D. A. Ratliff: Night Strings

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Night Strings

By D. A. Ratliff

I couldn’t feel the ship.

Unnerving sensation for a captain.

I had walked too many decks for too long not to miss the ever-so-slight vibration from the stardrive. It wasn’t there. Not for five months and twenty-seven days. Not that I was counting.

Every night as I walked the deserted corridors of the ESA Lassiter, an Astro-class cruiser, from bow to stern, the events of that day, six months before played in my head.

I had just walked onto the bridge, received the latest communications from the Comm officer, and then asked Commander Renaldi for a report on the status of our guests. We were transporting one hundred colonists from an established Earth colony on Elan III to Starbase 9 where they would meet up with transport for passage to a new settlement. The trip was to take nine days at maximum hyperspeed, and we were three days out.

“Captain, our guests have settled in nicely. They have set up their schedules for meals and showers, not much we have to do.”

“I wish all of our guests were as….”

The Alert claxon sounded as the bridge plunged into red light.

My science officer stared at his view screen. “Captain, quantum filaments just appeared on sensors. There are several, and we aren’t going to miss them.”

“How long?” 

“Seven minutes, ma’am.”

“Shields up.” I turned to the Comm officer. “Ship wide, please.” He nodded, and I spoke to the crew and passengers.

“This is the Captain. All hands to battle stations. Brace for impact. At least one quantum filament is on course to strike the ship in seven minutes.”

Renaldi spoke before I had a chance. “The passengers.”

“Get down there.”

One stream struck us, a glancing blow, but enough to knock out all electrical systems, and with the stardrive disabled, we were many lightyears from help. The Lassiter was dead in space.

The next hours were frantic as the crew struggled to bring the emergency backup systems online. First, repair crews worked to stabilize life support, then restore power to the galley and freezers, med bay, and communications. It was twenty-three hours after the collision when Renaldi and I stood outside the hangar bay doors. Time to tell our passengers what we were facing.

Renaldi introduced me. “Captain, this is Reggie Donovan, governor of the colonists. Reggie, Captain Miriam Jacobs.”

I glanced around the room at the anxious families. There was no easy way to tell them what was facing us.

“Mr. Donovan, I want to thank you and the others for your invaluable assistance in helping clear debris and tend to the wounded. I believe you understand what happened to us. As you know, we managed to bring the emergency life-support system online and are still working on full life support. The rest of our systems remain inoperable.”

“I can’t understand how something so large and dangerous could sneak up without notice.”

“Quantum filaments can be hundreds of meters long but virtually have no mass. Almost undetectable until they are on top of a ship because of high energy particles and subspace distortions.” I took a breath. “Other than life support, we have a couple of serious problems. We find ourselves in an empty section of space. If we could bring our impulse engines online, the nearest M-class planet is seven months away. We have no communications. The high energy particles fried the array and repairing it will take time. As we are in empty space, and too far from Starbase 9 or the colony we just left, their sensors will not pick up the filaments, and without the drive activated, they will have difficulty finding us.”

“Like the old Earth saying, needle in a haystack, Captain?”

“Yes.” I glanced at Renaldi before I went on. “So, there is one other issue. We were to take on provisions on Starbase 9. Even without all of you here, the ship’s Steward and the quartermaster have informed me that we are going to run out of food in six months. We will need to sit down with you and decide how we are going to ration food.”

“Captain, we have provisions with us, staples like flour, salt, sugar, dried meats, and fruits. Where we are going is more primitive than the colony we left. Our goal is to establish an agricultural trade outpost in that section of the galaxy. What we have is yours to add to the food supply.”

“Thank you. Mr. Donovan, the one thing I will not allow is for your children to go hungry. We will adjust accordingly.”

I stood outside the hangar bay on this night several months later, listening to the soft whimpering of some of the children and the cries of our newest “crew member,” a baby born three weeks ago to one of the colonists. Out of the small viewport, the faint Vesari Nebula glowed blue with another kind of newborn, stars. I stood there, waiting for the first soft notes that rocked us to sleep at night—the music of a violin.

