An Inhospitable Gray

I wrote this for a local sci-fi organization's writing contest. It got some pretty harsh criticism, and, for the most part, I can see the need for some serious revision. It's presented here in its original form.

A tiny speck of silvery gray flitted through the duller gray, faintly luminescent expanse of the intricately-curved manifold. While the manifold had a crazily-folded shape-- jagged mountains of dull gray folded over itself like laundry in a dryer-- so uniform was its color that it appeared a sea that stretched infinitely in all directions. The speck was so tiny that it never ventured near the complexities of the manifold through which it sailed. Then suddenly, the speck seemed to change direction to aim itself at a protrusion of the manifold.

Aboard the speck, a twenty-yard circular civilian transport ship, stood Enoch McGann. He stared blankly out the round viewport at the nothing surrounding the ship and the faint glow of electricity along the ship's barely-visible conductive plates. Diametrically across the round room, Heather Bentley was seated at a shining silver table enjoying a drink and listening to a man animatedly talk. Pretending to read a docket, she idly sipped the drink and peered occasionally at Enoch. Glancing at the time on the digital device attached to her arm, she stood and walked through the thin crowd of people to the man standing at the window.

"Hey, McGann. We're almost ready to jump to normal space. It's about time you learned your mission."

"About time indeed," he said emptily.

"We're about to enter the Algol system. A string of ships have--" she furtively looked around to ensure everyone was still watching the speaker "--been sabotaged... exploding after takeoff. There have been twelve such attacks so far."

"Algol... the demon star. How do you know it's sabotage?" He glanced at a clock on the wall above the fore door of the circular room. He instinctively grasped the handrail beneath the window. She followed his example, and pushed her shoulder against the wall.

The ship shuddered momentarily as it slid through the hyperspatial manifold into regular space. The never-ending gray gave way instantly to deep, black, star-speckled space in an instant. Two bright lights shone brighter than the distant stars and raced rightward across the viewport as the ship yawed portward. The small crowd of people, lightly bracing a few vertical columns or the handrails along the wall, were pushed aft as the ship accelerated toward the heart of the Algol system: among the two stars and handful of planets floated beautiful, deep-brown Thoth.

She resumed as though the interruption hadn't happened, "Evidence is available on Thoth. I don't know how much I can safely tell you here. Besides, everyone planetside knows. Thoth's Planetary Force has enough on their hands with pirates, and while folks are keeping guard of their own ships, this saboteur is skilled."

He rolled his eyes and looked at her squarely in the face, "'This saboteur?' So, you know it's the work of a singular person..."

The clock flashed a few times, and the travelers gathered their belongings that were strapped to the handful of tables in the center of the ship and stood by the handrails around the circumference. A crewmember walked into the room, looked around, nodded, and left.

She frantically spoke quietly in his ear. As she spoke, his face twisted with severe agitation. His brow furrowed, and he said at almost a shout, "Why do you bother me with this?"

"You're the best," she said simply. Seeing his eyes roll again, she added, "We need a private investigator on this. The ruling class is corrupt and law-enforcement is stretched pretty thin."

The craft entered a gigantic airlock leading beneath the surface of Thoth. The planet made such a wide orbit around the binary star system that the surface was a cold, dead, dusty brown, clay wasteland. Enoch McGann traversed the warm and bustling streets of Thoth's underground capitol megalopolis Tyrale alone.

Bright, glimmering seafoam-green tiles of stone passed beneath his feet and his downturned head. Heightened security. Stops and checks. More walking through the tall and vast underground cloisters of Thoth.

Down a lonely, squat corridor away from the tumult of the crowd stood a door that was partially obstructed by the lighting conduits and ventilation ducts. Terminating the brown and green corridor was a duller, green door with a black plaque and silver letters reading "Planetary". Enoch directed his steps there, and without hesitation, he entered.

Moments later, he was crowded with reports of the ships of Bentley's report. Lumbering, cigar-shaped titans carrying various cargos to different systems. The Ajax III captained by Flous was on its way to the Rigel system carrying textiles, the Judas captained by Noether headed toward the agrarian Sirius carrying a load of machinery, and the Agamemnon X under Schock was on its way to the Aldebaran system with a shipment of bolus-- the local grain of Algol. These were the last of the twelve. Nine more ships, hundreds more crewmen, and a dozen great captains all turned to dust within the Algol system before entering hyperspace.

His mind spun at the sheer insignificance of details. Nothing illicit was mentioned in reports, and no remnants of cargo were removed from the ships after their destruction. This wasn't piracy. Adding to the noise were other reports leading up to the incidents: failed drug raids, missing robot parts, stolen tools, and even one misfiled report of missing human remains. Nothing seemed relevant, and that which was relevant was scant.

