We continued downward for almost two minutes, and it seemed as though we were penetrating into the very core of the Moon. When we at last stopped, we entered a vast, brilliantly-lit chamber. A large sign announced that this was "Hangar Bay 4". I asked for dimensions on this one, because it was too large for me to even guesstimate. Kalen-Li was happy to oblige me.
"This section is 1870 feet wide, 490 feet high and 1.2 miles long. It's primarily used to dock and service small ships of 600 feet or less maximum axial dimension. The ones you see are mostly private crafts and Alliance scoutships." We began a journey down the nearest of several wide aisles that ran the length of this enormous room.
I estimated at least 500 ships of various sizes and shapes were berthed there, a large number of them apparently just "out of the crate". A few older ones were being serviced by white-smocked technicians. The entire facility was uniformly illuminated and immaculately clean. The air was fresh and scented with a natural odor that I thought might be from the woodlands of Korendor.
"To be specific," Kalen said, "the Preserves outside Vrell City. If you'll look over there, you can see a Confederation tubular carrier that came in for emergency service." It was quite large, but in this cavern it seemed a mere toy. And then, ahead of us, the world just opened up.
"We're in one of two sub-hangars off the main one, and more or less access tunnels to it. Be ready to expand your concept of large. This one still amazes me after all this time." Kalen seemed almost as eager to be here as I was. Evidently, they were still able to feel almost childlike excitement.
At the end of the aisle, we turned left and drove toward a 500-foot-wide central ramp that led down to the main floor of this utterly awesome place. We stopped at the top of the ramp so that I could absorb perhaps the most astounding sight ever seen by man of Earth.
I swept my gaze slowly around, as Kalen narrated what we were seeing. "The basic shape is hexagonal, with opposing walls 4.6 miles apart. The ceiling is a dome 1.8 miles high at its crest. The majority of this hangar was built within a large natural cavern that we opened up and finished to our needs. The power comes from twin 520-megawatt fusion generators. The lighting alone consumes almost 70 megawatts."
Even with the lights almost two miles above the floor, the illumination was more than ample with no discernible spottiness or shadows. Kalen said there were almost 30,000 lighting fixtures arranged symmetrically around the ceiling, except for a ring about fifty feet wide and about two miles in diameter. Within the ring were seams that indicated that it was an enormous iris opening. Orii said, "This hangar was especially constructed to accommodate the Alliance's latest class of ships. An entry port that large was part of the specifications we were given, although the ships weren't in production yet."
Our view of much of the hangar was temporarily blocked by a small carrier hovering in front of us, but what little was visible left a sufficient impression of immensity. Over to the right about a quarter of the way around the perimeter, a familiar spherical ship was in drydock, so to speak.
I had to agree. When I'd first encountered this marvelous vessel in the 1960's, I decided that it was the most fantastic spaceship I'd ever seen for its sheer size and power. Now, in this hangar, it seemed like a beachball in the Astrodome.
I looked about to see if there were any larger ships in this mammoth chamber. Suddenly, when the carrier moved away from its hovering point, I saw beyond it to the far side, and out came a whispered, unprintable epithet. I knew then what that hole in the roof was for.
Those who've seen the TV film called "V" have some concept of the three ships that simply hung there in space at the opposite side of the hangar. They were circular, with an elliptical cross-section. To say that they were huge is to call the Pacific Ocean a pond.
Kalen looked at them with me for a moment, then said, "Those are the reasons for this hangar. They arrived at about 3 AM of your Eastern Time yesterday. Until they came through that port, none of us here had ever seen one in person. To be sure, we saw visiscreen images and the full package of tech material, but one can't appreciate something like this based on the view on a small screen or the drawings on a construction print. We didn't really know what to expect. Needless to say, they were the center of attention for the rest of the day."
"They're called Hyper-Class carriers, an entirely new concept and design. You've heard of mother ships. These are grandmother ships. Their diameter is 1.92 miles with a central axis of 1.27 miles. The iris is 1.98 miles, which leaves about 160 feet of clearance. We regret not making it bigger, but Korendor sent the specs and we followed them. I just hope that the Alliance doesn't have anything bigger in the works.
"As to their function, they're primarily for transporting large numbers of scouts and small carriers. One of these could easily berth thirty SPC-12-class ships with room left over for up to 6,000 smaller crafts. In this case, they brought a shipment of new scouts and medium carriers to replace most of our old fleet, which had some crafts over thirty years old, and most at least twenty. Between the three of them, they delivered 22,000 crafts of various types. You saw some of them in the sub-hanger as we drove through."
"So what happens to these big guys now," I asked. "They've served their purpose, haven't they?"
"Two of them will be loaded with the obsolete ships, and will launch in about thirty hours to return them to Korendor for scrap and salvage. The old girl SPC-12 will be on one of them. I think I'll miss that big beautiful ball. But, progress doesn't stop for sentimental old fools.
