Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Wanderling

by Benjamin Taylor Jr.


The Wanderling pushed aside the calm, tropical waters with her blunt nose. A banged and battered ship, scorched and frozen from a lifetime exploring strange and remote places, she wore her blemishes proudly like captured battle flags. Despite her weathered appearance, however, Wanderling was strongly built and designed to withstand the harshest environment.

The Captain and First Officer stood together on the bridge, quietly observing the sun's rendezvous with the edge of the world. Fading in intensity to a comfortable red-orange hue, the orb gently settled onto the liquid horizon, began to melt and flow, then to sink. At the last instant, just before the sun completely disappeared from sight, there was a tiny wink of brilliant green.

"Interesting effect, eh, First?"

"I like to think of it as magic, Captain."

"Magic!" The word was all but spat out. "Preposterous! It was a simple prism effect. I know that much without having to consult our tourists. Refraction, when the sun is near the horizon, is at its greatest. The wavelengths of red and yellow cause those colors to disappear first, the blues and violets are scattered in the atmosphere, leaving only green to be visible for just a moment. It's a rare phenomenon, granted, but one easily explained."

"Yes, sir."

"You don't sound entirely convinced," laughed the Captain.

"You know me, sir," grinned the First Officer. "I'm an incurable romantic."

The Captain squinted curiously at his second-in-command, then shrugged. Together they turned to enter the navigation booth. In the chart tank before them, a glowing line ending in a pulsing dot marked Wanderling's progress and present location. A dark line indicated the intended track as the ship headed for the equator. Moving around the chart, the First Officer called up another display function.

"At our current speed, we'll cross the equator precisely on schedule, sir. I'll inform the Chief Biologist."

"Our last assignment on this deployment," breathed the Captain. "It'll be good to see home again. But you know something, First? I can't for the life of me understand what's so blasted important about taking seawater samples at local midnight." He shook his head and sighed, turning back to the central port. "But that's what I get for being a glorified chauffeur."

The First Officer smiled. Despite the Captain's apparently sour view of his fate, it was no secret he was being groomed for promotion to Admiral. Fleet policy dictated that anyone in consideration for Flag rank must have had command experience in both Combatant and Service Force ships. The Captain had already skippered two destroyers and a heavy cruiser prior to reporting aboard Wanderling. And within the Service Force, researchers were highly prized assignments.

"Will you be observing tonight's evolution, sir?"

"Someone's got to make sure they don't hurt themselves," mumbled the Captain.

The First Officer, puzzled by the odd note in his superior's voice, leaned out of the navigation booth to find the other staring out at the twilight sky.

It was worth the preoccupation, reflected the First Officer as he joined the Captain. Wild brushstrokes of delicate crimson swept across an endless azure canvas. Stars slowly emerged, the brighter ones first, then all the others as the heavens deepened to a rich sapphire. Soon, there were no colors, only infinite blackness pierced with glittering pinpricks.

"You said you'd been here before, didn't you, First?"

"That's right, sir," answered the second-in-command. "A long, long time ago."

"Tell me about it."

"It's beautiful here, sir." The First Officer stared straight ahead, his eyes focused on another time. "But it has many faces."

"I don't follow you, First."

"It's hard to explain, sir." The First Officer gathered his thoughts. "There are storms here that make you believe the whole planet is coming apart. You don't think of beauty then, not consciously anyway. But it's there just the same. It's an elemental beauty. Primitive, destructive as it might be, it's still pure and real.

"Then there's the quiet beauty, like tonight. You can almost feel the stillness." The First Officer paused as a meteor skipped across the night sky, leaving behind momentary knife-slashes of incandescence. He continued in a near whisper, a strange yearning in his voice, "And sometimes there's more."

"More what, First?" scoffed the Captain, breaking the spell. "Magic, or perhaps the hand of God."

"Why not both, sir," came the level reply. "They might even be the same thing."

Startled, the Captain gave serious study to the shadow figure standing beside him. "You're a puzzle to me, First. You're a good officer, one of the best I've ever served with, but you have this annoying fascination for the mystical that's entirely out of place in an age of modern technology."

"Maybe, sir. Though I do like to think I have an open mind."

