“She’s not here either,” Wudge said into her communicator, for the third time in as many minutes, as she floated through the bulkhead entrance.
“Coyote’s balls,” returned Keelarark’trana’s customary bark out of the crystalline matrix transponder. “This space station isn’t that big. There aren’t that many places Prixa can be, even as small as she is. Keep looking.”
Wudge slipped her communicator into her back pocket, unconsciously Casting a small spell to protect it from the quills on her backside as she did so. Her Elemental Magic flared in weak protest and she detected the faint sound of an EM alarm going off on the Command Deck.
“Dammit, Wudge,” her communicator chirped back to life, “Stop Casting. The EM field is weak enough this far from Earth as it is.”
Wudge sighed to herself and released the spell. Even with all her training, it was hard to not rely on her magic. In moments of stress or distraction, she was likely to Cast without realizing she had done so. Here, where all available EM was necessary for communications and life support, her distraction could prove deadly.
Parked in the square center of the L2 Lagrangian point, ISS2 was almost 900,000 miles from Earth. This far from home, all five Elemental Magics were, for all practical purposes, non-existent. They had only what they stored and brought with them.
Theoretical magicians had for decades, however, predicted a mysterious and unknown fifth EM; one not detectable from within the ubiquitous EM fields generated by Earth itself. Elemental Magic X, or EMX. Prixa, as mission specialist, had the sole task of detecting and confirming the existence of EMX.
And Prixa, impossible though it was, was somehow missing. On a space station a million miles from home. Wudge’s casual concern grew into spine-tightening alarm as her search refused to yield results.
A shrill alarm interrupted her search and the frenzied voice of Keelarark’trana growled through the comm crystal, “Proximity alert. Get your spiky ass up here – something’s outside.”
Visions of Prixa floating, frozen, outside the airlock filled Wudge with dread as she scrambled back to her station. Pushing herself into Command feet first, she moved with practiced ease into her chair and attuned a scanning rune in the heading of the proximity alert, praying to Coyote that her fears were unjustified.
The stored EM in the rune quickly returned a profile signature of the anomaly and Wudge let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. It was not Prixa. It was huge, at least as large as two escape modules end-to-end on the station. Definitely not the 12-inch pixie mission specialist.
Her breath stopped again as she examined the complete analysis of the scanning rune. “Sir,” she addressed Keelarark’trana, “It’s dangerous. Big and extremely dangerous, on a trajectory towards us, and sir,” she looked into the eyes in the back of his snout, “it’s composed of lead and other unknown alloys.”
“Lead will completely destabilize what little EM we have,” said Keelarark’trana. “We’ll never survive long enough for the field to regen.” He looked towards the emergency panel – the one sealed so completely that it could open only though a blood ritual. The one used as a last resort in cases of imminent death or destruction of the station. “How long have we got” he asked Wudge, “before the lead is close enough to affect our systems?”
She looked back to the scanning rune, calculating, “Five minutes. It….It’s course correcting to come straight at us. Sir, it’s going to ram us.”
“Course correction?” yipped Keelarark’trana in surprise. “It’s being maneuvered intelligently?” Wudge nodded in silence, the ramification of an intelligent being firing lead at them sinking in as she watched the horror grow in Keelarark’trana’s eyes.
“Any communications?” he asked.
Wudge shook her head, “None. It’s not broadcasting and is ignoring my pings.”
“I have to do it,” Keelarark’trana said as his muzzle pulled back into a determined snarl. “Activate the long-range comms and send a situation report back to Earth. They need to know we’re not alone out here.”
Wudge was, first and foremost, a professional and trained Astromage. Her heart felt like it was going to rip itself from her chest, but she did her duty. Activating the long-range comms at this distance would consume most of the stored EM they had brought with them, condemning them all to certain death, but she was also exhilarated in a disconnected and strange way, like she was watching the drama unfold but was not a part of it.