"The remaining ship will stay here in its original function, in reserve, so to speak, until needed. When the others have unloaded, one will come back with another 5,000 scouts. It will then remain here as well. The third will join the Alliance fleet elsewhere. It will be replaced by one being specially outfitted as a mobile base, to be hangared here but manned by a permanent crew of 12,000 carrying on all the functions of a full base on a smaller scale."
Orii spoke then. "This is probably like asking a six-year-old if he'd like to meet the real Santa Claus, but would you be interested in spending a little time visiting one of them? I just got clearance from the Commander."
It stopped about twenty feet from us and gently touched down in the aisle next to our cart. A side panel hissed down to form a stepped ramp. We boarded quickly and it lifted off with a silent surge of power, rising quickly until it levelled off about a mile up, then swung toward the nearest of the three carriers. The sheer enormity of this hangar was driven home even more forcefully from this perspective.
Lin-Erri, who hadn't spoken since we left the residential level, told me quietly, "I know precisely what you're feeling. The first time I came here, it took my breath away. It's not a place that you can easily get used to." She stood next to me by a window on the shuttle's side, and we watched the floor pass beneath us. After a minute or so, we went forward to join Orii and Kalen in looking on as the super-ship gradually filled our view.
The hull seemed absolutely smooth and seamless, with a finish like highly-polished chromium. When we were perhaps fifty feet from the perimeter, an iris that had been invisible a moment before spun open, and we entered through an airlock into a sort of junction area for half a dozen corridors. After a brief journey through one that followed the downward curve of the lower hull, we entered a circular landing bay at least 3,000 feet in diameter.
Most of the aging fleet of ships had already been brought aboard and locked into place for their final voyage. There was an aura of profound sadness pervading this place, made more poignant by the impersonal newness and sterility of the huge ship. We slowly glided over these now-lifeless retirees, and somehow an image came into my mind of abandoned old folks resigned to their fate.
Some of them had been with the original Korendian team since the very beginning. I recognized a few of them from my trips with the Korendians in the 1960's. One in particular caught my eye, and I recalled with photographic clarity that wonderful day in February of 1964 when Orii-Val and I stood together on the hull of that ship 5,000 miles above our little blue marble, and experienced unity with all of creation.
For all my regrets at bearing witness to this funereal event, I could sense in my friends that my feelings for these old faithfuls was far more intense in them. Lin-Erri leaned on the padded rail below the observation window, her hand gently pressed to mine, her lovely, shining eyes focused somewhere beyond infinity into the mists of times past. Orii and Kalen made no outward display of their feelings, but I saw in their faces the same emotions that moved Lin-Erri.
My love of these people grew greater still. For all their advancement, for all their ultra-high-technology, for all their magnificent intellects, here were three sensitive, caring human beings with the same longings for the security of the old and familiar that we of Earth know so well.
These were moments that I'd cherish into the end of time. Across the empty blackness of interstellar space, bonds were being forged that prove beyond the merest doubt that wherever humankind is found, in whatever form human beings appear, they are, in the wholeness of God's creation, kindred.
We of Earth sometimes believe that we are alone and insignificant in the endless immensity of the universe. From one who has shared much with those not of this world, a bit of wisdom: no one is greater or lesser than another. We are all brothers and sisters in the household of the Infinite One, Almighty God. If one of us suffers, all suffer. If one dies, all are diminished.
Our small planet is a mote of dust in the vastness of everything, but our race is no less than any other throughout the universe. This is why the Alliance and the Korendian people are here. They care because we're family.
Returning to the events of the day, we now approached a very large shaft running the 600 feet or so from floor to ceiling. When we stopped twenty feet away, a section of its wall parted and we moved into an elevator tube that Kalen said was over 800 feet in diameter. When our shuttle contacted the floor it began to ascend slowly, although I got the impression that it was capable of a far higher speed. I looked upward, trying without success to see the far end of this tube. As we rose, a variety of nameless faces peered at us through observation windows in the shaft wall.
After about three minutes, the platform stopped. A quarter-section of the wall split vertically and parted to allow us to exit. We moved out into a parking area containing about a dozen of these shuttles, which Kalen said were used for transporting crew members within the huge vessel. Signs at several locations told me that this was the "Administration Deck". The bustling activity of the base was absent here, with just a few people in the immediate area. They saluted as we passed.
"The usual crew complement is about 200," Kalen explained, "since the ship's major purpose is transportation. Most functions are automated, and the service module robots, or sermods, handle routine tasks." As we left the shuttle, he pointed to a squat, multi-armed machine leaving via a doorway marked "Sermod Access -- Do Not Block."
