Engine Blocker

By Derek Robinson

Garret kicks at the metal door and hugs his body tightly. They move fast but not fast enough and Garret is dying to go, to get started, to get running, to get anywhere.

"How much longer?" he asks for the hundredth time but the pilots just ignore him.

Garret shudders and lashes out, punching the bulkhead in frustration. Through the porthole he can see the floating glitter of the stars, and he wishes they could move fast enough to make the stars blur off into the distance. He feels the ship's thrusters fire, and the stars rotate around them, and Garret almost gets his wish as they vanish one by one. Something blocks his view; something big enough to eclipse the stars.

He pushes his face up to the porthole and stares at the growing shape; it makes Garret forget he is out in space.

Wow, thinks Garret, and whistles for comic relief, looking towards the pilots but getting no response.

Garret shuts his eyes, not needing to watch the ship that is out there. His heart sinks when he thinks about what is next. The pilots finally acknowledge him, barking that he needs to get into position. Garret reluctantly pulls himself away from the viewport.

"Get in the tube? Get in the tube??" he shouts back, edge creeping into his voice. There is no reply, not even a 'calm down asshole'. He turns towards the back of the ship and takes a step when one of the pilots call his name and when Garret turns to look at him he asks, "Hey buddy... what song ya pick?"

Garret squints at the man, wondering how the pilot even knows about all that. "I don't know the name," he says. "It's some twentieth century number... the title was lost."

"Can I hear it?" the pilot asks but Garret just laughs.


This is what death is like, Garret thinks, his own body twitching but unable to move in such tight confines. How could they do this? he thinks. It was never like this in training he tells himself.

I am now a torpedo, Garret thinks. I'm in the tube.

Something itches, but he can not move his hands to reach it. The dark surrounds him, and Garret can not tell if the wall is ten centimeters or ten meters in front of his face.

"Get ready, Blocker..." one of the pilots says, the disembodied voice booming all around him. There is no speaker in the tube; the voice is amplified from behind it.

"It's dark _in the tube_," Garret whispers back, knowing that the subtle irony is lost on the cold metal walls. He reaches out, banging his hand, the walls closer than he thinks or likes "It's dark in the _womb_," he mumbles, trying to fumble his arm up along his body to reach the itch.

The vibrations start, and there's no gradual buildup like the sim had. The coffin hums and vibrates and rattles, and he can barely make out the pilot's amplified voice saying "Oh shit," and Garret feels like he is turning to jelly.

He struggles to get his arm up to his head, to where the itch is, knowing full well the folly of not being in 'Proper Position'. His shoulders and knees slam against the metal, and Garret is running his hand all over his face, trying to scratch what he can't find.

The pilot's voice booms out: "Insertion Point opened, Blocker, hope you're - " and there is a brief sucking sound as Garret shoots out of the tube and into the vacuum surrounding.

Garret finds the itch: it's his brain.


It slaps him, the cold.

It hits without mercy, and where there was nothing there is everything and it is all moving super-fast, or rather, he is super-fast, and everything else around him is not moving at all.

It's still.

I'm in space, is all he can think. I can see the stars again.

The monster in front of him is motionless and featureless, except for one tiny pinprick on its surface. Displays flash before him and a hole on the surface of the ship is highlighted with the text: "Insertion Point".

Garret thinks: I'm going in there.

The metal beast looms large and Garret barely extends his arms before sailing through the opening.

His song starts.


"No one survives without a song," they were told.

"Mission success rose by four percent once we introduced music," another voice had said.

Garret laughed until someone asked about that, the current rate of mission success.

"Four percent," they said, and Garret stopped laughing.


The floor hits him hard and he rolls violently as the beat lays in. Constant and steady, the sound is fast, but not too heavy, not yet.

Garret somersaults up onto his feet and is immediately running. He runs lightly, almost a bouncy jog, and he stretches, shaking off the effects of space. It stings; his entire body aches. Garret curses the mission and the army

and all of his training.

"Verbal expletives are a healthy way for a soldier to deal with stress," was an actual line printed in his army handbook. Back in basic, Garret had clipped it out and hung it on his locker as a constant reminder of army mentality.

These beginning steps are more of an exercise to get blood to his legs than to build speed, also per army regulation.

"Kick out those toes," one officer had said. "Rotate your arms," another had said.

"Shut up," Garret says.

Leg over leg, his feet start a regular pounding, boom boom boom against the metal floor of the chamber. The music settles, growing comfortable with its own rhythm, even as Garret grows more comfortable with his. He shakes his head and puffs out breath and turns up the speed.

Garret allows himself a look around.

"This is the Outer Hull Chamber," a sergeant had yelled, slamming a diagram on the enemy ship in front of him, "Out of the ninety percent of you assholes that get into that behemoth ship alive, twenty percent will die in that chamber."

Garret looks around but doesn't see any corpses.

"How you people can die in that cozy little space is beyond my limited comprehension!" the sergeant shouted, throwing his hands high in the air. "You have maps, always available from your eye implants. You have stamina, since none of you will really be _running_ at this point.

"What's more important - intelligence has never revealed anything to be in there! But still, blockers vanish, they get lost, they can't find the access portals. Some run until exhaustion. So it must be beyond my limited comprehension how you people can lost in there! In my day, we would have killed for such a cushy assignment."

Garret smiles; that was his favorite sergeant, easily the most melodramatic of the bunch. He was also the expert on the Outer Hull. He taught Garret about the physics of it, why it was needed for ships so large. He explained that for every blocker that the army inserted, they would blow fifty unused holes into other ships, to keep the enemy off-guard.

The memory sticks with Garret, but he's not sure what else they discussed that day. It seemed important at the time.

His song dips into more comfortable territory, a kind of gentle introduction before the music really kicks in, and Garret savors the calm while he still has a chance to enjoy it.

"If you by chance you do encounter something that you were not trained to deal with - use your speed. Get away. Run like a lunatic."

Garret sees nothing. The chamber is dark, cold, and endless; it curves out of sight in all directions. The ceiling is black as is the floor and Garret's footsteps echo away into nothing.

"If you don't get to the engine room, you are useless."

And Garret wants to explore that line of thought, but the music swells just as his displays flash "Access point" and one grows out of the horizon - it rushes up to him and he smiles and dives through it.



That was really the point of the music, to drive the Blocker.

Not the Blocker, thinks Garret, it's to drive me. Garret.

Some hotshot lieutenant came up with the idea and personally came to their training base to explain the basic principals: the song helped increase the rate of mission success; the music was just another tool designed to propel human beings towards the finish line.

Garret knew as much; the lieutenant explained as much.

Knowing the truth does not detract from its effectiveness.

The song provided motivation and inspiration.

"This is so easy troops," the lieutenant said. "All you need to do is physically move your body from point A to point B. Yes, there will be obstacles, but you are highly trained soldiers and you will know how to deal with them. Yes, you are navigating through unknown territory, but the maps and paths will be available via your eye-implants. You shouldn't get lost."

The officer raised his voice to emphasize his point. "There is absolutely no reason why you can't get from start to finish" he yelled, slamming his fists into his desk. He leveled his eyes on the class. "So which one of you wants to tell me why the success rate is so goddamn _low?_"

Someone suggested he try a run.

The officer ignored it and continued: "My dream, would be to send a contingent of CO's and drill sergeants along with you on these missions! That way, when you falter, when you hesitate, when you screw up, they will be there to make sure you damn well get back on your feet and keep on running!"

The lieutenant's eyes met Garret's and the intensity in them forced Garret to look away. "But we can't be there, and that is why we send music."


The memory of that encounter echoes away into the darkness, but it still does the trick: I won't be the one to fuck it up, Garret tells himself.

The floor rushes up and the impact throws Garret off balance; he catches himself and stays on his feet. Looking around, he regains his bearings and shoots up the nearest corridor. The letters "OMC" flash across his vision: Outer Maintenance Chamber.

"The OMC is a relatively safe place," they said and Garret hopes for as much.

The corridor narrows and the walls blur by. The beat pounds in his head, and Garret forces himself to stop blinking to it; he forces his attention back to his feet and the ground.

His sergeant pops back up: "Focus on nothing but running, soldier!"

Garret pictures himself as somewhere between a human being and a piston engine: foot over foot, knee past knee, legs pumping up and down, he is an aspiration towards living movement.

The corridor narrows further and Garret twists his shoulders so he can squeeze through the entrance. This new room is littered with unknown shapes and Garret dances a path down the center to avoid colliding with anything. Grays, blues, purples, the objects are aligned in some kind of pattern that Garret can not discern.

Alien luggage? he wonders.

"Children," they had been screamed at, "I hope you truly realize what you're getting into. Specifically, eight cubic kilometers of space. That's how big these alien ships are. They're over three kilometers long! Do you know how long our biggest ship is? Do you?" No one answered. "Six-hundred meters! That's a walk to the head compared to what you'll be dealing with!"

The suitcases fly far behind Garret and he barely misses knocking his head off as a protrusion of metal jutting out of the wall whizzes by. Pipes? There are suddenly hundreds of them streaking by, extending the walls and ceilings in every direction, and Garret sways and bobs back and forth to avoid losing a limb or worse.

"When you're out there, troops," his sergeant had said, "You will not be running fast enough."

Garret is not running fast enough.

His music steps up in intensity and Garret welcomes the oncoming frenzy, letting it whip him even further along.

"Let your song unearth every last bit of energy in those tired bodies."

Too close! Garret thinks as he catches his left arm on one of the strange protrusions, ripping through layers of plastic, cloth, and flesh. Blood sprays everywhere and Garret gnashes his teeth, cursing the pain, cursing himself for being so careless. With a couple of shakes Garret assesses the injury as no real threat to mission success and resumes his prior speed.

The protrusions abruptly vanish as he bursts into a long hallway, schematics dancing before his eyes. Location, placement, trajectory: all provided instantly and Garret simply shakes his head to dismiss them.

Even without the projected images, he can picture his exact position along his prescribed path.

TMB, Garret thinks: Too Many Briefings.


Garret remembers his first, the one that began with just two letters: "MT".

More Training.

Garret groaned outloud when he had read this, and groaned again as all his buddies left for normal assignments across the galaxy. Garret was forced to stay six more months for this additional training.

For this _special honor_.

It only took a few days at this new program to wash away all of Garret's cynicism. The briefings he received there were surprisingly honest, a luxury he was unfamiliar with up until that point.

"Troops," one officer had said, "Our primary advantage in this war is that we outnumber the enemy. We can throw one hundred ships against every one of their's. We can sacrifice one thousand troops to order to take out a few of their's. We can and must attempt desperate stunts in order to win this war."

Everyone, Garret included, stared back at their CO in silence.

"Yes, yes, I know what you were told before. Humanity is under attack, you're our only hope, blah blah blah." The officer waved his hand dismissively. "Forget all that; focus solely on the threat. They are better, stronger, and more powerful than humanity ever will be. When we broke into the galactic scene, we became nothing more than another blip on _their_ radar."

One hundred enlisted heads nodded simultaneously.

"We have encountered other life forms before, but they were the first true _aliens_, creatures that we have no hope of understanding. You all know their official designation: Lifeform R13. But always remember one thing: they are Alien.

"You've seen enough footage of the damage they've done as they trek across our space. When we try to communicate, they simply shoot their bizarre energy weapons back at the source. They annihilate everything in their path. They are an invading force, and simply put, we are next."

More silence greeted the commanding officer.

"If it were up to me, we would change the official army recruiting slogan to read: "Don't Bother, We're Fucked!"

He smiled.

This was not the propaganda Garret was used to.

"And that's where you people come in."


The memory fades, and Garret smiles: he figures this to all be a product of army tinkering, fixing him up to be reminded and inspired at all the right times.

Even though he hates it, it works. He hates it because it works.

Not many humans get this far, he thinks, and it barely registers when the floor suddenly drops out from under him. Garret traces circles in the air with his legs as he flies over emptiness, glancing backwards at the ramp on the left side of the corridor he missed. His minds shrieks _pay attention_ as he smashes into the floor beneath him. This time, Garret does go down, his legs instantly flattening outwards, his torso whipping downwards, his arms shooting outwards to absorb the blow.

Garret moans as he clatters end over end, rolling across the cold, metal floor. He tells himself, there is no time for this, and stumbles to his feet, trying to regain any momentum he might have lost.

"There is no lying down on this job," an officer had joked.

Garret resists the urge to laugh as the pain flares outwards from his right upper arm. Automatic counter-measures to the pain kick in, results from a billion injections before the mission, and they move at a speed quite opposite their effect.

"A little pain can keep you focused, troops," the officer had said.

'Focused.' Garret echoes the thought, but it does little to help his mood. He picks up a light jog, letting the pain and numbness flow freely through his arm and chest, analyzing the sensations as they go. He feebly pumps his arms to limited success and recalculates his path and speed at this slower rate.

No good, he thinks, and forces his arm to move further. The pain wells up again and he grins at this, letting the sensation act as a guide, showing him the right direction in which to move his arm. Garret even manages to recall some protocol: "A break in the middle of either your upper or lower arm is perfectly acceptable. If the muscles remain mostly undamaged, as well as the surrounding tendons and ligaments, you should be happy."

I am happy, Garret tells himself, and he regains speed using this new stride. Fuck yeah, he thinks, only now truly beginning to appreciate his sergeant's constant mentoring.

"Garret, the only thing that will get a blocker to the end of his mission is pure, human will. You need to tap every hidden reserve, every secret reservoir, every primal instinct. The only reason you are on that ship is to get to the engine room. The music, it will help you, but only if you let it."

And the moment vanishes when more pain erupts across his already broken arm.

Don't look back! Garret thinks, forcing his head forward. He throws himself blindly ahead, diving under some of the strange pipework as the heat from another blast scalds his retreating backside.

Garret slides on his chest, scraping his skin, clawing and pulling on the floor to get away. He frantically looks around for an escape, and rolls towards a narrow opening on his left. More pain erupts in his lower leg and he rolls sideways, pulling his legs away from the danger. The piping is gone, and Garret stumbles to his feet, and somehow he runs-limps across the room and around a sharp corner. He slams against the bulkhead, and he starts to wipe burning tears away before he realizes he is just rubbing blood into his eyes.

He can smell his own seared flesh.

"Oh god," Garret whispers, knowing that he has to move, that he can't stay still, that he'll die and fail the mission if he wastes one more second.

His commanding officers would have been proud.

Garret falls forward, catches himself, and starts to move again. His implants blink 'off-course' across his eyes but Garret doesn't care. At least I'm moving, he thinks, and the only effort lies in bringing the bad leg back up again, and he does this once, twice, three times, and despite the pain, he is finally running again.


At some point during their training, they were shown diagrams of all the surgical alterations they were to receive: air and blood filters, neural implants, stomach strengthening.

"Early iterations of this program discovered that too many modifications had a detrimental effect on mission success. Some speculated that our alterations might have alienated you blockers from your own bodies, your own humanity even, and that this may have ultimately decreased your motivation to finish the mission."

Garret punches his chest, feeling the reverberations through the breathing machinery planted inside.

"From past missions, we've gathered that their ships have atmosphere, but not oxygen. You'll be at a suitable pressure and temperature, but you won't be able to breathe on your own."

Hence, some military-grade technology, only embedded into Garret's chest this morning. "Now we do it last minute to keep you guys from freaking out so much."

A stumble and more pain shoots up through Garret's body. He tries to push it down and grab onto the music; he tries to focus on nothing but the beat. With each note, an image of the engine room flashes across his retinas; with every sound, he sees an echo of the finish line.

There is absolutely nothing that can stop me now, he thinks.

Garret's implants continue to blink 'off-course' but they estimate him within half a klick of the ship's center. Somewhere along the line he transitioned into the Inner Equipment Center and did not even notice it.

As he studies his displays, his song dips for a few seconds, fading into a mere echo of its real potential. Garret uses this time to nurse his injuries with a slightly slower pace. When the beat comes back in full force, he throws himself forward, trying to top his earlier top speeds. He can finally push the pain away as he enters what could very well be the final stretch.

Go, go, go! he thinks.

These rooms and corridors have changed; everything is still dark, but not so monochromatic. Deep hues of red and green appear, and somehow, the place starts to become a little more warm and inviting.

Garret spies a small ramp up ahead and aims himself down the center precisely, not wanting to repeat his earlier mistake. As he passes the threshold his displays flash 'Warning' and Garret almost stumbles at what he sees.


Lifeform R13.

Shit, he thinks.

The room is cavernous, a polar opposite to all the narrow hallways and corridors he has traversed so far. There is a clear path down the center. Strange equipment and markings line the walls, and around them are gathered clusters of the bizarre creatures.

"If you're lucky, you won't run into any of the aliens. The path chosen for you should be empty under ideal circumstances, but remember we are working with limited intelligence. The closer you get to the center, the higher the risk."

This time, Garret himself was the one to pose the question that was on everyone's mind: "And what do we do if we do encounter one, Sarge?"

His sergeant smiled. "The same thing you do for everything else: fuckin' run."

The creatures react to Garret's presence immediately, turning their squat bodies and bulbous heads his way. To Garret, they look more like robots or rocks than humanity's greatest foe. They're a blur, and Garret wants to slow down and study them, but the beat in his head is pounding relentlessly now. He manages another meter before he hears their bellows, and within seconds, their noise is almost drowning out his own song.

Garret sees one of the aliens hoist a silvery-metallic object and the action is so strange and unfluid that Garret can barely interpret the significance - until a blast cuts across his stomach.

Garret dives to the ground, somersaulting over in a desperate attempt to avoid the next shot. His stomach burns badly but is not compromised. As he comes out of his roll he sees more of the aliens turn his way, all with their grotesque limbs pointing their silver weapons at him.

Garret springs to his feet and charges through the doorway; more shots lick against his arms and legs. Each hurried breath sets his stomach afire and he is tripping over his own feet but gets out of the room before any more harm is done.

A short darkened hallway speeds by and Garret twists and plants his shoulder square in the middle of the closed door at the other end; he wishes for luck as it smashes open and he flies through.


His feet clash into metallic grating and he looks downwards into infinity. What the, he thinks, first guessing and then dismissing and then finally realizing where he is.

The engine room.

The finish line.

I just ran through the fucking control center, he thinks.

The platform he is on shakes violently from his momentum and he can easily count the meters he has to the end. Through the grating, he catches a glimpse of what lies below: the behemoth's gigantic Mover, the Engine that powers it all.

Massive does not begin to describe it, and Garret feels like a god looking into a newly created star system, able to judge the sun that lies in the middle.

And suddenly the flood gates open: the nagging memory from earlier comes washing in. He always felt there were details missing about the mission and one word stands out among all the rest: suicide.

And he remembers volunteering for it.

"We are proud of your choice, troops." It was the last briefing before launch. "But we have a little more fiddling to do with your brains first: you will forget that this is a one way trip. You will not ponder what the true goal of your mission is. You will not think about how you will be getting home. You will not know what to do until you arrive at the engine. You will not let something as tiny as death keep you from getting to that room."

And as Garret takes another step, he ponders his choices. Turn around? Or go forth?

"That drive represents technology that is well beyond anything human beings can understand, nonetheless create. Our scientists call it a 'Slipstream Drive,' but your guess is as good as mine."

Two more steps, Garret thinks, the platform shuddering dangerously beneath him.

"Troops, only one foil was found for this drive, and it was discovered quite by accident. So, let me apologize for putting you all in this terrible position; you can blame the hapless scientist who was aboard the only ever captured enemy ship."

From behind, Garret can here the aliens catching up to him.

"We make you forget this to improve mission success, but don't ever forget the nobleness of your actions. What you're doing is for the good of humanity, for the good of anything you've ever believed in."

Garret places his last footfall exactly on the edge of the platform, so that only his toes hang off. His momentum takes him right over the edge.

A final blast catches Garret in his lower back, but he is already gone, falling out of sight.

"You see soldiers, that scientist tripped on the gangway and fell. He fell right into the core of the engine. And guess what?"

Garret angles himself towards the intake port on the engine below. A radiant and sparkling stream of light flows towards that port, seemingly coming from everywhere; maybe the 'slipstream' itself?

"That engine stopped working. The chamber went dark. And that ship, now rendered useless, is drifting into an unknown corner of the universe."

Garret pitches completely forward and calmly extends his arms into the dive.

"We can't explain it, but the army is not one to quibble over details. Personally, I blame it on the principal of universal irony."

Garret hears faint bellowing from the ledge above.

"Our bodies can block the stream. Our organics interrupt it."

Garret washes over in heat and light as he is grasped and pulled inwards, tumbling end over end, forces buffeting his body.

"We have this power and all it takes is the drive to get there."

Garret smiles. His sergeant pats him on the back and says, "If you do it right, Garret, you'll get to hear the end of your song."

And the music explodes and everything goes dark.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Derek Robinson

E-mail: superstar@outsole.com


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