The Breadships by David Hewitt – FREE STORY

The Breadships

The early models were little more than crumbs. Kneaded and baked planetside, they ventured only into the shallows of The Great Empty, plying the hops between Terra and Luna, Mars, or occasionally as far as the Asteroid Belt to garner rare metals within their yeasty hulls and scamper back Earthward. True, the fundamental engineering principles of edible spacecraft were established in those early years, but it was four decades later that the greatest of the loafwrights, Alpha Baker Charlée, set out to use these meager cracker or brioche vessels as transports in the realizing of a grander vision. With a leadership style often described as an iron fist in an insulated velvet mitt, she managed through some combination of business savvy, persuasion, deception, chicanery, and possibly blackmail to secure funding for her now-legendary project. The result, built in orbit around Mercury, was a colossal Sun-baked facility that came to be known simply as The Oven, and it was when Charlée loaded her first vast agglomeration of dough into it that the epoch of the Great Interstellar Breadships truly began.

The Ciabatta-class cutters; the Sourdough-class caravels; the Hoagie-class cruisers; the elegant, sleek Baguette-class subluminal breadnoughts: We look back on these now as inevitable evolutions in ship design. Yet, if not for the audacity of Charlée, and the courage of that era’s captains and crews, daring to pilot those high-carb craft into the fathomless voids between stars, Humanity’s horizons might still be bounded by the gas giants, or at best by the petty, Plutonian Kuiper Belt iceballs of our own narrow system.

Perhaps, in retrospect, that had been better. Perhaps, absent Alpha Baker Charlée and the captains intrepid like Kurokawa, things might not have reached such a desperate pass, and the fate of all Humanity, even on the Terran homeworld, might not have wound up hanging by a thread.

The first and only intelligent species discovered thus far in the Great Interstellar Expansion was fated to become Homo sapiens’ direst enemy. We encountered the Ba-ko on the fourth planet of the 82 Eridani system, in the year 2491. What a planet Kongul-4 was: massive, hurtling headlong in a highly eccentric path that took it vast distances from its sun during its 3.4-Earth-year orbit. It sustained life through the providence of volcanic heat and abundant H2O, but its long winter alienations from solar warmth made it inhospitable in the extreme; Mars was a tropical-island spa in comparison. Many unique and hardy flora and fauna had evolved there, but none compared to the Ba-ko.

Of Terran species, they most closely resembled oversized gibbons, but even a gibbon trained by top gymnastics, powerlifting, and wushu coaches, and tutored by Aristotle and Sun Tzu, could never aspire to the capabilities that were every Ba-ko’s birthright. They had opposable thumbs, long, powerful, dexterous limbs, and prehensile tails. But there, the similarity to any Terran primate ended, for the Ba-ko, adaptated to Kongul’s extremes, could endure a staggering range of temperatures, combining the cold resilience of narwhals with the heat tolerance of Pompeii worms living on hydrothermal ocean vents. In their robustness, they resembled the tardigrade more than any other Earth species. They were omnitrophic, a characteristic unknown to Terran life: they could and would eat virtually anything, animal, vegetable, even many minerals, and to top all, could photosynthesize: during the brief Kongulian summers, they stored up copious reserves of solar energy in battery-like glands of the upper thorax.

And though when we Humans arrived, the Ba-ko had not yet developed spacecraft—their planet’s enormous gravity and thin atmosphere rendered even gliders an impossibility—they were very, very quick learners.

Records of the earliest encounters were lost in the fog of war, so it’s unknown whether the Breadship captain, Kurokawa, obeyed the Non-hostility Dictum, whether it was Humans or Ba-ko who struck first. It is known, however, that it was breadlust and breadlust alone that drove the Ba-ko to act on their worst warlike impulses. For at first, they were a peaceful nation, with no baking skills, but once they got a taste of bread, the die was cast; “risen yeast cannot be unrisen,” as the saying goes.

Those early spacefaring Humans initially underestimated the Ba-ko’s physical prowess, their communications technology, their gift for teamwork, and above all, their lightning-swift capacity to adopt and to adapt. Within six months after first contact they had overrun a frigate, marooning the Human crew amidst the unlivable environs of Kongul. Within five years the Ba-ko were building their own loafyards around the planet’s thermal vents. And within 30 years, this species that had never so much as invented the wheel had crafted an orbital oven whose output kicked into overdrive during the six-month perihelion summer of close proximity to their sun.

