by Steven Utley
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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."
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
silences me with an imperious gesture. "Who
do these Sreen think they are?"
true and indisputable masters of the universe," the Intermediaries pipe in
one high but full-toned voice, "the lords of creation."
want to see them," the captain insists.
must return to your ship," they insist, "and obey the will of the
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?"
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.
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?"
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!"
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 --"
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.
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.
my God," I whisper to the captain, "oh, oh my God."
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.
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