The Devil And Captain Alistair
There was smoke, and fire, and sparks. The main screen’s display had fractured into blocks of random colors; only a handful of secondary and tertiary displays, still getting feeds from the few surviving external sensors, showed anything useful… though how useful the knowledge that the three ‘Revelation’ class light cruisers that had opened fire on them were still there was anyone’s guess.
Three blinking red dots, moving inexorably towards a small yellow circle. That’s what the TTD — the tertiary tactical display — showed. In a moment, a plague of purple specks would blossom across the screen, a swarm of symbolic gnats. They would sweep over the helpless yellow circle, and it… and the humans who dwelled within it… would vanish, as would the display itself.
Captain Alistair braced for the inevitable. And kept bracing. It took him some time to notice no time was passing. The TTD was frozen, as was everyone around him. Sparks hung in the air like fireflies in amber. Weapons Officer Buhari hovered in place, the blood from her shrapnel-inflicted wounds forming fascinatingly frozen arcs, twisted in flight from their expected paths by the now-paralyzed flickering of the grav plates. Nothing moved, except him.
And the newcomer.
Tetrapoid, Alistair thought. Same general body plan as Terrans, Clavarians, and two dozen other Alliance species. Crimson skin, like someone from the northern continents of Balar, but with only two eyes. Small horns, too symmetrical for a Melikor.
The Captain sighed. “I’m authorized for first contact protocol, but Lt. Tangier is much better at it than I am.” He gestured towards the lieutenant, who remained suspended in time, midway through painful recoil from an electric discharge. “However, even if you freed him from whatever you’ve done, I don’t think he’ll be in any condition to talk.” Alistair looked again at the unmoving tactical display, focusing on the text declaring 3.93 seconds remained until impact. “Not that we’d have much time for conversation, anyway.”
The stranger smiled, showing teeth that came to sharp points. Probably an obligate carnivore, thought Alistair. Pack based behavioral patterns? No, no, don’t make assumptions. Rule one of first contact. Assume nothing.
The stranger laughed. “Oh, we have all the time we could ever need. Eternity, if it comes to that.”
Suddenly, all the bits and pieces clicked together.
“Oh,” said Alistair, nodding. “Oh, alright. I see.”
“Do not be alarmed by my appearance. I assure you, despite your culture’s myths, I am no supernatural entity. My species is ancient, and we have travelled far. When we encountered your world centuries ago, it…”
“Yeah, yeah.” Alistair gestured impatiently. “q2They assumed you were evil because you were different, feared your advanced technology, turned you into legends, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”
The stranger sputtered, momentarily thrown off script, but rallied. “Yes… something like that. But I… my people… are of a benevolent nature. I saw the danger you were in and created a polymorphic stasis field so we could talk.”
“You’re not any kind of hyper-advanced alien species.” Unconsciously, Alistair imitated the tone and gestures of most Academy lecturers. “You are, in fact, a supernatural entity, and not a benevolent one.”
The stranger’s smile remained, but it had a distinct edge to it now. He attempted a world-weary air of disappointment. “I had thought that by now your species would have outgrown such superstitions.”
“We have. We’ve also learned that when you encounter new information, you have to rethink your conclusions. All of this…” he gestured, encompassing the paralyzed tableau that surrounded them… “is not the product of any science.”
“Such arrogance, to presume your knowledge represents all that can be done!”
Alistair waved dismissively. “Yes, yes, you’ve got the patter right. But look. If we’re in a field of frozen time, how can I talk to you?”
“There’s an aura around you that creates a zone of normal chrono….”
“Nonsense. The vibrations of my voice couldn’t pass through the time-stopped space between us. And how can I see? Any photons in this ‘aura’ would have been absorbed by my body in a fraction of a second, and no new ones could flow through. And when I exhale, how does my breath escape? No, no, not buying it, not for a second. What’s going on here can’t be explained by any kind of technology, no matter how advanced… it’s woefully inconsistent and implausible.”
The intruder frowned. “That’s a fairly deep understanding. I’m more used to people taking it at face value.”
Captain Alistair snorted. “Temporal physics is mandatory for anyone on command track at the Academy. Do you know how many time rifts, chronal warps, paradox vortexes, and tachyon storms the average fleet captain encounters in their career? More than half the admiralty are their own grandparents.”
With a sigh of acceptance, and the hint of genuine amusement creeping under the wholly false smile he still wore, the other continued. “Very well. You’re correct. I am the literal, supernatural, devil.”
Alistair sat on the arm of the command chair. “Now that we have that out of the way, what’s the deal? Come on, I don’t have all…” He shrugged. “Well, I guess I do.”
“I am capable of destroying your enemies.”
“And, what? You’ll get my… my soul?” Alistair still had trouble accepting such a concept might be meaningful, but he tried to control his skepticism.
“Oh, nothing so dramatic. I will just need… a service done.”
“Oh, that’s to be determined. At some point, perhaps soon, perhaps not, I will demand a task of you… and you will perform it, without question.” Something about his tone made Alistair think the being meant it literally — when the service was asked, he would comply, no matter his desires at the moment.
“You have to give me more than that… will it violate my ethics? Cause me to kill innocents? Bring harm to the Alliance?”
The stranger looked at him oddly. “You didn’t ask if I’d make you harm yourself… your body, not your principles.”
