The Last Voyage of the Echidna

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“Queens growing old without growing wiser.  That’s not what we need.  That’s not what I seek to be.”

Those were the last words that Captain Navaso spoke before she went into exile, breaking from the Unified Colonies, along with 899 loyal members of her colony.

She went by choice, knowing that if she didn’t, she would be exiled anyway for speaking out against the Elder Council.  She had done so before, many times.  But something was different this time.  After half a lifetime of service to the UC, she still believed in and loved her people, but had long ago lost faith in those who led them.  As was the custom, she had to surrender her ship to another queen and captain.  She acquired a new one and designated the ship “Echidna,” a name belonging to an ancient enemy of the Formicans.  She told her crew that it was to remind all of them that friends could become enemies, and enemies could become friends.  Echidna would soon become a beloved name, for it was the name of their new home. 

“We have work to do.  But now it will be our work.”

Those were the first words that Captain Navaso spoke, her antennae curling toward her crew, after the Echidna crossed out of the Unified Colonies official borders and into the wild skies beyond.

***

Navaso had allowed and even encouraged her crew to pursue their other projects and missions, outside of the ones they were assigned.  Those projects, once meant to help the colony acquire a better ship or help officers go off and start their own colonies, would now help the crew of the Echidna survive.  And with luck and perseverance, Navaso hoped they would also help them thrive in one of the more established settlements.  

One of the projects that had the best potential was something the research and engineering team had been working on since the early days of her command, a device they called the Transdimensional Engine.  While creating portals to travel within one’s native dimension had proven theoretically and practically impossible, the creation of a portal linking different dimensions was at least plausible. 

In the first month of exile, while scouts searched for the essentials—food, water, fuel, and parts—the engineers had just begun their tests on the experimental engine.  They succeeded in opening a small portal.  But the engine’s field created some unforeseen instabilities in the ship’s structural integrity.  Safety concerns motivated the captain to halt the tests.

“In due time,” the captain told her crew. 

***

On one of their next stops to re-supply at an outpost city, another exile learned about the transdimensional engine.  She was a lone queen who had lost her entire colony.  She approached Navaso, and asked to join her crew.  With her engineering background, she believed that she could help them get the engine operational. 

Navaso’s first officer, Commander One, advised caution, pointing out that one of the captain’s flaws was that she was too trusting and too easy to forgive.

“Is it the lone queen that you’re worried about?” Navaso asked her officer as they sat having dinner in the captain’s quarters.  “Or something else?  Afraid I’ll try to buy our way back into the UC with our shimmering new engine?”

The first officer fiddled with her food.  “On first impression, I sense nothing amiss with her.  But being overly cautious should become a new habit…for all of us.”  She sighed.  “I will go have a talk with Six-Three-Six.  Make sure that she and every member of her team say no more about the TDE to anyone outside the crew from here on out.  At least until we’re ready for an official announcement.”

As for the lone queen, or LQ as she came to be called, she was given permission to join the crew.  Captain Navaso heard her first officer’s words.  But she was not yet ready to restrain all of her instincts behind caution. 

LQ was true to her word.  They only “deception” she had committed—to which she freely admitted upon first boarding—was that her motivation for approaching them was that she had longed to be part of a colony again, and better yet, a crew.  She had no aspirations to be queen or captain, and on observation, Navaso could see that LQ did seem content and happy working on the engine. 

It took the better part of a year.  But with LQ’s help, they solved enough of the safety issues to receive the captain’s okay to resume testing.

***

The whole crew was given the day off to view the first transdimensional passage.  Most would view as groups gathered in someone’s quarters, or in the mess hall, or the bridge.

Captain Navaso was in the engineering laboratory where the TDE, or “Teddy” as the lone queen called it, had been built.  The prototype engine was too complex and required too many of the ship’s built-in systems to be moved.

Commander One and a small group were watching from off-ship, just in case there was an accident that wiped out the rest of the officers.

After all the preparation, anticipation, and excitation, the first transdimensional transit was a complete success.

But it was also somewhat boring.