At this juncture, the conflict might have ended: the Ba-ko could bake their own bread and their own ships, we Humans could continue to bake ours, and never the twain need meet. But decades of skirmishing had bred, as it were, deep mistrust and piping-hot grudges—each species feared the other was plotting their utter extirpation, and because both sides believed this, it came to be true.

To envision how the war unfolded, one must first understand the particularities of the breadship: A crispy-browned, hardened outer shell encasing interior passages, living quarters, rec facilities, command center, reactor core, life support, and propulsion system, all spaces carved with relative ease from the living loaf. White-bread vessels filled a limited niche for near-Earth pleasure cruising, but the substance of the interstellar ships is whole-grain, for reasons of fiber and nutriment. This design obviates much of the need for cumbersome rations. The crews simply eat their way from the middle out, and in doing so, can enjoy creatively and artfully shaping their own interior spaces. All this is powered by the iconic YAFWAF (yeast-and-fecal-waste fusion) propulsion system, another of Alpha Baker Charlée’s innovations. The ship’s own substance, or the post-digestive remnants thereof, serves as propellant, with the added advantage that as a journey progresses, the ship’s mass decreases, mitigating fuel consumption. The vacuum of the Great Empty provides an ideal antimicrobial, mold-free environment, and Charlée’s recipes produced vessels that were simultaneously strong, lightweight, nutritious, and delicious.

The exploratory breadships were but lightly armed, for reasons both of mass and of ethics. Materiel for ship-to-ship and person-to-person combat was equipped, but nothing of a scale to, say, destroy large swaths of an entire planet. In vessel-to-vessel engagements, neither lasers nor projectiles were particularly effective against the breadships’ great bulk—in fact, laser weapons produced holes easily repaired using yeast agents, and the surrounding matter emerged deliciously crisped or toasted, for a special post-combat treat.

As hostilities intensified, the Ba-ko offensives proved near unstoppable. A sense of this can be gleaned from a fragmentary record left by the legendary Captain Kurokawa himself as his Panini-class cruiser, the KrispyKrust, fell under assault. Though the visi-footage of the attack itself was lost, a recording remains of Kurokawa, standing on the bridge, directing the defenses as the boarding unfolds.

“Unit Three, can you hear me?” he asks, gazing with narrowed eyes presumably at a visi-screen. His thick mane of black hair betrays hints of gray at the temples, and the creases around his eyes bespeak a face shaped over long years by discipline, but also by hope and jollity. Now, though, he is not smiling.

“An apparent torpedo-strike, sir—except the explosives didn’t detonate—to port ,and nine meters abaft of the tertiary crew quarters. Extreme velocity, penetrating a good four meters through the bulkhead crust . . . Wait . . . what’s—”

A tumult can be heard, and Kurokawa’s right eye squints with concern as he cocks his head to better hear. A different voice, female, breaks in:

“Something’s moving in there! But what— Nothing could’ve survived an impact at that speed; even the torpedo’s melted and bent all to hell—”

“Holy shit!” The male voice again. “Ba-ko, a squad of them! Slug-throwers and laser-burners up, gang: bring ’em down!”

Here, someone’s shoulder enters frame, partially blocking Kurokawa, a shoulder adorned with a bosun’s plashed tri-ring insignia. Kurokawa seems to be speaking to this person:

“How on Earth . . . I don’t see any armoring, but the projectiles and burners barely faze them! What are these gods-damned Ba-ko made of?”

Screams then drown out his voice, and it is obvious that Unit Three will no longer be a hindrance to the Ba-ko invaders, who themselves make no audible sound. Kurokawa grits his teeth and hangs his head, unable to watch the presumably dire carnage.

Moments later, new audio kicks in.

“Unit Two here, sir.” A gruff female voice. “We’ve repelled a Ba-ko boarding party in the starboard main corridor on Subdeck A—blew them back out the hole their impact-craft made, with a compressed-air grenade blast. They’re not suited or helmeted, out in the Empty, so that’s it for them . . . Hold on! That can’t be . . .”

Kurokawa’s gaze locks onto the screen again. “They’re coming back?? So those things on their backs were propulsion-packs! But she’s right: no suits, no helmets, not even breathing apparatus—and they just survived ejection into space, the whole pack of them?”

A fire burns in Kurokawa’s eyes as he watches and listens: projectile shots, laser-burners sizzling, and a series of thumps—bodies being struck or slammed or hurled so hard that impact even against the spongy, forgiving bread-walls proves fatal. The sounds, too, of Ba-ko gorging themselves on these same bread-walls even as they fight, devouring at a prodigious rate to fuel their equally prodigious bodies.