"An open mind accepts the facts and finds logical answers, not superstitious nonsense." The Captain turned away, abruptly terminating the conversation. "I'll be in my cabin, First. Have me called when we near the equator."

Left alone with his thoughts, the First Officer checked the automatic speed and heading controls, then scanned the navigational plot once more. Satisfied that all was in order, he stepped to the port and remained there until relieved by the Junior Navigator.

Leaving the bridge, the First Officer noticed the Captain's door was open. Before he could announce himself, the Captain appeared.

"Ah, First, I thought it was you. Please, come in for a moment."

"Yes, sir." He sat on the bunk as the Captain dropped into the seat at his desk. "We're still on track and should reach the equator in three hours."

"Yes, yes," acknowledged the Captain impatiently. "That's not why I wanted to see you. I've been thinking of our talk up on the bridge and I've been looking at your record."

"Yes, sir?"

"You've tallied up an impressive number of cruises. I don't think I know anyone who's made so many. Three tours of duty aboard destroyers, one aboard a battleship, another back in destroyers as First Officer. An early selectee for First, I might add." The Captain blanked the screen. "Then we have these last four tours with Research."

"Yes, sir."

"You evaluations have been consistently outstanding all the way down the line. Your judgement is excellent and, aside from these occasional bouts of fantasy, you keep a cool head on your shoulders."

"Thank you, sir." The First Officer frowned. "I think."

"What I'm trying to say, First," the Captain pointed to his subordinate's sleeve, "you should be wearing Commander's stripes by now and have a ship of your own."

"As a matter of fact, sir," said the First Officer, "I was offered both."

"What?" Stunned, the Captain slowly reached towards the computer console.

"You won't find it there, sir." The First Officer grinned. "I asked that it not be included in my official record."

"I don't get it." The Captain sagged back in his chair, shaking his head. "Why?"

"It's hard to explain, sir."

The Captain nodded with sudden understanding. "You like these exotic places, don't you? You like it here."

"Yes, sir, I do," admitted the First Officer.

"Why? What draws you to them?" When there was no forthcoming response, he leaned forward. "I'm sorry, First, if I don't understand. I do this job because I've been ordered to and, all modesty aside, because I'm very good at it. With you, it goes beyond that. There's more to it somehow."

"You're right, sir." The First Officer stood up and tried to pace, a nearly impossible task given the cramped quarters. "Sometimes I don't really understand it myself, sir. But I am drawn to these places. There's something about them ..."

"This magic you spoke of?" queried the Captain gently, no trace of derision in his voice. "The hand of God? I know I shouldn't have jumped on you up on the bridge, but I'm afraid that's a bit much for me to swallow. Oh, I'll agree that every place has something to offer in the way of beauty, and I can appreciate it. But even beauty has to observe the physical laws. Like that sunset earlier. Pretty, but there's nothing mysterious about it."

"It's funny, sir, but I used to feel the same way." The First Officer flashed a quick grin. "I was quite pragmatic. I believed in nothing I couldn't see, touch, or otherwise explain."

"Admirable qualities in a Fleet officer." The Captain leaned back in his chair. "What happened to change your mind?"

"I experienced ... something. Saw it. Felt it. Whatever you want to call it, sir, that's the only way I can describe it. But it changed my whole outlook on life." The First Officer suddenly changed topics. "You're headed for big things, Captain. You see, I checked out your service record, too. You graduated at the top of your class at the Academy. You've commanded several Combatants, including one of those new heavy cruisers, and now Wanderling. You've also served on a couple of very influential Admiral's staffs as well, the kind who shape Fleet policy."

"What's your point, First?" growled a disconcerted Captain.

"It's my guess that your goal is to be Chief of Fleet Operations."

"And you'd be right." The Captain glowered at his second-in-command to mask his surprise. "But I don't see what that has to do ..."

"Please bear with me, sir," interrupted the First Officer. "Everyone should have a goal. You have yours. This voyage, this tour of duty, all your previous assignments, you see as steps towards that goal."

"What's wrong with that?" countered the Captain defensively.

"Nothing, sir," admitted the First Officer. "As a matter of fact, I believe you'll make an excellent CFO. I've read your point papers and heard your views on current Fleet policies. I generally agree with you. But, my point is that, for you personally, command of a researcher is merely part of the journey towards your ultimate goal. For myself, though, the goal isn't at the end of the journey. It is the journey! It's each new place, every unusual occurrence!

"Don't you see, Captain?" The First Officer wound down. "In Research, each voyage is a new opportunity to explore and enrich myself. If I accepted command and promotion, I would have to give it up."

"I hear what you're saying, First," answered the Captain carefully. "I can't say I really comprehend it and I'm not sure I totally agree with you. Perhaps we can talk more later."

"Yes, sir." Dismissed, feeling somewhat embarrassed at what had been for him a veritable torrent of words, the First Officer started for the door.

"One moment." The Captain stood up. "Perhaps I will never understand, but I want you to know I honestly do appreciate your telling me."

"Thank you, sir, but don't be too quick to judge yourself." The First Officer closed the door behind himself, leaving the Captain to ponder that last cryptic remark.

Down below in the main laboratory, and much to the vocal annoyance of the Chief Biologist, the First Officer observed the preparations for the upcoming seawater sample collection. The scientist regarded the military crew as a necessary evil, a burden to be endured if one was to continue unlocking and analyzing the secrets of the cosmos. As head of the civilian detachment of research specialists, and because this particular experiment fell within his specific area of expertise, the Chief Biologist found it vexing to have amateurs invading his domain. It was bad enough putting up with the Captain's meddling, but at least he asked intelligent questions and drew logical conclusions.

The First Officer, on the other hand, was more -- the Chief Biologist groped for just the right appellation -- he was more emotional. His questions were just as intelligent, but he often refused to accept truths that were plainly self-evident. Worse, his conclusions often contained something of a disturbing quality.

There was a hail from the intercom, the call originating from the bridge. The Chief Biologist stabbed the ‘acknowledge' button.

"What do you want?"

"Excuse me, Chief." The voice, hushed to a near whisper, was that of the Junior Navigator. "The Captain wants to see you on the bridge. Right away."

"What's the problem?" growled the Chief Biologist. "Doesn't he know ..."

"This is the First Officer," interrupted the ship's second-in-command, cutting short the scientist's protest. "What's going on?"

"First!" The Junior Navigator sounded relieved. "The Captain wants to see you, too. Something weird's happening up here. It's the sea!"

The Chief Biologist and First Officer exchanged puzzled glances.

"What about the sea?" The First Officer's frown gave way to a sudden thoughtfulness. "Never mind. I'm on my way up."

"What is it, First?" asked the Chief Biologist, all traces of his normal animosity gone. Turning to his console with its multitude of gauges and external sensor readouts, he ascertained that nothing appeared out of the ordinary in the surrounding waters. When he looked up, the First Officer was already gone.

"Oh well," he muttered to his assistant, turning to leave for the bridge, "someone probably saw a school of pisces."

When the First Officer arrived on the bridge, he was not surprised to find most of Wanderling's small crew quietly clustered about the three ports. They were amorphous groups against the soft, green light emanating from outside.

"Over here." In the eerie silence engulfing the bridge, the Captain's low-pitched summons seemed unnaturally loud. "What do you make of it, First?"

From horizon to horizon, in all directions, the entire ocean was a smoldering cauldron of cool green fire. Wanderling's bow was a dark wedge sharply silhouetted against the emerald glow as she glided across a cloud-like surface at once fragile and forever. Just barely brighter than the surrounding sea, randomly pulsing bursts of light resembled underwater explosions.

Overhead, a broad swath of creamy translucence hung suspended, a spectacular end-on view of the galaxy unimpeded by atmospheric impurities. It was a shimmering gown of white silk draped against black velvet embroidered with countless gleaming jewels.

"Is this why my preparations have been interrupted, Captain?" demanded the Chief Biologist petulantly, having made his way unnoticed onto the bridge.

"Yes, Chief," answered the Captain without turning around. "I thought you might be interested."

"Thank you, Captain, but there's nothing unusual on any of my readouts." The Chief Biologist's attitude left no room for doubt that, in his mind at least, any further pursuit of the subject was wasteful and somehow ridiculous. "Will there be anything else?"

"I guess not, Chief," replied the Captain evenly. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you."