The transdimensional portal—as seen through the eyes of the probe they sent through—appeared only to be a rolling shimmer of the air.  The world on the other side of the portal appeared to be identical to the world on their side of the portal.  The only initial indication that the engine had done anything at all was that the probe did indeed vanish.  After watching the probe trundle along on the ground, then slowly rise into the air, sampling the environment as it moved, and painstakingly sending data and visuals back for a few hours, most of the crew slowly dropped off and returned to their duties or their usual recreation.  They would watch the TDE team’s briefing later to receive the highlights—assuming there were any highlights to report.

The TDE team reported observing subtle differences between their side of the portal and the probe’s side.  In case there was any doubt—any excited conjecture that the probe had been teleported to somewhere on their own planet—the TDE team presented the slight differences in physics that could only exist in another dimension. 

Once they performed enough analysis to prove it was safe to do so, they sent a few volunteer scouts through the portal.

“It seems we’ve gone from being technicians to becoming explorers,” the captain proclaimed proudly when the scouting team returned, none the worse for wear.

Over the course of the next few days, the team would have to patiently bear being asked the same question over and over by their fellow crewmates.

“Did you run into your evil dopplegangers?”

But the question inspired a notion in the TDE team.  They proposed adjusting a few variables to see if they could find a dimension with more obvious differences from their own. 

***

The Echidna was a fair distance from the border of Unified Colonies territory, but even if they had been just a hair away, seeing a UC scout ship cross the border and approach them would have been a strange sight.

So even before Captain Navaso gave the official order, the bridge crew switched to alert status, bringing up the appropriate views on their screens, and sending an alert to crew in other parts of the ship.

The captain, who’d been heading to the engineering lab, turned around and headed back to the bridge just in time to receive the general greeting from the scout ship’s captain.

“What service can we render?” Captain Navaso said, after returning the greeting. 

“Yes, your ship, Captain, appears to be emitting atypical energy signatures.  We are concerned these might be dangerous to nearby colonies.”

“What nearby colonies?” one of the pilots muttered under her breath. 

Captain Navaso held her forelimbs behind her back, signaling to her first officer.  The scout ship’s captain might have been making up an excuse to harass them—there were rumors of scout ships pirating near the UC borders.  But this scout ship was far from the border.  The “atypical energy signatures” could have been a generic reason, given that old ships sometimes leaked particle impurities from engines that could not be properly maintained.  But given the recent tests with the transdimensional engine, the reason could have been more than coincidence.

Navaso engaged the scout ship’s captain in some purposely inefficient communication, trying to both buy time for Commander One to find out if it were possible for the TDE’s energy signatures to be discerned by conventional scanners, and to try and tease out what the scout ship’s true purpose was in coming so far to meet the Echidna.

Captain Navaso assured the scout ship captain that she would move Echidna even farther from the border, and send a full report to the UC Elder Council about the Echidna’s many projects, as per the requirement of a voluntary exile. 

“Captain, another ship is approaching at high speed,” Commander One said.

When the captain glanced at her, the first officer shook her head.  That meant she had not yet determined whether or not the scout ship had truly detected the transdimensional engine.  LQ had appeared on the bridge and was standing beside the first officer.  She too shook her head.

“It’s a colony ship, Cap,” one of the ensigns monitoring the long-range sensors reported.

Captain Navaso just stopped herself from uttering the command to go to maximum alert.

If a scout ship was an oddity this far from the UC border, a colony ship…a colony ship was unheard of.  The only time a colony ship crossed the UC border was after a safe path had been paved by scout ships, worker ships, guard ships, all keeping the wilds at bay, and ultimately driving it back, as the UC expanded its borders.

But there were no workers or guards, no path leading to where Echidna hovered in the atmosphere.

The scout ship’s captain shifted slightly in her chair, as if someone had notified her.  Her tone shifted far more significantly.  “Captain Navaso, you are asked to surrender and hand over your ship and everything aboard, effective immediately.” 

Navaso took a measured breath.  “With utmost respect, honored Captain, may I ask why?”

“Let the record show,” the scout ship captain said, “that Captain Navaso has resisted my request.  My apologies, Captain.  But my instructions are clear.  I have no choice.”

The communications screen blinked off.

“Captain! The colony ship is in—“

“Shields!”

“—weapons range.”

The colony ship fired their longest range beam weapon just as Echidna’s shields were unfolding.  The beam struck the starboard side of the ship. 

