace for impact.” He held his arms over his face as the first rider passed through the layers of metal and composites encasing Becky. He screamed as the steed’s legs plowed through him.
The bridge burned with light as more riders followed the first horseman.
Loyola shut his eyes and thought of his wife and son as a horseman appeared in front of him. He gasped as he saw in his mind the crowned rider walking among men in a long forgotten time. Loyola’s son, then his wife, walked into the vision. As he watched, his family melted into the crowds that followed the horseman. The stone buildings and open fields that were the rider’s world became gray and metallic until Loyola realized that he was standing on Becky’s bridge.
Loyola blinked in Becky’s light. “Casualties?” he asked More.
More glanced at a sniffling Francisco. “Only a few shattered nerves.”
Francisco spoke. “My grandmother knew that king.”
Copyright © 2013 by Prospero Pulma, Jr.