The distracting presence of the scientist gone, the Captain resumed his contemplation. Unable, or perhaps unwilling to take his eyes from the pageant beyond the port, he softly asked a question, already knowing the answer. "This thing ... this experience you spoke of earlier ...?"

The First Officer only nodded to the port.

"It's beautiful."

"It's magic, sir."

The Captain started to respond with something flippant, but found that he could not. And that shook him as nothing else before ever had.

Thereafter, over the course of the next several hours and beyond the occasional monosyllabic murmur of appreciation, nothing more was said by anyone on the bridge. They were trapped in a dream; between starlight above and sealight below, anything that needed to be said, anything that could have been said was illuminated in their faces.

At last, yet all too soon, the spectral sea fire died away. Wanderling's officers and crew were reluctantly returned to the world of nighttime reality. With embarrassed glances at the Captain and First Officer who remained at the central port, those on watch quietly resumed their neglected duties, expecting at any moment a severe dressing down. Their lapse, however, went gratefully unremarked.

In the wardroom at breakfast the next morning, most of the officers were still bemused. They idly toyed with their food and stared unseeing at opposite bulkheads or the overhead. The scientists, unbothered by such mundane ocean oddities, ate with their normal healthy appetites.

"What's the matter with everyone?" The Chief Biologist had just entered the wardroom and his grating voice shattered the spell. "Captain, your whole crew is acting peculiar.

"Mmmm." The Captain did not look up from his untouched plate.

"But you saw it, Chief!" blurted the Junior Navigator incredulously. "Last night!"

"Saw what?" The Chief Biologist sat down at the table next to the First Officer and helped himself to breakfast.

"Why, the ocean, sir!"

"Of course I did, you young idiot!" barked the scientist. "What about it?"

"Sir? I mean, it was ... it was ..."

"Oh that." The Chief Biologist shook his head in exasperation and carefully pushed his plate away. "Listen to me. What you saw last night was simple bioluminescence. Tiny microorganisms in the sea in just the right conditions; the water temperature was warm enough, the sea was flat calm, and so on. Our presence -- that is, the ship's passage through the water -- merely excited and stimulated them into giving off light. Oh, I suppose it was pretty, but there wasn't anything strange or mysterious about it. It was just a natural phenomena."

"But, Chief ..." protested several officers all at once.

The Chief Biologist disgustedly waved the others to silence and turned to the head of the table. "Captain, tell them what it was. Maybe they'll listen to you."

The Captain nodded and stood up. He let his eyes touch and hold those of each of his officers in turn, then slowly directed his gaze at the elderly scientist.

"It's really very simple." A smile spread across the Captain's face. "It was magic."

Two hours later, departure preparations had been completed. The Captain leaned against the recessed rim of the port, wistfully eyeing the ripples playing across the ocean surface in the freshening breeze.

"First?"

"Yes, sir?" The First Officer stuck his head out of the navigation booth.

"Does this place have a name?"

"Of course, sir," answered the First Officer, puzzled. "J 25B-3. Why?"

"I know its official designation. What I meant was, what do the locals call it?"

The First Officer ducked back inside the booth for a moment to quickly cross-reference the data. Then, frowning at the difficult pronunciation, he stepped onto the bridge. "It's called Earth, sir, in the most widely-distributed language spoken. And this particular body of water is called the Indian Ocean."

"Very musical sounds. I wonder what they mean?" pondered the Captain, drinking in the beauty of the exotic sea one last time, the memory of the previous evening forever etched into his mind.

"I don't know, sir," replied the First Officer. "It's not recorded."

"It's a shame the atmosphere isn't quite breathable." The Captain straightened and momentarily turned away from the port. "Take us out of here, First."

"Yes, sir."

The ship rose up out of the water, arced into space, and headed for home. On the bridge, the wanderling sighed as he watched the rapidly receding blue and white globe until it was merely one more speck of light indistinguishable among so many others.

THE END


© 2009 Benjamin Taylor Jr.

Bio: Benjamin Taylor, Jr. is a Technical Writer in the aerospace industry. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Mr. Taylor's novella Tears of the Madman appeared in the October, 2003 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Benjamin Taylor Jr.

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