As the sound of stringed music began to drift through the intercom, peace swept over me. I shouldn’t be peaceful for we had little time left. My chief engineer and his team managed to get the distress beacon activated, but with low power, the signal’s range was minimal. Yet, standing in the dark corridor with only a few emergency lights activated, I allowed myself to feel hope as Yeoman Ki Mikato played her violin.

Mikato was a botanist assigned to hydroponics. I had met her when she first came on board in one of my Greet the Crew receptions. Touring the new hydroponics garden set up in an empty storage hangar a month after our ordeal began, I was impressed by her enthusiasm and knowledge. Her expertise would provide much needed fresh food grown from the colonists’ seeds. Still, it wasn’t going to be enough.

When she requested to see me the following day, I was surprised, but several crewmembers over the first few weeks had stopped me to chat. I was not only a figure of authority to them but a mother in many ways when they needed comforting.

Mikato entered my ready room, carrying a strangely shaped case. “Captain, ma’am. I am sorry to bother you, but I…” She paused, looking uncomfortable. “I would like to offer the crew some comfort. When I was very young, my grandmother did this for our colony. We were on Magora.”

My heart skipped a beat. A vile race of humanoids enslaved the Earth colonists on Magora for two years, forcing them to turn over valuable minerals mined there. A wary captain of a supply ship had felt something was wrong, although the colonists insisted all was well, and he notified the Earth Space Alliance. When the ESA arrived, a battle ensued, and many colonists died at the hands of the alien humanoids.

“I’m sorry, Yeoman. I’ve read of what happened there. The bravery of the colonists who fought alongside the ESA when they arrived is legendary.”

“I joined the ESA because of that day. I remember a kind man in uniform who protected my grandmother and me until he could get us out of harm’s way.” She placed the case on my desk. “If I may, Captain. This is my grandmother’s violin. She would play at night to calm the children, but my mother always said that it calmed everyone.”

Mikato opened the black leather case, revealing a beautiful object nestled in wine-colored velvet. The case itself worn, the velvet frayed, but the instrument was pristine. The polished wood body was gleaming in the downlights above my desk.

“Yeoman, I have seen violins before but rarely outside of a museum. This is lovely.”

“Yes, ma’am. With computers able to make the sounds of all instruments, the real ones are difficult to find. My grandmother taught me to play, and I would like to play for the crew as she did every night for us. It brought us hope in the face of what we were dealing with on Magora.”

Her voice broke slightly, and I couldn’t speak for a moment, overcome by the heartfelt need of my crewman to bring joy to us.

“I think your gesture is wonderful, and I think that the crew will love having you play.”

“With internal communications restored, I would like to play at ten o’clock in the night, as everyone settles for bed. Perhaps it will help everyone sleep better.”

“Perfect.”

From that night until now, I stood in the passageway listening to her. Mikato played music she said was from Earth’s Old Masters. I had grown so fond of the music of one composer, Beethoven, that I had the Comm officer record it for me, and I played it often. The music was soothing, powerful, and gave us hope. I leaned against the bulkhead as she finished the piece from the observation deck where many of the crew went to listen each night. I preferred to listen with our guests, now our friends, as the music lulled them to sleep. Only when quiet overtook them, did I leave.

The following morning brought the news I was dreading. Our rations were meager, as were medicines and supplies in general. Hydroponics was providing some food, but it would not be enough. The Steward had done all he could to stretch our food supply. Unless ESA found us soon, our fate was clear.

Dinner for us was rarely a big affair, but I asked my senior staff to join me. The cook had made bread from the dwindling flour supply, and we had tomatoes from hydroponics—a feast of sorts for us. No one spoke for a bit as we savored a slice of bread and a tomato. My chief engineer had begged off. He remained diligently working to restore the external communications array, and I noticed Commander Renaldi had not arrived. I was about to ask where he was when the door to the Captain’s dining room slid open.

Renaldi was flush, still partially dressed in an excursion suit. “Captain, he did it. We have Comm.”

Rushing onto the bridge, I was pleased to see the communications officer already hailing the Starbase. We waited what felt like an eternity hearing nothing but static until a faint voice crackled in the air. I motioned for the Comm to go ship-wide.