Hours passed.

Stretched over the mountain of papers representing the crime reports, cargo manifests, crew lists, and mechanical logs of a dozen ships, Enoch began to doze. It seemed that no sooner than his eyes had closed that he felt a familiar hand on his shoulder.

"I brought coffee," Heather said.

Enoch jerked his head up to see some of the members of the Planetary Service laughing at his somnolence.

"Finding any patterns?" she asked with obvious sympathy.

"No," he returned gruffly. He put the mug to his face. His face matched the mug in whiteness.

"Have you tried--"

"Look! Heather... I'm sure you mean well, and I thank you for the coffee, but I need time and space to analyze this."

She looked apologetic. His eyebrows rose. They exchanged glances laced with meaning: his eyebrows furrowed and his eyes squinted exaggeratedly; she looked pleadingly; his mouth grimaced deeply to express agitation. Finally, she left him. He swigged down most of the coffee in a single gulp.

Alone in the dusty, drab room, surrounded by Tyralian browns and greens and showered in cold, fluorescent light, Enoch stared blankly. His body bent slightly forward. His eyes cut a line that intersected the coffee mug. It was three quarters empty, but then the ships weren't full, either.

The ships weren't full.

Thundering on his heels, disheveled McGann raced through the corridors. Almost eleven-twelfths of the local day was gone-- local time was almost rolling past 90 percent. The bars would be open. He spoke furiously on the comms channel. It was time for reconnaissance.

He passed out of the tiny capillaries for police and utility workers into a central hub that bisected the Tyralian city center. He crossed it to its center and turned a gentle right. A half-mile through the diminishing crowd toward the spaceport his march continued. He took a more leisurely pace as the gigantic airlock of the spaceport loomed far in the distance. Nearer were some bars and cheap restaurants. His visage was lacerated by annoyance, rage, and a hint of self-pity. Seeing the small brownish door with friendly yellow light beaming from a tiny window, he controlled himself.

He took a deep breath and relaxed his face.

An hour later-- near local midnight-- he was carousing with a band of locals. A dozen Planetary agents were interspersed. He sang the songs of the dockworkers and was surrounded completely by the planet-bound laborers and space-faring merchants alike, but all the while, he was listening to every word spoken around him. Moreover, in a dark corner and disguised was Bentley. Surrounded by bottles of local ale, she and another member of Planetary feigned incapacitation.

Some time later, Bentley rose from her feigned slumber. A new, local conversation piqued her interest. Rubbing her face and combing her hands through her hair, she heard a lead. She stood and stretched, walked past McGann, whispered a word and wandered toward the toilet.

Enoch McGann shrugged at his newfound friends and excused himself. He strode purposefully through the shadowy brown of the tavern. He approached a table whereat some ruffians sat and sat with them as though they were friends. Their leader looked at this newcomer.

"Can we help you?" he rasped. He was a heavy smoker: he must have been wealthy.

Enoch surveyed his surroundings. "I need some lifters. A friend tells me you ca--"

"What 'friend'?"

"That's not important. Price is important," he looked slyly.

"No... Your friend's name is very," he breathed heavily, "very important."


"Schock's dead. He got some lifters from a competitor," came one of the faceless comrades.

Enoch feigned amazement, "Did you kill him?"

"No, you fool, but he was a slave-runner for Kovalevskaya. Talk to him if you want lifters. Leave us the hell alone."

Morning came, but not before a few other very similar conversations unfolded. Bentley and McGann sat in a small corner of the dingy bar not far from the spaceport.

"What's the plan?" yawned Bentley.

McGann clenched a fist in annoyance. "From all our research last night, we know at least seven of the ships were carrying slaves. Extrapolated, they probably all were. We need to find more slave-running captains and see who touches their ships. We've got our people everywhere as of an hour ago. Now, we just wait for our signal. Do you know who supplied the slaves for the twelve ships?"


"That narrows our search and cuts out some of the waiting. What happens afterward depends on a great number of things."

Some tedious days passed without incident. Hundreds of thousands of people serviced the tens of thousands of ships that landed and departed from great, brown Thoth. Knowing that they were only looking for ships that ran slaves lessened the search, and knowing the source of the slaves helped more, but it was still a frustrating challenge.

Ten thousand miles away in the port town of Diso, one of McGann's informants finally reported.

"We've got a reported slave-runner designated 'Clotho' ready for takeoff," a voice said through a communications channel.