They had proof of life outside Earth. Extraterrestrial life. And it was going to kill them.
The EM-generated station lighting dimmed and flickered as she unlocked the long-range comm crystal and Cast the activation sequence onto it. The spell captured all thoughts, feelings, sights, sounds, smells, and impressions of the crew for the previous hour in an instant and blasted them back to Mission Control for the psychmages to deconstruct after their deaths.
Wudge felt a curious weakness sweep through her as the magic ripped..something…from her and sent it shooting at the speed of Magic back towards the Earth. Keelarark’trana’s haunches sagged in similar fatigue as he, too, endured the spell. It was done. EM-powered devices shut down and, for the first time ever on the space station, there was no background noise other than their hyperventilated breathing. They stared at each other in the dim lighting that remained on EM reserves and realized that, no matter what, they had hours to live at most.
Keelarark’trana straightened and unlocked the safety glass protecting his mageknife – the blade he had been siphoning a trickle of life force into since he was a pup. It would provide him the power he needed to access the emergency panel and what was behind it, but at a cost great enough to cause Wudge to cringe.
Keelarark’trana, however, had no reluctance to perform his duty. His mageknife floating in zero-g next to him, he removed his helmet and let it spin across the deck. With steady hands, and so fast that Wudge could barely believe it was done, Keelarark’trana grabbed his mageknife and plunged it into his eye socket, completely plucking out left eye.
A soft whine escaped his lips as he Cast a spell Wudge did not recognize onto his destroyed eye before he opened his maw and consumed it in a single gulp. EM flared from his empty socket, and from his stomach as the emergency panel disintegrated revealing a small alcove behind. Ritual blood magic was powerful because it consumed the life force of the Caster.
Keelarark’trana sank to his knees, panting, as he covered his bloody socket with his hand. With his good eye, he looked at Wudge, “You’ll have to do it. I’m spent.”
Wudge nodded, her shock and awe of Keelarark’trana preventing her from speaking, and pushed herself towards the alcove. Inside was a small bottle, engraved with ancient and terrible words of warning. She knew immediately what it was, and, more than her fear of the lead object outside about to kill them, this terrified her.
A djinn. Their last resort was a djinn. Pure EM, driven by uncontrolled rage and lust and shackled into a hateful master/slave relationship that it continually sought to escape. When a djinn was successful in escaping, entire continents cowered in fear.
Two years ago, after the last Djinn terror attack, all the mages of the world Cast a Great Sending and banished all the djinn from the universe. Except for this one, it seemed.
She glanced over at Keelarark’trana, still kneeling on the floor and covering his bloody eye, “Are you sure, sir?”
“Do the damned thing, Wudge,” he growled.
Her feeling of disconnection grew; she felt as if she were observing herself from a few feet away as she, with shaking hands, grasped the djinn’s bottle and removed it from the alcove. A wave of oily and malicious EM washed over her as she grasped the stopper and ripped it free from its wax seal.
There was no slow and casual exit from the bottle. The second the seal broke, a twisted shadow stood on the command deck, shorter than Wudge’s two and a half feet but exuding menace and power. It looked up at her with eyes made from captured lava and whispered to her in a voice that was simultaneously both seductive and horrifying.
“I am honored to be your obedient servant.” The wave of seething hatred and sarcasm dripping from the djinn’s voice drove Wudge to her knees.
Taking a deep, shuddering, breath, Wudge forced herself back to her feet and spoke the traditional Binding words. They were unnecessary as the djinn was already Bound, but they served to center her thoughts and push back the miasma of fear that was threatening to suffocate her.
“By the Covenant, you are Bound and shall not perform any act of malice against me nor take any action that will cause me harm. You shall perform no deeds, great or small, without the express permission of myself.” She drew in her breath again to finish the Binding words.
“Yes, yes, my dear Pukwudgie,” whispered the djinn. “I know the Words that have Bound me.” It looked over at Keelarark’trana and sneered, “Your Keelut is bleeding on the floor. Do you want me to kill it?”