“Lassiter, this is Starbase 9. Good to hear from you. We have your coordinates. Help is on the way.”

The excited voices of my crew and new friends began to pour through the Comm. However, our voices began to quiet as another sound replaced our cheers. The sounds of violin strings in the night. There was no better way to celebrate our rescue than the music that had seen us through.

~~oOo~~

The next day, a Halkan Republic ship that had been on routine patrol arrived with food and medical supplies. The following day an ESC Starcruiser arrived with a full repair team and more supplies. They offered to take our passengers on board, but Reggie Donovan refused. They were coming to Starbase 9 on the Lassiter as planned.

The ESA Hyperion began towing the Lassiter to the Starbase while repairs were underway. Their captain invited my crew and guests to dinner and a movie aboard his ship. I suggested another form of entertainment for part of the evening. As we enjoyed dessert, Yeoman Ki Mikato played her violin for all. I gazed about the room, pleased my crew was beaming with gratitude as they listened to her play.

I knew I would never captain another ship unless Ki Mikato were on the crew. We had faced death, and she had given us joy. For me, there will always be strings in the night.

*******************

Author’s Note:

I wrote this with thanks to the Star Trek franchise for borrowing the quantum filament. It appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and described, as I did in the story, from an article on sabrizain.org. There is a real counterpart in astrophysics, called a plasma filament, which is basically an electric current in space plasma such as occurs in Earth’s Aurora.

Resources:

 http://www.sabrizain.org/startrek/Astrometrics/Quantum_Filament.html

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Please visit D. A. on her blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/

Paula Shablo: Let Down Your Hair

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used as prompts are free-use images and do not require attribution.

Let Down Your Hair

By Paula Shablo

Laurel stood in front of the mirror, staring. Who was this woman?

The image stared back at her, unrecognizable. Shiny bald head, blackened eyes, swollen lips and an earlobe hanging in two shredded halves, the diamond stud torn away.

Her hand relaxed and the razor dropped to the floor with a sharp “clack!”

In a purely reflexive motion, she removed the remaining earring and dropped it into the sink, where it disappeared into masses of thick blond hair.

Her hands raised to touch the newly bald pate, tentatively at first, and then firmly stroking. So smooth! She took a deep breath, then another, and on the last exhale, exclaimed, “He’s gonna kill me!”

He’d come close enough, already. Laurel leaned closer to the mirror and lifted her puffy eyelids enough to more thoroughly examine her eyes. Damn him! The sclera of the left one was dotted with petechiae, which meant her whole eye would soon be red with blood.

“Ugh!” Laurel grimaced. “That’s going to take weeks to clear up.”

This was not her first rodeo.

He generally avoided her face—too many questions if things ended with a trip to the emergency room. But it had happened a few times.

This was the worst, though. Both eyes were blackened and swollen, the left impossible to open without using her fingers. Her neck was screaming out: “Whiplash!” The throb each time she tried to turn her head was excruciating.

It was all about the hair.

Twelve years ago, she had come home with a cute cut, shoulder-length and fashionable. Gilbert had thrown a fit the likes of which she had never even dreamed. “A Godly woman never shears her crown of glory! Never! How dare you cut your hair!”

He’d pushed her around, and even hit her a few times before that day. This was the first time he’d blackened an eye, though.

He’d also broken her arm. First trip to the emergency room and Laurel lied through her teeth about taking a bad fall.

Her hair had been growing since then. Twelve long years, and if that’s not a lot of hair—well, Laurel didn’t know what was.

It was Gilbert’s pride. “My wife has such beautiful hair!” He bragged about it—the length, the softness, the strength of it. During times of calm, he would sit next to her and stroke it, and sometimes he’d spend an hour brushing it for her.

It was also his weapon. He’d grab great fistfuls of it to yank her toward him. He’d shake her by the hair. He’d wind it around her neck and choke her.

