By Alex Richards
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 15th contest was stories beginning with "It was a dark and stormy night ....".
It was a dark and stormy night. This was not unusual considering that even the days on Neptune are not particularly bright and the storms last for years at a time. Nonetheless, this particular night was, by George's estimation, somewhat stormier than most he'd seen in the last couple of years. Thick blue clouds raced by below the lower struts of platform NP-37, billows of frozen methane pluming upwards into the thinner layers of hydrogen that the platform glided through. The whole tableau took on an ethereal air under the glare of the platform's spotlights and running lights. He'd found it entrancingly beautiful at first, then gradually it had faded into the background. Now though, perhaps as a consequence of the monotony of life on a small observation platform millions of miles from civilization, he thought he might be starting to find a deeper beauty in the subtle variations in the cloud patterns. A small part of his brain was starting to wonder if this was why half the ex-Space Defence Service folks in the bar when he was younger sounded like they were on drugs.
A crew of 25 doing the job of 50 doesn't leave much time for introspection however, or conversation or innovation or really much other than maintenance and checking sensors for any sign of The Alien Menace. Neptune represented Earth's first line of defence against them, at least until the long-proposed Oort Line was established- and the watchword on the station was one of constant vigilance. Nobody really knew anything about the Menace- they hadn't made any attempts at contact before or since their attack on humanity had begun two centuries earlier- and few had come into contact with them, but low-level skirmishing had taken place ever since the last big attack when George's grandfather had been young. Sometimes an SDS base would be knocked out- the gas giant platforms were less vulnerable thankfully- sometimes an attacking ship would be intercepted and destroyed, usually sparking a small tech boom.
The sensors were silent all morning however- as they had been since the meteorite shower a month back. He'd checked in with the other three manning the systems regularly, run a couple of diagnostics checks on the platform's systems, finished composing this month's message for Cally back in Tuscaloosa and- in that secret downtime that nobody ever admitted existed in a job like this- made some quick sketches of the clouds out the window.
Four hours later and he was in the canteen, grimacing at the day's combination of ancient ration packs, month-old supplies and whatever 'nutritious' slop they were producing in house. The choice of company was pretty sparse as well- only Old Luke appeared to be off-shift for the moment. Every workplace, military or civilian, has their equivalent of Old Luke. They're the jaded cynical type who somehow is still the only one following all the ins and outs of the news, has Views on every subject under the sun and as such is the best person to ask for a condensed explanation of What Is Happening And Why This Is Bad.
'You seen what that fucking moron Strozzi's done?'
George, of course, had not but Old Luke not even waiting until he'd sat down didn't suggest anything good.
'He's only gone and launched his Presidential bid. Got all the fucking Peaceniks falling over themselves to suck him off already.'
'Yeah but there's always one isn't there? The token 'oh but they're spending so much money curtailing our Civil Liberties' bloke to mop up all the crazies who've never seen the Nairobi Crater and let the rest of us get on with the sensible discussion.'
'Yeah but Strozzi's got something the rest of those morons don't have. Clahss'
'Yeah, Clahss. Swans around looking Dignified and Proper and gets them all swooning over his smooth talking voice before wanking them off with promises to spend the Oort Line budget three times over.'
'Well fuck me.'
'Yeah. Makes you wonder why we let them put the planet at risk with this Election farce.'
'Galiautudinov tried that back in Gramps' day. You get about 10 years before people start getting tetchy. Least the elections lets the morons rant themselves silly rather than dragging along any decent folks with them.'
'Strozzi's different. 'Spect he'll be getting a bit of a talking too soon, knock some sense into him. Sure the Oort'll get pushed back again...'
'The Oort would get pushed back even if Fighting Jack Springer was given absolute power and you know it.'
'Yeah, well they'll make a big dance about 'Neptune being plenty' and then just cut the leave of us poor schmucks again to 'save costs' but they'll get Strozzi to see sense. You mark my words.'
'And if he doesn't?'
'Well. He won't be president then will he?'
It was at this point that the emergency alarms went off.
George was at station within 30 seconds to find the proximity sensors going haywire. The radio to bridge was in hand before he'd even finished looking.
'OBS3 to Bridge. Sensors picking up something big- full angle from 180 to 270. Range can't be more than a click. Cannot confirm hostile but signature doesn't match anything on our side.'
There was a muffled curse from the other end of the line, replaced quickly by a more professional tone.
'Bridge to OBS3. Readings acknowledged. Any movement?'
'Negative bridge. Attempting to get visuals now.'
There should, really, have been cameras next to the sensors. Whether these had been missed out or had broken at some point and never been repaired was immaterial to George, it just meant the visuals required actually looking out the window. The four vast ships beyond were just starting to be picked out by the platform's spotlights, dark looming and jagged. The profiles seemed vaguely familiar- unsurprising considering how much the SDS were adapting captured technology- though between the dark and the distance few details could be made out. Visual made, he made to return to the radio.
Just as the first explosion rocked the platform.
The second struck as he reached the radio.
The third near deafened him with the feedback from it.
The fourth just served to accentuate the silence now coming over the radio.
By the time of the eighth he'd abandoned his battle station and was making his way to the meagre provision of escape pods. The platform had little in the way of weaponry and, with nothing coming from Bridge, he rather thought it might be Every Man For Himself for the remaining crew.
The next explosion was close enough to blow George to the floor as the shock wave from the Observation Post hit him. This was unfortunate considering the cumulative effect the bombardment was taking on the structural integrity of the platform, as said floor promptly gave way. Had there been an antenna array or part of the propulsion system below him, he might have survived long enough to be vaporised along with the rest of the platform when the main power cells took a direct hit 5 minutes later. As was, the fall was decisively terminal for all that it would, from a certain point of view, continue indefinitely.
George never did have time to wonder why such large ships could have managed to slip into Solar System without ever triggering one of the long distance sensors.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP