Upstart

by Steven Utley

 

 

"You must obey the edict of the Sreen," the Intermediaries have told us repeatedly, "there is no appeal," but the captain won't hear of it, not for a moment.  He draws himself up to his full height of two meters and looms threateningly over the four or five Intermediaries who are, after all, small and not particularly substantial-looking beings, mere wisps of translucent flesh through their bluish skeletal structures and pulsing organs can be seen.

"You take us in to talk to the Sreen," the captain tells them, "you take us in right now, do you hear me?"  His voice is like a sword coming out of its scabbard, an angry, menacing, deadly metal-on-metal rasp.  "You take us to these God-damned Sreen of yours and let us talk to them."

The Intermediaries shrink before him, fluttering their pallid appendages in obvious dismay, and bleat in unison, "No, no, what you request is impossible.  The decision of the Sreen is final, and, anyway, they're very busy right now, they can't be bothered."

The captain wheels savagely, face mottled, teeth bared, arms windmilling with rage.  I have never seen him this furious before, and it frightens me.  Not that I cannot appreciate and even share his anger toward the Sreen, of course.  The Sreen have been very arbitrary and high-handed from the start, snatching our vessel out of normal space, scooping it up and stuffing it into the maw of their own craft, establishing communication with us through their Intermediaries, then issuing their incredible edict.  They do not appear to care that they have interfered with Humankind's grandest endeavor.  Our vessel is Terra's first bona fide starship, in which the captain and I were to have accelerated through normal space to light-velocity, activated the tardyon-tachyon conversion system, and popped back into normal space in the neighborhood of Alpha Centauri.  I can understand how the captain feels.

At the same time, I'm afraid that his rage will get us into extremely serious trouble.  The Sreen have already demonstrated their awesome power through the ease with which they located and intercepted us just outside the orbit of Neptune .  Their vessel is incomprehensible, a drupelet-cluster of a construct that seems to move in casual defiance of every law of physics, half in normal space, half in elsewherespace.  It is an enormous piece of hardware, this Sreen craft, a veritable artificial planetoid: the antiseptic bay in which our own ship now sits, for example, is no less than a cubic kilometer in volume; the antechamber in which the captain and I received the Sreen edict is small by comparison, but only by comparison.  Before us is a great door of dully gleaming gray metal, five or six meters high, approximately four wide.  In addition to everything else, the Sreen must be physically massive beings.  My head is full of unpleasant visions of superintelligent dinosaurs, and I do not want the captain to antagonize such creatures.

"Sir," I say, "there's nothing we can do here.  We're just going to have to return home and let Earth figure a way out of this thing.  Let them handle it."  Absurd, absurd, I know how absurd the suggestion is even as I voice it, no one on Earth is going to be able to defy the edict.  "We haven't any choice, sir, they want us to go now, and I think we'd better do it."

The captain glares at me and balls his meaty hands into fists.  I tense in expectation of blows that do not fall.  Instead, he shakes his head emphatically and turns to the Intermediaries.  "This is ridiculous.  Thoroughly ridiculous."

"Captain --"

He silences me with an imperious gesture.  "Who do these Sreen think they are?"

"The true and indisputable masters of the universe," the Intermediaries pipe in one high but full-toned voice, "the lords of creation."

"I want to see them," the captain insists.

"You must return to your ship," they insist, "and obey the will of the Sreen."

"Like hell!  Like bloody God-damned hell!  Where are they?  What makes them think they have the right, the right, to claim the whole damned universe for themselves?"  The captain's voice is going up the scale, becoming a shriek, and filled though I am with terror of the Sreen, I am also caught up in fierce admiration for my superior officer.  He may be a suicidal fool to refuse to accept the situation, but there is passion in his foolishness, and it is an infectious passion.  "How dare they treat us this way?  What do they mean, ordering us to go home and stay there because they own the universe?"

He takes a step toward the door.  The Intermediaries move to block his path.  With an inarticulate screech, he ploughs through them, swatting them aside with the backs of his hands, kicking them out of his way with his heavy booted feet.  The Intermediaries break easily, and it occurs to me then that they are probably as disposable a commodity among the Sreen as tissue paper is among human beings.  One Intermediary is left limping along after the captain.  Through the clear pale skin of its back, I see that some vertebrae had been badly dislocated.  The thing nevertheless succeeds in overtaking the captain and wrapping its appendages around his calf, bleating all the while, "No, no, you must abide by the edict even as every other inferior species has, you must abide ."  The captain is having trouble disentangling himself, so I got to him.  Together, we tear the Intermediary loose.  The captain flings it aside, and it bounces off the great portal, spins across the polished floor, lies crushed and unmoving.

Side by side, we pause directly before the door.  My teeth, I suddenly realize, are chattering with fear.  "Captain," I say as my resolve begins to disintegrate, "why are we doing this?"

"The nature of the beast," he mutters, almost sadly, and smacks the palm of his gloved hand against the portal.  "Sreen!" he yells.  "Come out, Sreen!"

And we wait.

"If we don't make it home from this," I say at length, "if they never hear from us back on Earth, never know what becomes of their starship --"

"They'll just keep tossing men and women at the stars until someone does come back.  Sreen or no Sreen."  The captain strikes the door again, with the edge of his fist this time.  "Sreen!"  A bellow that, curiously, does not echo in the vast antechamber.  "Sreen!  SREEN!"

The door starts to swing back on noiseless hinges, and a breath of cold, unbelievably cold air touches our faces.  The door swings open.  The door swings open.  The door swings open forever before we finally see into the next chamber.

"Oh my God," I whisper to the captain, "oh, oh my God."

They are titans, they are the true and indisputable masters of the universe, the lords of creation, and they are unhappy with us.  They speak, and theirs is a voice that shatters mountains.  "WHO.  ARE.  YOU?"

The captain's lips draw back over his teeth in a mirthless grin as he plants his fists on his hips, throws back his head, thrusts out his jaw.  "Who wants to know?"

 

This story first appeared in the February 1977 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

"Upstart" copyright Steven Utley 1977

Photo copyright 2004 Eric Marin

 

About the Author:

Steven Utley, a founding member of Texas' Turkey City writers group in the 1970s, is the co-editor (with Geo. W. Proctor) of an anthology of fiction by Texans, Lone Star Universe (Heidelberg Publishers, 1976), and the author of Ghost Seas (Ticonderoga Publications, 1997), The Beasts of Love (Wheatland Press, 2004), Where or When (PS Publishing, 2005 [UK]) the perennially soon-to-be-finished Silurian Tales, and two volumes of verse, This Impatient Ape (1998) and Career Moves of the Gods (2000), both published by Anamnesis Press. 

 

Lone Star Stories * Speculative Fiction and Poetry * Copyright 2003-2004

 

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