"I don't care about the slave-runner: I'm looking for a saboteur," said Enoch on an inspection of the small naval station adjacent the Tyralian airlock. He watched some robotic arms deftly and intelligently repairing a ship without human intervention.

"We've got an unregistered tech who worked on the ship. He's about to jump off-world in fifteen minutes: Point of departure: Diso, gate thirteen. Destination: unknown."

"Good enough for me," Enoch said. He began running toward a triangular bullet-like fighter on loan from the local authorities. "He's probably trying to get away before his fireworks detonate. Order the slaver ship grounded!"

At around 55 percent local time, the late-mid-day merchant and mercenary rush continued with a sea of tiny dots racing upward from bright Diso on dismal Thoth. A similar filament ran within the outgoing vessels planet-bound through the firmament. Gray shimmering vessels rocketed toward the nearer star at the center of the system and back, but tangentially to this torrent, another gray speck appeared from the direction of Tyrale.

"Designated, anonymous Asp: identify yourself," squawked McGann into his radio with his targeting reticle floating on a bright wisp leaving the Thothian atmosphere. He looked at the display. The targeting reticle was locked on a single dot amid hundreds of tiny, pixels whose labels turned the screen into a particolored digital soup.

Most of the ships trudged a full sixty light-seconds from the planet before jumping into hyperspace, but from the dense silvery ribbon, a single point twinkled out.

Enoch McGann raised his eyes to his dashboard and pounded the wonderful garden of controls. As he calibrated his ship for an instantaneous jump, a voice crackled in his ear.

"The ship Clotho refused our hail: she's skybound! Proceed with caution. We've warned all local ships."

For a brief moment, Enoch hoped he was wrong. He'd throw away all the hours of staking out, the night of research, his years of experience, and his tugging, wrenching gut instinct. He'd give the universe to have his crew be entirely amiss in their report.

The ready light for the hyperspace drive flicked on. His engines whirled to a slow whine as his ship coasted toward the gray ribbon. His hand reached for the control lever that would ease his ship into the gray.

Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, he saw the display. A label blinked three times and disappeared. Clotho! A flash crossed the canopy. The range was close. A blue freighter, a giant, crumbled awkwardly. Spinning and crumbling, the hulk suddenly and soundlessly ejected bright white and orange tongues of flame. The smaller ships reflected the crazy light. Some ships turned, trying frantically to escape the blast. Others were sucked into the maelstrom and disintegrated in smaller, auxiliary flashes.

A hand within a Planetary fighter pulled an orange lever, and one of the bystanders of the horrific explosion vortex disappeared.

Enoch McGann's ship was covered in a sea of gray. The lightning-like energies of hyperspace crackled along the conductive exterior of his ship. Full energy registered on four bars of his display.

Among a handful ships, the targeting reticule easily found the saboteur.

"Halt and identify yourself," McGann shouted. An angry vein pulsed over his eye. "Surrender your ship, or you will be destroyed!"

McGann gave his drive a pulse of energy, and he was accelerating to the speed of the offender.

He heard a weird, alien screech in his radio. For an instant, McGann was reminded of the sounds of metallic robot arms scraping against a hull under construction, but in a moment, it resolved into speech. A young man's voice rang out like a tinhorn, "I'm Law. I free all hostages."

"No! You killed the victims as well as the slave-traders."

"There are no victims. The fools who become slaves can't be saved. Whatever decisions they make in liberty will likely subjugate them into a different type of slavery."

McGann rolled his eyes, and wild radio noise made him wince. "We have people who will listen. Stop and surrender your ship."

The point through the canopy had, during their radio communication, resolved into a clearly identifiable Asp. It was vaguely box-like with a bulky fuselage and stubby wings. McGann was catching up.

Hyperspace curved and contorted, though, and McGann's warning system suddenly illuminated. A piercing klaxon drowned whatever response 'Law' had offered.

Enoch readied his weapon system keeping the targeting reticule trained on the Asp, but the reticule blinked off. The Asp disappeared!

"Shit!" McGann was trembling. Livid, he screamed and punched a solid metal panel on the dashboard. He pushed his ship faster. Letting out a hoarse yell, he braced himself. The hyperspace ready light was dark.

Ships were designed with engines to jump between three-space and four-space. Crashing through a barrier in hyperspace doesn't guarantee safe passage back into the universe.

It's also hell on the ship.

A violent, deafening thud preceded a loud, audible clap as the air first hit the ship. A millionth of a second later came a sonic boom from shrieking metal. McGann, nauseous from the transition from hyperspace and gasping for breath, was chasing this idiot through a planet's atmosphere. If he’d materialized a second later, he might have appeared beneath the planet’s surface. The thought panicked him.

