The Utterly Commonplace Voyages of the G.S.S. Superlative
Having been requested—nay, begged from hyperextended knee in a manner most pitiable—on numerous occasions, I, Derrick DePlasma, here in abeyance of further remonstrations against my silence set down the simple and most unremarkable account of my voyages as captain of the Galactic Starship Superlative. The aforementioned vessel was possessed of no remarkable attributes; as the flagship of the fleet and archetype of its class it carried merely the regulation displacement of thirty-two million tons, with 16 forward, 128 amidships, and 12 aft 150 terajoule laser cannons, 8 forward and 8 aft fusion torpedo tubes (84 warheads, each adjustable up to 500 petajoules), and two 600 zettajoule shielding generators. The full crew complement was not quite a thousand score. It was a peaceful vessel of little consequence.
Our propulsion method was equally uninteresting: gravity-well shunted drive that created a small gravity well a distance forward of the hull and a corresponding white hole of equal volume astern. The matter drawn into the forward event horizon passed through a wormhole that diminished in volume as it traveled aft; the resulting spew from the negative singularity created sufficient propulsive force to drive the vessel forward at many times the speed of light through a riftwave that formed secondarily to the ripples surrounding the black hole generator. Blasé, at best.
Our first mission was to intercept a rather disturbing area of dark matter that seemed from its blue shift to be homing in on the L5 colony at a significant fraction of C. As we approached it became apparent that this was not a mere blob of abnormally low-albedo flotsam, but rather an organized, perhaps even sentient, entity occupying some eleven Euclidean parsecs and spare change.
Upon sensing us, it flattened out like an obstinate horse’s ears and thrust long arms of densely-compacted material out to each side: in order, it was obvious, to entrap us within the claw. Rather than flee or fight I ordered all engines stop, and, to the dismay of my bridge officers, disarmed the weaponry entirely, redirecting that energy to the shield generators. I withdrew the shields themselves, keeping them, however, fully energized in their ground state. I then filed my nails meticulously, as appearances are of paramount import to a Fleet officer.
Thus adrift, the maleficent ultramacrophage surrounded us, solidified space to the point where our propulsion units would no longer function, and then began ineluctably to contract. There was much moaning, wringing of hands, and urgent crossing of legs amongst the crew as our fate now seemed to be sealed by the rash actions of their captain; I alone remained calm and unperturbed, patiently awaiting the first wave of particles making contact with the hull before ordering the shields to full emergency power. The shockwave generated by the shield envelope expanding outward at the speed of light disrupted the tightly packed organism and sprayed it in all directions like an exploding squid, dispersing it harmlessly into space. It was a ho-hum maneuver taken directly from the textbook I was writing at the time and of scarce interest.
Some twenty diurns later we were tasked with checking in on a scientific station dedicated to agricultural research for deep space missions. Their communications link had gone abruptly silent after many months of regular reports to the Space Sciences Directorate; the Directors were therefore concerned with the outpost’s welfare. As we drew alongside the station, orbiting a moderately large planetoid of curious physiognomy and possessing an unusual complex ring system, it seemed completely devoid of activity. There being no reply to our hailing other than an automated “sorry, we’re away” message, we locked on to the docking clamps manually and prepared a landing party equipped appropriately in the event of hull breach. I of course led that expedition.
The outpost appeared intact, albeit darkened. If it was indeed deserted, they had thoughtfully turned off the lights as they departed. We restored the lighting with no difficulty, flipping, as it were, the switch adjacent to the door. The station was inordinately neat and tidy: a result of housekeeping bots with no human entropy to keep them otherwise occupied. Upon reaching the main laboratories, I instructed the science techs to locate the station’s archives and retrieve the final log entries. They were not at all engaging.
While conducting research on methods for growing vegetation to larger than normal size under the influence of zero gravity, the principal botanical engineer developed a genetically engineered skin for fruits and vegetables that exhibited virtually zero vacuum permeability with dramatically elevated cold tolerance and combined it with a gene for gigantism. The results were highly promising and it seemed the problem of providing space colonies with fresh produce that grew their own plastic wrap and never got freezer burn had been solved forever.