“No damage,” someone reported.

Commander One strode up beside the captain.  “A warning shot.”

Captain Navaso nodded.  “Their beam was not at full power.”

The Echidna was not officially allowed to have weapons.  But all exiled ships had them, to protect against pirates.  The UC typically looked the other way, so long as the exiles didn’t themselves become pirates.  But the Echidna’s rail beam and measly supply of missiles was no match for a fully stocked colony ship. 

“Captain, should we fire back—maybe at the scout ship?”

“Negative—under no circumstances will we fire on them.  Or it’ll be the last thing we do.”

Commander One crossed her forelimbs.  “We can’t run either.  Or they’ll call it a hostile act and fire on us—a real strike this time.  And…it’ll be the last thing we do.”

“I know, Number One.  I’m thinking.”

One of the ensigns turned in her chair.  “We’re not disavowed.  Why are they attacking?”

LQ joined the captain at her station.  “Navaso, listen.  This is what happened to me.  This is how I lost my ship, my colony.”

“They want the TDE,” the first officer said.

The captain frowned.  “That doesn’t make sense.  We would willingly give them—“

“Commander One is right.  They don’t want to use it, Captain,” LQ said.  “They want to bury it.  Hide it.  And they will bury us too.”

The first officer turned toward the lone queen.  “You suspected this might happen?  Why didn’t you say anything earlier?  Why did you join the ship?”

LQ held up both her forelimbs and mid-limbs.  “You wouldn’t have believed me.  And I joined because I wanted to make it all public once we succeeded.  That would give us protection.  And…I figured you would owe me one, and I could ask one last favor before we parted.  You leave me in some nice peaceful dimension where queens are free to run their own colonies, maybe even just a colony of one, until the end of my days.”

Navaso had heard rumors, in the mess hall, from crew who’d heard them during re-supply stops.  LQ filled in some gaps.  Some of the exiled ships did what Echidna and her crew were trying to do, continue operating as they had while in UC territory, exploring, doing research, inventing.  The UC monitored the ships, spying from afar, and if anything the ships were doing were determined to be a threat, the UC did just what they were doing to the Echidna.

“They prefer to take the ships,” LQ said. “That way they can archive the invention, the blueprints, the artwork—whatever it is that worried them.  Archiving helps them further refine their search algorithms.  But also, they can control the release of whatever the exiled ship made, and assign credit to those who are more…cooperative. 

“That makes sense,” the captain said.

Commander One turned to her.  “It does?”

“Their ultimate aim is to ensure that what the exiled ships make leads to advancement and not disruption.”

LQ nodded.  “They consider all of us exiles—voluntary or not—to be wildcards.  They don’t kill the crew after taking the ships.  They just leave them without resources.  No communications, no food.  Nothing.  They die off before they can pass on their knowledge.”

“Then there’s no choice,” Captain Navaso said.  “I’ll surrender myself, as a distraction.  Number One, you take over as captain, and be prepared to burn the engines to maximum to get the hell out of here.  Get our best pilots on the bridge.  Fifty-seven.  Two-Three-Oh—“

“Captain—“

“You’ll be marked as pirates,” Captain Navaso continued, ignoring her first officer’s attempt to interrupt. “And the UC gives no quarter to pirates.  But you know that.  You’ve been trying to get us to be more cautious anyway.”

“We have to run,” LQ said.

Captain Navaso touched her screen.  “Yes, I can see that.  Thank you.  But they are already targeting our engines.  The moment we begin to move off, they’ll fire.  They’ll have us scuttled before we can get out of range.  Is there any way we can get more shielding to the engines?”

“What about Teddy—uh—the TDE?” Commander One said.  “They don’t know where it is.”

“And he’s deeper in the ship, more protected,” LQ said, nodding.  “Even if they can detect the transdimensional energy signatures, we might get away before they can re-target.”

“It’s too dangerous,” the captain said.  “We haven’t scouted the new dimension.  For all we know, it’s a realm of fire and we’ll all die as soon as we emerge.”

LQ stood before Navaso, blocking her view of the screen.  “We’re all dead anyway, Captain.  At least Teddy can give this crew a chance to survive—with a ship, and more importantly, with their queen and captain.”