Compression quickly turned the forward-facing surfaces of McGann's ship bright orange. McGann was thrown forward from deceleration.

The target moved up and away from the planet, and McGann was all too glad to follow. As he was thrust into his seat, he squeezed the trigger of his control yoke and a lone shot from his Gatling gun bolted in front of his target: a bright white spark with a pale white streak flitted in front of the saboteur.

"Law, for the last time: fully identify yourself."

A siren, a spark, and a visible shockwave awoke, blinded, and shook McGann in his ship. The saboteur had entered hyperspace again. In frustration, he screamed. Twisting his yoke, pulling his little craft free of the planet's atmosphere, he blundered across his controls. His head ached. His eyes and ears were on the verge of bleeding from the crazy gravitational changes and the trauma of hyperspace sickness.

With vomit streaming through the tube in his mask, his craft screamed again into hyperspace.

Now, his Gatling guns twirled and spat fiery death through the calm, vast tranquil nothing of hyperspace. Bullets pushed through far-distant barriers into the real world beyond. Heedless, bleary-headed McGann chased the mostly-anonymous murderer through another hyperspatial cloud into reality. In the battered Planetary fighter, the lights flashed and sirens blared. He was losing pressure and fuel. Ships simply could not handle this torture.

McGann was beyond frustration-- beyond pain and the biological limits of his poor, human frame. He'd torn off his mask and threw it across his cockpit feebly. In the decreasing pressure of the canopy, his face was marred with blood from every orifice, and his gut was empty from persistent retching.

His ship tore through the interdimensional barriers into completely black space. It gave a hollow groan and a few alarming pops shook its weary frame. The target, barely visible by human sight but continuously tracked by the still-competent electronics, was pushing toward a growing disc of ruddy light whirling around two distant stars.

"We're back to Algol," McGann realized as he pushed his ship forward with trembling hands.

"Go ahead. Kill me," came Law's voice, "On the Planetary Force's record, I freely admit to thirteen counts of sabotage of ships carrying slaves."

With the last strength he had, Enoch McGann fired a stream of rounds from his Gatling gun and swept the line to intersect the distant ship until, with round after round rattling off the hull, the saboteur's ship emitted its grayish cloud of breathable oxygen. Closer and closer to the planet it sped. Law's engine whined down, and McGann grew closer. With a few more rounds, the rear section of Law’s ship began to tear away, and a bright bubble of flame gurgled from the aft end of the canopy. Finally, the whole wreck spewed into bright, orange fire and began its long fall to the planetary surface.

McGann's gut rumbled, and he closed his eyes and slowed his ship further. He lost consciousness as his disintegrating craft tumbled toward the planet.

From the dead, brown planet's surface, for many long minutes, a tiny, triangular gray dot grew in size and resolution against the sky of perpetual night. As soon as it was recognizable as a standard, modern fighter ship of the Planetary force, a white puff and parachute shot from the top of the canopy. Enoch McGann started his armored descent in a standard, opaque, airtight body-cage. A mile away, a dozen explosions rumbled across the land as fragments of the saboteur's ship collided with the planet's rough surface.

An hour hence, men in protective suits braved the planet's surface to rescue McGann. Then, the entire squad minus McGann went to examine the wreckage of the saboteur. A crumpled body was found in pieces, but they were wrong. Confounded, they mechanically collected all the wreckage and, in the naval yard, reconstructed what they could.

Their story unfolded: A robotic arm from any Thothian naval station built itself a body. A lexical parser within its controller had written its own lexicon. An arm became a body. The body evolved and became passable for a human body. Astounded and enticed by humanity, the being built itself a human skin from everything humanity discarded. An electronic network filled with human-generated content became a human that was instantly repulsed by its forbears, for within its charred electronic remains bore vestigial remnants of code, of history, of a moral code, and of the humans and their longing for self-ruin, their hatred of nature, and, most repugnantly, their capacity to dominate and abuse their own kind.

Heather Bentley and Enoch McGann were horrified but finished. They concluded from the perplexing perfect storm of questions that no individual was culpable for these crimes, but ability for machine metaprogramming through the procedural auto-generation of self-executing computer code would have to be kept under constant scrutiny.

Some months later, in a far-distant space station, drinking at a bar, Enoch McGann overheard a newcomer who was heavily under the influence of a bolus ale from distant Algol.

"It's genius, friend!" he slurred drowsily. "The robots write the code... then they carry it out. It's p-... pro--" he stammered. His belly tumbled, and he tugged his beard in frustration.

"Procedural," finished Enoch McGann.

The drunkard smiled. "You know!"

"I'll buy the next round if you forget all about it."