However, one of the botanical technicians mistakenly injected the best of the thusly-modified Malus domestica specimens with an experimental infinite growth serum intended to generate crops that never stop producing. The tree shuddered and yielded a solitary fruit before disintegrating; that fruit was healthy and contained salutary levels of protein, fiber, vitamins, and growth serum.
Over the next three diurns the fruit grew to unprecedented size, until it could no longer be contained within the laboratory and demanded its own flat with cable television and a walk-in shower. After taking a few samples for further analysis and DNA archiving, the science team reluctantly jettisoned the experiment into space for the safety of the station and to reduce the pay-per-view bills. It required robotic freight transports to manipulate, so massive had it grown by this point. As they had no slingshot large enough to propel it away from the station, the apple assumed a trailing orbit.
Eventually it somaticized sufficiently that its orbit began to decay. The science team sadly watched the enormous symbol of educator bribery plunge toward a flambé fate.
Four diurns later the astronavigation instruments picked up an unusual perturbation on the planetoid’s surface that rapidly evolved into a cataclysm in progress. The apple had not only survived its dizzying plummet intact, it had subsequently grown so massive that it sank to the core of the planetoid, composed mostly of low-mass ice and rock, and fractured it. The fragments gradually organized to form a ring system around the enormous ovary.
By the following diurn it was apparent that the “applanetoid” was altering the orbital dynamics of the station dramatically. The thrusters were on almost constantly now, trying to maintain a stable distance from the ever-deepening gravitational well. Then, the unthinkable happened: overload and explosion in the forward thruster bay. No injuries, but with half their propulsion out of commission and no time to order parts from Spamazon, the station was doomed to spiral into the still-growing astrofruit at a velocity sufficient to pulverize it and anyone on board.
The station commander had no option. The crew took to the escape pods and began making their way slowly toward the nearest deep space outpost at ion speed. The communications units aboard were too weak to bridge interstellar distances.
The scientific station, designated Linnaeus Alpha, was of immense value to the Space Sciences Directorate, not only for the science it produced and the sizable capital investment it represented, but also for its capital racing stripes. My engineering staff advised me that we could tow it to safety; this seemed our sole option so I gave the order.
All went well and according to plan until mere seconds before the station was free of the applanetoid‘s gravitational tyranny. The garden gargantuan had been experiencing sporadic pulses of growth, rather than the previous linear increases, and an energetic spurt occurred at a most inopportune moment. The sudden surge in gravitational pull disrupted one of the magnetic tethers and the station broke free of our control. The recovery effort had been, alas, fruitless.
We intended to slingshot off the Goliath's gravitational pull to achieve our escape (we had a crack slingshot squadron aboard). Unfortunately, the tether separated at the precise moment that the station was at perigee relative to the applanetoid, providing me very little time to formulate a substitute plan.
I paced the bridge, recalling all that I knew about apples and feeling peckish. The solution came to me suddenly, in great clarity, and possessing undeniable appeal. I ordered a club sandwich with extra bacon and then told the chief engineer to meet me immediately in the forward propulsion bay, where I instructed him to dismantle the gravity well generator and rig it for remote control. This necessitated an extravehicular excursion in order to remove the bolts securing the outer housing. I drilled into all involved that this mission must be carried out in haste and with total accuracy were we to save the research station and all the scientific knowledge it contained from an appalling demise.
Once the black hole generator was free and equipped with several hundred kilometers of light but virtually unbreakable superfullerene composite kite string and a remote control unit, I ejected the module through the aft airlock with a solid kick that put it on direct course to the surface. We eased it into position scant meters above the hardened skin and activated it by pulling on a string. A swirling darkness streamed from the gravity well and intensified until an impossibly black cavity opened up on the apple skin and sunk rapidly toward its core. After a centidiurn the applanetoid shuddered and deformed in a most unspeakable manner. We reeled in the propulsion unit and retreated using our forward ion thrusters.
