the hate engine (4)

From the staging station Earth was an absence. Its clouds ate what city lights were left and starlight barely touched it; it was a black hole, a wall of nothing. We felt too close. And here I am, coffee for blood, awash in monitor glow, watching the external camera feed from the assemblage we’d hurled toward Jupiter. It was all AUs away.

Most of the crew slept. Wan Sade Yup drifted above me, foetal, looking through the window at the place where the Earth was. Every minute or so his momentum would turn him too far and he would readjust himself with the handrail. Antigravity was one of the first things we’d cut to save power.

He’d actually been speaking a while; I’d tuned him out. It was drivel. Some of it:

‘Blue, though. You seen the photos? I stumbled across some on a wallpaper site. I assumed they were Gliese or something but then I realised the continents were wrong. Just alien. I had no connection with it, it was alien.’

And on. He was a journalist. All this would be recorded and cut and broadcast for the folks at home. Sometimes instead of compiling an actual report I just sent them a time code.

My eyelids were drooping when I saw what I’d been waiting for. An artificial glint on the monitor. A shimmer. Metal seemed to curl out from some fold in the vacuum between our machine and Jupiter and before the pretzel had fully emerged I had sent the command to ignite. It would reach the engine—and Jupiter—in just a little over half an hour.

‘They could build one,’ called Pimm, minutes later. ‘Why not another?’

We had gathered in observation. I held myself steady above the assembled scientists, engineers, technicians. ‘We expected this,’ I said, adjusting my grip on the railing. ‘They have, as their aim, our extinction. And Jupiter is much smaller than the sun.’

‘It’s insulting.’ One of the techs. ‘I wouldn’t toy with an ant the way they’re toying with us.’

I checked the ETA on my watch. The engine would be entering Jupiter’s atmosphere, if it had not been destroyed.

Now Lemarch spoke. He’d been vocal before, but now he was outraged. ‘I’ve been vocal before,’ he said, ‘but this has been mishandled from the start.’ He turned to Wan Sade Yup, who had his finger to his temple, probably fiddling with the settings of his ocular camera. ‘You can behold this, ladies and gentlemen—’

‘Dr Lemarch,’ I began. In the lull, someone was muttering. One of the scientists, I saw, at the edge of the crowd. Was his head inclined slightly? He was composed as if speaking to a coworker beside him, but her attention was on Lemarch …

… Who took advantage of my hesitation. ‘No, I’m sorry, but no.’ He pulled himself up to the ‘ceiling’, where I was, to address me. ‘From day one, Leigh. Everything about this project’s been so compartmentalised the right hand’s had no idea what the left is doing. I’ve issued complaints at every level and received nothing but vagaries and—’

‘Lemarch.’

No!’ He was shouting now. I kept my face placid. It wasn’t easy. This was all so fragile. 'Damn you! If you’d listened—’ he was panicking now, all the doubts he’d buried over the course of the project stirring, bubbling up, running over ‘—God, all this, did you … Leigh.’ He snatched my collar with one hand, suddenly desperate. ‘Did you waste our last days?

This was fear. I couldn’t use this. I slapped his hand away. ‘They’ll let it through,’ I said. ‘The Jupiter sphere will be almost done now, based on how quickly they encased the sun—probably they’ll leave a little opening for it. They don’t just want to kill us, Mr Lemarch. They hate us. They want to humiliate us. They want it to hurt.’

Microphone feedback whined. Wan Sade Yup smiled his distant smile from across the room and cleared his throat. In the deathly silence, we could all hear him whisper: ‘Pat? This isn’t a good time, they’re—’

‘ATTENTION, DOUCHEBAGS.’

Yup screamed and coiled up reflexively, clutching his ear. Little droplets of blood trickled through his fingers. That had come from his in-ear mic, but it had been louder to us than the PA. Those speakers couldn’t output that volume. It didn’t even make sense, but for them, that was half the fun.

‘DID YOU THINK WE WOULDN’T NOTICE?’ Yup spasmed: went still. It was the same voice. The future envoy. ‘WE CAUSED A PARADOX FOR YOU, GUYS. COME ON. WE’LL NOTICE A GIANT CONTRAPTION HEADING FOR JUPITER. WE’LL BE IMPRESSED IF YOU CAN EVEN NUDGE IT INTO BROWN DWARF TERRITORY, BUT WHATEVER.’ Some of the guys near Yup were trying to disconnect his mic. I hoped it wasn’t an implant. ‘YOU KNOW WE WERE RUNNING BETS? BUT TURNS OUT EVEN TAKING AWAY YOUR SUN ISN’T ENOUGH TO GET YOU TO FUCK OFF. NO WONDER WE STAYED THERE UNTIL IT WAS TOO LATE.’

The light on Yup’s earring was red. We were live. Perfect. I checked my watch again.

It was late.

I blinked. We should’ve felt it. This was wrong.

For a moment, I shut my eyes. I’d been afraid of this. I’d been prepared for this. After ignoring his concerns, after limiting his access, stonewalling his queries and dismissing him every time he'd cornered me, what I was about to say probably would have worked even if without his fresh outburst. None of it was true, but I might never be able to tell him.

Lemarch turned when he felt my hand on his shoulder. ‘You,’ I whispered so only he could hear me, ‘I am holding fully responsible for this project’s failure. You are incompetent, witless, lazy. You’ve been a hinderance to every component I’ve assigned to you. You’re a hack, Lemarch. You’re fired.’

They had managed to disconnect Yup’s mic, it looked like. Not an implant after all. But he still wasn’t moving.

‘Leigh.’ Lemarch’s voice was just a whisper. The panic was gone, replaced by something much worse. Something I could use. ‘Tell me, or I promise you. I promise you, I’ll.’ He was so livid he couldn’t get it out. I tasted iron. ‘What does it do?’

I swallowed. My lips were dry. ‘It hates,’ I said.

Then Jupiter exploded.

James Firkins

Australian web designer & developer. I write, draw, and make games. I like quiet things.