Thursday, June 19, 2014


The story unfolds:

A young crew.  A new world.  Aliens barely advanced beyond fire and Copernicus.  And the boyish captain has to exceed every order, taking his starship where it shouldn't be, risking an overly loyal crew as well as himself while trying to save creatures that should be doomed.

“Some planets have thick lithospheres,” the storyteller explains.  “Thick and insulating, and after millions of years of quiet, their crust shatters.  Volcanoes.  Oceans of lava.  Poisoned air, and death for any civilization unlucky enough to be born in those times.  That’s what they were facing.”

I know something about being unlucky.

When he looks my way, I nod at him, feigning interest.

The man rather likes his own voice, and years of success have fooled him into believing that his voice is special and his stories are captivating.

“I saved those creatures,” he says.

The pride is obvious.  And so is his sense of power.

“My ship’s engines and weapons...together, they bled off the extra volcanic pressures, and the forces that couldn't be diffused were put underground, buried for another thousands years.  We hoped.”

This story has been told many times, polished and simplified and probably infested with lies.  Little lies, and a few large ones, and he probably doesn't see them anymore.

I listen carefully, with deep interest.

But I don't listen in the ways that he imagines.

Finally, he settles on an anecdote--a few minutes of running through an alien forest, chased by the very creatures that he wants to rescue.  The tale resembles one of the films that I watched on Earth long ago, as a youngster--all motion and violence with ridiculously quick edits.  Real life has no edits.  Existence always slower than the movies, particularly when the stakes are high.

When I was a child, other people went to the movies to be entertained.

But I wasn't interested in small thrills.  I sat in the seats to watch the audience, teaching myself the best ways to manipulate people.

“I was a young captain,” my captor repeats.  “And I risked everything to save a species that I didn't know.”

I nod and adjust my posture, causing my chains to shift.

The links have a musical quality, ringing sweetly against one another.

“I have your people,” the man says.

How could I have forgotten that fact?

“I don’t want to hurt any of you.  But you have a history.  You are history, ugly and blunt.  And none of my colleagues would lose two nights of sleep because an Admiral with a sterling service record decided to euthanize a few hundred war criminals sleeping in baths of liquid nitrogen.”

“But you won’t kill them,” I say quietly.

“They aren't technically alive,” he says.  “Only you.”

He wants me.

“Khan,” he says.

This is the first time he uses that name.

My captor is an Admiral. “I didn't earn my rank by avoiding danger,” he says.

I am very dangerous.  He appreciates that. Perhaps these chains won't restrain me.  He knows I could kill him in an instant, with one finger and any leverage.  And maybe I could fight my way out of this prison cell too. But the risks accumulate, and I don’t know enough to measure the odds. So I am a compliant prisoner. Besides, the others cannot help. My second desire, after gaining my freedom, is to save my own people.

With a pitiful tone, I mutter, “Please don’t hurt them."

He smiles.  He approves of my tone. In his youth, this man was most likely beautiful.  Age and the puffiness in the face have diminished his appearance, but the uniform and his powerful office are still valuable. I imagine that he has no problem finding willing bed partners.  Women.  Men.  Alien. Whatever meat fuels his well-practiced arrogance.

I would blow this man, and more, if it helped make him mine. But I suspect our relationship will move along a different route.

Showing caution and a tentative hope, I look at him.

That once-pretty face smiles.  Delighted.

“I don’t care how brilliant you are,” he says.  “You can't being to imagine the incidents and coincidences that put me on the trail of your ship.”

I am brilliant and can imagine quite a lot, thank you.

But I couldn't have guessed this story.  Not ever. All at once he is telling me about time traveling aliens.  He describes an entire world of scientific aliens being destroyed in a day.  And the Earth was subsequently attacked and nearly destroyed too. With little warning, his realm has been jerked out of every expected pattern, and at the center of the carnage stands one intelligent mixed-blooded creature--an ancient man who has spoken to my captor on a few occasions, and never for long.

“The asshole is from the far future," the Admiral says. "Supposedly he's one of ours, but when I asked about threats and promises farther out in space, he offered me nothing.  Nothing. I asked about past missions, discoveries and new technologies. But no, he told me nothing. Nothing but to say, ‘I won’t damage these time lines anymore than I have already.’”

“Meanwhile, the galaxy is left in a shambles,” I say.

“Our little piece of the quadrant, yes." The insult, real or imagined, still feels fresh. "Of course everybody who knows anything is terrified.”

He tells me quite a lot, every time his mouth opens.

"How did you find me?" I ask.

"I wondered what was hiding nearby. So I ordered a thorough survey of the Oort cloud, looking for hidden aliens, lost ships. And there was your ship, cold and drifting."

“Where are my people?” I ask, letting my voice break at the end.

"I have them," he says.

I drop my eyes. "Please don't hurt them."

I have never known any admiral who doesn't want to protect his people, if only because they are his possessions and quite small.

“Help me and they'll survive,” he says.

I nod.

And I show him a cowering kind of hope.

To save the others, I would do anything but surrender myself.  I love them, and certain ones I love dearly.  But I am called Khan for good reasons, and this relationship between the Admiral and Khan will be precarious for a long while.  I'm quite certain of that.

My captor shares his scheme for hiding my people and gaining my cooperation too.

It’s a ludicrous, overly complicated plan.

A bureaucrat’s idea of effective action.

“And this is what I want from you,” he says.  Then he explains some tiny portion of the entire plan.

I listen.

Sometimes I ask questions, obvious questions and some that are subtle, and the blunt answers are quickly delivered. Some of his answers are probably entirely true.  And what might be confused for a treaty is gradually hammered out between us.

The chains will remain on me, one way or another.

But before he leaves, I ask, “What about those other aliens?”

“What others?”

“The ones living on the volcano.  Have you ever returned to check on them?”

“There’s an observation post.  Automated, reporting directly to me.”

“And they’re well?”

“Yes, yes.  The planet is healthy, and their civilization is learning new tricks.”

This is an Admiral, a high-achieving master of a frightened empire.  Yet despite all of the technological wizardry, he seems even less than impressive than the men and women I defeated in centuries past.

“If those volcanoes returned today,” I begin.


“Would you rush back to save them?”

A moment of contemplation is necessary.  Obviously, he hasn't considered the matter. Then a new smile builds, and he says, “I doubt it.  Not being a young captain anymore, I’d delegate the job.  If it mattered.”

Young captains.

They are the danger in this realm.

“Sleep, Khan," he says.  "We have a busy agenda, starting tomorrow.”

Excellent advice, if you are dealing with an ordinary man.  He leaves and I shut my eyes, feigning sleep but letting my mind race, picturing the galaxy as a grassland. And I am Khan, astride a horse named the Admiral, and every empty horizon is mine for the taking.

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