As the Superlative backed slowly away, we watched an eye-twisting spectacle unfold on the forward screens. The applanetoid, which had until this time been a wine-red hue streaked with straw, began to shrivel and bruise most horribly. It folded in upon itself until nothing remained but a carbonized elongated core, perhaps a thousand kilometers in length but no more than fifty in breadth. The station sailed past the fruit of our labors and off into space unharmed. We tracked and reported the errant laboratory’s trajectory and velocity to Deep Space Outpost Epsilon VI, to which the Linnaeus crew had fled.
As the engineering staff reassembled the propulsion unit and certified it operational my first officer raised one eyebrow and inquired by what means I orchestrated the megafruit’s destruction.
“Simplicity itself,” I replied, “The principal nemesis of apples is, and has been since time immemorial, the wormhole.”
Another wholly undistinguished mission completed.
Perhaps our most challenging undertaking, albeit again lacking noteworthy elements, transpired one hundred and eleven diurns hence. A conflict had broken out between the Bastragoff Empire and the Peregrine Nation, a cluster of free-roving asteroids hollowed to accommodate a thriving metropolis comprised of nine semiautonomous city-states. We were ordered to broker a truce. Or truss a broker. Whichever seemed best under the circumstances.
The asteroids were bound by impressively powerful narrow-beam gravity induction generators positioned to form the outline of a gigantic bird of prey. There were three cities on each “wing,” arranged in an elongated triangle, and one each for the “head,” “body,” and “tail.” The tail asteroid was the largest and had a trapezoidal aspect that suited that position admirably. The capital, Corpus, occupied the “body” slot. Completing the illusion were the gravity tethers, whose lasers were tuned to radiate wave harmonics of scarlet visible light, connecting the dots, as it were, of the raptor.
The Bastragoffs were rather a disagreeable lot. They weren’t actively evil, as such, but neither did they go out of their way to exhibit beneficence. I suspected that they, rather than the Peregrines, were the instigators of the disagreement; I was proven correct in short order.
The Peregrines were a sanguine people, given to practical jokes, musical comedies, and bodily function humor. The Bastragoffs, in sharp contrast, were somber, irascible, and tended toward violence. The crux of the current diplomatic crisis, according to the dispatch from Fleet Directorate, was that the Bastragoffs had arranged to purchase a sizeable quantity of deluxe lawn sprinklers from the city-state of Rectrixa, which despite having no lawns or even grass of its own had made quite a name for itself as a manufacturer of highest-quality lawn irrigation equipment.
When the delivery was made, the Bastragoff Trade Representative Axxur burst three blood vessels (a long-standing Bastragoff tradition) because the sprinklers, all 1000 gross of them, were three-speed continuous oscillators and Axxur insisted, despite what was clearly stated on the sales agreement, that they had ordered three-speed step oscillators. When first the Rectrixa Sales Manager and then the Peregrine Nation Minister for Export and Lawns pointed out the very specific wording to the contrary on the sales contract signed by both sides, Axxur burst two more blood vessels (a new personal record) and began to wail and pound all five of his fists on the wall.
The Rectrixa Super-Amazing Lawn Irrigation Equipment plant had for twenty diurns devoted its entire manufacturing capacity to filling the Bastragoff order, and now they had back orders that must be seen to. Retrofitting the continuous oscillator to a step oscillator would require disassembling the entire unit, and they did not have time to accomplish that until the obligations queue was reduced substantially.
This, of course, drove the Bastragoffs into a fit of unbridled rage (their bridles were off being fumigated), at which point they declared war on the surprised Peregrines. Despite the bird-of-prey symbolism, the Peregrine Nation was not equipped for offensive operations. Being a spaceborne civilization, however, their defensive capabilities were necessarily formidable. With their cluster of defensive shields at high power they could fend off even a major asteroid storm indefinitely; the Bastragoff WarToad attack ships were like mosquitoes trying to punch through polytitanium.
Other than lodging a formal complaint with both the Bastragoff Embassy and the Consolidated Headquarters, Amalgamation of Federated Entities (CHAFE), the Peregrines hardly seemed to notice the attacks at all. The Superlative was sent in only because the continuous destruction of Bastragoff warships as they encountered the impenetrable Peregrine defenses was creating a considerable debris field that the Peregrines were afraid might interfere with future trade operations. They also felt rather sorry for the impulsive and insanely aggressive Bastragoffs and wished them to cease their attacks before there weren’t any left with whom to trade.