If she tried to run, he would grab an end of it and reel her in like a fish. Oddly enough, whenever this happened, Laurel would hear the crackling voice of a witch croaking, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”

Laurel didn’t believe Gilbert would be able to climb a tower using her hair, but it certainly worked fine for him to reel her in and begin the shake, rattle and roll.

Let him try that now, Laurel thought, considering the piles of hair in the sink and on the floor.

Stupid fairy tales. Her trailing masses of hair certainly hadn’t gained her a prince or a happy ending.

She turned her head and winced at the pain in her neck. She went to the locked door and pressed her ear against it, praying that it wouldn’t suddenly be slammed into her head from the other side. 

Nothing. The house was silent.

He was still gone. If not, he’d most likely be pounding on the door right now, demanding her exit so he could go to town on her some more.

Carefully, she cracked the door open and looked out. Then she slipped through it and darted into the kitchen for garbage bags.

In the bathroom, she stuffed pile after pile of hair into two bags and tied them shut. All the while, one hand or the other would dart up to push back hair that was no longer there, and she would marvel anew at the smoothness of her scalp.

Her mind was screaming at her:

Oh, God, oh, God, if I’m still here when he gets back, I’m dead.

I should donate this hair.

Are you crazy? Get a move on!

She ran outside and threw the bags of hair into the trunk of her car. Back in the house, she raced to the closet and pulled down the one thing she could never bear to leave behind. It would ride on the front seat with her.

At the back of the closet was a small suitcase, already pre-packed. She had planned for an escape—someday. She had always been too scared to go, but now she was much more frightened to stay. She tucked her battered old purse under her arm, and took her life with her out the door and into the car. She didn’t bother to lock the door behind her. Nothing inside ever mattered much, and it meant nothing to her at all now.

Please, God, don’t let him come home now!

The car started, and although it ran a little ragged, as always, it didn’t let her down. She was off!

“Now what?” Laurel asked the stranger in the rearview mirror.

There was hardly any traffic. People were hiding away in their homes. She supposed the enforced isolation and the loss of his job had contributed to Gilbert’s extreme outburst today, but that hardly mattered now. What did was wondering if there was any safe place she could go.

She gassed the car—self-service with a credit card. She waved at the lone person she could see inside the convenience store and didn’t bother going inside. Her good eye was swelling more, and it was getting difficult to see. She drove around, looking for a hotel that didn’t have its “No Vacancy” sign unlit.

Finally, she admitted to herself that there was only one place to go. Thank goodness she still had the key.

The place was closed—had been for weeks now. But the power was still on, and the dressing rooms had showers. She’d been there only yesterday, the lone player on an empty stage.

She used her key card to access the underground parking lot and parked in the darkest corner. She used the elevator and went up to the backstage area, and then to her personal dressing room.

Gilbert had never been here. Her job was unimportant to him; music wasn’t his thing unless it was the wailing of a country singer, bemoaning his sorry drunken state and the loss of his girl.

How in hell had she landed with him in the first place?

She had maintained her own bank account, all unknown to him, and simply deposited some of her earnings into their joint account. He had no idea about the savings she had socked away. He thought her “little income” was what resulted from choosing such a trivial career, and it served her right if she needed to ask him for money now and then.

She did ask, although she didn’t need it. It made him feel like a big man, and that in turn kept him in a calmer state. She’d “come up short” for a utility or phone bill and ask him for an extra fifty dollars near the end of the month. He’d fuss about it, and tell her she should really look for a “real job.” Then he’d hand over some crumpled bills and stroke her hair and remind them both that a real man took care of his woman.

She saved the smaller bills until she had enough to exchange them for one-hundred-dollar bills, and then she stashed them in the lining of her old purse. She had plenty of cash to get by on for a while if she couldn’t use her bank card.

There was nothing but formal wear in her dressing room. Clean underclothing, too, but no jeans or sweats. Those were things she had in her little escape bag.

She went to the showers and doffed the clothing she’d escaped in. They were covered with hair and blood. She threw them away, vowing to get out to a dumpster as soon as possible.

With no hair to wash, her shower was quick and easy. She let hot water run over her aching neck for several minutes longer than she probably should have. Then she closed her eyes and rinsed her aching face and eyes with cold water.