“Whatever we’re going to do, we need to do it fast, Captain,” the first officer said.  “The colony ship is almost on us.”

“I know what we’re going to do,” Captain Navaso said.  “Listen to me, both of you, and send the commands out to the crew the instant I re-engage communications with the scout.”

***

Just as Captain Navaso announced her surrender and her intention to allow the scout ship’s crew to board, the Echidna’s standard engines hummed up to full power.  The ship started to move away. 

As expected, they took fire.  The colony ship disabled their standard engines.  But the Echidna engaged the transdimensional engine.  The crew widened the field to encompass the whole ship. 

The captain asked for a casualty report.  There were none.

“They’re targeting the TDE, Captain!”

The colony ship was behind them, even as the air around them rippled.

Captain Navaso turned to the lone queen.  “Can they follow us through?”

LQ shook her head.  “I don’t know.”

Suddenly, a disc of light appeared floating before the bow.  It burst out in glowing orange waves.  Bright sparks floated out and past the ship.  Lightning in green, blue, and purple hues arced out from the disc and around the ship.  Shadows reflecting the markings on the ship appeared above them, below them.  Dark blue clouds condensed around them.

They had seen nothing like it when the probes passed through the portal.

“We must be in portal space,” LQ said.  “In transit.”

The ship lurched as a blast struck the hull and tore a gash through the port side.  Alarms began to blare and blink.  Hull integrity failed.  Crew in those sections were being blown out into the tidal forces of the transdimensional field.

The ship plunged into the orange disc of light.  The burst of color, lightning, sparks, and clouds, vanished.

***

Echidna emerged into normal sky.  The air rippled around them, then stopped.

LQ announced that the transdimensional field had closed.  Engineering announced that the TDE had just shut down.  With the standard engines disabled, the ship began to plummet.

The torn hull strained the structural integrity of the whole ship.

Echidna began to break apart.

The pilots struggled to use the thrusters to slow the ship’s fall, to glide it down.

The ship crashed.

***

Echidna was heavily damaged.  But still intact.

Casualty reports started coming in.  Initial estimates were that a quarter of the crew might have been lost.

The captain assigned crew to get sensors back online, to see if they colony ship had managed to follow, even without a TDE, to hitch a ride through the Echidna’s portal.

There was no sign of the colony ship.  But Echidna might not hold together for long.  And according to their scans, something large was approaching on the ground.

After analysis of the atmosphere indicated it’s safe to go out without suits, Captain Navaso ordered everyone off the ship.  There had been enough suits for every crew member, but most were lost during the attack and the transit.

***

“It’s a mammal, Captain,” the first officer said. 

LQ stared.  “It’s huge. Several times the size of the biggest rat I’ve ever seen.”

Captain Navaso watched as the mammal barked at the fallen ship.  “Species?”

“Canine.”

“You’re joking.  We’re most definitely in a different dimension.”

Most of the crew was off the ship.  Once they determined that the canine was not getting any closer to Echidna, which was only slightly bigger, Navaso sent scouts to check the ship.  If they could stabilize it, then they could go in and recover needed supplies and equipment, and start assessing if the nearby environment had the materials they would need to repair the Echidna.  In the meantime, portable scanners, grabbed by crew as they evacuated and integrated into the environment suits, was already providing them valuable information about the dimension.

They had detected no signs of the Unified Colonies, which meant they were in the wilds in the current dimension.  But they had detected several colonies in the ground.

“Have we determined what the dominant species are in this dimension?”

“I think so, Captain.  The dominant species here is a hominid.”

“How?”

“The place is teeming with mammals, and avians.  And the climate is…varied, to say the least.”

A scout approached the captain.

“Any luck contacting the native Formicans?” the captain asked.

“They’re not responding.  Something is off about them.”

“Explain.”

“I’m pretty sure they’re receiving our distress call, Captain, and that they understand it.”  The scout shook her head.  “They’re just not answering.”

“Are they a threat?” the first officer asked.

“I don’t know, Commander.  Information is incomplete.”

Another scout approached.

“Damage report,” the captain said.

“It’s bad.  Won’t know if it’s repairable until we can do a full analysis, and determine what kinds of components and raw materials are available here.”

“Tell your boss to get on it, Four Hundred.”