For the sake of prudence we went in with our shields at battle strength, as I reckoned (rightly) that the Bastragoffs would strike blindly at any non-Bastragoff ship that wandered into their theater of operations. It was not particularly surprising to discover, in fact, that some of the pilots were attacking their own fleet just to work out their frustrations. I hailed the Bastragoff fleet thusly:
“Bastragoff Commander, this is Captain Derrick DePlasma of the Galactic Starship Superlative. We respectfully request a cease-fire while we discuss terms for a truce between your planet and the Peregrine Nation.”
“Galactic whatever, this is Field Marshal-Admiral Exalenz, and we’re not interested in a truce. We have them on the run.”
“What do you mean ‘on the run’?”
“They’re clearly retreating.”
“They are a spaceborne colony moving ballistically at 100,000 kilometers per decidiurn. You haven’t affected their trajectory in the least.”
“Nonsense. They are cowards in full retreat, but we shall obliterate them before they can reach a safe haven.”
“Field Marshal Exalenz, we have been monitoring your attack on long-range scanners for the past three diurns. You have lost, by our count, 358 ships with a corresponding degradation in the integrity of the Peregrine Nation’s defensive shields of 0.000067%. At that rate it will require 11,131,840,796 ships over a period of 29,613.8 standard years to achieve a 50% breach in the shields, at which point the colony will be 4.4 light years away. Since your attack ships possess only optimized ion drives, this means resupply will require, at the end, about nine standard years for a round trip. Using the most recent Galactic raw materials survey, you would need to excavate approximately 3.6% of the total landmass of the planet Bastra in order to build these vessels, employing virtually your entire work force, and therefore the sum of your economy, for the next 30,000 years. All for a load of lawn sprinklers. I must ask, is this really the best use of your personnel and natural resources?”
“I am a military commander, captain, and I follow my orders to the letter. I do not allow myself to be swayed by facts, figures, and calculations. Those are for mathematicians and academics to ponder. My only concern is defeating the enemy’s forces.”
“I see. Well, can I then just ask that you cease to attack my vessel, at the very least? We have no military goals here; only diplomatic ones. Our shields are quite as powerful as the Peregrine Nation’s, so there is very little to be gained by prolonging your assault on either of us. You simply continue to lose vessels and crew at an alarming rate.”
“I will order my warriors to cease their attack on your ship. The assaults on our enemy will continue unabated, by order of Bastra Command.”
There being nothing further to be gained from discourse with their military leadership, I therefore ordered that we take up a stationary orbit above the capitol and attempt to contact Bastra Command directly.
It proved more difficult than expected, as they were all in the viewing room watching the pretty multicolored explosions along the margin of the Peregrine’s shields. Finally someone heard the hailing tones going off and came to answer the radio.
“Command talking. Who are you?”
“This is Captain Derrick DePlasma of the Galactic Starship Superlative. I would very much like to speak with someone of high rank there in your command headquarters.”
The video portion of the connection was strangely missing. My communications officer was trying to walk their technician through the process of setting it up. It had never been used; apparently the Bastragoffs were unaware it even existed.
“Ooh, Captain of a starship. I’m sooo impressed. Can you make your starship give off nice colors? That’s what we’re watching right now, and I want to get back to it.”
“Please, wait but a moment. I have orders from the Fleet Directorate based on a complaint filed with CHAFE to negotiate a truce between your government and the Peregrine Nation. I need to speak with someone there who can help me accomplish this assignment.”
“Oh, very well. Let me see if I can find the Chief of the Diplomatic Corps. I saw her around here somewhere with a Fuchsia Fusillade.”
“What might that be?”
“It’s a drink, you uncultured gloon. A very elegant and fashionable drink, in point of fact. Hang on.”
The bridge was suddenly flooded with bland synthesized renditions of antiquated popular music, which I immediately instructed the communications officer to mute. While we awaited contact with the diplomat, I discussed the situation with my bridge crew and consumed a bowl of frozen Cruxian Aerial Ovine Secretions, with zero calorie sugar replacement–like substance sprinkled on top. It tasted of slightly sweetened solidified bacon grease. Quite delicious, I must say.