“No,” she said with as much force as her voice allowed, “there is an object made from lead and other alloys about to ram us. You will immediately stop it and hold it in place relative to our position.”
The djinn closed its flaming eyes for a brief second in thought and Wudge felt waves of pure and undiluted EM emanate from its body before it captured her once again in its baleful glare, “I cannot.”
Panic gripped Wudge’s heart again. Giving a djinn an impossible task was one of a dozen ways to invalidate the Binding and free it.
“It has already stopped relative to this station, “ continued the djinn. “But I could return all the EM you just sent back to Earth if you want.”
This was an impossible task and the djinn was trying to get her to break the Binding. The djinn might, in fact return most of the EM, but recovering all was impossible. EM decay prevented the recovery of the entirety that had been shunted off the station. Never listen to a djinn, she reminded herself. That way lies only doom.
She thought quickly and commanded, “You will power all station systems at nominal levels and will not allow the lead from the object to disrupt any system until I say otherwise.”
Disgruntled, the djinn nodded once. Station lights came back on and fresh air started circulating again. Wudge hadn’t realized how quickly the air supply would go stale without the EM runes on the walls auto-recycling it.
Life support and systems back online, and the leaded object at rest, Wudge allowed herself a moment of respite. Her knees buckled and she sank to the floor next to Keelarark’trana as the djinn glared at them both.
“What do we do now, sir?”
“Find out which gods’ puckered asshole shat that thing at us and what is inside it,” he growled. Wudge nodded in relief; if Keelarark’trana was well enough to curse, things couldn’t be that bad.
She looked back at the djinn, “Tell me, djinn, are there any living beings in the object outside?”
“Two,” said the djinn, then laughed, “And you are in for a surprise.”
Wudge almost ordered the djinn to show her inside the craft magically but a sense of caution stopped her. She was not sure, but she somehow suspected that asking the djinn for another major magic would be unwise. Over-reliance on the djinn would lead her to make a mistake. Instead, she ordered the spirit to do nothing, respond to nothing, and maintain the station’s EM supply only. The djinn grumbled about being nothing more than a battery for an uppity Pukwudgie, but did as commanded.
Keelarark’trana’s nod at her decision affirmed her belief that using the djinn as little as possible was the safest choice. “I will be an hour recovering, at least, in Medical. I do not believe we can wait that long to investigate the alien craft.”
As Keelarark’trana made his way out of Command, small drops of blood floating in his wake, Wudge shifted to the communications console. There had been no attempt to communicate from the craft, on any channel – but she wasn’t surprised by that fact. The amount of lead on the craft would prevent any communications. She assumed whatever was over there used a different method.
There were suspicions that it was possible to communicate over vast distances without EM, and conspiracy theories abounded that the government used these methods to conspire against the people, but Wudge had never given them any serious considerations. Really, did anyone, except the ignorant fae in the swamps and marshes?
Now, however, she was forced to consider these outlandish theories and think outside the box. She had no idea where to begin – proving unknown and theoretical concepts was Prixa’s job, not hers. After a moment of frustration at her lack of imagination, she consulted the station CD.
The station Calculation Daemon had survived the brief EM outage and offered only a single suggestion. Attach an umbilical or create a physical connection to the craft and use that contact to modulate sound waves between them. Like when she was a young spawn playing with her friends, tying a string between cans and pretending they had comm crystals.
She spared a moment to check on Keelarark’trana in Medical and relay the plan to him. His coloration was better, but it was clear his eye was not regenerating, despite the rune-etched healing crystal and empty healing potion bottle on the counter nearby.
Noticing her stare, Keelarark’trana said, “The price of ritual blood magic is not negated so easily. I will never see from this eye again.” He growled and shook his short mane, dismissing the issue with the same stoicism he had exhibited when he had taken his eye. “Your plan is sound. Execute immediately.”