Alistair pointed to the frozen explosions, the paralyzed readouts showing death seconds away. “If I reject your offer, I’m guaranteed death. If I accept, even if your price is eventually my life, I still come out ahead on that score. But what makes my life meaningful isn’t my heart beating… it’s what I believe in, what I stand for. Gaining mere existence at the cost of who I am, what makes me me… that’s a poor bargain.”
The stranger shook his head, a grim confidence etching his features. “No terms. I can ask for anything, anytime.”
“One order, and one only?”
“That’s all I’ll need.”
“And my crew?”
“What about them?”
“They’ll live? This isn’t something where you destroy everything that’s not me?”
“Really, you’re a fleet captain, and not a lawyer?”
“Ever see the Alliance Fleet Manual Of Regulations?”
“Fine. No. No tricks, no loopholes. Agree to my terms, and those cruisers will simply explode. An internal failure in their antimatter containment, to be precise. Eventually, it will be traced to a simple data entry error propagated to the local fleet.”
Two thoughts formed at once and collided in Alistair’s brain. From the wreckage of their neural crash, a plan emerged.
“Very well. Let’s do this. I will obey one command from you, and only one.”
Unceremoniously, time’s arrow resumed its flight.
The explosions completed. Bodies finished their arcs across the bridge. Flames erupted from ruined panels, the screech of alarms filled the smoky air, and on the tactical display, three red dots vanished, leaving a yellow circle, battered but intact.
The bridge was filled with the chaos of confused chatter, the moans of the injured, the expressions of rage and horror as people found their friends dead or dying. Alistair ignored it all and left.
“Captain’s quarters,” he told the elevator, as he tapped his personal comm system off. There would be time to explain later or… there wouldn’t be. Either way, his duty to the Alliance and to his ship would be fulfilled.
“Where are you going?” the intruder asked. Captain Alistair was fairly sure no one else was capable of perceiving it; he’d seen people reacting to his sudden departure, but no one had said a word about the crimson-skinned newcomer in their midst.
Alistair didn’t answer. He found the question useful, though. Whatever else, the creature didn’t seem to be able to read thoughts.
The door opened into a small, but comfortable, lounge area, at the center of the senior officer’s deck. The top staff would constantly meet and interact here during the course of their disparate daily duties; it aided informal communication and information exchange, or so the Alliance psych people claimed. Alistair went directly to his door and commanded it to open. The automated security systems failed to ask about the being following him.
His room was a disaster. The rapid flickering of the grav plates in the initial assault had caused all the furniture to fall sideways, then up, then finally back down again as the internal repair systems kicked in. He moved through the clutter without acknowledging it, or the being behind him, still talking.
“Shouldn’t you be with your crew? Making inspiring speeches to the injured, prioritizing repairs, calling in some message to your command?”
“Every one of those jobs can be handled by someone else. I have great confidence in the ability of my crew to get along without me.” He tapped a case permanently affixed to one wall, and spoke. “Happy weasels rarely eat pineapples.”
A panel opened. He took the gun, and set it to maximum power, wide beam.
“Ah, I suppose you’d feel obliged to try destroying me. It won’t work,” the creature said.
Alistair turned the gun toward his face, aiming it slightly upwards. His brain wouldn’t be there by the time the nerves in his fingers reported the message that they’d pulled the trigger.
That had the desired effect: It startled the intruder.
“Stop that nonsense! Put down the gun!”
Alistair did so, smiling, though the memory of the feeling an instant before… the total loss of volition as his body obeyed unquestioningly… would haunt him for years.
“As agreed, I obey your command. That was the only one you get, remember.”
The thing turned an interesting shade of slightly paler red.
Alistair looked at it. “We’re done here. I’m guessing your ability to stick around in this continuum has some sort of limit, or we’d have a lot more information about your kind… even if it was just the shape of the giant hole in our understanding of the universe.”
It vanished. Alistair was both disappointed, and worried, that it didn’t swear vengeance or promise to return.
He returned the gun to the case, and went back to the bridge. Now, there would be time to make explanations to the crew… and reports to Alliance Command. He sighed at the thought of the latter. He had no idea how many forms he’d need to fill out to explain this.
“And that, fellow officers of the Alliance, is how I earned the Silver Pentagram.”
There was a mix of laughter (as expressed by the different species gathered around the table) and applause (ditto).
Pleasing Wavelength Refracted, a creature of smooth crystal planes and softly pulsing inner lights, spoke, or at least, generated sound somehow. “Silver? What does it take to earn the Gold?”
Alistair shrugged. “I hope I don’t find out. So, your turn.” He gestured at the medal formed from three broken gears. “What’s that one?”
The colors inside the body of the officer opposite him shifted subtly to shades of lavender and yellow, a smile of pride — if you knew how to read it. “Ah, Order Of Babbage, Three Gears. You see, there was a world ruled by a mad artificial intelligence…”
The rest of the table laughed derisively. “Oh, who here hasn’t run into a half dozen of those? We don’t get medals for scutwork!”
The crystalline being good-naturedly signaled for silence. “Now, now… you know the Alliance doesn’t hand these out easily. This was rather different…”
This is one of those things that kind of crawled into my head one day and refused to leave. Mostly, I wanted to rant about how badly Star Trek handled “time stop” fields in the episodes where they’ve used them, and so, following Larry Niven’s “Draco Tavern” series, I decided to wrap my rant in some fiction. Also, if super-advanced alien beings can pretend to be supernatural entities, why can’t supernatural entities pretend to be super-advanced alien beings? Fair’s fair!