We boarded one of those omnipresent electric carts and headed for a corridor labelled "Primary Control". A moment later we passed through a sliding door into, for lack of a better word, the bridge. The Ship's Commander met us as we parked our cart, and introduced herself as Megan-Relam. Apparently the ship's crew had been converted to the lunar form. She was strikingly beautiful, tall and statuesque, with long, coal-black hair and piercing, deep blue eyes.
After the salutes, I said in my most official-sounding voice, "Permission to come aboard, sir." She looked at me curiously, and I explained, "It's a military custom on Earth when boarding a ship. I apologize if I confused you."
"Not at all," she replied with a broad smile. "I rather like it. However, selling it to my superiors might pose a challenge." She brought us to the raised area in the center of the room, and allowed us a moment to survey the surroundings.
The room was lit by area lighting rather than general illumination. It was elliptical in outline, with the outer wall conforming to the hull's curvature. The opposing wall was similarly curved, but with a number of recesses for consoles and operators. These were lit by unseen fixtures that shed light only on the manual controls, leaving the rest in near-darkness to facilitate viewing the various display screens.
The ceiling was dome-shaped with a maximum height of about thirty feet. It was glowing dimly with a greyish light. It had a peculiar appearance, sort of a not-quite-there effect that suggested a murky liquid or vapor rather than a solid surface.
Megan read my unasked question, and pressed a switch on a console within her station. Abruptly, the entire upper section of the room seemed to disappear, and we were looking out at the upper portion of the hangar. She said, "There's a network of visiscreen cameras in the hull, tied into a computer that correlates and combines the images into this tridim composite. However, I detect that you've seen this before."
I had, several times, but this gave new dimensions to the words sharpness and clarity. It was almost impossible to reject the impression that we were looking out of a huge, reflectionless window. She laughed and said, "This should help." She moved a joystick and the image began to rotate slowly. Another movement, and it began to tilt downward, with the hangar floor now appearing at the edge of the view. Reflexively, I grabbed for the hand-railing that surrounded her platform.
The view continued its simultaneous turn and tilt until we were looking directly up at the floor of the hangar, a most disconcerting vista. She pressed a stick-mounted button and the scene began to zoom in rapidly. The helpless sensation of falling overwhelmed me, at which point she switched off the viewer.
"Yipe," I squeaked, "that's... impressive." I looked about and was relieved to see that I wasn't the only one in the room who'd been affected.
While I allowed the knots in my gut to unravel, I looked over the instrumentation that surrounded her seat in a 270-degree arc. The majority of it was taken up by computer readouts and visiscreens pertaining to ship operation, with random clusters of switches and buttons. One red-tinted panel caught my eye. On it was the legend "Disruptor Control".
"A fact of life these days, brother," Kalen said sadly. "These ships are fully armed, with disruptor banks previously used only for planetary defense systems. We're playing for keeps, as your people say. It's a painful inclusion, but the reality of the situation is equally painful. Defenseless ships have no chance."
I thought then about our own troubled world, at constant tension, with nation against nation, with ideology against ideology, with democracy and freedom forced into eternal vigilance against tyranny and slavery. I remembered how in the early years of my contacts with these wonderful people, the words of the day were love, peace and brotherhood. Now, the fearsomeness of warfare was being brought home on a scale beyond our wildest flights of imagination, perhaps beyond our capacity to appreciate.
The Alliance, myriad worlds united in a cooperative venture for the common good, the very essence of harmonious interstellar civilization, was now forced by powers beyond their control to revert to the primitiveness and violence of their distant past. On their shoulders squarely rested the destiny of this region of the galaxy for millenia to come.
They loved life, revered peace, and enjoyed the pleasures of companionship and play, but deep within them there was conflict, the agonizing awareness that what they wished to do was hopelessly at odds with what they must do. Only when I became in effect one of them did I begin to sense this inner turmoil, this hurtful dichotomy of desires and necessities. To my love and admiration of these fine and gentle souls I added another feeling -- compassion.
They were all silent for the moments that I was lost in this contemplation, apparently knowing my thoughts and emotions. When I looked toward them, all eyes were on me, and in them I read an acknowledgement of what I had been thinking. We said nothing, preferring the empathy that was heightened by this simple eye-to-eye contact. I looked at each of them in turn, trying to convey to them without words that my pitifully inadequate support was theirs forever. They accepted it without hesitation.
Lin-Erri spoke then, in quiet tones. "Your impressions are very accurate, brother. What we must do in defending your world and others is utterly contrary to everything that we've been taught since our earliest days of childhood. Our ingrained passions for peace and brotherhood must be constrained by the reality that unless we combat the Omegans with every fiber of our beings, not only Earth but the countless worlds in this galaxy are in peril. It's a duty we've accepted with regret but with resolve."
When she finished, the others nodded in agreement. I could offer them only my profound sympathy. Life on Earth could never prepare us for the intense moral and philosophical dilemmas faced by these people. I didn't envy them.
© 2008 Robert P. Renaud -- all rights reserved