It took almost three hours but in the end Wudge was able to dismantle the ceramic structural support rods from the secondary experiment habitat and connect them into a single, 200-foot pole. She had destroyed four Construction Daemons and the habitat in the process, the result would have fallen apart under even one tenth G, but it was complete and held gently in place outside the station by her three remaining Con-Ds.
Now was the moment of truth. Would the alien vessel allow the flimsy device to make contact with its hull? With deliberate slowness, Wudge instructed the Con-Ds to extend and touch the craft while maintaining contact with the station hull.
Keelarark’trana, with a bandage over his eye socket, floated in and said nothing, content to watch the historic moment of literal First Contact in silence. Even the djinn was curiously silent instead of belligerently so.
The pole was short by twenty feet, forcing Wudge to fire EM thrusters for a moment to close the gap. She held her breath as she watched out of the observation port. Finally, the pole made contact.
Wudge wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the immediate chirp of the communication console.
A weak voice issues from the crystal, “Prixa to ISS2. Please respond.”
Keelarark’trana’s eyes widened in surprise even as Wudge responded, “Prixa?! Where are you?”
“Thank the gods,” Prixa’s voice came through again, relief evident as she replied, “I’ve been trying to contact you for hours. I’m almost out of time.”
Keelarark’trana stabbed the communication button from his station, “Where in Creator’s name are you, Prixa?”
“On board the human spaceship.”
Keelarark’trana and Wudge exchanged and incredulous glance. Human? Wudge pressed the button, “Human? Like the extinct great ape?”
“Yes, exactly like that,” said Wixa. “Listen, I don’t have much time. The physical contact is allowing the EM field to work here, a little, but we have to figure out how to get me back to the station and away from all this lead before I die.”
“How can there be a living human in a spaceship?” asked Wudge, unable to comprehend. Prixa must be hallucinating.
“Nothing can survive in space, Prixa,” said Keelarark’trana at the same time.
Prixa laughed, sounding stronger than before. “I can’t tell you how much I missed EM,” she said. “I’m feeling a little better, but I have a bad case of lead poisoning and need Medical soon. I’ll answer both questions.”
“These humans have ‘space suits’ that cover their bodies and can survive in space for hours. I’ve thought about this while you were constructing the umbilical. Humans are huge, so I can fit inside and float over with one. Once we’re in contact with the station hull, you can Cast a Spacial Slip and we’ll be inside the station with you.”
Wudge nodded. It would burn a lot of EM but could work – they had EM to spare with the djinn powering the station now. But still….Humans. Intelligent. And in suits that could survive space. Why hadn’t they thought of that? They needed a full craft to navigate outside with Con-Ds doing the physical manipulation needed in space. Out of all the impossible things that had happened today, this was the most impossible.
“OK,” said Wudge, as the engineer in her began assembling a list of tasks and materials necessary to create her own ‘space suit’, “but how can there be humans over there? We hunted them to extinction hundreds of years ago.”
“Only on our world,” came the reply. “These humans evolved on an Earth, like ours, but one without EM. There are no fae there – only humans. They say they come from a ‘parallel dimension’ – words that I was never able to translate with the residual EM I carried – and they need our help.”
Keelarark’trana frowned across his muzzle, “Why do they need our help?”
“They have no EM, and don’t even know what magic is. Their concept of magic is laughable and comes from children’s stories. They use something called ‘science’ instead.”
“And?,” demanded Keelarark’trana.
“Two years ago their world was suddenly assaulted by dozens of djinn which appeared across the globe. They have no defense and the djinn are destroying their Earth.”
Wudge’s mouth opened in a perfect “O” as she realized where the banished djinn had gone.
In the corner, her Bound djinn started laughing.
Flash Fiction Parameters:
Theme: Missing Person
Location: International Space Station
Required Phrase: “I am honored to be your obedient servant.”
Word Count: 1,000. (I totally overshot this!)