It was eerie in the empty building, but she felt so free walking naked back to her dressing room that it hardly mattered to her. She went to the rack and selected a stunning sapphire blue gown.

She walked barefoot to the stage, which was dimly lit by only a few footlights. She sat, the case in her lap. She unlatched it and opened it.

The violin. It pulled her by the heartstrings, that instrument! She lifted it reverently, and carefully cradled it as she set the case aside.

It lay in her lap as she rosined the bow. When she lifted it to tuck it under her chin, she still paused to push away hair that no longer existed. It made her giggle.

When was the last time I giggled?

Her eyes were so swollen now she could barely see, but she didn’t need sheet music. She didn’t need the other orchestra members; the music was all in her head as she began to coax out the notes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Her bald head gleamed in the low light. Tears flowed down her cheeks, pink with blood on the left side of her face. As she played, she wondered idly if she was injured enough to go to the emergency room, and concluded that she probably was. Every note was painful; her head, her eyes and her neck throbbed and sobbed, but she couldn’t stop playing.

Let down your hair. Let down your hair. That voice was Gilbert’s now, and still, it was witch-like.

Ha! What hair, you son-of-a-bitch?

The bow paused in air, as Spring took a breath before Summer began. Lauren giggled again.

Yes, she was hurt. Damn it.

She played on, the bow moving faster.

The hospitals were full of sick people. The emergency rooms were overwhelmed.

The violin was magic. The music had healing powers.

Lauren played on.

“This is how you do it, Gilbert,” she whispered. “This is how you let your hair down.”

The stage was filled with music. She heard every note, although no one else was there. She relished every strain.

The neck of her gown was wet with her tears, and she briefly considered the stains. How much blood was there?

If she died here, how long would it take for someone to find her?

Autumn.

Stop it, stupid.

“You be quiet,” Lauren growled. “I will finish this piece.”

She didn’t have a cell phone. How crazy is that, she thought. Everyone has a cell phone these days.

It would have been one more thing, though. Even the house phone was a problem. “Who was that?” Gilbert demanded every time she took a call. It didn’t matter who it was; for Gilbert, it was always some new lover, some friend who didn’t like him, someone who wanted all her attention, when it belonged only to him.

People she worked with had them. She saw them texting and calling and scrolling social media sites. She could just imagine having one. Gilbert would have been taking it from her constantly, checking her calls and messages. It wasn’t worth the trouble it would have caused.

It sure would have come in handy now, though. She could at least call a nurse hotline and ask if this pain might be life threatening.

We have a concussion. I know it.

“Hush now,” Lauren sighed. “Winter is here.”

Winter is going to kill you.

“Gilbert did it. Gilbert killed me.”

Lauren played on. She could no longer see.

Finally, she reached the end. Four seasons had passed, and it hadn’t been an hour, but it felt like a year had truly gone by. Music could transport a person that way.

She practically lived here, but it was still difficult making her way back to the dressing room after carefully replacing the violin in its case. She was blind.

This is bad.

You don’t say. 

There was a landline phone in the dressing room. It took her awhile to locate it. It was live. Lauren burst into tears of relief and dialed 911.

Three tries, but she succeeded only to be put on hold.

Let down your hair. Let down your hair.

“Shut up, you wicked old witch of a Gilbert! There is no hair.”

How will anyone climb up to rescue you?

“Shut up!”

“911. What is your emergency?”

Oh, thank God! Lauren gave her location. “I can’t see,” she said. “But I will try to get to the door to let someone in.”

She took the violin. It was magic, after all. She found the front doors and managed to unlock one before passing out.

When she woke up, she was on the bathroom floor, lying on a blanket of her own hair. Gilbert was banging on the door, demanding to be let in.

The violin was in its case in the top of her closet. Useless.

With her final burst of strength, Lauren lifted her hand to touch her bald head.

Her hair was attached and matted with blood.

Let down your hair. Let down your hair.

“Go to hell, Gilbert….”

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Please visit Paula on her blog: https://paulashablo.wordpress.com/