Finally the Chief Diplomat came into view (the video link having at last been established). Bastragoff females were notable principally for their three uncommonly large multi-lobed breasts combined with very short legs. Their knees seemed to be connected directly to the ankles, at least to the casual observer—and I personally would never wish to be anything other. She was sipping through several straws attached to a large oddly-shaped container of what appeared, judging by the viscosity, to be some form of reddish-tinted lubricant. She looked at me and gave forth with an odd noise my Protocol Officer explained was meant to be a giggle.
“Let me (hic) guess. You shaw the fireworksh and dechided (hic) to drop by for a drink. Come on down and we’ll be happy to (hic) obligesh.”
“Madam Ambassador, I am Captain DePlasma of the Galactic Starship Superlative and we are here on behalf of CHAFE to negotiate a truce between your government and the Peregrine Nation.”
“Trucesh? Are we (hic) at war?”
“Yes, Madam Ambassador. Your battle fleet has been attacking the Peregrine defense shields fruitlessly for quite a few diurns now.”
“I thought they were treating ush to a splendid fireworksh exhibition.”
“Madam Ambassador, each of those ‘fireworks’ represents the loss of one of your ships and its crew. Over one thousand of them now, by our estimate.”
The Bastragoff appeared stunned. She dropped her drink, which splattered thick red goo over her legs and the surrounding area. At length she recovered her composure and erudition.
“I...I had no idea. Why did we declare war?”
I explained about the sprinklers.
“Sprinklers? We declared all-out war over sprinklers? We don’t even have any natural grass! It was replaced last cycle by that nice planet-wide artificial turf. Why in the name of Jeglipog did we even order sprinklers? Especially that many of them?”
Another figure strolled into view. It was a male, wearing some manner of uniform stained with reddish splotches in the lower areas.
“They were on sale, and we had a coupon.”
The Ambassador’s expression softened. She explained that it was written in the Bastragoff Constitution that coupons, once obtained, were required to be used before the expiration date on pain of torture.
“I see. So, you bought a great many sprinklers you didn’t need because you had a coupon, then,” I extrapolated, “once the fiscal reality became apparent, decided to fabricate some plausible reason to return them. When the Peregrines offered instead to rebuild the sprinklers to meet your arbitrary requirements, you declared war on them to cover the fact that you had no potential application for sprinklers at all and had wasted a great deal of money.”
“That’s a good guess. Wouldn’t be the first time. So, what can we do now?”
“If you stop the attacks, we will purchase the sprinklers from you at your cost and then act as liaisons with the Peregrines to reinstate your trading partner status.”
“You...you would do all that for us?” She seemed to be blubbering more than usual—sobbing, it could have been. “Why?”
“It is our mission and unlike you, I have a use for the sprinklers.”
“Very well, then. You may proceed with our profound gratitude. The sprinklers will be delivered to your vessel by one of our cargo drones. You may transfer the funds via its onboard teller machine. Our account identifier is 25R624.”
We vaporized the debris from the ruined Bastragoff attack ships so that the Peregrines could safely carry on with their trade missions. In return, they agreed to allow the Bastragoffs to resume trading with them, provided they kept their tempers in check and learned to abide by contracts.
The sprinklers I presented as a goodwill gesture to the Council of Overseers on Cynodon, a planet a third of which consisted of freshwater oceans. Due to their unique climate, rich soil, and limitless water supply they were the quadrant’s largest supplier of excellent quality turf grass, with a significant need for irrigation products. Virtually the entire ten billion hectares of landmass on the planet was covered in one form of grass or another. Grasshoppers were the most common lifeform: more of them existed there than grains of sand on the beaches. Some specimens were over two meters in length and capable of traversing half a kilometer in one leap.
As a result of this unsolicited gift, the Council decided at long last to accept their standing invitation to join CHAFE, which decision was taken extremely well by our leadership. A number of crew promotions and bonuses were derived from this act, including my own elevation to Commodore.
The mission, in fact the entire voyage, was, as I have said, without any event worthy of recording for posterity. I only set it down here to satisfy the curious.