“Aye, Captain.”

As those two scouts moved away, another approached, and the captain stiffened when she recognized her. It was a medical scout.

“How many did we lose?”

“A hundred or so during the crossing,” the scout said.  “And about the same in the crash.  We’re still counting, and some of the crash survivors are still critical.  But we’re doing all we can to save them.”

Two drones flew down, landing before the Captain.  Navaso had sent them out as long-range scouts. 

Their wings wilted as if they’d been flying for their lives.  Navaso called for water.

“Hominids approaching,” one of them said.

***

“The hominids are capturing our people, and they’re taking the dead,” the scout reported.

Most of the crew were now in hiding among the long grasses and debris in the walled region where the ship had landed.  But dozens of scouts had been caught in the open, still checking the ship, when the hominids arrived. 

Commander One took a breath.  “That’s it then.  They’re hostile.”

“Not necessarily.”

“Captain?”

“They found us through the automated distress signal.”  Navaso shook her head.  “So they might be trying to help.”

“Assuming they understand that it is a distress signal.”  

“We need to establish communication with them.”

“Our translation algorithms aren’t having any luck with the native Formican language, much less the mammalian ones.”

“They’re taking your ship,” LQ said. 

Captain Navaso watched.  “Then we have to follow.”

***

The captain, the first officer, the lone queen, and a small retinue of winged crew easily snuck aboard the massive hominid vehicle on which the Echidna was loaded.  The vehicle was made to roll upon the ground, not to fly.  But it still moved quite fast.

They followed as the hominids took Echidna into a ground structure.

For days, they remained close to the ship, and watched the hominids study it, and study the bodies of the dead crew.  They found where the captured crew were being kept, but could not free them.  And still they could not determine if the hominids were truly hostile, or if they were just ignorant. 

Then, one day, as the spying team was perched above, watching the hominids give their briefings on their findings, a new hominid appeared, in a separate room.

Captain Navaso leaned out to take a closer look.

“What is it?” Commander One asked. 

“There’s someone here who can speak our language.”  She turned to her first officer.  “It’s…dim.  But I can hear him with my mind.”

“Really?” 

The captain turned to the chief of engineers.  “Perhaps they’re not as primitive as you first thought, Six-Three-Six.”

“Captain, what are you—?”

“I think she’s right,” LQ said.  “I feel something.  A buzzing maybe.  Don’t you?”  She turned to the first officer, who shook her head.

“Maybe it’s genetic.  Something to do with the queen gene,” the chief of engineers said. 

“Not all queens have that gene,” LQ said.  “But if Navaso does, then maybe we’re on to something.”

The captain nodded.  “I have to try and communicate with him.  If these people are reasonable, I’ll try to convince them to release our crew.”

Commander One moved closer to her captain.  “And if they’re not?”

“I’ll cross that portal when I get to it.”

The first officer huffed a concerned breath.  “A strange attitude, for someone who prepared half her life to cross her first portal.”

Captain Navaso gazed down at the hominids, humming in their strange language.  She turned to her first officer and locked gazes with her.  “Number One, I may succeed and save all of the survivors, and even our ship.  I may not.  Either way, this colony has come to a split in the tunnel.”

Commander One suddenly recoiled, as she realized what Navaso meant.  “Captain…”

You are now the queen and captain of this colony.” 

“We should…wait, at least a few—“

“It’s been several days, maybe longer.  Did you expect to be Number One forever?  Where is that certainty that you’ve checked me with all these years?”

“I…I am…”

“You are now Ant Zero.”  Navaso loomed.  “Speak your name.”

The former first officer of the Echidna took one breath, then two, and on the third, she met Navaso’s gaze, as was the custom for such occasions.  And she spoke her name.

“I am now Sataso, queen and captain of the seven hundred ants of…”  She hesitated.  “We have no ship.”

“Build one, and return home.  Or stay here.  The choice is now yours.”  Navaso leaned her head forward and entwined her antennae with Sataso.  Then, the two broke apart.

Sataso gave a nod.  “Good luck, my queen and captain.”

Navaso smiled.  She leapt into the air, her wings flickering into flight, and with a wave and a salute, she turned and flew down toward her next adventure.

 

Copyright © 2021  Nila L. Patel

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