As this continues, the light still burns in Kurokawa’s eyes, but his face turns ashen. He gives one last order:

“Attention all crew. We have a Z-level emergency situation. Repeat: Zebra-level emergency situation. All hands, including essential engineering, command, and technical crew, are to arm and commence counter-boarding combat procedures. Repeat: all hands. And godspeed to us all.”

Then Kurokawa, with the bosun hard on his heels, dashes to a now-open arms locker and with long-practiced swiftness, begins to don his suit, helmet, protec-vest, and burner sidearm.

Here, the recording abruptly ends. So far as forensics were able to determine, the cruiser’s crew of 72 were overwhelmed by a mere three boarding parties of Ba-ko, armed with no more than the jet-packs on their backs—Ba-ko numbering no more than 18 at the very most. Not a single crewmember lived to tell the tale, Captain Kurokawa included.

In time, the war spilled out across vast expanses of space, until eventually the Ba-ko made their way to the Humans’ home system, and Terra itself fell under siege.

People of all regions split, broadly speaking, into two ideological camps: the KAKE (Keep Apes from Konquering Earth) faction of militarists, and the so-called Make-peacers. The KAKErs insisted the conflict could only be ended with decisive and overwhelming force, while the Make-peacers held out hope that a ceasefire—begun unilaterally from the Human side if necessary—would facilitate negotiations and a permanent end to the bloodshed. Peace colonies sprang up one after another in the forests and farmsteads of every nation, and a trickle of Ba-ko deserters also began to filter in. The Make-peacers lived off the land, built their own shelters, spun and sewed their own clothing, and grew and prepared their own food—with one notable exception. Their rallying cry was “Bake brownies, not breadships.” For the deserter ape-hippies, breadlust was replaced by a marijuana- and hashish-induced hypnagogic state, with “peace brownies” the staple and symbol of the movement for Human and Ba-ko alike.

Nevertheless, in interstellar space and intermediary star systems, on Kongul, on Earth, and in orbit around both, Human slaughtered Ba-ko; Ba-ko rent Human limb from limb; Human warred with Human; and occasionally, Ba-ko even fought Ba-ko. Increasingly devastating armaments were deployed one after another: mold insinuators, gen-3.5 nuclear warheads, crouton torpedoes, and finally the horrific dark energy quantum-disruptor bombs. Ship after ship and multitudes of lives were lost, and as the vortex of mutual destruction twisted space, time, and souls like a black-hole singularity, an end result of cataclysm or even extinction began to look inevitable, as though an event horizon had been crossed.

When all seemed lost, the one woman who could sever this Gordian knot stepped in: Alpha Baker Charlée departed the Mercury-orbit loafworks, which had been burning fusion-hot and popping out ship after tasty ship for decades; and by her order, upon her departure, The Oven went cold.

Near Venus, she rendezvoused with the Ba-ko high commander Saezarr, on a neutral orbital station. What was said between them, what promises or compromises made, and exactly what deal struck, only those two know for certain. But, we do know that they broke brownies together, and “baked their brains”: every edu-modulating child, Human or Ba-ko, has seen the iconic virtu-reel of the two laughing, embracing, and singing the Make-peacer anthem “Brownie-down Sunset” together:

 

The peaceful, soothing hues—

Pinks, yellows, crimsons, fading blues—

Of the brownie-down sunset…

 

We all join hands and sing,

Let those brownies do their thing,

Take in the soothing, peaceful hues—

Pink, gold, and crimson, fading blues

 

To be in the moment

Means to never forget

The beauty transcendent

Of the brownie-down sunset

 

Was this truly the Hug to End All Wars, as it’s now called? Human history has given the lie again and again to such optimism, but for now, a fragile peace holds between Homo sapiens terriensis and Ba-ko bakovium kongulicus. The Great Breadships still ply the inconceivable vastnesses between systems, exploring, seeking; but now officer selection and training programs seek to cultivate a cohort of commanders and crew for whom the Non-hostility Dictum is not merely a rule, but the deepest principle and aspiration of their hearts. Out they go, into the void, and on a select few craft, Human and Ba-ko bunk together, breaking bread and baking brownies together, too; and who can say what they will discover—what worlds, what lifeforms, what impossibilities beyond imagination’s bourne—and what they will learn, too, from one another, as they munch their way—together—through the bosoms of the Great Interstellar Breadships.

 

 

END

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